The ship of Theseus is said to have been moored in the harbour at Athens for a thousand years. Over time, its wooden parts wore out (you couldn’t buy Ronseal in ancient Greece). One by one, the parts were replaced with identical-looking ones. Eventually, no part of the original ship remained. The question is, was it still the ship of Theseus?
What if, theoretically, a family had collected the original parts as they were removed and, over the years, used them to reconstruct a whole ship? Would that be the genuine ship of Theseus?
For a humorous take on this conundrum, have a look at this Only Fools and Horses clip: Trigger’s broom.
What is identity? Is it defined by physical factors, which change over time? Or is it more to do with an ‘essential’, or non-material, quality which persists?
The question can be asked in relation to human beings too. If I shave my beard and then it regrows, I’m still me. If I had a kidney transplant, most people would say that I’d continue to be ‘me’. So what is it that makes me who I am?
The ship of Theseus conundrum assumes the ship exists as a physical object. But what if the ship was merely a thought that someone had made up? The ship as it was when it first sailed, the 1000-year-old ship with all its panels replaced, and the ship reconstructed from the original’s retired parts would all be simply thoughts. In other words, the problem would be only in the mind.
A Course in Miracles says in its introduction "Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Therein lies the peace of God". (These are the words that Arkadiusz Kogut has displayed on the wall of his study in my novel Escape to Redemption.)
Theseus’ ship could be 'threatened' – so it fails the ACIM test for being 'real'. The same goes for Theseus himself. Or Brexit, or the endangered giant pandas, or pretty much any material thing.
What if all the things we perceive are images made by our mind? And what if, ultimately, there is only one Mind in which those thoughts have their being?
In this world, there will always be problems - whether personal or global challenges or philosophical conundrums which the rational mind may never be able to solve. But perhaps there is only one 'problem' that needs to be answered: "Who am I?"
If I identify with my physical body, my personality or my story, then I'm saying I’m a separate self. I'm affirming the reality of separation, and in doing so I'm denying Oneness. Whenever I experience any lack of peace, it’s because in that moment I’m believing in my separateness from God, from my neighbours and my environment. I feel I can be ‘threatened’. We might call this a state of exile from Love.
For that one problem there is but one solution: opening to the awareness of the One Reality which cannot be threatened and accepting It as the truth of Who we are.
Now, where can I buy a new handle for my broom?
First, be Christ.
If you lose touch with Christ, be kind.
If you lose touch with kindness, be fully present in the moment.
If you lose touch with presence, become still.
Be still, and know that you are Christ.
These words came to me in my quiet time this morning, inspired by a line in my A Course in Miracles lesson for the day: "What but Christ's vision would I use today, when it can offer me a day in which I see a world so like to Heaven that an ancient memory returns to me?" (from Lesson 306).
The word "Christ" here doesn't refer to the historical Jesus, but to our True Self, which is Love. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
My alarm clock sounds and I wake with a jolt. I reach for the clock. I've slept for, what, seven hours, but I feel I need another three. No time though for dozing. If I don't get up now I'll miss the train. I hear the rain beat against the window as I haul back the duvet and sit on the edge of my bed. Why am I doing this? It's on mornings like this that I think about quitting my job. But if I did that, how would I pay the bills? My body tenses as I think of the full day of meetings ahead. And that report I have to write that's already a week late. How on earth will I fit it all in?
So plays the familiar tape in my mind. It may not be until I'm sitting down to breakfast, or washing my teeth, or on the train on the way to London that I remember "there is another way of looking at the world" (A Course in Miracles Workbook, Lesson 33).
One of the best decisions I have ever made was to switch to working a four-day week. Having an extra day a week free from work commitments gives me more time to choose to study A Course in Miracles, to reflect, and to re-connect with Source.
Sometimes I wish I could spend even more of my time in that way. If my train home in the evening is delayed, I become impatient. I resent the minutes that are being 'stolen from me', minutes I might otherwise use to sit in my armchair with a cup of green tea and meditate on that day's Workbook lesson! By making my peace of mind dependent on external conditions, I'm missing a fundamental point.
A Course in Miracles is not intended simply to be studied behind closed doors. It is highly practical, to be applied in daily life. The next step is to take my theoretical understanding and apply it to the world. This means looking on all things with forgiveness, with the eyes of Christ.
At this time in my life, what better opportunity to do this than in the workplace?
"There is a way to look on everything that lets it be to you another step to Him, and to salvation of the world" (A Course in Miracles, Workbook, Lesson 193 13:1.)
Those days when I have to work I can view as 'practice days', a chance to take what I have learned and to carry it with me into the world, remembering my Self amid the hustle and bustle; making every encounter a holy one. I go into work as before (to begin with, at least, there is no change in outward circumstances), only now I hold in my awareness that this is a dream that I've made up.
