Are We Responsible?

Recently my friend Tom Martin sent me a book by Ken Wilber entitled Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber. It is a beautiful, poignant story, often dark and painful, and frequently profound. In this true story, Ken Wilber and Treya Killam meet (due to the match-making skills of Roger Walsh and Frances Vaughn) and fall instantly in love, feeling that they have been searching for each other for ages. In four months they are married. It seems like a fairy tale. Yet right before they are to leave for their honeymoon in Hawaii, Treya is diagnosed with breast cancer.

What follows is the record of five extremely challenging years. Strangely, much of the challenge came not from the sheer physical circumstances, formidable as they were, but from the mental process of evaluating and questioning the meaning of having cancer: Why has it come? Is there a lesson involved? If so, what is it? Am I responsible for this?

This process does not just go on in their own minds. They constantly receive evaluations from others that attempt to answer these questions, especially from New Agers who insist that Treya’s own thoughts have brought her cancer on. She is responsible for it, they say, and if she would just stop the kind of thinking that gave rise to it, she would be healed.

As you might guess, Treya and Ken do not feel the miraculous healing power that these comments are intended to transmit. In fact, they end up feeling a great deal of pain and anger over the New Age position that all illness is the responsibility of the person involved. This pain becomes a significant burden in their already supremely challenging situation. Their conclusion is that it is cruel to believe that all illness is caused by the person’s own thoughts, for this simply lays guilt on top of the illness. They feel that of the many factors that bring on cancer, the psychological accounts for perhaps 20% of the total picture.

Of course, this is an age-old issue, and concerns not just physical illness, but all manner of external calamities. Why has this thing happened to me? Is it a random event? An act of God? Or am I somehow responsible? Have my choices—perhaps my sins—brought this on?

Recently, in the New Age/holistic healing world, this question has been rolling around again, getting ping-ponged back and forth between two poles. One pole says that, yes, you are responsible for your illness. And isn’t this wonderful because now it is in your hands to heal it? The other pole says, no, this position piles guilt onto someone who instead needs love and compassion. To blame people for their illness is literally adding insult to injury, kicking them when they are down.

What does the Course have to say about this? I, of course, can only give my own interpretation of that—I have heard others—but hopefully it will shed some measure of light onto things.

Being responsible vs. being innocent
The ping-ponging I just mentioned is an intellectual reflection of a process that goes on all the time in our personal lives. We are stuck between the notions of being responsible and being an innocent victim. Let us look at these two concepts.

By “being responsible,” I refer to the concept that my outer experience is somehow the product of my inner choices. This idea is attractive, for it places me in the driver’s seat. I am not helpless. I am not a victim of outside forces. I am in control. My choices are what caused this hurt, and so I am not helpless in the face of it. It is in my power to choose that it be healed.

The down side of being responsible, however, is guilt. Guilt and responsibility are two concepts that seem to go hand in hand. If I am responsible for something negative, painful or destructive, then I am to blame, I am guilty. In summary, the position that I am responsible does give me a sense of power over my experience, power to change pain into happiness. But it has the side effect of making me guilty whenever I experience pain, since pain is taken as a sign that I have used my power destructively, sinfully.

When that guilt becomes too much, we usually ping over to the victim side. This position says that I did not choose this illness, disaster or calamity, that it was thrust upon me by forces outside my control. In light of what we said about being responsible, the benefits and drawbacks of this position should be obvious. They are precisely the reverse. As a victim, I am innocent. I have no guilt with which to burden my already burdened mind. But, unfortunately, this is won at the cost of helplessness: I have little, perhaps no, power over my situation.       When helplessness becomes unbearable, we pong back over to the responsible side, hoping that if we can believe in our power, we can take the reins into our own hands and control our fate more effectively. And when that results in too much guilt, we ping back to the victim perspective. And on and on it goes. The problem is that both sides possess something of inherent value and beauty; in one case, power, and in the other case, innocence. And each side lacks precisely what the other side possesses. It seems to be a terrible dilemma, impossible to resolve. We can choose one, choose the other, switch back and forth, try a compromise between them. But we can never fully possess the treasure of both. If this is the way life works, then we truly are victims.

The Course, however, presents a position that does seem to resolve this dilemma. It accomplishes this quite simply, by severing any and all connection between responsibility and guilt. It combines power and innocence into a position that advocates total responsibility and total lack of blame. In other words, we are always responsible and never to blame. Let me tackle these one at a time.

