On Holy Relationships and Love

. . . in the relational domain of love the other is not asked and is not expected to justify his or her existence . . . love is unidirectional, and occurs as a spontaneous happening of accepting the legitimacy of the other as a matter of course . . .

~ Humberto Maturana

In general, I find it more helpful to think of “holy relationship” and “special relationship” as perspectives rather than fixed objects; that is, they are a way of seeing, rather than a thing seen.

bee_balm
Bee balm, one of my favorite flowers, struggling a little bit in the shady side garden . . .

This is helpful in two ways.

First, it shifts my focus away from the thing seen and back to my own mind, my own perspective, my own seeing. Thus, it places responsibility (response-ability) for love and healing where it belongs – in the mind, rather than in the separate object or image that the self perceives.

In doing so, it renders cause (and thus creation) an interior rather than an exterior process. It reinforces the critical ACIM concept that we cannot be affected by what it apparently outside; only the mind is causative. Only the mind heals; only the mind can be healed.

Taking this approach also means that rather than try to figure out whether an external relationship is right or wrong (or real or not real) I can focus on the helpfulness of a given perspective, and adopt it accordingly. As Francisco Varela points out, what is true is what is helpful. This is such as an important insight!

And what is helpful is what makes us happy, in the deep sense of meaningful work, fructive community, and healthy holistic relationships. Critically, it includes – indeed, is most usefully measured by – the happiness that we bring forth in others.

If one adopts this approach, then there are no holy or special relationships “out there.” Any relationship can be either special or holy depending on how one looks at it, how one perceives its function, what one asks of it, what one is ready and willing to bring to it and so forth.

Further, a relationship that is special at 7 a.m. can be holy at 7:05; and a relationship that was holy last night can become special as soon as the morning alarm goes off.

As well, what you perceive as a holy relationship may easily be perceived as special by me, and vice-versa. Really, what matters is the interior perspective in which the relationship is seen, not what an external observer sees, or how they describe what they see.

This leads to the second helpful aspect of seeing “holy relationship” and “special relationship” as perspectives.

If you and I both look at X and you see “holy” and I see “special,” what does that say about X? And, just as importantly, what does that say about our seeing?

These are important questions, and it worth giving sustained attention to them. They can be doors through which nonduality can be clearly perceived.

It took me years to satisfactorily respond to those questions. When that learning process was finished, I found a new way of thinking about questions like these.

Ever since Aristotle, it has been a staple of western thought that a statement cannot be both true and false. The classic example is “I am a liar.” If it is true, then it is false. But if it is false, then it is true. This is an impossible state of affairs!

However, Chris Fields among other thinkers has argued persuasively – incorporating fairly rigorous logical analysis and the quantum that, in fact, the universe does allow for a statement to be both true and false; that, in fact, this may even be a preferred – or actual, if you like – state of being (the formal name for this is dialetheism; I speak to it . . . humbly).

Even so, a human observers in the ordinary course of their observing cannot see it this way. We can appreciate the concept, but our minds don’t naturally adopt and hold all perspectives; they hold one. And that’s okay so long as we don’t confuse the one we hold for the truth (and, by extension, characterize the perspective of others as false).

Take your perspective seriously but not literally – how much of our living softens when we take this as if it were the law and the prophets . . .

On this view, a relationship is both holy and special. It is a midlife crisis and true love. Yet the splinter we are doesn’t perceive this until – miracle of miracles – we allow the other to be our self in which case, all of a sudden, all of the views are “ours” and peaceably coexist. This is why Humberto Maturana says that love is the consensual coordination of doings with others who could be our own self.

There is neither one nor another, nor one and another, and there is only one and another. In this way, our stranglehold on the external world loosens – or learns that there is nothing to grasp – and love remembers itself all and once.

Beyond Jesus and History, This Love

It can be helpful to see both history and present events not in terms of people but of currents; often the current gets a face – Jesus, say, or Buddha – but it is still a current, not an individual. And the current is merely a pattern in life, broadly defined, which is in motion, albeit at paces which are often outside our perceptual – and even cognitive – range.

Christ_Buddah
Still silent Buddha beside the trail to the river . . .

Jesus, for example, was the public face of a Jewish movement that was both religious and political. He arose from cultural circumstances that he did not create but with which he was in relationship. Absent the men and women – Jewish and Roman and other – who were doing their living the way they were doing it at that time in that place, Jesus could not possibly have been Jesus. He was not meaningfully separate from his era; he cannot be meaningfully separated from history.

Bob Dylan once remarked that if he hadn’t come along doing the Woody Guthrie/socio-political folk/ rock’n’roll thing, then somebody else would have. He meant simply that it was an error to focus on him so intensely; the real point was that the movement of the music and the culture were not the work of the one but of the many. He was, he said, more like a link in a chain than the chain itself, or that which brought the chain into being.

On this view, the “one” – Jesus, say, or Bob Dylan – is less a cause of events and more of a face that one uses so as not to lose the narrative thread comprised by those events. The “hero” is not causative; people working and living and loving together are causative. Circumstances arises collectively. The hero is the stand-in so we can keep the story intact and accessible.

Why does this matter? What relevance does it have for us as we think through our spirituality and practice?

I am proposing a shift in thinking: that we think of ourselves not as separate discrete beings but as aspects of Being, no one of which is more important or helpful or necessary or meaningful than another. When we make this shift, our priorities shift in favor of love, and the effect is is a natural and serious happiness that is shared.

When I sit by the brook and give attention to the pools and currents before me, I notice there is one brook. There is one body of water flowing. Yet within that one body – that one movement – there are all these various sub-movements, swirling and spilling in and out of one another.

These eddies have their own form which unfolds in time; in this sense, they have their own separate identity. They beget other eddies and ripples, catch drifting twigs and leaves and carry them forward, unwind in the shallows, sink in the white water.

Yet the eddy’s existence is forever contingent on the brook. It is always just the brook being the brook a certain way for a few moments. The eddy dissolves but the brook doesn’t – the flowing water keeps on flowing. Water is still water.

Christ_in_all_things
Wherever one looks, there is Christ . . .

I am proposing that we see our own being as akin to an eddy in a brook. The atoms of which our bodies are comprised will decohere in time and recohere in other forms.

When the body goes, the mental psychological narrative that feels so essentially us – the ego, in ACIM terms – is going to dissolve as well. But what aspects of it were truly “ours” in the first case? Weren’t they just images and words and ideas which were floating through the culture? And won’t they keep floating after we’re gone? When the batteries run down in a radio it goes silent but music isn’t destroyed. It just plays on other radios. You can’t destroy music.

Our focus on heroes – on individuals – reinforces the concept that we are ourselves either heroes or followers. Competition, discord, and confusion tend to flow from this hierarchal, patriarchal belief system. Again, from a narrative perspective it’s functional. The problem comes when we think it reflects an actual independent objective reality.

So to think in a new way – one in which we are aspects of a collective – nodes, rather than separate discrete entities – inverts our traditional notions of self and body and world, and it isn’t easy. One has to work through the material in order to become convinced of its utility. And then one has to be vigilant in order not to slip back into old ways of thinking. It is eminently doable but it’s challenging.

Programs like A Course in Miracles exist to help us with this shift in thinking. Of course, the risk is that they become idols themselves; systems that we have to defend. If you find yourself arguing with somebody over whose interpretation of ACIM is right, then you’ve lost the thread. Step back, refocus, and then go on in love and kindness. It really doesn’t matter what anybody else is doing with the course; what matters is what you are doing, and what you are doing is easily evaluated: is it helpful? Is it – in a deep and serious way – making you happier?

