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What Is a Holy Instant? Part II, Specific Examples and Characteristics

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]

This article was written by Allen Watson

In Part I of this article, we saw that in one sense, there is only one holy instant, which is simply a window in time through which we perceive eternity. Although we have many experiences of a holy instant in our lifetimes, those experiences are really all instances of tapping into the one holy instant which, being eternal, extends through all time.

What a Holy Instant Is

In this second part of the article, we want to look at several passages in the Course that offer a definition or description of what the holy instant is, to better understand how we can “practice the mechanics of the holy instant” (T-15.II.5:4). As we learn what constitutes a holy instant, we can begin to practice it. We can consciously aspire, in any given moment, that it might be a holy instant, and we can develop techniques that will facilitate making it so.

1. An Instant Offered to the Holy Spirit (T-15.II.1:6)

One simple definition of the holy instant is that it is an instant that you offer to the Holy Spirit. Offering the instant to Him entails taking your own hands off it, letting go all your past learning, and putting Him in charge. As the final Workbook lesson has us repeat over five days (and for the rest of our lives, really):

This holy instant would I give to You. Be You in charge. (W-pII.361-365.Heading)

Another way of saying the same thing is that in the holy instant you let go of your independent will and accept the Will of God as all there is (T-15.IV.8:6).

This aspect of giving the instant to the Holy Spirit, and letting Him make the decisions and judgments in place of your own, does not mean you are absolved of all responsibility for your life, as can be seen in T-21.II.2:1-3;3:3,5-7; 4:5-6. This section juxtaposes allowing the Holy Spirit to make your decisions with the idea that “[You are] responsible for what [you] see” (T-21.II.2:3). These two thoughts are not incompatible because you are the one responsible for deciding to give the instant to the Holy Spirit or not. That decision determines what you see: the “world you do not want” results from your deciding for the unholy instant, while the “one you do” want results from giving the power to decide for you to the Holy Spirit (T-21.II.4:6). Therefore, one way of increasing your experience of the holy instant is to develop a habit of consciously asking the Holy Spirit to make your decisions for you.

Choosing to allow the Holy Spirit to make your decisions seems inextricably linked to the holy instant. I’m not sure which comes first or which causes the other. Does the holy instant provide us with strength to make that choice, or does the choice trigger the holy instant? Whatever the case may be, it is clear the two go hand in hand, and you can’t really have one without the other. The key, as is pointed out in T-21.II.4:8, is recognizing that we want the world we will see when the Holy Spirit is given control of our lives, and that it is up to us to choose it. As we have already seen (in Part I), equivocating and trying to hold onto the ego’s separation-based values will always block, or at least dampen, the experience of the holy instant.

In the rapid onrush of our lives, it may often seem impossible to pause and offer the moment, whatever it contains, to the Holy Spirit. There is so much to do, and the demands of life seem urgent; stopping even for a few seconds to mentally ask the Holy Spirit to be in charge seems not only of lesser importance, but we may even think that taking our attention away from our situation would do more harm than good. After all, things might get out of our control! Does it ever occur to us that loss of our control might be a good thing?

In the holy instant, we give the Holy Spirit control over the present moment of time. In return, He empowers us to offer forgiveness to our brothers, thus enabling them to offer salvation to us (T-21.II.3:7-8). The Course says that when we offer Him only one instant, wholly and completely, without reservation, He will give us all of salvation (T-21.II.2:1-5; also, T-18.VII.5:3; T-27.V.4:2; M-15.2:7). That exchange is brought about in the holy instant, and it is maintained by continuing to enter holy instants with Him. In a holy instant offered to the Holy Spirit, you stop projecting blame outside yourself. You cannot experience a holy instant while maintaining that your brother’s guilt is real, rather than something you are making up in your own mind (T-21.II.13:3).

2. Remembering Your Union with God and the Sonship

One description that really says it all is that the holy instant is an instant in which you remember God and your union with Him. You are aware of being united directly with Him, and since all the Sonship—all our brothers and sisters—are also united with Him, you are united with them as well (T-15.VI.8:1).

