A loving “No”

One of the challenges of students of A Course in Miracles is that of facing a (potential) conflict while still remaining spiritually-minded. In an ego-driven world, people take advantage of others. Chances are that sooner or later you are confronted with such behavior. It may be someone who tries to prevent you from getting a promotion. It may be a government that tries to impose restrictions that will harm you, your loved ones and/or society as a whole. The forms are endless. From a spiritual frame of mind, I could see such events as “lessons of love” offered by the Holy Spirit. I can tell myself they provide me with a chance to “meet attack without attack” (P-2.IV.10); an opportunity to make a better choice – a choice for the Vision of Oneness, where before I chose condemnation.

These are typically situations where my own ego exercises its strength. You might not suspect it, but the ego loves to quote from A Course in Miracles in such circumstances. For example: “The ego analyzes; the Holy Spirit accepts” (T-11.V.13) is a favorite one. “Ha! Let’s see what happens if you don’t act, but just accept being walked over. What a wonderful Course,” the ego barks with scorn. And what about this one: “If your brothers ask you for something ‘outrageous’, do it because it does not matter.” (T.12.III.4) Again the ego laughs cynically, asking me how much the curriculum of this ‘Jesus-guy’ will bring me if I think and live this way. Even Jesus’ quote four chapters later: “I have said that if a brother asks a foolish thing of you to do it. But be certain that this does not mean to do a foolish thing that would hurt either him or you, for what would hurt one will hurt the other” (T.16.I.6) has an ego interpretation. “See?” so the ego counsels, “Even Jesus wants you to act if you’re about to be victimized. You’ve got to stand up for yourself if people are taking advantage of you. It’s in the best interest of all. Don’t be a doormat; take action and fight for your right!”

Many students struggle to remain spiritually-minded at all cost when they are confronted with unfair behavior. Affirming to themselves they should always forego judgment, they end up being walked over. A deep sense of unfair sacrifice and being victimized is what remains. These are unfortunate cases of what Kenneth Wapnick calls “level confusion”. Remember, A Course in Miracles offers its curriculum on two levels. Level I is the nondualistic, metaphysical level of God and the extension of Love. On this level, there is no such thing as a material world. Level II, on the other hand, is the level of the dream world in which we are convinced we are making a living. It’s trying to apply the metaphysical principles in a threatening dream world that we feel we have to live and act in that’s causing the real difficulty. It’s making the error of separation real, hoping against hope that by practicing spiritual principles, I as an individual will be better off in this world. That, of course, is a paradox that cannot work.

The key to handling such situations is not to “spiritually forego any judgment”, but to get your little self out of the way and ask the Holy Spirit what to do. Yes, the Holy Spirit most definitely accepts, but that’s on level I of everyone being a Son of God. On the worldly level II of time, space, and perception, the Holy Spirit offers practical advice on how to handle any situation in the best possible way for all involved. This may involve sternness, saying: “No, I will not accept this.” Such refusal of acceptance pertains to the form, the situation at hand; still, the content behind the form remains loving. So it’s quite possible, even advisable, to on the one hand fully accept a person (on level I) as a guiltless Son of God, while at the same time not accepting the person’s behavior (on level II) as this would lead to further attack, separation, defenses, you name it. A “No” can indeed be a loving “No”! As with so many places in A Course in Miracles, the distinction between form and content, between level I and II, is crucial. In some situations, this isn’t difficult. For example, if you have or have had little children, you probably remember being very stern in taking sharp objects such as scissors and knives from their hands. To the child, the behavior may seem unkind at first, but you are acting in everybody’s best interest.

