[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
This part of “The Teachers of This Course” focuses on a specific aspect of the Holy Spirit’s larger role as described in the Course: that of His guidance of our earthly decisions. This is such a thorny issue for Course students, both theoretically and practically, that no set of articles claiming to supply the how-to of A Course in Miracles would be complete without it.
The Course’s approach to our decision-making is an extreme one. Rather than giving us tools with which to make our own wise and effective decisions, it says that we are actually incapable of making good decisions. Over and over it tells us that the only wise decision is to let the Holy Spirit decide for us. This means letting Him run the whole gamut of our lives, from our general “life situation,” (M-9) down to our decisions about how to go through the day, (T-30.I.2:2) including what to do, where to go, to whom to speak and even what to say. (W-pI.71.9)
Why is the Course so emphatic about this? We can condense its reasons into two. First, the Holy Spirit has all the information needed for making sound decisions, whereas we have only a tiny fraction of that information.
In order to judge anything rightly, one would have to be fully aware of an inconceivably wide range of things; past, present and to come. One would have to recognize in advance all the effects of his judgments on everyone and everything involved in them in any way. (M-10.3:3-4)
The punch line here is that while it is ludicrous to think we possess such awareness, it is merely a fact that the Holy Spirit does.
Second, the Holy Spirit will always decide for our happiness, whereas we, by ourselves, will not. This is a jarring idea yet the Course states it straightforwardly: “Without His guidance you…will decide against your peace as surely as you decided that salvation lay in you alone.” (T-14.III.14:4) The reasoning is simple. While we believe we are an ego, we will decide so as to benefit our ego. Yet if our ego is an attack on who we really are, then benefitting it only attacks our peace of mind.
Twice the Course mentions that this elevation of His decision-making and denigration of ours is bound to be experienced by us as “personally insulting.” ((T-18.IV.7:4), (M-9.2:4) However, if you accept the above two reasons, it is merely practical. Only the Holy Spirit’s decisions are truly informed, and only His are intended to make us happy. Put differently, we should elevate His decision-making, for only His decisions will elevate us. Ours will always denigrate us, reinforcing the idea that we are lowly, guilty egos.
When the Course says that we should allow the Holy Spirit to make all of our decisions for us, it really means it. The Course expects us to learn how to do this, and to increasingly enter into this as our way of moving through the world. Let us, therefore, turn to the practical issue of how we can enter into this. What follows are 15 principles for living the guided life.
15 PRINCIPLES OF GUIDANCE
- Turn as many decisions as you can over to the Holy Spirit. The amount of exceptions you make in this is a measure of your development.
The Course repeatedly underscores the very basic idea of turning all decisions over to the Holy Spirit: “Leave all decisions to the One Who speaks for God.” (T-14.IV.5:4) “Ask the Holy Spirit everything, and leave all decisions to His gentle counsel.” (T-14.III.12:6) And this idea needs underscoring, for our tendency is to give Him only occasional decisions of a highly select nature, not realizing how many decisions we never consider letting out of our clenched fists.
This idea of literally turning everything over to the Holy Spirit is so central that how close we come to it is a mirror of how advanced we are on the spiritual path:
As the teacher of God advances in his training, he learns one lesson with increasing thoroughness. He does not make his own decisions; he asks his Teacher for His answer, and it is this he follows as his guide for action. (M-9.2:1-2, M-29.3:1)
Elsewhere, the Course says that “the measure of [the teacher of God’s] advancement in the curriculum” (M-4.IX.1:6) is how completely he applies the Course to every aspect of his life, how fully he gives “up all problems to one Answer [the Holy Spirit].” (W-pI.106.1:1) This applies to more than turning our earthly decisions over to the Holy Spirit, yet it most definitely includes this. Thus, how completely we let the Holy Spirit decide for us is one measure of our spiritual development.
- You learn to hear the Holy Spirit’s Voice through the training given in the Workbook.
Some seem to come into this life already possessing the ability to receive guidance. For those of us who don’t, what can we do? Regardless of appearances, this ability is an acquired skill. Even those who have it at birth presumably acquired it in some other place and time, probably through great and long-term devotion. Therefore, we too can acquire it. How? The answer lies in the Workbook, which attempts to train us in hearing the Holy Spirit and usher us into a habit of regular and frequent seeking of His guidance.
This begins in earnest in the 70’s, where almost every lesson involves confidently asking the Holy Spirit (and/or God) for something and then waiting in silence to experience His answer. We ask Him for specific guidance on what to say and do (71). We listen for His Voice teaching us from within (72, 76, 79). We ask for a sense of assurance that He has granted our request for miracles (77). And we wait for an experience of true vision from Him (73, 75, 78). Clearly, the Workbook is trying to open up some inner channel here.