With the lightness that comes with that awareness, I experience the day as like a game. The objective is to keep my peace, to respond with kindness and to recognise all that I see as either an expression of love or a call for love.
"Salvation ... asks you ... to overlook what is not there, and not to look upon the unreal as reality." (A Course in Miracles, Text, Chapter 30.IV.7:1,3.) When I allow myself to remember, in the words of the nursery rhyme, that 'life is but a dream', I no longer need to fight illusions. I can let go of the need to judge. More and more, I begin to live merrily and to flow with rather than against the current. Following my Inner Guide, I can row my boat gently down the stream.
What is more, within the dream I even get paid for these practice times. How can I resent work if I see it as a game, as a dream I'm having, and as an opportunity to practice forgiveness and express the Love that I Am?
I've put together a short booklet of quotations. It includes some of the reflections which I ponder on in my quiet times at the end of a busy day. You can download your own copy here.
If you find the booklet helpful, why not print off an extra copy and give it to a friend? Or, for a little fun, leave it on the bus or the train for a world-weary commuter to find. Much more uplifting than the endless stream of depressing news in the freebie morning paper!
At the latest Miracle Network Community day (I can't recommend these days enough - especially if you're a student of A Course in Miracles) we had an opportunity to practice channelled writing. That sounds a little esoteric, but it's actually very simple. Sit with a notepad and pen to hand. After a period of quiet reflection, ask yourself a question... Then, without consciously thinking about, jot down whatever words come to you.
Much of my book Things to Remember was written in this way, but it's been a few months since I've done this kind of Spirit-led writing, so I appreciated the unexpected opportunity to take up my pen and see what flowed.
It works best if you don't judge the words, or 'vet' them so that only what conforms with your pre-held ideas makes it onto the page. Put your inner critic aside for a while, and be witness to what emerges.
My topic yesterday was surrender.
Surrender means letting go. To let go is to accept things as they are and not require circumstances to change to fit with your own pre-conceived idea of how they ought to be. You do not know. Surrender to the One who does. Surrender to the One whose will for you is perfect happiness and who knows the means through which this is achieved.
What you are seeking is an outward form. Happiness is not found in form, but in content. You cannot find the real in the unreal. You cannot find lasting peace-contentment-belonging in a form that does not last.
When you are old, you will know this. Now, you still value form. I say to you, "surrender your perceived needs". Surrender your needs to be loved, to be held - and know that you already are. As long as you think you need something, you will think you lack it. You will not appreciate it is already yours.
Later this month I’m taking part in the Miracle Network’s first Community Day. Everyone has been asked to bring along a favourite paragraph from A Course in Miracles to share. But which do I pick, when there are so many inspired verses I might choose?
I’ve settled on paragraph 7 of Lesson 158 of the Workbook. This, for me, encapsulates what it means in Quaker language to “answer that of God in everyone”…
“Christ’s vision has one law. It does not look upon a body, and mistake it for the Son whom God created. It beholds a light beyond the body; an idea beyond what can be touched, a purity undimmed by errors, pitiful mistakes, and fearful thoughts of guilt from dreams of sin. It sees no separation. And it looks on everyone, on every circumstance, all happenings and all events, without the slightest fading of the light it sees.”
For those unfamiliar with A Course in Miracles, some of the language here might be off-putting, or require explanation. The reference to “Christ” is not a reference to Jesus of Nazareth - although Jesus was certainly one who saw with the vision being spoken of. “Christ’s vision” is available to all of us. It means that vision which sees the eternal Truth beyond surface appearances, the divine Essence that is veiled by transient forms.
Christ’s vision is not the sight of the body’s eyes. The body’s eyes show us differences between people and testify to separation, not to Oneness. But how reliable a witness are they? As the Bible puts it, we see “but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our perceptions are based on pre-judgements. The way to see truly is to rein in our impulse to judge and allow Spirit to shine its Light: “As you step back, the light in you steps forward and encompasses the world” (A Course in Miracles Lesson 156).
To see with Christ’s vision is to look upon the world with Love. The Divine Essence - call it Light, or Spirit, or “that of God” - remains in everyone (every aspect of the One-ness). This passage calls on us to hold steadfastly to Its Reality, regardless of people’s apparent errors (which are merely the result of their forgetfulness of Who they Are); regardless of “all happenings and all events”.
Note that there are no exceptions. The Love of God within us is all-embracing. Christ’s vision encompasses everyone, including those who our ego-self would have us judge the most harshly. If we see sin rather than Light in even one person, we remain in the dark.
Whoever we look at, the same Light is there to behold. And we must behold it, to find our way home.
Paragraph 8 of the same Lesson reinforces the message: “See no one as a body. Greet him as the Son of God he is, acknowledging that he is one with you in holiness.” It underlines how central is the practice of seeing the truth in one and all: “…the world cannot give anything that faintly can compare with this in value; nor set up a goal that does not merely disappear when this has been perceived.”
