by D. PATRICK MILLER
I am upset because I see something that is not there.
I choose the second place to gain the first. • Let miracles replace all grievances.
I can escape from the world I see by giving up attack thoughts.
When I defend myself I am attacked. • In my defenselessness my safety lies.
My grievances hide the light of the world in me. • What I see is a form of vengeance (II).
The death penalty is the ego's ultimate goal... • My mind holds only what I think with God.
I am at home. Fear is the stranger here. • I rule my mind, which I alone must rule.
What I see is a form of vengeance. • I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt.
Let me not forget my function. • Let me remember I am one with God.
When I am healed I am not healed alone. • Into His Presence would I enter now.
I will be still an instant and go home. • I bless the world because I bless myself.
The light of the world brings peace to every mind through my forgiveness.
I will not be afraid of love today. • I will accept Atonement for myself.
The world I see holds nothing that I want. AND Beyond this world there is a world I want.
I place the future in the hands of God. AND I will step back and let him lead the way.
I choose the joy of God instead of pain. • Forgiveness offers everything I want.
God's will for me is perfect happiness. • Salvation comes from my one Self.
God goes with me wherever I go. • I seek a future different from the past.
You can support the development of this writing:
"I am upset because I see something that is not there."
—ACIM Workbook Lesson 6
Just for fun, I’m dropping back into the initial siege of Course lessons that tell us we’re completely insane. Whereas conventional Christianity is content to tell us merely that we’re sinners, the Course takes a psychological tack in the opening of the Workbook. Right off the bat we’re told that nothing we see means anything, we’re never upset for the reason we think, our thoughts don’t mean anything… and, oh yeah, I am upset because I see something that is not there. (Straitjacket, anyone?)
If our friendly neighborhood therapist started off our counseling relationship with this bundle of shocking diagnoses, we’d rightly run screaming for the exit. While we don’t have a reliable count of how many folks have likewise scrambled away from the Course, the more intriguing question is why so many – millions, at the very least – have stuck around for much more after this daunting psychological assault.
Based on my own experience and a writing career spent venturing across the fringes of mental stability, I can only conclude that these suggestions about our insanity ring a bell for many of us.
My writing career began in two collaborations with psychiatrist Tom Rusk, M.D., whose first book INSTEAD OF THERAPY presented an alternative approach to improving mental health. Tom broached psychiatric standards when he asked prospective patients to sign a contract stating that they would endeavor to uphold four fundamental values during their treatment, those values being: Respect, Understanding, Caring, and Fairness.
As a medical profession bent on the diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders, often involving the prescription of psychoactive drugs, psychiatry is supposed to be a scientifically grounded, “value-free” endeavor.
Yet Tom chose to confront new patients with the values contract because he felt that getting someone to consciously attempt respect, understanding, caring, and fairness in all their relationships (including the ones with themselves and their psychiatrist) was the fastest way to kick-start their journey back to mental and emotional stability.
The amazing thing, Tom reported, was how many people would refuse to endorse those values, or subject him to a long discussion about why they were important. Wasn’t there a drug to fix what was wrong with them? they wanted to know. Why on earth would they have to think about being respectful, caring, understanding, and fair to everyone they dealt with during their treatment? It struck many as kind of a crazy idea. (It is, however, one way of describing what the Course would call a forgiving attitude.)
Years later I would do some fascinating editorial work with Cameron West, PhD., author of the best-selling FIRST PERSON PLURAL, who was the first diagnosed multiple personality to earn a doctorate in his own diagnosis (Dissociative Identity Disorder). In hearing his own accounts of what it was like to have up to 24 personalities at a time (and seeing him switch from one to another a few times), I was struck not by how strange Cam seemed, but how ordinary.
After all, who hasn’t been in a very bad mood in the morning and elated by the afternoon — all without questioning whether the same personality was inhabiting their body during the course of the day? While there are elements of the DID diagnosis that exceed the characteristics of a typical mood swing, I’ve always felt that we all harbor inner regions of madness into which we may cross back and forth without always noticing.
The salient question is not so much whether we recognize getting lost in bits of madness, but whether we can treat ourselves and others with respect, caring, understanding, and fairness as we hang out around the edges of sanity – that is, where most of so-called normal life takes place every day.
While A Course in Miracles can hardly be typified as a laugh riot, there are moments when it exhibits what can best be called a “wry” sense of humor. One of my favorites occurs in Chapter 17’s discussion of the challenge to maintain a holy relationship, when the text suggests to the student that “You are not now wholly insane.”
Good news, folks! There’s at least that dim light shining from the end of this upsetting tunnel, seemingly populated by so much that is not there…
"I choose the second place to gain the first."
—ACIM Workbook Lesson 328
In this short and cryptic lesson late in the Workbook, “second place” is described this way:
“What seems to be the second place is first, for all things we perceive are upside down until we listen to the Voice for God. It seems that we will gain autonomy but by our striving to be separate, and that our independence from the rest of God’s creation is the way in which salvation is obtained. Yet all we find is sickness, suffering and loss and death…”
This message is echoed in Chapter 18 of the Text: “Some of your greatest advances you have judged as failures, and some of your deepest retreats you have evaluated as success.” [section V.1]
That passage always reminds me of how I began studying the Course, which happened while I was on the way toward the total defeat of who I’d thought I was until my early 30s.
Up to that point, I was very intent on succeeding on “making a name for myself” as a famous writer. Years later, I laughed aloud reading Helen Schucman’s unpublished autobiography, wherein she revealed that in her own youth she “had no doubt that someday I would be a great writer, probably an internationally famous novelist. I would live by myself and write. I would be different from other people, but distinctly better. In view of my secret goal, the intense difficulty I had in writing anything was particularly trying to me.” (from Understanding A Course in Miracles, 2nd Edition, Fearless Books)
I never had intense difficulty writing, but an embarrassingly similar notion of success always eluded my grasp, to say the least. Then my health, relationships, livelihood, and just about everything else I could lay claim to as a human being crashed, inaugurating a seven-year physical & spiritual crisis. Early in that crisis I encountered A Course in Miracles.
Although I was very suspicious of its language, methodology, and intentions when I began ACIM, I soon found its Voice to be taking “first place” in my consciousness. My former, shattered ego wasn’t just removed to second place; it was increasingly benched from the game of life entirely.
In shamanic tradition, there is a process referred to as “dismemberment” in which the person who is on the way to becoming a healer has her psychic and psychological limbs torn apart — a process which might also be called “ego death.” Needless to say, this is not fun. In the middle of this inner dying (which may also feel like physically dying) we are very likely to judge ourselves as failures — while in fact we are making great advances.
Usually our egos are first battered in experiences that are decidedly not transcendent, often beginning in childhood traumas that create repetitive syndromes of suffering for many years thereafter. Conventional therapy generally leads us in the direction of patching up our “self-esteem” and providing us with strategies for keeping the ego, however damaged, in charge of our lives — first place, that is.
The difference with the Course and other shamanic paths is that it gives us the means to consciously “choose the second place to gain the first.” Course philosopher Kenneth Wapnick always said that any student who did not begin the discipline in crisis would soon find himself in one. How an “ACIM crisis” differs from repetitive traumas of the past is that we are given new tools whose purpose is not to repair the ego or shore up its faltering first position in our consciousness. Instead, we are shown the way toward a new way of being that tunes us into an ego-transcending inner wisdom (the “Voice for God”) and brings us closer to union with “all of God’s creation.”
In the long run the ego isn't demolished, just removed to second place where it belongs. It's kind of a workhorse for getting us through the challenges of daily life, but no longer attempting to be a sleek, gleaming race horse on its way to claiming the glory of first place.
An ACIM crisis certainly doesn’t take us down Easy Street. It does take us down a street that actually proceeds to healing and growth, rather than taking us in a familiar circle of repetitive suffering. Choosing second place to gain the first will probably induce a crisis — but it’s the kind of crisis that changes everything about our purpose, sense of belonging, and knowledge of What we really are.
"Let miracles replace all grievances."
—ACIM Workbook Lesson 78
An oddity of A Course in Miracles is that while the Text spends quite a bit of time discussing the opposing nature of “special” and “holy” relationships, from Chapters 15 through 22, the issue is never directly addressed in the Workbook of daily lessons. Several lessons do issue challenges to reform our relationships — especially #78, in which the student is tasked with selecting “one person you have used as target for your grievances,” and thereafter see him or her as a different kind of target:
“Let me behold my savior in this one You have appointed as the one for me to ask to lead me to the holy light in which he stands, that I may join with him.”
In cognitive behavioral terms this is the equivalent of shock therapy, in which we are asked to radically reform our perception of a “problem person” in our lives. It seldom “takes” the first time around, and certainly did not in my experience. But over time it begins to make subtle, unconscious inroads against our favorite pains, peeves, and prejudices about other people. Eventually it can lead us to question how we conduct all our relationships, including the “special love” of our romances.
As ACIM teacher Robert Perry comments in Understanding A Course in Miracles (Second Edition, Fearless Books 2021):
“In ACIM’s view, special love is something very different from what it appears to be. It’s really hate dressed up as love, although the hate may not surface until the bitter end. The Course also says that this kind of relationship is actually taking dressed up as giving. Finally, the special relationship is isolation dressed up as joining – in other words, it’s actually no relationship at all.”
When taking-as-giving contaminates both sides of a relationship, extending long beyond the initial excitement of romance, we see the development of what therapists call “co-dependency.” When we depend upon someone, we are expecting them to supply a lack of inner strength. Co-dependence means a long-term neurotic exchange of those expectations, which invariably fail and lead to the prolongation of disappointment and misery. Then a special relationship becomes a war of attrition that ends in real or emotional divorce, or persists as a seemingly inescapable trap of mutual torture.
In Course terms, the antidote to this mess is the “holy relationship,” which begins when each person involved has “looked within and seen no lack.” In practical terms, this does not mean that either partner has no problems. Instead, it means that each partner happily recognizes the other as someone who can remind both of them that they have the power of the Holy Spirit within to assist with any temporary problems or impasses that the daily world may present.
To me, this is the difference between dependency and reliance. If we constantly depend on someone else to supply our inner strength and wisdom, we are lost, both within ourselves and within a relationship. But we can rely on each other to remind ourselves that we each have all the strength and wisdom we need within — and that our combined remembrance doesn’t just heal the past, but takes us together into something new and healing for many others.
