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Stillness and Presence

One thing about the present moment is its fullness – which is also a kind of emptiness. Everything is there and nothing is there. There is only thing in the present moment and it has no name and yet everyone knows what it is.

chains_in_barn

chains in the barn awaiting use

You can’t carry anything into the present. It is fascinating to observe this: if you give your attention wholly to the present, to what is here and now, then you have to let go of everything.

So our anger has to be put aside, and our grievances, and our hopes and dreams. Everything. We can pick them back up if we want – they won’t leave us – but we can’t take them into the present.

The present is still and clear and pristine. It is like the center of the potter’s wheel – the very center – which is still and does not move, and yet its stillness is integral to the whole project (the tool, the materials, the craft, the product).

From the still clear center, the whole emerges in this or that form.

What is being described here isn’t about a religion or a spiritual practice, though it most often shows up in those contexts.

It is just a fact. Attention is a fact: it is here. And it is responsive. You can give it to anything you like – another body, a piece of cake, a book, a song. And you can also give it wholly to the present.

You can bring attention right into the present moment: right into the stillness: right into the silence: into the fullness that is utterly empty.

My practice of giving attention – which a few years ago became a sort of de facto ACIM practice, largely supplanting the lessons – has really become the simple act of being present.

Attention yearns for the present. The more it is allowed to rest there, the more it naturally *is there.

Present moment awareness – what A Course in Miracles refers to as the Holy Instant – is the space in which a natural clarification occurs. We see the way in which our so-called problems – collectively, the ego – are simply constructs that arise in thought.

They only have affects because we give consent to them. They are easily discarded.

It’s true that they are easily picked up again but that’s okay. We can put them down again, too.

And slowly, we begin to acclimate to life in which these constructs are seen for what they are: mere idols for our wandering attentiveness. They are differences enshrined in psychological and spiritual language and so believed. They are ideals by which we hold truth and reality at bay.

They come and go – no more, no less. Therefore we evoke the Introduction to the course:

Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists (In.2:2-3).

The Holy Instant is the experience of knowing this as a fact: not as an idea to be explicated or analyzed. Not as an experience to be hoarded as evidence of our spiritual progress or specialness.

It is simply the simple truth, and the present moment – the Holy Instant – is where we see it most clearly and helpfully.

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Humility and Uncertainty: A Course in Miracles

Yet the essential thing is learning that you do not know (T-14.XI.1:1).

To be a student of A Course in Miracles is in part to embrace humility and in part to develop a tolerance for uncertainty. It is not only these things, but these things help. They can buttress a spiritual practice that is bent on seeing clearly there is neither anything to do nor anyone to do it.

bottle_feeding_sheep

Getting close enough to life to love and keep it going,

To be possessed of humility is to be humble. “Humble” comes from the Latin root “humus” which means earth or ground. We tend to think of humility in terms of social structure and where we are on it relative to others, but we can also think of it in terms of being grounded – of being close to the earth in a stable and nurturing way.

This sense of humility also encourages us to think in terms of actual humus – the dark soft organic matter composed of centuries of decomposition. The bones of animals, the fallen limbs of trees, leaves and feathers, rain and moth wings – all of it settles and is gently converted to a rich fertile soil from which life springs.

It is as if humus says to us: there is no death, there is only life being born again and again.

So let’s say that when we are humble, we are turning towards the ground – to the source of life itself. We are consenting to be born again, this time eternally, as that from which all instances of Life spring.

In a way, that’s pretty fancy talk, and possibly too vague to be helpful.

The point is to conceive of humility not in terms of how we are behaving with other people, or how they are perceiving us, but rather as decision to turn our attention to the Source of life. We want to discover our rootedness in it, our inseparability from it. We are not separate from life observing life – we are life gazing at itself, one with itself, forever.

To be humble is to give attention to what grounds us in Life.

The more still we become, the more clearly we see that there is nothing to do and – importantly – nobody to do it.

That’s humility. What about uncertainty?

To be uncertain means that we don’t know. A Course in Miracles suggests that being still – that resting in uncertainty – is a prerequisite to peace.

I do not know what anything, including this, means. And so I do not know how to respond to it. And I will not use my own past learning as the light to guide me now (T-14.XI.6:7-9).

Most of us don’t want to say we don’t know what anything means. We may not know everything, but to say we know nothing is a bridge too far. Yet the course urges us to adopt precisely that posture. What happens when we do?

Our lives are composed of reactions. If we give careful attention, this is clear. Things appear to happen, we judge them as good or bad, then take action based on those judgments, and then judge the outcomes, which is really just more stuff happening . . .

On and on it goes.

If we can say with clarity that we don’t know what anything means, then our foundation upon which to exercise judgment is undone. In that moment, it no longer functions.

And so in that moment, we perceive Life with great clarity, and see that we share it in unconditional ways.

Light is unlimited, and spreads across the world in quiet joy. All those you brought with you will shine on you, and you will shine on them in gratitude because they brought you here (T-13.VI.11:8-9).

The slower we are to judge, the more likely we are to begin to notice that we are neither central players nor particular reference points with respect to life. It’s happening, and we’re happening in and with it, but we’re not making the whole thing go. And the whole thing isn’t happening just to entertain us.

This insight attends us when we are no longer interfering with life. The more still we become, the more clearly we see that there is nothing to do and – importantly – nobody to do it.

Uncertainty doesn’t mean we are unhappy or confused. It simply means that we’re content to let life be life. We aren’t putting all our faith in our own perception and models. We aren’t forcing “our way” on the world. In course parlance, we are letting go of our own learning in favor of adopting that of the Holy Spirit.

And “Holy Spirit” in this instance is really just code for “breathe and be still.”

So we do that: we breathe, we humble ourselves, and we rest in the uncertainty of Life.

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Generally we conflate inner peace with a good feeling – an ideal personal experience. It’s subjective, meaning it happens to us – it’s our experience of being. We have it.

tiger_lily

this this

A lot of us know intellectually that’s an inaccurate representation, but underneath it remains a powerful belief. It’s part of the working algorithm of our self. We have the right map – we study it and preach on it every day – but we aren’t actually out in the territory.

