This lesson speaks to a current that runs throughout the higher spiritual paths of this world—the need to relinquish our judgment of and resistance to what is, so we can make our peace with reality.
Yet while this lesson hearkens back to that universal theme, it also dramatically departs from it. Let's look at both. (The following is adapted from a class I did a few years back.)
First, I think we all know that standing in judgment of "what is" has major negative consequences. To the extent that our relationship with life is dictated by judgment, I can think of three negative effects that flow from this, effects that are to some degree recognized by people everywhere:
- You are not at peace. Your stance toward life is one of upset, intolerance, attack, withdrawal. It just doesn't feel good to stand in judgment of everything.
- You are playing God. By deciding that "what is" is really "what shouldn't be," you are acting as if you know better than the Source of reality.
- You are being impractical. The fact is that your judgment that something shouldn't be doesn't change anything. The thing you are judging is still there, the same as before. If it's going to remain there, why put yourself through the unnecessary pain of standing in judgment of it? Why not just make your peace with its reality and be done with it?
Because these three negative consequences of judgment are easily noticed, we have a natural pull to reverse our chronic judgment and practice acceptance instead. Spiritual seekers these days talk a lot about "accepting what is." We have all heard this enough, read about it enough, or even practiced this enough, to know more or less what this is about.
Currently, we tend to stand before situations and think, "This shouldn't be happening. It's not right. I shouldn't have to go through this. God is unjust. Life is unfair. Things need to change." We are having a constant argument with reality, an argument we are bound to lose. As a result, our peace lies in ruins.
So instead, we decide to accept things as they are. We lift off of the situation all of our "shoulds." We lift off of it all of our negative evaluations, which are really just arrogant and impractical overlays forced onto the simple, unadorned fact of what is. We say to ourselves, "This is not bad. This does not need fixing. I don't know what it should be. It is simply what is. I accept it. I am at peace with it." In essence, we stop "should-ing" on the situation.
The following exercise, which I found online (it is adapted from The Space Clearing Kit, by Christan Hummel), is a clear example of this approach:
For a personal demonstration of the transformational power of accepting what IS, try this simple exercise:
- Take any particular emotional, physical, or mental condition that you have deemed a "problem."
- Focus your attention on that situation, condition, or "problem".
- Make no attempt to change it, resist it, or have it be in any way different.
- Simply bring your total awareness without any resistance to that situation.
- Do this for a minute.
- Notice what you feel afterwards.
Did you notice that you felt a relief of stress, anxiety, worry, pain, or any other symptom of your resisting this situation? Much of our stress is not a result of the problem itself, but of our unwillingness to be present with the situation.
This may sound like a distinctly spiritual approach, and perhaps in this particular form it is. However, I think that this is also an expression of a universal human impulse: We want to be at peace with things. We find it unpleasant to stand in judgment of life, especially of things we can't change. And so, in one way or another, we often try to simply accept, rather than condemn, whether we are spiritually-oriented or not. We tell ourselves things like "This too shall pass," just so we can take a break from constant judgment and displeasure over what is.
This approach unquestionably brings a measure of peace. Rather than judging everyone and everything, we can simply accept. We can perhaps even become a lover of what is. Yet, a number of questions arise fairly quickly in response to this approach.
1. How do we reconcile this approach with taking action?
All of us act, and action always aims at a result. It aims at change, even if a very tiny change. Yet what is the basis for acting at all, in any way, if our attitude is one of genuine acceptance? Look at the exercise above. It says, "Make no attempt to change it, resist it, or have it be in any way different." Well, if you really, deeply, wholly embodied that statement, then you would indeed "make no attempt to change it, resist it, or have it be in any way different." At that point, what is your basis for taking action, any kind of action? For all action attempts to change something.
2. We love great agents of change. How does this fit with our valuing of "accepting what is"?
Many of our spiritual heroes are people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus, people who spoke out against the status quo, worked to introduce change, and even lost their lives as a result. The status quo doesn't kill you unless you are trying to change it. Does it make sense for us to purely accept "what is," yet at the same time revere agents of change, who so tried to change "what is" that they lost their lives for it? Are we being consistent here?
3. There is such a thing as pathological acceptance.
As spiritual seekers, we are primarily in touch with pathological attempts at change. We talk a lot about "efforting," being controlling, and going against the flow. But there is also such a thing as pathological acceptance. We all know what this is because we have all done it. For the sake of our peace of mind, we have told ourselves that certain situations—jobs, marriages—were really OK when they weren't. This pathological acceptance can lead us to stay in a situation for years that is truly not right for us.
