What Works is What’s Helpful

The point is always to find and utilize what is helpful, understanding that “helpfulness” is relative, contextual and subject to change. Basically, we are looking for a way to peacefully and creatively exist within an existence that seems to be independent of us.

In order to discern what is helpful, we have to have a clear sense of who is being helped and what they need help with.

bucket in thimbleberry

I don’t know why I like this photograph so much but I do. It makes me happy, and happiness matters. Perhaps that is sufficient.

A person who is building a house will be happy when a carpenter shows up. A person who wants to learn how to play piano, will not be happy when a driving instructor shows up.

A person who is building a house will not be happy when the carpenter starts digging the foundation with a hammer. The person who wants to learn how to play piano will be happy when she learns the driving instructor actually moonlights as a piano teacher.

So there is no such thing as absolute helpfulness – something that works in every situation. There are just applicable instances of helpfulness, here and there, for which we can be grateful.

In our study of A Course in Miracles, which is so often the latest iteration in a life given to spiritual seeking, what do we want?

In other words, what is the project for which we want help?

Clarity is useful in this regard. Honesty is useful. Saying in a clear simple way what we want is usually a good step to getting it, or at least figuring out if getting it is what we really want.

Sometimes we are vague because we don’t know what we want, and sometimes we are vague because we don’t want to say what we want, and sometimes we are vague because we don’t want to face what we want.

For example, in the summer of 2013 I promoted myself as a teacher of A Course in Miracles. I offered audio classes, a book, and 1:1 teaching sessions. I charged money for this.

At the time, I said frequently that my goal was to be helpful to folks for whom my particular approach to the course was resonant. But it would have better to say “I need to financially justify all the time I spend writing and thinking about ACIM and this seems like a good way.”

And if I was being really really honest I would have said something like, “I want to be a well-known, well-paid teacher of ACIM like Ken Wapnick or Marianne Williamson and this seems like the right way to get on that path.”

But that level of honesty and forthrightness was not possible then. I wasn’t averse to helping others but really, the exercise was about me.

I am not beating up on myself here. I didn’t give the latter two answers because attention and willingness didn’t reach that far. That happens and it’s no big deal, other than that it tends to slow down and possibly complicate remembering that there really isn’t anything to do because we are already home.


A row of sunflowers at a distance . . . Kind of standing guard over the garden and gazing at the far hills.

Experience is richly and beautifully simple, but we get in the way. We have plans and ideas and agendas, and the sad part is, we can’t always see them. We get confused, and in our confusion, we make choices that leave us sad or hurt or guilty or what-have-you.

So we have to be as clear and honest as we can be about what we want from our practice of A Course in Miracles and then we have to be patient. We have to let the spiritual chips fall where they may.

So again: why are we studying A Course in Miracles? Do we want to wake up? Gain inner peace? Gain some useful strategy for navigating life? Get rich and famous? What?

For me, at some point in mid-2015, the answer was: “I want to wake up.”

Once we say it – once we get it clear and simple – then we can start to look into it a bit. It’s like buying a house. We can talk all day about our dream house, but when we start looking at what we can afford, where we want to be, and what’s available given those restrictions, then the experience narrows pretty fast. We stop dreaming and we get to work.

What does “work” look like in this context? In this find-what-works-and-work-it context?

I say that I want to wake up. That leads to an important series of question: how do I know that I’m asleep? Because I must know that, right? Otherwise, waking up would not be an ideal.

And if I do know I’m asleep, then how did I learn that I’m asleep? How do I know this is sleep and not wakefulness? I must have known wakefulness once, right? Otherwise, how would I know what it means to sleep? I’d have nothing to compare it to.

And if I know what “waking up” means, then how did I learn? Is it inherent? Did I learn it? If so, who was my teacher?

That’s a lot of material and I want to look into it all. I want to go slowly into each question – in a careful attentive way.

And I want to find out if I need help doing so.

So I sit quietly and give attention to the first question: am I awake? Or am I asleep? How can I tell?

