Healing in Holy Relationships

Over and over in the past week or so I have turned to these sentences from A Course in Miracles about healing and holy relationships.

Hear a brother call for help and answer him. It will be God to Whom you answer, for you called on Him (P-V.8:4-5).

I want to observe and reflect upon the circular – or entangled, perhaps – nature of the holy relationship indicated by these sentences.

When our brother or sister calls to us for help, it is in fact our own call to God for help. On this view, our brother or sister is our own self.

When we respond to our brother or sister, it is God to whom we respond. On this view, our brother or sister is God.

Thus, in our relationship with our brother and sister, they function as both God and our own self.

Also thus: our “own self” is – to our brothers and sisters – both God and brother and sister.

If we look at the relationship closely (the one between us and any other and the one between us and God), we see that the various entities – self, brother/sister, and God – are distinct but, depending on perspective, also the other entities.

In fact, the closer one looks, the more  one sees not “entities” but “relations” and, perhaps, “relating.”

So we could also say that “Self,” “God” and “Sister/Brother” are simply labels affixed to the same thing. The labels may be helpful in terms of organizing our thinking about that thing – that relationship, that relating – but they are not themselves that relationship or relating. They are indicative, not veridical.

What shall we do with this?

We could start by considering this sentence (from the same course section): “We are deceived already,if we think there is a need of healing” (P-V.7:4).

That sentence makes clear that there is no actual need for healing but that one can be deceived about this. Thus, if one is deceived, then there is a need for learning. There is a need for clarification (or the undoing of deception, if that is easier).

In other words, we need to learn that there is no need for healing, and the one who will teach us is “one who seems to share our dream of sickness” (P-V.7:5). This “one” is our brother or sister who comes to us in pain and asks for help; it is also our own self, when we bring it to a sister or brother in pain. Both instances beget forgiveness.

Let us help him to forgive himself for all the trespasses with which he would condemn himself without a cause. His healing is our own (P-V.7:6-7).

So we can ask: What will our living look like, and what will our brothers and sisters look like, and what will the world that we construct together and apart look like, when we realize that there is no need of healing?

We will see the face of Love shining in, through and as all things. Neighbors, sunflowers, toll booths, slippers and feral cats. All of it. This love is impersonal, all-inclusive and unconditional. That is why it is our – and all life’s – “natural inheritance” (In.1:7). And that is why it permeates all life, regardless of form.

Of course, this love – which in course terms is given to us in creation by God – can be overlooked and ignored. And that overlooking and ignoring can yield a state of suffering which appears to be a result of lovelessness.

But our experience of lovelessness is not proof of love’s absence or negation! It is merely proof of our confusion about love (and the need for healing).

So our learning – which is really a sort of undoing – has to do with no longer overlooking or ignoring love. The natural effect of this learning is that we remember – we see again – the love that is always there.

How shall we teach others to notice love? By noticing it in their own self and responding to it where it is.

How shall we teach them not to ignore their natural capacity for joy and peace? By noticing the pain ignoring it causes them and gently suggesting that there is another way.

Note that this “teaching others” is by definition a reciprocal act – it is literally a form of relating to God – and so it necessarily involves our own learning. We, too, are stubborn and ignorant. We, too, are confused and unsure. We, too, are in need to hand-holding, hugging, encouragement, and aid.

Thus, sometimes, “teaching” looks and feels like “being helped by others.” But, as we observed at the outset – at what I suggested is a “holy entanglement” – there are no others.

When we are in pain and our sister soothes us, it is the love of God. When our brother is in pain and we soothe him, it is the love of God. We think of “the love of God” as a noun – an object, a thing – but perhaps it is more helpful to think of it as a verb – as a process, a flow, a flux, a dynamic.

Thus, with respect to healing and holy relationships, we might think of two big ideas:

1. Nothing is actually broken and in need of healing, but we can be deceived that something is broken and in need of healing, so we need to learn that we are deceived; and

2. The process of our personal call for help and our personal response to others’ calls for help – and their calls and their responses, both to us and to others – is, collectively, the “Love of God.”

Again, in the case of point 2, Love is not seen as an object but a process. It’s not something one gives but rather giving itself.

Both of these points represent ways of thinking – or of organizing our thinking – that are unfamiliar. However, giving attention to them in a sustained way will naturally make their application more natural, which in turn inspires joy and peace.

Thus, our practice is to be present to our brothers and sisters – to go with them two miles when they ask if we will go with them one, and to ask them to go with us a mile when we are need of company and assistance, and to accept the help they offer in response.

In such a process, who could not be healed? This holy interaction is the plan of God Himself, by which His Son is saved (P-V.5:7-8).

Thus, we heal together but learning together that healing is not necessary but learning is. We are both student and teacher unto one another and the world we make is our classroom.

A Course in Miracles Lesson 188

The peace of God is shining in me now.

Lesson 188 of A Course in Miracles is part of a sequence that aims to deepen our commitment to our practice by undoing specific obstacles to that application – casualness, stubbornness, specialness and so forth.

In Not One, Not Two, Francisco Varela points out that we can only experience what corresponds to our organization. We are human! So we cannot experience living and world as ants or maple trees or Beluga whales. We can imagine those beautiful lives and those fascinating worlds but in doing so we are still just human observers. We are still just experiencing what our organization allows, in this case imagination.

But there is a paradox here, says Varela. Somehow, despite our perceptual and cognitive limitations, we are sometimes able to perceive a whole, a nonduality that transcends the personal and subjective – and separative, the dualistic – nature of our own being. How does this happen?

I cannot but take as consistent the fact that socially so many different cultures and individually by so many routes, these leaps of experience can occur and are quite isomorphic . . . I am assuming that mind as the unity of the conversational domain of the biosphere (i.e., mind-at-large, or mind proper) can be experienced, and further, that more or less all of us have experienced it (Varela Not One, Not Two).

Varela appreciated that this kind of thinking – for him located in a scientific, rational and logical domain – was naturally and positively analogous to religious and spiritual thinking. Indeed, his work was often about bridging those two domains in ways that were advantageous to both.

Thus, for me, it is helpful to consider Varela in tandem with A Course in Miracles. The effect is harmonious.

A Course in Miracles points out to its students that a sure way to miss the peace of God is to actively seek the peace of God.

Those who seek the light are merely covering their eyes. The light is in them now. Enlightenment is but a recognition, not a change at all (W-pI.188.1:2-4).

That is, we already are the peace of God but, in our zeal and ambition for spiritual growth, divine bliss, self-improvement et cetera, we actively overlook that peace. To seek outside the self is to fragment the self, because one already is that which is sought.

The peace of God is shining in you now, and in all living things. In quietness is it acknowledged universally (W-pI.188.5:5-6).

How then shall we come to this quietness? How shall we reach that space in which “honest thoughts, untainted by the dream of worldly things outside yourself, become the holy messengers of God Himself” (W-pI.188.6:6)?