An abundance of other lessons seek to open this same channel. In order to hear the Holy Spirit we must still our minds, clear it of the all the chatter that drowns out His Voice. A great deal of the Workbook is designed to train us in just this quieting of our minds. That we are stilling our minds in order to hear the Holy Spirit is made explicit in such lessons as 49, “God’s Voice speaks to me all through the day,” 106, “Let me be still and listen to the truth,” and 125, “In quiet I receive God’s Word today.” See, for instance, this passage from 106:
If you will lay aside the ego’s voice, however loudly it may seem to call…if you will listen with an open mind, that has not told you what salvation is; then you will hear the mighty Voice of truth, quiet in power, strong in stillness, and completely certain in Its messages. (W-pI.153.17:2)
In Lessons 153-200 this growing connection with the Holy Spirit is put to regular, practical use. Every waking hour we are instructed to ask Him what to do in the next hour: “And we will quietly sit by and wait on Him and listen to His Voice, and learn what He would have us do the hour that is yet to come; while thanking Him for all the gifts He gave us in the one gone by.” (W-pI.153.18:1) If we actually follow these instructions, by the time we reach Lesson 200 we will have asked His guidance for every single hour of almost fifty days, having turned to Him nearly 800 times in the process! The goal that these instructions are shooting for is revealed in the very next line: “In time, with practice, you will never cease to…hear His loving Voice guiding your footsteps.” (W-E.3)
That is a major part of what Workbook practice aims for. It hastens the day when the Holy Spirit is continually guiding our footsteps through a mind habitually in touch with Him. In this light the Workbook’s ending makes perfect sense. After being guided by the words of the Workbook for 365 lessons, the Epilogue leaves us directly in the hands of our internal Teacher:
No more specific lessons are assigned, for there is no more need of them. 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. His is the Word that God has given you. His is the Word you chose to be your own. (M-29.5:5-10)
Why do we no longer need specific lessons from the Workbook? Because the Workbook has trained us to “hear the Voice for God and for your Self.” It has taught us how to “retire from the world,” still our minds and hear His Voice. Through this training we have chosen His Word to be our own (as the final line says). Now we can rely directly on our experience of this guiding Word within us. We no longer need to rely on the words of an external page.
The Course, therefore, has a simple answer to the common complaint, “I don’t hear anything.” The answer is this: Do the Workbook—really do it. Do the training.
- Rather than seeking guidance on occasional, isolated issues, rely on the daily practice of frequent asking, trusting that guidance will come when you need it.
Most of us, I expect, turn to the Holy Spirit when we feel really stymied, when some large decision confronts us that seems beyond our grasp. This guarantees that our inner channel, being largely unused, will remain clogged with debris. And then we wonder why we don’t hear anything.
The Course counsels a very different practice, as we can see in one of its most important passages on receiving guidance:
Does this mean that you cannot say anything without consulting Him? No, indeed! That would hardly be practical, and it is the practical with which this course is most concerned. If you have made it a habit to ask for help when and where you can, you can be confident that wisdom will be given you when you need it. Prepare for this each morning, remember God when you can throughout the day, ask the Holy Spirit’s help when it is feasible to do so, and thank Him for His guidance at night. And your confidence will be well founded indeed. (T-13.VII.12:7)
Let’s look at this passage very closely. The Course is so emphatic about asking the Holy Spirit on everything that one might conclude that we shouldn’t say or do a single thing without consulting Him. The Course clarifies that it does not mean this, since this would be impractical. It then gives us a more practical approach: Make it “a habit to ask for help when and where you can.”
What does this habit look like? We prepare for it in the morning. This preparation allows us to do two things throughout the day: One, we remember God whenever we can and, two, we ask the Holy Spirit’s guidance whenever it is feasible. Then we conclude the day by thanking the Holy Spirit for His guidance at night.
Does this sound in any way familiar? This is a day of Workbook-style practice! More specifically, since this passage comes in the Manual, it is a day of post-Workbook practice (as discussed in Part 5 of the “Workbook/Practice” section). The morning preparation is our morning quiet time, which lays the foundation for the day of practice. Remembering God throughout the day refers to the practicing we do all day long. Thanking the Holy Spirit at night, of course, refers to the evening quiet time.
Notice, however, that laced throughout this day of inner practice is a frequent seeking of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. In other words, our daily practice is not meant to be solely about changing our perception. It is meant to be interwoven with asking, listening to and thanking the Holy Spirit. Strange as this may sound to many students, this is precisely the place to which the Workbook leads us, as we saw in the previous principle.
Finally, there are two related “if-then’s” in the above passage. If you have made it a habit to frequently ask for guidance, then “you can be confident that wisdom will be given you when you need it.” If an integral part of your daily practice is repeatedly consulting the Holy Spirit, then this “confidence will be well founded indeed.”
I see two closely related points in these “if-then’s.” First, the success of hearing is tied directly to the habit of asking. Second, there is a certain looseness or play in between your asking and His answering. You don’t expect a specific answer to arrive in a particular form right then and there. You simply leave your request on His answering machine, so to speak, and trust Him to take care of the rest; trust Him to answer your real request in whatever form and at whatever time is truly appropriate. You aren’t putting your money in a vending machine and pushing a button. You are putting your trust in a relationship, on the other end of which is an all-knowing Partner. You are putting your life in the hands of your Teacher.
