Fearless HOME BOOKS from Fearless
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M A T T E R S O F C O U R S E
OPINION & COMMENTARY
FUNDAMENTALISM • OUT ON A LIMB • LOVE WITHOUT SACRIFICE?
NIHILISM MEETS THE NEW AGE • TOUCHED BY MIRACLES • WAITING ON A HOLY RELATIONSHIP
SARA BINI • MICHAEL WELCH • OPTICAL DELUSION • JIMMY CARTER
A HOLY PLACE • COMPLETELY NUTS? • DANCING WITH DEMENTIA
IS THE COURSE A RELIGION?
Understanding the fundamentalism of fear
The Huffington Post recently reported on the remarks of an Oxford University brain researcher, Kathleen Taylor, who has opined that religious fundamentalism might one day be diagnosed and treated as a “curable mental illness.”
The author of Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Taylor said that society might eventually see the conversion to a radical cult ideology as “some kind of mental disturbance… In many ways it could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage.”
This idea reminded me of an interview I did years ago while conducting research for Understanding A Course in Miracles. I spent several hours on the phone with Dean Halverson, a self-described “evangelical scholar” who had researched the Course in depth while writing several pieces for the Journal of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, an organization which specializes in exposing the “sophisticated lies” of various New Age movements from a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint.
Halverson’s research into the Course was meticulous. Not only did he read and study the Course in its entirety, he conducted a lengthy and cordial interview with Kenneth Wapnick (still available in the SCP Journal entitled “Spiritism: The Medium and the Message”; search the complete Journal archives at the link above). But his research ended with the conclusion, perhaps foregone, that the Course was actually the work of the anti-Christ. This meant that ACIM’s seductive message of love and forgiveness would eventually, somehow, doom its students to hell.
Our own lengthy conversation was spirited but polite, and what struck me most powerfully was how similar Halverson seemed, in tone and demeanor, to Ken Wapnick himself. That is, until the moment when I made this suggestion: “Could you possibly entertain the notion — even for a moment — that as the Course suggests, ‘there is nothing to fear’?”
Halverson’s response was quick and blunt: “Are you willing to accept the fact that there most certainly is something to fear?” By now his implication was clear: he meant the devil, and hell, and eternal damnation. All very nasty stuff.
And that’s when I understood something I had not perceived before about the attitude of fundamentalism, regardless of which religion it may be attached to. Fundamentalism, as we generally see it expressed in all flavors of religious extremism, is not a devotion to “fundamentals” but a dedication to fear.
In Christian extremism, one hears frequent warnings about going to hell if certain beliefs are not affirmed; in recent Islamic extremism, fear has been directly utilized and magnified as a tool of terrorism. But in neither case does the use of fear remotely serve God or Allah. Instead, fear is used to uphold the supremacy of fear itself.
I know about this personally. Right now I have some caring relatives who are very concerned that I’m going to hell unless I declare Jesus Christ as my personal savior. While I appreciate their concern, I can’t honestly declare this in the way they seem to mean it — which is what I call a “loaded allegiance.”
That is, this kind of allegiance comes pre-loaded with a number of fears which, to me, have nothing to do with the life, teaching, or meaning of Christ: the fear of gay people, the fear of women’s rights, the fear of gun control, the fear of President Obama and liberalism in general, etc. Because if I declared my allegiance to Jesus while disagreeing with all those fears, I do believe my religious devotion would be questioned.
The irony is that I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior over three decades ago. That’s when I became a student of A Course in Miracles, which I like to think of as “JC’s Update to the World.” That’s not to say I knew what I was getting into. While the Jesus of the Course is a hella lot less contradictory than the biblical Jesus, he’s annoyingly persistent in reminding me to question the validity of fear itself.
“I am at home. Fear is the stranger here,” Jesus instructs in one Course Workbook lesson; in another, “Fear is not justified in any form.” And finally: “Fear binds the world. Forgiveness sets it free.” These are all tough lessons to live by, when the world so often seems full of fearful people, tragic events, and dreadful potentials.
That’s why we’re all tempted to pick our favorite fears and go fundamentalist. But we just end up giving all our power to fear that way… and that’s what I call a mental, emotional, and spiritual illness. Thank God it is, indeed, curable.
‘Out on a limb’ is where we learn the most
Years ago when I first interviewed Course teacher Ken Wapnick, he remarked that “if your life is not in chaos before you start the Course, it will be soon afterward.”
That observation certainly applied to me; I had taken up A Course in Miracles just a few months after falling seriously ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Both conventional medicine and psychotherapy had failed to slow my descent into chaos, and taking up ACIM was an indicator of my desperation. I was keenly allergic to its religious language, and merely beginning to read the Text and try the Workbook lessons was powerfully disorienting. For the most part, I had no idea of what it was talking about.
A primary symptom of CFS was called “brain fog,” and I definitely had it. I kept my study of the Course a secret from almost everyone for a couple months, afraid that my thinking was declining so rapidly that I’d fallen prey to an insane cult teaching. And yet, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, I also had the powerful instinct to stick with it. To say that this choice changed my life is an understatement.
This was the first time I went out on a limb with the Course, but it wouldn’t be the last. In 2003, I was sent a manuscript by an unknown writer named Gary Renard, and tried, at first, not to have anything to do with it. Although I had started my publishing imprint of Fearless Books in 1997, I had never published anyone besides myself. And there were a number of things about Gary’s first book, The Disappearance of the Universe, that were distinctly unsettling to me as an editor, publisher, and ACIM student. To make a long story short, I overcame my ego-bound reservations, published the book, and a little bit of history was made.
That’s not to say that every powerful instinct I’ve felt under the influence of the Course has “paid off” or even had discernible effects. On both personal and professional fronts, I’ve followed hunches that turned sour, went nowhere, or set in motion long-term processes whose significance still remains to be seen. Just because I may think the Holy Spirit has provided me with infallible inspiration doesn’t mean I’ve heard that voice correctly… or even heard it at all. Sometimes I’m just talking to myself, and the conversation proves to be less than illuminating!
