The so-called spiritual search is circular in nature. It begins with a self winding its way through the world and it ends there, too. Whatever the way, it always delivers us to where we began: this. This this right here.
When most of us begin the search, we are unhappy. Life is confusing and unfair. Bad things happen with disturbing regularity. What was supposed to work does not, and we can’t find a consistently useful alternative.
We are unhappy and we want to be happy. It’s an old story, but a good one. It matters.
We turn to Jesus, say. Perhaps we do so formally – indulging liturgy and sacrament performed by men in medieval garb. Maybe we follow Thomas Merton’s idealized lead and graft on a half-assed Zen practice. Maybe we dart to the fringe and study A Course in Miracles which in turn dropkicks us into Sri Ramana and his confused and confusing lineage who unwittingly shove us into science and rational thought . . .
On and on it goes in apparently endless permutations until one day – for reasons that often aren’t realized until later, and don’t have to be realized at all – it clarifies that we are simply human observers having a human experience. That was all that was happening all along.
At this juncture, religious and spiritual explanations tend to confuse things, so we set them aside. Just give attention. What is really going on here?
When we do that, sooner or later, we learn that it is possible to be happy. Here and now. This body, this world. We learn that the means of happiness were always right at hand. They are inherent in us.
We eat simple healthy meals. We do as much of our growing, harvesting and cooking of our food as possible. We get a reasonable amount of exercise – walking, yoga, weight-lifting. We avail ourselves of consensual intimacy – hugs, hand-holding, making love. We partake of beauty – sitting by rivers or lakes, reading poetry, listening to music. If we have a headache we take an aspirin. If we’re sad, we say we’re sad. We trust what passes will pass.
And slowly but surely – though not perfectly, for perfection is the enemy – we become happier.
When we are happy in this way, we see clearly how simple and elegant the human experience can be: nurturing, gentle, generous. We realize that what makes us happy – healthy food, clean water, safety in which to walk and sleep and play, free time in which to make love, visit a museum, or go to a library, unsullied nature in which to hike and canoe – are privileges. And privilege is not just. Everyone without condition or exception should have access to these things.
For happiness is not ours alone, and who hoards the means to be happy – by design or ignorance – denies happiness to their sister, which injures (by postponing) the happiness of both.
Thus, the end of our spiritual search is not only our own peace and happiness, but our insistence that our calling is to be servants of the collective. We necessarily work to reform society that it might uniformly ensure fairness and justice. We advocate for policies and practices that make it easier for human beings to be happy. We advocate against practices that restrain, restrict or otherwise inhibit our natural inclination to love.
This advocacy is nonviolent. It is conducted by reason and example. It is okay to try and persuade people there’s a better way so long as you are not secretly (or not so secretly) planning to burn them at the stake if they disagree.
If we are not working hard to ensure the happiness of others, then our own happiness is not yet whole and full. It remains conditional and fragmented. And we will remain unsatisfied, frightened and confused. For it is well and truly written of joy: It ain’t real until it’s shared.
It is possible to be deeply and naturally happy, and this happiness by definition entails a profound desire to extend the means of that happiness to all living beings.
As languaging self-reflexive primates, we like to explain things. More to the point, we like stories that explain things – why the sun appears in the east and disappears in the west, why the North Star appears so consistently still in the sky, how people came to exist, why they have to die, what happens after they die, what’s beneath or behind the various surfaces we encounter, et cetera.
A good story satisfies us. It explains how the world works, what the proper order of life is, and how we fit into it. Good stories solve mysteries and bring clarity to complicated issues.
The thing is, these explanatory narratives are often wrong. The Romans butchered white castrated oxen on the day new consuls swore their oaths in order to appease Jupiter – that was wrong. Jonathan Edwards believed that if a person’s behavior deviated from very narrow tenets, then God would drop them into a fiery pit for all eternity – that was wrong. Lord Kelvin argued that élan vital infused matter, bringing it to life – that was wrong. Charmaine Yoest, Trump’s assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, believes that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer – that’s wrong.
The point is not to gloat, to point out all the poor saps who have fallen prey over the years to illusion, misinformation, junk science and so forth. They’re just human observers being human observers. Human psychology is human psychology. Thinking that we’re unique exceptions, that we would never make those kinds of errors, well, that’s an error. There are no high horses, no royal roads. The fool and the king both put their pants on one leg at a time. Us too.
The point is to become aware of the ways in which our own thinking, our own explanatory stories, deviate from coherence. If we can’t do that – or think that we don’t need to do it – then that’s our first example of incoherence. We are human observers having a human experience and that includes a) having nontrivial perceptual and cognitive blind spots and b) being sometimes blind to our own blindness. Pretending otherwise is silly.
One way to check our blindness is to notice words and phrases that “seem” explanatory but in fact just provide a hit of feel-good emotion. “Nothing real can be threatened.” “Jesus saves.” “If you take one step towards Allah, Allah will take ten steps towards you.” “Consciousness is all.” And so forth.
Those phrases are not helpful in terms of figuring out how to act in the world. If your child had a bad fall, saying “consciousness is all” won’t help you calm your child, get a medical kit, and decide whether to call for help. If you forget to mail a critical package for work, saying “Jesus saves” won’t magically retroactively mail it.
No, what those phrases do is make us feel better. Bad shit happens, call Jesus. Scary events happen but really it’s all neutral because there’s only consciousness. This divorce really hurts but don’t sweat it because neither the world nor the bodies in it are real. How many times have we said “God has a plan” and felt better about whatever adverse circumstances were then enveloping us?
