The Masquerade Ball

by Dan Joseph –

Imagine that you are invited to a masquerade ball.
You spend weeks deciding upon a costume for the event. Should you dress up as royalty? As a villain? As someone famous? As an angel? You eventually settle on a costume, and go to the ball. There you find hundreds of other people, dressed in the widest variety of outfits. The party is all in good fun, and you play through the night in your chosen role.
Then, around midnight, a strange thing happens. Everyone in the costume ball suddenly falls asleep. When they awake, their memories have vanished. Where am I? everyone asks. And silently, they wonder: Who am I?
People look around the room, and begin to sort out the situation. Over there is someone dressed in gold finery, with a crown. She must be the queen of this place. And look at him over there – he has knives and swords. He must be dangerous. And look at that one: she looks like some sort of animal. Maybe she’s crazy.
There’s a great scramble. People flock to the “good” people, away from the “bad” ones. Some of the good people bravely begin to round up the bad ones, using the weapons at their disposal. For a while there’s a chaotic melee. Eventually, after a struggle, things settle down. The bad people are subdued, and they sit – tied together – in the middle of the room.
Then, abruptly, part of a man’s costume falls away, and a woman cries out. “Wait,” she says, “I remember now. That pirate – he’s my husband. He isn’t really a pirate.” The memories begin to return. “She isn’t a queen – she’s just dressed that way. And he’s no priest, I’ll tell you that.”
As the costumes come off, people begin to remember their true relationships. “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you,” they say as they untie their friends and family. “Please forgive me – I forgot who you were.” “I don’t know what came over me.”
The party-goers shake their heads at the strange turn of events. They tear off their costumes as they walk out of the party, concerned that they might forget again. “How easily we are fooled,” remarks a man as he tosses away a mask. “A little cardboard, a little paint, and our loved ones are gone.”


As strange as this story sounds, it’s similar to what happens in this world. Each of us comes into the world without a stable human persona. Then, as we “mature,” we work to “find ourselves.” This usually means that we try out a variety of worldly roles, until we find one that feels comfortable.
The problem is that these roles are as flimsy as costumes at a ball. If we were to recognize this, we could have a bit of fun. But like the partygoers who fall asleep and confuse themselves with their roles, we tend to forget who we really are.
Let me give a personal example of this.
 When I was in college, I considered myself a student. After that I saw myself as a spiritual seeker, and a writer. Then a businessman, a writer again, a teacher, and so on.
The problem is that a student has to study – otherwise, his identity begins to fall apart. A seeker needs to seek. A writer needs to write. A businessman needs to make money; a teacher needs students. So there was a great deal of pressure that arose from these roles. When I was twenty-one years old, and my time in college ran out, I fell into a panic. I was a student! And there were no more classes! What would happen to my identity? It was rather terrifying.
Almost immediately, I made the shift to writing. But what happened when a writing project was done? I couldn’t exactly be a writer unless I was writing, right? I became almost manic in my pursuit of new writing projects. And so on. 
The deeper I identified with my worldly roles, the more pressure I felt to strengthen them. 
It was like being at the masquerade ball, and finding that my costume was continually falling away. I had to be constantly vigilant to keep it all together – constantly reinforcing the stitching and the buttons. What a horror to lose one’s costume!
The other problem with this dynamic was that everyone became distanced from me. I was a student, after all; but he was an executive. We couldn’t possibly have much in common. I was a spiritual seeker; she had no interest in spiritual things. Might as well not talk. I was a writer; they barely read anything at all. What a waste of time, trying to connect.
The roles were all that mattered. The costumes were the thing. As I slipped into this confusion, I became very isolated. There came a time when I felt all alone in the world.
What I didn’t realize was that I was being fooled by the masquerade. 
The student, the spiritual seeker, the writer – these were nothing but roles. They were not who I was. The executive, the agnostic, the non-reader – these were costumes as well. Regardless of how strongly people identified with them, they were merely thin coverings, ready to fall away. Until I began to consider this, I never thought to look deeper.


