When we think of defense mechanisms in psychological or spiritual terms, we usually mean a way of thinking – of projection, say, or denial – by which the truth is intentionally obscured. The egoic self perceives as a threat and so engages in some pattern of thought – some habit of thought, a reflex of thought really – that keeps it at bay. In terms of A Course in Miracles, we might say that all defense mechanisms, regardless of their particular form, are in the nature of a wall. They maintain a separation – of self from Truth, self from Source, self from God.
Defense mechanisms are not – in the most ideal sense of the word – natural, but they are certainly common. They are reminders of the fact that both of the course’s scribes were Freudian psychotherapists. Freud defined defense mechanisms as psychological weapons wielded by the subconscious in order to manipulate reality. In A Course in Miracles which, while influenced by Sigmund Freud, also breaks with Freudian thought in notable ways, we all experience them. As we practice ACIM or in another spiritual tradition we are able to undo them. And the deeper we go, the more defenses we find. The undoing is somewhat constant – until we reach that place where the choice is very stark and we can undo them at their source, eradicating both the specific forms of defenses that remain as well as the inclination to create new ones.
I think it is helpful to remember that we are defensive even against Jesus. Whatever our practice, whatever its symbols of healing and love, on some level we are resistant to them. On the surface we can gush about how wonderful they are, wax rhapsodic about their virtues and impact on our lives but deeper down we don’t want they have to offer. The egoic self is entrenched and will not relinquish its position willingly.
Because our defense mechanisms are products of the egoic self and its belief system and thought patterns, we cannot undo them when we are relating only to the egoic self. Some other energy is going to have to enter the process. We have to change our minds but not in a superficial way. It is not simply a question of saying, “well, I am defensive but I am not going to do that anymore.” It has to resonate in a deeper way, a more holistic way. If it is coming only from the ego, from the shallow levels of pain and pleasure, then it won’t work except temporarily. And we want a more permanent solution.
So it is good to start by seeing our defense systems in action. This is quite an accomplishment in and of itself! The ego does not appreciate light of any kind. So as soon as we make a commitment to seeing egoic thought patterns at work – observing how they arise, how they operate, what their effects are and then deciding whether we still want those effects or not – we are undermining the ego. We are relating to our self at a deeper level. And we will know this because we will see – at least initially – how hard it is to watch the egoic self at work. It resists any effort to really know it.
There is nothing for that difficulty but to persevere. Keep looking. At first it will be hard. Your mind will drift. You will slip into excuses – I’m only behaving this way for justifiable reasons. And so forth. But soon you will come to a place where the inclination to judge what is happening in your thoughts will loosen its grip. You’ll be able to see yourself think. When that happens, patterns emerge. You begin to see that the ego is very quick and slippery but it is not especially complicated.
I will give you a personal example. For a long time I was an angry person. I knew that there were aspects of my childhood that had been painful and unfair – situations where power balances were askew and so I was unable to protect or defend myself. No wonder I was angry – it was a sort of delayed response to an unjust past. Nobody could argue with me. Nobody could say I should do it otherwise. But one day I had to admit that believing in that narrative was a way of explaining the anger but it did not relieve the anger. It just displaced it.
On day, after I’d found A Course in Miracles and had been studying it for some time, I saw that whenever I felt anger it was always a response to fear. Maybe you are thinking, “wow, you never had a therapist who pointed that out?” But you see, it is no good having somebody else explain it, or reading about it in a book. That is just the intellect – it is just remembering what somebody else said about your problem. Real solutions are born at the level of personal insight. You see the anger and then – like lightning flashing – you see the fear.
Once that happened, I never felt anger the same way again. Every time it showed up, I would just let it go in order to see the fear that lay beyond it. And the fear was always there. Pretty soon, I didn’t think of myself as a guy with anger issues – I thought of myself as a man in fear.
The ego does not appreciate that! The anger had a story attached to it. It was all about me. It was always easy to justify by pointing to external circumstances – difficult aspects of childhood, the annoying behavior of coworkers, economic injustice, whatever. But the fear was different. It was more amorphous. It didn’t seem to attach to anything so much as just exist – like a cloud that lay over the land as far as the eye could see in four directions.
So you sit with what is revealed. You get past this problem and you find another one. And you sit with it. I sat with the fear. I held it up to the light. Let’s look at this: how does it show up? What does it do? What does it make me want to do? And so forth. Again, it is a question of just looking – looking with Jesus, if you will. Or the Holy Spirit. We are saying to the egoic self, I can’t make use of you in this situation so I’m going to turn elsewhere.
Of course, that “turning” is symbolic – but it is incredibly helpful. It is incredibly powerful. We are opening up regions of mind that have hitherto been left darkened and empty. In essence, we are unifying our thought – bringing the power of Mind to bear on our fractured and separated little mind.
When we are able to look at our defense mechanisms in this way, we are blessed with insight. And insight always undoes the mechanism, enabling us to go even deeper into the question of who and what we are in truth. I am not saying that it is easy but it is simple. It is really all that we are called to do – bring the light of understanding to bear on our conflicts and confusions. As we do that – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly – they are dissolved and a corresponding peace enters. Joy heightens. And we are able to continue the necessary deepening, the necessary sharing.