It may be that we look at the external world as being full of lessons which, once learned, will undo that world in favor of peace and love. It is not the worst way to think about the world, but it is not how the world is undone.
Any investment in the external world and the life that is engendered by and through it will keep us yoked to that world’s yin/yang roller coaster of hurt and grief, loss and confusion, et cetera. To respond to anything – as a lesson, as an opportunity to be of service, as a wrong to be righted, as a form of hate to be translated into love – is to make it real, and to make one illusion real is to make all of them real.
For no one can make one illusion real, and still escape the rest. For who can choose to keep the ones that he prefers, and find the safety that the truth alone can give? Who can believe illusions are the same, and still maintain that even one is best? (T-26.VI. 1:7-9)
Yet that is precisely what we are doing when we insist on learning from experience.
One way we respond to this problem is to give up almost everything in favor of one or two special things. We are like children who, told to come out of the water because it’s time to go home, come into the shallows to our ankles but no further. It’s true we moved in the direction of leaving the water, but we are still in the water. In a practical sense, we are no closer to going home than when we were neck-deep and frolicking.
This special thing – this idol by which we obscure the Lord – is frequently another person, another spiritual path, or some form of activity like work or parenting or making art. It seems as if we can just be in this one relationship, or find that one perfect-fitting spiritual path (or the one teacher on that path), or do the special work that only we can do, then everything will be okay. These are “good” desires, “good” aspects of the world, “good” applications of self.
But even in their goodness they are harbingers of loss and death.
Anything in this world that you believe is good and valuable and worth striving for can hurt you, and will do so. Not because it has the power to hurt, but just because you have denied it is but an illusion, and made it real. And it is real to you. It is not nothing (T-26.VI.1:1-4).
Our belief that there is at least this one good thing worth pursuing and possessing reinforces the underlying error or illusion upon which every other error or illusion is founded: that there is a discrete self who causes things to happen and to whom things happen. The one “good” illusion becomes the gate through which the rest of them parade.
And through its perceived reality has entered all the world of sick illusions. All belief in sin, in power of attack, in hurt and harm, in sacrifice and death, has come to you (T-26.VI.1:5-6).
There is a point in one’s study of A Course in Miracles where this becomes obvious. We have fallen for the lie there is something out there upon which the truth is contingent – a lover, a belief system, a spiritual practice, a career, a calling. This realization can be very painful because no matter where we turn a nagging voice says “but that’s an illusion too.” Our spouse, our zafu, our exercise regimen, our political ideals, our poems and paintings. It’s like the Hindu practice of “neti, neti,” a sort of via negativa. Our lives become an apparent litany of “not this, not this.”
Because this experience can be sterile to the point of leaving no reason to live, we naturally succumb to the understandable temptation to forego it altogether. What’s so bad about an idol? How can a slice of raisin bread be bad? Even gurus enjoy an orgasm from time to time don’t they? And so forth. This is easy to do and often happens without our noticing it. Even a practice of “neti, neti” can become an idol, a thing to which we cling.
But eventually we get tired of the merry go-round and step off it. “I can’t keep even one illusion. There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ illusion. Fine. Now what?”
What is helpful is simply noticing what is happening. We realize that we have had an insight (there are no good illusions and so we can’t keep any of them), and that we are resisting its implications, and that this resistance is painful. Perhaps it is terrifying. Or confusing. We just have to look at this. We don’t have to do anything about it. We just give attention to what is happening. Judging it, amending it, making art of it . . . that’s all just more grist for the mill of attention.
Give attention and let the spiritual chips fall where they fall, which is all they’re going to do anyway. Let it all go, and watch as it does. Let it all come flowing back, and watch as it does.
How does this help? It helps in a few ways.
First, attention almost always brings us – if only briefly – to the present moment. And the wonderful thing about the so-called holy instant is that it does not contain the past or the future. There are no insights in the holy instant, there are no consequences in the holy instant, and so there are no personal reactions in the holy instant.
When you look closely and openly at what is happening, there is only what is happening – nothing else! It is such a clear and simple thing that we tend to look right past it. But it is always right here and always right now. So “not this, not this” becomes “only this. This this.”
Second, as we settle into a relationship with the holy instant (as outlined above), we begin to give attention to the underlying error of separation itself. We look at the belief that there is someone doing all this who can choose to stop it.
Most of us – most of the time – conflate this “someone” with the self we believe we are. “Sean” is projecting this and that, so an improved “Sean” will choose to stop projecting. “Sean” is obsessed with being right, so a more insightful and less possessive “Sean” will become more interested in just being happy.
But “Sean” – and you, too, whoever you are – is just another illusion. “Sean’s” body is just as illusory as any body “Sean” perceives. Those discrete selves who seem capable of so much activity are just more projections. They are just another bright shiny reflection that disappears when grasped at.
This is all the separation is: the belief that the projected self is responsible for what happens. Once that belief is gone – and it goes when even mildly challenged – what remains is peace. What remains is Truth.
The section of A Course of Miracles that is the focus here (The Appointed Friend) encourages us to adopt the Holy Spirit as our “Friend in truth” (T-26.VI.3:4), appointed by God (T-26.VI.2:7), who will bring us “gifts that are not of this world” (T-26.VI.3:5). Doing so will help end our habit of choosing among illusions.
This can be a helpful construction but please see the way that it sustains the underlying dualism it aims to undo: that there is a self who needs a friend, without which friend, the truth will remain forever at bay.
So the suggestion I am offering is that a point comes when even the Holy Spirit is an illusion, when even that apparently harmless ideal becomes too painful an obstruction to manage. If it is helpful, okay. Use it. But if it is not, it’s not. Don’t be afraid to go there. The text which offers us this special “friend” is simultaneously teaching us that eventually we’ll have to go beyond this friend. What did the old hymn say?
we got to walk this lonesome valley –
we got to walk it by ourselves.
Ain’t nobody else can walk it for us –
we got to walk it by ourselves.
In this way – as happens so often when one closely reads the text – A Course in Miracles undoes itself and points to an experience that cannot be mediated and cannot be controlled or directed, not even by the course itself.
So give attention to the one who gives attention. Can you find the giver? Can you find the source? Can attention turn around on itself? Can you find your true self? Can you find that which never changes? Is not subject to events? Is not bound to response? Has no preferences? Perceives no difference that would make judgment possible let alone desirable?
If we undertake our inquiry into this self patiently, gently and honestly, then we will see that the source cannot be found. We cannot grasp the self. It always slips through that which would hold it, without ever quite leaving or disappearing. Because we cannot find it, we make substitutions for it, the most notorious of which is God.
But knowing God – knowing the Absolute, however one defines or labels it – is beyond the limits of our faculties. Our perceptive capabilities, our intelligence and learning, our memories and dreams, our cultural affluence and dynamic social fabrics can at best point in the direction of that which cannot be perceived, studied, known, shared or otherwise made real. It is beyond real and unreal, and even saying that little is saying too much.
These posts often drift into poetic abstraction. That’s okay. It’s one way of alluding to that which cannot be alluded to. In the absence of pure truth, we make do with conditional references. In a world of broken legs, who doesn’t need a crutch?
Yet the post also aims at a practical teaching: to suggest that one give attention without any expectation of a result that can be conveyed in language or via the senses, while simultaneously trusting that a result will be given. Nothing simpler can be imagined than to simply notice what is happening, where noticing does not exclude frustration, confusion, forgetting, resisting, denying and so forth.
Look, and you will see Christ looking back at you, and there will no longer be a looker and a looked-at, but only looking itself, and it will be enough. It will be all there is.