Blog

A Course in Miracles: Cult?

Is A Course in Miracles a cult? One of my students asked me this other day. His question was genuine, but troubling. After all, the word cult has nothing but negative connotations (unless you’re a fan of this band, of course).

You_Choose_The_Way
Country roads diverging . . . Like ACIM, you can choose the way to go, or even not to go at all . . .

Generally, we understand a cult to be a group with rigid (usually in stark contrast to traditional practices and beliefs) belief systems that are religious or spiritual in nature. They are authoritarian – you have to follow the group, the leader of the group, and in the process surrender your identity. You don’t have a lot of choices in a cult. For these reasons, they are rightly seen as exploitative and dangerous.

The other aspect of cults is that they tend to involve – in practice or in perception – some degree of mind control. And what does A Course in Miracles call itself? A course in “mind training” (T-1.VII.4:1).

But that’s a simplistic rendering of a complex idea. A Course in Miracles is a self-study curriculum that teaches its students that the only problem they truly have is their decision to think apart from God – that is, to imagine that their will and God’s will are separate. This split leads to fear and guilt which we then project onto the world. This allows us to believe that we aren’t fearful and guilt-ridden because of any decision we made; it’s all caused by the mean and nasty world outside of us. We blame the world for our problems. And since God made that world, and we fear God as well. That’s the psychological set-up that human beings are dealing with, according to A Course in Miracles. Through the text and especially through the daily lessons, the course aims to restore to our minds their capacity to think with God and to remember our fundamental unity with all Creation. The dysfunction and pain of fear and guilt abate.

A Course in Miracles is not for everyone, of course. There are plenty of people for whom it is too far-out, its metaphysics too hard to believe or even understand, and so forth. This is okay! The course is clear that it is only one form of what is calls the universal curriculum. There are many ways to be whole and healthy – including atheism, psychotherapy, Buddhism and others. There is no one way to be right. Rather, there are many ways and it is incumbent on us to find the way that works for us. If that’s ACIM, great. If it’s not, that’s great too.

Really, A Course in Miracles is simply one expression of the perennial philosophy. Using Christian language and imagery, with a healthy dose of Freudian psychology and Platonic philosophy, it gently asserts that we are not separated from God but only believe that we are separated.

In other words, there is no expectation that A Course in Miracles is the only way to live a spiritual life.

Moreover, the course is deeply personal and meets each student where they are. Thus, one person’s practice of the course may look entirely different from somebody else’s practice. Just compare some of Ken Wapnick’s course-related writing to that of Tara Singh. It is possible to have two very different but effective teachers because the course emphasis is on the individual, not on conformity to some group standard or ideal.

The value of the Atonement does not lie in the manner in which it is expressed. In fact, if it is used truly, it will inevitably be expressed in whatever way is most helpful to the receiver (T-2.IV.5:1-2).

Really, A Course in Miracles is simply one expression of the perennial philosophy. Using Christian language and imagery, with a healthy dose of Freudian psychology and Platonic philosophy, it simply asserts that we are not separated from God but only believe that we are separated. Thus, its goal is to restore to our memory the fact of unity. We are mistaken; it aims to correct our mistake. No more and no less.

It is also critical to understand that A Course in Miracles really has no centralized leader or board of directions. There is certainly the Foundation for A Course in Miracles (FACIM) headed by the late Ken Wapnick and his wife Gloria. The Foundation aims to help students understand and bring into application the course. And while I think it does aim to be definitive, it is hardly coercive. There are a lot of people running around doing stuff with ACIM that wouldn’t pass muster at the Foundation. You don’t see that sort of variety or permissiveness in a cult!

The Foundation for Inner Peace publishes a version of the course that many students consider the “official” version. The FIP was established by the scribes – Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford – for the purpose of disseminating A Course in Miracles. At the same time, there are several other version of the course available – older ones, modified ones, altogether rewritten ones . . . The course is a diverse community with considerable dissension when it comes to “what it says,” how to understand what it says, and how to practice – or embody – what it says.

And again, the course – while it aims to help us work better with our minds in order to restore us to the sanity of remembering God – is also clear that it’s not the bottom or the only, line. It’s not the only way to heal and it’s not the only way to come into contact with God. If you want to shake the dust off your sandals and try something different, then go for it. It’s not a big deal.

Is that to say that there are not teachers out there who ask a lot of their students? That there aren’t groups that are demanding loyalty from their members while also professing to follow A Course in Miracles? It’s possible, of course. That’s true of a lot of religions and spiritual traditions. And even within perfectly healthy and open communities, there can be individual who display cult-like behavior.

I don’t mean to suggest then that one can’t find examples of behavior in the ACIM community that aren’t troubling. For example, a number of students have been troubled by this teacher and the group that he founded. But I know people who studied with him, and moved on when it was time to do so. They’re solid course students and good teachers in their own right.

In my own experience, most students of the course are disciplined and intelligent and altogether in touch with their own power of decision. Most of them study at their own pace and in their own way – sometimes venturing out to study groups for tea and discussion – but rarely more. Indeed, most serious students have more in common with monks than with cult members.

So no. For my money – and you are entirely welcome to disagree of course –  A Course in Miracles is not a cult. It’s radical. It’s intense. It can change your life and that can be a scary experience – both for you and people who love you. But it’s not going to ask any sacrifices of you – it isn’t going to take anything that you didn’t want to give anyway. The only teacher it is really going to share with you is the Holy Spirit – your inner teacher, who is the Voice for God, the part of your mind that remains healed.