It makes sense we want to feel better. It is healthy to develop strategies that will help us feel better. But if we are indulging fantasies, specious logic, and other forms of incoherence as the means of feeling better, then we are setting ourselves up to feel bad again. And maybe bring others along with us.
If you tell me that calling on Jesus calms you so you can better attend your injured child or deal with some other crisis, ask why that is what calms you. If you didn’t believe Jesus was real and involved – was really there in some tangible way – then calling on him wouldn’t work.
And if you really do believe that God and his son Jesus are present and attentive to you in a personal way, then why do bad things happen at all? Why doesn’t God nudge the branch aside over which your child is about to trip? Why does Jesus wait on your call, rather than just showing up when needed?
If you say, “well, it’s just one person telling themselves God loves them or Jesus saves so what’s the harm” then you are missing the key point that nothing we do is without effect in a broader way. Everything we do affects those around us. It was just one Mayan who thought cutting the heart out of living prisoners was a good idea, but he managed to convince a lot of other Mayans it was a good idea, and so a lot of people died very painful deaths. Don’t sell yourself short!
Our fictions reverberate and those reverberations have a direct impact on other lives. If you are indulging a God who can actively affect your life, then you are simultaneously providing cover for folks who think God is active in their lives – and their God may want women to hide their bodies and submit to men, or blow up abortion clinics, or keep gay folks from marrying or adopting children or even just holding hands in public.
If you say, well, your God is different than the God of those crazy people, or that those crazy people are worshiping the wrong God, or the right God the wrong way, well, congratulations. Your argument means that everyone is entitled to their God, which means that some of those Gods are going to be very Jonathan Edwards-like. Some may even lean in directions that Mayans would find familiar. It is a slippery slope and our feet are bathed in grease.
I am saying that if you are turning in the direction of God – however you frame that turn and that-to-which-you-turn – then you are turning in the direction of incoherence. You are turning in the direction of pain – for you and for others, some of whom you love and care for, and wouldn’t hurt in a million years.
Feeling crappy is okay. Bad luck is okay. Rough patches are normal. They are all part of the human experience. Wanting to avoid what hurts – and minimize the hurt when it does happen – is also okay. That, too, is part of the human experience. A nifty thing about human observers is that we can reflect on our experience, dialogue with others, learn new practices, make predictions, adapt our behavior and so forth. It is possible to be happy – deepy happy – and in our happiness to be kind and helpful to others in tangible sustainable ways. It doesn’t take a deity.
When we feel better because we believe God or Jesus or the Buddha or the Beloved or the All is there for us, intervening for us, guiding us, then we are reenacting the same story our ancestors enacted. We probably aren’t cheering for the ritual sacrifice of virgins we kidnapped from neighboring towns, but we shouldn’t get too smug. Incoherence is still incoherent, even if its affects are not as dramatic as they once were.
Give attention to your stories. Notice how some of them purport to explain life and death and love and loss. Notice how these stories sustain you in the face of both internal and external adversity. Then notice how these stories are not actually explanatory at all. They’re more like code words to set off a temporary boost in our dopamine levels. They provide a temporary – a transitory – respite from what ails us.
If we can notice our incoherent stories, then we can ask what an actual coherent story would look like. How can we actually explain what scares us – death, loss, uncertainty, et cetera? If we don’t presently have helpful explanatory stories, is that okay? How should we go about getting one? What can we do in the interim? Who should we turn to for help?
Check your stories. Make a practice of telling more effective ones. Don’t be embarrassed to discard what no longer works – it happens to all of us. Don’t go with the first idea. Ask what this would look like to someone who doesn’t care what you do with your life. Look for questions you don’t want to ask, and answers you shy away from.
It is counter-intuitive to do this! It’s hard. We are not wired to doubt our intuitions and instincts. But it is helpful to persist. Not because we are going to become perfect or Godlike, but because we are going to become happier, and in our happiness be more helpful to those around us, which will increase their happiness in turn. That is a reasonable goal. That is meaningful living.
This is one of the insights that recurs across time and geography: life is change. Life is always changing. Change is the one constant. We can’t count on anything save not being able to count on anything.
Because this insight appears so regularly in so many human cultures, we might infer that does in in fact speak to an essential truth of the human experience. Everything is in flux, everything changes.
Change is often painful to one degree or another. Some of the spinach I bought last week went bad. That was a drag. My dogs aged and then died and that loss hurt. That was more than a drag. A lot more. My father aged, was laid low by serious debilitating illnesses, and died, and a year and a half later I am still sad, confused and lonesome. That is a deep and abiding grief.
Moreover, I witness the same process of decay in my wife and children and our friends. It’s almost like change and death are . . . inevitable.
So it seems like one reason human beings notice change – and adopt spiritual strategies for dealing with it – is that it is always there and it tends to hurt, sometimes intensely so. And lingering at the fringe of change, is death. Every change – no matter how small – points to the apparent end of what we love and, ultimately, of ourselves.
If we are honest about our experience of change, we can see how consistently and intensely it shades the interior landscape. It touches all of us. It brings us face-to-face with our weakness and inefficacy. I can’t stop a leaf from falling, let alone my child from suffering, or my body from dying.
Thus the insight (inhering in Chuang Tzu’s observation) that change is the only constant. Thus the question, what shall we do in the face of it?
Heraclitus observed that a river remains what it is because its contents continuously change. Its constant identity is its constant change.