This isn’t a crisis but it’s good to look into it. What do we know is true that we are still treating as relative or false?

A stable spiritual practice in the nondual tradition (of which A Course in Miracles is one example) does mean that a lot of the coming-and-going isn’t as distressful as it once was. We aren’t spiritual ping pong balls anymore, ricocheting this way and that in reaction to life “out there.”

But it is an error to believe that equanimity in the face of what changes is tantamount to inner peace. It’s more in the nature of a sign that we’re on the right trail. It isn’t an end in and of itself.

Inner peace has nothing to do with what appears and with what we perceive. It us unrelated to concepts like “inner” and “outer.” In fact, it is unrelated to that which has an opposite.

Really, even saying “inner peace” is effectively consenting to ongoing conflict.

Saint Paul’s phrasing – “a peace which surpasses understanding” – may be more helpful here because it implies that we aren’t going to get hold of peace in an intellectual way. It isn’t an object or a goal that we can pursue through study. It isn’t an idea that we can grasp or express in language.

What, if anything, do we do?

If we are students of A Course in Miracles, we might give particular attention to the so-called holy instant. The “holy instant” is just another way of saying “the present.” People have been writing and thinking and otherwise inquiring into the present moment – its dynamism, its transformational power – for thousands of years. It is part of our human heritage.

Ignoring – or overlooking or otherwise missing – the present is also part of our human heritage. Missing the present moment doesn’t seem to be a problem for trees or bears or stars. But our big brains have evolved in a way that we tend to see the parts and not the whole, and – critically – to believe that this fragmented mode of perception reflects Truth.

This error of perception enshrined in thought is literally the cause of all our conflict. We accept divisions where there aren’t any and then work very hard to defend – often in physically and psychologically violent ways – those divisions.

A practice grounded in our willingness to perceive the present moment as it is, without intellectual adornment or egoic investment, is a powerful learning tool.

So a really good way of ending the conflict that inheres in our perception of separation as reality is to look into the present moment and see its wholeness and perfection.

In order to look clearly at the present – enacting present moment awareness, say – it can help to put aside our ideal of the intellect as a guide. In other words, don’t get hung up on whether the past is real or whether the future is real. In truth, those metaphysical dilemmas will take care of themselves. We don’t have to solve them.

All we want to do is look into the present moment and see what it is, how it works, what happens in it, what its effects are and so forth.

Take this very instant, now, and think of it as all there is of time. Nothing can reach you here out of the past, and it is here that you are completely absolved, completely free and wholly without condemnation (T-15.I.9:5-6).

That is a simple directive: take this very instant now and think of it as all there is to time. Can we do that? There is an implicit promise of peace in doing so.

This is not an intellectual exercise. It is an exercise of attention: can I look clearly at this moment and really see it?

One way to clarify this exercise is to try and not be in the present moment. If we are regretting the past or obsessing about the future, where and when is the regret and the obsession?

It is here. It is now.

If our attention wanders – into fantasy or memory – was the present moment impaired? We may have lost its beneficence, but we didn’t ruin it. When we are confused about the present moment – or ignoring the present moment – where but in the present does our confusion and ignorance occur?

When we see that we cannot help but be in the present moment, then it becomes easier to see it clearly. It’s this: just this: and this this. Indeed, “[T]he Holy Instant is this instant and every instant” (T-15.IV.1:4). Very simple, right? And yet, it’s so simple that our habitual overlooking constantly skims right past it.

So when we drift, we bring ourselves back. We don’t chastise ourselves. We just come back. We don’t analyze why we drifted. We just come back.

A practice that is grounded in the willingness to perceive the present moment as it is, without intellectual adornment or egoic investment, is a significant learning tool. It is in this attentiveness and awareness – in this holy instant – that we begin to see with practical clarity that a) we are not broken parts of a lovelier whole, and b) that we are not parts at all, and so c) there is nothing to fix or do.

Attention given to the holy instant naturally undoes the conceptual locks and chains that block us from perceiving Truth as Truth. This is what the course is getting at when it reminds us that “[O]ur task is but to continue, as fast as possible, the necessary process of looking straight at all the interference and seeing it exactly as it is” (T-15.IX.2:1).

Keep coming back to the present moment, and that which obscures the present moment, will lose its stranglehold. Healing – our “return” to Wholeness – is thereby facilitated.

In the holy instant the condition of love is met, for minds are joined without the body’s interference, and where there is communication there is peace . . . For communication embraces everything, and in the peace it reestablishes, love comes of itself (T-15.XI.7:1, 6).

Truly, there is only this one moment. In it, the Whole is given to us, including the ability to see beyond our perception of separate parts. Give attention to it. This is the only gift it asks, and the only one we give.

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A Quiet Mind Wants Nothing

The memory of God comes to the quiet mind (T-23.I.1:1).

There are many ways that we can define this use of “quiet” in A Course in Miracles, but for the moment let’s say that it is a mind that is free of “want.” Can we imagine this?

spider_web_quietude

stillness by the garden in late August . . . a quiet mind remembers wholeness . . .

There are two helpful definitions of “want.” The more common reflects personal desire: I “want” this apple, she “wants” the sun to shine, he “wants” a new job.

The second, older definition refers to an interior scarcity or absence – one “wants” grace, that carriage is in “want” of repair.

What is similar across both definitions is lack. Something is missing so the subject in question (be it a self or a carriage) is not whole. It’s fragmented. It’s separate from that which would complete it. It “wants” completion and it “wants” what it thinks it needs to to be complete.

So the suggestion is that a mind that is free of want is a mind that does not see itself as broken or partial. And that is the mind to which the memory of God comes.

Is that our experience of mind – that it is not broken or partial? That it is not fragmented? This isn’t a question of having a clear intellectual grasp on “wholeness” as a concept. Be honest: when giving attention to mind, is there a seamless whole or a bunch of parts variously interrelated, each spilling into the other?

