Stillness and Presence

One thing about the present moment is its fullness – which is also a kind of emptiness. Everything is there and nothing is there. There is only thing in the present moment and it has no name and yet everyone knows what it is.

chains in the barn awaiting use

You can’t carry anything into the present. It is fascinating to observe this: if you give your attention wholly to the present, to what is here and now, then you have to let go of everything.

So our anger has to be put aside, and our grievances, and our hopes and dreams. Everything. We can pick them back up if we want – they won’t leave us – but we can’t take them into the present.

The present is still and clear and pristine. It is like the center of the potter’s wheel – the very center – which is still and does not move, and yet its stillness is integral to the whole project (the tool, the materials, the craft, the product).

From the still clear center, the whole emerges in this or that form.

What is being described here isn’t about a religion or a spiritual practice, though it most often shows up in those contexts.

It is just a fact. Attention is a fact: it is here. And it is responsive. You can give it to anything you like – another body, a piece of cake, a book, a song. And you can also give it wholly to the present.

You can bring attention right into the present moment: right into the stillness: right into the silence: into the fullness that is utterly empty.

My practice of giving attention – which a few years ago became a sort of de facto ACIM practice, largely supplanting the lessons – has really become the simple act of being present.

Attention yearns for the present. The more it is allowed to rest there, the more it naturally *is there.

Present moment awareness – what A Course in Miracles refers to as the Holy Instant – is the space in which a natural clarification occurs. We see the way in which our so-called problems – collectively, the ego – are simply constructs that arise in thought.

They only have affects because we give consent to them. They are easily discarded.

It’s true that they are easily picked up again but that’s okay. We can put them down again, too.

And slowly, we begin to acclimate to life in which these constructs are seen for what they are: mere idols for our wandering attentiveness. They are differences enshrined in psychological and spiritual language and so believed. They are ideals by which we hold truth and reality at bay.

They come and go – no more, no less. Therefore we evoke the Introduction to the course:

Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists (In.2:2-3).

The Holy Instant is the experience of knowing this as a fact: not as an idea to be explicated or analyzed. Not as an experience to be hoarded as evidence of our spiritual progress or specialness.

It is simply the simple truth, and the present moment – the Holy Instant – is where we see it most clearly and helpfully.

A Quiet Mind Wants Nothing

The memory of God comes to the quiet mind (T-23.I.1:1).

There are many ways that we can define this use of “quiet” in A Course in Miracles, but for the moment let’s say that it is a mind that is free of “want.” Can we imagine this?

stillness by the garden in late August . . . a quiet mind remembers wholeness . . .

There are two helpful definitions of “want.” The more common reflects personal desire: I “want” this apple, she “wants” the sun to shine, he “wants” a new job.

The second, older definition refers to an interior scarcity or absence – one “wants” grace, that carriage is in “want” of repair.

What is similar across both definitions is lack. Something is missing so the subject in question (be it a self or a carriage) is not whole. It’s fragmented. It’s separate from that which would complete it. It “wants” completion and it “wants” what it thinks it needs to to be complete.

So the suggestion is that a mind that is free of want is a mind that does not see itself as broken or partial. And that is the mind to which the memory of God comes.

Is that our experience of mind – that it is not broken or partial? That it is not fragmented? This isn’t a question of having a clear intellectual grasp on “wholeness” as a concept. Be honest: when giving attention to mind, is there a seamless whole or a bunch of parts variously interrelated, each spilling into the other?

If we are honest and attentive, most of us will say that the mind is fractured. It darts around like a hummingbird – feeding at this image, now feeding at this idea, now flitting off to some new image or idea. It doesn’t do what we tell it to do. There’s a lot of stuff in it that we would prefer not be there.

The kind of thought we are talking about is physical – it arises in a brain that is processing data supplied by the working senses. The sunset is beautiful, our stomach is growling, our spouse is talking to us, it’s almost time to pick up the kids from band practice, et cetera.

Judgment informs this kind of thought. This kind of thought can’t exist without judgment. Our preference for this kind of weather over another, for giving attention to our spouse instead of to the television, for eating a salad instead of potato chips, for keeping track of time in order to ensure our kids are safe and happy . . .

Can we see – by giving gentle sustained attention – that “want” is the premise of thought’s busy-ness because it is an extension of the body? Wanting food, wanting to be a good parent or spouse, wanting beauty or soothing music, wanting to feel energetic rather than bloated and so forth?

In other words, can we see that the “quiet mind” the course refers to is not the mind of the body and so therefore must be something else?

The Christ in you inhabits not a body. Yet he is in you. And thus it must be that you are not within a body. What is within you cannot be outside. And it is certain that you cannot be apart from what is at the very center of your life. What gives you life cannot be housed in death. No more can you (

If we want to know the whole, then we stop looking only at the parts. We don’t make it a problem that has to be solved. It isn’t a spiritual crisis. It’s just not the whole.

The self that is yoked to a body – which includes thoughts and ideas, memories and dreams, hopes and fears, spiritual practices and communities of faith, friends and families and enemies – is not Christ. The self that is yoked to a body fears nonexistence and cannot bear witness to that which it is not. It knows it’s not the whole, but it doesn’t know what the whole is.

That self is in a literal sense the separation. All that flows through it – and all through which it flows – is a product of separation. Sometimes pleasing, sometimes unpleasing but never whole. Sometimes content, sometimes enraged but never the peace that surpasses understanding.

It is very hard to imagine this Christ – this whole mind “at the very center” which “cannot be housed in death.” How do we respond to that which does not arise as a being we can meet? How do we engage with that which does arise an idea we can discuss? To even ask the question – what is this Christ and how do I make contact with it – is to violate the premise. Ask and you shall not be answered.

Wanting this “Christ” doesn’t help us. You can want Christ or you can want crisis, and the want is still the same. Want involves what is not whole perceiving that which it believes would make it whole. It perceives an opposite – a “something else” that was subtracted from the whole and which can be added back.

