Question: The Course tells us that communication must be unlimited. Does this mean that we have to tell everyone all of our private thoughts? Is Jesus speaking here of something akin to the Christian idea of confession?
Short answer: No, unlimited communication doesn't mean that we must tell everyone all of our private thoughts. "Unlimited communication," as the Course uses the phrase, means the unlimited mind-to-mind sharing (with God and with our brothers) of God-inspired thoughts, thoughts which are unlimited: love, peace, joy, etc. Thus the Course's concept of unlimited communication has nothing to do with the Christian idea of confessing our "sins" to one another or to a priest. However, such confession (telling our ego thoughts and deeds to another person) may serve a useful healing purpose when truly motivated by love and guided by the Holy Spirit.
What is communication?
This whole issue of unlimited communication and its relationship with our private thoughts can be awfully confusing. To make sense of it all, I'd like to start with a few general principles centered around the Course's idea of "communication":
In Heaven, we are in full, direct communication with God and with all our brothers.
True communication is an attribute of Heaven. It is the direct, unmediated, unlimited mind-to-mind sharing of knowledge and all that comes with it—love, peace, joy, etc.—between all minds in Heaven: the Mind of God and the minds that make up the Sonship. The following quotes give us a sense of what true communication in Heaven is like:
[Spirit] is in complete and direct communication with every aspect of creation, because it is in complete and direct communication with its Creator. This communication is the Will of God….God created every mind by communicating His Mind to it, thus establishing it forever as a channel for the reception of His Mind and Will. Since only beings of a like order can truly communicate, His creations naturally communicate with Him and like Him (T-4.VII.3:4-5,7-8).
Communication is perfectly direct and perfectly united. It is totally free, because nothing discordant ever enters. That is why it is the Kingdom of God. It belongs to Him and is therefore like Him (T-7.II.7:7-10).
The separation was a disruption of this communication. The ego invented earthly forms of "communication" in order to maintain the separation.
The Course tells us that "the separation was not a loss of perfection, but a failure in communication" (T-6.IV.12:5). This quote speaks volumes about the real nature of the separation. It wasn't a real parting from God in which we lost our innate perfection. We are still with God and still perfect; it's just that part of our mind stopped communicating with Him. That part of our mind is, of course, the ego. It disrupted communication with God, and in order to continue that disruption, invented its own forms of "communication," forms which actually disrupt communication even while appearing to engage in it:
The ego is thus against communication, except insofar as it is utilized to establish separateness rather than to abolish it. The communication system of the ego is based on its own thought system, as is everything else it dictates. Its communication is controlled by its need to protect itself, and it will disrupt communication when it experiences threat (T-4.VII.2:2-4).
Among the forms of "communication" the ego invented to disrupt true communication are the body and human language:
The body is a limit imposed on the universal communication that is an eternal property of mind (T-18.VI.8:3).
Words…were made by separated minds to keep them in the illusion of separation (M-21.1:7).
These forms of "communication," then, were invented by the ego to limit our unlimited communication with God and our brothers. When used by the ego, earthly forms of "communication" actually lead to separation rather than joining.
God gave us the Holy Spirit as a Communication Link to restore partial communication between Him and His Sons. The Holy Spirit uses the things the ego invented to disrupt communication as means to restore communication.
In answer to our disruption of communication, God gave us the Holy Spirit, "the Communication Link between God the Father and His separated Sons" (T-6.I.19:1). The Holy Spirit's job is to keep the communication channel between God and His Sons open, even as we try to keep it closed. Since the Holy Spirit uses everything the ego made to serve His goals, He uses all the separation devices the ego invented to disrupt communication as means to restore communication:
You have regarded the separation as a means for breaking your communication with your Father. The Holy Spirit reinterprets it as a means of re-establishing what was not broken, but has been made obscure (T-14.VI.5:1-2).
Thus the Holy Spirit gives the body and human language the purpose of restoring communication:
Remember that the Holy Spirit interprets the body only as a means of communication. Being the Communication Link between God and His separated Sons, the Holy Spirit interprets everything you have made in the light of what He is. The ego separates through the body. The Holy Spirit reaches through it to others (T-8.VII.2:1-3).
