The Depth and Intricacy of a Single Paragraph

by Robert Perry

Have you ever come upon one of those paragraphs in the Course, especially in the Text, where, upon finishing it, you simply scratch your head and say, "Huh? What is this talking about?" Have you ever suspected that the paragraph wasn't saying much of anything, but just rambling on vaguely about God and Christ and whatnot? Have you ever thought the Course could have said the same thing in a lot fewer words? Or that it had said the same thing previously and could have saved its breath this time around?

This article is meant to address those very suspicions-and hopefully put them to rest. As I have gained more insight into the Course's language, I have slowly come to realize that there is a simply amazing richness of thought condensed into every paragraph of the Course and conveyed by a masterful choice of words. The result is that if the author of the Course had stated plainly what he was trying to convey, we would have a 50,000 page book, instead of a 1,200. This article is my attempt to demonstrate that.

To do so, I have chosen one of those head-scratcher paragraphs. It is the second paragraph of "Sin as an Adjustment" (T-20.III.2):

Adjustments of any kind are of the ego. For it is the ego's fixed belief that all relationships depend upon adjustments, to make of them what it would have them be. Direct relationships, in which there are no interferences, are always seen as dangerous. The ego is the self-appointed mediator of all relationships, making whatever adjustments it deems necessary and interposing them between those who would meet, to keep them separate and prevent their union. It is this studied interference that makes it difficult for you to recognize your holy relationship for what it is.

I think most of us would probably read this paragraph in the Text and pass it by, getting little if anything clear from it. In fact, I doubt that even those who have read the Text several times can recall ever encountering this paragraph. It seems to be another one of those non-descript, impenetrable Course paragraphs.

What I hope to show in this article is that this paragraph contains a simply remarkable wealth of teaching. This wealth is only revealed when we go through it extremely slowly, sentence-by-sentence, asking questions and making sure we understand every single word before going on. When we do so we find that it not only expresses a coherent set of ideas, but that it also presents a powerful teaching, which points out deeply engrained patterns in our relationships and beckons us beyond them. Let us now begin our trek through this paragraph:

1. Adjustments of any kind are of the ego.

Why is this so? Why this invariant connection between adjustment and the ego? To adjust something seems so practical. Without adjustment, quite often things simply do not work. Yet this sentence is saying that adjustment never comes from a true source, a true impulse. It always comes from a source that produces only corruption: the ego.

To explain this idea we must consult the first paragraph of this section, where the discussion of adjustment began. There, adjustment is defined as any sort of alteration introduced into something, any act of making something different. Or, rather, any attempt to make something different, for it is impossible to change what is truly real. When you try to adjust reality, all you succeed in doing is distorting it. The meaning of distortion here is that it doesn't change the actual thing, but changes how it is perceived. So an adjustment is the ego's attempt to altar, warp, or distort reality, so that we see reality as if in a funhouse mirror.

This is why adjustment is talked about in such negative terms throughout this section. And this explains why adjustment and the ego are inextricably linked. Only the ego wants to distort reality. The ego is not part of reality, so, in order to survive at all, it would have to warp reality to suit itself.

2. For it is the ego's fixed belief that all relationships depend upon adjustments, to make of them what it would have them be.

The word "for" at the beginning of this sentence tells us that this sentence will explain something about the previous sentence. In particular, it will tell us why the ego feels compelled to adjust: It adjusts because it believes that, without such adjustment, human relationships would simply not work.

To understand this line fully, we need a fuller understanding of the word "adjustment." When you adjust something you are not merely altering it (as we said above). You are generally making it conform to fit (or meet the needs of) something else. To speak of adjustment, in other words, implies that there is a relationship between two things. There is the original thing and there is something outside of it. The original thing is supposed to fit that other thing. But it doesn't. So in order to fit, it needs to be adjusted. Here are definitions of adjustment from my (Merriam-Webster) dictionary which reflect this meaning:

"To make correspondent or conformable."
"To adapt or conform oneself (as to new conditions)."
"To achieve mental and behavioral balance between one's own needs and the demands of others."

