Memorize? Are You Kidding?!

by Allen Watson

Some of you may be tempted to skip this article because it is about an unpopular topic: memorization. Please bear with me a bit, and see what you think after reading it.

When I first suggested publishing an article about how to memorize portions of A Course in Miracles as part of one's spiritual practice, I got a lot of negative feedback from several students. I heard that memorization was old-fashioned. Some felt that it brought back unpleasant memories of archaic teaching techniques foisted upon them as unsuspecting children. The reactions I heard reflect the prevalent attitude toward memorization today: It is mechanical. It is even worse than study. In fact, it is study at its worst.

Well, I happen to love memorization! I don't love doing it, but I love its effects in my life. I think memorization has had a more consistent positive effect on my spiritual life than any other habit of practice except reading and meditation. So, I want to begin by giving you some encouragement about memorizing parts of the Course. I want to tell you what memorization can do for you.

I hope that some of what I say will motivate you to read the second half of the article, which offers easy techniques for memorization. (I was originally just going to write the part about techniques, and call it The Complete Idiot's Guide to Memorization, because I think the methods presented make it simple for anyone to memorize things. After sampling people's reactions, I was afraid no one would read it!)

To talk about the benefits of memorization, I am going to have to draw, to a large extent, on my experiences with memorizing verses from the Bible. I have to admit that I have not engaged yet in a concentrated program of memorization with sentences or paragraphs from the Course, although I have certainly memorized numerous short passages. Recently, however, I've felt motivated to memorize more regularly and consistently, and I have begun to do that. So I'm writing this in part to motivate myself in my memorization program.

I did extensive memorization of the Bible many years ago, in the '60's and '70's. Actually, I started in 1956, the year of my "born again" experience at age 16, and I continued off and on until about 1978. Over those 22 years, I memorized something in excess of one thousand verses from the Bible, and could flawlessly quote a dozen or so entire chapters from the Psalms and the New Testament, word for word. I could have recited Scripture for hours on end, if I had wanted to; not that I ever did! If someone quoted a phrase from a verse I had memorized, in most cases, I could give you the exact biblical reference for it; e.g., "I am crucified with Christ" is from Galatians 2:20; "…be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind" is from Romans 12:2. To this day, I still remember a lot of those references, as well as the words that go with them.

Although my main point isn't what a good job of memorizing I did, perhaps it bears pointing out that the methods I will describe later really work, and I still remember a lot of that material even though I have scarcely even looked at it during the last twenty years! Imagine knowing the words of the Course that well!

My main reason for telling you about how much I memorized is simply to point out that, if I did it that much for so long a time, it must brought me great benefits! And it did! I cannot tell you how enthusiastic I was, and am, about memorization as a spiritual practice.

Part 1: The Benefits of Memorization

1. Continual Access to the Truth

If you have gone through the Workbook for Students, you know that it frequently asks you to repeat the thought for the day many times, sometimes every five or ten minutes, and settling at last on hourly repetitions and frequent reminders in between. It seems obvious that memorizing the thought for the day would make this much, much easier.

Most of us don't bother to memorize. Perhaps we jot the thought on a card if we are seriously trying to follow the practice instructions, and pull the card out whenever we can to read the thought over. Many times, however, we can't. Perhaps we are driving a car, or typing on a computer, or sitting in a meeting, or interacting with other people. Taking out a card and reading it just doesn't fit in. If we had the thought memorized, we would not need that card; we could "pull up" the thought from memory at any time.

Believe it or not, I was first led into memorizing the Bible as a support for what was called "biblical meditation," which was defined as: "Sharing with the Lord His own Word [i.e., words from the Bible], prayerfully, and with personal application." The idea was that by memorizing verses, you would have them available at any time to use in such meditation.

I used to ride to work on a bus for about a half hour each morning and evening. Often there was standing room only, since I lived near the last stop of the express bus into Manhattan. During the bus ride, I would call up Bible verses in my mind. With eyes closed-probably people thought I was dozing-I would mentally recite a verse, and then turn it into prayer, in particular applying whatever it said to myself. That was biblical meditation, as I knew it.

