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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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Politics and A Course in Miracles

I had a nice long talk once with an individual who teaches ACIM professionally. They were smart and committed, and had reflected a lot on their practice and comprehension of A Course in Miracles. I learned a lot.

Near the end, this individual advised me to stop following politics and to stop being politically active. The premise of politics was conflict which meant you had to choose sides. Therefore it was dualistic and incompatible with a nondual spiritual practice such as A Course in Miracles.

It was not the first time I heard some variation of that argument; nor was it the last. When conflict arises, course students often retreat to ideals of nondualism as a way of not looking closely at what is going on.

This is an understandable impulse, and I am not immune to it. It is hard to be in the midst of conflict without trying to solve it or get away from it, and it is also hard to look at the disagreeable material evoked by conflict.

Spiritualizing resistance and denial is always easier than getting our hands dirty.

The teacher who as telling me to turn away from politics was really saying two things. First, they were asking me to validate their experience by replicating it.

Second, they were tracking a thought process that went approximately like this:

a. Following politics and engaging in political action is stressful;
b. I don’t like stress;
c. Therefore stress is bad;
d. Therefore, stress isn’t spiritual;
e. I am spiritual so I can’t be stressed;
f. I need to remove politics from my experience, but I can’t admit to the stress because that undermines my sense of myself as spiritual;
g. Therefore, I’ll say politics is dualistic and incompatible with ACIM; so that
h. Turning away from politics is what authentic and correct ACIM students do.

This (torturous) logic mirrors in many ways a thought process I have indulged many times over the years. It is not unfamiliar; it is (somewhat) easily remedied.

Going forward, this post has two themes:

1. If X stresses you out, then stop doing X. “It stresses me out” is a perfectly fine reason to stop doing something; and

2. You can be political and a student of A Course in Miracles.

An interesting exercise is to sit quietly for an hour or so and give attention to what happens. Don’t worry about what happens; just notice it.

Now don’t notice it. Don’t have any experience. Just stop. Don’t get off the train, stop the train – and the tracks and the earth on which the tracks lie and the galaxy through which the earth spins, and . . .

You can’t do it. This is the most important thing I learned in the School of Giving Attention. Whatever we want to call it, however we want to explain it, whatever we want to do with it, there is something going on. Where “we” are, experience is.

There is this: this this. There is always this.

This – whatever it is – appears to include an almost infinite array of content. Every human being you meet looks different. That is such an amazing thing! And they wear different clothes! And they sound different! And walk differently! And some of them have dogs or babies or umbrellas or ice cream cones.

Better than any movie is to just sit quietly on a bench and watch the infinite variety of content stream by. And it works no matter where you sit: in the city, in the forest, in the chicken pen, the garden, a classroom, a mosque.

We can get very metaphysical and intellectual about this exercise – and from time to time I do – but that is not the point right now.

Right now the point is just to notice what is happening, and then to notice that – again, whatever it is, however it works – you can’t stop it.

You can’t stop it, but you can respond to it.

You can pat somebody’s dog, or compliment their hand bag, or buy them a bagel, or give them a big hug. You can write a poem or an essay, take a photograph, buy a book about phenomenology, go home and bake bread, or do yoga (street yoga!).

Or you can just keep sitting there.

Whatever you do will have an effect on the stream, but it won’t end the stream. You can make a little splash or a big splash but the stream keeps going.

It is important to see this.

This is a helpful insight because it teaches us that what we do is not as big a deal as we think. The stream – experience, God, Life or whatever – is not at stake in our choosing.

Therefore, if something stresses you out – Donald Trump, say, or wordy ACIM writers – then just walk away.

We are allowed to do that. It doesn’t make us more or less spiritual.

(Really, it’s not possible to be “more” or “less” spiritual. Those are meaningless qualifications. The stream doesn’t care about them – they are both just floating through it).

It follows then that if we are allowed to just walk away from something, then we can also walk towards it. From the perspective of the stream, does it matter?

It doesn’t.

So if we want to be political, then we get political. If we want to choose a political cause or candidate, then we choose one. If we want to be a nasty woman, or march with nasty women, then we get nasty. Choosing a political stand is not different than choosing not to take a stand.

