Given the Sea, Swim

The other day I mentioned on a not-uncommon tension in Christianity: God is unknowable and ineffable and yet also, somehow, knowable (as loving, just, generous, et cetera). Does this tension adhere to A Course in Miracles as well?

I think it doesn’t, at least not in such an obvious way.

With respect to God and relationship with God, A Course in Miracles tracks two themes. First, the course is not directly aimed at repairing or amending our relationship with God. Its singular objective is to make it possible for us to hear in a sustained way the voice of the Holy Spirit, which it calls our “inner teacher.”

It’s that teacher who handles repairing and amending (clarifying and nurturing) our relationship with God.

So in that sense the course is literally just a course – you take it, you meet your inner teacher and . . . move on.

At the same time (the second track), the course literally abounds with references to God and relationship with God, all of which reinforce a single theme: you are not apart in any meaningful way from God but you do believe that you are. And since you believe this belief, you experience pain as if you actually are separate from God. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

Thus, God as posited by ACIM is not a distant creator separate in any way from its creation. God is not a mystery – unknowable and unfathomable in divine transcendent and glorious ineffability.

Rather, God is a personal and intimate reality immediately present in both time and space, awaiting our decision to remember said intimacy and choose not to reject it.

Thus God, ACIM-style.

The question is – because the question is always – is this formulation helpful?

There is no single answer to that question, which means there is no “right” answer to it. It is personal and local and subject to change. With respect to your experience of its helpfulness, only you can speak to it.

I began studying A Course in Miracles a little less than eight years ago. For about five of those years, the course was profoundly helpful. After a while, its helpfulness lessened. But to my mind this “lessening” affirms the overall effectiveness and utility of the course. Why? Because it did what it said it would do: it introduced me to my inner teacher and, as promised, my inner teacher took it from there.

My experience of the course deviates from that of many ACIM students, especially those for whom the course functions as a kind of ongoing spiritual path. For me, the Holy Spirit was understood as – and literally experienced as – “attention.” And attention eventually moved me away from supernatural causation, duality (mind vs. body), and unreflected languaging ((like “God” or “angels” or “atonement”) though this is a bit more complex and deserves its own post).

Attention gently carried me away from A Course in Miracles and towards an experience of stillness and love and being that is simpler and lovelier, more natural and serious, than anything I’ve heretofore known. It is enough; it is more than enough.

So for me, while I consider “God” a nontrivial idea, it doesn’t enter into my present experience in obviously tangible or causative ways.

Of course I am being a bit disingenuous here. In a sense, my life has been given wholly to the question of God’s reality, identity, accessibility and so forth. I remain deeply interested and curious about these ideas. But the energy around the inquiry has shifted considerably. The consequences are not as drastic. And the material under study is no longer quite so dense, abstract or theological.

In other words, the inquiry is fun and interesting and doesn’t have the life-and-death intensity it used to have. I am learning and my learning has no end. There is a sweetness in that and – to one who has long struggled to relax and be kind and gentle to oneself – some relief.

Thus, when asked (and sometimes still when not asked), I suggest that the answer to any spiritual conundrum/problem/rut/etc is to just give attention to what’s right there in front of you. If you’re in a zendo, do zazen. If you’re in a Christian church then give it all up for Jesus. If you’re studying ACIM, then study it.

If you’re in the sea, then swim.

Give attention to where you are and to what you are: give attention to the whole of what is given to you – the paths, the teachers, the obstructions, the distractions, the supplicants, the supports, the questions and answers, the hungers and lusts, the semantics and grammars, the that-which-is-not-yet-given. All of it. Let it all be and see how you fit into it all being.

Because you do fit, and you are home, but only you can see and know this.

Allowing the Mystery

I am reading God and You: Prayer as a Personal Relationship by William Barry. Barry is a thoughtful Jesuit whose project frames prayer as akin to a deep and abiding friendship. Even as he acknowledges prayer’s breadth – petitionary, contemplative, emotional, mental et cetera – he maintains its ground is in the nature of mutual relationship.

In many ways, this is a sound and pragmatic approach. Human beings are by nature cooperative and relational. Working with one another towards shared ends is our modus operandi. In this light, prayer is simply an extension of the natural expression of our humanness. You can’t not pray.

Barry’s characterization is appealing because of its innate familiarity. There are no intellectual leaps involved. We’re just being reminded of what we’re already adept at. Prayerful relationship with God might be difficult or challenging, but only in the way that any relationship can be challenging or difficult. Indeed, a relationship that was never challenging or difficult would not really count as a meaningful relationship in the first case.

Part of the problem with Barry’s book is a familiar one in Christianity. On the one hand, he portrays God as an impenetrable mystery and on the other – simultaneously – as personally interested in us, all-loving et cetera.

. . . human beings are finite and limited and cannot take in the Mystery we call God. At the deepest level of our being we are both attracted to knowing and loving that Mystery and terrified of it” (Barry 32).

Yet in the next paragraph, Barry writes that “God loves us with an everlasting love.”

It is not nitpicking – nor an offense against Barry – to observe that one cannot have it both ways. God cannot simultaneously be both knowable and familiar and mysterious and unknowable.

