Introduction: A Course

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]

What do we do with the thought system of A Course in Miracles? Clearly, these ideas are not meant as mere intellectual playthings. A Course in Miracles is not interested in solving purely cerebral problems. There are far larger problems to deal with. The only problem the Course is concerned with is the only problem it says there is: our separation from God. The Course professes to be a genuine answer to this. It claims that if we fully realize its thought system, we will go beyond all suffering and awaken to our eternal unity with God. Its goal, then, is no less than to give us back everything, as its author says: “I come to you from our Father to offer you everything again.” (T-11.In.4:3)

The question, then, is how do we realize the Course’s ideas? How do we make them practical and apply them to our lives? This can be a very formidable question. For the Course can easily appear to be a large and unmanageable mass of ideas; an endless series of abstract statements. This mass, this series, can be extremely thought-provoking, as well as inspiring and challenging. Yet it can also seem to hover up in some airy, intellectual stratosphere, aloof and out of reach, without any real bridge for bringing its truth down into our lives.

Therefore, since A Course in Miracles was first published, students have been trying to find ways to build that bridge, to make the Course practical. Maybe it needs to be augmented with practices and experiential techniques drawn from other spiritual paths and healing modalities. Perhaps we need to simplify it and make it more accessible; maybe cut down the length and strip out some of the difficult language and radical ideas. Maybe each student needs to invent his or her own unique way of doing the Course, thus empowering the individual. Perhaps the Course is meant to be treated like a buffet, from which we take those ideas that taste good to us and then move on to the adjacent buffets of other teachings, thus assembling the perfect feast for our personal tastes. Maybe the answer is experiential workshops, in which the concepts of the Course are combined with charismatic presenters and powerful group experiences to create a life-changing shift. Or possibly the Course as we know it is largely the theory, the head stuff, and the more practical and experiential material is coming later, as the same author purportedly speaks through new channels.

All of these answers have been offered, and many more. The overall collection of such approaches may sound like a wonderful diversity, a beautiful tapestry. To be quite honest, to me it sounds like bedlam. Can total chaos be the best way to realize the Course’s promises? I doubt it. Yet such chaos is all that we can reasonably expect if how to do the Course is left up to our ego-bound minds. “For the ego is chaos.” (T-14.X.5:6) Is it, then, a good idea to leave this matter in our hands? According to the Course, putting us in charge of the learning process is a recipe for learning failure.

You have learning handicaps in a very literal sense. There are areas in your learning skills that are so impaired that you can progress only under constant, clear cut direction, provided by a Teacher Who can transcend your limited resources. He becomes your Resource because of yourself you cannot learn. The learning situation in which you placed yourself is impossible, and in this situation you clearly require a special Teacher and a special curriculum. Poor learners are not good choices as teachers, either for themselves or for anyone else. You would hardly turn to them to establish the curriculum by which they can escape from their limitations. If they understood what is beyond them, they would not be handicapped. (T-12.V.5)

This is a hard-hitting passage. The Course is saying that we are literally learning-handicapped. We can perhaps learn facts and figures, but the Course wants us to learn sanity. And just as dyslexia makes it hard to learn reading, so our current insanity makes it hard for us to learn sanity. This insanity riddles us with learning handicaps. These in turn render us incapable of designing a curriculum that would carry us beyond our handicaps, for we would naturally build those handicaps into the curriculum. In short, we cannot be our own teacher. We need instead a Special Teacher, Who can design a special curriculum suited to our special needs. Only under His “constant, clear-cut direction” can we make real progress.

Does this sound like the Course would give us a mountain of lofty ideas and then let us design the curriculum by which we implement those ideas? That would be like handing the legal code to hard-core criminals and saying, “Take this book and teach yourselves how to be law-abiding citizens.” Perhaps, then, we misunderstood the Course when we thought that we had to build the bridge between it and our lives. Maybe the Course itself has built that bridge. Maybe it tells us how to put into practice that mountain of lofty ideas. Perhaps, just perhaps, all those answers about how to live the Course, which we have so often supplied from outside the Course, can be found right in its own pages.

