To The Zoo Fence: Although you probably do not remember it, I met you years ago after a talk you gave in Dallas. My life was an absolute mess (or, as you insisted, my perception of myself was an absolute mess), and you spent a long time talking with me. You introduced me to A Course in Miracles, with these three injunctions: “First, put the Text and the Manual into a drawer, and leave them there. Do not read from them for at least six months. Second, do the Workbook assignments religiously, precisely as indicated, day by day, without question, as if your life depended on it. You will not understand what you are doing, but do it anyway. Third, for six months, join no groups. This is between you and God; keep it there.” Since then, I have moved a long way, both geographically and spiritually, and my life is a joy. I credit your advice for much of that transformation. Until I came across this site today, I did not know whether you were even still alive. I’m glad that you are, and that I have this opportunity finally to thank you.
Editor’s Comment: We gratefully accept your thanks, and we join in your delight at finding us still alive. If we may say so, that was good advice then, and it is still good advice. But it is your aspiration, not our advice, that enables your transformation. A candle can be used either to make a dark room a little less uncomfortable, or to find the way out.
For the record, we do not object to the Text or the Manual for Teachers. On the contrary, they are literally miraculous books. The problem is that those who first come to A Course in Miracles (ACIM), or almost any other spiritual text, from a worldly life – which number includes virtually all of us – naturally assume that it consists of something they need to learn, like a course in school. After all, it even has the word “course” in its title! Thus, our instinct is to sit down with it, and begin to memorize, just the way we did algebra and biology. But the spiritual process is about transcending the mind, not enlarging it. Therefore, as regards ACIM, we have always recommended setting aside the texts until the daily exercises have had a chance to soften us up. Then, those other two powerful volumes can do their wondrous thing. On the subject of groups: There is a very real danger that, even unintentionally, a group’s dynamic will turn the spiritual process into a social event, particularly for someone who is brand new to the path, and therefore has no understanding of what is appropriate behavior. In the words of Sri Ramakrishna, “To fix the mind on God is very difficult, in the beginning, unless one practises meditation in solitude. When a tree is young, it should be fenced all around; otherwise it may be destroyed by cattle.” Finally, we do remember you and our meeting, with fondness. (To read another letter about ACIM, please click here.)
To The Zoo Fence: You mention reincarnation infrequently, and then only in an off-hand way. Do you not believe in it?
Ft. Myers, Florida
Editor’s Comment: As a theory, reincarnation makes a lot of sense. The problem is, it begs the question, “Who reincarnates?” Thus, when you or I say something like, “In a former life, I was Genghis Khan” or “I was Cleopatra,” who precisely is speaking? Is it the I who we are in Truth, or is it the separative, egoic personality that we think we are now?
We may rightly say, “The same I who is being me now was Cleopatra then,” so long as we add something like, “and so was it Genghis Khan and everyone else and everything else that there is or ever was or ever will be, there being only one True I in the Universe.” Notice how that statement differs from saying “I was Genghis Khan, and you weren’t.”
Consider it this way. The great actor, Laurence Olivier, might well have said, “I was Hamlet” and “I was Othello” and “I was Romeo”; but Romeo cannot say “I was Hamlet,” or Othello, “I was Romeo.” When Olivier put down his Romeo costume to don the Othello costume, Romeo did not become Othello, Olivier did. The actor plays various characters, but the characters do not play one another.
Similarly, the Infinite and Eternal I of the Universe may – does – manifest as an infinite variety of personalities, but the personalities do not manifest as each other. In sum, if the theory of reincarnation reinforces our sense of unity, infinity, and eternity, then it serves us. On the other hand, if it reinforces our identification with the separative personality that we think we are, or wish we might have been, as well as our tendency to cling to it and its stuff, then it misleads us. Accordingly, on the subject of reincarnation, our first reaction always is to ask, “Who reincarnates?” (For Brother Theophyle’s take on reincarnation, please click here.)
To The Zoo Fence: On the one hand, you recommend keeping what you call holy company, and then on the other, such as in your reply about A Course in Miracles [preceding], you urge against joining the very groups that, for many of us, may be the only readily available sources of such spiritually-interested company. How do you square these apparently opposing suggestions?
