Back in my days of being a born-again Christian, knowing when salvation would come to you was pretty easy: When you died you went to Heaven. Yet now that I am a student of the Course, it is quite a bit more complex. The Course refutes the traditional view that physical death is the gateway to Heaven: "Perhaps you think this is accomplished through death, but nothing is accomplished through death, because death is nothing" (T-6(A).1:2). According to the Course, our journey through time and space has been rolling on for millions of years. This life is just one tiny room in a grand tour of thousands of skyscrapers. Who knows how much longer the tour will last?
That question, I believe, is a source of anxiety for many, if not most, students of the Course. The anxiety is evident in the form of many nagging questions that gnaw at the back of our minds: How am I doing? How is my progress going? How close am I to the end? Is this my last lifetime? Am I perhaps just wrapping up my final lessons? Am I possibly done and simply waiting for God to take the last step? Will I ever make it? Could it be that I am a hopeless case? Will everyone else get there before me? If it takes centuries or even millennia to reach the goal, is it really worth pursuing? Can I keep my effort up that long?
In this article I would like to offer my views on this question of how long until we get to Heaven. I should warn the reader at the outset that my views on this are extreme among Course students. I cannot say I have the pure truth on this topic. I have only my own understanding, based on my reading of the Course, various other teachings and human nature. If you see it differently, you are welcome to your view, and also invited to write us with your feedback.
Complete salvation is available in every moment
One of the Course's most defining characteristics is its view of how accessible salvation is. The Course is emphatic that total liberation from the ego and the human condition is possible, easy and natural (it calls salvation "easy" more than 20 times). There is nothing in the universe, it says, that is standing between us and salvation, nothing but our own lack of willingness. We have no sinful nature, the world is not holding us back, and God makes no demands of us. The gates of Heaven are standing open, and all we need do is walk in.
As a result, complete liberation is held out to us in each and every moment of our lives, including this one. It is right there; "I need but reach out my hand to find it" (Workbook, p. 472; W-pII.355.1:3). We need only want to have it more than we want to refuse it.
The emphasis of this course always remains the same;—it is at this moment that complete salvation is offered you, and it is at this moment that you can accept it (Manual, p. 58; M-24.6:1).
Many spiritual systems suggest that there is a necessary program of outer experiences we must pass through before we become perfected. Correspondingly, if we skip any of the lessons along the way, we leave a hole in our development. Yet the Course clearly stands outside this line of thought. It says that anywhere along the way we can have the final realization (Manual, p. 53; M-22.2:5). It says that a miracle enables us to learn in an instant what a long series of outer lessons would otherwise teach us, allowing us to bypass those lessons (T-1.II.6:5). It says that we can even learn from the experiences of others: "you can learn from their experiences, and can gain from them without experiencing them directly yourself" (T-6.I.10:5).
The Course's constant tone about our salvation is one of hope, even certainty. We will make it: "The end is sure and guaranteed by God" (Manual, p. 87; C-E.1:10). After all, we never really left home in the first place. And as soon as we seemed to leave, the Holy Spirit brought us back. Now, we are simply mentally rehearsing a journey that is over. And even this rehearsal is guaranteed to end, especially since Jesus ended it for all of us.
This optimistic attitude is reflected in specific comments made throughout the Course. In the Text we are told repeatedly that we are very near to the end of the journey. Chapter 16 is full of such reassurances:
You have come close to truth… (T-16.IV.7:6). For you have come too near to truth to renounce it now…(T-16.II.6:9). Be not unwilling now; you are too near, and you will cross the bridge in perfect safety… (T-16.IV.2:5). The journey that seemed endless is almost complete, for what is endless is very near. You have almost recognized it (T-16.IV.12:3-4).
In chapter 19 we are told many times that only a tiny fragment of our ego remains, a "little wall," a "microscopic remnant," "a little feather," "a disappearing snowflake." In other words, the battle is over; the ego is almost gone. "You have reached the end of an ancient journey…" (T-18.VIII.13:1).
In the Workbook these remarks continue. We are told repeatedly that we are very close:
And now the way is short that yet we travel. We are close indeed to the appointed ending of the dream. (Workbook, p. 214; W-pI.122.10:3-4). It is very close. I need not wait an instant more to be at peace forever (Workbook, p. 472; W-pII.355.1:5-6).
