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Classic article by Hugh Prather about the pit-falls of the "spiritual ego"!
Description of Article: The following text is a letter written by a long time Course student/teacher who intricately describes some of the trappings associated with the concept of being a Course teacher. He takes an honest look at what has happened to himself in the direction of attempting to let go of the ego. The article itself is not written consistently from the divine perspective but it brings out many questions and attests to the importance of watching out for the trappings of the spiritual ego. Enjoy!
What is the Course? Will it exist in the 21st Century? By Hugh Prather (1999)
First, a disclaimer: The information I give here about the early days of the Course is sprinkled with a few direct observations but comes primarily from many conversations my wife Gayle and I had with Bill Thetford over the years. If there are any inaccuracies, please chalk these up to my faulty memory of what Bill told us, because nothing here is taken from books and biographies about the Course.
Bill thought it amusing that many "official" details about how the Course came were not what he recalled, even though he was by that time the only one alive who had been there from the beginning. For instance, once he laughed and said, "Now they're saying the Course came over a period of ___ years. I always thought it was ___ years." For reasons that I hope will become clearer as we go along, my purpose is not to correct historical details and for that reason I am not getting into them. "Getting into details" instead of getting into God is what causes all the trouble.
The lesson for Gayle and me was that although Bill disagreed with some of the "facts" that were being recorded about his and Helen's lives, and some of the actions that were being taken in the name of the Course, he did not feel the need to impose his position on other people. However, please note that he did have a position on these and many other subjects, and, primarily as a form of humor, he often would voice his position.
It simply isn't possible to have an ego and yet have no position, no opinions, no attitudes. In fact, when we look at our minds honestly, we see that we have mixed feelings and multiple opinions about almost everything. It is how we respond to our positions, to our own points of view—not staying unaware of them—that determines our sense of wholeness and peace. Bill's gentle example was: Do not become preoccupied with your position—which you inescapably will do if you try to force it on someone else.
In 1978, Gayle and I met Bill Thetford, Judy and Bob Skutch, Jerry Jampolsky, and several other people associated with the Course, all of whom were living in Tiburon at the time. Even though there was an underlying sense of family and mutual support among these people, several of them seemed to be wrestling with two contrasting attitudes toward the Course. One was that the Course needed protecting and promoting. In those days, this point of view was still quite weak because the original thinking—during the period when the Course was being turned over to The Foundation for Inner Peace—was that "the Course is for everyone" and shouldn't even be copyrighted, which of course would mean that no one organization could control it.
There is an interesting parallel between the early days of the Course and the early days of Christian Science. Mary Baker Eddy, like Helen, felt that she was writing down a teaching that was coming to her from a higher source. I believe it is no coincidence, especially since this same attitude was present in the early days of Unity and many other spiritual teachings, that Mrs. Eddy's original impulse was not to copyright and not to organize.
In the case of ACIM, this attitude was most clearly embodied in Bill Thetford's light-hearted and humorous perspective that the Course could take care of itself, that it merely pointed to a Truth that could never be contained in words, and that no harm could come from doing what it says, which is: forget it and turn to God. For example, I know of two separate times when Bill advised people who were arguing about "what the Course meant" to "tear the page out," because, he said, "nothing should come between you and your brother." If only one manuscript of the Course existed, and if we had all followed Bill's advice, it is safe to say that by now there would be no pages left. And in many ways, that might be a good thing!
Until Bill died, the Course, for the most part, rocked gently on a sea of flexibility and good humor. And despite some very crazy uses that its words were put to by various individuals and groups, no real harm was done. As a consequence, I naively thought that the Course was going to be the first spiritual teaching to escape becoming a tool of separation. But my thinking that the Course was different was part of the mistake many of us were making. Even though separation had overtaken the teachings of Muhammad, the Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tzu, the Prophets, and even "The Big Book" (AA), how could it happen, I said to myself, to the only teaching that contained nothing but oneness and forgiveness? In other words, how could separation overtake a teaching that was so separate?
It could happen and it has happened. In my opinion, it has occurred for the same reason that many devout Hindus practice subjugation and slavery. For the same reason that children are slaughtered in the name of Mohammed. For the same reason that students of the Buddha make statues of gold in the image of his body. And for the same reason that Jesus, who taught that we should give all we have to the poor, practice total forgiveness, and devote ourselves to each other became the symbol of the most prejudiced and privileged segment of our culture.
But the lesson for those of us who have chosen ACIM as our path, the lesson that we must now take—in fact are being forced to take—into the 21st century, is to distinguish between the book and the Reality that the book points to. Only what is separate about the Course, only the part that is in the world—only the part that you and I have been instructed to forget—can be manipulated. A book is mere words, and in Lesson 1 we have already been gently led—perhaps some would say divinely tricked—into looking at it and saying, "This book does not mean anything."