For most students, the Course has proved to be a “saving grace” that revolutionized their lives, and provided solace, insight, and refuge from the “cruel world” of ego-driven thinking. Thus there can develop a tendency to rely on the teaching for stability and reassurance, which is certainly one of its intended uses.
But my experience over several decades suggests that the most rapid learning follows on those occasions when I go “out on a limb” to test a powerful instinct or intuition that may (or may not) be sourced in that mysterious agency of wisdom we call the Holy Spirit. These pregnant periods of experimentation are part and parcel of the discipline’s growth curve — which is certainly not a straight-line, consistently upward path.
In the Manual for Teachers, there is a discussion of the “Development of Trust” that seems to predict the overall growth pattern of Course students:
First, they must go through what might be called “a period of undoing.” This need not be painful, but it usually is so experienced….
Next, the teacher of God must go through “a period of sorting out.” This is always somewhat difficult….
The third stage through which the teacher of God must go can be called “a period of relinquishment.” If this is interpreted as giving up the desirable, it will engender enormous conflict. Few teachers of God escape this distress entirely….
Now comes “a period of settling down.” This is a quiet time, in which the teacher of God rests a while in reasonable peace….
The next stage is indeed “a period of unsettling.” Now must the teacher of God understand that he did not really know what was valuable and what was valueless….
Although this challenging growth process does ultimately resolve in a “period of achievement” where “learning is consolidated” and profound tranquility is the result, it’s pretty clear that this evolution doesn’t complete itself in a few months, years, or perhaps even lifetimes.
That’s why we have to be prepared to go out on a limb from time to time — because it’s that vantage point that gives us the opportunity either to fall or fly free to a greater height. Whether we find ourselves crashing or soaring after takeoff, it’s the choice to “unsettle” ourselves that takes us to the next stage of transformation.
Is there love without sacrifice?
CARAVAGGIO: The Sacrifice of Isaac (detail). 1601-02.
Oil on canvas, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Throughout our lives we seek confirmation and support for our embodied ego-identity, first from our parents and family of origin, and later from friends, lovers, mates, and our own children.
We also seek proof of our worth from society, in terms of our employment, professional advancement, and recognition for our worldly accomplishments. In all these pursuits and relationships we are seeking the indispensable force and feeling of love, that mysterious energy and emotion that seems to promise both safety and total acceptance, if we could ever locate and claim it once and for all.
Yet we often find love to be tragically elusive, incomplete, or temporary. According to A Course in Miracles, that’s because the ego’s search for love is doomed from the very beginning:
The ego is certain that love is dangerous, and this is always its central teaching. It never puts it this way; on the contrary, everyone who believes that the ego is salvation seems to be intensely engaged in the search for love. Yet the ego, though encouraging the search for love very actively, makes one proviso; do not find it. Its dictates, then, can be summed up simply as: “Seek and do not find.” This is the one promise the ego holds out to you, and the one promise it will keep. For the ego pursues its goal with fanatic insistence, and its judgment, though severely impaired, is completely consistent.
The search the ego undertakes is therefore bound to be defeated. And since it also teaches that it is your identification, its guidance leads you to a journey which must end in perceived self-defeat. For the ego cannot love, and in its frantic search for love it is seeking what it is afraid to find. The search is inevitable because the ego is part of your mind, and because of its source the ego is not wholly split off, or it could not be believed at all. For it is your mind that believes in it and gives existence to it. Yet it is also your mind that has the power to deny the ego’s existence, and you will surely do so when you realize exactly what the journey is on which the ego sets you. [ACIM Ch4,XII:2]
Anyone who has ever “fallen in love” only to see a seemingly perfect relationship disintegrate into jealousy, disillusionment, or outright betrayal will have a sense of how the ego’s secret agenda dooms the search for love. Indeed, ACIM asserts that the ego’s primary weapon in its ongoing struggle of self-preservation is the “special relationship,” which is inextricably bound up with the notion of sacrifice.
For instance, we often think that we are showing the greatest love to others when we sacrifice our own needs to their benefit. Whether the form of sacrifice is a mother surrendering her career to raise her children or a soldier falling on a grenade to save his buddies, we tend to think that the most noble form of love involves the denial or destruction of oneself as an ego or body.
From the Course perspective, however, sacrifice is a hallmark of the ego’s insanity:
Sacrifice is so essential to your thought system that salvation apart from sacrifice means nothing to you. Your confusion of sacrifice and love is so profound that you cannot conceive of love without sacrifice. And it is this that you must look upon; sacrifice is attack, not love. If you would accept but this one idea, your fear of love would vanish. Guilt cannot last when the idea of sacrifice has been removed. For if there is sacrifice, someone must pay and someone must get. And the only question that remains is how much is the price, and for getting what….
How fearful, then, has God become to you, and how great a sacrifice do you believe His Love demands! For total love would demand total sacrifice. And so the ego seems to demand less of you than God, and of the two is judged as the lesser of two evils, one to be feared a little, perhaps, but the other to be destroyed. For you see love as destructive, and your only question is who is to be destroyed, you or another? [ACIM Ch15,X:5,7]
It should not be construed from this passage that the Course is advising us to preserve ourselves at all costs, ignoring others’ needs, vulnerability, or pleas for help. Instead, the answer to our complex ego predicament is neither self-preservation nor sacrifice, but selflessness.
That means surrendering the entire conviction that each of us has a separate, physical existence, encased in a body with a private mind, distinct from everyone else and doomed to a lonely death. To deny the ego or body what it seems to need is not selflessness, but sacrifice, and only reinforces our delusion; likewise, to serve only ourselves to the exclusion of other’s needs or demands is just a different form of sustaining the ego.
