Universal Curriculum or Perennial Wisdom

Robert Walsh, a professor of psychiatry, anthropology and philosophy at the University of California at Irvine, discusses A Course in Miracles:

Transcendent States of Mind

Robert Walsh, a native Australian for whom the Church of England constituted his earliest religious influence, says that he was "pretty much of an agnostic" by the time he arrived at Stanford University for his psychiatric training. "I was a hardcore neuro-scientist oriented toward behavior-modification therapy and a related outlook on life."

A major turning point in Walsh’s life occurred when he entered psychotherapy in 1974, "opening up a whole new world of inner feeling and imagery that I’d been totally out of touch with." Sampling a wide variety of trainings and workshops while pursuing psychiatric training and then his postdoctoral psychiatric research, Walsh found himself gravitating toward meditation practice and contemplative traditions—"although I didn’t know exactly why, since I still regarded religion as the opiate of the masses." Then came another turning point. "I experienced a blinding moment of insight," recalls Walsh, "when I realized that the contemplative core of the world’s great spiritual traditions offered technologies for the induction of transcendent states of mind."

As Walsh observed, "This means that the deepest spiritual wisdom may not be fully comprehensible to us unless we too train ourselves to experience appropriate states of mind"—through such traditional spiritual technologies as meditation, yoga, contemplation, and devotional practices. In fact, Walsh believes that the world’s spiritual traditions were inspired in part by the altered-states experiences of the great teachers and prophets such as Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed.

From this perspective, the early-seventies arrival of A Course in Miracles with its unique blend of psychological and spiritual language plus an explicit discipline for mind training, could not have been more perfectly timed. But in Roger Walsh’s view, what makes the Course so effective is not only its modernity but also some core character. "One of the hallmarks of a profound teaching is that when you go through it again, you find what philosophers call "higher grades of significance," wrote Walsh. "This seems to happen each time I go through the Course. I’m now at the point where I feel it’s on a par with any other material or discipline I’ve seen...I’m inclined to think that this document may be a spiritual masterpiece."

In Walsh’s view, then, authentic spiritual traditions are "those capable of inducing appropriate altered states, transcendence or higher development." A Course in Miracles, he says, shares at least four similarities with older teachings:

  1. How the teachings were revealed
  2. What the teachings say about the human condition
  3. What the teachings say about our potential
  4. What the teachings say about the means for realizing our potential

#1 How The Teachings Were Revealed

I’m still terribly embarrassed to be associated with something channeled," confesses Walsh, "as were Bill Thetford and Helen Schucman. But as far as I can see, religions have usually been produced from very unrespectable sources. Jesus was condemned as a common criminal, Lao-Tzu wandered off into the desert as a total unknown, Confucius couldn’t hold a job, and Mohammed was a suspect camel driver whom a lot of people waged war on."

Walsh admits that there’s an "enormous amount of nonsense to be found in channeled material. The problem is that there’s also some good stuff. It’s much rarer, but it defies common-sense explanations. It seems pretty clear that some of the Bible was produced this way, as well as part of the Koran. In Judaism there have been scores of mystics who produced works by the process of inner dictation, and in Buddhism, many Indian and Tibetan texts were produced this way."

Walsh is particularly impressed by the voice of the Course in comparison to other channeled teachers he has sampled. "If I try to sense the mind of Emmanuel, for instance, I feel a wonderful, compassionate presence, but there’s still a feeling of individuality. By contrast, the mind behind the Course feels boundless."

#2 What The Teachings Say About the Human Condition

Perhaps the most common feature of the great spiritual traditions is that they take a dim view of the human condition in its everyday, unspiritual state. "The teachings make it clear that things aren’t good and there’s an enormous amount of suffering going on," says Walsh. "They point to the sorrows and shortness of life; the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death; the ever-present confrontation with meaning, purpose, and the questions of relationship and aloneness; and the uncertainty and fickleness of fate."

The first Noble truth of the Buddha points to the inevitability of suffering in life, which Walsh cites alongside a passage from Psalms: "In the immensity of the universe we seem as dust. Our lives are but toil and trouble; they are soon gone. They come to an end like a sigh; like a dream. What person can live and not see death?"

