The Course tells us that its goal is true perception, which it also calls Christ's vision, or usually just vision. All our learning, all our study and practice, all our forgiveness, all our giving of miracles, is meant to bring us to the point where we see with this vision. When that happens, we are told, God will lift us into eternal knowledge, and our journey through space and time will be over, once and for all.
But what is vision? To pursue a goal, we need to have some idea of what it is. If someone tells you that you must devote all your efforts to reaching "zylopterax" (a word I just made up), how would you go about doing that? I think for most Course students, the word "vision" is a bit like "zylopterax." We tend to have very fuzzy ideas of what that means, which makes pursuing it somewhat problematic. Further, we just don't talk about it very much. Vision is a major term in the Course. Yet is it a major term in our speech about the Course?
What is vision? I have written overviews of the concept elsewhere (see Chapter 15 in Return to the Heart of God and Chapter 5 in Path of Light), but the basic idea is fairly simple. Vision is seen not with our physical eyes but with what the Course's author at first called the spiritual eye and later the eyes of Christ. These are spiritual eyes that look on a spiritual reality, one that pervades this world but generally goes unseen. Vision sees a light the body's eyes cannot see. It sees the light of holiness, the "spark of beauty," in everyone and everything. In short, wherever it looks it sees divine light. Gazing on this light, the Course says, is the happiest experience we can have in this world: "Nothing that you remember that made your heart sing with joy has ever brought you even a little part of the happiness this sight will bring you" (T-17.II.1:5).
However, when it comes to having a clear concept of vision, and one that genuinely motivates us, Course theory is not going to be as effective as actual examples. So that is what this article is about, examples of seeing with vision.
My first example comes from Beverly Brodsky. In 1970, following a motorcycle accident in which her skull was fractured in several places, she had a near-death experience (NDE), which NDE author and researcher Kenneth Ring has called "possibly the most moving [NDE] in my entire collection." This experience culminated in a profound mystical union with God:
Here, I experienced, in ineffable magnificence, communion with the light being….I was God's object of adoration; and from his/our love I drew life and joy beyond imagining. My being was transformed; my delusions, sins, and guilt were forgiven and purged without asking; and now I was love, primal being, and bliss. And, in some sense, I remain there, for Eternity. Such a union cannot be broken. It always was, is, and shall be.
In Course terms this would be an experience of knowledge—it is beyond what the Course calls vision. However, just as the Course says that the experience of knowledge "leaves a vision in our eyes which we can offer everyone" (W-pI.157.6:3), so for Beverly the aftereffect of this knowledge was a period of six months in which she saw with vision. She says,
After I had my NDE, I had a magical period of about six months where I saw things as they truly are. As Blake said, I saw the seed of love and light all around me, in everything. There was nowhere I could look that didn't contain the essence of this Being or this energy or this consciousness—however you choose to phrase it—that [I experienced] in the infinite space….I saw this in everything and everyone and everywhere. It was in every grain of sand on the beach, in every molecule in the infinite sky.
When I saw Beverly tell this story in a video online, it struck me as such a great example of Christ's vision that I wrote her and asked if she would expand on her description. She very kindly consented and wrote the following:
After my NDE from a fractured skull in a motorcycle accident, for the next six months, I remained in a state of bliss, oblivious to any pain. I saw wondrous meanings everywhere; everything was alive and full of energy and intelligence. The light and love filled every object, whether natural or man-made. I loved everybody and everything. I saw the unity and interconnectedness of all life. I saw the radiance that I experienced in my NDE in every molecule, object, and life form. Plants, stones and animals had an awareness of this connection and their inner spark of life. Even objects, like paintings and buildings, had a spark that was conveyed to them by their human creators. Only human beings were blind to this spiritual truth. I could see their thoughts, feel their feelings, and see how they veiled their divinity, muddied over with false ideas about what is important. We truly have it backwards. We are supposed to honor others, come from love, see it magnified in all of our dealings. Instead, we make people and nature into objects to be used, to glorify our egos. We buy things we don't really want, because we are told to by our culture; with money we don't really have — on credit or credit cards; to impress people we don't really care about, but rather compete against them, having the more "stuff" so that we win this crazy game. We forget that we were sent here to live, learn our lessons, and grow in compassion.
Even though this "magical period" was temporary, it left a permanent mark on her, she says:
Although in time this precious gift faded, I understand now that that's all that exists. In our fundamental nature, we are love and we are each loved and forgiven in each moment. I saw that the holy light glowed in people's hearts.
