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Consciousness in Christianity

How can we think about consciousness in Christianity? About being spiritual beings for whom Christian language such as A Course in Miracles is most resonant and helpful? About the world and the living and the others that arise in perception?

I have been helped in this regard – have seen thinking clarified – with prisms.

Growing up, there was an enormous white quartz rock in the cow pasture. Half buried in a little hill, it was larger than I was. I often sat on it, or leaned against it. In sunlight it was redolent with tiny rainbows. I used to try and chunk pieces off so I could take the rainbows into my bedroom. Though I have collected many quartz rocks and crystals and prisms since, none has ever replaced that one.

When sunlight passes through a crystal – quartz, say, or any prism – it refracts and disperses. One sees not the light but the spectral wavelengths – the colors – of which light is comprised.

The quartz does not create the subsequent band of rainbow colors but it does enable their appearance.

Can we say something similar about consciousness? About our experience?

That is, can we say that the senses of the body – which together comprise the machinery of perception – disperse consciousness or experience out of oneness and into diverse and vivid loveliness? That the body brings forth a world fitting to its structure?

Here is the yellow of dandelions, here is the sweetness of cider, here is the warmth of a fire, here is the scent of lilac, here is the feel of another’s arms pulling me near . . .

On this view, what we call Creation, might simply be the continuous play of sensual experience bringing forth flowers, warm beverages, soft flannel sheets and partners with whom to share it all. Indeed, we might call this experience “consensual” because it is not ours alone but appears synchronously with the sensual experiences of others, including dandelions, apples, ants and grains of sand. The world is its observers.

As spiritual seekers whose living occurs in and through language, we want an end to our journey that we call Heaven or God or Oneness or Source. We want intimate knowledge of this one. But I wonder if we might say that rather than some tangible origin, there is simply this ongoing consensual narration?

This “ongoing consensual narration” is love, of course, because it comes forth of its own accord. Giving merges continuously with gift and given. We did not invent communicating or tasting or seeing. We didn’t invent organization. Self, other and world come forth in a fluid movement that already knows itself, already wants itself, already cares for itself.

On this view, God is not so much the first cause or commander or even overarching principle but the welter itself, the arising itself, the knowing itself itself. Less the bearded patriarch, more a moisty loam.

On this view, God is not so much the Creator, but rather the awareness in which and through which living and loving appears in all its lovely complexity. Human beings are structures in which this awareness is especially acute and refined, especially reflective and reflexive. It begets a lot of thinking and praying and searching but the end is always sure.

The journey closes, ending at the place where it began. No trace of it remains . . . Thy Will is done, complete and perfectly, and all creation recognizes You, and knows You as the only Source it has. Clear in Your likeness does the light shine forth from everything that lives and moves in You. For we have reached where all of us are one, and we are home, where You would have us be (T-31.VII.12:3-4, 6-8).

So that is a way of thinking about experience and spirituality and so forth that may or may not be helpful. It is a way of reading A Course in Miracles that may or may not be helpful. I don’t say it’s right but perhaps it is interesting. Perhaps it will inform attention in a nurturing way.


Attention and Spiritual Healing

Correction is a natural function of attention. That is, when we give attention to our living – and to the world in which it is lived, and the others with whom it is lived – to the extent that that living is unloving, it will naturally realign itself with love. That is because the one who attends is love (or God, or Spirit, or LovingKindness, or . . . ) and cannot help but bring itself forth.

By attention I mean the literal act of attending to our lives, of noticing what is going on in the whole rich vivid raveling tapestry of it. It is helpful to note that attention runs on its own but it is also responsive. We are always attending our living, but we can do so intentionally.

I say “give” attention, which is a deliberate distinction from “pay” attention. When we pay, we lose something. When we pay, we are in a mode of transacting. The focus is on getting, on taking. But when we give, we are making a gift, which arises out of love because it is not asking for anything in return. We didn’t invent attention so it is in that sense “a gift” to us. Giving it strengthens it in us. There is no loss involved. This is reminiscent of what A Course in Miracles calls the first lesson of the Holy Spirit: “to have, give all to all” (T-6.V.A.5:13).

So when we “give attention to our living” we exclude nothing. We do not ask what appears to be other than what it appears as. We are not actively trying to change it. If what shows up is our selfishness and dishonesty, then okay. If what shows up is hunger and cruelty, then okay.

Some people on reading or hearing this will object. If dishonesty shows up, then we have to become honest. If hunger shows up, then we have to bake bread and make a table for myself and others. That’s what we want from our brothers and sisters – why would we offer them less?

But I am saying that if we attend, if we give attention, then correction – which is healing – will arise naturally, and we will not have to “do” anything. It is done for us, in the same way we do not make flowers grow or birds sing or hearts beat.

It is very hard to do nothing in this way. It is very hard to sit quietly with the urge to solve problems and heal the world and become better people and simply let it pass. In fact, most of us cannot do this and so methods and models show up to help us. We can’t let go, but we can let God handle things.

In this way, images and symbols like Jesus or God (or Mary or Buddha or . . . ) are temporarily helpful. We can say “God is the strength in which I trust” (W-pI.75) and not insert our own doing into the undoing – the healing – going on all around us.

God is your safety in every circumstance. His Voice speaks for Him in all situations and in every aspect of all situations, telling you exactly what to do to call upon His strength and His protection. There are no exceptions because God has no exceptions (W-pI.75.3:1-3).

So when our attention reveals something unpleasant – be it external or internal or both – we resist the urge to ignore or deny or amend it by asking God (or love or Jesus or . . . ) to handle the situation for us. “He leadeth me and knows the way, which I know not” (W-14.III.19:2). Not unsurprisingly, we experience ourselves as led.

It is important to realize that we don’t know what is needed. But it is equally important to realize that we can learn what is needed. When this distinction is clear, we stop trying to solve problems on our own, with our own learning, and instead look for guidance. We look for a teacher or helper who knows better than we do.

What A Course in Miracles teaches us is that this teacher is not apart from us. The method is inherent in us already. We don’t have to pay any tuition or kneel in homage or make any sacrifice whatsoever. We simply have to notice what is already given, what is already present. This noticing is not complicated at all but our resistance to it is nontrivial so it can be experienced as difficult in the extreme. But we cannot eliminate sight or the light in which sight is enacted by squeezing our eyes shut. Our resistance is great, but love is greater.

Thus my original point: all we need to do is give attention to our living, and correction will happen of its own accord, because that which is attending is love itself, and so naturally brings everything into loving alignment. We don’t have to understand this; we simply have to be willing – to literally the tiniest degree – to learn it.

