During a visit to The Foundation for A Course in Miracles in Temecula, California to attend a workshop with friend and fellow Course student Deb Shelly, I interviewed premier Course scholar Ken Wapnick, PhD, about his journey with the Course. I wanted to know how Ken perceived his role in communicating the Course’s unique message, how he viewed awakening, how he avoided specialness, how he handled celebrity, and how his application of forgiveness has evolved since his early days with Helen and Bill. His answers may surprise you as much as they did us.
I have never been around an enlightened being–my teenage daughter notwithstanding 🙂 –but must say that sitting in Ken’s presence with Deb felt healing for both of us in ways we found difficult to describe. He offers the gift of his complete, unwavering attention, and seems to listen more deeply and carefully than the hundreds of people I have interviewed over the years. His answers resounded with truth, and led to my decision to publish them in their entirety (except for minor editing and restructuring for flow) rather than weaving truncated quotes into a narrative as I normally do.
NOTE: Clinical Psychologist, Teacher and Author Kenneth Wapnick, PhD, studied A Course in Miracles since 1973, and worked closely with Course Scribe Helen Schucman and Collaborator Bill Thetford in preparing its final manuscript. With his wife, Gloria, he is president and co-founder of The Foundation for A Course in Miracles (FACIM) in Temecula, California.
(See more from Susan Dugan at her website… click here.)
How do you avoid making your role as a Course teacher special?
It’s the difference between form and content. A line I always like to quote is where Jesus says “Teach not that I died in vain. Teach rather that I did not die by demonstrating that I live in you.” Teaching is demonstration and what you want to focus on is making yourself as ego-free as possible and then whatever you do will be joyful; whether you’re teaching the Course, being a parent, washing dishes, writing an essay, taking a walk. It doesn’t make any difference.
That’s how you get away from the specialness of the form. Because that’s a real seduction, you know? To think that what I’m doing is important because I’m teaching A Course in Miracles. Well, why is that any different from building a hotel or raising children or anything else? So when you get away from the form, the content will always be the same.
There’s that lovely phrase in the Course about the quiet center. And while the image is not used, it’s implicit in it that if you think of a hub of a wheel there’s that quiet center where you live and the spokes that emanate from it are your various roles: wife, teacher, mother, etc. The spokes are not important. What’s important is that you stay in that quiet center and the love in there infuses everything you do; whether you teach the Course or whether you’re playing with your grandchildren. In a sense it should all be the same and to the extent that you recognize that it’s not the same then you recognize that you still have work to do. That’s where the process comes in.
It’s really a trap when you get seduced by the form into thinking the form is something. You teach Jesus’ message by living it; not by preaching it. I’ve often said you could give a wonderful workshop just reading the phone book and if you read it with love and that love infuses every name you read; then you teach it. It doesn’t matter that you have the theology straight or the dynamics of the ego straight. Anybody can learn it, memorize it. But that’s not how you teach it. That’s not how people learn.
So it’s about using the things that seem to arise in your life and forgiving yourself when you catch yourself making it special?
Yes. If you think back to your grade school years what you remember is not the things the teachers taught you. You remember those teachers that were mean and those that were loving; you don’t really remember how they taught you reading, writing, and arithmetic. The teachers who stand out in your mind years later are the teachers who were kind or cruel. That’s what it means to be a teacher–what you demonstrate–whether you’re teaching child-rearing or arithmetic. The line from the text I also quote frequently about the New Year: “Make this year different by making it all the same.” Everything is the same.
You have a lot of people who want a lot of things from you all the time. How do you deal with that?
Again, if you really just focus on that quiet center and don’t identify with the spokes. Whether someone says that was a great class or someone says that was terrible or boring or someone asks you the same question over and over again.
I get asked a lot how can you stand to teach the same thing over and over again. People listen to tapes I made 25 years ago and it’s basically the same thing. And I sometimes make a joke; I can say the same thing over and over again because I don’t listen to myself. But really it’s because it’s always for the first time. So if someone makes a “demand,” the person’s just always talking to me for the first time. Otherwise I couldn’t do what I do. It’s all for the first time.
And certainly you don’t take personally what people say. You learn that in grad school in psychotherapy because patients are constantly projecting; they either love you or hate you. Either way it has nothing to do with you. When you become a public figure, the whole trick is to stay in that quiet center. I want to help people to be more happy and peaceful and kinder but it’s not how you define yourself. You define yourself by that quiet center and then whatever people do or don’t do; you just try to be present.
