Study and practice
We have seen that the first aspect of the Course’s program is studying the teaching, which is primarily set forth in the first volume, the Text. This study takes us on a mental tour of some of the most mind-bending, mind-expanding and mind-inverting concepts in existence. The Text introduces us to a completely new way of looking upon everything in life, a way in which we look straight at all that caused us pain before and now see only cause for love. Reading the promises described in the Text, we are left with one urgent question: What do we do now to realize these promises?
The answer to that is volume II, the Workbook for Students. The Workbook puts the Text’s theory into practical application. The relationship between Text and Workbook is described very clearly in the Workbook’s opening paragraph:
A theoretical foundation such as the text provides is necessary as a framework to make the exercises in this workbook meaningful. Yet it is doing the exercises that will make the goal of the course possible. An untrained mind can accomplish nothing. It is the purpose of this workbook to train your mind to think along the lines the text sets forth. (W-pI.In.1)
This paragraph gives us a clear glimpse into the ascending nature of the Course’s volumes. We need the Text to make any sense of the Workbook exercises. But we need the Workbook exercises to “make the goal of the course possible.” For what they do is “train your mind to think along the lines the text sets forth.” As I said in the Introduction to this series of articles, the Workbook causes the ideas we learned in the Text to sink deeper into our minds, becoming more part of us. Through the Workbook’s training, we gradually learn to habitually think along the lines of these profound ideas. And when we >only think along their lines, they become the basis for our condition, and we enter into perfect happiness.
How does the Workbook so completely retrain our minds? Through >practice. This is the second aspect of the Course’s program. The first aspect is studying the teaching. The second aspect is doing the practice. We simply cannot overestimate the importance of practice for the Course. One indication is that the Course mentions “practice” and “practicing” 350 times. Another is that the Course devotes an entire volume to it. Part 1 of the “Text/Study” section of this series of articles mentions that study is preparation and foundation. Now we see for what. Study is preparation and foundation for doing the practice.
It is important to note that this shift from Text to Workbook, from study to practice, is not a shift from the “dead” intellect to living experience. There is no such opposition between study and practice. Instead, there is a gentle and natural continuity between the two. For practice is nothing more than practicing the ideas we studied: repeating them, dwelling on them, opening our minds to them and applying them to the specifics of our lives. Study and practice, then, are merely different aspects of the single process of changing our thinking. Without study, the practice is meaningless, devoid of any real content. Without practice, the ideas stay on the surface of our minds, where they cannot set us free.
Study and practice, then, are equally essential. For this reason, both are present in both volumes. The Text, though focusing on study, often instructs us to do particular practices. And the Workbook, though geared toward practice, includes study as one of its practices.
The entire relationship between study and practice is, in fact, contained in the Workbook lessons. Each lesson includes both study and practice. Each one gives teaching that we are meant to read. And this teaching provides the conceptual foundation for that day’s exercises. Lesson 25 makes this function of the teaching explicit: “Before you can make any sense out of the exercises for today, one more thought is necessary.” (W-pI.25.4:1) In other words, certain thoughts must be provided before you can meaningfully do the practice. Again, study and practice are inseparable parts of a single process.
Frequent practice within our everyday world
Spiritual practice is one of the great themes of humanity’s search for the Divine. Practice is crucial to real spiritual attainment. This truth is known by all the great traditions that seek the heights of spiritual realization. They discovered through experience that if one really wants to scale those heights, it is not enough just to hope it will happen, or read a book about it, or go to church on Sundays, or attend workshops and study groups. One must engage in real practice, and not just as a sidelight or hobby; as the focus of one’s life.
In traditional paths, this serious practice has often taken the form of long periods of meditation or prayer apart from the commotion of daily life. The Workbook’s method of practice, though equally serious, has a somewhat different emphasis. This difference can be described in two ways.
First, rather than duration, the Workbook’s focus is frequency. It is concerned not with hours of sustained meditation (in fact, the longest it ever requires at a single sitting is a half-hour), but with how frequently we remember God during all those hours we aren’t meditating.
Second, rather than apart from the world, the Workbook’s focus is on practicing within the world. The Workbook highly values quiet times apart from outer turmoil. But its main focus is on carrying the peace we gain there into all of our daily activities.
The purpose of your learning is to enable you to bring the quiet with you, and to heal distress and turmoil. This is not done by avoiding them and seeking a haven of isolation for yourself. (W-pI.RI.In.4:4-5)
Retraining our ongoing stream of thoughts
The reason for these differences is that, according to the Course, the key to happiness and the key to suffering lie in the selfsame place: our ongoing stream of thoughts. The Workbook focuses on frequent practice within the world because its goal is to retrain that continual stream of thinking. Recall that thought is the cause of our whole realm of experience. This does not mean only our most careful and well-intentioned thoughts; it means all of them. Thus, with each and every thought that idly drifts across our minds we are choosing what we experience. We are choosing between Heaven and hell.
