Ask Cynthia

Have you ever struggled with unhealthy family dynamics? Ever wondered how contemplation plays into your relationships? Or have you struggled to remain hopeful in the face of political and ecological crises? Cynthia addresses some of these and other questions in these thoughtful responses.

Dear Cynthia, The world seems like it’s teetering on the verge of total destruction and I can barely watch the news anymore without spiraling into fear or paralyzing sadness. What can we do? How do we keep from being overtaken by depression and cynicism in these troubling times?

I am not so sure it’s a question of nature, but of nurture—or lack thereof. We live in a world where fear and cynicism are running sky high, where traditional institutions of faith and culture are breaking down, and where our dislocation from nature and the natural rhythms of life leave our souls a little pent up and crazy. Suspicion and pessimism are pretty good defenses against a world gone mad. But the great spiritual teachings of the ages have suggested a radically counter-intuitive response. When this same question came up in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, the wise elder Fr. Zossima said in response, “Go help someone. Reach out to a brother or sister in need. Feed the hungry, heal the sick—or at least, take on your small share of the task—and then, only then, will you come to know that the world is trustworthy and God is real.”

His point is tough, but true: First the eye of the heart must open, and only then will one see confirmation in the external world. As long as suspicion and pessimism are being projected, suspicion and pessimism are what the cosmos will confirm.

So how to break the vicious cycle? Fr. Zossima’s advice is still as true today as it was in his time: look for where you can serve. Volunteer in a shelter, a food pantry, a nursing home: it will soften your heart. Do your inner work—not just spiritual practice—but of looking deeply at the ways systemic problems might be alive in your own inner narratives and behavior. And lastly, find beauty and be nurtured by it. Spend time in nature, in a playground with young children; sing!; read love poetry; hang out with the “good, the true and the beautiful,” however they speak to you.

The problem is that we are starving—all of us, really—for the energy of beauty and goodness so long absent from our contemporary cultural experience. But we have to start making these energies of love and change ourselves—from within ourselves. That is not only an individual task; it is our collective human task and our planet will thank us for it.

Dear Cynthia, Help. I’m an exhausted and busy, single mom of two young kids…. I’m doing my best to juggle my job, relationships, parenting but I feel like I’m having to do too many things, and none of them as well as I would like. The most important thing to me is my kids: their wellbeing, growth, and security. What advice would you give to young parents about the most important lessons you’ve learned in parenting?

I don’t know if I’m pulling rank here: I’m speaking now as a grandmother, not an active-duty mom. But my four grandkids have given me a second chance to learn the lessons that I missed the first time around. Or maybe it’s simply that the passage of time lets one see the forest, not just the trees.

The single most important thing is to take time to LISTEN to your children—as fellow human beings, not just as your charges or pet projects.

There’s a wise little human soul in there, ageless in heart even while young in time. Follow her lead. Listen to what she says and DOESN’T say. Don’t just manage her, but allow the things she’s interested in to open and energize your own heart. That’s the secret of eternal youth.

Second, don’t be afraid to be real with your children.

I’m not speaking so much here about being honest with your feelings (that’s generally good, but don’t forget that as a parent you have a primary responsibility to hold a safe space for your kids, and your self-expression should never overwhelm or frighten them); rather, I’m talking about being transparent about how you’re working with your own limitations. Your kids are going to pick up on how you work through your challenging days and emotions. Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten the idea that we need to shield our kids from our own humanity! Instead, model for them how to stop and take some deep breaths when you’re getting frustrated, and don’t be afraid to offer an explanation for the charge you might be carrying: “I’m sorry I’m so frazzled, Mommy is having a rough day today.”

Lastly, be sure to invite your children to experience what you truly love.

For 18 years my own mother managed, scolded, imposed manners, dragged us kids off to Sunday school, arranged lessons in necessary social graces, chaperoned parties and supervised homework. And yet, for all that gray blur of duty, the one day I truly remember from my childhood was the day she simply gathered up her beloved oil paints and marched us off to a local arboretum. As my brother and I explored the gardens, I watched her a short distance away, poised before her easel, golden sunlight streaming down her face, completely entranced in what she was doing. How I loved her in that moment! And the unspoken lesson on following your bliss has remained with me for nearly six decades. Children will pick up on the joy (or lack thereof!) with which you live out your true essential self in this lifetime and the resonance will help them discover their particular notes that they are meant to offer this great symphony of life.