- His guidance is not there as omnipotent help in serving the needs of your separate self. It is there to help you in your function of serving your brothers.
Let’s face it, in our eyes our function is to take care of the multi-faceted needs of our individual self, which includes looking after those objects and individuals that seem to prop our identity up. This task is so difficult, in this cruel world and with this tiny self, that we long for either superpowers or divine aid. From this perspective, why else would guidance exist but to get all those needs met that we, by ourselves, have difficulty meeting? We want a Holy Spirit Who will guide us to the perfect job, find us a great mate and give us hot stock market tips. Or at least we want Him to meet our minimum needs, such as coming up with the rent.
The problem with this view is not its claim that the Holy Spirit deals with jobs, money and relationships. He does. The problem is a profound misunderstanding about why He does. Our program of protecting and inflating our separate self—our ego—is utterly alien to Him. His goal is not to console our ego but to dispel it, to awaken us from the deep sleep of separate identity. This is the guiding principle behind all of His work in our lives.
Therefore, says the Course, if we allow Him (a big “if”) He will supply our earthly needs, but for the sake of His agenda, not ours. He will supply us with possessions, but in such a way as “to make certain that [we] will not use them on behalf of lingering in time.” (P-3.III.1:4) He will supply us with money, but only so that we can stay on earth and “better serve the plan.” (T-9.VI.5:1-2)
This, in fact, is the express purpose of His guidance—to help us better serve the plan. He guides us into the fulfillment of our function, which is to awaken others. This is how He wakes us up. “You are not yet awake, but you can learn how to awaken. Very simply the Holy Spirit teaches you to awaken others.” (T-2.V(A).18:2-4) In His eyes, the only purpose of our actions, as well as our money and possessions, is to serve as tools in the expression of our function. In His hands, these things are not toys for the ego; they are instruments for the awakening of all minds.
When the Course, therefore, talks about Him guiding us in what to say and do, it is usually clear that He is guiding us in how to best help our brother. For example:
I am here only to be truly helpful.
I am here to represent Him Who sent me.
I do not have to worry about what to say or what to do, because He Who sent me will direct me. ((T-20.IV.8:4). Italics mine.)
Let’s look at this well-known prayer from the Text. Why will “He Who sent me” direct what I say and do? The answer is clear: So that my actions will be truly helpful, so that my behavior will represent Him to others.
What does all of this mean for us? It means that being guided and fulfilling our function go hand-in-hand. This has several implications. First, a surprising amount of guidance that we receive will concern our function, often ignoring matters that seem more important to us. I have seen this repeatedly in my life and in the lives of people close to me. Second, if we ask the Holy Spirit a question whose content is, “Will You please make my ego more comfortable and special?” we shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t get an answer. Third, guidance will become more a part of our life as we move into actively fulfilling our function, as we give our life to serving the Sonship. Until this point we may think we want direction, but we will fear its core directive—that of complete ego-relinquishment—and so will unconsciously push the guidance away.
In short, accepting our real function of extension opens the floodgates of guidance and His supply. As the Text so clearly puts it, “Once you accept His plan as the one function that you would fulfill, [then] there will be nothing else the Holy Spirit will not arrange for you without your effort.” (M-9.2:4)
- Your judgments and interpretations of the situation—including your perception of what the question is—are the biggest block to being guided.
When you seek guidance about a situation, you have a picture of that situation in your mind. This picture decides what needs resolution, why guidance should be sought. It determines what the question is and defines the directions in which the answer lies. For you, then, this picture is all-determining. Yet this picture is simply your projection. It is made up of your judgments, your interpretations. In the words of the Course, “Projection makes perception.” Your picture may be accurate in certain superficial respects, yet the deeper you go into its fundamental meanings and values, the more it is your highly personal creation.
This picture is the biggest block to hearing the Holy Spirit’s guidance, which is why the Course says “the giving up of judgment [is] the obvious prerequisite for hearing God’s Voice.” (T-30.I.2:3-6) This picture is also the biggest block to welcoming and carrying out His guidance once it is heard. This comes from the Text’s discussion about making no decisions by yourself:
This means that you are choosing not to be the judge of what to do. But it must also mean you will not judge the situations where you will be called upon to make response. For if you judge them, you have set the rules for how you should react to them. And then another answer [the Holy Spirit’s] cannot but produce confusion and uncertainty and fear. (Absence from Felicity)
This passage clues us in on why our picture is such a major block to receiving guidance. It is because our picture blocks us to His picture of the situation, and His guidance stems from His picture. In other words, His specific advice is simply the outer wrapping for a completely different perception of the situation. If we shut out that new perception (with our old perception) we are also shutting out the wrapping around it. We are pushing the whole package away, including its specific wrappings.
This has major implications for the process of seeking guidance. First, I strongly recommend that when seeking guidance for any situation, you look carefully at your perception of the situation. Search your mind for your fears, egoic desires and attachments—those aspects of your picture that will most strongly resist the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Then try to let go of these in the way the Course has taught you.
