A Course in Miracles Lesson 21

I am determined to see things differently.

Lesson 21 of A Course in Miracles extends the previous lesson in two particular ways. First, it focuses on anger. Second, it emphasizes specificity.

Somewhat less obviously, it reinforces the underlying concept enshrined in the first miracle principle: miracles do not acknowledge and are not subject to orders of difficulty.

Anger is a defense mechanism deployed by the separated self. Under the guise of protection, it actually is a form of attack on our brothers and sisters and our self.

It is an attack on our self because it depends for its existence on the illusion that a separate self exists and can actually be attacked.

And it is an attack on our brothers and sisters because it projects responsibility for attack onto them, thus reinforcing their separate existence. Projection extends separation.

Thus, anger is one of the primary ways in which separation is sustained. Its undoing is a primary focus of atonement.

Lesson Twenty-One does not explain anger. Nor does it go into detail about how anger is undone. It simply asks us to take very specific notice of it – to place it in the context of our lives in the world – and then declare that we are determined to hold a different view of it.

This matters! The course is emphasizing here the power of our will. Without explicitly saying so, it is suggesting that when our will aligns with Love – which does not recognize differences but rather sees all things as the same – healing is the inevitable result. We don’t have to understand anything. Remember that “nothing that you believe in this connection means anything” (W-pI.21.3:2).

In a critical sense, all our “problems” arise from the singular confusion that we are something we are not. One problem means one solution. But it takes time for us to see this clearly, and in the interim, engaging with the specific forms that problem takes is how we learn that there is only one error that needs to be corrected.

We are called to give attention to our lives, and not to ignore them or minimize them because they are illusory. Healing occurs where the problem appears to be.

Finally, this lesson reminds us that there is no order of difficulty in miracles. A “little” anger is no different than a fire hose of rage. Thus, our application of this lesson need not depend on finding the hottest rage or the relationship in which anger appears most consistently.

We are not called to judge the examples we use; only to be as specific as possible with respect to them. The degree of healing we attain is unrelated to the degree of the so-called symptom of anger because *it’s all the same problem.

Sometimes the abstraction inherent in A Course in Miracles can be too much. What are we supposed to, you now, do? If Lesson 20 is the essence – we are determined to see – this lesson provides the specificity that undoes abstraction. It does not take a spiritual genius to see that we can also vow to see differently situations that make us sad. Or fearful. Or guilty. Or lonely. Or happy. Whatever our struggles are in these bodies in this world, we can see past them – past the form in which they appear – the underlying problem of separation that they are made to sustain.

Lesson 21 is another way of insisting on waking up, on bringing Jesus into our lives every minute of the day until we fully and utterly recall our identity in, with and of God and there is no longer any need for either teachers or lessons or bodies or worlds at all.

Healing begins where we are. It begins at the bottom and works its way up. We give attention to the messiness and complexity of our living and resolve not to change the forms this messiness and complexity but rather to change our minds about it. We want to see it differently; it doesn’t actually matter what “it” is or what “it” looks like. To be healed is to see differently. And this “seeing differently” begins with our intention – however feebly set, however inconsistently maintained – to see differently now.

←Lesson 20
Lesson 22→

A Course in Miracles Lesson 20

I am determined to see.

There are at least two aspects of Lesson 20 of A Course in Miracles that bear reflection. The first is its commentary on structure and effort. The second is its explicit emphasis on our willingness to see conjoined with the implicit emphasis that we do not, presently, see.

The first is practical. The early lessons of A Course in Miracles are not difficult; they ask little of us in terms of time or energy. As the workbook points out, this is not an accident.

. . . you will not see if you regard yourself as being coerced, and if you give in to resentment and opposition (W-pI.20.1:6).

Still, the “little effort” we are asked to give does yield significant results.

Can the salvation of the world be a trivial purpose? And can the world be saved if you are not? God has one Son, and he is the resurrection and the life. His will is done because all power is given him in Heaven and on earth. In your determination to see is vision given you (W-pI.20.3:4-7).

This “little effort” – which today consists in twice-hourly repetitions of the lesson’s fundamental idea – segues neatly into the lesson’s goal, which is not merely to ever so slightly increase our willingness to actively participate in salvation.

