According to the course, something is acting as a barrier to the direct and natural awareness of our actual and current state of simple oneness. Since it also clearly says that “nothing unreal exists”; the only appropriate term for these barriers is “illusion”.
As we walk through our lives in this world, many things seem so obviously real; our bodies and those of other people, the many parts and pieces of our civilization, the natural world, the Earth itself and the vast universe in which it resides. Yet this is seemingly in direct conflict with the central truth of a unified non-complex Reality and the simple summation that “God is”.
It is tremendously tempting then, to equate the world we see with this illusion-barrier. Historically, this has led to many forms of “world-rejection”, from relatively simple shunning of worldly pleasures and pursuits to extreme asceticism and finally the thought that “heaven” cannot be found in this life but is only a place that can be reached after death.
However, the Course’s description of the illusion-barrier is not quite so simple. Early on it wants us to understand and internalize the fact that despite all the seeming reality of the physical world, the only experience we have of it is through our senses. While that may seem reasonably obvious, the next step is not.
As difficult as it may be to completely wrap our minds around it, The Course insists that our mind creates our sensory experience of the world in all its aspects. This is a revolutionary statement and one the course clearly doesn’t expect us to grasp by simply accepting or even getting the concept. This is merely the beginning of the conversation and process that is the course.
The Course insists that the eyes and ears do not work like cameras and microphones, sending images and sounds directly to our consciousness. We are not directly experiencing an external world through our senses at all. Rather our mind creates the images of our perception based on our thoughts, previous experiences and belief/paradigms.
And, because of the way our senses interact with our mind, The Course says, the images of perception, totally constructed in and by the by the mind, are “projected out there” into what appears as a separate, physical, seemingly “free-standing” world.
The very idea that such an external world could even exist directly contradicts the central, non-dual, unitive nature of reality; there is Only God. Not God and world. Not God and matter. Only God. But our mind, which of necessity is part of God’s mind, is capable of creating the image and sensations of an external world and making it so real that it seems to exist outside the mind. “Perception”, it says, “is Projection”. The problem, The Course tells us, is simply a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the relationship of perception and reality.
Now here’s the real twist. According to the course, it’s not the fact that we see these images that is the problem. The mind naturally creates images as in dreams, imagination, memory and so on. After all, as near as we can tell, Jesus saw the world, as did other seemingly “realized” beings (Buddha, Krishna, Ramana Maharshi, or whoever you might think of as realized or “enlightened”.)
The problem is that, not understanding that we are projecting and not receiving our perceptions, we have the absolute sense that these people and things and events that make up the world are outside of us, outside of our mind, despite the underlying reality of absolute oneness that the course describes.
This unconscious projection underlies and sustains the very sense of separation that naturally arises when one appears to be a separate being within a world of separate beings and physical things. Or as the Upanishads say, “Wherever there is an other, fear arises”.
The Goal of the Course’s Teaching
Now we can begin to see the actual teaching goal of the Course. Starting from the first principle of the absolute oneness of God/Reality/Love, and the absolute unreality of a separate world, the Course sets the undoing of the very sense of separation in our minds as its central goal. Indeed it says that this sense is “the only lack we need correct.” While the images themselves don’t contradict this oneness, any more than our dreams and imagination contradict our normal perception, our internal feeling that these normal perceptions are coming from a source outside our mind, does undermine our sense of oneness. Thus, the often repeated statement in the Course that “Thoughts never leave the mind”.
While even in our conventional view of separated minds and bodies, this may seem obvious (“our thoughts are all in our head”), once the Course identifies everything we experience in perception as nothing more than thoughts in our minds, the revolutionary nature of this statement becomes obvious. The “world” itself, even with its illusion of separation is now seen as a thought in the mind and no longer understood as something “outside” despite all our convincing perceptions, feelings and deep-seated beliefs. Indeed, even our bodies and brains are images, perceptions, in our mind, not external or separate at all.
Once the mind-created and mind-containing nature of perception is grasped, and even more importantly, directly intuited; the source of separation is no longer seen as outside ourselves and is in fact our own creation. One that can then be changed or even let go of as it no longer is seen as different from our thoughts. It was merely a mistaken “interpretation” of the images of perception, images that exist only in our mind.
The great difficulty; as anyone who has tried to internalize this idea, let alone tried to live from this point of view, (even if one has come to strongly believe that it is true); is that our minds don’t want to cooperate and “shift” perception to this sense of an internally created world; to seeing the world as a sort of waking dream or vision.
The sense of the images we perceive as obviously coming from and demonstrating an external world is so deeply embedded in our minds and in our shared culture that we never even raise it to the level of a question. These deeply and unquestionably held thoughts and beliefs are what are formally called “Paradigms”. We’ll go more deeply into the nature of paradigms shortly.
Understand that to see the world as completely created in the mind and projected outwards as in a dream, vision (or a virtual reality), requires nothing you see to change. It is not necessary to see lights or auras or angels or glimpses of a “higher reality”. The images of people and objects do not need to “disappear in light”. And yet, everything does change profoundly because the internal sense of separation from all we perceive – goes away! Imagine seeing everything in the world and yet having no sense of separation. No sense of fear or judgment or anger. Nothing but an intuitively obvious sense that it is all a part of you.
Understand that even this is a limited way of stating that which cannot be fully put into words. As with many aspects of non-duality, it is perhaps more accurate to simply say what it not the case. That is, the sense of separation, the very idea of which is a contradiction of the nature of Reality, no longer holds sway over the mind. Thus the “feeling-perception” of the world changes.
While the illusionary sense of separation and the attendant “feeling-perception” are the only things that actually change, the movement toward this shift may be experienced as two distinct changes, the idea that the physical world is an illusion, while still not relinquishing judgment and separation in relationships; or the idea of the “oneness” of all humanity, while maintaining the reality of the physical (and therefore external, and separate) world.
While some “feeling-perception” can change in either of these aspects, since the fundamental sense of separation in the mind remains, full release in either aspect remains impossible.
Next essay, we’ll look at how these two seemingly separate aspects of the sense of separation arise and are mutually reinforcing, and how working directly on recognizing the inherent unreality of separation itself is the key to full release.
Next Essay: The Two Essential Forms of Projected Separation