A Coffee Mug
If I give attention to the mug of coffee an arm’s length over to my right, what happens.
I see a mug. The mug has a form which is amenable to description. The mug also has a story – where it came from, how everyone knows it’s “Sean’s/Dad’s coffee mug,” et cetera.
The mug has a function. The function could shift a little – it could hold water or tea instead of coffee. But it won’t write a poem. It won’t start a war.
The mug is not permanent. It will break if dropped.
The mug is a little mysterious. I don’t know when it will cease to exist in its particular form. I don’t know its origins (who made it, where it was made, et cetera).
The mug is impervious to me. It works for everyone equally. If you stole it, it would hold coffee just fine.
So. Is the mug real?
I would say: the mug works. It coheres. It fits into my living in a helpful way. It doesn’t create problems by having preferences.
On that view, yes. The mug is real.
Yet if I don my ACIM Teacher hat, then I say: of course the mug is not real. It can be threatened and “nothing real can be threatened (In.2:2). Also, “nothing unreal exists” (In.2:3).
Therefore, the mug is not real.
Not Just A Coffee Mug
May I back up? And go slower?
The mug works. It fits helpfully into a world in which living happens. It helps living happen. How could it not be real?
Because, on the ontology proposed by A Course in Miracles, the mug is emphatically not real (because it can be threatened et cetera).
Is this apparent contradiction a problem?
The answer is: maybe. Or: you tell me.
The answer can also be: who cares.
Another answer is: it depends.
I have pointed out before that attention given to an object (here a mug, there a maple tree) will bring the whole universe into being, as well as the void from which the universe emerges.
You can look at the coffee mug and see both the universe and the void. Neat!
If you do that exercise a few times, and reflect on what it reveals, then you will see that the mug (or the maple tree or whatever) is neither real nor not real.
But “neither real nor not real” is, in a critical way, semantic bullshit. It’s not really helpful. And – if you’re trying to harmonize your living with the ontological premise of A Course in Miracles (which is tricky but not impossible) – it’s false.
If you conclude – as I do when I do the exercise proposed – that the mug is neither real nor not real, then you have made an error of the following kind: you intended to travel to Boston and you stopped in Cambridge.
There is nothing wrong with Cambridge – far from it – but Cambridge is not Boston. You can change your goal – you can say that you really meant to travel to Cambridge in the first place – and undo the error that way.
Or you can go on into Boston.
Is the mug real?
What do you really want to know? Why do you really want to know it?
The mug works. It holds your coffee. If it falls and breaks, thus confirming the lawfulness of your suppositions about classical physics. It’s part of an extended narrative that integrates many threads into a fabric, unifying self and other. It serves as a teaching device by which you are allowed to perceive the universe and the void from which the universe emerges.
Truth is what works. Real is what works.
Welcome to Boston, friend.
Fine, you say (on the Cambridge city line). But that’s not what A Course in Miracles says will restore to my memory the peace of God (In.2:4). Have you forgotten, Sean, that
Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists (In.2:2-3).
No. I haven’t. At this point in my life, I doubt I could forget it. The course guides me like an antique compass which mostly always works but sometimes gets a little wonky and can be hard to hold. There are better tools but I do have a fondness for this one.
Let me try and show what I mean by that. I said this a moment ago:
The mug works. It holds your coffee. If it falls and breaks, it confirms the lawfulness of your suppositions about classical physics. It’s part of an extended narrative that integrates many threads into a fabric, unifying self and other. It serves as a teaching device by which you are allowed to perceive the universe and the void from which the universe emerges.
What happens if – rather than focus on the primary noun (the mug) – we give attention to the verbs in that phrase, especially the positive ones related to the mug?
Works, confirms, integrates, serves . . .
Does shifting attention that way shift our thinking?
For me – in my learning experience, in this classroom we construct together – yes, it does. Now, rather than playing on the beach of the concrete and specific, we are swimming in the waters of abstraction.
