[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
This series of articles on the spiritual program of A Course in Miracles has presented the Course not just as a spiritual teaching, but also as a spiritual path. This means that for many people, it will be the guidebook for their spiritual lives. Its teaching will be the eyes through which they view the world. Its practices will occupy their minds and fill their private moments with God. It will be the road map they follow on their journey home.
If you are reading this material, the Course may quite possibly be your path. This possibility generates two crucial questions which will be the focus of this article. First, how can you find out if the Course is your path? Second, once you decide it is your path, should you use it alone or in combination with other paths?
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF THE COURSE IS YOUR PATH?
Thousands of students have already reached a firm conviction that A Course in Miracles is their lifelong spiritual path. Yet if you have not acquired this conviction, how can you? The Course itself is very clear that there are many effective pathways to God. There is no requirement that one follow this course in particular, despite what the Course seems to say in its own introduction:
This is a course in miracles. It is a required course. Only the time you take it is voluntary. Free will does not mean that you can establish the curriculum. (T-In.1:1-4)
These lines appear to say that everyone must take the Course at some point in time. However, a clarification is given over 1100 pages later:
As the course emphasizes [in its introduction], you are not free to choose the curriculum, or even the form in which you will learn it. You are free, however, to decide when you want to learn it. (M-2.3:6-7)
If we put these two passages together, their message becomes clear. Notice the above distinction between “the curriculum” and “the form in which you will learn it.” The curriculum here is “the universal curriculum,” the general pathway home that the Holy Spirit has established for everyone. This general pathway takes “many thousands of…forms, all with the same outcome.” (M-1.4:2) These forms are the spiritual paths of this world. “The form in which you will learn it,” therefore, is the particular path you are meant to follow. It is your “form of the universal curriculum.” (M-2.1:2) Therefore, as with the universal curriculum, your spiritual path is not up to you. The Holy Spirit decides which path will best suit your individual needs, your level of understanding (M-2.1:2) and your language and culture. (M-23.7:1-2) The only decision left to you is when you will join your choice with the choice He already made for you.
“It is a required course,” therefore, means two distinct things. It means that everyone is required to take the universal curriculum. And it means that this particular form of it, A Course in Miracles, is required only for those who have been specifically assigned it. If you have not been assigned the Course, it is not for you, and by not doing it you are merely following the way that has been laid out for you.
Now we can see the real question that faces us: Has the Holy Spirit given you A Course in Miracles as your pathway home? Putting it this way, I believe, immensely simplifies the matter. It means that you do not have to draw up a long list of pros and cons, carefully weighing what you like about the Course against what you don’t. The question is not: Based on all of your personal considerations, do you want to choose it? The question is: Has it chosen you?
I believe that the answer to this question (like the questions of identifying your personal teacher and finding out if Jesus is your teacher) is that you will just know. If the Holy Spirit has chosen A Course in Miracles as your path, He has planted that awareness deep within you. Somewhere inside, then, you know it, and this knowing exists quite apart from your usual considerations. This is why some people pick up the Course and simply can’t put it down for weeks or months, even though they hardly understand a word they are reading. And why people are drawn to the Course from such diverse backgrounds, even backgrounds that saddle them with deep problems with certain aspects of the Course. And why students will often throw it in the garbage, or in a river, or flush it down the toilet, only to go out and buy a new copy—even multiple times! And why, upon opening the Course for the first time, some have a profound spiritual experience, perhaps an inner knowing that this is their pathway home.
Such instantaneous certainty, however, is relatively rare. It definitely did not happen that way for me. It would have been wonderful if, when I first opened the book, a bolt of lightning had shot off the page and struck me between the eyes. Instead, it took me seven years to decide that the Course was my spiritual path—seven years! In hindsight I realized that several overlapping reasons contributed to this decision. I have decided to share those reasons here, to illustrate some of the many factors that might cause one to choose the Course.
- The Course gave me more benefit than other paths.
