Authors & Thought Leaders

Marianne Williamson on the Themes of Love and Forgiveness in A Course in Miracles

Published on February 15, 2017

Article by Marianne Williamson

Just as there are always students yearning for spiritual teaching, there are also teachers who come along to teach and guide them. For the past three decades, Marianne Williamson has been one of those teachers. The meeting place of student and teacher in this case is A Course in Miracles, a self-study course of spiritual therapy channeled by research psychologist Helen Schucman and designed to help change one’s perceptions. At the heart of A Course of Miracles are the universal spiritual themes of love and forgiveness, along with a set of lessons that guide the mind to a place of true and lasting peace. Although the Course uses Christian terminology (in a non-traditional manner), people of all faiths have found that it speaks to their needs in a profound way.

In her interview with Bodhi Tree Bookstore magazine co-editors Mark Kenaston and Dana LaFontaine, Williamson discusses the Course-inspired concepts in her book, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. Here, she hopes to ignite a passion in her fellow students that allows them to see love as the only true reality rather than focusing on the fear-based needs of the ego.

“The Holy Spirit always gives the loving response, but the loving response is not always yes.” —Marianne Williamson

photo of Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson’s Story

Marianne Williamson was one of those devoted students whose need for spiritual instruction was matched by the power of the eternal truths contained in A Course in Miracles. As her understanding of its lessons grew, she made the transition from student to teacher (but as the Course points out, all of us are teachers and pupils of each other) and began leading discussion groups. Three decades after the publication of her first Course-inspired book, Williamson is now an internationally acclaimed spiritual teacher, lecturer and the best-selling author of 12 books, including her mega best-seller A Return To Love. A paragraph from that book, beginning, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…” is often quoted (albeit misattributed to Nelson Mandela) and is considered an anthem for a contemporary generation of seekers.

Williamson, a popular guest on television talk shows, founded Project Angel Food, a meals-on-wheels program that serves homebound people with AIDS in the Los Angeles area, and co-founded the Peace Alliance. She serves on the board of directors of the RESULTS organization, working to end the worst ravages of hunger and poverty throughout the world. Her most current best-selling book, Tears to Triumph: The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment, opens a much-needed conversation about the source of pain and its transcendence. —Justine Amodeo

The following is an editing transcript of Williamson’s 1992 interview with Mark Kenaston and Dana LaFontaine.

Interpreting A Course in Miracles

Bodhi Tree: You’ve been quoted as saying that your interpretation of the Course in Miracles isn’t the only way to access the Course. How would you describe your approach?

Marianne Williamson: I’m an orthodox interpreter, but one who is interested in contemporary and practical issues. I don’t think of myself as a liberal interpreter in terms of the principles of the Course. Sometimes modern seekers try to change the wording in primary source material to make it a little bit easier. I don’t mean easier to understand, but to practice. So in that sense, I’m a literal interpreter of the Course.

The Course says that love is real and nothing else exists, and there’s no getting around that in staying true to the Course. I try to apply those principles to various issues in our lives such as work, relationships and health. But in terms of applying the specific principles of A Course in Miracles, I think that I’m rather orthodox.

A Shift in Perception from Fear to Love

BT: Let’s say we’re approaching the Course in Miracles for the first time. How would you describe a miracle? Are we talking about walking or water or parting the sea?

MW: Absolutely not. A miracle is defined in the Course as a shift in perception from fear to love. A Course in Miracles, along with many other paths, teaches us that thought is the creative level of existence and that thought manufactures experience. When thought is loving, then we experience loving, but when thought is not loving—and the Course in Miracles defines the lack of love as fear—then fearful thought produces fearful experiences.

The process of cause and effect is the basic law of human consciousness. If we so choose, however, we can change our thoughts from fear to love. And as we change our thoughts, we experience changes accordingly. The Course in Miracles says love is real because it is God, and God is all that exists. “What is all-encompassing and has no opposite.” So anything that is not loving is actually an illusion. This is very Buddhist.

Transcending Illusion and Emptying the Mind

BT: Is this what the Buddhists describe as the absolute?