"I can escape from the world I see by giving up attack thoughts."
—ACIM Workbook Lesson 23
Years ago I was interviewing the noted Course philosopher Robert Perry, founder of the Circle of Atonement and editor of the Complete and Annotated (CE) edition of ACIM, when the topic of the “correct” interpretation of this great teaching arose.
A comment that Robert made has never left me. “I think that if a thousand Course students are out there,” he mused, “there are a thousand different Courses as well.”
To this day, I find this to be a penetrating analysis of how the Course is received by students. In some respects it is like a multi-dimensional Rorschach image, in which each student sees something different than another. Not only that, each student sees an evolving image over time. For myself, I can remember that I didn’t really have the slightest idea of what the Course was talking about for, oh, the first ten years or so. After 25+ years, it presents a new and always more complex face at least annually. As I change, the Course seems to change.
That’s because, as Ken Wapnick, another great ACIM philosopher observed, the Course is not really addressed to the conscious mind. It is more directly received by the unconscious, particularly the Text. As Ken once explained to me:
“It’s no accident that the sentence structure is difficult. If you like Shakespeare, you’ll love the style, but it doesn’t make it any easier to comprehend. Concepts aren’t explained in a linear way, with definitions clearly given and principles built upon principles logically. Rather, the Course’s logic is circular, or what I would call symphonic. The way it’s written you have to spend a long time unraveling it, struggling with it, even resisting it. The purpose of that process is to help you undo the ego’s way of thinking and begin to listen to the Holy Spirit.”
The difficulty of “undoing the ego’s way of thinking” can be easily seen in the fussin’ and fightin’ that often goes on in Course discussion groups online – a level of dissension that lately seems to be on the rise as yet another new wave of ACIM students enters the arena. There is a lot of ego-driven argument going on, as conscious minds get themselves all tangled up in opposing intellectual interpretations that will never be resolved.
I mean, people are actually having spitting matches over the purity of nondualism. Jesus H. Christ!
What’s going on here is the surfacing of unconscious drives for a variety of unattainable egoistic goals. Those goals include sheer power; feeling righteous; feeling superior or, conversely, inadequate; having it out with Mommy or Daddy by proxy, and so on.
All that stuff comes up because the Course has sunk deep into the unconscious and, like a Rorschach spider, stung folks on the bottom or some other sensitive psychic part. That means they see something they don’t like about themselves. So they yelp and attempt to defend themselves from the awareness of their own brokenness with what the Course simply calls “attack thoughts.”
Before they know it, the little world of the online discussion group has turned dark and nasty, no longer a place they want to be, so they think about leaving for good – or better yet, getting an attacker who’s clearly more offensive than they are kicked out of that world.
Lesson 23 suggests a different exit strategy. Whether we’re arguing over nondualism in an ACIM forum or having a pissing match with someone who took our place in the grocery store express line, we always have the option of escaping the discouraging little world we see by giving up our attack thoughts.
That means, of course, that we first have to recognize that we’re even having an attack thought — which will tend to cloak itself in language like: “I’m right goddammit and nobody’s going to tell me different.”
Assuming we can get so far as to recognize such self-defense as attack, then we can make the choice simply to give up such thoughts and, if nothing better to express immediately comes to mind, remain silent. There’s at least half a chance that before too long, our better half – the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, that is – will fill in with an entirely different kind of thought that not only leads the discussion forward, but contributes to peace and goodwill toward all.
The more we can develop this capacity for self-reflection and patience, the better world we will see, and thus need no escape.
"When I defend myself I am attacked."
—ACIM Workbook Lesson 135
Many years ago, about a decade before I encountered the Course, I briefly studied the modern martial art known as aikido. Founded by the Japanese war veteran Morehei Ueshiba in the mid-20th century, aikido now has a variety of schools and approaches taught around the world. They all share the founder’s perspective of teaching “the way of the harmonious spirit.”
In essence, that means an approach to conflict that does not directly confront an attacker, but instead “blends” with his aggressive energy to bring him to peace. There are many dancelike moves that accept and then redirect an attacking energy. If bringing the attacker to peace means laying him out on the floor, so be it. But his own energy is used to put him there.
I didn’t last long in training because a minor back injury from a car accident in my teens made it difficult for me to hit and roll on the floor, something which happens a lot in aikido. My teacher watched me crash into the mat repeatedly, and painfully, before he took me aside and advised me to quit the practice lest I get permanently injured. “This is a peaceful art,” he explained, “but it can get pretty violent.”
While I was disappointed not to be able to continue, the lessons I learned from aikido have lasted a lifetime and meshed perfectly with my later Course discipline. Chief among those lessons was Ueshiba’s observation that a true master of the art would be able to walk into a room and quell any conflict by her mere presence, with no application of any technique or even lifting a finger, for that matter.
But to have that much presence would require total mastery of all the techniques.
I think of this metaphor often when I see Course students arguing over what mastery or enlightenment means, what they should believe or how they should behave, and so on. There are a lot of ACIM quotes thrown at each other in self-defense, which is to say that this teaching of peace is used as a thinly disguised method of attack.
But all this fussin’ and fightin’ is not wrong, nor does it represent a failure of ACIM itself. It’s just part of the process of learning profoundly unfamiliar techniques of mind that are designed to redirect and transform our own attacking energies. In the course of this learning, we are going to crash into each other sometimes — so we’d better learn to hit the floor, take a roll, pick ourselves up, and regain our equanimity.
The paradox of the Course training is that it is not intended to equip us with a Course quote for every argument, or give us an encyclopaedic memory of every passage, Urtext and CE included. In fact, ACIM mastery points in a different direction entirely, as suggested by this passage from Lesson 189:
“Forget this world, forget this course, and come with wholly empty hands unto your God.”
Since the Course tells us elsewhere that “God is but love and therefore so am I,” that means everything we learn has the aim of inculcating love within ourselves. This love is a built-in strength that’s far more effective than all the usual means of self-defense. As Lesson 47 puts it, “God is the strength in which I trust.” When we’ve mastered our lessons, we can forget them and just live that strength.
Then we will bring the presence of peace with us everywhere. Such a presence is not just loving in a sweet and supportive way. It's also the kind of presence that immediately lets any potential attackers know they really don’t want to mess with us.
"In my defenselessness my safety lies."
—ACIM Workbook Lesson 153
There are 365 contenders for the title of Toughest Course Lesson, but #153 has to be near the top. That’s because it’s an equal opportunity offender: it insults our common sense, confronts our certainty that self-defense is sensible & necessary, and probably disturbs some of our political convictions.
This lesson came to mind as I watched coverage of the umpteenth Israeli-Palestinian conflict in my lifetime. I’ve heard cogent defenses from both sides of this bitter perpetual strife; either one can be accepted as a persuasive argument for how that side is the greater victim and must therefore mount the greater defense. Not to mention that each side complains how the press and the world at large isn’t giving them a fair shake.
What does it mean that each side perpetually affirms and strengthens its self-defense?
It means that the strife and the killing never ends.
In Lesson #153, the Course makes the case that the fundamental problem of war goes far deeper than its apparent political causes. It goes all-out to offend us by suggesting that the real cause of war is, well... our personal habits of mind:
The world gives rise but to defensiveness. For threat brings anger, anger makes attack seem reasonable, honestly provoked, and righteous in the name of self-defense. Yet is defensiveness a double threat. For it attests to weakness, and sets up a system of defense that cannot work. Now are the weak still further undermined, for there is treachery without and still a greater treachery within. The mind is now confused, and knows not where to turn to find escape from its imaginings.
It is as if a circle held it fast, wherein another circle bound it and another one in that, until escape no longer can be hoped for nor obtained. Attack, defense; defense, attack, become the circles of the hours and the days that bind the mind in heavy bands of steel with iron overlaid, returning but to start again. There seems to be no break nor ending in the ever-tightening grip of the imprisonment upon the mind.
Sound familiar? Yet we seldom make the connection between the violence and victimization we see in the daily news and the “ever-tightening grip” of defense-and-attack imprisoning our own minds. It just doesn’t compute. Like the combatants in any War of the Day, we’d rather spend our time and mental energy coming up with perfectly credible accounts of how we have each been unreasonably victimized and must strike back ever more effectively. Because that’s how we’ll finally win our safety and peace… right??
By ‘defenselessness’ the Course is not talking about walking blindly into rushing traffic, submitting ourselves to the crimes of an abuser, or tolerating political injustice. It is talking about facing the root cause of our shared existential misery, that is: the conviction that we have been abandoned in this world to suffer and die. For that is the sense of threat, constantly reprised in the prison of our minds, that brings forth anger and makes attack seem reasonable.
To deal with all that, we have to take on some of the other top offenders in the Workbook, like “My attack thoughts are attacking my invulnerability” (#26); “I am not the victim of the world I see” (#48); and “Love holds no grievances” (#68). No particular lesson is likely to undo our habitual victimization in one fell swoop. Instead, it’s the cumulative effect of slowly recognizing our vicious insanity and forgiving it, step by step and lesson by lesson, that will do the trick. Then we can enjoy the miraculous benefits of some less offensive lessons like “When I am healed, I am not healed alone” (#137).
This process could not be more important, for it means we each have the capacity to end all war. But we have to start within, where it actually begins – not out there, where it’s being endlessly replayed just to glorify the futility of it all.
You can support the development of this writing:
"My grievances hide the light of the world in me."
—ACIM Workbook Lesson 69
Over several decades of following the story of A Course in Miracles, I’ve repeatedly heard a mischaracterization of the teaching as a superficial “love and light” doctrine that aims merely to make its students feel better about themselves for a while. This mistaken impression has been perpetrated not just by surface-skimming critics, but by some novice students as well.
At certain points in the Text and Workbook, it’s easy to see how this mistake could be made on a first reading. In Lesson 69, the student is directed to “let go of all the content that generally occupies your consciousness” to attain the perception of the mind “as a vast circle, surrounded by a layer of heavy, dark clouds.” These clouds are described as the bank of grievances which hide “the light of the world” within our mind.
Then one is shortly instructed to “Determine to go past the clouds. Reach out and touch them in your mind. Brush them aside with your hand; feel them resting on your cheeks and forehead and eyelids as you go through. Go on; clouds cannot stop you….”
Easy-peasy, eh? The only clue that this is not a once-and-you’re-done proposition is the admonition that the initial meditation should be followed up by “shorter practice periods, which will you want to do as often as possible in view of the importance of today’s idea to you and your happiness.”
