The Ego Loves Improvement (That’s Why Nothing Ever Changes)

I want to make the observation that the ego is not averse to improvement – that improvement, a sense of becoming – better, faster, wiser, more insightful, what have you – is integral to it. The ego is about movement away and towards – it is not satisfied with the present condition and so envisions a better future and then attempts to move towards it. Time is very important to the ego – time in terms of past, present and future.

But the ego never arrives, because the future never arrives. Emily Dickinson was right – eternity is composed of nows. We are always in the present whether we realize it or not. The future cannot, by definition, arrive. And so the energy of becoming – of projecting the better and brighter and more winsome – never ends. It can’t end. Not of its own volition anyway.

The ego is simply the way we think – it is the conditioned brain with its grooves and habits, its set patterns of reasoning and concluding. It is thought. It is really the movement of that thought – the process of that thought. It is like this river into which we step and then are swept along, following it wherever it goes. And at some point we think: this is not so good. This is bad. Sometimes this flow is really painful – sad or frightening or disturbing.

And we want out. We all want out. That’s why Jesus and the Buddha and A Course in Miracles and Eckhart Tolle and whatever else are so popular – we hope they will get us out. They are the flotsam we grasp at. We hope that by following them or practicing their precepts or studying them will somehow get us out. What we don’t see is that there are structural flaws in the way we think. A major overhaul is called for. There are no external solutions, no matter what the priests and gurus tell us.

In a sense – a painful sense (though ultimately liberating) – there is no Jesus. There is no course.

The thing is – and this is hard to realize and harder still to sustain as realization – the ego cannot help us with the overhaul. The ego is the problem. And the ego says, yes, there is a problem but it refuses to see that it is the problem. And then when the implication enters that it is the problem, it gets very creative about solutions: therapy, medication, better exercise regimens, more Ken Wapnick, yoga, less Gary Renard, road trips, and so forth.

But all of that – whatever the particular merits – remains the egoic flow. It remains the projected future. We have a new idea and it feels nice but the problem is that we have ideas. And we don’t see that. Or we do but we then we quickly allow the insight to be subsumed by new ideas. Awakening is about letting go of all the structures. That’s all. And it’s tricky. It really is.

I say this in part because I have written about the ego as vicious and mean and fighting for its life. That language is helpful in that it catches our attention. But it has the effect of separating us from the ego. And more and more I am appreciating the simple need to accept the ego’s presence. It is more in the nature of a tic than an enemy. It is like a record that skips (remember records?) and so rather than hear the song we hear he same stuttering lyric.

If you close your eyes for a moment, you will encounter what the course calls the ego. Sit with it. It is just your particular mind – the conditioning, the thoughts, the memories, the knowledge. All of that converging and bubbling and spewing. Maybe you will look at it and think: I don’t want this. But remember that your wanting release from it is part of it. All that noise up there is not going to help you. It is the problem itself and the problem is always replicating. It is always moving, always regenerating.

When we see that – when we are aware of it – then we begin to intuit a space beyond that, and a voice beyond that. “Space” and “voice” are blunt words and I apologize for that. We are trying to get at something that can only be hinted at with language. But what the course might do for us is allow us to begin moving away from the egoic flow simply by seeing it and realizing it cannot be other than what it is and that what it is is itself the problem. The ego cannot undo itself. Period. Knowing that opens up the possibility of contact with that which can undo the ego.

Many years ago a neighbor briefly had a unicycle and from time to time I would ride it. I had to go quicker than felt safe in order to maintain my balance. You couldn’t really think about it – you had to do it. And when I was doing it – riding – it was exhilarating in a sort of fluid electric kind of way. And when thought entered – look at me! – it was over. I toppled over.

For me, that is a little like what discerning the ego – and creating space for the Presence – feels like.

Willingness, Gift

I have wanted to clarify two ideas that have been recurring in my thoughts about A Course in Miracles: the necessity of willingness and awakening as a gift. They are important concepts – more so than perhaps first acknowledged – and ought to bear some scrutiny. What am I saying when I saw that we need merely to be willing? And what are the implications of awakening as a gift?

Willingness is not activity. This is the first thing. It’s a space or a condition. We are not talking about the activities that seem to arise from willingness (prayer, meditation, study), and we are not talking about the potentials of willingness (what might happen), and we are not talking about willingness as a spiritual requirement in the sense of “do this or else.”

I am suggesting that to be truly willing is to be outside or or beyond activity and ambition and consequences. If you think about that – we are talking about an end to activity, ambition and consequence – it is somewhat crazy. And it is possible I am wrong, of course. But I think there is something to it.

Whatever we do – whatever state we attain – it is good to be in touch with the motivation behind it. Why do we want this? When we question motivation, we meet the ego. Sometimes it is quite obvious and sometimes it is extremely subtle, but the ego always wants. It is the ego who desires advancement, progress, becoming. It is the ego who engages in comparison so that it can say we are not good enough and have to get better (but at least we’re not as bad off as some poor bastards we can name).