Well, if we are students of A Course in Miracles, we will come to the daily lesson, seasoned by our study of the Text. We come not out of a duty but because it is a gentle and consistent means of opening a sense of the sacred, of making manifest that love that is naturally brought forth in our living.

To spend quiet time with the Course, morning and evening, is essential . . . Reading the course slowly is a holy undertaking . . . To be a serious student of the Course requires integrity, discrimination, and a deep sense of responsibility. But miracles and holy instants will open the way (Tara Singh Nothing Real Can Be Threatened 54).

In this way, our practice of the lesson becomes a prayer that informs our day, a giving of attention that quiets our hyperactive brains and restless bodies.

The peace of God is shining in me now.
Let all things shine upon me in that peace,
And let me bless them with the light in me (W-pI.188.10:6-7).

Notice that the light – the peace of God – in this prayer is reciprocal. It is not only in us but in all things. Notice too that the prayer evokes a responsibility to extend a blessing to all things. Attention is a gift – to us and from us. Attention is the blessing we extend to the world which in turn attends to – and blesses – us.

The shining in your mind reminds the world of what it has forgotten, and the world restores the memory to you as well. From you salvation radiates with gifts beyond all measure, given and returned (W-pI.188.4:1-2).

The mutuality inherent in those lines is not an accident. When seen clearly, it utterly undoes the sense of specialness that pervades our sense of being separate and personal and individual. What appears as discrete and separate is, when perceived and cognized seen in the light of love (the peace of God), remembered as one.

. . . the dual elements become effectively complementary: they mutually specify each other. There is no more duality in the sense that they are effectively related; we can contemplate these dual pairs from a metalevel where they become a cognitive unity, a second-order whole (Varela Not One, Not Two).

I am not suggesting that folks must read Varela or study constructivism or phenomenology, any more than I am suggesting folks ought to become students of A Course in Miracles.

I merely point out a way in which – for me – peace and happiness are revealed in a sustainable and ongoing way. The lesson, as such, lies in accepting the ACIM maxim that “it is we who make the world as we would have it” (W-pI.188.10:3), and the Varelan insight that “a change in experience (being) is as necessary as change in understanding if any suturing of the mind-body dualism is to come about.”

The obstacle to be surmounted in this process is nothing less than the cognitive homeostasis of each of us, the tendency to stick with our interpretation of reality, entrenched and made stable by emotions and body patterns. To work through this veil of attachments, and to see (experience) reality without them is part of the process of unfoldment (Varela Not One, Not Two).

Thus reading, thus writing . . . thus unfolding and infolding . . . and thus the rambling prayers I make in our shared voluble cheerfulness.

Notes on Forgiveness

When we encounter ourselves as less than perfectly-loving – which, if we are honest, is most of the time – there are two coherent responses. The first is not to freak out. The second is to do better.

forgiveness_lilyThat is what it means to actively practice the principle of forgiveness in A Course in Miracles.

We don’t freak out because drama – spiritual or otherwise – tends to be a distraction. Getting hung up on our flaws and shortcoming is a zero sum game: there are always going to be flaws and shortcomings. Giving our attention to them in the form of self-hate and self-improvement and so forth is just another way of focusing on ourselves rather than others. It’s just another way to ignore our brothers and sisters.

Really, when we perceive ourselves as imperfect – whether in our thoughts or our actions – we are just seeing the way in which we are touched by – effected by – living the shadows of – separation. This is what it looks and feels like for everyone. We aren’t special. If we are cool and collected when the separation shows its fangs, then we will understand we aren’t being singled out, and we won’t need to make it a big event. It’s like if you are taking a shower and you drop the soap: you don’t pray or call a psychotherapist. You pick up the soap.

It is okay – it is more than okay – to just get on with our living. Or – better – to let living get on with us.

So that’s the first coherent response: we don’t freak out.

The second response is that we just do better. Wherever we are falling short, we just fall less short less often.

For example, I am not naturally a patient person, especially when it comes to the domain of ideas. I want people to understand things the way I understand things and I want that to happen now. A lot of students and friends and so forth have struggled with this quality of mine over the years.

The point is not for me to become perfectly patient but rather to be more patient – and to be aware of when I am being impatient so that I can curb it.

This, too, is not a big deal.

There are all kinds of reasons why I am not patient – some are biological and chemical, some have to do with how I was raised, some are just my own psychological effluvia built up over the years. Taken together, these are actually effective explanations for my impatience. You could say, well, it makes sense that you’re impatient. It’s okay.

But really, who cares? The point is not to justify my imperfection, or understand my imperfection, or even explore my imperfection. The point is to notice it, not get hung up on it, and consistently do better.

So that is our ACIM practice of forgiveness: we decline to overreact and sincerely try to do better. Int his way, we become responsible for our own thinking and stop blaming our unhappiness and guilt and fear on external sources. What remains is peace and joy.

On Death, Trust, Love and A Course in Miracles

A Course in Miracles teaches that we are entitled to the “perfect comfort” that comes with “perfect trust” (T-2.III.5:1). What does it mean to be trusting? And, perhaps more to the point, in who or in what shall we place this trust?

To trust is to have faith in the reliability or fidelity of something perceived to be external to us. It reflects a level of confidence – to confide in – and thus owns a certain intimacy. To trust is to accept that notwithstanding uncertainty, what occurs will be okay, or even more than okay because our interests and the other’s do not significantly diverge.

The course invites us as students to trust the Holy Spirit, to take that spirit as our teacher, and to entrust to that spirit the whole of our learning process, without qualification or condition. We are assured that doing so is not an error and is, in fact, the most efficient way to remember oneness.

The Holy Spirit is the only Therapist. He makes healing clear in any situation in which He is the Guide . . . Trust Him, for help is His function, and He is of God (T-9.V.8:4-5, 11).

In course terms, the Holy Spirit perceives the world of form and uses it in order to point beyond that world to Love, which is our natural inheritance. This works because the Holy Spirit is Love, and is in us in a very real and tangible way and so we, too, are love, or creations of love.

So all that really happens as a consequence of our study is that we remember what we naturally are, and accept it as our identity, and henceforth live from that knowledge. Trust expands from “in” a being or deity and reaches the whole of our living, without limit or qualification. This is love.

So the suggestion here is that whatever “trust” is going on in our lives – that our debit card will work, that our partner will be on time for dinner, that our ACIM book isn’t going to suddenly turn into gibberish – are symbolic of the only trust that matters which is trust in the love brought forth in our living together in a consensual harmonious way.

Even our trust in the Holy Spirit is fundamentally a matter of trusting this love.

So the suggestion is that we actually formally trust this love. Let go, however briefly, of the symbols and forms that are its stand-ins, and really trust love. Even if this love – which is not of a body for a body – is not yet precisely or perfectly or presently our experience, this practice can still be fruitful because all communication is premised on trust.

That bears repeating: “communication is based on trust.”

