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Reading A Course in Miracles: The Atonement as Defense

The “Atonement as Defense” is a section of A Course in Miracles that calls us to defend the truth by denying the power of error to hurt us in any way. We know that we are deferring to error – or the power of wrong-minded thinking – whenever we feel doubt or fear. These feelings impede our miracle-working abilities. They render the Atonement inaccessible. They block the way to Heaven.

We tend to think of denial in terms of its negative negative connotations – i.e., its use to hide the truth. Alcoholics deny the affect their drinking has on family members and so never get sober. Teachers deny their intellectual arrogance is intimidating students and so the students never ask for help and never learn to the fullest of their or their teacher’s potential. On this view, denial creates a vicious circle that only repeats the fundamental error. Healing never happens.

However, A Course in Miracles explicitly states that there is also a way in which denial can be used positively. If we use it to deny the ability of error – alternatively called a lack of love or sin – to injure us, then we are using it appropriately. Indeed, to deny the power of error is to tacitly affirm the power of truth and love. This is the right use – a Christ-minded use – of this tool.

How do we learn to use denial in defense of truth and love?

The means are easier to understand after the value of the goal is firmly established. It is a question of what it is for. Everyone defends his treasure, and will do so automatically. The real questions are, what do you treasure and how much do you treasure it? Once you have learned to consider these questions and to bring them into all your actions, you will have little difficulty in clarifying the means. The means are available whenever you ask (T-2.II.3:2-7).

This echoes the beautiful passages in Matthew’s Gospel about where we “lay up” our treasure.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

And a few sentences later, the helpful reminder that a person cannot “serve two masters:”

. . . for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Or, as the course puts it: “The Atonement is a total commitment” (T-2.II.7:1).

Thus, in A Course in Miracles, we are invited to clarify our intentions. We are being asked to set a very specific goal of healing. If we can set our eyes on Heaven – if we can recognize that our sole problem is that we believe we are separated from God and that repairing that perceived separation is the only healing that matters – then the means to achieve will be made instantly available.

We should submit all things – work, relationships, prayer, parenting, health – to this one test: What is it for? Does it serve the separation or or does it serve salvation? If it serves separation, then let it fall to the wayside without a second thought. Allow only that which furthers the goal of salvation to be in your life. No compromises!

We are called to simplify our lives so that we might focus exclusively on returning to God. Nothing else matters. And the return is not complicated, either. The means are actually already given to us. But setting this goal – making this our one objective to the exclusion of all others . . . that is a big deal. That is a challenge. We can delay making it for a long time. We can forget to make it, or forget we made it.

Focusing solely on our return to God can seem impossible. It can seem like the work of spiritual super heroes and heroines. We’re not saints – we’re just ordinary people. I’ve got to make dinner, put the kids to bed, talk to an editor about a story I’m working on, prepare for the next class. This is how life works. Are we actually supposed to give up those aspects of our lives?

In fact, we are called to bring order to our living, so that we might better remember and bring to application our sole focus on ending the separation and remembering our identity in and as love. This order appears in the ordinary circumstances that comprise our living; nothing changes but how we view our living. That is what the miracle does: it brings order to our perception in order to remember love.

The miracle turns the defense of the Atonement to your real protection, and as you become more and more secure you assume your natural talent of protecting others, knowing yourself as both a brother and a Son (T-2.II.7:8).

Our continual efforts to save and be saved are not without fruit. We make progress in time and that’s okay. Our awareness of the active protective value of the Atonement – God’s Love – increases in time and as it does we are able to extend our knowledge of it -and its security – to our brothers and sisters. We become servants unto their own experience of salvation.

Thus, this section then is an opportunity to reflect on our commitment to awakening and to our brothers and sisters as collaborators in salvation. It is a road map to help us a) measure that commitment and b) bring it better into application.

A Course in Miracles Lesson 10

My thoughts do not mean anything.

Within each lesson there is always a seed or two, the flowering of which seems to aim at completely undoing our sense of self. There is a tendency to merely glance at these “seeds” – to pass over them quickly – under the mistaken belief that we are making the lessons less fearful and thus more manageable. Leave what’s scary for another day! But this is a delay tactic that only postpones our inevitable – and desirable – readjustment. Atonement, as Jesus points out frequently in A Course in Miracles, reflects a total commitment on our part.

As it clearly states, Lesson 10 is a second, somewhat altered, take on a soon-to-be familiar theme: our thoughts are meaningless. We saw this first in ACIM Lesson 4 which compared our thoughts to the objects we perceive in the material world. The goal was to begin to sense that our “thoughts” are actually outside of us rather than within and that they are also in a critical sense “past.”

