In The Immediacy of Salvation,” A Course in Miracles makes the reasonable point that all our plans for safety are forward-looking, and since we can’t actually know what the future holds, our “plans” as such are essentially useless.
Yet the course also recognizes that some fear exists in us that causes us to make those plans, however futile they might be. And it invites us to think about that fear not in terms of what might happen tomorrow but rather what is happening right now. That is, it asks to us to give attention to our fear now.
What might we learn when we do?
Future loss is not your fear. But present joining is your dread . . . And it is this that needs correction, not a future state (T-26.VIII.4:2-4, 8).
The Jesus we encounter in the New Testament makes a similar observation.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them . . . Why are you anxious about your clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them (Matthew 7:25-26, 28-29).
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that the correction for a wrong emphasis on forward-thinking and planning is to “seek first the Kingdom of God.” In a similar way, A Course in Miracles suggests that we give attention to our present dread and take note of its here-and-nowness. Our fear is not of what will happen tomorrow but rather reflects a present lack of trust in our brothers and sisters. Thus we retain a sense of competition, and a corresponding sense that attack and defense remain viable.
Thus do you think it safer to remain a little careful and a little watchful of interests perceived as separate. From this perception you cannot conceive of gaining what forgiveness offers now . . . You see eventual salvation, not immediate results (T-26.VIII.2:4-5, 7).
This gap between you and I – which we insist upon because we do not fully trust one another (which is to say that we do not fully trust our own selves) – can only be perceived in the present moment. Where else could it possibly be? We fear it now because it is here now.
This is the insight the course urges us to accept. When we plan for the future we are correctly recognizing fear but are failing to see where and what that fear actually is. It’s not a problem in the future for which we must prepare. It’s a problem here and now to which we are responding here and now.
Thus, we might say that to “seek first the Kingdom” is to sit quietly and attentively with our fear. We might give attention to the way that planning distracts us from the present moment. And we might explore the course’s suggestion that our present fear reflects a lack of trust in our brothers and sisters and that it is this lack of trust which must be “solved,” not some hypothetical future circumstance.
Look not to time, but to the little space between you still, to be delivered from. And do not let it be disguised as time, and so preserved because its form is changed and what it is cannot be recognized (T-26.VIII.9:7-8).
It’s not tomorrow that vexes us. It’s the fault lines in our relationship today.
It is important to be clear that intellectually understanding the principles at work here is helpful (truly) but not dispositive. It’s like putting the yeast, salt, flour and water on the counter but not making the bread. We have to actually sit with our fear. We have to actually feel the lack of trust in ourselves and in the other. It’s scary. It’s not easy. But that way lies the Kingdom.
More likely than not, our initial response to all this will be grief. When I see how I fail you, despite my intelligence, my study, my practice, my sincerity . . . When I see how my lack of trust in us brings both of us pain . . . what else but sorrow can prevail?
Yet this grief testifies to the authenticity of our experience. And it is also the means by which the Holy Spirit – to use course parlance – or attention (to use Sean parlance) will undo our lack of trust and restore our awareness of love. It is when we perceive the utter depths of our personal failure that we can resign as our teacher and a new teacher with a new curriculum becomes possible.
The Holy Spirit’s purpose is now yours. Should not His happiness be yours as well? (T-26.VIII.9:9-10).
It is a good question! And in the answer – which we live through the gift of attention – fear is converted to hope and hope translated to love. Would you offer me anything else?
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us
(John’s Gospel 1:1, 1:14)
One of the more helpful insights in western and Christian thinking – which Helen Schucman understood well, at least intuitively – is that awareness of the subjective experience “I Am” is a beginning, not an end, and finds its fullest and most creative application in the consensual domain of “I and Thou.”
It has been clear for 2,500 years that a human observer cannot escape her subjective experience of the world. That is, she cannot get outside of her experience of the world in order to verify that said world actually looks, sounds, tastes, feels and smells like her experience of looking, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. Thus, our efforts to ascertain the nature of reality in any final or ultimate sense are effectively stymied.
Nothing we have learned about physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, linguistics, et cetera has undone this simple yet persistently troubling fact. Truth, reality, absolutes . . . all remain speculative, relative, transitory. Not impossible necessarily but certainly unverifiable.
One way to deal with the issue – the way that I ended up practicing – is to become religious. The one who intelligently and whole-heartedly seeks God – which seeking must accept the possibility that there is no God to find – eventually encounters the subjectivity of “I Am.” Understanding this is relatively straightforward; experiencing it is alternately destabilizing and inspiring because it necessarily upends our traditional conceptual understanding of the self as a perceptual and cognitive center for whom the world is a real place full of real people and objects where good and bad things happen. When the self is experienced as a process, a recursive loop, and the world as phenomena with utility rather than veridicality . . .