You who speak in dark and devious symbols do not understand the language you have made. It has no meaning, for its purpose is not communication, but rather the disruption of communication. If the purpose of language is communication, how can this tongue mean anything? Yet even this strange and twisted effort to communicate through not communicating holds enough of love to make it meaningful if its Interpreter [the Holy Spirit] is not its maker….Leave what you would communicate to Him. He will interpret it to you with perfect clarity, for He knows with Whom you are in perfect communication (T-14.VI.6:1-4,6-7).
The Holy Spirit uses the communication devices invented for separation to communicate the earthly reflections of God's Love—forgiveness, true perception, healing, etc.—so that we will one day be restored to full communication with each other and with God.
Strictly speaking, only thoughts that come from God can be truly communicated. Ego-based thoughts can be "shared" in a sense, but this is not true communication because it leads to separation rather than joining.
As we can see, from the Course's standpoint true communication is the sharing of God-inspired thoughts, not the false "communication" of the ego. "You can share only the thoughts that are of God and that He keeps for you" (T-5.IV.3:8). But don't we share our ego-based thoughts too? We seem very good at communicating our fear, anger, and attack to each other! The Course addresses this objection directly in the following passage:
Perhaps you think that fear as well as love can be communicated; and therefore can be shared. Yet this is not so real as it may appear. Those who communicate fear are promoting attack, and attack always breaks communication, making it impossible (T-6.V(A)5:6-8).
Here we see that we can communicate ego-based thoughts in a limited sense—the final sentence here does refer to "those who communicate fear." I think this refers to communication in the ordinary sense of the word: we can obviously convey fear to another person through our thoughts, words, and actions. But this is the ego's false "communication," which promotes attack and therefore serves to break true communication.
This distinction between false and true communication allows us to make sense of quotes like the following: "Even the mad idea of separation had to be shared before it could form the basis of the world I see" (W-pI.54.1:3). Yes, we can and do "share" all sorts of ego-based thoughts with one another. Our minds are joined. "There are no private thoughts" (W-pI.19.2:3). My ego thoughts reinforce the ego thoughts of other minds: "My thoughts of separation call to the separation thoughts of others" (W-pI.54.1:6).
But this "sharing" is only the ego's false "communication," the sharing of illusions: "Yet that sharing [of the mad idea of separation] was a sharing of nothing" (W-pI.54.1:4). Sharing of nothing is not true sharing. True sharing is the sharing of our real thoughts, God-inspired thoughts. Sharing these thoughts is true communication, because it leads to joining rather than separation.
Unlimited communication does not mean telling everyone our private thoughts.
Keeping these general principles in mind helps us make sense of passages like this one:
The body is the symbol of the ego, as the ego is the symbol of the separation. And both are nothing more than attempts to limit communication, and thereby to make it impossible. For communication must be unlimited in order to have meaning, and deprived of meaning, it will not satisfy you completely. Yet it remains the only means by which you can establish real relationships, which have no limits, having been established by God (T-15.IX.2:3-6).
If we aren't aware of what the Course means by "communication," we could easily take the statement that "communication must be unlimited" to mean that we must tell each other everything that crosses our minds—we need to "let it all hang out." But a closer examination reveals that this is not the case, especially when we place the passage in its immediate context. This passage occurs in the context of a discussion of the holy instant, an instant which, we are told, "is a time in which you receive and give perfect communication" (T-15.IV.6:5), an instant in which we leave our ego and body temporarily behind and enter into true joining ("real relationships") with our brothers and with God. As long as we identify with the ego, we will greatly resist the holy instant because the ego (and its instrument, the body) attempts to limit communication. This attempt to limit communication makes real communication impossible, and so it prevents us from experiencing the unlimited communication of the holy instant, which alone can truly satisfy us.
It is thus apparent that when this passage speaks of unlimited communication, it can't mean the unlimited verbal pouring out of every thought we have, including all of our ego and body thoughts. We know this because we've just been told that the ego and the body are attempts to limit communication and make it impossible. Unlimited communication, then, is communication that is beyond the body and beyond the ego—in other words, mind-to-mind communication of God-inspired thoughts, the kind of communication given and received in the holy instant, which restores our real relationships with each other and with God.
