How can we think about consciousness in Christianity? About being spiritual beings for whom Christian language such as A Course in Miracles is most resonant and helpful? About the world and the living and the others that arise in perception?
I have been helped in this regard – have seen thinking clarified – with prisms.
Growing up, there was an enormous white quartz rock in the cow pasture. Half buried in a little hill, it was larger than I was. I often sat on it, or leaned against it. In sunlight it was redolent with tiny rainbows. I used to try and chunk pieces off so I could take the rainbows into my bedroom. Though I have collected many quartz rocks and crystals and prisms since, none has ever replaced that one.
When sunlight passes through a crystal – quartz, say, or any prism – it refracts and disperses. One sees not the light but the spectral wavelengths – the colors – of which light is comprised.
The quartz does not create the subsequent band of rainbow colors but it does enable their appearance.
Can we say something similar about consciousness? About our experience?
That is, can we say that the senses of the body – which together comprise the machinery of perception – disperse consciousness or experience out of oneness and into diverse and vivid loveliness? That the body brings forth a world fitting to its structure?
Here is the yellow of dandelions, here is the sweetness of cider, here is the warmth of a fire, here is the scent of lilac, here is the feel of another’s arms pulling me near . . .
On this view, what we call Creation, might simply be the continuous play of sensual experience bringing forth flowers, warm beverages, soft flannel sheets and partners with whom to share it all. Indeed, we might call this experience “consensual” because it is not ours alone but appears synchronously with the sensual experiences of others, including dandelions, apples, ants and grains of sand. The world is its observers.
As spiritual seekers whose living occurs in and through language, we want an end to our journey that we call Heaven or God or Oneness or Source. We want intimate knowledge of this one. But I wonder if we might say that rather than some tangible origin, there is simply this ongoing consensual narration?
This “ongoing consensual narration” is love, of course, because it comes forth of its own accord. Giving merges continuously with gift and given. We did not invent communicating or tasting or seeing. We didn’t invent organization. Self, other and world come forth in a fluid movement that already knows itself, already wants itself, already cares for itself.
On this view, God is not so much the first cause or commander or even overarching principle but the welter itself, the arising itself, the knowing itself itself. Less the bearded patriarch, more a moisty loam.
On this view, God is not so much the Creator, but rather the awareness in which and through which living and loving appears in all its lovely complexity. Human beings are structures in which this awareness is especially acute and refined, especially reflective and reflexive. It begets a lot of thinking and praying and searching but the end is always sure.
The journey closes, ending at the place where it began. No trace of it remains . . . Thy Will is done, complete and perfectly, and all creation recognizes You, and knows You as the only Source it has. Clear in Your likeness does the light shine forth from everything that lives and moves in You. For we have reached where all of us are one, and we are home, where You would have us be (T-31.VII.12:3-4, 6-8).
So that is a way of thinking about experience and spirituality and so forth that may or may not be helpful. It is a way of reading A Course in Miracles that may or may not be helpful. I don’t say it’s right but perhaps it is interesting. Perhaps it will inform attention in a nurturing way.
When we encounter ourselves as less than perfectly-loving – which, if we are honest, is most of the time – there are two coherent responses. The first is not to freak out. The second is to do better.
That is what it means to actively practice the principle of forgiveness in A Course in Miracles.
We don’t freak out because drama – spiritual or otherwise – tends to be a distraction. Getting hung up on our flaws and shortcoming is a zero sum game: there are always going to be flaws and shortcomings. Giving our attention to them in the form of self-hate and self-improvement and so forth is just another way of focusing on ourselves rather than others. It’s just another way to ignore our brothers and sisters.
Really, when we perceive ourselves as imperfect – whether in our thoughts or our actions – we are just seeing the way in which we are touched by – effected by – living the shadows of – separation. This is what it looks and feels like for everyone. We aren’t special. If we are cool and collected when the separation shows its fangs, then we will understand we aren’t being singled out, and we won’t need to make it a big event. It’s like if you are taking a shower and you drop the soap: you don’t pray or call a psychotherapist. You pick up the soap.
It is okay – it is more than okay – to just get on with our living. Or – better – to let living get on with us.
So that’s the first coherent response: we don’t freak out.
The second response is that we just do better. Wherever we are falling short, we just fall less short less often.
For example, I am not naturally a patient person, especially when it comes to the domain of ideas. I want people to understand things the way I understand things and I want that to happen now. A lot of students and friends and so forth have struggled with this quality of mine over the years.
The point is not for me to become perfectly patient but rather to be more patient – and to be aware of when I am being impatient so that I can curb it.
This, too, is not a big deal.
There are all kinds of reasons why I am not patient – some are biological and chemical, some have to do with how I was raised, some are just my own psychological effluvia built up over the years. Taken together, these are actually effective explanations for my impatience. You could say, well, it makes sense that you’re impatient. It’s okay.
But really, who cares? The point is not to justify my imperfection, or understand my imperfection, or even explore my imperfection. The point is to notice it, not get hung up on it, and consistently do better.
So that is our ACIM practice of forgiveness: we decline to overreact and sincerely try to do better. Int his way, we become responsible for our own thinking and stop blaming our unhappiness and guilt and fear on external sources. What remains is peace and joy.
A Course in Miracles teaches that we are entitled to the “perfect comfort” that comes with “perfect trust” (T-2.III.5:1). What does it mean to be trusting? And, perhaps more to the point, in who or in what shall we place this trust?
To trust is to have faith in the reliability or fidelity of something perceived to be external to us. It reflects a level of confidence – to confide in – and thus owns a certain intimacy. To trust is to accept that notwithstanding uncertainty, what occurs will be okay, or even more than okay because our interests and the other’s do not significantly diverge.
The course invites us as students to trust the Holy Spirit, to take that spirit as our teacher, and to entrust to that spirit the whole of our learning process, without qualification or condition. We are assured that doing so is not an error and is, in fact, the most efficient way to remember oneness.
The Holy Spirit is the only Therapist. He makes healing clear in any situation in which He is the Guide . . . Trust Him, for help is His function, and He is of God (T-9.V.8:4-5, 11).