Be very still an instant . . . The old will fall away before the new, without your opposition or intent. There will be no attack upon the things that you thought were precious and in need of care. There will be no assault upon your wish to hear a call that never has been made. Nothing will hurt you in this holy place, to which you come to listen silently and learn the truth of what you really want (T-31.II.8:1, 3-6).

When we accept this, and devote ourselves to it, our living changes and love is brought forth in flooding tides. As problems appear to arise, answers arise with them. Confusion subsides; the way becomes us.

Of course, there is always more to talk about. What attends if not my own self? How can God be both an “ideal” and “real?” And so forth. I am not immune to curiosity; indeed, scholarship – posing questions, articulating answers – is intimately conjoined to my spiritual practice. Yet learning is useless if it cannot be brought into application. As Tara Singh said in Love Holds No Grievances: The Ending of Attack, “we already know too much and apply too little” (19). Indeed.

Attention reveals Love because attention is a function of Love, and correction – or healing, which is to say, the revelation of love – is a function of attention. When we give attention – when we make a gift of what we were given in creation – we are fully and efficiently reminded of the Love in which all conflict, and the self that perpetuates all conflict, are dissolved.


Direct Experience: What is Real and What is an Illusion

What is a helpful way for us to think about the question of what is real and what is an illusion? What light can direct experience – giving attention to our experience of living – shed on this question?

I remember an ACIM study group many years ago. A woman arrived late and as she prepared to sit down, a chorus of voices cried out “don’t do it! The chair is an illusion!”

Obligatory laughter ensued.

Variations of that joke abound in ACIM and nondual circles. They reflect an awareness of the fact that those spiritual traditions teach students that the objective material world – the one we sense with our bodies – is an illusion.

There is no world! This is the central thought the course attempts to teach (W-pI.132.6:2-3).

In order to get the joke – to be in on it – you have to be aware that this teaching runs directly contrary to our human experience. The joke is funny because we aren’t sure how to navigate this proposed divide between what’s real and what is not.

The suggestion I make in this essay is that denying experience is a form of violence and that there is a better way.

Look again at the proposed or apparent divide. Someone is about to sit down. If the chair is not real, they’re going to fall and hurt themselves. If the chair is real then either we are confused about what our spiritual tradition is teaching us or our spiritual tradition is wrong.

Experience speaks to us clearly and emphatically: here is a chair. It has both form and function. We know what to do with it. It is wholly helpfully integrated into our experience of living in the world.

And then A Course in Miracles comes along and says don’t pay any attention to your senses or your thinking about what those senses are showing you. They don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on.

This becomes a conflict: what do you believe? Your senses that show you a world that is predictable and reliable? Or the spiritual tradition that says there is no world?

If we are only talking about a chair, then maybe it’s not such a big deal. But what if we are talking about people? What if I walk past a homeless person who is cold and hungry and my response is to shrug off her misery because she’s just an illusory appearance in an illusory world?

Or this: if race is an illusion, then racism can’t be a real wrong worth addressing, right?

Intuitively, most of us don’t want to go there. It’s funny to think about a chair being unreal. It’s harder to ignore the suffering of another being. And it’s unloving to think that dismissing an entire class of people is justified because the world and its contents aren’t real.

A lot of folks who get squirmy at this juncture tend to argue that even if the world isn’t materially real, it still has some purpose. It’s a dream, yes, but it’s our dream, and so it’s filled with learning opportunities and other tools by which to awaken.

That is not an unhelpful way to think about the conflict, in the sense that it attempts to resolve it in favor of something practical and helpful. But at the same time, it’s a bit like having our cake and eating it, too. We want to sustain the spiritual tradition of A Course in Miracles– because we’re attached to it, invested in it and so forth – and we also find a way to behave in socially normative and productive ways.

Where this mode becomes problematic is that no matter how we categorize it, and no matter how we try to make it productive, the fundamental premise of denying the world is inherently violent. So we have to give attention to it.

Set aside for a moment what A Course in Miracles says, or what we think it says, or what some teacher says it says. Stay with your direct experience.

Right now – in this moment – what is the nature of that experience? Don’t gussy it up with theory. Don’t quote anybody. It’s just you being you. Nobody is going to be impressed or unimpressed with your answer.

As I write, my children are asleep upstairs. Chrisoula is not asleep but is still in bed reading. The cats are to my right, watching birds a the feeder. I am drinking Greek coffee. Out the window I can see the back yard, raspberry bushes, horse pasture and through a far bare copse of trees the river, on the far bank of which cows graze.

These images are imbued with meaning. They have names, provenances, purposes. Some I like better than others. My brain takes this welter of sensory data and categorizes and organizes in ways that work for the organism. This is the world; this is living in the world. And it includes – naturally and without effort – a sense of intimacy. It is “my” experience; “I” am living it.

Moreover, there is apparently no way out of this intimate subjective experience. Even knowing that there’s more to the world than this coffee, this family, this landscape – a city named Paris, say, or Bob Dylan songs – shows up in this subjective experience.

There is nothing special about seeing this clearly. It is simply a fact available to all of us when we let common sense have its say. Intimate subjectivity is at least in part what it means to be a human observer. This is what it feels like to be you. No more, no less. And no big deal.

Often when I talk to people about this, they want to interject course quotes, biographical details about Ramana Maharshi, the importance of opening your heart chakra, and so forth. I want to do that too, sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with that but none of it undermines – or improves upon – the basic fact that our living and our world all appear within the container of subjective experience.

The suggestion is that we give attention to the rich vibrancy of subjective experience and become familiar with it. Familiar and comfortable.

Seeing this clearly – grounding ourselves in the fact of experience – matters because it is from that foundation that we can begin to explore in a sustainable way what is real and what is illusory or whether those distinctions are helpful in any instance and if so, how. More to the point, we can do so in a way that is coherent, not violent.

Why do I use the word “violent” here?

When someone is having experience X and we call it Y we are doing violence to them. In essence, we are denying them their fundamental right to exist. If someone says “I have cancer” and we say “cancer is an illusion” we invalidate them.

If I go out into the pasture to feed the horses and simultaneously deny that the horses are there, then I am going to make myself insane. Why? Because I am actively denying an experience that is fundamentally present and inviting response. To refuse to respond – or to degrade my response – is to violate (do violence to) that experience.

If you visit my home and I say over and over that you are an illusion, a projection, and not real, then that is a denial of your experience of yourself as real. And it is a denial of my experience of you as real. The violence adheres to us both.

Does that make sense? We cannot simultaneously accept something as real and deny it is real. It hurts too much. It’s a form of lovelessness.

