Helpful Spiritual Junctures

For a long time I wanted to be right about A Course in Miracles. Eventually, this desire was superseded by the recognition that what actually mattered was helpfulness. If studying Gary Renard was helpful to someone, what did it matter if I thought he was peddling lies?

A focus on helpfulness is sustainable because in an important sense there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong.” Therefore, efforts to reach and remain with “right” conclusions are hindrances to inner peace.

From the perspective of the body, this is confusing. After all, we can all point to “right” ideas, theories, practices and so forth. We can all point to “wrong” ones, too. Adopting advantageous positions is what the body is all about.

But, in terms of wholeness, the body’s perspective is ipso facto not the whole. It is partial, fragmented. It emerges from and reconfirms separation. Whatever it knows – whatever thought, opinion, idea that it adopts – is by definition also partial and fragmented.

Whenever you think you know, peace will depart from you, because you have abandoned the Teacher of Peace. Whenever you fully realize that you know not, peace will return, for you will have invited Him to do so by abandoning the ego on behalf of Him (T-14.XI.13:3-4).

“Him” in this quote refers to the Holy Spirit, which is undivided present moment awareness.

None of this is to say that we cannot be relatively “right” or “wrong.” In fact, from the body’s fragmented perspective, we can’t not be relatively “right” or “wrong.” But it is important not to confuse “relative” with “absolute.”

Most of us – in our quest for certainty – confuse “relative” with “absolute.”

It is important to see that our quest for certainty is doomed by virtue of that which quests for it. The only certainty is uncertainty. In a real sense, our home – such as it is – rests in not-knowing, in un-certainty.

What A Course in Miracles calls “separation” is simply our resistance to this fact.

If we look into this, we notice that part of bodily experience includes forming maps by which we navigate life. Maps are basically stored collated judgments: civic responsibility matters, God is real and Jesus is his son, greed is a sin, eat vegetarian, college degrees matter/don’t matter, climate change is a myth, floss your teeth, do yoga, don’t tell lies, et cetera.

It’s hard to stake out this or that ground (i.e., put together a map) and not feel like it needs to be defended. After all, it’s our map, it’s vital to our bodily experience and it’s only useful if it’s right. Nobody wants an inaccurate or altogether wrong map. Nobody should be surprised that we feel protective of them.

Often, defending our map means attacking those whose maps appear different, where “attack” means “point out they’re wrong,” however subtly, passive-aggressively, etc. For example, somebody might say that A Course in Miracles and the Dzogchen tradition of Buddhism are synonymous. For them that’s a coherent and helpful map. But your map requires that the course be Christian without any deviation into eastern philosophy or theology.

So you start arguing with them. Maybe you do this to their face, maybe you do it an online setting, and maybe you just do it in your head. The point isn’t the form the argument takes; it’s the existence of the argument at all.

We only argue because we believe something real is at stake. We only argue because we believe something real is threatened.

But “nothing real can be threatened” and “nothing unreal exists” (In.2:2-3).

Thus, once we’re in the space of argument, we’re doubling down on our perception of separation. And to be separate is to be conflicted, and conflict by definition is the absence of peace.

That is why it behooves us to investigate this issue so carefully.

Again, the maps themselves are not the problem; they inhere in bodily experience. They can and should be taken seriously; but too often they are taken literally.

This distinction (taking something seriously vs. taking it literally) matters. For example, in a dialogue about spirituality, “wholeness,” “oneness” and “nonduality” can all point to the same insight. But they can also all point to radically different insights. If we take them literally, we deny their potential for sameness. Yet when we take them seriously but not literally, their potential for sameness clarifies. When this broad applicability is seen clearly, the inclination to argue that one application is absolutely or inherently better than another – is right and the other(s) wrong – largely subsides.

In other words, when we look closely at the premise of our inclination to argue in order to be right, there is a lot of smoke but no fire.