But again, be honest. Has anything you ever acquired truly ended your seeking? Has any person or job or book or house or anything ever made you whole?

The truth is – from the perspective of the body and the thoughts which appear to animate it – whatever we get is never enough. Want just keeps on running. It’s like an algorithm that won’t stop churning so long as the hardware is there for it to run on.

It is like this “opposite” – this “something more” – is not actually “more” at all. Nor is it “less.” Upon examination, it becomes a concept whose helpfulness is really “hollowness.” It’s a gust of wind on top of a gust of wind. It isn’t *there and so it can’t be brought *here.

If we can see that, then we can see this too: whatever wholeness is, whether we call it Christ or Source or God or Life, we are looking for it the wrong way. It’s here – we’ve got it – but somehow we’re not seeing the fact of it. There’s nothing to get; nothing to give up. It’s all here right now. And somehow we manage to keep overlooking or not noticing this.

We are like children who throw our ball away and then complain loudly that we don’t have a ball. Somebody brings it back to us and we throw it away again. “I don’t have a ball.” On and on it goes.

We can hold the ball in our hands or we can throw it away: it’s still our ball. We can close our eyes and pretend there’s no ball, or look in another direction and pretend the ball is lost, but there’s still a ball and it’s still our ball.

If we want to know the whole, stop looking only at the parts.

When you see a part, say “that’s not the whole.” Don’t make it into a problem to be solved. It isn’t a spiritual crisis. It’s just not the whole. So we aren’t going to call it that.

We don’t have to fix anything. This can’t be said enough. We only have to see the problem where and as it is and the problem is undone. That’s because it’s not a real problem. Withdraw your support and its gone. Stop throwing the ball away, and the ball stays with you. You’ve got the ball.

So maybe we can rephrase the sentence from A Course in Miracles we started with: “The memory of God comes to the quiet mind” (T-23.I.1:1).

Let’s say instead that the memory of God is a quiet mind because it is free of want. It wants for nothing and wants nothing because it has everything. It’s whole. It’s holy. It isn’t ours. It can’t be reached.

But when everything it is not falls away – is seen as unreal – then it’s what remains. It’s all there is.

On Becoming a Servant

What does it mean to be responsible?

It must mean, in part, to give attention to what presents itself and to respond to it in meaningful and helpful ways.

Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles / Meister des Hausbuches

But that begs another question: what does “meaningful and helpful” mean? And who decides?

I think that “meaningful” and “helpful” are actually clear. They aren’t mysteries or puzzles. But we have to be patient and allow them to show themselves. It is like bird-watching, where you have to just be very still and quiet. You have to be patient. You have to wait a little.

One way to think of “meaningful and helpful” is to think of service – to become a servant. More specifically, to make one’s life about every one else’s life. To become the servant of whoever and whatever appears. If we all did this, there would be a lot less conflict. There would be a lot less disorder. There would be a lot less imbalance.

At some point in his teaching career – I think closer to the end – Ken Wapnick began to talk about making our lives about the other person. If you buy a coffee, make the experience about the cashier. If you are driving down the highway, make the drive about the other drivers. If you are talking to your spouse, make the dialogue about them. And so forth.

It is a very practical and non-dramatic way of being, and it is also a lot harder than it sounds. Slipping into the self-centered mode often happens without our noticing it. And even our generosity can be subtly self-serving: look at how spiritual I am being!

In my own experience, as a conscious human being generally, and a student of A Course in Miracles specifically, there has been a sort of slow evolution in terms of responsibility. It has involved a realization that the self – that which identifies as “Sean” – is not actually doing anything but is more in the nature of another image, another idea. So one relaxes into experience and allows it to happen. It is a kind of passive witnessing from a dissolving center.

I recognize that can sound like I am boasting about a personal spiritual accomplishment. But to me it feels more like an acknowledgment of reality. It’s like a guy taking credit for the existence of the stars, and then realizing he’s not the author of the stars, but the stars are still there. So he just enjoys the stars without worrying who put them there, keeps them there, and so forth.

It’s in the nature of a correction, rather than accomplishment.

It’s hard to say why, but as this experience of selflessness deepens, there is a corresponding deepening of the ability to be of service. It’s like the less self one encounters, the more love has to offer, and so offers it in a gentle and natural way.

“Love” in this case isn’t anything dramatic. It doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s actually mostly just about realizing that whatever is going on isn’t about me. So a student worried about writing a paper, or a neighbor whose sheep are always wandering into our garden, or a driver who rear ends me, or whatever, are not happening to “Sean.” They’re just happening. And seeing it that way changes how one responds to it. It changes what it means to be responsible.

This is not a position that “Sean” adopts; it is just a clear seeing of real experience. So the response to those situations doesn’t originate in “Sean” as a function of his intelligence and compassion and will. It arises in a more organic way, a more holistic way.

The form of the specific response isn’t actually the issue (advising the student, helping the neighbor build a fence, reassuring the other other driver it’s okay, or whatever). That doesn’t matter so much. You think it does but it actually doesn’t. If you are very quiet and still, you see that life happens of its own accord. Experience happens. As I said earlier, there aren’t any mysteries and there aren’t any puzzles. You will “know” what to do, in the sense that “what to do” is just there. It just happens.

It’s true that we slip and out of this insight, but forgetting that the self is just another appearance, another dot in the matrix so to speak, doesn’t injure the matrix. Life goes on. It’s like if you turn off the lights in the bedroom. The bed and nightstand and bureau and cat don’t disappear. They’re all there whether the lights are on or not.

It is also true that writing about this stuff is often contradictory. One can get very efficient with “Vedantic semantics” – writing about awakening – and that efficiency can be misleading. It’s tricky ground, and the way isn’t always clear. For me, there is often a lot of stumbling and backtracking. I often feel like a kid in the backseat saying “are we there yet? Now are we there?”