When we trust the one with whom we communicate – a friend, a teacher, the Lord on high – then our communication is open and honest. We don’t judge what is communicated in advance – playing one aspect of it up, downplaying another. Our communication becomes utterly dialogical, utterly given to healing in and through mutuality, openness, consent, attention . . .

That is relatively straightforward as a concept, but how do we bring it into application, as Tara Singh used to say? That is, how we do allow the concept to inform our experience of living, of bringing forth love in our living?

Let’s say that space and time are user-generated interfaces which are functional but not truthful, and that the discrete selves populating that interface, and to whom that interface appears, are actually aspects of the interface. They are not separate from it.

Whatever reality is, it’s not what we perceive and think about. That’s the screen – the story – that obscures reality.

So long as one is clear that we’re looking at a screen and a story on that screen, then it’s not really problematic. But if one believes that the screen and the story are themselves reality, then problems emerge. In ACIM parlance, one becomes separated. And the separation is painful.

It is very hard on this view to be trusting.

On the view that we are actually separate and discrete, and what is happening is a reflection of what is true, then it makes sense to value communication as embodied (in cultures, communities, selves). Then at best death does end the familiar and useful mode, necessitating some new mode.

On the view that what is one cannot be separated, and thus cannot actually experience loss or sacrifice, then communication is always something other than the language-based exchange between separate entities that death appears to obliterate.

I am wondering if, because it is clear that death does not end communication, that rather than question the nature of communication, one should instead question the nature of death.

To the body, death will always be a terminus. To the body, other bodies will always be subject to evaluation in terms of needs perceived to exist in this body. To the body, the self will always be local, able to comment only on what the body, by virtue of its perceptual and cognitive limits, allows according to its time and space-based coordinates.

The question is whether there is another way to see? Can we see in a more global way? A cosmic way? Can oneness, or love, be the perspective?

The suggestion is: yes, it can be, but one has to trust it. When we do, insights are given which – and instructors are given who – point gently beyond the body.

A while back I had the insight that who was special to me went with me regardless of whether we were in actual dialogue or physical proximity. I don’t mean that “Other” and “Sean” were two units now unified as one (OtherSean), like two balls of clay combined to make a single mug.

Rather, I mean that the separate units are functional illusions behind which unity rests patiently, and in which the illusion of separation was easily discarded because it lacked utility.

This unity, as such, encompasses everything.

The work is how to live from that insight, where living is brought forth in and as bodies for whom conflict appears as a natural phenomenon, and separation an actual limitation on communication and loving, always understanding that the appearance helpful or unhelpful, but not true.

A Course in Miracles is helpful to me in this specific way. It says, here is a practice that will help you navigate the world of separation in a way that undoes your belief in separation while strengthening your intuition that only love is real.

On Reading Francisco Varela

Again, what A Course in Miracles did was organize my thinking about spirituality in a way that made clear the many seams, fractures and canyons implicit in that thinking. ACIM created problems it could not on its own resolve.

In this sense, the course was not unlike so many other spiritual and religious experiences in my life – zendos, Catholic churches, Unitarian Universalism, psychotherapy, hallucinogenics. Each effectively expanded my experience just enough to negate itself and thus drop-kick me into a next-level wilderness. Lifetimes pass, or seem to.

Yet there are answers, and there is a way to live in the “wilderness,” such that one no longer needs to practice the art of escape or consent to mere survival.

For me, this way – these answers – arrived in the tradition of second-order cybernetics and constructivism, in particular the thinking of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Studying them was like the difference between a hand-sketched map and full-functioning GPS system. Giving credit to this transformative experience is impossible to convey in a few paragraphs. No doubt I am still very much a learner, still figuring out precisely what these men shared, what that sharing entails, what it asks of me, and so forth.

Yet as I have been preparing to go back into Varela’s work I find myself reflecting on what might be a general rationale for doing so. That is, if someone asked me, why are you reading Varela as if your life depended on it, what would I answer?

Well, I can’t answer really, but it turns out that Michel Bitbol more or less already did in his essay “Neurophenomenology, an Ongoing Practice of/in Consciousness.” There, Bitbol characterizes the overarching nature or spirit of Varela’s work as being fundamentally pragmatic and disdainful of traditional labels. I find these sentences vastly clarifying.

Just as Wittgenstein rejected any accusation of being a behaviorist, an idealist, or even a pragmatist (because he was immersed in a practice of behavior, of mental life, and of everyday linguistics and pragmatics, instead of holding some theoretical version of these practices), Varela could easily reject any accusation of holding any one of these “isms” because he rather prescribed immersion in a multidimensional practice of phenomenological examination and scientific inquiry.

In other words, there is commonly a sense of seeking out a calcified static “theoretical version of a practice” (be it ACIM, Catholicism, Buddhism, constructivism, et cetera) that one can finally and ulimately hold and call “true” when what is called for – when what is actually happening – is an immersive lived experience of those practices.

In other words, one doesn’t “find” anything – one merely gives attention to what is happening, and lives it, as it is given. That living is transformative because it is in the nature of an ongoing transcendence, a radically loving process that excludes nothing (because it is mutual, circular, entails the other, et cetera).

Bitbol suggests that to embrace this particular scholarly ethic means “[r]ecovering the fullness of lived life rather than remaining trapped in a restricted version of it expressed by a theory . . .”

Bitbol is focused here on Varela’s approach to the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. I don’t know that I am too stressed about consciousness so much as with addressing a “problem of living,” which is probably more aptly framed as a “problem of being happy” in a deep, serious, sustained and natural sense of the word, where this “happiness” cannot be separated from a practice of giving attention.

I don’t know what Varela – a dedicated scientist and so far as I can tell an equally dedicated Zen practitioner – would say to that. I think – and my ongoing study and practice aims to clarify – that he would approve, at least generally.

Bitbol does make the point that Varela’s scientific approach cannot be effectively separated from his spiritual approach, a stance that seems especially relevant to me.

In the same way as a Zen practitioner, the Varelian neurophenomenologist does not strive towards some solution to a standard problem. He rather exercises a ‘living and continuous reaction’ (Batchelor 2000) that makes such a problem irrelevant.

I would rewrite Batchelor’s phrase as “living and continuous response,” and otherwise agree that what matters is not a formal set of rules to which one steadfastly adheres but rather a gentle and sustained attention given – gifted – unto the world that our living brings forth.

I am moved by the following emphasis set by Varela in a spirited dialogue with Bernhard Poerksen:

Absolute reality, in my eyes, does not dictate the laws we have to obey. It is the patriarchal perspective to proclaim the truth and to decree absolutely valid rules that constrain, limit, and eradicate opportunities. What might be called absolute reality tends to appear to me as a feminine matrix, whose fundamental quality is the opening up of possibilities.

It seems to me that we make structures – social, mental, collective – that are basically patriarchal, in the sense of restricting our experience and understanding and corralling us into fixed postures that admit only faint and compromised strains of love. Varela – like his teacher Maturana – speak to a vision of living that embraces the feminine as antidote to patriarchy in order to bring forth more fully and wholly our capacity for love.