Choosing to be selfish or noble is not really a choice; the ego holds onto its primacy in our mind either way. The challenge of salvation – that is, recognizing our oneness with God-as-love – therefore becomes how to slip the bonds of ego without falling into any of its alluring traps along the way…
Excerpted from LIVING WITH MIRACLES: A Common Sense Guide to A Course in Miracles by D. Patrick Miller (Tarcher Penguin).
Where Nihilism Meets the New Age
Image by Brett Jordan, licensed by Creative Commons.
Whenever I get nostalgic for a little hard-core nihilism, I can always turn to certain passages in A Course in Miracles that make Nietzsche and Sartre look like namby-pambies:
The world you see holds nothing that you need to offer you; nothing that you can use in any way, nor anything at all that serves to give you joy. Believe this thought, and you are saved from years of misery, from countless disappointments, and from hopes that turn to bitter ashes of despair…
The world you see is merciless indeed, unstable, cruel, unconcerned with you, quick to avenge and pitiless with hate. It gives but to rescind, and takes away all things that you have cherished for a while. No lasting love is found, for none is here. This is the world of time, where all things end.
All the more amazing, then, that the Course has been historically associated with a New Age feel-goodism that may seem to belie its deeply radical philosophy. In one of the few scholarly studies of the New Age movement, Wouter J. Hanegraaff of the Netherlands’ Utrecht University tried to sum up ACIM’s paradoxical status:
If we were to select one single text as “sacred scripture” in the New Age movement, the sheer awe and reverence with which The Course — as it is fondly called — is discussed by its devotees would make this huge volume the obvious choice. Indeed, it is among those channeled texts which refute the often-heard opinion that channeling only results in trivialities…. the Course impresses by its flawless consistency over a length of more than 1100 pages, and by the poetic quality of its language….
Although many other New Age sources routinely use the Oriental concept of “maya” and refer to the world of space-time as ultimately illusory, they seldom come close to the uncompromising world-rejection found in the Course…. lthough often regarded as belonging to the New Age domain, [ACIM] is decidedly atypical.
The tension between idealism and nihilism in the Course may seem impossible to resolve, because for all its negativity about the everyday world, ACIM also teaches that “The light of the world brings peace to every mind through my forgiveness” and “By grace I live. By grace I am released”… among countless other messages about the transcendent gifts of love and forgiveness. It is likely all those latter messages that have led to popular interpretations of ACIM as a soft-headed New Age doctrine. And there is no doubt that many students have focused on the “light side” of the Course while ignoring its negativity.
As Course publisher Judith Skutch-Whitson once told me, “There are many people who come to the Course looking only for messages of love and light, and that’s what they’ll find. But it may not be the best place to go for it.”
If we are to find any resolution of ACIM’s paradox within ourselves as students, I think it must be rooted in a deep radicalism of self-surrender. That means acknowledging that we do experience ourselves everyday in a mad, mad, mad world, yet we resolve to find our way through it with the disciplines of self-confrontation, forgiveness, and surrender.
That means there will be times when we must totally embrace the grief and despair that are ubiquitous in this world, yet be willing to yield to complete forgiveness and the joy it delivers. It means we must hold onto no dark shadows within ourselves, even when recognizing them threatens to shatter our shaky self-esteem. And we must plunge into the demanding work of self-confrontation on a regular basis, even when it might feel more fun, light, and free to visualize our perfected New Age selves (or just forget the whole thing and have some tiramisu).
In sum, A Course in Miracles is a tough path not suited to either hopeless cynics or soft-headed fantasists. It demands the utmost attention and devotion of its true students, and demands it for a long, long time. Neither the merely religious nor the complacently self-satisfied need apply.
Touched by miracles (of whom you may not be aware)
“A miracle is never lost. It may touch many people you have not even met, and produce undreamed of changes in situations of which you are not even aware.” — from the fifty “Principles of Miracles” opening the Text of A Course in Miracles
Since its publication in 1976, A Course in Miracles has been a grassroots, do-it-yourself teaching that has taken on the qualities of a guerrilla spirituality, influencing many more people and situations than are widely known.
Here are just a few of the prominent personalities who have been influenced by ACIM to some degree…
Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and the presumptive Democratic candidate for President. Although it’s probably a stretch to suggest that Hillary has slogged through the Course Workbook or tortured herself with the Text, there is no doubt that she has been introduced to ACIM and was briefly influenced by its most famous popularizer, Marianne Williamson.
Back in 1994, when the “Billary” team was still new in the White House and the Democrats had taken a drubbing in the mid-term elections, a secret meeting was convened at Camp David with Williamson, Jean Houston, and other so-called New Age teachers to plumb the more esoteric depths of politics.
Reportedly it was Williamson who organized the team of advisers, some of whom were in contact with Hillary for months. The press had a field day with rumors that Hillary had been guided to contact the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt in a seance, and that Williamson had even tried her hand at presidential speechwriting. The Clinton White House issued a round of denials and thereafter distanced itself from such illuminaries. But the esoteric tinge has never entirely left Hillary, as reported recently in Bloomberg Politics. (Williamson went on to endorse Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign.)
Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, author of A Thousand Acres, Horse Heaven, and 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. In the latter book, Smiley penned these notes about her experience with ACIM:
“While I was writing Horse Heaven. . . I embarked on a spiritual discipline that was satisfying and comforting. I came to believe in God and to accept a defined picture of Reality that took elements of Christianity and combined them with elements of Eastern religions. It was not an institutionalized religion, but it was a defined faith and had a scripture. It was called A Course in Miracles, and it completely changed the way I looked at the world.
“The essential premise of ACIM is that God did not create the world and that the apparent mixture in the world of good and evil is an illusion; God is not responsible for apparent evil. In fact, the world itself and all physical manifestations are illusory, an agreed-upon conceit that is useful for learning what is true and real, but otherwise a form of dreaming — bad dreaming…. It took me about three years to turn my image of the world upside down and to become comfortable with this new way of thinking. It wasn’t hard, though it was disconcerting at the beginning. The payoff, other than my conviction that these ideas were true, was that I grew less fearful, more patient, less greedy, and more accepting. I greeted events more calmly as a rule, and didn’t feel that old sense of vertigo that I had once felt much of the time.”