A Course in Miracles agrees completely," remarks Walsh. "It says this is an insane world of sorrow and death, and it is not where you ultimately belong. Then why are we here? Both ACIM and the contemplative core of the great traditions say that the problem the world represents is really the state of our minds. We’re driven and dominated by unhealthy desires and fears, obsessed by wanting to get more variations and intensities of sensation and feelings. Plus, we’re dominated by egocentric concerns, driven by the twin powers of addiction and aversion. From these spring the seven deadly sins of Christianity, the hindrances of Buddhism, the pain-bearing obstructions of yoga—different names for similar afflictions."

Buddhism and the Course are very similar in their suggestions that our way of thinking literally creates the world we see, says Walsh. The message of ACIM is that "you’re so insane you don’t know you’re insane. You’re suffering from a shared, unhappy, psychotic dream, and the Course offers an alternate thought system you can substitute for that dream."This point about dreaming is very important," continues Walsh, "because a lot of the deeper meaning of the great traditions is hidden unless you get the implications of this message: that what we ordinarily take to be a fully wakened state is actually a dream."

Walsh feels that the Course’s explanation of our waking hallucinations is among the best available in the world’s traditions: "Dreams show you that you have the power to make a world as you would have it be, and that because you want it, you see it. And while you see it you do not doubt that it is real. Yet here is a world, clearly within your mind, that seems to be outside...You seem to waken, and the dream is gone...And what you seem to waken to is but another form of this same world you see in dreams. All your time is spent in dreaming. Your sleeping and your waking dreams have different forms, and that is all."

#3 What the Teachings Say About Our Potential

"We can get some sense of our true nature if we look at the opposite of our unenlightened condition as it usually is," comments Walsh. "Instead of finitude and limits, we find descriptions of infinity and boundless being. In place of time and change we find descriptions of the eternal and the changeless. In place of birth and death we have the unborn and the deathless. In place of angst and fear we have love, bliss, and joy."

Likewise, says Walsh, the great tradition's suggest an enormous potential for the mind. "Enlightened mind is said to be free of the ravages of fear, greed, hatred, and anger. Christ called it the ‘peace which passeth understanding’; for the Buddha it was nirvana, for the yogi it’s the bliss of samadhi." As the Course says, "A tranquil mind is not a little gift."

The universal message here is that to the extent we quiet the raucous activity of our untrained minds, to that extent we will find our true Self, a place of boundless peace and bliss. This is the Buddha's recognition of anatta, the awareness that the ego was an illusion all along. It’s the goal of yoga, which means union of self with Self.It’s Taoism’s alignment with the Tao, and for Christian mystics it was deification, Christ-consciousness, or oneness with God. In the Course’s words, it’s "Let me remember I am one with God, at one with all my brothers and my Self, in everlasting holiness and peace."’ "This all sounds like nice stuff," Walsh concludes. "The questions is, how do we get there?"

#4 What the Teachings Say About the Means for Realizing our Potential

According to Walsh, authentic spiritual traditions offer not just a belief system but an explicit guide to training the mind so that one becomes open to higher states of being and awareness. Thus, all great paths offer what Walsh calls a "technology of transcendence." Looking across all these paths, Walsh finds five common elements of such technology:

    1. Ethical training
    2. Attentional training
    3. Emotional transformation
    4. Motivational change
    5. The cultivation of wisdom

1: Ethical training.

"The common thinking of religious morality is do this or God will get you," says Walsh. "This is not the perspective of the universal curriculum or perennial wisdom, which views ethics as a means for training the mind. If we look closely we find that unethical behavior both arises from and reinforces painful and destructive mind states: anger, fear, greed, hatred, and jealousy. On the other hand, ethical behavior tends not to reinforce these mind states, hence reducing them and cultivating their opposites: generosity, love, joyfulness. So one becomes ethical not out of fear or guilt, but simply because one recognizes that this is what leads to greater well-being for oneself and others. Ethics is a skillful strategy."

2: Attentional training.

"Our minds are a mess!" declares Walsh. "If you’ve ever tried meditation, you know the experience of sitting down to concentrate on following your breath, then realizing twenty minutes later that while there was certainly some breathing going on, you weren’t around for it." The Bhagavad-Gita says, "Restless man’s mind is. So strongly shaken in the grip of the senses, gross and grown hard with stubborn desire for what is worldly, how shall we tame it? Truly I think the wind is not wilder." Ramana Maharshi said, ‘All scriptures without any exception proclaim that for attaining salvation mind should be subdued.’ And then we have the Course saying, "You are much too tolerant of mind wandering."

