The Dark Side of “The Guru Papers.”

Via D. Patrick Miller
on Mar 6, 2013
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Julian Walker wrote in elephant journal last summer that the 1993 book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, recently released as an e-book, “is essential reading if you are interested in questions of power, shadow, authority, spiritual growth and freedom.”

While the book made many valid points, it demonstrated questionable scholarship in its assessment of the contemporary spiritual teaching known as A Course in Miracles (ACIM).

I came across this assessment while researching my 1997 book The Complete Story of the Course, which was revised and released in 2008 as Understanding A Course in Miracles.  My original report on the The Guru Papers follows verbatim in the excerpt below, with some explanatory material added [in brackets].


A critique of A Course in Miracles appeared in a widely reviewed 1993 book entitled The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Frog, Ltd.), by Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer [released as an e-book in 2012]. Alstad, an instructor in humanities and women’s studies with a doctorate from Yale, and Kramer, a yoga adept and former instructor at Esalen Institute, wrote their book to expose the “authoritarian structure” they feel is “interwoven and disguised in most arenas of human interaction, including religion, morality, power, institutions, the family, intimacy, and even sexual relations and personal problems, such as addiction.”

For the most part, The Guru Papers eschews criticism of particular institutions, movements, or individuals, instead providing a more general analysis of such topics as “The Seductions of Surrender,” “Fundamentalism and the Need for Certainty,” and “Love and Control.”

Two exceptions to their “essentially structural” critique include a five-page commentary on the Reverend Jim Jones and the 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown—and 10 pages on A Course in Miracles.

Kramer and Alstad focused on the Course “because it purports to be non-authoritarian, while claiming to be channeled by no less an authority than the spirit of Jesus Christ…We single it out because it is a classic example of programming thought to renunciate beliefs.”

Most of the ensuing critique focuses on the Workbook of the Course, which in Kramer and Alstad’s view pursues a kind of brainwashing proceeding along three routes:

1. Promulgating detachment from the world by denying its reality.

2. Decreeing forgiveness and the letting go of grievances to be the only route to love and salvation.

3. Promising immortality and the elimination of all negativity through identifying only with what is delineated as the god aspect within oneself.

The authors also note that the avowed purpose of the Workbook is to “eventually bring forth one’s ‘Internal Teacher’ which in turn, without any external authorities, will lead one to truth…This claim is worth examining because under the guise of presenting objective truth that any seeker can find, what is actually going on is the age-old ploy of authoritarian indoctrination: A worldview is presented by an unchallengeable authority as the truth to be found…Nothing could be more authoritarian, for who could argue against a disembodied spirit with the credentials of a traditional God?”

An obvious answer is Helen Schucman, the Course scribe who argued with the voice of a disembodied spirit in her own head until the end of her days.

Kramer and Alstad’s charge about the authoritarianism of the Course is further weakened by two facts. First, most authoritarian systems rely on an organization or embodied figure of authority rather than an implicit one [such as ACIM’s “Internal Teacher”].

Second, many Course students do in fact argue with its voice, even as they study the message.

Many contemporary students—including such leading proponents as Jerry Jampolsky, Marianne Williamson, ACIM Editor and teacher, Ken Wapnick and ACIM Publisher,  Judy Skutch—come from Jewish backgrounds and thus were not particularly inclined to regard the voice of Jesus as a divine or unimpeachable authority in the first place.

Possibly, a majority of students are veterans of other spiritual disciplines—including more traditional and overtly authoritarian structures—who report that what they like about the Course is its “take it or leave it” accessibility.

Still, others with agnostic orientations tell stories like that of UC-Irvine professor Roger Walsh, who shut his copy of the Course as soon as he encountered its claim of spiritual authorship, and did not reopen it for two years—until consistently positive reviews by respected peers convinced him to take another look.

As Ken Wapnick relates,

“I’ve heard countless stories of the Course sitting on people’s bookshelves for several years before they happen to read something in it that suddenly makes sense.”

Thus Kramer and Alstad’s critique incorporates little knowledge of what Course students are really like, or what they have to say about how the teaching actually affects them. Even when Kramer and Alstad rely on a student’s own words to draw an interpretation of the Course’s effects, their methodology and conclusions are decidedly questionable.

To illustrate their contention that “those willing to be programmed get programmed,” Kramer and Alstad assert that it is necessary to examine not only the Course’s Workbook exercises “but also the nature of the mind that is willing and able to do them daily for an extended time.”

