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The Absence Of Love Means Only That We Are Not Present

When we ask for love, we implictly acknowledge that the conditions we specify as loving are not present. But since love cannot be absent, as it is our fundament, “not present” means that we are not fully or properly in attendance.

So the problem is not an external lack – circumstances not aligning in the right way – but rather an internal misdirection of attention, for which we are responsible.

The problem is never the world or the other but rather what we are doing with our attention. If we are unhappy – if we are feeling unloved or unloving – it is because we are giving attention to our expectations, desires and preferences and asking others to exist according to them. They cannot do this, which leaves us disappointed, which we denote as the absence of love.

But love is our responsibility; not anybody else’s.

So the solution to this problem is to realize through attention that when we insist on seeing others through the lens of our projected expectations, desires and preferences, we are injuring their self and our self. Naturally we feel those effects as unloving.

Expectations, desires and preferences arise naturally according to our structure as human beings; they are not themselves the problem. It is only when we project them and pretend their validity applies to all people, places and things that they become problematic, making us – and likely others – unhappy.

We don’t need to “fix” our expectations, preferences and desires. We need to become aware of how we project – or disown – them. We have to give attention to them.

One cannot intentionally undo projection. Projection happens naturally enough. To try and stop projecting is to project responsibility for stopping projection onto a projected self. All one can do is see that projecting is happening, and then see what happens as a consequence of that seeing.

Seeing that we are projecting is usually – at least briefly – the end of projection. But the end of projecting entails responsibility for our expectation, desires and preferences – not to mention the guilt and fear underlying them – that instigate projection in the first place.

So there is often a brief intermission, which is confusing and often painful to one degree or another, and then projecting begins again.

It is actually quite difficult to just sit with oneself in a natural way – a way that is not religious or formal or otherwise explicitly therapeutic. To not do anything goal-oriented – not count one’s breaths, not talk to Jesus, not pray a rosary, not catalog past errors and future goals, not compose tweets for later . . .

Mentally, we have grown deeply unaccustomed to this sort of simplicity. To literally doing nothing. Our bodies can readily do it – they are actually incredibly skillful at it – but our minds will no longer allow it.

So that is an old way of being human that still works, that we literally still long to bring forth – to sit quietly and give attention, doing nothing in particular (not even “give attention, doing nothing in particular”). It is actually not old because it remains perfectly accessible and viable. But it appears old because it is no longer familiar; we have sent it away, in a sense, and so we need to invite it back and make it welcome.

But again, putting it that way – “sent it away,” “invite it back,” “make it welcome” – is too intellectual. It is too poetic. We can’t actually send living lovingly away, we can only ignore its ongoing presence. We can only pretend we know better than the ancients and our ancestors. We can only pretend that we are separate from our bodies, and know better than they do.

Of course in a lot of ways, we do know better. Time has passed, bringing with it many boons. I am grateful for penicillin, toilet paper, septic systems, soap, twelve-string guitars, printing presses and so forth. Not all technology is bad, not by a long shot.

But also, we remain alienated from one another, and from ourselves, and we are vulnerable to manipulation, and we are confused about love. We waste a lot of time, energy and other resources trying to fix a problem that runs in significant part on our commitment to trying to fix it.

When I say “give attention,” all I mean is to just be quiet and easy with what is going on. Treat experience as a toddler of whom you are deeply protective of, highly amused by and also whose moods and feelings are not to be taken literally. Notice experience and notice your noticing and notice what happens as a result. Exclude nothing and include nothing. What’s here is what’s here; it changes and shifts less than you think.

So is this our spiritual answer? Is this the method to end all methods? Giving attention?

I think that is an unhelpful question because it perpetuates the illusion that there is anything external which can serve as the end-all/be-all – whether it’s God, psychotherapy, a certain lover, giving attention or science.

Life as we live it just doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t actually break into parts, it just seems to.

When we give attention in a gentle sustained way, things do happen. We project less. We become responsible, and response-able. After some early conflagration of discomfort, this responsibility and response-ability makes us happy, and since happiness begets happiness, we notice others being happy, too. In happiness, the original “problem” ceases to exist, and so “solutions” cease to exist as well.

It is only on the far side of joy that seeking joy makes any sense, and when we see clearly – and experience deeply – the joy-that-never-leaves, then seeking too dissolves.

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On Obedience, Bias and Brokeback Mountain

Many years ago, while teaching Brokeback Mountain, I was approached by a student who professed that her religious beliefs obligated her to not read a text and to not participate in discussions that normalized what she – as a devout practicing Christian – considered “sinful behavior.”

I appreciated her raising the issue with me and we talked a long time about it. Her bottom line was that I was basically forcing her to disobey – by actively questioning the judgment of – her God. She wanted me to exempt her from the reading and class discussions and from the assigned paper relating to Brokeback Mountain.

At one point in our discussion I suggested that any God worth godhood could not possibly be threatened by questions from a devout follower who was sincerely only trying to understand the teachings that underlay the divine judgments.

She answered that following God meant not asking those questions. It wasn’t a question of faith but of obedience. God decreed; humans obeyed.

For many reasons I have thought often of that discussion over the years, two of which are presently germane.

First, that conversation made utterly clear to me the degree to which “God” tends to enter our thinking in the form of bias. In order to think about God, you have to actively not think about other things, or only think about them in certain ways. The young woman was intelligent and insightful and yet, on this issue, her intelligence and relative precision of thought literally evaporated. I didn’t see obedience; I saw passivity.

Of course I understood that this happened to people, but I had never observed it so clearly. I had never been called to be in dialogue with it so personally. The upshot was, I realized that being smart was no defense against ignorance, which was terrifying because “being smart” is pretty much the only arrow in my quiver.

We do not know what we do not know and, critically, we do not know what we forgot and forgot we forgot. The memory hole is real. Bias is real.

I began to wonder where in my life I sounded like this young woman. Where did passivity enter? Magical thinking? Unquestioned bias? And how would I know?

It was easy to answer those questions in a casual wordy way – in an intellectual or academic way, which comes easily enough to me – but to actually undertake an investigation that would actually change my thinking and living . . .

That was not so easy.

The second reason that conversation lingered – and lingers – was because the suggestion I made to the young woman (that God was that which by definition demanded inquiry) had ramifications for my own thinking. I often reflect on Exodus, largely because it figures so prominently in Bob Dylan’s excellent song I and I.

I and I
in creation
where one’s nature
neither honors nor forgives

I and I
one said to the other
no man sees my face and lives

Here’s the relevant passage from Exodus 33:20.

“But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”

[Note there are Rastafarian overtones here as well – “I and I” referring to the conjoinment of self and super-self. I think Dylan’s treatment is primarily Christian, however.]

There are a lot of readings of those lines; in general, my preferred reading is that you can’t actually see God, so it’s folly to even try. And “see” can be extrapolated here – you can’t know God in the sensual way you can know your dog or your friend or a beach or the concept of equality. It just doesn’t work that way; it’s not of the body or of the world. So don’t even bother.

But why did the writer(s) of Exodus frame their directive in such bleak and unconditional terms? Why assign a penalty of death to an activity that has zero chance of success in the first place?

