Pain and suffering

Question: T-13.VII.2:1 says, "The world you see must be denied, for sight of it is costing you a different kind of vision." Does this mean that we should totally deny that there is pain and suffering in this world? How can we deny that people are in pain and need help?

Short answer: There are two very different kinds of denial — which I will call false denial and true denial — and here as elsewhere, the Course is advocating true denial. One form of false denial is denying that we have made mistaken, ego-based choices which have led to pain within the illusion, and thus call for help. True denial is denying the ultimate reality of those mistaken choices and the pain that comes from them, affirming that our true Self is totally unharmed by those choices. The goal of the Course's program is to get us out of falsely denying the painful effects of the ego so that we can practice true denial, the Course's means of healing pain and suffering in ourselves and others. This process enables us all to stop denying the truth about ourselves, restoring our awareness that we are the beloved creations of a loving Father, forever free of pain and suffering.


One form of false denial is denying that we have made mistaken, ego-based choices which have led to pain within the illusion, and thus call for help.

What is false denial? To deny something is to declare that thing untrue; false denial, then, is to declare something untrue that really is true, at least on some level. False denial is refusing to look at the truth because we think the truth threatens us in some way. It is the lie we tell ourselves to avoid the truth that we think will destroy us. The primary form of false denial that the Course talks about is the ego's denial of our true Identity and everything that goes with It. Because the ego is "made out of the denial of the Father" (T-4.III.4:3), it must blot out of our awareness everything that reminds us of our Father, because if we remember the truth about ourselves, the ego will be "destroyed." It must deny the truth, and get us to deny the truth, in order to survive.

The ego blots out the truth about us by convincing us that we are limited, separate beings, vulnerable to pain and suffering inflicted upon us by an external world. And one form of false denial the ego uses to keep us from recognizing what it is doing is the form that is the main focus of this Q & A: The ego gets us to deny (or at least minimize) the painful effects that choosing to listen to it has brought us. These effects are not ultimately true, of course, but they are "real enough in time" (T-3.VII.3:2), and the ego encourages us to deny this fact so that we won't see just how undesirable the ego is. This refusal to look at the problems brought on by the ego is the kind of denial that is usually meant when people say, "You're in denial." It is sticking our head in the sand, pretending that we don't have a problem and don't need any help, despite all evidence to the contrary. Like an alcoholic who denies he has a drinking problem even as he loses his job, his wife and friends abandon him, and he lies face down in the gutter, this form of false denial is a misguided attempt to shield our awareness from the devastating effects of the ego even as it makes a train wreck of our lives. It is a defense mechanism which is used not to heal the problem, but to conceal it.

Just as we can use false denial to sweep our own problems under the rug, so we can use it to deny the pain and suffering in the world. We can turn away from the suffering people all around us and lose ourselves in trivial pursuits. We can find all sorts of rationalizations to convince ourselves that things aren't really as bad as they seem. We can even, as Course students, blithely dismiss the world's pain by saying, "It's all an illusion, so it doesn't matter anyway." But this kind of denial — either of our own ego-based suffering or that of others — is definitely not what the Course is advocating. The Course tells us while delaying our awakening by listening to the ego will not cause us any real harm, such delay "is tragic in time" (T-5.VI.1:3). It tells us that anytime our brothers are not expressing love they are calling for help, and urges us to respond to their call by giving help. It even implores us to take an unflinchingly honest look at the world around us and ask ourselves if we are moved to do our part to heal the pain and despair surrounding us:

Look about the world, and see the suffering there. Is not your heart willing to bring your weary brothers rest? (W-pI.191.10:7-8)

Thus when the Course tells us to deny the world, it is not asking us to callously pretend that the suffering brought on by mistaken ego-based choices isn't happening within the illusion. That is false denial, which does nothing but hide the suffering, thus ensuring that it will continue. The Course is talking about a very different kind of denial, which I will discuss below.

True denial is denying the ultimate reality of those mistaken choices and the pain that comes from them, affirming that our true Self is totally unharmed by those choices.