MW: Yes, and this world of Maya is illusion. The only way to get off the wheel of suffering is to rise above it. You don’t even try to work within the illusion—you transcend it. The Zen mind is very much what the Course in Miracles is talking about, or what in Christic-philosophical terms is known as “being as a little child.” Little children don’t assume that they know what things mean, so they inquire. In Zen Buddhism, they say, “If your rice bowl is full, the universe can’t fill it”—if you think you know, you’re not teachable. So one of the exercises in the Course says, “Give up everything that you think you know, forget your ideas of good and bad—forget this Course. And come with empty hands unto your God.” It’s training, in a sense, in emptying your mind.

BT: So in a way, a miracle is an open mind.

Recognizing the Consciousness Bullies

MW: I think most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, realize that it would be a miracle to be as open-minded as we’d like to be. Those of us in the spiritual community have to be on guard because the ego will use spiritual material as well as anything else. Look at all the consciousness bullies out there: “I’m better than you because I’m a spiritual seeker,” or “I’m different than you because I’m a spiritual seeker,” or “My spiritual seeking is better than yours,” or “You should be doing spiritual seeking.”

BT: This phenomenon exists within many spiritual communities and traditions. As Buddhists practitioners, we hear the difference between the Hinayanists (Theravadins), the Mahayanists and the Vajrayanists. This is good, this is better, but this is best. It seems to us that this may be self-defeating and missing the point.

MW: I’ve never really understood the competition that people have regarding spiritual literature. I’ve never felt that I’m insulting Aretha Franklin if I listen to Frank Sinatra today.

BT: It seems to happen when the ego takes up the practice. The ego is a hardened shell.

MW: Right, the ego is concentrated on form rather than content. All religions are different in form, but the content is the same. I think that the Course attracts so many people because it’s dealing with the universal spiritual themes that are inherent in all great religions—this sort of truth with a capital “I” idea. It’s part of the whole synthesis and healing that we’re striving for in this decade—not where things are different, but where they’re the same.

Searching for Mystical Experiences

BT: Many Westerners have traveled to the East in search of a mystical tradition that appears to be missing from institutional Christianity. Having read Thomas Merton, it seems that there must be a surviving mystical vehicle to be found in the Western traditions.

MW: Christian theology is a context which holds for the mystical experience, although too much conservative American presentations of Christian theology lacks the method.

BT: There are other religions that emphasize more contemplative disciplines.

MW: There is a mystical tradition within Christianity, as there is a mystical tradition within Judaism and all the other great religions. If we don’t go to a well, you can’t blame the well. If you don’t go very deep into the well, you can’t blame the well. The depths are there in Christianity, because the early Christians—the Gnostics—said it all. There are many books at Bodhi Tree about esoteric enlightened Christianity. It’s not that Christianity doesn’t have it, we just haven’t plumbed those depths. There’s a difference.

BT: Do you think that those depths have been ignored or even maintained?

MW: Has there been an ego conspiracy to ignore it? Yes. But no more than there’s been an ego conspiracy to ignore love anywhere in the world. Pointing fingers at the Christian religion is missing the point. We have conspired ourselves to avoid God—period. Here and everywhere. You could say the same thing about America. We are founded on the most sacred of principles of government. Whether or not we look to those, and hold those, and celebrate those, and enliven them with every generation is a separate issue. I guess what I’m saying is that we’re the ones who have turned our backs. It’s not as if somebody locked the door.

Looking for God Outside of Ourselves

BT: We’re wondering what the attraction to the East has been all about. If the method still exists in the Judeo-Christian tradition, why are some of us looking “outside” for what is already here? Do we just get bored or tired of what we know? Or maybe, “I tried Christianity and it didn’t work for me.”

MW: Hold it, let’s go a little slower. You were talking earlier about the tradition of solitude, the contemplatives, etc. It is true that most of us have become very “outer” oriented. It’s the nature of the Western mind and American society. I don’t think that it’s so much that the outer orientation of American society reflects a lack of religious training or traditions, but what comes first: the chicken or the egg? Does the neurotic external orientation of American society reflect the lack of true spiritual sustenance given to us from our religious traditions? Partly. On the other hand, part of the reason these religious traditions have become such superficial vehicles is that society has dictated that that’s all it wanted. “I want you to stay as superficial as I’m comfortable with.” Once again, it’s very important that we all take responsibility for the fact that it’s our own consciousness that defines all of this for us.