If we are honest and attentive, most of us will say that the mind is fractured. It darts around like a hummingbird – feeding at this image, now feeding at this idea, now flitting off to some new image or idea. It doesn’t do what we tell it to do. There’s a lot of stuff in it that we would prefer not be there.

The kind of thought we are talking about is physical – it arises in a brain that is processing data supplied by the working senses. The sunset is beautiful, our stomach is growling, our spouse is talking to us, it’s almost time to pick up the kids from band practice, et cetera.

Judgment informs this kind of thought. This kind of thought can’t exist without judgment. Our preference for this kind of weather over another, for giving attention to our spouse instead of to the television, for eating a salad instead of potato chips, for keeping track of time in order to ensure our kids are safe and happy . . .

Can we see – by giving gentle sustained attention – that “want” is the premise of thought’s busy-ness because it is an extension of the body? Wanting food, wanting to be a good parent or spouse, wanting beauty or soothing music, wanting to feel energetic rather than bloated and so forth?

In other words, can we see that the “quiet mind” the course refers to is not the mind of the body and so therefore must be something else?

The Christ in you inhabits not a body. Yet he is in you. And thus it must be that you are not within a body. What is within you cannot be outside. And it is certain that you cannot be apart from what is at the very center of your life. What gives you life cannot be housed in death. No more can you (T-25.in.1:1-7).

If we want to know the whole, then we stop looking only at the parts. We don’t make it a problem that has to be solved. It isn’t a spiritual crisis. It’s just not the whole.

The self that is yoked to a body – which includes thoughts and ideas, memories and dreams, hopes and fears, spiritual practices and communities of faith, friends and families and enemies – is not Christ. The self that is yoked to a body fears nonexistence and cannot bear witness to that which it is not. It knows it’s not the whole, but it doesn’t know what the whole is.

That self is in a literal sense the separation. All that flows through it – and all through which it flows – is a product of separation. Sometimes pleasing, sometimes unpleasing but never whole. Sometimes content, sometimes enraged but never the peace that surpasses understanding.

It is very hard to imagine this Christ – this whole mind “at the very center” which “cannot be housed in death.” How do we respond to that which does not arise as a being we can meet? How do we engage with that which does arise an idea we can discuss? To even ask the question – what is this Christ and how do I make contact with it – is to violate the premise. Ask and you shall not be answered.

Wanting this “Christ” doesn’t help us. You can want Christ or you can want crisis, and the want is still the same. Want involves what is not whole perceiving that which it believes would make it whole. It perceives an opposite – a “something else” that was subtracted from the whole and which can be added back.

But again, be honest. Has anything you ever acquired truly ended your seeking? Has any person or job or book or house or anything ever made you whole?

The truth is – from the perspective of the body and the thoughts which appear to animate it – whatever we get is never enough. Want just keeps on running. It’s like an algorithm that won’t stop churning so long as the hardware is there for it to run on.

It is like this “opposite” – this “something more” – is not actually “more” at all. Nor is it “less.” Upon examination, it becomes a concept whose helpfulness is really “hollowness.” It’s a gust of wind on top of a gust of wind. It isn’t *there and so it can’t be brought *here.

If we can see that, then we can see this too: whatever wholeness is, whether we call it Christ or Source or God or Life, we are looking for it the wrong way. It’s here – we’ve got it – but somehow we’re not seeing the fact of it. There’s nothing to get; nothing to give up. It’s all here right now. And somehow we manage to keep overlooking or not noticing this.

We are like children who throw our ball away and then complain loudly that we don’t have a ball. Somebody brings it back to us and we throw it away again. “I don’t have a ball.” On and on it goes.

We can hold the ball in our hands or we can throw it away: it’s still our ball. We can close our eyes and pretend there’s no ball, or look in another direction and pretend the ball is lost, but there’s still a ball and it’s still our ball.

If we want to know the whole, stop looking only at the parts.

When you see a part, say “that’s not the whole.” Don’t make it into a problem to be solved. It isn’t a spiritual crisis. It’s just not the whole. So we aren’t going to call it that.

We don’t have to fix anything. This can’t be said enough. We only have to see the problem where and as it is and the problem is undone. That’s because it’s not a real problem. Withdraw your support and its gone. Stop throwing the ball away, and the ball stays with you. You’ve got the ball.

So maybe we can rephrase the sentence from A Course in Miracles we started with: “The memory of God comes to the quiet mind” (T-23.I.1:1).

Let’s say instead that the memory of God is a quiet mind because it is free of want. It wants for nothing and wants nothing because it has everything. It’s whole. It’s holy. It isn’t ours. It can’t be reached.

But when everything it is not falls away – is seen as unreal – then it’s what remains. It’s all there is.

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The Experience of Inner Peace

“There is no answer; only an experience” (C-In.4:4).

That lovely line – all of seven words – is found in the introduction to the Clarification of Terms in A Course in Miracles. Its simplicity underscores an important tenet of the course: it is a deeply practical curriculum that aims at an experience of inner peace that is not contingent on intellectual understanding. Words only get us so far.

flowers-foundationSaint Paul pointed this out a long time ago in his letter to the Philippians (4:6-7).

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

This passage was in Helen Schucman’s mind when she was writing A Course in Miracles. We find it early in Chapter Two.

If you are afraid, you are valuing wrongly. Your understanding will then inevitably value wrongly, and by endowing all thoughts with equal power will inevitably destroy peace. That is why the Bible speaks of “the peace of God which passeth understanding.” This peace is totally incapable of being shaken by errors of any kind. It denies the ability of anything not of God to affect you (T-2.II.1:7-11).

And then again in Chapter Thirteen.

The peace of God passeth your understanding only in the past. Yet here it is, and you can understand it now (T-13.VII.8:1-2).

A Course in Miracles is clear: this peace is a gift already given, yet its presence and effects are obscured by fear. This is why we need a course; this is why we need a teacher.