Dear Cynthia, I feel like everything around me is grabbing at my attention telling me I need “more.” More clothes, more money, more exercise. And when that doesn’t work I fall into a pit of negative “mores”: more alcohol, more binge eating, more self-hatred. I need a way to find a balance and better habits. How can I begin to de-tangle myself from compulsive behavior and addiction to “more”?

It’s not really a question of “mind over matter” because the mind IS matter!

As recent neuroscience has demonstrated, every habit lays down its own neural pathway, i.e., it carves its own rut track in the brain—and the inertia around these pathways is considerable. The disruption of ANY happy pathway brings with it considerable discomfort and resistance. So you’re quite right in lumping together habits and addictions; the difference between them is more one of degree than of kind. One can be addicted to coffee, alcohol, porridge for breakfast, endorphins, heroin, meditation, exercise, sex or God! The difference is only that the classic “chemical dependency addictions” add to our already full plate of cognitive and emotional distress and, at the interruption of a habit, physiological distress as well.

Most of the moral and spiritual training of Western minds over the past two millennia has been couched around instilling “good habits”—or at least replacing unhealthy behavior patterns with healthy behavior patterns. But there has been a school of spiritual training in all the great traditions that claims that real spiritual maturity is the ability to be habit-free: to be able to bushwhack through consciousness without laying down ANY of those familiar but deadly rut tracks.

The idea is to remain ever flexible and mindful of any overly habituated pathway in which we can become entrenched.

My own teacher Rafe belonged to this school of thought. On his prayer desk, he kept a quotation from the British spiritual teacher Maurice Nicoll: “Faith is a continual inner effort, a continual altering of the mind, of the habitual ways of thought, of the habitual ways of taking everything, of habitual reactions.” Rafe took that saying deeply to heart. From time to time, he would spontaneously uproot his established patterns and preferences in order to keep his spiritual life (as well as his mind) supple, and to experience that pure rush of freedom that comes from being able to sit in the chaos of a disrupted habit—like an anthill that’s just been kicked in—and transform the pain into the razor’s edge of pure consciousness.

To do this, however, is an advanced spiritual skill. It requires an ability to sit in the presence of powerful emotional currents—pain, grief, yearning, fear—and experience them as pure sensation rather than as part of the story we keep telling ourselves about who we are. This is an acquired skill, whose foundations are in meditation and conscious breathing…which is why our spiritual practice is so important.

Both habits and addictions, in my experience, are a kind of shorthand we resort to for getting through our lives because we lack the spiritual/energetic force to stay present to the field of our own “pure awareness.”

Our habits are primarily the SYMPTOMS of our low level of Being, not the CAUSE of it.

So my own preference is to work a little each day on increasing my tolerance for Being (or presence or pure awareness—they’re simply different ways of speaking about the same vitalized energy field of consciousness). Once that force of Being is strong enough within us, then dealing with habits/addictions is like taking off a raincoat once the sun is shining.

Dear Cynthia, I consider myself to be a calm, loving and forgiving person…except when it comes to my family. Even after years of therapy I still get totally triggered, the grudges emerge and the same “family role grooves” appear. Why is it so hard for me to be truly accepting of my family and parents? And how do I keep from making the same mistakes with my kids?

As the old truism goes: “No wonder our parents can push our buttons; they’re the ones who installed them in the first place!” While the notion of Original Sin has mostly fallen out of favor nowadays, with only a slight adjustment of the terminology—re-envisioning it as a “web of woundedness”—it comes right back in line with the temper of our times. We are all, inescapably, caught in a web of woundedness because we receive our lives from imperfect beings and pass on the gift of life while we are still far from perfect ourselves.

The wounds are right below the surface, and any lapse of consciousness can instantly plunge us into a replay of old scenarios.

I was a child bride when I married at age 20, and I spent the next 15 years growing up—at the expense of my two daughters. We can all laugh about it now—a trifle nervously. The wounds are right below the surface, and any lapse of consciousness can instantly plunge us into a replay of old scenarios.

My friends and students are constantly telling me, “Wow, you’ve really grown over the past few years!” With my daughters, it’s striking that the response is usually exactly the opposite: a slightly exasperated “Mom, you haven’t changed a bit!” While there are many reasons for this discrepancy, the one that comes closest to hitting the nail on the head is that families are the guardians of that thread of continuity in all of us. They are the keepers of our human timeline over long, long decades, and in that sense bring a tempering to our own illusions of progress and the projections of friends who know us more superficially. And this is a good thing! When my daughters Gwen or Lucy comment on a change in my patterns, I know I’m really getting somewhere! And when they keep drawing my attention back to a persistent characteristic, I have to acknowledge in all humility that I belong, inescapably, to the web of woundedness—just like all human beings. It is the most fundamental ground of our common humanity.