Editor’s Comment: We can’t. Unfortunately, in the dual-appearing universe that each of us calls “my life,” no statement is wholly true. All coins have two sides, heads and tails; similarly, at every moment, it is daytime somewhere and simultaneously nighttime somewhere else. So, as you rightly observed, on the one hand, we do recommend seeking holy company, and on the other, we just as often say, join no groups. Each one of us to whom that admittedly conflicting advice seems sound must adjust it as necessary to fit our individual case.
What we mean by “seek holy company” is consciously and with determination bring into your life, in whatever form works for you given your current lifestyle, other people, things, ideas, activities, and so on, that are spiritually uplifting, nourishing, and encouraging, and to the extent you are able to do so, eschew everything else. Now, for some of us, that course may include joining one or more appropriately focused groups, but it also should include reading books, listening to music, participating in activities, and thinking thoughts that are directly or indirectly spiritually-related. Thus, in a word, by “keep holy company,” we mean flood your life with light. Obviously, precisely how each of us does that will depend on where we are at the moment, and will change as we change.
By “join no groups,” we mean be careful. The human being is a social animal, and as long as we think that is what we are, we naturally seek out the fellowship of other human beings. But the spiritual process is not a human endeavor; it transcends our mistakenly assumed humanity. Indeed, that is its function. And so, as spiritual seekers, we should take care in choosing those we associate with. If they do not see us, or are not genuinely trying to see us, in the way that we are reaching to see ourselves (as, say, One in God), then sharing their company may inadvertently reinforce the wrong tendencies in us, and be counterproductive to our new commitment. To be sure, as we unfold spiritually, we become strong enough to withstand and transform such influences, but in the beginning, when we are, as it were, spiritual infants, we do well to take care.
To The Zoo Fence: Awesome site – really, really impressed. Keep up the good work; it is much needed in today’s turbulent times. Also, will someone there please say a little prayer that the whole of Northern Ireland does not relapse into chaos and carnage.
Dublin City, Ireland
Editor’s Comment: Thank you for the kind words. We understand and applaud your concern, and fervently we pray with you. That said, we urge you to remember that in Truth there is no such thing as “Northern Ireland” or any other separate person or thing or place. Our reality, this planet, everyone, everything, and everywhere on it, what it seems to be, and seems to be doing, even our concepts of chaos and carnage – all of that and more, is a direct, perfect, and constantly arising reflection of our perception of ourselves. The Universe is a cosmic mirror, and the way each of us answers the question “Who Am I?” determines what each of us sees in the glass. The Truth of the Universe is as Simple and as Extraordinary as That. So, to see peace in Northern Ireland as well as harmony in our own lives, for which we yearn as strongly as you, we must find peace within ourselves. Then, we will naturally project it outward, as normally and effortlessly as a flame radiates heat, and we will see it everywhere we look.
Editor’s Comment: As you observe, repetitive prayer is found in many, probably all, spiritual traditions. Often, it is accompanied by the use of some physical object, like a string of beads (a rosary or a mala), to help keep the mind focused. Frequently, such prayers are chanted to music. Some early Christians used to repeat the name “Jesus” over and over, as an aid in contemplative meditation; this practice evolved into the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me), which is now used extensively as a repetitive prayer among Christians. The Ave Maria (Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you, blessed art thou among women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb) is another repetitive Christian prayer. Similarly, in Hinduism, Islam, many so-called primitive religions, and, again, virtually all other traditions, this kind of ritual chanting is present, powerful, and highly recommended. Often, a Teacher will assign to a seeker a word or a phrase, with instructions to repeat it endlessly, perhaps secretly, aloud or silently, as a form of prayer. This is a mantra, and the repetition of it is called japa. OM MANI PADME HUM is a well known mantra from Tibetan Buddhism.
If you watch your mind carefully, you will observe that it is constantly darting about from one thought to another, even while supposedly concentrating on a single idea. It doesn’t know any better because we have never properly disciplined it. Repetitive prayer helps to calm, clarify, focus, and eventually silence the mind by bringing it to rest on a single, high thought, and thereby hopefully to encourage and facilitate the leap into Remembrance (Self-Realization).
