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On Wanting Life to be Different

Wanting things to be other than they are is a form of not looking at things – it is a way of not giving attention to what is – and so it is a form of violence because it denies the very existence of that which gives rise to it.

Here is life, the very way it is given to us, and rather than lean into it through attention – which is a form of devotion – we deny it in favor of an idealized future, thus wielding time as a cudgel against the very thing that can bring us joy and peace: the ordinary world as it is ordinarily given.

Donald Hoffman argues that consciousness and its contents are all that exist, and argues further that this does not obviate a useful scientific method and corresponding mathematics. He is not opposed to a spiritual life, or a spiritual mode of living, but insists that it must incorporate math and science. Life must – in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s memorable phrase – “add up to normal.”

In the end, this is how A Course in Miracles appears in my life: as a spiritual self-study program that aims to teach me to give attention to the very life I am living as the way to learn that God and love are the means to sustainable peace, and that I am mistaken when I believe otherwise.

You will note that in the preceding paragraph I executed a semantic sleight-of-hand that would probably make Hoffman wince: I equated “consciousness” with “God and love.”

I can say that if the understanding is that I am using language to make a point that may also be made with other language forms. That is, if I am not subtly arguing that God is better than consciousness, or different from consciousness, and so forth.

But it is hard to be clear about this, to know for a fact that when we say “God” we are not unconsciously evoking that patriarchal deity whose intentions and actions control the terms and circumstances of our living.

I suggest the course is not asking us to “believe” in God, so much as to behave in particular ways with respect to giving attention to the world of our living and then seeing what happens as a result.

I further suggest that “what happens” is normal and ordinary. Nothing happens like Jesus parting the skies and appearing to us or other ascended masters appearing in our living rooms or anything else.

Rather, what happens is that we settle into our lives in quiet and nondramatic ways, and bring forth love in and through our bodies and the lives they lead which is, it turns out, all we have to do to experience the grace of God’s deep and abiding peace.

The yellow maple leaf stranded in my bedroom window is simply a yellow maple leaf – no more and no less – and yet once I am clear about this, and no longer insisting it be symbol of God’s love, or even God’s love itself, then its beauty becomes almost overwhelming. It is, unto itself and the one observing, amazing. As is everything else.

Thus, gratitude and reverence become second nature. When are they not merited? When it seems they are not merited, it is only because I am confused about what to do with attention, and the solution to my confusion is always to simply give attention, which is to consent to be directed, which direction is always available and always loving.

Now, for a time, this “direction” appears in terms of the world – specifically, in terms of the world as I experience it. So it might be a directive about bringing a relationship to a close, or adopting a certain curriculum for class, or taking a new route home from work. My job is just to do it – just to follow it – without getting especially worked up about it.

Right now I am writing by the bedroom window where a startlingly holy and gorgeous maple leaf hovers directly in my ken, like a God-given searchlight illuminating my whole life. Yet in a few minutes, I’ll be on my back on the back porch stairs, trying to repair the railing broken by falling ice last week, a task that will be difficult and frustrating and will not feel especially “God-given.”

Unless, that is, I am willing to go slowly and accept it as God-given. For that is the bottom line here: nothing is that isn’t God, and there is nothing – no idea, practice, action, behavior, object, or other – that will not restore to my awareness the utterly precious and unconditional nature of God’s Love for His Child who is not separate from Him.

“Fake it ’till you make it,” my brothers and sisters used to say, many forms of healing ago. Look for Love. If you can’t see it, give it. If you can’t give it, at least don’t give pain and suffering. And if you do end up in pain and suffering, remember it will pass. Pain and suffering passes; that is how we know it’s not the gift of God.

Joy and peace – quiet, enduring, unassailable, forever offering itself to us by extending itself through us to others – does not pass. It’s there waiting. It lives us as we live it, aware or otherwise. Its unconditional nature – its forever existence – is our home and salvation, for exactly as long as we think we are lost and forsaken.

The Many Ways We Get Home

Often when I am especially grateful for A Course in Miracles, I write about it in what I hope are helpful ways. I try to focus on the mechanics as I understand them, and not to overdo the spiritual drama. Being happy is not a race so we’re all experts and beginners at once but it’s easy to forget that. I really do want you to love me.