But the mode of travel doesn’t really matter, because we aren’t actually going anywhere. And after a while, it gets easier to remember that and just settle into the ride.

This is not a way of thinking about – or practicing – A Course in Miracles that makes sense to everyone. If it is helpful, great, and if it’s not, that’s okay too. It is in the nature of a suggestion, a sort of “this is what it’s like for me.” Presently my experience includes writing this out, as presently yours includes reading it. Let us be thankful for one another, and be guided accordingly.

Merry Christmas (2016)

There are gentle reminders that we are not alone, and that our awakening from dreams of death and separation into the light of seamless life is sure, and Christmas can be one of them, if we want it to be.

“Adoration of the Magi” / Giotto di Bondone

Christmas is another story in time, another cultural artifact reflective of learning and place, another image that we place before God, and worship in God’s place, but the harm is not to God, nor to wholeness, nor to Life. It is simply a form of delay: of putting off for another day the quiet happiness of resting in Creation as Creation, which is our home.

When we see at last that we – the discrete self called “Sean” or “insert-your-name-here” – is not in charge of anything, and cannot really do anything, and is more in the nature of a ripple in the living waters of Christ, then we can begin to relax into whatever celebration of holiness presents itself. It isn’t that Christmas is right, and it isn’t that Christmas is wrong: it’s that Christmas is here. Now it is Christmas.

So I wake at three a.m. and distribute gifts beneath the tree and stuff stockings with candy and baseball cards and polyhedral dice. I water the tree so it won’t be thirsty. I write a note from Santa to those of my children who still believe in Santa, and I read in my late father’s breviary prayers and intercessions and hymns, and later yet carry hay and a little grain to the horses for whom it is not Christmas but simply another morning in winter. This is how life appears to me: this is what happens.

In Christmas we can give attention to the birth of that which cannot die, and which calls us to partake of its divine and eternal life. This is not a child in a manger, though it may help us to see it that way. It is a Christian ideal, though it may help us to use that language and imagery.

And the life of which we speak is not human – is not contingent on a heart or lungs – and was not really born and so will not really die. It is that which existed before the universe, and which flows in and through the universe, and will remain when the universe is gone. We call it “God” or “Love” or “Light” or “Life” and these words, while well-intentioned, mainly reflect our spiritual poverty because that to which they point cannot be contained by syllables. It contains the syllables! And contains that which utters or writes them . . .

And so one drifts into abstraction or poetry, metaphysics or textual analysis, deep thoughts about inner peace and justice. It’s okay. But in Christmas -if we want and if we are ready – we can turn away from all that. We can sit quietly by and be attentive to the stillness that is never not at hand: we can partake of the joy that is our true being and essence, which cannot be divided, and is wholly given.

So Jesus is born: and we are born with him: and from our kitchens and our barns, with our families and our friends, we sing alleluia in whatever way is fit. In gratitude we become the Lord, and the Lord – in Love – becomes us.

On Concluding

Often it is helpful to go slowly: to not rush to conclusions, and to be aware of the many threads that are present in thought. Attention is a way of asking: what is showing up? What is here?

For most of us, what shows up is some variation on “our” lives. The first-person subjective lens naturally attends our experience and helps to organize it. Nobody is immune to this; nobody needs to be immune. It is just there.

It is helpful to notice this without rushing to explain or define or qualify it. Noticing it is a way of letting it be: of just residing in the sense of “I am.”

We might attend this “noticing” in the spirit of sitting on a beach or the back porch: grateful, aware, relaxed, in no hurry.

We might notice the subtle impulse to be right about experience (it reflects brain-based reticular activating systems), or to reach some conclusion about experience (I am not a body), or discover some spiritual first cause for experience (God).

What is interesting is not so much those options in and of themselves but rather their appearance and what underlies them: the impulse to conclude, and to conclude rightly.

Indeed, the assumption that is possible to conclude, and to conclude rightly.

The suggestion is simply to see this – the impulse and assumption – and to see what happens when we sort of hold them up to the light without acceding to their demands. They are very demanding: believe me! Make use of me! Only me!

And so forth.

What we are doing now is neither accepting nor rejecting them but just noticing them. We deliberately avoid conclusion in favor of just giving attention. What is showing up? What is here?

There is a tendency to fragment, and then to be concerned about the truth of just a little part of the whole. And this is but a way of avoiding, or looking away from the whole, to what you think you might be better able to understand (T-16.II.2;1-2).

It might be noticed that experience is not contingent on understanding, even though understanding is sometimes a nice aspect of experience. However, just as I don’t need to understand the science behind stars in order to behold them in wonder and joy, I don’t need to understand or otherwise manage consciousness right in order to be conscious.

A better and far more helpful way to think or miracles is this: You do not understand them, either in part or in whole. Yet they have been done through you. Therefore your understanding cannot be necessary (T-16.II.2:4-6).

In a sense, this is what it means to say that we are already awake: nothing has to happen in order for us to be awake. Awakeness, so to speak, is already a fact. It is here: it is this.

[I]t is impossible to accomplish what you do not understand. And so there must be Something in you that does understand (T-16.II.2:7-8).

Part of “this” – this Something in us that does understand – includes learning about it, inquiring into it, wanting to share it, and so forth. It includes sometimes just chilling out with it, so that we can visit the neighbors, bake cookies with the kids, watch television, do the dishes. It includes forgetting or losing it, missing it, searching for it, finding it.

And sometimes part of “this” is feeling deeply and wholly unified – not separate
from anyone or anything.

It’s nice when that sense of wholeness is present but it’s still just a passing experience, still just a feeling. It’s no better or worse than a headache or a traffic ticket or a bowl of fresh raspberries.

Again, the inclination to conclude – to decide this is what the self is, this is what life is, this is what God is, this is how to know God and so forth – has a tendency to overwhelm our present experience, which is always all there really is.

