Undoing the Self in Love

When we say “undoing the self,” what is meant is not a physical or material undoing, nor a mystical revelation of heretofore unglimpsed or uncharted realities, but rather that we are simply less wrong about what it means to be a self than before. That’s all.

the way crumbles
yet remains

It is a bit like when a child who has believed in Santa Claus for a long time no longer does. Nothing is really different – the same images of Santa will show up in songs, television shows, cards and so forth. Gifts will still appear under the tree. She’ll just have more clarity about what’s actually happening which in turn will allow for a more coherent engagement with the holiday.

In other words, to “undo the self” is basically to see – slowly, gently – what the self is not, which in turn allows for a more coherent and functional overall “seeing” to occur.

This concept – seeing the false reveals the true – is important. The truth is true and what impedes our knowledge of it are false ideas and beliefs, which include our insistence on a special personal prerogative with respect to reality.

We don’t create the truth or reality; we are part and parcel of it. It is what it is and we are, as the old song went, only passing through. We are “one with it” the way an eddy is one with the river – it has its own thing going on, but it’s really just the river.

It is possible, through meditation exercises or chemicals or other means, to experience this oneness. However, this is not an especially big deal – it’s just a sensual experience, like eating cheesecake or running uphill. It’s lovely and sweet when it shows up, but it doesn’t “mean” anything.

In truth, all experience points at oneness, not just the seemingly holy or mystical or supernatural experiences. In life, nothing is excluded. Inclusivity and equality are the law – a kind of radical neutrality – and they don’t bend.

“My life” is not more valuable than a blue jay’s. It is not more important than an earthworm’s. It is not more complex or mysterious than a rose bush or a black hole or the western wind.

And let’s not even get started on the notion that some people are more or less valuable/important/interesting than others. It can seem that way – and we certainly can perceive it that way and act according to our perception – but it is emphatically not that way.

Freedom cannot be learned by tyranny of any kind, and the perfect equality of all God’s Sons cannot be recognized through the dominion of one mind over another. God’s Sons are equal in will, all being the Will of their Father (T-8.IV.6:7-8).

Substitute “Creation” or “Life” for “God’s Sons” and “Father” and the sentences may resonate more clearly.

The point isn’t about bipeds, or masculine bipeds, or some discrete Divine Entity overseeing human affairs who also happens to be masculine.

It is simply about the natural experience that attends all life. Life recognizes itself as life.

Do you not think the world needs peace as much as you do? Do you not want to give it to the world as much as you want to receive it? (T-8.IV.4:1-2)

Don’t over analyze those questions! Just give the answer that is there to be given, and then let the resultant clarity – even if it’s not overwhelming – guide you through the day. How far a  sincere yes will take us!

A more formal ACIM teacher would say that your “inner teacher” – Jesus, the Holy Spirit, et cetera – will be your guide.

But perhaps it is simpler and clearer than that. Your common sense and propensity for love will guide you. It is simultaneously no big thing and the biggest thing ever. And you are it.

So really, the work we are doing is not anything fancy. There is nothing mysterious or spiritual or supernatural about it. We don’t really need a teacher. It doesn’t cost anything. Nobody else “has” it or has “more” of it.

We are simply making contact with our inherent capacity for reason and love, and allowing that – rather than our fear and the insanity it inspires – to be the compass by which we steer ourselves.

There are a lot of ways to talk and write about this stuff. I tend to indulge – in my admittedly half-assed way – metaphysics and philosophy from a Christian perspective. There is nothing right about that, save that it happens to resonate for me and for some other folks. And there is nothing wrong with that, save that it has a tendency to obscure the inherent simplicity of being, and sometimes to privilege people whose skill sets lean towards that kind of writing and thinking.

So part of the work as well is to recognize that obscuration and – without demeaning the one behind it – to stay focused on the real work of being kind and clear and helpful. It is not easy! We are talking about a very radical kind of communication here, and we are talking about becoming the sort of people for whom such radical communication is natural.

Every step of the way we will want to privilege and indulge our inner feelings, our personal narrative drama, our apparent preferences. That’s okay! That, too, inheres in experience.

The suggestion is simply to notice it, and in noticing it, notice its origins in fear, guilt, exclusivity and specialness. When we see those origins clearly, we will begin to glimpse – to greater and greater degree – a transcendent love as well. It will be increasingly easy to avail ourselves of that love because – in truth – it inheres in the human observer.

Indeed, we learn that it is not hard to be loving because, in nontrivial ways, we are love. The joy and peace love brings to us is known primarily in and through extension to others. There is no other way because we are already what we seek: are already the very home in which we long to rest.

Letting Go of Winning in Favor of Bread

Josef Mitterer makes an interesting point here. Discussing the longstanding tension between constructivists and realists, and how the two groups view science, he notes the following.

