There Is No Salvation in Form

I have come to believe that A Course in Miracles is a complete path, which means that it provides its students with everything they need for their spiritual journey. And the Course says this. It claims that “you are studying a unified thought system in which nothing is lacking that is needed”(W-pI.42.7:2). Yet, when you really take that idea seriously, you begin to notice something very strange. The Course doesn’t seem to provide everything we need for our journey. For there is an entire, enormous class of things that perhaps every other spiritual path includes, yet which is totally absent from the Course. However, by the very absence of this class we can tell what the Course thinks about it. If the Course says it lacks nothing that is needed, then if something is lacking we can assume that, in the eyes of the Course, it is not needed.

So what is this class of things present in other paths but absent from the Course? Every other spiritual path and healing modality that I know of claims that salvation can, at least in part, be attained by doing something with forms—by taking part in rituals, sitting in certain postures, being in particular locations, etc. These are just a few of the thousands of variations on the belief that salvation can be found in form—in certain special forms, that is. In contrast, one of the Course’s central features is that it does not espouse any form in which it claims our salvation lies.

By “form” I mean anything that exists in space and so has a shape, a boundary, an outline, anything that can be located “here” but not over “there.” I want to include in this definition both physical forms in physical space, as well as subtler forms on other levels of existence. Even the Course seems to make reference to these latter kind when it says, “All thinking produces form at some level” (T-2.VI.9:14). This appears to mean that even when our thoughts do not have a visible effect on the physical level, they still have produced form on another, non-physical level (an effect which will, presumably, trickle down to this level eventually).

By “salvation” I mean reaching a state or condition in which we are saved from all suffering, in which we have found complete happiness. As such, it is a very flexible term. It is used by the Course and by the world’s spiritual traditions to refer to liberation from the entire human condition. Yet it can also refer to a more tame happiness which we seek within conventional living. This is not real salvation, but it is the salvation we generally seek.

So let’s look at just some of the many ways in which different paths of awakening have believed that salvation can be found in form.

Being part of the right institution. An age-old belief is that simply being aligned with a certain religious institution makes one closer to salvation. The institution is a form which seems to hold in its hands the keys to Heaven, and thus can use those keys to let its members, and only its members, in the pearly gates. If, therefore, that institution kicks you out, you have literally been locked out of Heaven.

Being part of an order or ashram. Thinking that salvation comes through belonging to a church is considered by many to be a relatively primitive religious belief. Yet even among advanced students of spirituality there often remains the belief that I am closer to salvation because I belong to this special order, or live at this special ashram, or follow this special teacher, and that you are farther from salvation because you do not. Somehow the very act of my body being near another body (the teacher’s) or dwelling in a certain physical structure means that salvation will rub off from that form onto me.

Going to a church or a temple. In my Protestant roots, the very act of showing up at church on Sunday mornings meant something about the state of your soul. And it is not just the activities going on inside the building that are important; in many traditions the building itself is considered to be a holy place or holy ground. Merely being in such a structure is interpreted to mean that some of its holiness seeps into you.

Going to a sacred site. The above point also holds true for the currently popular idea of sacred sites. I live surrounded by the vortexes of Sedona. Just from placing my body within their fields of energy, I guess I must be getting pretty spiritual.

Having holy objects, pictures or relics. This is an ancient idea, going all the way back to the primitive notion of mana, an invisible power believed to reside in certain objects. The list of such holy objects is endless, going from the more ordinary: sacred pictures, statues and altar pieces, to the more bizarre: splinters of the true cross, locks of hair from great masters and fingers of incorruptible saints. Ironically, as I finished this sentence, a friend delivered to me an article on the Shroud of Turin, which has often been seen as a holy relic.

Proper use of crystals, colors, sounds and smells. Living in Sedona, I am constantly reminded of this one. Not only can crystals supposedly transmit wonderful energies that can actually change me for the good, but also different kinds of precious stones carry different beneficial effects. And not just rocks. The New Age contains a vast cornucopia of potions, elixirs, lights, sounds, oils and smells that can also impart assorted therapeutic effects. Salvation has never been so easy, or so expensive.

Participating in rituals, sacraments and festivals. The belief in the saving power of rituals, sacraments and religious festivals is one of the most significant and widespread examples of the belief that salvation can be found in form. In this belief, simply by having water sprinkled on your head, or by having a priest say the magic words over you, or by swallowing a wafer of bread, or by going to Mecca, or by refraining from work on the Sabbath—merely by accurately performing a series of motions laid down by tradition—you can find salvation. Lips moving, hands gesturing, water splashing, bread travelling down your throat, forms shifting—these are the things salvation is made of. Or so it is believed.