Conflict situations are usually harder to handle this way. The key is to realize your investment in assuming you can and should handle such situations on your own. But that’s another way of trying to handle it “with the ego as teacher”. This is where we mess up. Any situation in which conflict or potential attack is involved can be handled lovingly by the Holy Spirit if only you invite Him in. Kenneth Wapnick often liked to quote the combination of two separate lines from the text: “Resign now as your own teacher… for you were badly taught” (T-12.V.8:3; T-28.I.7:1). You’ll be amazed to notice how practical (and loving!) the advice of the Holy Spirit can be if you are confronted with an ego-driven conflict situation and you simply ask Him for help. If you learn to practice that for a while, you’ll be surprised to see how often the situation turns out more peaceful than you would have thought possible. Kenneth Wapnick has experienced this himself when we was confronted with a burglar in his house. Having found the courage to follow the Holy Spirit’s advice, the end of the story was that the burglar peacefully left his apartment, with the heart-piercing request “Pray for me…”

So why not try it in the days to come? If you feel you are in a situation in which you are led to do something ‘outrageous’, and you feel the ego urge to act (to defend yourself, to become angry), try to step back and inspect your mind for what’s happening. Most people have no problem realizing the ego has entered the stage. The difficult challenge is to see the rapidity with which we then proceed to act and live it out. If you can train your mind to just stop, look at what’s going on in your mind, and then simply say to yourself: “I do not want to be ‘badly taught’ again. Dear Holy Spirit, I would choose your guidance. Please, tell me what to do,” you are taking a giant step in practical spiritual growth. It is actually self-forgiveness you are practicing. You will still accept both of you as a Son of God, but will not accept the potential hurtful outcome of the conflict. This is, by the way, also the reason that we have courts and judges. Jesus nowhere implies we should close all courthouses and prisons. We should simply practice in choosing a better teacher in this dream world, and realize it can indeed to be re-interpreted as a classroom to truly learn how to attain lasting inner peace.

— Jan-Willem van Aalst

Truth and experience

The spiritual curriculum A Course in Miracles makes it abundantly clear that the world you and I seem to live in is not the truth: “There is no world! This is the central thought the course attempts to teach” (W-pI.132.6:2-3). Although this seems to fly in the face of everything we experience, Jesus summarizes everyone’s deepest pain: “This world you seem to live in is not home to you. And somewhere in your mind you know that this is true. A memory of home keeps haunting you, as if there were a place that called you to return, although you do not recognize the voice, nor what it is the voice reminds you of. Yet still you feel an alien here, from somewhere all unknown. Nothing so definite that you could say with certainty you are an exile here. Just a persistent feeling, sometimes not more than a tiny throb, at other times hardly remembered, actively dismissed, but surely to return to mind again. No one but knows whereof we speak.” (W-pI.182.1:1-2:1). Consciously, many students might object that they certainly do not know whereof he speaks; but unconsciously, deep down in the iceberg called the mind, all life shares this particular sadness.

It does not follow, however, that Jesus asks us to deny our experiences in time and space. After all, life is fundamentally grounded in free will. As long as I still experience my own identity as a body in time and space, or at least a mind trapped in a body in time and space, I can be pretty sure that deep down I want to experience myself in the illusory dream world of perceptual experience. I have not yet reached the point at which I see no attractive value at all any longer in anything material. I am not yet ready to completely accept the Atonement, return Home into the Heart of God and completely forget about the illusion. That is: from my mind’s point of view in the dream. In reality, of course, I have never left my Creator’s Love and I’m reviewing a dream that is already over and has, indeed, never happened: “we but see the journey from the point at which it ended, looking back on it, imagining we make it once again; reviewing mentally what has gone by” (W-pI.158.4:5).

However, losing myself in lofty metaphysical principles, regardless of how true they are, is not always helpful for my own Atonement journey, to put it mildly. As scholar Kenneth Wapnick often remarked: metaphysics can be a great ego tool for subtly sabotaging one’s own progress in the Course curriculum. Decades later you’ll admit that your ego is still alive and kicking. It’s the same with asceticism: For example, giving up Western life and settling in an Indian meditation resort can feel absolutely wonderful and liberating, and it may indeed help you gain some valuable insights on your spiritual awakening path; but the real work is to be done in all the myriad everyday situations that you find yourself in, both great and small, no matter where on the planet you may find yourself. Remember: “It takes great learning to understand that all things, events, encounters and circumstances are helpful. It is only to the extent to which they are helpful that any degree of reality should be accorded them in this world of illusion.” (M-4.I-A.4:6-7).

