"Should A Course in Miracles be my one and only spiritual path?" This, I think, is a question that probably all of us have faced in one way or another. And perhaps for many of us it remains unresolved. How do you decide such a thing?
Let me begin by telling my own story. I first became involved in metaphysical teachings about 13 years ago. I got into spirituality when I decided that there was one universal truth that shined through whenever a window was opened onto a reality beyond the physical. Be it in the realm of world spirituality and mysticism, or in the realm of paranormal experiences-near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, LSD experiences, past life memories, etc.—each window seemed to reveal roughly the same picture of reality. I figured that if the view from every window in the house showed essentially the same landscape outside, then that must be what is really out there. One night I announced to God that it must be true and that He must exist. I am sure it was a big night for Him.
This idea of there being the same view from many windows not only seemed true, but it was deeply beautiful to me. The truth about everything shouldn't be confined to one place. How crazy! And so when I encountered the Course a couple years later, my main reaction to it was that I saw that it was yet another expression of this universal truth. I remember giving a copy of it to a friend and excitedly filling the inside front cover with tiny writing describing the Course's parallels to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Neoplatonism. I was also very happy to see so many parallels in the Course to what was my favorite teaching, the psychic readings of Edgar Cayce.
I didn't relate to the Course all that much at first, however. And even though over time I grew to love it more and more, the idea of making the Course my path, my one and only, was out of the question. That concept was not part of my mental equipment. Further, I found it very distasteful. How narrow, I thought. I recall asking someone I met, "How did you get into this?"—meaning spirituality in general. And, totally misunderstanding the question, she told me the long story of how she got into the Course—implying that the Course was it. How narrow! I recall at another time asking a married couple what they were into spiritually, and they happily replied, "Oh, just the Course." How narrow! I then proudly told them the broad range of teachings and traditions that I was into. I also remember telling a close friend very authoritatively that he would not always be into just the Course, that he would outgrow that phase of his life. I have regretted that weighty pronouncement for years, especially since it has proved totally false.
Even when I received guidance that I would spend my life helping people understand and practice the Course, I didn't bend. And even when I began teaching it, I still didn't, and would occasionally have to admit to the people listening to me that, even though many of them were quite committed to the Course, I, the teacher, had not made that commitment; the Course was not my path, just one of my many beloved teachings.
Yet, as you may guess, that did change. I don't know exactly what it was. There were many forces involved. One thing is that it seemed like the Spirit was arranging my life in such a way that no matter what direction I turned, my nose would run smack into the Course, so much so that it was like the ink began to rub off on me. My best friend started working at the nearby Miracle Distribution Center. Then my wife started working there. Then I started teaching there. I not only couldn't get away from the Course, I had to be its representative to others. This was a major factor, because by teaching others I really began to convince myself.
Also, over the years, the Course was just eating up more and more of my spiritual understanding and practice. Nothing was affecting me like it was. At first, it just didn't speak to me that much. I had a spirituality buried deep inside me—I feel sure it came from many, many past lives—that was essentially a picture of a paternal God reigning over a world of good guys and bad guys, in which the good guys were supposed to repent of sins and laboriously change themselves into saints worthy enough for the city in the sky. Over time it felt as if the Course was slowly rewiring my brain, making thousands of new connections, so that its truths, which had in places felt merely weird, began to feel deeply right.
Increasingly, it began to speak to me; in fact, more than anything else. When I talked to other people about "universal truth," I found myself talking an inordinate amount of Course in Miracles. When I spent my private time on my spiritual growth, I found myself applying its truths more than anything else. I began to realize that my use of many teachings at once was much more appropriate to a mode that I was trying to leave behind. That mode was one in which my primary concern was conceptual understanding. I wanted to understand the nature of God, the nature of mind, soul and spirit, the nature of the physical world, the shape of our passage through time and space. For this purpose, the more teachings I had to refer to, the better. For each contained things that the others didn't have. Yet, as I moved increasingly into a mode in which my primary aim was to grow spiritually, having a multitude of teachings seemed to scatter my energy.
