The Perennial Wisdom of ACIM

I’ve been uncertain as to whether I want to continue ACIM into 2020 because I find the language excruciatingly frustrating, but Roger Walsh’s article, “The Perennial Wisdom of ACIM” has convinced me to continue. (I came across it while cleaning out my OneNote for the end of the year.)

I met Walsh in the 1990s at an ACIM conference in Anaheim. He is (was?) a much acclaimed professor of religious studies at the University of California Irvine. He and his now deceased wife, Frances Vaughan, were friends of Ken Wilber. They were both active in launching Transpersonal Psychology and helped influence Integral Spirituality. I respect his opinion.

Walsh was introduced to ACIM by Frances Vaughan and said at first he wanted nothing to do with it because the language frustrated him, too. But once he was able to get past the language, he recognized it as “a truly extraordinary work”. Each time he goes through it, he says he finds higher levels of significance and believes it is on par with any other spiritual discipline he’s seen. (Ken Wilber, who Walsh claims is more widely read in terms of the world’s psychologies and spiritual traditions than almost anyone in the world, also says ACIM is on par with anything he’s come across.)

Walsh says that ACIM is unique in that it is so well integrated. Most spiritual traditions are passed down to us as a mishmosh of teachings from sages of various periods. For example, only a few 100 lines are attributed to Jesus and only a few 1000 to Buddha. The rest of the teachings come from disciples, followers and students. (Or people like Paul who never actually met Jesus but had a vision that inspired him to teach his interpretation of Jesus’ message.)

ACIM meets the four paths in Hinduism:

The Path of the Intellect (Jnana yoga). ACIM is an extraordinarily powerful Jnana yoga. Walsh says it is the most sophisticated cognitive behavior modification program he has ever come across. It says the world is a creation of the mind and echoes the Buddha:

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make our world.

According to ACIM: Dreams show you that you have the power to make a world as you would have it be …. and while you see it you do not doubt that it is real. Yet here is a world, clearly within your mind, that seems to be outside …. You seem to waken, and the dream is gone …. and what you seem to waken to is but another form of this same world you see in dreams. All your time is spent in dreaming. Your sleeping and your waking dreams have different forms, and that is all.

Our waking state is an unhappy psychotic dream. The fundamental message of ACIM, like all great spiritual traditions, is to “Wake Up!” It provides an alternative thought system we can use which is likewise a dream, but it is a happy dream from which it is easier to awake.

Waking up involves disentangling ourselves from the culture-wide illusion. Charles Tart calls this illusion a consensus trance. What we consider normal is really a culture-wide hypnosis. ACIM provides a thought system that helps us dehypnotise and thereby awaken to reality.

The Path of the Heart (Bhakti yoga). Bhakti yoga is the yoga of love and devotion which involves the transformation of emotions. ACIM also focuses on the transformation of emotions and the cultivation of love. It emphasizes a universal, non-exclusive, unconditional form of love known as agape love to early Christians. (ACIM refers to it as the Love of God.)

ACIM uses relationships (especially peer relationships) as the primary vehicle for awakening. We are asked to practice forgiveness which is seeing each other as mirrors and mutual saviors. We recognize the divinity in each of us, take joy in one another, and let go of grievances. ACIM acknowledges our interdependence.

ACIM divides relationships into holy and unholy ones. Walsh writes that the “closest equivalent I know to this would be Maslow’s distinction between motives which are deficiency and sufficiency based. When we are motivated by a sense of deficiency and lack, we enter relationships to get something. However, in sufficiency-based relationships both people already have a sense of well-being and wholeness and desire to enhance and share that through a relationship.”

ACIM: An unholy relationship is based on differences, where each one thinks the other has what he has not. A holy relationship starts from a different premise. Each one has looked within and seen no lack. Accepting their completion, they would extend it by joining with another whole as themselves. They see no difference between these selves. For differences are only of the body.

Each of us is both teacher and student; patient and therapist. The divine core each of us embodies is transpersonal and no one person can encompass it.

Christianity has always emphasized forgiveness, but ACIM takes a psychological spin on it: When we forgive others, what we are forgiving is our shadow self and the projections we are unwilling to acknowledge in ourselves. ACIM teaches that forgiveness is a remarkable healing process and “the key to happiness”.

The Path of Service (Karma yoga). Karma yoga is the path of service and work in the world. As in Mahayana Buddhism, ACIM emphasizes that final liberation for any of us depends on liberation for all of us. We must do service for others in order to awaken.

ACIM emphasizes the difference between sacrifice and service. If we serve out of a sense of sacrifice, we breed resentment and anger which is contradictory because it makes us see ourselves as separate from the other. True service is the realization that what we do for others, we do for ourselves.

The Path of Meditation (Raja yoga). Raja yoga emphasizes meditation and mind training. ACIM is a course in mind training. The untrained mind is unable to concentrate, is driven by desires and aversions, and is overcome by anger and fear. The Course provides methods in bringing the mind under control.

Concluding the comparison with the four yogas, Walsh writes:

Naturally, because the Course is such an integrated system, the four yogas overlap and are mutually supportive. For example, as we replace unskillful beliefs we are less likely to feel angry. This makes it easier to forgive and with forgiveness greater love arises which in turn enhances the desire to serve. All these leave the mind less agitated and easier to control, thereby making it easier to change beliefs, forgive, love and serve. Of course, this is not to deny that progress can seem very slow at times, but ACIM also teaches patience.

