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Atonement and Total Committment

The Atonement is a total commitment (T-2.II.7:1).

We don’t want to mistake those words – especially the phrase “total commitment” – for a kind of rallying cry. This is not Jesus in the role of a coach exhorting us to “give our all” or “leave nothing on the field.” He is not saying – nor implying even – that “ninety nine percent” means you lose, or that until we’re “all in” we’re doomed.

birch_trees_awakening

these trees say . . .

It is important to understand that the concept embodied by this sentence – in particular the two-word phrase “total commitment” – is altogether unrelated to personal effort. In A Course in Miracles, our effort is largely beside the point. What we do or don’t do is largely – not wholly but largely – beside the point.1

So what do those words mean? They mean that awakening is inclusive. Nothing is excluded from it. Not one leaf falls but is included. Not one idiot is elected to political office but is included. Not one thought you have – the so-called good ones, the so-called bad ones, and the myriad in-between ones – but is included.

Let’s consider this slowly.

If you can, go look at a tree or a plant right now. What is missing from it? It is a total plant or tree, right? It is not as if you had to go out and make a tree or a plant, or find a partial tree or plant and then complete it somehow.

The tree or plant is given to you totally. It is whole unto itself, and your contribution – beyond witnessing or observing it – is irrelevant.

In you is all of Heaven. Every leaf that falls is given life in you. Each bird that ever sang will sing again in you. And every flower that ever bloomed has saved its perfume and its loveliness for you (T-25.IV.5:1-4).

The course is referring here to a present condition that can be noticed (Heaven is a present condition presently unrecognized). The verb is present tense, not future. It is unconditional. This is reality now, not subsequent to your effort and learning.

And you can begin to experience this Heaven by noticing that the tree or plant is whole and complete, and that you need do nothing to make it so.

This is such a simple observation that we are apt to overlook it. But stay with it. Then begin to generalize it. The window through which you look at the tree – is it whole or partial? That hill in the background against which the tree is framed – is it a total hill or a partial hill? And the sky which frames the hill – is it total or partial?

Don’t play word games! Don’t say it’s a total hill but a partial mountain. That’s being clever and cleverness is a way of being evasive. Don’t say it’s a whole sky but you only see “part” of it. If you know there is “more” sky, is that knowing whole or partial?

We are talking here about an insight that is so simple and clear a child gets it without a problem, but adults overlook or overanalyze or even fight against it. But look and let your looking be its own answer: that tree – and that window – and that hill – and that sky – are given totally to you. They are whole unto themselves.

When we give attention to wholeness, wholeness gives itself back, and in that inclusive mutual giving, oneness is clearly perceived, and perception is translated into knowledge.

This wholeness – this very wholeness – is the Will of God.

Nothing before and nothing after it. No other place; no other state nor time. Nothing beyond nor nearer. Nothing else. In any form (T-25.IV.5:6-10).

Gently – very gently – can you generalize this totality or wholeness to seeing itself? To looking itself? That is, can you find one thing that is not total? That is not wholly given?

. . . [h]ealing is apparent in specific instances, and generalizes to include them all. This is because they are really the same, despite their different forms (T-27.V.8:6-7).

You might say, well, justice is not wholly given because here is an example or injustice. I say, isn’t the injustice wholly given? What is missing from it? If you add something, it is no longer injustice, it is justice. And isn’t the justice totally given?

You might say, well, I am confused about all this. And I say, isn’t your confusion wholly given? You are not confused about whether you are confused. You can’t be. Your confusion is wholly given. Everything is wholly given.

And again – gently, like leading a beloved child to pat a horse for the first time – can you generalize this wholeness unto seeing itself? To being itself? Is it not wholly perfectly given?

The purpose of the Atonement is to restore everything to you; or rather, to restore it to your awareness. You were given everything when you were created, just as everyone was (T-1.IV.3:6-7).

Of course you can perceive the seams – the tree is not the window which is not the hill which is not the sky. But on the other hand, do they not comprise a total image? And is the image apart from the seeing of it? Where is the distance? Where is the difference?

There is only the whole, and it is wholly given.

This sort of thinking is tricky to sustain, largely because it runs counter to how bodies perceive and process perception. And since we largely identify with bodies, it makes sense that we are confused when told that there is another way. But the body is just another image; it, too, is wholly given to what we are in Truth.

Thus is the body made a theory of yourself, with no provision made for evidence beyond itself, and no escape within its sight. Its course is sure, when seen through its own eyes . . . you cannot conceive of you apart from it (T-24.VII.10:1-2, 4).

In a way, what is suggested here is a kind of evidence-gathering that points beyond the partiality and limitations of the body. It is a way of thinking about perception – and giving attention to perception – that is at odds with what is familiar to the embodied self. We are seeing in what we long considered fragments, the very essence of wholeness.

So this is a hint as to what the course is talking about when it says “Atonement is a total commitment.”

Nothing is excluded. Everything is included. How could it not be so? Into what is “everything” included? To what can “everything” be added? What can be taken away from totality or wholeness? Where would you put it?

There is only wholeness, and it is wholly given.

maple_tree_up_close

or these . . .

You might say I am just being clever here. And we do have to be cautious and go slowly. Anybody can pose an apparently unanswerable question. Articulating a paradox doesn’t make us smart or wise.

But the words I am using do point to something, and it is the same “thing” that the course is pointing at, both across the text and lessons, and in the particular sentence we are studying.

We don’t have to “make” a total commitment, like football players bent on winning the Super Bowl, because in truth there is nothing to commit to and nobody to do the committing. But we can be willing to perceive the totality, or wholeness, or oneness if you like, of what is given right now.

