The Limitless Potential in Every Relationship

Section 3 in the Manual, “What Are the Levels of Teaching?” talks about three levels of teacher-pupil relationships, what it calls “teaching-learning situations.” What it says about these relationships, however, is so broad that it could be applied to any relationships. And that is what I want to do in this class—apply the wisdom in this section to all of our relationships.

The main message that I get from this section is that in each relationship there is so much more offered me than I realize, so much more potential learning, so much more potential awakening. There is an incalculable gift there, in each and every relationship, if only I would take hold of it.

The word “potential” is crucial here. In fact, we can see the section as laying out three levels:

1. Unlimited potential

In each relationship, each encounter, there is unlimited potential for learning, for awakening. In that relationship, however brief and seemingly insignificant, God is holding everything out to us.

2. Actualized potential

Obviously, we rarely actualize very much of that unlimited potential. We wander through our interactions and even our long-term relationships rarely feeling that there is some incalculable spiritual gift held out to us.

3. Working potential

The vast distance between the true unlimited potential and our limited willingness to accept it (represented by the usually modest actualized potential) gives rise to a middle term, which I will call “working potential.” Working potential is how much potential we are genuinely ready to take hold of with this particular person in this particular situation at this particular time. Because most of our shutters are closed, so to speak, the light has only slender opportunities to get in. When we are with someone whose open (or semi-open) windows happen to line up with ours, the possibility of a genuine holy encounter increases. With someone whose open windows don’t line up with ours, the possibility decreases.

Now there is still usually a great distance between working potential and actualized potential, as we will see. Most of the time we don’t even accept the gift that we are actually ready for, that is truly within our reach. But the idea behind working potential is that, if we so chose, we could. Here, then, is potential that is within reach.

These three levels (unlimited, actualized, and working potential) are crucial to understanding the levels of teaching in this section. The fact of unlimited potential means that the levels of teaching are an illusion; “these levels cannot exist” (3:5). The fact of working potential—and the fact that it differs from relationship to relationship—is what gives rise to the levels (which do exist in time, even if not in reality). After all, the whole idea of levels of teaching is that greater amounts of teaching and learning take place as you go up the levels. But those greater amounts are not indications that the true, ultimate potential is different—that potential is always unlimited, as we saw. They are simply indications that the working potential is rising as you go up the levels. If a certain relationship is at a higher level (at the second or third levels), that is simply because we happen to be ready to learn more with that person at that time.

Now let’s dive into the section itself. The first paragraph says this:

The teachers of God have no set teaching level. Each teaching-learning situation involves a different relationship at the beginning, although the ultimate goal is always the same; to make of the relationship a holy relationship, in which both can look upon the Son of God as sinless. There is no one from whom a teacher of God cannot learn, so there is no one whom he cannot teach. However, from a practical point of view he cannot meet everyone, nor can everyone find him. Therefore, the plan includes very specific contacts to be made for each teacher of God. There are no accidents in salvation. Those who are to meet will meet, because together they have the potential for a holy relationship. They are ready for each other.

Here we see, at least implicitly, that tension between unlimited potential and working potential. Each and every relationship has the same ultimate goal, to form a holy relationship, in which both people can learn to stably gaze upon the sinless Son of God. Theoretically, this can happen with anyone. And yet, “the plan [God’s plan] includes very specific contacts” for each of us. There are particular people that we are slated to meet. Why? Because somehow the two of us are ready for each other. For some reason, with the two of us, the potential to form that holy relationship is within our reach. The working potential is there.

Because the working potential is there, the Holy Spirit actually arranges for us to meet. He gets us together in time and space. He plays a kind of divine matchmaker role. Think about normal matchmaking. If you get two people together, you do that because you sense a potential between them, the potential for romantic sparks. The Holy Spirit is doing the same thing. He gets people together because He sees a potential, the potential for holy sparks.

First level: casual encounters

Now, in paragraph 2, Jesus describes the first level.

The simplest level of teaching appears to be quite superficial. It consists of what seem to be very casual encounters; a “chance” meeting of two apparent strangers in an elevator, a child who is not looking where he is going running into an adult “by chance,” two students “happening” to walk home together. These are not chance encounters. Each of them has the potential for becoming a teaching-learning situation. Perhaps the seeming strangers in the elevator will smile to one another, perhaps the adult will not scold the child for bumping into him; perhaps the students will become friends. 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.

