A New Vision of the Importance of Loving Behavior
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
A Course in Miracles is the “perfect disconnected religion of the 90’s. It allows driven, self-absorbed, narcissistic people to continue in their ways.” Such is the conclusion of an unidentified expert on “religious movements in California,” quoted in a Time magazine article on Marianne Williamson. It is a rather startling conclusion, but one easy to draw from a cursory examination of a teaching which claims that the world is purely an illusion made by our own minds. And it is a conclusion that I have heard more than once from critics of the Course.
Yet this conclusion, I believe, reflects a general attitude in the Course world itself. For while most Course students would strongly dispute the idea that their path is “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic,” the viewpoint that seems most prevalent in the Course community is that the Course deals only with our own individual minds, and whatever we do “out there” in the illusory world is irrelevant. This view has some major ramifications. One of these ramifications—and one that has always unsettled me—is that any idea of loving behavior as an integral part of our spiritual path is supposed to go the way of the dinosaurs. According to this view, to place any importance at all on behaving lovingly in the world is by definition to confuse form and content, to place importance outside the mind, to make the error real. In this view, it is practically an article of faith that because the mind is the proper aim of healing, loving behavior is not a proper aim at all. While adherents of this view may well behave lovingly, they consider this to be irrelevant to their work with the Course, a pleasant side effect of that work at best. In short, behavior doesn’t matter at all.
And all of this is very unfortunate, because in my opinion, loving behavior is a vital and necessary element of the Course’s path of awakening from beginning to end.
A vision of the end of the Course’s path: the advanced teacher of God
My view may strike many as surprising, but before I discuss the evidence for it, I want us to take a moment and experience a foretaste of the “end” of the Course’s path: the advanced teacher of God. For the Course’s depiction of the advanced teacher of God as a living embodiment of love is a powerful piece of evidence for the importance of loving behavior. While I’ll discuss this depiction in more detail later, for now I’d like us simply to experience what it might feel like to be such a teacher.
This visualization exercise is based on the ten characteristics of God’s teachers as presented in the Manual for Teachers (Section 4). First, close your eyes and bring to mind either a specific situation that you are currently dealing with, or a more general situation that you find yourself in frequently (I, for instance, often imagine myself helping customers at the store where I work). Imagine the setting, the people involved, and the circumstances as clearly as you can. Take time to notice the various thoughts, feelings, words, and images that come up as you think about this situation, especially those that are angry, judgmental, fearful, etc.—in short, those that are unloving. Notice how you see yourself behaving in this situation, again paying particular attention to behavior that is unloving. Then read the italicized introductory paragraph below slowly, and slowly read each of the ten characteristics that follow, one at a time. When you finish each one, close your eyes and imagine yourself embodying that characteristic in your situation, letting that characteristic replace the unloving thoughts and behaviors you brought to mind previously. In this situation, see yourself thinking thoughts, speaking words, and acting in ways that reflect that particular characteristic. Try as best you can to really see yourself embodying that characteristic in every way possible. Take as much time as you like with each one, then go on to the next one. The goal of this exercise is not to judge your unloving thoughts and behaviors, but simply to inspire a vision of how you might respond to this situation if you were an advanced teacher of God.
Let us now begin the exercise:
As a result of faithfully following the path of the Course, and of joining others in the common purpose of following that path, I receive special gifts from God—character traits that allow me to fulfill my special role in the Atonement and help me to lead my brothers home. Blessed with these gifts, I become an advanced teacher of God, a living embodiment of goodness and love in the world:
- I trust the situation completely, because I recognize that it is truly governed by the gentle Power of the Holy Spirit [feel this Power]. Because of this, I understand that all things, events, encounters, and circumstances [including this situation] are truly helpful to everyone.
- I am perfectly honest in every way; everything I think, say, and do is absolutely consistent; I live in perfect integrity. My thoughts are in total agreement with each other. I keep my word; when I say I will do something, I do it [see yourself doing this in your situation]. This integrity brings me deep peace of mind [feel how peaceful this is].
- I am tolerant of everyone and everything, because I do not judge them. All things and all people are equally acceptable in my sight [apply this to specific people and events in this situation].
- I am wholly gentle, because I recognize that in truth I can neither harm nor be harmed. I understand that no gain can come from harming anyone or anything [see yourself acting kindly and gently in your situation]. My gentleness is not weakness; rather, it is the source of my strength [feel that strength].
- I am joyous, because I fear nothing and have learned that I cannot suffer [see the suffering in your situation vanish]. My joy is my song of thanks to my Creator—how joyous it is to share the purpose of salvation with Him!