The far end of our homestead is a little brook that feeds a larger river. Summer nights you can hear the river, as if the earth itself were whispering to the stars. I often walk past the horses at dawn to sit by the water. A river is truly an amazing thing to look at in a reflective way: it is moving constantly, and its movements vary in both subtle and dramatic ways, yet it is always this river.
We can take this observation a step further. Sometimes it can seem like the river is changing, but I am not – I am the stable observer sitting quietly on the bank. The river flows constantly – it changes constantly – but Sean doesn’t. Sean is the still silent observer in the midst of change.
Now that’s silly in a sense, because my body is in flux too. Blood flows, hair grows, stomach processes food and drink, neurons fire, thoughts come and go . . .
I’m like the river. It’s always me but both me and the container with which me seems to be associated are constantly changing.
There is a theme here. In all this change, we keep encountering someone or something that does not change. Yet when we look closely at this someone or something, it reveals that it, too, is changing.
Does this make sense? I am saying that there always seems to be an observer who does not change. Then, when you observe the observer, the observer is seen to be changing. But that change is always only relative to an observer who is not changing.
This is a loop! And it’s important to see it and not conflate it with some mystical truth, some mysterious force in the universe. The observer becomes the observed, revealing yet another observer. This recursivity is simply what it means to be a human observer.
So what we are saying is that the reflective experience of change is only possible because of a concomitant experience of constancy.
That is, we can only identify change by virtue of comparing it to something that does not change. The perceiving subject that we are – and remain for some period of time – is effectively brought forth by the fluid environment that surrounds it.
It is change that makes things the same. Constancy and change are not unconnected opposites. They are yoked. The one that makes the other possible.
When I say “the one makes the other possible” I am really making two distinct but intimately related statements.
First, I am saying that what appears to be two (change and constancy, in this case) is in fact one. It is (to adopt Chuang Tzu’s phrasing) a single movement.
Second, I am confirming the appearance of two (or many). That is, I am saying that even though constancy and changed are yoked and thus one, they appear to us separately, as more than one. This is a functional distinction that we do not need to be alarmed about. It’s not a problem to be solved.
If everything changed, then there would be no change. There would be no way to know change. Thus, everything can’t change – otherwise, there wouldn’t be change. Something has to remain the same. But that something – when looked at – reveals that it, too, changes. So everything does change. But if everything changes . . .
It comes back to that loop again. That loop has thrown a lot of us off for a long time. When we really encounter it, it can feel as if we are literally touching infinity or eternity. It can feel like we’ve reached the holy grail of consciousness.
But really, we are just making tangible contact with an ordinary aspect of being a human observer. It’s natural. It’s functional. It isn’t going anywhere. It’s okay. It’s more than okay.
Because we are not alone but together, and because our identity is not separate from this alone-but-togetherness, language matters. It is how we communicate; how we experience both self and other and – in a sort of meta-level way – the collective itself. Absent language, what would be?
So we want to go slowly and carefully in and with our wordiness. We want to be generous, patient and open in a sustainable way, a mutual way. In a sense, communication is co-creation. To paraphrase Humberto Maturana, everything that we say, we say to an observer who could be our own self. This mutuality that inheres in communication – how shall we bring it forth? How shall we bring forth love?
My slow remove from A Course in Miracles – which has not diminished my gratitude for it, nor effaced important work done under its guidance – has largely been a consequence of perceiving a need for a language that is more precise, gentler, and less dramatic than that which comprises the course. The potential for error, confusion, conflation . . . these abound in the text, workbook, and Manual for Teachers. Is there not, as Bill Thetford wondered, another – more helpful, efficient, inclusive – way?
Consider, for example, these sentences from Lesson 135:
Without defense, you become a light which Heaven gratefully acknowledges to be its own. And it will lead you on in ways appointed for your happiness according to the ancient plan, begun when time was born. Your followers will join their light with yours, and it will be increased until the world is lighted up with joy (W-I.135.20:1-3).
On the one hand, this is basically a sound lesson, part of a sequence encouraging students to look at the various psychological defenses they have mounted against love, which is to say, against the apparent (the observed and observing) other. In course parlance, the ego is basically a network of defenses that is confused about what is being defended and what is being defended against. An imaginary self wages an imaginary battle against an imaginary foe. We are missing the flowers because our attention is given to a conflict that need not be.
Good enough! Human beings are distracted by imaginary conflicts. We are confused about self and other and existence. Giving attention to all of that in ways aimed at clarifying the confusion and undoing the conflict matter. They matter deeply.
But is the specific language the course uses helpful in this regard? Or does it ultimately just ensure that the same old cyclical problem gets to keep on cycling, albeit with a new mask and skin?
For me, for a time, A Course in Miracles – what it was saying and how it was saying it – was helpful. But in the end it was clear that its helpfulness was mostly in the way it subtly reinforced existing patterns of cognition about self, other, God, Jesus and so forth. I do not think I was – or am – alone in this!
How does this happen? And what can be done about it?
It happens in large part because of the temptation to take the course literally rather than symbolically. We want to be right. We want the answer, not an answer. And so we project that desire for certainty onto the course.
Take the sentences from Lesson 135 above. Give some attention to them. “Heaven” is not a real place. “Heaven” has no agency with which to be “grateful” or “acknowledge” anything. Rather, it is simply a word that – in this context – symbolizes inner peace, interior stillness and calm, sustainable gentleness and kindness, patience, et cetera.