That is why I read – am reading – Varela. That is the specific way I am served by it. It renders me – who so profoundly needs the rendering – more fit for service.

Zombies and A Course in Miracles

In his essay “Physics and Mind: Minding Quanta and Cosmology” Karl H. Pribram suggests that brain is to mind as person is to experience. As he puts it, somewhat inelegantly, you can eat a brain but you can’t eat experience.

black_eyed_susans
I love the pink interrupting the lovely flow of yellow and brown . . .

Zombie inferences aside, I think this is an interesting way to think about what it means to approach our living together as human beings who live together and bring forth love in their shared living, especially if one of our lenses for that living happens to be A Course in Miracles.

Pribram is saying that a brain “minds” in a way similar to how a person “experiences.” On this view, “mind” is a process from which discrete moments may be isolated and examined without inhibiting its fundamental dynamism.

For example, you can give particular attention to your feelings for a certain person, place or thing. You can isolate those feelings and study them and reflect on them. What do they mean, what behavior do they suggest, how they have changed – but the flow of experience itself does not stop. It goes on in the form of reflecting and studying itself.

In the next moment, you might study and reflect on this “study and reflection,” but to the same effect. Experience is continuous and reflexive; it doesn’t have any gaps.

It is tempting to try and find a unified stable observer in all of this – the one who is looking at the flowing, evaluating the flowing, and directing the flowing. But the observer is basically the mechanical body; what is conscious and aware of its consciousness is the observing, the observing looking at observing.

In this way, there is a sense of there being a discrete observer and a discrete observed – the one who observes a certain relationship, say. But even as this seems to be a fair description of our experience of our experiencing, it is not actually sustainable. The separation that is implied is an illusion; it may be functional or even inevitable, but it is not veridical. Observer, observing, and observed arise in a simultaneous triadic way. Linear and hierarchical models of perception and cognition are simply means of organizing what arises and are helpful in certain contexts; they are not 1:1 reflections of Truth.

Critically – to Pribram’s point – we can’t eat this arising! We can’t make it stop or start, slow down or speed up. We can’t make it rain when the garden’s dry or sunny just in time for the picnic. We can certainly give attention to it in a thoughtful way (we can organize it and reflect on the mode of organization) but even if we don’t give attention, attention keeps on giving itself, just somewhat less thoughtfully, somewhat less aware of its givingness.

If we really look into this, and if our looking is clear and subject to contemplation, then we will see that whatever we are is basically “along for the ride.” We aren’t the driver and we aren’t the car. We are riding. Riding riding.

On the other hand, we are not just “along for the ride.” We are not merely “along for the ride.”  Within proscribed boundaries, we are able to act. In the present metaphor of riding in a car, we can roll the window down and stick our heads out. We can look right or left; we can play games; we can nap. That is, there are things we can do with our living – make phone calls, bake bread, extend certain invitations, decline others . . .

Ultimately, this domain of available actions is what allows us to ask questions about our living and to seek “better” and “better yet” and “best” ways of being and bringing forth love.

For some of us, the “ride” includes a spiritual template and applications. We understand it in terms of atonement, forgiveness, Jesus or the Buddha, meditation, past lives, karmic debts and so forth. Asking “why” this is so does not matter (though it is not an uninteresting question) so much as considering “how” we interact and engage with this “spiritual” template and its applications.

Ask: do you have some sense of what it means to be holy? To live in a spiritual or godly way?

It is okay – it is more than okay – to privilege our interior sense of holiness, if one exists. It is okay to let the inner lamp shine on our subjective sense of Christ and Buddha and others, folding and enfolding their many scriptures, including A Course in Miracles, and see what happens when we do.

We should not worry about whether we are “getting it” in the way Ken Wapnick or Tara Singh or Nisargadatta or Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton “got it.”

Really, A Course in Miracles is like a radio and our experience of it as students is the music the radio plays. You want a good radio, but only so you can listen to good music. When the radio plays Tom Petty or Lady Gaga or Beethoven we don’t gawk in amazement at the radio. It’s not writing and performing anything. It’s the artists and their music that inspire us.

Thus, A Course in Miracles is a means to an end; getting worked up about it as anything other than a means is like worshiping a hammer and nails while it rains instead of ducking into the shelter the hammer and nails helped build.

So what is the end? Where are we going with A Course in Miracles?

In my experience, we are learning how to make sustainable contact with our inner teacher, which the course calls “Holy Spirit” but which I have more helpfully thought of as “attention.” Obviously your experience will vary; obviously your semantic preferences may not align with mine.

What does that teacher teach us? What does she offer that deepens our understanding and living?

She teaches us how to bring forth love in our living, and to understand that this bringing forth of love is a kind of opening-out in which the appearance of our separate interests dissolves and our fundamental unity and mutuality is remembered.

Oneness is not an illusion. It is not merely an ideal. Nor is it a personal experience to be hoarded or squandered or celebrated. It is the foundation of our existence and is often obscured by our confused identification of self as permanently located in and as a body. We conflate the song with the radio on which it plays.

Or – on Pribram’s view – we fail to distinguish between brain and mind and focus only on what we can eat. When we do this – when we fall prey to this error – we do becomes zombies, mindlessly staggering through a world whose value is perceived only in terms of what we can get for ourselves.

If mind can be reduced to a brain, or self reduced to a discrete body, and we are thus discrete bodies in a world of limited resources, then this zombified approach is not illogical. Defense and attack make sense. We have to look out for number one. Anything else is irresponsible.

But if we are implicated in a unity, a nondual mutuality, and that is our identity, then our behavior and priorities and understanding will naturally change. The meaning of our existence will change. It will become more loving and generous and forgiving (both in the course sense and the traditional sense). It will become radically inclusive.

We will stop being zombies and become something closer to saints. We will leave a world of sacrifice and scarcity in favor of the Garden, where separate interests are not idealized and service to one another is a joyful – indeed, a holy – responsibility.

Of course, it is relatively easy to write and talk this way. It is orders of magnitude harder to bring into application, in part because of the temptation to stop and put up tents at one’s personal sense of awakening as a personal accomplishment. We’re going to sell as many books as Eckhart Tolle, have a daily stream of admirers like Nisargadatta, indulge our sexuality like Osho . . .

We might instead think of awakening – the realization of the unity implied but not revealed by our human experience – less as some triumph of the self reflected in worldly terms than as simply getting off the train at a given destination. We scrimped and saved, bought a ticket, got to the station, boarded the train, rode the train and now we are here!

And then – after the amazement of “here” subsides, which it will – our living goes on, more or less as it always has, and which it will do until it doesn’t, and other living rises in its place.

house_at-dusk
Kind of a spooky shot off Main Street of the front of our house at dusk.

I am suggesting awakening less as as something mysterious and rare and more as just a natural realization of what was always the case. The altar as such is everywhere which means that there really isn’t an altar.