The Course therefore ascribes unbelievable power to our unwatched stream of thoughts. It says that we often make major decisions (including the decision to become physically ill) in less than a second, and then instantly and intentionally forget we did so. (W-pI.136.3-5) The Course’s author once told its scribes that, “The unwatched mind is responsible for the whole content of the unconscious….” (Absence from Felicity) It is a prevalent idea that our feelings, reactions, body conditions and life events spring out of the unconscious, yet the unconscious is just a storage tank for all of those unwatched thoughts. Thus, in the thoughts that float lazily through our minds lies the cause of all that we experience. Given the power of these thoughts, the Course pokes fun at the very concept of “idle thoughts”: “What gives rise to the perception of a whole world can hardly be called idle.” (W-pI.16.2:2) In short, we have built up our so-called identity and our entire conventional reality through our long, lazy stream of idle thoughts. “Reality” as we know it has no other basis.
Our stream of thoughts, then, is by no means powerless; and neither is it purposeless. Its purpose is the building and maintaining of our “identity” and our world. Through eons of uninterrupted rehearsal, ages of taking pains “to practice and repeat the lessons endlessly,” (T-31.I.3:1) we have slowly taught ourselves that we are someone else and somewhere else. While remaining celestial spirits in a boundless Heaven, we have taught our minds to experience ourselves as naked apes living on a rock in space. “What you have taught yourself is such a giant learning feat it is indeed incredible.” (T-31.I.2:8)
And we accomplished it all through our “idle thoughts.” In other words, our normal stream of thoughts is not an aimless meandering; it is a deliberate practice. It is our way of practicing ego. Our “identity” and our world rest solely on that thin trail of thoughts trickling through our minds. Change that trail and you have changed the entire basis for “reality” as you know it. You have opened up possibilities you never dreamed of.
Hence, if we want to learn a new way of seeing, we must change our stream of thinking. We must bring to full awareness and deliberately train the unwatched mind. Through practice we learned our current way of seeing. Through practice we built our reality. Therefore, through practice we can dismantle reality as we know it and learn a new way of seeing. The Workbook puts it this way: “The purpose of the workbook is to train your mind in a systematic way to a different perception of everyone and everything in the world.” (W-pI.In.4:1) The purpose of Workbook practice is to harness our ongoing stream of thoughts and step-by-step change the direction of its flow, so that rather than dragging us down into ego, it raises us up to God.
Mastering anything through practice is a gradual process, and Workbook practice is no exception. The final goal will not be achieved overnight. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. At first, we will just be repeating words because we are told to. Yet, gradually, our “practicing will…begin to take the earnestness of love.” (W-pI.153.20:1) And finally, “In time, with practice, you will never cease to think of Him.” (W-pI.153.18:1)
The specific role of the Workbook is to train us in the first few steps of this process. Its purpose is to get us established in the practice, so that we can take it up on our own, without the need for external aids or prods. The Workbook, then, is a brief introduction to a lifelong habit of thought, to a new mental way of life. As its epilogue states, it “is a beginning, not an end.” (W-E.1:1) As my teaching partner, Allen Watson, has put it, the Workbook is “an introduction to practice.” Let us, then, turn to the question of how to actually do the Workbook.
Beginning the Workbook
If you are going to do the Workbook, you will naturally begin by reading the Introduction. The Introduction is extremely helpful, so much so that you will probably want to go back and read it periodically as you go through the lessons. It communicates crucial information about doing the Workbook. Therefore, we will examine it here in its entirety.
The first paragraph, which we quoted earlier, communicates the Workbook’s goal: to achieve the goal of the Course by training your mind to think and see “along the lines the text sets forth.”
The second paragraph tells us the Workbook’s basic shape: It is a one-year training program, with daily lessons numbered from 1 to 365. It then specifically says, “Do not undertake to do more than one set of exercises a day.” This sentence answers an important question. Yet it also brings to mind several more, which I will attempt to answer here.
Should I do the lessons in order, or can I skip around and be more spontaneous about it? The lessons are definitely meant to be done in order. On the simplest level, that is why they are numbered. Much as one would learn a musical instrument, the Workbook first trains us in various separate skills and techniques and then increasingly combines them into the total picture of Workbook practice. If we skip around we can perhaps gain inspiration from reading the ideas discussed, but there is no way we will actually learn how to practice—which, of course, is the whole point of the Workbook.
