by D. Patrick Miller

 

“Can you paint rosy lips upon a skeleton, dress it in loveliness, pet it and pamper it, and make it live? And can you be content with an illusion that you are living?”
A Course in Miracles

 

Abraham (Bram) Stoker toyed with the title The Un-Dead for his 1897 novel that became the classic Dracula. His use of the term undead launched its modern usage. But the literary notion of a living corpse dates back at least to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, widely considered to be the first work of the modern genre known as science fiction. The book was published anonymously in London in 1818, when Shelley was all of twenty (then released under her own name in 1821, in a more free-thinking Paris).

Beginning with Dr. Frankenstein’s lone monster, continuing with numerous portrayals of a seductive Dracula and accelerating with scores of vampires slain by Buffy — then losing count among the hordes of zombies populating recent films and television series — it seems that no single metaphor has overrun the modern popular imagination like the undead. As they haunt our screens in steadily increasing numbers, one has to wonder why the “walking dead” have become universally popular.

Writing for the Boston Globe, TV critic Matthew Gilbert theorizes that “the undead are manifestations of our undying desire for immortality.” Yet as he admits, immortality isn’t portrayed as an enviable condition: “We’ve created them in our collective imagination — but then we’ve made them miserable. They aren’t enlightened Buddha figures who, from existing across centuries, have found an empowered perspective on life — or anything close to that. They brood, they grieve their familial loved ones, they fall for unavailable humans….”

Sound familiar? It should. Because the undead are not just some imaginary kinfolk arising out of our desire to live forever. To put it bluntly, the undead are us.

 

An invisible death certificate
Consider first of all that we are each born with an invisible death certificate — an absolute guarantee that our embodied life begun in a vulnerable infancy will end, sooner or later. Even if our lifespan is experienced as better than “nasty, brutish, and short” as 16th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned, it is flavored by the awareness of death from early on. Developmental studies suggest that children of three years age or less don’t comprehend death at all; between four and ten they gradually develop an understanding of its finality, inevitability and universality. By our tweens, virtually all of us grasp that we’re doomed to expire, at least physically.

By that age, many kids will have been exposed to some kind of religious teaching that suggests the notion of an afterlife or eternal life of the soul, so that the death sentence laid upon them by birth may seem revocable, on certain conditions. Much of religion of every type — Eastern, Western, or indigenously shamanic — exists to explain, reassure, or issue warnings about the unbreakable bond between “life and death.” I have relatives who firmly believe that whether their afterlife will be hellish or heavenly depends on whether they have sufficiently followed the dictates of their religion. Such beliefs can take hold early and linger throughout a lifetime.

By contrast, atheists generally contend that those same beliefs are infantile superstitions, meant to manipulate gullible people who cannot face the fact that biological death is it: the permanent end of their bodily existence and self-awareness. So that even if one’s life goes for the long term, its end may well be nasty and brutish. That casts a powerful doubt on the worthiness of having lived at all. From a purely rational point of view, both our life and death are accidents that just happen with no meaningful cause, inherent purpose, or ultimate significance.

Needless to say, this cold outlook can make even the most forbidding of traditional religious perspectives seem warm and cuddly.

 

The experience of death within life
But it’s not just anticipating our inevitable expiration that qualifies us for membership in the Undead Club. After all, most of us can put aside that fatalistic worry most of the time — at least until old age or a mortally threatening illness puts it front and center in our awareness.

More to the point, we experience powerful aspects of deadness in our daily life more often than we might like to admit. Physical illness of any sort brings a kind of dying into our experience, as various parts or systems of the body shut down or malfunction without our conscious assent. As someone who recovered from a chronic autoimmune disorder, I know the feeling of being so sick that I would just as soon have died than continue another day in the grip of an overwhelming physical breakdown. Paradoxically, what made the experience so deadening was the certainty that I wasn’t going to be killed by the ailment. So the sentence of exceptional suffering seemed indefinite — an endless death-in-life.

With or without physical suffering, mental and emotional struggles can induce depression of dangerous depths. I doubt there is anyone who has survived adolescence without entertaining “suicidal ideation,” as the psychologists call it. Entertaining the idea of self-killing is just a step away from actually attempting it. Based on 2020 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, there are about 1.2 million suicides annually in the US, or one every eleven minutes. Over twelve million give it a serious thought, and more than three million draw up a plan.

Add to this the daily-news threats of homicides, mass shootings and genocides — plus the time-honored tradition of war as a legalized form of slaughter — and it’s clear that a significant element of our life experience is just “not dead yet.” However much we may celebrate and cling to living, our mortal bodies always carry the weight of doom, which could crush us at any moment. No wonder we all feel the moodiness of the undead from time to time.


