In The Immediacy of Salvation,” A Course in Miracles makes the reasonable point that all our plans for safety are forward-looking, and since we can’t actually know what the future holds, our “plans” as such are essentially useless.
Yet the course also recognizes that some fear exists in us that causes us to make those plans, however futile they might be. And it invites us to think about that fear not in terms of what might happen tomorrow but rather what is happening right now. That is, it asks to us to give attention to our fear now.
What might we learn when we do?
Future loss is not your fear. But present joining is your dread . . . And it is this that needs correction, not a future state (T-26.VIII.4:2-4, 8).
The Jesus we encounter in the New Testament makes a similar observation.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them . . . Why are you anxious about your clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them (Matthew 7:25-26, 28-29).
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that the correction for a wrong emphasis on forward-thinking and planning is to “seek first the Kingdom of God.” In a similar way, A Course in Miracles suggests that we give attention to our present dread and take note of its here-and-nowness. Our fear is not of what will happen tomorrow but rather reflects a present lack of trust in our brothers and sisters. Thus we retain a sense of competition, and a corresponding sense that attack and defense remain viable.
Thus do you think it safer to remain a little careful and a little watchful of interests perceived as separate. From this perception you cannot conceive of gaining what forgiveness offers now . . . You see eventual salvation, not immediate results (T-26.VIII.2:4-5, 7).
This gap between you and I – which we insist upon because we do not fully trust one another (which is to say that we do not fully trust our own selves) – can only be perceived in the present moment. Where else could it possibly be? We fear it now because it is here now.
This is the insight the course urges us to accept. When we plan for the future we are correctly recognizing fear but are failing to see where and what that fear actually is. It’s not a problem in the future for which we must prepare. It’s a problem here and now to which we are responding here and now.
Thus, we might say that to “seek first the Kingdom” is to sit quietly and attentively with our fear. We might give attention to the way that planning distracts us from the present moment. And we might explore the course’s suggestion that our present fear reflects a lack of trust in our brothers and sisters and that it is this lack of trust which must be “solved,” not some hypothetical future circumstance.
Look not to time, but to the little space between you still, to be delivered from. And do not let it be disguised as time, and so preserved because its form is changed and what it is cannot be recognized (T-26.VIII.9:7-8).
It’s not tomorrow that vexes us. It’s the fault lines in our relationship today.
It is important to be clear that intellectually understanding the principles at work here is helpful (truly) but not dispositive. It’s like putting the yeast, salt, flour and water on the counter but not making the bread. We have to actually sit with our fear. We have to actually feel the lack of trust in ourselves and in the other. It’s scary. It’s not easy. But that way lies the Kingdom.
More likely than not, our initial response to all this will be grief. When I see how I fail you, despite my intelligence, my study, my practice, my sincerity . . . When I see how my lack of trust in us brings both of us pain . . . what else but sorrow can prevail?
Yet this grief testifies to the authenticity of our experience. And it is also the means by which the Holy Spirit – to use course parlance – or attention (to use Sean parlance) will undo our lack of trust and restore our awareness of love. It is when we perceive the utter depths of our personal failure that we can resign as our teacher and a new teacher with a new curriculum becomes possible.
The Holy Spirit’s purpose is now yours. Should not His happiness be yours as well? (T-26.VIII.9:9-10).
It is a good question! And in the answer – which we live through the gift of attention – fear is converted to hope and hope translated to love. Would you offer me anything else?
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us
(John’s Gospel 1:1, 1:14)
One of the more helpful insights in western and Christian thinking – which Helen Schucman understood well, at least intuitively – is that awareness of the subjective experience “I Am” is a beginning, not an end, and finds its fullest and most creative application in the consensual domain of “I and Thou.”
It has been clear for 2,500 years that a human observer cannot escape her subjective experience of the world. That is, she cannot get outside of her experience of the world in order to verify that said world actually looks, sounds, tastes, feels and smells like her experience of looking, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. Thus, our efforts to ascertain the nature of reality in any final or ultimate sense are effectively stymied.
Nothing we have learned about physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, linguistics, et cetera has undone this simple yet persistently troubling fact. Truth, reality, absolutes . . . all remain speculative, relative, transitory. Not impossible necessarily but certainly unverifiable.
One way to deal with the issue – the way that I ended up practicing – is to become religious. The one who intelligently and whole-heartedly seeks God – which seeking must accept the possibility that there is no God to find – eventually encounters the subjectivity of “I Am.” Understanding this is relatively straightforward; experiencing it is alternately destabilizing and inspiring because it necessarily upends our traditional conceptual understanding of the self as a perceptual and cognitive center for whom the world is a real place full of real people and objects where good and bad things happen. When the self is experienced as a process, a recursive loop, and the world as phenomena with utility rather than veridicality . . .
The effect can be a little dizzying.
One can perhaps empathize with those who objected to being told the earth was not flat but a sphere around which the sun floated. It takes courage, discipline and tenacity – and, truth be told, a little luck – to see clearly the rot at the heart of a cherished paradign, let alone adopt a new one in the old one’s stead.
One religious response to this subjectivity is to identify with it and to identify it with God, broadly defined. I am not this body that comes and goes but rather this awareness that is pervasive and boundless, infinite and eternal. It is – and by extension, I am – that ineffable permanence to which the word “God” (or Source or Truth) points.
Thus, Sri Aurobindo could write in The Life Divine:
Therefore all is in each and each is in all and all is in God and God is in all; and when the liberated soul comes into union with this Transcendent, it has this self-experience of itself and cosmos which is translated psychologically into a mutual inclusion and a persistent existence of both in a divine union which is at once a oneness and a fusion and an embrace (387).
