What It Says: From the Preface of A Course in Miracles

The What It Says section in the Course’s Preface is an extremely important summary of the Course’s themes. Ken Wapnick, in Absence from Felicity, describes its origin:

In 1977, in response to many requests for a brief introduction to A Course in Miracles, Helen wrote/scribed a three-part pamphlet entitled:A Course in Miracles: How It Came, What It Is, What It Says. The first two parts, Helen wrote herself, the final part -What It Says-was scribed from Jesus.

This means that Jesus dictated this piece after the Course was published, for the express purpose of providing a summary of its teaching to its readers. It is therefore the only piece we have of this nature. I have virtually ignored this piece for years, but having studied it more closely, I realize now that it is a masterful summary of the Course’s teaching. Two things, in particular, strike me:

  • The themes that Jesus chooses to treat can tell us what themes he considers most important
  • The way he characterizes those themes can tell us how he sees those particular themes

Before we embark on examining this section, let’s reflect for a moment on our own understanding of what the Course says, our own view of the big picture. What are the Course’s key ideas as we see them?

After reflecting on that, let’s be willing to compare our view of the big picture with Jesus’ view. This is not to say that if we don’t find one of our key ideas in this section, we should automatically discard it as being a key Course idea. But it is to say that we should be willing to make the comparison and then, after doing so, decide what to do about any discrepancy we find between our picture and his presentation.

Paragraph 1: Knowledge

The beginning of the Course and the beginning point of its thought system are one and the same:

Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists.
Herein lies the peace of God.

The whole Course is founded on the fundamental distinction between knowledge and perception. Knowledge, as the Course uses the term, refers to the state of directly knowing reality, a state in which there is no distinction between subject and object; the subject knows the object so directly, so purely and intimately, that all separation between subject and object disappears. Subject and object are one.

This first paragraph uses a number of descriptive words to describe knowledge. Can you think of any descriptive words that summarize the list he gives?

terms used to describe knowledge possible summary terms


under one law





beyond learning, time, process

no opposite, beginning, end




unconditional-not contingent



Is there anything like this in our experience here?

Paragraph 2: Perception

Perception is the complete opposite of knowledge. In the state of perception, a subject is always trying to know an object that is outside of it, through the mediation of the senses. Since the object is outside, the subject can never be sure of what the object is. Rather than knowing the object in and of itself, the subject only encounters its own shifting interpretations of the object. Again, a number of descriptive terms are used to describe perception. What terms can you think of that summarize the terms he’s used here?

terms used to describe perception possible summary terms


beginnings, endings


birth, death





selective attention

unstable functioning

inaccurately interpreted



changing, unstable




Looking at the two lists we’ve made, the overriding impression I get is that the world of perception rests on the shifting interpretations of the individual subject-like a massive inverted pyramid resting on the back of a tiny scurrying insect. Therefore, this world is uncertain and unstable. The realm of knowledge, on the other hand, simply is what it is, irrespective of the individual subject.

Paragraph 3: Perception vs. knowledge

He says that knowledge and perception each give rise to their own distinct thought system. Each system is a picture of God in relationship with His creations and those creations in relationship with each other. That is what the two pictures have in common. But how do they differ? Hint: It has something to do with wills.

Their difference lies in harmony vs. conflict. In the realm of perception, our wills seem painfully out of accord with God’s. We have the sense all day long that we are making choices that are not exactly what God would have us choose. We are choosing for the little self as opposed to the whole. Further, our wills are clearly in conflict with the wills of those around us. Interpersonal discord is simply the way of things down here. Knowledge, on the other hand, is a realm in which all wills are in perfect harmony and unity. In this realm, our will is in perfect accord with God’s-we no longer feel the anxiety of choosing out of accord with God-and in perfect harmony with our brothers’ wills-we no longer experience interpersonal conflict and discord. Can we even imagine such a state?

The latter part of the paragraph is a fascinating discussion of our perception of the world we see. Question: Why does the world we see appear to be so real? Answer: Simply because we want it to be real. The way perception works is that “it permits into awareness only what conforms to the wishes of the perceiver.” So look around the room and let your glance fall on one object after another, and with each one tell yourself,

That ______ seems real only because I want it to be real.

That is why I am allowing myself to see it.