I say all this carefully and hopefully at least modestly respectfully. I’m hardly immune to holding contradictory views. But I do think when we become clear about the contradiction – or when it is effectively pointed out to us – we are obligated to give it careful attention. Conflict needs to be resolved.

In my experience, we need to not rush through or past the mystery part. It’s good to realize that we don’t know something. It’s scary and unsettling, but it’s not inherently problematic. It’s not evil. In fact, it can be a very creative and ultimately loving space.

Gaps in our map are not indicative of gaps in the territory! A thousand years ago, it made perfect sense to imagine the sun revolved around the earth. We’ve updated our maps now. The earth isn’t flat. Gardens don’t grow according to the whims of gods and goddesses or when we execute virgins. People weren’t made; they evolved. They are still evolving.

It’s true we don’t know everything, but that’s not a good argument for throwing God into the apparent gap – even if it’s a God who “loves us with an everlasting love.”

If you sit in the mystery, what happens? If you do not rush into the pre-given mental frameworks of Catholicism, monotheism, humanism and so forth, what happens?

The suggestion is not that we shouldn’t ever pray, or that we shouldn’t think in terms of “God” or “not-God.” We are where we are, and we have to own that. After all, here I am reading William Barry and it’s not because I feel like being an intellectual pain-in-the-ass.

The suggestion is simply to give attention to what is happening in order to see clearly what-is-happening. And perhaps to notice the way in which we tend to assume that we already know what is happening. And perhaps to notice that we tend to translate what is happening into familiar terms – love, inner peace, stillness, Christ, lovingkindness, ego, et cetera.

In a way, the only thing we can really do – especially when we reach the apparent “mystery” – is to slowly and carefully update our maps. The relevant territory is internal. We have to go alone and we have to go with the intention of leaving a trail. The deeply personal nature of the work means that external teachers and traditions are only going to be so helpful.

The last thing we put down on this interior journey is our expectation of what we’ll find as we go. If you know in advance what the center holds – if you know it’s a “God” whose love is everlasting – for that matter, if you are sure there is a “center” at all – then you aren’t really going empty-handed into the so-called heart of the so-called mystery.

In a different context – here paraphrased – the artist Jasper Johns said that in order to be a great artist one had to give up everything, including the desire to be a great artist. It is a leap – a commitment – most of us are not willing to make. And it’s okay but also, aren’t we ready at last to make it? Given the sea, why not swim?

If you are reading this – and mulling it over, agreeing or disagreeing – then you are no longer happy or content with retreating into redundant ideology and semantics about God and Love and Inner Peace and all of that. You want to go all the way now and you are trying to figure out how. I don’t personally have any answers in that regard and I’m probably the last – or second to last anyway – person I’d ask.

But here’s the thing. Posts like this – and the reading and thought that underlie them – are a nontrivial part of how “Sean” goes empty-handed into the interior. And if you are here, then perhaps you are traveling, too. And perhaps – just perhaps – in that lovelily syllable “too” is a hint of what comes next.

On Being Done with A Course in Miracles

I wonder sometimes if we are ever really finished with anything. I took Modern American Poetry with Lorrie Smith in the late 80s; I never took it again. And yet its effects are never not swirling through what I call “my life.” As a writer, a reader, a man, a father, a husband, a teacher, a homesteader, a fuck-up, a dogged angel . . .

One one bridge looking at another bridge . . . There are all these ways that touch one another, lead to and from one another . . . always there is only all this going.

Just so with A Course in Miracles. I took the course and gave it deep and sustained attention for several years. And then I moved away from it. I have compared the course to a way station on a mountain: you stop, you do what you have to do, and then you keep going.

But I wonder if a better metaphor is not simply courses themselves. After all, the course is not a spiritual path but a time-bound, curriculum-bound class. Why complicate things?

For example, I haven’t taken a math class in over thirty years. Barring some very unforeseen developments, I won’t take one again. And, for the most part, good riddance and God bless.

Yet I use math literally every single day. Grading papers, buying groceries for the family or hay for the horses, balancing my checkbook, playing certain probability-based dice games (APBA baseball, Dungeons & Dragons, backgammon). Indeed, my life would not function well at all if I did not have basic math skills that were readily brought to bear when needed.

I no longer read A Course in Miracles with any regularity. From time to time, I go back to it to double check something or out of curiosity. It is a comfort, in its way. I don’t read any ACIM teachers at all anymore. Perhaps that will change one day. Perhaps not.

I don’t experience this as a virtue or a problem or a mystery.

Still, the course’s effects – like those of Modern American Poetry so many years ago – go on in my life. On and on they go. They are like a bead of food coloring dropped into clear water. Swirling, eddying, clouding, shading. A Course in Miracles centered my thinking and drove my personal curriculum like nothing else ever had.

If we go back to the hiking-up-the-mountain analogy – we are in danger of over-analogizing here, I know – at the mountain’s summit, one no longer needs the map that got them there. But one’s gratitude for the map is perhaps more intense than ever.

I am grateful indeed for ACIM.

