Aspect II: Workbook/Practice: Part 2 – Following the Instructions

The importance of the structure

The Workbook starts out asking almost nothing of its students. Just as it does not demand that we believe the ideas, so it does not require a great deal of our time. The first nineteen lessons ask for only two to five practice periods a day, each lasting only a minute or so. For the first nineteen lessons, then, we might well think that the Workbook is going to be a breeze.

Then comes lesson 20. It begins by acknowledging how casual the first nineteen lessons have been, and then goes on to say, “This approach has been intentional, and very carefully planned.” (W-pI.20.1:3) The author then says, “you will not [acquire true perception] if you regard yourself as being coerced, and if you give in to resentment and opposition.” (W-pI.20.1:6) In other words, if you feel forced by the Workbook, you will rebel against the practice and will not acquire true perception.

Lesson 20 picks up the pace, however. It asks us to repeat the idea “slowly and positively at least twice an hour today, attempting to do so every half hour.” (W-pI.20.5:1) Given the preceding lessons, this is a sharp increase in practice. The author therefore attaches this explanation:

This is our first attempt to introduce structure. Do not misconstrue it as an effort to exert force or pressure. You want salvation. You want to be happy. You want peace. You do not have them now, because your mind is totally undisciplined…. (W-pI.20.2:1-5)

This passage identifies two attitudes toward being given a structure to guide our practicing. First is the common reaction that structure is something forced on us against our own best interests, something that imprisons our will and limits our freedom. Second is the attitude which the Course is encouraging: We want structure. Why? The Course gives an argument which can be broken down into three points:

  1. We want happiness, peace, salvation.
  2. To have these things we must have a disciplined mind.
  3. To discipline our minds we need structure.

To clarify this argument, let us look at the second and third parts of it, beginning with the second: To have salvation we must have a disciplined mind. Why exactly is a disciplined mind so crucial? The following passage is helpful in answering this:

You have seen the extent of your lack of mental discipline, and of your need for mind training. It is necessary that you be aware of this, for it is indeed a hindrance to your advance. (W-pI.95.4:4-5)

This passage equates “mental discipline” with “mind training.” Another passage makes the same point, equating “the undisciplined mind” with “the untrained mind.” (W-pI.44.3:3,4) In other words, we can restate, “This is a course in mind training,” (T-1.VII.4:1) to read, “This is a course in mental discipline.” A Course in Miracles, then, is a course in mental discipline!

Why is mind training, or mental discipline, so important? We have discussed this before, but here is a different slant on it. Currently, our minds appear to be out of our control. They wander and jump around, making it impossible to hold a sustained focus. Their feelings wash over us, seemingly against our will. Their impulses seize us, provoking us to actions we regret. Thoughts come to us unbidden, or so it seems. And we apparently can’t help how we see situations; our perceptions seem to be facts, not choices open to change. As a result, we seem to have no control over the constant stream of pain that rolls through our minds.

True perception is a radically different state of mind. It is a state in which our entire mind is consciously, effortlessly, and unwaveringly focused on the joyous light of Christ in everything. How does one get to this state, given that right now it is hard to imagine our minds being consciously, effortlessly and unwaveringly focused on anything? Is it just going to magically happen? No, the only way it will happen is through mind training. We must deliberately untangle our minds from the ego’s web and slowly bring them under our conscious control. And then we must repeatedly train them to focus on true perception, until that focus becomes habitual, constant and total.

This brings us to the last part of the Course’s argument: To have a disciplined mind we need structure. The reason for this is very simple: A structure spurs us to do what we would not do on our own. It gets us to practice frequently and regularly when, left to our own devices, we would barely practice at all. Lesson 95 explains this need for structure. It first says that “unless you are reminded of your purpose frequently, you tend to forget about it for long periods of time.” (W-pI.95.5:2) It then says we need practice periods at regular time-intervals, (W-pI.95.6:3) because our resistance makes us inconsistent. Therefore, structure is essential, because it provides us with needed frequency and regularity:

Structure, then, is necessary for you at this time, planned to include frequent reminders of your goal and regular attempts to reach it. (W-pI.95.6:1)

In the Workbook, then, “structure” is a good word. Therefore, as the lessons proceed, more and more structure is added on. After lesson 20, the structure begins to climb upward. Lesson 93 begins eighteen lessons in which we are instructed to practice for the first five minutes of every waking hour. Lesson 95 elaborates on what a wonderful thing this is, in light of our need for structure.