The effect can be a little dizzying.
One can perhaps empathize with those who objected to being told the earth was not flat but a sphere around which the sun floated. It takes courage, discipline and tenacity – and, truth be told, a little luck – to see clearly the rot at the heart of a cherished paradign, let alone adopt a new one in the old one’s stead.
One religious response to this subjectivity is to identify with it and to identify it with God, broadly defined. I am not this body that comes and goes but rather this awareness that is pervasive and boundless, infinite and eternal. It is – and by extension, I am – that ineffable permanence to which the word “God” (or Source or Truth) points.
Thus, Sri Aurobindo could write in The Life Divine:
Therefore all is in each and each is in all and all is in God and God is in all; and when the liberated soul comes into union with this Transcendent, it has this self-experience of itself and cosmos which is translated psychologically into a mutual inclusion and a persistent existence of both in a divine union which is at once a oneness and a fusion and an embrace (387).
A Course in Miracles notes that since we cannot be separate from God it is meaningless to seek God.
Nowhere but where He is can be found. There is no path that does not lead to Him (T-31.IV.11:6-7).
This equation – making our human experience isomorphic with divine experience – is not flawless. All too readily it can be adopted to facilitate familiar egoic feints and maneuvers. Under the guise of undoing the self, we can in fact become quite selfish and grandiose. There’s a reason many gurus and other spiritual and religious leaders are morally and ethically indistinguishable from their political, military and business counterparts.
The overarching point is that when we encounter “I Am,” we are at the beginning of our spiritual inquiry, not the end. We haven’t found God; we have found a way to find God (or a way to not need to find God – or to be in relationship with God as a non-trivial idea – the permutations are apparently endless). It’s the equivalent of traveling a long time, reaching your destination and finding only a map signifying yet another – longer and more arduous – journey. Tara Singh used to say to his students – I paraphrase – “you’ve got it, now you have to decide what to do with it.”
“What to do with it” is the harder – but also more interesting – part. Responding to it invokes – incarnates, really – the spiritual intimacy of “I and Thou.” Truly, the word is first with God and then becomes flesh. How shall we think about this?
Tara Singh’s clarity and sense of purpose called to me both instantly and loudly. From the outset I assumed a learning posture with respect to his work. It took a long time to understand that his clarity and sense of purpose arose for me the way they did because Singh wasn’t reckoning with A Course in Miracles at the level of the intellect. It was not merely a text to be understood and correctly shared but rather embodied through love which Singh understood meant service to our brothers and sisters. And he meant service literally – soup kitchens and homeless shelters. You had to put your body into it. You had to get your hands dirty.
This sense of concretely serving our sisters and brothers is often absent from the broader community of ACIM teachers and students. There the focus tends to be on self-improvement, spiritual “evolution,” personal experience, acquisition of spiritual gifts and so forth. It’s not the end of the world; none of us are altogether immune from it. But over and over the course insists that we are not separate from one another and it is only when we recognize this fundamental unity that we will know God. Everything else is delay and distraction. Why wait?
God has but one Son, knowing them all as one. Only God Himself is more than they are but they are not less than He is. Would you know what this means? If what you do to my brother you do to me, and if you do everything for yourself because we are part of you, everything we do belongs to you as well. Everyone God created is part of you and shares His glory with you (T-9.VI.3:5-9).
Here it is worth pointing out that the observed paradox (God is more than us but we aren’t less than God) is resolved not in the individual or personal (i.e., “you” are not less than God) but rather in the communal (i.e., “they” are not less than God). It is our unity with other selves that mirrors the divine; it is in relationship with the other that we are made – make – one.
Lesson 71 makes the sense of giving unto others more explicit.
What would You have me do?
Where You have me go?
What would You have me say, and to whom? (W-pI.71.9:1-3).
In other words, we are not here to privilege our own needs but to attend to the needs of the other. Indeed, that is the only way in which our truest need – to know God, which is to bring forth love – can be met.
Tara Singh put it this way:
. . . action is creative; it extends what it is and therefore it has to give. Service is the action of that impeccable space within one who wants to know the lifestyle of compassion – wants to know, “I am the blessed servant of God. I have my love to give and my joy to share” (The Joseph Plan of A Course in Miracles for the Lean Years, 28).
I call attention here to the explicit language of embodiment – of the flesh – reflected in the phrase “the lifestyle of compassion,” by which Tara Singh means service. A Course in Miracles ostensibly disavows behavioral directives (this was a hallmark of Ken Wapnick’s teaching), but Singh saw clearly that “I Am” necessitated an actual physical living embrace of the other. In essence, “I Am because Thou Art.”
Finally – because it is an important point often overlooked – the course is clear that awakening, rightly understood, is a service we provide to others. It is not a personal event, a personal culmination of spiritual effort and study.