I first got into spirituality in my late teens when, as a result of reading in many fields, I concluded that whenever someone glimpsed a reality beyond the physical, he or she saw roughly the same landscape. This seemed to be true regardless of that person’s temperament, religion, culture or time period. It seemed true whether that glimpse came through meditation, hypnosis, inspiring poetry, beautiful scenery, biofeedback, clinical death or psychedelic drugs. Whatever window one peered through, in whichever room of the house (the house being the world), the landscape beheld was more or less the same. To me, this meant that either the brain had been wired by evolution to hallucinate a spiritual reality that was not there, or that this landscape really was there; that these people were peering into reality itself. For various reasons I decided it must be the latter. I decided there was a universal truth, a perennial philosophy, which had appeared throughout history in countless forms.
To me, therefore, the most sacred truth was that the truth appeared in countless forms, wherever someone had opened the shades, so to speak. As a result, the idea of taking a single form as “my path” was, you could say, morally repugnant to me. Choosing one path seemed like a repudiation of the all-pervasive nature of truth. Therefore, my spiritual life was a conglomeration of ideas and practices I had drawn from a variety of sources, and this variety was precious to me.
Thus, when I encountered the Course, the possibility of making it my spiritual path was not remotely on my mind. I remember meeting a married couple that was involved with the Course. I asked them what they were into spiritually and they smiled serenely and said, “Just this”—meaning, just the Course. My inner reaction was, “How narrow!” In contrast, I was able to provide a long list of spiritual sources from which I fed my obviously broader mind.
As the years went by, however, the Course gradually devoured my spiritual life, until it was virtually the only thing I used. The reason for this was simple: I derived more benefit from it than from other things. It seemed to penetrate to the heart of the matter more than anything else. It unveiled to me the core thinking that lay behind my daily upsets. It gave me transformative insights that went straight into my mind and shifted that core thinking. It seemed at the same time more challenging, more uplifting and more practical than anything else. Therefore, slowly and without my noticing, it took over my spiritual life. Eventually I had to admit that my ideal of drawing on many sources had become just an ideal, one that was not reflected in my life.
- The Course eventually made the most sense to me.
In the beginning there were many elements of the Course that felt strange and vaguely distasteful to me. I didn’t like how Eastern the Course seemed to be. Its central focus on forgiveness rather than love didn’t strike me as appropriate. I didn’t appreciate how harshly it spoke about the world and how emphatically it proclaimed the world’s unreality. And I was irritated with how it kept insisting that we are already perfect and already in Heaven. Whether our task was to realize an already-existent perfection or to simply become perfect seemed irrelevant to me. I felt the Course was making a lot of noise over a trivial distinction.
At first, then, the Course clashed with many of my belief-structures. Over time, however, this changed. The Course slowly seemed to rewire my brain, so that ideas I initially didn’t relate to began to make sense to me. The whole package, in fact, was making more and more sense. Gradually, my conscious belief system experienced a revolution. That which had initially felt alien, weird or uncomfortable now seemed to be the most sensible, sublime and even obvious truth.
What apparently accomplished this was the Course’s power of persuasion. It took the strangest ideas and made them sound eminently logical, as well as totally relevant and deeply attractive. This power of persuasion had an even greater effect on me when I started teaching the Course. At that point, five years into my relationship with the Course, I still did not consider it my path. Now, however, I had to become an instrument of the Course’s power of persuasion. I had to draw out its logic and make plain its arguments. And as these arguments rolled off my lips, they sounded pretty good to me, too. Through trying to persuade others, then, I ended up persuading myself.
- I felt I saw evidence in my life that the Course was intended for me.
The way that the Course entered and moved in my life suggested to me that it was somehow intended for me. This was true from my very first exposure to it. I first heard of it while at a gathering of students of the Edgar Cayce material. There I overheard someone say that the magazine Psychology Today had done “a story on the lady who wrote Jesus’ Course of Miracles.” The article was there so I sat right down and read it. It intrigued me enough to interest me in the Course. Yet there was more to this first encounter. The article in part featured Beverly Hutchinson, who with her brother had co-founded Miracle Distribution Center (MDC), where I would one day teach. While I read it, I had no idea that I was sitting in a home that was literally three or four houses down the street from where Beverly and her family were living.
