This is a course in miracles. It is a required course. Only the time you take it is voluntary. Free will does not mean that you can establish the curriculum. It means only that you can elect what you want to take at a given time. The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught. It does aim, however, at removing the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence, which is your natural inheritance. The opposite of love is fear, but that which is all-encompassing can have no opposite.
This course can therefore be summed up very simply in this way:
Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists.
Herein lies the peace of God.
[from the introduction to A Course In Miracles]
Some time in junior high, I developed a mental illness. I don’t know how it happened, but one day I woke up and knew that I was sick. I suffered through periods of deep depression. I won’t describe them here, because they’re not unique: just the same black pit that many other depressed people fall into. There were many days where I couldn’t handle getting out of bed. So on the good days, I did a lot to overcompensate. I studied hard. I threw myself into volunteer work and theatre. I also had a lot of boyfriends; probably too many. It was the boyfriends who always ended up getting me into trouble, but spending most of my time thinking about someone else was the easiest way to ignore my own problems.
I started dating Ben when I was 16 and he was 21. Tall, thin, and gentle, he had excellent posture and a graceful way of cocking his head when he listened. I was in love with him sincerely, obsessively, and without any regard for myself. I loved him so much that when I was with him I could forget the upsetting fact that I even existed.
It was Ben who introduced me to A Course In Miracles. He was part of a self-help group that ran workshops based on a couple of popular New Age spiritual philosophies. Ben credited this group with his ongoing recovery from a mysterious undiagnosed chronic pain and illness, and he encouraged me to embrace it as a cure for whatever it was that caused me to spend so many of my days unable to get out of bed.
I had never heard of A Course In Miracles before, but it definitely wasn’t new. While it’s not commonly referenced in the larger culture, A Course in Miracles is a landmark text of Western New Age spiritualism. I spent a lot of time with Ben at weekend workshops, trying to learn about A Course In Miracles and to take its lessons to heart. Most of the other teens at the group were struggling with substance addictions or serious body dysmorphia. To me, they had “real” problems; these kids were heroically fighting battles against enemies with names, and I listened intently to their stories and rooted for them. In the rare moment that I was honest with myself, however, I acknowledged that I was deeply envious of those kids, and simultaneously ashamed of that envy.
After a year of faithfully attending workshops and weekend retreats, I was no closer to figuring out what was wrong with me. Looking back, I’m surprised that none of the adults present mentioned depression, or suggested that I see a medical doctor, or a psychologist, or even a counsellor. They were certain that the Course could help me the way it had helped them. Actually, not one person ever discouraged me in this hopelessly naive quest, although my school friends did get a bit bored with my parroting of New Age philosophy all the time.
“It all comes down to fear versus love,” I said to my friend Trevor at lunch. “Those two are the basis of all other emotions.”
“That’s completely a false dichotomy!” he said, having just gotten out of a class in rhetoric. I had no defense, but I went right on believing.
When Ben told me that his group was putting on a summer camp, and that I could spend the summer there as an “assistant youth counsellor” and therefore take courses for free, I was overjoyed. I attacked the opportunity with the credible certainty that teenagers are famous for (the same kind that makes billions of dollars for those selling diet fads and aspirational magazines). This camp was my perfect opportunity. I was going to fix myself over the summer and enter my senior year as a new, complete, person.
The group had managed to rent space at a multi-acre retreat on a small island off the coast of Vancouver. The retreat was called Xenia, and while we were guests at the property, counsellors and participants all slept in quaint wooden cabins scattered throughout the verdant property. There was a beautiful main lodge, where we had all our meals. There was a meditation space, which was a small wooden one-room cabin deep in the woods with floor pillows, diamond-shaped windows and a small oil lamp. Xenia also had a giant old-growth tree, affectionately named “Opa.” Beside Opa was a low bench, angled so that one could lean backwards and comfortably contemplate the full height of the tree. The camp also boasted a huge handmade stone-and-sand labyrinth, meant for walking in silence and contemplation. Everything at Xenia was aggressively whimsical, and I loved it for that.