In course terms, the Holy Spirit perceives the world of form and uses it in order to point beyond that world to Love, which is our natural inheritance. This works because the Holy Spirit is Love, and is in us in a very real and tangible way and so we, too, are love, or creations of love.
So all that really happens as a consequence of our study is that we remember what we naturally are, and accept it as our identity, and henceforth live from that knowledge. Trust expands from “in” a being or deity and reaches the whole of our living, without limit or qualification. This is love.
So the suggestion here is that whatever “trust” is going on in our lives – that our debit card will work, that our partner will be on time for dinner, that our ACIM book isn’t going to suddenly turn into gibberish – are symbolic of the only trust that matters which is trust in the love brought forth in our living together in a consensual harmonious way.
Even our trust in the Holy Spirit is fundamentally a matter of trusting this love.
So the suggestion is that we actually formally trust this love. Let go, however briefly, of the symbols and forms that are its stand-ins, and really trust love. Even if this love – which is not of a body for a body – is not yet precisely or perfectly or presently our experience, this practice can still be fruitful because all communication is premised on trust.
That bears repeating: “communication is based on trust.”
When we trust the one with whom we communicate – a friend, a teacher, the Lord on high – then our communication is open and honest. We don’t judge what is communicated in advance – playing one aspect of it up, downplaying another. Our communication becomes utterly dialogical, utterly given to healing in and through mutuality, openness, consent, attention . . .
That is relatively straightforward as a concept, but how do we bring it into application, as Tara Singh used to say? That is, how we do allow the concept to inform our experience of living, of bringing forth love in our living?
Let’s say that space and time are user-generated interfaces which are functional but not truthful, and that the discrete selves populating that interface, and to whom that interface appears, are actually aspects of the interface. They are not separate from it.
Whatever reality is, it’s not what we perceive and think about. That’s the screen – the story – that obscures reality.
So long as one is clear that we’re looking at a screen and a story on that screen, then it’s not really problematic. But if one believes that the screen and the story are themselves reality, then problems emerge. In ACIM parlance, one becomes separated. And the separation is painful.
It is very hard on this view to be trusting.
On the view that we are actually separate and discrete, and what is happening is a reflection of what is true, then it makes sense to value communication as embodied (in cultures, communities, selves). Then at best death does end the familiar and useful mode, necessitating some new mode.
On the view that what is one cannot be separated, and thus cannot actually experience loss or sacrifice, then communication is always something other than the language-based exchange between separate entities that death appears to obliterate.
I am wondering if, because it is clear that death does not end communication, that rather than question the nature of communication, one should instead question the nature of death.
To the body, death will always be a terminus. To the body, other bodies will always be subject to evaluation in terms of needs perceived to exist in this body. To the body, the self will always be local, able to comment only on what the body, by virtue of its perceptual and cognitive limits, allows according to its time and space-based coordinates.
The question is whether there is another way to see? Can we see in a more global way? A cosmic way? Can oneness, or love, be the perspective?
The suggestion is: yes, it can be, but one has to trust it. When we do, insights are given which – and instructors are given who – point gently beyond the body.
A while back I had the insight that who was special to me went with me regardless of whether we were in actual dialogue or physical proximity. I don’t mean that “Other” and “Sean” were two units now unified as one (OtherSean), like two balls of clay combined to make a single mug.
Rather, I mean that the separate units are functional illusions behind which unity rests patiently, and in which the illusion of separation was easily discarded because it lacked utility.
This unity, as such, encompasses everything.
The work is how to live from that insight, where living is brought forth in and as bodies for whom conflict appears as a natural phenomenon, and separation an actual limitation on communication and loving, always understanding that the appearance helpful or unhelpful, but not true.
A Course in Miracles is helpful to me in this specific way. It says, here is a practice that will help you navigate the world of separation in a way that undoes your belief in separation while strengthening your intuition that only love is real.
In his essay “Physics and Mind: Minding Quanta and Cosmology” Karl H. Pribram suggests that brain is to mind as person is to experience. As he puts it, somewhat inelegantly, you can eat a brain but you can’t eat experience.
Zombie inferences aside, I think this is an interesting way to think about what it means to approach our living together as human beings who live together and bring forth love in their shared living, especially if one of our lenses for that living happens to be A Course in Miracles.
Pribram is saying that a brain “minds” in a way similar to how a person “experiences.” On this view, “mind” is a process from which discrete moments may be isolated and examined without inhibiting its fundamental dynamism.
For example, you can give particular attention to your feelings for a certain person, place or thing. You can isolate those feelings and study them and reflect on them. What do they mean, what behavior do they suggest, how they have changed – but the flow of experience itself does not stop. It goes on in the form of reflecting and studying itself.
In the next moment, you might study and reflect on this “study and reflection,” but to the same effect. Experience is continuous and reflexive; it doesn’t have any gaps.
It is tempting to try and find a unified stable observer in all of this – the one who is looking at the flowing, evaluating the flowing, and directing the flowing. But the observer is basically the mechanical body; what is conscious and aware of its consciousness is the observing, the observing looking at observing.
In this way, there is a sense of there being a discrete observer and a discrete observed – the one who observes a certain relationship, say. But even as this seems to be a fair description of our experience of our experiencing, it is not actually sustainable. The separation that is implied is an illusion; it may be functional or even inevitable, but it is not veridical. Observer, observing, and observed arise in a simultaneous triadic way. Linear and hierarchical models of perception and cognition are simply means of organizing what arises and are helpful in certain contexts; they are not 1:1 reflections of Truth.
Critically – to Pribram’s point – we can’t eat this arising! We can’t make it stop or start, slow down or speed up. We can’t make it rain when the garden’s dry or sunny just in time for the picnic. We can certainly give attention to it in a thoughtful way (we can organize it and reflect on the mode of organization) but even if we don’t give attention, attention keeps on giving itself, just somewhat less thoughtfully, somewhat less aware of its givingness.
If we really look into this, and if our looking is clear and subject to contemplation, then we will see that whatever we are is basically “along for the ride.” We aren’t the driver and we aren’t the car. We are riding. Riding riding.
