The Case for Hope in A Course in Miracles

Practicing A Course in Miracles requires what we might call pragmatic optimism. Most of us are a little confused by the Course – its language, its metaphysics. What does it mean that the external world is an illusion? How is it possible to leave thought behind? How can I love all people when it is obvious that I’m hard-wired not to love them?

Nor is it a simple read. The text is often abstract, overly poetic, highly artificial. Nobody talks that way. Certain paragraphs could easily have been converted to a single sentence. What is the point of a book that professes to aim for simplicity but is actually quite dense and even meandering at times?

And naturally, we screw up from time to time. We stop doing the lessons. We idolize teachers. We try another path and drop that one and drift back to ACIM and then this other path or teacher beckons. That can be quite a painful cycle.

Finally, often, it seems we just don’t make any progress, despite our sincere and disicplined and sustained efforts.

So I think that it can be quite difficult in many ways to be a student of A Course in Miracles. There are a lot of ways to become discouraged or distracted. There are a lot of side paths on which we digress and become lost and waste time.

In order to keep going in the face of this challenge, we need some optimism. And some faith. In a sense, even though we can’t see precisely how it’s all going to work out, we have to trust that it will. Otherwise we won’t be able to persist in a steady and disciplined way.

When trust is informed by optimism, it seems to work better. The alternative is resignation which tends not to inspire. The Course has some of this optimism built into it. Certain lessons will say things like today we’re going to substitute a few minutes of study for thousands of years of learning. Or that if we are really attentive to the lesson we are going to make a powerful and tangible contact with God.

So we can practice with a sense not of of panic but hopefuleness. We can say, “Today I am going to awaken from this nightmare. Maybe even before lunch. Surely by dinner.”

What are the grounds for this optimism, this faith? That is a good question, actually, and deserves our attention. Most of us have the capacity to believe that something good is going to happen even though it’s not immediately clear when or how it’s going to come about. What is the nature of that capacity? Where did that belief come from?

What will we find when we make contact with that sense of optimism and faith? What is its ground?

In order to experience separation, we must remember – dimly, vaguely – wholeness. We have to be able to compare this present experience with a prior one. So we contain the memory – tiny as a pinprick of light, faint as the faintest of distant stars – of God and our relation to God. This is why the Course can teach that we are already home. This is why we are asked to not seek fulfillment outside but inside. This is why we are taught that we have already been given the answer to the problem of separation.

Atonement is an accomplished fact within us. We cloud it over with nonsense and triviality, but beyond the machinations of our egoic thoughts and the lifetimes they consume, the Truth of our identity lies clear and still, waiting only on acceptance.

Thus, when we seek the ground of our faith that A Course in Miracles will eventually “work,” and when we seek the ground of our optimism that inner peace is both real and attainable, we are really drawing on the deep knowledge that the Course already has worked and that we already  are peace.

We keep going – we keep studying and praying – we keep picking ourselves up after each mistake and setback – because we know at the deepest levels that there is nothing to forgive and nothing to improve. We are already home. Atonement is a fact. Oneness is a fact. It is finished.

And we can know that. We can make contact with that Truth.

This is why our hopefulness and confidence is not misplaced. Indeed, those feelings – far from being uninformed and shallow and naive – spring from the very Truth that we are so desperate to realize. There is no gap between what we are and what God is. There is no separation. And so the case for hope is powerful indeed.

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Mary May 27, 2013, 9:13 am

    Thank you, Sean. I needed that today! I have been a student of ACIM for five years and five months and I still haven’t finished reading the text. I’ve done the workbook lessons faithfully for the whole time, and each year they sink in more deeply, but I don’t think I’ve ever done them completely as prescribed. I still go for long stretches during the day without remembering the lesson on the hour, etc. Sometimes I fantasize about taking a year off and going into some sort of convent or monastery so that I could practice without the distractions of daily life. What is your history with the Course? Do you continue to do the workbook lessons year after year? And have you read the psychology supplement? I really appreciated your post today. Thanks again! Love, Mary

    • Sean Reagan May 27, 2013, 10:34 am

      Hi Mary,

      I’m glad the post resonated for you.

