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One of the most radical teachings of A Course in Miracles is that "It is your thoughts alone that cause you pain" (W-pI.190.5:1), and the joy of God is the only thing that's real. This sounds wonderful in theory, since it offers us the possibility of exchanging pain for joy by changing our thoughts. But as we go through life enduring one seemingly intractable pain after another, this idea becomes more and more difficult to believe. When you're in pain, it feels so compellingly real, an inevitable consequence of life on earth. How can it be only a product of your own mind? Yet as difficult as this idea is to believe, we do have evidence that points in its direction. For instance, I read recently about a man who used hypnosis to go through a surgery painlessly, without chemical anesthesia of any kind.
The man is Alex Lenkei, a 61-year-old British hypnotist who has been practicing his art since age 16. He needed surgery on his hand to improve his arthritis, and he asked his doctor, Dr. David Llewellyn-Clark, if he could undergo the procedure without anesthetic. Llewellyn-Clark agreed, though he kept an anesthetist in the room as a precaution. This operation was not a minor affair involving a few stitches; it involved sawing bone and fusing joints together and lasted eighty-three minutes. Yet simply through using a hypnosis technique that enabled him to enter a deep state of relaxation, Lenkei says the operation "went amazingly well….I was aware of everything around me, from people talking and at one stage a hammer and chisel was used as well as a surgical saw, but I felt no pain."
This is an unusual occurrence these days, but it is not at all unprecedented. In fact, according to an amazing book I'm reading entitled Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the Twenty-First Century, hypnosis was the anesthetic technique of choice before chemical anesthesia became available. (And I thought all they had was a shot of whiskey and chomping on a piece of wood.) One doctor alone performed nearly three hundred surgeries using hypnosis as anesthetic. And there are well-documented cases of this technique being used successfully in countless surgeries of even the most extreme kinds: mastectomy, tooth extraction, limb amputation, tumor removal, eye surgery, and much more. Not only did the patients often report no subjective sense of pain, but in a number of cases even objective indicators of pain like changes in heart rate, breathing, pupil dilation, and galvanic skin response were absent. In these cases, what's going on is clearly more than just the mind somehow ignoring the pain signals coming from the body; the signals themselves seem to be absent.
Could it be possible, then, that physical pain isn't physical in origin, but is instead solely a product of the mind? This is what A Course in Miracles claims:
Pain is a wrong perspective. When it is experienced in any form, it is a proof of self-deception. It is not a fact at all. There is no form it takes that will not disappear if seen aright. (W-pI.190.1:1-4)
It is your thoughts alone that cause you pain. Nothing external to your mind can hurt or injure you in any way. (W-pI.190.5:1-2)
According to the Course's logic, pain simply can't be a real physical phenomenon. Why? Because God is Love, and a loving God would never permit pain to be real. "For pain proclaims God cruel. How could it be real in any form?" (W-pI.90.1:5-6). If we could suffer real pain, it would mean that God was punishing us for our sins. But He knows we're sinless, so pain is causeless and cannot really exist. The Course is adamant that a loving God and pain simply cannot coexist: "If God is real, there is no pain. If pain is real, there is no God. For vengeance is not part of love" (W-pI.190.3:3-5). God is certainly real in the Course's view, so there is only one possible conclusion: Since the God of Love is real, the vengeance of pain must not be.
Pain, then, is nothing more than "proof of self-deception," as the first block quote above says. "Pain is but witness to the Son's mistakes in what he thinks he is" (W-pI.190.2:3). It is our own mind's self-inflicted punishment for our supposed sins. "It is a dream of fierce retaliation for a crime that could not be committed…. a nightmare of abandonment by an Eternal Love" (W-pI.190.2:4-5). It is the ego's twisted way of pushing the God of Love away.
This is ultimately good news, though, for if pain is a nightmare conjured up by our own minds, we have the power to undo it simply by changing our minds. The removal of surgical pain by hypnosis gives us concrete evidence that the mind has far more power over pain than we realize. But to really undo pain permanently, we'll have to train our minds in a much more fundamental way. We'll have to undo the entire insane thought system that generates pain, the thought system that says we are sinners in the hands of an angry God, subject to cruel and all-too-usual punishment for the crimes that in our eyes have indeed been committed.
That is what the Course's path aims to do. It trains our minds in a systematic way to bring us gradually to a glorious realization: that God is Love, we who are His beloved creations are wholly sinless, and therefore only joy is real. Let us lay down the ego's bitter defenses against His Love and come to the quiet place within us where salvation from every kind of pain awaits:
Here will you understand there is no pain. Here does the joy of God belong to you. This is the day when it is given you to realize the lesson that contains all of salvation's power. It is this: Pain is illusion; joy, reality. Pain is but sleep; joy is awakening. Pain is deception; joy alone is truth. (W-pI.190.10:1-6)