To the extent it functions for the individual, the course offers a way towards joy and peace. Curious sojourners are invited to take a look at it, to try it, to shelve it and try it again. It’s okay! As noted earlier, the bottom line is that if it works, great. And if it doesn’t work, then that’s great, too.

Course in Miracles Daily Lesson

I tend to read the ACIM daily lesson in the morning. Somewhat following the suggestion of Tara Singh, I spend a few minutes coming to a place of stillness. I don’t want to rush into the lesson, turn the workbook into just another item on the day’s to-do list.

Lying in bed, I try to bring my attention to the Course’s “rules for decision.” I simplify this, too. Our days are filled with judgment and decision. The ego-based mind judges and decides on behalf of the body, on behalf of scarcity. It believes that it has to protect its little corner of existence and it manufactures an “I” that handles the job. We identify with the “I” and then the game is on.

But the Holy Spirit, the right-thinking mind, aligns itself with God, abundance, spirit. It denies there is such a thing as scarcity, as separation from the Divine.

A Course in Miracles promises that my day can be filled with peace, quiet joy, a sense of purpose, a harmonious unity, if I will turn the power of decision over. Let the Holy Spirit, the right mind, do the choosing.

I don’t always make it there perfectly, but I try. When I am settled, I brew a pot of tea. I let the dog out – sometimes I walk her, sometimes just stand outside and look at the starlit sky while she bustles here and there.

I come in, pour some tea, and study the lesson. I always read a few pages of text first. I do a breathing exercise before or in the middle of the reading. I want to be as calm and focused as I can be. I want to bring all my energy to this lesson, this reading.

Then I read the lesson. Then I follow its suggestions. And when I am finished, I like to keep a few minutes simply to savor the quiet, the calm and peace that tends to follow the learning, the undoing that is involved.

Oddly, soon after that, I feel a lot of energy surge through me. If my family is up, I cook them breakfast. If they aren’t, I come to the basement to begin the day’s writing. It is easier for me in the morning hours, easier after prayer.

Most of the lessons ask me to return to them several times a day. One minute, maybe two. Practice the exercises. It is a way of bringing my mind into alignment with Mind – if that’s not too abstract or weird. It is a way of reminding myself that I am not alone, that I am not even “I.”

This ritual, this application of A Course in Miracles, has been very fruitful for me. It is not the only way – just as the Course is not the only path – but I am grateful to have found it.

Reading Tara Singh

The first time I read Tara Singh it was as if a prism had been held to the light. Suddenly, the light was both simpler and more complex. It was both lovelier and deeper. It is hard to write about that moment – even now – without resorting to cliche. The feeling that a gap in my understanding of spiritual matters had been bridged – maybe better to say “could” be bridged – was pervasive. Here at last was the teacher.

A Course in Miracles is a difficult text on many levels. It is extremely abstract. Its origins invite wonder, skepticism and doubt in equal measure. And, at least for me, it is a tricky thing to bring into practice. With the course, it is sometimes easy to “talk the walk.” In fact, I think some very well-meaning people – me included – do just that.

My friends Jim and Judy – who run an ACIM study group in a nearby town – introduced me to Tara Singh by lending me their copy of Nothing Real Can Be Threatened. I read a few sentences – literally no more than a paragraph – and had to put the book down because it was like somebody had just dropped hot coals on my brain. This man understood. He got it. And more than that – he could communicate it.

I believe firmly that our study or practice of the course is always deeply personal. It meets us where we are – spiritually, psychologically, emotionally. This is what makes it sacred. Our true spiritual undertakings are always of the heart – heaven joined to heart, if you will – and it is what is missing in the rigid formalism of most organized religions. Before I read Taraji, my own experience of being a course student often felt at odds with what I read or saw in other students’ experience. It wasn’t that they were wrong or dishonest. It was simply that their experience did not resonate with mine.

In part, that was because my interactions with ACIM quickly moved away from a sort of Christian-centered practice. Initially, I was praying to the same God and having the same idealistic and reverential relationship with Jesus that I had since I was old enough to toddle into Catechism classes. God was a stern taskmaster that I feared and Jesus was the son I could never be. I simultaneously wanted their love and hated them for making me want it and not just giving it.

But after a few months of sincere practice – doing each lesson, reading and re-reading the text, and exploring some of the work of the more popular teachers – there was a shift. In fact, I remember very clearly being out in the fields with the dogs, looking at the stars at about 4 a.m.. It was the spot in our walks where I always stopped to say a prayer. A beautiful quiet place! And I realized as I began to pray that the course was not positing any external intelligent being running the show. God was not separate, judgmental, or bent on revenge. That was my fantasy. It was not what the course was teaching.

I was dizzy because I realized that everything I had been thinking – for my whole life to that point, because I have always been thinking and relating and wondering about God and Jesus and Spirit and all of that – was wrong. Or rather, that the course was gently asking me to consider another possibility. And because I found the course so comforting and practical, I was able to consider that perhaps what it was suggesting was true. Or more helpful.

That is quite a place to be, really. The trusted edifice crumbles, disappears like dust and you find that you are still standing. No lightening bolts from the sky, no cosmic hand to pluck you off the earth and drop you into a fiery abyss . . . How is it possible? And the new space feels . . . familiar. It was simultaneously terrifying and edifying. On the one hand, I felt as if I were betraying some old ideal – that Abrahamic God in the sky. I felt as if I had all this wasted time on my hands, a lifetime, maybe more. And yet . . .