Simply giving attention to what is showing up allows us to sense the way in which “the whole” is just another concept that shows up, that “being right” or “being correct” are just more concepts that show up. Even “God” – sacred to many of us – is just a word, just an idea, just a concept.

So we are looking at all that, and it is never not appearing, never not showing up, and maybe what begins to happen in that we relax with respect to the impulse to figure it out, to solve it, to put a pin in it. Fortunately, there’ s no hurry and it can’t really be done wrong.

A Course of Sand Dunes

[The human mind] evolves in a certain way such that it is like any new tool, in that it has its diseases and difficulties. It has its troubles, and one of the troubles is that it gets polluted by its own superstitions, it confuses itself, and the discovery was finally made of a way to keep it sort of in line . . .

~ Richard Feynman

At a point, there was a sense that reading and studying and sharing about A Course in Miracles was somewhat like climbing a sand dune. The harder one worked – the more one dug in – the more the ground gave way. The summit one aimed at was literally being clawed away by the effort to attain it.

Once we see that our efforts are undermining our objective, it is coherent to simply stop. We stop and see what happens. We stop and reassess. Maybe we are looking at the problem wrong, or perceiving the wrong solution. Who knows? Maybe we don’t have to climb this sand dune after all. Maybe there isn’t any problem in the first place.

So we let go and slip to the bottom and take a look around.

In the case of A Course in Miracles, it was seen that my regimen of study and sharing was well-intentioned but aggressive and was itself obscuring the peace and clarity to which the text and lessons generally pointed.

Letting go of that (a year or so ago) was not easy, but it was necessary, and so in a sense, after a flurry of hand-wringing and kvetching, it was easy. A space opened up in my life – the time that had been previously given to the course, the attention given to it and so forth was dissolved and in its place was a sort of stillness. It was like discovering an enormous field. What should you do with it?

When we don’t rush to fill the field, the stillness, but rather let it be, then we might see that the field is already full – of grass and flowers, butterflies, swallows, ticks, whatever. It’s humming along just fine. Stillness, too. This doesn’t mean we can’t do something with the field if doing something is fun or interesting or helpful in some way, but it does mean that we aren’t obligated to do anything. Stillness is not conditional on anything we do or don’t do. Neither is life.

The suggestion is that we are working very hard to do something that needn’t be done. It can be done, but it doesn’t have to be done. And if our goal is peace and understanding and coherence, then maybe all our spiritual activity is counter-productive.

Still, for me in the wake of so much study and sharing, the desire to do something remained. Yet at the same time, it was also seen that the question what should be done could not be answered in an absolute sense and was therefore not a very good question. It was like the sand dune all over again.

Insisting on ACIM or zazen (or celibacy or vegetarianism or psychotherapy etc.) are all forms of resistance. All spiritual doing is a form of resistance. As the course might put it (or one of its more famous teachers anyway), it is a way of getting caught up in the form when what we are really after is the content.

The problem isn’t ACIM or zazen and so forth – they are wholly neutral (which means their helpfulness is always relative). The problem is our insistence that they are it with a capital I. They are the answer. We’ve got It!

The problem is not the spiritual path but the underlying belief that this or that path is right in an absolute – not a relative – sense. And, more subtly, the problem is the belief that there really is some one to do all this insisting and some other one or ones to whom the argument (in favor of ACIM, zazen, etc.) has to be made and won.

So all that had to be looked at very closely, and it wasn’t really a spiritual inquiry. It was dispassionate and logical. Who or what is the self exactly? What is its problem? What is the nature of its relationship to other selves? Who cares? What’s at stake?

It was not a question of reading about the self or writing and talking about the self or adopting someone else’s definitions and answers. That was all familiar static. What was needed now was the clear signal, to whatever degree was possible. And the way that happens is we consent  – through attention – to a direct experience of looking at difficult questions and seeing what answers, if any, are there to be had. If it’s raining and you want to know what rain is like, then you just step out into the rain. Books can’t help and nobody else can stand in a downpour for you.

When we dig into the question of what we are and what the nature of being is, then sooner or later we realize that the subjective first-person perspective which inheres in the human experience cannot know the whole though it can know it does not know the whole.

That is not an especially complicated idea. Nor it is a new idea. In a sense, it is simply an observation of how thought, broadly defined, has evolved and where we now find ourselves with respect to it.

But it is the source of a great deal of incoherence and thus conflict.

We can see the eye and we can see the brain and we can see the function of seeing in terms of mechanics, but we cannot see seeing. “Seeing” is not an object but an effect.

This is not especially problematic as it pertains to sight. However, it is the same thing with consciousness, and that is problematic, or can be.

We can perceive the body and its points of sensation. We can see the brain which collects data produced by the senses. So we can perceive the function of perception in terms of mechanics – how the senses gather data, how the brain organizes it, the reportable perception emerging therefrom – but we can’t see mind or consciousness.

Mind or consciousness is not an object but an effect. We can’t remove consciousness and put it on a table and observe it, the way we can with a heart, say. And if we could objectify consciousness – put it over there on the table for study – with what would we be conscious of it?

Consciousness can’t get outside itself. First person experience can’t become third person experience. Third person objective experience always arises within the first person.

This leads to a kind of illusion. Because it cannot see itself objectively, and thus ascertain what it is and where it comes from, first person subjective experience is apt to allow for the possibility of mystery or divine forces as its source. It indulges superstition. It indulges its indulgences.

The self that we perceive – which is real in its own right – suspects there is more to life, which “more” is hidden from it, and so it begins an arduous search for God or Truth, for that which is the Whole.

And that search is bound to be futile because there is nothing to find. There is no mystery. Nothing is missing. This is it. This this.

We might think of it this way. If our dog is missing, it makes sense to go out and look for our dog. We should pull out all the stops – put up fliers, a website, offer rewards, organize search teams, spend hours in the forest whistling and calling and so forth.

But if our dog is trotting along beside us while we do all this, then doing it is not coherent. It’s not necessary. The dog is here.

