A couple of newsletters ago (A Better Way #41), I shared a remarkable spiritual experience of mine, an experience of universal love. Recently, I had another remarkable experience, this one of the opposite end of the spectrum—what could be called an experience of universal hate. It was a terrifying encounter with the ego unmasked, the false self in me that is utterly malevolent and quite literally wants to kill me.
I would like to share this experience in the hope that, like the first one, it may be helpful to others on the path. It was certainly helpful to me. It brought with it some powerful lessons, which I will share below. Terrifying though it was, I am very grateful for this experience. It felt like a significant milestone in my journey with the Course.
The prelude: whispers of the murderer within
It all started in late May. For a couple of days, I had been experiencing vague feelings of depression and self-loathing. I'm fairly certain the trigger was a conversation I had with a friend of mine on May 24, which brought up a lot of anger and defensiveness in me. Though the conversation was outwardly amicable and the disagreements that came up in it totally resolved, my inward anger and defensiveness made me aware of just how much I attack and condemn others in my mind. I saw myself as an attacker, and that made me feel grimy and loathsome. I did Course practices to address these feelings and the thoughts behind them, and this actually helped quite a bit. But my negative feelings did not dissipate entirely.
It's not that I was walking around in abject, full-blown self-hatred. In fact, as I look over my practice notes for those days, I see that my overall mood was positive. I was definitely consciously aware of my depression and self-loathing, but I had no idea of the extent of those feelings. It was as if something dark lurked just below my awareness; there was a shark swimming in the depths of my mind, and all I was seeing was the dorsal fin breaking the surface. I had a dim sense of a vicious thought in me, a kind of malevolent force that truly hated me and literally wanted to kill me. But at the time, it wasn't very strong.
The experience: a terrifying encounter with the murderer within
That dim sense remained with me as I went to bed on May 26. I don't remember how much sleep I got, but I'll never forget that at about three o'clock in the morning, the awareness of this malevolent force hit me like a ton of bricks. There wasn't anything in particular that brought it on; it just happened. There's really no way to adequately describe it. There was just this something in me that felt like pure evil, something that was bent on destroying me. It literally wanted to stop my heart. It wanted to take control of my hands and wrap them around my throat. It was a real force—real in my experience, anyway—that gripped me with incredible intensity.
Before anyone gets too worried about my mental health here, let me assure you that I was never truly suicidal. I'm normally an upbeat, emotionally stable person who is not prone to dramatic mood swings. The "normal" part of my mind could look upon this murderous impulse from "outside" of it, as it were; the impulse did not take over my entire mind. On the contrary, it felt almost as if it were independent of my mind. I think I now understand something of what people experience in cases of apparent demon possession. I didn't think I was really being taken over by a demon—as a Course student, I immediately identified this apparently demonic force as a product of my own mind, my ego unmasked. But it felt like something from outside my mind, and it was truly terrifying.
I had to do something to assuage my terror. So, I did various Course practices and called upon God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit for help. I don't remember every single practice I did, but I definitely remember saying, "Help me, Father," "Steady my feet, my Father" (based on W-pI.rV.In.2:1), "Help me, Holy Spirit," "Help me, Jesus," "There is nothing to fear" (W-pI.48.Heading), and "God is but Love, and therefore so am I" (W-pI.rV.In.4:3). Unfortunately, nothing really seemed to work.
As I was doing all this, I remembered the Course's idea that the ego really wants to kill us. I also remembered the idea from Lesson 196 that we will one day see the murderer within us—the ego as it really is—totally unmasked. It occurred to me that this was exactly what I was experiencing right now. I felt prompted to read some of this material, so I turned on my lamp, picked up my Course, and began to read. I read (T-13.I-II), which discusses how we believe that we have crucified the Son of God. It says that "the ego does want to kill you, and if you identify with it you must believe its goal is yours" (T-13.II.5:6). I also read Lesson 196, "It can be but myself I crucify," which says that our attacks on others in the name of "self-defense" lead to our fear of crucifixion at the hands of God and the world. I had read this material many times before, but it spoke directly to my experience now in a way it never had before.
The material that hit home for me the most began with paragraph 10 of Lesson 196. I'll quote the most relevant lines here:
There is an instant in which terror seems to grip your mind so wholly that escape appears quite hopeless. When you realize, once and for all, that it is you you fear, the mind perceives itself as split. And this had been concealed while you believed attack could be directed outward, and returned from outside to within….
