by Roger Walsh, M.D., Ph.D.
A Course in Miracles — what a curious name! But if ever there was an occasion not to judge a book by its cover, this may be it. For despite its curious title and origins, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, from all around the world are studying the Course, and finding it more than a match, not only for their intellect, but also for their deepest spiritual longings. Many notable thinkers–including Glen Olds, the former president of Kent State University, Willis Harman, former professor of Engineering at Stanford University, and Ken Wilber, one of the world’s foremost philosophers and scholars of religion—have described the Course in extremely positive terms, and compared it favorably with the world’s great contemplative traditions.
So what then is A Course In Miracles? From one perspective it is simply a set of curiously titled books. From another, it is a spiritual discipline comprising a systematic thought system and set of practices that claims to offer an effective and sufficient path to awakening.
This is obviously quite a claim! In fact it may be one of the most remarkable claims one can make: to claim to provide a discipline capable of guiding practitioners to the ultimate goal of life and of the world’s great religions: the goal of enlightenment, liberation, moksha, wu, fana, ruah-qodesh, atonement, satori or salvation.
Assessing the Course
This raises an obvious question: how can we assess this claim? The easiest approach would be to simply ask practitioners. However, this is hardly a valid or reliable method. After all, a glance at any newspaper or history book makes painfully clear that there is hardly any philosophical foolishness or spiritual stupidity which does not appeal to some people, and sometimes to large numbers of people.
So how can we accurately assess the Course’s value and validity, authenticity and effectiveness, legitimacy and liabilities? These are questions that will probably consume practitioners, scholars and researchers for decades. But what about those of us who would like some answers, even if only preliminary and provisional, right now?
One approach is to compare the Course’s practices and thought system to those of the time honored great spiritual traditions, and especially to their common core of practices and wisdom. For example, looking at the Course’s practices, we might ask, “to what extent do they contain the central and essential practices common to the world’s great spiritual traditions?”
There seem to be seven practices that each of the world’s great religious traditions assume to be central and essential for anyone who would awaken to their true nature and highest potential.1 These practices are:
- Redirecting motivation away from egocentric material cravings towards altruistic, transpersonal and transcendent goals.
- Transforming emotions. This includes two components: reducing painful, destructive emotions such as fear, hatred and jealousy; while cultivating positive, beneficial emotions such as love, compassion and joy.
- Fostering an ethical lifestyle.
- Calming and concentrating the mind.
- Refining awareness and developing sacred vision.
- Cultivating wisdom.
- Practicing service and generosity.
One simple measure of a tradition may therefore be suggested by the number of these practices that it contains. For example, in its initial form Confucianism offered a wonderful teaching emphasizing ethics, wisdom and service. However, it lacked other practices, such as for concentrating and calming the mind, and therefore constituted an extremely valuable way of life, but not yet a fully effective spiritual discipline. Centuries later, when it merged with Taoism and Buddhism to create neoConfucianism, a full and authentic spiritual tradition of enormous value and influence was created.
How then does A Course In Miracles measure up on these seven practices? In short, it seems to embody them all:
- It places great emphasis on motivation. In fact, it states that a teacher’s first and foremost challenge is to inspire a redirection of motivation. It certainly emphasizes the importance of reducing both egocentric craving and aversion, and of redirecting desires away from the “toys and trinkets of the world” to healthier spiritual goals. And it suggests we do this for both our own benefit and in order to benefit others.
- Emotional transformation lies at the heart of the Course. It offers devastating critiques of the dangers lurking in emotions such as fear, guilt and anger, offers multiple exercises for releasing them, and also contains a wealth of exercises for the cultivation of love, joy and compassion.
- It also scores well on the ethical dimension. It emphasizes that all behavior, and even all thought, is to be directed away from egocentricity and attack, and towards loving and serving one’s neighbor as one’s Self. Certainly the Course would agree with the claim that “The foundation… of all authentic spirituality is a universal ethics.”2
- The Course recognizes the importance of cultivating concentration and calm. It paints a painful portrayal of our usual agitated state of mind and suggests that “a quiet mind is not a little gift.” One of its central goals is the realization of “the peace of God,” which according to both St. Paul and the Course, “surpasses understanding.”3 One of its central, and for some people most evocative, lessons states “I want the peace of God.”