Also, as the above processes were going on, I began to receive what I considered to be guidance that pushed me in the direction of making the Course my sole spiritual path. This, of course, affected me a great deal.
Further, in contrast to my love of the universal, I had always had a deep thing for Jesus. Somewhere within me I was convinced beyond the power of any argument that he was it for me. Even though I felt truth was everywhere, I also was convinced that somehow he had grasped it unlike anyone else; that on the universal journey he had travelled the farthest. I felt in my depths that he had uniquely penetrated into the living core of the Divine/human relationship and the salvation process, and that, as a result, was utterly trustable to follow. I knew I could put my soul into his hands with the same unquestioned security with which I lay my head on the pillow at night.
This I knew independently of the Course. But it took many years for the feeling to grow in me that the Course really was the direct expression of Jesus; that through it he had appeared to us again, more fully than he had since the day he left his disciples looking up at the sky and wondering when he would return. When that conviction became complete, the question of my relationship with the Course was academic.
All in all, through these many means, a feeling grew in me to the point of certainty—as certain as you get in this world—a feeling that has not stopped growing yet. It is a feeling of indefinable conviction that in the Course we have a source of wisdom, beauty and truth that is so pure that it could only have come from somewhere higher than this world; and that is so sure and reliable that it could only have come from Jesus. Somehow I am convinced it is his book. And though I can't tell you why, I just know that he knows. Mixed in with this feeling is also the certainty that, for all of its strangeness to the way my mind and heart seem to be arranged, the Course is my way home.
This feeling in me has such a holy "glow" to it in my mind, such a deep-running sense of certainty and purity, that I cannot seriously question it nor imagine it changing in this lifetime. Rather than feeling like it sits on top of other feelings that, if uncovered, would change the picture entirely, it feels like it is bedrock in my mind. It seems to me to be inextricably woven into the holy Presence that inspires my highest thoughts, guides my life and dwells at the core of my being.
As you can see, my sense about the Course is a deeply personal thing. It is definitely not something that I could simply transfer to anyone else's mind. There is no way I could just get someone else to suddenly acquire this feeling. There is no use even trying. I would say that it took me about seven years to really be sure that the Course was my path, a process that, even with all of the above, was perhaps only finalized when my friend Tom Dunn and I spent about two months sitting around all day talking mostly about the Course. Perhaps I am just dense. I know that many people have received a similar conviction almost instantly. But even then it is clearly inspired from within; there is no way to force it. How can you possibly force such a thing? By forcing it, I think all that you could get is a pseudo-conviction that will cause a multitude of pseudo-effects in your life until it is finally uprooted.
So my main response to the question, "Should A Course in Miracles be your one and only spiritual path?" is: Follow your best sense in the moment, pray for guidance, let the highest within you carry you through your own natural seasons, and see what happens. I personally feel that for many people the Course is meant to be a passing thing in their lives, or a permanent, but peripheral, thing. I am sure for many other people that the Course is meant to be no part of their lives at all, that it may even be damaging for them to get involved with it (I read about a woman who felt much less guilty when she quit the Course and became a fundamentalist!). I think some people are meant to have a concrete path, while for others their path is supposed to be one of primarily following their own heart without the help of teachings, or with the help of a smorgasbord of teachings. As I will explain, I feel that one gets the most out of the Course by dedicating oneself completely to its way, but perhaps it is not part of your life plan to get the most that you can out of A Course in Miracles. Trying to do so may inhibit some other process that is more important for you. Who is to say? In the end, I believe, only the Holy Spirit within you. And my experience says that the Holy Spirit works too individually with people to justify a sweeping generalization such as saying you should be either all the way in the Course or all the way out. Rather, I think that for each gradation in between there is someone for whom that is just right.
If the Course is your path
As I said, you cannot force the inner conviction that the Course is your spiritual path. But just as clearly, if this conviction is trying to arise within you, you should not brush it aside, as I now realize I must have done for several of those seven years before I decided. And if do you know that A Course in Miracles is your spiritual path—and that is a big "if"—then I think that you enter into a whole new ballgame. New rules apply. Old things need to be reevaluated and new things considered.