In other words, the work is basically figuring out how to be loving in a world that is often indifferent to love and sometimes outright hostile towards it. We have to work it out where and as we are; there is no other way and nobody else to do it. Just give attention to what is helpful; be happy; make your living about your brothers and sisters.

If one looks at the course and at learning in this way, and if one takes Pribram’s sense of being into account (you can eat a brain but you can’t eat experience), then a lot of the pressure of living eases. As it does, love flows through, in and of itself. It’s doing so anyway; our work really is to get out of the way.

On Losing Religion and Gathering Joy

I do not think that religion is something one has to vanquish and bury in an anonymous grave, all in the name of love and reason, but I do think if one has not yet seen good reasons why it should be so vanquished and dispatched, then one is perhaps insufficiently religious.

What do I mean by this?

Religion evolved as a way of responding to the challenge of being human in a world in which humans live, which living is inevitably circumscribed by perceptual and cognitive horizons. Though in its early incarnations religion attempted to explain the world, we now know that it doesn’t, at least not accurately or well. We can’t, in Merold Westphal’s memorable phrase, “peek over God’s shoulder.” Thus, the utility of religion and related spiritual projects must be located in another domain of living (other than explanation, first causes, et cetera).

We are organisms for whom the world appears as an object or set of objects upon which we can mentally reflect. But perception and cognition are limits. This should not be controversial! We can’t see every color on the light spectrum, we can’t make it rain by dancing, we can’t breathe underwater, and we can’t build a two-story house in fifteen minutes.

But perception and cognition – in part because they are limits – are also creative. Through them, a world comes into being: blue skies, soft clean sheets, compound sentences, ants at picnics, twelve-string guitars on which Bach airs are picked. The world we perceive and think about is the world brought forth by perception and cognition. And it is by definition limited and partial. Thus, “absolute truth” or “objective truth” are lies we tell ourselves (to avoid the responsibility subjectivity entails).

So not only can we not “peek over God’s shoulder,” the very act of trying to do so is a distraction from the work we are actually called (by the world we bring forth through our living) to do. In fact, one can make a good case that we are subject to an ethical imperative to not seek the objective stance, the true perspective, the actual source. Why fuss with an alien God when your brother and sister are right here waiting on your attention and service?

Peter Nelson, an Australian psychotherapist and writer, puts it better than I ever could. “The quest for foundations is a vanity that takes us away from the kind of knowing that is actually possible for us and leads to a fragmentation and separation that contributes to our destruction, ‘metaphorically’ as well as ‘actually.'”

On this view, belief systems – religious and spiritual ones in particular – emerged to help us manage a fundamental state of unknowing and uncertainty. What are we? What happens when we die? What is the relationship between experience and the world? Is there a relationship? Why should I care about my neighbor? My enemy? Folks I’ll never meet? Why do bad things happen? And so on and so forth.

In this way – for a long time – religion comforted us, provided community (of like-minded folk) for us, gave us answers to apparently unanswerable questions and provided behavioral models to facilitate relatively productive living. It wasn’t perfect but it was better than nothing.

However, over time, those belief systems morphed from malleable suggestions to absolute truths. “Here’s a way to think about death and dying” becomes “here is the way to think about death and dying.” And once we start to believe that we are privy to the way and the truth and the life, then it’s a surprisingly quick trip to war, genocide, and torture. We all think “not me – I wouldn’t do that” but in fact we’ve been doing it for thousands upon thousands of years. We are good at it, and the part of us that is good at it, lives in all of us.

Why do we take a few good ideas gathered under the rubric “religion” (e.g., share your wealth, love those who hurt you, welcome everybody to the table) and turn them into absolutes which justify all manner of violence?

Why does love turn so quickly to hate?

Well, in part it does so because we are in a war against uncertainty. We want to know. We believe the truth exists and that the right to know it inheres in us unconditionally. The Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t say “I am the way and the truth and the life” because we want him to be less categorical. He says it because deep down, we believe that’s how you crush uncertainty and the fear that goes with it. You get definite. You go to the land of “THE,” not “A.” And guess who leads the way?

The problem, of course, is that we cannot reach that whole. It is forever closed to us. Certainty is a dream that obscures what is actually possible. We are scaling a mountain that has no summit and it is made of the bones of those we didn’t love because we were too busy climbing a mountain to notice them.

Five thousand years ago, this was less clear than it is now. But today, we know that our senses provide functional translations, not veridical representations. We know that language is symbolic. We know that the self is reflexive and recursive. We don’t need Gods and saviors. What worked about them was always in us anyway, and what doesn’t work about them was always in us anyway, too.

So A Course in Miracles makes sense to me as a method for managing one’s living in the world brought forth by their living. It is an effective strategy for being in responsive dialogue with one’s neighbors (thus alleviating apparently external conflict), and for maintaining a healing perspective on one’s interior craziness (thus alleviating apparently internal conflict).

But it is terrible – as virtually all formal religions are – when it comes to explaining how conflict arises in the first case. That’s because A Course in Miracles is simply an extended metaphor for what it means to not be able to “peek over God’s shoulder” and how to live once we’ve accepted that fact. Read in any other light, it’s merely going to confuse and confound us.

Again, it is critical to understand here that Westphal didn’t mean that God literally has a shoulder or even that there is literally a God. Rather, he meant that human beings cannot occupy an objective perspective. We can’t know the truth, nor even whether the truth exists, and what this means in a fundamental sense is that we are called to embrace – to live from in a holy way – epistemic humility. We do not and probably cannot know the Truth, and if our living is predicated on anything but that unknowing, then we are bound for unhappiness, and not just our own. We’re likely to hurt others as well. History attests to this. The consequences of how we think and what is brought forth accordingly are not trivial.

This was the essence of Tara Singh’s beautiful clarity when he called our attention to the lovelessness of the belief that “I’ve got it and you don’t.” The belief that we understand where others are confused, that we have some insight or potential that others don’t have is a form of violence because it is loveless. It does not perceive one’s neighbor as oneself but as something other than one’s self. It stipulates to separation and then doubles down on it.

Conflict arises because we believe that we are apart from the world: we believe that we have separate interests, and that these interests require defense which, in turn, sometimes requires attack. Most of us say we don’t believe this, and we can be very good at persuading ourselves and others that we don’t, but if we examine our living carefully, then we will see that in fact we do believe we are apart from one another, and this separation breeds competition, and we conduct our living accordingly. The people who enacted the Holocaust or separate children from parents at borders or won’t help refugees drowning in the sea are not monsters. They are people like you and me. They are our brothers and sisters and our capacity to bring forth peace and love is contingent in part on our never forgetting that fact.

If we notice lovelessness in the world, then we can respond to it in the moment. If I’m being a jerk in the classroom, then I can be less of a jerk, and make the requisite amends. If I am selfish in my living at home, the same. But as I used to say with respect to making amends as a formal spiritual practice: the point is not to become great at saying “I’m sorry.” The point is to become the sort of living being who does not need to make amends so often.