Usually, willingness implies a goal – it is a kind of motivation. I am willing to be healed (because health is better than disease), I am willing to be less angry (because it is interfering with my job), I am willing to give over my material scarcity to Jesus (because I want material abundance) and so forth. It is always conditional.

But if we continue to question it – just question it, just keep our motivation in sight, and keep its relation to the ego clear – then what happens to our willingness?

One thing I can tell you is that it does not go anywhere. It does not leave us just because we are stripping it of activity and goals and all of that. And not only does it stay, but it becomes more expansive and more gentle and also more dynamic. There is a quality of liberation. It is like you every day you follow the same routine with your horse – groom it, tack it up, ride it, dress it down – and then one day you stop doing those things and just watch the horse and you realize it is alive independent of you and can spend its days doing its own thing.

When you realize that – about your horse, or about willingness – then a true relationship becomes possible.

Don’t take my word for it either. What do I know? Mostly what I am asking you to do is have your own experience of willingness – look into it, sit with it, ask it questions. In fact, there is no value to anybody else’s experience in this regard. You have to have your own. You have to build that relationship.

Related to this idea of willingness is the idea of awakening as a gift. I want to make clear the premise of that idea and also try to understand at least a little about some of its effects. It is a bit of a loaded word – probably not the best one to use.

I described a kind of willingness a moment ago, the salient qualities of which were the absence of ambition, activity and consequence. Another way to say that is that there is no past or future involved in it, and no self in need of blessing. It has a kind of purity to it, perhaps evocative of that miracle principle which reminds us of the value of purification (T-1.I.7:1).

That state is hard precisely because we are always about doing – and we are always about doing something in service of some honorable goal. And we are always about doing something in service of an honorable goal because of the expected benefit to us. That’s the ego. It’s not just being mean to other people. It can also become quite invested in awakening. I have said it many times – the ego has no objection whatsoever to A Course in Miracles so long as it remains at the idea level and is never seriously brought into application.

If we follow this, we will see that what we do – be it a certain diet, a certain prayer routine, visits to a psychotherapist – can never yield up what we want. So long as we remain invested in becoming something, or achieving something, then we remain timebound. Awakening remains a future state – we keep it in the realm of illusion. It’s not that those activities are bad as opposed to good. They are simply illusory.

We have to let go of the idea that we can do anything – anything at all – that will wake us up. We can’t. It is not something that we accomplish and it is not something that we earn through good deeds. Nothing you do in the illusion is going to end the illusion. Help is going to have to come from beyond your limited understanding and your limited means.

All you can really do is wait. All you can really do is be – I use that verb carefully, of course – willing.

We are waiting for something to be given to us. Or – a better way to say it – we are waiting to realize what has already been given to us.

Or an even better way to say it is that we are simply realizing that “it” is inherent in us.

My biggest problem with the word “gift” is that it implies a separate giver – a God that is out there doing its own thing, from time to time bestowing something on its creations. That’s not what A Course in Miracles is talking about. We aren’t earning a gift from a separated God. We are realizing that we have the gift already as a condition of what we are in truth. One can’t give something to itself. It simply has it.

Again, the ego loves that last paragraph. It eats it right up. It is delighted to credit itself as God, delighted to say that it has the power to awaken itself and others. But that is not how it works. So long as the ego remains a viable presence in our thought system, we are only playing at waking up. When it is gone – when we are no longer busily seeking awakening in order to be truly happy – then something interesting can happen.

Willingness is the state in which we realize the gift. It doesn’t create the gift and it doesn’t give the gift. It is merely the light which makes the gift’s presence clear. Wanting the gift, and working for the gift, and expecting the gift to be like this or like that, all obscure the gift and make it illusory. So we have to go further than we thought. In a sense, we have to get past our ideas about awaking, and our faith that some combination of right action and good intentions will yield it up.

On Clearing A Space For God

In one of his sermons, Meister Eckhart addressed the problem of the egoic self as it relates – or tries to relate – to God. Strictly speaking, it cannot. Eckhart envisioned a condition in which one passed beyond even the concept of making space for God in order to have a relationship in the first place. In essence, Eckhart was saying that not only was God not a physical external consciousness or entity, God wasn’t even an idea with which one could occupy their mind or direct their contemplative energy.

Man’s last and highest parting occurs when for God’s sake he takes leave of god. Saint Paul took leave of god for God’s sake and gave up all that he might get from god as well as all he might give – toether with every idea of god. In parting with these he parted with god for God’s sake and God remained in him as God is in his own nature – not as he is conceived by anyone to be – nor yet as something yet to be achived, but more as an is-ness, as God really is.

“(N)ot as he is conceived by anyone to be – nor yet as something yet to be achieved, but more as an is-ness, as God really is.” That is quite an ideal, isn’t it?

Yet perhaps even more shocking is the idea of “taking leave of God.” It flies in the face of reason – or at least our assumptions about God and Heaven and Awakening. Isn’t the whole point – of A Course in Miracles, of Christianity in general – to get closer to God? Certainly I’ve done my share of pontificating on that theme.