When I stop blaming my own mother for all the ways she failed me and start seeing the ways in which her own life was a courageous response to circumstances beyond her control; when I realize that she gave me the very best that she could and stood by me in her own way to the very end, then my heart softens: not just for her, but for my own wounded self.

That being the case, the tools we need to engage are consciousness and compassion. Consciousness is the ability to step back from our own agendas and automatic behaviors and see the wider pattern; without this capacity, spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle claims, “All relationships are deeply flawed.” Compassion is the capacity to move beyond our own sense of entitlement and victimhood and move inside the other person’s heart. When I stop blaming my own mother for all the ways she failed me and start seeing the ways in which her own life was a courageous response to circumstances beyond her control; when I realize that she gave me the very best that she could and stood by me in her own way to the very end, then my heart softens: not just for her, but for my own wounded self.

It was my three-year-old daughter Gwen, incidentally, who first taught me to do this. While I was still a child bride bouncing off the walls, it was Gwen’s grandmother who first really saw and honored the beauty lurking in a ragamuffin toddler. And Gwen’s unabashed adoration of her beautiful, ladylike grandmother was the first thing that knocked the wind out of the sails of my reactive patterns. Healing is really a three-generation proposition.

And yes, there is no way our kids will escape from the web of woundedness. It’s part of our human birthright, and I believe that no amount of consciousness, maturity, and sincerity will relieve a child of her or his own piece of the family bloodline, and, as the Buddhists would say, karma. That shouldn’t be our goal. Instead, we need to be modeling for our children the “three h’s”—honesty, humility, and humor—which will allow us to cope with our imperfections and extend that same forbearance to others. Compassion and forgiveness are far more powerful virtues than even a “steady-state” maturity (if such a thing actually exists), and our family systems provide the perfect laboratory in which those alchemical virtues can be produced.

Dear Cynthia, What does it take to sustain a happy and successful relationship or marriage?

On July 5, 1997, high in a mountain meadow above Telluride, Colorado, my oldest daughter, Gwen Bourgeault, and Rod Rehnborg exchanged their marriage vows. I was honored when they asked me to be their wedding preacher and even more honored when the words I spoke seemed to move many people gathered there that day. The talk was later published as the epilogue to my book, Love Is Stronger than Death. We are reprinting it here because it seems so appropriate to the question under discussion. Whether you are married or not, these words serve as guide to what I believe is essential in any conscious relationship.

It is a privilege to have two roles at this wedding: Mother of the bride and wedding preacher.

It’s easy to look at marriage as the culmination of love, the end point of the journey that begins with “falling in love.” But as all of you who have ever been married know, and as you yourselves, Gwen and Rod, are beginning to discover—marriage is not the culmination of love, but only the beginning.

Love remains and deepens, but its form changes. Or, more accurately, it renews itself in a different way. Less and less does it draw its water from the old springs of romance, and you should not worry if over time these dimensions fade or are seen less frequently. More and more, love draws its replenishment from love itself: From the practice of conscious love, expressed in your mutual servant-hood to one another.

In making these vows of marriage, you become disciples on the path of love. It is a powerful spiritual path, and if you live it and practice it well, it will transform your lives, and through its power in your own lives, will reach out to touch the world. What you really do today is put your own selves—your hopes and fears, irritations and shadows, your intimate jostling up against each other—and become the friction that polishes you both to pure diamonds.

But how to stay in touch with that power? At those times when stress mounts and romance seems far away, how do you practice that conscious love that will renew itself and renew your relationship? After all, if you are disciples, there must be a discipline….

Here is the one that works for me. And while it’s particularly appropriate for married couples, it can be practiced by all of you, in all circumstances of your lives, if you wish to deepen your own practice of conscious love.

It’s contained in one sentence—four little phrases—in that great hymn of love so often read at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13:7:

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

If you understand and recognize what each of these four phrases means and entails, you will be able to practice conscious love in all circumstances of your life.

“Love bears all things…” But this does not mean a dreary sort of “putting up with” or victimization. There are two meanings of the word bear, and they both apply. The first means “to hold up, to sustain”—like a bearing wall, which carries the weight of the house. Love “holds up and sustains.” You might say this is its masculine meaning. Its feminine meaning is this: to bear means “to give birth, to be fruitful.” So love is that which in any situation is the most life-giving and fruitful.