Whether scientists see themselves as Realists or rather as Constructivists depends above all on which philosophy (of science) is in fashion. There is no indication that realist-oriented scientists are more successful than constructivist scientists and it makes little difference for the results of our knowledge-efforts whether they are interpreted as inventions or as discoveries.

We tend to take stands, often without noticing, and our “stands” tend to align us with tribal thinking. “I’m a constructivist!” “I’m a Christian!” “I’m a Republican!” It isn’t always rational. Mitterer suggests it may not even be strictly necessary.

the loveliness of a little barn visitor is not contingent on proving it’s either “real” or an “illusion” . . .

When a group of scientists through research, prediction and testing improve a pharmaceutical such that it is more efficacious with respect to disease X, its efficacy is not contingent on whether we equate “research, prediction and testing” with either “discovered” or “interpreted.”

Indeed, the distinction is especially moot with respect to those whose lives are saved by the new drug.

If outcomes do not correlate with identifying as a constructivist or a realist, what does that say about the importance of identification in the first place? Might we scuttle it altogether? Debates about epistemology et cetera are fun and interesting but Mitterer is suggesting that the sides we take in them are effectively interchangeable.

If you go for a walk and an aggressive bear appears on the trail before you, your response is the same whether you are a constructivist or a realist.

Thus, winning the debate – constructivism is right vs. realism is right – isn’t germane to our function. It’s more in the nature of how language resonates (or fails to resonate) in conjunction with our present preferences. We’re all going to flee the bear, but we’re going to describe our fleeing differently.

Which is in part Mitterer’s point.

The conflict between a constructivist proliferation of worlds and a realist reduction towards the one (and “true”) reality needs to be decided according to preferences drawn from presuppositions, which are only imperative as long as we make them . . .

Something similar abounds in our discussions about consciousness – its nature, origin, responsiveness, et cetera. If you come at the question from a spiritual aspect, you’re apt to argue that consciousness is infinite and eternal, contains and is not contained by the material body, and so forth. You’re apt to cite Ramana and Nisargadatta and A Course in Miracles.

If you are disposed to the scientific method, then you’re apt to lean on reductionism: consciousness is just what it feels like when atoms are arranged in a way that makes human observers. Just look at Chris Fields, Douglas Hofstadter, Gerald Edelman.

It’s a fun and interesting discussion. But keep in mind that when the bear comes down the trail towards you, you will flee, and your flight will be the same whether you believe the bear is objectively real or merely an appearance in consciousness. And in that simple fact lies a lovely and liberating truth.

You can say that you’re not a body and that the world isn’t real all you like but notice that you still get hungry and you still eat bread. Notice that the bread you eat came from wheat that was grown in soil nurtured by sunlight and rain, was mixed with salt harvested by human hands, and baked in an oven designed by human ingenuity.

This is not a crisis! Feeling that it is means we are still taking sides in a conflict that is not necessary. Imagine some kind grandmotherly God saying “stop thinking so hard and enjoy this delicious bread.”

It is okay to be happy in an ordinary and embodied way. It is more than okay.

What if – faced with hunger and a loaf of bread – our focus was on finding others with whom to share the meal? As opposed to winning an argument about whether bread or those who eat it are real? What if it’s the argument that’s made up and illusory – not your body and not the bread? Would that be okay?

Giving Attention to Attention

Consider the optical illusion of the old woman/young woman. You see one or the other; and then you see the one you did not see first. Once you know what you are looking for, you can move between the two with ease.

One image, two interpretations (query: are there more interpretations? Could there be?) optical_illusion_old_ldayHowever, you cannot see both at one time. You can know that both exist, but your powers of perceptions limit you to perceiving one interpretation or the other.

This is a handy way of noticing how being a human observer entails both cognitive and perceptual limits, and that those limits are restrictions by which a world with which we can safely and productively interact comes into being.

One of the things we can learn from images like this is that perception is interpretative to some degree. “Interpretative” in this case means that our brains process information in certain ways – taking shortcuts, filling in blanks, correcting for familiarity and function. It does this quickly and efficiently (but not always correctly) and entirely without the consent or involvement of any decision-maker. One can imagine the negative fitness consequences of constantly assessing and reassessing perception. By the time you figured out it was a tiger bearing down on you, you’d be dead.

Again, there is no discrete “self” who is directing this activity – deciding to see at all, deciding what to see and what to not see, what to call what we is seen, how to categorize it, how to respond to it. All of that happens below the surface, as it were – outside of our direct perception. What we think of as the “self” is basically how all those undercurrents look and feel once they’ve reached the surface in the form of thought and activity. That is, it feels like we are separate actors but in fact we are simply another part of the show itself – another ripple in the stream.

(If you doubt that, drop a few tabs of acid (or fast or meditate or have a sustained orgasm) and watch what happens. When we switch up our brain chemistry, sensation changes, processing changes, and the sense of self changes accordingly).

