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.
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.