Receiving the Holy Instant

by Allen Watson

What we do to block the holy instant,
and how to get out of the way.

The holy instant is an experience of grace, an instant in which we set aside some or all of our identification with the ego and our belief in the reality of the world it has projected, and allow the reality of our true Identity to shine through. For an instant we suspend our faith in the illusion, allowing the eternal reality to be experienced. Since it is eternal, the holy instant is both a foreshadowing and a memory: it is a foreshadowing of Heaven, a taste of eternity, experienced here in the world and in time (W-pI.169.12:3; Workbook), and also a memory of our original state, as God created us (T-16.VII.8:7).

A Course in Miracles urges us to practice the holy instant and to seek for it ( T-15.II.5:4; T-15.II.6:1; T-16.VII.11:1). Why is it that, for most of us, the holy instant seems to be so elusive? Why do those moments of grace seem so few and far between? In the section titled "The Little Willingness" (T-18.IV), the Course goes through a list of at least a dozen things within us that block our experience of the holy instant. (All references below are to this section unless otherwise noted.)

Blocks To the Holy Instant and How To Bypass Them

The blocks to the holy instant fall into one broad category: all of them consist of our efforts to do something by ourselves that will give us what only the holy instant can give us. We think the blocks are the "negative" things about ourselves, what this section calls shadows—things that seem to make us unworthy of the holy instant, things we try to get rid of to make ourselves more worthy of it. In fact these are not blocks at all! The only real block is our belief we have to do anything except be willing to receive the holy instant as a gift.

Thinking We Need To Do More

What stands in the way of our experience of the holy instant is our belief that simple willingness is not enough, and that we have to do something more than be willing in order to experience it. All that is required of us to have the holy instant is that we desire it above all else and be willing to receive it—absolutely nothing more than that (1:1-5). But if we add something on top of that, if we think that we need to do something else besides wanting and willing in order to receive the holy instant, we are, whether we realize it or not, nullifying our willingness and blocking the holy instant from coming to us.

Receiving the holy instant is "easy" and "natural" (7:1). The holy instant is a taste of our natural state of mind, as God created us, with all the interference removed. It cannot be difficult to experience our very own nature! We make it seem difficult, however, because we "insist there must be more that you need do" (7:2). We erroneously think that having to do so little is "personally insulting" (7:4). So subtly we don't even realize we are doing it, we are asserting that we cannot simply accept ourselves as God created us, but must have a part in determining what we are and how we become ourselves. We are insisting on having a part in our own creation.

We are trying to give ourselves what God has already given us, trying to produce on our own what we can only accept from God's hand in the holy instant. This is the general principle that encompasses all our blocks to the holy instant: We are trying on our own to supply what only the holy instant can give.

The antidote to our error of wanting to do more is our realization that doing more isn't even possible: "it is necessary that you realize that you cannot do more" (1:5). "It is your realization that you need do so little that enables Him to give so much" (1:10). Our insistence on doing more stems from our fundamental belief that we can change ourselves and have already done so, which is the basis of our belief in separation. Only because we think we have already "done" something that altered God's creation do we believe that it is now necessary for us to do something to repair it. Therefore, recognizing that we cannot do more is the correction to both errors: the error of thinking we have changed God's creation, and the error of thinking that we have to change back. God's creation cannot be changed. We remain as God created us. Therefore we don't need to do anything except to be willing to accept His creation of us.

For those of you familiar with the New Testament, the distinction being made here is very similar to the Christian theological debate of faith versus works, or the doctrine of salvation by grace, through faith alone. The biblical doctrine is:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8, 9).

In speaking of the Jews of his day, the Apostle Paul says that, while they had a zeal for God, it was misplaced; they were seeking "to establish their own righteousness" instead of simply accepting the gift of righteousness from God (Romans 10:3). Like us Course students, they were trying to make themselves holy in order to enter God's Presence, instead of accepting the gift of holiness in the holy instant.

Any belief that we must do something beyond willing acceptance of ourselves as God created us, then, is the original error of separation in disguise. It is the ego's way of keeping the separation intact while appearing to help us correct it.

Trusting Our Good Intentions

One of the ways we fortify our belief in doing more is by telling ourselves that since our intentions are good, what we are doing must be good. Our good intentions are the very "more" that we are trying to do. We are trying to make ourselves holy. The intention is good; isn't this enough to make what we are doing good as well? Our good intentions are not enough because they are counterfeit goodness, nothing but the ego trying to puff itself up to equal the magnitude of God. They are an attempt to give to ourselves the holiness that only the holy instant can bring.