So if we look again at the first sentence from the Clarification of Terms, what do we see?

In context, that sentence is a gentle but specific rebuke to our attempts to reduce the course to a matter of theological or philosophical debate and speculation. The egoic mind likes to take sides. It likes to ask questions that cannot be answered. Told that our separation from God is impossible and illusory it asks: Just how did what is impossible happen? To whom or what did it happen? And so forth.

Those questions – and questions like them that dog our study of the course – cannot really be answered. They have no answer. Asking them – which is to invest int hem – is only a form of delay and resistance. The course urges us to let those questions go and turn instead towards experience. It reminds us that its only concern is “Atonement, or the correction of perception” and that “[t]he means of the Atonement is forgiveness” (C-In.1:2, 3).

A universal theology is impossible, but a universal experience is not only possible but necessary. It is this experience towards which the course is directed (C-In.2:5-6).

The point is not that understanding what the course teaches is irrelevant or unhelpful. It is a question of context. For example, forgiveness in course parlance means overlooking error, not confirming its existence by negotiating an agreement to overlook it (e.g. T-2.III.4:1). It is helpful for us to understand this.

The fruits of A Course in Miracles are inner peace – a deep and abiding interior peace that transcends the intellect because it is a gift from God made real in our capacity to give it away.

But if we stay at that level of understanding – if we get very skilled at using words to talk and write about it only – then we are going to miss the actual lived experience of forgiveness. We are going to miss what it is like to actually not perceive error in another, and we are going to miss those moments when others see us absent our errors.

That is a mystifying and glorious and transforming experience! Logic and study can lead us to the door of it, but cannot by themselves create or otherwise substitute for it.

We have to actually forgive, and we have to actually allow ourselves to be forgiven, all as A Course in Miracles envisions.

Perhaps it is like riding a horse. A good teacher will talk to you about horses – how to be safe around them, how to communicate with them, how to be sensitive while on them and so forth. But that lesson is not very helpful if you do not sooner or later mount the horse and ride.

We want to be sensitive to this. The course was written and edited by academics and intellectuals. It is easy to slip into and set up camp in that mode. But that mode exists specifically to facilitate the direct experience of inner peace, and it is to this aspect of practice that we are called to turn. If we neglect it, it’s like ordering a hot fudge sundae and getting only an empty bowl. We need the bowl – but we really really want the ice cream.

It is often easier to study the course, and talk about the course, and have peak experiences of joy and camaraderie with other students of the course, then it is to simply turn our attention to the day-to-day experience of being. Just being in all its up-and-downness, all its this-and-thatness. But it is there – in mortgage payments, breakfast dishes, meetings at work, parenting at home, funerals and baptisms, headlines and sitcoms, sex and romance, vacation and coming home from vacation and so forth – that the course finally and fully becomes us.

Day to day – moment to moment – where is our practice? How is it functioning?

The answer to the latter question – how our practice of A Course in Miracles is functioning – can be answered simply: are we experiencing peace or are we experiencing an absence of peace?

The fruits of A Course in Miracles are inner peace – a deep and abiding interior peace that transcends the intellect because it is a gift from God made real in our capacity to give it away.

It is okay if we are not feeling peace. It’s not a crisis. That is why we have been given such a clear and direct course with such a present and effective teacher. If we are not feeling peace, then we simply give attention to the experience of not knowing peace. We simply look into it, without rushing to solve it or understand it. This is what it means to turn something over to the Holy Spirit: to hold it in awareness in a quiet, gentle and nonjudgmental way.

What happens when we are attentive this way to what is happening in our lives?

To be in the Kingdom is merely to focus your full attention on it . . . Reality is yours because you are reality (T-7.III.4:1, 3).

trail-openingThe peace of God dawns. Slowly perhaps, but ray by ray – in the structure of time to the embodied self that persists in belief – peace comes, and passes through us, and what remains is not a body or a self but peace itself. What remains is the gift, perennially giving itself to itself.

Thus, our intellectual study of the course – rigorous, thorough, and devoted – finds its fullness in application. It finds its fullness when we commit whole-heartedly to make it the cornerstone of this apparent human experience. Over and over we look closely at what happens and arises – the good moments, the bad moment, and the many moments in between – and wait patiently on God’s gift to clarify and reveal itself.

Rest in the Holy Spirit, and allow His gentle dreams to take the place of those you dreamed in terror and fear of death. He brings forgiving dreams, in which the choice is not who is the murderer and who shall be the victim. In the dreams He brings there is no murder and there is no death (T-27.VII.14:3-5).

It is not necessary that we understand how this will happen. Its happening is not contingent on understanding. Rather, it is contingent on willingness. The best our thinking can do is demonstrate the need for an alternative to it. Perceiving the need, we begin to give attention that it might be met. We give attention that peace might reach us from beyond the limits of understanding, and it does. It does.

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Atonement and Total Committment

The Atonement is a total commitment (T-2.II.7:1).

We don’t want to mistake those words – especially the phrase “total commitment” – for a kind of rallying cry. This is not Jesus in the role of a coach exhorting us to “give our all” or “leave nothing on the field.” He is not saying – nor implying even – that “ninety nine percent” means you lose, or that until we’re “all in” we’re doomed.

birch_trees_awakening

these trees say . . .

It is important to understand that the concept embodied by this sentence – in particular the two-word phrase “total commitment” – is altogether unrelated to personal effort. In A Course in Miracles, our effort is largely beside the point. What we do or don’t do is largely – not wholly but largely – beside the point.1

So what do those words mean? They mean that awakening is inclusive. Nothing is excluded from it. Not one leaf falls but is included. Not one idiot is elected to political office but is included. Not one thought you have – the so-called good ones, the so-called bad ones, and the myriad in-between ones – but is included.

Let’s consider this slowly.

If you can, go look at a tree or a plant right now. What is missing from it? It is a total plant or tree, right? It is not as if you had to go out and make a tree or a plant, or find a partial tree or plant and then complete it somehow.