We are not ignoring that aspect in Lesson 10. Implicit in the brief review of Lesson 4, is the need to remember that our thoughts – as we now understand them – are essentially unreal in the sense of time and space, which is to say, in the sense of bodies. We need to rethink the way we think: and this “rethinking” is not a function of the brain but rather of that in which – or through which – the brain has its function.

Lesson 10 takes it a step further, largely through the lines that are both the heart – and the above-mentioned seeds – of this exercise.

Now we are emphasizing that the presence of these “thoughts” means that you are not thinking. This is merely another way of repeating our earlier statement that your mind is really a blank W-pI.10.3:2-3).

If these thoughts – about whether Chrisoula or I will take Sophia riding today, or what is for supper, or will I teach Dickinson or Whitman this semester, or where is the next dollar will come from, or why am I so suddenly and intensely scared of death, why doesn’t so-and-so call anymore, etc. – do not constitute thinking, then what does?

Better yet, who is the “you” that this workbook lesson addresses?

I think that last question is one of the true gifts of A Course in Miracles, although it arrives – and can remain for sometimes – more in the nature of a curse. Whoever – and whatever – we are, our bodies and the brain-chatter produced by them are inside of us.

We aren’t who we think we are. We aren’t what we think we are. When Jesus assures us in the text that we are perfect creations of a loving Creator, he isn’t referring to Sean Reagan or you or anybody else. He is not referring to bodies. He is not referring to identities attached to bodies.

Thus, this “identity in God” to which I often refer is not some perfection of the bodily self, some pinnacle of emotional wellness, a last stop on the train of spiritual evolution.

Rather, it is spirit itself. And there is only one spirit, only one mind. This we that “we” think “we” are is going to be wholly and utterly subsumed by its origins, absorbed back into God from which it did not, in truth, depart. We fight that – we are fighting it right now, else what is the ego for – but with each lesson we take another inexorable step in the direction of Heaven where differences of any kind are entirely dissolved.

This is not an experience that we have as bodies. Our physical experience is subject to the laws that characterize bodies – ups and downs, comings and goings.  At best, our bodily experience hints at the greater peace from which it borrows its existence. Lesson 10 is a way in which  we begin to allow the weighty pervasiveness of the body to recede as we give attention to mind and the light in which – and through which – mind exists.

←Lesson 9
Lesson 11→

A Course in Miracles Lesson 9

I see nothing as it is right now.

In the early lessons, we move back and forth between “seeing” as an activity of the physical body in the physical world and “vision” as an action of spirit in the real but abstract – imperceptible to the physical eye – world. The goal of these early lessons is to help us recognize this shift – this back-and-forth – so that we can notice when we are seeing physically and choose instead to see with the Holy Spirit.

This morning, coming back from the field and forest, I passed a fir tree. Against the full moon – soft and blurred in a bower of cloud – each needle was perfectly illuminated, sharp and distinct, pure and still in the frozen air. I stood a long time gazing at this image, mind ranging as it does when I am outdoors walking.

The world presents both moments and images of beauty to us – pictures of perfection and glory, radiance and grace. You can’t photograph or even write about it without removing yourself from the fullness of the experience. God is there in those moments, fully present, fully willing to be seen and known. If you will accept the gift (and if you do not know how to accept the gift then ask yourself how, for you know how to do this because it is inherent in what you are) then you will learn that you have always had it.

ACIM Lesson 9 is a wonderful exercise in acknowledging that so long as we rely on physical seeing and the ego’s interpretation of what we see, then we will be clueless. We will fail to understand. As always, this acknowledgement is itself an helpful undoing. As we look about our lives – the room in which we read, the road on which we drive, the institution at which we work, the people with whom we interact – we are being consistently  invited to consider the possibility that we are completely mistaken about all of it. For many of us, even cracking this door even a little will be too shocking, too unsettling.

But we should not fight this. We should not judge it but simply allow it to be the part of our experience it naturally is. The workbook lessons are not about getting anything right – rather, they are opportunities to practice a new way of living that enables us to remember the peace and love that is our natural inheritance. We have already passed the midterm and final exam. What remains is to bring them into application, excluding nothing in particular and including nothing in particular. That’s it. The rest is handled by God because it is already being handled by God.

