by D. Patrick Miller
If you hang out in certain esoteric neighborhoods online, you’ve likely seen one of at least a hundred memes espousing the message: "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all of the barriers within yourself that you have built against it." In virtually all these memes the quote is credited to the mystical Sufi poet known as Rumi.
But every such meme is a misattribution.
The actual source of this quote is the contemporary spiritual teaching known as A Course in Miracles. The passage occurs in Chapter 16 of the massive Course Text, and the entire paragraph from which it is drawn reads thusly:
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all of the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. It is not necessary to seek for what is true, but it is necessary to seek for what is false. Every illusion is one of fear, whatever form it takes. And the attempt to escape from one illusion into another must fail. If you seek love outside yourself you can be certain that you perceive hatred within, and are afraid of it. Yet peace will never come from the illusion of love, but only from its reality.
The suggestion that “if you seek love outside yourself you can be certain that you perceive hatred within” certainly throws icewater on popular notions of hot romance. It’s just not the kind of inspiring homily you’ll find popularized in a multitude of memes, misattributed or otherwise. And this passage is only one of numerous potshots that the Course takes against what it calls the "special relationship," which can take a multitude of forms — from that of lovers in the clutches of romance, to family, parents and children, dog or cat fanatics, or even antique automobile collectors.
Without fail, the Course takes a position staunchly contrary to popular sentiment: that “true love” is to be found only within our own mind, not within the confines of what we call relationships. ACIM maintains that what we usually think of as ‘looking for love’ actually represents an attempted robbery or psychological cannibalism of certain qualities that we find deficient within ourselves as individuals. In psychological terms, these distorted forms of love are variously called narcissism, co-dependence, obsessive love or attachment disorder, and so on.
All that stems not just from parenting failures or unhealed traumas but because, according to the Course, our individual identities are totally illusory. That is, we’re all ontological fakes. Our egos are self-deceiving delusions struggling to find and maintain some short-lived dignity within a horrid yet seductive dream of pseudo-existence. Falling in love, caring for a favorite pet, or even having a family all amount to distractions from facing our fundamental existential delusion.
In truth, we are at home only within our one Mind, which comprises a totally abstract, universal state of love. As the Course expresses it metaphorically, “God is but love and therefore so am I.” In that state of God-as-Love there is no time, space, matter, or experience as individual bodies and egos. But we are all dreaming a nightmare in which our lonely egos play tragic starring roles in a world of hurt, decay, and inevitable death — albeit a world with just enough pleasure, beauty, and transitory connections to keep most of us entranced. The only way to awakening from our bad dream is through the constant application of forgiveness to literally everything we see — or to be more precise, everything that we imagine we are seeing.
A History of Contradictions & Contrariness
Given its challenging metaphysics, harsh teachings on special relationships and relentless assault on our highly treasured egos, it’s a miracle that A Course in Miracles has developed millions of hardcore, often lifelong students and legions of self-appointed teachers in less than half a century. Published in 1976 by the nonprofit Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP), the 1200-page self-described “mind training” takes the curricular form of a philosophical Text, Workbook for Students consisting of 365 daily lessons, and a brief Manual for Teachers. FIP’s Standard Edition has spread worldwide in more than three million English copies and 27 foreign translations, while a handful of alternately edited versions have developed their own followings among thousands of readers.
To say that ACIM has been widely misrepresented and misunderstood in its short life is an understatement. As the author of the only comprehensive history and commentary on the Course (Understanding A Course in Miracles: The History, Message, and Legacy of a Profound Spiritual Path - 2nd Edition, Fearless Books 2021), my aim in this feature is to review a few of the major misconceptions about the teaching that have circulated over the years and thus clear at least a ragged trail to its truth.
Just as ACIM suggests that we will find love only by clearing away the obstacles we have placed in our own path to it, I hope to point the way toward an understanding of what the Course is by removing some of the major misapprehensions about what it is not.
A necessary disclaimer is the admission that after 30+ plus years of investigation coupled to my own personal study, there are times that I look at my bedraggled and beaten (literally) paperback volume of A Course in Miracles and realize that I still don’t know what the hell it is exactly. Given that befuddled attitude, I will nonetheless review the following rumors regarding the nature and teaching of ACIM. More detail on most of these topics can be found in my book.
• The Course is a trendy, New Age-style volume of feel-good nostrums. While ACIM has gone up and down in popularity over nearly five decades, it has spread too far and persisted too long to be regarded as a passing trend. It could fairly be regarded as the bible of what’s come to be called the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) phenomenon, about which I’ve reported elsewhere. Recent polls suggest that roughly a third of adult Westerners have burned out on the major Western religions, turned to Eastern paths, or realized that they are ambivalently agnostic, thus creating the growing SBNR phenomenon. Most of them have probably had at least a brush with the teachings of the Course — even if only in a misattributed meme.