The thing is, the language of A Course in Miracles is not broad. It doesn’t – to borrow a course term – generalize well. Half the key phrases, like forgiveness and atonement, have meanings that are bound up in Christian Science, German transcendental philosophy and a version of Freud that so far as I can tell nobody has taken seriously since the late fifties.

None of that means the course can’t be helpful; it manifestly can. But it does mean that after a certain juncture, one sort of finds their self  longing for a more inclusive dance.

Or not! Ken Wapnick’s apparently stubborn insistence that the course means what it means and that we shouldn’t be looping in Buddhism and Lacan and so forth are understandable from that perspective. When you’re home, you don’t burn down the building. It’s your home!

But one woman’s home can be another woman’s way station. I sometimes feel as if the “celestial speedup” – a delicious phrase and concept – doesn’t obligate some of us to aim for a vocabulary and practice that is less formally onerous. The goal is to be happy (in a deep and sustainable way) and not right about this or that spiritual path. Does it matter?

Well, yes. Clearly. But also: what’s right is what works. And so it’s important to be rigorously honest about what works and what doesn’t. A Course in Miracles is comforting to me, but I don’t always trust that. I’ve been good over the years at hiding what hurts beneath a veneer of respectability.

Sometimes when I write posts like this one or this one, I wake up in the middle of the night thinking: be careful of pretending that you’re more committed than you are. Be careful of coveting some esteem you haven’t merited. And I get up and walk out back to the horses, who are very calm and beautiful in the moonlight, and let things sift and settle and simmer, which they always do.

In general, I think it’s important to divest from overly theistic belief systems. Assertions with respect to absolutes or unconditionals or objectives feel altogether unsustainable to me. There is always this: this this, and it never doesn’t reflect love and lawfulness, and it’s never not sufficiently responsive. Also, it doesn’t depend on posturing with respect to what causes it.

In general, I think it’s important to observe the Golden Rule – to basically act in ways that are clear that what’s good for A is good for B, and also generally increase the possibilities for our shared living. As Ken used to say (here paraphrased): a good way to live is to make everything about other people

In general, I think that “love” means allowing others to exist without defending themselves. Love assumes radical equality. You don’t have to prove your value or worth to me, and I don’t have to understand your value or worth. Your value and worth are established.

In general, I think explanations are less effective than descriptions, and “how” questions are more helpful and creative than “why” questions. Very little appears to be forbidden (although how would we know?), but it’s also clear that some of our actions are more functional and expansive than others. Why ignore this?

All of those observations make for a kind of living that is basically uncertain and slow. In a lot of ways, my life is shifting into a mode that most people find at best boring and at worst emblematic of the very problem they’re trying to fix.

But more and more I don’t observe any problem other than the various faulty lenses (or interpretations) that I bring to my observing. A lot is given – is just here – and my contributions are sort of beside the point. It’s when I get confused about this and start bopping around like the hyperactive love child of Julie McCoy (cruise director) and Merrill Stubing (ship captain) that things begin to grind and grate unhelpfully.

For a long time I used to think that what Bill Thetford said to Helen was “there must be a better way.” But at least in the text, what he actually said was, “there must be another way.”

Well, there is always another way. Which may or may not work – we have to find out by giving attention. And if it doesn’t work for us, it still might work for others so we have to give it space. And others, too.

To this day I miss some of my college professors and  certain courses because they changed my life. They taught me how to think better, how to evaluate texts and belief systems, all with an eye toward being a healthy happy man who isn’t making things worse. But I wouldn’t go back there, because other learning projects came, and anyway, we have to get on with living.

Is it this way with A Course in Miracles? Time to move on/time to get going, as brother Tom Petty sang? I am always wondering that myself, especially when I find myself being fairly orthodox with respect to it (as the last two most recent posts indicate). Yet what can we do but flag our concerns – notice what’s there to be noticed – and then keep going?

A Course in Miracles Lesson 108

Near the end of ACIM Lesson 108, the course proposes an interesting equation: the measure of joy, peace and love that we receive is equal to the measure of joy, peace and love we give.

On that view, the cause of our unhappiness or discontent is our unwillingness to extend happiness and contentment to others.

Another way of saying this is that if we view the world in terms of what it can give us – if other people, places and things are valuable only in terms of what we can get – then our unhappiness is guaranteed.

This happen when we separate giving from receiving. Rather than see them as one movement (which they are), we set them up as discrete actions in both time and place. Giving precedes getting. And, because they are now separate, we can judge them as good or bad, preferable or or not preferable.