A Course in Miracles notes that since we cannot be separate from God it is meaningless to seek God.
Nowhere but where He is can be found. There is no path that does not lead to Him (T-31.IV.11:6-7).
This equation – making our human experience isomorphic with divine experience – is not flawless. All too readily it can be adopted to facilitate familiar egoic feints and maneuvers. Under the guise of undoing the self, we can in fact become quite selfish and grandiose. There’s a reason many gurus and other spiritual and religious leaders are morally and ethically indistinguishable from their political, military and business counterparts.
The overarching point is that when we encounter “I Am,” we are at the beginning of our spiritual inquiry, not the end. We haven’t found God; we have found a way to find God (or a way to not need to find God – or to be in relationship with God as a non-trivial idea – the permutations are apparently endless). It’s the equivalent of traveling a long time, reaching your destination and finding only a map signifying yet another – longer and more arduous – journey. Tara Singh used to say to his students – I paraphrase – “you’ve got it, now you have to decide what to do with it.”
“What to do with it” is the harder – but also more interesting – part. Responding to it invokes – incarnates, really – the spiritual intimacy of “I and Thou.” Truly, the word is first with God and then becomes flesh. How shall we think about this?
Tara Singh’s clarity and sense of purpose called to me both instantly and loudly. From the outset I assumed a learning posture with respect to his work. It took a long time to understand that his clarity and sense of purpose arose for me the way they did because Singh wasn’t reckoning with A Course in Miracles at the level of the intellect. It was not merely a text to be understood and correctly shared but rather embodied through love which Singh understood meant service to our brothers and sisters. And he meant service literally – soup kitchens and homeless shelters. You had to put your body into it. You had to get your hands dirty.
This sense of concretely serving our sisters and brothers is often absent from the broader community of ACIM teachers and students. There the focus tends to be on self-improvement, spiritual “evolution,” personal experience, acquisition of spiritual gifts and so forth. It’s not the end of the world; none of us are altogether immune from it. But over and over the course insists that we are not separate from one another and it is only when we recognize this fundamental unity that we will know God. Everything else is delay and distraction. Why wait?
God has but one Son, knowing them all as one. Only God Himself is more than they are but they are not less than He is. Would you know what this means? If what you do to my brother you do to me, and if you do everything for yourself because we are part of you, everything we do belongs to you as well. Everyone God created is part of you and shares His glory with you (T-9.VI.3:5-9).
Here it is worth pointing out that the observed paradox (God is more than us but we aren’t less than God) is resolved not in the individual or personal (i.e., “you” are not less than God) but rather in the communal (i.e., “they” are not less than God). It is our unity with other selves that mirrors the divine; it is in relationship with the other that we are made – make – one.
Lesson 71 makes the sense of giving unto others more explicit.
What would You have me do?
Where You have me go?
What would You have me say, and to whom? (W-pI.71.9:1-3).
In other words, we are not here to privilege our own needs but to attend to the needs of the other. Indeed, that is the only way in which our truest need – to know God, which is to bring forth love – can be met.
Tara Singh put it this way:
. . . action is creative; it extends what it is and therefore it has to give. Service is the action of that impeccable space within one who wants to know the lifestyle of compassion – wants to know, “I am the blessed servant of God. I have my love to give and my joy to share” (The Joseph Plan of A Course in Miracles for the Lean Years, 28).
I call attention here to the explicit language of embodiment – of the flesh – reflected in the phrase “the lifestyle of compassion,” by which Tara Singh means service. A Course in Miracles ostensibly disavows behavioral directives (this was a hallmark of Ken Wapnick’s teaching), but Singh saw clearly that “I Am” necessitated an actual physical living embrace of the other. In essence, “I Am because Thou Art.”
Finally – because it is an important point often overlooked – the course is clear that awakening, rightly understood, is a service we provide to others. It is not a personal event, a personal culmination of spiritual effort and study.
You are not yet awake, but you can learn how to awaken. Very simply, the Holy Spirit teaches you to awaken others . . . They will become the witnesses to your reality, as you were created witness to God’s (T-9.VI.5:1-2, 4).
I was confused about this aspect of the course for a long time. From time to time that confusion resurfaces, usually in the presence of those who are here to teach me humility, restraint, give-don’t-take, et cetera. We are called to love the other who is our sister/brother and who could be, in Humberto Maturana’s phrasing, our own self. But this love is too often conflated with hierarchical power dynamics (student/teacher, leader/follower, boss/employee) or some other form of specialness, like sex or money or social capital.
To love the other is to give attention to them in a way that recognizes and does not obscure our radical (in the sense of deeply rooted rather than extreme) shared equality. When we recognize and honor this equality, the requisite contextual actions – be they teaching, making love, baking bread, watching a movie, weeding a garden – become clear. Doing them is loving the other unattended by the power dynamics of ego (as the course would say), or the discrete self (as Thomas Merton would say), or the pain body (as Eckhart Tolle would say), or . . .
However we phrase it, the critical insight seems to be that happiness is not about a boon to our own subjective experience of self but rather the way in which we extend that self to others. Our awakening, as such, lies in learning how to awaken others, which is to make them happy, which is basically to allow them the full expression of their humanness, without a lot of spiritual or political or any other form of drama.
It is easy to become confused about what this means in practice. Should we open a soup kitchen? Volunteer at a shelter? Donate to this or that political candidate?
I think it is important to give attention to the way that love actually already does permeate our human experience, and to see how that love naturally extends itself. To the extent certain formal steps are required – soup kitchens, political activism, et cetera – they will be clearly indicated. But we have to get out of the way first.