I am not trying to tell folks that they shouldn’t study the course, or that they have to return to the course, or anything like that. I am simply saying: give attention to the personal nature of what you are calling your experience – your psychology, your spirituality, your philosophy, your semantics, your aesthetic. What works and what doesn’t? What serves and what doesn’t? What resonates and what doesn’t?

There is no mountain and so there is no summit. Thus, are there are no way stations either. It is perhaps simpler and clearer to say that there are patterns out there that intersect with the patterns we are, and all we can really do is be attentive to the repatterning.

This attentiveness is very personal. Since everything is constantly changing, however subtly, it is not possible to come to conclusions that work in all situations all the time. It is tempting to do that – and in a lot of ways that is our default mode – but it is ultimately unsatisfying because it is dysfunctional and incoherent.

You are a pattern that briefly intersected with the pattern we call A Course in Miracles, which briefly intersected with the pattern of Sean, who wrote this pattern called a blog post, and from which all sorts of new and beautiful – relevant and irrelevant, helpful and not-helpful – patterns are right now unfurling.

And the unfurling never finishes. It never ever finishes.

So we give attention. We let stuff go, we pick stuff up. And the rivers flow, and the stars fall, and the winds come down from the sky. The bread rises, the pigs cry out for mercy in their pens, and the babies make us dream of a better and more peaceful world. It goes on like this. Us, too.

The Limits of Knowing

The tower of knowing reaches higher and higher into the sky. Its foundations support apparently infinite extension. Each floor includes the beginning of a staircase that ascends to yet another level. We build this tower faster and faster. We build machines to speed up the process even more – through automation, efficiency, scalability.

And yet our spiritual hunger – our need to know and to be right in and about our knowing – continues unabated. It is as if we are a starving people eating air. No matter how much of it we swallow, it does not satisfy. It does not nourish. It does not end, even briefly, our hunger.

One who would be fed in a sustainable way – so as to sustainably feed others in turn – does not eschew knowledge but simply sees clearly the inherent futility of any ultimate end to it.

We are not rats in a maze to which we shall one day find an exit. We are not ensouled primates begging favor from Heaven while avoiding Hell. And we are not lanterns whose function is to be set aflame and to remain so lit unto eternity.

We did not ask to be given this experience because it arises of its own accord. Nor are we the authors of its conclusion. There is no maze to be let out from.

There is no distinction between the structure of our bodies and that to which the word “soul” might point, which is another way of saying there is neither a mediator to help us bridge the gap, nor a gap that needs to be bridged.

And the function of a lantern is to be lit and hefted, then darkened and put away, and then lit and hefted, and then darkened and put away. To seek only one of those states – and to seek to make it permanent unto the exclusion of the other – is to miss the contingent nature of light and dark and the one who perceives them both distinctly.

In Cambridge once, a man stumbled out of the library – stacks of books spilling from his carosel, pages of random essays flying away behind him in the breeze – and fell exhausted onto a bench facing the slow unfurling of the Charles River in late summer sunlight. A lifetime of study had suddenly vanished from his mind, leaving it clear and smooth, like a prism through which the sun streamed. He felt as if were a dog suddenly liberated from leash and collar and the owner who had insisted such restraints were necessary. It was as if he had awakened from a dream of confinement and restriction and could run now in open fields or nap in a nest of old blankets or trot slowly along a forest path.

Questions beget answers, and those answers beget new questions which in turn beget answers, and it is neither right nor wrong, nor good nor bad, to partake of this cycle. Yet in our confusion, we do not see this cycle, but think we are following a line (meandering but ultimately true) at the end of which is THE ANSWER, and that THE ANSWER is the One True God, and this God is glad at our arrival, and so we are glad, too.

It is not so.

wagon_wheelThe wheel of a wagon executes an interminable circle. It loops forever. Yet the line it leaves behind it is straight and singular – possessed of both beginning and end – and apparently unerring in its linearity. Imagine the turning wheel gazes at this line, sighs and asks “What is happening? What am I?”

The line does not answer, for the line is merely an effect of the wheel. And the wheel only turns: and turns: and turns.

february thaw –
the chickadees and I
share crumbs

On the Experience of Mental Prayer

We want to be spiritual experts, masters of A Course in Miracles, Christian gurus unto those in despair and loss. And yet over and over we find that we are in despair, we suffer loss. We are the lost, we are the forsaken.

Faced with this poverty we go back to the start we maybe never left: we pray as children: we beg the Father for mercy and supplication. And some us – perhaps – see this crying out as failure and feel guilty accordingly.

There is – there is always – another way.

So we fall to our knees and beg God to get us out of this hard place in which we presently find ourselves, so what? So we pray to Jesus – literally to the executed peasant whose brief ministry ended over two thousand years ago – to ease our pain and suffering, so what?

It is tempting to think the wise and enlightened never sink to this level – oral prayers beseeching supernatural agents to benevolently intervene on our behalf. It is a problem in the ACIM community that folks are so intent on being well and wise and woke that they can’t accept their brokenness and anguish and confusion. They can’t meet their own self where and as it is.

I speak here from experience.