Yet sitting with those words for a bit reveals that beneath the veneer of our initial reaction lies something else. Something that isn’t shocked or even challenged but altogether comforted. It sees in Eckhart a vital truth. If we are practicing A Course in Miracles because of an imagined personal benefit (at one end of the extreme improved external circumstances, at the other end, awakening), then our practice is ultimately bereft. It’s not about us – certainly not the “we” that we believe we are.

Eckhart urges us to a greater undoing than many of us can imagine. Indeed, when we do see the depth of the commitment he advocates, many of us are apt to shop for a new medieval theologian with which to wile away the reading hours. Remember, the egoic self is not scared of A Course in Miracles because it can twist even that contemporary scripture to its own ends. It is not even scared of God because it can render God conceptual so easily. Thus, our spiritual practice becomes about our progress, our improvement and our condition. And that is a recipe for failure – the same old same old.

This might be very subtle – almost unnoticeable – but it is true.

Another way of saying this might be that if God is One, then God cannot be aware of itself. God is not both subject and object. So as long as we are perceiving God as separate –  a thing, an idea, a feeling, or an energy source from which we are separate and to which we are heading, with the noblest of intentions – then we are merely going in circles, much to the delight of the egoic self.

This reminds me of something Jesus says in A Course in Miracles: “You who would judge reality cannot see it, for whenever judgment enters reality has slipped away (T-13.VII.5:5).”

Judgment in any form obscures God – Reality, Truth – from our vision. The decision to study the Course in order to wake up is a judgment. The decision to pray for guidance in difficult situations is a judgment. You might say they are good judgments – and I would be hard-pressed to disagree – but the fact remains. We are still locked in the physical brain’s dualistic mode: good vs. bad, right vs. wrong.

But what God is, is not that.

Yet even to write it – however clever, however eloquent – is to mistake it. Right? And so it is natural to ask then: given Eckhart, given the Course, given the conniving ego and its deathly agenda, what exactly are we supposed to do?

Christ is still there; although you know him not. His Being does not depend on your recognition. He lives within you in the quiet present, and waits for you to leave the past behind and enter into the world he holds out to you in love (T-13.VII.5:7-9).

See the emphasis on the present? God is – Christ is – where the past and future cannot intrude. We are being gently instructed in a mode of surrender that surpasses both our understanding and our inclination to survive because it insists that the past is illusory and unhelpful. One might ask: I can focus all day on the present moment – its sights, sounds, smells, sensations – but it is still “I” that is focused. It is is still “I” who is practicing this awareness. What gives?

And it is true. We cannot get rid of this personal worldly self alone – we need God’s help. And yet to seek that help is to preserve the personal self by acknowledging its need for salvation.

Can we say that awakening, then – even when cast in terms of time – is not logical? That the end-game, so to speak, is beyond our capacity to imagine? Tara Singh said somewhere that “there is nothing to do and only you can do it!” Wise – and yes, elliptical – words. But opacity is not necessarily unhelpful, particularly where our own ideas of clarity are limited.

We are leaving the comfort of our many resources – intellectual, psychological, emotional – behind. Is it possible that this “leaving,” this undoing is what Jesus had in mind when he used the metaphor of the child to explain Heaven? The child is innocent – that is, she or he trusts completely in the wisdom and beneficence of their mother or father. Their dependence is perfect because it is without reservation. At a young age, it doesn’t even contemplate alternatives. It is wholly united in its loving acceptance.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Eckhart again.

God does not intend that man should have a place reserved for him to work in since true poverty spirit requires that man shall be emptied of god and all his works so that if God wants to act in the soul he himself must be the place in which he acts . . . (God takes) responsibility for his own action and is himself the scene of the action, for God is one who acts within himself.

The belief that there is some active and significant contribution that we make to awakening – and that there is a corresponding personal benefit once awakening is attained – is going to have to given up. We are not ascending to God so much as allowing the dissolution of that which obstructs God’s active flowing here and now. Even A Course in Miracles – even the New Testament – even Meister Eckhart’s illuminating and courageous sermons – must be abandoned and given over.

We can hold onto nothing – we must surrender effort, we must surrender ambition, and we must surrender understanding. All of it hinders our awareness of God. You can take nothing with you into the present moment. You must meet it unencumbered in all ways.

The peace of God passeth your understanding only in the past. Yet here it is, and you can understand it now (T-13.VII.8:1-2).

Eckhart, too, saw freedom in the present moment. In it, one’s experiences – whatever form they took – were no longer one’s own. “I am free and empty of them in this now moment, the present.”

So it goes. What seems impossible to us is hardly so to God. Jesus reminds of this all the time – in the New Testament, in A Course in Miracles, in teachers like Eckhart, and even in the private recesses of our being where he speaks in a familiar voice. Our practice aims at a goal it cannot articulate. It longs for an experience that it must first accept on faith. It is like stepping into thin air, like finding God in the fall.