Making sacrifices to the gods. This is closely related to the previous point. A common belief is that by giving up something you want for the sake of a deity, by foregoing a pleasure, undergoing a painful experience, or ritually killing an animal, you purchase some kind of favor from the deity. The most famous example is the supposed sacrificial death of Jesus, which, it is claimed, purchased our salvation. According to this belief, merely by his body passing through a particular series of physical events, salvation became open to us all.

Experiencing painful events as payment for wrongdoings. In close relation to the above point, many systems teach that God, or the law of karma, sends us painful life events as penalty for our past transgressions. Just by undergoing these events, just by taking our licks, we pay off our debt (at least some of it). And thus God becomes more accessible to us.

Wearing the right clothing. Now we move into a whole class of salvific forms associated with the body. This first one may sound weird at first, but think about how many different types of clothing have been considered to be somehow a part of our salvation: the minister’s robes, the Buddhist’s ochre robes, the priest’s collar, the nun’s habit, the Amish plain dress. This ancient belief is alive and well today, where particular natural fibers or special colors are supposed to impart to us some desired state of being.

Eating the right foods. Perhaps now we are getting closer to home. For the belief in the saving power of proper diet is nearly universal. Either we are saved by eating the right foods, or saved by refraining from eating the wrong foods, or saved by not eating at all (for particular periods of time). Innumerable spiritual paths offer at least some guidance on this matter. When you think that food saves you, it becomes a very serious matter. And when you have a room full of spiritual seekers who all think that different foods save them, it gets pretty sticky. I used to believe that forcing down a huge bowl of sprouts was a holy act (too holy to be engaged in very often). At that time it was vaguely troubling to me that the Course contained not a single word about what to eat, nor even hinted that it grasped the importance of proper diet.

Doing the right exercises, postures or bodily movements. Many, many systems believe in the saving power of certain exercises. Exercise, of course, supposedly saves us by improving our physical health. Yet in many systems its significance goes beyond that. Certain special movements or postures help re-establish the proper flow of subtle bodily energies, or even allow us to invoke and harness various energies. In other words, merely moving or positioning our limbs and torso in certain configurations can bring us salvation.

The proper use of breath. The use of the breath is an intimate part of many spiritual systems, where it often plays a crucial role in meditation practice. Feeling the breath going in and out of the throat, counting the breath, breathing in through the nostrils, or one nostril, breathing with the belly and not the chest—all these are seen to be inextricably connected with the goal of inner transformation. Yet as much as we may have ascribed saving power to such activities, can the mind really be changed by simply expanding and contracting the rib cage in a particular way?

Moving energy around in the body or focusing attention on certain body parts. Most of us are familiar with the idea of raising the kundalini up the spine along the path of the various chakras. In addition, many methods of meditation involve focusing our attention on particular parts of the body. Even a non-dual saint such as Ramana Maharshi recommended focusing specifically on the right side of the heart. The topic of the chakras and the kundalini is one in which form and content appear to be particularly fused. The energy that raises up the spine is said to be the energy of the Divine. Yet it is also a form: it is inside the spine, moving through the body, here but not there. It is a form. Not being a deep student of such things, I don’t know what to say about this topic, except this: It is not a part of A Course in Miracles. The Course never asks us to move energy around in the body, allow energy to rise in the body, or focus on certain parts of the body. The Course never comes close to making the body a part of salvation in this way.

Adopting the right lifestyle. Now we leave the uncomfortable subject of the spiritual significance of the body and move into the broader topic of our outer lives. Many systems stress that voluntarily adopting poverty is a holy virtue. Other systems see wealth as a sign of divine favor. The whole topic of lifestyle is a stomping ground for the belief that form has power to save. Think about it: If you were going to lead a really pure and holy lifestyle, based simply on your own beliefs about what is pure, what would that entail? Perhaps a certain kind of house made of particular materials, in a particularly pure location, powered by solar energy, with lots of plants, with only pure foods in the cupboard, the right sacred pictures on the wall, the right clothing in the closets, the right scents in the air, maybe without a TV, or with only certain programs watched on the TV, with fewer possessions, with everything recycled. The list could go on and on.

