How Can We Distinguish Between the Ego and the Holy Spirit?

by Allen Watson

Question: How do we know that it is actually the voice of the Holy Spirit and not the voice of the ego that we are listening to?

Answer: Another way of phrasing the question might be, "How can we distinguish between illusions and the truth?" The actual answer is, "Do the Course." But that seems to beg the question. My point, though, is that learning to tell the difference between illusion and truth, or learning to hear only the Voice for God and not the voice of our egos, is really what A Course in Miracles is meant to train us in doing. The only way, really, to learn how to distinguish between the ego and the Holy Spirit, or between illusion and truth, is to completely devote oneself to the Course's training program.

Recognizing the Holy Spirit's Voice May Take Time

Learning to recognize the Holy Spirit's voice is, for most people, a life-long process. The Course tells us: "Only very few can hear God's Voice at all, and even they cannot communicate His messages directly through the Spirit which gave them" (M-12.3:3). So hearing the Holy Spirit is not something we hear about and do, without any effort or training, the next day. A lot of people think they hear God's Voice; "only very few" actually do.

Even Jesus tells us that learning to hear only God's Voice was his final lesson, the last thing he learned! He says:

The Holy Spirit is in you in a very literal sense. His is the Voice that calls you back to where you were before and will be again. It is possible even in this world to hear only that Voice and no other. It takes effort and great willingness to learn. It is the final lesson that I learned, and God's Sons are as equal as learners as they are as sons (T-5.II.3:7-11).

These lines are simultaneously discouraging and encouraging. They are discouraging in that they let us know hearing only the Holy Spirit is not easy. Learning to hear only that Voice "takes effort and great willingness to learn." Not only that, but it was also Jesus' final lesson, so it isn't something elementary, something we can learn quickly. It takes a while! However, on the encouraging side, Jesus points out that we are his equals as learners, and therefore, if he learned it, we too can learn it.

Clues in Discerning Between Ego and Holy Spirit

There are some practical tips on recognizing the Spirit's voice. There are several signs that are pretty clear indicators that the voice we are hearing is the ego. There are also a few signs that indicate what we are hearing is the Spirit's Voice. And, since the ego attempts to counterfeit these positive signs, there are also warnings about false signs.

Signs That Say "Ego"

The Holy Spirit is often referred to as a "still" voice, or a quiet voice. We are told that "the Holy Spirit never commands" (T-6.IV.11:1). So if the voice you hear is commanding you, it isn't Him.

We are also told, "The Holy Spirit never itemizes errors" (T-6.V.4:1). So if the voice you are hearing is listing all your faults, it isn't Him. By extension, if the voice you hear is making you guilty, it isn't Him.

The Holy Spirit is very clear that you are the innocent, holy Son of God. The Course says: "The Holy Spirit never varies on this point, and so the one mood He engenders is joy" (T-6.V.C.1:10). If the voice you are hearing is engendering something besides joy, it isn't Him.

The Holy Spirit doesn't ask us to sacrifice: "The Holy Spirit never asks for sacrifice, but the ego always does" (T-7.X.5:5). So if the voice you are hearing is calling for sacrifice, it's the ego.

Another clue:

Be certain any answer to a problem the Holy Spirit solves will always be one in which no one loses. And this must be true, because He asks no sacrifice of anyone. An answer which demands the slightest loss to anyone has not resolved the problem, but has added to it and made it greater, harder to resolve and more unfair. It is impossible the Holy Spirit could see unfairness as a resolution. To Him, what is unfair must be corrected because it is unfair (T-25.IX.3:1-5).

Therefore, guidance from the Holy Spirit will always arrange things so nobody loses. He probably won't guide you to steal your brother's car, for instance.

Qualifications of the Above Rules

Despite these seemingly simple rules, we need to watch out here. Sometimes we can be hearing the Holy Spirit, but then reacting with our egos. The ego will always react negatively to the Holy Spirit, and will try to confuse us, to cause us to react to love as if it were fearful, and to fear as if it were lovely.

Negative Reactions to God's Voice

Sometimes we have what seem to be negative reactions to the Voice for God. This occurs when we are genuinely hearing guidance from the Holy Spirit, but we are allowing our egos to hear and respond to it. Although the Holy Spirit never commands, if we are hearing Him with our egos, it will seem to us that we are being asked to do something against our will. Prayerful self-examination at such times will usually reveal that we really do want what the Holy Spirit is asking us to do; only our ego or our independent self, which insanely wants autonomy at all costs, feels imposed upon.

