Awakening means being less wrong

Awakening is perhaps the wrong word (when we are thinking in terms of some Absolute like God) because it suggests one is (or can be) asleep, when the whole suggestion is that distinctions like “asleep” or “awake” aren’t helpful. They are distractions.

sunlight on the river in spring

There is just this experience presently happening, which may include awareness of itself and may not, without being increased or diminished thereby. Though we can apply terms like “spirituality” and “religion” to it, it is simply a fact of nature.

In a sense, awakening is being less mistaken with respect to experience, where “mistaken” is read literally to mean that we are holding or possessing something that cannot be held or possessed.

The thing is, whatever awakening is, it is collectively and globally accessible. It is natural and simple and clear.

If we consider it to be the purview of a select few – rare beings of spiritual genius – then it’s not awakening.

If it is something one earns through time and effort – as opposed to something one deepens and becomes dextrous with through time and effort – then it is not awakening.

If it is obtruse and hard to explain and only a few super smart, hyper-educated people can converse about it, then it’s not awakening.

There is nothing wrong with having a knack for prayer or peaceful comportment, or for enjoying and practicing meditation and other so-called spiritual practices, or for being attracted to knotty intellectual challenges.

But if we make them the sine qua non of awakening, then we are deluding ourselves, and quite possibly others as well.

Again, the suggestion is that awakening is clear, natural and accessible, and that we are all awake – awakened and awakening – right now. Full stop.

We might compare it to eating. Generally (it is understood there are exceptions in certain cases) nobody has to teach us how to be hungry and how to eat in order to alleviate hunger. We are born with that knowledge. It is inherent.

Not all of us become chefs or gourmands, but all of us know that we eat apples and not hub caps. All of us can slap a few pieces of bologna between bread and eat it. Or just stuff a handful of bologna in our mouths.

Sometimes feeding our hunger is mechanical – we do it reflexively, with whatever’s on hand, while reading or grading papers or driving to work.

Sometimes it is communal – we have family or friends to sit down beside and share food and dialogue. Preparation and presentation matter. We linger.

Sometimes eating is so good it verges on orgasmic. Other times – maybe a lot of times – it’s just meh.

But in all of that, whatever it is, it is. We can do a lot with eating, but it’s always eating, and it is always meeting the same basic simple natural need.

And nobody needs to educate us about that need. We get it, and we do it.

That is not a perfect analogy, of course, but what we are calling “awakening” can be thought of as approximating eating in order to alleviate hunger.

The simplicity and clarity of that is made difficult because we have convinced ourselves that awakening is something other than what it is. So what we are “taking” for awakening – seeking, confusion, idolization of teachers and institutions and so forth – is “mis” taken.

This is a kind of dysunction. It is like standing in the middle of a river and asking where the water is.

Awakening is just noticing what’s here at the moment. The “trick” or “catch” is that we are never not noticing it. When that really clicks, seeking comes to a natural end and we can just attend to what is without a lot of drama and angst.

So, you know, right now you are reading these words and that’s that. You aren’t reading the Bible and you aren’t reading Danielle Steele. You are sitting where you are sitting which means you are not sitting anywhere else. And so forth.

Nobody needs a priest or philosopher or guru to to teach them that when they are eating breakfast they are not running a marathon, or that when they are weeding the garden they are not eating lunch.

Though it has its own problems with convolution and complexity, A Course in Miracles frequently points out that giving attention is all that is needed to translate crucifixion (suffering) to resurrection (peace). What is revealed in, through and by attention is unmistakable.

. . . [B]eing true, it is so simple that it cannot fail to be completely understood. Rejected yes, but not ambiguous. And if you choose against it now it will not be because it is obscure, but rather that this little cost seemed, in your judgment, to be too much to pay for peace (T-21.II.1:3-5).

The tone the course takes here is a bit stern, essentially making “choice” feel like a moral failure if we choose “wrongly.” But really, looking elsewhere for what is right in front of us is very human. Nobody is immune from it and so nobody should feel bad about it.

Still, the general principle is sound – experience is so simple and clear and present that you can’t misunderstand it. Therefore, if we are confused, we must be looking in the wrong direction or at the wrong thing or in the wrong way, and so we just make adjustments. That’s all.

looking north across the beaver pond

It’s like if your food is too bland you sprinkle a little salt on it. Or if it’s too cold, then you pop into the oven to reheat it. It is not a moral or spiritual crisis. The fix is manageable and obvious.

Emily Dickinson understood deeply the natural beauty and clarity of awakening, and consistently expressed how it revealed itself through the present moment held in sacred and loving attention.

By intuition, Mightiest Things
Assert themselves – and not by terms –
“I’m Midnight” – need the Midnight say –
“I’m Sunrise” – Need the Majesty?

Omnipotence – had not a Tongue –
His lisp – is Lightening – and the Sun –
His Conversation – with the Sea –
“How shall you know”?
Consult your Eye!

One need only give attention to what is. It is not a question of knowledge or practice, but experience itself. Attention to experience is itself sufficient.

So in general, when we are talking about something only a few enlightened and deserving people get, then we are not talking about awakening.

Rather, awakening is accessible unconditionally to everyone. The proof is our present experience to which we are right now – and forever – awake, otherwise we would be unaware of it.

On Spiritual Story-telling: Our Stories Matter

As languaging self-reflexive primates, we like to explain things. More to the point, we like stories that explain things – why the sun appears in the east and disappears in the west, why the North Star appears so consistently still in the sky, how people came to exist, why they have to die, what happens after they die, what’s beneath or behind the various surfaces we encounter, et cetera.

A good story satisfies us. It explains how the world works, what the proper order of life is, and how we fit into it. Good stories solve mysteries and bring clarity to complicated issues.

The thing is, these explanatory narratives are often wrong. The Romans butchered white castrated oxen on the day new consuls swore their oaths in order to appease Jupiter – that was wrong. Jonathan Edwards believed that if a person’s behavior deviated from very narrow tenets, then God would drop them into a fiery pit for all eternity – that was wrong. Lord Kelvin argued that élan vital infused matter, bringing it to life – that was wrong. Charmaine Yoest, Trump’s assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, believes that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer – that’s wrong.

