Christian Nonduality

A Q&A with Cynthia Bourgeault

By Garrison Institute

Nonduality is a concept most commonly associated with the religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, but Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault has written extensively about it from a Christian perspective. We spoke with her recently to discuss her approach to nonduality, the difference between belief and experience, and Christian practices that can help people cultivate an experiential understanding of nonduality.

Where can we see traces of nondualtiy in the Christian tradition?

Many people approach nonduality as a philosophy, the metaphysical conviction that “all is one.” I approach it as a modality of perception—as an operating system—in that it’s a way of organizing and making sense of the perceptual field. A nondual operating system perceives from oneness. It doesn’t need to divide the playing field into inside and outside, subject and object, self and other. It captures the whole thing as a seamless whole. I see oneness because I am seeing from oneness. In the West, the core conviction—once you’ve learned to penetrate the teaching so as to be able to see it—is that this new operating system is not carried in the brain alone, but in the brain and with the heart.

Once you wake up to this, nonduality is a consistent and subtle theme running through the entire tradition. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it’s carried principally in the tradition of hesychasm, a prayer with unflagging emphasis on “putting the mind in the heart.” In the Western tradition, Meister Eckhart, the Rhineland mystics, and, in our own times, Bernadette Roberts come immediately to mind. I also see it strongly in the 14th century classic The Cloud of Unknowing, the subject of my latest book, The Heart of Centering Prayer.

Richard Rohr talks about nonduality being at the center of the Christian tradition, as articulated through the belief that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. This suggests a Christian framework for understanding the idea of non duality; however, you write about nonduality as something to experience rather than understand. Can you talk about the relationship between belief and experience?

As I’ve already suggested, there are a variety of different definitions of nonduality at work out there as Christians scramble to get onboard with this term, which was never a part of Christianity’s native language. My dear friend and colleague Richard and I use the term in slightly different ways—for him it’s closer to the ability to hold two opposites from a higher place; for me it’s all about the wiring of perception. So from my perspective, nonduality is never about belief—because belief is always a mental operation—and always about experience. It’s the experience of direct perception from the heart.

Are there Christian practices that can help people cultivate an experiential understanding of nonduality?

Centering Prayer is probably the most effective direct trajectory to laying the neurological foundations for the stabilization of nondual teaching. It’s early patterning in “objectless awareness”—which is being able to hold attention in a state of alert but diffuse awareness, rather than focused on an object like the breath or a mantra—and the action itself of letting go of objects of attention tends to drop the mind deeper down in the body, into the region of the chest or heart.

Cynthia Bourgeault is leading an upcoming retreat at the Garrison Institute entitled “Cynthia Bourgeault: From Narrative Self to Witnessing Self: Crossing the Threshold.” on November 14 – 18, 2018.

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19 comments on “Christian Nonduality”

  1. John Bray says:

    Christ must have studied the Vedas. I would say to most Christians put your bibles away discover Vedanta and the Bhagavad Gita then return to the bible.

    1. Brad S. says:

      It could be said that Christ was there when the Vedas was organized. Just as Christ was there when the universe was created and with Abraham as he responded to the call on his life. Christ is with me as I write this and with you as you read this. Christ is everywhere. In Christ all of us live and move. Our very existence depends on it.

      1. Christie Spero says:

        I don’t know if you will get this Brad, but I have long felt this. We need time and lines between inside and outside but God does not.

    2. Craig says:

      What if our experience of separation is real? What if, it’s actually the point of human existence? It seems very popular these days for spiritual teachers to begin with the premise that separation is an illusion. Who decided that I wonder? Not even evolution supports that theory. It was evolution itself that created the ego, the separation and yet the number of “teachers” claiming that it is naught but a mirage is phenomenal. There seems to be a highly ill-defined context for spirituality these days and almost always coming from the relatively wealthy (quite often getting wealthier by teaching it.) As such, the remedy to much of the world’s problems seems to boil down to the spiritual and psychological equivalent of climbing back into our mother’s wombs. What’s worse is that anyone suggesting that reality is anything otherwise is instantly labelled as an ignorant, unenlightened bigot.

      I find it disturbing that Christianity has been dissolved into the perennial tradition’s dull spiritual soup mix along with everything else as if it is saying much the same thing as religions like Hinduism, Buddhism or any other perspective that has been melted into the one grand simplistic view. That is simply false. Say what you may about it. Condemn it to hell. Spit on it as unloving, combative and irrelevant but don’t say it’s the same thing. Christianity makes the startling claim that we are in fact separate. It isn’t an illusion. Yes, we may have emerged from the ocean of evolutionary consciousness and are still deeply grounded in it, yet we are also each fundamentally distinct from it and each other. That people cannot see that this changes the very definition of what love is, of what humanity’s purpose is, of what the meaning of suffering is, of what the way forward (socially, psychologically, spiritually) looks like, is incredible… deliberate almost.