We will, therefore, keep to the five-minutes-an-hour practice periods for a while, and urge you to omit as few as possible. Using the first five minutes of the hour will be particularly helpful, since it imposes firmer structure. (W-pI.95.7:1-2)

Structure, however, is only a temporary means. It is not an end in itself. The more the structure does its work the more trained our minds become. And when our minds are fairly well-trained, we no longer need the structure. It has served its purpose. Therefore, just as the Workbook very consciously builds its structure over the first half of the year, so it just as consciously withdraws much of it over the second half. At its end, the Workbook says, “No more specific lessons are assigned, for there is no more need of them.” (W-E.3:1) This does not mean we are done practicing. In fact, we are practicing more than ever. It simply means that our practicing no longer needs the support of the Workbook’s structure (although, for some time we will still be using structure we learned from the Workbook). In this sense, the role of the Workbook is identical to the role that Jesus gives himself in the Text: “I have come to give you the foundation, so your own thoughts can make you really free.” (T-5.IV.2:7)

How closely should I follow the instructions?

Unfortunately, most of us find this structure to be exceedingly difficult. As the structure climbs and becomes increasingly demanding, the vast majority of students are left in the dust; left either in a state of guilt over not doing what is asked, or in a cloudy haze in which they think they are doing it, but in fact have just lost touch with the instructions. By whatever route we reach this place, sooner or later most of us Course students begin to wonder: Does he really mean for us to follow those practice instructions? Many conclude he must not, for when they try to do the lessons as instructed, they just end up feeling guilty. And that certainly cannot be the purpose of the Workbook.

In 1994, Allen Watson and I did a workshop on the Workbook. In order to address this issue squarely and immediately, we entitled the first session, “He really means it.” As I see it, that is the only possible answer. When he instructs us to practice, he really means it. The Workbook is a practice manual, pure and simple. If you read through the practice instructions in the Workbook, it is impossible to get the impression that the author does not really mean them. In one way or another, we are often “urged to follow [the instructions] just as closely as you can.” (W-pI.RIII.In.1:3) The Workbook attaches limitless promises to doing its practice. It promises that if we follow its practice instructions, we will train our minds, and through training our minds, we will be liberated once and for all from the human condition.

Literally nothing in the Workbook itself—not one line—suggests that the instructions are not meant to be followed. (1) Rather, what suggests this is that they simply seem beyond our ability to do. Yet are they really? Do we know what our ability is? Do we know what is beyond our ability? The Workbook firmly believes we are able to do it. It takes extreme measures to make the practice within our reach. The practice requirements climb slowly and very carefully. As a result, if you do one day’s practice you can probably do the next. Hence, if you can do the first lesson—which consists of only two one-minute exercises—you can probably do the whole thing.

As I said earlier, somewhere in the Workbook is an answer to almost every difficulty that we encounter in doing it. The following two sections will cover some of those answers.

How can I give the time?

Our lives are so busy these days. Most of us have little leisure time to give to spiritual practice. Often it feels like adding one more thing to our schedule might just cause the entire edifice of our lives to come tumbling down. How, then, can we fit in the practice of the Workbook? There are two points I want to make about this.