We are just people having this particular experience of being people, which includes – to varying degrees – pain and loss and confusion. Sometimes it hurts to be who and what we are. Sometimes it hurts bad.

It is not a crime to feel this way. And it is not a crime to turn to simple mental prayers as a response to these feelings.

Mental prayer is vocal and basic. It is the child calling to her father or mother. It is an urgent cry for instant attention, reflecting a primal need to be held in arms whose strength and presence are unconditional and beyond any doubt or question. Mental prayer arises from our interior desire to be perfectly safe, perfectly loved, perfectly fed, et cetera et cetera.

To be human is to have needs and when those needs aren’t met, to strive to meet them. Thus, part of being human is also to face the simple truth that those needs are not always met – sometimes to the point where our discomfort turns to anguish, inconvenience to crisis. Of course we cry out. What else could we do?

To turn to Jesus in dialogue – to literally ask him for aid the way we might ask a parent or partner or therapist – is a way of coming back to our bodies, to the nontrivial clarity of being itself. It reminds us of the stillness and grace that naturally inheres in this being, this way.

How does mental prayer do this? By helping us to simply breathe. We throw our plea at our image of Jesus – the brother who loves us unconditionally, who mediates for us the supernatural agency of God, who never says no or sees any problem as insignificant – and because he’s got it, we can let go and draw a breath. And then another.

And in the simple rhythm of breathing, which is simply to be, we remember some of the essential facts of this experience: that we are not alone, that everything passes, that there is always something we can do – for ourselves and/or for others – that can calm the raging storm inside us.

The goal is not to perfect our external circumstances. That will never happen anyway. Nor is it to perfect our interior psychological spiritual balance so that nothing can ruffle or frighten or disorient or trouble us. That isn’t going to happen either, not perfectly.

The point, really, is simply learn how to not freak out when our actual experience of being human deviates from our projection of what that experience should be. Sometimes the actuality and the projection line up fine. But frequently they don’t. We have to see this and not panic about it. Everything comes and goes. We want to be graceful and gentle about surfing the coming and going. That’s all.

So mental prayer is helpful to the extent it triggers some interior insight that in the fundamental sense, no matter how crazy or upset we are, nothing is happening that is new or wrong or permanent. It’s just life being life responding to life being life. It’s amenable, fixable, pliable. When we remember this, we remember that we are not alone and not deprived of our capacity to be – even in little, hardly noticeable ways – the healing we require.

Go for a walk, visit a neighbor, write a poem, compliment an activist whose work you admire, carry some canned goods to a food bank, sit quietly and compose a gratitude list, fill the bird feeder, do one thing on your to-do list, do something on someone else’s. Whatever. What hurts will pass; the hurt will pass.

It is a sign of spiritual maturity – not specialness – to accept and make use of prayer in the full breadth of its potential. Sometimes it is contemplative, sometimes transcendent, sometimes active. And sometimes it is the wordy gasping of the lost and forsaken, turning to a mythology they thought they had outgrown and left behind.

On Bodies and A Course in Miracles

I am not a body. I am free (W-pI.199.8:7-8).

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

The Course makes no claim to finality, nor are the Workbook lessons intended to bring the student’s learning to completion. At the end, the reader is left in the hands of his or her own Internal Teacher, Who will direct all subsequent learning as He sees fit (preface to A Course in Miracles).

The experiences we have are shaped by the cognitive and perceptive capacities of bodies. We can’t fly like crows and we can’t live underwater like fish and we can’t calculate a billion chess moves in a single second.

We can build machines that help us do those things ( or actually do these things) but we cannot do them unaided. And even the machines we build are limited by what we can know and perceive. You can’t build a machine to do X, if you can’t conceive of X.

Thus, cognition and perception – impressive as they are – are limits.

Yet they are also generative, in that absent their function – including the constraints on that function – no world comes forth in which to do our living. That is, cognition and perception also bring forth the very environment in which we live and have our being. They shape the world, color it, order it, et cetera.

If somebody in the ACIM community disputes the existence of the body – as sooner or later almost every student does – then the question arises: how would you know?

That is, absent the cognitive and perceptual abilities of the body, how would you be able to experience – and then share that experience of – not having a body?

spiritual body acim
the body brought forth by the world the body brings forth . . .

In other words, it takes a body to imagine that one is not a body and is therefore free (of bodies and the world they bring forth).

That is not necessarily a dispositive argument, but still. I do not think these questions are out of place in the community of A Course in Miracles (though when I raise them folks often bristle). We do like the comfort of magical solutions. We do enjoy imagining ourselves as heirs to benevolent mysteries.

However, what we are really doing when we covet magic and mystery is claiming the special status of The One Who Knows, whose knowing is defined in significant part by the poor ignorant bastards who don’t know and thus fall outside the safe bounds of our spiritual fortress.

This, as Tara Singh pointed out, is a form of lovelessness. We all do it and so we are all also called to stop doing it.

A Course in Miracles is a symbolic text that if taken literally ends up confusing its students. Its primary author – Helen Schucman – more or less abandoned the project, leaving it to others to edit and promulgate. Some of those others conflated (knowingly and otherwise) their personal agendas with those of the course. A lot of the public energy in and around the ACIM community resembles a culture of naiveté and spiritual grift.