Yet all of these perceptions, sensations and appearances occur within consciousness. That is, absent consciousness, how could they possibly be? In this sense, they do in fact seem to emerge from consciousness. I more or less implied this a couple of paragraphs back. Yet if we look closely at what is happening, is it truly arising from anything? Yes it may seem to be arising – and taking this arising as a literal truth may feel both logical and intuitive – but is it in fact? Can you really say for sure? Would you stake your life on it? Would you stake your child’s life?

Given that so much naturally falls outside the realm of our perceptual and cognitive capabilities (see the aforementioned optical illusion), what is our actual confidence level that our present sense of the self and the world is true? As opposed to just how it seems or feels or appears?

What about your present experience of consciousness suggests that it is not arising simultaneously with its contents? Can you say definitely that a tree or a cat or a book only exists because you are conscious of it?

Is there anything in your present experience of consciousness which suggests it does not arise from a brain? Or that it can’t possibly arise from a brain?

And with respect to all these questions, what is your confidence level? I would stake my life – or any life – on an argument that Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. I would be less confident if the argument was whether Marxism is effectively moral to the degree it actually redistributes wealth downward.

And if the question is: what are the origins of consciousness . . . well, I’d stick around for the dialogue but I wouldn’t be putting my or anyone else’s life on the line.

The suggestion here – or invitation perhaps – is to avoid drawing conclusions, especially when we are relying on religious or spiritual language. “Consciousness is the Source” – “I am that I am” – “Nothing real can be threatened.” Rather than indulge the imagery, language and concepts associated with religion and spiritual practices, just give attention. Just observe. Just experience the observer observing.

Without exception, our religious and spiritual ideas are responsive to our experience, and our subjective experience is fundamentally the same as every other human observer. So look at it. What is happening? What does it feel like? What does it not feel like? What does it imply about truth? About peace and love and justice? What – if anything – does it allow you to say with utter certainty? What conclusions should you draw? What conclusions should you avoid?

And always: how do you know and what is your confidence level in the answers?

Truly, when we give attention in this way, we encounter primarily our stories – the narratives which purport to explain our experience. These stories provide some grounding for our experience – we are awareness, or Jesus is watching over us, or we need to submit to rigorous meditation practices, or do yoga, or get a therapist, or read more A Course in Miracles or fewer neo-advaitic writers.

What if the stories are perfectly predictable outcomes of atoms being stacked a certain way – that is, when atoms are organized in such a way as to be a self-reflexive languaging primate, stories about saviors and infinity and eternity and the All feel necessary and logical?

Would that be okay? Why or why not?

The point here is not to equate all these “stories.” The point is not prove some right while disproving others. Truly, if we get beyond the need to be right about all this stuff, what happens? The suggestion I offer is that we become happy and peaceful in authentic and natural ways, that our happiness is infectious and helpful, and that the world, such as it is and is not, becomes a better place.

Awakening means being less wrong

Awakening is perhaps the wrong word (when we are thinking in terms of some Absolute like God) because it suggests one is (or can be) asleep, when the whole suggestion is that distinctions like “asleep” or “awake” aren’t helpful. They are distractions.

sunlight on the river in spring

There is just this experience presently happening, which may include awareness of itself and may not, without being increased or diminished thereby. Though we can apply terms like “spirituality” and “religion” to it, it is simply a fact of nature.

In a sense, awakening is being less mistaken with respect to experience, where “mistaken” is read literally to mean that we are holding or possessing something that cannot be held or possessed.

The thing is, whatever awakening is, it is collectively and globally accessible. It is natural and simple and clear.

If we consider it to be the purview of a select few – rare beings of spiritual genius – then it’s not awakening.

If it is something one earns through time and effort – as opposed to something one deepens and becomes dextrous with through time and effort – then it is not awakening.

If it is obtruse and hard to explain and only a few super smart, hyper-educated people can converse about it, then it’s not awakening.

There is nothing wrong with having a knack for prayer or peaceful comportment, or for enjoying and practicing meditation and other so-called spiritual practices, or for being attracted to knotty intellectual challenges.

But if we make them the sine qua non of awakening, then we are deluding ourselves, and quite possibly others as well.

Again, the suggestion is that awakening is clear, natural and accessible, and that we are all awake – awakened and awakening – right now. Full stop.

We might compare it to eating. Generally (it is understood there are exceptions in certain cases) nobody has to teach us how to be hungry and how to eat in order to alleviate hunger. We are born with that knowledge. It is inherent.

Not all of us become chefs or gourmands, but all of us know that we eat apples and not hub caps. All of us can slap a few pieces of bologna between bread and eat it. Or just stuff a handful of bologna in our mouths.

Sometimes feeding our hunger is mechanical – we do it reflexively, with whatever’s on hand, while reading or grading papers or driving to work.

Sometimes it is communal – we have family or friends to sit down beside and share food and dialogue. Preparation and presentation matter. We linger.

Sometimes eating is so good it verges on orgasmic. Other times – maybe a lot of times – it’s just meh.