First, Workbook practice is designed to fit into a modern busy life. Most of the Workbook’s longer practice periods are done before our daily activities start and after they finish, and require only between five and twenty minutes. The shorter practice periods can be done right in the middle of our daily activities. “You can still repeat one short sentence to yourself without disturbing anything.” (W-pI.27.3:6) The hourly practice periods are perhaps the most difficult to work into the day, since they require closing our eyes for anywhere from a moment to five minutes as each hour strikes. However, the Workbook knows that it will not always be feasible to do this and so tells us to simply do what we can. (W-pI.153.16:2-17:1)

Second, and perhaps more to the point, our use of time is an expression of our values. We find time for what we value; for what we think will make us happy and will save us from unhappiness. Things that are important to us we simply work into our schedule, even if that schedule is filled to the bursting point. If a new romance came into your life, or a quick way to make a million dollars, or a serious illness, you would probably make time for it. The Workbook notes that you (seemingly) don’t have time to practice only because practice would take time from the pursuit of all those goals you cherish more than the goal of the Course. “You are unwilling to cooperate in practicing salvation only if it interferes with goals you hold more dear [than salvation].” (W-pI.RIII.In.4:2) Thus, the real issue is not our schedules, but our values.

The pertinent question here is: What is the most practical use of our time? What will really deliver happiness? Has a lifetime of our normal, ego-based striving delivered what it promised? Clearly, it has not. We keep telling ourselves that it still has a chance, that if things only went according to plan we would be happy. But would we? If everything in our lives bowed down to us and arranged itself according to our every whim, would that really be enough? After all, we would still be in the same state of mind, a state which can find fault with anything and can turn everything into an unsatisfying experience.

The Course suggests that our only real chance for happiness lies in another state of mind, a state which finds fault with nothing and joy in everything. According to the Course, we will attain this state through practice. Practice, then, promises to deliver the happiness that all of our striving has categorically failed to deliver. “They [your ego’s goals] gave you nothing. But your practicing can offer everything to you.” (W-pI.RIII.In.4:4-5)

This massive difference in pay-off is remarkable considering the difference in the amount of time that is asked. Without even pausing to think about it, we decided it was worth it to spend our every waking moment seeking after our ego’s goals. Even in our leisure (actually, even in our sleep) we are rehearsing ego. The Course remarks that we have pursued the ego’s goals “with vigilance you never thought to yield, and effort that you never thought to cease.” (T-24.VI.11:4) All that expenditure, and what has it yielded? In contrast, Workbook practice promises to deliver real happiness yet requires only a small portion of our time and effort. Given this contrast, our attitude toward practice is peculiar, to say the least.

Now you are merely asked that you pursue another goal with far less vigilance; with little effort and with little time, and with the power of God maintaining it, and promising success. Yet of the two, it is this one you find more difficult. The “sacrifice” of self [of your true identity and happiness] you understand, nor do you deem this cost too heavy. But a tiny willingness, a nod to God, a greeting to the Christ in you, you find a burden wearisome and tedious, too heavy to be borne. (T-24.VI.12:1-4)

In summary, the choice before us is either to expend our full time on virtually no return, or to spend a small part of our time gaining everything. If we really saw it this way, it would be no choice at all. It is from this standpoint that the Workbook urges us to “arrange your day so that you have set apart the time for God, as well as for all the trivial purposes and goals you will pursue.” (W-pI.65.4:3) It even adopts the voice of a traveling salesman, attempting to sell us on giving a portion of our day to practice:

Is it not worth five minutes of your time each hour to be able to accept the happiness that God has given you? Is it not worth five minutes hourly to recognize your special function here? Is not five minutes but a small request to make in terms of gaining a reward so great it has no measure? You have made a thousand losing bargains at the least.

Here is an offer guaranteeing you your full release from pain of every kind, and joy the world does not contain. You can exchange a little of your time for peace of mind and certainty of purpose, with the promise of complete success. And since time has no meaning, you are being asked for nothing in return for everything. Here is a bargain that you cannot lose. And what you gain is limitless indeed! (W-pI.98.5-6)

Perhaps now we can see why the Workbook claims that “there is no better use for time than this.” (W-pI.127.7:2) Yet, even with this promise, there is perhaps one remaining hurdle to get over before we will devote consistent time to Workbook practice: While we are trying to practice we have this nagging thought that we are supposed to be doing something else. We unconsciously assume that the purpose of time is to take care of a long list of responsibilities, so that by practicing we are stealing blocks of precious time away from its appointed purpose. The Workbook turns this idea on its head, saying instead that the real purpose of time is to practice:

Time was made for this [for practice]. Use it today for what its purpose is. Morning and night, devote what time you can to serve its proper aim, and do not let the time be less than meets your deepest need. Give all you can, and give a little more. (W-pI.193.10:4-11:1)

How can I give the effort?