It’s that “often as possible” suggestion that clues us in to the fact that letting go of our grievances is actually a 24-7-lifespan assignment. As Course philosopher Ken Wapnick once suggested to me, “A lesson like ‘I am the light of the world’ doesn’t mean you’re supposed to sit in meditation and imagine yourself glowing. If you’re doing it right, you’ll become more and more aware of all the darkness you’re habitually holding onto.”
Likewise, original ACIM publisher Judy Skutch commented, “Some people come to the Course looking for a reinforcement of their feelings for peace, love, and light, and that’s what they’ll find. But their eyes may glaze over when they come to the Course definition of the ego as a murderer. There are many paths that will tell you of your perfection in spirit, and that you are loved. The Course does that too, but it may not be the best place to go for it.”
That’s why the Course is properly seen as a “via negativa” or dark path, focused not on gravitating effortlessly toward the light, but on laboriously dismantling all the shadows, illusions, and bitter resentments that stand in its way. That’s why the Workbook takes at least a year of concentrated discipline – and in most students’ experience, decades – to let go of the grievances that we tend to hold onto for dear life. Yet we can see in the news everyday how chronic grievances actually deal death, from the US daily habit of mass shootings to the recurrence of rocket firings between Israel and Palestine.
We may feel helpless to influence these ongoing tragedies politically, but we can always be doing the daily work of learning to recognize and let go of our personal grievances – which provides others and the entire world with a model for healing. That's worth doing as often as possible, I think.
And we can do this work without necessarily being a “good” Course student. I used to be in a study group where one fellow showed up at every meeting with the same complaint about his inadequate income and penurious livelihood. When he had voiced this gripe for about the tenth time, he caught himself and said, “Listen to me going on about the same old grievance again. I must not be doing the Course right.”
In response, our sharp and caring group leader Carol gently suggested, “I don’t think you have to do the Course right. I think you just have to keep doing it.”
Amen to that… and can you turn on the light, Carol?
"What I see is a form of vengeance."
—ACIM Workbook Lesson 22
Recently, after a very long day of editing spiritual stuff, I turned on the TV late at night to find something to put me to sleep. What leapt at me from the cable channel lineup was “The Exorcist,” the iconic film from almost fifty years ago that made green-bile-spewing and 180-degree head-spinning famous.
While this was not exactly the kind of cinematic lullaby I’d been looking for, I was captivated from the start. That’s in part because I was looking at this bizarre tale from a substantially changed viewpoint. First, I was no longer the kid who saw the film when it was new. Second, I’ve been involved with this Course in Miracles thing for a while, which changes your views on just about everything.
For those who don’t know the story (and where have you BEEN for fifty years?!), The Exorcist is basically the tale of a 12-year-old girl, Regan, who gradually gets taken over by the Devil Hisself, driving her actress mom into throes of over-dramatizing and pretty much laying waste to her own bedroom… and oh yeah, she kills three guys in the process, two of them priests.
The first question that arose for me in this re-seeing was: Why did the Devil waste his time possessing a powerless girl in her tweens? If he wanted, say, to take over the world, why not possess a self-help guru or a yoga teacher – or even better, a President of the United States who could, in turn, infect millions of people with crazed and vengeful cult thinking?
Hmm… it does appear that the Devil has learned a thing or two in the last fifty years. But that’s another essay.
What changed most for me in this new viewing is that I saw the melodrama of Regan’s possession as a metaphor for how all of us can be overtaken by that most vengeful part of our minds, i.e, the ego. It isn’t clear why Regan gets taken over (although a Ouija board is a suspect early in the film) but once she does, her devolution into devilment is pretty fast. First she’s committing a few social indiscretions (issuing a death curse to one of her mom’s friends, and peeing in the parlor at a party) and before you know it, she’s speaking in tongues, invoking a tornado in her room, cursing out priests, and generally looking horrid.
Okay, so it’s a movie and most of us don’t go down the tubes so fast, or so cinematically. But without some kind of intervention, the human psyche can turn pretty mean, ugly, and vengeful over time. The Course tries to alert students to that danger early in the Workbook, with Lesson 22 bringing our attention to the fact that we may be in the habit of seeing everything around us a product and/or a tool of vengeance:
"Today’s idea accurately describes the way anyone who holds attack thoughts in his mind must see the world. Having projected his anger onto the world, he sees vengeance about to strike at him. His own attack is thus perceived as self defense. This becomes an increasingly vicious circle until he is willing to change how he sees. Otherwise, thoughts of attack and counter-attack will preoccupy him and people his entire world. What peace of mind is possible to him then?"
To the extent that we are seeing things vengefully, we are possessed by ego. If you have any doubt about vengeance being a widespread possession, just watch five minutes or so of the daily “news” (much of which is actually as old as the Devil Hisself).
Fortunately for us, the Course provides a method of exorcism that we can execute on our own, without the assistance of priests, holy water, or ritual shouting… although I must admit there have been times when I understood the appeal of screaming, “The power of Christ COMMANDS you! The power of Christ COMMANDS you! The power of Christ…” etc. etc.
Admittedly the ACIM form of exorcism may take decades instead of a few days. But the results are transformative and revitalizing, as we gradually learn to see the world around us as a realm of opportunities for forgiveness instead of vengeance.
Likewise, everything turns out OK for Regan. By the end of the film she’s her young sweet spotless self again, and has gotten off scot-free for three murders. But the movie ends with no guarantee that Regan might not get possessed again — just like any of us can get repossessed by vengeance if we don’t maintain a certain degree of vigilance.
For me, that means sticking to the Course lessons… and the Ouija board stays in the damn closet.
"The death penalty is the ego's ultimate goal..."
from ACIM Text Chapter 12, Section VII
While watching news coverage of yet another mass shooting in the US, I heard a reporter say that “an investigation of the shooter’s motivation is underway.”
This is a common postscript to these horrific events. Eventually we learn that the “motivation” is within the usual range of deadly passions: racial enmity, political terrorism of all stripes, personal grudges, paranoid delusions, or even heart-breaking insecurity.
Perhaps it satisfies our morbid curiosity to know which particular bad motivation, or mixture of them, caused any particular massacre. Yet it’s safe to assume that simply knowing what it is won’t prevent that kind of motivation from erupting lethally again. History suggests it will not.
But we may have a chance at undoing murderous motivations if we investigate them at a more fundamental level. A Course in Miracles gives us a hint about where to look in the grave passage which inspires this essay:
Remember, then, that whenever you look without and react unfavorably to what you see, you have judged yourself unworthy and have condemned yourself to death. The death penalty is the ego’s ultimate goal, for it fully believes that you are a criminal, as deserving of death as God knows you are deserving of life. The death penalty never leaves the ego’s mind, for that is what it always reserves for you in the end. Wanting to kill you as the final expression of its feeling for you, it lets you live but to await death. It will torment you while you live, but its hatred is not satisfied until you die. For your destruction is the one end toward which it works, and the only end with which it will be satisfied.
Both ACIM and contemporary psychology remind us of the deadly power of projection. Whenever we are so intensely uncomfortable with something we feel about ourselves that we don’t want to look at it, we will inevitably dump it on someone else. Sensing that the apparently “self-serving” part of our mind actually wants us dead, an unconscious reaction is to attempt enforcing that death penalty on others. The particular way in which that projection gets expressed (the so-called “motivation”) is just a variation on the basic theme.
The intense self-hatred that all human beings secretly harbor is always the real culprit.
Fortunately, most people have enough socialization and self-control not to let murderous self-hatred be expressed. But the transformative discipline of the Course is meant to help us do more than control ourselves. It gives us the methodology, however challenging and prolonged it may prove to be, to forgive and let go of the lethal aspect of our minds for good.
And while the Course is often interpreted as apolitical, it reminds us that the miracle of forgiveness “may touch many people you have not even met, and produce undreamed of changes in situations of which you are not even aware.” That’s about the most positive politics imaginable — and a lot more effective than fleeting “thoughts and prayers.”
"My mind holds only what I think with God."
Recurring motif for Review of Workbook Lessons 141-150
This passage from ACIM is a meta-lesson, not numbered on its own but serving as a daily recurring motif for the review of Workbook Lessons 141-150. That means it’s repeated ten times in a few pages. In the next review of Lessons 171-180, there’s a related recurring motif: “God is but Love, and therefore so am I”— repeated no less than thirty times.
God only knows why, but “my mind holds only what I think with God” came to mind when I was watching news coverage of America’s latest mass shooting in Colorado. Reporters were speculating whether the lone gunman would end up with an insanity defense, which brought to mind the sheer insanity by which we define criminal insanity.
The logic, if you can call it that, goes like this: If you mow down a bunch of people with an automatic assault weapon on impulse and are not fully cognizant of the meaning or consequences of what you are doing, then you’re crazy and can’t be held responsible for the act. If, on the other hand, you plan to mow down a bunch of people with an automatic assault weapon, fully understanding the meaning and consequences, then you’re sane and can therefore be held fully accountable.
The Course has a simpler guideline for the determination of who’s lost their mind: “Who punishes the body is insane.” [Ch28,VI,1] That would add up to all of us, at least part of the time. And for too many it’s a life sentence of self-punishment, abuse of others, or some tragic mixture of both.
We punish our bodies and others’ because we are generally forgetful that 'God is love and therefore so are we.' Because we’re constantly forgetting that profound equation, what our minds usually hold is the usual flotsam and jetsam of grievances, revenge motives, memory fragments, future fantasies, imagined scenarios of what we should have said or done but didn’t… that is, every loveless thought that maniacally revolves around trying to enhance, protect, or at least sustain the life of the body.
Thank God we don’t have total recall of everything that our minds have been holding for the last month, week, day, or even the previous hour. Fully catalogued and sorted, a complete review of what passes through our self-awareness in any given timeframe might bring us to the chilling realization that we’re, well... kinda nuts. How close we come to doing violence to ourselves or others relies entirely on the intensity of our nuttiness at any given time (not to mention easy access to mass-killing machines, but that’s another essay).
That’s why the reminder that our minds could hold only what we think with God can provide a powerful cleansing mechanism. For at least ten days, it’s a way to flush the flotsam and jetsam of ordinary consciousness and return, however briefly, to the awareness that we are love. In other traditions, this remembrance is known as satori, enlightenment, or salvation. It is, paradoxically, an emptiness filled with all we need.