The point is not to gloat, to point out all the poor saps who have fallen prey over the years to illusion, misinformation, junk science and so forth. They’re just human observers being human observers. Human psychology is human psychology. Thinking that we’re unique exceptions, that we would never make those kinds of errors, well, that’s an error. There are no high horses, no royal roads. The fool and the king both put their pants on one leg at a time. Us too.

The point is to become aware of the ways in which our own thinking, our own explanatory stories, deviate from coherence. If we can’t do that – or think that we don’t need to do it – then that’s our first example of incoherence. We are human observers having a human experience and that includes a) having nontrivial perceptual and cognitive blind spots and b) being sometimes blind to our own blindness. Pretending otherwise is silly.

One way to check our blindness is to notice words and phrases that “seem” explanatory but in fact just provide a hit of feel-good emotion. “Nothing real can be threatened.” “Jesus saves.” “If you take one step towards Allah, Allah will take ten steps towards you.” “Consciousness is all.” And so forth.

Those phrases are not helpful in terms of figuring out how to act in the world. If your child had a bad fall, saying “consciousness is all” won’t help you calm your child, get a medical kit, and decide whether to call for help. If you forget to mail a critical package for work, saying “Jesus saves” won’t magically retroactively mail it.

No, what those phrases do is make us feel better. Bad shit happens, call Jesus. Scary events happen but really it’s all neutral because there’s only consciousness. This divorce really hurts but don’t sweat it because neither the world nor the bodies in it are real. How many times have we said “God has a plan” and felt better about whatever adverse circumstances were then enveloping us?

It makes sense we want to feel better. It is healthy to develop strategies that will help us feel better. But if we are indulging fantasies, specious logic, and other forms of incoherence as the means of feeling better, then we are setting ourselves up to feel bad again. And maybe bring others along with us.

There is a better way.

If you tell me that calling on Jesus calms you so you can better attend your injured child or deal with some other crisis, ask why that is what calms you. If you didn’t believe Jesus was real and involved – was really there in some tangible way – then calling on him wouldn’t work.

And if you really do believe that God and his son Jesus are present and attentive to you in a personal way, then why do bad things happen at all? Why doesn’t God nudge the branch aside over which your child is about to trip? Why does Jesus wait on your call, rather than just showing up when needed?

If you say, “well, it’s just one person telling themselves God loves them or Jesus saves so what’s the harm” then you are missing the key point that nothing we do is without effect in a broader way. Everything we do affects those around us. It was just one Mayan who thought cutting the heart out of living prisoners was a good idea, but he managed to convince a lot of other Mayans it was a good idea, and so a lot of people died very painful deaths. Don’t sell yourself short!

Our fictions reverberate and those reverberations have a direct impact on other lives. If you are indulging a God who can actively affect your life, then you are simultaneously providing cover for folks who think God is active in their lives – and their God may want women to hide their bodies and submit to men, or blow up abortion clinics, or keep gay folks from marrying or adopting children or even just holding hands in public.

If you say, well, your God is different than the God of those crazy people, or that those crazy people are worshiping the wrong God, or the right God the wrong way, well, congratulations. Your argument means that everyone is entitled to their God, which means that some of those Gods are going to be very Jonathan Edwards-like. Some may even lean in directions that Mayans would find familiar. It is a slippery slope and our feet are bathed in grease.

I am saying that if you are turning in the direction of God – however you frame that turn and that-to-which-you-turn – then you are turning in the direction of incoherence. You are turning in the direction of pain – for you and for others, some of whom you love and care for, and wouldn’t hurt in a million years.

Feeling crappy is okay. Bad luck is okay. Rough patches are normal. They are all part of the human experience. Wanting to avoid what hurts – and minimize the hurt when it does happen – is also okay. That, too, is part of the human experience. A nifty thing about human observers is that we can reflect on our experience, dialogue with others, learn new practices, make predictions, adapt our behavior and so forth. It is possible to be happy – deepy happy – and in our happiness to be kind and helpful to others in tangible sustainable ways. It doesn’t take a deity.

When we feel better because we believe God or Jesus or the Buddha or the Beloved or the All is there for us, intervening for us, guiding us, then we are reenacting the same story our ancestors enacted. We probably aren’t cheering for the ritual sacrifice of virgins we kidnapped from neighboring towns, but we shouldn’t get too smug. Incoherence is still incoherent, even if its affects are not as dramatic as they once were.

Give attention to your stories. Notice how some of them purport to explain life and death and love and loss. Notice how these stories sustain you in the face of both internal and external adversity. Then notice how these stories are not actually explanatory at all. They’re more like code words to set off a temporary boost in our dopamine levels. They provide a temporary – a transitory – respite from what ails us.

If we can notice our incoherent stories, then we can ask what an actual coherent story would look like. How can we actually explain what scares us – death, loss, uncertainty, et cetera? If we don’t presently have helpful explanatory stories, is that okay? How should we go about getting one? What can we do in the interim? Who should we turn to for help?

Check your stories. Make a practice of telling more effective ones. Don’t be embarrassed to discard what no longer works – it happens to all of us. Don’t go with the first idea. Ask what this would look like to someone who doesn’t care what you do with your life. Look for questions you don’t want to ask, and answers you shy away from.

It is counter-intuitive to do this! It’s hard. We are not wired to doubt our intuitions and instincts. But it is helpful to persist. Not because we are going to become perfect or Godlike, but because we are going to become happier, and in our happiness be more helpful to those around us, which will increase their happiness in turn. That is a reasonable goal. That is meaningful living.

Behavior and A Course in Miracles

Ken Wapnick was fond of pointing out that A Course in Miracles was not injunctive with respect to behavior. One doesn’t have to be a vegetarian or a Democrat or go to church on Sunday or celebrate Christmas or donate to the poor in order to be a course student.

In an important sense, he is correct. The course bypasses a lot of behavioral directives that often characterize spiritual and religious practices and traditions.

Of course – and Ken acknowledged this, too – if one diligently studied A Course in Miracles, there were often external correlates tending in the direction of gentleness, kindness, moderation, et cetera. Those correlates were not why one studied ACIM but they were certainly pleasant perks (both for the student and those around them).

