Imagine that you are in the middle of an ocean journey when you come across a storm.
The storm is intense, and waves crash against your boat for hours. Finally the unthinkable happens – your boat shatters, throwing you into a stormy sea.
You climb upon a remnant of your boat, a section of the deck that forms a makeshift raft. The storm clears, but you are left floating helplessly on a square of wood.
You are at the mercy of the sea. Where are you floating? Will the tides bring you to land? Is there anyone else out there?
For a day, you feel powerless and terrified. Then, as the sun is setting, you spot a paddle floating in the sea near you. You grab it, and begin to row your raft toward where you think land might be.
Whether or not you're rowing in the right direction, you begin to feel less afraid. You have a plan, along with the means for executing it. You don't feel quite as powerless.
You paddle all through the night. The work is exhausting, but you have hope. Even as you feel physically fatigued, you feel a strengthening sense of purpose and clarity.
As the sun rises, you notice debris around you in the water – including, to your surprise, what looks like a cloth sheet.
You find a way to lash the sheet to your raft, using your paddle as a mast. The wind catches your makeshift sail, and suddenly you are moving forward at a quick clip.
Keeping the sail engaged requires your full attention and cooperation; you continually make adjustments in order to align yourself with the wind. But although the work requires significant focus, it is much easier than paddling. In fact, you find it quite enjoyable.
Near the end of the second day, you find yourself in sight of land. It isn't the land you recognize – but the wind, with your cooperation, has brought you to safety and to a place of new adventures.
The Three Phases
The raft, the paddle, and the sail represent the three phases of consciousness that we move through in this world.
When we are confronted with unfamiliar challenges, we often feel overwhelmed and powerless. We may feel as if we were cast into a stormy sea. We seem to be at the mercy of forces greater than us. It is a very frightening place to be.
However, there often comes a day when we pick up a paddle and attempt to move toward more stable ground. We may not know how to move in the right direction. We may not even be sure which direction is the right one. But we are determined to try to improve our situation.
At this paddle phase, we are relying on our own personal efforts. The work is exhausting and filled with mis-steps. But at least we don't feel completely helpless. Even if we fail to improve our situation, we gain a sense of satisfaction from the efforts we have put forth. There is at least some hope.
Many people never move past this paddle phase. In fact, if you look closely at many of our cultural messages (including those in self-improvement literature), you'll find many paddle messages. "You can do anything if you work hard enough!" "Don't let anyone stop you from chasing your dreams!" "Choose a goal and make it happen!"
The paddle level of consciousness is certainly healthier than the raft phase. But it is exhausting, and often filled with failure. Can one paddle on a raft across an ocean? Certainty it is possible. But there is a far easier way to travel.
The sail phase is something that very few people talk about. In the sail phase, we work with as much determination as the paddlers – but our focus is on cooperating with the wind, rather than powering things by our own efforts.
Raising the sail involves temporarily setting aside our personal goals and efforts, and quieting our minds. In this quiet space, we turn within for divinely-inspired wisdom. This wisdom then directs our course.
We recognize, in the sail phase, that we – in and of ourselves – do not know the best course of action to take. We then take another step, and hold open our willingness to receive inner guidance on a direction that blesses both us and others.
Holding our minds open, quietly, in a state of willingness to receive divine wisdom does require practice – but the work is like holding open a sail, not paddling a boat. And the practice can become easier and more comfortable with time, until it feels effortless.
As A Course in Miracles says: "When you have learned how to decide with God, all decisions become as easy and as right as breathing. There is no effort, and you will be led as gently as if you were being carried down a quiet path in summer."
Floating helplessly on a raft, at the mercy of the waves and the tides, is a terribly frightening place to be. We have all felt this powerlessness at various times in our lives.
Grabbing a paddle and beginning to angle toward safer ground is far more empowering – even if it is exhausting. Though we may make many mistakes, we are at least drawing in a self-supportive way on the power of our minds.
Raising a sail, and allowing a benevolent wind to bring us into harbor, is the ultimate phase of living in this world. Here we are neither helpless, nor exhausted. We actively cooperate with the flow of divine grace, and are lifted up by the effort.
So how do we raise this sail? Let me outline a basic approach inspired by several sections of A Course in Miracles.
In this practice of raising a sail, our goal is to enter into a state of willing receptivity.
We don't have to "make" the divine wind blow. We don't have to even ask for it. Love, grace, and wisdom are offered to us endlessly. We simply need to open our minds to receive them.
To begin the practice of raising a sail, you may want to begin by clearing your mind of any interfering thoughts. You can say:
I do not know what the best course of action is.
I am willing to release any ideas about how to proceed.
My mind is open.
I do not know what to think.
And then, you can state your willingness to receive:
I am willing to receive wisdom that is not my own.
I am willing to be shown a course of action that will bless me and others.
My mind is open.
My heart is open.
Then – and this is a practice that does take some focus – sit quietly, receptively, and openly in a state of willingness to receive.
When interfering thoughts or feelings arise to distract you from this state of willingness, name each one, and allow it to pass through your awareness. You can say:
I am willing to let this thought go.
My mind is open to receive divine wisdom.
Now, it's important to keep an open mind about the form that the divine wind of grace will take. You may or may not immediately receive a specific insight about a specific problem. But if you're doing this correctly, you will receive a sense of peaceful, calming assurance that you are not alone; that you are loved and safe; that you are cared for.
This core experience is what the Course calls the "song" of prayer. Beautiful echoes can emanate from the song – divinely-inspired insights and ideas about specific problems. But our job is to receive the song: the core experience of divine love.