But even that is to put too fine a point on the learning process envisioned by A Course in Miracles. In fact, the more pragmatic aim of the course is to introduce you to a teacher, and that teacher will advance the curriculum accordingly in an interior way. You are not responsible for your happiness! But you are responsible for your study, for the attention you give to your teacher, and whether you will practice what she suggests you practice. Once you have undertaken the course in the form of ACIM, then you are responsible for responding to the material in a way that evokes – clearly and sustainably – your inner teacher.

Have you met your teacher? Not the human stand-in – Ken Wapnick or Tara Singh, say – but the one the course calls the Holy Spirit? That is really all that matters. If you haven’t, it’s worth looking into what, if anything, you might do to facilitate the meeting. And if you have had that meeting, then it’s worth committing in a radical way to the new learning experience that naturally evolves from being in relationship with this teacher.

We do not become Jesus through the course. In fact, Jesus is eclipsed by the course. It is akin to the Buddhist concept that if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Jesus is a big draw but once you commit to learning, he more or less recedes. The course is not about aligning with the right historical figures or narrative traditions: Jesus, Saint Paul, Thomas Merton, Ken Wapnick, David Hoffmeister, Christianity, Advaita Vedanta, et cetera. Rather, it is about taking the teacher who points to the deeper currents and, in pointing to them, points beyond them as well.

Imagine that we are on the beach watching surfers. They wear colorful neoprene suits and balance on vividly painted boards. They are elegant and athletic and beautiful.

fallen_petals
petals fall off flowers to rest briefly on the porch but the world is not fallen and we are not fallen . . .

As we watch them, as we delight in watching them, someone comes along and invites us to give attention to the waves themselves. The surfers are cool, they say, but the waves . . .

So we do – we give attention to the waves. And the waves are magnificent – they are enormous, powerful, sensual. They astound us by transcending us. We cannot take our eyes off them. That such natural beauty and power should exist in the world . . .

As we watch in awe, we are then asked to consider not the waves but the sea itself. Yes, the waves are incredible, we are told, but the sea is so vast and complex . . .

And so we do – we give attention to the sea. And the sea is enormous and mysterious and . . .

How far can this pointing go? How deep will the Holy Spirit take us?

How far are we willing to go?

Generally, our attention is given to the world. We see its injustices and travesties, say. We see the daily grind of chores and errands. We like our morning coffee, don’t like our morning commute. We see the many layers of relationship. We see the needs met, and the needs unmet, and we work strenuously to redress the perceived imbalances.

And then the Holy Spirit comes along – our teacher if we are tracking A Course in Miracles – and says, “yes, that’s all well and good, but let’s go a little deeper. Let’s look at the currents.” And then it invites us to go even deeper, and deeper yet.

Eventually, our attention ceases to take critical notice of the world. It’s there but our attention is moving towards the sources of this world. We begin to actually understand the external world is a reflection of internal conflicts. And more and more we give attention to those conflicts. They arise from fundamental emotions: fear, love, lack of trust, infantile spiritual hungers . . .

A Course in Miracles is a practical tool for learning how to go very deeply into this interior, into these primal psychological origins, in a way that eventually safely and coherently plunges us past all conflict, and into the eternal wellspring of peace and joy and happiness. It restores us to the love that is our natural inheritance.

And, mirabile dictu, there is no Buddha there! There is no Jesus. No Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie. Not even the cultural currents that begat those identities remains. Love is simpler than that. True inclusivity undoes that which it welcomes so that what remains is only love.

life_death_flowers
what dies, dies, and what lives, lives, and what neither dies nor lives goes on . . .

This serenity waits only our care-filled study. It awaits only our commitment to learning, which is to say, it waits only unequivocal trust placed in our teacher, who cannot fail. Shall we let go of history, our own and the world’s to boot? Shall we let go of the old stories and attend only the still quiet voice for God?

If not, then okay, but why not? What are we waiting for?

I extend my hand to you. I, too, am scared; I, too, am learning to trust; I, too, am not ready to go alone into the valley. I ask you to go with me: to trust me that I might trust you. We have come so far together, sometimes hand-in-hand, sometimes at distances it seemed we could not bridge.

But now – so close to the end, so near the final wall of fog and bracken – shall we bind ourselves, one to the other – and go on in love to the Love in which we were never separated to begin?

Becoming Responsible for Happiness

Helen Schucman wrote A Course in Miracles and projected responsibility for that project onto her ideal of Jesus. Because the course is so helpful to me, I am deeply grateful to her for seeing the work through, and am not especially concerned about the ethics and particulars of her writing process. You do what you have to do to express what you have to express. That is what healing is.

river_glass
glass smoothed and polished by the river out back, where we walk and gather what is lovely, in one of many rituals of happiness . . .

However, once you disentangle the text (by which I mean all three primary volumes of the course) from a historical and agentic Jesus, then your own responsibility towards study, learning and application are clarified. You are called to meet the course where you see it (a corollary to the principle that the course meets you where you are). Being right or wrong about it, getting it or not getting it . . . these fall away as your attention is directed to your own experience of being a student, which is neither right nor wrong but simply is. Attention becomes the teacher and it is always instructive.

The question becomes: is the course helpful? Is a given teacher or approach helpful? And, of course, how are we defining “helpful?”

The course is “helpful” to the extent it makes us happy in a natural serious way. This should not be conflated with feeling good all the time. Part of being happy means accepting periods of struggle and confusion and grief with equanimity and honest inquiry; part of being happy means looking closely at interior material that is frightening or offensive in order to see past it to the love that is our “natural inheritance” (T-in.1:7). “This course has explicitly stated that its goal for you is happiness and peace” (T-13.II.7:1). Thus, the text observes that . . .

. . . delay of joy is needless. God wills you perfect happiness now. Is it possible that this is not also your will? And is it possible that this is not also the will of your brothers? (T-9.VII.1:7-10).

Happiness is not an object one has or doesn’t have. It’s not an event or outcome that meets our personal preferential standards. Rather, it is a process in which one finds oneself, an inclusive flow through which one’s living filters in helpful, nurturing and quietly joyous ways.

Note too that “happy” in this instance also means “having happiness to give.” In general, we know we are happy less by how we feel and more by how we make others feel. This can be a challenging shift in thinking for a lot of us – truly it was for me – but nonetheless, it matters. Happiness is what we share, not what we have. And paradoxically, it is only by giving it away without qualification or condition that we actually have it.

To gain you must give, not bargain. To bargain is to limit giving, and this is not God’s Will (T-7.I.4:3-4).

Again, I am talking about the deep happiness envisioned by A Course in Miracles, not the shallow ersatz imitation promulgated and sold by the world. The love we are given is not limited by formal constraints. It heeds none of the limits we impose on it; it doesn’t even notice these limits.

If we attend to this serious happiness, then it will in turn attend to us, and then everything will fall into place. Our practice, our metaphysics, our ideals, our understanding our unconscious drives . . . By this I mean simply that concepts of oneness, Heaven, awakening from the dream and so forth will naturally clarify. We already know what we need to know; we experience what we need to experience because that is the experience we are having. This is always unique to us, always perfect, and always helpful.

When we see our living this way, and live authentically from that seeing, then we are – in ACIM parlance – a Teacher of God. We no longer perceive another’s interest as separate from our own (M-1.1:2). All that matters then is the extension of love and peace, which are the fruits of forgiveness, which is itself a fruit of our reliance on a power that is – to paraphrase Saint Paul – in us but not of us.

A Course in Miracles is an invitation to live this life in a new way, one that is premised on love, simplicity, kindness, generosity, service, inclusiveness and trust. It is a practice of radical honesty and inquiry. The form this learning-to-live-in-love takes naturally varies according to context, but the content – to borrow a time-honored course trope – will be the same.

The form of the course varies greatly. So do the particular teaching aids involved. But the content of the course never varies. Its central theme is always, “God’s Son is guiltless, and in his innocence is his salvation” (M-1.3:2-5).