This distinction – between what it means to study A Course in Miracles is and what the effects of that study are – matters. Not being confused about that distinction also matters.

Strictly speaking, A Course in Miracles is a one-year self-study program that is Christian in language and imagery, modeled on a traditional twentieth century psychological paradigms and explores – with varying degrees of effectiveness – nondualism. It is not a spiritual practice per se, and so is not intended to supplant pre-existing practices.

It is not, in other words, the latest or the best or the most-improved method of attaining inner peace. It’s just another tool, helpful or unhelpful according to the context in which it is applied.

And indeed, as its author, Helen Schucman, made clear in the preface, its only objective is to introduce students to an “inner teacher” it generally refers to as the “Holy Spirit.” Once that student-teacher relationship is in place, the course is largely irrelevant. The Holy Spirit – such as it is – takes things from there.

Thus, a study of A Course in Miracles is more akin to taking a class than it is to going to church or meditating or whatever other spiritual behavior happens to be personally resonant. And, the measure of the course’s effectiveness is the degree to which it delivers a given student to their “inner teacher.”

You read the text, do the lessons, read the manual and . . . that’s it. For all ACIM-related intents and purposes, you’re done. You did it. You are either in touch with your inner teacher or you aren’t. In either case, the utility of A Course in Miracles is changed for you.

So knowledge about the course, time you’ve spent studying, and prestige within the course community are not hallmarks of course effectiveness. In fact – I speak from experience – they are often symptoms of distraction and confusion which inevitably generate more distraction and confusion.

Ken Wapnick, for example, often called himself the first teacher of the course but it is perfectly clear that he was actually its first student. Most of what passes for Ken’s “teaching” is really Ken’s “learning out loud in front of others.”

This doesn’t mean it’s not helpful. It can be, in its way. I am certainly grateful for Ken’s intelligence and devotion. But if we insist on seeing his course-related work as “teaching” – rather than as the student next to us who talks a lot, who is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and whose experience of the course cannot ultimately be our own – then we are apt to get confused, possibly deeply so. There is no law that says you have to wake up before you die!

So a lot of the time, for a lot of students, what we think of as “the course” or what the course “says” or “means” is really just our personal recapitulation of Ken’s learning process. Other, lesser-known, students are also “learning by teaching” and the effect on their students – confusion – is the same. I have contributed to this problem myself. At its best, this kind of “teaching” simply generates more material that will need to be undone at some later juncture. At it’s worst, well, there is no law that says you have to wake up before you die. Or did I say that already?

It is helpful to note (to remember, really) that undoing is not something that “we” do – it is more in the nature of something that happens or, better, something that we observe happening. Or not happening, as it were. To the extent we are attached to undoing, then undoing itself becomes a thing to be undone.

For me – which is not say “for you” – there is really only observation left. Of course I screw this up – how could I not? And yet it is also possible to reach a space of relative stillness where one can simply give attention to what is going on without interfering in it. At that point, deeper stillnesses and quiets are revealed. Even the wordy and unworthy are welcome.

Also at that point, the course – and its teachers – are more or less irrelevant. I don’t think noticing and reporting this is controversial. And behavior – do this, don’t do that – ceases to matter as much. One is never not amazed at how much prattle and static passes for spirituality . . .

Really, it is good to be honest, because honesty precedes clarity, and clarity is what allows us to finally figure out what little to do and how, in the personal context of our living, to do it. So what is our experience? Who are we “following?” What “rules” are we obeying? What “rules” are we breaking?

It comes back to us; it really does. It comes back to experience: to this experience: this one right here and now. This this. What is it? What are its boundaries? Its seams? What is its source? How do we know? How can we say?

In my experience – which is not to say “your experience” – the course does not really answer those questions so much as gently (well, mostly gently but sometimes roughly) deliver us to a space where they can be answered, where “answered” means “undone” or “dissolved.” And that undoing or dissolution – which is inherent and ordinary! – leads readily to a quiet and natural happiness.

In Cambridge, A Breeze

A great deal of energy in the ACIM community goes into being right, which generally means proving others wrong. Or at least persuading them not to ask certain questions certain ways. It is painful, whatever side one takes.

Of course, I have contributed to this demoralizing situation. How else would I know it? The damage isn’t really to the community or the course, both of which are simply patterns of cognition, but rather to our deep interior longing for peace, which cannot be satisfied in a competitive environment.

One of the points I often tried to make – sincerely but brokenly – was that it is not in fact possible to be right or wrong, other than in a relative way.

I say “broken” here because in that writing I wasn’t simply speaking to my own experience and understanding. I was trying to persuade you; I was trying to win you. I wanted something: I wanted to be right, which is to say, I wanted you to be wrong.

Forgive me.

Saying it is not possible to be right or wrong in any absolute – as opposed to a temporarily relative – way sends a lot of course students, a lot of folks generally, around the bend.

For example, many devoted followers of Ken Wapnick are acculturated to his rigid “it’s this, not that” way of thinking. Thus, the possibility of exploring ACIM’s natural concordance with Krishnamurti, or noting that the course perpetuates some very traditional western dualisms, or pointing out that Ken’s scholarship with respect to gnosticism was, um, wanting, can’t really be countenanced. You end up arguing where you meant to be helpful.

And there are folks who can’t bear that Gary Renard might be anything less than an opportunistic lying blowhard. Or that some issues – like supporting gay marriage, opposing literal readings of the Second Amendment, or a moral obligation to feed the hungry – necessarily admit to degrees of right and wrong.

And, of course, there are folks like me who decide that we “get it” – because of how smart we sound when we listen to ourselves, and because we read so much and are very impressed with our reading. This intellectualism and wordiness, regardless of how shallow, becomes a spiritual qualification for instructing others, whether they are asking for help or not.


Earlier this year, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was gently shaken by a breeze that does not allow the one it touches to speak any more about truth or oneness or wholeness. It went full Wittgenstein, saying, “Of that which we do not know, we must not speak.”

And then it made really really clear how little I actually know . . .