Carlos Santana, legendary guitarist in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame whose band Santana has sold 30 million albums and performed before 13 million people. When Carlos was going through a divorce in 2007, he contacted Marianne Williamson and asked her about where he might find some effective spiritual guidance. Williamson referred him to Jerry Jamspolsky and Diane Cirincione, the married team of Course teachers and therapists in Sausalito, CA.
As Carlos Santana writes in his recent autobiography The Universal Tone:
“We began to talk almost every day, reading A Course in Miracles over the phone, which became a source of inspiration and guidance, with Jerry and Diane’s coaching. We still do it — I think we are on our fourth or fifth reading of the book…. We read the lesson of the day together, lessons that I apply to whatever is going on in my life. It was Jerry and Diane who were finally able to get me past my anger about being molested when I was in Tijuana and forgive the man who did that to me. They asked me to imagine him in front of me, and turn him into a six-year-old child with a divine light shining behind him. I looked at him, forgave him, and sent him into the light, releasing both him and myself from the past. Finally, I could breathe –it felt like that chapter of my life was over.
“Jerry and Diane helped me to get to the other side after Deborah left. Meeting them gave me another chance to see that in my life it’s always been about recognizing the angels who appear when I need them most.”
UPDATE: A recent news report suggests that musical celebrities Beyonce and Jay Z may also have been influenced by ACIM.
Should you wait around for that holy relationship??
Bill Thetford and Helen Schucman
One of the most fascinating passages about relationship in A Course in Miracles appears in the Manual for Teachers, in the section entitled “What Are the Levels of Teaching?”:
The third level of teaching occurs in relationships which, once they are formed, are lifelong. These are teaching-learning situations in which each person is given a chosen learning partner who presents him with unlimited opportunities for learning. These relationships are generally few, because their existence implies that those involved have reached a stage simultaneously in which the teaching-learning balance is actually perfect. This does not mean that they necessarily recognize this; in fact, they generally do not. They may even be quite hostile to each other for some time, and perhaps for life. Yet should they decide to learn it, the perfect lesson is before them and can be learned. And if they decide to learn that lesson, they become the saviors of the teachers who falter and may even seem to fail. No teacher of God can fail to find the Help he needs.
Historically, this passage is a reference to Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford, the Course ‘scribes’ whose relationship was stormy from the start. It was never really healed before Helen’s death in 1981, although Bill achieved his own peace with it just before he passed in 1988.
In Absence from Felicity: The Story of Helen Schucman and Her Scribing of A Course in Miracles, ACIM editor Ken Wapnick described their relationship as “a complex hotbed of pain and hatred, paradoxically coupled with Helen’s and Bill’s genuine dedication to God and the Course, not to mention a love and concern for each other.”
Elsewhere the Course defines a “holy relationship” between two people as one in which “Each one has looked within and seen no lack. Accepting his completion, he would extend it by joining with another, whole as himself.”
What the Course has to say about special vs. holy relationships has led to much confusion among students, who sometimes conclude that the common, everyday special relationship is basically “bad” while the rare and idyllic holy relationship is “good” — and thus the first should be avoided while the second is to be exclusively pursued and venerated.
In fact, I once heard a Course student declare that she had given up entirely on special relationships, and wouldn’t be seriously involved with anyone again until “a holy relationship comes along.” I remember thinking: Good luck with that!
The fact is that as long as we find ourselves in bodies when we wake up in the morning, our lives will be steeped in specialness and our relationships, of all varieties, will face the challenges of transcending that specialness. One way to define the special relationship is that it consists largely of a battle over “getting our needs met.” Much of therapy and couples counseling amounts to seeking successful negotiations of those needs.
Obviously, the Course would have us go beyond “needs battling” or ego negotiations. But you don’t get there by waiting around until you’re enlightened (or think you are) and thus have no needs, which will magically bring you into contact with someone else who has no needs! Instead you get there by self-confrontation and meditation and doing your Course lessons and, above all, forgiving 24/7 in everyrelationship that you have.
In romantic terms, the route to holiness is simply being able to remind each other that you can, in your best moments, “look within and see no lack.” But getting there and staying there is not easy. When we happen upon the relatively rare relationship in which the “teaching/learning balance is actually perfect,” it certainly doesn’t mean there’s no teaching or learning to be done!
Au contraire, it likely means that two people have an unusual opportunity to do much more learning and teaching than they’ve ever done before (i.e., hard work).
It could also mean that even when a teaching/learning relationship is very tough, it can yield profound rewards, just as the relationship of Helen and Bill resulted in A Course in Miracles. But things don’t have to stay so terribly tough for those learning and teaching together, for “the perfect lesson is before them and can be learned.”
That means regarding the most difficult moments of our conflicting specialness not as excuses to resume the needs battle, nor as opportunities to run off and find a relationship that’s easier, more fun, or somehow magically holy. Instead, moments of conflict call on us to forgive and transcend ourselves.
That means being willing to lay the habitual fears and delusions of the ego on the line, so that we can get a healing glimpse of the truth within — that holy realm in which we can see again that there is no lack.
Sara Bini, confronting ego at an early age
When I was researching my book Understanding A Course in Miracles, I heard many unusual “first encounter” stories. These included three separate accounts of people who discovered the Course while walking through used bookstores, where a worn copy of ACIM slipped off the top of a tower of unshelved volumes and literally hit them on the head. Out of millions of students worldwide, I guess that had to happen more than once.
As rare as the initiatory head-clunk may be, it’s almost as unusual to hear of anyone picking up ACIM before middle adulthood. Most people just don’t seem able to deal with the Course before their 40s; a few begin the discipline in their 30s, and no more than a sprinkling in their 20s. So when a farflung correspondent recently mentioned that she had first encountered the teaching at the tender age of 19 under “mysterious circumstances,” I was all ears.
