The Message of the Course: An Overview

Allen Watson

There are many different ways I could try to summarize the central theme of the Course. I am going to present three different ways of summarizing the message of the Course, three different perspectives or ways of looking at the same thing. This will be like three snapshots of a house taken from different spots; each one presents a whole picture, but taken together, they give a kind of three-dimensional representation.

We are going to look at these three aspects of the Course’s message:

  • The Course seeks to help us undo all of our guilt.
  • The Course seeks to help us change our perception of everyone and everything in the world.
  • The Course teaches us a way of finding salvation through relationships.

The Course teaches that we find God through our brothers and sisters. It teaches that all our distress, pain, and unhappiness originates in a deep-seated and unconscious guilt. By changing our perception of those around us and releasing them from their guilt—a process the Course calls forgiveness—we find our own release from guilt.

A. Guilt and Its Undoing

All of our problems, according to A Course in Miracles, can be traced back to some form of guilt. The Course says that at the beginning, we attribute our problems, our pain and suffering, to anything and everything but our own guilt (T-27.VII.7:4). So one of its primary purposes is helping us to realize just how much we have believed in our own guilt without realizing it. The goal of the Course is to release us from all of our guilt. In order to do that, however, it first has to make us aware of the guilt we have been carrying around, so that we can recognize our need to let it go.

When we normally think of the word guilt, we think of some feeling of shame or fear of being found out in regard to some action we have taken or some words we have said, or some feeling of shame in regard to our failure to say or do what we think we should have done. In the normal view of guilt it is related somehow to what we do.

In the Course, guilt is a much broader concept. It takes many forms. It shows up as feeling not good enough, or in feelings of failure. When we feel vaguely empty, that is guilt. When we feel incomplete, or when we fear death, or when we worry about the future, it is all a form of this general mind-set of guilt. Guilt, in the Course, is directly connected to what we are rather than what we do. It could be described as a feeling that we do not really deserve to be alive, or that something is wrong with us that cannot be fixed.

1. Primal Guilt vs. Surface Guilt

Underlying all the guilt feelings we are conscious of (which I call surface guilt), and which we usually attach to our failure to live up to some sort of standard we have set for ourselves, the Course teaches that there is a much greater mass of existential or spiritual guilt, which I call primal guilt. This primal guilt exists in regard to our relationship with God. In simple terms, we believe (mostly unconsciously) that we have offended God and have earned His disfavor. We believe that we are separated from God. In biblical terms, we believe that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we therefore deserve death. We are afraid that if we were suddenly catapulted into God’s presence, He might blast us with a lightening bolt. His holiness would burn us up the way that, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazis got crisped by the fire of God’s presence from the Ark.

The Course teaches that, although we all really do believe this (even if we don’t consciously think in those terms at all), it is simply not true. We have not offended God, He is not angry, and He will not condemn us.

The primal guilt, based on our imagined sin against God, is like the body of a huge iceberg hidden beneath the surface of the ocean. Only one-eleventh of an iceberg appears above the surface; the rest is beneath the waves, out of sight. Our surface guilt is just the tip of the iceberg of guilt; the hidden guilt, which most of us are unaware of, is by far the greater problem. That hidden guilt must be raised to conscious awareness so we can see that it is false guilt, and let it go.

i. Denial of Primal Guilt

Why are we so unaware of this primal guilt? The reason is quite simple. The guilt was so terrifying in our minds, so overwhelming and intolerable, that we repressed it and deliberately put it out of mind; we denied its presence in us. We were so uncomfortable with the guilt in our minds that we literally decided to forget about it, and then to forget what we decided.