This is the theme of this series of articles on the Course’s program. The Course tells us how to do the Course. It makes this claim throughout its pages. Let us examine two passages in which it does so:

We are therefore embarking on an organized, well structured and carefully planned program aimed at learning how to offer to the Holy Spirit everything you do not want. (T-12.II.10:1)

This passage characterizes the Course as the precise opposite of a mass of randomly-arranged ideas dumped on us without regard for how to implement them. Instead, it says that the Course is “an organized, well-structured and carefully planned program.” It is not a mass of ideas. It is a program, a “program aimed at learning”—at teaching us that very mass of ideas we have been wondering how to learn. This is why I use the word “program” to describe the Course.

Let us raise our hearts from dust to life, as we remember This [the realization of our true Self] is promised us, and that this course was sent to open up the path of light to us, and teach us, step by step, how to return to the eternal Self we thought we lost. (W-pI.RV.In.5:4)

I want to rephrase this passage to capture its full import for our discussion: “Let us remember that God has promised us we will return to our eternal Self, and that this course will guide us to that goal. For it was sent to reveal to us the pathway home, and teach us, step by step, how to walk that pathway to its end. This is ample cause for raising our hearts out of despair and into life.” Again, the Course is not just setting forth ideas and promises. It is guiding us through a “step by step” process of realizing them.

If we put these two passages together, A Course in Miracles claims to be a learning program that teaches us how to walk along the road to God. Yet we don’t need the above passages to tell us that. The Course claims all this right on its front cover! A course is an educational program. Miracles — those instances of accepting and extending healed perception — are what propel us along the road to God. We need look no farther than the cover, then, to see how the Course defines itself. It does not view itself as merely a string of beautiful concepts. Its very title tells us that it is an educational program in learning how to accept and extend the healed perception that reawakens us to God.

Therefore, we don’t have to take the Course’s wonderful concepts and design a curriculum for embodying them. The Course has already done that. We don’t need to invent our own program for how to realize the Course’s ideas. The Course is the program. That is what a course is.

What is the program?

This raises a rather large question: How exactly is A Course in Miracles a course? What is the nature of its program? Perhaps we can get a handle on this by looking first to more conventional educational courses. An educational course will usually have the following three elements:

  1. A body of ideas to be learned
  2. A set of instructional materials
  3. A teacher

A Course in Miracles has these same three aspects:

  1. The Course’s thought system

The body of ideas is the Course’s thought system. That is what the Course wants to teach us. As students, our whole goal is “learning the thought system which this course sets forth.” (W-pI.94.5:9) Yet we “learn” this in a very different sense than, say, memorizing facts about geography. Learning this thought system entails a profound reversal in our fundamental outlook: “It cannot be too strongly emphasized that this course aims at a complete reversal of thought.” (M-24.4:1) Said differently, learning this system means accepting its truth with all of our mind, thus enthroning it at the heart of our minds. It will then become the eyes through which we see the world and the fountain from which our feelings flow.

  1. The Course’s three volumes

With the Course, the set of instructional materials is, quite simply, the book itself. To be more specific, it is the Course’s three volumes: The Text, the Workbook for Students, and the Manual for Teachers. With these volumes, the Course is clearly making use of the model of education. It is portraying itself as some kind of educational course. Based on our experience in school, the titles of those three volumes conjure up an immediate world of meaning. When you first picked up the Course what did you think those titles meant? Didn’t you assume, somewhere in your mind, that the Text would set forth the ideas this course intended to teach you? And that the Workbook would give you exercises, which would make those ideas more a part of you? And that the Manual for Teachers was meant for those who would teach this course, and would instruct them in how to do so?

I have talked to a great many Course students who initially assumed these very things. Yet as they spent more and more time with the Course, those first impressions faded. The Course increasingly looked like a massive compilation of abstract ideas, which left them with the need for a bridge from it to their lives. In this case, I believe, time did not bring wisdom; it obscured the right idea they had in the very beginning. A Course in Miracles is an educational program. Each of its three volumes play a crucial and distinctly different role in its overall program. Each one facilitates learning slightly differently and asks for a different activity from the student. Let us, then, look more closely at each volume and the corresponding activity it asks of the student.