We think that our efforts to do more have to work because we are engaging in them for a good reason: to experience the holy instant, to know ourselves as children of God. We often grossly underestimate the power of this argument. Whole religions have been based on it. In the name of God, men and women have struggled for centuries, even for millennia, striving to become worthy of God. Prayers, sacrifices, punishments, self-flaggelation and "holy" wars have been exonerated and even honored based solely upon what seemed to be "good intentions." Striving for holiness must be good! Just look at the holy intent behind it!

Good intentions are not enough (2:1-2). All efforts to change ourselves to please God are built upon a decaying foundation because they are based upon the belief that we can change ourselves, which is the very root of the whole problem. They are a veiled effort to replace God's creation with our own.

The antidote to our trust in our intentions is trusting implicitly in our willingness (2:3). "Implicitly" means "without any doubts or reservations." The idea here is total trust in our willingness, with nothing added. It means not looking around for something else to shore up our confidence. It means knowing that willingness alone is enough, with nothing else needed to make it completely trustworthy.

We often hear people refer to the admonition about not trusting our good intentions without any reference to what we can trust. Such usage leaves us feeling very much at sea, as though nothing we can do is completely reliable. We wonder, "If I can't trust my good intentions, my very efforts to be holy, what can I trust?" The answer is: we can trust our willingness. Our willingness is completely reliable, and we can trust it absolutely, with total confidence. In seeking the holy instant, it is essential to realize this.

Willingness is simply receptivity. We are willing to acknowledge and accept what God has given us in creation. Good intentions imply something we must do; we somehow have to work for and earn the holy instant. Willingness just lets it be. It is easy to trust our willingness when we realize that what we are trusting in is God's gift rather than our own efforts.

Willingness alone can bring us to the holy instant, but it can bring us there only if we trust it alone. Add in trust in anything else, and we have negated the power of willingness. When we abandon our faith in our good intentions, we must transfer that faith in totality to our willingness, and rest on our willingness as our firm foundation.

Being Disturbed By Shadows

The flip side of our good intentions is our unholy intentions. However pure we may feel our intentions to be, we are always aware of a counter-current within our minds, the "dark side of the force," to borrow a phrase from the Star Wars movies. We feel that somehow we have to deal with all these "shadows" (2:4) in our minds before we can receive the holy instant, because they are clearly incompatible with holiness, but the reverse is true. Only the holy instant can heal those unholy intentions; having them healed is why we come to it.

What is meant by "shadows?" I can think of several from my own experience. First, there is the shadow of doubt. I look at my little willingness and I doubt its power; how can simple willingness be enough to cure all the manifold ills and problems of my life? I think that somehow I need to become absolutely certain before I can experience a holy instant. In my mind, my doubt is what is holding me back, and somehow I have to counteract this doubt before I can receive God's grace. But bringing me from uncertainty to certainty is the Holy Spirit's job, not mine (T-7.III.5:5). One of the purposes of the holy instant is to eliminate my doubts and give me certainty (M-15.2:6,7 & T-18.VI.13:6). I do not need certainty to come to the holy instant; I need the holy instant to come to certainty.

Another "shadow" is my fear that my willingness is imperfect. The more I advance in spiritual understanding, the more aware I become of the resistance within myself. I want to go to God, but I am also terrified of Him. "You go toward love still hating it, and terribly afraid of its judgment upon you" (T-18.III.3:5). The more honest I am with myself, the more I realize that I am not yet completely willing to receive God into my life, that I am heavily invested in holding on to the world and the body. How can I "trust implicitly" in my willingness when it is riddled with reservations?

This section answers my concerns so very clearly:

You do not need the strength of willingness to come from you, but only from His Will.
The holy instant does not come from your little willingness alone. It is always the result of your small willingness combined with the unlimited power of God's Will (3:7-4:2).
It is [the Holy Spirit] Who adds the greatness and the might (1:8).

The strength of our willingness does not come from us; it comes from God, through the Holy Spirit. When we align our will in the slightest degree to God's Will, we tap into the power that created the universe, just as in paddling a canoe, when we turn in the direction of the river's flow, the whole power of the river is added to our little paddling. We are carried along by God.

We don't have to be completely willing! That is the wonderful news. A slight turn in His direction, a "tiny willingness, a nod to God" as the Text calls it (T-24.VI.12:4), is all that is required. The Holy Spirit makes up for all the lack in our willingness, and gives us His own.