Start by seeing how you are loving – in a non-dramatic way – in your most ordinary being. Notice the casual nods and smiles and small talk that you offer strangers in the supermarket, on the bus, in the library. Notice the physical space you give others and they give you – not as something we have to fight for and defend once attained, but as a gesture of easy respect, so easy it goes without saying, indeed, often without even being noticed.
These practically mindless gestures are actual manifestations of the love that is the fundament of our being. Nothing special, nothing dramatic. No insistence on reciprocity. Just the recognition of the other who is our own self in passing. Is there anything else we would call holy? And seeing how naturally it arises, how effortlessly it lifts us and others, can we give it yet more space to do its thing? Truly it works most effectively when “we” – the egoic centralized self – does not interject with goals, plans, ideas, fears, and desires.
Thus, when we come to the subjective wonder of “I Am,” we are finally prepared to appreciate, inspire and nurture the equal wonder – the partner wonder – of “Thou Art.” We might call what is created then a sacred loop, a holy circle, a blissful reflexivity, recursive divinity. And we might forego naming it all, knowing that the body of the other is the body of the world which is the word that is God made flesh because it is God. Service becomes the gift we give to the other because it is the gift we merit because we are the other.
A non-trivial aspect of my spiritual practice – that is rooted in A Course in Miracles but diverges in thoughtful applied ways – is to set gently aside questions of mystery in favor of engagement with what appears, or what seems to be, the case.
That is, when I am mucking the horse pasture, or clearing trails in the forest, or baking bread, I am less concerned with the abstract nature of the self – the light of pure awareness, say, or Consciousness (with a capital C) – and more with how that self is experiencing its self right now.
In doing so, the spiritual mystery of the self, its nature, its origins, et cetera – naturally dissolve. It is as if – and may, in fact, be that – love is content with the subject/object divide, so long as it is allowed to rest gently and non-confrontationally in the apparent division.
Also in doing this, I am engaging in a sort of bastardized Husserlian bracketing. I am giving attention to what is given, rather than struggling mentally (or psychologically or intellectually) to understand what is given. Again, it is my experience – my thesis, as it were – that love understands itself in the context in which it appears. So the bracketing – which intends to set aside complex questions of self which have riddled western history and thinking for millenia – becomes a way of knowing. It is as if the questions that were bracketed return or – even better – never left.
What does this look like – or how is it enacted – in my living?
Say that I am mucking the horse pasture. I give attention to the task which includes both physical and mental elements:
– noticing where the manure is;
– forking it into the wheelbarrow;
– eyeballing the horses eyeballing me;
– noticing the birds, butterflies, and insects;
– noticing the flowers and grass;
– hydrating if necessary;
– not rushing and not slacking and not hurting my body;
– dumping manure in the proper compost pile (they are divided according to time of year and length of time spent composting);
– stirring the pile if and as necessary;
– putting the tools away
This is a lot to do! And, of course, it all sort of arises in an apparently singular welter. There is the work and there is the way my body handles it. There is the environment and the way in which attention reveals it – the more attention given, the more there is to attend. There is the overarching context of loving these very horses and wanting their living to be clean and pleasing and safe. There is the comfort and diligence in composting manure to enrich our gardens and allow us to barter with neighbors, and there is thus an overarching sense that one is doing to the best of one’s ability what is best and most loving for the collective.
It is not necessary to do anything in order to be aware of all this! It simply happens. And there is a natural corollary: it is not necessary to understand the self or its origins or its true nature in order to be a self or experience a self or bring that self into loving application. Simply do it and observe what is happening as it happens.
The suggestion I make – because it arises from my experience – is that the mysteries and the mysticism (and salvation and awakening and present-moment-awareness and . . . ) are all simply natural aspects of what is naturally happening. They are included in the package, as it were. And they reveal themselves as we give attention to what is happening, which is not dramatic or intense but merely this very living that we are doing and were always doing.
In my view, that question functions as gossip – akin to speculating about someone’s sexuality. We are all intuitive to one extent or another. We all express our intuitions in deeply personal ways. Singling out one person’s expression for analysis – especially without their consent and participation – feels intrusive and unkind.
But beyond gossip, I still think it’s a poor question. A “poor question” – in my view anyway – is one that does not yield a boatload of subsequent questions, each deeper than the last, that together leave us not with answers (which are only questions in utero) but an abiding sense of wonder and gratitude.
Here is how I would frame an inquiry into Helen’s psychic powers: does it matter if she was psychic?
The way that we answer that question is interesting because it anticipates another – more interesting and fruitful – question: who actually wrote A Course in Miracles?
Helen Schucman (with an assist from Bill Thetford)?
Or Jesus (with an assist from Helen Schucman with an assist from Bill Thetford)?
The way that we answer that question speaks volumes to how we view the ACIM curriculum. If we believe that Jesus dictated it, then we are apt to believe that by embracing it we are ipso facto embracing Jesus. We become students of the course ordained by Jesus Himself. We get as close to a contemporary disciple as one can get.
But since A Course in Miracles ultimately refutes the existence of separate identities, it also denies the identity of an itinerant peasant who was executed by the Romans a couple of millenia ago for carrying on the work of John the Baptist. If you carefully follow the course, you reach a juncture where there is no Jesus.
Nor, by the way, is there a Gary Renard (or an Arten or Pursah). Or a Ken Wapnick. Or a Tara Singh. Or a Marianne Williamson. Or a . . .
But those fine teachers are not the real sticking points! The sticking point is that there is no [insert your name here]. And most of us would cheerfully throw Helen Schucman herself under the bus rather than give up our own identity.