Second, try to suspend your interpretation of the situation and leave your mind open to a whole other way of seeing it. Simply expect that guidance, when it comes, will reframe the situation, subtly or dramatically, and open your mind to that reframing.
Third, realize that your picture will naturally try to generate the question you take to the Holy Spirit. For instance, if you are resentful toward someone, your question may in essence (if not in word) be, “Holy Spirit, what can I do to protect myself from that rotten Harry?” The Course calls this a pseudo-question. It takes the form of a question but is really a statement— that Harry is rotten and is attacking poor victimized you. For this reason, one of the earmarks of genuine guidance is that it will reframe the question. It will often answer a question that was unasked yet which is the real question.
Therefore, leave your questions as open as you can, as free as possible of your interpretations. A vague question is a good question. As Jesus said to Helen and Bill: “Any specific question involves a large number of assumptions which inevitably limit the answer.” (T-2.VI.1:3)
- Ask first and foremost for the healing of how you see things and only secondarily about what to do.
We have a love affair with form. We think happiness comes from how the forms outside of us are configured—how events go, how situations are arranged, how the world treats us. This thought system constantly begets the insistent question, “What should I do”? For doing is how we get situations to go our way. If form is our god then doing is our method of prayer. Thus, when told that the Holy Spirit will guide our doing, we naturally assume that He wants to join us in prayer to the god of form. We assume that He too thinks that “What should I do?” is the really important question.
But of course He does not. His whole goal is to guide our perception, to teach us to see differently. The only significance of our behavior is as a thought-reinforcer. It simply expresses to others and reinforces in us the perceptions we are holding within. If our perceptions are unhealed we really don’t have anything worth expressing. Our job at that point is not to act, but, in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, to remove the log from our own eye.
We can see the preeminence of thought when Jesus says in the Text that he will control what does not matter and will guide what does. (T-2.VI.2:8-9) What he means is that if we let him guide our thinking (what does matter) he will control our behavior (what doesn’t). “Behavior…is controlled by me automatically as soon as you place what you think under my guidance.” (Absence from Felicity) If we truly and completely let Jesus guide our thoughts, the whole issue of how to behave would be solved, for he would be the one controlling our lips and our limbs.
I consider it a fundamental principle of guidance, therefore, to first and foremost seek the Holy Spirit’s help in healing our perception, and only then seek His guidance on what to do. Jesus said it beautifully in this personal guidance to Helen:
You cannot ask, “What shall I say to him?” and hear God’s answer. Rather, ask instead, “Help me to see this brother through the eyes of truth and not of judgment,” and the help of God and all His angels will respond. (W-pI.165.5:1)
- Ask confidently, with desire and willingness to know the real truth and trusting that this truth is in your best interests. Wait for the answer in patience and gratitude.
In Part 4 of the “Workbook/Practice” section, I suggest that the key to successful meditation lies in approaching it with a “heightened intent,” with an attitude of confidence, desire and determination, and a sense of the importance and the holiness of what you are doing. The exact same thing is true of asking for guidance. The attitudes with which one asks are crucial. What follows is a list of some of the more important ones.
Desire. “Ask with desire,” (W-pI.71.9:7) says the Course. Cultivate a genuine desire to hear a truth that transcends your opinions and perspectives. Desire it simply because it is the truth.
Willingness. The Workbook says plainly, “He will answer in proportion to your willingness to hear His Voice.” (W-pI.72.12:5-6) Again, however, this means a willingness to be told something that may differ with what you now think.
Determination. “He will answer. Be determined to hear.” (Absence from Felicity)
Confidence. Confidence is the posture of asking that is perhaps most extolled by the Course. Ask in confidence because you know the Holy Spirit wants to give you His answer. By asking for what He already wants you to have, you are joining your will with His. Jesus once told Bill that he didn’t ask with enough confidence. He then said something that has been a great inspiration to me: “He never just claims his rights.” (T-11.VIII.5:7) You have a right to guidance; claim it.
Trust. Ultimately, the reason we do not hear guidance is that we are afraid of it. We may not be aware of this fear, but in practical terms it is the “fear of what you think [the guidance] will demand of you.” (T-7.X.5:8) This is something most all of us can identify with. We are afraid that the Holy Spirit will ask us to do something that satisfies some divine law at the expense of our own happiness. Thus, we will only follow the Holy Spirit unreservedly when we trust Him, when we trust that He has our best interests in mind. As the Course says, “No one gladly obeys a guide he does not trust.” Give Him as much trust as you can, but also realize that this trust will need time to grow. Only with repeated experience over years of time will you learn that you can trust the Holy Spirit with everything, even your life.
Wait in patience and gratitude. Once you have asked, the Course counsels this: “Wait patiently for Him. He will be there.” (W-pI.72.12:1) While you wait, if your confidence in hearing an answer fades, repeat your question, not for His sake but for yours:
Whenever you feel your confidence wane and your hope of success flicker and go out, repeat your question and your request, remembering that you are asking of the infinite Creator of infinity, Who created you like Himself. (T-18.VII.1:2)
Wait not only in patience, but in gratitude, for gratitude affirms that you have already been given the gift, even though you have not yet consciously experienced it. This affirmation draws it into your conscious experience.
