On January 29, 2017, Rev. Tony Ponticello addressed the assembled people at the Community Miracles Center Sunday Gathering in San Francisco, CA. What follows is a lightly edited transcription of that talk.
Okay! Once again, thank you so much for joining us. I'm very happy that you are here! Thank you all on ACIM Gather, and thank you all who are watching this on YouTube! It's great that you are doing that. We always love getting your comments that you post after you watch on YouTube. So thank you all.
This is the last week in January, and I feel that I am through the holidays now. I got through the holiday excitement and chaos that existed. One of the things that people like to do, and that I actually like to do, is set resolutions and goals at the beginning of the year. What I have learned is that it works a little better for me to wait to get through the holiday madness, the holiday energy. Then I am a little more centered, maybe peaceful, and can then better tune into the Holy Spirit. I can set my goals and resolutions with the Holy Spirit's guidance. I don't want to set them from my chaotic ego mind.
A Course in Miracles says the first thing to consider very simply is "‘What do I want to come of this? What is it for?' The clarification of the goal belongs at the beginning." (OrEd.Tx.17.58) What do I want to come of this year? What is this year for?
Also going on for the Community Miracles Center, Rev. Kelly, and myself – starting at the end of the last year and going into this new year – the Community Miracles Center was moving. We moved from our office that we had been in for 30 years. We moved out of the space that we had been having meetings in for 30 years. That of course added to the hecticness, or the chaos, of the activity. When we did that, because we were moving into a much smaller office space, I had to go through everything from our big office space, all the files in all the file cabinets, and get rid of things.
That included a tremendous amount of paper documents that we had been accumulating for 30 plus years. You can imagine the amount of paper work that an organization that is this active would have accumulated. I brought several loads in my car packed full of papers to the recycling place down in the Hunter's Point area of the city. We also packed our recycling cans full, full, full for weeks and weeks and weeks. There was a tremendous amount of paper that we threw away. I went through everything to make sure I wasn't throwing anything important away, but also just to complete the experience of it all. That was wonderful for me. It was very relieving for me. I got to complete certain things and say, "Okay, I am done with that."
When I think about what this year is going to be about, what I keep getting is to truly challenge myself with some of the more difficult teachings of A Course in Miracles, especially the teaching that says there is no death and that the son of God is free. I want to embrace teachings that really talk about how we are not our aging bodies. The only reason why our body goes through this aging process that seems to end in death is because of thoughts that we are having, but A Course in Miracles implies that a different experience can be had. I don't know if that means physical immortally, but I certainly want to not limit my bodily experience to a life that has this certain course where it gets older, begins to lose vitality, and then eventually it passes. I want to really open myself up to other experiences.
Maybe you have been listening to some of the recent teachings when I have talked about this. I have challenged the idea of death, and that we have to go through these death experiences, certainly the way they seem to be. Some people have been communicating with me and they challenged me on this. One person in particular said if you looked at all of the perennial wisdoms, all the world's great philosophies and religions, you don't find anything in them that talks about physical immortality. First of all, I didn't think I was talking about physical immortality. I was implying that I am at least open to the possibility. I don't know what there is, and I don't want to limit the bodily experience to what I know. This person said that if you look at the perennial wisdoms, none of them have that idea. A Course in Miracles is one of the profound perennial wisdoms, and he thought that I was misinterpreting it, thinking that I was leaning towards the physical immortality idea.
That got me thinking about perennial wisdoms and perennial philosophies that I have studied. Does A Course in Miracles fit into them? That is the idea that I am going to challenge us with. I am going to put the idea on the shelf for just a minute while I talk about a perennial philosophy that had been very significant for me. The one that I truly embraced, it was probably my first real spiritual program that I embraced, was the study of the Tao Te Ching. I studied the Tao Te Ching for many years when I was in my late twenties. Now the Tao Te Ching is spelled T-a-o T-e C-h-i-n-g. Some people see name and pronounce this like a "T," and some people pronounce it as a "D." The truth is that Chinese does not differentiate between "T" and "D," so you really have to try to aim in between those two sounds so it is Tao Te Ching. You can think about that and practice that. If you can get that right you can sound like a Chinese person because you will be using the "T-D" sound.
