Volume 12 Number 3 September 2001
Dr. Kenneth Wapnick, Ph.D.
The Curriculum of “A Course in Miracles:”
Theory and Experience
I have frequently commented on the symphonic nature of the text’s writing, reflective of the process of learning that embraces both the study of the text as well as the practice of the workbook (see, e.g., my Glossary-Index for A Course in Miracles, p. 1(1)). The symbol of the ladder, found in both A Course in Miracles itself (T-28.II.12:7; T-28.III.1:2), as well as in its companion pamphlet The Song of Prayer (S-1), particularly reflects this concept of growth over time, rather than an instantaneous ascendance into Heaven—Fear not that you will be abruptly lifted up and hurled into reality (T-16.VI.8:1). A wonderfully succinct expression of this process of learning is found in workbook Lesson 284. The context is the teaching that suffering of any kind is “nothing but a dream,” and therefore, in the words of the lesson title, “I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt.” The passage makes it very clear that Jesus has no illusions that his students are going to accept this truth without considerable struggle and resistance, occurring, moreover, over an extensive period of time:
This is the truth, at first to be but said and then repeated many times; and next to be accepted as but partly true, with many reservations. Then to be considered seriously more and more, and finally accepted as the truth (W-pII.284.1:5-6; italics mine).
Experienced psychotherapists similarly have no illusions about their patients’ process of therapy over time; i.e., if they are to undergo meaningful change and be free of their unconscious conflicts.
An important passage in the text also expresses this need to proceed slowly, otherwise, as Jesus cautioned Helen and Bill at the beginning of the scribing, traumatic fear would ensue, rather than the awe-inspiring experience of the beatific to which he was gently leading them. Jesus here is discussing the ego’s fearful dream, which in our insanity we have made to be reality:
Nothing more fearful than an idle dream has terrified God’s Son, and made him think that he has lost his innocence, denied his Father, and made war upon himself. So fearful is the dream, so seeming real, he could not waken to reality without the sweat of terror and a scream of mortal fear, unless a gentler dream preceded his awaking, and allowed his calmer mind to welcome, not to fear, the Voice That calls with love to waken him; a gentler dream, in which his suffering was healed and where his brother was his friend (T-27.VII.13:3-4).
These gentle dreams of forgiveness are the “little steps” we are asked to take to God (W-pI.193.13:7), ensuring that the journey Home will be sure and safe, as much as possible free from the terror of imminent annihilation the ego promises will be our “reward” for betraying its teachings and following instead the Holy Spirit’s forgiving path of the Atonement.
Almost all students of A Course in Miracles have had the experience of needing several readings (at least!) of the text, in order to understand what it is saying. This is usually not an intellectual problem, but rather an expression of the fear of what exactly is being taught—the meaning behind the words.(2) The student’s mind, listening to the voice of the ego—the voice of guilt and fear—“sees” the words and says: “I do not want to see this.” A message then gets sent to the eyes, via the brain, not to see what is on the page. Or, the message is sent to the brain itself not to think about what is being read. Thus we find the common phenomenon that students reach the end of a paragraph or page (or perhaps even a section or chapter!) with absolutely no memory of what was previously “read.” The words were of course “read,” but not by the body’s eyes; the words were of course “thought about,” but not by the body’s brain. This phenomenon, therefore, is born of the fear of shifting identification from the physical-psychological self to the self that is the decision-making aspect of the mind, which will be discussed presently.
Very often, therefore, one can observe that this reluctance to truly study the text, expending the necessary time and effort to understand its thought system, not to mention its use of language is, on an unconscious level, an attempt to defend against one’s fear of what this thought system is really teaching. Why else would otherwise sincere students, embracing A Course in Miracles as their spiritual path, and Jesus as their teacher, ignore his explicit and specific instructions to study his teachings and pay attention to the structure of his curriculum? This situation is really no different from what occurred with Jesus’ teachings two thousand years ago, where his followers, by their very actions and practice, deliberately set themselves in opposition to what their own writings urged them to do: not to judge (e.g., Matthew 7:1-5; John 8:2-11).