It’s important to remember that the bible was written by men who were educated, acculturated and politicized – and, generally, they were writing for one another. Most of the population couldn’t read and the idea that they someday would read would have been laughed at. The Bible is an anthology that like all anthologies reflects the politics of its editors; the text we read was never the only text or the best text, it was the favored text of those who had the power to force their favor on others. This doesn’t mean there’s no value in the text; it simply means we need to read critically and carefully, aware of the naturally inherent bias.

I suspect the warning was being issued by someone who a) saw God’s face, b) lived and c) decided that what he saw was somehow too great a threat and the only way to minimize the threat and the potential harm was to warn folks on pain of death from trying to look for God.

I mean, whoever wrote those words really really really wanted people to stop a little shy of actually seeing God. They knew you wouldn’t die if you saw God’ face, because they hadn’t died upon seeing God’s face, but something had happened to them upon seeing God’s face, and whatever happened justified the priestly class bringing death into it, the ultimate penalty to persuade the uneducated and unwashed to look the other way.

What was the “something” that happened?

What if, when you finally see the face of God, you realize that there is no God as such? No distant father calling the shots, no first cause setting the universe in motion, no infinite and omniscient mystery-being . . .

What if you discovered that “God” as such was simply the light in which all living occurred, and was given equally to all beings, and didn’t require initiation or penance or tithing or anything?

What if what dies is the idea that there is or ever could be a gap between you and God, you and love, you and absolute joy? What if what dies is the notion that the Kingdom is remote in time and space and thus can actually be enacted here and now?

That would be a big existential threat, both to a human being who had organized their whole life around God-as-separate-causal-being, and to a priest class whose raison d’etre depended on others accepting that the priests know something and have access to something that most people don’t.

One can understand their insecurity of the priests and still set aside the doctrinal nonsense they espoused that God is other than a present love, and the Kingdom other than a present reality presently unobserved.

That is, read Brokeback Mountain (Really! Read it – it is one of the most precise, effective and moving pieces of fiction ever written in English) and question seriously and critically those who claim to act as brokers of God and Love and the Kingdom and question God.

Doing so promotes two questions, which are actually related, and cannot be answered by anyone except our own self (though obviously dialogue and communion with others helps a lot).

1. What do you not know? How will you find out? Who will help?

and

2. Are you ready at last to see the face of God?

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A Brief Addenda on Certainty

I think an obvious argument with respect to my recent post about certainty and right / wrong thinking is captured in the spirit of comments to this old post about getting along and this one about helpful spiritual junctures: if somebody says to me, “hey I think the Holocaust was great,” am I going to respond: “well, that’s fine!”

No, I am not. And it is not my intention to rationalize or otherwise facilitate anybody else’s doing that either.

So I understand the concern and think it bears consideration. I am always in a state of learning; for me there is no other way.

Underlying my argument about resisting certainty and conclusion – especially in the form of arguing for “right” and “wrong” – is the belief that we have the structure of communal beings who are given to cooperation, coordination and communication. In its fullness, this structure brings forth love, the way two banks bring forth a river.

This structure – and the cooperation, coordination and communication it entails – is a) ongoing and b) realized locally. It is a process that we experience in a subjective way. It is a feature of our living

For example, when I was in middle and high school in the late 1970s and early 80s a common slur among young men was to suggest another young man was gay. This happened a lot. I did not understand its application as problematic at that time. Unfortunately, from time to time I participated in it.

I deeply regret that participation, both for the pain it caused folks who were gay or bisexual or questioning their sexual identity, and for the contribution it made to justifying the ongoing use of that slander. It was wrong and hurtful.

At some point in my late teens, I realized that this behavior was cruel and irrational and I stopped doing it. As time passed, I began to try and contribute to the bringing forth of a world where nobody did it.

Today, I make inclusivity and dialogue around gender and sexuality and desire a fundament of my teaching and living. I do this imperfectly of course but it is much closer to love than when I was a young man in high school.

I understand that experience as a learning process which happened to Sean wherein a big block to the free, open and inclusive expression of love was undone. I know that a similar process happened to others. That sort of undoing is always a cause for happiness.

I live now in the understanding that we don’t always see those blocks in our living and so we have to go slowly and patiently. As they say, more will be revealed. I was not a bad person when I was sixteen, but I did say and do stupid hurtful things. I did not need to be erased from the Book of Life for that behavior, but I did need to change that behavior, especially in the realm of language.

It seems to me that love obligates me to recognize that I may be saying and doing stupid things now as well . . . I don’t like that but it’s obviously a possibility. What do I gain by ignorance?

The point is, when I meet folks who are racist or homophobic or misogynist – and I do meet them (they are neighbors, family members, students and so forth) – I see them much the way I see high school Sean. Not as a fundamentally bad person but rather as someone in whom the free, open and inclusive expression of love is blocked (for any number of reasons). I feel compassionate; I feel called to be in dialogue with them.

But being in dialogue means saying clearly and explicitly that I do not agree with their position. Saying so is an implicit statement that I am not casting them out in the darkness. I am not erasing them from the Book of Life. I am simply trying to make the case for a gentle, sustainable, open and inclusive expression of love.

This feels consonant with my (ongoing subjective) experience of love – being cooperative, coordinative, communicative, and so forth.

If we do not know what we are doing is hurtful or cruel, then we are not acting with malice. We are behaving unlovingly but our culpability and responsibility are of a different order. Change is still called for, but it has to come via some channel other than gentle confrontation. It’s more in the nature of education.

When we learn that what we are doing is hurtful and cruel, then we are obligated to alter our behavior so that it becomes kinder and more inclusive. If we insist on hurting others, knowing that we are hurting them, then we are working actively against love.

It is important to resist – nonviolently but firmly – those who actively oppose love. Ideally, this resistance begets dialogue. Dialogue is how we teach others – who could be our own self – what love is.

Thus, I consider the Holocaust a vast failure of love and freedom to love, and feel called to work in my own being and in the collective in which my being expresses to try to mitigate against such failures.

Lovingkindness does not mean ignoring or condoning unloving acts and unkind acts and violent acts. Love is always corrective – both in and through us and, by extension, in and through others. Teachers abound, often disguised so as not to appear as formal teachers.

Heinz von Foerster once said that A is better off when B is better off. I think this is a fair description of how to approach love in world of others who do not always agree with us about what love is or how to bring love forth.

Does our behavior – which includes our languaging – promote the welfare of A and B? Or is it more focused on one (us) to the exclusion of the other?

These are good questions, and we are never not helped by asking them over and over, and allowing ourselves to be surprised and disappointed and then inspired by the answers.

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Reflecting Uncertainly on Certainty

I want to think out loud a little about certainty – how and why it arises in thinking, what function it serves, what it produces and so forth. Ultimately, I think certainty is basically a mirage, albeit a harmless one (so long as one is clear it’s a mirage).

Say that I want to be certain that the world exists or that it doesn’t exist: I have no preference for either outcome, as my existence as such does not actually change much given the one or the other. But I would like to know.

In this “want to be certain” there is an unquestioned assumption, namely, a certainty that being certain is valuable in its own right. Why would I want to be certain about the ontological status of the world if I was not certain that such certainty was valuable?

So the question becomes, what underlies that second-level certainty? What is its source? What assumptions, if any, function as its ground? For it is non-specific and generalized and underlies the whole operation of wanting to be certain about everything, from the world’s existence to the best way to bake apples to what to read before bed.