Holding virtuous occupations. It is tempting to see our occupation as a key ingredient in our spiritual journey. After all, right livelihood is part of the Buddha’s eightfold path. Particular occupations appear inherently more spiritual than others. Certainly, it seems, one gets to God more quickly by being a pastor, a counselor, or a Course in Miracles teacher. Just having our body acquire its money by carrying out certain physical tasks has power to save us. Right?

Engaging in virtuous behaviors. This category is perhaps the all-time champion of the belief that form can save. There must be tens of thousands of behaviors that have been labelled good, holy, moral or ethical. The Law of Moses alone contains 613. This category, of course, is closely related to the rest of the ones we have been looking at. If we can simply get our body to perform virtuous behaviors, and keep it from performing immoral behaviors, if we can get our face to wear the right expression and our lips to say the right words, then we can find God.

Having special powers. Many paths esteem the value of gaining unusual powers. It is truly fascinating how many different powers can apparently be developed if one is willing to undergo the training: the ability to manifest heavenly odors, to levitate, to permanently go without food, to take one’s body apart—limb from limb—and reassemble it, to breathe fire. Yet how can these powers, in and of themselves, save you? All they do is move around forms.

Being able to manifest the right events. In many systems a major part of the salvation process is using mind power or prayer power to call into your life the right events, situations and people. In this view, manifesting houses and cars and good contacts will speed you to happiness and spiritual progress. And having the ability to do this is a major sign of spiritual progress.

Drawing one’s boundaries. A currently popular idea is that our suffering came from being a pleaser (or enabler or co-dependent) and as a result letting people walk all over us. Salvation, then, must come through being strong enough to not let this happen again. We must clearly draw our boundaries and make sure that no one trespasses on our territory. Through this exercise of strength and clarity, through this wise management of the other human bodies in our vicinity, we will find the release we seek.

Believing in particular historical events. Salvation through form is not merely confined to engaging in the right forms, it also includes believing in the right forms: believing that men did not evolve from apes, that Moses really parted the Red Sea, that Mary was a virgin when she had Jesus, that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Somehow—and don’t tell me how—just believing that in the past a certain collection of forms came together and moved around in a certain fashion can save us.

Understanding the form of the universe and spiritual reality. It not only helps to believe in the right historical events, it also helps to understand how the universe is put together. Knowing about the astral, subtle and causal levels, knowing about auras and etheric bodies, understanding reincarnation and how it works, having an awareness of Atlantis and Lemuria and the role of Arcturus—all of these, and countless other esoteric details, are often seen as crucial to salvation. And yet all of this is form. Moving forms around, believing in forms, understanding forms—what is the difference?

That is probably enough. I actually have other categories, and I am sure that most of you could think of categories that have not occurred to me. But I expect that you get the picture.

I also expect that some of the above categories are ones you used to believe in, and that some of them are ones you still may believe in. Therefore, it may be a challenge to read that, according to the Course, these things are not necessary to our salvation. I know I myself went through a long process of shedding my belief in the need for these things—especially certain ones. My first response was, “Well surely the Course is not really implying that we don’t need that.” I assumed that the Course assumed we would already know about the need for certain things, based on other teachings. Yet as I slowly loosened my grip on all those forms, I began to see my spiritual journey in a whole new light. And I became able to focus myself completely on the Course’s particular instructions for that journey.

So what exactly am I trying to say about all of these ways of seeing salvation in form? To begin with, I am not saying that these forms are bad. If, according to the Course, there is no salvation in form, then there is no damnation in form, either. The Course, therefore, is not implying that you should quit church, give up yoga or renounce alfalfa sprouts. To think that salvation lies in avoiding certain forms is the same as thinking that it lies in espousing them.

Furthermore, I don’t think the Course is saying that the entire world should stop using such means as part of the pursuit of salvation. For all of the above categories are integral parts of various spiritual paths. If your path says that you must sit in a particular posture or breathe in a particular way, I would caution against naively going against that. A spiritual path, especially one of the higher ones, is a package in which all the parts fit together into a coherent whole, a package that originated with a highly advanced being, a package that has been tested and refined over many years, often centuries. Picking and choosing which aspects you like and which you don’t might just make the whole apparatus stop working.

Yet the whole picture changes if your path is A Course in Miracles. For if it is, then honesty would ask you to admit that these forms are not a part of its package. Not once does the Course ask us to engage in any of the forms I have mentioned. Not once.

