I have written about what A Course in Miracles calls the separation. Essentially, our minds have evolved in a way that give supreme importance to thought. At some point in our history, we began to take our thoughts literally without realizing that’s what we were doing. The results were – and continue to be – catastrophic.
Here I am using “thought” in the way that David Bohm, Donald Factor and Peter Garrett used it in their essay Dialogue: A Proposal.
. . . to signify not only the products of our conscious intellect but also our feelings, emotions, intentions and desires. It also includes such subtle, conditioned manifestations of learning as those that allow us to make sense of a succession of separate scenes within a cinema film or to translate the abstract symbols on road signs along with the tacit, non-verbal processes used in developing basic mechanical skills such as riding a bicycle. In essence thought, in this sense of the word, is the active response of memory to every phase of life. Virtually all of our knowledge is produced, displayed, communicated, transformed and applied in thought.
Importantly, Bohm observed in his essay The Problem and the Paradox in On Dialogue that:
The thinking process is not separate from or independent of its content . . . the activity of [our] thought is controlled by the very thing that it appears to be trying to control (76).
Thought credits itself to a thinker – the one who is having these thoughts. That is the separate cosmocentric egoic self. It is not “out there” but rather “in here.” It is a sort of central processing unit that responds to external perception by judging and organizing it and directing us accordingly. We trust it. More than that, we like it.
But – and this is critical because this is what we fail to perceive – that thinker is not separate from what it thinks. It is all one movement.
A Course in Miracles puts it this way:
Who asks you to define the ego and explain how it arose can be but he who thinks it real, and seeks by definition to ensure that its illusive nature is concealed behind the words that seem to make it so (C-2.2:5).
This can sound somewhat abstract or fantastic but it is actually deeply practical and straightforward. I will give you a personal example.
The other day while driving to school, I came upon an accident. The weather was bad, the roads were icy, and several cars at a four-way stop in the middle of nowhere had collided. Fortunately nobody was hurt but traffic was at a full stop while crews moved the cars. I was behind schedule already because of travel conditions and this didn’t help.
The accident and my presence at it were just facts – they were what is. They are wholly neutral. But thought – the ego – judges these facts as bad (I’m going to be late, I’m going to have restructure the whole week’s teaching, etc. etc.). I respond the way any body does to bad situations: I get impatient and anxious and frustrated.
Are you with me? Neutral situation subject to egoic judgment leading to egoic response.
Of course, I am a reasonably spiritually healthy guy so it only takes a few moments for the Jesus-train-of-thought to kick in with its Thetfordian engine – “there must be another way.” I say a little prayer. I ask the Holy Spirit to help me see this differently. I make a mental gratitude list. I do a little yogic breathing and voila! I’m in a better space. I can say – and mean – “these things happen. It will all work out. I’m just glad nobody’s hurt.”
So we have a) a neutral situation; b) an egoic judgment; c) an egoic response of worry and then d) another (apparently healthy) response of it’ll all work out. It will be okay.
What I am saying here is that (d) above is also an egoic response. It feels better, of course, and so seems more desirable, but it is still part of the overall egoic structure of thought. What I am describing is not really a sequence, even though I present it that way, but more of a whole movement premised on and promoting ego and separation.
In a sense – and this was Bohm’s insight as well, and neatly summarizes the whole problem – our brains (and their products, which are thoughts) cannot really do anything else. Once they’ve settled that something is a problem it is natural that they proceed to churn and whir in the direction of a solution.
What we want to see is that thought creates the very problem (in my example, judging the delay as negative) that it then proceeds to try and solve (I’ll pray, I’ll lean on the horn, I’ll turn around and go another way, etc).
The ego does not object to or resist our love for Jesus or asking the Holy Spirit for guidance or quoting from A Course in Miracles or doing Vipassana breathing exercises or what have you. All it really cares about is that we not look at the underlying structure upon which it relies for its existence.
Of course, the ego is simply a belief – a habit of thinking that chugs along mindlessly, doing what it was made to do. It isn’t an independent actor. But still. It is very busy. Until we withdraw from it our consent and support, it is never not operating.
Thus, so long as I don’t challenge thought itself but remain grounded in this body that is subject to this experience in this world, the ego gets to keep plugging along. As long as I consent – tacitly or otherwise – that this body is my home and this world is this body’s home – then I am remaining separate. I am remaining entrenched in egoic thought patterns.
A peace that is not of this world means just what it says: it is not of this world. We pay lip service to this concept a lot but I truly think most students just gloss over it all too often: the world is not real. There is no peace in it.
There is no world! That is the central thought the course attempts to teach (W-pI.132.6:2-3).
When we accept that, we reach the place where there is nothing to do externally anymore. It doesn’t matter if our daughter’s horse dies, or if somebody agrees to publish our ACIM book, or if we’re late to work, or if we win the lottery. It is all the same.
That lesson is hard – crazy hard, insanely hard – to accept, a fact the course explicitly recognizes.
Not everyone is ready to accept it, and each one must go as far as he can let himself be led along the path to truth He will return and go still farther, or perhaps step back a while and then return again (W-pI.132.6:4-5).
The reason we resist that insight is because it so thoroughly upends our egoic structures of thought. If there is no thinker in here and no world out there . . . then what? It feels like nothing. It feels like death.
When I see the self-referential and cosmocentric nature of thought in action I am to some degree liberated from it. In that moment of seeing I am awakened because I am no longer blindly (mindlessly) heeding the ego’s directives. Yet as Bohm and countless other thinkers and writers have pointed out, it is very hard to stay with this awareness. Almost invariably, egoic thought slips back in without our noticing. Not noticing thought is the ego.
I wrote the other day that chronological time occurs within eternity and as such is simply a tool that we can use. We can make a similar observation about thought: it is an external tool that can serve either separation or awakening depending on the use to which we put it. It has no independent function. The brain produces thought in the same way the kidneys secrete urine.
Still, in order to make skillful or coherent choices with respect to thought, we have to observe the role it plays. We have to see how passive we are with it, and how we accept without objection what it tell us. Even when we think we’re asking hard questions and demanding frank answers, we’re often doing so within a pre-approved egoic framework. It is a very tricky thing to become aware of this movement and then to sustain that awareness.
A Course in Miracles is one way of doing this. It might also point to other ways. When we are ready to learn, the lesson will arrive in a form that we recognize and understand and can bring into application (W-pI.132.7:2). The learning the lesson provides is essential. The form it takes is not.
I remember as a child learning to ride a bike. My father held the seat and jogged beside me up and down the driveway, keeping me from toppling over. I grew more and more confident, rode steadier and pedaled faster. I remember one time finishing and looking up for my father and he wasn’t there – he was back at the beginning. “You did it yourself,” he called. “You are riding a bike by yourself.”
It often upsets people when I say this but A Course in Miracles is not unlike a set of training wheels. It is a complex mythological spiritual framework that encourages inquiry and insight. But a time comes – may in fact already have come – when we do not need it as such, when we are ready to face the separation and the ego and see them undone. This is not such a big deal when we remember that we are in truth is also what God is. There is no space between the Holy Spirit and us. Salvation is always at hand.
Sooner or later, we have to come to that place: we are ready to learn that the world is not real. A Course in Miracles, like training wheels, is meant to be an interim aid that facilitates learning before being set aside forever.
The separation is active right now within us, as is the ego. We encounter them in our relationships with time and thought. Both can be undone whenever we choose. Indeed, we will not know peace until we do so choose.