A Course in Miracles Text

When Helen Schucman began to channel A Course in Miracles, what came first was the text. This is the bedrock of the program – a massive tome that outlines with great clarity and precision the theoretical underpinnings of the course’s non-dualistic thought system.

The daily lessons, which are contained in the workbook, build on the ideas that are contained in the text. The text itself is Christian in both language and image, but it parts ways with most traditional understandings of Christianity at the outset. The overarching theme is an abstract spirituality, echoes of which occur in most major religions and spiritual practices. As the course makes clear, it is not possible to have a “universal theology” but a “universal experience” is possible and certainly desirable. It is that experience to which the text – in conjunction with the balance of the course – aims.

In order to induce that experience – to lead students into that experience of peace and joy through forgiveness – the text is necessary. It begins somewhat simply – with fifty principles of miracles – but slowly progresses into more complex ideas. After you’ve read it a couple times you’ll start to see that the ideas are repeated in different forms. Reading and re-reading the text becomes an exercise in familiarity, the echoes resonating in your mind. It is a difficult work to assimilate in one sitting. Study – often rigorous study – is helpful.

The aim of the text is to change our experience in the world – to be able to bring into application its principles and ideas. Without the text, the lessons would make little sense. In the same way, without the lessons, the text would be impossibly abstract.

I began my practice of the course by reading the text. After a day or two, I slipped into the lessons, establishing a pattern that remained constant for many years. In the morning, I would read a few pages of the text – sometimes at random, sometimes focusing on a challenging or comforting section – and then I would read the lesson (I always do them in order) and practice it.

The first few times I read the text, I approached it somewhat as a bible. I didn’t want to mark it up. It felt sacred to me. Yet after a while, I began to make notes on the inside cover of certain pages that contained ideas I thought were useful, that I didn’t want to forget.

After another while, that list became so long that I gave up and just started underlining. Today, that first text – a paperback copy published by the Foundation for Inner Peace – is falling apart. There’s more underscore than simple text. I have a new copy now – hard cover – and use that for reading. I don’t bother with writing utensils at all, and rarely read more than a few paragraphs at a time. Our experience as students evolves, which is another way of saying that the course meets us where we are. It is always maximally helpful although its helpfulness is not always clear.

I’m a big advocate of the lessons, pushing them on fellow students – I hope gently – as often as possible. I think A Course in Miracles is truly meant to be lived, and in order to do that, we need to rigorously bring its principles into our lives day after day. It’s the only way to achieve the degree of change – the alteration of mind patterns – that the course envisions for us.

But I do love the text. It is comforting at times, challenging at others. I cannot quite imagine my day-to-day life without it.

A Course in Miracles: Cult?

Is A Course in Miracles a cult? One of my students asked me this other day. His question was genuine, but troubling. After all, the word cult has nothing but negative connotations (unless you’re a fan of this band, of course).

You_Choose_The_Way
Country roads diverging . . . Like ACIM, you can choose the way to go, or even not to go at all . . .

Generally, we understand a cult to be a group with rigid (usually in stark contrast to traditional practices and beliefs) belief systems that are religious or spiritual in nature. They are authoritarian – you have to follow the group, the leader of the group, and in the process surrender your identity. You don’t have a lot of choices in a cult. For these reasons, they are rightly seen as exploitative and dangerous.

The other aspect of cults is that they tend to involve – in practice or in perception – some degree of mind control. And what does A Course in Miracles call itself? A course in “mind training” (T-1.VII.4:1).

But that’s a simplistic rendering of a complex idea. A Course in Miracles is a self-study curriculum that teaches its students that the only problem they truly have is their decision to think apart from God – that is, to imagine that their will and God’s will are separate. This split leads to fear and guilt which we then project onto the world. This allows us to believe that we aren’t fearful and guilt-ridden because of any decision we made; it’s all caused by the mean and nasty world outside of us. We blame the world for our problems. And since God made that world, and we fear God as well. That’s the psychological set-up that human beings are dealing with, according to A Course in Miracles. Through the text and especially through the daily lessons, the course aims to restore to our minds their capacity to think with God and to remember our fundamental unity with all Creation. The dysfunction and pain of fear and guilt abate.