Although the guilt was out of sight, we still had this constant, vague discomfort. We were still feeling guilty but we did not know why! What happened then was that our minds had to make up a cause for the feelings of discomfort we had. The denial of guilt thus led to the projection of guilt.

ii. Projection: Our Faulty Search for Innocence

In projection, we take something that is really in our own minds and “project” it outside, just like projecting a movie onto a screen. In this case, the mind is the projector and the world is the screen. What happens is that we project our guilt outside of our own minds, and then actually believe it is “out there” because we can see it out there. We fool ourselves into believing we have gotten rid of the guilt because now we can see the guilt “somewhere else.”

In other words, we blame things outside of us for our feelings of discomfort, incompletion and unhappiness. In fact, we are the source of those feelings, but we deny that and project the source outside of ourselves. We blame other people for the way we feel. We see guilt in others, but not in ourselves. We believe other people, or even God Himself, is the problem, and we are just innocent victims.

What we are actually trying to do, the Course teaches, is trying to regain our sense of innocence by finding fault with others. If we can see guilt in others, it makes us feel better. It does not really solve the problem, though; we feel better only for a short time. Actually, falsely blaming others for our problems just increases our own guilt. That added guilt just gets denied, and then projected out again, and the cycle goes on endlessly repeating itself.

2. Looking Within: Our Way Out of Guilt

A Course in Miracles teaches that the way to find the answer to our problems is to look within ourselves. It says, “Seek not to change the world, but choose to change your mind about the world” (T-21.In.1:7). In other words, stop trying to solve the problem by manipulating the world around you, trying to adjust it to make yourself comfortable and happy. Instead, look within, and heal the way you have been looking at the world.

What it is suggesting is that the world you see is just the outside picture of the inward condition of your mind. It is your mind that needs changing, not the world. You can’t fix the problem by changing things outside yourself, because the problem is not outside yourself. The problem is the hidden guilt, which you have denied, buried, and projected onto the world. You must look within, recognize what you have been doing to yourself, and let it all be undone.

i. Forgiveness: The Withdrawal of Projection

The first step in the undoing process is undoing what was the last step in creating the problem: projection, or blaming everything that is wrong with you on other people and other things. You have to start by being willing to recognize that you, and you alone, are responsible for everything you experience (T-21.II.2:3,4). You and you alone control your mind and the ways it reacts to the world. Nothing outside you makes you angry or unhappy; you are doing that to yourself. There is nobody inside your mind but you.

This withdrawal of projection is how A Course in Miracles defines forgiveness. Forgiveness in the Course is not saying, “You did me wrong, but I will forgive you; I will refrain from demanding your punishment even though I would be completely justified in doing so.” Forgiveness, in the Course, is the recognition that he, or she, never did you wrong in the first place; there is nothing to forgive, because you did it to yourself.

This does not mean, for instance, that you somehow caused your spouse to commit adultery or to become a drunk—that you somehow attracted this calamity to yourself by putting out the wrong vibes. Perhaps, on some high spiritual level, that may be true. But what is meant, fundamentally, is that you are entirely responsible for how you react to what happens to you. You can react with love, or with fear and judgment; that is entirely your choice. You do not need to see anything that anyone does to you as an attack, and your interpretation of another person’s behavior as an attack against you is just that: an interpretation, a choice of how to perceive it. There is another way to look at it; you could see the other person as someone afraid and in need of help. The only reason you perceive attack is because of your own repressed guilt; you have need of a scapegoat, you need somebody to project your guilt on. So you choose to see attack. Forgiveness is reversing that choice, and choosing to see the situation in a different light, one that preserves the innocence of the other person instead of laying your guilt on them.

a. Awareness of dreaming

Forgiveness in A Course in Miracles involves the recognition that what you are seeing and the way you are seeing it is simply not real. What you are seeing is just the projection of your own thoughts; it is no more real than a movie image on a screen. What you see is an interpretation and not a fact. It is nothing more than a dream. In fact it is a dream—just the play of ideas in your mind.