I think that giving the effort is quite often an even bigger hurdle than giving the time. Workbook practice may take a minimal amount of time, but it does take effort; it takes concentration, presence of mind. And we usually do whatever we can to avoid expending effort. The following passage from the Text comments on our resistance to the exertion required by mental discipline:

The habit of engaging with God and His creations is easily made if you actively refuse to let your mind slip away. The problem is not one of concentration; it is the belief that no one, including yourself, is worth consistent effort. Side with me consistently against this deception, and do not permit this shabby belief to pull you back. (T-4.IV.7:1-3)

To state this differently, your resistance to the effort of practice does not stem from the impulse to treat yourself well, but from the belief that you are not worth the effort. As such, it is an attack on yourself. The solution: Recognize that this “shabby belief” is why you are not practicing, and then give consistent effort to refusing to believe that you are not worth consistent effort. In other words, whenever you notice yourself resisting the effort of practice, respond with a practice of your own: remind yourself that you are worth the effort.

Will the Workbook really deliver?

How can we know that all this time put into Workbook practice will pay off? This, of course, is much of the question behind our concerns about how can we afford the time and effort. It is an understandable question. Students ask it even within spiritual traditions in which the practice has produced great saints, masters and bodhisattvas, and the Course has not had time to prove itself in this way.

The Workbook’s answer to this is given right in its Introduction. This answer is discussed in Part 1 of the “Workbook/Practice” section, and is summarized in this way: Just practice, and the rest will be given you. To restate this to match our present concern: Just do the practice, and it will prove its value to you. This is why the Workbook requires no prior commitment of time and effort, and this is why it begins by asking only two minutes a day. It refrains from heavy requirements at the outset so that commitment can grow naturally out of benefits received. In other words, the question, will the Workbook really deliver, is meant to be answered gradually, one practice period at a time.

How to deal with missed practice periods

Of course we will miss practice periods—lots of them. The author of the Course is not only aware that we will miss, he expects us to miss. He even knows where in particular our practice is likely to fall short:

You often fail to remember the short applications of the idea for the day, and you have not yet formed the habit of using the idea as an automatic response to temptation. (W-pI.95.5:3)

You have been inclined to practice only at appointed times, and then go on your way to other things, without applying what you learned to them. (W-pI.RIII.In.9:2)

Missing practice periods is expected and forgiven. It is no big deal. The goal is not to obey the instructions perfectly. The goal is to train our minds. However, missing practice periods does interfere with the training of our minds. What, then, do we do about it? How do we handle missing practice periods? The Course has several astute suggestions for this crucial topic.

1.Try to remember; be determined not to forget.

Of course, the best way to deal with missed practice periods is not to miss them in the first place. For this reason the Workbook urges us to set our minds firmly on remembering, to be determined to remember.

Throughout the day repeat the idea often….But do not forget. Above all, be determined not to forget today. (W-pI.44.11:1-3)

Do not forget today. We need your help; your little part in bringing happiness to all the world….Be vigilant. Do not forget today. Throughout the day do not forget your goal. (W-pI.95.14:1-2,5-7)

Memory aids can be very helpful in doing the Workbook. Carrying around cards, setting watch alarms, posting the lesson where we will see it, programming it to come up on the computer screen—all of these can aid enormously. But I believe that the best memory aid is the simple determination to remember.

2.When you notice you have forgotten, do not feel upset or guilty. Simply start practicing again.

Though we try our best to remember, at times, of course, we will forget. At those times, the Workbook asks us to bypass the usual self-beating and just get back to practicing. I believe that this habit is crucial to the entire practice of the Workbook. The following three passages describe this essential mental stance:

Do not be distressed if you forget to do so, but make a real effort (W-pI.20.5:2)

You will probably miss several applications, and perhaps quite a number. Do not be disturbed by this, but do try to keep on your schedule from then on. (W-pI.27.4:4-5)

If you forget, try again. If there are long interruptions, try again. Whenever you remember, try again. (W-pI.40.1:4-6)

This response to missed practice periods is actually the expression of a unified goal. The goal of the Workbook is to train our minds through practice, yet we generally sneak another goal in there. This other goal is to prove our worth by performing well; or, conversely, to avoid damaging our worth due to poor performance. This goal sees practice not as a means to training our minds, but as a means to polishing our image, to measuring up.

