One can make the argument that A Course in Miracles just means what it means – you get it or you don’t, and that’s it. It isn’t subject to interpretations. Certainly, this was Ken Wapnick’s position.
IP: You claim that you are teaching what the Course actually says. If you read a line from the book and then explain it, that has to be your interpretation, surely?
KW: I do not feel that the Course has interpretations. I think it says what it says. Now, you could ask who I am to say: “What I say it says, is what it says.” I think that is something people must decide for themselves.
IP: But you make that claim.
KW: I do. I say: “This is what it says.”
But this is very narrow view of A Course in Miracles specifically, and of human beings generally. I am grateful to Ken for a great deal, but that is a narrow view. It is narrow because you cannot separate the text from the reader: the text and the reader are in a relationship, the salient quality of which is its variability and mutability. This is true no matter who is reading or what is being read.
The suggestion I am making here reflects an ideal of reading – reader becoming creator by virtue of reading – essentially espoused (and perhaps bastardized in my own interpretation of it) by Roland Barthes.
To interpret a text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it . . . the networks are many and interact without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable . . . ; the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language (S/Z 5 -6).
I am suggesting that to read A Course in Miracles (or any other text) with the idea that it has a fixed, immutable meaning is an error of magnitude that prevents us from seeing the text as it is: which is to say a dynamic and interactive process, that includes us because it desires us, because – in no metaphorical way – without us it does not exist.
I am suggesting that A Course in Miracles cannot be understood in terms of right or wrong. I am suggesting that the text you read today will be subtly different from the text you read tomorrow. I am suggesting that you are the text that A Course in Miracles is reading, the meaning of which emerges, or unfolds, from this very act of cooperative reading, which is not passive but creative, a sort of transcendent collective.
I am suggesting that truth is revealed not as a static final point in a book but as a fluidity, a textual flux that resists being known, so that the self, if we are going to speak of a self, is simply a divine emptiness perpetually flowing in and out of what is.
Charlotte Radler’s brilliant reading of Meister Eckhart (especially in Losing the Self: Detachment in Meister Eckhart and Its Significance for Buddhist-Christian Dialogue), moves helpfully – happily even – in this direction.
God is ultimately a projection of the human being’s wishes, desires and needs, and, thus, is an idol. The best way to honor God is, thus, to dive into a-theism and not to have a God, that is, to let God be nothing and exist in the same nothingness.
She goes on to suggest that Eckhart’s “mystical infrastructure” was not fixed but fluid, stable only in its instability.
God – and reciprocally the soul – is never statically frozen or enclosed as nothingness or One or Three or creation, but the Ultimate Reality is dynamically nothingness, One, Three and creation. This dynamic, dialectical movement, therefore, goes from absolute openness and liberation beyond being and nonbeing to an experience of openness and liberation in history and in creation, and back again.
So that is a way of thinking about God and reading that seems fruitful to me, that seems to get to the center of what we are doing, the center of the desire that calls itself spiritual.
Sometimes, the differences in our relationships with A Course in Miracles are small. Some people are happy to keep reading me because what I say is more or less consistent with their own understanding, or it confirms what they intuit about ACIM, or they like the emphasis on prose poetry, and so forth.
But sometimes those differences are very large – the way I don’t think the historical Jesus wrote or dictated A Course in Miracles, for example – and then we have to make a difficult decision. Are we going to try and force these other people into our personal way of thinking or can we just let it be? Just breathe and let be?
We need to be sensitive to the inclination – present in all of us to one degree or other – to proscribe readings of A Course in Miracles. If our ACIM practice is truly inhibited by what someone else is doing, then our attention needs to be redirected from the external – this person’s misreading A Course in Miracles – to our own unhealed perception that right and wrong exist and are meaningful and that we are responsible for applying them.
When we are settled on right and wrong and cheerfully applying those labels to people, places and things, we are taking refuge in the very lovelessness that A Course in Miracles aims to help us undo. It’s understandable, but it’s not exactly helpful. None of us are free from this impulse (to be right at another’s expense) but that is not an excuse for indulging behavior that is alienating and separative.