The story of how Tao Te Ching was written is a myth. It was written about 600 years before the birth of who we think of as Jesus, or the Common Era now, by a man named Lao Tzu. That will give you a little bit of history. The myth is – and there is no way that any of this can be proven – but the myth of Taoism, Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching is this. Lao Tzu was the librarian of the royal court for the king. As the librarian, of course, Lao Tzu was literate. Lao Tzu could read and a lot of the people in that era, 600 years before the Common Era, could not read. Therefore Lao Tzu had access to all the great wisdom that was there to be had. He was said to be a very wise man himself, and people came to him for council. The king came to Lao Tzu for council on how to rule the land. Apparently Lao Tzu gave the king a lot of wise council over the years. The king and others kept asking Lao Tzu, as he became older, to write down his wisdom so that when he made his transition the wisdom of Lao Tzu would be preserved. Lao Tzu always refused this and said he would not do it because it could not be written down. But at a certain point when Lao Tzu was older and received the guidance to go off and make his transition wherever – to live the last part of his life in a different way – Lao Tzu finally acquiesced and wrote down the wisdom that he had. What Lao Tzu finally wrote down were 81 short, almost "poem-like" essays. They were very short, and that is what the Tao Te Ching is. It is the collection of these 81 little poems.
The thing to remember is that Lao Tzu was also writing these essays specifically for the king. So in them there is a lot of teaching about how to be a wise ruler. There are other teachings in there, but it is definitely geared toward how to be a wise ruler. One of the great quotations from the Tao Te Ching, which a lot of people know, is that great governing of a nation is like cooking a small fish. Too much handling will spoil it. So a lot of the teaching of Taoism is about giving things a light touch. Don't over do it; step back a bit. Give it a light touch.
"Tao," the word itself, means "the way" but it also means more than that. It is the way of the totality and the way of the divine, though they probably wouldn't use that word. The word "Tao" actually becomes synonymous with the divine, but also implied with Tao is this flow. This will, this flow, is there always. You always should remember this aspect of Tao when you think about it – this flow. It is like the way a stream flows, or a river flows. "Te" itself means virtue, and "Ching" means great book. So it is the flow, the way of virtue. This is the great book that teaches that, the Tao Te Ching way, the flow. Our own vernacular of the idea of "go with the flow" is actually a very Taoist idea. When you go with the flow you don't fight the current.
So getting back to this idea of perennial philosophies and perennial wisdoms. What exactly does that mean? It refers to this idea which I looked up. "Perennialism, is a perspective in the philosophy of religion which views each of the world's religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine has grown." (Wikipedia) Perennialism was made popular by a book written by Aldous Huxley in 1945 titled "The Perennial Philosophy" where he popularized this idea. It had been around but he popularized it – that all the world's religions, when you go to their core, have all been inspired by the same revelation. We have accepted this, and it is very spiritually correct to say this. If you say this everyone will nod nicely – that all the world's religions come from this same inspiration. The trouble with this is I don't think it is true. It also leads to some practices that are probably pretty questionable. Maybe it is true in an absolute sense, but that absolute sense is so hard to connect to, that it becomes not a very practical thing and not a very practical idea. It is something to think about.
I did want to read one of the little poems in the Tao Te Ching. This is Chapter 25 and it says.
"There is a thing, a gathering which existed prior to heaven and earth,
Silent, empty, existing by itself, unchanging,
Pervading everywhere, inexhaustible.
It might be called the mother of the world.
Its name is unknown. I simply call it Tao.
If I were to exert myself to define it I would call it great.
Great means extended to the limitless.
