Aspect II: Workbook/Practice: Part 5 – The Progression of the Workbook and Beyond the Workbook

The progression of the Workbook

The kind of day described at the end of Part 4 of this “Workbook/Practice” section may sound wonderful, but for most of us it seems out of reach. It seems impossible that we could ever make practice that much a part of our lives. How could we go from our untrained minds, which go about their business and only occasionally think about God, to minds that are constantly remembering God and dwelling in His Presence?

The answer, of course, is: That is what the Workbook is for. Its purpose is to lead us step-by-step from where we are right now to the state of a trained mind. The Workbook is carefully planned (its phrase) (W-pI.20.1:3) to make each lesson a gentle step from the previous one. Hence, the following passage, though about the salvation process in general, applies also to the Workbook: “It merely goes from one apparent lesson to the next, in easy steps that lead you gently from one to another, with no strain at all.” (T-31.I.2:4) Let us, then, step back and take a look at the Workbook’s carefully planned progression.

As we have noted, the Workbook starts out quite gently, asking for very little practice. The early lessons, however, are challenging for most students. They include lessons like, “Nothing I see means anything,” and “My meaningless thoughts are showing me a meaningless world.” Their purpose is to evoke the realization that all our current thoughts and current perceptions are equally meaningless, and that one is the cause of the other: Our meaningless thoughts manufacture our meaningless perceptions. These early themes lay the foundation for the entire Workbook. They prepare us for a new way of seeing by loosening our grip on the old way.

This practice then slowly ascends, asking for more and more time, sincerity and dedication. Along the way, we are trained in various methods; different aspects of the overall picture. Finally, as Part I comes to a close (in Review VI), these pieces are put together into the four-fold framework of Workbook practice. (1) We are asked to practice morning and evening, every hour on the hour, and as frequently as possible in between. Response to temptation is not specifically mentioned, but has been a consistent part of the Workbook since the early lessons, and so is assumed. With this total framework firmly in place, we can sail into Part II, in which our practice is meant to really blossom.

The significance of Part II

This putting together of the complete four-fold structure is merely one of the preparations for Part II. In Part II, the long discussions and detailed instructions we used to get each day disappear, to be replaced by a few words of teaching and a short prayer. For this reason, Part II is usually looked upon by students as a time of practice leisure, in which we simply read over each day’s brief comments and prayer in the morning, have some quiet time perhaps, and then go on to life as usual. In this view, after a lot of big promises, the Workbook just fizzles out.

This picture, however, could not be further from the truth. Actually, Part II is meant to be the crowning aspect of the Workbook, toward which the whole Workbook leads us. Long before Part II begins, in fact, the Workbook starts overtly preparing us for it. Review IV (which begins with Lesson 141) and V begin by asking us to “concentrate on readiness” (W-pI.RIV.In.1:2) for Part II, to “recognize we are preparing” (W-pI.RV.In.1:3) for it. By the time we actually reach Part II, therefore, we have spent 80 lessons consciously readying ourselves for it. During these lessons, the character of the Workbook has changed dramatically, in the following five ways:

We are asked to give more time, effort and commitment.

As we approach Part II, we are asked to simply give more of ourselves. Lessons 171-200 focus on finding “a greater certainty, a firmer purpose and a surer goal.” (W-pI.RV.In.1:6) Lesson 153 asks us to give as much time morning and evening as we can. Review V (171-180) says, “This time we are ready to give more effort and more time to what we undertake.” (W-pI.RV.In.1:2) Lesson 193 says, “Morning and night, devote what time you can to serve its [time’s] 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.193.10:6-11:1) This prepares us to give ourselves even more completely to our practice in Part II.

The structure begins to recede in favor of self-direction.

In the beginning of the Workbook, the practice instructions are very explicit. As we follow its instructions and begin to acquire some facility in its methods, the instructions recede and expect us to use whichever methods we feel guided to in the moment. After Review III (111-120) our practice becomes increasingly self-directed, which (ideally) means directed by the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit. The Workbook speaks about this change as a real accomplishment. For instance, we find this comment in lesson 124: “This is our first attempt at an extended period for which we give no rules nor special words to guide your meditation.” (W-pI.124.8:4) Once we arrive at Part II, the structure has receded significantly. The overall-four fold structure remains, but what we do within each practice period and how long each one takes is left up to us.