But in all of that, whatever it is, it is. We can do a lot with eating, but it’s always eating, and it is always meeting the same basic simple natural need.

And nobody needs to educate us about that need. We get it, and we do it.

That is not a perfect analogy, of course, but what we are calling “awakening” can be thought of as approximating eating in order to alleviate hunger.

The simplicity and clarity of that is made difficult because we have convinced ourselves that awakening is something other than what it is. So what we are “taking” for awakening – seeking, confusion, idolization of teachers and institutions and so forth – is “mis” taken.

This is a kind of dysunction. It is like standing in the middle of a river and asking where the water is.

Awakening is just noticing what’s here at the moment. The “trick” or “catch” is that we are never not noticing it. When that really clicks, seeking comes to a natural end and we can just attend to what is without a lot of drama and angst.

So, you know, right now you are reading these words and that’s that. You aren’t reading the Bible and you aren’t reading Danielle Steele. You are sitting where you are sitting which means you are not sitting anywhere else. And so forth.

Nobody needs a priest or philosopher or guru to to teach them that when they are eating breakfast they are not running a marathon, or that when they are weeding the garden they are not eating lunch.

Though it has its own problems with convolution and complexity, A Course in Miracles frequently points out that giving attention is all that is needed to translate crucifixion (suffering) to resurrection (peace). What is revealed in, through and by attention is unmistakable.

. . . [B]eing true, it is so simple that it cannot fail to be completely understood. Rejected yes, but not ambiguous. And if you choose against it now it will not be because it is obscure, but rather that this little cost seemed, in your judgment, to be too much to pay for peace (T-21.II.1:3-5).

The tone the course takes here is a bit stern, essentially making “choice” feel like a moral failure if we choose “wrongly.” But really, looking elsewhere for what is right in front of us is very human. Nobody is immune from it and so nobody should feel bad about it.

Still, the general principle is sound – experience is so simple and clear and present that you can’t misunderstand it. Therefore, if we are confused, we must be looking in the wrong direction or at the wrong thing or in the wrong way, and so we just make adjustments. That’s all.

looking north across the beaver pond

It’s like if your food is too bland you sprinkle a little salt on it. Or if it’s too cold, then you pop into the oven to reheat it. It is not a moral or spiritual crisis. The fix is manageable and obvious.

Emily Dickinson understood deeply the natural beauty and clarity of awakening, and consistently expressed how it revealed itself through the present moment held in sacred and loving attention.

By intuition, Mightiest Things
Assert themselves – and not by terms –
“I’m Midnight” – need the Midnight say –
“I’m Sunrise” – Need the Majesty?

Omnipotence – had not a Tongue –
His lisp – is Lightening – and the Sun –
His Conversation – with the Sea –
“How shall you know”?
Consult your Eye!

One need only give attention to what is. It is not a question of knowledge or practice, but experience itself. Attention to experience is itself sufficient.

So in general, when we are talking about something only a few enlightened and deserving people get, then we are not talking about awakening.

Rather, awakening is accessible unconditionally to everyone. The proof is our present experience to which we are right now – and forever – awake, otherwise we would be unaware of it.

In Cambridge, A Breeze

A great deal of energy in the ACIM community goes into being right, which generally means proving others wrong. Or at least persuading them not to ask certain questions certain ways. It is painful, whatever side one takes.

Of course, I have contributed to this demoralizing situation. How else would I know it? The damage isn’t really to the community or the course, both of which are simply patterns of cognition, but rather to our deep interior longing for peace, which cannot be satisfied in a competitive environment.

One of the points I often tried to make – sincerely but brokenly – was that it is not in fact possible to be right or wrong, other than in a relative way.

I say “broken” here because in that writing I wasn’t simply speaking to my own experience and understanding. I was trying to persuade you; I was trying to win you. I wanted something: I wanted to be right, which is to say, I wanted you to be wrong.

Forgive me.

Saying it is not possible to be right or wrong in any absolute – as opposed to a temporarily relative – way sends a lot of course students, a lot of folks generally, around the bend.

For example, many devoted followers of Ken Wapnick are acculturated to his rigid “it’s this, not that” way of thinking. Thus, the possibility of exploring ACIM’s natural concordance with Krishnamurti, or noting that the course perpetuates some very traditional western dualisms, or pointing out that Ken’s scholarship with respect to gnosticism was, um, wanting, can’t really be countenanced. You end up arguing where you meant to be helpful.

And there are folks who can’t bear that Gary Renard might be anything less than an opportunistic lying blowhard. Or that some issues – like supporting gay marriage, opposing literal readings of the Second Amendment, or a moral obligation to feed the hungry – necessarily admit to degrees of right and wrong.

And, of course, there are folks like me who decide that we “get it” – because of how smart we sound when we listen to ourselves, and because we read so much and are very impressed with our reading. This intellectualism and wordiness, regardless of how shallow, becomes a spiritual qualification for instructing others, whether they are asking for help or not.


