Is A Course in Miracles Dangerous?

For a long time my answer to this question was: don’t be silly. And in a sense, that’s still my answer. It’s just a book with a year’s worth of lessons that most people never even finish, let along bring into application. What’s the risk? What’s the harm?

But I think a better answer might be that A Course in Miracles can be dangerous, especially if you’re settled into a way of thinking about life and God that you don’t want disturbed, and you’re actually committed to looking into that way of thinking in a sustained and serious way.

Even half-hearted students tend to find the course disruptive to their established belief system. And this is not always welcome, and can often feel like an attack. And attacked people usually feel like they’re in danger.

Yet this sense of the course only arises because we are scared of love – and, in particular, of the world’s symbols of love, especially God.

. . . you see love as destructive, and your only question is who is to be destroyed, you or another? You seek to answer this question in your special relationships, in which you seem to be both destroyer and destroyed in part, but able to be neither completely. And this you think saves you from God, Whose total Love would completely destroy you (T-15.X.7:4-6).

So when you ask if A Course in Miracles is dangerous, it might be helpful to go a step further and ask: of what am I scared? God? Love? The death of ego? The end of the world?

In the context of the body and the world – and the egoic belief system undergirding both – these questions appear reasonable. So in that context, it’s important to ask them and the go deeply into the various answers. A Course in Miracles is a way – not the way but a way – to do this.

It’s not a cult. It’s not a shallow New Age fantasy for non-serious people, though like all paths and traditions and methods, some people work it harder and more effectively than others.

The course is simply a means by which to challenge established patterns of thought that are bringing about results – guilt, anxiety, unhappiness, fear et cetera – that we don’t want. In that sense, it is a pragmatic framework for psychological healing in a spiritual context.

Now, does A Course in Miracles always work? No. Can it confuse people in unhelpful ways? Sure. Sometimes. But that is the nature of healing – there are no sure things. We find a program or technique that feels resonant and we give attention to it for a while. If it works, great. If not, that’s okay, too.

Becoming happy – in a deep and sustainable way – is a reasonable goal in the context of our bodies in the world. A Course in Miracles can be a fruitful means of reaching that happiness. The “danger” it poses reflects the radical shifts in thought that – upsetting at first blush – actually produce a quiet joy and inner peace.

And, of course, if everything goes haywire, we can always turn back.

Letting Go of Awakening

The Upanishads say that “only once in a thousand thousand years does a soul wake up.” That strikes me as unverifiable in principle, which raises the question: why would the authors say this?

I think there are at least two possibilities, or maybe just one that can be taken either more or less cynically. I’ll start with the optimistic take.

You say that only one soul wakes up every million years because you want folks to stop thinking about waking up as a goal. The biggest impediment to awakening or enlightenment is the notion that awakening or enlightenment is something other than this – this this.

If you tell somebody the odds are overwhelmingly against their waking up, then maybe you can get them to focus on the actions that do facilitate awakening but are actually boring: mostly, noticing that when you’re chopping wood and carrying water, you’re chopping wood and carrying water and noticing it.

When you lean into the ordinary motions of living, and simply notice the grace or light in which it all appears – comes and goes, folds and unfolds, flows and flows – then you are near to the wisdom of the psalmist:

Be still
and know that I am God

It turns out that nobody can teach you to be still, but they can teach you to notice when you’re not still which – if you get curious enough, desperate enough, lucky enough – can suddenly flex into knowledge of God. You say “oh.” You say “oh.”

I think that’s the reason it’s not a bad idea to put the whole “waking up” thing to the side, and just get on with being a kind person in the world – help others, let them help you, don’t get worked up about small stuff, it’s all small stuff, et cetera. That this comes so naturally to us – and makes us so happy – is a huge clue to our fundamental essence.

What’s the cynical perspective on “forget about waking up?”

That’s what folks say when they want “waking up” to be a sign of their spiritual elitism. That’s the language of a priest caste that doesn’t want the hoi polloi soiling the altar. “I’ve got it and you don’t but if you’re deferential enough / pay me enough – I may share a few crumbs with you.”

I’m less enamored of teachers than I used to be, but when I was enamored of Tara Singh one of his insights I most admired was his recognition of the “lovelessness of ‘I get it and you don’t.'” Notice when you’re doing that and then don’t do that.

I felt like that summed up a lot of ACIM energy – Gary Renard and his ascended masters, Ken’s “ACIM is the true Christianity,” David Hoffmeister’s claims to special “white light” experiences, Liz Cronkhite’s “I don’t have an ego but you still do.” That’s all nonsense – or rather, it’s nonsense to the extent it’s held up as having spiritual significance in and of itself. It’s really just more of what happens here in the inside of nothing.

