Looking at the Looker

So as we go through our lives there is a sense in which we feel wronged, say, or blessed. Things happen, people do things, or don’t do things, and we experience those effects as good or bad, and then respond accordingly. But we never give much attention to the self that is experiencing these effects and formulating a response. We never look at the looker. We take the looker for granted, which is strange when you consider its apparent prevalence and influence.

What A Course in Miracles calls the “ego” and what it calls “separation” are closely related. You really can’t have one without the other. The separation occurred over millions of years (T-2.VIII.2:5), and so the ego has had that much time to evolve as well (T-3.IV.2:1-2). If we strip away the religious and poetic language of ACIM, then the ego is really just a habit of thinking, a mode of perception that is not very helpful, because it does not perceive reality as it is but rather how it would prefer reality to be. So the ego is always perpetuating an illusion through which we stumble, wreaking all kinds of havoc, because we think we have to. We think this is how life is. But it’s not. It’s just what the ego says life is. But the ego, properly understood, doesn’t know anything at all.

We don’t need A Course in Miracles, or any other spiritual path or tradition, in order to experience this. We really just need to give attention to our experience – patiently and non-judgmentally and in a sustained way. This is hard to do at first, but it’s worth a commitment.

If we look at the structure of thought, one of the things that we notice is that there is a “thinker” who is doing the thinking. There is a thought here, and a thinker there. We attribute the thought to this thinker, and so the thought has some validity to it, because why else would the thinker think it? Somebody talks a certain way to us and the thinker thinks “that’s a rude tone of voice – we are insulted” and voila! We feel insulted. We are hurt.

In other words, we take thought seriously because of the presumption that a thinker is “back there” handling it for us. The thinker is collecting data, collating it and so forth, and then relaying it to us through the medium of thought.

But who is the thinker? Most of the time we are looking at thought, rather than at the thinker. We don’t like thoughts that make us scared or sad or angry and we do like thoughts that make us happy and peaceful and contented. But we never really try to look at the thinker, this self who is both editor and publisher of thoughts.

So part of what I am saying that we can do when we are attentive to thought, is that we can see that thought is not really as interesting as it seems at first blush. What is really interesting is the source of thought – this thinker. It seems like it should be easy enough to look at this thinker, question this thinker, but oddly, it is not. The thinker is actually very slippery.

At first, we think that this slipperiness is because the thinker doesn’t want to be seen. This is a common idea, especially in ACIM circles where the ego is castigated the way it is. We think the ego blanches – “oh no! They’re looking at me again” and so it hides, the better to continue its evil machinations. I’ve thought this way and written this way a lot. But actually, the thinker is slippery not because it’s malicious or a trickster but simply because it’s not actually there. There really is no thinker.

This is pretty simple and not such a big deal after you’ve given it a bit of attention, but it seems very radical and even dangerous the first time we hear about it, or sense it in ourselves. No thinker? But that means there is no self . . . And so “Sean” or whomever begins to feel frightened and unhinged and grabs hold of whatever it can in order to right itself, ground itself, be stabilized. We fall back into the familiar pattern of thinker and thought, self and ego, observer and observed. We slip back into separation, because even though we are miserable and mired in conflict, it is familiar and, at least temporarily, not so scary.

But we have all had experiences where the familiar, despite its reassuring presence, is no longer sufficient. This happens in relationships a lot. We are settled with someone, and it worked for a long time, but then it doesn’t. We stay because it’s scary to leave. But sometimes we have to face that fear. Sometimes we have to step out.

So that is what happens with this business of looking at the looker, or the thinker. Eventually, we realize that the pain of not giving it attention is greater than the fear of giving it attention, and so we start to really look at it. We start to try and experience what it means that there is no thinker. We actually wake up and try to go through the day without the satisfaction of self and routine and habit and all of that.

What happens? Mostly, we see the degree to which we have been living an illusion – and asking others to live it as well. And we start to know the peace that comes from being willing to not know.