"I am at home. Fear is the stranger here."
Workbook Lesson 160, A Course in Miracles
When we say or think that we live in fear of disease, attack, isolation or a host of other mortal dangers, the real problem may not actually be any of these potential calamities. Instead the fundamental problem might be that we “live in fear.”
That is, we can become so accustomed to regarding the world around us with apprehension that, before we know it, fear has become our home base.
If you go by the prevalence of anxiety disorders, there’s a lot of people residing in a fearful place — at least 19 to 30 percent according to estimates by the National Institutes of Health.
In the text of this lesson, the Course describes this existential displacement this way:
Who fears has but denied himself and said, “I am the stranger here. And so I leave my home to one more like me than myself, and give him all I thought belonged to me.” Now is he exiled of necessity, not knowing who he is, uncertain of all things but this; that he is not himself, and that his home has been denied to him.
What’s always fascinated me about this lesson is it does not suggest the total denial or banishment of fear from the home in our mind. Instead, it calls upon us to recognize fear as “the stranger here.” That raises the question: What do we do when we find an unwanted stranger in our home?
There's a variety of cognitive therapy strategies that address this question directly, from exposure therapy to desensitization, from biofeedback to hypnosis, from mindfulness meditation to relaxation techniques. All these methods can be seen as ways to shift our perception of the fearful “stranger in our midst” — and that often involves becoming better acquainted with it.
Simply declaring “fear begone!” usually won’t do the trick. Instead, we have to keep looking at our fear, or monitoring its energy levels, or relaxing the energetic space around it. In a very real sense, we have to start making friends with our fear, so that it gradually becomes less and less of a stranger.
And that process, in a nutshell, is the same as forgiveness. Forgiveness does not simply drive away what has hurt us, or is causing our anxiety. Instead, it calls upon our higher self (what the Course calls the Holy Spirit) to help us see the source of our agitation differently. It is in that changed perception that we find not only a release from chronic fear, but a greater power of consciousness that distinguishes our holy “Self” from our previously fear-driven ego-self.
The more we move into that Self, the more we find ourselves at home — a place of safety and power where there is no need to fear any strangers.
"I rule my mind, which I alone must rule."
Workbook Lesson 236, A Course in Miracles
Anyone who has ever watched their thoughts spin off in an uncontrollable tornado of anger, anxiety, or vengefulness can attest to the fact that we do not always rule our own minds. We tend to think of the mind as a thinking self-awareness generated by our individual brain. Yet everyone has had the experience of that presumably enclosed, self-possessed mind being ruled by energies that seem to be spawned by untoward events, or enforced by other people, or arising murkily from our own unsettled past.
The beginning of spiritual awareness arrives with the realization that there is some part of our mind — however tiny or overruled it may seem — that can recognize when the rest of it has derailed. When we cannot recognize that derailment, we may end up getting diagnosed. Or, as recent political history has shown, we may find ourselves absorbed into a mass movement of deranged minds.
This lesson provides a valuable key to sanity when it reminds us simply: “My mind can only serve.” The major purpose that our mind usually seems to serve is the propagation of the self (“I think, therefore I am”) but in fact the mind is directionless when it is merely propping up the ego, our precarious and often tortured sense of self.
Even if we're not fully aware of it, our mind's purpose often does have a forceful direction. That direction is aiming toward an impossible enlargement of the self: to make it bigger, more solid and powerful, and ultimately invulnerable to all disturbances. And that way madness lies — because there is a fizzy insubstantiality of the self that simply cannot be made bigger, or realer, or more powerful.
In fact, it’s hard enough just to hold onto the same self from one moment to the next, and sometimes we spend more energy disguising it than proudly holding it forward.
Thus, to achieve lasting sanity, our mind must serve something other than self-delusions of grandeur. In this lesson, the Course suggests that we “give its service to the Holy Spirit to employ as He sees fit.” Paradoxically, by turning over our mind’s service to a wiser, transcendent intelligence, “I thus direct my mind, which I alone can rule.”
Clearly understanding the guidance of the Holy Spirit is not always a piece of cake, and the frantic ego-self has been known to intervene and try to mess up the message. That’s where spiritual discipline comes in: to remind ourselves on a daily if not moment-by-moment basis that there is always something greater to serve than our own self-aggrandizement.
To the extent that we can consistently turn our thoughts in the Holy Spirit's direction — that is, toward kindness, compassion, and a common purpose with all others — we are truly ruling our minds.
You can support the development of this writing:
"What I see is a form of vengeance."
Workbook Lesson 22, A Course in Miracles
While I was watching the second impeachment trial of you-know-who, featuring the disheartening and sometimes horrifying videos of rioters attacking the US Capitol building, this Course lesson floated into mind.
It had been a long time since I revisited this early exercise, which I think of as part of the buzz-saw of the first 28 lessons. These opening salvos are intent on shaking up the new ACIM student’s grasp of conventional reality, and they achieve this goal admirably.
Looking back over them, I’m reminded of what the late Course philosopher Ken Wapnick told me in our first interview many years ago. When I asked him if he thought that most new students come to the Course during or soon after a major crisis in their lives, he answered: “One thing’s for sure. If your life is not in crisis before you start the Course, it will be soon afterward!”
That’s because, in lessons like #22, the Course strips away our rationalizations about how we experience the world. “What I see is a form of vengeance” is not just a perspective on the violence we can see in the news everyday, but a startling view of the fundamental conditions of life itself. It also provides an unsettling insight into the part we play in the conspiracy of those conditions. As the opening salvo of this particular lesson puts it:
“Today’s idea accurately describes the way anyone who holds attack thoughts in his mind must see the world. Having projected his anger onto the world, he sees vengeance about to strike at him. His own attack is thus perceived as self defense. This becomes an increasingly vicious circle until he is willing to change how he sees. Otherwise, thoughts of attack and counterattack will preoccupy him and people his entire world. What peace of mind is possible to him then?”
Besides a recently fired chief executive, does this sound like anybody you know?
Changing our mind about how and what we see is essentially what the Course calls a “miracle.” When you consider human nature in general, it does seem like a miracle if anyone genuinely changes their mind. Yet, in the Course view, this is the key to saving our sanity — and thus the ‘salvation’ of the world.
None of us knows exactly how we got here and why things are the way they are. The Course, as well as the Vedantic and Buddhist traditions going back thousands of years earlier, tell us that we’ve gotten ourselves caught in a huge perceptual delusion. Regardless of whether we believe the world around is ‘real’ or not, we’ve all found cause to be angry about the whole situation. That means we look out upon the world with 'attack thoughts.' Too often we find those thoughts circling round to bite us from behind — and then we’re off to an increasingly vicious circus.
What ACIM drills into us as the miraculous cure — forgiveness — is properly seen not just as a nice or moral thing to do, and certainly not a weak or acquiescent thing to do. To admit how often we feel the world is attacking us, and then recognize that our own thoughts are goading us toward vengeance, requires not just clarity and humility. The ACIM discipline is also designed to help us grow into courage of the highest order. It takes courage to recognize the danger of our attack thoughts, and honestly approach letting go of them. As we grow into that capacity, we have an increasing chance of seeing the everyday world around us as an opportunity to heal this ‘reality’ — rather than just an ongoing form of vengeance.
"I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt."
Workbook Lesson 284, A Course in Miracles
Recently a coaching client confessed that chronic health problems were giving her the "emotion" of "I must be a terrible person and this is my punishment." I pointed out to her that what she was calling an emotion was actually a tragically mistaken thought, which she was then using to punish herself with bad feelings.
The difference may seem like splitting semantic hairs, but there is a critical distinction between the inner experiences of thought and emotion. Definitions of emotion differ, but a practical illustration is provided by dictionary.com: "an affective state of consciousness in which joy, sorrow, fear, hate, or the like is experienced, as distinguished from cognitive and volitional state of consciousness."
In other words: first comes a thought, and then an emotion. And if a thought is hurtful, it will quickly and inevitably lead to one or more emotions that punish oneself or others.
This was dramatically illustrated in the recent assault on the U.S. Capitol, when thousands of people entertaining a toxic web of delusional thoughts were spurred by the resultant powerful emotions to commit trespass, vandalism, and deadly assault while threatening the assassination of political leaders, all with the intent to overthrow the results of a valid election.
The reason that we often can’t distinguish thought from emotion is that the transit from one to the other is usually so quick as to seem instantaneous. Once we’ve been gripped by a powerful emotion, especially a negative one, it seems involuntary and beyond our control. We certainly don’t feel that we “elected” that hurtful emotion, and it can feel obligatory to follow it to its ultimate negative consequences.
A Course in Miracles, which refers to itself as a “mind training,” is focused on helping us recognize and take responsibility for our thought patterns before they lead us into negative emotions and destructive behaviors. It does this by suggesting that we daily practice an array of powerfully positive thoughts, from “I am the light of the world” to “God is but love and therefore so am I.”
The purpose of these “thought substitutions” is two-fold. First, we are obviously being given something better to think than we’re probably used to. Second, we are made aware of how often our habitual thoughts diverge from what is healthy, useful, or happy. A direct reference to the method is made in the Introduction to the ACIM Text: “The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught. It does aim, however, at removing the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence, which is your natural inheritance.”
What this passage refers to as “blocks to the awareness of love’s presence” is nothing more than our thoughts. Understanding why we all tend to think in patterns that block our awareness of love is perhaps less important than simply being aware that it is a habit we choose, whether we’re aware of it or not.
And we can choose to think differently, so that we are led into emotions and behaviors that strengthen our social connections, heal our intimate relationships, and enlighten our politics. That is why it is so critically important to know that we can always be inwardly validating the “election” of thoughts that heal instead of hurt.
"Let me not forget my function."
Workbook Lesson 64, A Course in Miracles
One of the early, simpler lessons of the Course summarizes its core discipline, but needs a bit of explanation for the uninitiated. In Course terms, our “function” is always forgiveness.
We may believe we have many other functions: to be part of a family, to procreate our own, to be an artist, businessperson, soldier, or fulfill any of countless other societal roles. We may think we have the function of nobly serving others, or selfishly becoming as wealthy as we can.
Finally, our belief in biology and the “preservation of the species” tells us that above all, we have the function of physically surviving as long as we can. Yet that function eventually fails, ending in death for us as individuals and, someday, as a species (a “someday” that seems ever closer these days). So the mere drive to survive, however compelling it seems, ends up doomed. Thus it is not a sensible raison d’être by itself.
