Over the years, as I have read repeatedly through the Course, I find myself taken aback by all the things that the Course tells us we do not realize or know, things such as how insane our egos are, how much we listen to them, the lack of distinction between denying God and d enying our own identity, the degree to which we have denied ourselves, and the meaninglessness of guilt. The phrase "do not realize" or "does not realize" occurs dozens of times in the Course. In addition, even more frequently, the Course refers to what we "do not know" or "do not understand."
When I began to gather these references together, a picture of profound ignorance quickly emerged.
Why does the Course place such emphasis on our ignorance? Why does it expend so much energy in telling us what we don't know, don't understand, and don't recognize? Evidently Jesus considers it quite important to convey this message to us, because he repeats it so often, and about so many different things. I would like to explore this subject with you a bit, looking first at the reasons I think this is such an important subject in the Course, and then exploring some (by no means all) of the things we are told we do not know.
Why Is Our Lack of Knowledge Mentioned So Often?
I think the general reason any teacher repeats a lesson frequently is the students have difficulty in learning it, and may even be resistant to it. The students, for a number of reasons, are unlikely to remember the lesson if it is mentioned only once. Each repetition increases the chance that the students will absorb the lesson. So the question then becomes, "Why is it so hard for us to recognize our ignorance?" I see several reasons:
We Think We Already Know
One thing we do not know is just how ignorant we are!
If we are convinced that we know something when we really do not know it at all, it becomes very difficult to get us to listen to new information on the subject. For instance, if we believe we are accomplished cooks who know exactly how to make perfect lasagna (among other things), we are very unlikely to pay attention when someone begins to explain how to make good lasagna. We don't need to listen-we know. Even if we are for some reason obligated to listen to someone's explanation of how to cook lasagna, we will have a strong tendency to tune them out and to let our minds wander to other subjects. One thing is virtually certain: If we believe we already know how to cook perfect lasagna, we will never ask anyone for advice about cooking lasagna. Why would we ask for help in doing what we already know how to do as well as-or better than-anyone else?
The Bible tells you to become as little children. Little children recognize that they do not understand what they perceive, and so they ask what it means. Do not make the mistake of believing that you understand what you perceive, for its meaning is lost to you.…Yet while you think you know its meaning, you will see no need to ask it of Him. (T-11.VIII.2:1-3,5)
In trying to teach us what we must learn to awaken to joy, innocence, and perfect peace, Jesus must overcome our reluctance to listen. The habit of tuning out what he is saying is nearly universal, and it applies to a multitude of subjects.
I know I certainly tuned out a lot of what he was saying in the Course when I first read it. The entire section about special and holy relationships, mainly Chapter 15 through 19 of the Text, meant almost nothing to me. None of what it said registered with me at all the first couple of times I read it. The reason, I believe, is that I was in what I felt was a great relationship. I didn't feel as though I needed any help with my relationships. So, as a result of thinking I already knew what I needed to know about relationships, I paid almost no attention at all to what Jesus was saying in those chapters.
I believe we are in danger of making the same mistake in many areas that the Course discusses. Each time Jesus tells us we do not know something, or do not recognize, or do not understand, we should stop and pay particular attention. Those words ought to say to us, "Stop! Pay attention! This is very important!"
Nearly everyone who reads the Course will find himself saying at some point, "Well, he says we do not know X, but he is referring to beginners, right? To people who have not really been on the spiritual path for very long? I feel as though I know X pretty well myself." For example, the Course says, "You do not realize how much you listen to your gods, and how vigilant you are on their behalf" (T-10.III.10:4). It is referring to the way we listen to the message that the ego wants us to get from sickness, for instance (that we are vulnerable, that we are bodies), or how strongly we believe that something in this material world can bring us happiness. As we read those words we may believe they don't really apply to us-that we do realize how addicted we are to the world and to the messages from our false gods. The whole reason for that statement is that we mistakenly think we do understand our addiction to the ego. Jesus says that he is instructing us in a certain way because he wants us to "realize how much of [our] thinking is ego-directed" (T-4.VI.1:4), which obviously presumes that we do not yet realize the full extent to which our minds are controlled by the ego.
I'm sure that most of us are self-aware to some degree. We realize some of the instances when our minds have been dominated by the ego. The point of these statements is that what we are aware of is only the tip of the iceberg.
Perhaps you have heard the fact that ten elevenths of an iceberg's mass is under water; only one eleventh—the tip—is above the surface. That is a pretty good example of our awareness of the ego at work in our minds. We do not realize most of the things our egos do. We do not know how much the ego runs our lives. We therefore need to stop often and look at our thoughts. Are they serving a goal of union and healing, or are they serving a goal of separation? Are they expressing love, or are they expressing some form of fear?