“Know” in this case means to experience fully and wholly without recourse to language – sort of the way we “know” love for a dog or a child or a sunset or whatever. It has no opposite. It is beyond the realm of “other.” Doubt doesn’t enter to it.

“Not know” in this case means letting things go without bothering to judge them or label them or insist that they be this way or that. It’s letting all our experience be the same: the hugs, the kisses, the fresh-baked cookies, the bee stings, the flat tires, the lost car keys. Who knows what it means? We don’t. We see that clearly and so we let it go. We let it be. Life is. What else can we say or do?

I am not suggesting this experience is the end of anything. Or that it represents some super intense spirituality or holiness. It’s more in the nature of simply understanding the way thought works, and choosing to no longer associating ourselves with it. We simply let it run the way we let photosynthesis run, or gravity. It is peaceful, because we are no longer resisting so much. We are no longer trying to force reality to fit some pre-determined mold.

Again, the way I talk about this is not precisely consistent with A Course in Miracles. Lots of thinkers and traditions have explored this through the years – David Bohm, Buddhism, ACIM. We find a certain expression that resonates for us and we give attention to it and we learn it and then we bring it into application. I got to a point where I would reach for ACIM and think, “no, instead of reading, let me try to experience it today.”

That is what I mean when I write about giving attention. I mean that we stop letting other people tell us what is what, and we learn for ourselves what is what. There is a time and a place for instruction and instructors, and I am grateful for both indeed, but there is also a time when we have to step out and make it work for ourselves. Giving attention means literally being still with what is, right in the moment. Most of us know enough now to do that – we’ve go the tools, we’ve got the intellectual framework, so we’re ready. It’s time.

When we set out into unknown territory, it’s good to have maps. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time with compasses and topographical maps. They’re fun and helpful. But as been pointed out countless times the map is not the territory. So you use the map, but then at some point, you have to start to explore the territory on your own. You have to climb the trees, sip from the brooks, sleep beneath the stars, track the bears, and so forth. The map can’t do it for you, so you have to put it aside.

That is the old metaphor, and it’s still useful. A Course in Miracles can be very helpful in equipping us for the interior journey, but then you have to actually go and take that journey. You have to step off the familiar and into the unknown and see what happens. As Tara Singh used to say, “there is nothing to do, and nobody else can do it.”

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  1. Sean, I have spent the last 10 or so years chasing the spiritual answer, hoping that if I just found the right one I would be instantly enlightened. Thank you for this wonderful post which reinforced what I already knew – it is time to just do it!

    1. Hi Lavina!

      It’s nice to hear from you . . . thank you so much for your comment yesterday with respect to the relationships fear and misunderstanding (leading to that lovely phrase “fragrance of spirit”) . . .

      With respect to notifications, it’s a long and boring story . . . but the short answer is that I have disabled that feature for the time being . . . I am sorry for any inconvenience and glad that you are here!


  2. I am glad to have found this blog – it is a still and grounding space to check into ACIM and closely related work online. Thank you for bringing this forward.

  3. Thank You.

    I’ve read this post a few times already.
    I think I may even print it out.

    I have a sister who is frightened to engage in any conversation about ACIM.
    About half way thru reading this the first time I could hear my “thoughts”, I should share this with Ivana (and everyone else I know). I can’t imagine anyone feeling threatened by this gentle sharing. But then, its not about her getting it; it’s about me allowing what is. The entire post was beautifully constructed to bring me to an opening so that I could fully embrace the quote from Tara Singh.

    You should teach a writing course 🙂

    Much love and appreciation Always,

    1. Hey there Annie . . .

      Is it cooler in L.A. today?

      Thank you – as always – for the kind words about my writing. I am very grateful! From time to time I do teach writing courses. I love writing so much, and sometimes it works that I can share that in a teaching setting.