“I’ve always been a pretty unusual and spiritual person, but tough, with a terrible temperament,” admits Sara Bini of Montespertoli, a village in the Tuscany region of Italy. “I was (and partly I still am) aggressive, arrogant, full of fear but also very attracted by the light, by mystery, and by God. I began to work on my painful personality features as a teenager, doing meditation and martial arts, and studying the Tao Te Ching, Anthony De Mello and all the Western philosophers. I cured myself of a lot by writing poems and songs.
“At the end of the high school when I was 19, my godmother brought me the Course in English. I was studying foreign languages and she wanted me to translate the lessons of the Workbook. My godmother has always been interested in magic and occultism; she was the ‘strange one’ in the family. When I began to read the first exercises a fearful thought crossed my mind : ‘That’s the end.’ Of course that was a thought of the ego, recognizing that the Course presented the final choice between ‘God and Mammon’ , the ultimate commitment to the Spirit which scares the ego. I know this was a big realization for my age, but I must underline the fact that I was a very odd teenager.”
Sara left the Course behind, however, when she entered college, which she ultimately found disappointing. By age 22, she recalls feeling “totally lost and distressed…. At that point I remembered the Course and got it from my godmother, who wasn’t interested in it anymore. I intentionally skipped the introductory pages because I wanted to evaluate the Course just for what it said, without knowing the story behind it. I was rational (and arrogant) enough to laugh at the title, yet intelligent enough to recognize the power and true value of the teaching inside. No new age bullshit. Even if I was still very young, I recognized ACIM’s extremely high philosophical level, its capacity for synthesis and abstraction, its strict logic, and at the same time, the tenderness pervading it.
“So I started reading the Text and it gave me a sense of pleasant dizziness, as if I was lifted somewhere else. Then I did the Workbook and read the Manual for Teachers. In the middle of the Workbook I was taken by a burst of anger and wondered, ‘Who is this person asking me to train my mind?!’ and I went back to the beginning. When I remembered it was Jesus I began to laugh joyfully because I’ve always felt attracted by his figure. I’ve always asked him for help. Since I was a child, I considered him a friend as well as a Teacher.”
Now 38, Sara works as a professional counselor, translator, and language tutor in English, French, German, and Latin. A few years back, she she fronted a rock band called “Sara and the Stars.” She eventually got her own edition of the Course in Italian, which she studies largely on her own, supplemented by occasional retreats like the one she did with UK teacher Tim Christopher. She also still considers poetry and songwriting part of her spiritual path:
“Healing through art is a form of catharsis but it does not necessarily lead you to another level of awareness. I do feel better after writing a song or a poem, and the words that come to me might even be profound and elevated. But that state of consciousness is reached in a mystical manner, without the step-by-step rise in awareness that meditation or the Course can give you. The Course is so powerful because it doesn’t simply take you away from pain, or help you to unload it. It provides an instrument to abide consciously, and a bit more steadily, on a higher level of consciousness.”
Connect with Sara via her website or Facebook.
Michael Welch and the ‘Grand Illusion’
The Grand Illusion
Think of “spiritual art” and you may find yourself visualizing sunbursts, sacred figures, or unicorns dancing against a curtain of stars. That’s exactly why I find the paintings of Course student Michael Welch so engaging. He works with muted tones, mysterious visages, and sometimes somber themes that have more to say about the process of interior change than any final, light-soaked result.
About his painting “The Grand Illusion” Michael comments that “the image of the woman with a giant dandelion, with the seeds raining down, is symbolic of the impermanent world that’s based entirely on our projections. If we’re coming from a position of defenselessness, the seeds might be seen as blessings bearing life energy. If we feel defended they might be seen as an attack, projectiles raining down on the woman.”
Michael’s spiritual experience began with reading The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. “One evening while lying on my bed feeling in a particularly relaxed state, I noticed my breathing deepening and slowing down. I put down the book, and all of a sudden, on an out breath, I stopped breathing. There was no fear, just increasing feelings of joy along with a sense of freedom from my body. I felt as if I was momentarily liberated from my identification with form. This experience had quite an impact, because for the first time I knew there was something profound hidden beneath my daily routine of school, art and friends. From that moment forward, I understood nothing the everyday world has to offer could compare with the truth I experienced in that moment.”
Michael first encountered A Course in Miracles during a long-term practice of Vipassana and Tibetan Vajrayana practices, but stopped studying after a few months of Workbook lessons. “I just wasn’t ready for the deeper commitment the Course was asking for. Even though I was committed to a daily meditation practice I wasn’t ready to acknowledge the power of thought and to accept the responsibility for the judgements I was projecting onto the world.”
After a number of years attending various Satsangs in the San Francisco Bay area and studying the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Nisargatta, Michael experienced another major revelation. “While exploring a beach in Northern California with my girlfriend at the time, we decided to watch the sunset. As I became focused on the horizon and the sun began to slowly settle into the ocean, I felt myself merging into the experience of the sunset. There was no longer a viewer enjoying a sunset but an intimate encounter with a living source. My self-identification simply melted into a state of such love and recognition I could barely contain it…
“It was only through returning to the Course for a second time that I was able to comprehend this experience. Forgiveness from the Course’s perspective is an adjustment, seeing that we create the illusion of separation ourselves. There are times now when I’m in the midst of working on a painting and time drops away, and I realize that each moment is eternal. My feeling is that the quality of those moments can also be experienced by the viewer of a work of art…
“I guess I’m more drawn to work in progress, soul narratives, than lofty spiritual peaks. I’m inspired by the stories of Arjuna, Milarepa, Siddhartha and Christ; stories that expose life’s inherent limitations while revealing something deeper. In all honesty I’m not sure what exactly I’m trying to achieve. I’m just placing myself in a position to create, getting out of my own way and experiencing what transpires.”
