Nonduality, A Course in Miracles and What We Are In Truth

I don’t know how it happened for you – finding and committing to A Course in Miracles. And I don’t know what happened when you did. All we can ever do is share about our own experience, being as clear and honest as possible, always willing to learn something new.

For me, I was searching for easy fixes to what felt like a persistent unhappiness. Things had been very bad in my late teens and early twenties – depression, suicidal ideation, active addiction, homelessness – but by the time was in my early forties the worst of that had passed. What remained was a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. “This isn’t it” but without a clear sense of what “it” was or what would help.

In those days I tried a lot of tools and modalities to address the problem. I went back to school and got a degree in creative writing. I studied and practiced energy healing. Did yoga, got craniosacral massages, talk therapy and tarot. I switched careers, then switched again. Spiritually, I was stuck. I’d finally left the Catholic church for good, but nothing had replaced it. I was lonely and adrift. Nothing was really working.

That was the space in which A Course in Miracles found me. Or I found it. The fit was instantaneous. There have been ups and downs for sure, but I have never seriously doubted that ACIM was the way for me.

What does that mean though: “the way?”

A Course in Miracles teaches me that I am not a body and the world is not real. It teaches me that forgiveness is not graciously agreeing to overlook harm done by another, nor even reframing that harm as some kind of psychological or spiritual error, but rather in learning how to not see the harm at all. Which, when you really go into it, can leave you foundering in existential crisis. Our minds are designed to judge! We are built to notice problems and fix them and then share the fixes. We are alive because of that skill! We have penicillin, air bags and twelve string guitars because of that skill. Even it was was desirable to stop analyzing, comparing and evaluating, how could we?

The course teaches me that our unhappiness – regardless of our perception of it as minor or major or somewhere in between – is an effect of our belief that separation is real. We believe we are separate from God, from Creation, from one another and even from our own self. And because we believe it, it seems real which, in essence, means it is real. Our beliefs shape our perception, and our perception reinforces the apparent accuracy of our beliefs.

In turn, those beliefs make a world – one which seems to be dominated by zero-sum thinking, endless conflict, and an eternal binary of us vs. them – or something vs. something – so that we are always either suffering, or about to suffer, or gaining a very temporary respite from suffering.

It’s not great. But there is another way.

For me, the first step in the solution proposed by ACIM is to discern between ego and Holy Spirit, both of which are in our mind. They are modes of perception that “speak” or give direction. They shape our perception, which guides our activity, which produces a world, which influences our perception, which . . .

The ego is the part of the mind that believes it is “in” a body, and is therefore subject to the body’s many vulnerabilities. Ego is basically an argument that the body’s adventures are our adventures and the body’s inevitable death will be our end as well. Ego is a great persuader, ever getting us to invest in guilt, fear and sacrifice. It is always raising the stakes and doubling down. When we listen to the ego, it feels like war and famine are at the door, that evil has or is just about to triumph over good, and that it is up to us to fix everything, even though it can’t actually be fixed.

Listening to – and living with – ego is painful, difficult, and full of despair.

In contrast, the Holy Spirit is simply our mind at rest. My Buddhist friends sometimes call it “right mind.” It is calm and quiet. It makes offers rather than arguments. It seeks consent rather than persuasion. It is calm and quiet, happily honoring our perception of self-will and agency. It does not trick us, fight with us or denigrate us. It speaks easily of what is true, and gently calls us to the contentedness and rest that are natural effects of remembering what we are in truth. Peace, not war, is its mode. It has no enemies.

We are happy, creative and engaged when we are listening to the Holy Spirit.

So it is good (in the sense of helpful) to discern between these two voices, these two ways of thinking. It’s also good to get a grip on the belief system that underlies them.

The more skillful we are at this discernment, then the better we will be able to answer the following important question: to whom do the Holy Spirit and ego communicate? You are not the ego, and you are not the Holy Spirit. You are that which they address.

What are you?

It’s no good having someone answer that question for us. The “answer” is basically a non-transferable experience. In the same way that if I eat a slice of bread, your hunger doesn’t go away, if I tell you what you are in truth, then you won’t actually realize anything. It’s just words; it’s just somebody else’s interpretation and opinion which can be accepted or rejected. We really have to come to the experience on our own. That’s the whole point.

A Course in Miracles teaches us that we share the Name of God (e.g, T-8.IX.7:3, W-pI.183.1:2, W-pII.266.1:5). The two religious traditions from whose confluence ACIM arises (Christianity and Advaita Vedanta), suggests that God’s “name” is not a word but an experience: “I AM.”

The suggestion is that when we seek to know God we are seeking Being itself before it dissipates in the specificity of form and language. Form and language are downstream of Being. Before the many distinctions, and the ways of identifying, categorizing and evaluating them, there is the One Being, call it what you will. It is this: this this.

In my experience, the function of the Holy Spirit – through the holy instant and holy relationship – is to guide us to a direct experience of “I AM.” Using means and tools – i.e., forms – that are individually meaningful for us, the Holy Spirit introduces us to the reality of Being, which we will eventually recognize as our own self. Everything in the world is dependent on this self for its existence – the moon and the sun, evolution and gravity, chocolate and fried chicken. Everything – from a child’s drawing to the Mona Lisa, from a quasar to a quark – is dependent on “I AM” – which is your own self – for its existence.

