Confusing pain and joy

When asked what brings joy to their daily life, most people come up with things that either minimize pain or maximize pleasure: being healthy; enjoying an exciting relationship; having a certain lifestyle; doing something meaningful in the world. One might summarize that we experience joy once we think we achieve what we feel is important. In other words, I expect to feel joy as long as I feel my needs and wishes are met. Psychology schools tell us that our needs are always driven by two forces, which are really opposite sides of the same coin: the need to minimize pain and the desire to gain pleasure.

We should be aware, however, that needs and wishes can be conscious as well as unconscious. And there’s a big difference between them. Consciously we think we need, for example, food, shelter, appreciation and love. Unconsciously, however, our needs and wishes are not so positive. As Jesus in A Course in Miracles patiently explains, our unconscious needs boil down to snatching from others what they have because we feel we lack so much, combined with feeling victimized because we feel so unfairly treated by people and circumstances. While we think we spend our days meeting our conscious needs, we are told in the Course that we are really spending our days in having our unconscious needs met; at least while we’re in a wrong-minded mode of thought, which is about 99% of the time.

On surface reading, this sounds preposterous. Why would we spend our days wallowing in such negativity? A Course in Miracles is one of the few spiritualities that succinctly unravel the reasons why we are motivated for such unconscious thought mechanisms. And Kenneth Wapnick is one of the few teachers that emphasize the importance of looking at our motivation for choosing such self-sabotaging thoughts. The reason for this motivation is that we associate joy with identifying with the ego, which is the symbol of separation from oneness through rejection and attack. Our very individuality and autonomy was, after all, obtained at the expense of attacking our Creator.

As long as we want to be a special individual, we will do anything to uphold our firm belief that the ontological separation indeed happened, and, through projection, hold that someone else is responsible for that sin. And so we stubbornly keep believing in the cosmos, in our body, and in the ‘laws of nature’ that govern the birth and death of life, time, and space, just to affirm to ourselves that we do exist. Or, as Jesus explains in chapter 23, we firmly believe in the five ‘laws of chaos’ that seem to keep our individual autonomy alive and well, albeit at the cost of the loss of lasting peace.

Unconsciously, we associate joy to anything that supports this belief. So every time I feel unfairly treated, I am really saying to myself that obviously the world is real, my body is real, evil is outside of me, and God should have mercy on my poor soul and accept me back into Heaven, while condemning others to oblivion or hell. To the ego, that’s joy! And giving up what we cherish we regard as painful. A major burden of Jesus as my other Teacher is to train my mind to want to reverse this pain-joy association: anything the ego teaches me will lead to pain, while anything that the Holy Spirit teaches will lead to real joy. Period.

The problem is we still firmly believe it’s the other way around. As Jesus explains in chapter 7 of the text: “You no more recognize what is painful than you know what is joyful, and are, in fact, very apt to confuse the two. The Holy Spirit’s main function is to teach you to tell them apart. What is joyful to you is painful to the ego, and as long as you are in doubt about what you are, you will be confused about joy and pain.” (T-7.X.3:4-6). In other words, as long as we do not know we are pure spirit, but still believe we are a separated body, we will associate the ego’s hell with joy and seek for it; at the same time we will keep self-sabotaging our seemingly sincere practice of A course in Miracles. Jesus holds our own prison door wide open for us, but we still hesitate to walk out into real freedom with him.

Remember, while the primary goal of the Course is to ready our minds for the acceptance of the Atonement (the principle that holds that the separation from God never happened and that we, as one Son, are still safe at Home with God) through practicing forgiveness, we cannot truly forgive and be healed unless we fully realize the extent of the unforgiveness in the mind. If we merely focus our days on wanting to express love, without fully realizing why we simultaneously want to cling to these five vicious laws of chaos, we will make very slow progress on the ladder that ultimately leads to the “real world” of total non-judgment. That’s why I could study A Course in Miracles for ten, twenty or thirty years, really grasping its metaphysics, and diligently ‘doing’ all the workbook lessons, and yet make very little progress, since I remain too fearful to really look at what I would be giving up, since I still associate my personal self with joy.

Jesus is therefore trying in his Course to convince us, first, that a state of separated individuality is not joyful at all; it only leads to pain. Secondly, accepting the lessons of Love of the Holy Spirit that ultimately lead me entirely out of the world, back Home to my real Identity as the extension of God’s Love, will only be joyful. We just need a little convincing (only a slight understatement) that by crossing the bridge Home, back to undifferentiated Oneness, we will realize, “…, in glad astonishment, that for all this you gave up nothing!” (T-16.VI.11:4). As long we choose the wrong-minded ego thought-mode, we believe we are asked to give up our entire world, which is ultimate pain.

Our motivation for holding on to our individual personality is nicely summarized in chapter 13 of the text: “Under the ego’s dark foundation is the memory of God, and it is of this that you are really afraid. For this memory would instantly restore you to your proper place, and it is this place that you have sought to leave. Your fear of attack is nothing compared to your fear of love. You would be willing to look even upon your savage wish to kill God’s Son, if you did not believe that it saves you from love. For this wish caused the separation, and you have protected it because you do not want the separation healed.” (T-13.III.2:1-5). Ouch! The purpose of the workbook is to motivate us to reverse exactly that association. In our right minds we do want the separation healed. Each time we honestly practice the workbook lessons, we bring this conviction a little more to the foreground, and the ego’s “dark foundation” a bit more to the background.

So each time you notice you forget to apply the workbook lesson for the day, don’t feel guilty — be honest and grateful because at least now you realize why you did that! Say something to yourself like: “I obviously still choose to have a conflicted mind. The part of my mind that likes to be me simply doesn’t want the separation to be healed, which is understandable. I’m also still confused about joy and pain. There is a part of my mind that realizes that only the Holy Spirit will lead to lasting joy, while the separated world of attack and condemnation can only lead to pain. Therefore, my only function here is to learn to choose the Holy Spirit’s advice a little sooner. I am willing to make that choice once again now.”

This principle, as all Course students know, is very simple, but honestly following up on this complete reversal of the pain-joy associations can be very, very difficult. That’s why it can be helpful to be reminded of the fact that we don’t need to be fully enlightened overnight. Time is already over, and we can learn our lessons of Love at the pace we are willing to accept. A happy outcome is guaranteed for all. And yes, that includes you and me as well. What could be a greater joy than that realization?

See also my “Miracles or Murder: a guide to concepts of A Course in Miracles“. This guidebook, endorsed by Gary and Cindy Renard, was published in March 2016 by Outskirts Press and is available at


See also my Feb. 2019 Course workshop at called “Farewell to your self, to find your true Self”. (English captions/subtitles available)

Dutch visitors may also be interested in this Dutch page:

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