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Awakening in Relationship

I think we are moving perhaps in the direction of a space where it is possible to address questions of awakening and what-happens-after without so much judgment and confusion and drama. Perhaps we are getting clear on the simplicity. Perhaps we are focusing on the helpful work and the relationships which make that work light.

The other is a way of seeing, especially when we love them a great deal. Love is a way of seeing our own self in a lightened way. I mean this literally. The other is a lens and what we see through that lens is what we are, and when we are in love with this other, then we see ourselves as both beloved and loving, and if we are truly blessed then we see that there is only love, and both self and other dissolve utterly. There is only relationship; there was always only relationship.

Naturally this happens in bodies – in our apparent structure as human beings – which I experience always as deeply confusing. I want to make love and bake bread and walk hand-in-hand in the forest and wake early and boil water for tea. Naturally that is all lovely and important but it is only a shallow expression of love. I don’t mean “shallow” here in a negative sense. I just mean that it is local and temporal, and love is so much more than that. It is bigger than that – cosmically bigger, infinitely bigger.

The work, in part, is to see this: to see that the love brought forth in the structure for the structure is not created by the structure. If that is clear, it becomes possible to see beyond the structure, or sense beyond it, and thus be liberated from it in the sense of having to identify with it in toto.

The other that we love is the way that this cosmic vastness is shown to us. We see the other and then slowly – for me it took many years and many spilled words of strangled dialogue, many steps forward and back – we see the love itself. Imagine that you are reading by candle and then somebody turns on an overhead light. The dim glow of the candle is negligible. Where before you had to squint to read each word now the whole page is legible and bright. When we see love itself, the other becomes like the window through which the light streams. You are grateful for the window but my God the light. The lovelily life-giving light . . .

All things that God created timeless
are His gifts to me. The passing and the frail
are not part of my inheritance.
Such are His promises.

(Helen Schucman The Gifts of God)

Love is timeless and unchanging. Its guidance is sure. Its radiance is beyond trust and contingency as we understand those concepts.

With whom and with what are we in relationship? Can any other question matter? Unless our whole being is devoted to being in relationship with God – that is, with life and with love – than we are not in relationship at all. Everything else is a pale imitation, useful only for reminding us of the timeless love that is our real identity and the real foundation of our being.

When we give attention this way to the other, the other ceases to exist as an object. They are not apart from us, nor we from them. They are here: they are us. The body might be far away – in Alaska or Nepal. It might be buried somewhere in the earth. It doesn’t matter. The other is not a body! No more are we. The love that appears in bodies is a hint, a faint gesture at the love that brings the body forth.

Our salvation, so to speak, is to realize this about our love: that is not about the body, nor about personal relationship even, but about love that is unchanging and everpresent, forever flowing and infusing and inspiring. Nothing else calls to us; the other is simply the wind that blows the door open: a world appears, a universe, and all of it held in the luminous love that for a little while longer we might agree to call God.

Personalization as the Root of Conflict

It took me a long time to understand that the root of so many conflicts and problems in my living arose out of an insistence – a sort of mental habit – of personalizing everything. Things did not just happen; they happened to me. It was not life but my life.

Thus, my investment in life grew large and precarious. The scale of what required defense and protection was vast. The point at which its unmanageability became clear was also the point at which it also became clear that escape was futile.

This personalization and its ruinous nature is actually not hard to see and thus talk about and think about. In fact, a nontrivial part of how it sustains itself is by remaining so accessible. We fall into the trap of asking “why do I always do this?” We repeat patterns of behavior and then analyze them, and the analysis becomes a pattern of behavior and so we analyze that. Round and round it goes, like a skein of yarn endlessly tangling itself.