Nearly everyone has encountered a period of doubt, if not a full-fledged crisis, about their purpose for being alive on this troubled earth. Such doubts and crises are intensified if we believe we have committed sins against others, ourselves, or even against God. Some religions have long found their function in servicing our guilt about those sins – either by easing or exploiting it, or by some combination of both.
Per the Course, however, the “sin” we most need to forgive is the fact that we perceive a world at all. “Nothing the body’s eyes seem to see can be anything but a form of temptation, since this was the purpose of the body itself,” explains the text of this lesson. This means that we use our body as the centerpiece of a persistent, convincing, and largely cruel illusion. The ongoing fantasy of our individual, physical self offers a huge variety of “temptations,” none of which can last nor be held onto for very long. Eventually, everything we have or love is diminished and ultimately destroyed, including our own body and its self-awareness.
Even so, our consciousness haunts us with mystical sensations of eternity and boundless life. Because we can never seem to lay our hands on those sensations and possess them for good, we are tempted to believe that we have been abandoned to loneliness, suffering, and death in an incomprehensibly vast universe. That makes us no more than tiny specks of doomed matter, each with an individual spark of life, but without any function at all. Our mere existence seems like a punishment in this scheme. Something is seriously out of whack but we’re not sure how, where, or when things went so terribly wrong.
What’s wrong, according to the Course, is that we have chosen to forget our boundless life in eternity. It haunts us because we have driven that “real life” very far back in our awareness, even to the point that we may think we have destroyed it, and there is no getting it back. As ACIM describes our insanity in Chapter 18, “the journey into darkness has been long and cruel, and you have gone deep into it.”
Yet there is a way back, which the Course identifies as forgiveness. Forgiveness is the tool by which we regard all “temptations” as means of letting go of our dreamlike delusion of a world. Then the world becomes “a place where you learn to forgive yourself what you think of as your sins. In this perception, the physical appearance of temptation becomes the spiritual recognition of salvation.”
This kind of salvation doesn’t mean a ticket to heaven, and doesn’t have to be bought at the price of confessing our sins. In the Course, salvation simply means regaining the awareness that our real life is boundless and eternal. Everything we have mistakenly placed in the way of remembering it – including our doomed physical existence in an individual body lost in a vast material universe – is a self-punishing sham.
And therein lies our true and single function of forgiveness – which, admittedly, we seem constantly tempted to forget.
"Let me remember I am one with God."
Workbook Lesson 124, A Course in Miracles
Recently I was talking to a coaching client who was struggling with thoughts and events that “triggered” her to feel angry or despondent. This Course lesson came to mind as we talked. Since she is not an ACIM student I wanted to find a way to translate the meaning of it – and frankly I wondered why this lesson was mentioning itself to me at all.
Although it is not a lesson in itself, the suggestion “God is but love, and therefore so am I” is repeated thirty times, in mantra-like fashion, throughout the Review of lessons 171-180. Thus it’s not a stretch to say that Lesson 124 could be restated as “Let me remember I am one with love.” But what is the practical use of that?
First, it’s important to remember that the Course teaching is founded on the premise that we are all suffering from a profound and tragic forgetfulness of who, what, and where we are. We think we are enclosed in bodies on a planet orbiting in a solar system inside a galaxy that’s within an incomprehensibly large cosmos – all part of the space-time matrix.
But ACIM challenges us to accept that this is all an enormous delusion. However begrudgingly, the leading edge of physics – the branch of science that dedicates itself to determining the ultimate nature of reality — has been agreeing with this proposition for a while. As Columbia University professor and World Science Festival founder Brian Greene wrote in the New York Times on Jan. 1, 2004:
Today's scientists seeking to combine quantum mechanics with Einstein's theory of gravity (the general theory of relativity) are convinced that we are on the verge of another major upheaval, one that will pinpoint the more elemental concepts from which time and space emerge. Many believe this will involve a radically new formulation of natural law in which scientists will be compelled to trade the space-time matrix within which they have worked for centuries for a more basic ''realm'' that is itself devoid of time and space.
Although it uses a different language than that of physics, I believe the Course proposes just such a “radically new formulation of natural law.” Physicists may never put it this way, but ACIM suggests that this natural law is love: a reality of creative feeling that is “devoid of time and space.” This means that it transcends the constraints of the body and the imprisoning nature of our individual self — with which we typically have a fiercely distracting “love/hate relationship.”
I may have been less than eloquent, but I tried to counsel my client that she could thus view her “triggers” in a different light: as opportunities to remember that her deepest true nature is love. Whenever we feel victimized, gaslighted, or even mortally threatened, we are in some way allowing ourselves to be cornered by space and time. This is upsetting because, at some level, we know we are re-subscribing to a massive delusion.
As impossible as it may seem “at times,” we can always find a way to answer that we are free of all that unreality – because we are love itself.
"When I am healed I am not healed alone."
Workbook Lesson 137, A Course in Miracles
We seem to live in a world of contagion. Not only are we coping with a fast-spreading virus that infects countless bodies; along with it have come waves of suspicion, hatred, and fear that contaminate millions of minds.
Yet our current predicament is just the intensification of a deeper contagious delusion that characterizes our very existence: We believe that our reality is rooted in an individual mind and body that is separate from all others. As the Course explains in the text of this lesson:
Sickness is isolation. For it seems to keep one self apart from all the rest, to suffer what the others do not feel. It gives the body final power to make the separation real, and keep the mind in solitary prison, split apart and held in pieces by a solid wall of sickened flesh, which it can not surmount.
A fundamental principle of the Course (as well as centuries of Eastern philosophy before it) is that only the mind is real. But our real mind is not limited to our personal, limited experience of consciousness, which itself is another shade of delusion. To awaken to our real mind would be to see through the very illusions that define our world of experience, and understand that we actually belong to a mind that transcends the entire physical universe.
Thus, we actually fear healing because we sense that it would mean the loss of our tiny, individual self-awareness – that is, we secretly equate healing with death. This means we are trapped in a terrifying scheme. We find ourselves in painful, unreliable bodies that are subject to infection and decay, and ultimately doomed to lifelessness. Yet we fight to defend, maintain, and repair them as long as possible before their inevitable demise. And we transmit our chronic fear and inner conflict about this fatal scheme to others every day, sometimes fighting their bodies to preserve our own a little longer.
The Course prescription for healing is not a vaccine, or antibody cocktail, or even an alternative mind-body therapy. To heal the contagion of belief in our separateness is simply to forgive it in every moment, until constant forgiving becomes our “second nature.” This new way of being may or may not cure the body of its various ills. But it does bring our fearful, lonely self-awareness closer, step by step and day by day, to recognizing the infinity of our true home. We are increasingly liberated within regardless of what is happening to our bodies. Gradually we find ourselves spreading a different kind of contagion:
And as you let yourself be healed, you see all those around you, or who cross your mind, or whom you touch or those who seem to have no contact with you, healed along with you. Perhaps you will not recognize them all, nor realize how great your offering to all the world, when you let your healing come to you. But you are never healed alone. And legions upon legions will receive the gift that you receive when you are healed.
You can support the development of this writing:
"Into His Presence would I enter now."
Workbook Lesson 157, A Course in Miracles
A peculiarity of Course study is that it can take years for particular Text passages or Workbook Lessons to suddenly “light up” or become meaningful in each student’s eyes. What becomes illuminated, and when, will vary from person to person. This lesson recently gained my notice in a new way. In fact, reviewing it gave me the feeling I hadn’t really seen it before at all.
“Today it will be given you to feel a touch of Heaven, though you will return to paths of learning,” suggests the text for Lesson 157. This reminded me of a concept from the Zen tradition, kensho, which is sometimes taken as a synonym for satori or enlightenment. Kensho is more precisely defined as a “first glimpse” or initiatory burst of enlightenment, which then fades. Nonetheless, such a powerful, temporary insight changes everything, in the sense that it accelerates any learning we have already achieved:
“As this experience increases and all goals but this become of little worth, the world to which you return becomes a little closer to the end of time; a little more like Heaven in its ways; a little nearer its deliverance.”
What actually comprises this “Presence”? What are the “ways of Heaven” that reshape our experience of the daily world? To me, Presence is made up of feelings and qualities that heal or ease the primary challenges we face in the everyday challenges of our worldly life:
- Composure in the face of anxiety
- Equanimity in the midst of mental or emotional chaos
- Compassion answering the force of hatred (or the temptation to hate)
- Forgiveness in response to judgment (including the temptation to judge)
- Liveliness to counter the fear of death
No doubt there are more qualities that make up the experience of Presence, and how each of us feels it will vary with our degrees of learning. But the importance of Presence cannot be overestimated, because we actually pine for it throughout our lives. We want it from our broken families, long for it in our imperfect relationships, or believe it will somehow be delivered, like an awaited package on the doorstep, with material wealth, fame, or accomplishment.
Yet we can “have it all” and still miss the experience of a fundamental, enlightening Presence — ironically because we actually spend so much time avoiding it through all our misbegotten measures to find a substitute. Quite literally, Presence is “not of this world” and thus won’t be found in the perfect family, ideal romance, or ego-boosting achievement.
Instead we enter Presence step by step, as we disengage from the conventional beliefs & values of the world. This does not mean we have to fight off those beliefs, or become embittered by the failure of worldly values. Disillusionment may be an unavoidable part of the process, but more important is the inward turning toward Presence that has been there within us all along.
With each turn, or moment of kensho, we then alter the very nature of the world we thought we knew.
"I will be still an instant and go home."
Workbook Lesson 182, A Course in Miracles
One of the most mystical lessons of the Course begins with some of its most poignant language:
This world you seem to live in is not home to you. And somewhere in your mind you know that this is true. A memory of home keeps haunting you, as if there were a place that called you to return, although you do not recognize the voice, nor what it is the voice reminds you of. Yet still you feel an alien here, from somewhere all unknown…. No one but knows whereof we speak. Yet some try to put by their suffering in games they play to occupy their time, and keep their sadness from them. Others will deny that they are sad, and do not recognize their tears at all. Still others will maintain that what we speak of is illusion, not to be considered more than but a dream. Yet who, in simple honesty, without defensiveness and self-deception, would deny he understands the words we speak?