What, then, of the Course's idea that harboring private thoughts prevents us from experiencing full communication, as discussed in this passage:
How can you do this [enter the holy instant] when you would prefer to have private thoughts and keep them? The only way you could do that would be to deny the perfect communication that makes the holy instant what it is. You believe you can harbor thoughts you would not share, and that salvation lies in keeping thoughts to yourself alone. For in private thoughts, known only to yourself, you think you find a way to keep what you would have alone, and share what you would share. And then you wonder why it is that you are not in full communication with those around you, and with God Who surrounds all of you together (T-15.IV.7:1-5).
This passage does suggest that the desire to hold onto private thoughts keeps us from experiencing "full communication," which might lead one to think that we must tell everyone our private thoughts in order to restore full communication. But again, this is not the case if we look more closely. First off, this passage, like the previous one, is in the context of a discussion of the holy instant; it specifically deals with the blocks we erect to keep ourselves from experiencing the holy instant. Thus "full communication" here doesn't refer to full verbal disclosure, but to the "perfect communication" experienced when we share a holy instant. Second, the specific block being pinpointed here is not the existence of private thoughts per se, but our desire to hold onto private thoughts—our preference "to have private thoughts and keep them." Because of this desire, we deny the real communication experienced in the holy instant, and deceive ourselves into believing that we can have private thoughts. We try to find salvation by withdrawing into a private world of private thoughts, which is impossible since, as we saw above, "There are no private thoughts." It is this desire, rather than simply refraining from verbal sharing, that prevents us from experiencing full communication with our brothers and with God.
How, then, can we resolve this dilemma of our desire for private thoughts preventing us from experiencing the perfect communication of the holy instant? The Course tells us how two paragraphs later, and the solution offered here is not verbal disclosure of private thoughts:
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….In your practice, then, try only to be vigilant against deception, and seek not to protect the thoughts you would keep to yourself. Let the Holy Spirit's purity shine them away, and bring all your awareness to the readiness for purity He offers you (T-15.IV.9:1-2,8-9).
The first sentence here tells us a little more about the nature of the "private thoughts" referred to in this section: they are our impure thoughts, our ego thoughts. But simply having such thoughts is not the problem—the desire to keep them is. So, in order to experience the holy instant, we must relinquish our desire to keep our private ego thoughts—we need to stop protecting "the thoughts you would keep to yourself." The rest of this passage tell us how, and it's not by telling those thoughts to everyone. Rather, we are to practice being vigilant against our desire to keep our impure thoughts, ready ourselves to have them undone, and let the Holy Spirit's purity shine them away.
The reference to practice, I think, is significant. We are really supposed to practice this. And the practice given here is very consistent with the practices given in the Workbook. The Workbook never advocates telling all of our private ego thoughts to everybody. It never says anything like, "If you are angry with your brother, communicate your feelings to him immediately." Instead, it has us immediately do a practice that will allow the Holy Spirit to remove the anger from our minds, as in the following practice instruction from Lesson 93:
Should you be tempted to become angry with someone, tell him silently:
Light and joy and peace abide in you.
Your sinlessness is guaranteed by God (W-pI.93.11:2-4).
Thus I don't think the Course is advocating spilling all of our private thoughts to people. What, then, should we say to people? The Course's basic rule on this is clear: Let the Holy Spirit tell you what to say. As a line quoted above put it, "Leave what you would communicate to Him." He knows who needs to hear what. While it's true that there are no private thoughts and so everything we think is being received by everyone at some level, I think it's equally true that there are all sorts of thoughts that He would not have us verbally share with everyone. There are many cases where doing so simply wouldn't be loving, and His sole purpose for words is to communicate love. For example, I think He's unlikely to tell us to share with everyone the intimate details of our sex lives. I doubt that He's going to tell a priest, except in the rarest of instances, to reveal something said to him under the seal of confession. He would never have us verbally attack others, which would simply reinforce our anger toward them (as mentioned above, He would have us do a Course-based practice instead).