Now Beverly is not a Course student. She told me she had tried to read the Course, "but was put off by its Biblical language." Yet what she had was clearly an experience of what the Course calls vision. As she says, she saw in all things the essence of the Being she had united with in eternity. She saw that "the holy light glowed in people's hearts." She saw that the "fundamental nature" of everything is love. She described this seeing to me as an "inner knowing" (which is how the Course characterizes it), but said that it had a visual component, too: "I did actually visually see the light, and auras, and people's thoughts. So it was both an inner knowing and something visual." And actually, the Course does talk about the invisible light appearing symbolically in visual form, as "little edges of light around the same familiar objects which you see now" (W-pI.15.2:2).
Helen's subway experience
By focusing on Beverly's experience, I don't want to imply that this kind of seeing is so rare that there are hardly any examples. In fact, I think examples abound. They are generally more fleeting; they last an instant rather than six months. But what is experienced has the same essential characteristics. The experiencer sees the divine in the world, especially in other people.
We have a great example of vision straight out of the story of the Course. In Helen's subway experience (which can be found in Ken Wapnick's Absence from Felicity, pp. 52-55), which happened decades before the Course, she found herself on the subway, feeling revulsion at the sad display of humanity around her. She wrote, "Besides being dangerous, the whole situation was thoroughly revolting to me. The train smelled of garlic and peanuts, and the people crowded in with us looked dirty and shabby." Then she said, "I was finding the whole situation increasingly disgusting, and closed my eyes to shut it out, feeling sick to my stomach."
She was then unexpectedly catapulted into a profound spiritual experience (which, incidentally, contained elements clearly reminiscent of a near-death experience). She saw herself as a child walking into the light of God, bowing before Him, resting her head against an unseen knee, being embraced by a great arm, and finally disappearing into His light. Then, she reported, "The light grew even brighter, and I felt the most indescribably intense love streaming from the light to me. It was so powerful that I literally gasped and opened my eyes." So now she was face to face with the very scene she had shut out before, only now this scene had been transfigured:
I saw the light an instant longer, during which I loved everyone on the train with that same incredible intensity. Everyone there was unbelievably beautiful and incredibly dear. Then the light faded and the old picture of dirt and ugliness returned. The contrast was truly shocking. It took me several minutes to regain a semblance of composure.
This last part is what interests me here, for this was her experience of vision (her inner vision of the child and God is not really what the Course means by "vision"). The same light that had radiated from God Helen now saw on the subway train, causing her to love with "incredible intensity" the same people she had been disgusted with before. That is vision.
Examples from the Circle Course Community
Such experiences, of course, are not limited to people who have near-death experiences or who channel contemporary scriptures. In our online community, the Circle Course Community, in response to a post of mine about seeing the light in others, several members shared experiences of vision. First, Chris Crescenzi shared this experience:
It reminds me of a time when I was very disappointed at the very drunk condition of a homeless friend of mine. I was sure, very sure, he was just awful for destroying himself. I was quite self-righteous in my view even though I had done the same thing with my illness…just as destructive but less socially stigmatizing.
All of a sudden, really something came over me, time seemed to change—it slowed down and at the same time, what I saw changed. Along the contour edge of his body, there were some glistening sparkling things. They looked like star points rather than fireflies, the way they twinkled rather than flashed. This happened at dusk and the man's body seemed darker than it should have been, possibly because of the twinkling lights. His body was more like the night sky with a faint image of the body still surviving underneath, surrounded by these lights.
This sight stopped condemning words at the tip of my tongue, right at the precipice. Really, struck dumb…my judgments silenced. In place of my disappointment and disrespect, I now felt reverence. I felt as if I should kneel at his feet.
Imagine being this wonderful blessed being caught in an act, a melodrama about being an unhappy drunk on earth…folks judging him right, left…
Seeing him in this twinkling light, this altered shift in time…it was like seeing a new planet in an area of space that my telescope had honed on forever but couldn't see what was there.
In response to this, Ron Zeiler chimed in:
I had somewhat of a similar experience a few weeks ago. I passed a disheveled, dirty, street person who, I believe, had been drinking or was drunk. I wanted to see him differently and so, quite mechanically because I really didn't think it would happen, I thought, "Give me your blessing, holy Son of God," and was shocked to find myself bursting into tears because of his overwhelming beauty that I suddenly became aware of beyond his appearance. I was totally unprepared for this but found that somehow, despite the mechanical nature of my prayer and my doubts, I was blessed beyond anything I could have anticipated. Looking back on it, I must say that I am still amazed that I was shown what I hoped for, prayed for, but had little expectation of receiving. It convinced me that we are heard, and helped, even if we can muster only a little belief that we can see things differently. It reminds me of when Jesus spoke of "a little willingness." It certainly made me sit up and take notice.