Earlier this year, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was gently shaken by a breeze that does not allow the one it touches to speak any more about truth or oneness or wholeness. It went full Wittgenstein, saying, “Of that which we do not know, we must not speak.”

And then it made really really clear how little I actually know . . .

It seems clear that if we look into experience, without blinking or substituting or lying to ourselves, then it is not possible to be right or wrong with respect to others. For ourselves, sure. For others, not so much. If we allow them the same freedoms we allow ourselves – which we must, finally – then how can we tell them what to believe? Or not to believe? What to think? What not to think?

It is not that right and wrong don’t appear – they do, manifestly – but that by virtue of their appearance, its very nature and substance, they cannot be weaponized against another.

God, truth, the whole, the absolute, awakening, enlightenment – all are nontrivial ideas forever beyond our ability to know in anything other than a relativistic way. They are surprisingly less interesting – and infinitely less dramatic – when this becomes clear.

And what happens then? When there is no course to teach or to learn? When others are not there for us to measure up against?

For me, there is going slowly. There is study and meditation. There is the deep hard work of doing one’s living and loving in a local way that is premised on love and service, both of which naturally inhere in the human observer. There are models and maps but their helpfulness is contingent and easy to get lost in. Eventually it’s clear: we have to find our own way. We have to let it happen or not happen.

The question is not what does Sean think – not even for Sean is that the question – but rather how what Sean says appears for you, what it loosens and lightens, what it tangles and what it tightens. That is all on you. That is all your own making, your own experiencing.

The language of A Course in Miracles – being so dense and inconsistent, so obtusely Christian, so unsure of whether it’s descriptive or injunctive – no longer serves. Perhaps it never did.

Or did it? And who can say, really? Does it matter?

Earlier today a chickadee perched briefly in the maple tree in the side yard. How perfect it was: how precisely seeing it was seeing. I go with you, because without you I am not. A great loneliness is ended: a great stillness opens.

This happened in Cambridge, a long time ago.

Description vs. Injunction

Imagine that I bake you an apple pie. You tell a friend about it. You might describe the sight and smell of the pie on the table before you. Perhaps you describe the sound of steam hissing from the crust. You might even attempt to describe the taste as you eat it.

Apple harvest!

These descriptions are not without effect. They may – they likely will – trigger memories of your friend’s own pie-eating experiences. They may motivate her to eat a slice of the pie, or share a pie-related memory with you, or even consider baking a pie herself.

Descriptions are an important aspect of being in the world with others. They help us categorize and thus organize our living in resonant ways that make community both possible and sustainable.

However, one thing a description of pie will not do is enable someone to bake a pie. For that, they will need an actual recipe. And a recipe for apple pie does not look, smell or taste like apple pie!

Recipes are injunctive: do this, then do that, then do these other things, and you’ll get X.

Descriptions, while nontrivial, are not injunctive.

No judgment obtains here. Descriptions of pie are helpful according to context. Injunctions – recipes for pie – are helpful in context, too.

It is really a question of what one wants. If you want to inspire someone to bake, then descriptions are very helpful. If you want to actually bake, then recipes are indispensable.

Of course, I am not really thinking of pies here so much as what I – with lots of cultural support – long called “awakening,” which was vague shorthand for transitioning from a less desirable way of being one that was more desirable, where “desirable” was a sort of constellation of happiness, generosity, creativity, inner peace, dialogue, et cetera.

A lot of texts that I read on the subject were essentially descriptions of singular experiences that their authors had had and/or descriptions of what life was like in the wake of those transformational experiences.

Those descriptions did what descriptions do: they enabled me to compare my own experience with someone else’s, reflect on the differences and similarities, and make adjustments to my behavior accordingly.

All this beauty will rise to bless your sight as you look upon the world with forgiving eyes. For forgiveness literally transforms vision, and lets you see the real world reaching quietly and gently across chaos, removing all illusions that had twisted your perception and fixed it on the past. The smallest leaf becomes a thing of wonder, and a blade of grass a sign of God’s perfection (T-17.II.6:1-3).

Who doesn’t want that experience as it’s described in A Course in Miracles?

Another example is Coleman Barks’ (roughshod) approach to Rumi’s poetry. Barks is not actually translating Rumi because translating involves some nontrivial fidelity to the original work. Barks is transposing contemporary spiritual values (in the service of capitalist values) on to the original. Hence, Rumi is sexualized, romanticized, Christianized and – critically – stripped of Islam specifically and religion generally. The original is blotted out in favor of a bland but highly marketable substitute.

When it’s cold and raining,
you are more beautiful.

And the snow brings me
even closer to your lips.

The inner secret, that which was never born,
you are that freshness, and I am with you now.

Barks’ work is popular because it is an effective (nonthreatening, non-demanding) description of what folks imagine awakening or enlightenment will be (represented by an answer to loneliness and a means of satisfying bodily appetites). But because it’s (primarily) merely descriptive, it can’t actually induce the experience it purports to describe. It might motivate us to seek teachers; but it is not itself the teacher.

