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On Undoing Thought

I have written about what A Course in Miracles calls the separation. Essentially, our minds have evolved in a way that give supreme importance to thought. At some point in our history, we began to take our thoughts literally without realizing that’s what we were doing. The results were – and continue to be – catastrophic.

Here I am using “thought” in the way that David Bohm, Donald Factor and Peter Garrett used it in their essay Dialogue: A Proposal.

. . . to signify not only the products of our conscious intellect but also our feelings, emotions, intentions and desires. It also includes such subtle, conditioned manifestations of learning as those that allow us to make sense of a succession of separate scenes within a cinema film or to translate the abstract symbols on road signs along with the tacit, non-verbal processes used in developing basic mechanical skills such as riding a bicycle. In essence thought, in this sense of the word, is the active response of memory to every phase of life. Virtually all of our knowledge is produced, displayed, communicated, transformed and applied in thought.

Importantly, Bohm observed in his essay The Problem and the Paradox in On Dialogue that:

The thinking process is not separate from or independent of its content . . . the activity of [our] thought is controlled by the very thing that it appears to be trying to control (76).

Thought credits itself to a thinker – the one who is having these thoughts. That is the separate cosmocentric egoic self. It is not “out there” but rather “in here.” It is a sort of central processing unit that responds to external perception by judging and organizing it and directing us accordingly. We trust it. More than that, we like it.

But – and this is critical because this is what we fail to perceive – that thinker is not separate from what it thinks. It is all one movement.

A Course in Miracles puts it this way:

Who asks you to define the ego and explain how it arose can be but he who thinks it real, and seeks by definition to ensure that its illusive nature is concealed behind the words that seem to make it so (C-2.2:5).

This can sound somewhat abstract or fantastic but it is actually deeply practical and straightforward. I will give you a personal example.

The other day while driving to school, I came upon an accident. The weather was bad, the roads were icy, and several cars at a four-way stop in the middle of nowhere had collided. Fortunately nobody was hurt but traffic was at a full stop while crews moved the cars. I was behind schedule already because of travel conditions and this didn’t help.

The accident and my presence at it were just facts – they were what is. They are wholly neutral. But thought – the ego – judges these facts as bad (I’m going to be late, I’m going to have restructure the whole week’s teaching, etc. etc.). I respond the way any body does to bad situations: I get impatient and anxious and frustrated.

Are you with me? Neutral situation subject to egoic judgment leading to egoic response.

Of course, I am a reasonably spiritually healthy guy so it only takes a few moments for the Jesus-train-of-thought to kick in with its Thetfordian engine – “there must be another way.” I say a little prayer. I ask the Holy Spirit to help me see this differently. I make a mental gratitude list. I do a little yogic breathing and voila! I’m in a better space. I can say – and mean – “these things happen. It will all work out. I’m just glad nobody’s hurt.”

So we have a) a neutral situation; b) an egoic judgment; c) an egoic response of worry and then d) another (apparently healthy) response of it’ll all work out. It will be okay.

What I am saying here is that (d) above is also an egoic response. It feels better, of course, and so seems more desirable, but it is still part of the overall egoic structure of thought. What I am describing is not really a sequence, even though I present it that way, but more of a whole movement premised on and promoting ego and separation.

In a sense – and this was Bohm’s insight as well, and neatly summarizes the whole problem – our brains (and their products, which are thoughts) cannot really do anything else. Once they’ve settled that something is a problem it is natural that they proceed to churn and whir in the direction of a solution.

What we want to see is that thought creates the very problem (in my example, judging the delay as negative) that it then proceeds to try and solve (I’ll pray, I’ll lean on the horn, I’ll turn around and go another way, etc).

The ego does not object to or resist our love for Jesus or asking the Holy Spirit for guidance or quoting from A Course in Miracles or doing Vipassana breathing exercises or what have you. All it really cares about is that we not look at the underlying structure upon which it relies for its existence.

Of course, the ego is simply a belief – a habit of thinking that chugs along mindlessly, doing what it was made to do. It isn’t an independent actor. But still. It is very busy. Until we withdraw from it our consent and support, it is never not operating.

