Shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I came across an extract from War Doctor: Surgery on the Frontline, a memoir by trauma surgeon David Nott. It described the time he sat next to the Queen for lunch. Nott had returned from volunteering in war-torn Aleppo, and was having difficulty coping with regular life back home. He received an invitation to attend a special lunch at Buckingham Palace, and a summary of his account follows.
On the day he walked through the Palace gates, Nott was struck by the contrast of the illustrious surroundings with war-ravaged Aleppo. Then, entering a reception room where he stood with other guests, the ‘splendour and hospitality’ added a sense of guilt — how could he be enjoying such comfort while his friends were still suffering overseas? As all of this played on Nott’s mind, he became ‘perilously close to a panic attack’.
Barely holding himself together, Nott took his place at the dining table, to the left of the Queen. As custom dictated, the Queen spent half-an-hour talking to the person seated to her right, then she turned to Nott. He was struggling to talk at all: he didn’t know what to say. But then the Queen asked where he was from. He replied that he had just come back from Aleppo. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘And what was that like?’ As Nott’s mind filled with the tragedy and horror of that place, his bottom lip started to tremble and he felt the urge to burst into tears. The Queen looked at him quizzically then immediately summed up the situation. She touched Nott’s hand, opened a small silver box in front of her, and took out a dog biscuit. Breaking the biscuit in two, she gave half to Nott, saying ‘These are for the dogs.’ The Queen led the way, talking about her dogs, their names and ages, as she and Nott fed and petted them under the table. Gradually, Nott’s anxiety disappeared.
Reading Nott’s story, I was touched by Queen Elizabeth’s sensitivity and kindness, and reflected on how it’s often when we’re in the presence of a truly empathetic, non-judgemental person that we finally, often acutely, touch on a pain we’ve been struggling to process. Nott has his own theory on why this is the case, as seen in the following about the moment his bottom lip trembled:
‘I don’t know why it happened then, or why it should have been the Queen who breached the dam. Perhaps it was because she is the mother of the nation, and I had lost my own mother.’
I’m sure the Queen’s status as mother of the nation was part of the equation. But what is it exactly about that comforting presence that breaches the dam? This post will explore this question in light of principles from A Course in Miracles, and look at how the answers inform the Course’s particular path of healing and approach to Love.
Recalling our Innocence
‘The contrast between those gilded walls and the ravaged streets of Aleppo began to do weird things to my head’, wrote Nott about passing through the gates of the Palace. A contrast between heaven and hell. Nott felt ‘a fraud, guilty’ for being in the warm, hospitable environment. The thing about war is that you’re exposed to the full horror of the ego’s thought system of ‘one or the other’, ‘kill or be killed’. There is no observance of the regular, everyday social contracts which protect us from the darker side of human nature. And so, as the selfishness of the ego thought system is laid bare before us, so too is our own shame and guilt associated with the ego. Whatever disturbs us on the outside, is a symbolic representation of the ego’s dark philosophy we all sometimes live by, albeit unconsciously. And it is brutal.
But it is also a false representation of our true Self. It isn’t who we really are. And so, when we are welcomed by someone without reservation or condemnation, we can be overcome with emotion at what they reflect back to us: our innocence. As the Course’s psychotherapy pamphlet says, ‘And who could weep but for his innocence?’ The pain isn’t so much about what we have experienced in the past, but is related to the non-judgemental acceptance someone shows towards us in the present.
Another example of pain associated with remembrance of our innocence comes from Kenneth Wapnick’s book Absence from Felicity: The Story of Helen Schucman and Her Scribing of A Course in Miracles. The following is Helen’s account of a series of visions she had of a priestess — her higher Self — and how she was at first afraid that the priestess would look at her with condemnation:
‘The first of the series began with a picture of an unrecognized female figure, heavily draped and kneeling with bowed head. Thick chains were twisted around her wrists and ankles…
This figure came to me almost daily for several weeks, each time with a noticeable change. The chains began to drop away and she started to raise her head. At last she stood up very slowly, with only a short, unconnected length of chain still tied to her left wrist. The fire blazed with unaccustomed brightness as she rose.
I was quite unprepared for the intensity of my emotional reaction to her. When she first raised her eyes and looked at me I was terribly afraid. I was sure she would be angry and expected that her eyes would be filled with condemnation and disdain.’
