10 Character Traits of the Spiritually Advanced

At one point, the Course itself (in Section 4 of the Manual, “What Are the Characteristics of God’s Teachers?”) provides an extended discussion of the gifts that come to those who become truly advanced on this path—or any path, for that matter. It calls these individuals advanced teachers of God, and says about them: “God gives special gifts to His teachers because they have a special role in His plan for Atonement.”[1] When we think of those who are highly spiritually advanced, two kinds of gifts generally come to mind: paranormal powers and powerful inner experiences. We think of the saint as someone who can heal the sick or read minds or perhaps levitate, someone who slips easily into rapturous visions and ecstatic mystical states. Significantly, however, neither supernatural powers nor blissful inner states are included in the gifts the Course speaks of here. The gifts we normally think of seem to have been intentionally left off the list. What, then, are the gifts the Course speaks of? They are character traits. The special gifts God gives to those who come near to Him are gifts of character.

I find something exquisitely appropriate in this. Who of us has not heard of the spiritual master who can drop into samadhi at will, yet who in his worldly dealings displays the kind of character traits we have come to expect from dirty politicians? I think we all assume that something is really amiss there. True, we all long for mystical experiences. Yet just as fundamental is the longing to be good, to be a person of true and uncommon goodness. In a culture in which so many people feel they have suppressed their real feelings in the attempt to be good, I almost feel as if I’m speaking blasphemy. But the yearning is there, and it’s so powerful that we’ll do almost anything under its pressure—even twisted things like suppressing our feelings. We want to be good, and that desire is unquenchable. As I have said many times in this book, the Course claims that all of our pain comes from our deep-seated belief that we have permanently stained our original goodness, that we have corrupted ourselves beyond all repair. A moment’s ecstasy is wonderful, but if afterwards we are faced with the same person we detest—ourselves—then that belief in our corruption has not been undone, and that overpowering urge to be good has not been satisfied.

The following ten characteristics—drawn from “What Are the Characteristics of God’s Teachers?”—paint a portrait of a person who is pure goodness, a person who in any land, at any time, would be considered a saint, a person whom any tradition would be honored to call its own. This is the person the Course is leading us to become.

1. Trust

We look out and see a world that can’t be trusted. People are scurrying about focused on their needs and heedless of ours. Random winds are blowing that swirl about us, thoughtlessly disrupting our affairs as though we don’t exist. In this general chaos, if we want to survive, it seems we have to exercise some sort of control. We can turn our patch of wilderness into a garden, but only if we can tame all those wild forces: put fences up to keep out the rabbits, post signs to keep out all those trampling feet, and—just in case—keep our shotgun loaded and ready.

In contrast, the advanced teacher of God looks on the world with total trust. He has learned that “all things, events, encounters, and circumstances are helpful.”[2] He knows that there is no such thing as randomness, that even the wild winds blow with his best interests in mind. For he trusts that, despite appearances, the world is governed by an unseen Power, a Power that is in love with him. Thus, he has no need to push the flow. He does act; he decides to go right instead of left, he decides to do this instead of that. But his actions flow from his connection with that unseen Power. Thus, if this Power so directs him, he too will plant a garden, but once he does, he will make sure that he invites everyone into it, because he trusts them.

2. Honesty

Because we don’t trust the world, we all, to one degree or another, become career magicians. We present to our audience a carefully constructed illusion. A little misdirection, a little sleight of hand, and we have them believing in something that’s not actually real. Our signature trick, however, is not making tigers appear; it’s conjuring an illusion of ourselves—as wonderful, attractive, intelligent, caring, and sincere. If we’re really skilled, we have our audiences believing in an image of ourselves that is no more than a bit of stage magic. Who would love us, we wonder, if we showed them the truth?

Because the advanced teacher of God implicitly trusts the world, he can afford to be completely honest. He is not afraid of what will ensue, for he is not protecting a false image of himself. He’s not trying to be something that he’s not. His honesty, in fact, is rooted in self-honesty. He has admitted to himself what he knows, deep down, to be the truth about himself: that he is the holy Son of God. On the foundation of this inner honesty, he is able to demonstrate an outer honesty that vastly exceeds conventional notions. Not only are his words honest, but his actions are as well. He follows through with what he says. He keeps his word. He practices what he preaches. He embodies, in other words, a kind of ultra-integrity, to the point where all of his thoughts, words, and actions are completely in harmony with one another. There is a trueness that runs all the way through him, through his private thoughts and his public expression. At no level is he in conflict with himself,[3] and this gives him a peace of mind that we crafty magicians can only dream of.