The “New Age” connotation has to do with the fact that the Course started to gain widespread notice in the 1980s, when that now-dated term was prevalent, but the association was never really accurate. In one of the few scholarly studies to assess the significance of ACIM, New Age Religion and Western Culture (SUNY Press, 1998), Prof. Wouter J. Hanegraaff of the University of Amsterdam allowed that A Course in Miracles was the closest thing to “sacred scripture” in the New Age movement, yet was “decidedly atypical” due to its general attitude of anti-worldliness: “Although many other New Age sources routinely use the Oriental concept of ‘maya’ and refer to the world of space-time as ultimately illusory, they seldom come close to the uncompromising world-rejection found in the Course.”
Put another way: While many New Age philosophies espouse certain psychological and spiritual techniques as a means to practically improve or inwardly redeem the world we see around us every day, the Course flatly rejects the reality of that world. “There is no world!” it proclaims in Workbook Lesson 237. “This is the central thought the course attempts to teach.”
Paradoxically, despite all its rejections of our everyday world, our egos, and our most prized forms of relationship, the Course has sometimes been mistaken for a feel-good philosophy. As the late Course publisher Judith Skutch once put it to me: “We're all involved in a worldly thought system that is a direct antithesis to the Course. Some people come to it looking for a reinforcement of their feelings for peace, love, and light, and that's what they'll find. But their eyes may glaze over when they come to the Course definition of the ego as a murderer. There are many paths that will tell you of your perfection in spirit, and that you are loved. The Course does that too, but it may not be the best place to go for it."
The late Kenneth Wapnick, Ph.D., an early editor of ACIM and still a leading philosopher through his legacy of books and recorded seminars, identified the feel-good phenomenon as a tendency of Course novices. “It’s true that many students new to the Course have a tendency to get dreamy and spaced-out," he told me. "A friend of mine calls them the ‘bliss ninnies’… When beginning students report to me how wonderful they’re feeling after the first few weeks of study, I tend to think they’re not getting it yet.”
• The Course was written by Marianne Williamson. Although A Course in Miracles was already an underground bestseller by the early 1990s, selling about 70,000 copies yearly, its sales quickly grew by 50 percent after the 1992 publication of A Return to Love, a self-help memoir inspired by the Course and written by a former cabaret singer, popular public speaker, and social activist named Marianne Williamson. In fact, Williamson’s meteoric fame rapidly outstripped that of the Course itself, causing confusion about the teaching’s origins. Part of this confusion owed to the original publisher’s failure to properly cite quotations from the Course, such that most of them appearing in the first printing of Return appeared to be Williamson’s own words. (Answering a complaint from the Foundation for Inner Peace, the ACIM quotes were all correctly attributed by the second printing.)
Then, while conversing with Williamson during a nationally televised special on the subject of miracles, host Larry King referred to “her course in miracles,” prompting Williamson to issue an immediate public correction of her own. As she told me in our first interview soon afterward, “I could just imagine all those Course students out there screaming ‘What?!’ or thinking that I told him to say that…. I talk about a lot of things that are not from the Course at all. I’m a popularizer of spiritual themes, and I certainly don’t think the Course has a monopoly on spiritual truth.”
Over the years the distinction between Williamson and the Course itself has become clearer, yet her periodic reappearances in the public eye have always had a tandem effect on the public awareness of ACIM. When she ran in the Democratic primaries for President in 2019, achieving an unprecedented degree of national recognition, many news media took a new look at the Course, including the New York Times. In an accurate and fair-handed feature entitled “The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid,” the NYT labeled ACIM an “esoteric bible” that has “now gone mainstream.” Although the latter characterization may have been a bit premature, it echoed the fact that the popularity of the Course has long been linked to Williamson’s own.
• The Course is a Satanic deception. The initial wave of the Course’s popularity in the 1980s led to its incursion in some Christian churches. One of the most veteran of all ACIM teachers, the Rev. Jon Mundy, shared the Course with his Methodist congregation throughout the decade, until he resigned his ministry in 1989. "That was a long time to hang in there," Mundy told me, "and I was very actively teaching the Course from the pulpit. I didn't make any bones about where my information was coming from; I was very clear about it." But what brought an end to Mundy's experiment presenting the Course in a Christian church was not his own realization that the two perspectives were incompatible. "What happened was that some fundamentalists moved into my church and realized that I was not speaking their language. And that was the end of it."