The focus switches away from words and toward experience.

As the Workbook proceeds, its focus shifts from the words to absorbing the meaning behind the words, to going beyond the words altogether. Beginning with Lesson 171, we are told to use the words at only three different times: at the beginning of the practice period, when we need to recall our minds from wandering, and at the end of the practice period. In between those times, we are to sink past our defenses and into direct experience. Experiencing what lies beyond our egos is crucial, for there awaits the true vision that we seek. Experiencing small tastes of it will draw us closer to it, and will intensify our desire to permanently enter into it.

Clearly, moving beyond words and moving beyond structure are two parts of a single movement. This is indicated in the instructions for Review VI, the twenty lessons that precede Part II:

We will attempt to get beyond all words and special forms of practicing for this review. For we attempt, this time, to reach a quickened pace along a shorter path to the serenity and peace of God. We merely close our eyes, and then forget all that we thought we knew and understood. (W-pI.RVI.In.4:1-3)

The focus changes to a direct approach to God.

Closely related to this focus on experience is an increasingly direct approach to God. As we near Part II, we more and more address Him in our practice, pray to Him and seek direct experience of Him. Lesson 168 contains the first idea for the day that is addressed to God: “Your Grace is given me. I claim it now.” Lesson 163 contains the first prayer to God in the Workbook, with several more to follow before Part II, in which every lesson contains a prayer. Lesson 157 is intended to bring a life-changing direct experience of God. This readies us for Part II, which is meant to be permeated with such experiences. This focus on God signifies that we are approaching the goal of the Course, for ultimately what we seek to experience is God Himself. This is also the fulfillment of what was promised in Chapter 1 of the Text: “Some of the later steps in this course, however, involve a more direct approach to God Himself.” (T-1.VII.5:7)

The focus switches from undoing false perception to acquiring true perception.

All of these changes add up to what the Workbook told us in its Introduction. There it said that the Workbook consists of two parts: undoing false perception and acquiring true perception. Part I has focused on clearing away the false, and on using the words and structures that help us do so. Part II focuses directly on entering into the true. The lessons in Part II therefore have an almost uniformly positive focus, concentrating on God, the Holy Spirit, and the Christ in ourselves and our brothers. As the Workbook nears Part II, this positive focus comes into sway more and more.

Since these five shifts in focus lead up to Part II, they immensely clarify that part’s role. The words and instructions are falling away not because it is time to kick back and take it easy. They are falling away because our practice is ready to take off. We are ready to give more time, effort and commitment to the experience of true perception. In Part I, the Workbook assumed a parental role, guiding us explicitly with its structure and instructions. We needed that role in the childhood of our practice. But now we are entering the adulthood of our practice, and leaning on our parent would hold us back. Our practice is ready to blossom, to come into its own This is why the outer aids are falling away. Part I, then, is really a diving board from which we dive into the deep, clear waters of Part II. Part I is preparation; Part II is accomplishment.

How to keep up with the progression of the Workbook

How can we follow this progression, so that we keep step with the Workbook, rather than being left behind as it climbs into the heights of spiritual experience? Since the Workbook’s progression is so carefully planned, all we need do is simply focus on doing one lesson at a time, trusting that if we can do today’s lesson, we can do the next. As the Workbook says, “Our next steps will be easy, if you take this one today.” (W-pI.196.8:1) Conversely, each step we do halfway jeopardizes our ability to take the steps which follow. This focus on taking each step as solidly as we can has four aspects that I want to draw out:

1. Pay careful attention to those lessons in which the practice takes a major step forward.

There are many of these lessons. The following is my attempt to list them:

  • Lesson 20: The introduction of structure. The first attempt at frequent, regular practice.
  • Lesson 27: Another beginning attempt at frequent, regular practice.
  • Lesson 31: The practice divides into a two-fold structure of longer and shorter practice periods.
  • Lessons 41 and 44: The introduction of meditation, “a major goal of mind training.”
  • Review I (Lessons 51-60): A focus on learning the cohesiveness of the Course’s thought system.
  • Lessons 93-110: A challenging period in which we devote the first five minutes of every waking hour to practice.
  • Review III (Lessons 111-120): A focus on developing the shorter practice periods (frequent reminders and response to temptation).
  • Lesson 124: The holy half an hour; the first half hour of solid practice and the first extended practice with no special instructions.
  • Review IV (Lessons 141-150): The exercises begin to prepare us for Part II.
  • Lesson 153: Contains the instructions for the next forty-eight lessons, in which we will firmly anchor the backbone of the daily practice: morning and evening quiet times (which ask for as much time as possible—at least five minutes; at best, more than thirty) and hourly remembrances.
  • Lesson 157: The attempt to have a direct experience of God, which will be permanently transforming.
  • Review V (Lessons 171-180): More preparation for Part II. Beginning of going beyond words to experience. Asks for more time and effort.
  • Lessons 181-200: A focus on unifying our commitment and intent through holy instants, moments of experiencing what lies past our defenses.
  • Review VI (Lessons 201-220): The four-fold structure of practice emerges. The attempt to go beyond words and special forms of practice, in order to make quicker progress.
  • Part II (Lessons 221-365): Described above. A focus on deep, wordless experience of God.

2. Devote special attention to the Workbook’s “giant strides.”

There are seven lessons which the Workbook labels as “giant strides” in its progression. Their “giant” status has to do with the content we are practicing that day, rather than with the form that our practicing takes.

  • Lesson 61, “I am the light of the world”: This lesson, which comes right after the first review, is an initial step in accepting our real function of saving others. We are asked to use this first giant step to build a firm foundation for the giant steps to come. (W-pI.61.7:3-4)
  • Lesson 66, “My happiness and my function are one”: “Today’s idea is another giant stride in the perception of the same as the same, and the different as different.” (W-pI.66.10:5) We are to learn that our happiness is the same as our true function, but different from all the functions we have given ourselves.
  • Lesson 94, “I am as God created me”: The first appearance of the focal lesson of the Workbook, which repeats many times in the lessons to come (it is the only lesson in the Workbook that repeats).
  • Lesson 127, “There is no love but God’s”: “Today we take the largest single step this course requests in your advance towards its established goal.” (W-pI.127.6:5) The hope is that we achieve just “the faintest glimmering of what love means” (W-pI.127.7:1) by withdrawing the value we have placed in the world’s gifts and realizing that only God’s Love is real.
  • Lesson 130, “It is impossible to see two worlds”: This is another lesson in distinguishing the same from the different. It asks us to stop compromising between the world of normal sight and the world of true vision.
  • Lesson 135, “If I defend myself I am attacked”: This lesson’s goal is to have us rest from our plan-making and instead receive our part in God’s plan. This lesson is lauded as a “giant stride,” (W-pI.135.26:4) “a special day for learning,” (W-pI.135.26:5) and “Eastertime in your salvation.” (W-pI.135.25:3) It also contains the longest discussion of the Workbook.
  • Lesson 194, “I place the future in the Hands of God”: This is another lesson attempting to free us from our anxiety about the future. It asks us to make this day’s idea a permanent rule of thought; and promises that if we really accept the idea, it will set us down “just short of Heaven.” (W-pI.194.1:2)

3. Realize that certain instructions stop being given because you have (supposedly) incorporated them, not because they are no longer relevant.

The Workbook will often take a string of lessons and devote them to teaching us a certain method of practice; for instance, the method of generating related thoughts, or of connecting with the Holy Spirit. Then the Workbook will stop discussing this method at length, not because that method is now irrelevant, but for the opposite reason: The Workbook assumes that we have it down, that it is part of our total practice repertoire. Future practice instructions will now assume that we know how to generate related thoughts or listen for the Holy Spirit’s Voice.

A perfect example of this is the requirement to practice indiscriminately. The Introduction and the first nineteen lessons remind us again and again to make no exceptions in our practicing. Finally, in lesson 19, we are told:

The requirement of as much indiscriminateness as possible in selecting subjects for the practice periods should be quite familiar to you by now, and will no longer be repeated each day, although it will occasionally be included as a reminder. Do not forget, however, that random selection of subjects for all practice periods remains essential throughout [the entire Workbook]. (W-pI.19.4:1-2)

4. If you pay attention to today’s practice instructions, you will be able to understand tomorrow’s.

As we mentioned earlier, the practice instructions assume familiarity with the previous day’s instructions. Without that familiarity, many of the instructions are just too brief and subtle to understand, let alone use. Knowing the instructions from previous days becomes especially crucial later in the Workbook, for a very simple reason: There are only three sets of instructions for the last 213 lessons. The first set (in lesson 153) covers forty-eight lessons; the second set (in Review VI) covers twenty lessons; the third set (in the Introduction to Part II) covers 145 lessons. If you don’t read and thoroughly comprehend these instructions, and then vividly remember them over weeks and months, you are sunk.