Merely the Course's words can be seen by egos. Merely the words can be taken away from this person, given to that person, used for money, used for litigation and sanctions, used for titles and certificates, and used to leave behind a now long trail of resentment, anger, financial loss, hurt feelings, and bitter righteousness. But what does God have to do with all that insanity? Nothing. Words are just words, and the Course itself assures us that our need for words is almost over.
Make no mistake; the inevitable march toward separation has nothing to do with the particular egos involved. The world is nothing but separation. Regardless of what individuals do or don't do, everything in the world eventually becomes a force for still more separation. This fact should not sadden us but free us to let go of what was never a part of God in the first place. God is not a book.
As I suggested earlier, it is virtually impossible to do the first lesson in the Course without saying, "This book does not mean anything." But if we really believed that, how could we possibly fight about who should control it or what that control should look like? We can try to control the controllers of the book, or we can turn to God. We can be preoccupied with who is and who is not allowed to make money off the book, or we can turn to God. We can argue about which ego can interpret the book best, or we can turn to God.
So what will happen to the book in the 21st century? My guess is that it will continue to decline in popularity and eventually become so associated with the organizations and personalities that war over it that they will become its meaning in the eyes of the public. The words "A Course in Miracles" will end up symbolizing something quite unlike their true meaning, just as has happened on a much larger scale with the words "Christian," "Jesus," and "the Bible."
But none of this will matter to you because the truth will still be true. Love will still be all around you. The holy light of God will still shine within you. And the One who has never left your side will bring you safely home. I suspect that even in the world, the Source of the thousand courses that have already come will send us a thousand more, and a thousand after that, and still more after that, until at last we see that it is not the form that any true teaching takes that has meaning. All that has meaning is the one Reality they point to.
What, then, is our function regarding the Course in the 21st century? It is to be acutely aware of the world's call to separate and love more God's call to come home.
A few years ago, I attended a gathering where I saw many of the people associated with the Course that Gayle and I had gotten to know in the 70's. As I said earlier, I am aware of no teaching that emphasizes innocence and unity in more straightforward terms than ACIM. I know of no teaching that ranks itself more clearly as just one of many, as a temporary aid only, and as helpful to some but not to all. ACIM simply does not present itself as a superior or even a permanent teaching, and, in my opinion, the heart of the teaching is that we must turn from our belief that we are individually "special" to the recognition that we are not only equal but one with each other and one with God.
What effect does the long-term study of such a teaching have on its students? I was surprised that after twenty years it was the opposite of what I expected. With two or three exceptions, everyone I saw at the gathering was far more separate and egocentric than they were when Gayle and I first met them. In fact, their egos were so large that many of them had lost the ability to carry on a simple conversation. They made pronouncements and listened deeply to no one. I was appalled, and when I returned home, I said to Gayle, "If this has happened to most of our Course friends, is there any chance it hasn't happened to us?"
The answer was that indeed it had happened to us. Even though we had long noticed the unhelpful effects of most religions and spiritual teachings on their students, we had thought that as Course students we were immune—because the Course emphasizes reversing this very dynamic. If the dynamic is not the fault of the teaching or religion itself—and in most cases it clearly is not—what mistakes do students make that cause it?
When Gayle and I finally looked at ourselves honestly, we discovered that although we had been ministers and spiritual teachers for many years and had written over a dozen books on spiritual themes, we personally had not become kinder or even more sane through our devotion. We, like most individuals, started a spiritual path with the intention of becoming better people and finding ways to be truly helpful, only to move in the opposite direction. The more time and thought we had put into teaching and writing about our path, the more self-absorbed we had become. We had ended up less flexible, less forgiving, and less generous than we were when we first started our path!
What we had actually learned was how to mask our egos, act spiritual, and make our own thoughts less conscious. In addition, we had accumulated hundreds of new spiritual concepts, which, unfortunately, is the primary standard by which spiritual teachers are judged (as well, of course, as TV pundits, columnists, politicians, non-fiction authors, talking-head experts, and the like).
As happened to us, most devout people seem unaware that these changes are occurring. They think they are making good progress, until one day—if they are lucky—they come face-to-face with the fact that their worst impulses have been growing in power and influence over them. In lieu of a true awakening, they make an unconscious determination that they have arrived, or that they have come close enough to the end of the journey that the remaining distance is of no consequence and requires very little of their attention.
