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WHAT IS A COURSE IN MIRACLES?What_Is_ACIM.html

THE PERENNIAL WISDOM OF

A COURSE IN MIRACLES


Roger Walsh, MD, Ph.D. (BIO)

When Frances Vaughan showed me the Christian mystical teaching, A Course in Miracles, I was hardly open minded. I opened the books, saw the words "God" and "Holy Spirit," and refused to have anything to do with it for two years. But over those two years I kept running into people who would drop fascinating ideas or interesting one-liners. I'd ask, "Where did you get that?" and they'd say, "From A Course in Miracles."


Eventually I weakened and took another look at the material. After a month or so, when I got past my resistance to the Christian language, I began to feel that this was a truly extraordinary work. During the past ten years I've studied it intently and my appreciation of it has continued to grow.

 

One of the hallmarks of a profound teaching is that when you go through it again, you find what philosophers call "higher grades of significance." This seems to happen each time I go through the Course. I'm now at the point where I feel it's on a par with any other material or discipline I've seen. Other people who are wiser than I agree. For example, Ken Wilber, who has read more widely in the world's psychologies and spiritual traditions than anyone I know, says the Course is on a level with anything he's run across. So I'm inclined to think that this document may be a spiritual masterpiece.


The Course and the Four Yogas


One of the Course's unique features is that it seems to be especially well integrated. Most paths are the result of a variety of sages speaking extemporaneously to various groups with disciples taking down some of their sayings and forgetting others so that the collected writings are not terribly integrated. From the life of Jesus, for example, we have a few hundred lines; a few thousand may be directly attributable to the Buddha.


The Course, on the other hand, is clearly a well-integrated system starting with a beginning on page one and systematically running in a logical progression to the end. The sequence of lesson's also has a logical coherence. They first run through a process of deconstructing our usual way of perceiving and then substituting or reconstructing a healthier way. Along the way all four key elements - ethics, concentration, emotions and wisdom - are given due attention and skillfully combined.


The Course seems to be the perennial wisdom (the common core underlying the world's great religions) in Christian form. It embodies the millennia-old teaching about the nature of the universe, of humankind, of waking up - in Christian language.


Within that, it employs a variety of different techniques. One way of comparing the different religions is to use Hinduism's division of spiritual paths into "the four yogas," four types of paths that emphasize different aspects of training. The four classic yogas are Jnana yoga, the yoga of intellectual discrimination by which we use the intellect to pare away illusions and to see clearly; Bhakti yoga, the yoga of love and devotion, the emotional approach for those people who have a heartfelt stance toward religion, spirituality and life; Karma yoga, the yoga of work and service in the world; and Raja yoga, a primarily meditative path. The Course clearly has sophisticated elements of all four of these yogas or paths.


The Path of the Intellect


The Course is a Jnana yoga of extraordinary power. In fact, it is the most sophisticated cognitive behavior modification text I've run across. There are descriptions of the nature of identification, psychological defenses and perception that are on a par with anything in contemporary psychology or the traditional wisdom teachings. In my lectures at the university on these topics, I find some of the ideas from the Course very useful, although I don't usually confess this.


The Course lays out a precise thought system, which it says is an optimal thought system for awakening. According the the Course, our thought system creates our world view and our sense of self and reality. Thus, our perception is a reflection of our states of mind and our thought system and we project onto the world much of what is within us. Ultimately, in a radical ontological sense, the Course says that the world is a creation of the mind. In this way it echoes the opening of the Buddha's teaching (The Dhammapada), which begins by saying:


We are what we think.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.

With our thoughts we make our world.


The Course, like Buddhism and other forms of the perennial wisdom, says our thought systems are insane and that we consequently create and are enmeshed in dreams and illusions although we don't realize it. In other words, our dreams and illusions are self-masking and we mistake them for reality.


