Behavior and A Course in Miracles

Ken Wapnick was fond of pointing out that A Course in Miracles was not injunctive with respect to behavior. One doesn’t have to be a vegetarian or a Democrat or go to church on Sunday or celebrate Christmas or donate to the poor in order to be a course student.

In an important sense, he is correct. The course bypasses a lot of behavioral directives that often characterize spiritual and religious practices and traditions.

Of course – and Ken acknowledged this, too – if one diligently studied A Course in Miracles, there were often external correlates tending in the direction of gentleness, kindness, moderation, et cetera. Those correlates were not why one studied ACIM but they were certainly pleasant perks (both for the student and those around them).

This distinction – between what it means to study A Course in Miracles is and what the effects of that study are – matters. Not being confused about that distinction also matters.

Strictly speaking, A Course in Miracles is a one-year self-study program that is Christian in language and imagery, modeled on a traditional twentieth century psychological paradigms and explores – with varying degrees of effectiveness – nondualism. It is not a spiritual practice per se, and so is not intended to supplant pre-existing practices.

It is not, in other words, the latest or the best or the most-improved method of attaining inner peace. It’s just another tool, helpful or unhelpful according to the context in which it is applied.

And indeed, as its author, Helen Schucman, made clear in the preface, its only objective is to introduce students to an “inner teacher” it generally refers to as the “Holy Spirit.” Once that student-teacher relationship is in place, the course is largely irrelevant. The Holy Spirit – such as it is – takes things from there.

Thus, a study of A Course in Miracles is more akin to taking a class than it is to going to church or meditating or whatever other spiritual behavior happens to be personally resonant. And, the measure of the course’s effectiveness is the degree to which it delivers a given student to their “inner teacher.”

You read the text, do the lessons, read the manual and . . . that’s it. For all ACIM-related intents and purposes, you’re done. You did it. You are either in touch with your inner teacher or you aren’t. In either case, the utility of A Course in Miracles is changed for you.

So knowledge about the course, time you’ve spent studying, and prestige within the course community are not hallmarks of course effectiveness. In fact – I speak from experience – they are often symptoms of distraction and confusion which inevitably generate more distraction and confusion.

Ken Wapnick, for example, often called himself the first teacher of the course but it is perfectly clear that he was actually its first student. Most of what passes for Ken’s “teaching” is really Ken’s “learning out loud in front of others.”

This doesn’t mean it’s not helpful. It can be, in its way. I am certainly grateful for Ken’s intelligence and devotion. But if we insist on seeing his course-related work as “teaching” – rather than as the student next to us who talks a lot, who is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and whose experience of the course cannot ultimately be our own – then we are apt to get confused, possibly deeply so. There is no law that says you have to wake up before you die!

So a lot of the time, for a lot of students, what we think of as “the course” or what the course “says” or “means” is really just our personal recapitulation of Ken’s learning process. Other, lesser-known, students are also “learning by teaching” and the effect on their students – confusion – is the same. I have contributed to this problem myself. At its best, this kind of “teaching” simply generates more material that will need to be undone at some later juncture. At it’s worst, well, there is no law that says you have to wake up before you die. Or did I say that already?

It is helpful to note (to remember, really) that undoing is not something that “we” do – it is more in the nature of something that happens or, better, something that we observe happening. Or not happening, as it were. To the extent we are attached to undoing, then undoing itself becomes a thing to be undone.

For me – which is not say “for you” – there is really only observation left. Of course I screw this up – how could I not? And yet it is also possible to reach a space of relative stillness where one can simply give attention to what is going on without interfering in it. At that point, deeper stillnesses and quiets are revealed. Even the wordy and unworthy are welcome.

Also at that point, the course – and its teachers – are more or less irrelevant. I don’t think noticing and reporting this is controversial. And behavior – do this, don’t do that – ceases to matter as much. One is never not amazed at how much prattle and static passes for spirituality . . .