Again, I am not suggesting one analyze this or dress it up. I am simply suggesting one notice the way that the world is here, and the self, and other selves (including dogs, horses, dandelions and so forth), and our living in this world invites response and mutuality, and that denying this hurts.

So that is the basic problem, and again, all that is suggested here is to just see the tension clearly, as an experiential fact, not a big idea about metaphysics or ACIM or what-have-you.

When we see it clearly, one thing that happens is that maybe our inclination to deny experience – to write it off as illusory – subsides a little. Rather than insist this is or isn’t real, we can just let it be what it is. We can give attention to it.

I say that all the time: give attention. The richness of experience – what it is to be you, what you are about – is so vivid and alive it is almost too sweet to bear. This is true! A few weeks ago a bee landed on the clothesline near where I was reading Lorine Niedecker poems. And it was so beautiful, so exquisite – the sounds it make, the color of it, the ideas that it incited about honey and love and the complexity of bee culture and bee bodies . . .

In that one little moment one could taste life to such exquisite degree . . .

This is what Emily Dickinson was getting at when she wrote I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed.

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!

This insight is hardly unique to Dickinson. Her genius was not that she experienced life differently than you and I, but rather in her willingness to see it so clearly and then write about it. The “liquor never brewed” is given to all of us; the question is really in our willingness to recognize it and to sustain the recognition.

Again, no arguments are being made here about truth is. No metaphysics are being discussed. We are just looking clearly into our experience, seeing its nature, and letting it be what it is.

And as we experience it – as we sip those heavenly drams – we can begin to sense perhaps the way in which denying those drams, refusing that tankard, is a fruitless exercise at best, and a harmful one at worst.

Thus the way clears to bring forth love. And that is the why and the how of our living in the world.


Healing in Holy Relationships

Over and over in the past week or so I have turned to these sentences from A Course in Miracles about healing and holy relationships.

Hear a brother call for help and answer him. It will be God to Whom you answer, for you called on Him (P-V.8:4-5).

I want to observe and reflect upon the circular – or entangled, perhaps – nature of the holy relationship indicated by these sentences.

When our brother or sister calls to us for help, it is in fact our own call to God for help. On this view, our brother or sister is our own self.

When we respond to our brother or sister, it is God to whom we respond. On this view, our brother or sister is God.

Thus, in our relationship with our brother and sister, they function as both God and our own self.

Also thus: our “own self” is – to our brothers and sisters – both God and brother and sister.

If we look at the relationship closely (the one between us and any other and the one between us and God), we see that the various entities – self, brother/sister, and God – are distinct but, depending on perspective, also the other entities.

In fact, the closer one looks, the more  one sees not “entities” but “relations” and, perhaps, “relating.”

So we could also say that “Self,” “God” and “Sister/Brother” are simply labels affixed to the same thing. The labels may be helpful in terms of organizing our thinking about that thing – that relationship, that relating – but they are not themselves that relationship or relating. They are indicative, not veridical.

What shall we do with this?

We could start by considering this sentence (from the same course section): “We are deceived already,if we think there is a need of healing” (P-V.7:4).

That sentence makes clear that there is no actual need for healing but that one can be deceived about this. Thus, if one is deceived, then there is a need for learning. There is a need for clarification (or the undoing of deception, if that is easier).

In other words, we need to learn that there is no need for healing, and the one who will teach us is “one who seems to share our dream of sickness” (P-V.7:5). This “one” is our brother or sister who comes to us in pain and asks for help; it is also our own self, when we bring it to a sister or brother in pain. Both instances beget forgiveness.

Let us help him to forgive himself for all the trespasses with which he would condemn himself without a cause. His healing is our own (P-V.7:6-7).

So we can ask: What will our living look like, and what will our brothers and sisters look like, and what will the world that we construct together and apart look like, when we realize that there is no need of healing?

We will see the face of Love shining in, through and as all things. Neighbors, sunflowers, toll booths, slippers and feral cats. All of it. This love is impersonal, all-inclusive and unconditional. That is why it is our – and all life’s – “natural inheritance” (In.1:7). And that is why it permeates all life, regardless of form.

Of course, this love – which in course terms is given to us in creation by God – can be overlooked and ignored. And that overlooking and ignoring can yield a state of suffering which appears to be a result of lovelessness.

But our experience of lovelessness is not proof of love’s absence or negation! It is merely proof of our confusion about love (and the need for healing).

So our learning – which is really a sort of undoing – has to do with no longer overlooking or ignoring love. The natural effect of this learning is that we remember – we see again – the love that is always there.

How shall we teach others to notice love? By noticing it in their own self and responding to it where it is.

How shall we teach them not to ignore their natural capacity for joy and peace? By noticing the pain ignoring it causes them and gently suggesting that there is another way.

Note that this “teaching others” is by definition a reciprocal act – it is literally a form of relating to God – and so it necessarily involves our own learning. We, too, are stubborn and ignorant. We, too, are confused and unsure. We, too, are in need to hand-holding, hugging, encouragement, and aid.

Thus, sometimes, “teaching” looks and feels like “being helped by others.” But, as we observed at the outset – at what I suggested is a “holy entanglement” – there are no others.

When we are in pain and our sister soothes us, it is the love of God. When our brother is in pain and we soothe him, it is the love of God. We think of “the love of God” as a noun – an object, a thing – but perhaps it is more helpful to think of it as a verb – as a process, a flow, a flux, a dynamic.

Thus, with respect to healing and holy relationships, we might think of two big ideas:

1. Nothing is actually broken and in need of healing, but we can be deceived that something is broken and in need of healing, so we need to learn that we are deceived; and

2. The process of our personal call for help and our personal response to others’ calls for help – and their calls and their responses, both to us and to others – is, collectively, the “Love of God.”

Again, in the case of point 2, Love is not seen as an object but a process. It’s not something one gives but rather giving itself.

Both of these points represent ways of thinking – or of organizing our thinking – that are unfamiliar. However, giving attention to them in a sustained way will naturally make their application more natural, which in turn inspires joy and peace.

Thus, our practice is to be present to our brothers and sisters – to go with them two miles when they ask if we will go with them one, and to ask them to go with us a mile when we are need of company and assistance, and to accept the help they offer in response.

In such a process, who could not be healed? This holy interaction is the plan of God Himself, by which His Son is saved (P-V.5:7-8).

Thus, we heal together but learning together that healing is not necessary but learning is. We are both student and teacher unto one another and the world we make is our classroom.


A Course in Miracles Lesson 188

The peace of God is shining in me now.

Lesson 188 of A Course in Miracles is part of a sequence that aims to deepen our commitment to our practice by undoing specific obstacles to that application – casualness, stubbornness, specialness and so forth.

