A Course in Miracles: What is Form and Content

Form and Content are related ideas which together are central to the curriculum of A Course in Miracles. Form is what the body’s eyes recognize. Form is that which we perceive, and which appears to be real.

Yet in truth, form is merely a vehicle for the content, which is always either love or a call for love. In more traditional nondualistic terms, we might say that “form” and “content” address the distinction between the appearance of things (form) and their true essence or meaning (content).

We might think of a book as an example. A lengthy book with hundreds of pages and a blue cover is not in and of itself healing – but the ideas which are reflected in its pages can be.

On this view, “form” refers to the physical or material aspects of the object – the paper, cardboard and ink that comprise the book. “Content” pertains to the underlying spiritual truth – that reality is beyond the physical world. That is the “meaning” of the book; it is the experience of understanding, or knowing, to which the book points.

In the context of ACIM, “content” typically refers to the remembrance of Love and peace (which, collectively, are healing), which are the true essence of reality and cannot actually be contained or held or possessed by form in any way. A Course in Miracles teaches that the transformation of perception reveals reality to us, and in that revelation we are saved. That is what miracles are.

Hinduism – especially Advaita Vedanta, to which the Course owes a nontrivial debt – also considers of reality and illusion along these lines. In Hinduism, “maya” refers to the illusory nature of the physical world that is experienced through our senses, which correlates to the idea of “form” in ACIM. “Brahman,” which is the ultimate reality, transcends the limitations of the physical world and is the true essence of existence, somewhat the way “content” functions in A Course in Miracles.

In both thought systems, reality is understood to be non-dual. Ultimate truth is beyond the reach of the material world.

Thus, confusing form and content is a major focus of correction in the Course. We are apt to take the form for the content, and thus miss the content altogether. Forgiveness is the means by our perception of separation – of duality – is transformed.

For example, we might see a homeless person asking for money. Responding with cash may or may not be called for – that is the level of form. But forgiveness reveals the content, which is seeing the homeless person as our equal, as our own self, and recognizing in them the same cry for love that exists in us.

When we see the content, then our response will be directed by Love because we are no longer insisting on differences. We are no longer relying on our own judgment to establish meaning and a hierarchy of values. Whatever we do will be what is most helpful in the grand plan of salvation, the scope of which is always beyond our limited faculties.


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13 Comments

  1. Here’s a question about form which I’ve been discussing with Robert Perry at Circle of Atonement: Are there tulips in Heaven? He says no; I say yes. I think the Course teaches that what we perceive here–grains of sand, lilies, altars, blades of grass, etc.–have formless, eternal counterparts in Heaven which we will experience by pure knowledge. The Son of God we see here as a dream symbol of a tulip retains “tulipness” when he awakes in Heaven.

    Each of God’s ideas, infinite in number, has a specific identity, and that identity is never lost. Here’s a paragraph from the Christian Science Sentinel (I think Christian Science is a primary source for ACIM) which expresses this idea:

    “The divine Mind maintains all identities, from a blade of grass to a star, as distinct and eternal.” This sentence, fraught with meaning, is found on page 70 of “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy. The prophet Isaiah was stating the same truth when he said of God’s creation (40:26), “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number: he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might, for that he is strong in power; not one faileth.”

    Jesus in the Ur-text the says that time and matter were created, and in Chapter 2, God saw what He created and called it good, referencing Genesis 1.

    I don’t think that every thought God has is exactly alike, with a droning Borg-like sameness. I think each disinct thought fully expresses God, but in its own unique way. A tulip, sand, a star, you, me all are the same in terms of being full expressions of God, but different in the way they arrange that fullness. I think it’s possible to be distinct without wanting to be special.

    So, here’s my question: Do you think the Course teaches that there will be tulips (stars, sand, grass, people, etc.) in Heaven? Does lack of form mean lack of identity?

    1. Thank you Stuart. I’m going to respond here in two separate comments. First, as the tulips in Heaven question (next comment will pick up on the lack of identity question).

      I reject the either/or premise of the question and, by extension, the implicit right/wrong premise of any supposed answer ๐Ÿ™‚

      I know how arrogant that sounds. Forgive me.

      To put it another way, I think the appearance of a question like that is all the evidence I need to know I am still operating within the ego’s preferred framework, and so the work becomes not to answer the question, but to see the way in which it reinforces the very structure of thought the Course is given to undo.