Now, for an instant, is a murderer perceived within you, eager for your death, intent on plotting punishment for you until the time when it can kill at last. (W-pI.196.10:1-3,11:1)
I was stunned by these words, because they described precisely what I was experiencing at that moment. I was immersed in that "instant in which terror seems to grip your mind." My mind felt split between a terrified "me" and a homicidal maniac out to get "me." I was face to face with a murderer within me, bent on my death.
But the lesson went on to say that this grim encounter was not a bad thing at all. On the contrary, this terrifying instant had a priceless gift to give me, if I was open to receiving it:
Yet in this instant is the time as well in which salvation comes. For fear of God has disappeared. And you can call on Him to save you from illusions by His Love, calling Him Father and yourself His Son. Pray that the instant may be soon,—today. Step back from fear, and make advance to love. (W-pI.196.11:2-6)
My perception of the experience really began to shift as I read this. This passage was tremendously reassuring. It told me that what I was going through was a precious opportunity, because getting in touch with the fearsome murderer within me opened the door for God to heal me with His Love. This experience was not one the Course wanted me to avoid, but one it wanted me to have soon—today. Well, I was having it today. So, I tried to take advantage of the opportunity. I tried to do exactly what this passage instructed me to do: call on God's Love to save me from this terrifying but illusory murderer. And while my earlier calls for help had seemed ineffective, this time I felt a glimmer of a response. My practicing was finally beginning to work.
It was clear from this lesson that my attacks on others were what gave birth to and sustained this murderer within. This whole experience was tied in directly with the depression and self-hatred I had been feeling the past few days, since those feelings came directly from my attacking and condemning others. Whatever benefits I thought my attacks brought me, my current experience was their actual result. And I didn't want this result, to say the least. I now had all the incentive in the world to stop attacking others and set my murderous ego aside.
I prayed about this to Jesus, and this was exactly the message I got: "Give up your attacks on others. This experience you are having is what your attacks on others really bring you. This is their actual result, all the time, whether you are aware of it or not. It is a blessing for you to experience this, because now you know what you're really giving yourself when you attack and condemn others. Never forget this. You now have all the reason in the world to give up attack."
Now, I was actually thankful for the experience, even in the midst of it. I was still highly aware of that murderer within, though the terror had dissipated somewhat as a result of my reading, repetitions, and prayers. It was as if my practicing allowed me to look upon the experience from even farther "outside" of it than before. More and more, I was finding a place of refuge at the center of my being. More and more, I was feeling God's answer to my call on His Love.
So, I expressed my gratitude to God for His Love. I also continued to practice as the experience went on. I used some of the same lines as before, and added things like "Thank you, God, for showing me this," "My ego may want to kill me, but I am not an ego," "My ego is an attacker, but I am not," "This murderous impulse is an illusion that cannot harm me at all," and "This will disappear when I stop attacking others." In addition, when I had turned to Lesson 196, I had stumbled upon the Lesson 198 practice along the way: "Only my condemnation injures me. Only my own forgiveness sets me free" (W-pI.198.9:3-4). This really appealed to me, so I started repeating it over and over. With this constant repetition going through my mind, the experience finally dissipated enough for me to go to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I read Lessons 196 and 198, and decided to use them both as the basis for the day's practice. From Lesson 196, I picked various lines from the paragraphs that discuss the experience of the murderer within (paragraphs 10-12), and adapted them to suit my needs. One line I used was "Father, I call on You to save me from illusions by Your Love" (based on W-pI.196.11:4). From Lesson 198, I used the practice lines quoted above: "Only my condemnation injures me. Only my own forgiveness sets me free" (W-pI.198.9:3-4). I used these practices during my quiet time, and many times during the day.
I also felt prompted to bring to mind various people whom I had been attacking, and extend forgiveness to them. This felt like the perfect thing to do, since attacking others is what feeds that inner murderer and sustains its killing spree, while forgiving them is what starves it until it can kill no more. So, I pulled out my favorite forgiveness practices and applied them to people against whom I had been holding grievances. I said things to them like "Awake and be glad, for all your sins have been forgiven you" (P-3.II.4:10), "You are the holy Son of God Himself" (W-pI.191.6:1), "Light and joy and peace abide in you. Your sinlessness is guaranteed by God" (W-pI.93.11:3-4), and "Your holiness gives life to me" (based on T-26.I.7:2). The goal I wrote down for the day was "to stop crucifying myself by withdrawing my attacks on others, and forgiving them instead."
Over the next few days, the sense of that murderer within me remained, but gradually faded away. My guess is that this was due partly to all the forgiveness practice I was doing, and partly to my denial mechanisms clicking back into place. I don't think anyone could tolerate the full experience of his or her ego unmasked for too long. I'm sure this experience will come to me again at later stages of my journey, whenever I am ready for it again. But I know now that whether I'm consciously experiencing it or not, that murderer is still down there, feeding off of my every attack on others. I try to remember that when I am tempted to attack.
