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Looking at the Looker


An old map of New England . . . maps are lovely in their way, and helpful, too, but they can never substitute for the territory they depict. In time, we set aside our “maps” in favor of actual exploration and experience. The same is true of spiritual awakening – paths such as A Course in Miracles take us so far but eventually we have to gently put them down and – to paraphrase Tara Singh – bring God (or Heaven or what-have-you) into application.

So as we go through our lives there is a sense in which we feel wronged, say, or blessed. Things happen, people do things, or don’t do things, and we experience those effects as good or bad, and then respond accordingly. But we never give much attention to the self that is experiencing these effects and formulating a response. We never look at the looker. We take the looker for granted, which is strange when you consider its apparent prevalence and influence.

What A Course in Miracles calls the “ego” and what it calls “separation” are closely related. You really can’t have one without the other. The separation occurred over millions of years (T-2.VIII.2:5), and so the ego has had that much time to evolve as well (T-3.IV.2:1-2). If we strip away the religious and poetic language of ACIM, then the ego is really just a habit of thinking, a mode of perception that is not very helpful, because it does not perceive reality as it is but rather how it would prefer reality to be. So the ego is always perpetuating an illusion through which we stumble, wreaking all kinds of havoc, because we think we have to. We think this is how life is. But it’s not. It’s just what the ego says life is. But the ego, properly understood, doesn’t know anything at all.

We don’t need A Course in Miracles, or any other spiritual path or tradition, in order to experience this. We really just need to give attention to our experience – patiently and non-judgmentally and in a sustained way. This is hard to do at first, but it’s worth a commitment.

If we look at the structure of thought, one of the things that we notice is that there is a “thinker” who is doing the thinking. There is a thought here, and a thinker there. We attribute the thought to this thinker, and so the thought has some validity to it, because why else would the thinker think it? Somebody talks a certain way to us and the thinker thinks “that’s a rude tone of voice – we are insulted” and voila! We feel insulted. We are hurt.

In other words, we take thought seriously because of the presumption that a thinker is “back there” handling it for us. The thinker is collecting data, collating it and so forth, and then relaying it to us through the medium of thought.

But who is the thinker? Most of the time we are looking at thought, rather than at the thinker. We don’t like thoughts that make us scared or sad or angry and we do like thoughts that make us happy and peaceful and contented. But we never really try to look at the thinker, this self who is both editor and publisher of thoughts.

This is what happens with looking at the looker, or thinker: eventually, we realize that the pain of not giving it attention is greater than the fear of giving it attention, and so we start to really look at it. We start to try and experience what it means that there is no thinker.

So part of what I am saying that we can do when we are attentive to thought, is that we can see that thought is not really as interesting as it seems at first blush. What is really interesting is the source of thought – this thinker. It seems like it should be easy enough to look at this thinker, question this thinker, but oddly, it is not. The thinker is actually very slippery.

At first, we think that this slipperiness is because the thinker doesn’t want to be seen. This is a common idea, especially in ACIM circles where the ego is castigated the way it is. We think the ego blanches – “oh no! They’re looking at me again” and so it hides, the better to continue its evil machinations. I’ve thought this way and written this way a lot. But actually, the thinker is slippery not because it’s malicious or a trickster but simply because it’s not actually there. There really is no thinker.

This is pretty simple and not such a big deal after you’ve given it a bit of attention, but it seems very radical and even dangerous the first time we hear about it, or sense it in ourselves. No thinker? But that means there is no self . . . And so “Sean” or whomever begins to feel frightened and unhinged and grabs hold of whatever it can in order to right itself, ground itself, be stabilized. We fall back into the familiar pattern of thinker and thought, self and ego, observer and observed. We slip back into separation, because even though we are miserable and mired in conflict, it is familiar and, at least temporarily, not so scary.

But we have all had experiences where the familiar, despite its reassuring presence, is no longer sufficient. This happens in relationships a lot. We are settled with someone, and it worked for a long time, but then it doesn’t. We stay because it’s scary to leave. But sometimes we have to face that fear. Sometimes we have to step out.

