Right Mind vs. Intellect

Thomas a Kempis once wrote that he would rather feel compunction than know its definition. Sage advice for those of us studying awakening while also pursuing it. I am often aware of the degree to which my intellect seems to ally with the ego at the expense of my right mind.

At first blush, it’s simply a question of balance, right? After all, a Buddhist monk can sit five or six hours a day and still have a few hours left over to study ancient texts. Thomas Merton certainly found a way to blend his extraordinary intelligence and scholarship with contemplative prayer. Right mind and intellect aren’t inherently adversarial.

The trouble with examples – whether abstract like the former or specific like the latter – is that they aren’t personal. It’s well and good to speculate what the Buddhist monks are doing on Mount Baldy, but that’s at best tangentially related to what I am doing right here and now with my own spiritual practice and prayer life. If it’s a direct experience of God and Heaven that I’m after – if I’m bent on salvation – then I don’t want what works for you. I need to figure out what works for me.

All my life, I’ve been the smart kid in class. Not always the smartest, but one of them for sure. And I’ve done different things with that. Sometimes I deliberately wrecked expectations. Sometimes I was arrogance and mean-spirited. Sometimes – the older I got anyway – I worked hard. Regardless of what I was doing in classrooms, I always knew that my brain – that dubious organ that makes it home between the ears – was my strongest asset.

Forty years or so later, I’m not so sure. Take A Course in Miracles. I’ve spent years studying the main text, the workbook and the teacher’s manual. I’ve read most of Ken Wapnick’s work, Marianne Williamson’s, Tara Singh‘s. I’ve read Gary Renard’s books, Liz Cronkhite’s, David Hoffmeister’s, Jon Mundy’s. I’ve read all the questions and answers at the Foundation for A Course in Miracles website. I’ve read all the major ACIM bloggers.

I feel pretty confident in my intellectual understanding of the Course. I can hold my ground with the best of them.

So what?

Over the past few months I have slowly come to realize that while I do understand A Course in Miracles, I have been far less able to bring it into application, as Tara Singh wonderfully put it. A starving man doesn’t want to discuss the chemical composition of an apple. He wants to eat.

Or as the Course puts it in Lesson 185 (I want the peace of God):

To say these words is nothing. But to mean these words is everything (W-pI.185.1:1-2).

I feel it as I work on this website. I am committed to writing about each lesson and each section of the text this calendar year. So far, so good. But I can feel – especially when doubt settles in, especially when guilt or fear raise their heads – my intellect spring to the fore. It’s as if smarts are the ego’s vanguard, there to drive all uncertainty away.

And yet, there are times when simply sitting with doubt and uncertainty are important. I believe this. We are not meant to spring from our separated selves directly into Heaven. It’s a process that unfolds in time – that’s what time is for. I don’t think intellectualism – for me anyway – is always concerned with truth, so much as it is with being – or at least appearing – right.

Again, the course is instructive: “Do you prefer that you be right or happy?” (T-29.VII.1:9)

Who in their right mind would defend against peace and happiness? Yet that is what happens, at least sometimes. Thus, some caution is appropriate. Some willingness to sit with doubt, to let fear sift through the defenses and denial. If I am learning anything as I work through the text closely it is this: the course is nowhere near as dense or complicated as I want to imagine it is. In fact, it is remarkably consistent and clear.

It’s doing what it asks of me that’s hard – and that’s mostly a matter of quietening the mind long enough to see through the fear and guilt and anger and hate to the light that shines beyond. Learning is doing. It is an another activity. Thus undoing must be something else. Intellectual activity is no more helpful than physical activity in terms of offering up our tiny selves to God. There must be another way.

It is only because we are so willing to resist peace – so intent on fighting Jesus – that the intellect is even a factor in our awakening. Right-mindedness is not reasoning things out – it is seeing Truth and not seeing anything else but Truth. It is as if the brain – and its misbegotten knack for judgment – simply disappears, its functioning no more noticeable than that of our kidneys. Just another organ doing its thing. Nothing to get worked up about.

