[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
With any spiritual path, we face our hardest moments when a crisis comes along—when we are faced with awful circumstances, terrible dilemmas, and unanswerable questions. At these times, we may expect a number of things from our path in order to support us through a difficult time. We probably expect the wisdom of its teachings to comfort us—to provide answers that help us understand and make sense of the difficulty we’re facing. We may expect to receive our own direct guidance about the situation. Many spiritual paths, the Course included, teach us to turn inwards to a source of wisdom and inspiration that is within us. If we are part of a group, we may also expect to receive words and acts of kindness and comfort from those who share our path with us.
But what if our path for some reason doesn’t deliver what we need to get through the crisis? What if its teachings suddenly seem abstract and hollow in light of the seemingly very real pain and suffering we are going through? What if we turn within and cry out for help, and are met with the deafening silence of apparent Divine indifference? What if the comforting words of spiritual friends sound like irrelevant platitudes? We might even start questioning our spiritual path, having made the assumption that being on it would mean having fewer problems, not more. Or maybe we expected our spiritual advancement to carry us through any problems with greater ease. Whatever the form the distress may take, the result is the same: we want peace, but our path isn’t delivering it.
This truly is the branching of the road. We’ve traveled along our path a certain distance, but now we’ve reached a point at which we are forced to make a decision of allegiance. Until now, the ego has been happily keeping us company on our spiritual journey, making sure its counsel infiltrates our spirit-inspired path. We now find ourselves, however, facing a challenge in which that mix just won’t work, and we have to make a stark choice: either the ego’s way, or the Holy Spirit’s.
At this point, all we want is peace, right? Well, no, actually. If that really were all we wanted, we would have peace. What we have defined as “peace,” however, is usually some specific outcome that we are convinced will bring us the peace that we seek. Our cry of “I want peace!” is almost certainly a cry of “I want such-and-such to happen!” In other words, we’re yelling at God what strings we want Him to pull on our behalf, or what His peace should look like when it finally shows up. This isn’t the Course’s way. It says, “But do not make demands, nor point the road to God by which He should appear to you” (W-pI.189.8:6).
Sometimes our anguish is about being faced with gut-wrenching choices, at which point we naturally want the clear and specific guidance we’ve been promised. I don’t know about you, but in these circumstances, my version of the guidance that I need tends to have more to do with five-year-plans and guarantees than it does with a quiet sense of inner knowing about simply the next step to take. How much of our desire for guidance is simply a need for guarantees of happiness? How much does our insistence on long-term guidance betray a lack of trust in our Guide? How much are we able to let go of these anxious concerns about the future? How much are we able to trust that placing our future in the Hands of God literally means that we need not worry about what the future holds? “For in God’s Hands we rest untroubled, sure that only good can come to us” (W-pI.194.9:2).
Whatever the form our distress takes, we may also be consumed with thoughts about why something is the way it is. We just can’t understand what we did to deserve this, and we spend countless hours trying to understand God’s reasoning process, to no avail whatsoever. Somehow, to our minds, if we could just understand what is going on here, it would make it easier to accept and deal with.
In all these scenarios above, the focus is on external things. We are worrying about situations, our future, why things are going so wrong, why God is sending us such trials, or we are simply trying to deal with overwhelming pain. I believe, though, that the challenge at this branching of the road is to ask a different type of question. Instead of focusing on our future, or the difficult circumstances that have befallen us, we should switch our focus and ask questions of ourselves. I believe we should be asking ourselves fundamental questions such as: What are my values? Why am I on the spiritual path, and this one in particular? How committed am I to my growth, as opposed to spiritual escapism? What am I on this path for? Am I on it to find a “spiritual” way of getting my ego’s needs met, or am I on it to serve God? This is a time in which we face up to our true inner motivation, to whether we are seeking idols or seeking God. The Song of Prayer puts it beautifully and succinctly: “In prayer you overlook your specific needs as you see them, and let them go into God’s Hands. There they become your gifts to Him, for they tell Him that you would have no gods before Him; no Love but His” (S-1.I.4:3-4).
When I’ve been in this place myself, what has been absolutely crucial has been a willingness to go past the external problems and make a conscious decision to turn inwards, to turn deeper within myself than I am used to. When our backs are up against the wall, and we think we have completely exhausted our inner resources, we either surrender to our weakness (a truly intolerable option), or we simply delve deeper. We know that only being able to grasp hold of the truth will help us, and so we search for it with an earnestness that has been lacking until now. This is what the branching of the road is all about. It is about turning away from the distractions of the ego, no matter how urgent, distressing, or perplexing they may be, and deepening and strengthening our connection with God, with the ultimate truth, with the truth that resides within.
You may well have your own form of meditation for turning deeply within that works for you. I am going to share my own approach here, in the hopes that some of you may find it useful. I am not presenting this as “the way” but merely “a way” to help with this process.
