I recently read an article on the research being done on near-death experiences ("Altered States: Scientists Analyze the Near-Death Experience," by Lee Graves, The University of Virginia Magazine, Summer 2007). While I was impressed by the evidence being compiled that these experiences are not just the misfirings of a dying brain, I was especially struck by a particular message that emerged again and again.
This message was embedded in the article's opening story. The story was about Rocky, a bagman for the Mafia, who was shot in the chest one day and left for dead. He had a profound near-death experience and, as Bruce Greyson described it, "came back with typical near-death aftereffects. He felt that cooperation and love were the important things, and that competition and material goods were irrelevant." As a result, he actually changed careers and "started helping delinquent children and victims of spousal abuse."
After that, this same basic message was voiced repeatedly, by experiencers as well as by researchers summarizing the reports of experiencers. Here are some of the ways that message was put:
How we spend our time on earth, the kind of relationships we build, is vastly more important than we can know. (George Ritchie, NDE experiencer and author of Return from Tomorrow)
They [NDE experiencers] seem to know that the love they create while living will be reflected and radiated back to them when they die. (Melvin Morse, M.D., author of Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near-Death Experiences of Children)
We're all in this together. If I hurt you, I'm hurting myself. (Bruce Greyson, prominent NDE researcher)
It sort of wakes you up to the importance of other people and relationships. (Raymond Moody, author of Life After Life)
How strange that when someone apparently passes beyond the veil and glimpses the other side, the message that person receives is about the incomparable importance of our relationships on earth.
Part of why I was so struck by this was that this is the very message that I have taken away from A Course in Miracles. Please read the following twelve quotes and try to catch their vision of the importance of our relationships:
It is only in relationships that salvation can be found. (P-2.In.4:3)
You have found each other, and will light each other's way. (T-18.III.8:6; Urtext version)
One instant spent together with your brother restores the universe to both of you.(T-18.VII.5:3)
You have assumed your part in [your brother's] redemption, and you are now fully responsible to him. (T-17.VIII.5:5)
All therapy should do is try to place everyone involved in the right frame of mind to help one another. (Urtext)
One asks for help; another hears and tries to answer in the form of help. This is the formula for salvation. (P-2.III.3:4-5)
Nothing in the world is holier than helping one who asks for help. And two come very close to God in this attempt, however limited, however lacking in sincerity. (P-2.V.4:2-3)
If their relationship is to be holy, whatever one needs is given by the other; whatever one lacks the other supplies. (P-3.III.4:4)
No one is sent by accident to anyone. (P-3.III.6:2)
When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. (T-8.III.4:1)
Even at the level of the most casual encounter, it is possible for two people to lose sight of separate interests, if only for a moment. That moment will be enough. Salvation has come. (M-3.2:6-8)
All who meet will someday meet again, for it is the destiny of all relationships to become holy. (M-3.4:6)
When we read these quotes, we can be astonished at just how much importance they grant our relationships. Yet this theme is not confined to these few passages. The entire path of the Course is one of realizing that other people are not the annoying nuisances we thought, but instead are literally shining with divine worth and significance. This realization is what frees us from our chains: "And each one is released as he beholds his savior in place of the attacker who he thought was there" (T-22.VI.8:1). The author of the Course says that when someone seeks to open his mind to true reality, "it is always some change in his perception of interpersonal relationships that enables him to do so" (P-In.1:6).
Yet the Course is about more than a strictly internal change in our perception of others. It is also about joining with others in a common goal. "Each one must share one goal with someone else, and in so doing, lose all sense of separate interests" (P-2.II.8:4). This, of course, is a holy relationship, and the Course says that holy relationships are literally "the source of your salvation" (T-20.VIII.6:9).
We could even take this one step further. In the Course, relationships are not only the source of our salvation, they are also meant to be the focus of our lives. The Course says that our whole "function on earth is healing" (T-12.VII.4:7)—meaning, extending healing to others. To say that this is our "function" is to say that this is what we are suited for, what we are here for. Just as a toaster's function is to toast bread, so our function is to heal people. This function is meant to encompass all of our behavior: "The Holy Spirit teaches you to use your body only to reach your brothers, so He can teach His message through you" (T-8.VIII.9:1). And it is meant to be full time, to go on "every moment of the day" and even to continue "into sleeping thoughts as well" (M-In.1:6). The Course even promises that we will be given a special form of this function, designed around our particular strengths (see W-pI.154.2:2), so that the people we serve get the very best in us.