It seems clear that if we look into experience, without blinking or substituting or lying to ourselves, then it is not possible to be right or wrong with respect to others. For ourselves, sure. For others, not so much. If we allow them the same freedoms we allow ourselves – which we must, finally – then how can we tell them what to believe? Or not to believe? What to think? What not to think?

It is not that right and wrong don’t appear – they do, manifestly – but that by virtue of their appearance, its very nature and substance, they cannot be weaponized against another.

God, truth, the whole, the absolute, awakening, enlightenment – all are nontrivial ideas forever beyond our ability to know in anything other than a relativistic way. They are surprisingly less interesting – and infinitely less dramatic – when this becomes clear.

And what happens then? When there is no course to teach or to learn? When others are not there for us to measure up against?

For me, there is going slowly. There is study and meditation. There is the deep hard work of doing one’s living and loving in a local way that is premised on love and service, both of which naturally inhere in the human observer. There are models and maps but their helpfulness is contingent and easy to get lost in. Eventually it’s clear: we have to find our own way. We have to let it happen or not happen.

The question is not what does Sean think – not even for Sean is that the question – but rather how what Sean says appears for you, what it loosens and lightens, what it tangles and what it tightens. That is all on you. That is all your own making, your own experiencing.

The language of A Course in Miracles – being so dense and inconsistent, so obtusely Christian, so unsure of whether it’s descriptive or injunctive – no longer serves. Perhaps it never did.

Or did it? And who can say, really? Does it matter?

Earlier today a chickadee perched briefly in the maple tree in the side yard. How perfect it was: how precisely seeing it was seeing. I go with you, because without you I am not. A great loneliness is ended: a great stillness opens.

This happened in Cambridge, a long time ago.

On Change and Constancy

All is in movement . . .

– Chuang Tzu

This is one of the insights that recurs across time and geography: life is change. Life is always changing. Change is the one constant. We can’t count on anything save not being able to count on anything.

The river is a river because it is always in motion. Its constancy is its changing.

Because this insight appears so regularly in so many human cultures, we might infer that does in in fact speak to an essential truth of the human experience. Everything is in flux, everything changes.

Change is often painful to one degree or another. Some of the spinach I bought last week went bad. That was a drag. My dogs aged and then died and that loss hurt. That was more than a drag. A lot more. My father aged, was laid low by serious debilitating illnesses, and died, and a year and a half later I am still sad, confused and lonesome. That is a deep and abiding grief.

Moreover, I witness the same process of decay in my wife and children and our friends. It’s almost like change and death are . . . inevitable.

So it seems like one reason human beings notice change – and adopt spiritual strategies for dealing with it – is that it is always there and it tends to hurt, sometimes intensely so. And lingering at the fringe of change, is death. Every change – no matter how small – points to the apparent end of what we love and, ultimately, of ourselves.

If we are honest about our experience of change, we can see how consistently and intensely it shades the interior landscape. It touches all of us. It brings us face-to-face with our weakness and inefficacy. I can’t stop a leaf from falling, let alone my child from suffering, or my body from dying.

Thus the insight (inhering in Chuang Tzu’s observation) that change is the only constant. Thus the question, what shall we do in the face of it?

Heraclitus observed that a river remains what it is because its contents continuously change. Its constant identity is its constant change.

The far end of our homestead is a little brook that feeds a larger river. Summer nights you can hear the river, as if the earth itself were whispering to the stars. I often walk past the horses at dawn to sit by the water. A river is truly an amazing thing to look at in a reflective way: it is moving constantly, and its movements vary in both subtle and dramatic ways, yet it is always this river.

We can take this observation a step further. Sometimes it can seem like the river is changing, but I am not – I am the stable observer sitting quietly on the bank. The river flows constantly – it changes constantly – but Sean doesn’t. Sean is the still silent observer in the midst of change.

Now that’s silly in a sense, because my body is in flux too. Blood flows, hair grows, stomach processes food and drink, neurons fire, thoughts come and go . . .

I’m like the river. It’s always me but both me and the container with which me seems to be associated are constantly changing.

There is a theme here. In all this change, we keep encountering someone or something that does not change. Yet when we look closely at this someone or something, it reveals that it, too, is changing.

Does this make sense? I am saying that there always seems to be an observer who does not change. Then, when you observe the observer, the observer is seen to be changing. But that change is always only relative to an observer who is not changing.

This is a loop! And it’s important to see it and not conflate it with some mystical truth, some mysterious force in the universe. The observer becomes the observed, revealing yet another observer. This recursivity is simply what it means to be a human observer.

So what we are saying is that the reflective experience of change is only possible because of a concomitant experience of constancy.

That is, we can only identify change by virtue of comparing it to something that does not change. The perceiving subject that we are – and remain for some period of time – is effectively brought forth by the fluid environment that surrounds it.

It is change that makes things the same. Constancy and change are not unconnected opposites. They are yoked. The one that makes the other possible.

When I say “the one makes the other possible” I am really making two distinct but intimately related statements.

First, I am saying that what appears to be two (change and constancy, in this case) is in fact one. It is (to adopt Chuang Tzu’s phrasing) a single movement.

Second, I am confirming the appearance of two (or many). That is, I am saying that even though constancy and changed are yoked and thus one, they appear to us separately, as more than one. This is a functional distinction that we do not need to be alarmed about. It’s not a problem to be solved.

gazing east across the river, our home a distant image

If everything changed, then there would be no change. There would be no way to know change. Thus, everything can’t change – otherwise, there wouldn’t be change. Something has to remain the same. But that something – when looked at – reveals that it, too, changes. So everything does change. But if everything changes . . .

It comes back to that loop again. That loop has thrown a lot of us off for a long time. When we really encounter it, it can feel as if we are literally touching infinity or eternity. It can feel like we’ve reached the holy grail of consciousness.

But really, we are just making tangible contact with an ordinary aspect of being a human observer. It’s natural. It’s functional. It isn’t going anywhere. It’s okay. It’s more than okay.

The most effective and peaceful way out of the loop – or, if you prefer, to integrate the loop – is to be grateful for the human observer that you are, grateful for the perspective you embody by which such a vibrant, complex and amazing world is brought forth.