We Are Afraid of What We Don't Know
Another reason Jesus reminds us so often of what we do not know is that we are afraid of looking at it. Rather foolishly, we fear what lies hidden in our minds. We fear that dark closet where the ego lives. As Jesus says in Workbook Lesson 93, we think something terrible lives in us, and we shy away from it as we would from a rattlesnake.
It is rather silly to be afraid of something when you don't know what it is. Jesus points out our fear with regard to the Will of God. We do not know what it is, and we don't want to know because we are afraid we won't like it (T-11.I.10:3-5). We need to realize that we are more secure knowing the truth even if the truth is unpleasant (which it is not). But because we are afraid of what we don't know, we need to be reminded over and over of our need to uncover our ignorance and to counteract it.
We Have Overlearned the Wrong Lessons
We have thoroughly programmed our minds to believe lies. We have so completely learned the ego's lessons that we do not consider them opinions or thoughts, we just take them as given facts, the way things are. We do not question the validity of our assumptions.
I remember when I attended Antioch College, one dictum was drummed into our minds in class after class: Reevaluate your basic assumptions. What are you presuming to be true, and what reason do you have to believe in its truth? That is exactly what the Course is trying to do with our thinking: get us to reevaluate our basic assumptions.
Nearly everything we do presumes that we are bodies. Is that presumption true?
We typically make the fundamental assumption that we are separate from God and trying to find our way back. Is that true?
We assume that finding a romantic partner is good for us and very important. Is that true?
We usually take it for granted that things outside of our minds can have positive and negative effects on us. Is that true?
The Course often says that the ego's thinking is the exact opposite of the Holy Spirit's, or that it is upside down compared to the thoughts of God. Perhaps we understand that concept, but it has not penetrated into our consciousness very deeply. We don't think that our way of thinking is that radically off track. What if it is? What if we are more than mildly skewed? What if we are headed south when the truth is north?
We have been brainwashed. The characteristic of people who have been truly brainwashed is that they do not know they are brainwashed. They have become convinced that the ideas implanted in their minds by the person or agency that brainwashed them are their own ideas. They have identified with those ideas and assimilated them as part of themselves.
Years ago I listened to a lecture by Kenneth Pike, a linguist from the University of Michigan, in which he talked about cultural patterns in language. He said that everyone walks around with something like an invisible grid in their mind that filters everything they see and hear into familiar patterns. He asked us to imagine an invisible, clear plastic grid sitting on the floor. He asked us to imagine scattering sand onto that area of the floor and noticing how it was guided into certain patterns by the grid. "You know the grid must be there even though you cannot see it, because of the patterns formed by the sand."
Our minds have grids like that. He gave an example of a primitive South American tribe who worshipped the sun as their god. Christian missionaries went to talk with them about God, trying to impart what they considered to be higher concepts about God. Certainly they were more abstract concepts than the sun. But every time the missionary mentioned God, the tribespeople would reply something like this: "Ah, yes! We know that. Our father, the sun, has told us…." The missionary said the word "god" and, in the mind of the tribesman, an invisible grid made that word fall into the slot labeled "the sun."
We all have such grids, such mental filters. If you have read the Course for more than a year or two, you have probably had the experience of reading a part that you know you read once before, but finding that it contains ideas that seem completely new to you. It is as if someone crept in during the night and inserted a new page in your book! Why do you suppose that happens? I think it is because, when you first read the book, a mental grid was in place that filtered those words in such a way that the author's intended meaning was leached right out of them. It was as if you never saw them, and the ideas they contained were rerouted into familiar nuggets of meaning that didn't upset your ego. Later, after the Holy Spirit has had a chance to loosen up that grid in your mind and start to dismantle it, when you read the page the grid is not there to recategorize the ideas, and you see them as they were intended to be seen. The ideas actually are new to you, because when you read them before, your mind distorted them before they ever entered your consciousness!
We are like those tribespeople. The missionary would say, "You do not know the God I am speaking of." And the tribespeople would think, "Not know the sun? How can that be? We see it every day!" Jesus says to us, "You do not know what you are-your being, your self-fullness." And our mental grid filters those words, filling in our own ideas of what we are, and we think, "Of course I know what I am."
Because we have those mental filters and because we have so thoroughly overlearned the falsehoods, Jesus has to remind us repeatedly of what we do not know.
What We Do Not Know
I'm just going to list a few of over one hundred references in which the words "do not know" occur. I hope they will lead you to reevaluate some of your basic assumptions and to dismantle more of your personal mental grid.
