Perception is a mirror, not a fact. And what I look on is my state of mind, reflected outward ... Everything you perceive is a witness to the thought system you want to be true.
A Course in Miracles. W-pII.304.1:3-4; T-II.V.18:3
In this chapter, we will look more closely at some of the issues that were raised in the previous one. In particular, we will discuss guilt, denial, and projection, which are attributes of the ego. I am using the term ego to describe that part of our self that feels separated, lonely and isolated and in need of constant defence in a world perceived as threatening.
It is the ego that feels guilty, inadequate, fearful, sure that anger will get it what it wants; it feels persecuted by the world and justified in attacking back. Ego cannot conceive of another way of acting in the world: kill or be killed is its motto. Never does it realise the problem is in its own mind, believing happiness will come if it can just change the world to suit its needs. However, there is another part of our mind that thinks the opposite to the ego and we can decide to listen to this instead. That will be the focus of chapter four, but first we need to understand some of the mechanisms of the ego.
Sigmund Freud first introduced the concept of defence mechanisms; techniques we develop to defend against anxiety and to maintain self-esteem. Freud identified a number of these mechanisms, including denial and projection.
When in denial, we refuse to recognise a threatening situation or thought. We can even bring into play another defence mechanism, that of rationalisation, where we attempt to excuse or explain our behaviour in a rational manner. For example, a person may refuse to acknowledge the effect of excessive alcohol intake by maintaining that wine is good for the health.
Projection is an involuntary process motivated by impulses and emotions wherein a person imposes a subjective feeling or a thought onto others. For example, a seemingly jealous husband may accuse his wife of being unfaithful, while in reality it is he who secretly wants to embark upon an affair.
Guilt and Denial
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.
Guilt is the sum total of all the negative feelings and thoughts we have about ourselves: our lack of self- worth, feelings of inadequacy, inferiority complexes, shame, and inherent unworthiness. However, we are only aware of a small percentage of this guilt; it is like an iceberg, most of it lurking beneath the surface of our conscious mind. But we do still suffer from its presence, even though most of it is suppressed or denied.
Unconscious guilt is easily triggered by events in the world, and whenever it resurfaces we feel very uncomfortable and desire to get rid of the feeling as soon as possible. We may turn to the event that triggered the unconscious guilt and blame that as the source of our unease. If we are not sufficiently aware to catch what we are doing, we easily get lost in the guilt/attack cycle (Figure 2.1).
An event triggers our unconscious guilt. For example, someone tells us we are lazy. Although we are aware that in most parts of life we are actually hard working, we are also conscious that in some areas we don't try hard enough. The guilt around this issue is now triggered.
The shame we feel rises into our conscious mind. We instantly become very uncomfortable with this feeling, and our desire is to get rid of it as fast as possible.
Our ego immediately informs us there's nothing wrong with us (denial), but there is certainly something wrong with the accuser (projection); it tells us we have been unfairly treated and victimised, and our resultant anger is justified. It counsels us to attack the other person so we can make them feel guilty, in the hope that their resultant guilt will make them change their behaviour into something acceptable to us. For example, we may receive an apology and this will reinforce our idea that there is nothing wrong with us, for the apology now declares the other person is at fault. If no apology is forthcoming, our ego will tell us to become even angrier in the hope of attaining our desired goal.
Making another person responsible for the guilt in our minds is a dishonest act. It does not matter whether the person apologises or not, for we know at some level that our attack upon them is unjustified. All this serves to increase our level of guilt which, once again, we try to get rid of by attacking the other. This is the vicious cycle of guilt and attack that can only be broken through forgiveness of ourselves.
If only we could see it! The person we have chosen to attack is actually doing us a favour: we are being shown our unconscious guilt, and if we so choose, we could now try to heal it. This is the great value of all relationships - they bring unconscious guilt to the surface. We then have the choice of following our ego's advice, which is to attack, or to follow that wiser part of our mind, which counsels forgiveness of ourselves.
Our ego is always looking for someone or something to blame. It doesn't matter who the enemy is, sometimes we may even choose an inanimate object. Do you know the famous sketch from Fawlty Towers, where John Cleese beats his car with a tree branch because it won’t start? He is blaming his car for his guilt over being late, and that really isn’t so very far-fetched, people do things like that. A more common example might be the door that refuses to stay shut. You repeatedly try to close it with increasing force until eventually, losing your temper and banging it so hard it may never open again, you shout, “That will show you who’s boss!” Now was it really the door that made you so cross? If we are capable of doing that to an innocent door, imagine what we can project onto people.
The ego requires a ‘scapegoat’ – an interesting term which warrants some explanation. When the Israelites wandered the desert, each year the high priest would gather the tribe and arrange for a goat to be placed before him. Laying his hands upon the head of the goat, he would announce that he was taking all the sins of the people before him and transferring them into the goat. The goat would then be driven out of the camp taking – the tribe believed – all their sins with it.
Thousands of years later this practice continues daily, though we're no longer choosing goats to carry away our guilt. Instead, we may choose a particular race of people, for example black people, Jewish people, or gypsies. During the time when India was a colony of Great Britain, the British were an obvious target for hatred, and this hatred helped to unify the Hindus and Muslims in a common cause. However, once the British left so did a convenient scapegoat. The ego had to find a new enemy and so the Hindus and
Muslims quickly began to attack each other instead. This goes on worldwide and the desire for these scapegoats will never end until we accept the responsibility for healing the guilt in our own minds.
To help deepen our understanding of projection let's take a look at Figure 2.2 below. Do you see the face of a young or an old woman? If you see the face of an old woman, you might be wondering what I am talking about – or vice versa.