- The Course certainly emphasizes the importance of refining perception. In fact, it suggests that this refinement can be carried to remarkable degrees, in which we and others are seen as Christ and the children of God, and the world is recognized as a school house for our awakening. The Course describes this transcendental vision as “seeing with the eyes of Christ” or as “vision,” and this vision has obvious analogies to Plato’s “eye of the soul,” Taoism’s “eye of the Tao,” Sufism’s “eye of the heart,” and Tibetan Buddhism’s “pure perception.”4, 1
- “Get wisdom, get insight, do not forget” urges the Jewish Torah (Proverbs, 4:5). We can define wisdom as deep understanding of, and practical skill in responding to, the central existential challenges of life. Certainly the Course aims very explicitly at fostering wisdom, and it explores all the major existential challenges, such as meaning and purpose, sickness and suffering, aloneness and death.
- The final, and in some ways culminating component of the seven practices is fostering service and generosity. “The best people among you,” taught Mohammad, “are the ones who are benefactors to others.”5 This is clearly one of the Course’s strong points. It emphasizes repeatedly that spiritual practices are not done for ourselves alone, because actually we are not alone, or even separate. In fact, to try to do the Course exclusively for our own benefit is to buy into and strengthen the illusion of separateness. Rather, the Course emphasizes that service is both a means to, and an expression of, awakening and recognizing our true identity. In fact it goes even further to recommend that we explicitly aim to practice and awaken for the benefit of all. Students of comparative religion will recognize this as a contemporary restatement of the Buddhist Bodhisattva ideal. This may well be the highest ideal the human mind has ever conceived. For what goal, what aspiration could be more altruistic, more encompassing, and more sublime than to aim to actualize and awaken ourselves in order to optimally serve the awakening, and wellbeing of all?
While the Course shares this Bodhisattva ideal with Buddhism it also offers unique perspectives and practices for realizing it. Specifically, its primary focus is on healing and optimizing our relationships, with the goal of truly loving others as our Self. This emphasis on transforming our peer relationships, and the many practices it offers for doing this, are unmatched by any other spiritual tradition, and are probably a large factor in its wide appeal.
It recommends first looking unflinchingly at them and the amount of suffering they engender, a recommendation that any good therapist might offer. But it then goes on to make a second specifically spiritual recommendation. It suggests that the optimal strategy is to awaken from the ego-based identity which suffers to the transcendent Self which witnesses, but is not identified with or affected by, this suffering. Here, as in many places, the Course offers good psychology, but it also goes well beyond psychology.
So A Course In Miracles seems to aim for the highest spiritual goals and to include all seven of the central and essential practices for reaching them. However this raises further questions: how effective is it in helping people realize these goals? How many people does it speak to, and how quickly and completely does it transform them? And how does it compare to other spiritual traditions on these measures? As yet we have no firm data and nothing beyond testimonies to answer these crucial questions. Here is a fertile field for future researchers.
How Sophisticated is A Course In Miracles?
Looking through the religion and spirituality section of any bookstore can be a disquieting experience. So many popular books offer simplistic thought systems, disciplines that include no discipline, and precious little in the way of authentic practices. Superficiality sells.
Is this also true of A Course In Miracles? Could this be why it is so remarkably popular? Here the answer seems clear, and it is a firm “No.” No, the practices it offers are far from minimal. In fact, as described earlier, they are systematic, rigorous, and include all seven of the central practices.
And no, the Course’s thought system is anything but superficial. In content it is a restatement of the perennial philosophy, or what we might call the sophia commonalis—the common core of wisdom and philosophy at the heart of the world’s great religions. In addition it also offers a version of what Ken Wilber calls the “psychologia perennis”– the common contemplative understanding of the nature and workings of mind.6
Not only does the Course offer a version of the perennial philosophy and perennial psychology, but it offers a highly sophisticated version at that.