You are not yet awake, but you can learn how to awaken. Very simply, the Holy Spirit teaches you to awaken others . . . They will become the witnesses to your reality, as you were created witness to God’s (T-9.VI.5:1-2, 4).
I was confused about this aspect of the course for a long time. From time to time that confusion resurfaces, usually in the presence of those who are here to teach me humility, restraint, give-don’t-take, et cetera. We are called to love the other who is our sister/brother and who could be, in Humberto Maturana’s phrasing, our own self. But this love is too often conflated with hierarchical power dynamics (student/teacher, leader/follower, boss/employee) or some other form of specialness, like sex or money or social capital.
To love the other is to give attention to them in a way that recognizes and does not obscure our radical (in the sense of deeply rooted rather than extreme) shared equality. When we recognize and honor this equality, the requisite contextual actions – be they teaching, making love, baking bread, watching a movie, weeding a garden – become clear. Doing them is loving the other unattended by the power dynamics of ego (as the course would say), or the discrete self (as Thomas Merton would say), or the pain body (as Eckhart Tolle would say), or . . .
However we phrase it, the critical insight seems to be that happiness is not about a boon to our own subjective experience of self but rather the way in which we extend that self to others. Our awakening, as such, lies in learning how to awaken others, which is to make them happy, which is basically to allow them the full expression of their humanness, without a lot of spiritual or political or any other form of drama.
It is easy to become confused about what this means in practice. Should we open a soup kitchen? Volunteer at a shelter? Donate to this or that political candidate?
I think it is important to give attention to the way that love actually already does permeate our human experience, and to see how that love naturally extends itself. To the extent certain formal steps are required – soup kitchens, political activism, et cetera – they will be clearly indicated. But we have to get out of the way first.
Start by seeing how you are loving – in a non-dramatic way – in your most ordinary being. Notice the casual nods and smiles and small talk that you offer strangers in the supermarket, on the bus, in the library. Notice the physical space you give others and they give you – not as something we have to fight for and defend once attained, but as a gesture of easy respect, so easy it goes without saying, indeed, often without even being noticed.
These practically mindless gestures are actual manifestations of the love that is the fundament of our being. Nothing special, nothing dramatic. No insistence on reciprocity. Just the recognition of the other who is our own self in passing. Is there anything else we would call holy? And seeing how naturally it arises, how effortlessly it lifts us and others, can we give it yet more space to do its thing? Truly it works most effectively when “we” – the egoic centralized self – does not interject with goals, plans, ideas, fears, and desires.
Thus, when we come to the subjective wonder of “I Am,” we are finally prepared to appreciate, inspire and nurture the equal wonder – the partner wonder – of “Thou Art.” We might call what is created then a sacred loop, a holy circle, a blissful reflexivity, recursive divinity. And we might forego naming it all, knowing that the body of the other is the body of the world which is the word that is God made flesh because it is God. Service becomes the gift we give to the other because it is the gift we merit because we are the other.
Say that we go to Boston, you and I. Everybody wants to go to Boston. Boston is fun and interesting and once you’ve been there, you’re a changed person. Boston goes with you. It becomes a way of life.
Say, too, that we have heard stories about a certain Boston experience – a way the pigeons have of flying away from City Hall Plaza all at once, as if a great veil were being drawn up into the sky. Those who have seen it say you can’t put the vision into words. They say it’s like part of you is lifted as well. They say it’s better than prayer, better than sex, better than hot apple pie in winter . . .
So we go to Boston. We see a Red Sox game. We visit the Gardner Museum. We walk along the harbor, buy fried clams in Quincy Market. We get iced coffee and sit in the plaza to see if the pigeons will do that pigeon-veil thing.
The suggestion here is that being spiritual – a terribly confusing phrase in its own right – is like going to Boston. That is, it is a lawful exploration of a law-governed environment. It’s not supernatural; it’s natural.
And the further suggestion is that “natural” in this context is altogether sufficient unto our desire to be whole, know God, see the light, get religion, go to Heaven, et cetera.
I’m saying you’re a Buddhist because somebody told you Buddhism was the way to go, and you liked their description, and there was this chance of enlightenment, so . . .
I’m saying you’re a Christian for the same reasons, a student of A Course in Miracles for the same reasons, and a devourer of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra books for the same reasons.
And I’m saying that the effect of all those apparently divergent paths and traditions is precisely the same: A human observer giving attention to being a human observer in hopes of experiencing the transcendent experience that sometimes attends human observing.
It’s okay. Strike that. It’s more than okay.
Here is something I learned last year, that has been very helpful to me: Boston doesn’t matter. Buddhism doesn’t matter. A Course in Miracles doesn’t matter. Phenomenology doesn’t matter.
