In terms of A Course in Miracles, a special relationship is any relationship (with anything though we tend to think of it as between people) that we use as a substitute for Oneness with God. It might be a special hate relationship, in which we feel justified in projecting hate and anger onto someone, or it might be a special love relationship, in which we believe that only a special person can meet our needs. Though they look quite different in form, both follow from the same error: that our separation from God can be healed (or solved or amended) through an external relationship.
So, in a sense, when we are talking about special relationships (with a person, a landscape, an artist, an object, etc.), we are talking about what we are always talking about: we can’t fix an internal problem of perception by rearranging what is external. The problem of perception is internal: that is where the problem must be accepted and that is the only place where it can be solved.
A Course in Miracles suggests that all special relationships can be transformed into holy relationships – that is, relationships bent on truth, in which Oneness is revealed rather than hidden or hindered. So the issue isn’t about giving things up – becoming celibate or fasting or never haunting another used bookstore or voting for the right candidate. Rather, it is about learning how to see, or perceive, differently.
This healed perception is not limited to a particular relationship; it is more pervasive, more broadly applicable – it touches everything. But it does seem to come into existence through particular relationships. So it behooves us to give attention to these relationships, to give them a close and sustained look – no matter how uncomfortable or distressing that looking might be.
To learn this course requires willingness to question every value that you hold dear. Not one can be kept hidden and obscure but it will jeopardize your learning (T-24.In.2:1-2).
All our relationships hinge on ideas of value – they reflect what we consider necessary to survival and happiness and all that. Thus, when we question those relationships, we are really questioning our values, in particular those that might not harmonize with our ideal of ourselves as spiritual, generous, loving individuals and so forth. This is the part of A Course in Miracles that a lot of students tend to gloss over – the looking-at-our-blocks-to-love part. We can put it off a long time, but ultimately there is no way to peace but through what seems to block peace.
Questioning in this case is akin to looking at something with the Holy Spirit, and it really just means the willingness to honestly consider our motivations, goals and agendas and so forth. And we have to do this for the relationships that work and for the ones that don’t. We have to remember that both flow from the same error (that what is external can be causative), and it is that error that we are trying to see clearly in order to correct.
I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to get too worked up about this. Nobody should feel guilty for having a special relationship: it’s part of the deal with bodies. We all want to be held, kissed, fed, walked, read to, whatever. The problem isn’t that we have those needs, but rather that we become attached to them as means by which to either heal or perpetuate separation from God.
That is the transition from specialness to holiness: it is not trading one external form for another – this partner for that one, this diet for that one, this landscape for that one – but rather seeing beyond specificity altogether.
So what do we do? We give attention to each relationship in each moment as it happens.
Let me give you a personal example.
The other night the coydogs started up. We live on the cusp of deep woods and you can hear them in their packs – it is a bloody sound anyway but sometimes you also hear the animal they kill screaming as it dies. I don’t like it but I grew up with it. But my wife, Chrisoula, really hates it. It makes her want to check the kids, the cats, the chickens . . .
Anyway, I was reading and the howls started, and Chrisoula was in bed, and I thought: “I should go in and just be a comforting presence.” And I saw that on the one hand that was a very beautiful sentiment that Chrisoula would really appreciate. But on the other hand, I also liked how heroic it made me look – how deserving of praise – and then I thought that maybe I even deserved a little sugar for being such a thoughtful husband.
You see? Very quickly this potential kindness becomes about me: my need for praise, attention, gratification, and so forth. It becomes special.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! We just want to see those motives. Seeing them means we are no longer lying to ourselves. We aren’t stuck in the illusion, but rather are moving into or at least towards the light of understanding. So we can laugh at ourselves – “man, I can be selfish” – and then, with a minimum of drama, just go and be helpful.
When I see clearly the egoic action, then I can utter a little prayer and go do the right thing without bringing all the specialness into it.
I am not saying I have this down perfectly – you can ask Chrisoula if you doubt me – but I am saying that this can work if we are patient and attentive and are willing to keep a relatively good sense of humor about it.
I also think that we get better at this as we go, the more we do it. And the more we do it, the more far-reaching the helpfulness goes. Things that used to distract us for hours don’t. And when they do distract us, we remember quicker that there is a way out, that peace is not a distant goal but a present reality presently unrecognized.
I am not afraid of the fact that I have these special relationships – with my wife, my children, people who read me, Emily Dickinson and Max Ernst, New England, black bears, chickadees, writing, and on and on and on. Nor am I afraid that future special relationships may develop: new artists to love, new poets, new pets, new friends, new trails to walk . . . That is the nature of life in a body, and I see no reason to resist it because when lived through a lens of attention and awareness it becomes not this life but Life itself, no different than the holy and beautiful one that you live.
That is really where we are going with all this specialness: we are going to where we see past the pale specificity of form to the abstract wholeness that is Love itself, infusing everything without exception or qualification. We are just slowly learning that it’s all one thing and we are it.
That is the transition from specialness to holiness: it is not trading one external form for another – this partner for that one, this diet for that one, this landscape for that one – but rather seeing beyond specificity altogether. We already know how to do this, but we need to be reminded. Attention to the details will reveal to us the gift that was given to us in Creation that we might – sooner rather than later – return to God.