Though what you see is not real, it is still very useful, because it shows you what you are thinking. It reveals your own hidden thoughts to you. By recognizing that what you seem to be seeing is a dream of your own mind, you can learn to use what you see to uncover that hidden guilt we have spoken of and to let it go.

b. Letting go of judgments

This is why the Course emphasizes letting go of all your own judgments on other people. The judgments you are holding against others are really your judgment on yourself—your primal guilt—projected out onto others. The way you see others is the result of the way your are seeing yourself. If you did not unconsciously believe that you are a scoundrel, you would not be seeing other people as scoundrels.

Letting go of judgment is the same thing as withdrawing your projection of guilt. The guilt you think you see in others exists only in your own mind. The only way to realize that you are not guilty is to realize that nobody is guilty.

ii. Responsibility: Looking at Our Own Egos

If the first step is undoing projection, the second step is undoing denial. In the first step, we forgive; we let go of judgment; we realize that what we are seeing as a problem outside of us is really a problem in our own minds.

The second step, then, is becoming responsible for those dark thoughts in our own minds. In this step we are undoing denial. We admit the guilt we feel, we admit that our own thoughts are the source of everything we see.

a. Awareness of choice

In this step we realize that the way we see the world depends entirely on our own choice. If I am seeing another person as guilty it is because I am actively choosing to see them that way. I could see them differently if I chose to. An alternative way of seeing does exist. Therefore, if I am seeing guilt, it must be because I do not want to see the person as innocent.

If you do not realize that you are making a choice when you judge others, how can you change anything? If you were not choosing you would have no choice. But if you are choosing, then you do have a choice; there must be an alternative way of seeing. Because you have a choice, you are in charge. You can make a different choice!

At first realizing that you are responsible for how you see the world seems to add to your guilt. But responsibility and guilt are not the same thing. You are responsible, but what you are responsible for is not some real wrong; you are responsible for a dream or illusion, and there is no guilt in that. If you are not responsible, then the power lies outside you—you cannot do anything about the way you are or the way you experience the world. If you are responsible, however, you are also empowered to change things.

b. I am the dreamer of the dream

The Course points out not only that you are dreaming and what you see is just a dream; it also points out that you are the dreamer of the dream. What you see is just a projection of your mind, but you are in charge of the mind that is doing the projecting. If you change your mind you can change your dream.

If what you see is the result of what you want to see, then you can change what you see by changing what you want. You have unconsciously been wanting to see guilt and conflict; you could decide that you want to see innocence and peace. The Course says that when you want only love, you will see nothing else (T-12.VII.8:2).

Therefore much of the way we work with ourselves in the Course is by uncovering our hidden choices for guilt and conflict, and replacing them with desires for innocence and peace. You “catch” yourself in the act of choosing wrongly, and you make another choice.

iii. Atonement: The Healing of Primal Guilt

The first step in healing our guilt, as we’ve seen, is forgiveness, or withdrawing our projection of guilt. The second step is responsibility, or undoing our denial of guilt. The third step, then, is the healing of that primal guilt. The Course calls this healing process accepting the Atonement.

When we are able to stop blaming others (forgiveness) and to look without flinching at the guilt in our own minds (responsibility), something wonderful happens. Just as we have been able to see others as innocent, we come to look at our own guilty thoughts in the same way. A magnificent spaciousness and graciousness opens up in our minds, a beneficent acceptance. Seen from that open place of the heart, our own constricted thinking can be looked upon without fear, and we can see, hidden beneath it, our own call for love. We see, not something to be judged and condemned, but someone who needs to be loved and nourished. We recognize that God has already given us that love, and in accepting that we give that love to ourselves. We look calmly and without judgment at our own egos.

We realize that the way we have attacked others and projected our guilt onto them does not arise from an evil heart. We are no more guilty than a small kitten which, when cornered, hisses and spits at you. We attack not because we are evil but because we are afraid, because we believe that what is reaching for us is going to attack us unless we attack first. But what is reaching for us is not our enemy; it is God.

