Weekly Questions and Answers about A Course in Miracles: 9/26/2007

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This week's questions/topics:
Q #1217 Why do I fear the loss of my self?. What is the difference between self and self-concept?.
Q #1218 How can I explain to my church that the Course is Christian-based?
Q #1219 Do I need to understand the source of all my anxiety before I can forgive?

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Q #1217: Years ago, during an intense time of spiritual searching but prior to my introduction to A Course in Miracles , I had a stunningly realistic dream in which I was standing in a field, looking at a black portal in the sky, being held open by two beings whom I couldn't see, and being urged, by a third unseen spirit, to pass through to the beautiful light beyond. I remember experiencing stark terror -- a mortal fear -- at the prospect of somehow getting through all that darkness by myself. The gentle but firm coaxing I understood to be from Jesus, who told me that others had gone before, to be met with untold happiness, and I could do so as well, but that no one could do it for me. My question is this: was the terror I felt at the thought of passing permanently through that darkness related to a concern of my individuality being annihilated, and, if so, please explain the concept of self. In Lesson 84, Jesus encourages us to say, “I will worship no idols, nor raise my own self- concept to replace my Self.” The Course teaches that in the real world we have no individuality as we think of it now. In light of that, please explain the concept of Self to which He refers in this quote.

A: First of all, your interpretation of your dream sounds pretty accurate, including your observation that your fear is of loss of your individual self at the thought of passing beyond the darkness into the light. Our egos would like for us to believe that we are really afraid of the darkness -- the seemingly impenetrable clouds of guilt that we have made real by our investment in the thought of separation as sin. But that is the cover for the real fear, the fear of oneness.

The self with which we identify is the false individual self we have made for ourselves by joining with the illusory ego, to prove that the separation is real and that we are limited and tiny and vulnerable. The body serves this purpose quite nicely. There are in fact many layers to this false self, as the section “Self-Concept versus Self” (T.31.V) makes clear. Our Self, as the Course uses the concept, is our true identity as Christ, the holy Son of God, who remains one with the Father, untouched and unaffected by any illusory thoughts of separation, sin and guilt (W.pI.95.12,13; W.pI.201.1:3,4,5,6) . Ultimately, even words and concepts such as these are illusory, for they remain within a dualistic framework, but point to something beyond. There is no Self that can be defined apart from God, but while we believe in a separate self with all its limiting self-concepts, the concept of a Self, which ultimately is beyond all concepts, provides a helpful correction for the false beliefs with which we have circumscribed ourselves.

And so statements in the Course, such as the one you refer to in Lesson 84, are meant to help us release or undo these false concepts so that they can be first replaced with helpful concepts (healed perception), before we release all concepts and “return” to our reality of oneness (knowledge beyond all perception).

Towards the end of “Self-Concept versus Self,” Jesus provides a helpful contrast between the false self we have made, with all its various faces, and our true Self, God's one creation, beyond all concepts:

“The concept of the self has always been the great preoccupation of the world. ...Salvation can be seen as nothing more than the escape from concepts. ...Seek not your Self in symbols. There can be no concept that can stand for what you are. ... And you will not perceive that you can interact but with yourself. ...You will make many concepts of the self as learning goes along. Each one will show the changes in your own relationships, as your perception of yourself is changed. There will be some confusion every time there is a shift, but be you thankful that the learning of the world is loosening its grasp upon your mind. And be you sure and happy in the confidence that it will go at last, and leave your mind at peace. ...There will come a time when images have all gone by, and you will see you know not what you are. It is to this unsealed and open mind that truth returns, unhindered and unbound. Where concepts of the self have been laid by is truth revealed exactly as it is. ...There is no statement that the world is more afraid to hear than this: I do not know the thing I am, and therefore do not know what I am doing, where I am, or how to look upon the world or on myself. Yet in this learning is salvation born. And What you are [the Self] will tell you of Itself. (T.31.V.14:1,3; 15:1,2,5; 16:1,2,3,4; 17:2,3,4,6,7,8,9).

When you experienced yourself as having an opportunity to pass through the darkness to the light, your ego interpreted that as the path to self-annihilation, as it tried to persuade you that this self is something. The fear you experienced is what Jesus makes reference to when he speaks of “no statement the world is more afraid to hear.” While we still value the little false self, we will be afraid of anything that is dismissive of that self. And so we will also approach the Course with ambivalence and fear, for ultimately its purpose is to teach us but one thing, summed up in a simple statement that comes near the very end of the workbook: “Let me not forget myself is nothing, but my Self is all” (W.pII.358.1:7).

Q #1218: A Course in Miracles says it is a universal experience, yet it is Christian-based. How do I tell my church leaders that the Course works with Christianity and other religions, too? Do people from other religions or faiths accept the Course as valid? How do they make it work in their minds? How do they explain it to their church leaders?

A: To respond to your inquiries, let's first take a look at the passage you're referring to for clarification, because you've jumped to some conclusions that don't necessarily follow from Jesus' statements: “ Theological considerations as such are necessarily controversial, since they depend on belief and can therefore be accepted or rejected. A universal theology is impossible, but a universal experience is not only possible but necessary. It is this experience toward which the course is directed. Here alone consistency becomes possible because here alone uncertainty ends” (C.in.2:4,5,6,7).

