What would it be like to learn to steady yourself through the healing, cleansing, and clarity of transformed contemplation in ways that could also significantly shift our planetary atmosphere? In Mystical Courage: Commentaries on Selected Contemplative Exercises by G. I. Gurdjieff, wisdom teacher Cynthia Bourgeault offers tools for embodied, three-centered awareness by presenting six of Gurdjieff’s forty exercises as a doorway into a sacred alchemy. This entails “the exchange of physical, energetic substances between the realms that maintains the whole cosmic ecosystem in a state of dynamic equilibrium. We receive something for ourselves, we offer something back” (xv, xvi).
In putting forth her “modest contribution” (xi), Bourgeault highlights that “the reflections gathered here are intended not so much for Gurdjieffian adepts (among whom I would hardly count myself) as for a broader spiritual audience starting primarily from Christian theological reference points. My intention here—as always—is to build a bridge connecting the dots between the familiar world of Christian contemplation and the brave new world of Gurdjieffian metaphysics and nomenclature, which I am nonetheless convinced is a wineskin entirely capable of bearing the good wine of their mystical Christian faith” (xi).
At the beginning of the global pandemic in the winter of 2020, Bourgeault sensed that as people transitioned to use of online platforms to maintain a semblance of life as usual, “the opportunity for a deeper kind of self-reckoning that might bear within it the seeds of genuine remorse and a new beginning was being a bit sidestepped” (viii). Against this backdrop, she invited some of her experienced wisdom students to work with six of the Gurdjieff Contemplative Exercises, which had just become publicly available in Joseph Azize’s recently published book, Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation, and Exercises.
In Mystical Courage, each of the six exercises is first presented in the words of Azize, followed by pertinent commentary by Bourgeault, which provides further clarity and enables readers to try out the exercise for themselves.
I began with “The Clear Impressions Exercise,” which Bourgeault suggests is the most accessible for someone like myself, starting from known reference points in Centering Prayer. This exercise is done for fifteen minutes, ideally first thing in the morning, with a clock or watch at hand: “The ‘eyes closed’ part of this exercise is bookended by ‘eyes open’ parts in which you keep your head moving slightly (not fixed on a point) and allow yourself simply to notice what comes into sight” (9). This is done in tandem with working one’s way around a focused body rotation, sensing first the right arm, then the right leg, the left leg, the left arm, the area of the sex organs and spine, the solar plexus, and finally, the head. I resonate with Bourgeault’s description of how this exercise “catapults you straight to the core of what Gurdjieff means by ‘transformed contemplation’: the full, vibrant, sensation-based participation of the body in the exercise” (8).
I also experienced this in “The Atmosphere Exercise,” which is an invitation to take responsibility for maintaining the unity and coherence of one’s own atmosphere by concentrating on confining it to the limit of a meter or a meter and a half. It was mind-blowing to discover how I too experienced what Bourgeault described: “fiercely gathered and present at the seat of my attention (‘quivering like a drop of mercury,’ in Rumi’s evocative phrase) I simply do—for as far out as my attention can hold the unbroken field” (39). She goes on to write, “I repeat: in all groups, but particularly in spiritual groups, the responsible custody of your atmosphere is your first and primary obligation. As the individual atmospheres go, so will the group atmosphere as well” (40).
Bourgeault’s gift of making this deep, energetic work accessible has profound implications for one-on-one spiritual direction and spiritual group settings, as well as for our planet so in need of healing.
Mystical Courage: Commentaries on Selected Contemplative Exercises by G. I. Gurdjieff, as Compiled by Joseph Azize
by Cynthia Bourgeault
Red Elixir, 2021
Kathryn Madden, rc
completed spiritual direction training at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, USA, and at the Center for Religious Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. She currently ministers in Chicago, Illinois, USA.