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The Paradise We Seek

The Reverend Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault on the Christian path to ego death and the discovery of the true self

The meaning of Jesus’ metaphor of the seed falling into the ground and dying is creative and generative. And it is the heart of the Christian path. Indeed, within this particular teaching of Jesus is the notion of kenosis, or “self-emptying.” Kenosis is roughly parallel to the classic spiritual teaching of nonattachment or non-clinging, but kenosis has an intrinsic warmness to it: it means to actively and willingly relinquish that which you’re clinging to so as to give something else the space to be. This was Jesus’ practice, his path, and his unique vision on how consciousness is transformed. It’s a practice of letting go.

Letting go over and over is a kind of perceptual tool. It isn’t just to make you feel like a freer and finer person—it actually enables you to see from the deepest recognition what the One is. Letting go is not an attitude; it’s an inner gesture, and it’s completely visceral. So when teachers keep telling you to let go, it’s not in order for you to become nicer and more useful to the planet; it’s because this is a kind of spiritual aerobics that, if you perform it faithfully, steadfastly, and patiently in all life’s situations, will literally transform your sense of self.

For true spiritual masters, of which Jesus was certainly one, dying is the letting go, or kenosis, of your “egoic operating system,” that which keeps coughing up a sense of self as a different or distinct person with its own qualities, uniqueness, specialness, personal history, and agenda. To die to this self means to die to all self-talk and the projection of your self out in the world. In fact, the big goal in this life is not to prepare for your physical death but to assist in the germinal act of laying down your egoic operating mechanism and be born again as the flower of full presence—the True Self. This self always knows what to do; it always knows when we are true and when we’re not true, when we’re free and when we’re not free. Virtually all the spiritual teachers of the world say that when you’ve died and been reborn in this way, physical death is essentially something you don’t even notice.

In order to manifest the True Self, though, you have to completely clear the playing field of the usual language. Because in the usual egoic syntax the True Self is something you “have,” and therefore you have to “find” it. But the True Self is not something you have; it’s what you are. Think of the flame of a candle; the flame is only a flame so long as it’s burning. It’s a process, and there would be no flame if it stopped and tried to have its “flameness.” Likewise, as soon as you stop and say, “I want to measure my true self—I want to define it, I want to list its characteristics, I want to compare it to my false self”—you’ve “bought the farm” because you’ve downloaded it into an operating system that can’t possibly do anything other than caricature it.

The false self is like a veil that hides the paradise that we’re seeking. At the very end of his life, Moses was granted a glimpse of the Promised Land. They took him up onto a rock, and he could see it. He even had an experience of it, but he couldn’t enter. That’s a kind of analogy for what I’m talking about: as long as you process everything through the ego, you merely “have” mystical experiences. But when you die to the false self, that’s when you enter paradise. And you can’t enter paradise, raid the mystical insight, and come back to write a book so that people will say, “Oh, what an awesome mystic.” You have to disappear so that there’s nothing left that’s going to take the experience back somewhere else. Then you finally begin to live at the speed of the mystery that we are. That’s the fruit that Jesus spoke of.

The Reverend Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault has spent the last three decades following the Christian contemplative path as a student, Episcopal priest, and hermit. The principal teacher at the Contemplative Society in British Columbia, she has worked closely with Christian spiritual masters such as Father Thomas Keating and Friar Bruno Barnhart. She currently divides her time between the Rocky Mountains, Maine, and British Columbia.


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