Correcting Error from the Bottom Up

Question: "What does the Course mean when it says that "correction must be introduced vertically from the bottom up" (T-1.VI.3:3)?

Short answer: In broad terms, I believe it means that our perception must first be corrected before our minds can be fully restored to knowledge. Specifically, T-1.VI.3:3 means that our perception must be shifted from the belief that we have many different needs to the recognition that we have only one need; only then can our minds be restored to the knowledge that we have no real needs.


In broad terms, I believe it means that our perception must first be corrected before our minds can be fully restored to knowledge.

It is a basic principle of the Course that we can't go straight from our current false perception of the world to the perfect knowledge of Heaven. "Perception must be straightened out before you can know anything" (T-3.III.1:2). Indeed, false perception is so divorced from knowledge that the two have nothing to do with one another:

Knowledge is not the remedy for false perception since, being another level, they can never meet. The one correction possible for false perception must be true perception. (C-4.3:1-2)

The first step in the process of awakening is to shift from false to true perception. Only when we are fully in the state of true perception can God take the final step and lift us back to knowledge. (We can, however, have brief glimpses of knowledge—which the Course calls "revelation"—before our perception is fully healed.) I think that in general terms, the idea of correcting error from the bottom up refers to this principle of correcting perception ("the bottom") as a prerequisite for fully awakening to knowledge.

My view is based in part on a later reference to this idea, a reference that occurs in the context of a discussion of the difference between perception and knowledge. In Chapter 3 of the Text, Jesus says, "As a man I did not attempt to counteract error with knowledge, but to correct error from the bottom up" (T-3.IV.7:4). He goes on to say that he cannot unite our will with God's for us, but he can correct our misperceptions (T-3.IV.7:7). In other words, he cannot restore us to knowledge, but he can shift our perception from false perception to true perception if we will let him. Once our perception has been corrected, we will naturally remember "spirit and its real purpose" (T-3.IV.7:6), just as he did. We will be restored to knowledge.

Specifically, T-1.VI.3:3 means that our perception must be shifted from the belief that we have many different needs to the recognition that we have only one need; only then can our minds be restored to the knowledge that we have no real needs.

T-1.VI.3 and the surrounding paragraphs apply this idea about perception and knowledge to the topic of needs. What do we really need? Our answer to this question depends on our degree of understanding, and I see three basic understandings referred to in this discussion. The first is our conventional understanding of the needs we have. We believe that we have a hierarchy of needs, a wide variety of different needs on different levels, all of which are different forms of lack. Our bodies need things like food, shelter, sleep, exercise, and sex. Our minds need things like education, stimulation, self-esteem, community, and purpose. Our spirits need things like prayer, meditation, mindfulness, communion, and absolution. We spend our lives juggling these various and often conflicting needs, trying desperately to fill the hole we perceive at the center of our being.

However, Jesus tells us our perception that we need all these things is utterly false. Of course, we do need some of these things on a temporary basis as long as we believe we live in this world. But in truth, we have only one need in this world: "A sense of separation from God is the only lack you really need correct" (T-1.VI.2:1). This is the second understanding, a higher understanding that replaces our false perception that we have many different needs on many different levels with the recogition that we have only one need on one level, the level of the mind. All of our apparent needs really boil down to our aching need to undo the tragic belief that we've been kicked out of paradise forever.

Yet from the perspective of Heaven, even this need is not truly a need. "Lack does not exist in the creation of God" (T-1.VI.1:3), and we are the creation of God. This is the third understanding, the highest understanding: the certainty of knowledge. In Heaven, we have no real needs and there are no levels, because we are eternally complete, unified, and whole.