When I do this, other questions arise. They are like sub-questions to the main question. First, I realize it would be useful to define those phrases – what is meant by “wake” and “asleep.”


moss on the west side of beams of wood on the chicken pen . . .

To get to those definitions, I start with my Oxford English Dictionary (I know, I know – I’m a snob). I might detour into Latin textbooks – knowing the roots of words can be very insightful. Then I will look at ACIM primary and secondary materials – the text, workbook and manual for teachers, and then the main teachers on whose work I rely.

Then I might start going outside the course. What did Dōgen say? How about Schrödinger? Husserl? Emily Dickinson? Are there contemporary academics looking into this? What are they saying?

This takes time and energy. And it only works if it’s actually helpful. So how do I know if it’s helpful?

First, is the information I’m getting answering questions and prompting others? If so, then it’s helpful.

But beyond that, am I having fun? I’m not saying that my intellectual approach to the course is everybody’s cup of tea or even should be. But for me, it is more than just useful. It does more than just provide relevant data.

It is also fun. It calls to me in the sense that it’s easy to come back to. It’s not work. It heals me.

So that is another way to think of helpfulness: what is its relationship to joy?

Gradually, the process of vigorous rigorous intellectual study and sustained investigation (inquiry through giving attention) will yield an answer. A point comes when you are seeing the same thing over and over and there is less and less to inquire about.

In the case at hand – in this inquiry I undertook in response to “I want to wake up” and the sprawling interrogatories spawned thereby – the answer is: I already am awake but I am consistently overlooking this fact.

So now there is a new question, right? How can I stop overlooking this fact?

And I’m off again. The OED, A Course in Miracles, Steven Hagen, David Bohm . . .

I am not suggesting this sort of granular academic and contemplative approach to A Course in Miracles is the only way to go. My point is that in my experience, it works. It is helpful because it answers fundamental questions related to my purpose for studying A Course in Miracles and it makes me happy.

Most people who read me closely are either already awake and patiently waiting on me to figure out I am too, or they are ready to take the final series of steps in their own awakening, where “take the final series of steps” has an intellectual aspect to it which is related to better understanding certain ideas and concepts.

I seem to have some facility for that understanding, even as I am clumsy and dumbfounded in myriad other ways.


This birch tree is in the forest where a couple of trails meet . . . I love it very much, am always grateful when it survives rough winters . . . touch it when I pass on my walks, like genuflecting at an altar . . .

Recently I was playing chess with my son and we reached the endgame. The “endgame” is that point where the next series of moves will conclude the game. There are only three possible outcomes – you win, you lose, or you draw. It isn’t a mystery.

Even though you know there are only three outcomes, you still have to play the game. Knowing the result and getting the result – experiencing the result – are not the same thing.

Awakening is like that. Generally, we know the outcome before it is actually integrated into our embodied experience. But we still have to walk the walk. We still have to “wake up,” where “wake up” usually just means realizing that we already are woke.

So the suggestion is to look into this: what do you want? How do you know it’s what you want? What is helpful in getting it? And so forth.

Give attention to this inquiry in a gentle sustained way and see what happens, adjusting as apparently necessary.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Mike March 18, 2017, 11:41 pm

    “To want, that is question(ing)”! I still feel anxiety at this being brought up (“I don’t even know what I want”). So I suspect peace first. But to enjoy seems pretty basic, but that didn’t work directly as it was understood in earlier life. And now to be of help, as that has emerged as a reasonable hope. And yes, to be awake to this current arising, as my highest intention – that also is, or isn’t distinct from, these others. Thanks for giving of help. I enjoy so much your writing. And I know we are One Peace.

    • Sean March 20, 2017, 2:37 pm

      Thanks for reading & sharing, Mike. I think all of this stuff can be hard to look at and process and allow to just be – more and more I appreciate the need to just keep everything as simple as possible and let the spiritual chips fall when, where and how they do. And they always do . . .

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