On Wanting Life to be Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Living in the Sight of God

God doesn’t hide. If you want to see the face of God, and you haven’t, it’s because the face of God is either not what you expected or not what you want. And that’s on you, not God.

garden flowers reveal that god does not hide from usThere is – because there is always – another way.

Turning away from the face of God out of confusion or pride or arrogance is not a crime. You won’t be punished; but you will continue to experience the grief and discomfort that attends turning away from the face of God. And the anguish is very much God’s, as much as it is yours.

That’s a clue.

Still, very few of us want to gaze directly at the Lord, for the experience undoes so much of what we believed mattered about our lives. When our eyes rest on God, we realize that we have been living second-hand lives. We have been pretenders careening through meaningless dreams, crazed dogs chasing tails they will never catch, zombies mindlessly pursuing goals we neither chose nor can unchoose.

Often, on seeing this truth, we turn back. We turn away from God. Who would blame us? The hurt is intense, the shame nontrivial. How can seeing God make the life I live appear to be so much shit? This can’t be God, we tell ourselves. God would not allow my life to be such a sham.

Or – darker and deeper – we tell ourselves that if this is what it means to see God, then we’d rather live a lie. We’ll take the shit, thank you very much.

For we cannot behold God and live. This is an old and sturdy truth. We can count on it. If we see God, a death occurs. Yet the death is not an end but rather a rebirth unto eternal life. We give up what dies in favor of what can never die.

Or, better, we give up our identification with what dies in favor of what can never die.

It is the truth that sets us free. It is the truth that liberates us from the cycle of birth and death, so that we might live forever. And the truth is already given, in a form that we can readily perceive and understand. Call it God’s face and then will to gaze at it without fear or doubt or hesitation.

When we are ready to look and see, then we will look and see, and we will know the truth. We will remember God, and live in God’s Heaven forever.

If you’ve been looking, and you still can’t see, then find someone to talk to about this “still can’t see” thing. Nobody can look at God for us but there are folks who are good at helping us figure out what’s standing in the way. Are we scared? Disappointed? Clinging to illusions? A little bit of all of those? Or something else entirely?

Don’t be afraid to step off familiar trails. Don’t be frightened by teachers who have only part of the picture. Sometimes you’re there to teach them, and their “teaching” is a form of study which you gift to them. Give attention to black bears and violets, maple trees and moonlight. They have something to say about God, too.

Be not alone so you can be not afraid. The world is full of brothers and sisters who are lonely for Christ, and whose loneliness is expressed in words and forms with which you are familiar. Find them, and comfort them, and let them comfort you. Be home with them in Christ, that together you might together remember the Home you share with God.

So long as you have questions, answers will be given. Yet a day comes when the questions subside, and one rests gently in what is given, asking only how to give it away. For what you are is love, and only when you extend that love do you know that love.

And knowing that, you know that there is no longer any reason to not see God. What else could you behold but God? What else is seeing for?

More on Illusion and Reality

Illusions always arise with respect to a referent: they are compared to what is believed to be real and on the basis of the comparison are found lacking in some fundamental way. That is how we determine whether an object or experience will be labeled “real” or “illusory.”

However, at the moment of experience, illusions are always experienced as real. It is only after we have had the experience and compared it to some other experience that we can say it was or was not an illusion.

Humberto Maturana uses the example of a trout leaping to a fisherman’s fly. At the moment the fish perceives the fly and executes its leap, the fly is “real” – a living creature the trout can eat. It is only after the trout is hooked that that the illusion becomes apparent. That’s when the trout can say, “wait – this didn’t happen last time. This fly is not a real fly.”

Thus, if I assert some object or experience is an illusion, I am doing so via a comparison. The question is: what is being compared to what? (And – if I am feeling particularly ambitious – who or what is doing the comparing?)

What is being compared to what? I want to go deeply into this. I want to answer it in a satisfying and personal way.

That is, I want to be careful that I am not saying “the world is an illusion” because that’s what A Course in Miracles says. I don’t want to say “I am awareness itself” because Rupert Spira or Leo Hartong say that. I don’t want to say “I am that” because Ramana Maharshi said it.

What is my experience? How does that experience express itself?

I want to be attentive to the actual process of observation and determination as it happens in my living; I want to be responsible for it. What is it? How shall I speak of it?

In general these days, I am less interested in arguing that the world – or some aspect of it – is an illusion than I am in thinking out loud about the unexamined interior certainty that underlies these concepts and our dialogues about them.