Death as a thought
The contemporary spiritual teaching known as A Course in Miracles (ACIM) offers a provocatively different perception of life and death than we are accustomed to:

"Death is a thought that takes on many forms, often unrecognized. It may appear as sadness, fear, anxiety or doubt; as anger, faithlessness and lack of trust; concern for bodies, envy, and all forms in which the wish to be as you are not may come to tempt you. All such thoughts are but reflections of the worshipping of death as savior and as giver of release." (ACIM, W-163.1)

Equating death with a “concern for bodies” is a clue to ACIM’s radical redefinition of our existence. To put it simply, the Course suggests that life is experienced entirely in the realm of the mind — and exiling it to the confines of individual bodies is a grave error of misperception. Whenever we are sad or suffering, it’s because we have mistaken our being for a physical form that is actually “… a parody of life which, in its lifelessness, is really death, conceived as real and given living form. Yet each must fail and crumble and decay, because a form of death cannot be life…” (ACIM, T-29.VII.5)

What is true of the individual body holds true for the entire world experienced by billions of separate bodies:

“You do not really want the world you see, for it has disappointed you since time began. The homes you built have never sheltered you. The roads you made have led you nowhere, and no city that you built has withstood the crumbling assault of time. Nothing you made but has the mark of death upon it. Hold it not dear, for it is old and tired and ready to return to dust even as you made it. This aching world has not the power to touch the living world at all. You could not give it that, and so although you turn in sadness from it, you cannot find in it the road that leads away from it into another world.” (ACIM, T-13.VII.3; emphasis added)

Thus, in contrast to religion’s promise of escaping death by earning an eternal afterlife, the Course asserts that we have already chosen death by believing in a solitary, embodied existence doomed to extinction. This is the “aching world” experienced by every body and each ego — that is, the realm of the undead.

What ACIM calls the “living world” (and elsewhere the “real world”) is a realm of existence that is entirely spiritual, for lack of a better word. That means it is invisible, nonphysical and unbounded, timeless, and situated nowhere in particular. How one could exist in such an abstract, disembodied state may seem impossibly perplexing. But it’s an idea we may all have to get used to.



Toward a Copernican revolution of the psyche
On January 1, 2004, the New York Times published an editorial titled "The Time We Thought We Knew" by physicist Brian Greene, author of the popular science titles The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality. Had Greene's piece not been sequestered in the newspaper's parlor room of opinion pieces, it might well have served as front-page news of the greatest historical import:

“Today's scientists seeking to combine quantum mechanics with Einstein's theory of gravity (the general theory of relativity) are convinced that we are on the verge of another major upheaval. Many believe this will involve a radically new formulation of natural law in which scientists will be compelled to trade the space-time matrix within which they have worked for centuries for a more basic ‘realm’ that is itself devoid of time and space. As outrageous as it sounds to many researchers, including me, such a departure of time and space from the ultimate laws of the universe seems inevitable.”

It should be noted that Greene is not a New Age theorist with correspondence-school credentials. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he holds a chair in mathematics and physics at Columbia University, directs Columbia’s Center for Theoretical Physics, and co-founded the highly regarded World Science Festival in 2008.  

And Greene is far from alone in proposing that quantum mechanics is shaking up the “ultimate laws of the universe.” The 2022 Nobel Prize for physics was recently shared by John Clauser, Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger for their “experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.” For those unused to physics-speak, the significance of this work was pithily summarized by a Scientific American headline: “The Universe Is Not Locally Real, and the Physics Nobel Prize Winners Proved It.” This recalls the famous quote by Niels Bohr, a colleague of Einstein who argued with him about the nature of reality: “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.”

For instance, most of us regard the passage of time as real; we organize our daily schedules and our entire lives with it. Mostly against our will, we age and die by it.  Greene notes that we still adhere to the assumptions of Isaac Newton, who asserted in the 17th century that "time flows equably without reference to anything external" — as if, in Greene’s words, "the universe is equipped with a kind of built-in clock that ticks off seconds identically, regardless of location or epoch." Because that fundamental perception of time is reliable unless you are traveling near the speed of light or vacationing near a black hole — where everything starts to change in some very weird ways — "nature lulls us into believing Newton's rigid conception," says Greene.

Still, he adds, "the cost of adhering to Newton's description of time is high. Like believing the earth is flat or that man was created on the sixth day, our willingness to place unjustified faith in immediate perception or received wisdom leads us to an inaccurate and starkly limited vision of reality."

A Course in Miracles agrees in many passages, such as “Time is a trick, a sleight of hand, a vast illusion in which figures come and go as if by magic.” (ACIM: W-158.4) That assertion might travel farther than Greene and most physicists are willing to go. But if he’s right in suggesting that science will eventually have to surrender its belief in space and time, then it's up to non-scientists to start asking what the ramifications may be for the rest of human culture.