“Love believes all things…” This is the most difficult of the four instructions to understand. I know a very devout Christian lady back in Maine whose husband was philandering and everyone on the island knew it, but she refused to see it because “love believes all things.” But this is not what the words mean. “To believe all things” does not mean to be gullible, to refuse to face up to the truth. Rather, it means that in every possible circumstance of life, there is a higher and lower way of perceiving and acting. There is a way of perceiving that leads to cynicism and divisiveness, a closing off of possibility; and there is a way that leads to higher faith and love, to a higher and more fruitful outcome. To “believe all things” means always orient yourselves toward the highest possible outcome in any situation and strive for its actualization.

“Love hopes all things…” Generally, we think of hope as related to outcome; it is a happy feeling that comes from achieving the desired outcome, as in, “I hope I win the lottery.” But in the practice of conscious love you begin to discover a different kind of hope, a hope that is related not to outcome but to a wellspring…a source of strength, which wells up from deep within you, independent of all outcomes. It is the kind of hope that the prophet Habakkuk speaks of when he says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom and the vines bear no fruit, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.” It is a hope that can never be taken away from you because it is love itself working in you, conferring the strength to stay present to that “highest possible outcome” that can be believed and aspired to.

Finally, “Love endures all things.” But there is only one way to endure. Everything that is tough and brittle shatters; everything that is cynical rots. The only way to endure is to forgive, over and over; to give back that openness and possibility for new beginning, which is the very essence of love itself. And in such a way love comes full circle and can fully “sustain and make fruitful,” and the cycle begins again, at a deeper place. And conscious love deepens and becomes more and more rooted in your marriage.

It is not an easy path. But if you practice it faithfully and well, as disciples of love itself, the love which first brought you together will gradually knit you together in that one abler soul, which from all along, even before you were formed in the womb, God has been calling you to become.

Dear Cynthia, I have discovered the mystics and your work, which are slowly helping me see a deeper path in Christianity than the exclusive, dogmatic, and scientifically incompatible Christianity of my childhood…but I still really struggle with the Bible. How do I make sense out of a text that still makes so many statements of exclusion and condemnation?

Like most other critically thinking Christians, I see the Bible as a symphony (sometimes a cacophony!) of divinely inspired human voices bearing witness to an astonishing evolutionary development in our human understanding of God (or God’s self-disclosure as we grow mature enough to begin to comprehend it, another way of saying the same thing). The Old Testament, whose 46 books span well over a millennium in their dates of composition, also straddles what scholars call “The First Axial Period,” when spontaneously, across the entire globe, human spiritual consciousness seemed to take a huge evolutionary leap forward. In the same time frame that the Biblical psalms were being composed, the planet was also being graced with the Buddha, Lao-Tse, Zoaroaster, and Plato: a quantum leap in human understanding and ethical vision. It simply defies credibility—my credibility, anyway!—to believe that the early Old Testament teachings on animal sacrifice and “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” are at the same level as Ezekiel’s luminous axial prophecy, “I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” or Jesus’ stunning “Love your enemy; bless those who revile you.”

This is not in any way to demean holiness of the Bible, but only to affirm that God reveals God’s self in time, through process and dialogue, not in unchanging monolithic statements. This does not make the Bible less sacred; it makes it more sacred, for it grounds God’s divine presence in the lived reality of our human experience.

As a Christian I am bound, when I listen to this diversity of Biblical voices, to set my compass by the teachings and the path walked by Jesus himself. Where Biblical testimony is internally inconsistent (and even Jesus experienced it this way!), I am bound to honor Jesus as my final court of appeal. And thus, the bottom line must inescapably be that nowhere does Jesus wish harm upon anyone, even those whom the religious culture is so quick to condemn as sinners. His harsh words are reserved entirely for those whose certainty about their religious rectitude causes them to condemn others, or to block the Spirit’s persistent attempts to open up new channels of forgiveness and hope. Jesus is all about inclusion, forgiveness, and empowerment. In the light of his compassionate presence, people are set free to live their lives in strength and hope, regardless of whether they be considered outcasts by those in the “religious know.”

Thus, as a Christian, when confronted by a tension between an entrenched religious certainty, which leads me to violate the law of love and “loving my neighbor as myself,” I am bound to choose the latter course…and to always uphold the dignity of all bodies—human and non-human alike.

(All responses on this page are adapted from Cynthia’s original responses appearing in goop.com, from 2007-2011)