We Do Not Know That We Are the Light
The Holy Spirit is in light because He is in you who are light, but you yourself do not know this. It is therefore the task of the Holy Spirit to reinterpret you on behalf of God. (T-5.III.7:6-7)
We are the light (the outshining of God's glory), and the Holy Spirit-Who is also the light and Who speaks on behalf of the light-lives in us. We do not know that. Indeed, that is the summary of our problem: We do not know that we are the light.
Consider some of the many ways in which you characterize yourself, consciously or unconsciously. Read the list in T-11.V.9:1, or the one in W-pI.35.6. You might even want to perform the practice recommended in Lesson 35. We label ourselves with some pretty low terms. Our thinking is not normally based on viewing ourselves as the light of God, or as "part of God" and "very holy" (W-pI.35.Title). The Holy Spirit has the job of reinterpreting us, replacing the demeaning and judgmental interpretations we lay on ourselves with His lofty and uplifting interpretation. When we find ourselves thinking poorly about ourselves, we need to open up to His reinterpretation, and let Him remind us that we are God's own light.
We Do Not Know That Our Thought Is Created By, and Ordered By, God
Irrational thought is disordered thought. God Himself orders your thought because your thought was created by Him. Guilt feelings are always a sign that you do not know this. (T-5.V.7:1-3)
We believe that we can think independently of God, and that we have had many thoughts God would not endorse. Therefore, believing we have thought things contrary to God's Will, we feel guilty. What we might call our normal thoughts are not ordered by God; in fact, they don't actually exist at all! The Course says that our belief in such thoughts is pure imagination and that thoughts apart from God have never really happened. When we think we are thinking such thoughts we are not thinking at all (see W pI.8.2-3 and W pI.10.3). Instead, we've gone unconscious. We've fallen into a coma in which we are having delusions of thinking disordered thoughts.
To clarify a bit more: To say that God orders all our thoughts can be taken two ways. One way would be to assume that whatever is in our minds must be ordered by God, since God orders all true thought. The Course definitely does not mean that; it is full of descriptions of the dark, ungodly contents of our minds that make up the ego's thought system. The other way would be to assume that only thoughts ordered by God are real, and that what look like thoughts in opposition to His Will must be illusions and not real thoughts at all. That is the meaning I believe the Course intends.
The same two interpretations can be seen in regard to the Course's teaching that "there is no will but God's" (W-pI.74.Title), or that we are the very Will of God. I had a delusional Christian friend once who wanted to do something quite dishonest and selfish. He insisted, "It must be God's Will, Allen, because I want to do it and my will and God's are one." He failed to see the possibility of an alternative interpretation, namely, that God's Will for him was something quite different from the course of action he believed he wanted to follow, and therefore it must be that he did not truly will that action. Rather, his desire for it was a delusion. He was resolving the dilemma of an apparent discrepancy between himself and God by making his will the primary one that defined what God's Will must be, instead of taking God's Will as the primary will that defined what his will must be.
This is how the Course would have us resolve the apparent discrepancies between our own minds and what we know of God. God is the touchstone; anything that differs from Him must be false. It does not exist.
This is particularly hard for us to accept concerning the contents of our minds. We seem to be conscious of ungodly thoughts and we bear the guilt of having them. Any time we feel guilty, it is a sign that we have been deluded into believing we have thoughts apart from God, or unlike God's, that make us unworthy of Him. We need to remind ourselves often: "My mind holds only what I think with God" (W-pI.RIV.In.2:2) because we do not know it.
We Do Not Know What We Are
God has given you a gift that you both have and are. When you do not use it, you forget that you have it. By not remembering it, you do not know what you are. (T-7.IV.6:6-8)
This is one of the main points the Course makes, and helping us to regain an awareness of our true identity is the Course's central purpose (T-9.I.2:4-5, T-16.III.4:1, and W-pI.RV.In.5:4, which says: "This course was sent to open up the path of light to us, and teach us, step by step, how to return to the eternal Self we thought we lost"). We not only don't know what we are, we don't know how much we don't know! We read the words of the Course telling us that we are God's holy Son, that our being is lofty beyond belief, and that we are not separate individuals. Yet our minds are so locked into their habitual beliefs and so immersed in our established self-concept that we simply cannot fathom the meaning of what the Course is saying.
You may think you have a fairly good idea of what the Course means when it calls us the holy Son of God, or when it says that our brothers are part of us, that we share the one Self which is Christ ( T-22.IV.7:8 and in "What is the Christ?", W-pII.6.1:1-2). I don't think our understanding comes close to the reality! Given the number of times Jesus tells us we do not know what we are, I suspect this is an area in which we are particularly prone to overestimate the extent of our knowledge. I think we still have a vast amount to learn about our true being.
