Understanding the Deeper Challenge of Mystical Paths

by D. Patrick Miller


A Course in Miracles is an esoteric curriculum that guides its students toward a spiritual way of life by restoring their contact with what it calls the Holy Spirit or 'internal teacher." By insisting that we learn to forgive the everyday world as a tragic illusion of our own making, it issues a fundamental challenge to the reality of all that we see, hear, and feel in our ordinary state of consciousness.

This challenge can have a bewildering effect on some students —an effect that may not be quickly resolved. To understand why a purportedly beneficial spiritual teaching can throw its students for a loop, it's necessary to understand the difference between the effects of conventional religion and an authentic mystical path.

According to San Francisco State University philosophy professor Jacob Needleman, author of the classic The New Religions (Doubleday, 1970) and more recent titles such as The American Soul (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002) and Why Can't We Be Good? (Penguin, 2007), the world's great religious traditions have always consisted of an outer shell of moral teachings and prescribed beliefs and an inner core of more demanding transformative practices. As Needleman explains,

Christianity, Judaism, and Islamic belief all provide people with moral precepts: ways of living meant to be obeyed by the masses. Any such way of living is based on a particular vision of human nature and society, and is intended to give balance and steadiness to our experience. It's not intended to transform us, to give us nirvana or God-realization. But if kept authentically, it can bring a few people who are seeking more to "the path" in relatively good shape. Their psyches are not torn apart or so terribly neurotic. This is the point of the exoteric function of the great religions — what Islam calls the shariat, its laws, customs, and traditions. It's a very important part of balancing human life, and at their best these rules provide guidelines for handling our various energies with compassion for one another.

Within the shariat is the tarikat: the way or the path. In Islam, this esoteric function is embodied by the Sufis. Many great teachers have said that the esoteric work is only for those who have been through the exoteric, and have achieved the necessary balance. It's true that the message of the great esoteric traditions is that only an inner change can genuinely infuse outer actions with truth, love, and power. But most of these transformative techniques were intended for people who had lived in balance with a tradition. What we're getting recently in the West is a lot of information about inner practice, available to people who haven't really had an outer practice. (from Necessary Wisdom: Jacob Needleman Talks about God, Time, Money, Love, and the Need for Philosophy, Fearless Books, 2013).

What can happen to people who encounter a transformative inner practice if they haven't had much of an outer one? Says Needleman, "If a spiritual practice is too intense, it 'blows your mind' and becomes overly fascinating, or leads you into fantasy. You could compare the esoteric core of a religion to a very pure, high-octane fuel. Put it into an old Volkswagen, and the car will go like hell for a mile before it blows apart."

This vivid image may explain a lot about the disorienting effect of the Course on some of its students. What is startling about the Course in view of Needleman's analysis is that it appears to be a transformative inner practice that has come to us without an accompanying outer practice — that is, no commandments for moral behavior and no simple, direct judgments about various challenges of daily life.

Thus one of the greatest difficulties of A Course in Miracles might be called the 'problem of ultimacy': the fact that it operates as an ultimate teaching about the nature of consciousness and reality in a world in which so many people are looking for simpler, more direct answers to their everyday problems. In my own experience, the Course is not sufficient as a troubleshooting guide to everyday life. No one should mistake it as a substitute for psychotherapy, peer counseling, or simple human communion in times of distress. Particularly in the early stages of study, the Course can be quite confusing and even distressing if one attempts to apply its teaching too literally to chronic or everyday problems.

The changes in consciousness that the Course can effect may be quite profound, but they come about in a subtle and long-term manner. Those people for whom the Course eventually works as a transformative path — truly connecting them to an internal agency of reliable, ego-surpassing wisdom — may indeed transcend the need for more specific forms of personal or moral guidance. This is the advanced state of instinctive morality that St. Augustine was probably referring to when he issued the mystical directive "Love and do what you will."

But all paths to such states are fraught with dangers and opportunities for delusion. Thus, anyone who undertakes a path like A Course in Miracles would be well advised to stay in touch with respected and caring peers who do not share the path, its assumptions, and its lingo. Reliable outsiders can provide invaluable reality checks to the esoteric seeker along his or her way — and sophisticated skeptics can provide some necessary tests of one's spiritual learning.

Of course, ACIM is not the only esoteric path available to seekers in the modern "spiritual supermarket." However dangerous it may be for people to take up an inner practice without preparation or guidance, it would appear that the growing social phenomena of "inner seeking" and “spirituality without religion” are unlikely to reverse themselves. Perhaps more people are lately drawn to esoteric spiritualities because the outer paths of the great religious traditions have been slow to adapt their exoteric guidance to the needs of a rapidly changing world — as witnessed, for example, by the stresses and strains to which the Catholic Church is now subject. Or perhaps it's because the world's established religions have drifted too far from their inner, transformative core — a predicament that Jacob Needleman diagnosed three and a half decades ago when he wrote The New Religions. In discussing the central crisis of Western religion, he said:

It is as though millions of people suffering from a painful disease were to gather together to hear someone read a textbook of medical treatment in which the means necessary to cure their disease were carefully spelled out. It is as though they were all to take great comfort in that book and what they heard, going through their lives knowing that their disease could be cured, quoting passages to their friends, preaching the wonders of this great book, and returning to their congregation from time to time to hear more of the inspiring diagnosis and treatment read to them. Meanwhile, of course, the disease worsens and they eventually die of it, smiling in grateful hope as on their deathbed someone reads to them yet another passage from the text. Perhaps for some a troubling thought crosses their minds as their eyes close for the last time: "Haven't I forgotten something? Something important? Haven't I forgotten actually to undergo treatment?"

Even as Needleman wrote those words, a new "textbook" spelling out a spiritual cure to what ails us was being composed and would shortly become available to the world. The extent to which A Course in Miracles proves to be an effective esoteric therapy for the existential illness of humanity — whose painful symptoms include unhappiness, profound suffering, enmity, and oppression — remains to be seen.


Adapted from Chapter 10, "Secular Critiques of the Course" from the