      It’s interesting sharing about A Course in Miracles, or any other path – what we perceive, what we’re ready to look at, and then how that plays out for other people, especially if we love them . . . sometimes it feels like a wave building and we want to be carried with everyone, or carry them with us . . . Tara Singh said somewhere – and it was very helpful to me – there are no consequences . . . whatever we do can be a channel for grace, so we don’t have to worry, am I doing the right thing, sharing the right way or at the right time . . . it is all okay, more than okay actually . . .

      Anyway . . . thank you again Annie . . . I hope you’re well . . . Lots of breezes in New England today, breezes and sun and a sky full of tumbling wool . . .


  4. Hey Sean,

    This sounds very much in line with John Sherman. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with him, but he has a book I recommend called, “Look at Yourself”. Essentially his entire teaching is going within and looking to who is this “you”, who is this “thinker”. It is kind of like a simplified version of Ramana Maharshi’s Self Inquiry.

    What I like about John’s teaching is that he says you don’t have to stop doing what you do. If you meditate, then meditate. If you pray, then pray. If you read spiritual scriptures, then read, but always make it a practice to look at yourself. No matter what else you do, look at yourself.

    I remember as I was reading this book, there was a discussion about consciousness and the person was saying that consciousness was basically derived from synapses and chemicals in the brain and nothing more. Yet, the more I began looking at myself, this actually made no sense. I had an experience in which I got angry, but then I began really looking at myself. Where did this anger arise from? Who was being angry? The more I tried to pinpoint this, the more I began to realize that there was something intangible feeling this anger. It wasn’t simply a result of chemicals and synapses that caused the anger, but something intangible that perceived something, interpreted that something and then reacted to that something. Once I began to really look at myself during this happening, the anger went away. There really was no anchor to keep it there.

    And I think the course explains how this is played out when it says: (Again, I’m using the HLC Edition passage, because I think it explains this much better than the revised FIP passage)

    It should be clear by now that, while the content of any particular ego-illusion does not matter, it is usually more helpful to correct it in a specific context. Ego-illusions are quite specific, although they frequently change and although the mind is naturally abstract. The mind nevertheless becomes concrete voluntarily as soon as it splits. However, only part of it splits, so only part of it is concrete. The concrete part is the same part that believes in the ego because the ego depends on the specific. It is the part that believes your existence means you are separate. ~ACIM

    I think we can see this play out when we look “out there”. As we do, the mind becomes more concrete, but as we look within, the mind then can go back to being naturally more abstract. It is like the section, “The Fear to Look Within”. We can have all these ideas about ourselves that we simply take as fact without really looking within to see if this is true or not. But as we look within, we begin to see that all of these concrete ideas we have about ourselves that we assumed were fact, are actually not concrete at all. They are what the course calls, feathers dancing in the wind. There is no real anchor there.

    Even though the ego is described as an illusion, I have seen many course students imply that the ego must be fought against and vanquished. And while the course speaks of the negative effects due to egoic thinking, it also says:

    “The wicked shall perish” is merely a statement of fact if the word “perish” is properly understood. Every loveless thought must be undone. Even the word “undone” is fearful to the ego, which interprets “I am undone” as “I am destroyed.”

    The ego will not be destroyed because it is part of your thought, but because it is uncreative and therefore unsharing, it will be reinterpreted entirely to release you from fear. The part of your thought which you have given to the ego will merely return to the Kingdom, where your whole mind belongs. The ego is a form of arrest, but arrest is merely delay. It does not involve the concept of punishment, although the ego welcomes that interpretation. You can delay the completion of the Kingdom, but you cannot introduce the concept of assault into it. ~ACIM

    BTW, I see that you quoted how the separation occurred over many millions of years. I don’t know anyone but myself that quotes that line and I think one reason is that it doesn’t seem to fit into the theology/mythology that many people hold of the course.

    But the more that I read the course, I don’t see this mythology fitting into it. I think it is much more practical than the very dualistic “pure non dualism” theology that is often attributed to the course.


