Forget this world, forget this course, and come with wholly empty hands unto your God.
— A Course in Miracles
I grew up in the hyper-Christian culture of Charlotte, North Carolina, within spitting distance of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s ill-fated Praise the Lord Ministry and other evangelical fiefdoms too numerous to count. But because my mother believed in Faulkner and Steinbeck above all other gods, my upbringing was more literary than religious; for that, my gratitude to her knows no bounds.
By early adulthood, I had fallen in with a group of sardonic and proudly rational peers whose favorite response to the oft-posed question “Have you found Jesus Christ?” was “What? Have you Christians lost him again?” We scoffed at religion, figuring that quick wits and skepticism would get us through life far more effectively than piety and faith.
But a jaundiced eye will only take you so far. In my early thirties, ten years into my Berkeley, California, citizenship — and thus about as far from conventional religious beliefs as could be — I was laid low by chronic fatigue syndrome (cfs). At that time, my affliction was an undiagnosed complex of maladies ranging from perpetual exhaustion to twice-weekly migraines and a nasty, ongoing stomachache. In cfs, I encountered the first opponent capable of shocking my personality into cardiac arrest. As it became clear that I would find no simple medical solution for my illness, I began to doubt all my assumptions about how the world worked and what I was doing here — in short, my entire concept of reality. That was just the inner damage; out in the “real world,” I soon lost my livelihood, my home of six years, and several close, defining relationships.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes; I would add that there are not many with a long sojourn in a sickbed on their résumé. The spiritual conversion experience that often visits those who have hit rock bottom due to illness, addiction, or depression can be looked at in two ways: either people crack under the pressure and take flight from their senses, or they crack under the pressure and catch a healing glimpse of a new reality. Reviewing my own experience over the past sixteen years, I would say that both perspectives are correct. You have to go a little nuts to begin looking at the world in a whole new way, and that style of seeing can have an authentic healing effect.
The danger of the conversion experience is that you may conclude that being perpetually unhinged is a requirement of being spiritual. Then you start thumbing your nose at all conventional forms of logic and common sense — and, before long, you’ve become an easy mark for a corrupt guru who needs unquestioning followers to bankroll and applaud him. Worse yet, you may become a guru yourself.
Because I began my adult life with some training in investigative journalism, I was never a good candidate for a wholesale religious conversion. To this day, I tend to respond to all extraordinary claims — whether they concern spiritual advancement, investment schemes, or political salvation — with an “Oh, really?” and an urge to uncover the shadow side of whatever good news is being foisted upon me. Early in my conversion experience, however, I realized that this healthy skepticism had become a poisonous cynicism, amplifying the chronic stress that had led to my collapse.
I appreciate that my skepticism also inoculated me against the foolishness that can waylay novices on the spiritual path: I never fell for a guru and thus never had to become disillusioned about one. Allowing myself to become a little nutty and irrational did open me up to certain mystical experiences that were genuinely healing. At the same time, keeping a critical eye on such experiences helped me to sort wishful thinking from actual outcomes, and to temper a renewed idealism with a practical realism.
These days, I believe that honoring our innumerable flaws and frailties is key to a sensible and sustainable spirituality. Such a downwardly mobile faith, however, is hardly ever discussed by gurus or promulgated in best-selling books. In fact, the most common and serious flaw of contemporary New Age thinking is the belief that human experience is somehow meant to be a brightly lit carnival of optimum health, perfect love, universal peace, and material wealth (which God really does want you to have, don’t you know?). If you are not yet experiencing an unlimited high of personal comfort and universal consciousness, says the New Age, then you soon will — right after the next meditation retreat, group hug, or synchronized mass prayer, which we can now participate in through e-mail.