The Text = study. The Text in this course essentially does what a textbook in any course does. It sets forth the body of ideas the Course aims to teach its students. Before these ideas can become the thought system we live by, we must become aware of them. They must leave the page and come into our minds. We must acquire some intellectual grasp of them. Thus, through study of the Text, the ideas that will eventually become our new thought system enter our awareness. As they do, things begin to shift around inside of us, as we initially ponder the radical possibility that these ideas are true. The articles under the heading “Aspect I: Text/Study” cover this aspect of the Course’s program.

The Workbook = practice. As any workbook does, this workbook provides exercises, the doing of which will cause the Text’s ideas to become more a part of us. As the Workbook says in its opening paragraph, “It is the purpose of this workbook to train your mind to think along the lines the text sets forth.” (W-pI.In.1:4) Because of the nature of this course, these exercises are not done with pencil and paper but with the mind alone. They are the Course’s form of spiritual practice. As we practice the Course’s ideas, repeating them again and again, applying them to our world and trying to experience their reality within us, their validity slowly begins to dawn on us. We start to sincerely consider that they might indeed be the truth. This process is described in five steps (which I have numbered) in this passage from Workbook Lesson 284:

This [today’s idea] is the truth,

  1. …at first to be but said
  2. …and then repeated many times;
  3. …and next to be accepted as but partly true, with many reservations.
  4. Then to be considered seriously more and more,
  5. …and finally accepted as the truth. (W-pII.284.1:5-6)

Through practicing them, the concepts that entered our awareness via study spiral deeper and deeper into our minds, as we increasingly accept them as the truth. The articles under the heading “Aspect II: Workbook/Practice” cover this aspect of the Course’s program.

The Manual for Teachers = extension. A manual for teachers is a book which aids the teachers of a course in guiding their students through that course, through its text and workbook. The Course’s Manual for Teachers is essentially no different. It instructs mature students of the Course in carrying out their function as teachers of God. This may take the form of being a spiritual mentor, guiding newer students through the study and practice of this course. Yet whatever the form, the content of this function is to extend to others the Course’s thought system. This is done by seeing others through its eyes, by forgiving them. This teaches them (in the Course’s sense of the word “teach”) but it also teaches us. It is the final reinforcer of the ideas we have been learning, causing them to be even more deeply instilled in our minds. Through extension, the ideas that entered through study and became reinforced through practice are at last recognized as fully our own. In the words of the above-quoted passage, the Course’s thought system has been “finally accepted as the truth.” The articles under the heading “Aspect III: Manual/Extension” cover this aspect of the Course’s program. Parts 2 and 3 of the “Manual/Extension” section are about two forms that, according to the Manual, our function of extension may take—that of spiritual healer and that of spiritual teacher or Course mentor.

The Course’s three volumes, then, not only have distinctly different functions; those functions are components of an interrelated whole. Together they comprise a single process. It is a process of progressively internalizing the Course’s thought system, a process that begins with the Text, deepens with the Workbook, and deepens further still with the Manual. It is a process of salvation. This process has, to my knowledge, been largely overlooked by Course students and teachers. By overlooking it we have, for the most part, missed the nature of the Course as a program, as a course. Hence our scrambling to build a bridge and make it practical.

  1. The teachers of this course.

Teachers are essential to any course. Students need someone who knows the material and can transfer that knowledge to the mind of the student. Therefore, this course has teachers, too. One may think that A Course in Miracles has no teachers, at least none that it itself has set up. Yet I think the actual situation is the opposite. This course, I believe, is taught by multiple teachers; by three, to be precise:

First, and most controversial, the Manual speaks of a human teacher, a more mature student of the Course who will play the role of mentor to newer Course students. This role occupies the odd position of being, in my opinion, absolutely pivotal for the fulfillment of the Course’s goals and almost completely unnoticed in the Course world. For this reason I am devoting three articles to it. Part 3 of the “Manual/Extension” section discusses how the teacher can carry out his role. Part 1 of the next section, “The Teachers of This Course,” discusses the same role, only from the pupil’s standpoint. This part explores the function the teacher-pupil relationship fulfills for the pupil and also issues that the pupil must deal with in having a relationship with a teacher. Finally, those who want to examine my case for the idea that the Manual does openly advocate this teacher-pupil relationship can consult the article “The Evidence in the Manual for the Teacher-Pupil Relationship,” included as an appendix to this series.