Logic leads us to willingness. This is an essential premise of A Course in Miracles, because Helen Schucman was a fiercely logical writer. Logic gets us to where we pause and give attention. We may not know what we are looking for, but we know that looking matters. We know giving attention matters, so we give it.

And wholeness gives itself back, and in that inclusive mutual giving, oneness is clearly perceived, and perception is translated into knowledge. We “awaken” from the dream that there is such a thing as “sleep” or a self that could be other than awake and home in wholeness.

And it is so simple and clear! It is given.

This course makes no attempt to teach what cannot easily be learned. Its scope does not exceed your own, except to say that what is yours will come to you when you are ready (T-24.VII.8:1-2).

So effort isn’t the point. Simply give attention, which is happening already anyway, and what is already true will be remembered wholly in your awareness.

1. We are distinguishing – as the balance of the post makes clear – between willingness and effort. Willingness is a state of mind that allows what is given to be unconditionally accepted. Effort is a misguided attempt to force reality to conform to our personal expectations for it. It obscures the given by trying to give in its place.

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A Course in Miracles Lesson 284

I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt.

mushroom-on-forest-trail

attention given to experience as it is given . . .

It does not seem controversial to say that if we are hurt, then something caused our pain. For example, if I drop the bureau I am carrying up the stairs and it lands on my toe, then we know what caused the pain. That’s easy.

Let’s say that there is a particular social situation – certain people in a certain setting – and when I am in that situation, I feel hurt and anguished. I go and – lo and behold – experience hurt and anguish.

That is trickier, right? The “cause” of the pain was the social situation, but one could argue the deeper “cause” was my decision to go there in the first place.

Both those examples share a common premise: the pain is real and it is caused by something external (even if I am “choosing” to subject myself to that external).

But what happens if there is no cause? Can there still be pain?

A Course in Miracles asks us to consider the possibility that pain, being causeless, does not exist. It cannot exist.

Loss is not loss when properly perceived. Pain is impossible. There is no grief with any cause at all (W-pII.284.1:1-3).

How can this be?

There is a clue in the preceding lesson. The prayer in Lesson 283 notes that we made an image of ourselves and called it the Son of God (W-pII.283.1:1). We made an idol of this image and used it deny our shared identity with God (W-pII.283.1:3, 5). The prayer intimates the antidote.

Now are we one in shared Identity, with God our Father as our only Source, and everything created part of us. And so we offer blessing to all things, uniting lovingly with all the world, which our forgiveness has made one with us (W-pII.283.2:1-2).

If the “self” who is subject to hurt is not real (but an image made to obscure wholeness) then what happens to pain? It cannot be real either, correct?

It is the giving of attention that undoes the persistent illusion of a separated self; not that to which the attention is given.

Of course that analysis turns on our openness to the idea that the self is not real (but is a manufactured image). To the degree we resist that conclusion, we are going to experience pain – not as punishment for resistance but as a simple consequence of believing we are that which can suffer.1

We all believe that we are bodies, having a temporal-spatial experience in a world that contains other bodies. We all question the nondual premise that the body is an illusion. Why else was this post written? Why else is it being read?

A Course in Miracles is indifferent to when or by what means we undo our mistaken belief about what we are in truth. Lesson 284 implicitly recognizes this, and urges us not to get hung up on the details of when/how.

This is the truth, at first to be but said and then repeated many times; and next to be accepted as but partly true, with many reservations. Then to be considered seriously more and more and more, and finally accepted as the truth (W-pII.284.1:5-6).

Those words describe a process that unfolds in time to a body. There is no need to rush through – or denigrate or deny or otherwise worry about – the experience of being a body. In time, teachers appear, ideas are embraced, and new practices are suggested. Insight is given. A Course in Miracles both accepts – and gently encourages us not to linger on – this experience.

I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt. I would beyond these words today, and past all reservations, and arrive at full acceptance of the truth in them (W-pII.284.1:7-8).

Our practice is one of giving gentle sustained attention to experience as it is given. This may at times include intellectual analysis, at times the devotion of prayer or meditation, and at times mundanity and minutiae. It doesn’t matter. It is the giving of attention that undoes the persistent illusion of a separated self; not that to which the attention is given.

A Course in Miracles is unusual in that it makes no significant demands of its students. Even this far into the lessons, if we read closely, we see the inherent patience and gentleness of the curriculum. It is like a child learning to swim with a loving parent whose only concern is the child’s safety and happiness. “You want to dip just one toe? That’s okay. You just want to play in the sand? That’s okay. You don’t want to learn to swim at all? That’s okay.”

And all the while knowing that when the child is ready to wade into the waves and leap into the blue – that will be okay, too.

1. Please note that the image – so long as we believe it is real – is real for us (see for example (T-26.VI.1:2-4). This can be a confusing distinction, but it matters. A mirage in the desert is not a real oasis, but it is a real mirage. Observe a child with Santa Claus – so long as their belief is total then Santa is real. Or observe adults who believe in a distinctly masculine sky God directing human affairs. It is easy to be dismissive of those examples; but it can also be helpful to ask: what belief (or beliefs), conscious or otherwise, do I currently cling to that I may subsequently learn is/are false? If you say “none,” how do you know? How could you know?

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The Alternative to Defining God

The question of whether God exists as an object that can be defined and perceived by another object – i.e., a self apart from yet yearning to return to God – is not as helpful as it may seem. In effect, it reinforces the very confusion it purportedly aims to undo.

“Purportedly” works here because it allows for the possibility that we actually like what doesn’t work because it doesn’t work. Seeking can be a very effective way to avoid seeing what is already wholly given.