      I absolutely hear you about forgetting the lesson during the day. That is still a part of my practice – forgetting and remembering and forgetting again. But it does seem that over time there are internal shifts and insights and the spaces in which the Course teachings seem to disappear are briefer and not as powerful. So, baby steps I guess.

      I was a particularly diligent Catholic for many years, despite my misgivings about the traditional church and its hierarchy. That all came to a head during the gay marriage issue in Massachusetts. It was simply no longer possible for me to continue to attend mass and I did not want to bring my children there. So I moved on to . . . . well, to nothing. For a couple of years I felt very bleak and hopeless. I had practiced Zen Buddhism pretty intensely in my early twenties (which, for me, meant it was pretty half-assed but I was sincere) and I thought about trying that again. However, I was just too invested in Christian mythology and imagery. Jesus really was my focal point.

      Anyway, I sort of stumbled onto the Course through EFT, and had one of those a-ha moments. The language and imagery was Christian but the metaphysics were very non-dualistic (which tends to be more prevalent in eastern spiritual traditions) and so I felt as if I had found the perfect blend. Plus, the psychotherapeutic language and model was helpful because I knew that quite well too. All in all, it was just a good fit. It was easy to study and become engrossed in. By the time I realized how intense and powerful it was, it was too late to bail!

      I did the lessons twice. I did not do them perfectly! I read them quite closely now, and from time to time as I feel called go back and repeat them (or certain sequences of them).

      The Course meets us where we are. Some people just never stop formally doing the lessons. Others start by readin the Manual for Teachers. Some refuse to do the lessons. I don’t know what’s right! The focus for me increasingly is on heedign the inner teacher, on being true to my own truth, if that is not too abstract or poetic a phrase. I make space in the morning to listen – and am almost never left alone in that space – and then resolve to heed the direction as much as possible. Rules for Decision is very important to me, as are lessons 34 and 79 and 80.

      I have read the psychology supplement! Actually, I think it is really helpful in sort of clarifying the practical nature of the course – that it really aims at healing our minds in a tangible way. I do not think of the Course as religious or even philosophical (though I understand how and why others do) so much as a pragmatic belief system that some people can use to undo the tangle of thinking that keeps them from from remember that they are guiltless and altogether Love.

      Oh and the monastery impulse – amen sister! I have long had a dream of a running a farm where people can come and just quietly work and retire to yurts where they can study the course, occasionally gathering for study groups, and all of that. I mean, I know that I am where I am meant to be, but yes . . . it is a familiar urge!

      Thanks, Mary!

      Sean

  • Karen May 27, 2013, 9:19 am

    Where do ancient, established and more traditional religious paths and practices fit into or relate to ACIM? Other philosophies and spiritual world?
    Is the Course really that monocular demanding blind obedience?

    • Sean Reagan May 27, 2013, 10:16 am

      Monocular is a fun word. 🙂

      Thanks for your questions, Karen. I’ll try to move in the direction of answering, though of course you should take what I say with a grain of salt or even the whole shaker.

      I didn’t mean to convey the sense that students of A Course in Miracles have to be blindly obedient to it. It was my hope to just convey that a sense of hopefulness can make the daily practice a little easier, and then to suggest that the ground for that hopefulness is firm and reliable because it is implicit in the very Truth at which our practice is directed.

      Though I didn’t mention it in the post, I had in mind David Bohm’s dialogue with Mark Edwards (in their book Changing Consciousness) in which they really try to get at the problem of solving world problems of war and hunger and ecological devastation and psychological loneliness and so forth. At one point, Edwards says quite directly: all this theory about thought is well and good but what does a practical approach to these problems look like?

