Aren’t our minds a mess? They are the arena of a constant crazy dance of thoughts. Each thought seems to dance to its own music, and many of them seem to dance with no rhyme or reason at all. Furthermore, most of these thoughts are so petty, so self-centered, that we hardly want to report them with honesty to others. After a lifetime of seeing our minds filled with this ever-changing rush of erratic, selfish thoughts, what can we conclude but that this is the definitive statement on the nature of our minds? What can we conclude but that we are made of the fabric of chaos and pettiness?
Yet what if our whole experience of our minds is an illusion, a deception designed to camouflage their real nature? That is what is suggested in this passage from the Workbook of A Course in Miracles:
And yet your mind holds only what you think with God. Your self-deceptions cannot take the place of truth, no more than can a child who throws a stick into the ocean change the coming and the going of the tides, the warming of the water by the sun, the silver of the moon on it by night. (W-Re.4.In.4:1-2)
This passage contains a profound and evocative view of the mind, a view which I would like to spend this article drawing out. This passage is actually an elaboration on the first line of it. That line (put in first person) is the central theme of our practice for ten lessons in the Workbook, where we spend five minutes morning and evening dwelling on “My mind holds only what I think with God” (W-Re.4.In.2:2 and 5:3).
So what does that line mean? Does it mean that all of the thoughts we entertain somehow mysteriously come from God, no matter how meaningless and random they seem? No, what it really means is that the mind of which I am aware is not my real mind. My conscious mind, filled with my erratic private thoughts, is an illusion of a mind. It is a mirage, floating above my real mind. My real mind is a limitless domain, at one with the Mind of God. In that mind, my thoughts are not tiny, fleeting events, like my conscious thoughts, but stable, eternal realities. These thoughts are not self-initiated, but rather stream from God through the center of my Identity, where they become my thoughts as much as they are His. That is the meaning of “Your mind holds only what you think with God” (4:1).
What, then, does the next line mean: “Your self-deceptions cannot take the place of truth” (4:2)? Your self-deceptions are all the thoughts of which you are currently aware. They are self-deceptions precisely because they deceive you into thinking that your mind is not that infinite mind which thinks in unison with the Mind of God. As long as these thoughts engage you, your mind clearly seems to be a rather mean little creature, for only such a creature would crank out the small-minded thoughts you call your own. If you have ever been glad that no one can read your mind, because you were embarrassed over your thoughts, you know what I’m talking about. These thoughts, then, appear to be the proof that whatever exalted mind God gave you in the beginning has been replaced by this puny thing you call your mind now.
This passage is refuting what seems to be so obvious. Our current mind seems to be all there is to us, while the mind the Course is talking about is nowhere to be seen. Believing it exists at all seems to be a daring leap of faith. The Course is saying exactly the opposite. Our real mind, the mind that thinks with God, is all there is. What we call our mind, our conscious mind, does not actually exist at all. Believing in it is the daring leap of faith.
This brings us to the final part of 4:2: “No more than can a child who throws a stick into the ocean change the coming and the going of the tides, the warming of the water by the sun, the silver of the moon on it by night.” I see this line as sheer poetry. It uses an economy of words to capture a definite feeling. It begins with the busy activities of the child caught up in throwing his stick. Yet no matter how important his throwing seems to the child, it is reduced to utter insignificance in the face of the majesty of the ocean and its vast, perpetual rhythms. In this image one gets a sense of timeless cycles which are totally unheeding of our tiny human activities.
For me, this sense of timeless rhythm is enhanced by the rhythm of the poetic meter. These lines are written in iambic pentameter (where each line has five “feet” of two syllables each, with the accent on the second syllable of each foot: da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum), and each of the ocean’s three cycles that are mentioned has its own line of iambic pentameter:
the coming and the going of the tides,
the warming of the water by the sun,
the silver of the moon on it by night.
When I read these lines and feel their rhythm, I get a sense of perpetually repeating cycles, in part because the lines themselves take the form of repeating cycles. Three times these lines repeat the same structure of five “heartbeats,” five cycles of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. Through this repeating form, one can almost feel the repeating rhythms of the ocean. One can almost feel the days turning, as the tides go in and out, as the sun rises and then sinks in the sky, as the moonlight appears and shines peacefully upon the water, and as another day begins in which it all starts over again. Through both the form and content of these lines, one catches a sense of timelessness, of cycles that go on repeating forever, unaffected by what we humans do on the tiny shoreline. You might want to go back and read those three lines and see if you can catch this feeling from them.
The image of the stick thrown into the ocean, however, is not only designed to impart that feeling, it is carefully crafted to symbolize in detail the teaching the Course is giving us here. Let’s explore how it does that.
The image, remember, symbolizes the relationship between our conscious mind and thoughts, on the one hand, and our true mind and the thoughts it thinks with God, on the other. The child on the beach is us, the thinker of our conscious thoughts. The child’s act of throwing a stick into the ocean is our act of “throwing” a thought into our mind. The stick, therefore, represents one of our usual thoughts.
The ocean symbolizes our true mind, the mind that thinks with God. Our mind may seem like an insignificant little puddle, but that is the illusory mind. According to this image, our true mind is like an ocean. In this the Course is echoing an ancient tradition of seeing the ocean’s depth and boundlessness as a symbol of the Divine, into which our individual identities eventually merge like rivers flowing into the sea. This image is usually associated with Hinduism, although it has been used in Christian mysticism as well. The Course’s image is similar but slightly different, for here the ocean is not God, but our own true mind, which is one with the Mind of God but not absolutely identical.