Finally, we heard this from Liz Teska:
I love hearing about these experiences. I've been wondering if anyone else has things like this going on.
Mine come in waves. The last wave was 3 years ago. It started when I was in a grocery store. I was looking at the items on the shelf and a woman walked past. I was shocked by her beauty. Very intense. At first I thought it was just her. But then the next person I saw was also stunningly beautiful to me. Then I felt the waves of love wash over us. Then I look around the corner of the isle and it's not just these two people—it's everyone. I'm awed by this, but they are all pretending not to notice. Very interesting that.
The "beautiful people" experiences probably came and went for 6 months or so. I have to admit that toward the end I once stayed in a K-Mart for 3 hours just soaking it all in. I'm weird like that though.
I didn't try to do it. It seemed like a veil fell for awhile. It happens infrequently now but…I look forward to having it be the norm.
As you can see, the experiences all take different forms, but they do have certain core characteristics they share. The person suddenly sees something of the light, something of God, in others. The word "beauty" crops up repeatedly, in phrases like "unbelievably beautiful" (Helen), "overwhelming beauty" (Ron), and "stunningly beautiful" (Liz). This beauty is clearly not a physical beauty, but, you might say, a soul beauty, a beauty of the spirit. And this beauty gives rise to love. Helen said, "I loved everyone on the train with that same incredible intensity." Liz said, "I felt the waves of love wash over us." Beverly said, "I loved everybody and everything."
These experiences are clearly what the Course is talking about when it says, "Vision will come to you at first in glimpses, but they will be enough to show you what is given you who see your brother sinless" (T-20.VIII.1:1). To use the language of The Song of Prayer, these people are reaching the Christ "in lovely flashes" (S-3.II.2:3).
I am struck by the repeated references to beauty. The Course, too, associates vision with beauty, as we can see in these evocative passages:
Can you imagine how beautiful those you forgive will look to you? In no fantasy have you ever seen anything so lovely. Nothing you see here, sleeping or waking, comes near to such loveliness. (T-17.II.1:1-3)
All this beauty will rise to bless your sight as you look upon the world with forgiving eyes….The smallest leaf becomes a thing of wonder, and a blade of grass a sign of God's perfection. (T-17.II.6:1, 3)
These passages read almost as if the Course is looking over the shoulder of the people whose stories we saw above.
As you can see, experiences of vision are not rare. They are, in fact, so universal that they are actually part of the phenomenology of religious experience. There is a category of mystical experience called "extrovertive mysticism," which is contrasted with "introvertive mysticism." These terms were coined by Walter Stace in his 1960 classic, Mysticism and Philosophy. Introvertive mysticism is where the mystic's mind empties of all normal content, which includes all thoughts and all sense perception, and passes into undifferentiated unity with the One. This is what the Course would call revelation, an experience of knowledge.
Extrovertive mysticism, by contrast, involves seeing this same One as a living, holy presence in all things, and a sense that one is seeing into the real nature of things, accompanied by feelings of blessedness, joy, happiness, and peace. This is one of the examples quoted by Stace, from an American he calls N.M.:
The room in which I was standing looked out onto the back yards of a Negro tenement. The buildings were decrepit and ugly, the ground covered with boards, rags, and debris. Suddenly every object in my field of vision took on a curious and intense kind of existence of its own; that is, everything appeared to have an "inside" — to exist as I existed, having inwardness, a kind of individual life, and every object, seen under this aspect, appeared exceedingly beautiful. There was a cat out there, with its head lifted, effortlessly watching a wasp that moved without moving just above its head. Everything was urgent with life…which was the same in the cat, the wasp, the broken bottles…. All things seemed to glow with a light that came from within them.
I experienced a complete certainty that at that moment I saw things as they really were, and I was filled with grief at the realization of the real situation of human beings, living continuously in the midst of all this without being aware of it. This thought filled my mind and I wept…. I became aware that whatever it was that had been happening had now ceased to happen. I began to be aware of time again, and the impression of entering into time was as marked as though I had stepped from air into water, from a rarer into a thicker element. (Mysticism and Philosophy, pp. 71-73)
This experience, which Stace frames as a representative case of extrovertive mysticism, is clearly of the same species as our other examples. Like them, it involves a non-ordinary experience of feeling that one is seeing ordinary things and creatures glowing with an inner light, the light of God (the man told Stace, "I had no doubt that I had seen God"). And like them, seeing this light made things appear "exceedingly beautiful."