Many lessons even seem to promise that today, in doing this very lesson, we will make it: "This is the day when healing comes to us. This is the day when separation ends, and we remember Who we really are" (Workbook, p. 265; W-pI.140.12:7-8). In fact, we are to spend the entirety of part II of the Workbook waiting for God to take the last step and lift us up to Him: "we wait in quiet expectation for our God…[to] take the final step Himself" (Workbook, p. 388; W-pII.Intro.2:2-3).
Despair over reaching the goal
I think the Course adopts this optimistic, hopeful tone for a very important reason. All the while that we pursue our glorious goal, our ego is whispering in our ears that we will never make it: "This Course is too hard, you will never learn it." "Give up on your Workbook lesson today, it is hopeless. Better yet, give up on the whole Workbook." "This concept is definitely too lofty for you to ever get." "Why try to forgive John today when you didn't forgive Cindy yesterday?" "Look at Beth, she is twice the Course student that you will ever be."
Of course, underneath all of these little voices of despair is the Big Despair: the belief that we are, and will always be, unworthy to be with God. "It [the ego] speaks to you of Heaven, but assures you that Heaven is not for you. How can the guilty hope for Heaven?" (T-15.I.3:6-7) Somewhere deep down in our minds we are firmly convinced that we and our Creator are different species from different universes, and that never the twain shall meet.
This despair seems like an objective assessment of the facts. It seems to simply take honest stock of our limitations and of the enormity of our resistance. Yet, ironically, this despair itself is a form of resistance. Belief comes from desire. We believe we are unworthy to return home because we still desire to run away. Our despair, therefore, is not a rational conclusion; it is a statement of intent. "I doubt if I can make it back home" means, "I intend to stay away."
Yet this is not the bottom layer of our despair. Underneath the ego's insistence that we cannot make it is its fear that we will. As we begin to walk the spiritual path, the ego becomes frantic. "And now the ego is afraid" (T-21.IV.7:1). It tells us that all our efforts are for naught, only because it fearfully recognizes that they are working.
Going even deeper, the root cause of our despair is a mis-identifying with the ego's despair. "It is its own despair it sees in you" (Workbook, p. 271; W-pI.151.5:6). It senses it can't keep this game up forever, that its days are numbered. And so, as a last ditch effort, it tries to convince us that its despair over keeping us from home is really our despair over getting home. In this sense, our despair can be seen as a sign of progress; the ego is getting worried.
I believe that despair is one of the most paralyzing things along the spiritual path. Therefore, if we can see through its supposedly rational nature and realize it is a deceptive ego ploy, we can pop the bubble of the ego. Try to remember this the next time you feel hopeless about your spiritual journey. Tell yourself it is not hopeless at all, that you can make it and will make it, that your homecoming is guaranteed. Remind yourself that your despair is a cover for 1) your resistance to awakening, 2) your ego's recognition that you are awakening and 3) its sense of despair about keeping you from awakening.
Despair on the spiritual path produces yet another ego compensation, perhaps even more paralyzing than the despair alone: grandiosity. This is described in the section called "Grandeur vs. Grandiosity" in chapter 9. The setting is this: We have had an experience of God's grandeur and as a result have seen how small and meaningless the ego is.
When this occurs, even though it does not understand it, the ego believes that its "enemy" has struck, and attempts to offer gifts to induce you to return to its "protection." Self-inflation is the only offering it can make. The grandiosity of the ego is its alternative to the grandeur of God. Which will you choose?
Grandiosity is always a cover for despair. It is without hope because it is not real. It is an attempt to counteract your littleness, based on the belief that the littleness is real. Without this belief grandiosity is meaningless, and you could not possibly want it. The essence of grandiosity is competitiveness, because it always involves attack. It is a delusional attempt to outdo, but not to undo (T-9.VIII.1-2).
In other words, you have had a taste of real grandeur. In response, the ego feels threatened and so offers you counterfeit grandeur. This is grandiosity, a state of self-inflation in which you feel better, more advanced, more special, more holy than others. You accept this counterfeit because you are in despair of ever permanently finding the real thing. Deep down, you feel you will never be worthy of real grandeur, so you must settle for the fake stuff. Grandiosity, then, is proof of how little you really feel.