Being a student of A Course in Miracles means in part raising to question literally every single belief to which we cling.

To learn this course requires willingness to question every value that you hold. Not one can be kept hidden and obscure but it will jeopardize your learning. No belief is neutral (T-24.in.2:1-3).

Nothing is excluded, including our ideas about God, wellness, holiness, wholeness, et cetera.

We want to become aware of the way in which ideas about God impede our ability to gently and consistently give attention to life itself, to life in the way in which it is given now.

The upshot of all this questioning tends not to be answers as such but more a general recognition that there are no answers in terms the questioning self would recognize or accept. That is, eventually one realizes that the world and self as we understand and relate to them cannot satisfy that which longs to be satisfied.

There is no body, no object, no idea, no place, no practice and no activity that is going to bring and allow us to retain peace.

At that sterile juncture – that appearance of nothing – our lives can seem like an exercise in futility.

But “futility” is not precisely the word, for the surrender to which we refer owns a joyful quality. It arises less out of defeat and more out of a recognition that there is no battle being fought. We aren’t losing a war – we are realizing that we aren’t fighting a war in the first place.

What does a soldier do who suddenly realizes his life is not in danger? That she does not have to kill or hurt anyone?

One thing that happens is they can rest: they can draw a breath and let it settle. With respect to the question of defining God, one might discover that it is less pressing now that the incessant need to understand, explain and explain literally everything has abated.

This is not to suggest that inquiries into the nature of God (or Source or First Cause et cetera) are wrong or unhelpful. Rather, it is to note the way in which the inquiry both arises and is undertaken: is joy or peace conditional on the answer? Is being right or wrong at stake? Is there some conviction that this question is more important or valuable than, say, what to have for dinner?

We want to become aware of the way in which ideas about God impede our ability to gently and consistently give attention to life itself, to life in the way in which it is given now. We want to become aware of our willingness to have the Truth obscured under the guise of seeking Truth.

When we see clearly the nature of our resistance and unwillingness, it naturally subsides, leaving in its place a quiet and self-sustaining happiness. This is “the condition in which God is remembered” (T-24.in.1:2).

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On Becoming a Servant

What does it mean to be responsible?

It must mean, in part, to give attention to what presents itself and to respond to it in meaningful and helpful ways.

Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles / Meister des Hausbuches

But that begs another question: what does “meaningful and helpful” mean? And who decides?

I think that “meaningful” and “helpful” are actually clear. They aren’t mysteries or puzzles. But we have to be patient and allow them to show themselves. It is like bird-watching, where you have to just be very still and quiet. You have to be patient. You have to wait a little.

One way to think of “meaningful and helpful” is to think of service – to become a servant. More specifically, to make one’s life about every one else’s life. To become the servant of whoever and whatever appears. If we all did this, there would be a lot less conflict. There would be a lot less disorder. There would be a lot less imbalance.

At some point in his teaching career – I think closer to the end – Ken Wapnick began to talk about making our lives about the other person. If you buy a coffee, make the experience about the cashier. If you are driving down the highway, make the drive about the other drivers. If you are talking to your spouse, make the dialogue about them. And so forth.

It is a very practical and non-dramatic way of being, and it is also a lot harder than it sounds. Slipping into the self-centered mode often happens without our noticing it. And even our generosity can be subtly self-serving: look at how spiritual I am being!

In my own experience, as a conscious human being generally, and a student of A Course in Miracles specifically, there has been a sort of slow evolution in terms of responsibility. It has involved a realization that the self – that which identifies as “Sean” – is not actually doing anything but is more in the nature of another image, another idea. So one relaxes into experience and allows it to happen. It is a kind of passive witnessing from a dissolving center.

I recognize that can sound like I am boasting about a personal spiritual accomplishment. But to me it feels more like an acknowledgment of reality. It’s like a guy taking credit for the existence of the stars, and then realizing he’s not the author of the stars, but the stars are still there. So he just enjoys the stars without worrying who put them there, keeps them there, and so forth.

It’s in the nature of a correction, rather than accomplishment.

It’s hard to say why, but as this experience of selflessness deepens, there is a corresponding deepening of the ability to be of service. It’s like the less self one encounters, the more love has to offer, and so offers it in a gentle and natural way.

“Love” in this case isn’t anything dramatic. It doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s actually mostly just about realizing that whatever is going on isn’t about me. So a student worried about writing a paper, or a neighbor whose sheep are always wandering into our garden, or a driver who rear ends me, or whatever, are not happening to “Sean.” They’re just happening. And seeing it that way changes how one responds to it. It changes what it means to be responsible.

This is not a position that “Sean” adopts; it is just a clear seeing of real experience. So the response to those situations doesn’t originate in “Sean” as a function of his intelligence and compassion and will. It arises in a more organic way, a more holistic way.

The form of the specific response isn’t actually the issue (advising the student, helping the neighbor build a fence, reassuring the other other driver it’s okay, or whatever). That doesn’t matter so much. You think it does but it actually doesn’t. If you are very quiet and still, you see that life happens of its own accord. Experience happens. As I said earlier, there aren’t any mysteries and there aren’t any puzzles. You will “know” what to do, in the sense that “what to do” is just there. It just happens.

It’s true that we slip and out of this insight, but forgetting that the self is just another appearance, another dot in the matrix so to speak, doesn’t injure the matrix. Life goes on. It’s like if you turn off the lights in the bedroom. The bed and nightstand and bureau and cat don’t disappear. They’re all there whether the lights are on or not.

It is also true that writing about this stuff is often contradictory. One can get very efficient with “Vedantic semantics” – writing about awakening – and that efficiency can be misleading. It’s tricky ground, and the way isn’t always clear. For me, there is often a lot of stumbling and backtracking. I often feel like a kid in the backseat saying “are we there yet? Now are we there?”