Being a human observer matters. And you and I are already fully wholly human observers, with full access to the panoply of experiences that go with being that particular observer. We can ascend all the peaks, endure all the deserts, and plumb all the depths.
For me, that insight ended a lot of querying and questing, without ending the happy investigation of living and loving. It turns out that the ordinary undoes our pesky longing for the extraordinary. When one sees a patch of wild chives a certain way, one sees through their secret desire for angelic interventions, ascended masters and coded languages by which to keep the saved apart from the damned.
What does a “certain way” mean? And how exactly do we bring it into application?
What can I say but “give attention?” Attend with care and curiosity – with love, if you will – the sundry phenomena that appear to your bodily senses and also become a scholar unto whatever you want to understand. Take your living with a serious joy.
Give attention and see what happens! See if the pigeons fly away from the square. See if renegade chives blossom outside the garden. See what it feels like to be happily Godless yet deeply religious. See Jesus in a hemlock tree, and then see just a hemlock tree, and then see only love spilling forth in the form of saviors and hemlock trees.
And whatever you learn, however apparently trivial, pass it on. It’s the loving thing to do.
wild chive blossoms –
the narrow gate widens
One has the sense that there is a kind of permanent presence – a unified whole – that attends this experience of existing. Before anything occurs – any seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching – there is this awareness, this boundless flow in and to which all phenomena and sensation appear.
In contemporary nondual traditions that include A Course in Miracles this is often named “awareness” or “consciousness” and we are told that “we are that.” It is the great “I Am.”
For example, here are a few lines from one of Nisargadatta’s talks that are generally consistent with this theme.
Give attention to how this “I Amness” has appeared – then you will know. Accept this identification only: that you are this manifest pure beingness, the very soul of the universe, of this life that you observe, and presently you are just wearing this bodily attire.
Robert Adams, a devotee of Ramana, often shared with his students an essay he wrote entitled Confessions of Jnani, which included the following paragraph.
I am infinite, imperishable, Self-luminous, Self-existent, I am without beginning or end, I am birthless, deathless, without change or decay. I permeate and interpenetrate all things. In the myriad universes of thought and creation, I Alone Am.
I am not insisting that Nisargadatta and Adams were confused. I am asking if reading their work as if they were confused is at least as valid as reading it as if they were clear and correct.
Clearly both men came to an insight about identity that was premised on the enduring nature of the experience of “I am,” which they did not associate with temporal material processes. And one can understand that! When we make contact with this “I am,” it feels and seems both infinite and eternal.
But the way a thing feels or seems may not be the way it actually is, right? If I hold up my hand I can neatly blot the distant hill from my field of vision, but my hand is not larger than the hill. It just looks that way, given the physics and biology involved.
In the middle of a moonless night when I go out to see the horses, they appear faint and hazy, even up close. They are not actually spectral quadrupeds – it is simply how they look given the physics and biology involved.
The question is: can we extend this fact to our experience of “I Am?” Can this sense of “I Am” which Nisargadatta and Adams (and countless folks in that contemporary advaitic tradition, broadly defined), simply be how it feels to be a human observer?
What if “I am” is explicable not in grandiose spiritual terms but rather in physics and biology? This is just what it sometimes feels like to be a human observer – with these specifically human perceptual and cognitive abilities? It’s just what it is – no more and no less. This – this this.
That would strip the “I am” experience of its spiritual gloss, wouldn’t it? It would take God and Christ and Samadhi and the Buddha right out of the equation . . .
The human observer has a specific neural architecture (brain) which is instantiated in a specific perceptual system (body). Allowing for neural a-typicality, which happens, all human observers are having an approximately similar experience – language-based, tribal, biased, et cetera.
Thus, the world that you see and think about is not vastly different than the world that I see and think about – nor is it different from the world that Jesus saw and thought about, or Nisargadatta, or Helen Schucman or Eckhart Tolle.
Please note that I did not say those worlds are precisely identical. Obviously there are differences. Rather, my point is that those differences are closer to trivial than not, at least in the sense that allowing for cultural differences, you could readily be in dialogue with Jesus, Nisargadatta, Tolle, Helen Schucman or me.
This because it goes to the essence of our longing for masters, gurus, teachers, et cetera. We are parented beings. We are followers, going where the tribe does, and doing what helps the tribe get along. We are built that way. So when we ask “what do I do with this interior emptiness/loneliness/confusion/pain” we naturally look for parent figures – priests, ministers, gurus, therapists, teachers – to help us figure it out.
And, just as naturally, because there is so much seeking for these types of figures, there are folks who step into those roles, with varying degrees of efficiency and effectiveness.
Who is your teacher? Who are you following?
