Editors’ Note: The following is the beginning of Cynthia Bourgeault’s new book, Eye of the Heart: A Spiritual Journey into the Imaginal Realm. Following the searing wake-up call recounted here, she returned even more determinedly to her lifelong exploration of the imaginal realm, that subtle realm of spiritual coherence and agency hidden in plain sight within our outer world. “Please don’t think of it as a place,” she writes, it is really “more like a set of governing conventions that make possible a certain kind of manifestation….In fact, virtually all spiritual teachers in all traditions have insisted that the ‘higher’ (i.e., less dense) realms are not somewhere else but within—already coiled inside us as subtler and yet more intensely alive bandwidths of experience and perception….
“Put more simply, it sits on the dividing line between the visible and invisible worlds—or according to the older, pre-Einsteinian metaphysics, between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ worlds.
“It is called ‘imaginal’ because, while it is invisible to the physical eye, it is still clearly perceptible through the eye of the heart….
“In this realm the fruits of our human striving—both conscious and unconscious—are offered up to the whole. From this realm, in turn, we receive blessing, inspiration, guidance, and vivifying force, which are ours to share and bestow here below.”
Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being
Although some illusions are constructions, not all constructions are illusions.
The above matter-of-fact observation, tucked inconspicuously into an extended discussion of “Is the Self an Illusion?” in the final chapter of Evan Thompson’s book Waking, Dreaming, Being, wound up rocking my world.1 So that was it, eh? Just because something is a construction—a creation of the mind, of the imagination—does not necessarily mean that it is false? There really is a Heisenberg dimension to the truth? We really do bushwhack our way toward reality from among a myriad of possible pathways-over-the-ground by the one we choose to activate?
“Hermeneutics is always a wager,” my teacher Rafe had told me shortly before his death. “A wager that if your premises are right, you’ll live it into action.”
Rafe—a.k.a. Brother Raphael Robin—was the hermit monk of St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. He lived in a small cabin about a mile above the monastery from which he emerged periodically to fulfill his duties as monastic handyman, then returned as quickly as possible to resume his lonely vigil at the edge of the cosmic vastness. I met him accidentally while attending a Centering Prayer retreat and instantly recognized him as “the real deal.” He seemed to embody the combination I had been intuitively searching for all my life: a deeply attuned mystical heart anchored in a fierce conscious presence. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” as the old adage goes, and we both knew, essentially from that first meeting, that our lives from then on were destined to be profoundly intertwined.
Within a matter of months I had closed out my operations in Maine and moved to Snowmass to work full-time with him. For the remaining two-and-a-half years of his human life we were pretty much inseparable, teacher and student and human beloveds in equal measure. Our work together was grounded not only in our mutual love for the Christian mystical tradition but also in our mutual admiration for G. I. Gurdjieff, the early-twentieth-century Armenian-born spiritual master whose teachings seemed to offer a practical access route to the transformative power coiled within that tradition. I had studied the Gurdjieff Work (as this teaching is known by its devotees) formally in groups; Rafe had devoured it in books alone up at his cabin. When we began to put our respective puzzle pieces together, the sparks flew in all directions, both figuratively and literally.
After Rafe’s death in December 1995, I did indeed take him up on his hermeneutical wager. In no doubt the biggest spiritual gamble of my life, I went back to those same puzzle pieces and out of them constructed an elaborate metaphysical castle to account for my raw sense that our connection was still fully intact. The major building blocks of this construction were the stipulation of an “abler soul” between us—a subtle energetic vehicle for continued growth and exchange beyond the grave—plus the intimation of an ongoing spiritual partnership in “the conscious circle of humanity” as we journeyed together to the completion of our respective earthly and heavenly tasks. This latter notion (again Gurdjieffian in origin) had grabbed Rafe particularly in our many conversations on the subject before his death. He understood it as a sphere of active collaboration between the realms in which advanced souls still in their human bodies and others now living in the realms beyond join hands across the life/death divide to create a single living stream of compassion and wisdom to literally encircle our planet and help steady its course. Rafe yearned to belong to that circle, and in saying yes to the wager that he did in fact make it there, I implicitly offered myself as the hands on this side that would join his in an ongoing conscious partnership for the rest of my human life and perhaps well beyond it. That vision would set my compass heading for the next quarter of a century.