I felt lighter, too. I felt happier, in a natural and serious way. Though I would – and sometimes still do – yo yo around with these things, in that moment I shrugged off a long-standing naivete and assumed a new responsibility for my spiritual condition. I am aware of how arrogant that sounds. All I can say is that it was true and that all its truth really did was show just how far I have to go.

This was also the moment where I realized that I needed a community – not famous writers and their best-selling books, not popular bloggers – but real people. I looked into some local study groups, found the one run by Jim and Judy and maybe fifteen minutes after we started talking, Jim lent me his copy of Nothing Real Can Be Threatened.

Life takes care. We are always being lifted.

*

I want to be careful about what I say regarding Tara Singh. I am not really qualified to talk about the man. And as regards his writing – which has become so important to me – I want only to be respectful. I was devastated when I learned that he had died years earlier, making it impossible to take a workshop with him. Being introduced to Mr. Singh . . . It was one of the few times in my life that I actually felt as if I would drop everything, walk a thousand miles and so forth just to study with this one person. You know that Buddhist story about the young man who cuts his hand off to get the attention of the man he wishes to study with? Only Tara Singh has ever made that story make even the slightest bit of sense. I do not take teachers or guides lightly. But Tara Singh was different right away. Just a few sentences and I knew. He felt that real to me, that essential.

So I have made do, then, with reading his work. There is quite a body of it and you can find it at good used book stores. You can visit the Joseph Plan Foundation, the organization he started which is continued by many of his students. They do periodic retreats, which perhaps I will attend someday. But right now – for the past year or so – it has been his books and sometimes his videos and audio recordings. There are plenty of them and not one has felt dispensable or unnecessary.

What resonates in particular for me is Taraji’s insistence on bringing A Course in Miracles to application – that is, rescuing it from the inclination to talk it to death, to render it merely an idea. That is a big risk for me, as I am a skilled talker and prone to using that gift defensively. There is no real compromise on this point in his work – nor is there, really, in the course. You cannot see both worlds and so must choose one. Period. Decide! Knowing that, embodying that, Tara Singh’s work is largely free of the contemporary softness and reassurance that characterizes a lot of new age and self help writers of our day. I don’t know what he was like in person, but in his writing he is deeply focused and precise. A sense of urgency and possibility is present in every word. He perceives the transformational power of the course and wants to share it, extend it.

He is also able to readily step beyond the Christian mythology that serves as framework on which the essential ideas of the course are settled. This was so important to me – having the ideas in the course translated or clarified in a way that released them from dependency on old ideas. I say that carefully – the Christian mythology matters to me because I know it and am familiar with it – but too big an investment in that language, in those symbols becomes a limitation. As the course points beyond itself, I was being asked to grow or evolve beyond myself, but until I read Tara Singh it was not altogether clear to me how I was going to do that. There is a liberating quality to his teaching that is both grounded in the course and yet reaches far beyond it. It is rare and electric.

I do not think Tara Singh is for everyone – nor does he need to be. Nor, probably, would he have wanted to be! I am committed to this idea that there are many trains running to the station of Truth and we need only ride one, and no one is better or superior to another. Pick the one thing that will teach you you need no thing! For me, Taraji has been a challenging and comforting – and above all, useful – guide to ending our Separation from God, coming to stillness, seeing the Kingdom, and finding Peace.

What more can we ask from a teacher?

*

Over the years, I have come back to this post – tweaking it a little here, taking something out there. One’s opinion changes – one’s intellect sees things this way and then that. But what is eternal never changes.

My devotion to Tara Singh as a teacher – as an temporal embodiment of the grace inherent in A Course in Miracles and, by extension, all of us, has never wavered. It is of that which is eternal. I have come to appreciate the rigor of his dialogues, the tenacity with which he refused to succumb to the comforting – yet dysfunctional – patterns of thinking that were always old, always of the past.

When one reads Taraji closely, one is led to Krishnamurti, and through their combined insights to the great Indian saints – Sri Aurobindo, Sri Maharshi, Sri Anandamayi Ma . What a gift. It is like a flower that continues to grow, smaller shoots emerging around it, a veritable garden of wisdom and delight. One realizes that they are always being led, that the wisdom of God is never not active, and sees at last the truth of “I need do nothing.” It is given. It is always given.

Thank you for reading, friend, and for sharing the way with me a little while. I am grateful for your companionship, as I am grateful for Taraji’s, all of us together remembering the wholeness that we never left.

Sail Around

I like the old folk songs. Singing them, playing them. The good ones keep changing, don’t sound the same as yesterday. Or they make you wonder, the way the words go. It’s comforting, but you can’t say why exactly.

Like this: “The cold cow died/sail around.” Sail where? With whom? Around what?

It stayed in my head today – laying on the floor whispering, walking in the dark, driving on the highway. The word “sail” rendering nicely with Freud’s “oceanic feeling,” which for some reason was on the brain.

Anyway, Jake, the old dog, died today. It was gentle as those things go, a couple hours of hard breathing, then a darkening, then a letting go. There was time to say goodbye. And I was there at the end, sitting a little off from him. Mostly I felt grateful. I was ready. I wasn’t a few months ago. Maybe I wasn’t a week ago.

Tara Singh says, give attention. Notice your feelings, what you do. Don’t judge your thoughts, just see them. You don’t understand them anyway. If you can really see them, that is something. That is a beginning.

I noticed how I lean toward prayer, reflexively. How I hate weakness. How I savor grief in exquisite sips, like a moth drinking tears.