- I am utterly defenseless, because I have no illusions to defend. Thus I see no one as a threat to me; I see nothing as dangerous [look upon the fearful aspects of your situation with this in mind]. As I lay down my defenses, I find safety, peace, joy, and the love of God [see yourself laying down your defenses and feel the relief that brings].
- I am generous beyond measure, because I recognize that the only way to keep what I really want is to give it away. I am ready to give away anything I have, if doing so serves the plan for salvation [see yourself giving freely in your situation]. And in freely giving away my material resources, I also give the true gift that they represent—the love of God. By giving the love of God to others, I ensure that all, including myself, will recognize that the love of God is truly theirs to give [feel this love return to you as you give it].
- I am patient with everyone and everything, because I realize that salvation is certain, and will unfold with perfect timing. I understand that everything that has ever happened to anyone [including this situation] has served to benefit the world. Even so, I am willing to reconsider all of my own past decisions if they are causing pain to anyone [look upon your situation and reconsider your past decisions concerning it].
- I am totally faithful: consistent and unwavering in applying what I have learned from the Course to every situation in my life [recognize that you are applying the Course to this situation right now]. This faithfulness to my path reflects my greater faithfulness and devotion to God, to Christ, and to all my brothers. In faithfulness to Them, I rest in quiet certainty [feel the peace that this quiet certainty brings you].
- Finally, I am open-minded, open only to the Voice of God’s Teacher, and closed to the voice of judgment and condemnation [listen now for His Voice]. When I listen only to the Holy Spirit’s Voice and no other, my forgiveness of the world is finally made complete. And when I forgive completely, the world will sparkle with newness and joy and shining glory beyond what I can presently imagine [try to imagine it as best you can]. It is given me to bring the glad tidings of complete forgiveness to the world. Blessed indeed am I, for I am the bringer of salvation [see yourself as a bringer of salvation in your situation].
How did this exercise make you feel? Frankly, it sends me to the moon. I feel incredibly uplifted whenever I do it. As I see myself going out in my situation and acting with such boundless love, I feel so good about myself, so clean, so pure, so innocent. I feel inspired to practice the Course with renewed vigor. In a nutshell, I simply find the person depicted in these characteristics to be irresistibly attractive, so much so that I want more than anything to become such a person. I want to become an advanced teacher of God and do great acts of love in the world.
Now, is this attraction just my ego smiling with approval because I’m making the error real? Well, I think our reactions to most things are mixed, and I’m sure my ego is part of this mix too. But it is apparent to me that my deep attraction to truly loving behavior, whatever egoic elements it may have mixed in, has a core of truth to it. It seems simply to be a law of mind that we are irresistibly attracted to wholeness, to harmony, to integrity, to love in whatever form it takes. And this is especially true in the arena of human relationships—the very arena of the Course. Aren’t we all immensely attracted to people who are trusting, honest, gentle, generous, and joyous in their relationships? The ego can indeed use loving behavioral forms for its hateful ends, but I suspect it does so precisely because of this genuine attraction: it knows we are attracted to truly loving behavior, so it tries to deceive us with relationships (like special relationships) that look loving but really aren’t. If it didn’t do so, we simply wouldn’t be attracted to it. In short, there seems to be an innate recognition in us, one that even the ego recognizes and exploits, that expressing a loving mind through loving behavior is a legitimate, even necessary aspect of truly loving one another in this world. And if it is indeed necessary, wouldn’t it be an important part of the Course’s path?
A case for the importance of loving behavior
Let us now examine the evidence that loving behavior is indeed an important aspect of the Course’s path. The first two points I’ll present lay out the Course’s rationale for why loving behavior is important: Extending love is the heart of the Course, and loving behavior plays a vital role in that extension. The final three points provide further support by showing that the Course consistently depicts loving behavior playing a vital role: it consistently portrays those whose minds have been healed, taking Jesus as their model, behaving lovingly in the world.
1. Extending love is at the heart of the Course’s path
The importance of extension to the Course’s path simply cannot be overstated. It lies at the heart of the Course. Even the title A Course in Miracles implies that it is a course in extending miracles. While the miracle we extend is given many names in the Course—forgiveness, healing, salvation, etc.—for the purposes of our discussion I will simply call it love (the Course, after all, calls forgiveness an earthly form of love [W-pI.186.14:2]). The process of extension in the Course, as I understand it, is as follows:
- We open our minds and receive love from the Holy Spirit.
- We give the love we have received (extend it) to our brother.