So, quite simply, one thing is adjusted in order to correspond or conform itself to another thing, so that now they fit.

With this fuller understanding of adjustment, let's return to our sentence. Notice that it introduces the topic of relationships. This sentence is thus taking the very abstract concept of adjustment from Paragraph 1 and applying that to the arena of interpersonal relationships. How is it doing that? How does the concept of adjustment (as defined in Paragraph 1) apply to human relationships? This shouldn't be too hard to figure out. Adjustment, as we saw, involves relationship between two things, which surely can include two people. Adjustment as applied to human relationships was even part of the dictionary definition of it (the last definition I listed above).

It does not take much thought to realize the significance we ascribe to adjustment in interpersonal relationships. In our eyes, relationships need lots of adjustment in order to work. The fit between two people is never naturally perfect. There is always some lack of fit. So to make the fit better we make adjustments. I adjust myself to fit your needs. But I also try to get you to adjust to fit mine. And of course the same thing is going on from your end. This is a massive part of the whole dance of relationship. By me adjusting to your needs and you adjusting to mine, we will hopefully meet in the middle and carry on a successful relationship. We learn the art of compromise, we learn to give and take, and the relationship works.

Relationships clearly depend on adjustments. But wait-that is the ego's point of view! That is what it thinks. The implication is that this is not the case at all. We do not need to adjust to each other in order to get along! In fact, according to this sentence, we are not adjusting to each other. Look closely at the final part of the sentence. What are the two people adjusting to? They are being adjusted to the ego's idea of what the relationship ought to be. The ego is not adjusting the two people to conform to each other; it is adjusting the relationship to conform to itself. The relationship is being adjusted not to their needs but to its. The ego is the only one getting its needs met here.

3. Direct relationships, in which there are no interferences, are always seen as dangerous.

What is a direct relationship? An indirect relationship is where two people are relating through some sort of intermediary; for instance, two ambassadors conversing through a translator. A direct relationship, then, is where there is no intermediary. There is nothing in between the two parties, nothing to get in the way of total joining. It is unmediated (another way of saying "direct"). This idea carried to its logical extreme means that the relationship is one of pure joining, perfect union.

What do you think are the interferences this sentence mentions? In light of what has gone before, they have to be the adjustments. This brings up an interesting situation. The very adjustments we make in order to have a harmonious relationship are somehow getting in the way, keeping us apart. How can that be?

To solve this we have to go back to Paragraph 1. It too talked about a direct relationship (though not by name) between the knower and the known; specifically, between us and the truth. It implied that, in order to know the truth-to unite with it-we don't need to adjust ourselves. "Who need adjust to truth, which calls on only what he is, to understand?" (1:7). The implication is clear: The fit between ourselves and the truth is already perfect; no adjustment is needed. This must also apply to our relationship with another person, since he or she is part of the truth. This means that the fit between myself and another, as we are in truth, is already perfect. No adjustment is needed.

If you have two things that already perfectly fit each other and you then adjust one or the other, what happens? Obviously, you throw them out of alignment. For example, our garage door has a device that keeps it from closing if there is something in the way, to protect children from being crushed. On either side of the garage is an electronic eye and a beam of light shines between these two eyes. When that beam is broken, by, say, a child lying on the cement, the garage door will not close. What also breaks the beam, though, is when the two electronic eyes are not pointing perfectly at each other. So, when you bump one of them with a rake or shovel (as I've done more times than I care to admit), they fall out of alignment and the garage will not close. They are already aligned; only when I accidentally adjust one of them do they fall out of alignment.

We are like the electronic eyes. In our true nature, we are all naturally aligned. We point at each other perfectly, creating a direct beam of connection. Thus, any adjustment, in one person or the other, rather than bringing the two of us into alignment, takes us out of alignment. We no longer fit. Now further adjustments become necessary. The adjustments, then, get in the way of the direct relationship that results from the innate fit between two people.