And again, by the time we actually start to genuinely want a way out of that mess, it has become so densely knotted that there isn’t a way out. Every move we make doubles down on the chaos. Turn here and you’re facing a new ACIM teacher. Turn there and it’s a new yoga studio that just opened up. Behind you is a new relationship or a new take on an old relationship and in front of you an ever-so slightly-tweaked diet. And the whole thing is narrated by dozens of voices that take turns mesmerizing us, holding us fast to this uncreative keeling.

But there is a way out and the way out is simply to see that this narrow hellish maze is not real. We don’t have to escape because we’re not bound. It’s just a bunch of thoughts, no more real than wisps of cloud. But of course that’s a thought, too. You see how quickly we fall back into the familiar, even when it isn’t creative or nurturing . . .

It can help to give attention to things and inquire into the actual relationship that is present. Is it personal or is it impersonal? Does the distinction matter?

Sometimes when the moon is full and it’s late and I am finishing writing or reading but am not yet ready to sleep, I go outside and visit the horses. Near midnight they are very calm and quiet, often sitting together in the pasture. One, Jack, an Appaloosa cross, is white and appears luminescent in the moonlight. Sometimes they unfold from the earth and come to me, their enormous bodies floating through the light like secrets. In those moments, we are the only living beings in the universe. In those moments, love shucks the given form and simply gives itself in centerless radiation.

As I describe that moment, it is clear there is relationship inherent in it. But is the relationship between me and the horses? Or is the relationship one of life with itself? Or love with itself, say?

I think these are good questions! If the relationship is with me and the horses, then it is personal. This is my homestead and they are my animals. This beauty, this luminosity, this specialness is my experience; I am the one gaining wisdom and inner peace. I am the one writing poems about it. I am the one learning from it and I am the one who choose to be generous or miserly with what is learned.

I think most of us are in that space most of the time. If we are honest, I think we are, though often subtly. It’s not a sin or a crime. In fact, it’s natural. It’s how the human structure operates. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way the human structure operates, and that there isn’t a better way for it to operate, and that we aren’t here to learn that better way, and bring it forth, alone and together, for all of us.

I think that is why we end up enacting this project that we call spiritual seeking or pursuing happiness or whatever we call it. We intuitively grasp that something is not working in our living and we can’t figure out what it is and how to fix it. God comes into it then. Angels and psychologists and coaches come into it. And here we are.

What force or power brings the horses forth? Life does this. They are alive. They are living. And life is not ultimately reducible. We can’t reach its ultimate beginning; we can’t find the first cause beyond which there are no causes. We can go all the way down to the level of electrons where there is no differentiation, no space or matter, and still. We can understand a lot about life, we can become efficient at certain aspects of living, but the whole of it, the beyond-all-questions of it . . . that lies outside the range of our sensual and cognitive structure. All we can say is that life is wonderful and mysterious and utterly given. We literally have all of it. We aren’t a little alive and a little dead. It is all here always, so far as we can tell.

The same force or power that brings forth the horses brings forth us as well. Of course the forms are different but the force that infuses the forms is the same. There isn’t a kind of life there and a kind of life here. There is living. There is life. And so the question becomes, with respect to all the forms appearing and interacting: what is the relationship between them?

Because it’s clear that life, as such, is not about Sean. It doesn’t bring Sean forth any different than it brings for the horses. Or you. Or an ant or a sunflower or a star. It’s the same law, the same force, the same power. It can’t be personalized; it can only be misunderstood. When we personalize it, or try to, we aren’t seeing it clearly. We are confusing ourselves by not giving attention and being present to the simple fact of the shared nature of our being.

Often, when I am outdoors, there is a sense of being actually connected to what what appears. The other afternoon I watched half a dozen geese circle low overhead before gliding into a muddy cornfield a quarter mile south. In that moment of observation I did not experience distance between us. I did not experience separation marked by space. I experienced the openness as connecting us, like a braid or an outstretched hand. And this openness reached beyond us, encompassing the cornfield and the river, the hills and the cities, the highways and the clouds . . .