Now close your eyes and think of things that upset you today. In relation to each one that comes to mind, tell yourself:

That ______ seemed real only because I wanted it to be real.

That is why I allowed myself to see it.

This whole process, however, assumes that, deep down, we realize that what we are seeing is not real. That is why, as the last sentence of the paragraph says, we have to defend our illusions so continually, because we recognize that they are illusions. This is very similar to a discussion in Lesson 151 which says that we act so certain about the reality of the world our senses show us only because we carry underlying doubt. We are like an uninformed, bigoted person, who puts on a show of certainty about his opinions because of his hidden lack of confidence in them. Our certainty about this world is the same thing. It is a show of certainty adopted to defend against our underlying uncertainty. Somewhere deep down we recognize that we are seeing only what we want to see.

This is the whole problem with perception. Above, I said that “the world of perception rests on the shifting interpretations of the individual subject.” That is the same thing we are seeing here. The world perception sees rests on the subjective insides of the individual subject. He doesn’t see reality as it is, he sees reality as he interprets it to be, as he wants it to be. That is the problem with perception.

Paragraph 4: The Holy Spirit

Have you ever wondered why we need the Holy Spirit? I’ve pondered this question for years. This paragraph gives a fascinating answer. It’s right there in the second sentence. Based on that sentence, why do we need the Holy Spirit?

I have used the image of a cult compound to explain the same idea. In a cult compound, everything the cult members see and hear is carefully designed to reinforce the weird beliefs of the cult. They simply don’t have access to information that would contradict the cult’s fundamental convictions. That is why they find it so hard to leave. That is why they need deprogrammers to step in and face them with that contrary evidence they have been shielded from. That is our situation in this world. Everything we see reinforces the fundamental beliefs of our ego. That is why our progress on the path is so slow. The whole system is self-reinforcing. We are caught in a closed loop. The Holy Spirit is the deprogrammer we so desperately need. Only He can see both what is going on in our cult compound and see the light of reality. He, therefore, has access to all that evidence that we have excluded-the evidence being reality itself. That is why this paragraph calls Him “the only Way out.”

Paragraph 5: Forgiveness

The previous paragraph ended with the comment that “the Course has its own definition of what forgiveness really is.” We really should treat this whole paragraph as that definition. To appreciate the paragraph, we really have to understand how we normally see forgiveness: We believe that we are seeing objective reality and that in this reality, the other guy is objectively a sinner. In this view, when we forgive, we decide to overlook what is real (that he’s a sinner) for the sake of being “good” and “charitable.

“This paragraph offers a whole different perspective. To unlock this perspective, we have to pay special attention to a long sentence right in the middle of the paragraph:

We are using perception to justify our own mistakes-our anger, our impulses to attack, our lack of love in whatever form it may take-we will see a world of evil destruction, malice, envy and despair.

We need to carefully unpack this sentence. First, we need to boil down the first list: “our anger, our impulses to attack, our lack of love in whatever form it may take.” Is there a single word that summarizes this whole list? I think the word is attack. Second, in a similar fashion, we need to boil down the second list: “evil destruction, malice, envy and despair.” With the possible exception of “despair,” I think the second list also can be summarized in the word attack. This means the sentence reads like this:

If we are using perception to justify our own attack, we will see a world of attack.

Or, we can turn it around:

If we see a world of attack, that is only because we are using perception to justify our own attack.

Now we are in a position to understand this paragraph’s definition of forgiveness. The following three points will set up that definition:

    1. We see what we want to see. We see a world that “reflects our own internal frame of reference—the dominant ideas, wishes and emotions in our minds.” We do this by interpreting whatever we see so that it fits our frame of reference.
    2. As we saw in the previous paragraphs, the reason we see a world that reflects our internal frame of reference is that we want that frame of reference to receive the stamp of reality. We want our dominant ideas and wishes to be backed up by reality itself. So we simply see a “reality” that does that.
    3. This is why we see an unjust, attacking world, a world that evokes our resentment. We see it not because it is there, but because we want to see such a world. But why would we want to see a world that attacks us? The answer is in the middle of the paragraph. Do you see it?

This perspective can-and-should-rock our whole world. It means whenever we see attack, we are doing so only to justify ourown attack. To try this on for size, think of a few people whom you perceive attacking you and repeat:

I only see attack from [name] to justify my own attack.