For instance, what differences will this profound shift in perception evoke in psychology, religion, education and even child-raising? When it becomes obvious that human beings can no longer define themselves within the familiar parameters of predictable time and a measurable space between each other, how then will we see ourselves? From the "starkly limited vision of reality" that we now entertain, can we even begin to imagine how our existence may be redefined by a radically greater vision of truth?

Before Copernicus, it was inconceivable to most people that the planet Earth was not the center of the universe, and that the affairs of humanity were not the overriding concern of an all-powerful, watchful Creator. Since then, science has gradually revolutionized our view of the physical universe until we've come to accept that the Earth is but an infinitely tiny speck in a vast and fantastic cosmos. (And science has sidelined any divine, know-it-all Creator from the cosmic action, to say the least.)

Yet at its subatomic root, the nature of the cosmos is largely defined by how we choose to look at it. As Werner Heisenberg, who won the 1932 Nobel Prize for the creation of quantum mechanics, phrased it in Physics and Philosophy: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” So far our method of questioning the nature of our universe — from its invisible, submicroscopic roots to its farthest and oldest messages of light — keeps leading to paradoxes and contradictions that seem impossible to resolve. Or as Heisenberg also put it: “Not only is the universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” (Across the Frontiers)

In this evolving vision, we may eventually comprehend that we are not the tiny, separate beings we have always believed ourselves to be. Currently we endure the aching existence of the undead, seemingly bound by gravity and grief to finite lifespans that seldom give us time to find peace before our individual consciousness is snuffed out. But we are slowly learning to grasp that our individual consciousness — profoundly limited by our bodily senses, ego-bound prejudices, and wishful expectations — is presently asleep to a vastly greater awareness. That awareness might be called an infinite Mind to which we have access, even if we are seldom aware of it. However limited, unreliable and problematic it may be, our personal, brain-filtered consciousness nonetheless presents us with the opportunity to synchronize ourselves with that Mind.

Thus we may be on the cusp of a new Copernican revolution of the psyche, in which we will become aware that the fearful and defensive ego is not the center of consciousness and the body does not define our existence. It’s fair to say that we don’t know how to get there from here. Yet in such a heightened state of Mind we may find the healing of our historic sufferings — and the experience of our “real life,” unlimited and uncontaminated by all thoughts of death.


Accepting ourselves as ideas
Published in 1976, A Course in Miracles is an uncompromising guidebook to learning how to release our self-definition as bodies and egos. It is perfectly timed for an era in which the foundations of physical reality are being seriously questioned. Calling itself a “mind training” rather than a religious doctrine, ACIM offers a heady and often bewildering synthesis of Eastern metaphysics and Western psychology in Christian language. (That language, however, radically revises the meanings of such central terms as God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.)

Although it’s impossible to fully define what the Course is, it can be approximated as a self-contained, do-it-yourself form of transcendent cognitive therapy written in a spiritualized and often poetic prose. Since its release, the Standard Edition published by the nonprofit Foundation for Inner Peace has sold over three million copies in English, with 27 translations currently available worldwide. A handful of alternate edits are also widely available. (For a full history, summary of major ideas, and critical commentary, see my book Understanding A Course in Miracles.)

The central theme and ethic of ACIM is forgiveness, but it carries the significance of forgiveness much farther than traditional religion, therapy, or self-help psychology. While it does offer insights and techniques for the healing of interpersonal relationships and the release of one’s own guilt, its ultimate aim is to lead students toward forgiving the entire perceived world they find themselves in: “I loose the world from all I thought it was,” Workbook Lesson #132 suggests as a day’s meditation.

But the most challenging aspect of the Course discipline may be its urging students to forgive themselves for the existential predicament of living in a painful illusion. The idea that all our experience is illusory is not new, having antecedents in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It goes back in Western thought at least to Plato’s allegory of the cave and the 17th century philosopher Bishop Berkeley, who coined the phrase esse est percipi or “to be is to perceive.” In other words, Berkeley asserted that we do not interact with a factual world of solid objects but only with our own perceptions. The Course echoes this idea in the very first Workbook lessons: “Nothing I see means anything” and “I have given everything I see all the meaning it has for me."

What distinguishes the Course from mere philosophical conjecture is that it offers specific, daily exercises that relentlessly direct students to confront and forgive all the delusions by which they live — from the most petty and personal to the cosmic and profound. This transcendent forgiveness gradually enables us to surrender our normal, self-defensive egocentricity to a surpassing wisdom based in the reality that lies beyond time and space.