- Through seeing the healing effect of this love on our brother, we recognize that we have received it. This is what ultimately heals us.
The Course contains countless references to this three-step process, either the full process or parts of it. It is the very process of salvation in the Course’s system. Here are just a few references:
[This] is how perception ultimately is translated into knowledge. The miracle worker begins by perceiving light, and translates his perception into sureness by continually extending it and accepting its acknowledgment. Its effects assure him it is there. (T-9.V.7:7-9)
Ideas must first belong to you, before you give them. If you are to save the world, you first accept salvation for yourself. But you will not believe this is done until you see the miracles it brings to everyone you look upon. (W-pI.187.3:1-3)
No one can receive and understand he has received until he gives. For in the giving is his own acceptance of what he received. (W-pI.154.8:6-7)
Let us but learn this lesson for today: We will not recognize what we receive until we give it. You have heard this said a hundred ways, a hundred times, and yet belief is lacking still. (W-pI.154.12:1-2)
Thus, through extending the love we have received from the Holy Spirit to our brothers, we recognize that it belongs to us as well; through extension, love is reinforced in our minds. This is why extending love is so important. Simply receiving the Holy Spirit’s love into our minds is not enough, because even though it is there, we will not recognize it: “How can you become increasingly aware of the Holy Spirit in you except by His effects [through you]?” (T-9.VI.1:1). We will not truly recognize this love as ours, according to the Course, until we extend it to our brothers and see it reflected back to us through the healing transformation it effects in them. Seeing the effect of our love on others convinces us that we are truly innocent, truly beings of love with benign effects; seeing our love reflected back to us dissolves the barriers between us and allows us to recognize that we are joined with our brothers in love—we are one. Thus are forgiveness and the end of separation—the very goals of the Course—accomplished in the simple act of extending love to our brothers. Experiencing the effects of this extension is what makes our healing complete.
2. Loving behavior is a vital and necessary means of extending love
Another word for extension is communication: we need to communicate the love we have received to others in order to reinforce it in our own minds. But what does this have to do with behavior? Doesn’t the Course say that only minds communicate? Yes, true communication is ultimately a direct mind-to-mind exchange. Yet this communication can be expressed through the body as well. Even though only minds communicate, we can use the body to “reach the minds of those who believe they are bodies, and teach them through the body that this is not so” (T-8.VII.3:2). Indeed, communicating love is the body’s only purpose in the eyes of the Holy Spirit.
But even though the body can be used to communicate love, is this really important? Or is this merely a pleasant side effect of the really crucial exchange that is happening mind-to-mind? Surprisingly, the Course depicts this communication through bodies as a truly vital and necessary means of reaching those who are not yet ready to experience pure mind-to-mind communication—and that’s virtually all of us. Most of us aren’t ready for at least a couple of reasons. First, we simply aren’t attuned yet to this form of communication. Second, it would probably scare us to death. Think about it—if you instantly experienced total telepathic communication with everyone, with no more private thoughts, wouldn’t that be a horrible shock? And if other people knew that you could see what was in their minds and even place your own thoughts in their minds, would they be anything but terrified?
So we need to communicate love, as the Course tells us, “in a language that the recipient can understand without fear” (T-2.IV.5:3). And just as we can use verbal language (as the Course does) to convey a message of love beyond words, so we can use the language of behavior to convey a message of love beyond deeds. We can use our bodies to “act out” the message of love that is truly being exchanged between our minds. And our brothers desperately need this acting out, as the following passage from Section 12 of the Manual tells us:
[The teachers of God] need a medium through which communication becomes possible to those who do not realize that they are spirit. A body they can see. A voice they understand and listen to, without the fear that truth would encounter in them. Do not forget that truth can come only where it is welcomed without fear. So do God’s teachers need a body, for their unity could not be recognized directly. (M-12.3:4-8)
The “unity” referred to here is the unity of God’s teachers. This section tells us that God’s teachers are truly one because they are unified in purpose. Yet they “appear to be many, for that is what is the world’s need” (M-12.2:5). The world needs truth to come in a form that it can understand without fear, so it needs truth to come through bodies. And, amazingly, it is recognition of the body’s proper use that literally makes one a teacher of God:
Yet what makes God’s teachers is their recognition of the proper purpose of the body. As they advance in their profession, they become more and more certain that the body’s function is but to let God’s Voice speak through it to human ears. (M-12.4.1-2)
Thus we can see that using the body to extend God’s Voice (in other words, expressing love through behavior) is a truly vital means of extending love.
