I have pointed out many times the importance of taking a firm and stand with respect to one’s spirituality. This is not the same as saying our particular path or practice is superior to another. It is a matter of saying, this is what works best for me right now and I am committed to it. I won’t be distracted. I won’t become casual. Commitment is a sign of willingness; and when we are willing to perceive God, all sorts of things – fun and otherwise – start to happen.
Or so it has worked for me, so far. I took a fairly traditional shallow and intellectual approach to A Course in Miracles early on but it grew thin quickly. Two things were more or less clear. First, ACIM was not (for me) just another new age belief system with which I could play at being a serious and enlightened man. Second, more than I needed to choose “the right path,” I needed to commit to a path. The commitment was far more important than what I committed to. I was crying out at the deepest levels for the experience of being a student and a follower.
Anyway, those two factors converged and I began to study A Course in Miracles in earnest. Again, this has taken a form for me that it does not with plenty of other students. I have no argument with them and try to stay away from theirs with me. That I do this imperfectly goes without saying. My formal teacher is Tara Singh and his approach to the course – Vedantic, service-oriented, cross-cultural – can throw plenty of students and teachers into conniptions. There are plenty of course teachers about whom I feel the same way, so I get it. It happens for all of us.
A couple of years after this serious study began, I fell into a rut. The course felt dull and repetitive; Singh was predictable. Idly, I started to read Krishnamurti – Singh’s teacher in many ways – and through him stumbled onto physicist David Bohm. Bohm’s ideas about thought revolutionized my understanding of A Course in Miracles, in particular its thinking on the ego and separation. I have tried – poorly, I know – ever since to understand this by writing about it in various forms and settings.
Part of my problem with ACIM has always been that it is a bit too poetic for my taste and a bit too intellectual. It’s always on the verge of going over the top. I’m not so peeved about this that I need to pull a Liz Cronkhite rewrite the damn thing (Liz, by the way, is highly recommended). But it wasn’t until I read Bohm that I understood what this frustration meant. In an instant I saw why Krishnamurti was so insistent on not borrowing language from various religious and psychological systems. I appreciated the impulse of writers like Thich Nhat Hanh or Thomas Merton to acknowledge and integrate material from varied traditions but more and more it seemed like tossing gasoline on smoldering coal. Christian language and imagery and symbolism – even in the hands of Helen Schucman, whose mind was profoundly logical and elegant – mislead more than they guide aright because they are always from the past.
A few thousand years ago, humanity took what Bohm called “a wrong turn.” Thought, which has always been evolving in concert with human beings, made a significant leap: it became aware of itself. It became reflective. Suddenly people began to perceive themselves as separate from the world and from each other. They settled into communities, into agriculture, and into specialization. The ego came into existence and it began to remake the world in all kinds of ways. On the one hand we get penicillin. On the other, nuclear warheads.
Ken Wilber in Up from Eden points out that humans liked this emergent egoic consciousness and began to conflate it with self.
[A]s the individual began to identify with the recording and thinking and memory aspects of the organism, he began to form a conception of himself as a static, permanent, persistent self; and that thought self tended to feel separate not only from the impulsive world around it, but also from the spontaneous aspects of its own body.
L.L. Whyte, in The Next Development in Man (on whose insights Wilber cheerfully and responsibly relies) called this a curse because “intellectual man had no choice but to follow the path which facilitated the development of his faculty of thought, and thought could only clarify itself by separating out static concepts which, in becoming static, ceased to conform either to their organic matrix or to the forms of nature . . . thought became alien in form to the rest of nature.”
All of which leads Wilber to conclude that the ego – which in some ways represented a practical and helpful evolution in awareness because it facilitated a differentiation between mind and body which is necessary step to transcendence – became in essence “a lesion on awareness.” Its helpfulness was compromised – and we are still struggling with the extent.
This split has not healed with time; we live with its consequences. Bohm called them incoherence; the author of A Course in Miracles calls it our separation from God. It is why we are lonely and scared, it is why we have more stuff than we can count and still feel empty, it is why we build and buy new phones every year, it is why we consent to live under nuclear annihilation and – most importantly because it is really the premise from which all these others incoherences arise – it is why we believe that God is out there opposed to us and so the only sane response is to kill him dead. Of course we know in an interior way this is insane and impossible – we retain our pre-split awareness and sensibility, albeit in deeply-repressed form – and that, too, makes us crazy. We know, as A Course in Miracles points out, that the secret to salvation is that we are doing this to ourselves. And yet we keep doing it.
Often, when I am teaching Emily Dickinson, our class discussions will wander into spirituality, sometimes with great intensity. Most of my students appreciate it (or pretend to) but there are always a couple who approach me later to say they were troubled because what Dickinson appears to be saying and what I am saying are at odds with what they are being taught in their church/synagogue/mosque/dinner table/etc. My response is always the same: question your religious and/or spiritual inclination and practice. True religion will bear this inquiry gracefully because what we call God wants to be known and nothing is that isn’t God.
If ACIM is helpful, great. We ought to give it our full attention. But don’t be afraid to question it. Don’t be afraid to see if it will bear the weight of doubt and skepticism. Tara Singh used to urge his students to stop every time the course asked a question and not continue reading until they’d answered it, really answered it. It’s a good way to deepen one’s understanding of the course but it’s also a good way to deepen our contact with God. God is with us when we question: when we listen: when we move inside in our fumbling way, groping in darkness for light.
When I say (as I often do) that God is not with Helen Schucman any more than God is with Pope Francis or Eckhart Tolle, I am also de facto saying that God is with all of them equally. You and me, too. The ego has strengthened considerably over the centuries but it is not invincible. Far from it. The answer to Bill Thetford’s beautiful and provocative query – there must be another way – is that there is. There always was. And there always will be. It’s form might be A Course in Miracles or David Bohm or even just be watching deer paw the snow at dusk, looking for a few last greens. Take heed of that which points beyond the world and the body and give attention to it. Give energy to it. The separation is simply the massive effort we consistently and constantly undertake in order to obscure the simple light of God which always shines in and through and around us.
The answer to our spiritual crisis is simple. Stop trying so hard: stop trying altogether: and watch the darkness that never was disappear.