I’ve found that a simple approach is the key. One thing I might do at the start of the meditation is to simply ask myself, “What quality do I value?” This is purely an abstract question. I’m focusing on something of truth that I value, even if it doesn’t seem to address my problems. After a few moments, a word will come to mind, maybe “love” or “kindness” or “peace.” (This is not an exact practice from the Course, but it is an adaptation of Course practices which have us sink down to experience the love or peace or holiness at the center of our minds, or which have us affirm the presence of certain qualities within us. See for example Workbook Lesson 67.)
It’s very easy for these words to be laden with ego agendas—for instance, “I want peace” can mean “I want this outcome,” as I mentioned earlier—and so next I go through a very short process of trying to reach inside myself to a purer desire for that quality. I just take a few moments and look honestly at any ego meanings it has for me, such as “peace” being about getting certain outcomes. One way I might do this is to ask myself, “If my ego chose peace, what would that look like? If my right mind chose peace, what would that look like?” If I find some big ego attachment coming up into my awareness that I am unwilling to let go of, I might use the practice from Workbook Lesson 74: “There is no will but God’s. I share it with Him. My conflicts about ______cannot be real” (W-pI.74.4:3-5). As I do this, I can just feel the whole sticky web of ego agendas lifting off, and I get in touch with a much purer desire for that quality. Whatever method you use, the point is to spend just a few moments extricating some ego hooks in order to get in touch with the purest possible desire for the truth.
I then spend the main part of my meditation turning within, looking past the darkness and turmoil that has been filling my mind. I believe in love (or peace, or kindness), and so I want to find it within me. The desire for the truth that I got in touch within the previous step fuels this process. So I sit there until some spark of love (or peace, or kindness) makes itself known to me. I value that spark; I seek it, and it comes. It’s the prayer of my heart, and my prayer is answered. It may come as a feeling, or a loving thought, or an inner picture filled with loving meaning. When it comes, I focus on it, letting it grow bigger in relation to all the darkness in my mind, letting it be real enough to sink into, so that the turmoil is increasingly insignificant. In the Text section “The Invitation to Healing” Jesus asks us if we would be host to God, or hostage to the ego, and describes how the little spark of truth in us will grow if we just make room for it: “The Guest Whom God sent you will teach you how to do this, if you but recognize the little spark and are willing to let it grow. Your willingness need not be perfect, because His is. If you will merely offer Him a little place, He will lighten it so much that you will gladly let it be increased” (T-11.II.6:5-7).
It’s an incredible feeling to know that in the midst of pain I can get in touch with something so beautiful inside me, something that doesn’t demand anything—any answers, any particular outcomes, or even any guidance. I’m happy because I’ve found my heart’s desire. I truly value love because of what it is—not what it can do for me—and so when I find it, I’m complete. It’s incredibly healing to know that I can find sanity in the midst of insanity, love in the midst of fear, joy in the midst of pain.
Of course, it doesn’t always happen that I make conscious contact with some spark of truth inside me. I have a couple of things to say about that. The first is that, even if it doesn’t happen, going through this practice always leaves me with a feeling of greater peace than before I started. And secondly, I really believe that every effort on behalf of truth counts for something. There is some cumulative build-up, and if we keep trying, a breakthrough will occur, sooner or later.
As I said above, this practice is about going deeper within than we’re used to—past our ego’s desires for solutions to problems, past our ego’s hooks on the truth, to a place within us that simply desires the pure, unadulterated truth. And it’s likely that we’ll uncover hidden treasures on this journey, hidden strengths within ourselves—caring, gratitude, compassion, and little gems of pure happiness. We’ve all heard stories of people who come through horrendous situations and are strengthened by their experiences. This strength comes from within, nowhere else. We all have the same extraordinary inner beauty. We can all turn within to find it, whenever we want. It’s a sad mark of our resistance to the truth that we rarely mine so deeply within ourselves until we have exhausted all external possibilities.
To me, this practice is the epitome of coming with empty hands to God. We are coming with no demands, no expectations—just a pure and honest desire for a stronger connection with Him. Paradoxically, what can often happen as a result of this practice is that answers do come, either in the form of insights or guidance, or just a feeling of being perfectly loved and safe in God’s Arms. The Song of Prayer says that in true prayer we set aside our specific needs and instead we just seek God: “Prayer is an offering; a giving up of yourself to be at one with Love” (S-1.I.5:5). Yet in this true seeking are the answers we need given to us, as a kind of side-effect of our true need being met—our need for God. The Song of Prayer describes these answers as the echo of the song, although it is the song that is the real gift. More important than specific answers is the sense of having somewhere to turn—an anchor in the midst of storms. The Course teaches us that God always answers the prayer of our heart, and when that prayer is for Him, how could He not respond?
And so today we do not choose the way in which we go to Him. But we do choose to let Him come. And with this choice we rest. And in our quiet hearts and open minds, His love will blaze its pathway of itself. (W-pI.189.9:1-4)