The Ground of Experience

It is helpful from time to time to ground ourselves in experience in the world. It is always tempting to write things off as simply an illusion and hence not worthy of our attention or effort, but A Course in Miracles is more subtle and complex than that. It’s not about denial of the world we perceive, but acceptance of it in order to transcend it.

This acceptance and transcendence is quite apart from materiality, though it is reflected there – the world is, in a sense, a mirror – but too much can and often is made of this. The point is not to disparage the material world – our bodies, other bodies, wars and famines, weather and politics, hunger, desire and grief – but rather to give attention to it in order that we might see it clearly as it is, which is to simultaneously perceive Reality as it is. Right seeing is not the physical conclusion of what is material and external, but more in the nature of a harmonious resolution of our confused ideas about cause and effect.

In this sense, right seeing – which is the means of peace – is a kind of internal adjustment that can initially feel unbalanced and even dangerous. We could compare it to the famous Jesus optical illusion: we stare and stare and only see lines, then suddenly perceive the name “Jesus,” then only lines again, and then we slip back and forth – meaningless lines, Jesus, meaningless lines, Jesus – but then at last our vision settles and we see only Jesus.

That is not a perfect metaphor, but it suggests how awakening can happen: nothing changes except the way we see, which is internal, and it will be confusing and difficult at first, but sooner or later resolve in favor of Jesus, or peace.

We should be clear that A Course in Miracles never equivocates that its goal is to teach us that there is no world (W-pI.132.6:2-3), that the world’s meaning resides in our mind and that there “is no world apart from what we wish” (W-pI.132.4:1-2, 5:1).

There is no world apart from  your ideas because ideas leave not their source, and you maintain the world within your mind in thought (W-pI.132.10:3).

To our physical bodies the world will always be real, because our physical bodies are part of what is external. Don’t wait for a day when you walk on water, don’t wait for a day when you don’t crave sex or grilled steak tips or a week in Aruba, and don’t think that one day you are going to magically love everyone the way you presently love your children or your dog or whatever. Instability and change is inherent in the external – it’s silly to fight it, because it’s a fight we always lose and, more to the point, it diminishes its capacity to be helpful.

Look closely at the quoted course material above – all that of which the “world” is composed is maintained by thought in our mind. The course does not deny its existence – it merely asks us to reconsider its source and, when we agree to this reconsideration, the course then teaches us what it means when it teaches us that the world is not real.

Really, what the course is saying is that the external world is neutral and causeless – it can only affect our peace of mind with our consent, which we give over and over (mostly reflexively and mostly subconsciously). If we examine our relationship with, say, our favorite food or memory, or our favorite person, or anything, we will see that is mostly a matter of interpretation – of what is going on internally. We will see that our internal representations of the world are very subtle, very quick and also very powerful.

You cannot see the invisible. Yet if you see its effects you know it must be there. By perceiving what it does, you recognize its being. And by what it does, you learn what it is. You cannot see your strengths, but you gain confidence in their existence as they enable you to act. And the results of your actions you can see (T-12.VII.2:2-7).

Thought and mind are invisible but we can perceive their effects when we give attention to what we do –  our actions – and to the world that flows from our actions (which in turn always flow from thought). But we really have to be sincere and disciplined in this practice of attention and our willingness to look closely – ever deeper, ever finer – if we are going to perceive at last the outlines of Love.

I sometimes use the analogy of a forest. There are swathes of forest here in my part of Massachusetts that I know intimately. When I walk there with friends, they are walking “in the forest,” but then I point things out – the way pine trees grow in certain proximity, the way the a network of poplars share bifurcating trunks, boulders marking the passage of ice ten thousand years ago (and that passage’s relationship to the hollow generally), tracks of deer and bear that are little stories unto themselves, the subtle trails the animals make to and from the river, and so on and so forth – and so for many people it becomes an entirely different forest – suddenly it is richer, more dynamic, alive, flowing.

When we are sure or certain – which tends to show up in the lovelessness of “I get it and you don’t,” however articulated – we need to step back into unknowing, which is simply to give attention to what is, without trying to change or amend or define what is.

I am suggesting here that our internal experience is like that. We are not just “angry” or “happy,” any more than the forest is just a bunch of trees. There is a lot happening – images, thoughts, feelings, memories, narratives – all triggering and tumbling over one another, a vast hurried flow we stubbornly pretend we cannot influence in any way, shape or form which is regrettable since our whole confused sense of self and world emerges from this flow.

