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.”