Say that you and I sit out by the apple trees at dusk. We share a cup of tea. We talk or don’t talk. Here is the view from earlier this summer.

night_sky_illusion_reality

Is the sky an illusion? Are the vivid colors real? What about the apple trees on the right? The hemlock trees on the left? The bodies observing it all?

Bracket those questions for a moment. Set them aside. Beneath them there is an underlying certainty or confidence that something – whatever we name it, however we describe it – is happening.

Is that point clear? Before we get into the metaphysics, the folk physics, the quantum physics, the biology, the theology, the soteriology, et cetera, can we just agree that something is going on? Something to which all the afore-mentioned conceptual frameworks might be applied?

If that is clear, then consider these questions: how do I know that something is happening? How does it appear? Is it real? Is it an illusion? To what would I compare it in order to know?

The feeling of certainty or confidence is internal and abstract. I can’t point to it the way I can point to the sky. When I am attentive to it – when I am curious about it – the focus shifts in a subtle way. In a recent newsletter (sign up if you like), I suggested a way to think about this interior abstraction is as “being.”

Can we glimpse being itself? Impersonal, unconditional, all-in-all?

If not, why not? And how do we know “not?”

If so, then what questions remain when we do catch that glimpse? What questions are dissolved?

This raises another challenge. Given that a previous experience taken to be real was subsequently revealed to be an illusion, how do I know this new one (this glimpse of being, say) will not also be subsequently declared an illusion?

The answer is that I do not know it won’t be!

And with that, the bottom just . . . falls out. There is no certainty; there is no end to the questions. It’s inquiries all the way down.

What do we do then?

Well, I want to go slowly with experience (like, say, the experience of seeing and suggesting that “it’s inquiries all the way down”) and the assertions that I make about it. I want to speak to my experience of truth without aggrandizing it (i.e., posturing as the one who gets it). I don’t want to arrogate more certainty than is justified, assuming any is justified at all.

We are averse to doubt. We like teachers who reassure us the ground is solid, not teachers who glibly profess that maybe it’s solid and maybe it’s not and we’ll never know for sure. Confident teachers declaring they’ve got The Answer™ will always distract us from our responsibility to explore the interior – answerless though it may be – on our own.

Often, people become frustrated at this point. They feel curtailed or confounded. Am I really saying we can never know anything for sure?

Well, yes.  (And I am also suggesting – albeit not so much in this post – that we investigate the stability and “realness” of the underlying knower who knows we can never know anything for sure).

But also, saying “I don’t know” is not the end of the road. The bottom falls out but the show goes on. There is still making love and gardening and baking bread and long walks to and from the river and sharing tea under the apple trees at dusk.

It all goes on just like it did, almost as if there’s nothing to get in the first place . . . This is a very important insight!

When we realize how little we know and accept that we cannot fundamentally know everything, then it becomes possible to lean into our actual experience. Who cares what it is? This is it! This very this! And we can be curious about it and responsive to it. We can revel in it and play with it. We can sing to it and listen as it sings back or doesn’t sing back.

In other words, we can consent to the gentle and natural bringing forth of love. We listen better. We become less insistent that this or that way of living is right or wrong. We soften; we melt. And as we do, life gives itself to us and we are adequate unto it. We are more than adequate unto it.

On that view, the question of illusion vs. reality subsides because the work is always to be attentive and humble, to go slowly and curiously, and see what happens.

Getting Beyond “Know Thyself”

Perhaps we are moving beyond a space of needing to “know thyself.” Perhaps we are entering a new space where it is enough to realize the process of knowing, without getting hung up on knower and known and so forth.

The self seems to be that which has certain identifying data (name, birthday, place of residence, family constellation), which data morphs into narrative (likes and dislikes, significant life events, hopes and dreams, hobbies, secrets, et cetera).

flowers_in_garden
A profusion of flowers in the garden, a lovely tangle that makes me happy and grateful.

But before identity and narrative, there is that to which identity and narrative apply. There is that for which they are relevant or significant, that which attends them and which they attend in turn.

This “that” is a distinction that in our current state of thinking and speaking we refer to as a “self.” First comes the self, the particular distinction, and then come identity and narrative, which are effectively window dressing for the distinction to which they apply.

Perhaps part of the spiritual process is just seeing clearly this order: the self is that which to which identity and narrative apply. And then a further part of the spiritual process is attending the self, the that-which-occurs-prior-to-identity-and-narrative.