This year I have scaled back significantly on my reading. At the moment, outside of materials for classes (all books I’ve taught before), I am not reading anything but A Course in Miracles. It’s an incredible experience. One thing I’ve noticed is how hungry my brain gets – more words please! It churns through books like an addict, like the last thing it really wants is quiet or stillness. For that reason alone, I’m willing to stay on this self-imposed reading fast.

What happens when the mind can’t take refuge in a book about experience?

One thing that happens is that its ability to talk – or write – its way out of salvation is grievously undermined. Natural questions arise – who am I that I should hide in a thousand times a thousand books? You begin to sense your real thoughts pulsing below the chatter of your brain. It’s kind of awesome and scary at the same time, like watching whales sound nearby while you’re in a dinghy rowing for the far shore.

Perhaps I’ll always be a scholar, always committed to understanding in a critical way what I read. It’s certainly part of the identity I’ve concocted for myself. But part of me also insists that it knows God and would like to return, the sooner the better. Lately I have become aware of time as a sort of pressure – not like I have to be at the station by six or the train’s going to leave without me – but sort of pushing me from the inside, like something wants to come out.

I thought to myself: Jesus came two thousand years ago. And Buddha. And all these amazing teachers since. And we still haven’t woken up. We still haven’t healed the world. We’re still separated and living the horrific nightmare that attends separation. I think that we have to end the dream of separation now. Right now. I think we are supposed to listen very carefully to the inner teacher and be guided as to the unique path of our own awakening. It’s not in a book. It’s not an idea. It’s a fact between you and Jesus, between me and Jesus.

This is what I want to grasp now. This is what I want to do: give it all over to Jesus, every thing, and be led by him to Heaven. I believe in this. I want this for all of us.

Some Keep the Sabbath . . .

One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems is #236Some Keep the Sabbath. It captures for me several of the qualities that I admire most in her work: playfulness, irreverence and – deeply related to the first two qualities – a profound awareness and commitment to waking up to one’s identity in God.

As anyone who has read her work – poems and letters both – knows, Dickinson was a brave and eloquent woman. Her intelligence had a ferocity to it that most of us can only dream of. I’ve always disliked Julie Harris’ portrayal of Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst because it indulges in a timidity that was simply not a salient characteristic of this extraordinary poetic and religious mind.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –

Even though in that part of New England in the middle of the nineteenth century it was not unheard of to prefer to the woods to church (as even a cursory review of Thoreau and Emerson makes clear), Dickinson’s opening lines are still a radical rejection of tradition – both spiritual and cultural. She is not denying the inclination to worship, to know God through the Sabbath, but she is announcing her intention to do so without bowing to conventional means. She eschews both hierarchy and patriarchy in one fell couplet.

More than that, she is denying the human inclination to organization altogether. As the poem unfolds, roles typically assigned to people or buildings – directing a choir, the dome overhead – are assigned to nature. Dickinson is not just saying that we can perceive God in the natural world around us – she is positing that all our efforts to the contrary are precisely what shut God out, what render God in accessible.

People, in the ordinary course of being people – who set about building churches and filling them on Sundays – are not following God so much as walling any experience of God out.

That is still not a very popular position to take in Christian circles.

In a sense then, what Dickinson is asking is this: you want to worship? Do nothing. The Kingdom is already here – the bobolink sings, the apple tree limbs shift in the breeze. It is already done. The altar is not encased in four walls. It is bestowed in equal measure on the world and all its contents. The sermon is not spoken through a chosen minister (in Dickinson’s day, almost always a man) – rather, it is spoken all the time, by all things.

Reading Dickinson, one is hard-pressed to escape the sense that we are being subtly called to pay attention. She is not the first person to hear a bobolink sing. But the implication in her poems – and poem 236 stands as a strong witness – is that our attention can go deeper. Can take us deeper. Indeed, salvation – in the truest, most natural sense of the word – may require that we go deeper.

Emily Dickinson taught me to return to the woods, to turn my face to the sky, to gaze long and fiercely at the birds within range of my vision. She is my patron saint of intense devotion to awakening. She is a witness to the way that our physical sight is but a shallow substitute for the broader, the more divine vision with which we are all blessed but so few are able to employ.