The trouble is, when it comes to thought, we think that we are products, rather than producers. We are very resistant to being told otherwise, let alone consenting to retrain ourselves to think – and thus act – otherwise. We have to question this – at the personal level we have to bring this problem to the light of questioning, which is to say, in ACIM terms, to give it to the Holy Spirit. We have to begin to see how we have it backwards, and that correction is both necessary and possible. Nothing external can do this for us – it is entirely an inside job.

The Holy Spirit is invisible, but you can see the results of His Presence, and through them you will learn that He is there . . . Perceiving His results, you will understand where He must be, and finally know what He is (T-12.VII.3:1, 4).

It is not enough to say that the external world is causeless, because that is just words, and words are external. We have to have an insight, by which I mean a clear and sudden recognition of the true nature of thought and its relationship to the world. This is akin to a lightening flash – it is that illuminating and that fast – but it changes everything. Once we see the landscape revealed by a blast of lightening, we know which way to walk.

How do we have this insight? How do we perceive the results of our right mind’s active presence?

We give attention to the world in a gentle, sustained and non-judgmental way. Period. We cannot force insight – if we do, then it is simply the intellect masquerading as the Holy Spirit. The intellect is a fine tool (like language, as I’ll get to in a moment) but it’s not our right mind. This insight – again – is like the Jesus symbol mentioned earlier. We can’t think or force our way to clarity with respect to an optical illusion: we have to sort of relax into it. We have to let it be. If it comes today, okay, and if we have to wait until next week, then that’s okay too.

I want to be clear: the insight I am talking about is the realization that what is external is causeless. All that means is that we stop looking for peace and happiness externally. We stop expecting the solution – whatever that means – to come from somebody or something else. Really, all this insight does is allow us to say okay, my way isn’t working so I am going to try another way. I’m going to start looking within. It’s like we’ve been trying to knead bread with a hammer. The realization we’re using the wrong tool doesn’t mean our bread is automatically kneaded and ready to go. We still have to do all the work, but at least we can do it with the right tools now. Now we can make some real progress.

This is actually very hard work, in part because it is very subtle and naturally resists attention. That’s a big part of it, actually – seeing and understanding that we don’t want to see and understand, which is not a question of malice so much as habit or reflex – and so we have to be sensitive to it. Often I will decide I “get it” or I’ve made some breakthrough, and then hours or days later realize it was just the same old thought process wearing a different mask. The ego is like that – thought aims to protect its prerogatives. We can’t undo it ourselves. We have to become aware of it in a deep and sustained way.

Many years ago I learned – as a writer, with respect to writing – to avoid conclusions. I still believe this is a good practice in terms of the craft of writing, but I think it works in broader contexts as well. To conclude is to end but Life is more in the nature of a flow or movement – a flux, David Bohm would call it – and it doesn’t have an end. So when we are sure or certain – which tends to show up in the lovelessness of “I get it and you don’t,” however articulated – we probably need to step back into the unknowing, which again is simply to give attention to what is, without trying to change or amend or define what is. Let it be, because we are it too, and so our freedom is implicated as well. In a funny way, it really is all about us.

Freedom in the ultimate sense is not about knowing “The Answer” or “The Secret” but no longer needing to know it, or knowing that it doesn’t exist, which amounts to the same thing.

Thus, I think it is truly useful to give attention to the world – but to really go deep with it, as deep as we can in any given moment. I mean to gaze at the garden and examine its physicality – its scents, colors, shapes, its shifts with the wind and the sunlight and so forth – and to become aware of how thought is involved, is part of the looking – we feel proud or happy or secure, and so we look at those feelings as well, and the way that we explain or rationalize them, and we keep going. We keep following thought wherever it goes, all the twists and turns, where it gathers steam, where it peters out. There is no end other than the realization that there is no end, but we have to experience it. Nobody else can have the experience for us. That is why sometimes there is nothing fancy to do, no teacher we need to follow, no special books to read. It’s like Jesus saying quietly saying, “get on with it already.”

