[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
As Robert and I have been doing the recordings of the early lessons, I’ve been struck by just how strongly the Course emphasizes the idea of applying the idea for the day immediately to upsets. Here are just a few examples (italics mine):
“The idea for today should also be applied immediately to any situation that may distress you.” (W-pI.32.6:1)
“Specific applications of today’s idea should also be made immediately, when any situation arises which tempts you to become disturbed.” (W-pI.33.3:2)
“It is essential to use the idea if anyone seems to cause an adverse reaction in you. Offer him the blessing of your holiness immediately, that you may learn to keep it in your own awareness.” (W-pI.37.6:3)
The instruction here is clear: When I am upset, I need to use the idea I’m practicing to counter the upset right away. This counsel, however, collides head-on with a belief that is prevalent in a culture steeped in pop psychology: The belief that to heal I must “feel my feelings” first. In this view, simply expressing my feelings is inherently therapeutic; I must give free rein to my emotions (in some socially appropriate way) to release them. To immediately apply a spiritual idea with the intent of dispelling them is a way of stuffing them. If I’m not expressing them, I must be repressing them.
But is that really true? I don’t think so. Yes, Course practice done in the wrong spirit can be used to repress feelings. But when Jesus asks me to repeat the idea for the day in response to upsets, he’s not asking me to use the idea to bludgeon them into submission. Rather, he’s asking me to look with complete honesty at those upsets and the thoughts that trigger them, and use the idea to gently but persistently shine the light of truth upon them.
The Course is thus not counseling expression — it doesn’t see expression of negative feelings as inherently healing. Now, it doesn’t forbid expression either. It’s not saying, “Thou shalt not express your feelings.” Some sort of expression is just an inevitable part of experiencing an emotion; the Course itself seems to acknowledge this in statements like “you will weep each time an idol falls” (T-29.VII.1:2). The point is simply that doing the practice is the real engine of healing and so, however the emotion is coming out at any given time, I need to gently but persistently apply my Course practice to it. That is what my path calls me to do.
But while the Course isn’t counseling expression, it isn’t counseling repression either. On the contrary, since it’s asking me to look squarely at the emotion and the thoughts behind it as I apply my practice, I’m not repressing anything. I’m bringing things right out into the open.
If the Course isn’t counseling expression or repression, then what exactly is it asking me to do? I think the Course’s way is a third way that we really need a new term for. One that comes to my mind is illumination. Course practice is a process of bringing my negative thoughts and emotions into the illumination of the light of truth represented by the idea I’m applying to them. When my darkness is brought to that light, it is shined away. That is the Course’s method of healing.
In my experience, this really works. I had the opportunity to put this theory to the test while dealing with the extremely upsetting situation that was the subject of my first couple of blog entries. There was plenty of emotional expression going on; at times I was in tears. But when I really made the effort to look without blinders at my thoughts and feelings and immediately apply a Course idea to them, slowly but surely I did experience a shift.
Now, sometimes it was quite slowly. The Course says that if an upset persists, you should “take several minutes and devote them to repeating the idea until you feel some sense of relief” (W-pI.34.6:2). Sometimes for me, “several minutes” meant an hour. But if I persisted, there truly was a sense of relief. And I’m happy to report that with a couple of months of that kind of work with this situation, the upset has been lifted to an amazing degree. I feel a great deal of peace around this situation now.
What about those times when our feelings are so strong that we forget to practice, or even refuse to practice? Given that we’re human beings who still have a ways to go on this path, this is just going to happen sometimes, especially when the feelings are very intense. It definitely happens to me. When it does, I try to remember that it is nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about, but just an opportunity to get back to practicing right away. The Course’s counsel for what to do when we forget to practice is pure gold: “Do not be disturbed by this, but do try to keep on your schedule from then on” (W-pI.27.4:5). Get right back on the horse.
To conclude, I highly recommend addressing upsets immediately with Course practice. This third way beyond expression and repression has been potent for me when I have remembered to do it. Jesus really knew what he was doing when he gave us those practice instructions.