But the mode of travel doesn’t really matter, because we aren’t actually going anywhere. And after a while, it gets easier to remember that and just settle into the ride.

This is not a way of thinking about – or practicing – A Course in Miracles that makes sense to everyone. If it is helpful, great, and if it’s not, that’s okay too. It is in the nature of a suggestion, a sort of “this is what it’s like for me.” Presently my experience includes writing this out, as presently yours includes reading it. Let us be thankful for one another, and be guided accordingly.

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It may be that we look at the external world as being full of lessons which, once learned, will undo that world in favor of peace and love. It is not the worst way to think about the world, but it is not how the world is undone.

Any investment in the external world and the life that is engendered by and through it will keep us yoked to that world’s yin/yang roller coaster of hurt and grief, loss and confusion, et cetera. To respond to anything – as a lesson, as an opportunity to be of service, as a wrong to be righted, as a form of hate to be translated into love – is to make it real, and to make one illusion real is to make all of them real.

For no one can make one illusion real, and still escape the rest. For who can choose to keep the ones that he prefers, and find the safety that the truth alone can give? Who can believe illusions are the same, and still maintain that even one is best? (T-26.VI. 1:7-9)

Yet that is precisely what we are doing when we insist on learning from experience.

One way we respond to this problem is to give up almost everything in favor of one or two special things. We are like children who, told to come out of the water because it’s time to go home, come into the shallows to our ankles but no further. It’s true we moved in the direction of leaving the water, but we are still in the water. In a practical sense, we are no closer to going home than when we were neck-deep and frolicking.

This special thing – this idol by which we obscure the Lord – is frequently another person, another spiritual path, or some form of activity like work or parenting or making art. It seems as if we can just be in this one relationship, or find that one perfect-fitting spiritual path (or the one teacher on that path), or do the special work that only we can do, then everything will be okay. These are “good” desires, “good” aspects of the world, “good” applications of self.

But even in their goodness they are harbingers of loss and death.

Anything in this world that you believe is good and valuable and worth striving for can hurt you, and will do so. Not because it has the power to hurt, but just because you have denied it is but an illusion, and made it real. And it is real to you. It is not nothing (T-26.VI.1:1-4).

Our belief that there is at least this one good thing worth pursuing and possessing reinforces the underlying error or illusion upon which every other error or illusion is founded: that there is a discrete self who causes things to happen and to whom things happen. The one “good” illusion becomes the gate through which the rest of them parade.

And through its perceived reality has entered all the world of sick illusions. All belief in sin, in power of attack, in hurt and harm, in sacrifice and death, has come to you (T-26.VI.1:5-6).

There is a point in one’s study of A Course in Miracles where this becomes obvious. We have fallen for the lie there is something out there upon which the truth is contingent – a lover, a belief system, a spiritual practice, a career, a calling. This realization can be very painful because no matter where we turn a nagging voice says “but that’s an illusion too.” Our spouse, our zafu, our exercise regimen, our political ideals, our poems and paintings. It’s like the Hindu practice of “neti, neti,” a sort of via negativa. Our lives become an apparent litany of “not this, not this.”

Because this experience can be sterile to the point of leaving no reason to live, we naturally succumb to the understandable temptation to forego it altogether. What’s so bad about an idol? How can a slice of raisin bread be bad? Even gurus enjoy an orgasm from time to time don’t they? And so forth. This is easy to do and often happens without our noticing it. Even a practice of “neti, neti” can become an idol, a thing to which we cling.

But eventually we get tired of the merry go-round and step off it. “I can’t keep even one illusion. There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ illusion. Fine. Now what?”

What is helpful is simply noticing what is happening. We realize that we have had an insight (there are no good illusions and so we can’t keep any of them), and that we are resisting its implications, and that this resistance is painful. Perhaps it is terrifying. Or confusing. We just have to look at this. We don’t have to do anything about it. We just give attention to what is happening. Judging it, amending it, making art of it . . . that’s all just more grist for the mill of attention.

Give attention and let the spiritual chips fall where they fall, which is all they’re going to do anyway. Let it all go, and watch as it does. Let it all come flowing back, and watch as it does.

How does this help? It helps in a few ways.

First, attention almost always brings us – if only briefly – to the present moment. And the wonderful thing about the so-called holy instant is that it does not contain the past or the future. There are no insights in the holy instant, there are no consequences in the holy instant, and so there are no personal reactions in the holy instant.

When you look closely and openly at what is happening, there is only what is happening – nothing else! It is such a clear and simple thing that we tend to look right past it. But it is always right here and always right now. So “not this, not this” becomes “only this. This this.”

Second, as we settle into a relationship with the holy instant (as outlined above), we begin to give attention to the underlying error of separation itself. We look at the belief that there is someone doing all this who can choose to stop it.

Most of us – most of the time – conflate this “someone” with the self we believe we are. “Sean” is projecting this and that, so an improved “Sean” will choose to stop projecting. “Sean” is obsessed with being right, so a more insightful and less possessive “Sean” will become more interested in just being happy.

But “Sean” – and you, too, whoever you are – is just another illusion. “Sean’s” body is just as illusory as any body “Sean” perceives. Those discrete selves who seem capable of so much activity are just more projections. They are just another bright shiny reflection that disappears when grasped at.

This is all the separation is: the belief that the projected self is responsible for what happens. Once that belief is gone – and it goes when even mildly challenged – what remains is peace. What remains is Truth.