      Often that seeing is sufficient to evoke another “Teacher” – in Course parlance, the Holy Spirit – to help me reframe the inquiry. Of what am I so scared that I should project such an interesting – and ultimately unanswerable – question?

      I say “unanswerable” because, really, questions like that naturally bear multiple answers, depending on how one defines key terms (e.g. “Heaven”), whether additional sources are allowed (e.g., Eddy, the Old Testament, the Tao Te Ching, Wapnick or Tara Singh), and so forth. In some ways, the point is not to HAVE an answer but a question, endlessly.

      All that said, in the context of separation, I agree that it can be fun and interesting to debate whether tulips exist in Heaven, and one isn’t treating it as a more important debate than, say, who will win the next Superbowl. I think the phrase you use – “formless eternal counterparts” – because it so neatly corresponds with Plato’s Theory of Forms, and because the Course’s antecedents clearly include a Neo-Platonic influence – is closer to Helen’s thinking than the alternative.

      So I probably land somewhere closer to your understanding than to Robert’s – but, again, there is a lot of semantic maneuvering going on to do so. More critically, the very fact that I land anywhere shows me that I have a bigger problem than whether there’ll be an experience of tulips in Heaven.

      I am a very slow learner ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thank you for a good comment, Stuart. I appreciate it very much.

      Love,
      Sean

    2. Your second question, Stuart – does lack of form mean lack of identity – feels more likely to yield helpful insight than the tulip one (though I stipulate they are connected). I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about this question, especially in the context of uncertainty, as articulated so clearly by Heisenberg re: the subatomic realm, and then asking how that insight helps us to navigate the more macrocosmic level at which “we” appear to live, with its rich gestalt of ideas and psychology and pathology et cetera.

      A lot of fear – in my experience – seems to arise around and in uncertainty, the cosmic variety.

      My answer is that “identity” – as I understand and use that word (see my note about semantic maneuvering in the earlier comment0 – is fundamentally an illusion. It is an illusion because the boundaries which sustain identity are not real. When this is clear, then the grounds for choice are also dissolved. There is no decision anywhere.

      Absent boundaries – and absent choice and decision – then identity is naturally undone. The cosmos are innocent; Love holds everything equally.

      Discernment of any kind reflects a prior – an upstream – acceptance of separation and distorts the Law of Love, or Creation, underlying everything.

      This “Love holds everything” idea is NOT the exerience of any distinct observer, which we are. A human is not a sunflower and a sunflower is not a ladybug and a ladybug is not a neutrino. Each of those beings brings forth a different world; the observer and the observed are in fact one but the nature of the unity – because of its dependence on the form of the observer and the form(s) of the observed – defies any knowledge of a penultimate whole.

      I can perceive a ladybug but there is something it is like to be a ladybug and while I can imagine that, I cannot actually experience that. I cannot KNOW it. Again, the appearance of form means that any perception of underlying unity/oneness is contingent, which contingency means it’s not the whole.

      The appearance of form – and the identity that tags along with it – are not crimes against God or nature. It is possible to be very happy and helpful in a form. Therefore, the limited experience of being Sean – with his tulips, his veggie gardens, his star-gazing, his bookshelves, his poems et cetera et cetera, all of which are sites of deep joy and meaning-making – are just an illusion that will dissolve and be unremembered in wholeness, whatever wholeness is.

      The existential crisis this evokes – none of this is real – is no joke, especially when it ceases to be an academic exercise and becomes a lived experience.

      I think this is in part what Meister Eckhart was getting at in his Commentary on the Book of Wisdom:

      God is one which is indistinct. This signifies the highest divine perfection by which nothing exists or is able to exist without him or distinct from him . . . God is existence. It is clear that existence is indistinct from everything which exists and that nothing exists or can exist that is distinct and separated from existence.

      I am also partial to Eriugena, a 9th century Irish theologian, who wrote:

      So God does not know of Himself what He is because He is not a โ€œwhatโ€, being in everything incomprehensible both to Himself and to every intellect . . . But He does not recognize Himself as being something (Se ipsum autem non cognoscit aliquid esse) . . . For if He were to recognize Himself in something, He would show that He is not in every respect infinite and incomprehensible (Periphyseon, II.589bโ€“c).

      I appreciate how theology in this mode can function as a distraction from the work of Love, which necessarily owns a performative quality. I was trying to get that in this post.