Bringing Forth Love

Because we are not alone but together, and because our identity is not separate from this alone-but-togetherness, language matters. It is how we communicate; how we experience both self and other and – in a sort of meta-level way – the collective itself. Absent language, what would be?

Jack showing off in early spring . . .

So we want to go slowly and carefully in and with our wordiness. We want to be generous, patient and open in a sustainable way, a mutual way. In a sense, communication is co-creation. To paraphrase Humberto Maturana, everything that we say, we say to an observer who could be our own self. This mutuality that inheres in communication – how shall we bring it forth? How shall we bring forth love?

My slow remove from A Course in Miracles – which has not diminished my gratitude for it, nor effaced important work done under its guidance – has largely been a consequence of perceiving a need for a language that is more precise, gentler, and less dramatic than that which comprises the course. The potential for error, confusion, conflation . . . these abound in the text, workbook, and Manual for Teachers. Is there not, as Bill Thetford wondered, another – more helpful, efficient, inclusive – way?

Consider, for example, these sentences from Lesson 135:

Without defense, you become a light which Heaven gratefully acknowledges to be its own. And it will lead you on in ways appointed for your happiness according to the ancient plan, begun when time was born. Your followers will join their light with yours, and it will be increased until the world is lighted up with joy (W-I.135.20:1-3).

On the one hand, this is basically a sound lesson, part of a sequence encouraging students to look at the various psychological defenses they have mounted against love, which is to say, against the apparent (the observed and observing) other. In course parlance, the ego is basically a network of defenses that is confused about what is being defended and what is being defended against. An imaginary self wages an imaginary battle against an imaginary foe. We are missing the flowers because our attention is given to a conflict that need not be.

Good enough! Human beings are distracted by imaginary conflicts. We are confused about self and other and existence. Giving attention to all of that in ways aimed at clarifying the confusion and undoing the conflict matter. They matter deeply.

But is the specific language the course uses helpful in this regard? Or does it ultimately just ensure that the same old cyclical problem gets to keep on cycling, albeit with a new mask and skin?

For me, for a time, A Course in Miracles – what it was saying and how it was saying it – was helpful. But in the end it was clear that its helpfulness was mostly in the way it subtly reinforced existing patterns of cognition about self, other, God, Jesus and so forth. I do not think I was – or am – alone in this!

How does this happen? And what can be done about it?

It happens in large part because of the temptation to take the course literally rather than symbolically. We want to be right. We want the answer, not an answer. And so we project that desire for certainty onto the course.

Take the sentences from Lesson 135 above. Give some attention to them. “Heaven” is not a real place. “Heaven” has no agency with which to be “grateful” or “acknowledge” anything. Rather, it is simply a word that – in this context – symbolizes inner peace, interior stillness and calm, sustainable gentleness and kindness, patience, et cetera.

If we take “heaven” literally – as a place we could go to, as an discrete agentic force that could move us – then we are going to get lost very quickly. And most of us do take it literally. Because if you switch out the literal meaning for the symbolic meaning, then it stops implying some future salvation. Suddenly, being gentle, kind, patient, tolerant, open-minded and so forth, are something that we have to embody here and now.

If we shift from abstract Christian ideals like “heaven” and seek instead to embody, say, sustainable kindness, we instantly become co-creators with one another. We instantly become human beings bringing forth love in the present moment to the best of their limited ability.

And that is actually really really hard! It is work! It takes energy and attention and willingness. It takes practice and study. It takes a shared life: a collective which we both nurture and are nurtured by.

It is easier to posit some future force that will take care of everything – then all we have do is be right about that force. It’s Jesus, we say. Believe in Jesus. But if there is no Jesus, no future salvation, no personal God . . .

We could keep going. We could consider the “ancient plan” to which lesson 135 suggests we are all subject. It’s a grandiose phrase that presupposes an embodied agentic planner – God – who has a plan that is better than whatever plan we’re fooling around with.

Now, it is good to not be attached to our personal plans, particularly when and as they arise from dysfunction and confusion. But on the other hand, if we get too obsessed with some mysterious plan out there in the spiritual either, there is a real risk of overlooking the very specific and present way in which we are right here and now called to be helpful, gentle, kind and patient. In a word, loving. Waiting on a fictive being to enact its “ancient plan” too easily becomes a recipe for passivity and indifference.

Furthermore, the passage implies that if we do heed all of this – the active Heaven home to an active God enacting his longstanding plan for salvation – then we will gain followers who will join their “lights” to ours which will naturally turn the whole world on like a big beautiful lamp. How special does this make us feel? How entitled?

I know, I know. The course is not really saying all of this. Just read Ken Wapnick or Tara Singh. Read David Hoffmeister. Et cetera.

My point is not that the course cannot be read in helpful ways; it can. My point is that it relies on an old language and a tired mythology that is filled with traps and risks. It is too easy to become lost and confused, despite our sincerity, despite our effort.

In the end, the course is another dualistic expression of a doctrine – Christianity – that has largely been ruinous both to people and the planet.

Elvis resting on sun-warmed ground . . .

Although it has taken many years to sort through, my course study ended at some point in the summer of 2013 when I saw for the first time how attention worked. Attention moved me away from mysticism and spirituality and, in the end, A Course in Miracles.

It reintroduced me to the love that naturally inheres in being a human being alive on Terra. And slowly – not without considerable stumbling – I have sought a language that expresses this love, that allows me to deepen with it, to soften with it, to hear it in you, share it with you, et cetera.

In part, that language requires gently – gratefully but surely – shucking the old systemic language of gods and goddesses, heavens and hells, Christs and Buddhas, saints and sinners and sacred texts – and giving plain old attention to what is happening and engaging with what is happening in ways that premised on our natural human inclination to be inclusive, cooperative, consensual and loving. That’s all.

Where the Deep Questions Go

What does it mean to perceive a coherent unified world, filled with people and animals and plants and oceans? Are trees observers too? Are stars? What does it mean to ask what something means? Does meaning matter? And who or what is so curious? What is really going on here anyway?

distances undone by the one with whom we walk

These are deep questions in the sense that they cannot be answered quickly (we’ve been at them collectively for thousands of years), reasonable people will reach different conclusions about them, and they often require insights from lots of fields (neurology, chemistry, theology, information theory, et cetera).