From this point on the Course began to gently push its way into my life. The following year friends gave me the Course for my 21st birthday, after which I did the lessons for a few months and then put it down. Some months later my best friend and I attended a presentation on the Course at a large New Age festival. The scheduled presenter couldn’t make it and so a sister and brother filled in. They turned out to be none other than Beverly Hutchinson and her brother Richard. From their presentation my friend and I discovered that they had started a Course center just down the street from where we were attending college together. Though I didn’t get involved with MDC right away, he did, eventually going to work there. A couple of years after that, my wife started working there also. In the meantime, MDC had begun asking me to do projects for them. Thus, it seemed that wherever I turned this book was thrust in my face, to the point where the ink almost began to rub off on my nose.
During this time I was experiencing some highly synchronistic events. These surprised me with the seemingly clear implication that I might spend my life teaching the Course. Even more surprising to me, they suggested that I would devote my intellectual abilities to interpreting its system, rather than to designing my own. This was an exceedingly challenging idea, since for many years I had believed that my life purpose was to develop and communicate my own philosophical system of thought. It took me about ten years to fully reconcile myself with this distasteful idea.
Thus, even as my teaching function with the Course was developing, I didn’t appreciate the significance of it, as my mind was still clinging to a dream of another intellectual career. Yet develop it did, almost of its own accord, as a series of invitations came my way. First, MDC asked me to teach classes there. Then they asked me to write an introductory booklet on the Course. Once this was published I began receiving invitations from other centers to travel to other areas and speak on the Course. Then I received requests to write for various Course newsletters. One day I turned around and found that I had acquired a career.
All in all, the Course appeared to act in my life with a mind of its own. It seemed to walk in with a plan already in mind, a plan whose outlines were foreshadowed in occasional synchronistic events. Once in, the Course proceeded to push its way further and further in, gobbling up more and more of my life, until, as I sit here today, it is my life. Looking back over the years, it is hard for me not to get the impression that it wasn’t me who chose the Course; the Course chose me.
- I eventually just “knew” that the Course was my path.
Earlier I mentioned that if the Course is your path you will sooner or later just know. This, of course, has been my experience. I know that the Course is my path as unquestionably as I know that my hands are attached to my arms. However, as you can see from what I have shared, it was a long time before I “just knew.” A great many changes had to take place in my mind and in my life before this knowing could surface. Consider yourself fortunate, therefore, if you pick up the Course and along with it comes a flash of supernatural insight telling you that this book is for you. Instead, it will probably be some time before you can look within and feel a certainty, one which transcends your opinions, that this is indeed your path.
- I made a bet that truth would lie in the direction of the noblest vision of reality.
I initially got into spirituality because I found so many voices saying the same thing. I thought that if this mystic and that channel and that visionary all said the same thing, then it might just be true. If I could find ten voices all saying it, then it had to be true. In matters of the spirit, where nothing could be proven, I found safety in numbers.
This caused me problems with the Course, for though it contained an abundance of time-honored concepts, I also encountered things in it that I was reading nowhere else. For example, I had read in many places that the world is an illusion. But that the world did not come from God, that it was our own dream of the opposite of God, of attack on God? Not only was this not the consensus of my various favorite teachings, I couldn’t find it anywhere else. The Course as a matter of habit seemed to take things further. It seemed to consistently walk out further on the limb—and then straight into thin air.
For many years I distanced myself from the ideas in the Course that I could find supported nowhere else. It seemed too risky to commit to them on the strength of a single teaching. How could this one teaching, which just happened to come along in my lifetime, in my country, have got it right while everyone else had an at least slightly distorted version? Accepting this felt like I myself was walking out on a limb and into thin air. After all, was not the most important evidence for a spiritual idea the number of teachings that proclaimed it? I finally resolved my dilemma by dispensing with the standard of multiple voices and adopting a different standard for spiritual truth.
