A Practice of Forgiveness: A Course in Miracles

Introduction

A nontrivial aspect of A Course in Miracles is that as its students we are given a specific (and specialized) language. For example, “forgiveness” in A Course in Miracles means something different than when used in other settings. Use of this shared specific language allows us to be present to one another in ways that expand our shared experience of love. When we forgive, the healing is not linear but radial. It affects us all – self, other, community, world in healthy, wholesome ways.

To say this about forgiveness in the ACIM tradition is not to assert a special spiritual or mystical experience. The specialized language is intended to facilitate a natural experience of living lovingly from which we are presently estranged. The language undoes the estrangement so that we can function as the truly loving beings that we are. It’s aim is to be helpful, to deepen our collective nature rather than separate us into those who “get it” and those who don’t.

Sometimes there is a temptation – I speak from experience – to double down on the apparent complication and specialization. We want to be experts; we want to be the student who knows that the teacher means as opposed to students who are confused. This invariably begets behavior which – while arguably well-intentioned – basically adds to the chaos in our lives. A Course in Miracles has already complicating things by changing the definition of forgiveness; something in us wants to carry that complication forward in a new way – lay claim to the supernatural or indulge poorly formed expositions of metaphysics.

But this is not necessary and – again, I speak from experience – it can hinder the effectiveness of the course’s teaching. It turns out that understanding – comforting as it can be – is not necessary for healing to take place. Forgiveness neither begins nor ends in intellectual comprehension. It’s something else altogether – it’s a way of being in our bodies and the world that transcends the familiar ways that bodies and the world appear to us.

Forgiveness is natural. If we will defer to the Holy Spirit (another phrase the course wrestles from its traditional context), then we will experience forgiveness not as a personal accomplishment but as a gift which we receive and which automatically extends itself to the world.

What is forgiveness in A Course in Miracles

In A Course in Miracles, to “forgive” is to overlook a) the other’s identity as being irretrievably yoked to a body and b) the many errors that arise from that mis-identification.

How can the Holy Spirit bring His interpretation of the body as a means of communication into relationships whose only purpose is separation from reality? What forgiveness is enables Him to do so (T- 17.III.5:1-2).

It is important to understand that to see another as a body is to see oneself as a body, too. The mis-identification of self with body is always mutual. It is never that “I” am not a body but “you” are a body. It is that bodies appear as the special home of selves. Once that appearance happens, it happens for all bodies – our own and others, here and in the past and in the future. It’s all-or-nothing.

It is also important to understand that bodies, as such, are not the problem. The problem is the identification of self with body, as irretrievably contained in a body, and thus bound to endure the body’s fate of suffering, sacrifice and death. Forgiveness is not about the body at all but about healing the entrenched thought that self and body are entangled in an unsolvable, unredeemable knot.

Finally, as dedicated course students, it is is also important to set aside our expectations with respect to what it feels like to forgive and be forgiven, and how the world will appear when it is forgiven. Our expectations are premised on the very illusion (self = body) that forgiveness undoes, and so they subtly reinforce that illusion. We want ascended masters to bless us or light shows to dazzle us or endless ecstasy to eternally sate us.

Enchanting as all that may be, they are merely extreme descriptions of possible bodily experiences. We have to let them go, along with whatever other expectations we carry. We don’t have to reject or deny or amend our expectations – they are simply part of the body’s experience of the world. We just have to let them go, which is effectively to let them appear and disappear, reappear and disappear again. Treat expectation the way you treat needing to sneeze – they are both just aspects of bodily experience, neither good nor bad.

In essence, the suggestion is that forgiveness is not specific but general. It is not an action that “I” take towards “you” because of an action “you” took against “me.” It is not me saying I won’t be angry or vindictive because you stepped on my toe. Rather, it is a way of looking at the self that realizes it is not in a body. When that realization occurs, it naturally generalizes. If “I” am not a body, then “you” are not a body. And if “we” are not bodies then what our bodies do is neither good nor bad, worthy neither of praise nor condemnation.

On that view, stepping on my toe and, say, baking me a pie are equal. Certainly the body judges them – one causes pain and the other causes pleasure. And so just as certainly the body prefers one to the other in the form of judging what it perceives as the cause of its pain/pleasure. But the self does not judge those actions. It sees them as appearances in the domain of bodies, which is not the domain of the self.

Common objections

If this appears difficult to do or nonsensical, then we are looking at it from the perspective of a body. This is not a crime! It is not an offense against God or nature. We aren’t bad ACIM students. We are simply experiencing the very problem that the course is given to correct. It’s good to notice this so that it can be corrected.