Please keep in mind that I am talking here about a relationship with a text. I am not saying that when someone says “all red lights mean go” you should hop into the car with them. I wouldn’t. But when it comes to reading, and understanding a vast tome of written, rewritten and edited words, and then bringing the resultant lessons into application, any possibility of black and white – this or that only – is just not possible. It’s like trying to read yesterday’s ripples in this morning’s lake; we deceive ourselves when we argue otherwise.
If you want proof of this, just have a conversation with anybody who seriously studies A Course in Miracles. Don’t get into what you think or what you feel, just make a big space in order to listen to their own practice and experience. Then do it with someone else. Then someone else.
By the time you reach the fifth or sixth person, you will see that A Course in Miracles is just a mirror into which we are all projecting our wishes, fears and desires. It’s like a picture of Ramana Maharshi, or the crucifixes I grew up with, or tarot cards. It’s just another object that people of a certain spiritual bent use to reflect back to themselves their preferred image of God and Heaven and inner peace and so forth.
Indeed, most of us don’t even have to inquire into other people’s experiences to see this. A close look at our own experience will reveal the mutability of the course. My own reading of A Course in Miracles has shifted substantially over the years. I don’t know many students (including Ken Wapnick*) for whom that’s not true. And once you observe the shifting nature of your own sense of the course, you realize that it’s not a holy scripture cast in Mosaic stone, but simply another spiritual text which can be brought to helpful or unhelpful application, depending on your readiness and openness.
Given that, why argue with anybody else’s interpretation? Or the way they choose to bring it into practice? Again, I can understand the impulse to argue because it springs from our shared belief in separate selves, which infects all of us, but that doesn’t mean we have to indulge it. If somebody wants ascended masters to lead the way, then go for it. If they want somebody who tells them “it’s this way or the highway,” then that’s great, too. We are where we are; there’s nothing to be gained by pretending otherwise. Indeed, pretending otherwise is the whole separation in a nutshell.
All we can really do is give attention to what works for us. Maybe A Course in Miracles is part of that and maybe not. Maybe it is now but it won’t be in a couple of months or years or decades. One of the affects of giving attention is the realization that we can’t give it for anybody else – all you can do is be as honest and open as possible with yourself, and what happens after that is out of your hands. Peace boils down to accepting that.
Over the years I’ve written stuff about ACIM that was true at the time – in the sense that it reflected my present understanding and inclination – but at which I now cringe. That is a lovely aspect of being a writer – you can see what you think, and you can also see what you thought. And it is very hard to take thought too seriously once you see how malleable it is and how often it changes. It’s like building a house on drifting sands.
One of the reasons I tried so hard in my early twenties to be a Buddhist, in the face of my ineptitude and stupidity, was because I had read that if you met the Buddha on the road, you were to kill him. I was so grateful for that at so many levels! I couldn’t even explain it. But it fed me in ways my native Catholicism (despite its relatively progressive flavor**) did not. It suggested to me that crosses and Bo trees were in the nature of waystations, not ends unto themselves, and that God – which even then I was trying to understand and perceive in terms of Meister Eckhart’s “unmanifest isness” – was not separate from anybody or anything but rather inherent in all of life, even unto non-manifestation.
It seems to me that as we become serious about encountering reality – whether we are doing this through Zen, ACIM, advaita vedanta, peyote, whatever – we sooner or later realize that we can’t place idols before reality. The truth won’t allow for it. And A Course in Miracles is an idol, a belief system that eventually we have to gently set aside.