Thus, so long as I don’t challenge thought itself but remain grounded in this body that is subject to this experience in this world, the ego gets to keep plugging along. As long as I consent – tacitly or otherwise – that this body is my home and this world is this body’s home – then I am remaining separate. I am remaining entrenched in egoic thought patterns.

A peace that is not of this world means just what it says: it is not of this world. We pay lip service to this concept a lot but I truly think most students just gloss over it all too often: the world is not real. There is no peace in it.

There is no world! That is the central thought the course attempts to teach (W-pI.132.6:2-3).

When we accept that, we reach the place where there is nothing to do externally anymore. It doesn’t matter if our daughter’s horse dies, or if somebody agrees to publish our ACIM book, or if we’re late to work, or if we win the lottery. It is all the same. 

That lesson is hard – crazy hard, insanely hard – to accept, a fact the course explicitly recognizes.

Not everyone is ready to accept it, and each one must go as far as he can let himself be led along the path to truth He will return and go still farther, or perhaps step back a while and then return again (W-pI.132.6:4-5).

The reason we resist that insight is because it so thoroughly upends our egoic structures of thought. If there is no thinker in here and no world out there . . . then what? It feels like nothing. It feels like death.

When I see the self-referential and cosmocentric nature of thought in action I am to some degree liberated from it. In that moment of seeing I am awakened because I am no longer blindly (mindlessly) heeding the ego’s directives. Yet as Bohm and countless other thinkers and writers have pointed out, it is very hard to stay with this awareness. Almost invariably, egoic thought slips back in without our noticing. Not noticing thought is the ego.

I wrote the other day that chronological time occurs within eternity and as such is simply a tool that we can use. We can make a similar observation about thought: it is an external tool that can serve either separation or awakening depending on the use to which we put it. It has no independent function. The brain produces thought in the same way the kidneys secrete urine.

Still, in order to make skillful or coherent choices with respect to thought, we have to observe the role it plays. We have to see how passive we are with it, and how we accept without objection what it tell us. Even when we think we’re asking hard questions and demanding frank answers, we’re often doing so within a pre-approved egoic framework. It is a very tricky thing to become aware of this movement and then to sustain that awareness.

A Course in Miracles is one way of doing this. It might also point to other ways. When we are ready to learn, the lesson will arrive in a form that we recognize and understand and can bring into application (W-pI.132.7:2). The learning the lesson provides is essential. The form it takes is not.

I remember as a child learning to ride a bike. My father held the seat and jogged beside me up and down the driveway, keeping me from toppling over. I grew more and more confident, rode steadier and pedaled faster. I remember one time finishing and looking up for my father and he wasn’t there – he was back at the beginning. “You did it yourself,” he called. “You are riding a bike by yourself.”

It often upsets people when I say this but A Course in Miracles is not unlike a set of training wheels. It is a complex mythological spiritual framework that encourages inquiry and insight. But a time comes – may in fact already have come – when we do not need it as such, when we are ready to face the separation and the ego and see them undone. This is not such a big deal when we remember that we are in truth is also what God is. There is no space between the Holy Spirit and us. Salvation is always at hand.

Sooner or later, we have to come to that place: we are ready to learn that the world is not real. A Course in Miracles, like training wheels, is meant to be an interim aid that facilitates learning before being set aside forever.

The separation is active right now within us, as is the ego. We encounter them in our relationships with time and thought. Both can be undone whenever we choose. Indeed, we will not know peace until we do so choose.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Fred Wahlstrom December 10, 2013, 8:13 pm

    Not noticing thought is the ego, thats intense, hard to believe a human mind could come up with that. I ve recently become aware that the body and mind have no consciousness, and do not contain awareness. It is my mind that tells me about reality when I’m not noticing thought.
    Thanks a lot that was right on time.

  • CayCee December 11, 2013, 10:39 am

    Everyone and everything is a thought. Only in the duality of time is everything judged… the good the bad the ugly the beautiful it is all the same. Without thought hmmmm Truth can only be experienced. It cannot be described and it cannot be explained. T8.VI.9-8-9.
    i had an experience. I was rescuing a feral cat and while moving the cat from the cage to a carrier on an enclosed lanai, the cat got loose. After a while i got and scruffed the cat and carried it about 50 feet. My intention was purely saving. Once the cat was safe inside the carrier, i sighed with relief and stood silent for a moment. When another said look at your hand. the hand was shall i say ‘shredded’. It was only then as i gave my attention to it that the pain set into the hand. During the experience i can honestly say i did not feel anything. Only when i seemed to give it some thought…. It was if time was suspended until my attention shifted. And my perception shifted….hmmmm

  • Michael Lindsay December 11, 2013, 8:39 pm

    Great insights! I love this line, “The brain produces thought in the same way the kidneys secrete urine.”