I think the main thing that comes into effect when you know that the Course is your path is that you center yourself on it; all other things become secondary. If the Course is your path and you try to practice both it and other paths at the same time, my feeling is that you will not be making the best use of your time and energy. Now, if your guidance is different than this, follow it and not me. Yet I would like to take the rest of this article to explain my thoughts on this.
A complete and integrated path
One of the obvious facts here that is easily overlooked is that the Course is a complete, self-contained spiritual path. This, I think, is not necessarily the norm with spiritual teachings. With many of them I think it would be very difficult to tease out of them a complete path for living. Yet the Course is just that. It is not only a thought-system that addresses, it seems to me, every aspect of the process of psychological healing and spiritual awakening, every facet of how one should view God, self and others, it also contains its own system of spiritual practice; and, further, it extends this thought and practice outward to encompass our relationships, function, decision-making and (at least by implication) all issues of physical living.
In addition to using the word "complete" to describe the Course as a path, I think the word "integrated" is also very important. I personally cannot imagine a system with a higher degree of integration than the Course. Each thought in it seems so flawlessly integrated into its total system; its practice seems such a minutely perfect expression of its thought-system. The only conclusion I can draw is that the mind that conceived it is not like our minds—so fragmented that they are quite prone to joining together things that do not really fit. In contrast, this mind seems to be completely at one with itself, as seamless in its consistency as the purest light.
The Course's and other paths: overlap and uniqueness
Does the Course say anything different from other paths? Are there any teachings that are totally compatible with the Course? This, I perceive, is a very touchy subject, with a lot of investment existing on either side. For many people, the Course is saying exactly the same thing as many other teachings, and can be interchanged with them freely. For others, the Course is blazing radically new trails and must be kept quite distinct from everything else. What is the truth here?
For me, as I said, what first stood out was what the Course had in common with other teachings. Like many teachings, it said that in our true nature we are already one with God, and that our goal is to evolve to a point of embodying perfect love, which will cause us to awaken to our true nature and, as a result, transcend the realm of space and time and exist eternally in a boundless condition of divine union. There is not space here to go into all of the things the Course shares with other teachings, but obviously there are a great, great many, both in the major themes and in minor details; so much so that Roger Walsh could write a wonderful article on the Course's parallels with the world's great wisdom traditions ("The Perennial Wisdom of A Course in Miracles ," in Common Boundary, Vol. 7, Issue 1).
However, over time I began to notice that any one teaching might have a great deal in common with a certain area in the Course, while having little in common with other areas in the Course. To date, I have found no teaching that shares a great deal with the Course in all areas, or even comes close. My friends, Robert and Susan Steeves, former students and teachers of Joel Goldsmith's Infinite Way, are fond of saying, "All of Goldsmith is in the Course, but not all of the Course is in Goldsmith."
What I have personally come to believe is that the Course is, in the broad sweeps, an integration of three basic impulses, which have traditionally been quite separate. These are: the basic impulse behind Eastern (Indian) spirituality, the basic impulse behind Western (Judaeo-Christian) spirituality, and the basic impulse behind modern depth psychology; in other words, the East, the West and psychology. Someday soon I plan to write a booklet about this. But my point now is that all three of these essences are quite distinct, so distinct, in fact, as to seem incompatible with each other (except for Eastern spirituality and modern psychology, which seem to be capable of being synthesized fairly naturally). To my knowledge, no system has united these three impulses with anything close to the completeness with which the Course has.
Therefore, it has been my experience that a teaching that resonates with the Course on one dimension, say, the Eastern dimension, will not resonate all that well on the other two dimensions. This has been my consistent observation, to the point that I can name perhaps a dozen teachings that are often thought to be very much like the Course, and with each one explain how they are actually very much like one of these three dimensions in the Course but not the other two.
