Is confessing your sins the same as unhooking from your ego? This profound question concerns the first page of the fourth chapter of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom Jesus.
Have you ever felt the need to “repent” in the first, most traditional sense that Bourgeault mentions at the beginning of this chapter? Have your own bad choices bothered you enough to make better choices? Not a terribly long time ago, emerging from two decades of battling the inner demons of addiction, I felt compelled to “confess [my] sins, acknowledge how far off course [I’d] wandered, & promise to turn [my] life in a new direction” (41). (In Alcoholics Anonymous & Narcotics Anonymous, these processes are actually structured into the 12-steps.)
When Bourgeault interprets “repentance” as “metanoia” as going “beyond the mind” or “into the larger mind” by leaving “the orbit of the egoic operating system,” she writes as though the other more traditional way to repent might be somehow crude or dualistic or that this visionary version might be somehow less strident. Or maybe, it’s just a different way of saying the same thing, from a different angle or through a different lens.
While the Christian-meditation-&-retreat-going audiences that Bourgeault usually speaks to about nondual wholeness might not really connect with the more traditional & passionate warning to repentance, does her choice of revised meaning really diverge distinctly from a prostrate confession of personal wrongdoing, where one takes responsibility for possibly immoral choices or acts of intentional harm? Isn’t the “egoic operating system” always already the part of the self that errs & thus bears responsibility for the sins or crimes that we need to confess?
Even though Bourgeault initiates another dualistic departure from fundamentalism to make her point about nonduality, the old-school fundamentalist confessions that some of us may associate with repentance might just be the ticket to bring folks into an appropriately vulnerable place to experience the wholeness of God’s presence amid the fractured illusions of their sinful pasts. This fourth chapter’s first page speaks directly to my own experience with confession, the egoic operating system, & coming into the larger mind of a life after the affliction of addiction. Once again, even Bourgeault’s “accidental duality” could lead us to that deeper place.
When we see “sins” as willful or intentional acts that violate the spirit of the “most important commandment” (loving God with all of our energy & loving our neighbors as we love ourselves), are these not functions of our more childish, selfish instincts, of our “egoic operating systems”? If we were ever walking in the light of God’s radiant grace in the nondualistic larger mind of Christ, would we ever be capable of committing the kinds of sins that we really need to repent from? Is it possible to get to the place of plural consciousness to which Bourgeault so beautifully beckons us with our smaller minds still running the show like toddlerish tyrants?
If being “beyond the small minded ego” brings the connection to Christ-consciousness that Bourgeault’s already called the kingdom within, what would we call the absence of this connection? What kind of world within would the ego wing & wring us into? In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz calls the judgmental, egoistic, dualistic world “a dream of hell.” He explains, “Others may warn us that if we don’t do what they say we should do, we will go to hell. Bad news! [. . .] No human can condemn another to hell because we are already there” (14). This self-imposed bad dream that Ruiz describes bears striking similarity to the selfish nightmares that the egoic operating system brings to the judgmental, intolerant, & drastically dualistic.
Have you tasted what she’s talking about? I occasionally experience the nondual beauty of Christ-consciousness that Bourgeault wants us to grasp when epiphany emerges from a spiritual practice that includes quiet time in natural places outdoors, exercise, prayer, music, meditation, & breathwork. But I don’t imagine I could really sip the living water of what Bourgeault calls that “elixir of pure liberation” before I repented, before I attempted to upgrade my operating system, when I was amped to the rafters on lusty but lesser elixirs.
Did you ever taste liberation’s pure elixir? As soon as it’s there, it’s not there, just like chasing rainbows, soap bubbles, or wisps of smoke. The ego can trick you into thinking you’re there when you’re not really there. In my case, that trick often occurred with self-congratulations instead of gratitude or through over-indulgence with drugs & alcohol.
During the worst parts of my walks “to the dark side” of all forms of the mental, spiritual, & physical malaise called addiction, Christian teaching always vibrated on the periphery of my bacchanalian world view, a delightfully deluded mess where Mardi Gras lasted all year long. Somewhere down the dark streets of the devil’s favorite neighborhoods, I caught wind of a cosmic radio signal that was always broadcasting in my brain, a gospel of infinite grace, even for bums like me.
By the time I turned 20 & started turning away from Christianity, I’d already been baptized twice & born again & again & again. Then, during the decades of darkness, I’d been told by a brother that I could not get unsaved or unbaptized no matter how hard I tried to buy scalpers’ front row seats in hell, no matter what manner of sin I indulged in, no matter how hard Satan pulled at my soul. According to this notion, hellfire held no gravity to the one who’d already given his spirit to God’s gracious grip. I don’t know if this notion is correct, but I tempted -- & was tempted -- by this reassurance. Then, the impulse of Christian Universalism expressed by writers like Carlton Pearson or Brennan Manning took things even further.
Pearson and Manning reminded me that my freedom had already been purchased & paid for & that Christ-conscious principles had nothing to do with the depravity of my particular sins & everything to do with the unmeasurable length of God’s love. Manning writes in the Ragamuffin Gospel, “The love of Christ is beyond all knowledge, beyond anything we can intellectualize or imagine. It is not a mild benevolence but a consuming fire” (209). That consuming fire of God’s love is unrivaled by mere consumerism, so the tattered & shattered & truly hungry would sing for their supper if it included morsels roasted on that eternal flame.
In explaining reconciliation and The Gospel of Inclusion to his many detractors, the former Pentecostal preacher Pearson proposes this logic: “To those who ask what if I am wrong, I respond that I would rather be wrong in overestimating the love & the grace of God than in underestimating it. I would rather err on the side of the goodness & greatness of God than on the side of His presumed pettiness & wrath. It is more important to believe what Jesus taught about God than what the churches have taught us about Jesus” (9). Following from Pearson, I don’t want to get “defensive” about a generally untapped aspect of Christian doctrine that needs no defense.
Even before I begged Him back into the God-shaped hole inside my heart, hearing these bountiful expressions of Christ’s love hit a high note of music in the cavernous acoustics of my aching emptiness. As much as I rejected Christ, He would never reject me.
While I would say that awareness of this love still breaks me & breaks my heart, the night of my most prayerful passionate pleading, my egoic operating system had already crashed. God’s love didn’t need to break down my ego; I was already broken.
Maybe the commandment to “go & sin no more” really refers to living in the small greedy self of the “ego” no longer, or at least, recognizing our faults, foibles, fallings, & failings as too often directly connected to that egoic operating system.
Too messed up to fret about escaping hell when I die, my repentance & my confession had everything to do with ending the “dream of hell” on earth that my life had already become. Today, too blessed to see God as broker or banker with whom I need to be bargaining or bartering for my personal cloud in the celestial hereafter, I am trying as humbly as I can to practice the wisdom teachings that unlock the heaven within.