    • Sean Reagan December 12, 2013, 8:53 am

      Thanks Michael . . . sometimes when I say that in classes or study groups or whatever people are like, eww . . . can’t you find a better metaphor? I should probably try . . .

  • Eric December 11, 2013, 10:48 pm

    Does the course tell us to undo thought or to think with the Thoughts of God?

    I don’t think the course says the brain produces thought, but that that thought comes from mind which the course says is real.

    It does say,

    Healing is the result of using the body solely for communication. Since this is natural, it heals by making whole, which is also natural. All mind is whole, and the belief that part of it is physical, or not mind, is a fragmented (or sick) interpretation. Mind cannot be made physical, but it can be made manifest through the physical if it uses the body to go beyond itself. By reaching out, the mind extends itself. It does not stop at the body, for if it does, it is blocked in its purpose. A mind which has been blocked has allowed itself to be vulnerable to attack because it has turned against itself. ~ACIM

    Eric: In other words, the mind is cause, the brain merely a device, not the cause of thoughts.

    I also have to ask, is the course all that mythological? I know it can be interpreted that way, and has been, as it is now interpreted as if someone does enough forgiveness lessons, they get to “go home”. In other words there is some future salvation to be sought for, but I am really starting to see it as it says it is, and that is practical.

    Lesson 132 is a wonderful lesson, but it is so often truncated to there is no world that it often becomes just another belief instead of a lesson to be learned. I have read so many people state it doesn’t matter because it is all an illusion or their ego is flaring up because ants came in their house for example, as if they made the world themselves, because of their understanding of what there is no world means, simply because they read it in a book. Yet lesson 184 states, “Think not you made the world, illusions yes!”

    I think that non-duality is much subtler than just thinking there is no world intellectually. The Book, “I AM THAT: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj really speaks of this well. Or as lesson 132 says, there is no world apart from us, so in reality there is no objective world (there is no world), but as the course also states in the manual for teachers, what the world is, is but a fact and as the course says, no one can be mad at a fact.

    The world of opposites doesn’t come from the world. It comes from us. Many people say that he Tao Te Ching is dualistic, because it says when someone states that something is beautiful, then ugly must arise. But what is, is a fact. Beauty is subjective, ugly is subjective, but what is, simply is.

    Personally, I don’t think the course’s non-duality is so much about trying to take abstract metaphysical ideas and reduce them down to a concrete physical numerical number. As the course asks and answers the question of what Creation is before lesson 326. It is the sum of all God’s Thoughts in number infinite. Not finite.

    The truth is, no one really knows. Even with the most profound spiritual experiences, there is thought, even it is just called awareness or “empty awareness, or feeling, sensing, or even nothingness.” In other words, no matter how lofty one’s spiritual experience is, “you/I” are involved with the experience. The observer cannot be separate from the observed.


    • Sean Reagan December 12, 2013, 8:25 am

      Hi Eric!

      Great to hear from you – I hope all is well on the west coast.

      In general – as always – I agree with you (particularly toward the end, your thoughts on nonduality). I do quibble on some semantics: I think “undoing thought” and “thinking with God” are more or less synonymous, or can be anyway. “God” can be such a freighted word that sometimes it’s helpful not to use it, but that is a personal choice.

      I also qualified at the beginning of the post that the “thought” I was talking about was more in sync with that offered by Bohm et al. That is a different exercise than trying to stay closely aligned with the course.

      I agree heartily that the brain is just a device – I thought that was clear when I compared it to the kidneys. It just does what it does. But that is Bohm’s (and countless other thinkers) insight too: we give far too much importance to that device and its output. Something else – call it mind, spirit, source, god, nature, whatever – is also operative.

