“Fear is the opposite of Love.” –A Course in Miracles
A Course in Miracles is one of, if not the, most popular spiritual texts of The New Thought tradition. The back story of the writing of a the text is a bit complex and quite fascinating actually (see history here). Essentially A Course in Miracles is claimed to be the words of an inner voice, given to Helen Schucman. Schucman believed that voice to be the voice of Jesus. The text is often popularly shortened to The Course and I’ll use that shorthand throughout but important to remember the official title is A Course in Miracles (A, not The).
The Course or Course-inspired views of spiritual life have come into mainstream popularity, particularly through the writings of contemporary spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson. Those ideas have now extended to a new generation of spiritual teachers, particularly strong in what’s known as the spiritual but not religious community of seekers in North America. I encounter ideas who have their roots in The Course (and certain strands of New Thought theology more broadly) constantly in my private practice. Overall what I see are Course ideas and beliefs creating problems for practitioners. While it’s far too much to explore the entirety of the teaching of The Course, I do want to explore this quotation:
“Fear is the opposite of Love.”
This is the core claim of The Course. It’s also in my view misguided. In what follows, I want to explore why I believe that claim to be false, as well as what relationship, if any, fear and love should have to each other.
To explore this topic I’m going to use quotations from Marianne Williamson’s classic book Return to Love. Return to Love is a popular rendering of A Course in Miracles. Return to Love I think brilliantly portrays and clarifies the overall teaching of The Course. My disagreements are with elements of the teaching of The Course itself. But in order to understand what The Course is arguing for, Return to Love is, in my mind, the best entry point.
Here for example is a very important quotation from the beginning of Return to Love that lays out the overall vision of A Course in Miracles:
“A Course in Miracles calls itself a ‘mind training’ in the relinquishment of a thought system based on fear, and the acceptance instead of a thought system based on love.” (Return to Love p.20).
I want to be clear then about what my critique is because it’s a somewhat subtle point. I’m NOT arguing that The Course in Miracles fails to achieve what it sets out to do. I do see people who follow The Course moving from a thought system based on fear towards a thought system based in love. I do see The Course’s teaching fulfilling its stated mission. Of course no one ever completely follows that path in every moment of their lives, but as a teaching it does I believe succeed in its stated goal.
It’s that goal however that I believe is a problem. I think starting with the mind (‘a thought system’) is ultimately the wrong place to start spiritual teaching. The mind needs eventually to be incorporated into an overall integrated spiritual teaching yes, but I don’t believe it’s the place to begin. More importantly I don’t believe the ultimate aim or purpose of spiritual practice should be to move us from fear to love.
Not starting with the mind and not moving from fear to love. The two are related but distinct elements. The rest of this piece is an exploration of those intertwined critiques.
Now before diving fully into this topic, I realize I’m stepping into some tender territory here. I know plenty of people who have received enormous benefit from following The Course. For example, Marianne Williamson’s Return to Love is a testament to the grace The Course brought to her life. I acknowledge that I’m going to be touching some raw nerves.
It’s certainly true that people can (and do) receive benefit from following The Course. This isn’t an abstract proposition–I know people who fit this profile. They are friends, acquaintances, clients, and the like.
Nonetheless I still maintain that the benefits of The Course bring with them unforeseen shadows. It’s these shadows I want to explore. I believe it’s important to explore these shadows because they often go unspoken. Bringing the shadows to light allows us to retain the beauties of The Course while releasing it’s flaws (of which I think there are some significant ones).
So to the critiques….
A central reason I believe that the mind is a poor place to begin spiritual practice is that the mind inherently creates binaries: light versus dark, up versus down, truth versus falsehood, feminine versus masculine, the list of such binaries is endless.* This binary formulation is the very nature of the mind. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
In The Course the fundamental binary is between Fear and Love. Once that fundamental binary is set, then The Course becomes a mind training to move from fear to love. Very often when a binary is set up, one side will be seen as positive and one as negative. In the Course this is definitely the case. In the Course, Fear is wholly negative and Love is wholly positive. One is hell (fear) and one is heaven (love).
Since the teaching is sourcing itself in the mind and has created a binary, then the training has to focus on how to move out of one (fear) and into the other (love). If one views the world as divided between Fear and Love, with fear being evil and Love being holy, then obviously and rightly the next question to ask is:
“How do I move from the evil (fear) to the holy (love)?”
It’s in that context that we can understand The Course’s emphasis on the notion of “shifts in perception”. Perhaps the most quoted line of The Course is “a miracle is a shift in perception”. A shift that is from fear to love.
Having created the fundamental metaphysical binary between Fear and Love, The Course will then argue that fear is unreal. The illusory nature of fear is the key to moving from it to love. In the teaching of the Course, once we see that fear is not real and connect with what is real (Love), then fear melts away.
Unfortunately the human being is much more than simply a mind and fear is much more real than a thought. And here is where things begin to unravel.
The crux of the problem is this:
Fear is an emotion. It is also intimately related to the proper functioning of the human nervous system.
Love, on the other hand, is a choice.