Let’s say that this description of forgiveness seems difficult or impossible. If you step on my toe or bake me a pie, those are obviously different actions. Obviously I am going to treat them differently!

The course is not challenging the underlying logic of this argument. It’s simply observing that where we place “I” in the equation, we should simply say “body.” That is, given a toe-stomp and a pie, “obviously the body is going to treat them differently.”

This is a subtle but nontrivial distinction upon which so much peace rests.

If you can notice that distinction, then you can notice that which notices the distinction. And if you notice “that which notices the distinction,” then you can also notice that it does not resist the distinction. You will notice that it welcomes attention and will cheerfully come forward at your call, taking over as much of your living as you are able to give it.

This “it” is the Holy Spirit, working in concert with Jesus, to reestablish your self in God.

The second objection you might pose is that forgiveness as the course describes it is nonsensical. It’s easy to talk about when it comes to a toe-stomp. How abut war? How about holocausts?

Again, those arguments are very persuasive to bodies. A toe-stomp does not threaten its existence, only its comfort. War and holocausts actually threaten a body’s very existence – either because the war-makers want to kill the body dead or because the body has to be put on the line to stop the war-makers. From a body’s perspective, it is perfectly logical to take war and holocausts with utmost seriousness.

But here’s the thing. Either the self is the body or it’s not. If it’s not, then the apparent gravity of what appears to the body doesn’t matter. It’s all the same. This is where the radical nature of ACIM forgiveness shows itself. A holocaust and a toe-stomp are the same problem – mis-identification of self with body. And just like the with toe-stomp, if we can notice the distinction between body and self, then we can notice the one in us who distinguishes.

And from there it’s a short hop to realizing the Holy Spirit and Jesus are guiding us home to God.

Ethical concerns

People often raise ethical concerns at this juncture. They say, “hey Sean – if you really believe all of this, are you going to let somebody shoot your child? Are you going to stand by while government officials put kids in cages? Are you okay with Nazis?”

I understand the attractiveness of these questions. Indeed, because of their abstract nature, they are quite effective at obscuring the distinction between self and body. Ethical dilemmas have two answers; the one we select depends on where we are in the process of reestablishing our identity in God.

First, to the extent that we believe the self and the body are yoked (and we all do believe it to one degree or another), then we follow the Golden Rule (T-1.III.6:4). Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is a sensible and effective rule to guide our behavioral choices.

The Golden Rule doesn’t solve all our problems, or all the world’s problems, but it does allow us to not get bogged down in unsolvable ethical and metaphysical conundrums.

However, as we relinquish more and more of our living to the Holy Spirit and Jesus, we will find that what appears does not appear so much as a problem to be solved but more like a lost child in need of comfort. And the Holy Spirit and Jesus always know how to comfort that lost child. You don’t need the Golden Rule when the Holy Spirit and Jesus are deciding for you.

 . . . the Holy Spirit teaches you that truth was created by God, and your decision cannot change it. As you begin to realize the quiet power of the Holy Spirit’s Voice, and Its perfect consistency, it must dawn on your mind that you are trying to undo a decision that was irrevocably made for you. That is why I suggested before that you remind yourself to allow the Holy Spirit to decide for God for you (T-6.V.B.6:3-5).

There is no situation you can encounter – from the most mild of toe-stomps to the most horrific of war crimes – that will baffle or intimidate or otherwise stymie the Holy Spirit and Jesus. As their creation, you will always know what to do.

Practicing Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a practice, the same way that meditation or contemplative prayer is a practice. We have to do it. In the very bodies in the very worlds that constitute our living, we have to practice forgiveness. If we are serious about being students of A Course in Miracles, then that is our homework. Read the text, do the lesson, then get up and go about our day practicing forgiveness.

Forgiveness in the course teaches it is unfamiliar, which is why we have to come back to it over and over. We have to turn to those teachers who help us understand in practical ways what the course is saying about forgiveness. We have to persevere through doubt and frustration and other setbacks. We have to throw up our hands and quit and then begin again.

What perhaps saves us a little is that forgiveness in the ACIM mode feels good. It actually does. It is a basically loving act; when we don’t insist that others are bodies – which is to look past what bodies are doing – then a feeling of peace rests on us, however briefly. And it is impossible not to notice that it does not rest on us alone.

This sense of peace and contentment is like sugar from the Holy Spirit and Jesus, a little reward to keep us going. Our goal is not a personal experience of inner peace and divine love, but a shared one that transcends the boundaries imposed by self, other and world. But to get there, we start small.