On the other hand, we are not just “along for the ride.” We are not merely “along for the ride.” Within proscribed boundaries, we are able to act. In the present metaphor of riding in a car, we can roll the window down and stick our heads out. We can look right or left; we can play games; we can nap. That is, there are things we can do with our living – make phone calls, bake bread, extend certain invitations, decline others . . .
Ultimately, this domain of available actions is what allows us to ask questions about our living and to seek “better” and “better yet” and “best” ways of being and bringing forth love.
Ask: do you have some sense of what it means to be holy? To live in a spiritual or godly way?
It is okay – it is more than okay – to privilege our interior sense of holiness, if one exists. It is okay to let the inner lamp shine on our subjective sense of Christ and Buddha and others, folding and enfolding their many scriptures, including A Course in Miracles, and see what happens when we do.
We should not worry about whether we are “getting it” in the way Ken Wapnick or Tara Singh or Nisargadatta or Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton “got it.”
Really, A Course in Miracles is like a radio and our experience of it as students is the music the radio plays. You want a good radio, but only so you can listen to good music. When the radio plays Tom Petty or Lady Gaga or Beethoven we don’t gawk in amazement at the radio. It’s not writing and performing anything. It’s the artists and their music that inspire us.
Thus, A Course in Miracles is a means to an end; getting worked up about it as anything other than a means is like worshiping a hammer and nails while it rains instead of ducking into the shelter the hammer and nails helped build.
In my experience, we are learning how to make sustainable contact with our inner teacher, which the course calls “Holy Spirit” but which I have more helpfully thought of as “attention.” Obviously your experience will vary; obviously your semantic preferences may not align with mine.
What does that teacher teach us? What does she offer that deepens our understanding and living?
She teaches us how to bring forth love in our living, and to understand that this bringing forth of love is a kind of opening-out in which the appearance of our separate interests dissolves and our fundamental unity and mutuality is remembered.
Oneness is not an illusion. It is not merely an ideal. Nor is it a personal experience to be hoarded or squandered or celebrated. It is the foundation of our existence and is often obscured by our confused identification of self as permanently located in and as a body. We conflate the song with the radio on which it plays.
Or – on Pribram’s view – we fail to distinguish between brain and mind and focus only on what we can eat. When we do this – when we fall prey to this error – we do becomes zombies, mindlessly staggering through a world whose value is perceived only in terms of what we can get for ourselves.
If mind can be reduced to a brain, or self reduced to a discrete body, and we are thus discrete bodies in a world of limited resources, then this zombified approach is not illogical. Defense and attack make sense. We have to look out for number one. Anything else is irresponsible.
But if we are implicated in a unity, a nondual mutuality, and that is our identity, then our behavior and priorities and understanding will naturally change. The meaning of our existence will change. It will become more loving and generous and forgiving (both in the course sense and the traditional sense). It will become radically inclusive.
We will stop being zombies and become something closer to saints. We will leave a world of sacrifice and scarcity in favor of the Garden, where separate interests are not idealized and service to one another is a joyful – indeed, a holy – responsibility.
Of course, it is relatively easy to write and talk this way. It is orders of magnitude harder to bring into application, in part because of the temptation to stop and put up tents at one’s personal sense of awakening as a personal accomplishment. We’re going to sell as many books as Eckhart Tolle, have a daily stream of admirers like Nisargadatta, indulge our sexuality like Osho . . .
We might instead think of awakening – the realization of the unity implied but not revealed by our human experience – less as some triumph of the self reflected in worldly terms than as simply getting off the train at a given destination. We scrimped and saved, bought a ticket, got to the station, boarded the train, rode the train and now we are here!
And then – after the amazement of “here” subsides, which it will – our living goes on, more or less as it always has, and which it will do until it doesn’t, and other living rises in its place.
I am suggesting awakening less as as something mysterious and rare and more as just a natural realization of what was always the case. The altar as such is everywhere which means that there really isn’t an altar.
In other words, the work is basically figuring out how to be loving in a world that is often indifferent to love and sometimes outright hostile towards it. We have to work it out where and as we are; there is no other way and nobody else to do it. Just give attention to what is helpful; be happy; make your living about your brothers and sisters.
If one looks at the course and at learning in this way, and if one takes Pribram’s sense of being into account (you can eat a brain but you can’t eat experience), then a lot of the pressure of living eases. As it does, love flows through, in and of itself. It’s doing so anyway; our work really is to get out of the way.
How shall we organize our thinking? Through what lens or prism shall we allow our thoughts to pass in order to see brought forth clarification and subsequently helpfulness and love?
When made the subject of contemplation, clarity begets helpfulness, which initiates service, which is love. Through service the one loves the other and through service that love is reciprocated. Since the peace and happiness which are products of love are together our objective, it behooves us to be clear on how it is brought forth and how it is blocked from being brought forth.
That is why giving attention to how we organize our thinking matters.
Perhaps most importantly, at this phase of our study and understanding, we should also ask: how shall we avoid confusing this lens or prism for that which it produces?
On Selecting a Prism
Most folks who end up reading what I write are students of A Course in Miracles or are thinking about being students of A Course in Miracles or want to understand what, if anything, should come after studying A Course in Miracles.
The course is an example of a prism. It is a way of organizing one’s thoughts in order to clarify them, give attention to what is clarified, and to live in accordance with what is brought forth as it is brought forth.
There are other ways – Buddhism, atheism, social Darwinism, Zoroastrianism, et cetera – and they are each effective and not effective precisely according to the manner and being in which they are brought forth.
One can’t choose the “right” prism; one can only attend the prism that appears. It is attendance that brings forth love – not the prism – but this is a subtle point easily missed, especially when one is evaluating all the many prisms, or lenses, that are presenting.
The appearance of a prism often takes the form of having to choose it. When this occurs, the so-called decision is only hard if one believes there is in fact a right and a wrong choice and that both are available and each precludes the other.
From a dualistic standpoint, this analysis feels sound, but it is actually not.