Of course, this alignment exists on the level of who we really are, and that is the level on which we are meant to relate. The holiness in me is meant to recognize and love the holiness in you, and vice versa. As soon as I think that I am my body and personality, and that you are yours, we will need to make endless futile adjustments in "who we are" in order to attempt a fit. To truly fit, we need to uncover the pre-existing alignment, not further obscure it by adding new adjustments to the original ones which threw us out of alignment.

Our sentence says that real joining, with no intermediary, is "always seen as dangerous." By whom? The ego, of course. The ego is separateness; it cannot exist in a state of joining. And that is why it adjusts the relationship, to keep joining from taking place. It is like the shovel that bumps the electronic eye out of alignment. That is how its needs get met in the relationship. As long as real union does not occur, the ego stays in business.

4. The ego is the self-appointed mediator of all relationships, making whatever adjustments it deems necessary and interposing them between those who would meet, to keep them separate and prevent their union.

Mediator is an important word in this sentence, so let's look at that word. What is the role of a mediator? It is to stand in the middle and "to interpose between parties in order to reconcile them" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). We are talking about relationships again. A mediator is there to mend broken relationships of one sort or another.

Mediation and adjustment are also intimately related concepts. In mediation you have two parties in conflict. They are out of alignment. Both sides need to make adjustments in order to find reconciliation. The mediator's whole role is to facilitate this adjustment. He helps both parties recognize the wisdom of adjusting and helps them identify which adjustments to make, so that they can eventually meet somewhere in a mutually agreeable middle.

This is the role our ego claims to play in our relationships. It is our guide in matters of love, counseling us on how we can truly come together. True, it is the strident voice in our head that says, "Walk away! This guy is hopeless." But it is also the conciliatory voice that says, "Why don't you give in here? If you can give ground on this point, you gain leverage for the points you really care about."

But something is wrong, as we can see in the word "self-appointed." A mediator is supposed to be hired by the parties. They recognize the need for a mediator and then go hire one. This mediator, however-the ego-appoints itself. It has decided, unbidden, that it is the one who can fix the relationship. We generally call such a person a "meddler," and we say that he or she is interfering (which, of course, reminds us of language earlier in the paragraph). What makes this mediator even more inappropriate is that these people don't even need a mediator! They don't need adjustment; they are already perfectly aligned. But the ego steps in anyway and starts adjusting. Now the trouble really starts. First, the adjustments it makes are not the ones desired by the two parties, but the ones that it "deems necessary." Second, the adjustments it makes are not for the purpose of getting the two parties together, but for keeping them apart. Its whole approach is to put things between them. It first puts itself between them-a "mediator" stands in between. Then it puts its adjustments between them-the adjustments are "interposed" between them.

This sentence may at first have seemed puzzling and overly abstract. Now we see that it paints an entire picture, one that is saturated with irony. One can almost imagine this sentence as the encapsulation of a comedic (or perhaps tragic) plotline. Let me try to express it in story form.

Once upon a time there were two people who fit together perfectly. They were made for each other. The natural state of their relationship was perfect harmony and bliss. Their only desire was to "meet" (as our sentence says), to unite, and for this they were perfectly suited.

But then this man showed up at the front door uninvited. He said, "I am a mediator, a trained psychologist, and you need me. You have a terrible rift between you. Only expert help can fix it. You (the man in the relationship) need to learn how to adjust yourself to her needs. You also need to stand up for yours. You must learn to clearly communicate those needs and how she can adjust herself to meet them. You (the woman) need also to adjust yourself so that you can fulfill his needs. But you can't lose yours in the process. You need to learn how to artfully tell him how he can satisfy your needs, entice him into doing so, and reward him afterwards. Let me put you in two separate rooms. You can communicate through me. Hopefully, through this process, both partners will adjust themselves until they can meet in the middle and finally achieve a truly constructive, healthy relationship."

