Fear and Love and Teachers of A Course in Miracles

I want to briefly follow up this post about teaching A Course in Miracles with a note going deeper into my study of Ken Wapnick and Tara Singh, both of whom functioned as formal primary ACIM teachers. Particularly, I want to criticize them and then explain how criticism is not fatal to love or gratitude.

Ken Wapnick

In The Most Commonly Asked Questions about A Course in Miracles, Ken tackles the reasonable question of why, if ACIM is a correction of Jesus’s message, it took Jesus some 2,000 years to get around to to correcting it. I mean, a lot went wrong in those centuries. What was he waiting for?

Ken’s answer is long and worth reading in full, but I want to focus on this part of it:

The fear that [Jesus] engendered – for it constitutes a grave threat to the ego’s thought system of darkness – led to the Son’s closing the door to protect his individual self, and this took the form of seeking to destroy Jesus, and then his message, as the history of Christianity attests. This is why the gospel writers changed the entire message of Jesus and rooted it in the crucifixion, which reflected the ego’s underlying plan to perpetuate its own thought system of betrayal, suffering and death (100).

It takes a lot of – what’s the word? Oh right – ego – to argue that one can speak to Jesus’s “entire message” and that almost everybody else for the past two thousand years has been getting only parts of it – and confused parts at that. Ken did this a lot; and it reflects a real failure of both humility and scholarship.

For me, the closer I come to Christ – which is an abstraction reflecting epistemic proximity to Jesus – the less willing I am to assert special or privileged knowledge. I notice this is true for many folks whose prayer life has brought them near to the heart of life. It’s as if the closer you get to Jesus, the more you see that Jesus isn’t the point at all. You can let him go.

Ken’s efforts to cast A Course in Miracles as a singular correction of Christianity arose as his own special learning project. I get that and I respect that. We’ve all got our baggage. But statements subtly implying you are in touch with the real true message of Jesus are . . . well, they’ve been around for a long time, too. And they are violent, not loving. And it doesn’t take a theological genius to recognize this.

Tara Singh

The other day I pointed out that Singh’s teaching is helpful in terms of application. Nobody has more deeply modeled for me what it means to live A Course in Miracles (though, in fairness, Marianne Williamson comes closer than a lot of us are comfortable admitting).

That said, take a look at these stanzas describing Singh’s first visit in decades with his biological sisters:

My sisters looked grey and wrinkled,
as if volcanic ash had shrunken them tremendously.

There was nothing to recognize in them.

. . .

There was not the character that distinguishes a person.

Most people in the world
are like manufactured toys, lacking individuality.
The wind-up toy does what’s particular.
And most of what they said all during my stay
was an echo of the past.

Most of us are second-hand people
with no voices of our own,
educated by insecurity and unfulfillment
to labor for what we own.
For we own not our own Voice and, without it,
each one is lost in the confusion of projected images

(Remembering God in All You See 127).

I wish that Singh had been able to see that this harsh depiction of his siblings was itself a “projected image” and thus reflected confusion, not clarity, fear not love.

When his nephews show him a video of their wedding, Singh comments that he was “demoralized to see everyone dancing about, shaking their hips,/rejoicing in their degeneration” (Remembering God 133).

I mean people dance, right? People can even be sexy without sinking into degeneration. Bodies gotta be bodies – why not dance? Why not shake your hips? They’re not there just so your knees and waist can be connected.

Singh manages to avoid casting that highly critical eye on himself, writing that for his family the “joy of meeting him . . . “

was like a furnace in the cold winter.
They began to rejuvenate.
I could see it
and in two days they noticed it in each other
and spoke of How revived they were
since I was in their midst

(Remembering God 128).

He also comments how much they all admire him:

It seems they had never heard a person
who could be so direct and non-accusatory
and not be swayed from his own integrity

(Remembering God 129).

I have struggled a great deal in my learning with this aspect of Singh – his moral arrogance, his self-satisfaction, his judgment of others, his certainty that his way is The Way . . . It’s been an enormous challenge in terms contextualizing the wisdom and insight that permeates so much of his thinking.

On Criticism

If you go very deeply into your criticism of others, you will find your own self and you will remember love.

Nobody can do this for you, and it is very much worth doing.