3. The Course contains numerous references to loving behavior as the expression of a loving mind
If loving behavior is really that important, we would certainly expect to see it depicted in the Course. And indeed it is. The Course is simply awash in images of loving behavior as the expression of a loving mind. Its pages contain countless references to various forms of loving behavior: ethical behaviors, such as honesty and harmlessness; expressions of love, such as smiling and holding hands; and acts of love, such as teaching and healing. These are all, of course, behavioral forms, and I understand that this will immediately raise a red flag for many Course students; isn’t form, after all, neutral? Yes it is, but the Course clearly acknowledges, in its images of loving behavior, that there are certain forms of behavior that communicate love more effectively in this world. The forms themselves are not inherently loving. But we saw earlier that loving behavior is immensely attractive, and that love must be expressed in a language the recipient can understand. Given this, it is clear that minds whose content is love must express that love in behavioral forms that ordinary people understand as loving. A hug is simply a clearer communication of love than a punch in the face.
What specific behavioral forms, then, does Jesus consider particularly potent communicators of love? There is actually quite a list of such behaviors sprinkled throughout the Course, as well as in Jesus’ personal guidance to Helen and Bill. And it is worth noting that, in keeping with the idea that extension reinforces healing, many of these behaviors are depicted in the Course as ways to reinforce one’s healing. A short list of loving behaviors specifically mentioned or implied by Jesus as expressions of loving thought includes: complete honesty, complete harmlessness and gentleness, giving things away, not scolding or beating a child, consistent courtesy toward everyone (Absence from Felicity, p. 263), not laughing at others, teaching salvation to designated pupils, not terrorizing our pupils, not attacking a pupil’s magic thoughts, giving the Holy Spirit’s words to the world, speaking words of gratitude and mercy, practicing the Golden Rule, not blaming relationship partners for relationship difficulties, not using others’ bodies for selfish purposes, healing others’ bodies, holding hands, walking together on the journey, smiling, laughing, and using our eyes, tongues, hands, and feet to bless the world with miracles. This is by no means a complete list, and of course even a complete list of Course references wouldn’t begin to cover the countless forms loving behavior can take. But it is obvious from this short list that Jesus expects our behavior in the world, emerging from our loving thought and guided specifically by the Holy Spirit, to be the epitome of goodness and love.
4. The advanced teacher of God, as depicted in the Manual, always behaves lovingly
Now we return to the subject of our initial visualization: the advanced teacher of God. I said then that the Course’s depiction of the advanced teacher of God is powerful evidence for the importance of loving behavior. Now we can see why it is such powerful evidence. For if loving behavior is important to the Course’s path, then it would follow that a person who embodies the Course’s path—the advanced teacher of God—would be a person who behaves lovingly all the time. And this is exactly what is revealed when we examine the characteristics of God’s teachers (again, in Section 4 of the Manual).
One of the most striking things about these characteristics is how suffused they are with images of loving behavior toward other people. On the basis of trust in the world and the Power that truly governs it (Characteristic #1), the advanced teacher of God is totally honest with others (#2), tolerant of their ways (#3), wholly gentle with them (#4), joyous in their presence (#5), absolutely defenseless in the face of their attacks (#6), radically generous, willing to give all she has to them (#7), and infinitely patient regardless of what they do (#8). As she applies her learning to everyone and everything with total faithfulness and unwavering consistency (#9), her mind finally opens fully to the Holy Spirit’s loving perception of them (#10), and thus her forgiveness becomes complete. In short, these characteristics paint a portrait of an immensely appealing person, at least to me: a person of incredible goodness and love.
What a contrast to the common idea of the spiritual master as a practitioner of “crazy wisdom”: a kind of “wild man” who does anything he can, no matter how crazy, paradoxical, unethical, or seemingly unloving, to shatter his pupil’s attachment to the world’s norms and precipitate awakening. The advanced teacher of God, in contrast, has learned that “good teachers never terrorize their students” (T-3.I.4:5). She is instead the living embodiment of love in the world, loving beyond any of the world’s conventional definitions of love, yet very much in accord with them as well. She is beyond them because she is not just loving outwardly, but on all levels; she is in accord with them because she comes to others where they are, and loves them in ways they can clearly understand. And these characteristics are not merely pleasant side effects of her healed mind; they are special gifts given to her by God so she can fulfill her special role in the Atonement, gifts that establish her as an advanced teacher (see M-4.1:3-4). The advanced teacher of God doesn’t see loving behavior as superfluous, a mere way station on the road to mystical union with God. Rather, she takes it to the greatest extreme, because her only goal is to communicate love to the world in every way possible, so that the world’s and her own healing can become complete. This is a person who by the standards of most of the world’s great spiritual traditions would be considered a saint.