3. Tolerance

In our efforts to tame the wilderness of life, we believe it is crucial to have high standards. They tell us what belongs inside our garden and what must be kept out. If we relax our standards and let anything in—rabbits, birds, substandard seed, cheap fertilizers, and those careless people—we’ll not only lose control, but we’ll also lose self-respect. At that point, we are no better than anyone else.

The advanced teacher, however, sees something we’ve missed: that this constant process of managing our world through judgment—judging what to let in and what to exclude—takes a heavy emotional toll. For one thing, it establishes a very narrow range of acceptability. It says things have to be just right or we lose our peace. For another, it makes us a rejecter, an excluder, one who cannot tolerate people unless they are just right. As a result, we sour on ourselves. We frown while we pound that “no trespassing” sign into the ground, because we are inwardly frowning on ourselves.

The teacher of God is unwilling to pay this price. Hence, he throws judgment away. He refuses to distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant situations, or between desirable and undesirable people. True, he makes decisions, based on his guidance. But in his heart, everything is just fine with him, and everyone is welcome. “Without judgment are all things equally acceptable….Without judgment are all men brothers.”[4] This is how he looks on the world. He has found a tolerance as wide as the ocean, and thus, like the depths of the ocean, his peace knows no bounds.

4. Gentleness

Can we afford gentleness? We’ve all had the experience of trying politely to be heard while no one listened, only to finally get some action when we started shouting. The world is so set in its ways that railing against the injustices is, at times, the only force that can push the wheels out of their ruts. If we gently request that those wheels change direction, chances are that the only thing we’ll accomplish is to get run over. In this view, maybe the meek shall inherit the earth, but first they’ll need to be raised from the dead.

The advanced teacher, however, thinks this whole picture is completely backwards. He actually considers harsh tactics too weak to effect real change. In his eyes, gentleness is the strongest force there is, and he sees the evidence of this on a daily basis. He sees that one gentle touch can reach someone when nothing else will, that one gentle word can be more effective than all the shouting. Experience has taught him that the power of gentleness is the power of love, and is, indeed, the power of God. For love is gentle, and God is Love. Gentleness is thus more than just amiable behavior. It is a state of mind that mirrors the nature of God, and so taps into His infinite power. That is why the truly gentle have been known to perform miracles. And that is why the meek shall inherit the earth. According to the Course, “They will literally take it over, because of their strength.”[5]

5. Joy

Who of us does not want to feel joy? The problem, however, is that we believe it’s not appropriate to feel joy unless something really wonderful happens. Consequently, in our eyes, anything more than occasional joy amounts to a state of being out of touch with reality. Given the condition of things down here, to be in joy all the time, you’d have to be mentally deficient.

The teacher of God, however, does not see joy as an isolated response to specific events. Instead, it is his response to the nature of reality, a radiant reality that lies just behind the drab appearances he sees. It is his “yes” to a God of boundless generosity, a God Who goes with him wherever he goes and Who covers him with kindness and with care.[6] His joy, therefore, has a limitless foundation. Hence, there is no need to scale it down to fit within the limits of caution and proportion. Further, being based on the nature of reality, it is no pipe dream; it is perfectly sane and rational. And since it is also based on that which never changes, it is not a fleeting emotion. Rather, his joy has become a fundamental character trait. He is able to look upon any circumstance, no matter how dark and threatening it may appear, and say to his God with perfect sincerity, “I am safe, untroubled and serene, in endless joy, because it is Your will that it be so.”[7]

6. Defenselessness

Life in this world appears to require a massive amount of defense. We need medicine to defend against disease. We buy coats to protect ourselves from the cold. We build roofs to defend against sun and rain. We make endless plans, which are nothing but defenses against future threats. We even drive defensively. All things considered, our personal defense budget takes up the greater part of our income. In addition to guarding against physical threats, we also defend against an equally long list of interpersonal threats. If people disagree with us, insult our dignity, dispute our intelligence, or challenge our character, what do we do? We get defensive. We do everything in our power to stop them from pinning that label onto us.

The truly advanced teacher is free of the need for defenses. Instead of seeing defenses as staving off dangers, he sees the defenses themselves as the danger. For each defense contains a crippling message: that he is “vulnerable, frail and easily destroyed, and at the mercy of countless attackers”[8]—a hapless fly caught in a raging torrent. Given this belief, no defense, however impregnable, could save him from chronic insecurity and fear.