This focus on the importance of our relationships extends into every nook and cranny of our day. We are meant to wake up saying, "Help me to perform whatever miracles you want of me today" (Urtext). We are supposed to take a moment each morning to let ourselves be born again to each one of our relationships. "Use no relationship to hold you to the past, but with each one each day be born again. A minute, even less, will be enough" (T-13.X.5:2-3). Then we are supposed to walk out into our day and be constantly on the lookout for situations that need a miracle from us (W-pI.77.7:4-5). We are asked to bless literally everyone we meet (W-pI.37.6:2). We are supposed to regard each chance encounter as a potential holy encounter, not really chance at all, but arranged by the Holy Spirit for the sake of a holy potential.
Thus, if we land on an elevator with a stranger, we are meant to treat it as an arranged meeting with a long-lost friend (M-3.2:2-5). If a child bumps into us by accident, we are supposed to treat this as a God-given opportunity to let this child know that she's worthy anyway, even when she doesn't look where she's going (M-3.2:2-5). If we feel a pang of regret at running into someone at the store (W-pI.121.10:1), we are meant to realize that this pang is actually anger, and then try to see the light in this person and let this light awaken us (W-pI.121.10-13). We are supposed to be so focused on holy encounters that we even regard the holy encounters of others as somehow our own: "A brother smiles upon another, and my heart is gladdened. Someone speaks a word of gratitude or mercy, and my mind receives this gift and takes it as its own" (W-pII.315.1:3-4).
When we put all of these passages together, it can be quite surprising. Is how we relate to others really this important? Does the Course really see our every interaction as suffused with this kind of divine meaning? Yet this shouldn't actually surprise us. After all, the Course came in order to help Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford live out Bill's "better way," and listen to how Helen described that way:
[Bill] was not going to get angry and was determined not to attack. He was going to look for a constructive side in what the people there said and did, and was not going to focus on mistakes and point up errors. He was going to cooperate rather than compete. (Absence from Felicity, by Ken Wapnick, p. 94)
This notion of the importance of relationships, then, takes us back to the very origins of the Course. For the Course's original purpose was to help Helen and Bill learn how to "cooperate rather than compete." It came, in other words, to teach them—and us—how to get along.
How does this fit with the Course's metaphysics?
Despite what I've said, there is actually a very good reason that this theme of the importance of our relationships may surprise us. That reason is the Course's metaphysics. The Course openly and repeatedly teaches that this world is an illusion. And that seems to drain the importance from our earthly relationships—as well as from everything else in this world. Think about it. If everything in the world is an illusion, then our relationships here are an illusion, too. And how can an illusion be important? Why all this fanfare around something that is not real?
I think most students of the Course struggle with this issue, even if unconsciously. As Course students, we constantly get these two messages: 1) Our relationships in this world are incredibly important; 2) everything in this world is illusory. How can one escape the friction between these? They just don't seem to fit together. Surely we need to tone one down so that it can harmonize with the other.
And this, in fact, is what I see happen. If we emphasize theme 1—the importance of our relationships—we generally get a Marianne Williamson or Jerry Jampolsky interpretation of the Course. In this interpretation, there is a wonderful emphasis on giving and receiving, lots of stress on helping others and joining with others, but little or no mention of the fact that this world is a dream. Indeed, there are some interpretations of the Course in which the world is actually real and God-created; only the world as we see it is an illusion.
If, on the other hand, we emphasize theme 2—the Course's metaphysics—we tend to get a Ken Wapnick interpretation of the Course. Here, the illusory nature of the world is admirably emphasized, yet our relationships seem to be downgraded. They are important, but only as an opportunity to get in touch with our own projections. Indeed, in this interpretation, you often get the impression that other people are no more than our projections, an impression reinforced by statements like "There's no one out there." If there's no one out there, what does that do to the very concept of "relationship"? It seems to do away with it.