• If you can only see the old face, try looking at the right eye again, but now see it as the right ear of a young woman who is facing right. The nose of the old woman now becomes the cheek of the young woman.
• If you can only see the face of the young woman try looking again at her ear, but now see it as the right eye of the old woman. The cheek of the young woman now becomes the large nose of the old woman.
What has the mind been doing here? Data from the drawing enters the eye and forms an inverted two- dimensional image on the back of the eye, the retina. This is translated into electrochemical pulses that are sent by the optic nerve to the rear of the brain. The brain searches its data bank of images, decides on the most appropriate match, and projects that onto the picture. In other words, we see what we want to see and not necessarily what's there.
So, which is the correct answer? They both are!
Now take a look at Fig 2.3 - most people will see a white triangle. However, I think we would all agree that no such triangle actually exists, although our minds have projected one onto the diagram. Such is the power of projection!
If we are capable of seeing what’s not there in the case of a simple, objective drawing, imagine our ability to get it wrong in the case of our psychological projections onto others – or other ‘things’ (remember the ill-fitting door?). Just as in the case of the above visual projections, our psychological projections also insist they are true and not open to question.
When we discuss the first stage of forgiveness in Chapter Four we will see how important it is to take back into our own mind the negative things we have projected onto others. This does not mean we can’t observe accurately the behaviour of others – such as the sadistic behaviour of a cruel dictator - but if the behaviour of this dictator is causing us to feel anger then there is a denied and therefore unforgiven 'dictator' in our own mind. This is what taking back the projection means.
Of course you may never do anything as bad as the cruel dictator, but there are other ways in which we can be dictatorial. Using our power to take what we want is dictatorial behaviour. We may do this subtly by manipulation of another, or by using our greater physical strength over others – our children perhaps.
As long as we project the problem outside our minds and onto the world there is no chance of healing ourselves. It is only when we see it within ourselves that the healing can begin.
A story I heard about a participant in a workshop by Dr. Kenneth Wapnick makes a good illustration of this point.
During the workshop the topic of hating in another what you have denied in yourself had been raised. A large man stood up and protested at this teaching. He told the class that some months before he had witnessed a young girl being deliberately pushed in front of an oncoming underground train. The incident had remained with him for months and he felt distressed and very angry at what he had seen. “Surely,” he exclaimed, “you are not telling me I am capable of that behaviour. I refuse to believe it!” He sat down and the workshop continued.
Towards the end of the workshop he stood up again and shared the following insight. He told the class that kids liked to play with him, and he thought his bulk was part of the reason for this. In fact, he was always asked at Christmas time to dress up as Father Christmas and distribute presents to the children. He hated the job but could not bring himself to refuse. The kids would get up on his lap, play with his beard and generally torment him. Although he suppressed his feelings, he admitted he wanted to fling these kids off him – just as the man he saw at the underground had flung a young child onto the rail tracks. He now understood why that scene had haunted him for so long. In seeing this, he had withdrawn his projection from the killer and brought it back to his own mind where the process of forgiveness could begin.
If we are really upset about murderers and think they deserve the very strongest punishment, we are actually experiencing the effects of our denied desire for vengeance. We feel a strong desire to get even with those who we perceive as having treated us unfairly but would feel very ashamed to realise that we too are capable of murder. We only need to look at what happens to ‘ordinary’ people in times of war, where often the slightest excuse is all that is needed to kill another.
This is a good time to go back to the list you made during the exercise in Chapter One. If you had trouble seeing the truth about yourself in the negative projections you wrote down, perhaps it will seem clearer now. I realise what a dreadful exercise that was for your ego, as it is the complete opposite of what we are normally taught. We live in a blame culture.
Yes, forgiveness is very hard to do for it turns our world upside down. How can we carry on being victims with our justified anger when we start to realise we always choose our response to situations? In Chapter Three we will look more deeply at why it’s so hard to forgive.
I entered, not knowing where - a poem by Saint John of the Cross
I entered not knowing where
And I remained not knowing,
Beyond all science knowing........
1. I did not know where I entered,
But when I saw myself there,
Not knowing where I entered,
Many things I suddenly learned,
I will not say what these things were,
For I remained not knowing,
Beyond all science knowing.
2. It was peace, It was love,
It was the perfect knowledge.
In deep solitude
I saw with wisdom;
It was a thing so secret
I was left babbling and trembling,
Beyond all science knowing.
3. I went so far beyond,
So lost and absorbed,
I lost all my senses
I was of all sensing dispossessed;
And my spirit was filled
With knowledge not knowing,
Beyond all science knowing
4. Whoever truly reaches there,
Is lost to herself;
All she knew before
Now appears very base;
But her knowledge grows,
And she remains not knowing,
Beyond all science knowing.
5. The higher she climbs,
the less she understands,
For this is the dark cloud
That brings light to the night;
And whoever has this light
Always remains not knowing,
Beyond all science knowing.
6. This knowing by not knowing
Is of such high power,
That the arguments of the wise
Are wholly unable to grasp it;
For their knowledge does not explain (indeed, it cannot)
Not to know knowing,
Beyond all science knowing.
7. And this exalted wisdom
Is of such excellence,
That no faculty or science
Can hope to reach it;
But she who learns to conquer herself
With this knowledge of not knowing,
Will always go beyond all science knowing.
8. And if you really want to hear it,
This highest science consists
In a most sublime sensing
Of the Divine Essence;
It is an act of clemency
Which leaves us not knowing
Beyond all science knowing!