[Note that wanting to be certain in this sense is not different from wanting to be right, especially given that one is not invested in a particular outcome. It can be X or Y or . . ., but it must at least by X or Y or . . .]

Arguably, this “certainty about certainty” arises from uncontested – because uninvestigated – convictions about what is real or true. For example, take my question to you: “I am not sure there is a world, what do you think?”

Underlying that question is a conviction that I am not alone but in the presence of someone – or something, anyway (a “you”) – with which or with whom dialogue is viable. There is a corresponding conviction that this dialogue can be comprised of words that do not themselves require explanation or justification. Particularly, there is an assumption that when I say “world,” you know to what I refer. There is a reason I pose the question to you and not, say, to a child or a cow or the bathroom mirror.

These assumptions are a kind of sustaining structure for the inquiry. They make the inquiry possible; without it, the inquiry doesn’t happen. Indeed, the assumptions are themselves a nontrivial aspect of the world that sustains the question “is there a world?”

And yet, by and large, these assumptions tend not to be the subject of our inquiry. It is as if in asking the question we elide the possibility of fully answering it.

And yet.

Here we are giving attention – are raising to awareness – the sustaining structure of those a priori assumptions. Right here in this essay we are doing it. Thus, it must be that we can interrogate them. We are doing that right now, aren’t we? It’s just a question of focus, of directing our attention accordingly.

And therein lies the conundrum. I give attention to the underlying certainty that certainty about X is valuable. But this underlying certainty – by virtue of its being an object of my attention – becomes certainty about X’ where X’ = certainty about X. If I give attention to X’ as the new level or layer to be investigated it becomes X” where X” = [[certainty about X’] certainty about X]. If I give attention to X” it becomes X”’ . . .

On and on it goes. I cannot ever reach the ground floor. The foundation – the fundament – is lost to me. Certainty in this formulation really is turtles all the way down.

On the one hand, that is clear and its clarity is frustrating (because of its bottomlessness). But on the other hand, not being able to reach the floor (or foundation or fundament or bottommost turtle) is not an impediment to being itself, nor to the sharing that is so integral to being. Clearly it’s not – here we are, being and sharing!

It is important, I think, to see this. Our ability to talk to each other, bake bread for each other, make love with each other, go on walks together, help our neighbors with chores when they travel and so forth is not contingent on establishing a metaphysical foundation.

A metaphysical foundation may or may not exist. Looking for it is fun and interesting, in its way, but certainty with respect to it is hardly a precondition for living or loving.

In other words, certainty, as such, is not a requirement for the operation of love.

Indeed, the fact that we are already experiencing being and are already drawn to loving as an effective expression of being can sometimes feel like all the knowing we actually need to be happy and fully realized. It is not those who are starving and perennially food-insecure who worry about where the bread that feeds them was made (was the flour organic, were the workers organized and well-paid, et cetera). That analysis enters only when we are sated and unworried about future satiation.

The suggestion then is to realize that our inquiry into certainty – into the longing to be certain or right about this or that aspect of living (e.g., is there a world, or is there a self, or what is the other) – can only arise because the fundamentals (of world, self and other, say) are already in place.

Or, to put it another way, we only become spiritual seekers because we are spiritually found. We know what we’re looking for; that’s why we’re looking for it.

In order to feel a loss or absence or emptiness, we have to have known fullness or wholeness. The one specifies the other. We cannot miss what we do not know exists. If we are on a spiritual path like A Course in Miracles, we are only on it because we know where it’s going and how it goes.

We could compare it to visiting an amusement park. We know what’s going to happen on the roller coaster but that doesn’t mean we don’t still want to ride it. It doesn’t mean we aren’t going to be thrilled and chilled and all of that while riding it.

Or this. Say that we go looking for our eyes. We will never find them. We may see a reflection of them in a mirror. Someone may take a picture of them and so we may see an image of them. But we will never “see” our eyes. And yet the whole premise of this apparently fruitless impossible-to-satisfy search *is our eyes. Looking – not our eyes – is the answer.

In that example, when we stop looking for an object and instead accept a process, then we’re home. The problem lay in how we framed the search. When we reframe it, the whole inquiry dissolves on the spot.

Wanting to be certain arises because we are already certain. Lack and non-lack arise together. But these conditions do not cancel one another out; one is not categorically superior to the other. Rather, they mutually specify one another. They do not contradict but rather affirm one another. Choosing between them – making one “right” and the other “wrong,” say – is an illusion because they not separable, any more than a half mile is separable from a mile.

But this does reflect a shift in our thinking (about our thinking). We have a preference for – we give primacy to – a mode of thinking that insists on X or Y, or X vs. Y and so forth. The suggestion here is that this frame is both unavoidable (and so nothing to worry about) and contingent on other frames (namely, that discerning or distinguishing has value in its own right). The supposed quandary is “solved” by realizing that it doesn’t need to be solved at all. It’s not a zero sum game like Monopoly. It’s more like a bunch of Legos with which we can build anything we like, tear down and build again or build differently. It’s play for play’s sake, not play for the sake of winning by defeating our brother or sister. And we know this because the love that underlies our living – which is the sine qua non of our living – goes on without regard for our particular grasp of the metaphysics. Moms were hugging babies long before Plato showed up and they’re still doing it post-Wittgenstein, post-Darwin and post-Derrida. When A Course in Miracles is forgotten – and it will be, in time – people will still be happy and joyous and free when they devote themselves to one another in love. We already know what to do; pretending we don’t is part of the (non-zero sum) game.

When the quest for certainty – or sources or fundaments or answers or truth or reality – relaxes, then a natural pragmatism and coherence appears, which is that we are already being in love, and that this love is sufficient unto itself. We are all winning; of this I am certain.

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Who Cares if the World is Real?

I want to make a brief point about the marginal utility metaphysics (and theology et cetera) when it comes to the work of bringing forth love, and do so – I hope – through a concrete example. I will ask if the world is real or not and suggest that our living does not change based on the answer.

In other words, who cares if the world is real?

The suggestion I make is twofold: first, that the world is real and the world is not real  and that in either case the work is to bring forth love by realizing that we can’t help but bring forth love. Second, it can be fun an interesting to ask literally “who” is the one is who is doing all the caring.

Here – in this essay – I am more curious about the first instance.

Imagine you are watching me shop for groceries at River Valley Market in Northampton. This is where Chrisoula, the kids and I mostly shop for what we do not otherwise raise, grow, trade or barter for on our little homestead.

Let’s say I’m pushing a cart down the cereal aisle. And let’s say – because it happens Lord knows – that I’m musing on some of Michel Henry’s ideas about erotic pairing and so not really giving attention to where I’m going or what’s going on around me and, predictably, barge into a woman’s cart and knock her into shelves of cereal, boxes of which tumble down around us.

Here is what you will observe next:

1. I will apologize profusely, accept full responsibility, and ask if the woman is okay;

2. If she is, and if it’s appropriate, I will crack a joke about what an airhead and klutz I am;

3. I will begin to put the cereal boxes back on the shelves;

4. If she tries to help, I will insist on doing it myself since it was all my fault;

5. If she insists on helping, I will go along; and

6. As we part, when we part, I will apologize again.

To the extent there are variations in that little drama, my observable behavior will always be in the direction of accepting responsibility and minimizing harm to the other.