That is why eventually our so-called spiritual seeking moves us in the direction of what can be applied and brought into application. This was part of what alienated Tara Singh from the Foundation for Inner Peace and FACIM and other more canonical approaches to ACIM. Singh understood that we have to work out A Course in Miracles in the course of our very living; anything else was insufficient. Indeed, anything else was a form of violence that ultimately only perpetuated separation. Pretending we aren’t bodies, or that the world isn’t real, or that ascended masters have everything covered, or that Jesus was a favored male child of a male deity are simply ways of reinforcing the original error of separation. There is another way! And it is to lean into the very living presenting itself in order to bring forth the loving context inherent (if obscured) in that living.

We are called to give sustained care-filled attention to our ideas about living, but we must also – perhaps in an even more intensely holy way – be aware of how those ideas can sometimes take us away from the actual living implied in them. Here is how Christian writer and teacher J.A. Simmons frames it.

Engaging in hermeneutics is absolutely essential for thinking and living well, but sometimes hermeneutic inquiry can invite a second-order existence that fails to find traction in what Wittgenstein might call the “rough ground” of a community’s shared hopes, beliefs, and rituals. This is not an either/or decision between engaged practice or detached theory, but simply a Kierkegaardian reminder not to forget about living while we think about how best to live. Phenomenology in a postmodern/post-secular context should propel us into our historical communities, not away from them. It should call us to critical engagement, not disregard and detachment.

In slightly less academic terms, sometimes we think so hard and deeply about love, that we entirely miss the opportunities to manifest that love in our living. It is like so deeply pondering the importance of service to one’s brothers and sisters that we altogether miss the homeless child in front of us asking over and over if we can spare a dollar.

By all means study. Indeed, our cognitive capacities – our gift for logic, rational thought, evidence-gathering, clarifying bias and so forth – are incredibly useful in figuring out why suffering happens and how to minimize that suffering, our own and everyone else’s.

But our study is sterile if it does not reach the moist potentiality of actually living in the world in which our living occurs. Its creativity and helpfulness is roots, blossoms and re-seeds itself in the messy and confused loveliness of our living as loving languaging beings, each of one of whom could be the other.

Tara Singh once pointed out that when Jesus said “I and the father are one” he spoke to his reality. When we say it, it’s just words. And he called on us to learn why it was just words so that we could learn how to live in a way that it was our actuality. Or, better yet, find our own actuality – our own experience of unity, oneness, love – and a corresponding language that expresses it without qualification or condition.

That is the work, and no other work is really satisfying. The work, so to speak, appears differently for each of us, but it is not different in any fundamental way. How shall we bring forth love? The answer is within us in the form of that which obstructs the free flow of love, and it is without us in the sense that the context of bringing forth appears in the other, or, in approximately ACIM terms, our brothers and sisters.

Earlier, I suggested that a religious experience was valuable to the extent that it undermined religion. That is, the map must take you so deeply into the territory that the map is no longer helpful. Religion must carry you so deeply into the self and the world that even religion is undone. Saint John of the Cross understood this intimately. He said that if we want to be sure of the road on which we walk, then we must close our eyes and walk in the dark. That’s not an argument for placing one’s faith in an external deity; it is a description of what it means to live in a holy way when one cannot ever know for certain, the deity or anything else.

Religion can be a useful helpful way to work out the terms of our living, which is to say, to learn and go on learning how to bring forth love in our living with others who could be our own self. But it is only effective to the very extent one sees the way in which it arises as a condition of the very problem (separation) it aims to solve. Thus, religion and related spiritual projects are not about what is actual, but about what is possible.

On How and Why Questions, Cosmic Solipsism, and Emily Dickinson

I have been reflecting for the past week or so on the difference between asking why and asking how, especially as the distinction relates to our various beliefs, especially those we might label “spiritual.”

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Greek coffee in a hand-crafted mug . . . the mug was a gift years ago . . . the coffee a gift only the other day . . .

What are the effects of asking one question rather than another?

Over the past twenty years or so, I have become a fairly competent bread baker. I have read a number of classic texts on baking bread, experimented with dozens of recipes, dialogued with other bakers and made a lot of bread. Nobody would confuse me with an expert or an artisan, but the loaves I make are always eaten quickly. Nobody complains.

Say that you are interested in baking bread. You want to adopt a baking practice of your own. You want to talk to me about my experience. Let’s imagine you can ask me only one of the following two questions:

1. Why do you bake bread?

or

2. How do you bake bread?

Which would you ask? Why?

The suggestion here is not that one question is better or worse than the other, or that one answer is absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong. The suggestion is merely that the two questions yield vastly different types of answers, and noticing the difference matters.

If you ask the first question, we will have a long discussion about the women who raised me (mothers, grandmothers, and one aunt), 1970s hippies in western Massachusetts, especially the rural hilltowns where I grew up, and Zen. Absent the confluence of those influences then, I would not bake bread now. Ours would be a far-ranging conversation, equal parts biography, social commentary and half-assed eastern theology.

If you ask me the second question, I will give you my detailed basic recipe including ingredients and steps, and share with you the formal recipes from which that formula has been adapted. The dialogue will be pragmatic and concrete, befitting, perhaps, the craft of baking bread.

I don’t know which answer would be more helpful to you. It depends, really, on where you are at in the learning process, how committed you are and a host of other variables I can’t even imagine. That is why I don’t say one question is more valuable than other; they are different. Their value is subjective and contingent.

What happens if we turn this analysis in the direction of spirituality?

Instead of Sean baking bread, say instead we are talking about Sean yoking A Course in Miracles to Heinz von Foerster’s ethical dicta that 1) A is better off when B is better off and 2) always act so as to increase the number of choices.

What happens when we ask: why do you believe that ACIM can be helpfully yoked to Heinz von Foerster’s ethical dicta that 1) A is better off when B is better off and 2) always act so as to increase the number of choices?

What happens when we ask: how do you believe that ACIM can be helpfully yoked to Heinz von Foerster’s ethical dicta that 1) A is better off when B is better off and 2) always act so as to increase the number of choices?

If you try this on your own – I mean really stop reading for an hour or so and look into this on your own – what happens? Think of a fundamental belief you hold and then ask yourself: How do I believe this?

I happen to find “why” questions relatively easy. I can go deeper faster; I don’t lose my self doing so. Thus, when I started to ask “how” questions, things felt . . . unstable, untenable There was a sense of having reached that part of the map that reads “here there be dragons.”

Naturally, others have a different perspective. Again, the point is not to claim the status of right or wrong here but simply to explore the nature of our thinking in order to get closer to its source, and to better understand its mechanics so that we can – in ACIM terms – look at the problem where the problem actually is.

For a while, faced with “how” questions, I tried to pretend they were just poorly-worded variants of “why” questions. The speed with which we leap back to familiar interior ground – often without noticing we are doing so – is remarkable. I’d pose a “how” question and answer with “why am I asking that question” and actually believe I was getting somewhere.