But the fact is, we humans get sick and die; we hate each other and make war; and a great many of us are desperately poor and always will be. Those of us who have the luxury to contemplate our consciousness at expensive retreats and world healing conferences are the beneficiaries of an unjust economic system that reflects the truth of our mass consciousness far more than do our solemnly repeated affirmations. Herding our ancient, innately conflicted drives of fear, self-defense, and greed toward an oceanic altruism is certainly a worthy goal, but one toward which we make painfully slow progress, despite our best intentions. I have always wanted to see a spiritual conference advertise that attendees will come away with an immeasurably small improvement in their consciousness — and only if they work exceptionally hard and pay exquisite attention to the proceedings. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be very good marketing, but it would reflect the truth about how difficult it is to change ourselves. Human beings rarely get anything done over the weekend.
Despite my skeptical outlook, I believe in human and spiritual progress, because I’ve experienced substantial positive change in my own life and witnessed it in the lives of others. I would go so far as to say that the changes stemming from my spiritual awakening have been profound: I recovered from a serious illness, found meaningful work, helped build and sustain a happy marriage, and basically got over my grudge against the world.
In the sixteen years that followed, I became as religious a person as I think I could ever be, even becoming publicly identified with a particular path while studying and writing about a broad range of spiritual subject matter. I wrote three books and nearly a hundred magazine articles in a long effort to practice what I gamely identified as “the journalism of consciousness.” (An evangelical Christian scholar I once interviewed characterized my work in pithier terms: right after I called him a “fundamentalist,” he called me a “New Age reporter.” Ouch.)
Oddly enough, the strong sense of spiritual guidance I developed is now steering me away from thinking, talking, or writing much about spirituality. Every new book in the field seems to say the same old thing, and every advertised workshop looks like a means to help people find ever-loftier rationalizations for maintaining their self-absorption. (Do we really need “the courage to be rich”?) Whereas I used to look forward to interviewing the latest wise man or woman, now I’m much more interested in talking to the average businessperson or the neighborhood soccer coach. I’ve grown more attracted to people whose spirituality is immanent or unconscious. I’d rather have a fleeting, wordless experience of the meaning of life than talk about it for hours on end. In short, it seems the time has come to end my religion.
The “spiritual supermarket” that has blossomed in our culture over the last few decades has resulted in a wild mélange of teachings and gurus outside the religious mainstream. Each new popular teaching enjoys a brief vogue before being debunked in public, thence to retreat to its former anonymity with a small core group of true believers still intact. So it was with Werner Erhard’s est and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh; so will it be with yoga, which is currently enjoying unprecedented popularity as a health regimen if not as a spiritual path. American culture dictates that muckraking journalists will soon begin exposing corrupt yoga masters and institutes, leading to some prominent yoga-is-bad-for-you articles and a consequent ebbing of the yogic tide. But many people’s lives will have been changed for the better by yoga nonetheless.
Anyone who tries to understand esoteric paths needs to appreciate that even the strangest perspective will probably benefit someone, regardless of how silly or weird it looks to most of us. I have several good friends who swear by the positive, life-altering effects of est or the Forum, which I’ve always regarded as an overpriced workshop in remedial responsibility. I have a very intelligent and down-to-earth business associate who faithfully follows the Urantia Book, even though I find that enormous tome an impenetrable metaphysical mishmash. And I know for sure that I have friends of considerable sophistication and proven loyalty who still question my sanity because I became involved with A Course in Miracles (acim).
For the uninitiated, the Course is a very long (twelve-hundred-plus pages) book providing a self-contained contemporary spiritual teaching that mixes Eastern metaphysics, Christian terminology, and mystical psychology, with more than a dash of creaky old Gnosticism tossed in for flavor. It offers both a lengthy philosophical discourse and an intensive built-in meditative workshop, in the form of a lesson-a-day workbook. The Course was written in secret during the late sixties by a Columbia University psychologist named Helen Schucman, who professed to be ambivalent about religion. She claimed that she didn’t understand what she was writing, and furthermore resented the seven-year task of recording acim, which she said had been dictated to her by a subconscious and decidedly mystical force. After the Course was published in 1976, Schucman rarely spoke about it in public and was never reconciled to its message of forgiveness and brotherhood. She died in 1983.
