Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Trouble with Spiritual Teachers

I've just finished a book called A Course in Miracles (the first edition is available online), and I have to say that I am no closer to working a miracle than before I started reading.

It seems to be mostly just one inane non-sequitur after another written in a kind of bible-ese, with a lot of "untos" and "wherefores" and "nors"--lots of "nors"--and awkward syntax that its authors (or as they prefer "scribes") Dr. Helen Schucman (below left) and Dr. William Thetford (below right), must have picked up from contact with the King James Version from somewhere at some point.

I shall select a passage at random to make my point. Let's try this one:

"It is through these strange and shadowy figures that the insane relate to their insane world. For they see only those who remind them of these images, and it is to them that they relate. Thus do they communicate with those who are not there, and it is they who answer them. And no one hears their answer save him who called upon them."

I'm not kidding! I picked that passage completely at random. It goes on like that, meaninglessly, for some 622 long, dense pages. It's gibberish and the intro to the book (also on the website) admits as much:

"The Text is largely theoretical, and sets forth the concepts on which the Course's thought system is based. Its ideas contain the foundation for the Workbook's lessons. Without the practical application the Workbook provides, the Text would remain largely a series of abstractions which would hardly suffice to bring about the thought reversal at which the Course aims."

As mentioned, a 478-page "workbook"--actually short devotional readings based on the text, one for each day of the year--follow the course proper and are no more intelligible.

To adapt the old saw about combat, A Course in Miracles is long periods of sheer nonsense punctuated by moments of semi-lucidity, all specimens of which would fit in a flimsy pamphlet. Here's one I found interesting:

"The ego, though encouraging the search for love very actively, makes one proviso: do not find it. Its dictates, then, can be summed up simply as "Seek and do not find."

That's kind of a pithy little encapsulation of how the ego works (though as I've said many times before, Eckhart Tolle's books on this subject are better: they're much shorter and they make sense). But even this--and all the other quotes I jotted down in my Kindle--sound hollow and contrived when I read them a second time.

As the story goes, the scribes had never had any real contact with Christianity, yet this literary gem was dictated from the otherworld by a guy that calls himself Jesus, and talks about a lot of stuff in the Bible, and a lot of stuff that the historical Jesus said . . . but it isn't the real, actual historical Jesus . . .

Hmm. . . ooo-kkkkk . . .

Anywho, this brings to mind something the real Jesus said. He said, in essence, "My sheep know my voice." I don't know this voice. It isn't consistent with other enlightened voices. In fact it's not even intelligible. If Jesus were to actually write through a human being, I just don't think he would play ridiculous word games and try to be so mysterious, like ACIM does, and I don't think he would need a thousand pages to say what he had to say.

Look, I think what I write is inspired too, that's the way all good writing feels. That doesn't mean I don't edit (you should have seen how long I wanted this article to be).

That's precisely what this book needs, a good editor. And, in fact, it had one. His name is Kenneth Wapnick, Ph.D. Wapnick (pictured left) was one of the original editors of ACIM. He founded the Foundation for A Course in Miracles, which publishes the book. The foundation also owns the copyright to the third edition (Wapnick, himself, apparently holds the copyright to the second edition, and the first edition is apparently in the public domain). Why he did not apply his considerable skills the first time around, we can only surmise (for with only a pamphlet to promote, wherefore would the profits be forthcoming).

In one paragraph Wapnick manages to convey all one needs to know in his essay, "A Course in Miracles and Gnosticism." He writes:

"Briefly stated, the Course teaches that the forgiveness of our projected guilt is the means whereby we remember our oneness with each other, our true Self, and with the God Who created us. This teaching comes within a non-dualistic metaphysical framework wherein God did not create the phenomenal, material world, a term that includes the entire physical universe. Rather, the world and the body are seen to have arising from the projection of the fundamentally illusory thought and belief that we could separate ourselves from God, and make a world where the opposite of Heaven seems to have been accomplished. This belief in the reality of the separation is called the ego by the Course." [italics original]

(Another benefit of such a long and unintelligible source document, no one will actually read the thing . . . no one except me, apparently. Late in the game, the text actually reads, "Think not He wills to bind you, Who has made you co-creator of the universe along with Him." And "What could there be within the universe that God created that must still be done?" So which is it? Did you create it or not?)

Simply stated, there is a philosophical debate that goes way back which tries to reconcile the idea that God is one unified, perfect thing, with the idea that from this perfect thing a seemingly imperfect world was created. A Course in Miracles, says Wapnick, solves this problem by suggesting the this imperfect world simply doesn't exist, that it is a figment of the collective imagination. We all remain a perfect part of a perfect God, we just don't realize it.

There is nothing new in this view. It was Plato's view.

Wapnick continues:

"The world then serves the purpose of protecting the ego thought system of separation and usurpation within its shadows of guilt that ostensibly keep God the "Enemy" away. This, our entire experience in this world, within our bodily and psychological selves, is part of an illusory thought system we believe to be reality, yet which remains nothing more than a dream. Salvation is attained through hearing the Voice of the Holy Spirit, awakening us from the dream of separation by teaching us to join with others through forgiveness. This is the process of Atonement, the principle that states that the separation never truly occurred."

One more short paragraph adds just a bit of application:

Though A Course in Miracles teaches that the world is illusory, it does not advocate avoidance of this world, nor its rejection as evil or sinful. Rather, it emphasizes that the mistakes of separation be corrected at the level of our experience here. It urges us to look within our most intimate and meaningful relationships, asking the Holy Spirit--our internal Teacher--to heal them for us. What is encouraged, therefore, is gratitude for our involvement in the world because of its potential to teach us that there is no world. Under the Holy Spirit's guidance we become grateful for the classroom that is our bodily experience, and for His teaching us the lessons that are found here. Thus, the metaphysics of non-duality is reconciled with our experience of duality.

