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The Folly of Effort

I have pointed out many times the importance of taking a firm and stand with respect to one’s spirituality. This is not the same as saying our particular path or practice is superior to another. It is a matter of saying, this is what works best for me right now and I am committed to it. I won’t be distracted. I won’t become casual. Commitment is a sign of willingness; and when we are willing to perceive God, all sorts of things – fun and otherwise – start to happen.

Or so it has worked for me, so far. I took a fairly traditional shallow and intellectual approach to A Course in Miracles early on but it grew thin quickly. Two things were more or less clear. First, ACIM was not (for me) just another new age belief system with which I could play at being a serious and enlightened man. Second, more than I needed to choose “the right path,” I needed to commit to a path. The commitment was far more important than what I committed to. I was crying out at the deepest levels for the experience of being a student and a follower.

Anyway, those two factors converged and I began to study A Course in Miracles in earnest. Again, this has taken a form for me that it does not with plenty of other students. I have no argument with them and try to stay away from theirs with me. That I do this imperfectly goes without saying. My formal teacher is Tara Singh and his approach to the course – Vedantic, service-oriented, cross-cultural – can throw plenty of students and teachers into conniptions. There are plenty of course teachers about whom I feel the same way, so I get it. It happens for all of us.

A couple of years after this serious study began, I fell into a rut. The course felt dull and repetitive; Singh was predictable. Idly, I started to read Krishnamurti – Singh’s teacher in many ways – and through him stumbled onto physicist David Bohm. Bohm’s ideas about thought revolutionized my understanding of A Course in Miracles, in particular its thinking on the ego and separation. I have tried – poorly, I know – ever since to understand this by writing about it in various forms and settings.

Part of my problem with ACIM has always been that it is a bit too poetic for my taste and a bit too intellectual. It’s always on the verge of going over the top. I’m not so peeved about this that I need to pull a Liz Cronkhite rewrite the damn thing (Liz, by the way, is highly recommended). But it wasn’t until I read Bohm that I understood what this frustration meant. In an instant I saw why Krishnamurti was so insistent on not borrowing language from various religious and psychological systems. I appreciated the impulse of writers like Thich Nhat Hanh or Thomas Merton to acknowledge and integrate material from varied traditions but more and more it seemed like tossing gasoline on smoldering coal. Christian language and imagery and symbolism – even in the hands of Helen Schucman, whose mind was profoundly logical and elegant – mislead more than they guide aright because they are always from the past.

A few thousand years ago, humanity took what Bohm called “a wrong turn.” Thought, which has always been evolving in concert with human beings, made a significant leap: it became aware of itself. It became reflective. Suddenly people began to perceive themselves as separate from the world and from each other. They settled into communities, into agriculture, and into specialization. The ego came into existence and it began to remake the world in all kinds of ways. On the one hand we get penicillin. On the other, nuclear warheads.

Ken Wilber in Up from Eden points out that humans liked this emergent egoic consciousness and began to conflate it with self.

[A]s the individual began to identify with the recording and thinking and memory aspects of the organism, he began to form a conception of himself as a static, permanent, persistent self; and that thought self tended to feel separate not only from the impulsive world around it, but also from the spontaneous aspects of its own body.

L.L. Whyte, in The Next Development in Man (on whose insights Wilber cheerfully and responsibly relies) called this a curse because “intellectual man had no choice but to follow the path which facilitated the development of his faculty of thought, and thought could only clarify itself by separating out static concepts which, in becoming static, ceased to conform either to their organic matrix or to the forms of nature . . . thought became alien in form to the rest of nature.”

All of which leads Wilber to conclude that the ego – which in some ways represented a practical and helpful evolution in awareness because it facilitated a differentiation between mind and body which is necessary step to transcendence – became in essence “a lesion on awareness.” Its helpfulness was compromised – and we are still struggling with the extent.

This split has not healed with time; we live with its consequences. Bohm called them incoherence; the author of A Course in Miracles calls it our separation from God. It is why we are lonely and scared, it is why we have more stuff than we can count and still feel empty, it is why we build and buy new phones every year, it is why we consent to live under nuclear annihilation and – most importantly because it is really the premise from which all these others incoherences arise – it is why we believe that God is out there opposed to us and so the only sane response is to kill him dead. Of course we know in an interior way this is insane and impossible – we retain our pre-split awareness and sensibility, albeit in deeply-repressed form – and that, too, makes us crazy. We know, as A Course in Miracles points out, that the secret to salvation is that we are doing this to ourselves. And yet we keep doing it.

Often, when I am teaching Emily Dickinson, our class discussions will wander into spirituality, sometimes with great intensity. Most of my students appreciate it (or pretend to) but there are always a couple who approach me later to say they were troubled because what Dickinson appears to be saying and what I am saying are at odds with what they are being taught in their church/synagogue/mosque/dinner table/etc. My response is always the same: question your religious and/or spiritual inclination and practice. True religion will bear this inquiry gracefully because what we call God wants to be known and nothing is that isn’t God.

If ACIM is helpful, great. We ought to give it our full attention. But don’t be afraid to question it. Don’t be afraid to see if it will bear the weight of doubt and skepticism. Tara Singh used to urge his students to stop every time the course asked a question and not continue reading until they’d answered it, really answered it. It’s a good way to deepen one’s understanding of the course but it’s also a good way to deepen our contact with God. God is with us when we question: when we listen: when we move inside in our fumbling way, groping in darkness for light.