      There’s also a deep and ironic arrogance to this seemingly deliberate ignorance. There’s no discussion. People who have differing views are automatically lumped into the “ah they haven’t arrived at enlightenment yet” basket and so sites like this are eerily free of healthy argument… You don’t have to be able to defend it, which is surely part of why it sells so well I suppose.

      However, in many ways it’s quite a fitting psychology for our time. It may very well be the thing that pushes those who live in the real world as opposed to that of the intelligencia over the edge of complacency in regards to finally standing up and taking hold of the responsibility each of us has been given to become what has been born of our very real separation. It’s happening all across America. More and more people are reacting against the smothering and degrading group think of leftist identity politics in which the individual isn’t actually an individual at all but a fleeting mirage floating on an ocean of non-dual consciousness.

  2. John D says:

    Non-dual teachers/traditions profess that our our ego identity as a separate person is an illusion–that the reality behind the illusion is that we are all One. If that is true, is it not also true that there is no individual “person” to be saved by belief in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior? If so, then what is the relevance of the Resurrection and God’s promise of eternal life to all those who believe in Christ as Savior? It seems that Christianity is reduced to a mere set of beliefs that offer comfort to those who have not yet awakened out of their illusory ego identity. I would like to know how Christians that accept non-duality reconcile this.

    1. Leon Bahrman says:

      Exactly. It is for this reason that non-duality must be understood within a Christian context, without necessarily borrowing from, and certainly not as dependent on the Eastern Traditions.

      Christ taught on Oneness (as in John 17), and Peter affirmed that we are to partake of, participate in, and share in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), and the Church Fathers affirm that the incarnation (God becoming Man) was for the purpose of man/woman becoming God.

      In lieu of this, it is noteworthy that in Scripture, we are called upon to deny and lose our ego-self, but it is always in hopes of gaining our true-selves in return, and that as such we are to remain in relationship as individual selves.

      The Trinity serves as the main example that the person in relationship will always arise even in the context of non-duality, Oneness and the Persons interrelating, this is Christian Non-duality.

    2. Nat H says:

      “I would like to know how Christians that accept non-duality reconcile this.”

      There are two unique perspectives: the perspective of the separate self, and the non-dual perspective. The former isn’t real, but most of us believe it’s real. The thing that props up the belief in the separate self is the ego, i.e. the belief that not only do we exist separate from God, but that we have our own power and autonomy. Accepting a savior means relinquishing your own illusion of control. It’s basically the ego’s way of throwing up its hands and saying “I can’t do this on my own.”

      Love is metaphorically and emotionally a dying of your separate self and a rebirth in unity. Loving God is a path to this “death and resurrection,” as illustrated by the cross.

      Re “God’s promise of eternal life,” we already have eternal life. We’re already in the kingdom of Heaven, and closer than close to God. The only thing separating us from God is the illusion of separateness. Which isn’t to say it’s easy; the illusion is extremely deep, so this is no small thing.

      I don’t believe Christianity is meant to be an intellectual set of dualistic beliefs, but a path to break the illusion and discover our true nature as “I am.”

    3. Deanna says:

      Yes, good point. Why is it necessary to “believe” in Christ, when in fact our non-dual nature ensures eternal life (salvation), despite such belief. I feel that this is answered (contradicted ?) in Scripture when Jesus says that “to have eternal life, one must Love with heart, mind and soul”. Apparently we do not have to believe in Him, but rather to Love in order to have salvation. This points to our non-dual nature with God, who is Love, and who we must “become” to realize our eternal selves. We do not have to believe or accept anything, we must simply Love and in doing so, we will experience our divine nature and oneness with God. This is where scripture becomes inclusive to the 4.8 billion non-Christian people of the world……we are all called to Love.

    4. Craig says:

      That’s spot on. I love the teachings of non-duality and yet I also love the teachings of people like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis who rejoiced in the fact that we have been gifted a “self” in order that we may perpetually offer that self to God in love. I think both are true. We are both separate AND one. There’s a big danger of swinging too far to either side, which I think some non-dual teachers have done. I like Cynthia Bourgeault’s teaching in regard to the practice of centring prayer but her philosophical/theological conclusions are askew. Richard Rohr can be more than a little vague about it too. It’s quite ironic actually that those who teach “both/and” tend towards calling our separation an illusion. I agree with Cassiodorus. I think that’s precisely the tension orthodox Christianity presents. There’s a separation that arises and rests in a foundational oneness and then there’s a separation without foundation. The later can be said to be illusory but not the first.

