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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.

Students Need Teachers: ACIM to the Rescue

From time to time I remind myself that the primary (we could even say “sole” but I think that’s probably inaccurate) goal of A Course in Miracles is to introduce us to the Holy Spirit, who is our Teacher. From the course preface:

The Course makes no claim to finality, nor are the Workbook lessons intended to bring the student’s learning to completion. At the end, the reader is left in the hands of his or her own Internal Teacher, Who will direct all subsequent learning as He sees fit.

That is the premise from which I often suggest that it’s okay to put aside course metaphysics (e.g., is consciousness the first step in separation), spiritual drama (ascended masters! light shows!), and self-help/improvement (e.g., manifest your best life now).

All of those are effectively distractions. They aren’t wrong in any effective sense; they just postpone the actual work ACIM proposes we do and thus also postpone the logical and practical outcome of that work: relationship with an internal Teacher who knows we are not separate from God and knows how to help us know it, too.

Here’s an experiment. Can you hear the Holy Spirit? If yes, then it’s ACIM game-over, unless you’re called to be a formal teacher/Boddhisattva (like, say, Ken Wapnick).

But if you can’t hear the Holy Spirit (which is to say, you find my asking annoying or confusing or discouraging), then it’s worth asking a) if A Course in Miracles is the right spiritual path for you and/or b) whether your practical application of it might need to be tweaked.

[please note that an interim phase exists in which “hearing the Holy Spirit” is neither perfect nor consistent. Generally, though, when we’re in that phase, we know we’re in it]

The Holy Spirit is not a separate entity from you. It is not a supernatural being to which only devout or new age Christians have access. Rather, the Holy Spirit is your sane mind and its voice is quiet, calm and confident. Its direction is always helpful. It knows that separation is an appearance, not a law.

[The Holy Spirit] represents your Self and your Creator, Who are One. He speaks for God and also for you, being joined with Both. And therefore it is He Who proves Them One (C-6.4:2-4).

Essentially, the course suggests that there are two voices in our mind. The voice of the ego is loud and insistent, demanding and grandiose. It plans and plots. It’s shifty and contradictory. It answers questions with more questions. It thrives on complexity.

You can observe these egoic patterns of thinking in your mind. You can observe their effects in your mind and in your living.

And, you can also observe the alternative: a voice that is mature, calm, patient and responsive. Given a question, it offers an answer. It simplifies and clarifies. Merely to be in its presence is to be at peace.

That, too, is a pattern of thinking in our mind, albeit one from which we are estranged. Thus, a nontrivial aspect of the ACIM curriculum – really, its whole shebang – is learning how to discern between those two voices. One of them knows God and wants you to know God and one of them does not know God and doesn’t want you to figure out that it doesn’t.

In course terms, God is neither a big idea that we mentally “get” nor a big show of joy and peace that our physical bodies experience in physical terms. Brain and its casing are neutral, not fundamental and not causal.

Rather, God is an experience of coherence that generates peace and joy in communion with others in ways that transcend body/mind duality. On this view, God is normal and natural; it doesn’t even need to go by the name “God.” Names don’t even exist to it.

[note too that letting go of one’s attachment to this or that name of God – which is to let go of ontological preference altogether – is also a phase, one that can be especially acute in terms of confusion, grief and anxiety]

Importantly, we don’t have to force any insight, experience or communion; it’s all already in place. We simply have to listen to the Teacher who already knows it’s in place, and let her/him/it (you choose!) restore it to our thinking in our mind. You wouldn’t go into a math class and assume that you have to teach the teacher algebra! You’d just give attention to the teacher teaching you.

Just so with A Course in Miracles . . .

[and note that upon restoration, distinctions like “our thinking” and “our mind” will no longer be necessary, save as teaching devices. But in strict terms of A Course in Miracles, that’s cart-before-horse]

Thus, find the teacher and heed their instruction. What else can a sincere student do whose goal is to not to linger in the classroom forever?

Vestigial Arguments and Grace

I like the idea of vestigial arguments – arguments we make over and over that serve no functional purpose but yet remain, like that little bump at the base of our spine where a long time ago in a very different sort of world we had a tail.

Those arguments are non-functional but they do remind us of . . . what?

Something that was functional a long time ago, which we don’t need any longer, and really ought to just let go of.

A lot of what we argue about in the ACIM community is silly. It truly doesn’t actually matter. It’s a distraction from far more interesting dialogues and encounters. And yet on and on we go. Is Gary Renard a fraud? Which edition of the course should I read? On a scale of one to ten, how arrogant is Ken Wapnick? Did the historical Jesus really dictate the course?

Obviously I’ve contributed to this over the years. Perhaps there’s no way around that, I don’t know. My wordiness has begotten a lot of unruly bastards. I reached a juncture in 2015 or so where I stopped writing publicly about the course, deleted a lot of crappy argumentative posts (though clearly not all crappy argumentative posts), and generally reorganized my thinking when it came to course-related discussions.

