Let’s say – more or less adopting Humberto Maturana’s phrasing – that love is the consensual coordination of doings among observers, each of whom could be the other.
On this view, love is basically the embodied enacted agreement, tacit or otherwise, to cooperate with one another in the activities that are our living and give rise to our world. The grounds for this agreement (which excludes nothing, i.e., it includes rocks and quasars and clams and giraffes and marigolds et cetera) are that any perceived differences in form, while apparent, are not in and of themselves proof of any actual separation. Thus, who helps another helps her own self. Who makes another happy makes her self be happy.
We can expand this by saying – again, in concert with Maturana – that this definition of love is not a question of philosophy or some other abstraction but rather of biology. That is, love is a natural extension of stucturally-determined experience, and when it is not extending itself, something has interfered.
Daily life shows us that even though we live in war and hurt each other, we are loving animals that become bodily and psychically ill when deprived of love, and that love is both the first medicine and the fundament for the recovery of somatic and psychic health. We are love-dependent animals at all ages. Indeed, most if not all human suffering arises in the negation of love and is cured through the restoration of love (Maturana The Origin of Humanness).
A possible analogy might be vision. Our eyes don’t “choose” to see. Seeing is what eyes do because that is how they are made; it is what they are for (see also T-24.VII.6:2). Their function arises from their design and construction and cannot be meaningfully separated from it. You and I, as human observers, naturally extend love. This is, as A Course in Miracles points out, our “natural inheritance” (In.1:7). It arises as a consequence of our design (and we are not the designer/author).
What, then, is the problem? If love is a natural extension of our very structural existence, then why is so much of our activity, and so many of the systems to which we are subject, basically unloving? Why do they make love so difficult?
This is a good question! We became students of A Course in Miracles, followers of Buddha and Jesus, participants in psychotherapy, yoga practitioners, vegetarians and Tantric sex partners because of it. And yet the hurt and unhappiness go on. Why is it so hard, this thing that – in our brain, in our heart, in our gut, in our soul – it seems should be so natural and effortless?
A Course in Miracles suggests that our awareness of love is blocked, and so we’ve forgotten it even existed, much less bother living in, as, and through it. An eye is made to see. But if you put a blindfold over it, then it won’t see. Its function hasn’t changed. Its natural abilities aren’t ruined. It’s just that their extension and application has been stymied.
Something like that is going on with love.
By and large, we aren’t happy, and our unhappiness is related to what blocks the free expression and extension of our natural inheritance which is love. We don’t need to learn what love is or improve our ability to love or anything like that. We just need to remove the blocks to its natural extension. We need to give attention to practices and systems that are unjust, inefficient, and dysfunctional. Navigating the world is harder than it ought to be. And even if we aren’t personally in crisis, it’s easy enough to point out who and what is. Look at the Middle East (it’s on fire). Look at the coral reefs (they’re dying). Look at the tiger population (it’s dwindling). And so on.
The occasional bright spot aside, something is not working well (or at least not working as well as it could). If love is what we are, we seem to have found a way to forget this, and/or to act as if it were not true.
A Course in Miracles doesn’t talk about enlightenment so much as awakening, and I think this is a helpful metaphor. We have forgotten some important facts about our being, and we have forgotten that we have forgotten them, and the effect of this double forgetfulness is exactly like we are asleep and having a bad dream.
For example, say that while sleeping I dream of doing battle with a monster in a dark forest while meteors light up the sky and burn the earth and my late father cries out for me to come help him but I do not know where he is or how to find him. Frightening stuff! Yet what is really going on is that I am asleep in bed beside Chrisoula and in a few hours I’ll get up and make breakfast, and then read, write and teach. However real the dream appears, it’s just a dream.
You have chosen a sleep in which you have bad dreams, but the sleep is not real and God calls you to awake. There will be nothing left of your dreams when you hear Him, because you will awaken . . . When you wake you will see the truth around you and in you, and you will no longer believe in dreams because they will have no reality for you (T-6.IV.6:3-4, 7).