Often, in neo-advaita circles, the suggestion is that we are the pure awareness in which all phenomena arises. I understand that pointing, even as I experience it somewhat differently. Life assumes many structures and postures; I have the structure of a human being writing and homesteading in New England as an empire crumbles around me. I have the posture of studying holiness to undo patriarchy; I am joined to – indeed, I am saved by – other human beings who are wiser and more expert than I am at that particular project. I am learning to be humble and grateful and diligent in their presence.

The “I” in the preceding paragraph is a semantic convenience, of course. In your writing and in your speaking and in your living “I” comes forth in some other way. We share a form but it assumes other positions, other postures, the better to bring forth love.

There is a movement then in the direction of relationship with life, with love, and this relationship is not personal. It is already operative, already given. We don’t have to do anything to experience it; we have to simply see that what we are currently doing – our current relationships and modes of relating – are not helping but hurting. They are obstructing. And the real world – the real relationship – will slowly rise to meet us then. It is ever there awaiting us to grow tired of games and distractions.

When Our Teacher is Love

Love doesn’t talk about itself. It doesn’t brag or boast or chide. It just moves us a little, here and there. We get a sense that something is off and with it a sense of what would be corrective. That’s love, as I am using the word “love.” It’s natural; it’s inherent. We don’t have to do anything but give attention and there it is, operating, flowing, coming forth through us, being itself, extending itself.

Yet a lot of what we do obstructs the operation of love. Our activity, however well-intentioned, is like sand in the gears. Love is a clear trail through the forest and along come some drunken lumberjacks who think they’ll make it better and saw down a bunch of trees that then block the trail. We mean well but we don’t see that we don’t need to do anything. We don’t see that it’s all being done; us, too.

This happens because of an abiding confusion about what we are. We think we’re separate from the world; we think our living is “ours.” It’s not but we can see it that way. This confusion, too, is natural. Confusion isn’t criminal; it isn’t evil. If I’m teaching and my students are confused, I don’t punish them. I refine my teaching; I go on teaching. If I’m a parent and my kids are confused, I don’t trade them in for new kids. I refine my parenting; I go on parenting. I keep learning to teach better and I keep teaching.

We are confused about the fundamentals, but we can be un-confused. Love will unconfuse us, if we get out of its way. Will we take love as our teacher?

Again, when I use the word “love” I am not pointing at things like soul-mates or sex partners or husbands and wives or loyal dogs or inspiring poets. I am not pointing to a feeling that one has for a person, pet, place or practice. It is more like I am pointing to a law or a pattern. Love is what makes flowers grow; love is makes maple syrup sweet to our tongues. Love is what extends itself; love and life are not separate but conjoined. They are one movement, one flow.

Relating love to life – to the ongoing nature of life, the ongoing begetting of life – can drive a lot of folks around the bend. Botany follows natural laws like germination and photosynthesis. A seed does not be come a violet because of God’s will but because it evolved to respond a certain way to certain conditions. Violets are natural results of violet seeds set in soil and subject to requisite sunlight and rainfall. Stop trying to spiritualize everything.

Well, I agree. I do find it more helpful in some instances to refer to God’s will as photosynthesis. Or entropy. Or happiness. Language is malleable and constructive. There are lots of ways for love to make itself clear, and not all of them require use of the word “love.” After all, violets don’t talk about photosynthesis. Or violets.

But this does not relieve us of the obligation to use language carefully and consistently. The domain of botany has a language; it is a kind of violence, a kind of injustice, to demand it conform to the language of another domain. And it is also a kind of violence or injustice to rank domains – to say that the domain of biology is better or more important than the domain of theology or vice-versa. In my experience, science expands the experience of wonder and joy. Love includes it and is included in it. Love has its own order and my preferences have surprisingly little to do with it. Why not see this? Why not learn from it?