What, then, do those three cycles symbolize—the tides, the sun warming the water, the moon reflecting on the surface? They must symbolize our true thoughts, the thoughts we think with God. After all, thoughts are events within the mind, and those cycles are events within the ocean. If the ocean is our true mind, then those cycles must represent the thoughts in our true mind. And what a beautiful symbol for our true thoughts. These thoughts are not the little mice we now find scurrying through our mind. They are more like the grand rhythms of the ocean.
One more point: Notice that all three cycles are a response to a celestial body. The tides are a response to the gravitational pull of the moon. The reflection of the moon is a response to its light. The warming of the water is a response to the sun’s rays. This leads us to another bit of symbolism. The ocean’s cycles are generated by the sun and moon; those cycles represent our true thoughts, and our true thoughts are generated by God. The sun and moon must therefore symbolize God.
Again the Course is echoing traditional symbolism. The sun is an ancient symbol for God and has often been worshipped itself as a god. The moon, too, has frequently been given religious significance. There is the famous image in Buddhism of the finger pointing at the moon, the moon representing enlightenment. Buddhism has also used the image of gazing on the moon’s reflection in the water (or even in a still sea) as a symbol for enlightenment. That is very close to our image from the Course.
I find the ocean’s response to the sun and moon to be a moving symbol for our mind’s reception of God’s Thoughts. The ocean cannot help but rise and fall in response to the pull of the moon. It cannot help but respond with warmth to the rays of the sun. It cannot help but receive and reflect the moonlight. The ocean is perfectly receptive to the action of these celestial bodies. Just so, our minds are perfectly receptive to the Thoughts of God. We cannot help but respond to His pull, be warmed by His sunshine, receive and reflect His moonlight. In our true mind, we yield to Him as naturally and completely as the ocean yields to the sun and the moon.
I want to stress that this image is merely a symbol. The Course places no actual significance in the ocean, sun, or moon, none whatsoever. The sun is not God, the ocean is not divine. When the Course is speaking literally, it makes it very clear that these things are illusions that will one day pass away (see, for instance, T-29.VII.2:7-10). Yet, even though things are mere illusions, I think you will admit that they can be excellent symbols for what is real.
Now that we have deciphered the symbolism, let’s make use of this image. For it is not merely a fascinating and instructive symbolic picture; it can actually draw us toward that oceanic place in our minds. Let us, therefore, try to apply it to our own mind.
Imagine yourself as the child. When you think a thought, it is like the child throwing his stick. You may believe that your little thought actually molds and changes the nature of your mind. Perhaps you can accept that when God created your mind it was crystal clear, pure and immaculate. Yet each new stick you have thrown into it seems to have changed it into an increasingly stagnant pool, odorous and covered with algae.
Thinking this, however, is like the child on the shore thinking that his stick can actually change the ocean. Notice that he is not throwing a rock into the ocean. Whereas the rock has its way with the ocean—it sinks no matter what the ocean does—the ocean has its way with the stick. The stick simply floats harmlessly on the surface. As it floats, you see the water being slowly warmed as the sun shines down upon it. When the sun has set, you see the water calmly reflecting the moonlight. And while the wheel of the days and nights continues to turn, you see the tides come and go as they always have. These ageless cycles simply go on, as they have for millions of years gone by, as they will for millions of years to come, unheeding of your little stick.
In just this same way, the thoughts of which you are aware float on the surface of your true mind, not affecting that mind in the least. It simply continues, as it always has, as if your conscious mind were not even there.
Let us, then, try to reach down to this true mind in us. I find that this ocean image is an effective focus for meditation, so I want to suggest that we try using it for that. Imagine that, in a deep place within you, lies your true mind. If you will, take a moment and close your eyes and try to sink down and inward, into the center of your mind. From time to time, in order to keep your mind on track or pull it back from wandering, you may want to repeat “My mind holds only what I think with God.” As you start to get past the mists that are your usual thoughts, realize that you approach an ancient shore. It is the shore of your real mind, which is as deep and as boundless as the ocean.
See the waves rolling onto this shore. And as you do, realize that these waves have been rolling thus for time beyond measure. They are unaware of your usual thoughts, of your problems and anxieties and responsibilities—of your sticks. Your human drama is irrelevant to them. Have you ever felt this at the ocean’s edge? Have you ever felt released from your burdens by the vastness of the ocean and the fact that your problems mean nothing to it? That, of course, was the point of that image in the Course: The child’s little drama meant nothing to the ocean. So try to get a sense of that now. Try to realize that here, on the shore of your true mind, your dramas are completely meaningless and irrelevant. Here, you are free of them.
Instead, focus your attention on the ocean. Realize that it is slowly, serenely, with majestic regularity, thinking with God. Realize that the tide is rising in response to the gravitational pull of God, and that this rising is a single grand thought which the ocean shares with God. Realize that the endless expanse of water is warming in response to God’s sunshine, and that this is another vast thought it shares with God. See the day turn to night and God’s moonlight reflecting on the water, and see this as yet another thought shared with God. The ocean of your mind, like a lover, is constantly moving in perfect response to the thoughts of its celestial Love.
Now realize that this ocean is not only there when you visit it. It has always been there and will always be. Further, it is not a special place hidden deep in your mind. It is the only place there really is. It is the only part of your mind that actually exists. The other part is just an illusion. Therefore, it only seems as if you left this ocean long ago and traveled far inland. Instead, you merely fell asleep there on the sand and dreamt of going somewhere else. And you are still there now. You have never left this ocean’s shore. Yet even this is somehow an illusion. In truth, you never even climbed onto the shore. How can the ocean leave itself?
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