In general, because academia has been a consistent waystation for me over the years, my particular answers to these questions have owned an academic tilt. Read broadly, check for biases, create curricula and reading lists, muster evidence, seek out opposing views, write and rewrite the answers, teach them in classrooms when you can, don’t stop asking questions . . .

Over the years, my shorthand for that fun, interesting and demanding process has been “thinking critically.” More recently – the last five years or so – it has been “thinking critically in and through dialogue,” where dialogue is understood in a Bohmian way.

But thinking critically (in and through dialogue) – while it matters a great deal to me – never doesn’t eventually lead to giving attention to this particular experience. This this, as I like to say. The being that I am right now, characterized by all these sights and sounds and tastes and memories and hopes and needs and desires and so forth. The subjective first person welter. “I” is always experienced in a complex embodied way – even when it is stable, homeostatic, et cetera.

It is important to look closely at what calls to us. If spiritual awakening or oneness is what calls to us, then we should give attention to it – read Sri Aurobindo, Eckhart Tolle, Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson, Darwin, Schrödinger, Husserl. Do zazen, try celibacy, pray in hillside monasteries. Confess one’s sins, eat peyote, open up to a good therapist. Do yoga, stop doing yoga. What resonates and what doesn’t?

Asking about resonance is really a way of asking: what is your experience? Right now – the you that is sitting in a chair by the window, sipping tea, reading a little before making dinner or breakfast. What is it like to be you? How does it feel? What ideas pop up with regularity? What have you forgotten? What is true and what is false? How do you know the difference? Who gets you? Who do you wish could get you? What don’t you know? How do you know you don’t know?

These questions anticipate (without necessarily mandating) subjective answers. You can most readily and authoritatively talk about what it is like to be you. What it is like to be someone else – Sean, say, or a sunflower, or a comet sailing through the sky . . . that’s beyond you. You can speculate, make inferences based on evidence and probabilities and so forth, but . . . ultimately, subjective first-person experience is our fundament.

For me, asking and exploring these questions has been most fructive in dialogue settings. This was one of David Bohm’s most helpful insights. Going deeply into complex abstract questions without a lot of premeditation and goal-setting, especially when done with folks who are equally committed to inquiry-without-a-net, tends to yield (when we are persistent and patient) wildly interesting and helpful answers.

But to be clear: these “answers” are not dispositive. They don’t really end anything. They’re more in the nature of helpful directives about what to do next – read this author, study that poetic tradition, pray less, walk more, write some haiku, et cetera.

I am not saying that questions like “what is the self” or “what is consciousness” – what is oneness – can’t be answered. I am neither smart enough nor studious enough nor holy enough to truly know if they can or can’t be, or what those answers might even look like. But that’s okay! The point is not to be Einstein or Sri Ramana or Emily Dickinson. The point is just to participate in our shared human experience in a gentle, thoughtful and nurturing way, to the maximally optimal extent possible. I want to be an effective and helpful human observer, which means giving attention to experience in gentle and sustainable ways and reporting back on what I find.

And what do I find? Well, I find what we all find. No matter how complex our inquiry becomes, no matter how far out into the cosmos or deep into the soul it reaches, we all end up in the same place. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to pee, we need to make love. Truly, bread, blankets, a roof and someone to share it all with is our penultimate and most meaningful joy. The intensity and urgency of the deep questions dissolves.

In this way, our very basic human existence is what calls to us over and over. It is, after all our spiritual and intellectual wandering, our home. This is why it is important to gently and lovingly attend our lives. At home with our beloveds, the spiritual drama and metaphysical inquiries are seen at last as distractions. We are home: we are always home.

Description vs. Injunction

Imagine that I bake you an apple pie. You tell a friend about it. You might describe the sight and smell of the pie on the table before you. Perhaps you describe the sound of steam hissing from the crust. You might even attempt to describe the taste as you eat it.

Apple harvest!

These descriptions are not without effect. They may – they likely will – trigger memories of your friend’s own pie-eating experiences. They may motivate her to eat a slice of the pie, or share a pie-related memory with you, or even consider baking a pie herself.

Descriptions are an important aspect of being in the world with others. They help us categorize and thus organize our living in resonant ways that make community both possible and sustainable.

However, one thing a description of pie will not do is enable someone to bake a pie. For that, they will need an actual recipe. And a recipe for apple pie does not look, smell or taste like apple pie!

Recipes are injunctive: do this, then do that, then do these other things, and you’ll get X.

Descriptions, while nontrivial, are not injunctive.

No judgment obtains here. Descriptions of pie are helpful according to context. Injunctions – recipes for pie – are helpful in context, too.

It is really a question of what one wants. If you want to inspire someone to bake, then descriptions are very helpful. If you want to actually bake, then recipes are indispensable.

Of course, I am not really thinking of pies here so much as what I – with lots of cultural support – long called “awakening,” which was vague shorthand for transitioning from a less desirable way of being one that was more desirable, where “desirable” was a sort of constellation of happiness, generosity, creativity, inner peace, dialogue, et cetera.

A lot of texts that I read on the subject were essentially descriptions of singular experiences that their authors had had and/or descriptions of what life was like in the wake of those transformational experiences.

Those descriptions did what descriptions do: they enabled me to compare my own experience with someone else’s, reflect on the differences and similarities, and make adjustments to my behavior accordingly.

All this beauty will rise to bless your sight as you look upon the world with forgiving eyes. For forgiveness literally transforms vision, and lets you see the real world reaching quietly and gently across chaos, removing all illusions that had twisted your perception and fixed it on the past. The smallest leaf becomes a thing of wonder, and a blade of grass a sign of God’s perfection (T-17.II.6:1-3).

Who doesn’t want that experience as it’s described in A Course in Miracles?

Another example is Coleman Barks’ (roughshod) approach to Rumi’s poetry. Barks is not actually translating Rumi because translating involves some nontrivial fidelity to the original work. Barks is transposing contemporary spiritual values (in the service of capitalist values) on to the original. Hence, Rumi is sexualized, romanticized, Christianized and – critically – stripped of Islam specifically and religion generally. The original is blotted out in favor of a bland but highly marketable substitute.

