[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Virtually all of us admire people who demonstrate a spirit of openness, love, and defenselessness in their lives. We are inspired by great teachers of nonviolence like Jesus and Gandhi. Yet we find it difficult to emulate them in our own lives, because it seems to us that a certain amount of defensiveness is absolutely necessary to ensure our safety in a dangerous world. A Course in Miracles, like those great teachers of nonviolence, claims that only defenselessness ensures our safety. But how can we live this teaching? How can we let go of our defenses against our brothers and embrace the radical defenselessness that alone will bring the world safety, peace, and salvation?
Looking at defensiveness
Think of some encounters you’ve had with other people in which you felt the need to defend yourself in some way. With each encounter in mind, consider the following questions:
– What specifically did you feel you needed to defend?
– How did you defend it (or how did you consider defending it)?
– What, in your eyes, did your defense give you? What was the payoff?
What we defend: our body and our ego against an apparently attacking external world
We spend our lives defending our bodies against physical threats and defending our egos against psychological ones. Our bodies, of course, are open to attack on many fronts. To protect them, we devote a massive amount of effort to building fences, locking doors, enforcing laws, securing our borders, and amassing armies against the myriad enemies plotting against us.
We are equally vigilant against assaults on our egos. We erect “healthy boundaries” to keep out all those toxic people. We defend our ideas against criticism, our pride against insults, and our self-esteem against anyone who would suggest we aren’t good enough, smart enough, or lovable enough. Our egos are “so vulnerable and open to attack that just a word, a little whisper that you do not like, a circumstance that suits you not, or an event that you did not anticipate upsets your world, and hurls it into chaos” (T-24.III.3:1). To protect our precious egos, we try desperately to keep this chaos at bay through planning and controlling what we allow into our lives and what we keep out of them.
How we defend it: attack the external world
All of our defenses are attacks of some sort, instigated by our egos, which thrive on attack. Sometimes the attack is obvious, as when we get into a fistfight or curse at the telemarketer. Other times it is less obvious, as when we offer “constructive criticism” or give our spouse the silent treatment. Of course, we justify our attacks by claiming that we are acting in “self-defense.” However, the Course claims that this is an ego ruse meant to obscure the chilling fact that we attack simply because we want to. We project our own attacking intent onto the world, and this causes us to perceive a threatening world that we seemingly must defend ourselves against if we want to avoid getting squashed. This gives us the perfect rationale to carry out our own attacks (see W-pI.153.2:1-2).
What we think defenses give us: safety, strength, freedom from fear, and self-preservation
“You think [defense] offers safety” (W-pI.135.3:3). What could be more obvious than this? The payoff we get from defenses, at least on the surface, is that they seem to protect us from all the attackers out there. Our defenses make us strong, calm our fears, and keep our bodies and egos intact. Why else would we go to all the trouble of defending ourselves?
What they actually give us: vulnerability, weakness, fear, and identification with a lowly false self that needs constant defense
As it does with so many things, the Course completely overturns our conventional view of defenses. They not only don’t deliver the payoff we think they will, but what they do deliver is the exact opposite of what they promise (for a grim description of the bitter costs of defenses, see W-pI.153.1:-7). Instead of giving safety, defenses actually “make you vulnerable in your own mind” (W-pI.26.2:2). Instead of giving strength, defenses are actually “an acknowledgment of an inherent weakness” (W-pI.135.2:2). Instead of giving freedom from fear, defenses actually keep us in the grip of fear. “For no one walks the world in armature but must have terror striking at his heart” (W-pI.135.2:5).
It’s not too difficult to see that defenses don’t really deliver what they promise. Think, for instance, of the war on terrorism. All those orange alerts and airport security guards and regime changes are supposed to give us “homeland security,” but do they really? Do people really feel safer? Do they really feel strong and fearless? Or do they feel more vulnerable, more frail, and more terrified than ever?
The ultimate reason defenses make us feel vulnerable, weak, and afraid is that they reinforce our identification with a false self that is all those things. “When you feel the need arise to be defensive about anything, you have identified yourself with an illusion” (T-22.V.6:1). As long as we have identified with something that doesn’t even exist, how can we possibly feel secure? As long as we believe we are delicate egos encased in fragile bodies, how can we possibly feel safe?
Looking at defenselessness
Think of someone whom you regard as an exemplar of true defenselessness—perhaps a great teacher of nonviolence like the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this article. (You might also want to think of times in your life in which you demonstrated true defenselessness.) With this person in mind, consider the following questions:
– What attitude do you think this person generally had toward his or her body and ego?
– What attitude do you think this person generally had toward the external world?
– What do you think defenselessness gave him or her? What was the payoff?