There were around thirty or forty people at Xenia that summer. Y counsellors stayed for the whole summer, and the participants spent the week, from Monday to Friday. The days at camp had a loose sort of structure. We would all get up at different times and make our way to the main lodge, where we would eat a breakfast of omelettes or granola at long tables. The air was always full of tiny rainbows, scattered upon us by various crystal-adorned dream catchers and the stained glass sections of handmade windows. Most of our meals contained edible flower petals from the organic garden next to the lodge; I remember a lot of calendula.
After breakfast we would all slowly make our way over to the gathering yurt. The yurt was huge, a giant circular tent with about a thousand square feet of space inside. We would take off our shoes and arrange ourselves in a “sharing circle.” The sharing circle was for sharing your inner feelings without fear of judgment or anger from others. The structure of the sharing circle was taken not from A Course In Miracles but from a related New Age practice called Attitudinal Healing. Attitudinal Healing is a method of communication that is supposed to lessen our reliance on judgment and increase our feelings of peacefulness. A key component of sharing circle was that it was about speaking and listening, but not dialogue: each person would empty their thoughts into the ether and then the circle would move on, each person in turn sharing and then being silent and receptive to others. This was supposed to create an atmosphere of attentive listening, safety, and fellow-feeling.
In practical terms, since the camp was mostly full of teenagers and young adults, this meant that the sharing circles were about 70% for reaching within and sharing your sincere beliefs, and 30% for making passive-aggressive insinuations about other people. The latter was an especially effective tactic if the other person was to your left and had already shared by the time it was your turn. Another assistant counselor, Julie, was especially good at this form of “sharing.”
“Today, my challenge is struggling with feeling separate from Aimee. I know that we are one, but when she took a fifteen-minute shower this morning, my ego was really focusing on how we are only supposed to take ten minutes in the shower. I guess this is a sign that I really need to think about my own showering practices and how I can go inside myself to clear my own anger.” Then Julie would wring her hands and look sadly at her lap, waiting for the opportunity to smirk at me without anyone else noticing.
At this point, instead of sharing “Julie is a dumb bitch who should mind her own business and who I know for a fact is smoking pot at night behind the yurt” (which is what my ego would want me to say), I would instead smile and nod, just like the adults I was attempting to emulate. Julie is not the problem: Julie only represents the ego inside me, an ego who wants to insist that I am separate from Julie. And A Course In Miracles teaches that Julie is god’s love, and that I am god’s love, which means that we are essentially the same person, and so therefore I am really my problem.
This particular part of New Age mythology is a huge stumbling block for a lot of people, and understandably so: why would you want to embrace the very people and things who do you harm? But it was an approach that, for a time, worked really well for me, because like lots of people who suffer from depression I had already committed to blaming myself for all my problems anyway. Julie tripped me during our silent hike around the lake? That was my fault. If I had been manifesting steadiness and calmness in my psyche, I could never have tripped. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t even walk silently around a lake without tripping myself? This is not to say I had fully internalized the teaching of the Course: I never really did manage to feel at peace with Julie, but there was little she could do to cause me to dislike her as much as I already disliked myself. The way I saw it, there was something in me that was rotting, and I was going to use A Course In Miracles to dig it out. If I hadn’t found it yet, the only solution was to dig deeper, and share more. I regular shared myself into hiccuping tears during circle, but nothing ever came of it except opportunities for more sharing.
I clearly had no idea what I was doing, and I needed help. But one of the wonderful and terrible things about this New Age camp was that no one ever seemed to know what they were doing. All the adult counselors were well-meaning but slightly loopy or unhinged. Everyone, counsellors and participants both, floated along together, meditating, doing yoga, and re-reading their dog-eared copies of A Course In Miracles. As a kid who was constantly seeking approval, it was difficult for me that none of the adults around me would cop to being an authority figure. Occasionally, one of the counsellors would take pity on me and give me some of the “mentoring” I craved, with predictably unsatisfying results.