When are you done with the Workbook?

How many times to do the Workbook is a major question for Course students, for there is no explicit guidance on this in the Workbook itself. Some students do the Workbook over and over for many years. Many believe you are meant to do it only once, to achieve some nameless benefit or fulfill some mysterious quota. What is the answer here?

I personally believe that the answer has nothing to do with how many times you do the Workbook. Rather, it has to do with how fully the Workbook achieves its objectives with you and thus renders itself unnecessary. The Workbook is a structure. Both within the Workbook and after the Workbook, you move past a structure when it has fulfilled its role and you no longer need it. And its role is fulfilled when you do on your own what it was making you do. The structure of the Workbook is designed to get you started in regular, frequent and effective spiritual practice. Thus, when you can do this on your own, its job is done. The epilogue to the Workbook says, “No more specific lessons are assigned, for there is no more need of them.” (W-E.3:1) The question, therefore, is: When do you have no more need of them?

Allen Watson has a very useful analogy for this. The role of the Workbook, he says, is like the role of training wheels on a bicycle. When they have fulfilled their purpose and you no longer need them, you take them off and ride off on your own.

Thus, when you can set the Workbook down after Lesson 365 and your practice simply deepens and increases, rather than falls apart, you are done with the Workbook. Notice that this does not mean you have followed the instructions perfectly. It only means you have followed them well enough to make them a part of you. The point is not how well you score, but how much you learn.

You can graduate from the Workbook after only one time through, yet for the majority of us it will probably take more than that. The Workbook is asking for such a drastic change in our mental habits that most of us will not allow this change to happen in the space of one short year. Yet it can be done, with willingness and with support from others (especially experienced support).

My suggestion is this: If you have made a truly productive pass through the Workbook and feel that you no longer need its help in order to make practice a major focus of each day, then pray about it. Ask the Holy Spirit what is best for your practice at this time. Also, realize that this is not an either/or matter. For instance, you may find it helpful at this point to go through the Workbook again, paying partial attention to each day’s instructions, but also adapting them so that you can do full-blown Workbook practice, the kind you would do in both Part II of the Workbook and beyond the Workbook.

Even once you have put the Workbook down, you may continue to consult it as a resource. (2) You may go back and concentrate on certain aspects of it—on the forgiveness practices, or the meditation instructions, or the prayers in Part II. You may do this to master things you didn’t on the first pass through, or to refresh certain elements of your practice that have become rusty. If you are serious about your practice, the Workbook can continue to serve you as an important resource.

Post-Workbook practice

If your guidance says to move on from the Workbook, what now? What kind of practice do you do? This crucial issue is specifically dealt with in section 16 of the Manual for Teachers: “How Should the Teacher of God Spend His Day?” This section should be read very carefully by anyone graduating from the Workbook. It begins by saying that for the advanced teacher of God the question of how to spend his day is a superfluous one, for he has already given each day to God, with Whom he keeps in constant contact. He is beyond the need for any structure whatsoever. Since this question is already answered for the advanced teacher, the section moves on to the beginning teacher:

But what about those who have not reached his certainty? They are not yet ready for such lack of structuring on their own part. What must they do to learn to give the day to God? (M-16.2:1-3)

The rest of the section deals with the needs of the beginning teacher of God. Who is he? He is someone that has completed the Workbook, for that is how one qualifies as a teacher of God: “He cannot claim that title until he has gone through the workbook….” (M-16.3:7) Thus, the Course is not expecting us to emerge from the Workbook as spiritual giants, only as newborn teachers of God. We will therefore still need to structure our day somewhat in order to give it to God. We are not yet ready for the totally unstructured life.

