"What is the Course? Will it exist in the
By Hugh Prather
First, a disclaimer: The information I give here about the early days of the
Course is sprinkled with a few direct observations but comes primarily from many
conversations my wife Gayle and I had with Bill Thetford over the years. If
there are any inaccuracies, please chalk these up to my faulty memory of what
Bill told us, because nothing here is taken from books and biographies about the
Bill thought it amusing that many "official" details about how the Course came
were not what he recalled, even though he was by that time the only one alive
who had been there from the beginning. For instance, once he laughed and said,
"Now they're saying the Course came over a period of ___ years. I always thought
it was ___ years." For reasons that I hope will become clearer as we go along,
my purpose is not to correct historical details and for that reason I am not
getting into them. "Getting into details" instead of getting into God is what
causes all the trouble.
The lesson for Gayle and me was that although Bill disagreed with some of the
"facts" that were being recorded about his and Helen's lives, and some of the
actions that were being taken in the name of the Course, he did not feel the
need to impose his position on other people. However, please note that he did
have a position on these and many other subjects, and, primarily as a form of
humor, he often would voice his position.
It simply isn't possible to have an ego and yet have no position, no opinions,
no attitudes. In fact, when we look at our minds honestly, we see that we have
mixed feelings and multiple opinions about almost everything. It is how we
respond to our positions, to our own points of view -- not staying unaware of
them -- that determines our sense of wholeness and peace. Bill's gentle example
was: Do not become preoccupied with your position -- which you inescapably will
do if you try to force it on someone else.
In 1978, Gayle and I met Bill Thetford, Judy and Bob Skutch, Jerry Jampolsky,
and several other people associated with the Course, all of whom were living in
Tiburon at the time. Even though there was an underlying sense of family and
mutual support among these people, several of them seemed to be wrestling with
two contrasting attitudes toward the Course . One was that the Course needed
protecting and promoting. In those days, this point of view was still quite weak
because the original thinking -- during the period when the Course was being
turned over to The Foundation for Inner Peace -- was that "the Course is for
everyone" and shouldn't even be copyrighted, which of course would mean that no
one organization could control it.
There is an interesting parallel between the early days of the Course and the
early days of Christian Science. Mary Baker Eddy, like Helen, felt that she was
writing down a teaching that was coming to her from a higher source. I believe
it is no coincidence, especially since this same attitude was present in the
early days of Unity and many other spiritual teachings, that Mrs. Eddy's
original impulse was not to copyright and not to organize.
In the case of A Course in Miracles, this attitude was most clearly embodied in
Bill Thetford's light-hearted and humorous perspective that the Course could
take care of itself, that it merely pointed to a Truth that could never be
contained in words, and that no harm could come from doing what it says, which
is: forget it and turn to God. For example, I know of two separate times when
Bill advised people who were arguing about "what the Course meant" to "tear the
page out," because, he said, "nothing should come between you and your brother."
If only one manuscript of the Course existed, and if we had all followed Bill's
advice, it is safe to say that by now there would be no pages left. And in many
ways, that might be a good thing!
Until Bill died, the Course, for the most part, rocked gently on a sea of
flexibility and good humor. And despite some very crazy uses that its words were
put to by various individuals and groups, no real harm was done. As a
consequence, I naively thought that the Course was going to be the first
spiritual teaching to escape becoming a tool of separation. But my thinking that
the Course was different was part of the mistake many of us were making. Even
though separation had overtaken the teachings of Muhammad, the Buddha, Jesus,
Lao Tzu, the Prophets, and even "The Big Book" (AA), how could it happen, I said
to myself, to the only teaching that contained nothing but oneness and
forgiveness? In other words, how could separation overtake a teaching that was
It could happen and it has happened. In my opinion, it has occurred for the same
reason that many devout Hindus practice subjugation and slavery. For the same
reason that children are slaughtered in the name of Mohammed. For the same
reason that students of the Buddha make statues of gold in the image of his
body. And for the same reason that Jesus, who taught that we should give all we
have to the poor, practice total forgiveness, and devote ourselves to each other
became the symbol of the most prejudiced and privileged segment of our culture.
But the lesson for those of us who have chosen A Course in Miracles as our path,
the lesson that we must now take -- in fact are being forced to take -- into the
21st century, is to distinguish between the book and the Reality that the book
points to. Only what is separate about the Course, only the part that is in the
world -- only the part that you and I have been instructed to forget -- can be
manipulated. A book is mere words, and in Lesson 1 we have already been gently
led -- perhaps some would say divinely tricked -- into looking at it and saying,
"This book does not mean anything."
