A Course in Miracles is a one-year, self-study curriculum that guides its students toward a personal, instinctive, and utilitarian spirituality by restoring their contact with what it calls the “Internal Teacher.” Published in 1976, the Course was written down over a period of seven years by research psychologist Helen Schucman of Columbia University, who claimed to hear a soundless voice giving her a compelling “inner dictation.” Schucman, who died in 1981, never claimed authorship of the Course. In a number of places, the Voice of the Course clearly identifies itself as the living consciousness of Jesus Christ.
As a psychological discipline, the Course encourages the growth and transformation of personality through the constant practice of forgiveness. As a spiritual training, it insists on a complete reversal of ordinary perception, urging acceptance of spirit as reality and the physical world as illusion. “This course,” says the Text introduction, “can therefore be summed up very simply in this way: Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God.”
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— D. Patrick Miller
“There is nothing to fear.”
A Course in Miracles
For about an hour I had maintained the professional distance that is the boon or bane of modern journalism, depending on how you look at it. Calling from Berkeley, I was interviewing Dean Halverson of International Students, Inc., an evangelical Christian organization in Colorado Springs. Halverson and I have both conducted exhaustive research into the spiritual document known as A Course in Miracles, although from significantly different viewpoints. I called Halverson for some background on his writing about the Course in recent years for the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, a Berkeley-based organization devoted to examining Eastern religions and new age spirituality from an evangelical Christian perspective.
While I acknowledged to Halverson at the outset that I was a serious student of the Course and was also researching it as a journalist, I was careful not to challenge his published interpretation of the purpose and true origins of the Course: that it is essentially an elaborate Satanic strategy of deception. My sole intent for the interview was to update Halverson’s two-year-old public statements, and my best tool seemed to be the cool professionalism of the reporter, who must deliberately suspend his personal reactions in order to procure the maximum information — without getting snagged in sticky arguments. As useful as this sort of “objectivity” can be, I’m never entirely comfortable with the kind of withholding it entails.
Halverson was on to me, however. When I thanked him for his time and cooperation, and promised that if I quoted him he would receive a preview draft of the manuscript, he said, “You mean that’s all?”
“Well, yes. That’s all I need to know at the present time.”
In a tone that was somehow both contentious and companionable, Halverson asked, “You mean we aren’t going to get into it?”
So we got into it, and the ensuing two hours of much more personal discussion were at turns truly exploratory and maddeningly circular. Halverson — who prefers not to be labeled a “fundamentalist” because of the word’s “anti-intellectual connotations in the popular media” — returned again and again to the Bible as his standard against which all ideas and beliefs must be judged. I once accused him of tautological thinking: “You keep saying that the Bible is true because it’s true.”
“No,” he countered, “it’s true because it fits reality.”
Since I can claim no significant degree of Biblical scholarship, I had no effective counterargument save the observation that the Bible has inspired a vast array of Christian practices, which obviously do not reflect a whole and seamless picture of reality. Halverson himself agrees with the Spiritual Counterfeit Project’s characterization of Christian Science, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses as “mainline cults” that distort the Gospel. These distortions arise, he contends, from Christians misinterpreting the Word. I then told Halverson that I had the feeling other kinds of Christians might say the same about his perspective, leaving the innocent observer with the question: which Christian am I to believe?
For his part, Halverson seemed genuinely concerned that I had no infallible sense of truth. He sounded almost sad when he asked, “You mean to tell me that you’re never really sure of what’s true?”
“Not absolutely,” I responded. I told him I had some pretty solid assumptions by which I live every day. But my experience as a spiritually-inclined journalist has convinced me that all my assumptions are vulnerable to new information. To me it seems dishonest to assert absolute certainty. Faith, I argued, is the practical extension of one’s spiritual assumptions in the face of an uncertain and possibly illusory world. For Halverson, it was clear that faith meant defense of the Gospel as he understands it, and stewardship of a very real world as it plainly appears. So much uncertainty on my part could only be the symptom of a mind that has not accepted Christ as its savior.
For me, the most poignant moment of our dialogue came as we were discussing the efficacy of A Course in Miracles as a problem-solving stratagem. Surprisingly, Halverson admitted that a Course student and a Bible student might come to similarly ethical decisions about moral dilemmas in the short term, but that the Course student would be misled in the long run — because, he explained, “the Bible tells us that Satan will present himself disguised as an angel of light.” I replied that I thought the “long run” is eventually the sum of short-term events and decisions, each of which can be judged by the dictum, “By their fruits shall ye know them” — which appears in both the Bible and the Course.
