On Loving the Intellect

In a footnote in Up from Eden, Ken Wilber observes that one element of his reservations about Hegel – who he otherwise considers a “towering genius” combining “transcendent insight with mental genius” – is that Hegel had no yoga, no “reproducible technique of transcendence” (638, 641).

To me, that is an interesting criticism. It suggests that no matter how capable we are of using our intellectual powers to parse spiritual, theological and philosophical texts and draw useful connections between them, some essential quality remains absent if we cannot bring those insights and connections into what Tara Singh called “application.”

In other words, what is the benefit of talking about a spiritual path if we cannot also walk it?

Often – both on this site and in related dialogues – I tend to come down on the side of walking the walk rather than talking the talk. I don’t want to become eloquent on the subject of salvation; I want to be saved.

And yet.

Wilber makes an interesting (and to my mind, related) observation about this issue. He points out that we often talk about spiritual ideas and material before we are able to practice or otherwise integrate it into our lives. He calls this a sort of “learner’s permit.” That is, by talking about it – even in limited ways – we learn that lightening bolts aren’t going to come flying from the sky, that this particular material is not transgressive or dysfunctional. We are given permission to engage.

In fact, the initial intuition of Spirit often, even usually, drives the individual to attempt to grasp, in mental forms, that which is actually transmental . . . He is laboring to reach the transmental through compulsive mental activity – an activity itself driven by his transmental intuition (The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Volume Two, 651).

In a way, a lot of this website can be understood in that light – an attempt, through mental activity, to give form to a spiritual process.

Indeed, when I look at my own spiritual experience – especially since I became a student of A Course in Miracles – it is clear that intellectual effort and (dim to be sure) understanding often precedes a more abstract, less formal awareness of spirit, or God.

The clearest example of this might be the workbook lessons of A Course in Miracles which, even as they are themselves somewhat abstract and poetic in form, offer a concrete daily means by which to realize atonement for oneself. They consistently invite us to apply course principles to the facts of our lives – circumstantial challenges, difficult relationships, confusing desires, etc. In this way, they serve as the “yoga” that Wilber believes Hegel lacked.

But I’d like to offer a more specific example.

When I first began to study and practice the course, I was drawn to this idea of the world being a dream, or an illusion. Saying this to people made me feel radical and intense and special. I drove my wife nuts for about six months with it.

Of course, as anyone who gives more than a glancing look at the text or spends any time with the workbook lessons knows, that sort of casual (reckless, even) approach to the course quickly becomes fruitless. If the world wasn’t real, why was Chrisoula upset and – more to the point – why was I unhappy to be a source of stress to her?

When we can’t lie to ourselves any longer, the truth is able to emerge. And so I began to try to understand what the course meant when it talked about the world this way. It was unequivocal: the world is not real (W-p1.132.8:2). Yet that was neither my intellectual understanding nor my practical experience. In truth, I was baffled by the assertion and even scared of it.

I couldn’t feel it, so I did the next best thing: I studied it mentally. I read Ken Wapnick. I read Gary Renard. I discovered Tara Singh and read him hungrily. Singh pointed me to Krishnamurti, Krishnamurti to Bohm, Bohm to Wilber, Wilber to Whyte and so on. I read both widely and deeply, and began to write about my evolving understanding as well.

I learned that the idea that the world was not real was not unique to the course – that it existed, in different forms, in any number of religions, philosophies and sciences. Somehow, I was liberated by that. The sense that there was both cross-cultural and cross-disciplinarian support for the idea meant that A Course in Miracles wasn’t out to lunch. Rather, it was merely one particular expression of a perennial idea.

Thus, I was able to breathe again. I was able to give some acceptable mental form to an otherwise frightening and inaccessible idea. As a result, I was able at last to begin to experience it – dimly at first, then with increasing intensity and clarity – as a spiritual truth.

And the truth was simpler than I’d thought but far deeper and more vibrant.

Thus, I have begun to appreciate the wisdom in Wilber’s insight. We need both the intellect and the yoga (the technique of transcendence). We need the text and the workbook. We need to give space and attention to ideas so that we might integrate them at levels other than only mental or intellectual.

It is okay, in other words, to use our intellects with respect to A Course in Miracles, or any other spiritual path or tradition.

Of course, what works for me, or makes sense to me, may  not for you. I don’t want to suggest otherwise. I often say that A Course in Miracles, like all true scriptures, meets us where we are and goes with us as far as we are able, and that is a deeply and intimately personal experience. We can light the way for one another, and from time to time we can even carry each other, but we cannot be substitutes for each other’s learning.

Tara Singh pointed out that words “are to be brought to realization” but that most of us are content to remain in the status quo, only nudging the perimeter of our spiritual comfort zones.

The next step is:
“not to learn but to be.”

We have to bring the learning to its appointed end.

You are the Christ.

(The Voice that Precedes Thought, 244-45).

It is imperative that we not fall into the trap of believing that our learning is an end in itself. If it does not help us to separate what is false from what is true – and thus to know the truth of “Nothing real can be threatened/Nothing unreal exists” (T-in.2:2-3) – then it is useless. But in the same way a spoon can help us dent a bowl of ice cream, or a saw allow us to clear another stretch of field, the intellect can help us to realize “its appointed end,” our remembrance of ourselves as Christ.