He needs only your willingness to share His perspective to give it to you completely. And your willingness need not be complete because His is perfect. It is His task to atone for your unwillingness by His perfect faith, and it is His faith you share with Him there. Out of your recognition of your unwillingness for your release, His perfect willingness is given you (T-16.VI.12:2-5).

Notice that last line! What is it that enables the Holy Spirit to give us His willingness? "Your recognition of your unwillingness." The moment in which I honestly admit to my unwillingness, His willingness is released to me. When I face my own unwillingness without fear, I become willing to be made willing. That is all that is required.

A third shadow, perhaps the darkest of all, is guilt. When I think of coming to the holy instant, what seems most effective at keeping me away is my guilt over all that I have done or left undone. I am conscious of hateful, petty thoughts in my mind; how can I expect to experience a holy instant now? With all this darkness in my mind, how can I experience light?

Guilt isn't something that can or should keep me from the holy instant. On the contrary, the guilt, like all of these shadows, is the very reason why I come to the holy instant. In the holy instant, the Holy Spirit removes the guilt; that is what it is for. Trying to overlook or get past my guilt before I come to the holy instant is sheer foolishness, because removing guilt is the function of the holy instant (T-18.V.2:3,4). To hold myself back from the holy instant because I feel guilty is like refusing to go to the doctor because I feel sick. Rather than a reason to stay away from the holy instant, guilt is a reason to go into it.

Fear and hatred are other shadows that may be upon our minds, seeming to cloud our willingness for the holy instant. We mistakenly believe that fear and hatred in our minds can block us from the holy instant; they cannot. The function of the holy instant is to remove our fear and hatred (T-18.V.2:1,2). Trying to remove them ourselves won't work, and is just another way the ego uses to keep us from approaching the holy instant, a way of keeping the fear and hatred rather than removing them. We can come to the holy instant with murder in our hearts. Indeed, that is exactly where we must bring our thoughts of murder if we want them healed. Wanting them healed is the key. If we want our thoughts healed, we will bring them to the holy instant; only if we want to keep them will we stay away.

Doubt, imperfect willingness, guilt, fear and hatred; every one of these shadows that seems like a reason to hesitate is actually a reason to enter the holy instant. Dispelling these shadows is what the holy instant is for.

Be not disturbed that shadows surround [your willingness]. That is why you came. If you could come without them you would not need the holy instant (2:4-6).
The necessary condition for the holy instant does not require that you have no thoughts that are not pure. But it does require that you have none that you would keep (T-15.IV.9:1,2).

It isn't necessary for us to get rid of the shadow thoughts before we come to the holy instant. It is necessary that we be willing to have them removed. We do not have to change anything to experience the holy instant, but we do have to be willing to have everything changed for us.

Thinking We Need To Be Holy First

Trying to do more, trying to get rid of the shadows first—what are we attempting to do here? We are trying to be holy first, before we come to the holy instant. The holy instant, after all, is holy. So we think we need to be holy in order to experience it. Before that taste of Heaven can come, we think we have to make ourselves ready for it. That, obviously, is a denial that we are ready now, which is what the Course is trying to tell us. When we think we need to be holy first, we are insisting that we have made the holy creation of God unholy, and that we have to clean up the mess before we dare enter God's presence.

Wanting to make ourselves holy sounds so good! But in reality it is just the ego trying to usurp God's place again. God created us holy; there is no need to "make" ourselves anything (5:4,5). The antidote here is not to try to do something about our imagined unholiness, but simply to accept ourselves as we were meant to be (2:8,9).

Being Content With Littleness

Another way the ego tries to persuade us to stay out of the holy instant is to trick us into settling for less out of a kind of false humility (3:1,2). Sometimes the glory of the holy instant seems like such a high thing, we become convinced that in all humility we shouldn't expect to attain it. We settle for our littleness. "Littleness" is a term the Course uses for ego-identification. To be content with littleness simply means that we accept our lives the way they are. We don't expect any holy instants; much less do we expect to live a life that is one continuous holy instant. We tell ourselves, "I`m no saint. That kind of experience is not for me." According to the Course, that isn't humility, it's arrogance. It's telling God that He's wrong about us. He says we deserve the holy instant, and we deny it. He says we are ready for it, we say we're not.

We often hold back from the holy instant because we think we don't deserve it. This isn't a rare occurrence; it is a "fixed condition" of our minds (3:3-5).

The Course encourages a certain holy discontent. More than "encourages" discontent; it says it is required: "[Humility] does require that you be not content with less than greatness that comes not of you" (3:2). Our desire for the holy instant is what precedes it and readies us for it (1:1-3). We are asked not to be content with anything less than our full potential as spiritual beings, as Sons of God.