Here is the thing. For me, “how” prompts answers that are – not unlike in the bread-baking example – more pragmatic and concrete than the abstract and argumentative nature of answers to “why” questions.

“How” questions move me into the body and into the world; they move me out of idealizing bread and into both recipe and ingredients. It’s the difference between musing on the nature and evolution of transportation and actually popping the hood of a car to see how it works and actually make it go.

Husserlian bracketing was incredibly helpful with this step: it allowed me to set aside certain questions in order to focus on experience as experience. Later I began to try and sort through the various ways of describing what was happening (as a prelude to responding to, or being in dialogue with, what was happening), and this led me away from A Course in Miracles specifically and religion/spirituality generally and towards material that, while its proponents tend to be frighteningly smart and educated, is actually (for me) much more straightforward.

Take, for example, this comment by Amanda Gefter, in a comment thread attending her essay “Cosmic Solipsism.”

. . . while common sense would suggest that we all live in a single universe and that different observers’ perspectives are merely different descriptions of one and the same reality, the latest advances in theoretical physics suggest otherwise. That is, we can assume . . . that there is one single reality occupied by several observers, but in doing so we actually violate the laws of physics (we clone information, for instance). Put another way, the laws of physics only make sense within a single reference frame at a time. This, to me, is both shocking and profound.

“Shocking and profound” is one way to put it. Another is to admit to a full-fledged existential crisis. Gefter again:

Sure, there are things like shadows and rainbows that only exist in a given reference frame, we thought, but there also other things, real things, like tables and chairs, stars and galaxies, things that exist out there, in the universe, the ontological furniture in the common room of existence. Only now we’ve discovered that the common room is empty. There’s nothing out there. The common room — the universe — doesn’t exist. You’re left with a splintered, illusory, solipsistic reality . . .

Yet oddly – at least for me – once you’re out there in the “splintered, illustory, solipsistic reality,” or once you’ve adapted to being out there, you notice that while the nature of your experience is different, its content is . . . more or less the same. You keep on living, and your living is not so unlike what it was before you stumbled into the empty common room.

Gefter characterizes her own experience of this reality as follows:

My mind is splintered, duplicated, repeated, cast out into universe after universe where it will live all these invisible lives, lives I will never know, a silent echo, and I’ll just be sitting here, in my own solitary world, straining to hear.

For me, it is closer to how Humberto Maturana sees it in his book The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love.” Maturana proposes a “relational space transcending the molecular dynamics that make it possible.”

And we human beings do so in the unity of body and mind through the integration of our emotions and our doings as we live our existence of loving languaging relational-reflective beings, conscious of the nature of our humanness in the deep desire of an ethical coexistence.

It has not stopped mattering to me – exciting me, inspiring me, inflaming me – that however deep the isolation, however terrifying the fractures – love is literally always still there, still functioning as a sort of hefted lantern. It’s like saying the common room can’t be empty because . . . I’m there. And I’m talking to you from within it so . . . perhaps you are there, too, somehow, in a Maturanan “relational space” transcending the banal ontology implied by physics.

Perhaps.

I think thinking this way moves us somewhat into the domain of what Emily Dickinson was getting at with her famous poem “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” Whenever I teach it, I literally fall to my knees. Sometimes I prostrate myself. The students laugh but not nervously; they know my worship is not faked.

In the poem, Dickinson notices how when you take away the light suddenly, our eyes adjust slowly to the resultant darkness. We stumble a little, but as our vision clarifies to the circumstances, we “meet the Road – erect.”

And so of larger – Darknesses –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –

The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –

Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.

How shall we learn to see, you and I?

For me, the move towards “how” has instantiated new ways of seeing experience – or experiencing, if you like, or, to adopt the Dickinsonian mode, learning to see experience – that seem to naturally beget greater degrees of happiness. The darkness does seem to alter, or perhaps we are meant somehow to dwell in uncertainty, and recognizing this allows us to be calmer, quieter, gentler, mellower . . .

Life, it seems, does seem to step “almost straight.” And it does so naturally.

Dickinson again, in another poem from approximately the same time period:

Heaven is so far of the Mind
That were the Mind dissolved –
The Site – of it – by Architect
Could not again be proved –

‘Tis Vast – as our Capacity –
As fair – as our idea –
To Him of adequate desire
No further ’tis, than Here –

To which I can only cry out: but how Emily? But how?

Cooperation and Coordination are Love

Institutions arise out of mutual acts of coordination among individuals who have as their goal a shared beneficence. For example, my neighbor and I have an agreement – I mow his lawn in spring, summer and Fall and he plows my driveway in winter.

The institution is neighborhood, the coordinating mechanism is barter, and the mutually beneficial outcome is obvious.

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This rose showed up in a corner of the front yard this year . . . a lovely surprise, a welcome unintended visitor . . . and I think of it frequently when I think of how beauty finds a way to come forth in my living, as if insisting I remember – and bring forth in my own inept and stumbling way – love.

I consider this a kind of love. My neighbor and I perceive needs, enter a dialogue, and meet those needs in a way that works for us both. This is possible because of the attention we gave both to our own living and to each other’s living.

The principles that underlie this successful endeavor can be summed up as follows:

1. The question “what do I need” is yoked to “what can I give?”; and

2. The other person is a fellow human observer who could be our own self.

Approaching conflict and problems in this light – with these questions as guides – has helped me to better practically embody these two tenets of Heinz von Foerster:

1. A is better off when B is better off; and
2. Always act so as to increase the number of choices.

The effectiveness of this model is mostly local. My driveway is here; bartering with folks who are one hundred or one thousand miles away is far less likely to be fruitful.

All living is local. We live where our bodies are (but not only where our bodies are) and so love, as an embodied call-and-response in a community, broadly defined, is also local.

But clearly the effects of our living have ramifications beyond what is local. Even if those effects are so subtle as to all-but-unnoticed, they still exist. Von Foerster’s tenets still apply.

Take, for example, the decision to eat almonds. It takes approximately 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond. And the vast majority of almonds are grown in California, a state suffering a long-standing water crisis.

Eating a single almond is not going to make impact that crisis in a substantive way, but cumulative acts of eating – or declining to eat – almonds will.

Our living is not separate from the living of others – humans, animals, plants, et cetera. This is not a mystical observation but rather the recognition that through economic, ecological, political and other networks, we cannot act without effecting, however subtly, the rest of the world.

Thus, Alexandr Kropotkin could say of human solidarity in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution:

It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid: the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.

The suggestion Kropotkin makes – and I make, too – is that this sense of mutuality is natural and inherent. We don’t have to invent it or teach it so much as encounter it and then allow it its full expression. What stands in the way of being kind? What obstructs our awareness of love?

How do we do this? By giving attention to our experience both as individuals and as members of a vast interwoven living collective.

When we perceive a need, be it hunger, safety, comfort, thirst, entertainment, or something else altogether, it’s okay to seek to assuage that need. But in doing so, can we also give attention to what we have to give? Can we ask how the way we meet this need increases the number of choices? Can we ask how meeting it makes others better off as well?

