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On Love and Justice

God knows of justice, not of penalty (T-29.IX.3:6).

Any sentence in A Course of Miracles can be the clear bell which summons us from a dream of separation and conflict to the quiet stillness of peace and fellowship.

This sentence from The Forgiving Dream (in The Awakening) will serve that function if we give it the space. The text of A Course in Miracles, like all the holy scriptures, from Ecclesiastes to Newton to Emily Dickinson, blossom in the nurturing light of attention.

That sentence exists – in the text and in this moment – so that we might remember that we have not been judged and found wanting by God. That is not what God is. No penalty attends us. Therefore, there is no need for self-defense through projection or attack of any kind. We can breathe. We can feed one another. We can give one another shelter.

Those seven words are a blessing and a promise: they bless us with forgiveness by assuring us that despite our interior fear and psychological fragmentation we have done nothing wrong; and they promise that we have something to offer our brothers and sisters: the very same forgiveness, which is seeing them in the light in which God sees us: innocent and in need of neither defense nor justification. We are each the other’s servant: here to help, because we are ourselves helped.

Those seven words intimate that together we might remember – even if only faintly, even if only briefly – the love by which the wholeness of life is given to us so that we might give it away in turn. Because we are loved without condition, we can love without condition. What else could Heaven possibly mean?

It is helpful to set aside time to remember our own holiness, our own perfection, our own capacity to be a healing presence in the collective. Not as a routine or a habit. Not as an obligation. Rather, we simply sit quietly in sunlight, or by a window while it rains, and let all thought come and go, taking with it its dreams of judgment, its dreams of terms and conditions, its dreams of who is welcome and who is not. We let that go and give attention to what remains without worrying too much about what – if anything – remains.

Letting all thought come and go does not mean to not have any thoughts: it means to see thought for what it is: images that arise in the mind, the way clouds are reflected in a still pond. No more and no more less. A thought only has the power we give it; if we simply watch it pass, then it passes.

Attention is not beholden to thought; thought is beholden to attention. It is important to see this. The world is saved and made safe(r) accordingly.

It is not necessary – nor possible really – to dwell forever in some meta-spiritual state of radiant inner peace. The laundry needs to be done, dinner needs to be made. Gardens need to be planted, deadlines met, dogs walked. It’s okay. This, too – this welter, this experience of being complex in a complex world – is just stillness from another angle.

It is like if you hold a prism one way it’s just a chunk of glass. But if you hold it another way, then rainbows dance all around you. But the prism is always a prism. Light is always just light.

So it is with the self; so it is with awakening. Seen one way it’s a state of radiant calm and certainty. Seen another, it’s a busy life being surfed with equal parts equanimity and when-will-I-get-to-sit-down.

That is the justice of God: that which appears is always simply that which appears. It is never better or worse than any other appearance. It is the same love through a different lens. We don’t even have to switch lenses.

There is no penalty because in the ultimate sense there is nothing to be right about and nothing to be wrong about. We aren’t at risk of condemnation. There is neither judge nor jury. There is no executioner. There aren’t even charges against us.

There is only this: this this.

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Merging Opposites as Spiritual Practice

The first paragraph in Sharing Perception with the Holy Spirit (in chapter 14: Teaching for Truth of A Course in Miracles) is a concise and insightful unit of writing. It begins with a simple question: What do you want? (T-14.VII.1:1)

Tara Singh used to say that when one reached a moment in the ACIM text or workbook where a question was posed, it behooved them to stop reading, quietly and interiorly attend the question, and then see what – if any – answer arose thereto.

We are students of A Course in Miracles because we want inner peace instead of conflict, but the problem is that we don’t know what peace is, we don’t really know what conflict is, and we can’t actually distinguish “inner” from “outer.” So we equate inner peace with good feelings: things going the way we want them to, getting this or that beneficial outcome, our brains quiet and our bodies at rest.

Happy outcomes, cheerful dispositions, and amenable material conditions are fine in and of themselves, but they come and go. When we attach to them – when we make our inner state contingent upon them as stable unshifting objects, even subtly – then we condemn ourselves to conflict.

So from time to time the course invites us to begin again or anew by asking us what we want. It’s like the abbot at the monastery calling us into her office and saying, look, what are you still doing here?

Taken in the right spirit, it’s a clarifying and helpful question.

To this question the course proposes a binary choice set first in a metaphorical frame and then in a more literal frame: Light or darkness, knowledge or ignorance. Both are options but we can only have one or the other (T-14.VII.1:2).

The course justifies this binary by pointing out that light dispels darkness – by degrees as the one is brought closer to the other – and that knowledge dispels ignorance in approximately the same way (T-14.VII.1:5). It is like saying that we can look at the apple hanging on the tree, or we can pluck the apple, but we cannot do both simultaneously. Both are options but the one mitigates the other.

Is this true? Analogy can cloud as much as clarify. We don’t have to take the course at its word. Part of what is so tempting about ACIM is its apparent purity: it’s all or nothing, light or dark, knowledge or ignorance. It can be comforting to see life so starkly; to imagine there is a right decision between only two choices; and then to be the one who chooses rightly. We can imagine God in the heavens – or Tara Singh or Nisargadatta in the afterlife – admiring our wisdom and holiness.

But we all know that both dawn and twilight are gradual, and that even the pure dark of night or pure light of day are not stable and permanent conditions but are subject to shifting, to gradations. Life does not really present as “either/or,” however much we wish it would, or pretend it does. It is a dynamic welter that includes – but cannot be stilled by – the appearance of binary options.

