Because we are not alone but together, and because our identity is not separate from this alone-but-togetherness, language matters. It is how we communicate; how we experience both self and other and – in a sort of meta-level way – the collective itself. Absent language, what would be?
So we want to go slowly and carefully in and with our wordiness. We want to be generous, patient and open in a sustainable way, a mutual way. In a sense, communication is co-creation. To paraphrase Humberto Maturana, everything that we say, we say to an observer who could be our own self. This mutuality that inheres in communication – how shall we bring it forth? How shall we bring forth love?
My slow remove from A Course in Miracles – which has not diminished my gratitude for it, nor effaced important work done under its guidance – has largely been a consequence of perceiving a need for a language that is more precise, gentler, and less dramatic than that which comprises the course. The potential for error, confusion, conflation . . . these abound in the text, workbook, and Manual for Teachers. Is there not, as Bill Thetford wondered, another – more helpful, efficient, inclusive – way?
Consider, for example, these sentences from Lesson 135:
Without defense, you become a light which Heaven gratefully acknowledges to be its own. And it will lead you on in ways appointed for your happiness according to the ancient plan, begun when time was born. Your followers will join their light with yours, and it will be increased until the world is lighted up with joy (W-I.135.20:1-3).
On the one hand, this is basically a sound lesson, part of a sequence encouraging students to look at the various psychological defenses they have mounted against love, which is to say, against the apparent (the observed and observing) other. In course parlance, the ego is basically a network of defenses that is confused about what is being defended and what is being defended against. An imaginary self wages an imaginary battle against an imaginary foe. We are missing the flowers because our attention is given to a conflict that need not be.
Good enough! Human beings are distracted by imaginary conflicts. We are confused about self and other and existence. Giving attention to all of that in ways aimed at clarifying the confusion and undoing the conflict matter. They matter deeply.
But is the specific language the course uses helpful in this regard? Or does it ultimately just ensure that the same old cyclical problem gets to keep on cycling, albeit with a new mask and skin?
For me, for a time, A Course in Miracles – what it was saying and how it was saying it – was helpful. But in the end it was clear that its helpfulness was mostly in the way it subtly reinforced existing patterns of cognition about self, other, God, Jesus and so forth. I do not think I was – or am – alone in this!
How does this happen? And what can be done about it?
It happens in large part because of the temptation to take the course literally rather than symbolically. We want to be right. We want the answer, not an answer. And so we project that desire for certainty onto the course.
Take the sentences from Lesson 135 above. Give some attention to them. “Heaven” is not a real place. “Heaven” has no agency with which to be “grateful” or “acknowledge” anything. Rather, it is simply a word that – in this context – symbolizes inner peace, interior stillness and calm, sustainable gentleness and kindness, patience, et cetera.
If we take “heaven” literally – as a place we could go to, as an discrete agentic force that could move us – then we are going to get lost very quickly. And most of us do take it literally. Because if you switch out the literal meaning for the symbolic meaning, then it stops implying some future salvation. Suddenly, being gentle, kind, patient, tolerant, open-minded and so forth, are something that we have to embody here and now.
If we shift from abstract Christian ideals like “heaven” and seek instead to embody, say, sustainable kindness, we instantly become co-creators with one another. We instantly become human beings bringing forth love in the present moment to the best of their limited ability.
And that is actually really really hard! It is work! It takes energy and attention and willingness. It takes practice and study. It takes a shared life: a collective which we both nurture and are nurtured by.
It is easier to posit some future force that will take care of everything – then all we have do is be right about that force. It’s Jesus, we say. Believe in Jesus. But if there is no Jesus, no future salvation, no personal God . . .
We could keep going. We could consider the “ancient plan” to which lesson 135 suggests we are all subject. It’s a grandiose phrase that presupposes an embodied agentic planner – God – who has a plan that is better than whatever plan we’re fooling around with.
Now, it is good to not be attached to our personal plans, particularly when and as they arise from dysfunction and confusion. But on the other hand, if we get too obsessed with some mysterious plan out there in the spiritual either, there is a real risk of overlooking the very specific and present way in which we are right here and now called to be helpful, gentle, kind and patient. In a word, loving. Waiting on a fictive being to enact its “ancient plan” too easily becomes a recipe for passivity and indifference.
Furthermore, the passage implies that if we do heed all of this – the active Heaven home to an active God enacting his longstanding plan for salvation – then we will gain followers who will join their “lights” to ours which will naturally turn the whole world on like a big beautiful lamp. How special does this make us feel? How entitled?
My point is not that the course cannot be read in helpful ways; it can. My point is that it relies on an old language and a tired mythology that is filled with traps and risks. It is too easy to become lost and confused, despite our sincerity, despite our effort.
In the end, the course is another dualistic expression of a doctrine – Christianity – that has largely been ruinous both to people and the planet.
Although it has taken many years to sort through, my course study ended at some point in the summer of 2013 when I saw for the first time how attention worked. Attention moved me away from mysticism and spirituality and, in the end, A Course in Miracles.
It reintroduced me to the love that naturally inheres in being a human being alive on Terra. And slowly – not without considerable stumbling – I have sought a language that expresses this love, that allows me to deepen with it, to soften with it, to hear it in you, share it with you, et cetera.
In part, that language requires gently – gratefully but surely – shucking the old systemic language of gods and goddesses, heavens and hells, Christs and Buddhas, saints and sinners and sacred texts – and giving plain old attention to what is happening and engaging with what is happening in ways that premised on our natural human inclination to be inclusive, cooperative, consensual and loving. That’s all.