Now you will not be conscious of being in despair. On the contrary, you will be filled with the elation of being on the last leg of your spiritual journey. You will be conscious of being an incredible spiritual seeker, a bold pioneer, part of a spiritual elite, a brilliant light against the gloomy blackness, one in a million.
I hesitate to wade into this topic, because I feel it is a very sensitive one among Course students. I also hesitate because I have my own set of judgments about this, which I don't want to visit on my readership. Perhaps, though, we can set our sensitivities and judgments aside momentarily, and for the sake of our spiritual journey approach this topic as honestly and objectively as we can. For I do believe it needs to be addressed. Let's face it, we Course students are very prone to this particular malady. A great many of us feel we are either quite advanced or very nearly enlightened.
As I said, I think this is a very paralyzing state of mind on the spiritual journey, for several reasons. First, thinking you are done (or nearly done) destroys your motivation to make more progress. Second, this condition, I believe, is characterized by massive denial. To think you are more advanced than you are is only possible when you are not really looking at your ego. Yet the Course's whole path is one of looking at ego, for we cannot let go what we do not know is there. Third, it makes attack an integral part of our path to God, for grandiosity is an attack, "a delusional attempt to outdo, but not to undo." Finally, as we said, this grandiosity is disguised hopelessness. This disguise makes it even harder to uncover and address the root despair that weighs down all of our journeys to God.
How advanced are we?
While the Course has very high hopes for us, it does not display very high regard for our current state of development. All those remarks about being so near to the end have more to do, I believe, with how accessible the end is than with how advanced we are. For those comments are balanced out by other, more sober ones:
You do not understand [the Course] yet only because your whole communication is like a baby's (Text, p. 437; T-22.I.6:3).
For you have barely started to allow your first, uncertain steps to be directed up the ladder separation led you down (Text, p. 553; T-28.III.1:2).
Most professional therapists [one could generalize this to read "most teachers/leaders in fields where people are seeking healing"] are still at the very start of the beginning stage of the first journey (Psychotherapy, p. 20; P- 3.II.8:5).
My personal opinion is that all of us Course students at this point are in spiritual kindergarten, myself certainly included. Perhaps (as a friend of mine put it) we are still looking for the classroom door. Now maybe I am wrong; perhaps this is even an offensive concept. Yet why would it be? What is so wrong with being in kindergarten? If the concept outrages us, what in us is being outraged? Could it perhaps be the kindergartner in us?
I think the Course would agree that it is essential to be all right with where we are at, both for the sake of our peace of mind and because it is useless to try to learn college-level lessons when we haven't mastered our ABC's. There is a passage in the Course that specifically seeks to console us about our kindergarten condition. It tries to help us be okay about where we are by saying that God is okay with it: "God takes you where you are and welcomes you. What more could you desire, when this is all you need?" (Manual, p. 62; M-26.4:10-11)
Clearly, however, there are people in the world who are truly advanced. We cannot simply assume that everyone who thinks they are advanced is in a grandiose state of denial. How do we tell the difference? I don't know all the answers to this question. To get a sense of how complex and subtle this question is, simply take a current follower and an ex-follower of the same guru and let them discuss how evolved this guru truly is.
I can, however, think of one important contrast: measuring our progress by our own claims vs. measuring it by how others react to us. Imagine, on the one hand, that much of our speech includes implied claims about how advanced we are; stories, for instance, of our spiritual feats, generous deeds and amazing experiences. Imagine further that we feel like the persecuted pioneer, the one who is blazing a trail for the radical truth, while others misunderstand and mistreat us because they are in darkness, and fear the blinding light we represent. Seen thusly, the negative and insensitive treatment we receive from the world is proof of the higher plane we are on (rather than proof of how impossible we are to deal with).
How many of us can say that the above description does not fit us, even just a little? Yet in my opinion this description is a classic sign of pseudo-advancement. After listening to myself and other spiritual seekers for years, I have devised the following dictum: Only the ego claims to be spiritually advanced. The claims we make are thus their own most effective refutation. Of course, one who is truly advanced does not hang his head in false modesty, and so my dictum is a bit exaggerated. Perhaps it should read: Only the ego frequently claims to be spiritually advanced. Jesus provides a very instructive example in the Course, for he rarely even mentions his own state of advancement. And when he does it is only to convince us that he is in an excellent position to help us.