So is it possible to move beyond the apparent binary – the division into opposites that mandates choosing one over the other?

The course answers that question in the affirmative.

Opposites must be brought together, not kept apart. For their separation is only in your mind, and they are reconciled by union, as you are (T-14.VII.1:3-4).

The temptation is to see opposites as opposites and to hold them apart from one another. Night is not day, and vice-versa. One doesn’t merge them into something new altogether.

But oddly, the course implies that merging – undoing difference by seeing the mental conditioning upon which it depends for existence – is precisely what is called for.

Keep in mind that A Course in Miracles is not talking about literal dark and light here. Those are metaphors for knowledge and ignorance. And, again, it is not talking about knowledge in the sense of knowing how to bake bread or throw a baseball vs. not knowing how to do those things.

Knowledge in A Course in Miracles is a state in which there are no questions, nor one to ask questions, nor another to ask questions of. Ignorance is the belief that there is a self whose existence is at stake in the world, and other selves – most especially a big Self in the sky – who can either help or hinder us, and against whom we are pitched in opposition.

So how might this merging contemplated by the course work?

It is possible to bring apparent opposites together because their separateness is in the mind (T-14.VII.1:4). The divisions we perceive are ideas. When I walk in the forest and come upon the boundary between my land and my neighbor’s land, what do I find? There is no line. Just oak and maple trees, the same on either side. Just bracken. The deer tracks and the fox tracks go back and forth. It is all one forest, all one earth, all one solar system, et cetera.

Division is an idea; it is not an embodied fact.

Another way to think of it is to return to the analogy of dusk and dawn. If we sit quietly at either end of the day, and give attention to the light, it will be clear that although the light is always in this or another state, it is never only in that state. It shifts. Absent a clock, there is no one moment where it is clearly “night” as opposed to “dusk” or “twilight.”

It is the same with dawn. There is a moment when the sun breaches the eastern hills, a moment when the trees at the far end of the pasture are faintly – then less and less faintly – visible, but all of this is a movement. Absent a clock, there is no “dawn” or “morning.” To say other wise is arbitrary.

What is there then?

There is light according to the reference point of perception: your senses attest to the data they are given, which is always being given.

Perception is the medium by which ignorance is brought to knowledge. Yet the perception must be without deceit, for otherwise it becomes the messenger of ignorance rather than a helper in the search for truth (T-14.VII.1:7-8).

To be “without deceit” in this respect is simply to give attention to what arises, or appears, or is perceived (which includes thoughts about what arises or appears or is perceived) without getting worked up about it. Let it be what it appears to be: an apple tree, a horse, a daughter, the sound of the river, the smell of lilac, a memory of a parent, a mental note to send an email to so-and-so.

We don’t want to lie to ourselves about our bodies or our senses – how they function, what appears through and with and to them. We don’t want to fake some vague spiritual ideal or try to conform to some abstract religious image. We want to be as present as possible to what is given, which includes our ideas about who is giving what to whom, and just let it all come and go. It’s okay; it’s more than okay.

This being open to experience as it is given is the merging of what appears to be in opposition. This gently sustained attention is the merger contemplated by A Course in Miracles.

What happens when we do this? At the end of day, say, when we are sitting quietly in the changing light? Or walking in the forest without troubling ourselves with ideological divisions that inhere only in the possessive and appropriative mind?

The suggestion is that what happens is that the whole of what appears is the union of light and dark, and if we are very careful (filled with care) about not rushing to judge this or name it or anything like that, then we will see clearly – we will know – that the reference point we are in that moment is not apart from that union. What appears as the self is no different than the light and the dark.

In union, everything that is not real must disappear, for truth is union. As darkness disappears in light, so ignorance fades away when knowledge dawns (T-14.VII.1:5-6).

Yes, there is a point where it is dark, and yes, there is a point where it is light, but those are points relative to a seeming center. That center is forever spilling into and out of itself: it cannot ultimately be discerned apart from the perceptions that appear to point back to it. As perceptions come and go (which they must) the so-called center – the radial self – also comes and goes.

Does anything remain? The course suggests that Truth does not come and go. Broadly speaking, the Christian tradition – especially in its more ontological expressions  – suggests that God does not come and go. Christ does not come and go. But these are just ideas, aren’t they? Clever sentences that arise in perception?

Let us say carefully that “Truth” (or “God” or “Knowledge” or “Source”) is the existing union of the apparent many points, the gently undulating fabric of them, with countless centers forever coming and going. It knows itself. You, too.

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Empathy and A Course in Miracles

I have become curious lately: when I am judgmental towards another (angry, fearful, vengeful et cetera), why that and not empathy?

That is, when someone is behaving in a way that offends or troubles me, why do I see only the misbehaving other? Why do I not see myself?

When I am judgmental in a way that creates inner conflict, it hurts me. Sometimes the pain is obvious and intense, sometimes subtle and mild – but there is always a sense of being hurt or unsettled.

It often feels to me like rejection: like being pushed away from the fire or out of the cave, like being asked to walk out into the desert alone. “You don’t belong with us – go away.”

And yet, I am the one doing the pushing – I am the one saying (interiorly or otherwise) to the other, “you don’t belong – get away.”

Is this clear?

Say the man at the register asks me twice if I brought my own bags, rolls his eyes when I say I forgot, sighs audibly pulling out a paper bag for my food. I am embarrassed at my ecological oversight, angry to at being called out on it in public, and insulted that this young man would speak and behave this way to someone at least a quarter century older than he is . . .