      Identity is the ego; it is the whole forgetting itself and remembering partially on terms and conditions set by the form. The most that can happen in the context of form is the intuition or imagination of formlessness, wholeness, God in Heaven, et cetera.

      I do think A Course in Miracles is given to help us untangle the spiritual identity crisis that identifying with the human form naturally instantiates. But our actual identity is far upstream of the body – and orders of magnitude more abstract than even our brains can construct. The very presence of the body as a site of learning and inquiry is really all the proof one needs that separation proceeds apace and the Mind addressing it is not – cannot be – contained in the body that’s asking the question.

      Thank you again, Stuart. Come by for a cup of coffee someday ๐Ÿ™๐Ÿ™

      Love,
      Sean

      1. Wow! Thanks for the thoughtful answer. Here’s where my question is coming from: If the Course teaches that the step after True Perception is one where our identities and memories are erased, how is that different that there simply being nothingness after death? I will not exist after I die if I am not myself and remember nothing.

        What’s the point of the Holy Spirit making the world into a teaching device if I don’t remember anything that I learned?

        If I am simply an indistinct blob of Godness, how can I love? All I would “see” around me are replicas of myself. Heaven would be a Hall of Mirrors.

        If everything this light, how is that different from darkness?

        I have been studying the Course for over 5 years, and I’ve gone through the Text and Workbook using the year long study guides at Circle of Atonement. I’m stuck–I like it up to the moment of the Real World and True Perception. But the way Heaven is described bugs me.

        I’m going to give some thought to your answers. Thanks!

        1. You don’t die, Stuart. The body dies. Stuart dies.

          But you don’t die.

          It sounds like you are still identifying with the self as something separate – something a part from the cosmos. Something whose power of observation and process of observation is dependent on separation, e.g., something to look and something to look at.

          But the Course is not about integrating that separated observer into some determinate whole but rather pointing out that that observer is an illusion.

          Our Buddhist brothers and sisters go into this by asking what was our face before our mother and father were born.

          It’s a deep hard question you are asking; it gives birth to Buddha and Christ. So good on you but also . . . investigate the premise. What has to be true for this question to be valid? And is it true?

          Abhishiktananda, a Catholic monk who pursued Advaita very closely, used to say that logos – logic, language etc – can get us TO the Cave of the Heart, but cannot help us enter.

          There’s a lonesome valley image that probably works here, too ๐Ÿ™‚

          Love,
          Sean

          1. Now my question is this: why am I asking a question that is unanswerable? Why am I asking a question the Course is not designed to address?

            My Ego must be deeply threatened by the thought of no tulips! ๐Ÿ™‚

          2. Are you familiar with Heinz von Foerster’s essay “Through the Eyes of the Other?”

            He proposes a theorem:

            Only those questions that are in principle undecidable, we can decide.

            And argues for it this way:

            Why?

            Simply because all decidable questions are already decided by the choice of the relational framework within which these questions have been posed, together with the rules that connect any proposition (say, โ€˜the questionโ€™), with any other proposition (say, โ€˜the answerโ€™) within that framework. Sometimes it may go fast, at other times it may take an excruciatingly long time until, via compelling logical steps, the irrefutable โ€˜yeaโ€™ or โ€˜nayโ€™ is obtained.

            But we are under no compulsion, not even under that of logic, when we are making decisions about in principle undecidable questions. However, with this freedom gained, we have assumed the responsibility of our decision.

            It’s a complex and beautiful meditation on the nature of separation and reality. It was – is really – a very helpful reading in the context of learning how to practice ACIM. I can email you a pdf if you (or anyone else reading) would like.

            It may be you are asking these questions not because of the ego’s fear of no tulips but because the Holy Spirit is readying you for a personal gnosis in which the gap between tulips and God is about to dissolve entirely ๐Ÿ™‚

            ~ Sean

  2. Here’s the undecidable question underlying the other questions.

    I spent some time trying to be a Catholic, and when I started studying ACIM, I read things like this quote from EWTN: “Taking the words of “the Course” into one’s heart will lead to a slow spiritual death. It is a book to be avoided at all costs.” Gee, that sounds pretty bad!

    You wrote about your experience as a Catholic somewhere. Did you resolve this?