      For me – reading and writing through the lens of Bohm and Wilber and other writers – helps to clarify that in ways that are intellectual but also penetrate deeper. It’s hard to explain. But you know, it’s like playing guitar. I will study a song I want to play: the chords, the melody. I will listen to it a lot. That is sort of a brain exercise (this isn’t a perfect metaphor). But then I start to play without study – just slip into the song. At first, the playing is very rooted in the brain function – this chord follows that, this time change is hard to remember, etc.

      But then a point comes – and I can’t predict it other than to say that I just have to keep playing and playing to reach it – where suddenly I am in the song. I’ve fallen into its center, it’s playing me, however you want to say it.

      Processing intellectual thinkers who are not precisely aligned with ACIM works in a similar way for me.

      And I can’t say this enough: I think the question is not whether we are right or wrong when we do this but whether it is helpful. As you and I have discussed before – I’m perfectly happy when people read Gary Renard, so long as they’re doing so because it’s helpful and not because they think he’s “right” while Marianne Williamson or whoever else is “wrong.” And that definition of helpful will almost certainly change with time and attention. There is a reason I encountered Bohm when I did.

      Yes – I think the course is deeply mythological in two important senses. First, it offers us a story about how all this came into being – the whole “tiny mad idea” thing and second, it is deeply invested in the traditional Christian imagery of Jesus as a crucified son of God and the Garden of Eden as a pre-separated state and so forth.

      I am thinking here of myths as origin stories that are not literally true but rather metaphorically or symbolically true.

      I don’t have a problem with course mythology necessarily. In fact, the latter example (the Jesus stuff) was salvational to me in the early stages because of how beautifully it articulated those stories in new and (for me) healing ways. In the tradition of Joel Goldsmith and some other writers, it reconfigures the myths in helpful ways.

      The problem comes when we start to believe the myth as fact: then we start to have debates about whether the historical Jesus wrote the course, or whether it’s okay to mention Buddhism with respect to the course, and so forth. I don’t particularly have a dog in either of those fights but there are people in the course community – often quite high up – who do. I think that comes from confusing form and content (another way of saying that we are taking mythology literally).

      That is why I admire Bohm and Krishnamurti so much: they worked very hard (not perfectly of course) not to utilize mythological or other language but to be as clear as possible – that is part of why they can be hard to read. They are not offering a lot of the traditional crutches that our brains rely on to process abstract ideas.

      Again – I hope you are well. The next time you buy yourself a tea or coffee, pretend I did it for you!


      p.s. The observer is the observed: yes. Everything Bohm and Krishnamurti said and explored was premised on that fact. The question is not how to separate them, or can we, but what happens when we stop trying to separate them and instead accept and experience them as one movement?

  • Emily December 12, 2013, 3:13 am

    Thanks Sean for this really great post. I have been trying to dissolve my atatchment to thought for some time now. My experience with thought has been that it is almost always part of a process of external “out there” mirroring of what is going on internally “in here”, and I don’t mean the body or the mind, but what is taking place in consciousness, the little area of it that is sensed to be “me”. The thoughts that pass through daily life occur simultaneously with the actions and content that the thought would seem to be responding to, but it seems that all of this takes place in the same instant and comes out of the same place. Behind all of this is the backdrop of spiritual learning. In a way, I can sense what is going on “in here” by witnessing life’s thoughts and events “out there”, and holding in mind “let me see this differently”. At some points in time, thoughts disappear altogether, but knowing stays present, and I think it is this that we try to cultivate, maybe we only experience it for 5 or 10 minutes, but we are aware of the experiences of other beings who have transcended thought altogether.

    • Sean Reagan December 12, 2013, 8:52 am

      Thanks, Emily – I like this very much: “thoughts disappear altogether, but knowing stays present.” It is hard to write/talk about this stuff, of course, but I sometimes think of thoughts – I am using thought in the Bohmian sense, the brain/body ouput sense – as occuring inside of knowledge, sort of like falling leaves in space. When we detach from thought we naturally become aware of knowing. Do you experience at any point a shift in boundaries: where inner and outer (which I think are mental conveniences) also dissolve or are undone? Eric was pointing out in his comment the observer/observed paradox. I think it is interesting to ask what happens when we become intensely aware of that paradox without trying to fix or improve or memorialize it.

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