Thus, in my stumbling stuttering way I manifest simplicity and generosity and kindness by writing and homesteading – raising as much of our food as possible, contributing to local economic structures that undo pernicious national and global structures, etc. Somebody else achieves the same effect driving a cab. Somebody else by practicing medicine. Someone else with their saxophone. And so forth.

The question is not the form but the content, and so it is only that to which our attention is directed. One might think they are attracted to homesteading because the work is honest, the diet healthy, the economics more virtuous and the communal aspects more moral but, in fact, it’s simply because that homesteading is where love appears in this case most clearly and pragmatically, and so naturally one goes there. Naturally one does their living there. Naturally – indeed, inevitably – one brings forth love there.

And what does this bringing forth love teach us? That love, as such, is not limited to the homestead or to homesteading. It is everywhere. It spills and overflows and illuminates and slakes and blesses literally everything. It lights up our little self and our little world and in its radiance we understand that this beam reaches contexts we cannot even imagine.

Little by little we surrender to this love and, like a beneficent sea, it lifts us and carries us gently beyond our perception of limitations, our small designs and plans, our secrets and lies, and our fear of death and hell.

The work, then, is to simply attend our own gardens and not worry too much about what others are up to. Helen Schucman brought forth love in the form of A Course in Miracles through what one might reasonably call confusion about authorship. It doesn’t matter! What matters is that the course is here, and that it is up to us to contextualize it, to bring it into application in our own living that we might dream a dream of happiness and peace with one another and then wake up . . .

What is helpful? What makes you happy? To what life does your intuition direct you? Our responsibility is to our own surrender and our own giving of attention. That’s all. Things work out, and then things just . . . disappear, leaving only love. We are together learning – and living together as one – this very fact.

A Non-Illusory Stillness

Yet ask: if stability is a “user-generated illusion that is helpful,” then what is stillness? After all, I have said and not retracted this:

The you you think that you are – this body, this personality, this history – isn’t God. Rather, the stillness inside us – the deep center from which all peace springs – is God. It is there waiting for us. It never changes. It saves us from the world and it saves us from the mortal self in which we have so long been deceived.

And what exactly is A Course in Miracles getting at with its description of a dwelling places that never changes?

There is a place in you where this whole world has been forgotten . . . There is a place in you which time has left, and echoes of eternity are heard. There is a resting place so still no sound except a hymn to Heaven rises up to gladden God . . . (T-29.V.1:11-3).

We might say that stillness is a user-generated concept that pacifies a restless mind by referencing a natural state of restfulness.

old_chicken
One our older chickens foraging in the side yard . . . our egg layers are part of what make us happy and enable us to make others happy . . . we are deeply grateful for these birds, even in their dotage . . .

That is, the idea of stillness that is awakened by the word “stillness” functions as a reminder that we can experience quiet and inner peace and also functions as a trigger to enact that experience in a felt way.

Our minds are busy, but they don’t have to be. Our minds are full but they can empty themselves. The Buddhist concept of mind as a lake is helpful here. Worry and anxiety are like currents which stir up the silt and make the lake cloudy and dark. When those currents subside, the lake is clear and shimmering, perfectly reflecting all that appears before it.

As centuries of meditators and contemplatives have demonstrated, it is possible to learn how to quiet the mind. It’s not a religious or spiritual feat; it’s a human practice that makes us more peaceful (or still, if you like). And that peacefulness (or stillness) in turn allows our natural inclination to be kind, generous, patient, forgiving, creative, helpful – in a word, loving – to flow more readily. That flowing is a form of healing, of cleansing. It heals our split mind by allowing us to remember in greater and greater clarity the oneness that is our shared actuality.

It’s true that A Course in Miracles doesn’t advocate a formal meditation practice. But to adopt this as a rule means ignoring a couple of important aspects of the course.

First, the course is confused – because its author and editors (Schucman, Thetford and Wapnick) were confused – about the body. They were intellectuals whose milieu was academia; they prized thought. Like a lot of western theological thinkers, their thinking basically eclipsed the body. As I have said elsewhere, the course really perpetuates the old and unhelpful Christian dualism of spirit vs. body. There is nothing unusual about this, and none of us are immune to that type of thinking, but that doesn’t make it helpful.

So part of a sound and holistic ACIM practice is about making space for our bodies without getting worked up about whether they’re real or unreal, or whether Christ is in them or not in them or anything like that. The body is present; we have to let this be the case, live our living, and see what happens.

It is far less a dilemma than the course – and Christianity generally – have made it seem.

Second, although the workbook lessons never explicitly say so, they clearly imply that quiet time given to contemplating oneness – with God, with Creation, with the Other – is fundamental to our learning process. The curriculum is not complete without this practice. We have to make a quiet interior space in which learning can both occur and stabilize.

No more specific lessons are assigned, for there is no more need of them. Henceforth, hear but the Voice for God and your Self when you retire from the world, to seek reality instead. He will direct your efforts, telling you exactly what to do do, how to direct your mind and when to come to Him in silence, asking for His sure direction and His certain Word (W-ep.3:1-3).

We can quibble about semantics (it’s a beloved game to be sure) but this is clearly a call to contemplative prayer, to meditation, to stillness.

Is there something beyond all this? Beyond the body, other bodies, the world, the universe? In a sense to ask that question that way is to miss the point. The course is about remembering peace through forgiveness which is the intentional practice of overlooking error in order to perceive our shared interest in love. That is our practice. And our practice of forgiveness – which is our enacted experience in the world – is nurtured by shared contemplative prayer which is our communion with God. Do the work – attend the process – and let the spiritual chips fall where they fall.

As to whether anything lies beyond this remembered love . . . Does it matter? Again, our work is simply to be attentive to one another, in a forgiving way, and to see what happens when we do. “What happens” is not of our own doing – we aren’t responsible for it. Service and that which keeps us fit for service is imperative – taking care of our brothers and sisters and allowing them to care for us.

God will come to you only as you will give Him to your brothers. Learn first of them and you will be ready to hear God. That is because the function of love is one (T-4.VI.8:4-6).

Give the gift it was given you to give. Make others happy by seeking with them – by enacting with them – the Kingdom of God. Our shared practice of helpfulness in time reveals the stillness upon which our living rests. That stillness, once revealed, will gently encompass us, ending both inquiry and conflict.

Loving the One and the Other

Let’s say – more or less adopting Humberto Maturana’s phrasing – that love is the consensual coordination of doings among observers, each of whom could be the other.

butterfly in the bee balm

On this view, love is basically the embodied enacted agreement, tacit or otherwise, to cooperate with one another in the activities that are our living and give rise to our world. The grounds for this agreement (which excludes nothing, i.e., it includes rocks and quasars and clams and giraffes and marigolds et cetera) are that any perceived differences in form, while apparent, are not in and of themselves proof of any actual separation. Thus, who helps another helps her own self. Who makes another happy makes her self be happy.

We can expand this by saying – again, in concert with Maturana – that this definition of love is not a question of philosophy or some other abstraction but rather of biology. That is, love is a natural extension of stucturally-determined experience, and when it is not extending itself, something has interfered.

Daily life shows us that even though we live in war and hurt each other, we are loving animals that become bodily and psychically ill when deprived of love, and that love is both the first medicine and the fundament for the recovery of somatic and psychic health. We are love-dependent animals at all ages. Indeed, most if not all human suffering arises in the negation of love and is cured through the restoration of love (Maturana The Origin of Humanness).

A possible analogy might be vision. Our eyes don’t “choose” to see. Seeing is what eyes do because that is how they are made; it is what they are for (see also T-24.VII.6:2). Their function arises from their design and construction and cannot be meaningfully separated from it. You and I, as human observers, naturally extend love. This is, as A Course in Miracles points out, our “natural inheritance” (In.1:7). It arises as a consequence of our design (and we are not the designer/author).