Is this clear? My feelings are hurt by his behavior so I judge him: I cast him out. This is not how people behave in the world.

Yet I am the one feeling the pain. I am the one feeling alone. I am the one who is hurt. Why?

Because I reacted with judgment rather than responding with empathy, and in doing so I endorsed the separation between self and other. Of course it hurts me. That is what the separation is.

What would that scene resemble if I felt empathy? If I laid judgment aside and empathized? That is, what if I perceived the other judging me and saw only my own capacity to judge others and, knowing how much that judgment hurts and how it preserves and nurtures the separative life, opted simply to let it pass. Perhaps I thank the cashier for reminding me of the importance of conserving precious resources. Perhaps I simply stand quietly by, allowing my own reactions (my own judgments) to dissipate.

Empathy is just a way of seeing the other as our self – not in a mystical or magical way. Just in a very matter-of-fact way. Whatever they’re doing wrong, we see how we do that too sometimes and in some ways. We see how, in this sense, we are truly one mind.

Neither your brother or yourself can be attacked alone. But neither can accept a miracle instead without the other being blessed by it, and healed of pain . . . The power to heal the Son of God is given you because he must be one with you (T-21.VI.7:1-2, 4).

When this “one mind” – this shared mind – is seen clearly, it is easy to see how judgment (executed through projection and denial) hurts both us and the people we so casually label as “other.” And so the motivation to do things differently also arises.

You are your brother’s savior. He is yours (T-21.VI.9:1-2).

Salvation is a way of thinking – or, more accurately, of relating to thought, in which that which is not separate is not perceived as separate. What follows in the realm of action is somewhat beside the point.

In the example of the cashier, what I do in response to the cashier is not really the point. The point is noticing my own judgment, my own lack of empathy, and being willing to have that undone, and giving attention to it so that it can be undone. Right there in the moment.

That you and your brother are joined is your salvation; the gift of Heaven, not the gift of fear . . . The Son of God is always blessed as one (T-21.VI.8:1, 10:1).

When we are empathetic – when we perceive with clarity our shared mind, and tend to it as we would tend our own child – then we become grateful. Gratitude begets peace, and peace begets yet more gratitude. That is a nice cycle to offer the world. And it it ours to both give and receive.

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ACIM Drama: A Pep Talk

When I briefly explored one-to-one teaching of A Course in Miracles a few years ago, I found that people were not really interested in the course so much as they wanted strategies for dealing with what was coming up in their lives. Questions about work, family, health, psychological wellness . . .

I thought it would be about working through certain course ideas – the specific language and mythology and so forth – but it was much more in the nature of traditional talk therapy. When this became clear, I stopped doing “teaching.” But still, it was an interesting space, because it reflected back to me my own concerns.

Basically, we all want to be happy and at peace, and our lives are really an intense pursuit of those ideals. We want solutions or fixes – preferably quick, preferably painless. A Course in Miracles can be the solution or fix, but it tends not to be quick and painless. Quite the opposite actually, especially when we really begin to practice it.

Still, that isn’t to say that strategies for responding to what arises can’t be helpful. For example, we can decline to be drama kings or queens.

Whatever is going on around you – big stuff, little stuff, family stuff, professional stuff – just be the person who isn’t freaking out. Be helpful and kind, and remember that helpfulness and kindness often boil down to not interfering. Sometimes we just have to sit or stand calmly by and let things unfold. Sometimes our best contribution is to not make any contribution at all.

Of course we are not always going to be able to do this. Nobody is perfect. We are all human and that means that we make mistakes and get confused. It’s okay. Forgiveness can mean just letting our humanness be what it is without a lot of drama. We don’t have to change anything; we just have to see it all clearly as it is given to us.

Giving attention is a form of being present without actually interfering. It is “to see it all clearly as it is given to us.” Just see what is happening. And remember that part of what is happening is your internal judgments: this is good, that’s bad, I should do this, that person should do that.

Just let all that be too. It comes and goes, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t build a house on what comes and goes, so don’t rest your self on it either. Just let it be. Be homeless. If you are okay in your spiritual homelessness, then you will become a home for others.

It’s a way of being helpful: just being the calm one, not needing to assert anything or become anything or announce anything. People need that, even if they don’t know it’s what they need. They gravitate towards it.

Of course you are going to feel sorrow and fear and confusion and so forth. Those are inner feelings and like everything else they come and go. They are like clouds in the sky, right? The clouds drift and change shape and color, and sometimes get very close and threatening and sometimes are very far away and majestic, and yet the sky is always just there. It is unaffected by the clouds. It holds them all equally. The clouds are dramatic; the sky isn’t.

So the suggestion is to model the sky, and not get worked up about what is happening, other than to just notice it as it happens. If there is some action you need to take, it will take itself for you, and you will just be carried along with it.

That is what the world needs, really. People who are quiet and still, who are not feeding the machine, who aren’t trying to be saviors, who are okay with being the sky when everyone else is cloudy. We can do a lot of good simply by withdrawing from the race to define and then implement goodness.

Goodness – kindness, lovingkindness – is what we are. The work is to get out of the way and let life be. It isn’t even work really. It’s more like not working. It is like we are flailing in stormy seas and hear a voice that says “stop – don’t move – be still.”

And we are like, “fuck that – I’ll drown.”

