Being Homo Amans: Happiness as a Spiritual Practice

I say sometimes to my students: “take what you learn and act in the world with it. Do something.” And when they ask what they should do, I tell them to help somebody in a way that makes both parties happier than they were before the encounter started.

Related to this – especially when it comes to spiritual paths and practices and the inevitable contentions when one relates with them – is to have as one’s standard in this domain be that what’s right is what works.

sideyard lilac
lilac in the side yard

Let me briefly address those two ideas.

First, it is important to allow our ideas and insights to have full run of the bodies in, through and to which they occur. If you are having ideas about peace, then behave peaceably. Don’t screw around by being casual or self-deprecating. Jesus and the Buddha were just people, like you. Beget peaceful practices that themselves beget peace. If that is not happening in your living – if everything is remaining at the level of the intellect – then something is wrong. The circle is not connecting, or closing. The wheel can’t go.

I am not disparaging the intellect. Praise and glory to the inner librarian, the inner scholar, and the inner cartographer. Truly! But a librarian without a writer of books is lost. A scholar without a classroom is lost. A cartographer without an explorer is lost.

You see where I am going with this.

I propose that we think in terms of identities – or essences – that make one another possible, that define and empower one another, so that what emerges is not one or the other but rather a relationship. Absent the explorer, no cartographer, and absent the cartographer, no explorer. You might think of the yin yang symbolism as an apt image. Somewhat less elegantly, you might imagine a bear eating blueberries, then shitting the blueberry seeds in sunlight so new bushes will grow, which in turn feed more bears who in turn shit more seeds . . .

Since I like bears and blueberries, I’ll use those images to build out the second idea. I proposed that a way to think about spirituality is to ask if it works. Is it helpful? If your spiritual practice has peace and justice as one of its goals, then are you helping instigate peace and justice? If yes, okay. Keep doing what you’re doing. If no, then reevaluate.

So there is this system we call a bear and it eats these berries, which are little systems themselves. The bear wants to make more bears, and the berries want to make more berries. This is a way of saying how life loves itself, how its aim is just to keep going, keep flowing. Life is what recreates itself, in and through all these observers, some of whom – like us – are aware of the the flow and some who aren’t. The flow doesn’t care; it just is. But it is sweet to see it – sweet like blueberries, rough and beautiful like bears.

The blueberries work for the bear because they energize her and satiate her, and they can do the same for her little cubs, if she has any. They help her be a living bear and to bring forth her bearness. But it works for the berries, too, because even as they lose their autonomy in the bear’s jaws, their seeds are set free in a most fertile way. As the bears brings forth her bearness, the blueberries bring forth their blueberryness. It works for both parties, you see?

You want to be happy. I want to be happy. I don’t mean the silly ersatz happiness of our team wins the Super Bowl, or we just ate a slice of fresh-baked bread with butter and cinnamon, or had some really great sex. Those things are fine – they are more than fine, really – but they are like fireflies compared to the great lantern of joy that is our inheritance and essence.

horses grazing the far pasture, watching them from the woods

Happiness is what doesn’t come and go. It is not touched by external circumstances, which of course include your personal response to those circumstances. When we are happy we are helpful in a direct clear way because all that matters is extending our happiness. Joy wants to be shared, the same way life wants to be shared.

The blueberry is sweet and nutritious and so the bear wants it and takes it, and the way she consumes the berry maximizes the berry’s potential to become a new bush redolent with new berries. That is the nature of berries and bears. Our nature is to be happy and to extend our happiness through sharing, being nearby, co-creating, et cetera. We are loving creatures, what Humberto Maturana characterized as less Homo Sapiens than Homo Amans.

So I say: go do something today, something that works. And you will know it works by the measure of joy it brings you. Joy is infectious; it travels, radiates, disperses. It’s like a bear in a blueberry patch, a blueberry seed in bear scat. What makes you happy? Deeply naturally productively happy? Do that. That is your spiritual practice.

Spirituality and Wild Goose Chases

The idea there is some external purpose to life – divine or mystical or otherwise – is problematic in the sense that it tends to promote wild goose chases and inattention to what’s right here right now.

light, crucifix
light, openings, crosses, rafters . . . the space in which we find ourself tells us a story about our self . . .

We are “children of a loving God,” or we are “sleeping spiritual beings surrounded by a light which gently awakens us,” or there are ascended masters of various sizes, shapes and proclivities who have secret wisdom to offer . . .

These (and other) narratives are old stories born of an unwillingness to stay with the present moment, and the uncertainty (or unknowing) that such staying mandates. They are designed to magnify the self (even – sometimes often – under the guise of undoing the self) by giving the self something to do, like search for itself or for God or for Truth.

There is nothing wrong with these stories, other than that we believe them to be true and make use of them accordingly. An adult parent who believes in Santa Claus isn’t hurting anybody, but his children might be disappointed come the morning of December 25 when there’s no gifts under the tree.

It’s not a question of letting go of distracting narratives but simply looking beyond or through or around them. Think of them as blossoms in a garden that has absorbed all our attention; now we want to see the leaves and stems, and the smaller flowers here and there, and the cool shadows close to the earth, and the ants and so forth.

