When I first started reading the Course, I was so inspired by the exalted vision it had of my reality that I wanted more than anything to experience that reality for myself. Or so I thought. For when I actually tried to practice A Course in Miracles so that I could get that experience, I immediately slammed into a seemingly impenetrable wall of resistance. I know I am not alone in this. We all want the gifts the Course offers us, or we wouldn't be studying it. Yet who among us has not resisted practice? This resistance, in my experience, can be really debilitating, and can even lead us to give up on the Course (as I did several times). Finding effective ways to deal with resistance to practice, then, is essential if we are to actually reach the lofty goals of the Course.
The Course itself gives us many tools for dealing with our resistance. Among those tools, I have found a very powerful one that has helped me make huge strides in overcoming my resistance: practicing with an attitude of gentle firmness. This has truly made my practice come alive. I'd like to share what I've learned about gentle firmness, in the hope that it will be as powerful for you as it has been for me.
What gentle firmness is not
The phrase "gentle firmness" appears in Workbook Lesson 73, where we are told to repeat the idea for the day with "gentle firmness and quiet certainty" (WpI.73.10:1). This phrase has stuck in my mind for years. It conveys in two short words an entire attitude toward Course practice, an attitude I believe the Course wants us to adopt. It combines in itself two major emphases in Course practice instructions: the emphasis on firm mental discipline, and the emphasis on practicing gently without strain. So while the actual phrase "gentle firmness" appears only once in the Course, the idea of practicing with gentle firmness is something the Course's author considers a vital aspect of effective practice.
But just what does "gentle firmness" mean? For gentleness and firmness, as we normally understand them, seem to be irreconcilable opposites. Gentleness is soft and yielding; firmness is hard and inflexible. Gentleness brings to mind bunny rabbits, little lambs, and Mr. Rogers; firmness brings to mind strict parents, drill sergeants, and Mr. T. So do we "go with the flow" in our practice, or do we crack the whip? How can we be both gentle and firm at the same time?
For me, this question was more than theoretical; it had a dramatic impact on my practice. For while I recognized that the Course emphasized both gentleness and firmness, I had no clue as to how to combine them. My unfortunate "solution" to this dilemma (not so much consciously thought out, but what I actually did in practice) was to flip-flop between them, sometimes being firm, sometimes being gentle. This created a vicious cycle, a cycle other Course students have told me is not at all unique to me:
- Firmness meant forcing myself to practice and battling against my ego. This was difficult and exhausting, and I would inevitably lapse in practice. This made me feel guilty. So to relieve my guilt, I'd flip over to gentleness.
- Gentleness meant giving up on practice and surrendering to my ego; instead of practicing, I would "be gentle with myself" by indulging my egoic whims. This, too, made me feel guilty. So to relieve my guilt, I'd flop back to firmness. Around and around I went….
My practice became an endless cycle of guilt, clearly not very conducive to learning the lesson that God's Son is guiltless! Practice became associated with guilt. As a result, I resisted practice, and the practice I did do was sporadic and ineffective. As I became aware of this pattern, it became clear to me that whatever gentle firmness might be, it definitely was not this.
The real meaning of gentle firmness
But over time, I learned what gentle firmness really means, and this truly transformed my practice. The Course's view of gentle firmness is rooted in its unique understanding of the true nature of our will. But before we examine the Course's view, let's take a look at how I was seeing the issue of "will" in my own practice. Basically, I assumed that I had two wills in conflict with each other: a kind of "higher will" that really wanted salvation, and an extremely willful ego that didn't. I had caught fleeting glimpses of this "higher will," so I knew it existed; but the will of my ego frankly felt a heck of a lot stronger. In short, I had bought into the conventional view of the spiritual path as a fierce battle between spirit and flesh, light and darkness, higher self and lower self. I had simply invented a "Course version" of this age-old battle: a battle between my true Self and my ego, with my will hopelessly split between them.