Always Responsible
The Course is filled with references to the fact that “you [are] the one decider of your destiny in time” (T-27.IX.3:3). Perhaps the most well-known statement of this occurs in Chapter 21 in the Text:

I am responsible for what I see.
I chose the feelings I experience,
And I decided on the goal I would achieve.
And everything that seems to happen to me I asked for and received as I had asked.

Deceive yourself no longer that you are helpless in the face of what is done to you…

It is impossible the Son of God be merely driven by events outside him. It is impossible that the happenings that come to him were not his choice. His power of decision is the determiner of every situation in which he seems to find himself by chance or accident. No accident or chance is possible within the universe as God created it, outside of which is nothing. Suffer, and you decided sin was your goal. Be happy, and you gave the power of decision to Him Who must decide for God for you. (T-21.II.2:3-6, 3:1-6)

To account for this, the Course repeatedly sketches different aspects of a single process. The process begins with my desiring a certain belief, a certain way of looking at reality, and then choosing to invest faith in that. I do this first in relation to myself: I choose a self-image. That self-image then becomes expanded into a complete world-view.

Once established, the belief-system that I acquire becomes the determiner of my entire experience in life. My emotions are simply internal experiences of that belief-system. My external circumstances, including my body and its conditions, are merely external projections of those same beliefs. Everything that I experience, internal or external, is just the hand of my experience dipping itself into the underlying matrix of my beliefs about reality.

In terms of my experience of the external world, it gets a bit complicated. For my belief-system guides how I interpret the situations and events of my life, once they come to me, thus producing my experience of them. Yet, unknown to me, those same events were invisibly drawn to me by that same belief-system, in the expectation that I would interpret them just as I did. In other words, although no outer event or situation has any inherent meaning, my belief-system will draw to me those situations and events that it is bound to interpret in a certain way. For instance, if I want to be rejected, and interpret the outer form of people not agreeing with me as rejection, then I will dream into my life people that do not agree with me.

In light of this, why do I experience pain? It is because my belief-system says I should. I experience pain when my self-image says that I am a limited being that can be hurt and a guilty being that deserves to be hurt. And to support this, a world-view grows up in my mind that says: There is a reality outside of me that can hurt me, a reality that is cruel, punitive, and therefore wants to hurt me. Once I believe all this, I start to dream a dream that is just a welling up of this subterranean river of negative belief. In my dream I become a suffering image fashioned after my self-concept. And the world becomes a pain-giving image made in the likeness of my world-view.

Yet why would we choose such a destructive belief-system? If it all started from desire, if we experience only what we want to experience, how on earth could we desire this? How could pain be what we want to experience? The Course implies that buried deep underneath our current personality is something exceedingly rooted and ancient, something that has generated injured personalities and multiple forms of painful existence for seemingly billions of years. This something is our core belief. It is the false identification which the Course calls the ego.

The ego is the answer to why we choose pain. Its deep irony, even tragedy, lies in this: On the one hand, since we believe that we are it, we think that we absolutely must hold onto it, for in so doing we think we are holding our very existence in place. Yet on the other hand, it is an across-the-board, out-and-out attack on our true nature. The ego is the statement that we—infinite, eternal beings of formless innocence and love—are in reality limited, time-bound beings, encased in form and governed by attack. In other words, we are attached to an attack on ourselves. And this is the root of all pain. This is why our world and our lives are so full of suffering. Certainly it was some observation or dim intuition of this that Freud had when he formulated his concept of the death drive.

Although I am sure this bears resemblance to deeper notions of the idea of karma, it is a very different idea from the popular notion of karma. There, I do something wrong in a past life. This deed is then stored somewhere (the Akashic records, for instance) as a debt. And then some external force (God, the Lords of Karma) arranges a situation that punishes me and allows me to pay the debt.

In the Course, my current suffering is not the result of an external source punishing me because I really am guilty. It is my own mind punishing me because I falsely believe that I am guilty. Further, it is not the past that is the cause of my suffering. It may be in the past that I chose the beliefs that cause my suffering, but it is only my choosing to hang onto that past in the present that makes it a source of current suffering. Connecting my suffering to the past, to an external presence and to a real source of guilt would make it all real. In truth, it is simply a current delusion in my own mind, a soap bubble that will pop the instant I choose to stop my habitual, moment-by-moment sustaining of it.