A Course in Miracles is not for everyone, of course. There are plenty of people for whom it is too far-out, its metaphysics too hard to believe or even understand, and so forth. This is okay! The course is clear that it is only one form of what is calls the universal curriculum. There are many ways to be whole and healthy – including atheism, psychotherapy, Buddhism and others. There is no one way to be right. Rather, there are many ways and it is incumbent on us to find the way that works for us. If that’s ACIM, great. If it’s not, that’s great too.

Really, A Course in Miracles is simply one expression of the perennial philosophy. Using Christian language and imagery, with a healthy dose of Freudian psychology and Platonic philosophy, it gently asserts that we are not separated from God but only believe that we are separated.

In other words, there is no expectation that A Course in Miracles is the only way to live a spiritual life.

Moreover, the course is deeply personal and meets each student where they are. Thus, one person’s practice of the course may look entirely different from somebody else’s practice. Just compare some of Ken Wapnick’s course-related writing to that of Tara Singh. It is possible to have two very different but effective teachers because the course emphasis is on the individual, not on conformity to some group standard or ideal.

The value of the Atonement does not lie in the manner in which it is expressed. In fact, if it is used truly, it will inevitably be expressed in whatever way is most helpful to the receiver (T-2.IV.5:1-2).

Really, A Course in Miracles is simply one expression of the perennial philosophy. Using Christian language and imagery, with a healthy dose of Freudian psychology and Platonic philosophy, it simply asserts that we are not separated from God but only believe that we are separated. Thus, its goal is to restore to our memory the fact of unity. We are mistaken; it aims to correct our mistake. No more and no less.

It is also critical to understand that A Course in Miracles really has no centralized leader or board of directions. There is certainly the Foundation for A Course in Miracles (FACIM) headed by the late Ken Wapnick and his wife Gloria. The Foundation aims to help students understand and bring into application the course. And while I think it does aim to be definitive, it is hardly coercive. There are a lot of people running around doing stuff with ACIM that wouldn’t pass muster at the Foundation. You don’t see that sort of variety or permissiveness in a cult!

The Foundation for Inner Peace publishes a version of the course that many students consider the “official” version. The FIP was established by the scribes – Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford – for the purpose of disseminating A Course in Miracles. At the same time, there are several other version of the course available – older ones, modified ones, altogether rewritten ones . . . The course is a diverse community with considerable dissension when it comes to “what it says,” how to understand what it says, and how to practice – or embody – what it says.

And again, the course – while it aims to help us work better with our minds in order to restore us to the sanity of remembering God – is also clear that it’s not the bottom or the only, line. It’s not the only way to heal and it’s not the only way to come into contact with God. If you want to shake the dust off your sandals and try something different, then go for it. It’s not a big deal.

Is that to say that there are not teachers out there who ask a lot of their students? That there aren’t groups that are demanding loyalty from their members while also professing to follow A Course in Miracles? It’s possible, of course. That’s true of a lot of religions and spiritual traditions. And even within perfectly healthy and open communities, there can be individual who display cult-like behavior.

I don’t mean to suggest then that one can’t find examples of behavior in the ACIM community that aren’t troubling. For example, a number of students have been troubled by this teacher and the group that he founded. But I know people who studied with him, and moved on when it was time to do so. They’re solid course students and good teachers in their own right.

In my own experience, most students of the course are disciplined and intelligent and altogether in touch with their own power of decision. Most of them study at their own pace and in their own way – sometimes venturing out to study groups for tea and discussion – but rarely more. Indeed, most serious students have more in common with monks than with cult members.

So no. For my money – and you are entirely welcome to disagree of course –  A Course in Miracles is not a cult. It’s radical. It’s intense. It can change your life and that can be a scary experience – both for you and people who love you. But it’s not going to ask any sacrifices of you – it isn’t going to take anything that you didn’t want to give anyway. The only teacher it is really going to share with you is the Holy Spirit – your inner teacher, who is the Voice for God, the part of your mind that remains healed.