It is possible to give attention to that self, and to experience it in a direct way. This direct experience can be quite intimate and intense, given that time and place, identity and narrative apparently dissolve in it.

Yet there is also a potential for confusion in such intimate intensity. We sometimes end up identifying with the intensity, that pure state of awareness. As Ramana Maharshi put it “that Awareness which alone remains – that I am.”

Yet this “I” remains a distinction. It cannot be otherwise. In order to distinguish “I” we automatically distinguish “Not-I.” To bring forth a “self” – any self at all – we must also bring forth “not-self.” Else how would we know it?

Thus, the self for its existence relies on the other, who is also a self relying for its existence on another.

It is tempting to observe this circularity, this mutuality, and declare with respect to it: we are one. But this declaration is limited. A and B, who mutually specify each other, also mutually specify C, which is their unity, their oneness. It is this oneness that allows A and B to be both self and other (even though each is aware of only one self and one other).

But in order to specify C, we must thereby specify not-C. On and on it goes. That is why the declaration “we are one” is limited. C brings forth not-C, which in turn brings forth D, which in turns bring forth not-D. It’s true we are one, you and I, but we are not “only” one, or “the only” one.

It seems like we are locked into an infinite regress here (C leads to D leads to E leads to F et cetera). But rather than focus on that, it’s helpful to focus on the circularity that inheres between A and B, or AB and C, or ABC and D. Each forms a circle in which each is the full equal of the other, and in which each brings the other forth.

This circularity undoes – or dissolves – the inclination (which is premised on linearity) to ask about first causes, beginnings, before-the-beginnings, et cetera. There is no beginning. Nor is there any end. There is only being, wherever and however one looks, that is all there is. Being.

I am suggesting one actually go into this. I am suggesting one actually observe the distinctions and the distinguishing and reflect on them. They are living processes, dynamically capable of being observed.

And I suggest that in doing so, one comes up against lawful limits (there is a self that is not alone but exists in mutual codependence with others who could be one’s own self), and that these limits are nonetheless experienced as essentially infinite and eternal (without beginning or end), and that at some point in the inquiry, the giving of attention to all this, it becomes possible – it becomes desirable – to just breathe and say “okay, this is it” in a relative rather than absolute way.

This breathing (I am not being metaphorical but really indicating giving attention to one’s experience of breathing, of being breathed) – this relaxing into (not resisting, not adapting, not altering) what is as it is – is what makes us fundamentally happy, peaceful, coherent, creative and so forth.

Finally, I think a language around this process that is not inherently spiritual or religious or therapeutic but basically logical – like directions for screwing in a light bulb – is helpful. That is, rather than spiritualize our confusion and inattention, why not just be clear and attentive?

rain falls on the river out back, low in a dry summer, like the rest of us longing for that which we are.

In a funny way, it is actually easier to be clear and attentive than unclear and inattentive. But we have to want to see it that way.

Part of why I suggest a non-spiritual/religious mode of dealing with this material is that spiritual/religious modes tend to be conclusive. And any conclusion with respect to the self (or Truth or God or the Whole or whatever) strikes me as incoherent in terms of logic and – more importantly – community.

It is incoherent logically because we can never stand outside the domain of experience in order to compare it any putative truth. Therefore, experience is always conditional – it is what it is, but what it is, in the ultimate sense, is foreclosed to us. Statements like “there is only this,” while tempting because of their pretense to certainty, and the comfort certainty brings, are effectively superstition. They are magical thinking. We just don’t know.

More significantly, it is a distraction in the communal sense, because our problem is that we are unhappy, and fixing this is not complicated – we just have to let go of what makes us unhappy! It’s not a spiritual problem. It’s not a psychological problem. It’s a mechanical problem. If you see a rattlesnake on the trail, you don’t need a metaphysician to know to stop walking. You stop walking; you give the snake its due, and this happens naturally. Like that, happiness is natural. To be is to be happy. But we can ignore this, or forget this, and thus make ourselves unhappy.

We can turn the rattlesnake into a problem of God or metaphysics, what are basically undecidable questions. When those questions are posed in the sense of “I have to answer this in order to be happy” rather than “asking these questions makes me happy” than we are effectively screwed.

I speak from considerable experience in that regard . . .

But it seems that we are beginning to move beyond that space, the space of complicating things in favor of a space where our natural proclivity for joy, helpfulness, peace, cooperation and so forth might prevail. I hope so. We need that, as a species, and the ecosystem of which we are such a problematic part needs it, too.