The Mutuality of Prayer

When I was growing up it sometimes seemed as if prayers were offered up to just about anybody, so long as they had some connection to the Christian monotheistic tradition. God, the saints, Mary, dead relatives, Jesus, Jesus’s dog. If you had ears – or had once had ears – then you were a fit object for prayer. I wondered sometimes if it mattered how we directed our prayer. Were prayer requests to Jesus more likely to yield fruit than those offered to our grandparents? Or Saint Jude? I used to pray to trees and flowers. Was that okay, too?

When it comes to prayer – especially prayer that is linked to getting some thing or some result (what is traditionally called petitionary prayer) – we all want the secret sauce. How do you pray to God for help? How do you ensure a response? Are there any guarantees when we pray?

One way to approach prayer is to focus less on results and more on process. We should not come to God and Jesus the way we approach real estate agents or car salesmen. It is not a question of bringing our A game, the better to maximize returns. It is closer to marriage, closer to parenting. It’s closer to a friendship that lasts a lifetime. Sometimes, it is important to ask what we can offer. Sometimes it’s better not to think about our needs and wants but to focus on those of others. It’s not that God is going to turn away from us in anger or disgust. It’s just that we love God, too. Why not act that way?

If we are honest, this makes intuitive sense. God is not in the dark about our lives. It is not like we are filling in the blanks for a boss who only thinks of us when we come in for a raise or to complain about office politics. As Jesus said so long ago, “your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.”

There is real comfort in that line. If we really give attention to it – if we are open to it – then we see that it calls on us to be faithful. It asks that we take a deep breath and be a little slower to judge what’s going on in what we are calling our lives in what we are calling the world. Behind every plea to God that our lives be changed – whether we’re pulling for more sun during the family vacation or the removal of fatal cancer cells – is the notion that we know better than God what’s right and good and necessary. And we really have to question the wisdom of that conclusion. We have to consider the possibility that we don’t have a clue – or at least that somebody else might have more clues than we do. As Bill Thetford said to Helen Schucman, there must be a better way, right.

Does this mean that prayer is fruitless? Beside the point? Or maybe just a matter of listening rather than talking? Or something else altogether?

Not necessarily. Nor, by the way, are we supposed to play it tough. If we’re scared or in pain, then we should bring it to God. By all means we should talk to God, if talking to God is what works, what resonates, what comforts, what helps. Reach for the hand of Jesus. If your best friend or your child needed you to listen to them, would you turn away? Would you tell them to suck it up?

It’s always okay – it’s more than okay – to turn to God or Jesus (or Buddha or a grandmother or Saint Terese) when we’re in need. Those are important prayers. What I am suggesting – gently, gently – is that we reconsider the nature of our investment in prayer. Are we asking for comfort or are we asking for a specific result that we’ve decided is right? It is another of asking: are we trusting a ay other than our own?

To trust God is to be faithful. To trust God is to see your own self differently. It is to recognize the futility of self-directed and self-obsessed effort. It is to seek a better way. When we are really in that space of trust it helpfully shifts the focus from our own efforts to an effort – a source – that transcends us. It’s a letting go of what is small in favor of what is grand and inclusive and joyful. It’s not academic or intellectual. It can be done in our lives – an embodied experience – and we can feel its effects.

Prayer has its own energy. That’s one of the reasons it can be fruitfully compared to significant relationships. There’s nothing static about it. What works today might not work tomorrow. What worked ten years ago and hasn’t been tried since might make a sudden reappearance. It’s a two way street. It has to be.

That, in the end, is what we can rely on: the mutuality of prayer. Whether we come to the zafu or the prie dieu or the bedroom rocker or a favorite tree in the forest . . . we go there to meet the One who is there because that is where we go to meet them.

Transformational Fires

We burned deadfall yesterday. It is the tail end of burning season and as usual winter left us with a lot of excess wood. Some we cut into firewood. The rest – along with whatever lumber is no longer useful around the place – we burn.

Chrisoula and the girls were with the horses, so Jeremiah and I spend the morning talking and working. Lugging branches, stacking logs. Mostly we talked about gaming – Dungeons and Dragons, Elder Scrolls V. Who would win in a fight – Gandalf or Voldemort? That sort of thing. But during one of our breaks – he with his apple juice, me with my tea – he commented on how so much wood could become so little ash so quickly. It was a good point. I hadn’t noticed.

Lately I have been aware of how much I don’t understand. And, along with that, how hard I work to understand. It is as if I face an abyss, frantically trying to define and redefine it. Is it possible that we don’t have to solve every mystery? That awakening might have more to do with acceptance and letting go than with understanding?

The wood we burn is dense and heavy. Some of it needs to be chainsawed. Some we snap over our knees. But we are always aware of it – heavy, rough, long, crooked. It has its own shape, its own texture. It has form. It has a name: red maple, white pine, dogwood, beech and birch.

When we toss it into the flames, that form is utterly consumed. It is no longer what it was just a few minutes earlier. Is that the same as saying it is gone?

Leaning on a shovel and watching the fire, I felt acutely aware not of the wood’s disappearance but of its transformation. It’s important to be careful in saying this. The wood becomes flame and then it becomes ash. It is still there but its form has changed. The wind comes and stirs the fire and lifts little whirlwinds of ash, scattering them over the lawn, all the way to the neighbor’s. What remains we’ll scatter in the gardens, mixed with the soil where – in time – it will be converted to pumpkins and tomatoes and lettuce that we’ll eat.