I mean that we are no longer talking about a “mug” but about “works, confirms, integrates, serves . . . ”
That might feel awkward. Our thinking tends towards images which are usually nouns to which adjectives can be applied. Kind women, appetizing cakes, peaceful pastures . . .
And then we act accordingly. Hug the woman, eat the cake, paint a watercolor of the pasture . . .
When we focus on verbs rather than nouns, we look at processes which cannot be easily objectified but which literally unfold as we give attention to them.
The image is always dead but abstraction (looking, seeing) is alive.
So ask: can “works, confirms, integrates, serves” be threatened?
I can eliminate the mug in the sense of smashing it to a fine dust and throwing the dust in the river.
It’s less clear how I can eliminate “works, confirms, integrates, serves.” Even if I somehow forgot – or revert to a state when I didn’t know – the words “works, confirms, integrates, serves,” the principles they denote remain effective and active in my living.
And even if I could – somehow – disavow both the words and the denotated principles from my living, they would go on in yours.
[the mug does not care for whom it holds the coffee – there is so much potential for healing and peace in that one simple insight!]
When we perceive this level of abstraction, we perceive a fluidity that doesn’t neatly fit into the categories of right and wrong, real or unreal.
At that level, the mug as such is no longer so important; “works, confirms, integrates, serves” is important. And even the specific words dissolve pretty quickly. Who needs them? In the sea of abstraction, there is no fear of going down.
It is only the body that can drown. Or suffer without coffee.
The words “works, confirms, integrates, serves” are just symbols for concepts that are indifferent to symbols. That is, the concepts transcend language but in the positive sense of remaining amenable to description without being limited by it.
That is, we can talk about “works, confirms, integrates, serves” until the mug literally melts in the furnace of time without ever impairing “works, confirms, integrates, serves.”
What am I trying to say here?
I am pointing out that questions of real or unreal are not as interesting as they appear at first glance. The physical comes and goes. What is material comes and goes.
But you can handily reach levels of mind where the coming and going appears less rigid and less susceptible to threat. You can give attention to abstraction.
That is what A Course in Miracles is trying to get us to do.
Giving attention to abstraction does not undo the physical (which would be a silly impossible project anyway – bodies can’t undo bodies). Rather, giving attention to abstraction allows us to live in a lighter way, a way that is less restricted to or ruled by what is physical.
Let me offer a concrete example.
When my old dog Jake died, a lot ended in my living. A kind of satisfactory walking, a kind of relating to forests, a form of non-intellectual companionate joy . . .
All gone. Utterly and without possibility of recall. I will never walk with Jake through the forests of Worthington and Vermont again.
But living did not end. Love did not end.
Please do not think I am denying grief.
I merely point out that grief arises in love and love does not pass.
This is observable. And it is worth observing.
Over and over it is worth giving attention to love which does not pass.
Eventually, you will see that love does not even pass – and life does not even pass – when the body you call your own draws a last breath and its eyes darken.
All the stories about death that we tell – Jake is here but not here, the dead live on in memory, my dead father visits in another form, ancestors guide me in dreams, Heaven and hell are actual destination spots conditional on behavior – dissolve in the presence of our awareness of love which does not pass.
“What is real” is an ontological question that distracts us from what is here. We can give attention to what is here and learn from it. It enjoys teaching us; it longs to be known.
One thing it teaches is: stop worrying so much. Stop chasing the wild geese of philosophy and theology and whatnot. As Mary Oliver says, “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
For it does love. It loves to love. Loves love.
The deeper I go into my coffee mug, the more peace is given. I say “given.” That’s not quite right. It’s more in the nature of remembering the peace that is always here – peace that can neither be given, nor taken away, which is how it is peace.
There is yet a sense that this peace is perceived by a body and experienced by a body, word of which is shared by a body with other bodies. This is not a concern. It is not a problem to be solved.
One simply goes on as one goes on and allows the living they are doing to be what it is. Deep questions, half-assed philosophies, good cups of coffee, friends and family with whom to partake of it . . .
We find it is sufficient. We find it is enough, beyond threat, as if coffee in a mug – and a friend or two to share it with – were the point all along.