Democrat vs. Republican

or

Politics vs. No politics

or

Nasty vs. Not nasty

We are still choosing, right?

Here is the thing. Part of this experience of experience that we talked about earlier includes choices. They are present. You can see them; you can experience them.

Again, put off the metaphysical dialogue (about free will, agency, discrete selves et cetera) for the time being. Let’s chill out with being smart or correct.

Instead, without a lot of drama or analysis, let’s just see the way that life includes this sense of being local to a body. Let’s just see the way that apparently localized life includes this capacity for response.

And let’s ask: what responses are helpful? That is literally the only question we need to ask and answer. If we can do anything, then what is the best something?

This post is already too long so I won’t keep going. I’ll just make this last observation: the best something – which helps us and helps others, which makes everyone softer and happier – is always the something that is loving. Kindness, patience, generosity, mercy, good humor . . .

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On Playing Well With Others

Years ago a fellow student who had spent time with Tara Singh criticized Singh for using the phrase “bring into application.” Singh meant that it was not enough to study and learn: one had to actually embody that learning, to make it the fact of experience rather than an a mere ideal. The student felt that this was a form of dualism inconsistent with A Course in Miracles.

These kinds of metaphysical debates – is so-and-so sufficiently nondualistic, is so-and-so right in their understanding and practice of A Course in Miracles – are not as interesting to me as they once were. And it’s true they once were. If you scan old posts, you’ll find plenty of occasions where in spirit if not outright declaration I am taking sides on the nondualism and how-to-do-ACIM-right dialogue.

My interest in those dialogues began to abate when I discovered the role attention plays in our experience. Attention is present and responsive. It is alive. And once I began to see this clearly, and enter into relationship with it, the intellectual issues began to recede. Who cares about the physics of swimming when you can actually splash around in the waves?

This is not to say – as yesterday’s post makes clear – that I am opposed to intellectual analysis as a spiritual practice. Indeed, it is central to my experience of the course. I am by nature a student, and happiest when studying. My interest and facility with A Course in Miracles arises from that.

But – in my experience – Tara Singh was largely correct. Learning without application can be a form of resistance and denial. There is a difference between one who studies mercy and one who brings food and blankets to the homeless. Study is meant to inform application; application is more durable and fructive when informed by study. So balance matters.

Consciousness and awareness are experienced in a local way. If we look into our experience, it revolves around this body and this mind. Now that may not be a real or sustainable model for a lot of reasons – and we can talk about that, and we can engage the semantics – but doing so doesn’t bring the body or its prevalence to any end. All bodies serve the same approximate function: birth, hunger, reproduce, die.

And – within that cyclic function – to be aware. That is, to split into that which is observing and that which is observed. This division is an illusion: we are not separate from what is observed. We are what we are observing.

Believing the division is real – that we are not what we are studying – is what A Course in Miracles calls separation, and it is the primary source of our woe, both personally and collectively.

Intellectual study can bring us to the insight that the observer/observed divide is not reality but a form of perception. Intellectual study can give us the data, helpfully arrange it, and walk us through understanding it. But – and this matters – it cannot teach us how to live with the understanding.
That is an embodied holistic process and – kind of like parenting – you just have to do it. Nobody can do it for you.

Ask yourself this question: have you ever reached a point or had the insight that every spiritual book or essay or video you consume is saying the same approximate thing? Do you think while reading or viewing, “I know this?”

That’s an interesting juncture to reach, because it allows for this further question: if I already know all this, then why am I still so fucking petty and sad and confused and conflicted and so on?

The answer is: because you haven’t brought your vast admirable understanding into application.

Of course I am describing my own experience here. I’m not judging you. Probably you are a more tightly-wrapped box of chocolates than me. And no hard feelings if that’s so. But if this analysis resonates a little, then it’s worth asking: what would application of known spiritual ideals look like? Feel like?

And are you ready now to live that way?

For me, it is imperative not to do more reading in response to that question. There are only two answers to the question of readiness: yes or no. “Maybe” is just no another way. If you say no, you have to find out why you’re not ready. But if you’re ready – and probably you’re ready, or why else would you be reading this – then you have to leap. You have to leave the blue book behind and step into experience as a healed and healing presence.