We begin by seeking the still small voice within that knows. It is the opposite of the tumultuous braggart – alternately charming and vicious, childish and persuasive – that tends to dominate our living. That voice – in ACIM parlance, the ego – does not know anything and compensates with volume, drama and excess. At our behest – which is simply the seeking itself – the voice of the Holy Spirit will gently open and expand our mind so that it is unified and clear and untroubled by that which appears before it.

Forgiveness asks no more than this, and from this humble beginning, bestows on us the certainty of the Holy Spirit, the peace of Christ and the unconditional love of God.

The Many Ways We Get Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Secrets in A Course in Miracles

Because so much of my epistemology relies on accepting uncertainty, and being open to revelation from what is not presently within the range of my knowing, it can be difficult to countenance A Course in Miracles which professes an end to uncertainty for those for whom it is the way (T-6.V.C.8:8).

Of course it was once for me very much the way, and so that past relationship becomes a sort of fructive omfalós by which I can countenance it, with backward glances that are equally grateful and critical.

The course was understood by its early authors, editors and readers to be paranormal – to fall outside the accepted boundaries of natural law. An aura of magic attended it. Later, they would realize this was an error and try to redo the assignment but the cat was out of the bag. The moment Helen Schucman declined to put her name on the text, Gary Renard and his ascended masters were inevitable.

For serious students of the course Renard is a distraction, a fact which often only becomes clear after reading and reflecting on his work. It’s okay. But Helen Schucman is also a distraction. For that matter, so is Jesus.

Indeed, even A Course in Miracles – the gestalt of its curriculum and many classrooms – is a distraction from that to which it would direct us.

And that can be tricky ground on which to stand or shuffle along.

My tribe, so to speak – the body of fellow students who with me form an ACIM classroom – are that collective of folks (mostly women as it turns out, which is itself instructive) who go very deeply into A Course in Miracles, discover a tiny door hidden inside it, a door with a note that reads “do not open under any circumstances,” and who open the door and go through it.

I think the door is obvious once you know what you’re looking for and decide you want to find it, but apparently one can spend lifetimes – thousands of them – deliberately missing the door. In the end it’s okay, but it feels like going on a picnic and then refusing to eat food outdoors. I mean sure, it’s your call, but . . . why?

In terms of my ACIM teachers, I think Ken Wapnick knew about the door – and what lay beyond it – but remained embedded in the course, Boddhisattva style, doing what he could to get folks to notice – if not pass through – the door. I think this; I don’t know this. But the progression of his writing and teaching suggests it.

I believe Tara Singh went through the door early – maybe too early and maybe too quickly – and thus can be quite – even fatally – confusing to sincere students. Distributing food to the poor alongside Mother Theresa . . . where in ACIM does it say do that?

Which feels like a good question until you realize that you’re hungry and need to eat.

(If you’re still puzzled by people who eat pizza while professing to have no body (W-pI.136.20:5), Singh is a better teacher than Wapnick)

Opening the door is transgressive and it has to be this way. It’s not that something bad happens on the other side or that there are gods or angels or demons or ACIM bosses who will punish us for opening it.

No, the transgression matters because it is an assertion of responsibility and an acceptance of the consequences which attend that assertion. When we open the door, we become constructive in the nearly literal sense of building something with our own mind and our own bodies.

It’s kind of like you thought ACIM was the church and it turns out it’s just a pep talk for going out and building a church.

But “the church” is not a physical structure, nor even a metaphysical one. It’s a social one and like everything else we do in language, it’s virtual.

When we pass through the door we absolve our share of mind of its invented paternal gods and related patriarchal structures, and become unto our own self – and to one another – the designer/creator one naturally is.

On that view, God and all projects related to God become nontrivial ideas that can be helpful or unhelpful according to context, and so cease to function as either causes or judges. The work becomes to find what is most helpful (most functional) in the bringing forth of love, in the very context in which we find our self, and that works tends to be free of the old images of spirituality and religion and even right and wrong.

Indeed, to optimize love, it sort of has to be free of old images. As Humberto Maturana says, “every love is love at first sight.” Otherwise it isn’t love but something else.

If you are happily studying or teaching A Course in Miracles, then by all means don’t let me stand in your way. But if you are studying or teaching, and there is a nagging sense of missing something, and you keep looking back at the course to find it . . .

Well in that situation, what you are looking away from is the door. And I say: turn to it. Turn to it, and open it, and fall into love, over and over and over.