I said earlier that love is akin to a law or a pattern that brings forth life. That is, love begets love. It brings itself forth. And that bringing forth can be noticed: it can be attended. It is intelligent and responsive. When I say it is “intelligent,” I don’t mean in the sense of quantitative abilities (like those purportedly measured by IQ tests) but rather in the sense of qualitative potentials that we all possess equally. We don’t have to go to school to learn how to hug and comfort someone who is sad or hurt. We don’t need to a teacher to know that holding hands is a sweetness. When we make space for this free flow of love, we are happier, and love expands accordingly. It becomes vaster than the cosmos. It allows us to function fully and creatively. There is nothing it can’t do if we let it.

So here I am like (though hardly precisely like) John Lennon and Yoko Ono singing “all we are saying is give peace a chance.” Just give attention to love, the domains in which it appears, the language it yearns for as its own expression. What happens when we do this? What kind of teacher is love? What are its lessons? What classroom is given to its students? Find out!

Beyond Spiritual Ideals

We have ideas about what life should feel like and look like and these ideas guide our behavior.  These ideas are not our own; we acquire them from the culture in which we find ourselves. We think that spiritual people are peaceful vegans or celibate monks or scholarly ascetics. And we act accordingly, and our acting never manages to meet the ideal, and so we have to keep going.

In this way, dissatisfaction perpetuates itself. We never get beyond spiritual ideals and concepts. Our living remains haunted – sometimes intensely, sometimes dimly – but always there is a sense that something is missing and that when we find it or reach it then at last we will know the peace that surpasses understanding.

Ideals are like rainbows. They are beautiful and alluring. But we can never reach them. We can walk for miles and never reach the rainbow in the distance. We can hone our behavior for years and never reach the spiritual ideal.

But there is a way out, and that way is simply to see that the spiritual ideal is not the problem but rather a symptom of the problem. And the problem is the belief that we are discrete entities responsible for our survival living in a hostile world. That is, our spiritual quest arises as a response to the belief that we are separate and responsible for our own living. So long as we don’t address the underlying belief, the spiritual search will go on without ever being satisfied.

So what is interesting is to give attention to the underlying belief – the sense that we are separated and individual and personally responsible for what happens. Does this belief hold up to questioning? To scrutiny?

Looking into this belief system – giving attention to it – is an exercise of common sense. It is inherent in us. It is innate to our structure as sentient human beings. Giving attention is natural; we can’t not do it. So we just do it intentionally. We noticing noticing, direct it this way or that, and see what happens as we do.

What is missing? What nags at us, implying that we’d be better off if we acquired this or felt that? Followed this diet or that exercise regimen? Slept with somebody new? Prayed a different prayer? Our natural intelligence and wisdom allows us to notice what is missing and then to keep looking into it. Will being a vegetarian really fulfill us? Will A Course in Miracles really bring to pass what all those other spiritual practices have not? Have those sorts of changes helped in the past?

At some point we might see that because these external changes don’t help, and have never helped except temporarily, that the problem isn’t finding the right external shift in behavior but rather asking a new question. That is, rather than ask what will fill the apparent interior gap or hole, we can ask if that gap or hole is actually there. What is we’re wrong altogether about that? What if we’re not separate?

In other words, what if the problem is the way we are looking at our living, rather than something in the actual living itself? And what if the way to correct this “wrong” seeing is already inherent in us in the form of common sense and natural intelligence?

Saint Teresa of Avila said that every bird knows what God’s will for a wing is. Her wisdom and clarity are breath-taking. God’s will is what comes forth naturally, effortlessly. It’s what is. For example, we don’t have to will a flower into existence in order to admire its beauty or succor bees. We don’t have to will beauty into existence. Or bees. The next breath comes of an accord other than our own.

The deeper we go into this, the more we see that peace and joy and love are brought forth naturally, like bees and birds’ wings and beauty. The less the apparently discrete self does, the more peace and joy and love appear. We can trust that because that is God’s will. And soon enough, we see that we, too, are brought forth in this way. We, too, in the simple essence of our being, our living, are God’s will. Life sustains life; we are the sustained, not the sustainer.