It is less like a quiet church in which to commune with the Beloved and more like a crowded noisy bazaar where it’s hard to think, not everybody has your best interests at heart, and the exits aren’t clearly marked.

Yet for all that, the course retains its fundamental ability: to introduce the sincere student to her own internal teacher, which the course calls the Holy Spirit, and which I call attention.

(Side note: of course you should ignore everything I say! What do I know?)

Attention is what allows us to gently see what works and what doesn’t and to deepen our relationship with what works while setting aside that which does not. Awakening is not a spiritual event but an ongoing sustainable process by which our thinking and being clarify in ways that reduce conflict. As conflict in its various forms abates, what remains is peace.

We are by nature loving, cooperative and inclusive animals, but it takes learning and practice to recover and hold this fact in creative and fructive ways.

This process is not – repeat not – a mysterious project involving mysterious agents and hidden causes that somehow do away with bodies and transport us to veritable Edens where we cavort with the similarly blessed.

Rather, the quiet happiness, the calm joy, the serious desire to be helpful and kind are embodied experiences that loosen the stranglehold our fear of loss – and fear of death as the ultimate loss – have on our bodies. That’s all. The course is helping undo fear but that undoing happens here, in and to and with the body in which our experience is brought forth from the world our body brings forth.

When the body – and its world – becomes as natural and lovely as a dandelion or a chickadee or a thunderstorm, then there is less to cling to and more to simply be grateful for. It is enough, truly. You can set about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, beating your sword into a plow and so forth. Or making puzzles, baking bread and going for walks. Or whatever lights your candle.

You can be freely and fully the loving animal you naturally are.

It is true that a kind of transcendence is being implied here. Emily Dickinson’s body of work (poems and letters) is a beautiful and complex exploration of this experience. But the transcendence is experienced locally! That is, there is the one who transcends and there is that which is transcended and . . . wait for it . . . they are the same! So the transcendence is less about rising above and more about perceiving the way in which our being is more in the nature of, say, a Mobius strip (or an Escher painting or a sentence like “[T]he reader of this sentence exists only while reading me”*).

And given attention – that is, given the teacher A Course in Miracles pledges its students – one cannot help but see this and know this is in a natural and serious way.

It is always hard to talk intelligently and clearly about this material, especially because one experiences it – and extends it – in such deeply personal ways. I hope you will forgive my clumsiness and tendency to prattle.

*Borrowed from Douglas Hofstadter’s book Metamagical Themas.

A Course in Miracles: Letting Go

A Course in Miracles often strikes me as a fringe-y element of a fairly typical cultural drift currently happening in Christianity. There is a move away from rigid standards and institutional practices and toward something a bit more mystical and flexible and generous, somewhat like Buddhism in its transplanted western expressions.

The onions, whose skins and ends will be tossed on the compost which in turn will become the soil in which new onions will grown, whose skins and ends will be tossed on the compost . . .

More heaven and less hellfire. More commensality than exclusivity.

People often describe my spiritual position as atheistic, which is understandable. After all, I frequently say there is no God. Yet in general I don’t embrace that label, for the simple reason that my thinking has been so deeply influenced in both content and structure by Christian writers and practices. It feels irresponsible to not acknowledge and accept this.

I tend to think of “God” as a nontrivial idea implicated in my experience of self and world, one that I can neither wholly ignore nor fully embrace. A fundamental reflexivity abounds, kind of the way I throw onion skins in the compost which a year or so later becomes the soil in which new onions are planted whose skins will be thrown on the compost . . .

On and on it goes until you realize what’s interesting is not the “it” but the “going on and on.”

On this view, A Course in Miracles becomes a sort of literate, vaguely academic, Christian expression of nondual mysticism with Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God-as-Father loosely riding herd on an embodied process. I think more rigid ACIM practitioners – Ken Wapnick comes to mind – would object to this characterization. They may even be right. What do I know?

But the question is always about what is helpful. That is, what is the use to which so-and-so is being put? what works?

In my experience, the course eventually nudged me out of ACIM and into contemporary neo-advaitic communities (Leo Hartong, in particular), where I was fortunate to meet some very smart and patients folks who professed to be in a state of oneness, one without another, et cetera.

I enjoyed those dialogues very much! It was a helpful learning environment for me, even if – to the chagrin of the friends I made there – I eventually moved on. A lot of the ground on which contemporary nondual logic and lexicon rests turns out to be pretty thin gruel when examined closely. That’s okay. There are thinkers – Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Louis Kaufman, David Bohm, to name a significant few – who provided (for me, anyway) the requisite maps and gear.

Nondual experience or awareness or insights – however one wants to phrase it – are certainly available. However, contrary to popular belief and received wisdom, they are not ends or products so much as beginnings or processes. And they are inherent in the human experience as it is experienced.

It is – again, in my experience – a question of knowing what to look for and, perhaps in a way, of knowing how to look.