This is not a moment of becoming one, but of recognizing the Oneness that always already is (T-21.VIII.5:1). In the holy instant you may feel the unity with God and your brothers, a unity that is always there, having been given us in God’s gift of creation. People who experience a holy instant of unity carry from it a reflection of that eternal unity to the world of time around them (W-pI.169.13:3).

Clearly, you cannot recognize your oneness with God and your brothers without forgiving both your brothers and yourself, and acknowledging the total innocence of both. If you are one with God, and also one with your brother, then your brother must also be one with God. A moment in which that understanding becomes a concrete certainty, beyond all doubt (at least in that moment), is a holy instant.

3. A Moment of Shared Faith in the Sonship (T-15.VI.2:5)

When you remember God you remember His Son. You recognize the Holy Spirit in your brother. When you interact with others through your ego, you focus on their flaws; you don’t think they can be counted on to overcome their biases and to reach the truth. To have faith in the Sonship means that you realize, as the Course points out, that “Everyone will answer the Call of the Holy Spirit”(T-5.II.10:8) and “Everyone seeks for love as you do”(T-14.X.10:5). “He asks for what you want, and needs the same as you” (T-31.II.10:3). Again, a moment in which you simply know you can trust God in your brother or sister is a holy instant.

I think this might have been a central factor in Helen and Bill’s holy instant, when they joined in a common purpose. Bill somehow recognized something in Helen that would respond to his appeal; Helen recognized in Bill a heart like her own. And they joined. In that moment they believed in one another; they shared a faith in the Sonship. That was a holy instant.

4. A Moment in Which Desire for Vengeance Is Gone

In a holy instant “the drive for vengeance has been uprooted” because “the past is gone” (see T-16.VII.6:1-4 for the complete context of this idea). The ego tries to convince us that we will be happy if we can just get even with the people who have hurt us; the Holy Spirit teaches the opposite.

Chapter 27 refers to “an instant of your love without attack” (T-27.V.4:2). That is one way of describing the holy instant. Your desire for vengeance is gone because you understand the past is gone, and therefore, nothing remains to impede the natural outflow of your love. Most experiences of forgiveness fall into this category, and an experience of forgiveness is, therefore, a holy instant.

I remember a close friend of mine who had been in an abusive relationship for years, and had been filled with bitter hatred and resentment, her sleep bothered by dreams of vengeance in which she stabbed her husband to death. After experiencing a deep holy instant of forgiveness she was astonished at what had happened inside her. “I’m not even angry with him any more,” she said. “I used to hope he’d rot in hell, but now I really want him to find happiness and peace for himself.” Her desire for vengeance had simply disappeared.

If grievances and desires for revenge (which you may think of as “justice”) occupy your mind, you can increase the likelihood of experiencing a holy instant by frequently praying, as the Workbook counsels us, “Let miracles replace all grievances” (W-pI.89.3:1), or reminding yourself, “The problem is a grievance; the solution is a miracle” (W-pI.90.2:5).

5. A Moment in Which Self-attack Ceases

In Chapter 28, Section I, the Course speaks about miracles. It says that “The miracle comes quietly into the mind that stops an instant and is still” (T-28.I.11:1), which is clearly a reference to a holy instant. In that moment, we recognize our own innocence. We connect with our loving heart, and in that identification there is no guilt, “nothing that would make [us] afraid” (T-28.I.12:6). We stop attacking ourselves! (T-27.V.5:5).

I don’t think we have the slightest idea of how constantly our minds are attacking themselves. We exist in a sea of self-judgment. We earnestly believe that large chunks of ourselves are despicable. The Course says we lack “confidence in [ourselves], so long despised” (T-18.III.3:4). When self-attack ceases for a moment, that moment is a holy instant. When you let yourself love yourself, that is a holy instant, because it is getting in touch with the eternal truth about yourself, instead of looking at your track record. Marianne Williamson has said, “You are not your resumé.” A moment in which you recognize the truth of that is a holy instant.