I decided that, of all the teachings I had come across, the Course seemed to me to have the noblest vision of reality. In my mind, all of the ways in which it was more extreme added up to this one idea. The reality it depicted seemed to be perfection itself, a realm in which all truly good qualities existed in boundless measure. This reality was not responsible for a universe of limitation and suffering; we were. But reality did not punish us for this. Rather, for our sake, it simply did not allow this universe to be real. And it set about gently working within our belief in time and space to liberate us from that belief. Due to its loving assistance, all appearances of evil and pain would one day be completely reversed and undone.
This vision stirred in me such a sense of grandeur, beauty and perfection that, as I said, I could only characterize it as the noblest vision of reality that I had encountered. On this dimension, it appeared to me to be in a class by itself. The Course’s vision was so sublime as to seem too good to be true. Yet it was here at this very point that I established my new standard for spiritual truth. In response to a deep voice in me, I made a faith assumption that truth simply must lie in this direction. It must lie in the direction of the noblest vision, rather than the basest. This was definitely a gamble, a bet, and a huge one at that. Yet in the end we all must stake our lives on a particular voice in us, a voice which tells us what is real and genuine, and I was willing to bet that this voice in me was the truest one. It certainly felt like the truest. I decided, therefore, that the Course’s vision was simply too good to be false. And, as risky as such a decision may be, it has satisfied me ever since.
- I came to believe that the author is Jesus and trust that he knows what he is talking about.
For me the authorship of the Course is central. Before getting into the Course I had become convinced that my journey through time and space was inextricably bound up with Jesus. Therefore, as my sense grew that in the Course Jesus had reappeared as an original, powerful and alive presence, my relationship with the Course was settled. If he is my teacher and the Course is his teaching, what choice do I have? For me, following him and following it became one and the same thing.
This also helped me come to terms with the Course’s uniqueness, which, as I mentioned, had been a stumbling block for me. The more time I spent with the Course, the more a conviction grew in me that I could trust the author implicitly. I adopted yet another basic position which seemed intellectually irresponsible, yet which carried a powerful conviction of truth: I know that he knows. I can’t explain how, but I just know that he knows. No matter how extreme his statements, I simply trust that his mind has penetrated reality more fully than me or than anyone I am aware of. In accepting the complete package of the Course, then, I am really placing my trust in an individual. I am putting my journey to God in the hands of a person.
Such statements probably set off a chorus of warning bells. In a society suspicious of authorities, especially authorities who hold out answers to life’s most basic questions and ask us to simply trust them (as they lead us in mass suicide), this can sound dangerously gullible. This also went distinctly against my intellectual grain, which told me to hold people’s opinions in fundamental mistrust, and to instead place my trust in objective evidence and logic. Consequently, it took me many years to come to peace with this idea of following a single individual. Even now I am not sure how absolutely comfortable I am with it. Yet comfortable or not, this feeling—that I know that he knows—only grows in me. And this approach to truth now makes sense to me. Just as I should withhold trust from those who don’t know, I should give my trust to those who do. As Jesus puts it in the Manual, appealing to them is not gullibility but wisdom:
No one on earth can grasp what Heaven is, or what its one Creator really means. Yet we have witnesses. It is to them that wisdom should appeal. There have been those whose learning far exceeds what we can learn….Then turn to one who laid all limits by [Jesus], and went beyond the farthest reach of learning. (M-23.6:1-4,8)
IF THE COURSE IS YOUR PATH, SHOULD YOU USE IT BY ITSELF
OR IN COMBINATION WITH OTHER PATHS?
Once you finally settle on the Course being your path, should you do it by itself or in combination with other paths? The simple answer to this is “by itself.” This idea is extremely difficult for many Course students to swallow. In today’s eclectic spiritual environment, focusing on one path can seem like eating the same thing at every meal, or like the harshest and most depriving form of monogamy.
Let me therefore explain “by itself” more carefully. I do not mean that you should not read other spiritual teachings or gain inspiration from them. I personally do so all the time. What I mean is that although you may visit other paths, the Course is where you live. Its path is what you actually walk. Its thought system is the lens through which you look at the world. Its practices are the remedy you use to heal your pain, the wings you use to lift you skyward. Its way is what you follow home. Is this really any different from saying that it is your path? In my opinion, then, if you have answered the first question of this article (Is the Course my path?) then you have automatically answered the second (Should I use it alone or in combination with other paths?).
