Perception Through Levels of Consciousness


Q: I’m a practitioner of Centering Prayer for about 15 years. I started after reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s and Thomas Keating’s introductions to Centering Prayer. Their later works have me a bit confused because they describe what sounds like a loss of identification between us and God once we let go of our false self. The descriptions sound very similar to non-dualistic monism or modalism, and I’d like confirmation that this is what they are teaching or a clarification that they are not. I do not judge either way, but I just want to avoid any misinterpretations about their teachings. 

A:  Your question is difficult to answer because it reflects a hermeneutical “level confusion” that has dogged the conversation between mystics and theologians for at least sixteen hundred years now: ever since Christian theology, in the heat of its ongoing conciliar crises, morphed from a holy outspeaking of the luminous darkness of God into a tight, Euclidian system of interlocking ideas against which theological orthodoxy could be measured.

Your question reflects that long tradition: you want to know whether the words you are hearing fit into categories that you have been trained to recognize as “modalism” or “nondualistic monism” —and on that basis, presumably, to judge whether Thomas Keating’s teachings are theologically acceptable or not.

The problem is that no mystic has ever thought in these categories. Or ever will, I believe. And there is a reason for this, which is not theological but phenomenological. Mystics are mystics precisely insofar as they perceive the world through an entirely different structure of perception. This structure does not rely on analytical dialectic and separation, but on the perception of unity-in-polarity and holographic oneness.

Classic theology does not recognize that the mind itself is a “work in progress” and that the entire intricate castle of close argumentation and hair’s breadth distinction is the function of a LEVEL (or structure) of consciousness—in this case, the mental/rational structure.

But mystics—and progressing contemplatives (to the extent that the path of contemplation can be seen as a novitiate in mystical consciousness)—do not perceive the world through distinction and separation, but through an underlying flowing unity. And contemporary phenomenologists and philosophers of consciousness have begun to bear them out.

To a person perceiving through the mental rational structure, this flowing unity will appear like “a loss of identification between us and God,” as you put it, and this blurring of the boundaries is categorically unacceptable, no matter whether it’s Meister Eckhart, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, or Jesus himself. “I and my Father are one” is simply “not on” within the mental/rational structure of consciousness. It will get you excommunicated, maybe even crucified.

But the inevitable trajectory of the path of contemplation (viewed as the on-ramp to a whole new structure of consciousness) is that it begins to soften those hard edges of identification. Once thinking has been quietened, one begins to discover—to actually taste— that between oneself and God there is no hard edge, only a flowing “intertidal zone” where the infinite and the finite mysteriously meet and embrace without in any way subsuming or cancelling the other. “There is that in the soul that dwells in God and there is that in the soul by which God dwells in the soul,” as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing put it. It is the hard edge, rather, that turns out to be empirically unverifiable, for in point of fact, it does not exist.

This “nondual” realization is, of course, overwhelmingly incomprehensible (read “threatening”) to the rational structure of consciousness, because it collapses the very algorithm on which the structure of is based: PERCEPTION THROUGH DIFFERENTIATION. “I and my Father are one” sounds like monstrous narcissism—and for the ego self it would be. But the “Witnessing self”— the contemplative or mystical self— is softer, more spacious, more inter-infusive. It is a product of the next structure of consciousness, named by those studying the phenomenology of consciousness as the “integral” or “unitive” level. It is from this level that Thomas Keating speaks.

Make of it what you will, Joe. The answer to your question really depends on “Who trumps whom?” If the hermeneutical assumptions of classic theology (all emerging from the mental structure of consciousness) define the playing field, then Thomas will always be skating close to the edge of modalism and nondual monism—as will basically every other mystical and contemplative teacher both Western and Eastern. If the arising recognition of levels of consciousness catalyzes a closer reappraisal of the hermeneutics of perception on which classical theology is based, then a whole different outcome is possible: an outcome, I believe, which is far more consistent with the ultimate healing of our planet, in which the sharp edge of mental/rational dialectical has all too often been used as a sword to exclude and demonize.

Raimon Panikkar is very good here, by the way. Check out in particular his book CHRISTOPHANY and his extended treatment here of “The Mysticism of Jesus Christ.”

Yours with all blessing,

Cynthia Bourgeault
(for the Contemplative Outreach team)


And Joe’s response:  Thank you and thank Cynthia so much for taking the time to respond. God obviously has a sense of humor, since just before reading Cynthia’s response, I received another answer from Fr. Keating himself through the miracle of Amazon Video! 😉

I just watched “The Rising Tide of Silence” for the first time. The very first two things spoken by Fr. Keating summarized then immediately resolved my concern! After watching the movie, I checked my email and saw that Cynthia had responded as well!

Fr. Keating first says in the documentary: “You can’t see God because when you are God there’s nothing to see.” This immediately caused my cradle Catholic antennae to spring up. (Can you blame me?) But then he follows it up with this: “You’re not God in an absolute sense, but you’re so much God in every possible way that humans can be participants in the divine nature.”

I cannot overstate how important this clarification is to an over analytical perfectionist like me. I am forever indebted to Fr. Keating and Cynthia for introducing me to Centering Prayer, and I don’t think it’s an accident that God’s presence really clicked with me until recently as a direct result of digging deeper into Fr. Keating’s and Cynthia’s books and videos on the topic of non duality. My concern over what initially sounded like monism or modalism has only given way to a deeper appreciation – and experiencing – of the Divine Indwelling. I know now that this is neither modalism nor monism but simply the Gospel truth.

Fr. Thomas goes on to say “Grace is a participation in the divine nature, it’s not just something added on like an overcoat. It’s a radical transformation of the whole of human nature so that it can be a divine human being, meaning it can exercise freedom, compassion, love … and the only requirement, really, is to be born and to consent, to let God be in us insofar as he has given us this gift.”


Your brother in Christ,

Joe T.