This article explores the concept of “acting out” in A Course in Miracles. This is mainly about the acting out of fantasies, but the Course appears to mix in with that the notion of just plain “acting out.”
“Acting out” in normal usage
When the Course speaks of acting out, it is mainly referring to the common idea of “acting out fantasies,” where we attempt to take some private, inner fantasy and act it out on the outside, so that it can become reality. We are all familiar with this notion.
Yet the Course also seems to have in mind the more psychological concept of simply “acting out.” We often associate this with a child who has deep-seated issues, probably from his home life, and instead of verbalizing these issues, he “acts out” in the form of destructive, antisocial behavior. This usage of “acting out” has no single, agreed-upon meaning. It was first coined by Freud but has since passed into more general usage. Here are some definitions I found online:
Acting out is defined as the release of out-of-control aggressive or sexual impulses in order to gain relief from tension or anxiety. Such impulses often result in antisocial or delinquent behaviors. The term is also sometimes used in regard to a psychotherapeutic release of repressed feelings, as occurs in psychodrama. (Gale Encyclopedia of Children’s Health)
The expression of unconscious feelings and fantasies in behavior; reacting to present situations as if they were the original situation that gave rise to the feelings and fantasies.
(Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers)
Expressing unconscious emotional conflicts or feelings, often of hostility or love, through overt behavior. (NCI Metathesaurus)
Expressing emotional conflict or stress through behavior and actions rather than reflections or feelings.
(Manitoba Schizophrenia Society)
A term that is generally used when the observer believes that the child’s behavior is an expression of unconscious wishes or feelings. Frequently used in describing undesirable behavior.
(CTSP Special Education Glossary)
(psychiatry) the display of previously inhibited emotions (often in actions rather than words); considered to be healthy and therapeutic
If we put these definitions together, then “acting out” appears to be the expression of unconscious feelings, fantasies, and wishes, often aggressive or sexual in nature, in order to relieve tension (tension which appears to come from them being pent-up). This expression may bypass conscious awareness and feeling, so that it is not expressed verbally but erupts directly into behavioral expression. This frequently results in undesirable, antisocial behavior. However, the release of tension involved is sometimes considered therapeutic, and may be elicited by a situation, such as psychodrama, that mirrors (but is not) the original situation which gave rise to the unconscious feelings.
While most of the Course references to “acting out” clearly speak of acting something out, especially fantasies (which is the first meaning of the two), what is said about such acting out sounds a great deal like just plain acting out. Further, there is one reference in the Course that seems to smack more of the second meaning: “You do not realize that you are making them act out for you” (T-18.II.5:6). In that reference, nothing in particular is being acted out. The reference is to sheer “acting out” (this reference also follows a comment in the preceding paragraph about “temper tantrums”). All in all, then, the Course seems to have melded the two notions together into a single concept.
“Acting out” in the Course
There are fifteen references in the Course to the term “act out,” found in the twelve passages at the end of this piece. The overall tapestry of thought that emerges from these references is remarkably consistent, even in the more brief, seemingly offhand references. It echoes the conventional meanings of “acting out” (I’ll address the relationship between those conventional usages and the Course’s usage later on), yet takes a more philosophical approach, one that ends up overturning the underlying assumptions behind behavior itself—or at least conventionally-motivated behavior.
In the Course, acting out fantasy refers to us taking an internal fantasy, dream, or wish and, by expressing it through behavior, attempting to turn that fantasy into reality, to make our dream come true. The assumption behind this is that something only becomes truly real when it is manifested or enacted in the physical realm. Thus, for a fantasy to be fulfilled and find satisfaction, it must be acted out in the physical world.
Acting out is often discussed under the heading of special relationships (1, 2, 3, 4, 5—these are the numbers of the passages in which this theme appears). This makes sense, for these relationships are the primary arena in which we seek to turn our fantasies into reality. In these relationships, however, we don’t recognize the real nature of the fantasy that we are acting out. We think we are acting out love, but in fact we are acting out hate (2) and fear (5). This includes acting out vengeance on past partners (3), which is really vengeance on ourselves (4), and attempting to kill God (1).
By attacking (covertly or overtly) our partner, then, we are symbolically attacking past partners, ourselves, and God. The relationship has thus become a kind of bizarre psychodrama in which our partner plays many roles in our mind, any role except him- or herself.
This acting out almost always takes the form of attack (2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12). For this reason, we may actually deny ourselves the acting out, because we fear the guilt and punishment that may ensue (9). For this same reason, we may find surrogates to act out our hostile fantasies for us. We may dream a dream in which the figures in the dream act out for us, so that our hateful impulses can still be expressed while we appear to be innocent (6). Or we may tell ourselves that in attacking, our body acted on its own, that its own needs and instincts motivated the destructive behavior (8).
