Who do you think you are?

The teachings of Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) on enlightenment were simple but profound. In discussing any topic, event, thought or action he would always invite his visitors to simply ask: “Who is it that is asking this question?”, or, similarly, “Who is the thinker?”. This of course leads to the ultimate question: “Who am I?”, and the idea is, you guessed it, that you and I are not the personality in the body that we all intimately identify with. Beyond all these distracting bodily senses and distracting thoughts and desires, you and I are Brahman, the eternal life that merely is. Or, as Rupert Spira wisely taught: “Your existence in time is an illusion. You do not exist; you are.” The distinction in words seems very subtle, but it makes all the difference between experiencing yourself as a body in time and space, versus experiencing your Self as the timeless “all-in-all” that joins all life as one, outside time and space.

Students of A Course in Miracles will of course be quick to spot the similarities with Terms-summary #14 in the Workbook, titled “What Am I?” (WpII.14). The answer Jesus gives to this question is the key to A Course in Miracles, in that our one problem is that in the ontological instant just before the Big Bang, we preferred the imaginary ego-seduction of being an autonomous. split-off self, instead of gently laughing about the silly notion that part of Oneness could wrench itself from perfect Oneness. Here, then, is Jesus’ answer to the most fundamental question of all: “I am God’s Son, complete and healed and whole, shining in the reflection of His Love. In me is His creation sanctified and guaranteed eternal life. In me is love perfected, fear impossible, and joy established without opposite. I am the holy home of God Himself. I am the Heaven where His Love resides. I am His holy Sinlessness Itself, for in my purity abides His Own” (WpII.14.1).

Since this answer applies to every seemingly separated living thing, you and I are really no different from other life forms that we encounter. To be sure, the forms our eyes behold are distinctly different, and the values and beliefs that our ears pick up from others often differ markedly from ours; but beyond the senses and personalities, you and I and everyone share the same one life. The goal of Jesus’ curriculum called A Course in Miracles is to guide us slowly in gradually accepting this truth about ourselves, step by step. Since this acceptance ultimately implies the end of individual perception, emotions, and the body, we should expect to feel a slight twinge of resistance to Jesus’ course, to say the least. So the truth is “…repeated many times; next to be accepted as but partly true, with many reservations; then to be considered seriously more and more, and finally accepted as the truth.” (WpII.284.1:5-6).

As Ramana Maharshi taught, the key in this process is to become the observer of the self that seems to think and act in this waking dream we call our world; a world that boils down to a battlefield of egos fighting for autonomy. In the Course this is perhaps best exemplified in Chapter 23 of the Text, in section IV called “Above the battleground”, where Jesus poetically invites us to: “…Be lifted up, and from a higher place look down upon it [the battleground]. From there will your perspective be quite different. In the midst of it, it does seem real. Here you have chosen to be part of it [the battleground]. Here murder is your choice” (T23.IV.5:1-5). Why is murder our choice here? Because the ego dream of separation provides us with a seeming autonomous identity, which must constantly be defended against attack, which justifies our own attack, which of course merely reflects our own imagined original attack on God. And the fact that we seem to die anyway merely proves that God (Oneness) is a lie and that the ego is right: oneness has indeed been shattered, and death is more powerful than Love. The separation has truly been accomplished.

We can escape this vicious attack – defense – attack cycle by practicing Jesus’ instructions about the observer of the battleground. “Be lifted up” is really the invitation to choose to become the observer of the stage of your life that is currently going on. Imagine yourself sitting in a theater, looking at a play – and the play is your interpretation of everything that happens in your life. Interestingly, when people are asked to summarize the play of their life in a succinct poetic title, we often see phrases such as “Groundhog day”; “Fifty shades of misery”, “A series of unfortunate events”; “Rock bottom”, “Suicidal tendencies”, “Broke”, “Home alone”, etcetera. To Course students, this should come as no surprise, since we are always looking for problems just to ensure our special unique identity in a world wherein we can blame everything and everyone as the scapegoat, while secretly we suspect that we are the guilty sinners, but want to escape God’s imagined wrath. All this again affirms the “reality” of the separation. As author Joe Dispenza put it concisely: “Who would I be without my problems?” That’s the insanity of the ego. But you and I are not our ego.