I’ve read that in the early days of the Course you and Helen and Bill and others would ask for specific guidance from Jesus or the Holy Spirit around bringing the Course into the world, for example. How has your experience asking for help from Jesus or the Holy Spirit shifted over time?
Well, to be honest Helen and Bill were very used to asking for very specific help; what street corner should we stand on to get a taxi cab, which is no small feat in New York City. And they were very, very good at getting taxi cabs at the height of the rush hour; it could be raining. And I never felt comfortable with that. I could do it, and I would do it but it never seemed quite kosher to me. And as you’ve heard me say; The Song of Prayer pamphlet came out of that. And so I think what has evolved is not so much my understanding but the way I talk about it. It was never anything I did prior to meeting Helen and Bill and it just seemed a way to circumscribe that internal presence.
In that one message I quote a lot Jesus said to Helen you’re trying to make my love more manageable. It was a way of managing him. I used to say a lot instead of worrying about which voice you’re hearing and what the voice should tell you why not ask to hear what you should do to remove the blocks so that you can hear the voice better. So it’s not that asking for specifics is not valid or it can’t help you but in the long run it’s not where you want to go. That will just help you live better in the world. I knew Helen knew better and Helen did know better; it was just part of her costume.
Did you have any level confusion early on or did it all make sense from the beginning?
I think it all made sense from the beginning. I remember Helen once asked Jesus why I didn’t have problems with all this and his answer was because there’s no time for it. And actually there wasn’t. I couldn’t have done or do all I do. It was never an issue.
How has practicing the Course’s unique form of forgiveness changed your life; your relationships?
Honestly I don’t think it has. I was really never an angry person. I don’t think anything really changed. What the Course did was it gave a specific context for what I was (already) experiencing but it was not really an issue for me. Not that I didn’t make mistakes but I didn’t hold grudges and I was not angry, even as a child. I had some experiences with my parents where I’d get upset, you know; typical adolescence. But it never really went anywhere. I was never one to hold on to disagreement; it didn’t matter.
Did you experience any undoing? Do you feel that you came into this world in a healed state of mind?
I had issues, I had problems. I look back on my life and see a difference. But by the time I first saw the Course and read it, it was like I was reading it from the inside. And while I certainly would not have said things the way the Course says them when I read them I understood they were true.
I don’t have a sense of the process (with A Course in Miracles). I think for me the process occurred earlier. My greatest spiritual teacher was Beethoven. I started listening to his music in high school and that was my teacher. I sensed something in his music that over a period of time I was growing into. I was very clear about that from high school, college, graduate school, and beyond. What was more important to me than anything else in my life—my schooling, my work, my first marriage—was getting closer and closer to what I felt was the real heart of his music. It was very clear that was a process of hearing his music over and over and hearing his process.
The ego was gone right at the end of his life; you wouldn’t have known it from his life but you can hear it in the last quartets, especially. So I saw my whole life at that point as a process of growing into that music until I felt one with it. When I first heard it in high school I knew I wasn’t there yet, so that was the journey. So that part of the journey was completed by the time I first saw the Course. After that it was just a kind of crystallizing of everything I knew was true.
What is it like to basically be peaceful all the time?
Is it hard to relate to other people’s stuff?
No, not at all. The first professional work I did that I did enjoy the most was working with disturbed children in the school system. I really enjoyed working with psychotic people. I could enter into their thought system. It was like going into their water but I still had a foot on dry land. I could always relate. I could hear, I could understand, and I could help bring them through and out of it.
It actually makes you much more empathetic and compassionate because no needs are imposing on it. And another thing that’s great–because I am very, very busy–is it helps you become very, very efficient in time because there’s nothing interfering. No conflict. If there’s a pile on my desk, if there are calls to make; I just do it. Often everything happens at once. It makes your life easier. You get so much more done. And it allows you to be more compassionate because you can really hear people’s pain and kind of touch it and try to help without anything interfering.
I’m still fairly new to the Course and very new to teaching. I feel very joyful and present writing, teaching, or just spending a lot of time with the material. Then something just seems to come up out of nowhere and I feel unloved and unloving. My self-worth plummets and I’m just a mess. Can you speak about what’s going on with the ego’s backlash?