It was, admittedly, a pretty high-stakes gamble, undertaken at least in part to hold back the walls of despair and keep walking toward the vision that in our brief human time together we had so powerfully shared. But it was, in the final analysis, a construction, and I knew it. Perhaps indeed a “concocted fantasy,” as an offended acquaintance in my wider circle of monastery friends dubbed it. Other explanations were close at hand and way more psychologically obvious: I was delusional, for starters—so needy that I would throw Rafe’s good and worthy spiritual reputation into the breach in order to secure my own self-validation. “I would have loved to hear Rafe’s side of the story,” one reviewer of my book Love Is Stronger Than Death (where I laid all this out), commented dryly.
I knew she had me there. Rafe wasn’t going to speak, at least not in any way that this reviewer or most anyone else would recognize. Along the way, over the years, a few of my friends would swear that they, too, felt his presence. But they were mostly drawn from the ranks of my closest and most psychically attuned supporters, so it was hard to eliminate the suggestibility factor. From those who might be counted as more credible witnesses—Rafe’s former monastic brethren, for example—I heard nothing. There were no visitations, no parallel Rafe sightings to suggest that he was alive and working anywhere else than in my overwrought imagination.
But the fruits were good. That was the one piece of countervailing evidence. On the strength of this so-called concocted fantasy, I slowly began to move forward into my life. The doors opened, and the teaching began to flow, a dynamic alchemy of all those amazing insights that Rafe and I had experimented with and had mutually drawn forth in our brief time together. Little by little this still-nascent wisdom lineage began to distinguish itself from among the general haze of contemplative Christianities, interior monasticisms, and other initiatives that started to roll out into the new century. Even Rafe’s former monastic brethren at Snowmass, while denying any specific Rafe epiphanies, reported back that my own transformation was evident and growing. I was psychologically strong and spiritually clear. Something was obviously working.
And my sense of connection with Rafe held steady from within. Construction or illusion, the two of us were birthing a Wisdom lineage whose influence was beginning to make itself felt as an actual energetic nexus. And while I felt (and still do) like the cabin boy steering the schooner, somehow, with Rafe there on the other side and me watching my p’s and q’s carefully, we managed to keep the ship on course.
Somewhere during the more recent years, I began to notice our internal positioning shifting ever so slightly. From my end it felt like a widening space between us as the scope of Rafe’s “majesty” (Jacob Boehme’s term meaning cosmic agency and responsibility) began to increase noticeably. And this was to be expected, after all. “Rafe” was short for Raphael, the monastic name bestowed upon him when he entered the novitiate, and it was toward the archangelic realm that he was now clearly gravitating. On my end of the tether, this shift expressed itself outwardly as a new emphasis on the prophetic, evolutionary, and collective. In 2015 I received a powerful cosmic nudge to dive into the work of Jesuit scientist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and so I did. My understanding of contemplative transformation became more evolutionary, more drawn to models expressing this new vision of collective responsibility. As the political situation in the world grew daily more dicey, I began to sense our Wisdom school being called to a very specific post, a very specific imaginal1 and vibrational task. We seemed to be charged with weaving together some very important dialogical threads (between Gurdjieff and Teilhard, for example), and with joining our work with other schools at a similar vibrational level in order to help hold a collective energy field sorely needed on a planet about to undergo a major contraction. On November 7, 2016, the eve of the American election that launched the world into the Trump era, I received a very explicit directive in this regard at Tintern Abbey, the sacked Cistercian monastery of Wordsworthian fame, and the reconstitution of our lineage as a conscious circle of humanity began in earnest. It was rich, purposeful, blessed work, and I felt honored to be holding up my end of the stick.
On the inside, I guess I was lonely—or maybe just growing, too, in continuing sync with Rafe. His widening space certainly left a hole in a heart that had never fully healed from his first departure, and all those years of living cheek-to-jowl with the painful specter of self-delusion had gradually taken their toll. Or maybe again, consistent with that “wager” hermeneutic, I was simply becoming more and more restless living out my days in a Prospero’s castle (to draw on the metaphor so powerfully portrayed in Shakespeare’s mysteriously soul-riveting final play, The Tempest). I found myself wondering more and more whether this had all been simply an elaborate mental son et lumière, to be dispelled by a single flick of the magician’s wand accompanied by the solemn utterance, “All . . . shall dissolve, and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not one rack behind.”2 My growing scent for a more direct perception kind of truth was increasingly beckoning me to step out of the nest and see what, if anything, actually held me up. Not because I doubted Rafe, but because I trusted the direction in which he invariably pointed: straight into the unknown. And because one of the final pieces of wisdom he had left me with was, “When the building’s completed, you no longer need the scaffolding.”