If we take “heaven” literally – as a place we could go to, as an discrete agentic force that could move us – then we are going to get lost very quickly. And most of us do take it literally. Because if you switch out the literal meaning for the symbolic meaning, then it stops implying some future salvation. Suddenly, being gentle, kind, patient, tolerant, open-minded and so forth, are something that we have to embody here and now.
If we shift from abstract Christian ideals like “heaven” and seek instead to embody, say, sustainable kindness, we instantly become co-creators with one another. We instantly become human beings bringing forth love in the present moment to the best of their limited ability.
And that is actually really really hard! It is work! It takes energy and attention and willingness. It takes practice and study. It takes a shared life: a collective which we both nurture and are nurtured by.
It is easier to posit some future force that will take care of everything – then all we have do is be right about that force. It’s Jesus, we say. Believe in Jesus. But if there is no Jesus, no future salvation, no personal God . . .
We could keep going. We could consider the “ancient plan” to which lesson 135 suggests we are all subject. It’s a grandiose phrase that presupposes an embodied agentic planner – God – who has a plan that is better than whatever plan we’re fooling around with.
Now, it is good to not be attached to our personal plans, particularly when and as they arise from dysfunction and confusion. But on the other hand, if we get too obsessed with some mysterious plan out there in the spiritual either, there is a real risk of overlooking the very specific and present way in which we are right here and now called to be helpful, gentle, kind and patient. In a word, loving. Waiting on a fictive being to enact its “ancient plan” too easily becomes a recipe for passivity and indifference.
Furthermore, the passage implies that if we do heed all of this – the active Heaven home to an active God enacting his longstanding plan for salvation – then we will gain followers who will join their “lights” to ours which will naturally turn the whole world on like a big beautiful lamp. How special does this make us feel? How entitled?
I know, I know. The course is not really saying all of this. Just read Ken Wapnick or Tara Singh. Read David Hoffmeister. Et cetera.
My point is not that the course cannot be read in helpful ways; it can. My point is that it relies on an old language and a tired mythology that is filled with traps and risks. It is too easy to become lost and confused, despite our sincerity, despite our effort.
In the end, the course is another dualistic expression of a doctrine – Christianity – that has largely been ruinous both to people and the planet.
Although it has taken many years to sort through, my course study ended at some point in the summer of 2013 when I saw for the first time how attention worked. Attention moved me away from mysticism and spirituality and, in the end, A Course in Miracles.
It reintroduced me to the love that naturally inheres in being a human being alive on Terra. And slowly – not without considerable stumbling – I have sought a language that expresses this love, that allows me to deepen with it, to soften with it, to hear it in you, share it with you, et cetera.
In part, that language requires gently – gratefully but surely – shucking the old systemic language of gods and goddesses, heavens and hells, Christs and Buddhas, saints and sinners and sacred texts – and giving plain old attention to what is happening and engaging with what is happening in ways that premised on our natural human inclination to be inclusive, cooperative, consensual and loving. That’s all.
What does it mean to perceive a coherent unified world, filled with people and animals and plants and oceans? Are trees observers too? Are stars? What does it mean to ask what something means? Does meaning matter? And who or what is so curious? What is really going on here anyway?
These are deep questions in the sense that they cannot be answered quickly (we’ve been at them collectively for thousands of years), reasonable people will reach different conclusions about them, and they often require insights from lots of fields (neurology, chemistry, theology, information theory, et cetera).
In general, because academia has been a consistent waystation for me over the years, my particular answers to these questions have owned an academic tilt. Read broadly, check for biases, create curricula and reading lists, muster evidence, seek out opposing views, write and rewrite the answers, teach them in classrooms when you can, don’t stop asking questions . . .
Over the years, my shorthand for that fun, interesting and demanding process has been “thinking critically.” More recently – the last five years or so – it has been “thinking critically in and through dialogue,” where dialogue is understood in a Bohmian way.
But thinking critically (in and through dialogue) – while it matters a great deal to me – never doesn’t eventually lead to giving attention to this particular experience. This this, as I like to say. The being that I am right now, characterized by all these sights and sounds and tastes and memories and hopes and needs and desires and so forth. The subjective first person welter. “I” is always experienced in a complex embodied way – even when it is stable, homeostatic, et cetera.
It is important to look closely at what calls to us. If spiritual awakening or oneness is what calls to us, then we should give attention to it – read Sri Aurobindo, Eckhart Tolle, Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson, Darwin, Schrödinger, Husserl. Do zazen, try celibacy, pray in hillside monasteries. Confess one’s sins, eat peyote, open up to a good therapist. Do yoga, stop doing yoga. What resonates and what doesn’t?
Asking about resonance is really a way of asking: what is your experience? Right now – the you that is sitting in a chair by the window, sipping tea, reading a little before making dinner or breakfast. What is it like to be you? How does it feel? What ideas pop up with regularity? What have you forgotten? What is true and what is false? How do you know the difference? Who gets you? Who do you wish could get you? What don’t you know? How do you know you don’t know?
These questions anticipate (without necessarily mandating) subjective answers. You can most readily and authoritatively talk about what it is like to be you. What it is like to be someone else – Sean, say, or a sunflower, or a comet sailing through the sky . . . that’s beyond you. You can speculate, make inferences based on evidence and probabilities and so forth, but . . . ultimately, subjective first-person experience is our fundament.
For me, asking and exploring these questions has been most fructive in dialogue settings. This was one of David Bohm’s most helpful insights. Going deeply into complex abstract questions without a lot of premeditation and goal-setting, especially when done with folks who are equally committed to inquiry-without-a-net, tends to yield (when we are persistent and patient) wildly interesting and helpful answers.