- Instead of seeking specific guidance, it may be best to momentarily forget the situation, your body and your life and sink into the holy instant.
One of the most profound truths about guidance that I have ever encountered is contained in the well-known Text section “I Need Do Nothing”—but only if you know the story behind it.
This section, it turns out, was a special message to Helen about what she saw as a real crisis. In May of 1968, a union was threatening to strike. This union included the elevator operators in Helen’s building, apparently meaning that the elevators would not run during the strike. Helen feared that she or her husband, Louis, would be separated when the strike occurred, requiring one of them to walk the 16 flights of stairs to or from their apartment. In her mind this meant an instant heart attack. So she and Louis packed up and spent a week in a nearby hotel, never knowing that the strike did not even happen!
Read in this light, “I Need Do Nothing,” already a fascinating and profound section, takes on even greater meaning. For Jesus does not say a single thing about what Helen should do. Rather, he challenges her entire obsession with the need to do and with the instrument of doing, the body: “What plans do you make that do not involve its comfort or protection or enjoyment in some way?” (T-18.VII.2:1,3) Rather than advising her to do a particular thing, what he suggests is that she forget about her body and its doing:
There is one thing that you have never done; you have not utterly forgotten the body….You are not asked to let this happen for more than an instant, yet it is in this instant that the miracle of Atonement happens. (T-18.VII.4:1)
In the same manner, he asks her to forget about the past and future, the time line of doing: “It is impossible to accept the holy instant without reservation unless, just for an instant, you are willing to see no past or future.” (T-18.VII.8:3)
As far as I can see, his guidance on what to do about the elevator strike adds up to this: Forget about your body, about the past and future, about the specific situation, about your whole external life. Forget about the need to do something to protect your body, the need to do something to make yourself worthy of being happy and being with God. Suspend all doing; suspend even the thought of doing. You need only accomplish this for one brief instant. If you do, you will make a place within you of absolute stillness, empty of doing. Into this still place the Holy Spirit will come, and give you the experience of the holy instant. The experience will most likely be brief, yet when it is over the Holy Spirit will remain with you in this “quiet center, in which you do nothing.” (T-18.VII.8:4) And from this quiet center He will direct your body, guiding you in a new kind of behavior. No longer will your behaviors be exercises in grasping, but rather in the extension of salvation. And while you are busy giving, this quiet center within you, this peaceful place of non-doing, will give “you rest in the midst of every busy doing on which you are sent.” (W-pI.135.19)
I find this message to be most profound. This is what happens when a radical teaching on ego-transcendence encounters the topic of being guided by the Spirit. Imagine letting this teaching encounter your own attempts at being guided. Imagine applying this message to your own life.
- Let your defense against future fear be your present trust in the Holy Spirit, rather than your possession of a piece of specific guidance.
Our fundamental mind-set, according to the Course, is fear of the future. This fear infects us with the constant, feverish question of how to head off future threat. Our defense against this threat is our plans. If we only can acquire a blueprint which will dictate the proper course of action, we can hopefully turn back all the invading forces that would lay waste to our lives. An enormous amount of our time, therefore, is spent making plans, mapping out what course of action we intend to take.
When we hear about being guided by the Holy Spirit, we simply see Him as an additional character in this exact same story. We still fear the future, and we still desire plans which will tell us how to head off future threat. And now we have the means to do so. We have an all-knowing Guide Who will reveal to us the perfect course of action. Before, our sense of security rested on having terrific plans that we had devised. Now, it rests on having terrific plans from the Holy Spirit.
Because of this, when the guidance is not there, we are filled with anxiety about the future. Or, when the guidance comes, we complain that it is not specific enough. Or we say it does not reach far enough into the future. Clearly, our security is not in the Holy Spirit, it is in some specific bit of information that He is supposed to give us. This piece of information has become our new defense against the looming threat of the future.
The Course has a beautiful alternative to this:
Your present trust in Him is the defense that promises a future undisturbed, without a trace of sorrow, and with joy that constantly increases, as this life becomes a holy instant, set in time, but heeding only immortality. Let no defenses but your present trust direct the future, and this life becomes a meaningful encounter with the truth that only your defenses would conceal. (W-pI.194.9:1-2)
“Present trust in Him,” what a lovely phrase. This is the alternative to basing our security on possessing a plan, either one we invented or one we received. Next time you feel yourself worrying about the future, try focusing instead on present trust in the Holy Spirit. This has a wonderful effect on the mind. It puts your safety not in bits of information, but directly in the Holy Spirit. It removes the demand that His help take a particular form or come at a particular time. It simply leaves all such questions in His capable hands.
It also puts your mind in the present. It relieves you of the tedious task of having to worry about the future. With your Great Companion beside you, what need have you to wrestle with the specter of the future? Your mind is on Him in the present, not on danger in the future.