The Course also speaks of a kind of false guilt that can arise in us as we listen to God's Voice. This is to be expected in a mind that has not wholly lost its fear of God. For instance, when we begin to realize that our projection of guilt upon the world is a mistake, and that the guilt we are seeing is in fact our own, "the beginning phases of this reversal are often quite painful, for as blame is withdrawn from without, there is a strong tendency to harbor it within" (T-11.IV.4:5). Some people have even stopped reading the Course (few students would question that the Course itself is an expression of the Holy Spirit) on the grounds that "It makes me feel guilty." The Course's own answer to this kind of false guilt is quite simple:

…only the ego blames at all. Self-blame is therefore ego identification, and as much an ego defense as blaming others (T-11.IV.5:4-5).

In other words, give up the guilt. Guilt is always an indication of the ego. You may be thinking that you are feeling guilty because you are listening to the Holy Spirit, but if you are feeling guilty, you are listening to the ego. It isn't what the Holy Spirit is saying that gives rise to guilt; it is your own ego's interpretation of it. The Holy Spirit may be saying, "Your loss of peace is not your brother's fault; you, yourself have chosen to give up peace." If that seems to make you feel guilty, however, it is only because your ego is telling you so; the Holy Spirit never blames, and never condemns.

Similarly, what the Holy Spirit has to say never makes our egos feel joyful; on the contrary, the ego is fearful and depressed when the Voice for God is heard. So the mere absence of a joyful feeling does not mean that the voice you are hearing is not the Holy Spirit. If some inner guidance seems to be from God, and yet does not give rise to joy, look carefully at the reasons behind the lack of joy. If the guidance is truly of God, you will find that the lack of joy is being caused by some belief in fear or sacrifice, or some false perception of loss of specialness.

Likewise, many times our ego will perceive sacrifice where there is none, and sometimes, therefore, what the Holy Spirit asks of us seems, at first, to be sacrifice. We think nothing is something; if the Holy Spirit asks us to give it up, we think "sacrifice," but really we are sacrificing nothing. If you feel you are being called on to sacrifice by the Holy Spirit, ask yourself what you are sacrificing, and if that something is truly something of God. Possibly, the only way to resolve the doubt is to actually give up whatever it is, and so discover that, instead of loss and grief, we find happiness.

[There may be a situation in which] the teacher of God feels called upon to sacrifice his own best interests on behalf of truth. He has not realized as yet how wholly impossible such a demand would be. He can learn this only as he actually does give up the valueless. Through this, he learns that where he anticipated grief, he finds a happy lightheartedness instead; where he thought something was asked of him, he finds a gift bestowed on him (M-4.I(A).5:5-8).

Positive Reactions to the Ego's Voice

On the other hand, there are times when we are hearing the ego's voice, and the ego attempts to simulate the positive reactions of joy and peace.

We can often mistake a feeling of triumph for a feeling of joy. True joy is always a shared feeling. It never arises from besting someone else. Beating out the competition for that new job may seem to feel good, but it is a simulated joy that arises from specialness and competition. The Holy Spirit, being an equal-opportunity Helper, will never lead you to gain at the expense of someone else's loss.

There is also a kind of false peace that the ego can give us. As an obvious example, think of the "peace of mind" that effective denial can bring. If we take some problem or negative emotion and bury it deeply enough, cover it over with layers of darkness, we seem to achieve a certain kind of "peace." But such denial is only a temporary palliative. It masks the problem rather than healing it. Ask yourself, "Is my peace coming from resolving the problem, or from avoiding it?" Another kind of false peace is referred to in the Workbook discussions of meditation as "withdrawal":

After you have cleared your mind in this way, close your eyes and try to experience the peace to which your reality entitles you. Sink into it and feel it closing around you. There may be some temptation to mistake these attempts for withdrawal, but the difference is easily detected. If you are succeeding, you will feel a deep sense of joy and an increased alertness, rather than a feeling of drowsiness and enervation (W-pI.74.5:1-4).

The clear instruction here tells us that true peace brings with it "a deep sense of joy and an increased alertness," as opposed to the "drowsiness and enervation" (a loss of energy) that will come from false peace. God's peace is awake and energetic, confident that all problems can and will be resolved, rather than retreating into withdrawal and avoidance.