And I noticed all my brothers and sisters, both the ones who know I’m their brother and the ones who don’t. It doesn’t matter. I was grateful that I could be kind out in the world, could remember the importance of that, of making it be about someone else. I was grateful for the many kindnesses shown to me all day, going here and there, doing things.

And then later, in the familiar winter dark, walking in the field behind the old home, watching planes fly back and forth below the shimmering Milky Way, cold and shivering in the dark, I listened for him. Footsteps in the frosty grass, jangle of tags coming up behind me. How many years that Love helped me clarify!

But he was gone, he didn’t come back. The old dog died, sail around.

A Place to Pivot

I was thinking of gurus today. Follower energy. The desire to be led. Gurus and their followers being a manifestation of that energy, that passivity. Maybe that lack of energy.

Gurus give answers, right? Direction. So they absolve their disciples, their students, whatever word you use, of some responsibility, the responsibility to act, to decide to act and to act. The only action becomes the giving over of that responsibility.

Does that make sense?

You say, I’m lost and confused and I don’t think I can find my way out. Well I do, says the Guru. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. That’s not the point. That’s not what we were asking for, was it?

So we say, Okay. You drive. You take the reins. You decide which fork we should take. It’s okay. I’ll follow. Following is nice. You get to look at the scenery. You get to think, At least I’m not the one who has to make choices, who has to come to a decision.

The real teacher would say, But you do have to choose. You do have to decide.

The real teacher probably wouldn’t have taken the reins in the first place. She knows better. She isn’t going to let us off so easy. Those teachers are hard to find. They don’t put up ads looking for students. They aren’t counting on you to pay the bills or keep a few potatoes in the pot.

At the doctor’s office, I have follower energy. Cheerful helpful follower energy. I’m nice to everyone – very grateful, very humble – then the doctor shows up and I remember why I’m here. It’s not about being nice to people who are busy and stressed. It’s not about shining a little light. It’s about me. I want an answer.

It’s good to see that! Good to know it. At least then you can begin to tease out the false and the true. You can laugh at yourself – look at me, I want a guru! I don’t care so much about what’s happening to my heart or why I have this headache. To me, whatever is happening inside my body is just a symbol of some deeper problem, some estrangement, some separation or divide.

It’s a spiritual thing. I can feel it in the doctor’s presence, the same as a priest, the same as a good lecturer on Christ. What is this brokenness? And how are you going to fix it?

The doctor has her computer, her charts. She has her busyness, her own affairs. I knew a priest who listened to confessions thinking about his mother. He was never there with the sinner begging for mercy. There’s a real awareness, a real intelligence that’s called for. And it’s hard, very hard. I’m not telling you I have it. Don’t think that.

If you knew the Answer, the Absolute, would you sell it? If you could free everybody – if you knew how to – would you market the solution? Travel around wearing a white robe, always speaking with a replica Ming vase of lilies nearby?

Everything is for sale but the name of God. It’s true.

It could be this, says the doctor. Could be that. Let’s run this test. Take this pill for a month and that one for two months. Come back in thirty days. That can go on for years! It already has.

Today’s lesson in A Course in Miracles says, “These thoughts do not mean anything. They are like the magazines I see in this rack, the dog I see on the street, the clouds I see in the sky.”

Tara Singh says, If you could understand the truth of that lesson – really grasp it for just one second, then you would be enlightened.

This morning at 4 a.m. the sky was filled with stars, and every few minutes one of them would go sailing away, falling with a bright flash over the horizon. It can mean anything you want it to mean. God is coming, God is here.

In 4 a.m. darkness, starlight on what snow remains in early January, the dogs follow me. We stumble through the field towards the pond, listening to the wind. They walk nose down, I walk head up, staring at the sky.

I asked myself, What do I want from the doctor today?

The answer: Peace. Peace and a place from which to pivot.

Peace – okay. Let that go. Everybody knows what peace is.

But what does that mean – a place from which to pivot? That’s weird.

It means a space in which one can suddenly and totally and emphatically change. Not change appearances or diets, but be made anew. Born again. Not the slow transition inside the chrysalis – quicker. Shedding the past, the future, time, every last symbol of the beholden.

It’s an old dream, older than the one that leaves you singing about being a poor wayfaring stranger.

Probably gurus mean well. Doctors, too. Most of them anyway, don’t you think? After all, we create them. We want answers and healing and somebody has to do it. Follower energy begets leader energy. It’s a law.

But if all that’s true, ask why we never get to Peace or Love, why we’re never healed. The doctor today was great, very funny, full of the crackling energy of the universe, just like those shooting stars, but no peace. No place to pivot.

Why not?

Come home, make tea. Take a nap, try to write. Come back to it again. Who is blessing who? Do I have it wrong?

Pivot from what? To what?

Against Casualness

At all costs now, I want to avoid being casual. I don’t want to take anything for granted. I want to be in that state of awareness, readiness.

If you knew that you were about to enter the presence of God, the Spirit – Jesus, the Buddha, Nanak – how would you act? What would you do?

Tell him he’s a metaphor? Call Oprah? Tweet it?

A better question might be: would we even recognize an ascended master, their spirit of Love, of Freedom? We’d probably look right through them, right past them. We probably do. If we didn’t, who knows what would happen. We’d probably fall weeping, or run away, or call the cops. Get a Master’s Degree and a job and write a blog.

When Jesus came into Martha and Mary’s home, Martha worked furiously to clean and prepare and make it perfect. This is God! Meanwhile, Mary just sits beside him. They talk, they share. Maybe they pray. Why not? What else?