To “see,” as the course defines it here, is to effectively discern between “joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, love and fear” (W-pI.20.2:6). It is not seeing akin to what our physical eyes do; it is closer to the way in which your mind recognizes and chooses between the emotions that it wants.

You want salvation. You want to be happy. You want peace. You do not have them now because your mind is totally undisciplined . . . (W-pI.20.2:3-6).

So lesson 20 is a juncture in our learning (there will be others) whereby we begin to see the value of learning discipline as it applies to the level of mind, and become willing to actually work for it.

Recognizing that we do not currently see this way can feel discouraging, but in fact it is the opposite. Coming to terms with what we cannot yet do is the first step in a) deciding that we do, in fact, want it and b) becoming willing to what is necessary to achieve it.

Thus, Lesson 20 also evokes the cycle of lessons (ten through fifteen) that consider meaninglessness, with a particular focus on the metaphor of “writing” our thoughts on the world. Perception can be of the thoughts we have written – always authored by ego – or of the real thoughts that the Holy Spirit writes for us. Only one set of thoughts is real, though we can postpone seeing it this way for a very long time.

We live in the world of perception largely under the influence of the loveless ego. It – meaning the ego – is perfectly happy to give us shreds of enlightenment – illusory feelings of progress, symbols of “love” that are actually hate wearing a mask. To accept these is to accept substitutes for the actual work, the real work of salvation, which is simple but not necessarily easy. 

Thus, a frequent and positive affirmation – I am determined to see! – is not out of place. It functions as a critical reminder of how far we must go and how determined we must be. But more than that, it does so in a hopeful way, a positive way.  We are striving to make contact with our true desire for awakening rather than the myriad forms of it proposed by the ego.  When we do make that contact, Heaven is the sure result because what we desire, we see (W-pI.20.5:5). This is real law of cause and effect, by which salvation is assured. 

←Lesson 19
Lesson 21→

Right Mind vs. Intellect

Thomas a Kempis once wrote that he would rather feel compunction than know its definition. Sage advice for those of us studying awakening while also pursuing it. I am often aware of the degree to which my intellect seems to ally with the ego at the expense of my right mind.

At first blush, it’s simply a question of balance, right? After all, a Buddhist monk can sit five or six hours a day and still have a few hours left over to study ancient texts. Thomas Merton certainly found a way to blend his extraordinary intelligence and scholarship with contemplative prayer. Right mind and intellect aren’t inherently adversarial.

The trouble with examples – whether abstract like the former or specific like the latter – is that they aren’t personal. It’s well and good to speculate what the Buddhist monks are doing on Mount Baldy, but that’s at best tangentially related to what I am doing right here and now with my own spiritual practice and prayer life. If it’s a direct experience of God and Heaven that I’m after – if I’m bent on salvation – then I don’t want what works for you. I need to figure out what works for me.

All my life, I’ve been the smart kid in class. Not always the smartest, but one of them for sure. And I’ve done different things with that. Sometimes I deliberately wrecked expectations. Sometimes I was arrogance and mean-spirited. Sometimes – the older I got anyway – I worked hard. Regardless of what I was doing in classrooms, I always knew that my brain – that dubious organ that makes it home between the ears – was my strongest asset.

Forty years or so later, I’m not so sure. Take A Course in Miracles. I’ve spent years studying the main text, the workbook and the teacher’s manual. I’ve read most of Ken Wapnick’s work, Marianne Williamson’s, Tara Singh‘s. I’ve read Gary Renard’s books, Liz Cronkhite’s, David Hoffmeister’s, Jon Mundy’s. I’ve read all the questions and answers at the Foundation for A Course in Miracles website. I’ve read all the major ACIM bloggers.

I feel pretty confident in my intellectual understanding of the Course. I can hold my ground with the best of them.

So what?

Over the past few months I have slowly come to realize that while I do understand A Course in Miracles, I have been far less able to bring it into application, as Tara Singh wonderfully put it. A starving man doesn’t want to discuss the chemical composition of an apple. He wants to eat.