By “go very deeply into your criticism of others,” I mean that it’s okay to take yourself seriously. You are not a bad or shallow person; don’t be afraid of your judgments. Look at them; judge them. What do you see?

When I investigate my criticisms of Ken and Tara Singh, I find myself: I find my arrogance and my sense of entitlement, my interest in being right rather than happy, my grandiosity and stubbornness, and my willingness to marginalize others in any way possible in order to elevate my self.

But I don’t stop there. I keep going.

Another level down I find a confused child who is often hurt and confused by the utter lack of order that permeates his life. He hides a lot – usually in books but sometimes in showing off his facility with language. This boy grows up to be a judgmental man who’s way too good at overlooking his own judgment.

But I don’t stop there either. I keep going.

And then, another level down, I find fear.

When you reach fear, you nearly home. But note: if you are not actually terrified when you reach fear, if you are not literally scared, then you have only reached the idea of fear, an interpretation of fear.

You have to go all the way to the actual fear, and then you have to be ready to stand in it for lifetimes. The light will come but you do not bring it. You are empty-handed here. You are as nothing here. So far as I can tell, there is no other way.

When I describe the process of going deeply into my criticism of my teachers, I talk about dropping down levels. Each one of those levels can take years to fully see, let alone consent to go beyond. It’s work; it’s hard work.

But when you reach fear, when you can stay with your fear, when you can be empty-handed outside and desolate inside, then you have reached the Gates of Eden. You are at the far reach of the battlefield; one more step and you will know peace.

Ken Wapnick on Fear

Here is Ken talking about the eighteenth principle of A Course in Miracles and, by extension, the power of love to heal our fear.

. . . our worth is established by God. Your worth is the same as mine. If I see you as being worthier than I, or less worthy than I am – victim or victimizer – then that is an attack . . . It is a consistent teaching of A Course in Miracles that we are all the same, moving beyond the superficial differences of our bodies – physical and psychological – to the underlying unity of not only the Christ in us, but also our shared need to remember what we have forgotten and to escape from the prison of our own guilt (58).

He adds a little later,

We would never try to attack or hurt others if we were not afraid of them. By choosing the Holy Spirit instead of the ego, we are really choosing love instead of fear (71).

So it’s interesting, right? I see these differences between me and Ken, and I criticize him for it – justly, of course – and . . . He just so happens to have this deep insight into the power of love which heals my fear of him and everybody else. It’s like I go all the way into my criticism and reach fear and . . . the very thing I fear has the answer.

Tara Singh on Fear

Here is what Tara Singh has to say about fear and love.

Fear is a projection and not a reality. Fear comes when you deny your own potential to love, and to be honest and just. Honesty is never afraid. Lack of conviction creates an organization of lawyers, police forces and military powers to protect its own bondage, limitation and unreality. When you are with reality, there are no projections because the grace of the present brings you to the inseperable wholeness of your being (Nothing Real can be Threatened 104-05).

Earlier I was critical of Tara Singh for judging others – I judged him for judging others. What but fear would cause me to do this? And when I go into the fear, I see that Tara Singh is already there to teach me that my fear is not reality, but my potential for love in place of fear is.

In other words, through my criticism I find myself. I go all the way into that self and reach the fear. And I find that my teachers have done this, too, for they are here. At the last veil, my teachers stand – almost as if waiting for me – and say “together let us pull back this veil. Let us find out what lies beyond fear.”

Love is Always the Answer

There is nothing wrong with criticism. The brain judges; don’t worry about that. Simply give attention to the criticism, and allow yourself to reach all the way through it to the fear that underlies it.

You are not separate from your teachers; what you see in them is in you and this includes both what is confused in them and what is beautiful and healing in them. At last you see your connectedness; your teachers are joined to you, and you to them, in a union that is not premised on hierarchies of worthiness or knowledge. We are all fucked up; also, we are all full of light and grace.

It is a great relief to know that your teachers are human, and that the problems we have as humans can be solved, because they all arise from the fundamental confusion that we are separated from life. I give thanks for the ones who stood in the light a certain way, that I might remember how even my brokenness can be healed and brought to love.

On War and A Course in Miracles

Given the state of the world – especially with respect to its diverse and vivid potential for sustained & catastrophic violence – it is helpful to revisit some basic principles of how one lives in a chaotic dysfunctional world when one is a student of A Course in Miracles.