Really, it is good to be honest, because honesty precedes clarity, and clarity is what allows us to finally figure out what little to do and how, in the personal context of our living, to do it. So what is our experience? Who are we “following?” What “rules” are we obeying? What “rules” are we breaking?

It comes back to us; it really does. It comes back to experience: to this experience: this one right here and now. This this. What is it? What are its boundaries? Its seams? What is its source? How do we know? How can we say?

In my experience – which is not to say “your experience” – the course does not really answer those questions so much as gently (well, mostly gently but sometimes roughly) deliver us to a space where they can be answered, where “answered” means “undone” or “dissolved.” And that undoing or dissolution – which is inherent and ordinary! – leads readily to a quiet and natural happiness.

On Being Done with A Course in Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am grateful indeed for ACIM.

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

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

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

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

And the unfurling never finishes. It never ever finishes.

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

On Bodies and A Course in Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Borrowed from Douglas Hofstadter’s book Metamagical Themas.

A Course in Miracles: Letting Go

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

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

More heaven and less hellfire. More commensality than exclusivity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving the ACIM Way Station

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

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

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

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

Why not go where you want to go?

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

And then you move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So did you reach the summit?”

I laughed. It was a good question.

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

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

There is no God. There is no Heaven.

There is only this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some people just get lucky.

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

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

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

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

I’m here. I’m glad you’re here, too.

One Way A Course in Miracles Works

The question was: what am I?*

Reading and studying – taking, say – A Course in Miracles was basically a way of organizing my thinking with respect to answering that question. Naturally, it eventually became a way of gathering with those who were also using it to organize their own thinking with respect to answering that question.

So in a sense the course was basically a way of reifying thought itself, under the guise of shifting the contents of thought, without actually answering (or even addressing, really) the question.

That is incoherent.

You could imagine someone who is hungry, and who knows she must prepare a meal, and who opens the cupboard and begins moving the ingredients around without actually cooking. Perhaps if the flour is on the top shelf and the sugar on the bottom . . . Perhaps if the salt is placed in a position of prominence . . .

But never any bread. Never any soup.

Eventually it was clear this shifting, this organizing (and corresponding reification of incoherence) was not an answer to the question but rather the question from another perspective, which is to say, the same old question still unanswered.

But also, it is good to be clear about that, and one can be grateful to the context within which clarity dawns, without confusing that context for the light itself. Indeed, that is one way A Course in Miracles works.

That is coherent.

* Well, there were lots of questions, but they were mostly neatly helpfully included within that question. That question is actually not that hard to answer, especially once a) the need to reframe it becomes obvious and b) the ability to reframe is assumed (or remembered, maybe, or recalled even).

On Love and Justice

God knows of justice, not of penalty (T-29.IX.3:6).

Any sentence in A Course of Miracles can be the clear bell which summons us from a dream of separation and conflict to the quiet stillness of peace and fellowship.

This sentence from The Forgiving Dream (in The Awakening) will serve that function if we give it the space. The text of A Course in Miracles, like all the holy scriptures, from Ecclesiastes to Newton to Emily Dickinson, blossom in the nurturing light of attention.

That sentence exists – in the text and in this moment – so that we might remember that we have not been judged and found wanting by God. That is not what God is. No penalty attends us. Therefore, there is no need for self-defense through projection or attack of any kind. We can breathe. We can feed one another. We can give one another shelter.

Those seven words are a blessing and a promise: they bless us with forgiveness by assuring us that despite our interior fear and psychological fragmentation we have done nothing wrong; and they promise that we have something to offer our brothers and sisters: the very same forgiveness, which is seeing them in the light in which God sees us: innocent and in need of neither defense nor justification. We are each the other’s servant: here to help, because we are ourselves helped.

Those seven words intimate that together we might remember – even if only faintly, even if only briefly – the love by which the wholeness of life is given to us so that we might give it away in turn. Because we are loved without condition, we can love without condition. What else could Heaven possibly mean?

