The Movie Projector Analogy Revisited

If you’ve been a Course student for a while, you’re probably familiar with the movie projector analogy. This analogy illustrates the Course’s teaching about projection by comparing it with the common experience of going to a theater: we project our thoughts outward to produce the world we see, just as a movie projector projects a movie onto a screen. According to this analogy, then, the way to change the world we see is to change our thoughts, just as the way to change a movie is to change the film in the projector.

I think this analogy is an excellent way to convey these ideas. But sometimes, I’ve seen it used in a way that I don’t find quite so illuminating. It is used to claim that changing things “out there” through our behavior has no role whatsoever in the Course’s system. This claim is made by saying that trying to bring about real change through changing things in the world is like trying to change a movie by manipulating the screen.

I don’t think it’s true, however, that changing externals through behavior has no role in the Course. True, the Course does claim that changing behavior, in and of itself, cannot change the mind. The Course is also clear that we cannot find happiness by manipulating externals; happiness is an inside job. Yet the Course does see a powerful role for external change: while the change that really matters occurs on the level of the mind, external change reinforces that change of mind by communicating the mental content behind the external change. “All behavior teaches the beliefs that motivate it” (T-6.I.16:6). Therefore, when a miracle worker expresses the loving content of her mind in her words and actions—perhaps even through an external miracle, like a miraculous healing—she communicates love to others and thus reinforces it in both their minds and her own.

Getting back to the movie projector analogy: I think that to capture what the Course says about changing externals through behavior, this analogy needs to be fleshed out a bit and examined more closely. Here is how I see the parallels between the movie theater situation and the Course’s teaching:

  • projectionist = the mind
  • film = thoughts, including decisions about both how to perceive the world (content) and how to express that perception behaviorally (form)
  • projector = projection/extension (both mental and behavioral)
  • screen = the world, onto which the “film” of our thoughts and behavior is projected
  • audience = other minds watching the “film”

Notice that behavior is not equated with “manipulating the screen.” That particular parallel has never made sense to me. How can changing externals through behavior, which we’re perfectly capable of doing, be compared to trying to change a movie by manipulating the screen, which is clearly impossible and therefore useless? Equating behavior with something useless suggests that behavior is useless. But while of course behavior appears on the screen, it is not a manipulation of the screen but rather a part of the film, a decision of the mind. Just as we choose the thought-content which determines our perception of the world (the ego’s thoughts or the Holy Spirit’s thoughts), so we also choose the behavioral form through which we express that content (guided by the ego or the Holy Spirit). Both things—content and form—are put into our “film” and projected onto the screen of the world for all to see. And this is very useful to the process of salvation.

Now let’s see how this analogy works, using both ego and Holy Spirit versions. First, let’s say the “projectionist” here is stuck in his ego. He projects his ego’s thoughts onto the screen of the world and sees a horror film, a dog-eat-dog world that attacks him mercilessly. As an actor in this film, he also projects his ego’s behaviors—he himself is one of the dogs, an attacker who is only out for himself. He seeks happiness as egos do, by trying to get all his ducks in a row, by trying to manipulate the world to cough up what his ego wants. His egocentric behavior inevitably communicates the egoic content of his mind to others watching the film and reinforces the ego in both their minds and his. He has chosen the ego as his advisor, and what he offers the world “will reinforce the rule of [his] adviser in the world” (T-30.I.16:7).

This is true even if he tries to disguise his ego with behavior that looks loving. He may fool people for a while, but deep down everyone gets the attacking message he is really sending. This is inevitable, because “all behavior teaches the beliefs that motivate it”—the beliefs that really motivate it. The audience watching his movie may see a peaceful ocean scene at first, but Jaws lurks in the depths and will rear his ugly head before long. The “love story” will quickly be revealed as the horror film it really is.

But now let’s say the “projectionist” is a person whose mind is truly healed. He extends the Holy Spirit’s blessing to the screen of the world, and so he sees beyond appearances to a true love story—the real world that shines with peace, joy, and mercy. His happiness no longer comes from manipulating the world; his only goal now is to heal his brothers through giving the priceless gift of healed perception to them. So, he extends loving thoughts from his mind to theirs. This extension is where healing ultimately takes place.

However, since his brothers believe the movie they are watching is real, he also does something more. As an actor in this film, he extends loving behavior based on his loving thoughts. He behaves selflessly, joining the Mother Teresas and Dalai Lamas of the world by devoting his life to helping others. He works miracles, perhaps even bringing about dramatic external healings as Jesus did. This behavior communicates the loving content of his mind to others watching the film and reinforces love in both their minds and his. He has chosen the Holy Spirit as his advisor, and the miracles he offers the world reinforce the rule of this advisor in the world. His loving behavior teaches the truly loving beliefs that motivate it. Jaws has been replaced by The Miracle Worker. And as everyone in the audience sees this new movie with its glorious message of love, the day is hastened when everyone together will leave the theater entirely and walk out into the eternal sunshine of God’s Love.
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Spanish translation: Revisando la analogía del proyector de películas
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