The upset of Christian fundamentalists with the Course has to do with the fact that it uses familiar Biblical lingo — God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — while radically altering their meanings. But that’s not all. ACIM was recorded in secret by two Columbia University psychologists, Helen Schucman and William Thetford, from 1965 to 1972 by a process that Schucman called an “inner dictation” that she read aloud to Thetford, who typed it up. But the prose itself identifies the real author as Jesus Christ, speaking through Schucman as an intermediary to offer a radical update to contemporary Christian theology. Its corrective tone is clear in such passages as the following:
You will not find peace until you have removed the nails from the hands of God's Son, and taken the last thorn from his forehead. The Love of God surrounds His Son whom the god of crucifixion condemns. Teach not that I died in vain. Teach rather that I did not die by demonstrating that I live in you. For the undoing of the crucifixion of God's Son is the work of the redemption, in which everyone has a part of equal value. God does not judge His guiltless Son. Having given Himself to him, how could it be otherwise? (ACIM Text Ch11,VI,7)
The ideas that the crucifixion should be “undone” and that God is not in the business of judgment stuck in the craw of many fundamentalists, including the evangelical scholar Dean Halverson of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) based in Berkeley, CA. SCP, formed in 1973 to counter the rise of New Age spirituality and still operating today, published a 1987 journal entitled “Spiritism: The Medium and the Message” that laid into the Course with several substantial articles by Halverson, including a lengthy interview with Ken Wapnick, an interpretive essay entitled “Seeing YourSelf as Sinless,” and a chart comparing Course passages with Bible verses.
While Halverson did his homework and assessed the Course with a largely accurate understanding of what it says, his final judgement was that the source of ACIM was neither Jesus Christ nor Helen Schucman:
The good news of the Course, upon closer inspection, turns bitter. But that should come as no surprise. For the Jesus of the Course is not the Jesus of the Bible, but an angel of death and darkness masquerading as an angel of life and light (2 Cor. 11:14).
A similar conclusion was drawn by Moira Noonan, an ex-New Ager once active in the Religious Science church who focused her aim on the Course in her 2005 book Ransomed from Darkness:
Seven years of demonic dictation cannot be summarized in a few pages. Suffice it to say that the Course in Miracles is the Evil One's mockery and mimicry polished to perfection for the New Age. People are looking for deliverance from sin; the Course offers that. People are looking for control over their life, and the manifestation techniques taught by the Course are fulfilled often enough to give it credibility. Among Christians, a twenty-first century, information age interpretation of the Gospel is an inviting idea, and, as in every age, the appeal of miracles is hard to resist.
Needless to say, Halverson and Noonan are still echoed by many in conservative Christian circles who have taken notice of the Course.
The Course was produced as part of a CIA mind-control project. What might sound like the most outlandish Course rumor actually has some factual threads running through it. Because World War II had created a shortage of experienced manpower in many professional areas, Bill Thetford's first job in college carried considerable responsibility. He was placed on the University of Chicago's faculty payroll as an administrative officer overseeing buildings that served as testing areas for top-secret atomic research related to the Manhattan Project. At one point Thetford was in charge of a decontamination team that tried to "clean" radioactive areas, and he wore a Geiger counter at work from morning until night.
Excited by the strategic urgency of this work and ambivalent about his prospective career, he decided not to pursue medical school in the fall of 1944, remaining in his position with the atomic research project. But with the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, Thetford's sympathies reversed and he abruptly resigned the Project. He would soon be hired as a research assistant by Dr. Carl Rogers, who was on his way to becoming a leader in humanistic psychology.
But Thetford’s early experience with top-secret government security may have facilitated connections with the intelligence community that would persist throughout his academic career. One professional vita lists him as a "Government Psychologist" from 1951 to 1954, including one year (1953) serving as a consultant to the Foreign Service Institute in Beirut, Lebanon.
According to the late William Whitson of the Foundation for Inner Peace, Thetford was actually in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency during this period, working as a researcher and developing a comprehensive and sophisticated guide to personality assessment. Thetford apparently also did a short stint as a CIA field agent; Whitson told me that his single mission involved the debriefing of a Christian missionary's daughter who had been held captive by the Chinese government. But he found the work unengaging and thereafter quit as a field agent.
Years later, during and after the scribing of the Course, Bill Thetford and Helen Schucman would jointly write several papers covertly subsidized by CIA-funded research groups (which used a variety of cover names, including the “Human Ecology Fund”). These groups all facilitated the CIA’s interest at the time in assessing human behavior for the ultimate purpose of achieving “mind control,” rumored to have been successfully developed in Russia and China.
Many other university psychologists in the 1950s and 60s were likewise funded for research, including Carl Rogers. As Rogers told investigative reporter John Marks in his 1979 exposé The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control (Norton), “We really did regard Russia as the enemy, and we were trying to do various things to make sure the Russians did not get the upper hand.”
Some of this academic research may have been later exploited by the CIA for operational purposes, especially the fruitless pursuit of mind control technologies. At any rate, the interests of Schucman and Thetford were research-oriented, and there is no evidence to suggest that they had any direct involvement in the CIA's failed attempts to exploit mind control or so-called "brainwashing."