      Bohm replied that we don’t know! And then he added “we may adopt the sort of attitude that I would call tactical optimism. That is, we will proceed on the assumption that it is possible, although we don’t know exactly how to bring it about. All enterprises that people have ever engaged in have required such an assumption.”

      That struck me as a good model for the spiritual journey. We want to be reasonably optimistic and hopeful. We want to persist in the face of despair. We want to find grounds to believe that our efforts aren’t shallow or naive. We want to believe that it is possible to make contact with Love and extend it to others. All of that.

      The pervasive suggestion in A Course in Miracles is that we are already awake – that is, we are not separated from God or Source (or whatever word is most comfortable and familiar to a given individual). The whole problem of separation is that we think we are separated. But we remain whole. We remain One.

      I am perhaps going a step further to say that we actually already know this. At a deep interior place that can feel quite remote and mysterious, we know that we are awake and home and whole with God. And so as we work at ending this sense of separation – from God, from each other, from our selves, from Truth, from the world – there is reason for hope, and the reason is that it’s already accomplished. We’re really just in the process of remembering that.

      I don’t think that faith or optimism in this context is radically different from other spiritual practices and traditions. The resurrection of Jesus is an article of faith for many Christians – we don’t have footage, it defies logic and the laws of nature and yet. In psychotherapy things can seem quite hopeless and tangled but there is some faith that we can muddle through to clarity. Why else persist? In Buddhism we enter the zendo confused and selfish and egocentric but we keep coming back to the zafu because we have some optimism that enlightenment is a real potential in us and can be realized.

      It’s funny to say it, but even baking bread has this element of faith to it! You put this sourdough starter together and then combine it with a few other ingredients and let it rise and heat it up and the outcome is an amazing loaf of bread but it’s a fairly delicate process. I remember when I started baking bread there was a real sense of wonder at how it could work. Or that if it did work it wouldn’t be edible. But you follow the recipe, you don’t quit the first time your starter explodes in the fridge (or your bread goes flat in the oven) or whatever. I’m not being silly. It just seems that we have to be hopeful about certain outcomes in life – we can’t exactly know how it is all going to work and so we just do the best we can and trust.

      This is not in the nature of obedience although sometimes it takes that form. I don’t always want to do the ACIM daily lessons but I do, or I try to. It was the same with Catholicism back in the day and Buddhism (going way back in the day) and psychotherapy and EFT and so forth. We have to persist. There are many paths and no one is right for everybody but there is value in choosing one and then sticking with it. I mean, if it all goes wrong, then of course we move on but there is something to be said for staying with a practice through thick and thin.

      Finally, throughout the text, workbook and manual for teachers, A Course in Miracles the Course emphasizes that it is but one form of the universal curriculum, suited to some students and not to others, and that this is precisely as it should be. To the extent that I have conveyed the impression that the Course is intolerant of other spiritual practices and traditions, or that it demands strict and blind obedience from its students, I apologize.

  • Eric May 28, 2013, 7:26 am

    Hi Sean,

    I was writing a pretty long response and accidently hit the wrong button that took me off the page and erased all that I wrote 🙂

    No time to re-write all of that. I see that you have been writing about D. Bohm. Have you read the book, “The Ending of Time” with J. Krishnamurti and D. Bohm?

    • Sean Reagan May 28, 2013, 8:20 am

      Hi Eric –

      I’m sorry to have lost your long response. I was just out walking the dog and wondered when you might write again. I enjoy reading your thoughts.

      Rewrite!

      Sorry . . . being selfish there. 🙂

      Yes, I have read that book. I stumbled onto Bohm via Krishnamurti – that was the gateway. Bohm is brilliant and has become a very powerful lens for experiencing ACIM for me. And I think he actually helpfully focused Krishnamurti. Often, when people ask me what to read with respect to Krishnamurti, I point them towards “The Ending of Time.” It is not that it’s Krishnamurti’s best work at all but that I think it’s a good introduction.