What, then, is the problem? If love is a natural extension of our very structural existence, then why is so much of our activity, and so many of the systems to which we are subject, basically unloving? Why do they make love so difficult?

This is a good question! We became students of A Course in Miracles, followers of Buddha and Jesus, participants in psychotherapy, yoga practitioners, vegetarians and Tantric sex partners because of it. And yet the hurt and unhappiness go on. Why is it so hard, this thing that – in our brain, in our heart, in our gut, in our soul – it seems should be so natural and effortless?

A Course in Miracles suggests that our awareness of love is blocked, and so we’ve forgotten it even existed, much less bother living in, as, and through it. An eye is made to see. But if you put a blindfold over it, then it won’t see. Its function hasn’t changed. Its natural abilities aren’t ruined. It’s just that their extension and application has been stymied.

Something like that is going on with love.

garden_lounge_chair
places by the garden to take our rest . . .

By and large, we aren’t happy, and our unhappiness is related to what blocks the free expression and extension of our natural inheritance which is love. We don’t need to learn what love is or improve our ability to love or anything like that. We just need to remove the blocks to its natural extension. We need to give attention to practices and systems that are unjust, inefficient, and dysfunctional. Navigating the world is harder than it ought to be. And even if we aren’t personally in crisis, it’s easy enough to point out who and what is. Look at the Middle East (it’s on fire). Look at the coral reefs (they’re dying). Look at the tiger population (it’s dwindling). And so on.

The occasional bright spot aside, something is not working well (or at least not working as well as it could). If love is what we are, we seem to have found a way to forget this, and/or to act as if it were not true.

A Course in Miracles doesn’t talk about enlightenment so much as awakening, and I think this is a helpful metaphor. We have forgotten some important facts about our being, and we have forgotten that we have forgotten them, and the effect of this double forgetfulness is exactly like we are asleep and having a bad dream.

For example, say that while sleeping I dream of doing battle with a monster in a dark forest while meteors light up the sky and burn the earth and my late father cries out for me to come help him but I do not know where he is or how to find him. Frightening stuff! Yet what is really going on is that I am asleep in bed beside Chrisoula and in a few hours I’ll get up and make breakfast, and then read, write and teach. However real the dream appears, it’s just a dream.

You have chosen a sleep in which you have bad dreams, but the sleep is not real and God calls you to awake. There will be nothing left of your dreams when you hear Him, because you will awaken . . . When you wake you will see the truth around you and in you, and you will no longer believe in dreams because they will have no reality for you (T-6.IV.6:3-4, 7).

In A Course in Miracles, our sleep is the separation from God from which nightmares – the apparent causes of our unhappiness – arise. Maturana would phrase it differently. He would suggest that thousands of years ago human beings side-stepped from a mother/woman-focused way of living and into patriarchy, a system of living predicated on dominance, submission, attack, defense, competition, subjugation, et cetera (see also T-2.VIII.2:5). Patriarchy begets subsystems like war and militaries, economies and taxes, prisons and malls and landfills, which as a whole serve the system rather than the person. They might do some local good – consider your neighborhood elementary school, perhaps, or the nearest hospital emergency room – but on balance, they are not about love so much as profit, not about the person so much as the continuity of the system out of which they take their function. We keep trying to fix them, and replace them, and some of our efforts are noteworthy (representative democracy, for example) but still. There is work to do. And the suggestion is that we are basically tweaking symptoms rather than going right to the heart of the matter, which is remembering love as the way to end the separation, which is our brief detour into patriarchy, which is unhappiness.

Maybe Maturana is right. I don’t know. Maybe ACIM is right. I don’t know that either. I do know that taking both as maps by which navigating experience (being in the world) is simplified and clarified has been helpful. That is, rather than get lost in arguments about right and wrong (which reinforce the patriarchy or separation or however one wants to explain our ongoing systemic unhappiness and negation of love), one can simply read the maps and venture out into the territory, learning as they go. As I am fond of saying, give attention and see what happens. Set aside the metaphysics and just try to make the world in which you live more just and fair and loving. Literally put your body at the service of love. What happens?

You will first dream of peace, and then awaken to it. Your first exchange of what you made for what you want is the exchange of nightmares for the happy dreams of love (T-13.VII.9:1-2).

For me, especially in the past year or so, rather than focus on possible causes or explanations, I find it useful to simply give attention to description. It turns out that if you describe the problem you are having then you simultaneously describe – by implication if not explicitly – the solution. It is not always easy to see this, but it is still there to be seen.

ceramic_elephant
a ceramic elephant my grandmother gave me . . . resting on the poetry shelf in the hay loft . . .

If we are unhappy, why? We don’t like our job, our spouse, our school, our body, our spiritual tradition, the movie we’re watching, the food we’re eating, the weather outside . . . The more specific we get about what’s missing, or present but not functioning, the better. If it’s raining you can get an umbrella. If you’re uncomfortable in jeans you can put on a skirt. It’s not as sexy as metaphysical and philosophical ruminations, but it tends to yield higher returns. Or at least pragmatic ones. It turns out we can fix what’s broken and, if we can’t fix it but tried in a sincere way, then we can accept what’s broken with minimal distress. Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” like the Golden Rule, is not unwelcome.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Becoming happy is actually not a metaphysical problem, though it can be reflected on in those terms. Unhappiness is a problem of acting in the sense that it reflects deviation from love, which is to say, per Maturana, deviation from “the consensual coordination of doings among observers, each of whom could be the other.”

Besides, when we give attention to the so-called small stuff – the local stuff, that which is present right here and now – the apparently global or even cosmic stuff is not left untouched. For example, our decision (mine and Chrisoula’s) to raise pigs for meat, chickens for meat and eggs, to garden (veggies, fruits, berries) intensely, to buy, barter and potlach with nearby farmers and homesteaders, is not just an affirmation of local economy. It is also a rejection of larger economies which are disconnected from people and the earth on which they bring for their living and thus, in the service of profit, hurt people and the earth. Does our living this way smash patriarchy, as the kids say? Well, no. But it does withdraw consent from patriarchy. Thus, in a local way, it begets love, and in the cosmic way, it at least mitigates the ongoing harmful effects of patriarchy (or separation). So it does in fact diminish patriarchy (or separation). Over time – and with your help – the effects of this diminishing are nontrivial.

But really, all that talk about patriarchy and separation and Jesus and the Buddha and so forth can be too much. In fact, all we are actually doing, Chrisoula and I, is what makes sense while making us happy. So ask: what makes sense while making you happy?

I like the hard work of spading gardens, lugging sacks of pig feed, clearing pasture and trails, cutting firewood, putting up fencing. Chrisoula enjoys the tedium (see Cheryl’s point below for a fair criticism of my word choice here) of weeding, harvesting, sewing, and putting up food. We both enjoy homeschooling our kids. We deeply appreciate how this way of living places us in relation to other people and to the earth and to the various systems to which we are subject. Often, what works about it is as simple as being tired at day’s end and so sleeping better. In this work and what arises from it, one can start to forget there was a problem in the first place. “You will first dream of peace, and then awaken to it . . .”