Personally, I am moving away from overt spiritual language – satsang, miracle, enlightenment, soul. I am also moving away from folks who purport to have what others do not (I’ve personally had experience X and will now sell or otherwise convey it to you).
The language piece arises from a desire to maximize communication, to enlarge the dialogic circle. The steering clear of the professionally enlightened piece arises out of a recognition of our utter mutual dependence on one another. Our equality has clarified to a point where it is no longer feasible to elevate individuals to exalted status, even temporarily. We all belong; we all bring something important to the table. Without the other, we are not. Period.
So what is the alternative to specialized spiritual practice overseen by some master figure?
One possibility – one being slowly brought forth in my own living – is dialogue premised on equality, where “dialogue” is understood in a Bohmian way – i.e., without agenda or other constraints, and with an intentional focus on honesty and open-mindedness. I also understand “dialogue” to be less formal than Bohm typically imagined it. That is, the dialogue is not only when we purposefully sit down in a circle to share, but also when we are just chatting en route to the grocery store, cooking dinner, scrubbing windows, waving hello in passing, et cetera.
In a slightly dramatic sense, I am suggesting that our lives be given wholly over to simple attentiveness and openness. What happens, happens, and we will notice it, and respond to it, and share about it honestly and directly, and then other stuff will happen, and the cycle of our living will go on like this until our bodies encounter some block or hurdle which cannot be overcome and so they lay down a final time.
This practice moves me in the direction of love, and moving in the direction of love begets a natural inclination to serve others, which happily enough speeds one’s passage to love.
What does this look like in practice?
For me, it means being careful with language. When I find myself leaning on complicated spiritual ideas or windy poetic abstractions, I ask if there is a way to explain this that a child would understand. Since there always is – else why else share at all – the question arises: what am I really doing by using language in ways that minimize or otherwise impair communication?
It is a good question for one inclined to hide behind wordiness.
Another thing is being sensitive to the fact that I don’t know everything. A lot of what I do know surprised me when I learned it. Why should tomorrow be any different? So I have to go slowly and humbly, trying always to keep in mind that more will be revealed. Who I condemn today I may need to turn to for guidance tomorrow. The shelter I destroy today I may discover a need for next week or the week after.
For me, there is also an increasing emphasis on finding what works and working it. Three simple examples: exercise (in addition to chores) is very helpful to me; certain dietary restrictions are too. Drinking way less coffee is also helpful. Those things are challenging in their way but their positive impact in terms of physical energy and mental clarity and optimism are undeniable. So work them.
Similarly, in the classroom where I spend a great deal of my professional life, it helps me help others if I am more forgiving and flexible and less stern. There is in me a tendency to run a tight ship on a tight schedule to a non-negotiated end chosen by me. But my students learn better and write better when I am less dictatorial and more in the nature of a cheerful coach.
So those are some personal examples. That is what it looks like for me; of course it will look different for other folks. What makes sense to me as a practice – attentiveness, emptying out of attachment and investment, dialogic relationship – may not make sense to others, not even a little. We are where we are.
I speak from a sense of quiet joy. Having discovered something that works there is a desire to share it, hopefully with minimal drama and egoism. The little light I have is yours; all I want is to share it with you.
In a way, the so-called spiritual process is akin to noticing – and then sustaining in awareness – the distinction between what is happening and an observer’s description of what is happening. The description is not the thing.
Say that I am sad. You say, “Sean is sad. I can tell by the tears flowing down his face and the way his body sags as if burdened by a great weight.”
Your description of my sorrow is not my experience of sorrow. It is not even close to the feel of wet tears on my cheeks, the salt as they reach my lips, the sagging of my skeletal frame, the mental struggle to put words to emotion, the desperate longing for relief . . .
Moreover, your description of sorrow is relatively simplistic relative to the sorrow that is actually occurring. The occurrence is complex to the point of ineffability. To truly accurately describe sorrow you’d need to evoke biology, chemistry, physics, human history, linguistics – literally the whole cosmos.
This is a simple point but we overlook it constantly: descriptions are not the processes they describe. And since the world is made of processes – everything is changing, shifting, moving, even if at scales that are imperceptible to human observers (plants growing, say, or the sun burning out) – our descriptions are at best pale imitations with limited utility. At worst, they actively confound and misdirection our living, making us unhappy, unhelpful and unproductive.
In a sense, there is no way out of this. Human observers describe what they observe. Everything is given a name and categorized accordingly. Everything is ascribed motivation, rationale, history, goals. Everything is placed in relationship with everything that it is not it. Human observers build a world this way. Their living constructs their living.
Description is also a process, albeit one that implies a stable central describer – a self who faithfully report what she perceives, whose perceptions can be trusted. But as we all know, upon investigation and inquiry, that “self” cannot be found in an objective sense. The concrete narrative center it implies is an illusion.