Accept no substitute for spirituality! Accept no other experience of God – of spirit – whatever word you use to signify that Divine Source that forever pours forth its grace in all moments, in one continuous line. Dickinson’s gift was not merely literary – it was also a profound spiritual wisdom. There are few people who have gone so far – and left such a helpful and powerful record – in pursuing their vision of God.

Consider those last lines of the poem.

So instead of of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

Heaven is not a goal – an objective to be achieved at the end of some superior effort. Rather, it is a condition of the present moment, one into which we can slip with joyful ease. Emily Dickinson shows us how – all we have to do is choose to follow.

Undoing the Narrative I

Certain movies and other texts can help one relate to and better understand the metaphysics and even the process of awakening described in A Course in Miracles. They can bring us into contact with the narrative I – the central actor and director of our story – and see how that self can be undone, simply by seeing there is nothing to undo.

I had an example of this a couple of weeks ago with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Specifically, I found myself utterly entranced with both the film-making and the story-telling. The movie felt exquisite to me. Where a lot of movies bludgeon us with CGI effects, violence, graphic sex and language, Tarantino (at least in Basterds – not so much in earlier films) employs a scalpel. He’s inside your experience before you know he’s inside it; he’s working from the inside out.

And it hit me – a little more than halfway through the movie – that this obsession with telling an artful story, a transformative story, a gripping story, a forget-everything-and-keep-your-eyes-on-the-screen story had a spiritual correlative.

It is how the ego crafts and gives meaning to the story of its own existence. It is how and why it feels nigh on impossible to let go of our own narrative, our own personality in favor of waking up to something that is simpler, clearer and more natural. Something that is impersonal and all-inclusive.

We fall easily into the lure of our personal stories and their private meanings. I’m Irish-Catholic, a poet, a recovering drunk, a student of A Course in Miracles. I’m from the Northeastern United States, not the South and not the West. Leonard Cohen and Emily Dickinson are instructive. I struggle with caring about making money. On and on it goes. You’ve got one, too. Several, in fact.

Who is the “you” that Jesus addresses in A Course in Miracles? Is it Helen Schucman? Ken Wapnick? Gary Renard? You? Me?

We can bypass those individuals and say instead that the text addresses the observing mind which has chosen – regrettably and unnecessarily – to attach itself to the ego and its wily story. It is like an enormous gorgeous quilt confusing itself for a single fraying thread. And the thread is very good at convincing the quilt to keep on with its confusion.

So while I go crashing and stumbling through the world – healing myself, getting better, making mistakes, coming to terms, discovering new obligations, making new friends, pining for old ones – the observing mind, the Christ mind, the source mind – all of which are thoughts thought by God – simply is. No sweat, no worries. Nothing happened, so nothing to fix.

So much of what I believe I have to do – from writing this blog post to loving Jesus to helping feed my family – is contingent in some way on the magnetic personal story, the narrative composed by the ego. So many colors and tastes – so much exquisite detail – a cast to die for – such a dense and multi-layered narrative fabric. Stories within stories within stories.

And yet.

What we are after – inner peace, sustainable and non-dramatic love – is absent from that story. Ego doesn’t do love. Oh, it’s definitely a theme. There are characters who symbolize it. It pops up as an idea. But it never delivers. It can’t. Love and peace are the one thing the ego can’t – won’t ever – give us. By definition it can’t let us see this is all just a movie, just an illusion, just a dream. If it did, we’d walk away in a second. We’d leave the theater without a second thought and go straight home.

I didn’t finish watching Inglourious Basterds. It was as if a bell had rung, and once ringing, could not be unrung. I didn’t want the inspired trance of story anymore – not Tarantino’s and certainly not the ego’s. I wanted awareness – right thinking, right mind, right now.

Whatever we call waking up, it begins with awareness. It begins with the end of casualness. We begin to sense that our lives are playing out on a screen and that they are not real, at least not as we presently perceive and understand them. That invokes some responsibility. We need to discern the true from the false. Thus, something new – not of us but in us – is triggered.