In addition to our self-made claims, the "persecuted pioneer" syndrome is also a clear sign of pseudo-advancement. For it fails the true litmus test of our development: how others react to us. "It is easy to distinguish grandeur from grandiosity, because love is returned and pride is not" (Text, p. 167; T-9.VIII.8:1). Believe it or not, how others react to us is perhaps the Course's main test for our advancement. This idea is found in "The Test of Truth" in chapter 14. It is also very clearly stated in chapter 15:
And you will recognize which you have chosen [ego or Spirit] by their reactions. A Son of God who has been released…is always recognized (Text, p. 284; T-15.II.4:6-7).
Therefore, advancement that rests on our own self-made claims is false. True advancement becomes visible in how much of God others see in us, how much they sense a warmth they want to be near, a peace that makes them feel at home. It has been said that a saint is someone who makes it easy to believe in God.
True, this measure has problems associated with it, for there are those who will worship an imposter and those who will crucify an avatar. This measure can also be faked, by subtly hiring others to make grandiose claims on our behalf—which is the same as making the claims ourselves. It can also become its own kind of trap, as when we work to impress others and then look for their approving reactions. Yet still, there is something of the ego in measuring our advancement by our own claims, and something ego-transcending in leaving it to the reactions of others, to the amount of light their faces reflect back to us.
Will we be out of here tomorrow?
Yet even if those of us who think they are almost done are indulging in some grandiosity, perhaps they have the right idea. Does the Course not suggest that we will awaken from the dream of time and space very soon?
I honestly think it does not. And this is where my views are probably in the extreme minority. The Course very frequently promises that we can wake up at any moment. Nowhere to my knowledge does it promise that we will make that moment soon. Making salvation available in every moment is up to God. When we choose to lay hold of God's offer is up to us. And as we know, there can be an almost infinite difference between God's Will and our choices. The Course mentions that even though the Holy Spirit can teach us all of salvation in one instant, it can take us a very long time to give Him that instant: "It takes far longer to teach you to be willing to give Him this [instant] than for Him to use this tiny instant to offer you the whole of Heaven" (Text, p. 282; T-15.I.11:4).
The clearest proof of the fact that the Course expects us to take a long time lies in its image of our awakening. Its primary image is not one in which we are going along normally, pick up A Course in Miracles, and get suddenly hit by the lightning bolt of total realization. As Allen Watson's booklet, The Journey Home, pointed out, the Course's primary image is that of a journey, a journey in which we pass through many discernible stages. In other words, the Course sees our homecoming not in terms of instant awakening, but of gradual development. "By far the majority are given a slowly-evolving training program" (Manual, p. 25; M-9.1:7). "Each small step will clear a little of the darkness away, and understanding will finally come to lighten every corner of the mind that has been cleared of the debris that darkens it" (Workbook, p. 15; W-pI.9.2:5).
How long will it be until understanding finally comes to lighten our minds? That, of course, is up to us. But the Course does give many clues that we are dealing in vast stretches of time. Let us look at some of these clues.
The time dimensions of the journey
To get some idea of the quantities of time we are dealing with, let us look at this line from early in the Text:
Just as the separation occurred over millions of years, the Last Judgment will extend over a similarly long period, and perhaps an even longer one (Text, p. 30; T-2.VIII.2:5).
The phrase "millions of years" is striking in itself, but it becomes more striking when you look closer at the passage. For "millions of years" refers not to the dream as a whole, but to its very beginning and very end. The separation, the event that kicked this whole thing off, "occurred" over millions of years. The Last Judgment, the final healing that only begins once we have come very close to perfection, will also take millions of years. This passage is not saying, "The dream has been going for millions of years and it will be millions before it is over." It is saying something far more extreme: "The barest beginning of this dream took millions of years and so will its final conclusion."
Now this is talking about the collective process. An individual's experience of the Last Judgment need not take millions of years. In fact, a few sentences later, we are urged to free our individual minds "quickly" so that we can help shorten the collective process. Yet still this passage gives us some sense of the kind of time we are dealing with.