The most radical aspect of the Course’s approach to “acting out” is a notion that runs through these passages, the notion that “it is impossible to act out fantasies” (8). How can a fantasy, which is by nature divorced from reality, ever turn into reality? In the Course, fantasy and reality are two entirely separate realms; never the twain shall meet. To look at an example, if our fantasy is that of killing God, how can that fantasy ever become reality? How can you actually kill God (1)? Another example: If our belief that we are powerful is only a dream, an illusion, how can acting out that dream really change anything? How can it make us truly powerful (10)? In other words, what’s true is true, and what’s false is false, regardless of what plays out in the physical. Certain fundamental verities are simply the way they are, regardless of what happens in the world of form.
Herein lies the problem: the physical is just a realm of form, and form is meaningless. It is neutral. It is content-free. Thus, it doesn’t really mean anything when our body acts out our fantasies. All that is happening is that a meaningless form is waving around its meaningless arms and legs. How can meaning result from that? The waving of the arms and legs by itself, then, cannot satisfy the mind, which runs on the fuel of meaning. The mind, therefore, is required to add on its own overlay which says, “This waving of limbs really is the true and actual fulfillment of my fantasy. My dream has come true!” But notice that the mind is making that statement, not the body. The fantasy, then, remains a thing of the mind. What happens in the bodily realm doesn’t, in and of itself, actually accomplish anything, even mental satisfaction.
This undercuts the basic assumption behind acting out of fantasies. That basic assumption is that something is only real, and thus satisfying, when it is made manifest in the physical realm. The Course is saying the exact opposite: you can’t make something real by making it manifest in the physical realm. When you do make it manifest, nothing has really happened; nothing has really changed. By acting out your fantasy, then, you haven’t turned it into reality. You’ve just gone through an elaborate charade in your mind.
By undercutting the assumption behind acting out, the Course undercuts the assumption that drives conventional behavior. For isn’t conventional behavior largely a process of acting out our hopes and dreams? We think that by taking our hopes and dreams and acting them out in the physical, we can make them come true and thereby satisfy them—and satisfy ourselves in the process. What if we realized that by acting out our fantasies we were only engaging in more fantasy, that in our behavior nothing was really happening, nothing except more fantasizing? At that point, what would happen to behavior itself?
Relationship between the Course usage and the conventional meanings of “acting out”
Clearly, the Course is referring to what we normally call the acting out of fantasies. However, as I said earlier, its concept of this also seems tinged with the notion of “acting out” full stop. For what the Course says about acting out fantasies contains a remarkable number of elements found in just plain “acting out.”
- Both speak of us expressing an unconscious fantasy (though in the Course’s usage, the fantasy itself may be conscious; what is unconscious is its real content)
- Both say that this expression of the fantasy brings a kind of satisfaction or relief of tension (either real or illusory)
- Both speak of this expression often resulting in aggressive or hostile behavior
- Both associate this expression with sexuality (in the Course, special relationships)
- Both speak of the expression possibly taking place in a situation that is not the one that originally gave rise to the feelings, one that merely reminds the person of that situation
- Both see this expression as (at least potentially) being an inappropriate translation from the mental realm into the physical (in the conventional definitions, there is the implication that there is something inappropriate about translating these unconscious feelings into behavior, that they should instead be brought into awareness and simply verbalized)
It is hard to imagine that all of these elements from “acting out” made it by pure chance into the Course’s concept of the acting out of fantasies. It looks like a deliberate marriage of the two concepts. This marriage has profound implications, for once the Course injects “acting out” into the acting out of fantasies, it then treats virtually all behavior as the acting out of fantasy. Think of the implications of this. It means that, in the Course’s eyes, our normal behavior, our normal pursuit of our hopes and dreams, is something quite different from what we think it is. Our normal behavior is a case of acting out. It is the inappropriate eruption of unconscious, hostile inner conflicts into the behavioral realm. Not a very glowing commentary on normal behavior!
We can see this attitude in the following comment from the Course (which Greg just reminded me about): “Dreams are perceptual temper tantrums” (T-18.II.4:1). Since the Course says that even our waking experience is a dream, this means that our life as we know it is a massive temper tantrum, one big case of acting out.
The Course, however, undermines conventional behavior even further. It says that the foundational assumption behind acting out fantasies is that something only becomes real when it is made manifest in the physical realm. In this view, our dreams “come true” when they pass from mere mental fantasy into actual physical reality. This assumption, we might assume, is why it feels good to move something from an inner feeling to an outer behavior. It has gone from theory to actuality, from dream to reality. It has become real.
What could be more basic to behavior than that simple idea? Yet that simple idea is exactly what the Course negates. It says that real truth consists of the eternal verities of the mental realm. Such truths are unaffected by what happens in the bodily realm, especially since the bodily realm is meaningless. It is just a bunch of meaningless forms engaged in meaningless motions. What happens in that realm changes nothing. Therefore, what is not true in the eternal mental realm cannot be made true by being acted out in the physical realm. Dreams stay dreams; they cannot come true. No amount of physically acting them out will ever alter their metaphysical status.