The lesson explains that our true home is an inward state of "innocence that will endure forever.” This is the same innocence that we have usually convinced ourselves has been lost forever. This theme is repeated often in religion and philosophy as “the fall of man” or “original sin.” But this loss is not just a philosophical malady. In one way or another, each of us personally experiences losing our innocence — whether it is because we are born into a broken home, betrayed by a friend or lover, or stunned by the realization of having been untrue to ourselves.
Even so, from the point of view of the Course, our loss of innocence is far more profound than any such moral or emotional crisis. Those are just side effects of a greater homelessness.
We are not at home because we have actually lost our minds, and are drifting through a delusory dream of time, space, and matter. We do not know when, why, or how this happened. In fact, most of humanity doesn’t even know it happened — yet a memory of home keeps haunting us all, “as if there were a place that called you to return.”
Many religious and philosophical traditions, as well as modern psychology, recommend the value of developing a meditative stillness. It's assumed that it takes many minutes, hours, or even years of practice to develop this stillness and reap the benefits. Yet this Course lesson suggests that we can return to our inward home of peace in an “instant” of stillness.
That’s because we don’t actually have to go on a prolonged search for our innocence. At any moment in time, we can choose to remember its vast presence within our own minds. (And the Course exists to jog our memory about that presence!) While it's true that the next moment may drop us back into the pain and chaos of our habitual delusions, every instant of going home changes us. We become a bit more peaceful, a little less lonely, a skosh less insane.
Gradually we develop the skill of returning home more and more often, so that it progressively displaces our agonizing habit of inward homelessness. Eventually this instant of being-at-home becomes the only time we know:
You have not lost your innocence. It is for this you yearn. This is your heart’s desire. This is the voice you hear, and this the call which cannot be denied… And now the way is open, and the journey has an end in sight at last.
"I bless the world because I bless myself."
Workbook Lesson 187, A Course in Miracles
Years ago when I first met and interviewed the late Course philosopher Kenneth Wapnick, Ph.D., I tried to play a little trick on him. I asked him if it were possible to sum up the message of the 1200-page teaching in just a few words — expecting him to say that just wasn't possible, or it would take him a while to think it through, etc. Instead he had an answer at the ready, one that I would hear him repeat several times in the decades to follow.
"Sure, that's easy," Ken smiled. "The overall message of the Course is: 'Try to be a little kinder.'"
He went on to explain that he didn't just say, "Be kind," because the 1200 pages of the Course exist to take us through the discipline, demands, trials and tribulations of just TRYING to be kinder.
And why is that so hard? To begin with, from the ACIM point of view, the "world" itself is a profoundly tragic and mistaken form of unkindness. As the text of Lesson 129 puts it, "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."
Yet the Course makes clear that this unkind world is neither the result of God's punishment nor the blind workings of a mindless universe. Instead, each of us projects the world we experience from within our own mind. We experience it as unkind because we believe, at a very deep unconscious level, that we have attacked God.
Or, in other words, we think we have turned against our own divine, all-encompassing nature of love in order to experience ourselves as individual centers of the universe (otherwise known as "egos"). The end result of this not-so-bright choice for all-powerful autonomy is that we spend our lives looking for lasting love (or even just a bit of kindness) in a loveless world that seems to be set against us.
When times get tough, it can be really annoying to be reminded that we should "count our blessings." Right now, as we watch our world seemingly crumble under the pressures of pestilence, environmental degradation, racism, and a violently dying patriarchy, we may feel "down for the count" with no blessings to number.
What the Course would have us do instead is "create our blessings" through the means of forgiveness, compassion, care and understanding, which altogether might be summed up as kindness. Recently studying Lesson 187, I recognized that to "bless myself" is to treat all my trials and tribulations — inner and seemingly outer — with kindness.
That doesn't mean engaging in any particular behavior of self-care or indulgence, but simply to review everything that seems to be going wrong in the light of kindness instead of the darkness of worry, anxiety, suspicion, or despair. It's not an automatic or easy thing to do, which is to say it can take some trying.
This kind of inner work is not all we need to be doing right now, of course — but it just might be the foundation of making the world we see a little kinder.
"The light of the world brings peace to every mind through my forgiveness."
Workbook Lesson 63, A Course in Miracles
When I first encountered this lesson from ACIM over three decades ago, I was heading down a steep slide of failing health. I had been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) about four months earlier, after awaking one morning with a severe stomachache that would not end for seven years.
I had begun studying the Course out of sheer desperation. There was no logical reason to think that it would offer any kind of cure for my mysterious malady. But I wasn’t finding any cures, period. The Course had fallen into my lap soon after my world began falling apart, and I was simply compelled to do it.
I was embarrassed to be studying something chockful of religious language, given my identity as a cynical agnostic. Two months in, however, it had begun to dawn on me that the language of ACIM was largely symbolic. As I would later learn from Course editor and scholar Ken Wapnick, such language was intended to work directly on the unconscious. One thing was for sure: my conscious mind couldn’t figure it out.
One of many CFS symptoms I suffered was “non-refreshing sleep,” that is, sleeping restlessly for 12 to 14 hours and awaking exhausted. I experienced an enormous amount of dream activity during these marathons, much of it anxiety-ridden and seemingly pointless. But every once in a while, I would have a dream that seemed to fit the category of what ACIM refers to, only once, as “light episodes”:
As we go along, you may have many "light episodes." They may take many different forms, some of them quite unexpected. Do not be afraid of them. They are signs that you are opening your eyes at last. They will not persist, because they merely symbolize true perception, and they are not related to knowledge. These exercises will not reveal knowledge to you. But they will prepare the way to it. [from the text of Workbook Lesson 15]
The most dramatic dream came a few hours after I had first read Lesson 63, and then fell asleep. I was looking up into a blue sky where I saw a window with white curtains, unattached to any house or structure, floating all on its own. As I puzzled over this manifestation, the window began slowly rotating until the curtains were whirling around the window. Just when it all became a blur, the window abruptly stopped spinning, the curtains came to rest and then magically parted as a blinding ray of golden-white light came from the sun through the window — a blast of light so powerful that I felt obliterated. And then I awoke with a gasp.
After catching my breath, I rose from the bed and went to my desk. It was about three in the morning. I began writing a short story that would occupy most of my attention for the next thirty hours. It was not a story that was even remotely autobiographical, featuring characters who came to my imagination from out of nowhere. Although I started the story without knowing where it was going, it ended with the female protagonist, a grieving widow, experiencing this same dream. When the story felt complete, I collapsed in tears for nearly an hour and then finally fell asleep again, experiencing an almost normal rest for the first time in months.
When I awoke, I knew somehow that this remarkable light episode marked a turning point in my illness — a hint that I was beginning to “open my eyes at last.” But I would continue to get sicker for another year and a half, before beginning a slow, grinding recovery for the next five years. By the end of that tumultuous seven-year awakening, the world I had previously lived in was gone, and I found myself starting over in a new one. Key to my recovery was forgiveness of everything that had gone before, and also learning how totake care of myself instead of fighting my illness — a distinction that it took me quite a while to learn.
Since that time, I have been through the Course Workbook of lessons twice in order. In recent years, I do lessons only when they come to mind… sometimes none at all for days, and then one that takes hold for days at a time.
As the coronavirus pandemic exploded I found myself revisiting Lesson 63. It has been a daily presence in my mind for several weeks now. Perhaps this is because the whole world has now fallen ill, and is likely in for more destruction and decline before a long haul of recovery — after which it will never be the same. Yet there are already paradoxical signs of healing even in the midst of this deadly contagion. Atmospheric scientists are beginning to figure out how many lives will be saved by the decrease in air pollution resulting from the worldwide shutdown — and it may well be more lives than are taken by the virus. This is more than ironic; this is clearly a lesson to us all about the costs we have paid to create what we call civilization. Perhaps the brighter skies present a "light episode" for us all.
Yesterday I was taking a walk in a local park when I looked up into the stunning blue sky, as clear as I can recall from recent memory, and I remembered that spinning, light-struck window from my dream so many years ago. I confess that after all these years, I still don’t entirely understand the meaning of “The light of the world brings peace to every mind through my forgiveness.” But since the Course reminds us that “health is inner peace” (Text Chapter 2, section I), I think this lesson is offering a kind of spiritual contagion.
A spiritual contagion will not magically wipe out the biological contagion that is sweeping the world. But perhaps it can help us find the peace that we need — not only to get through these profoundly difficult times, but to provide the foundation for a healthier, saner world after we have been forced to let go of this one.
The short story described in this essay was published by THE SUN and later anthologized in STUBBORN LIGHT: The Best of THE SUN, Vol. III. It is now available free in a variety of digital formats, including Kindle, at Smashwords. A longer description of my experience with CFS is available here.
"I will not be afraid of love today."
Workbook Lesson 282, A Course in Miracles
(full text follows)
If I could realize but this today, salvation would be reached for all the world. This the decision not to be insane, and to accept myself as God Himself, my Father and my Source, created me. This the determination not to be asleep in dreams of death, while truth remains forever living in the joy of love. And this the choice to recognize the Self Whom God created as the Son He loves, and Who remains my one Identity.
Father, Your Name is Love and so is mine. Such is the truth. And can the truth be changed by merely giving it another name? The name of fear is simply a mistake. Let me not be afraid of truth today.
Coronavirus, climate change, cancer … you don’t have to look far to find something to be afraid of these days. Love is not likely to be on many folks’ top-ten list of things to be feared, at least consciously.
But A Course in Miracles suggests that it is indeed a deep-seated fear of love that’s behind our aggregate of anxieties. The fear of love has metastasized, like a cancer in our minds, to such an extent that we are all mostly “asleep in dreams of death.” Inside those dreams, the number of things that may scare us is incalculable, and subject to an upward swing with every news headline or social media rumor.
We tend to think we are either sensibly defending ourselves or running away in panic from all these frights. Yet ACIM suggests that it is our ancient and ongoing habit of running away from love that has driven us into this nightmarish realm of existence. That is, we elected all these fears in order to identify ourselves as singular, embodied individuals fighting for our lives, our dignity, and the well-being of those we love.
We may wonder how we ended up in such a tumultuous and threatening set of circumstances, without ever realizing that it all stemmed from the decision — made not just once long ago, but repeated unconsciously almost without pause in our daily lives — to be insane.
To set aside our multitudinous fears — even for just a moment — and instead look at their root cause is thus the first step toward “the decision not to be insane.” That choice gives us at least a glimpse of a different world.