We tend to conflate description with injunction. It’s easier to describe a pie than to learn how to bake one. But if it’s pie you are really after, you can’t eat a description of one.

So if somebody is serious about “awakening” – or at least in having the experience of trying to have the experience of awakening and seeing what happens consequently – then at some point they’re going to have to jettison the descriptions, no matter how sweet or poetic or otherwise fascinating, and get on to the injunction. Do this, do that.

Last year I taught a writing class centered around a number of cross-cultural traditional and contemporary texts on happiness. It was clear to us as we read and talked and wrote that happiness was effectively a hack. That is, there are things one can do to be more effectively happy. Why not do them?

For example, if you get a reasonable amount of exercise, eat a reasonable diet, touch and be touched by both bipeds (and quadrupeds et cetera), avail yourself of art, do work that is meaningful, then – allowing for variations in neurotypicality – you’re going to be happier. Not perfectly happy or always happy. Just happier.

So as spiritual seekers or however we identify, it is helpful to give attention to what a given teacher or text is doing: is it descriptive or injunctive? The point is not that one is better than the other but that they yield different effects. The real question is: which is most helpful to you where you are?

If you’re happy with descriptions, then great! If you want the thing being described, then find the injunctions – the recipe, if you will – that provide it. If you are not experiencing awakening, and you would like to, then seek out texts that are injunctive and follow them. Avoid texts that merely (or mainly) describe awakening.

Not all injunctive texts are created equal! They do not work uniformly. Every serious pie baker has a favorite recipe; most of them have evolved to an unspoken pie recipe. The recipe that is most helpful to a beginner, will depend a lot on resonances that are not quantitative. What works for us – as a pointer, a practice, a theory, et cetera – will not work for everyone. This does not constitute a crisis!

The point is not to be critical of a given author or text – what doesn’t work for us might work fine for someone else (or for us at a later juncture) – but to give attention to what our needs are and seek out texts and teachers that are responsive to those needs.

The Universe We Are

The universe appears to us as a big, complex, beautiful and terrifying thing and, in a nontrivial way, we are as much a part of that universe as anything else. Black holes, falling stars, dark matter, homo sapiens, maple leaves and house flies. We are made of the same material obeying the same laws. It’s just that we are composed – are patterned – in such a way so as not to be giant suns or cyclones or apple blossoms but rather self-reflexive bipedal primates with a serious gift for languaging.

We are not typically aware of the atoms that comprise us. We see a hand, not the atomic and subatomic particles that when put together just so make a hand. So saying that we and the universe are one is sort of intellectual shorthand. It’s equivalent to saying, if we could see all the way to atomic and subatomic levels, then we’d see that there’s not really a “we” there. It’s just matter mattering.

But at the macro-levels where we do our living and loving and languaging, separation and distinction are very much the order of experience. And that is not a problem! It’s inherent in the perceptual and cognitive abilities of the human observer that we are (or appear as). It’s not a problem to be fixed or an illusion to deny. It’s how things are for things like us. That’s all.

Still, plenty of folks do have actual encounters with oneness that are effectively transformational. These encounters are relatively consistent across time and cultures. Extended meditation, fasting, partaking of certain flora, digging deeply into the afore-mentioned reflexivity or just getting lucky . . . clearly, there are ways for us to not only know intellectually that we are one but also to experience it the way we experience swimming, baking bread and making love.

The thing is, this oneness – especially in its more transformational modes – can be hard both to notice and, once noticed, hard to hold on to in a sustained way. Our ordinary state of mind and experience is premised on separation – that we are a discrete body, moving about amidst other discrete bodies, in a world that is basically endless separate objects like flowers, roads, fire hydrants, dogs, sweatshirts, black beans and hurricanes.

Our sense of being a distinct separate entity is a kind of user-generated illusion. It’s functional and pragmatic and consistent with our humanness but it’s hardly dispositive. It’s not a yardstick for truth or reality.

The appearance of a separate functional self is persistent, even when brought to light by scientists, philosophers, saints, prophets, salespeople and so forth. It is not itself destructive, save for the way that we tend to double down on it – as if we really are separate beings, with separate interests that need defending and protecting, and that justify all sorts of aggressive, greedy and destructive behavior against ourselves and others. If I’m atoms and you’re atoms (scientific shorthand for ‘”we” is actually “one”‘ – then what’s the big deal? Hugging it out is less painful. Compromise is easier.

But you have to see through the appearance. You have to know the appearance as an appearance – as a user-generated interface – even as you make use of it, even as you do your living and loving and languaging in it.

Apparently just knowing these facts, while not unhelpful, is not itself curative. We have to have an experience of wholeness or oneness. We need to see it in a clear way – taste it on the tongue like a rain drop – not as an abstraction but in an embodied way, like making love or eating bread or climbing a mountain.