The section of A Course of Miracles that is the focus here (The Appointed Friend) encourages us to adopt the Holy Spirit as our “Friend in truth” (T-26.VI.3:4), appointed by God (T-26.VI.2:7), who will bring us “gifts that are not of this world” (T-26.VI.3:5). Doing so will help end our habit of choosing among illusions.

This can be a helpful construction but please see the way that it sustains the underlying dualism it aims to undo: that there is a self who needs a friend, without which friend, the truth will remain forever at bay.

So the suggestion I am offering is that a point comes when even the Holy Spirit is an illusion, when even that apparently harmless ideal becomes too painful an obstruction to manage. If it is helpful, okay. Use it. But if it is not, it’s not. Don’t be afraid to go there. The text which offers us this special “friend” is simultaneously teaching us that eventually we’ll have to go beyond this friend. What did the old hymn say?

we got to walk this lonesome valley –
we got to walk it by ourselves.
Ain’t nobody else can walk it for us –
we got to walk it by ourselves.

In this way – as happens so often when one closely reads the text – A Course in Miracles undoes itself and points to an experience that cannot be mediated and cannot be controlled or directed, not even by the course itself.

So give attention to the one who gives attention. Can you find the giver? Can you find the source? Can attention turn around on itself? Can you find your true self? Can you find that which never changes? Is not subject to events? Is not bound to response? Has no preferences? Perceives no difference that would make judgment possible let alone desirable?

If we undertake our inquiry into this self patiently, gently and honestly, then we will see that the source cannot be found. We cannot grasp the self. It always slips through that which would hold it, without ever quite leaving or disappearing. Because we cannot find it, we make substitutions for it, the most notorious of which is God.

But knowing God – knowing the Absolute, however one defines or labels it – is beyond the limits of our faculties. Our perceptive capabilities, our intelligence and learning, our memories and dreams, our cultural affluence and dynamic social fabrics can at best point in the direction of that which cannot be perceived, studied, known, shared or otherwise made real. It is beyond real and unreal, and even saying that little is saying too much.

These posts often drift into poetic abstraction. That’s okay. It’s one way of alluding to that which cannot be alluded to. In the absence of pure truth, we make do with conditional references. In a world of broken legs, who doesn’t need a crutch?

Yet the post also aims at a practical teaching: to suggest that one give attention without any expectation of a result that can be conveyed in language or via the senses, while simultaneously trusting that a result will be given. Nothing simpler can be imagined than to simply notice what is happening, where noticing does not exclude frustration, confusion, forgetting, resisting, denying and so forth.

Look, and you will see Christ looking back at you, and there will no longer be a looker and a looked-at, but only looking itself, and it will be enough. It will be all there is.

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Merry Christmas (2016)

There are gentle reminders that we are not alone, and that our awakening from dreams of death and separation into the light of seamless life is sure, and Christmas can be one of them, if we want it to be.

“Adoration of the Magi” / Giotto di Bondone

Christmas is another story in time, another cultural artifact reflective of learning and place, another image that we place before God, and worship in God’s place, but the harm is not to God, nor to wholeness, nor to Life. It is simply a form of delay: of putting off for another day the quiet happiness of resting in Creation as Creation, which is our home.

When we see at last that we – the discrete self called “Sean” or “insert-your-name-here” – is not in charge of anything, and cannot really do anything, and is more in the nature of a ripple in the living waters of Christ, then we can begin to relax into whatever celebration of holiness presents itself. It isn’t that Christmas is right, and it isn’t that Christmas is wrong: it’s that Christmas is here. Now it is Christmas.

So I wake at three a.m. and distribute gifts beneath the tree and stuff stockings with candy and baseball cards and polyhedral dice. I water the tree so it won’t be thirsty. I write a note from Santa to those of my children who still believe in Santa, and I read in my late father’s breviary prayers and intercessions and hymns, and later yet carry hay and a little grain to the horses for whom it is not Christmas but simply another morning in winter. This is how life appears to me: this is what happens.

In Christmas we can give attention to the birth of that which cannot die, and which calls us to partake of its divine and eternal life. This is not a child in a manger, though it may help us to see it that way. It is a Christian ideal, though it may help us to use that language and imagery.

And the life of which we speak is not human – is not contingent on a heart or lungs – and was not really born and so will not really die. It is that which existed before the universe, and which flows in and through the universe, and will remain when the universe is gone. We call it “God” or “Love” or “Light” or “Life” and these words, while well-intentioned, mainly reflect our spiritual poverty because that to which they point cannot be contained by syllables. It contains the syllables! And contains that which utters or writes them . . .

And so one drifts into abstraction or poetry, metaphysics or textual analysis, deep thoughts about inner peace and justice. It’s okay. But in Christmas -if we want and if we are ready – we can turn away from all that. We can sit quietly by and be attentive to the stillness that is never not at hand: we can partake of the joy that is our true being and essence, which cannot be divided, and is wholly given.

So Jesus is born: and we are born with him: and from our kitchens and our barns, with our families and our friends, we sing alleluia in whatever way is fit. In gratitude we become the Lord, and the Lord – in Love – becomes us.

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A Course in Miracles: Ending Self-Improvement

We are apt to think that self-improvement matters: that we are in a state of becoming that can go in any number of directions and that this state is subject to a personal power of choice.

In general, spiritual seekers almost always want to be better people – kinder and gentler, slower to anger, given to love and healing. It seems like a foolproof goal. Who would argue with kindness and gentleness? Not me.

I do gently observe, however, that ideals – even when professing love and healing and the end of anger – are a distraction from a simple truth.

That truth is that at any given moment you are capable of profound love and kindness; you can be the very light of the world. That power inheres in you.