It’s been said that a shaman “keeps a foot in both worlds,” that is, the infinite spiritual world and the material world of time, space, and matter. In that sense, anyone on a genuine spiritual path is doing the difficult shamanic work of resolving two realms of experience. In the ordinary daily world, we struggle with identity and self-worth, health and survival, and the longing for love. With at least a toe dipped into the spiritual world, we are reminded of a far different and surpassing realm — the realm that the Course reminds us is our true home.
Thus, along with the hand-washing, quarantining, and “social distancing ” that are officially recommended nowadays, it’s worth pausing every now and then simply to remember “not to be afraid of love today.” It certainly couldn’t hurt — and in the long run, it just might heal everything.
also by D. Patrick Miller:
"I will accept Atonement for myself.
Workbook Lesson 139, A Course in Miracles
“Atonement” is one of the more slippery concepts discussed in A Course in Miracles, and has been variously interpreted as meaning “at-one-ment” (whatever that is) to some kind of blissful union with the universe at large. But in the text for this lesson, the Course discusses our need for atonement in terms of self-knowledge:
“Uncertainty about what you must be is self-deception on a scale so vast, its magnitude can hardly be conceived. To be alive and not to know yourself is to believe that you are really dead. For what is life except to be yourself, and what but you can be alive instead? Who is the doubter? What is it he doubts? Whom does he question? Who can answer him?”
If there was ever a compelling explanation for the perennial popularity of vampires, zombies, and other iconic representations of the “undead,” this is it: “To be alive and not to know yourself is to believe that you are really dead.”
We fear half-alive monsters not because we think they might actually be out there, but because we experience them within ourselves.
To the extent that we are chronically cynical, afraid, or unforgiving of others or ourselves, we carry some heavy deadweights along with us in our daily life. When the Course urges us to forgive others — even to the point of visualizing an especially difficult individual as our “savior” — it’s not just challenging us to release resentments. It is also provoking us to become more alive, more expressive of our wholeness and power, and more loving of humanity as a whole. To the extent that we achieve this, we truly know ourselves.
That’s a lot harder than simply imagining ourselves to be “at one” with the universe. It’s even harder than trying to make up for your sins, which is the traditional, pre-Course meaning of atonement. Bringing some deadened part of ourselves back to life can induce what might be called a severe bittersweetness, as we grudgingly let go of a habitual pain or aggravation that has become a favorite if useless attachment … rather like a zombie’s rotted arm.
When we accept the Atonement for ourselves, we thus come to know ourselves as beings who are fully and eternally alive in spirit — as opposed to the unending grind of being more or less dead inside.
"The world I see holds nothing that I want."
Workbook Lesson 128, A Course in Miracles
“Beyond this world there is a world I want.”
— Workbook Lesson 129
If you want a philosophy that’s really down on the world as we know it, nothing beats A Course in Miracles. Although frequently mistaken for a New Age love-and-light doctrine, the Course repeatedly expresses a view of the world that would make your typical French existentialist, moaning about mere meaninglessness, look like a Pollyanna. As the text of Lesson 129 puts it: “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.”
In fact, this bracing attitude is what makes the Course such a paradox as a so-called "New Age" classic. Writing in New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (SUNY Press, 1998), Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy of the University of Amsterdam, commented:
“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 most obvious choice…. This-worldliness, particularly of the weak variety, characterizes the attitude of New Age believers to experiential reality. In this respect, a text such as A Course in Miracles, though often regarded as belonging to the New Age movement, is decidedly atypical…. According to this text — which has correctly been characterized as a Christianized version of non-dualistic Vedanta — our world is just an illusory chimera, which has nothing to offer but violence, sorrow and pain. We must awaken from the bad dream of separation, and reunite with God. . . . 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.”
By “this-worldliness,” Hanegraaff is apparently alluding to the fact that most New Age philosophies promote the idea that this world we see every day can be improved — or perhaps even perfected into a “heaven on earth” — via prayer, meditation, enlightened love, prosperity consciousness, and so forth. The Course, by contrast, tells us that it’s all a horrific nightmare from which we can only hope to wake up. And then it goes a crucial step farther:
“There is no world! This is the central thought the course attempts to teach. Not everyone is ready to accept it, and each one must go as far as he can let himself be led along the road to truth. He will return and go still farther, or perhaps step back a while and then return again. But healing is the gift of those who are prepared to learn there is no world, and can accept the lesson now.” [from the text of Workbook Lesson #132]
Learning that “there is no world” heals because the world which seems to be out there is literally within our minds: “There is no world apart from your ideas because ideas leave not their source, and you maintain the world within your mind in thought.”
I’d love to see a public opinion poll that asks people, “What is the world exactly?” I’d be willing to bet that no two people would come up with exactly the same description, despite the fact that we commonly believe we all live in the same world. Depending on how many people were asked in different places and cultures, it would be quite a revelation to recognize just how many wildly variant “worlds” are out there... probably several billion, at least.
Realizing that the world we see is really just a projection of our own ideas is the beginning of hope, healing, and miracles. Because no matter how difficult changing our minds may be, it’s infinitely easier than changing a world that seems to be beyond our control.
I place the future in the hands of God."
Workbook Lesson 194, A Course in Miracles
“I will step back and let him lead the way.”
— Workbook Lesson 155
These two lessons, as well as others like them, might be called the Course antidote to worry. On the face of it, the advice is simple: Turn over your concerns, anxiety, and need to control or plan to God, and Whoever That Is will take over everything for you. (What, me worry?)
But there’s a lot beneath the surface of these lessons, which is always the case with the Course. Since it says elsewhere that “God is an idea,” these lessons will call forth whatever our current idea of God is. If we’re having a religious hangover and still entertaining the idea of a white-maned, judgmental superdaddy-in-the-sky, we might well fear facing our future in his hands. After all, some of the cruelest incidences of personal tragedy and mass destruction have been excused with the old saw, “God works in mysterious ways.”
If, however, we’ve shifted to a New Age God of unceasing illumination and prosperity, we may think these lessons suggest that getting everything we ever wanted is easier than we might have imagined. The problem with this flower-strewn path to grace is that, on closer inspection, we’re likely to find that the flowers are plastic and the path repeatedly dead-ends in the disappointment of one wishful expectation after another.
The longer I’ve worked with the Course, the less it seems like a “spiritual” discipline than a cognitive one. In fact it calls itself a “mind-training,” which means that it is a discipline of how to think. That means gradually refining our ideas, and learning how to choose wisely among them as our guides to attitude, behavior, and relationship. As our idea of what God is deepens and expands, so does the quality of guidance we receive from that God.
Since the Course also offers the definition “God is but love and therefore so am I," this gradual mind-training means that we are coming to understand our whole being as love itself. Love is not likely to lead us on the ego's way, or facilitate a future that we already have planned. And that’s why these lessons call on our courage and readiness to be shown another way.
“I choose the joy of God instead of pain.”
— Workbook Lesson 190, A Course in Miracles
“It is very difficult to sacrifice one’s suffering. A man will renounce any pleasures you like but he will not give up his suffering.” ― G.I. Gurdjieff
Of the many confrontive lessons in A Course in Miracles, this one is nearly the most unsettling of all (though definitely second to “Sickness is a defense against the truth,” which… well, don’t get me started). On the face of it, one might well ask who wouldn’t choose joy over pain.
Yet the choice exists because virtually all of us came down on the side of suffering long ago.
Not only that, suffering is the choice we inadvertently reinforce at almost every moment of awareness — especially when we are most desperate to ease or avoid our habitual suffering. Most addictions get their start in the temporary and ultimately destructive sensations of feeling “high” in order to mask some kind of habitual pain, physical or otherwise. The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic for precisely that reason.
When I was in the fifth grade I remember being bullied by another kid everybody called "Lemon" (which possibly annoyed him), who was always threatening to put me in “a world of hurt.” The Course says that is exactly what we have done to ourselves by mistakenly believing that our consciousness is trapped in a world of space, time, decay, and chaotic, remorseless change.
Not only that, we have forgotten how, when, or why we chose this trap… but we have nonetheless senselessly bullied ourselves into a world of hurt. And as Gurdjieff suggested, we are often so identified with that world that we’ll fight to defend it.
Key to the solidity of the world of hurt, however, is the conviction that we did not choose to be here, and that we are the world’s hapless victims (some of us more than others). The Course gives no quarter in responding to the near-universal belief in victimization:
“It is your thoughts alone that cause you pain. Nothing external to your mind can hurt or injure you in any way. There is no cause beyond yourself that can reach down and bring oppression. No one but yourself affects you. There is nothing in the world that has the power to make you ill or sad, or weak or frail. But it is you who have the power to dominate all things you see by merely recognizing what you are. As you perceive the harmlessness in them, they will accept your holy will as theirs. And what was seen as fearful now becomes a source of innocence and holiness.” [from the text for Lesson 190]
What intrigues me about this passage is the suggestion that we can “dominate all things” not by bullying them, but by perceiving their harmlessness. That means forgiving everyone and everything that we tend to think is attacking or punishing us. And to do that, we have to withdraw the hurtful projections that we have placed on virtually everything.
And to do that, we must “merely recognize” what we are. Choosing “the joy of God” over our well-worn, habitual hurts is the beginning of that mere recognition. Great choice, if you can make it…
“Forgiveness offers everything I want.”
— Workbook Lesson 122, A Course in Miracles
I have experienced two fundamental ways of being in the world.Until I became chronically ill I lived the normal life of ego: looking out for No. 1, trying to preserve my habits and defend my fixed worldview, and making bargains with my fears in order to squeeze some enjoyment out of life. In this consciousness everything felt risky and there were few people I trusted. But I could always compare myself to someone less fortunate and feel like I was getting some of what I wanted.
After a seven-year health crisis that devastated my former sense of self, I found myself on a spiritual path. This meant I couldn’t focus on looking out for No. 1, because I wasn’t sure of who or what I was anymore (or even if an "I" exists at all!). It meant entering a never-ending discipline of surrendering my habits and enlarging my worldview in the light of new information and insights.
In a day-to-day sense, I don’t know if my spiritual way of life is any easier than my old ego-driven way. Sometimes it’s more demanding.
What has made the shift worthwhile is that my life makes sense to me now, and I feel consistently guided toward growth and service. In the old life I deeply doubted my worth and purpose, and secretly thought that I had too many unsolvable problems to be of real help to anyone.