If God created us, He must have created us worthy of being His dwelling place. He created us worthy of the holy instant. Therefore, to insist that we are not worthy is nothing less than an expression of the ego's wish to be something we are not. We are worthy not because of anything we have done, neither are we unworthy because of anything we have done. What we have done or not done has nothing to do with it. We are worthy because God created us worthy. Period. We can forget those feelings of unworthiness, and just come. Because He invites us. Because He says we belong with Him in the holy instant.

Thinking We Need To Prepare Ourselves For It

Here again is the idea of making ourselves holy, but in slightly different words. We still are thinking we need to do more than be willing, but instead of thinking we need to be holy first, we disguise the idea as something more vague or more subtle. We tell ourselves that we need something to prepare ourselves for the holy instant.

I often fall into this sort of error. Sometimes my mental state seems so unholy, so dull, or so frantic that I think I have to go through some kind of preparation to be ready for the holy instant. I've gotten so far away from God that surely it is going to take a long time to "get back." I think I am too tired, or too depressed, or too agitated to seek a holy instant. I am presupposing some ill-defined sort of required preparation or adjustment before I can find the holy instant. The antidote to such thinking (or lack of it!) is that undoing illusory mental states is exactly what the holy instant is for, and there is no better place to go when my mind is like that. There is no need to prepare myself (4:3-10).

To buy into the need to prepare myself is another ego trap. It is based on the idea that achieving peace is up to me. It is another way of usurping God's function. God has established the conditions for peace; I don't have to do anything except be willing to receive it.

I do not need to make myself different, in any way, to experience God's peace. I don't have to wait for anything. I don't have to calm down first. I don't have to contribute anything to the process. That's what the ego can't accept.

To make myself different, to prepare myself somehow, would take a miracle. When I insist I'm not ready and have to change first, what I am saying is that I want to make that miracle happen myself. The holy instant is the source of miracles. When I need a miracle, the holy instant is the place to be. Waiting for a miracle before I go there is really stubborn resistance and holding on to the ego, refusing to let go of the problem by avoiding the solution.

As we go through these specific examples one by one, the meaning of realizing that we "cannot do more" than be willing is becoming obvious. Any attempt on our part to do something to make ourselves ready for the holy instant is really a way of avoiding it.

The preparation for the holy instant belongs to Him Who gives it. Release yourself to Him Whose function is release. Do not assume His function for Him. Give Him but what He asks that you may learn how little is your part, and how great is His (6:5-8).

Thinking We Must Atone For Our Sins

This is just another form of guilt, or feeling unworthy, or trying to make ourselves ready. We try to atone in many ways: making amends to a person we've wronged; weeping with remorse; meditating for an hour; punishing ourselves with sickness or sacrifice; or beating ourselves up with mental flaggelation. None of these are necessary to the holy instant. Making amends, perhaps, may be the result of the holy instant, but there is no need to atone for sins before the holy instant, and trying to do so will just keep us from it (5:6,7).

Believing We Need To Understand It First

This one is subtle. We think our understanding is "a powerful contribution to the truth" (7:5-7). We are convinced that we have to understand what the holy instant is and how it works before we can experience it. We are wrong. We don't need to understand anything! The holy instant brings peace, and understanding without peace is impossible (T-14.XI.12:4; Text, p. 278). We cannot understand truly before we experience the peace of the holy instant. Waiting for understanding is, yet again, another way the ego uses to keep us from the holy instant, another attempt to give ourselves what the holy instant gives to us.

We enter the holy instant when we accept that we do not understand anything, and ask to be taught. Trying to understand on our own is both arrogant and frustrating. We feel blocked from peace because we don't understand how to get it. We struggle, we pray, we agonize, trying to understand so we can "achieve" the holy instant. We can't understand without the Holy Spirit. We're asking the impossible of ourselves. But the holy instant "asks nothing that you cannot give right now" (7:7). Right now, any of us can recognize we don't understand and ask for understanding. Right now, any of us can say, "I am willing to have my dark thoughts removed, although I don't understand how that can happen." And that is all that is asked: desire and willingness, and even those don't have to be strong or perfect.

Thinking the Holy Instant Is Difficult

The holy instant is a big deal, true. But it isn't difficult. It isn't the province of the advanced saint of God. It is for everyone. It is accessible from the ground level; there are no stairs to climb. All that it takes is that we stop trying to achieve it and just accept it, stop trying to "do something" to make it happen and just release ourselves into the hands of the Holy Spirit. The holy instant is "so easy and so natural" (7:1).