But to be clear: these “answers” are not dispositive. They don’t really end anything. They’re more in the nature of helpful directives about what to do next – read this author, study that poetic tradition, pray less, walk more, write some haiku, et cetera.
I am not saying that questions like “what is the self” or “what is consciousness” – what is oneness – can’t be answered. I am neither smart enough nor studious enough nor holy enough to truly know if they can or can’t be, or what those answers might even look like. But that’s okay! The point is not to be Einstein or Sri Ramana or Emily Dickinson. The point is just to participate in our shared human experience in a gentle, thoughtful and nurturing way, to the maximally optimal extent possible. I want to be an effective and helpful human observer, which means giving attention to experience in gentle and sustainable ways and reporting back on what I find.
And what do I find? Well, I find what we all find. No matter how complex our inquiry becomes, no matter how far out into the cosmos or deep into the soul it reaches, we all end up in the same place. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to pee, we need to make love. Truly, bread, blankets, a roof and someone to share it all with is our penultimate and most meaningful joy. The intensity and urgency of the deep questions dissolves.
In this way, our very basic human existence is what calls to us over and over. It is, after all our spiritual and intellectual wandering, our home. This is why it is important to gently and lovingly attend our lives. At home with our beloveds, the spiritual drama and metaphysical inquiries are seen at last as distractions. We are home: we are always home.
I am reading God and You: Prayer as a Personal Relationship by William Barry. Barry is a thoughtful Jesuit whose project frames prayer as akin to a deep and abiding friendship. Even as he acknowledges prayer’s breadth – petitionary, contemplative, emotional, mental et cetera – he maintains its ground is in the nature of mutual relationship.
In many ways, this is a sound and pragmatic approach. Human beings are by nature cooperative and relational. Working with one another towards shared ends is our modus operandi. In this light, prayer is simply an extension of the natural expression of our humanness. You can’t not pray.
Barry’s characterization is appealing because of its innate familiarity. There are no intellectual leaps involved. We’re just being reminded of what we’re already adept at. Prayerful relationship with God might be difficult or challenging, but only in the way that any relationship can be challenging or difficult. Indeed, a relationship that was never challenging or difficult would not really count as a meaningful relationship in the first case.
Part of the problem with Barry’s book is a familiar one in Christianity. On the one hand, he portrays God as an impenetrable mystery and on the other – simultaneously – as personally interested in us, all-loving et cetera.
. . . human beings are finite and limited and cannot take in the Mystery we call God. At the deepest level of our being we are both attracted to knowing and loving that Mystery and terrified of it” (Barry 32).
Yet in the next paragraph, Barry writes that “God loves us with an everlasting love.”
It is not nitpicking – nor an offense against Barry – to observe that one cannot have it both ways. God cannot simultaneously be both knowable and familiar and mysterious and unknowable.
I say all this carefully and hopefully at least modestly respectfully. I’m hardly immune to holding contradictory views. But I do think when we become clear about the contradiction – or when it is effectively pointed out to us – we are obligated to give it careful attention. Conflict needs to be resolved.
In my experience, we need to not rush through or past the mystery part. It’s good to realize that we don’t know something. It’s scary and unsettling, but it’s not inherently problematic. It’s not evil. In fact, it can be a very creative and ultimately loving space.
Gaps in our map are not indicative of gaps in the territory! A thousand years ago, it made perfect sense to imagine the sun revolved around the earth. We’ve updated our maps now. The earth isn’t flat. Gardens don’t grow according to the whims of gods and goddesses or when we execute virgins. People weren’t made; they evolved. They are still evolving.
It’s true we don’t know everything, but that’s not a good argument for throwing God into the apparent gap – even if it’s a God who “loves us with an everlasting love.”
If you sit in the mystery, what happens? If you do not rush into the pre-given mental frameworks of Catholicism, monotheism, humanism and so forth, what happens?
The suggestion is not that we shouldn’t ever pray, or that we shouldn’t think in terms of “God” or “not-God.” We are where we are, and we have to own that. After all, here I am reading William Barry and it’s not because I feel like being an intellectual pain-in-the-ass.
The suggestion is simply to give attention to what is happening in order to see clearly what-is-happening. And perhaps to notice the way in which we tend to assume that we already know what is happening. And perhaps to notice that we tend to translate what is happening into familiar terms – love, inner peace, stillness, Christ, lovingkindness, ego, et cetera.
In a way, the only thing we can really do – especially when we reach the apparent “mystery” – is to slowly and carefully update our maps. The relevant territory is internal. We have to go alone and we have to go with the intention of leaving a trail. The deeply personal nature of the work means that external teachers and traditions are only going to be so helpful.
The last thing we put down on this interior journey is our expectation of what we’ll find as we go. If you know in advance what the center holds – if you know it’s a “God” whose love is everlasting – for that matter, if you are sure there is a “center” at all – then you aren’t really going empty-handed into the so-called heart of the so-called mystery.
In a different context – here paraphrased – the artist Jasper Johns said that in order to be a great artist one had to give up everything, including the desire to be a great artist. It is a leap – a commitment – most of us are not willing to make. And it’s okay but also, aren’t we ready at last to make it? Given the sea, why not swim?
If you are reading this – and mulling it over, agreeing or disagreeing – then you are no longer happy or content with retreating into redundant ideology and semantics about God and Love and Inner Peace and all of that. You want to go all the way now and you are trying to figure out how. I don’t personally have any answers in that regard and I’m probably the last – or second to last anyway – person I’d ask.
