Is Calling the World an Illusion Really Helpful?

Question: Is calling the world an illusion, as A Course in Miracles does, really helpful? It doesn't seem to do anyone any good to claim that this world is just an illusion when that claim doesn't do anything to alleviate the very real pain and suffering we experience while in this illusion. The Course also says that we can awaken any time. These seem to be just empty words since nobody, except maybe Jesus, has accomplished this.

This "illusion" could not seem any more real. Calling it an illusion, even if it is, just doesn't help. We are all still stuck in it for now.

Answer: I think this issue is very much a personal matter. One thing I've learned when discussing the Course's ideas with others is that different people have strikingly different emotional responses to those ideas. Clearly the idea that this world is an illusion that we could awaken from any time hasn't been helpful for you, and I respect that. But for me and for many others, it has been nothing short of life-transforming. I hope the reasons for this will become clear as I proceed.

It is undoubtedly true that we suffer greatly in this world, a fact that the Course fully acknowledges. In fact, the Course claims that we're actually suffering far more than we think we are. And unfortunately, because most of us are not that close to awakening, it is likely that suffering in various forms will continue for some time, whether this world is an illusion or not. So yes, there is a sense in which, for all practical purposes, we're essentially "stuck in it" for now.

However, I think the idea that the world is an illusion can bring immediate benefit, even in the midst of suffering. This has certainly been the case for me. Part of the reason for this benefit, I think, is that the larger context in which we place our suffering makes a huge difference in how we experience it. Let's say, for instance, that you could choose one of these three scenarios:

1. You will experience horrific suffering that is real in every way, and it lasts forever.

2. You will experience horrific suffering that is real in every way, and it will end with death, after which you will feel nothing.

3. You will experience horrific suffering, but it is only a fleeting dream in your mind, and you will one day awaken to the most glorious happiness you could possibly imagine, and this happiness lasts forever.

If we took a poll and asked people which option they would choose, I think virtually everyone would go for #3, with #2 in second place (because at least in that case the suffering ends eventually) and #1 in last place. And I think that if you knew which scenario you were in while you were suffering, it would have a huge impact on how you experienced it. The suffering would simply not be as bad in #3, precisely because you knew that it was illusory and temporary, and that glorious happiness awaits you in the end, however far off that end might be. We can put up with just about anything when we know the ending will be happy.

We experience this basic phenomenon in human life every day. For instance, if you were ravenously hungry but you knew that you would have a sumptuous feast in an hour, would you not experience that hunger quite differently than if you were ravenously hungry with no prospect of eating any time soon? Even if the hunger were the same physically in both cases, knowing that it would be gloriously sated soon would make a huge difference. Your experience of hunger would be transformed by the larger context in which it was placed.

I think it's quite similar with the idea that we could awaken at any time: It places the idea of awakening in a different, more hopeful context. Yes, it's unlikely to happen soon; the Course itself is clear on that. But an unlikely possibility—especially one that is a certainty in the long run—is more hopeful and encouraging than an impossibility, is it not? Knowing that a desirable outcome is possible now and ultimately certain, even if it probably won't happen soon, will naturally increase your motivation to strive for that outcome. And this motivated striving will enable the outcome to actually happen sooner.

Of course, we have no proof that we can awaken at any time, but I think our life experience at least makes the idea plausible. Have we not all experienced situations where we had a task that was objectively easy and could be accomplished at any time, but our mental resistance to it made it seem difficult and we kept putting it off? I know I have. And so often, when I finally got around to doing the task I had been dreading, I ended up saying to myself, "Wow, that was easy. It was no big deal at all. I wish I would have taken care of it sooner."

This, the Course tells us, is our exact situation with regard to awakening. It is objectively easy; how could it not be, if only illusions stand in our way? We really could do it any time. But according to the Course, we have tremendous mental resistance to it, because we are so committed to hanging on to our egos. But we can lay down our mental resistance—the entire Course is designed to help us do this—and the instant we lay it down fully, we will wake up. And I imagine we'll probably be saying to ourselves, "Wow, that was easy. I wish I would have taken care of it sooner."

There are other factors which, in my mind, make the "world is illusion" teaching helpful even while we are suffering. For instance, if the Course's teaching on this matter is correct—if our suffering is a self-made illusion rather than something brought about by God—then it is much easier to trust God to help us out of this mess. If it is a mess He Himself is responsible for, we will naturally be leery of Him. Why turn for help to the very One who created the problem you're in? If He had nothing to do with it, though—if He didn't make the mess, never wants us to suffer, and is eager to help us any way He can—then we can ask Him for help with a great deal more confidence. And that very confidence would reduce suffering, would it not? It certainly does for me.