In Course lingo, this means giving up the “raucous screams and senseless ravings” of the body-bound ego for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit is not some divine gossamer ghost hovering round our shoulders, but rather a part of our mind that safeguards the memory of our home in God: “You are at home in God, dreaming of exile but perfectly capable of awakening to reality.”  (ACIM, T-10.I.2) And God is radically redefined as well — from an omniscient, all-powerful magician conjured in our own image of personhood to a universal, abstract, and creative energy of love. The Course points its students toward an eventual, total release of the self into that ultimate abstraction, which is how ACIM redefines the term “Atonement.” To attain the Atonement is to comprehend and integrate an oft-repeated theme of the Course Workbook: “God is but Love and therefore so am I.”

Finally, this process all occurs within the realm of thought and ideas. As the Course asserts: “… you recognize, however dimly, that God is an idea, and so your faith in Him is strengthened by sharing. What you find difficult to accept is the fact that, like your Father, you are an idea.” (ACIM, T-15.VI.4:4-5)


Undoing our undeadness
Each of us lives in a physical and social environment that we experience as “locally real.” As a teaching of nonduality, A Course in Miracles asserts that there is only one reality — but our local reality is not it. That means we are seeing nothing as it really is and are thus living in a dream (or a nightmare, depending on how your day is going).

If fully appreciated, this nondual perspective is a total affront to our daily experience, our identities, and our conception of the entire universe. As the teaching itself warns, “To learn this course requires willingness to question every value that you hold.” (ACIM, T-24.in.2) The Course points students toward a “real world” beyond the realm of time and space that is not only stranger than we think, but also stranger than we can think. So we need an exhaustive “mind training” to learn how to grasp that surpassing reality, because it is currently blocked from view by a mere fragment of mind called the ego:

"This fragment of your mind is such a tiny part of it that, could you but appreciate the whole, you would see instantly that it is like the smallest sunbeam to the sun, or like the faintest ripple on the surface of the ocean. In its amazing arrogance, this tiny sunbeam has decided it is the sun; this almost imperceptible ripple hails itself as the ocean. Think how alone and frightened is this little thought, this infinitesimal illusion, holding itself apart against the universe. The sun becomes the sunbeam’s 'enemy' that would devour it, and the ocean terrifies the little ripple and wants to swallow it." (ACIM, T-18.VIII.3)

Fortunately, the reality that presently lies beyond our grasp is actually not terrifying. It is a limitless state of being that's fully alive and infused with perfect love, free of the fear that characterizes the ego’s dwelling in a tragically confused undeadness. As the Course describes the difference between our present world and the one that is revealed via forgiveness:

“The world you see is merciless indeed, unstable, cruel, unconcerned with you, quick to avenge and pitiless with hate. It gives but to rescind, and takes away all things that you have cherished for a while. No lasting love is found, for none is here. This is the world of time, where all things end.

"Is it a loss to find a world instead where losing is impossible; where love endures forever, hate cannot exist and vengeance has no meaning?" (ACIM, W-129.2–3)

If that latter world seems impossible to imagine, much less move into, it’s worth remembering what the current state of quantum mechanics implies: that we are imagining the vast and incredibly complicated world of time and space we currently seem to inhabit. The Course goes farther, insisting that all we see — the horrendous and the beautiful, the lively and the deadened, the cruel and compassionate — is a projection of exactly what we choose and expect to see, even as it all seems chaotic and beyond our control.

The idea that we are trapped within bodies where (like Schrödinger's cat) we're in a limbo between life and death, is just that: an idea that can be surrendered for another, far better idea. The solution is not to make a deal with some super-daddy God who will grant us an eternal afterlife, but to change what we are doing within our own minds right now:

“Forgive, and you will see this differently…. Shall we not learn to say these words when we are tempted to believe that pain is real, and death becomes our choice instead of life? Shall we not learn to say these words when we have understood their power to release all minds from bondage? These are words which give you power over all events that seem to have been given power over you.” (ACIM, W-193.5…6)

If we can learn the discipline of forgiving all that we see from moment to moment, we will not just heal our relationships and release our minds from bondage to conflict, alienation, and despair. We will also gradually attune ourselves to a greater reality than we can presently grasp, totally transforming our comprehension of life and death.

Then, even if the undead continue to overpopulate the screens we watch, at least we won’t see them in the mirror anymore.

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{Portions of this article are excerpted from Understanding A Course in Miracles.}

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D. PATRICK MILLER is the author of nine books in print, one published by Penguin Random House, two by Hampton Roads Publishing, and six under his own imprint. First trained as an investigative journalist, he 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. As a magazine and online journalist, Patrick has written over 100 articles for Yoga Journal, THE SUN, Elephant Journal online, and many other media including this website. He is also the founder of Fearless Books and Literary Services, and has helped other authors prepare manuscripts for such major publishers as Viking, Doubleday, Crown, Simon & Schuster, Tarcher Perigee, Hay House, Hampton Roads, and New World Library. He provides manuscript consultations, editing, assisted publishing, and professional representation to published and unpublished authors working in fiction and nonfiction.

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