Are we One or are we Separate?

Are we one? Or are we separate?

I used to think that these were important questions and that one could be either right or wrong with respect to them. I still they are important questions, mostly because of their potential to prompt helpful dialogues that in turn can clarify our thinking about life and self and others and so forth.

But I am less invested in being right or wrong about them. It’s not that I don’t think folks can’t be confused, but that more and more it’s clear that people are just where they are with this material and all you can do is give attention and not be a jerk. There’s always something new to learn.

chickens at the barn door
chickens at the barn door

So this post is not an argument but more of a chance to point out a basic way in which we perhaps are one. It is relatively straightforward and uncontroversial, I hope.

That “way” is the medium of language. But before we talk about that, we need to digress for a moment into food.

In general, we experience life in terms of an apparent subjective unity that is called the self. For example, hunger shows up in this body and this body has to eat in order to ameliorate that hunger. Moreover, my embodied thoughts and actions (I’m hungry, I should make a sandwich, the bread’s in the cupboard) are what ensure that food goes from “out there” to “in here.”

If I’m hungry and I feed you, then maybe I’ve done a good deed and you’re grateful but I’ll still be hungry. If I’m hungry and instead of preparing a meal I write a poem about a meal, then I’ve maybe made some good art but I’m still hungry.

We could take it a step further. We could say that I subjectively experience preferences for certain kinds of food – fried clams, vanilla rice pudding, lemon bread, tomato and onion salad with feta, kale smoothies. You might share some of those preferences but you also have your own, some of which would nauseate me. After all, there are people in the world who actually crave blood sausage.

And dropping down yet another layer, I have specific memories and stories associated with food that are very much not yours. For example, home-baked bread is so intimate for me that I literally cannot explain why without crying. It’s a whole story involving four generations of women, an Irish Setter named Bridget, sex, a secret obsession with reading cookbooks as a child, and a meditation workshop I took at the Vermont Zen Center in late winter of 1991. Oh, and also a maroon poncho.

Lots of people love bread, bake their own bread, have memories of how they came to the joy and work of bread-baking, and that love and labor and remembering may comprise moving and complex narratives but I am quite confident that they do not replicate mine.

All of this is just to show a way in which we are clearly undeniably separate and it’s no big deal. I have to feed myself, not you, when I am hungry. My food preferences and your food preferences are different in varying ways. And my deep-rooted history of food informs a relationship with eating and cooking that is distinctly “mine” and not yours.

Is that clear? We are having this subjective experience and not another one. Others are having other ones. We’re having this one.

But as I said earlier, there is a way in which this very singular subjective experience – this “my” experience that “I” have – is perhaps not the whole story. That is, there are ways in which the apparently obvious and undeniable borders that separate us from one another and the world actually blur and become less definitive.

One way to see this is to think a little about language. You and I have a shared language here, right? It is English. But more than that, it is also English at a certain level of sophistication – a five-year-old would struggle with this essay. A PhD candidate would not.

Also our shared language here includes some abstract concepts – self, language, hunger, stories, sex, right, wrong, oneness. I didn’t have to explain or define any of those words to you; you got them already. They are probably in part why you’re here.

And dropping down yet another layer, all of those concepts and the basic building blocks through which they are expressed (words, sentences, paragraphs, supporting examples, et cetera) together constitute a kind of broad spiritual inquiry, the terms and conditions of which are also effectively implied. Up to now, I haven’t said a word about them.

That language – in all its richness and depth – isn’t just in my head and it isn’t just in yours: it’s shared. It’s mutual. It’s true that the act of Sean writing and you reading are separate acts but they are also co-dependent and thus together constitute an act of communication, of sharing meaning, of caring enough – about the human condition, locally and otherwise – to do so.

And, essential to our understanding, that constituted act yields effects. Subtle effects to be sure, but effects nonetheless. Our ideas change, our behavior changes, our relationships change . . . subtly, subtly but still. There are actual effects.

One way to to think of it is to imagine that this communication (this writing and reading and all it entails) is a kind of pattern in the pattern that is Sean which spins off and becomes a kind of pattern in the pattern that you are.