When we approach this from the perspective of is it right or is it wrong (which is how the world does approach it) – when we make it into an argument that can be won or lost – then it always ends up feeling like a loser. Am I really suggesting that the moon is dependent on me for its existence? That when I die every mother’s son dies also? Come on.

But the observation is simpler than that. From the perspective of “I AM” – which we might also call radical subjectivity – it’s not even worth arguing about. Of course the moon is dependent on the “I AM.” When that goes, everything goes with it. But, curiously, the “I AM” never dies. So far as it knows, it is eternal and infinite. When are you not here? How could you not be?

This is a fairly straightfoward take on nonduality in terms of contemporary expressions of Advaita Vedanta, especially popular cultural models such as Eckhart Tolle, Leo Hartong, Jeff Foster, et cetera. In my experience, most students of ACIM are aware of this frame and are relatively comfortable deploying it to explain and/or process their experience. And it’s not unhelpful.

But here’s the thing. Nisargadatta – who was not an ACIM student but whose insights into nonduality I have found very helpful – said that “I AM” is the first ignorance. It’s good to see it – indeed, he advocated giving attention only to “I AM” – but in and of itself it is simply another perceptual and cognitive error, albeit the first, or original, one. We can correlate this to a seminal concept in A Course in Miracles: “Into eternity, where all is one, there crept a tiny, mad idea, at which the Son of God remembered not to laugh” (T-27.VIII.6:2).

“I AM” is the tiny, mad idea that we took seriously. From what does it arise? Against what does define itself? All the dreams, stories and images that have followed its appearance and presence – what is their actual origin? What is their relationship to their origin, whatever it is?

The invitation the Holy Spirit makes is to restore to our awareness “I AM.” When we rest in the “I AM,” we return to the moment of decision when we separated from the whole and took the separation seriously. Therefore the suggestion is to ask, over and over, from what did the “I AM” arise? It is an invitation to find our way back to the moment of decision at which we effectively parted ways with That-Which-Cannot-Be-Divided, which is also That-Which-Cannot-Be-Parted-From.

If you go into the “I AM” and stay with it, and if you seek to understand its origins, then eventually you will reach the void. You will reach the limits of your capacity for inquiry; you will reach the terminus of cognition and perception. You will reach an end that is not the end. We do not know what we do not know. Imagination and study and everything personal ground out here. “I AM” is something but what it arises from cannot be articulated or described in any way which means that it’s nothing, no thing, “no-thing-ness,” the void.

Whatever that is, the “I AM” is dependent on it.

Whatever that is, that is what you are.

And whatever that is, we cannot – in anything other than a highly politicized, highly spiritualized way, which is to say highly relative way – speak of it.

Abhishiktananda (a Christian monk who moved to India to integrate Christianity and Advaita Vedanta) used the metaphor of the baby. An infant is born and lives but its sense of “I AM” does not appear until later in its development. Like, when did “YOU” suddenly appear? On the world’s logic, it was after your body appeared. But the “I AM” isn’t there at the beginning. Only later does it appear. You can look back and find scenes – flashes or glimpses – of the “I AM” coming online. And then it is there, fully. So ask: how did “you” live before the “I AM?” Before all of this – this this – what were you? How did you live?

Clearly you didn’t need the “I AM.”

Or you can ask it this way: how does a flower live without “I AM?”

When you do this, you start to see how “I AM” is dependent. It’s not first. It’s not creative – e.g., the source of all things. Rather, it is a limit on Creation. Upon what it depends we can’t say (though we will surely try) but that’s okay. What matters is that we see – truly and deeply, beyond doubt – its dependency. That seeing, that knowing, is what teaches us that whatever we are, we are not “I AM.”

I think in that sense, A Course in Miracles is not especially Christian. That was always Ken Wapnick’s argument and I have generally disagreed with that argument, because it is framed so bluntly and dogmatically in terms of gnosticism. What I am talking about here is more of a Vedantic move. Abhishiktananda finally concluded that one could not claim to be either Christian or a Vedantan if they were serious about remembering what they were in truth. One had to let it all go. The means by which we reach that juncture can vary (Hinduism, Catholicism, ACIM, whatever), but the letting go Itself . . . that is like falling in love. We all do it, we all know how to do it, but nobody can do it for us. It’s deeply and naturally intimate. To let go, to paraphrase Abhishiktananda, means to take up residence in the Cave of the Heart, where neither perception nor cognition can enter.

The critical insight here is not to be able to make a scholarly argument or to coach others on their remembrance of nonduality – both of which are ultimately just forms of the lovelessness of “I get it and you don’t” – but rather to come to a natural and serious happiness for our own self in our own way which is already given. When we finally remember what we are in truth, then our so-called problems are solved and we no longer mind what happens. A Course in Miracles was for me – and remains – deeply helpful in this regard. I wish the same for all students.


    1. Thank you, Rose (or do you prefer RO?). I appreciate the kind words. Thank you for being here πŸ™πŸ™

      (schmergling – great word!!)

      ~ Sean

  1. Yikes- so great. You do so well explaining that which cannot easily be explained. Such a pleasure. Thank you Sean.

    1. You’re welcome, Andra – thanks for the kind words. I’m glad it works!

      Thanks for reading and being here πŸ™πŸ™

      ~ Sean

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