This is the basis for forgiveness. Once we realize that the attacking sinner we see out there is not real, that what we are seeing is our own perceptual error, then we can let that perception go. And that is forgiveness as the Course defines it:

letting go of the perception that someone else sinned against us by realizing that that perception was our own projection, our own faulty interpretation.

And when we do that, we prove to ourselves that we aren’t the sinner we thought we were. That is how our forgiveness leads us to look “past our distorted self-concepts to the Self that God created in us and as us.”

Paragraph 6: Love

This paragraph doesn’t seem to hang together, but I think it does. We can summarize its flow of thought, both stated and implied, in this way:

  • Sin is a lack of love.
  • But there is no lack of love-“love is all there is.”
  • Therefore, there is no sin. It’s merely a mistake.
  • We think we are lacking inside; we believe in the scarcity principle.
  • Therefore, we “love” others in order to get from them, so we can fill the perceived lack in us.
  • But getting is alien to real love; “love is incapable of asking for anything.”
  • Our “love,” therefore, is a lack of love
  • Our “love” is sin.

Discussion: Can you see these beliefs in your own life:

  • that you feel lacking inside without someone there who loves you?
  • that “love” to you is about getting someone to fill your lack?
  • that your “love” therefore feels like a sin, like something to feel guilty about, because it tries to take from someone else?

Paragraph 7: Joining

This paragraph is about what joining is and what it isn’t.

Joining isn’t Joining is
Bodies simply being together Minds being joined
Personalities being together Joining at the level of the Christ Mind
The “little I” trying to get from another to enhance itself The true Self seeking to freely share and extend out of an awareness of inner abundance
Able to torn apart by forces in this world Not able to torn asunder by anything in this world

Discussion: Have you ever been frustrated in your attempt to join with another? Was it possible that you were really trying not to really join, but to get something from the other to fill yourself? Can you see how that is actually anti-joining?

Paragraph 8: Holy relationships

The term “holy relationship” isn’t used here, but the whole paragraph is clearly about that.The first sentence says that special relationships are “destructive, selfish and childishly egocentric.” What do those three terms have in common? I would say “harming another for the sake of the self.”

Discussion: What do we generally think of as the holiest things on earth? How easy is it to imagine a childishly egocentric special relationship transforming into the holiest thing on earth?Think of your primary relationship and ask yourself, “Does the following list describe what I think that relationship is for?”

  • A perfect lesson in forgiveness and awakening from the dream
  • An opportunity to let your perceptions be healed and your errors corrected
  • A chance to forgive yourself by forgiving the other
  • An invitation to the Holy Spirit and to the remembrance of God

Paragraph 9: The body

The main theme of this paragraph is that the body only “appears largely self-motivated and independent.” It speaks of this on two levels: first, the body’s behavior; second, the body’s condition.


How does our behavior seem motivated by the body? This may be hard to understand, but I think we believe that a lot of what we do, especially the things we regret, is motivated by body chemistry-by our hunger drive, sex drive, our fight-or-flight response, or various other instincts and reflexes. Before we know it, feelings and sensations surge through our body, triggering pre-programmed behaviors. We may not say “the devil made me do it,” but we do say “my body made me do it.” We see the body making us do base and sinful things. The Course is saying that that isn’t what happens. The mind decides to use the body to attack others.


The body’s behavior leads to the second level: the body’s condition. According to this paragraph, the body’s health is determined by its use. If we use it for attack, it breaks down. “It becomes prey to sickness, age, and decay.” If we use it to extend love, it actually functions better, being genuinely invulnerable to sickness, age, and decay.