Hold the apparent choices in mind and give attention to the one that makes you happy – that is, what makes you feel safest, lightest, most interested, most familiar, most likely to learn something, be of service to others, et cetera.
There is an answer to this question! And when you see this – that there is an answer, and what that answer is – then you also see how the so-called choice was never actually a choice between disparate options but rather a question of attending with diligence, patience and care that which was always so.
It Organizes What?
I have good friends whose lives are “organized” according to the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Their thinking includes the nomenclature of addiction and recovery, and the spiritual principles brought forth by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith in the early half of the twentieth century.
I also have good friends whose lives are “organized” according to Mahayana Buddhism; they live in religious communities centered around zazen and sesshin, guided by a hierarchy of teachers and students. The language they use a blend of historical and contemporary Buddhism.
I also have good friends and family members whose lives are “organized” according to Catholicism. I have friends and family members who hew to various progressive strands of Protestant Christianity and Judaism. There are even a few who are evangelical conservatives, whose religion is unabashedly yoked to their support for Donald Trump and the various “Make America Great Again” policies he espouses.
Of course, my own thinking is organized through the prism of A Course in Miracles, a prism that was sculpted to a most helpful degree through my study of nondualism in the western tradition, including in particular second order cybernetics and constructivism.
The prism – be it AA, Buddhism, some strand of Christianity or ACIM – is simply what is helpful. Our lives make more sense in light of it; our confusion abates. We feel, however faintly, some sense of alignment with the universe. We are happier than we were before, and our happiness is not shallow or self-contained but magnifies and extends itself – is manifest in – those with whom we we are bringing forth a world.
Thus, it is okay – more than okay, really – to discard ways of organizing our thinking that are harmful, and to be rigorous in the attention we give to those ways that remain as we discern what makes us happy and what impedes the free flow of happiness.
Confusing Prisms With What They Bring Forth
If I hold an actual prism to the sun, the light passes through it and – by operation of the glass – is separated into its component colors. Rainbows abound. I am never not amazed by this, never not made joyful, in a natural and quiet way.
However, the prism is not a rainbow. It’s merely a tool by which rainbows – otherwise hidden to a given organism – are revealed.
It is important that I not confuse the prism for that which it brings forth.
Say that I organize my thinking according to A Course in Miracles. Forgiveness, atonement, projection, love . . . all these concepts and ideas, when allowed to pass through ACIM, clarify for me, and the clarification is helpful.
“Clarify” in this case means “understand in ways that allow for useful application” and “helpful” means “making the bringing forth of love less effortful.”
The clarification and the love that it brings forth are what matters; I am grateful for the tool but I do not confuse it for the effect it produces. When it rains, we don’t get out a hammer and nails; we move into the shelter the hammer and nails helped build.
I am under no illusion that what is helpful to me will be helpful to you or anybody else. In fact, sometimes the exact opposite is the case. I know this because I directly observe what is helpful for others being not-helpful for me.
For example, I know some folks for whom worship services centered around eating peyote are helpful and bring forth admirable levels of service, insight and peaceableness. It is how they organize their thinking.
Those services do not have the same effect for me. They are scary and destabilizing. To the extent they are helpful it is simply in how obviously they make clear “not this.”
I extrapolate from this that my subjective experience of A Course in Miracles will be seen the same way by at least some other folks. I do not experience this as a crisis! On the contrary, it allows me to relax into a state of gratitude and attention for my path, or prism, or means of organizing my thinking – there is nothing left to defend, and nothing on behalf of which I should proselytize.
Again, the critical element is not the prism but that which the prism brings forth. When we encounter love – in and through communion with others, most of whom are organizing their thoughts with different models (or prisms) than we are – it is the love we experience and accept and extend; not the means by which the love was brought forth in the other (although that may be of subsequent interest).
In other words, I have not lost my friendship with those whose worship includes peyote. I don’t use their prism, and they don’t use mine, but we recognize the love that is brought respectively, and its extension is not contingent on prisms. It transcends experience.
Yes but . . .
It has been hard for me – and the process is still underway and I suspect will endure so long as the host organism endures – to surrender my inclination to worship/cherish/defend the prism over the beauty the prism brings forth. I am not writing this because the rainbow holds me fast!
This difficulty appears to inhere in homo sapiens. We love our tools and are skilled at studying them in order to improve them, a cycle which often subsumes common sense. Do we really need cars that go ninety miles an hour? Nuclear weapons? Even iPhones seem to be a few dance steps beyond actual utility.
Yet I am grateful that our brains work this way! I am amazed that objects such as scythes and guitars and toilets exist – let alone actual prisms. The problem seems to lie in turning this power of thought, this analyze-to-improve habit to thought itself, which is to say, to being itself. This is how we end up with gods and sacraments and in-groups and inquisitions and so forth.
The “other way,” to which Bill Thetford turned, bringing Helen Schucman along with him, seems to lie in attending the love our living together naturally brings forth, and noticing the fundamental simplicity of this bringing forth, and the way it is not really contingent on what is external – our tools, our shelter, our partners and so forth – but is actually an internal way of seeing or giving attention which is nondual.
Anyway, the point being made in this post is to simply make use of the prism that presents itself to us, ever attending the happiness it naturally brings forth, and allowing that happiness to deepen and expand on itself until the even the prism that initially brought it forth is eclipsed.
A Course in Miracles may be helpful in organizing our thinking, but the real joy is the clear way it brings love and peace through happiness into our living, allowing us to bring happiness unto others. What a world is made accordingly!
. . . in the relational domain of love the other is not asked and is not expected to justify his or her existence . . . love is unidirectional, and occurs as a spontaneous happening of accepting the legitimacy of the other as a matter of course . . .
~ Humberto Maturana
In general, I find it more helpful to think of “holy relationship” and “special relationship” as perspectives rather than fixed objects; that is, they are a way of seeing, rather than a thing seen.
This is helpful in two ways.
First, it shifts my focus away from the thing seen and back to my own mind, my own perspective, my own seeing. Thus, it places responsibility (response-ability) for love and healing where it belongs – in the mind, rather than in the separate object or image that the self perceives.