To the extent it functions for the individual, the course offers a way towards joy and peace. Curious sojourners are invited to take a look at it, to try it, to shelve it and try it again. It’s okay! As noted earlier, the bottom line is that if it works, great. And if it doesn’t work, then that’s great, too.

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Reading Tara Singh

The first time I read Tara Singh it was as if a prism had been held to the light. Suddenly, the light was both simpler and more complex. It was both lovelier and deeper. It is hard to write about that moment – even now – without resorting to cliche. The feeling that a gap in my understanding of spiritual matters had been bridged – maybe better to say “could” be bridged – was pervasive. Here at last was the teacher.

A Course in Miracles is a difficult text on many levels. It is extremely abstract. Its origins invite wonder, skepticism and doubt in equal measure. And, at least for me, it is a tricky thing to bring into practice. With the course, it is sometimes easy to “talk the walk.” In fact, I think some very well-meaning people – me included – do just that.

My friends Jim and Judy – who run an ACIM study group in a nearby town – introduced me to Tara Singh by lending me their copy of Nothing Real Can Be Threatened. I read a few sentences – literally no more than a paragraph – and had to put the book down because it was like somebody had just dropped hot coals on my brain. This man understood. He got it. And more than that – he could communicate it.

I believe firmly that our study or practice of the course is always deeply personal. It meets us where we are – spiritually, psychologically, emotionally. This is what makes it sacred. Our true spiritual undertakings are always of the heart – heaven joined to heart, if you will – and it is what is missing in the rigid formalism of most organized religions. Before I read Taraji, my own experience of being a course student often felt at odds with what I read or saw in other students’ experience. It wasn’t that they were wrong or dishonest. It was simply that their experience did not resonate with mine.

In part, that was because my interactions with ACIM quickly moved away from a sort of Christian-centered practice. Initially, I was praying to the same God and having the same idealistic and reverential relationship with Jesus that I had since I was old enough to toddle into Catechism classes. God was a stern taskmaster that I feared and Jesus was the son I could never be. I simultaneously wanted their love and hated them for making me want it and not just giving it.

But after a few months of sincere practice – doing each lesson, reading and re-reading the text, and exploring some of the work of the more popular teachers – there was a shift. In fact, I remember very clearly being out in the fields with the dogs, looking at the stars at about 4 a.m.. It was the spot in our walks where I always stopped to say a prayer. A beautiful quiet place! And I realized as I began to pray that the course was not positing any external intelligent being running the show. God was not separate, judgmental, or bent on revenge. That was my fantasy. It was not what the course was teaching.

I was dizzy because I realized that everything I had been thinking – for my whole life to that point, because I have always been thinking and relating and wondering about God and Jesus and Spirit and all of that – was wrong. Or rather, that the course was gently asking me to consider another possibility. And because I found the course so comforting and practical, I was able to consider that perhaps what it was suggesting was true. Or more helpful.

That is quite a place to be, really. The trusted edifice crumbles, disappears like dust and you find that you are still standing. No lightening bolts from the sky, no cosmic hand to pluck you off the earth and drop you into a fiery abyss . . . How is it possible? And the new space feels . . . familiar. It was simultaneously terrifying and edifying. On the one hand, I felt as if I were betraying some old ideal – that Abrahamic God in the sky. I felt as if I had all this wasted time on my hands, a lifetime, maybe more. And yet . . .

I felt lighter, too. I felt happier, in a natural and serious way. Though I would – and sometimes still do – yo yo around with these things, in that moment I shrugged off a long-standing naivete and assumed a new responsibility for my spiritual condition. I am aware of how arrogant that sounds. All I can say is that it was true and that all its truth really did was show just how far I have to go.

This was also the moment where I realized that I needed a community – not famous writers and their best-selling books, not popular bloggers – but real people. I looked into some local study groups, found the one run by Jim and Judy and maybe fifteen minutes after we started talking, Jim lent me his copy of Nothing Real Can Be Threatened.

Life takes care. We are always being lifted.