The two are reluctant but allow the mediator to go ahead. He places them in their separate rooms and begins shuttling back and forth between them. They get into the spirit of things and start suggesting adjustments, but in his wisdom he knows better and so he makes his proposed adjustments, not theirs. Not surprisingly, since they started out a perfect fit, each adjustment brings them further out of alignment, not closer together. Finally, they are left with a mountain of adjustments standing in between them, and the mediator there as well, who has no plans of going away. It seems they are in such fundamental discord that they need his services permanently. Their original, perfect harmony has been forgotten. Needless to say, they do not live happily ever after.

And that was his point all along. For this is no impartial mediator. He was being driven by a hidden agenda, unknown to them. The truth is that their perfect fit was deeply threatening to him personally. He couldn't stand the perfection of their relationship. It made his blood boil. That is why he appointed himself their mediator. He wanted to adjust the relationship to suit him, not them, to suit his discomfort with their union. He steps in between because, as we saw in Sentence 3, he is terrified of direct (or unmediated) relationships.

This, in other words, is the mediator from hell. A mediator is supposed to be a purely constructive facilitator, who serves the needs of his clients, not his own. He is supposed to be appointed by his clients and keep his own agenda out of things, working only to reconcile these two resistant parties. This mediator is exactly the opposite. He is a purely destructive intruder. He barges in uninvited and imposes his own agenda, which is to divide two harmonious parties. He is completely uninterested in their needs and works only to serve his own at their expense. Remember the dictionary definition of "mediate": "to interpose between parties to reconcile them"? This mediator has taken as his motto only the first part: "to interpose between parties."

How does this figurative scene translate into daily life? What does it mean for us on a practical level? The paragraph's final sentence will address this.

5. It is this studied interference that makes it difficult for you to recognize your holy relationship for what it is.

The paragraph finally introduces "you." It is important to take note of this, for it signals that the paragraph is now taking the abstract ideas discussed so far and applying them to you-in particular to your holy relationship (which is clearly the same thing as what was earlier called a direct relationship).

That means that this paragraph applies most directly to those who have what the Course would consider a holy relationship, and not all of us have that. When Helen and Bill joined with each other in search of "a better way," they formed their first holy relationship (T-20.VI.12:9 refers to Helen and Bill now having "one true relationship beyond the body"). When two people establish a truly common goal for their relationship, one that amounts to some form of accepting and extending salvation together (even if words such as salvation are never used), a holy relationship is formed. However, it takes a very long time for this holy relationship to become what is lived out on the surface. Most of the time it resides as a potential or a presence just beneath the surface, but able to be contacted. There are thus two relationships going on at once: the usual surface relationship, which is dominated by the ego, and the holy relationship, which only surfaces occasionally in moments of genuine forgiveness, love, and joining.

This dual-relationship is really there in all relationships. All of them have the surface relationship that is dominated by the ego, and an underlying relationship of true, holy joining. For, as I said, God created us all perfectly united. What the Course calls a holy relationship is simply a case where that underlying relationship has been allowed to come closer to the surface, where it has become a consciously shared goal and, as a result, an active presence in the situation.

Now let's return to our concluding sentence. It says that we do not recognize that underlying relationship in which the fit is already perfect. Why? Because of the scenario we saw above, in which the ego steps in as mediator. But what does that scenario look like in real-life terms? We do not experience the ego knocking on the front door and informing us that we need its help in order to have a relationship that works.

The truth is much more chilling: We perceive the ego's counsel as our own thoughts. We find ourselves thinking, "She is not doing a very good job at meeting my needs. She starts telling me about every detail of her day just when I want to unwind. She wants my help with the laundry when the game is in overtime. Clearly, some adjustment is in order here. I am just going to have to train her how to do it right. To be fair, I will need to make some adjustments myself. I am not looking forward to that, but I am fully aware that unless I adjust on my end she will not feel compelled to adjust on hers. I wonder how I can tactfully bring all this up with her?"