One way of doing this is to give attention to our experience in a gentle, nonjudgmental and sustained way. Often, when we do this, everything that we need to know is revealed, often by making clear what to read next, write next, study next, pray on next and so forth. And then, over time, after enough of this attentiveness, there is a soft but intense realization that separation is not real.

In the wake of that realization, we realize that it’s okay to be calm, let things go, et cetera. We become gentler – with ourselves and with others. We’re able, in that space, to attend to life with less drama. We exercise a little, eat a little, stay close to those upon whom we depend and who in turn depend on us. We do good, which is not as abstract or vague as it sounds. We aren’t perfect at any of this, but it’s cool because perfection doesn’t matter, unless you are willing to define “perfection” as “exactly the way things are right now.”

Given the Sea, Swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus God, ACIM-style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you’re in the sea, then swim.

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

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

Helpful Spiritual Junctures

For a long time I wanted to be right about A Course in Miracles. Eventually, this desire was superseded by the recognition that what actually mattered was helpfulness. If studying Gary Renard was helpful to someone, what did it matter if I thought he was peddling lies?

A focus on helpfulness is sustainable because in an important sense there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong.” Therefore, efforts to reach and remain with “right” conclusions are hindrances to inner peace.

From the perspective of the body, this is confusing. After all, we can all point to “right” ideas, theories, practices and so forth. We can all point to “wrong” ones, too. Adopting advantageous positions is what the body is all about.

But, in terms of wholeness, the body’s perspective is ipso facto not the whole. It is partial, fragmented. It emerges from and reconfirms separation. Whatever it knows – whatever thought, opinion, idea that it adopts – is by definition also partial and fragmented.

Whenever you think you know, peace will depart from you, because you have abandoned the Teacher of Peace. Whenever you fully realize that you know not, peace will return, for you will have invited Him to do so by abandoning the ego on behalf of Him (T-14.XI.13:3-4).

“Him” in this quote refers to the Holy Spirit, which is undivided present moment awareness.

None of this is to say that we cannot be relatively “right” or “wrong.” In fact, from the body’s fragmented perspective, we can’t not be relatively “right” or “wrong.” But it is important not to confuse “relative” with “absolute.”

Most of us – in our quest for certainty – confuse “relative” with “absolute.”

It is important to see that our quest for certainty is doomed by virtue of that which quests for it. The only certainty is uncertainty. In a real sense, our home – such as it is – rests in not-knowing, in un-certainty.

What A Course in Miracles calls “separation” is simply our resistance to this fact.

If we look into this, we notice that part of bodily experience includes forming maps by which we navigate life. Maps are basically stored collated judgments: civic responsibility matters, God is real and Jesus is his son, greed is a sin, eat vegetarian, college degrees matter/don’t matter, climate change is a myth, floss your teeth, do yoga, don’t tell lies, et cetera.

It’s hard to stake out this or that ground (i.e., put together a map) and not feel like it needs to be defended. After all, it’s our map, it’s vital to our bodily experience and it’s only useful if it’s right. Nobody wants an inaccurate or altogether wrong map. Nobody should be surprised that we feel protective of them.

Often, defending our map means attacking those whose maps appear different, where “attack” means “point out they’re wrong,” however subtly, passive-aggressively, etc. For example, somebody might say that A Course in Miracles and the Dzogchen tradition of Buddhism are synonymous. For them that’s a coherent and helpful map. But your map requires that the course be Christian without any deviation into eastern philosophy or theology.

So you start arguing with them. Maybe you do this to their face, maybe you do it an online setting, and maybe you just do it in your head. The point isn’t the form the argument takes; it’s the existence of the argument at all.

We only argue because we believe something real is at stake. We only argue because we believe something real is threatened.

But “nothing real can be threatened” and “nothing unreal exists” (In.2:2-3).

Thus, once we’re in the space of argument, we’re doubling down on our perception of separation. And to be separate is to be conflicted, and conflict by definition is the absence of peace.

That is why it behooves us to investigate this issue so carefully.

Again, the maps themselves are not the problem; they inhere in bodily experience. They can and should be taken seriously; but too often they are taken literally.

This distinction (taking something seriously vs. taking it literally) matters. For example, in a dialogue about spirituality, “wholeness,” “oneness” and “nonduality” can all point to the same insight. But they can also all point to radically different insights. If we take them literally, we deny their potential for sameness. Yet when we take them seriously but not literally, their potential for sameness clarifies. When this broad applicability is seen clearly, the inclination to argue that one application is absolutely or inherently better than another – is right and the other(s) wrong – largely subsides.

In other words, when we look closely at the premise of our inclination to argue in order to be right, there is a lot of smoke but no fire.

So the important aspect of our maps – whether they are spiritual, cognitive, semantic, et cetera – is their helpfulness, not their “rightness” or “wrongness.” “Right” and “wrong” are distractions. Helpfulness is a form of love because its focus isn’t on form but content.