In A Course in Miracles, our sleep is the separation from God from which nightmares – the apparent causes of our unhappiness – arise. Maturana would phrase it differently. He would suggest that thousands of years ago human beings side-stepped from a mother/woman-focused way of living and into patriarchy, a system of living predicated on dominance, submission, attack, defense, competition, subjugation, et cetera (see also T-2.VIII.2:5). Patriarchy begets subsystems like war and militaries, economies and taxes, prisons and malls and landfills, which as a whole serve the system rather than the person. They might do some local good – consider your neighborhood elementary school, perhaps, or the nearest hospital emergency room – but on balance, they are not about love so much as profit, not about the person so much as the continuity of the system out of which they take their function. We keep trying to fix them, and replace them, and some of our efforts are noteworthy (representative democracy, for example) but still. There is work to do. And the suggestion is that we are basically tweaking symptoms rather than going right to the heart of the matter, which is remembering love as the way to end the separation, which is our brief detour into patriarchy, which is unhappiness.
Maybe Maturana is right. I don’t know. Maybe ACIM is right. I don’t know that either. I do know that taking both as maps by which navigating experience (being in the world) is simplified and clarified has been helpful. That is, rather than get lost in arguments about right and wrong (which reinforce the patriarchy or separation or however one wants to explain our ongoing systemic unhappiness and negation of love), one can simply read the maps and venture out into the territory, learning as they go. As I am fond of saying, give attention and see what happens. Set aside the metaphysics and just try to make the world in which you live more just and fair and loving. Literally put your body at the service of love. What happens?
You will first dream of peace, and then awaken to it. Your first exchange of what you made for what you want is the exchange of nightmares for the happy dreams of love (T-13.VII.9:1-2).
For me, especially in the past year or so, rather than focus on possible causes or explanations, I find it useful to simply give attention to description. It turns out that if you describe the problem you are having then you simultaneously describe – by implication if not explicitly – the solution. It is not always easy to see this, but it is still there to be seen.
If we are unhappy, why? We don’t like our job, our spouse, our school, our body, our spiritual tradition, the movie we’re watching, the food we’re eating, the weather outside . . . The more specific we get about what’s missing, or present but not functioning, the better. If it’s raining you can get an umbrella. If you’re uncomfortable in jeans you can put on a skirt. It’s not as sexy as metaphysical and philosophical ruminations, but it tends to yield higher returns. Or at least pragmatic ones. It turns out we can fix what’s broken and, if we can’t fix it but tried in a sincere way, then we can accept what’s broken with minimal distress. Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” like the Golden Rule, is not unwelcome.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Becoming happy is actually not a metaphysical problem, though it can be reflected on in those terms. Unhappiness is a problem of acting in the sense that it reflects deviation from love, which is to say, per Maturana, deviation from “the consensual coordination of doings among observers, each of whom could be the other.”
Besides, when we give attention to the so-called small stuff – the local stuff, that which is present right here and now – the apparently global or even cosmic stuff is not left untouched. For example, our decision (mine and Chrisoula’s) to raise pigs for meat, chickens for meat and eggs, to garden (veggies, fruits, berries) intensely, to buy, barter and potlach with nearby farmers and homesteaders, is not just an affirmation of local economy. It is also a rejection of larger economies which are disconnected from people and the earth on which they bring for their living and thus, in the service of profit, hurt people and the earth. Does our living this way smash patriarchy, as the kids say? Well, no. But it does withdraw consent from patriarchy. Thus, in a local way, it begets love, and in the cosmic way, it at least mitigates the ongoing harmful effects of patriarchy (or separation). So it does in fact diminish patriarchy (or separation). Over time – and with your help – the effects of this diminishing are nontrivial.
But really, all that talk about patriarchy and separation and Jesus and the Buddha and so forth can be too much. In fact, all we are actually doing, Chrisoula and I, is what makes sense while making us happy. So ask: what makes sense while making you happy?
I like the hard work of spading gardens, lugging sacks of pig feed, clearing pasture and trails, cutting firewood, putting up fencing. Chrisoula enjoys the tedium (see Cheryl’s point below for a fair criticism of my word choice here) of weeding, harvesting, sewing, and putting up food. We both enjoy homeschooling our kids. We deeply appreciate how this way of living places us in relation to other people and to the earth and to the various systems to which we are subject. Often, what works about it is as simple as being tired at day’s end and so sleeping better. In this work and what arises from it, one can start to forget there was a problem in the first place. “You will first dream of peace, and then awaken to it . . .”