4. Is everything truly acceptable? Is it right to accept everything?
This question underlies all the issues I've raised. Is it appropriate to lift all of our "shoulds" off of everything? In telling the story of her awakening, Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is, said that she had been upset with her husband for not being more honest and her children for not respecting her more. Then she had an epiphany: "My husband should not be more honest—because he wasn't. My children shouldn't respect me more—because they didn't." How far can we reasonably go with this? "Hitler shouldn't have let 6 million Jews continue living—because he didn't." Is that a statement we are comfortable with?
With these four issues in mind, let's look at today's lesson. It too would have us approach "what is" with complete and utter acceptance. Yet its approach ends up being dramatically different than what I have discussed above.
At first, today's idea sounds precisely like what we have already been talking. We could rephrase it as "Let what is be exactly as it is." But it doesn't mean what you may think it does. I'll go through the lesson one bit at a time. It begins with a prayer:
Let me not be Your critic, Lord, today, and judge against You.
Here we have seemingly the same idea as before. I am engaging in judgment. By judging things, rather than letting them be as they are, I am assuming the role of God's critic. For some bizarre reason, I think I know better than He does. How crazy is that?
Let me not attempt to interfere with Your creation, and distort it into sickly forms.
If we didn't know better, we would think that interfering with God's creation and trying to "distort it into sickly forms" referred to the act of judging the world, turning the unadorned innocence of "what is" into the twisted and distorted judgments that crowd our mind.
This interpretation, however, is ruled out by the Course's meaning of "creation." In Course terms, creation does not refer to this world, or anything related to time, space, and form. As the Course reminds us, "In this world it is impossible to create" (T-17.IV.3:1). "Creation" in the Course thus refers only to the limitless reality of Heaven. What this sentence really means is "Let me not attempt to distort the limitless spirit You created and turn it into the sickly bodies I see around me." What? However puzzling that may sound, it is the beginning of a very different understanding of what it means to accept "what is."
Let me be willing to withdraw my wishes from its unity, and thus to let it be as You created it.
This sentence is very similar to the previous one. It says that I have been imposing my wishes not onto this fractured world, but onto the unity of God's creation. These wishes are clearly contrary to the unity of creation, and so, we can assume, must be trying to turn creation into something other than unified, into something fragmented. Instead, we should let God's creation be as He created it. That final phrase—"let it be as You created it"—is of course a restatement of the idea for the day, "Let all things be exactly as they are." In other words, letting them be exactly as they are means letting them be as God created them.
Now we can see the whole picture. According to the lesson, I have been trying to do the following things:
- act as God's critic
- judge against God
- attempt to interfere with His creation
- distort His creation into sickly forms
- impose my wishes on the unity of His creation
The way I do these things is that I see the unified reality of spirit as fragmented into separate, sickly forms. Let me put this differently. The way that I refuse to let all things be as they are is that I see a world of separate bodies as reality. The way that I let all things be as they are is that I let them be as God created them; I let them be the pure, perfect, unified spirit that they really are.
For thus will I be able, too, to recognize my Self as You created me. In Love was I created, and in Love will I remain forever. What can frighten me, when I let all things be exactly as they are?
If I acknowledge all things as they really are, as God created them, then I will wake up to my Self as God created me. And He created me as perfect, divine Love. This is worlds away from conventional self-acceptance. This is definitely not accepting myself "warts and all." This is accepting my real Self, my wart-less Identity, which is as far from the self I think I am as the earth is from a distant star. Now onto the second and final paragraph of the lesson:
Let not our sight be blasphemous today, nor let our ears attend to lying tongues.
What does it mean to let our sight be blasphemous? To be blasphemous is to be disrespectful toward God, to insult God—to be His critic. In this context, then, to let our sight be blasphemous is to look upon our criticism of God—the forms of this world—as being real. Think about that: to regard this world as "what is" is blasphemy. And that means that to accept this world as "what is" is blasphemy.
Only reality is free of pain. Only reality is free of loss. Only reality is wholly safe. And it is only this we seek today.
Notice the three repetitions of "only reality" here. Jesus is saying that "only reality" is perfect. This world is excluded from that. Nothing here is free of pain, free of loss, or wholly safe.