Searching for an Egoless State

BT: Our egos?

MW: Right. This is an issue that’s much deeper than nationality. It has to do with the whole development of human consciousness and how we’ve become oriented toward the ego and our fear of God.

BT: Do you think most people are capable of seeing that the ego is a “house of cards” and may be more of a hindrance than a help? It appears that many people are much more interested in finding ways to strengthen ego. Modern psychology emphasizes the need for a strong and well-developed ego.

MW: From A Course in Miracles perspective, it’s definitely possible for people to return to God. The only question is how long we take to get there. It’s God’s will that we return to him. The Course says that God’s will has never not been done. The fact that Jesus and others have been healed through the Holy Spirit and reach an egoless state means that anything achieved by any of us becomes potentially accessible to all of us. I once heard Terry Cole Whitaker say, “Jesus went ahead and he’s saving a parking place.” That was a very good line—we will get there. The issue is, do we choose to go now or do we choose to delay?

The “Celestial Speed-Up”

BT: Is this similar to the Buddhist idea of the Wheel of Life? You stay on the wheel until enlightenment.

MW: Yes, but Jesus came after the Buddha and said that in a moment of grace, all karma is burned. Which is the same thing as saying that miracles collapse time. If we want to continue action-reaction, stay in our fear-laden ways and manifest an Armageddon—a nuclear holocaust—we can do that. But even if we do and there are five people left at the end, those five would have gotten the point. We can do that. Or, we can choose to not.

This is Buckminster Fuller’s theory of the “critical path,” the “hundredth monkey” theory, or what the Course in Miracles calls the “celestial speed-up.” It’s interesting what’s happening right now. Enough of us are suffering our own personal Armageddon that when we’re conscious we can say, “OK, I’ve suffered, you’ve suffered, everybody I know has suffered.” If we just learn the point now, we can bypass the need for the collective Armageddon. It’ not God’s will that we suffer longer. The question is not, “How long, O Lord, how long?” Instead, God is asking us, “How long are you going to keep doing this to yourselves?”

Making the Shift From Fear to Love

BT: The title of your book is A Return To Love. It sounds great, but is this a practical goal? Many of us are content to just get through the day without venting our bottled up anger. How can we make this shift in attitude from anger and frustration to love?

MW: Through forgiveness. The Course in Miracles’ definition of forgiveness is not the traditional definition of the term. Ordinarily, forgiveness is something you do when somebody has been a jerk, but now you are “spiritual,” so you can forgive them. The Course in Miracles calls that more judgment and arrogant perception. Real forgiveness is recognizing that only love is real. That’s the crux of the Course.

The Course says there are only two emotions: love and fear. Fear is interpreted as a call for love. It takes a lot of discipline and practice to see that fear is actually a call for love, that I don’t have to limit my perceptions of this person to what my physical senses tell me. Instead, I can extend my perception beyond what my physical senses perceive to what I know to be true in my heart. What I know to be true is that you are a beloved, innocent child of God who is my brother and who is One with me. In your fearful state, you have merely fallen asleep to who you are. It’s my job as a miracle worker to remain awake.

The story of Pollyanna is very interesting. Pollyanna is a very powerful symbol and the ego knows this, which is why she’s invalidated in this culture. It’s ironic that when people want to insult you or in some way invalidate your spirituality, they say, “You’re just being a Pollyanna.” If you read the story, you notice how powerful she was. She walks into a situation where everyone has been in total hell for years and the old lady’s obnoxious and the old man’s unhappy, and everybody is in this terrible dysfunction and unhappiness. She’s there for what—two weeks? In the end, the whole situation is turned around.

She didn’t go into denial and refuse to see the reality of the situation. Her consciousness was the space for the creation of a radical shift in circumstances. That’s because she didn’t relate to the fear in people; she related to their love. She held her own mind open to the truth. In her presence, people could see the truth more clearly themselves. This is the gift of Jesus to us, or any other enlightened master, because they see us in our own true state. So when we’re around them, we can see it more clearly ourselves.