What we withdraw defenses from: our body and our ego
The truly defenseless seem to have little regard for their bodies or their egos. They seem remarkably free of the oppressive self-concern that occupies most of our lives. It’s hard to imagine a Jesus or Gandhi installing a home security system, or declaring that he needs to get away from all those needy people and “start taking care of me for a change.” The Course tells us that “the body is in need of no defense” (W-pI.135.7:1), and the defenseless demonstrate this truth with a remarkable willingness to lay their bodies on the line for the sake of helping others. Indeed, self-concern in them has given way to their deep commitment to helping others, and it is this change in focus that ensures their perfect safety. “The truly helpful are invulnerable, because they are not protecting their egos and so nothing can hurt them” (T-4.VII.8:3).
How we withdraw defenses: forgive the external world
The great teachers of defenselessness are great forgivers. I’m reminded of Gandhi who, when he was shot, reportedly fell with a prayer for his assassin on his lips. Practitioners of defenselessness seem to have in common a charitable view of the world, a view which entails a staunch refusal to blame the world for what happens to them.
This refusal is at the heart of Course-based forgiveness, which reverses the whole me-versus-attacking-world scenario that fosters defensiveness. Forgiveness affirms that we are not victims of the external world, and that even our attacks upon ourselves—the real cause of all the negative things that happen to us—have no effect on who we really are. Forgiving our brothers affirms that their apparent attacks have not harmed us in any way, so what is there to defend against? Imagine how free you would feel if you truly believed, deep in your heart, that nothing and no one could harm you. This is the promise of forgiveness: “care and safety, and the warmth of sure protection always” (W-pI.122.1:5-2:1).
What we think defenselessness gives us: weakness, fear, and self-destruction
However much we may admire those who demonstrate defenselessness, doing so ourselves seems to be a terrifying prospect. Why? Quite simply, because we think we’ll get creamed. “Is it not a well-known fact the world deals harshly with defenseless innocence?” (T-31.V.4:1). Sure, Gandhi may have had a prayer on his lips for his assassin, but he was assassinated. Jesus’ defenselessness got him crucified. Why, then, would we want to emulate them? It seems to us that defenselessness delivers not strength, peace, and safety, but weakness, terror, and doom.
What it actually gives us: strength and safety, freedom from fear, and identification with our glorious true Self, which needs no defense
Just as it does with defenses, the Course completely overturns our conventional view of defenselessness. Like defenses, defenselessness delivers the exact opposite of what we think it does. Instead of giving weakness, “Defenselessness is strength” (W-pI.153.6:1). Instead of giving fear, defenselessness actually frees us from fear (see W-pI.153.9:2). Instead of leading to our doom, giving up attack actually brings us perfect safety (see T-6.III.3:7-8). As terrified as we are at the prospect of tearing down our walls and laying down our swords, when we actually do so, we discover the amazing truth that all the great exemplars of defenselessness have found: “It is not danger that comes when defenses are laid down. It is safety. It is peace. It is joy. And it is God” (M-4.VI.1:11-14).
Defenselessness gives us these gifts because it represents a shift in allegiance from our vulnerable false self to our invulnerable true Self. “It testifies to recognition of the Christ in you” (W-pI.153.6:2). By laying down our defenses, we affirm our identification with a Self that needs no defense. In so doing, we lay down the weakness and vulnerability of our bodies and egos, and tap into the Source of “strength so great attack is folly” (W-pI.153.6:4). True, our bodies can still be killed, as those of Jesus and Gandhi and other great teachers were. But if we are defenseless, this won’t matter to us, because our identification is with that which can’t be killed. Our faith is not in death but in resurrection, the recognition that “it is impossible to kill God’s Son” (C-5.3:5). Having given up the bondage of defending our bodies and egos, we are now free to devote ourselves to the salvation of the world:
In defenselessness we stand secure, serenely certain of our safety now, sure of salvation; sure we will fulfill our chosen purpose, as our ministry extends its holy blessing through the world. (W-pI.153.9:3)
Letting go of defenses and embracing defenselessness
Now that we’ve seen the bitter costs of defensiveness and the glorious rewards of defenselessness, how do get from one to the other? The first thing to recognize is that it doesn’t happen overnight. We have a heavy investment in our defenses; letting them go and embracing radical defenselessness is a gradual process that will take time and effort (see M-4.VI.1:9-10). I’ve found it helpful to boil down the process to two basic steps:
1. Mentally let go of defensiveness and embrace defenselessness through Course practice.
The Course offers many practices to help us do this, especially in the Workbook. Lessons 135, 153, and 170 are particularly helpful. Here are just a few practices I’ve found useful:
Safety is the complete relinquishment of attack. No compromise is possible in this. (T-6.III.3:7-8)
In my defenselessness my safety lies. (W-pI.153.Heading)
If I defend myself I am attacked. But in defenselessness I will be strong, and I will learn what my defenses hide. (W-pI.135.22:4-5)
You make what you defend against, and by your own defense against it is it real and inescapable. Lay down your arms, and only then do you perceive it false. (W-pI.170.2:6-7)
2. With the Holy Spirit’s guidance, behaviorally demonstrate defenselessness in your encounters with other people.
The first step is necessary in order for this step to be truly effective. Simply trying to behave defenselessly while retaining a fearful, defensive mindset will not work. But if you have had a mental shift to defenselessness, at least to some degree, then this second step will extend that shift to others and thus reinforce it. Here are some specific ways the Course offers to behaviorally demonstrate defenselessness:
See attacks as calls for love, and respond with love.