Helen Schucman – not Jesus – wrote A Course in Miracles. It expresses her lifelong fascination with Christianity (especially the healing implicit in Christian Science and the mysticism inherent in Catholicism), and its nexus with psychology and with emerging popular views of eastern spirituality. Critically, in order to effectively write this material, she had to pretend it wasn’t her doing the writing but rather Jesus.
In other words, I don’t think there was any way for Schucman to face the ACIM material other than to displace it. Or – to put it into course terms – project the material onto her projection of Jesus and then deny that’s what she was doing.
Most of us who read the course are de facto enablers of Helen, in the sense that we go along with her fantasy. We pretend that Jesus really is implicated in authorship of the course. I don’t think any of us get away from this aspect of A Course in Miracles. Saying Jesus wrote it is sexy. Saying that we are followers of Jesus through A Course in Miracles is righteous. And sexy + righteous = special. It’s our favorite equation.
I know that for many students to dismiss Jesus (and perhaps Helen Schucman and A Course in Miracles too) this way amounts to an assault on the sacred. Forgive me. But also, consider the possibility that denotations like “sacred” may themselves be an assault on that to which “sacred” points.
So here is another question. If A Course in Miracleswas written by Helen Schucman, and reflects in part her confusion about Christian spirituality and identity, and in part the popular enlightenment zeitgeist of the sixties and early seventies (manifest to varying degrees of effectiveness in Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, et cetera), would that be okay? Why or why not?
Back when I was practicing a half-assed Zen in Vermont, I read Kodo Sawaki. He was a confusing teacher, largely because – especially back then – I preferred my spiritual teachers to radiate holiness. You could say chop wood and carry water but the actual chopping and carrying was for schlubs.
Sawaki was – and is, really – good medicine for that kind of confusion and arrogance.
The asshole doesn’t need to be ashamed of being the asshole. The feet don’t have any reason to go on strike just because they’re only feet. The head isn’t the most important of all, and the navel doesn’t need to imagine he’s the father of all things. It’s strange though that people look at the prime minister as an especially important person. The nose can’t replace the eyes, and the mouth can’t replace the ears. Everything has its own identity, which is unsurpassable in the whole universe.
Sawaki recognized that his methods and style were controversial, especially for folks invested in concepts of “sacred,” especially as they applied to “identity,” ours or anyone else’s.
They say that my sermons are hollow, not holy. I agree with them because I myself am not holy. The Buddha’s teaching guides people to the place where there is nothing special . . . People often misunderstand faith as kind of ecstasy of intoxication . . . True faith is sobering up from such intoxication.
It is easy to become intoxicated with A Course in Miracles – the scribe was psychic, Jesus is its author, popular teachers are taught by ascended masters, it holds out the possibility of light shows . . .
If that’s your thing, then it’s your thing. Give attention to it and see where it goes. For me, its yield was more in the nature of an ersatz high one has to work harder and harder to sustain. But my way is not The Way.
In my experience, it was helpful to treat the course as a course, allow it to function as if functioned, and then move on. A Course in Miracles introduces you to an inner teacher that it calls the Holy Spirit, and that teacher takes over the curriculum. It is deeply personal and deeply effective. One doubles down on their study and – when the times comes, which it does – let the whole thing go.
Thus, beyond the high drama and supernatural special effects so many of us project onto the course, there is the simple promise of becoming peaceful and happy to an almost exquisite degree, simply by seeing the self for what is and thus ending our personal resistance to experience. That is the real promise, and the real joy. And for it, my gratitude to Helen Schucman is immense.
A lot of the writing I do these days – some of which shows up here, some of which does not, but all of which has as its essence a desire to see more clearly what I think and feel in order to see more clearly thought and feeling arising – has to do with A Course in Miracles. I am moving on from it, I am grateful to it, I am wondering if I will ever go back to it, does all this thinking mean I am still with it, in it, et cetera.
I have been writing a response to a comment in this post on Gary Renard, and in doing so, it is clear that there is a way in which I am still very much in and with A Course in Miracles. What do I mean by this? I mean that I care about it, which means – for me – that it puzzles and excites and illuminates me, especially certain aspects of it, and certain aspects of me.
Yet it is also clear that what I mean by A Course in Miracles is not what you mean – nor what anybody else means – and that this diversity of understanding is important, even as it may restrain or even preclude an ongoing dialogue. The course points to something complex that merits attention, going deeper, comprehending, sharing, et cetera. But what exactly? And how shall we know?
Human observers are processes, not stable entities. We are in motion: our movement becomes us. It doesn’t feel this way. It feels like we’re solid, predictable, reliable, tangible. But that’s just how the process feels. That’s just how the process seems, when the process is looking at itself.
What happens when we slip a Text, Workbook and Manual for Teachers into a process like that?
It is like dropping a twig into an eddy on a brook. At first, the twig behaves in predictable ways. It swirls, rotates, spins, bobs. If we study its movement closely, and compare it to the same twig in another eddy, then we will observe subtle but non-trivial differences. But from a distance, in broad strokes, there is a predictable similarity. At the outside, from a distance, course students share clear similarities in practice. But when we go closer – track the narrow road to the interior, say – differences in ACIM practice appear which, the closer we get, become more and more pronounced.
This is because eventually, the eddy moves on. It settles back into the brook. It dies in the sand of either bank. It spits the twig out. The twig drifts, encounters other twigs, other eddies, other currents. On and on it goes, even after we’ve lost sight of it.
In time, our ability to predict what will happen to the twig necessarily dissolves. In fact, the only real prediction we can make with respect to the twig is that eventually our prediction will fall apart. Our knowing is always temporary and situational.