In doing so, it renders cause (and thus creation) an interior rather than an exterior process. It reinforces the critical ACIM concept that we cannot be affected by what it apparently outside; only the mind is causative. Only the mind heals; only the mind can be healed.
Taking this approach also means that rather than try to figure out whether an external relationship is right or wrong (or real or not real) I can focus on the helpfulness of a given perspective, and adopt it accordingly. As Francisco Varela points out, what is true is what is helpful. This is such as an important insight!
And what is helpful is what makes us happy, in the deep sense of meaningful work, fructive community, and healthy holistic relationships. Critically, it includes – indeed, is most usefully measured by – the happiness that we bring forth in others.
If one adopts this approach, then there are no holy or special relationships “out there.” Any relationship can be either special or holy depending on how one looks at it, how one perceives its function, what one asks of it, what one is ready and willing to bring to it and so forth.
Further, a relationship that is special at 7 a.m. can be holy at 7:05; and a relationship that was holy last night can become special as soon as the morning alarm goes off.
As well, what you perceive as a holy relationship may easily be perceived as special by me, and vice-versa. Really, what matters is the interior perspective in which the relationship is seen, not what an external observer sees, or how they describe what they see.
This leads to the second helpful aspect of seeing “holy relationship” and “special relationship” as perspectives.
If you and I both look at X and you see “holy” and I see “special,” what does that say about X? And, just as importantly, what does that say about our seeing?
These are important questions, and it worth giving sustained attention to them. They can be doors through which nonduality can be clearly perceived.
It took me years to satisfactorily respond to those questions. When that learning process was finished, I found a new way of thinking about questions like these.
Ever since Aristotle, it has been a staple of western thought that a statement cannot be both true and false. The classic example is “I am a liar.” If it is true, then it is false. But if it is false, then it is true. This is an impossible state of affairs!
However, Chris Fields among other thinkers has argued persuasively – incorporating fairly rigorous logical analysis and the quantum that, in fact, the universe does allow for a statement to be both true and false; that, in fact, this may even be a preferred – or actual, if you like – state of being (the formal name for this is dialetheism; I speak to it . . . humbly).
Even so, a human observers in the ordinary course of their observing cannot see it this way. We can appreciate the concept, but our minds don’t naturally adopt and hold all perspectives; they hold one. And that’s okay so long as we don’t confuse the one we hold for the truth (and, by extension, characterize the perspective of others as false).
Take your perspective seriously but not literally – how much of our living softens when we take this as if it were the law and the prophets . . .
On this view, a relationship is both holy and special. It is a midlife crisis and true love. Yet the splinter we are doesn’t perceive this until – miracle of miracles – we allow the other to be our self in which case, all of a sudden, all of the views are “ours” and peaceably coexist. This is why Humberto Maturana says that love is the consensual coordination of doings with others who could be our own self.
There is neither one nor another, nor one and another, and there is only one and another. In this way, our stranglehold on the external world loosens – or learns that there is nothing to grasp – and love remembers itself all and once.
What leads one to – and sustains one through – a serious study of A Course in Miracles?
There is no one answer to this question; indeed, there are as many answers as there are ACIM students. We might subsequently group the answers together based on perceived similarities but this is a matter of convenience for minds given to analysis. We do like trends and patterns.
But the answers were not offered that way and, importantly, they were not experienced that way. They were personal, intimate, subjective. They were yoked to ever-shifting narrative fabrics. We can extract them, pin them to a wall, label them and categorize the labels but we can never undermine the fundamental ecstasis in and as which they first appeared.
Once this is seen clearly, it becomes very difficult to sustain arguments that there ought to be uniform approaches to A Course in Miracles (or whatever other spiritual path or tradition is under consideration). Helpful, yes. We are all adopting helpful modes of study. But if we are defining “helpful” in such a way as to render other modes “wrong” (rather than “not helpful in our personal present context”) then we’ve missed something important.
What is the “something important” that we’ve missed?
Really, it is just the importance as human observers to maintain a humble outlook on our living, because this humility is the prism through which love radiates most helpfully.
We aren’t having every possible experience, we are having this experience. We aren’t experiencing every possible mode of experience, we are experiencing this mode. We only have some information, not all information, and we are only able to process that information according to the apparatus we are, not some other ideal apparatus.
This should not be controversial. If I ask you to define the state of string theory in 200 years, your answer will necessarily be incomplete and speculative at best. If I ask you to extract nectar from a flower and convert it to honey, the best you can do you is subcontract the job to a bee. If I ask you what Lewis Payne was thinking as the noose settled on his shoulders, your answer must be speculative, no matter how informed you happen to be with respect to that particular juncture of history.
These gaps are not isolated examples. They speak to the fact that human observers are cognitively and perceptually limited. We are closed, not open-ended. This closure is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it is fundamentally creative because by it a world is brought into being. It’s just that we can’t take the next step – the one we so long to take – and argue that this world and this experience are the world and the experience.
I suggest that letting go of insistence on truth, or on truth’s knowability, is a first step towards effective inner peace. The second step is figuring out how to live in a gentle and sustained way with uncertainty. What can we count on if nothing can be counted on?
These steps (letting go and living in uncertainty) are neatly managed when we realize that it’s okay to identify some people, places, things, belief systems, et cetera as helpful. If it helps to do the lessons of A Course in Miracles, do them. If it helps to take belly-dancing lessons, take them. If it helps to be in therapy, be in therapy. If it helps to have a lover, have a lover.
The key is to give careful attention to the essence of helpfulness. At what juncture or in what circumstances does it slip into being right? Into the subtle belief that we are having some insight or experience that others don’t have and we deserve some credit for it?
Seeing that juncture doesn’t mean what we’re doing is suddenly wrong – that would be to double down on the first error of thinking we were right in the first case. Rather, it’s just an invitation to make contact again with helpfulness. We got confused; we can get unconfused, too.
For example, ever since age 15, with varying degrees of intensity, regularity and competitiveness, I have been a runner. Running is helpful to me; I am mentally clearer and calmer when I maintain a regular running practice.
