The Symphonic Nature of A Course in Miracles



Originally published in the Lighthouse Newsletter, March 2009

by Kenneth Wapnick, Ph.D.


Introduction: Hearing the Melos

Wilhelm Furtwängler was arguably the world's greatest conductor of Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, among other composers, in part because his understanding of their music spanned the whole of their work, and because of his ability to intuit the inner music of any particular composition. He thus spoke of music as being a living organic process:

Wagner was the first to point out the practical implications of this organic experience of the structure of Beethoven's works. Foremost among them is the use of rubato, that almost imperceptible yet constant variation of tempo which turns a piece of music played rigidly according to the notes on the printed page into what it really is—an experience of conception and growth, of a living organic process (italics mine).1

Furtwängler was discussing what Wagner referred to in his wonderful, albeit polemic essay "On Conducting" as the melos of a musical work. This great composer urged conductors to listen to the work's melos, the Greek word for "song" (also roughly translated as "melody"). By this he meant the inner melody of the composition, without which the music would be conducted "without a shadow of soul or sense." He thus urged conductors not to be slaves to the printed page, but rather to hear the melos behind the music, what violinist Isaac Stern spoke of as the "silence between the notes." Wagner's point was that conductors frequently miss "the heart [or melos] of the work." He was speaking of the soul of the music (its content), not the notes (the form), reminiscent of Jesus' statement in A Course in Miracles about the forgotten song that is the memory of "the song the Son sings to the Father, Who returns the thanks it offers Him unto the Son" ( Of this song, Jesus said: "The notes are nothing" (T-21.I.7:1).

A conductor, therefore, to go back to Wagner, must truly understand the essence of the work. When this real meaning is understood, each of the separate parts of the composition falls logically and naturally into place. Thus Wagner emphasized that while most conductors conduct all the notes (indeed, many may do so brilliantly), they lose the breadth of the piece when they simply conduct one passage after another with no feeling for the organic connection between them. Thus the music's soul is lost.

In this sense, it is helpful to think of A Course in Miracles as a work of art; art being at once the product of the artist's creative genius as well as its interaction with the observer, listener, or reader. Moreover, the structure of A Course in Miracles provides a model for how we are to live our lives under its principles, for it too is composed as a living, organic process. Life here, then, would be seen as an ongoing journey of learning to practice forgiveness, the Course's method par excellence for undoing the ego and awakening us from its dream of separation.

Thus the structure of the Course as a pedagogical system serves as a metaphor for the journey that is our lives. Restated, we can see both the Course's actual words and concepts, and the specific details of our life experiences as the form that proceeds from the mind's underlying content: A Course in Miracles as a book being the right-minded expression of truth; while our lives reflect the mind's decisions either to attack or forgive, to reinforce illusions or truth. We begin, therefore, with a discussion of form and content, as prelude to discussing the living, organic process that reflects the essence of A Course in Miracles and our living out its principles while we believe we are here as bodies.

Form and Content: Purpose Is Everything

Musician John Hill, in his book Beethoven's Symphonies, quoted German philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno as saying that form "catches fire on content," the point being that the power and meaning behind any form—artistic or otherwise—rests in its underlying content. Hill continued by saying that musical "form is less a matter of architectural dissemination…than it is a fluid, ongoing, dynamic process wherein ideas are developed, elaborated, and propelled forward inevitably toward some specific goal.*2

When A Course in Miracles speaks of form, it refers to the outer expression of an inner content, body following mind, which is the propelling force, as it were, that infuses form with its meaning—form catching fire on content. Restated, form and content is the relationship of effect to its cause. In fact, early in the text, Jesus cites the cause-effect relationship as a fundamental law of the mind, as he reminded Helen Schucman that the purpose of the Course she was scribing was to understand that the mind ("your own thinking") was the power that determined the activities of the body—thoughts, feelings, behavior:

If I intervened between your thoughts and their results, I would be tampering with a basic law of cause and effect; the most fundamental law there is. I would hardly help you if I depreciated the power of your own thinking. This would be in direct opposition to the purpose of this course (T-2.VII.1:4-6).