This goal may seem congruent with the Workbook. After all, it too values practice as a means. Yet in the end it is a seriously competing goal. It will always sabotage our practice and will often destroy it. To the extent that we are doing the Workbook in order to measure up, we will do the practice differently in our minds. We will simply go through the motions, rather than approaching it with a deep sincerity of purpose. We will treat it as a ritual, in which we gain favor by conforming to a prescribed form.

The two competing goals generate especially different responses to missed practice periods. If our real concern is “How do I look?” we will respond to a missed practice period with the sting of a punctured self-image. We will feel like a failure. As this happens again and again, we will begin to associate the attempt to practice with the experience of guilt and failure. As a result, we will mentally distance ourselves from practice, as we do from all sources of perceived pain. We will thus be more likely to forget to practice and so will feel increasingly guilty. Finally, we may well give up on practice altogether.

If, however, our only goal is to train our minds through practice, we will be free to approach the whole endeavor in a more matter-of-fact way. Since now our worth is not on the line, we can devote ourselves to simply learning how to practice. We can keep an unswerving focus on the goal, not allowing anything to obscure it from view or distract us. If obstructions come up, we will realize that being upset about them simply gives them power, drawing our attention off our goal and onto them. And so we will simply look past the obstructions and re-focus on the goal.

This applies especially to missed practice periods. When we forget to practice we will not allow ourselves the luxury of a bruised vanity. We won’t even give ourselves time to get upset. We will simply overlook our missed practice periods and immediately go back to practicing. Thus, rather than becoming sources of guilt, which drive us away from practice, our missed practice periods will simply become reminders to practice; no more, no less. Ultimately, everything will become a reminder to practice. A mind that has a unified goal will use everything—even its mistakes—as a means to serve its goal.

3.What is detrimental is not lapsing from the practice schedule, but using that as an excuse to continue lapsing.

This point merely adds emphasis and comfort to the previous point. Lesson 95 includes a discussion (paragraphs 7-10) that is extremely helpful for the entire Workbook. It teaches that the real problem is not the initial missed practice period or periods. “When you fail to comply with the requirements of this course, you have merely made a mistake.” (W-pI.95.9:1) Mistakes are expected; they are part of the process. Therefore, “The Holy Spirit is not delayed in His teaching by your mistakes.” (W-pI.95.8:1) Your mistakes, thankfully, do not delay your homecoming.

What is the real problem, then? What does have the power to hold back the Holy Spirit? (8:2) It is hanging onto our mistakes; refusing to let them go. “To allow a mistake to continue is to make additional mistakes, based on the first and reinforcing it.” (9:3) In the context of Workbook practice, the meaning of this is clear:

Do not, however, use your lapses from this schedule as an excuse not to return to it again as soon as you can. There may well be a temptation to regard the day as lost because you have already failed to do what is required. (7:3-4)

Hanging onto our mistakes means using missed practice periods as an excuse to miss more, and even to give up for the day. It means parlaying the initial lapse into prolonged lapses. This is the real threat to our practice. “It is this process that must be laid aside….” (9:4) Perhaps more than any other single phenomenon, this accounts for the failure of students to do the practice. How we deal with this phenomenon, then, is crucial to doing the Workbook. Lesson 95 suggests three things:

First, “This should, however, merely be recognized as what it is; a refusal to let your mistake be corrected, and an unwillingness to try again.” (W-pI.95.7:5) In other words, see this for what it is. Giving up on practicing because you had a lapse is not an honest reaction to a truly hopeless situation. It is an attachment to the mistake, an unwillingness to part with it. It is a direct manifestation of the ego’s resistance to truth. “…it is but another way in which you would defend illusions against the truth.” (9:4) It is an attempt “to keep you unaware you are one Self, united with your Creator.” (10:2) Therefore, face it for what it is.