So if you notice someone upsets you, learn to be grateful for the opportunity of yet another Course practice moment. It sure doesn’t always feel that way, but in a sense you’re just being offered another opportunity at forgiveness, which is always self-forgiveness. And this is the ‘hard part’ of anyone’s Course practice. Why? Because with every upset, we o so easily slip into either (a) living it out in condemnation, rejection and attack, (b) feeling guilty and down, because we once more realize we are not as spiritually advanced as we thought we were, or (c) quickly repressing the upset and putting on our rose-colored glasses, affirming to ourselves that the real world is wonderful and that any upset is to be completely ignored. Needless to say, none of these reactions will do us any good in terms of waking up from the illusory dream world. Yet they are extremely tempting. Again, this is the hard part of practicing and living A Course in Miracles.

The only way that will ever work is the practice of non-judgmentally looking at the battlefield of your own mind. Just look; period. Be your own observer. As soon as you notice a person or a situation upsets you, never deny your feelings, but do learn to lift your conscious mind above the battleground as quickly as possible. Say to yourself something like “This person (or situation) obviously still upsets me. Clearly, there’s still something to forgive in my own mind. What could this speck of darkness be about?” Only from such a vantage point can you mildly look down on the world and the situation or person, and smile with gentleness at what just had seemed so serious.

The next step is to ask for help in realizing what would be the most loving thing to say, think or do. If you ask this sincerely from the heart (the meaning of prayer), the right answer will make itself known, if you truly wish to receive it. For example, the answer “Why are you attacking me, don’t you know this world is an illusion?” is usually not very helpful, and it’s certainly not loving. Practicing A Course in Miracles means letting the right answer come through you. Recall: “…If you have made it a habit to ask for help when and where you can, you can be confident that wisdom will be given you when you need it. Prepare for this each morning, remember God when you can throughout the day, ask the Holy Spirit’s help when it is feasible to do so, and thank Him for His guidance at night. And your confidence will be well founded indeed” (M-29.5:8-10).

So yes: do study the nature of Truth; read the text, practice the workbook, but never deny your experiences here. Instead, learn to be grateful for all that seems to come unbidden to you. Every circumstance, every meeting and all that happens is simply yet another opportunity to release yet another bit of unforgiveness ballast in your holy mind. Learn to become your own observer. Learn to listen to the intuitive Voice for Love, Who is always available, once we are willing to listen. And this is what will get you Home, out of the dream, back to where we already are in truth. There are no shortcuts. Enjoy your awakening path!

— Jan-Willem van Aalst, July 2022

There is no death

Our view of what reality is all about is largely based on what we have been taught as little kids, and on our own interpretation of what our five senses report to us. For example, you and I have been taught that we are a body that blossoms for about the first twenty years in life, and then slowly decays, withers and dies. And when the body is no more, the consciousness, mind and personality of that person are no more. As a kid, you and I never seriously doubted these premises; after all, around us we see lots of people age and die. And since our senses are inevitably limited to what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, why would there be any reason to think that reality is otherwise? Religious belief in an afterlife sounds nice, but it can never be more than belief.

It’s only since the past twenty to forty years that scientific investigation in near-death experiences fuels a growing awareness of the concept of life beyond the body; of the continuation of consciousness after the five senses are discarded. When someone who has been clinically dead for a few hours, days, or even weeks, reports meeting a deceased sibling he or she never knew anything about… or when people who ‘come back’ can literally recall conversations of physicians that took place elsewhere in the hospital… plus the fact that most of these people experience full physical recovery after their ‘return from the other side’, even though all physicians had already given up on them… then there’s no doubt that there’s more to it than just dying brain cells who flash up for one final hallucination before they go out.