In Not One, Not Two, Francisco Varela points out that we can only experience what corresponds to our organization. We are human! So we cannot experience living and world as ants or maple trees or Beluga whales. We can imagine those beautiful lives and those fascinating worlds but in doing so we are still just human observers. We are still just experiencing what our organization allows, in this case imagination.

But there is a paradox here, says Varela. Somehow, despite our perceptual and cognitive limitations, we are sometimes able to perceive a whole, a nonduality that transcends the personal and subjective – and separative, the dualistic – nature of our own being. How does this happen?

I cannot but take as consistent the fact that socially so many different cultures and individually by so many routes, these leaps of experience can occur and are quite isomorphic . . . I am assuming that mind as the unity of the conversational domain of the biosphere (i.e., mind-at-large, or mind proper) can be experienced, and further, that more or less all of us have experienced it (Varela Not One, Not Two).

Varela appreciated that this kind of thinking – for him located in a scientific, rational and logical domain – was naturally and positively analogous to religious and spiritual thinking. Indeed, his work was often about bridging those two domains in ways that were advantageous to both.

Thus, for me, it is helpful to consider Varela in tandem with A Course in Miracles. The effect is harmonious.

A Course in Miracles points out to its students that a sure way to miss the peace of God is to actively seek the peace of God.

Those who seek the light are merely covering their eyes. The light is in them now. Enlightenment is but a recognition, not a change at all (W-pI.188.1:2-4).

That is, we already are the peace of God but, in our zeal and ambition for spiritual growth, divine bliss, self-improvement et cetera, we actively overlook that peace. To seek outside the self is to fragment the self, because one already is that which is sought.

The peace of God is shining in you now, and in all living things. In quietness is it acknowledged universally (W-pI.188.5:5-6).

How then shall we come to this quietness? How shall we reach that space in which “honest thoughts, untainted by the dream of worldly things outside yourself, become the holy messengers of God Himself” (W-pI.188.6:6)?

Well, if we are students of A Course in Miracles, we will come to the daily lesson, seasoned by our study of the Text. We come not out of a duty but because it is a gentle and consistent means of opening a sense of the sacred, of making manifest that love that is naturally brought forth in our living.

To spend quiet time with the Course, morning and evening, is essential . . . Reading the course slowly is a holy undertaking . . . To be a serious student of the Course requires integrity, discrimination, and a deep sense of responsibility. But miracles and holy instants will open the way (Tara Singh Nothing Real Can Be Threatened 54).

In this way, our practice of the lesson becomes a prayer that informs our day, a giving of attention that quiets our hyperactive brains and restless bodies.

The peace of God is shining in me now.
Let all things shine upon me in that peace,
And let me bless them with the light in me (W-pI.188.10:6-7).

Notice that the light – the peace of God – in this prayer is reciprocal. It is not only in us but in all things. Notice too that the prayer evokes a responsibility to extend a blessing to all things. Attention is a gift – to us and from us. Attention is the blessing we extend to the world which in turn attends to – and blesses – us.

The shining in your mind reminds the world of what it has forgotten, and the world restores the memory to you as well. From you salvation radiates with gifts beyond all measure, given and returned (W-pI.188.4:1-2).

The mutuality inherent in those lines is not an accident. When seen clearly, it utterly undoes the sense of specialness that pervades our sense of being separate and personal and individual. What appears as discrete and separate is, when perceived and cognized seen in the light of love (the peace of God), remembered as one.

. . . the dual elements become effectively complementary: they mutually specify each other. There is no more duality in the sense that they are effectively related; we can contemplate these dual pairs from a metalevel where they become a cognitive unity, a second-order whole (Varela Not One, Not Two).

I am not suggesting that folks must read Varela or study constructivism or phenomenology, any more than I am suggesting folks ought to become students of A Course in Miracles.

I merely point out a way in which – for me – peace and happiness are revealed in a sustainable and ongoing way. The lesson, as such, lies in accepting the ACIM maxim that “it is we who make the world as we would have it” (W-pI.188.10:3), and the Varelan insight that “a change in experience (being) is as necessary as change in understanding if any suturing of the mind-body dualism is to come about.”

The obstacle to be surmounted in this process is nothing less than the cognitive homeostasis of each of us, the tendency to stick with our interpretation of reality, entrenched and made stable by emotions and body patterns. To work through this veil of attachments, and to see (experience) reality without them is part of the process of unfoldment (Varela Not One, Not Two).

Thus reading, thus writing . . . thus unfolding and infolding . . . and thus the rambling prayers I make in our shared voluble cheerfulness.


Notes on Forgiveness

When we encounter ourselves as less than perfectly-loving – which, if we are honest, is most of the time – there are two coherent responses. The first is not to freak out. The second is to do better.

forgiveness_lilyThat is what it means to actively practice the principle of forgiveness in A Course in Miracles.

We don’t freak out because drama – spiritual or otherwise – tends to be a distraction. Getting hung up on our flaws and shortcoming is a zero sum game: there are always going to be flaws and shortcomings. Giving our attention to them in the form of self-hate and self-improvement and so forth is just another way of focusing on ourselves rather than others. It’s just another way to ignore our brothers and sisters.

Really, when we perceive ourselves as imperfect – whether in our thoughts or our actions – we are just seeing the way in which we are touched by – effected by – living the shadows of – separation. This is what it looks and feels like for everyone. We aren’t special. If we are cool and collected when the separation shows its fangs, then we will understand we aren’t being singled out, and we won’t need to make it a big event. It’s like if you are taking a shower and you drop the soap: you don’t pray or call a psychotherapist. You pick up the soap.

It is okay – it is more than okay – to just get on with our living. Or – better – to let living get on with us.

So that’s the first coherent response: we don’t freak out.

The second response is that we just do better. Wherever we are falling short, we just fall less short less often.

For example, I am not naturally a patient person, especially when it comes to the domain of ideas. I want people to understand things the way I understand things and I want that to happen now. A lot of students and friends and so forth have struggled with this quality of mine over the years.

The point is not for me to become perfectly patient but rather to be more patient – and to be aware of when I am being impatient so that I can curb it.

This, too, is not a big deal.

There are all kinds of reasons why I am not patient – some are biological and chemical, some have to do with how I was raised, some are just my own psychological effluvia built up over the years. Taken together, these are actually effective explanations for my impatience. You could say, well, it makes sense that you’re impatient. It’s okay.

But really, who cares? The point is not to justify my imperfection, or understand my imperfection, or even explore my imperfection. The point is to notice it, not get hung up on it, and consistently do better.

So that is our ACIM practice of forgiveness: we decline to overreact and sincerely try to do better. Int his way, we become responsible for our own thinking and stop blaming our unhappiness and guilt and fear on external sources. What remains is peace and joy.