Thus, the problem is not to solve the many apparent problems that arise, but to see the fundamental belief system out of which they arise, and then to question the integrity and coherence of that system. The way we look and question will vary; it might appear scholarly or meditative tone or therapeutic according to the peculiarities of our structure but the basic premise is the same: look and question, look and question. Give attention.

Consciousness in Christianity

How can we think about consciousness in Christianity? About being spiritual beings for whom Christian language such as A Course in Miracles is most resonant and helpful? About the world and the living and the others that arise in perception?

I have been helped in this regard – have seen thinking clarified – with prisms.

Growing up, there was an enormous white quartz rock in the cow pasture. Half buried in a little hill, it was larger than I was. I often sat on it, or leaned against it. In sunlight it was redolent with tiny rainbows. I used to try and chunk pieces off so I could take the rainbows into my bedroom. Though I have collected many quartz rocks and crystals and prisms since, none has ever replaced that one.

When sunlight passes through a crystal – quartz, say, or any prism – it refracts and disperses. One sees not the light but the spectral wavelengths – the colors – of which light is comprised.

The quartz does not create the subsequent band of rainbow colors but it does enable their appearance.

Can we say something similar about consciousness? About our experience?

That is, can we say that the senses of the body – which together comprise the machinery of perception – disperse consciousness or experience out of oneness and into diverse and vivid loveliness? That the body brings forth a world fitting to its structure?

Here is the yellow of dandelions, here is the sweetness of cider, here is the warmth of a fire, here is the scent of lilac, here is the feel of another’s arms pulling me near . . .

On this view, what we call Creation, might simply be the continuous play of sensual experience bringing forth flowers, warm beverages, soft flannel sheets and partners with whom to share it all. Indeed, we might call this experience “consensual” because it is not ours alone but appears synchronously with the sensual experiences of others, including dandelions, apples, ants and grains of sand. The world is its observers.

As spiritual seekers whose living occurs in and through language, we want an end to our journey that we call Heaven or God or Oneness or Source. We want intimate knowledge of this one. But I wonder if we might say that rather than some tangible origin, there is simply this ongoing consensual narration?

This “ongoing consensual narration” is love, of course, because it comes forth of its own accord. Giving merges continuously with gift and given. We did not invent communicating or tasting or seeing. We didn’t invent organization. Self, other and world come forth in a fluid movement that already knows itself, already wants itself, already cares for itself.

On this view, God is not so much the first cause or commander or even overarching principle but the welter itself, the arising itself, the knowing itself itself. Less the bearded patriarch, more a moisty loam.

On this view, God is not so much the Creator, but rather the awareness in which and through which living and loving appears in all its lovely complexity. Human beings are structures in which this awareness is especially acute and refined, especially reflective and reflexive. It begets a lot of thinking and praying and searching but the end is always sure.

The journey closes, ending at the place where it began. No trace of it remains . . . Thy Will is done, complete and perfectly, and all creation recognizes You, and knows You as the only Source it has. Clear in Your likeness does the light shine forth from everything that lives and moves in You. For we have reached where all of us are one, and we are home, where You would have us be (T-31.VII.12:3-4, 6-8).

So that is a way of thinking about experience and spirituality and so forth that may or may not be helpful. It is a way of reading A Course in Miracles that may or may not be helpful. I don’t say it’s right but perhaps it is interesting. Perhaps it will inform attention in a nurturing way.

Attention and Spiritual Healing

Correction is a natural function of attention. That is, when we give attention to our living – and to the world in which it is lived, and the others with whom it is lived – to the extent that that living is unloving, it will naturally realign itself with love. That is because the one who attends is love (or God, or Spirit, or LovingKindness, or . . . ) and cannot help but bring itself forth.

