I often say – taking my lead from my primary ACIM teacher Tara Singh – that intellectual understanding, while not inherently counter-productive, is not in and of itself sufficient for bringing forth in a sustained collaborative way the creativity and life-giving force of love. What we learn must brought into application. As Jean Piaget said, “You have got to design and build, not just talk about your philosophical fantasies.”
Perhaps it is like driving school. Of course it is helpful to learn what the various traffic signs and lights mean. Of course we want to learn what the various controls and levers and pedals on the dashboard and at our feet do. But all our learning is pointless – literally null – unless we actually drive.
So by “in application” I mean enacted by the structure we are in the very world brought forth by (and therefore appropriate to) that structure. Note that this does not contradict but actually reinforces spiritual teachings that the world and the body are not real (e.g., ACIM W-pII.222.1:1-2 and see the comments to this post).
The Structure We Are
We have the structure of human beings. We are bipedal languaging mammalian primates. We have big brains and opposable thumbs. We are communal. If you look in a mirror, you don’t see a unicorn or a lake trout. You don’t see a molecule or a pine tree or a lake. You see homo sapiens circa 2018.
Even if our bodies aren’t real, they have a real appearance, and that appearance obeys laws that the bodies – real or otherwise – did not create and cannot flount without penalty. We can’t breathe underwater. We can’t fly unaided. We don’t convert nectar to honey.
We can build submarines and hang gliders. We can keep bees. We can learn new languages. We can objectify ourselves in order to talk about ourselves. But we still don’t know what we don’t know. Our brains, as magnificent and functional as they are, can’t cognize what they are not designed to cognize.
The World Those Structures Bring Forth
These structural boundaries and the laws they obey bring forth a world appropriate to those structures. That is, we perceive and cognize in ways that allow us to go on being the structural observers that we are. A tick brings forth a different world, one that allows it to go on being a tick. And an ant, an ant. And so forth.
Thus, there is not the world but many worlds. And the world brought forth is not brought forth for its truthfulness – its fidelity to some external reality – but for its usefulness. That is, perception and cognition are about fitness. That glass of water you crave after a long run is indeed helpful to your ability to go on being an observer with the structure of a human being, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually a glass of water. A tick wouldn’t even notice it. Why should the world be truer for you than for a tick?
In Lieu of Contradiction
The world and the body are already in existence when we deny their existence or participate in spiritual practices that aim to undo their existence or reveal their illusoriness or what have you. If they weren’t there, we wouldn’t need to respond to them one way or another.
In this sense, the world and the body are given. They are brought forth in a way that is not related to our will or intention. We didn’t ask for this. We showed up at the table for a meal that was already underway. We have no idea what will go on after our share of the food and drink is consumed.
What is the body? What is the world? There is nothing inherently wrong with asking those questions! But it is helpful to see that they arise in a body in a world and, more to the point, in a body that is already conformed to the world. In other words, it takes a body to ask what a body is. It takes a world to ask what a world is.
In that way our questions double back on themselves. They become recursive and beget infinite regression. Every answer we give to the question “what is a body” is given in terms already set by the body. The answer always arises in and as the very thing it intends to explain. It’s like a sign that says “Please Do Not Read This Sign.” In order to obey it, you have to disobey it. But if you disobey it, then you can’t obey it.
Recursive loops like this can be taken as invitations to ask a different question. If questions about the body and the world inevitably trap us in self-referential loops, then what else can we ask? What other inquiry might serve?
I don’t know what your answer to the preceding two questions might be. In my experience it is very hard to get beyond our training – spiritual and otherwise – in order to have a direct encounter with the problem of self-referentiality. I don’t mean an intellectual encounter (anybody can talk about the observer and the observed) but rather a full-on embodied encounter, the moment when you actually see the loop that you are and realize the utter futility of escaping it.
But, of course, phrases like “the utter futility of escaping” only make sense if we presume there is something to escape to – another way of being, another space in which to be. But is there? And how would you know? How can you exceed your structure? Or the world appropriate to that structure (from which that structure cannot be meaningfully separated)?
Sometimes in my writing I say something like “there is only this: this this.” By that I mean, all that can possibly be is already inherent in this very experience, including the possibility – but never the confirmation – that there is more than this experience. Whatever you sense or intuit or dream (good, bad or indifferent) is always brought forth in and through the structure you are in the world brought forth by that structure.
Thus, questions about self and world, or body and world, while fun and interesting and sometimes insightful, are never more than “fun and interesting and sometimes insightful.” In the end, it doesn’t matter whether things are illusory or not, or real or not, because nothing actually changes based on one or the other answer. This sounds unremarkable but it is actually a deeply transformative and even mystical answer.
For example, you might decide that the apple you are about to eat is an illusion, but it is still going to taste good and appease your hunger. If you tried to eat a lump of coal on grounds that it’s only an illusion, you’d be sick. And still hungry. Given hunger and an apple, you eat. The metaphysics are surprisingly only a sideshow.
Only Partially True
But actually, that is only partially true. The posture that we take towards our living does seem to matter, at least in the way in which it either brings forth more or less love. We can throw the apple at our neighbor and hurt them or we can bake them a pie and make them happy. And there is something in our structure (and the world that structure brings forth) that prefers to bake them a pie. There is something in our structure (and the world that structure brings forth) that prefers folks bake us a pie, rather than throw apples at our heads.
This love is also a law – like the one that says we can’t breathe underwater or smell a lilac bush a thousand yards away. And it seems to be the one way in which our structure – both at the local level of the body and cosmic level of the world and the universe – becomes malleable. When we love, a new being is brought forth: the relationship implied by love is the new being and a new world is brought forth on terms familiar to that being (and conducive to its ongoingness).
Thus, whether what we are dealing with is real or illusory, or whether those are even helpful questions, there is the creative and vivid experience of love towards which we naturally tend, and this experience transcends the binary real/illusory divide because it inheres in both of them equally well.
It may not matter whether the body is real or not, or the world real or not. It may be that the infinite regress implied by the recursion of the original question (it takes a body to ask what a body is and world to ask what a world is) is pointing us away from looking for sources and towards processes, specifically processes that are loving in the fundamental way favored by our structure and the world our structure brings forth.
This Very Experience
Thus, while mental or intellectual learning is fine and not by definition unhelpful, what is consistently helpful is bringing our learning into application, where “into application” is understood as “giving attention to experience – to this very experience.”
When we do that, we are inevitably brought into direct contact with love (even if it goes unrecognized or ignored). At that juncture, the search is over because all love wants is love. In a sense, all we learn is that we exist in order that love might remember itself. Indeed, to the extent we persist in defining the self or the world, we might say the self and the world are together the process by which love reimagines itself for itself.