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.
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.