This can easily seem like an unsolvable dilemma, as if we will always be forced to compromise one side of the Course for the sake of the other. There is, however, a way out. That way out is an accurate understanding of the Course's metaphysics.
Many Course students assume that the Course's transcendental reality (also called Heaven) is basically an undifferentiated soup of pure consciousness. In this soup, there are no beings (in the plural); there is only oneness. God and the Son are really the same thing called by different names. Not only is the Son not different from God, but there are no individual Sons. The appearance of multiple Sons is an illusion caused by the separation. Finally, the Holy Spirit is really just a metaphor. Thus, rather than beings (Father, Sons, Holy Spirit), there is a single field of pure beingness. In such a realm, it would clearly make no sense to speak of relationship, for a relationship, of course, takes two. And that means that this thing we do on earth, where different beings enter into relationship with each other, has absolutely no counterpart in reality. And having no counterpart in reality, it must be pure illusion.
But this is not the Course's metaphysics. You can't find the support for the statements I just made in the Course itself. You have to read those statements into the Course. You have to assume, "Well, surely this is what the Course really means," because nowhere is this what it actually says.
Instead, the Course presents us with a deeply relational Heaven. In this Heaven, all is one, yes, but somehow within this oneness, Heaven is brimming with relationship. Even though there is perfect oneness, there are also beings in relationship. That may sound startling, but it really is how the Course always talks. In fact, it often uses the word "relationship" to speak of Heaven. Thirty-eight times, by my count, it explicitly speaks of "relationship" in Heaven—with God, with our creations, and with our brothers. I will quote some of these passages below.
This relational Heaven begins with a God Who "did not will to be alone" (T-11.I.1:6, 5:7, 6:3, 11:2; T-11.III.2:4). Therefore, He creates a Son. This Son is one with God and shares His attributes, but there is a key difference: The Son is the Effect and God is the Cause, and that difference will never be erased (W-pI.326.1:2). Because of that difference, it makes sense to speak of "the relationship of God and His Son" (T-16.VI.1:4; italics mine).
Further, within this one Son are countless Sons. They are "the sum of all God's Thoughts, in number infinite" (W-pII.11.1:1). These Sons are not an illusory product of the separation, but were created by God Himself in the beginning. "God…created beings who have everything individually, but who want to share it to increase their joy" (T-4.VII.5:1). And these Sons, too, are in relationship. Referring to your heavenly condition as one of these Sons, the Course speaks of "the beautiful relationship you have with all your brothers" (T-28.VII.2:1).
The idea of relationship in Heaven also allows us to understand the Holy Spirit, Who was created after the separation. For the separation was a breaking of our relationship with God. It was a tear in the fabric of Heaven's relationships. This is why God created the Holy Spirit. Through our relationship with the Holy Spirit, we retain some of our original relationship with God, and this means that that original relationship is still unbroken. All of this is said in the following passage:
And the truth is that the Holy Spirit is in close relationship with you, because in Him is your relationship with God restored to you. The relationship with Him [God] has never been broken, because the Holy Spirit has not been separate from anyone since the separation. (T-17.IV.4:5-6)
Heaven, then, is not just perfect oneness. It can just as accurately be described as perfect relationship. In Heaven, there are beings—God, the Son, the Sons, our creations, the Holy Spirit—and these beings are joined in relationship. And not just any sort of relationship; their "relationship is one of perfect union and unbroken continuity" (T-20.VI.1:5). Their relationship is so intimate that it crosses the line into oneness.
So somehow, in Heaven there is both multiplicity (beings in relationship) and oneness. This is admittedly very hard to comprehend. The Course, in fact, says that it is impossible for us now. It says that our current minds cannot truly understand that "one brother is all brothers," that "every mind contains all minds" (W-pI.161.4:1-2). We can't grasp how multiple beings can be perfectly one. But that is all right. We don't need to grasp it right now.