What is "what is"?
This lesson clearly asks us to accept what is. And yet it radically redefines this concept by redefining what is.
What is, according to this lesson (and the rest of the Course), is true reality, beyond the forms and limitations of this world. "What is" in my brother is not his personality, but his perfect reality as God's Son. "What is" in me is not the self I identify with, but my perfect reality as God's Son. This is the "what is" that I am called to accept today. In relation to it, I need to turn all my judgment off. I need to throw away all my filters. I need to discard all my "shoulds," because this reality exceeds any "should" that I could possibly devise. If we argue with this reality (to return to my earlier three points), we will not be at peace, we will be playing God, and we will be hopelessly impractical, for we will never, ever change it.
This, however, is most emphatically not the "what is" that we usually refer to when we speak of accepting what is. There, we are talking about this world—about our husband's dishonesty, about our children's disrespect. To use the words of that exercise I quoted earlier, we are talking about some "emotional, physical, or mental condition that you have deemed a 'problem.'"
Yet, in the Course's teaching, this world is precisely "what isn't." This world, with its seething mass of contending bodies, is our criticism of what really is. It is our attempt to distort the perfection of "what is" into sickly forms. As the Text says, it is "your protest against reality, and your fixed and insane idea that you can change it" (T-18.II.5:6).
Let us not, then, regard this protest, this distortion, as "what is." To accept it as "what is" is to enthrone it. To accept it as "what is" is to simultaneously reject what truly is. It is therefore just further criticism of God, further "protest against reality." The Course has a stark word for regarding the world of form as "what is." That word is "blasphemous." To accept this world as "what is" is blasphemous.
I think, instead, that we must go to the other end of the spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, we say, "I accept what I see because that's what is. I don't 'should' on it." In the middle of the spectrum, where most people are, we say, "I acknowledge that what I see is what is, but I refuse to accept it, because what is conflicts with what should be." Then, all the way on the other end of the spectrum, the Course's end, we say, "This world is so out of keeping with true reality, so far from what it should be, that it simply cannot be. I refuse to accept it as what is. I accept it as what isn't. Thus, it doesn't bother me. How can you be upset at what isn't there? And in its place, I accept what truly is."
This very different notion of "what is" allows us to logically combine pure, profound acceptance and active, ardent attempts at change. Our stance toward the true reality in each person can be pure, nonjudgmental acceptance. We can be absolutely at peace with who that person truly is. We can relax our efforts to play God, realizing that this person is God's masterpiece—we wouldn't change a thing. We can stand transfixed and enraptured before the perfection of this person, scarcely able to refrain from kneeling at their feet.
But then we can look at the dream—at this person's body and personality, at the situation we find ourselves in, at the event we just witnessed, at our own body and personality, at a world balled up in pain—and realize that this is what isn't. This is our dream of violating the flawlessness of reality. This is our ancient protest against the perfection of what really is. And being a protest against perfection, this place is soaked with imperfection. It is, in fact, so imperfect, so patently absurd, that it cannot be real. Something this crazy can only be a dream.
And since it's a dream that depicts the violation of reality, why shouldn't we change it? What is so sacred about it that we have to keep our hands off, that we should bow our heads and remove our shoes as if this is holy ground? Why shouldn't we change this into a dream that reflects reality, rather than violates it? Why shouldn't we make this into a happy dream? Not a happy dream in the sense of our ego getting everything it wants, but in the Course's sense of a dream in which all minds are closer to waking.
This dual stance—pure acceptance towards what really is and sincere desire to change what isn't—frees us from that pathological acceptance we discussed earlier. It frees us from pretending that the unacceptable is wondrously acceptable. It gives us a rational basis for change. After all, it makes sense to change the imperfect, to change the insane. And yet, this approach also gives us a rational basis for perfect peace in the midst of our efforts at change.
To apply this new approach to accepting what is, think of a situation in your life that you are having difficulty accepting. Look at the situation and see that it is composed of separation—of separate, vulnerable people with separate wills striving in different directions, and experiencing discord and pain. Then repeat slowly, dwelling on each line,
I refuse to accept this as what is.
This is our protest against what is.
Yet this protest need not upset me, for it is not real.
What is real is the perfection in each person here.
What is real is the perfect unity we share in God's Kingdom.
I accept only that as real.
And I accept it fully, with a whole and joyous heart.
Let all things be exactly as they really are.