One passage from the Bible that was used to support this practice was from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 6:6-7. Most of the verses I memorized were from the King James Version, but I will quote from the New International Version (NIV), which uses modern terms that are somewhat easier to understand:

6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.

7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

This was written about the words God spoke to Moses. They were intended "to be upon your hearts." I have always understood that to mean that we should internalize them, and make them part of ourselves. What better way to internalize words than to memorize them? Notice that the Israelites were commanded to talk about these words a whole lot! There were four times, in particular, that were mentioned:

  1. When you sit at home, which could include times of rest, meal times, and so on;
  2. When you walk along the road, which today would be expanded to include any kind of travel, such as walking, or riding a bicycle, car, bus, train or airplane;
  3. When you lie down, which obviously means at bed time;
  4. When you get up, which requires no explanation, since it clearly refers to a time of spiritual practice the first thing in the morning.

Now the question my Bible teacher asked us, and which I ask you, is this: How could you possibly obey this commandment without memorizing the words of scripture? Sure, you could read something while sitting; you could perhaps read at bedtime and in the morning, but while you are walking from place to place? Hardly. Therefore, this verse seemed to us to require memorizing scripture so that it would be possible for us to "talk about" it at any time, in any place. By memorizing the words, we would give ourselves continual access to the truth.

I still recall one time, early in my experience with the Course, when I had memorized the lesson idea from Lesson 4: "These thoughts do not mean anything." I had not really tried to memorize it, but it is a simple phrase, and the practice exercise with the lesson called for using the phrase repeatedly in three or four short practice periods during the day. During the night, I woke up and could not get back to sleep. I was going through some financial difficulties at the time and was behind on paying some bills, with more on the way. I was very worried about how I would make ends meet, and my mind would not stop obsessing about the situation. I lay awake for nearly an hour. I would start to drift off and then suddenly wake up with a start, my heart pounding. I tried thinking of other things. I tried doing a mental relaxation technique. Nothing worked. I was especially upset with myself for being fearful; after all, I was a student of A Course in Miracles, and I knew that fear is only an illusion. So I actually felt guilty for being afraid.

Then, suddenly, I remembered the words from the lesson: "These thoughts do not mean anything." I repeated them once or twice, and like oil on the waters, they calmed my mind, smoothing the ruffled surface of my thoughts. I realized that having fearful thoughts did not make me a bad Course student; they didn't make me anything at all. They were meaningless thoughts. And just like that, I fell asleep.

Now, if I had not memorized those words, I would not have had them available to me in the middle of the night, in the dark, as I lay in bed. But I did, thank God. I am so grateful for all the things I have memorized. I cannot tell you how many times they have come to my rescue in the middle of the most chaotic situations.

2. Mental Sluicing

To sluice something means to wash it in running water. You run fresh water through something, flushing out dirt and debris. Memorizing the words of the Course has a similar effect on our minds. You already know this. It's part of the reason you like study groups that talk about the Course and its ideas. It's a good part of why audio taped readings from the Course have been a popular item for years. When we "sluice out" our minds with words from the Course, we feel cleansed and renewed.

Imagine feeling that way whenever you want, all day and even all night long. Memorization makes that possible. It does not guarantee that you will use the words to flush our your mind, but it makes those words available to you any time you need them.

I recall the first time I actually fell asleep while mentally reviewing Bible verses as I lay in bed. When I woke in the morning, before I was fully awake, those words were still running through my mind! I woke with an incredibly positive frame of mind, certain that those words had been cycling through my mind all night long, like a mental prayer wheel.

The Workbook frequently advises us to respond to temptations from the ego instantly, without delay, by using the words from the Course. How are you going to do that if you don't remember the words from the Course? Memorizing them is just a tool that makes this kind of response to temptation possible.

Repeating the words, "I am as God created me" (W-pI.110) one time will not have much effect on your mind. Repeating those words hundreds or thousands of times will have an effect, a profound effect. It seems to me that this is why the Workbook emphasizes repetition so much. The nice thing about memorization techniques is that they consist almost entirely of repetition. The benefits come as much from the process of memorizing as from the final result.