This fear cannot be underestimated, for it is the core thought that underlies the ego thought system, not to mention the world it made as a principal defense against remembering God. If indeed this world—which, by the way, means the entire physical universe—is an illusion, one that was over long ago (T-28.I.1:6), and that in fact never existed at all except in our insane thoughts and dreams (W-pI.132.4-6; M-2.2:6-8), then that must also mean that we—the selves we think we are—were also “over long ago.” I have sometimes asked students during a workshop to consider for a moment what goes through their thinking when they read representative passages like the following:
Yet sights and sounds the body can perceive are meaningless. It cannot see nor hear. … Its eyes are blind; its ears are deaf. It can not think …(T-28.V.4:4-5,8-9).
You [i.e., the decision-making part of the mind] use its [the body’s] eyes to see, its ears to hear, and let it tell you what it is it feels. It does not know. It tells you but the names you gave to it to use, when you call forth the witnesses to its reality (T-27.VI.3:2-4).
Your idea of what seeing means is tied up with the body and its eyes and brain. … You also believe the body’s brain can think. If you but understood the nature of thought, you could but laugh at this insane idea. It is as if you thought you held the match that lights the sun and gives it all its warmth; or that you held the world within your hand, securely bound until you let it go. Yet this is no more foolish than to believe the body’s eyes can see; the brain can think (W-92.1:3; 2:1-4).
The ear translates; it does not hear. The eye reproduces; it does not see (P-2.VI.3:1-2).
If our eyes do not see, and our brains do not think, then what is it that is reading the words that tell us that the eyes do not see? And what is it that is thinking about the words that tell us that the brain does not think? How could an honest consideration of this not produce overwhelming anxiety and numbing fog in anyone still identified with the body, not to mention the personality that is integrated within it? And yet, how many serious students of A Course in Miracles actually “think” about passages like that. If “the world has never been at all” (W-pI.169.6:6), and obviously I am an inherent part of this world, then that statement must also mean that I—the physical and psychological self I call myself—have never been, either. The text explains how consciousness is the domain of the ego, and was indeed the first split introduced into the mind after the separation appeared to have happened (T-3.IV.2:1-2). This state of consciousness is synonymous with the split mind and exists beyond the body. Therefore, as thought, it survives our physical death. This can be a comforting idea as long as we can identify ourselves as thought, which is a major theme of A Course in Miracles. However, to the extent that we still cling to our physical identity we shall be fearful.
It thus becomes apparent why students would be so reluctant to read and study—let alone embrace!—the Course’s non-dualistic thought system. If truly understood and embraced, this thought system inevitably means the end of their existence, to state it again, as the self with which they have identified and called by their own name. This self, in the words of the manual for teachers, would “ultimately fade into the nothingness from which it came” (M-13.1:2). In other words, this self would die. Not reading, studying, or understanding the text then becomes nothing more or less than literal self-preservation, preventing our minds from making the choice that would truly save: “You think you are destroyed, but you are saved” (W-pI.93.4:4). That is why Jesus has these encouraging and important words near the end of Chapter 3:
Your Self is still in peace, even though your mind is in conflict. You have not yet gone back far enough, and that is why you become so fearful. As you approach the Beginning, you feel the fear of the destruction of your thought system upon you as if it were the fear of death. There is no death, but there is a belief in death (T-3.VII.5:8-11).
What would ensure against this fear arising is the careful and patient study of the text material, along with the development of an ongoing relationship with one’s own Inner Teacher, be it Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or any other symbolic figure that represents the non-ego part of our minds. The one-year practice of the workbook exercises is an essential part of the training of all students and would-be teachers of A Course in Miracles.(3) The humility required for such a period of study and practice is perhaps the most significant attribute required for all Course students, not to mention any spiritual aspirant pursuing the goal of inner peace. The struggle to understand the meaning of the words reflects the struggle to let go of our ego’s involvement in specialness and the investment in preserving our individual and separated existence.