In part, this is why I cannot insist that A Course in Miracles necessarily means this or that or something else altogether. Or that this teacher is right, while this one is wrong. Helpful or unhelpful, sure. But right or wrong? What do I know?
There is a saying that the map does not equal the territory. This is sound but it does not mean that the map cannot ever be helpful. A map is a way of relating to the territory. A Course in Miracles is a kind of map. It is a way of being in relationship with experience.
If we look at our map and the map says that there should be a river where we are, and instead there is a mountain, then we have to discard that part of the map. Or update it, if you prefer. The mountain is what’s there. What the map says no longer obtains.
Our ACIM map has a lot to do with Jesus, but we might find that out in the territory, there is no Jesus, or only a little Jesus.
In that case, we have to find another map. It’s okay to do this. It doesn’t mean the ACIM map is wrong in any ultimate or final sense; just that it no longer applies to the given territory.
The territory is not objective. It is always shifting, always personal. How does the brook appear to an eddy? The only possible answer is: it depends on the eddy – where it is, what stage of eddying it’s at, and so forth. It is impossible for an eddy to give anything other than a relative answer.
Thus, your still pond may be my craggy mountain. Your vast lake may be my trail through the forest. Where the map – be it ACIM or something else – might be efficient for me, it may not be for you. This is neither a crisis nor a problem nor even an invitation to debate (though it may yield some interesting and helpful dialogue). It is simply experiencing our human observer experience.
Thus, one is never “finished” with A Course in Miracles. Nor does one actually ever begin A Course in Miracles. It feels like our study begins and ends: but that is just the movement of the river. That is just the spinning of the twig. Here we are: and here we go.
Ken Wapnick was fond of pointing out that A Course in Miracles was not injunctive with respect to behavior. One doesn’t have to be a vegetarian or a Democrat or go to church on Sunday or celebrate Christmas or donate to the poor in order to be a course student.
In an important sense, he is correct. The course bypasses a lot of behavioral directives that often characterize spiritual and religious practices and traditions.
Of course – and Ken acknowledged this, too – if one diligently studied A Course in Miracles, there were often external correlates tending in the direction of gentleness, kindness, moderation, et cetera. Those correlates were not why one studied ACIM but they were certainly pleasant perks (both for the student and those around them).
This distinction – between what it means to study A Course in Miracles is and what the effects of that study are – matters. Not being confused about that distinction also matters.
Strictly speaking, A Course in Miracles is a one-year self-study program that is Christian in language and imagery, modeled on a traditional twentieth century psychological paradigms and explores – with varying degrees of effectiveness – nondualism. It is not a spiritual practice per se, and so is not intended to supplant pre-existing practices.
It is not, in other words, the latest or the best or the most-improved method of attaining inner peace. It’s just another tool, helpful or unhelpful according to the context in which it is applied.
And indeed, as its author, Helen Schucman, made clear in the preface, its only objective is to introduce students to an “inner teacher” it generally refers to as the “Holy Spirit.” Once that student-teacher relationship is in place, the course is largely irrelevant. The Holy Spirit – such as it is – takes things from there.
Thus, a study of A Course in Miracles is more akin to taking a class than it is to going to church or meditating or whatever other spiritual behavior happens to be personally resonant. And, the measure of the course’s effectiveness is the degree to which it delivers a given student to their “inner teacher.”
You read the text, do the lessons, read the manual and . . . that’s it. For all ACIM-related intents and purposes, you’re done. You did it. You are either in touch with your inner teacher or you aren’t. In either case, the utility of A Course in Miracles is changed for you.
So knowledge about the course, time you’ve spent studying, and prestige within the course community are not hallmarks of course effectiveness. In fact – I speak from experience – they are often symptoms of distraction and confusion which inevitably generate more distraction and confusion.
Ken Wapnick, for example, often called himself the first teacher of the course but it is perfectly clear that he was actually its first student. Most of what passes for Ken’s “teaching” is really Ken’s “learning out loud in front of others.”
This doesn’t mean it’s not helpful. It can be, in its way. I am certainly grateful for Ken’s intelligence and devotion. But if we insist on seeing his course-related work as “teaching” – rather than as the student next to us who talks a lot, who is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and whose experience of the course cannot ultimately be our own – then we are apt to get confused, possibly deeply so. There is no law that says you have to wake up before you die!
So a lot of the time, for a lot of students, what we think of as “the course” or what the course “says” or “means” is really just our personal recapitulation of Ken’s learning process. Other, lesser-known, students are also “learning by teaching” and the effect on their students – confusion – is the same. I have contributed to this problem myself. At its best, this kind of “teaching” simply generates more material that will need to be undone at some later juncture. At it’s worst, well, there is no law that says you have to wake up before you die. Or did I say that already?
It is helpful to note (to remember, really) that undoing is not something that “we” do – it is more in the nature of something that happens or, better, something that we observe happening. Or not happening, as it were. To the extent we are attached to undoing, then undoing itself becomes a thing to be undone.
For me – which is not say “for you” – there is really only observation left. Of course I screw this up – how could I not? And yet it is also possible to reach a space of relative stillness where one can simply give attention to what is going on without interfering in it. At that point, deeper stillnesses and quiets are revealed. Even the wordy and unworthy are welcome.
Also at that point, the course – and its teachers – are more or less irrelevant. I don’t think noticing and reporting this is controversial. And behavior – do this, don’t do that – ceases to matter as much. One is never not amazed at how much prattle and static passes for spirituality . . .
Really, it is good to be honest, because honesty precedes clarity, and clarity is what allows us to finally figure out what little to do and how, in the personal context of our living, to do it. So what is our experience? Who are we “following?” What “rules” are we obeying? What “rules” are we breaking?
