This is the first of a three part series on the very best that a world rooted in separation has to offer. We’re going to take a brief tour of three fundamental elements of the world that works for no one, and deconstruct them a bit. Not because we want to get preoccupied with turning nothing into something, or start marching up and down the streets in protest of false concepts, but because we want to become more astute in recognizing the reasons for which the peace that is the natural ground of our being is told to wait in its room while we set about the business of doing what must be done. (Waste of time, that, by the way.)
I would like to acknowledge that much of the content is clearly a rip-off of seeds planted by beings who are now so conflict-free and joy-filled they couldn’t be bothered to file a protest or complaint. In general, I think they approve of such recycling initiatives.
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I found a nice discussion of the meaning of the term ethics at the Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics web-site. It is slightly wordy, but worth the read if you’re interested in following the rest of the post, which is mainly concerned with pointing out how how ethics can become an obstacle to authentic peace and happiness.
“Ethics is two things. First, ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethics, for example, refers to those standards that impose the reasonable obligations to refrain from rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander, and fraud. Ethical standards also include those that enjoin virtues of honesty, compassion, and loyalty. And, ethical standards include standards relating to rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom from injury, and the right to privacy. Such standards are adequate standards of ethics because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons.
“Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one’s ethical standards. As mentioned above, feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to constantly examine one’s standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded. Ethics also means, then, the continuous effort of studying our own moral beliefs and our moral conduct, and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are reasonable and solidly-based.”
Few of us are philosophers, or interested in too much intellectual banter, but I daresay that all of us have faced questions about what we should do, what we should say, or how we should act. We have notions of what is right and wrong, of what it means to be good. So, in a sense, we all have some personalized version of ethics at work in us.
True freedom, however, requires that we let this type of thinking go… Why? What is it about preconceived notions of what is right, good and appropriate that, in the end, betrays us? I would like to briefly discuss just one issue as it relates to ethics, and that is identity, which is perhaps the fundamental theme of A Course in Miracles and A Course of Love.
Ethics as described above is a rational practice that takes place at the level of the problem it seeks to resolve. While the definition above doesn’t exactly say why ethics is needed in the world- e.g. why it matters whether or not we understand right from wrong, or share an understanding of obligations and loyalties- the reason is implied in the definition’s appeal to the atrocities that exist in “the world”: “rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander, and fraud”, presumably to name but a few. The definition of ethics implies a solution to these problems rooted in establishing “well-founded standards” of behavior, of “what humans ought to do”. Ethics, in short, arise as systems of thought to defend us against the perceived horrors of our world.
The fundamental error of the world is not what is occurring in it, however, but the lack of knowledge of its inhabitants of their true identity- of Truth itself. We struggle mightily to look past myriad symptoms to their single cause. The famous Biblical quote from Jesus, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” conveys, for myself, this fundamental point. There isn’t space here to develop such an argument fully, but I’ll just say that so long as we equate ourselves with finite, temporal identities, and remain ignorant of the Truth that we are, such problems will remain. They are the inbred shortcomings of perceiving separation, of accepting the mirage of a world populated by discrete and isolated individuals. Jesus (and many others) calls us to recognize that we are Unity- that we are individual expressions of a common Truth. I think in fact that ethics, and any approach that proposes to moderate behavior and choice rather than addressing identity, can ultimately ensnare us, by presupposing or implying a particular type of self and a particular type of problem.
In short misperception, or the viewpoint of separation, is not only the view of self and other that is required to make the aforementioned atrocities seem meaningful, it is also the view of self and other that also renders one apparently vulnerable. Despite the fact that Jesus offered his life as a living example of the truth that even death cannot destroy or change who we really are, until we accept this teaching, we are plagued by our sense of vulnerability. We are perpetually threatened. Out of this sense of threat arises the need to promulgate standards of behavior, of right and wrong, of good and bad, as means of defense. We can establish these lines in the sand, and then use them to justify retaliation and attack on others- responses to attacks and threats which, in truth, were meaningless in the first place.
Our lines in the sand are the fronts we patrol, the borders we police, the judgments we are compelled to make, all of which reinforce the fundamental error of the world: the lack of knowledge of who we are, of our fundamental unity with all that is. It is in this sense that I think ethics can ensnare us rather than release us from the bondage of misperception.
The question of how to behave- of what to do and what to say- is rendered moot when true identity is recovered, and our true identity is unavailable to us so long as we insist on the validity of the notion that dangerous forces external to us have the capacity to produce genuine harm. The perception of harm from which ethics seeks to defend us, imposes a view of the world, and of self and other, that perpetuates the very forces from which we seek relief. It is indeed a vicious cycle.
Jesus asks us to forgive everything, because such radical forgiveness reminds us of the truth that we are. It undoes the misperception that we must defend ourselves and codify systems of right and wrong to keep a dangerous world in check. Forgiveness frees our minds from the endless work of patrolling, monitoring, and judging, and into that emptied space the truth of who we are will naturally emerge. Fundamentally, those who “know themselves”, will not contribute to a violent or threatening world, nor perceive one at work around them. Those who “do not know themselves” will not be able to cease contributing to such a world, in one form or another, for they will be unable to see without separation. They will be unable to set aside the notion that something external must be fixed, or managed, or held aside, or in some way dealt with in order for peace to be found. Thus, notions of right and wrong ultimately keep us divided. They solidify the belief that what is “wrong”, is “real”, and from such a vantage point forgiveness is neither rational nor possible.
Kabir perhaps, said it best: “Suppose you scrub your ethical skin until it shines, but inside, there is no music. Then what?”