Are You My Mother?

by Robert Rosenthal, M.D.

There is a simple children’s book — a perennial favorite I read to my kids when they were young — that depicts the search for spiritual truth in an unusually perceptive and direct manner. P.D. Eastman’s book, Are You My Mother? tells the story of a baby bird who hatches and tumbles from its nest while its mother is off gathering food. Not knowing what its mother looks like, the baby bird wanders the world in search of her, bumping up against a variety of different animals and objects along the way (including a dog, cow, boat, airplane, and a bulldozer) and asking each one the only question that matters to it: “Are you my mother?” Each answers, “No,” except for the bulldozer, which says, “Snort!” and then, in a surprising move, lifts the baby bird back to its nest, where it is finally reunited with its real mother.

You might wonder how this story qualifies as a spiritual classic. Let me explain. The baby bird sustains a terrible loss when it tumbles from the warmth and safety of its mother’s nest to find itself all alone in a world it does not understand. Like Adam and Eve, it has suffered a fall — only literally, and through no fault of its own. The search for its mother is about reunion and the return home. It would have obvious appeal to a young child, for whom fear of separation from his or her parent looms large. But it’s not only children who experience such fear and to whom this story appeals. Indeed, substitute your generic spiritual seeker for the baby bird and you might find her wandering the world from Italy to India, Bali to Belize, asking various masters, “Are you my guru? Are you my teacher? Are you my path home?” Unlike the spiritual seeker, however, the bird receives a clear and immediate “no” and can get on with its search without wasting years in the process.

The same theme of losing our way and the journey home shows up, as we noted, in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, but also in the book of Exodus (lost and enslaved in Egypt, then searching for the Promised Land), Homer’s Odyssey, Parsifal, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and countless movies and other works of classic literature. It’s also the central premise of A Course in Miracles.

But let’s go back to Are You My Mother? The baby bird’s loss and its search for its mother are but the uppermost layer of the story’s meaning. Yes, we want to find our way home, back into the loving arms of the eternal Mother. We desperately crave that security and sense of belonging. We try to recreate it through relationships, family and community. But there is another, deeper motivation for the bird’s search and for ours as well. Because if the baby bird cannot find and identify its own mother, then it remains ignorant of its true nature. It does not know itself. It could just as easily be a dog or cow or bulldozer. The moment it identifies its mother, however, it also knows itself. It is a bird. It has wings. It can fly!

“The goal of the curriculum, regardless of the teacher you choose, is ‘Know thyself.’ There is nothing else to seek.” (T-8.III.5:1–2)

A Course in Miracles states that all conflict and confusion in this world are ultimately the result of not knowing what we are — of forgetting, or intentionally diverting our minds and blocking it out. “This is a course in how to know yourself.” (T-16.III.4:1) The moment we remember our true Self, all our seeming problems are resolved, because they all stem from this one source.

Achieving this is not as difficult as it might sound, fortunately, because that Self has never left us. It has simply been obscured, overwritten by a dramatic narrative of personal selfhood – our life story – that keeps us so preoccupied we no longer recognize our true nature. To use an analogy from the Course, the truth of our being is like a “forgotten song,” whose melody we hear only rarely and faintly, as if from a great distance, and never more than a few notes at a time, but which kindles in us the memory of a place so beautiful, a time so tranquil and welcoming, that we yearn to return there more than anything this world has to offer.

Remembering this song of Self is easy because it’s reality: the only reality. It’s always there, always waiting. At the same time, remembering is very difficult. Our minds drown out this forgotten song with raucous noise blared from multiple channels at high volume. Only rarely do they fall silent, allowing the forgotten melody to drift through. But because we wrote, performed, and recorded this raucous music, because it is the creation of our mind, we are very reluctant to turn down the volume, much less turn it off altogether. As a result, the forgotten song of Self goes unheard. We remain ignorant of what we are, ever searching, never finding.

The very fact that we don’t know, according to the Course, is proof that we are deluded. “Uncertainty about what you must be is self-deception on a scale so vast, its magnitude can hardly be conceived.” (W-pI.139.3:1) The part of us that must ask, “What am I?” cannot be the true Self, or it would have no need to ask. It would know. The Course calls this ignorant, separated part of the mind the ego, but it also deserves the name Never-Mind, because it is the part of the mind that can never know what it is, that can never find truth, and that never really existed in the first place. And in response to our deepest desire to remember our Self and return to the peaceful nest from which we tumbled, it responds consistently, “Never mind! You have more important things to worry about.”

The spiritual search then is really an exploration of identity. It is an inner journey that asks who am I? or, more accurately, what am I?

“There is no doubt that is not rooted here. There is no question but reflects this one. There is no conflict that does not entail the single, simple question, What am I?” (W-pI.139.3:1)

This becomes the fundamental question we must address if we are ever to find happiness and peace. When we can answer this, we are home, safe in the arms of the eternal Mother Whom we’d forgotten we’d lost; certain in Her guidance, from which we strayed; and free from conflict or confusion of any kind, because we know now what we are. We know our lineage. We know Self.

Robert Rosenthal is a psychiatrist, author, and co-president of the Foundation for Inner Peace, publisher of A Course in Miracles.

See Dr. Rosenthal’s new book, From Never-Mind to Ever-Mind