Normally, we see the attacks of others as calls for counterattack in “self-defense.” But, as every Course student knows, the Course tells us that we can also see those attacks as calls for love. Offering love instead of counterattack is an expression of defenselessness, which awakens our brothers and ourselves to the reality of love: “How could you better learn of [love’s] reality than by answering the appeal for it by giving it?” (T-12.I.10:1-2).
Show your brothers your invulnerability.
When we defend ourselves against our brothers’ attacks, our defensiveness sends them a devastating message: “You can hurt me, you have hurt me, and therefore you are a guilty sinner.” But we don’t have to send that message. We can choose to offer defenselessness instead. We can choose to show our brothers through our defenselessness that their attacks have had no effect on us; as the Course counsels: “Make your invulnerability manifest to everyone” (T-14.III.7:2). This sends the message that they have not hurt us because they cannot hurt us, and therefore must be innocent. In this way, we affirm the eternal innocence that is their salvation and ours as well.
Honor your brothers’ requests, even the “outrageous” ones.
This well-known Course idea is, in essence, a shift from defensiveness to defenselessness. The context is a situation in which someone asks you to do something and you “experience a quick response of opposition” (T-12.III.2:3)—in other words, defensiveness. You think your ego is on the line, and so you defend your ego by angrily refusing to do what your brother requested. This, of course, just escalates the situation and ends up feeding the ego in both of you. However, you can defuse this whole unfortunate situation simply by choosing a different response to your brother’s request:
Recognize what does not matter , and if your brothers ask you for something “outrageous,” do it because it does not matter. (T-12.III.4:1)
Doing what your brother asks shows him that in your eyes, it doesn’t matter, because your ego is not on the line. Your former defensiveness has been replaced by defenselessness. By simply honoring your brother’s request—not grudgingly, but graciously—you withdraw your defenses from your ego and teach him to do the same with his.
“Teach only love, for that is what you are” (T-6.I.13:2).
This famous line is the message of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Course’s ultimate example of radical defenselessness in action. In its context, the line means: “No matter how ‘outrageous’ other people’s attacks on you seem to be—even if they crucify you—do not defend yourself, but instead respond with pure defenseless love. By doing this, you will demonstrate the unreality of the body and the ego, and the reality of the loving, invulnerable true Self you share with everyone.”
Jesus did this during his crucifixion, the most extreme situation imaginable. Fortunately, however, for most of us it will never come to that. We simply need to respond with defenseless love “in the face of much less extreme temptations to misperceive” (T-6.I.6:7). When our spouse doesn’t do the dishes, or the neighbor argues with us about the presidential election, or the guy cuts us off in traffic, we can choose to lay our defenses down and offer the gift of loving-kindness instead. By responding with defenseless love instead of defensive attack, we follow in the footsteps of Jesus and affirm the Christ in all of us.
Letting go of defenses and embracing defenselessness
Call someone to mind who arouses defensiveness in you. See this person standing in front of you now. Get in touch with the defensive feelings—anger, fear, revulsion—that arise in you as you look upon this person.
Remind yourself that your defensive feelings mean that you are defending your ego and your body at the expense of your true Self. You are devoted to an illusory self. Your attack thoughts toward this person may seem to offer you safety, but in truth they offer you nothing but weakness, and a terror so great “that you have no idea of all the devastation it has wrought” (W-pI.153.4:3). You do not want this.
With this in mind, resolve now to let go of your defensiveness and embrace defenselessness. While looking upon this person, say to yourself, slowly and with as much conviction as you can muster:
In my defenselessness my safety lies. I now choose the strength of Christ instead of my own weakness. I now choose to let go of my defensiveness and embrace defenselessness in my relationship with this person, my brother. Let me remember that it is not danger that comes when defenses are laid down. It is safety. It is peace. It is joy. And it is God.
Now, see yourself behaviorally demonstrating your defenselessness in your encounter with your brother, in whatever way you feel guided. See yourself extending love in some way. Perhaps it is as simple as a smile or a hug. Perhaps you are graciously honoring some formerly “outrageous” request your brother has made. Show your brother your defenselessness in whatever way feels appropriate. And know that as you do so, your demonstration that you cannot be hurt teaches you both that you are innocent Sons of God, forever at peace in the Heart of God, forever beyond the need for defense.