In Cambridge, A Breeze

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

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

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

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

Forgive me.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This happened in Cambridge, a long time ago.

Description vs. Injunction

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

Apple harvest!

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

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

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

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

Descriptions, while nontrivial, are not injunctive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the snow brings me
even closer to your lips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Universe We Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Given the Sea, Swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus God, ACIM-style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you’re in the sea, then swim.

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

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

Helpful Spiritual Junctures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Requires No Rehearsal

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

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

bracken just shy of the river . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not.

This is it: and so are you.

The End of Individuation

When Brutus stabs Caesar, is this the same event as when Brutus kills Caesar?

It is that time of year . . .

That’s a classic philosophical question used by thinkers studying the question of whether and how events are individuated – that is, separated from one another. Is it a question of time and space? Intention? Changes in the states of the actors/objects? What?1

The value of questions like these lies not in answering them correctly, but simply in asking them in a serious and care-filled way and then seeing what happens. In my experience, attention given to good questions deepens and enriches – and thus stabilizes – present moment awareness.

What if I reframe the Brutus/Caesar question: is the blue jay flying through the backyard a different event from my observing the blue jay flying through the backyard?

Let’s say it is different. After all, the blue jay’s flight is not contingent on my viewing it. Blue Jays can fly hither and yon without any consideration for what I’m looking at or even whether I’m present at all.

The blue jay doesn’t need me to see it flying in order to fly.

Moreover, observation isn’t contingent on what is observed. Looking is looking, regardless of what is seen. Observation doesn’t change because the observed object is a blue jay rather than a chickadee, or a chickadee rather than a pickup truck.

I don’t need a blue jay in order to observe.

Thus, there is a pretty good case to be made that the blue jay’s flight through the back yard is different – is separate from – my observing the blue jay’s flight.

Now let’s say the blue jay’s flight and my observing the blue jay are the same event. The argument might go like this: where is the space between the flight of the blue jay and the observer watching the flight?

It’s important to understand that this question is not about the space between the observer and the blue jay. That space is part of what is observed. It is included in the image.

How blue the river is at a distance in March . . .

Even though space appears empty – and essentially invisible – it is still there. Distance is observable.

So the question is, in the given moment – me sitting on the back porch and a blue jay is flying through the back yard – is there a gap between the observed and the observer? Does the observation include any perceptible separation?

Focus on the experience as it is given: where is the gap? What does it look like? Feel like?

Isn’t “the gap” – if it exists – an idea? Isn’t it a concept?

Direct experience permits no boundary between experience and experiencer. It’s all one movement or flux. It’s just experience: this experience.

But at the level of idea – or concept – separation enters.

Most of us – faced with the blue jay question – experience no separation but mentally insist on separation and then try to force that concept on experience which is fundamentally not amenable.

It is like going to the movies and seeing Jaws. Fifteen minutes into the movie we start telling the people around us not to go swimming. “But we’re in a movie theater,” they point out. “It’s just a movie.”

And we point smugly to the screen where yet another attack is taking place. “See?” we say smugly. “Stay out of the water.”

It is important to see disconnect (or incoherence) and – even more importantly – to ask what its effects are, whether those effects are helpful or unhelpful, and what – if anything – can be done with respect to them.

Where the pasture reaches the river . . . nice walking here . . .

Separation is a mental response to unity. That’s all it is. And the more seriously we take it, and the more ardently we defend it and attack those who don’t buy into it, the more “real” this unreality seems.

Put A Course in Miracles aside – put every teacher and spiritual method aside – and just look into this. Just give attention.

Can we see the way that Life is whole? And can we see the way that “me” or “I” as a separate entity is just bad logic enshrined as truth?

Thought isn’t the problem. The body isn’t the problem. Time and space aren’t the problem. Our spiritual practice or lack thereof isn’t the problem.

The problem is we are buying into bad reasoning. We are buying into it and doubling down on it. We are a major investor in a bum deal and are ignoring literally everything that suggests we might to cut our losses and try another way.

So that is the suggestion: to give attention, see what happens and – as resistance arises – simply ask: are we happy with the results we’re getting? Is it perhaps not time for another way?

1. I am not really going into this question. I am using it to springboard into an overall attitude towards questioning as spiritual practice. If you are interested in studying the individuation of events, this is a good overview of the field and fresh approach to thinking about it.

What Works is What’s Helpful

The point is always to find and utilize what is helpful, understanding that “helpfulness” is relative, contextual and subject to change. Basically, we are looking for a way to peacefully and creatively exist within an existence that seems to be independent of us.

In order to discern what is helpful, we have to have a clear sense of who is being helped and what they need help with.

bucket in thimbleberry
I don’t know why I like this photograph so much but I do. It makes me happy, and happiness matters. Perhaps that is sufficient.

A person who is building a house will be happy when a carpenter shows up. A person who wants to learn how to play piano, will not be happy when a driving instructor shows up.

A person who is building a house will not be happy when the carpenter starts digging the foundation with a hammer. The person who wants to learn how to play piano will be happy when she learns the driving instructor actually moonlights as a piano teacher.

So there is no such thing as absolute helpfulness – something that works in every situation. There are just applicable instances of helpfulness, here and there, for which we can be grateful.

In our study of A Course in Miracles, which is so often the latest iteration in a life given to spiritual seeking, what do we want?

In other words, what is the project for which we want help?

Clarity is useful in this regard. Honesty is useful. Saying in a clear simple way what we want is usually a good step to getting it, or at least figuring out if getting it is what we really want.

Sometimes we are vague because we don’t know what we want, and sometimes we are vague because we don’t want to say what we want, and sometimes we are vague because we don’t want to face what we want.

