The Role of the Intellect on the Spiritual Journey: Summary of a Class Presentation

Yesterday, I taught a teacher class on the role of the intellect in the Course and about how to respond to students making comments that betray an anti-intellectual attitude––comments such as, “ I don’t know about this Course; I can’t feel any emotion when I’m reading it,” or, “Being in my head keeps me from being in the now.”

We began by talking about the negative attitudes that are out there about the intellect—that, spiritually speaking, the thinking mind is the culprit, the enemy of spirituality, that thinking takes us away from direct experience and causes us to judge, analyze, divide, question, and doubt things, rather than accept and embrace them.

We talked about the bind we can feel ourselves in where by being true to the Course we can hit a sour note that makes the Course seem like a constricting head-trip that is out of step with contemporary spirituality.

I then summarized what I see as the positive use of the intellect. First, I said the goal of the spiritual path is to become one with reality or truth, and the truth, by definition, is the same for everyone. Truth is that which corresponds to fact or reality, and facts do not change from person to person. What is true is true regardless of where one happens to stand. Relative truth, then, is an oxymoron. The ego, however, is inherently a warping of this. Its very nature is that it privileges one small part of reality—oneself—and elevates that to greater importance than everything else. In its eyes, everything revolves around it, so that everything is seen as a means while it is the end. So the ego is constantly bending the truth to conform to the privileged position it has given itself. It is constantly bending reality to its wishes. Just as gravity in Einsteinian physics warps the fabric of space, so the ego warps the fabric of reality.

The beauty of the intellect is that, used rightly, it can acknowledge the truth regardless of how our  ego wants to warp it. It can, in other words, send us back in the direction of being one with the truth, and away from our ego’s warping of the truth. Most of our feelings reflect the ego’s warping of the truth, and so as long as we are at their mercy, becoming one with the truth is an impossible goal to achieve.

Second, I said that being one with the truth is about uniting with true meaning. Meaning is central to the Course and to us as sentient beings. Without meaning, life is empty. Indeed, emotion is just the experience of a deeply believed in meaning. If you are convinced, through and through, that something has absolutely no meaning, then you will also have no emotions attached to it.

The Course is about moving us away from the false and painful world of meanings we have embraced and toward true meaning. And since meaning is a cognitive thing, this movement heavily involves the intellect. This involves the Course helping us understand the convoluted, irrational, and painful meanings we currently believe in. Unless we can see what they really are, how they are false, and how they inescapably entail pain, we simply cannot let them go. This also involves the Course helping us understand true meaning, why it makes sense and why it brings joy and peace. Indeed, the practice of the Course simply consists of different forms of focusing on and uniting with true meaning, as well as negating false meaning. Even the Course’s nonverbal meditations are about this. In them, we simply focus on meaning nonverbally instead of verbally.

In sum, then, the intellect has the crucial ability to recognize non-relative truth (and non-relative falsehood) and to understand meaning (both true and false). If we put these together, we get the idea that the intellect can recognize and understand true meaning as opposed to false meaning, and that process is truly at the heart of the spiritual path.

On the other hand, though, I said the intellect has inherent limitations and dangers. The Course has many highly critical statements about the conventional intellectual enterprise. It sees what we typically do with the intellect as being a search for truth that is not sincere. Though we say that the goal is truth, we never actually get there, getting stuck along the way in endlessly defining our terms and in endless convolutions and complexities. Further, the truth we seek is often one of meaningless form, rather than meaningful content, and so we are just playing with intellectual toys. All in all, the Course sees the conventional intellectual pursuit as guided by the ego. Here is what I’ve written elsewhere:

However, the ego, which is what distanced us from truth in the first place, wants to make sure that truth never reaches us. It, therefore, tries to co-opt the search for truth. Under its guidance, we don’t travel a straight road from appearance to truth. Instead, we get lost along the way. Our search for truth gets caught up in cleverness, inventiveness, and ingenuity. The road, in other words, gets extremely convoluted. All this complexity appears to be the avenue to the truth, yet we’ve actually wandered off the straight road and into maze-like detours from which we never escape. These detours lead to dead ends, false truths that are full of contradictions. In the ego’s search, we never make it to the real truth.

A major limitation of the intellect is that it is ultimately quite constricted and unintelligent, being bounded by the ego. Lesson 92 contrasts the thinking of our brain with the thinking of our real mind, saying that it is like comparing a match to the sun. What the ego does is draw a tiny circle around the vastness of our true thought, with the result that what is inside that tiny circle is extremely limited, and ultimately quite stupid. Therefore, the really important ideas are beyond our intellect’s ability to understand, just as ideas we utilize every minute are beyond the ability of our pets to understand. This, then, is a lot of the role of the Holy Spirit. His Mind is unlimited and so can grasp the big truths. We therefore need to grasp those truths as best we can with our intellect, which really means grasping crude, simplified copies of them. And this sends our minds in the direction of those truths and allows the Holy Spirit to inject into us His larger understanding of the real thing.

Finally, while the Course does rely heavily on the intellect, it also relies heavily on other faculties. It wants us to have a strong will, alive emotions, a strong creative impulse, good communication skills (to reach our brothers with miracles), ability to tune into other realities, ability to hear the Holy Spirit. I’m sure this list could be longer. The point is that when we say the Course values the intellect, we shouldn’t imply that it doesn’t also value these other abilities.

Overall, we want to try to capture the Course’s emphasis on both the positive use of the intellect and its pitfalls and limitations.

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