5. Jesus, our model for thought and behavior, always behaved lovingly
There is yet one more piece of evidence for the importance of loving behavior. If loving behavior is truly a distinguishing characteristic of the advanced teacher of God, then we would reasonably expect the author of the Course, an advanced teacher if ever there was one, to behave lovingly himself. And this is indeed the case when we examine the earthly life of Jesus: his life is the perfect model of love in action. In the Course, Jesus informs us that he is our model for both thought and behavior: “[The Holy Spirit] teaches you how to keep me as the model for your thought, and to behave like me as a result” (T-5.II.12:3). The emphasis here, as always in the Course, is on healing our thought, but the second part of the statement is really startling if we think about it. As a result of doing the Course, we will behave like Jesus.
Isn’t that amazing? Think for a moment about how Jesus behaved. He was a teacher, a healer, a miracle worker. He extended love to the dregs of his society—the “sinners,” the tax collectors, the prostitutes—and did not withhold it from anyone, even his “enemies” (he is depicted in the Gospels as sometimes cursing and condemning people, but modern Jesus scholars doubt that he said most of the condemning words attributed to him). At the end of his life, he demonstrated his teachings by continuing to love even as he was beaten, tortured, and finally killed. Finally, in his resurrection, he gave one last demonstration of everything he taught: that hate is illusion; only love is eternal. His love transformed the lives of thousands in his lifetime, and millions more afterward. Perhaps the apostle Peter summed up his life most succinctly: “He went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). He was the embodiment of goodness and love, the embodiment of the advanced teacher of God described above. And this is what he wants us to become.
Conclusion: Behavior matters—a new vision of the importance of loving behavior
In conclusion, let’s draw together the evidence that loving behavior is indeed an important aspect of the Course’s path. Why is it important? Because:
- Extending love is at the heart of the Course’s path.
- And loving behavior is a vital and necessary means of extending love.
- In addition, we know that the Course considers loving behavior important because:
- The Course contains numerous references to loving behavior as the expression of a loving mind.
- The advanced teacher of God, as depicted in the Manual, always behaves lovingly.
- Jesus, our model for thought and behavior, always behaved lovingly.
In short, behavior matters. And personally, I have found this recognition to be nothing less than life-transforming. I have always been inspired by those whose love for others is expressed as radically loving behavior: people like Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Peace Pilgrim, and Mother Teresa. These people have really been my models for the spiritual path. Because of this, when I first discovered the Course and encountered the prevailing view that behavior is irrelevant to the Course’s path, I found myself vaguely unsettled. If this view were true, I thought, then my most inspirational models had somehow gotten it all wrong (or in the case of Jesus, the Gospel writers had gotten it all wrong). It seemed to me that the advanced teacher of God, in this view, would be someone who just kind of sits around and thinks good thoughts. His behavior, I was sure, would be decent enough, but he wouldn’t be going around teaching, healing, and working miracles. In short, when I tried to imagine a person who had reached the end of the path I had chosen to walk, the result simply wasn’t as inspiring as those people whose lives had attracted me to the spiritual path in the first place.
But happily I see now that this view simply isn’t true. The advanced teacher of God as depicted in the Course does exactly what my models did: he expresses a loving mind through performing great acts of love. It is clear that Jesus fully expects his new followers through the Course to go about doing good just as he and his first disciples did: spreading the good news of God’s love, performing miracles, healing the sick, and raising the dead. The forms this behavior will take will obviously vary from person to person, but the content of it will be unmistakable. As this vision has become clearer in my mind, it has reawakened the inspiration that I gained from my earlier models. And this has only served to help me practice the Course with a new-found passion and commitment. For what higher calling could there be than to heal my mind, and extend that healing to the world through great acts of love?
I envision the day when the world will be blessed by those whose minds have been healed through the Course, advanced teachers of God who go about doing good, performing miracles, spreading love in every way, and thus making the world’s and their own healing complete. I invite you to join me in this vision. I hope that in the visualization that began this article, you perhaps caught a glimpse of the immense rewards of this vision. I hope that, like me, you will be inspired to become such an embodiment of love through practicing the Course with all your heart, mind, and strength. If we do so, the message that we give the world concerning the Course, instead of a message of self-absorbed narcissism, will be a message of selfless, miraculous love. And then our beloved Course will be acknowledged, even by those who follow other paths, as a beacon of light that illumines the path to the infinite Goodness and Love of God.