This patterning did not begin with me. Nor does it end with you. It is more accurate to think of it as a continuation or extension – a subtle modification – of something preexisting, ongoing. This particular language pattern you are reading is a distillation – a kind of collage – of the many language patterns that I’ve read, each of which was an act of communication with someone else. Some of those influences are obvious, others not so much. Some are so subtle that I don’t even remember them.

But they are there, and they effect me, and in that sense, those writers and I are one. We are ripples partaking of the same pool of water.

I don’t mean this metaphorically. I mean this literally.

the sky through a diamond-shaped hole
Gazing at the sky through a diamond-shaped hole . . .

All this patterning literally changes us. It literally shifts all the patterns – the patterns that we are, the patterns of our families, the individual patterns of the many members, the communities those families comprise, the larger communities comprised by communities . . . On and on it goes. Ideas are clarified, thinking is invigorated, new modes of communication arise, psychological inclinations are affirmed or denied, behavioral patterns adjust . . .

These are subtle subtle effects but they are also nontrivial. Indeed, they are literally our world. Whatever is going on around you – the building you are in, the device you are reading these words on, the love you will make later, the meal you will eat, the conversations you will have, the bed you will sleep on – all of it is simply patterns repatterning.

When one is clear about this, the question of “are we one or are we separate” blurs. One can begin to see how answering that question in any way requires making decisions about boundaries that are not forbidden by any means – that are even helpful – but are also arbitary. We tend to make them without thinking, according to familial, cultural, biological inclinations but still. They could literally go anywhere.

So that is a way of starting with language and noticing how it points to a way that separation blurs. It is hardly the only way. Gardening and raising (or hunting) animals for food is another way that the porous nature of the boundaries of self/world/other reveals itself.

All we really need to do is be attentive and honest, such as we are able. Give attention, don’t resist what shows up, don’t fret about what doesn’t show up, and don’t rush through what shows up. Nothing is hidden (but some stuff does remain apparently mysterious (which should not be read as an invitation to invent mysterious answers)). What is one knows itself and more than that, knows what to do with what is – or seems to be – separate from itself.

How Undoing Takes Form

Okay but how does this work? How does this “undoing” take form? How does it avoid slipping back into the nonduality loop? How does it not become more mere spiritual navel-gazing? Or semantic Vedantic cleverness masquerading as wisdom?

Fair questions!

Play a game. Imagine that you could only ask one more question for the rest of your life. You can learn one more thing. What would it be?

Often, when I play this game myself or with others, the question is some variation of: how I can be more helpful? Where “helpful” is consonant with “loving,” “useful,” “forgiving,” “creative” et cetera.

In other words, when push comes to shove, ruthless honesty generally compels us to see that what we are really about is not ourselves but the collective – the all-of-us-together being all-of-us together. It doesn’t always work out that way, and we seem endlessly capable of forgetting it, but in the end, we are as Humberto Maturana says in Biology of Love, “loving animals.” We want to give to one another. We want to love.

So it figures that given a last chance to learn anything, what we want to learn is what will make us more loving.

Once we are clear that what matters is not our own spiritual shindig but rather the grandly inclusive shindig we are all of us throwing and sharing in right now – making love, making bread, making shelter, making art et cetera – what new questions arise?

In my experience, these new questions tend to be more pragmatic than abstract. The metaphysics fade. The word games are displaced if not dissolved. If we are serious about enacting our desire to feed hungry people, then our question is: how do we feed people?

And then our question breaks down yet further into helpful chunks: who is hungry? What are they hungry for? Where are they? How do I get food to share with them? How do I execute the mechanics of sharing, where “mechanics” means gathering food, delivering it, ensuring timeliness, cleanliness, freshness, consistency, funding and so forth.

Naturally that leads to new new questions: has somebody already answered these questions? Where is the knowledge housed? Rather than invent the wheel anew, can we just assist with an already-existing wheel?

And so on and so forth where “so on and so forth” includes feeding hungry people, learning how to keep feeding them, and then sharing that learning in order to generate a sustainable communicable practice of love within and for the collective.

When we are serious about solving problems for the other, then we are going to be focused locally, which means we are going to have to be in communion locally, and we are going to have to give up some modicum of control locally.