In our current cultural climate, when meeting needs related to the body, we tend to buy stuff – food, drink, clothing, entertainment. Comfort is for sale. But there are other ways: we can make things ourselves, re-purpose something already on hand, trade, barter or potlach or go deeply into the question of whether the need must be met at all.

I am not suggesting that money is evil and fiscal exchanges are evil. Money is just symbolic of rates of exchange, and the exchanges executed are in some sense neutral. However, I do notice that there is something in money – its ease-of-use perhaps, and its symbolic nature – that tends to stymie creativity and generosity that are inherent features of our being.

In part, this is because money quantifies value, and we aren’t good at discerning when this quantification is helpful and when it’s not. It’s fine to say a cup of coffee is worth a buck, and to set that as a rate of exchange. It’s harder to say that I love you X many dollars worth. In fact, it makes no sense at all. Love doesn’t work that way. But we can think it does. We can behave as if it does. And plenty of us do.

So money – indeed, any symbol which we substitute for value in our living – makes it harder to notice the other as a human observer who could be our own self. The focus shifts from the human meeting other human in living relationship in favor of the symbolic exchange. We confuse the two exchanges. We end up craving the symbol – idolizing the symbol – rather than bringing forth the mutual happiness the symbol can deliver.

When we see the other merely as a node in an exchange, readily interchangeable with someone else, the injury is not just to the other but to our selves as well. That is because I am better off when you are better off. Fear of scarcity lessens; envy lessens. When we are happy in a natural serious way we do not perceive one another as competitors but neighbors – as brothers and sisters in an extended family. Our natural empathic abilities are brought forth and what they bring forth in turn is love.

If you are a student of A Course in Miracles you might remember Ken Wapnick’s insistence that the course says nothing about behavior. This is mostly true. But even Ken – especially near the end of his life as his learning clarified – understood the course in terms of relationship. He urged students that whatever they were doing, to make it about the other person. Going out to dinner? Make it about the waitress, the cook, the other patrons. Driving to work? Make the drive about the other drivers. This is entirely consistent with von Foerster’s suggestions. And it is a healthy and helpful way to be an ACIM student, if that is one’s interest.

The metaphysics actually take care of themselves. Either we find satisfactory answers to the questions raised or the questions just stop figuring so intensely in our thinking. What matters is our happiness, at which you are an expert, albeit possibly one who is in denial about her skillfulness. The fruits of happiness are peace and its roots are love. Service – which is simply devoted attention given to the other, who is our self seen another way – is a helpful way to nurture joy.

Thus, we give attention to the other, and to the opportunity the other presents to bring forth in our shared living, relationships of mutual beneficence. You might think of these institutions – these formal notices of love – as “creations.” Trading recipes, watching the neighbor’s dog, listening when you’re tired, sharing the harvest . . . in this way we are being human, which is a way of bringing forth love.

There is Always a Loving Context

There is always a context that is loving. Whatever is happening can be both perceived and understood in terms of love. The work of being human is to clarify our perception and understanding in order to bring forth that love, which inures to our collective benefit.

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Beauty is often a reminder to me that there is in all that occurs a loving context and the work of being human is to seek this context which is how it is brought forth.

The living that we do often involves pain: we step on a nail, or the car breaks down and our phone isn’t charged, or someone we love deeply dies. Earthquakes and nuclear meltdowns and serial killers pose statistically rare but not theoretical threats. Patterns ranging from alcoholism to depression to longstanding estrangements often wreak havoc on our families and communities.

It seems easy to see a way in which one ought to live in at least a modestly defensive crouch. It seems reasonable to dismiss as naive any suggestion that we can or ought to be happy even in moments of living that are painful.

However, there is a way to live that does not involve an adversarial relationship with grief, scarcity, loss, fear, guilt and so forth. It is to simply give attention to our living as we live, and to notice in particular the way in which love is natural and expressive and present. It turns out that we bring forth love not by invention or effort but by seeing the blocks which impede its free passage. It’s here; our work is to see it in its hereness.

Our search for a loving context takes place in the context of “the other.” “The other” is any person, place, object or idea that we experience as “not-me.” It’s the neighbor who runs his leaf blower during our meditation practice, the rain that falls on our birthday picnic, the cancer cells that overtake the body of our beloved.

Thich Nhat Hanh, whose expression of Buddhism is exquisitely clear and coherent, points out that “when another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”

We can gently extend this observation to our own self, since we are also inevitably “the other.” Suffering – be it because of an annoying neighbor, a ruined relationship or death itself – is a cry for help.

Here I am thinking of “cry for help” as a plea to be rewelcomed – regathered, reclaimed – into the family of the living. To be held as an equal, not as an oddity or an error, not as “less-than” in some way.

That is, when I experience suffering, I don’t actually need you to explain or correct or minimize or my suffering. Rather, I need you to reaffirm my fundamental equality with you – the radical sameness which is the fundament of our oneness, the community that we are, the unity. The form this affirmation takes will vary but its meaning never does: “you and I are the same, and your suffering is my suffering, and I love you in order to remember I am loved as well.”

A Course in Miracles frames the issue this way. Whatever we experience, be it “a tiny stab of pain, a little worldly pleasure, and the throes of death itself are but a single sound; a call for healing, and a plaintive cry for help within a world of misery” (T-27.VI.6:6).

Therefore, our work as students, is simply to “see forgiveness as the natural reaction to distress that rests on error, and thus calls for help” (T-30.VI.2:7).

Thus, I suggest that our work – what I sometimes call giving attention, or bringing forth love – is to seek in all that occurs a loving context. And it is work. It takes attention, intention, and practice. It is the deliberate offering of love to all beings – maple trees, cancer cells, human beings, elephants, the sea shells and the light of distant stars . . .

Thich Nhat Hanh again.

Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity, and all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth . . . This is the real message of love.

This love – and the work it necessitates in me – is often clearest in my role as a teacher. Students appear in a wide variety of fearful guilty postures: they are angry, smug, brash, aggressive, timid, indifferent, confused, stubborn . . . In time – years of time – I began to perceive how everything that appeared in these women and men arose from fear, which was simply the absence of love, and so my ability to respond to them clarified accordingly. How could it not?

When I am faced with a cry for love, I respond with love, because that is my nature – I am, as you are, homo sapiens amans. And when love is the focus, the form the expression of the need for love and the response to the need for love takes no longer make demands of my energy or attention.

It is like if I am tired and need to go upstairs to lay down in bed and sleep. I don’t look for an elevator that isn’t there. I don’t rearrange all the furniture in the house to accommodate the needs of the moment. I don’t lament my inability to levitate. I don’t pretend I live in a one-story house.

I walk to the stairs and climb them.

So practice love by seeking a loving context. Whatever occurs, whatever happens, whatever appears, whatever arises, there is in it a context of love. By seeking it, you bring it forth, and by bringing it forth, you heal yourself and the other and the world which is your shared reality. Nothing else becomes you.