One of my favourites was Janice, a sweet older woman who had long grey-and-white hair which hung in loose waves down her back. Janice was usually wearing khakis, a caftan or oversized blouse, and a collection of dozens of necklaces, each featuring a different polished stone. Janice was short and stout, which is a good thing, because a tall, thin woman would likely have collapsed under the weight of the portable Science & Nature Store she carried on her bosom.
When I asked Janice about her necklaces, she explained that each stone represented a different energy, and that they vibrated at different frequencies which in turn resonated with different chakras, and therefore could help balance her personal energy. At this point she looked down at her chest full of shiny rocks and seemed to understand that she looked odd. “I need all the help I can get,” she shrugged.
Janice was constantly on my case for being a crier, and was trying to teach me how to be zen. I would corner her and ask her opinion on one of the twelve principles of Attitudinal Healing, and she would just smile kindly and say “Quit trying so hard!” On one afternoon I was so frustrated with that treatment that I actually yelled at her: “I know, Janice! I’m trying!” My lip started to tremble.
“You’re trying…to quit trying?” She asked, and then after a moment of silence we both bubbled into sad laughter. New Age humour.
The afternoons at Xenia were spent breaking off into smaller group therapy sessions and activities that interested us. Since I was technically an assistant counsellor there, most of my time was spent taking part in sessions with (more) troubled teenagers who were new to New Age theory, and trying to help them figure out how the philosophy could help them with their personal issues. On afternoons when we weren’t in those sessions, we would do activities considered creative or relaxing, like drumming, costume play, poetry readings, or nature hikes. The second month of camp, someone found a whole bunch of clay somewhere, and mask making made its way onto the schedule. At this point, camp had been a month of crying myself raw in sharing circle and doing endless silent hikes around the lake, and I was enthusiastic about a therapeutic activity that wouldn’t have me covered in a combination of tears, sweat, and mosquito bites.
About twenty of us decided to make masks, and we all trudged up to the intentional art space, which was actually just an old barn that had been cleared out inside and was now used as a pottery studio. Andy, the counsellor running the mask making session, had been trained in clowning techniques and “laughter therapy” through the Gesundheit Institute, so naturally I was ecstatic about learning anything from him. He had studied with THE Patch Adams! Andy instructed us to gather on the lawn outside the barn and close our eyes. He then led us in a quick guided meditation, which would allow us to focus our artistic energy. I paid attention to his instructions for opening the Muladhara chakra, the root chakra, and then Svadhistana, the sacral chakra. But it was hot out, and around the time I was supposed to be directing my energy towards my solar plexus and Manipura chakra, I drifted off and began to plan what I would sculpt my mask to look like. I became taken with the idea of doing something at camp that I was actually good at, and began to fantasize about impressing everyone else with the beauty of my mask. It would have elongated features and a wise, knowing smile. It would express my inner peacefulness and would inspire others with its beauty and detail. I was attempting to decide whether including pointed ears would add to the effect or be cliche when the meditation ended and we were told the mask-making would now begin.
We then went inside the barn and stood behind lumps of clay that had been placed there for each of us. Andy nonchalantly instructed to close our eyes and start working the clay, “really FEEL it between our fingers,” and allow what we experienced during meditation to guide our movements. I was alarmed. Close our eyes? We were going to make masks with our eyes closed? How could I sculpt the beautiful mask I was planning with my eyes closed? My frustration disappeared and returned, reincarnated as desperate determination. If I could still create the beautiful mask I had in my mind despite having my eyes closed, everyone would be extra impressed. I briefly worried that someone would think I had cheated by looking and considered asking for a blindfold, but I couldn’t think of a good reason why I would need a blindfold that didn’t involve my ego. In hindsight, this should have been a hint that I was travelling down a very un-zen path, but I was much too invested in the idea of the mask to turn back at that point. I closed my eyes and set to sculpting. It was deliriously fun, pushing clay around with my eyes closed on a cool summer day. After about 45 minutes, we were called to lift our hands away from our masks and take a look at what we had “birthed.”
I steadied myself and opened my eyes, ready for my triumph.