Discussion: Do we actually believe that if we use our body’s purely to extend love, we would become invulnerable to “sickness, age and decay”

Paragraph 10: Listening to God’s Voice

We see and hear through our body’s eyes and ears, but we could see and hear in a whole different way. We could see with Christ’s vision and hear God’s Voice, the Holy Spirit. This paragraph introduces both but mainly focuses on listening to God’s Voice. It says what the Course itself repeats many times, that God’s Voice is actually extremely loud, clear, and appealing. It only seems to be a “still small voice,” because the ego “seems to be much louder.” In other words, the loudness of the ego is drowning out the Holy Spirit. Yet the ego is not actually loud. We are simply listening to it with an extreme intensity of focus. It’s as if we are sitting in a concert hall and the symphony of the Holy Spirit is sounding around us, but then our cell phone rings, and it’s a call we’ve been eagerly waiting for. The voice on the phone is much quieter than the volume of the symphony, but we really want to hear that voice. So we put the phone to our ear, we plug the other ear, and we give our entire concentration to tuning into the voice and tuning out the symphony. We’ve been doing that for so many millions of years that the symphony actually sounds quiet to us, even silent, and the voice on the cell phone fills our mind. It is all we can hear.

Discussion: Have you ever said that you ask and ask for guidance, but you don’t hear anything? How does it feel to explain this by applying the symphony/cell phone metaphor to yourself?

Paragraph 11: Christ’s vision

The section has spoken of hearing God’s Voice and seeing with Christ’s vision, but of the two, it clearly wants to emphasize Christ’s vision. This paragraph tells us that Christ’s vision is the reversal of the belief in separation, sin, guilt, and death. It corrects all perceptual errors. It resolves all opposites. It reflects knowledge and therefore leads to knowledge.

This tells us how central Christ’s vision is, but, unfortunately, does not tell us what Christ’s vision is. I would define it as an inward recognition of the holiness in all things. It is that inner recognition that someone is holy in spite of outer appearances to the contrary.

The sentences in the latter part of the paragraph does tell us how we see others when we are looking with Christ’s vision. Let’s look at those sentences.

“What was regarded as injustices done to one by someone else, now becomes a call for help and for union.”Who is calling for help and union?

Sin, sickness and attack are seen as misperceptions calling for remedy through gentleness and love.” Whose sin, sickness and attack? Calling for remedy from whom?

Defenses are laid down because where there is no attack there is no need for them.” Whose defenses are laid down? Whose attack has been laid down?

Our brothers’ needs become our own, because they are taking the journey with us as we go to God.” What, in light of the previous sentences, do our brothers need?

“Without us they would lose their way.”

“Without them we could never find our own.”

If we boil all this down, here is how we see things when we look with Christ’s vision:

  • When someone attacks us, we do not defend ourselves or retaliate; we do not attend to our own need in the situation
  • This is because we see them not as sinning, but as having a sickness that needs to be healed
  • We see them as calling for our help, for only our love can heal their sickness
  • We see them in need, and we realize that meeting their need is how our own need will be met; that keeping them from losing their way is how we will find our own

To boil it down further: “When you attack me, you are the one in need, not me. Let me attend to your need, and that is how mine will be met.” This is such a beautiful perception. Imagine applying it to someone in your life, someone you see as attacking you. Please choose someone who you have perceived as attacking you recently. Focus on that person and repeat these lines to yourself:

In this situation, I don’t need to defend myself or retaliate; I don’t need to attend to my own need here.

I don’t see [name] as sinning, but as experiencing a lack of sanity that needs to be remedied.

I see [name] as calling for my help, for only my love can remedy his/her lack.

I see [name] in need, and I realize that meeting his/her need is how my own need will be met.

Keeping [name] from losing his/her way is how I will find my own.

Paragraphs 12-13: Heaven and forgiveness

Heaven is our original state and is our reality even now. We haven’t done anything to change it, which is why we don’t need forgiveness in Heaven. Nothing has been defiled. What is there to forgive? However, in this world, we need forgiveness. It is how we will remember. Why? Forgiveness wipes away sins, and only by feeling that our sins have been cleaned off the slate can we awaken to the fact that the slate is forever clean, that it was never dirtied in the first place.

These two paragraphs state over and over that only by giving forgiveness will we receive it. They state this in several different ways:

To offer forgiveness is the only way for us to have it, for it reflects the law of Heaven that “giving and receiving are the same.”

This has been said twice before in this section. In paragraph 5 we were told that when we are forgiving others by letting go of our perceptual errors, “at the same time, we are forgiving ourselves.” In paragraph 8, we were told that each holy relationship “is another chance to forgive oneself by forgiving the other.” Somehow, within the act of forgiving another is contained the forgiveness of oneself.

