In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us
(John’s Gospel 1:1, 1:14)
One of the more helpful insights in western and Christian thinking – which Helen Schucman understood well, at least intuitively – is that awareness of the subjective experience “I Am” is a beginning, not an end, and finds its fullest and most creative application in the consensual domain of “I and Thou.”
It has been clear for 2,500 years that a human observer cannot escape her subjective experience of the world. That is, she cannot get outside of her experience of the world in order to verify that said world actually looks, sounds, tastes, feels and smells like her experience of looking, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. Thus, our efforts to ascertain the nature of reality in any final or ultimate sense are effectively stymied.
Nothing we have learned about physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, linguistics, et cetera has undone this simple yet persistently troubling fact. Truth, reality, absolutes . . . all remain speculative, relative, transitory. Not impossible necessarily but certainly unverifiable.
One way to deal with the issue – the way that I ended up practicing – is to become religious. The one who intelligently and whole-heartedly seeks God – which seeking must accept the possibility that there is no God to find – eventually encounters the subjectivity of “I Am.” Understanding this is relatively straightforward; experiencing it is alternately destabilizing and inspiring because it necessarily upends our traditional conceptual understanding of the self as a perceptual and cognitive center for whom the world is a real place full of real people and objects where good and bad things happen. When the self is experienced as a process, a recursive loop, and the world as phenomena with utility rather than veridicality . . .
The effect can be a little dizzying.
One can perhaps empathize with those who objected to being told the earth was not flat but a sphere around which the sun floated. It takes courage, discipline and tenacity – and, truth be told, a little luck – to see clearly the rot at the heart of a cherished paradigm, let alone adopt a new one in the old one’s stead.
One religious response to this subjectivity is to identify with it and to identify it with God, broadly defined. I am not this body that comes and goes but rather this awareness that is pervasive and boundless, infinite and eternal. It is – and by extension, I am – that ineffable permanence to which the word “God” (or Source or Truth) points.
Thus, Sri Aurobindo could write in The Life Divine:
Therefore all is in each and each is in all and all is in God and God is in all; and when the liberated soul comes into union with this Transcendent, it has this self-experience of itself and cosmos which is translated psychologically into a mutual inclusion and a persistent existence of both in a divine union which is at once a oneness and a fusion and an embrace (387).
A Course in Miracles notes that since we cannot be separate from God it is meaningless to seek God.
Nowhere but where He is can be found. There is no path that does not lead to Him (T-31.IV.11:6-7).
This equation – making our human experience isomorphic with divine experience – is not flawless. All too readily it can be adopted to facilitate familiar egoic feints and maneuvers. Under the guise of undoing the self, we can in fact become quite selfish and grandiose. There’s a reason many gurus and other spiritual and religious leaders are morally and ethically indistinguishable from their political, military and business counterparts.
The overarching point is that when we encounter “I Am,” we are at the beginning of our spiritual inquiry, not the end. We haven’t found God; we have found a way to find God (or a way to not need to find God – or to be in relationship with God as a non-trivial idea – the permutations are apparently endless). It’s the equivalent of traveling a long time, reaching your destination and finding only a map signifying yet another – longer and more arduous – journey. Tara Singh used to say to his students – I paraphrase – “you’ve got it, now you have to decide what to do with it.”
“What to do with it” is the harder – but also more interesting – part. Responding to it invokes – incarnates, really – the spiritual intimacy of “I and Thou.” Truly, the word is first with God and then becomes flesh. How shall we think about this?
Tara Singh’s clarity and sense of purpose called to me both instantly and loudly. From the outset I assumed a learning posture with respect to his work. It took a long time to understand that his clarity and sense of purpose arose for me the way they did because Singh wasn’t reckoning with A Course in Miracles at the level of the intellect. It was not merely a text to be understood and correctly shared but rather embodied through love which Singh understood meant service to our brothers and sisters. And he meant service literally – soup kitchens and homeless shelters. You had to put your body into it. You had to get your hands dirty.
This sense of concretely serving our sisters and brothers is often absent from the broader community of ACIM teachers and students. There the focus tends to be on self-improvement, spiritual “evolution,” personal experience, acquisition of spiritual gifts and so forth. It’s not the end of the world; none of us are altogether immune from it. But over and over the course insists that we are not separate from one another and it is only when we recognize this fundamental unity that we will know God. Everything else is delay and distraction. Why wait?
God has but one Son, knowing them all as one. Only God Himself is more than they are but they are not less than He is. Would you know what this means? If what you do to my brother you do to me, and if you do everything for yourself because we are part of you, everything we do belongs to you as well. Everyone God created is part of you and shares His glory with you (T-9.VI.3:5-9).