If it took millions of years just to separate, how long has it been since the separation? This is fairly easy to answer in the rough, despite how astounding the answer is. The separation is at least as old as the physical universe, since the separation produced it. Scientists estimate that the universe is 14-20 billion years old. The implication is staggering: We have been wandering around in the dream of separation for at least 14 billion years! Such stretches of time are impossibly beyond our current imagination. Before the dinosaurs were born and died, before the Earth coalesced out of primordial debris, we were dreaming that we were limited, sinful individuals, wearing some sort of body or form, passing through some kind of time and space and separated from our Creator. My God, what have we been doing for all of that time? How could we have let the separation go on that long? This colossal time frame gives us some perspective from which to view passages such as the following:
Time…goes backward to an instant so ancient that it is beyond all memory, and past even the possibility of remembering (Manual, p. 4; M-2.4:1).
Yet will you choose in countless situations, and through time that seems to have no end, until the truth be your choice (Text, p. 476- 477; T-24.VI.7:2).
Another hint about the time dimensions of the journey comes when we are told that we can save "centuries of effort" (Text, p. 363; T-18.VII.7:3), and that "sometimes a thousand years or more are saved" (Workbook, p. 170; W-pI.97.3:2). If we can and do take chunks like that out of our total journey, how long must the journey itself be?
One final note of reflection: Salvation has been offered in each and every moment for billions of years, and we haven't accepted the offer yet. In all that time, there have been "few indeed" (Manual, p. 61; M-26.3:9) who have; there has been no "comprehensive reawakening" (Text, p. 15; T-2.I.3:7). Of these few, Jesus was the first and remains "the only completely True Witness for God" (as he told Helen and Bill; see Absence from Felicity, p. 229). Given all this, do you really think it likely that we will accept total enlightenment tomorrow just because we have this new book?
The journey through the Course
The way we are expected to journey through the Course's program also suggests a gradual awakening rather than instant enlightenment. First there comes the Text, which repeatedly promises us that if we really get what it is saying, our journey will be over. Yet as much as Jesus promises this, he follows the Text up with the Workbook, which assumes that we didn't get what the Text was saying. In lesson 39 he says that if you really understood the Text, "you would not need a workbook at all. No one needs practice to gain what is already his" (Workbook, p. 60; W-pI.39.2:5-6).
The Workbook then follows the same pattern: repeatedly promising that salvation can be ours this very day. Yet after each promise, it returns the next day with the next lesson, acting as though we are in more or less the same place as before. Then we finally reach the finish, where we are told that the Workbook "is a beginning, not an end" (Workbook, p. 477; W-pII.E.1:1). We are to go on practicing as before, only this time under the Holy Spirit's direction, rather than the Workbook's.
Then comes the Manual, where we learn that all that work we did in the Workbook only qualified us to be a beginning teacher of God (Manual, p. 38; M-16.3:6-7), a definite novice status. And this assumes that we did the Workbook roughly according to its instructions, which, I believe, few of us do. Yet even once we are a teacher of God, the Manual makes clear that we still have a long progression to go through.
In one version of this progression (given primarily in section 2, "Who Are Their Pupils?"), once we become a teacher of God, our pupils are invisibly attracted to us. We then form teacher/pupil relationships which, over a period of time, cause us to lose awareness of all the demarcations we have drawn between ourselves and our pupils. As we attain this sense of oneness with our pupils, we become bumped to the next level: advanced teacher of God (Manual, p. 8; M-4.1:6). And then presumably we must traverse further leagues, climbing "indescribable heights as one proceeds" (Manual, p. 47; M-19.2:7), until we reach the final state of Teacher of teachers.
In another version of this progression (section 4.I.A, "Development of Trust") the teacher of God passes through six stages. After three grueling stages the teacher of God gets to rest, but still "has not yet come as far as he thinks" (Manual, p. 10; M-4.I.A.6:10). At the fifth stage, he is faced with the task of attaining "a state that may remain impossible to reach for a long, long time" (Manual, p. 10; M-4.I.A.7:7). Finally, after all he has learned, he reaches "a period of achievement" (Manual, p. 10; (M-4.I.A.8:1) only in the sixth and final stage.
Thinking we are further along than we are
The rest of the Course supports this idea—that we think we are further along than we are and that we don't know what's what until the end of the journey. The illusion that we are more advanced than we are shadows us throughout the spiritual journey. For the ego always maintains itself by masquerading as something much more sane, reasonable, innocent and holy than it is.