The tree or plant is given to you totally. It is whole unto itself, and your contribution – beyond witnessing or observing it – is irrelevant.

In you is all of Heaven. Every leaf that falls is given life in you. Each bird that ever sang will sing again in you. And every flower that ever bloomed has saved its perfume and its loveliness for you (T-25.IV.5:1-4).

The course is referring here to a present condition that can be noticed (Heaven is a present condition presently unrecognized). The verb is present tense, not future. It is unconditional. This is reality now, not subsequent to your effort and learning.

And you can begin to experience this Heaven by noticing that the tree or plant is whole and complete, and that you need do nothing to make it so.

This is such a simple observation that we are apt to overlook it. But stay with it. Then begin to generalize it. The window through which you look at the tree – is it whole or partial? That hill in the background against which the tree is framed – is it a total hill or a partial hill? And the sky which frames the hill – is it total or partial?

Don’t play word games! Don’t say it’s a total hill but a partial mountain. That’s being clever and cleverness is a way of being evasive. Don’t say it’s a whole sky but you only see “part” of it. If you know there is “more” sky, is that knowing whole or partial?

We are talking here about an insight that is so simple and clear a child gets it without a problem, but adults overlook or overanalyze or even fight against it. But look and let your looking be its own answer: that tree – and that window – and that hill – and that sky – are given totally to you. They are whole unto themselves.

When we give attention to wholeness, wholeness gives itself back, and in that inclusive mutual giving, oneness is clearly perceived, and perception is translated into knowledge.

This wholeness – this very wholeness – is the Will of God.

Nothing before and nothing after it. No other place; no other state nor time. Nothing beyond nor nearer. Nothing else. In any form (T-25.IV.5:6-10).

Gently – very gently – can you generalize this totality or wholeness to seeing itself? To looking itself? That is, can you find one thing that is not total? That is not wholly given?

. . . [h]ealing is apparent in specific instances, and generalizes to include them all. This is because they are really the same, despite their different forms (T-27.V.8:6-7).

You might say, well, justice is not wholly given because here is an example or injustice. I say, isn’t the injustice wholly given? What is missing from it? If you add something, it is no longer injustice, it is justice. And isn’t the justice totally given?

You might say, well, I am confused about all this. And I say, isn’t your confusion wholly given? You are not confused about whether you are confused. You can’t be. Your confusion is wholly given. Everything is wholly given.

And again – gently, like leading a beloved child to pat a horse for the first time – can you generalize this wholeness unto seeing itself? To being itself? Is it not wholly perfectly given?

The purpose of the Atonement is to restore everything to you; or rather, to restore it to your awareness. You were given everything when you were created, just as everyone was (T-1.IV.3:6-7).

Of course you can perceive the seams – the tree is not the window which is not the hill which is not the sky. But on the other hand, do they not comprise a total image? And is the image apart from the seeing of it? Where is the distance? Where is the difference?

There is only the whole, and it is wholly given.

This sort of thinking is tricky to sustain, largely because it runs counter to how bodies perceive and process perception. And since we largely identify with bodies, it makes sense that we are confused when told that there is another way. But the body is just another image; it, too, is wholly given to what we are in Truth.

Thus is the body made a theory of yourself, with no provision made for evidence beyond itself, and no escape within its sight. Its course is sure, when seen through its own eyes . . . you cannot conceive of you apart from it (T-24.VII.10:1-2, 4).

In a way, what is suggested here is a kind of evidence-gathering that points beyond the partiality and limitations of the body. It is a way of thinking about perception – and giving attention to perception – that is at odds with what is familiar to the embodied self. We are seeing in what we long considered fragments, the very essence of wholeness.

So this is a hint as to what the course is talking about when it says “Atonement is a total commitment.”

Nothing is excluded. Everything is included. How could it not be so? Into what is “everything” included? To what can “everything” be added? What can be taken away from totality or wholeness? Where would you put it?

There is only wholeness, and it is wholly given.

maple_tree_up_close

or these . . .

You might say I am just being clever here. And we do have to be cautious and go slowly. Anybody can pose an apparently unanswerable question. Articulating a paradox doesn’t make us smart or wise.

But the words I am using do point to something, and it is the same “thing” that the course is pointing at, both across the text and lessons, and in the particular sentence we are studying.

We don’t have to “make” a total commitment, like football players bent on winning the Super Bowl, because in truth there is nothing to commit to and nobody to do the committing. But we can be willing to perceive the totality, or wholeness, or oneness if you like, of what is given right now.

Logic leads us to willingness. This is an essential premise of A Course in Miracles, because Helen Schucman was a fiercely logical writer. Logic gets us to where we pause and give attention. We may not know what we are looking for, but we know that looking matters. We know giving attention matters, so we give it.

And wholeness gives itself back, and in that inclusive mutual giving, oneness is clearly perceived, and perception is translated into knowledge. We “awaken” from the dream that there is such a thing as “sleep” or a self that could be other than awake and home in wholeness.

And it is so simple and clear! It is given.

This course makes no attempt to teach what cannot easily be learned. Its scope does not exceed your own, except to say that what is yours will come to you when you are ready (T-24.VII.8:1-2).

So effort isn’t the point. Simply give attention, which is happening already anyway, and what is already true will be remembered wholly in your awareness.

1. We are distinguishing – as the balance of the post makes clear – between willingness and effort. Willingness is a state of mind that allows what is given to be unconditionally accepted. Effort is a misguided attempt to force reality to conform to our personal expectations for it. It obscures the given by trying to give in its place.

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A Course in Miracles Lesson 284

I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt.

mushroom-on-forest-trail

attention given to experience as it is given . . .

It does not seem controversial to say that if we are hurt, then something caused our pain. For example, if I drop the bureau I am carrying up the stairs and it lands on my toe, then we know what caused the pain. That’s easy.

Let’s say that there is a particular social situation – certain people in a certain setting – and when I am in that situation, I feel hurt and anguished. I go and – lo and behold – experience hurt and anguish.