You don’t have to become what you already are.

Of course, if it is that simple, then why are we not all Gandhi? Why is the world not a veritable garden of Eden? Why has MLK’s dream gone fractured and unfulfilled? Why is there still hate and anger and suffering?

This is actually a tricky question to answer. In the spiritual circles with which I am most familiar, the tendency is to say something like “our gift for love – our identity as love – is obstructed by a habitual tendency to deny its existence.”

In other words, we make the apparent absence of love a problem to be solved – specifically, a problem that we have to solve.

We subtly shift the focus to the self that wants to be loving and has work to do (overcome the habit of ignorance, end the denial et cetera) in order to achieve a future state of lovingkindness.

Most religions and spiritual practices – often unwittingly, sometimes wittingly – encourage precisely this sort of shift-in-focus. There is and has always been a vast market for postponing love. It probably won’t go away anytime soon.

I want to make a suggestion that can seem overly simple and insufficiently spiritual, especially for those of us whose language and focus revolves around Jesus, the Buddha, awakening, nonduality, et cetera.

The suggestion is this: put aside your quest for God or enlightenment and simply be helpful. Eschew spiritual drama for clear and common sense-based acts of love.

I am suggesting you give attention to that which makes you smile more. To that which allows you to listen more. I am suggesting that you give attention to common ground rather than gaps in the ground.

I am suggesting you keep this as simple as possible. If your goal is to be kind and gentle, start with yourself – eat well, rest well, play well and work well. Opportunities to be kind to others will naturally arise. You will recognize them.

It’s okay that those opportunities seem tiny or insignificant. They aren’t. Love is whole. There is no such thing as a small or ineffective or insignificant act of love. So don’t reach for the brass ring; just do what is in front of you and trust that it’s sufficient. It is.

Just let service happen. Of its own, it will flower and lift you – enlighten you, awaken you – with it.

I am also suggesting that you already know how to do this – and where to do it – and who to do it for and with. It is not a secret and it is not a mystery.

There is nothing radical in this suggestion and there is nothing new in it, either. It’s Saint Francis and Bodhisattva vows all over again. We know it and we know we know it.

You are always looking right at love, and it is always looking right back at you.

So the point isn’t to be radical or new: the point is to discover that love is both natural and present and that service-as-an-expression-of-love is our natural vocation. It is the end of effort and becoming; it is the advent of a still, sustainable and serious joy.

Life will go on with its ups and downs. People we love will die and people we love will have babies. Parades will be rained on and other days the sun will be so bright the frisbees will throw themselves.

Current events will go on, too. Policies we admire and support will be enacted; policies we fear and oppose will be enacted. Politicians we admire will disappoint us; politicians we despise will surprise us.

It’s okay. Let that which comes and goes come and go. Opportunities for love don’t pass and your ability to be loving doesn’t either. Spirituality – so-called – runs by itself. Let it do its thing and you do your thing: discover and explore and make manifest your ability to be selfless and loving – the very light of the world. There is nothing else to do, and only you can do it.

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Intellect and A Course in Miracles

There is something about A Course in Miracles that brings out the academic in many students. It brings out the intellectual. The text is both abstract and complex in its consideration of big subjects like God and time and reality. In the ACIM community there is a lot of energy around being right and wrong – which teacher we read, which edition we read, whether we partake of other spiritual traditions.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of that. If you are interested, and have some facility for it, asking big questions, exploring complex texts, and talking the material out with others can be fun and interesting. I do it often.

But unless our goal is to be professors of A Course in Miracles, the intellectual approach is not – in, of and for itself – sufficient. It is like the oil and the wick without a flame to set it alight.

When my father died, it wasn’t my intellectual understanding of the course that helped me. Indeed, as he died and for many days after, my philosophical clarity and open-mindedness – the sum and substance of all my scholarship – just vanished. I did not reach for it and it did not offer itself.

I remember watching and listening to Dad breathe his last breaths. Would I be okay? What would it be like to live in a world without my father? Was he in pain? Was there any last thing I could do for him? It was all an unknown future and it was only seconds away.

But I wasn’t scared. Each time one of those “big” questions arose, it was gently answered by an awareness of the loving relationships that comprised “my” life. In course parlance, these were special relationships that were transformed into holy relationships because they were no longer about what one could get, but about what one could give.

I knew that my wife, Chrisoula, was with me. In those moments I perceived her less as a body – less as “my wife” and more as an unshakable ground enveloping me in a way that went beyond my ability to describe. I knew that my children were with me – that they would trust me to help them understand what was happening and find a way through it, however hard or confusing it got. All the love was present; nothing could undo it.

That night, driving home from the hospital with my family, there was a big soft moon in the summer sky. A lot of our drive was along a river: I would look at the moon, then at the river rippling with moonlight, then at the moon again. There was a clear and simple sense that what passes, passes, but that something remains. There was no need to name it – God or Love or Truth or Awareness. It was sufficient that it was unmistakably present. I was held by it; we were all held by it, the living and the dead alike.

My practice of A Course in Miracles is – relatively speaking – intellectually rigorous. That is not the only way to approach the course, nor even the best way, but for me it it is a helpful and natural way. I read deeply and widely, reflect carefully and then, when it seems to be all worked out, I rip it up and keep going.

The suggestion here is not that my response to my father’s death was especially graceful or unflawed. There was – there remains – sadness and confusion. Life goes on; the body has its experiences. I stumble along like everyone else.

Rather, the suggestion is that the intellectual work of studying A Course in Miracles is basically prefatory in nature – it matters, but it’s not all that matters. It’s not even most of what matters. You can do a lot of work to put up a tent, but then you get in the tent. You don’t put up another one.