So the suggestion is that thought is constantly projecting some absence and simultaneously working to solve the problem that something is absent. It’s a kind of loop, and the answer isn’t to find what’s absent, it’s just to see the loop for what it is and let it be.

With respect to A Course in Miracles – and spiritual seeking generally – in the final sense, they point beyond themselves, effectively ending or undoing themselves. For students who are interested and ready, the course can do this. It can bring us to the far reaches of thought where stillness abides, and truth.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being uninterested and unready. There are lots of ways to try and climb a sand dune and anyway, all that happens at the top – should you get there – is that you have to come back down.

And really, “back down” isn’t a big deal either. You’re at the beach. Go swimming or build a sandcastle. Read some cheesy summer fiction. Show off your abs or admire somebody else’s. It’s okay. It’s more than okay, because we are all here together.

On Error and Correction

We might be tempted to say that the student who sees a snake and subsequently sees it is a rope made a mistake. Thought inclines towards right and wrong so that kind of judgment can seem natural and even necessary. Yet there is a way to see this that is not about mistakes at all.

We see the snake on the path and we recoil. In that moment, based on all the available data, we are “right.” We are seeing a snake and so we react accordingly. We don’t have any information to the contrary. What else are we supposed to do?

Yet a moment later, we recognize that we’re looking at a rope and so the snake is effectively canceled out. The first vision of the coiled object is corrected. It is a rope. It was always a rope.

And we are right now, of course. But does it follow that we were wrong earlier? The wrongness of our earlier vision is only evident based on what we know now; back then, it was right. Back then it was solid.

Still, we might say, “well, sure. It was right. But now that we have all the facts we can see it is clearly wrong. So it was wrong then, too. We just didn’t know it.”

That’s a valid observation, but it rests on the dubious premise that now we do have all the facts, and that we can know that we have all the facts, and so we can rest absolutely assured that our rightness now will never become our wrongness in the future.

But can we really say that? Should we?

What if the rope turns out to be a stick? Or becomes a snake again? What if it’s a water hose? Or an old shirt tossed just so?

Since those outcomes are possible – our earlier shift from snake to rope makes that clear – then we have to allow that future shifts are possible, too. Today’s right may very well be tomorrow’s wrong.

So maybe we can see the way in which our confidence – and the self-righteousness it engenders – is misplaced. Some things seem clear – that there is something in the path, that we thought it was a snake, that it turned out to be a rope.

But inherent in that clarity is the recognition that perception is fallible – that experience is rife with fallibility. This is an interesting observation because we are always so certain that we are right, that what we are seeing and thinking and feeling is correct and real and the only way to see it.

This is a reflexive position: we tend not to be aware we are taking it. We aren’t constantly inquiring into perception – is that really a tree? Are those really birds I hear? We just see a tree and hear birds singing in it.

And that example might seem very simple and basic – a tree is a tree, birds are birds – but as the snake/rope example demonstrates, it is possible to be wrong even about that of which we are presently very certain. The issue becomes cloudier when we think about who we love and who we hate and how we behave in this or that social situation.

If we look closely and openly, then we might notice that it’s almost as if thought is at odds with the fact that “the known” is not really “all the known” or “the whole known” but is only “part of the known.”

It is by its very nature fragmented, and we cannot escape that. We can only notice it.

So the suggestion is that we give attention to the ways in which thought and perception are misleading or slippery. This isn’t like facing down a snarling ego or peering into the abyss. It’s just the nature of things. All we can do is be aware of it so that when it comes up we can check it – we can be cautious and attentive before rushing to judgment.

At first blush, this kind of attentiveness and passivity is destabilizing. The center turns out not to be so central, the foundation not so sure. But in time it might also reveal itself as a kind of calming force. It takes some of the pressure off and allows us to let life be as it is without having to be responsible to it or for it.

Of course judgment and preference will keep on keeping on. But that’s not a problem. We might think of it like going to the bathroom. Most of the time that’s a barely-noticed physical experience – we have to go so we go – but sometimes it’s very pleasant, sometimes urgent or even painful, and sometimes stressful.

Going to the bathroom is all of that depending on where we’re at with it in a given moment but whatever it is, however it shows up, we don’t make a metaphysical issue of it. We aren’t asking: why do I pee? What is peeing? Why can’t I pee better?

It’s just peeing, right? And like that, thought it just thinking. The former is a hint about how to handle the latter. Let thought be thought and see what happens.

On Remembering to be Grateful

The debt I feel to A Course in Miracles is large; yet simultaneously, it is known that there is nothing to be in debt to, nor a self to be so indebted.

This paradox is problematic only if one expects language to function differently than is its nature. Words are separative – once they are employed, separation is afoot and it is hard to avoid slipping into its shadow.

On the other hand, it is also possible to be aware of this difficulty, and to simply use words as skillfully as possible. This applies not only to speaking or writing them, but also to listening to and reading them.

Always ask: to what is the writer/speaker pointing? And always give them the benefit of the doubt. It is very interesting to give attention to cooperation, especially with respect to these kinds of spiritual or philosophical inquiries. The potential is there; why not make use of it?

A Course in Miracles was a final stop for me on the spiritual quest/religious seeker expedition. It was the top of the mountain – the stars so close you could kiss them – before heading back down (because that what summit experiences are for – to teach you how to descend). I gave the course all my attention and effort, such as I was able, and it rewarded me by undoing both God and self, which is another way of saying it made clear the distinction between what is true and what is false.

Everyone wants to know what this means or feels like or whatever but we have to figure it out for ourselves. Anyone who pretends otherwise is still confused. It’s true that a good teacher will help us “figure it out” but – again, paradoxically – these teachers rarely identify themselves as teachers. They’re just people who show up with certain insights and behavioral patterns that, when briefly in congress with our own insights and behavioral patterns, make the next step clear.

Eventually, the “next step” is seeing that there is not only no next step, there are no previous steps either.

But saying that that way is being too clever, really.