That is trickier, right? The “cause” of the pain was the social situation, but one could argue the deeper “cause” was my decision to go there in the first place.

Both those examples share a common premise: the pain is real and it is caused by something external (even if I am “choosing” to subject myself to that external).

But what happens if there is no cause? Can there still be pain?

A Course in Miracles asks us to consider the possibility that pain, being causeless, does not exist. It cannot exist.

Loss is not loss when properly perceived. Pain is impossible. There is no grief with any cause at all (W-pII.284.1:1-3).

How can this be?

There is a clue in the preceding lesson. The prayer in Lesson 283 notes that we made an image of ourselves and called it the Son of God (W-pII.283.1:1). We made an idol of this image and used it deny our shared identity with God (W-pII.283.1:3, 5). The prayer intimates the antidote.

Now are we one in shared Identity, with God our Father as our only Source, and everything created part of us. And so we offer blessing to all things, uniting lovingly with all the world, which our forgiveness has made one with us (W-pII.283.2:1-2).

If the “self” who is subject to hurt is not real (but an image made to obscure wholeness) then what happens to pain? It cannot be real either, correct?

It is the giving of attention that undoes the persistent illusion of a separated self; not that to which the attention is given.

Of course that analysis turns on our openness to the idea that the self is not real (but is a manufactured image). To the degree we resist that conclusion, we are going to experience pain – not as punishment for resistance but as a simple consequence of believing we are that which can suffer.1

We all believe that we are bodies, having a temporal-spatial experience in a world that contains other bodies. We all question the nondual premise that the body is an illusion. Why else was this post written? Why else is it being read?

A Course in Miracles is indifferent to when or by what means we undo our mistaken belief about what we are in truth. Lesson 284 implicitly recognizes this, and urges us not to get hung up on the details of when/how.

This is the truth, at first to be but said and then repeated many times; and next to be accepted as but partly true, with many reservations. Then to be considered seriously more and more and more, and finally accepted as the truth (W-pII.284.1:5-6).

Those words describe a process that unfolds in time to a body. There is no need to rush through – or denigrate or deny or otherwise worry about – the experience of being a body. In time, teachers appear, ideas are embraced, and new practices are suggested. Insight is given. A Course in Miracles both accepts – and gently encourages us not to linger on – this experience.

I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt. I would beyond these words today, and past all reservations, and arrive at full acceptance of the truth in them (W-pII.284.1:7-8).

Our practice is one of giving gentle sustained attention to experience as it is given. This may at times include intellectual analysis, at times the devotion of prayer or meditation, and at times mundanity and minutiae. It doesn’t matter. It is the giving of attention that undoes the persistent illusion of a separated self; not that to which the attention is given.

A Course in Miracles is unusual in that it makes no significant demands of its students. Even this far into the lessons, if we read closely, we see the inherent patience and gentleness of the curriculum. It is like a child learning to swim with a loving parent whose only concern is the child’s safety and happiness. “You want to dip just one toe? That’s okay. You just want to play in the sand? That’s okay. You don’t want to learn to swim at all? That’s okay.”

And all the while knowing that when the child is ready to wade into the waves and leap into the blue – that will be okay, too.

1. Please note that the image – so long as we believe it is real – is real for us (see for example (T-26.VI.1:2-4). This can be a confusing distinction, but it matters. A mirage in the desert is not a real oasis, but it is a real mirage. Observe a child with Santa Claus – so long as their belief is total then Santa is real. Or observe adults who believe in a distinctly masculine sky God directing human affairs. It is easy to be dismissive of those examples; but it can also be helpful to ask: what belief (or beliefs), conscious or otherwise, do I currently cling to that I may subsequently learn is/are false? If you say “none,” how do you know? How could you know?

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The Alternative to Defining God

The question of whether God exists as an object that can be defined and perceived by another object – i.e., a self apart from yet yearning to return to God – is not as helpful as it may seem. In effect, it reinforces the very confusion it purportedly aims to undo.

“Purportedly” works here because it allows for the possibility that we actually like what doesn’t work because it doesn’t work. Seeking can be a very effective way to avoid seeing what is already wholly given.

Being a student of A Course in Miracles means in part raising to question literally every single belief to which we cling.

To learn this course requires willingness to question every value that you hold. Not one can be kept hidden and obscure but it will jeopardize your learning. No belief is neutral (T-24.in.2:1-3).

Nothing is excluded, including our ideas about God, wellness, holiness, wholeness, et cetera.

We want to become aware of the way in which ideas about God impede our ability to gently and consistently give attention to life itself, to life in the way in which it is given now.

The upshot of all this questioning tends not to be answers as such but more a general recognition that there are no answers in terms the questioning self would recognize or accept. That is, eventually one realizes that the world and self as we understand and relate to them cannot satisfy that which longs to be satisfied.

There is no body, no object, no idea, no place, no practice and no activity that is going to bring and allow us to retain peace.

At that sterile juncture – that appearance of nothing – our lives can seem like an exercise in futility.

But “futility” is not precisely the word, for the surrender to which we refer owns a joyful quality. It arises less out of defeat and more out of a recognition that there is no battle being fought. We aren’t losing a war – we are realizing that we aren’t fighting a war in the first place.

What does a soldier do who suddenly realizes his life is not in danger? That she does not have to kill or hurt anyone?

One thing that happens is they can rest: they can draw a breath and let it settle. With respect to the question of defining God, one might discover that it is less pressing now that the incessant need to understand, explain and explain literally everything has abated.

This is not to suggest that inquiries into the nature of God (or Source or First Cause et cetera) are wrong or unhelpful. Rather, it is to note the way in which the inquiry both arises and is undertaken: is joy or peace conditional on the answer? Is being right or wrong at stake? Is there some conviction that this question is more important or valuable than, say, what to have for dinner?

We want to become aware of the way in which ideas about God impede our ability to gently and consistently give attention to life itself, to life in the way in which it is given now. We want to become aware of our willingness to have the Truth obscured under the guise of seeking Truth.