It comes back to us; it really does. It comes back to experience: to this experience: this one right here and now. This this. What is it? What are its boundaries? Its seams? What is its source? How do we know? How can we say?
In my experience – which is not to say “your experience” – the course does not really answer those questions so much as gently (well, mostly gently but sometimes roughly) deliver us to a space where they can be answered, where “answered” means “undone” or “dissolved.” And that undoing or dissolution – which is inherent and ordinary! – leads readily to a quiet and natural happiness.
I wonder sometimes if we are ever really finished with anything. I took Modern American Poetry with Lorrie Smith in the late 80s; I never took it again. And yet its effects are never not swirling through what I call “my life.” As a writer, a reader, a man, a father, a husband, a teacher, a homesteader, a fuck-up, a dogged angel . . .
Just so with A Course in Miracles. I took the course and gave it deep and sustained attention for several years. And then I moved away from it. I have compared the course to a way station on a mountain: you stop, you do what you have to do, and then you keep going.
But I wonder if a better metaphor is not simply courses themselves. After all, the course is not a spiritual path but a time-bound, curriculum-bound class. Why complicate things?
For example, I haven’t taken a math class in over thirty years. Barring some very unforeseen developments, I won’t take one again. And, for the most part, good riddance and God bless.
Yet I use math literally every single day. Grading papers, buying groceries for the family or hay for the horses, balancing my checkbook, playing certain probability-based dice games (APBA baseball, Dungeons & Dragons, backgammon). Indeed, my life would not function well at all if I did not have basic math skills that were readily brought to bear when needed.
I no longer read A Course in Miracles with any regularity. From time to time, I go back to it to double check something or out of curiosity. It is a comfort, in its way. I don’t read any ACIM teachers at all anymore. Perhaps that will change one day. Perhaps not.
I don’t experience this as a virtue or a problem or a mystery.
Still, the course’s effects – like those of Modern American Poetry so many years ago – go on in my life. On and on they go. They are like a bead of food coloring dropped into clear water. Swirling, eddying, clouding, shading. A Course in Miracles centered my thinking and drove my personal curriculum like nothing else ever had.
If we go back to the hiking-up-the-mountain analogy – we are in danger of over-analogizing here, I know – at the mountain’s summit, one no longer needs the map that got them there. But one’s gratitude for the map is perhaps more intense than ever.
I am not trying to tell folks that they shouldn’t study the course, or that they have to return to the course, or anything like that. I am simply saying: give attention to the personal nature of what you are calling your experience – your psychology, your spirituality, your philosophy, your semantics, your aesthetic. What works and what doesn’t? What serves and what doesn’t? What resonates and what doesn’t?
There is no mountain and so there is no summit. Thus, are there are no way stations either. It is perhaps simpler and clearer to say that there are patterns out there that intersect with the patterns we are, and all we can really do is be attentive to the repatterning.
This attentiveness is very personal. Since everything is constantly changing, however subtly, it is not possible to come to conclusions that work in all situations all the time. It is tempting to do that – and in a lot of ways that is our default mode – but it is ultimately unsatisfying because it is dysfunctional and incoherent.
You are a pattern that briefly intersected with the pattern we call A Course in Miracles, which briefly intersected with the pattern of Sean, who wrote this pattern called a blog post, and from which all sorts of new and beautiful – relevant and irrelevant, helpful and not-helpful – patterns are right now unfurling.
And the unfurling never finishes. It never ever finishes.
So we give attention. We let stuff go, we pick stuff up. And the rivers flow, and the stars fall, and the winds come down from the sky. The bread rises, the pigs cry out for mercy in their pens, and the babies make us dream of a better and more peaceful world. It goes on like this. Us, too.
There is no world! This is the central thought the course attempts to teach (W-pI.132.6:2-3).
The Course makes no claim to finality, nor are the Workbook lessons intended to bring the student’s learning to completion. At the end, the reader is left in the hands of his or her own Internal Teacher, Who will direct all subsequent learning as He sees fit (preface to A Course in Miracles).
The experiences we have are shaped by the cognitive and perceptive capacities of bodies. We can’t fly like crows and we can’t live underwater like fish and we can’t calculate a billion chess moves in a single second.
We can build machines that help us do those things ( or actually do these things) but we cannot do them unaided. And even the machines we build are limited by what we can know and perceive. You can’t build a machine to do X, if you can’t conceive of X.
Thus, cognition and perception – impressive as they are – are limits.
Yet they are also generative, in that absent their function – including the constraints on that function – no world comes forth in which to do our living. That is, cognition and perception also bring forth the very environment in which we live and have our being. They shape the world, color it, order it, et cetera.
If somebody in the ACIM community disputes the existence of the body – as sooner or later almost every student does – then the question arises: how would you know?
That is, absent the cognitive and perceptual abilities of the body, how would you be able to experience – and then share that experience of – not having a body?
In other words, it takes a body to imagine that one is not a body and is therefore free (of bodies and the world they bring forth).
That is not necessarily a dispositive argument, but still. I do not think these questions are out of place in the community of A Course in Miracles (though when I raise them folks often bristle). We do like the comfort of magical solutions. We do enjoy imagining ourselves as heirs to benevolent mysteries.
However, what we are really doing when we covet magic and mystery is claiming the special status of The One Who Knows, whose knowing is defined in significant part by the poor ignorant bastards who don’t know and thus fall outside the safe bounds of our spiritual fortress.
This, as Tara Singh pointed out, is a form of lovelessness. We all do it and so we are all also called to stop doing it.