I am saying that when we give attention to the little stuff – the local stuff – and make our objective our own happiness, we will rediscover – or reawaken to, if you like – what it means to be a loving human being, a loving human observer in community with other observers, consensually coordinationg our doings. It isn’t complicated; it’s simply a matter of attending to what’s there to be attended, in the natural way of attending to it. Weeding a garden, going for a walk, washing the dishes, making love, writing poems, mowing the lawn. These activities do not occur in isolation but in community, and the borders or boundaries we use to define community (self and others) are very porous when studied up close. The one with whom you walk, break bread, kiss and converse, could be your own self. Thus, cooperation and camaraderie and dialogue becomes natural because we aren’t trying to change anybody or prove anything; we are just taking good care of each other, we are being servants and Bodhisattvas without making a big deal of it. It’s easy because once you cut through all the constructed layers of egoic self, serving others in kindness is what we want. We can’t actually be kept from it.

forget_me_nots
Forget Me Nots by the river

Importantly, our bodies know how to do these things. Gardening, cooking, making love, resting . . . Our bodies lean into these activities without a lot of effort. They commune with the earth and the other as if knowing exactly what the other needs, as if the other really were just the one in a different light. And really, says mathematician Louis Kauffman, how could it be otherwise?

The universe is constructed in such a way that it can refer to itself . . . the universe can pretend that it is two and then let itself refer to the two, and find out that it has in the process referred only to the one, that is, itself.

He later clarified that observation, paraphrasing physicist John Wheeler.

The Universe is a self-excited circuit, arising from its own observation of itself, which is that very observation of itself. There is nothing in the universe except the self-participation of the nothing that becomes information and form arising from its own eternal return.

And he is very close to Heinz von Foerster’s observation – dear to Maturana as well – that “I am the observed relation between myself and observing myself.”

Thus, when we turn to other observers, and the world which they appear to share with us, there is often a sense of a mysterious but abiding love. Whether we consider fellow human beings or trees, rivers, birds, rocks, flowers, seahorses, black bears or grains of sand, a respectful sustainable communion emerges that has as its foundation this inquiry: where, if anywhere, does the one end and the other begin?

Giving sustained and close attention to that question – giving attention to it literally in the fabric of the living we right now are bringing forth – was the most “spiritual” practice I ever undertook . . .

According to A Course in Miracles, all that you and I have set between our selves and love can be undone. All we have to do is see the way we have literally built a world and a way of living in that world that obscures love. See the obscurations and the obscurations will dissolve. Maturana called this system of blocks and obstructions patriarchy. A Course in Miracles calls it the separation (and the ego). Set aside for a moment the name, and focus on that to which the name points: we live in a way that attacks purity, simplicity, innocence and love. Yet we cannot defeat love, end love, or destroy love. We hold at a distance the very thing that we long to hold dear. All our loneliness and grief in this world and way of living testifies against the ineffectiveness of what we are doing, signifying our perennial desire for what Bill Thetford called “another way.”

If you would look upon love, which is the world’s reality, how could you do better than to recognize, in every defense against it, the underlying appeal for it? And how could you better learn of its reality than by answering the appeal for it by giving it? (T-12.10:1-2)

So the course, not unlike (though not precisely like) Maturana, urges us to live in radical (from the roots) proximity to our natural inclination to love one another, and to bring this loving forth in these very bodies in this very world through cooperation, inclusiveness, generosity, simplicity, sharing, playing . . .

” . . . replace your dream of separation with the fact of unity. For the separation is only the denial of union, and correctly interpereted, attests to our eternal knowledge that union is true (T-12.10:5-6).

Essentially, we embody peace in order to learn that bodies are not the bounded objects we think they are, and that love is the natural extension of what we actually are.

violets
the violets have been magical this year . . .

Love makes us happy and healthy. Love dissolves the negative effects of patriarchy and separation – our long nightmare-ridden sleep – like handfuls of salt scattered in the sea. It is as if they were never there in the first case. First we will dream of peace, then we will awaken to peace . . .

Love waits on welcome, not on time, and the real world is but your welcome of what always was. Therefore, the call of joy is in it, and your glad response is your awakening to what you have not lost (T-13.VII.9:7-8).

So there is nothing to do and yet, until we remember this, there is so much to do, and all of it has to do with bringing forth love. We do this according to whatever ideals are operative in us at a given time. Given our desire to be happy and to heal the world, and given a spiritual practice and curriculum like A Course in Miracles, what we do is attend our brothers and sisters in order to maximize their own happiness. Doing so lifts us as well.

Eventually we learn that love was all there was anyway, and there is nothing to do, and nobody to do it, but why rush? Why not – right now – share the love you deep down know you is yours to give?

Keeping it Simple: A Way of Looking at A Course in Miracles

What leads one to – and sustains one through – a serious study of A Course in Miracles?

There is no one answer to this question; indeed, there are as many answers as there are ACIM students. We might subsequently group the answers together based on perceived similarities but this is a matter of convenience for minds given to analysis. We do like trends and patterns.

lilly
side yard lily . . . pastels that remind me of sherbet for some reason . . .

But the answers were not offered that way and, importantly, they were not experienced that way. They were personal, intimate, subjective. They were yoked to ever-shifting narrative fabrics. We can extract them, pin them to a wall, label them and categorize the labels but we can never undermine the fundamental ecstasis in and as which they first appeared.

Once this is seen clearly, it becomes very difficult to sustain arguments that there ought to be uniform approaches to A Course in Miracles (or whatever other spiritual path or tradition is under consideration). Helpful, yes. We are all adopting helpful modes of study. But if we are defining “helpful” in such a way as to render other modes “wrong” (rather than “not helpful in our personal present context”) then we’ve missed something important.

What is the “something important” that we’ve missed?

Really, it is just the importance as human observers to maintain a humble outlook on our living, because this humility is the prism through which love radiates most helpfully.

We aren’t having every possible experience, we are having this experience. We aren’t experiencing every possible mode of experience, we are experiencing this mode. We only have some information, not all information, and we are only able to process that information according to the apparatus we are, not some other ideal apparatus.

This should not be controversial. If I ask you to define the state of string theory in 200 years, your answer will necessarily be incomplete and speculative at best. If I ask you to extract nectar from a flower and convert it to honey, the best you can do you is subcontract the job to a bee. If I ask you what Lewis Payne was thinking as the noose settled on his shoulders, your answer must be speculative, no matter how informed you happen to be with respect to that particular juncture of history.

These gaps are not isolated examples. They speak to the fact that human observers are cognitively and perceptually limited. We are closed, not open-ended. This closure is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it is fundamentally creative because by it a world is brought into being. It’s just that we can’t take the next step – the one we so long to take – and argue that this world and this experience are the world and the experience.

peace_flags
peace flags on the front porch . . .

I suggest that letting go of insistence on truth, or on truth’s knowability, is a first step towards effective inner peace. The second step is figuring out how to live in a gentle and sustained way with uncertainty. What can we count on if nothing can be counted on?

These steps (letting go and living in uncertainty) are neatly managed when we realize that it’s okay to identify some people, places, things, belief systems, et cetera as helpful. If it helps to do the lessons of A Course in Miracles, do them. If it helps to take belly-dancing lessons, take them. If it helps to be in therapy, be in therapy. If it helps to have a lover, have a lover.

The key is to give careful attention to the essence of helpfulness. At what juncture or in what circumstances does it slip into being right? Into the subtle belief that we are having some insight or experience that others don’t have and we deserve some credit for it?

Seeing that juncture doesn’t mean what we’re doing is suddenly wrong – that would be to double down on the first error of thinking we were right in the first case. Rather, it’s just an invitation to make contact again with helpfulness. We got confused; we can get unconfused, too.

For example, ever since age 15, with varying degrees of intensity, regularity and competitiveness, I have been a runner. Running is helpful to me; I am mentally clearer and calmer when I maintain a regular running practice.

But sometimes when I run – or just after running – I feel superior to other people. I’m more fit than so-and-so, which means I have more self-respect, which means I’m more spiritual. I’m stronger than that guy, which means I’m sexier. I’m psychologically stronger than all those walkers, because pain doesn’t scare me. And so forth.