Notice all the things that merely “appear” a certain way. These encounters merely appear to be superficial. They merely appear to be casual (chance, unpremeditated, temporary, superficial). They only seem to be chance. Indeed, the people only seem to be strangers (they are called “apparent strangers” and “seeming strangers”). The whole idea is that much, much more is going on here than what appears to be. It seems to be two strangers running into each other by chance and having a brief, superficial encounter. In reality, this is an arranged meeting of great significance. The Holy Spirit has arranged for two ancient friends (who merely don’t remember each other) to have a meeting because He sees in them the potential for a holy encounter, perhaps even a holy relationship.

How do they actualize this potential? They “lose sight of separate interests, if only for a moment.” They forget that they are strangers heading in different directions and serving competing interests. All that drops away, “if only for a moment.” The form that Jesus shows this taking is not mystical or even unusual. He gives us three quite ordinary, though still touching, vignettes:

Perhaps the seeming strangers in the elevator will smile to one another,

perhaps the adult will not scold the child for bumping into him;

perhaps the students will become friends

That’s all it took to actualize the working potential in these situations. The seeming strangers smile. The adult reacts kindly to the child who bumped into him. The students strike up a friendship. It can thus be as momentary as a smile or as long-lasting as some of the friendships we struck up in high school.

I have always felt that these three vignettes paint a brief but clear picture of how Jesus would have this world be. He wants to see a world in which every encounter, however seemingly small, contains kindness that overlooks what appears to separate us. Imagine a world in which that was all that was going on—between strangers, between spouses, between competitors in business, between nations. This reminds me of a favorite poem of mine. I used to have a copy hanging on my wall that I had written out by hand. It is called “The Base of all Metaphysics” and was written by Walt Whitman:

The Base Of All Metaphysics

AND now, gentlemen,
A word I give to remain in your memories and minds,
As base, and finale too, for all metaphysics.
(So, to the students, the old professor,
At the close of his crowded course.)
Having studied the new and antique, the Greek and Germanic systems,
Kant having studied and stated—Fichte and Schelling and Hegel,
Stated the lore of Plato—and Socrates, greater than Plato,
And greater than Socrates sought and stated—Christ divine having studied long,
I see reminiscent to-day those Greek and Germanic systems,
See the philosophies all—Christian churches and tenets see,
Yet underneath Socrates clearly see—and underneath Christ the divine I see,
The dear love of man for his comrade—the attraction of friend to friend,
Of the well-married husband and wife—of children and parents,
Of city for city, and land for land.

That is the kind of world I believe Jesus wants to see, a world in which everyone is following that metaphysical principle.

Question for discussion: Can you think of a “casual” encounter in which you could see that it had been arranged? There are certain encounters where you can almost see that strings have been pulled to get the two of you together. Can you tell a story about one of these?

I mentioned one from the recent Course conference I attended in San Francisco. I had just arrived at my hotel room and was wondering what to do with the evening ahead of me (the conference didn’t begin till the next day). I asked within and got the sense that I should go down to the lobby. So I got in the elevator, and when its doors opened onto the lobby, the doors of the elevator right across the way opened at the exact same time. And there was Jon Mundy, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years and with whom I had a lot of catching up to do. We went out and had a really nice conversation over dinner.

We have all had encounters that felt arranged, that even looked arranged. Suddenly, we could see past the veil of casual and accidental, and could see that here was something drenched with purpose. The challenge is to realize that these experiences were a brief window onto the nature of all encounters. They are all arranged. They are all drenched with purpose.

Should we really believe that all encounters have been arranged? Might it not be only certain ones, ones that have a more overt spiritual flavor or look more like a teacher-pupil relationship? I don’t think we can limit the principle in this way. Think about the child running into the adult. If that encounter isn’t chance, then no encounter is chance. The Psychotherapy supplement makes this explicit, saying,

No one is sent by accident to anyone. Relationships are always purposeful…they are always His potential temple.…Whoever comes has been sent. (P-3.III.6:2-5)

Second level: intense but temporary

Now (after skipping paragraph 3, from which I drew my earlier point that the levels are ultimately illusory) we go to the second level, described in paragraph 4:

Each teaching-learning situation is maximal in the sense that each person involved will learn the most that he can from the other person at that time. In this sense, and in this sense only, we can speak of levels of teaching. Using the term in this way, the second level of teaching is a more sustained relationship, in which, for a time, two people enter into a fairly intense teaching-learning situation and then appear to separate. As with the first level, these meetings are not accidental, nor is what appears to be the end of the relationship a real end. Again, each has learned the most he can at the time. Yet all who meet will someday meet again, for it is the destiny of all relationships to become holy. God is not mistaken in His Son.

I, along with many Course students, have always found this paragraph comforting. I talked about the comfort I got from this when an important relationship of mine fell apart twenty years ago, a relationship I thought would be for life. Someone else shared that he got comfort from this recently when his marriage ended.