*

I want to be careful about what I say regarding Tara Singh. I am not really qualified to talk about the man. And as regards his writing – which has become so important to me – I want only to be respectful. I was devastated when I learned that he had died years earlier, making it impossible to take a workshop with him. Being introduced to Mr. Singh . . . It was one of the few times in my life that I actually felt as if I would drop everything, walk a thousand miles and so forth just to study with this one person. You know that Buddhist story about the young man who cuts his hand off to get the attention of the man he wishes to study with? Only Tara Singh has ever made that story make even the slightest bit of sense. I do not take teachers or guides lightly. But Tara Singh was different right away. Just a few sentences and I knew. He felt that real to me, that essential.

So I have made do, then, with reading his work. There is quite a body of it and you can find it at good used book stores. You can visit the Joseph Plan Foundation, the organization he started which is continued by many of his students. They do periodic retreats, which perhaps I will attend someday. But right now – for the past year or so – it has been his books and sometimes his videos and audio recordings. There are plenty of them and not one has felt dispensable or unnecessary.

What resonates in particular for me is Taraji’s insistence on bringing A Course in Miracles to application – that is, rescuing it from the inclination to talk it to death, to render it merely an idea. That is a big risk for me, as I am a skilled talker and prone to using that gift defensively. There is no real compromise on this point in his work – nor is there, really, in the course. You cannot see both worlds and so must choose one. Period. Decide! Knowing that, embodying that, Tara Singh’s work is largely free of the contemporary softness and reassurance that characterizes a lot of new age and self help writers of our day. I don’t know what he was like in person, but in his writing he is deeply focused and precise. A sense of urgency and possibility is present in every word. He perceives the transformational power of the course and wants to share it, extend it.

He is also able to readily step beyond the Christian mythology that serves as framework on which the essential ideas of the course are settled. This was so important to me – having the ideas in the course translated or clarified in a way that released them from dependency on old ideas. I say that carefully – the Christian mythology matters to me because I know it and am familiar with it – but too big an investment in that language, in those symbols becomes a limitation. As the course points beyond itself, I was being asked to grow or evolve beyond myself, but until I read Tara Singh it was not altogether clear to me how I was going to do that. There is a liberating quality to his teaching that is both grounded in the course and yet reaches far beyond it. It is rare and electric.

I do not think Tara Singh is for everyone – nor does he need to be. Nor, probably, would he have wanted to be! I am committed to this idea that there are many trains running to the station of Truth and we need only ride one, and no one is better or superior to another. Pick the one thing that will teach you you need no thing! For me, Taraji has been a challenging and comforting – and above all, useful – guide to ending our Separation from God, coming to stillness, seeing the Kingdom, and finding Peace.

What more can we ask from a teacher?

*

Over the years, I have come back to this post – tweaking it a little here, taking something out there. One’s opinion changes – one’s intellect sees things this way and then that. But what is eternal never changes.

My devotion to Tara Singh as a teacher – as an temporal embodiment of the grace inherent in A Course in Miracles and, by extension, all of us, has never wavered. It is of that which is eternal. I have come to appreciate the rigor of his dialogues, the tenacity with which he refused to succumb to the comforting – yet dysfunctional – patterns of thinking that were always old, always of the past.

When one reads Taraji closely, one is led to Krishnamurti, and through their combined insights to the great Indian saints – Sri Aurobindo, Sri Maharshi, Sri Anandamayi Ma . What a gift. It is like a flower that continues to grow, smaller shoots emerging around it, a veritable garden of wisdom and delight. One realizes that they are always being led, that the wisdom of God is never not active, and sees at last the truth of “I need do nothing.” It is given. It is always given.

Thank you for reading, friend, and for sharing the way with me a little while. I am grateful for your companionship, as I am grateful for Taraji’s, all of us together remembering the wholeness that we never left.

The Juggler Reconsiders His Calling

I ran into a friend the other day – he was finishing lunch, I was buying eggs and kefir – and I stopped to say hello. Jim was the facilitator of an A Course in Miracles discussion group that I attended for a while. I hadn’t seen him in several months. It was nice to catch up.