When we see clearly the nature of our resistance and unwillingness, it naturally subsides, leaving in its place a quiet and self-sustaining happiness. This is “the condition in which God is remembered” (T-24.in.1:2).

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On Becoming a Servant

What does it mean to be responsible?

It must mean, in part, to give attention to what presents itself and to respond to it in meaningful and helpful ways.

Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles / Meister des Hausbuches

But that begs another question: what does “meaningful and helpful” mean? And who decides?

I think that “meaningful” and “helpful” are actually clear. They aren’t mysteries or puzzles. But we have to be patient and allow them to show themselves. It is like bird-watching, where you have to just be very still and quiet. You have to be patient. You have to wait a little.

One way to think of “meaningful and helpful” is to think of service – to become a servant. More specifically, to make one’s life about every one else’s life. To become the servant of whoever and whatever appears. If we all did this, there would be a lot less conflict. There would be a lot less disorder. There would be a lot less imbalance.

At some point in his teaching career – I think closer to the end – Ken Wapnick began to talk about making our lives about the other person. If you buy a coffee, make the experience about the cashier. If you are driving down the highway, make the drive about the other drivers. If you are talking to your spouse, make the dialogue about them. And so forth.

It is a very practical and non-dramatic way of being, and it is also a lot harder than it sounds. Slipping into the self-centered mode often happens without our noticing it. And even our generosity can be subtly self-serving: look at how spiritual I am being!

In my own experience, as a conscious human being generally, and a student of A Course in Miracles specifically, there has been a sort of slow evolution in terms of responsibility. It has involved a realization that the self – that which identifies as “Sean” – is not actually doing anything but is more in the nature of another image, another idea. So one relaxes into experience and allows it to happen. It is a kind of passive witnessing from a dissolving center.

I recognize that can sound like I am boasting about a personal spiritual accomplishment. But to me it feels more like an acknowledgment of reality. It’s like a guy taking credit for the existence of the stars, and then realizing he’s not the author of the stars, but the stars are still there. So he just enjoys the stars without worrying who put them there, keeps them there, and so forth.

It’s in the nature of a correction, rather than accomplishment.

It’s hard to say why, but as this experience of selflessness deepens, there is a corresponding deepening of the ability to be of service. It’s like the less self one encounters, the more love has to offer, and so offers it in a gentle and natural way.

“Love” in this case isn’t anything dramatic. It doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s actually mostly just about realizing that whatever is going on isn’t about me. So a student worried about writing a paper, or a neighbor whose sheep are always wandering into our garden, or a driver who rear ends me, or whatever, are not happening to “Sean.” They’re just happening. And seeing it that way changes how one responds to it. It changes what it means to be responsible.

This is not a position that “Sean” adopts; it is just a clear seeing of real experience. So the response to those situations doesn’t originate in “Sean” as a function of his intelligence and compassion and will. It arises in a more organic way, a more holistic way.

The form of the specific response isn’t actually the issue (advising the student, helping the neighbor build a fence, reassuring the other other driver it’s okay, or whatever). That doesn’t matter so much. You think it does but it actually doesn’t. If you are very quiet and still, you see that life happens of its own accord. Experience happens. As I said earlier, there aren’t any mysteries and there aren’t any puzzles. You will “know” what to do, in the sense that “what to do” is just there. It just happens.

It’s true that we slip and out of this insight, but forgetting that the self is just another appearance, another dot in the matrix so to speak, doesn’t injure the matrix. Life goes on. It’s like if you turn off the lights in the bedroom. The bed and nightstand and bureau and cat don’t disappear. They’re all there whether the lights are on or not.

It is also true that writing about this stuff is often contradictory. One can get very efficient with “Vedantic semantics” – writing about awakening – and that efficiency can be misleading. It’s tricky ground, and the way isn’t always clear. For me, there is often a lot of stumbling and backtracking. I often feel like a kid in the backseat saying “are we there yet? Now are we there?”

But the mode of travel doesn’t really matter, because we aren’t actually going anywhere. And after a while, it gets easier to remember that and just settle into the ride.

This is not a way of thinking about – or practicing – A Course in Miracles that makes sense to everyone. If it is helpful, great, and if it’s not, that’s okay too. It is in the nature of a suggestion, a sort of “this is what it’s like for me.” Presently my experience includes writing this out, as presently yours includes reading it. Let us be thankful for one another, and be guided accordingly.

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It may be that we look at the external world as being full of lessons which, once learned, will undo that world in favor of peace and love. It is not the worst way to think about the world, but it is not how the world is undone.

Any investment in the external world and the life that is engendered by and through it will keep us yoked to that world’s yin/yang roller coaster of hurt and grief, loss and confusion, et cetera. To respond to anything – as a lesson, as an opportunity to be of service, as a wrong to be righted, as a form of hate to be translated into love – is to make it real, and to make one illusion real is to make all of them real.

For no one can make one illusion real, and still escape the rest. For who can choose to keep the ones that he prefers, and find the safety that the truth alone can give? Who can believe illusions are the same, and still maintain that even one is best? (T-26.VI. 1:7-9)

Yet that is precisely what we are doing when we insist on learning from experience.

One way we respond to this problem is to give up almost everything in favor of one or two special things. We are like children who, told to come out of the water because it’s time to go home, come into the shallows to our ankles but no further. It’s true we moved in the direction of leaving the water, but we are still in the water. In a practical sense, we are no closer to going home than when we were neck-deep and frolicking.

This special thing – this idol by which we obscure the Lord – is frequently another person, another spiritual path, or some form of activity like work or parenting or making art. It seems as if we can just be in this one relationship, or find that one perfect-fitting spiritual path (or the one teacher on that path), or do the special work that only we can do, then everything will be okay. These are “good” desires, “good” aspects of the world, “good” applications of self.

But even in their goodness they are harbingers of loss and death.

Anything in this world that you believe is good and valuable and worth striving for can hurt you, and will do so. Not because it has the power to hurt, but just because you have denied it is but an illusion, and made it real. And it is real to you. It is not nothing (T-26.VI.1:1-4).