Lesson 108 intimates that if we want to be happy, then we need to realize that giving and receiving are the same and cannot be separated in terms of cause and effect or preferred and not-preferred. When this is clear, our only objective will be give love, because love is all that we want to receive.

The sameness of giving and receiving is not obvious at the level of the body. At that level, they are obviously different. To get a slice of pie is not the same as to receive a slice of pie. Loss and gain are meaningful to bodies. Sacrifice means something.

Yet it is possible to see that the happiness we feel at receiving a slice of pie and the happiness we feel at giving someone a slice of pie are the same. And that sameness is a clue; it points to something that is worth learning.

There is a light in which all things are seen as equal, and attention to this light allows us to pass quickly through the many forms of differentiation in order to arrive at what A Course in Miracles calls the “One thought, completely unified” that serves “to unify all thought” (W-pI.108.5:1). This is not a mystical process but a pragmatic healing.

This is the same as saying one correction will suffice for all correction, or that to forgive one brother wholly is enough to bring salvation to all minds. For these are but some special cases of one law which holds for every kind of learning, if it be directed by the One Who knows the truth (W-pI.108.5:2-3).

The idea here is that there is a light in which it is clear that giving and receiving are the same. Our work is to perceive the light rather than to work out an intellectual understanding of how giving and receiving are one movement. I mean, we can work that out in that way, but intellectual understanding doesn’t readily generalize. It’s a relatively narrow and constrained form of healing. And effective generalization is a critical aspect of the healing contemplated by A Course in Miracles.

. . . when this special case has proved it always works, in every circumstance where it is tried, the thought behind it can be generalized to other areas of doubt and double vision. And from there it will extend, and finally arrive at the one Thought which underlies them all (W-pI.108.6:2-3).

When we see that giving and receiving are one, then we can use that vision to undo other apparent splits.

So Lesson 108 invites us to close our eyes and practice giving what we would like to receive: love, peace, patience, kindness, joy, laughter, gratitude . . .

What happens? This is where the lesson has some special value, in my experience. In the actual application of the lesson, do we experience love and joy and peace to the degree that we want? Not the idea of love, joy and peace but actual love, joy and peace?

I think most of us, if we are honest, will confess that while we are perhaps getting a whiff or joy or a hint of peace or a trickle of love, we are not awash in the eternal and infinite flow of them.

If we can say that, then we can take the next step and see that this is because we are not giving the eternal and infinite flow of love, joy and peace. And so we remain stuck – in ways that are perhaps subtle and hard-to-see – in the kind of seeing that insists giving and receiving are separate.

This is a valuable insight! Properly accepted, it leads to humility, and in humility our practice begins in earnest because it becomes fundamentally honest about its shortcomings. Of our own we can do nothing. We can’t even see the problem clearly, let alone solve it.

Thus we become students whose posture of learning is most amenable to the Holy Spirit’s instructive intervention. We become faithful because there is no other option that we can see. We are not spiritual experts but beginners.

And yet our beginning is also our end, for in it we are joined with out Teacher and with all our brothers and sisters. Our shared “classroom” is transformed into a manifestation of the One Love which is our shared identity. What we learn is what we are because just as giving and receiving are one, so are having and being. Thus we relax in “the perfect safety of God,” where “inclusion is total and creation is without limit” (T-6.V.C.10:9-10).

A Course in Miracles Lesson 121

Forgiveness is the key to happiness.

I want to talk a little about what can happen when we do the lessons of A Course in Miracles. There is a tendency to write or share about the lessons as if there is only one way to learn – using Lesson 121 as an example – that forgiveness is the key to happiness. But this is not true. The daily lesson meets us where we are, and goes with us as far into healing as we are able to go.

Application of the ACIM daily lesson is by definition a personal experience. It occurs in the context of our own need for healing which, because we are invested in a world of differentiation, including the bodies within that world, is always different from that of other students.

The lessons are effectively starting points, and although there will almost be certainly be similarities in terms of where we end up and how we get there, the pathway of healing is never perfectly identical.

One of the critical concepts underlying Lesson 121 is that forgiveness in A Course in Miracles is a learned skill, one that we have to practice and get good at. It is not inherent in the mind, which “cannot sin” (W-pI.121.6:1-2).