    5. Keith says:

      I see it that we all can be reconciled and free from separation. The promise of this possibility is somewhat comforting but when now the reconciliation (sense of non separation) becomes conviction is when the true comfort “begins” or rather is present. When now “we” rest, in that foundational oneness “prior” to the arising of separation of which Craig speaks, there is no individual really. Nisargadatta is one who speaks of there being no individual. I have studied nonduality for 5 or 6 or so years but it was the fortune getting the mantra from Ramakant Maharaj and the inspiration to use it that has helped a lot. But he says that any mantra will do as he says at some point in his book Selfless Self and I have to believe him. For instance he says the mantra “I am Brahman (on in breath], Brahman I am” (on out breath) will do and we keep the mantra we each use secret which is, I would guess, to keep it as a sacred one pointed devotion. This mantra is quite similar to mine and I don’t even have to know what Brahman is per se, just as you don’t have to know what Om is. We just keep the mantra in mind as much as possible throughout the day and it works as an antivirus to the thought stream that we seem to value. I guess we just have to turn to God,Christ, Selfless Self and put no other Gods or forms before it/him/her. This is not so much an effort as being free of effort that we think and feel is real. Effort is just a word and what it refers to is no more real than anything else we think of as real. I recently watched a video of Rupert Spira saying that even blinking and even breathing is a slight effort, which I find interesting. It’s probably true. But no effort is involved when Selfless Self is real. I can see that Centering Prayer might work well too.

      1. Craig says:

        I think there’s been a massive slide away from Christianity’s unique message. The whole perennial movement has, ironically, robbed all the great religions of their salt, their flavour. Yes, there are definitely shared metaphysical truths amongst all the main world religions especially around the idea of “oneness” but I think its a huge mistake to dissolve them all into one big melting pot and start dishing out “spiritual wisdom” from it, like a big bowl of “hey, we’re all just saying the same thing”. It definitely sells (That’s for certain) but I think it sells because of the the vast many who have lived with an exclusionist version of Christianity that has been dominant over the past few hundred years. I find the idea of the personal being “immature” or the individual being illusory or at best a momentary blip on the screen before it’s swallowed back up into the great ocean because that’s apparently “what all the world religions agree on” to be plain stupid, short sighted and cheap. Any number of religions may agree that the individual self is illusory but that is certainly not what Christianity says. Those who teach that it does are plain irresponsible. Oneness is the shared truth but the ideas of what oneness actually is, are radically different.

  3. Dave Kitchens says:

    May I call you “Sir John?” You may call me a “Christian who accepts non-duality” (or anything you wish just don’t call me late for the Last Supper). Another Sir John (aka “Walrus”) once said “I am you as you are me as we are all together. ..” something like that. And then John, author of first John, etc. said “I am.” And “The Word became flesh”. Thank God. Because there is a problem with words like “reconcile” whereas actual reconciliation (between I am and I am) has no such problem. The word reconcile assumes a prior point in time with a duality not present in a later point of time. But the Word is outside of Time. “Christians” assumes that all Christians think as one and reconcile as one or that all “Christians who accept non-duality” can be grouped as One … No need to “reconcile” … Dave

  4. Jenny Vooght says:

    Hi, also, the bible says that all are “one in Christ” if they have accepted him as saviour and Lord. It explains what being “in Christ” means. This does not mean that all are one – only the body of Christ is truly one. The bible teaches that everyone is equal, and all the same in many ways, but that does not mean that everyone is part of the same whole. Thanks for listening.

  5. Cassiodorus says:

    It seems to me that Christianity could be reconciled to a qualified non dualism – one in which God is personal and differences are real and not relegated to the domain of “ illusion”. I don’t think that the nirguna- Saguna distinction one finds in Advaita is compatible with classical theism.

  6. Jill Muller says:

    Just meditate on the Trinity. Oneness AND relationship.

  7. Charles says:

    As U2 say in One: We’re one but we are not the same…One love, one blood, one life…One life with each other Sisters and my brothers/One life but we’re not the same.

  8. incredible, congratulations on your dedication

  9. (The Rev) Hank Galganowicz says:

    The Christian definition of sin is separation, which we seek to overcome. We act out, but we are not inherently sinful, that’s just Augustine’s mistaken spin. In that sense, non-duality is an expansion of the understanding of God and God’s unconditional love, not a narrowing. Non-duality is the part of us that is ‘not of this world’, even though we live the illusion of separateness in this world.

  10. Chopsdudley says:

    To “The Rev” thank you for the above explanation. I like it.

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