So the important aspect of our maps – whether they are spiritual, cognitive, semantic, et cetera – is their helpfulness, not their “rightness” or “wrongness.” “Right” and “wrong” are distractions. Helpfulness is a form of love because its focus isn’t on form but content.

Another way to think of it is this popular optical illusion.

two_women_optical_illusionWhen we first look at it, we see an older woman. Naturally, we say “this is an image of an older woman.” It seems to be a very defensible position. We are obviously “right.” If someone else comes along and says “no – it’s actually an image of a young woman,” of course we are going to disagree.

But if we keep looking, eventually the image flips – perception aligns differently – and now we see the young woman.

One image that can be seen two ways – both cannot be seen at once; and neither is more or less right than the other. So what happens to our argument that the image is of an old and not a young woman? It dissolves; it’s no longer sustainable. It’s obviously both at once, even though we can only see one at a time.

It’s not that anybody won the argument. It’s not that both sides were “right” (thus allowing for some hypothetical “wrong”). It’s that there are no grounds for argument in the first case.

The suggestion in this analogy is that our sense of being a discrete embodied self is somewhat like that: you can see it from a strictly material perspective (we’re bodies having an experience in the world with other bodies) but that is not the only way to see it. You can see it from myriad religious perspectives (Hindu, Buddhist, et cetera) or from scientific perspectives (Schrödinger is a good read in this regard) or from a post-structuralist perspective (Karen Baraft, say), or from any combination thereof.

Again, the point is not that there is a right or a wrong way to see (or think) about things. The point is that all we can really know is unknowability; there is nothing to be certain about except uncertainty. So the question is: is what shows up helpful or not helpful?

Obviously the spiritual inquiry does not end when we see this clearly. But it is a helpful juncture.

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  1. Often when I offer this sort of post, somebody asks if it isn’t self-contradictory. That is, can’t we argue about the point that “there is nothing to argue about?” Am I not sort of saying that I’m “right” that nobody can be right?

    Here’s the thing. We can always argue – about anything. And some of us will. But the point I am making is that there is another way which is premised on seeing clearly what “we” are.

    Imagine two people talking – A and B.

    A: We should take a train rather than a bus to Boston.

    B: We are already in Boston.

    A: But trains are quicker and more affordable!

    B: We are already in Boston.

    A: Why do you hate trains?

    And so on.

    B could always choose to debate the point. There’s no law against it. But seeing that the goal has been achieved – they are already in Boston – what besides more conflict could possibly be achieved in argument?

    So it’s like that. Once we see the relative nature of perspective, there is really nothing left to argue about. It’s better to just focus on helpfulness within the relative vantage point and let the spiritual chips fall where they may (which is all they ever do anyway).

    To extend the example above, rather than engage the bus/train argument, B might just say to A, “let’s go for a walk and you can talk about whatever you like.”

    After all, B knows they’re in Boston. And A is not likely to be persuaded they’re in Boston – A’s focus is on the mode of travel and the future goal, not the present moment. B knows that arguing about modes of travel and future plans is silly – there’s nowhere to go. They are already there. We all are.

    So they walk, and B points out this or that aspect of Boston, and listens patiently to A, and now and then gently observes that they are already in Boston.

    In time – not according to A, and not according to B – A will see it too. That’s the nature of it. That’s Boston.

    So in the interim, why argue? Why sow conflict where there’s a better – a sweeter, more peaceful, a gentler and kinder – way?

  2. Another point that often gets raised is with respect to this theme is how to deal with specific political/social/cultural issues. For example, someone says that they believe gay men and women should be allowed to get married – and that this belief is “right.”

    They ask me if I am really advocating for saying it’s okay to believe gay men and women should not be allowed to get married. After all, if there’s no right or wrong, then that would be a perfectly permissible view point, no? And isn’t that kind of . . . wrong?

    Or – to go to an even more inflammatory extreme – do I really think the holocaust was neither “right” nor “wrong?”

    I think those are good and important questions. Answering them relies on understanding the difference between taking what appears seriously and taking it literally.