As an example we will paraphrase and quote an enthusiast and teacher of the Course. We use this person’s words only to represent a position which we (and he, too) believe is similar to that of many others. Consequently, we do not think the identity of the person matters. He initially states that before doing the Course, he was very disappointed in life because he saw that ideals important to him would not or could not be achieved in this world. “The more I faced the ‘real world,’ the less real I felt.” He had “a divided sense of self that didn’t measure up to anything”; and his “fragmented idealism” was “contaminated by conflicting ambitions.”

Here is a person who wanted the world to fit into what were most probably ideals of purity, where non-violence, compassion, selflessness and love would reign supreme. It is not surprising this man would gravitate toward a worldview that presented these four items as in fact reigning supreme, this being done by denying the reality of the world where they do not reign supreme. This same person went on to say, “After years of thrashing about in a senseless world that seemed to oppose my highest aspirations, I have simply forgiven that world . . . I’m no longer concerned with defining what the “real world” is—perhaps, as the Course asserts, there is no world at all, but I do know I have gained a personal sense of authenticity.” He then concluded that he now feels better than he ever felt before.

The danger of this kind of feeling better, Kramer and Alstad explain, is the “great illusion…that through denial one can transcend what one is afraid of, whether it be death or isolation…What all renunciate worldviews such as A Course in Miracles really create are internally divided people who need an external authority to help keep control of their unwanted parts.”

Kramer and Alstad did not acknowledge or footnote their source, making it difficult for readers to follow up their research or challenge their conclusions.

Reading their critique as a journalist, I decided that I would try to contact the quoted student myself. Beginning to read his excerpted statements a second time, I realized that this wouldn’t take much footwork—because the increasingly familiar language of this “programmed” student was my own.

In fact, the quotes Kramer and Alstad excerpted originally appeared in my first personal essay about A Course in Miracles, published in 1988 by The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas. In order to offer my own interpretation of what I wrote—about which I can be reasonably authoritative—it is necessary to reproduce the entire passage edited by Kramer and Alstad.

Italics indicate material they deleted or did not include:

“After years of thrashing about in a senseless world that seemed to oppose my highest aspirations, I have simply forgiven that world by realizing that it was largely defined and limited by my own pessimism. I’m no longer concerned with defining what the “real world” is—perhaps, as the Course asserts, there is no world at all—but I do know that I have regained a personal sense of authenticity. I know that I am here to learn and, through writing, to teach whatever I can discover, record, and synthesize. No other definition of myself is needed.”

This essay, written during recovery from a prolonged illness during which I encountered and completed my initial study of A Course in Miracles, represented a sort of personal “coming out.”

In it, I was exploring how what I had recently learned might be usefully extended to a world from which I had felt sequestered for several years by an intense struggle of physical suffering, psychological self-confrontation and spiritual crisis.

By learning how to relinquish long-time habits of pessimism and cynicism, I felt that I was “loosing the world,” as the Course puts it in Lesson 132, from my demands and judgments. I no longer expected the world to fit ideals of “non-violence, compassion, selflessness and love,” as Kramer and Alstad suggested; rather I had come to realize that fulfilling and communicating such worthy ideals were my responsibility.

To pursue them I needed to rely on a greater sense of instinctive guidance than my habitual ego-self. A Course in Miracles was invaluable in helping me discover and contact such a sense of guidance.

I should add that in the process of learning to access that guidance, my relationship to the Course was never that of unquestioning obedience to an “unchallengeable authority.” I have argued inwardly with the voice of the Course for over two decades of study, and probably always will.

In fact, it is the testing of Course principles against my own prior assumptions and prejudices that has validated the usefulness of the teaching to me. I have never particularly cared about the nature of the Course authorship, but only whether its discipline delivered results of positive change.

While examining The Guru Papers I became curious as to why anti-authoritarian writers like Kramer and Alstad would take the liberty of interpreting my writing without contacting me to discuss their perspective in a fair and egalitarian manner. (Reaching me would have been easy enough; my address was published with The Sun essay, and responses from readers were explicitly invited.)

I also wanted to discuss with Kramer and Alstad my reactions to their work.

In my letter requesting their cooperation, I advised Kramer and Alstad that they would have the opportunity to preview what I wrote about them in manuscript, correct any factual inaccuracies and discuss any points on which they might feel misrepresented before publication. (This was always my standard practice in journalism, and would seem to be a fundamental safeguard for anyone claiming scholarship on the topic of authoritarianism.)

