Teasing out the meaning of any given section of A Course in Miracles can be quite challenging. Although I think the course is fundamentally simple, it is often hard to see that – especially consistently. The other day, someone asked me what the text is getting at when it teaches “what is joyful to you is painful to the ego.” It’s a good question and one of those phrases that at first blush can seem unduly complicated. In truth, it simply means that we’re confused and we need help!
The quote comes from Chapter 7 – The Gifts of the Kingdom in the section aptly entitled “The confusion of Pain and Joy.” In it, Jesus talks about the deep confusion under which most of live. It’s like a cloud beneath which we cannot sense the Holy Spirit’s loving guidance and so remains unhappy and puzzled and separated.
The problem is not whether what the Holy Spirit says is true, but whether you want to listen to what He says. You no more recognize what is painful than you know what is joyful and are, in fact, very apt to confuse the two. The Holy Spirit’s main function is to teach you to tell them apart. What is joyful to you is painful to the ego, and as long as you are in doubt about what you are, you will be confused about joy and pain (T-7.X.3:3-6).
Sometimes the course articulates a truth that – if realized and accepted and brought into consistent application – would end conflict entirely. This is one of those passages. If we are prepared to listen only to the Holy Spirit and disregard entirely the jabbering of the egoic self, then we are going to know a peace and a joy that surpasses expectation and measure of every kind. It’s like saying that if we can slow down and really get this, then there is nothing else to get.
I suppose there are students for whom it happens that way. I read testimonies online from time to time from people who wake up in a snap and they just get it. I’m happy for them. It doesn’t work that way for me. It’s a lot of work and a lot of discernment and a lot of picking myself up, dusting myself off and stumbling forward. If it wasn’t for the friends stumbling with me – you know who you are – I’d have given up a long time ago. Or I’d be less diligent anyway.
So this passage then is less about getting it all at once, then simply remembering that the Holy Spirit – let’s call it our right minds, or our healed minds – speaks to what we are in truth. It reaches us at a level that is beyond the body and beyond the world. When we hear its voice and follows its guidance, we are free of conflict. Even here, in the world of the ego, it is possible to get glimpses of true peace and flashes of real joy. You begin to sense this power – gentle but powerful – that is just coursing nearby. Anytime we want we can reach out and touch it – slip into it – be carried by it even.
And yes – from we step out. The tea kettle whistles or the dog barks or the kids wake up or whatever. I don’t have this down perfectly! But it gets better. I begin to loosen my intellectual grip on the text in favor of something that is more heartful – by which I mean, existing in a way or in a place that falls somewhat outside the reach of my wordy and logical and where’s-the-next-shiny-thing brain.
So to come back to that quote then . . . first and foremost, I have to remember that what I am in truth is not what the ego believes and projects. That’s important. I may not have a complete grasp on my real self – my undivided self, my non-separated self – but I can at least stipulate that the ego doesn’t have it either. And then I can start to look for those moments when real peace enters. It’s not the lovely sunset (though I have no objection to those), not Chopin or Emily Dickinson (no objections there either) and it’s not getting what “I” want – even when “what I want” includes the well-being of others.
Instead it is those quiet moments when I slip out of judgment altogether. When looking with Jesus is suddenly not about the looking but about the being with – do you know what I mean? For a few seconds nothing else matters. It’s not like you disappear and the kids are going to be bereft and the dog’s not going to go for any more walks or anything. It’s just that you’re home. You’re with that love that is outside of time and outside of space. That is joy – and it is hell for the ego because it is the absence of the ego.
We have to go slowly – I think this is true for most students. We have to pay attention and give it a good effort and be patient – with ourselves, with each other, and even with Jesus. We’re getting there – to the joy and the peace, to the dissolution of the ego. It seems like it’s taking forever but I think it isn’t. I think it’s happening faster than we think.