I added that I thought the unique value of the Course is its experiential approach to the application of very big and difficult metaphysical concepts in our everyday life and consciousness. “The Course repeatedly suggests that there are only two emotions: love and fear,” I told Halverson, “and that one of them is useless and not even real. Are you willing to consider the possibility that, ultimately speaking, ‘there is nothing to fear’?”
Halverson’s reply was a quite serious warning about the agent of evil he believes to be loose in our world. “Are you willing to consider,” he said, “that there most certainly is?”
As I write this several weeks later, Halverson’s assumption certainly seems supported by the news of the day. A cargo door on an aging airliner tears loose high above the Pacific, sending nine people to their deaths. One or two bodies, it is suspected, were sucked into the jet engines. Scientists report that the ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere continues to accelerate, although urban residents may enjoy some degree of protection from excessive ultraviolet radiation by virtue of the interference from smog. The choice, it seems, is between skin cancer and lung cancer. Here in tolerant northern California, a controversy erupts over whether white supremacist skinheads will be allowed to hold an “Aryan Woodstock” on private land. (The judge rules that they may gather, but curiously bans any music.) And half a world away, a religious fundamentalist sentences a heretical novelist in Britain to death, resulting in the fire-bombing of a local bookstore I frequent.
So it seems that a reasonably aware citizen of the world with access to a newspaper really has no choice about considering whether there is something to fear. We are all barraged with fear, these days attached to global circumstances seemingly beyond our control. And the question of whether a unified, malevolent intelligence manipulates all those circumstances conjures up an even deeper fear. One can easily imagine a Satanic influence behind the religious insults and counterattacks between author Salman Rushdie and the Ayatollah Khomeini, but is the Devil also behind the metal fatigue on a Boeing airliner? Is he in charge of killer earthquakes, while God gives us only beautiful sunsets? Or is it part of God’s incomprehensible mercy to bring pain and death to the relatively innocent, the apparently evil, and the “saved” alike? Are we humans no more than pawns in a struggle between these titans of creation and destruction?
If so, this is not a metaphysics that inspires me toward growth, compassion, or a greater curiosity about the nature of reality. Any goals except immediate, maximum security and personal comfort seem senseless in this view. While this may sound simplistic, I think it’s exactly this “get mine while I can” perspective that operates very powerfully in our society at an unconscious level. It has a lot to do with what we’ve made of capitalism, and it has inarguably contaminated the message of contemporary Christian fundamentalists. That several of them have recently been publicly confronted by their internal contradictions gives at least some hope for the corrective capacity of Christianity. Jim Bakker may be a slow learner, but he has nonetheless experienced firsthand a conflict within his consciousness that a “godless” capitalist like Donald Trump likely has not — simply because Trump doesn’t have to reconcile “the art of the deal” with any avowed higher purpose. (In a recent interview, Trump allowed that he really doesn’t believe in heaven or hell, but is pretty sure that we all go somewhere after death. “For the life of me,” he admitted to the reporter, “I don’t know where that is.”)
The contention that there is nothing to fear is much less common as a worldly motivation, but it is hardly a novel idea. It’s a factor in the stunts of daredevils, who face down death for the sake of a record, public notoriety, or the simple high of sensation. However banal they may appear, such stunts do contain the germ of a spiritual choice, the voluntary denial of fear for the sake of proving that the normal boundaries of physicality can be transcended by the power of intent. This is one way of exercising fearlessness. This is why a Harry Houdini or Evel Knievel can command fascination; we are less impressed by their specialized training than by their “daring the devil” — or God — to punish them for attempting superhuman feats. They are classic examples of Jung’s archetypal puer aeternus, the eternal youth who seeks to break earthly bonds by challenging earthly fears.
We’re led abruptly to the paradoxical consideration that the only agent of evil in the world may be fear itself — an emotion that all of us experience.
But a more useful understanding of this concept paradoxically arrives just as fear seems ubiquitous, mighty, and unavoidable. As we approach a new millennium, the likelihood of surviving beyond it is dimmed by the destructive potential of our nuclear weaponry, our reckless consumption of limited natural resources, and the pollution resulting from our hyperactive industrialism. But the world cannot now hope that everything will improve when “the enemy” is vanquished. We are faced everywhere with the collective consequences of human decisions, and assigning our errors to the influence of Satan — or the Soviet Union or the United States — strikes me as yet another way to increase our sense of hopelessness.