When Martha complains about working alone, Jesus gently admonishes her. Mary has taken “the better part,” he says. Both women knew who was there, but they had different ways of handling it. We can love both women, we can see ourselves in both women – that’s okay, probably necessary – but we have to see that there is nothing relative here. One way is not as good as another. It’s not all good. There is a right part, a better part.

So what is the better part?

Martha prepares a physical space. It’s okay – we all do it. Here are my crystals, there are my Tarot Cards. Here is my bible. There is my zafu. I’ve got a candle burning. There is my copy of A Course in Miracles.

Some people even go to churches or temples or public meditation spaces. They’re all the same because the altar is never in them. It’s never there. I remember walking through Europe years ago dumbfounded at the size and majesty of all the churches I saw. But you know what? A bunch of Martha’s made them!

Mary lets all that go, puts it behind her. Who cares? She’s like Andrew, John and Peter. Jesus says let’s go and they go, they don’t even say goodbye. How could you not drop what you were doing? Right? It makes sense. If you think about it, don’t make it complicated, don’t let relativity into it, you can see. It’s right action. It is.

And Mary is like that. She is just present to God, to the manifestation of God. It’s there and so she is. What else is there to do? Does God care if the tablecloth matches the napkins? If the fish is undercooked? If the bed is unmade? Maybe the pope cares, maybe the president does. But not God.

So it’s all a dream but this. This reality. When it calls, you follow. When it arrives, you sit with it. You can’t prepare for it. It doesn’t come because you keep your house clean or because you’ve got Tibetan peace flags hanging over the driveway. That crucifix means nothing to it. The zafu – what is that? A pillow for cats to sleep on?

Casualness is letting our attention drift. When we’re casual we avoid stillness, avoid awareness. There’s a good song on the radio. There’s a grudge worth nursing. There’s a business plan worth developing. Anything will do. Anything to keep our attention off it. Anything to be busy. Something needs cleaning, something must be worthy of complaint. I’ll get to it tomorrow. That’s what the future does – robs us of the present. Emily Dickinson knew it. She told us we could live in Eternity. “Forever – is composed of nows.”

Because it’s here. Jesus – Nanak – the Goddess – Shiva – whatever symbol of Love or Divine Peace or Joy resonates for you, it’s here. Right now. Drop everything – stop reading – fall to you knees and listen. See it. Hear it. Right? Why not? What does casualness bring us? Nothing. Not gratitude, not peace. Not love. What then?

A Walk to Stillness

We have to come stillness, to awareness. But how?

Perhaps first we have to learn that is gift. Stillness is a gift. Or perhaps better to say, it is there already, waiting. The gift is the way in which we are temporarily absolved of all the brain chatter and clutter that obfuscates stillness.

I have friends who have dedicated their lives to rigorous meditation practices, lives of service, intense prayer. I see nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, I see a lot that is right with it.

But I wonder – increasingly I wonder – is it really necessary?

To have what is given, to experience the stillness that is already there – the stillness that is rich and creative and inspiring, like a bolt of lightening – what do we have to do?

We have to be open to some slipping. Some neural pathway, long unused, suddenly lighting up. There’s an ancient action that takes place. We recognize it but we aren’t sure how to call it forth. Then it’s there, just like that. Like it was there all along, which it was. Which it is.

Last night I walked the dogs and after I walked myself. I do that sometimes. The older dog requires such care and attention that I don’t always see the stars. I don’t hear the wind. I do, of course, but not the same way. I don’t mind that. It’s a lovingkindness to a friend, a faithful companion.

But I like my walks of foolishness too. My walks into stillness. So I drop the dogs off at the house, and then go on my own way a little while. Just a little.

And I thought last night as I walked alone about those moments of crystalline clarity where briefly, God slips in and there is nothing else. How hard to put it into words – maybe you’re not even supposed to try – but how lovely it is, how free, to be beyond personality, beyond language, out of time.

Such a lovely and empowering space . . . and if it is simply there, if it is what is real, what is true, then why do we refuse it? Why do we make it so difficult?

So I stopped walking. Where the road dips a little at the old bridge, right over Watts brook, I stopped. I come into stillness when I pay attention. Not to the chatter of the brain – which is like this writing here, but maybe thicker, and without beginning or end – but to what appears to be external. God is cause, I am effect. Yet all that I perceive is also effect, what I create.

So watch it. Listen to it.

I leaned on the old bridge and looked down. The light was gone and so all I could see was the blurred banks of snow like giant gray thumbs extending along the banks. Here and there the bracken reaching over it, spidery limbs swaying in the breeze. On the North side of the bridge the water sounds were light, separate notes harmonically converged, like a glockenspiel. But on the South side it was a low, dull roar. There are fewer rocks there and the landscape drops, the water building momentum with nothing to impede it. It was cold and I could see a few stars twinkling here and there like the beginning of paralysis and I was balanced between these two musics, this one music they were together, balanced on the old bridge looking at the water and the sky.

And it came to me. It did. Just a flash, like a card falling out of a gambler’s sleeve. A glimpse of the face of Christ, behind the veils, behind the world of form. I would live forever for a taste of it!

Yet that is why I lose it. Why we lose it. I want to make it mine – this body’s experience, this self’s improvement. The same greed that makes me sneak the last cookie, the last wedge of cheese.

Who is it that interferes? Who wants to possess what cannot be possessed because it simply is?