When it’s cold and raining,
you are more beautiful.

And the snow brings me
even closer to your lips.

The inner secret, that which was never born,
you are that freshness, and I am with you now.

Barks’ work is popular because it is an effective (nonthreatening, non-demanding) description of what folks imagine awakening or enlightenment will be (represented by an answer to loneliness and a means of satisfying bodily appetites). But because it’s (primarily) merely descriptive, it can’t actually induce the experience it purports to describe. It might motivate us to seek teachers; but it is not itself the teacher.

We tend to conflate description with injunction. It’s easier to describe a pie than to learn how to bake one. But if it’s pie you are really after, you can’t eat a description of one.

So if somebody is serious about “awakening” – or at least in having the experience of trying to have the experience of awakening and seeing what happens consequently – then at some point they’re going to have to jettison the descriptions, no matter how sweet or poetic or otherwise fascinating, and get on to the injunction. Do this, do that.

Last year I taught a writing class centered around a number of cross-cultural traditional and contemporary texts on happiness. It was clear to us as we read and talked and wrote that happiness was effectively a hack. That is, there are things one can do to be more effectively happy. Why not do them?

For example, if you get a reasonable amount of exercise, eat a reasonable diet, touch and be touched by both bipeds (and quadrupeds et cetera), avail yourself of art, do work that is meaningful, then – allowing for variations in neurotypicality – you’re going to be happier. Not perfectly happy or always happy. Just happier.

So as spiritual seekers or however we identify, it is helpful to give attention to what a given teacher or text is doing: is it descriptive or injunctive? The point is not that one is better than the other but that they yield different effects. The real question is: which is most helpful to you where you are?

If you’re happy with descriptions, then great! If you want the thing being described, then find the injunctions – the recipe, if you will – that provide it. If you are not experiencing awakening, and you would like to, then seek out texts that are injunctive and follow them. Avoid texts that merely (or mainly) describe awakening.

Not all injunctive texts are created equal! They do not work uniformly. Every serious pie baker has a favorite recipe; most of them have evolved to an unspoken pie recipe. The recipe that is most helpful to a beginner, will depend a lot on resonances that are not quantitative. What works for us – as a pointer, a practice, a theory, et cetera – will not work for everyone. This does not constitute a crisis!

The point is not to be critical of a given author or text – what doesn’t work for us might work fine for someone else (or for us at a later juncture) – but to give attention to what our needs are and seek out texts and teachers that are responsive to those needs.

The Universe We Are

The universe appears to us as a big, complex, beautiful and terrifying thing and, in a nontrivial way, we are as much a part of that universe as anything else. Black holes, falling stars, dark matter, homo sapiens, maple leaves and house flies. We are made of the same material obeying the same laws. It’s just that we are composed – are patterned – in such a way so as not to be giant suns or cyclones or apple blossoms but rather self-reflexive bipedal primates with a serious gift for languaging.

We are not typically aware of the atoms that comprise us. We see a hand, not the atomic and subatomic particles that when put together just so make a hand. So saying that we and the universe are one is sort of intellectual shorthand. It’s equivalent to saying, if we could see all the way to atomic and subatomic levels, then we’d see that there’s not really a “we” there. It’s just matter mattering.

But at the macro-levels where we do our living and loving and languaging, separation and distinction are very much the order of experience. And that is not a problem! It’s inherent in the perceptual and cognitive abilities of the human observer that we are (or appear as). It’s not a problem to be fixed or an illusion to deny. It’s how things are for things like us. That’s all.

Still, plenty of folks do have actual encounters with oneness that are effectively transformational. These encounters are relatively consistent across time and cultures. Extended meditation, fasting, partaking of certain flora, digging deeply into the afore-mentioned reflexivity or just getting lucky . . . clearly, there are ways for us to not only know intellectually that we are one but also to experience it the way we experience swimming, baking bread and making love.

The thing is, this oneness – especially in its more transformational modes – can be hard both to notice and, once noticed, hard to hold on to in a sustained way. Our ordinary state of mind and experience is premised on separation – that we are a discrete body, moving about amidst other discrete bodies, in a world that is basically endless separate objects like flowers, roads, fire hydrants, dogs, sweatshirts, black beans and hurricanes.

Our sense of being a distinct separate entity is a kind of user-generated illusion. It’s functional and pragmatic and consistent with our humanness but it’s hardly dispositive. It’s not a yardstick for truth or reality.

The appearance of a separate functional self is persistent, even when brought to light by scientists, philosophers, saints, prophets, salespeople and so forth. It is not itself destructive, save for the way that we tend to double down on it – as if we really are separate beings, with separate interests that need defending and protecting, and that justify all sorts of aggressive, greedy and destructive behavior against ourselves and others. If I’m atoms and you’re atoms (scientific shorthand for ‘”we” is actually “one”‘ – then what’s the big deal? Hugging it out is less painful. Compromise is easier.

But you have to see through the appearance. You have to know the appearance as an appearance – as a user-generated interface – even as you make use of it, even as you do your living and loving and languaging in it.

Apparently just knowing these facts, while not unhelpful, is not itself curative. We have to have an experience of wholeness or oneness. We need to see it in a clear way – taste it on the tongue like a rain drop – not as an abstraction but in an embodied way, like making love or eating bread or climbing a mountain.

One way of doing this is to give attention to our experience in a gentle, nonjudgmental and sustained way. Often, when we do this, everything that we need to know is revealed, often by making clear what to read next, write next, study next, pray on next and so forth. And then, over time, after enough of this attentiveness, there is a soft but intense realization that separation is not real.

In the wake of that realization, we realize that it’s okay to be calm, let things go, et cetera. We become gentler – with ourselves and with others. We’re able, in that space, to attend to life with less drama. We exercise a little, eat a little, stay close to those upon whom we depend and who in turn depend on us. We do good, which is not as abstract or vague as it sounds. We aren’t perfect at any of this, but it’s cool because perfection doesn’t matter, unless you are willing to define “perfection” as “exactly the way things are right now.”