On Death, Trust, Love and A Course in Miracles

A Course in Miracles teaches that we are entitled to the “perfect comfort” that comes with “perfect trust” (T-2.III.5:1). What does it mean to be trusting? And, perhaps more to the point, in who or in what shall we place this trust?

To trust is to have faith in the reliability or fidelity of something perceived to be external to us. It reflects a level of confidence – to confide in – and thus owns a certain intimacy. To trust is to accept that notwithstanding uncertainty, what occurs will be okay, or even more than okay because our interests and the other’s do not significantly diverge.

The course invites us as students to trust the Holy Spirit, to take that spirit as our teacher, and to entrust to that spirit the whole of our learning process, without qualification or condition. We are assured that doing so is not an error and is, in fact, the most efficient way to remember oneness.

The Holy Spirit is the only Therapist. He makes healing clear in any situation in which He is the Guide . . . Trust Him, for help is His function, and He is of God (T-9.V.8:4-5, 11).

In course terms, the Holy Spirit perceives the world of form and uses it in order to point beyond that world to Love, which is our natural inheritance. This works because the Holy Spirit is Love, and is in us in a very real and tangible way and so we, too, are love, or creations of love.

So all that really happens as a consequence of our study is that we remember what we naturally are, and accept it as our identity, and henceforth live from that knowledge. Trust expands from “in” a being or deity and reaches the whole of our living, without limit or qualification. This is love.

So the suggestion here is that whatever “trust” is going on in our lives – that our debit card will work, that our partner will be on time for dinner, that our ACIM book isn’t going to suddenly turn into gibberish – are symbolic of the only trust that matters which is trust in the love brought forth in our living together in a consensual harmonious way.

Even our trust in the Holy Spirit is fundamentally a matter of trusting this love.

So the suggestion is that we actually formally trust this love. Let go, however briefly, of the symbols and forms that are its stand-ins, and really trust love. Even if this love – which is not of a body for a body – is not yet precisely or perfectly or presently our experience, this practice can still be fruitful because all communication is premised on trust.

That bears repeating: “communication is based on trust.”

When we trust the one with whom we communicate – a friend, a teacher, the Lord on high – then our communication is open and honest. We don’t judge what is communicated in advance – playing one aspect of it up, downplaying another. Our communication becomes utterly dialogical, utterly given to healing in and through mutuality, openness, consent, attention . . .

That is relatively straightforward as a concept, but how do we bring it into application, as Tara Singh used to say? That is, how we do allow the concept to inform our experience of living, of bringing forth love in our living?

Let’s say that space and time are user-generated interfaces which are functional but not truthful, and that the discrete selves populating that interface, and to whom that interface appears, are actually aspects of the interface. They are not separate from it.

Whatever reality is, it’s not what we perceive and think about. That’s the screen – the story – that obscures reality.

So long as one is clear that we’re looking at a screen and a story on that screen, then it’s not really problematic. But if one believes that the screen and the story are themselves reality, then problems emerge. In ACIM parlance, one becomes separated. And the separation is painful.

It is very hard on this view to be trusting.

On the view that we are actually separate and discrete, and what is happening is a reflection of what is true, then it makes sense to value communication as embodied (in cultures, communities, selves). Then at best death does end the familiar and useful mode, necessitating some new mode.

On the view that what is one cannot be separated, and thus cannot actually experience loss or sacrifice, then communication is always something other than the language-based exchange between separate entities that death appears to obliterate.

I am wondering if, because it is clear that death does not end communication, that rather than question the nature of communication, one should instead question the nature of death.

To the body, death will always be a terminus. To the body, other bodies will always be subject to evaluation in terms of needs perceived to exist in this body. To the body, the self will always be local, able to comment only on what the body, by virtue of its perceptual and cognitive limits, allows according to its time and space-based coordinates.

The question is whether there is another way to see? Can we see in a more global way? A cosmic way? Can oneness, or love, be the perspective?

The suggestion is: yes, it can be, but one has to trust it. When we do, insights are given which – and instructors are given who – point gently beyond the body.

A while back I had the insight that who was special to me went with me regardless of whether we were in actual dialogue or physical proximity. I don’t mean that “Other” and “Sean” were two units now unified as one (OtherSean), like two balls of clay combined to make a single mug.

Rather, I mean that the separate units are functional illusions behind which unity rests patiently, and in which the illusion of separation was easily discarded because it lacked utility.

This unity, as such, encompasses everything.

The work is how to live from that insight, where living is brought forth in and as bodies for whom conflict appears as a natural phenomenon, and separation an actual limitation on communication and loving, always understanding that the appearance helpful or unhelpful, but not true.

A Course in Miracles is helpful to me in this specific way. It says, here is a practice that will help you navigate the world of separation in a way that undoes your belief in separation while strengthening your intuition that only love is real.


On Reading Francisco Varela

Again, what A Course in Miracles did was organize my thinking about spirituality in a way that made clear the many seams, fractures and canyons implicit in that thinking. ACIM created problems it could not on its own resolve.

In this sense, the course was not unlike so many other spiritual and religious experiences in my life – zendos, Catholic churches, Unitarian Universalism, psychotherapy, hallucinogenics. Each effectively expanded my experience just enough to negate itself and thus drop-kick me into a next-level wilderness. Lifetimes pass, or seem to.

Yet there are answers, and there is a way to live in the “wilderness,” such that one no longer needs to practice the art of escape or consent to mere survival.

For me, this way – these answers – arrived in the tradition of second-order cybernetics and constructivism, in particular the thinking of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Studying them was like the difference between a hand-sketched map and full-functioning GPS system. Giving credit to this transformative experience is impossible to convey in a few paragraphs. No doubt I am still very much a learner, still figuring out precisely what these men shared, what that sharing entails, what it asks of me, and so forth.

Yet as I have been preparing to go back into Varela’s work I find myself reflecting on what might be a general rationale for doing so. That is, if someone asked me, why are you reading Varela as if your life depended on it, what would I answer?

Well, I can’t answer really, but it turns out that Michel Bitbol more or less already did in his essay “Neurophenomenology, an Ongoing Practice of/in Consciousness.” There, Bitbol characterizes the overarching nature or spirit of Varela’s work as being fundamentally pragmatic and disdainful of traditional labels. I find these sentences vastly clarifying.

Just as Wittgenstein rejected any accusation of being a behaviorist, an idealist, or even a pragmatist (because he was immersed in a practice of behavior, of mental life, and of everyday linguistics and pragmatics, instead of holding some theoretical version of these practices), Varela could easily reject any accusation of holding any one of these “isms” because he rather prescribed immersion in a multidimensional practice of phenomenological examination and scientific inquiry.