So you realize then that you are not looking at things so much as at a process – a sort of ongoing transformation of matter into energy, matter into other matter. And you realize that you, too, are part of that process. You are witnessing it not from the outside but from the inside. When your body goes – taking with it your name, your history, your story as you now identify with it – the process in which it has always flowed will not cease flowing. It goes on.

Can we identify with that process? Not as a separated part of it, not as a superior observer, not as poets or aspiring mystics but simply as the process itself? Beyond the many forms that the world assumes is a content that is eternal and unchanging. Is this it? One way to find out – one way to make the necessary contact, have the direct experience – is to pay attention and be present without trying to figure it all out. We didn’t invent the process. It doesn’t need our permission to continue.

Most of the women and men who have shepherded A Course in Miracles through the last five decades have been academic intellectuals. It’s natural in that light to approach the course intellectually, with our brains in the lead. But I am suggesting that our practice can be informed by some other sense, some other guide. Can we set our intellects aside for even a few minutes? Can we feel our way to Heaven?

Yesterday, sitting with the fire, talking with my son, I felt the Holy Presence. I can’t explain it very well. It has do with loving my life as it happens rather than how I wish it had happened or hope it will happen. It has to do with being attentive. You watch the fire. You consider seriously – and debate fiercely – the merits of fiction’s famous wizards. And somewhere in the midst of all that – no warning – you slip into the Heaven that always exists beyond ideas and forms, beyond the reach of the brain and its exaggerated capacity for reason. You are transformed. You go on.

Seeing with the Holy Spirit

The other day I was thinking about how we see with the Holy Spirit. I use that phrase – or one like it – a lot. It’s a key premise of awakening through A Course in Miracles. We have to choose the Holy Spirit as our teacher. We have to let go of the ego and see with the Holy Spirit. But what does that mean practically?

To use the lens of the Holy Spirit is simply to see wholly and without judgment. It’s a way of seeing another person or situation or memory or what have you without judging it. We don’t compare and contrast with previous experiences We just let it be in our awareness. By holding it there and not tainting it with it egoic ideas, we heal it. It is healed simply by our willingness to let it be itself.

For example, the other day I was on a long drive, and I was passing many beautiful homes. They were large and attractive. Many of them had a farm component – horses or cows. It was a New England postcard, right out of Robert Frost. Those scenes have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. And for reasons that I don’t know but can only make educated guesses about, they represent an ideal of success. I always thought I would live in one of those homes, on one of those large picturesque farms. But I don’t. And sometimes I am unhappy about that.

As I drove, feelings of envy arose. Feelings of scarcity. I was angry about what I have and what I don’t have. I would plot an ambitious course of writing and networking that would net me millions! Then I would tell myself anybody who lives in a big house must be spiritually deprived.

Those are familiar feelings! But as they came up, I didn’t do anything along the lines of management or control. I just let them be. I looked at them with the Holy Spirit. “Oh, look. Here comes the idea about being more spiritual than other people because my house is so small.”

Because I wasn’t judging the thoughts and feelings, it was easier to let them go. They weren’t as scary or intimidating. They were just thoughts. And I saw that each of them revolved around this idea of me in this body. I wanted security and safety for my life and the big New England farmhouse represented that. It was a symbol, nothing more. As soon as I was clear on that, a real peace flowed through me. There aren’t any houses that can provide us security or safety. That comes from our relationship with God. I trusted that completely. The rest of the drive felt very gentle and beautiful. It just flowed.

That is what I mean when I say that we have to “see” with Jesus or with the Holy Spirit. Just observe what is happening – how you are feeling, what you are thinking. It doesn’t matter if the thoughts are good or bad, whether they scare you or make you happy. Just let them be. If you can give them all your attention – if you can let them be in the field of your awareness – they will clarify and then fade. You will be free of them. It is nothing mystical, nothing mysterious. Just being aware of what is happening and giving it our attention in a spirit of trust and faith.

Right Mind vs. Intellect

Thomas a Kempis once wrote that he would rather feel compunction than know its definition. Sage advice for those of us studying awakening while also pursuing it. I am often aware of the degree to which my intellect seems to ally with the ego at the expense of my right mind.

At first blush, it’s simply a question of balance, right? After all, a Buddhist monk can sit five or six hours a day and still have a few hours left over to study ancient texts. Thomas Merton certainly found a way to blend his extraordinary intelligence and scholarship with contemplative prayer. Right mind and intellect aren’t inherently adversarial.

The trouble with examples – whether abstract like the former or specific like the latter – is that they aren’t personal. It’s well and good to speculate what the Buddhist monks are doing on Mount Baldy, but that’s at best tangentially related to what I am doing right here and now with my own spiritual practice and prayer life. If it’s a direct experience of God and Heaven that I’m after – if I’m bent on salvation – then I don’t want what works for you. I need to figure out what works for me.