To offer another example of this idea, imagine that you have a young child whom you love. He invites you to attend his school play. You sit in the audience, watching the play unfold, until – there, dressed up as a ferocious lion is your child.
You grin widely, delighted to see him up on stage. As he plays out his role, you see him for what he is – not a lion, but your beloved son. He’s dressed as a lion, of course – and he growls and prances around like one. But you’re not fooled for a minute. What your eyes show you doesn’t deceive your heart.
This is what happens as we begin to look past our worldly costumes and roles. 
He looks like your political nemesis. She seems like a threat. He might be your ticket to happiness. She appears powerful and bold. But this is all just a play of roles. Beneath the costumes is something that transcends them all. As we begin to treat the surface wrappings like the flimsy coverings that they are, we begin to catch a glimpse of what lies beneath.
For a moment, our hearts are touched by a flash of beauty – perhaps we see it in a friend or family member; perhaps a stranger. But for a moment, we find a glimmer of something that we didn’t know was there.
For a moment, there’s a shimmering of glory that makes the costume seem ridiculous. It might be gone an instant later, but we saw it. And we can see it again. As we let our vision be led past the outer trappings, the light within begins to emerge.
A Course in Miracles frequently reminds us that we will see what we want to see. 
Either a costume, or the truth. A role, or reality. Our vision will align with our desires. And what we choose to focus on in another person, we will see more clearly in ourselves.
By seeking for the truth that lies beneath the costumes, we will increasingly find it. 
This may, of course, take some practice. We may need to frequently remind ourselves that we’re being fooled by a costume. But as we peer beneath the covers, and find a hidden glory beginning to shine forth, the process becomes like stepping from a room of shadows into the light.
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The Princess and the Pea Phenomenon

by Dan Joseph –

As a child, you might have read the fairytale called “The Princess and the Pea.” For those who haven’t heard it — or for those who might not remember it — the story went like this:

Once there was a young prince who was in search of a princess to marry. Unfortunately, although he searched far and wide, the prince couldn’t find a suitable mate. Then one night, during a rain storm, a young woman showed up at the prince’s castle seeking shelter. She claimed to be a princess and the prince was enamored of her. However, the queen mother was skeptical of the young woman’s claim and decided to subject the woman to a test.

The queen ordered the castle servants to stack twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds on top of each other. She then placed a dried pea at the bottom of the stack. “If she’s really a princess,” said the queen, “then she’ll feel the pea beneath all these beds.”

When morning came, the queen went to greet the young woman. “How did you sleep?” she asked. “Oh, terribly!” said the young woman. “I’m nearly black and blue! I don’t know what was in the bed, but it was terribly uncomfortable. ” And with that, the queen decided that she must be a real princess — for no one else could be that sensitive.
Our Little Peas 
Like many of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, this story can be seen through a spiritual lens. I’d like to use it to illustrate an idea about the spiritual journey that I find important. Every so often someone will say to me, “When I began my spiritual work, I thought that I’d feel better but lately I seem to be feeling worse. I’m more conflicted, more stressed than ever. What is going on?”

Princess and the Pea phenomenon

I sometimes share the following idea with them, which I call the Princess and the Pea phenomenon: As we take the steps along the spiritual path, many of us become increasingly sensitive to our “inner blocks.” Resentful thoughts which we tolerated before now become quite distressing. Self-critical attitudes that were previously part of the background noise now feel sharp.
With every step we take, our unloving thoughts begin to feel like uncomfortable splinters. This increased sensitivity clarifies the inner landscape and shows us where we need to make changes. As A Course in Miracles puts it, “the mind becomes increasingly sensitive to what it would once have regarded as very minor intrusions of discomfort.” Before, we could easily tolerate this discomfort; now, not so much.
Like the princess, we begin to feel the little peas between layers and layers of mattresses.

Making the Shift

Now, in a way this dynamic is a good thing. If we didn’t become more sensitive to our inner blocks as we went along, we would very likely take a few steps along the spiritual path and say, “Good enough! That feels better than before!” And then we would stop and set up camp at that point.