If we think it is difficult, we have taught ourselves so (8:1). We have chosen to see it as difficult because we don't want to give up the (imagined) control of our lives to the Holy Spirit (8:2). It is a manifestation of our core belief in orders of difficulty, the first law of chaos (T-23.II.2). Seeing the holy instant as difficult—seeing anything as difficult—is a clear sign we are listening to the ego. We have identified with the ego's desire to be the "arbiter of what is possible" (8:2).

Everything necessary for the holy instant has already happened (8:4). Therefore it cannot be difficult. Nothing remains but our acceptance of it, allowing it in, opening ourselves to it; just our willingness to receive it. We see so many barriers to it. So much, we think, has happened to get in the way, but in reality it never happened. "Only in your mind, which thought it did, is its undoing needful" (8:7). And that is exactly what the holy instant does: it undoes our belief in barriers. It undoes the past in the present. It sets us free.

Thinking We Need To Tell Truth From Illusion

Our mind is full of questions such as, "How can I tell the Holy Spirit apart from my ego?" "How will I know if I really had a holy instant?" We think we have to know how to tell truth from illusion before we can recognize the holy instant. Again, it's just a delaying tactic of the ego. The Course's reply to this objection is very plain:

If you already understood the difference between truth and illusion, the Atonement would have no meaning. The holy instant, the holy relationship, the Holy Spirit's teaching, and all the means by which salvation is accomplished, would have no purpose (T-18.V.1:2,3).

In other words, teaching you the difference between truth and illusion is what the holy instant is for. If you already knew the difference, you wouldn't need the holy instant. Being unable to distinguish between truth and illusion, therefore, is not something that can keep you from the holy instant. It just shows your need of it. Once again we are trying to do for ourselves what only the holy instant can do for us. Our reason for staying out is a reason for entering in.

Trying To Evaluate Our Progress

The desire to know "How am I doing?" is another tricky way the ego gets us to buy into its thought system. Clearly it is based on the thought that I have to do something, that there is a ladder of ascent to the holy instant, that achieving the holy instant depends on my accumulation of merit or credits in the holy curriculum. There is no order of difficulty, no steps to climb. If there is no scale of progress, how can I judge my place on it?

We cannot tell the difference between advance and retreat. "Some of your greatest advances you have judged as failures, and some of your deepest retreats you have evaluated as success" (T-18.V.1:5, 6). The message is clear: Stop trying to evaluate ourselves. Just keep coming to the holy instant, and let the Holy Spirit be the judge of our advance or retreat. Stop wanting to be in charge of the class and grade ourselves; let the Teacher do His job.

The Only Requirement

The italicized statements in 5:8-13 represent the distillation of this lesson:

I who am host to God am worthy of Him.
He Who established His dwelling place in me created it as He would have it be.
It is not needful that I make it ready for Him, but only that I do not interfere with His plan to restore to me my own awareness of my readiness, which is eternal.
I need add nothing to His plan.
But to receive it, I must be willing not to substitute my own in place of it.

Recognizing that our worthiness comes from God, we make no effort to make ourselves ready for the holy instant. We accept that God created us ready. We let go of every form of doing anything; we accept that we have no contribution to make except our willingness to receive. We open our hearts to Him and say, "Yes."

And that is all. Add more, and you will merely take away the little that is asked (6:1,2).

The holy instant is for everyone. It is available now. All I need do is to desire it, and be willing for it to come to me, to be willing for the healing of my mind that it will bring. To stop all else for a moment, to be quiet within, and to say, "Come." May it be so with you. May it be so with me.

2 Comments

  1. Nicci Barker
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    my challenges seem to be less with surrendering into the holy instant, and more with remaining there. meditating this morning with lesson 209, “with quiet mind and open heart, i feel Your Love within me now”, i experienced holy moment awareness and Its flooding of Love. then the ego voice would tend to distract me with thoughts about past experience or future anticipations. this is characteristic of what happens as i remember and practice holy instant awareness throughout the day. the experience is one of a continual wandering and returning, wandering and returning. i will gently lay aside the temptation to evaluate this and the desire for understanding it, and offer in their place this: i am willing. nicci

  2. Bob Turrou
    Posted January 20, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I’ve really been wondering about how to experience the Holy Instant in the last few weeks, and this article tells me how…just be willing. Amazingly simple, but I always want to make it difficult, and, thus, it rarely happens. Just be willing and let the Holy Spirit do the rest for me. Thank you, Alan, for explaining it so well.

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