I think it’s an example of such a common experience almost everyone has regardless of their spiritual path and that is as you become more and more serious about letting your ego go the part of you that identifies with the ego gets terrified. Jesus says when you take my hand on the journey the ego retaliates. He says in that same passage I am beyond the ego so when you take my hand you’re going beyond the ego. So part of you still believes you’re Susan and all the things that go into making Susan, while all of them are not pleasant; they’re comfortable. So it becomes terrifying and that’s when the love turns to hate and the peace turns to fear and you start attacking yourself or attacking others.
It’s very important to understand that and, as you work with this material, to have a healthy respect for the ego which means a healthy respect for your own identification with the ego. Because if you don’t you’ll be blind-sided. Here I am teaching and writing and feeling so kind and loving and boom; I get hit in the back of the neck. And it shouldn’t be a surprise after a while. When it happens you just say oh, that’s what happened, that’s what egos do.
You know, it’s just a book. Books are harmless; it’s nothing. It’s when you take it seriously that you have a problem. You don’t want to dismiss your ego. You want to respect it but you don’t want to give it a power it doesn’t have.
Some A Course in Miracles teachers present themselves as awakened. Is there an inherent danger in this?
I think typically people who are truly awakened don’t talk about it. I’m a little suspicious of people who say they’re awakened. I mean, why would you make that claim? You just let your life speak for you. I don’t think Jesus said he was enlightened. That doesn’t mean someone may not be enlightened who says he or she is but as a rule of thumb I think you would tend to not talk about that.
We can lose sight of the process by focusing on being awakened. When people make that claim it really tends to induce specialness and breed separation. Really you just do what you do and behind what you do is that awareness that says we’re all the same. You want to focus on the process otherwise you skip steps.
What would you say to Course students/teachers who believe they/we can experience peace of mind (in a sense return directly to God/oneness) without practicing the Course’s forgiveness in our relationships?
When you read the Course it’s obvious it’s a process of hard work and you have to practice and practice and practice. I would be very suspicious of people who claim to be enlightened and people who claim they can just go straight to their right mind. I would say 99.999 percent of the time that’s denial. It’s not that it can’t work once in a while, but unless you’re ego-free you can’t do that and if you’re ego-free you don’t need forgiveness. The Course makes it clear this is a practice and a process. We’re in a world of time. I’m leery of people who say you don’t have to deal with the ego because if you say that you’ve already made it real by saying I’m not going to deal with it.
People frequently ask you questions about their relationships and problems in their personal lives in these workshops. The Course seems to be leading us to bring those questions to our inner, loving teacher. Is there a danger of students becoming dependent for answers on the external form; on you?
Obviously it’s a danger. I think what makes it OK is I don’t foster that and I don’t identify with that but I think a certain amount is helpful in the beginning stages just like a child has to begin by depending on his parents. A child’s not going to grow and learn if he or she is not dependent on the parents. But at some point the parents let the child go and you have trouble when parents don’t do that. And I’m certainly aware of all that having done therapy for many years.
People easily will project both good and bad onto me but I would not foster anyone’s dependence. Certainly I would say to some people if I can be of help to you, why don’t you ask me? There’s a line in the Course that says in effect the aim of any teacher is to make himself dispensable. You don’t want people to be dependent on you once they’re able to be on their own. It’s a danger, but I don’t think it’s a problem.
Do you have to set boundaries with your students? If so; when and how?
There’s no right or wrong. There are times when you really have to place very strict boundaries and times when you just have to give people slack. With some people placing a limit would not be helpful. Other people I do stop. It’s something you have to feel when it’s loving and when it’s not loving. To be firm sometimes is the most loving thing you can do; other times it’s not. It’s the same thing with children. Sometimes you overlook something a child does; other times you need to be very clear. It’s hard to know without feeling it from inside. But if you begin to feel badgered then you should place limits because otherwise you’re dealing with a sense of sacrifice and that’s not helpful. If you can’t freely give; then don’t give.
So overall your advice to those of starting to teach is to just be that kind and loving presence as much as possible and try to get the ego out of the way so you can hear what would be most helpful to people?
Yes. There’s a problem, too, with excessive humility. If you have the ability to help people and you don’t exercise it; that’s not helpful. If you have some information or expertise or there’s something about you as a person that could be helpful, to withhold it and say well I’m really just like you are, while true on the level of content, is not true on the level of form. So to withhold an ability to help people would be silly and unkind.
The idea is you don’t identify with it as we were talking about before. That’s the key. You don’t identify with what you do or with what people say about you, you identify with the love that you feel in that quiet center. That’s where you always want to stay and let the spokes lead out from there.