This may sound like one of those religious laws that has no real reason but is there just to be obeyed. It may also sound like an implicit condemnation of other paths. If, however, we can explore this idea more fully, I believe we will see that it is neither, but is merely a practical idea that is there for our benefit. Let us turn, then, to the Course’s most telling comment about focusing only on it:
This is the special means this course is using to save you time. You are not making use of the course if you insist on using means which have served others well, neglecting what was made for you. (T-18.VII.6:4-5)
In this passage, the “special means” the Course is using to speed our return is the holy instant within the holy relationship. This is a moment in which two people momentarily suspend their notion that they need to do something to deserve God. In contrast, the means we may insist on using are a) fighting against the temptation to sin, and b) long periods of meditation aimed at rising above one’s impure body and unworthy ego.
A great deal is said or implied in this brief passage. First, the Course is claiming to use a “special means” that falls outside the means supplied by perhaps the greater part of the world’s great religions. Between wrestling with temptation and lengthy meditation we have covered a lot of the world’s religious methodology. Second, the Course is not saying that these means are bad or ineffective. It explicitly says that they “have served others well.” Third, it says that the reason we should use the Course’s special means is that it was made specifically for us.
We can thus summarize the overall message in this way: Use the means that were made for you, even though other means have served others well. This is almost identical to something that Jesus privately told Helen, when she once found herself judging someone else’s spirituality: “Don’t take another’s path as your own; but neither should you judge it.” (Absence from Felicity) All of this reinforces what I said at the beginning: If the Course was given to you as your path, follow its way home. Honor other paths, respect the fact that others have been assigned these paths, but do not use them yourself. I would like to elaborate on this basic point now by discussing some of the reasons why the Course might say this.
Mixing the Course with other things will probably introduce fearful elements into it
The Course takes care to distinguish its thought system from some of the major currents in world spirituality (as we just saw), as well as from traditional Christianity, modern psychology (See, for instance, “The Unhealed Healer” (T-9.V)) and ancient mythology. (T-4.II.8-9) Privately to his scribes, the author also distinguished his course from theories of karma (Absence from Felicity) and from the Edgar Cayce material. (Absence from Felicity) Although he never once said, “This teaching is just like the Course,” he often made a point of distinguishing teachings from the Course. Why? This passage about the New Testament provides an answer:
As you read the teachings of the Apostles, remember that I told them myself that there was much they would understand later, because they were not wholly ready to follow me at the time. I do not want you to allow any fear to enter into the thought system toward which I am guiding you. (T-20.VII.1:3)
Jesus says here that he is guiding us into a new thought system, one that is free of fear. To uncritically blend it with New Testament ideas would be to sneak the old fear-producing concepts right back into the new system, which is specifically meant to be free of them. So read the New Testament, he implies, but do so with a sensitive, discerning eye.
From the Course’s standpoint, most thought systems would include elements of fear. Hence, we can apply this message to more than just the New Testament. Jesus wants to keep his new system free of foreign elements because he wants to keep it free of fear. And that is because he plans to use this new system to lead us beyond fear.
Mixing it with other things will detract from its radical focus
In my early years with the Course I emphasized those ideas in it that I could also find in other paths. I finally realized, however, that the Course’s central injunctions were unique to it. No other teaching told me that the quickest way to God-realization was to withdraw my projections of sin from others and realize that they are completely guiltless, that they never even did what I thought they did to me. That is quite honestly the last thing I would ever want to do. And, coincidentally, when I emphasized only where the Course overlapped other teachings, I had an excuse to not do that. Drawing on a multiplicity of teachings allowed me to successfully avoid the radical thrust of the Course.
As mentioned in Part 2 of the “Teachers of This Course” section, Jesus, both historically and in the Course, has a penchant for an ego-shattering extremism which turns our mind-set upside down. To protect our “reality,” therefore, we scramble to soften his hard sayings and tone down his radical injunctions. In the first century (as scholars have repeatedly discovered), this toning down took the form of Jesus’ followers pulling from other stores of ideas to soften his teaching’s hard edge. 2,000 years later, with A Course in Miracles, this toning down takes the exact same form.