But here’s the thing. Posts like this – and the reading and thought that underlie them – are a nontrivial part of how “Sean” goes empty-handed into the interior. And if you are here, then perhaps you are traveling, too. And perhaps – just perhaps – in that lovelily syllable “too” is a hint of what comes next.
The tower of knowing reaches higher and higher into the sky. Its foundations support apparently infinite extension. Each floor includes the beginning of a staircase that ascends to yet another level. We build this tower faster and faster. We build machines to speed up the process even more – through automation, efficiency, scalability.
And yet our spiritual hunger – our need to know and to be right in and about our knowing – continues unabated. It is as if we are a starving people eating air. No matter how much of it we swallow, it does not satisfy. It does not nourish. It does not end, even briefly, our hunger.
One who would be fed in a sustainable way – so as to sustainably feed others in turn – does not eschew knowledge but simply sees clearly the inherent futility of any ultimate end to it.
We are not rats in a maze to which we shall one day find an exit. We are not ensouled primates begging favor from Heaven while avoiding Hell. And we are not lanterns whose function is to be set aflame and to remain so lit unto eternity.
We did not ask to be given this experience because it arises of its own accord. Nor are we the authors of its conclusion. There is no maze to be let out from.
There is no distinction between the structure of our bodies and that to which the word “soul” might point, which is another way of saying there is neither a mediator to help us bridge the gap, nor a gap that needs to be bridged.
And the function of a lantern is to be lit and hefted, then darkened and put away, and then lit and hefted, and then darkened and put away. To seek only one of those states – and to seek to make it permanent unto the exclusion of the other – is to miss the contingent nature of light and dark and the one who perceives them both distinctly.
In Cambridge once, a man stumbled out of the library – stacks of books spilling from his carosel, pages of random essays flying away behind him in the breeze – and fell exhausted onto a bench facing the slow unfurling of the Charles River in late summer sunlight. A lifetime of study had suddenly vanished from his mind, leaving it clear and smooth, like a prism through which the sun streamed. He felt as if were a dog suddenly liberated from leash and collar and the owner who had insisted such restraints were necessary. It was as if he had awakened from a dream of confinement and restriction and could run now in open fields or nap in a nest of old blankets or trot slowly along a forest path.
Questions beget answers, and those answers beget new questions which in turn beget answers, and it is neither right nor wrong, nor good nor bad, to partake of this cycle. Yet in our confusion, we do not see this cycle, but think we are following a line (meandering but ultimately true) at the end of which is THE ANSWER, and that THE ANSWER is the One True God, and this God is glad at our arrival, and so we are glad, too.
It is not so.
The wheel of a wagon executes an interminable circle. It loops forever. Yet the line it leaves behind it is straight and singular – possessed of both beginning and end – and apparently unerring in its linearity. Imagine the turning wheel gazes at this line, sighs and asks “What is happening? What am I?”
The line does not answer, for the line is merely an effect of the wheel. And the wheel only turns: and turns: and turns.
We want to be spiritual experts, masters of A Course in Miracles, Christian gurus unto those in despair and loss. And yet over and over we find that we are in despair, we suffer loss. We are the lost, we are the forsaken.
Faced with this poverty we go back to the start we maybe never left: we pray as children: we beg the Father for mercy and supplication. And some us – perhaps – see this crying out as failure and feel guilty accordingly.
There is – there is always – another way.
So we fall to our knees and beg God to get us out of this hard place in which we presently find ourselves, so what? So we pray to Jesus – literally to the executed peasant whose brief ministry ended over two thousand years ago – to ease our pain and suffering, so what?
It is tempting to think the wise and enlightened never sink to this level – oral prayers beseeching supernatural agents to benevolently intervene on our behalf. It is a problem in the ACIM community that folks are so intent on being well and wise and woke that they can’t accept their brokenness and anguish and confusion. They can’t meet their own self where and as it is.
I speak here from experience.
We are just people having this particular experience of being people, which includes – to varying degrees – pain and loss and confusion. Sometimes it hurts to be who and what we are. Sometimes it hurts bad.
It is not a crime to feel this way. And it is not a crime to turn to simple mental prayers as a response to these feelings.
Mental prayer is vocal and basic. It is the child calling to her father or mother. It is an urgent cry for instant attention, reflecting a primal need to be held in arms whose strength and presence are unconditional and beyond any doubt or question. Mental prayer arises from our interior desire to be perfectly safe, perfectly loved, perfectly fed, et cetera et cetera.
To be human is to have needs and when those needs aren’t met, to strive to meet them. Thus, part of being human is also to face the simple truth that those needs are not always met – sometimes to the point where our discomfort turns to anguish, inconvenience to crisis. Of course we cry out. What else could we do?
To turn to Jesus in dialogue – to literally ask him for aid the way we might ask a parent or partner or therapist – is a way of coming back to our bodies, to the nontrivial clarity of being itself. It reminds us of the stillness and grace that naturally inheres in this being, this way.
How does mental prayer do this? By helping us to simply breathe. We throw our plea at our image of Jesus – the brother who loves us unconditionally, who mediates for us the supernatural agency of God, who never says no or sees any problem as insignificant – and because he’s got it, we can let go and draw a breath. And then another.
And in the simple rhythm of breathing, which is simply to be, we remember some of the essential facts of this experience: that we are not alone, that everything passes, that there is always something we can do – for ourselves and/or for others – that can calm the raging storm inside us.