BT: As you know, “codependency” has become something of an industry lately. Books such as Women Who Love Too Much have been very popular. But is it really possible to love too much, or are we talking about something else here?

MWShe’s not really talking about love; she’s really talking about something else, but I suppose the ego loves sound bites. Love that is given to get something isn’t love. So When people say, “I’ve loved too much,” what they really mean is they didn’t get the return on an investment or demand.

12-Step Programs as Indigenous American Spirituality

BT: We’d really love to hear you expand on this idea of codependency.

MW: I want to be careful here.

BT: Don’t worry, we won’t use anything against you [laughter].

MWI hope you use that line. I want to be careful here, because original source material is extremely pure. Sometime it gets bastardized and people tend to then blame the original source material. It’s like blaming Jesus for Christianity. There are people who talk about the Course in Miracles in a certain way that I understand, where others would get the wrong impression of it.

I’m a big fan of the 12-steps—I do think that they come from the same source as the Course in Miracles. I think the 12-steps came through a thought system beyond our own and I see it as a sacred tradition. I see it as an indigenous American spirituality.

Given that, I agree with you. The ego will use anything and sometimes there’s a tendency to use “recovery” as justification for selfish behavior. There is also a temptation these days to focus on the past as justification for not awakening to the present. Ultimately, our pain in life does not come from what we weren’t given in the past, but from what we’re not giving in the present.

A Two-Step Process of Healing

BT: Fritz Perls said that awareness is curative, and if you have true insight into your present dilemma, then the cure happens. It can’t really be manufactured.

MW: Absolutely, I always say that we heal by noticing.

BT: You become aware of your predicament.

MW: And that’s the first step. What I talk about in my book is that you have to become aware. There are two steps that are necessary: You must become aware of the dysfunctional pattern, and then you have to ask God to take it from you. Just becoming aware of it is not enough; if you are looking to yourself to heal it, it’s against you. Just asking God to heal you without being willing to become aware is not enough. It would be violating your free will for him to take something from you that you have not given to him.

Many times, people in my lectures will say things and I realize that the value in that moment was not in saying something, so I would give them an answer. Rather, the value was for them to say something in front of an audience in fellowship. Owning what it is they do. That was really the step that was necessary for them—that they could say it in public. My only job is to say that I acknowledge you for what you just did.

We’re All Students and We’re All Teachers

BT: Could you talk a little bit about your role as a teacher? And what is the relationship of a teacher to the Course in Miracles?

MW: The Course in Miracles says that we’re all students and we’re all teachers—I’m no more a teacher than anyone else. What makes me a teacher of God is not that I teach metaphysical principles. What makes me a teacher of God in Course in Miracles terms is that I’m trying to be a more loving person every day.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says that a leader is not someone who thinks of himself as a leader; he is someone who considers himself a follower. In the Eastern tradition, the guru never calls himself a guru. I think that it’s very important for Americans to respect teachers, but in terms of how I hold myself—first and foremost, I’m a student. There’s no point at which you say that I’m a teacher now. If you do, I think you’d better look again. It sounds slightly ego-filled to say, “Oh, now I’m a teacher.”

The Course in Miracles talks about what it means to be a messenger of God. The Course says that you are not like a worldly messenger who takes an envelope and passes it on and has no personal connection to the message. To be a messenger of God, you can only give it to the extent that you’ve received it for yourself.

I said something last night in a lecture that felt right to me. The good teacher is not necessarily the best scholar of the material, but the one who helps you access the passion behind it the most. If you take a Russian literature class, the great professor is the one that helps you access the power and the passion of Dostoevsky. At the same time, he’s not claiming to be Dostoevsky.

Midwifing the Course in Miracles

BT: You get people excited about the Course in Miracles. You’re a cheerleader of sorts.

MW: Exactly. I find it easy to get people excited about the Course. I think of myself as a facilitator or a kind of midwife. When a baby is born, it travels down the birth-canal to the end and the midwife or doctor is ready to catch it. That’s my job. I don’t have anything to do with this birth of awareness, but hopefully, when you get real close to the opening, I can help pull it out.

I also see myself as a sort of aerobics instructor. The aerobics instructor goes through the moves with you and that’s one of the ways he or she stays in shape, but she can’t do the moves for you. Nor do I claim to.