Attention and observation of the present moment in its fullness is literally the work of a lifetime, and it doesn’t help to be running after imaginary angels and gods and scriptures and so forth.

One way to think of this is to distinguish between the narrative we make and the narrative we are given. The latter is peaceful, even when ostensibly violent or conflicted, while the former reinforces and reifies conflict, no matter how apparently pure and noble our intentions.

In my own experience, which may or may not be helpful, what works is to become aware of the nature of attention – its scope, its responsiveness, its operative fullness – and simultaneously to let attention be, or at least discover the limits of “my” relationship to it.

The suggestion is that there is no “you” or “I” directing attention, though those pronouns and that which they temporarily signify do show up within attention. But their appearance is more in the nature of a reflection than anything solidified or capable of agency. They are helpful in a limited way.

I say “suggestion” in order to be clear that experience or being in these respects may show up differently for other folks. Those differences are generally only slight differences of degree, but the semantics employed to express those differences can admit to gaps one can ride an elephant through.

It’s good to go slow and not be in any rush to build a tribe or even get anywhere in particular. The collective has already found us, and “the way,” strictly speaking, does not require any discernment on our part.

Of course, it can sound silly to say that – even mystical. It can sound like some sort of divine imperative to be a couch potato or slacker or just existentially indifferent.

But the suggestion – there’s that word again – is that the opposite is more accurate. There is work to be done, learning and teaching, communication awaiting sundry embodiments. Absent a central director – God or self – life doesn’t stagnate but opens into a dynamic flow, flowering even, where the focus is not on outcomes or advantages, save in the broadest and most abstract sense.

It is a paradox but “you” become most peaceful and productive and creative when there is no longer an “you” to be found, and the world is saved – which is to say, made anew in us – once we stop our endless fixation on its shortcomings and griefs.

Love Comes Naturally

Yet it is natural to love one another. It does not take effort or discipline; we don’t have to be taught. Love arises in us as a condition of our being. You could say that we are love, and does it not feel true? Does it not feel like you did not say those words alone but in concert?

facing east, surrendering

In the hayloft where I write three windows face east. Glass bottles line the dusty sills, prisms hang in the panes. At dawn, as the sun rises, the room fills with a glorious light; rainbows glide across the walls and floors. At times I cannot bear this loveliness and have to look way. Other times it makes me as happy as if war itself were forever dissolved, the hungry fed and the imprisoned set free.

And yet war goes on. Hunger goes on. The prisons are full. The poor cut their pills into quarters. So my studies go on, laying me low, brushing me aside, lifting me up . . .

Why? What is the cause of this long sufferance? And what if anything shall we do to end it, you and I?

In A Course in Miracles, “separation” is the belief that we have an identity apart from Creation itself. But the course teaches that this belief is an error.

You have not only been fully created, but have also been created perfect. There is no emptiness in you. Because of your likeness to your Creator, you are creative. No child of God can lose this ability because it is inherent in what she is . . . (T-2.I.1:3-6).

In his essay Biology of Love, Humberto Maturana noted that “love is the grounding of human existence,” but acknowledged that we are alienated from this basic truth.

In the blindness that the negation of love creates in our living, we stop seeing ourselves as part of the harmonious interconnectedness of all existence in the unending dynamics of life and death, and we begin to live guided by ambition, greediness and the desire for control . . . we suffer because we become denied by the very same world and psychic existence that we are bringing about, as this is a world and psychic existence that denies the fundaments of our existence as loving animals.

Thus, as A Course in Miracles points out, “[T]he secret to salvation is but this: that you re doing this unto yourself” (T-27.VIII.10:1).

No matter what the form of attack, this still is true. Whoever takes the role of enemy and of attacker, still is this the truth. Whatever seems to be the cause of any pain and suffering you feel, this is still true (T-27.VIII.10:2-4).

and love
and miracles

We are loving beings who make systems by which our capacity for love – but not love itself, never love itself – is thwarted. And yet as we construct these systems, so can we also deconstruct them. We can give careful and sustained attention to what obstructs the free flow of love in and through our being and do the necessary work of clearing space, opening channels, and getting out of the way.

For it is work and it is not easy. It takes effort. It takes discipline. It takes time and energy, more than we might care to give. We have to learn to see the fundamental deception in a sustained way, which is the only way it can be dissolved. We have to see the deception of self-satisfaction – “I’ve done enough” or “I’m all done” or “It’s too hard / confusing / unrewarding.” It is the hardest step of all.

For the work is not to perfect our own being but to clarify it through service and contemplation so that the world itself – the collective that holds the individual as dearly as it holds the all of us – might remember its natural inclination to love. Tara Singh said to be fully awake was to be always learning.

A student has to give life for life.
Learning is to Be the Children of God.

(Tara Singh, The Voice that Precedes Thought 155)

the light you bring,
A Course in Miracles

So I go on reading the difficult texts. So I surrender to what I cannot understand, what yet baffles me, what ruins me and in my ruin lifts me up. So I open my eyes to loveliness and to that which would obscure and denigrate and end loveliness. For it is through the clear seeing of our own poverty and ignorance that the grace to learn is given. To awaken is merely to begin again, forever.

So this morning I come to the hayloft, and write this, and offer it to you, whose love is my salvation, and whose joy is my joy is our joy.

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.”