Therefore, says the Course, we are responsible for all that happens to us. Every calamitous event that we experience we brought to ourselves in order to give us pain.

Clearing up misconceptions
However, all that being said, I feel it is exceedingly important to clear up some misconceptions about how this power of responsibility operates. It is commonly assumed that if I have a cold today, then I must have made some wrong choice yesterday (or at least recently). The ultimate implication of this is that my state of physical health, or my state of material and financial health, etc., is a gauge of just how evolved I am. Besides being a view entrenched in spiritual competition, this view also leads us to crazy conclusions like: All those Catholic saints that were sickly their whole lives were not as evolved as you and I who have generally good health. Or, all those high Indian mystics that died of cancer were just not as advanced as Bill Thetford who died a quick, easy death of heart failure.

Although I think that thoughts I have today can result in illness tomorrow, I think that as a general perspective this is a false and very misleading point of view. Closer to the truth, I think, is a view which says that events that occur in my life right now are being dreamt out of that very deep and ancient place in me that has been hanging onto self-condemnation for millennia; that place in me that put me in a body in the first place. By implication, my cold today may have nothing to do with thoughts I consciously engaged in yesterday or even in this life.

For instance, if I get cancer, the particular mental pattern that dreamt the cancer may be so buried that it is not evident at all in my current personality, which reflects only certain strands of my overall ego. Thus, the responsible mental pattern may be lying dormant, either partially or totally submerged. And from that place, it will be working through all kinds of dream forces—external, hereditary, nutritional and biological—to bring this cancer into apparent being. In fact, this particular mental pattern may well have dreamt into place much of the structure of this life, including my body’s genetic inheritance. In other words, superficial psychological factors may indeed only account for 20% of an illness like cancer. Yet the factors that account for the other 80% are just middlemen for deeper, older psychological forces. Furthermore, even if the responsible mental pattern pre-dates this lifetime, it was probably not chosen in one particular instant or solidified during a particular past deed. It may have been cultivated over thousands of years, and then perhaps left to lie fallow in this lifetime.

Also, the Course does suggest that the choices of others do influence us and therefore show up in our outer dream. In fact, from the Course’s standpoint, every single thought we have influences every single living thing. So my cancer may in part come from your choices. This does not violate the Course’s dictum that, “It is impossible the Son of God be merely driven by events outside him” (T-21.II.3:1), because, of course, you are not outside of me. “Nothing beyond yourself can make you fearful or loving, because nothing is beyond you.” (T-10.I.1:1). You are another part of my Self. Thus, in some sense, your choices are my choices. I am my brother’s keeper because I am my brother.

Yet the tone of the Course, I feel, definitely suggests that the choices of others are a minority influence in my experience; that my own choices are the major factor. For instance, at one point the Course says that someone can “imprison” others, “but only to the extent that he reinforces errors they have already made” (T-1.35.11:2). This suggests that your choices have a secondary influence, having the effect of simply adding strength to my own choices.

One of the major implications of these qualifiers is to suggest that the presence of physical illness or external crisis does not mean that we have been doing it all wrong. It does not mean that our spiritual path is a failure, that we are heading in the wrong direction (although it may mean this). In fact, we may be experiencing outer disaster because we are making the right choices. How is this? When we get on the spiritual path and begin to make choices for God, this can, and often does, have the effect of flushing up to the surface buried psychic garbage, so that we can get a good look at it, see that we do not want it, and let it go. It is as if the Holy Spirit within us hears us fervently praying, “I want God” and translates that into, “I want to face a whole sewer’s worth of my garbage in order to relinquish that ancient ego in me.” For He knows that we will find God only through that relinquishment.

And so this is why I think so many spiritual seekers lead such incredibly difficult lives. The disaster they experience today may not mean that the choices they made yesterday were real stinkers. On the contrary, it may mean that their healing choices are loosening up and flushing out psychic material that has been hardened and stuck to the walls of their unconscious for centuries, blocking the flow of God’s Love to their minds. Of course, it is nearly impossible to stand on the sidelines and say exactly what is causing someone’s situation. It is a law that they are responsible, yet how that responsibility is giving rise to this particular situation, is a tough call from where we stand. And so, as always, non-judgment, compassion and love are the best response.