By attention I mean the literal act of attending to our lives, of noticing what is going on in the whole rich vivid raveling tapestry of it. It is helpful to note that attention runs on its own but it is also responsive. We are always attending our living, but we can do so intentionally.

I say “give” attention, which is a deliberate distinction from “pay” attention. When we pay, we lose something. When we pay, we are in a mode of transacting. The focus is on getting, on taking. But when we give, we are making a gift, which arises out of love because it is not asking for anything in return. We didn’t invent attention so it is in that sense “a gift” to us. Giving it strengthens it in us. There is no loss involved. This is reminiscent of what A Course in Miracles calls the first lesson of the Holy Spirit: “to have, give all to all” (T-6.V.A.5:13).

So when we “give attention to our living” we exclude nothing. We do not ask what appears to be other than what it appears as. We are not actively trying to change it. If what shows up is our selfishness and dishonesty, then okay. If what shows up is hunger and cruelty, then okay.

Some people on reading or hearing this will object. If dishonesty shows up, then we have to become honest. If hunger shows up, then we have to bake bread and make a table for myself and others. That’s what we want from our brothers and sisters – why would we offer them less?

But I am saying that if we attend, if we give attention, then correction – which is healing – will arise naturally, and we will not have to “do” anything. It is done for us, in the same way we do not make flowers grow or birds sing or hearts beat.

It is very hard to do nothing in this way. It is very hard to sit quietly with the urge to solve problems and heal the world and become better people and simply let it pass. In fact, most of us cannot do this and so methods and models show up to help us. We can’t let go, but we can let God handle things.

In this way, images and symbols like Jesus or God (or Mary or Buddha or . . . ) are temporarily helpful. We can say “God is the strength in which I trust” (W-pI.75) and not insert our own doing into the undoing – the healing – going on all around us.

God is your safety in every circumstance. His Voice speaks for Him in all situations and in every aspect of all situations, telling you exactly what to do to call upon His strength and His protection. There are no exceptions because God has no exceptions (W-pI.75.3:1-3).

So when our attention reveals something unpleasant – be it external or internal or both – we resist the urge to ignore or deny or amend it by asking God (or love or Jesus or . . . ) to handle the situation for us. “He leadeth me and knows the way, which I know not” (W-14.III.19:2). Not unsurprisingly, we experience ourselves as led.

It is important to realize that we don’t know what is needed. But it is equally important to realize that we can learn what is needed. When this distinction is clear, we stop trying to solve problems on our own, with our own learning, and instead look for guidance. We look for a teacher or helper who knows better than we do.

What A Course in Miracles teaches us is that this teacher is not apart from us. The method is inherent in us already. We don’t have to pay any tuition or kneel in homage or make any sacrifice whatsoever. We simply have to notice what is already given, what is already present. This noticing is not complicated at all but our resistance to it is nontrivial so it can be experienced as difficult in the extreme. But we cannot eliminate sight or the light in which sight is enacted by squeezing our eyes shut. Our resistance is great, but love is greater.

Thus my original point: all we need to do is give attention to our living, and correction will happen of its own accord, because that which is attending is love itself, and so naturally brings everything into loving alignment. We don’t have to understand this; we simply have to be willing – to literally the tiniest degree – to learn it.

Be very still an instant . . . The old will fall away before the new, without your opposition or intent. There will be no attack upon the things that you thought were precious and in need of care. There will be no assault upon your wish to hear a call that never has been made. Nothing will hurt you in this holy place, to which you come to listen silently and learn the truth of what you really want (T-31.II.8:1, 3-6).

When we accept this, and devote ourselves to it, our living changes and love is brought forth in flooding tides. As problems appear to arise, answers arise with them. Confusion subsides; the way becomes us.

Of course, there is always more to talk about. What attends if not my own self? How can God be both an “ideal” and “real?” And so forth. I am not immune to curiosity; indeed, scholarship – posing questions, articulating answers – is intimately conjoined to my spiritual practice. Yet learning is useless if it cannot be brought into application. As Tara Singh said in Love Holds No Grievances: The Ending of Attack, “we already know too much and apply too little” (19). Indeed.