In fact, the book, which rolls on for hundreds of pages at a time in flawless iambic pentameter, claims its own spiritual authorship — namely that of the historical Jesus Christ speaking through a human channel to bring a corrected version of his original message to the world. Despite the great good that the Course has brought into my life, I’ve always wished Dr. Schucman had left the Jesus part out. I wish she had just admitted she was nuts.
If you’re wondering why I’d ever confess to following the teachings of a book written by someone who heard voices and was possibly certifiable, my first defense is that there are some notable precedents for this kind of thing. Roger Walsh, an entirely respectable professor of philosophy and psychiatry at the University of California-Irvine — and a Course student himself — points out that the landscape of religious history is littered with disreputable visionaries: “Jesus was condemned as a common criminal; Lao-Tzu wandered off into the desert a total unknown; Confucius couldn’t hold down a job; and Mohammed was a suspect camel driver on whom a lot of people waged war.”
My second defense — admittedly more to the point — is that the Course showed up in my life when I was desperate for something that would heal me, and it worked. It did not work in the sense of being a magic mind-pill that took away all my physical aches and psychic pains. It worked in the sense of inspiring me to reorient my life, which I had fairly well wrecked by my early thirties. The challenges I faced included forgiving my parents (a major task), learning how to take care of my health, finding both a voice and a worthwhile purpose as a writer, and giving up the universal bitterness that I’d come to believe was my emotional birthright.
As if all that were not enough, the Course also delivered exactly what it promised: the development of a reliable “inner voice” that has become my primary source of guidance. Before the Course, I can remember the torture I went through in making difficult decisions: weighing the pros and cons and coming to a rational conclusion independent of my gut feelings (which were usually dominated by an inarticulate fear). The results of this process were generally messy and sometimes cruel to myself and others. I often had to abandon my hard-won strategy for doing the right thing in favor of simply reacting against overwhelming and unexpected circumstances.
Although my current way of making decisions is hardly infallible, it is far more peaceful, instinctive, and responsive to the unpredictable factors that can affect any chosen course of action. Though I still weigh pros and cons and try to come to sensible conclusions, I never settle for a merely rational answer; I wait silently until a message of guidance comes to me — and it always does, in fairly short order and often with surprising specificity. Occasionally, it is a weird, unexplained directive: “Go into that store and wander around until you run into someone you know.” (And someone familiar does show up.) But, more often, it is an essential confirmation of my own common sense: “Don’t send that smartass e-mail to that editor; you’ll regret it immediately!”
I think of this inner voice as “advanced intuition.” By this, I do not mean that my intuition is better than anyone else’s, only that it’s far more reliable than what I used to have. I have no idea what the source of my inner voice is, and I feel no need to identify it. I certainly do not believe it is the voice of Jesus Christ, or a dead ancestor with a quavery Irish brogue, or a high-ranking Pleiadian sending me psychic data packets from a spaceship zipping betwixt the rings of Saturn (although that last notion would be especially fun).
Recently, my inner voice had a surprise in store when I was trying to decide what direction to take in writing about the Course itself. I awakened in the middle of a night in a hotel room before an acim conference, which I would be covering as a journalist, and experienced a strong sense of displacement, an out-of-sortsness that made me feel as if I should depart the premises immediately. I sat up in bed to clear my head and let my stomach calm down, and a communication of startling clarity surfaced in my mind, as distinct as a message in one of those eight-ball fortunetelling toys. The voice told me, “Your part is done.”
If a typical Course student exists, I’ve never been one. From the beginning, I mixed my personal study of the teaching with a conscious effort to treat it as the subject of an ongoing investigation. I was consistently aware of being the first serious reporter on the scene. Before my work, most of what was written about the Course had come either from its teachers and promoters or from hostile critics. A smattering of superficial newspaper features cropped up in between, all with the same general angle: “Local Group Espouses Strange New Religion; Looks Harmless Enough.”
My professional credentials as a journalist gained me almost immediate entree to the leading teachers of the Course: from the presidents of the two closely related foundations that own the copyright on the book and manage its far-flung translation program, to such popular freelance promulgators as Marianne Williamson and Jerry Jampolsky, whose books based on Course principles generated major spikes in sales of acim. Thus I had what most Course students do not: a comprehensive view of the politics of this nascent spiritual movement, which provided an intriguing counterpoint to my study of its teachings.