    Taking positions with respect to the world (gay rights, gun safety, world famine, health care accessibility, Japanese internment camps, you name it) is inherent in experience. You can’t not do it.

    Therefore, the suggestion is that we take taking those positions seriously. Given a choice, can we see a distinction between a loving choice and an unloving (or less loving) choice?

    I am suggesting we go slowly and carefully into that which appears before us and appears to obligate us to take sides. I am suggesting we give attention to it in a deep and sustainable way.

    I am suggesting that “loving” is a kind of “wokeness” – where “wokeness” means being informed, questioning everything, talking to others, remembering that we don’t know what we don’t know, and so on and so forth.

    Going slowly and carefully matters because we can’t know the whole – we are always going to be choosing based on incomplete information. And it is really hard to get away from self-interest.

    The reason we can’t take our decisions literally is because we don’t know – and by definition can not know – the whole.

    And the reason we take our decisions seriously is because whatever the whole is, here is how it is showing up right now.

    For example, maybe it’s true “there is no world” (W-I.132.6:2) but here are my kids asking if I’ll make them pancakes for breakfast. I take that appearance seriously, and do what is most helpful: I make them pancakes. With chocolate chips. And lots of maple syrup.

    Here is another example (borrowed from Donald Hoffman’s work). On my computer screen, there are folder icons. If I click one, it takes me to a few dozen subfolder icons, each of which houses various writing projects, which also appear as icons.

    The computer is not literally filled with folders filled with subfolders filled with thousands of documents. When I click on a folder icon, a folder doesn’t actually open so I can remove a document. Rather, a bunch of hardware runs a bunch of software and voila! My poem shows up on the screen.

    I take the icons seriously – I have to in order to write – but I don’t take them literally. I know they are a shortcut (given to perception) that allow me to interact with my work through a computer.

    So that is a way to think about it. That which shows up in our life should be taken seriously – because it allows us to interact with the whole, whatever the whole is – but this is not synonymous with reasonable grounds for taking it literally.

    (This is why I often suggest letting the metaphysics go – who cares if the body or the world is real in a way we can understand and appreciate? We want to be at peace – with ourselves, our families, our communities, the world, the cosmos . . . understanding complex ideas is fine in it’s own right – and if we have some facility for it, why not play – but it’s hardly a prerequisite to being kind and gentle and forgiving. It’s hardly a prerequisite for love. In fact, it often functions as an impediment).

    In a way, this is akin to reframing. Rather than saying this or that position is “right,” can we say it’s “helpful” and articulate why it is helpful? Does that change the way we see things, including others with whom we ostensibly disagree?

    Personally, I think it is *helpful to take a position that gay men and women should marry, raise families, et cetera. It feels like an open, loving and inclusive thing to do. I am unaware of coherent persuasive social or political rationales that contradict its helpfulness. And I think the ripple effect of love and inclusivity inhere to our mutual benefit.

    It’s also why I voted for Hillary Clinton, grow and raise a lot of our own food, run for local public office, protest against the death penalty, march for women’s rights, homeschool our kids, buy only used clothes, compost as much as possible, volunteer with a local group for assisting new and young families, support cooperatives over corporations wherever possible, get up early to write, and so forth.

    So yes. Take life seriously by all means, but consider not taking it so literally (which often means taking it less personally – but that’s another story).

    Loosening our grip on “our” way allows us to give some attention not only to the choices that appear to appear, but also to the the self that appears to be doing the choosing and for whom the consequences of that choosing seem to be so significant.

    It is important to keep our eye on the ball ACIM offers at its outset: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists” (In.2:2-3).

    Investigation will reveal that the egoic self is illusory, which takes a lot of the sting out of the feeling that anything is truly at risk in what it seems to do and what seems to be done to it.

    When I say “illusory” I am not saying “not real.” After all, a shadow isn’t a real body, but it is a real shadow.

    When I say “illusory,” I mean “it’s not what you think it is. It’s something else. And we are distracted by what we think from giving attention to this ‘something else.'”