If Satan’s been so successful thus far, what’s to stop him now? Especially since those who recognize his actions see him in different disguises, almost always worn by anyone but themselves. In a recent conversation about fundamentalism, philosopher Jacob Needleman dryly remarked to me, “If anything, the chief work of the Devil is making people imagine they know how to recognize him.” I would venture to guess that the Devil is made most uneasy by those who know how to use a mirror. Clearly, placing blame on mysterious, malevolent, and exterior agents is, in itself, increasingly destructive in a time of genuinely global crises. The growing necessity of transferring our loyalty from the personal to the collective immediately alters the way we perceive our problems. If we’re all in this together, then it becomes impractical to accuse anyone in particular of being inspired or led by evil. So we’re led abruptly to the paradoxical consideration that the only agent of evil in the world may be fear itself — an emotion that all of us experience. Thus it becomes critically important to understand the nature of fear as it arises within ourselves, so that we can determine whether we can control, reduce, or even eliminate its destructive effects. This requires real intimacy with fear — a discipline that most of us prefer to leave to daredevils.
It has been observed, most notably by Jung, that conventional religious practice serves largely to protect people from the frights, disorientation, and surrender inherent in firsthand spiritual experience. Despite its unfriendliness to religion, mainstream science has colluded in this process by discounting inner experience, such as dreams and visions, as meaningless brain wave activity or “paranormal” phenomena undeserving of serious research. In modern America, “the good life” picks up where religion and science leave off, inundating us with a wide variety of often mindless entertainments that stave off the fear of being left alone with nothing to do. Bereft of religious beliefs, scientific reassurances, or compelling distractions, the average person faces the mystery and chaos of the self with confusion, growing anxiety, and finally terror. Unaware that the terror is a doorway to a changed existence with a profound sense of purpose, one can mistake for salvation any opportunity to escape from this great fear. But all such opportunities merely delay the inevitable — perhaps for a lifetime.
The first step in facing fear — a step which may have to be repeated countless times in different situations — is to recognize the difference between fear and the object of fear. The failure to make this seemingly obvious distinction is the source of endless confusion. One way out of that confusion is to see that we are all afraid of different things. One might say that, essentially, all our fears stem from the inevitability of personal, physical annihilation, but even that is not necessarily accurate. Some people, myself among them, may fear prolonged or crippling pain more than death.
On a personal, everyday level, I think we all engage in a wealth of subtle, semi-conscious maneuvers to stave off more specific terrors that actually serve as building-blocks of our ego-identities. These terrors can be highly personalized, driving us into more or less extreme behaviors that make us inexplicable to people who do not share our particular fears, but are driven by their own.
In her recent book, The Enneagram, Helen Palmer gives a remarkably clear digest of nine personality types derived from their characteristic behaviors. Within each type, Palmer says, there are three chief concerns, common to all human beings, that determine the “flavor” of their characteristic anxieties and expressions. They are: the social, the desire to establish or fit in with a group or institution; the sexual, the tendency to identify primarily through intimate relationships; and self-preservation, a root concern with personal survival and identity. While all of us experience these concerns, one or another tends to predominate in most individuals; thus, we tend to assume that everyone places the same emphasis on our own particular fixation. In any relationship, such unspoken assumptions concerning what another person cares about the most can cause considerable confusion and perplexing disagreement.
During the last three years, I have watched the gradual uncovering of my own self-preservation fixation with all the anxiety of a nuclear power technician witnessing the uncovering of a reactor core. The pure, uncontrolled power of a root terror can seem too hot to handle, and usually it is indeed submerged by the evasions and compensations of the everyday personality. But there can come a time when, as a result of physical illness, psychological crisis, or conscious choice, one’s “emergency core cooling system” can no longer inhibit the internal reactive process that drives one’s fixation.
Personally, I experienced illness, crisis, and choice as an evolutionary sequence. Because my physical malaise — a variation of the recently-identified “chronic fatigue syndrome” now spreading in this country — resisted diagnosis in its early stages, I was forced to consider psychological and spiritual causes that I would not have explored had modern medicine provided me with a miraculous cure. In spiritual terms, my illness was triggered by a lifelong confusion of purpose: I did not know whether I should serve God or myself. More precisely, I had always harbored a secret desire to serve God somehow, but I was certain that I couldn’t make a living at it, and that I’d open myself up to a lot of ribbing if I announced such a goal while retaining a professional identification as a journalist. (Besides, some of the people who made the loudest noises about serving God did some of the stupidest, most self-serving, and cruelest things imaginable. It looked like a tricky business all the way around.) In a very real sense, self-preservation and service were opposed in my mind.