The Course's issue with private thoughts, then, is not primarily whether we tell them to someone or not. The Holy Spirit will tell us when it is appropriate to do so. What the Course is primarily concerned about is our desire to hold onto private thoughts, ego thoughts which keep us locked in our own separate worlds, thoughts which disrupt and limit true communication. It would have us relinquish this desire and relinquish those ego thoughts, so that true communication can be restored.
What about the Christian idea of confession? Is there any positive purpose for verbally sharing our ego-based thoughts and deeds with one another or with a priest?
I think it is pretty clear by now that when Jesus speaks of unlimited communication, he is not talking about the Christian idea of confession, as exemplified in the Apostle James' admonition to "confess your sins to one another" (James 5:16), and the Catholic sacrament of confession to a priest. Unlimited communication means the sharing of God's unlimited love, not the confession of every ego-based ("sinful") thought. Yet as I said above, the Holy Spirit will tell you what to say, and to whom. And just as He would have you refrain from verbally sharing certain things if to do so would be unloving, I think that He would also guide you to reveal certain things, even ego-based thoughts, if the purpose for doing so is truly loving.
In other words, I do think that there are times when He would have us confess our ego thoughts (and the acts that stem from such thoughts) to one another. There are times when doing so can serve a truly loving purpose. The following are some situations where I think confession of our ego thoughts and deeds can be helpful, if done in harmony with the Holy Spirit's healing purpose. While I'll draw from the Course to support my comments when I can, this discussion is based more my own personal experience:
Confessing negative thoughts and feelings about a person to that person
This one has to be handled very carefully because, as I said above, I don't think the Holy Spirit would have us spew our anger at each other. The manner in which we normally share our negative thoughts and feelings with each other has a way of reinforcing them. It is usually an attack that involves blaming the other person for our negative feelings and demanding that the other person change so we can be happy.
Yet I do think that there is a loving way to share such feelings, and that such sharing can at times be helpful. To give a personal example, when I am angry with my wife, I've found that it's usually a good idea to admit it to her. She can usually tell anyway, since I'm really no good at hiding it, so I might as well be honest about it. But I try my best to share my anger in a way that does not blame her for it; I try to make it clear that I'm taking full responsibility for my anger, and that I'm making a commitment to practice with my anger so that it can be undone. This commitment to withdrawing blame and letting the anger be undone sets this kind of sharing apart from the usual broadside attack that often passes for "honest communication."
I think that the greatest value of this kind of sharing is the honesty of it. I think it is very easy for us as Course students to pretend that our negative thoughts and feelings aren't there—to use the Course's teaching that the ego is unreal to deny what our egos are doing, which the Course tells us is an inappropriate use of denial (see T-2.VII.5:5-6). We can be so adept at fooling ourselves. We can bury our resentment toward other people under a smiling facade, which usually does a better job of fooling us than it does of fooling them.
Sometimes I'm not really aware of the extent of my feelings until I've talked about them. Confessing my negative thoughts and feelings in a blame-free manner gives me the opportunity to face them squarely, without deception. It gives the other person (my wife, for example) an opportunity to do the same, if she is open to it. She can honestly examine her impact on me (her thoughts, words, and actions do not cause my anger, but they may influence it—they may play a role in reinforcing it), and confront her own reactions to my anger. And this kind of self-honesty—looking at our negative thoughts and feelings squarely, without hiding anything—is highly valued by the Course. Honestly acknowledging such thoughts and feelings is the first step to having them undone through forgiveness.
Confessing mistakes to a person who has been harmed by our mistakes
We all do things that harm others, either inadvertently or on purpose. In such cases, I've found that honestly admitting my mistake to the person I've wronged and doing what I can to correct it is very powerful, besides being simply the kind and honorable thing to do. Two of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are devoted to this process of "making amends," which has proven to be a vital part of the healing process for alcoholics and others whose addictions have brought a great deal of pain and suffering to those affected by them. Of course, this can be done in the wrong spirit: we can make our mistakes into "sins" and use "confession" as a way of reinforcing guilt. But apologizing and making amends when we've made a mistake, if done in the right spirit, is simply one of the ways that love and forgiveness are exchanged in this world. It can heal wounds and restore relationships. Admitting mistakes is honest, and it gives everyone involved an opportunity to forgive.