Thus, even as I’ve drifted a fair bit from ACIM proper, in a lot of ways I’ve come closer to the inner peace and stillness the relative absence of which drove me to the course in the first place. The route I took was circuitous and sort of counter-intuitive but it was certainly functional. To extend the analogy from yesterday, if you set out to climb a mountain by Trail A and end up bushwhacking your way to the summit, so what? The summit’s the summit.

Thus, my answer to whether A Course in Miracles was – is – helpful is an unqualified yes, albeit with a story attached. Really, what else could it be? So it is not my intention to tell anybody to bail on the course but rather to ask in a serious and reflective way: is it helpful? Is it working? And then give attention to the answers and let them direct you accordingly.

Leaving the ACIM Way Station

The other day I said to a friend that A Course in Miracles was sort of like the last way station before I set out for the summit. I hunkered down with it, I learned a lot, made contact with my inner teacher, made contact with some external teachers like Tara Singh and Ken Wapnick and . . . moved on. Went up the trail.

Historic postcard of Mount Ascutney in Vermont. Still and forever my favorite mountain, both to climb and to admire at a distance.

My point was that nobody lingers at the way station. You do what you need to do there and then you move on. Sure you can linger. Yes the company can be great. And yes, there’s no penalty for staying. You can spend your whole life at the way station – the world won’t end.

But it’s important to be honest. If we’re on the mountain because we want to reach the peak, then what is the point of making the way station our home, spiritual or otherwise?

Why not go where you want to go?

A Course in Miracles is a course – you take it, you take it again if that’s helpful or necessary, you study it carefully to be sure you’ve got it, you help other students and let yourself be helped, you listen carefully to your teachers . . .

And then you move on.

I was confused about this for a long time. I wanted the course to be my home, and I wanted course students to be my tribe, forever and always with a neat little bow.

But A Course in Miracles is not a spiritual path. It’s not a religion. It’s not even a community really, because it is so intensely personal. It’s just a self-study course that you can take or not take. So take it or don’t. But if you’re still dogging it twenty years later then it’s possible you’re indulging some confusion or denial.

If somebody wants a church or a meditation practice or something like that, there are plenty of options. There’s nothing wrong – and a lot helpful – with availing ourselves of them.

But that’s not what A Course in Miracles is about. You take the course and then you get on with your life. You make contact with your teacher, and that’s that. It’s like taking an accounting class. You learn the rules of accounting and the supporting math and then you go become an accountant.

If you are still taking accounting classes ten years later, and if you are struggling with the material, or if you’re taking them because you like the other students or whatever, then maybe accounting isn’t for you.

A Course in Miracles is no different. If it’s not helpful, then great. That’s good to know! But if you feel some calling or attachment to it, and if you read a line like “you make contact with your teacher, and that’s that” and you don’t know what it means then maybe you should ask some questions.

1. Why don’t you know?
2. Have you really and truly given the course all your attention and effort?
3. If not, why not?
4. If not, is it coherent to re-take the course?
5. If not, is there some more helpful course or tradition or practice of which you might avail yourself?

Always keep in mind that A Course in Miracles is simply one form of a given curriculum (e.g. C-in.2:5-6 and T-in.1:4) . There are others. Don’t sweat it if you’re being called to find out what those others are. Think of it this way: somebody in some other form of the curriculum needs you. Don’t waste time; find them. Help them. Be helped by them.

So that was what I meant: you take the course, you move on. But the friend with whom I was speaking asked a good question. He didn’t ask about the way station thing. He asked about the summit.

“So did you reach the summit?”

I laughed. It was a good question.

The summit (and the mountain and the way station and A Course in Miracles and the self and . . . ) are just analogies. They’re just a way of thinking, to those for whom thought is the mode. They are real analogies – real symbols – and they have some utility, but . . .

Nobody is really climbing a mountain at the top of which is God. Nobody is ascending a ladder to Heaven.

There is no God. There is no Heaven.

There is only this.

A Course in Miracles didn’t teach me that. It didn’t wake me up or enlighten me, as folks tend to use those terms. Really, it just helped me ask some very good and important questions (questions that were very personal to me and to where I was at with the whole God and Jesus thing) and then gently – with rare exceptions – pried me open so that I could receive the answers.

Those answers begat questions the course couldn’t answer – questions the course wasn’t designed to answer – and so I had to ask them elsewhere. Really, that is what it means to make contact with your teacher. You go where the questions say to go. In my experience, that is what the course does – it makes the next step or two clear.

There is no end to questions, and that is a nice thing to learn. When you learn it, you can relax about being right. You can relax about missing anything. You can relax about finding the One True Right Answer. Questions arise, answers arise, and then more questions arise. It’s okay. It’s more than okay.

No matter how intense you are, or how carefully you study, or who you allow to help you . . . questions arise. Answers arise.

In other words, there is no one answer that undoes anything. The undoing happens of its accord. In retrospect it sometimes appears as if there were some external cause – the temple bell going off just so, Jesus alighting on a nearby pine tree and setting it afire. But mostly it’s just the slow cessation of resistance, the emerging willingness to let be. You make a pot of coffee. You go for a walk. You write a poem or ride the horses or steam some broccoli . . .