The apparent bifurcation of reality – I am a subject perceiving objects – is problematic mostly because we tend to see the “I” as somehow other than subject or object. In fact, we create a subtle trinity – subject and object and the “I” that knows them both.

But really, this “I” – this ego or empiric self or whatever – is just another object within subjective awareness.

Once we get clear on that, then everything else sort of slides into place. There is nothing to do and nobody to do it.

This doesn’t mean that life becomes a matter of celestial light shows and operatic angels. On the contrary, life continues pretty much the same as it always did. How could it not? The appearance of doing and more specifically of bodies doing the doing just keeps on keeping on.

It’s like being at a play and mistaking it for reality and then suddenly realizing it’s only a play. The play goes on but now we know what it really is.

My Zen friends says things like “before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water and after enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.” I’ve used that phrase myself, being more or less shameless about semantic pollination.

And I think it’s helpful in one way because it makes clear that nothing dramatic is going to happen in terms of experience but it is distractive in another way because a lot of people – and I am one – have used it over the years to justify all sorts of stupidity and silliness along the lines of “I’ve got it and you don’t” and whatever loveless shenanigans go along with that.

The crucial aspect of that chopping wood/carrying water phrase is “after” because it makes clear that something has happened and, as a consequence of that something, everything else is now clear. And in this clarity, everything else is the same but it’s also not remotely the same.

All of this really boils down to the belief that whatever “I” is, it’s real and capable of causing things (as opposed to being just another effect, just another appearance). It’s deciding things, organizing things, feeling things, making progress, falling behind, and so forth. Who doesn’t feel that way?

But when we give attention to it – especially to the inherent subjectivity of it – then this “I” is eventually seen as simply an appearance showing up from time to time. No matter how persuasive it appears and no matter how frequently it appears it is still only as real as any other mirage.

Thus, believing in it as a kind of source or agent or center is incoherent. Life doesn’t have a center; it doesn’t have a creator. Our belief to the contrary is the separation. It’s that simple.

This is why A Course in Miracles can say there is only one mistake with only one correction, despite the appearance of its many forms all appearing to demand many forms of correction.

You have no problems, though you think you have. And yet you would not think so if you saw them vanish one by one, without regard to size, complexity or place and time, or any attribute which you perceive that makes each one seem different from the rest (T-26.II.3:3-4).

This belief in a separate self  at risk of loss and eventually death is what effectively makes separation real – at least as an experience. But if it’s wrong or incoherent, then what’s the problem? There isn’t one.

The thing is, you can see this fact clearly and slip right back into trying to fix it. But trying to disbelieve an insane belief or otherwise rid oneself of it doesn’t help because it reinforces the idea that a) there is something to believe or disbelieve in and b) that there is somebody who is in charge of that belief and disbelief.

So what can we do?

Well, it helped me to become a devoted student of A Course in Miracles. Believe me when I tell you it would have been a lot easier had some other path presented itself. But as my great aunt used to say, “you dance with the one that brung you.” And there is no doubt that it was A Course in Miracles that grabbed me by the arm at the spiritual disco and said “no more holding the wall up – let’s get out where the mirror ball’s brightest.”

But that’s just me. A Course in Miracles is not inherently any more or less helpful than Zen or Catholicism or Islam or therapy or LSD. But one might experience it as such, and if that is the case, then why not go all the way?

That logic worked for me. Over time it pointed me to teachers that a lot of other ACIM students don’t both with or even actively resist – David Bohm, Edmund Husserl, Roland Barthes, Emily Dickinson, to name but a few.

Lots of fingers all visible in the light to which they were pointing . . .

Out of the daily lessons, and study of the text and related material, and the many teachers whose work I read and pondered and wrote about, a practice (for lack of a better word) slowly emerged.

I began to give attention.

Giving attention is not precisely meditation or prayer though it often resembles them. The semantics don’t matter very much. It is really a question of simply being present to everything that arises as it arises – objects, ideas, feelings, theories, emotions and so forth.

I call what arises “the welter” but again, who cares what I call it?

The essence of this attention is that it includes the desire to exclude things (that we are scared of or critical of or whatnot). It is nonjudgmental and gentle and sustained, to the maximal extent. This means that one can see the welter clearly and more or less whole, more or less intact.

Then, sooner or later, one recognizes the way in which everything is naturally included in life – even that which is apparently being excluded.

Sooner or later, one realizes that the self cannot stand inquiry and collapses in on itself, without ever injuring or impairing life itself.

Sooner or later, one sees that something is happening, even if one can’t say precisely what it is or why it is.

And sooner or later, one sees that this something – whatever and whyever it is – is not contingent on a discrete and empirical observer who can be named and set apart.

Again, there are a lot of ways to experience this – philosophy, meditation, therapy, drugs, combinations thereof and so forth – but all one is really seeing is that which is actually there, the whole of which cannot be defined or grasped. Ease with the fundamental mystery doesn’t erase the mystery but – paradoxically – it does erase its mysteriousness.

An analogy I sometimes use is that of eddies in a brook. I happen to like brooks and rivers and spend a lot of walking beside them, sitting beside them, swimming and fishing in them and so forth.

Eddies are real – they are little currents with distinct forms. They have a past and a future. They have effects, pushing other eddies this or that way, yielding up new eddies and so forth.

But for all of that, they are really just the brook being a brook.

Part of a brook being a brook is to have these apparently separate eddies, and part of an eddy being an eddy is to apparently originate from and return to the brook.

When the eddy dissolves, the brook is still there.

So the suggestion here is that being human is like an eddy in the river of life. That’s all. We are akin to currents playing out within the whole – not separate from the whole. And sometimes those currents ask what they are and where they came from and so forth. They don’t have to perform that inquiry – there’s nothing special about doing so – but sometimes they do.

That is where you and I are, more or less.

The answer to these apparently profound and challenging questions – what is God, what is life, what is the self – is not complicated or mysterious but it can seem that way so long as the eddy insists that it is not the brook being a brook but is something other than the brook.