And yet life goes on. The world goes on.
But “goes on” is a description according to an observer.
But the observer is a process that is being observed “going on.”
It is as if no matter what path you take, you end up at the same place, which is neither a beginning nor an end but merely a realization of circularity and recursivity.
This is maddening at first – as if we are trapped in a maze. One temptation is to spiritualize it – call the recursivity “infinity” and “eternity” (which are descriptions 🙂 ). Another is drain it of joy through reduction by saying it’s just atoms and quarks and what not (but see how “just” is a description 🙂 ).
The important thing is to see that we are not excluded or separate from the process. It inheres in us, the way blue inheres in blueberries. We are one with it. And seeing this – the simple natural fact of it – then it becomes a source of peace and joy and service.
So the point is not to cease describing, which is not possible anyway, nor to undo or end or amend observation which is also not possible.
Rather, the point – or practice, if you will – is simply to give attention to the descriptive process while not conflating it with what is being described. It is a bit of tightrope walking; a delicate balancing act.
But it is helpful because it loosens our sense that there is something at stake here – a life, a self, other selves with whom we are in relationship. Relieved of this ontological burden of defense, we are free to be happy and serve others, which extends our happiness.
The wind blows where it will, and thou hearest its sound but dost not know where it comes from or where it goes. ~ John 3:8
Yet the utterly subjective nature of our experience as human observers must be entered as into a mystery, its apparent infinities and eternities robustly explored. The interior is all there is, and yet it cannot be all there is, for one can never reach its end and thus say, “there is nothing beyond this.”
Barred from conclusion – from perfect knowledge, from the end of inquiry – we are given instead to wandering, forever hungry and thirsty, without even the comfort of divine guidance or instruction. There is only this: this this, and it is not enough.
Our experience as human observers is forever bounded by – and bonded to – this mystery. It is as if we are forever entering the temple where the Beloved waits on her dais, and when we reach out to her she disappears, leaving only a note and a map leading us to the next temple. On and on we go, never quite vanishing into our desire, and never quite satiating it either.
Shall we worship then our going? The apparent cycle of discovering-only-to-lose-in-order-to-begin-yet-again?
We can, if we want. But it does not satisfy, not in the final sense. Worship never does; idols never do. That, too, is the mystery – this innate sense that we are called to fall to our knees and yet once on them perceive only the One who would never ask us to kneel.
The old Christians called this conundrum, this mystery, our “poverty of spirit,” being in the mode of Jesus who called on his followers to be “poor in spirit” and to “take up their cross.” If we interpret this in terms of our bodily existence, it devolves quickly into negotiating cultural mores. “I’ll recycle more and grow my own tomatoes,” “I’ll watch less television and read more books,” et cetera.
There is nothing wrong with executing our living according to terms and conditions which resonate for us according to circumstance, preference, et cetera. But this is a giving of meaning to our living that is secondary to the interior journey we undertake, the radical (as in rooted, not extreme) exploration of the subjectivity that underlies our living. How deeply can you go into yourself and what do you find there?
We are talking here about a movement – a journey, a dance, a descent-and-ascension – from which our teachers and lovers and allies are naturally excluded. The texts that point out the next step cannot actually take the next step. We go empty-handed, without provision. We go without a plan for going back. It is like Jesus said, the one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the reign of God. Harsh words but true and thus – in the end – kind.
We have to let go of platitudes about the interior, the easily memorized sentences and lines handed down by our idols and fellow worshipers. Bumper stickers are for tourists. We are not visitors who will go home to boast about our vacation. We are migrants, mendicants, apostles, beggars. The grace that inheres in our traveling cannot be possessed, recounted, valorized, or sold. It does not extend itself in the form of personal accomplishment.
To “bring forth Love,” which is what it means to be fully human, is to go into this mystery – this whole-that-is-not-whole, this God-forever-just-out-of-reach – without any image of what will happen next, without any plan for response, without any investment in investment in outcome. Those “withouts” are our poverty and only thus desiccated do we become a prism unto the One so that Her pure love might radiate through us in vivid scintillation. Truly we go into the darkness without lantern or fire in order to discover that we are the light and the darkness was but a dream.
Johannes Baptist Metz once wrote that “A human being is the ecstatic appearance of Being, and becoming fully human is an ever growing appropriation of this ecstasis of Being.”
Ever-growing means not ending. You see? There is no home. There is no one. No lover, no God, no shelter. No high table, no secret altar. There is only this, which can only be encountered in spiritual poverty – that is, in the utter open-hearted and empty-handed nature of Being meeting being meeting Being.
I say sometimes to my students: “take what you learn and act in the world with it. Do something.” And when they ask what they should do, I tell them to help somebody in a way that makes both parties happier than they were before the encounter started.