We are going to do all of this and we are going to just see what happens. And what happens will happen, and we will respond again, and something new will happen . . .

And in this we are always just trying to think in a new way – not in a self-as-center way, not in a humans-as-god-like way, not in a God-will-do-heavy-lifting-way, not in an I-know-what-works way, not in a look-at-how-special-I-am way.

We are just seeing that we don’t have all the answers, that we aren’t sure of all that much and so need to go slowly and humbly and cautiously, that “right” is always relative, that “perfect” or “best” tend to obstruct – sometimes fatally – “better.”

Love is natural but there are a lot of obstructions, many of which masquerade as wisdom and intelligence and reason. We have to be careful.

It is going to take a long while but I think the language of spirituality and religion are mostly defunct and need to be gently retired so that a new way of thinking and relating can come into being. We can hasten that evolution of clarity and peace simply by giving attention to what arises and responding to it gently and with care.

God and Mind and Asking Better Questions

What is the source of all this? How does it come about? Is there only God? Only Mind? Only Consciousness? Maybe many Gods? Many Gods being mind being universal consciousness?

God_Spiral
Asking what the Source is may be less helpful than simply asking how things work and then trying to tweak them in the direction of coherence and functionality (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team).

I have asked the and similar questions for a long time. In my spiritual and cultural circles, these types of questions consistently and regularly arise.

Notice the way that a question begets an answer which in time begets another question. It’s good to ask questions but it’s confusing – sometimes violently so – to think that our answers are some kind of “end” or “conclusion.”

Mostly there is just this going on going on. As Gertrude Stein so aptly put it, “there is no there there.”

It is possible when posing the what-is-the-source question to slip into an endless loop hallmarked by watered-down Rumi quotes, A Course in Miracles, Eckhart Tolle, confused applications of the double-slit experiment, Nisargadatta’s rambling and just . . . call the loop itself is the answer.

But there are other ways. One of them is to reframe the basic question from “what is the source” to: what is this? What is this world? This self? This experience?

That is, rather than look for origins or absolutes – rather than look for answers that purport to end in some ultimate way the questions – just try to better describe and understand what is actually happening.

For me, this approach has been more interesting and helpful. It offers a way out of the loop by shifting focus from specific points within the loop to the loop itself.

And at that level, it has been helpful not to rush or assume and/or prioritize certain goals but rather to go slowly and just attend the process. Questions seem to require answers but do they? What do we really want to know? And is questioning the best way to learn it?

Although it is possible to have a sort of meta-experience – oneness, ecstatic union with the Godhead, awakening, enlightenment (note how the name and description of the experience varies with the cultural context in which the experience arises – this is a clue!) – knowledge of “reality” as such is actually beyond our capacity to know.

Again: reality (the ultimate, the one, the truth, the ultimate one truth et cetera) is beyond the range of our perceptual and cognitive abilities and so reference to it is neither helpful nor necessary.

If you can’t get there – because there is no there there – then you can stop traveling. You can be here, which is all the where there is.

To set the question of ultimate reality – The Source, say – aside can seem quite dramatic, especially for those of us who have devoted significant time and energy to meeting/embodying/knowing this Source. But the grounds for doing so are coherent and not unduly complex.

Knowledge is structure-dependent. That is to say, perception and cognition are limits. They are bounds. What appears to us as the world is framed by – made possible by – our organismic capacity for perception. An ant, a butterfly, a sunflower and a grain of sand all perceive a vastly different “world” than a human being does.

Given this non-controversial (but also non-trivial) observation, what grounds do we have for a) assuming that our perception is anything other than relatively correct and b) that our perceptive and cognitive abilities are the ones that are aligned with reality?

It’s not that we can’t handle the truth; it’s that we are by definition closed to it.

Note, too, that the way that we perceive the world guides – makes possible – how we respond to it: by talking, sharing, loving, arguing, et cetera. And this responsiveness also differs according to the context in which it arises.