Further, something significant happens when the Course brings together the purified essence of the East, the West and psychology: New ideas are born. Just as you get new colors when you mix colors together, so when you integrate fields of thought, you get new ideas. What are some of these new ideas?
Ideas unique to the Course
One exceedingly significant idea is the Course's view of the nature of the physical universe of space and time. What the Course says is that only Heaven is real. Anything apart from it is illusory, which includes our entire universe of bodies, forms, change, limitation and death. Now that is not a new idea. But the Course does take it to a new extreme. Let us trace what it has to say. Going against all Western religions, the Course says that God did not create the world. It is not real, but is in fact purely illusory. Going against many Eastern systems, the Course asserts that this illusion is not produced by God—it is not His divine play—but by our own minds. Further, it is not the wonderful creation of minds happily at play. It is nothing but the projection of our own unconscious insanity. This projection, this dream, is not only insane, it is intended as a direct attack on non-dual reality and on the Creator of that reality. It is an attack on God. Ken Wapnick says that (to the best of his knowledge) there is no other teaching that claims that the phenomenal universe was made by separated minds as an attack on God. I think he must be right.
You can see how this idea is the product of those three dimensions I mentioned earlier. From the East we get that the world is an illusion; from the West, the idea that our current condition is the result of an original rebellion against God; and from psychology, the notion of the unconscious and the defense mechanism of projection.
Another idea in the Course that is hard to find elsewhere is its notion that we get to God through undoing our darkness, rather than seeking the light. (By the way, this is not an entirely either/or issue in the Course, I believe. We are constantly urged to make contact with the light. But we do so in order to let the light shine on our darkness and heal it, as well as to prepare our minds for the eternal light that cannot be sought, but only accepted.) The Course says that our alienation from God is not a real condition, but the product of psychological defense against God. In essence, God's presence within us has been denied, pushed down into unconsciousness, just as we may deny a painful memory, or a shameful feeling. God, then, is hidden from our awareness by tangled masses of dark, unconscious thoughts. The way to God, then, is not to seek Him out, to try to change our nature and so alter our real condition of separation from Him; it is not to seek the light. That would affirm that we are actually separate from Him. Instead, what we must seek out is our inner darkness so that it may be brought to the light of the Spirit and then healed. When it is, the memory of God will dawn on us of itself, says the Course.
The Course, therefore, is brutal, absolutely relentless, in its focus on the depths of human darkness. I would never have thought in a million years that the stuff it talks about is actually inside of me. I know of no teaching that is as extreme as the Course in its focus on our negativity. I do know of one teaching, however, that comes close to the Course's focus on the exposing and healing of negativity. This is the Pathwork guidance of Eva Pierrakos, and its adherents are quite clear that "its profound understanding of personal negativity" (The Pathwork of Self-Transformation, p. xiii) sets it apart from just about any other existing teaching.
A final new idea in the Course is its central assertion that the path to awakening occurs primarily in the act of forgiving others. I doubt that there is any other teaching that says that the way to mystical union comes through forgiving other people. And the Course's definition of forgiveness makes this difference quite a bit stronger. When we forgive, says the Course, we must look on another and realize that the sin we see in her is not real, but is a false projection of our minds. Since sin does not exist, she is sinless, guiltless; there is nothing to forgive. Once we see the guiltlessness in her, we allow the Holy Spirit to move through us and communicate this guiltlessness to her, which heals her. From what I know, the Course is completely unique in claiming that this act of giving up the belief in sin in others and then extending a healed, loving perception to them, is primarily what awakens us to non-dual reality.
Guiltlessness: This is the key fact, the "central theme" (manual, p. 3; M-1.3:5), as the Course says. It is around this idea that the Course primarily identifies itself. Yet the Course goes further than saying that guiltlessness is just its focus. It claims that it is the core of the Holy Spirit's teaching to all humanity; "…the message given to each one is always the same; God's Son is guiltless " (T-14.V.2:1). As a result, guiltlessness is the Course's litmus test for evaluating any teaching. If a teaching encourages the perception of guiltlessness in others, then it is of God. "And every teaching that points to this points straight to Heaven, and the peace of God" (T-14.V.6:5). The Course extends this litmus test for other teachings and makes it a litmus test for any person who seeks to be a representative of God on earth: "To be a teacher of God, it is not necessary to be religious or even to believe in God to any recognizable extent. It is necessary, however, to teach forgiveness rather than condemnation" (Psychotherapy, p. 5).
