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Reading the Rules for Decision: Walking the Lonesome Valley

Rules for Decision is one of my favorite – perhaps the favorite – section of the text of A Course in Miracles. It is clear and structured and it promises that adherence to its steps will bring us the peace and joy for which we so long. No fluff. No shades of gray.

This section is premised on the fact that we are always making decisions. Our senses are in a state of continuous perception. Our brains process that data, organize it according to the past, and then make decisions – hopefully optimized for the future – about present behavior. At the level of the body, there is a certain amount of sense in this. When it rains, we open an umbrella. When we are hungry, we eat some bread and cheese.

But in another way, this is not a very functional way to live our lives at all. In fact, it is the source of a lot of pain and confusion. We look around and see people living in big houses or driving fancy cars or eating at posh restaurants every other night. We decide it’s unfair or unjust and end up festering in envy. Or we decide that we want a piece of that lifestyle and we decide to pursue it all costs, family and ethics and peace of mind be damned.

At the deepest level, we have decided to accept the ego’s judgment of what we are and of what we are capable. We decide not to challenge the notion that we are bodies wending their way through a cruel and violent and depraved world. We have decided against God and thus live in a state of guilt and fear. This is not a metaphor! The ego supplants God. Nothing good can come of it.

When we talk about ontological guilt and fear, we are talking about something that is grounded in our being. It is not fear of the barking dog or guilt for eating too much ice cream. It is the ocean of fear and guilt upon which the fragile egoic self perilously floats. It is this level to which the healing in A Course in Miracles is ultimately directed. We work our way slowly backward – or downward or inward if you prefer – to that roiling mess of ontological guilt and fear. We face being at its ugliest and most sordid depths.

Making contact with all of that is very difficult – especially when you realize that there is no way out but through it, and so you can’t just glimpse it quickly and then move on. We aren’t tourists on this journey; we are travelers. We are pilgrims. We really have to sustain your focus. It’s that moment in the course when you realize that the solution to your so-called problems really and truly is not outside you at all but is instead that darkness, that shadowy mess of snakes and demons, that tangle of murder and death, that bilious muck that swirls in your heart like hell’s own hurricane.

It is discouraging and frightening, to say the least. You feel as if you have done all this work and it’s been going swimmingly and you’re so happy and then . . . it’s like you thought you were just about to hop, skip and jump right through the pearly gates into Heaven and Jesus says, uh, actually, we have to pay some attention to all this terrifying and ugly material first.

I work constantly in my own practice not to intellectualize it too much. Part of being a beneficiary of good psychotherapists, and being well-read and studious, and raising your own food, and praying a lot when others are asleep and so forth is that you start to think you’re just the tiniest bit special. You’re humble about it and you know that Jesus doesn’t play favorites but deep down you believe that he does play favorites with at least one person: you.

We all do this in our own ways. For me, it tends to manifest in this attitude: “Because I intellectually understand what is happening, and can write about it, and because I’m such a sweet and honest guy, I do not actually have to go through all this. I am exempt.”

You may have your own version of a reason not to go all the way with A Course in Miracles, for thinking that you get a pass. But once we’ve caught even the faintest hint of the path, then there’s nothing left to do but walk it. We can delay, postpone, reconsider, encourage others to take the first step while not taking it ourselves . . . sooner or later, we have to look at the fear and the guilt.

It is like the old Woody Guthrie song which I used to play so happily when wandering around Ireland with a guitar and harmonica.

You gotta walk that lonesome valley,
You gotta walk it by yourself,
Nobody here can walk it for you,
You gotta walk it by yourself.

He is riffing off the classic hymn describing how Jesus became Christ.

Jesus walked this lonesome valley.
He had to walk it by Himself;
O, nobody else could walk it for Him,
He had to walk it by Himself.

Really, you just have to take the first step by yourself. After that, Jesus is there to help. But still. That first step can be mighty hard. I suspect some of us spend lifetimes with one foot lifted, never quite bringing it down.

It is this space to which Rules for Decision is directed. It’s helpful in other contexts, of course – when we’re just beginning, when we’re just figuring out what ACIM metaphysics are all about, when we still want to have the world and release it too. But it becomes most fruitful when we are ready to go deep – when we are ready at last to plunge into the interior horror show and – come hell or high water – see what’s on the other side.

That is why this section shows up in a chapter entitled The New Beginning. These rules become most powerful tools after the goal of awakening is at last clear and we have mustered the willingness to do the work, however challenging or tedious or useless it appears.

The speed by which [awakening] can be reached depends on this one thing alone; your willingness to practice every step. Each one will help a little, every time it is attempted. And together will these steps lead you from dreams of judgment to forgiving dreams and out of pain and fear (T-30.In.1:3-5).

Our goal is to begin integrating these rules – or steps, if that is a more comfortable word – into our lives in a habitual way. There is a transition in which our practice of the course gradually stops being one part of our life and instead becomes a cornerstone of that life, a virtual bedrock. We accept it as our path and we accept at last the necessity of following it. We see that the style of our following doesn’t matter – Jesus isn’t giving points to the most enthusiastic course student or the most earnest. We can stumble and fumble all we want so long as we are following. And we do.

Really, Rules for Decision are rules/suggestions for how to follow Jesus – not in the traditional way of taking up our cross and trailing along behind an executed sage of Galilee and Judea. But literally transforming our minds so that we can say goodbye to guilt and fear and their resultant pain forever. We are learning to think like Christ. Freedom is not repeating the past or honoring the past, however well-intentioned, but rather in meeting existence – meeting being- without judgment.

Thus, following Jesus this way is simply a manifestation of our willingness to think differently about who and what we are. And that willingness is a manifestation of trust – on some level, even if only faintly, we trust that Jesus is there and that even if we can’t accept it or see it or hear it or feel it we really aren’t walking that lonesome valley alone. We are walking it with Jesus. Somehow, we are walking it with Jesus.

And that matters! It matters because that trust that Jesus is somehow practically there – buried so deep as to be all but mythological – is truly a reflection of God’s Love. It is the pinprick of light on the far side of the dense and heavy veils of guilt and fear and hate made and sustained by the egoic self. It is the assurance that far beyond these limited bodies with their limited brains and their limited world lies an indivisible Truth that is beautiful and profound and altogether ours.

Whether you are feeling it today or not, this moment or not, you are the Love of God, and that knowledge is going to guide you out of the hell of this seeming world. There’s a little work left, yes, and it may not be easy, but the end is sure. You wouldn’t be reading A Course in Miracles otherwise. You wouldn’t be reading this (long-winded) post otherwise.

But don’t rush it. Don’t try to leapfrog the way home. Rules for Decision lays out a sure method to heal your mind. Each step lights the way a little more. Each efforts throws another helpful ray before you. We are leaving good ideas behind now. We are heeding the rules by which the attainment of Heaven is assured.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • sally February 27, 2013, 12:06 pm

    Dear little brother, I am peacefully happy while sighing a very deep sigh of relief ….and am so looking forward to these comeing days of receiving our sharing this Decision Making topic and all the steps that go with it. It has been engrossing for me for years, even before ever finding ACIM and the Right way to do it. I have made a old school notebook for my Awakenig thoughts to be logged and even add my dialog with Jesus when he responds to me. Your writings have added Life to my Life, even when I don’t Comment. With loving Gratitude, sally

    • Sean Reagan February 27, 2013, 7:39 pm

      Thank you Sally. It is always great to hear from you. I’m glad you’re well – glad we’re connecting this way.

      Love, Sean

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