Signs That Say "Holy Spirit"

The section of the Text that speaks to this question most directly is "The Test of Truth," Chapter 14, Section X. Here are two key paragraphs:

You have one test, as sure as God, by which to recognize if what you learned is true. If you are wholly free of fear of any kind, and if all those who meet or even think of you share in your perfect peace, then you can be sure that you have learned God's lesson, and not your own. Unless all this is true, there are dark lessons in your mind that hurt and hinder you, and everyone around you. The absence of perfect peace means but one thing: You think you do not will for God's Son what his Father wills for him. Every dark lesson teaches this, in one form or another. And each bright lesson with which the Holy Spirit will replace the dark ones you do not accept, teaches you that you will with the Father and His Son.

I do not know what anything, including this, means. And so I do not know how to respond to it. And I will not use my own past learning as the light to guide me now.

By this refusal to attempt to teach yourself what you do not know, the Guide Whom God has given you will speak to you. He will take His rightful place in your awareness the instant you abandon it, and offer it to Him (T-14.XI.5-6).

The first paragraph says the "one test, as sure as God" that can tell us we have heard God's Voice is that we are wholly free of fear of any kind, and that everyone who meets or even thinks of us shares that same peace. Now, honestly, that lofty criterion seems to put the whole thing completely out of my reach! Don't you agree? And it is the only final test, the one sure test. No wonder Jesus tells us that it takes "effort and great willingness" (T-5.II.3:10), and that it was his final lesson. But it is not out of our reach; it is attainable, as we saw earlier. If Jesus, who is no different from any of us, could do it, that means we can also.

Realizing I Don't Know

Yet, until we have achieved that extremely high standard, the passage continues, it means that we all have "dark lessons" in our minds that hurt and hinder us and those around us. Despite that, Jesus advises us:

Do not be concerned about how you can learn a lesson so completely different from everything that you have taught yourself. How would you know? Your part is very simple. You need only recognize that everything you learned you do not want (T-14.XI.6:1-4).

To me, what this is in essence saying is that all we really need to "do" is to recognize our dark lessons—the ego's voice—and when we realize we are hearing the ego's voice, to be willing to realize we do not want its lessons, and to let them go. Adopt the attitude at all times of "I do not know what this means." Sentence 7:10 makes it clear for me: "By this refusal to attempt to teach yourself" means refusing to try to figure things out, to determine what things mean or, in a word, a refusal to judge. That is all we need to do; refrain from teaching ourselves. If we do just that, the Holy Spirit will speak to us. If we get out of the way, and don't interfere, He will guide us. And when He does, we will have that "perfect peace" spoken of.

So, how we learn to hear His Voice isn't the real question. Since all I need to do is stop listening to the ego, the real question is, how do I recognize the ego's voice? If I learn that, I do not need to concern myself about how I will learn to hear the lesson of the Holy Spirit. He'll take care of that.

My own opinion is that we learn this very gradually. We can start with the basic assumption that virtually everything we hear is at least tainted by the ego, and therefore assume the attitude of "I don't know." As the Course says, "I don't know" is our "firm beginning" in learning:

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. You are not misguided; you have accepted no guide at all (T-11.VIII.3:1-4).

Don't be Stopped by the Ego

At first, I think most of the "guidance" we get will be a mixed bag at best. "Not one thought you hold is wholly true" (T-11.VIII.3:2), the Course tells us. The ego will wriggle in almost every time. We can't let that stop us, though. I've come to look on life as a process of learning to hear one Voice: "Learning is living here" (T-14.III.3:2). I once wrote an article titled "Don't Let the Ego Stop You!" My idea was that as we begin, the ego will always manage to work its way into our choices, and we can't avoid that. It will be by making choices and experiencing the results of the ego's directions—usually pain of some sort—that we learn to disregard them. We will "fall down" a lot while learning to "walk" in the Spirit. But that's how we learn.


So, in summary, my advice in answer to this question is:

  1. Recognize you don't know anything.
  2. Be willing to let go of all your preconceptions.
  3. Ask the Holy Spirit for help.
  4. Evaluate what you hear: Commanding, demanding, sacrificing, specialness-supporting, guilt-inducing, or non-joyous guidance is almost always from the ego.
  5. When you think you hear His guidance, act on it as purely as you can.
  6. Evaluate the results, and look to see where the ego crept in. Be willing to adjust and change your mind.

Over time, with effort and great willingness, we will learn to hear only the One Voice. Be patient with yourself; be willing to learn; be a happy learner.

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