Our belief that there is at least this one good thing worth pursuing and possessing reinforces the underlying error or illusion upon which every other error or illusion is founded: that there is a discrete self who causes things to happen and to whom things happen. The one “good” illusion becomes the gate through which the rest of them parade.

And through its perceived reality has entered all the world of sick illusions. All belief in sin, in power of attack, in hurt and harm, in sacrifice and death, has come to you (T-26.VI.1:5-6).

There is a point in one’s study of A Course in Miracles where this becomes obvious. We have fallen for the lie there is something out there upon which the truth is contingent – a lover, a belief system, a spiritual practice, a career, a calling. This realization can be very painful because no matter where we turn a nagging voice says “but that’s an illusion too.” Our spouse, our zafu, our exercise regimen, our political ideals, our poems and paintings. It’s like the Hindu practice of “neti, neti,” a sort of via negativa. Our lives become an apparent litany of “not this, not this.”

Because this experience can be sterile to the point of leaving no reason to live, we naturally succumb to the understandable temptation to forego it altogether. What’s so bad about an idol? How can a slice of raisin bread be bad? Even gurus enjoy an orgasm from time to time don’t they? And so forth. This is easy to do and often happens without our noticing it. Even a practice of “neti, neti” can become an idol, a thing to which we cling.

But eventually we get tired of the merry go-round and step off it. “I can’t keep even one illusion. There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ illusion. Fine. Now what?”

What is helpful is simply noticing what is happening. We realize that we have had an insight (there are no good illusions and so we can’t keep any of them), and that we are resisting its implications, and that this resistance is painful. Perhaps it is terrifying. Or confusing. We just have to look at this. We don’t have to do anything about it. We just give attention to what is happening. Judging it, amending it, making art of it . . . that’s all just more grist for the mill of attention.

Give attention and let the spiritual chips fall where they fall, which is all they’re going to do anyway. Let it all go, and watch as it does. Let it all come flowing back, and watch as it does.

How does this help? It helps in a few ways.

First, attention almost always brings us – if only briefly – to the present moment. And the wonderful thing about the so-called holy instant is that it does not contain the past or the future. There are no insights in the holy instant, there are no consequences in the holy instant, and so there are no personal reactions in the holy instant.

When you look closely and openly at what is happening, there is only what is happening – nothing else! It is such a clear and simple thing that we tend to look right past it. But it is always right here and always right now. So “not this, not this” becomes “only this. This this.”

Second, as we settle into a relationship with the holy instant (as outlined above), we begin to give attention to the underlying error of separation itself. We look at the belief that there is someone doing all this who can choose to stop it.

Most of us – most of the time – conflate this “someone” with the self we believe we are. “Sean” is projecting this and that, so an improved “Sean” will choose to stop projecting. “Sean” is obsessed with being right, so a more insightful and less possessive “Sean” will become more interested in just being happy.

But “Sean” – and you, too, whoever you are – is just another illusion. “Sean’s” body is just as illusory as any body “Sean” perceives. Those discrete selves who seem capable of so much activity are just more projections. They are just another bright shiny reflection that disappears when grasped at.

This is all the separation is: the belief that the projected self is responsible for what happens. Once that belief is gone – and it goes when even mildly challenged – what remains is peace. What remains is Truth.

The section of A Course of Miracles that is the focus here (The Appointed Friend) encourages us to adopt the Holy Spirit as our “Friend in truth” (T-26.VI.3:4), appointed by God (T-26.VI.2:7), who will bring us “gifts that are not of this world” (T-26.VI.3:5). Doing so will help end our habit of choosing among illusions.

This can be a helpful construction but please see the way that it sustains the underlying dualism it aims to undo: that there is a self who needs a friend, without which friend, the truth will remain forever at bay.

So the suggestion I am offering is that a point comes when even the Holy Spirit is an illusion, when even that apparently harmless ideal becomes too painful an obstruction to manage. If it is helpful, okay. Use it. But if it is not, it’s not. Don’t be afraid to go there. The text which offers us this special “friend” is simultaneously teaching us that eventually we’ll have to go beyond this friend. What did the old hymn say?

we got to walk this lonesome valley –
we got to walk it by ourselves.
Ain’t nobody else can walk it for us –
we got to walk it by ourselves.

In this way – as happens so often when one closely reads the text – A Course in Miracles undoes itself and points to an experience that cannot be mediated and cannot be controlled or directed, not even by the course itself.

So give attention to the one who gives attention. Can you find the giver? Can you find the source? Can attention turn around on itself? Can you find your true self? Can you find that which never changes? Is not subject to events? Is not bound to response? Has no preferences? Perceives no difference that would make judgment possible let alone desirable?

If we undertake our inquiry into this self patiently, gently and honestly, then we will see that the source cannot be found. We cannot grasp the self. It always slips through that which would hold it, without ever quite leaving or disappearing. Because we cannot find it, we make substitutions for it, the most notorious of which is God.

But knowing God – knowing the Absolute, however one defines or labels it – is beyond the limits of our faculties. Our perceptive capabilities, our intelligence and learning, our memories and dreams, our cultural affluence and dynamic social fabrics can at best point in the direction of that which cannot be perceived, studied, known, shared or otherwise made real. It is beyond real and unreal, and even saying that little is saying too much.

These posts often drift into poetic abstraction. That’s okay. It’s one way of alluding to that which cannot be alluded to. In the absence of pure truth, we make do with conditional references. In a world of broken legs, who doesn’t need a crutch?

Yet the post also aims at a practical teaching: to suggest that one give attention without any expectation of a result that can be conveyed in language or via the senses, while simultaneously trusting that a result will be given. Nothing simpler can be imagined than to simply notice what is happening, where noticing does not exclude frustration, confusion, forgetting, resisting, denying and so forth.

Look, and you will see Christ looking back at you, and there will no longer be a looker and a looked-at, but only looking itself, and it will be enough. It will be all there is.

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