But sometimes when I run – or just after running – I feel superior to other people. I’m more fit than so-and-so, which means I have more self-respect, which means I’m more spiritual. I’m stronger than that guy, which means I’m sexier. I’m psychologically stronger than all those walkers, because pain doesn’t scare me. And so forth.
I don’t freak out anymore when those ideas arise. They are relics of a patriarchal systemization of human experience. There are better ways to organize and express one’s thinking; I am not without recourse to them. So when those judgments and self-aggrandizements show up, I don’t take them seriously. I don’t take them as truthful.
Rather, they are stand-ins for fear and greed and as such are reminders that I have forgotten the real reason why I run: because it is helpful, not because I am trying to one-up as much of the population as possible.
Running isn’t an answer in any absolute sense, and I don’t think it works for everyone. It’s just helpful for me. When the focus is on helpfulness, my happiness – and, by extension, the happiness of those with whom my living intersects – is expanded.
Sometimes when I share this with folks, they are disappointed because it feels very basic and insufficiently spiritual. It’s what you learn the first week in Psych 101, not in the midst or near the end of a rigorous spiritual practice that has as its goal the end of our separation from God and awakening to our essential oneness.
That’s very true! Also, so what?
If we are honest we will see that we come to our spiritual practice because we weren’t happy. At the most basic level, that’s it. We were confused, lonely, scared, guilty. The world was on fire with war, hunger, poisoned oceans and other catastrophes. And we wanted to feel better; and we wanted the world to be better, and it seemed like a spiritual approach was the best way to bring these changes about.
The real secret to feeling better is basically to be nice to yourself and to others. Do unto them as you’d like them to do unto you. It’s so simple a five-year-old can understand it; and it is so hard to practice that most adults hide behind theological and philosophical and other such facades for their whole lives.
When we live that way – in functional harmony with the Golden Rule – then not only are we better off but, by extension, the world is better off, too.
It is hard to notice that we’re being jerky. We are wired to overlook our own jerkiness and, when we do notice it, to justify it by pointing to how others are being jerkier.
It is even harder to notice the our being jerky doesn’t just hurt other people, it hurts us. Really, it primarily hurts us.
And it is really really really hard to actually stop being jerky (which is different from apologizing for being jerky or resolving to be less jerky going forward).
It is always easier to just let the organism run the program it’s running rather than try to step in and go from jerky to not-jerky, from not-jerky to affirmatively kind, and from kind to loving.
It takes a lot of discipline which, absent humility, is hard to come by.
This post began with a convoluted look at what drives us to become ACIM students. How do we get here? It then pointed out that this question anticipates as many answers as there are students and so there cannot really be a single or right answer. From there it suggested we adopt a humble approach to our living. Rather than try to justify or otherwise invest in our spiritual practice, why not simply practice the Golden Rule? Since others by definition could be our own self, whatever we offer them and the world we jointly inhabit, we offer to ourselves. It recognized that this is hard to do but specifically pointed out that humility can be helpful.
Really, the argument here is that rather than ask big questions, why not keep it simple and try to focus on our own happiness which necessarily means focusing on other people’s happiness? Doing so is a practical way to the happiness which begat this spiritual inquiry and journey in the first case.
In The Immediacy of Salvation,” A Course in Miracles makes the reasonable point that all our plans for safety are forward-looking, and since we can’t actually know what the future holds, our “plans” as such are essentially useless.
Yet the course also recognizes that some fear exists in us that causes us to make those plans, however futile they might be. And it invites us to think about that fear not in terms of what might happen tomorrow but rather what is happening right now. That is, it asks to us to give attention to our fear now.
What might we learn when we do?
Future loss is not your fear. But present joining is your dread . . . And it is this that needs correction, not a future state (T-26.VIII.4:2-4, 8).
The Jesus we encounter in the New Testament makes a similar observation.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them . . . Why are you anxious about your clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them (Matthew 7:25-26, 28-29).
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that the correction for a wrong emphasis on forward-thinking and planning is to “seek first the Kingdom of God.” In a similar way, A Course in Miracles suggests that we give attention to our present dread and take note of its here-and-nowness. Our fear is not of what will happen tomorrow but rather reflects a present lack of trust in our brothers and sisters. Thus we retain a sense of competition, and a corresponding sense that attack and defense remain viable.
Thus do you think it safer to remain a little careful and a little watchful of interests perceived as separate. From this perception you cannot conceive of gaining what forgiveness offers now . . . You see eventual salvation, not immediate results (T-26.VIII.2:4-5, 7).
This gap between you and I – which we insist upon because we do not fully trust one another (which is to say that we do not fully trust our own selves) – can only be perceived in the present moment. Where else could it possibly be? We fear it now because it is here now.
This is the insight the course urges us to accept. When we plan for the future we are correctly recognizing fear but are failing to see where and what that fear actually is. It’s not a problem in the future for which we must prepare. It’s a problem here and now to which we are responding here and now.
Thus, we might say that to “seek first the Kingdom” is to sit quietly and attentively with our fear. We might give attention to the way that planning distracts us from the present moment. And we might explore the course’s suggestion that our present fear reflects a lack of trust in our brothers and sisters and that it is this lack of trust which must be “solved,” not some hypothetical future circumstance.
Look not to time, but to the little space between you still, to be delivered from. And do not let it be disguised as time, and so preserved because its form is changed and what it is cannot be recognized (T-26.VIII.9:7-8).
It’s not tomorrow that vexes us. It’s the fault lines in our relationship today.
It is important to be clear that intellectually understanding the principles at work here is helpful (truly) but not dispositive. It’s like putting the yeast, salt, flour and water on the counter but not making the bread. We have to actually sit with our fear. We have to actually feel the lack of trust in ourselves and in the other. It’s scary. It’s not easy. But that way lies the Kingdom.
More likely than not, our initial response to all this will be grief. When I see how I fail you, despite my intelligence, my study, my practice, my sincerity . . . When I see how my lack of trust in us brings both of us pain . . . what else but sorrow can prevail?