That is, a communist woman in 1930s Russia is going to have a different experience than a male middle class consumer in the United States circa 2018. Thus, we have matriarchies and capitalism and Christians and – diving down a level – politics, societies, economics, religion. These are invented concepts by which we explain and interact with the perceived world. The one makes possible – and reifies – the other, but neither is a 1:1 correspondence with the Truth or the Whole. They are just organism-specific modes of being.

When one sees that clearly – and then accepts it as a basic fact of this embodied experience – then the spiritual quandaries and big metaphysical inquiries – become a lot less dramatic. They don’t press as hard; really, they stop pressing at all.

The point is that we perceive and cognize – we do our living in – a world defined by the organism we are – and then explain and interact with that world using the language and mythology – the narrative – of the dominant group of organisms in which we appear and do our living.

There is nothing wrong with this! It is natural and mostly beneficial. Where the fly meets the ointment is that we tend to forget that this world and way of living in it is not written in stone, is not some stable singular truth. We forget that the living we are doing is basically A way of living rather than THE way of living.

And then we double down on this forgetting and end up deeply invested in and attached to the mistaken belief that the living we are doing is true or at least intimately correlated with truth – and so all those who are living differently are, to varying degrees and with varying degrees of moral culpability, wrong or false.

That’s why it’s easy to keep chickens in torturous conditions and then kill them, or chop down trees for yet another shopping complex, or enslave people whose skin is a different color, or murder people who decline our invitation to worship a different God or what-have-you.

So if we stop asking after some external Absolute Source – God, the One, the Divine, the Beloved – and simply ask after how things work, then all that dysfunction and incoherence will reveal itself. It’s not mysterious or even difficult.

But it does ask something of us: it asks us to give attention: to be attentive. It asks us to remember that we are not pinnacles or centers but processes. Ripples observing the river, if you will, where the ripple cannot see the lake where the river begins, nor the sea in which it ends.

So what we end up doing when we give attention in a coherent way is undoing the forgetting of the separating that we are doing when we are incoherent and inattentive. Giving attention and being coherent requires study. It requires discipline and reflection. And it requires local action – changing the way that we shop, vote, grow or don’t grow plants, interact with animals, make art, raise kids and so forth.

Tara Singh was right: it is not enough to learn. We have to bring what is learned into application. There is no other way and only we can do it.

Thus, it is not enough to be tolerant of the other! Given the other, we have to see the specific way in which our thinking and being creates – inevitably makes necessary – the other.

We must become responsible for the way that we are thinking and also the way in which we are not thinking. This is the work and there is really no other work. Whatever else we are doing – parenting, teaching, gardening, cooking, dancing, walking, sleeping – we are attending to the undoing of the line of thinking by which the other arises and our conflict with them becomes real and consequential.

Peace abounds but it must be enacted and embodied. This is what we are doing – whatever else we are doing – here and now.

Against Declarations of Oneness

We are not prohibited from making observations about experience. Obviously it lends itself to that phenomenon – talking about what shows up, judging it, interacting with it, ignoring it, et cetera.

But this is not the same as being outside experience in order to evaluate it as a whole.

Imagine I am on the dance floor dancing. I can talk about the swirl of bodies, the mirror ball overhead, the pulsating music but I cannot simultaneously be floating high above the dance floor perceiving it as a whole.

New_England_back_road
Clouds floating over the road on the other side of the river . . . half our walk . . . the image is whole unto itself but reflects only a fragment of the whole walk . . .

When I am in the experience, I am ipso facto perceiving only a fragment of it.

Experience is local. We can say a lot about our localized experience, and doing so can be fun, interesting and even helpful, but we are by definition precluded from standing apart from that experience and offering a global or absolute analysis of it.

It seems like we can do this, because experience is whole unto itself. The fragment always appears as if it is all there is. But no matter how convincing, it is always only partial.

It’s important not to conflate the sense of allness that the fragment implies with “oneness” itself. It’s true that when we give attention to experience it is seamless and vivid and its boundaries cannot be reached. It has no apparent edges. In that sense, it is everything. There is nothing else.

But in another sense, it is the ultimate trap because we can’t get outside it in order to say what it is or where it comes from. It’s impossible to be on the outside of experience – if we are experiencing something, then we are by definition “in” experience.

So what is the source of experience? Of beingness? What is it in truth?