In a written response, Diana Alstad stated that “we are truly sorry if you feel misrepresented.” But she declined to be interviewed, stating that “we are not interested in involving ourselves in a dialogue about the value of A Course in Miracles.”

This refusal to engage in discussion about the Course is ironic, since Kramer and Alstad remark in The Guru Papers that they “have a surety and confidence in what we are saying. But confidence need not be authoritarian in itself if one is truly open to being shown wrong. The essence of ideological authoritarianism is unchallengeability, not confidence.”



This is an excerpt from Chapter 10, “Secular Critiques of the Course,” in Understanding A Course in Miracles: The History, Message, and Legacy of a Spiritual Path for Today by D. Patrick Miller (2008, TenSpeed/Random House).



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Ed: Bryonie Wise



About D. Patrick Miller

D. Patrick Miller has been a seeker and researcher of spiritual wisdom for over two decades. He is the founder of Fearless Books and the author of a dozen books and over 100 magazine and online articles for such periodicals as Yoga Journal, The Sun, Columbia Journalism Review and San Francisco Chronicle. His research spans a wide variety of subjects, including A Course in Miracles, the Enneagram typology of personality, the I Ching, Jungian psychology, yoga, shamanism, cultism, spirituality in the workplace, psychic phenomena, altered states of consciousness, and advanced human capacities. He is the author of THE FORGIVENESS BOOK: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve (Hampton Roads, 2017), UNDERSTANDING A COURSE IN MIRACLES, and LIVING WITH MIRACLES: A Common Sense Guide to A Course in Miracles. He also provides other writers with editing, independent publishing assistance, and professional representation through Fearless Literary Services. Connect through Facebook.


10 Responses to “The Dark Side of “The Guru Papers.””

  1. Jack says:

    Their quoting you without attribution is shoddy scholarship, to put it mildly. I just looked for the book at our local libraries (public library and two university libraries) and none of them has a copy. Although I'm curious about what they had to say about Jim Jones, I'm not sure that I can bring myself to buy a copy.

    As you know, Patrick, I'm a fan of your writings, but not of ACIM. There are many things I dislike about it, which you and I have discussed at length, but to call the book itself an example of authoritarianism is a stretch. It's pretty easy to toss a book that appears to be nonsense… much easier, say, than it was for members of Peoples Temple to leave Jonestown. Having said that, what I most dislike about ACIM is its purporting to be revealed truth from a divine source. Revelation, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, is not a good reason for believing something.

  2. Jack — the heart of the Course is embodied in the idea "God is but love and therefore so am I." Thus, in ACIM's view there is no "divinity" that's separate from humanity; it's not "out there" but within us.. The only "revelation" that counts is one's own realization of this truth. The voice of ACIM does identify itself as Jesus Christ, but that voice often identifies itself only as an "elder brother" and an ordinary man who simply realized the truth sooner than the rest of us. Like "God" and the "Holy Spirit," the idea of Christ in the Course is only a metaphor for a part of our mind, just as our normal ego-self is only a part of the mind. The entire ACIM discipline is focused on helping students learn to choose love (or spirit, or JC, or God) over fear (the ego).

    Learning to see through the language of ACIM to the meanings of all its metaphors is a crucial part of its discipline. My guess is that Kramer & Alstad got so hung-up over the language of ACIM that they mistook it for a new form of religious indoctrination, which it decidedly is not. But it can take about 10 years of study just to get clear on the fact that the Course is not a religious authoritarian system, but a mental and emotional discipline intended to awaken an instinctive wisdom driven by love. After almost 30 years of study and interviewing hundreds of ACIM students, I can vouch for that.

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    Isn't "God", "JC", or "spirit", nothing more than ego? Why not just drop them…wouldn't love still be present? "God" doesn't hand it to you.

  4. Padma — Different people are comfortable with different terms; I was listing synonyms as a way of showing that they all mean the same thing (love) in the Course teaching.. The Course asserts that all words are "twice removed from reality" and are thus always inexact, to say the least. "God is but love and therefore so am I" means that love is always present; some people may simply prefer to use the word "God" while others may be vehemently opposed to it.