Yet this grief testifies to the authenticity of our experience. And it is also the means by which the Holy Spirit – to use course parlance – or attention (to use Sean parlance) will undo our lack of trust and restore our awareness of love. It is when we perceive the utter depths of our personal failure that we can resign as our teacher and a new teacher with a new curriculum becomes possible.
The Holy Spirit’s purpose is now yours. Should not His happiness be yours as well? (T-26.VIII.9:9-10).
It is a good question! And in the answer – which we live through the gift of attention – fear is converted to hope and hope translated to love. Would you offer me anything else?
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us
(John’s Gospel 1:1, 1:14)
One of the more helpful insights in western and Christian thinking – which Helen Schucman understood well, at least intuitively – is that awareness of the subjective experience “I Am” is a beginning, not an end, and finds its fullest and most creative application in the consensual domain of “I and Thou.”
It has been clear for 2,500 years that a human observer cannot escape her subjective experience of the world. That is, she cannot get outside of her experience of the world in order to verify that said world actually looks, sounds, tastes, feels and smells like her experience of looking, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. Thus, our efforts to ascertain the nature of reality in any final or ultimate sense are effectively stymied.
Nothing we have learned about physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, linguistics, et cetera has undone this simple yet persistently troubling fact. Truth, reality, absolutes . . . all remain speculative, relative, transitory. Not impossible necessarily but certainly unverifiable.
One way to deal with the issue – the way that I ended up practicing – is to become religious. The one who intelligently and whole-heartedly seeks God – which seeking must accept the possibility that there is no God to find – eventually encounters the subjectivity of “I Am.” Understanding this is relatively straightforward; experiencing it is alternately destabilizing and inspiring because it necessarily upends our traditional conceptual understanding of the self as a perceptual and cognitive center for whom the world is a real place full of real people and objects where good and bad things happen. When the self is experienced as a process, a recursive loop, and the world as phenomena with utility rather than veridicality . . .
The effect can be a little dizzying.
One can perhaps empathize with those who objected to being told the earth was not flat but a sphere around which the sun floated. It takes courage, discipline and tenacity – and, truth be told, a little luck – to see clearly the rot at the heart of a cherished paradign, let alone adopt a new one in the old one’s stead.
One religious response to this subjectivity is to identify with it and to identify it with God, broadly defined. I am not this body that comes and goes but rather this awareness that is pervasive and boundless, infinite and eternal. It is – and by extension, I am – that ineffable permanence to which the word “God” (or Source or Truth) points.
Thus, Sri Aurobindo could write in The Life Divine:
Therefore all is in each and each is in all and all is in God and God is in all; and when the liberated soul comes into union with this Transcendent, it has this self-experience of itself and cosmos which is translated psychologically into a mutual inclusion and a persistent existence of both in a divine union which is at once a oneness and a fusion and an embrace (387).
A Course in Miracles notes that since we cannot be separate from God it is meaningless to seek God.
Nowhere but where He is can be found. There is no path that does not lead to Him (T-31.IV.11:6-7).
This equation – making our human experience isomorphic with divine experience – is not flawless. All too readily it can be adopted to facilitate familiar egoic feints and maneuvers. Under the guise of undoing the self, we can in fact become quite selfish and grandiose. There’s a reason many gurus and other spiritual and religious leaders are morally and ethically indistinguishable from their political, military and business counterparts.
The overarching point is that when we encounter “I Am,” we are at the beginning of our spiritual inquiry, not the end. We haven’t found God; we have found a way to find God (or a way to not need to find God – or to be in relationship with God as a non-trivial idea – the permutations are apparently endless). It’s the equivalent of traveling a long time, reaching your destination and finding only a map signifying yet another – longer and more arduous – journey. Tara Singh used to say to his students – I paraphrase – “you’ve got it, now you have to decide what to do with it.”
“What to do with it” is the harder – but also more interesting – part. Responding to it invokes – incarnates, really – the spiritual intimacy of “I and Thou.” Truly, the word is first with God and then becomes flesh. How shall we think about this?
Tara Singh’s clarity and sense of purpose called to me both instantly and loudly. From the outset I assumed a learning posture with respect to his work. It took a long time to understand that his clarity and sense of purpose arose for me the way they did because Singh wasn’t reckoning with A Course in Miracles at the level of the intellect. It was not merely a text to be understood and correctly shared but rather embodied through love which Singh understood meant service to our brothers and sisters. And he meant service literally – soup kitchens and homeless shelters. You had to put your body into it. You had to get your hands dirty.
This sense of concretely serving our sisters and brothers is often absent from the broader community of ACIM teachers and students. There the focus tends to be on self-improvement, spiritual “evolution,” personal experience, acquisition of spiritual gifts and so forth. It’s not the end of the world; none of us are altogether immune from it. But over and over the course insists that we are not separate from one another and it is only when we recognize this fundamental unity that we will know God. Everything else is delay and distraction. Why wait?
God has but one Son, knowing them all as one. Only God Himself is more than they are but they are not less than He is. Would you know what this means? If what you do to my brother you do to me, and if you do everything for yourself because we are part of you, everything we do belongs to you as well. Everyone God created is part of you and shares His glory with you (T-9.VI.3:5-9).
Here it is worth pointing out that the observed paradox (God is more than us but we aren’t less than God) is resolved not in the individual or personal (i.e., “you” are not less than God) but rather in the communal (i.e., “they” are not less than God). It is our unity with other selves that mirrors the divine; it is in relationship with the other that we are made – make – one.
Lesson 71 makes the sense of giving unto others more explicit.
What would You have me do?
Where You have me go?
What would You have me say, and to whom? (W-pI.71.9:1-3).
In other words, we are not here to privilege our own needs but to attend to the needs of the other. Indeed, that is the only way in which our truest need – to know God, which is to bring forth love – can be met.
Tara Singh put it this way:
. . . action is creative; it extends what it is and therefore it has to give. Service is the action of that impeccable space within one who wants to know the lifestyle of compassion – wants to know, “I am the blessed servant of God. I have my love to give and my joy to share” (The Joseph Plan of A Course in Miracles for the Lean Years, 28).