Lesson 158 is a timely reminder that nothing I might achieve on an outward level - promotion at work, finding the right relationship, facilitating a workshop or writing this blog - counts for anything when compared to looking on my neighbour with Love, with compassion, and recognising him or her as my Self. There is no separation between Christ’s vision, the Self which sees, and the Self which is seen.
I think the seven years I’ve spent training to become a psychotherapist have been more fruitful for me than any spiritual path or practice I’ve tried.
What is the aim of the spiritual journey? Isn’t it to become more of who we truly are, which means becoming more spontaneous, more self-aware, more conscious, more capable of intimacy?
Psychotherapy has the same goals.
Meditation is like psychotherapy in that we learn to sit with ‘what is’ and hopefully accept and integrate whatever arises. In meditation, we seek to debunk all the tricks of the mind and sink instead into a deeper, experiential sense of self that is beyond all concepts (sometimes we call this the Self, or God, or the Light).
Psychotherapy aims to help us to become both more functional in the world and more in touch with our true self. Perhaps an advantage of therapy over meditation is that the therapist can help us to identify tricks of the mind that we use unconsciously to avoid the dark and painful places.
In therapy, as on the spiritual path, there is no healing without suffering. Our wounds must be exposed if they are to be healed – because it is through our wounds that light gets in.
One of the reasons psychotherapy works – when it goes well – is because it’s based on relationship. It’s more difficult to expose and explore our wounds in front of another human than it is to examine these wounds by ourselves.
We are naturally, and appropriately, cautious about revealing our secret selves to others. But when we feel safe, we might dare to open up. It is a risk. It feels scary. But when we explore our wounds and darkest places with a therapist, we will hopefully find ourselves understood and accepted – and in this way we can learn to accept ourselves. This is healing.
So, relationship is the key to how psychotherapy works. The therapist helps us to uncover our shadow and to accept and integrate what we find there. The shadow, as Jung said, contains all of us that isn’t yet conscious. The more we are able to bring out of the shadow into the light, the more whole we become.
Of course, the spiritual traditions have always acknowledged that relationship is part of the spiritual path. Think of the confessional, of the church, of the sangha, and so on. The spiritual community and spiritual directors have always been there to listen to us and support us, just as we listen to and support others.
But some things we daren’t share. And some things we might not be aware of, so we can’t share them. This is where therapy can help. When therapists are able to honour the trust we put in them, their acceptance of us can be internalised.
Mike Brooks is a Quaker and a psychotherapist. He is also the author of The Machine Society, a dystopian sci-fi novel.
Mike Brooks Therapy
The Machine Society: A novel by Mike Brooks
"When I realise that some part of my life is acting to distract me from hearing God's guidance or following that guidance wholeheartedly, it is time to simplify my life by subtracting that distraction." (Lloyd Lee Wilson, Journal of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative))
I'm fortunate in that I've never had an addiction to alcohol or drugs, and I don't smoke. When it comes to chocolate and other indulgences, I'm good at rationing myself. I do like my oatcakes and green tea – but as food 'addictions' go, they're not exactly the worst. If I do have a vice, it's been to spend too much time on the internet.
After a busy day at work, or sometimes at weekends if I'm at home, I find it tempting to switch on my laptop and go online. It doesn't happen very often, but on occasions I might still be sat there three hours later. It's not that I'm necessarily doing anything 'worthwhile' – like researching a new novel or booking on a workshop. Rather, the longer I'm at the computer screen, the harder I find it to drag myself away. Do I really need to know the latest Polish third division football scores? Effectively, I'm wasting the day.
As an antidote to this minor addiction, I've recently decided to put my laptop away at the end of each session. I disconnect the mouse, put the computer and its power lead away in their case, and hide the case in my cupboard.
I find that, if the computer is put away out of sight, I'm less likely to succumb to a casual whim to log onto it when I'm feeling stressed at the end of a long day. Going onto the computer now requires a little more effort – even the simple act of having to retrieve the laptop from its case in the wardrobe makes me think twice before going ahead. When I do choose to log in now, it's because there is something specific I need to do. It's become a more conscious choice. I'm mindful as I open the cupboard door; as I unzip the laptop case; as I place the machine on my desk. I've found that going through these simple actions with full attention prevents my mind from wandering – and from being distracted by soundbites or diversions when I am on-line.
"We are each obliged to use our time, abilities, strength, money, material possessions, and other resources in a spirit of love, aware that we hold these gifts in trust and that we are responsible for using them wisely." (Inter Mountain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2009)
"...The capacity to apprehend the One in the many constitutes the special responsibility of those who would dwell in love."
(Faith & Practice. A Book of Christian Discipline of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Extracts 37: Daniel A. Seeger, 1994.)
Peter Parr: Quaker, writer, A Course in Miracles student and former member of the British minigolf team. (Actually those are all just roles I play. Words can't describe who any of us really are.)