It was horrifying. The proportions were off, the eyes wide and too far apart, the eyebrows uneven and arched disturbingly. The “wise smile” was more of a sneering grimace, the nose misshapen and melted-looking. Instead of a stately nymph presiding over a magical glen, like I had intended, my mask was a twisted demon who had been clearly forged in the depths of the uncanny valley. Everyone else’s masks looked like interesting topographic maps of an unexplored country–a globe of their psyches, public yet secret. Everyone could see that those masks were beautiful, but only the mask’s maker held the key to the its meaning. My mask was an affront to dignity. And yet, after my initial shock, I found that I was still proud of it, in all its awfulness.
We covered our clay masks in papier mache, and left it to dry. The next afternoon, we popped the dried paper mixture off of the clay and began to paint it. We were encouraged to paint with our eyes closed as well, but that was one bridge too far for me. Instead I used the paint as an opportunity to deepen and emphasize the grossness of my mask. I was becoming attached to its ugliness and felt that perhaps my mask was indicative of my personality after all, rather than just a failed art project: maybe my inner light had fooled my ego and I had actually created a representation of my true self. It was good to have that figured out. When our masks were finished drying, we hung them on the wall inside the yurt. If other people seemed to avoid sitting directly across from my mask during sharing circle, that was their problem and not mine.
When we weren’t doing arts or crafts or physical activities at camp, we were practicing what our camp counsellors called “advanced spiritual techniques.” These techniques were meant to help open our minds and helps us to accept the teachings of A Course In Miracles. One such technique was re-birthing, also referred to as holotropic breathing.
Every Thursday, those who wanted to take part would meet in the gathering yurt. There, the participants would arrange themselves on the floor, lying on top of yoga mats or towels, usually with a thin blanket on top of their legs and torso. A second, more experienced group were designated as helpers, and these helpers would sit quietly around the edges of the room. The lights were dimmed, and whoever was in charge of leading the re-birthing session would then begin a brief guided meditation. Once everyone was relaxed and the room was quiet, the instructor would put on a CD of some type of chanting or drumming. Then we would begin the deep breathing (forced hyperventilation) that is the essential part of re-birthing.
Forced hyperventilation is achieved by taking a deep breath in, letting it out slowly, and then breathing in deeply again before one has finished breathing out. By eliminating the pauses between our breaths, the participants were told, we were allowing a buildup of oxygen in our blood, which also creates an excess of prana, or life energy. I have since learned that this explanation is not only incorrect, but that the opposite is actually true: forced hyperventilation of this kind causes a buildup of CO2 in the blood, making the blood alkaline and in turn making oxygen less available to the brain. We thought we were giving ourselves extra oxygen, but in reality we were slowly and deliberately asphyxiating ourselves. It is true, however, that re-birthing did have strong effects. Like other kinds of breath play, re-birthing is dangerous, but it can also make a person extremely high.
I had done re-birthing before at weekend courses, but the breathing process always made me physically uncomfortable after a few minutes and I had never felt the strong spiritual effects that other people reported. I resolved to try re-birthing again.
The lights were dimmed, the music started, and we began to breathe without pausing. At first it felt awkward, but I kept at it, and after about ten minutes I began to feel pleasantly lightheaded. After around twenty minutes, I was very faint and my legs began to shake. This worried me, but I was determined to complete the process this time. A helper came to me with an extra blanket. She stroked my forehead and wiped away the tears that I didn’t even realize I had been shedding. She whispered that I was doing wonderfully, and that everything was okay.
After what I’m guessing was about forty minutes, my legs stopped shaking and the muscles in my arms began to cramp and tighten. I felt as if I was floating above myself. As I looked down at myself on the yurt floor, I both saw and felt my hands begin to ball into fists of their own accord. My helper was sitting nearby, and when she saw my hands curl up and lodge themselves under my chin, she petted my forehead and spoke to me. I don’t remember what her words were, but I remember they were soft and meaningless comforts. I didn’t open my eyes: I was still seeing her from above.