But then after a while we get so tired we stop flailing, and instantly the seas are calmed, and there is sandy ground right beneath our feet, and we see the chaos and conflict was all in our heads, all imaginary, and that this still calm is our real home, and it’s not a place but a condition, and it is always available, always with us. The drama was on our end; it wasn’t inherent.

So that is a strategy for approaching the world and our lives in it: just slow down, give attention, and don’t be dramatic. Then the so-called work of being an ACIM student – study, inquiry, dialogue, stabilization – can proceed apace.

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Forgetfulness and A Course in Miracles

To remember is merely to restore to your mind what is already there (T-10.II.3:1).

This is an important concept, integral to practicing A Course in Miracles. We aren’t really learning anything – as in acquiring missing information in order to reassemble a puzzle. We are simply remembering what we know but forgot.

Yet I want to propose another level to that previous sentence and say: we are simply remembering what we know but forgot and forgot we forgot.

We could think of it like this. Say that we are lost and want to go home. We know that we have a home – we can picture it and so forth – but we don’t know where we are, so we can’t say how to find our home.

Therefore, we seek familiar landmarks, ask for directions, buy a map, steer by the moon and sun and so forth.

That’s how “know but forgot” works. There are strategies we can use to regain – to remember – what is lost.

Now say that we are lost. And we want to go home but we forgot where our home is. And we forgot we forgot where our home is.

In that case, we can’t even say we are “lost.” We don’t know even that basic fact about our condition, let alone have any idea how to devise a strategy for becoming unlost.

Our experience of separation is like that. We are not separated but we have forgotten this fact and we have forgotten that we forgot.

Therefore, separation appears normal. It appears “right.” Of course we are individuated bodies housing discrete selves with agency and intention. Of course there is a world “out there” filled with other bodies. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong, deluded, confused, et cetera.

The thing is, there is always within separation a nagging feeling that something is off. By and large, we attribute this feeling to external causes – the wrong political leaders, the wrong romantic partners, wrong diet and exercise choices, rain when we wanted sun, sun when the garden needed rain . . .

But addressing those external glitches never fully resolves the nagging feeling. Yoga, meditation, Nisargadatta, Thomas Merton, the Law of Attraction, EFT, peyote, Tantric sex . . .

They all work a little some of the time. And some of the time they work a lot.

But that quiet interior sense that something is amiss – just a hair’s breadth off – persists.

For some of us – certainly for me – A Course in Miracles showed up as yet another external solution. It was the latest variant in a familiar pattern of grasping at outside solutions to what clearly seemed to be external problems.

Yet by studying the course, and bringing it into application in my life, and by following its directives even when (perhaps especially when) they pointed beyond the course, eventually I remembered that I forgot that I knew.

And so the issue became not one of external solutions to external problems, but of internal solutions to the only problem there is.

Rather than devolve into metaphysics, let me point to a helpful moment of insight in this regard. Sometimes biography is helpful.

Years ago I was driving home from teaching and feeling very agitated about a particularly vexing relationship. I really wanted it to no longer be such a bothersome presence, but getting to that juncture felt as likely as me building a rocket and flying it alone to the moon.

As I drove, I passed a big field and noticed deer grazing near the tree line. I pulled over and watched them for a few minutes. It was peaceful and quiet and still.

When I began driving again, I realized that the vexing relationship which had dominated the past forty-five minutes of driving had been absent the whole time I was gazing at the deer. It was as if it literally did not exist.

And yet, now it was here again – in all its vexatious glory.

And yet, if I turned in an interior way to the deer at dusk again, then the relationship dissolved.

In one fell swoop the healing power of attention revealed itself. And I saw clearly that the issue was this: since we can’t not give attention, why not give it intentionally?

That was my introduction to attention, and my life – in all its experiential variety (spiritual, artistic, parental, culinary, sexual, student, teacher, gardener, walker, whatever) – has not been the same since.

Attention became the new teacher and A Course in Miracles – its many texts, teachers, conflicts and insights – receded. Nobody who’s staring at the moon needs a finger to point out the moon.

This is why I urge people – when there is a shared space of consensual learning – to let go of ACIM and all its metaphysics, poetry, conflicts and so forth and just give attention.

What shows up? How does it show up? What is included? what is excluded? What does attention want? Where does it begin? Does it have an end? It is responsive? To what or to whom? Does it think? Is it playful?

And so forth.

Unless you first know something you cannot dissociate it. Knowledge must precede dissociation, so that dissociation is nothing more than a decision to forget (T-10.II.1:1-2).

Attention is not the end of the spiritual inquiry. There is work to do with respect to subject and object, the observer and the observed, the role of relationship, effective means of stabilizing insight and so forth.

But attention can be the end of forgetting. It can undo the pernicious consequences of our “decision to forget” and attend in a helpful nurturing way our emerging wakefulness.

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Helpful Spiritual Junctures

For a long time I wanted to be right about A Course in Miracles. Eventually, this desire was superseded by the recognition that what actually mattered was helpfulness. If studying Gary Renard was helpful to someone, what did it matter if I thought he was peddling lies?

A focus on helpfulness is sustainable because in an important sense there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong.” Therefore, efforts to reach and remain with “right” conclusions are hindrances to inner peace.

From the perspective of the body, this is confusing. After all, we can all point to “right” ideas, theories, practices and so forth. We can all point to “wrong” ones, too. Adopting advantageous positions is what the body is all about.