My writing practice has been very helpful in this regard, because it naturally aligns itself with looking, deepening, and avoiding conclusion. I am not saying I get this right all the time – I don’t – but sometimes I do, both as a writer and as a man trying to understand what it means to be alive, a part of Life, or Life itself. Language can be very instrumental in helping us do the work. For example, if you look at the garden, what words come up? How do you describe it, what memories does it evoke, how does it evoke them. If you trust the writing – if you don’t demand it do this or that – then you can learn something. You start writing about a garden and two sentences later you are screaming at your father for making you butcher chickens as a little boy and it’s like, “okay. I wasn’t looking at that. Now I am. Good to know.”

Of course, writing is just one way. There are others. This is very personal work. We all have the means to do it in the way that is most helpful to us.

Finally, I want to also say – more in the nature of nodding in a direction, because I am still working it out – that this looking or giving attention that I talk about is just another word for self-inquiry and as such is nothing new and certainly nothing special. I am beginning to see, too, that David Bohm’s ideas about dialogue are instrumental (for me but maybe for you too) in helpfully getting into this material. They are not a substitute for the ACIM lessons, which I think are an essential component of studying A Course in Miracles and can be put off but not ignored altogether if one is serious. But talking with each another – rather than writing and reading (which are related, even intimately, but lack the presence or immediacy of dialogue) – can be a great way of getting right into the internal and staying with it, and getting clear with it.

Therapy, at its best, does this but you can’t really limit dialogue to a fifty-minute hour every week, and the exchange really needs to be mutual – that is, both parties should share a common language and goal, and understand that healing is not from one for the other, but rather mutual, even if it appears somewhat lopsided in application. As soon as we think that we have something somebody else doesn’t have – as opposed to doesn’t remember or realize they have – then our capacity to facilitate healing has temporarily slipped our grasp. Really, as long as we think that “we” are doing anything, we’re toast.

What I am really saying here is – because I am learning it as I go – is that I am trying to find a way to talk to you – trying to write my way to talking with you – because my sense more and more is that we have to do that if we are serious about awakening. Our relationship is the world and light on it – in the form of words, which are always all I have to offer – is needed, now more than ever.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Eric August 24, 2014, 6:47 am

    Hi Sean,

    You know, reading about your walks through the forest and your experiences and introspection has a kind of Thoreau-esque “Walden” quality to it. I mean that in a good way.

    You wrote: It is helpful from time to time to ground ourselves in experience in the world. It is always tempting to write things off as simply an illusion and hence not worthy of our attention or effort, but A Course in Miracles is more subtle and complex than that. It’s not about denial of the world we perceive, but acceptance of it in order to transcend it.

    Eric: I’m probably going to come to this from a different angle, but as I read this, J. Krishnamurti immediately came to mind. “You are the world”, he said, but I wonder just how many of us take this to heart? Do I? Sometimes..maybe. As I reflect on this, isn’t it strange how much we dissociate ourselves from the world? It is not actually all too often that we want to ground ourselves in the experience of the world, because if we did, we would have to face the cognitive dissonance that is a result of our conflicted thinking in which we try and repress. We try and separate ourselves from the world, telling ourselves there is the “I” and then there is the world and somehow this world is separate from me, from us. And then we give ourselves all kinds of distractions so we don’t have to look upon the untruth of this. We turn to sports, news, movies, celebrity gossip, politics, religion, drugs, alcohol, and often times even spirituality to distract us from actually engaging with the world.

    Yes, it can be tempting to write things off as simply an illusion. It can be tempting to write off the world simply as an illusion, because this is merely another form of dissociation and repression. This is what the course says is the attempt to depreciate the power of thought and make the mind impotent. Or we can simply condemn the world as being “psycho planet” where the implication is that it is the world’s fault and think this is the pinnacle of spiritual wisdom. But again, this is just another defense mechanism in disguise as spirituality.

    But what if we actually looked at the world and actually grounded ourselves in it? Can I begin to end this separation between “I” and the world? Can we begin to end this separation between “we” and the world? Can we begin to look at our conflicting thoughts about the world? Can we begin to see the dissociation we have put upon the world to try and “protect” us? Looking at this can be overwhelming and it is much easier to go reach for one of those distractions than to come to terms that you/I/we are the world. What responsibility that is! But it is a responsibility that the course states we have to take.