So that is what happens with this business of looking at the looker, or the thinker. Eventually, we realize that the pain of not giving it attention is greater than the fear of giving it attention, and so we start to really look at it. We start to try and experience what it means that there is no thinker. We actually wake up and try to go through the day without the satisfaction of self and routine and habit and all of that.

What happens? Mostly, we see the degree to which we have been living an illusion – and asking others to live it as well. And we start to know the peace that comes from being willing to not know.

“Know” in this case means to experience fully and wholly without recourse to language – sort of the way we “know” love for a dog or a child or a sunset or whatever. It has no opposite. It is beyond the realm of “other.” Doubt doesn’t enter to it.

“Not know” in this case means letting things go without bothering to judge them or label them or insist that they be this way or that. It’s letting all our experience be the same: the hugs, the kisses, the fresh-baked cookies, the bee stings, the flat tires, the lost car keys. Who knows what it means? We don’t. We see that clearly and so we let it go. We let it be. Life is. What else can we say or do?

I am not suggesting this experience is the end of anything. Or that it represents some super intense spirituality or holiness. It’s more in the nature of simply understanding the way thought works, and choosing to no longer associating ourselves with it. We simply let it run the way we let photosynthesis run, or gravity. It is peaceful, because we are no longer resisting so much. We are no longer trying to force reality to fit some pre-determined mold.

Again, the way I talk about this is not precisely consistent with A Course in Miracles. Lots of thinkers and traditions have explored this through the years – David Bohm, Buddhism, ACIM. We find a certain expression that resonates for us and we give attention to it and we learn it and then we bring it into application. I got to a point where I would reach for ACIM and think, “no, instead of reading, let me try to experience it today.”

That is what I mean when I write about giving attention. I mean that we stop letting other people tell us what is what, and we learn for ourselves what is what. There is a time and a place for instruction and instructors, and I am grateful for both indeed, but there is also a time when we have to step out and make it work for ourselves. Giving attention means literally being still with what is, right in the moment. Most of us know enough now to do that – we’ve go the tools, we’ve got the intellectual framework, so we’re ready. It’s time.

When we set out into unknown territory, it’s good to have maps. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time with compasses and topographical maps. They’re fun and helpful. But as been pointed out countless times the map is not the territory. So you use the map, but then at some point, you have to start to explore the territory on your own. You have to climb the trees, sip from the brooks, sleep beneath the stars, track the bears, and so forth. The map can’t do it for you, so you have to put it aside.

That is the old metaphor, and it’s still useful. A Course in Miracles can be very helpful in equipping us for the interior journey, but then you have to actually go and take that journey. You have to step off the familiar and into the unknown and see what happens. As Tara Singh used to say, “there is nothing to do, and nobody else can do it.”


An Ancient and Unconditional Joy

Another cup of coffee, another ten pages edited. I am sitting in shade, watching robins and rabbits pick through the herb garden. Clouds are tracking unusual winds – moving east to west and sometimes circling back. The heat broke and it is as cool as late August. The mind turns to apples. The mind turns to you.

Let’s say that you are sitting beside me, but engrossed in your own work – probably writing but maybe something else. Books are piled near your right hand not because you are going to read them at the moment but because they reassure you of your new commitment. It is quiet where I live, and this quiet is what most impresses itself upon you. One can hear the wind from far away, sense it gathering, feel it somewhere deep (even offer it something there) as it travels down the hill towards the brook and beyond.

From time to time I comment on what I am editing – more in passing than from a need for conversation. Talking too much is a distraction, but I like talking to you. I like that you take notes with a pen and paper. You voice has always settled something in me, or awakened something, and I am grateful to not have to go without it.

Lunch will be bread baked at 5 a.m. yet still faintly warm (I leave it under towels when pulled from the oven), and from the garden cucumbers and spinach lightly salted, sprinkled with vinegar. Perhaps wine, perhaps tea, depending on where we are with our work. Voices are not the only distraction . . .