Wapnick spends the rest of the essay explaining how and why ACIM is not reconcilable with orthodox Christianity. And that's it. That's the entirety of A Course in Miracles. Reading the book will add nothing to this explanation--nothing except confusion.

One additional source, if you are still interested, is an essay by the original scribe of ACIM, Dr. Helen Schucman, called "What it Says." This is the intelligible version of A Course in Miracles and it will take you about ten minutes to read.

While A Course in Miracles has a few interesting ideas about the creation of the world and the way the ego works, it doesn't really add anything that would be of help in living our lives. Forgive others, it teaches, forgive yourself, let God into your life, listen to His voice, we have the power to affect the world around us by what we think. These are all great principles and if people put them into practice as a result of reading the book, that's fantastic.

But don't expect to be doing any miracles any time soon because there's nothing in there about that.

As our good friend Eckhart Tolle said in A New Earth, "If you find this book incomprehensible or meaningless, it [awakening] has not yet happened to you." I think Eckhart means this across the board, in a general way about all spiritually enlightened teaching, not just his books.

And this certainly describes my relationship to A Course in Miracles. I do find it incomprehensible. But that's because it's poorly written and edited. Once you boil it down to what its authors were trying to convey, it becomes intelligible and much less mysterious.

Speaking of Tolle, the only reason I decided to read ACIM in the first place was because one of my favorite spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle, quotes from it (a little) in both his books, The Power of Now and A New Earth.

About quotations in general he said in The Power of Now: "When I occasionally quote the words of Jesus or the Buddha, from A Course in Miracles or from other teachings, I do so not in order to compare, but to draw your attention to the fact that in essence there is and always has been only one spiritual teaching, although it comes in many forms." [italics original]

What spiritual teachers do and are doing is not theology, it's spirituality. They're not trying to convince us that we need to go to a different church or to go to a mosque rather than a church or the other way around. They are simply trying to convince us to bring the very notion of soul or the spirit back into our lives. The subconscious acceptance of Aristotelian thinking (see The Philosophy of Success, elsewhere on this blog) has dried the soul right out of our daily lives.

At long last we have arrived at the trouble with spiritual teachers. To begin with, everything that has been said about televangelists is true of spiritual teachers (see The Trouble with Televangelists elsewhere on this blog). Reading their books is fine and can be beneficial, but they are not our spiritual teachers, because we don't know them.

There is simply no substitute for a personal spiritual mentor, whether that be a father or a clergyman, a nun or anybody else who is in the know. If you don't have one, just ask and one will magically appear (no kidding! try it).

The trouble specific to spiritual teachers is their business model. They are in the business of selling us books. And tapes. And seminars and webinars and calendars and online meditation sessions and personal appearances and retreats and anything else that fits within the scope of their branding. Their operations are slick. The spiritual teachers we know and love are big businesses; they make millions and over all billions (especially if you include Oprah, herself).

Contrast this with televangelists, whose operations can be similarly described, except that they choose to work from within the framework of a non-profit organization, making them, for better of for worse, part of The New Earth Economy (see The New Earth Economy elsewhere on this blog).

Their associations with religious institutions allows them to do this and it provides them with tax-free status. It also places some constraints on how they can earn their livelihoods.

Straight up businesses (spiritual teachers, e.g.) can rake in unlimited profits for their shareholders (spiritual teachers, e.g.).

Non-profit organizations, as the name would suggest, are not allowed to make any profit at all. For the most part they operate on donations and every penny must be spent on activities that are within the charter of the organization.

Of course, that generally includes a whopping paycheck for the rainmaker (televangelist, e.g.) and lots of perks (corporate jet, e.g.).

In this respect, the people involved with A Course in Miracles appear to be exemplary. The Foundation for A Course in Miracles, a nonprofit organization, apparently owns the copyright to the book. This organization was founded by Kenneth Wapnick. It's unknown how much Wapnick, the last remaining participant in the production of ACIM is paid through this and the other important ACIM organ, The Foundation for Inner Peace, also a nonprofit.

The problem with the business model of most spiritual teachers is that it seems to conflict with their message in a couple of significant ways.

First, identification with wealth is unenlightened, isn't it? Of course, the counter-argument to this line of questioning is, "Just because you have a lot of money doesn't mean you're identified with it."

And yes, that's true. But how much is enough? Many of these teachers have millions now and they're making more every day. At what point do they decide to live off the interest on their money sitting in the bank and to put their books into the public domain so that everyone can have a read for free online?

What could there possibly be to fear? Fear has no place in the enlightened soul. Prosperity, they say, comes like the rain in the rainy season, and would surely remain with them.

Give, they agree, and it will be given to you. Give, don't sell, and see how it all works out.

The truth is, it would work out just fine. But as the Tao te Ching says, "If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich." When will enough be enough? When will it be time to go nonprofit?

Wouldn't it be nice for someone to come along who said, "Yes, I can profit off of my message, but I choose not to, because I have no need to fear that I won't have enough"?

Oh, how we all long for one true thing in this world! Practice what you preach! Show us how it's done!

There are many out there who do this, enlightened priests and preachers, laypeople of all varieties, and non-religious types who get it, all working for next to nothing, and all of them always have enough. "His eye is on the sparrow," as the hymn goes. While the hawks take care of themselves.

This is the problem as I see it. If it's just me, I'll shut up . . .

You might also like: The Philosophy of Success

You're comments are welcome.


  1. Interesting article Todd! Thank you for posting.

  2. You're welcome, Cindy! It was a long one. Thanks for reading!


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