On Understanding and Lesson 3 of A Course in Miracles

The third lesson of A Course in Miracles asks us to declare that “I do not understand anything I see . . .” (W-pI.3). I want to say something about this lesson, mostly arising from my own experience of being a course student. Perhaps it will be helpful.

As human beings who are social and whose social communion arises primarily in our languaging, we make meaning and our meaning-making is premised on understanding. At any given moment, our experience “means” something and more than not we “understand” it. If we understood less or less consistently, then there wouldn’t be any experience, personal or otherwise. In a sense, to be bereft of meaning is to no longer be.

This is to say that we don’t have to be taught over and over what the growling in our stomachs is or what will quiet it. Faced with a cliff we turn back rather than leap forward. Every object in our world appears already-named, already-contextualized, already differentiated from the background.

Does this make sense? In a very basic and fundamental way, we are quite functional and this functionality seems to arise from understanding meanings that appear to be pre-given or at least already there. Our experience is always shared (it includes both animate and inanimate others), always meaningful (named, contextualized, differentiated), always anticipatory (there’s a future for which we must provide),and always re-membering (there’s a past which taught us how to handle the present and provide for the future).

But the perceptual and cognitive tools by which this dynamic and vivid experience appears are incomplete. Clearly they do not reveal a whole but rather a sequenced composition of parts necessary to the observer’s continuity. We get what we need. Critically, these perceptual and cognitive tools do not consist of a 1:1 correspondence with some external reality. Your goldfish can’t sleep in your bed, your cat could care less about Emily Dickinson poems, and you can’t persuade a cheetah to go vegetarian. The world is not fixed or pre-given but actively and continually constructed by observers; indeed, the world is its observers.

The upshot of all this as it relates to A Course in Miracles – forgive my long-windedness – and its lessons is that when we encounter words we translate them according to a context of which we are at best only partly aware. This “translating” and this “awareness” (partial or otherwise) are pre-intentional; they just happen. If you think they don’t, take a look at the word “Jesus” and don’t recognize it or attach any personal or historical or theological meaning to it. You can’t. You aren’t built that way.

So, when I began to study A Course in Miracles, I did so intellectually. I read it over and over, read all the secondary material (Wapnick, Singh, Williamson, Renard et cetera) I could get my hands on, took notes, turned those notes into essays and published them, talked with other students and teachers both online and off, correlated ACIM ideas with other spiritual, religious, philosophical and psychological traditions, took positions on contested issues . . .

That kind of study is quintessentially “Seanish.” It’s what this particular “I” does and it’s how this particular “I” does it. More to the point, generally speaking, it’s functional. It works. It’s fun, it’s nurturing, it’s dialogic, it’s sexy (at least I find it sexy when it appears in others so I assume it’s sexy when I do it) . . . so, generally speaking, it’s how living occurs. Not a lot of reflection precedes it. It feels right and natural. It feels given. It’s me being me; I just do it. Why not?

But in saying that, I am implicitly saying something that Claire Petitmengin recognizes as a challenge to clear thinking and communication which in turn complicates – sometimes painfully – our living together as human beings called to bring forth love.

[Since] our cognitive processes are the most personal and intimate things about us, we think we are familiar with them, and cannot imagine for a moment that any particular inner effort should be necessary to become aware of them. . . [Yet] not only do we not know that we do not know . . . we believe that we know.

Is this clear? We don’t know that we don’t know, and we don’t know what we don’t know. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that we believe we know and so we never undertake to learn in a meaningful, transformative way. If we already know, then what is there to learn?

This is a universally human experience, but it can be especially acute in overly-verbose smarty-pants types like myself.

My early experience of the course lessons was shaped by the conviction – largely unseen and unchallenged at that point – that I already knew. The course was not new information so much as a reorganizing of principles and ideas with which I in my scholarship and mental wizardry was already familiar. It wasn’t the cake but the icing and I was already a pretty good baker.

So when the lesson said “I do not understand anything I see,” I assumed I understood what those words meant and cheerfully did the lesson. But that assumption was the very problem the lesson was given to address!

Thus, I was in a very important and consequential way blind to the course even as I “practiced” it.

My awakening as such began when at last I could read that lesson and rather than “do” it as I “understood” and “knew” it, stop and ask: “wait – is it true that I don’t understand anything I see? That can’t be right. Is it right? Oh my God it might be right . . . “

At that juncture, with that question, learning begins because I am no longer specifying the outcome or answer. I am giving attention to the experience without qualifying it. I am not “assigning” meaning but rather seeing what meaning, if any, will naturally arise. I am receptive and open (if trembling and tentative). I am assuming the posture of a student. I am making inquiry from a state of epistemic humility. I don’t know what will happen and I am letting that be okay. If only for a few seconds I am suspending my inclination to know and be certain in order to simply be.

And it turns out this simply being is a process – a form of becoming – that enfolds us into one another and into the world, and the other and the world into us. To the extent we are able to sustain our attention to this process, then our learning as such transitions from a goal-oriented exercise to the lucid tranquility of awareness itself.

Our being – never still, never quiet, never discrete – yields to our becoming, which shapes and alters our being, which yields to our becoming, and so the processual, recursive nature of our experience continues. We are, so to speak, immersed anticipatingly, recursively, becomingly, livingly, that is, enkinaesthetically, with our world (Susan A.J. Stuart).

When I don’t know, and I know that I don’t know, then learning begins. Receptivity and generosity begin. In this beginning this way, I am no longer a teacher. Love is the teacher.

And here is the thing: Love’s classroom scares me. The human classroom intrigues and inspires and excites me but, because Love’s classroom doesn’t give a rat’s ass about scholarship or IQ or effort, it scares the crap out of me.

If Love didn’t scare me, then the course would not be a helpful or necessary corrective, and this public writing (which is in a sense a kind of atonement) would not be necessary either. You are probably here because you, too, are scared of Love, though this fear no doubt shows up – is described – a little differently for you.

Yet here we are, learning what it means to be in love, and how to be in love, which is to say, how to bring forth love, together and apart, for all the world that our living together brings forth. I would be remiss if I didn’t say I am grateful, especially since so much of my living suggests I’m basically not even aware of you, let alone loving you in a way that saves us and our world.

In my experience, A Course in Miracles is not about ending our spiritual search/psychological quest for wholeness/philosophical yearning for Truth in some ultimate or final sense but rather about making a better beginning. It taught me how to be humble and thus open to a way of thinking and being that at times still feels deeply unnatural. And yet.

That is all I mean when I say I have moved on from A Course in Miracles. It ended the foolishness and loneliness of delay which arose from misplaced confidence in personal knowing and shallow insistence on the sufficiency of becoming better. It nudged me gently but surely into a light which, oddly enough, you embody. But – equally oddly – you only embody it as I see it in you. And vice-versa.

Thus, absent you, no me. Absent me, no you. Our shared love – tender and tentative as it may be, dim as it sometimes seems – is literally the light of the world. I saw it the moment I knew I wasn’t seeing it: and you were the one that I saw.


  1. Sean, I only have a minute now but just want to say that your reflective writing strikes me as being “radical” in the truest sense of that word: it goes to the tender root. And it keeps going: you’re a valuable teacher because you continue being an impassioned and discerning student. I look forward to re-reading and savoring today’s post. Thanks again. m

    1. I’m sorry I lost this comment in a spate of other comments on another post.

      Thank you for the kind words. I am partial to that use of “radical,” of course. 🙂 I think it helps us focus on practical creative action that’s responsive to where we’re at.

      Thank you! I hope all is well, Margaret.


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