Before we start the journey (in a conscious, intentional sense), chances are we think we are completely sane—it is the rest of the world that is nuts. Then once we set foot on the path we often experience a honeymoon period, in which we catch a vision of the final goal and are overwhelmed with how near and accessible it seems. This honeymoon period, I think, is what most often causes us to think we are almost enlightened. Ironically, we are not wrapping up the journey, we are just starting out.
Yet even when we reach higher on the spiritual ladder, we still are extremely vulnerable to the ego. "Even the most advanced of God's teachers will give way to temptation in this world" (Manual, p. 55; M-23.1:2). Looking at what the Course says and at the pitfalls of contemporary gurus, it seems that the chief hazard is the self-inflation we discussed earlier. It takes little thought to realize the effect this self-inflation would have on our estimate of how advanced we are.
In a way, such self-inflation is understandable, for we are becoming more wise, loving and powerful than those around us seem to be. Yet this observation can seduce us into giving our failing ego another chance. This is the exact idea expressed in the Manual's discussion of psychic powers, which says that even when we have given up investment in the world's material gifts, the ego can use newly-discovered psychic powers "to glorify itself" and thus "win back strength by guile" (Manual, p. 60; M-25.4:7,5:3).
Only at the end of the journey do we become actually sane. Only when we reach the real world and enter into the Last Judgment are we fully able to choose sensibly. "In this [world], choice is made impossible. In the real world is choosing simplified" (Text, p. 509; T-26.III.4:9-10). How else could it be? The only truly sane choice is to awaken from the dream. Until we make that choice, we are insane. And being insane, who are we to judge how far along we are?
The ideal attitude
How, then, are we to view our spiritual journey? We have seen two basic things: 1) We can wake up at any given moment, 2) it may be centuries, millennia or even millions of years before we let that moment come. What do we do with these two very different facts? There is a passage in the Manual that speaks to this very issue:
The progress of the teacher of God may be slow or rapid, depending on whether he recognizes the Atonement's inclusiveness, or for a time excludes some problem areas from it. In some cases, there is a sudden and complete awareness of the perfect applicability of the lesson of the Atonement to all situations, but this is comparatively rare. The teacher of God may have accepted the function God has given him long before he has learned all that his acceptance holds out to him. It is only the end that is certain. Anywhere along the way, the necessary realization of inclusiveness may reach him. If the way seems long, let him be content. He has decided on the direction he wants to take. What more was asked of him? And having done what was required, would God withhold the rest? (Manual, p. 53; M-22.2)
I get several things from this paragraph. First, the speed of our progress depends on how few problem areas we exclude from the Holy Spirit. Second, we can awaken in an instant at any point along the way. However, this sudden awakening is "comparatively rare" (I feel that the word "comparatively" here is typical Course understatement—"extremely" would probably be closer to the literal truth). Third, no matter how long it seems to be taking, we should be content. Why? Because the end is absolutely sure. That word "content" is vital. Note that it does not say, "If the way seems long, let him realize he is being an unnecessary slowpoke and then rocket into instant transcendence."
I feel this passage contains the ideal attitude along the way. First, we should keep foremost in mind that every day, every moment, might be our last; not because we might die, but because we might wake up. "…it is at this moment that complete salvation is offered you, and it is at this moment that you can accept it." This sense of the nearness and availability of Heaven is crucial, I believe. We should arise each morning and think, "Today could be the day." Not because we are especially spiritually advanced, but because today we just might decide, uncharacteristically, to be truly open to a more total lesson.
But coupled with this optimism should be a lack of anxiety about timing.
Those who are certain of the outcome [our final awakening] can afford to wait, and wait without anxiety. Patience is natural to the teacher of God. All he sees is certain outcome, at a time perhaps unknown to him as yet, but not in doubt (M-4.VIII.1:1-3).
The Course never encourages us to feel like we have to wake up within a certain time frame, that we are operating under a deadline. One can easily imagine the tension and strain this attitude could introduce into our spiritual paths, the critical steps it might tempt us to skip, and the sense of egoic ambition and/or despair that might be driving it. The issue should not be whether our homecoming will be tomorrow or in 10,000 A.D.—we should be equally content with either one. It should simply be that it will happen.