I recall taking part in a meditation on loving-kindness, in which we extended blessing and acceptance and peace to others, starting with those close to us, and then extending outward to the city around us, to the nation, and to the entire world. Finally, after our hearts had been opened fully and attuned to love and compassion, the person leading the meditation asked us to turn that compassion on ourselves. “Look down on yourself. See yourself there, and have mercy on yourself. Say to yourself, ‘May I be happy. May I be contented. May I be free from suffering. May I remember who I really am.’”

As I followed those instructions and offered those blessings to myself, my heart melted, my eyes filled with tears, and I was aware as never before of the constant self-condemnation that had become so normal to me that only its absence revealed its usual presence.

6. A Time of Perfect Communication

A holy instant can be a moment in which your mind is perfectly open to another mind. You are willing to receive, or to give, as the moment calls for (T-15.IV.6:5). Your mind, therefore, “seeks to change nothing, but merely to accept everything” (T-15.IV.6:8).To be so perfectly open to another that we have abandoned any desire to change them, and seek only to offer them love and healing, is a rare state, and one that we should spend more time seeking. “When a brother behaves insanely, you can heal him only by perceiving the sanity in him” (T-9.III.5:1). I recommend frequent readings of the Text, Chapter 9 Section III (“The Correction of Error”) to aid in the formation of this perfect openness.

7. A Recognition of Love in Yourself

When we suspend our judgment toward others, it leads us to the holy instant, in which we recognize the Love of God within us, the fact of our union with the Love of God in our minds (see T-15.VI.5:3 and T-21.II.8:2-4). Those passages show that the recognition of our true nature cannot occur while we maintain our judgment and condemnation of our brothers. When we withdraw the projection of guilt, and realize that we are responsible for what we see, it enables the holy instant of self-recognition to happen.

Your judgments are the root of your seeming desire to attack. When the judgments are gone, attack is gone, and when that happens you discover that, in the core of your being, you are love. You recognize the idea of love in yourself. You experience yourself as love, because that is what you are (T-6.I.13:2). When you experience love, free from attack, flowing through you, that is a holy instant.

Think of some time in your life when love was flowing deeply, when you knew that your love was pure, an untainted desire for goodness for another person. That cannot happen when you harbor grievances against the other person. But when it does happen, you become aware of a part of yourself, a wellspring of love within you that is obscured and often so overlaid with self-judgment that you doubt its existence. Those moments of knowing, “This is really in me! I am truly a loving being!” are one type of holy instant. They are one of the rewards of forgiveness.

A Clarifying Note: the Holy Instant and the Miracle

If we try to distinguish between the terms miracle and holy instant, based on T-21.II.8:3 we might at first deduce that the miracle is a suspension of judgment toward others that leads to the holy instant of recognizing ourselves as love. Yet this distinction between the miracle and the holy instant, connecting them as cause (the miracle of suspended judgment) and effect (the holy instant of self-recognition), is only one side of the story. Other passages seem to imply that the miracle happens in the holy instant, and still other passages seem to say the miracle follows the holy instant or arises from it (T-19.I.14:1,3; T-16.VII.11:1-2;T-28.I.11:1-2; T-27.V.3:1-2).

If we wish to establish some temporal order here, we must understand that there are two aspects of the miracle. There is the miracle that each of us receives from the Holy Spirit, which touches our mind, suspends its judgment, and makes it aware of the love within itself. This aspect of the miracle brings us to the holy instant. The second aspect of the miracle involves its extension: in the holy instant we see the miracle of our relationship with our brothers, and then the miracle extends from the holy instant to other minds.

In a larger sense, remember, the holy instant and the miracle do not “happen” at all; they are not bound by time or temporal order. Being eternal, the holy instant always is. What “happens” is that we remove the barriers to experiencing it. The holy instant is always present; the miracle is what allows us to tap into it and share that experience with others. The holy instant is the content of what we experience. The miracle we experience brings us into the holy instant, and then from the holy instant we extend the miracle to our brothers.