It is helpful to set aside time to remember our own holiness, our own perfection, our own capacity to be a healing presence in the collective. Not as a routine or a habit. Not as an obligation. Rather, we simply sit quietly in sunlight, or by a window while it rains, and let all thought come and go, taking with it its dreams of judgment, its dreams of terms and conditions, its dreams of who is welcome and who is not. We let that go and give attention to what remains without worrying too much about what – if anything – remains.

Letting all thought come and go does not mean to not have any thoughts: it means to see thought for what it is: images that arise in the mind, the way clouds are reflected in a still pond. No more and no more less. A thought only has the power we give it; if we simply watch it pass, then it passes.

Attention is not beholden to thought; thought is beholden to attention. It is important to see this. The world is saved and made safe(r) accordingly.

It is not necessary – nor possible really – to dwell forever in some meta-spiritual state of radiant inner peace. The laundry needs to be done, dinner needs to be made. Gardens need to be planted, deadlines met, dogs walked. It’s okay. This, too – this welter, this experience of being complex in a complex world – is just stillness from another angle.

It is like if you hold a prism one way it’s just a chunk of glass. But if you hold it another way, then rainbows dance all around you. But the prism is always a prism. Light is always just light.

So it is with the self; so it is with awakening. Seen one way it’s a state of radiant calm and certainty. Seen another, it’s a busy life being surfed with equal parts equanimity and when-will-I-get-to-sit-down.

That is the justice of God: that which appears is always simply that which appears. It is never better or worse than any other appearance. It is the same love through a different lens. We don’t even have to switch lenses.

There is no penalty because in the ultimate sense there is nothing to be right about and nothing to be wrong about. We aren’t at risk of condemnation. There is neither judge nor jury. There is no executioner. There aren’t even charges against us.

There is only this: this this.

Merging Opposites as Spiritual Practice

The first paragraph in Sharing Perception with the Holy Spirit (in chapter 14: Teaching for Truth of A Course in Miracles) is a concise and insightful unit of writing. It begins with a simple question: What do you want? (T-14.VII.1:1)

Tara Singh used to say that when one reached a moment in the ACIM text or workbook where a question was posed, it behooved them to stop reading, quietly and interiorly attend the question, and then see what – if any – answer arose thereto.

We are students of A Course in Miracles because we want inner peace instead of conflict, but the problem is that we don’t know what peace is, we don’t really know what conflict is, and we can’t actually distinguish “inner” from “outer.” So we equate inner peace with good feelings: things going the way we want them to, getting this or that beneficial outcome, our brains quiet and our bodies at rest.

Happy outcomes, cheerful dispositions, and amenable material conditions are fine in and of themselves, but they come and go. When we attach to them – when we make our inner state contingent upon them as stable unshifting objects, even subtly – then we condemn ourselves to conflict.

So from time to time the course invites us to begin again or anew by asking us what we want. It’s like the abbot at the monastery calling us into her office and saying, look, what are you still doing here?

Taken in the right spirit, it’s a clarifying and helpful question.

To this question the course proposes a binary choice set first in a metaphorical frame and then in a more literal frame: Light or darkness, knowledge or ignorance. Both are options but we can only have one or the other (T-14.VII.1:2).

The course justifies this binary by pointing out that light dispels darkness – by degrees as the one is brought closer to the other – and that knowledge dispels ignorance in approximately the same way (T-14.VII.1:5). It is like saying that we can look at the apple hanging on the tree, or we can pluck the apple, but we cannot do both simultaneously. Both are options but the one mitigates the other.

Is this true? Analogy can cloud as much as clarify. We don’t have to take the course at its word. Part of what is so tempting about ACIM is its apparent purity: it’s all or nothing, light or dark, knowledge or ignorance. It can be comforting to see life so starkly; to imagine there is a right decision between only two choices; and then to be the one who chooses rightly. We can imagine God in the heavens – or Tara Singh or Nisargadatta in the afterlife – admiring our wisdom and holiness.