There are clearly many individual exceptions to these generalizations, but not as many as we thought there would be when we began studying the phenomenon. This discovery has led us to place far greater emphasis on exposing the ways that the ego takes over spiritual efforts. Because the fact is, the day you started your spiritual path, your ego started it also, and for every spiritual motive you have, there is an ego motive as well. This is not reason to be afraid, but it is reason to be more aware.
Those individuals we know intimately who we believe are close to being awake, seem to have no interest in contrasting themselves with other people. Generally speaking, they live simple, ordinary lives. They are comfortable if not restful to be around. Their time is usually devoted to unimportant things and their hearts to "unimportant" people. They have no inflexible concepts or rigid patterns and there is nothing particularly unusual about the subjects they choose to talk about or anything outstanding in the personal mannerisms they exhibit. They are easily pleased, and often they are happy for no apparent reason. Because their own egos are no longer destructive, they find other people's egos amusing and endearing. Above all, they are equal and familiar. They would not be good subjects for a magazine profile. And yet, into the mundane, everyday circumstances of their lives, they quietly pour their comfort and their peace.
Bill Thetford was such a person. He didn't talk the Course. He didn't write books about the Course. He very seldom made public statements about the Course, and then only because someone had pleaded with him to do so. What Bill did was quietly and happily live the Course. And even though he saw that this was the best approach, he never said to his Course friends: "You can either teach the Course or live it, but you probably won't succeed in doing both." In this way he was truly a "teacher of God" because he taught in the way the Manual defines teaching.
Does this mean those who lecture or write about the Course have turned down a dark side road? Certainly not. Does it mean that anyone who loves discussing metaphysical ideas has lost his or her way? Certainly not. But it does mean that those who coat themselves in spiritual concepts run the risk of thinking that they are the concepts. It's not hard to notice that the people in our culture who are conspicuously devout and talk continuously about God usually begin to take on an all-knowing, all-seeing attitude. In other words, in their own minds they have become the God they profess.
"Everyone is on a path," many openly devout people say. But what they seem to be thinking is, "I, however, am on a spiritual path." In other words, "Now that I believe in oneness, I see that you and I are not one."
From having fallen into this trap ourselves, we realize that nothing is more selfish or separating than thinking that you, personally, have a higher approach to life than most other people. How could one person's way possibly be superior to another person's way if God is leading us all?
It's ironic that individuals with strong spiritual beliefs often have larger egos, are more rigid, are more unconsciously judgmental, and are more uncomfortable to be around than people who have little interest in pursuing mystical, religious, or metaphysical teachings. Those who value the concept of oneness often lack the desire to feel oneness and equality with anyone.
The ego part of us does not act independently of our wishes, because it is us—at least that is our evident and deeply felt conviction. If we are still judgmental of our teenager; then we still want to be judgmental of our teenager. If we are still confused about what our partner wants from us, then we still want to be confused. Obviously, believing in oneness doesn't automatically decrease the desire for oneness, and many people both believe in it and practice it. Yet it's interesting how often we trumpet what we ourselves fail to do and criticize in others what we ourselves do regularly.
Ironically, those who think they have the smallest egos usually have the largest egos. The self-proclaimed "seekers of truth" often have personal superiority as their unconscious agenda and end up convincing themselves that they have attained it. Those who think of themselves as normal, ordinary, and equal, and who are quite aware of their many limitations, simply are not tempted to believe that they personally can discover a spiritual truth that other people are unaware of. And yet, by definition, that is what a "seeker of truth" believes.
"A Course in Miracles" can survive in the 21st century, in fact it can transform the 21st century, if those who see the Reality it points to choose to extend themselves beyond their ego boundaries and make the interests of another their own. Awakening is not joining with some shining concept in the sky. It is joining with each other. It is lived and expressed in the hundreds of small encounters, errands, and tasks that fill each day. Only instant by instant do we choose to see our sameness, our equality, and our oneness with others. Only by loving do we wake to Love. Only by extending peace do we wake to Peace.
Every day we have hundreds of little encounters with other people in our activities and in our minds. In each of these contacts we leave something behind, and that something determines whether the Course continues to exist. Only by giving the tiny miracles of understanding, support, forbearance, and happiness can we assure that this precious teaching does not fall on dead ears and dead hearts. Let us walk away from the bloody battlefield where egos fight for the rights to ego words. That was never where the Course was in the first place. God is now. God is here. We never left home. So let us be happy that God's arms are still around us. His heart is still our heart. His eyes are still our eyes. He is all there is.
Hugh and Gayle are parents, ministers, and authors of fourteen books including Spiritual Notes to Myself; Spiritual Parenting; and I Will Never Leave You. Hugh's Pre-ACIM book, Notes to Myself, sold over 5,000,000 copies!