In the end, then, by first saying that acting out our fantasies is really just acting out, and by then negating the whole assumption behind acting out fantasies, the Course has dramatically undermined conventional behavior itself. It has said that, first, conventional behavior is far more sick than we realize. It amounts to acting out. It is (as I said above) an inappropriate eruption of unconscious, hostile inner conflicts into the physical realm. It is one big tantrum. And it has said that, second, conventional behavior is far more ineffectual than we realize. It cannot bring something from theory to actuality. It cannot turn fantasies into reality. It cannot do anything real at all.
Of course, the Course does see an important role for behavior. Behavior, in its view, has the crucial role of communicating love to other minds, in a form they understand. This, however, is still understood to be taking place within a dream. Since it is a dream, behavior cannot do anything real. It cannot make dreams and fantasies come true. But it can send a message to the minds of the other dreamers, a message that helps them move closer to awakening.
Aside from causing sobering reflection in me about my behavior, this material gives me a glimpse of the Course’s genius. For the Course has accomplished everything I said above through mere hints. Its entire view of acting out fantasies is communicated in a relatively small number of passages in which the term “acting out” plays only a minor role. All of these passages are about other things. Yet somehow the term is used in such a way as to communicate an entire thought system in miniature, a thought system whose features repeat again and again in the various passages. One gets the impression that whenever the author used the term, however briefly and offhandedly, behind that usage was this strikingly original system of thought, complete in every detail. It makes one wonder how an author could innovate like this without announcing it more openly (I certainly would if I were him). Or, alternately, how an author could be so spontaneously yet deeply innovative with even the tiniest details of his thought system.
What follows are the passages on which the foregoing discussion is based. First I quote the passage and then I comment on it.
Passage 1: “The central theme in its [the special relationship’s] litany to sacrifice is that God must die so you can live. And it is this theme that is acted out in the special relationship” (T-16.V.10:4 5).
Comments: What we are really acting out in the special relationship, unbeknownst to ourselves, is that God must die so that we can live. It seems as if we are acting out the idea that if we sacrifice ourselves, we gain life. But in sacrificing ourselves, we are really trying to kill God (this is explained more fully in the section itself).
Passage 2: “The fantasies it brings to its chosen relationships in which to act out its hate are fantasies of your destruction” (T-16.VII.3:4).
Comments: What we are really acting out in the special relationship, again unbeknownst to ourselves, are fantasies not of our supreme pleasure, but of our destruction.
Passage 3: “There is no fantasy that does not contain the dream of retribution for the past. Would you act out the dream, or let it go?” (T-16.VII.4:2-3).
Comments: Again we are acting out a fantasy, a dream, just as in the previous passage. Again, this is talking about the special relationship, and again saying that the fantasy we are acting out is generally hidden to us. That fantasy is “the dream of retribution for the past.” Rather than acting this fantasy out, we really ought to let it go.
Passage 4: “In the special relationship it does not seem to be an acting out of vengeance that you seek. And even when the hatred and the savagery break briefly through, the illusion of love is not profoundly shaken. Yet the one thing the ego never allows to reach awareness is that the special relationship is the acting out of vengeance on yourself” (T-16.VII.5:1-3).
Comments: This passage is the very next paragraph after the previous passage. So it continues the same themes: In the special relationship, we are acting our vengeance on the past. This passage, however, pulls this theme even further into hidden motivations. For it says that we merely seem to be acting out vengeance on others who “sinned” against us in the past. We are really acting out vengeance on ourselves for our own “sins” against our ego.
Passage 5: “Fear is both a fragmented and fragmenting emotion. It seems to take many forms, and each one seems to require a different form of acting out for satisfaction. While this appears to introduce quite variable behavior, a far more serious effect lies in the fragmented perception from which the behavior stems. No one is seen complete. The body is emphasized, with special emphasis on certain parts, and used as the standard for comparison of acceptance or rejection for acting out a special form of fear” (T-18.I.3:3 7).
Comments: This passage is a bit difficult, so I’ll try first just to understand it. Fear is a fragmented emotion. Each one of its fragmented forms needs to be acted out by a different behavior in order to be satisfied. Behind these variable behaviors lies a fragmented view of the world. People are seen in fragments, as just bodies, even just particular body parts. These are then compared with the body parts of others, and on this basis we accept or reject those people. (This acceptance of some and rejection of others means that we see the Sonship in fragments.) Once we accept someone on the basis of her preferred body parts, we then act out with her what we see as a special form of love, a kind of love that applies only to her, to her special body and its special parts. Our behaviors toward her apply only to her, not to anyone else. Yet we don’t realize that we aren’t acting out a special form of love, but rather a special form of fear.