Or as the Course puts it in Lesson 185 (I want the peace of God):

To say these words is nothing. But to mean these words is everything (W-pI.185.1:1-2).

I feel it as I work on this website. I am committed to writing about each lesson and each section of the text this calendar year. So far, so good. But I can feel – especially when doubt settles in, especially when guilt or fear raise their heads – my intellect spring to the fore. It’s as if smarts are the ego’s vanguard, there to drive all uncertainty away.

And yet, there are times when simply sitting with doubt and uncertainty are important. I believe this. We are not meant to spring from our separated selves directly into Heaven. It’s a process that unfolds in time – that’s what time is for. I don’t think intellectualism – for me anyway – is always concerned with truth, so much as it is with being – or at least appearing – right.

Again, the course is instructive: “Do you prefer that you be right or happy?” (T-29.VII.1:9)

Who in their right mind would defend against peace and happiness? Yet that is what happens, at least sometimes. Thus, some caution is appropriate. Some willingness to sit with doubt, to let fear sift through the defenses and denial. If I am learning anything as I work through the text closely it is this: the course is nowhere near as dense or complicated as I want to imagine it is. In fact, it is remarkably consistent and clear.

It’s doing what it asks of me that’s hard – and that’s mostly a matter of quietening the mind long enough to see through the fear and guilt and anger and hate to the light that shines beyond. Learning is doing. It is an another activity. Thus undoing must be something else. Intellectual activity is no more helpful than physical activity in terms of offering up our tiny selves to God. There must be another way.

It is only because we are so willing to resist peace – so intent on fighting Jesus – that the intellect is even a factor in our awakening. Right-mindedness is not reasoning things out – it is seeing Truth and not seeing anything else but Truth. It is as if the brain – and its misbegotten knack for judgment – simply disappears, its functioning no more noticeable than that of our kidneys. Just another organ doing its thing. Nothing to get worked up about.

This year I have scaled back significantly on my reading. At the moment, outside of materials for classes (all books I’ve taught before), I am not reading anything but A Course in Miracles. It’s an incredible experience. One thing I’ve noticed is how hungry my brain gets – more words please! It churns through books like an addict, like the last thing it really wants is quiet or stillness. For that reason alone, I’m willing to stay on this self-imposed reading fast.

What happens when the mind can’t take refuge in a book about experience?

One thing that happens is that its ability to talk – or write – its way out of salvation is grievously undermined. Natural questions arise – who am I that I should hide in a thousand times a thousand books? You begin to sense your real thoughts pulsing below the chatter of your brain. It’s kind of awesome and scary at the same time, like watching whales sound nearby while you’re in a dinghy rowing for the far shore.

Perhaps I’ll always be a scholar, always committed to understanding in a critical way what I read. It’s certainly part of the identity I’ve concocted for myself. But part of me also insists that it knows God and would like to return, the sooner the better. Lately I have become aware of time as a sort of pressure – not like I have to be at the station by six or the train’s going to leave without me – but sort of pushing me from the inside, like something wants to come out.

I thought to myself: Jesus came two thousand years ago. And Buddha. And all these amazing teachers since. And we still haven’t woken up. We still haven’t healed the world. We’re still separated and living the horrific nightmare that attends separation. I think that we have to end the dream of separation now. Right now. I think we are supposed to listen very carefully to the inner teacher and be guided as to the unique path of our own awakening. It’s not in a book. It’s not an idea. It’s a fact between you and Jesus, between me and Jesus.

This is what I want to grasp now. This is what I want to do: give it all over to Jesus, every thing, and be led by him to Heaven. I believe in this. I want this for all of us.

A Course in Miracles Lesson 19

I am not alone in experiencing the effects of my thoughts.

This is one of those ACIM lessons that you just knew was coming. Just as our vision links us, so do our thoughts. Again, we are asked to take note of our fundamental unity as thoughts in the mind of God. Not me and you but only one.

Two things stand out for me in this lesson. First, Jesus points out for us that resistance is likely to take two forms: first, the fact that minds are joined and that we are influencing one another all the time can entail a sense of responsibility that might not be desired. And second, we might object to a so-called “invasion of privacy.”