Imagine that we have a broken tractor. For a long time, we ignore it. We are young and we think there is plenty of time to fix it. Then we decide we are going to get to it but first we have to pay off the mortgage on the farm or get the kids off to college. And then, when we are at last ready to fix it, we start reading about fixing tractors. We go to tractor-fixing workshops. Maybe we get a tractor-fixing guru. Time passes. Eventually we get around to holding the tractor-fixing manual (which is ACIM or the Mumonkon or Meister Eckhart’s sermons or whatever) in one hand while the other futzes around with tractor guts. But half-hearted effort yields nothing. We still aren’t serious. We still aren’t ready.
Then, one day, we realize that we know how to fix the tractor but we need both hands and our full attention to do it and it is time now to do it. So we put the manual down, and we stop thinking about fixing tractors, and we just go to work on the tractor before us.
My sense is that a lot of students who read Tara Singh, or who find my own half-assed study of the course helpful, are at the point where they are ready to put the manual down. In a sense, they already have – it’s on the ground by their knees – but they are still thinking, should I just take one more look? You know that I do that, because I am always bringing someone new to the table: David Bohm, John Sherman, Meister Eckhart, Emily Dickinson. Just one more writer, one more text . . . And it’s okay – it’s more than okay – but it’s not precisely the readiness that is required.
I am saying – as Tara Singh said with a lot more gravitas, clarity and poetry – that there is no point anymore in manuals or delay or resistance. It is time to fix the damn tractor. We know how to do it, we’re just scared. We’re not even lazy – we’re just scared, and our fear takes on all these different forms of resistance. But who cares? Fix the damn tractor. Just fix it.
The point – what I meant to say a couple thousand or so words ago – is simply that we can’t really fix anybody else’s tractor, and any time we spend trying to get others to fix their tractor, or switch to a different tractor care manual, is just another form of resistance. It’s another way of avoiding our own Massey-Ferguson. You can be the smartest person in the room, the one that everybody listens to, but if your tractor’s broken, then so what?
I can’t – because nobody can – possibly account for the unique form your story and journey assume. You have all these ideas about Jesus and the Buddha, and all these images, and you have done this and that as a faithful person and as a fearful person, and you have suffered in this way but not in that way, and you have made these mistakes and had all these different relationships through the years, all these loves and calls for love, and all of that shapes and colors the text that you read, whether it’s A Course in Miracles or Conversations with God or The Hobbit. The way the text arrives for you is so intimate that it is actually as if God were briefly manifest, briefly entering you, a slick line of mercury electrifying all your blood. You just have to meet it there, you have to let it happen just so, because – in a very literal way – it is letting you happen. It is all one movement.
There is no space between you, your reading of the text, and the text. We like to pretend there is, but there isn’t. If you look very closely at what is going on in an interior way, then you will see this. And once you do, the whole point of lecturing others because they aren’t hewing to the same intellectual spiritual line you are just evaporates. There’s no basis for it. And thank God! If there were, we’d spend all our time “helping” others and never getting around to fixing our own tractor.
We have to hunker down. When I say “we” I mean “me.” It is clear to me that the time for study is over, despite how good I am study, and despite how much I love it. It is at this point a form of resistance. I studied the maps not to draw them from memory but because I wanted to enter the territory and see what it looked like outside of cartography, outside of pictures, outside of someone else’s description. When you and I look at a mountain, we do not see the same mountain. Only by honoring our distinct visions can we climb it side by side, each in our own way reaching the summit together.
* I am aware of the potential for hypocrisy here. I am judging Ken Wapnick in order to write a post about not judging others based on their interpretation of A Course in Miracles. Physician heal thyself! But it is important I think to see that the problem isn’t really saying somebody is wrong. Rather, it’s believing that we’re right in doing so. That is, when we elevate our opinion or interpretation of a text to a settled “truth.” Agreeing and disagreeing are what interpretation is; it’s when we deny that – when we pretend that our interpretation is the real and only one – that we start to run into problems.
** When I say “progressive” here I mean my own particular application, which arose from a specific family and academic environment, both of which hewed to a fairly liberal understanding and application of Catholic doctrine. I am deeply grateful for that tradition and consider it a sound foundation, despite the considerable distance I have put between it and myself.