There is nothing wrong with getting all intellectual and wordy about God and awakening and A Course in Miracles. I do sometimes, because it’s natural and fun and interesting. Better women and men than me have done the same, sometimes to a very helpful degree but still. It’s not right in any absolute sense.

A lot of people end up in a space of inner peace and stillness based on nothing other than common sense and simple attention.

Some folks get there because of religion. Or a good psychotherapist. Or the right combination of hallucinogenics.

Some people just get lucky.

That’s more or less what I said to my friend in response to his “did you reach the summit” question. And he replied – because he knows me and because he loves me and because it was the best thing to say in that moment – that I was full of shit.

And we both laughed then and kept walking. Our dialogue moved on to other subjects.

In a sense, it is true that I am full of shit, but in another sense, I am full of light. Whether it’s shit or light you see really depends on what you need. On my end, it’s all the same. Or rather, it’s shit or light depending on what I need – the I think I am at a given moment, engaged and interfacing the way I seem to be engaged and interfacing with the world . . .

Often when I write these posts I feel some sorrow that whoever reads them is not here to walk with me. It is often easier to talk through this material, which often just means seeing that there isn’t a lot to say. But walking and talking (especially on mountains) is fun. And really, when we are finished with the whole awakening and God and ACIM stuff, then we can move on to the real work: feeding hungry people, ending violence, learning and teaching sustainable ecological practices . . .

I’m here. I’m glad you’re here, too.

How Undoing Takes Form

Okay but how does this work? How does this “undoing” take form? How does it avoid slipping back into the nonduality loop? How does it not become more mere spiritual navel-gazing? Or semantic Vedantic cleverness masquerading as wisdom?

Fair questions!

Play a game. Imagine that you could only ask one more question for the rest of your life. You can learn one more thing. What would it be?

Often, when I play this game myself or with others, the question is some variation of: how I can be more helpful? Where “helpful” is consonant with “loving,” “useful,” “forgiving,” “creative” et cetera.

In other words, when push comes to shove, ruthless honesty generally compels us to see that what we are really about is not ourselves but the collective – the all-of-us-together being all-of-us together. It doesn’t always work out that way, and we seem endlessly capable of forgetting it, but in the end, we are as Humberto Maturana says in Biology of Love, “loving animals.” We want to give to one another. We want to love.

So it figures that given a last chance to learn anything, what we want to learn is what will make us more loving.

Once we are clear that what matters is not our own spiritual shindig but rather the grandly inclusive shindig we are all of us throwing and sharing in right now – making love, making bread, making shelter, making art et cetera – what new questions arise?

In my experience, these new questions tend to be more pragmatic than abstract. The metaphysics fade. The word games are displaced if not dissolved. If we are serious about enacting our desire to feed hungry people, then our question is: how do we feed people?

And then our question breaks down yet further into helpful chunks: who is hungry? What are they hungry for? Where are they? How do I get food to share with them? How do I execute the mechanics of sharing, where “mechanics” means gathering food, delivering it, ensuring timeliness, cleanliness, freshness, consistency, funding and so forth.

Naturally that leads to new new questions: has somebody already answered these questions? Where is the knowledge housed? Rather than invent the wheel anew, can we just assist with an already-existing wheel?

And so on and so forth where “so on and so forth” includes feeding hungry people, learning how to keep feeding them, and then sharing that learning in order to generate a sustainable communicable practice of love within and for the collective.

When we are serious about solving problems for the other, then we are going to be focused locally, which means we are going to have to be in communion locally, and we are going to have to give up some modicum of control locally.

We are going to do all of this and we are going to just see what happens. And what happens will happen, and we will respond again, and something new will happen . . .

And in this we are always just trying to think in a new way – not in a self-as-center way, not in a humans-as-god-like way, not in a God-will-do-heavy-lifting-way, not in an I-know-what-works way, not in a look-at-how-special-I-am way.

We are just seeing that we don’t have all the answers, that we aren’t sure of all that much and so need to go slowly and humbly and cautiously, that “right” is always relative, that “perfect” or “best” tend to obstruct – sometimes fatally – “better.”

Love is natural but there are a lot of obstructions, many of which masquerade as wisdom and intelligence and reason. We have to be careful.

It is going to take a long while but I think the language of spirituality and religion are mostly defunct and need to be gently retired so that a new way of thinking and relating can come into being. We can hasten that evolution of clarity and peace simply by giving attention to what arises and responding to it gently and with care.

God and Mind and Asking Better Questions

What is the source of all this? How does it come about? Is there only God? Only Mind? Only Consciousness? Maybe many Gods? Many Gods being mind being universal consciousness?

Asking what the Source is may be less helpful than simply asking how things work and then trying to tweak them in the direction of coherence and functionality (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team).

I have asked the and similar questions for a long time. In my spiritual and cultural circles, these types of questions consistently and regularly arise.

Notice the way that a question begets an answer which in time begets another question. It’s good to ask questions but it’s confusing – sometimes violently so – to think that our answers are some kind of “end” or “conclusion.”

Mostly there is just this going on going on. As Gertrude Stein so aptly put it, “there is no there there.”

