I have been reading Krishnamurti lately. Tara Singh – the only ACIM teacher that I read with any frequency – was an associate of Krishnamurti’s and often refers to him and his teachings with great respect. Somewhere on the FACIM website – probably their very helpful online question and answer archives – they note that Krishnamurti’s teachings are not substantially different from those in A Course in Miracles.
Where they do differ, of course, is in the mythological overlay in which they are presented. ACIM is unabashedly Christian; Krishnamurti, at least in my reading, shuns any overt reference to religion or psychology. In fact, it seems to me that he goes to great pains to avoid using language that can envelop us in any kind of system – be it religious or spiritual or psychological or whatever.
Singh is similar. Reading him, you encounter only brief references to Jesus. It is as if – having studied with Krishnamurti – he saw beyond the theological overlay of Christianity into the heart of A Course in Miracles.
Reading Singh has always felt liberating to me. Liberating and expansive.
I mention all this because I have been struggling lately with the course’s presentation of Christianity. Who is this Jesus? Who is this Holy Spirit? As a lifelong Catholic and as someone who, even when not practicing a traditional mode of Christianity, it is very hard for me to utilize that language. In fact, sometimes it seems to be setting me back. I cannot say “Holy Spirit” without imagining or picturing or fantasizing a separate being, willing apart from me.
Now, from a strict course interpretation, this is all just another great opportunity to forgive. I realize that. And I value it.
But I am increasingly feeling drawn to a language that is plainer and that does not force me to do so much interpreting or reinterpreting. In other words, I don’t want to take “Holy Spirit” and have to remind myself that “Holy Spirit” is akin to my right mind. Et cetera.
Krishnamurti encourages us to resolve the fear problem by resolving the authority problem by simply looking at it. We are the author of the fear. Once we have this clear – really clear, not just intellectually clear, not just clear in language – then we are forever free of fear.
There is a clarity to that that I enjoy. The language of the course – which is elevated and lovely in its own right – has been off-putting lately. Another level or layer that one needs to forgive.
It moves me to ask how we can undo – it is not an action so much as no action. As Tara Singh says (I paraphrase), There is nothing to do and nobody but you can do it. I love that! Krishnamurti says we can wake in all of ten minutes if we will just focus our attention, follow our thinking, understand how we are doing this to ourselves.
The course locks me into Jesus, the Holy Spirit, questions of God. But I want to put them aside. I want to let them all go.
I understand – because I have both read and heard testimony – that the course, too, moves beyond this. The extended Christian metaphor eventually fades. We see through it to the truth. Perhaps. Maybe I am at the beginning of that process, that particular undoing.
I was telling a student of mine about the importance of remaining open to different teaching styles, different methods. Don’t close doors, because we never know what is going to work. We don’t really know from which direction help is going to come.
I am practicing forgiving A Course in Miracles, forgiving the language, forgiving the metaphor. I want to put it down, lay it aside. I want to wake up in my real home.
One of the first “miracle” writers I ever read was Marianne Williamson. I found A Return to Love in the local library, and because it was the only book about A Course in Miracles they had, I took it out. It’s Williamson’s flagship book – contains the famous quote (our deepest fear . . . ) that is so often attributed to Nelson Mandela.
And it’s a good book. I’m glad that I read it when and where I did. I don’t think of Williamson as being a particularly challenging writer. She’s a good writer, but the ideas that she puts forth aren’t especially hard to grasp. She’s got that New Age therapeutic thing down pat – Oprah’s the master, but Williamson knows the drill. It’s a nice blend of affirmation and challenge, always skirting the implication that you can’t do it or that you’re going to have to change too much.
I think that Williamson would disagree with that last line, actually – that ACIM doesn’t push us to change too much. And, in fairness, lots of people I know find Williamson to be exactly the kick in the pants they need to really ramp up their spiritual practice.
At the beginning of my practice with A Course in Miracles, I needed some encouragement. It felt abstract to me and it was, in subtle ways, kind of undermining my long held beliefs in traditional Christianity. Reading Williamson made me feel like I had a friend on my side. It was like a coach saying, You can do this. You can do this.
And, really, that’s nothing to sneeze at. That kind of support is critical. And I still remember a particular line – here paraphrased – about people who want to star on the world stage but still don’t know how to star in their own life. I’m not sure that’s a “real” ACIM approach to life, but it certainly resonated with me. It still helps me narrow my focus, trying to bring into application the principles of A Course in Miracles.
I’ve tried picking up other books by Marianne Williamson – Illuminata, Everyday Grace, and so forth. I can’t get into them. They just don’t resonate. Even Return to Love doesn’t nurture me the way it once did. Glancing at these days is more nostalgic than anything else.