I don’t freak out anymore when those ideas arise. They are relics of a patriarchal systemization of human experience. There are better ways to organize and express one’s thinking; I am not without recourse to them. So when those judgments and self-aggrandizements show up, I don’t take them seriously. I don’t take them as truthful.

Rather, they are stand-ins for fear and greed and as such are reminders that I have forgotten the real reason why I run: because it is helpful, not because I am trying to one-up as much of the population as possible.

rainbow_farm
a rainbow over the homestead . . .

Running isn’t an answer in any absolute sense, and I don’t think it works for everyone. It’s just helpful for me. When the focus is on helpfulness, my happiness – and, by extension, the happiness of those with whom my living intersects – is expanded.

Sometimes when I share this with folks, they are disappointed because it feels very basic and insufficiently spiritual. It’s what you learn the first week in Psych 101, not in the midst or near the end of a rigorous spiritual practice that has as its goal the end of our separation from God and awakening to our essential oneness.

That’s very true! Also, so what?

If we are honest we will see that we come to our spiritual practice because we weren’t happy. At the most basic level, that’s it. We were confused, lonely, scared, guilty. The world was on fire with war, hunger, poisoned oceans and other catastrophes. And we wanted to feel better; and we wanted the world to be better, and it seemed like a spiritual approach was the best way to bring these changes about.

The real secret to feeling better is basically to be nice to yourself and to others. Do unto them as you’d like them to do unto you. It’s so simple a five-year-old can understand it; and it is so hard to practice that most adults hide behind theological and philosophical and other such facades for their whole lives.

When we live that way – in functional harmony with the Golden Rule – then not only are we better off but, by extension, the world is better off, too.

It is hard to notice that we’re being jerky. We are wired to overlook our own jerkiness and, when we do notice it, to justify it by pointing to how others are being jerkier.

It is even harder to notice the our being jerky doesn’t just hurt other people, it hurts us. Really, it primarily hurts us.

And it is really really really hard to actually stop being jerky (which is different from apologizing for being jerky or resolving to be less jerky going forward).

It is always easier to just let the organism run the program it’s running rather than try to step in and go from jerky to not-jerky, from not-jerky to affirmatively kind, and from kind to loving.

grape_leaves
sitting under grape leaves . . .

It takes a lot of discipline which, absent humility, is hard to come by.

This post began with a convoluted look at what drives us to become ACIM students. How do we get here? It then pointed out that this question anticipates as many answers as there are students and so there cannot really be a single or right answer. From there it suggested we adopt a humble approach to our living. Rather than try to justify or otherwise invest in our spiritual practice, why not simply practice the Golden Rule? Since others by definition could be our own self, whatever we offer them and the world we jointly inhabit, we offer to ourselves. It recognized that this is hard to do but specifically pointed out that humility can be helpful.

Really, the argument here is that rather than ask big questions, why not keep it simple and try to focus on our own happiness which necessarily means focusing on other people’s happiness? Doing so is a practical way to the happiness which begat this spiritual inquiry and journey in the first case.

Letting Happiness be Our Spiritual Teacher

Stability and durability are user-generated illusions that are helpful. They facilitate happiness and happiness – like attention – can be our spiritual teacher if we want.

What do I mean when I say that “stability and durability are user-generated illusions that are helpful?”

young_zucchini
the zucchini are coming in . . .

Well, I don’t perceive the back stairs as clouds of atoms which are mostly empty space in which electrons swarm. Rather, I perceive and otherwise experience them as solid wooden beams nailed to a wooden frame. Doing so is functional. I’d never get in and out of the house if I experienced nothing but clouds of atoms and swarms of electrons.

In a similar way, a lightening bolt’s existence seems very short – a mere blip in the long span of a human life. Yet that human life barely measures against the expansive duration of, say, a star.

What appears stable and durable from one perspective does not appear so from another.

That is why we say that stability and durability are a matter of perception inhering in an observer and working for that observer. The observer’s perception constructs a world in which that observer enacts their living. Thus, there are as many worlds as there are observers.

The comparisons humans make (to suns and lightning bolts, say, or to floorboards and atoms), and the conclusions we draw from these comparisons (usually some variation of “our world is the one true world”), tend to confuse the fundamental issue that everything is a process. Even the observer who is observing the various changes is a process.

But so what? What good is knowing all that? We still have to figure out how to be kind to people who are not kind to us. We still have to figure out how to share resources with other living creatures, including other humans (especially those who don’t look like us or think differently from us et cetera). We still have to deal with our confusion and unhappiness nudging us toward clarity and joy, as if clarity and joy were ideals. We still have to deal with ideals.

For me – which explicitly means not for you, though my experience may be helpful in the context of your own, and vice-versa – dialing down the drama of these issues and questions has been helpful.

I don’t need to solve fundamental problems of the cosmos – what banged and where it banged and what happens when it all runs down, if in fact it does. I don’t need to untangle the metaphysical and theological bracken of the past few millenia.

I find those issues fun and interesting – they have a place – but the pressure to do more than merely give attention to them has abated considerably.

No, what I need is to be patient, generous, forgiving, nurturing, humble, diligent, just, fair – in a word, loving.

So the question is fundamental and clear: what helps me be more loving?

grape_arbor
sitting in the shade of the grape arbor at Chrisoula’s family’s house . . .

That is the only question that matters anymore, and everything that appears – from A Course in Miracles to baking bread to legal weed to swimming in the brook to teaching research and writing to making love – is evaluated accordingly.

The answer is basically this: If it’s for love, then use it and share it. If it’s not for love, then set it aside.

And here’s a fact I am only just beginning to see in a deep sustainable way: everything, without exception, is for love.

I certainly don’t think that the answer to all our problems lies in emulating first century Christian communities, but I do think it’s worth reflecting on how they understood love (in the wake of Jesus): shared wealth, commensality (eating together), all property held in common, service to the poor, non-participation with evil, pacifism and so forth.

And I agree with Tara Singh that “in service there is holiness that takes away loneliness and depression.”

We have to rise to a state of right-mindedness to extend the compassionate nature of Mother Earth with her flowing rivers blessed by rain. Right-mindedness knows nothing of the duality of loss and gain, success and failure. It identifies only with the abundance of goodness (The Joseph Plan of A Course in Miracles for the Lean Years 17).

That is, by giving our lives to our brothers and sisters, we are made whole. Giving love is the way to receive love. And the giving varies according to the observer, because the world that needs love varies according to observer.

Thus, I march to protest the mistreatment of women and immigrant families. I teach from texts that explore what it means to be a peaceful, thoughtful, responsible human being in community with other beings, including plant, mineral and animal. Chrisoula and I grow our own vegetables and fruit, raise our own meat, and work closely with local farmers and gardeners to make up the balance through barter, potlach and local non-corporate sales. We join and patronize cooperatives as much as possible. We try to reduce and reuse and repurpose with an eye ever on sustainability.

I am learning to “lean out” of the commons as a white man in order to make space for women and people of color to assume leadership roles and guide the creation of a more just and loving world.

In dialogue I try to listen. In writing, I try to keep it simple and honest.

I have a lot to learn, and to unlearn.

These are all actions that feel important because they place the radical equality of all life at the center of our civic and communal and private life. They aim to sustain local agriculture and business practices which help ensure food safety for all of us. They actively redress present and historical patterns of violence and repression. They dislocate the discrete self, expanding the apparent center so that it is more inclusive, and thus more creative and fertile and sustainable

I take literally these maxims of Heinz von Foerster: “A is better off when B and better off” and “Always act so as to increase choice.”

In light of all this, “awakening” as such is not a personal event but rather remembering the shared awareness of the vitality of love as a ongoing process in which we are all included without condition or qualification and through which our living as discrete entities is transcended and undone.