[I am bragging a bit here and I apologize – I don’t mean to suggest that I am always so humble and helpful. More that that is closer to the norm than it once was, for which I do not stop thanking Christ :)]

Here is what you do not know and cannot see (because it is not observable unto you): whether I believe the woman is an illusion or a real embodied human being, whether I am Christian or Buddhist or something else, whether I practice A Course of Miracles in a way Tara Singh would recognize, or that Ken Wapnick would recognize, or what Michel Henry or phenomenology have to do with any of it, and so forth.

And here is the point I wish to make: none of that matters.

My behavior is the same regardless of which of those belief systems I happen to subscribe to. I am behaving as lovingly as possible; the specific ideology, theology and metaphysics underlying that loving behavior do not matter. They don’t change the behavior. Love is love. Love is love is love.

If the world is real, then love. If the world is not real, then love.

This is a very important point that is generally active in all our living. Reflect on a recent experience where you behaved lovingly – preferably with a stranger or in circumstances that were somewhat emotionally or otherwise challenging.

Ask yourself: was the love you brought forth brought forth because of a metaphysical conclusion you had previously reached? Or because it was natural? And felt right? Because it inhered in you?

In my experience, lovingkindness appears without regard for the intellectual explanation or theological description or metaphysical philosophy that subsequently arises in relation to it. Love goes first; our description of it, as such, comes later.

This makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Think about that woman in the cereal aisle. How would the scene have unfolded differently if I had told her she’s an illusion? “I’m sorry your hand hurts but don’t worry – it’s not real.” Or if I had just kept going because she’s merely an appearance and who apologizes to a mirage? Or if I left the cereal scattered on the floor for the woman or some worker to clean up because the world is not real and so what appear to be my mistakes are not actually my problem?

It would not have resolved in a loving way! Others would have been confused or inconvenienced, frustrated and hurt. And the potential for healing and the ongoing extension of love would have been compromised.

I do not want that – for me or anyone else!

Our calling is to bring forth love. I cannot emphasize enough that in my experience the intellectual / theological / metaphysical underpinnings are . . . not that important. I mean, they’re fun and interesting. And sure, they can be helpful in certain contexts, but . . .

But they are really just serving plates for the holy loaf that we are sharing because by that loaf – that love – we live. Plates are okay but the nutrition and deliciousness of the bread are unaffected if we just tear the loaf into chunks and pass them around.

It’s the bread, not the surface upon which it temporarily rests, that matters.

Perhaps you want to say: “hey Sean. You’re a big fat hypocrite. You LOVE the sound of your own voice pontificating about Humberto Maturana and Tara Singh and Thomas Merton and Emily Dickinson. You LOVE carrying on about peace and love and Jesus. You LOVE the plate. Your whole website is a fucking plate . . . ”

Well, yes. Point taken. But I am getting better at knowing when to put on my thinking cap and when to leave it off and just . . . you know. Be helpful, gentle, kind, non-dramatic, et cetera.

Perhaps it’s like throwing a football on Thanksgiving. By all means go toss the old pigskin. But not in the kitchen or the dining room. And not when you could be helpfully cooking or cleaning. And not if everybody else wants to play poker. And not if somebody needs you to sit with them and listen to their rambling. And not if your back hurts and you need to rest it so you can help with chores tomorrow . . .

This is just common sense! It doesn’t take a PhD or even a well-used library card. We know how to be loving. We know how to help others. We know how to balance service and rest and play. It’s natural; it’s inherent; it’s what love is. It’s what we are.

So I am interested in bringing forth love in my living and, while I am also interested in the way I describe and define and otherwise semantically play with that concept, I know that that semantic play is . . . limited. It’s the napkin and the plate, not the holy loaf whose sustenance is the cosmos.

More and more, living appears to me as an ongoing opportunity to serve, and “to serve” means to be loving in simple and nondramatic ways. It is always clear how to do this unless I insist on bringing “Sean” into it, at which point it can become fuzzy and complicated indeed.

Yet if I am not bringing forth love, then I am bringing forth confusion and incoherence, both of which hurt. They hurt me and you. And there is another way, which is neither hard to find nor to follow. So I try mightily to follow it, and to live with those who help me follow it, and share with those who like following it, too.

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Examining the Grounds of our Spiritual Search

Is it possible that the search of the Self or the World or the Lord is confused at the outset? That its very premise is suspect, inevitably contaminating whatever apparently proceeds or emerges from it?

Say that I resolve to search for an Xlkerd. I pledge not to rest until I encounter an Xlkerd. My whole life shall be devoted to realizing Xlkerd. But since there is no Xlkerd, my searching and pledges and devotion are all in vain. They might be fun or interesting, and might turn up some fascinating stuff along the way, but . . . not an Xlkerd.

In that case, would it be better to direct my attention and energy and devotion to something real? Like justice? Or the end of food insecurity? World peace?

Or this. Say that I decide to sip some apple cider and heft my glass of lemon tea, bringing it to my lips. Absent some undiscovered supernatural alchemy, I’m going to drink lemon tea, not apple cider. The decision to sip cider when only tea is available cannot possibly turn tea into cider.

In that case, would it be better to accept the reality of tea’s presence? And cider’s absence? And just get on with the sipping?

In other words, what I am getting at is inquiring into the assumptions that underlie our so-called quests and spiritual seeking and so forth. If we’re going to slay dragons and there are no dragons . . . Or if we’re going to rescue princesses but all the princesses have rescued themselves . . .

Chris Fields suggests that it can be helpful – indeed, even necessary to our happiness (which includes our ability to share happiness with one another) – to retire some of our inquiries, especially the ones that are null because of the a priori assumptions underlying them.

That is, if you’re searching for a Xlkerd, give it up. Your assumption that Xlkerds exist when they do not is poisoning the project from the start.

If what we’re doing is incoherent, then we should give it up in favor of an action that is coherent.

I use “coherent” in this case to mean aligning our experience of experience with our best understanding of what it means to bring forth love.

Fields is responding to an essay that makes the case for mind’s ontological primacy over body; mind precedes the physical. Before there is a world that is unjust, say, there is this subjective experience of something which we will subsequently name “just” or “unjust.” Field takes the position that the underlying question – establishing a hierarchy of subjective and objective, first-person and third-person, mind and body is . . . dubious. And thus unhelpful.

Perhaps . . . it is this quest for an authoritative answer that should be rejected. Perhaps self and world do not make sense, at least not in combination (Dietrich & Fields 2015). A dialetheic world – one in which some contradictions are true as well as false (Priest 1994) – permits limited and pragmatic theories, but disallows any universal and fundamental ontology.

I gave some attention to dialethia here. In this post, I am extending Fields’ “perhaps” to specifically include spiritual searches for Selves or Gods or Kingdoms of Gods and all of that. If we expect authoritative answers to those quests and those authoritative answers do not exist, then our searching is going to make us unhappy and even possibly insane. It certainly can’t help us in our ongoing attempts to cooperate and collaborate with one another. Why attempt the impossible? Isn’t it obvious that doesn’t help anybody?

However, a reasonable response to this point is: how do we know it’s impossible unless we try? That is, you can’t disprove the existence of a self (or a god or a kingdom or even an Xlkerd) until you look for one and fail to find it. Search away!

Or maybe you could say, “well, sure. Some folks say there is no self (or god or kingdom) but I still want to find out for myself.” To each their own!