Now for the punch line. The fact that the Course's Heaven is so thoroughly relational has absolutely massive implications for life on earth. The implications are obvious: By building relationship into the very fabric of Heaven, the Course provides a metaphysical basis for the importance of relationship on earth. This resolves that entire dilemma we saw before, where we felt forced to water down either the Course's metaphysics or the importance it places on relationship, so that the two can fit together. Now we don't need to water down either one, for they are no longer in conflict. They can stand up together, right next to each other, because they fit hand in glove.
Now our loving, kind, united relationships on earth are a reflection of Heaven's perfect relationships. This reflection isn't real, but it's the closest approximation of reality that can exist on this earth. This idea of earthly relationship reflecting heavenly relationship is not my speculation. The Course itself makes this point again and again. The following quotes state it just as clearly as can be:
The holy relationship reflects the true relationship the Son of God has with his Father in reality. (T-20.VI.10:1)
Your relationship is a reflection of the union of the Creator and His Son. (T-22.VI.14:5)
For the therapeutic relationship must become like the relationship of the Father and the Son. (P-3.II.5:4)
The whole reality of your relationship with [God] lies in our relationship to one another. (T-17.IV.16:7)
You have a real relationship, and it has meaning. It is as like your real relationship with God as equal things are like unto each other. (T-20.VI.12:5-6)
The means of return
We have now seen three points amply attested throughout the Course. First, our relationships on earth are supremely important. Second, Heaven is a realm of perfect relationship. Third, the first is a reflection of the second. Our loving relationships on earth are reflections of Heaven's condition of perfect relationship.
To make the picture complete, we need to add one final point: The reflection awakens us to that which it reflects. By acting out an earthly reflection of heavenly relationship, however limited it may be, we awaken to Heaven itself. By gazing upon the reflected light, we are lifted up to the Source of light. Jesus makes this point quite plainly. He says,
A one‑to‑one relationship is not One Relationship. Yet it is the means of return. (P-3.II.4:6-7)
According to this passage, a relationship with another human is not the same as our "One Relationship" with God. The first is merely a "one-to-one relationship," suggesting two separate ones coming together. The second is "One Relationship," suggesting a joining so complete that instead of one-to-one, there is just "One." This kind of total union is not something we can achieve on earth, where bodies and egos draw lines between us. Therefore, the first (one-to-one relationship) is not the second (One Relationship). "Yet," Jesus says, "it is the means of return." The first is the way back to the second. This is the entire plan of the Course for getting us home. "This holy interaction is the plan of God Himself, by which His Son is saved" (P-2.V.5:8).
Seeing this gives us a basis for a whole different way of standing in the world as students of A Course in Miracles. We can stop shying away from the importance of our relationships because such importance seems to violate Course metaphysics. We can stop undermining the vital significance of relationships by saying, "There's no one out there." We can stop apologizing for the help that we give others by saying, "I know that's not really part of the Course."
Instead, we can acknowledge that this message of the importance of our relationships not only comes from the lips of those who have seen the light in near-death experiences; it also comes from the pages of A Course in Miracles. And then we can make this what our lives are about. We can practice seeing people differently all day long. We can join with others in common goals, "and in so doing, lose all sense of separate interests" (P-2.II.8:4). We can live as if healing other people really is our function. We can actually embody those lines the Workbook has us practice: "I am the light of the world. That is my only function. That is why I am here" (W-pI.61.5:3-5). And we can approach every encounter, no matter how small, as arranged by the Holy Spirit because of its potential to become a holy encounter. We can turn our lives into a spotless mirror which reflects nothing but the pure, seamless relationship of Heaven.
Imagine if thousands of us did just this, if we had thousands of Course in Miracles versions of Rocky, the Mafia bagman who learned that "cooperation and love were the important things," and so began helping delinquent children and victims of spousal abuse. Imagine us out there helping and joining not as a departure from Course metaphysics, but as a fulfillment. Then we would be achieving the purpose for which the Course originally came into being. We would be living out Bill Thetford's "better way."
True, one-to-one relationship on earth can never become the perfect relationship that is found only in Heaven. Yet when it comes to our lives within the illusion, this is the plan of God Himself. It is means of return.