Second, there is Jesus, the purported author of the Course. He assumes the role of teacher in several ways. First, he is the one who designed this course and authored all of its instructional materials (at least that is the Course’s claim). Also, he promises that he can instruct every student personally, from inside the mind of each one. Further, he can teach us through the example of his life 2,000 years ago. Part 2 of “The Teachers of This Course” discusses Jesus’ role, and tackles the thorny issue of his claimed authorship of the Course.

Third, there is the Holy Spirit, Who is Jesus’ Teacher and Who serves as each student’s internal Teacher and Guide. The part devoted to Him—Part 3 of “The Teachers of This Course”—focuses on the important and difficult issue of receiving guidance from Him.

All of these teachers, I believe, are essential to the program. Like the Course’s three volumes, these three teachers form an integrated whole; in this case, a hierarchy. The human teacher is really a student-teacher, who is supposed to teach under the direct tutelage of the Course’s professor, Jesus. Jesus, in turn, works under the immediate guidance of the ultimate Teacher, the Head of the entire educational system, the Holy Spirit. The Course thus envisions a flow of teaching issuing from God’s Voice, flowing through Jesus, through the human teacher and finally illuminating the student with its guidance and wisdom. The higher the teacher is on this hierarchy, the closer he is to the Source of perfect knowledge. The lower, the more direct access that teacher has to the student. If all the levels are in place, therefore (unfortunately, there are few qualified human teachers as yet), a high level of wisdom can shine down and reach the student through physical interaction with his teacher.

Our resistance to the program

This, then, is how A Course in Miracles is a literal course. It has a body of ideas to be learned. It has a set of instructional materials which carry the student through an ascending process of learning those ideas. And it has a hierarchy of teachers uniquely qualified to guide the student through that process to its goal. Given this, the Course can perhaps quite rightfully lay claim to being “an organized, well structured and carefully planned program.” This course, in fact, claims to be so well laid-out that—echoing language we all heard so often in school—”You need offer only undivided attention. Everything else will be given you.” (T-12.V.9:4-5)

Yet this “undivided attention” is precisely what we resist. Our attention is so splintered, as it frenetically jumps from one shifting source of pleasure to another, that placing it on one thing seems an impossibility. Giving undivided attention to Text study or Workbook practice seems to be a demand beyond our ability to fulfill.

In addition to our aversion to sustained attention, we (especially in the United States) have deep cultural biases against the components of the Course’s program; indeed, against what every contemplative path asks of its adherents. We also resist the program because we sense where it is leading, to the relinquishment of everything we know as ourselves.

Thus, for one reason or another, we resist almost every element of the Course’s program. We look at studying a large textbook as a tedious, overly intellectual exercise—just a head trip. We view diligent Workbook practice as requiring too much discipline, and as inevitably being a big guilt trip. Extending to others sounds to us like the co-dependency we have spent years of therapy extricating ourselves from. Isn’t our real lesson to learn how to draw our boundaries, take care of our needs and make sure nobody walks on us? The idea of having a personal teacher is particularly offensive to our sacred individualism and mistrust of authority. Quite simply, a program full of mental discipline and assigned by some outside authority sounds like just too much. It threatens to enclose us in a more confining straight-jacket than the religious institutions that so many of us have left behind. And the whole thing seems to require way too much time. Where, we wonder, are the instant results that we are used to expecting? Who in today’s world has time for some lengthy spiritual journey?