  1. Sean, I know there are a thousand pathways towards home ~ valid, individual, effective, not “better than/worse than” ways ~ and we are each on our own journey back to the start. ACIM seems to be the choice for some of the more ‘cerebral’ of us. I know it is my path and I am eternally grateful for it. But “understanding” the words, even being able to ruminate in the quotations of the Course like a warm bath, still isn’t the “experience” of revelation and knowledge that will wake me up. I need to study, know the basics and practice. I need to “lather, rinse, repeat” until right thinking becomes habitual and my guilt is no longer my shadow. I’m preparing myself, giving the Holy Spirit something to work with, so I can experience God, along with all my brothers and sisters, finally together by whichever pathway brought them to our same eternal Home.

    1. Until guilt is no longer my shadow . . . I love that phrase very much! Sounds like the title of a cool book!

      I also like that idea of giving the Holy Spirit something to work with – however one phrases or understands it – that is very much the deal, giving and giving and giving more – becoming ourselves what the Holy Spirit works.

      Thank you Claudia –


  2. Hi Sean,

    You bring up some good points. I remember when I first started reading the course, I must have read the text at least 6 times within the first six months I bought ACIM. I also read the MFT and supplements a few times within this time frame. Though I stayed away from the workbook during this time. I think I tried to start doing them at one point, but after a couple of lessons, I decided I needed to read more. Most likely a way to keep the actual application at arms length.

    But the beauty of A Course in Miracles is that it has what Wliber calls, the yoga and after six months of procrastination I finally began to practice this yoga. I am reminded of my own Qigong practice. I studied Qigong with a teacher. I have a few books on Qigong. Sure I can read about dan tien breathing and meridians and the flow of chi, but until I put this into practice, I will not know what these lessons are pointing to.

    The course itself, is very clear about its practices when it states,

    Excerpts from the Original Edition’s introduction to the Workbook.


    ~A theoretical foundation such as the text is necessary as a background to make these exercises meaningful. Yet it is the exercises which will make the goal possible. An untrained mind can accomplish nothing. It is the purpose of these exercises to train the mind to think along the lines which the course sets forth.

    ~The purpose of these exercises is to train the mind to a different perception of everything in the world. The workbook is divided into two sections, the first dealing with the undoing of what you see now and the second with the restoration of sight. It is recommended that each exercise be repeated several times a day, preferably in a different place each time and, if possible, in every situation in which you spend any long period of time. The purpose is to train the mind to generalize the lessons, so that you will understand that each of them is as applicable to one situation as it is to another.

    From the Preface of the FIP Edition

    ~The Text is largely theoretical, and sets forth the concepts on which the Course’s thought system is based. Its ideas contain the foundation for the Workbook’s lessons. Without the practical application the Workbook provides, the Text would remain largely a series of abstractions which would hardly suffice to bring about the thought reversal at which the Course aims.

    ~The practical nature of the Workbook is underscored by the introduction to its lessons, which emphasises experience through application rather than a prior commitment to a spiritual goal.

    Eric: I think the last line is interesting. The lessons are said to be a means and not an end. When we set up a goal for the lessons, then we give these lessons the meaning we want them to have.

    One of the possible traps about reading other authors that explain the course that I have seen, is the fact the mind then can often times come to a conclusion. But conclusions leave no room for real learning, for a conclusion is an end. Often times the student will take the conclusion and then try to fit the course within the framework of that conclusion. That is not real learning. That is also not to say that authors/teachers of the course cannot be helpful, but at the same time their words should only be considered and not taken as gospel.

    The other possible trap is that the student confuses intellectual ( that term can be loosely used sometimes) understanding of explanations as the truth that sets one free. I think at some point, most, if not all of us go through this phase. But when one gets stuck at this phase as the end, then once again, the yoga is thrown out in favor of “cognitive enlightenment”.

    I remember reading one of Gary’s biggest fans (who has since stated they don’t like reading the course, so they generally don’t) state that the workbook lessons from the course were optional. Now with the quotes I provided, it is obvious just how misguided this statement is. In fact this statement from The Manual for Teachers takes it one step farther.

    ~ This must depend on the teacher of God himself. He cannot claim that title until he has gone through the workbook, since we are learning within the framework of our course. After completion of the more structured practice periods which the workbook contains, individual need becomes the chief consideration. ~ACIM

    Eric: But the tragedy is not just about A Course in Miracles. The tragedy is attempting to side step application itself. And this statement is a reminder that we sometimes throw out the yoga in favor of our ideas about the yoga. Not even the workbook lessons are an end, it is only the beginning. This doesn’t mean that we don’t read the course, study passages, meditate on what it says. It simply means that we don’t stop at conceptual understanding and believe that “we get it”.

    That’s not a condemnation, but something for any course student to look at. Are we practicing spirituality or spiritual bypassing. I think we have all done this at some point and will at some point do it again. But having this in our awareness without stamping guilt onto it, lets us choose once again.


    1. Hi Eric,

      Yes, I think that line about “prior spiritual goals” is very important, related actually to the “holy instant” in that we are really being asked to do the lessons without thought for the future or reliance on the past.

      We are of a mind on conclusions . . . thank you for reminding me . . .

      I remember reading that student’s take on the lessons being optional as well. It seems antithetical to me – I don’t know if they’ve shifted thinking on it or not. I like to think we’re all plowing the row we’re supposed to plow. So if somebody can’t face the workbook, well, okay. But at the same time, I think we need to push ourselves lest we settle for “cognitive enlightenment.” Which is a lovely & insightful phrase.

      ~ Sean

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