In this scenario, "firmness" meant fighting gamely on the side of this feeble higher will against the endless onslaughts of the ego; "gentleness" meant giving up the fight and surrendering to the inevitable pull of my egoic desires. I could either battle the ego or surrender to it. Both of these options ended up reinforcing the ego, because both assumed the ego's reality. Both, to use that oft-repeated Course phrase, made the error real.
But the Course's view of gentle firmness, in contrast to mine, is based on the crucial recognition that we have only one will, not two. The Course tells us succinctly, "You are not two selves in conflict" (T-16.III.6:1). In the Course's system, only God's Will is real, and we share that Will. This means there cannot be an opposing will in truth, however much there may seem to be: "There is no will but God's. I cannot be in conflict" (W-pI.74.3:2). And since God wants salvation for us, salvation must be the only thing we really want as well:
God's plan for salvation, and only His, is wholly in accord with your will. It is not the purpose of an alien power, thrust upon you unwillingly. It is the one purpose here on which you and your Father are in perfect accord. (W-pI.73.9:1-3)
The ego, then, is only an illusion of a will. It seems like a powerful opposing will only because we give our belief to it. In truth, it is utterly powerless:
The will you share with God has all the power of creation in it. The ego's idle wishes are unshared, and therefore have no power at all. Its wishes are not idle in the sense that they can make a world of illusions in which your belief can be very strong. But they are idle indeed in terms of creation. They make nothing that is real. (W-pI.73.1:3-7)
This understanding completely overturns the "battle of the wills" scenario that drove my practice before. Since there is no real opposing will, there is no real battle. This battle seems real only because of my belief in conflicting wills. All I need do, then, is change my belief that I am two selves in conflict (I'm not implying that this is easy—as the passage above says, belief in illusions can be "very strong"). I need to reinforce my belief in the will I share with God, and at the same time withdraw my belief in the idle wishes of the ego.
This leads to a whole new understanding of gentle firmness. In this view:
- Firmness means firmly committing my mind to the will I share with God, the will that wants my salvation. I do this by affirming that God's Will is the only will, the Source of all power, and the only thing I really want.
- Gentleness means gently letting go of the ego instead of fighting it. I do this by reminding myself that the ego is nothing, totally powerless, and I don't really want it.
In this new understanding, gentleness and firmness are no longer polar opposites. Instead, gentleness supports firmness: by gently letting go of the ego, I don't give power to it, and this enables me to be more firm in my true will. In turn, firmness supports gentleness: the firmer I am in my true will, the less power my ego seems to have, and the easier it is to be gentle with it. Since the whole process reinforces my true will instead of my ego, the cycle of guilt is undone. Through this use of gentle firmness, I do learn that God's Son is guiltless.
Using gentle firmness in dealing with resistance to practice
As I said above, this new understanding of gentle firmness truly transformed my practice. How? By giving me a new attitude toward practice, and in particular by giving me a new way to look at and deal with my resistance to practice. How do we bring an attitude of gentle firmness to our resistance to practice? In general terms, by doing the practice outlined above: affirming that we really want God's Will for us, and reminding ourselves that the ego is powerless against it. And when our resistance leads to actually forgetting to practice, the Course gives us a two-step formula for getting back on track:
- Don't get upset about forgetting to practice (gentleness), but
- Try to remember to practice again as soon as possible (firmness)
This formula is expressed directly in several places in the Course; for instance, in Lessons 20 and 27:
Do not be distressed if you forget to do [a practice period], but make a real effort to remember. (W-pI.20.5:2)
Do not be disturbed by [missing practice periods], but do try to keep on your schedule from then on. (W-pI.27.4:5)
We can see how this formula reflects the definitions of gentleness and firmness given above: We don't get upset about our resistance to practice (reflected in our forgetting to practice) because getting upset gives power to our egoic resistance and reinforces our belief in the ego's reality. Instead, we gently let our resistance go. We deny the ego's power over us. Then we reaffirm our commitment to the will we share with God (specifically our commitment to practice, the Course's way to salvation) by beginning our practice again as soon as possible. In a nutshell, we are gentle with our resistance to practice so that we can be firm in continuing to practice.