      Hope all is well, Eric –

      Sean

      • Eric May 28, 2013, 9:58 pm

        Hi again Sean,

        Thank you, I appreciate what you said. I like reading what you write also. I don’t know if what I am going to write will really add anything to this particular blog. In fact, it might be seen as negative to some, but I guess this is more about honesty than just being positive.

        I enjoyed reading what you wrote, but it was one little sentence that really stood out for me. You wrote:

        “Finally, often, it seems we just don’t make any progress, despite our sincere and disicplined and sustained efforts.”

        Eric: I think what really stood out about this simple sentence was the fact that I was just meditating yesterday on my sincerity, discipline, and “sustained” efforts. I was really trying to ask myself honestly if I have been sincere, disciplined in my practice, because right now it feels like there is no progress. I found that I have not been sincere, disciplined, which of course makes inconsistent effort.

        I further meditated on why that may be and a couple of thoughts came into my awareness. One thought that came to mind was something that Tara Singh said about why it can be hard to put the course into application. He said most of the time, people are looking for modification and not change. As I thought about that, I was reminded of the section in the Pamphlet for Psychotherapy that says (paraphrased) that the patient is not really looking for change, but a way to keep his concept of himself without the suffering it entails.

        Another thought that came to mind was a conversation that the author of the course had with Helen about the course. It was later re-written so as to speak to the reader of the book. It says:

        “The habit of engaging with God and His creations is easily made if you actively refuse to let your minds slip away. The problem is not one of concentration; it is the belief that no one, including yourself, is worth consistent effort. Side with me consistently against this deception, and do not permit this shabby belief to pull you back. The disheartened are useless to themselves and to me, but only the ego can be disheartened. Have you really considered how many opportunities you have to gladden yourselves and how many of them you have refused? There is no limit to the power of a Son of God, but he himself can limit the expression of his power as much as he chooses.” ~ACIM

        Eric: Yesterday, I tried to look as honestly as I could at my thinking and actions that have followed lately. I found that I have not been sincere or disciplined. Somewhere in the back of my mind I think I have been thinking, “Is this really worth it? All this work, etc?” Yet, I think to look more honestly on that question, I should be asking, “Am I really worth it?” As there is no separate “it” as a goal from myself. There is only myself.

        I think I’ve talked before about the branching of the road and one path needs to be taken or else it just becomes procrastination that can cause further suffering. As the course tells us:

        “Reason will tell you that there is no middle ground where you can pause uncertainly, waiting to choose between the joy of Heaven and the misery of hell. Until you choose Heaven, you are in hell and misery.” ~ACIM

        Eric: I think this is what attempting modification is. An attempt to not make a commitment, but find a compromise in which one attempts to keep their self concept without the suffering it entails. But it doesn’t work. Once one is on a spiritual path, I think we/I begin to realize that modification is an attempt to not change. It is an attempt to find the solution within the problem, rather than leaving the problem all together. It is a compromise to not have to take the path at the branching of the road. And really, once on the path, there is no real branching of the road. There is only procrastination and attempts at compromise. But procrastination and compromise with the awareness that there is another way, I believe brings what may have seemed like an annoyance to the forefront and experienced for what it is. The underlying suffering that we try to keep suppressed.

        As the course says:

        “The reason you must look upon your delusions and not keep them hidden is that they do not rest on their own foundation. In concealment they appear to do so, and thus they seem to be self-sustained. This is the fundamental illusion on which they rest. For beneath them and concealed as long as they are hidden is the loving mind that thought it made them in anger. And the pain in this mind is so apparent when it is uncovered that its need of healing cannot be denied. Not all the tricks and games you offer it can heal it, for here is the real crucifixion of God’s Son.”~ACIM

        Eric: This might sound depressing, and I guess the clinging onto illusions when you know they are illusions is depressing, but I am finding this is also where hope is. When I not only begin to realize, but start to accept that the games I am playing with myself are hopeless. The more I accept this, the more I accept the other way.

