I want to make an observation related to Lesson 61 of A Course in Miracles. It has to do with the question of the extent to which understanding the course intellectually matters to our practice. I think this lesson is one of the times when the course implicitly suggests that intellectual grasp isn’t so important, that accepting a degree of uncertainty is actually helpful.
Lesson 61 is one of those grandiose moments A Course in Miracles frequently offers its readers. “I am the light of the world.” For a lot of us, we just run with that language because saying it feels good. In course parlance, the ego loves that phrase. “You’re damn right I’m the light of the world. I’m the brightest light there is.”
I do that too, of course. I’m not preaching from some rarefied altar here. It feels good to think about myself as the light of the world. I become very patient and generous and gentle when I think of myself that way. I sort of imagine myself as a cool contemporary Jesus shining his light hither and yon, a New England Christ with horses and pigs and a garden.
We all have some variation of that grandiosity happening in our minds. The problem isn’t that it’s happening, it’s that we don’t notice it’s happening. It can be very subtle. If we aren’t attentive and vigilant, the ego will slip right in under the guise of holiness and appropriate literally everything to serve its own ends. We think we’re too spiritual or psychologically evolved to fall prey to it but that kind of unfounded confidence is the ego.
So Lesson 61 feels like a big ego trap, because its essence is exactly the sort of big idea our ego loves to take for a spin. The key to noticing this happening is the good feeling it gives us, and the subtle way that we interpret “feeling good” as spiritual. It’s helpful to notice that happening and then question it. How sure are we that we really and truly know what’s going on here?
The thing is, that level of “feeling good,” and the positive effects that flow from it – gentleness, patience, generosity, et cetera – , are temporary and not very durable. They’re temporary because they pass. And they’re not durable because, in addition to being temporary, they get rattled far too easily. Somebody’s mean or needy or an unexpected demand is made on my time and . . . bam! So long light of the world. Hello darkness, my old friend (to quote an old and dear guide).
In Lesson 61 the course is pointing to something that does not pass and cannot be rattled or undone and so delivers a lasting and sustainable peace and happiness.
But in order to begin to get all that, we have to get out of the way. We have to perceive the ego’s move to take over our experience of Lesson 61 and actually actively stop it.
The course actually warns us that the ego is going to make this kind of move. It says that the phrase “I am the light of the world” is a simple statement about what we are and not “a statement of pride, of arrogance, or of self-deception.”
It does not describe the self-concept you have made. It does not refer to any of the characteristics with which you have endowed your idols (W-pI.61.1:3-5).
Those qualifications are incredibly important. That’s why they’re right there at the beginning of the lesson. They are flashing yellow lights telling us to slow down and check ourselves, to see where our attention is, to make sure we’re not getting carried away with delusions of ourselves as worldly saviors whose holiness elevates use above the hoi polloi.
One way to do that in our practice of A Course in Miracles is to read the text and workbook closely, and really inquire as to our understanding. This is not a paradox! I am not suggesting that intellectual understanding trumps practice. I am simply suggesting that close reading is a way of staying close to the course. I am saying this proximity ultimately strengthens and enriches our experience as learners.
For examples, in those sentences I just cited (W-pI.61.1:3-5), the course is asking if we are truly clear about the distinction between self and self-concept. Are you?
It asks if we are clear-eyed about our idols and the qualities by which we make them our idols – the historical Jesus, the westernized Buddha, the affluence and influence of Eckhart Tolle and other contemporary spiritual teachers. Are you?
For most of us, the answer is some variation of “not really.” Sometimes we’re clear and sometimes we’re fuzzy. Sometimes we get it and sometimes we don’t. That’s why we’re here – working our way through learning what it means to be one-without-another et cetera.
Thus, when we do this lesson, it is actually not a bad idea to do it with uncertainty. Just be in the space of not fully understanding what it means to be “the light of world.” Be in the space of knowing how easily and frequently we turn this sort of thing into a hymn to our specialness. Be confused and unskilled. Be a beginner.
And then see what happens, right? Just see what happens. Do what the lesson asks, trying mightily to be honest and stay out of the way. You might imagine Jesus saying, “yes, yes – that’s it – get to where you don’t know anything and see what happens.”
I don’t know what happens for you, other than that as you look closely at what obscures the light of the world in you, the more clearly that light will shine. We don’t need to do anything other than look at the impediments. The light is there; you don’t have to find it, turn it on, replace the bulb or anything.
You just need to look at what makes looking hard, and then let what happens happen. And things will happen! And, generally speaking, they will be things that make you happy in the sense of being gentle and peaceful in sustainable ways, and in touch with a sense of meaning to your life that cannot be shaken.