But, in terms of wholeness, the body’s perspective is ipso facto not the whole. It is partial, fragmented. It emerges from and reconfirms separation. Whatever it knows – whatever thought, opinion, idea that it adopts – is by definition also partial and fragmented.

Whenever you think you know, peace will depart from you, because you have abandoned the Teacher of Peace. Whenever you fully realize that you know not, peace will return, for you will have invited Him to do so by abandoning the ego on behalf of Him (T-14.XI.13:3-4).

“Him” in this quote refers to the Holy Spirit, which is undivided present moment awareness.

None of this is to say that we cannot be relatively “right” or “wrong.” In fact, from the body’s fragmented perspective, we can’t not be relatively “right” or “wrong.” But it is important not to confuse “relative” with “absolute.”

Most of us – in our quest for certainty – confuse “relative” with “absolute.”

It is important to see that our quest for certainty is doomed by virtue of that which quests for it. The only certainty is uncertainty. In a real sense, our home – such as it is – rests in not-knowing, in un-certainty.

What A Course in Miracles calls “separation” is simply our resistance to this fact.

If we look into this, we notice that part of bodily experience includes forming maps by which we navigate life. Maps are basically stored collated judgments: civic responsibility matters, God is real and Jesus is his son, greed is a sin, eat vegetarian, college degrees matter/don’t matter, climate change is a myth, floss your teeth, do yoga, don’t tell lies, et cetera.

It’s hard to stake out this or that ground (i.e., put together a map) and not feel like it needs to be defended. After all, it’s our map, it’s vital to our bodily experience and it’s only useful if it’s right. Nobody wants an inaccurate or altogether wrong map. Nobody should be surprised that we feel protective of them.

Often, defending our map means attacking those whose maps appear different, where “attack” means “point out they’re wrong,” however subtly, passive-aggressively, etc. For example, somebody might say that A Course in Miracles and the Dzogchen tradition of Buddhism are synonymous. For them that’s a coherent and helpful map. But your map requires that the course be Christian without any deviation into eastern philosophy or theology.

So you start arguing with them. Maybe you do this to their face, maybe you do it an online setting, and maybe you just do it in your head. The point isn’t the form the argument takes; it’s the existence of the argument at all.

We only argue because we believe something real is at stake. We only argue because we believe something real is threatened.

But “nothing real can be threatened” and “nothing unreal exists” (In.2:2-3).

Thus, once we’re in the space of argument, we’re doubling down on our perception of separation. And to be separate is to be conflicted, and conflict by definition is the absence of peace.

That is why it behooves us to investigate this issue so carefully.

Again, the maps themselves are not the problem; they inhere in bodily experience. They can and should be taken seriously; but too often they are taken literally.

This distinction (taking something seriously vs. taking it literally) matters. For example, in a dialogue about spirituality, “wholeness,” “oneness” and “nonduality” can all point to the same insight. But they can also all point to radically different insights. If we take them literally, we deny their potential for sameness. Yet when we take them seriously but not literally, their potential for sameness clarifies. When this broad applicability is seen clearly, the inclination to argue that one application is absolutely or inherently better than another – is right and the other(s) wrong – largely subsides.

In other words, when we look closely at the premise of our inclination to argue in order to be right, there is a lot of smoke but no fire.

So the important aspect of our maps – whether they are spiritual, cognitive, semantic, et cetera – is their helpfulness, not their “rightness” or “wrongness.” “Right” and “wrong” are distractions. Helpfulness is a form of love because its focus isn’t on form but content.

Another way to think of it is this popular optical illusion.

two_women_optical_illusionWhen we first look at it, we see an older woman. Naturally, we say “this is an image of an older woman.” It seems to be a very defensible position. We are obviously “right.” If someone else comes along and says “no – it’s actually an image of a young woman,” of course we are going to disagree.

But if we keep looking, eventually the image flips – perception aligns differently – and now we see the young woman.

One image that can be seen two ways – both cannot be seen at once; and neither is more or less right than the other. So what happens to our argument that the image is of an old and not a young woman? It dissolves; it’s no longer sustainable. It’s obviously both at once, even though we can only see one at a time.

It’s not that anybody won the argument. It’s not that both sides were “right” (thus allowing for some hypothetical “wrong”). It’s that there are no grounds for argument in the first case.

The suggestion in this analogy is that our sense of being a discrete embodied self is somewhat like that: you can see it from a strictly material perspective (we’re bodies having an experience in the world with other bodies) but that is not the only way to see it. You can see it from myriad religious perspectives (Hindu, Buddhist, et cetera) or from scientific perspectives (Schrödinger is a good read in this regard) or from a post-structuralist perspective (Karen Baraft, say), or from any combination thereof.

Again, the point is not that there is a right or a wrong way to see (or think) about things. The point is that all we can really know is unknowability; there is nothing to be certain about except uncertainty. So the question is: is what shows up helpful or not helpful?

Obviously the spiritual inquiry does not end when we see this clearly. But it is a helpful juncture.

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Life Requires No Rehearsal

Life does not require rehearsal: it executes itself perfectly continuously, never pausing to reconsider, never begging a do-over. This does not mean that our response will always be one of pleasure or amusement or enjoyment; it might be the opposite.

But our response is just more of life happening: whatever label we assign it, it’s still just life.

bracken

bracken just shy of the river . . .

This is simply a way of saying that what is is what is: it’s this and nothing else. This is all there is. This this, and not any other this.