All of these currents were swirling around in the background in the summer of 2017 as I found myself drifting more and more into the gravitational field of fellow wharf rat and local badass hero, Johnny “The Greek” Kontsas. I’d always cherished my summer downtime to play with my boats and take a breather from spiritual earnestness by hanging out with the Stonington fishing crowd. Johnny was clearly the pied piper among them. With his distinctive Brooklyn/Boston nasal twang and his Marlboro Man patina (complete with hand-rolled cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth most the day), he was a striking presence around Stonington harbor, meting out mischief and merriment in equal measure.
As our initial barbed repartee gradually gave way to occasional shafts of deep sharing, I could see more and more what a rare character he was. Rough edged but intuitively brilliant (“I’m an old soul,” he claimed), he was a consummate water man, a free thinker, and an unquenchable dreamer. A few seasons back he’d pooled his resources to buy a thirty-seven-foot catamaran, which he named Zoi, Greek for “life force.” He lived aboard her in Stonington harbor during the summer, earning his living as a diver and marine-related jack-of-all-trades. Come the first cold winds of fall, he’d depart for seven months of singlehanded cruising in the Caribbean. Fiercely present, agile as a cat, and unyielding as Diogenes in his pursuit of truth, he was a one-man countercultural statement.
During the fall, we gradually entwined hearts. He was skeptical at first, I the more insistent. By now, in my imaginative free flight he was fully my watery Shams Tabrizi, and I yearned for both the initiation and the intimacy, I guess in equal parts.
I’m not sure what he yearned for. “Joyful companionship,” he acknowledged—perhaps against all odds, his still-elusive soulmate. We were a pretty odd-duck couple, but we also had a lot going for us. Both of us loved the water, shared a similar spirit of adventure, and were ostensibly free and available for a new relationship. By late fall we were also deeply taken with each other. We decided to give it a go. I bid farewell to my seafaring Shams as he departed Stonington harbor in early November, then joined him in Florida four weeks later to hoist sail for the Caribbean.
We made it for five weeks before that first round collapsed.
Almost immediately, things started to go wrong. There were the usual adjustments facing two persons of very different backgrounds and temperaments suddenly thrust into close quarters on one person’s turf. All garden variety relational stuff, and we soldiered through it bravely, buoyed up by interludes of almost unbearable sweetness. But there were also some deeper pathologies that began to surface, presaging a much more ominous San Andreas Fault running through this happy country of the heart.
Then the accidents started to happen. The radar fell down and washed overboard one night for no apparent reason, leaving us with only the moon (fortunately coming on full) to navigate by. The anchor compartment flooded, knocking out the winch that ran the windlass (John rebuilt it from scratch, gifted mechanic that he is), and later an engine compartment flooded (busted hose). The water pump, alternator, and starter were all damaged in the flood—John rebuilt them as well. We were beset by headwinds almost the whole trip, and by the time we reached the Windward Islands on round 2, those winds were blowing gale force—and remained so, right on our nose, for nine days straight. We sailed on undaunted, the captain supremely in command of his ship, but poor Zoi took quite a beating. The starboard stay frayed (John sistered it with a nylon line), the sails tore (John patched them), and the autohelm cracked (John lashed and epoxied it back together).
What was going on here? When Johnny put the question to two of his old seafaring buddies, they instantly offered the same response: “You’ve got a Jonah onboard.”
We laughed—a tad nervously, at first. Who wants their cruising dreams held hostage by an old Biblical shillelagh? But this did seem like a rather extraordinary string of bad luck. And the assaults got worse. On the next-to-the-last day of round 2, I stupidly caught my left leg in a moving coil of rope while releasing a dock line and fractured my ankle. Two days later John got food poisoning from some bad chicken he’d bought after dropping me off in Antigua and was sick for nearly the entire month I was gone.
Then, in probably the most whirlwind disintegration I have ever experienced, we both watched in horror as that San Andreas Fault erupted full force less than a week into our round 3, turning what had begun as a joyful birthday celebration and beginning exploration of a more permanent commitment into a devastating wreckage of our hearts and our dreams.
I’m still not sure why.
There any number psychological explanations, of course. Some favor me, some favor the Greek. Let’s just leave it that the components of this psychic stew were anger, clinging, distrust, and most likely an underlying borderline pattern where love turns lightning fast to demonization. But were those the actual causes of the unraveling, or merely the stress cracks along which the fracturing ran its course?
Safely back in Maine, I reread the Jonah story, then reread it again and yet again. Folktale that it may be, I had to admit that the whole picture was finally starting to make sense. All it took was a single flip of the switch, from the presumption that I was a free agent to an acceptance of the premise that my two-decade imaginal partnership with Rafe was a construction, not an illusion. Then all the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.