The Course’s author then goes on to give what could be called the post-Workbook practice instructions. He only gives a few broad rules, urging that “each one must use them as best he can in his own way.” (M-16.2:4) He specifically declines to set up a specific post-Workbook routine for everyone, for such routines “easily become gods in their own right, threatening the very goals for which they were set up.” (M-16.2:5) What he says about post-Workbook practice can be briefly boiled down into the following dictum: Do what you have found meets your needs, while still working within the basic structure of practice laid out in the Workbook. Let us break this sentence in two and take the halves one at a time.

“Do what you have found meets your needs”

We saw earlier that in the latter half of the Workbook, the structure falls away in favor of self-direction. Here in the Manual we are told that this process keeps on going after the Workbook. “After completion of the more structured practice periods, which the workbook contains, individual need becomes the chief consideration.” (M-16.3:8) Our individual need will determine how much time we spend in our morning and evening quiet time, (M-16.3:5-6) what position we sit in when having our quiet time, (M-16.5:5) and how we respond to temptation throughout the day—whether we respond with a Workbook-like phrase, with one word or no words:

But he is safe from all deception if he so decides. Perhaps he needs to remember, “God is with me. I cannot be deceived.” Perhaps he prefers other words, or only one, or none at all. (M-16.10:4-6)

Of course, we learned what meets our needs by going through the Workbook. Thus, we can apply how we determine our meditation posture to the whole topic of post-Workbook practice: “Having gone through the workbook, you must have come to some conclusions in this respect.” (M-16.5:5)

“Doing what meets your needs” must also be combined with what the Workbook tells us at its end:

Henceforth, hear but the Voice for God and for your Self when you retire from the world, to seek reality instead. He will direct your efforts, telling you exactly what to do, how to direct your mind, and when to come to Him in silence, asking for His sure direction and His certain Word. (W-E.3:2-3)

In other words, we let our practicing be guided by our experience and by the Holy Spirit. We hopefully have gained some contact with Him, since a great deal of the Workbook practice is designed to establish that contact.

This combination of our experience and His guidance will decide, for instance, what ideas we focus on in our practice. One thing I have done in practicing beyond the Workbook is to ask within each morning what idea He wants me to dwell on today. More often than not I get some sense of an idea to use, often a very unexpected one. Similarly, in response to our daily upsets, we will pull whatever idea we feel guided to from our “problem-solving repertoire,” as Lesson 194 put it. We will use those words and ideas that we have found particularly and consistently helpful for dispelling our upsets.

“While still working within the basic structure of practice laid out in the Workbook.”

The general structure of post-Workbook practice given in this section looks remarkably like the kind of practice we do in Part II of the Workbook. There are really only two main differences: First, there are no specific lessons given for each day—presumably, we ourselves choose the ideas we practice. Second, there is no mention of hourly remembrances. You could say, then, that the four-fold structure of Workbook practice drops down to a three-fold structure of post-Workbook practice—unless, of course, you find that doing the hourly practice meets your needs. Here is a summary of that three-fold structure (although I have separated morning and evening quiet times below, I am considering them together as one part of that structure):

Morning quiet times

  • Take your quiet time with God as soon as possible after you wake.
  • Instead of a set duration, spend the amount of time that meets your need (a practice begun in Part II of the Workbook).
  • Instead of duration, emphasize quality.
  • In terms of duration, continue “a minute or two after you begin to find it difficult. You may find that the difficulty will diminish and drop away. If not, that is the time to stop.” (M-16.4:7-9)

Evening quiet times

  • Take your quiet time as close to bedtime as feasible.
  • If you take it early in the evening, at least take an additional moment right before sleeping in which you close your eyes and think of God.
  • In terms of body posture, use whatever position you found helpful when doing the Workbook. Do not lie down.
  • The same basic rules apply for duration as in the morning.

Frequent reminders

  • Remember a thought of pure joy and limitless release throughout the day (see 6:1-2).
  • Remind yourself of your protection throughout the day (see 8:1-4).