This is a dream, of course. The twenty sentences are also a sentence, and I bear it alone, as most of the time one must. Yet from time to time an interior window opens – I cannot say precisely how or why – and a beam of light passes through, and one senses then the possibility of an ancient and unconditional joy, met in you, and – oddly, yet happily, rightly even – tended by us in common, despite the many miles, despite the long and heart-breaking silence.


Between Anonymous Graves

Always one more thing. And language is so imprecise, a bludgeon where a feather might be better. Piano notes reach me from a distance, reminiscent of lakes but not at all of telephones.

The mail way of doing it? All morning I watch robins work the berry bushes and wonder how I ever coveted pie. The tallest pine trees on the farthest hill mark the limits of my vision today and it is enough, it is more than enough.

Curtains drawn and the sound a mattress makes when an unfamiliar body settles across it. Whiskey where a fool might have better tried a fiddle. The dark becomes nobody and yet we love it so, we do.

Over brunch studying a map of the United States and plotting our circuitous route as far west as Colorado before turning North for the Canadas. You think about the bones of horses when it gets cold and nothing else will warm you. Grasshoppers in the burdock, dew where the grass falls heavy on its side.

And the sentences have a way of elongating when she is not here. Feather and father are similar only if you think spelling is an art. I have gone farther than anyone I know and yet remain hobbled, whistling at night between anonymous graves.

Arrive already! One’s poetry understood at last as a long hymn to winter, that season of profligate insight. We bind up our tears and go walking past towers of burning tires.

The deer this year are slower than usual, as if grateful for something, or else aware of how hungry I am for their elegance. As always unaware of that which I am unaware.


Following Jesus in A Course in Miracles


Bernhard Plockhorst’s “The Good Shepherd.” When I was little, we had some sheep, and so the image of Jesus as shepherd was particularly resonant for me. I still like it; it speaks to me of his gentleness, his kindness and his protectiveness. Our encounter with Jesus through A Course in Miracles brings these qualities to bear on the work of remembering that we are not the ego’s handiwork but rather God’s, and that we remain as God created us.

It is a mistake, I think, to approach A Course in Miracles as if it were merely a light-hearted picnic en route to the Gates to Heaven. It is not that an emphasis on inner peace and joy is wrong per se, but that it can distract one from the actual forgiveness inherent in the course’s healing process.

To adopt A Course in Miracles as one’s spiritual path is to undertake a serious and challenging interior journey from grim forgetfulness to remembrance of God. It is to look closely at an interior landscape and thought system that resists being looked at and literally stops at nothing to avoid being seen for what it is.

Why does it so viciously and tenaciously defend itself from being known? Because it correctly perceives that to see it is to to simultaneously see what it is not and – because our longing for God, though hidden, is greater than our longing to be separate from God – exchange it for Truth. The ego knows it is doomed when we see it offers us nothing but pain.

Grandeur is of God, and only of Him. Therefore it is in you. Whenever you become aware of it, however dimly, you abandon the ego automatically, because in the presence of the grandeur of God the meaninglessness of the ego becomes perfectly apparent (T-9.VIII.1:1-3).

A Course in Miracles, through the text, workbook and Manual for Teachers, restores to our memory God’s grandeur, and the ego is dissolved accordingly.

But it does not go quietly nor willingly! And, for most of us, it does not go without the help of a devoted guide. Thus, the course, in addition to providing a means by which to remember God, provides a friend with whom to bring that means into application.

My brother you are part of God and part of me. When you have at last looked at the ego’s foundation without shrinking you will also have looked upon ours . . . I give you the lamp and I will go with you. You do not take this journey alone (T-11.In.4:1-2, 5-6).

In a sense, those words are metaphorical – Jesus is not actually going to show up with an oil lantern and escort us through our personal Boschian drama, the way a friend might walk with us through the streets of Boston or Baton Rouge with a flashlight and map.