    I would love to embrace my questions, but then I pull back because I don’t want to believe the wrong thing and go to Hell. I sometimes ACIM is a mind-virus written by Lucifer which enters the brain by means of words and blocks the Holy Spirit from entering. It’s MK Ultra from Hell. I wonder if Lucifer wants me to spread the mind-virus by discussing it with other people. You’ve already got the virus, so I can’t hurt you! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’ve never had such strong positive and negative reactions to a book. I go from thinking I’m reading the authentic words of Jesus to throwing the book in the trash and getting down on my knees, renouncing Satan, vowing never to pick it up again. Then, I’ll remember a phrase which makes so much sense I can’t deny it. I’ve kept a diary of hundreds quotes from Scripture and Christian authors like Origen and Julian of Norwich and C. S. Lewis which show the connection between the Course and Christianity. And then I think it’s just Lucifer being clever again, and I’m on my knees repenting, and then taking my current version of the Course back to the trash.

    The only place where I think the Course is wrong is that I think there will be tulips in Heaven! So, I cling to that, hoping it’s enough to keep me from being completely engulfed.

    I don’t feel this way about Science and Health, or the Book of Mormon, or the Koran, or even Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I don’t see them as possibly mind-viruses written by Lucifer. Or possibly the real teaching of Jesus.

    What is ACIM? That’s the undecidable question.

    1. So we come down to it then – it is about fear.

      The Course – as I study and practice it – is given to undo fear. It is given to translate fear into Love.

      But you do not need to pick up the Course to investigate your fear of it.

      What do you really think is really going to happen if you do the lessons and study the text?

      Do you actually believe in a God who tosses people into pits of eternal suffering because they were confused? Or went to the wrong church? Or read the wrong book?

      If God condemns unbelievers in this way, is that really a God worth worshiping? Worth following?

      You are not describing a God of Love but a God of vengefulness and, on that view, it makes sense to be afraid of God. But how do you know that God is real? Why are you so sure THAT is not the Luciferian mind-virus?

      Perhaps A Course in Miracles is the antidote ๐Ÿ™‚

      If there is another way – a God of Love Who does not recognize sins that must be punished but only errors that can be corrected, a God of Love from Whom we cannot BE separate (but Whose love is such – whose trust in us is such – that we are allowed to PLAY at being separate) – would you avail yourself of it?

      If not, why not?

      You are correct that as von Foerster understands and uses the term, “what is ACIM” IS an undecidable or unanswerable question. But it is a question which CAN be lived. It CAN be brought into application. One either takes the Course or doesn’t. Neither option is better than the other, but one of them IS more helpful than another.

      And nobody can decide that – or discover it – whether it is helpful or unhelpful – but our own self and we have to it in application.

      If the fear is too great, then I would just forget about it. Really! It’s not a problem to find some other form of the universal curriculum that is more helpful or accessible. God does not want you to suffer; God does not want you to be tormented. If Jonathan Livingston Seagull or the Koran is more helpful, then okay!

      God DOES ask that we investigate our fear – especially our fear of God, and of salvation – and consent to have that fear undone in favor of the Love we both have and are, but ACIM is not the only way to do that. There are many paths, including paths that haven’t been invented yet, and paths that have been forgotten. It’s fine to set the text aside and come back to it later.

      It’s also okay to take a few steps and see what happens ๐Ÿ™‚

      Love,
      Sean

      1. Thanks! This is very helpful.

        Ever since I left the Catholic Church (or decided against it, or whatever), I’ve lived with this fear that no matter what path I choose, it’s essentially path that leads to Hell since it’s not Catholic. Maybe Catholicism is the mind-virus! ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s certainly hard to get out of your system.

        ACIM is one of the few things that seems to challenge that fear, for the reasons you describe. It presents a God of pure love whose goal is not punishment but compassion and helpfulness.

        I think I will let myself gently work with ACIM, and when it gets scary, let it go, and when it feels good, let it back. I don’t really have a timeline.

        As far as tulips, I’ve realized that what I see and love in this realm is an incomplete form. In Heaven, I will experience these things I love in their completeness. I have no idea what that will be like. But it will make sense when I get there.

        1. Slow is good ๐Ÿ™

          Let me know how it goes, Stuart. Also, because we talk a lot about tulips, here are a couple from our yard this spring:

          spring tulips

          1. How holy is the smallest tulip, when it is recognized as being part of the completed picture of Godโ€™s Son!

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