A primary metaphysical assertion of A Course in Miracles is that the world is not real (e.g., W-pI.132.6:2). It’s important to remember that the course is not denying that the world appears real; rather, it is asserting that the appearance is not in a 1:1 alignment with Love.

If we are lost in the desert, the mirage of an oasis is not a real source of water or salvation but it is a real mirage. Pretending otherwise can literally end in death.

If you happen to prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla, then you are going to experience eating chocolate rather than vanilla ice cream. If you prefer hiking to running, then you’re going to experience scaling mountains rather than competing in local 5Ks. And so forth.

The particular experience we have is not a problem to be solved, nor an evil to be resisted, but simply a confusion to be corrected. And neither the confusion nor the correction are in the experience. Rather, they are in the mind that perceives the experience.

Bodies don’t undo bodies. The world doesn’t end in the world itself. Only minds change and under certain useful constraints, they can change in the direction of healing, which is to say, Love.

Thus, A Course in Miracles is not an invitation to deny our experience of being embodied in a world full of other bodies.

It is not an invitation to make an intellectual argument about Love that proves other course students wrong, or other Christians wrong, or other philosophers wrong.

Rather, it is an invitation to perceive the world with an internal Teacher who – unlike our rigidly embodied self – knows what’s illusory and what is not.

Please note that if you agree with what is written here, then you implicitly accept the existence of the body and the world’s reality. Some guy on the internet is right!

Please also note that if you disagree with what is written, then you explicitly accept the existence of the body and the world’s reality. Some guy on the internet is wrong!

With respect to this right/wrong binary there is – as Bill Thetford so aptly pointed out, inaugurating A Course in Miracles – another way.

The other way is to simply attend one’s living without a lot of drama, and to let their inner teacher – the Holy Spirit – handle the decision-making. Not my will but Thine be done.

What does this have to do with the world’s habit of threatening sustained and catastrophic violence?

It is not our job to start, prosecute or end war or [insert your calamity here].

At the level of the body, our job is to adopt a stance toward war exemplified by the Golden Rule: you don’t want anybody killing your body, so don’t kill other bodies. You don’t want other governments advocating killing your body, so don’t support a government that advocates killing other bodies.

That’s it. That’s always the answer to how to live in the world as a body (e.g., T-1.III.6:4). Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When we accept that, then “what to do” with this or that external crisis is solved neatly and quickly forever.

And then we can get on with the work of forgiveness: seeing our brothers and sisters as one self and one mind.

Most of us are happy to say that we see our brothers and sisters as one self and one mind. But the course is given to us precisely because we don’t see them that way but can be taught to see them that way. Until we learn that way of seeing, then we are going to remain attached to the illusion that truth and love are actually in bodies.

So for the time being, we have to work it out at both levels – mind and body.

You are only reading this post because – like the one who wrote it – you still believe in a world in which a body serves a function that can be other than neutral. It can’t. The body is literally the manifestation of an argument. Asking it to be anything else just doubles down on the original confusion.

Offer the body to the work of peace: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and then forget about it. Don’t sweat the war. Or the ice cream or the 5K. Practice love in the face of conflict so that you can learn – once and for all, quite literally – that Love never went to war in the first place.

Love,
Sean

Notes on Choosing an ACIM Teacher

You have no problems, though you think you have (T-26.II.3:3).

I want to point out two approaches to learning and teaching A Course in Miracles. Neither is right or wrong in an absolute sense. Nor do they comprise all possible teaching methods. But they can be more or less helpful (which is a relative, not an absolute, judgment) to our learning and so it can be helpful to see them both clearly.

I. Meaning

One way of teaching is to emphasize what the course means. So, for example, if you look at the sentence from The Transition quoted above, you might focus on what “you” means. You might say that understanding “you” is key to understanding the whole meaning of that sentence. Who is this “you?” What does the course mean when it says “you?”

It seems there is a correct answer to that question. Like, the course must mean something specific with “you,” so there must be a correct interpretation of that sentence, and so it must be better than not to know what that interpretation is.