All that really means is that we are giving attention to what is happening and discerning what, in this moment as it is given, is a just, creative and loving response.

This is harder than it sounds and leads to plenty of errors and missteps but it also speeds up the vivid here-and-nowness of inner peace.

This practical application of love is precisely what A Course in Miracles advocates. It

. . . emphasizes application rather than theory, and experience rather than theology . . . It’s only purpose is to provide a way in which some people will be able to find their own Internal Teacher (from the Preface).

Notwithstanding the various dramas that attend the course community – are Gary Renard’s ascended masters real, did Ken Wapnick wrongly edit the course, and blah blah blah – all ACIM is really saying is give attention, be kind and gentle in an ordinary way, and don’t worry about either the seeming big stuff or the seeming small stuff.

This is going to resemble an embodied dualistic experience! Don’t fret about that and don’t resist it. Don’t make a big deal out of it in any way. When we’re hungry, eat, and when we’re flowing with the divine Jesus river, flow, and when we’re tired and cranky, we remind ourselves it happens to everyone and try not to make things worse.

In a funny way, after many years of study into all these complex and fascinating philosophical and theological issues, I’m back to the playground where the best rule is simply to play well with others.

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What Works is What’s Helpful

The point is always to find and utilize what is helpful, understanding that “helpfulness” is relative, contextual and subject to change. Basically, we are looking for a way to peacefully and creatively exist within an existence that seems to be independent of us.

In order to discern what is helpful, we have to have a clear sense of who is being helped and what they need help with.

bucket in thimbleberry

I don’t know why I like this photograph so much but I do. It makes me happy, and happiness matters. Perhaps that is sufficient.

A person who is building a house will be happy when a carpenter shows up. A person who wants to learn how to play piano, will not be happy when a driving instructor shows up.

A person who is building a house will not be happy when the carpenter starts digging the foundation with a hammer. The person who wants to learn how to play piano will be happy when she learns the driving instructor actually moonlights as a piano teacher.

So there is no such thing as absolute helpfulness – something that works in every situation. There are just applicable instances of helpfulness, here and there, for which we can be grateful.

In our study of A Course in Miracles, which is so often the latest iteration in a life given to spiritual seeking, what do we want?

In other words, what is the project for which we want help?

Clarity is useful in this regard. Honesty is useful. Saying in a clear simple way what we want is usually a good step to getting it, or at least figuring out if getting it is what we really want.

Sometimes we are vague because we don’t know what we want, and sometimes we are vague because we don’t want to say what we want, and sometimes we are vague because we don’t want to face what we want.

For example, in the summer of 2013 I promoted myself as a teacher of A Course in Miracles. I offered audio classes, a book, and 1:1 teaching sessions. I charged money for this.

At the time, I said frequently that my goal was to be helpful to folks for whom my particular approach to the course was resonant. But it would have better to say “I need to financially justify all the time I spend writing and thinking about ACIM and this seems like a good way.”

And if I was being really really honest I would have said something like, “I want to be a well-known, well-paid teacher of ACIM like Ken Wapnick or Marianne Williamson and this seems like the right way to get on that path.”

But that level of honesty and forthrightness was not possible then. I wasn’t averse to helping others but really, the exercise was about me.

I am not beating up on myself here. I didn’t give the latter two answers because attention and willingness didn’t reach that far. That happens and it’s no big deal, other than that it tends to slow down and possibly complicate remembering that there really isn’t anything to do because we are already home.

sunflowers-at-a-disance

A row of sunflowers at a distance . . . Kind of standing guard over the garden and gazing at the far hills.

Experience is richly and beautifully simple, but we get in the way. We have plans and ideas and agendas, and the sad part is, we can’t always see them. We get confused, and in our confusion, we make choices that leave us sad or hurt or guilty or what-have-you.

So we have to be as clear and honest as we can be about what we want from our practice of A Course in Miracles and then we have to be patient. We have to let the spiritual chips fall where they may.

So again: why are we studying A Course in Miracles? Do we want to wake up? Gain inner peace? Gain some useful strategy for navigating life? Get rich and famous? What?

For me, at some point in mid-2015, the answer was: “I want to wake up.”