Another way of looking at this is implied by a phrase the Course uses more than once: “the miracle of the holy instant” (T-15.I.15:11, T-18.IV.2:8). This seems to make the two terms identical: the holy instant is the miracle we receive and give. In that light, we might restate the sequence of events surrounding the holy instant in this way: First, you receive the miracle of the holy instant (internal aspect of the miracle), and second, from this holy instant you extend miracles to your brothers (external aspect of the miracle): “Offer the miracle of the holy instant through the Holy Spirit, and leave His giving it to you to Him” (T-15.I.15:11).

8. A Miniature of Heaven and Eternity

In the holy instant, you experience now, in time, what is true in eternity. You catch a glimpse of Heaven. You get afore taste of eternity (T-17.IV.11:1,4). You enter into the Oneness. You catch a bit of the melody of the eternal song of love that fills Heaven.

There are times when what we need is to escape from the narrow confines of this world. In those times, we can say, “I will be still an instant and go home” (W-pI.182.Heading). Sometimes a holy instant is not so much a moment of union with our brothers as it is one of enjoying our union with God. It is a quiet time of retreat and rest in the Father’s house, a moment in which the world falls away from your awareness and your heart returns to God.

9. A Shift to Vision

The holy instant shifts you from false perception to vision (T-15.IX.1:1-2). You see past the limits of the body to what lies beyond the body. You catch a glimpse of a reality that transcends everything you thought was real until then. It could be a very brief recognition of the Christ in one person. It could be an extended, mystical experience of the oneness of all beings. Both would be a holy instant.

In a way this is the goal of the Course’s training program. It seeks to shift us from false perception to the vision of Christ, in which Christ is all we see, hear, and touch in everyone, everywhere (T-24.V.7:7-10). A holy instant is a momentary experience of what that is like, often with one specific individual. We see them in a way we never imagined possible. We see them as (Gasp!) holy. The vision of Christ is given to anyone who is willing to see his brother as sinless (T-22.II.13:2).

10. A Way of Reaching Another State of Mind

Chapter 27, Section IV, “The Quiet Answer,” contains one of my favorite definitions of the holy instant. The holy instant is a “way of reaching to another state of mind in which the answer is already there” (T-27.IV.2:3-4). Its peaks of how our normal state of mind is so conflicted that no answer is possible to our problems. And yet, there is another state of mind in which the answer exists already. The holy instant consists in reaching to that other state of mind. (You may want to read the first two paragraphs of Section IV.)

One side of the coin is: because God does not will for us to have problems, every problem can be answered right now. That is the real situation. However, the other side is: in our state of mind, “solution is impossible.” The resolution obviously must be some way for us to reach a different state of mind, so that we can recognize that our problems have already been solved by God (T-27.IV.2:3-4). The holy instant is that way.

The holy instant, then, is a moment in which you connect with a state of mind in which all your problems have already been answered. It must be that, if you just think for a moment. We associate peace of mind with the holy instant (T-27.V.3:2), but how could you be at peace if your problems were unanswered?

The Workbook, in Lesson 50, is talking about the holy instant when it refers to this same state of mind, where “nothing can threaten…and where nothing can intrude upon the eternal calm of the Son of God” (W-pI.50.3:3).The thing to notice is that this is speaking about a state of mind that already exists. It must exist already if, in it, your problems have been answered already. This is your right mind, and it is part of you. It exists within you and you are, in the holy instant, connecting with it, becoming aware of it. You are letting go of all the ego’s defenses against peace and accepting the peace that is always, already there, an inherent aspect of your being.

This same part of the Text includes a very clear definition of the holy instant in just these terms: “The holy instant is the interval in which the mind is still enough [that is, sets aside the ego’s noisy thoughts for a moment] to hear an answer that is not entailed within the question asked” (T-27.IV.6:9).

Obviously, then, one way of approach to the holy instant is to engage in exercises designed to quiet or still the mind. Meditation, for instance, is one such methodology.

