Many students of A Course in Miracles have a somewhat two-edged relationship with the workbook lessons, and that probably includes you and me. Once convinced that a diligent daily practice of these lessons is the way to reach the ‘real world‘, that is, the peaceful inner world of cleansed perception, we become really motivated to follow up on Jesus’ daily instructions. However, once we find that we cannot keep up even five minutes of mind training three times a day, feelings of disappointment, guilt, and a sense of inadequacy soon surface. What happens next is that we either set the workbook (and the Course) aside for a while (sometimes for a long while), or hit ourselves over the head and try even harder, turning it into a heavy, demanding ritual that becomes a dark looming cloud in our minds.
Jesus of course wants neither. The very first workbook lesson stresses the latter point: “[…] These exercises should not become ritualistic.” (W-pI.1.3:5). In the manual for teachers, Jesus cautions his students once more: “Routines as such are dangerous, because they easily become gods in their own right, threatening the very goals for which they were set up.” (M-16.2:5). Also in the workbook, Jesus tells his students to focus on the general message of a lesson, and not be compulsive about exact wording: “It is not necessary to cover the comments that follow each idea either literally or thoroughly in the practice periods. Try, rather, to emphasize the central point…” (W-pI.R-I.3:1-2).
Whether we’re compulsive or forgetful, in either case Jesus knows there’s ego-resistance at work, for the road to the real world means the demise of the ego. Each successfully practiced workbook lesson brings the ego a little further to the background. As long as we still identify with our individual ego-personality, of course there’s going to be resistance. Jesus is very gentle and open with us on this phenomenon: “It is difficult at this point not to allow your mind to wander, if it undertakes extended practice. You have surely realized this by now. You have seen the extent of your lack of mental discipline, and of your need for mind training. […] Structure, then, is necessary for you at this time, planned to include frequent reminders of your goal and regular attempts to reach it. Regularity in terms of time is not the ideal requirement for the most beneficial form of practice in salvation. It is advantageous, however, for those whose motivation is inconsistent, and who remain heavily defended against learning.” (W-pI.95.4:2-4;6:1) So while rituals are not our aim, regular structured practice periods are ‘beneficial’.
For those of us who tend to frequently forget about the practice periods (which would include virtually all Course students), Jesus calmly, gently yet sternly guides his students back to the ‘groove’ they need to find to once again make progress: “Do not, however, use your lapses from [the] schedule as an excuse not to return to it again as soon as you can. There may well be a temptation to regard the day as lost because you have already failed to do what is required. This should, however, merely be recognized as what it is: a refusal to let your mistake be corrected, and an unwillingness to try again.” (W-pI.95.7:3-5). And, in lesson 40: “You are urged to attempt this schedule and to adhere to it whenever possible. If you forget, try again. If there are long interruptions, try again. Whenever you remember, try again.” (W-pI.40.1:4-7). In other words, forgetfulness is not a sin or an inherent inadequacy; it’s a mistake, born out of the aforementioned resistance, that calls for correction, not for self-punishment or depression.
However, once we get that point, the next step is to realize that we should try to generalize our practice of the lessons to all situations we seem to find ourselves in from day to day. In a sense, you might say that the workbook offers two modes of practice. The first mode of practice happens in the place, usually at home, where you concentrate on reading the instructions and spend the required time to practice what Jesus asks. The second mode, however, comprises all the situations that upset us, in the turmoil of our lives: when we feel fearful, angry, depressed, desperate; whenever we are caught in special relationships. These are the hardest situations to practice the workbook lessons, but it is exactly the successful practice during just such events that will put us well ahead in our mind training.
Jesus elaborates on the importance of our ‘practice during distress‘ in the first review (of the first 50 lessons) in the workbook: “It will be necessary […] that you learn to require no special settings in which to apply what you have learned. You will need your learning most in situations that appear to be upsetting, rather than in those that already seem to be calm and quiet [for example, when reading the workbook lesson]. 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.R-I.4:2-5).
At first, this may seem to contradict Jesus’ repeated instructions in several workbook lessons to practice our focus on a ‘haven of meditation’, for example in workbook lesson 44: “Try to sink into your mind, letting go every kind of interference and intrusion by gently sinking past them. Your mind cannot be stopped in this unless you choose to stop it. It is merely taking its natural course. […] While you practice in this way, you leave behind everything you now believe, and all the thoughts that you have made up. Properly speaking, this is the release from hell.” (W-pI.44.7:2-4;5:4-5). This might seem to suggest that we should especially practice in a meditative setting. However, the purpose of this meditative practice is to be able to always find the peace you need, however bad the situation seems to be: “You will yet learn that peace is part of you, and requires only that you be there to embrace any situation in which you are.” (W-pI.R-1.5:1). This certainly includes situations in which we find ourselves in arguments, accusations, sickness, terror, anxiety, you name it.
So Jesus’ meditative instructions are meant to enable us, as decision maker, to choose peace no matter what situation we find ourselves in. Meditation is therefore a means to an end, not a goal in itself. Some students make their meditative ritual into a false god, with a special altar, special candles, or special music. Before they know it, that’s the only place where they believe they can find the peace of God. The purpose of the workbook, however, is to develop the skill to reach and choose this inner peace anytime of the day, in any situation. “And finally you will learn that there is no limit to where you are, so that your peace is everywhere, as you are.” (W-pI.R-1.5:2). As long as we are not yet on such an advanced level, we need structured periods of quiet practice. However, we speed up our learning significantly if we can learn to connect with that inner tranquility in times of turbulence, in spite of the aforementioned resistance that will also be there. Why not try it today?
— Jan-Willem van Aalst