Awakening begets a fundamental equality, a radical sameness, which entails a responsibility to be as loving as the Love which got you going in the first place. This is easier than it sounds because the Love in question undoes identity which dramatically undoes one’s perception of separation. The boundaries of self and other, self and world are waaaay more fluid than we believe.

All of this suggests a possible third reading of that phrase from the Upanishads. I’m suggesting that awakening is a shift in perspective that makes clear there is no body or self to wake up and that everything is just happening, just appearing and disappearing, and that this is perfectly normal.

I am also suggesting that when we see this, we realize we’ve been chasing a ghost, and it was the chase that distracted us from the simple clarity that there is only this: this this.

In other words, you can’t not be awake. You’re awake right now, even if “awake” is experienced as “a dream in which I wish I was awake.” But seriously: no harm, no foul. No worries. Really.

Still, people do get worked up about waking up – they aren’t awake, others are, they want it, they don’t want to want it, what’s the secret . . .

Thus, we might say something ridiculous like “only once in a thousand thousand years does a soul wake up” because we know that there is no such thing as waking up. Or sleeping. So why not just get it off the table at the outset?

Agape Love and A Course in Miracles

Even into this vale of tears – this shimmering illusion of a world – does the Infinite find a way to reach us. Escher drawings, Nisargadatta ramblings, Mertonian insights on the streets of Louisville. Truly, to see a goldfinch in the garden in mid-August is to see the Face of God and live. Nothing is being kept from us.

And yet we are unhappy. We hurt each other, sometimes in terrible ways. We look the other way when our brothers and sisters choke on tear gas or go hungry or have no home in which to sleep. We overlook the goldfinch. What is wrong with us? And can A Course in Miracles help? Can living Christianly help?

Inasmuch as the problem is one of thought, then yes – A Course in Miracles, as a contemporary expression of Christianity, can help. When our minds change, our living changes. We leave the space of fear and isolation and enter the domain of agape love.

By “agape” I mean a love that subsumes all other loves, and by which we are personally transformed. Transformation in this sense is not a physical change, but a mental one. Our soul is enlivened and brought forth as a real force in the world. Love lays claim to us and the forceful presence of soul is our deep and abiding consent to union with it.

The fruits of this union are inner peace and joy, not as psychological extremes but as sustainable modes of living that shift but do not disappear. We dwell beyond the reach of abandonment.

Thus, this union includes our farewell to Ecstasy and Misery, the wild twins of our spiritual childhood, whose gifts fade in the light of the one who is light.

Ecstasy and Misery are processes of Eros – the love that inhabits a body and seeks its own reflection in other bodies. Erotic love matters, and I honor it. The happiness and pleasure it engenders – and even the sadness and loneliness it engenders – are not unwelcome. 

Yet I notice that erotic love lacks staying power. It is closer to lightning than fire. In it, every aspect of living intensifies to an almost unbearable degree. It is exquisite, both in its capacity for delight and its capacity for devastation. But it also takes me away from the world. It is harder to do the dishes, talk my daughter through grief, weed the garden, change the oil in the car, give attention to money problems . . .

Agape is the love into which eros is folded. It is our full, open-hearted and open-minded presence unto others in a way that sustains us as a collective, rather than individually or in specially-focused partnerships. Agape is mutual, a dialogue rich with honesty and sincerity. It is integral and congruent. It enables coherence; it undoes the disjointed, misguided emphasis on me, myself and I.

It can be helpful to ask: what sustains our “full, open-hearted, open-minded presence unto others?” What allows us to balance day in and out in a posture of attentive service? What is the natural, effortless flow of living that we name agape?

It is not hard to find this – indeed, it arises naturally and sustains itself perfectly. What’s hard about it – for me – is that it’s not sufficiently erotic. I resist agape because it celebrates us rather than me. Further, it expands “us” to include elephants and milkweed plants and stray dogs and people I’ve never even met.

It requires a love that is holy where “holy” is uninterested in the ongoing drama of Sean’s Personal Very Important Quest To Be Holy Through Oneness With God.

I want all my living to own the ecstatic psychedelic intensity of a heroic dose of psilocybin; I want big moves, dramatic answers, mirror balls on all the time. And yet, happiness, it turns out, is less lightning bolt than cooking fire, less God than simply home. And less home-as-place or home-as-other-body than a state of mind in which distinctions between others are irrelevant. I mean who wouldn’t you feed if they were starving? Can you really convince yourself that the God in Whom you are so mentally entangled wants others to suffer? 

So: what is the state that renders us maximally helpful to others all day every day?

The answer to that question may be glimpsed at the extremes – I do not deny the instructive value of Eros – but it actually lives in the stillness of the center, the quiet productivity of home and hearth, the soul at rest, the soul in creative repose.