Looking at the moon, then at the moon’s reflection, and then at the moon again was a kind of exercise in perception pointing to a deeper truth. The one image was not separate from the other; if one was absent, the other was absent as well. Concepts of causation and division dissolved. God is not something from which we fell or literally separated from a long time ago. God is more in the nature of that from which we rise and to which we return, which rising and returning functions as an appearance.

Lesson 223 of A Course in Miracles puts it this way.

I was mistaken when I thought I lived apart from God, a separate entity that moved in isolation, unattached, and housed within a body. Now I know my life is God’s, I have no other home, and I do not exist apart from Him. He has no Thoughts that are not part of me, and I have none but those which are of Him.

Some people like the image of a wave. It rises from the ocean and falls back into the ocean. It looks briefly separate – its own form, its own movement – but it is always only the sea.

I like eddies in a brook myself. If you look closely, you will see that the current is really many little currents – they spin off here and there, they create other currents, they merge with those currents, reemerge from them. But they always dissolve back into the larger flow from which they arise. They are always just the brook seen a certain way.

It is good to read ideas like that and agree or disagree with them. It is good to dismiss them or take them to heart. But what is really lovely and stunning is to see it for oneself: not as someone else’s idea that we learned in a book, but as a clear and simple fact of our own experience.

I point here to the difference between a lived fact and a remembered or projected fact. The former is what A Course in Miracles calls “knowledge;” the latter, “perception.” Our academic study will refine our perception; it can be a critical component of our “purification” (as in “[M]iracles are everyone’s right, but purification is necessary first) but sooner or later we are brought into relationship with holiness itself. Holiness – wholeness – presents itself.

A better way of saying this is that we become aware of the holiness – the relationships – by which our natural wholeness is unobscured. This holiness – manifest in these relationships – is already extant. It is already given. We don’t “do” anything – it’s not about learning or prayer or doing good works. Rather, it is there – it is present, unconditionally so – and the effect of its being clouded is gone.

We might think of the moon: its light is a fact whether it is hidden by clouds or on the other side of the earth. We don’t create its shining, we can’t “move” clouds or rearrange the earth’s position in space to make the shining better or clearer or more “here right now.” But we can “know” the light is there, and sometimes we can see it clearly, which confirms our knowing. In time, we no longer need to literally “see” the moon to know it is there. It is there.

Lesson 69 says this about what it is given and our awareness of what is given.

Have confidence in your Father today, and be certain that He has heard you and answered you. You may not recognize His answer yet, but you can indeed be sure that it is given you and you will yet receive it.

So we have to be the ACIM student that we naturally and presently are. We have to take the teacher we are called to take and work with them. We have to live the life that right now appears before us. Nothing needs to be explained or even understood. The gift of our attention to that which is showing up is sufficient; it is more than sufficient.

Life in the world naturally include adversity, frustration, pain and loss – sometimes intensely so. That is okay. Our study of A Course in Miracles does not relieve us of life. Rather, it opens us up to life so that we can perceive it as it is in fact, as it is in truth – absent judgment, absent special narrative, absent personal goals.

The secret, if there is one, is simply that what we call “God” is in fact nothing other than this: this this.

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On Concluding

Often it is helpful to go slowly: to not rush to conclusions, and to be aware of the many threads that are present in thought. Attention is a way of asking: what is showing up? What is here?

For most of us, what shows up is some variation on “our” lives. The first-person subjective lens naturally attends our experience and helps to organize it. Nobody is immune to this; nobody needs to be immune. It is just there.

It is helpful to notice this without rushing to explain or define or qualify it. Noticing it is a way of letting it be: of just residing in the sense of “I am.”

We might attend this “noticing” in the spirit of sitting on a beach or the back porch: grateful, aware, relaxed, in no hurry.

We might notice the subtle impulse to be right about experience (it reflects brain-based reticular activating systems), or to reach some conclusion about experience (I am not a body), or discover some spiritual first cause for experience (God).

What is interesting is not so much those options in and of themselves but rather their appearance and what underlies them: the impulse to conclude, and to conclude rightly.

Indeed, the assumption that is possible to conclude, and to conclude rightly.

The suggestion is simply to see this – the impulse and assumption – and to see what happens when we sort of hold them up to the light without acceding to their demands. They are very demanding: believe me! Make use of me! Only me!

And so forth.

What we are doing now is neither accepting nor rejecting them but just noticing them. We deliberately avoid conclusion in favor of just giving attention. What is showing up? What is here?

There is a tendency to fragment, and then to be concerned about the truth of just a little part of the whole. And this is but a way of avoiding, or looking away from the whole, to what you think you might be better able to understand (T-16.II.2;1-2).

It might be noticed that experience is not contingent on understanding, even though understanding is sometimes a nice aspect of experience. However, just as I don’t need to understand the science behind stars in order to behold them in wonder and joy, I don’t need to understand or otherwise manage consciousness right in order to be conscious.

A better and far more helpful way to think or miracles is this: You do not understand them, either in part or in whole. Yet they have been done through you. Therefore your understanding cannot be necessary (T-16.II.2:4-6).

In a sense, this is what it means to say that we are already awake: nothing has to happen in order for us to be awake. Awakeness, so to speak, is already a fact. It is here: it is this.

[I]t is impossible to accomplish what you do not understand. And so there must be Something in you that does understand (T-16.II.2:7-8).

Part of “this” – this Something in us that does understand – includes learning about it, inquiring into it, wanting to share it, and so forth. It includes sometimes just chilling out with it, so that we can visit the neighbors, bake cookies with the kids, watch television, do the dishes. It includes forgetting or losing it, missing it, searching for it, finding it.

