“He dropped dead”, said the stranger beside me at the local Japanese diner. He sat as if in prayer, leaning forward over the counter toward a woman who appeared to be the owner, and who clearly recognised him.
In my peripheral vision I took in the blur of his physical attributes: African American with gray-flocked hair, probably in his late sixties. A little overweight, eyes saucer-like at the tale of his friend’s sudden demise.
He clung to the Japanese woman’s fingers as she listened. His friend, another regular customer who had often sat right here beside him at this very counter, had dropped dead of a heart attack a couple months earlier.
“You remember him?”, the man asked.
The friend never took care of himself. He wouldn’t take his blood pressure or cholesterol medication. He ate cheeseburgers. He would never walk anywhere.
In contrast, the man sitting beside me had lived a clean, healthful life since undergoing bypass surgery 25 years earlier. He stopped smoking and drinking, gave up meat. Although he went on at some length to share the steps he had taken to protect himself from dropping dead too, he did not sound convinced.
“He dropped dead”, he repeated, speaking into the church of his steepled fingers.
The Japanese woman nodded.
“You remember him?”
I had come here to work on a writing project that had suddenly stalled, mysteriously deprived of the nectar of inspiration that had kept it humming along for a while – once more deluded by the ego’s crafty ways, that venue had anything at all to do with my connection to anything at all. As is often the case, I realised I had gone seeking my curriculum in the blank page only to find it sitting beside me.
Another, younger waitress set a bowl of rice and vegetable tempura before their regular customer; refilled his green tea.
“He dropped dead”, he told her.
The friend’s daughter had found her father lying in his apartment on the floor. He had been there for days – dead alone on the floor right where he had dropped for days. His daughter had called to see if the man beside me wanted her father’s car, an old BMW purchased during a mid-life crisis many years earlier. His friend had wanted him to have his car. He still couldn’t bring himself to drive it.
“You remember him?”
I sipped my tea. It was hard to swallow. I had been studying the section of the Course (A Course in Miracles) called the ‘Obstacles to Peace’ that explores our devotion to our physical and psychological bodies, the bodies we hallucinated when we accepted the ego’s lie that we had separated from our oneness and deserved punishment for our sin. According to this underlying myth at the foundation of the Course, the repressed guilt we feel over our alleged crime combined with the continued appeal of our bogus individuality keeps us perpetuating a story arc of birth, physical and psychological pleasure and, ultimately, suffering, and death that both horrifies and enthralls us. For months I had been watching the ego thought system, threatened by the Course’s truth, attack my body, hell-bent on proving its fearful reality. Even as I asked for help from my inner teacher, the part of my mind also currently activated in the stranger beside me, sat in absolute shock that a person it loved could die, and, most importantly, that its own body that appeared to house its spirit might at any moment meet the same fate despite its best efforts to do the right thing.
I recalled an interview with a locally famous dance instructor I had conducted for a newspaper article I’d written. The dancer had grown up in Mongolia and escaped massacre by a warring tribe with his family only to end up in Europe imprisoned in a Nazi camp before American liberation and immigration to New York and eventually Denver. Despite the horrific trials of his early life, in our interview he kept returning to the death of his brother last year, followed by his own recent brush with mortality.
“He dropped dead”, he said, again and again. I had given him my fingers to cling to. “I almost died”, he said, over and over, speaking of his heart attack. His eyes looked like I imagined the man’s sitting beside me in the diner would look if I dared to catch them head on. Pupils like black holes. Confidence in anything and everything shattered.
How can a world exist without you? How can a world exist without me? A Course in Miracles answer is always the same. What world? The dualistic world we projected when the mind split is no more real than the bodies we projected and continue to project to populate it. And yet, we so covet the idea of our unique identities, and so fear the fantasised retribution of a wrathful God we invented, that we continue to believe in the vulnerability of the physical shell we seem to inhabit. No matter how much we read about and try to remember our oneness when confronted by a loved one’s death or our own catastrophic illness, we cower in fear, and cling to our identities as if they could offer dear life, as if they could offer any life at all.
In the final section of the Obstacles to Peace, Jesus tells us that our identification with the body, our paradoxical fear of and attraction to pain, is answered in the holy instant when we call on the memory of wholeness in our mind to help us look at the denied guilt we project on our bodies – attacking another’s as I do when guilt surfaces and I believe my daughter or my husband have failed to meet my expectations, ignored my feelings, or deliberately undermined me, or attacking my own as I do through sickness, injuries, ageing, and ultimately death. We can’t get out of here and home to God alone. We must look at the relationships seemingly in our face. We must recognise the underlying guilt over the one true problem expressing itself again in an attack on your shell or my own, and choose again for our right mind.
By watching our negative feelings arise day in and day out, moment to moment, and returning them to the light of the right mind, our belief in what your body seems to be doing to me, or my body seems to be doing to you or to me begins to fade. Eventually, we will stand hand and hand at the threshold of the oneness we never left, ready once more to allow the magnificence of our true nature, completely certain that we give up nothing by disappearing into the one eternal love, and instead find everything that seems to have been missing for such a long time in this dream of specifics that never has a happy ending.
The man at the counter beside me asked for wasabi and finished his lunch, staring out into the space that seemed to have claimed his friend, thinking about a car parked in his driveway he may never be able to bring himself to start. I wanted to ask about his friend, let him cling to my fingers if it would help – but a part of my mind still believes I don’t know him. I gathered up my pad and pen, paid my bill, plunged out into the cold, slipped into my car, and drove home.
This is an edited extract from Susan Dugan’s new book, Extraordinary Ordinary Forgiveness, published by O-Books
An intimate, humorous account of one woman’s journey harnessing the extraordinary power of A Course in Miracles’ forgiveness in an ordinary life.
A student and teacher of A Course in Miracles, Susan Dugan has been blogging for two years about its transformative mind healing and she is co-founder and faculty member of the School of Reason for A Course in Miracles teachers and students in Denver, Colorado, USA. She appeared in the documentary A Course in Miracles: The Movie.
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