The Loving Response is Not Always Yes

BT: We know that recently you have taken some shots from the press. Is this related to a notion that you’ve set yourself up as a teacher? They see you on the podium teaching and think, “She’s up there passing herself off as a teacher, but she’s not perfect herself.”

MW: Most of the people who say that have never seen me work. I’m the first person to get up and say, “Ah, I got angry in the office the other day—I can’t believe I did that!” And then talk about it. I’m reminded of the AA saying, “Contempt prior to investigation.” There are many issues involved here.

There’s a tremendous crisis of leadership in this country. The director of the film is not necessarily who is the smartest or most brilliant person on the set, but someone’s got to be the one to make the final decisions. Many of the criticisms about me have to do with how I am in the office setting with the center. You make decisions. You say yes—or you say no—and then you’re very unpopular and may hear the next day how abusive you were. This is tied with the codependency thing, the parent-bashing; it seems that everyone is being bashed these days. It’s terrible what’s going on in America.

BT: This topic is especially interesting to us because we’ve been dealing with these very issues at Bodhi Tree.

MW: “Oh, if you’re so spiritual, how can you tell me what to do?”

BT: Exactly, these issues of parent/child control.

MW: Control versus responsibility. People are made to feel guilty for making a rough decision. There are two things. First of all, I don’t think that it’s as hard for men as it is for women. If a man does it he’s a good leader; if a woman does it she’s a bitch. But, the second part is when somebody does make a difficult decision, it’s somehow contrary to a spiritual life. That “spiritual” means you always say yes. You know, the Holy Spirit always gives the loving response, but the loving response is not always yes.

A society heals in the same way that an individual heals. As you and I were saying, you cannot heal without first taking responsibility for the dysfunction and realizing what you are doing.

America will not heal economically or in any other way until we’re honest with ourselves. One of the things that we’ve got to admit to ourselves is that we have become satisfied with mediocrity on a level that is frightening. So if anyone in the office stands up and says no, it’s not OK for this work to be sloppy, they hear from the employees, “You are an abusive boss!”

True Freedom is Gained Through Discipline

BT: These are issues that we’re all dealing with—responsibility and maintaining a level of excellence on the personal and societal level. Being willing to take a stand for something you believe in, even if unpopular, and being willing to take the heat.

MW: Absolutely. The men’s movement is realizing that some men have become too soft. Maybe there should be another word than “soft,” because when applied to gentle, it’s wonderful; when you apply it to a muscle that hasn’t been exercised, it’s not so wonderful.

BT: Maybe we’ve taken this “soft” or lack if firmness to the extent that we just don’t care about or feel strongly about things anymore?

MW: And it’s masquerading as spirituality in some cases or ‘letting things flow.’ And again, that’s what some of this criticism is ‘If she’s so spiritual . . .’

BT: We’re reminded of the Zen saying, “True freedom is gained through discipline.” An unfocused mind is bouncing off the walls. The Zen master uses the stick sometimes to raise the level of the student’s awareness when he or she is falling asleep.

MW: Occasionally, I’m criticized because I don’t coddle people in my lectures. In this work, you’re not here to get people to like you, and they may leave not liking you. Six weeks later, they may remember something that you said and realize it was right. And that’s the job. That’s the responsibility. If you come into my lecture, my agreement is not that I will do my best to get you to like me—it’s easy to say things that make people happy—but my role is to help you stretch the envelope.

That’s the art of teaching—there has to be slight discomfort. This is true of therapy or any other growth activity. There has to be a slight level of discomfort or you’re not stretching beyond the constrictions here you currently remain. If the teacher goes too far, then the student feels terrorized and there’s learning failure. There have been times when I’ve missed a beat, there have been times when I’ve gone a little too far, but that’s the art and craft of teaching. You always want to go just far enough. The art is: “Just how far can I go with this person? Do I approach him emotionally? Do I approach him intellectually, or do I just shut up?”

Taking a Closer Look at Child Development

BT: This issue reaches into all learning. There’s a fine line between challenging and crushing a student. When you were a child in school, were you challenged or crushed?

MW: Crushed.