All my life, I’ve been the smart kid in class. Not always the smartest, but one of them for sure. And I’ve done different things with that. Sometimes I deliberately wrecked expectations. Sometimes I was arrogance and mean-spirited. Sometimes – the older I got anyway – I worked hard. Regardless of what I was doing in classrooms, I always knew that my brain – that dubious organ that makes it home between the ears – was my strongest asset.

Forty years or so later, I’m not so sure. Take A Course in Miracles. I’ve spent years studying the main text, the workbook and the teacher’s manual. I’ve read most of Ken Wapnick’s work, Marianne Williamson’s, Tara Singh‘s. I’ve read Gary Renard’s books, Liz Cronkhite’s, David Hoffmeister’s, Jon Mundy’s. I’ve read all the questions and answers at the Foundation for A Course in Miracles website. I’ve read all the major ACIM bloggers.

I feel pretty confident in my intellectual understanding of the Course. I can hold my ground with the best of them.

So what?

Over the past few months I have slowly come to realize that while I do understand A Course in Miracles, I have been far less able to bring it into application, as Tara Singh wonderfully put it. A starving man doesn’t want to discuss the chemical composition of an apple. He wants to eat.

Or as the Course puts it in Lesson 185 (I want the peace of God):

To say these words is nothing. But to mean these words is everything (W-pI.185.1:1-2).

I feel it as I work on this website. I am committed to writing about each lesson and each section of the text this calendar year. So far, so good. But I can feel – especially when doubt settles in, especially when guilt or fear raise their heads – my intellect spring to the fore. It’s as if smarts are the ego’s vanguard, there to drive all uncertainty away.

And yet, there are times when simply sitting with doubt and uncertainty are important. I believe this. We are not meant to spring from our separated selves directly into Heaven. It’s a process that unfolds in time – that’s what time is for. I don’t think intellectualism – for me anyway – is always concerned with truth, so much as it is with being – or at least appearing – right.

Again, the course is instructive: “Do you prefer that you be right or happy?” (T-29.VII.1:9)

Who in their right mind would defend against peace and happiness? Yet that is what happens, at least sometimes. Thus, some caution is appropriate. Some willingness to sit with doubt, to let fear sift through the defenses and denial. If I am learning anything as I work through the text closely it is this: the course is nowhere near as dense or complicated as I want to imagine it is. In fact, it is remarkably consistent and clear.

It’s doing what it asks of me that’s hard – and that’s mostly a matter of quietening the mind long enough to see through the fear and guilt and anger and hate to the light that shines beyond. Learning is doing. It is an another activity. Thus undoing must be something else. Intellectual activity is no more helpful than physical activity in terms of offering up our tiny selves to God. There must be another way.

It is only because we are so willing to resist peace – so intent on fighting Jesus – that the intellect is even a factor in our awakening. Right-mindedness is not reasoning things out – it is seeing Truth and not seeing anything else but Truth. It is as if the brain – and its misbegotten knack for judgment – simply disappears, its functioning no more noticeable than that of our kidneys. Just another organ doing its thing. Nothing to get worked up about.

This year I have scaled back significantly on my reading. At the moment, outside of materials for classes (all books I’ve taught before), I am not reading anything but A Course in Miracles. It’s an incredible experience. One thing I’ve noticed is how hungry my brain gets – more words please! It churns through books like an addict, like the last thing it really wants is quiet or stillness. For that reason alone, I’m willing to stay on this self-imposed reading fast.

What happens when the mind can’t take refuge in a book about experience?

One thing that happens is that its ability to talk – or write – its way out of salvation is grievously undermined. Natural questions arise – who am I that I should hide in a thousand times a thousand books? You begin to sense your real thoughts pulsing below the chatter of your brain. It’s kind of awesome and scary at the same time, like watching whales sound nearby while you’re in a dinghy rowing for the far shore.

Perhaps I’ll always be a scholar, always committed to understanding in a critical way what I read. It’s certainly part of the identity I’ve concocted for myself. But part of me also insists that it knows God and would like to return, the sooner the better. Lately I have become aware of time as a sort of pressure – not like I have to be at the station by six or the train’s going to leave without me – but sort of pushing me from the inside, like something wants to come out.

I thought to myself: Jesus came two thousand years ago. And Buddha. And all these amazing teachers since. And we still haven’t woken up. We still haven’t healed the world. We’re still separated and living the horrific nightmare that attends separation. I think that we have to end the dream of separation now. Right now. I think we are supposed to listen very carefully to the inner teacher and be guided as to the unique path of our own awakening. It’s not in a book. It’s not an idea. It’s a fact between you and Jesus, between me and Jesus.

This is what I want to grasp now. This is what I want to do: give it all over to Jesus, every thing, and be led by him to Heaven. I believe in this. I want this for all of us.

Some Keep the Sabbath . . .

One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems is #236Some Keep the Sabbath. It captures for me several of the qualities that I admire most in her work: playfulness, irreverence and – deeply related to the first two qualities – a profound awareness and commitment to waking up to one’s identity in God.

