I went through a stage in this journey without distance in which I sought to find the ‘right path’ for myself. It was like I was evaluating a major purchase. I was given some good advice at the time, which basically went like this:
It was the best advice I could have received, because nothing really gets started without commitment. In fact, without commitment, it is impossible to learn to see what is really happening along our journey.
At the time, I did not know about the Course in Miracles, but I did the one thing that needed to be done: I picked one. Within a year I was wallowing neck-deep in the most difficult darkness I’d ever known. I was seated alone in the woods on a fasting retreat of sorts anticipating a tap on the shoulder from God that never came- at least not on the channel I was monitoring. I had prepped for this experience for several months and had experienced headlong plunges into self doubt- moments in which my entire body seemed to be a sucking, panicky vacuum into which flooded a debilitating anxiety about being on the verge of imminent and permanent annihilation- that were intermixed with surges of indomitable power, and a grace that lifted me up to the clouds. In hindsight, those latter moments were the miracles.
Anyway, I figured at the time that if I committed wholly, and placed myself alone in the woods on this fasting retreat, that God would acknowledge my pleading and fill those vacuous holes inside of me with all the good things he surely knew about me. He would, in other words, meet me half way and reach into my heart, exchanging all the blackened filth, the residue of my despair, for His Presence. This faith carried me through the challenges to the appointed hour, where I arrived at the designated rendezvous location, and found instead that I hadn’t actually hit the bottom as far as the internal oceans of confusion and self doubt went.
My time in the woods, which I had envisioned would be a prolonged encounter with grace, felt instead like an extended session in a spiritual pressure cooker. I was plagued by fear, and racked with doubt. I contracted into a little ball of pain and anguish. Yes, it felt that bad. They were inescapable. (Such is the power of commitment, I tell you…) I returned to civilization utterly defeated, but carrying the seed of an idea around which I reorganized: somehow I had the feeling that during my retreat God had ‘cleared the block’ so to speak, and given me the incredible gift of offering a space wholly conducive to my being enabled to see just how pervasive all the muck inside of myself truly was.
It was, in hindsight, a profound and awesome gift that at the time threatened to propel me right off the path home as fast as my legs could carry me. Somehow I held it together. (Such is the power of commitment, I tell you…) At least the task at hand was squarely in front of me. That part seemed good. On the other hand, I was cuttingly aware of the fact that I really didn’t possess the tools to banish the particular breed of darkness that clung to my insides. I knew I really had no idea how to discern what was good for me from what was not, because in my heart of hearts I knew my commitment to the retreat had been founded upon a genuine heartfelt desire to know God, and on that basis could only have been a good thing. Yet it was a very painful ordeal, and generally speaking pain is a signal we humans generally treat as a wholly reliable signal to go ahead and do something different. Like run.
Within three months I was studying the Course. I happened to pick it up in a bookstore one day, and that was that. By that time I wasn’t interested in dabbling, or testing the waters. I had an urgent need to transform my suffering. I recognized almost instantly that I had found the compass I was looking for- a reliable method for discerning what was good and True from what was not, regardless of how I felt about something in a given moment. The rest is not history, but an increasingly expansive present.
I share this because I think it is really helpful for all of us to remember that the way home, the journey without distance, is not a walk in the park. There are real and wonderful gains to be had, and ultimately freedom awaits us all, but commitment is what fuels the journey. Jesus speaks in the Course about ‘a little willingness’. If you think about it, repeatedly digging deep to come up with another ounce of willingness in the face of a dream spiraling towards disaster, is commitment. Commitment is what we need to invite the experiences most needed to transform our inner darkness, rather than choosing the experiences we want. Commitment is what we need to learn to see them for what they are, rather than discounting them and fleeing to somewhere sunnier and warmer.
I would not be surprised if people generally think, as I did, that a spiritual path should feel like a coming home, like a hop and a skip along a well-lit trail, safe and easy, with all sorts of signs and wonders along the way to make the journey joyful- little teases of the Great Light that awaits at the end of the trail. I’m not saying it can’t be that, but it is unlikely it will be only that. The greatest bit of wisdom I ever learned was the realization that encountering pits of despair, flurries of rage, or bouts of fear that cause my entire being to contract and shrink into a hole, are not signs of genuine error on my part; rather, they are the way home. In fact, it is essential that I learn not to interpret these moments as failures… Commitment is vital in my opinion because it enables us to stay the course when we encounter these very real-seeming difficulties we have lurking around inside of us.
The ‘work’ of awakening is described consistently in Jesus’ many teachings to us. Speaking with Tom Carpenter in Dialogue on Awakening, Jesus says, “Resist no thought or feeling that comes to you. Resistance is based upon some past judgment you have made that something could be harmful or fearsome… These thoughts and feelings have come to offer an opportunity to choose again- an exchange program of sorts in which continued bondage is let go for freedom.” (DoA, 1996 ed., Chapter 10, pg 231)
This sentiment is echoed in the Course, “It takes great learning to understand that all things, events, encounters and circumstances are helpful.” (M.4, I.A.4:5)
It is also echoed in A Course of Love, “The purging of old beliefs frees space for the new… There is no quick route to this purging, as it is the most individual of accomplishments. As you learned your beliefs, you must unlearn your beliefs… If you do not remember that you are involved in a process of unlearning that will lead to the conviction you have so long sought, you will indeed feel tested and try to take control of the learning situation. Not taking control, however, is the key to unlearning.” (CoL, 23.22-26)
I think we get better at this as we learn… First, we discover we can live through it. We learn to recognize it for what it is, and as a result find ourselves overwhelmed with gratitude, even as we are wrestling with our inner demons. We learn this is a holy process. We learn we are never alone in it. We learn we are all doing this together, and that there is great support along the way.
Our lives become a slideshow of past errors whisking by to be reinterpreted, and for a while they still hurt and sting. Occasionally, they bring us to our knees again, but that is okay. It means nothing… Eventually we won’t buy the ball fake from our ego. He’ll put his finger on our shirt as if we have a smudge of dark chocolate smeared across our chest, and we’ll have zero inclination to look down. We’ll resist the bait at every level of our being, and be free. We’ll simply laugh.
We’ll all laugh together… (Such is the power of commitment, I tell you…)