So what if we are here in the dream another several thousand years? Time is unreal. "When he finds [release] is only a matter of time, and time is but an illusion" (Text, p. 222; T-13.I.5:5). The Course has a very nonchalant attitude towards vast expanses of time. "What is a hundred or a thousand years to Them [God and Christ], or tens of thousands?" (Text, p. 521; ( T-26.IX.4:1) After all, the billions of years of the entire dream took only a "tiny instant" and "passed away in Heaven too soon for anything to notice it had come" (Text, p. 512; T-26.V.5:1). If we could see time from a healed perspective, then, being here another ten thousand years would seem like nothing. Therefore, anxiety about getting out of here soon shows that we believe time is real. And this belief in time chains our minds more firmly to it. The real teacher of God is uninterested in time. "Atonement might be equated with total escape from the past and total lack of interest in the future" (Manual, p. 58; M-24.6:3).
If you put together the two parts of what I am calling the ideal attitude you get: "I can be optimistic, for my homecoming could happen today. Yet I can also afford to be patient, for my homecoming is inevitable." Personally, I think we should probably leave it at that.
Total transcendence: an unrealistic goal
Another passage in the Manual addresses this same issue, saying many of the same things as the previous passage while adding a crucial new twist. The section, "Can God Be Reached Directly?" (Manual, p. 61-61; M-26) is really the Course's answer to the traditional mystical quest. In the third paragraph it addresses a traditional goal of the mystics: to achieve the experience of direct union with God and then permanently maintain it "for much of the time on earth" (3:3). The Course says this is possible, but adds that "this is so rare that it cannot be considered a realistic goal. If it happens, so be it. If it does not happen, so be it as well" (3:4- 6).
These are very significant remarks. He is clearly telling us that our goal should not be that of attaining permanent mystical union while on earth. What's more important, he is saying that our goal should also not be the more extreme one of final transcendence, in which we reach "God directly, retaining no trace of worldly limits" (2:1), in which our body disappears (see Jesus' remarks about the disappearance of his own body in Absence from Felicity, p. 398-399), in which we become a Teacher of teachers (2:2). For this final transcendence is what permanent mystical union leads to. "If God were reached directly in sustained awareness, the body would not be long maintained" (3:8). In other words, our goal should not be permanent mystical union while on earth, nor should it be the final transcendence in which we "blink out," as Jesus did. The passage then goes on to console us about still having an ego:
Do not despair, then, because of limitations. It is your function to escape from them, but not to be without them (4:1-2).
The idea here is that it is okay to still have an ego, for several reasons. First, Teachers of teachers, those who have transcended it all, "need helpers who are still in bondage and still asleep, so that by their awakening can God's Voice be heard" (3:10). Second, those we are to serve need us to "speak their language" (4:3). Third, if we are to save others, we must have intimate, first-hand understanding of the problem; "If you would be a savior, you must understand what needs to be escaped" (4:4).
All of this leads to the section's punch line: "Let us not, then, be too concerned with goals for which you are not ready" (4:9). This is yet another admonition that the goal of our efforts should not be the final, permanent union with God. In other words, the answer to "Can God be reached directly?" is, "Yes, but do not make that your goal."
A realistic goal
Apparently, there is a more realistic and attainable end that should be our goal. This goal will be the focus of the remainder of this article. For this goal provides an antidote to both our despair along the path and our naive notions of transcending it all tomorrow. In fact, it effectively reorients the entire focus of "How long until I am out of here?"
What is this goal? The clue is given in one of the above quotes: "If you would be a savior…." The whole point of the passage is that we should not be focused on rocketing to God, but should instead be focused on carrying out our function, that of being saviors, of being "helpers" to "those who suffer" (Manual, p. 61; M-26.3:10,4:3). Therefore, rather than trying to soar out of this world, we should be seeking to be happy, loving and truly helpful within this world. We must aspire to become, not the spiritual superman, but the egoless helper.
This may sound very odd to the ears of many Course students, but it actually is a major theme in the Course. It is the running theme that the goal of the Course is not knowledge—pure transcendental awareness—but healed perception. "This course will lead to knowledge, but knowledge itself is still beyond the scope of our curriculum" (Text, p. 369; T-18.IX.11:1). The following passages amply illustrate this point:
Be you content with healing [with being a healer]….Knowledge is far beyond your individual concern….Your role in the redemption [as a healer] leads you to [knowledge] by re-establishing its oneness in your mind (Text, p. 242; T-13.VIII.7).