Ken Wapnick is an example of this kind of teaching, especially in the early and middle stages of his career. Critics of Ken tend to overlook the evolution of his thinking which is reflected in his teaching emphases. Whether he was a good or bad teacher is a personal judgment one can make for oneself, but that he gave attention to his teaching, modifying and amending it with an eye towards its helpfulness, seems noncontroversial. I have been very grateful for him, over the years.

Ken Wapnick

Of the pronoun “you,” Ken said:

In the Course, Jesus uses the term Son of God in two ways: either to refer to Christ and our Identity as Christ as spirit, or to denote the Son within the dream.

While, again, Jesus never uses the term decision-maker, over and over again in the Course he is asking us to choose again — to choose between the ego’s thought system and the Holy Spirit’s thought system, between the crucifixion and the resurrection, between a grievance and a miracle. The part of our minds that he is continually appealing to in the Course, when he addresses us as “you,” is this part that chooses.

The risk in this kind of teaching is: what if you’re wrong? Like just flat-out wrong?

You might say right/wrong are not possible, and I get that in the absolute sense, but if somebody said the “author” dictating A Course in Miracles to Helen Schucman was Santa Claus, you’d say they were wrong (relative to ACIM and its process of creation). And you’d be right.

For example, Ken once said of the urtext that it was so-named for the birthplace of Abraham and was meant to symbolize a new beginning. In fact, “urtext” simply means “the earliest version of a given text.”

So on this method of teaching, if you’re right then it’s very effective. But if you’re wrong – as Ken was with “urtext” – it can be misleading. The challenge for students is knowing the difference, especially when they themselves lack the requisite information for discernment.

I think this mode of learning is good if you’re confused about what the course means by all the subtle shifts in the use of traditional Christian words and images – forgiveness, trinity, atonement, crucifixion et cetera. And I think Ken is a fine (thought not the only and certainly not an infallible) teacher in this vein.

How would you read the quoted sentence in light of Ken’s teaching?

II. Application

The other mode of learning is more like, how do I actually apply this material? Like, somebody can teach you what money is and how to add and subtract but in terms of knowing the difference between a helpful purchase and an unhelpful one . . . that’s another kind of lesson, another kind of teaching.

The sentence from chapter 26 of A Course in Miracles is a good example. Having an intellectual appreciation of that sentence, being able to repeat it and so forth, probably isn’t going to help us in our day-to-day living, where we have problems more or less consistently. Someone who just lectures us about the meaning of the sentence isn’t doing us any favors.

But somebody who helps us see how to use that lesson in a variety of contexts, eventually generalizing so it reaches all so-called contexts . . . that person has taught us something useful.

This was closer to Tara Singh‘s method of teaching. Singh would take a line from the course and then go everywhere with it – he’d bring it Abraham Lincoln and Thoreau, the Vedas and Krishnamurti, what Helen Schucman taught him about gratitude lists, maybe a bit about proper use of breath in meditation.

In Singh’s teaching, the course often feels like an ingredient in a recipe, and your goal is to learn how to cook and feed others.

Tara Singh

On that view, getting obsessed with literal meanings (much less “correct” meanings) is an error, because it distracts us from the broader purpose of learning how to consistently live in a loving way.

Here is Singh talking about “you” in one of his letters from Mexico. He is describing his first encounter with the great pyramid at Chichen Itza:

And you come to a point
where all things that are horizontal and of the earth
are no longer visible to you.
Then you understand!

The earth disappears
and there is only the blue sky
and, on top,
a temple.

It brings a concentration of energies to such a pitch
that something else spontaneously happens.
It brings you to an intensity,
to a power of stillness,
and to a silent mind.
Nothing could do it that way.

. . .

It is beyond intellectual.
But if you can’t come to the stillness
you won’t have the energy for the vitality
to see something you never knew before.
You’ll just go to take pictures.

But the very fact is that it blocks out the earth
and there is the temple.
There are you and there is the sky
absolutely unlimited.
You don’t even know who you are
and if you are.

That is not about getting a concept right, or ensuring you understand this or that definition. It doesn’t even mention A Course in Miracles! It is a call to approach your living in a certain way, a holy way, in order that you might wake up to the Love and Glory of God which is staring you right in the face.

How would you read the quote at the top of this post in light of Singh’s letter?