Extending to the limitless means reaching to the extreme distance.
Reaching the extreme distance means returning to nearness.
Thus Tao is great, heaven is great, earth is great, and the king is great too."
That is a typical chapter in the Tao Te Ching. For several years, around 35 to 40 years ago, I called myself a Taoist. That was the spiritual discipline I embraced. This was when I moved to San Francisco. When I moved to San Francisco the only book I brought with me was this particular edition of the Tao Te Ching that I had in my backpack on the plane. (Rev. Tony holds up his well-worn, and faded brown, paperback edition of the Tao Te Ching.) I still have this same book. It is the only book I brought with me. I moved here very light, because I was a Taoist. I was living lightly on the land, two suitcases and a backpack. I was a minimalist which Taoist frequently are, and I lived simply or I at least tried to live simply. It served me very well for many many years.
I probably wouldn't have been able to move to San Francisco with just two suitcases and a backpack had I not been a Taoist. I was practicing with the idea of being a minimalist. I was going with that flow of thought. I came here with very little money. I came here with probably a couple of a hundred dollars in my wallet. I knew no one. I only had a place to stay for a couple nights with friends of friends who I really didn't know. I had two thousand dollars in a bank account that I was going to have wired to me after I had set up a bank account here in San Francisco. I didn't have access to that two thousand dollars for about two weeks. I just lived off the couple hundred dollars. It was a "ballsy" thing to do. Being a Taoist served me at that time, but I don't consider myself a Taoist anymore. I am not going with the flow. I don't consider that I go with the flow. I actually think I go against the flow. I am not going the way the water flows. I think I am doing something else.
How does the water flow? The way the water flows means we have to look at how we live our lives. Let's do something secular. How do we live our lives in the terms of our relationships, in the terms of love? What do we do when we want more love in our lives? Well, most people would say you have to be vulnerable. In other words, you have to be open to being hurt possibly. You have to open yourself up to pain. People have difficulty doing that so they shut themselves down. They are not vulnerable and so they do not have love in their lives. This a very common thought of the world. This is the way relationships flow in the world.
A Course in Miracles has a very different thought. A Course in Miracles is teaching us to love without ambivalence. Love without that idea that there is an attendant amount of vulnerability that is needed, that there is an attendant amount of pain or fear that might be around, circulating around the love. Generally, we open ourselves up to be vulnerable and then we find somebody – someone or sometimes some things – that don't appear to cause us too much pain. And they don't, usually in the beginning. Then we embrace those things. We think that these must be the chosen ones, because we are not feeling the pain, and we were vulnerable. However, inevitably because we were defending against the pain, pain comes into our experience at some point.
A Course in Miracles tells us "No one considers it bizarre to love and hate together, and even those who believe that hate is sin merely feel guilty and do not correct it. – This is the ‘natural' condition of the separation, and those who learn that it is not natural at all seem to be the unnatural ones." (OrEd.Tx.16.44-45) If you love like A Course in Miracles tells you to love, you are going to seem unnatural. That is because you are going against the flow of the way society, the world, generally sees love. It isn't just about how you love and how many you love. It is about the attitude that we hold for love itself – that love is just this joyful, wonderful, happy, simple, natural thing that you don't have to be vulnerable for. You just have to be open to, and indulge in. You jump in the water, and splash around in it. It is like that. You know there is an old song that I love. We will be singing it later on. It was by Foreigner and it's called "I Want to Know What Love Is." Mariah Carey popularized it a few years ago. I think it talks about that idea. It says:
"In my life there's been heartache and pain.
I don't know if I can face it again.
Can't stop now, I've traveled so far,
To change this lonely life.
I want to know what love is
I want you to show me."