Note to self: Jonah was a prophet, remember? He held an imaginal post, a post in that realm connecting divine will to its actualization here on earth. The whole saga began when God announced to Jonah that he was to be deployed to Nineveh in order to read the riot act to the city’s wayward residents. Jonah didn’t much relish the assignment and decided to take an unannounced leave of absence. He found a ship bound for Tarshish and a captain willing to take him there. He embarked, no doubt pleased with himself for having given God the slip. Then all hell broke loose.
Was I that prophet gone AWOL?
If this world were the only world that’s real (the interior realms being purely subjective), then I was indeed free and clear to give my heart to the Greek. I told him I was free and clear. I really believed it. And so did he—almost. It was that “almost” that tore our love apart.
In the end, when all other courses of action had been exhausted, there was nothing for Jonah to do but admit defeat. He had been cosmically checkmated, and he knew it. Turning to his captain, he said, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you: for I know that it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you” (Jon. 1:12).
For my birthday a couple of weeks earlier Johnny had gotten me my first wetsuit. He’d long been wanting to share this special part of his life with me, and on the morning of that final long day’s journey into night, we decided to give it a go. I wriggled into the suit, laughing at the word “deep” emblazoned on the chest. “My students will love this!” I joked. I donned the facemask and air hose he’d hooked up and made my first dive into the sparkling azure sea. So entranced were we by the whole unfolding that at the time neither of us quite registered that the logo I was actually wearing on my chest was not “deep.” Beneath the word there was also a number.
The number 6.
You gotta hand it to imaginal synchronicity.
Jonah himself would be physically deep-sixed, tossed overboard by a reluctant captain, to find his place of reckoning in the belly of the whale. On the whole, I fared a lot better. Over the next twenty-four hours most of the totems of our budding love would go overboard in a tumultuous ritual divesting: birthday cards, valentines, gifts, my Christmas bicycle and guitar—and yes, my red hat, for fifteen years the symbol of my imaginal post, which vanished somewhere during the night. A more pointed cosmic message I cannot imagine.
But I myself did not go overboard. And my belly of the whale became instead a small, dark hotel room dockside in Nassau where John dropped me hastily at first light on Maundy Thursday before heading straight back out to sea.
I trust it has now quietened down for you, dear captain of my heart.
The Belly of the Whale
When all is said and done, the Jonah story still seems like the simplest and kindest explanation. Johnny and I were cosmically checkmated. Even after factoring in all the psychological stuff, there’s still that additional X factor, which looks suspiciously like a higher hand at work. There are simply too many highly configured “coincidences” (they’re actually called chiasms) to chalk it up to a mere string of bad luck. Once you’ve learned the language of imaginal causality, it reads like an open book. The bottom line is no. The subtext is “Disregard at your own peril.” We escaped with our lives this time. Another time we might not be so lucky.
Was this cosmic “cease and desist” order issued for dereliction of duty, for our own protection, or to force us to find a whole new basis for relationship? I am not yet able to say; the work of sorting through the wreckage has only just begun. But if, as philosopher Karl Popper famously asserted, “Truth arises more swiftly out of error than out of confusion,” then that winter’s testing of the waters had certainly been a quantum leap toward a more truthful place. It’s ironic that the “proof positive” of my imaginal calling, which I could never quite find my way to from the inside, should be delivered so forcefully from the outside through a stern cosmic reprimand. But confirmation is confirmation in whatever form it arrives, and at least I now know where my own work of inner accounting must begin.
Not all constructions are illusions—so true, so true. A Prospero’s castle this imaginal journey with Rafe may be—yes, even a “concocted fantasy”—but over the years it has weathered the gales of truth-testing and time-and-again proved itself real. Maybe, as in that old children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit, “real” is not where you start out but where you wind up; you become real gradually when somebody loves you for a long, long time. However Rafe and I managed to arrive here—through whatever random combination of truth seeking, risk taking, and fidelity to each other and to the path—this imaginal partnership has become my home, my spiritual workplace, and my post. Good work has been done here, and I am still apparently needed. Prospero’s castle it may be, but the castle is built over a springhead, and there is water in the well.
But as I pick up my water bucket and resume course for Nineveh, it is not without a long backward glance toward a small catamaran plying its solitary way toward open sea. I know what I must do for now. I must write. And you, Greek, must sail. That is the way it is. ◆
1 Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 359.
2 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, act 4, sc. 1.
From Eye of the Heart: A Spiritual Journey into the Imaginal Realm by Cynthia Bourgeault © 2020 by Cynthia Bourgeault. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com.
This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2020 issue of Parabola, SECRETS. You can find the full issue in our online store. Please consider a print or digital subscription to Parabola or support our work by making a tax-deductible donation here.