As you watch your life unfold – you who long for the promise of Heaven as I do – ask what it is that the ego drama seeks to hide from you? Could it be that there is no drama? That there is no viewer, no screen, no projector? That you are It and you always have been and right now – right now – you can settle and enjoy the unalterable peace that surpasses understanding?

We are telling ourselves a story – a good one in its way – but its sole purpose is keep us asleep, hidden, angry, guilty, estranged, lonely and unproductive.

There is another way. We can give attention to the narrative – in particular the one telling it – and allow our attentiveness to dissolve them. There is no I. When the center is everywhere, there is no center.  We who never left our home are home.

A Walk to Stillness

We have to come stillness, to awareness. But how?

Perhaps first we have to learn that is gift. Stillness is a gift. Or perhaps better to say, it is there already, waiting. The gift is the way in which we are temporarily absolved of all the brain chatter and clutter that obfuscates stillness.

I have friends who have dedicated their lives to rigorous meditation practices, lives of service, intense prayer. I see nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, I see a lot that is right with it.

But I wonder – increasingly I wonder – is it really necessary?

To have what is given, to experience the stillness that is already there – the stillness that is rich and creative and inspiring, like a bolt of lightening – what do we have to do?

We have to be open to some slipping. Some neural pathway, long unused, suddenly lighting up. There’s an ancient action that takes place. We recognize it but we aren’t sure how to call it forth. Then it’s there, just like that. Like it was there all along, which it was. Which it is.

Last night I walked the dogs and after I walked myself. I do that sometimes. The older dog requires such care and attention that I don’t always see the stars. I don’t hear the wind. I do, of course, but not the same way. I don’t mind that. It’s a lovingkindness to a friend, a faithful companion.

But I like my walks of foolishness too. My walks into stillness. So I drop the dogs off at the house, and then go on my own way a little while. Just a little.

And I thought last night as I walked alone about those moments of crystalline clarity where briefly, God slips in and there is nothing else. How hard to put it into words – maybe you’re not even supposed to try – but how lovely it is, how free, to be beyond personality, beyond language, out of time.

Such a lovely and empowering space . . . and if it is simply there, if it is what is real, what is true, then why do we refuse it? Why do we make it so difficult?

So I stopped walking. Where the road dips a little at the old bridge, right over Watts brook, I stopped. I come into stillness when I pay attention. Not to the chatter of the brain – which is like this writing here, but maybe thicker, and without beginning or end – but to what appears to be external. God is cause, I am effect. Yet all that I perceive is also effect, what I create.

So watch it. Listen to it.

I leaned on the old bridge and looked down. The light was gone and so all I could see was the blurred banks of snow like giant gray thumbs extending along the banks. Here and there the bracken reaching over it, spidery limbs swaying in the breeze. On the North side of the bridge the water sounds were light, separate notes harmonically converged, like a glockenspiel. But on the South side it was a low, dull roar. There are fewer rocks there and the landscape drops, the water building momentum with nothing to impede it. It was cold and I could see a few stars twinkling here and there like the beginning of paralysis and I was balanced between these two musics, this one music they were together, balanced on the old bridge looking at the water and the sky.

And it came to me. It did. Just a flash, like a card falling out of a gambler’s sleeve. A glimpse of the face of Christ, behind the veils, behind the world of form. I would live forever for a taste of it!

Yet that is why I lose it. Why we lose it. I want to make it mine – this body’s experience, this self’s improvement. The same greed that makes me sneak the last cookie, the last wedge of cheese.

Who is it that interferes? Who wants to possess what cannot be possessed because it simply is?


I walked all morning today, up and down the back roads, through snowy fields, past barns, dripping eaves. I knelt to study stones, read tracks, glory in sunlight . . . In my mind you were there and we were talking. I was talking about the stillness – what it feels like, how to find it. I wanted to know if you knew why we lose it, why we clutch at it. It was a beautiful morning, a beautiful walk – how sweet to share the time with you – but we did not walk in stillness.