This clearly suggests that a total shift in perspective is required to understand and successfully practice this course. Jesus cautions us in The Song of Prayer not to set forgiveness in an "earthly frame" (S-2.III7:3), and we can extrapolate his meaning to not seeking to understand his course as applying to our earthly frames as bodies, but rather that we place its teachings solely within our decision-making minds. This shift of perspective from the body to the mind is nothing less than the decision to leave hell and return to Heaven. The implications of this important thought are huge, for it means that everything in the world is not only determined by the mind, but is within the mind. The body, and therefore our lives on earth, do not truly exist, for ideas leave not their source: the dream can never leave the mind of the dreamer. Undoing the world's confusion in this regard, thinking that the world is the cause of our self-concept, is a major purpose of the Course. Jesus discusses this confusion of cause and effect in the context of sickness; the mind (the decision for guilt) being the cause, with the body (the sick expression of a sick thought) being merely its effect:

Sickness or "not-right-mindedness" is the result of level confusion, because it always entails the belief that what is amiss on one level [the body] can adversely affect another [the mind]. We have referred to miracles as the means of correcting level confusion, for all mistakes must be corrected at the level on which they occur. Only the mind is capable of error. The body can act wrongly only when it is responding to misthought (T-2.IV.2:2-5).

Directly following from this is another important theme in A Course in Miracles, that of purpose. Recognizing its importance is also central to any student's appreciation and understanding of the Course and the successful application of its principles. We are repeatedly told, as in the following passage, that it is essential to understand the purpose of something before we can know its meaning. This would apply to specifics such as a meeting, situation, or relationship, as well as to our lives in general. Thus we read:

This is the question ["What for?"] that you must learn to ask in connection with everything. What is the purpose? Whatever it is, it will direct your efforts automatically. When you make a decision of purpose, then, you have made a decision about your future effort; a decision that will remain in effect unless you change your mind (T-4.V.6:8-11).

The world's multitudinous purposes come down to two: the mind's decision for guilt or forgiveness, to remain in the dream or awaken from it. Jesus, therefore, is teaching us to approach our lives from the point of view of purpose: why am I here? what do I hope to accomplish in my life? what is it for? And so we come to see how the forms of our lives mirror the content our minds have chosen to achieve its right-minded or wrong-minded goal. Moreover, we can recognize the same purpose manifest in A Course in Miracles, whose words mirror its right-minded content, serving the purpose of leading us ever more closely to the experience of love that is its ultimate source and our true Identity.

A Course in Miracles as a Symphony

The text of A Course in Miracles does not progress along a normal linear path, with one idea leading logically into the next. Instead of this causative, linear connectedness, Jesus develops his teaching in a way that explores the underlying conjunction among ideas—"the musical structure" of the text. He returns to certain images and events not only for thematic purposes, but because of the aesthetic effect of the juxtaposition. When I wrote A Glossary-Index for A Course in Miracles in 1982, my first book on the Course, I expressed this non-linear or symphonic nature of A Course in Miracles in the following passage:

Unlike most thought systems, A Course in Miracles does not proceed in a truly linear fashion with its theoretical structure built upon increasingly complex ideas. Rather, the Course's development is more circular with its themes treated symphonically: introduced, set aside, reintroduced, and developed. This results in an interlocking matrix in which every part is integral and essential to the whole, while implicitly containing that whole within itself.
         This structure establishes a process of learning instead of merely setting forth a theoretical system. The process resembles the ascent up a spiral staircase. The reader is led in a circular pattern, each revolution leading higher until the top of the spiral is reached, which opens unto God. Thus, the same material consistently recurs, both within the Course as a thought system as well as in learning opportunities in our personal lives. Each revolution, as it were, leads us closer to our spiritual goal. The last two paragraphs of the first chapter in the text particularly emphasize this cumulative impact of the Course's learning process.
         Through careful study of the text, along with the daily practice that the workbook provides, the student is gradually prepared for the deeper experiences of God towards which A Course in Miracles points. Intellectual mastery of its thought system will not suffice to bring about the perceptual and experiential transformation that is the aim of the Course (p. 1).

Therefore, our approach to A Course in Miracles should not be bound by a striving to uncover its intellectual secrets, actively asserting our intellect as it does combat, as it were, with the Course's words and logic. Rather, we should allow ourselves to become passively open to its message by letting it speak to us, its "music" transcending our thinking so it can go straight to our hearts. This would mean that one could not truly understand any one particular passage without an understanding—experientially, not intellectually—of the entirety of its thought system. This would be similar to, returning to our above discussion of Wagner's essay, conductors who try to conduct a great symphony without the maturity needed for a proper appreciation of its depth. Again, one needs to know the Course as a living, organic process, so that each part can be comfortably fit into the whole. Therefore, we will never truly benefit from A Course in Miracles—on the level of cognitive understanding or experience—by attempting to reach the whole through piecing together its separate parts. As Jesus reminds us in the text:

The Sonship in its Oneness transcends the sum of its parts (T-2.VII.6:3).