Presently, the image that serves this sense of the divine – this soulfulness – is feminine. The father God’s run is coming to a close – not in the sense of death, but of correction. A Course in Miracles directs us not to ascended masters and light shows but to the sustainable peace of the maternal heart. Mother the cosmos, and let the cosmos mother you. It works just that way.

This was one of Tara Singh’s great insights (which I doubt he recognized): the Mother was absent from A Course in Miracles, and so he brought her in via Mother Theresa who, remember, Helen Schucman said was a real-world example of somebody living by ACIM  principles. Singh himself embodied a lot of cultural misogyny but his devotion to Mother Theresa speaks to a healing impulse – a correction through realignment of divine energy – that is worth attending.

The point is not that we should become Catholic nuns – Mother Theresa also embodied a lot of cultural misogyny. Rather, the point is to seek the model of living that allows us to bring forth a love that is inclusive, nurturing and non-discriminatory. One that expands beyond hierarchical modes of organizing being. 

Is the Infinite genderless? Of course. But our theological history has not handled that fact well and so we’re stuck with gendered imagery. I’m grateful to Tara Singh for his imperfect guidance; he knew, intuitively, there is One in whom all our errors – even the most violent and patriarchal, those in which our living is presently catastrophized – are gently corrected, as if they had never occurred, as if there were a love in which nothing but love endured.

Our Boundless Joyful Self

Your Self-fullness is as boundless as God’s. Like His, It extends forever and in perfect peace. Its radiance is so intense that It creates in perfect joy, and only the whole can be born of its Wholeness (T-7.IX.6:7-9).

We are restless. We are in search of that which will bring all searching to an end. We perceive ourselves as on a journey, but it’s an oddly incomplete image: from where did we take our leave? In what direction are we heading? Upon whose word or promise does our faith in destination lie?

Everything that arises falls, while everything that falls, eventually arises again. The form of the world changes – first moonlight, then cardinals, then love, then loneliness – but the rising and falling don’t change. Good, bad, happy, unhappy . . .

We look for the One who perceives this flux of phenomena – the seer who must be the self – but it too rises and falls because we cannot perceive it apart from the rising and falling. We look for the First Cause – the Source – the “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” – and find what? Only more images, only more ideas.

Everything that rises and falls – including the idea of God, including the idea of rising and falling – rises and falls within whatever it is that we are in truth. We can understand this in terms of the body, if we want: language and image are window dressing for corresponding neurochemical impulses. We can understand it in abstract terms like mind or spirituality: ideas arising within the one mind that is God’s.

But however we do it, can we see – can we make contact with – that within which it arises? The suggestion is that this “within which-ness” is important, in the sense that it is all there is in terms of experience.

It’s elusive and hard to talk about but that’s mostly because we are looking so hard for it, and talking so much about it.

What happens when we surrender our search for God? Undo our insistence on specialness? What happens when we stop talking about the so-called “inexpressible?”

Then, like a deer entering the pasture at twilight – elegant, shy, graceful, a gift – it appears. It’s this: this this. And it’s always here; it couldn’t not be here.

God always speaks. That is the thing. We want so badly to know God and we never see that our want is simply another form of resistance, cleverly disguised as sincerity and right effort. A kind of passivity is called for, a kind of letting go. A kind of resignation even. We quit – really and truly quit – and only at that moment does ever-present light finally reach our eyes.

Yet to want to quit is to keep going. Even to write “we quit – really and truly quit –  and only at that moment does ever-present light reach our eyes” is to keep going. It’s maddening: until we drop it, we’re holding it, and we can’t drop it until we hold it.

In you is all of Heaven. Every leaf that falls is given life in you. Each bird that ever sang will sing again in you. And every flower that ever bloomed has saved its perfume and its loveliness for you (T-25.IV.5:1-4).

In you . . .

“You” in this case does not refer to Sean or to the body with which “Sean” presently (and stubbornly) identifies. We really have to see this: the grace and peace to which A Course in Miracles points neither begins or ends in bodies, which includes thought and feeling and idea and perception. What is has –

Nothing before and nothing after it. No other place; no other state or time. Nothing beyond or nearer. Nothing else. In any form (T-25.IV.5:6-10).

Of itself, even our restlessness is perfect: it is simply another breeze passing over the open field of life. We don’t have to bring it to peace. We don’t have to search and we don’t even have to stop searching: we simply have to notice the “within which-ness” that is always here, always present. We have to notice the emptiness from which form briefly arises and into which it returns.

To say it is a simple thing – possibly even a  helpful thing – but it is still just foam on the salty waves we are all already surfing. What remains is joy: which is not the body’s pleasure nor the mind’s happiness but rather that within which those fleeting experience arise and fall to rise again.