I also find great solace in the simple idea that though I seem to suffer, my reality as an absolutely invulnerable Son of God is completely unaffected by what happens to me on earth. During difficult times, I have always loved repeating these lines from Workbook Lesson 248, "Whatever suffers is not part of me":

Whatever suffers is not part of me. What grieves is not myself. What is in pain is but illusion in my mind. What dies was never living in reality, and did but mock the truth about myself. (W-pII.248.1:3-6)

What I love about these lines is that they simultaneously acknowledge my earthly experience—there is suffering, grieving, pain, and death—and affirm that this earthly experience doesn't even touch the glorious reality of who I really am. I'm sure that for many people, especially those unfamiliar with the Course, this would be cold comfort. (And I certainly don't recommend reciting these lines to suffering people to teach them a "spiritual lesson.") But for me, they are immensely reassuring. There's just something beautiful and deeply liberating in the idea that the "me" who suffers isn't really me at all. I can't even explain fully the effect it has on me; there's just something about this whole idea that makes me breathe a huge sigh of relief. It definitely makes whatever pain I'm dealing with much easier to bear.

Ultimately, I think the helpfulness of the idea that the world is an illusion we can awaken from at any time hinges on the answers to two crucial questions. The first question is quite simple: Is this idea true? If it isn't true, then I don't think saying it is helpful at all. These really are just "empty words." We ought to throw away the Course and make the best of the hard fact that we're living in a very painful place. But if it is true, then it's something that would be very good to know, if we've already seen. Of course, I don't know for sure whether the Course's teachings on this or any other point are true. But I have no compelling reason to believe they aren't, and many compelling reasons to believe they are. So, I'm willing to give the Course the benefit of the doubt, especially since it's given such benefits to me.

The second crucial question is this: If this idea is true, do we have an active role in bringing about awakening from the illusion? Now, even if the answer to this second question were no, I think it would still be worthwhile to know that the world is an illusion from which we will eventually awaken. As I said above, knowing that suffering is illusory and temporary and things will end happily helps make it easier to bear. But I think the idea is far more helpful if the Course's answer to this second question is yes, and in fact the Course's answer is yes. There is suffering here in this illusion, but we are not just "stuck in it" in the sense that we're powerless to do anything about it. It's not just a matter of sitting around in misery, looking impatiently at our watches, and waiting for the express train to Heaven to arrive at the station. On the contrary, we have a job to do here, a meaningful function to fulfill in God's plan to end the illusion and all the suffering it brings.

This is the crux of the matter for me: The Course doesn't just tell us this painful world is an illusion we could awaken from at any time; it also gives us a vital role in that process of awakening. It teaches us that proper thoughts, words, and actions on our part can greatly reduce the time that this illusion lasts, and are the catalyst that finally brings it to an end. This includes thoughts, words, and actions that relieve suffering on earthly terms—the Course does not advocate a complacent, do-nothing attitude toward suffering. It wants us to be healers, helpers, forgivers, miracle workers. It wants us to devote our lives to selfless service to our suffering brothers. And having a meaningful function that serves the goal of ending suffering makes everything more bearable, does it not? Those who have a meaningful purpose for their lives suffer far less than those who regard their lives as pointless and futile. This has certainly been my experience.

For me, then, the Course's teaching that the world is an illusion that we can awaken from at any time is not just empty words that do nothing to alleviate the pain of daily life. Rather, the Course's teachings on this and everything else are the most practical teachings imaginable. You need to know what a problem is before you can solve it, and the Course tells us what the real problem is: our belief that this painful illusion is real. Then it gives us the solution: undoing that belief by letting our minds be healed and extending that healing to our brothers. It gives us all the practices, instructions, guidance, and encouragement we need to implement the solution. And part of the encouragement it gives is the constant reminder that awakening truly can be ours at any time. Even if it doesn't happen instantly, all of the tools the Course provides for us serve to bring that awakening closer and closer each day.

I hope this can at least give you some idea of why, at least for some of us, the idea that the world is an illusion that we can awaken from at any time does a lot of good indeed. It makes a huge practical difference in my life and the lives of many others. It has, in fact, completely transformed every aspect of my life, and I thank God for it every day. I live life with a great deal more hope and happiness, believing that "A happy outcome to all things is sure" (W-pII.292.Heading) and doing my part to bring that outcome about as soon as possible. For me, there is no better way to live.

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