We can’t say. Maybe it’s just consciousness. Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s just the way the human brain works. Maybe it seems mysterious but it’s actually not.

If we can’t say, then what we are left with is uncertainty. And we don’t really like that. We resist uncertainty. But does it really help to pretend that what is uncertain is certain? We can tell ourselves it is certain – and be very convincing and persuasive – but underneath we’ll know we’re lying.

So there is this experience – this sense of being – and it’s undeniable (because you would have to be in order to deny being) – but what it is we can’t say in a definitive final way. Maybe it’s oneness but maybe it’s just what life is: a bunch of bodies temporarily sharing space, trying to be kind and patient, succeeding and failing, and so forth.

The point is to give attention to direct experience, not to our ideas and opinions about that experience. For the moment, those are distractions. What is interesting is examining being/experience as it is given to us, as it appears to us right here, right now.

The suggestion is that to the extent we can reach some conclusion – via rigorous philosophical inquiry, poetic musings along the lines of Barks’ bastardized Rumi, spiritual platitudes culled from popular texts like the bible or A Course in Miracles – then we are not present to what is given.

Instead, we are present to a translative substitute of our own making because the reality is too terrifying to behold on its own merits. It’s not so terrifying actually, but it does seem to be, and seems is still what makes the ongoing drama go.

Mutuality of Being and Nonbeing

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

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

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

And so forth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No name can fully express what it represents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Dickinson again:

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

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

There is Nothing to Heal

It is not necessary to heal ourselves.
It is necessary to give attention
to what is broken
and loveless
where it is perceived.
The distinction between what is external
and internal will resolve itself
without our intervention.
Attention is merciful sustenance
because it is nonjudgmental
and incapable of division.
Its perfection is clear
and unhurried.
It responds to us
yet neither begins nor ends
with our intention.
To be attentive
is to consent
to be that through which
a necessary blessing extends.
Therefore,
let go of the investment
in a better self,
a happier self,
a lovely self.
Relinquish
your stranglehold on form.
Let what passes pass,
and in the subsequent space
of nonresistance
notice what does not pass
but only stays.
Discover again the wholeness
naturally encompassing
what we call the self,
what we call broken,
and what we call
loveless.
It is not necessary to heal yourself
but only to discover
through attention
that there is nothing to heal
and never was.

Noticing What Already Is

May I back track? Or start over? At least may I change my verbs?

Attention is given anyway: attention is giving of itself always. It is not a question of something we choose to do, some act undertaken with hopefully salvational consequences. Rather, it is a condition of what we are. We can’t not give attention. Try it and see.

This matters in the subtle sense that if we making giving attention a goal, a thing we have to do in order to be awakened or enlightened or unified with the Absolute or whatever, then we have slipped into the old pattern of God-at-a-distance and Oneness-in-the-future. We are bringing time and space into it, which is to bring effort into it, which is to bring doing into it.

And nothing needs doing, and what is done must be undone, sooner or later. Tara Singh knew and called on those who listened to become responsible unto it.

There is another world – a world of peace, a world of holiness. That is our dwelling place. The still mind knows nothing of this world that’s divided and lives by the dog-eat-dog approach. You are at peace and discover your needs are met. Nobody gave you teeth, but as a child teeth appeared. No system could have given you eyelashes. What was needed was provided. And you become part of that Intelligence, part of that action of Life (How to Learn from A Course in Miracles 84).

I mean all this in a practical way. If I idolize “giving attention,” then I will start having thoughts like: “I should give attention to this and not that.” Or “I am not doing a good job of giving attention this morning.” Or “so-and-so is better than I am at giving attention.”

I will turn it into a system, and any system made by human intelligence can never know wholeness. It can only fragment. Giving attention would become an accomplishment attributed to – or denied to – me, to Sean. It becomes exclusive to the personal self. In terms of A Course in Miracles, it becomes egoic, a dead end, a stale circle, infertile and uncreative, perpetuating scarcity.

And all the while, attention just goes on. Life just goes on. This is what amazes me about it; this is what I cannot get enough of. It is trippier than acid, lovelier than rainbows and more ecstatic than sex. Attention is always there. It is always responsive. It is always being attentive. It doesn’t sleep. It doesn’t slow down or speed up. It asks nothing in return. It just is.