His only defense, therefore, is his supreme confidence that Who he really is can never be harmed or injured in any way, that his reality was “created unassailable.”[9] Given this confidence, what possible reason would there be to armor himself with layer upon layer of defense? And so he walks in simplicity, having no need for all the complicated structures we look to for safety. He laughs in the face of danger, because, quite simply, he sees no danger.

7. Generosity

Everyone feels the impulse to give, but there are costs involved. If we give too much, there will be nothing left for ourselves. Our giving is therefore constricted by a sense of caution, and overseen by a careful gauging of what we can afford. Granted, our idea of what we can afford often translates as what will not cut into our ability to accumulate at the rate we prefer. In this mindset, our gifts become investments, loans that we intend to call in at the appropriate time.

The teacher of God has left this mindset completely behind. His generosity has an extravagance to it, a lack of caution that we onlookers find both inspiring and unsettling. He might offer the shirt off his back to a complete stranger, or even an attacker. The reason is that he instinctively perceives giving as the way in which he himself gains, and sees keeping things for himself as a sure road to loss. As a result, his criterion for acquiring something is: “Can I give it away?” If not, he has no use for it. He can no longer even understand how something that is for him alone could have value. After all, every visible gift he gives—whether it be of his time or money or skills or possessions—is really just the wrapping for the gift of love. And the more he gives this gift, the more its radiance simply grows brighter within him. It is no wonder that he associates giving with gain.

8. Patience

So much of life amounts to standing in line. At any given moment, we are probably standing in about twenty lines, waiting for money to come through, for people to change, for our ship to come in, for our food to arrive. While standing in these lines, we try to wait patiently, yet doing so can feel like reining in wild horses. We silently wonder if our patience is too passive and wimpy, if we should just speak up in order to get the line moving.

Clearly, we are just putting a lid of patience over a cauldron of impatience. In contrast, the advanced teacher is truly patient, serenely patient, no matter how long the line is. What is his secret? “All he sees is certain outcome.”[10] While his eyes gaze on uncertainty, his mind rests in the inevitability of a happy outcome. And so he can relax and “wait without anxiety.”[11] His trust is so great that he knows that even the timing of this outcome will be perfect.

His patience, in other words, rests on his trust, the very first of his character traits. And this trust has a curious effect on the people he’s waiting for. They actually move faster. For his patience sends them a message: “I am willing to wait for you without anxiety because I trust you completely.” This loving message softens their hearts and kindles their motivation. Where before they would have dug in their heels, now they are drawn forward by the power of his love. Perhaps the Course is right when it says, “What you need to learn now is that only infinite patience can produce immediate effects.”[12]

9. Faithfulness

Most of us believe in some very high ideals, and we really intend to follow them, maybe even all the time. Yet we have a great many things to juggle, and while juggling those axes and chainsaws, we often drop the ball of our high ideals. Of course, that doesn’t always happen. If we are spiritually inclined, for instance, we do turn some of our problems over to God. Yet we probably also believe there are certain problems that, if we gave Him the opportunity, He might solve in the wrong way. We decide we better keep those to ourselves. Who knows what bizarre and radical things He might do if we held nothing back and gave Him our whole life? In one of its exercises, the Course asks us to “think about all things we saved to settle by ourselves, and kept apart from healing.”[13] It expects us to find quite a few, for it knows that we are not yet wholly faithful to our higher convictions.

That, says the Course, is the only difference between us and the advanced teacher of God. He is wholly faithful. If he did that exercise, there would be nothing on his list. He brings all of his resentments to the healing power of forgiveness, without exception. He gives every single problem into the hands of the Holy Spirit. That is why we look up to him. He actually follows through on his high ideals. For he has learned the priceless lesson that we are still learning: that he can “trust in the Word of God to set all things right; not some, but all.”[14]

10. Open-mindedness

We probably consider open-mindedness to be a virtue. We value being open to new ideas and opinions. We respect those who will admit that they may not see the whole picture. But how far would we be willing to go with this? Would we open our minds wide enough to let go of every meaning we ever put on the world? That is what the advanced teachers of God have done. Not only have they forsaken trying to control their outer world, but they have also renounced an even deeper control: the control over the meanings they see in the world. As a result, they have left the world as they know it and stepped into the no man’s land of total open-mindedness. They are not left hanging for long:

They have in truth abandoned the world and let it be restored to them in newness and in joy so glorious they never could have conceived of such a change. Nothing is now as it was formerly. Nothing but sparkles now which seemed so dull and lifeless before. And above all are all things welcoming, for threat has gone.[15]

The advanced teacher did not reach this profound openness overnight. It came, in fact, at the very end of his journey. The Course says that open-mindedness is “perhaps the last of the attributes the teacher of God acquires.”[16] The reason is that through it, he was able to once and for all let go of the glue that held all his perceptions together: the perception that sin lurked within those bodies and forms out there. Open-mindedness, in other words, is the gateway to true forgiveness, and true forgiveness is the end of the road. The teacher has been forgiving up until now; by our standards, he has been phenomenally forgiving. Yet only here at the end does his forgiveness become real, because only here does it become perfect. Now it is the kind that can raise the dead. Now it gives him the power to “heal the world without a word, merely by being there.”[17] And now he is ready to step off the wheel of time altogether, for having at last dropped his sword, he is ready to face God without fear and disappear forever into His embrace.


What strikes me about this portrait of the advanced teacher is just how qualitatively different his existence is from yours and mine. He has opted out of the game that we are all so busy playing, the game of managing our world for the sake of our separate self. We are constantly pushing and pulling, including and excluding, defending and attacking, tapping our foot when forced to wait, shouting when it will move things along, and lying as need be—all to make sure that we surround ourselves with the conditions that suit the self we think we are. As the Course points out, we spend our lives on the battleground.

In contrast, what we see in the advanced teacher is a shocking refusal to engineer his own security. He simply declines to manage his world for the sake of his separate self. He blithely opts out of this universal game; he walks off the battleground, for he doesn’t need its rewards. His happiness is not dependent on the things of this world. He has found another reality, one which he rests on as trustingly as a boat rests on the water. And while we rush around trying to push our reality into the proper shape, he simply basks in his, happy, at peace, and without a care in the world. Of such people, the Course says:

They want for nothing. Sorrow of any kind is inconceivable. Only the light they love is in awareness, and only love shines upon them forever.[18]

Resigning from the battle allows the teacher to be amazingly kind. Imagine what it would be like to be around such a person. He trusts you. He always tells you the truth, for he has no image to protect. He is supremely tolerant of you; no matter how you behave, he considers you his dear friend. He is always gentle, never harsh. He simply doesn’t get defensive, regardless of what you say. He is uncommonly generous; he notices your needs and gives freely, even lavishly, to meet them. Even when you are impatient with yourself, his patience with you knows no bounds. And whatever mistakes you make, he forgives you, for he realizes that any perception of his that you are not perfectly holy must be his own mistake, which he gladly gives over to the Holy Spirit.

Who wouldn’t want to be such a person? Who wouldn’t give anything to have his sense of joy, his freedom from care, his trust in his Father? Who of us does not secretly ache to have that feeling of wholeness that comes from knowing that we are truly good? The Course assures us that all these can be ours. It is simply a matter of transferring our investment from the battleground to “the quiet sphere above the battleground.”[19] As the Course points out, when we look honestly at the alternatives, the choice between them is no choice at all:

Perhaps you think the battleground can offer something that you can win. Can it be anything that offers you a perfect calmness and a sense of love so deep and quiet that no touch of doubt can ever mar your certainty? And that will last forever?[20]

It is a long road from where we are now to the “perfect calmness” of the advanced teacher. Yet we will get there, if we can just keep from losing our way in the dark. What we need is “an easy path, so clearly marked it is impossible to lose the way.”[21] What we need is a path of light. If we will just place ourselves on this path and keep putting one foot in front of the other, we will make it. This is the promise of A Course in Miracles.

[1]. M–4.1:4.

[2]. M–4.I.4:5.

[3]. M–4.II.1:8

[4]. M–4.III.1:8–9.

[5]. T–2.V.8:7.

[6]. W–41.Heading, W–222.1:4

[7]. W–329.1:9.

[8]. T–22.IX.1:6.

[9]. W–153.9:1.

[10]. M–4.VIII.1:3.

[11]. M–4.VIII.1:1.

[12]. T-5.VIII.10:5.

[13]. W–193.13:3.

[14]. M–4.IX.1:4.

[15]. M–4.X.2:3–6.

[16]. M–4.X.1:1.

[17]. P–2.III.3:7.

[18]. T–23.IV.14:2–4.

[19]. T–23.IV.15:5.

[20]. T–23.IV.14:7–9.

[21]. T–29.II.1:3.