When we give attention to what unfolds or appears – to what is – it is always there. We are giving attention to what is given to us, in the sense that we do not have to invent or create or amend it. Here is the world, and every one and every thing in it, and every thought and idea about it – given, continuously, without condition or qualification.

We don’t get ready for life because life is always already ready for us. Life lives us; not the other way around. When we observe what is given, we are there too – our thoughts and ideas, our feelings and memories, our habits and appetites, our fears and our hopes.

That which constitutes “us” and that which constitutes “life” are not different. It is like a single river flowing. There are all these eddies, flowing and following their flow, but they’re still just the river.

Someone might say, well, we can practice at certain aspects of living. We can improve at them. That’s a form of rehearsal, no?

It’s a fair point. I am a better writer today than I was twenty years ago because I write consciously daily, study other writers, and so forth.

I am more patient today because I have observed the consequences of impatience, which motivated me to observe the conditions giving rise to it in order to train myself to respond to those conditions differently, more patiently.

But even in the moment of all this “practice,” what is life doing? It is certainly not waiting on me to be more patient or to write in a better way. My “practice” is just life being life. In that moment – in any moment – what else can life be?

What happens subsequently – as a consequence of practice – is always only a dream, in the sense that it’s not here presently, while what is happening presently – what is here presently – is always complete and whole. Nothing is ever absent, even when the present is comprised of longing for what is absent.

Be honest. Can you find one moment of your life which is not complete and whole?

Don’t tell me of a time when you were sad or angry or hurt or otherwise put out. In the moment of your sorrow, your sorrow was perfect, was it not? When you looked at it clearly, was it not there in rich and vibrant and resonant plenitude?

And was your resistance to it not also perfect – full and strong, crackling with judgment? And your dislike – wasn’t that perfect as well? Clear and disdainful, like a well-lit middle finger?

Consider that sorrow and joy are like one sea – when seen in this light, the sea is dull and green and flat. When seen in another light, it is blue and throbbing, spitting salty spray.

The same thing seen two ways according to perceptual circumstances: just so with what we call happiness and grief.

Thus, there is nothing to be done. It is all unfolding precisely – perfectly – as it does. Which is another way of saying that one can do anything: bake bread, pray the rosary, give your honey a massage, go walking in the forest, write a letter, remove a splinter.

If you look at what is happening, there it is happening, and your looking is as much a part of “it” as that which is looked at.

There is nothing special or unusual about this! No training required, no secret handshake. No learning or healing, no willing or choosing. No God or Jesus or other divinity, east or west, large or small, needs to intervene.

This right now – this this – is sufficient unto wonder and delight.

Life is expert; life is prepared; life is performing on the high black wire without a net, no pole for balance, and no cameras taking note. We hold our breath, clasp our hands, turn earnestly to scriptural babble. We think we’re not ready, that we don’t deserve it, but we are and we do.

And really, how could it be otherwise? Can you find even the slimmest of slim spaces between you and life?

Of course not.

This is it: and so are you.

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Against Declarations of Oneness

We are not prohibited from making observations about experience. Obviously it lends itself to that phenomenon – talking about what shows up, judging it, interacting with it, ignoring it, et cetera.

But this is not the same as being outside experience in order to evaluate it as a whole.

Imagine I am on the dance floor dancing. I can talk about the swirl of bodies, the mirror ball overhead, the pulsating music but I cannot simultaneously be floating high above the dance floor perceiving it as a whole.

New_England_back_road

Clouds floating over the road on the other side of the river . . . half our walk . . . the image is whole unto itself but reflects only a fragment of the whole walk . . .

When I am in the experience, I am ipso facto perceiving only a fragment of it.

Experience is local. We can say a lot about our localized experience, and doing so can be fun, interesting and even helpful, but we are by definition precluded from standing apart from that experience and offering a global or absolute analysis of it.

It seems like we can do this, because experience is whole unto itself. The fragment always appears as if it is all there is. But no matter how convincing, it is always only partial.

It’s important not to conflate the sense of allness that the fragment implies with “oneness” itself. It’s true that when we give attention to experience it is seamless and vivid and its boundaries cannot be reached. It has no apparent edges. In that sense, it is everything. There is nothing else.

But in another sense, it is the ultimate trap because we can’t get outside it in order to say what it is or where it comes from. It’s impossible to be on the outside of experience – if we are experiencing something, then we are by definition “in” experience.

So what is the source of experience? Of beingness? What is it in truth?

We can’t say. Maybe it’s just consciousness. Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s just the way the human brain works. Maybe it seems mysterious but it’s actually not.

If we can’t say, then what we are left with is uncertainty. And we don’t really like that. We resist uncertainty. But does it really help to pretend that what is uncertain is certain? We can tell ourselves it is certain – and be very convincing and persuasive – but underneath we’ll know we’re lying.

So there is this experience – this sense of being – and it’s undeniable (because you would have to be in order to deny being) – but what it is we can’t say in a definitive final way. Maybe it’s oneness but maybe it’s just what life is: a bunch of bodies temporarily sharing space, trying to be kind and patient, succeeding and failing, and so forth.

The point is to give attention to direct experience, not to our ideas and opinions about that experience. For the moment, those are distractions. What is interesting is examining being/experience as it is given to us, as it appears to us right here, right now.

The suggestion is that to the extent we can reach some conclusion – via rigorous philosophical inquiry, poetic musings along the lines of Barks’ bastardized Rumi, spiritual platitudes culled from popular texts like the bible or A Course in Miracles – then we are not present to what is given.