*

I walked all morning today, up and down the back roads, through snowy fields, past barns, dripping eaves. I knelt to study stones, read tracks, glory in sunlight . . . In my mind you were there and we were talking. I was talking about the stillness – what it feels like, how to find it. I wanted to know if you knew why we lose it, why we clutch at it. It was a beautiful morning, a beautiful walk – how sweet to share the time with you – but we did not walk in stillness.

Three Reasons To Quit Religion

I grew up in a Catholic home – both of my parents were born and raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. We went to church every Sunday and on every holy day of obligation. We said grace before meals. My sisters and I went to catechism classes.

In some ways, I am deeply grateful for this upbringing. Before I could analyze it or adopt skepticism as an outlook, I believed in God. And because we lived in the country and my father and I spent a lot of time outdoors – hiking, fishing, working with animals – I associated God with nature.

John Denver helped, too. My mother listened to him all the time (I just barely resisted writing that “his albums were on the hi fi all the time); his songs – especially the old ones from his first Greatest Hits album – are like the soundtrack to my childhood.

And that’s cool! Because John Denver got it. He loved God and he believed that everybody could be joyful and peaceful. I know that he lacks the irony and the poetry of Dylan, who I also love, but there’s real grace in simplicity. There is a spiritual authenticity in John Denver songs that really resonated with me as a child.

It was a great antidote to church, in other words. Mass was stiff and confining. It was uninspiring. But a walk in the woods could bring you face to face with angels every few steps. You could lay on your back and look at the clouds and see the face of Christ smiling back at you.

So I’m really grateful for my childhood – my parents impressed upon me the importance of a relationship with God, and they gave me tools – sometimes unwittingly – to help me maintain a conscious contact with the creative powers of the universe.

Notice the transition in that preceding paragraph. We went from “God” to “Creative Powers of the Universe.”

There aren’t many Catholics who are going to be cool with that.

As an adult – after years of prayer and meditation and study – I have more or less come around to John Lennon’s point of view. I like to imagine there’s no religion. Organized religion, that is. It seems to me that as soon as you identify as a member of a church, then you have automatically created “us” and “them.” Doesn’t matter how loving you feel or how super-positive your intentions are. There’s you and there’s the other.

And more than that, you now have a position to defend. You chose this religion – its history, its community, its practices, its mythology. Why? Why does it work for you?

That’s a terrible place to be if your goal is to be fully conscious as a loving and creative human being. While I know that religion does some good – I only have to look so far as my mother and father for proof – the reality is that it stifles us as human beings. It boxes us up and promotes a mindset that is alternately passive and destructive.

We can do better than that.

I can think of at least three good reasons to avoid joining (or walking away from) an organized religion:

Religion is the Graveyard of Spirituality

As I alluded to above, when you join or embrace a religion, you are effectively subscribing to a whole range of rules and laws and obligations. You are told what to believe. I don’t care if your minister or priest or rabbi encourages free thought or tells you that it’s normal to doubt. The truth is, there are certain ideological stances that separate “this” church from “that” one.

It’s hard to think for yourself when a big part of your so-called spiritual community is thinking for you. I stopped regularly attending Catholic mass around the time the Massachusetts bishops went whole-hog trying to kill gay marriage. I volunteered at a local food shelter and I knew that people were hungry and needed help and this was where my church wanted to focus its energies?

I don’t believe that Jesus would have stepped over a starving baby to tell a couple of men to stop holding hands.

Spiritual growth is dependent on our ability to think for ourselves. We have to be able to ask hard questions. We have to allow for the possibility of surprising and difficult answers. The evolution of consciousness takes us away from systems (religious, political, economic) and into the sphere of the personal. It is a deeply personal journey and you can’t make much progress when you’re wearing the ball and chain of an organized church.

Religion wants to control you, cut you down to size, make you manageable. The creative powers of the universe want you to wake up, get large and radiate the joy and love that is your natural inheritance.

You can’t have it both ways. Which way do you really want it?

Resist Your Cultural Defaults

Earlier I pointed out that I was raised Catholic. That’s very consistent with my Massachusetts Irish roots. In fact, virtually every stereotype you can associate with that cultural staple pertains to me or members of my family.

But what if I’d been born in Mississippi? Or Tel Aviv?

There’d be a whole other sack of cultural baggage. Maybe I’d be a devout Lutheran. Or an Orthodox Jew.

The possibilities are – literally – endless.

We are human beings. We aren’t the labels that we accept as a result of where we land at birth. Those are negotiable. They just are. I don’t care what your therapist tells you or your doctor or your teacher. You can recreate yourself in any way, shape or form that you want. That’s your divine right. It’s your sacred potential.

But try telling that to the priest who baptized you.

Does it make much sense to stick with the religious and cultural labels that we defaulted into? Aren’t there better alternatives?

What would happen if we rejected all our labels?

John Denver once wrote a song called “Rhymes and Reasons” which I consider a sort of adjunct to “Imagine.” At the end he sings, “the song that I am singing is a prayer to nonbelievers – come and stand beside us. We can find a better way.”

Beyond “us and them” is an identity that is unfractured and wholly loving. Religion knows it’s there, but they don’t want you to find it. Or they do, but they’ve created a system that ensures you won’t.

Turn the Other Cheek – I Want To Be Sure I Hit Them Both

Where there’s war, there’s religion. So much of the violence that is perpetrated in the world is the result of rigid (religious) belief structures. People are shot and tortured and raped and systematically wiped out because they don’t believe what their killers believe.

The holocaust. The crusades. Witch burnings. September 11th. Israel and Palestine.

Yes, it’s complicated. Yes you can end up in moral and ethical mazes that would confound even the most lucid of minotaurs. If you could go back in time and strangle Hitler in his crib, would you? If you’re attacked by terrorists, don’t you have a right of self-defense?