Related to this – especially when it comes to spiritual paths and practices and the inevitable contentions when one relates with them – is to have as one’s standard in this domain be that what’s right is what works.
Let me briefly address those two ideas.
First, it is important to allow our ideas and insights to have full run of the bodies in, through and to which they occur. If you are having ideas about peace, then behave peaceably. Don’t screw around by being casual or self-deprecating. Jesus and the Buddha were just people, like you. Beget peaceful practices that themselves beget peace. If that is not happening in your living – if everything is remaining at the level of the intellect – then something is wrong. The circle is not connecting, or closing. The wheel can’t go.
I am not disparaging the intellect. Praise and glory to the inner librarian, the inner scholar, and the inner cartographer. Truly! But a librarian without a writer of books is lost. A scholar without a classroom is lost. A cartographer without an explorer is lost.
You see where I am going with this.
I propose that we think in terms of identities – or essences – that make one another possible, that define and empower one another, so that what emerges is not one or the other but rather a relationship. Absent the explorer, no cartographer, and absent the cartographer, no explorer. You might think of the yin yang symbolism as an apt image. Somewhat less elegantly, you might imagine a bear eating blueberries, then shitting the blueberry seeds in sunlight so new bushes will grow, which in turn feed more bears who in turn shit more seeds . . .
Since I like bears and blueberries, I’ll use those images to build out the second idea. I proposed that a way to think about spirituality is to ask if it works. Is it helpful? If your spiritual practice has peace and justice as one of its goals, then are you helping instigate peace and justice? If yes, okay. Keep doing what you’re doing. If no, then reevaluate.
So there is this system we call a bear and it eats these berries, which are little systems themselves. The bear wants to make more bears, and the berries want to make more berries. This is a way of saying how life loves itself, how its aim is just to keep going, keep flowing. Life is what recreates itself, in and through all these observers, some of whom – like us – are aware of the the flow and some who aren’t. The flow doesn’t care; it just is. But it is sweet to see it – sweet like blueberries, rough and beautiful like bears.
The blueberries work for the bear because they energize her and satiate her, and they can do the same for her little cubs, if she has any. They help her be a living bear and to bring forth her bearness. But it works for the berries, too, because even as they lose their autonomy in the bear’s jaws, their seeds are set free in a most fertile way. As the bears brings forth her bearness, the blueberries bring forth their blueberryness. It works for both parties, you see?
You want to be happy. I want to be happy. I don’t mean the silly ersatz happiness of our team wins the Super Bowl, or we just ate a slice of fresh-baked bread with butter and cinnamon, or had some really great sex. Those things are fine – they are more than fine, really – but they are like fireflies compared to the great lantern of joy that is our inheritance and essence.
Happiness is what doesn’t come and go. It is not touched by external circumstances, which of course include your personal response to those circumstances. When we are happy we are helpful in a direct clear way because all that matters is extending our happiness. Joy wants to be shared, the same way life wants to be shared.
The blueberry is sweet and nutritious and so the bear wants it and takes it, and the way she consumes the berry maximizes the berry’s potential to become a new bush redolent with new berries. That is the nature of berries and bears. Our nature is to be happy and to extend our happiness through sharing, being nearby, co-creating, et cetera. We are loving creatures, what Humberto Maturana characterized as less Homo Sapiens than Homo Amans.
So I say: go do something today, something that works. And you will know it works by the measure of joy it brings you. Joy is infectious; it travels, radiates, disperses. It’s like a bear in a blueberry patch, a blueberry seed in bear scat. What makes you happy? Deeply naturally productively happy? Do that. That is your spiritual practice.
Experience is a continous whole that functions as a perspective. Experience provides an observer with a lot of phenomena – mental, emotional, physical – to observe. It owns the curious apparent paradox that it consists entirely of change and yet itself never changes.
There are ways to experience this change-that-never-changes. You might consider experience as a kind of container: everything that occurs, from the passage of ants in the garden to the ideas in your head to the moon in the sky, are contained by experience.
In this mode, you might give attention to experience: can you find anything that is not contained in it? Doesn’t everything show up in experience?
Upon perceiving this awareness in which and to which all appears – we might begin to explore the container itself. What, if anything, do we find? What does it feel like to find it? Or to not find it? Or are those misguided questions?
I do not disparage those exercises and others like them. It is important to make sustained contact with the subjective nature of experience, and the way it feels so utterly infinitely whole.
I also want to be careful about the conclusions that I draw from that experience.
The experience we have is the experience of a human observer. There is some variety built into this but in a general way it is isomorphic across the species. Importantly, we want to be clear that other observers bring forth different worlds – different cosmos – in their observation. If you and a butterfly look at a flower, you see two different objects. If you and an ant look at the sky, you see two vastly different ceilings. Who is right? And since the obvious answer is that both are right according to the particular observer they are, then can we actually draw objective conclusions about the flower or the sky?