Here it is worth pointing out that the observed paradox (God is more than us but we aren’t less than God) is resolved not in the individual or personal (i.e., “you” are not less than God) but rather in the communal (i.e., “they” are not less than God). It is our unity with other selves that mirrors the divine; it is in relationship with the other that we are made – make – one.
Lesson 71 makes the sense of giving unto others more explicit.
What would You have me do?
Where You have me go?
What would You have me say, and to whom? (W-pI.71.9:1-3).
In other words, we are not here to privilege our own needs but to attend to the needs of the other. Indeed, that is the only way in which our truest need – to know God, which is to bring forth love – can be met.
Tara Singh put it this way:
. . . action is creative; it extends what it is and therefore it has to give. Service is the action of that impeccable space within one who wants to know the lifestyle of compassion – wants to know, “I am the blessed servant of God. I have my love to give and my joy to share” (The Joseph Plan of A Course in Miracles for the Lean Years, 28).
I call attention here to the explicit language of embodiment – of the flesh – reflected in the phrase “the lifestyle of compassion,” by which Tara Singh means service. A Course in Miracles ostensibly disavows behavioral directives (this was a hallmark of Ken Wapnick’s teaching), but Singh saw clearly that “I Am” necessitated an actual physical living embrace of the other. In essence, “I Am because Thou Art.”
Finally – because it is an important point often overlooked – the course is clear that awakening, rightly understood, is a service we provide to others. It is not a personal event, a personal culmination of spiritual effort and study.
You are not yet awake, but you can learn how to awaken. Very simply, the Holy Spirit teaches you to awaken others . . . They will become the witnesses to your reality, as you were created witness to God’s (T-9.VI.5:1-2, 4).
I was confused about this aspect of the course for a long time. From time to time that confusion resurfaces, usually in the presence of those who are here to teach me humility, restraint, give-don’t-take, et cetera. We are called to love the other who is our sister/brother and who could be, in Humberto Maturana’s phrasing, our own self. But this love is too often conflated with hierarchical power dynamics (student/teacher, leader/follower, boss/employee) or some other form of specialness, like sex or money or social capital.
To love the other is to give attention to them in a way that recognizes and does not obscure our radical (in the sense of deeply rooted rather than extreme) shared equality. When we recognize and honor this equality, the requisite contextual actions – be they teaching, making love, baking bread, watching a movie, weeding a garden – become clear. Doing them is loving the other unattended by the power dynamics of ego (as the course would say), or the discrete self (as Thomas Merton would say), or the pain body (as Eckhart Tolle would say), or . . .
However we phrase it, the critical insight seems to be that happiness is not about a boon to our own subjective experience of self but rather the way in which we extend that self to others. Our awakening, as such, lies in learning how to awaken others, which is to make them happy, which is basically to allow them the full expression of their humanness, without a lot of spiritual or political or any other form of drama.
It is easy to become confused about what this means in practice. Should we open a soup kitchen? Volunteer at a shelter? Donate to this or that political candidate?
I think it is important to give attention to the way that love actually already does permeate our human experience, and to see how that love naturally extends itself. To the extent certain formal steps are required – soup kitchens, political activism, et cetera – they will be clearly indicated. But we have to get out of the way first.
Start by seeing how you are loving – in a non-dramatic way – in your most ordinary being. Notice the casual nods and smiles and small talk that you offer strangers in the supermarket, on the bus, in the library. Notice the physical space you give others and they give you – not as something we have to fight for and defend once attained, but as a gesture of easy respect, so easy it goes without saying, indeed, often without even being noticed.
These practically mindless gestures are actual manifestations of the love that is the fundament of our being. Nothing special, nothing dramatic. No insistence on reciprocity. Just the recognition of the other who is our own self in passing. Is there anything else we would call holy? And seeing how naturally it arises, how effortlessly it lifts us and others, can we give it yet more space to do its thing? Truly it works most effectively when “we” – the egoic centralized self – does not interject with goals, plans, ideas, fears, and desires.
Thus, when we come to the subjective wonder of “I Am,” we are finally prepared to appreciate, inspire and nurture the equal wonder – the partner wonder – of “Thou Art.” We might call what is created then a sacred loop, a holy circle, a blissful reflexivity, recursive divinity. And we might forego naming it all, knowing that the body of the other is the body of the world which is the word that is God made flesh because it is God. Service becomes the gift we give to the other because it is the gift we merit because we are the other.