A Course in Miracles is a symbolic text that if taken literally ends up confusing its students. Its primary author – Helen Schucman – more or less abandoned the project, leaving it to others to edit and promulgate. Some of those others conflated (knowingly and otherwise) their personal agendas with those of the course. A lot of the public energy in and around the ACIM community resembles a culture of naiveté and spiritual grift.
It is less like a quiet church in which to commune with the Beloved and more like a crowded noisy bazaar where it’s hard to think, not everybody has your best interests at heart, and the exits aren’t clearly marked.
Yet for all that, the course retains its fundamental ability: to introduce the sincere student to her own internal teacher, which the course calls the Holy Spirit, and which I call attention.
(Side note: of course you should ignore everything I say! What do I know?)
Attention is what allows us to gently see what works and what doesn’t and to deepen our relationship with what works while setting aside that which does not. Awakening is not a spiritual event but an ongoing sustainable process by which our thinking and being clarify in ways that reduce conflict. As conflict in its various forms abates, what remains is peace.
We are by nature loving, cooperative and inclusive animals, but it takes learning and practice to recover and hold this fact in creative and fructive ways.
This process is not – repeat not – a mysterious project involving mysterious agents and hidden causes that somehow do away with bodies and transport us to veritable Edens where we cavort with the similarly blessed.
Rather, the quiet happiness, the calm joy, the serious desire to be helpful and kind are embodied experiences that loosen the stranglehold our fear of loss – and fear of death as the ultimate loss – have on our bodies. That’s all. The course is helping undo fear but that undoing happens here, in and to and with the body in which our experience is brought forth from the world our body brings forth.
When the body – and its world – becomes as natural and lovely as a dandelion or a chickadee or a thunderstorm, then there is less to cling to and more to simply be grateful for. It is enough, truly. You can set about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, beating your sword into a plow and so forth. Or making puzzles, baking bread and going for walks. Or whatever lights your candle.
You can be freely and fully the loving animal you naturally are.
It is true that a kind of transcendence is being implied here. Emily Dickinson’s body of work (poems and letters) is a beautiful and complex exploration of this experience. But the transcendence is experienced locally! That is, there is the one who transcends and there is that which is transcended and . . . wait for it . . . they are the same! So the transcendence is less about rising above and more about perceiving the way in which our being is more in the nature of, say, a Mobius strip (or an Escher painting or a sentence like “[T]he reader of this sentence exists only while reading me”*).
And given attention – that is, given the teacher A Course in Miracles pledges its students – one cannot help but see this and know this is in a natural and serious way.
It is always hard to talk intelligently and clearly about this material, especially because one experiences it – and extends it – in such deeply personal ways. I hope you will forgive my clumsiness and tendency to prattle.
*Borrowed from Douglas Hofstadter’s book Metamagical Themas.
A Course in Miracles often strikes me as a fringe-y element of a fairly typical cultural drift currently happening in Christianity. There is a move away from rigid standards and institutional practices and toward something a bit more mystical and flexible and generous, somewhat like Buddhism in its transplanted western expressions.
More heaven and less hellfire. More commensality than exclusivity.
People often describe my spiritual position as atheistic, which is understandable. After all, I frequently say there is no God. Yet in general I don’t embrace that label, for the simple reason that my thinking has been so deeply influenced in both content and structure by Christian writers and practices. It feels irresponsible to not acknowledge and accept this.
I tend to think of “God” as a nontrivial idea implicated in my experience of self and world, one that I can neither wholly ignore nor fully embrace. A fundamental reflexivity abounds, kind of the way I throw onion skins in the compost which a year or so later becomes the soil in which new onions are planted whose skins will be thrown on the compost . . .
On and on it goes until you realize what’s interesting is not the “it” but the “going on and on.”
On this view, A Course in Miracles becomes a sort of literate, vaguely academic, Christian expression of nondual mysticism with Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God-as-Father loosely riding herd on an embodied process. I think more rigid ACIM practitioners – Ken Wapnick comes to mind – would object to this characterization. They may even be right. What do I know?
But the question is always about what is helpful. That is, what is the use to which so-and-so is being put? what works?
In my experience, the course eventually nudged me out of ACIM and into contemporary neo-advaitic communities (Leo Hartong, in particular), where I was fortunate to meet some very smart and patients folks who professed to be in a state of oneness, one without another, et cetera.
I enjoyed those dialogues very much! It was a helpful learning environment for me, even if – to the chagrin of the friends I made there – I eventually moved on. A lot of the ground on which contemporary nondual logic and lexicon rests turns out to be pretty thin gruel when examined closely. That’s okay. There are thinkers – Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Louis Kaufman, David Bohm, to name a significant few – who provided (for me, anyway) the requisite maps and gear.
Nondual experience or awareness or insights – however one wants to phrase it – are certainly available. However, contrary to popular belief and received wisdom, they are not ends or products so much as beginnings or processes. And they are inherent in the human experience as it is experienced.
It is – again, in my experience – a question of knowing what to look for and, perhaps in a way, of knowing how to look.
Thus, even as I’ve drifted a fair bit from ACIM proper, in a lot of ways I’ve come closer to the inner peace and stillness the relative absence of which drove me to the course in the first place. The route I took was circuitous and sort of counter-intuitive but it was certainly functional. To extend the analogy from yesterday, if you set out to climb a mountain by Trail A and end up bushwhacking your way to the summit, so what? The summit’s the summit.
Thus, my answer to whether A Course in Miracles was – is – helpful is an unqualified yes, albeit with a story attached. Really, what else could it be? So it is not my intention to tell anybody to bail on the course but rather to ask in a serious and reflective way: is it helpful? Is it working? And then give attention to the answers and let them direct you accordingly.