BT: Many are.

MW: I think that one of the major issues that we Americans have to address is our unbelievable lack of respect and concern for the way we care for children. And how that’s reflected in some of our school systems.

BT: It seems that we send our children off to school to be “educated,” not taking responsibility sometimes for taking an active role in our own children’s development.

MW: The best and the brightest in America should be our schoolteachers. We need to wake up to the fact that our children are our most precious national resource. Shame on us that we would spend so much money on the Minuteman and so little on our children.

Religion is the Road Home

BT: What do they say? “Smart bombs—Stupid Kids.” To shift gears a bit, we’re wondering what you think of the notion that we’re moving toward some kind of “world religion.”

MW: The Course in Miracles says that a universal theology isn’t necessary or possible. A universal experience is what we’re moving toward.

BT: The Dalai Lama has related the world’s various religions to food choice: There’s a variety because people have different preferences and nutritional needs.

MW: Religion is just a road home; it’s not the home, it’s not the destination. The Course in Miracles is not trying to get you to have faith in the Course; it’s trying to get us to have faith in one another.

BT: That would be a miracle, wouldn’t it?

MW: The Course looks forward to the day we don’t need the Course. It’s not trying to perpetuate itself.

BT: So you feel that we are moving toward that day? It’s easy to look around us and become despondent.

MW: I think cynicism is an excuse for not helping. I think that hope is born of participation in hopeful solutions. I feel very positive, I feel very optimistic about the world.

Choosing to Have Faith

BT: Is this where faith comes into play? In spite of the appearance that our world is going to hell, we cultivate optimism on the faith that if we do, things will improve.

MW: No. The Course in Miracles says that these ideas become true for you as you do them. You invoke what it is you want to see, consciously. You see, some people think that faith in God is separate from faith in people. So, if you don’t have faith in people, your faith in God will not seem justified. Put your faith in people, à la Pollyanna, and then invoke this faith in people that allows you to see the love in people rather than just the fear. And your faith is justified because you yourself played your part. When you say you see faith justified, what you are really seeing reflected back is that you decided to do your bit today. If you do your bit today, you will feel more hopeful. Everybody’s thinking that, “I’ll be more faithful if I see something outside myself,”—there is no outside ourselves.

That is the ultimate knowledge, that there is nothing outside yourself. One of the radical aspects of the Course in Miracles is that there is no relationship with the Father outside the relationship with the Son. So you can’t have faith in God without the faith that you have with his son, because that is where he is.

So you have faith in the goodness in people. It’s all choice. I choose to have faith in people because it’s my way of creating a world in which my faith is justified. If I refuse to have faith in people, then it’s my way of casting my vote for a world which reflects back that I was right. No matter what, you are going to be right! The Course in Miracles says that projection makes perception. The Course says that you decide what you want to see and then you see it. But it happens so quickly that oftentimes we don’t see it take place.

You don’t have to be an enlightened master to begin the work. I don’t claim to be further along than I am, but I’m far enough to take adult responsibility for my role on the Earth. Once again, we get back to the problem with our generation that we’re in this major post-adolescence. I don’t know how old we think we’re supposed to be before we stand up and own some wisdom.

A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles 

By Marianne Williamson (260 pp.)

A Return to Love is a spiritual travel guide for our journey back to the truth we were born with. This journey is a process, psychologically and emotionally, in which we surrender all preconceived notions of how we live our lives and why. As we let go of the ego control that has ruled us for ages, we learn a different kind of knowing. And when we relinquish the fear that has been accumulating for years, we allow back into our hearts the love we’ve been denying. Based on the teachings of A Course in Miracles, this book is about the practice of love as a daily answer to the problems that confront us, whether our psychic pain is in the area of relationship, career or health.

Marianne Williamson calls for us to return to the world we knew as children, when we were still connected to our softness, our innocence and our spirit. It’s actually the same world we see now, but informed by love, interpreted gently, with hope and faith and a sense of wonder. This world is retrievable, because perception is a choice. A Return to Love will show you how to change our perceptions to realize a world of love.

A List of Marianne Williamson’s Books

Photo: Elisabeth Granli/Harper Collins

Published on: February 15, 2017

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