The whole does define the part, but the part does not define the whole (T-8.VIII.1:10).

In other words, A Course in Miracles is more than its theory, and intellectual mastery alone of its thought system, wherein students are not active participants in their own process of healing, cannot but engender a sterile, non-living experience of the Course's organic life. This appreciation of the structure of A Course in Miracles provides a framework that offers a meaningful way of approaching our own lives, the subject of the next section and the main thrust of this article.

Our Life as a Symphony

Throughout her life, Helen Schucman, the Course's scribe, had dreams that succinctly described her inner life. One such dream was in 1945 and, as was her fashion, she gave it a title—The Recorder—for when she wrote down her dreams, many of them read like short stories or fables. This particular dream addresses the meaning of Helen's being in the world, and foreshadows the decisive instant—twenty years later in 1965—when she did in fact make the right choice that gave meaning to her life: her decision to join with William Thetford to find the other way of relating to each other and to the world. This decision was the immediate stimulus for the Course's scribing.

The dream takes placein a small, rectangular room lined with books from floor to ceiling.… In the middle of the room a tall and incredibly ancient man, evidently some sort of clerk, sits on a very high stool.… He is carefully making small, neat entries with a long-handled quill pen in a large, gray-bound ledger.

Helen approaches him, understanding that he is recording "everything that is or has ever been in the whole universe." She poses several questions, each becoming more absurd than the previous one, desperately attempting to find out what is written in her record. She is aware that she does not really know what to ask:

If only I knew the question I could probably find the answer myself. But I haven't the faintest idea what the question is. In fact, that's really the problem.

A Course in Miracles, many years later, would concur (see, for example,T-4.V.4:9-11 andT-27.IV).

The clerk finally accedes to Helen's constant questioning and explains what he is doing:

In this ledger is a page of accounts for everybody that lives, and all his actions are recorded on it. Whenever someone dies, I draw a line under the last entry, add up the figures, and get a total. This total I pass on to the proper Authorities.

Helen responds:

You mean you decide whether people have been good or bad, and things like that.

And the clerk:

Dear me, no, I merely record facts. Good and bad mean nothing to me. They may concern the Authorities, of course. I wouldn't know. It's not my department.

Helen asks about her page and the clerk says he cannot say since the "account hasn't been closed as yet." Helen persists, and the clerk, relenting in the face of her pleadings, explains why he cannot answer more specifically:

I never indulge in speculation. In my work it would be a waste of time. Over and over I've seen a person suddenly decide to do something very unexpected,—something that changes the whole picture of his accounts. He's quite likely to do it up until the very last minute. Therefore I've given up speculating beforehand.

This important dream has significant implications for all of us, offering a meaningful way to see our lives: living, organic processes that cannot be understood until the life is done and we look back and perceive the unifying principle, or melos, that the entirety of our life was built around—the symphony that was the development of this life theme and fulfillment of its purpose.

This means that we cannot understand the specifics of our life experience without knowing how they fit into the whole. Judgment of any event, then, is impossible, as we read in the manual for teachers:

In order to judge anything rightly, one would have to be fully aware of an inconceivably wide range of things; past, present and to come. One would have to recognize in advance all the effects of his judgments on everyone and everything involved in them in any way. And one would have to be certain there is no distortion in his perception, so that his judgment would be wholly fair to everyone on whom it rests now and in the future. Who is in a position to do this? Who except in grandiose fantasies would claim this for himself? (M-10.3:3-7)

And yet this is what we arrogantly claim each and every time we seek to make sense of our own behavior, or that of another, or wish to understand world events—political, economic, social. It is impossible without an awareness, as the above passage suggests, of the mind that exists outside time and space, the mind that contains within itself—simultaneously!—every expression in form of the original error, as well as everyexpression of its correction:

The tiny tick of time in which the first mistake was made, and all of them within that one mistake, held also the Correction for that one, and all of them that came within the first (T-26.V.3:5).