The other day I said to a friend that A Course in Miracles was sort of like the last way station before I set out for the summit. I hunkered down with it, I learned a lot, made contact with my inner teacher, made contact with some external teachers like Tara Singh and Ken Wapnick and . . . moved on. Went up the trail.
My point was that nobody lingers at the way station. You do what you need to do there and then you move on. Sure you can linger. Yes the company can be great. And yes, there’s no penalty for staying. You can spend your whole life at the way station – the world won’t end.
But it’s important to be honest. If we’re on the mountain because we want to reach the peak, then what is the point of making the way station our home, spiritual or otherwise?
Why not go where you want to go?
A Course in Miracles is a course – you take it, you take it again if that’s helpful or necessary, you study it carefully to be sure you’ve got it, you help other students and let yourself be helped, you listen carefully to your teachers . . .
And then you move on.
I was confused about this for a long time. I wanted the course to be my home, and I wanted course students to be my tribe, forever and always with a neat little bow.
But A Course in Miracles is not a spiritual path. It’s not a religion. It’s not even a community really, because it is so intensely personal. It’s just a self-study course that you can take or not take. So take it or don’t. But if you’re still dogging it twenty years later then it’s possible you’re indulging some confusion or denial.
If somebody wants a church or a meditation practice or something like that, there are plenty of options. There’s nothing wrong – and a lot helpful – with availing ourselves of them.
But that’s not what A Course in Miracles is about. You take the course and then you get on with your life. You make contact with your teacher, and that’s that. It’s like taking an accounting class. You learn the rules of accounting and the supporting math and then you go become an accountant.
If you are still taking accounting classes ten years later, and if you are struggling with the material, or if you’re taking them because you like the other students or whatever, then maybe accounting isn’t for you.
A Course in Miracles is no different. If it’s not helpful, then great. That’s good to know! But if you feel some calling or attachment to it, and if you read a line like “you make contact with your teacher, and that’s that” and you don’t know what it means then maybe you should ask some questions.
1. Why don’t you know?
2. Have you really and truly given the course all your attention and effort?
3. If not, why not?
4. If not, is it coherent to re-take the course?
5. If not, is there some more helpful course or tradition or practice of which you might avail yourself?
Always keep in mind that A Course in Miracles is simply one form of a given curriculum (e.g. C-in.2:5-6 and T-in.1:4) . There are others. Don’t sweat it if you’re being called to find out what those others are. Think of it this way: somebody in some other form of the curriculum needs you. Don’t waste time; find them. Help them. Be helped by them.
So that was what I meant: you take the course, you move on. But the friend with whom I was speaking asked a good question. He didn’t ask about the way station thing. He asked about the summit.
“So did you reach the summit?”
I laughed. It was a good question.
The summit (and the mountain and the way station and A Course in Miracles and the self and . . . ) are just analogies. They’re just a way of thinking, to those for whom thought is the mode. They are real analogies – real symbols – and they have some utility, but . . .
Nobody is really climbing a mountain at the top of which is God. Nobody is ascending a ladder to Heaven.
There is no God. There is no Heaven.
There is only this.
A Course in Miracles didn’t teach me that. It didn’t wake me up or enlighten me, as folks tend to use those terms. Really, it just helped me ask some very good and important questions (questions that were very personal to me and to where I was at with the whole God and Jesus thing) and then gently – with rare exceptions – pried me open so that I could receive the answers.
Those answers begat questions the course couldn’t answer – questions the course wasn’t designed to answer – and so I had to ask them elsewhere. Really, that is what it means to make contact with your teacher. You go where the questions say to go. In my experience, that is what the course does – it makes the next step or two clear.
There is no end to questions, and that is a nice thing to learn. When you learn it, you can relax about being right. You can relax about missing anything. You can relax about finding the One True Right Answer. Questions arise, answers arise, and then more questions arise. It’s okay. It’s more than okay.
No matter how intense you are, or how carefully you study, or who you allow to help you . . . questions arise. Answers arise.
In other words, there is no one answer that undoes anything. The undoing happens of its accord. In retrospect it sometimes appears as if there were some external cause – the temple bell going off just so, Jesus alighting on a nearby pine tree and setting it afire. But mostly it’s just the slow cessation of resistance, the emerging willingness to let be. You make a pot of coffee. You go for a walk. You write a poem or ride the horses or steam some broccoli . . .
There is nothing wrong with getting all intellectual and wordy about God and awakening and A Course in Miracles. I do sometimes, because it’s natural and fun and interesting. Better women and men than me have done the same, sometimes to a very helpful degree but still. It’s not right in any absolute sense.
A lot of people end up in a space of inner peace and stillness based on nothing other than common sense and simple attention.
Some folks get there because of religion. Or a good psychotherapist. Or the right combination of hallucinogenics.
Some people just get lucky.
That’s more or less what I said to my friend in response to his “did you reach the summit” question. And he replied – because he knows me and because he loves me and because it was the best thing to say in that moment – that I was full of shit.
And we both laughed then and kept walking. Our dialogue moved on to other subjects.
In a sense, it is true that I am full of shit, but in another sense, I am full of light. Whether it’s shit or light you see really depends on what you need. On my end, it’s all the same. Or rather, it’s shit or light depending on what I need – the I think I am at a given moment, engaged and interfacing the way I seem to be engaged and interfacing with the world . . .
Often when I write these posts I feel some sorrow that whoever reads them is not here to walk with me. It is often easier to talk through this material, which often just means seeing that there isn’t a lot to say. But walking and talking (especially on mountains) is fun. And really, when we are finished with the whole awakening and God and ACIM stuff, then we can move on to the real work: feeding hungry people, ending violence, learning and teaching sustainable ecological practices . . .