  5. Padma Kadag says:

    Miller…I understand your meaning, "Different people are comfortable with different terms". What I find disingenuous, generally speaking, is the casualness the religious or spiritual want to use the term God to mean whatever they want. If we agree that it means different things to diiferent faiths then why all of the discussion about God? Since all of us are speaking about different things. The notion that all paths lead to god is one that I do not buy anyway. If God were a permanent entity there would have never been any confusion nor "non-believers" nor any need to believe. Terminology is important. If we dwell in the realm of metaphor what is the ultimate goal? What does the smoke and mirrors ultimately accomplish for you?

  6. I'd have to say that we all "dwell in the realm of metaphor" constantly, because we communicate with language and language is a representation of reality, not reality itself. Reality is first-hand experience; language is always a second-hand description of reality. By the same token, the word "love" is not love itself, and the word "God" can never BE God. Thus all the discussion about what such terms "mean." We may have exactly the same ineffable experience of love, or God, but by the time we manage to describe it, we come up with different descriptions. Yes, terminology is important, but it's inevitably once or twice removed… a finger pointing at the moon, but not the experience of the moon itself.

    Finally, Buddhism, Vedanta, and ACIM all say that we live everyday in illusion, i.e., a realm of "smoke and mirrors". We find our way through it with language as best we can.

  7. integralhack says:

    Thanks for this, D. Patrick Miller. It is nice to finally have someone calling out Kramer and Alstad on their questionable scholarship, especially since The Guru Papers has received a ridiculous amount of attention on EJ.

    On another thread where a video of a talk show was presented with Kramer and Alstad I couldn't help but point out their penchant for generalization:

    Alstad: "Everything is perfect is a worldview from the East." Didn't she ever read Voltaire? "It's all good" is a basic lack of critical thinking, not "imported" from anywhere in particular.

    Similarly, Kramer's leveling of "non-attachment" into his New Agey interpretation of it is just sad (many Buddhists, for example, see non-attachment in terms of process or practice, not an enlightenment goal). Does a Yoga Sutras scholar care to chime in?

    Alstad: "Gurus don't like to hang out together." This is a tenuous claim. Is this a result of a study? I know there have been gatherings of Buddhist gurus, but because of the leveling of the guru definition, it is hard to tell if this meets Alstad and Kramer's criteria. But I know Andrew Cohen occasionally hangs with other gurus.

    I did appreciate their [Alstad and Kramer's] focus on "care," but I would like to point out that they are just rebranding the Eastern concept of "compassion." Yes, I'm being sarcastic.

    Antonio Sausys, the interviewer, was impressive and I appreciated that he called Alstad on her apparently false allegations regarding John Friend's belief about his own guru's infallibility.

  8. A fair thing to say about GURU PAPERS was that its arguments rested largely on generalizations, or what the authors called an "essentially structural" critique. That means they didn't often get down to specifics that could be challenged and/or verified. When they did, their methodology was suspect, as I've pointed out. It continues to confound me that they even included the Course in the book, as it is about the most anarchic, leaderless, un-authoritarian teaching out there…. IF you actually comprehend what it says, and know something about how it's typically studied. But instead of surveying a number of students to check out their initial point of view, they relied only on one personal essay of mine, thoroughly misinterpreted it, then resisted a challenge to their position (which constitutes authoritarianism, even in their view). It's not surprising that someone authoring a critique of authoritarianism would have a tendency toward that very problem. But the point of good scholarship is to challenge one's own perspective via thorough research, cross-checking, and fair-minded investigation of other points of view, in order to finish with a broader and more useful perspective than the one you start with. The fact that the authors failed to do this on a significant topic chosen for their book does throw doubt on their claim to scholarship in the field of spiritual authority.

  9. yogijulian says:

    ah yes, the people encouraging you to think for yourself and not be suckered by con men misusing spiritual authority are suspicious. the book claimed to be "channeled" from the white brotherhood and teaching magical thinking and supernatural beliefs stands up next to their shoddy scholarship…. can't believe i missed this obvious fact!

    c'mon! 😉

  10. yogijulian — what is the "white brotherhood" you are referring to, and what does it have to do with ACIM? I've followed this story for nearly 3 decades and have no idea what a "white brotherhood" is, or has to do with the Course. I've already documented the shoddy scholarship of the GURU PAPERS: the authors quoted a source without any citation or footnoting, and when their interpretations were challenged by that source, refused to respond. This is a questionable way to go about challenging authoritarianism, to say the least.