Are we One or are we Separate?

Are we one? Or are we separate?

I used to think that these were important questions and that one could be either right or wrong with respect to them. I still they are important questions, mostly because of their potential to prompt helpful dialogues that in turn can clarify our thinking about life and self and others and so forth.

But I am less invested in being right or wrong about them. It’s not that I don’t think folks can’t be confused, but that more and more it’s clear that people are just where they are with this material and all you can do is give attention and not be a jerk. There’s always something new to learn.

chickens at the barn door
chickens at the barn door

So this post is not an argument but more of a chance to point out a basic way in which we perhaps are one. It is relatively straightforward and uncontroversial, I hope.

That “way” is the medium of language. But before we talk about that, we need to digress for a moment into food.

In general, we experience life in terms of an apparent subjective unity that is called the self. For example, hunger shows up in this body and this body has to eat in order to ameliorate that hunger. Moreover, my embodied thoughts and actions (I’m hungry, I should make a sandwich, the bread’s in the cupboard) are what ensure that food goes from “out there” to “in here.”

If I’m hungry and I feed you, then maybe I’ve done a good deed and you’re grateful but I’ll still be hungry. If I’m hungry and instead of preparing a meal I write a poem about a meal, then I’ve maybe made some good art but I’m still hungry.

We could take it a step further. We could say that I subjectively experience preferences for certain kinds of food – fried clams, vanilla rice pudding, lemon bread, tomato and onion salad with feta, kale smoothies. You might share some of those preferences but you also have your own, some of which would nauseate me. After all, there are people in the world who actually crave blood sausage.

And dropping down yet another layer, I have specific memories and stories associated with food that are very much not yours. For example, home-baked bread is so intimate for me that I literally cannot explain why without crying. It’s a whole story involving four generations of women, an Irish Setter named Bridget, sex, a secret obsession with reading cookbooks as a child, and a meditation workshop I took at the Vermont Zen Center in late winter of 1991. Oh, and also a maroon poncho.

Lots of people love bread, bake their own bread, have memories of how they came to the joy and work of bread-baking, and that love and labor and remembering may comprise moving and complex narratives but I am quite confident that they do not replicate mine.

All of this is just to show a way in which we are clearly undeniably separate and it’s no big deal. I have to feed myself, not you, when I am hungry. My food preferences and your food preferences are different in varying ways. And my deep-rooted history of food informs a relationship with eating and cooking that is distinctly “mine” and not yours.

Is that clear? We are having this subjective experience and not another one. Others are having other ones. We’re having this one.

But as I said earlier, there is a way in which this very singular subjective experience – this “my” experience that “I” have – is perhaps not the whole story. That is, there are ways in which the apparently obvious and undeniable borders that separate us from one another and the world actually blur and become less definitive.

One way to see this is to think a little about language. You and I have a shared language here, right? It is English. But more than that, it is also English at a certain level of sophistication – a five-year-old would struggle with this essay. A PhD candidate would not.

Also our shared language here includes some abstract concepts – self, language, hunger, stories, sex, right, wrong, oneness. I didn’t have to explain or define any of those words to you; you got them already. They are probably in part why you’re here.

And dropping down yet another layer, all of those concepts and the basic building blocks through which they are expressed (words, sentences, paragraphs, supporting examples, et cetera) together constitute a kind of broad spiritual inquiry, the terms and conditions of which are also effectively implied. Up to now, I haven’t said a word about them.

That language – in all its richness and depth – isn’t just in my head and it isn’t just in yours: it’s shared. It’s mutual. It’s true that the act of Sean writing and you reading are separate acts but they are also co-dependent and thus together constitute an act of communication, of sharing meaning, of caring enough – about the human condition, locally and otherwise – to do so.

And, essential to our understanding, that constituted act yields effects. Subtle effects to be sure, but effects nonetheless. Our ideas change, our behavior changes, our relationships change . . . subtly, subtly but still. There are actual effects.

One way to to think of it is to imagine that this communication (this writing and reading and all it entails) is a kind of pattern in the pattern that is Sean which spins off and becomes a kind of pattern in the pattern that you are.

This patterning did not begin with me. Nor does it end with you. It is more accurate to think of it as a continuation or extension – a subtle modification – of something preexisting, ongoing. This particular language pattern you are reading is a distillation – a kind of collage – of the many language patterns that I’ve read, each of which was an act of communication with someone else. Some of those influences are obvious, others not so much. Some are so subtle that I don’t even remember them.

But they are there, and they effect me, and in that sense, those writers and I are one. We are ripples partaking of the same pool of water.

I don’t mean this metaphorically. I mean this literally.

the sky through a diamond-shaped hole
Gazing at the sky through a diamond-shaped hole . . .

All this patterning literally changes us. It literally shifts all the patterns – the patterns that we are, the patterns of our families, the individual patterns of the many members, the communities those families comprise, the larger communities comprised by communities . . . On and on it goes. Ideas are clarified, thinking is invigorated, new modes of communication arise, psychological inclinations are affirmed or denied, behavioral patterns adjust . . .

These are subtle subtle effects but they are also nontrivial. Indeed, they are literally our world. Whatever is going on around you – the building you are in, the device you are reading these words on, the love you will make later, the meal you will eat, the conversations you will have, the bed you will sleep on – all of it is simply patterns repatterning.

When one is clear about this, the question of “are we one or are we separate” blurs. One can begin to see how answering that question in any way requires making decisions about boundaries that are not forbidden by any means – that are even helpful – but are also arbitary. We tend to make them without thinking, according to familial, cultural, biological inclinations but still. They could literally go anywhere.

So that is a way of starting with language and noticing how it points to a way that separation blurs. It is hardly the only way. Gardening and raising (or hunting) animals for food is another way that the porous nature of the boundaries of self/world/other reveals itself.

All we really need to do is be attentive and honest, such as we are able. Give attention, don’t resist what shows up, don’t fret about what doesn’t show up, and don’t rush through what shows up. Nothing is hidden (but some stuff does remain apparently mysterious (which should not be read as an invitation to invent mysterious answers)). What is one knows itself and more than that, knows what to do with what is – or seems to be – separate from itself.