Or you could even say, “who cares if there’s no self (or god or kingdom) – the search might still be fun and interesting. After all what else are we supposed to do?”

I have made – and still do make from time to time – all of those arguments at one time or another, to varying degrees. They are not unpersuasive in their way. But it seems one does reach a juncture where the focus shifts to what helps, where “helps” means “facilitates understanding of how to bring forth love in a consistent sustainable way.”

To that end, it is sometimes useful to accept the experience, strength and wisdom of folks like Fields. If a doctor says I need an MRI, I don’t go to med school before consenting. Their expertise suffices.

In a similar way, I roast pork and chicken before serving it because homo sapiens learned a long time ago that consuming raw meat can be dangerous to the point of fatal. I am not going to die – or put someone else at risk of dying – just to prove the point all over again.

What I am saying is that given a functional wheel, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to use the wheel in order to be happy which invariably means helping others be happy too.

So if a smart and thoughtful guy like Fields wonders aloud, “say, maybe this quest for ultimate or final or authoritative answers is misguided,” then maybe it’s okay to set the quest aside. At a minimum, what happens if we do that? What paths appear to close? What paths appear to open?

If you, like me, are partial to the quasi-Christian/Freudian/Platonic tenor of A Course in Miracles, and if you, like me, decide that reading it and studying it is the functional equivalent of waiting up all night for Santa Claus to come cheerfully tumbling down the chimney. . . what happens?

That is, what does our living look like if we accept that all spiritual quests are misguided and bound to fruitlessness and on that basis let our own – up to and including ACIM – go?

I want to briefly sketch an answer to that question.

When I shuck A Course in Miracles, there is an experience of loss. This “loss” is a mental gap – a hole in my thinking reflected in my experience of living in the world. So I ask myself: what is the nature of this gap or emptiness for which A Course in Miracles appeared and functioned as a useful tool or filler?

My answer is that the gap is my experience of my life and the world as unfair, unjust and corrupt and this terrifies me to the point where I can’t face it – it is utterly elided or occluded. This is not a long-term sustainable approach to living peacefully and lovingly! So A Course in Miracles (and other spiritual paths and traditions and practices) act as a corrective assuring me that my fears are not justified, which then nudges me in the direction of being proactive in terms of happiness, kindness, gentleness, et cetera. It is a sort of jump start on making the world a better place for you and me. Instead of cowering I can face my fears in a creative way. It’s about healing, in that sense.

Naturally I then ask: is there another way to accomplish this? One that is perhaps simpler and even easier? One that is less abstract? Less supernatural? Less spiritually indulgent perhaps?

And the answer to that is yes. Yes it is possible to be happy and at peace, and to share that happiness and peacefulness with all beings, thus making the world a more just and equitable and less conflicted space. And it is not hard or obscure or mysterious.

The way is simply to attend to the way that the inclination to cooperate and collaborate – to coordinate our doings through communication with other beings who could be our own self – naturally arises within us without effort or intention. Noticing it might require active deployment of attention; and application might be similarly effortful.

But we don’t have to invent love. We don’t have to persuade anyone to buy into our belief system. We simply have to see the way love arises naturally, in all of us, as a natural condition of what we are. Love is our fundament.

I am suggesting – on reading and reflecting on Fields’ thinking – that spiritual seeking and its ideology, however apparently numinous – functions as a distraction to the love it actually aims to bring forth. Our intentions are pure but misguided because of our confusion. We’re pouring water on the lamp, dousing the flame we need to find the kettle where the water actually belongs. And this can be corrected but – the suggestion goes – not if we insist on interpreting correction in literal terms of Jesus and Buddha and spirit and so forth

Someone will point out that I am basically indulging semantics here. Sean says “love” but another person will say “Jesus” or “bodhisattva” or “Divine Source” and they all mean the same thing.

I hear that. It is a nontrivial – and not unpersuasive – argument.

And yet.

The language we use matters. I began this essay by writing about a hypothetical search for Xlkerds. Technically speaking, “Xlkerd” is a sign but to what does it point? How would we reach consensus on its meaning? If there are no Xlkerds, then we’re going to be frustrated (or extremely imaginative, likely in a way that excludes others from playing with us).

I’d ask a similar question about “Jesus.” It’s a sign, sure, but to what does it point? An iterinant Jewish Cynic who lived two thousand years ago? The founder of Christianity? A symbol of love and peace? How would we reach consensus on its meaning? It’s hard to find consensus internally about “Jesus,” let alone bringing the whole social order and collective into it.

But in both instances, what counts is reaching consensus, right?

I am asking what way of living broadens our ability to build consensus? Maximizes our capacity for cooperation? Renders our communications inclusive and unconditional, to the maximal extend possible?

And I am suggesting the answer is: this very life we are right now living. The very loving that we right now know precisely how to offer. The being that we don’t need to learn about but only share because, in a very essential and natural way, it is sharing itself.

It’s not that I’m right about this. Or wrong, for that matter. Right and wrong are not the point. The point really, is whether what I write here resonates with you reading here. Because that resonance is not from me to you; it is not a temporary linear connection of separate entities.

Rather, it is a shared resonance – a unified sip of that which cannot be fragmented or divided or compartmentalized or apportioned. That resonance is not “Sean’s” or [insert-your-name-here]’s. It’s not even “ours” (because that would bring about “theirs”). It just is and (would you agree with me) it is enough.

I am being quite literal here! I am actively suggesting that our “spirituality” as such is not “one way of approaching the human condition in the interests of happiness and justice and so forth” but actually confounds our ability to be happy and help others be happy, in sustainable and natural ways.

I am suggesting that we are given the sea and rather than swim stubbornly dig into the sandy beach in the vain hope of reaching some other sea. And I am further suggesting that even if that happened – even if we found that sea – then we’d invent a reason to forego it and start looking for a new one.

Spiritual seeking has become a way of avoiding responsibility for bringing for the very peace, joy, love and harmony that spiritual seeking purports to have as its goal.

There is another way.

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Quietly Insisting Each Day be Holy

I wrote this a few weeks before Christmas and then forgot about it, but while going back through my notes the other day found it again, and liked it. So it’s out of sync with our shared calendar, but you know. Better late – or early, perhaps – than never.

***

It is a cliche to say that every day is a holy day, and yet more and more I find myself easing into a sort of quiet insistence that this must be so. Every day is holy, every stranger a guest who could be our own self. The work – at which we are not great but can be better – is to bring forth love according to our structure and the shared world those structures bring forth.

christmas_treeYet I do hack down a tree, drag it into the living room, lug ornaments and lights from the attic and then sit happily by with Chrisoula while the kids decorate it. Every ornament has a story. The one that looks like our old dog Jake; the hand-carved Saint Nicholas Chrisoula bought me before we were married because I was drawn to its stern – almost religious – gaze; the fading glass balls that hung on my grandmother’s tree three quarters of a century ago.

In this way, decorating is also a narrative and performance. For it is in stories that we remember ourselves and in story-telling that we give ourselves away to one another. This much has always been sacred.

This year, when the kids finished decorating, Fionnghuala placed a nativity scene beneath the lowest boughs. I try to avoid overt religious gestures in public spaces, but this one made me happy. The birth story in Luke’s Gospel is one of my favorite stories of all time; growing up, my father read it to us every Christmas Eve. Whenever I hear it, or read it, it is Dad’s voice that I hear.