What the net effect of all that has been, I can’t say. I sort of miss the attention you get when you dive into the middle of a big debate and act like it’s a divinely-mandated zero-sum competition to be the new Pirate King slash Favored Son of the One True God.

But also, being the Pirate King is stressful, not in the least because there’s always somebody else laying claim to your throne. There’s always another hill on which some contrarian is erecting yet another crucifix, so . . .

I’m happy, as happy goes in my experience.

The thing is, the inclination to be right or wrong inheres in the structure of the human being. Whatever ontological claims we make, we make from within the framework of a human being, and in the cognitive aspects of that framework, there is a decided preference for “right” and a matching decided aversion to “wrong.”

If we want to experience peace and joy, then we have to see how this preference/aversion feature functions in our structural being, and we have to figure out what it does that is helpful and what it does that is not.

For example, it’s helpful for knowing that cardiovascular exercise helps a body function better and thus can assert that “it’s right to exercise.” It’s helpful for knowing that sometimes it’s better to listen to your child than to lecture them and thus can assert that “it’s right to hold dialogic space for your son/daughter.”

It’s not helpful at all for knowing whether so-and-so should be studying A Course in Miracles or going back to a traditional Christian church and then telling them to do that thing.

That is, if you assert to me that I should have some kind of cardiovascular exercise routine in place to which I am generally faithful, then okay. The consensus on that is pretty clear. I can do it or not, but I’m not going to argue it’s ineffective or fallacious.

Similarly, if you assert that sometimes I need to listen to my kids when they talk about their experience of social pressure, rather than just lecture them about do this and don’t do that, then sure. I think the consensus is pretty clear there as well.

But if you say, “Sean, you need to go back to the Catholic church and repent on your knees before the crucified Jesus of history and beg him to let you back into the fold of the saved . . . ”

Well, that’s different.

That’s like saying I have to listen to Bach instead of Bob Dylan, but on pain of death. I mean sure. Have an opinion and feel free to share it, but . . . if your internal expectation is that I have to follow your opinion, then you should readjust your expectations. It’s not on me to conform to your preferences or make you feel better about living them publicly.

But still. What is the actual difference between advocating for cardiovascular exercise and worshiping Jesus Christ in this or that formal way?

My answer is: they show up differently in your living. They actually show up in your living with different burdens of proof, different kinds of supporting evidence, different rhetorical strategies and different emotional/psychological tenors.

Cardiovascular exercise enjoys cross-cultural application. It’s good if you’re Japanese and good if you’re Balinese. It’s good if you’re male or female, have a high IQ or a low IQ. It was good a thousand years ago and it’ll be good a thousand hence.

That’s not true of Christianity. Lots of people do just fine without it. Always have and always will.

Cardiovascular exercise enjoys the broad support of experts. There aren’t a lot of health experts out there saying “stay on the couch – don’t go for a vigorous walk – take the elevator rather than the stairs.”

That’s not true of Christianity. Lots of religious experts advocate other spiritual traditions and practices, and sometimes no tradition or practice at all.

And so on. You get the drift.

I am not suggesting that you are under some moral or other obligation to go for a long walk every day. I’m merely observing that doing so in the interest of your long-term physical health is largely incontrovertible.

And I am suggesting that adopting a practice of Christianity, while it may be helpful, is not sure to be helpful. Maybe you should be a Buddhist. Or drink some Ayuhasca.

I am orders of magnitude more confident about cardiovascular exercise than about Christian spiritual practices and yet . . . I want to be equally right about both. I know they’re different but . . . I want to be equally right about both. What gives?

If we go into this, it can become disconcerting. What’s going on when we really really really want to be right about Jesus? When we really want others to get and share the Christian way that seems to work for us?

Because the thing is, Jesus doesn’t actually work like that – a one-size-fits-all or my-way-or-the-highway kind of way. If we don’t see this, and adjust our expectations and living accordingly, then we are apt to miss a lot of whatever value is available in following Jesus down some Christian path.

Jesus is not like cardiovascular exercise. Jesus is more like the option of walking if you’re going to bother with cardiovascular exercise at all. He’s the method, not the reason the method is necessary. With cardiovascular exercise you can walk or run or whatever. There are all these options and they all work more or less the same; it’s a question of fit. Consult your doctor, your preferences, your goals and . . . get on with it.

Same with religion and/or spirituality.

But.

Cardiovascular exercise solves the problem of fitness. Generally, our bodies age slower and function better when they get a degree of cardiovascular exercise. This is why there’s broad consensus; this is why it’s becoming common sense, like libraries are good things and drinking paint thinner is bad.

What problem does monotheism solve? Or Christianity? Or, even more to the point, what problem does A Course in Miracles solve?

If the course weren’t available, what would you do instead? And if that alternative were not an option, then what would you do?

Keep going with this exercise. If alternative X isn’t available, what’s next? Keep going. What happens?

Thoughtful atheists sometimes point out that even if you somehow logically persuade every monotheist on the planet to give up on God, you still have to deal with whatever problem humans were trying to solve when they invented God in the first place.