11. A Moment of Stillness

The preceding quote speaks of the mind becoming still. Stillness, or quiet, is another aspect of the holy instant that is frequently mentioned. Our right mind is naturally quiet and calm; it is the ego that is noisy, raucous, and filled with shrieks of terror. The ego is constantly busy, frantically inaction, but when we connect with our right mind in the holy instant, the noise drops away and we are still. I believe this is what many meditators experience, even though they have not studied the Course. (Some Course references to the still mind are T-28.I.11:1; T-31.I.12:1-4; T-31.II.6:4; and T-31.II.8:1-6.)

You won’t feel that stillness to its full extent or experience it profoundly in every holy instant. Sometimes we connect with that quiet inner place more clearly than at other times. But it is always there, within you. “There is a place in you where there is perfect peace”(W-pI.47.7:4; see also T-29.V.1:1-3,2:3-4). Once you have experienced it, you know itis always there, even when the surface of your mind is agitated. And, with practice, dropping down beneath the turmoil to “the stately calm within” (T-18.I.8:2), “the quiet center” (T-18.VII.8:1-2) that is always present, becomes easier and more consistently possible.

Sometimes when I sit down to practice my Workbook lesson, looking for what the Workbook calls a period “of wordless, deep experience”—which is one way it describes the holy instant (W-pII.In.11:2)—my mind will just be filled with thoughts. I can’t get still. I can’t seem to quiet my mind and let go of its busy-ness. I may practice some meditation technique like focusing on the breath or offering peace of mind to everyone I think of (Workbook Lesson 108). Sometimes these methods work. Sometimes they don’t. The goal of the still mind is important and should always be before us, and attempts to reach it are always valuable, but the most important things are our desire for it and our faithfulness to the practice.

When there is a storm at sea, the surface of the ocean may be violently agitated. The waves may crash and clash together. Foam may spray up into the air. But deep, down deep, there is a placid calm. Our mind is like that. On the days when I cannot seem to get beyond the whitecaps of my mind, I remind myself that the peace is there; I’m just unable to be aware of it.

I think trying to manufacture particular feelings, or trying to forcibly resist certain thoughts, in order to achieve a holy instant is a mistake. “What you resist, persists,” as Werner Erhard said. I think such things can best be done by a gentler (but still firm) approach. One practice I like is the practice of recognizing ego thoughts, affirming I don’t want them, and choosing a Course-based thought with which to replace them. I do not try to repress the ego thought or force it to go away; rather, I replace it. I do not get rid of this thought by taking a sledge hammer to it, or denying that it is in my mind, but simply by turning my mind elsewhere.

We need to place both our attempts to have a holy instant and the results of those attempts into the hands of the Holy Spirit. It does not matter what we believe the results are; they are always abundant. “Your benefit will not be less if you believe that nothing happens” (W-pI.124.9:1). The Holy Spirit is grateful for my effort. The gift of the holy instant is always given to my right mind, and my right mind is grateful to me also, grateful for my efforts. “The joy your Self experiences It will save for you, and it will yet be yours in full awareness” (W-pI.96.11:4; see also T-1.III.5:4). I receive the benefit every time I practice the holy instant, whether or not I feel it, whether or not it seems like anything happens. The bliss is there whether or not I experience it.

One image that often helps me drop through the clouds of fear and into peace is the image of “going home” (see, for example, all of Lesson 182 in the Workbook). It teaches us to “Be still an instant and go home with Him, and be at peace a while” (W-pI.182.12:9). I think of going home to my Father’s house and just resting there a while. I don’t try to force anything. I just picture myself walking into a place and feeling at home, and sitting down to rest. Just for a moment, just for a little while, I am resting, here at home. Sometimes just repeating the words, “I am at home with God,” or similar words, will draw me into that experience of peace.