Nonetheless, the public record of Thetford's intelligence connections has contributed to conspiracy theories on the Internet, including the claim that Schucman and Thetford were somehow involved in the CIA's infamously unsuccessful mind-control program known as MK-ULTRA. Whitson, who had a background in naval intelligence himself and was familiar with Thetford’s background, called these charges spurious. But he did recall Thetford joking that the typewriter he used to convert Helen Schucman’s shorthand notes for the Course into manuscript was paid for by the CIA. Apart from that ironic detail, it is difficult to see the strategic value of the content of the Course to government security interests.
The Course is mostly for crazy people. This is a rumor I heard firsthand not long after my divorce in 2005, when I was experimenting with online dating for the first time in my life. After I wrote an attractive woman an introductory message, I received an almost instantaneous reply — only to realize upon reading that it was not a reply, but her own spontaneous introduction. Strangely enough, we had written each other simultaneously. “It’s a miracle!” I concluded. Ignoring everything the Course had told me about the dangers of special relationships, we soon began dating.
As it turned out, we did not have much in common besides an uncanny sense of timing. The woman (whom I shall call 'Choosy'), claimed to be an atheist but was an obsessive fan of ghost-hunting shows on television, a paradox I could never reconcile. I told her about my experience with the Course, especially about how it had helped me to recover from a seven-year bout of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and watched her eyes glaze over. We saw each other for exactly one month, going to a lot of movies and avoiding deep conversations before she abruptly ended our contact without warning or explanation (what the kids call “ghosting” nowadays).
But that was not the end of our special relationship. About two years later, I was bounding down the steps of the gym where I worked out and almost ran over Choosy on the sidewalk. She looked pale, exhausted, and startled. Since I couldn’t honestly tell her she was looking great, I asked “How are you doing?” and she replied, “Not so good. I’ve been really sick for a few months and was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.”
I could honestly say I understood what she was going through and offered to assist with any insights or information that I could. Looking thoroughly spooked, she replied hesitantly, “Well, I guess it’s good timing running into you. I just came from my therapist’s office, and he told me that he thinks I might benefit from looking into A Course in Miracles.”
“Oh really?” I replied, trying my best not to look smug.
“Yeah,” she said, “and it’s so weird because I was just walking down the street remembering that you used to talk about it. And here you are…” Choosy paused, lowered her voice almost to a whisper, and leaned in close to ask, “So can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” I whispered back, eager to be helpful.
Choosy glanced both ways down the sidewalk before murmuring, “Isn’t the Course mostly for, like, crazy people?”
I couldn’t stop from bursting out in laughter, for two reasons. First, it was now abundantly clear what opinion Choosy had reached about me before breaking off our brief romance. Second, the question was deadly accurate.
So I replied, “Yes, absolutely… as long as you understand that the Course says we’re ALL crazy.”
And that is indeed the diagnosis of the human condition that one finds in A Course in Miracles. As the Text suggests in Chapter 18:
Truth has rushed to meet you since you called upon it. If you knew Who walks beside you on the way that you have chosen, fear would be impossible. You do not know because the journey into darkness has been long and cruel, and you have gone deep into it. A little flicker of your eyelids, closed so long, has not yet been sufficient to give you confidence in yourself, so long despised. You go toward love still hating it, and terribly afraid of its judgment upon you. And you do not realize that you are not afraid of love, but only of what you have made of it. You are advancing to love’s meaning, and away from all illusions in which you have surrounded it…
There is perhaps no more poignant definition of insanity than “going toward love hating it,” and it’s an apt summary of what so many people struggle with in all kinds of relationships. Even if Rumi didn’t say it, our primary spiritual task is indeed not to seek and find love, but to face and forgive all the illusions we have placed around the infinite power of love at the center of our mind. As we work at that process we will gradually learn how, in Course lingo, to “loose the world from all we thought it was.”
First trained as an investigative journalist, D. PATRICK MILLER began writing about spirituality, human potential, and creativity after a seven-year illness initiated his spiritual path. Since that time he has intensively studied A Course in Miracles, the Enneagram system of personality, Jungian depth psychology, shamanism, and related fields of contemporary spirituality. He has also applied spiritual principles and disciplines intensively in his own life, and written about the results. He is the author of a dozen print titles and many more e-books. As a magazine and online journalist, Patrick has written over 100 articles for Yoga Journal, THE SUN, Elephant Journal online, and this website. He is also the founder of Fearless Books and Literary Services. He maintains a regular column entitled miracles of course, which offers brief expositions on the principles and applications of various Workbook Lessons. For information about his coaching service on a variety of topics, see Consulting.
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