As sin is an idea you taught yourself, forgiveness must be learned by you as well, but from a Teacher other than yourself, Who represents the other Self in you. Through Him, you learn how to forgive the self you think you made, and let it disappear (W-pI.121.6:3-4).

We study – and then practice – how to overlook the appearance of separation in order to learn that in Mind, which is the undivided will of God, there is no separation. We are doing this in the explicit context of bodies in the world. In practice, it resembles learning how to swim or meditate.

The lesson invites us to look at three “individuals.” The first is someone with whom we are angry or hate or just plain refuse to acknowledge (all of which are forms of fear), the second is a friend, one that we cheerfully identify as an ally, and the other is our own self to whom the first two appear.

Our goal in looking at the first person – the so-called enemy – is to find in the image of them a tiny spark of light that we can then magnify, so that the one we hate might be perceived in love.

When I do this, I often see literal sparks around the subject’s eyes. Or – in the specific instance I am thinking of as I write – their hair becomes whiter than driven snow. Sometimes I project a halo around them, a soft golden glow like the Catholic church used to paint around a saint’s head.

Often – and, again, I am recalling a specific example from my practice here – a second “enemy” will appear beside the first. They are different people and I am hostile towards them for different reasons and yet – in my anger, in my fear, in my resistance – they are the same. Indeed, they sort of merge – the one as close to the other as a shadow.

As I gaze at them, I realize that the “light” to which Lesson 121 refers is not a literal light (like sparks or a halo) but rather is the light in which these two individuals appear. I am thinking here of Lesson 92‘s emphasis on strength.

Strength . . . keeps it steady gaze upon the light that sees past [appearances]. It unites with light, of which it is a part. It sees itself. It brings the light in which your own Self appears . . . The strength in you will offer you the light, and guide your seeing sothat you do not dwell on idle shadows that the body’s eyes provide for self-deception (W-pI.92.4:2-5, 9:1).

Even with my eyes closed I can “see” in this way.

When I shift this “light” to my friend, the difference is instantly clear. My friend – a man who stood by me at my wedding, with whom I attended law school, et cetera – is bright and luminous. It is easy to see him. The light is large and steady.

Yet when I shift back to my so-called enemies, they are dim and cramped and shadowed. This interior light – this strength – clearly treats the two images differently.

When I bring the images together – allow the weaker and stronger lights to merge – I became distracted. I start thinking about dinner plans, when I have to pick up my daughter, and so forth.

And when I tried to see the friend and two enemies extend their shared light towards me – when I try to allow myself to appear in this light – I grow deeply fearful and resistant. I open my eyes. Is the the ten minute lesson over yet? Only halfway? That’s good enough, isn’t it?

If you look closely at the text of Lesson 121, you will see that what I describe here is not precisely what the lesson instructs us to do. Yet it is precisely what happens when I do the lesson. The distinction matters.

In the moment when I cannot bear to be gifted with the light of strength, which is the light of Love, I see briefly yet with utter clarity – as in a lightning flash – the “unhappiness” which characterizes a mind that believes it is capable of sin.

That is, I see precisely the unhealed mind which Lesson 121 says is the very mind in which all my living is enacted.

The unforgiving mind is in despair, but without the prospect of a future which can offer anything but more despair. Yet it regards its judgment of the world as irreversible, and does not see it has condemned itself to this despair. It thinks it cannot change, for what it sees bears witness that its judgment is correct. It does not ask, because it thinks it knows. It does not question, certain it is right (W-pI.121.5:1-5).

What an apt description of my anguish and confusion! And – especially in the last two sentences – what a concise and accurate description of my approach to – or refusal to approach, really – “healing.”

And so I come back to the lesson in a state of humility and desperation. I close my eyes again, and give attention to what happens. I see how scared I am of my “enemies,” certain that they want to hurt me. In this light, I even doubt my friend. What if he talks to my enemies? What if he agrees with their judgment?

How quickly the mind which believes it can sin – and thus believes that other minds must sin – makes a mess of itself. How far away the possibility of healing seems.

I breathe deeply, smile at the messiness. I let it be. “You take over Holy Spirit. I can’t figure this out.” And what do I get? What happens next?

I get a bit of peace because I no longer judge myself for failing to do the lesson correctly. I get a little clarity that it’s okay to be a learner, a beginner even. I relax into the posture of a student who trusts his Teacher.