Instead, we are present to a translative substitute of our own making because the reality is too terrifying to behold on its own merits. It’s not so terrifying actually, but it does seem to be, and seems is still what makes the ongoing drama go.

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The End of Individuation

When Brutus stabs Caesar, is this the same event as when Brutus kills Caesar?

sugaring

It is that time of year . . .

That’s a classic philosophical question used by thinkers studying the question of whether and how events are individuated – that is, separated from one another. Is it a question of time and space? Intention? Changes in the states of the actors/objects? What?1

The value of questions like these lies not in answering them correctly, but simply in asking them in a serious and care-filled way and then seeing what happens. In my experience, attention given to good questions deepens and enriches – and thus stabilizes – present moment awareness.

What if I reframe the Brutus/Caesar question: is the blue jay flying through the backyard a different event from my observing the blue jay flying through the backyard?

Let’s say it is different. After all, the blue jay’s flight is not contingent on my viewing it. Blue Jays can fly hither and yon without any consideration for what I’m looking at or even whether I’m present at all.

The blue jay doesn’t need me to see it flying in order to fly.

Moreover, observation isn’t contingent on what is observed. Looking is looking, regardless of what is seen. Observation doesn’t change because the observed object is a blue jay rather than a chickadee, or a chickadee rather than a pickup truck.

I don’t need a blue jay in order to observe.

Thus, there is a pretty good case to be made that the blue jay’s flight through the back yard is different – is separate from – my observing the blue jay’s flight.

Now let’s say the blue jay’s flight and my observing the blue jay are the same event. The argument might go like this: where is the space between the flight of the blue jay and the observer watching the flight?

It’s important to understand that this question is not about the space between the observer and the blue jay. That space is part of what is observed. It is included in the image.

river_in_march

How blue the river is at a distance in March . . .

Even though space appears empty – and essentially invisible – it is still there. Distance is observable.

So the question is, in the given moment – me sitting on the back porch and a blue jay is flying through the back yard – is there a gap between the observed and the observer? Does the observation include any perceptible separation?

Focus on the experience as it is given: where is the gap? What does it look like? Feel like?

Isn’t “the gap” – if it exists – an idea? Isn’t it a concept?

Direct experience permits no boundary between experience and experiencer. It’s all one movement or flux. It’s just experience: this experience.

But at the level of idea – or concept – separation enters.

Most of us – faced with the blue jay question – experience no separation but mentally insist on separation and then try to force that concept on experience which is fundamentally not amenable.

It is like going to the movies and seeing Jaws. Fifteen minutes into the movie we start telling the people around us not to go swimming. “But we’re in a movie theater,” they point out. “It’s just a movie.”

And we point smugly to the screen where yet another attack is taking place. “See?” we say smugly. “Stay out of the water.”

It is important to see disconnect (or incoherence) and – even more importantly – to ask what its effects are, whether those effects are helpful or unhelpful, and what – if anything – can be done with respect to them.

pasture_by_river

Where the pasture reaches the river . . . nice walking here . . .

Separation is a mental response to unity. That’s all it is. And the more seriously we take it, and the more ardently we defend it and attack those who don’t buy into it, the more “real” this unreality seems.

Put A Course in Miracles aside – put every teacher and spiritual method aside – and just look into this. Just give attention.

Can we see the way that Life is whole? And can we see the way that “me” or “I” as a separate entity is just bad logic enshrined as truth?

Thought isn’t the problem. The body isn’t the problem. Time and space aren’t the problem. Our spiritual practice or lack thereof isn’t the problem.

The problem is we are buying into bad reasoning. We are buying into it and doubling down on it. We are a major investor in a bum deal and are ignoring literally everything that suggests we might to cut our losses and try another way.

So that is the suggestion: to give attention, see what happens and – as resistance arises – simply ask: are we happy with the results we’re getting? Is it perhaps not time for another way?

1. I am not really going into this question. I am using it to springboard into an overall attitude towards questioning as spiritual practice. If you are interested in studying the individuation of events, this is a good overview of the field and fresh approach to thinking about it.

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What is Given is Given Equally

(Note: all photographs these days are taken by my daughter Fionnghuala)

It can be helpful to see the way in which everything is given equally (or appears equally), and how the extent to which there appears to be inequality is essentially a function of our narrative impulse.

village_view

The village from the far side of the river . . .

Imagine someone places on the table before you a chocolate cupcake with lemon frosting, a pocket atlas of the United States, and a severed hand.

After you’ve given them a little attention and judged them – cupcake tantalizing, atlas meh, hand gross – you are told that the cupcake is actually hand-carved, hand-painted bamboo from an artist whose subject is food and whose mode is realism. The pocket atlas was used by a white supremacist to locate black churches in which to plant and detonate bombs. The hand is a remnant of an emergency surgery that saved a child’s life.

So maybe now your judgment goes like this:

Cupcake: still beautiful but less accessible (can’t eat it, probably can’t afford it);
Atlas: Frightening, offensive and sad; and
Hand: Still gross but very grateful a child will live.

Our sense of things is different when we have a story to go with them. In a lot of ways, the story supercedes the image. We tend to trust narrative more than the perception – the images – out of which narrative rises.

We really like a good story.

It is helpful to see this clearly and, with respect to how it plays out in experience, to have some intimacy with it.

Basically we can ask these questions: What is given? What is narrative – how is it given? And what is the relationship between narrative and what is given, if any?

river_flow_village

The river flowing east behind the village towards our home.