Christian Living and A Course in Miracles

I am reading Louis Dupré’s “Reflections on Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s The Religion of the Future” published in The Journal of Religion. I could care less about Unger’s book; Dupré is my bread and water these days.

Specifically, Dupré helps me contextualize the challenge of living Christianly, especially when “Christianly” is so deeply entwined with A Course in Miracles, which can be so weird, misogynistic and self-aggrandizing.

Question: given this life so clearly given, which appears to include free will, what shall we do? How shall we live? What shall be our values?

A Course in Miracles does a terrible job answering these kinds of questions, mostly because it’s not designed to answer them. It really is just a year-long course that aims at liberating our thinking from familiar patterns, thus allowing us to experience mind in a more substantial and creative way.

Tara Singh, who probably more than anyone else functioned as a quasi-teacher for me, was insistent on bringing the course “into application.” He aligned his small community to Mother Theresa’s order, yoking the course to intentional communal living and service.  Even Ken Wapnick, whose antipathy towards the body was surpassed only by Helen Schucman’s, shifted his teaching in the last decade or so of his life to “living with” A Course in Miracles.

In other words, I think “how shall we live” is a nontrivial question, avoidance of which begets confusion and disorder. There is, as Brother Thetford said, another way.

Louis Dupré defines living religiously as ” . . . a full, practical commitment to a Godly life, purified of hidden selfishness and open to a future that is more than a project of one’s own making.” In other words, the garden prayer of Jesus: “Not my will but thine be done.” Living this way is oppositional to a culture which emphasizes our will and desire. We want everything – from sex to world peace – on our terms.

Dupré asks us to reconsider.

A religious person’s primary task has never consisted in overcoming the world, or in humanizing it, or in struggling with it. He or she will undoubtedly face these tasks, yet all of them, as well as the virtues we shall have to practice in realizing them, must be preceded by a receptive, passive attitude toward an event in which I had no active part: some mysterious power must first touch me.

Ah . . . But what power? God? Love? Earlier in the review, Dupré acknowledges that “Christian separation between the level of human experience and that of nonhuman nature” is “objectionable” though he prefers to phrase it as “the split between nature, including human nature, and a supernatural realm.”

I think that’s a good definition of separation, which is not a historical or metaphysical event, but rather an evolutionary process by which we somehow managed to convince ourselves that we’re better than – other than – the world of our observation. This is nonsense, of course. And most of us intellectually get Krishnamurti’s observation that the “observer is the observed.” But to live that way turns out to be a pretty high psychological hill to climb . . .

If we set aside a supernatural realm (i.e., ascended masters, Helen Schucman’s reincarnated self, lights et cetera), and focus on the natural realm – what is given – then we find ourselves faced with a problem: what touches us? What constitutes God? For once we allow the cosmos to be as it is given, the mysteries bleed out and all appears less as a Father-driven hierarchy than a messy mossy welter with nary a boss in sight. It’s less organized than organizing itself in time according to principles that appear to have more to do with surviving rather than loving.

And yet!

Loving is real! Loving is a thing. And Love, which I suggest manifests in our living as cooperation and coordination, the recognition we are playing together a non-zero sum game, is a human quality; thus, it is a natural quality. But it is not the only quality and it doesn’t always fare well, even with humans. Take a look at the headlines coming out of Belarus. But still.

This is why Dupré’s emphasis is not on acting – which he agrees is fundamental to religious living – but rather on listening, for it is only in listening that we learn whether we can and should act and then to what ends. “Thy will not mine be done” means listening so that I can actually learn what “thy will” means.

And that is super hard, because our minds are trained to to heed the “me first and me only” voice. The collective – caring for others, including starfish and elephants, cannabis plants and moonlight – is an afterthought, a side effect. There is another way.

Dupré says – and I think he is right, and I think this is what A Course in Miracles, for all its wackiness, is saying too – is that caring for the other is what God is all about. Caring for and about others requires coordination and cooperation which is Love which is God which is caring for and about others.

Indeed, Dupré suggests this “call to listen before acting” is a universal feature of all the major religions. “Great religious revolutions did not start in a burst of enthusiasm, but in a sound from beyond heard by men and women in silent waiting.”

This waiting, says Dupré, must be “totally open to the unknown.” For Christians – including those of us toiling in the marginal arbors of ACIM – the future is mystical because it’s all about listening, communing with the One who speaks in us apparently apart from us but not actually apart but in a way that’s hard to express and . . .

Well, we don’t have to express it. Or rather, it expresses as us when we are receptive and stop insisting that we know what shape or form or process it should take. Our spirituality acts in the world, yes, but its action always bends towards deepening our shared fundamental receptivity to love.

Or so it occurs to me on Friday morning a little after dawn, reading and writing, happy in the way my favorite scriptures promise means the Lord is near, and happy too.