Indeed, one of the joys of this lesson is the degree to which we can realize – or even just act as if we realize – that God cheerfully does handle the rest. To stare deeply at an orange or trout jumping in the river or an old dog or moonlight beyond the fir tree, and at the same time to accept that we are simultaneously actively disrupting our capability to see love, is to invite a new, a radical experience. Or rather, to perceive the ordinary with new eyes. The real world is given. We are not called to add to it or redefine it or even to understand it. Its accessibility is contingent on nothing but our willingness to let God show it to us, which God is always doing because sharing is what God is.

Thus it is given to us to look around: to partake of the world in its loveliness and complexity, its bounty and multiplicity. With the eyes we are given, we look. And we allow our looking to be infused with acceptance of the underlying confusion A Course in Miracles is given to undo. To look with open eyes from a posture of epistemic humility is to be open to the natural enlightenment of God. We can be grateful and in our gratitude wait joyfully for the answer God has already given.

←Lesson 8
Lesson 10→

Reading A Course in Miracles: Distortions of Miracle Impulses

One of the things that close readings of A Course in Miracles will do is gently reveal some of the material’s more radical ideas. We discover new ways that the course wants to teach us to serve our brothers and sisters in love, in order that we might all wake up to our unified presence in communion with Jesus and God.

A miracle is a shift in mind, away from fear and guilt and towards love. Miracles are not causes but effects. To be miracle-minded is to be receptive to love with the whole of one’s being, and attentive to that which brings forth love in your living.

However, it is essential that we not confuse miracles with external effects. Doing so distorts the underlying natural inclination to relate to our brothers and sisters in love. We are confused when we think we can relate in terms of sex, food, politics, work, art, et cetera. As the course says, “Do not deceive yourself into believing that you can relate in peace to God or to your brothers with anything external” (T-I. VII.1:7).

That is clear and unequivocal.

A miracle may have observable effects in what we call our bodies and the world. But they are not obligated to have those effects. Importantly, miracles are not caused by what is external, and they do not exist in order to rearrange external conditions and circumstances according to our personal preference. We are learning to shift our thinking, not our apparent world.

Physical impulses are misdirected miracle impulses. All real pleasure comes from doing God’s Will. This is because not doing it is a denial of Self (T-1.VII.1:3-5).

Thus, in order to work miracles, our focus needs to be on our mind. If our focus in on externals, then we cannot give full attention to our capacity for love. And the miracle needs our full attention in order to function, which is to say, to bring forth our creations in love.

Genuine and sustainable peace and pleasure are part of the experience of doing God’s will, rather than attending to our own. We are called not to be servants of the body but of the spirit, and by extension, our brothers and sisters.

Child of God, you were created to create the good, the beautiful and the holy. Do not forget this (T-1.VII.2:1-2).

Those are comforting and inspiring words. To create “the good, the beautiful and the holy” – as opposed to making the good enough, the generally pleasing and the something-less-than-sacred-but-not-profane – is to do God’s will. To hear his voice and be directed specifically.

However, it is equally important not to deny our bodies or their appetites, impulses, biases, et cetera. Indeed, the body is neither positive nor negative; it is wholly neutral. The highest use to which it can be put is to learning how to do miracles, which is to say, how to shift from fear to love. And, for a while longer, it is in bodies that the love of God will appear to be expressed (T-1.VII.2:3).

It is not a mistake for us to give attention on this shift in thinking.

This is a course in mind training. All learning involves attention and study at some level (T-1.VII.4:1-2).

This can be a comforting idea. Our job is not to fix our body or make it more lovable. We are not called to an ascetic renunciation of physical experience. We are simply asked to bring our concentration and focus to recalling our union with God. That act of recollection is really itself sacred – as we recall God, we are recalled by God. And our capacity to extend miracles expands accordingly.

We are natural miracle workers. Our minds naturally align with love, when they are attuned not to ego but to the Holy Spirit, which is to say, our “right” mind. When we talk about miracles, we are not talking about fantasies, extravagances or spectacles.

Rather, we are talking about a fundamentally natural inclination that inheres in our being. We are talking about common sense and the ordinary expression of love and kindness to and with one another. This inclination to love can be blocked, denied, confused and ignored but it cannot be destroyed. That is, we can distort our miracle impulse but we cannot lose it.

It is in working miracles that our belief in their efficacy is established. We don’t wait for faith to act miraculously; we act, observe the results, and realize that confidence is merited (T-1.VII.3:9). In a sense, we are asked to leap and to trust that God – or Jesus, if you prefer – will catch us and gently set us on firm ground.  It is in this way that we become active followers of Jesus and his ACIM program.