Second, “Let us therefore be determined, particularly for the next week or so, to be willing to forgive ourselves for our lapses in diligence, and our failures to follow the instructions for practicing the day’s idea.” (8:3) Why do we forgive ourselves? Forgiving ourselves will enable us to move on from our mistake, to “overlook it, rather than give it power to delay our learning.” (8:4) Forgiving ourselves will allow us to return to our practicing quickly and easily.

Third, “return to [your schedule] again as soon as you can.” (7:3) A mistake “calls for correction, and for nothing else.” (9:2) As the previous point said, don’t get upset, don’t feel guilty, don’t fall into despair; just start practicing again.

4.If you have missed because circumstances truly did not permit practicing, you have not really missed.

Because the hourly practice periods ask that we close our eyes for a couple minutes as each hour strikes, it is simply not feasible to do all of them. For instance, we might be driving down the freeway, or giving a lecture, or in the middle of passionate love-making. What, then, do we do about those that we just have to miss? Do we make them up? The Workbook answers this question in the introduction to review III.

We understand, of course, that it may be impossible for you to undertake what is suggested here as optimal each day and every hour of the day. Learning will not be hampered when you miss a practice period because it is impossible at the appointed time. Nor is it necessary that you make excessive efforts to be sure that you catch up in terms of numbers. Rituals are not our aim, and would defeat our goal. (W-pI.RIII.2)

This paragraph makes three important points. First, the Workbook fully understands that circumstances do not permit us to do all of the practice periods. Second, missing a practice period for this reason has no effect on our learning. Third, we do not need to make those practice periods up. That would make the Workbook into some kind of ritual in which we are saved by sheer obedience to a set schedule.

5.If you missed because you were subtly unwilling to practice, make up the practice period.

Not all of our missed practice periods, of course, are due to circumstances. Quite often, we simply place more value in the physical activities we are doing than in our Workbook practice. Review III, therefore, goes on to say: “But learning will be hampered when you skip a practice period because you are unwilling to devote the time to it that you are asked to give.” (3:1) Hence, beginning with lesson 111, we are asked to make up these missed practice periods. “Those practice periods that you have lost because you did not want to do them, for whatever reason, should be done as soon as you have changed your mind about your goal.” (4:1)

The question then becomes, which practice periods did you miss because of circumstance and which did you miss because you were unwilling to give the time? This can be a tricky matter.

Do not deceive yourself in this. Unwillingness can be most carefully concealed behind a cloak of situations you cannot control. Learn to distinguish situations that are poorly suited to your practicing from those that you establish to uphold a camouflage for your unwillingness. (3:2-4)

I want to draw out two points from this passage. First, we are all incredibly adept at ascribing to circumstance what is really due to our unwillingness. Consider these classics: “Our first date was terrific—I have just been too busy to call”; “Sorry I am late—you won’t believe all the things that happened”; and “Please excuse me—things have been really hectic at the office lately.”

Second, we must learn how to tell when a situation is truly “poorly suited to your practicing” and when we are just using it as an excuse, or even subtly arranging it to be an excuse. Since this issue comes up so frequently, learning how to make this distinction is critical to effectively doing the Workbook.

*****

(1) Ken Wapnick often quotes Lesson 95, which says, “Let us therefore be determined…to be willing to forgive ourselves for our lapses in diligence, and our failures to follow the instructions for practicing the day’s idea” (8:3). This may seem to support the idea that the point of the Workbook is to do it wrong and then forgive yourself—yet only when it is taken out of context. As we will see later in this article, this sentence occurs in the middle of a discussion about the importance of not letting one missed practice period lead, through guilt and despair, into several missed practice periods. Therefore, like everything else in the Workbook, this sentence is an affirmation of the importance of practice. It does not say that the point is to screw up the practice and then forgive yourself. It says that the point is to forgive yourself so that you don’t keep screwing up—so that you can get back to practicing.

Note: This material is a revised version of material that originally appeared in Booklet #14, The Workbook as a Spiritual Practice.

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[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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