As anyone who has read her work – poems and letters both – knows, Dickinson was a brave and eloquent woman. Her intelligence had a ferocity to it that most of us can only dream of. I’ve always disliked Julie Harris’ portrayal of Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst because it indulges in a timidity that was simply not a salient characteristic of this extraordinary poetic and religious mind.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –

Even though in that part of New England in the middle of the nineteenth century it was not unheard of to prefer to the woods to church (as even a cursory review of Thoreau and Emerson makes clear), Dickinson’s opening lines are still a radical rejection of tradition – both spiritual and cultural. She is not denying the inclination to worship, to know God through the Sabbath, but she is announcing her intention to do so without bowing to conventional means. She eschews both hierarchy and patriarchy in one fell couplet.

More than that, she is denying the human inclination to organization altogether. As the poem unfolds, roles typically assigned to people or buildings – directing a choir, the dome overhead – are assigned to nature. Dickinson is not just saying that we can perceive God in the natural world around us – she is positing that all our efforts to the contrary are precisely what shut God out, what render God in accessible.

People, in the ordinary course of being people – who set about building churches and filling them on Sundays – are not following God so much as walling any experience of God out.

That is still not a very popular position to take in Christian circles.

In a sense then, what Dickinson is asking is this: you want to worship? Do nothing. The Kingdom is already here – the bobolink sings, the apple tree limbs shift in the breeze. It is already done. The altar is not encased in four walls. It is bestowed in equal measure on the world and all its contents. The sermon is not spoken through a chosen minister (in Dickinson’s day, almost always a man) – rather, it is spoken all the time, by all things.

Reading Dickinson, one is hard-pressed to escape the sense that we are being subtly called to pay attention. She is not the first person to hear a bobolink sing. But the implication in her poems – and poem 236 stands as a strong witness – is that our attention can go deeper. Can take us deeper. Indeed, salvation – in the truest, most natural sense of the word – may require that we go deeper.

Emily Dickinson taught me to return to the woods, to turn my face to the sky, to gaze long and fiercely at the birds within range of my vision. She is my patron saint of intense devotion to awakening. She is a witness to the way that our physical sight is but a shallow substitute for the broader, the more divine vision with which we are all blessed but so few are able to employ.

Accept no substitute for spirituality! Accept no other experience of God – of spirit – whatever word you use to signify that Divine Source that forever pours forth its grace in all moments, in one continuous line. Dickinson’s gift was not merely literary – it was also a profound spiritual wisdom. There are few people who have gone so far – and left such a helpful and powerful record – in pursuing their vision of God.

Consider those last lines of the poem.

So instead of of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

Heaven is not a goal – an objective to be achieved at the end of some superior effort. Rather, it is a condition of the present moment, one into which we can slip with joyful ease. Emily Dickinson shows us how – all we have to do is choose to follow.

100 Things To Do (While You’re Waiting To Be Enlightened)

1. Bake bread.
2. Wash the windows with your favorite clothes.
3. Walk dogs.
4. Study ants.
5. Learn how to make brooms.
6. Draw.
7. Bake cookies you hate so you have to give them away.
8. Polish silver.
9. Find somebody who needs their silver polished and polish it for them.
10. Memorize Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy.
11. Read Robert Frost.
12. Listen to Edith Piaf.
13. Shoot your television.
14. Learn how to whittle.
15. Learn how to whistle.
16. Learn how to make your own pasta.
17. Grow herbs.
18. Make a macaroni statue of yourself.
19. Memorize Emily Dickinson’s “My Life Had Stood A Loaded Gun.”
20. Practice Vedantic meditation.
21. Write a religious manifesto.
22. Deep fry a Snickers bar.
23. Liberate an entire petting zoo.
24. Shave your head.
25. Dye your hair.
26. Sweep floors that are spotless.
27. Wax on, wax off.
28. Learn how to dance.
29. Just dance.
30. Dance in the driveway alone at 4 a.m.
31. Study Lady Macbeth.
32. Write an essay about Lady Macbeth and guilt.
33. Learn how to make jewelry from sea glass.
34. Write a love letter.
35. Keep a scrap book.
36. Collect stamps.
37. Add one new word to your vocabulary every day.
38. Read Ecclesiastes.
39. Learn how to draw your favorite plants.
40. Eat an apple, core and all.
41. Travel to India.
42. Trek the Inca trail.
43. Learn how to brew your own coffee.
44. Pretend you’re a cowboy.
45. Adopt a cat.
46. Walk backwards for a whole day.
47. Imitate a cricket.
48. Reread your favorite books from childhood.
49. Make vows.
50. Break vows.
51. Celebrate Christmas in October.
52. Resolve to understand your own face.
53. Learn how to make homemade ice cream.
54. Burn one of your journals.
55. Put out a hummingbird feeder.
56. Peel an apple so that the skin comes off in one unbroken spiral.
57. Hug a stranger.
58. Visit a museum.
59. Patronize local arists.
60. Howl.
61. Paint your cupboards.
62. Sell all your jewelry.
63. Read Moby Dick.
64. Write poetry that rhymes.
65. Visit a monastery.
66. Knit.
67. Study numerology.
68. Learn how to read tarot cards.
69. Write letters to old friends.
70. Cheat death.
71. See #46.
72. Outgrow your favorite shirt.
73. Invent a holiday.
74. Learn how to design websites.
75. Read Saint John of the Cross.
76. Sing more.
77. Sing less.
78. Learn how to identify at least seven constellations.
79. Put a soapbox in the forest and mount it daily and just listen.
80. Study the behavior of dogs.
81. Eschew models.
82. Become articulate on how and why the Titanic sank.
83. Read old gardening texts.
84. Bake pies.
85. Imagine a hobo.
86. Learn how to fold napkins like swans.
87. Hunt without a gun.
88. Take pictures without a camera.
89. Take a defensible position on a historic conspiracy.
90. Hide a statue of the Buddha where nobody will find it for a hundred years.
91. Avoid Thoreau.
92. Burn lottery tickets outside your local library.
93. Invite somebody famous to dinner.
94. Plant trees.
95. Hand craft a fly swatter.
96. Learn how to tie knots.
97. Start an annual garlic festival in your hometown.
98. Try to forget your phone number.
99. Make and sell vinegar.
100. Make a long list of things to do while you’re waiting to be enlightened and give it away.