And sometimes part of “this” is feeling deeply and wholly unified – not separate
from anyone or anything.

It’s nice when that sense of wholeness is present but it’s still just a passing experience, still just a feeling. It’s no better or worse than a headache or a traffic ticket or a bowl of fresh raspberries.

Again, the inclination to conclude – to decide this is what the self is, this is what life is, this is what God is, this is how to know God and so forth – has a tendency to overwhelm our present experience, which is always all there really is.

Simply giving attention to what is showing up allows us to sense the way in which “the whole” is just another concept that shows up, that “being right” or “being correct” are just more concepts that show up. Even “God” – sacred to many of us – is just a word, just an idea, just a concept.

So we are looking at all that, and it is never not appearing, never not showing up, and maybe what begins to happen in that we relax with respect to the impulse to figure it out, to solve it, to put a pin in it. Fortunately, there’ s no hurry and it can’t really be done wrong.

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On Knowledge and Perception

(1)

In my dream
we walked to the lake
and you asked me questions
about awakening and love.

Your hands gestured
in the moonlight
like birds
whose name was not yet given.

“I want to know
what you know,”
you said. “I want
to know the whole of it.”

When we reached the water
you continued
across it
borne on its surface like an image of the moon.

I knelt on the beach
and watched you go,
neither calling you back
nor bothering to follow,

for what could I say
that you had not given me to say?
And where could I go
you had not already helped me go?

And where else could you learn
that I was your student
and you my teacher,
save in the solitude

I alone can give you?

(2)

The invitation inherent in A Course in Miracles is to know thyself. Any other knowledge is illusory. To know is to know thyself. Everything else is simply perception.

Perception is the body’s way of sensing what is going on and attempting to understand and collate it. Through its senses the body gathers data and through its brain it organizes that data in order to sustain, nurture and protect the body.

Perception is not separate from what is perceived. There is no such thing as hearing without sound, no such thing as sight without what is seen and so forth. There is no space between hearing and what is heard, seeing and what is seen.

Perception is always experienced in the particular. We hear chickadees and crows, see apple trees and moonlight, touch rivers and horses, taste ice cream and sauerkraut, smell wood smoke and bread baking.

Perception is separative and thus invites preference, the hierarchizing of what is different according to the body’s relationship to pleasure and pain.

Perception causes conflict, which includes efforts to resolve conflict in favor of peace, inner and otherwise.

Perception always appears as local and personal. It implies a center, which is the body, and an experiencer and decider, which is the self.

Yet upon investigation, it is seen that the body too is perceived. It is sensed. Like all that is perceived, the body comes and goes.

And upon investigation, it is seen that the self too is perceived. It is conceptual – an interpretation of bodily experience as central, personal and causative. It is an idea about what all these perceptions and memories of perceptions and anticipations of perceptions mean for the body.

Perception runs by itself, without regard for any apparent interpretation or investment.

It is possible to be attentive to what is perceived.

Attention is responsive. It can be directed.

But attention is also neutral. It observes a funeral the same as a birthday party. Of itself, it excludes nothing, even itself.

Attention is impersonal. Its function never changes.

The suggestion to “give attention” is simply a suggestion to be aware of what is perceived – objects, feelings, ideas, will and so forth.

Attention exposes the relative nature of bodily existence, which allows one to see clearly the full nature of human experience.

Seen clearly, the full nature of human experience points to – but is not itself – knowledge.

Knowledge is that which is without opposite.

It cannot be objectified.

It has no parts.

It is not “whole” because that would imply the possibility of “not-whole.”

Knowledge is not “of” something.

It cannot be gained or lost. It cannot be refined or expanded. It cannot be taken or given. It cannot be taught because it cannot be learned.

That which is relative – the self, the body – does not transform into that which is absolute.

The relative does not “come to know” the whole.

Perception does not become knowledge.

However, through attention, perception can be seen as fractured and separative.

Through attention, perception can be seen as only relatively true.

Through attention, one can see that what is “relatively true” is false.

Through attention, one can see that what is “false” is not wrong but simply unreal.

Perception reaches no further than that distinction.

Though perception will keep running so long as the material conditions for its function continue to appear, it no longer commands investment or attachment.

Attention – previously the servant of the body and the self – turns to what is true. It turns to knowledge.

However, nothing actually happens. Nothing actually changes.

There is nothing to turn to, just as there is nothing to turn away from.

Knowledge is not hidden. It has no boundaries, guarded or otherwise.

What always was and always will be simply is.

And nothing else is.

The language of A Course in Miracles can be maddening. It appears to invite discord. It appears to imply that learning is necessary. It appears to imply hierarchies of experience and wisdom necessitating choice.

And yet.

To the devoted student, the course is simply a means of discerning what is false.

The course simply teaches the ready student to see the false as false, which is the only precondition to knowing what is true.

What is true cannot be taught.

It is simply what is when what is false is seen as false.

A Course in Miracles has no objective other facilitating this discernment.

(3)

Life belongs to the Giver of Life.
It belongs to itself.
There is no such thing as “my life”
or “your life.”
There is no such thing as “our life.”
There is only Life,
beginningless
and endless
and without division.
It is incapable
of being owned
and cannot be made
into what it is not.
When the one who dreams
they are apart from life
sees all this clearly
they become like a violet
in a part of the field
nobody visits.
Where is loveliness
when no one beholds it?
Where is grace
when nobody receives it?
What is wholeness
absent naming?
How perfectly
the secret flower blooms . . .

(4)

Beloved,
I only share
what you asked me to remember

before there was a garden –
before there was a flood –
before there was the One –

there was this love

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