Helen is describing what the Course calls the ‘shame of guilt’ (T-28.III.6:2) — the shame of having turned our back on God’s Love, in preference for a special, separate existence. But the vision continues and Helen encounters another source of pain, one more associated with heartache than fear:
‘I kept my head turned away the first few times I saw her after she stood up, but finally made up my mind to look straight at her face. When I did, I burst into tears. Her face was gentle and full of compassion, and her eyes were beyond description. The best word I could find in describing them to Bill was “innocent.” She had never seen what I was afraid she would find in me. She knew nothing about me that warranted condemnation. Yet she did know many things I had never known, or at least had entirely forgotten. I loved her so much that I literally fell on my knees in front of her.’
Remembering the God of Love
Just as recalling our innocence is painful, so too is recalling the Love of God; the Oneness we once experienced. The resistance to meeting that pain was made clear to me in the following dream.
I dreamt I was alone in large room with beautiful mahogany bookshelves, and walls covered in deep-green velvet. The room was peaceful, and tranquil classical music played softly in the background. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows lined one wall, and looking out I realised I was on the top floor of a large university-like building. ‘Why would you come to this place and not visit here?’ I wondered to myself as I stared at all the people busy outside on the ground.
Suddenly, I was sitting at a small desk by the window, doing an exam, and it felt serious and taxing. A tall, lean, middle-aged man appeared, standing in front of me, and asked if I would like him to hang around and provide some light relief, just as someone had done for him once. He handed me a sheet of paper with a comic strip printed on it, and I considered his offer.
Another rapid scene change, and the man and I were standing several feet away from a lectern near the centre of the room, but it was semicircular and reminded me of pulpits in old European churches. At the front of the lectern, and with his back towards us, was a man dressed totally in black. I knew it was God. My new friend looked at me and said, ‘Let’s say hello’. He went to take my hand and I immediately withdrew from him. I was filled with a dread of meeting God face-to-face, but it wasn’t because I thought I’d be judged. Instead, the thought of it seemed to hit on a heartache so profound that I knew I’d crumble in a heap if I touched on it. I didn’t think I could cope.
When I woke up, I recognised the God figure in the dream as a lecturer I had had at university. This lecturer always wore black from head to toe, and he was widely appreciated for his genuine and consistent kindness. In the dream, he therefore symbolised a totally loving God, the God of Oneness. The heartache associated with recalling this loving God is reflected in the following passage from the Course about a forgotten song:
‘Listen,–perhaps you catch a hint of an ancient state not quite forgotten; dim, perhaps, and yet not altogether unfamiliar, like a song whose name is long forgotten, and the circumstances in which you heard completely unremembered. Not the whole song has stayed with you, but just a little wisp of melody, attached not to a person or a place or anything particular. But you remember, from just this little part, how lovely was the song, how wonderful the setting where you heard it, and how you loved those who were there and listened with you.
The notes are nothing. Yet you have kept them with you, not for themselves, but as a soft reminder of what would make you weep if you remembered how dear it was to you’ (T-21.I.6:1-3; 7:1-2).
Embarrassed by Love
Our rejection of Love is another source of heartache, as illustrated in the following extract from Absence from Felicity. Here Wapnick describes how when Helen was complaining to him that Jesus didn’t help her enough, he suggested she take her issue straight to Jesus, and the answer she received brought her to tears:
‘Finally, I suggested to Helen that she might do better with this situation if she brought up her anger directly to Jesus, rather than using me as a middleman. She finally agreed, and so quieted her mind sufficiently to ask Jesus very specifically: “Why have you not helped me more?” His answer, hardly what she was expecting, was also very specific: “I cannot help you more because you are so ashamed of me.” Recognizing the truth of Jesus’ words, Helen broke down in tears.’
What Jesus meant was that Helen was ashamed of her love for him. This is because the ego is powerless in the face of God’s Love, and so interprets loving feelings as a weakness, something to be embarrassed by. Says the Course:
‘In honesty, is it not harder for you to say “I love” than “I hate”? You associate love with weakness and hatred with strength, and your own real power seems to you as your real weakness. For you could not control your joyous response to the call of love if you heard it, and the whole world you thought you made would vanish’ (T-13.III.3:1-3).
In ‘The Fear of Redemption’ section, the Course explains that we are scared of God’s Love because we know that in Its presence, we would be inextricably drawn to It, thereby losing our special, ego self. The earthly reflection of the ego’s fear of such vulnerability is when we feel ashamed of our emotional neediness towards others; our objects of special love.