I want a different kind of experience of love that doesn't have this attendant fear, anger, and pain that we are always defending ourselves from and that we have to be vulnerable to experience. We think we know we are going to be hurt, and then we are going to shut down at some point as we get older. It is all those attendant ideas that are the flow we need to go against. Yes, we need to go against that flow. That flow is not healthy. My life is not like cooking a small fish. It just really isn't. If I clung to Taoism because it served me well 37 years ago, it would be like clinging to all those papers at the 2269 Market St. office that I went through and threw out.
I think it has been really good for me to review Taoism. There are certainly a lot of good things in that teaching. However I don't believe that all those perennial philosophies are actually the same, or that this is a practical idea to hold. In many ways these philosophies are very, very different. We have to embrace what A Course in Miracles teaches, not what all the other philosophies teach. It might be good to know what they teach and to see what is useful, but we've got to embrace one. That is part of the problem in putting too much emphasis on the perennial wisdom, perennial philosophies idea, because it makes them all the same so why bother to really devote yourself to one. They are all the same, right?
I think it fosters a lazy spirituality. I don't have to do the work because they are all going to the same place so it doesn't really matter. It does matter and they are not all going to the same place. A Course in Miracles has a lot of teaching about doing stuff, not going with the flow, being on the Great Crusade, being a part of the Great Awakening. It's about disrupting the flow. A Course in Miracles says "You are not making use of the course if you insist on using means which have served others well, neglecting what was made for you." (OrEd.Tx.18.68) If A Course in Miracles is your path, and was made for you, then you have to engage in it. You have to use those means. Don't use means just becasue they have served others well. Allow those means to serve the others. Don't use means that served you well years ago if they are not right for you now.
I am not going to devote myself to Taoism. It served me well 38 years ago. It wouldn't serve me well now. It served me well when I didn't know what Holy Spirit wanted for my life. I would set goals with my ego mind, and Taoism served me well in that consciousness. I don't do that anymore. I set goals with the Holy Spirit's guidance. Sometimes you need to think big and sometimes you need to go against the flow.
Perennial philosophy is a kind of reductionism. You reduce everything to its lowest common denominator and that is the trouble. It is the lowest form of spirituality you can probably get, and it is not going to take you very far. At a certain point you do something else. I talk to people about A Course in Miracles and that there are 365 daily lessons designed to do one a day. Then some people say, "Reduce it down to one lesson for me." They want the one lesson to do, but there isn't one lesson, there are 365 of them. I could sum it up or say something profound. It's just not there.
Go with the flow, live lightly, rule with a gentle hand. I question that. The flow is flowing you right to disillusion and death. You do not want to go with that flow. The way water flows is right into the sewer! You do not want to necessarily go with that flow. You want to change the flow. You want to be the Tao that is guided by Spirit. This will have the current that you move it into. You want to be the movement. You certainly don't want to be the Tao that is reflected in nature. Nature is trying to kill us. Also the way water flows is not always a gentle stream. Sometimes water in a stream flows right into the rocks, and sometimes that creates a lot of white water and rapids. Sometimes there are huge violent waterfalls. So the way water flows is maybe not as idyllic as we might think. There is an eternal Tao that you want to connect with. You need to connect to that flow. Don't look for it out in the world though. Don't look to the world to teach you what that is. You have to go within, connect with that Tao within.
It is January and it is time to think about what we want this year to be about. Go within and find the Tao that is there within. Don't be the way the water flows. Be the flow; be the water. Go within. Chart your own course. Create your own flow. You are the Tao. (applause) ♥
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Rev. Tony Ponticello is CMC's 20th minister. He currently serves as the CMC's Executive Minister (09.20.2018). He is also the President of the CMC Board of Directors. He was ordained by the CMC on Oct. 17, 1997.
c/o Community Miracles Center
San Francisco, CA 94147
This article appeared in the February 2017 (Vol. 30 No. 12) issue of Miracles Monthly. Miracles Monthly is published by Community Miracles Center in San Francisco, CA. CMC is supported solely by people just like you who: become CMC Supporting Members, Give Donations and Purchase Books and Products through us.