This section restates the fundamental ACIM principle that we are all – even unto Jesus – equal brothers and sisters. We are all gifted in identical measure because we are all the unified Creation of God. The illusion of differences – this person is smarter, that one is more successful but luckily I’m better-looking than both – are the world’s foundation of conflict and pain. Indeed, if Jesus – of all people, of all teachers – repeats that awe is an inappropriate response to him (T-1.VII.5:6), then how can we possibly justify anything but the most perfect love of which we are capable for one another?

Thus, A Course in Miracles is always teaching us to remember – and in remembering to extend – our self as love.

A Course in Miracles Lesson 8

My mind is preoccupied with past thoughts.

Lesson 7  is an invitation to consider the way in which we perceive the objects that comprise our physical world is conditioned by the past. We are not really looking at a pencil or a cup – we are looking at our idea of a pencil or a cup, and that idea is entirely conditioned by our past learning with respect to pencils and cups.

It is possible to reframe our understanding – we are not looking at the past so much as looking through the past. Indeed, the eighth lesson of A Course in Miracles encourages this shift in focus. Our mind is not free but is rather yoked to past thoughts which inevitably fragment and shade its understanding and perception.

Critically, this lesson reminds us that the problem is not cups and pencils – much less wars and poverty – but rather the mind which perceives these things. Heal the mind and the world will follow.

How, then, shall we train our mind to occupy itself with love – with the Holy Instant – rather than the past?

The mind’s preoccupation with the past is the cause of the misconception about time from which your seeing suffers. Your mind cannot grasp the present, which is the only time there is. It therefore cannot understand time, and cannot, in fact, understand anything (W-pI.8.I:4-6).

Students of A Course in Miracles will recognize that what is being alluded to here is in fact the end of time, the Holy Instant – a moment given freely to us by the Holy Spirit. In that moment – which is unclouded by ideas of past or future – the present is empty of fear. It is the Holy Instant that teaches us the meaning of love inherent in the ACIM curriculum.

Each instant is a clean, untarnished birth, in which the Son of God emerges from the past into the present. And the present extends forever. It is so beautiful and so clean and free of guilt that nothing but happiness is there. No darkness is remembered, and immortality and joy are now (T-15.I.8:4-7).

ACIM Lesson 8 begins to train our minds to recognize that what impedes our experience of the Holy Instant is literally our preoccupation with past thoughts. Most of what churns through our minds are ideas and images and concepts that derive their meaning and utility from the past. Whatever utility they may have for the body, they utterly obscure the mind’s natural repose in the “clean, untarnished birth” of the present.

As we see this – and as we identify those thoughts for what they are – we begin to develop the basic skill of letting them go and giving  attention instead to the peace and tranquility that is our actual mind. In that way, this lesson anticipates the clear teaching of Lesson 45, which tells us that our “real” thoughts are those we think with God

You think with the Mind of God. Therefore you share your thoughts with Him, as He shares His with you. They are the same thoughts, because they are thought by the same Mind. To share is to make alike, or to make one. Nor do the thoughts you think with the Mind of God leave your mind, because thoughts do not leave their source. Therefore, your thoughts are in the Mind of God, as you are. They are in your mind as well, where He is. As you are part of His Mind, so are your thoughts part of His Mind (W-pI.45.2:1-8).

This lesson proposes the radical idea that when our minds are busy – what our Buddhist friends might call “monkey mind” – they are actually blank. They are not functioning. The implication is that the real activity of our mind will not manifest as thoughts about cups or pencils or sex or politics at all. A lot of our resistance to the course can be found here, I think. We are so ingrained – so conditioned, so invested – in our thoughts and the self they appear to arise from and relate to that letting them go feels too terrifying. Even thinking about letting them go is scary.

But all thoughts can be brought to the Holy Spirit: that which we find intimidating or confusing or frightening can be lifted into the light. We don’t have to flee troubling thoughts – it’s okay to sit with them. When we do this – not judging the thought, not running from the thought, not even analyzing the thought – we are gently taught that we are not those thoughts.

There is – there is always – another way.

Thus, when we practice Lesson Eight, we are entering the possibility of perceiving our thinking mind in a new way. We are embracing the possibility that beneath the egoic chatter lies a still calm peace, a foundation is created and sustained by God, and in which our identity is no longer special or unique (because it is not isolated) but rather shared. What shall we fear if there is nothing that is not God?

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Lesson 9→