Another line which amounts to the same idea is found in Lesson 194: “I place the future in the Hands of God.” The effect on the mind of both this and “present trust” is, in my experience, the same. This effect is captured perfectly in these lines from Lesson 194: “Now are we saved indeed. For in God’s Hands we rest untroubled, sure that only good can come to us.” (1)
- Guidance can come in many forms. Over time you will find those forms that work best for you.
Most spiritual seekers are aware that guidance can come in all kinds of forms. It is not at all restricted to the classic image of hearing a voice in one’s mind. Therefore, we should not be deterred if we do not hear a voice. And we should certainly not feel like handicapped spiritual seekers.
As people work with guidance, they tend to find particular avenues that work best for them. Some will receive it best through an inner voice. Others will see pictures or have visionary nighttime dreams. Others will have a flash of intuition or a gut instinct. Others will feel promptings in the middle of busy activity. Others will experience a coincidence or some portentous event. Others will receive an inspiration in meditation or on the edge of sleep. Most will come to use a combination of such forms.
I believe that what forms one ends up using has a great deal to do with one’s abilities. Helen Schucman apparently had an unusual ability to hear words from Jesus. Others of us will find that our strongest guidance-receiving abilities lie in other areas. What matters is not what forms we receive guidance in; it is that we find what forms work best for us. Whatever forms they are, let us not judge them but simply use them.
- Use your highest inner sense constantly. More dramatic, authoritative guidance will come more occasionally.
This principle is not from the Course, but it has become a foundation of my own relationship with guidance. In my experience, dramatic, authoritative guidance that clearly comes from outside our own mental machinery is not an everyday occurrence. Every now and then, at times that are usually beyond our expectation or control, such guidance will show up. Something will happen to us—on the inside or the outside—that makes us feel as if a voice from above has spoken. I believe that this is the guidance to take most seriously. This is the guidance that should make or break the largest of plans. This is the guidance to remember and record. If we do so, we will find that different instances of such guidance, often separated by years, will be remarkably consistent, sharing similar messages and even similar symbols. Through this we will experience the fact that there truly is a plan for our lives that utterly transcends the fickle winds of our own minds.
For most of us, however, this guidance comes only infrequently. What do we do, then, with the many decisions that confront us each day? My solution is to frequently consult what I will call my highest inner sense. I quiet my mind, ask and listen as deeply as I can. Sometimes nothing comes, but more often than not I will get some fairly distinct inner sense, one that is often quite different from what I thought before I asked.
This frequent inner asking is a lifeline for me. The quality of the decisions it yields is far superior to what I would be left with otherwise. With one minute of inner asking and listening, whole new perspectives can open up. Wonderful ideas can come out of the blue, while ideas I had been enamored with for weeks can be permanently put to rest.
That said, however, I don’t trust this form of guidance nearly as much as I trust the first category I mentioned above—except for those occasional times when my inner sense feels particularly clear, inspired and authoritative. My trust in it is limited for some good reasons. First, it seems quite dependent on the information I have at hand, so that when I find out more information my sense can suddenly change. Second, it is not infrequently wrong. So even though I rely on it constantly, I tend to not regard it as being straight from the Holy Spirit and I don’t trust it as much as those experiences that do seem more directly from Him.
- Exercise careful discernment in relation to possible guidance. Be willing to admit what you sense about it beneath your surface reactions. Trust the essence of the guidance more than its specifics.
How do we know when we have really received guidance from the Spirit? Discernment is a crucial issue in the topic of guidance. Even though the Course does not openly address the need for discernment, its author was no stranger to this need. Early in the Course’s dictation, much of what Helen heard was distorted by her resistance to the Course’s message. Jesus would point out the telltale signs of this: incorrect terminology, improper grammar, wrong teaching, an unloving or “snappy” tone. Then he would correct her distortions when she was more receptive.
Thus, even if we are highly gifted in the area of guidance, as Helen was, we cannot sidestep the issue of discernment. It may be tempting to claim that every whim and self-serving decision of ours is “guided,” yet this not only gives guidance a bad name, it eventually takes a toll on us. For when a decision that supposedly came from God leads to failure, we must not only deal with the failure itself, but also with the emotional experience of being apparently failed by God.
It is no great secret that much of what people claim is guidance is just their own wishes dressed up in priestly robes. We have a feeling that we assumed came from God but really came from our own desires. We see a pattern in events and think it is a sign, but the pattern is only in our minds. We hear a voice in our head, but it may be just the bubbling up of our own unconscious urges and beliefs.