Of course, the actual historical birth of Jesus is lost to us. Nobody takes notes when a peasant is born; they only take notes for kings. Luke’s gospel reframes Jesus’ origins in a manner more fitting to the evangelist’s vision of Jesus as both fulfilling an ancient prophecy and begetting a new world. In Luke’s telling, Jesus is born a king who eschews the trappings of traditional royalty. His kingdom, as such, is not of this world. It signifies a new order, one that inverts old power structures of family, state and economy in order to introduce a radical equality and inclusiveness that is love.

Luke always leaves me a little breathless.

Still, as Nietzsche pointed out, “there was only one Christian and he died on the cross.” And Albert Schweitzer, no slouch in the selfless love department, noted that “what has been presented as Christianity during these nineteen centuries is only a beginning, full of mistakes, not full blown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus.”

In other words, there were some good ideas floating around that manger that have yet to receive a fair hearing and application. Perhaps they never will. Our species is nothing if not predictable.

What, then, am I doing with this tree? This nativity scene? This ancient story echoing in my brain in my late father’s voice?

Well, I am not especially interested in Kings – worldly or otherwise. And as for births in stables (not to mention deaths on crucifixes), I’m a firm believer that Caesar has a vested interested in making sure they don’t happen. People shouldn’t be tortured and executed and births should not be marginalized but made safe and welcome. As Heinz von Foerster says, “A is better off when B is better off.” This is simple common sense, isn’t it? Do we really need a supernatural explanation?

Later in Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus has been executed by the Roman government, two of his disciples meet – and fail to recognize – Jesus while on the road to Emmaus. Not until they insist he break bread with them rather than face the road at night alone do they recognize their late teacher.

This is a not nonfiction! It is a story, and a good one. Pure fiction to delight our heart and tantalize our mind. Stripped of 1:1 correspondence with history, the story becomes a reflection of an idea almost certainly embodied by Jesus and certainly dear to his earliest followers: i.e., we meet Christ in the other when we make the other welcome. Rather than condemn the stranger to the road, we give them a bed. Rather than consign the hungry to more hunger, the lost to more wandering, the poor to births in stables, the lonely to more angst, the imprisoned to crosses and gas chambers, we . . . welcome them, as our own self. When they are better off, we are better off. It’s not Christian; it’s human. It’s not even just human; it’s love.

In this way, Jesus is born and dies and is born again and executed again over and over in our midst. He is as near to us as our children and as far as the margins where the refugees and the destitute make clear our grave failure to love in the ordinary way that is given us to love.

Thus, our Christmas trees are nothing if they don’t turn us in the direction of the lost and forsaken. Our nativity scenes are a mockery if they don’t jettison us to the edges of society where the old story of the forgotten lost and poor reenacts itself over and over.

If Christmas comes once a year – if holiness is constrained to special occasions – then the whole point of remembering this strangely paradoxical King named Jesus is moot. His anti-Kingdom – in which love replaces hate, inclusivity undoes tribalism, and cooperation and coordination dissolve conflict – goes on unrecognized. I don’t know if it’s possible to bring this radical love forth; you don’t either. But really, at this juncture, what do we have to lose by trying? And how else can we try but together?

Thus, I turn to the tree and the nativity and the gospel narrative in order to remind myself that as yet I am not Christian, but that something in me stubbornly insists that the fundamental transformation remains possible. It has nothing to do with Christmas; it has everything to do with love.

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Wanting Monasteries

For a long time I wanted a monastery.

Then I wanted one with whom to want a monastery with me.

Then I wanted one with whom to expand this want to include the various ecstasies associated with the insights one imagined would be gained in the monastery, yet are in this living mainly enacted sensually in the body and its play.

All of this was a distraction constantly elaborating itself. It was enchanting; I was enchanted. And like all of those who are enchanted, I could sometimes enchant, and bring others into and along with my dreaming.

Yet all of this was not an expansion of my living, nor a recognition of our shared foundation in love, much less a bringing forth of love. It was more in the nature of forcing enclosure on the free expression of life, which inevitably choked and strangled it, causing stagnation and frustration.

Our mental anguish and psychological struggles are not separate from our body’s ability to conserve itself and take joy in its conservation (by wanting this form of living over another – the monastery, say). The one specifies – or mirrors, perhaps – the other.

Moreover, our suffering is never personal, but involves the collective (again, through specification or, if you like, mirroring). The culture, as such, moves in us as much as we move in it. By definition, we neither thrive nor suffer alone.

Therefore, it is imperative that we address our unhappiness, as and where it is experienced, and see if it cannot be remade into happiness, as and where it is experienced, and if it can be so remade, how it can be, and what contribution we might make to the project.

As it happens, what arises naturally is happiness and love, and yet as human beings who are capable of reflection in and through language, what also arises is division and fracture (this is the observer/observed divide, which is basically a misinterpretation of what self-reference is) so that happiness and love, while not obliterated, are blocked and obstructed, which sickens us, in our both our aloneness and our togetherness.

Attention given to the blocks, which are simply attempts to enforce and/or restrict patterns of thinking (see the previous reference to enclosures), is healing because it undoes the blocks. Through attention one sees that they cannot actually force life (through projection) into any given pattern and so gradually simply attend to the patterns that are given.

The result is ease and gratitude and inner peace, which naturally extends itself by teaching itself how to recognize and remember itself.

You could picture a flowing river: its steady flow towards the sea, the many eddies and currents rising and falling and appearing, both on its surface and deeper down where one cannot physically see (but can feel when they stand in the river).

Could you step into the river and with your hands or your mind or any other aspect of your living turn the river around? Stop it in its channel? Turn it to ice? Or to sand?

You might interrupt it in some insignificant ways. You might end this or that eddy. But you cannot stop the river on your own.

I realized that I did not need a monastery, because no monastery was given, and thus wanting a monastery was the source of considerable anguish and grief (for which, I imagined, the monastery, or the one with whom to want a monastery, or the one with whom to play at the healing one imagined was implicit in the monastery was a cure).

Once the longing for the monastery dissolved, more or less, what remained was the peace one had long projected unto the monastery and unto the one with whom the monastery might be simulated (romantically, intellectually, sexually, familially, et cetera).

What was left was the living that lives itself, outside of time, and without conditions or qualifications that would separate it from any other living. I realized that this living was itself all that was given, and that it was sufficient – it was more than sufficient.

And so the work becomes attending the bringing forth of love in this living, not by enclosing it or by forcing it into this or that form, or by looking away from it towards some imagined other living, but by simply noticing it as it is.

What one notices – and I resist this mightily, still – is that the discrete self is also merely another object, like a coffee cup or a dog or an idea of justice. It too appears, no more important or less important than any other appearance. And the light in which all these appearances arise – call it Christ, call it consciousness, call it your Heart Light, call it whatever – does not distinguish between appearance. It is a light that does indeed fall on the just and the unjust alike, the preferred and the not-preferred alike.

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Love in a Reflexive Domain

In a reflexive domain, the actors can and do act on both themselves and on the domain. In a reflexive domain, the domain is responsive. So living in a reflexive domain means that living is fundamentally relational.