However, we can take the Course’s discussion of forgiveness as a useful example, since forgiveness is probably the practice that the Course most emphasizes. Having now devoted some 30 years to researching the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, I can say that I have found nothing that matches the sophistication of the Course’s analysis of the value of, and mechanisms underlying, forgiveness. Each tradition has its own strengths, and one such strength for the Course is its sophisticated understanding of, and many practices for fostering, forgiveness.
Dangers, Traps and Cults
One potentially painful question that must be asked of any spiritual tradition is, “to what extent it is liable to misuse?” After all, there is no ideal so high, no tradition so venerable, no text so transcendent, that it cannot be misused by somebody.7 What is the likelihood of the Course being misused? For example, is the Course a cult, or could it become one?
To answer this question we must first look at exactly what a cult is. A cult is a membership organization with a hierarchical, authoritarian power structure, which places authority outside the individual in the leader or authorities. It usually sees its members as uniquely special and superior to other people. It enforces rigid adherence to its belief system and behavioral norms, limits any questioning of these beliefs and norms, and often limits access to dissenting opinions and beliefs. Finally, it is easy to get into and hard to get out of.
A Course In Miracles is almost the exact opposite. There is no organization to join, and no hierarchy of power. There is no outside authority to obey; in fact, it suggests that the highest authority lies within us. There are no limitations on questions or access to other views, no methods of enforcement, and it sees all people—Course practitioners and others—as equal children of God. Finally, it is supremely easy to get out of; all one has to do is close the book. Anyone who believes that A Course In Miracles is a cult probably knows little about either the Course or cults, or both.
This is not to say that the Course could never be misused by cultic groups, but it is to say that there is little in the Course itself which supports such misuse. Likewise, the Course appears to score well on more formal measures of health and pathology in spiritual traditions such as the Anthony Typology or Ken Wilber’s spectrum model.8 As such, the Course seems to be a refreshingly safe and low risk path.
Surveying all these issues what conclusions can we reach? In A Course In Miracles we have a new spiritual discipline that uses Christian language to express the perennial philosophy, the perennial psychology, and the perennial practices in a surprisingly systematic, sophisticated and compelling way. It speaks to large numbers of people, yet certainly not by watering down either its message or its practices. In fact, it offers both a highly sophisticated thought system and an eminently practical set of exercises. You may not agree with A Course In Miracles and you may not decide that it is your path. However, the weight of evidence suggests that it is a most impressive document and an effective path that warrants serious attention by practitioners and scholars, and that the many people around the world who practice it are probably benefiting both themselves and others.
Roger Walsh, M.D., Ph.D. graduated from Australia’s Queensland University with degrees in psychology, physiology, neuroscience, and medicine, and then came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar. He is now at the University of California at Irvine where he is professor of psychiatry, philosophy, and anthropology, as well as a professor in the religious studies program.
1.Walsh, R. (1999) Essential spirituality: The seven central practices to awaken heart and mind. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
2.Feuerstein, G. (1989). Yoga: The technology of ecstasy. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.
3.St. Paul, Philipians: 4:37, Bible, Revised Standard Version
4.Smith, H. (1993). Educating the intellect: On opening the eye of the heart. In L. Rouner (ed). On Education. University of Notre Dame Press.
5.Angha, N. (1995). Deliverance: Words from the Prophet Mohammad. San Rafael, CA.: International Association of Sufism Publications.
6.Wilber, K. (2000). The spectrum of consciousness. The complete works of Ken Wilber, Vol. I. Boston: Shambhala.
7.Trungpa, Chogyam. (1975). Cutting through spiritual materialism. Boston: Shambhala
8.Anthony, D.,Ecker, B. & Wilber, K. (Eds.). (1987). Spiritual choices:The problem of recognizing authentic paths for transformation New York: Paragon.