In other words, there is commonly a sense of seeking out a calcified static “theoretical version of a practice” (be it ACIM, Catholicism, Buddhism, constructivism, et cetera) that one can finally and ulimately hold and call “true” when what is called for – when what is actually happening – is an immersive lived experience of those practices.

In other words, one doesn’t “find” anything – one merely gives attention to what is happening, and lives it, as it is given. That living is transformative because it is in the nature of an ongoing transcendence, a radically loving process that excludes nothing (because it is mutual, circular, entails the other, et cetera).

Bitbol suggests that to embrace this particular scholarly ethic means “[r]ecovering the fullness of lived life rather than remaining trapped in a restricted version of it expressed by a theory . . .”

Bitbol is focused here on Varela’s approach to the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. I don’t know that I am too stressed about consciousness so much as with addressing a “problem of living,” which is probably more aptly framed as a “problem of being happy” in a deep, serious, sustained and natural sense of the word, where this “happiness” cannot be separated from a practice of giving attention.

I don’t know what Varela – a dedicated scientist and so far as I can tell an equally dedicated Zen practitioner – would say to that. I think – and my ongoing study and practice aims to clarify – that he would approve, at least generally.

Bitbol does make the point that Varela’s scientific approach cannot be effectively separated from his spiritual approach, a stance that seems especially relevant to me.

In the same way as a Zen practitioner, the Varelian neurophenomenologist does not strive towards some solution to a standard problem. He rather exercises a ‘living and continuous reaction’ (Batchelor 2000) that makes such a problem irrelevant.

I would rewrite Batchelor’s phrase as “living and continuous response,” and otherwise agree that what matters is not a formal set of rules to which one steadfastly adheres but rather a gentle and sustained attention given – gifted – unto the world that our living brings forth.

I am moved by the following emphasis set by Varela in a spirited dialogue with Bernhard Poerksen:

Absolute reality, in my eyes, does not dictate the laws we have to obey. It is the patriarchal perspective to proclaim the truth and to decree absolutely valid rules that constrain, limit, and eradicate opportunities. What might be called absolute reality tends to appear to me as a feminine matrix, whose fundamental quality is the opening up of possibilities.

It seems to me that we make structures – social, mental, collective – that are basically patriarchal, in the sense of restricting our experience and understanding and corralling us into fixed postures that admit only faint and compromised strains of love. Varela – like his teacher Maturana – speak to a vision of living that embraces the feminine as antidote to patriarchy in order to bring forth more fully and wholly our capacity for love.

That is why I read – am reading – Varela. That is the specific way I am served by it. It renders me – who so profoundly needs the rendering – more fit for service.

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Zombies and A Course in Miracles

In his essay “Physics and Mind: Minding Quanta and Cosmology” Karl H. Pribram suggests that brain is to mind as person is to experience. As he puts it, somewhat inelegantly, you can eat a brain but you can’t eat experience.


I love the pink interrupting the lovely flow of yellow and brown . . .

Zombie inferences aside, I think this is an interesting way to think about what it means to approach our living together as human beings who live together and bring forth love in their shared living, especially if one of our lenses for that living happens to be A Course in Miracles.

Pribram is saying that a brain “minds” in a way similar to how a person “experiences.” On this view, “mind” is a process from which discrete moments may be isolated and examined without inhibiting its fundamental dynamism.

For example, you can give particular attention to your feelings for a certain person, place or thing. You can isolate those feelings and study them and reflect on them. What do they mean, what behavior do they suggest, how they have changed – but the flow of experience itself does not stop. It goes on in the form of reflecting and studying itself.

In the next moment, you might study and reflect on this “study and reflection,” but to the same effect. Experience is continuous and reflexive; it doesn’t have any gaps.

It is tempting to try and find a unified stable observer in all of this – the one who is looking at the flowing, evaluating the flowing, and directing the flowing. But the observer is basically the mechanical body; what is conscious and aware of its consciousness is the observing, the observing looking at observing.

In this way, there is a sense of there being a discrete observer and a discrete observed – the one who observes a certain relationship, say. But even as this seems to be a fair description of our experience of our experiencing, it is not actually sustainable. The separation that is implied is an illusion; it may be functional or even inevitable, but it is not veridical. Observer, observing, and observed arise in a simultaneous triadic way. Linear and hierarchical models of perception and cognition are simply means of organizing what arises and are helpful in certain contexts; they are not 1:1 reflections of Truth.

Critically – to Pribram’s point – we can’t eat this arising! We can’t make it stop or start, slow down or speed up. We can’t make it rain when the garden’s dry or sunny just in time for the picnic. We can certainly give attention to it in a thoughtful way (we can organize it and reflect on the mode of organization) but even if we don’t give attention, attention keeps on giving itself, just somewhat less thoughtfully, somewhat less aware of its givingness.

If we really look into this, and if our looking is clear and subject to contemplation, then we will see that whatever we are is basically “along for the ride.” We aren’t the driver and we aren’t the car. We are riding. Riding riding.

On the other hand, we are not just “along for the ride.” We are not merely “along for the ride.”  Within proscribed boundaries, we are able to act. In the present metaphor of riding in a car, we can roll the window down and stick our heads out. We can look right or left; we can play games; we can nap. That is, there are things we can do with our living – make phone calls, bake bread, extend certain invitations, decline others . . .

Ultimately, this domain of available actions is what allows us to ask questions about our living and to seek “better” and “better yet” and “best” ways of being and bringing forth love.

For some of us, the “ride” includes a spiritual template and applications. We understand it in terms of atonement, forgiveness, Jesus or the Buddha, meditation, past lives, karmic debts and so forth. Asking “why” this is so does not matter (though it is not an uninteresting question) so much as considering “how” we interact and engage with this “spiritual” template and its applications.

Ask: do you have some sense of what it means to be holy? To live in a spiritual or godly way?

It is okay – it is more than okay – to privilege our interior sense of holiness, if one exists. It is okay to let the inner lamp shine on our subjective sense of Christ and Buddha and others, folding and enfolding their many scriptures, including A Course in Miracles, and see what happens when we do.

We should not worry about whether we are “getting it” in the way Ken Wapnick or Tara Singh or Nisargadatta or Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton “got it.”

Really, A Course in Miracles is like a radio and our experience of it as students is the music the radio plays. You want a good radio, but only so you can listen to good music. When the radio plays Tom Petty or Lady Gaga or Beethoven we don’t gawk in amazement at the radio. It’s not writing and performing anything. It’s the artists and their music that inspire us.