For example, in the summer of 2013 I promoted myself as a teacher of A Course in Miracles. I offered audio classes, a book, and 1:1 teaching sessions. I charged money for this.

At the time, I said frequently that my goal was to be helpful to folks for whom my particular approach to the course was resonant. But it would have better to say “I need to financially justify all the time I spend writing and thinking about ACIM and this seems like a good way.”

And if I was being really really honest I would have said something like, “I want to be a well-known, well-paid teacher of ACIM like Ken Wapnick or Marianne Williamson and this seems like the right way to get on that path.”

But that level of honesty and forthrightness was not possible then. I wasn’t averse to helping others but really, the exercise was about me.

I am not beating up on myself here. I didn’t give the latter two answers because attention and willingness didn’t reach that far. That happens and it’s no big deal, other than that it tends to slow down and possibly complicate remembering that there really isn’t anything to do because we are already home.

A row of sunflowers at a distance . . . Kind of standing guard over the garden and gazing at the far hills.

Experience is richly and beautifully simple, but we get in the way. We have plans and ideas and agendas, and the sad part is, we can’t always see them. We get confused, and in our confusion, we make choices that leave us sad or hurt or guilty or what-have-you.

So we have to be as clear and honest as we can be about what we want from our practice of A Course in Miracles and then we have to be patient. We have to let the spiritual chips fall where they may.

So again: why are we studying A Course in Miracles? Do we want to wake up? Gain inner peace? Gain some useful strategy for navigating life? Get rich and famous? What?

For me, at some point in mid-2015, the answer was: “I want to wake up.”

Once we say it – once we get it clear and simple – then we can start to look into it a bit. It’s like buying a house. We can talk all day about our dream house, but when we start looking at what we can afford, where we want to be, and what’s available given those restrictions, then the experience narrows pretty fast. We stop dreaming and we get to work.

What does “work” look like in this context? In this find-what-works-and-work-it context?

I say that I want to wake up. That leads to an important series of question: how do I know that I’m asleep? Because I must know that, right? Otherwise, waking up would not be an ideal.

And if I do know I’m asleep, then how did I learn that I’m asleep? How do I know this is sleep and not wakefulness? I must have known wakefulness once, right? Otherwise, how would I know what it means to sleep? I’d have nothing to compare it to.

And if I know what “waking up” means, then how did I learn? Is it inherent? Did I learn it? If so, who was my teacher?

That’s a lot of material and I want to look into it all. I want to go slowly into each question – in a careful attentive way.

And I want to find out if I need help doing so.

So I sit quietly and give attention to the first question: am I awake? Or am I asleep? How can I tell?

When I do this, other questions arise. They are like sub-questions to the main question. First, I realize it would be useful to define those phrases – what is meant by “wake” and “asleep.”

moss on the west side of beams of wood on the chicken pen . . .

To get to those definitions, I start with my Oxford English Dictionary (I know, I know – I’m a snob). I might detour into Latin textbooks – knowing the roots of words can be very insightful. Then I will look at ACIM primary and secondary materials – the text, workbook and manual for teachers, and then the main teachers on whose work I rely.

Then I might start going outside the course. What did Dōgen say? How about Schrödinger? Husserl? Emily Dickinson? Are there contemporary academics looking into this? What are they saying?

This takes time and energy. And it only works if it’s actually helpful. So how do I know if it’s helpful?

First, is the information I’m getting answering questions and prompting others? If so, then it’s helpful.

But beyond that, am I having fun? I’m not saying that my intellectual approach to the course is everybody’s cup of tea or even should be. But for me, it is more than just useful. It does more than just provide relevant data.

It is also fun. It calls to me in the sense that it’s easy to come back to. It’s not work. It heals me.

So that is another way to think of helpfulness: what is its relationship to joy?

Gradually, the process of vigorous rigorous intellectual study and sustained investigation (inquiry through giving attention) will yield an answer. A point comes when you are seeing the same thing over and over and there is less and less to inquire about.

In the case at hand – in this inquiry I undertook in response to “I want to wake up” and the sprawling interrogatories spawned thereby – the answer is: I already am awake but I am consistently overlooking this fact.

So now there is a new question, right? How can I stop overlooking this fact?

And I’m off again. The OED, A Course in Miracles, Steven Hagen, David Bohm . . .

I am not suggesting this sort of granular academic and contemplative approach to A Course in Miracles is the only way to go. My point is that in my experience, it works. It is helpful because it answers fundamental questions related to my purpose for studying A Course in Miracles and it makes me happy.

Most people who read me closely are either already awake and patiently waiting on me to figure out I am too, or they are ready to take the final series of steps in their own awakening, where “take the final series of steps” has an intellectual aspect to it which is related to better understanding certain ideas and concepts.

I seem to have some facility for that understanding, even as I am clumsy and dumbfounded in myriad other ways.

This birch tree is in the forest where a couple of trails meet . . . I love it very much, am always grateful when it survives rough winters . . . touch it when I pass on my walks, like genuflecting at an altar . . .

Recently I was playing chess with my son and we reached the endgame. The “endgame” is that point where the next series of moves will conclude the game. There are only three possible outcomes – you win, you lose, or you draw. It isn’t a mystery.

Even though you know there are only three outcomes, you still have to play the game. Knowing the result and getting the result – experiencing the result – are not the same thing.

Awakening is like that. Generally, we know the outcome before it is actually integrated into our embodied experience. But we still have to walk the walk. We still have to “wake up,” where “wake up” usually just means realizing that we already are woke.

So the suggestion is to look into this: what do you want? How do you know it’s what you want? What is helpful in getting it? And so forth.

Give attention to this inquiry in a gentle sustained way and see what happens, adjusting as apparently necessary.

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.