On the other hand, if we cannot take those words literally – if we reduce them merely to a good idea – then we are quite likely bereft. So a question emerges and presses on us: How do we make contact with Jesus in a real and practical way with respect to “looking at the ego’s foundation without shrinking”?

To be with Jesus is not acquisitive but rather receptive. Why? Because he is already here: our inquiry of him makes it so.

The answer has to do with the reverence that naturally flows from giving careful and sustained attention to that question, which in part has to do with not rushing to answer it. It is easy to substitute intellectual verbosity for spiritual experience. One way to avoid that trap is to willingly stay in the insecurity of not-knowing, which in a sense is to trust not knowing – or to trust that we are not alone in the state of not-knowing.

In his Commentary on Jesus and the Blind Man, Tara Singh observed that “a sincere question has the ability to relate you to life instantly and brings you to the direct perception of Reality” (79).

Thus, it is not necessary to know but rather to inquire of Jesus in a serious and attentive way, and to bring all of one’s desire to awaken to bear on the inquiry. In a way, it is reminiscent of Lesson 27 in the ACIM workbook: “Above all else I want to see.” Think of nothing but your yearning to see, says Jesus, and vision will be given you because it is already given to you. But be honest: what else will you think of? What else do you want?

The real question is, how often will you remember? How much do you want today’s idea to be true? (W-pI.27.4:1-2).

So it is a question of our commitment, of the energy that we are ready and willing to bring to our practice. Part of studying A Course in Miracles means facing our unwillingness to practice A Course in Miracles. We are asked to give vision priority amongst our many competing desires (W-pI.27.1:2). Tara Singh said that when we do that – when we sincerely give attention to Jesus – then we are met by Jesus in the present moment, and there is nothing metaphorical about it.

If you are present, then the Master is here, because what He said is eternal and always accessible. In the present, the past and future meet. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (79).

To give our attention to Jesus without expectation – I will perceive him this way, he will answer this way, et cetera – is to become radically open and Jesus responds to that openness in a real and tangible way. Our reverence – which is a form of gratitude that simplifies and purifies attention – makes it possible.

Nobody can give attention for us, and the internal egoic drama that must be undone will feel utterly personal for a long time. Yet a state comes when we begin to perceive – beyond the specificity of images an idols – the fear and guilt that is common to all of us and shared by all of us. But before that, we have to share the seeming specificity of our spiritual journey with Jesus. We look at what we are frightened to look at, and we ask him to look with us and – when we are ready to no longer be alone – he will be with us, and his presence will be transformative at every level. His presence is a transformed way of seeing; He is vision.

From insane wishes comes an insane world. From judgment comes a world condemned. And from forgiving thoughts a gentle world comes forth, with mercy for the holy Son of God, to offer him a kindly home where he can rest a while before he journeys on, and help his brothers walk ahead with him, and find the way to Heaven and to God (W-pII.325.1:4-6).

Thus, I don’t want to avoid the work of looking at the ego’s foundation, however intimidating and even terrifying it might seem. It is essential to our shared freedom, because only by looking at the foundation can the rest of the egoic edifice be toppled.

I also want to be clear that this work, this looking, is not a solo gig: A Course in Miracles repeats over and over that Jesus shares the way, that the Holy Spirit is within us, and that you and I are walking the path to Heaven together. Those are words that point to an important truth: we are not alone in any way and our companions are our salvation.

It is not necessary to know in advance what it means to avail oneself of Jesus’ help and to be so helped. In fact, it is more helpful to simply rest in the not-knowing. To be with Jesus is not acquisitive but rather receptive. Why? Because he is already here: our inquiry of him makes it so.


Swallowing Stars

Clouds from the west bunch like gray flowers folding. A female cardinal settles in the dogwood tree not unnoticed. Chipmunks trill from risky perches on the backyard fence. Hunger is everywhere happening now.

One longs for bookstores from the 1970′s, one feels in the wind the dust of ancient Palestine. God is reconstructed when you kneel, recalled in the prayer you utter leaning forward. Swallowing stars in order to rest my wings? I remember baking bread in Vermont, I remember swans flying overhead singing.