Another way to think of it is this popular optical illusion.

two_women_optical_illusionWhen we first look at it, we see an older woman. Naturally, we say “this is an image of an older woman.” It seems to be a very defensible position. We are obviously “right.” If someone else comes along and says “no – it’s actually an image of a young woman,” of course we are going to disagree.

But if we keep looking, eventually the image flips – perception aligns differently – and now we see the young woman.

One image that can be seen two ways – both cannot be seen at once; and neither is more or less right than the other. So what happens to our argument that the image is of an old and not a young woman? It dissolves; it’s no longer sustainable. It’s obviously both at once, even though we can only see one at a time.

It’s not that anybody won the argument. It’s not that both sides were “right” (thus allowing for some hypothetical “wrong”). It’s that there are no grounds for argument in the first case.

The suggestion in this analogy is that our sense of being a discrete embodied self is somewhat like that: you can see it from a strictly material perspective (we’re bodies having an experience in the world with other bodies) but that is not the only way to see it. You can see it from myriad religious perspectives (Hindu, Buddhist, et cetera) or from scientific perspectives (Schrödinger is a good read in this regard) or from a post-structuralist perspective (Karen Baraft, say), or from any combination thereof.

Again, the point is not that there is a right or a wrong way to see (or think) about things. The point is that all we can really know is unknowability; there is nothing to be certain about except uncertainty. So the question is: is what shows up helpful or not helpful?

Obviously the spiritual inquiry does not end when we see this clearly. But it is a helpful juncture.

Life Requires No Rehearsal

Life does not require rehearsal: it executes itself perfectly continuously, never pausing to reconsider, never begging a do-over. This does not mean that our response will always be one of pleasure or amusement or enjoyment; it might be the opposite.

But our response is just more of life happening: whatever label we assign it, it’s still just life.

bracken just shy of the river . . .

This is simply a way of saying that what is is what is: it’s this and nothing else. This is all there is. This this, and not any other this.

When we give attention to what unfolds or appears – to what is – it is always there. We are giving attention to what is given to us, in the sense that we do not have to invent or create or amend it. Here is the world, and every one and every thing in it, and every thought and idea about it – given, continuously, without condition or qualification.

We don’t get ready for life because life is always already ready for us. Life lives us; not the other way around. When we observe what is given, we are there too – our thoughts and ideas, our feelings and memories, our habits and appetites, our fears and our hopes.

That which constitutes “us” and that which constitutes “life” are not different. It is like a single river flowing. There are all these eddies, flowing and following their flow, but they’re still just the river.

Someone might say, well, we can practice at certain aspects of living. We can improve at them. That’s a form of rehearsal, no?

It’s a fair point. I am a better writer today than I was twenty years ago because I write consciously daily, study other writers, and so forth.

I am more patient today because I have observed the consequences of impatience, which motivated me to observe the conditions giving rise to it in order to train myself to respond to those conditions differently, more patiently.

But even in the moment of all this “practice,” what is life doing? It is certainly not waiting on me to be more patient or to write in a better way. My “practice” is just life being life. In that moment – in any moment – what else can life be?

What happens subsequently – as a consequence of practice – is always only a dream, in the sense that it’s not here presently, while what is happening presently – what is here presently – is always complete and whole. Nothing is ever absent, even when the present is comprised of longing for what is absent.

Be honest. Can you find one moment of your life which is not complete and whole?

Don’t tell me of a time when you were sad or angry or hurt or otherwise put out. In the moment of your sorrow, your sorrow was perfect, was it not? When you looked at it clearly, was it not there in rich and vibrant and resonant plenitude?

And was your resistance to it not also perfect – full and strong, crackling with judgment? And your dislike – wasn’t that perfect as well? Clear and disdainful, like a well-lit middle finger?

Consider that sorrow and joy are like one sea – when seen in this light, the sea is dull and green and flat. When seen in another light, it is blue and throbbing, spitting salty spray.

The same thing seen two ways according to perceptual circumstances: just so with what we call happiness and grief.

Thus, there is nothing to be done. It is all unfolding precisely – perfectly – as it does. Which is another way of saying that one can do anything: bake bread, pray the rosary, give your honey a massage, go walking in the forest, write a letter, remove a splinter.

If you look at what is happening, there it is happening, and your looking is as much a part of “it” as that which is looked at.

There is nothing special or unusual about this! No training required, no secret handshake. No learning or healing, no willing or choosing. No God or Jesus or other divinity, east or west, large or small, needs to intervene.

This right now – this this – is sufficient unto wonder and delight.

Life is expert; life is prepared; life is performing on the high black wire without a net, no pole for balance, and no cameras taking note. We hold our breath, clasp our hands, turn earnestly to scriptural babble. We think we’re not ready, that we don’t deserve it, but we are and we do.

And really, how could it be otherwise? Can you find even the slimmest of slim spaces between you and life?

Of course not.

This is it: and so are you.