I remember talking about this unique perspective with the late Rick Fields — my editor at Yoga Journal when I was a regular contributor in the late 1990s. Rick had preceded me in this kind of work as an early chronicler of American Buddhism and was known for his classic history When the Swans Came to the Lake. “You get to be the first journalist on the scene of a new religion,” Rick told me — and then, with a paternal clap on my shoulder, he added, “Good luck!”
The discomfort of reporting on one’s own spiritual path has been with me from the beginning. I don’t believe that a so-called objective observer can do a thorough assessment of a profound teaching. You have to become “indoctrinated” to the extent that the teaching becomes ingrained, enabling you to grasp its meaning in a way that far surpasses an intellectual understanding of its major principles. From a journalistic point of view, however, becoming a follower to any degree compromises one’s ability to report dispassionately. And true believers in a spiritual tradition often look with suspicion upon a journalist proposing to present a balanced view of their path, regardless of whether that journalist also claims to be a serious initiate.
When I wrote my book The Complete Story of the Course, I dealt with this unusual conflict of interest up front, admitting that I was a Course student who had experienced powerful benefits from the teaching. But I also dedicated two chapters to various critics of acim, whom I had gone to considerable trouble to seek out and interview at length. And I wrote as fairly as I could about the roots of a controversy that some Course proponents would have preferred I not cover at all — a controversy that has since erupted into a virtual civil war within the loose Course “community.”
That controversy concerns the copyright of acim and the use of the book by diverse teachers and interpreters. On one side are the two foundations that publish acim, which have become far more stringent about protecting their intellectual property in recent years. On the other side is an assortment of dissidents who want copyright protections relaxed or dispensed with entirely, arguing that acim is a sacred, spiritually authored document that transcends mere earthly property rights. The latter argument has not yet succeeded in earthly courts, however, where the foundations have won most of the litigation. But the dissidents keep trying, and there has been precious little progress made toward reconciliation in the spirit of the Course’s fundamental principle of forgiveness.
Most reporters would be thrilled at the eruption of such a controversy on their beat, but I have covered it only reluctantly. (I’ve always lacked a proper journalistic blood lust.) I have editorialized in favor of the foundations’ retaining the copyright while allowing “fair use” of the Course material under far more liberal guidelines than are generally followed in commercial publishing. In other words, I have taken a moderate position in a situation characterized by extremism. And the more I hew to the middle, the more I have been criticized for losing my objectivity. Since this criticism has come from both sides in the fight, I feel confident that I’m right where I should be.
More dismaying than any personal or professional criticism has been the rising volume of what I can only call “Jesus talk.” When arguments of legality or common sense look as if they’re failing for either side in the Course battle, participants rely more heavily on arguments about “what Jesus wants.” Depending on whom you listen to, Jesus either wants copyright protection and has from the beginning, or considers it an obscene interference in the free and unfettered spread of his word. Since all those involved personally consult with Jesus on a regular basis, one can only conclude that Christ, like so many of us, doesn’t really know what he wants.
In this Jesus talk, I hear creepy echoes from my youth. I’m afraid that my fellow Course students are going to ask me if I’ve really found Jesus Christ, or have just been a pretender all along. In a spiritual movement characterized by fairly high iqs and a significant number of refugees from far more conservative religious traditions, this trend toward an esoteric fundamentalism seems especially ironic. But perhaps it’s inevitable: once we find anything that profoundly changes our lives for the better, we want to turn it into the answer for everyone, backed by an unimpeachable authority. Anyone who believes that such evangelical certitude will not ultimately reach the stage of religious persecution is naive.
Not long ago, I appeared at an acim conference in San Francisco, where I was approached by a woman and her husband in the hotel lobby between sessions. Spying my name tag, the woman asked, “You’re the reporter, right?”
“Yes,” I confessed, always a little fearful of what I’m going to hear next after being identified as “the reporter.”