The spacious acceptance that opens up within you melts your fear. That spacious acceptance is God, and it is also you. The awful thing you thought you would find when you looked within is not there. Instead, you find this gracious, loving, merciful heart that is your Self. That love Presence is not only God, it is you.

Your true Self is what the Course calls Christ. It has always been there in you. It was just covered up by all this other stuff. You discover in yourself the fountain of love you thought had been lost forever. And guilt is forever undone.

a. Recognition of the truth

What Atonement brings you is the recognition of the truth about yourself. You have been judging yourself unmercifully, and you were wrong. There is no guilt in you, and when you know that, you will see no guilt in anyone. Guilt never existed except in your imagination.

Atonement in A Course in Miracles is not payment for sin. Atonement is simply the correction of your belief that you have reason to be guilty. It is the recognition that you are wholly loving and wholly loveable, and never have you been anything else (T-1.III.2:3-4).

b. I Am As God Created Me

The Course teaches that a perfect God can create only perfect creations, creations like Himself. He created you innocent. He created you whole and complete. He created you as a loving being. He created you eternal. Therefore, that is what you are. You remain as God created you, and nothing you have done has changed that.

To think otherwise—to believe that you can alter God’s creation and, so to speak, create yourself as something other than love—is the very attack on God you thought you were guilty of. But you cannot alter God’s creation. You cannot change reality. Therefore, you only imagine you have done so, and there is nothing to be guilty about! You have not sinned; you just made a big mistake. You made up an illusion and believed it was real, and that is all. Mistakes merit correction, not punishment. And so God has placed the correction—the Atonement—in your mind. Your only responsibility, then, is to let go of guilt and accept the truth about yourself.

B. Another Way of Seeing the World

The Course says we all come into this world programmed to perceive things from the perspective of separated consciousness, a way of thinking it terms wrong-mindedness, or the thought system of the ego (another word for separated consciousness). We begin life not even being more than dimly aware that there is another way of looking at the world. This “other way” is called right-mindedness, which is the thought system of the Holy Spirit (universal or oneness-consciousness).

The ego’s thought system originates in our guilt over our imaginary separation from God, and fear of punishment for our “sin.” It is composed of judgment, attack, and ultimately, a deep death wish. The Holy Spirit’s thought system originates in knowledge of our true, unseparated condition. It is composed of acceptance, love, and ultimately, total affirmation and acknowledgement of life and the wholeness of God’s Creation.

The Course states repeatedly that its primary purpose is to enable us to shift our perception from the ego’s way of looking at the world to the Holy Spirit’s way of looking at it. To do so we must learn to question everything we have taught ourselves, and learn a new way of perceiving everyone and everything in the world.

1. The General Structure of a “Split” Mind

Nearly everyone, at times, feels as if their mind is split in two. There seems to be a “good” part, that wants to be loving, and a “bad” part, that is afraid and wants to hurt and to destroy. It almost seems as if there are two voices in our heads, each voice pulling us in opposite directions.

The Course recognizes this universal experience and uses the analogy. It speaks of the two voices as ego (the voice of fear) and Holy Spirit (the voice of love). It says the only real choice we have to make is which voice we listen to. Yet it also says that the experience of a split mind is illusory. We are not two selves, but one. We are not a mind torn between two real voices. We are simply a mind, and that is all. This mind is either believing in a false image of itself—the ego, separate from God—or it is experiencing the truth of its unity with God. The ego and the Holy Spirit are, in a sense, just states of this one mind. One state, the ego, is only an illusion. The other state, the Holy Spirit, is reality.

It can be helpful at times to think in terms of an independent “you” which chooses between two voices, ego and Holy Spirit, which is why the Course so frequently talks in those terms. It presents a picture that is relatively easy to understand. Still, it is equally important to realize that the ego is really nothing more than a thought in your mind, not some demonic power independent of you. The Course teaches that the ego has no power except the power you give to it. It is a symbol that represents a pathetic self-image that does not really exist. The Holy Spirit, in part, is a symbol of your true Self. He is more than that; but He is that.