I am saying that when we give attention to the little stuff – the local stuff – and make our objective our own happiness, we will rediscover – or reawaken to, if you like – what it means to be a loving human being, a loving human observer in community with other observers, consensually coordinationg our doings. It isn’t complicated; it’s simply a matter of attending to what’s there to be attended, in the natural way of attending to it. Weeding a garden, going for a walk, washing the dishes, making love, writing poems, mowing the lawn. These activities do not occur in isolation but in community, and the borders or boundaries we use to define community (self and others) are very porous when studied up close. The one with whom you walk, break bread, kiss and converse, could be your own self. Thus, cooperation and camaraderie and dialogue becomes natural because we aren’t trying to change anybody or prove anything; we are just taking good care of each other, we are being servants and Bodhisattvas without making a big deal of it. It’s easy because once you cut through all the constructed layers of egoic self, serving others in kindness is what we want. We can’t actually be kept from it.
Importantly, our bodies know how to do these things. Gardening, cooking, making love, resting . . . Our bodies lean into these activities without a lot of effort. They commune with the earth and the other as if knowing exactly what the other needs, as if the other really were just the one in a different light. And really, says mathematician Louis Kauffman, how could it be otherwise?
The universe is constructed in such a way that it can refer to itself . . . the universe can pretend that it is two and then let itself refer to the two, and find out that it has in the process referred only to the one, that is, itself.
He later clarified that observation, paraphrasing physicist John Wheeler.
The Universe is a self-excited circuit, arising from its own observation of itself, which is that very observation of itself. There is nothing in the universe except the self-participation of the nothing that becomes information and form arising from its own eternal return.
And he is very close to Heinz von Foerster’s observation – dear to Maturana as well – that “I am the observed relation between myself and observing myself.”
Thus, when we turn to other observers, and the world which they appear to share with us, there is often a sense of a mysterious but abiding love. Whether we consider fellow human beings or trees, rivers, birds, rocks, flowers, seahorses, black bears or grains of sand, a respectful sustainable communion emerges that has as its foundation this inquiry: where, if anywhere, does the one end and the other begin?
Giving sustained and close attention to that question – giving attention to it literally in the fabric of the living we right now are bringing forth – was the most “spiritual” practice I ever undertook . . .
According to A Course in Miracles, all that you and I have set between our selves and love can be undone. All we have to do is see the way we have literally built a world and a way of living in that world that obscures love. See the obscurations and the obscurations will dissolve. Maturana called this system of blocks and obstructions patriarchy. A Course in Miracles calls it the separation (and the ego). Set aside for a moment the name, and focus on that to which the name points: we live in a way that attacks purity, simplicity, innocence and love. Yet we cannot defeat love, end love, or destroy love. We hold at a distance the very thing that we long to hold dear. All our loneliness and grief in this world and way of living testifies against the ineffectiveness of what we are doing, signifying our perennial desire for what Bill Thetford called “another way.”
If you would look upon love, which is the world’s reality, how could you do better than to recognize, in every defense against it, the underlying appeal for it? And how could you better learn of its reality than by answering the appeal for it by giving it? (T-12.10:1-2)
So the course, not unlike (though not precisely like) Maturana, urges us to live in radical (from the roots) proximity to our natural inclination to love one another, and to bring this loving forth in these very bodies in this very world through cooperation, inclusiveness, generosity, simplicity, sharing, playing . . .
” . . . replace your dream of separation with the fact of unity. For the separation is only the denial of union, and correctly interpereted, attests to our eternal knowledge that union is true (T-12.10:5-6).
Essentially, we embody peace in order to learn that bodies are not the bounded objects we think they are, and that love is the natural extension of what we actually are.
Love makes us happy and healthy. Love dissolves the negative effects of patriarchy and separation – our long nightmare-ridden sleep – like handfuls of salt scattered in the sea. It is as if they were never there in the first case. First we will dream of peace, then we will awaken to peace . . .
Love waits on welcome, not on time, and the real world is but your welcome of what always was. Therefore, the call of joy is in it, and your glad response is your awakening to what you have not lost (T-13.VII.9:7-8).
So there is nothing to do and yet, until we remember this, there is so much to do, and all of it has to do with bringing forth love. We do this according to whatever ideals are operative in us at a given time. Given our desire to be happy and to heal the world, and given a spiritual practice and curriculum like A Course in Miracles, what we do is attend our brothers and sisters in order to maximize their own happiness. Doing so lifts us as well.
Eventually we learn that love was all there was anyway, and there is nothing to do, and nobody to do it, but why rush? Why not – right now – share the love you deep down know you is yours to give?