Instead, we become increasingly unable to tolerate our unloving thoughts. 

We begin to feel them with an almost absurd sensitivity, just as the princess felt the pea. This motivates us to keep going, to continue the sorting-out process as we exchange our old thoughts for kinder ones.

Ultimately, I suspect, we will reach a point in this process where anything less than perfect love — perfect, divine love toward ourselves and others — becomes unwelcome. That love is all that will ultimately satisfy us. Everything else will produce discomfort.

Speaking personally, when I began reading A Course in Miracles, I was struck by how lofty some of the ideas were. Over and over, the Course teaches that we are infinitely loveable children of God, filled with such holiness that should we open our eyes to this holiness in anyone — even for an instant — our lives will be instantly transformed.

The glory of God is within everyone we meet, says the Course. And this glory is within us as well. To see this holiness is to fill our hearts with love. Wow! I thought when I first read that. Those are some pretty “high” thoughts! They certainly sound nice, at least. Now, eighteen years later, I have a different view.

Those thoughts aren’t lofty spiritual musings; they are oxygen. 

All of my other thoughts — my resentments against that person, my worries about this thing, the perfectionistic ideals that I hold against myself — are like smoky air that I choke on. And my life is a back-and-forth vacillation between the clean and dirty air, with the smoke becoming more difficult to tolerate each day.

I hear similar reports from other folks on the spiritual path. The peas, the smoke, the burden of our unloving thoughts weigh upon us more acutely with every step we take. Eventually we decide to toss a few peas, breathe some clean air, drop a few weights. This is wonderful; we walk on freer and lighter. Even as we do this, the remaining blocks become clearer.

I suppose that this is why spirituality requires an ever-greater commitment as we move along. 

Having become more honest with ourselves about our blocks, it is more difficult to hide them. And now that they are revealed, our only choice is to commit ourselves more fully to the process of change.

Like a stream that begins as a trickle in a desert, the spiritual path collects water from its tributaries and draws us more powerfully as we go along. With each new bend, it becomes harder to hold on to our old thoughts — and more of a relief to finally open to the flow of divine Love.

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Wellspring of Love

by Dan Joseph – 

In our society, romantic love is considered by many people to be the key to happiness. If you can find the right partner, and develop the right type of relationship, you’re going to be transported to a higher, happier life – or so the promises go.

This, unfortunately, keeps many people in a constant search. Is she the right one? He seems interesting – maybe he’s the one I’m supposed to be with. This one is OK, but I’m really looking for someone with more sparks. And so on.

The search can be endless. And even upon finding an interesting mate, many people find that the initial fireworks eventually cool down. They feel the old loneliness creeping back in. Many begin to look for a new partner at this point.

Countless spiritual teachings – including A Course in Miracles – encourage us to take a new approach. Love, they say, isn’t found-and-taken from someone else. Instead, it’s found-and-given from within.

We each have a wellspring of divine love within us – the “living waters” as a friend calls it. In this world, it’s easy to forget this. We feel thirsty for love, and it seems reasonable to seek externally for what we’re lacking.

But that search ends in disappointment. In a way, this is a good thing. For if we truly needed to search the world for a particular person and “hold on” to that person in order to get a sense of love, we’d be trapped.

Thankfully, there is a far better approach. Instead of searching externally for love, we can begin to unblock the wellspring of love within us – and let that love radiate out into the world. As God’s Love flows through us, it also flows to us. And the more of that Love we extend, the more we have for ourselves.

There are so many opportunities in this world to give – there are so many people in need. A kind word, a smile, or even a loving thought toward a stranger can lift us up. These little thoughts and acts are precious. As we practice extending the love within us, it becomes stronger in our awareness. We find that we have even more to give.

Even in romantic relationships, this is true. The most beautiful romances I have seen are those where both people focus on giving, rather than taking. They have abandoned their attempts to “get” love from the other, and have uncovered the abundance of love within. The relationship then becomes a temple of giving – a place into which they can flow forth kindness, tenderness, and support. It’s a blessed thing.