Indeed, the Course has a term for any and all practices in which we manipulate form in order to gain salvation. That word is “magic.” Most magic comes in our attempts to find conventional happiness through manipulating conventional forms. Yet this in essence is the exact same idea as seeking spiritual salvation through manipulating “spiritual” forms. That, too, is magic.

Think about what “magic” normally means. Let’s take the example of a voodoo doll. By the normal laws of the universe, the voodoo doll has no power over the person it symbolizes. There is no reason to think that sticking a pin in the voodoo doll would cause pain to that person. Yet, according to the laws of magic, the doll does have power over the person; it can make him feel things. How? Well, magically, of course. Magical thinking is easy to see in children, who believe that, for instance, stepping on a crack in the sidewalk can break their mother’s back, even though it is very hard to see how the cracks have any power over the backs. Magic, then, occurs when A has no power over B according to normal laws, yet when A is supposedly endowed with a magical power, which allows it to magically exert influence over B.

Perhaps you can see where I am going with this. A and B are, respectively, form and mind. According to the true laws of the universe, form has no power over mind; has no power at all. The truth is that mind has power over form. Mind is cause and form is illusory effect. Thus, form can exert no real influence over mind. In short, manipulation of forms cannot bring salvation to the mind. To believe so is magical thinking. Thinking that sitting in a certain posture can save your mind is like thinking that impaling a voodoo doll can hurt the person it represents. Believing that eating the right foods can save your mind is like believing that stepping on a crack can break your mother’s back. All of the form-based practices we discussed above are really just different kinds of “spells,” which you hope will magically save your mind. Yet they cannot. Form has no power over mind. And therefore magic is not real.

[Magic] can have no effects; neither good nor bad, neither rewarding nor demanding sacrifice, healing nor destructive, quieting nor fearful. When all magic is recognized as merely nothing, the teacher of God has reached the most advanced state (M-16.9:4-5).

The Course, therefore, enjoins us to be ceaselessly on the lookout for all forms of magic and constantly step away from them. “All through his training, every day and every hour, and even every minute and second, must God’s teachers learn to recognize the forms of magic and perceive their meaninglessness” (M-16.11:9). The teaching of the Course is that no form can save us, no form can change our minds for us. It tells us quite plainly, “you cannot change your mind by changing your behavior” (T-4.IV.2:1). It may seem that we can heal our minds through some physical form, through good deeds, breathing, crystals, raw foods, etc. Yet the Course claims that the only thing that heals our minds is our own decision to be healed; the only thing that heals our minds are our minds.

What, then, do we make of experiences we have had, in which we have actually received mental healing after using certain forms? The Course has a clear answer for this. We can explain these experiences in the exact same way the Course explains modern medicine’s apparent power to heal a patient:

Special agents seem to be ministering to him, yet they but give form to his own choice. He chooses them in order to bring tangible form to his desires. And it is this they do, and nothing else. They are not actually needed at all. The patient could merely rise up without their aid and say, “I have no use for this” (M-5.II.2:8-12).

In other words, it was not the form that healed you; it was your mind’s intent behind the form. The form was simply a tangible symbol of what really healed you: your inner willingness to be healed.

All of this drops into our laps a very real issue. Most of us have gotten to the Course through a somewhat lengthy route, one that took us through many paths and teachings. Perhaps we stopped for a while in India, or Tibet, or China, or Jerusalem, or Rome. Along the way we have probably picked up many form-based practices which we brought with us to the Course. What do we do with these now? What do we do with our organic foods, our crystals and vortexes, our Hatha yoga or Tai Chi, our rosary beads and sacred objects?

I believe there is a very simple answer: Do them or don’t do them, but don’t see them as spiritual, as part of salvation. At best see them as outer symbols of your inner intent. And remember that symbols mean nothing in themselves and have no power to save you. For the sake of clarity let’s explore the example of diet. If you want to keep your special dietary regimen (assuming you have one), which you associated before with being spiritual, I would suggest the following things.

First, do not see it as spiritual. See that there is absolutely nothing holy about food, or about you eating that food, for food is an illusion. Realize it is just a form, a totally neutral form, and so it cannot change your mind for you. Realize that your mind can as easily use your special diet for the sake of your ego as it can for anything else.