If we stay with the analogy, we can see the incoherence of that position clearly. The eddy sets itself up as something it is not in order to study what it is. You want to tell the eddy to just chill out and enjoy the ride. Just be an eddy, man. Just be the brook being a brook this way.

The eddy (like the egoic self) can insist on this separation – eddy here, brook there/self here, God there – and get very intellectual and fundamentally dogged about all of it but all this effort and intensity does not – can not – undermine the basic fact that the eddy is still just a current in the brook.

It’s still just the brook being the brook.

That’s just a way of looking at the problem of separation, or thinking about it. It’s not offered as some fundamental or new truth in and of itself. But perhaps it is helpful.

If you are a student of A Course in Miracles, then be attentive to it and whatever practice emerges therefrom. Don’t worry what anybody else is doing or saying. Help what helps you help you. No big thing.

And if you want to shuffle on and try something new, or stop trying altogether, then great. Shuffle on. Or take up knitting. Or just sit on the back porch and watch chickadees. You can always shuffle back to the course or the church or the endless litany of personal problems when and if it seems appropriate. In the end, nobody is going anywhere so what’s the rush?

After all, here we are, you and I, at the end of a ridiculously long post which really only wanted to say: thank you for being here.

Thank you.

Mutuality of Being and Nonbeing

The Tao Te Ching observes that ‘to be’ and ‘not to be’ arise mutually. The one includes – necessarily makes possible – the other. It is like holding a coin and asserting that only the side we “see” exists; of course both sides exist. How could it be otherwise?

Thus, as soon as one says A Course in Miracles is the way, the truth and the life, then Zen is also the way, the truth and the life. And the Catholic church. Atheism, too.

As soon as we say that democracy represents the future of human culture, then communism represents the future of human culture. As soon as someone says “turn the other cheek,” somebody else says “the art of war is of vital importance to the state.”

And so forth.

The emergence of a reference point always yields other reference points, whether we are talking apparent big-ticket items like Being or minor stuff like vanilla ice cream vs. chocolate.

Indeed, all those apparent differences point to the underlying illusion: that choice is real and so is the chooser.

This is not a problem that needs to be solved, though it often presents as one. We cannot end duality by arguing against it.

However, it may be helpful to be clear about the insistent presence of apparent opposites, the relationships that appear contingent upon them, and the self that perceives and engages with them. Conflict arises when relative viewpoints appear to clash with one another, making the victory of one over the other seem both necessary and inevitable. But if both viewpoints are illusory, and are seen that way, then there cannot really be a conflict.

When we see an illusion as an illusion, all that ends is our sense of it as “real.” The ancient Hindus used the example of a rope mistaken for a snake on the path. So long as one perceives a “snake,” then the rope is a snake, and one responds accordingly. But when one realizes it is only a rope, then the perception of the snake ends, and the response to the snake ends as well. It’s just a rope. It always was just a rope.

In that example, the snake is the illusion of the real; the rope is the real. When perception aligns with reality (is brought to and subsumed by knowledge as a student of A Course in Miracles might put it), nothing changes and yet everything changes.

A Course in Miracles suggests that “[s]alvation is a borderland where place and time and choice have meaning still, and yet it can be seen that they are temporary, out of place, and every choice has been already made” (T-26.III.3:6).

The course is dualistic. It appears within a context where choice has meaning because loss and gain appear real. The ACIM curriculum reframes this apparent choice not in terms of what is “correct” but what is most “helpful” in terms of seeing that there really is no choice nor one to choose. Heaven was never lost and so there is nothing to seek or regain (T-26.III.5:2), and God has only one child – not a whole bunch all vying for attention (T-9.VI.3:5) – so we all have all the love there is.

There is no basis for a choice in this complex and overcomplicated world. For no one understands what is the same, and seems to choose where no choice really is. The real world is the area of choice made real, not in the outcome, but in the perception of alternatives for choice. That there is choice is an illusion. Yet within this one lies the undoing of every illusion, not excepting this (T-26.III.6:1-5).

The course can help us discern the true from the false and on that basis, “choose” what is true, though this choice is really choiceless. It’s similar to the “gateless gate” of Zen. Before you pass through it, the gate is real and attainable. After you’ve gone through it, there isn’t any gate and there never was.

Emily Dickinson charted this experience – perceiving the whole from within the fracture and knowing (and loving deeply) both – with considerable insight.

Without this – there is nought –
All other Riches be
As is the Twitter of a Bird –
Heard opposite the Sea –

I could not care – to gain
A lesser than the Whole –
For did not this include themself –
As Seams – include the Ball?

Or wished a way might be
My Heart to subdivide –
‘Twould magnify – the Gratitude –
and not reduce – the Gold –

From within the illusion, opposites, the choices they engender, and the conflict thus begotten all appear logical and inevitable. They appear natural.

Yet it is also possible to intuit that which lies beyond words – the whole that includes the parts by transcending them, even if from the limitations inherent in our first-person subjective experience, the whole cannot actually be grasped or known.

A split mind cannot perceive its fullness, and needs the miracle of its wholeness to dawn upon it and heal it. This reawakens the wholeness in it, and restores it to the Kingdom because of its acceptance of wholeness (T-7.IX.4:4-5).

This isn’t something that happens to the discrete empirical self; it is the undoing of that self by what contains/creates it. It can’t be forced or learned or accomplished. It just happens. It’s just happening.

Philosopher Archie J. Bahm offered a wordy translation of the Tao Te Ching, the first chapter of which reads:

Nature can never be completely described, for such a description of Nature would have to duplicate Nature.

No name can fully express what it represents.

It is Nature itself, and not any part (or name or description) abstracted from Nature, which is the ultimate source of all that happens, all that comes and goes, begins and ends, is and is not.