Attention reveals Love because attention is a function of Love, and correction – or healing, which is to say, the revelation of love – is a function of attention. When we give attention – when we make a gift of what we were given in creation – we are fully and efficiently reminded of the Love in which all conflict, and the self that perpetuates all conflict, are dissolved.

Direct Experience: What is Real and What is an Illusion

What is a helpful way for us to think about the question of what is real and what is an illusion? What light can direct experience – giving attention to our experience of living – shed on this question?

I remember an ACIM study group many years ago. A woman arrived late and as she prepared to sit down, a chorus of voices cried out “don’t do it! The chair is an illusion!”

Obligatory laughter ensued.

Variations of that joke abound in ACIM and nondual circles. They reflect an awareness of the fact that those spiritual traditions teach students that the objective material world – the one we sense with our bodies – is an illusion.

There is no world! This is the central thought the course attempts to teach (W-pI.132.6:2-3).

In order to get the joke – to be in on it – you have to be aware that this teaching runs directly contrary to our human experience. The joke is funny because we aren’t sure how to navigate this proposed divide between what’s real and what is not.

The suggestion I make in this essay is that denying experience is a form of violence and that there is a better way.

Look again at the proposed or apparent divide. Someone is about to sit down. If the chair is not real, they’re going to fall and hurt themselves. If the chair is real then either we are confused about what our spiritual tradition is teaching us or our spiritual tradition is wrong.

Experience speaks to us clearly and emphatically: here is a chair. It has both form and function. We know what to do with it. It is wholly helpfully integrated into our experience of living in the world.

And then A Course in Miracles comes along and says don’t pay any attention to your senses or your thinking about what those senses are showing you. They don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on.

This becomes a conflict: what do you believe? Your senses that show you a world that is predictable and reliable? Or the spiritual tradition that says there is no world?

If we are only talking about a chair, then maybe it’s not such a big deal. But what if we are talking about people? What if I walk past a homeless person who is cold and hungry and my response is to shrug off her misery because she’s just an illusory appearance in an illusory world?

Or this: if race is an illusion, then racism can’t be a real wrong worth addressing, right?

Intuitively, most of us don’t want to go there. It’s funny to think about a chair being unreal. It’s harder to ignore the suffering of another being. And it’s unloving to think that dismissing an entire class of people is justified because the world and its contents aren’t real.

A lot of folks who get squirmy at this juncture tend to argue that even if the world isn’t materially real, it still has some purpose. It’s a dream, yes, but it’s our dream, and so it’s filled with learning opportunities and other tools by which to awaken.

That is not an unhelpful way to think about the conflict, in the sense that it attempts to resolve it in favor of something practical and helpful. But at the same time, it’s a bit like having our cake and eating it, too. We want to sustain the spiritual tradition of A Course in Miracles– because we’re attached to it, invested in it and so forth – and we also find a way to behave in socially normative and productive ways.

Where this mode becomes problematic is that no matter how we categorize it, and no matter how we try to make it productive, the fundamental premise of denying the world is inherently violent. So we have to give attention to it.

Set aside for a moment what A Course in Miracles says, or what we think it says, or what some teacher says it says. Stay with your direct experience.

Right now – in this moment – what is the nature of that experience? Don’t gussy it up with theory. Don’t quote anybody. It’s just you being you. Nobody is going to be impressed or unimpressed with your answer.

As I write, my children are asleep upstairs. Chrisoula is not asleep but is still in bed reading. The cats are to my right, watching birds a the feeder. I am drinking Greek coffee. Out the window I can see the back yard, raspberry bushes, horse pasture and through a far bare copse of trees the river, on the far bank of which cows graze.