What does this say about acting out? It says that the things we act out are so various because we are acting out fear, and fear takes many, many forms. Some of those forms seem to be love, a very special kind of love the basis of which is very special body parts. But it is really just another form of fear.
Passage 6: “It is the figures in the dream and what they do that seem to make the dream. You do not realize that you are making them act out for you, for if you did the guilt would not be theirs, and the illusion of satisfaction would be gone” (T-18.II.5:5 6).
Comments: In a dream (this refers to nighttime dreams, but would apply to the daytime dream as well), the figures in the dream (the people in it) seem to be acting independently. But in fact, we are controlling them. We are making them act out for us. But we keep this fact hidden from ourselves. This is because we are having them do things that we want done, yet things that if we did them we would feel guilty for. We have something inside of us that needs to be acted out in order to be satisfied, but we need someone else to act it out.
Passage 7: “Mind cannot attack, but it can make fantasies and direct the body to act them out. Yet it is never what the body does that seems to satisfy. Unless the mind believes the body is actually acting out its fantasies, it will attack the body by increasing the projection of its guilt upon it.” (T-18.VI.3:5 7).
Comments: Here again the body is acting out fantasies in order to make them become real, and thus to find satisfaction. Yet what actually brings satisfaction? Is it what the body does? No, the body isn’t what experiences satisfaction. The mind is what experiences satisfaction. So satisfaction doesn’t come from the body acting out the fantasies, but from the mind’s belief that the body is really doing so. If the mind does not believe that the body is successfully acting out its fantasies, the mind will heap blame upon it for not doing its job right.
Passage 8: “It is insane to use the body as the scapegoat for guilt, directing its attack and blaming it for what you wished it to do. It is impossible to act out fantasies. For it is still the fantasies you want, and they have nothing to do with what the body does” (T-18.VI.6:1-3).
Comments: Now we have the other side of the story. Before, we blamed the body for our perception that it was not acting out our fantasies. Now we blame because it is acting them out. This current dynamic is another version of what was discussed in T-18.II: the idea that I have certain things I want acted out, but I want to make it look like I didn’t do the actual acting out. The other dream figures did it. My body did it. It wasn’t me.
This passage, however, addressed a deeper issue: “It is impossible to act out fantasies.” We can approach this in two ways. First, the very nature of fantasy is that it is divorced from reality. How, then, can it be acted out in reality? How can it ever become reality (which, of course, is the whole goal of acting it out). If you have a fantasy of sprouting wings and flying like a hummingbird, what are your hopes of ever really acting that out?
Second, and this is the angle taken by the passage itself, fantasies are of the mind. Acting is of the body. They are two different realms. Even when the body is “acting out” fantasies, it is merely going through meaningless motions. It does not invest any significance or feeling in those motions, because it does not feel; it does not appreciate significance. It is not aware. It is just meat. Thus, even when the fantasy is being physically acted out, it still requires the mind to add its own overlay on, and say, “This is my fantasy being acted out, and acted out successfully.” So the fantasy and its “fulfillment” is still really happening in the mind, not the body. For all we know, we could be having a dream, and the body that is acting out our fantasy could be a dream body. In this scenario, the acting out would still feel exactly the same; it would feel every bit as real. The point is that it’s all in the mind, which means that the physical acting out is actually irrelevant.
Passage 9: “Fear can become so acute that the sin is denied the acting out” (T-19.III.1:3).
Comments: In this passage, we are afraid to act out sinful impulses because of the potential repercussions. This fear can be so great that it is actually greater than our desire to act out those impulses, and so we don’t act them out. This is related to those passages where we would be afraid to act something out ourselves and so instead get a surrogate to act it out.
Passage 10: “Those who are strong are never treacherous, because they have no need to dream of power and to act out their dream” (T-21.VII.3:6).
Comments: Here again we are acting out dreams, fantasies, in an attempt to make them come true, when instead we should be secure in reality, particularly our reality as perfectly strong. Yet because we are not secure in this reality of strength, we dream up a fantasy of power and act that out through treachery.
Passage 11: “And what you behold upon it are your wishes, acted out so you can look on them and think them real” (W-pI.132.4:3).
Comments: Here again we have insane wishes that are not anchored in reality. However, we see them in the world, written on the world’s blank slate, so that we can look at them and think they are real. Once again, we are engaging in a false process of trying vainly to turn fantasy into reality.
Passage 12: “Or it may also take the form of intense rage, accompanied by thoughts of violence, fantasied or apparently acted out” (M-17.4:5).
Comments: Here, we are acting out hostility again—”thoughts of violence.” But notice the actual phrase: “apparently acted out.” Again, our acting out seems to turn thought/wish/dream into reality. But it doesn’t, because the acting out is not real.