How do we discern these counterfeits from the real thing? In a way, the whole Course is a program in learning how to do this, for it teaches us how to tell the difference between the ego and the Holy Spirit in our minds. And this is the crucial factor in discerning guidance. It all comes down to this: Can we tell the difference between ego-thoughts and Spirit-inspired thoughts? This is something we learn over time with the Course. What we learn, however, is to identify a knowing that is already there in our minds. Have you ever heard someone agonize over some dire question in her life, yet you recognized that she already knew the answer but was afraid to admit it? This, I believe, is generally the case when we are trying to discern if a piece of guidance is from the ego or the Spirit. Somewhere inside we already know. The question, then, is: Are willing to admit this to ourselves? In trying to get in touch with what we know, I have found the following questions to be effective:
- Deep inside does it feel right, pure, rarefied, peaceful? Or on that level does it feel suspect, grimy, tainted?
- Does it feel challenging, like it asks for genuine change? Or does it feel superficially exciting and tempting?
- Does it reframe the situation, put it into new perspective? Or does it fit right into the way you already saw things?
- Is it fresh, surprising, unthought of? Or does it agree with what you already believed and wanted?
- Does it seem to have a remarkable ability to satisfy everyone’s true needs at once, including needs you hadn’t thought of? Or does it satisfy a laundry list of needs you had been ruminating on, perhaps even satisfying your needs at the expense of others?
- Did it seem to come to you, arriving in an inspired way and accompanied by an immediate recognition of its truth? Or was it produced by your own mental calculations?
To be genuine, a piece of possible guidance need not get a “yes” on the first question in every one of these six pairs. But if it does not get a “yes” on a majority of them, you probably have an idea that you cooked up, as opposed to a nugget of real gold.
My favorite way to summarize these six criteria is a story from the famous fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. In it, the hobbits meet up with a wilderness man named Strider. He offers to help them, but they are not sure they can trust this worn and suspicious-looking stranger. They are afraid that he is a servant of the enemy, even though, unbeknownst to them, he is the true king in-hiding. Finally, they decide that a servant of the enemy would look fair but feel foul, whereas Strider, on the other hand, looks foul but feels fair. This is a terrific metaphor for discerning pseudo-guidance from the genuine article.
So let’s say you have decided that a certain idea has all the marks of being real guidance. Even then, your discernment task may not be done. For quite often, maybe more often than not, genuine guidance comes hurtling out of the sky as a core of real star-stuff surrounded by an outer layer of cosmic debris. Guidance, I believe, must traverse an immense distance between the heavenly realm and our conscious mind. In between lies a vast inner space full of the dust, dirt and warping influences of our ego. Thus, just as Helen was able to hear a distorted version of Jesus’ voice, so we can receive guidance that is an amalgam of truth and error.
What do you do? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? My advice in this case is to trust the gist, the main thrust of the guidance, and have an open, provisional, experimental attitude about whatever specifics it gives, especially specifics of timing. You may want to try following the specifics, but do not be surprised if they don’t work out, and do not automatically throw the guidance away if they don’t. For even then, it may have sent you roughly in the right direction.
My teaching partner, Allen Watson, has a wonderful analogy that is pertinent here. He likens following guidance to the path taken by a guided missile. If you have ever seen a guided missile seek out its target, it doesn’t go straight. It zig-zags. What is happening is that its guidance system initially sends it in roughly the right direction, but not exactly. So the guidance system tells it to slightly change course, but this new direction is also inexact. Therefore, the missile keeps changing its path, zig-zagging across the sky. While any particular direction it goes in will not ultimately work, the sum total of all its directions and changes gets it to the target. And that, quite often, is how our “guidance system” will work. A particular piece of guidance may not be perfect, but it is part of a series of messages that will, in the end, get us where we are going.
- Realize that when guidance goes wrong in any way it is always because of something on your side. Try to avoid the common pitfall of blaming God.
We all know that humans habitually avoid taking responsibility. As soon as we step onto the spiritual path, our amazing propensity to deflect responsibility becomes applied to God. Before, everything was the fault of other people. Now, it is the fault of other people and God.
This is clearly visible in the area of guidance. If we don’t hear guidance, we complain that God will not speak to us. When we do hear it, we grumble that it is not specific enough. When we actually hear specifics, we gripe that they ask too much of us. When the guidance turns out to be distorted or impure, we ask why God couldn’t work around the distorting forces in our minds. When we fail to carry out the guidance, we wonder why the future it painted didn’t come to pass, why God made a false prediction.
After enough of this, God starts looking highly suspect in our minds. We start wondering if we want to come home to such a God. With a God like this, we muse, who needs Satan?
Without knowing it, we have fallen right into the ego’s trap. Its whole strategy is to get us to manifest our own nightmare of pain, and then trick us into blaming that nightmare on God. It hopes to make God seem so fearful and untrustworthy that we will never want to go back to Him.
The ego applies this strategy to anything and everything, including the subject of guidance. According to the Course, our problems with guidance come completely from our end. (2) Our fundamental fear of God results in massive resistance to hearing His Voice, to hearing It without distortion, to accepting the message we hear, and to applying that message. The ego then takes these problems and blames them on God. They become the evidence that God is so flawed as to throw the whole spiritual enterprise into serious question. This argument may sound flimsy on paper, but in practice it has an emotional lure that is hard to refuse.