3. Use in Response to Temptation

When you have memorized a number of sentences or paragraphs from the Course, you have them available to you at any time as tools in your mental toolkit. Each memorized line becomes part of "your problem-solving repertoire, a way of quick reaction to temptation" (W-pI.194.6:2). You can easily select a line with which to respond to the ego's temptations. Indeed, I have found that when the ego calls, and I turn to the Holy Spirit for aid in my response, frequently what happens is that something I have memorized will pop into my mind. It is always something that meets the current need.

Part II: How To Memorize

Many people think that they cannot memorize things, but in my opinion anyone can memorize if they are willing to put in a little effort. It helps the process if you engage as many of your senses as possible. Therefore, I suggest reading aloud, writing, and repeating the words aloud when you are memorizing. This engages not only your eyes and your ears, but also the muscles of your mouth and hands. That is the reason I suggest that you begin with reading the entire selection aloud two or three times. Writing out the words by hand three times daily, for a week will engage additional motor memory. This will speed the memorization process, but it isn't necessary.

Summary of the steps in memorization

  1. Read the entire passage aloud (a sentence or paragraph) that you wish to memorize, three times. (Optionally, write the passage out by hand three times as well.)
  2. Read the first short portion of the passage aloud three times, looking at it in print as you read.
  3. Repeat that short portion three more times without looking at it, if you can.
  4. Add the next short phrase of the passage, and read the preceding one, plus the new one, aloud three times.
  5. Repeat both phrases together without looking, three times.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 as often as necessary to go through the entire passage. (See example at the end of the article.)
  7. Attempt to repeat the entire passage from memory, three times without looking; then check yourself against the printed version. (Optionally, write the passage out by hand once.)
  8. Repeat steps 1 thru 7 every day for three to six days (until you can easily repeat the entire passage from memory flawlessly three times).
  9. Review the entire passage (repeat it once from memory) every day for an additional three or four weeks (this takes only a few seconds each day once you have memorized a passage).
  10. Review the entire passage once per week for another month. If it starts to slip from memory, go back to daily reviews for another week.

If you want to try memorizing the Course reference as well (perhaps just to the paragraph: Text, 2.III.3, for instance), since it is harder to remember than words, repeat it both before the first phrase and after the last phrase, making it an additional phrase: "Text, two, three, three: The acceptance of the Atonement by everyone is only a matter of time; Text, two, three, three."

A few comments on some of the steps

Step 2. Breaking the passage into short phrases is crucial. Make each phrase a short one you can remember with a minimum of difficulty. For some people, this might be the whole first sentence; for others, it may be just the first two, three, or four words.

At this step and with every step, make sure you have the words exactly right. Do not accept almost right; you want to get it word perfect. It's all right after you have memorized the passage perfectly to paraphrase and change the words around, but not before; otherwise, you will never remember it exactly right.

Steps 3-5: This may seem like overkill for memorizing just the first four words or the first sentence. Believe me, it isn't. Memorizing things isn't difficult, but the trick is repetition, repetition, repetition. Let me repeat that: repetition, repetition, repetition. Did I mention repetition?

You remember your own address because you repeat it so much. You probably remember the pledge of allegiance to the flag because you repeated it every day in school for twelve years. Repetition is the key, and repeating it over and over after it seems like you have learned it thoroughly is a necessity if you want to retain what you have memorized.

The Course talks about how the ego has had us overlearn its lessons (T-31.I.3:4), and tells us that we need, in turn, to overlearn the Course's lessons for us (T-31.III.1:2). That's all that repetition is for: overlearning. That means that when you think you have it learned, you continue to work at it, and you do so two or three times longer than seems necessary.

Repetition is what makes learning easy. Anybody can repeat the words hundreds of times. If you do that, you will memorize it. It's that simple.