Critically, I get a sense that I deserve the happiness that comes with healing, and resolve to continue my practice, however half-assed and imperfect it might be. Throughout the day I remind myself that “forgiveness is the key to happiness,” and that what I am in truth is neither mortal, nor fallible, nor full of sin but rather “the perfect Son of God” (W-pI.121.13:6-7).

Is this enough? Is this the learning A Course in Miracles anticipates?

Yes. It is. Our work is not meet our interior standard of perfection but rather to let that standard go altogether, and allow a new Teacher to set a new standard. That Teacher becomes our guide – evaluating us, offering helpful prompts, reminding us of this or that insight, introducing new study partners or curricular aids.

In this light – which is the light of Love, whether we are ready to see it as such or not – our learning has but one outcome: the shared happiness of all God’s children.

Gifts of Light (Just Hug Already)

Say that you and I are sharing together. We are in a cafe, perhaps, having tea or coffee. We are talking about Emily Dickinson and her struggle to adequately express her deep spiritual insights and experiences in the Christian and other patriarchal languages that were given to her.

There I am. There you are. There is the tea and the coffee. And there is the cafe around us – tables and chairs and booths, wall art, mirrors, baristas . . .

Can you see our dialogue? I don’t mean can you imagine the scene I just described; I mean, in that moment, can you see our dialogue – can you the sharing that we are co-creating in the moment?

Does it have a form? Does it move? Is it responsive? Alive?

If it’s easier, try this: at some point today or tomorrow you will have a conversation of some significance with someone. When and as you do, can you see the dialogue you are having? Can you see what is being co-created in the moment?

Does it have a form? Does it move? Is it responsive? Alive?

I am indicating here a shift in how one understands the verb “to see.” I am defusing it from the bodily senses and expanding it to include the finer, subtler tones of awareness. What is revealed when we “look” at what is abstract and conceptual? Beyond the names we give it, can we see it? Experience it? Does it see and experience us?

Although this takes getting used to, one can develop a way of seeing that doesn’t “stop” at bodies and other material objects, but rather takes notices of the patterns – the energies – in which those bodies are dimly implicated.

I am thinking here along these lines in A Course in Miracles:

The wish to see calls down the grace of God upon your eyes, and brings the gift of light that makes sight possible. Would you behold your brother? (T-25.VI.3:1-2)

And, related:

As nothingness cannot be pictured, so there is no symbol for totality. Reality is ultimately known without a form, unpictured and unseen (T-27.III.5:1-2).

The exercise I am suggesting is not strictly aligned with A Course in Miracles. I have simply over the years found it a helpful way to manifest “the grace of God” upon my eyes so that I might “behold my brother and sister.”

When the focus shifts from the body to what is creating, we make a move in the direction of mind, where abstraction is natural. The body is inherently limited, but the mind is not – it can travel, don masks, give without losing, gain without cost. It defies the limitations of the body.

Complete abstraction is the natural condition of the mind . . . Every mind contains all minds, for every mind is one (W-pI.161.2:1, 4:2).

When we share together, our ideas are abstractions that meet and create new abstractions. Your ideas enter me, and mine enter you, and new ideas exfoliate accordingly. In this way, love extends itself without limit or condition.

The suggestion I make is to give attention to this at the level of creation. That is, rather than look at a specific idea or thought or image, note the creativity literally forming and reforming – folding and enfolding – in dialogue. See the mind in its natural condition and mode of expression.

This is not a metaphor! Our capacity for awareness is highly evolved, if somewhat alien to us in our present state of identifying so intimately with a body. Exercising awareness is restorative; it is like being slowly filled with light and – prism-like – radiating rainbows everywhere.

When we give attention to one another and our shared creating in this way we “give welcome to the power beyond forgiveness, and beyond the world of symbols and of limitations” (T-27.III.7:8).

I think this sort of thing can get complex and mysterious pretty quickly. Notwithstanding my deep love of complexity and my not-so-secret longing to always be the smartest guy in the room and adored by all, I think the real work here is not to understand intellectually, but to just practice seeing.

That is, seeing – in the sense the course is using here – is not an intellectual exercise but an actual act we take in relation with one another. It’s like the difference between defining “hug” and giving/getting a hug. I mean, of course, let’s talk about the etymological roots of “hug” and all that, but also . . . let’s hug already.