The goal is not to perfect our external circumstances. That will never happen anyway. Nor is it to perfect our interior psychological spiritual balance so that nothing can ruffle or frighten or disorient or trouble us. That isn’t going to happen either, not perfectly.
The point, really, is simply learn how to not freak out when our actual experience of being human deviates from our projection of what that experience should be. Sometimes the actuality and the projection line up fine. But frequently they don’t. We have to see this and not panic about it. Everything comes and goes. We want to be graceful and gentle about surfing the coming and going. That’s all.
So mental prayer is helpful to the extent it triggers some interior insight that in the fundamental sense, no matter how crazy or upset we are, nothing is happening that is new or wrong or permanent. It’s just life being life responding to life being life. It’s amenable, fixable, pliable. When we remember this, we remember that we are not alone and not deprived of our capacity to be – even in little, hardly noticeable ways – the healing we require.
Go for a walk, visit a neighbor, write a poem, compliment an activist whose work you admire, carry some canned goods to a food bank, sit quietly and compose a gratitude list, fill the bird feeder, do one thing on your to-do list, do something on someone else’s. Whatever. What hurts will pass; the hurt will pass.
It is a sign of spiritual maturity – not specialness – to accept and make use of prayer in the full breadth of its potential. Sometimes it is contemplative, sometimes transcendent, sometimes active. And sometimes it is the wordy gasping of the lost and forsaken, turning to a mythology they thought they had outgrown and left behind.
(Note: all photographs these days are taken by my daughter Fionnghuala)
It can be helpful to see the way in which everything is given equally (or appears equally), and how the extent to which there appears to be inequality is essentially a function of our narrative impulse.
Imagine someone places on the table before you a chocolate cupcake with lemon frosting, a pocket atlas of the United States, and a severed hand.
After you’ve given them a little attention and judged them – cupcake tantalizing, atlas meh, hand gross – you are told that the cupcake is actually hand-carved, hand-painted bamboo from an artist whose subject is food and whose mode is realism. The pocket atlas was used by a white supremacist to locate black churches in which to plant and detonate bombs. The hand is a remnant of an emergency surgery that saved a child’s life.
So maybe now your judgment goes like this:
Cupcake: still beautiful but less accessible (can’t eat it, probably can’t afford it);
Atlas: Frightening, offensive and sad; and
Hand: Still gross but very grateful a child will live.
Our sense of things is different when we have a story to go with them. In a lot of ways, the story supercedes the image. We tend to trust narrative more than the perception – the images – out of which narrative rises.
We really like a good story.
It is helpful to see this clearly and, with respect to how it plays out in experience, to have some intimacy with it.
Basically we can ask these questions: What is given? What is narrative – how is it given? And what is the relationship between narrative and what is given, if any?
The focus in these questions is on experience – on what is here. We are looking at the moment and the way it is showing up.
I said earlier that everything is given equally. Consider the cupcake, the atlas and the hand again. They all appear in the same way – are held by the same gaze – and subject to the same perceptual process. That is what I mean by “given equally.”
It is like saying that a rose and cat litter box smell different, but smelling itself is not different based on whether you’re sniffing a rose or a litter box. In that sense, the rose and the cat litter are “given equally.”
Two observations. First, you might say okay, they may be given equally, but roses and cat litter are waaay different.
That’s a fair point we’ll get to in a second.
The other observation is that science makes clear that, in fact, with respect to our senses that everything is not given equally. Our senses, in conjunction with our fast-processing brain, overlook stuff all the time.
And even with respect to what we are aware of, it’s not actually a cupcake, atlas and hand – in truth, it’s just a bunch of atoms.
Those are also good points but at this juncture they are actually distractions. They imply that we are pursuing truth or reality – that we want to be right about what we see and how we talk about it.
But the point of the exercise is not to be right – it’s simply to be aware of experience as it is given, as it is showing up. Even if it is a lie, or an illusion, or somehow other than how it appears, it is still here. It is still what is showing up.
We are giving attention to experience as experience is given. Just that.
When we do this, sooner or later, we are going to have to wrestle with the appearance or presence of narrative. That’s the first point mentioned above – that cat litter and roses are two totally different things. Narrative does that – gives these two appearances names, judges them, and so forth. There is whatever is showing up – whatever is given – but it includes (or sure seems to include) narrative.
In other words, how can we see a tree apart from – or prior to – all our ideas about a tree? In what way are the stories we tell – or that are being told and of which we are aware – separate from what else appears?
Is it not all one movement, one flux, one welter?
Seeing the way narrative and observation appear intertwined is the point of the exercise. Narrative does change what we see. It is entangled. But how? To what degree?
We really have to answer these questions for ourselves. When we look at a tree, what happens? Where and how and when do ideas about the tree show up? Where do they come from? Is there some agency involved – some “self” that is making decisions about what to think?
Is someone or something in charge? How do we know? How can – or should we even – talk about this?
Reading about all this stuff is fun and interesting, and I do it a lot, but it’s also important to just hunker down and give attention, and find out for ourselves what’s going on, what it means, and where we are in all of it.
When I began to study giving attention – when I was unexpectedly made welcome at that strange little school – that was really the first lesson. In some respects it’s the only lesson: “nobody can do this for you, so get cracking.”
Spiritual paths can become crutches very quickly. A Course in Miracles functions this way for many students, me included. The going gets tough for whatever reason and we default to course lingo and ideology. “This is an illusion,” “bodies aren’t real,” “sickness is wrong-minded thinking,” et cetera.