Should I spend more than one day on a lesson if I find it particularly appealing? As far as I know, there is nothing in the Workbook that says that you cannot or should not do this.
Should I repeat a lesson if I didn’t do it according to instructions? I really don’t know the answer to this one. Many lessons say that a certain number of practice periods are “required.” Does this mean that if you don’t do that many, you should do the lesson over again? I don’t know, but I suspect that one can err on either side here. One can be neurotic about doing it perfectly before going on to the next lesson. And one can go on without having done it at all, which essentially amounts to simply skipping that lesson. My own advice is to do your best for that one day and then move on. This method also discourages the unfortunate tendency to give up halfway through the day because you know you can just try again tomorrow.
Should I take a day or two off from doing lessons if my schedule gets busy? Again, the Workbook says nothing about this, but experience has suggested to me that this is generally not the best way to do the Workbook. It ends up leaving many gaps in your practice, many days when you are simply not practicing. These gaps cause you to lose your momentum, thus hindering the building effect the Workbook is trying to produce. Finally, the days you would skip are probably the very days you need practice the most. A primary goal of the Workbook is to teach us the habit of practicing under any and all conditions.
The following is a suggestion. It is not the only way to do the Workbook, but it is one which many students have found helpful. The suggestion is that, rather than skipping days or repeating lessons, you do the Workbook one lesson per day and so finish it in a year. Make it a priority; start your day with it each morning, and give yourself as fully as you can to doing that day’s instructed practice. This method takes care of all of the above questions. Doing this method beginning on January 1 has added benefits, including the benefit of joining with those Course students around the world who are doing the Workbook according to the calendar year.
Getting back to the Introduction, the third paragraph continues to lay out the basic structure of the Workbook. It tells us that the Workbook is divided into two main parts, “the first dealing with the undoing of the way you see now, and the second with the acquisition of true perception.” It also tells us that each lesson (except for review lessons) contains a central idea along with specific instructions for practicing that idea.
The fourth through eighth paragraphs discuss the subject of “transfer of training.” (5:1) This concerns how our changed perception will transfer from specific things (the things we focus on in our exercises) to cover literally everything (since the goal of the Workbook is a new perception of everything). In order for this transfer of training to optimally occur, we must meet two conditions.
First, we must practice “with great specificity.” (6:1) A good example of this comes in lesson 14, where we are told: “do not say, ‘God did not create illness,’ but, ‘God did not create cancer,’ or heart attacks, or whatever may arouse fear in you.” (W-pI.14.5:5) The reason for this specificity is that if we can achieve true perception in connection with any specific person, situation or event, then true perception will automatically generalize to encompass everyone and everything. (5:2)
“Second, be sure that you do not decide for yourself that there are some people, situations or things to which the ideas are inapplicable.” (6:3) In other words, we do not have to include every specific thing in our practicing, but we must make sure that we specifically exclude nothing. The Workbook calls this indiscriminateness. The reason this is so crucial is that making an exception says that there is somewhere that true perception is not allowed to enter; it says “no” to the transfer of true perception. “This will interfere with the transfer of training.” (6:4)
In short, if we just practice with specificity and indiscriminateness, our learning will transfer to cover everything we see. It will do this automatically. “This [the transfer] will require no effort on your part.” (7:2) Our part is only to practice.
The final two paragraphs expand on this theme. If we are only required to practice the ideas, then we are not required to believe them! Amazingly, it is all right if we find them hard to accept, startling or unwelcome, or even if we actively resist them. All we need do is practice them—use them. “It is their use that will give them meaning to you, and will show you that they are true.” (8:6)
Therefore, if we merely practice the ideas as we are instructed, everything else will be given to us. The ideas will take on meaning and truth, and this truth and meaning will spread out and blanket everything we see. This is one of the major themes of the Workbook, which could be stated thusly: Just practice, and the rest will be given you. “You can exchange all suffering for joy this very day. Practice in earnest, and the gift is yours.” (W-pI.164.9:4-5) “Your practicing can offer everything to you.” (W-pI.RIII.In.4:5) This Workbook theme is in turn an example of a major Course theme: Just do your small part, and you will receive everything. This is the theme that the Text calls “the little willingness.” Workbook practice, then, could be called the exercise of the little willingness.
This Introduction is all one needs to begin doing the Workbook. Everything else is supplied right there in the lessons, if one pays very careful attention to the instructions and does what they say. The Workbook not only gives us the exercises, it also anticipates our struggles with those exercises. As a result, almost all of our questions and difficulties are directly addressed and answered in the Workbook’s own pages. The purpose of the remainder of our discussion about the Workbook (which extends through the rest of this section on “Workbook/Practice”) is simply to draw out those answers, to amplify how the Workbook itself says that we should do it.