So here we have three ideas: 1) the physical world is an illusory projection of insane minds that made it as an attack on God; 2) The way to God is not to seek the light, but to seek out and heal unconscious darkness; 3) Forgiveness—the perception of guiltlessness in others and the loving extension of that perception—is the core technology for spiritual awakening. It is true that similar ideas are found in other teachings: many teachings do say the world is a dream; most encourage us to heal the negativity that blocks us from God; perhaps all place importance on letting go of resentment and learning to love others. Yet in each case the new twists that the Course places on these ideas have important implications for how the Course would have us practice them. In other words, those differences do play out strongly in the realm of actual practice.
And so we are again left with ideas which are in some ways unique to the Course. We have here three ideas that are absolutely basic to the Course—they are almost a summary of it—and yet are found virtually nowhere else. Without them, you have no Course. Yet with them, you have nothing else in the world. What are we to do with this fact?
Well, one route we can take is to hold the Course up and cheer about how special it is, how superior it is to everything else. I would be less than honest in saying that I have not done this, and continue to do it mentally even as I write this. It's true, I have a special relationship with the Course. Some part of me thinks that Jesus is some kind of hero vanquishing foes and, after the dust clears, emerging victorious.
Yet, I do not want to defend this. I am putting it out so that you all can look at it with me and set it aside. The Course itself is not competing with other teachings. It demonstrates an obvious sense of kinship with anything that serves the holy cause it serves: the return of all minds to the awareness of God's Love. Yet it serves this cause by serving its students, by doing its best to awaken those who have been called to it. Let us, then, take an objective look at how we can best relate to other paths if we have been called to take the Course as our path.
What do we do with other paths?
If the Course is a highly integrated path, built around ideas that, at least in some significant measure, are unique to it, then what we have is an organized, integrated system , a system that is going to be a different creature from other systems. If this is true, then it is not going to work very well to try to really practice it, while at the same time practicing other paths. It is like trying to build an engine out of a bunch of parts from different kinds of cars. It is probably not going to run. Or like sticking the heart of a mouse in the body of a dog and attaching the head of a moose, and hoping it will live.
Please understand what I am saying. I think that one can get a lot of value out of the Course while practicing other things. What I am talking about, again, is the situation in which you know the Course is your path and are trying to get full value out of it. Like I said, at that point different rules apply.
The Course has a very pointed reference to all this. It comes in the section, "I Need Do Nothing." This section outlines two of the main traditional methods of God-seeking and then comments on them in relation to the Course. It says two relevant things: first, they work; second, they are not for you (meaning, for you who have been called to the Course). Let us look at the key passages:
Your way will be different [from these other paths], not in purpose but in means. A holy relationship is a means of saving time (T-18.VII.5:1-2).
Time has been saved for you because you and your brother are together. This is the special means this course is using to save you time. You are not making use of the course if you insist on using means which have served others well, neglecting what was made for you (T-18.VII.6:3-5).
We are told here that the Course's path is different than others. It has its own means for awakening. In fact, we are twice told that this special means is joining with another. Since that joining is based on forgiveness, we are brought back again to the centrality of seeing guiltlessness in others.
We are also told that for those who have been called to the Course, you must use its means, and not those of other paths. That final line is a very strong statement: "You are not making use of the course if you insist on using means which have served others well, neglecting what was made for you."
Finally, we are told that, indeed, these other means "have served others well." They have the same goal of return to God and (as we are told earlier in the section) take their students the same distance as does the Course. In other words (as the Manual again reminds us), they have "the same outcome" (manual p. 3; M-1.4:2).