Moreover, as there is no way that a brain, conditioned by the mind to think linearly, can know what this means, we are wise to set the metaphysics aside and focus only on understanding that we cannot understand, which is why Jesus counsels us in the workbook after a discussion of the fundamental unreality of time, a notion un-understandable to the human brain that is localized in a temporal body:

There is no need to further clarify what no one in the world can understand.… Now we have work to do, for those in time can speak of things beyond, and listen to words which explain what is to come is past already. Yet what meaning can the words convey to those who count the hours still, and rise and work and go to sleep by them?
         Suffice it, then, that you have work to do to play your part. The ending must remain obscure to you until your part is done.… Forgiveness is the central theme that runs throughout salvation, holding all its parts in meaningful relationships, the course it runs directed and its outcome sure (W-pI.169.10:1,3-4;11:1-2; 12:1).

This focus on our daily lessons of forgiveness—playing our part—frees us to direct our attention to living our lives in the present, with the goal being to see only shared instead of separate interests. The whole could never be apprehended without completion of our function, which denies the ego's assertion that the world can bring us pleasure or pain, salvation or damnation. And so our only purpose while we think we are here is to choose holy instead of unholy instants, wherein we trust that the whole will unfold without our needing to make it happen. Trusting that "the outcome is as certain as God" (T-2.III.3:10), we suspend our need to understand, control, or make sense of events in our personal and collective worlds, and seek only to accept the curriculum as it is presented to us, asking Jesus to help us choose to see peace instead of the conflict and concern the ego would have us experience and make real (W-pI.34).

There is an interesting fable that well illustrates this idea of being unable to evaluate, let alone understand any event, in and of itself; a tale that exemplifies the attitude of total non-judgment of anyone or anything that Jesus is trying to inculcate in us. The parable appears in many traditions—I specifically recall Taoist and Buddhist versions—and here is the Taoist, condensed for this article:

A Taoist farmer's only horse broke out of the corral and ran away. His neighbors commiserated with him, saying, "Oh what bad luck!" The farmer replied, "Maybe."
         A week later, the horse returned, bringing with it a herd of wild horses, quickly corralled by the farmer. The neighbors returned and, seeing the corral filled with horses, said, "Oh what good luck!" The farmer replied, "Maybe."
         A couple of weeks later, the farmer's son badly broke his leg when he was thrown from one of the wild horses. A few days later the leg became infected and the son became delirious with fever. The neighbors came to see the son and said, "Oh what bad luck!" The farmer replied, "Maybe."
         At this same time, there was a war going on between two rival warlords. In need of more soldiers, the warlord of the farmer's village sent one of his captains to conscript young men to fight in the war. When the captain came to take the Taoist farmer's son he obviously could not take him due to his broken leg and high fever. A few days later, the son's fever broke. The neighbors rejoiced for the farmer having his son spared and in good health, and said, "Oh what good luck!" The farmer replied, "Maybe."

What seemed like bad luck was really good luck, which then became bad luck, etc., etc., etc. The point, again, is that it is impossible to understand anything truly, since there is no way of knowing the inter-connectedness among all the variables in the world, which is why judgment is not only impossible but silly even to attempt.

There is an interesting parallel to this teaching in psychology. The post-World War II period saw the rise of what was called a Third Force, an answer to the dominant place held for decades in psychological thought by the deterministic psychoanalysis and behaviorism, with their respective emphases on the past. Members of this new movement focused on the importance of observed behavior, and after careful examination of the behavior in question, placed it in the context of the individual's ongoing, developing life process. Kurt Goldstein, an articulate exponent of this position and one of the major influences on Gestalt Psychology, wrote in his major opus, The Organism:4

If one desires to understand human nature, one must try to understand these phenomena as the manifestation of one unitary being.… [These phenomena point] beyond themselves to the whole, to a base differing from the parts themselves, to a center to which they owe their functional reality and by which they achieve their place (pp. 448, 509). Goldstein termed this centering force "self-actualization," a process by which all people strive to realize their potential and actualize who they really are.

Goldstein's early work as a neurologist studied the catastrophic effects of World War I on soldiers. This led him to state the following on catastrophe and its place in the process of self-actualization. His understanding helps illuminate the meaning of our individual lives as we strive to make sense of our difficult and painful experiences:

If the organism is "to be," it always has to pass again from moments of catastrophe to states of ordered behavior. Catastrophic shocks.…represent a disequilibrium which must be overcome, if the organism is not to lose its existence. This balancing process occurs through mutual adjustment of the organism and the world, and is realized because the organism is able to find its "milieu" in the world.… [Proceeding from catastrophe to catastrophe, however, is not the organism's] intrinsic Being, rather only the transition to its true realization. The clash [between the catastrophe and the world]…provides only a shake-up from the re-patterning, that is, the real pattern, the real performance, the revelation of the organism and the world emerges (pp. 511-12).