If false denial is to declare something untrue that really is true (at least on some level), then true denial is to declare something untrue that really is untrue. False denial refuses to look at the truth, denying that it is true; true denial looks straight at untruth, affirming that it is untrue. This is the kind of denial that the Course is advocating. One of the best discussions of true vs. false denial in the Course occurs in the first two paragraphs of T-2.II, which I recommend reading. The following lines from the second paragraph are a good description of true denial:

True denial is a powerful protective device. You can and should deny any belief that error can hurt you. This kind of denial is not a concealment but a correction. (T-2.II.2:1-3)

Notice the implied distinction between false and true denial here. What I am calling "false denial" is concealment, one form of which is the denial of the ego's painful effects that I discussed above. True denial, on the other hand, is a correction of the mistaken belief that our true Self can really be altered by our mistaken choices; it "denies the ability of anything not of God to affect you" (T-2.II.1:11). As we saw above, this doesn't mean denying the fact that error can be very painful within the illusion; instead, it means denying that what happens within the illusion has any effect on our reality. No matter what the appearance, our true Self is as pure, holy, complete, and perfect as the moment God created It.

Therefore, when T-13.VII.2:1 tells us that we must deny the world we see, it doesn't mean that we should literally not use our physical eyes (which would certainly make driving a car difficult), nor does it mean that we should pretend that the things our physical eyes behold aren't happening within the physical world. Rather, it means that we should deny the reality of those things. Believing in the reality of the things our physical eyes show us blocks the experience of true vision: the vision of Christ, a kind of seeing that "does not depend on the body's eyes at all" (W-pI.30.5:1). This is the vision that reveals to us the real world beyond the world of form. This line is saying, in essence, "Don't depend on the body's eyes to tell you what is real. They see only form, and so they can't see reality. If you want to see what is real, turn to true vision, for only true vision can show you reality."

Indeed, the Course tells us that even after we attain true vision, our physical eyes will continue to see the same things everyone else sees, as long as we remain in a physical body. The difference lies in how we interpret those things:

The body's eyes will continue to see differences….But the healed mind will put them all in one category; they are unreal. (M-8.6:1,4)

Even when our minds are healed, then, we will not deny that the choice to listen to the ego has produced a world of different forms which can be perceived by physical senses, a world which brings pain and suffering as long as we believe those differences are real. Jesus himself does not deny this, since he speaks of it so often in the Course. What we will deny, however, is the reality of this world of differences. We will see it, but we will also see beyond it to the truth beyond appearances, to our true Identity which remains forever untouched by those appearances. We will look straight at what is untrue, and affirm that it is untrue. This is true denial.

The goal of the Course's program is to get us out of falsely denying the painful effects of the ego so that we can practice true denial, the Course's means of healing pain and suffering in ourselves and others.

Turning away from our false denial of the ego's darkness and practicing true denial is the very essence of the Course's healing program, a program of "bring[ing] the darkness to the light" (T-18.IX.1:1) and allowing that light to "shine it away" (T-8.IV.2:10). In short, the Course's process of healing consists of two basic steps:

  1. Getting out of false denial by bringing our illusions into the light of truth.
  2. Undoing those illusions with true denial, allowing the light of truth to dispel them.

In other words, we must first look squarely at our illusions, and then deny the reality of those illusions with the help of the Holy Spirit or Jesus. Both steps are necessary. We must first look squarely at our illusions because we can't truly deny the reality of something that we're not even aware of: "No one can escape from illusions unless he looks at them, for not looking is the way they are protected" (T-11.V.1:1). The ego uses false denial to protect itself and its illusions from the light of truth, and so we must actively decide to bring our illusions out of hiding if we want to be healed. But once we do so, we must then move to the second step, because it is only by denying our illusions' reality that we are healed. Once the illusions caused by our mistaken choices are brought out of hiding, we must refuse to hold onto our mistakes, and allow them to be undone by the Holy Spirit:

Having accepted the errors as yours, do not keep them. Give them over quickly to the Holy Spirit to be undone completely, so that all their effects will vanish from your mind and from the Sonship as a whole. (T-7.VIII.5:5-6)

