The section “I Need Do Nothing” (T-18.VII) is so beloved by Course students, I believe, because it strikes a deep chord in us. The peace of God just does not seem compatible with strenuous effort. Yet what exactly does it mean to do nothing? Does it mean staying in bed all day and having someone deliver us our meals? I have visited this section again and again over the years, and each time have found new insights. Recently, I studied it once more and, to my surprise, saw behind its words a completely new overall structure. I realized that the section is really a discussion of three ways of being, three ways of finding happiness. The first way is the way most of the world follows. It ends up causing us so much pain and disillusionment that many of us are propelled into the second way: the pursuit of holiness. Yet this way has its problems, too, and so the Course offers us a third way: “I need do nothing.”
1. THE FIRST WAY: THE WAY OF THE WORLD
When you follow the way of the world, your life centers around using your body to satisfy bodily needs. You make plans for yourself, plans which heavily emphasize your body’s comfort, protection, and enjoyment (1:2). You are always seeking, seeking things in the future that you remember being enjoyable in the past. This appears to be natural, so natural as to be virtually unquestioned. But the section has some shocking things to say about this way.
The primary criticism this section levels against the way of the world is that it is not a pursuit of happiness at all. It is actually a covert pursuit of the goal of sin (1:4) or unholiness. This may sound strange, but it is not so hard to see. While you are pursuing your body’s comfort, protection, and enjoyment, it’s all about you. You are the hero of the dream. The needs of others are only minimally taken into account or are actively stepped on as you gallop along in pursuit of your comfort, protection, and enjoyment. Over time, your worship of your own separate interests at the expense of the interests of others leads you to feel dirty. You feel unholy. You feel sinful.
The Course is saying that this is not an unanticipated bi-product. This was the goal all along. Unbeknownst to yourself, you were actually aiming for this goal. You are unconsciously attracted to guilt (3:5). Yet guilt is painful. Who would consciously pursue guilt? So the ego must sell this goal to your conscious mind in an attractive packaging. It tells you to seek some outer prize that you can possess in the future, some external reward you remember from your past. The goals your body seeks, therefore, are always removed from the present—for an important reason: the goal’s distance from the present allows you to think that you are getting something other than what you are. You think you are getting something enticing and wonderful, yet when you draw the treasure out of the past or future and actually hold it in the present, what you feel is guilt—guilt over the things you did to get it, guilt over the sheer worship of your separate needs that it represents. The external thing was just the wrapping for the gift of guilt. By enticing you into pursuing some external thing from the past or in the future, the ego was tricking you into pursuing guilt.
This still may sound strange, but after years of seeking to satisfy your needs, isn’t the end result that you feel dirty? That you feel like there is something wrong with you? That you feel despair about yourself? That you feel you are hopeless? The Course would say that these are the natural symptoms of the pursuit of sin as goal. These are the signs that you have found what you were unconsciously looking for.
Can you see this first way in your own life? Can you see yourself putting your time and energy into the fulfillment of your separate interests? Do you find yourself observing this and having thoughts such as, “How self-centered I am!” or “Do I think the universe revolves around me?” Can you feel the guilt associated with such thoughts?
2. THE SECOND WAY: THE PURSUIT OF HOLINESS
After a lifetime of following the way of the world, many people can’t stand it anymore. They feel too sinful. The desire to be closer to the angels than the animals gathers force in them. The yearning to be made clean overpowers them. And they leave conventional life in pursuit of holiness.
The Course applauds the search, but the conventional pursuit of holiness is ill-suited to its goal, says this section. The problem is that these impassioned seekers genuinely assume that they have made themselves sinful and that now they have to make themselves holy. Their selfish doing has made them unholy, so now their spiritual doing will make them holy, or so they think.
The pursuit of holiness takes two main forms in this section. In the first form, seekers struggle against the very sinful impulses that formerly ruled their lives. They fight against giving in to the temptation to sin. They wrestle with their bodily impulses. They try to wrench themselves away from their former sinful ways and so transmute themselves from excrement into gold. In the second form, they merely try to detach from their sinful, lower nature, including their body and its impulses, and rise to a higher level through meditation. The Course seems to smile on the second way more, but this way still has connotations of trying to escape from a real lower (sinful) nature.
The problem is that in both forms the seekers assume that sinfulness is a real part of their nature, either to be battled or to be escaped. Their guilt is like a demon they are running from. Given the assumption that they truly are unholy, they also unconsciously assume that it will take time to arduously climb out of the hell they have made of their nature. It will take time to make themselves holy. It will take time to be able to stand worthy before God. This belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They do make progress. They have holy instants. Yet it does take a very long time. And ironically, when they at last reach their goal, when they have pulled themselves up out of hell and at last toiled up the mountain to the very top, they have the stunning realization, “It was mine all along—for free!”
This second way naturally conjures up images of monks in monasteries or renunciates in caves, but it also takes less extreme forms. Can you see this second way in yourself? Specifically, can you see your search to become holy? To become something more noble than your basest impulses would have you be? More importantly, can you see your belief that your own efforts make you holy? To get in touch with this, ask yourself what about your lifestyle, your beliefs, and your practices makes you a more spiritual person (not just more spiritual in your efforts, but in your nature) than the most worldly person you know. The key to finding your belief that your own efforts make you holy is finding your belief that your efforts have made you holier than others.