Then realize that what saves you is not the food but your thoughts about it. Specifically, the Course says that what saves you is not the form but the purpose you assign to the form. So the real question is, why are you using that form, why are you eating those special foods? What is your purpose? If you are doing it to set yourself apart from all the unholy people out there, you will reinforce your ego, because your purpose is of the ego. If you are doing it to protect yourself from all the insidious threats concealed in other foods, you will also reinforce your ego, because your purpose is based on fear of external threat, and fear is the ego. If, however, you are doing it merely to give your body high quality fuel, so that you can better use your body to extend love to your brothers, you will rise above the ego; again not because of the food, but because of your purpose for eating it.

So I suggest we first decide that all of the old forms that we thought made us spiritual are not actually spiritual at all, but merely neutral. And then we can do the really important thing. We can pour all of the energy we have for the spiritual journey into the one thing that does save us. The Course has stripped away scores of things that humanity has traditionally assumed bring us salvation. Having cleared those away, it has then placed all of its focus on one single thing, the one thing it believes will truly save us.

So what is this one thing? It is not a change in form, but a change in content. The dictionary defines “content” as “essential meaning.” So a change in content means a change in the essential meaning we see in things. Do we see a person as sinful or holy? Do we see a certain deed as an attack or a call for love? Do we see a situation as fearful or as an opportunity to give? Do we see the present moment mired in past regret and future worry, or as a holy instant borrowed from eternity? What meaning do we see in things? A change in content, therefore, means a change in how we see things, a shift in perception.

That’s it. That is the whole Course. And that, according to the Course, is the whole spiritual journey. The healing of perception is what salvation is. What is saved is the mind, and the mind is saved through a change of mind, a change in how it sees things. Therefore, to arrive safely home in God’s Arms we need merely change the root perception which governs our entire experience of life, the perception that we are separate, deficient body-minds under the attack of a sinful world. To have this shift in perception we need no complicated paraphernalia, no special vortexes nor holy temples, no natural fibers nor aromatic oils, no special postures nor sacred rituals, no complex pictures of the universe to understand nor miraculous historical events to believe in. We can take our minds off these things and devote ourselves to the one thing that will do it: the willingness to see things differently.

The absence of any form-based practices is not merely an oversight in the Course. It is one of the defining characteristics of the Course. It is one of the things that makes it what it is. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, this feature is very striking. Yet perhaps “striking” is the wrong word. For many of us, “disturbing” might actually be closer to the mark. For the Course can easily seem too one-pointed, too stripped of traditional forms. Who of us has not wondered if perhaps the Course is lacking some essential ingredients? Who of us, upon reading that we will find complete salvation merely by repeating some simple Workbook phrase, has not suspected we are the target of some cosmic joke? Who of us has not suspected that the Course by itself is insufficient?

Yet maybe, just maybe, it is sufficient. Maybe a shift in our perception is the one thing that will solve all our problems. Maybe in looking back we will find that our greatest breakthroughs were in fact pure internal shifts in the way we saw things. Maybe, then, the Course’s program of retraining our perception will succeed where other programs have not. How can we really know until we give it our all, until we stop hedging our bets and focus all of our attention on the Course’s way?

And perhaps, just perhaps, we resist the idea that perceptual change alone will do it for a different reason than we think. Perhaps we resist it not because we sense it is not enough, but because we sense it is too much. Not too much for the goal of salvation, but too much for us. The last thing any of us really wants to do is transform our emotional outlook on the people who have supposedly wronged us for years. The last thing we want to do is change our fundamental perception of self, others, the world and God. So perhaps in our spiritual journey we have tried to strike a bargain with God. In this bargain we have told Him that, in order to awaken to Him, we will do anything—from strenuous diets to expensive pilgrimages to exacting rituals to demanding lifestyles—anything, that is, except one thing: change our minds about life, the universe and everything.

I suspect, however, that this bargain has not really worked. Despite our best efforts we have not yet awakened to God. We are probably not even as far along as we expected to be at this point. We are probably still wrestling with the same discouraging patterns we struggled with twenty years ago. Seeing this, seeing that our efforts have not yielded what we hoped, perhaps it is time to clear aside all our other means and give that one thing a shot.

So do we lay aside our amulets, our charms and medicines, our chants and bits of magic in whatever form they take. …With nothing in our hands to which we cling, with lifted hearts and listening minds we pray: “Only salvation can be said to cure. Speak to us, Father, that we may be healed” (W-pI.140.10:1,12:1-3).


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