This kind of teaching can be inspiring. It can direct your attention to the nuts and bolts of your daily living, and invite you to go so deeply into it that you end up going past it – past even the one to whom experience seems to happen. If you understand what Singh means about seeing the temple clearly, then you will also know how to see the dishes clearly and weeds in the garden clearly and bills that need to be paid clearly. You’ll even see “you” clearly.

The risk with this method – and it’s a pretty big one – is that you’ll miss the teaching entirely and end up worshiping the teacher. I don’t know how Singh felt about this problem; I don’t see that he deliberately cultivated veneration. But the folks who followed him during his life are pretty insular. It matters to them that they knew Singh personally. It gets dangerously close to the lovelessness of “I’ve got it and you don’t,” which Singh always warned against.

III. Therefore . . .

Obviously we need all kinds of teachers. The two poles I’ve pointed to here are not the end-all, be-all of ACIM teaching. But I do think they broadly sketch the big space in which our course-based learning occurs.

Truly helpful teachers move effectively between the two poles according to what their students need. And our needs as students shift in time. I have been very grateful to both Ken and Tara Singh, even as I find both of them wanting in certain critical ways. I don’t criticism invalidates their helpfulness. Indeed, teachers who don’t teach in a way that aim to make themselves irrelevant are not really teaching; they’re indulging ego, however subtly.

The real point here is to be clear about what we need in our course study, and then to seek teachers who can fill that need. Are we confused about what the course is saying? Or are we confused about how to live in these bodies in the world, given what the course is saying? Read broadly and deeply: who speaks to your specific concerns? Whose teaching lingers in your mind in helpful ways?

That teacher is worth entering into a sustained dialogue with. What that dialogue looks like, I can’t say. Intense reading, correspondence, attending workshops, 1:1 . . . it varies by need and circumstance and opportunity. But if we have a genuine need, then it’s fit and just to attend meeting that need.

We are not traveling alone – on the ACIM path or any other. Choose good companions, and be good unto them in turn.

After A Course in Miracles

Ultimately, A Course in Miracles points beyond itself, as all “solutions” and “methods” and “paths,” spiritual and otherwise, must.

I say “must . . .”

What I mean is, in this life as “I” have lived and observed it, all solutions, methods and paths have pointed beyond themselves. From that consistency I infer a law, neatly summarized by the story of the monk who confuses the finger for the moon to which the finger points.

Eventually, these various solutions, methods and paths exhaust themselves, like funeral pyres coming to rest in ashes, blowing away in winds I cannot control. And I am left without finger or moon.

Am I therefore bereft? Is suffering mandatory?

Hold onto nothing. Do not bring with you one thought the past has taught, nor one belief you ever learned before from anything. Forget this world, forget this course, and come with wholly empty hands unto your God (W-pI.189.7:3-5).
.

Listen: even the cross must point beyond itself, for it is only a symbol within the ego’s world, a plaything for those who need to play a while longer. When at last the ego dies, it takes the cross – and crucifixion – with it.

Imagine a world where we do not crucify ourselves or others, and then do what you are uniquely called to do to bring that world forth. Only then will you learn the truth inherent in “there is no world” (W-pI.132.6:2).

If you cannot imagine such a world, or cannot hear the call to participate in it, then give attention – through inquiry – to why you cannot. Find people who will support you in this inquiry by not letting you settle for easy or comfortable answers, and by supporting you in asking subtler and more provocative questions.

We are at peace but believe otherwise – why?

After Idols

The various experiences for which we long are neither right nor wrong, good nor bad. It is the longing we must look at, not the object to which the longing attaches. That’s the error – to become focused on the object as if it were the problem (so often masquerading as the solution), rather the longing which actually generates the object.

To want anything other than what is is to implicitly deny that you already have everything. Longing begins in overlooking this simple fact, and it survives on the hunger generated by continuing to overlook this fact.

The north-facing bedroom altar. The underlying cloth was made by Chrisoula’s γιαγιά as a young woman in Greece.

But to understand this, you have to reframe your understanding of your body. Your body is an experience of the world, of the cosmos, creating a body in order to perceive itself. Thus, the body is not in any way “you” because you are not a partial or local phenomenon. You are the cosmos experiencing itself through a certain perspective. The body is more like an aperture than anything else – an absence or gap through which the whole is glimpsed, albeit partially.