Those are not your thoughts. They are the voice of the mediator speaking within you. They are his way of accomplishing his cruel agenda of keeping you apart. Something inside you is terrified of uncovering the primordial unity the two of you have shared since before time. And so that something shows up as your guide, to expertly shepherd you into a pseudo-joining, a joining based on carefully worked-out bargains, based on each being a slave to the other's needs (which the Course says are not even real needs). This pseudo-joining does not reveal the pre-existing union God gave you; it obscures it. It is not even a sincere attempt at finding that true joining, but a deliberate attempt to bury it. It is a "studied [calculated, premeditated] interference." Each adjustment makes the implicit statement, "As we are, we do not fit." Each adjustment makes one partner a slave to the needs of the other, and no true joining is possible between slave and master. Thus, after all the adjusting and counter-adjusting, the very thought that you share this pre-existing, perfect relationship seems at best irrelevant, at worst patently false. That is the meaning of the paragraph's final sentence.

The two of you would be much better off saying, "Maybe we already have a closeness that is not up to us to manufacture. Maybe Someone Else created it for us long ago and all we have to do is uncover it. And maybe we do so not by getting the other to adjust to our needs, but by forgetting the needs we think we have, and the person we think we are, and the offenses we think our partner has committed against us. Maybe all those things are adjustments that we have already made, that have already obscured our original oneness. Perhaps if we can forget them all just for a moment we can enter into a holy instant, in which we discover that our partner is not an electric blanket for us to adjust to our favorite temperature, but the other part of our ancient Self which we long ago disowned."

The way to true union is not adjusting to meet each other's needs, but letting go of the adjustments and that which we would adjust to, and opening up to a oneness already present though unseen. The way to union is not doing the dance right, but being still, and finding a unity that was there long before the dance began.


This paragraph at first seemed so muddy and forgettable, but now, I trust, it does not. So much is being communicated in the short space of its five sentences. I am simply amazed at the amount of teaching in this paragraph.

  • It explains (with help from the previous paragraph) the abstract nature of adjustment and why it is inappropriate (and impossible) in relation to true reality.
  • It brings this abstract picture down to earth and applies it to human relationships, identifying adjustment as a basic part of our relationships, and pointing out why adjustment is inappropriate there, too, since relationships are part of true reality.
  • It explains the connection between adjustment and the ego, revealing why the ego wants to adjust reality and why it wants to adjust the partners in a relationship (to keep them apart).
  • It offers a fascinating and ironic portrait of the ego as mediator, one that plays on the darker connotations of mediation ("to interpose between parties") to portray one who violates every rule in the ethics of mediation.
  • Finally, it shows why adjustment in relationships does not serve to bring us together but actually obscures the underlying fact that we are already together, already one.

All of this not only conveys abstract truths about reality and the ego, it makes us think about our lives. It makes us rethink unquestioned strategies in our relationships and it points the way towards making those relationships more reflective of ultimate truth.

Now you may say that the paragraph doesn't really say all that. I would say that it does, if you know how to read it. To the experienced eye, everything I said above is in there. I am not making it up. Even when writing this article, my first pass through the paragraph did not yield much clarity. But as I investigated more closely, the detailed picture I expressed above came slowly into view. That picture came from the paragraph; all of the pieces of it are anchored in specific sentences or in the connections between sentences. It took a lot of work to piece it together, but it was worth it. In the end, I was gifted with important insight into the age-old dance of relationships, insight that I didn't have before, insight that was taught to me by this paragraph.

What if every paragraph in the Course is like this? What if all those paragraphs we passed over with sleepy eyes and muddled brain contain just as much meaning as this one? What if the Course's language is not fuzzy and rambling and verbose, but is like poetry in its ability to compress into a short space a wealth of profound meaning?

We have barely begun to explore this book.

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