Starting the day
How you start off with the lesson each morning greatly affects how you will do with it during the day. The time you spend with the lesson in the morning will be launching an entire day of practicing that lesson in very specific forms. So you need a good launch. Here are some suggestions about how you can get the best start with the lesson.
1.Read and do the lesson as soon as possible after you wake.
A major purpose of your morning time with the lesson is establishing a certain mental set that will linger with you, making practicing easy and natural through the day. “The proper set, adopted consciously each time you wake, will put you well ahead.” (T-30.I.1:5) The farther you go into your day without doing the lesson, the more you have already established your own set, which will make it hard to quiet your mind. For this reason, the Workbook occasionally urges you to do your lesson “as soon as possible after you wake.” (W-pI.42.3:1) “We emphasize the benefits to you if you devote the first five minutes of the day” (W-pI.RIII.In.8:1) to your lesson.
However, wait until you are truly awake and alert. Doing your lesson while groggy is one of the worst ways to get started. For this reason, try to get a good night’s sleep. If you are not well-rested, even if you think you are alert, you will find out differently as soon as you close your eyes to practice.
2.Read the lesson slowly and carefully; get very clear on the meaning of the idea for the day and on the practice instructions.
Don’t read hurriedly (or groggily) through the lesson. Each lesson contains two main elements: teaching and practice instructions. Both are crucial.
Without being clear on the teaching, you will not really know what you are practicing. Therefore, read the teaching carefully. While doing so, ask yourself frequently what these teachings say about the idea for the day, the thought you will be practicing. They will often give that idea a different meaning than you would have otherwise assumed, as well as a deeper and more multi-faceted meaning. And the more clear and profound the meaning you see in the idea, the more transformative its practice will be.
The practice instructions also deserve careful reading. Without being clear on these, you will not know how to practice. The instructions can be very easy to miss. You might have to read them over a few times in order to answer any questions you may have about what exactly they are. In the beginning, they are quite simple. However, as the Workbook progresses, there will eventually be as many as four different kinds of practice each day. The instructions can be stated quite briefly and subtly. Further, these instructions often assume the instructions from previous days. So if you didn’t read those carefully, you will be relatively clueless today. As an extreme example, if you do not understand and remember the instructions for lesson 153, you will not know what to do for the next forty-eight lessons! I am convinced that well before they are done with the Workbook, the vast majority of students have barely a clue about what the practice instructions are.
3.Be fully present for the first practice period; do it slowly and attentively.
If you rush through the first practice period, do it sleepily, or clutter it up with thoughts about your upcoming activities, you will not be establishing that mental set we mentioned earlier. Later, we will discuss more of the details of how to hold your mind during your longer practice periods.
4.Have a time and place set apart for doing your lesson in the morning.
The Workbook never specifically mentions this, but it is helpful to establish a certain time in the morning that is already set aside for you to do your lesson, and to have a place that you know will afford quiet and privacy. Rather than working your practice into the cracks of your day, make it the cornerstone of your day. In lesson 65 we are told that being willing to allot time for God in advance and then adhere to it, is necessary to our awakening process. “This is part of the long-range disciplinary training your mind needs, so that the Holy Spirit can use it consistently for the purpose He shares with you.” (W-pI.65.4:4)
I personally doubt that very many of us will do the Workbook’s recommended practice without support from other people. It is just too much practice. I therefore highly recommend doing the Workbook in an environment of support from others. There are three kinds of support that I know of.
First, the support of a group. Being part of a group of people who are all doing the lessons together can be very powerful. I would recommend regular meetings in which you do some practice together, discuss how your practice has been going and preview upcoming lessons.
Second, the support of a practice partner. This is a person who is going through the Workbook with you, and with whom you can talk on a regular basis about how you are doing with the lessons. Ideally, the two of you will not just talk about your practice, but actually practice together. Lesson 183 speaks in exalted terms of simply sitting down with another person and together doing that day’s practice (which is a form of meditation):
And should you join a brother as you sit with him in silence, and repeat God’s Name along with him within your quiet mind, you have established there an altar which reaches to God Himself and to His Son. (W-pI.183.5:4)
Third, the support of a personal teacher. If you really want to learn meditation, you go to a teacher who has mastered it. Likewise, if you really want to learn Workbook practice, find someone who is already proficient in it. I personally think that this is probably the most effective kind of support, for here your support person has personally surmounted the very obstacles that you are facing. The notion of a personal teacher is discussed in several of the articles in this series, beginning with Part 1 of the “Manual/Extension” section.
Note: This material is a revised version of material that originally appeared in Booklet #14, The Workbook as a Spiritual Practice.
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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