Nowadays I tell people that I was initiated to a genuine spiritual path because my stomach left me no choice. According to another useful personality typology — the Jungian system that identifies four primary functions of feeling, intellect, sensation, and intuition — I am a feeling type, who has made my unlucky belly the repository for all the emotions that were unseemly or otherwise inexpressible in my first three decades of life. Eventually that made for an unholy, indigestible mess down there, and when the physical organ reached its limit for storage of emotions, I was forced to begin dealing with them consciously, by remembering them, witnessing their arousal within myself, and meticulously considering their meaning. This is a process of awareness I still work on assiduously today, and I believe that process to be the only real and lasting cure for chronic fatigue syndrome — and possibly some other diseases of auto-immune dysfunction as well. As modern medicine slowly embraces meaning, I think this understanding will become more useful and widespread.
“To be fatigued is to be dis-spirited,” suggests the Course, “but to be inspired is to be in the spirit. To be egocentric is to be dis-spirited, but to be self-centered in the right sense is to be inspired or in spirit. The truly inspired are enlightened and cannot abide in darkness.”
With my decision to pick up the Course in 1985, I began raising the stakes on my old personality in ways that I’ve only recently begun to perceive. The Course repeatedly suggests that there is no need to “search” for meaning, as if it resided in exotic locales like the Himalayas or Heritage USA, because the creative love of God resides within His creations. So our real work consists of identifying and removing “the obstacles to the awareness of love’s presence” within ourselves. Thus the seeker is engaged on “a journey without distance to a goal that has never changed.”
The first step in facing fear . . . is to recognize the difference between fear and the object of fear. The failure to make this seemingly obvious distinction is the source of endless confusion.
This poetic language doesn’t fully prepare one for the rigor and raw anxiety of facing the obstacles to the awareness of love’s presence — and that may be intentional. Informed in full beforehand of the primitive accommodations available for travelers along this journey without distance, most people would probably not sign up for the trip.
To make a long story shorter, I’ve discovered that some of my greatest terrors have arisen in the wake of my most serious commitments. Chief among these was the decision, less than a year ago, to commit fully to my developing work as a spiritually inclined journalist, to which I had previously given a part-time, half-hearted involvement. This kind of decision has been nobly called “following one’s bliss,” which again is poetic language for the kind of decision that usually (but not always) plants one squarely against the flow of a society built on economic ethics. In the first year of my undertaking, I have found myself experiencing not only unprecedented inspiration and productivity, but also poverty unmatched in my lifetime. The stress of that dissonance has unmasked the face of my self-preservation terror.
The unveiling began with my grudging acceptance that I could not entirely shift the responsibility for my economic predicament onto an uncaring world at large. The forgiveness discipline of the Course has largely enabled me to release certain individuals from blame for all my life’s problems, but I am still sometimes prone to generalize and accuse “the world” of ignoring or attacking me. (This, I realize, is quite close to accusing God Himself.) Such a generalizing process may represent a last-ditch effort to hold on to fear, by making it appear more omnipotent. I might be able to struggle and overcome the enmity of another individual, but could I take on the whole world — or God?
Two kinds of experience, which occurred several times in different ways, began to give me a key to the puzzle of fear. One was the observation that the worst kind of terror — a clammy, nauseating wave of fear for the morrow that would awaken me in the middle of the night — literally arose from my stomach. It was a physical symptom first, then an emotion without words, and then a thought I could articulate without understanding its logic. But I realized that the fear began inside me, at a private moment when I was neither starving nor about to be thrown out by a wrathful landlord. And the fear felt not only familiar and habitual, but at times ancient. It was not a novel, instinctive, defensive reaction to the situation at hand, but a throwing-outward, or projection, of an emotion that was somehow always there, awaiting a target.
The other experience had to do with the fact that my terror was never consistent. If I was worrying about the rent, for instance (always a favorite), I could be obsessed for one day, terrified in the middle of the night, and indifferent about it the next day — while the actual circumstances had not changed in any way. So again it was made clear to me that I was not responding to an endangering situation with a “natural” reaction, but rather viewing a collection of circumstances through the perspective of my rising and ebbing fears.
The repetition of these two kinds of experience eventually led me to the intellectual realization that my terror never did me any good. Fear is never creative or instructive. We think that young children must learn to be afraid of a hot stove, for instance, or of cars rushing by on the street, but in fact they can be educated about physical dangers with information rather than fear. Until children are capable of understanding the information, they must be protected from such dangers, of course — but indoctrinating children with fear even before they can handle information is nothing but punishment. It is that kind of punishment — which directly propagates ignorance — that I believe we are all in the habit of doling out to ourselves. It is, in fact, the way of the world.