Both steps, then, are equally important, for the first one sets up the second. Bringing our illusions into the light of truth allows that light to dispel them. The following passage is perhaps the Course's clearest statement of the necessity of looking directly at our illusions (referred to here as conflict), and allowing them to be undone by the truth:

Conflict must be resolved. It cannot be evaded, set aside, denied, disguised, seen somewhere else, called by another name, or hidden by deceit of any kind, if it would be escaped. It must be seen exactly as it is, where it is thought to be, in the reality which has been given it, and with the purpose that the mind accorded it. For only then are its defenses lifted, and the truth can shine upon it as it disappears. (W-pII.333.1:1-4)

Getting out of false denial and practicing true denial is therefore the way to our own healing. But it is also more than that: It is the way we heal others. We have already seen above (especially in W-pI.191.10:7-8) that the Course wants us to look with unflinching honesty at the suffering in the world around us and be willing to help our brothers in need. And once we get out of false denial concerning the suffering of the world, the Course would have us heal that suffering by practicing true denial: denying the ultimate reality of that suffering, and affirming that the true Self of everyone is totally untouched by that suffering.

This is the idea behind the Course's statement that "the task of the miracle worker [is] to deny the denial of truth" (T-12.II.1:5). In the context of the paragraph from which this line is taken, this statement means that a miracle worker — a person who extends miracles of healing to others — has the function of denying the miracle receiver's denial of the truth (though of course the miracle worker must do this for herself before she can do it for someone else). This is how the miracle worker heals sick and suffering people. The person in need of healing is suffering because he has denied the fact that his true Self is whole and complete, forever beyond suffering of any kind. (Notice that this denial is the primary form of false denial mentioned above: the ego's denial of our true Identity.) The miracle worker undoes this denial by looking beyond this person's suffering to his true nature, and in so doing denying his denial of the truth about himself. This is true denial, the vision that shines the light of truth into his mind, healing him of his suffering.

What does this look like on a form level? Does this mean that the miracle worker goes around telling suffering people, "Your suffering is only an illusion"? I don't think so. While there may be some instances where this is appropriate, I think such instances are probably extremely rare. Saying this to someone in pain would hardly be regarded by most people as loving, and the miracle worker is above all an extender of love. The miracle worker's job is to deny in her mind the reality of the other's suffering; the form through which this mental content is expressed should be left in the hands of the Holy Spirit or Jesus. They will guide the miracle worker to express the healed content of her mind in whatever way is most helpful to the miracle receiver.

Given most people's firm belief in the reality of their pain and suffering, I think that most of the time, the Holy Spirit will counsel miracle workers to help in a way that addresses and acknowledges that pain and suffering in a loving way. Denying the reality of what happens in the physical world doesn't mean that the miracle worker should do nothing physically to help suffering people. Such people usually need some sort of help on a form level, and giving that help when guided is simply the most loving thing to do. But whatever help the miracle worker gives on a form level, the key is that the content of her mind is healed perception, a perception which acknowledges that painful mistakes have been made within the illusion, but also recognizes that it is an illusion. It is this recognition that truly heals.

This process enables us all to stop denying the truth about ourselves, restoring our awareness that we are the beloved creations of a loving Father, forever free of pain and suffering.

This is the ultimate payoff of turning away from our false denial of the ego's darkness and practicing true denial. For the denial at the root of all our suffering — the falsest denial of them all, the one that began and maintains the separation — is the denial of the glorious truth that we are "God's Son, complete and healed and whole, shining in the reflection of His Love" (W-pII.14.1:1). The false denial of our true Identity led to the ego; the false denial of the pain the ego has caused keeps the ego in place. But by fearlessly bringing the ego and its illusions out of the fog of false denial and allowing the sunlight of true denial to shine them away, all of us will remember the truth that we denied, and be free of suffering forever. This may seem difficult, but the good news is that it is inevitable. No matter how long we persist in hanging on to denial, the truth cannot be staved off forever. In the end, "The awareness of truth cannot be denied" (T-12.I.10:3).

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