The forgiven world becomes the gate of Heaven because by its [the forgiven world’s] mercy we can, at last, forgive ourselves.

We see the world as forgiven, as sinless. A sinless world would obviously be full of mercy. And we see that mercy shining on us. In the glow of that mercy shining on us from the world, we can, at last, forgive ourselves.

Holding no one prisoner to guilt, we become free.

The sentence ends with an implied “we become free of guilt” Holding another prisoner to guilt obviously engenders guilt on our part. What would it feel like to hold no one prisoner to guilt? Imagine releasing all those inmates who are sitting in your mind, unlock the cell door for each one.

Acknowledging Christ in all our brothers, we recognize His Presence in ourselves.

If you acknowledged Christ in every single brother, how could you not believe He is in you?

Commentary: The metaphysical vs. the ethical

I find two things interesting about this summary.

First, there is very little Course metaphysics in here. There is no mention of the separation, only passing mention of God and Christ, and little mention of the unreality of the world. In terms of the world, the emphasis here is more that the world we see is illusory because we are interpreting it wrongly-and less that the world itself is ontologically unreal (although the Course does teach that).

Second, instead of the metaphysical dimension, there is a strong focus on the ethical dimension. There is an emphasis on the more down-to-earth, practical issue of how we see and treat other people. In particular, there is a tremendous focus on the core issue of how selfish and attacking we are vs. how loving and helpful we can be. The following table will illustrate this:

In the ego state we attack othersperceptually and behaviorallyfor the sake of the self In the healed state we bless and join with others, even when they attack us; that is how we find forgiveness for ourselves
Perception as a realm in which our will makes perpetual war on other wills and on God (paragraph 3) When we forgive others, at the same time, we are forgiving ourselves (paragraph 5)
We see an attacking world simply to justify our own anger, attack, and lack of love (5) We join with others by coming from the Christ in us, Which wants only to love, share, extend and join out of its abundance, rather than get out of sense of need (7)
We try to get from others in order to fill a lack in ourselves; this is what we call “love” (6) Our joining with another can become the holiest thing on earth, can become a perfect lesson in forgiveness, healing, and awakening (8)
We try to enhance our little self by getting external love and approval and things; this is how we see joining (7) Our holy relationships are a chance to forgive ourselves by forgiving another (8)
Special relationships are based on the attempt to take advantage of the “loved” one for the sake of oneself, and to exclude all others (8) The body will be healthy if we use it as an instrument through which the Holy Spirit can communicate love to others (9)
The body’s sickness and decay come from using it to attack others (9) In Christ’s vision, we see injustices done to us as calls for help, union, gentleness, and love (11)
In Christ’s vision, we relinquish attack and thus have no need to defend ourselves (11)
In Christ’s vision, we treat our brother’s need as our own (11)
Offering forgiveness is the way that we have it, for giving and receiving are the same (12)
When we forgive, we see a world that shines mercy on us, allowing us to forgive ourselves (13)
When we stop holding people as prisoners to guilt, we become free (13)
When we acknowledge Christ in everyone, we see Him in ourselves (13)

If What It Says is indeed a snapshot of how Jesus saw the main currents in his teaching, then it tells us something crucial about the relationship between the metaphysical and ethical dimensions of the Course. It tells us, quite simply, that the metaphysical takes a back seat to the ethical. I think this is quite often reversed in the minds of Course students. The lofty truths about the world being a dream, about the separation, about everything being in my own mind, often eclipse the more down-to-earth truths about whether I am attacking or blessing my brother, about whether I am being selfish or generous. Indeed, those lofty truths often lead us to be attacking, or justify our callousness. Yet I believe that the Course intends those metaphysical ideas to merely serve that all-important ethical dimension. Their only purpose is to help us be more loving toward our brother. This section, in my mind, helps us keep those two dimensions in proper perspective.

A list of the major themes in this section

Try reading the following list and imagining that this is a list of the Course’s main themes:

  • Knowledge
  • Perception
  • Perception vs. knowledge
  • The Holy Spirit
  • Forgiveness
  • Love(special relationships)
  • Joining (special and holy relationships)
  • Holy Relationships
  • The Body (its behavior and its health)
  • Listening to God’s Voice
  • Christ’s vision(and helping our brothers)
  • Heaven and forgiveness

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