To help us understand this, the Course asks us to reflect on our sleeping dreams. These show us that our minds have the capacity to literally create worlds and bodies that seem totally real to us while we're dreaming. We run into tables and they seem hard. We identify with our dream bodies and assume we will cease to exist if they are destroyed. Other than rare lucid dreams, we never recognize that we're dreaming until we wake up. Yet, from our usual waking state, we can look back on our former dreams and see that our dream state of consciousness has less ontological validity or reality than the one we're in now. Thus the Course suggests that:


Dreams show you that you have the power to make a world as you would have it be .... and while you see it you do not doubt that it is real. Yet here is a world, clearly within your mind, that seems to be outside .... You seem to waken, and the dream is gone .... and what you seem to waken to is but another form of this same world you see in dreams. All your time is spent in dreaming. Your sleeping and your waking dreams have different forms, and that is all.


The Course says that our usual waking state is also a dream, in fact an unhappy psychotic dream. It therefore offers an alternate thought system which can replace our negative dream with a happy one. It's still a dream, but it's the happiest dream we can create and one from which it's easier to awaken.


But the Course's ultimate goal lies beyond all dreams and aims at awakening. Its message is that there is another state of consciousness which is to our ordinary waking state of consciousness as our waking state is to our sleeping dream state. This is salvation, liberation, enlightenment or moksha. Hence, the fundamental message of the Course, like the other great spiritual traditions, is "Wake up!"


This waking up involves disentangling ourselves from the culture-wide illusion in which we live. This culture-wide illusion, or consensus trance as Charles Tart calls it, can be seen as a form of hypnosis. What we take to be normality is actually a form of culture-wide hypnosis. So say the great spiritual traditions (though they use other terms for it) and contemporary thinkers such as Charles Tart, Willis Harman and Ken Wilber.


So the Course urges us to wake up from our collective trance. The means it offers for this follow logically from its claims about why we're hypnotized. If we are entranced by a collective deluding thought system, then obviously the solution is to substitute - à la cognitive behavior modification - another thought system: a thought system that dehypnotizes and awakens. This is what the Course claims to do. It claims to offer an alternative thought system that we can substitute, if we so choose, for the cultural system instilled in us from birth that has so successfully entranced us.


The Path of the Heart


The cutting edge of Bhakti yoga, the yoga of love and devotion, is this transformation of emotions. The Course also focuses on the transformation of emotions and the cultivation of love. In fact, it says that "this is a course about love" and that any course that seeks to teach us who we really are must teach us about love. The type of love that the Course emphasizes is a universal or nonexclusive, unconditional love, which the early Christians called agape and the Course calls the Love of God. Lessons that clearly focus on this include the one titled "I feel the Love of God within me now". another example is, "Today the peace of God envelopes me and I forget all things except His love."


One feature of the Course, which I have found in no other tradition, is its use of relationships - specifically peer relationships -as the primary vehicle for awakening. Bhakti yoga also uses relationships, but not so much peer relationships. Rather, Bhakti yoga usually emphasizes devotion to, or love of, a god or guru. It's usually not a love relationship between equals. Many paths acknowledge the divinity in others, but the Course's emphasis on using our peer relationship for awakening is unique in its detail and sophistication. It fills dozens of daily lessons and hundreds of pages with very precise instructions on healing relationships, practicing forgiveness, seeing each other as mirrors and mutual saviors, recognizing the divinity within each of us, letting go of grievances, taking joy in the joy of others, acknowledging our interdependence, relinquishing expectations and demands and cultivating the desire to love and serve. Many people, myself included, feel that it is perhaps the most sophisticated and profound approach to relationships they have seen.


The Course divides relationships into holy and unholy ones. The closest equivalent I know to this would be Maslow's distinction between motives which are deficiency and sufficiency based. When we are motivated by a sense of deficiency and lack, we enter relationships to get something. However, in sufficiency-based relationships both people already have a sense of well-being and wholeness and desire to enhance and share that through a relationship. According to the Course:


An unholy relationship is based on differences, where each one thinks the other has what he has not. A holy relationship starts from a different premise. Each one has looked within and seen no lack. Accepting their completion, they would extend it by joining with another whole as themselves. They see no difference between these selves. For differences are only of the body.