The paragraph begins by explicitly talking about the concept that I have termed “working potential.” The levels are ultimately illusory. But within time, it is appropriate to speak of them, because in time, a person is ready to learn more from certain people than from others. “In this sense, and in this sense only, we can speak of levels of teaching.”

After his opening remarks, he goes on to make his point about the second level. The second level consists of those relationships that are “fairly intense” for a while and then appear to end. What he says about these relationships can be summarized in five points:

1. The relationship was not a mistake

Jesus says quite plainly, “These meetings are not accidental.” I find that comforting. When a relationship has ended, it is very tempting to look back and say, “That relationship was a mistake!” We wonder if we ever should have gotten into it in the first place. Here, Jesus was saying that there was a purpose behind our meeting. Maybe we fell short in really fulfilling that purpose, but the purpose was there nonetheless.

2. The end is not a real end

This theme is plainly stated, too: “Nor is what appears to be the end of the relationship a real end.” That, too, I find comforting. Endings are hard. They are a kind of death. Wouldn’t they be easier if we realized that they aren’t real, that the two of us only “appear[ed] to separate”?

3. We parted because we were no longer ready to learn from each other

This is implied by the first sentence of the paragraph (“Each teaching-learning situation is maximal in the sense that each person involved will learn the most that he can from the other person at that time”) and reinforced later in the paragraph: “Again, each has learned the most he can at the time.” I personally believe that we need to interpret “most he can” in a soft way, as “most he can, given his choices and willingness.” Elsewhere, the Course states, “Your learning potential, properly understood, is limitless” (T-12.V.9:1). So it’s not that our learning potential in this relationship was genuinely capped. It was “capped” by our own limited willingness. Yet, for the time being and for all practical purposes, that cap is a genuine ceiling, because we spent a lot of time building that ceiling.

I feel that I have seen this principle at work—that we parted because we were no longer ready to learn from each other. I have been in certain relationships where, no matter how much the two of us seemed to try, we were stuck in our learning. We were no longer learning from each other, growing with each other. Our forward movement together had become frozen. At that point, it is only a matter of time, at least in my experience, before we separate. This makes the separation not a bad thing, just an acknowledgement that, for the time being, we are no longer able to learn from each other in this relationship.

4. Some day, we will be ready to learn from each other again, and will get back together

“Yet all who meet will someday meet again.” What wonderful news! We all love second chances. Especially in significant relationships that didn’t turn out well, how wonderful it would be to have the opportunity to give it another try, to do it better this time. Now, this does not mean that we will do that in this life. Maybe it will be ten thousand years from now. But we will do it. We will be given a second chance, and a third, and a fourth, until the ending is a supremely happy ending.

You could see this with Helen’s past-life memories of her relationship with Bill. She saw them together in different configurations, over and over, throughout many different time periods, as holy priestess and devoted helper, as evil priestess and rebellious slave, as humble penitent and oblivious monk, as amoral slave woman and accepting husband, etc. They were given many second chances, and so are we all.

5. Then we will carry this relationship to its ultimate potential—to be a truly holy relationship.

In every relationship, there is something of the light. There is something beautiful, something of God. That is part of the pain of a relationship ending—along with the darkness going, the light seems to go, too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day that light could be carried forward so that it became all there was to the relationship? That is what Jesus is saying will happen. He is not even saying “may happen.” He frames it as a certainty: “It is the destiny of all relationships to become holy.” “Destiny” is a strong word. A destiny is preordained. It is predetermined. The destiny of each and every one of our relationships is to one day become absolutely holy.

This reminds me of how Helen’s series of inner visions of her and Bill ended. They ended, she said, on a “note of achievement and even glory.” The final vision in the series she considered one of the most important she ever had. In it, she and Bill are in a church. He is playing the organ, his face lit with joy. Jesus appears and they both kneel with him before the altar to God. One sentence stands out. Speaking of her and Bill, she said, “We had finally reached our goal.” Imagine the joy of that. You’ve been at this for eons, sharing an enduring love, yet burying that under many different, and seemingly unshakable, forms of dysfunction. Then one day, you finally reach your goal. All the dysfunction has gradually fallen away, and you are left with nothing but love—pure, deep, unbroken love. The joy of such a moment would be unspeakable.

Yet every relationship will reach that moment.


Close your eyes and choose a relationship in your life that was fairly intense and full of promise, but that ended.

Now realize that, however much pain there was, this relationship was not a mistake.

Now realize that the end was not a real end. The separation was only apparent.

