Choosing Between Belief Systems

The problem is never the specific feeling I am having – I am angry, say. Rather, it is the belief system from which the specific feeling reflexively arises. Ultimately, that is where the problem is solved. That is where we will find Saint Paul’s “peace that surpasseth understanding.”

In A Course in Miracles, this means that we are always choosing between the ego’s belief system, which reflects separation, or the Holy Spirit’s, which reflects wholeness and unity and love.

The ego has a purpose, just as the Holy Spirit has . . . your mind has the means at its disposal to side with Heaven or earth, as it elects. But again, remember that both are in you (T-5.V.1:2, 4-5).

The poetic and religious language of the course can obscure  its simple truth: we contain two thought systems which give rise to radically different experiences of self and world and other, and our feelings attest to which one we are choosing.

We all want to manage and minimize our negative feelings – that’s natural. Quite often there is a lot of good in it. We feel better emotionally, think more clearly, make more skillful decisions and so forth. We can learn more about how our internal mechanics function. All of this makes us better servants unto our brothers and sisters.

But we often don’t see that the positive feelings (which we tend to prefer) come from the same place, the same belief system. It is easy to chase a rush of endorphins and call it spiritual growth. “I’m closer to Jesus,” “I’m really healing.” But in truth, we’re just relying on the same egoic belief system. As the course observes, “Every response to the ego is a call to war, and war does deprive you of peace” (T-8.I.3:13).

We have to see the unconditional nature of that sentence: every response is a call to war, even those that temporarily make us feel better. So long as we are invested or attached to the ego’s belief system, and the spectrum of feeling emerging from it, then we will not know peace. Period.

So those ego-based feelings are always going to see-saw back and forth – good, bad, happy, sad, angry, content and so on. The extremes might soften, and the form the feelings take will surely change over time, but unless the underlying belief system changes – unless we deliberately choose the Holy Spirit – then we are always going to be surfing emotional ups and downs and never knowing a sustainable inner peace.

Gandhi acknowledged this. He said often to his followers that despite his practice of ahimsa, nonviolence, he was capable of anger, of perceiving injustice, feeling abused and all that. It wasn’t that he had escaped those emotions, but rather that he had mastered his response to them. He wasn’t run by them, wasn’t carried away by them.

So those negative experiences, thoughts, feelings and so forth are not, by themselves, going anywhere. Even Gandhi recognized this. Some other energy or action has to come forth.

The question is: can we get clear about the belief system from which the specific feelings arise? And can that clarity relate us to peace – a peace that is without opposite, that we can’t put into words, that we can’t – at least right now – even comprehend?

To give oneself over to the ego’s belief system is to deny oneself the natural grace that is the inheritance of Creation, forever and always offered to us by God, or Love, or What Is.

We have to be willing to look at what is happening internally – when we are angry, when we are joyful. This is to say that we have to be willing to practice A Course in Miracles – do the lessons, embrace its ideas – bring it into application, as Tara Singh would say. And this is hard because it isn’t all light – it is shadow, too, hard work, and sometimes tedious work, and we can’t delegate it, and when we are doing it, nobody else can be there with us.

Feelings, like thoughts, come and go. They are part of having a body – which includes the brain. In that sense, they are no more or less impressive than, say, our toe nails. We don’t get all bent out of shape when those grow and extend – we just trim them from time to time and carry on with life.

Or, to use another example, we don’t call a therapist every time we pee. We don’t bring God and psychiatrists and spiritual gurus into the mix just because our kidneys, ureters and bladder produced urine. The body does what it does and more or less we let it do that.

It is possible to experience thought and feelings in the same way – as natural and predictable byproducts of our human experience, no more an impediment to wholeness than sneezing in the presence of dust. It just happens. It’s natural.

In order to see this in a way that is transformative – that allows us to make use of it – that is helpful – we have to get past the feeling of anger (or happiness or greed or lust or whatever). We have to trace the feeling back or down to the belief system out of which is arises, which is its source. We have to see the ego’s belief system – really see it, because otherwise we won’t be sufficiently committed to make another choice. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for this, and no shortcut.

How do we do this looking? What does the looking “look” like?

Sometimes when I am angry – and I am not instantly carried away by it, or after I am sufficiently recollected – I will ask myself some questions: what assumptions am I making that make this anger possible? Or, what necessities am I presently idolizing or defending in order to feel this anger?

Doing this thoughtfully, attentively and willingly is what A Course in Miracles means when it asks us to look with the Holy Spirit, or give something over to the Holy Spirit. We want to investigate it, see it clearly, learn what we can, and not make the same error going forward.

So let’s say that somebody is mean to me – some student comes up to me after class and says “I really hate Emily Dickinson and it’s all your fault because you’re a terrible teacher and a rotten person.” Right away feelings of anger arise.

What are the assumptions behind that anger? Maybe that students shouldn’t be disrespectful to professors. Maybe that I am a nice guy and a good teacher and everybody should see that and only that. Maybe that anybody who holds an opinion about me that is contrary to the one I hold is always wrong or stupid or morally bankrupt.

