Question #1385: Are there any pointers or guidelines you can offer to help people make their way through the Course material? How can we get the most out of our study of the three books?
Answer: We will offer some general comments and then recommend other discussions and resources on this Web site.
First, in keeping with its theory, there is no best or single method for studying A Course in Miracles. It is a curriculum undertaken by the student under the guidance of the Holy Spirit or Jesus, and as the manual for teachers specifically states, the training is “highly individualized” (M.9.1:5; M.29.2:6). Moreover, there can be no strict guidelines or rules that apply to every individual, as circumstances, backgrounds, and abilities, among other factors, differ greatly.
With regard to reading and studying the material, Jesus does not say which should be done first, the text, the workbook, or the manual. That decision is up to each student. There is no right or wrong way of proceeding with the material. Yet, to attain a comprehensive understanding of the thought system and a solid foundation for practicing the lessons, students are encouraged to study the text at some point in their process. Jesus advises us to study it carefully, but not proceed too quickly with it, lest we plunge unnecessarily into overwhelming fear (T.I.VII.4,5; see also Question #1163). Also, in the Introduction to the workbook he explains that the “theoretical foundation ... the text provides is necessary as a framework to make the exercises in this workbook meaningful” (W.in.1:1). Thus, Jesus clearly expects his students to spend time with the text at some point in their process.
A Course in Miracles: Form and Content
The Course uses metaphors, and in form has many contradictory passages. That is why it cannot be read and understood exclusively on an intellectual level. Its content and loving message of forgiveness can be understood only with the willingness of the mind that opens to the truth that it reflects. The Course’s teaching that the world is an illusion and the separation never happened is seemingly contradicted by the very fact that the Course itself exists in form. Clearly, then, from its inception the Course lovingly accommodates its form to be helpful to the guilt-ridden part of the mind of God’s Son who believes he is irretrievably lost because of his terrible sin. According to the ego’s logic, the guilt that follows the “sin” of separation engenders tremendous fear of punishment from an angry God. When the Course tells us God weeps and is lonely without us (T.5.VII.4; T.2.III.5), the message is that He is not an angry, vengeful God, but One Who loves us and misses us. These symbolic images are helpful to us who are able to relate to the concept of a loving father more easily than to the abstract nature of God. As Jesus tells us, “You cannot even think of God without a body, or in some form you think you recognize” (T.18.VIII.1:7); and “Yet must It [Teacher of Oneness] use the language that this mind can understand, in the condition in which it thinks it is” (T.25.I.7:4).
These lines explain the metaphors used in the Course, as well as the levels of teaching. Since we believe we are in the world, Jesus teaches us from our level of experience. Having chosen to identify with the body, we think and act and “reason” like bodies, so the Course comes to us in a form we can understand, and uses numerous metaphors, poetic imagery, and symbols to speak to us of the Love we have denied and forgotten.
Again, the Course has to meet us where we are, and where we are is in a world that is very complex. But this is because our world has come from a very complex thought system, the thought system that dominates our minds. Therefore, if Jesus is going to be able to help us, the context of his teaching has to be this immense complexity of both our outer and inner worlds. That is what he means when he says, “This course remains within the ego framework, where it is needed” (C.in.3:1). Complexity is the name of the ego’s game, he tells us in the text (T-15.IV.6:2). His teachings must address this complexity in order to undo it.
Thus, when we start out with the Course, it can indeed appear to be hopelessly complex, but, again, that is because it is meeting us where we are. Its purpose, though, is to lead us out of that complexity to the “simplicity of salvation” (T.31.I), when we will all finally realize that “what is false is false, and what is true has never changed” (W.pII.10.1:1). That is the simple truth, hidden behind the vast complexity of both the ego thought system in our minds and the world that has come from it.
Anyone at all can benefit from A Course in Miracles. One does not have to be an intellectual to learn from it and use it as a spiritual path. Nonetheless, it is obvious that it is written on a high intellectual level with sophisticated metaphysical, theological, and psychological concepts integrated into the teaching throughout the three books. Much of it is written in blank verse. Thus, a reader/student who is not intellectually inclined and has no background in these areas might have difficulty understanding a great deal of the material. This does not mean, though, that such a person could not be helped by reading through it and doing the exercises in the workbook. If the person comes away from the Course being more kind, more loving, and reassured of God’s Love, and less angry, depressed, and fearful, then its purpose has been fulfilled. On the other hand, there have been many highly educated people who were not able relate to the Course at all. They will find another path more suitable to their needs and inclinations.