These images are imbued with meaning. They have names, provenances, purposes. Some I like better than others. My brain takes this welter of sensory data and categorizes and organizes in ways that work for the organism. This is the world; this is living in the world. And it includes – naturally and without effort – a sense of intimacy. It is “my” experience; “I” am living it.

Moreover, there is apparently no way out of this intimate subjective experience. Even knowing that there’s more to the world than this coffee, this family, this landscape – a city named Paris, say, or Bob Dylan songs – shows up in this subjective experience.

There is nothing special about seeing this clearly. It is simply a fact available to all of us when we let common sense have its say. Intimate subjectivity is at least in part what it means to be a human observer. This is what it feels like to be you. No more, no less. And no big deal.

Often when I talk to people about this, they want to interject course quotes, biographical details about Ramana Maharshi, the importance of opening your heart chakra, and so forth. I want to do that too, sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with that but none of it undermines – or improves upon – the basic fact that our living and our world all appear within the container of subjective experience.

The suggestion is that we give attention to the rich vibrancy of subjective experience and become familiar with it. Familiar and comfortable.

Seeing this clearly – grounding ourselves in the fact of experience – matters because it is from that foundation that we can begin to explore in a sustainable way what is real and what is illusory or whether those distinctions are helpful in any instance and if so, how. More to the point, we can do so in a way that is coherent, not violent.

Why do I use the word “violent” here?

When someone is having experience X and we call it Y we are doing violence to them. In essence, we are denying them their fundamental right to exist. If someone says “I have cancer” and we say “cancer is an illusion” we invalidate them.

If I go out into the pasture to feed the horses and simultaneously deny that the horses are there, then I am going to make myself insane. Why? Because I am actively denying an experience that is fundamentally present and inviting response. To refuse to respond – or to degrade my response – is to violate (do violence to) that experience.

If you visit my home and I say over and over that you are an illusion, a projection, and not real, then that is a denial of your experience of yourself as real. And it is a denial of my experience of you as real. The violence adheres to us both.

Does that make sense? We cannot simultaneously accept something as real and deny it is real. It hurts too much. It’s a form of lovelessness.

Again, I am not suggesting one analyze this or dress it up. I am simply suggesting one notice the way that the world is here, and the self, and other selves (including dogs, horses, dandelions and so forth), and our living in this world invites response and mutuality, and that denying this hurts.

So that is the basic problem, and again, all that is suggested here is to just see the tension clearly, as an experiential fact, not a big idea about metaphysics or ACIM or what-have-you.

When we see it clearly, one thing that happens is that maybe our inclination to deny experience – to write it off as illusory – subsides a little. Rather than insist this is or isn’t real, we can just let it be what it is. We can give attention to it.

I say that all the time: give attention. The richness of experience – what it is to be you, what you are about – is so vivid and alive it is almost too sweet to bear. This is true! A few weeks ago a bee landed on the clothesline near where I was reading Lorine Niedecker poems. And it was so beautiful, so exquisite – the sounds it make, the color of it, the ideas that it incited about honey and love and the complexity of bee culture and bee bodies . . .

In that one little moment one could taste life to such exquisite degree . . .

This is what Emily Dickinson was getting at when she wrote I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed.

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!

This insight is hardly unique to Dickinson. Her genius was not that she experienced life differently than you and I, but rather in her willingness to see it so clearly and then write about it. The “liquor never brewed” is given to all of us; the question is really in our willingness to recognize it and to sustain the recognition.

Again, no arguments are being made here about truth is. No metaphysics are being discussed. We are just looking clearly into our experience, seeing its nature, and letting it be what it is.

And as we experience it – as we sip those heavenly drams – we can begin to sense perhaps the way in which denying those drams, refusing that tankard, is a fruitless exercise at best, and a harmful one at worst.

Thus the way clears to bring forth love. And that is the why and the how of our living in the world.

Healing in Holy Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What shall we do with this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Course in Miracles Lesson 188

The peace of God is shining in me now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes on Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, too, is not a big deal.

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

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

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