Do I recommend Williamson? I do. I think she’s a good read, especially for people who are new to the course or are really questioning their worth in relation to the course. She is a good writer in the sense that you aren’t lost in abstraction. And she cares about people and she cares about ACIM. That is not an insignificant thing.
These days I find my reading moving in the direction of Tara Singh and others. I can’t read a page of Singh without feeling a sort of shock in my system. It’s like diving into a frigid river, that sense of waking up or coming to suddenly. Important stuff.
But our paths in A Course in Miracles are different. People come to it in their own way. As the text says, our role in the atonement is very personal and very specific. So are the spiritual or miracle coaches who guide us towards and into that role. I’m grateful to Marianne Williamson for her lucidity and her willingness to share her path with her brothers and sisters. I admire her energy and her politics. And if I’ve “moved on” it’s only because she helped make the next step possible.
When Helen Schucman wrote A Course in Miracles, what came first was the text. This is the extensive bedrock of the ACIM program – a massive tome that outlines with great clarity and precision the theoretical underpinnings of the course’s non-dualistic thought system.
A Course in Miracles makes clear, it is not possible to have a “universal theology” but a “universal experience” is possible and even desirable. It is that experience to which the text – in conjunction with the balance of the course – aims to direct students.
In order to induce that experience – to lead students into the experience of peace and joy through forgiveness, which is to say, the peace and joy of remembering that we share Creation with God – the text is necessary. It begins somewhat simply – with fifty principles of miracles – but slowly progresses into more complex ideas. Its core ideas are repeated in different phrases, with varying degrees of complexity and explanation. Reading and re-reading the text becomes an exercise in familiarity as its themes echo and chime. Study is helpful.
The aim of the text is to establish an intellectual foundation for shifting our thinking. Without this foundation, 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. Not everybody does this; it’s not a requirement. We meet the course where we are. After a day or two, I began practicing the lessons. That became my pattern of study and practice 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 do a lesson (I always do them in order).
The first few times I read the text, I approached it somewhat as a bible. 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 key passages. Today, that first text – a paperback copy published by the Foundation for Inner Peace – has fallen apart. There’s more text that’s underscored than text that’s not. 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. You might read a different ACIM edition than me. Yet the material is always maximally helpful although its helpfulness is not always clear.
I’m a big advocate of actually doing the lessons in a sustained but gentle way. A Course in Miracles is truly meant to be lived, and in order to do that, we need to 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 and shifts in perception – that the course envisions for us.
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).
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.
I tend to read the ACIM daily lesson in the morning. Somewhat following the suggestion of Tara Singh, I spend a few minutes coming to a place of stillness. I don’t want to rush into the lesson, turn the workbook into just another item on the day’s to-do list.
Lying in bed, I try to bring my attention to the Course’s “rules for decision.” I simplify this, too. Our days are filled with judgment and decision. The ego-based mind judges and decides on behalf of the body, on behalf of scarcity. It believes that it has to protect its little corner of existence and it manufactures an “I” that handles the job. We identify with the “I” and then the game is on.
But the Holy Spirit, the right-thinking mind, aligns itself with God, abundance, spirit. It denies there is such a thing as scarcity, as separation from the Divine.
A Course in Miracles promises that my day can be filled with peace, quiet joy, a sense of purpose, a harmonious unity, if I will turn the power of decision over. Let the Holy Spirit, the right mind, do the choosing.
I don’t always make it there perfectly, but I try. When I am settled, I brew a pot of tea. I let the dog out – sometimes I walk her, sometimes just stand outside and look at the starlit sky while she bustles here and there.
I come in, pour some tea, and study the lesson. I always read a few pages of text first. I do a breathing exercise before or in the middle of the reading. I want to be as calm and focused as I can be. I want to bring all my energy to this lesson, this reading.
Then I read the lesson. Then I follow its suggestions. And when I am finished, I like to keep a few minutes simply to savor the quiet, the calm and peace that tends to follow the learning, the undoing that is involved.
Oddly, soon after that, I feel a lot of energy surge through me. If my family is up, I cook them breakfast. If they aren’t, I come to the basement to begin the day’s writing. It is easier for me in the morning hours, easier after prayer.
Most of the lessons ask me to return to them several times a day. One minute, maybe two. Practice the exercises. It is a way of bringing my mind into alignment with Mind – if that’s not too abstract or weird. It is a way of reminding myself that I am not alone, that I am not even “I.”
This ritual, this application of A Course in Miracles, has been very fruitful for me. It is not the only way – just as the Course is not the only path – but I am grateful to have found it.
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 curriculum 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 thrown a handful of hot coals into my brain. Tara Singh 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 journeys are always of the heart – heaven joined to heart, if you will – and it is this that is missing in the rigid formalism of most organized religions. Before I read Taraji, my own experience of being an ACIM 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 away freely.
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 A Course in Miracles 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 and walk a thousand miles barefoot 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 you 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 A Course in Miracles 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.