I saw a clear illustration of this shame on social media recently. In a home video, a toddler wearing diapers stands motionless in a hallway watching his older brother and sister head out the front screen door to go to school. As his siblings move out of his line of vision, he takes a few rapid steps toward the door, then stops abruptly, hitting his face with both hands. Says, the narrator of the video: ‘He’s not just upset. He’s upset that he’s upset’. That’s this kind of shame in a nutshell.
The narrator then goes on to say something very interesting: ‘This is every evil villain’s origin story.’ The narrator, as it turns out, is the toddler in the video, now an adult, and he doesn’t appear to be an evil villain. But if you scan the series of Marvel Comics, you’ll see the connection he’s talking about. As the Course says, because of our ego’s inherent weakness in the face of Love, we ‘believe that magnitude lies in defiance, and that attack is grandeur’ (T-3.III.4: 2). In those moments when we don’t want to appear or feel ‘weak’ by listening to our Self, we’re likely to act rashly, take unnecessary risks, defy rules, or act inconsiderately, all in the name of keeping away from the Love that renders our ego, our specialness, void.
Projection Makes Perception
Having rejected Love, we’ll project the responsibility for our pain onto others, believing that they’ve deprived us of Love. As Jesus said to Helen regarding her earlier question to him, ‘if you are ashamed of Me (or embarrassed by love), you will project and make it impossible for Me to reach you.’ In other words, if we deny Jesus’ Love, we’ll project the responsibility for Love’s absence onto him, believing he has deprived us of It. This closes our mind off to his guidance: we’re not receptive to it because we don’t believe it’s being given to us.
Well before I came across A Course in Miracles, I had the following dream which illustrates this aspect of projection.
I was sitting on the platform of a railway station, and a train pulled up several metres away. A pair of sliding doors to the platform opened, and out stepped a cheery Jesus in full old-school desert-dweller attire. He looked toward the train and I felt that, more than anything else in the world, I wanted him to take me with him on his journey. But he didn’t see me as he gazed quickly around and headed straight for the train. I remained seated as he boarded, and watched, deflated, as the train pulled out of the station.
This was clearly a dream based on projection. My guilt and shame over closing my mind to Jesus’ Love, projected the responsibility for my angst onto him: it wasn’t that I had turned away from Jesus’ guidance and support, but that he didn’t notice me. My desire to absolve myself of responsibility was also symbolised by my waiting passively for him to see me sitting on the bench. Why hadn’t I simply stood up and gone to him?
An important consequence of such projection relates to self-sabotage. In the Bible, Jesus appears to give special attention to the lowly, the downtrodden, the destitute and the suffering. If we have an unconscious belief that we’re not experiencing Jesus’ Love because he overlooks us, then that can lead to a seemingly inexplicable attraction to increasing (or maintaining) our suffering. What do we have to do to get him to notice us?! This dynamic can also be reflected in our relationships with parents and other significant authority figures.
Approaching Love: Baby Steps
There are spiritual teachers who suggest we focus our mind on Love to transcend the mundane world and its problems. From the Course’s standpoint, such approaches don’t take into account our resistance to Love. Based on the discussion above, we’ve seen several aspects to this resistance: we are afraid of losing our special, separate ego self in the presence of Love; there is heartache associated with recalling our innocence and God’s Love; and we don’t want to experience the shame of guilt for having turned our back on Love — an act we’d be reminded of if we found ourself once again in Love’s presence.
For these reasons, the Course’s path to happiness and peace involves helping us move beyond such resistance; the obstacles to experiencing Love. These obstacles are gradually removed via the Course’s process of forgiveness, whereby we let go of our identification with shame and guilt. In Helen’s priestess visions, the chains attached to the priestess represented Helen’s particular grievances that were limiting her union with her higher Self. As Helen wrote of the point where she fell on her knees with love for the priestess:
Then I tried unsuccessfully to unite with her as she stood facing me, either by slipping over to her side or drawing her to mine. I noticed that she still had a few links of chain around her wrists. That, I felt, was probably the problem.
Through a daily practice of forgiveness, we gradually experience the truth of the Course’s Atonement Principle which states that we haven’t really rejected Love, because the impossible can’t occur. Working through our forgiveness issues, we slowly approach Love, loosening our chains whilst respecting our fear.
Image: photo by Suzy Hazelwood, via Pexels
Books by Stephanie Panayi
The Farthest Reaches of Inner Space
Above the Battleground: The Courageous Path to Emotional Autonomy and Inner Peace
Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume One
Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Two
Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Three