Meanwhile, Jesus weeps. Buddha rubs his forehead sadly. Shiva turns up the volume on the kirtan.

When you’re in organized religion, you’re in it. I supported gay marriage – I wrote about it, argued about it, carried signs for it. And every Sunday I took my kids to an institution that preached it was wrong.

The disconnect was ridiculous. And that’s just a small example.

Conflict is an inevitable – in fact, it’s a necessary  – result of “us and them” mentality, which is the default state of any organized religion. If you’re in a church, then you’re promoting conflict. And somewhere, someone is in anguish because of it. Someone is dying. Someone is hefting a sword and saying “this is for your own good.”

Don’t let them lift that sword in your name.

Spirituality sees the world as a dream, an illusion through which only brothers and sisters pass. It’s one big mind having one big dream. When you get that, everything falls into place. It simplifies. What you do to another, you do to yourself.

Religion wants to parcel off the dream, declare it real, exclude the unfaithful. That’s malicious and hurtful and – quite frankly – murderous.

Postscript:

I have received some emails in regards to this post: people want to know about my personal beliefs. They point out that for a guy who knocks religion, I seem awfully high on Jesus.

It’s a fair question that deserves to be answered.

Jesus is a powerful symbol of love and peace and joy to me. He is a powerful symbol of right thinking. I consider him an ascended master (though I acknowledge that can be a troubling phrase), a spiritual presence that I use to facilitate my own spiritual growth. The mode in which this is most effective for me is A Course in Miracles. But I can’t emphasize enough that these, to me, are simply symbols. They’re like the knife and fork that I use to eat dinner – they aren’t the only tools available and they certainly aren’t the meal itself. The closest thing to church for me is my morning walk with my dogs – it’s quiet, it’s clear, it’s beautiful. My brain stops chattering and labeling, stops segmenting time and dividing space.

If I could convert people to anything it would be that – a few moments of quiet in a peaceful world. If you can get there regularly, a light will begin to shine. And you will never be alone again.

The Juggler Reconsiders His Calling

I ran into a friend the other day – he was finishing lunch, I was buying eggs and kefir – and I stopped to say hello. Jim was the facilitator of an A Course in Miracles discussion group that I attended for a while. I hadn’t seen him in several months. It was nice to catch up.

Later, it got me thinking about this website, which I shuttered back in the summer and re-opened earlier this month. I shut it down because it was complicating both personal and professional boundaries. At the time if felt like a practical decision, but I come to see more in the line of a defensive gesture. I needed some privacy, needed to create some quiet in which to settle out this business of disdaining the light of being read.

In mulling it over, a recurring word or theme is “congruent.” To me it means consistency at all levels of one’s existence – spiritual, physical, work, play. It means not parceling off different parts of life in an effort to hold other parts at bay.

And it means – for me anyway – that that I cannot please everyone, cannot bear for others their burden of judgement. What does this mean exactly? Well, for most of my adult life I have been deeply reticent about being a Christian and following Jesus. I don’t want to hurt or alienate friend who are legitimately pissed off at establishment sects of Christianity, whose lives are routinely invalidated by Christians who are alternately fearful, misguided and sometimes malicious.

I don’t want to defend the Pope anymore, or try to rationalize him, or be an apologist on behalf of progressive Protestants. I don’t want to pretend a scholarly interest in the link between Paganism and early Christian communities in a vain effort to validate both.

And I’m even more wary of talking about spirituality in terms of its application – what it actually means to me, now. I have wandered pretty far afield of all but the most wacky of  Christians. Telling people that you channel Jesus as one of many ascended masters, that you can hear the Holy Spirit, that you believe (or want to believe) that your body and the world are effect and not cause, that you experience the world as a dream . . .

Well, it invites a bit of ridicule.

Yet being incongruent – being silent – is even worse. We limit ourselves when we parcel our energy up into little pockets. Poetry on this shelf, the Tarot cards on that one. Jesus here, Buddha there.

It’s like I’ve devoted my life to juggling and I don’t even like juggling. I’m not even particularly good at it.

Anyway, I have come around to thinking – and trying to put into practice – a conviction that you cannot peacefully or meaningfully keep the best parts of yourself to yourself. They are in you because they need to be shared – your identity lies in sharing them. If what you create – a poem, a blog post, a lesson plan – is created out of Love then it will find its way through the ether to those who need it.

Your job is to create, to extend. Period.

Or so I say. Or think. Or write anyway. I started this post very early in the morning and came into the basement after dinner – and maybe three thousand words into another project – to finish it.

The Undoist Speaks

When I first read A Course In Miracles, I felt I had come home after a long and meandering trip. Here at last was a spirituality that was both mystical and intellectual. It was as if I had found the perfect blend of St. Therese of Lisieux and Thomas Aquinas. I could slip at will into the cloud of unknowing and come out like a herald calling other lost ones home.

Well, that was the door in anyway. And, for quite a while, it was the long hallway, too. I followed it diligently, striving always to be sincere and humble. I knew, even if I was not quite sure how to articulate it, that I had stumbled upon my practice. Had I been more aware, I might have taken that inability to say precisely what was happening as a sign that I was perhaps not quite ready to sound any trumpets, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.

Instead, each morning I read the text and one daily lesson with a pen in hand, making small checks next to key passages. Then, on the inside flap, I would write the number of each page on which I had made a check. That way I could come back to each critical section, the better to memorize and absorb it for later restatement.