That is a mouthful! But if it sounds fancy or unduly mystical, it’s not. It looks and feels like what it looks and feels like when you are deeply happy and maximally helpful. Critically, you already know this. It is already your experience.

Happiness and helpfulness naturally intersect, reinforcing and infusing one another. We call this mutuality “love.”

greek_coffee
Greek coffee – in a lovely mug somebody was throwing away – a bittersweet delight at dusk . . .

I want you to be happy. The best I can do to this end is to act in ways that leave us both better off, and that optimize your ability to act in ways that leave us all better off. Since the “whole” and the “future” are cognitively closed to human observers, we are left with doing the best we can with what is given to us. It’s not a mystery; the love you need is the love you have to give, and the love you have to give is the precise love the world is – right now – asking you to share.

So we give attention, and we give love, and we try to stay open to the love that others give. We know we are doing it right when we are happy. Happiness is a great teacher, well worth following.

Accepting Uncertainty: Practicing ACIM Lesson 61

I want to make an observation related to Lesson 61 of A Course in Miracles. It has to do with the question of the extent to which understanding the course intellectually matters to our practice. I think this lesson is one of the times when the course implicitly suggests that intellectual grasp isn’t so important, that accepting a degree of uncertainty is actually helpful.

Lesson 61 is one of those grandiose moments A Course in Miracles frequently offers its readers. “I am the light of the world.” For a lot of us, we just run with that language because saying it feels good. In course parlance, the ego loves that phrase. “You’re damn right I’m the light of the world. I’m the brightest light there is.”

back_porch_railing
rocks scavenged from the brook past the horses, drying on the back porch railing

I do that too, of course. I’m not preaching from some rarefied altar here. It feels good to think about myself as the light of the world. I become very patient and generous and gentle when I think of myself that way. I sort of imagine myself as a cool contemporary Jesus shining his light hither and yon, a New England Christ with horses and pigs and a garden.

We all have some variation of that grandiosity happening in our minds. The problem isn’t that it’s happening, it’s that we don’t notice it’s happening. It can be very subtle. If we aren’t attentive and vigilant, the ego will slip right in under the guise of holiness and appropriate literally everything to serve its own ends. We think we’re too spiritual or psychologically evolved to fall prey to it but that kind of unfounded confidence is the ego.

So Lesson 61 feels like a big ego trap, because its essence is exactly the sort of big idea our ego loves to take for a spin. The key to noticing this happening is the good feeling it gives us, and the subtle way that we interpret “feeling good” as spiritual. It’s helpful to notice that happening and then question it. How sure are we that we really and truly know what’s going on here?

The thing is, that level of “feeling good,” and the positive effects that flow from it – gentleness, patience, generosity, et cetera – , are temporary and not very durable. They’re temporary because they pass. And they’re not durable because, in addition to being temporary, they get rattled far too easily. Somebody’s mean or needy or an unexpected demand is made on my time and . . . bam! So long light of the world. Hello darkness, my old friend (to quote an old and dear guide).

In Lesson 61 the course is pointing to something that does not pass and cannot be rattled or undone and so delivers a lasting and sustainable peace and happiness.

But in order to begin to get all that, we have to get out of the way. We have to perceive the ego’s move to take over our experience of Lesson 61 and actually actively stop it.

The course actually warns us that the ego is going to make this kind of move. It says that the phrase “I am the light of the world” is a simple statement about what we are and not “a statement of pride, of arrogance, or of self-deception.”

It does not describe the self-concept you have made. It does not refer to any of the characteristics with which you have endowed your idols (W-pI.61.1:3-5).

Those qualifications are incredibly important. That’s why they’re right there at the beginning of the lesson. They are flashing yellow lights telling us to slow down and check ourselves, to see where our attention is, to make sure we’re not getting carried away with delusions of ourselves as worldly saviors whose holiness elevates use above the hoi polloi.

One way to do that in our practice of A Course in Miracles is to read the text and workbook closely, and really inquire as to our understanding. This is not a paradox! I am not suggesting that intellectual understanding trumps practice. I am simply suggesting that close reading is a way of staying close to the course. I am saying this proximity ultimately strengthens and enriches our experience as learners.

clearing
Opening a little space for the horses, shade into which to extend their pasture, and trails on which to wander . . . an ongoing project, a kind of therapy, a meeting place of minds . . .

For examples, in those sentences I just cited (W-pI.61.1:3-5), the course is asking if we are truly clear about the distinction between self and self-concept. Are you?

It asks if we are clear-eyed about our idols and the qualities by which we make them our idols – the historical Jesus, the westernized Buddha, the affluence and influence of Eckhart Tolle and other contemporary spiritual teachers. Are you?

For most of us, the answer is some variation of “not really.” Sometimes we’re clear and sometimes we’re fuzzy. Sometimes we get it and sometimes we don’t. That’s why we’re here – working our way through learning what it means to be one-without-another et cetera.

Thus, when we do this lesson, it is actually not a bad idea to do it with uncertainty. Just be in the space of not fully understanding what it means to be “the light of world.” Be in the space of knowing how easily and frequently we turn this sort of thing into a hymn to our specialness. Be confused and unskilled. Be a beginner.

And then see what happens, right? Just see what happens. Do what the lesson asks, trying mightily to be honest and stay out of the way. You might imagine Jesus saying, “yes, yes – that’s it – get to where you don’t know anything and see what happens.”

What happens?

sideyard_chairs
a little space in the side yard to write, to sit quietly, to stargaze at night, to drink coffee when the sun rises

I don’t know what happens for you, other than that as you look closely at what obscures the light of the world in you, the more clearly that light will shine. We don’t need to do anything other than look at the impediments. The light is there; you don’t have to find it, turn it on, replace the bulb or anything.

You just need to look at what makes looking hard, and then let what happens happen. And things will happen! And, generally speaking, they will be things that make you happy in the sense of being gentle and peaceful in sustainable ways, and in touch with a sense of meaning to your life that cannot be shaken.

Giving Attention to Nonduality

If we study nonduality – through the lens of A Course in Miracles, say – because we believe it’s right or true, or more right and more true than some other spiritual concept – then we are likely to end up disappointed. Nondual spiritual practice may be helpful according to the context in which we find ourselves, and that helpfulness may appear to be “right” and “true” (indeed, it sort of has to appear that way) but it’s still just an appearance.

birch_bark_scroll
details in the forest . . . a scroll of birch bark I would never unfurl for fear of losing the fundamental message.

I am saying something like this: there are many ways to get to Boston, and no one of them is “right” or “true.” They all work and are all helpful according to the one making use of them. Some people walk; some take a bus. Some people need maps, some are okay with trial and error.

You want to find the way that is most helpful in terms of getting you to Boston.

You don’t want confuse the way that is most effective for you with the “best” or “most right” or “truest” way. You want to be wary of defending your preferred way, of trying to force it on others, or of otherwise judging others’ choices. That’s a distraction that either slows you considerably or sends you down some pretty gnarly side roads that eventually dead-end.

And you really really don’t want to confuse your “way” with “Boston” itself. That delusion can mess one up for lifetimes, apparently.

The Boston analogy can be confusing because in fact our authentic spiritual practice – if one wants to call it that – isn’t actually leading us anywhere. It’s more in the nature of spit-polishing the window we already are and, in the process, reminding us that we are, in fact, windows – not landscapes, not houses, not dwellers in houses nor walkers through landscapes.

I first saw this in a clear and sustainable way in Cambridge, Massachusetts last year. There were several glimpses before but they were dramatic and self-inflating. They felt like special moments that belonged to me and nobody else. I was elated, enlightened, amazed, with the focus ever on the “I” to whom the experience seemed to be happening.

(That, by the way, is a variation of confusing one’s mode of travel for the destination).