Therefore, I am shifting gears a little in how I think and write about this. Rather than “giving” attention I am simply noticing attention. It is a small but repercussive shift. It is a practical shift, and I want to say two things about it.

First, noticing attention is not better than not noticing it because attention is always giving itself any way. It is not conditional on anything we do or don’t do. It is no more or less efficacious when we notice it then when we don’t. So there is no virtue in noticing it. In a very real sense, nobody gets any credit for attention. We can’t become competitive with it, we can’t hoard it, we can’t “get it,” we can’t keep others out of it.

So I am noticing the giving of attention but I am also not investing in or attaching to this noticing or giving, because it’s giving of itself anyway. When I strip down to swim in the river I don’t have to keep saying “I’m in water” – the river is there regardless of whether I notice it or not. This takes the pressure off; this makes it all not so much a spiritual practice as something gentler and more relaxed, like just going for a walk after dinner, or reading some fiction before bed.

An analogy might be the chickadees with whom I am in an admittedly strange but not unhelpful open marriage. Like attention, they are always there regardless of whether I am presently noticing them. I am baking bread or reading a difficult essay or playing with children and I am noticing that, not the chickadees. They are outside my attention, sometimes entirely! But when I turn to them – when I go to the feeder or into the forest – there they are. They are still chickadees; I am still in love with them. And they seem to love me back, in their sweet and chatty chickadee way. They don’t try to please me – nor I them – because our love is a given, maybe the given.

So attention is like that, in its way. I don’t feel any need to be the best chickadee seer, or the most important. I am just grateful they’re there, and I am happy when I notice them, and happy knowing they are there without regard to any effort or doing on my part. You can be in the marriage too and it doesn’t mean there’s fewer chickadees or less love. Attention is; and is enough, which I know intimately when I get out of its way which is to say, when I stop trying to be its point of origin or sole beneficiary.

The second thing I want to say – gently, gently! – is that when I am noticing attention, the self is there. It is almost entirely effaced but still exerts a tremendous tidal pull. It is a funny thing to say that but it’s true. In the morning on my walks and post-walk meditation and study and writing, there is a sense of a self that is holy and sacred and pure and true. It is very subtle, but it’s there, and its thereness is quite powerful in an almost seductive way.

If I am honest – and why not be at this point – that is the self I like best: that is the self to which I aspire, buttress in writing, and project through the secret wedding of lust and intellect. But, of course, there is no such thing as a better self or a wiser self or a sexier self or any self at all that is more desirable with respect to other selves or versions of self. Preferentialism within multiplicty is a big lie, no matter how much fancy spiritual window dressing we deck it out in.

So I have to see the way in which that morning self – the prayerful self, that thin-to-the-point-of-disappearing self is the same self that is everywhere else. It, too, must be undone – must be give up to be undone. Empty hands means that we hold onto nothing – not even the self that wants to go with empty hands unto its God.

In fact, that self (which is merely an idea, albeit a persistent and desirable one) is especially thorny because it is very convinced that it is the solution, not the problem. It is very sure that its diligence and discernment is the only and holiest way to go. The ego dons the rags of a penitent, makes soup in a poor hut to feed to passersby, and sings cracked alleluias at twilight and dawn but it is still the same old ego keeping the same old separation up and running. We have to get better at seeing beyond the surface, beyond the form.

Oddly – and interestingly – that self is not especially present when I am just drifting through the day, doing this and that, thinking this and that, being not particularly attentive to what is going on. When I am teaching or telling my kids stories or making some over-the-top garlic dressing or remembering old motel rooms or dreaming of unwritten texts, there is no overarching (or undergirding) sense of spiritual self-satisfaction. Attention just is; nothing special or not-special about it. It just is, and I just am within it.

I want to avoid falling into the trap of believing that noticing attention is better than not noticing attention. They are like the same dogwood tree, just seen in the different lights that attend morning and dusk. Anything else is just the ego using the language of A Course in Miracles (or whatever spiritual path or tradition to which you incline) to keep undoing at bay.