    Whether a course student or not, I think that each one of us knows deep down inside that we are not separate from the world. We may want to believe that we are, but I think each one of us knows somewhere within ourselves that we are not. We may try to hold that belief through denial, dissociation, rationalizations, justifications, etc. but only because there is an underlying sadness that we don’t want to look at. But it is in the looking in which transformation is possible.

    But that is very difficult, because eventually we’ll have to look at everything and not just what we want to look at. No longer can we go with, “Out of sight, out of mind.” It could be as simple as wanting cheap consumer goods, but do we really want to see what is happening to our brothers and sisters in order to receive this good cheaply? Do we really want to look at all the garbage we’re selling to India? And what of the South American rain forests? Do we actually want to look at that? That can be terrifying, because to look at this, we have to look at ourselves. These things do not just happen out of a vacuum and we can no longer blame the world for doing this while absolving ourselves from responsibility. Oh the safety of distractions! How they save us from looking and actually being engaged in the world!

    J. Krishnamurti said that there must be a revolution of the mind, but to do so, we have to stop being in denial about ourselves. “If you are greedy”, he said, “then admit you are greedy and deal with that.” Too often we try and be virtuous or try and act a certain way, denying the aspects of ourselves that we do not want. But we have to look at those aspects, not with condemnation, but with our Inner Teacher. I don’t want to think of myself as selfish, but sometimes I am. I don’t want to think of myself as self centered, but sometimes I am. I don’t want to think of myself as petty, but sometimes I am. And it is only by actually looking at this, that it can be transcended.

    In western Buddhism, there is the idea of detachment. I understand the concept. It is the idea of not clinging, but I don’t particularly care for the term. It has a connotation of apathy to it. I was listening to a religious scholar and Buddhist practitioner give a lecture one day and he said something I found very interesting. He said that in the time of the Buddha, the Pali and Sanskrit languages were used. Kind of like the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, there is a richness to them that is sometimes not found in English. He spoke about this idea of detachment and said it was somewhat of a sloppy translation of what the Buddha taught. He said that a more accurate term would be “correct engagement”. I like this. It makes more sense and speaks to me more, as it can speak of not clinging, but also not being apathetic.


    • Sean Reagan August 29, 2014, 5:48 pm

      Hi Eric,

      “It is not actually all too often that we want to ground ourselves in the experience of the world, because if we did, we would have to face the cognitive dissonance that is a result of our conflicted thinking in which we try and repress.”

      That is a lovely and concise way to put it. My sense more and more is that we are simply correcting our internal perception, which is simple to say, but hard to do, especially in a sustained way. And, as you point out, there are so many distractions – many of which are specifically geared to those who want “spirituality” or “God” or what-have-you.

      I am re-reading Tara Singh’s little book Love Holds No Grievances,” and it is so beautiful, clear and helpful.

      Relationship exists only when you have understood and realized that there is only one life, one God, one truth, one love. Once you’ve realized that then you see within one life, one God, there is relationship with everything . . . so everything is one and within the one there is relationship (59-60).

      To see that – to even be willing to see that – requires that we accept responsibility, as you point out. We become responsible for salvation, in a sense, because we are ready to see the problem where it is rather than project it endlessly onto the world. The projections are the illusion!

      Tara Singh again:

      Take responsibility to do whatever you can do. Whether you like the others or you dislike them, it should not concern you. You act from a totally impersonal way because you have understood relationship. Can you live in the world and be warm and caring for people, but somehow still be with impersonal life? Impersonal life – only then can there be friendship (55).

      “Correct engagement.” I love that. And I think this sense of going deeper with language – looking at root words and so forth – is a helpful form of giving attention. It is a way of becoming responsible for what we say and read, which informs how we think which, in turn, clarifies what we say and write, what we are offering.

      Thanks for the kind comparison to Thoreau who, along with Emily Dickinson, functions as a patron saint of sorts for me. I’m not worthy, but it’s a nice thought . . .


  • Eric August 30, 2014, 4:12 pm

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for sharing Tara Singh. I really enjoy his writings. I don’t think I have that book, I might check it out. Speaking of which, I read your book, “One or Two Steps Only” and rather enjoyed it. I even gave you a little review on Amazon. 🙂

    • Sean Reagan August 31, 2014, 3:02 pm

      Hey . . . Thank you for the review . . . I am very humbled to be on the receiving end of your wise and generous wordiness . . . Thanks, Eric.

      ~ Sean

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