If you don’t know this, then you will sense that something is missing and you will naturally want to find what is missing. At its most simple, this shows up in our craving for experience – new loves, flavors of tea, resonant songs and so forth. These experiences come and go on their own, but you can invest in them a kind of intensity and purpose that far exceeds the natural range of their being.

The little jade turtle was a gift to me from Chrisoula which she gave to me the night of our wedding when we were finally alone and could talk. The Buddha I purchased about twenty years ago in a state of utter panic, the cause of which I can no longer recall. The pastel rosary was a baptism gift to my son, who presently has no use for it, so I have temporarily appropriated it, often carrying it with me in my pocket, and sometimes even praying it. The other crucifix was a birthday gift from my children many years ago, and I wear it when I am out in the world but not around the house. The wicker basket holds certain other objects dear to Chrisoula and me, and the pins adorning it were made by youngest daughter in 2016 when she and other women were desperate for hope and turned to crafting to calm their hearts and share hope.

This constructs what A Course in Miracles calls “special relationships,” which are like idols worshiped for what we think we can get from them, rather than for what we can give. Nobody can actually give anything to an idol because idols are dead and inanimate. Their only life comes from the illusion of life projected onto them.

The solution is to look past the idol. Just forget about it. The idol has no power but what you give it; the special relationship only has the power you give it. Let it go. Let what happens, happen. Let what doesn’t happen also happen. You’ll see that the objects go nowhere, and the narrative apparently giving them meaning also goes nowhere, but the desire creating them . . .

The rabbits are me and Chrisoula at our wedding! See our Greek crowns? Fionnghuala made them for our most recent anniversary. The ikon in the lower right was a gift from my mother-in-law – she purchased it at a Greek monastery. The little wickless candles and their holder were a Christmas gift from Fionnghuala, who understands in a deep way how altars function.

. . . that shifts in a subtle but powerful way. Its generative capacity turns to life and renewal, rebirth in forgiveness, rather than death, sterility and mere repetition.

When we are invested in idols and specialness, we are projecting, we are casting out a self, which creates an apparent lack, which must then be filled, remedied, amended, healed. Suddenly, the song or the person or the landscape feels like a natural extension of you, the part of you that’s missing and which you must have, will have, and when you do have then you will be complete and know the joy and peace of God.

Not so. Not so.

The crucifix belonged to my grandmother. It’s made of Irish peat and hung in her house. I believe she got in during one of her many visits to Ireland. I like its feminine appearance and the four spirals near the heart. The marble elephant was a gift from a friend back in college; same with the blue glass shell. The felt mice leaning on the lamp are a recent addition; Fionnghuala crafted them a couple of months ago. I love how soft they are and how colorful. There were three originally, but kittens absconded with one. An altar that does not allow for play is not an altar.

On the one hand, this error makes a certain kind of sense because what you are seeing is only your own self projected. It is meet and just to care deeply for that self. But on the other hand, you don’t realize that you are looking at your own self. You think you’re looking at a song. Or a person. Or a landscape.

Hence the confusion, the specialness, which are the absence of holiness, for which you do not need to be forgiven but which you very much do need to allow to be corrected if you want to be happy in the deepest, most sustainable sense of the word.

Or is the altar closer to these rainbows generated by prisms hanging in the east-facing window? Floating across the bedroom walls and door? Beautiful, temporary, shifting? Here and then gone, but when gone not gone, for the potential to be regenerated never leaves? In other words, to what is our attention given? How is it given? The are good question, worthy of our intelligence and care, the answer to which brings us not to another altar but to the Love which generates all altars, which is our inheritance, remembered at last in us forever.

Peace is knowing that it’s all you, because it’s all life. It’s not something that you understand in an intellectual sense; it’s something that arrives in you as a fact of your own being. It is a moment of self-recognition and it ends the illusion of separation (which also, by the way, ends “you” as you presently understand yourself). Henceforth, you will not be tortured by fantasies of future joy conditioned upon finding the right person, place, spiritual practice or any other apparent thing.

You will say “oh.” You will say “oh . . .”

You will be grateful and still, and your praise will be quiet and meaningful. You will be a prayer generated by the Love that names you its brother and sister, in which you are home forever.

Make it so my dear friend. Make it so.