Thus, A Course in Miracles is a means to an end; getting worked up about it as anything other than a means is like worshiping a hammer and nails while it rains instead of ducking into the shelter the hammer and nails helped build.

So what is the end? Where are we going with A Course in Miracles?

In my experience, we are learning how to make sustainable contact with our inner teacher, which the course calls “Holy Spirit” but which I have more helpfully thought of as “attention.” Obviously your experience will vary; obviously your semantic preferences may not align with mine.

What does that teacher teach us? What does she offer that deepens our understanding and living?

She teaches us how to bring forth love in our living, and to understand that this bringing forth of love is a kind of opening-out in which the appearance of our separate interests dissolves and our fundamental unity and mutuality is remembered.

Oneness is not an illusion. It is not merely an ideal. Nor is it a personal experience to be hoarded or squandered or celebrated. It is the foundation of our existence and is often obscured by our confused identification of self as permanently located in and as a body. We conflate the song with the radio on which it plays.

Or – on Pribram’s view – we fail to distinguish between brain and mind and focus only on what we can eat. When we do this – when we fall prey to this error – we do becomes zombies, mindlessly staggering through a world whose value is perceived only in terms of what we can get for ourselves.

If mind can be reduced to a brain, or self reduced to a discrete body, and we are thus discrete bodies in a world of limited resources, then this zombified approach is not illogical. Defense and attack make sense. We have to look out for number one. Anything else is irresponsible.

But if we are implicated in a unity, a nondual mutuality, and that is our identity, then our behavior and priorities and understanding will naturally change. The meaning of our existence will change. It will become more loving and generous and forgiving (both in the course sense and the traditional sense). It will become radically inclusive.

We will stop being zombies and become something closer to saints. We will leave a world of sacrifice and scarcity in favor of the Garden, where separate interests are not idealized and service to one another is a joyful – indeed, a holy – responsibility.

Of course, it is relatively easy to write and talk this way. It is orders of magnitude harder to bring into application, in part because of the temptation to stop and put up tents at one’s personal sense of awakening as a personal accomplishment. We’re going to sell as many books as Eckhart Tolle, have a daily stream of admirers like Nisargadatta, indulge our sexuality like Osho . . .

We might instead think of awakening – the realization of the unity implied but not revealed by our human experience – less as some triumph of the self reflected in worldly terms than as simply getting off the train at a given destination. We scrimped and saved, bought a ticket, got to the station, boarded the train, rode the train and now we are here!

And then – after the amazement of “here” subsides, which it will – our living goes on, more or less as it always has, and which it will do until it doesn’t, and other living rises in its place.


Kind of a spooky shot off Main Street of the front of our house at dusk.

I am suggesting awakening less as as something mysterious and rare and more as just a natural realization of what was always the case. The altar as such is everywhere which means that there really isn’t an altar.

In other words, the work is basically figuring out how to be loving in a world that is often indifferent to love and sometimes outright hostile towards it. We have to work it out where and as we are; there is no other way and nobody else to do it. Just give attention to what is helpful; be happy; make your living about your brothers and sisters.

If one looks at the course and at learning in this way, and if one takes Pribram’s sense of being into account (you can eat a brain but you can’t eat experience), then a lot of the pressure of living eases. As it does, love flows through, in and of itself. It’s doing so anyway; our work really is to get out of the way.


On Losing Religion and Gathering Joy

I do not think that religion is something one has to vanquish and bury in an anonymous grave, all in the name of love and reason, but I do think if one has not yet seen good reasons why it should be so vanquished and dispatched, then one is perhaps insufficiently religious.

What do I mean by this?

Religion evolved as a way of responding to the challenge of being human in a world in which humans live, which living is inevitably circumscribed by perceptual and cognitive horizons. Though in its early incarnations religion attempted to explain the world, we now know that it doesn’t, at least not accurately or well. We can’t, in Merold Westphal’s memorable phrase, “peek over God’s shoulder.” Thus, the utility of religion and related spiritual projects must be located in another domain of living (other than explanation, first causes, et cetera).

We are organisms for whom the world appears as an object or set of objects upon which we can mentally reflect. But perception and cognition are limits. This should not be controversial! We can’t see every color on the light spectrum, we can’t make it rain by dancing, we can’t breathe underwater, and we can’t build a two-story house in fifteen minutes.

But perception and cognition – in part because they are limits – are also creative. Through them, a world comes into being: blue skies, soft clean sheets, compound sentences, ants at picnics, twelve-string guitars on which Bach airs are picked. The world we perceive and think about is the world brought forth by perception and cognition. And it is by definition limited and partial. Thus, “absolute truth” or “objective truth” are lies we tell ourselves (to avoid the responsibility subjectivity entails).

So not only can we not “peek over God’s shoulder,” the very act of trying to do so is a distraction from the work we are actually called (by the world we bring forth through our living) to do. In fact, one can make a good case that we are subject to an ethical imperative to not seek the objective stance, the true perspective, the actual source. Why fuss with an alien God when your brother and sister are right here waiting on your attention and service?

Peter Nelson, an Australian psychotherapist and writer, puts it better than I ever could. “The quest for foundations is a vanity that takes us away from the kind of knowing that is actually possible for us and leads to a fragmentation and separation that contributes to our destruction, ‘metaphorically’ as well as ‘actually.'”

On this view, belief systems – religious and spiritual ones in particular – emerged to help us manage a fundamental state of unknowing and uncertainty. What are we? What happens when we die? What is the relationship between experience and the world? Is there a relationship? Why should I care about my neighbor? My enemy? Folks I’ll never meet? Why do bad things happen? And so on and so forth.

In this way – for a long time – religion comforted us, provided community (of like-minded folk) for us, gave us answers to apparently unanswerable questions and provided behavioral models to facilitate relatively productive living. It wasn’t perfect but it was better than nothing.

However, over time, those belief systems morphed from malleable suggestions to absolute truths. “Here’s a way to think about death and dying” becomes “here is the way to think about death and dying.” And once we start to believe that we are privy to the way and the truth and the life, then it’s a surprisingly quick trip to war, genocide, and torture. We all think “not me – I wouldn’t do that” but in fact we’ve been doing it for thousands upon thousands of years. We are good at it, and the part of us that is good at it, lives in all of us.

Why do we take a few good ideas gathered under the rubric “religion” (e.g., share your wealth, love those who hurt you, welcome everybody to the table) and turn them into absolutes which justify all manner of violence?

Why does love turn so quickly to hate?

Well, in part it does so because we are in a war against uncertainty. We want to know. We believe the truth exists and that the right to know it inheres in us unconditionally. The Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t say “I am the way and the truth and the life” because we want him to be less categorical. He says it because deep down, we believe that’s how you crush uncertainty and the fear that goes with it. You get definite. You go to the land of “THE,” not “A.” And guess who leads the way?