Consider this lesson of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, from the book “Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj” by Ramesh S. Balsekar (Acorn), p. 174-5:
“By continuously repeating a Japa, or a Mantra, either as one word or a combination of words, you intend to ‘protect’ something. What does one want to protect? Something that one ‘loves’ most. What does one love most? Something which one ‘needs’ most. And what is it that one needs most? Something without which nothing else has any meaning, any value. Is it not the ‘animus,’ the sense of animating presence, the consciousness, without which you cannot know anything or enjoy anything? This most precious ‘need’ is consciousness which you want to ‘protect’ at any cost, and the best way to protect anything is not to be away from it at all. Is it not?
“So, the main purpose of repeating a Japa continuously is to remain one with consciousness all the time. But you must understand that this ‘practice’ will enable you to achieve your ‘purpose’ only for the limited duration while you repeat the Japa. A clear apperception of your true nature, on the other hand, is not at all based on the concept of time.”
Editor’s Comment: Clearly, we cannot speak for “official Buddhism,” if there is such a thing. For that, we suggest you pose your question at one of the excellent Buddhist sources on the web (there are several on our links page). However, our own personal experience indicates that the highest ideal of Buddhism, which is Awareness of our already true Buddha Nature, is the Self-Same Place or Prior Condition known to the Teachers of every spiritual tradition, and taught by each of them in their time. The rest of us perceive differences among these Essentially Identical Teachings because we are distracted by their external appearances. Specifically as regards Buddhism, we seem to remember reading somewhere, possibly in some writing by or about Sogyal Rinpoche, that while Buddhism does not subscribe to the concept of God as taught in some other traditions, Buddhism does believe in the nature of God. (As seekers, we are intrigued, even challenged, by that distinction.)
Here, consider that the differences among religions are not unlike the differences among languages. To an uneducated ear, they all sound different, some even like foolish gibberish. But the better one learns to speak them, the more one realizes they are different ways of saying the same thing. Just so, brod, Brot, broyt, pane, pan, pain, and bread all describe the same foodstuff, even though many of them may be unintelligible to you and me.
To a seeker, whose interest transcends the labels and definitions of institutional theology, the question of God distills to this: “Is there a Supreme Being that exists somewhere other than where I exist, and that is independent of, separate and distinct from, and fundamentally different from me?” Or, turned around, “Do I exist some how, in some time, and some where, that is separate, distinct, and apart from God (or anything else)?” Clearly, these are questions the relentless pursuit of which must reveal the True Nature of Reality.
That inquiry is the crux of the spiritual process, for it points to, and ultimately unravels, all the mysteries. Unfortunately, each of us must discover the answer for himself or herself, and, as the answer must come from the inside out, it is not easy.
Finally, if you will permit us to answer your question in the form of a Sacred Riddle, we might say that, as we see it, the fundamental, liberating Meaning of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and so on, all the way to Zoroastrianism, including true atheism, is simply this: “How is it that there is God, but there is not a God?”
Editor’s Comment: Ouch. That is a tough question precisely because it almost always comes from a particularly personal place, for which all we want is an immediate, soothing response, not a hypothetical discussion.
Obviously, with so little information, we cannot speak to your specific situation. We do suggest, however, that if your condition is medical, you address it with a licensed medical practitioner. If you have already done so, and the encounter was not satisfactory, remember that there are alternatives, other doctors and other disciplines. Any good public library will have an endless assortment of books, journals, and newsletters on health-related subjects, and the internet is crowded with health-related sites, discussion groups, and message boards. (We have collected a few such links here.) Inform yourself about your condition as thoroughly as you can. Here, as everywhere, knowledge is power. The more you know about your situation, the less out of control will it seem, the more will alternative courses become apparent to you, and the less frightened will you be. That in itself will ease the suffering.
Although they are frequently joined in a sentence, just as you have here, pain and suffering are not the same thing. Pain is a biological function. It is the body’s reaction to an improper circumstance. As such, it is normal, natural, and appropriate. Despite its reputation, pain is a positive phenomenon, for it alerts us that something is wrong. Thus, we touch a hot plate, and pain causes us instantly to recoil. That reaction saves us from losing our fingers. Or, if we venture into an inappropriate relationship, we feel pain. Again, something is amiss, and the pain alerts us to it.