We really are constrained from drawing conclusions, including those that sound like “there is only this” or “I am that.” The very fact of our existence as human observers means that while we can make educated guesses and estimate probabilities and so forth, and can manage varying degrees of confidence in our scholarship, the whole – at least as we have long understood it in spiritual terms – is foreclosed to us.
Seeing this clearly is often experienced as painful, especially if it arrives after we’ve had the shallow enlightenment experience of “there is only this” and “I am it” et cetera. Again, I don’t disparage those experiences or insights. They are part of the overall human experience, and they are helpful in their way. They are even delightful in their way. It is simply that we tend to be confused by them, to objectify and cling to them through the form of adoration, worship and so forth. They can subtly be cherished as accomplishments, evidence of spiritual growth, and so forth.
Really, “this is it” and “I am that” are simply ways of expressing what it feels like sometimes to be a human observer. If those phrases are helpful in terms of making us gentler, kinder, slower to judge, more helpful, less argumentative and so forth, then great. But they aren’t dispositive. They don’t end the inquiry. They are more in the nature of a sign than that which is being pointed at. That is, they’re like the sign that says “river,” rather than the river itself.
If we want the river, then we have to allow for the limitations imposed on us by virtue of being human observers. We get AN experience, not THE experience. It’s not even THE experience relative to other humans. Lots of people are happy, insightful, peaceful, helpful, generous and kind without ever having to resort to nondualism or Christianity or pop psychology.
Right now, this is how it is happening for us – this this – which is okay because it is a way of being human. It is one filter among many, all of which can be misused, confused, abused and so forth. All of which can be helpful and productive, too.
The work really is to go slower in terms of concluding. That is, we want to just let life be what it is without rushing to decide what it is or what it should be. That is a real practice! It takes time, energy, attention, commitment. Becoming the loving being that we naturally are is the work of the one life we are living.
Part of what I am saying is that a human observer is essentially a perspective, A way of seeing rather than THE way of seeing. If I am sitting by the river I am not mucking the horse pasture. I am weeding the strawberries I am not writing poetry under the apple tree. If I am gazing at a sky full of stars I am not gazing a mushrooms in the compost.
At any moment, the observation of which you are comprised is both local and partial. At the sensorimotor level it includes whatever data is allowed by the intersection of the local environment with the particular organism. At the cognitive level, it includes your vast knowing predicated on all the years of your learning to be the particular human observer you are.
For example, my perspective on cows includes my father’s relationship with cows, which was complex and lifelong, and my own history with cows, which cannot be disentangled from my father. Nobody can experience cows the way I experience cows, and I will never experience a cow apart from the specific way that I experience cows.
Right now I am writing on the back porch while it rains. The sky is soft gray like the belly of a trout. The lilac is just beginning to bloom. The grass is rich and green, like the first time I flew over Ireland. The neighbor’s sheep are bawling. I am thinking about what one does when faced with disagreement, with a particular focus on some of Hugh Gash’s ideas about spirituality in a constructivist context.
That’s Sean – or was Sean, a couple of hours ago. Who are you?
If we can see the way our observing constitutes a perspective that is biological, mental, psychological, spiritual and so forth, then we can perhaps begin to also see how this is true for all observers. You are a perspective. Your neighbor is a perspective. Robins in the backyard are a perspective. A bee is a perspective. The lilac is a perspective.
The significance of this is that it loosens our stranglehold on truth or reality. It eases up our conviction that there is a 1:1 correspondence between our experience as observers and an external cosmos. There isn’t the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There are many ways and many truths constituting many expressions of Life. This is disconcerting at first, given our particular investment in being special separate selves, but as we come back to it over and over, its potential for peace becomes clear.
If there are only many perspectives – as opposed to a singular truth that can be known – then we don’t need to argue as much. Disagreements arise but they needn’t devolve into estrangement or worse. Of course someone has a different view than us. They also have a pair of feet that aren’t ours. Are we going to get bent out of shape over that, too?
So we relax a little and see a way in which to build a world in which it is easier for people to be good, forgiving, gentle, patient. A world in which it is easier to be loving. And we can build it together. That is the real work of being human – to build together a world in love.
Too often, we perceive differences as signals to defend ourselves or prove others wrong. It becomes a way of deciding who is valuable and deserving and who is not as worthy. That is a world in which love is constrained and denied its full expression.
When we appreciate that differences arise naturally as a fundament of the human observer, then some space opens up in which we are quieter, gentler, kinder and more nurturing. After all, this other could be me. To see that clearly is love. To let it be is love.