Merely the Course's words can be seen by egos. Merely the words can be taken
away from this person, given to that person, used for money, used for litigation
and sanctions, used for titles and certificates, and used to leave behind a now
long trail of resentment, anger, financial loss, hurt feelings, and bitter
righteousness. But what does God have to do with all that insanity? Nothing.
Words are just words, and the Course itself assures us that our need for words
is almost over.
Make no mistake; the inevitable march toward separation has nothing to do with
the particular egos involved. The world is nothing but separation. Regardless of
what individuals do or don't do, everything in the world eventually becomes a
force for still more separation. This fact should not sadden us but free us to
let go of what was never a part of God in the first place. God is not a book.
As I suggested earlier, it is virtually impossible to do the first lesson in the
Course without saying, "This book does not mean anything." But if we really
believed that, how could we possibly fight about who should control it or what
that control should look like? We can try to control the controllers of the
book, or we can turn to God. We can be preoccupied with who is and who is not
allowed to make money off the book, or we can turn to God. We can argue about
which ego can interpret the book best, or we can turn to God.
So what will happen to the book in the 21st century? My guess is that it will
continue to decline in popularity and eventually become so associated with the
organizations and personalities that war over it that they will become its
meaning in the eyes of the public. The words "A Course in Miracles" will end up
symbolizing something quite unlike their true meaning, just as has happened on a
much larger scale with the words "Christian," "Jesus," and "the Bible."
But none of this will matter to you because the truth will still be true. Love
will still be all around you. The holy light of God will still shine within you.
And the One who has never left your side will bring you safely home. I suspect
that even in the world, the Source of the thousand courses that have already
come will send us a thousand more, and a thousand after that, and still more
after that, until at last we see that it is not the form that any true teaching
takes that has meaning. All that has meaning is the one Reality they point to.
What, then, is our function regarding the Course in the 21st century? It is to
be acutely aware of the world's call to separate and love more God's call to
A few years ago, I attended a gathering where I saw many of the people
associated with the Course that Gayle and I had gotten to know in the 70's. As I
said earlier, I am aware of no teaching that emphasizes innocence and unity in
more straightforward terms than A Course in Miracles. I know of no teaching that
ranks itself more clearly as just one of many, as a temporary aid only, and as
helpful to some but not to all. A Course in Miracles simply does not present
itself as a superior or even a permanent teaching, and, in my opinion, the heart
of the teaching is that we must turn from our belief that we are individually
"special" to the recognition that we are not only equal but one with each other
and one with God.
What effect does the long-term study of such a teaching have on its students? I
was surprised that after twenty years it was the opposite of what I expected.
With two or three exceptions, everyone I saw at the gathering was far more
separate and egocentric than they were when Gayle and I first met them. In fact,
their egos were so large that many of them had lost the ability to carry on a
simple conversation. They made pronouncements and listened deeply to no one. I
was appalled, and when I returned home, I said to Gayle, "If this has happened
to most of our Course friends, is there any chance it hasn't happened to us?"
The answer was that indeed it had happened to us. Even though we had long
noticed the unhelpful effects of most religions and spiritual teachings on their
students, we had thought that as Course students we were immune -- because the
Course emphasizes reversing this very dynamic. If the dynamic is not the fault
of the teaching or religion itself -- and in most cases it clearly is not --
what mistakes do students make that cause it?
When Gayle and I finally looked at ourselves honestly, we discovered that
although we had been ministers and spiritual teachers for many years and had
written over a dozen books on spiritual themes, we personally had not become
kinder or even more sane through our devotion. We, like most individuals,
started a spiritual path with the intention of becoming better people and
finding ways to be truly helpful, only to move in the opposite direction. The
more time and thought we had put into teaching and writing about our path, the
more self-absorbed we had become. We had ended up less flexible, less forgiving,
and less generous than we were when we first started our path!
What we had actually learned was how to mask our egos, act spiritual, and make
our own thoughts less conscious. In addition, we had accumulated hundreds of new
spiritual concepts, which, unfortunately, is the primary standard by which
spiritual teachers are judged (as well, of course, as TV pundits, columnists,
politicians, non-fiction authors, talking-head experts, and the like.).
As happened to us, most devout people seem unaware that these changes are
occurring. They think they are making good progress, until one day -- if they
are lucky -- they come face-to-face with the fact that their worst impulses have
been growing in power and influence over them. In lieu of a true awakening, they
make an unconscious determination that they have arrived, or that they have come
close enough to the end of the journey that the remaining distance is of no
consequence and requires very little of their attention.