In Cambridge I saw that the self isn’t really a discrete stable object but is more akin to (but not precisely being) an information loop – many such loops, actually, seamlessly intersecting – and that those loops extend through the body into the world (and its other bodies), the whole of which is also comprised of loops, all shimmering, unified and radically equal – and that this loopiness (which I have most effectively described as eddies in a brook), this oneness, appears simply as this life of this human observer: it is this. This this.

sunlit_clover
light and shadow in the clover

And it still is this.

By “clear” I mean that intellectual understanding was integrated with embodied awareness. There wasn’t an “understanding” of “something out there.” The something and the understanding were patterns in the same sea. The separation of physical / spiritual disintegrated (the one not privileging the other). You could say – adopting a Christian or ACIM motif – that Heaven wasn’t elsewhere, temporally or spatially. It was simply this.

And by “sustainable” I mean that the insight didn’t disappear after a few minutes. It didn’t run down the drain of the ego. It was more like riding a bike. At first you only get the thrill of balancing for a few yards here and there. It’s wobbly and frustrating. But then all of a sudden the whole experience comes together and you are riding a bike. And you can’t ever go back to not being able to ride again.

Often, in A Course in Miracles discussion groups and similar dialogue circles, folks will talk about how the body and the world are illusory. There is textual support for this position, of course (e.g., W-pI.132.6:2; W-pI.199.8:7-8). It has a certain appeal; it probably always will.

But it is more accurate to say that our relationship with the body and the world is illusory. The body, as such, isn’t so important. Nor is the world. It’s our identification and alliance with them as something fundamental that matters. That’s where the confusion – and the illusion – lie.

The body is more like a pair of glasses than vision or eyes. It helps see but it doesn’t bring seer, sight or seen into existence. And the world is more like a user interface than an actual external environment. It’s useful, not truthful.

If we pretend the world and the body are illusions – like mirages or a stage magician sawing somebody’s legs off – then we are deceiving our self. The body and the world are very practical and have their place. Don’t worry so much about bodies. They actually take care of themselves very nicely. Same with the world. Let it show you what it was made to show you, in the very way that it shows you.

writing_places
places to sit, places to write

That said, it is helpful to investigate – by whatever means are most resonant and helpful – the apparent discrete self. Who are you? What are you? These are nontrivial questions that underlie the whole religious/spiritual program that human observers have been working on for thousands and thousands of years now. There are lots of helpful curriculums and teachers, new and old. And somewhere out there are students and teachers who need your presence and insight.

For me, after Cambridge, the work was simply to keep reading and thinking and sharing about all this material, and to see what happens. I am not so concerned about the outcome of the work, per se. Strictly speaking, there are no outcomes. Just loops – loopiness – coming and going. I use the phrase “give attention” to describe what I loosely think of as a spiritual practice. There are no secrets and no mysteries, which is not to say that there’s nothing to learn. Or to remember. But the stakes are not at all what we feared they were.

Loving God Means Loving Others

I am moved by these lines from Matthew’s Gospel:

You shall love God with all your heart,
all your soul and all your mind.
This is the first and greatest commandment.

The second commandment is like it:
You shall love your neighbor
as yourself.

On these two commandments
depend the whole Law
and the Prophets.

An equivalence is established here: loving God and loving one another are not functionally separate. You cannot meaningfully have one without the other.

strawberries
our strawberry beds are rich this year . . .

How shall we think about this? How shall we bring it forth in our living?

Often we are tempted to go into the question of what is God and is there actually a God and so on. Are the gospels objectively true? Is A Course in Miracles really the work of the historical Jesus?

These are fun and interesting questions, and have their place accordingly, but if our goal is inner peace and the joyful extension of love in community, then analysis that has as its goal being right or wrong about deities and their scriptures is mostly a distraction.

Really what I am saying here is that practicing the second commandment (love your neighbor) makes analyzing the first one (love God) superfluous, save as an academic exercise. Because while you might be unclear about what or where God is, or how to be in communication with God, you are not unclear about what or where your brother or sister is, or how to be in communication with them.

And, if you are honest in your inquiry, you are not unclear about what it means to love them.

So one can understand these lines from Matthew’s Gospel as a gentle suggestion to move beyond the merely intellectual or ideal and into the messy domain of consensually loving one another other.

Of course we will disagree with one another. Of course there will be relationships or situations from which we must distance ourselves. But disagreement and distance are not opposite to love.

For example, loving my racist brother does not require me to go to a white supremacy rally with him. Indeed, loving that brother requires me not to attend that rally and, within the context of our shared space of dialogue, to try to persuade him not to go.

This is love because it sees my brother not as a lesser being because of his racism but as a confused being who can become clear and loving in his own right, and has as its goal facilitating that clarity and lovingkindness.

It is a truly a fine line but it is manifestly possible to walk it, both alone and with others. If you are curious what this walking looks like, consult Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

fallen_apple_tree_blossoms
fallen apple tree embraced by blossoming wildflowers

In a similar way, loving an abusive husband or father does not require that one remain in the physical space where the abuse happens. Indeed, it requires removing oneself and others from that situation. And it requires holding the one who is violent accountable – civilly, criminally, spiritually – for their actions.

If I am aware of abuse or violence, then my first priority in love is to help those who directly suffer the violence find safety and otherwise facilitate accountability. My second priority is to help the one enacting the violence. But note that “help” in that context means making unambiguously clear (in the shared space of dialogue) that violence cannot be an effective or sustainable solution to any problem. There is another, better, way.

So we make amends, learn the better way and then bring it forth in our own living. If you are curious what this sort of forgiveness (of those who are violent and oppressive) resembles in practice, consult any decent biography of Nelson Mandela.

As these examples make clear, love is hard. It is not for the faint of heart. In application it is often frustrated, blocked, and otherwise attacked. But also, to be loving in this way is very much in our nature. It is in that sense given. And, as A Course in Miracles points out, a true gift must include the means by which to bring it to fruition. God, as such, does not just hand out seeds but also soil and water and sunlight.

In “Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception,” Heinz von Foerster pointed out that “A is better off when B is better off.” If there is one pie between the two of us, we are better off when we share it. This is true in our families, friendships, and larger communities. It always applies.

We can observe this principle in any aspect of our life – our family, our classroom, our work space, our zendo, our town, our country. Its natural corollary – or foundation, perhaps – is the Golden Rule which is isomorphic to all human cultures and practices. Treat others as you would like to be treated. I cannot lift you without lifting myself, and vice-versa.

We are very much together and not separate.

So if we are curious what it means to love, it means to ensure the mutual well-being of all of us. And “all of us” should not exclude maples trees and salamanders and blue whales and oceans. We are very much together. We are not separate.

This may not be difficult conceptually. But it is quite difficult to bring into application, and so sometimes we invent conceptual difficulties as a distraction.

For example, it is easier to get into a debate about the existence of God than to love someone whose actions – separating children from their parents at the border, for example – grievously offends us and necessitates in our living a loving response. It is always easier to condemn and let the condemnation be the sum total of our response, than to condemn and go on loving.

brook_flowing_east
the brook behind our home flowing east

Loving people who appear unlovable is not easy, especially because love is a process not a discrete event. It’s “hiking” not “the hike.” So all the time in all our living we have to figure out how to engage in this process of love which – in addition to being natural, wonderful, inspiring, et cetera – is messy, confusing, discouraging, et cetera.

This is what it means to be student of A Course in Miracles specifically, or a Christian more generally, because this is what it means to be a human observer in the world. Loving notwithstanding is what it means to live. We commit to bringing forth love in our living, and doing so in ways that extend love to everyone and everything without qualification or conditions. It is natural but not easy.

Thank you for helping me understand this material in a way that allows me to be less distant from it (less disembodied with it, perhaps), and for not leaving me when I stumble (as I so often do) trying to bring it all into practice.