The voice you listen to, fear or love, determines the way you see the world. Perception is another word for the way you see the world, a word the Course uses often. The Course teaches that perception is a choice and not a fact. To explain what that means, I’d like to talk a little about how perception works, according to the Course.

2. The Perceptive Cycle

i. Belief Determines Interpretation

What you believe determines how you interpret things. If you believe that you are not likeable, for instance, you will interpret what people say and do in a way that supports your belief. You will interpret their actions as if they do not like you, even if they really do like you.

ii. Interpretations Become Perceptions

How you interpret people’s actions becomes your perception of them. Your interpretation becomes fact to you. Although people may actually like you, you will be convinced that they do not. Because of your mistaken interpretations you come to believe that you actually see something that is not really there.

iii. Perceptions Determine Experience

When you are convinced that your perceptions are facts, you will react to them as if they were facts. If you believe that people do not like you, you will respond to people as if they do not like you. You perceive what you expect to see, and then you act it out. You may accuse people of not liking you, or you will treat them as if they don’t like you, and you probably end up driving them away. Your belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and your experiences just seem to prove that your belief was right.

The experience you have may be outward experience, involving your actions or the actions of others. The experience may also be simply in the form of emotions; you will feel rejected, for instance, even when no one is rejecting you. You will feel attacked and unloved even though that is not true.

iv. Experience Leads to Beliefs

The experiences produced by your own interpretations and perceptions just serve to reinforce the original beliefs. Your beliefs act as a filter, and you see only what reinforces them, even when what you see is not really there at all. The entire cycle becomes self-perpetuating, with seemingly no way out. Belief determines interpretation; interpretation becomes perception; perception determines experience; and experience reinforces belief, and the whole cycle starts over, building layer after layer of false belief.

This entire cycle is more far-reaching that you can possibly imagine now. Our beliefs affect literally everything we see. The end result is that we see nothing as it really is; everything we see is distorted through the filters of false believes and erroneous interpretations. We see the world upside down.

The Course teaches that our most fundamental belief—our belief about ourselves—is catastrophically wrong. We do not trust ourselves, and therefore we trust no one else. We cannot see the goodness in others, we cannot see the Christ in them, because we have failed to see it in ourselves. The way we see ourselves has become our judgment on the entire world.

3. Forming a New Cycle of Perception

A Course in Miracles says that we desperately need instruction in a new way of perception. We need our perceptions corrected, not just a little bit, but turned upside down. The Course contains a systematic program for doing exactly that. It addresses the problem at every point of the perceptive cycle.

i. Choosing a New Belief (Choosing to see Love)

First, it calls on us to actively decide what we want to see by choosing a new belief. It offers exercises in the Workbook to help us to undo old beliefs and form new ones. It helps us examine our false beliefs and to replace them with more desirable ones. It helps to strengthen our motivation; it helps us to want to see things differently.

ii. Asking For a New Interpretation (Judgment of the Holy Spirit)

The Course teaches us to ask the Holy Spirit for His interpretation of the events of our lives. It asks us to admit that we simply do not understand anything, we do not know what it means (although we have believed we understood), and to ask for a different way of understanding it. It tells us that this alternative way of interpreting things (called the judgment of the Holy Spirit) already exists in our minds, as a gift from God. If we will just stop and listen to it we will hear it. We can interpret everything without judging, if we are willing to let go of our confirmed opinions based on past experience. We are asked, in essence, to stop saying, “My mind is already made up; don’t confuse me with facts.”

iii. Wanting a New Perception (Undoing Projection; the vision of Christ)

The Course continually points out that our way of seeing things has not brought us happiness; indeed, it has made us miserable. The Course therefore tries to teach us to associate pain with the ego’s perceptions, and joy with the Holy Spirit’s perceptions. Based on that, it asks us to consciously choose to see things differently.

iv. Seeking a New Experience

When we have gone all the way through the ego’s cycle of perception to the point of reacting to false perceptions, the Course asks us to look honestly at the results we get and see if we like them. When we do that, it is obvious to anyone that we don’t like what we get. For instance, if we get angry at someone, it is fairly easy to realize that feeling angry is not a happy feeling!