Contrasting Fear with Love is contrasting an emotion with a choice. That’s not comparing apples to oranges. It’s more like comparing apples to 747s. Or apples to duplexes.
The Course teaches a way of mentally shifting from fear into the spiritual state of love. Unfortunately the shadow-side of that maneuver is that it bypasses human sensation and emotion.
Describing Fear as illusory may be true when looked at from the level of the mind, but it’s definitely NOT true when it comes to the level of the human body and emotional life.
Attempting to route around fear, rather than turning towards it, leaves the person subtly (or not so subtly) quite fearful and anxious. Paradoxically it is only when we turn towards and embrace our fears that fear stops controlling us.
But that is not what The Course teaches.
What The Course does is exploit a temporary short-circuiting mechanism of the human bodymind. That’s why it can and does work but only for so long and only in a partial way.
“The Course teaches that fear is literally a bad dream. It is as though the mind has been split in two; one part stays in touch with love, and the other part veers into fear. Fear manufactures a kind of parallel universe where the unreal seems real, and the real seems unreal.” (p.23)
Fear is not a bad dream. At least it need not be. It’s no illusion. Fear is simply an aspect of human existence as a sensory, emotive, incarnate being. Realize this and the neat and tidy metaphysical system of strict separation between love and fear begins to blur and break down.
The Course is named a course for a reason. As a course, it uses imagery of training. There’s a method. Life is a school.
I’d submit that all these metaphors are a consequence of the fact that one is beginning the process at the point at which fear is most calcified, i.e. the mind. Fear begins as sensation, from which it takes on its emotional charge. When Fear is met at the level of our sensation and emotion then it can be worked with. Fear can be raw, even intense at times, or more garden variety. But fear in the sensory and emotional realms–when rightly worked with–is actually quite supple and fluid. It’s dream-like in its movement but it is literally not a bad dream. Fear is literally a sensation and emotion.
When we deny our fear such that it spreads from our nervous system through our emotional self into the mind, then we are too late. Fear in the mind is far too rigid. Therefore it takes the most forcefulness to undo it from that point. Hence a course, a training regimen.
Realistically there are only two options at the point at which fear has overrun the mind:
1. return back to the level of sensation and emotion and learn to work with fear (i.e. work on it where it originates)
2. deny its reality and try to route around it.
The Course chooses the second option. It therefore does not undo fear so much as skips over it.
The second option–the one the Course chooses–would be a solution if one could maintain that state of Love 24/7. That however is wildly unrealistic. Consequently as soon as one falls back from Love then the fear will return, likely with more power attached to it.
If however we sink to the level of our sensation and our emotions, then fear is simply another aspect of our human existence. Fear has wisdom to teach us. If we set up our spiritual system as moving from Fear to Love, then we will never learn from Fear. We will never gain the gifts of Fear because we are always running from it, rather than turning toward and (intelligently) facing it.
It’s not possible to turn towards and embrace our Fear from the place of our minds. The Course is right about this point, but wrong in its assumption that therefore fear is to be denied altogether.
It is however very much possible to turn towards, to become intimate with, and to embrace our fear. It becomes possible for fear to be transmuted. It is possible–indeed I would argue essential–that fear be transmuted and its hidden light released.
“Fear is to love as darkness is to light.” –Return to Love, p. 22
The view of The Course is that there is only Fear and Love, Darkness and Light and we embrace the Light and deny the Darkness. I argue instead we should become darkwalkers, we should critique the bias towards The Light (aka “High Vibrations”) and instead learn to find the Light hidden in the darkness.
In the perspective of The Course, fear is never redeemed. Fear is never transmuted or turned into Light. No part of fear is connected to the Light.
But all those views turn out to be wrong. I would take the wisdom of Fear any day of the week (and twice Sunday) over the foolishness of such seeming profundity.
Fear is actually a word commonly used for three related but distinct emotions: fear, anxiety, and terror/panic.
–Fear is an emotional response to perceived threats.
–Anxiety is an emotion that warns us that we’ve entered a place of some instability in our lives, like a boat rocking on choppy waves.
–Terror/Pain is the wisdom that comes forth under great duress to take the hit of trauma for us.
From the point of the view of the nervous system, fear is a process intricately related to our flight, fight, and freeze responses.
From the point of view of the soul (or our energy), fear is often a harbinger, a call to enter the cave and descend into the underworld, to become initiated–like Batman.
From the point of view of our emotions, fear is an invitation to connect to our animal nature, to sharpen our senses, and attune to our environment.
Different teachings exist to cultivate this intimate relationship with fear–emotionally, instinctually, and energetically. We can learn to regulate and work with our fear emotionally, bodily, and energetically.
All of those are ways of wisdom.
The Course however does not offer us such wisdom, wisdom we so desperately require in our world. The amount of fear, anxiety, and terror in our world continues to rise. The Course offers no solution to working with those emotions, only a way to try to flee from it. Except, in trying to run from fear, we are bringing unconscious fear with us. As Williamson states quoting directly from The Course itself:
“The ego is literally a fear based thought.”
No it’s not. The ego is literally not at all a fear based thought.