Regardless of the path, Walsh suggests, the method of attentional training is basically the same: a continuous bringing back of attention to a predetermined object. The yogi returns again and again to the breath. The Course Workbook asks us to come back to our thought for the day. The aim is to constantly recollect the mind, returning it to what we have decided to focus on—and this gives power.

"In Buddhism there are four imponderables," adds Walsh. "these are four things that you can’t fathom, and they are:

  1. origination, or how the universe began;
  2. causation or karma, how things are caused;
  3. the scope of the mind of the Buddha; and finally,
  4. the power of the fully concentrated mind.

Apparently, a fully concentrated mind has awesome power at its disposal."

3: Emotional Transformation.

Walsh names two components to this element: 1) the reduction of negative, "unskillful" emotions and 2) the cultivation of positive, useful ones. As mentioned earlier, the perennial or universal philosophy sees all unskillful emotions emanating from the obsessions of addiction and aversion.

"The Course has a variety of approaches to reducing our attachment to what it calls idols—all the things we crave," says Walsh. "There is a whole series of Workbook lessons on this, including ‘The world I see holds nothing that I want.’ It’s not that we can’t live with joy and love here in the world; the Course and other traditions make it clear that we can. But as long as we think that fulfilling our desires is what will makes us happy, we’re actually destined for unhappiness."

Anger and hatred are the two chief emotions rooted in aversion, says Walsh, and he cites a pungent Buddhist image for this assessment of anger’s value: They say we should regard anger as stale urine mixed with poison. The Course maintains that "Anger is never justified. Attack has no foundation." "The Course’s primary tool for reducing anger is forgiveness," adds Walsh, "and it provides an exquisitely detailed variety of approaches to forgiveness, more so than any other path I have found."

The second component of emotional transformation is the cultivation of positive or skillful emotions, believed to lead the spiritual aspirant towards states of unlimited love and compassion. "These states are what Buddhism calls the divine abodes," observes Walsh, "what Christianity calls agape, what the bhakti tradition calls divine love. In one lesson the Course likewise suggests ‘God’s will for me is perfect happiness.’"

4: Motivational change.

Walsh believes that the universal or perennial philosophy encourages a number of shifts in one’s deepest motivations, chief among them being the shift from wanting to acquire things, attention, or power, to pursuing inner development as the only lasting means of satisfaction. Another shift is simply from getting to giving. "Traditionally this has been called purification," reports Walsh. "Psychologists would recognize it as moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For Kierkegaard it was epitomized in the saying, ‘Purity of heart is to will one thing.’ Jesus said, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all else will be given to you.’"

What then is the highest motivation, the highest desire to focus on?

In Mahayana Buddhism, we have the ideal of the boddhisattva: to awaken with the aim of using that awakening for the helping and healing of all beings. This may be the highest ideal the human mind has ever conceived, and in Buddhism it’s believed to take place over many lifetimes in order to liberate all sentient beings."

A Course in Miracles is a bodhisattvic path as well, claims Walsh, making it very clear that none of us are going to get out of this game until all of us get out of it. You can’t clean up your mind only—because all minds are one and interconnected, according to the Course. It also makes clear that the work involved is in no way a sacrifice, because as one lesson says, "All that I give is given to myself."

5: The cultivation of wisdom.

Walsh identifies two kinds of wisdom that play a part in achieving our spiritual potential: initial and final. Initial wisdom is what starts one on the path—trying meditation and reading the Course or whatever. One recognizes the suffering and unsatisfactoriness of the world and thinks, as Bill Thetford did, that there must be a better way. In Buddhism it’s the recognition of duhkha—that unenlightened living does indeed lead to suffering."

"Final wisdom is a profound insight into the nature of mind, self, and reality," Walsh continues. "This is a direct, transcendental intuition, not of the mind or intellect. In the East it’s called prajna, in the West gnosis, and in the Course knowledge.

This wisdom is also known to be profoundly empowering and liberating. In Christianity it’s ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is within you’, in the Upanishads it’s ‘by understanding the Self, all this universe is known’, in Siddha Yoga it’s ‘God dwells within you as you.’ This is enlightenment, satori, moksha, wu, liberation, salvation," Walsh comments, "different words for the same realization. The message of the great traditions as well as A Course in Miracles can thus be summarized very simply: WAKE UP!"



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