Our selves are a reflexive domain; our relationships are a reflexive domain; our communities are a reflexive domain; our world is a reflexive domain; the universe is a reflexive domain.

But it’s important to notice that interacting with or on oneself is of a different nature than acting with or on others or on the universe. In order to look at yourself, you have to separate yourself into observer and observed. But of course this is an imaginary construct; you cannot actually be separate from yourself.

This construction – this separation into observer and observed – is already the case. It is how we live; it is how the human structure organizes itself. In that sense, the observer/observed divide is not inherently a problem. It’s natural.

No, the problem, to to speak, is when we conflate this construction with life and world itself – i.e., we deny that the observer/observed divide is a structure-contingent construction and believe it is instead a truthful 1:1 reflection of reality itself.

That denial is an investment in incoherence, and the subsequent belief doubles down on the investment. Not only does it appear that you are a discrete entity in the world, but you start to act that way; in fact, you try to enforce that way.

A lot of our psychological distress arises because of this conflation/confusion. In turn, our psychological distress causes us to act in ways that harm others in our shared reflexive domain.

If you want inner peace and world peace, then you have to address this issue. You have to give attention to it in your experience, where and as it arises. Nobody can do it for you.

So we want to look closely at this belief that the observer/observed divide is real. We want to be sure our beliefs are consistent with what is actually going on, to the best of our ability. We want to be coherent.

I think that dialogue in this sense is helpful. It has been for me. Looking at the situation in many ways and from many angle is helpful. The observer/observed divide is not only a spiritual situation, or a psychological one, or a sociological one, or a linguistic one. But all of those perspectives can help us to flesh out and better comprehend the situation.

Again, we are simply understanding that the self and the world are constructions that arise from our structure, and that any experience of separation is imaginary. There may be grounds for the imagining, but there are not grounds for the opposite – i.e., calling the experience “real” or “true.”

Clarity in this sense enhances our ability to inhabit the world we construct with others in sustainable and loving ways. This is a natural state of being but we are – individually and collectively – estranged from it.

So we experience the self as divided but we also experience it as whole (because it is always both). The two aspects co-exist and mutually specify one another. It is a decision to say one is right (wholeness) and one wrong (divided or partial).

What we want to question is the decision.

Wholeness and separation happen; both are viable. The emptiness of the sky specifies the moon within it; but the moon specifies that which is not the moon but rather the emptiness of sky. In fact, we experience them at the same time. They bring one another forth.

Certainly one can prefer the moon to no-moon, or an empty sky to a sky with objects in it, but that doesn’t change the underlying fact that the moon and the sky are one-appearing-as-two.

This treatment invokes an interesting trinity. The moon, the sky and that which observes the two. That is, there is the duality of observer and observed and the observer that observes the two-as-one. There is X. There is Y. And there is that which perceives [X and Y]. Call it Z.

Of course, this move is not finite! We can also say: there is X. There is Y. There is Z (which observes both X and Y). And there is also A which observes Z (which observes X and Y).

Naturally, this evokes B which observes A (which observes Z (which observes X and Y)).

And on and on it goes.

This is a way of saying that we can always expand the domain in which one observes both the self and the other. It is infinite, or appears to be. Certainly we cannot stipulate to the end of it.

But can we stipulate to the beginning of it?

It is not easy to explain how the self comes about. What precedes the awareness that calls itself “I?” We can introduce concepts like conception and birth and infant consciousness and conditioning and so forth but these are concepts that arise within – or subsequent to – “I.”

We can say “there is only awareness” or “there is only consciousness.” One might prefer one narrative to another but . . . the narratives propose possible beginnings. They do not denote the one true beginning.

So the awareness that is the self is a bit of a mystery, and one has to go slowly with it in order to be clear what it is and how it functions. This “going slow” is in the nature of dialogue, of exploration, in which the very act of exploring brings forth both map and territory.

Of course it is the case that some folks claim to have gone beyond the “I.” The self as such drops out. This experience of “beyond I” is more or less isomorphic across human culture and history. Clearly it happens, or something happens that makes a lot of people tell a similar story about the happening.

But we do we posit this as an ideal, don’t we? Who doesn’t want to be enlightened? Yet certain elite folks can run 4-minute miles, but nobody is getting rich persuading ordinary folks that they, too, can run a 4-minute mile. Or should run one.

Why should the so-called spiritual domain be any different? I don’t hate on myself because I can’t run a 4-minute mile. I don’t stop running.

We are all welcome to our living, and this welcome is equal unto all of us, regardless of the special skills or abilities our particular structure includes.

It’s helpful to remember that the domain of the one who runs a 4-minute mile includes the one who builds and operates stopwatches, and the one who builds and operates means of record-keeping.

That is, 4-minute miles are only possible because of folks who figured out how to build things, and how to build them consistently and uniformly. Don’t even get me started on the technology of running shoes . . .

The key observation is that always the one specifies, or makes possible, the other. This is always the case. If we understand this, then our need to be “one” *or the “other” subsides. What is the significance of X or Y when there is Z? Or Z when there is A?

Where you are – geographically, psychologically, spiritually, athletically – is where you are. What could be simpler?

Thus, the spiritual prerogative to wake up or become enlightened is simply a concept brought forth by what is already both awake and full of light. It comes forth in a domain of its own making, and is naturally transcended by new domains.

In a sense, “awakening” and “enlightenment” and “Christ-mind” and “Heaven” and all those related terms apply to a domain that is already being eclipsed by new domains. This is how our living progresses; this is how being functions. The lights are already on; there is no need to turn them on more. You can’t.

Wanting or desiring the state we designate as enlightened/awakened is what brings those states into existence, and brings into existence as well those who profess to have accomplished those states, and those who profess to have the secret to accomplishing those states, and those who seek those states. The unenlightened specify the enlightened, and vice-versa; absent the one, the other doesn’t exist. On this front anyway, there is nothing left to do.

I am suggesting one enlarge the domain of experience. See the observer/observed split. See the seer. It’s nothing special. Rather, one simply sees that the self as such is a recurring feature of an ever-expanding domain of which one is a part and to which one is subject.

As Louis Kauffman says, “the world is everything that is the case, and the world evolves according to the theories and actions of the participants in that world.”

Of course, all this is explanatory and academic. It’s like sitting in a classroom and listening to some guy lecture you about the importance of bridges. After a while, you want to build a bridge.

How shall we build a bridge?

At a practical here-is-a-thing-you-can-do level, if you want to be happier, even truly deeply happy, then one thing to try is to look closely at your descriptions of self, world and other. How do you describe the world? Your self? Other people? Objects in experience? Experience?

“Description” in this case refers not only to a verbal portrayal of this or that sensual experience (seeing a rose, hearing a melody, smelling a cake et cetera) but also reaches the levels of category (flower/valentine/partner/love), explanations of origins (seed, water, sunlight, soil), and so forth.

For example, who do you love? How do you love them? How do you classify that love? Why is it love and not lust or mere affection? And so forth.

On that view, “description” is vast and tangled. Examining it is more like visiting a jungle than looking up the word “Jungle” in a dictionary.

I think this is one of the interesting aspects of psychotherapy, that it allows us – when we are committed to the process which includes a devoted therapist – to really dig down into our descriptions and see them clearly: how we feel, the language we use, the mythologies, how our narratives evolve, the featured characters, recurring themes.