Confessing negative thoughts, feelings, and acts to a trusted friend, therapist, minister, or priest
Confessing the things we think of as our "sins" to a trusted friend can open the door to healing. It is a way of becoming more honest, as discussed above, and can also a wonderful way of experiencing forgiveness. I have had the blessing of such friends in my own life. When I tell a trusted friend what is really going on in my life, warts and all, this friend can extend forgiveness to me by listening without judging and letting me know that my "sins" do not affect his love for me in any way. I can, of course, do the same for him.
The Course tells us that Jesus himself can be this trusted friend, if we will invite him into our life:
It is possible to read his [Jesus'] words and benefit from them without accepting him into your life. Yet he would help you yet a little more if you will share your pains and joys with him, and leave them both to find the peace of God (C-5.6:6-7).
Jesus is inviting us to share our lives with him completely—our pain, our guilty secrets, and our earthly "joys," all of which stand in the way of the peace of God. He is asking us to be totally honest with him, "for we must hide nothing from each other" (T-4.III.8:2). If we are willing to share all of our "sins" with him, his boundless forgiveness can shine them away.
We can also share our pains and joys, of course, with a healing professional: a therapist, a minister, or a priest. According to the Psychotherapy supplement, forgiveness is the function of the psychotherapist: "The process that takes place in this relationship [between therapist and patient] is actually one in which the therapist in his heart tells the patient that all his sins have been forgiven him, along with his own" (P-2.VII.3:1). We can see how this might work in a real-life therapeutic relationship. In many forms of psychotherapy, a patient spends a lot of time "confessing" his problems, hang-ups, neuroses, dreams, dark fantasies, etc. to the therapist. Uncovering such things is an important part of therapy. But the therapist's real job, according to the Psychotherapy supplement, is to listen to all of this without judgment and, in her heart, let the patient know that none of this has had any effect on his true Self—he is forgiven.
I suspect that this experience of forgiveness is at the heart of the Catholic sacrament of confession. I think there are certain things about this sacrament that the Course would take issue with—the Course tends to frown on ritual, and it would definitely not be too fond of the idea of doing "penance." But it seems to me (a non-Catholic) that at its heart the sacrament of confession is an opportunity to be honest about one's "sins" with someone (the priest, a representative of God), and then hear that someone say, "Your sins are forgiven." You enter the confessional a sinner, but leave with God's blessing. I can see that such an experience could be very healing.
The positive use of confession: honesty which leads to forgiveness
The sense that I get from examining these various situations is that confession done in a healthy way has two major benefits. First, it helps us to become more honest with ourselves about our ego thoughts and deeds, our so-called "sins." Second, it gives us an opportunity to experience forgiveness for those "sins." I see these two things working together: we get honest about our ego thoughts, which puts us in a position where they can be undone by forgiveness. And both of these things—honesty and forgiveness—are important. Honesty without forgiveness is mere venting, which in my experience usually serves to reinforce the negative thoughts and feelings being vented rather than dispelling them. Without forgiveness, confession just ends up reinforcing guilt. It is therefore not truly healing in itself, even though there are a lot of therapeutic systems based on the idea that just uncovering and expressing our negative feelings, in and of itself, will heal us. But forgiveness without honesty is not enough either, simply because the things we are not honest about cannot be forgiven as long as we keep them hidden from our awareness.
So, confession guided by the Holy Spirit can serve a loving purpose. It can allow us to honestly bring our egoic darkness to the surface, so that it can be healed by the light of forgiveness. Confession to another person is one way in which we can bring our secrets to the Holy Spirit so that He can shine them away. And bringing our secrets to Him is all we need do to experience His healing light:
The Holy Spirit asks of you but this; bring to Him every secret you have locked away from Him. Open every door to Him, and bid Him enter the darkness and lighten it away. At your request He enters gladly. He brings the light to darkness if you make the darkness open to Him. But what you hide He cannot look upon….Bring, therefore, all your dark and secret thoughts to Him, and look upon them with Him. He holds the light, and you the darkness. They cannot coexist when Both of You together look on them. His judgment must prevail, and He will give it to you as you join your perception to His (T-14.VII.6:1-5,8-11).