The problem, of course, is that we cannot reach that whole. It is forever closed to us. Certainty is a dream that obscures what is actually possible. We are scaling a mountain that has no summit and it is made of the bones of those we didn’t love because we were too busy climbing a mountain to notice them.

Five thousand years ago, this was less clear than it is now. But today, we know that our senses provide functional translations, not veridical representations. We know that language is symbolic. We know that the self is reflexive and recursive. We don’t need Gods and saviors. What worked about them was always in us anyway, and what doesn’t work about them was always in us anyway, too.

So A Course in Miracles makes sense to me as a method for managing one’s living in the world brought forth by their living. It is an effective strategy for being in responsive dialogue with one’s neighbors (thus alleviating apparently external conflict), and for maintaining a healing perspective on one’s interior craziness (thus alleviating apparently internal conflict).

But it is terrible – as virtually all formal religions are – when it comes to explaining how conflict arises in the first case. That’s because A Course in Miracles is simply an extended metaphor for what it means to not be able to “peek over God’s shoulder” and how to live once we’ve accepted that fact. Read in any other light, it’s merely going to confuse and confound us.

Again, it is critical to understand here that Westphal didn’t mean that God literally has a shoulder or even that there is literally a God. Rather, he meant that human beings cannot occupy an objective perspective. We can’t know the truth, nor even whether the truth exists, and what this means in a fundamental sense is that we are called to embrace – to live from in a holy way – epistemic humility. We do not and probably cannot know the Truth, and if our living is predicated on anything but that unknowing, then we are bound for unhappiness, and not just our own. We’re likely to hurt others as well. History attests to this. The consequences of how we think and what is brought forth accordingly are not trivial.

This was the essence of Tara Singh’s beautiful clarity when he called our attention to the lovelessness of the belief that “I’ve got it and you don’t.” The belief that we understand where others are confused, that we have some insight or potential that others don’t have is a form of violence because it is loveless. It does not perceive one’s neighbor as oneself but as something other than one’s self. It stipulates to separation and then doubles down on it.

Conflict arises because we believe that we are apart from the world: we believe that we have separate interests, and that these interests require defense which, in turn, sometimes requires attack. Most of us say we don’t believe this, and we can be very good at persuading ourselves and others that we don’t, but if we examine our living carefully, then we will see that in fact we do believe we are apart from one another, and this separation breeds competition, and we conduct our living accordingly. The people who enacted the Holocaust or separate children from parents at borders or won’t help refugees drowning in the sea are not monsters. They are people like you and me. They are our brothers and sisters and our capacity to bring forth peace and love is contingent in part on our never forgetting that fact.

If we notice lovelessness in the world, then we can respond to it in the moment. If I’m being a jerk in the classroom, then I can be less of a jerk, and make the requisite amends. If I am selfish in my living at home, the same. But as I used to say with respect to making amends as a formal spiritual practice: the point is not to become great at saying “I’m sorry.” The point is to become the sort of living being who does not need to make amends so often.

That is why eventually our so-called spiritual seeking moves us in the direction of what can be applied and brought into application. This was part of what alienated Tara Singh from the Foundation for Inner Peace and FACIM and other more canonical approaches to ACIM. Singh understood that we have to work out A Course in Miracles in the course of our very living; anything else was insufficient. Indeed, anything else was a form of violence that ultimately only perpetuated separation. Pretending we aren’t bodies, or that the world isn’t real, or that ascended masters have everything covered, or that Jesus was a favored male child of a male deity are simply ways of reinforcing the original error of separation. There is another way! And it is to lean into the very living presenting itself in order to bring forth the loving context inherent (if obscured) in that living.

We are called to give sustained care-filled attention to our ideas about living, but we must also – perhaps in an even more intensely holy way – be aware of how those ideas can sometimes take us away from the actual living implied in them. Here is how Christian writer and teacher J.A. Simmons frames it.

Engaging in hermeneutics is absolutely essential for thinking and living well, but sometimes hermeneutic inquiry can invite a second-order existence that fails to find traction in what Wittgenstein might call the “rough ground” of a community’s shared hopes, beliefs, and rituals. This is not an either/or decision between engaged practice or detached theory, but simply a Kierkegaardian reminder not to forget about living while we think about how best to live. Phenomenology in a postmodern/post-secular context should propel us into our historical communities, not away from them. It should call us to critical engagement, not disregard and detachment.

In slightly less academic terms, sometimes we think so hard and deeply about love, that we entirely miss the opportunities to manifest that love in our living. It is like so deeply pondering the importance of service to one’s brothers and sisters that we altogether miss the homeless child in front of us asking over and over if we can spare a dollar.

By all means study. Indeed, our cognitive capacities – our gift for logic, rational thought, evidence-gathering, clarifying bias and so forth – are incredibly useful in figuring out why suffering happens and how to minimize that suffering, our own and everyone else’s.

But our study is sterile if it does not reach the moist potentiality of actually living in the world in which our living occurs. Its creativity and helpfulness is roots, blossoms and re-seeds itself in the messy and confused loveliness of our living as loving languaging beings, each of one of whom could be the other.

Tara Singh once pointed out that when Jesus said “I and the father are one” he spoke to his reality. When we say it, it’s just words. And he called on us to learn why it was just words so that we could learn how to live in a way that it was our actuality. Or, better yet, find our own actuality – our own experience of unity, oneness, love – and a corresponding language that expresses it without qualification or condition.

That is the work, and no other work is really satisfying. The work, so to speak, appears differently for each of us, but it is not different in any fundamental way. How shall we bring forth love? The answer is within us in the form of that which obstructs the free flow of love, and it is without us in the sense that the context of bringing forth appears in the other, or, in approximately ACIM terms, our brothers and sisters.

Earlier, I suggested that a religious experience was valuable to the extent that it undermined religion. That is, the map must take you so deeply into the territory that the map is no longer helpful. Religion must carry you so deeply into the self and the world that even religion is undone. Saint John of the Cross understood this intimately. He said that if we want to be sure of the road on which we walk, then we must close our eyes and walk in the dark. That’s not an argument for placing one’s faith in an external deity; it is a description of what it means to live in a holy way when one cannot ever know for certain, the deity or anything else.

Religion can be a useful helpful way to work out the terms of our living, which is to say, to learn and go on learning how to bring forth love in our living with others who could be our own self. But it is only effective to the very extent one sees the way in which it arises as a condition of the very problem (separation) it aims to solve. Thus, religion and related spiritual projects are not about what is actual, but about what is possible.