As I watched myself lie there in the dim room, I decided that I was, actually, perfect, and that everyone and everything was perfect too, and that I wasn’t scared to die; wasn’t scared of anything, in fact! If this had happened to me a few years later, I might have recognized this feeling as a really good trip. But back then, as a brown-nosing teenager who had never touched a drug in her short little life, all I knew was that everything was finally going to be okay. I knew this with the same certainty that I knew about gravity.
The re-birthing coach asked us to begin pausing in between breaths again, and to turn slowly on to our sides when we felt ready. I lied there with my eyes close and waited until eventually my muscles un-cramped and I loosened up into a deep relaxed state. When I sat up and opened my eyes, I saw my mask staring at me. I told myself I was no longer proud of it: I could see now that only my ego valued the mask, and that my true inner self was not interested in creating art or being the best at anything. The mask represented difference and competition, two things that no longer mattered to me. I made the decision to give the mask away.
The next night was a Friday, and camp was ending for the week. Some counsellors went home for the weekend, but Ben and I usually stayed at Xenia. On Friday afternoon after the participants went home, the counsellors walked the labyrinth in silence together, and then ended the day with a bonfire on the green behind the lodge. I approached Janice, who had been so kind to me earlier in the week, and asked her if she would like my mask. I told her about the wisdom I had received during my re-birthing, and asked her if she would take my mask as a gift to her that represented how she had helped me learn to let go of my ego. She said that she would be honoured, but she had a strange look on her face. At the time I thought perhaps I had surprised her with such a personal gift: looking back, I believe she was probably wondering what on earth she was going to do with an ugly papier-mâché devil.
She gave me something in return: a book of fables that she had written and self-published. It was a small, white, perfect-bound volume and I treasured it. Someone I knew was an author! She had written an entire (albeit short) book, made of wisdom from her life! This was the big leagues. I could feel myself becoming the person I was meant to be.
The next Monday, the counsellors were all sitting in the yurt before circle, talking about how our weekends had gone. When it came time for her to share, Janice talked about how nice it had been to get home and see her son and her dog; she had a giant German shepherd mix, but that she was glad to be back at camp. She fingered a rose quartz nervously as she talked.
After circle was over, I approached Janice to give her a hug and talk to her about her book. She saw me coming and smiled widely. “Something wonderful happened on the weekend!” she said to me.
“Oh, what’s that?” I asked. My imagination was already running wild: she had a friend who was an artist and thought my mask was beautiful? No, she had decided my mask would be the cover of her next book!
“Charlie ate your mask,” she said, happily.
I just stared at her. Charlie was the name of her German Shepherd.
“I think he knew,” she stage-whispered, “what that mask represented. I left it on the kitchen table with my purse when I got in the door, and I went right to the bathroom. When I came back into the kitchen, your mask was all over the floor. Charlie had already eaten most of it. He went to it right away! Isn’t that perfect? He gave it back to the earth.”
Only at a New Age camp could someone say, “Great news! Remember that meaningful gift you gave me? My dog ate it and then shit it back onto my lawn.”
I felt like I was above my body again, but this time, I was watching myself punch Janice in the face. When I was finally able to wrest myself away from that satisfying vision, I nodded and smiled through an agonizing conversation with Janice, went to my cabin, and cried.
I wasn’t really upset that my mask had been ruined, although I do wish I still had it. I was upset with A Course In Miracles, and with everyone else at the camp. Why on earth was it so difficult for us to speak to each other plainly? I had been surrounded by people at this camp for months, and yet I’d rarely felt so lonely. The insistence other counsellors placed on silence–silent hikes, silent meditation, sharing without getting feedback–was supposed to bring me peace, but it was pushing me further and further inside my own mind.
When Ben walked in and found me twisted into a snotty, tearful pretzel, his confusion and inability to understand why I was so upset slowly morphed into an enormous fight–the worst one we’d had to date. He didn’t understand why my moods were always swinging around so dramatically, and why nothing seemed to be able to fix it. He was understandably frustrated: it can be difficult to date people dealing with undiagnosed depression, and I’m sure I was no exception. My presence was probably galling for a lot of kids at camp, and possibly for Ben too: I had a grasp on the material, and I had no obvious problems. Why was I crying all the time? Why was I so unstable?