Based on that honest evaluation of our experience (“I don’t like the way I feel”), you can at least see that you might feel better if you saw things differently. It might be good to find out that your interpretation of things has been wrong! It might make you feel better. That small willingness to see things differently opens the door to a new perception. You can become willing to ask for a new interpretation, and to choose a new belief.

The shift in your perception that comes from this simple practice produces what the Course calls a miracle, which is an entirely new kind of experience of joy and peace. These miraculous experiences are so positive that they powerfully reinforce your new belief system. The same cycle—belief, interpretation, perception, and experience—ensues, but now it is supporting a thought system of love instead of one of attack.

The shift in perception begins in isolated and small, specific instances, but as you continue to practice your new perception, you gradually generalize it until it applies to everyone and everything. When your perception has been entirely transformed to a perception of love, your mind will finally be ready to open to the full reality of God and of Heaven.

C. Relationships as Salvation

We’ve seen two ways of looking at what the Course teaches. First, we saw that it teaches us to undo all guilt. Second, we saw that it is designed to entirely transform our perceptions. In this third view, we will see that the Course teaches that the laboratory where all this can be worked out most effectively is the context of our ordinary relationships. While this applies to all our relationships, we learn most quickly in the long-term relationships we regard as special in some way, such as romantic relationships, family relationships, and work relationships.

The Text of the Course spends more time talking about our special relationships and how they can become holy relationships that it spends on any other single topic. It says that special relationships, as we have set them up, are the single most powerful tool of the ego to keep us locked into false perceptions and guilt. Those same relationships, given to the Holy Spirit, can become the most effective teaching device to lead us to Heaven.

Our relationships with each other reflect our relationship to God. In effect, the way you relate to others, the way you relate to yourself, and the way you relate to God are all aspects of the same thing. The Course says,

When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him you will see yourself. As you treat him you will treat yourself. As you think of him you will think of yourself. Never forget this, for in him you will find yourself or lose yourself (T-8.III.4:1-5).

For most of us, relationships are more of a source of difficulty and pain than they are a source of healing. We form relationships out of a sense of lack, which is a form of our primal guilt. We try to use the relationships as a substitute for the love of God, which we believe we have lost. We seek for love but never find it, looking for love in all the wrong places. We use relationships as a dumping ground for our guilt. We ask another person to make us feel whole and complete, and then blame them for their failure to do it. The people we say we love become the scapegoats we blame for our self-made unhappiness.

A holy relationship, in which you join with another person in order to go to God together, can become the most powerful tool for enlightenment there is. The Course teaches that “the ark of peace is entered two by two” (T-20.IV.6:5), which means that in the practice taught by the Course granting forgiveness and peace to your partner is the way you find your own salvation.

To give is how to recognize you have received. It is the proof that what you have is yours.

You understand that you are healed when you give healing. You accept forgiveness as accomplished in yourself when you forgive. You recognize your brother as yourself, and thus do you perceive that you are whole (W-pI.159.1:7-2:3).

The Course is, most fundamentally, a way of freeing yourself from guilt by releasing your relationship partners from their guilt. As you give, you receive.

In a holy relationship, two people are healed through healing one another. Relationships provide more than ample practice material for releasing each other from guilt and for transforming your perceptions. The closer a relationship is, the more likely it is to bring up the very thought patterns that need healing. When you give a relationship to the Holy Spirit, your partner becomes your “savior,” that is, the avenue through which your darkest thoughts about yourself can be healed. You project those dark thoughts onto your partner, and see the guilt in him. Thus, when you decide to forgive that person, they become your mirror, showing you the dark thoughts you need to bring into God’s light for healing.

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