And, when we do that, we tend to invoke our preferred spiritual teachers, parroting their words as if they are our own. Ken Wapnick, Tara Singh, Sri Aurobindo, Thomas Merton . . .
To the extent there’s anything “wrong” with this, it’s that we stop looking at our actual experience in favor of a model of experience built by thought. Confusing models for that which is modeled is akin to confusing the map for the territory. It leads to incoherence and conflict.
So a point came – for me, a little over eighteen months ago – when it became necessary to “let go” of the course in order to see (or begin to see, maybe) that to which the course was pointing. The practice was no longer to study and apply a particular method, but to simply give attention in a sustained and gentle way without worrying about what attention was being given to.
Eventually, all this “giving attention” or “noticing” arrives at a basic question: who or what is giving attention?
In a lot of ways, that is the whole game. That is the question. Answer it – or see why it cannot be answered – and that’s it. Game over (or game dissolved).
In my experience, that inquiry (who or what is giving attention) is easier to handle when approached slowly and with care. I think of it like this: the morning of my wedding, I shaved more attentively and carefully, than on the morning before (or after).
That is the kind of care and attention to which I am referring. I want to bring it to the inquiry, and this means that I want to go slow enough to notice when I am parroting Ken Wapnick or Tara Singh. Am I just repeating what someone else said?
I want to notice when I am trying to sound slick and smart. Am I using phrases like “the divine et cetera” or pretending Nisargadatta’s insights are mine? Am I giving up under the guise of science – “well, it’s all atoms and algorithms and I can’t do math, so screw it?”
Those are clues that I am not earnestly looking at at what is given. I’m in denial and on repeat.
This “giving attention” thing is not easy. A lot that masquerades as insight is just the same old same-old wearing a new mask. And it’s not a problem really. It, too, is given. But there is a tendency to use it as a form of consenting to distraction. It’s good to notice what thought is up to, but it’s not good to get so invested in it that we don’t notice anything else.
The inquiry is more important than what shows up. Even the many insights that arrive – and there are some lovely and helpful ones, like bright stars in the sky – are going to pass eventually. So we just sit and let them pass, and notice their passage.
That is a nice metaphor, actually. We are just star-gazers. We’re just sitting quietly letting the sky be the sky. And soon enough, realize we aren’t looking “at” the sky – we are “in” the sky.
And then realize that there is nobody looking – there is only looking. There is only this. This this.
Well, I am a writer. That’s all. And sometimes writing is very fluid and it takes me somewhere and how grateful I am in those moments, and how amazed. But then sometimes it is like chopping wood. It hurts and it’s repetitious and the wood pile grows so you and your beloved will be warm another day and night but that’s all you can say for it. And it’s enough but still. Still.
What I am saying is, if you care about the product, the object – about the poem, and who reads it, and who loves it, and who buys it, and how much acclaim it affords you – then you’re in trouble. No matter how much attention you get, it won’t be enough. You will die hungry, empty in a not-good way, like a beggar just outside the banquet hall, crows calling dibs on his bones.
But if you care about the writing as a process – like loving a river not for where it goes or for what it gives you but just because it’s fast and lovely and changes with the light of the day and the season of the year – then you have a chance. You have a chance to learn what happiness is, and Truth. You have a chance to catch a glimpse of what is eternal and joyous and loving. And that glimpse will be like a light making safe and clear the next steps, which are not a journey, but a sort of dance with God, a sort of slow and sensuous tumble into the arms of the Beloved, where you belong, and where your writing longs to take you.
So you have to write, a lot, more than a lot, and you have to write when it is cold and difficult, and you have to be willing to be alone, and then more alone, until your loneliness is like all the ice in the world enfolded around your heart, numbing your brain to where all that remains are your favorite words – not even that much – your favorite sounds, one or two syllables only. You have to become mute, fallen, cast out, broken, shunned by your savior, vilified by family. You have to give up everything, even writing itself, and not just metaphorically but really. None of this is a metaphor. If you think it is a metaphor then you are in trouble. Real trouble.
And I am saying that after a long time alone, with only a blunt prayer remaining, with the name of the Beloved the dimmest of dim memories, then a hand may emerge from the darkness to lift you. I don’t say when, I say may. May. You will write it not because you are a writer but because you emptied yourself to make room for what is given, and what is given now manifests through you in language, as for others it manifests in painting or song, or baking or dance, or running or sewing. Who cares? You can’t possibly care when at last the Beloved has given you Her hand, has allowed you to touch the Hem of her gown which is the universe itself, which is life itself. How blessed that moment is, where what matters is the touch – endless exquisite ecstatic – and what does or doesn’t emerge from it is simply flotsam, no matter how excellent, no matter how lovely.
You live forever in Her grace, not in what you make of Her grace.
Are you called? You are called. She always calls. She is always looking for you in the ash heap of the world, the ruins of your cheap loves, your compromised kisses, and the soiled echoes of your crappy songs. She is always out where the forsaken have lost even their faith in begging for mercy. And She comes to you so softly you nearly miss it. You have missed it. You always miss it. And yet she comes to you again, as if what is broken does not interest her, as if what matters is the calling, not the call and not the answer. Listen! In the darkness of 3 a.m., listen. In the frozen forest, listen. Always and everywhere, listen. She says to you that your suffering was only a dream. She says to you the long and hideous drama never occurred. It isn’t over, it never happened. Write it down so you remember, She says. I am you writing, She says. I am writing writing, writing you. And so you do. At last you do. You write. You write yes. And yes. You write yes. Yes.