At this point we may want to ask ourselves a pointed question: Given that our mind is much like a child’s—constantly laying responsibility elsewhere, tiny in its scope of knowledge and awareness, and resistant even to what we know is good for us—which party is more likely to be responsible for our problems with guidance, us or God? (S-1.I.3)
- Guidance is a relationship one matures into over years, rather than a magic wand one immediately picks up and starts waving.
We all know that it takes decades to learn how to make responsible decisions using our own judgment. That is largely what growing up is all about. But learning how to receive and act on guidance seems like a much more instant affair. The Spirit just whispers in our ear and, voilá! it is done. This impression is fueled by stories we have all heard, or even personally experienced, in which guidance works in just this way.
However, a mature, ongoing relationship with guidance, in which we consistently use it to make decisions that are better than the ones we would make unaided, is something we grow into over years of time. Every aspect of it requires practice and experience. Only with time will we be willing to turn over every area of our lives to the Holy Spirit; will we learn how to still the mind and hear His Voice; will we know the difference between His Voice and our whims; will we know how to handle guidance that may have flawed specifics but a sound core.
For these reasons, I am fond of saying that guidance is both an art and a science. It is an exacting skill acquired and mastered through years of practice and experience.
- Your relationship with guidance will deepen as you advance spiritually. Eventually, you will ask only for God’s Love, and all needed specifics will come without your asking.
Being guided is simply one aspect of our overall relationship with God. The more fully and experientially we enter into that relationship, the more effortlessly the guidance will flow. Our relationship with guidance, therefore, will deepen as we deepen into the spiritual life itself.
This is the implication of The Song of Prayer, in which the ladder of prayer is also the ladder of spiritual development. As we ascend this ladder, our thought system is evolving into higher and higher states, and our relationship with prayer is also evolving. Our prayer slowly becomes less a seeking after specific things and answers and more like the ultimate state of prayer: formless communion with God.
This does not mean, as many students believe, that we slowly outgrow the quaint notion of being specifically guided by an active Holy Spirit. What it really means is clarified in the following passage.
You cannot, then, ask for the echo. It is the song that is the gift. Along with it come the overtones, the harmonics, the echoes, but these are secondary. In true prayer you hear only the song. All the rest is merely added. You have sought first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all else has indeed been given you. (S-1.I.4:6)
“The song” here is God’s song of love to us, which is His real answer to our questions and to our whole separated condition. “The echoes” are specific answers, the miniature reflections of this formless song.
This passage speaks of the prayer we employ on the higher rungs of development. It reveals, therefore, exactly what changes on those higher rungs. What changes is not our understanding of the fundamental nature of the Holy Spirit. What changes is not our receiving of specific guidance. What changes is what we pray for. We cease to pray for specific answers and instead ask only for the song of God’s Love. Requesting that, that is what we receive. We enter into an experience of God’s Love. This, after all, is what we really want. As The Song of Prayer says in the next paragraph, “Can this be traded for a bit of trifling advice about a problem of an instant’s duration?” (W-pII.242.2:2-6)
Yet once our minds become absorbed with this song, do the specific answers—the harmonics and echoes—become a thing of the past? No, they come “along with” the song. “You have sought first the Kingdom of Heaven [the song], and all else [the specific answers; or the specific earthly needs, as this saying from the Gospels originally had it] has indeed been given you.” In fact, if the echoes come along with the song, we must assume that once we fully hear the song, the echoes will come in even greater profusion.
Thus, the specifics do not stop as we ascend the ladder; they come even more. We simply no longer have to ask for them. We just ask for God Himself, and everything we need, both earthly and heavenly, is supplied by His loving care. This attitude of forgetting our specific needs and placing ourselves entirely in God’s hands is beautifully captured in this prayer from the Workbook:
We come with wholly open minds. We do not ask for anything that we may think we want. Give us what You would have received by us. You know all our desires and our wants. And You will give us everything we need in helping us to find the way to You.
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Perhaps most of us have had experiences in which we felt unmistakably guided by a higher hand. The challenge before us now is to let such experiences become our way of life, our way of maneuvering through the obstacle course of time and space. In my experience, this is something we can move into more and more. We can link our hand to a higher plan that will lift us out of our self-made ruts and lead us in directions which we never could have anticipated, yet which are perfectly tailored to our individual make-up and our highest happiness. As we see this plan shape our life with a mind all its own, we will realize that we are in touch with a Force that transcends our petty minds, that we really do have a part in some greater purpose, that our life actually does have a larger significance, and that we truly are being carried ahead to a goal that lies beyond our wildest dreams.
* * * * *
- 1. For instance: “No one gladly obeys a guide he does not trust, but this does not mean that the guide is untrustworthy. In this case, it always means that the follower is” (T-7.X.5:8-9).
- 2. This question is inspired by the following passage from the Workbook: “Then consider this; which is more likely to be right? The Voice That speaks for the Creator of all things, Who knows all things exactly as they are, or a distorted image of yourself, confused, bewildered, inconsistent and unsure of everything? (W-pI.186.12:3-4))