There are clearly many individual exceptions to these generalizations, but not
as many as we thought there would be when we began studying the phenomenon. This
discovery has led us to place far greater emphasis on exposing the ways that the
ego takes over spiritual efforts. Because the fact is, the day you started your
spiritual path, your ego started it also, and for every spiritual motive you
have, there is an ego motive as well. This is not reason to be afraid, but it is
reason to be more aware.
Those individuals we know intimately who we believe are close to being awake,
seem to have no interest in contrasting themselves with other people. Generally
speaking, they live simple, ordinary lives. They are comfortable if not restful
to be around. Their time is usually devoted to unimportant things and their
hearts to "unimportant" people. They have no inflexible concepts or rigid
patterns and there is nothing particularly unusual about the subjects they
choose to talk about or anything outstanding in the personal mannerisms they
exhibit. They are easily pleased, and often they are happy for no apparent
reason. Because their own egos are no longer destructive, they find other
people's egos amusing and endearing. Above all, they are equal and familiar.
They would not be good subjects for a magazine profile. And yet, into the
mundane, everyday circumstances of their lives, they quietly pour their comfort
and their peace.
Bill Thetford was such a person. He didn't talk the Course. He didn't write
books about the Course. He very seldom made public statements about the Course,
and then only because someone had pleaded with him to do so. What Bill did was
quietly and happily live the Course. And even though he saw that this was the
best approach, he never said to his Course friends: "You can either teach the
Course or live it, but you probably won't succeed in doing both." In this way he
was truly a "teacher of God" because he taught in the way the Manual defines
Does this mean those who lecture or write about the Course have turned down a
dark side road? Certainly not. Does it mean that anyone who loves discussing
metaphysical ideas has lost his or her way? Certainly not. But it does mean that
those who coat themselves in spiritual concepts run the risk of thinking that
they are the concepts. It's not hard to notice that the people in our culture
who are conspicuously devout and talk continuously about God usually begin to
take on an all-knowing, all-seeing attitude. In other words, in their own minds
they have become the God they profess.
"Everyone is on a path," many openly devout people say. But what they seem to be
thinking is, "I, however, am on a spiritual path." In other words, "Now that I
believe in oneness, I see that you and I are not one."
From having fallen into this trap ourselves, we realize that nothing is more
selfish or separating than thinking that you, personally, have a higher approach
to life than most other people. How could one person's way possibly be superior
to another person's way if God is leading us all?
It's ironic that individuals with strong spiritual beliefs often have larger
egos, are more rigid, are more unconsciously judgmental, and are more
uncomfortable to be around than people who have little interest in pursuing
mystical, religious, or metaphysical teachings. Those who value the concept of
oneness often lack the desire to feel oneness and equality with anyone.
The ego part of us does not act independently of our wishes, because it is us --
at least that is our evident and deeply felt conviction. If we are still
judgmental of our teenager; then we still want to be judgmental of our teenager.
If we are still confused about what our partner wants from us, then we still
want to be confused. Obviously, believing in oneness doesn't automatically
decrease the desire for oneness, and many people both believe in it and practice
it. Yet it's interesting how often we trumpet what we ourselves fail to do and
criticize in others what we ourselves do regularly.
Ironically, those who think they have the smallest egos usually have the largest
egos. The self-proclaimed "seekers of truth" often have personal superiority as
their unconscious agenda and end up convincing themselves that they have
attained it. Those who think of themselves as normal, ordinary, and equal, and
who are quite aware of their many limitations, simply are not tempted to believe
that they personally can discover a spiritual truth that other people are
unaware of. And yet, by definition, that is what a "seeker of truth" believes.
A Course in Miracles can survive in the 21st century, in fact it can transform
the 21st century, if those who see the Reality it points to choose to extend
themselves beyond their ego boundaries and make the interests of another their
own. Awakening is not joining with some shining concept in the sky. It is
joining with each other. It is lived and expressed in the hundreds of small
encounters, errands, and tasks that fill each day. Only instant by instant do we
choose to see our sameness, our equality, and our oneness with others. Only by
loving do we wake to Love. Only by extending peace do we wake to Peace.
Every day we have hundreds of little encounters with other people in our
activities and in our minds. In each of these contacts we leave something
behind, and that something determines whether the Course continues to exist.
Only by giving the tiny miracles of understanding, support, forbearance, and
happiness can we assure that this precious teaching does not fall on dead ears
and dead hearts. Let us walk away from the bloody battlefield where egos fight
for the rights to ego words. That was never where the Course was in the first
place. God is now. God is here. We never left home. So let us be happy that
God's arms are still around us. His heart is still our heart. His eyes are still
our eyes. He is all there is.
Hugh and Gayle are parents, ministers, and authors of fourteen books including
Spiritual Notes to Myself; Spiritual Parenting; and I Will Never Leave You.
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