When psychotherapy is effective, the whole culture – the whole history of being human moves in it and in us as well.

Of course, psychotherapy is not the only way to go about examining our descriptions. One can read deeply, one can have a writing or other artistic practice. You can study A Course in Miracles which redefines and reorganizes your thinking and its contents . . .

It is a question of fit and effectiveness. What works? What helps you go deeply into your descriptions?

The reasons we go into our descriptions in this way is because when we see them clearly, in all their dimensionality, to the fullest extent possible at a given time, then we can begin to revise them. Or at least not be so in the dark about them. Before we can make a change, we have to want to make the change, and this means seeing clearly what we are doing and what the effects of our doing are.

So as we go into our descriptions, we can say something like, well, this is not actually an accurate (or effective or resonant or what-have-you) description so I am going to update (or delete or edit) it.

This is about becoming more coherent, which is another way of saying become more consistently and sustainably aligned with the loving being we naturally are.

And really it is about becoming more aware and sensitive to the reflexive domain that is our living: it is about living harmoniously with our living, and loving it was we live it.

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The Observer and the Observed Redux

We create an image of ourselves.

We see ourselves as others see us. Or perhaps as our imagined God sees us. Or as we wish we could be. Or should be. Or would be if we had different parents, lived in a different part of the world, spoke another language, had another partner, lived in a different era, et cetera.

Projection is not inherently a problem. We can’t actually separate ourselves into the one who observes and the one who is observed.

In that sense, separation is an illusion.

But we can – and do – believe that this separation is real. We can subtly convince ourselves that the image is “right” or “best” or “most deserving” or whatever.  We begin to believe that self, pursue that self, flog that self, worship that self . . . We divide the world into those who help and those who oppose.

In this way, we are removed from our actual living. We look away from our self towards an image of our self and forget that the image is just an image.

So we are removed from our living, and this makes our living incoherent, often painfully so. Say I have a problem at work. I watch the image of myself replay the problem, then invent a solution, then live happily in the solution.

But the image is not me, and so I go on living in my problem. The image can’t actually do anything; it is like a shadow, or any other projection. To solve something requires that we not project.

But we are very very good at creating, projecting and watching the image. One has to be good at this, in order to get along in their family and their society.

Your parents say “you are this or that.” So you learn you are a thing; naturally you look for that thing. Naturally you try to make that thing conform to the expectation of those upon whom you depend for survival. Parents, teachers, bosses, cool kids, et cetera.

We learn that good girls do this; bad boys do that. Successful men do this; successful women do that. God loves these people but not those people. On and on it goes.

All of that information – to which we are subject at an early age, and then bombarded with as time goes on (which “going on” has become almost impossible to manage in the age of the social) – are the projections of others.

We build our own projection based on the projections of others. It’s the best model. We do it before we know we are doing it; we aren’t allowed to question the process.

But of course this is a terrible way to live, and causes us all kinds of grief, both personally and collectively. It’s inauthentic; we live as a projected image that is supposed to satisfy the world and it doesn’t work.

So the question, years later, becomes how do we stop projecting an image of ourselves. How do we live with the one, rather than an imitation of the one?

This is the old problem of the observer and the observed. It has been around for a long time. You are the observer and the image is the observed.

Intellectually, the solution is easy enough to state. The observer and the observed are one; they appear separate but in fact they are not.

But that generally does not end the experience of separation. It describes it accurately, it focuses our attention well enough. But it doesn’t solve it.

It’s like facing a big river. We are on one side and home is on the other. So we say “well we have to get to the other side. We need a bridge.”

We have accurately stated the problem – which is important – but there is a lot of space between “we need a bridge” and actually building somehow a bridge.

Some of the people with whom I first began to personally explore this condition solved it with Zen Buddhism. I admire them a great deal, and consider Buddhism a coherent and reasonable approach.

Some people I met subsequently resolved it in therapy. They worked very hard – it was painful at times – and, in truth, I think they got lucky with great therapists (which are harder to find than one thinks).

I met some people – a few – who solved it by working with new age forms of Christian mysticism, mainly A Course in Miracles. This become for many years my own preferred method, and though I do not think of myself as an ACIM student or teacher any longer, I remain deeply grateful for and attentive to it.

Later in my living – particularly in the summer and fall of 2017 and onward – I began to meet and read and dialogue with people who readily saw the problem but did not get overly worked up about it.

They came out of STEM fields mostly. If they didn’t – if they were, say, philosophers – they tended to rely on STEM fields for their insights. For them, the observer/observed split was something that happened, was acknowledged as an illusion rather than a reflection of some observer-independent reality, and they carried on accordingly.

No big deal. They weren’t uninterested in the problem, especially as it applied to their respective fields. They just weren’t intimidated by it. It was like “we need a bridge” and so the work instantly became, “let’s build a bridge.” The problem was only relevant in terms of optimizing the fix.

Those folks were a real eye-opener for me. They still are. The problem I had spent thirty years studying and addressing, sometimes to considerable personal detriment, was to them just . . . not a big deal.

Could it be they were right?

Well, as it turns out they were right. But so was I. So were my Buddhist friends, and my friends in therapy, and my new-age Christian mystic friends.

That is because the way you solve the observer/observed puzzle is personal. There is no right way; there is no one way. There is only the way that works, and that is subjective and contextual.

Yet for me, seeing that it was a) subjective and b) not a big deal was deeply liberating. It was not the answer, but it certainly cleared the way for the answer to be given.

I wasn’t looking for anything outside of me any longer. The answer was given to me; I had it already. That I was overlooking or otherwise not noticing it was not stressful. It’s much easier to look for a lost ball if you know what room it’s in.

And, critically, I was no longer intimidated by the question. It no longer felt as if it were the purview of the few – the priests, the gurus, the geniuses, or even the lucky. It was for everybody. It was no big deal.

So you could give attention to the situation you called a problem, and the answer would be revealed. You could build the bridge.

Naturally the question arises: what is the bridge?

On the one hand, the answer is: you tell me. And I am not being disingenuous! If you asked me what the best pie was, I’d say the same thing. I mean here it’s apple but over there, with you . . . you tell me.

On the other hand, the answer is almost always implicit in the question; the form of the question, broadly speaking, sketches the form of the answer.

Where does the observer/observed situation arise most clearly for you? In Nisargadatta and Ramana? In A Course in Miracles? Eugene Gendlin? Richard Feynman?

The answer to that question will reveal the focus for your attention. If the answer is ACIM, then give your attention to ACIM and let the answer be revealed. If it’s Feynman, then give attention accordingly and watch the answer arise. Et cetera.

Importantly, if the answer if Feynman and you are obsessing over A Course in Miracles, then probably all you are going to learn is that ACIM isn’t for you.

It is okay – it is more than okay – to let go of that which does not work. Its not working is how it tries to let go of you. So, you know, cooperate with universe. The answer is not hidden from us on purpose. It’s important to remember this. Where the light is, sight is.

When you “see” the answer it will come as a recognition because you already know it; you just didn’t know it was the “answer.” It will be like, “oh. That.”

And living will go on. The answer, so to speak, just clarifies the nature of the work. You have to write and teach more, or you have to go away to a monastery, or you have to run for office, or you have to live alone in a strange city. Whatever.

That will be okay: that will be just another appearance, another swirl of phenomena unto that which – in all the change, never changes.

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