After one of my dark nights of the soul — or of the stomach, to be exact — I half-awoke in exhaustion and sat up in bed to review the Course lesson that suggests “there is no cruelty in God and none in me.” In the commentary following this meditation is a description of fear as an idol, a “cruel god” made of stone whose blood-smeared lips breathe fire. It continues:
Yet do not think that fear is the escape from fear. Let us remember what the text has stressed about the obstacles to peace. The final one . . . a seeming obstacle with the appearance of a solid block, impenetrable, fearful and beyond surmounting, is the fear of God Himself. Here is the basic premise which enthrones the thought of fear as god. For fear is loved by those who worship it, and love appears to be invested now with cruelty.
Where does the totally insane belief in gods of vengeance come from? Love has not confused its attributes with those of fear. Yet must the worshippers of fear perceive their own confusion in fear’s “enemy”; its cruelty as now a part of love. And what becomes more fearful than the Heart of Love itself? The blood appears to be upon His Lips; the fire comes from Him. And He is terrible above all else, cruel beyond conception, striking down all who acknowledge Him to be their God.
The choice you make today is certain. For you look for the last time upon this bit of carven stone you made, and call it god no longer. . . .
This was pretty heavy reading first thing in the morning, so I put the book aside and lapsed into a half-dream in which I found myself facing a vast stone wall covered with Mayan-style carvings of enormous, brooding faces. I was dressed in full military gear, and my back was against another wall, so that I was enclosed in a trench no more than six feet wide, perhaps fifty feet high and extending infinitely to either side. With all the suspensefulness of a bad sci-fi flick, it was apparent that the two walls were inching inexorably together for the apparent purpose of crushing me alive. My weaponry was useless for defense. At that point I became a little more awake, and was about to end the movie abruptly, but decided to consciously invent a resolution for the dream scenario. It was then that I realized I was so close to the stone faces that they no longer looked terrifying, or even like faces at all — all I could see were the deep indentations of the carvings. I realized that I could gain a foothold in these indentations, and rather rapidly I climbed up the stone wall and over the top. To my great surprise, I found there a vast, sunlit meadow that gave me a sense of peaceful rescue.
At this point I became fully awake and immediately thought, “Just another new age visualization.” I might have cynically dismissed the dream had I not been intrigued by exactly what it meant to climb the carved faces of the stone idols. Then I realized that this was an apt metaphor for the process of examining my terrors. When circumstances required me to face the objects of my fear up close, those objects began to lose their power. What might look like a terrifying, scowling god at thirty feet looked like an intriguing pattern of sculpted lines at six feet. In the very details of my projected terror, I could find footholds to ascend it. Then I could understand there was nothing fearful living in the stone after all.
Of course, this does not solve the problem of why fear begins within me, or anyone, to start with. But it is an image that reminds me that curiosity and creativity reside there, too. “There is nothing to fear,” the Course suggests. It explains:
The presence of fear is a sure sign that you are trusting in your own strength. The awareness that there is nothing to fear shows that somewhere in your mind, though not necessarily in a place you recognize as yet, you have remembered God, and let His strength take the place of your weakness. The instant you are willing to do this there is indeed nothing to fear.
The puzzle of how I can be myself in everyday situations, and yet not depend on my own strength, is not one I’ve figured out yet. I suspect, however, that it is less likely to be resolved intellectually than by the continuing process of surrendering fear — and the self-punishment it entails — and seeing where that leads.
As a journalist, I find that this process actually increases my curiosity and fairness. Five years ago, for instance, I would have had nothing to ask of an evangelical Christian like Dean Halverson, because I would have judged him beforehand as unworthy of a hearing, much less of my personal involvement in a spirited discussion. Probably I would also have had some unrecognized fear of his judgement upon me. But now I can respect and engage him, without converting to his beliefs or condemning him for them. It seems important to remember that we are altogether something more than our beliefs. I don’t share Halverson’s particular fears, and I wouldn’t ask him to share mine. I think it is better that we share our mutual concern for the world’s welfare, and at least try to trust that the strength of God will suffice when we falter. How each of us contacts or discovers that strength is a personal matter. For me, it presently requires climbing the stone face of fear.
This is the second in a series of four essays inspired by the principles of A Course in Miracles. The other essays in this series are “Back to the Real World” [Issue 153], “Homeless” [Issue 166], and “A Brutal Sadness” [Issue 212].