Our resistance to the program is a crucial issue which must be faced objectively, without defensiveness or shame. Therefore, throughout these articles I will speak to it. Also, this series of articles concludes with a section entitled “One’s Relationship with the Course,” which has two parts that address how to posture ourselves in relation to this program. Part 1 explores the crucial issue of how to know if the Course is your path. Part 2, “The Student’s Journey with the Course from Start to Finish,” deals with such questions as: How should I begin the Course? Should it be done by itself or combined with other paths? How long I should be with it?

Our resistance is actually much of the explanation for why the Course does not look like a specific program to us. This point is made in the following confrontive passage:

You may complain that this course is not sufficiently specific for you to understand and use. Yet perhaps you have not done what it specifically advocates. (T-11.VIII.5:1-2)

Whenever we feel the need to build that bridge from the Course to our lives, we are implicitly complaining that the Course is not specific enough. Yet it does advocate specific things. We come upon these specific injunctions as we read through the Course. But they are not the specifics we want. They sound either too threatening, or too demanding, or not promising enough, or too simple. They somehow don’t match our idea of what they ought to be. And so we neglect to really do them. We thus fail to reap the benefits we want. And then we conclude that the Course is not specific enough. We decide that it is some airy castle floating in the sky, void of practicality and beyond our reach. Therefore, we assume, it must be up to us to build a stairway to it. So we start collecting bricks from every spiritual path, therapeutic approach and self-help system we can find—all the while ignoring the shining stairway the Course itself has already built.

There is an alternative to this process, one that takes into account our resistance: Simply try out what it says. The Course assures us that if we do so, we will get results. And these results will prove to us the veracity of its thought system.

This course offers a very direct and a very simple learning situation, and provides the Guide Who tells you what to do. If you do it, you will see that it works. Its results are more convincing than its words. They will convince you that the words are true. (T-9.V.9:1-4)

Most students are familiar with a similar passage in the Introduction to the Workbook. It says that it is all right if we actively resist the Workbook’s ideas. We are not required to believe, accept or even welcome them. “You are asked only to use them. It is their use that will give them meaning to you, and will show you that they are true.” (W-pI.In.8:5-6)

In other words, the Course is offering itself on a trial basis. Just try this, it says. Just place one foot upon the stairway it has built, and you will get results. This will impel you to place another foot upon the next step, and so on. As you reap ever greater benefits, your resistance will drop away. Thus, you will naturally give more and more of yourself to the ascent; until you give it all that you have, and find salvation. This is the learning goal of this particular course. It is not trying to teach you algebra, history or some career skill. It is trying to teach you liberation from the human condition. This is the sublime prize it promises in return for the effort it asks—effort which ends up being very little compared to the ceaseless toil you give to your conventional search for happiness. “This course requires almost nothing of you. It is impossible to imagine one that asks so little, or could offer more.” (T-20.VII.1:7-8) What follows are some of the things the Course claims to offer us:

Earlier I said this course will teach you how to remember what you are, restoring to you your Identity. (T-14.X.12)

This course has explicitly stated that its goal for you is happiness and peace. (T-13.II.7:1)

For this is a course on love, because it is about you. (T-13.IV.1:2)

This course removes all doubts which you have interposed between [God] and your certainty of Him. (W-pI.165.7:6)

What could we possibly want more than these things? True, we cannot be sure, especially at this early stage in its history, that doing the Course will bring them to us. But for those who feel drawn to the Course, what can they do but try it out? And for those of us who are certain that it is our spiritual path, our way home, what can we do but give it our all? What can we say but what the disciples said when Jesus asked if they too would go away? They replied, “To whom shall we go?” (John 6:68 RSV)

Yet before we give our effort, we must have some clear idea of where and how to give it. This series of articles is therefore an attempt to present a comprehensive understanding of the Course’s program and provide practical guidance on how to follow it. I personally believe that this understanding, perhaps more than anything else, is what has been lacking in the Course’s first decades. True, there have been many misunderstandings of its teaching, yet still every Course student and teacher has given tremendous effort to trying to understand its ideas. In contrast, the question of the Course’s program has received almost no attention. The question has been left virtually unasked. In the following articles I will share what I have discovered in answer to this all-important question.