The Course specifically advises us to take each relationship and view it as a means of awakening both people. It says that each of us is both teacher and student, patient and therapist. It advises us to approach a relationship with the realization that just as we embody the Divine within us, so does the other person. The Course says it is easier and more skillful to look for the divine core within both the other person and oneself because this divine core is transpersonal and no one person encompasses it.


The Course contains a number of very practical relationship techniques. For example, it suggests that any time "the holiness" of a relationship is threatened, such as in an argument, to proceed as follows:


Whoever is saner at the time the threat is perceived should remember how deep is his indebtedness to the other and how much gratitude is due him, and be glad that he can pay his debt by bringing happiness to both. Let him remember this, and say:


"I desire this holy instant for myself,

That I may share it with my brother, whom I love.

It is not possible that I can have it without him, or he without me.

Yet it is wholly possible for us to share it now.

And so I choose this instant as the one to offer to the Holy Spirit,

That His blessing may descend on us, and keep us both in peace."


This leads to another major emphasis of the Course: forgiveness. While Christianity has traditionally emphasized forgiveness, the Course gives it a more psychological flavor. When we forgive others, it says, we are actually forgiving our own shadow and the projections that we have been unwilling to acknowledge withing ourselves. So the Course skillfully reframes forgiveness to make it apparent that forgiveness serves the person who forgives as much as the person who is forgiven. In fact it claims that forgiveness is a healing practice of remarkable power and that "forgiveness is the key to happiness."


The Path of Service


Karma yoga is the path of service and work in the world. This is a strong emphasis of the Course, which says we don't have to retire into a monastery to practice it. Indeed the Course emphasizes that the peace, love and joy we cultivate can be taken out into the world and increased by sharing. Indeed, the Course says that if we try to practice for ourselves alone, our efforts are actually counterproductive, because we are reinforcing the belief that we are separate from other people and denying the deeper reality of the unity of the One Mind. Thus the Course has parallels with Mahayana Buddhism. Both suggest that final liberation for any of us depends on liberation for all of us and advocates doing service to others as our essential means for awakening.


However, the Course draws a distinction between service and sacrifice that I have found extremely useful. It warns against serving out of sacrifice, because sacrifice breeds resentment and anger. The very idea of sacrifice is contradictory because if we're doing something for others and viewing it as a sacrifice, then we're again seeing ourselves as separate from them. The ideal is to understand that whatever we do for another is also for ourselves.


The Path of Meditation


Raja yoga emphasizes meditation and mind training. The Course states, "This is a course in mind training." Like other meditative traditions it points out that the untrained mind has a mind of its own; it's labile, has little ability to concentrate, is driven by desires and aversions, and overcome by fear and anger. The Course therefore lays out a variety of techniques for bringing the mind under greater control. One lesson affirms:


I have a kingdom I must rule. At times it does not seem I am its king at all. It seems to triumph over me and tell me what to think and what to do and feel. And yet it has been given me to serve whatever purpose I perceive in it. My mind can only serve ... Today I give its service to the Holy Spirit to employ as He sees fit. I thus direct my mind, which I alone can rule, and thus I set it free to do the will of God.


Naturally, because the Course is such an integrated system, the four yogas overlap and are mutually supportive. For example, as we replace unskillful beliefs we are less likely to feel angry. This makes it easier to forgive and with forgiveness greater love arises which in turn enhances the desire to serve. All these leave the mind less agitated and easier to control, thereby making it easier to change beliefs, forgive, love and serve. Of course, this is not to deny that progress can seem very slow at times, but the Course also teaches patience.


Other Therapeutic Strategies


For guidance the Course recommends turning inward to our own deeper selves because the ultimate source of wisdom is within us. When making major decisions, the Course advises us to ask our inner guide what we should do. We thus gradually relinquish shallow egoic decision making and turn to deeper levels that tap more profound wisdom. Authority and guidance are not "out there" in someone else or even in the Course. Rather, the ultimate source of wisdom is within. This bears some similarities to other spiritual and psychological systems. For example, psychosynthesis advocates contacting the "higher self." Jungians the "Sage archetype," Hindus the "Sadguru," the Naskapi Indians "the inner man," and the Quakers "the still small voice within."