Step 7. The first time you try to repeat the entire passage from memory, you will find that parts of it will come to mind, but words will get garbled, and you will probably get stuck several times and have to "cheat" by looking. Despite all that repetition, you still will not have memorized it! Do not let this discourage you; it is normal. There is still more work to do. This is the reason you repeat the whole process three to six times. I usually do it five times in a week, and memorize one passage each week. (A "passage" for me is one to three sentences, which is about all I can handle in one gulp. For you it might be a single sentence at first.)

So, don't worry about getting it perfect the first day. Don't feel discouraged if you are unable to recite the whole thing, or even if you make mistakes in every sentence. One day, and one memorization practice, is not enough. Very few people, if any, can memorize something perfectly in just one session. You should find it easier each day, and by the end of the week, you will probably be able to recite the entire paragraph from memory, perfectly, without looking at the book. If not, keep going for a second week. It is better to overlearn one passage than to under learn two, because in the latter case you really have memorized nothing.

Steps 8-10. If you stop after just one week, you will forget most of what you memorized within a week or two, or at most within a month. To really cement these words in your mind, you must now repeat the paragraph from memory once every day over an extended period. Just once a day will be enough, and that should take less than half a minute. You may like to recite it silently in your mind as you lay down to sleep at night, or in the morning as you begin to meditate. Just do it once a day for at least three weeks.

Then, review it once a week for another month or so. Once you have done that, the words will be in your mind, word perfect, for years to come.

If you want to memorize additional passages, do not begin a second one until you have completed the first week with your first passage, and have it down word perfect. Then, if you wish, as you begin the three weeks of repeating the first passage from memory once every day, you can begin memorizing a second passage, using the same phrase-by-phrase technique I described above. You may want to write or print the passages on index cards for easy review.

If you engage in a memorization program like this over an extended period, for two months or more, you will find that memorizing gets easier and easier; you will spend less and less time memorizing any specific passage. However, by the time you have eight or nine passages memorized you may find that daily repetition of all of them is too time-consuming. By this time you will have memorized them so well that you can afford to set the older ones aside for weeks at a time, and just bring them back once every month or so for a couple days of review.

I believe this method of memorization can be applied by virtually anyone who really wants to do it. Even memorizing just one sentence per week, you will memorize fifty-two sentences in a year (probably a thousand words or more, which is about two and a half pages!).

If you really get into this, please write and let me know! I have even more detailed advice to offer for people who want to memorize a lot of passages from the Course, and would be happy to share it with you if you ask.

An example of the daily practice applied to T-In.2:2-4:

  • Start by reading the whole passage aloud three times. Then:
  • Three times looking at the page: "Nothing real can be threatened."
  • Three times not looking at the page: "Nothing real can be threatened."
  • Three times looking at the page: "Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists."
  • Three times not looking at the page: "Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists."
  • Three times looking at the page: "Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God."
  • Three times not looking at the page: "Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God."
  • Three times looking at the page: "Herein lies the peace of God."
  • Three times not looking at the page: "Herein lies the peace of God."
  • Three times reciting the entire passage from memory, without looking.

One Comment

  1. Martha
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Allen,
    I agree very much with what you said about the benefits of memorization, and I recommend it. I have always found it fairly easy and enjoyable, especially when I was younger, to memorize poetry or poetic passages from the Bible, etc., so I can't claim credit for any heroic effort. In fact, when I was younger, I memorized poetry now and then, as a kind of hobby. (It's kind of like learning a song. If you like the song, it's no chore to remember it. After listening to it many times, you just start "hearing" it in your head.)
    Anyway, after beginning to study ACIM, I started memorizing helpful passages here and there, and I now have a very small "library" of them in my head – mostly a few short paragraphs. You're right – it is helpful to be able to recall them when traveling, lying awake at night, etc. In fact, after finishing the first review section in the Workbook (lessons 51-60, which contains a short review paragraph for each of the first 50 lessons, I found those review paragraphs so inspiring that I set out to memorize all 50. At one time, I could recite them all, and I did so while walking to work each morning. It kept the Course teachings fresh in my mind even while I was not actively doing the Workbook.
    —Martha Fitzgerald

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