Food for Thought:
"What is the Course? Will it exist
in the 21st Century?"
By Hugh Prather
Thursday, July 8, 1999
Andre' Gendron just sent this article to me and it was so good that
I wanted to share it with all of you. While its author, Hugh Prather,
is focusing primarily on the world of "A Course in Miracles",
the topics he covers obviously apply to other spiritual paths as well.
If Prather's comments strike a cord in you, and you want to share
your thoughts with the rest of the NHNE Mailing List, I encourage
you to visit our bulletin board. You can post your thoughts there
and other NHNE readers can swing by and read them.
NHNE Bulletin Board:
With Love & Best Wishes,
What is the Course? Will it exist in the 21st Century?
By Hugh Prather
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
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 A Course in Miracles, 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 A Course in Miracles
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
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
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 A Course in
Miracles. 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. A Course in Miracles 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
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
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
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. You can talk to Hugh toll free on Wisdom Radio any
Saturday evening 6:00 to 8:00 pacific time (1-800-655-2112).