The responsibility piece is important. As I noted yesterday, the course is very careful to emphasize our union with one another. There is a shared obligation in our identity that we cannot avoid and still know peace. This is not a foreign idea to Christianity, as witnessed in Luke’s gospel.

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

We shall love our neighbor as we love ourselves – that’s the key to life. And although A Course in Miracles tweaks this considerably – largely by suggesting that it’s not our behavior towards our neighbors but our thoughts that matters most – we are still called to a love that is not self-directed. The effects of this love are felt everywhere, without exception. This is a great responsibility. There’s no doubt about that.

But considering it as a sort of two-way street can be helpful. Often, when I contemplate this idea, I start putting pressure on myself to be super loving in my thoughts. But that ignores the truth of the lesson: yes, my thoughts matter. But so do yours. When I remember that, I realize that my ego likes to subtly inject itself into the equation – it’s my thoughts that count. It’s my thoughts that shape your world. This isn’t what Jesus is talking about.

In fact it is our shared thoughts – and, to take it a step further – it is the thoughts that we share with God. These thoughts, as the Course has already pointed out to us, are not readily observable. They are beneath – shadowed by – what we currently consider our real thoughts.

This lesson is an invitation to continue to deepen our meditations, to make contact with our thoughts in a way that divests the self we believe we are in favor of the identity that we share – one and all – with God.

The other issues that pops up in this lesson – more complicated for me anyway – is the idea that there are no private thoughts (W-p1.19.2:3). It calls to mind this point from The Escape from Darkness:

When you have become willing to hide nothing, you will not only be willing to enter into communion but will also understand peace and love (T-1.IV. 1:5).

In a sense, we have no private thoughts because – as there is only mind – there is no body or thing or intelligence from which to hide a thought. But in a very practical way, we are also being asked to allow whatever is in our minds to be brought up into the light. Recall Lesson 14, which invited us to hold all our fearful thoughts in mind in order to learn that God did not create them and so they are not real. We have a tendency to hide our “personal repertory of horrors” (W-pI.14.6:1), to push it deep down to where we hope it will have no effect. To the extent we can’t keep it buried in the recesses of our minds, then we project it outwards. I’m not violent – terrorists are violent. I’m not misusing the teachings of Jesus to advance my interests – wealthy preachers with their megachurches are.

But we cannot be at peace so long as we insist on hiding these thoughts. This much is clear even after just nineteen lessons. Jesus wants us to raise all of what we think we are – good, bad, ugly, terrifying – into the light where we can look at it calmly with him and allow it to be undone.

Thus, this lesson is both metaphysically true – we are being led to an awareness that we are one in truth and that no separated selves exist in reality – but we are also being given some deeply practical tools to help lead us to this reality. Having no private thoughts – excluding nothing from our practice of forgiveness – is the surest way to learn that only the thoughts we think with God are of any consequence (W-p1.4.2:3-4). The way to awakening seems dark indeed, but we have within us the capacity to light the way. This is the miracle – the right mind that sees its miscreations and knows them as false. If we are willing only to try it, we will learn that it is so.

←Lesson 18
Lesson 20→

Reading A Course in Miracles: Atonement Without Sacrifice

Sacrifice is so central to traditional Christian understandings of atonement that the possibility of atonement without sacrifice can seem incoherent or sacrilegious. Most of us – despite our apparent learning, cultural sophistication and good intentions – remain invested in the value of sacrifice. It’s the right way – indeed, the only way – to gain God’s favor.

In terms of A Course in Miracles, sacrifice is an extension of the so-called “scarcity principle,” which argues that separate bodies must compete with one another in a zero sum conflict for finite resources, the better to push back the inevitable “final” sacrifice, which is death. What I have, you do not have, and vice-versa. And thought we might establish temporary alliances, they always have as their foundation our personal gain.

It is true that objects like apple pie and diapers and houses are finite and can be thought of in terms of “scarcity.” But truth is always abundant (T-1.IV.3:4). It cannot be lost or gained; it merely is. Like love, the more you give away, the more you have.

It is to this principle – the abundance of love and truth, which are the fundaments of joy and inner peace and love – to which the course aims to direct our attention.