It wasn’t long though before I realized that there were simply too many key passages. So I abandoned the process of checking in favor of underlining. That felt good! This was a favored technique of my many long years in education – undergraduate degree in English, a law degree, a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts. If a sentence beheld even a hint of wisdom, any jewel or nugget without which one would miss the whole, then you underlined it. That bold gesture memorialized the words and – though I would have denied this at the time – made me feel pretty special. This was what serious students did. They underlined.

And so I went at it the way you do when nothing less than the head of the class will do. Pretty soon, the text was awash with purple and blue and black ink, the lines running right to left like chalk marks on a football field. It got so that half of every page was underlined. Then two thirds. Then the task wasn’t deciding what to underline, but what not to underline.

Then I stopped and asked myself what I was doing.

For me, hardest of all the Course lessons is perhaps this: it is about undoing, not doing. It is not about acquiring new ideas or sprucing up old ones. It is not about gaining some masterful understanding of obscure spiritual principles and laws. It is not about improving ourselves so that friends and family can say, Boy, Sean really is a lot wiser than he was last Saturday . . .

Rather, it is about removing the obstacles to love, which the Course assures us is our natural inheritance.

I realized that my practice had been almost exclusively intellectual. This was understandable given my educational background and my professional callings. After all, I am a writer and a teacher. The point is to understand so that we might better communicate and share that understanding with our students and fellow writers.

But my aggressive and highly detailed approach to the Course – as if it were a text to be deciphered, translated and then re-composed – was pretty clearly an obstacle to its application. I certainly had a lot of new ideas. I found myself talking a lot more about the Course and other spiritual paths. I was delighted with how articulate I was, how far-ranging my theology had become.

But – and this is where the true gift of the Course becomes evident – I had to admit that I was no closer to God. No meaningful practice of forgiveness or lovingkindness was evolving in my life. I was the same old well-intentioned blowhard I had always been – talking the walk while making a big show of studying the maps.

And so I did what all devoted Course students must do from time to time. I renewed my commitment to the Course. I put the pen down and simply read. I tried to apply the lessons in a new way. When my brain wanted to analyze and create pithy Course-related quotes that I could sell to other students, I tried to shrug it off. What was going on in each lesson? What was I supposed to learn? I wanted that to be the bellwether. I wanted to hear Jesus and the Holy Spirit, not the ego.

Because it was so hard – and because I seemed to be making precious little progress – I asked the Holy Spirit to help me. If it wasn’t too much trouble, could he lead me to a place of quiet and stillness? Maybe shed a little insight? Give me a sign that I wasn’t still walking in circles with my eyes closed?

I felt silly doing this – how mundane a prayer it was! – but I did it anyway.

And one morning, a funny thing happened. I was sitting by the stove while the water boiled for tea and I happened to glance up. The kitchen was empty so far as my physical eyes could see, but another pair of eyes clearly beheld Jesus sitting on the floor, head on his knees, arms wrapped around himself, quietly sobbing.

I had no idea how to respond to that vision. It scared me, in part because I knew that I had somehow created it, or called it into being. I felt like somebody else had taken hold of my imagination and made something to which I could not put my name.

If it had been possible to leave that picture of Jesus behind, I would have. But it stayed with me. I held it carefully, the way one might hold a cup of steaming tea lest it spill on uncovered fingers. I didn’t want to get hurt. As I sat each morning in what continued to feel like half-assed efforts at prayer and meditation, I began to imagine myself trying to comfort Jesus. Maybe that would get rid of the image. I tried to picture myself crossing the kitchen floor, sitting beside him, perhaps putting an arm over his shoulders.

“There, there,” I would say.

It was a nice idea, but I could never get more than halfway across the floor. Fear stopped me cold. And there wasn’t a whole lot of mystery as to why. I was afraid that when I offered consolation, Jesus would look up at and his eyes would be filled with accusation. Tears of sorrow and grief, yes, but also unstinting blame. It was a look that would say, You did this to me.

And I knew perfectly well what would follow from that. God was out there somewhere, close nearby, thinking, You’re going to pay. I’m going to make you pay for this.

Even now I hate writing that! Hate seeing the words, hate the sad story they represent. It is difficult to express how much disappointment and anguish that series of visions caused me. I did not want to accept that I lived in fear of Jesus and God. As an idea, it was abhorrent to me. It could not be mine – it had to belong to somebody else. Somebody who was weak, uneducated, uninformed, unsophisticated, living in denial . . .

And yet the truth could not – would not – be denied. That was me – that was where I stood in relation to God and to Jesus.

There was nothing left to do then but begin right there, in full recognition of the fact that I was estranged from God and Jesus, and that I believed that any reconciliation meant only death – my death. Despite decades of prayer and church and meditation and devoted reading – and I assure you I considered myself quite the expert in this field – I had nothing to show for it but fear and hesitancy and self-deceit.

And you know what? That can make for a pretty good start.

This is what means to undo: to come to the realization that all we have taught ourselves and all that the world has taught us is nothing but an illusion. It is useless to us. It cannot bring us closer to God or our brothers and sisters. It cannot foster the Happy Dream that precedes our union with Heaven. The journey to love – the ascent to Grace, the ending of the separation – begins with letting go of all that we have accumulated. The mental baggage must be abandoned, left by the side of the road, so that we might go on increasingly unencumbered.

Ahead, in the distance, a familiar light burns. It is my hope to arrive with empty hands held open to the one has missed me for so long, whose yearning for our union is so strong that its absence can lead to nothing but tears.