Some specific gentle firmness practices
Many specific Course practices contain variations on the gentle firmness idea, so many that I can't even begin to cover them all here. But one major category of Course practice I'd like to mention is response to temptation, which deals specifically with the issue of resistance to practice. The Course's "response to temptation" practices often consist of 1) a gentle dismissal of the ego thoughts that are causing resistance, and/or 2) a firm rededication to a thought that reflects the goal of salvation. So if you are going through the Workbook and experiencing resistance (and if you aren't experiencing resistance, I worship at your feet), by all means use the responses to temptation that are given as part of your daily lesson. They will be even more powerful if you bring an attitude of gentle firmness to them.
In addition, here are a few particular passages I have used myself, with real success, to deal with my own resistance to practice. These practices can easily be inserted into your daily routine. I personally have found these to be absolute lifelines. Try them out the next time you feel resistance to practice, and also feel free to devise your own.
Whenever you feel resistance to practice, instead of battling your ego, gently let it go and reaffirm your true will. Say to yourself:
There is no will but God's. I cannot be in conflict. (W-pI.74.3:2)
This thought I do not want. I choose instead [a Course-based thought]. (based on W-pI.rVI.6:2)
I will not allow my intent to waver in the face of distracting thoughts. Whatever form such thoughts may take, they have no meaning and no power. I will replace them with my determination to succeed. My will has power over all fantasies and dreams. I trust it to see me through, and carry me beyond them all. (based on W-pI.rII.In.4:1-5)
I want salvation. I want happiness. I want peace. And only a disciplined mind can give these to me. (based on (W-pI.20.2:3-6)
Conclusion: the joy of discipline
Perhaps the greatest gift that practicing with gentle firmness has given me is reflected in the last practice line above: a new appreciation for mental discipline, a vital component of the Course's program. As important as mental discipline is to the Course, few of us really do it. Why? To be blunt, because most of us hate mental discipline. We think happiness is a freewheeling, childlike mind that can drift and fantasize to its heart's content. We see such a mind as exuberant, creative, expressive, even divine. Discipline, on the other hand, is a drag. It is associated with oppression, drudgery, guilt, punishment, and imprisonment. The iron fist of mental discipline seems to crush our glorious divine child. In short, we hate mental discipline because we don't think it offers anything we really want.
I believe that a major reason we resist the discipline of the Course's mind training program is because we project our conventional notion of discipline onto it. We see the Course's call for firmness as a call for the iron fist, and many give up right then and there. Those of us who are up for a fight take up the iron fist and start slugging it out with our unruly ego. But this fight is such a heavy burden that we too usually end up giving up and letting the ego win. As a result, we ride the "firmness/gentleness" merry-go-round, and end up with the vicious cycle of guilt. We buy into the battle of the wills, and Course practice becomes a war. And who really wants to fight a war?
But this new understanding of gentle firmness, based on the recognition that I have one will and I want salvation, has really changed my outlook on the Course's discipline. Mental discipline grounded in true gentle firmness is no iron fist: it is simply a way of denying what I don't want (the ego), and affirming what I do want (salvation). To the degree that I can accept this (and I'm still working on it, believe me), I am freed from the cycle of guilt based on dueling wills. The war is over. And so the Course's mental discipline has increasingly become a joy to me. Discipline is becoming associated with happiness. Only discipline gives me what I really want, and so more and more, I want to practice. And my practice has really taken off as a result.
What would your practice be like if mental discipline became a joy to you? Would it not help you attain those lofty, inspiring goals of the Course much sooner? I invite you to try applying a little gentle firmness to your resistance to practice and see what happens. I hope you will discover the joy that I have begun to discover in practicing. Why not start today?