The lessons: benefits of encountering the murderer within
As I've said, I am now very grateful for this experience. Like the universal love experience I had before, this one taught me a number of valuable lessons. As I reflect on what it taught me, three lessons stand out.
1. The Course's descriptions of the ego and its pure malevolence are really true.
Just as my earlier experience confirmed what the Course says about the sheer joy and love of true perception, so this later experience has confirmed what it says about the sheer insanity and hatred of the ego. Just as the Course's account of our light is true, so is its account of our darkness. This is a crucial lesson for me. I think most if not all Course students tend to minimize and soften the Course's statements about the ego's malevolence. I've done that as much as anyone. Surely, we think, it can't be that bad. Surely Jesus is engaging in a bit of hyperbole when he says all that grim, gory stuff about the ego. Maybe he's doing it for dramatic effect, making it sound worse than it really is to shock us into changing our minds.
But all that material about the murderous ego is no longer just abstract theory or vivid literature to me—what it talks about is now part of my practical experience. Those graphic descriptions of the ego's madness are not hyperbole, but dead—on accurate descriptions of the force that actually drives our lives most of the time. Jesus really means what he says. However illusory it is, that shark is really swimming down there in the depths of our minds, and he's out for blood. Over the years, a number of Course students have asked me if I have ever really experienced the grim ego stuff the Course talks about. Now, I can unequivocally say yes.
A brief aside concerning the truth of the Course's descriptions: As I compare my experience of the murderer within to that passage in Lesson 196, I am truly amazed at how well that passage matches my experience. I'm amazed that my experience is described perfectly by something Jesus dictated to Helen over thirty years ago. This demonstrates to me that when Jesus says in the Course that certain things will happen to us as we progress on the path, he means it very literally. He is describing quite precisely what will happen to us at various stages. Often, as in Lesson 196, he also gives us specific instructions for what to do when those things happen. Jesus has the entire map of the journey in his mind, and he has laid it all out for us in detail.
2. I have every reason in the world to forgive my brothers. It is totally in my self-interest to do so.
Just as my earlier experience gave me an incentive to forgive others because it feels so good to do so, so this later experience has given me an incentive to forgive others because it feels so bad not to do so. This, too, is a crucial lesson for me. In the Course's view, seeing plainly the stark contrast between the joy of the spirit and the pain of the ego is the key to salvation, and that contrast is much clearer to me now. My experience of the ego unmasked has given me ample reason to give up attack. I don't want a murderer within me—especially one that wants to murder me—and the only way to let that murderer go is for me to stop attacking and condemning others.
Unfortunately, I must admit that I haven't entirely given up attack, which shows just how committed to my ego I really am. But this experience has definitely soured me on the ego to some extent. I feel that I'll never attack with quite the same relish again. Giving up attack is not a sacrifice for the sake of being a good person, but a way to free myself from guilt, fear, and pain. Putting both experiences together, I now know both how desirable God's Love is and how undesirable the ego's attack is. How can I not eventually succeed with motivation like this?
3. Practice really works.
Finally, just as my earlier experience came as a result of intensified Course practice, so this later experience did also. In April, I started using a structured checklist for my practicing, and from then on, my practice really took off. I was doing much more than I had before. I'm sure it is no coincidence that this dramatic experience came on the heels of a couple of months of greatly increased practice. Once again, I feel that I have received confirmation of what the Course says about its entire program: "If you do it, you will see that it works" (T-9.V.9:2).
It may seem that a terrifying experience of a bloodthirsty murderer within is hardly evidence that Course practice really works. But it is. For the Course's path is not just about giving us glorious experiences of love and light, as wonderful and necessary as those are. It is also about bringing us face to face with the dark motives which drive our lives, but which stay safely hidden under multiple layers of denial most of the time. It is about learning what we really want through experiencing both the spirit and the ego as they really are.
The experience I've described here was not pleasant to say the least, but I consider it a real gift. I thank God that I was given a brief glimpse of what my attacks on others and myself have truly wrought, for now that I have seen it, I have the power to do something about it. As Lesson 196 concludes, seeing that "it can be but myself I crucify" (W-pI.196.Heading) is not a curse, but a blessing. Seeing the murderer within reveals the savior within. And that is cause for great rejoicing:
How kind and merciful is the idea we practice! Give it welcome, as you should, for it is your release. It is indeed but you your mind can try to crucify. Yet your redemption, too, will come from you. (W-pI.196.12:3-6)