Later, it got me thinking about this website, which I shuttered back in the summer and re-opened earlier this month. I shut it down because it was complicating both personal and professional boundaries. At the time if felt like a practical decision, but I come to see more in the line of a defensive gesture. I needed some privacy, needed to create some quiet in which to settle out this business of disdaining the light of being read.

In mulling it over, a recurring word or theme is “congruent.” To me it means consistency at all levels of one’s existence – spiritual, physical, work, play. It means not parceling off different parts of life in an effort to hold other parts at bay.

And it means – for me anyway – that that I cannot please everyone, cannot bear for others their burden of judgement. What does this mean exactly? Well, for most of my adult life I have been deeply reticent about being a Christian and following Jesus. I don’t want to hurt or alienate friend who are legitimately pissed off at establishment sects of Christianity, whose lives are routinely invalidated by Christians who are alternately fearful, misguided and sometimes malicious.

I don’t want to defend the Pope anymore, or try to rationalize him, or be an apologist on behalf of progressive Protestants. I don’t want to pretend a scholarly interest in the link between Paganism and early Christian communities in a vain effort to validate both.

And I’m even more wary of talking about spirituality in terms of its application – what it actually means to me, now. I have wandered pretty far afield of all but the most wacky of  Christians. Telling people that you channel Jesus as one of many ascended masters, that you can hear the Holy Spirit, that you believe (or want to believe) that your body and the world are effect and not cause, that you experience the world as a dream . . .

Well, it invites a bit of ridicule.

Yet being incongruent – being silent – is even worse. We limit ourselves when we parcel our energy up into little pockets. Poetry on this shelf, the Tarot cards on that one. Jesus here, Buddha there.

It’s like I’ve devoted my life to juggling and I don’t even like juggling. I’m not even particularly good at it.

Anyway, I have come around to thinking – and trying to put into practice – a conviction that you cannot peacefully or meaningfully keep the best parts of yourself to yourself. They are in you because they need to be shared – your identity lies in sharing them. If what you create – a poem, a blog post, a lesson plan – is created out of Love then it will find its way through the ether to those who need it.

Your job is to create, to extend. Period.

Or so I say. Or think. Or write anyway. I started this post very early in the morning and came into the basement after dinner – and maybe three thousand words into another project – to finish it.

The Undoist Speaks

When I first read A Course In Miracles, I felt I were home after a long and meandering trip that most of the time seemed to be going nowhere. Here at last was a spiritual practice at once mystical, intellectual and deeply practical. I sensed in it an off-ramp to my confusion, a chance to bring order to the chaos and uncertainty that otherwise characterized my life.

That was the door in. And, for quite a while, it was the long hallway, too. I followed it diligently, striving always to be sincere and disciplined. I knew, even if I was not quite sure how to articulate it, that I had stumbled upon my practice. I began to write publicly about both A Course in Miracles and what seemed like my spiritual insights. I was more ambitious than I was able to admit, and fixated on spirituality as a personal accomplishment to wield in the power dynamics of certain personal relationships.

I regret that; also, it’s important to be honest about that.

Each morning I read the text and did a single daily lesson. I made small notes next to key passages. Then, on the inside flap, I wrote the page numbers where I’d made notes.

It wasn’t long though before I realized that there were simply too many key passages. So I abandoned the process of checking in favor of underlining. If a sentence seemed to hold even a hint of wisdom, any jewel or nugget without which one would miss the whole, then I underlined it.

And so I went my study the way one does when they are convinced that they’re the smartest kid in the class. I was vigilant but not humble; and I talked and wrote a lot.

Until one day, exhausted from what I couldn’t precisely say, I stopped and asked myself what I was doing.

For me, hardest of all the ACIM lessons is perhaps this: it is about undoing, not doing. It is not about acquiring new ideas or sprucing up old ones. It is not about gaining some masterful understanding of obscure spiritual principles and laws. It is not about improving ourselves so that others will admire and even envy us.

Rather, the course aims to retrain our minds in order to remove the many blocks to love, which our natural inheritance (T-in.1:7).

I realized that my practice had been almost exclusively intellectual and even arrogant. On the one hand, this was understandable given my educational background and professional callings. After all, I am a writer and a teacher.