The focus in these questions is on experience – on what is here. We are looking at the moment and the way it is showing up.

I said earlier that everything is given equally. Consider the cupcake, the atlas and the hand again. They all appear in the same way – are held by the same gaze – and subject to the same perceptual process. That is what I mean by “given equally.”

It is like saying that a rose and cat litter box smell different, but smelling itself is not different based on whether you’re sniffing a rose or a litter box. In that sense, the rose and the cat litter are “given equally.”

Two observations. First, you might say okay, they may be given equally, but roses and cat litter are waaay different.

That’s a fair point we’ll get to in a second.

The other observation is that science makes clear that, in fact, with respect to our senses that everything is not given equally. Our senses, in conjunction with our fast-processing brain, overlook stuff all the time.

And even with respect to what we are aware of, it’s not actually a cupcake, atlas and hand – in truth, it’s just a bunch of atoms.

walking

Walking with Chrisoula & the kids on the road behind the river . . . 

Those are also good points but at this juncture they are actually distractions. They imply that we are pursuing truth or reality – that we want to be right about what we see and how we talk about it.

But the point of the exercise is not to be right – it’s simply to be aware of experience as it is given, as it is showing up. Even if it is a lie, or an illusion, or somehow other than how it appears, it is still here. It is still what is showing up.

We are giving attention to experience as experience is given. Just that.

When we do this, sooner or later, we are going to have to wrestle with the appearance or presence of narrative. That’s the first point mentioned above – that cat litter and roses are two totally different things. Narrative does that – gives these two appearances names, judges them, and so forth. There is whatever is showing up – whatever is given – but it includes (or sure seems to include) narrative.

In other words, how can we see a tree apart from – or prior to – all our ideas about a tree? In what way are the stories we tell – or that are being told and of which we are aware – separate from what else appears?

Is it not all one movement, one flux, one welter?

Seeing the way narrative and observation appear intertwined is the point of the exercise. Narrative does change what we see. It is entangled. But how? To what degree?

We really have to answer these questions for ourselves. When we look at a tree, what happens? Where and how and when do ideas about the tree show up? Where do they come from? Is there some agency involved – some “self” that is making decisions about what to think?

Is someone or something in charge? How do we know? How can – or should we even – talk about this?

New_England_hills

Hills, the far side of which Emily Dickinson once gazed at . . .

Reading about all this stuff is fun and interesting, and I do it a lot, but it’s also important to just hunker down and give attention, and find out for ourselves what’s going on, what it means, and where we are in all of it.

When I began to study giving attention – when I was unexpectedly made welcome at that strange little school – that was really the first lesson. In some respects it’s the only lesson: “nobody can do this for you, so get cracking.”

Spiritual paths can become crutches very quickly. A Course in Miracles functions this way for many students, me included. The going gets tough for whatever reason and we default to course lingo and ideology. “This is an illusion,” “bodies aren’t real,” “sickness is wrong-minded thinking,” et cetera.

And, when we do that, we tend to invoke our preferred spiritual teachers, parroting their words as if they are our own. Ken Wapnick, Tara Singh, Sri Aurobindo, Thomas Merton . . .

To the extent there’s anything “wrong” with this, it’s that we stop looking at our actual experience in favor of a model of experience built by thought. Confusing models for that which is modeled is akin to confusing the map for the territory. It leads to incoherence and conflict.

So a point came – for me, a little over eighteen months ago – when it became necessary to “let go” of the course in order to see (or begin to see, maybe) that to which the course was pointing. The practice was no longer to study and apply a particular method, but to simply give attention in a sustained and gentle way without worrying about what attention was being given to.

Eventually, all this “giving attention” or “noticing” arrives at a basic question: who or what is giving attention?

In a lot of ways, that is the whole game. That is the question. Answer it – or see why it cannot be answered – and that’s it. Game over (or game dissolved).

farm_bridges

A succession of bridges – one covered – by the old dairy farm . . .

In my experience, that inquiry (who or what is giving attention) is easier to handle when approached slowly and with care. I think of it like this: the morning of my wedding, I shaved more attentively and carefully, than on the morning before (or after).

That is the kind of care and attention to which I am referring. I want to bring it to the inquiry, and this means that I want to go slow enough to notice when I am parroting Ken Wapnick or Tara Singh. Am I just repeating what someone else said?

I want to notice when I am trying to sound slick and smart. Am I using phrases like “the divine et cetera” or pretending Nisargadatta’s insights are mine? Am I giving up under the guise of science – “well, it’s all atoms and algorithms and I can’t do math, so screw it?”

Those are clues that I am not earnestly looking at at what is given. I’m in denial and on repeat.

This “giving attention” thing is not easy. A lot that masquerades as insight is just the same old same-old wearing a new mask. And it’s not a problem really. It, too, is given. But there is a tendency to use it as a form of consenting to distraction. It’s good to notice what thought is up to, but it’s not good to get so invested in it that we don’t notice anything else.

The inquiry is more important than what shows up. Even the many insights that arrive – and there are some lovely and helpful ones, like bright stars in the sky – are going to pass eventually. So we just sit and let them pass, and notice their passage.

That is a nice metaphor, actually. We are just star-gazers. We’re just sitting quietly letting the sky be the sky. And soon enough, realize we aren’t looking “at” the sky – we are “in” the sky.

And then realize that there is nobody looking – there is only looking. There is only this. This this.

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