And I try to say ahead of narrative of course, terrified as always of correction. With you I surrendered the compass, with you I burned the charts. Oh to hear the rustling maple leaves a final time before the sun rises! Bliss where gravel calls the river home.

She laughed when I went into the garden naked to gather tomatoes for a salad. You move beyond the bible and beyond shirts falling softly onto motel floors, only to arrive at the ancestral whiskey bottle and Jesus saying quietly try again. I mean that hymn and no other. He burned the envelope in which she mailed no photograph.

And yet at night the faroff owl reminds me that it’s not about me and never was. When I go slowly, God is there, going slower. One day I will set the twenty sentences aside and breathe and even sleep. For now a little rain, a bowl of olives from Chrisoula’s grove in Greece, and sheets on the clothesline trailing beautifully away in the mid-summer wind.


Plunging Hungrily the Royal Blooms

Oh morning, so green and vivid, you are never not here when I am! Butterfly balm grows so high I can see it at the window while laying in bed for Christ’s sake! And at 5 a.m. – no kidding – hear the energetic buzz of hummingbirds plunging hungrily the royal blooms. The dog curls up tighter in the crook of my knees which are delighted to be so useful.

I thought I would die but instead I dreamed of a new way to write syllabi. You want to open, so open. Make contact with possibility – which is freedom – which is God – and thus forever welcome. Also, your definitions are like an ice cream stand that sells only gravel so maybe give attention to a revised business plan?

“Shove over,” says Chrisoula, and I do, but then I not-so-subtly sneak back, hard and perennially hopeful. What are dividing lines but invitations to reconsider one’s understanding of Christ? Gertrude Stein planned her last words, which should surprise no one. Oh Sappho, you would have made me go down on you in silver moonlight without reciprocation and I would have, happily!

All the apple trees of New England are now pleading with me for a sentence and so here it is. Thank you for bearing such lovely fruit and allowing me to make love in your shade half a dozen – no, wait, a dozen – no, a thousand – times over the years. Emily Dickinson doesn’t blush but she does question my math. One time we were trespassing and the woman in question said are you not afraid of the owner and failing that of God and I said in reply – and I meant it, mouth full of Honeycrisp – may they both now come.

Jesus steps to the left in order to let the divine oxen pass. When I see all the sad men in the cart – all of whom believe they are being carried to their death – I leap in and begin throwing them out, one by one, and Jesus catches them and sets them on their feet, giving them each both a map to and a brochure for the Kingdom. The man without shoes has weathered but sexy toes! I am carrying you this bread, the sea is spilling from my shoulders, and every time I open my mouth a sparkly disco ball comes out insisting “dance.”


What Emerges When We Perceive Loss

Moonlight confuses the roosters, oddly. Narrative is what emerges when we perceive loss and need a bridge. At 4 a.m. the rain has an odd, a sort of ammonia smell to it. Once upon a time a man without shoes began writing twenty sentences a day and I am, still.

The coffee grows cold while I search for the right word. We also project onto others ideals and that, too, is a form of attack. How busy one’s brain can be, like a moth trying to understand the light for which it would die! I wanted to tell the woman at the co-op it was okay but didn’t because I could see that opening my mouth – regardless of what came out – would only confirm for her that it was not okay, and might never be again.

Summer passes and one remembers older summers as a means of keeping time. Sparse bluets near the stone wall and chunks of enviable quartz. I am never not in the mind of oxen. Writing projects that cannot be completed in a matter of hours confuse me and always have.

Perhaps one day we will meet in a yarn store. I am less impressed with the interstate highway system than some people I know. The dog studies the rainy window, her mind drifting to an intensity I can barely imagine. Some women say yes, that’s all.

Resisting Christ by loving Jesus. One studies their need to be right and comes to a god that doesn’t want to be seen. Minor arpeggios, rose petals, breasts. The morning hour stultifies, and once again the prayerless men ascend their humming gallows.