Thus, we learn to see that the individual components of what we think of as our lives, including those that have been the most "catastrophic," are but part of the "little steps" that God asks us to take to Him (W-pI.193.13:7). To put this in the Course's terms, any event or experience is merely a step along the larger Atonement path—A Course in Miracles' version of Goldstein's self-actualization—each of us must traverse in our unique way, which is why we are told that the "curriculum is highly individualized" (M-29.2:6). Each of the aspects can never be understood within itself, but only as a part of the living, organic process that is our pathway home, the emergence of "the real pattern, the real performance." This is the meaning of the workbook lesson, "All things are lessons God would have me learn." (W-pI.193). Looking at our life's path with Jesus—as a whole or at certain specifics—we come to realize that the onlyright-minded purpose for anything in the world is its potential to be a means of learning to forgive ourselves. Thus would we loose the world from all we thought it was (W-pI.132),and let go of past grievances and future dreads. How could we not wish this for ourselves and everyone, since we are one? As Jesus reminds us near the end of the text, in the context of letting Christ's vision release our brothers and ourselves from the chains of unforgiveness:

And what but this is what this course would teach? And what but this is there for you to learn? (T-31.VII.15:6-7)

Where is judgment, then, when the past is gone and the future non-existent? Vision or judgment is our choice (T-20.V.4:7),and we have now chosen irrevocably for the Teacher whose perception sees each part as contributing to the glorious whole that is our acceptance of the Atonement: the complete undoing of the ego and its thought system of guilt, hate, fear, and death.


Extrapolating Goldstein's remarks to A Course in Miracles, we recognize again that the Course cannot be understood by analyzing sentences or isolating specific ideas, but only when any one is seen within the whole. So, too, with an individual life, or any specific event within that life. Thus the Course is our model for learning, like Jesus who sees only love or calls for love, and God Who does not even see illusion—the separation that never happened. Following its example, we walk the earth without judgment, free at last to have Christ's vision become our own, allowing kindness and gentleness to replace the bitterness of our erstwhile perceptions of comparison, attack, and loss. Acceptance rather than analysis now becomes the reigning principle in our lives (T-11.V.13:1), and we no longer seek to compel the world to conform to our need to control, striving to understand—anyone or anything—what can never be understood. Thus we happily embrace Jesus' words from the text:

You are still convinced that your understanding is a powerful contribution to the truth, and makes it what it is (T-18.IV.7:5).

This suspension of our need to understand opens the mind's door to the true perception that sees all people as the same, undifferentiated by the ego's judgments that place the world in the illusory categories of good and evil, thus belying God's Love that only unites. The living, organic process that was our life comes now to a gentle close, its purpose fulfilled, and the peace that passeth all understanding is ours at last.

The final two stanzas of Helen's poem "The Quiet Dream," addressed to Jesus, are a fitting conclusion to this piece, offering a lovely summary of the meaning of the forgiving light of Christ's vision: a world in which soft acceptance has replaced the harsh and bitter sights of judgment, oneness come to take the place of separation, and God's Son returned to the innocence he never left when he believed his sin had shattered Heaven and destroyed His Father's Love:

There is a light that shines upon this world,
And judges it as Christ would have it judged.
There is no condemnation on it. He
Beholds it sinless, in the light that shines
From His Own face. His vision looks upon
The sure reflection of His Father's Love;
The picture calling up His memory.

What can remain of evil in the world
Christ's vision looks upon? And what could still
Appear to me as fearful, with the light
Of His perfection on it? What could teach
Me sorrow has a cause, or death is real?
Help me forgive the world. The peace You give
In my forgiveness will be given me.
(The Gifts of God, p. 65)

1. Quoted in "The Conductor and the Theorist," Nicholas Cook, in "The Newsletter of the Wilhelm Furtwängler Society of America," Vol. X, #1,2, p. 38.
2. Milwaukee: Amadeus Press, 2008, p. 34.
3. The complete dream can be read in my Absence from Felicity, pp. 69-73
4. New York: American Books, 1939.