“Well, we really wanted to meet you, because we think that you, of all the people here, might be willing to hear us out about something.” By now the husband was nodding enthusiastically, lending his wife moral support on a matter of obvious concern to them both.
“Here’s the thing,” the woman said, stepping a little closer and speaking in a stage whisper: “We’ve both been Course students for years, and it’s changed our lives completely, but we think this business about Jesus is getting out of hand. I mean, what’s more likely: that a guy who died two thousand years ago jumped into Helen’s head and dictated this long book to her, or that Helen was this crazy, brilliant person who made up the whole thing herself, but was so embarrassed about it that she made up the Jesus part, too, just so she didn’t have to take responsibility for the message? Really, now, which makes more sense to you?”
The wife finished her confession in a breathless rush, looking to me excitedly for confirmation as her husband repeated, “Come on, he died two thousand years ago.”
I was so surprised to encounter two skeptics at a gathering of the faithful that I had to laugh. “Shhh!” I replied. “Keep up that kind of talk, and you’ll get us all removed from the premises.”
“Tell me about it,” the wife replied dryly. “I’ve already been asked to leave my Course study group just for bringing it up.”
Some years ago, I interviewed philosopher Jacob Needleman about the pros and cons of mystical paths, and he made some points about the problem of “fascination” that have stayed with me to this day: Let’s say that you have an alcohol problem, and you awaken one day with your face in a foul-smelling gutter and suddenly decide that drinking yourself to death is no way to live. The good Samaritan who lifts you from the curb mentions an aa meeting down the street, and you decide that you might as well give the cliché-ridden recovery movement a try.
As it turns out, the Twelve Steps prove to be your saving grace. In just a few years, you’ve not only managed to dry out, but become a sponsor for other benighted souls making their way back from the brink of oblivion. Before long, it is difficult for you to look at the world in any terms other than “addiction and recovery,” and you find yourself becoming more and more critical of so-called social drinkers and others who obviously have not submitted to the will of a Higher Power. The very idea that you could someday live without your meetings is anathema.
What’s happened is that you’ve switched addictions. Being addicted to recovery is far healthier than being addicted to alcohol, but in terms of spiritual growth, it is nonetheless a detour or delay. Needleman suggests that anyone who encounters a genuine mystical path, and experiences profound benefits in his or her life as a result, will be prone to fascination with the path. It’s important to stay alert to the effects of that fascination, lest it go on too long and begin suppressing one’s growth rather than encouraging it.
It’s not that fascination is a bad thing in itself; in fact, a deep experience of any path requires an initial fascination. But I believe that the ultimate aim of most spiritual paths is to enable us to become masters of our own consciousness. Becoming the master of your consciousness begins with the capacity to hear and follow an internal “guiding voice,” literal or figurative, that transcends any religious, social, or legal rules — even the mystical guidelines that helped you find this inner guidance in the first place.
The necessity of cultivating one’s own guiding voice is one message that can be drawn from the paradoxical Zen teaching “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The idea is certainly not that you must kill any wise people you encounter. The point is that you must “kill the Buddha” because otherwise you will believe that the Buddha is special and different from the rest of us: enlightened, just plain better. The student is really being encouraged to kill the idea of superiority within himself, so that he will be better able to experience his own Buddha nature as the exalted yet ordinary core of his true self. Then he will be able to see the Buddha within everyone he meets — and nobody has to get killed.
And so it goes with any genuine path of transformation: if we are serious about reshaping our lives in a spiritual way, we first need to be fascinated with our chosen path, and then to let this fascination die so that our spirituality becomes internalized, ordinary, even invisible, though no less real and effective. I’m guessing that this transition is what my own sense of guidance is leading me toward, as I find myself retreating from my self-appointed role as a spiritual reporter.
As much as a fresh spiritual perspective once enlarged my view of what was possible and significant, the temptation to take on a spiritual identity has threatened to narrow my outlook on life. Now I find myself facing the puzzle of how to forget my spirituality in order to keep it real.