I call attention here to the explicit language of embodiment – of the flesh – reflected in the phrase “the lifestyle of compassion,” by which Tara Singh means service. A Course in Miracles ostensibly disavows behavioral directives (this was a hallmark of Ken Wapnick’s teaching), but Singh saw clearly that “I Am” necessitated an actual physical living embrace of the other. In essence, “I Am because Thou Art.”
Finally – because it is an important point often overlooked – the course is clear that awakening, rightly understood, is a service we provide to others. It is not a personal event, a personal culmination of spiritual effort and study.
You are not yet awake, but you can learn how to awaken. Very simply, the Holy Spirit teaches you to awaken others . . . They will become the witnesses to your reality, as you were created witness to God’s (T-9.VI.5:1-2, 4).
I was confused about this aspect of the course for a long time. From time to time that confusion resurfaces, usually in the presence of those who are here to teach me humility, restraint, give-don’t-take, et cetera. We are called to love the other who is our sister/brother and who could be, in Humberto Maturana’s phrasing, our own self. But this love is too often conflated with hierarchical power dynamics (student/teacher, leader/follower, boss/employee) or some other form of specialness, like sex or money or social capital.
To love the other is to give attention to them in a way that recognizes and does not obscure our radical (in the sense of deeply rooted rather than extreme) shared equality. When we recognize and honor this equality, the requisite contextual actions – be they teaching, making love, baking bread, watching a movie, weeding a garden – become clear. Doing them is loving the other unattended by the power dynamics of ego (as the course would say), or the discrete self (as Thomas Merton would say), or the pain body (as Eckhart Tolle would say), or . . .
However we phrase it, the critical insight seems to be that happiness is not about a boon to our own subjective experience of self but rather the way in which we extend that self to others. Our awakening, as such, lies in learning how to awaken others, which is to make them happy, which is basically to allow them the full expression of their humanness, without a lot of spiritual or political or any other form of drama.
It is easy to become confused about what this means in practice. Should we open a soup kitchen? Volunteer at a shelter? Donate to this or that political candidate?
I think it is important to give attention to the way that love actually already does permeate our human experience, and to see how that love naturally extends itself. To the extent certain formal steps are required – soup kitchens, political activism, et cetera – they will be clearly indicated. But we have to get out of the way first.
Start by seeing how you are loving – in a non-dramatic way – in your most ordinary being. Notice the casual nods and smiles and small talk that you offer strangers in the supermarket, on the bus, in the library. Notice the physical space you give others and they give you – not as something we have to fight for and defend once attained, but as a gesture of easy respect, so easy it goes without saying, indeed, often without even being noticed.
These practically mindless gestures are actual manifestations of the love that is the fundament of our being. Nothing special, nothing dramatic. No insistence on reciprocity. Just the recognition of the other who is our own self in passing. Is there anything else we would call holy? And seeing how naturally it arises, how effortlessly it lifts us and others, can we give it yet more space to do its thing? Truly it works most effectively when “we” – the egoic centralized self – does not interject with goals, plans, ideas, fears, and desires.
Thus, when we come to the subjective wonder of “I Am,” we are finally prepared to appreciate, inspire and nurture the equal wonder – the partner wonder – of “Thou Art.” We might call what is created then a sacred loop, a holy circle, a blissful reflexivity, recursive divinity. And we might forego naming it all, knowing that the body of the other is the body of the world which is the word that is God made flesh because it is God. Service becomes the gift we give to the other because it is the gift we merit because we are the other.
A non-trivial aspect of my spiritual practice – that is rooted in A Course in Miracles but diverges in thoughtful applied ways – is to set gently aside questions of mystery in favor of engagement with what appears, or what seems to be, the case.
That is, when I am mucking the horse pasture, or clearing trails in the forest, or baking bread, I am less concerned with the abstract nature of the self – the light of pure awareness, say, or Consciousness (with a capital C) – and more with how that self is experiencing its self right now.
In doing so, the spiritual mystery of the self, its nature, its origins, et cetera – naturally dissolve. It is as if – and may, in fact, be that – love is content with the subject/object divide, so long as it is allowed to rest gently and non-confrontationally in the apparent division.
Also in doing this, I am engaging in a sort of bastardized Husserlian bracketing. I am giving attention to what is given, rather than struggling mentally (or psychologically or intellectually) to understand what is given. Again, it is my experience – my thesis, as it were – that love understands itself in the context in which it appears. So the bracketing – which intends to set aside complex questions of self which have riddled western history and thinking for millenia – becomes a way of knowing. It is as if the questions that were bracketed return or – even better – never left.
What does this look like – or how is it enacted – in my living?
Say that I am mucking the horse pasture. I give attention to the task which includes both physical and mental elements:
– noticing where the manure is;
– forking it into the wheelbarrow;
– eyeballing the horses eyeballing me;
– noticing the birds, butterflies, and insects;
– noticing the flowers and grass;
– hydrating if necessary;
– not rushing and not slacking and not hurting my body;
– dumping manure in the proper compost pile (they are divided according to time of year and length of time spent composting);
– stirring the pile if and as necessary;
– putting the tools away
This is a lot to do! And, of course, it all sort of arises in an apparently singular welter. There is the work and there is the way my body handles it. There is the environment and the way in which attention reveals it – the more attention given, the more there is to attend. There is the overarching context of loving these very horses and wanting their living to be clean and pleasing and safe. There is the comfort and diligence in composting manure to enrich our gardens and allow us to barter with neighbors, and there is thus an overarching sense that one is doing to the best of one’s ability what is best and most loving for the collective.
It is not necessary to do anything in order to be aware of all this! It simply happens. And there is a natural corollary: it is not necessary to understand the self or its origins or its true nature in order to be a self or experience a self or bring that self into loving application. Simply do it and observe what is happening as it happens.
The suggestion I make – because it arises from my experience – is that the mysteries and the mysticism (and salvation and awakening and present-moment-awareness and . . . ) are all simply natural aspects of what is naturally happening. They are included in the package, as it were. And they reveal themselves as we give attention to what is happening, which is not dramatic or intense but merely this very living that we are doing and were always doing.