What waits in perfect certainty beyond salvation is not our concern….The miracle alone is your concern at present (Text, p. 553; T-28.III.1:1,3).
Experience—unlearned, untaught, unseen—is merely there. This is beyond our goal, for it transcends what needs to be accomplished. Our concern is with Christ's vision. This we can attain (Workbook, p. 291; W-pI.158.6:4-7).
The truth of what we are is not for words to speak of nor describe. Yet we can realize our function here….We are the bringers of salvation…saviors of the world….We do not seek a function that is past the gate of Heaven. Knowledge will return when we have done our part (Workbook, p. 469; W-pII.14.2-3).
These passages say with great clarity that total transcendence is not our proper goal. Why? It is beyond us. Not only are we not yet remotely ready for it, but we can never make it happen. It is God Who lifts us out of the dream. In that last step He is the Doer. We play an absolutely passive role; we are as receptive to God as the most spotless window is to light. Therefore, the more we actively pursue this final transcendence, the more we make sure it cannot happen.
The Course does urge us to make Heaven the goal of our desire: "I want all of Heaven and only Heaven…(Workbook, p. 152; W-pI.89.3:6). Yet it should not be the goal of our efforts. In other words, we should desire to awaken in Heaven, but our efforts should be directed only at making ourselves ready for it. We do this by cleaning the ego off our window. And we do that by carrying out our function, which is to extend to others. We become happy and radiate our joy. We become carefree and extend our peace. We become forgiving and lift from others the burden of guilt.
Having done this, it is our brothers, not ourselves, who will awaken us. How appropriate this is, for they know the light in us better than we do. They have experienced its full blessing; they have felt it heal their pain. As a result, "they see in you more than you see" (T-14.II.4:4). Hence, they are the ones that will finally convince us that the light of God resides within us.
You cannot wake yourself. Yet you can let yourself be wakened. You can overlook your brother's dreams. So perfectly can you forgive him his illusions he becomes your savior from your dreams….This is the spark that shines within the dream; that you can help him waken, and be sure his waking eyes will rest on you (T-29.III.3:2-5,5:6).
The focus in the Course is thus not on transcendence, it is on relationship. We are saved by saving others. "From everyone you accord release from guilt you will inevitably learn your innocence" (T-14.V.7:5).
This state of being truly helpful is something we can attain. This is within our reach. And this is something we can relate to. Total transcendence is beyond our current understanding, and thus easily becomes either a poor motivator or a projection screen for all sorts of egoic fantasies. But a happy, helpful, forgiving state on earth is immediately meaningful and attainable.
Do you want happiness, a quiet mind, a certainty of purpose, and a sense of worth and beauty that transcends the world? Do you want care and safety, and the warmth of sure protection always? (Workbook, p. 213; W-pI.122.1:4-5)
This is the state that is our proper goal. By being attainable it can alleviate the despair that bogs down our spiritual journey. As a happy, helpful state on earth it counteracts our grandiosity and our naive ambition to immediately transcend this world of pain. We can be truly happy on earth. And that is how we transcend the earth. By becoming a radiant light to the world, we shine away all the barriers that would prevent God from coming and taking us home. Therefore, if you really yearn to get out of this aching place, then pour your efforts into easing its pain, into becoming happy, forgiving and loving while you are here.
Oddly enough, "How long until I am out of here?" has become an increasingly irrelevant question as we have gone along. It has also become an increasingly suspect one. It is a question capable of sparking both grandiosity and despair. It is a question most likely motivated by resentment over being in this world, yet resentment is the very thing that keeps us here. Further, it makes time real, being an obvious concern with the future. Overall, it is a misdirected question that cements us here, rather than releasing us.
Instead, we have seen that the Course has many antidotes for our anxious desire to get out quickly. We can be at peace about still having an ego, knowing that God takes us where we are and welcomes us, even if it is into the kindergarten door. We can raise our heads in optimism, knowing that today could be the day. Yet we can also be content with waiting, in the happy certainty that our homecoming is guaranteed. While we wait, we can live joyfully in the present, uninterested in the future. And most especially we can set about doing that which will ultimately free us from time and space: We can ease the suffering around us through forgiveness. Rather than trying to transcend this painful world, we must aspire to be a beacon of happiness within it. The question, therefore, is not "How long until I am out of here?" but, "How can I help?"