The Course says of itself that it is only one among many thousands of other forms of the universal course (M.1.4). It does not have to be for everyone. Some religions have claimed that theirs is the only true religion, the only way to be reconciled with God. A Course in Miracles is not among them. Rather, the clear implication throughout the Course is that all people will eventually find a path that will lead them to God. It does not have to be this one.
Finally, the structure and flow of the text can be likened more to a symphony with themes introduced, set aside, reintroduced, and developed than to the linear progression of ideas usually found in an academic textbook, which systematically increase in complexity. This results in an interlocking matrix in which every part is integral and essential to the whole, while implicitly containing that whole within itself. Thus, the same material consistently recurs, both within the Course as a thought system as well as in the learning opportunities in our personal lives. The process of learning, therefore, resembles the ascent up a spiral staircase, with the reader led in a circular pattern, each revolution leading higher until the top of the spiral is reached, which opens unto God. The lovely rhythm of blank verse in much of the text enhances the impact of recurring themes.
The only specifications for the workbook lessons are given in its Introduction: “Do not undertake to do more than one set of exercises a day” (W.in.2:6). It is advisable for students to read this Introduction before beginning the lessons, and to reread it occasionally thereafter. Another important principle in the Introduction pertains to the student’s orientation: “Remember only this; you need not believe the ideas, you need not accept them, and you need not even welcome them. Some of them you may actively resist. None of this will matter, or decrease their efficacy. But do not allow yourself to make exceptions in applying the ideas the workbook contains, and whatever your reactions to the ideas may be, use them. Nothing more than that is required” (W.in.9).
Lessons may be repeated if desired. If it is a particularly meaningful or difficult lesson, it could be a good idea to stay with it for a couple of days or so. However, there is a risk in thinking that a lesson needs to be done perfectly before moving on to the next one. This would be a trap, because it is unlikely that many of us will ever do any of the lessons perfectly. If we could, we would have reached such an advanced state of spiritual growth that we would not need the lessons at all.
The middle of Lesson 95 is helpful in knowing what to do if several days or weeks are missed in practicing the lessons. Importantly, it is not necessary to begin all over again. The instruction in Lesson 95 focuses on recognizing the ways in which the ego creeps into the process, and that we ought to respond to “our lapses in diligence, and our failures to follow the instructions” (W.pI.95.8:3) with forgiveness. That is the key. Jesus does not keep track of how punctual we are in following the instructions for the day; his interest is only in helping us train our minds to think more and more in terms of forgiveness, and then eventually to generalize our learning to every aspect of our lives and experience.
The core idea is that we be sincere in our attempts to study and practice what the workbook teaches, aware that we all have strong resistance, yet are willing to forgive ourselves for our often inadequate efforts. As long as we continue to study and apply the lessons as we are instructed, we will make progress. It is important to focus on the content, rather than the form. What matters is making a sincere effort to follow the instructions as carefully as we can, without judging ourselves when we fail. Indeed, we can say that the purpose of doing the lessons is to do them wrong and then forgive our mistakes. This would reflect our ultimate forgiveness of ourselves for the mistake of separating from our Creator-Source.
The manual for teachers, the third book, is the easiest and most approachable of the three. The Course helps us realize that we are all teachers and students of each other, and that there is no line separating teachers and students. As we teach we learn, and as we learn we teach; but this has nothing to do with a formal teaching setting. The meaning is that we teach by demonstration. A Course in Miracles is never concerned with form (body) but only content (mind). The manual comes in question and answer form, with the questions addressing some of the more important themes found in the Course itself. There is an appendix to the manual, which Helen took down a couple years after the Course was completed. This is called the clarification of terms, which in a sense is like a glossary of some of the key terms that are used in the Course, the ostensible purpose being to define them for the Course’s students. What one finds, however, is that if you do not already know what the word means, the clarification of terms probably will not be helpful. What it is, however, is a lovely, and many times poetic summary of what these terms mean. It is another way of revisiting what we already have.
* The above is reproduced from the Foundation for A Course in Miracles' Question and Answer Service with the kind permission of Dr. Kenneth Wapnick and the Foundation for A Course in Miracles.