To be told that my understanding is still minimal, that I don't know that much yet, or that I still have only a vague notion of the grandeur of my being, does not discourage me. In fact, it encourages me! It gives me a sense that the best is yet to come, that what I have experienced thus far of joy and peace and blessing is only a foretaste, a small sampling of what is possible-no, not possible but inevitable.
We Do Not Know What We Will
"Yet what you will you do not know" (T-11.I.8:1). Most of us are quite certain that we know what we want and what we do not want. We may not have clearly defined exactly what we want, but certainly we know that there is nothing that we want that we do not know we want! How could we possibly want something, or will it, and yet not know that we will it? It seems impossible.
You may be unsure, for instance, that you want to be in Heaven. Perhaps Heaven sounds boring to you! All that doing nothing. No excitement. Everything eternal, so nothing ever changes. Always peaceful. No bodies so no sex. There are all kinds of things in this world that we are quite sure we do want, and we are very uncertain about wanting a realm of pure, eternal spirit.
The Course teaches that we do want exactly what God wants for us; His Will is our true will. Yet we do not know that. Bit by bit, as we live in this world, we discover that the things we think will bring us happiness fail to do so. We learn that what we thought we wanted, we did not want. At the same time, as we experience holy instants of peace and love, we begin to learn that the things we were so unsure of are really what we wanted all along.
In the paragraph I just quoted, Jesus goes on to point out that having something in our mind and yet not knowing it is a perfect definition of denial. The Course asserts that our real will is perfectly aligned with the Will of God. In fact, it is nothing more or less than an extension of His Will. Our will not only agrees with God's Will, it is God's Will. "There is no will but God's" ( W-pI.74.title, W-pII.257.2:2, T-9.I.5:3, T-9.I.7:8).
If the separation never happened-as the Course insists-and we are still one with God just as He created us, then when we experience having a separate will from God's, we must be hallucinating. Of course, most of us have that experience all the time! We do not know our true will, therefore. Undoing the illusion of separate wills is another way the Course states its primary purpose for us. It wants us to realize that God's Will cannot be altered, and that His Will includes us as part of it (T-25.VII.2:8; see also T-8.II.3:6-7).
I hope these few examples of what we do not know have served to elevate your understanding of what the Course both expects and offers to you. The Course has high aims. It undertakes a radical reversal of your entire thought system. In seeking to alter your perception, it is not simply asking you to move a few feet to one side or another to get a slightly different view. Rather, it is asking you to look from a vantage point so different that it can only be described as entirely outside the universe of space and time. The Course does not want simply to shift your perception a few degrees, it wants to turn it upside down and inside out. It wants to revolutionize the way you see yourself and the world. Being asked to see one another not as bodies is just one example of how far-reaching and radical the Course is. It immediately and unavoidably collides with your typical way of seeing others.
We live as bodies in a world of bodies; we are barely cognizant that any other perception is even possible. Then comes the Course, telling us we don't know the truth about ourselves, telling us we are not what we think we are (bodies). I believe it intends to be shocking because without being shocked we would not open up to change.
I think that nearly all of us—myself included—fall into the class ascribed to "most professional therapists" in the Psychotherapy pamphlet: We "are still at the very start of the beginning stage of the first journey" (P-3.II.8:5). Rank beginners, in other words, who are barely out of the starting gate on the first lap around the track. Yet, as I've already indicated, this is not a bad thing to realize! In fact it is the key to our salvation:
…an open mind…is not shut tight against God's Voice. It has become aware that there are things it does not know, and thus is ready to accept a state completely different from experience with which it is familiarly at home. (W-pI.169.3:4-6)
You do not know the meaning of anything you perceive. Not one thought you hold is wholly true. The recognition of this is your firm beginning. (T-11.VIII.3:1-3)
The idea I am trying to convey has been best captured, perhaps, in the little book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. He points out that, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few." The drawback of thinking that you know something—that you are an expert—is that your mind is made up and closed. No question remains, and therefore, you are not open to further revelation of truth. On the other hand, one who recognizes just how much he does not know—the beginner—is open to many possibilities. He recognizes how much he is not yet aware of, and therefore is open to learn about it. Suzuki repeatedly suggests that "beginner's mind" is really a part of the highest form of enlightenment.
I believe that the Course is promoting that same childlike openness in us all, which is precisely why it keeps telling us what we do not know, recognize, realize, or understand. May we all cherish a continuing awareness of our need to be taught by our Guide.