And what are the necessaries that I am defending with or through my anger? Well, clearly I believe that it’s necessary I be treated a certain (good) way, and that this certain (good) way does not take into consideration anybody else’s feelings. My anger is not really interested in inquiring into the student’s state of mind, or what attention they might need, or the possibility they might be right in some ways, or anything like that. It is all about me – about Sean, my self.

What do those assumptions and necessaries have in common? They all point to a belief system that A Course in Miracles calls the ego’s belief system – a separated self in competition with other separated selves in a world of scarce (and getting scarcer) resources. Because I believe in that separated self, naturally I will defend it when it is attacked, and naturally I will take pleasure when somebody honors and adores it.

The ego’s goal is quite explicitly ego autonomy. From the beginning, then, its purpose is to be separate, sufficient unto itself and independent of any power except its own. This is why it is the symbol of separation (T-11.V.4:4-6).

So I want to see that, and more than that, I want to see how literally everything that flows from the ego’s goal, from its system – regardless of how I define it in a given moment – promotes separation, which is to promote discord and conflict.

To give oneself over to the ego’s belief system is to deny oneself the natural grace that is the inheritance of Creation, forever and always offered to us by God, or Love, or What Is.

That is why the course teaches us that “[t]he real conflict you experience, then, is between the ego’s idle wishes and the Will of God, which you share” (T-11.V.5:2), and makes clear that this is an illusory, not a real, conflict. (T-11.V.5:5).

So when we are stricken with anger – or grief or lust or sadness or ecstasy or whatever – it is an opportunity to heal not just the specific feeling but to look clearly, in a sustained and thoughtful way, at the belief system from which this feeling emerges. If we want to be rid of suffering, then we need to jettison the belief system from which it arises, which is always a system made solely to ensure and perpetuate suffering.

It is not a mistake to look at our feelings – the seemingly bad ones, the seemingly good ones – and and inquire into them as a way of discerning their source. Only then can we meaningfully choose a new source – one that was not made by us to keep God at bay, but rather was made by God to unite all beings as one and thus reflects a perfectly clear, peaceful and helpful love.


  1. sean you work from the coal face I need this type of teacher.I bought your book and loved it.I can only describe it as clean and what I mean by that is there was no ego in it.It was simple and to the point.I haven’t got the words to describe it. thank you sean your teaching is needed

  2. So I observed the little thought that bubbled up and said, “hmm, no new post”.

    …getting a little greedy-Annie?

    Well, I suppose I am truth be told.

    Everything and anything can become an addiction 🙂

    But like I had said before, it’s good to sit with some concepts for a little time and this post (like all your posts) gave me more than enough to digest. Today this line caught my imagination.

    “So long as we are invested or attached to the ego’s belief system, and the spectrum of feeling emerging from it, then we will not know peace.”

    I loved the use of the word spectrum as it covered every emotion under the sun like a rainbow.

    And who doesn’t love a rainbow?
    And that’s it -that’s the question?
    I’ve made the rainbow of emotions a beautiful, valuable thing.

    I’m envisioning a prism as the white light passes thru separating into every emotion possible.

    It’s the white light I want.
    It’s Peace I want.

    I play with the metaphors but its the experience I want.

    Maybe I should take up walking too.

    As always, I am so grateful that you share your talent of writing.

    I wish you Peace.

    1. Well, here you go Annie . . . A wordy Thursday.

      I love prisms very much – have since I was little. I try to keep them around – in every room – and always stop to study dew and drops of rain or beads of ice for the colors visible in them. And, like you, I have thought about the metaphor of the white light composed by the many separate parts and yet I cannot not fall for the loveliness of the spectrum. Perhaps I am doomed . . . Sometimes I think that given a choice between the perfection of Heaven – and the broken loveliness of earth – I must say yes to earth over and over . . . How I love what is broken . . .

      I have had this funny idea of walking across the United States lately. I will walk to Los Angeles and you can walk with me from there to the Pacific Ocean. I understand it is about 15 miles if you walk Wilshire Blvd to Santa Monica beach. Deal?


  3. Hi Annie and Sean,

    I think we love what is broken because it is what we know, and that familiar ache can feel almost sweet. Our feelings are just so “real” aren’t they, although I imagine that that almost unbearable tenderness that can so overwhelm us is different than our rainbow of emotions. Or maybe not…

    Annie, I want the experience, too! 🙂

    And Sean, if you ever do the mega-marathon walking thing …. you must detour to southeastern Virginia. At the rate you’re going these days, it would just be slightly out of your way! 🙂


    P.S. Thanks for sharing photos of your family. How beautiful you all are!

    1. Re: light and prisms . . . I wonder if perhaps we are the prism itself choosing in which direction to turn – the white light of One or the fractured (if sometimes lovely) separation . . .

      Re: detours into Virginia . . . of course!

      & thanks for the kind words . . .

      ~ Sean

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