    That is what illusions do – they distract us from what’s really going on. Don’t think of them as synonymous with unreal – think of them as real in their own right but fundamentally distracting.

    In other words, what is it that thought is working so hard to keep you from looking at?

    And are you ready now to look at it?

  3. LOL I can’t help to think this is a long passive aggressive reply to our discussion on your other post.

    So speaking of all this, why do you think Wapnick wanted to be so right that he tried to quash all other voices of the course to the point of threatening people with lawyers and legal action when he got the copyright?

    The irony being if he/FACIM didn’t lose the copyright, you might not be able to write about A Course in Miracles today.

    He also stated that if someone didn’t agree with his interpretation (cause according to him it wasn’t an interpretation, but fact) then that person wasn’t really doing the course. Something of course Gary Renard echoes.

    I mean the dogma of “being right” was so deeply embedded that Wapnick actually wanted to stifle people from being able to discuss it online and /or write about it.

    This isn’t just simple disagreement like being against gay marriage (which btw I’m very much in favor of gay marriage), this is trying to actually stop people from being able to do something which is actually affecting the person /persons.


    1. Thanks, Eric. In terms of your questions about Ken and so forth, I think the post & comments are responsive (if long-winded). In short, I don’t personally share your concerns about them, but also don’t see it as a big deal. The focus is really on helpfulness, inquiry, undoing et cetera – and honestly, the course and its various teachers are just a tool. If it doesn’t fit or serve then grab another, right?

      Thanks again, Eric. I hope you and your family are well.


  4. Hello friends, ACIM is to me is a very helpful tool-set that helps me to discover what is already within, to help dissolve the layers of false identity via mindful awareness. To err is human, to forgive is divine. Wapnick and Renard being fully human might have made some mistakes but at their core they are also sons of God. To see only their flaws would be to delay my own spiritual growth. Now there are several versions of ACIM. This is good, yes. Eckhart Tolle was also a teacher of ACIM and he some helpful writings. By dissolving my pain-body I can begin to forgive. Thank you for your blogs and writings.

  5. First let me say thank you..I understand more every time I read your blog.
    Still working on the ego…thought distraction.. thing, but when thinking “right or wrong” is this judging? The commandments say “Thou shall not judge”. Or are the commandments not to be taking literally? Or are they even to be considered it light of “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists” (In.2:2-3)?

    1. Hi Lynn,

      Thank you for reading and sharing. In a sense, to not judge is impossible – it is part of what the body does. It arises of its own accord as a function of the brain and so forth.

      So yes, in a sense, “right” and “wrong” are judgmental. I am suggesting reframing that judgment into what is helpful and what is not, and also not getting too alarmed at what the body does. We don’t freak out when the body needs to sneeze; why freak out when it needs to think?

      The biblical passage you point to is interesting. “Judge not, that ye not be judged.” If we read closely, that line suggests that judgment is a double-edged sword – we cannot use it against others without also hurting ourselves.

      The issue is really around taking judgment literally, rather than seriously. For example, some course students would say bringing traditional scriptural readings into ACIM practice is a no-no. For other students, the bible is a useful resource.

      The problem – such as it is – is not that we have preferences (use the bible vs. don’t use the bible) – but the need to persuade others that “our” way is the “right” way.

      A focus on what is helpful to us – and an overall sense of taking things slow and not getting too worked up over what others are doing – is generally useful. Everything else follows in time.

      ~ Sean

  6. The train illustration was huge in its clarity. I just sent it to some friends, thinking it could make a real difference in discussions. The only resistance I could anticipate is someone getting mad over me giving them some pointless riddle. But this illustration is even more helpful because I can imagine it on myself. For example, my anticipating is already just being person B thinking it has a prudent caveat to exempt from what this applies to. So seeing this way “inside” is a lot of fun too. I want to be person A to that person B voice, until even A doesn’t have to “B” anymore.

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