    1. Hi Eric,

      I’m not familiar with Sherman, though your overview makes sense to me. Most of my thinking along these lines is derived from David Bohm, in particular his little book On Dialogue, and to a lesser degree, Krishnamurti. My sense is that a lot of writers and teachers are emerging who are talking along these lines – observer/observed – and I think it’s great, even if for a lot of them it’s still intellectual. Bringing this idea into application (as Tara Singh phrased it) is a whole other ball of wax. I seem to be in my own path now at that stage where the study is coming to an end in favor of a period of experience. But who knows.

      Two quick things, somewhat off-topic but related to your comment.

      First, I’m not as impressed with the urtext as some students, but I do think the HLC version is an interesting and helpful read. There is an interview out there with Bill Thetford where he talks about ACIM as an expression of the perennial philosophy, which I think is actually a very healthy and creative way to think of the course. I think Thetford was moved in that direction and the course community sort of evolved away from that though I think that Ken Wapnick may have been sort of circling back to that view in the later phases of his teaching.

      The second thing was your comment that the anger when looked at was intangible and not “simply a result of chemicals and synapses.” Are you suggesting that this “looking” that you and are talking about – and which I think we are generally of a shared mind about – has no physical or material component? Or that it takes leaves of matter? And/or that we can potentially experience it apart from matter?

      I’m not challenging you – I am just curious. It is a very interesting and subtle point, to my thinking anyway.

      ~ Sean

      p.s. That “millions of years” quote is important and oft-overlooked because – as you rightly point out – it doesn’t fly with a literal interpretation of the course’s Christian mythological overlay. I don’t track the “pure nondualism” the way you do – again, Bohm, Wilber and others have pointed out that consciousness has evolved and that separation-based thinking has sort of become dominant over time, to a point where we take it a literal representation of Truth or Reality. Bohm would argue that that kind of fragmentary thinking has a place, but it’s a very limited application – very practical – and the problem is we don’t see its limitations and thus don’t use it for its albeit functional purpose.

      1. Hey Sean,

        what I’m trying to convey is when it comes to looking at anger and looking (within) to the source of that anger, there really isn’t a pinpoint to the source. There really is no anchor or something concrete. It only appears that way when we look outside ourselves to what we feel is causing that anger.

        Though this is not to completely negate the physical, as the course says the mind cannot be made physical, but it can be made manifest through the physical.

        As far as “pure non dualism” I’m not sure what you mean by the way I track it. I personally don’t accept the theology, and I am only going by how it is already defined as to whether I agree or disagree with it. I also don’t think that it completely jives with what the course says overall, as there are quite a few passages that don’t fit into this theology.

        Hopefully that kind of answers your question.


  5. If I wake up real early and that’s 4:30am for me, I roll back the sliding glass doors and allow a little of the nights coolness to creep in. It’s my favorite time of day no matter what season we are in. Definitely summer mornings extra bonus of exchanging the outside air for the previous days conditioned air is an incentive to get out of bed.

    New England breezes and fantastic cloud displays of tumbling wool remind me how little we Los Angeleno’s look up! I was raised in Cleveland – Ohio and the sky was always up to something. Do miss the action sometimes (:

    So again today I reread Looking at the Looker and I particularly like how you spoke of the ego and its apparent slipperiness being so simply because its not there – not because of some malicious game playing. A wonderful example of just looking and not judging.

    I know you mentioned you are straying a bit from A Course in Miracles so I’m a little curious how you view the term ‘Decision Maker’ as coined by Ken Wapnick?

    Thank you again Sean.

    p.s. Sometimes its good that a post sits for a few days for those of us that process things a bit slowly.

    1. Hi Annie,

      Cleveland is on my (very) short list of cities to visit because of the Rock’n’roll hall of fame. But L.A., no. I have this (probably stereotypical) idea that the sky over L.A. is all smog. Most of my ideas about that city come from the movie Heat. No offense! I know cities can be amazing . . .