Ordinarily, when we experience pain, our first reaction is to reach for a painkiller. And often, that is the indicated response. But sometimes, masking the symptoms may be a mistake, for doing so can remove our incentive for finding out what is wrong, and fixing it. Thus, sometimes, the first thing we should do when we experience pain is ask ourselves, What am I doing that I shouldn’t be? What is it about my life that has put me into this painful situation, and what can I do to change my life so that the cause of this pain is no longer present. Sometimes, the answer to that question is apparent, like: stop touching hot plates. But more often it is harder to discover. Indeed, sometimes the real cause is buried beneath an apparent cause, or a series of apparent causes. It may be obvious that the hot plate burned our fingers, but what is not so obvious is, Why did we touch the hot plate? Why do we repeatedly touch hot plates?
We suspect that many people who have successfully improved or uplifted their lives, even who have set out on the spiritual path, would report that what first motivated them was pain, some kind of discomfort in their lives. And while it may have been awful at the time, in retrospect they are glad for it, as it was ultimately a force for positive change.
So, pain, while never pleasant, is not necessarily a bad thing.
Suffering, on the other hand, is mental, not physical. We might say that suffering is a thoughtful reaction to pain.
Once again, we touch a hot plate. Instantly, we withdraw our hand. That is the physical reaction to pain. If we go immediately from there to inquiry (”How do I avoid doing that again?”), there is no suffering. We have asked the right question, and so the pain has served its purpose. Even if the pain continues while the wound heals, we will not suffer, for our principal focus will have moved on from the event in the direction indicated by the inquiry.
We suffer when we do not inquire. Or, having inquired, when we are either unable or unwilling to act on the inquiry. We suffer when we feel helpless and out of control. It is not pain that makes us suffer, but our perception that the pain, and by extension our lives, are out of our control.
There are numerous accounts of saints, and seekers of various kinds, who experience terrible, even unspeakable pain, but who do not suffer. Watching them from the outside, we naturally assume that they are suffering unbearably, and who would blame them for it! But when we read or hear their own words, we are very surprised to learn that, uncomfortable as of course they may be, they do not suffer. Evidently, their devotion to and confidence in the Supreme Goal, however they may define it, are an adequate answer and provide sufficient relief. Whatever the pain, whatever the appearances, they seem to know that their lives are not out of control, and so they do not suffer.
If so, the ultimate prescription for the rest of us may be to seek that sublime state, and to thank the pain that prompted us toward it.
A common question among seekers is, Why do pain and suffering exist in a Perfect Universe? Perhaps this is what you are asking. Unfortunately, the most logical answer to that question is another question: Are pain and suffering imperfect? Or are they evidence that the System is working perfectly? (Here, you may wish to read our essay Why Bad Things.)
The inescapable fact is, as long as we choose to live in a dual universe, there will always be opposites. Up, down. Rich, poor. Happy, sad. Painless, painful. And we will live in a dual universe as long as we have preferences.
That is, as long as you and I prefer some this over some other that, we will continue to make a distinction between this and that, and therefore, we will always perceive some of that, or at least the threat of some of that, in our lives. In a word, we create and empower the things we dislike by running from them. Try this: The next time the anesthetic at the dentist is not working quite right, and you feel pain, instantly shift your full sense of awareness into (not on, but into) the painful place. Do it so intently that your sense of identity, your very sense of who you are, becomes the pain. Merge into the pain, and become one with it. You may be surprised to discover that the pain disappears as long as you are “there.” If so, consider the implications. If not, quickly ask for a second injection!
Finally, consider this. We are inclined to assume that the logical outcome of the spiritual process is happy immortality. And we are right to do so. Except that the happiness and immortality we anxiously anticipate are not off in some distant future, metaphorical or otherwise. They are right here and now. We are already infinitely happy and eternally immortal. That is our Natural Condition. It is not a reward we earn, or even a state we achieve. It is, quite simply, us. If we seem painfully unaware of it, that is because we believe ourselves to be the decidedly mortal, unavoidably painful bodies that we think we are inhabiting. The fix for that is not a more potent, longer lasting painkiller, or even reluctant grinning and bearing, but Self-Realization.