Michael Welch lives and works in Sebastopol, CA. See more of his work at his website and connect with him on Facebook.
Walking off our optical delusion….
If you’ve ever surfed the innerweb, you’ve come across a quote attributed to Albert Einstein about the “optical delusion” of ego consciousness. Wanting to pin this down recently (and make sure it wasn’t really uttered by, say, Abraham Lincoln) I learned that the story goes like this:
On Feb. 12, 1950, Einstein wrote a note of condolence to Robert S. Marcus of the World Jewish Congress, who had recently lost a son. The note was short if not exactly sweet:
Dear Mr. Marcus:
A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.
With my best wishes,
While it’s not clear what consolation this note may have provided, it is historically remarkable. The leading physicist of modern times showed that he understood the ramifications of a rapidly changing cosmology for both psychology and spirituality. The Copernican revolution of the 16th century established that the earth was not the center of the universe. The consciousness revolution that began in the 20th century began establishing that the ego — that oh-so-compelling idea of who we are, residing at the center of our awareness — isn’t what it seems to be. (In fact, the whole problem is that it only seems to be).
This wasn’t news to Buddhists, of course, but it’s a shock to the Western mind that’s really just beginning to take effect.
That’s because this realization is not only unconsoling; it shatters our whole world of perception. For if the seeming center of our consciousness is a delusion, can we possibly be seeing everything around us accurately? If we genuinely accept that we are not separated from the Universe, then who and what are we really? And what is consciousness without the delusions of the ego?
Students of A Course in Miracles grapple with these questions every day. If it’s any consolation, you’re following in the footsteps of the old man himself…
The Jimmy Carter of my dreams
Thirty years ago, I fell ill overnight with a bad tummyache that wouldn’t go away for seven years. Severe indigestion was rapidly complicated by a low-grade fever, muscle and joint pains, crushing fatigue, migraine headaches, mental fogginess, and what is known as “non-refreshing sleep”: a condition of sleeping fitfully for 12 to 16 hours and waking up exhausted.
About a month of confusing misdiagnoses would pass before I was given one that would stick: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a relatively new and mysterious ailment at the time that is not much better understood today. No clear single medical cause or effective treatment regimen has ever been determined since CFS was first identified in the 1970s, though various theories and methods abound.
During my steep dive into serious illness I began to entertain the notion that there might be something wrong with me beyond a physical breakdown. I entered therapy for the first time in my life, not sure why, but immediately began pouring out a litany of complaints and grievances that surprised me. I was angry at my parents, at my girlfriend, at an unfair world, at you-name-it.
My therapist was a nice enough guy, but mostly he sat quietly and nodded his head a lot. I got so tired of hearing myself bitch and moan that I wondered if this was really how therapy was supposed to work. Shouldn’t he be telling me what was wrong with me, or what I should be doing to fix it?
I was keeping a secret from this therapist, however. Just a few weeks before I’d begun to see him I’d stumbled across a very strange book called A Course in Miracles, and began to read its Text and follow its Workbook lessons — even though it spooked the hell out of me.
I'd grown up with a profound reaction against the evangelical brand of Christianity I’d grown up around in North Carolina, and here I was studying a “course” that threw around the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with abandon … even though it talked about those entities in very weird ways. The Text was intellectually impenetrable, and the Lessons seemed focused on overturning my entire way of looking at the world. Aware that my mental capacities were being affected by CFS, I was studying the Course in secret because I wanted to figure out if I was going crazy before I told anyone about it.
During this period I had also begun to have very vivid and dramatic dreams. In those dreams, cars often seemed to symbolize the condition of my body. One night I dreamt that I was driving my dad’s beat-up Ford Econoline van (the same truck in which I’d fitfully learned to drive a stick shift) and was having a bad time of it. The truck wouldn’t accelerate, the steering was loose, and I couldn’t get the windshield wipers to work in a heavy mist. To make matters worse, I suddenly realized that I had an important passenger: none other than former President Jimmy Carter.
At the time, Carter’s lackluster presidency had been over for only a few years, but he was already beginning to build a distinguished career as an elder statesman. I’d always admired Carter as a kind of political father figure, so in the dream I was highly embarrassed that I was endangering him in an old broken-down truck.
“President Carter!” I exclaimed, “I’m really sorry about this old van. It’s about to break down and I can’t get it to speed up.” I sighed and hit the brakes to bring the van to a shuddering stop. “Worst of all,” I sadly confessed, “I have no idea of where I’m going.”
Jimmy Carter smiled and said, “Don’t worry son, we have a map.” He opened the glove compartment, reached in, and handed me my copy of A Course in Miracles. Then I woke up (so to speak).
Somewhat emboldened by this dream, I confronted my therapist a few days later about where our “talking cure” was going. I told him I felt I’d been doing all the talking for weeks, and that I was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to offer a cure. “I just wonder if there’s something more we could be doing,” I complained.
“What else do you think we could be doing?” he responded in his maddeningly passive style.
“Well, maybe you could tell me whether I should be doing something I’ve already started,” I responded, and began to confess about the Course — how I’d come across it, how weird it was, how it might be driving me crazy, etc. Had he ever heard of it? I wanted to know. Was it dangerous? Should I drop it?
The therapist shifted from his classic position of leaning back in his office chair to sit up, smile, and offer the most definitive piece of advice I’d ever heard him utter.
“Yes, I’ve heard of it,” he nodded, “and here’s what I can tell you. If you can handle the Course, you probably don’t need me.”
And the rest, as they say, is spiritual history…
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Seeking the light and sound of a holy place…
Many years ago I visited a friend who was studying at a seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and after dinner he took me into the school’s sanctuary. It was almost totally dark as he led me to the center of the great room, faced me toward the stage and altar and then said, “Wait here.”
He stole away quietly and within about a minute, switched on all the floodlights focused on the altar at once, bathing a statue of Jesus with a stunning lustre. For good measure, he hit one loud chord on the organ and when that sound had died away, his voice floated down from somewhere unseen:
“Makes you feel real religious, don’t it?” he crowed.