We see here the problem of defining the central aspect of humanity as our minds. The Course is locked into a worldview characteristic of the 17th and 18th centuries European thought, e.g. that of Rene Descartes. A worldview in which the human being is a disembodied mind only marginally attached to a material object it possesses called ‘it’s body.’ Our minds are only one aspect of our incarnation which include our physical, emotional, instinctual, energetic, and spiritual aspects. What The Course does is take one aspect of us (the mind) and separates out of the context of the entire range of our humanity and declares it the center around which everything else orbits. This decision is deeply confused and problematic.
Since The Course defines the mind as the central aspect of our humanity (as opposed to one important aspect of our humanity) it has to turn everything into a thought. It turns Fear, which is an emotion, into thought. It’s turns Love, which is an aspect of will, into thought. It turns the ego–which is a feeling mechanism of being a human organism–into a thought. It even turns our spiritual nature into a thought:
As Williamson states, “The altar to God is the human mind. To ‘desecrate the altar’ is to fill it with non-loving thoughts.” (p. 24)
In so doing, The Course denies our souls and spirits as transcendent of our minds, which all the great mystical traditions will most certainly tell you they are. Our souls and spirits include our minds yes but they transcend them as well.
The human mind is not the altar to God. Saying so ends up convincing people that thinking about being spiritual is the same as actual spiritual realization (which by definition transcends the mind).
By defining us simply as minds, The Course cuts out our nervous systems, our emotional lives, as well as the aspects of us that are beyond our minds. It’s represses both the “lower” range of our incarnation (sensation, emotion) as well as the “higher” range of our incarnation (souls, spirits), leaving us claustrophobically trapped in the middle range of our incarnation (the mind).
Which brings us back to the ego. The ego is not a fear-based thought. The ego is what it feels like to be a bodily human organism. The ego is the feeling of being an individual homo sapien sapien. The ego is the feeling of being a bodily human self-conscious organism.
The human body is a feeling mechanism. The human organism feels and senses moment to moment. It feels and senses the environment, other beings, and its own internal state(s). Sensation is how your nervous system feels. Emotions are how your heart feels. Thought is how your brain feels. And the ego is how the bodymind as a total, single organism feels.
When understood this way the ego is not the enemy, just as fear isn’t either. When however we don’t understand the ego in its proper depth as the total feeling response of the human bodymind organism, then we come to experience ourselves as an isolated egoic subject separate from the body. And such a being is inherently fearful (in the negative sense). The Course starts from that isolated fearful stance and then tries to correct it by shifting out of it into Love.
The result of doing that however is that The Course doesn’t understand the deeper feeling reality of the ego. It takes a very immature form of the ego and then defines the ego only as its immature form.
This is why a spiritual system based on the idea of a mental training course is precisely unhelpful. Learning a mental training system does not teach anyone how to feel. In particular The Course does not teach us how to feel with and through our fear.
“Our work is the work of casting fear from the world.” –Return to Love
I don’t believe this is true. Franklin Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I think he was wrong. The thing to fear is not knowing how to work with fear wisely. Not knowing how to transmute our fear is indeed a quite scary proposition. It’s one that rules our world.
But Fear as such is not our enemy. What we do with Fear–use it to abuse people, project it onto others, allow it to debilitate us–these must be cast out. What we do out of unconscious, negative, shadowed Fear that is negative.
Healthy conscious integrated fear however is the way to resolve those issues. It’s not Love that has an answer to negative, unconscious Fear. It’s only healthy awakened fear that can solve that problem. And we will never access awakened healthy fear if we have denied its very existence by labelling all fear as inherently illusory and destructive.
When we treat Fear as the enemy we make it into the scapegoat. We seek to purge it from ourselves and purify it from the world. That is a truly terrifying prospect (with terrible historical weight behind it).
Fear is very much real on the level of our nervous system and our emotions. To deny the reality of fear on the levels of our being on which it exists is a dangerous and ultimately foolish perspective. Any spiritual system like The Course that teaches that fear is not real is inevitably leading to anti-material spirituality, a spirituality that will deny body, flesh, and earth as the truly spiritual abode because fear is very much an intrinsic aspect of our bodily human existence. Fear is in our bellies, our hearts, our spleens, not just our brains.
Saying fear is the opposite of love and that we need to move from fear to love weirdly leaves fear forever unloved. The way fear is cast from the world is not by making it unreal, but rather by transforming it. It is Love, the choice to embrace Fear and transmute it in the heart, that alone can cast the negative expressions of Fear from this world. In the view of The Course there is no redemption, there is no transfiguration, no true liberation of physicality, materiality, earth, emotion, flesh, and blood. In the Course there is only a spiritual escape from it all, leaving fear further marginalized only to return in darker, more terrible forms. Fear needs to be transformed by being brought into the Heart of Love, not denying its reality.
Fear does not intrinsically lead to the dark side (contra Master Yoda). Fear can be our ally and it needs to be an ally in the struggle for goodness and love. This path we must walk.
* Though this isn’t my focus here, it is true that the mind can also do various forms of self or meta-reflection. In can work with binaries as dialectics. It can deconstruct the binaries. It can begin to integrate them in various complex ways. But no matter what it’s still within the basic whirl of the binary.