But we all know that both dawn and twilight are gradual, and that even the pure dark of night or pure light of day are not stable and permanent conditions but are subject to shifting, to gradations. Life does not really present as “either/or,” however much we wish it would, or pretend it does. It is a dynamic welter that includes – but cannot be stilled by – the appearance of binary options.

So is it possible to move beyond the apparent binary – the division into opposites that mandates choosing one over the other?

The course answers that question in the affirmative.

Opposites must be brought together, not kept apart. For their separation is only in your mind, and they are reconciled by union, as you are (T-14.VII.1:3-4).

The temptation is to see opposites as opposites and to hold them apart from one another. Night is not day, and vice-versa. One doesn’t merge them into something new altogether.

But oddly, the course implies that merging – undoing difference by seeing the mental conditioning upon which it depends for existence – is precisely what is called for.

Keep in mind that A Course in Miracles is not talking about literal dark and light here. Those are metaphors for knowledge and ignorance. And, again, it is not talking about knowledge in the sense of knowing how to bake bread or throw a baseball vs. not knowing how to do those things.

Knowledge in A Course in Miracles is a state in which there are no questions, nor one to ask questions, nor another to ask questions of. Ignorance is the belief that there is a self whose existence is at stake in the world, and other selves – most especially a big Self in the sky – who can either help or hinder us, and against whom we are pitched in opposition.

So how might this merging contemplated by the course work?

It is possible to bring apparent opposites together because their separateness is in the mind (T-14.VII.1:4). The divisions we perceive are ideas. When I walk in the forest and come upon the boundary between my land and my neighbor’s land, what do I find? There is no line. Just oak and maple trees, the same on either side. Just bracken. The deer tracks and the fox tracks go back and forth. It is all one forest, all one earth, all one solar system, et cetera.

Division is an idea; it is not an embodied fact.

Another way to think of it is to return to the analogy of dusk and dawn. If we sit quietly at either end of the day, and give attention to the light, it will be clear that although the light is always in this or another state, it is never only in that state. It shifts. Absent a clock, there is no one moment where it is clearly “night” as opposed to “dusk” or “twilight.”

It is the same with dawn. There is a moment when the sun breaches the eastern hills, a moment when the trees at the far end of the pasture are faintly – then less and less faintly – visible, but all of this is a movement. Absent a clock, there is no “dawn” or “morning.” To say other wise is arbitrary.

What is there then?

There is light according to the reference point of perception: your senses attest to the data they are given, which is always being given.

Perception is the medium by which ignorance is brought to knowledge. Yet the perception must be without deceit, for otherwise it becomes the messenger of ignorance rather than a helper in the search for truth (T-14.VII.1:7-8).

To be “without deceit” in this respect is simply to give attention to what arises, or appears, or is perceived (which includes thoughts about what arises or appears or is perceived) without getting worked up about it. Let it be what it appears to be: an apple tree, a horse, a daughter, the sound of the river, the smell of lilac, a memory of a parent, a mental note to send an email to so-and-so.

We don’t want to lie to ourselves about our bodies or our senses – how they function, what appears through and with and to them. We don’t want to fake some vague spiritual ideal or try to conform to some abstract religious image. We want to be as present as possible to what is given, which includes our ideas about who is giving what to whom, and just let it all come and go. It’s okay; it’s more than okay.

This being open to experience as it is given is the merging of what appears to be in opposition. This gently sustained attention is the merger contemplated by A Course in Miracles.

What happens when we do this? At the end of day, say, when we are sitting quietly in the changing light? Or walking in the forest without troubling ourselves with ideological divisions that inhere only in the possessive and appropriative mind?

The suggestion is that what happens is that the whole of what appears is the union of light and dark, and if we are very careful (filled with care) about not rushing to judge this or name it or anything like that, then we will see clearly – we will know – that the reference point we are in that moment is not apart from that union. What appears as the self is no different than the light and the dark.