I think of that ironic moment whenever I enter a church or cathedral grand enough to induce a certain silence or reverence. There is something about sacred architecture that can quell anxiety, summon a feeling of awe, or deliver moments of grace.
But problems arise when we depend upon such special places to provide us with our sense of a spiritual center. Even worse, our attachment to a spiritual space or place can become a little too special — such that we begin to think our special place is holier than some others’ holy places, or that it must be defended against infidels.
Is there anything more ironic than the fact that the “holy land” of the Middle East is also the center of some of the world’s most bitter and pernicious conflicts?
This is not really the fault of cultural or religious differences, however. It’s the inevitable result of believing that our holiness (or innate wholeness, to use a less religious term) can actually be found anywhere outside our own consciousness. If we know God within — which means that we can find peace, grace, and reverence for all creation inside ourselves — then we don’t have to “find” God in a church, temple, or mosque, or go looking for a sense of awe in some religious hot spot.
And most important, we will not feel that our God is better than somebody else’s God, and that our holy place must thus be walled off or defended — or that someone else’s holy place must be attacked.
Although I can appreciate the splendor of some constructed cathedrals, I tend to have my sense of wholeness reinforced by experiences in nature. The wind whistling through high tree branches or the endless crashing of the surf provide me with echoes of infinite creation that far surpass my limited sense of self. Even so, I have to remember that the world’s most magnificent echo is not the original song…
Listen,–perhaps you catch a hint of an ancient state not quite forgotten; dim, perhaps, and yet not altogether unfamiliar, like a song whose name is long forgotten, and the circumstances in which you heard completely unremembered. Not the whole song has stayed with you, but just a little wisp of melody, attached not to a person or a place or anything particular. But you remember, from just this little part, how lovely was the song, how wonderful the setting where you heard it, and how you loved those who were there and listened with you.
The notes are nothing. Yet you have kept them with you, not for themselves, but as a soft reminder of what would make you weep if you remembered how dear it was to you. You could remember, yet you are afraid, believing you would lose the world you learned since then. And yet you know that nothing in the world you learned is half so dear as this. Listen, and see if you remember an ancient song you knew so long ago and held more dear than any melody you taught yourself to cherish since. — ACIM Text, Chapter 21, Part I, “The Forgotten Song”
So, are we all completely nuts??
In three decades as a Course student I don’t know how many Holy Instants I can honestly claim, but I have had a few memorable Golden Moments. Here’s one:
Some years ago I ran into a woman I’d briefly dated, and likely bored to tears with too much talk about A Course in Miracles. (It just seemed that she needed to hear it.) Our romance was over in exactly one month and I didn’t see her again for several years, until our chance encounter upon the sidewalk. She didn’t look well, and in fact reported that she’d recently been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
I offered my sympathies and while we were awkwardly standing there figuring out what to say next, an odd look came across her face. “So maybe there’s a reason I ran into you now,” she said, and I responded, “Yeah?” and she answered, “Here’s the thing. I was talking to my therapist yesterday and he said he thought I might benefit from looking into A Course in Miracles.”
“Oh, really?” I said, feeling immensely vindicated.
“Yeah,” she said. “I told my therapist I’d once met this guy who was really into it but I didn’t remember much. So I’m really glad I ran into you today, because I do remember one thing and I’d like to check it out with you.”
“Sure,” I said, happy to help. Naturally I was thinking that my friend was at last ready to see the light! “So what do you need to know?” I cheerily inquired.
Looking one way and then the other, like she didn’t want to be overheard, she leaned closer to me and whispered, “Isn’t the Course mostly for, like, crazy people?”
Now fully aware of the impression I’d left on this lady, I just laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s pretty much true. As long as you understand that the Course says we’re ALL crazy people.”
And it certainly does say that. Thinking over my friend’s question, I got curious about how many times the Course mentions insanity or madness. Following now, just a few of the greatest hits:
As you look with open eyes upon your world, it must occur to you that you have withdrawn into insanity. You see what is not there, and you hear what makes no sound. Your manifestations of emotions are the opposite of what the emotions are. You communicate with no one, and you are as isolated from reality as if you were alone in all the universe. In your madness you overlook reality completely, and you see only your own split mind everywhere you look. God calls you and you do not hear, for you are preoccupied with your own voice…. (Text, Chapter 13, section V)
Think of the freedom in the recognition that you are not bound by all the strange and twisted laws you have set up to save you. You really think that you would starve unless you have stacks of green paper strips and piles of metal discs. You really think a small round pellet or some fluid pushed into your veins through a sharpened needle will ward off disease and death. You really think you are alone unless another body is with you.
It is insanity that thinks these things. You call them laws, and put them under different names in a long catalogue of rituals that have no use and serve no purpose. You think you must obey the “laws” of medicine, of economics and of health. Protect the body, and you will be saved. These are not laws, but madness… (Workbook Lesson 76)
Atonement remedies the strange idea that it is possible to doubt yourself, and be unsure of what you really are. This is the depth of madness. Yet it is the universal question of the world. What does this mean except the world is mad? Why share its madness in the sad belief that what is universal here is true? (Workbook Lesson 139)
Let me repeat that the ego’s qualifications as a guide are singularly unfortunate, and that it is a remarkably poor choice as a teacher of salvation. Anyone who elects a totally insane guide must be totally insane himself. (Text, Chapter 9, section IV)
The ingeniousness of the ego to preserve itself is enormous, but it stems from the very power of the mind the ego denies. This means that the ego attacks what is preserving it, which must result in extreme anxiety. That is why the ego never recognizes what it is doing. It is perfectly logical but clearly insane. The ego draws upon the one source that is totally inimical to its existence for its existence. Fearful of perceiving the power of this source, it is forced to depreciate it. This threatens its own existence, a state which it finds intolerable. Remaining logical but still insane, the ego resolves this completely insane dilemma in a completely insane way. It does not perceive its existence as threatened by projecting the threat onto you, and perceiving your being as nonexistent. This ensures its continuance if you side with it, by guaranteeing that you will not know your own safety. (Text, Chapter 7, section VI)
… the journey into darkness has been long and cruel, and you have gone deep into it. (Text, Chapter 18, section III)
The Course is a long-term discipline because its diagnosis of our basic problem as human beings is so radical. It says that we’re not just a little neurotic or occasionally unbalanced, or that we’ve messed up our relationships. No, the Course says we are all stark raving mad, utterly mistaken about who and what we are, and constantly pursuing counterproductive, ego-driven strategies in order to remain stuck in our tragic delusion.