When I say (as I often do) that God is not with Helen Schucman any more than God is with Pope Francis or Eckhart Tolle, I am also de facto saying that God is with all of them equally. You and me, too. The ego has strengthened considerably over the centuries but it is not invincible. Far from it. The answer to Bill Thetford’s beautiful and provocative query – there must be another way – is that there is. There always was. And there always will be. It’s form might be A Course in Miracles or David Bohm or even just be watching deer paw the snow at dusk, looking for a few last greens. Take heed of that which points beyond the world and the body and give attention to it. Give energy to it. The separation is simply the massive effort we consistently and constantly undertake in order to obscure the simple light of God which always shines in and through and around us.

The answer to our spiritual crisis is simple. Stop trying so hard: stop trying altogether: and watch the darkness that never was disappear.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Cheryl December 13, 2013, 9:19 am


    Reading you and Bohm and Singh this morning, I have all these questions:

    As long as we think of God as the “idea” of God, do we stay separate from that which we call God?
    Does resistance create incoherence? And is that resistance a form of trying?
    Can we correct mental incoherence tacitly? Or, in other words, can we “let go” without trying to let go?
    Do my attempts to put all these thoughts into words keep me stuck in thought?
    Why do I find it necessary to share my thoughts, as if they have no “truth” without some outside validation?
    And if I stop trying via thought, what will happen? I think I’m most afraid of that….

    But then your gentle reminder:
    “God is with us when we question: when we listen: when we move inside in our fumbling way, groping in darkness for light.”
    And I see, yet again, how difficult it is for me to trust.

    • Sean Reagan December 13, 2013, 2:32 pm

      Hi Cheryl,

      I think so long as we are attached to the idea of God and are using it as a substitute for the experience of God, then yes, we remain separated.

      I do think that resistance creates incoherence – actually, that is a very nice way of putting it. Resistance, in this case, being a kind of insistence that things are not as they truly are but as thought tells us they are. We want to believe perception at the expense of knowledge (to put it into compatible ACIM terms)

      In terms of correcting incoherence, I think this moves in the direction of Bohm’s ideas about problem vs. paradox which loosely tracks course-related ideas of forgiveness as a kind of right seeing. We don’t fix so-called problems (specific examples or manifestations of incoherence) so much as see them undone through the Holy Spirit’s gentle benevolent assistance.

      I do think that language is a kind of formalization or memorialization of thought, and so it is definitely a sort of incoherence, but communication matters (see below – the lifting of the veil) so we have to try. Trying with an awareness of the limitations of words and thought is different than starting with the assumption that we are clear and understandable and right.

      I guess another way to think of it is to simply give wordiness over to the Holy Spirit. At the high end of that giving over, we get texts like A Course in Miracles or certain Emily Dickinson poems. For the rest of us – hopefully! – we get some responsible sentences that do not impede awakening but instead open a space in which understanding and insight can arise.

      My personal experience is that words – especially when I utter enough of them – function like seeds. It is often well after I write about something that it dawns on me: oh! This! So there is some vague deep movement toward Truth that manifests first in language and then – subsequently, in ways that are mysterious – takes hold at deeper levels in more timeless ways.

      Why do we do this – talk, write? I think because at some deep level we know we have a choice about our brokenness and that sharing is how we heal. So we try. What else can we do? Again, our effort can be blessed when it it is undertaken with a healthy respect for its limitations and dysfunctions and all that.

      YES! What happens when we stop trying to save ourselves through thought/ego? What is outside of thought, or what is the ground of being that is not dependent on thought, or what is God (however one wants to phrase it) That is our great fear! It is the final and darkest veil that obscures Christ – our true self – from us (T-19.IV.D.3:1).

      How do we lift it? Together. We forgive each other and we stand together before the veil. We talk – we listen – we communicate. We forgive ourselves and each other for all our craziness and neediness and wordiness and faux holiness and falling for lies. All of it. We are in this together: and so we are leaving together: we are going home together.
      Really, together, we are home.

      With respect to trust: I hear you that it’s hard. But I also hear you here too:

      “When we contemplate surrendering our lives to God, we often feel a certain serenity wash over us. We have become collaborators with Spirit rather than adversaries with one another, with God as our guide.”

      I like these lines from the epilogue to the workbook:

      You are not alone . . . You do not walk alone. God’s angels hover near and all about. His Love surrounds you, and of this be sure; that I will never leave you comfortless (W-ep.1:3, 6:6-8).

      There is no rush: we don’t have to leap until we’re ready. The hands of Jesus – at the metaphysical level, at the level of Reality, and even here at the level of symbolic form – are never not there waiting for us to step gently into the apparent nothingness where we are going to learn – you know this as well as I do – that there is nothing but Love and we are it.

      • Cheryl December 13, 2013, 3:17 pm

        Thank you, Sean. Times have been a bit troubled in my ego world for a couple of weeks, and I’m feeling dispirited and soul weary. (So much so that at first I didn’t even recognize my own words.)

        Funny how this works. Your reminders — we do not walk alone, we are home, there is nothing but love — strike a chord. My ACIM teacher reaches out to remind me “we are ever with our friends.” And my younger daughter sends me this text, the one she reserves for when she knows I am blue: “I wish I could show you, when you are in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.”

        This all just happened. And in these connections, I see God. And feel grateful. And find I am slowly, gently getting unstuck again.

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