The Course also devotes considerable attention to working with fear. Like many other paths, it points out how much our minds are dominated by fear and says that love and fear are two fundamental and mutually inhibitory emotions. Where love is, fear is not, and vice versa.


The Course emphasizes working with fear in a somewhat different way from the traditional psychotherapeutic methods in which we tend to examine the fear and what caused it. According to the Course, the only time that's real is now. If there is fear, something must be operating now. It must have a present cause and can only be released in the present. To believe that we have to understand the past, go back into the past or remedy something in the past before we can release fear is self-limiting and a self fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, psychotherapists are beginning to better appreciate this trap. Psychoanalysts such as Silvano Ariete have called it "the genetic fallacy" and transactional analysts have called it the game of "archaeology." When we do fall into this trap, we also fall into that transactional analysts call the "until game" in which we tell ourselves that we can't be happy until we do something, such as find the original cause of our fears or problems.


An emphasis on relinquishing attachments is central to many traditions. The Course is very clear that attachment is a key cause of suffering. In this way it echoes the Buddha's Second Noble Truth that "the cause of suffering is craving."


One lesson states, "I will not value what is valueless." Another says, "The world I see holds nothing that I want," pointing to the idea that value is not something which inheres in objects or things outside ourselves, but is something which we project onto them. The true source of joy and well-being, it says, is within, because the mind is the source of both suffering and joy. To become attached to outer things is therefore to lose sight of the source of joy and to suffer when things change, as they invariably do.


An unusual feature of the Course is the perspective Ken Wilber has called "always/already truth." One can divide the world's religions and spiritual paths into two main types: paths of attainment and paths of recognition. Paths of attainment assume that we are fundamentally deficient in some way and/or presuppose that life is fundamentally a dilemma. Naturally they therefore assume that we must work to change ourselves into something different.


The paths of always/already truth start from the assumption that we are always/already who and what we're trying to become. Consequently they view the fundamental spiritual task as one, not of change and improvement, but of recognition. As the Course says, "Enlightenment is but a recognition, not a change at all." According to Wilber's map, the always/already truth religions represent the acme of spiritual teaching.


Pros and Cons


I should point out several criticisms of the Course. The language is traditionally Christian and many people may find it a problem at first. The talk of God and the Holy Spirit may be difficult for some and many women find the exclusive use of masculine pronouns irksome. Some people translate for a while. I originally changed "salvation" to "enlightenment," "Christ" to "Buddha mind" and so on. Some women have gone through scratching out His and replacing it with Hers. The Course is also objectionable from the fundamentalist perspective in that it disagrees at points with the Bible. In addition the profundity of the ideas makes some parts of the Course difficult to understand or even appear nonsensical at first. However, most people report that as they continue to study the material their understanding deepens and more and more of the obscurities become comprehensible. An attitude of open-minded patience may be the best stance.


As for its strengths, the Course is, as already mentioned, very well integrated. Many religions focus on one path, such as service or the cultivation of love. The Course seems to be particularly adept at using multiple approaches. Given how intellectually sophisticated it is, it is remarkable how wide an audience it appeals to. To date, it has sold more than a million copies by word of mouth alone to people ranging from the university educated to those with very little education, and to all sorts of personality types. It's currently being translated into more than a dozen foreign languages. In a recent survey Common Boundary readers rated the Course the most influential book they had read.


The Course is intellectually satisfying, psychologically sophisticated, positive and loving. It never judges, never condemns, never attacks and continually points us back to ourselves and the recognition that, at the most fundamental levels, we are always/already loving, joyous, free and divine. In short it says we are always/already not only more than we dreamed but more than we can dream. Ultimately it points beyond all dreams to the Self we share, to the Christ Mind, to God and to the recognition that They (We) are One and that this Oneness awaits our recognition in this moment and every moment.


       "Let me remember I am one with God,

       At one with all my brothers and my Self

       In ever lasting holiness and peace."

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