Other Therapeutic Strategies:

  • When making major decisions, authority and guidance is not “out there” in someone else, an authority, or even ACIM. We have an inner guide. Wisdom is within.
  • ACIM devotes a lot of time to working with fear because our minds are so dominated by fear. Where love is, fear is not and vice versa. Instead of examining the fear and what caused it, ACIM says that if there is fear, something is causing it now. Examining the past to understand it is self-limiting and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Silvano Ariete calls it “the genetic fallacy”. Transactional analysts sometimes call it the game of “archaeology.” When we fall into this trap, we fall into what transactional analysts call the “until game”. We tell ourselves that we can’t be happy until we do something, such as find the original cause of our fears or problems.
  • There is an emphasis on relinquishing attachments which is central to many traditions. (The Buddha’s 2nd Noble Truth: The cause of suffering is craving.)
  • Walsh says spiritual paths can be divided into recognition and attainment. Paths of attainment assume we are deficient in some way so we must work to change ourselves into something different before we can awaken. ACIM is a path of recognition. Ken Wilber calls it a path of always/already truth. We are always/already who and what we’re trying to become. The fundamental spiritual task is therefore recognition, not attainment. Wilber says the always/already paths are the height of spiritual teaching.

Cons

  • A lot of people find the language of ACIM problematic.
  • Christian language and masculine pronouns can be off-putting for some. People often end up translating the language to make it work for them. (Changing “Christ” to Buddha Mind; salvation to enlightenment, etc. Some women have marked out all the masculine pronouns and replaced them with feminine ones…)
  • The profundity of ACIM can make it very difficult to understand and make some parts seem nonsensical. Open-minded patience is required. The more it is read, the more it makes sense for most people.

Pros

  • It is very well integrated using multiple approaches (as explained in the four yogas above).
  • Despite being so intellectually sophisticated, it appeals to a wide audience.
  • It is intellectually satisfying, psychologically sophisticated, positive and loving. It points beyond all dreams to the Self we share.

I’ll keep plugging away!

A Course in Miracles: Teachers

My experience with ACIM is limited to a very few teachers. I am not at all familiar with the current, more popular ones like Gary Renard or Gabby Bernstein. A few years ago, I read one of Robert Perry’s books and was definitely not on his philosophical wavelength. I also read something by Alan Cohen that I didn’t care for, either.

Around that same time, I read a book by Ken Wilber about his wife who was dying of cancer called Grace and Grit. That had a completely different effect on me. Treya Killam, Wilber’s wife, was a devout ACIM practitioner. She developed breast cancer and became uncomfortable with all of the new age promises that if she just had the right thoughts, she could cure her cancer. What she came to realize was that cancer was not her enemy. By embracing it, it became an opportunity for self-understanding and growth. That is what I think ACIM is about. It helps us have the courage to embrace what we fear. 

I’d like to learn more about Ken Wilber and Integral Spirituality, but lest I get too thrown off track, I’ll stick with ACIM for now.

The people who most influenced me when I was first involved in ACIM were Jerry Jampolsky, Hugh Prather, Marianne Williamson, Francis Vaughan, and Vaughn’s husband, Roger Walsh. With the exception of Jerry Jampolsky, I met each of these people back in the 1990s.

Despite almost single-handedly bringing ACIM to the multitudes in the 1990s, my understanding of ACIM didn’t quite mesh with Marianne Williamson’s. I should probably go back through some of her work to clarify the disconnect, but for now, I feel more strongly about reconnecting with the works of the other four.

Jerry Jampolsky: Jerry Jampolsky’s Love is Letting Go of Fearis the first book I read based on ACIM principals and it had a HUGE affect on me. Jampolsky was a Psychologist and graduate of Stanford’s School of Medicine. He founded The Center for Attitudinal Healing which offered free support services to people facing catastrophic life events. His philosophy, in a nutshell, was that you can only have peace of mind when you forgive rather than judge. What needs to be healed is not your sick body, circumstances, or the world, it’s the judgmental mind. 

Hugh Prather: I don’t think I’ve read anything by Hugh Prather. I only know him through his lectures and a short conversation I once had with him. His first book is what the SNL Skit “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey” was based on, so his writing may have been a little “new agey”, but he just seemed so honest and grounded in person. He didn’t make claims that you could potentially change external material circumstances with the power of the individual mind. (That’s not the point of ACIM, in my opinion.) What was necessary was a change in cognition. It’s not about what’s happening to you, it’s about what you think about it. And if what you think about it is that you can change it by how you think about it, you’ve missed the point. I noticed that his wife has made some of his lectures available so I will plan to make my way through some of those in the future, and maybe some of his books as well.

Frances Vaughan and Roger Walsh: I’ve personally met both, but only really know Frances Vaughan And Roger Walsh through their lectures. Both are probably better known in the Integral Spirituality circles these days than through ACIM. Vaughan died in 2017. She was a Stanford graduate, clinical psychologist, professor, and founding faculty member of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Walsh is a professor of psychology, philosophy and anthropology at the University of California at Irvine. I have his book, Essential Spirituality, and I’m fairly certain I have a few by Vaughan as well. Both are worth revisiting.

I’m sure there will be others that I recall or that I will learn about in the future.