Once we say it – once we get it clear and simple – then we can start to look into it a bit. It’s like buying a house. We can talk all day about our dream house, but when we start looking at what we can afford, where we want to be, and what’s available given those restrictions, then the experience narrows pretty fast. We stop dreaming and we get to work.

What does “work” look like in this context? In this find-what-works-and-work-it context?

I say that I want to wake up. That leads to an important series of question: how do I know that I’m asleep? Because I must know that, right? Otherwise, waking up would not be an ideal.

And if I do know I’m asleep, then how did I learn that I’m asleep? How do I know this is sleep and not wakefulness? I must have known wakefulness once, right? Otherwise, how would I know what it means to sleep? I’d have nothing to compare it to.

And if I know what “waking up” means, then how did I learn? Is it inherent? Did I learn it? If so, who was my teacher?

That’s a lot of material and I want to look into it all. I want to go slowly into each question – in a careful attentive way.

And I want to find out if I need help doing so.

So I sit quietly and give attention to the first question: am I awake? Or am I asleep? How can I tell?

When I do this, other questions arise. They are like sub-questions to the main question. First, I realize it would be useful to define those phrases – what is meant by “wake” and “asleep.”

moss_on_board

moss on the west side of beams of wood on the chicken pen . . .

To get to those definitions, I start with my Oxford English Dictionary (I know, I know – I’m a snob). I might detour into Latin textbooks – knowing the roots of words can be very insightful. Then I will look at ACIM primary and secondary materials – the text, workbook and manual for teachers, and then the main teachers on whose work I rely.

Then I might start going outside the course. What did Dōgen say? How about Schrödinger? Husserl? Emily Dickinson? Are there contemporary academics looking into this? What are they saying?

This takes time and energy. And it only works if it’s actually helpful. So how do I know if it’s helpful?

First, is the information I’m getting answering questions and prompting others? If so, then it’s helpful.

But beyond that, am I having fun? I’m not saying that my intellectual approach to the course is everybody’s cup of tea or even should be. But for me, it is more than just useful. It does more than just provide relevant data.

It is also fun. It calls to me in the sense that it’s easy to come back to. It’s not work. It heals me.

So that is another way to think of helpfulness: what is its relationship to joy?

Gradually, the process of vigorous rigorous intellectual study and sustained investigation (inquiry through giving attention) will yield an answer. A point comes when you are seeing the same thing over and over and there is less and less to inquire about.

In the case at hand – in this inquiry I undertook in response to “I want to wake up” and the sprawling interrogatories spawned thereby – the answer is: I already am awake but I am consistently overlooking this fact.

So now there is a new question, right? How can I stop overlooking this fact?

And I’m off again. The OED, A Course in Miracles, Steven Hagen, David Bohm . . .

I am not suggesting this sort of granular academic and contemplative approach to A Course in Miracles is the only way to go. My point is that in my experience, it works. It is helpful because it answers fundamental questions related to my purpose for studying A Course in Miracles and it makes me happy.

Most people who read me closely are either already awake and patiently waiting on me to figure out I am too, or they are ready to take the final series of steps in their own awakening, where “take the final series of steps” has an intellectual aspect to it which is related to better understanding certain ideas and concepts.

I seem to have some facility for that understanding, even as I am clumsy and dumbfounded in myriad other ways.

birch_tree

This birch tree is in the forest where a couple of trails meet . . . I love it very much, am always grateful when it survives rough winters . . . touch it when I pass on my walks, like genuflecting at an altar . . .

Recently I was playing chess with my son and we reached the endgame. The “endgame” is that point where the next series of moves will conclude the game. There are only three possible outcomes – you win, you lose, or you draw. It isn’t a mystery.

Even though you know there are only three outcomes, you still have to play the game. Knowing the result and getting the result – experiencing the result – are not the same thing.

Awakening is like that. Generally, we know the outcome before it is actually integrated into our embodied experience. But we still have to walk the walk. We still have to “wake up,” where “wake up” usually just means realizing that we already are woke.

So the suggestion is to look into this: what do you want? How do you know it’s what you want? What is helpful in getting it? And so forth.

Give attention to this inquiry in a gentle sustained way and see what happens, adjusting as apparently necessary.

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