We have the structure of human beings living in the world with other human beings, and other forms of life with their own unique structures. That is the physical context in which we encounter A Course in Miracles. Thus, our learning takes place in bodies and has as part of its subject those very bodies.
This can be a challenging concept to understand. For example, we tend to hear “I am not a body/I am free” (W-pI.199) from the perspective of our bodies: our eyes read the words, our brains translate them into meaning and then decide how to behave in the world given that information. The lesson appears wrapped up in the very form it denies.
ACIM students are often reluctant to admit that they accept the existence – relative or otherwise – of their bodies. We believe that the course teaches otherwise and we want to be good students. We want to fit in with our spiritual tribe, and so subtly or otherwise we pretend that we get it – we aren’t bodies, we’re free! We pretend that we are living it, when in fact it’s just words.
Denial shows up on a sort of spectrum. At one extreme, we say to people who are sick or suffering, “well, you’re not a body,” with a sort of implicit “shake it off.” There’s an unfortunate amount of that in the ACIM community. I don’t think the ones doing it are bad people. They aren’t trying to be hurtful. But still.
At the other end of the spectrum, we keep our denial to ourselves. We “pretend” that we believe we’re not bodies, but never actually look in a sustained and nonjudgmental way at the pretense, and so the lie hums along just below the surface.
Most of us move around this spectrum. It doesn’t really matter where we are on it – the effect is the same. We don’t learn the lesson that is offered. But the way off this spectrum (and into a space of learning) is simply to acknowledge the truth of our self-deceit: “I understand this concept intellectually but I don’t know how to live it. It isn’t my experience of reality. It’s just words.”
What I am trying to say – because it is very much what Jesus is saying implicitly throughout A Course in Miracles – is that it is okay that it’s just words. It’s okay that we don’t get it. In fact, it is more than okay. It is the whole point. If we could learn all this stuff in the blink of an eye without a lot of work, then there wouldn’t be any need for A Course in Miracles. After all, we’ve had Jesus and Buddha for two thousand and twenty-five hundred years respectively and we’re still lost. We’re still confused. There is no shame in it. On the contrary, there is a lot of potential.
So it’s good to be honest about that. Honesty is a sort of space in which our right minds can function: sending a few shoots of clarity and right-thinking into the mix that will hopefully take root and blossom into real insight. The Holy Spirit is not much help when we are satisfied with our progress and full of self-righteousness. Why pretend otherwise?
A few years ago I was invited to a spiritual get-together in a neighboring state. The friend who invited me mentioned that one of the individuals organizing the event (an elder in that particular community) was into A Course in Miracles and was really looking forward to talking with me.
The two of us ended up talking for an hour or so on a patio overlooking the Connecticut River. It was one of the hardest and most confusing talks I have ever had about the course. This person kept talking about bodies as illusions – really going into it – but always adding almost casually, “so if a person is in an abusive relationship, it doesn’t matter. It’s just part of the dream.”
The fourth or fifth time this happened, I realized we were not talking about a hypothetical situation. And we were not having an intellectual dialogue about illusions in A Course in Miracles.
I struggled in that conversation to make the point that we are not meant to suffer here in this world – that it is crucial to take care of ourselves, whether that means going to AA meetings, getting chemotherapy or moving to a safe house or otherwise ending an abusive relationship.
Indeed, hiding behind the metaphysics of “I am not a body/I am free” is the opposite of healing.
The body is merely part of your experience in the physical world . . . it is almost impossible to deny its existence in this world. Those who do so are engaging in a particularly unworthy form of denial (T-2.IV.3:8, 10-11).
The course goes on to explain that “unworthy” in this instance is synonymous with “unnecessary.” In other words, we don’t recover and embrace the mind by denying or somehow hiding the body.
But it is important to be clear that this hiding – this inclination to keep secrets while feigning spiritual wellness or expertise – happens to all of us from time to time and to various degrees. And it can be very hard to see it happening. We are very good at fooling ourselves. I think all of us have these kinds of blind spots. We “fix” them by becoming aware of them and offering them, through awareness, to the Holy Spirit (T-10.II.2:3).
We all get very excited to learn that we are not bodies – on some level, I think we know intuitively that we are not, and so we are grateful to be reminded. We are eager to relearn our truth and to live from its space. But we can’t rush the process of undoing. Sometimes, in our desire to wake up – to please Jesus, be a good course teacher and student, et cetera – we use words to suggest we’re further ahead in the learning process than we actually are. For example, I might paraphrase Tara Singh or Krishnamurti and pretend that their insights are mine.
In my early twenties I drank and did drugs in a very self-destructive way. A lot of people – family members, counselors, even cops on a few occasions – tried to point out how dangerous and crazy my behavior was. I listened but I didn’t hear. It wasn’t until I was sleeping in my car and vomiting blood that a dim light went on and I realized that I needed help. And even then it took more than a few tries to find my way to sanity.
If you had run into me in those days, you would have found me studying Thoreau and Saint John of the Cross and Jacques Derrida. I had even run into A Course in Miracles! I was smart in a way, but in another way, I was utterly hopeless. I could discuss the relationship between Emerson’s Self Reliance and Merton’s Contemporary Prayer but was entirely incapable of seeing that my life – stealing money from friends and family, lying to everyone I met, retching my way through the few lucid moments I had – was an utter and chaotic mess. It hurt me and it hurt others.
Even though things are not nearly so discordant today, I am hardly immune to the underlying error: mistaking my body for my true self. The key is not to fall into judgment over it: to think I’m a bad person or a bad ACIM student because for an afternoon or a conversation or a whole week I fell for the old lie that I’m a body. That’s just spiritual pride masquerading as love. It happens, sure, but it still needs to be called out.
So why not let it be? Be broken. Be dysfunctional. I often use the verb “stumble” around here because it helps keep me honest. I’m not a spiritual giant striding manfully into Heaven while scores of angels cheer me on and ask for my autograph. I’m stumbling and grumbling and learning so slowly that it almost seems like going backwards.
But it doesn’t matter. What matters is willingness – not the form it shows up in. In other words, it’s being a happy learner that counts. Critically, while it’s nice to remember that joy is the sure result of our learning, it’s hardly a prerequisite to getting started.
All we can do is give attention to what is unfolding within and without us, and to do so with as little judgment as possible. This is hard to do and yet it comes as such a relief. Even a little effort can yield helpful results. Honesty is crucial: not the movement to find or fix problems, but simply to see what is appearing right now and accept it. In these bodies in this world, that is healing.