In union, everything that is not real must disappear, for truth is union. As darkness disappears in light, so ignorance fades away when knowledge dawns (T-14.VII.1:5-6).

Yes, there is a point where it is dark, and yes, there is a point where it is light, but those are points relative to a seeming center. That center is forever spilling into and out of itself: it cannot ultimately be discerned apart from the perceptions that appear to point back to it. As perceptions come and go (which they must) the so-called center – the radial self – also comes and goes.

Does anything remain? The course suggests that Truth does not come and go. Broadly speaking, the Christian tradition – especially in its more ontological expressions  – suggests that God does not come and go. Christ does not come and go. But these are just ideas, aren’t they? Clever sentences that arise in perception?

Let us say carefully that “Truth” (or “God” or “Knowledge” or “Source”) is the existing union of the apparent many points, the gently undulating fabric of them, with countless centers forever coming and going. It knows itself. You, too.

Empathy and A Course in Miracles

I have become curious lately: when I am judgmental towards another (angry, fearful, vengeful et cetera), why that and not empathy?

That is, when someone is behaving in a way that offends or troubles me, why do I see only the misbehaving other? Why do I not see myself?

When I am judgmental in a way that creates inner conflict, it hurts me. Sometimes the pain is obvious and intense, sometimes subtle and mild – but there is always a sense of being hurt or unsettled.

It often feels to me like rejection: like being pushed away from the fire or out of the cave, like being asked to walk out into the desert alone. “You don’t belong with us – go away.”

And yet, I am the one doing the pushing – I am the one saying (interiorly or otherwise) to the other, “you don’t belong – get away.”

Is this clear?

Say the man at the register asks me twice if I brought my own bags, rolls his eyes when I say I forgot, sighs audibly pulling out a paper bag for my food. I am embarrassed at my ecological oversight, angry to at being called out on it in public, and insulted that this young man would speak and behave this way to someone at least a quarter century older than he is . . .

Is this clear? My feelings are hurt by his behavior so I judge him: I cast him out. This is not how people behave in the world.

Yet I am the one feeling the pain. I am the one feeling alone. I am the one who is hurt. Why?

Because I reacted with judgment rather than responding with empathy, and in doing so I endorsed the separation between self and other. Of course it hurts me. That is what the separation is.

What would that scene resemble if I felt empathy? If I laid judgment aside and empathized? That is, what if I perceived the other judging me and saw only my own capacity to judge others and, knowing how much that judgment hurts and how it preserves and nurtures the separative life, opted simply to let it pass. Perhaps I thank the cashier for reminding me of the importance of conserving precious resources. Perhaps I simply stand quietly by, allowing my own reactions (my own judgments) to dissipate.

Empathy is just a way of seeing the other as our self – not in a mystical or magical way. Just in a very matter-of-fact way. Whatever they’re doing wrong, we see how we do that too sometimes and in some ways. We see how, in this sense, we are truly one mind.

Neither your brother or yourself can be attacked alone. But neither can accept a miracle instead without the other being blessed by it, and healed of pain . . . The power to heal the Son of God is given you because he must be one with you (T-21.VI.7:1-2, 4).

When this “one mind” – this shared mind – is seen clearly, it is easy to see how judgment (executed through projection and denial) hurts both us and the people we so casually label as “other.” And so the motivation to do things differently also arises.

You are your brother’s savior. He is yours (T-21.VI.9:1-2).

Salvation is a way of thinking – or, more accurately, of relating to thought, in which that which is not separate is not perceived as separate. What follows in the realm of action is somewhat beside the point.

In the example of the cashier, what I do in response to the cashier is not really the point. The point is noticing my own judgment, my own lack of empathy, and being willing to have that undone, and giving attention to it so that it can be undone. Right there in the moment.