In this sense, atonement is a healed perception of what is valuable and what is not, and a recognition that what is valuable can not be lost or sacrificed in any way.

On a traditional Christian view, sacrifice works something like this: God sacrificed his only son, Jesus, to atone for your sins. Jesus went along with this painful sacrifice willingly. Thus, Jesus becomes the savior you can either accept or reject, and your acceptance opens the gates of Heaven and your rejection opens the gates of Hell. A whole host of martyrs and saints have sacrificed their lives and well-being since.

In this way, sacrifice is yoked to punishment for personal wrong-doing (sin), and so giving something up – the more precious the better (like your life, say) – becomes a hallmark of Christian forgiveness and theology. Thus, perhaps you don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Perhaps you tithe. Perhaps you feel guilty when you don’t do those things. Perhaps you feel guilty just for being alive.

As A Course in Miracles points this inversion of love – which hinges on focusing on the crucifixion, rather than the resurrection (T-3.I.1:2) – is “painful on its minor applications and genuinely tragic on a wider scale” (T-3.I.2:3).

Persecution frequently results in an attempt to “justify” the terrible misperception that God Himself persecuted His Own Son on behalf of salvation. The very words are meaningless . . . The wholly benign less the Atonement teaches is lost if it is tainted with this kind of distortion in any form (T-3.I.2:4-5, 11).

So one aspect of understanding atonement without sacrifice, is to realize that punishment is foreign to God. We are not asked – and thus are not required – to suffer in order to prove our virtue. Our virtue in the eyes of God is a given. We are not called to suffer but to be merciful.

Sacrifice is a notion totally unknown to God . . . Sacrificing in any way is a violation of my injunction that you should be merciful even as your Father in Heaven is merciful (T-3.I.4:1, 3).

Critically, this extension of mercy includes to our own self. We can be quite skilled at giving to others, but still neglect our own well-being. We might call that sort of self-sacrifice as reflecting a crucifixion-based understanding of atonement. Jesus gave himself for us; we, too, must give ourselves up for others (albeit not on a cross).

That is a form of unhelpful thinking that distorts the atonement, because of its implicit believe that we give away we no longer have (hence, others benefit from our sacrifice). It assumes – incorrectly – that love is a finite resource.

Instead, the course invites us to think of atonement as being a reflection of a purity that is wholly innocent and so naturally knows only truth. To be innocent is to know that we have everything; on that view, concepts of getting or taking or hoarding have no meaning. Seeing our brother and sister as wholly equal – because they, like us, are extensions of God’s love – means that all we can do is honor them because “honor is the natural greeting of the truly loved to others who are like them” (T-3.I.6:3).

In this way, the text is reaching a level of being that transcends (without denying) bodily needs and wants. In this section, Jesus-as-narrator is not talking about giving up chocolate for Lent or willingly entering lion dens or signing up for – or refusing to sign up for – yoga classes.

Rather, he is suggesting that our fundamental understanding of who and what we are is deeply, even tragically broken. We think that we are separate from a paternal God who is not above torturing and murdering his children and calling it “love.”

By falling for that lie, we naturally conflate atonement with sacrifice, rather than with love. But there is another way, one premised on remembering our shared innocence.

The innocence of God is the true nature of the mind of His Son. In this state your mind knows God, for God is not symbolic; He is Fact. Knowing His Son as he is, you realize that the Atonement, not sacrifice, is the only appropriate gift for God’s altar, where nothing except perfection belongs (T-3.I.8:1-3).

So we have to look at our fear of sacrifice and be willing to consider that it’s inaccurate and does not reflect the true nature of our being. It doesn’t matter how high the odds against this clear seeing appear.

Sooner or later, all students reach a point where the external world – for all its glitter and gore, all its allure and attraction – no longer matters the way it did. It does not satisfy us; it only brings us pain. In that moment, we see that our ideas about atonement are wrong. And truly, even just holding that thought in mind can feel dangerous, as if an invisible wave of fear were poised to pound us into dust, erase us from the Book of Life, and make it so we aren’t even a memory in the mind of God.

In that moment – as this section of A Course in Miracles teaches – Jesus literally begs us to go with him beside us. God is not symbolic! No more are his children.

