Ordinary and Spiritual Awareness
Those who come back from a near-death experience bring with them a visceral remembrance of how vivid and abundant life is when the sense of separateness has dropped away. Those who fall profoundly in love experience a dying into the other that melts every shred of their own identity, self-definition, caution, and boundaries, until finally there is no “I” anymore—only “you.” Those who meditate go down to the same place, but by a back staircase deep within their own being.
Deeper than our sense of separateness and isolation is another level of awareness in us, another whole way of knowing. Thomas Keating, in his teachings on centering prayer, calls this our “spiritual awareness” and contrasts it with the “ordinary awareness” of our usual, egoic thinking. The simplest way of describing this other kind of awareness is that while the self-reflexive ego thinks by means of noting differences and drawing distinctions, spiritual awareness “thinks” by an innate perception of kinship, of belonging to the whole.
I realize this way of talking is not easy to understand. It goes against the very grain of our language (which mirrors our usual thinking processes) and thus skitters off into the realm of poetry and mystical utterance. The Christian contemplative tradition abounds with descriptions of the “spiritual senses”—these more subtle faculties of intuitive perception—but in language that is often so allegorical and dense it obscures more than it reveals. Let me see if I can describe this same thing in a simpler way, in terms of an experience I came to know only too well during my years in Maine: sailing in the fog.
On a bright, sunny day you can set your course on a landfall five miles away from you and sail right to it. But in the fog, you make your way by paying close attention to all the things immediately around you: the deep roll of the sea swells as you enter open ocean, the pungent scent of spruce boughs, or the livelier tempo of the waves as you approach land. You find your way by being sensitively and sensuously connected to exactly where you are, by letting “here” reach out and lead you. You will not learn that in the navigation courses, of course. But it is part of the local knowledge that all the fishermen and natives use to steer by. You know you belong to a place when you can find your way home by feel.
All in all, this little metaphor is a pretty good analogy of how these two levels of awareness actually work. If egoic thinking is like sailing by reference to where you are not—by what is out there and up ahead—spiritual awareness is like sailing by reference to where you are. It is a way of “thinking” at a much more visceral level of yourself-responding to subtle intimations of presence too delicate to pick up at your normal level of awareness, but which emerge like a sea swell from the ground of your being once you relax and allow yourself to belong deeply to the picture.
Because of this visceral dimension, some writers speak of spiritual awareness in terms of the heart being “magnetized” by God, responding to a magnetic pull from the center just as the compass needle points to magnetic north.
… [O]ur spiritual awareness seems to be given to us in order to hone in on and not lose touch with that “point or spark of pure truth” at the core of our being, from which both the true compass track of our life and our existential conviction of belonging emanate. That is what the magnetic pull is all about. And as we learn gradually to trust it and let it draw us along, we discover that those core fears of the egoic level—that something terrible can happen to us, that we can fall out of God or suffer irreparable harm—do not compute in the deeper waters of our being.
Excerpted from Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God. Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 2001.