Mixing it with other things will cause the entire system to make less sense
The Course leads us in such radical directions that we need all the help we can get to follow it there. The help it gives us is an entire system in which every part supports every other part, and in which all the parts contribute to a single radical goal. This is why the Course can say, “this course has nothing in it that is not consistent.” (T-20.VII.1:3) If, then, we introduce into the Course a foreign part that does not fit, the effect will be like introducing incompatible material into our body. It will weaken, perhaps sicken, the entire system.
Course makes this same point using the language of education: “A meaningful curriculum cannot be inconsistent….This leads to fluctuation, but not to change.” (T-8.I.5:4,7) A curriculum made of warring parts that pull you in different directions will merely jerk you around; it will not really take you anywhere.
For an example, let’s look at this comment from the Workbook: “It is essential for your progress in this course that you accept today’s idea, and hold it very dear.” (W-pI.199.3:1) This idea is, “I am not a body. I am free.” This means it is false to believe that we are a body, or that the body is part of us, or that we are even in a body. Not only false, these beliefs are precisely what cause us to feel imprisoned or not free.
What happens, then, if we accept into our mind more conventional ideas about the body? We might believe, for instance, that the body is the temple of God, evidence of His awesome intelligence. Or we might see the body as a miracle of nature, testament to the genius of evolution. We might believe the individual is a body, that consciousness is purely a product of the brain. Or we might believe the individual is both body and soul, or a holistic unity of body, mind and spirit. We might believe that the body is a real prison which incarcerates the divine spark, or that the body is our remaining link to nature, our hope for reconnecting with the natural web of life. We might believe that the body’s urges are inherently sinful, or that the body’s pleasures are the beautiful road to freedom and happiness. We might see the body as the basest part of us or as the wisest part of us.
All of the above ideas are readily available in today’s philosophic marketplace. And all of them run counter to “I am not a body. I am free.” If we accept them, therefore, this idea from the Course will not make much sense to us; they will undermine it. And if it makes very little sense to us, how will we not only accept it but “hold it very dear”? The answer, of course, is that we will not. Yet, as the above passage says, if we want to make real progress in this course we must do just that.
The Course is a complete path; there is no need to mix in anything else
Perhaps the most important passage about mixing the Course with other paths is this one: “You are studying a unified thought system in which nothing is lacking that is needed, and nothing is included that is contradictory or irrelevant.” (W-pI.42.7:2)
This has immense implications for the issue we are exploring. If, in fact, “nothing is lacking that is needed,” then there is no need to add onto the Course anything whatsoever. And if we do, we are not only adding on the unneeded, the “irrelevant,” we are probably introducing the “contradictory” as well.
If nothing is lacking that is needed, then why have we been hauling every idea and practice under the sun into the Course? We have done so, at least in part, because we have not seen just how complete the Course really is. That at least is my opinion. We have not realized how multi-faceted a path it is, how fully it meets our whole range of spiritual needs. In our use of the Course, it has been running on only a couple of its pistons. Given that, it is no wonder that we have tried to give it a power boost from the outside. My personal hope is that once we see just how complete a path the Course is, our attitude will change. Once all of its pistons are firing and we feel it speeding us along the road to God, we will have far less desire to mix in other things.
* * * * *
The question of whether or not A Course in Miracles is your path is no light matter. It may be one of the more important issues you face in your life. If it is not your path, that is perfectly fine. For you, it would be the long way around. You will travel much faster on some other route.
If the Course is your path, however, you will make faster progress by centering yourself on it. That at least is what the Course asks you to do. As our above points said, the Course is a system, a radical, original, complete and highly integrated system. There is no reason to install foreign parts in this system and every reason not to. After all, you would not install a blender under your hood in place of your carburetor. If, however, you do choose to mix the Course with other things—and you may well do so—you will not be committing a sin. You will simply be insisting “on using means which have served others well, neglecting what was made for you.” (T-18.VII.6:4-5)
Therefore, honor other paths. Treasure them as other sacred forms of the universal curriculum. But honor your path by following its way home.