      I think that the phrase “decision-maker” is helpful and consistent with A Course in Miracles. Though I think Ken Wapnick would have (gently and respectfully) objected to this characterization, I think of him as a practitioner and proponent of very orthodox ACIM. And the course clearly posits a choice between the ego and the holy spirit, and invites us repeatedly to be cognizant of that choice and to make that choice knowingly and willfully. So in that sense, calling what decides “decision-maker” is helpful.

      I am a big fan of what works – what is helpful – and being flexible about what works (because for me that has changed with time), so you know . . .

      ~ Sean

      1. Well I hope one day you do get to the Rock’n’roll hall of fame. I did visit once upon a return visit to the city. It’s right in downtown Cleveland along the lakeshore. Not sure there would be much else to see in my beloved hometown.

        We moved from Cleveland when I was 16 years old. I led a sheltered life in a pocket of the city populated mostly of immigrant families. I was aware of the deep love for rock n’ roll music most Clevelanders ‘ embraced and I felt like the odd man out. I preferred John Denver, The Carpenters etc. and I recalling feeling like it was a secret I had to keep.

        Recently I watched a special on HBO and they were honoring Cat Stevens as one of the inductees into the Rock’n’roll hall of fame. It was good to see him and hear him play for us again. It broke my heart way back when he followed his calling and stopped playing for the masses. I think I learned of his music just as he was leaving the scene. I’ll end with a quote from Yusuf Islam.

        “Now, just one last point, a little riddle, questioning the compatibility of this strange thing called rock and roll with the detached and heavily fraternity lifestyle, which I still belong to, and considering that the judges have actually voted for someone who doesn’t’ drink, doesn’t smoke and, you know, doesn’t throw televisions out of hotel rooms and only sleeps with his wife. I’d say it was a very brave decision, and one which was unexpected, and strangely, outrageously rock and roll! Peace!”

        1. Oh, I loved John Denver too – my mother was into him. I loved Rock’n’Roll too, but there was always space for Denver (even if, like you, I kind of kept that hidden). Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam is great . . . He came out with a recent album, last few years, and it was very soft and gentle and clear. Even back in the day there was a lot of love and insight, not only in the lyrics but in the very tenor of the music. Love him.

  6. Hi Annie,

    How would you define the “decision maker”? Without defining it, I think the course gives a very good outline how this plays out in a very practical way in the section, “Rules for Decision”. Also in the section, “The Fear to Look Within” it makes mention when it says:

    And now you recognize that it was not the ego that joined the Holy Spirit’s purpose, and so there must be something else. Think not that this is madness. For this your reason tells you, and it follows perfectly from what you have already learned. ~ACIM

    Eric: Sometimes the ego is seen in course circles as some kind of demiurge god, but the ego is part of your mind that is uncreative and unsharing. This is why the ego will not be destroyed, but simply re-translated by the Holy Spirit. The ego is the attempt to have a private mind with private thoughts and a private world. The ego is kind of like the verb to the noun of the self concept. It is like the self concept in action. But there really is no ego, because the self concept comes from the learning of the world and looking at it, it becomes obvious that it is made up.

    The Holy Spirit is also a part of our thought as we begin to remember to think with God. It is rightmindedness, meaning that it is pointing towards the wholeness of OneMindedness, but by definition is still in the process of healing.

    You/I are the decision maker while it appears there is a choice. Do we decide to identify with our egoic thinking in order to maintain our idea of a private world and separation, or do we decide to identify with as the course says of the Holy Spirit, the idea of healing? There really is no trinity in this since both the ego and the Holy Spirit are part of your/my thought.


    1. Hello Eric,

      Firstly, I see now that I am not using the Reply button properly. If I did my reply to Sean would have stayed within the thread of our conversation. I’m saying this because it appears that I totally ignored your post where as the truth is that it wasn’t there when I opened my page this morning. I didn’t think to refresh the page before posting. I just want to you to know that Eric.

      Secondly, I do appreciate you taking the time to share your insight and wealth of reading resources.

      Thanks again.

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