Undoing the Narrative I

Certain movies and other texts can help one relate to and better understand the metaphysics and even the process of awakening described in A Course in Miracles. They can bring us into contact with the narrative I – the central direct of our story – and see how that self can be undone, simply by seeing there is nothing to undo.

I had an example of this a couple of weeks ago with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Specifically, I found myself utterly entranced with both the film-making and the story-telling. The movie felt exquisite to me. Where a lot of movies bludgeon us with CGI effects, violence, graphic sex and language, Tarantino (at least in Basterds – not so much in earlier films) employs a scalpel. He’s inside you before you know he’s inside you.

And it hit me – a little more than half way through the movie – that this obsession with telling an artful story, a transformative story, a gripping story, a forget-everything-and-keep-your-eyes-on-the-screen story had a spiritual correlative.

It is how the ego crafts the story of its life. It is how and why it feels nigh on impossible to let go of my own narrative, my own personality in favor of waking up to something that is simpler, clearer and more natural.

We fall easily into the lure of our stories. I’m Irish-Catholic, a poet, a recovering drunk, a student of A Course in Miracles. I’m from the Northeastern United States, not the South and not the West. Leonard Cohen and Emily Dickinson are instructive. I struggle with caring about making money. On and on it goes. You’ve got one, too. Several, in fact.

Who is the “you” that Jesus addresses in A Course in Miracles? Is it Helen Schucman? Ken Wapnick? Gary Renard? You? Me?

We can bypass those individuals and say instead that the text addresses the observing mind which has chosen – regrettably and unnecessarily – to attach itself to the ego and its wily story. It is like an enormous gorgeous quilt confusing itself for a single thread.

So while I go crashing and stumbling through the world – healing myself, getting better, making mistakes, coming to terms, discovering new obligations, making new friends, pining for old ones – the observing mind, the Christ mind, the source mind – all of which are thoughts thought by God – simply is. No sweat, no worries.

So much of what I believe I have to do – from writing this blog post to loving Jesus to helping feed my family – is contingent in some way on the magnetic personal story, the narrative composed by the ego. So many colors and tastes – so much exquisite detail – a cast to die for – such a dense and multi-layered narrative fabric. Stories within stories within stories.

And yet.

What we are after – inner peace, authentic love – is absent from the story. Oh, it’s definitely a theme. There are characters who symbolize it. It pops up as an idea. But it never delivers. It can’t. Love and peace are the one thing the ego can’t – won’t ever – give us. By definition it can’t let us see it’s just a movie, just an illusion, just a dream story. If it did, we’d walk away in a second. We’d leave the theater without a second thought and go straight home.

I didn’t finish watching Inglourious Basterds. It was as if a bell had rung, and once ringing, could not be unrung. I didn’t want the inspired trance of story anymore – not Tarantino’s and certainly not the ego’s. I wanted awareness – right thinking, right mind, right now.

Whatever we call waking up, it begins with awareness. It begins with the end of casualness. We begin to sense that our lives are playing out on a screen and that they are not real, at least not as we presently perceive and understand them. That invokes some responsibility. We need to discern the true from the false. Thus, something new – not of us but in us – is triggered.

As you watch your life unfold – you who long for the promise of Heaven as I do – ask what it is that the ego drama seeks to hide from you? Could it be that there is no drama? That there is no viewer, no screen, no projector? That you are It and you always have been and right now – right now! – you can settle and enjoy unalterable peace?

We are telling ourselves a story – a good one in its way – but its sole purpose is keep us asleep, hidden, outside, estranged, lonely and unproductive.

There is another way. We can give attention to the narrative – in particular the one telling it – and allow our attentiveness to dissolve them. There is no I. When the center is everywhere, there is no center.  We who never left our home are home.