That you and your brother are joined is your salvation; the gift of Heaven, not the gift of fear . . . The Son of God is always blessed as one (T-21.VI.8:1, 10:1).

When we are empathetic – when we perceive with clarity our shared mind, and tend to it as we would tend our own child – then we become grateful. Gratitude begets peace, and peace begets yet more gratitude. That is a nice cycle to offer the world. And it it ours to both give and receive.

ACIM Drama: A Pep Talk

When I briefly explored one-to-one teaching of A Course in Miracles a few years ago, I found that people were not really interested in the course so much as they wanted strategies for dealing with what was coming up in their lives. Questions about work, family, health, psychological wellness . . .

I thought it would be about working through certain course ideas – the specific language and mythology and so forth – but it was much more in the nature of traditional talk therapy. When this became clear, I stopped doing “teaching.” But still, it was an interesting space, because it reflected back to me my own concerns.

Basically, we all want to be happy and at peace, and our lives are really an intense pursuit of those ideals. We want solutions or fixes – preferably quick, preferably painless. A Course in Miracles can be the solution or fix, but it tends not to be quick and painless. Quite the opposite actually, especially when we really begin to practice it.

Still, that isn’t to say that strategies for responding to what arises can’t be helpful. For example, we can decline to be drama kings or queens.

Whatever is going on around you – big stuff, little stuff, family stuff, professional stuff – just be the person who isn’t freaking out. Be helpful and kind, and remember that helpfulness and kindness often boil down to not interfering. Sometimes we just have to sit or stand calmly by and let things unfold. Sometimes our best contribution is to not make any contribution at all.

Of course we are not always going to be able to do this. Nobody is perfect. We are all human and that means that we make mistakes and get confused. It’s okay. Forgiveness can mean just letting our humanness be what it is without a lot of drama. We don’t have to change anything; we just have to see it all clearly as it is given to us.

Giving attention is a form of being present without actually interfering. It is “to see it all clearly as it is given to us.” Just see what is happening. And remember that part of what is happening is your internal judgments: this is good, that’s bad, I should do this, that person should do that.

Just let all that be too. It comes and goes, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t build a house on what comes and goes, so don’t rest your self on it either. Just let it be. Be homeless. If you are okay in your spiritual homelessness, then you will become a home for others.

It’s a way of being helpful: just being the calm one, not needing to assert anything or become anything or announce anything. People need that, even if they don’t know it’s what they need. They gravitate towards it.

Of course you are going to feel sorrow and fear and confusion and so forth. Those are inner feelings and like everything else they come and go. They are like clouds in the sky, right? The clouds drift and change shape and color, and sometimes get very close and threatening and sometimes are very far away and majestic, and yet the sky is always just there. It is unaffected by the clouds. It holds them all equally. The clouds are dramatic; the sky isn’t.

So the suggestion is to model the sky, and not get worked up about what is happening, other than to just notice it as it happens. If there is some action you need to take, it will take itself for you, and you will just be carried along with it.

That is what the world needs, really. People who are quiet and still, who are not feeding the machine, who aren’t trying to be saviors, who are okay with being the sky when everyone else is cloudy. We can do a lot of good simply by withdrawing from the race to define and then implement goodness.

Goodness – kindness, lovingkindness – is what we are. The work is to get out of the way and let life be. It isn’t even work really. It’s more like not working. It is like we are flailing in stormy seas and hear a voice that says “stop – don’t move – be still.”

And we are like, “fuck that – I’ll drown.”

But then after a while we get so tired we stop flailing, and instantly the seas are calmed, and there is sandy ground right beneath our feet, and we see the chaos and conflict was all in our heads, all imaginary, and that this still calm is our real home, and it’s not a place but a condition, and it is always available, always with us. The drama was on our end; it wasn’t inherent.

So that is a strategy for approaching the world and our lives in it: just slow down, give attention, and don’t be dramatic. Then the so-called work of being an ACIM student – study, inquiry, dialogue, stabilization – can proceed apace.