But I suggest that we not go into it that way – like it’s an academic problem to which we can fit this or that theory. I suggest going into it in a personal way. In the same way that you would explore why you chose this or that life partner, why are choosing – or at least choosing to stay with – monotheism? ACIM? Fill-in-the-blank.

(It works for anything – why are you practicing Buddhism? Undergoing CBT? Taking LSD? – but it’s more germane for me to write about monotheism because that’s where I cut -and am still cutting, in some ways – my teeth).

There are easy answers, of course. “It’s what I’m familiar with, given my family background and cultural orientation.” Or “it makes me feel good/gives my life meaning/contains a strong social component.”

Sure. And sure/sure/sure.

But keep going. Can you find that within you which – if God were not real – would cause you to invent God and believe in God and work like all get-out to sell God to others?

That is an interesting and helpful spiritual practice that I absolutely think you should undertake right now.

Make Me One with Everything (is a Math Problem)

Say that I visit a psychotherapist. I have some choices. I can visit a Jungian or a Freudian or a Lacanian or a specialist in CBT or EMDR or Gendlin’s Focusing.

In each case, the therapist will use a specialized language and practice to help me sort through whatever problem I am trying to solve. Ideally, she deploys a language modality (Jungian, Freudian, Lacanian et cetera) with which she has optimal utility.

And I will do my part and she will do hers and healing will take place and – appropriately enough – I will credit [insert therapeutic modality] for the helpful shift. Thank you B.F. Skinner! Et cetera.

This dynamic reflects the fact that when it comes to being whole/holy/healthy/happy different languages work for different people. For some of us it’s psychotherapy in the Lacanian mode. For some it’s Christianity in the ACIM mode. For some it’s entheogens in a Native American mode.

In general, it is a fact that as we pursue healing – especially spiritual or psychological healing – the mode we select reflects a specialized language. It doesn’t work for everybody. Indeed, that’s part of its attraction: it is uniquely and especially suited to our particular unique experience.

I don’t think this is inherently a problem, so long as we don’t conflate “what works for me” with “what works for all people in all places at all times.” By all means speak your truth about A Course in Miracles or zazen or EFT. Just don’t use your truth to blot out another’s equally valid experience of truth.1

If this makes sense, I want to introduce another idea.

When I visit the psychotherapist, regardless of what mode she practices, she sets her fee and I satisfy it using the same mathematical language. If a Freudian therapist and a Jungian therapist both charge $120 an hour, then both will accept 6 20-dollar bills as payment.

Mathematical language is more broadly applicable than, say, the language of A Course in Miracles. Or Jung. Or Karl Marx or the Buddha.

Why does this matter?

Because it implies that there are levels of order – and languages depicting those levels – that are more inclusive – and thus more loving2 – than what we are presently using.

Math is a good example. So is biology.

To most people, ACIM is a bizarre word salad. Yet for some of us – certainly I am one – it was bread-and-water at a moment when my spiritual hunger verged on starvation. I was dying in that desert! And the Lord came in the form of a dense and strange blue book and delivered me.

For a couple of years I was very confused by how hard it was to make salvation clear – even to folks who professed to be students of the course. I knew the path I’d followed into the desert, knew what I’d done in the desert, knew to the last grain of sand the path I’d followed out, and . . .

Maybe six people cared and five them were just humoring me out of kindness.

Then I realized that there are as many ACIMs as there are students of ACIM and the confusion went away.

It is interesting in our living to look for the broadest common language to which we have access and to see where and how it links us to other people. I tend to feel closest to fellow ACIM students, especially those who share the excessive, quasi-Vedantic language with which I understand it.

But basic math – I mean literally addition and subtraction, some division and multiplication – unite me with everybody. Folks I know, folks I’ll never know, folks who share my political views, folks who hate my political views. Folks for whom ACIM is the bee’s knees and folks for whom it’s a steaming pile of horse shit.¬†And the network of that unity circles the globe in short order.

Seriously: spend a dollar and the universe literally quivers.

I am not suggesting we become mathematicians or reinvigorate Pythagorean cults.¬†Rather, I am suggesting a way of looking at our living that naturally expands it to allow for more love. There are languages that are so broadly functional and accessible that they transcend race, religion, gender, politics et cetera. We don’t even know we use them.

What does this suggest or imply about our devotion to the narrow semantics we tend to adore? And

What can we do to become more skillful with these broader, simpler forms of communicating? Can we find one – or more – that are simpler even than 1 + 1 = 2?

1. I am suggesting there are many ways to a truth, somewhat the way I suggest there are many ways to Boston (the utility of which are necessarily contextually-dependent). I am not making any assertions in this post as to what Truth is; I think for the type of observer you and I are, the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” is structurally foreclosed to us. Thus, pursuing it is a distraction. The appearance of many ways are the whole game, which is actually more than sufficient to establish and nurture a shared happiness, helpfulness and inner peace.

2. I am using “loving” here in the Maturanan sense of denoting a radical equality of all observers. Buddhists aren’t better than Christians, spiders aren’t better than flies, and moonlight isn’t better than a Brooklyn 99 episode.