It is possible when posing the what-is-the-source question to slip into an endless loop hallmarked by watered-down Rumi quotes, A Course in Miracles, Eckhart Tolle, confused applications of the double-slit experiment, Nisargadatta’s rambling and just . . . call the loop itself is the answer.

But there are other ways. One of them is to reframe the basic question from “what is the source” to: what is this? What is this world? This self? This experience?

That is, rather than look for origins or absolutes – rather than look for answers that purport to end in some ultimate way the questions – just try to better describe and understand what is actually happening.

For me, this approach has been more interesting and helpful. It offers a way out of the loop by shifting focus from specific points within the loop to the loop itself.

And at that level, it has been helpful not to rush or assume and/or prioritize certain goals but rather to go slowly and just attend the process. Questions seem to require answers but do they? What do we really want to know? And is questioning the best way to learn it?

Although it is possible to have a sort of meta-experience – oneness, ecstatic union with the Godhead, awakening, enlightenment (note how the name and description of the experience varies with the cultural context in which the experience arises – this is a clue!) – knowledge of “reality” as such is actually beyond our capacity to know.

Again: reality (the ultimate, the one, the truth, the ultimate one truth et cetera) is beyond the range of our perceptual and cognitive abilities and so reference to it is neither helpful nor necessary.

If you can’t get there – because there is no there there – then you can stop traveling. You can be here, which is all the where there is.

To set the question of ultimate reality – The Source, say – aside can seem quite dramatic, especially for those of us who have devoted significant time and energy to meeting/embodying/knowing this Source. But the grounds for doing so are coherent and not unduly complex.

Knowledge is structure-dependent. That is to say, perception and cognition are limits. They are bounds. What appears to us as the world is framed by – made possible by – our organismic capacity for perception. An ant, a butterfly, a sunflower and a grain of sand all perceive a vastly different “world” than a human being does.

Given this non-controversial (but also non-trivial) observation, what grounds do we have for a) assuming that our perception is anything other than relatively correct and b) that our perceptive and cognitive abilities are the ones that are aligned with reality?

It’s not that we can’t handle the truth; it’s that we are by definition closed to it.

Note, too, that the way that we perceive the world guides – makes possible – how we respond to it: by talking, sharing, loving, arguing, et cetera. And this responsiveness also differs according to the context in which it arises.

That is, a communist woman in 1930s Russia is going to have a different experience than a male middle class consumer in the United States circa 2018. Thus, we have matriarchies and capitalism and Christians and – diving down a level – politics, societies, economics, religion. These are invented concepts by which we explain and interact with the perceived world. The one makes possible – and reifies – the other, but neither is a 1:1 correspondence with the Truth or the Whole. They are just organism-specific modes of being.

When one sees that clearly – and then accepts it as a basic fact of this embodied experience – then the spiritual quandaries and big metaphysical inquiries – become a lot less dramatic. They don’t press as hard; really, they stop pressing at all.

The point is that we perceive and cognize – we do our living in – a world defined by the organism we are – and then explain and interact with that world using the language and mythology – the narrative – of the dominant group of organisms in which we appear and do our living.

There is nothing wrong with this! It is natural and mostly beneficial. Where the fly meets the ointment is that we tend to forget that this world and way of living in it is not written in stone, is not some stable singular truth. We forget that the living we are doing is basically A way of living rather than THE way of living.

And then we double down on this forgetting and end up deeply invested in and attached to the mistaken belief that the living we are doing is true or at least intimately correlated with truth – and so all those who are living differently are, to varying degrees and with varying degrees of moral culpability, wrong or false.

That’s why it’s easy to keep chickens in torturous conditions and then kill them, or chop down trees for yet another shopping complex, or enslave people whose skin is a different color, or murder people who decline our invitation to worship a different God or what-have-you.

So if we stop asking after some external Absolute Source – God, the One, the Divine, the Beloved – and simply ask after how things work, then all that dysfunction and incoherence will reveal itself. It’s not mysterious or even difficult.

But it does ask something of us: it asks us to give attention: to be attentive. It asks us to remember that we are not pinnacles or centers but processes. Ripples observing the river, if you will, where the ripple cannot see the lake where the river begins, nor the sea in which it ends.

So what we end up doing when we give attention in a coherent way is undoing the forgetting of the separating that we are doing when we are incoherent and inattentive. Giving attention and being coherent requires study. It requires discipline and reflection. And it requires local action – changing the way that we shop, vote, grow or don’t grow plants, interact with animals, make art, raise kids and so forth.

Tara Singh was right: it is not enough to learn. We have to bring what is learned into application. There is no other way and only we can do it.

Thus, it is not enough to be tolerant of the other! Given the other, we have to see the specific way in which our thinking and being creates – inevitably makes necessary – the other.

We must become responsible for the way that we are thinking and also the way in which we are not thinking. This is the work and there is really no other work. Whatever else we are doing – parenting, teaching, gardening, cooking, dancing, walking, sleeping – we are attending to the undoing of the line of thinking by which the other arises and our conflict with them becomes real and consequential.

Peace abounds but it must be enacted and embodied. This is what we are doing – whatever else we are doing – here and now.