So when Ramana invites you to pose the question “Who is the one thinking about this situation?” and you are in Jesus’ “observer” mode “above the battleground”, the answer is plain as day: the observed “you” on the stage, the “hero of the dream”, is a made-up construct, with the perennial goal of keeping a separated identity intact, and blaming everyone else for the sin of that separation. The distinction Rupert Spira uses between existence and being is also often found in the Course: existence means a made-up ego-identity in time and space, which is totally illusory, while being refers to the truth our eternal oneness, safe at home within the Heart of God as the extension of the Love of God. So the answer to Ramana’s question “What am I?” could be stated as: “I do not exist; I am“.

What’s the value of this exercise? Well, you will never again take the dream world as seriously as before. Your peace won’t be shattered by the least irritated frown from those around you. Your days will become much lighter, as you realize the value of each day in learning how to ascend the ladder to the acceptance of the Atonement; from existence to being. This, by the way, does not imply you become indifferent to what happens on the stage; after all, whatever happens we unconsciously want to happen. You merely let your thoughts and actions be guided by a much better inner teacher. As Ramana counseled: “Do not give up your earthly responsibilities. But take the time, whenever you can, as often as possible, to ask the question: ‘Who am I’?” This puts you right back in the observer mode above the battlefield, where you can make a better choice.

To conclude with Jesus’ heart-warming advice from the section “Above the Battleground” in Chapter 23: “When the temptation to attack [i.e., reject, condemn] rises to make your mind darkened and murderous, remember you can see the battle from above [i.e., the observer watching the stage]. Even in forms you do not recognize, the signs you know. There is a stab of pain, a twinge of guilt, and above all, a loss of peace. This you know well. When they occur [i.e., on the stage], leave not your place on high, but quickly choose a miracle instead of murder.” (T-23.IV.6:1-5). Happy observing!

— Jan-Willem van Aalst, May 2021

To ease the seriousness of death

Each time we are confronted with the death of a loved one, be it through illness, an accident, suicide, or simply old age, we are sharply reminded of the impermanence of life. What’s more, we are simultaneously reminded that our own life is finite, which sometimes leads to a rethinking about what’s the use of all that we do (and also what’s the use of all our worrying). On a spiritual level, each death we perceive is an unconscious affirmation (by the ego) that God has indeed not forgotten about our cardinal sin of separation from Him. Each death ‘proves’ this was actually accomplished, and in due time He will snatch back the life we stole from Him, though only after much suffering on our part.

No matter how much we distract the mind by busying ourselves with family, career, hobbies, and other personal ‘goals’, this is a basic fear that lurks in all of us, no matter how deep is it is repressed. How refreshing, then, to read a completely different view on the concept of death in A Course in Miracles! This is due to the unique metaphysical foundation of strict nonduality that its entire thought system rests on. It’s a unique view on what is reality and what is illusory. To attain the inner peace that is A Course in Miracles‘ goal, a basic understanding of the distinction between nonduality and duality is required, so let’s recap. I know I do this a lot in my blog posts, but since repetition is the mother of skill, another summary, in this case from the perspective of life and death, may be helpful.

Whenever we’re confronted with the passing of a loved one, we might realize that we see that person as a body; and consequently, we see ourselves as a body as well. A Course in Miracles, however, teaches us that you and I are not a body; we are pure spirit — but not in the sense of a ‘light’ or a ‘soul’ that’s ‘trapped’ in a specific body. Spirit is completely outside time, space, and perception. Though in the world we think we live in everything is characterized by differences and change, in the world of spirit everything is one. So when we read in A Course in Miracles that you and I are pure spirit (cf. W-pI.97), one spirit is not different from another spirit — you and I are the very same spirit. Only in the world of time and space does this spirit seem to manifest itself as a myriad of separated bodies. In other words: forms differ, but the content is the same.