But on the other hand, my aggressive and expositive approach to the course material – as if it were a text to be deciphered, translated and then re-composed – was clearly an obstacle to its effective application. I certainly had a lot of new ideas. I found myself talking a lot more about A Course in Miracles and other spiritual paths. I was delighted with how articulate I was, how far-ranging my theology had become.

But – and this is where the true gift of the course becomes evident – I had to admit that I was no closer to God. No meaningful practice of forgiveness or lovingkindness had appeared in my life. I was the same old well-intentioned blowhard I had always been – talking the walk while making a big show of studying the maps.

And so I did what all devoted ACIM students must do from time to time: I renewed my commitment to learning from A Course in Miracles. I put the pen down and simply read. I tried to apply the lessons in a new way. When my brain wanted to analyze and create pithy ACIM-related quotes I could use to wow other students, I let the inclination pass.

Instead I asked: what is going on in this lesson? What am I being asked to learn? What am I being asked to forget? I wanted answers to those questions to become my new bellwether. I wanted to hear Jesus and the Holy Spirit, not the ego.

Because it was so hard – and because I seemed to be making precious little progress – I eventually broke down and in a very literal way asked the Holy Spirit to help me. If it wasn’t too much trouble, could I be led to a place of quiet and stillness? Could I be given a sign that I was doing something useful or helpful?

About a week later, sitting in the kitchen by the stove while water boiled for tea, I had a vision. The kitchen was empty so far as my physical eyes could see, but another pair of eyes clearly beheld Jesus sitting on the floor across from me, head on his knees, arms wrapped around himself, quietly sobbing.

I had no idea how to respond to that vision. It scared me, in part because I knew that I had somehow created it, or called it into being. I felt like somebody else had taken hold of my imagination and made something with it that I did not want to see, let alone engage with.

If it had been possible to leave that image of Jesus behind, I would have. But it stayed with me. It followed me through the day like a sad, hungry dog. It was there the next day, too. Nothing change in it: Jesus cried while I watched. I hated it and hated that I hated it, and wished that it would go away.

But it didn’t. And so at last, as I sat each morning in what continued to feel like half-assed efforts at prayer and meditation, I began to imagine trying to comfort Jesus. I imagined myself crossing the kitchen floor, sitting beside him, perhaps putting an arm over his shoulders.

It was a nice idea, but the thing was, in my imagination, I could never get more than halfway across the floor. Fear stopped me. And there wasn’t a whole lot of mystery as to why. I was afraid that when I offered consolation, Jesus would look up at and his eyes would be filled with accusation. Tears of sorrow and grief, yes, but also unstinting blame. It was a look that would say, You did this to me.

And I knew perfectly well what would follow from that. God was out there somewhere, close nearby, thinking, You’re going to pay. I’m going to make you pay for what you did to my son.

Even now I hate writing that! Hate seeing the words, hate the sad old story they represent. It is difficult to express how much disappointment and anguish that series of visions caused me. I did not want to accept that I lived in fear of Jesus and God. It was an abhorrent idea. It could not be mine – it had to belong to somebody else. Somebody who was weak, uneducated, uninformed, unsophisticated, living in denial . . .

And yet the truth could not – would not – be denied. That was me – that was where I stood in relation to God and to Jesus. Guilty and condemned and too scared to do anything about it.

And that became the beginning of my practice of A Course in Miracles, which continues to this day.

I gaze into the void of the belief that I am estranged from God and Jesus, that reconciliation is impossible, and even my death will not bring peace or closure. That’s a grim belief system and a gruesome interior horror show but facing it, however weakly, however hesitantly, became the cornerstone. It became, in its way, a good start.

This is what means to undo: to come to the realization that all we have taught ourselves and all that the world has taught us is not helpful. It is useless. It cannot bring us closer to God or to our brothers and sisters. It cannot foster the Happy Dream that precedes our union with Heaven.

The journey to love – the ascent to Grace, the ending of the separation – begins with letting go of all that we have accumulated. The mental baggage and psychological detritus must be abandoned, left by the side of the road, so that we might go on increasingly unencumbered, arms free to welcome our brothers and sisters, including Jesus.