The bridge from my old life to the new was forgiveness: the complete release of my pained idea of who I was. This is the most important work I have ever done on my own behalf. In retrospect I marvel at the victory I was earning during the time that I seemed to be suffering a total, grinding defeat.
In fact, I was astonished when I began to appreciate my defeats, downturns, and disappointments. The sooner they were forgiven — that is, the sooner I gave up looking at them in the same old way — the more quickly my misfortunes seemed to add to my strength, alertness, and responsibility. Gradually, experiences that I would have never wanted were transformed into unexpected gifts.
Forgiveness is the science of the heart: a discipline of discovering all the ways of being that will extend your love to the world, and discarding all the ways that do not. As forgiveness liberates your thinking, you may find yourself looking beyond the world-wearying drives of self-promotion and competition in order to get everything that you want.
Congratulations! Now you are consciously evolving, no longer running the treadmill of humanity’s favorite follies. Now you will be led by inspiration everywhere you are needed.
(This edition is adapted from The Forgiveness Book.)
“God's will for me is perfect happiness.”
— Workbook Lesson 101, A Course in Miracles
I’ve known perfect happiness once in my life, under the most unexpected circumstances. About a year into my initial study of the Course, I was at the lowest point of a prolonged illness, where I would remain for some time. I was out of work, out of an intimate relationship, perpetually in pain from a vicious variety of bodily symptoms, and beset with the feeling of having failed at everything I’d attempted up to that point of my life.
I’d also undertaken this strange spiritual discipline that I had told relatively few people about, because I wasn’t sure it was something I should admit to anyone. This discipline, this bulky and difficult “course in miracles” was either helping me heal or driving me steadily into an otherworldly insanity. In my often-foggy mental state, I couldn’t be sure which direction I was going.
Then one morning, after the usual troubled and unrefreshing sleep, I awoke unreasonably happy. This was utterly unexpected because there was obviously nothing to be happy about, besides the sardonic awareness that I had “nothing to lose.”
Over a few hours’ time, it dawned on me that this was exactly the reason. In my current circumstances, I could not possibly be any less attached to the world around me, yet still be alive and conscious. Quite without meaning to — and quite exhausted by struggling not to let go of everything that had ever mattered to me — I had actually let it all go.
I was not happy about losing that struggle. Yet there was a paradoxical result: I was sublimely happy about nothing at all.
Every other form of happiness I could remember had been connected to beneficial circumstances: being in love, succeeding at something I had planned to achieve, being high on endorphins from long-distance bicycling, or simply walking in nature. But this perfect happiness had arisen in utterly contradictory conditions. I felt physically wrecked, professionally ruined, and emotionally alone in a way I had never known. I was barely able to walk a few blocks to the grocery store and back, much less bike or hike anywhere.
The happiness I felt wasn’t changing those circumstances, nor did I think it would. Within that same day, the unprecedented joy subsided, and I was once again consumed with the battle to live in constant pain and somehow find my way forward in the world again. Yet that happiness awakened me to a different kind of reality, something I’d read about in the Course without really understanding it. This perfect and completely unconditional happiness was actually my home.
“Salvation comes from my one Self.”
— Workbook Lesson 96, A Course in Miracles
The instructions for this lesson include focusing on it for five minutes hourly (good luck with that) in this particular form: "Salvation comes from my one Self. Its thoughts are mine to use." Those words are to be followed by a period of searching the mind for the thoughts of our “one Self.”
In a recent application of this lesson, the first thought that came to my mind was “pure love.” There was a sense of quiet infinity behind these words. I realized that this kind of love was not a feeling of desire, affection, or positive regard for anyone or anything in particular. It was not even love for everyone or for the world at large, like the classic Greco-Christian notion of agape (universal love for God and humanity, the highest form of altruism).
Instead, this thought of love had nothing to do with the world around me whatsoever. The Course asserts that we find ourselves in this world because we turned away from the love of God (or thought we did, at any rate). Thus the “salvation” delivered by this kind of love has nothing to do with saving the world, or anyone’s life, or even our souls.
The salvation delivered by the pure love of our one Self is a healing memory of what we are and where we came from. It is the memory of the infinite, timeless, and unbelievably powerful silence of Oneness, for lack of a better term. That’s difficult to hold onto in an everyday world fractured by constant noise, the relentlessly ticking clock of time, and our chronic forgetfulness. (No doubt that’s why the Course urges us to look for our Self on an hourly basis!) However we managed to turn away from our “one Self,” getting back to it is a profound and demanding discipline — in part because we will inevitably try to bring that Self into this world, where it’s never going to fit.
On the other hand, the discipline is ultimately joyful, especially compared to all the worldly challenges we may pursue for the sake of less rewarding goals. We can train ourselves to become successful in business, war, or even romance, yet eventually find all of it unstable and unfulfilling — especially when its inevitable cancellation date comes due. Any degree of attachment we have to this temporary world of beauty and horror all mixed together is, at best, a faint echo of the love that we are. And when our attachments end, it not love but delusion that disappoints us.
As ACIM’s Text Introduction states: “The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught. It does aim, however, at removing the blocks to the awareness of love's presence, which is your natural inheritance.”
As we ever-so-slowly remove our self-made blocks to the awareness of love, we will feel progressively less trapped in the world we made to oppose it. And from our growing freedom will arise healing thoughts & actions that can truly be called saving graces.
also by D. Patrick Miller:
“God goes with me wherever I go.”
— Workbook Lesson 41, A Course in Miracles
If “God” is seen as an all-powerful yet capricious Superdaddy-in-the-Sky, dispensing mercy or punishment as He sees fit and weighing in on every conceivable human endeavor from wars to elections to sporting competitions, then I remain as much an atheist as I ever was. I’ve never believed in such a God. Nor do I believe that praying to this kind of God will make any difference in a political campaign, a financial endeavor, or even the outcome of illness.
What I do believe is that we all have access to extraordinary capacities of consciousness that may never be scientifically assayed, but are nonetheless accessible to us through certain disciplines of the mind. A Course in Miracles is one such discipline. The Course talks about God a lot, but in a decidedly different way than any conventional religion. Who or what is this God? If it's not that invisible Super Daddy, is it a spectral presence hovering over our shoulder waiting to grant our wishes, or just a fantasy substitute for the perfect parents we never had?
The God of the Course is more difficult to grasp than any of these common projections. You might call this God a whole & infinite consciousness that’s usually obscured by our wounded & fragmentary self-awareness — what we call the “ego.” As the Course describes the predicament:
This fragment of your mind is such a tiny part of it that, could you but appreciate the whole, you would see instantly that it is like the smallest sunbeam to the sun, or like the faintest ripple on the surface of the ocean. In its amazing arrogance, this tiny sunbeam has decided it is the sun; this almost imperceptible ripple hails itself as the ocean. Think how alone and frightened is this little thought, this infinitesimal illusion, holding itself apart against the universe. The sun becomes the sunbeam's "enemy" that would devour it, and the ocean terrifies the little ripple and wants to swallow it.
Yet neither sun nor ocean is even aware of all this strange and meaningless activity. They merely continue, unaware that they are feared and hated by a tiny segment of themselves. Even that segment is not lost to them, for it could not survive apart from them. And what it thinks it is in no way changes its total dependence on them for its being. Its whole existence still remains in them. Without the sun the sunbeam would be gone; the ripple without the ocean is inconceivable.
Such is the strange position in which those in a world inhabited by bodies seem to be… [ACIM Text Ch18,VII,3-5]
Besides using this particular lesson, is there another way back to recognizing the active truth of our existence? A valuable clue can be found in ACIM’s Manual for Teachers, where ten characteristics of “teachers of God” are listed: Trust, Honesty, Tolerance, Gentleness, Joy, Defenselessness, Generosity, Patience, Faithfulness, and Open-Mindedness.
The Course elsewhere asserts that "God is but love, and therefore so am I." These ten qualities can be seen as the chief ingredients of God-as-Love.
To the extent that we manifest these qualities, we are expressing our very nature. Exemplifying all these energies all the time — or even a few of them on a sustained basis — may seem like a tall order for the typical ego. Yet because love is our true nature, we actually need not strive or struggle to attain these characteristics — but we do have to remind ourselves that these qualities are what we are.
Thus, when a moment of loneliness, despair, or existential bewilderment strikes, one way to answer it is to ask: "In this moment, what situation or person (including myself) can I treat with greater trust... or honesty... or tolerance... or gentleness... or joy... or defenselessness... or generosity... or patience... or faithfulness... or open-mindedness?"*
This exercise may help us start dissolving our "human condition" of alienation. Instead of focusing on the ego's misery du jour, we can find new ways to extend the God of love that lives within us, and thus goes with us everywhere.
“I seek a future different from the past.”
— Workbook Lesson 314, A Course in Miracles
Here’s a lesson for addicts everywhere — and from the Course point of view, addicts are everywhere.
That’s because each of us is habituated to a false and shaky idea of our individuality and specialness. Whether we consider ourselves wonderfully special or awfully special really makes no difference. Holding on fiercely to any kind of specialness is what grinds us down and makes our past repeat itself.
We may find ourselves with a haunting depression, chronic illness, or recurring relationship dysfunction because we don’t get the connection between clinging to what we’ve always believed about ourselves — good, bad, or uncertain — and the repetition of negative ideas, energies, even physical symptoms.
To deal with the tension of clinging to all our ego-attachments, we may develop more obvious addictions to dangerous substances, unproductive behaviors, or destructive patterns of relationship. For a while these disorders will reinforce and intensify our “self-addiction,” although they have a deteriorating tendency that can eventually undo all our self-defenses.
This is the classic story of addicts who “bottom out.” It may seem that they’ve reached the end of the line with a drug or unhealthy relationship, when they’ve actually reached the end of the self they’ve always believed themselves to be. Hanging onto their specialness eventually undoes them, and the self they’ve long tried to be just isn’t sustainable.
Then arrives the time to “seek a future different from the past.” That means seeking a self that’s different as well — although strictly speaking, it actually means seeking less self than one has acted out in the past. It means learning to think, make decisions, and act on the basis of instincts that are not entirely self-serving.
For lack of a better term, we can call such instincts “divinely inspired” because they are rooted in a mystical source that’s beyond us, bigger than us, and altruistic by nature. And it is the gradual replacement of old, self-serving instincts with divine new ones that leads us into a different future that is genuinely free of an unproductive past.
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