It is noteworthy that in a field totally divorced from the Course in form, though its content in many aspects is remarkably alike, one can observe the occurrence of a similar phenomenon. The field is psychoanalysis, and the two titans of this twentieth century discipline—Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung—grappled with this issue, however unsuccessful in the long run their efforts may have been. It was clear to both men, despite their eventual theoretical, not to mention personal, irreconcilable differences, that the analysts who subsequently followed their theories very often became part of the very problems they were trying to undo. Thus was born the concept of the training analysis (it was actually Jung who first conceived of this practice), wherein psychoanalysts were required to undergo their own analysis to ensure that they were healed of their unconscious conflicts:
Medical psychotherapists are required to undergo a training analysis, in order to gain insight into their own unconscious psyche (Depth Psychology, 1954, Volume XVIII, p. 485).(4)
The following quotes from both men are illustrative of their shared belief about this problem, and can well serve all students of A Course in Miracles who feel “guided” to be teachers of its principles, yet unknowingly mislead others and themselves because they are not in touch with the aforementioned ego’s need to protect their existence from the “threat” of the Course’s teachings.
Freud here expresses his concern not only for the well-being of patients who might suffer from the unconscious projections of the un-analyzed analyst, but also for the possible negative implications for the development of psychoanalysis:
Anyone who has scorned to take the precaution of being analyzed himself will not merely be punished by being incapable of learning more than a certain amount from his patients, he will risk a more serious danger and one which may become a danger to others. He will easily fall into the temptation of projecting outwards some of the peculiarities of his own personality, which he has dimly perceived …; he will bring the psychoanalytic method into discredit, and lead the inexperienced astray (Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psychoanalysis, 1912, Vol. XII, p. 117).
He was no less pointed in his remarks on psychoanalytic quacks:
A quack is anyone who undertakes a treatment without possessing the knowledge and capacities necessary for it. … They very frequently practice analytic treatment without having learned it and without understanding it (The Question of Lay Analysis, 1926, Vol. XX, p. 230).
From Jung we also find these clear statements of how therapists must be attentive to their own “personal equation,” their “attitude”:
It must be admitted that probably in no other field of work is there so great a danger of the investigator’s falling a victim to his own subjective assumption. He of all people must remain more than ever conscious of his “personal equation” (Mysterium Coniunctionis, 1956, Vol. XIV, p. xvi).
The attitude of the psychotherapist is infinitely more important than the theories and methods of psychotherapy (Psychotherapists or the Clergy, 1932, Vol. XI, p. 346).
In conclusion, therefore, all students of A Course in Miracles should as much as possible attempt to be faithful to their responsibility as its students, and to follow their teacher’s guidance and recommendations: “Study these notes, and ask my help in learning and applying their teachings in your daily life.” Only by such faithful adherence to the teaching material of the total curriculum, as well as their own commitment to the undoing of the ego thought system, will students of A Course in Miracles find the peace they truly desire, and the “power to bring this peace to everyone who wanders in the world uncertain, lonely, and in constant fear” (T-31.VIII.7:1).
(1) . Glossary-Index for A Course in Miracles, Fifth Edition (New York: Foundation for A Course in Miracles®, 1999).
(2) . It is certainly true that A Course in Miracles’ language at times is inconsistent, and often symbolic and metaphoric, so much so that its words, when taken out of context, can be understood to mean the exact opposite of the Course’s teachings. Nonetheless, this poetic style should not be used by students as an excuse for not learning the curriculum. See Chapter Two in Few Choose to Listen for a full discussion of this aspect of the Course.
(3) . We refer here to the form of teaching the Course; all students of the Course are called to be teachers in content, though not necessarily the form, as the opening pages of the manual for teachers make very clear.
(4) . All references to Jung are taken from The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1970).