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 . . .
Reading and studying – taking, say – A Course in Miracles was basically a way of organizing my thinking with respect to answering that question. Naturally, it eventually became a way of gathering with those who were also using it to organize their own thinking with respect to answering that question.
So in a sense the course was basically a way of reifying thought itself, under the guise of shifting the contents of thought, without actually answering (or even addressing, really) the question.
That is incoherent.
You could imagine someone who is hungry, and who knows she must prepare a meal, and who opens the cupboard and begins moving the ingredients around without actually cooking. Perhaps if the flour is on the top shelf and the sugar on the bottom . . . Perhaps if the salt is placed in a position of prominence . . .
But never any bread. Never any soup.
Eventually it was clear this shifting, this organizing (and corresponding reification of incoherence) was not an answer to the question but rather the question from another perspective, which is to say, the same old question still unanswered.
But also, it is good to be clear about that, and one can be grateful to the context within which clarity dawns, without confusing that context for the light itself. Indeed, that is one way A Course in Miracles works.
That is coherent.
* Well, there were lots of questions, but they were mostly neatly helpfully included within that question. That question is actually not that hard to answer, especially once a) the need to reframe it becomes obvious and b) the ability to reframe is assumed (or remembered, maybe, or recalled even).
God knows of justice, not of penalty (T-29.IX.3:6).
Any sentence in A Course of Miracles can be the clear bell which summons us from a dream of separation and conflict to the quiet stillness of peace and fellowship.
This sentence from The Forgiving Dream (in The Awakening) will serve that function if we give it the space. The text of A Course in Miracles, like all the holy scriptures, from Ecclesiastes to Newton to Emily Dickinson, blossom in the nurturing light of attention.
That sentence exists – in the text and in this moment – so that we might remember that we have not been judged and found wanting by God. That is not what God is. No penalty attends us. Therefore, there is no need for self-defense through projection or attack of any kind. We can breathe. We can feed one another. We can give one another shelter.
Those seven words are a blessing and a promise: they bless us with forgiveness by assuring us that despite our interior fear and psychological fragmentation we have done nothing wrong; and they promise that we have something to offer our brothers and sisters: the very same forgiveness, which is seeing them in the light in which God sees us: innocent and in need of neither defense nor justification. We are each the other’s servant: here to help, because we are ourselves helped.
Those seven words intimate that together we might remember – even if only faintly, even if only briefly – the love by which the wholeness of life is given to us so that we might give it away in turn. Because we are loved without condition, we can love without condition. What else could Heaven possibly mean?
It is helpful to set aside time to remember our own holiness, our own perfection, our own capacity to be a healing presence in the collective. Not as a routine or a habit. Not as an obligation. Rather, we simply sit quietly in sunlight, or by a window while it rains, and let all thought come and go, taking with it its dreams of judgment, its dreams of terms and conditions, its dreams of who is welcome and who is not. We let that go and give attention to what remains without worrying too much about what – if anything – remains.
Letting all thought come and go does not mean to not have any thoughts: it means to see thought for what it is: images that arise in the mind, the way clouds are reflected in a still pond. No more and no more less. A thought only has the power we give it; if we simply watch it pass, then it passes.
Attention is not beholden to thought; thought is beholden to attention. It is important to see this. The world is saved and made safe(r) accordingly.
It is not necessary – nor possible really – to dwell forever in some meta-spiritual state of radiant inner peace. The laundry needs to be done, dinner needs to be made. Gardens need to be planted, deadlines met, dogs walked. It’s okay. This, too – this welter, this experience of being complex in a complex world – is just stillness from another angle.
It is like if you hold a prism one way it’s just a chunk of glass. But if you hold it another way, then rainbows dance all around you. But the prism is always a prism. Light is always just light.
So it is with the self; so it is with awakening. Seen one way it’s a state of radiant calm and certainty. Seen another, it’s a busy life being surfed with equal parts equanimity and when-will-I-get-to-sit-down.
That is the justice of God: that which appears is always simply that which appears. It is never better or worse than any other appearance. It is the same love through a different lens. We don’t even have to switch lenses.
There is no penalty because in the ultimate sense there is nothing to be right about and nothing to be wrong about. We aren’t at risk of condemnation. There is neither judge nor jury. There is no executioner. There aren’t even charges against us.