12. A Release from Physical Restrictions

In what we might call a “full-blown” holy instant, our awareness of our bodies falls away. This is not like what is called an out-of-body experience; rather, the body is virtually forgotten. Our attention is completely on something else (see T-18.VI.10-14, especially paragraph13). What is happening is that, for a moment, we are sloughing off our imagined bodily identities and expanding into the vastly larger identity that is truly our sin spirit. While I do not think we need to berate ourselves if we have not experienced this loss of body awareness, itis a valid measure of the extent to which we have entered into the holy instant and left the world behind.

13. An Interval of Light, Knowing Yourself

Perhaps the best single description of what a holy instant is in the Course, although it does not use the phrase “holy instant,” occurs in W-pI.184.10:1-3. I recommend that you read these words now, and then write them out and use them to motivate yourself every morning until you have made a daily habit of setting aside time to enter the holy instant.

This passage tells us that a holy instant is an interval in which you leave behind the prison house of the world and “go into the sunlight” for a while, forgetting the darkness. You don’t stay there, away from the world—we know because the next sentence in the Workbook says, “And then step back to darkness”—but just for a moment, just for a brief interval, you allow yourself to experience the freedom that is ours beyond the body and the world.

The part about returning to the darkness of this world tells us that we emerge from these holy moments of quiet and light to carry the message of light and peace to the world around us. To me it is clear that the practice described here is what the Course means by practicing the mechanics of a holy instant. It involves regularly and frequently turning our minds away from the world, away from the sights and sounds conveyed by our senses, and focusing instead on the spiritual reality that is visible to our inner vision. It means setting aside what our senses and thoughts tell us about our sisters and brothers and, instead, listening to what the Holy Spirit tells us about them.

Summing Up

Considering all these instances and aspects of a holy instant, I would define a holy instant as follows:

The holy instant is an experience of grace and stillness, an instant in which we set aside some or all of our identification with the ego and our belief in the reality of the world it has projected, and allow the reality of our true Identity in God to shine through, an Identity we share with all the Sonship.

The Course teaches us that we need the experience of holy instants to show us what we are, if (as it clearly teaches) we are not bodies (W-pI.91.7). In one sense, you might say that the entire program of the Workbook is directed at inducing such experiences and making them a habitual and even daily experience. The Introduction to the second half of the Workbook even refers to the daily periods of practice as holy instants, indicating that entering the holy instant is the goal of every day’s practice session (W-pII.In.3:2).

Our times with the Workbook should be much more than just reading through the lesson, perhaps mulling over one or two thoughts from it, and maybe even writing our thoughts in a journal. These times, clearly, need a period in which we seek to quiet our jangled minds, leaving our dark thoughts behind and entering into the light, finding the deep place within our spirit or mind that is always at peace. We need to, however briefly, disconnect from our bodily identities. We need more than to read about our true Identity; we need to experience It, to connect with It.

At the end of our successful traverse of the Workbook’s program, we are left with a simple, short lesson: “This holy instant would I give to You. Be You in charge” (W-pII.361-365.Heading). At the start of each day, then and by implication for the rest of our lives, we are meant to enter the holy instant and to give it to the Holy Spirit. In that way we set the tone for the day, and adjust our mindset so that the day that ensues will be a seamless continuation of that holy instant. That mental readjustment may be accomplished in a minute, or it may take an hour. The Manual for Teachers, in its instructions for post-Workbook practice, tells us that we should continue our meditation (or quiet time, or practice period) “a minute or two after you begin to find it difficult” (M-16.4:7). For the entire second half of the Workbook, we have been instructed to “use as much[time] as we will need for the result that we desire” (W-pII.In.2:8). During the day, if we become aware of slipping off track, we pause and reset, once again seeking that holy instant.

All during the day, we carry the fruits of our holy instants to the world around us. The healing we receive, we give, and by giving it we establish it in our own awareness. Indeed, as we have seen, one characteristic of the holy instant is an awareness of union with everyone, a recognition of a shared identity. If we truly experience such union we cannot help but reflect it to the people we meet.

Ultimately, “life becomes a holy instant” (W-pI.135.19:1). But that will not happen without effort on our part, without daily and even hourly practice of the holy instant. We practice it until it becomes our life, until it becomes our constant, habitual state of mind.