This, then, is what the Course calls vision. Just as introvertive mysticism is the same as revelation in the Course, so extrovertive mysticism is the same as vision in the Course. I think it helps to have that label. It helps to be able to point to something out there that is identical to what the Course is aiming for. The examples I've presented have that same value. The more we can point to things out there that we can call vision, the more clear and vivid and real that concept can become to us.
A composite experience of vision
In an attempt to make this concept even clearer, I have woven together a composite experience, formed from the six experiences we have seen here. Most of what you see below consists of direct quotes, though I have added or changed words for the sake of flow. It is remarkable how easily this fell together, how smoothly quotes from one experience would blend with quotes from another. And although this composite experience is necessarily more complete than any of the individual examples (with the possibly exception of Beverly's), it is surprising how many of the points below are found in two or more of our examples. To heighten the effect of reading this, I encourage you to read it as if you are the one speaking, as if, in other words, it is your experience.
- I was in a decrepit and ugly area, the ground covered with boards, rags, and debris. The people looked dirty and shabby.
- I passed a disheveled, dirty, street person who looked very drunk. I found myself judging him.
- All of a sudden, what I saw changed.
- Time also seemed to change—it slowed down.
- I was now shocked by the homeless man's overwhelming beauty, a beauty that I suddenly became aware of beyond his outer appearance. He was stunningly beautiful to me. I felt as if I should kneel at his feet.
- Along the contour edge of his body, there were some glistening sparkling things, like star points.
- Then I looked around and it wasn't just this person—it was everyone. Everyone there was unbelievably beautiful and incredibly dear.
- Indeed, everything was alive and full of energy and intelligence. Everything appeared to have an "inside" just as I do. Everything was urgent with life, which was the same in the boards, the broken bottles, the people. And every object, seen under this aspect, appeared exceedingly beautiful.
- I saw the unity and interconnectedness of all life. Plants, stones, and animals had an awareness of this connection and their inner spark of life.
- All things seemed to glow with a light that came from within them. I saw it in everything and everyone and everywhere. It was in every grain of sand, in every molecule in the infinite sky. And I saw that this holy light glowed in people's hearts.
- I recognized this radiance as the light of God. There was nowhere I could look that did not contain the essence of this Being. I had no doubt that I was seeing God.
- Then I felt the waves of love wash over us. In that instant I loved everybody and everything with incredible intensity.
- I was in a state of bliss.
- I experienced a complete certainty that at that moment I saw things as they really are. I knew that in our fundamental nature, we are love and we are each loved and forgiven in each moment.
- I felt grief at the realization of the real situation of human beings, living continuously in the midst of all this without being aware of it. I could see how they veiled their divinity, muddied over with false ideas about what is important.
- Then the light faded. I began to be aware of time again, and the impression of entering into time was as marked as though I had stepped from air into water, from a rarer into a thicker element.
Could this be what we are journeying toward? Could this be where the Course is leading us? The difference, of course, is that the Course is leading us to a place where the light will never fade.
Hopefully, we can now approach this concept with greater clarity. When we read the Course talking about vision now, we can put onto that word the words and images from the above examples. When the Workbook asks us to repeat, "Above all else I am determined to see," we can remember that this is what it means by seeing. Now when the Course promises that an ordinary table "has something to show you; something beautiful and clean and of infinite value, full of happiness and hope" (W-pI.28.5:2), we know what it is talking about. Now when the Course says that our goal is true perception, we realize it aims for us all to become extrovertive mystics.
And now we can hopefully pursue that goal with more focus and desire. After all, who could help but want the kind of experience we have just read about? In light of the examples we have seen, we can easily believe the Course when it says, "Nothing that you remember that made your heart sing with joy has ever brought you even a little part of the happiness this sight will bring you." And as the Course assures, all we need do is want vision and it will be given it. "Vision is freely given," it says, "to those who ask to see" (T-20.VIII.2:10).
I'd love to collect additional experiences of vision. They can help us make the concept even more clear and vivid to ourselves. So if you feel you have had an experience of vision, please send me your story. I will publish the stories I receive in the next issue of A Better Way. If you would like your story to appear anonymously, just let me know.