In other words, Jesus is saying here that there will never be agreement among different religious and spiritual teachings at a theological level, for they all use concepts and symbols specific to their own cultural and historical contexts to explain the nature of God and our relationship to Him, and belief is the basis for accepting or rejecting the various teachings. But what all genuine spiritual and religious teachings share is that they are leading to an experience of oneness and love, which is universal, since such an experience is not dependent on symbols or words, and in fact transcends anything specific. Nearly all the major religions of the world have their mystics, and when you get beyond the specific words, drawn from their own religious and theological backgrounds if they attempt to describe their mystical experiences, you will find that every mystic, regardless of the specific spiritual path or religion, is sharing the same universal experience.

The Course, while using Christian terminology, does not use those terms in the same way as traditional Christianity, and in fact often uses them in a way that is intended to correct what are perceived as the errors of Christianity, from the Course's perspective. And so there are significant theological differences between the Course and all the various Christian sects, which in fact do not agree with each other. Any attempt to reconcile the differences between the Course and traditional Christianity is likely to be unsuccessful (see Kenneth Wapnick's book, A Course in Miracles and Christianity: A Dialogue, co-authored with Jesuit priest and scholar, Father Norris Clarke, for an in depth discussion of many of these theological differences).

With these thoughts in mind, let's turn again to your question. First of all, the Course is not claiming to be a universal experience, but only one path among many (see M.1:3,4 for a discussion of the Course's position on this) that leads toward that experience. It is not intended to be integrated with other religions or spiritual paths, but stands on its own as a self-study spiritual teaching that helps its students get in touch with their own Inner Teacher, replacing the teacher that they have made for themselves (the ego). While it is certainly possible to practice the Course while remaining among the faithful of any particular religion, it will become more difficult to remain faithful to the tenets of that religion as the principles of the Course are integrated more deeply into one's practice and experience. For the Course's theology is very different from nearly every other religion of the world, including and especially Christianity.

Since the Course is only for one person -- the individual student who is studying it and practicing it -- and it is not intended to form the basis for any mass movement or new religion within the world, your concern about how to share it with church leaders is really unnecessary. You may find there are times when you feel drawn to share aspects of your path with a church leader, but you should not be surprised if often they will not be receptive to its message, since it says something so very different from traditional Christianity (e.g., sin is not real, God didn't make the world, and Jesus is not God nor our personal savior who died for our sins!). It should be a relief to know that, as a student of the Course, there is no one else that you need to inform or persuade. And from a metaphysical perspective, the Course means that quite literally -- there is no one else -- another significant difference from Christianity and most other world religions!

Q #1219: How can I apply forgiveness if I don't know what the perceived cause of my suffering is, like an anxiety that is there but you don't know where it comes from? Do I have to find out what it is that is causing it?

A: A Course in Miracles teaches that the ultimate cause of all anxiety, pain, and suffering is the mind's decision to choose separation and abandon the Father's Love. That is what got us here in this world, which is racked with pain. One of the very important goals of the Course is to teach us the real cause of pain (the mind's choice for separation) from the apparent cause (a person or event external to the mind). This distinction is at the heart of the process of forgiveness. It is often very helpful to identify the apparent cause of suffering, because in it lie the specific grievances that the ego is using to keep pain alive. The mind uses pain to defend its belief that the dream of separation is real and suffering is justified. This is its excuse for continuing to choose separation and deny that any other choice is possible. Being willing to see this defense system in operation and recognize its devious purpose is the beginning of its undoing. However, as you mention, it is not always possible to identify the specific apparent cause of suffering, and it is not necessary to do so: “It is not necessary to follow fear through all the circuitous routes by which it burrows underground and hides in darkness, to emerge in forms quite different from what it is. Yet it is necessary to examine each one as long as you would retain the principle that governs all of them. When you are willing to regard them, not as separate, but as different manifestations of the same idea, and one you do not want, they go together” (T.15.X.5:1,2,3). This means that it is important to look at any thoughts of judgment, annoyances, or upsets that are associated with recognizable causes. They are at the root of the experience of unexplained suffering while the ultimate cause remains the mind's choice, as we mentioned earlier. Judgments and grievances that are tucked away, overlooked, or denied, are the cause of undefinable anxiety. They are the source of guilt, as Jesus tells us: “Of one thing you were sure: Of all the many causes you perceived as bringing pain and suffering to you, your guilt was not among them. Nor did you in any way request them for yourself. This is how all illusions came about. The one who makes them [the decision-making part of the mind] does not see himself as making them, and their reality does not depend on him. Whatever cause they have is something quite apart from him, and what he sees is separate from his mind. He cannot doubt his dreams' reality, because he does not see the part he plays in making them and making them seem real” (T.27.VII.7:4,5,6,7,8,9). Thus, it is important to recognize that suffering plays an important role in keeping the ego thought system intact. That is not to say that you should not do whatever is helpful to alleviate the form suffering takes, which may include seeking counseling or therapy to uncover the possible apparent cause.

The Course is not meant to replace the many things that provide comfort and relief from the anxiety and pain of believing we have abandoned God. It does offer ultimate relief by leading us out of the dream of separation, but that is accomplished in a gentle, gradual process of practicing for­giveness by searching the mind carefully for the judgments that keep the memory of God from awareness. If we are willing to question them, seeing them as the reflection of the mind's choice, we open the door to the Holy Spirit Who will release them. Guilt is thus diminished and eventu­ally undone, along with the suffering that is its effect: “Bring, then, all forms of suffering to Him Who knows that every one is like the rest. He sees no differences where none exists, and He will teach you how each one is caused. None has a different cause from all the rest, and all of them are easily undone by but a single lesson truly learned. Salvation is a secret you have kept but from yourself” (T.27.VIII.12:1,2,3,4).