Never to blame
Just knowing that we are always responsible is not enough. It is only half of the equation. The other half, that we are never to blame, is equally important, perhaps more so. Yet how can the two really go together? If in fact we are personally responsible for all kinds of destructive, seemingly tragic things, then how can it possibly be that we are not to blame? If I intentionally murder someone, how can it be that I am totally innocent?

As I see it, the Course gives two reasons for this. The first one is that reality, like some sort of heavenly padded cell, cannot be hurt, no matter what insane things I may do to it. I cannot really kill anyone. As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita:

That Reality which pervades the universe is indestructible. No one has power to change the Changeless. Bodies are said to die, but That which possesses the body is eternal. It cannot be limited, or destroyed.

Not only can I not kill you, I cannot effect even the slightest change in your true being. Your mind is like the sky; the clouds move across it, yet the sky remains unchanged. Or like a mirror, which accepts images and seems to conform itself to them, without the mirror being changed or affected at all. Life in the dream is where that sky or that mirror identifies with the passing images, thinking that it changes as they move, thinking that it dies when they pass away. Yet all the while it remains as serenely motionless and pristinely pure as before.

In other words, there is a limit set on our responsibility. We are responsible for what we experience, but not for what we are. Our thoughts, feelings and circumstances are in our own hands, but our reality is in God’s. We have no power over it. We are unable to damage reality with attack. And we are powerless to injure our own being with guilt. This, I believe, is an exalted doctrine. Absolute responsibility, if carried to its logical extreme, would be a nightmare. For we all know that, like the prodigal son, a separated mind is prone to doing foolish and destructive things with the power granted it. Luckily, there is a limit set on that power. Reality is not up to you. “If it were, you would have destroyed yourself” (T-8.V.2:2).

The second reason that our responsibility does not imply guilt is that even our attempts to damage reality are just calls for reality, calls for love. Since love is our reality, we can only be motivated by it, either by the expression of it or the search for it. When we fall into ignorance of what love really is, we will inevitably pursue it, yet just as inevitably will do so in ways that are unloving, ways that attack the very love that we are courting. This may be foolish, but it is not sinful. As the Course tells us, it is merely an innocent mistake.

The Son of God can be mistaken…. But he cannot sin. There is nothing he can do that would really change his reality in any way, or make him really guilty. (T-19.II.3:1-3)

I find the Course’s position on this issue exquisitely beautiful. My passage through time and space is completely in my hands. The whole universe of my experience is wired up to a keyboard and dances in complete obedience to the touch of my fingers on the keys (even if I am largely unconscious of what the heck I am playing). Yet when that dance becomes destructive, it does not mean that I am guilty, that I have corrupted my being. For the outer universe may dance to my music, but my inner being dances only to my Father’s music, and He only sings of innocence.

What do we say to others?
One last point: In talking to someone who has cancer or who is experiencing any kind of apparent disaster, let us stress the second half of this truth over the first, the fact that we are never to blame over the fact that we are always responsible.

In this context, there are two kinds of help to give someone, corresponding roughly to the two halves of the idea that we are always responsible but never to blame. In the first, I focus on your responsibility, how you can use your power to improve your situation, and perhaps how you have used it to screw it up. In the second, I focus on your being, your innocence, your beauty, the unknown reserves of strength you have lying within you, the fact that who you are can never really be injured. I see the Christ in you. I may tell you things that express this; I may not even need to say anything, but just communicate my vision of your divinity through the quality of my presence.

The ironic thing is that usually what people want and need most is the second kind of help, rather than the first. Yet unfortunately, most of us helpers think exactly the opposite, and lead with the first kind of help, neglecting the second. So that, while we are telling them how to be more responsible, they just want to be loved. As helpers, then, we need to see the second kind of help as the fundamental one. That is our function. That is what really heals. We should lead with love and compassion, and venture into advising them on how to use their responsibility only as they seem open to it and invite it, only as we feel inspired to offer it, and only as an extension of our vision of the Christ in them. For such help, cut off from its proper roots in love and compassion, becomes mere insensitive meddling, judgment, correction and attack, which, Lord knows, we already engage in enough. We may liberate ourselves with the wonderful truth that we are always responsible. But we liberate others primarily by telling them that they are never to blame.

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