But to describe Nature as “the ultimate source of all” is still only a description, and such a description is not Nature itself. Yet since, in order to speak of it, we must use words, we shall have to describe it as “the ultimate source of all.”

If Nature is inexpressible, he who desires to know Nature as it is in itself will not try to express it in words.

To try to express the inexpressible leads one to make distinctions which are unreal.

Although the existence of Nature and a description of that existence are two different things, yet they are also the same.

For both are ways of existing. That is, a description of existence must have its own existence, which is different from the existence of that which it describes; and so again we have to recognize an existence which cannot be described.

We might use “God” or “Life” in place of “Nature” and see how those sentences resonate.

Words are symbols. They point to things (including, sometimes, themselves). When they are used skillfully, they can shift our attention from illusion to reality. They cannot become that reality; but they can gesture towards it.

That is where we are now: in the presence of words pointing to that which cannot be expressed through words. It is tempting here to fall back into the particular illusion: the apparently discrete self choosing between myriad options, making things happen, taking this or that stand.

Yet can we – even briefly – see how all of that apparent choosing and apparent being simply runs by itself and includes what we tend to believe is a separate self with agency?

What it means, how it arises, what its source is . . . we can’t say. But that it is we can say with certainty.

Perhaps in the end awakening really only means realizing that nobody is sleeping and so nobody can actually wake up. There is nothing to look for and nobody to do the looking. We dream: and dream we are dreaming: and dream we wake up.

Emily Dickinson again:

How good – to be alive!
How infinite – to be
Alive – two-fold – The Birth I had –
and this – besides, in Thee!

And thus we are back at the beginning: the mutual arising of being and non-being. The particular and the general; the way and the no-way. The one is not superior to the other; and neither is absolute. Both point in their way to the ineffable. We are not what we believe we are: nor are we anything else. And yet, how certainly wonder-full this infinite being in Love . . .

The Seeking that Comes and Goes

So long as there is seeking, there will be people who appear to have answers, and who will share those answers as part of an exchange – for money, for worship, for intimacy and so forth.

There is nothing wrong with this. When questions are projected, answers appear. When answers appear, acceptance or rejection of answers appears. Acceptance and rejection both beget new questions.

It is sort of like the forest. Trees have leaves and because they have leaves, some or all of those leaves fall to the ground. When leaves leaves fall to the ground they decompose. From the resultant mould, new trees appear.

Seeking is just part of a cycle that includes finding. What is found is never enough and what is sought is never actually found.

There is nothing surprising about this. There is nothing right about it. There is nothing wrong about it either.

Rather, it is interesting in that cycle to see where our attention is going. Are we looking for answers? Playing with answers? Extending answers to others? What answers?

The appearance of answers is helpful because they point back to the questions being asked. Often, those questions aren’t the subject of attention because they are disquieting or disturbing and so they are quickly projected.

We hate uncertainty so we ask a special person to handle the questions for us. Sometimes we pretend to be that special person for others. Tara Singh called this the lovelessness of “I’ve got it and you don’t.”

But if we can get a good look at the questions, without the drama of gurus and guides, of right and wrong, then we are closing in on the source of disquiet itself. What is so painful about these questions that we don’t want to just look at them?

A Course in Miracles often shows up in people’s lives when they are ready to have a direct experience of God – that is, when they are ready to look closely at the appearance of separation (self here, God there) in order to learn that this separation is illusory – it appears real, but it is not real.

In alternately gentle and intellectually convoluted ways, the Course invites students to question the appearance of separation. Eventually this questioning reaches the questioner: who is doing all this asking? What is their real problem?

Those questions cannot really be answered in an external way. Certainly there are people who profess to answer them. Certainly there are religious traditions that profess to answer them. But the truth is that when you reach the questioner, you are alone. And the first thing the questioner says is, “we need help. Let’s get someone else in here. Who should we get?”

The questioner isn’t real – it’s more of a pattern or condition. It’s sort of like when you hit ctrl-alt-del: the computer doesn’t give you a a box of chocolates and long-stem roses. It doesn’t start crooning Bob Dylan songs. It shuts down. That’s what it’s programmed to do. It can’t do anything else. If we expect it to do something else, then we’re going to be disappointed.

The questioner just asks questions: it doesn’t really know how to question itself. It doesn’t even really care about answers. One can say things like “question questioning” or “question the questioner” but that just leads to an infinite regression. Those statements sound clever, but they don’t actually lead anywhere.

The suggestion here is to just sit with it – the questioner, the projections, the answers. All of it. See how it all runs without interference. The questioner questions and answers appear but if we are attentive, we see that this happens somewhat automatically. It’s as natural as shivering when it’s cold and sweating when it’s hot.

This is helpful to see! It means there is no need to attend to it. We can let it all be.

What happens when we are no longer rushing to know? What happens when we are no longer insisting on the prerogatives of the seeker? Where is the guru when the seeker is no longer seeking?

It may be seen simply that there is only wholeness naturally encapsulating questions and answers, seekers and gurus, Buddhas and Christs, trees and leaves, dogs and their walkers, and clouds at 4 a.m. that cover up a waning moon.

This wholeness cannot be objectified – it can’t stand outside itself. It can’t break into parts, one of which studies the balance and calls it “wholeness.” It can be gestured toward – skillfully or otherwise – but it remains both invisible and indivisible.

Often, we confuse “peak” experiences as being more “whole” than anything else. For example, in the ACIM community a lot of so-called students are deferential to so-called teachers who have seen lights or are in dialogue with ascended masters or been directed by Jesus to scribe supplemental texts to Schucman’s work.

The point isn’t that those things can’t happen – the point is that it doesn’t matter whether they happen. They are just experiences, no better or worse than washing a toilet, baking a loaf of bread, or kissing an old lady’s cheek.

Experiences come and go. Preferences come and go. Coming and going comes and goes. That is the nature of the whole. It is never more or less itself, and we are neither near nor far away from it.

this moon
is the only moon –
and yet the clouds and I
keep passing