In summary, then, we have three different understandings regarding our needs:

  1. The perception that we have many different needs on many different levels
  2. The perception that we have only one need on only one level: to correct our false belief that we have separated from God
  3. The knowledge that we have no real needs and there are no levels

I've ordered these three from the lowest to the highest understanding—from #1 at the "bottom" to #3 at the "top." With this in mind, we are now ready to address the question of what it means to say that "correction must be introduced vertically from the bottom up." In short, I think it means that in our development, our path must start from the bottom and move up through the three understandings in order. Our understanding has to go from #1 to #2 first, and only then can it progress from #2 to #3. I see this progression laid out in the first sentence of paragraph 3:

The idea of orders of need [#1], which follows from the original error that one can be separated from God [#2], requires correction at its own level [we have to move from #1 to #2] before the error of perceiving levels at all can be corrected [before we can move from #2 to #3].

In other words, our perception has to shift from the perception that we have many different needs in this world to the perception that we really have only one need in this world: the need to correct our belief that we have separated from God. Once we've gotten that far, the Atonement can then correct our belief that we have separated from God; thus we will be restored to knowledge, where we recognize that in truth, we have no needs at all.

Reflections on correcting error from the bottom up

The idea of correcting error from the bottom up—healing perception instead of shooting straight for knowledge—is central to the Course's path. In practical terms, this means that the Course's path does not focus on attaining direct knowledge of God or the Absolute—the classic "enlightenment experience" sought by traditional mystical paths. Instead, it focuses on undoing the ego through attaining a new perception of the world. Awakening to knowledge is the Course's ultimate goal for us, and brief experiences of knowledge or revelation do play a part in its path. But its primary means to the ultimate goal of awakening is the shift from false to true perception brought about by forgiveness, or the miracle. We are not to become solitary yogis, basking in the light of absolute knowledge; we are to become miracle workers like Jesus, selflessly extending healed perception to all the world.

I think the Course's emphasis on healing perception is a welcome alternative to the emphasis on direct knowledge. Aiming straight for knowledge is a "correcting error from the top down" approach; it assumes that if we just have sufficently powerful enlightenment experiences—experiences of the "top" level of spiritual attainment—all of our lower-level false perception and egocentricity will automatically be washed away. The problem with this approach is that, to repeat a Course line I quoted earlier, "Knowledge is not the remedy for false perception." If this is so, then brief experiences of knowledge, as valuable as they may be on the spiritual journey, do not necessarily lead to the undoing of the ego. We can have dramatic enlightenment experiences without budging our entrenched egos in the least. We might get to visit Heaven, but we won't accomplish the ego relinquishment that allows us to truly live in Heaven.

Modern teachers of enlightenment have increasingly stressed this point. For instance, well-known spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen says, "One of the things I have learned is that the ego can survive this shift in consciousness [the enlightenment experience] and can actually be empowered by the transmission and energy of enlightenment."1 He goes on to say that however powerful a person's enlightenment experiences may be, if no additional work is done, that person's " deeply conditioned, unfree, egotistical, small-minded, self-centered, samsaric mind is running the show." We've all seen this very thing in the examples of spiritual masters who are capable of transmitting powerful enlightenment experiences, yet also demonstrate deep egocentricity and lack of personal integrity by sleeping with their followers, misusing money, exaggerating their level of spiritual attainment, and the like.

The way out of this trap, I believe, is a spiritual program that truly addresses our attachment to the ego, a program that aims at purifying our perception—the kind of program the Course gives us. Cohen refers to " the cultivation of purity of motivation," and says that this cultivation—the undoing of the ego—is ultimately far more important than enlightenment experiences. I think the Course would agree. This kind of purification is what correcting error from the bottom up is all about.

Let us, then, follow the path of the Course and allow our errors to be corrected from the bottom up. Let us aim not at transient experiences of knowledge that leave our egos intact, but at the healed perception which alone will undo our egos for good and restore our minds to the knowledge of the Heaven we never really left.

1. All Andrew Cohen quotes are from Berthold Madhukar Thompson, The Odyssey of Enlightenment: Rare Interviews with Enlightened Teachers of Our Time (Mt. Shasta, CA: Wisdom Editions, 2002).

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