Now realize that you parted because you weren’t ready any longer to learn from each other. You had reached the end of your working potential.

But now realize that some day, perhaps far in the future. you will be ready to learn from each other again, and you will get back together.

Finally, realize that at that time, or at another time, you will carry this relationship to its ultimate potential. You will make it into a truly holy relationship.

Third level: lifelong

Finally, Jesus describes the third level, in the last paragraph of the section:

The third level of teaching occurs in relationships which, once they are formed, are lifelong. These are teaching-learning situations in which each person is given a chosen learning partner who presents him with unlimited opportunities for learning. These relationships are generally few, because their existence implies that those involved have reached a stage simultaneously in which the teaching-learning balance is actually perfect. This does not mean that they necessarily recognize this; in fact, they generally do not. They may even be quite hostile to each other for some time, and perhaps for life. Yet should they decide to learn it, the perfect lesson is before them and can be learned. And if they decide to learn that lesson, they become the saviors of the teachers who falter and may even seem to fail. No teacher of God can fail to find the Help he needs.

This final level, I believe, gives us a great glimpse into the whole system of levels. There are three things to take note of here:

First, the working potential is at its absolute highest. At this level, your chosen learning partner presents you with “unlimited opportunities for learning.” Should you decide to learn it, “the perfect lesson is before [you] and can be learned.” In other words, at this level, working potential rises to meet unlimited potential. That’s why this is the third and highest level.

Second, “these relationships are generally few,” simply because the two people are such a perfect learning match. All the open windows in both houses line up, so to speak. The odds are that this will be true with only a few people in our lives.

Third, the unlimited working potential is reflected in the long duration of the relationship. Remember, when you reach the end of working potential, you part. The relationship ends (or seemingly ends). But here, in level-three relationships, the working potential is endless. As a result, the relationship keeps going. As long as the potential is still there, you stay together. As long as you are together, the potential is still there. When it goes, the relationship goes with it (though I suspect there may be a time lag between when the working potential goes and when the two people actually part).

Yet in these third-level relationships there is usually still a gulf between working potential and actualized potential. Even though the working potential is limitless, the two may not feel like anything of the sort is true. They even be hostile to each other for life! I’ll never forget a Bill Cosby comedy album my sister and I used to listen to. He said, “There are times when you turn and look at your spouse and say ‘Youuu parasite!'” Just because the potential for learning is there, it doesn’t mean that learning will actually take place.

This may seem bleak, but there is a saving grace. The saving grace are those few teachers of God who bring their actualized potential up to meet their working potential (which, at this level, is unlimited). Those few relationships become the saviors of the rest of us. After all, how could God leave any of us without the help we need?


Close your eyes and choose a level three learning partner, someone you have been with for a long time and expect to be with for life. Then repeat,

In this person, I am given a chosen learning partner who presents me with unlimited opportunities for learning.

Should I decide to learn it, the perfect lesson is before me and can be learned.

Then ask the Holy Spirit,

Holy Spirit, what is that perfect lesson?

If you don’t hear anything, try repeating the question using different words, and listen again. If anything comes, please write it down. This is the sort of thing you don’t want to lose.


To summarize, in each relationship and even each encounter, there is unlimited potential for learning. However, because on a functional level, our readiness to learn will be greater with certain people, there are varying degrees of working potential, depending on the relationship. These varying degrees of working potential translate into the three levels of teaching. The higher the level of teaching, the more working potential is there.

The mathematics of working potential mean that we will have high working potential with relatively few people. Thus, as we move up the levels of teaching, there will be fewer and fewer relationships.

Because the Holy Spirit only puts us with people with whom we have working potential, if we are with someone, there is working potential. Correspondingly, when that working potential goes away, the relationship goes away, too. Since the levels of teaching correspond to higher and higher levels of working potential, the higher the level of teaching, the longer the relationship lasts.

Finally, actualized potential is up to us. We may experience very little actualized potential even with level-three (lifelong) relationships. We are quite capable of making choices that fall short of the level of our actual readiness.

How can we actualize the potential that is there? We can consciously and frequently choose to overlook our apparently separate interests. One very important way to do this is to remember, as often as we possibly can, that the appearance of the relationship is deceiving. It may appear to be a casual, superficial encounter with a stranger. It may appear to be a bang-your-head-against-the-wall raging battle that is hopeless and doomed to fail. It may appear to be a lifelong prison sentence with a parasite of a cell mate. But all of these appearances are deceiving. In reality, it is a divinely arranged encounter of utmost significance. It is a disguised holy encounter in which, in the guise of this ordinary person, Christ has come to you, knocking on your door, asking if, this time, you will let Him in.


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