Response to temptation

  • Remind yourself of your protection throughout the day (this would be a frequent reminder if you are simply rehearsing the thought, and a response to temptation if you are doing so in response to a disturbance of your peace).
  • Respond to temptation in the way you prefer—with a Workbook-like phrase, with one word or with no words (see 10:4-6).
  • Continually recognize and see through all forms of temptation: “All through his training, every day and every hour, and even every minute and second, must God’s teachers learn to recognize the forms of magic and perceive their meaninglessness.” (M-16.11:9)

As we practice within this general structure, eventually even it will fall away. We will become advanced teachers of God and go beyond the need for any structure whatsoever. At that point, practice will have truly become our mental way of life. It will not be an effort; it will simply be the way we think. It will no longer be a training, for our minds will be trained. As a result, the basic character of our thinking will have been transformed. Our minds will no longer be filled with thoughts, feelings and impulses that seem to seize us against our will. We will no longer even have an unwatched mind, which carries on its meandering rehearsal of ego outside our full attention. Our ongoing stream of thoughts will no more be an endless rumination on our petty personal interests. It will instead be an ongoing stream of glory flowing quietly through our enraptured minds. Our attention will not spasmodically jump from one promise of pleasure to the next, but will gaze ceaselessly and unflinchingly on the blazing light of Christ in all things. Our minds will be consciously, effortlessly and unwaveringly absorbed in pure joy. The following passage captures well the final state of our practicing:

In time, with practice, you will never cease to think of Him, and hear His loving Voice guiding your footsteps into quiet ways….Nor would you keep your mind away from Him a moment, even though your time is spent in offering salvation to the world. (W-pI.153.18:1-3)

Here, at this stage, when we never cease to think of God, we will have achieved the goal that the Workbook set out. We will have trained our minds “to think along the lines the text sets forth.” (W-pI.In.1:4) We will have acquired true perception.

In praise of the Workbook

I believe that the Workbook is a genuine spiritual masterpiece. It leads us gently yet swiftly into a whole new way of using our minds. It takes us right where we are, knowing how untrained our minds are, knowing that we are skeptical and will resist the ideas and the practice. Yet, if we are willing, the Workbook can lead us in one short year into a new mental way of life. According to Journey Without Distance (Bob Skutch’s account of the story of A Course in Miracles), Bill Thetford “observed that its clarity and progressive organization impressed him even more than the Text, because in gently leading one to a higher level of awareness, the lessons were so psychologically sound that only a master psychologist could have thought them up.” (3) Though I can’t say that the Workbook impresses me more than the Text, I can say that only time will allow us to appreciate how masterfully it was conceived.

The Workbook’s method of spiritual practice is a remarkably broad one. It encloses our entire day in a closely-woven net of practice. It is grounded in morning and evening “periods of wordless, deep experience.” (W-pII.In.11:2) From there it reaches into our day, as we re-establish contact each hour, and as we rehearse transformative thoughts all through the hour. Finally, our practice faces and dispels those daily upsets, worries and judgments which we so easily overlook, but which provide the brick and mortar of our egos. Throughout, it directly addresses the cause of human misery: our thinking. By having the power to change our thinking, Course-based practice has the power to free us from all suffering and limitation.

However, at this point in the history of A Course in Miracles, very few have used the Workbook in the way we have outlined here. Few students have done the Workbook as it asks to be done; few have roughly fulfilled its actual instructions. And even most of those did not stick with the practice once they finished the lessons; they did not use the Workbook as an entry into a lifetime of practice. Unfortunately, there is little understanding among Course students about what the Workbook is for and how crucial learning the practice is. The natural corollary of this is exactly what we currently see: students are not realizing the benefits promised by the Course. My belief is that only once we begin to tap the vast potential of Workbook practice, only once we start using the Workbook as it was written, will we begin to really experience those benefits. For this reason, I like to call the Workbook the undiscovered key to A Course in Miracles.

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

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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(1) In The Workbook as a Spiritual Practice (booklet #14 in the Circle of Atonement’s booklet series, in which the material in this article first appeared), I claimed that full-blown Workbook practice begins in Lesson 153. I have since realized that that is incorrect. Lesson 153 gives us 48 lessons in which to firmly establish the foundational levels of the four-fold practice: morning and evening quiet times and hourly remembrance. After these 48 lessons, Review VI adds on the frequent reminders. This completes the picture of full-blown Workbook practice, since the fourth type of practice—response to temptation—is assumed throughout these lessons.

(2) I am indebted to Greg Mackie for this idea of the Workbook as a continuing “resource.”

(3) Robert Skutch, Journey without Distance, p. 77