I invite you to seek out that love within you, and begin to share it in whatever way you feel inspired. The people around you need that living water. And as you give it to them, you will find that it grows ever-stronger within yourself.

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An Empowering Lesson

by Dan Joseph – 

Years ago, I set off on a cross-country trip with a friend. Our plan was to camp and hike our way through the National Parks of the western United States. I had been living in a city for the previous few years, and was starved for natural beauty. And so, as we drove into Yosemite to begin our tour, I was riveted.

The mountains were breathtaking. The alpine fields were touching. I felt like a thirsty man who had stumbled into an oasis – there was beauty everywhere. My friend and I backpacked for a few days along the waterfalls of Tuolumne Meadows. The landscape was magnificent. Then we moved on to Utah, and moonlit hikes among the spires of Bryce. We waded knee-deep in water up the canyons of Zion. We strolled through the tundra of the Rockies.

It was all stunning. Mountains, waterfalls, flowers – indescribable beauty. There were moments when I felt profoundly close to God. And that, of course, was why I really went to those places – to feel that sense of spiritual connection. To feel that transcendence.

As the weeks passed, a curious thing happened. 

It began to be more difficult to get my “high.” These mountains were great, of course – but they weren’t much different than the ones from last week. That field was beautiful – but so were the others. I began to chase more dramatic scenery, looking for a spiritual lift.

Eventually I got to a point where I just couldn’t make it happen. I did my best to extract a spiritual high from what I was seeing – the mountains, the fields – but I just couldn’t do it. It was discouraging. Shortly thereafter, we ended the trip and I went back to my city life. 

It took me years before I understood what had happened. 
In this article, I’d like to show how broadly the lesson can be applied.

Getting What You Give

On that trip, I fell into a common trap. I believed that I was getting my spiritual lift from something external – the mountains, the streams. 
This began a cycle of chasing better mountains, better streams. In fact, though, my “high” was coming not from what I was getting from the mountains but from what I was giving to them. Let me explain what I mean.

On the first day of my trip, I looked out at those mountains and said – so quickly I didn’t realize it – “My goodness, you are profoundly beautiful. I love you.” I was then immediately swept up in the joy of that thought. It seemed like the mountains were making me feel joyful. But it was really my love for the mountains that lifted me up.

If I had seen this, I could have kept the flow going. 

I could have entered each new park saying, “Ah, what wonderful things can I extend love to today?” But instead, I fell into the trap of trying to extract from externals. “I need better mountains,” I thought, “bigger ones, something more dramatic.” As I did that, the outflow of my appreciation was blocked – and thus, the sense of transcendence became harder and harder to reach.

I share this story because it illustrates the power of choice. 

We can choose – at any time, with any thing – to extend copious amounts of love and appreciation. And we will be instantly lifted up by our choice. We are in control of the outflow. There is nothing that prevents us from exercising our right to give.

I didn’t realize this on my cross-country trip. I thought that I could only embrace the most dramatic, towering mountains. Or the most delicate, flower-sprinkled fields. But the fact is that I could have chosen a pebble on the path and enfolded it in waves of love and appreciation – and thus been lifted up.

There is a line from A Course in Miracles that speaks to this. The Course says that as we extend forgiveness – as we allow our hearts to embrace what we see – “The smallest leaf becomes a thing of wonder and a blade of grass a sign of God’s perfection.”

The key is to realize that the power lies with us. 

We don’t need to chase beauty, love and transcendence; instead, we can give those things and immediately experience them.
Along these lines, I sometimes engage in a practice that I call “doubling up.”

 If I feel deprived of something – kindness, for example – I decide how much of that thing I’d like. Then I try to give twice that amount to the people in my life. I try to double, in my giving, what I want to receive.

Of course, the “outflow” of kindness creates a simultaneous “inflow” of kindness – and sure enough, I begin to feel it. Although there may be some internal resistance at first, I find that this practice always produces positive results.

The lesson that we receive what we give is an empowering one. 

Instead of spending our time chasing externals, we can spend our time giving internals – and thus experiencing them. The power is in our hands, because we are always free to give.

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