In essence, then, the attitude conveyed is: "Use your path, but respect and do not judge other paths." As Ken Wapnick has pointed out, this sentiment is echoed exactly in private guidance which Helen Schucman received at one point:
Don't take another's path as your own; but neither should you judge it ( Absence from Felicity , p. 450).
So, if we have been called to the Course, we must use it to the fullest, paying attention to its special means for getting us home. But we must also regard as brothers on the path all those people who are consciously seeking the same goal that we are. We must cherish their journey and honor their means. We must see them as more than guiltless; we must see them as comrades.
What, however, should be our level of involvement in other paths, teachings and groups? That is up to the Holy Spirit within each one of us. I think that the main guideline is that, as my previously mentioned friends, the Steeves, also say, the Course should be the main course; anything else should be dessert. It must be the main route we take. Yet if other things help us move along that route more effectively, rather than divert us from it, then they are important aids. I do, however, have some more specific thoughts on this subject that I would like to share, given the disclaimer that all of these things must be left ultimately to your own guidance.
As far as reading other teachings, I personally love reading those that speak to me. I love the Pathwork lectures, Emmanuel, Bartholomew and many others. I often find that they can awaken me not only to a greater realization of truth, but also to a deeper understanding of the Course.
Having mentioned other teachings, an important question is: What should we do with particular beliefs we acquired before the Course? Well, if they contradict the Course, then we should somehow find a way to let them go. Yet, what if they do not contradict the Course, but simply are not part of it? The Course, I believe, addresses this to a degree in its discussion of reincarnation (manual, p. 57; M-24). There, we are told that reincarnation is not an essential, but peripheral, idea, and can be used to support either the ego or the Spirit. As such, we are advised to de-emphasize it, step away from it and not take a public stand on it. However, we are also told that if we come to the Course with this belief we need not necessarily renounce it. We must leave the entire matter in the hands of our internal Teacher, Who may tell us to renounce it, or may simply correct our use of it. This, I think, is a good guide for any such belief.
As far as going to church or to 12-step groups, I myself see no inherent conflict with doing so and being a dedicated Course student. I don't think it is too terribly difficult to engage in some activity that others may perceive one way, but that you have reinterpreted through the eyes of the Course.
I know that many Course students meditate using such techniques as TM or Kriya yoga. I think the only real drawback there would be if the technique itself expresses thoughts that go contrary to the Course, or if you make meditation the centerpoint of your path, since that would substitute for the Course's centerpoint of forgiveness.
Can Course students cooperate with non-Course students in common purpose, even common spiritual purpose? I think that if your answer here is "no" there is something seriously wrong. My own experience is that I have been led into major life commitments on a spiritual level with non-Course students, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Making the Course your sole path is not narrow, when done correctly. If such is your calling, it is simply practical. It is not a condemnation of all the other possible paths; it is still quite possible to sincerely love them all. It is just an acknowledgment of what is meant for you. And this, says the Course, is not up to you. The Course states quite clearly that your particular path is chosen for you by the Holy Spirit: "…you are not free to choose the curriculum, or even the form in which you will learn it" (manual, p. 4; M-2.3:6). For many of us, taking the Course as our path is a simple acknowledgment of the route that He chose for us. True, I can go from Sedona to Southern California by way of I-40. But instead I use I-10. It doesn't mean that I-40 is bad. It just means that it is not my way. And if I try to use both routes at the same time, that would really not work.
Again, the key is discerning what you are called to do. How do you know what that is? If the Course is your way home, your "special form of the universal course" (manual, p. 3; M-1.4:1), your "path of light" (W-pI.RV.In.4), then, given any willingness on your part, there is no way it will not be revealed to you. If the Course is your path, somewhere inside there is a knowing light in you, which before you were born was bound to the Course by cords of light that cannot be broken. It may take a long time to uncover this, as it did with me, but that is all right. No one is being graded on their journey back to God. You will know, and you will know at the right time. The sheep always know the shepherd's voice.