The next afternoon, Ben and I were still being cool to each other, and one of the other counsellors, a middle-aged man name Sam, noticed that our usual handholding had come to an end. In his daily life Sam was a commercial real estate developer, who coincidentally was personally responsible for turning the fields near my childhood home into a giant multiplex. He had come to New Age philosophy to learn to be a good person again, and to replace his anger with compassion. Apparently it had worked for him: he seemed like a very kind, gentle man. There were whispers, though, from some of the other adult counsellors, of what he had been like before. A very angry guy, who apparently still had not been able to convince his wary adult children that he had transformed into someone better. At Xenia, Sam would spend every morning before breakfast writing in his journal for at least a half hour. I was intensely curious about what was in that journal, but I was too shy to ask.
Sam seemed to like me, and on that afternoon he approached me privately and asked if I was okay. I told him that I was frustrated with A Course In Miracles, and that I didn’t know if I could do it any more. I told him that I thought there was probably just something wrong with me that was preventing the teaching of the course to take hold. Sam listened patiently, and then offered me a special healing session: he would take me to the gathering yurt and perform energy therapy on me, to “reboot my system.” I said yes, mostly because I was out of ideas and desperate to not have been wrong about A Course In Miracles, Xenia, Ben–everything.
Twenty minutes later, Sam had gathered his supplies and we were alone in the yurt. I was lying flat on my back, looking up at the ceiling. Sam held up a crystal on a string, and let it hover this way and that for a bit: attuning the crystal, he said. Then he hovered the crystal about a foot above me, at various points corresponding to various chakras. He used the crystal to locate the problem: an energy blockage above my browbone, in my ajna chakra.
Then Sam began to slowly wave his hands above me. “I am distributing the extra energy from your blocked chakra into the others,” he says. “I am re-balancing your energy fields.”
“Thanks!” I chirped.
I lay there and watched Sam concentrate as he pushed at the blockage, waving his hands and pushing and pulling in patterns I didn’t understand. He made his way from my head down to my waist, waving his hands the whole way. He never once made contact with me, except for when sweat dripped off his forehead and onto the leg of my jeans.
I started to feel a troubling sensation: irony. This powerful man was the epitome of success in both the world of business and the cliquey inner circles of New Age Vancouver. He was rich, good-looking, had a big family and a beautiful house. It occured to me that if poor Janice, with her heaps of rocks and self-published book, was the beginning of a journey with A Couse In Miracles, then surely Sam was the end. The pinnacle. He had succeeded in a material way and then fixed his broken self with the Course. And yet, here he was, twirling a polished rock on the end of a string and directing air traffic above a teenager lying prone on a massage table.
I felt embarrassed for him, and then instantly I felt ashamed for being so uncharitable. Surely I didn’t look any less silly, lying on a table in the middle of a giant yurt, with my chakras hanging out in disarray.
From then on, the magic was gone. I stayed at camp for the rest of the season, but my interest in the Course after that was mostly feigned. I am still both grateful and perplexed by all the other counsellors at Xenia. At the time, I was profoundly comforted by their insistence that I wasn’t broken (or at least no more broken than anyone else), and that I could be happy. I am still grateful for that; the people there showed me love and kindness when I badly needed it. But I am perplexed, now, to look back at their insistence that it was their way, and only their way, that could help me. Why were they so sure, in the face of all the contrary evidence? Was my failure to cure myself after a year of treatment as disconcerting to them as it was to me?
I never got any answers. I didn’t continue going to group sessions after camp was over.
Ben broke up with me a year after we went to camp, and although it was extremely upsetting, if I’m honest I also felt a tiny bit relieved. In fact, A Course In Miracles occupies the same part of my memories as old boyfriends do: I don’t need them anymore, but I have affection and compassion for the person I was when I loved them.
Aimee Ouellette is a writer, editor, and critic. She has edited award-winning Canadian literary titles, and regularly reviews books for subTerrain magazine. She likes swimming in the ocean, giving pedicures, and reading out loud. Aimee lives in New Westminster, BC with her husband and son.