And yet.

In the end, the real sacrifice is the ongoing sacrifice of peace and joy – the deliberate decision to go on imagining that the ego is real, the separation happened, and we have no choice in suffering its effects.

Gently but insistently, A Course in Miracles teaches us that true atonement is love, and that love is one, and that is all. Suffering is not mandatory. Salvation is a shared process, a trail we walk together, in order that walking it might not seem so onerous. In time we remember that what we think we’re giving up is nothing and what we “gain” is what we’ve always had, which is the infinite abundance of love.

And that is not a sacrifice, but a blessing.

A Course in Miracles Lesson 18

I am not alone in experiencing the effects of my seeing. 

Lesson 18 of A Course in Miracles is simple but hearty, like oatmeal. It doesn’t pose any dramatic challenges to the structure of our thinking; it doesn’t expose any fireworks or light shows.  And yet, the idea contained in this lesson is so fundamental to our practice of the course and its promise of salvation that we could spend weeks on this one lesson and not reach the end of its healing potential.

Lesson 18 teaches us that all minds are joined and so an experience in one is experienced in all. Another way to frame this is to say that there are not “minds” but simply “Mind.” In our separated state, we equate the body’s brain with the mind, and it makes sense to us that “our” mind is separate from somebody else’s. But A Course in Miracles teaches us that this is not so.

In the holy instant the condition of love is met, for minds are joined without the body’s interference and where there is communication there is peace. The Prince of Peace was born to reestablish the condition of love by teaching that communication remains unbroken even if the body is destroyed, provided that you see not the body as the necessary means of communication (T-15.XI.7:1-2).

Thus, Lesson 18 is also an early introduction to the role communication plays in healing. 

I want to offer two brief observations related to this lesson.

First, it is essential to our practice that we be willing to let go of what we think of as “our” self. As confusing or even disturbing as the idea may be, we are not our bodies and we are not the many stories we tell ourselves about our bodies.  Salvation is hindered by our refusal, often buried quite deep, to give up on this embodied narrative self. Yet over and over, the course reminds us that its function is not self-improvement but a complete restoration of our true identity.

We do not do this; we simply consent to its being done for us. Thus, willingness – which must be checked and rechecked – is our sole prerogative. It’s okay to be scared so long as we retain a shred of willingness to give up our whole self. 

Salvation is a gift. We don’t buy it and we can’t bargain for it. Thus, we have to be in a space of receptivity for it. Think of a kid at his or her birthday party. Consider their joyful anticipation combined with a complete confidence that gifts will be forthcoming. They have no doubt; they are ready. That is the space we want to be in.

The second observation I want to make regarding this lesson is personal.For a long time I was annoyed with A Course in Miracles because it asked me to give attention to my brothers and sisters. In an infantile – not a childish – way, I needed everything to be about me. I believed that any attention given to you was attention taken from me. And that felt intolerable and there was not a lot of interior resolution to change it.

In my mind, I rationalized this situation by saying that once I “woke up,” once I “got it,” then I would be very compassionate and helpful to everyone. But until then, no. Even when I began to appreciate intellectually that the forgiveness I extended to you was offered to me as well – that, in fact, there was no other way to offer forgiveness – I still reserved a special desire to be the special child of God, the favored brother of Jesus, and premier student of A Course in Miracles. 

I think a lot of us feel this way to varying degrees, and also, it is this very selfishness and egoic attachment that ACIM is given to heal. The whole point of becoming miracle workers is to help others become miracle workers, too. In fact, in some ways, the course can be seen as little more than an introduction to waking up – its real goal is to make us fit for leading others back to God. This leading back need not take the form of A Course in Miracles. The form is quite irrelevant. But the content – which is a clear, lucid and innocent love – is relevant indeed. And we only “get” that love when we offer it to others. In fact, we might not even know that we have it until we see ourselves extending it.

Thus, salvation is a shared experience. It is a shared experience of sharing and this so because minds are joined. Of course Lesson 18 is only the beginning of this insight and yet in another sense, it perfectly illuminates the path ahead. We go together, literally.

Thank you, for being with me. 

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Lesson 19→