        It has been said that no one is not committed. The question is, what are they committed to? This echoes the course when it says that no one lacks faith, but where do they place their faith?

        The course corrects the meaning of one of the passages in the Bible when it says:

        As ye sow, so shall ye reap” merely means that what you believe to be worth cultivating you will cultivate in yourself. Your judgment of what is worthy makes it worthy for you. ~ACIM

        Eric: This is already pretty long and I’m exhausted from work, and I think I’m babbling, so I am going to stop now, but I think that is a good passage to meditate on. What is worthy of cultivating in ourselves?

        Eric

        • Sean Reagan May 29, 2013, 7:00 am

          Hi Eric,

          Yes, I agree with all of this. Freud’s insight that his patients didn’t want to get better remains instructive! I struggle with this all the time – the continous resistance that masks itself as sincerity and discipline. Lifetimes pass!

          Yet – perhaps under Bohm’s influence – I have begun to see this is merely a way of thinking – a habit of thinking. Maybe better to say, a reliance on thinking. It’s not a flaw in the self or in God but rather that we remain trapped in the whirlpool of thinking which can never reach God nor see the self.

          And we can’t think our way out of it! That is the hard part. And that is also where it gets harder to write/talk about. Because what is called for then is attention or awareness – what is symbolized by those words. When we are attentive to our thoughts, the patterns of thinking, the effects of thinking, then we start to come to the realization that it is all useless. It is all “clinging to illusion,” as you put it.

          And yes, that is the critical realization. That is the space where we can actually exit the loop of thought, even just briefly. We can ask: what is the other way? What else is there besides this?

          Bohm suggested that this was where real creativity emerged: that silence, that gap between thoughts. It was there that we could begin to create and experience Love or Life.

          This can all happen very quickly. That is my experience. We can enter this space of attention and be free of thought and realize that Love in a moment. It’s not a long arduous trek. For me, as I’ve written before, it is when I clutch at it that it fades. There is no self in it and I try to bring the self to it. Thus I reenact the separation, even in those beautiful moments of liberation.

          But again, I don’t think this is a moral flaw or anything like that. Nobody is doomed. We’ve just fallen out of the habit of Oneness. Attention redeems us of its own accord.

          ~ Sean

  • Bet Carbery June 10, 2013, 6:13 am

    Sean, you often mention how helpful David Bohm has been to you. Can you recommend a book of his for a beginner like me which has been helpful if the study of ACIM? I’ve a sneaking suspicion he might be a bit heavy for me. ACIM is heavy going – I need something a bit more light but still relevant.
    Thanks for assistance.
    Bet

    • Sean Reagan June 10, 2013, 9:47 am

      Hi Bet,

      With respect to Bohm the classic is “On Dialogue,” published by Routledge. Good book, relatively short, a series of essays all relating to questions of separation, perception, consciousness and so forth. I do think that Bohm can be a challenging read, so one has to be willing to do that. I’m not always! But then sometimes I am. I just finished a book called “Changing Consciousness,” which is a spoken dialogue with photographer Mark Edwards, and I think that is actually a very succinct and accessible overview of Bohm’s thoughts. It’s a bit harder to find, but perhaps worth it.

      His dialogues with Krishnamurti are fantastic but those too can be quite imposing. Often, I read about one page and then stop for a few days trying to make sure I got it.

      I don’t know if you’ve read Joel Goldsmith at all, but I think he is the closest I’ve ever read to Course-related material that is not the Course. His book “The Infinite Way” often feels like a sort of companion text to the Course. And Goldsmith is very readable – it’s deep but it’s not get-lost-in-it deep. It is a good book to turn to when you need a break from the density and complexity of the course but still want to be grounded in its spiritual themes.

      I hope that helps!

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