3. THE THIRD WAY: I NEED DO NOTHING
The Course is offering us a way that is different from both of the other ways. It is different from the way of the world in that its goal is not sin. It shares the same goal as the pursuit of holiness, but its means are different. Its guiding thought is not, “I need to make myself holy,” but “I need do nothing.” This means, of course, “I need do nothing to make myself holy. I am already perfectly holy.”
“I need do nothing” means that, in reality, you are already at the goal. You are there now. Nothing you can do can make you more holy. None of your efforts are needed to get you there. Correspondingly, none of your actions have made you sinful. You are powerless over who you are. All of your doing amounts to nothing. You are as God created you, and there is nothing you can do about that. In this single thought lies the release from both the first and second way, for the idea that your choices have the power to make you sinful or make you holy is a frightening thought. It is like putting a three-year-old behind the wheel of a huge truck.
The thought that you are already holy is a powerful time-saver. You still have to journey. You still will take time. And you are still heading towards the same goal as those in the second way. But in which way will you travel faster: constantly thinking, “I am not worthy but someday I will make myself worthy,” or constantly thinking, “I am worthy now; I am holy now. I am already there; I just need to open my eyes”?
Another important difference is that in the second way you journeyed alone. You withdrew from others in your solitary pursuit of holiness. We all know that devoted spiritual seekers can be some of the most self-absorbed people there are. The needs of others often come second to the needs of their all-important journey to the spiritual heights. Yet to be separate is to be sinful. As the Course says, “To be alone is to be guilty” (T-15.V.2:6). By going it alone, those seekers are unconsciously reinforcing their own sense of sinfulness. To really find holiness, you must transcend the separate self and unite with something beyond it. This is what happens in the third way. You join with others in practicing the realization that you need do nothing. You seek to experience this supreme truth together, to join in holy instants in which together you simply bask in the fullness of what you really are. This reflects the goal, for holiness lies in joining.
The specific practice of this way is the holy instant. The practice of the holy instant focuses on a special moment, an out-of-pattern time interval, as the early Text puts it. In this instant, you forget about your body and its whole enterprise of seeking enjoyment over time. Instead, your complete attention is on the thought, “I need do nothing.” You need do nothing because God has given you everything. Why would you need to seek enjoyment with your body if God has given you everything? Why would your mind hungrily race from thought to thought if God has given you everything? And why would you need to fantasize about the past or the future if God has given you everything now? In this state, then, you are at rest, mentally and physically, completely in the present, purely open to the fullness of what God has given you.
It only takes a moment of this stillness for the holy instant to occur. The second way requires long periods of meditation because each minute that you spend is actually making you another increment holier, is actually altering your nature (or so you think). The third way requires just an instant of real stillness because all you are doing is tapping into a full-blown holiness that you already possess.
In this stillness, God enters, in the form of the Holy Spirit. He enters and establishes a permanent dwelling place deep in your mind, a place where you always dwell with Him, a place where you always do nothing. From this place, He guides you to get back on the freeway, to get back in the fray, to live a life in the normal world—but in a different way. Rather than using your body to serve your separate interests, you will use it to serve the whole, to serve everyone. He will direct you in “how to use the body sinlessly” (8:4). This is the real reversal of the first way: not by retreating from the world and trying to make yourself holy (the second way), but by accepting your pre-existing holiness and then going back into the world to awaken to their holiness all those still following the first way. The only true reversal of the first way is not to quarantine yourself from the world but to selflessly extend to it. Only that is real holiness. Only that will awaken you to the eternal holiness God gave you in your creation.
Let’s try out the practice of “I need do nothing.” Get comfortable, comfortable enough that your body won’t draw your attention. Close your eyes.
First, try to forget your body, just for this brief time.
Try to forget its needs, its comfort, its protection, its enjoyment.
Try to forget the things it is currently seeking.
Just for this short time, it is all right to forget all that.
Now dwell on the thought, “I need do nothing.”
Realize it means: “There is nothing I need do to make myself holy.
God created me holy.
As God created me, I have everything.”
“I need do nothing.”
Try to feel the freedom in this thought.
“Nothing I do can make me sinful.
Nothing I do can make me holy.
Nothing I do can make the slightest change in my eternal state, in which I have everything.
All I need do is accept that state.”
Imagine that you are lying on your back on a calm, peaceful ocean.
The ocean is God.
The ocean signifies the boundlessness that God has given you.
As you lie there, you have not a care in the world.
Your heart is beating in the peace of God.
There is nothing to worry about.
There is nothing that hinges on your choices, your efforts.
There is no need to do anything.
Say to yourself, “I need do nothing.”
Keep lying on that ocean, repeating “I need do nothing” as often as you like.
Let the peace and freedom of that idea be the only thing that occupies your mind.
Let it draw your mind to a place of complete stillness.
Just bask in this stillness and peace.
Whenever your mind wanders to some trivial thing of the world, repeat the idea again and let it draw your mind back to the stillness of lying on your back on that ocean.
Stay in this place as long as you like.
When your mind begins to wander so much that you can’t stay on the ocean,
conclude with one last repetition of “I need do nothing” and open your eyes.
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]