We’re SO nuts that we’re not even aware of what reality is, and have substituted for reality a dream of our own making. The purpose of the Course is not really to “improve our lives,” in the usual sense, because it says we’re not really living here at all. Instead we are struggling to preserve ourselves and somehow “get ahead” in what the Course calls a “dream of death”:
Failure is all about you while you seek for goals that cannot be achieved. You look for permanence in the impermanent, for love where there is none, for safety in the midst of danger; immortality within the darkness of the dream of death. Who could succeed where contradiction is the setting of his searching, and the place to which he comes to find stability? (Workbook Lesson 131)
So yes, my dear, I’m completely nuts — but as luck would have it, so are you. Shall we reopen the Workbook to Lesson 1?
Dancing with dementia
Kelli McGowan is a 53-year-old grandmother in Marin County, California, who’s been active in that region’s Center for Inner Peace. Three years ago she was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), an aggressive degenerative disorder that she describes as “Alzheimer’s on steroids.” Recently I talked to Kelli about how her illness has changed her life — and how her study of A Course in Miracles is helping her comprehend and cope with such a profound challenge.
“I went from being very loving and living life to the max,” Kelli recalls, “to apathy, having no energy, and saying mean things, being aggressive and agitated. I went from being graceful to very clumsy, catching myself on fire and getting hurt while attempting simple tasks like making a cup of coffee. I went from being energetic to flat. I went from being very productive and intelligent to confused and disoriented. I went from being a high-fashion dresser to someone who needed five or six attempts just to get leggings on, and then I needed help. I went from being deeply involved in the world to hardly leaving the house, because it’s hard to be out, or be in groups.”
Kelli feels that the Course helped her with some of her initial behavior problems because “I’m reminded that minds are always connected… I’ve blurted out some very weird things, so when that happens I try to be honest about it and clean it up immediately. I’ll call and say, ‘I don’t like the way I did that and I love you’ instead of pretending that nothing happened. This is important because people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, and the people around them, can easily become afraid or exasperated, and want to pretend that certain things aren’t happening. So I try to be open and honest and navigate through all this with as much grace and dignity as I can, so that other people don’t have to feel uneasy or guilty.”
Admitting there have been times when she’s wanted to give up, Kelli says her Course-inspired guidance instead enabled her to “take a deep look at all this, and I got the message that ‘this is here for you to love yourself when you’re not perfect’. I’m using my situation for my awakening, and that means bringing light to all of it, even the idea of my life ending. I mean, we’re all facing this; it’s not personal. Everything has an expiration date. It’s my divine process to make this dance with dementia an adventure, and learn to love it. I can even laugh at some of my difficulties and behaviors because there’s some really funny stuff going on sometimes…
“Years ago I promised to undo as much of my ego in this lifetime as I could, and guess what: This has been my best opportunity so far to get it done. I’m trying to use all of this as an opportunity to awaken. There’s absolutely nothing I can’t bring love to.”
Kelli McGowan provides some video updates about her illness and spiritual process on her Facebook pages.
Is the Course a religion…. or what??
In a recent interview I was asked the simple question, “What is A Course in Miracles?” and I was stumped for a while, as I realized there was no simple answer. Days later, I still can’t boil it down to any less than a multiple-choice response. Depending on how you choose to look at it, the Course is:
- a radical restatement of Christian theology
- a Western interpretation of Eastern metaphysics
- a devastating critique of ego psychology joined with an unprecedented approach to cognitive therapy
- a self-study guide to a new spiritual technology
The Course has also been called a “New Age religion” and in fact has spawned a few more-or-less organized churches in its wake. But by and large it has inspired legions of unaffiliated yet dedicated and confused students — who often resort to taking their befuddlement into small, free-wheeling study groups. The Miracle Distribution Center of Anaheim lists nearly 2000 such groups, and there are probably many more unlisted around the world.
I’m not sure that constitutes a religion, but it might be called a movement or a phenomenon or a sustained freak occurrence.
One thing’s for sure: for us folks who resonate with the ACIM teaching, it generates a lifelong dedication that could fairly be called religious. It also incites some pretty strange behavior. I’ve heard of people who kiss their Course, sleep with their Course (and by God I hope they’re just sleeping with it), give it presents, and feed it only the finest cat chow (okay, I made that last one up).
On the other hand, devoted students have been known to get upset and treat their Course pretty coarsely, ripping it apart, throwing it against the wall (raising my hand: guilty!) and even ritually burning it. People fall in love, break up, and get back together with it.
And boy, do they ever write books about it (guilty!).
All of which fails to answer the question: Is the Course a religion? I’m inclined to think not; after thirty years of studying the book and reporting on the movement, I’ve come to the brilliant conclusion that “the Course is the Course.” As a spiritual and literary document it can only be defined by itself; as a social phenomenon it’s something that’s never been seen before, and that continues to change and grow with the attraction of each new student.
In a sense, even the Course itself changes with each new student. The teaching has an odd Rorschach quality about it, because everyone seems to find different meanings in the same teaching. As Circle of Atonement founder Robert Perry once suggested, “If there are a million students of the Course, there are a million different Courses out there.”
Which leads to this column’s question: What is the Course to you? (And what weird things have you done with it??)
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