“Notice” comes from the Latin “Notus.” It refers always to what is already known or learned or understood. In that sense, to notice is not to see anything anew but rather to acknowledge an ongoing familiarity with whatever is. To “notice” attention is simply to be – passively, inactively – in a relationship that already is and that doesn’t need to be recreated or reshaped or redefined. You can’t not be in it.

What I am trying to do here is remove activity from this seeing/giving/noticing/whatever altogether. I am trying to say it is a processless process, if that makes any sense. I am trying to say that everything that could possibly need doing is already done. Whatever we call it needs to serve the fact that it is already done and our job (our play?) is simply to see this as a fact. That seeing is enough: that seeing is what undoes what needs undoing.

In a sense, whether we say giving attention or noticing attention, the end result is the same. The truth is that we are already are that which we long to be, are already gazing lovingly and unflinchingly into the Face of God. Only deepening and clarification remain. We broached the peace that surpasses understanding (and thus wordiness) as a kind of singularity: a horizon that, once crossed, undoes us altogether, and does not allow for any return. And why should it when it only exists that we might learn there is nowhere to go and nothing to do and no body to do it?

Eschew Ideals of Oneness

Oneness as an ideal is not functional because ideals are a form of resistance. They are a way of insisting that life presently is not okay but in the future may be. But ideals are not facts. They don’t represent reality; rather, they represent a specific fantasy about reality, one that blocks our awareness of the perfect stillness that awaits us now.

True oneness is without opposite. It is not a joining of what was previously separated into a melange of happy parts. It’s not peaceful – it’s the impossibility of conflict. There is no decision in it. There is no choice.

So being a student of A Course in Miracles has to do with being honest about our ideals and also being willing to let them go. “Today I will not wish that any aspect of my life be other than it is.” Who can say that? Who wants to?

But this honesty is integral to awakening, which is our acceptance that only the truth is true. What we want is not true, what we fear is not true, and our schemes to get what we want and avoid what we fear are not true either. Only what is – right here, right now – is true. Thought doesn’t enter into it. Thought is simply a kind of reaction to what is.

A Course in Miracles teaches us how to look fearlessly and without judgment at what we have made of reality. It teaches us how to look directly and clearly and without a lot of drama.

So we resolve then to see ourselves as we are, without embellishment or judgment. We aren’t creating a checklist of things that are working and things that need improvement. We are just seeing ourselves as we are: our insecurities, our greed, our laziness. All of life is given at once – the whole gift, right now – and we refuse it. Over and over we say no. Why? There’s no sense in beating ourselves up over it – that won’t help – but we do need to see it.

If we can look without judgment – which sometimes amounts to saying we can’t at this time look at anything without judging it – then that itself is liberation. That itself is awareness and awakening. If you can truly see your half-heartedness towards life, then that half-heartedness ends. It cannot exist when you give attention to it. It can only exist when you don’t give attention to it, or give only a little, or give it only sideways.

That is the practicality inherent in A Course in Miracles: it teaches us how to look fearlessly and without judgment at what we have made of reality. It teaches us how to look directly and clearly and without a lot of drama. This is not easy and it is not necessarily joyful. It is like good psychotherapy, or like removing a bandaid. But it can be done, and doing it opens up heretofore unrecognized vistas in which joy – a natural joy independent of comparison – is actually possible.

You are as God created you. Today honor your Self. Let graven images you made to be the Son of God instead of what is be worshiped not today. Deep in your mind the holy Christ in you is waiting your acknowledgement as you (W-pI.110.9:1-4).

This honoring is a kind of seeing, a kind of looking: a refusal to be blinded by ideals and fictions. We are just going to see what is. Nothing else is asked of us: nothing else could be.

So I want to be aware of those moments when I am projecting wellness or oneness or holiness, when I am making them an ideal towards which my self is aimed. Holiness is an illusion! And so is Oneness! That which I conceive and set as a goal – a desired outcome – is simply the same old resistance taking form. And there is another way, a sweeter and more fulsome and infinitely easier way. That way is given to us: it inheres in us. It is us.

How lovely – even if only briefly as yet – to be wholly in Creation, bringing nothing with us, not even the idea of self.