Scholar Kenneth Wapnick often used the very helpful distinction of a Level I and Level II view of reality. Level I equals nonduality, in which God is the only reality, and you and I and all life combined are but the unified extension of God’s changeless Love. Our linearly programmed brains cannot really grasp this, but according to A Course in Miracles you and I are not made of flesh and blood and bone (W-pI.107.8:2). You and I are one changeless spirit, eternally united with God (Who equals Love) in a ‘oneness joined as one’ (T-25.I.7:1).  This is Level I, the only true reality. This is certainly not our daily experience. Level II comprises the totality of time and space: the universe, the world, our lives, in short, what we generally think of as reality. A Course in Miracles calls this ‘the waking dream’ and states that this is completely illusory. The Son of God has seemingly fallen asleep in a dream of time and space, hoping to retain his imagined autonomy and hide from God, Who must be angry about what His Son did to Him.

This is why Jesus says in chapter 24 of the text: “You may be surprised to hear how very different is reality from what you see. You do not realize the magnitude of that one error [of seriously considering separation from God]. It was so vast and so completely incredible that from it a world of total unreality had to emerge.” (T-24.I.5:1-3). In this ‘waking dream’ of time and space, we have forgotten what our true reality is. But that does not mean it is gone or lost. And so Jesus invites us: “Can you imagine what a state of mind without illusion is? How would it feel? Try to remember when there was a time — perhaps a minute, may be even less — when nothing came to interrupt your peace; when you were certain you were loved and safe. Then try to picture what it would be like to have that moment be extended to the end of time and to eternity. Then let the sense of quiet that you felt be multiplied a hundred times, and then be multiplied another hundred more. And now you have a hint, not more than just the faintest intimation of the state your mind will rest in when the truth has come.” (W-pI.107.2:1-3:1).

So when someone passes away, it’s the seeming end of what never had any reality anyway. It’s one fragment within the dream of the sleeping Son of God, on its journey to fragmenting yet once again. Although A Course in Miracles does not take a definite stand on the issue of reincarnation (cf. M-24), since that would give the concept of time a reality it simply does not have, both the text and workbook contain several allusions to us repeatedly coming back in different bodies, each with the same wrong-minded goal of separation from oneness, and with the same right-minded goal of learning the forgiveness lessons of the Holy Spirit (cf. T-6, the lessons of love). Also, in one of Gary Renard’s books, he was treated by Arten and Pursah on a rollercoaster experience of all the bodies he had inhabited on his journey home so far. So you and I can be reasonably sure that — at least from the perspective of Level II — we’re been here before many times. As long as we have not yet fully accepted the Atonement (“see the face of Christ in all your brothers and remember God”, M-5.2:1), you and I will be here for several lifetimes to come, until we have learned the final lesson, and only peace remains.

That places the concepts of birth and death in an entirely different perspective. You need never be afraid of death again! This is not to say, though, that you ought not to have any feelings when confronted with death. A Course in Miracles calls upon its students to remain normal persons; so as a loved one passes, you mourn just like anyone would do, and you certainly don’t tell everyone at the funeral that they should cheer up because it’s all illusory anyway. The only difference is that your mind is now capable of viewing it all from ‘above the battleground’ (cf. T-23.IV.5:1-7), and you realize you are in a classroom in which the Holy Spirit offers you yet another opportunity for forgiving a remaining dark spot in the mind. The dark spot is a decision to want to die, since this would ‘prove’ once again that the separation actually happened, and we can definitely mock God. After the mourning, we can now gently smile at such silliness. The world is a classroom in which we can learn to end the hopeless cycle of reincarnations. As Jesus says in chapter 19, in a quote that also appeared in the Bhagavad Gita three thousand years earlier: “How can the immortal die?” (T-19.II.3:6).

— Jan-Willem van Aalst