From the perspective of A Course in Miracles, this is of course no big news. Students are repeatedly taught that this material world is a dream world that has nothing to do with reality, which is ultimately known without any form. When we experience ourselves waking up in the morning, only the form of the dream changes. All our time is spent in dreaming (T-18.II.5). Since it is our rejection of oneness and our guilt over this decision that caused the dream of time and space, the dream world is ‘merely’ a classroom to learn to practice unconditional (self-)forgiveness. The thrust of the spiritual curriculum called A Course in Miracles is to learn to welcome the Voice for Love that will automatically awaken us to our true Home in the Heart of God our Source, outside time and space.

The prayer that closes workbook lesson 163 nicely summarizes this fundamental change of thought: “We live and move in You alone. We are not separate from Your eternal life. There is no death, for death is not Your Will. And we abide where You have placed us, in the life we share with You and with all living things, to be like You and part of You forever. We accept Your Thoughts as ours, and our will is one with Yours eternally. Amen.” (W-pI.163.9:3-8).

However, there’s a slight problem. Once I seriously start to question my comfortable answer to the most fundamental question of all (namely, “What am I?”), anxiety starts to build up. If I do not know the thing I am (T-31.V.17:4-9), perhaps I will end up concluding that I am nothing. My cherished individuality might disappear into thin air. Such unknown territory is too frightening. And so I leap back into the arms of all my special relationships that I still hold dear, since these seem to define my identity in time and space. It is Jesus’ formidable task to have us realize that “God thinks otherwise” (T-23.I.2:7) and that you and I would be much happier if we accepted and practiced his lessons of love, admitting that Jesus is right and we are wrong in answering that fundamental question ‘What am I?”.

We practice this simply by non-judgmentally looking at all the situations in which we still reject or condemn. Since all life is an integral part of Christ, all that we look upon mirrors the decision of how we look on ourselves. That’s why Jesus invites us to consider, accept and practice lessons such as these:

“Let our brothers lean their tired heads against our shoulders as they rest a while. We offer thanks for them. For if we can direct them to the peace that we would find, the way is opening at last to us. An ancient door is swinging free again; a long forgotten Word re-echoes in our memory, and gathers clarity as we are willing once again to hear.” (W-pI.195.7);

“He [Christ] stands beside the door to which forgiveness is the only key. Give it to Him to use instead of you, and you will see the door swing silently open upon the shining face of Christ. Behold your brother there beyond the door; the Son of God as He created Him” (S-2.III.7:6-8);

“The Son of God is always blessed as one. And as his gratitude goes out to you who blessed him, reason will tell you that it cannot be you stand apart from blessing. The gratitude he offers you reminds you of the thanks your Father gives you for completing Him.… Your Father is as close to you as is your brother. Yet what is there that could be nearer you than is your Self?” (T-21.VI.10:1-3,5-6);

“… One Teacher is in all minds and He teaches the same lesson to all. He always teaches you the inestimable worth of every Son of God, teaching it with infinite patience born of the infinite Love for which He speaks. Every attack is a call for His patience, since His patience can translate attack into blessing. Those who attack do not know they are blessed. They attack because they believe they are deprived. Give, therefore, of your abundance, and teach your brothers theirs. Do not share their illusions of scarcity, or you will perceive yourself as lacking” (T-7.VII.7:2-8).

As Jesus reminds us in Chapter 15 of the text: the reason we have so little faith in ourselves is because we are as yet unwilling to accept the fact that perfect love is already within us (T-15.VI.2:1). As spirit, which is our essence, we are already whole and complete, here and now. We’ve just chosen to fall asleep a while; yet this doesn’t affect our reality outside time and space in the least. That should be a reason for being cheerful and grateful, day-in day-out! At the close of Lesson 195, we read: “Our gratitude will pave the way to Him, and shorten our learning time by more than you could ever dream of. Gratitude goes hand in hand with love, and where one is the other must be found. […] Your gratitude to Him is one with His to you. For love can walk no road except the way of gratitude, and thus we go who walk the way to God.” (W-pI.195.10).

— Jan-Willem van Aalst, July 2022