The Process of Changing Thoughts

by Allen Watson

Frequent repetition of an idea is necessary to our learning that idea, particularly if the idea is directly contrary to something we have previously accepted as true. From the Course's perspective, all of us have accepted the ego's thought system, which is demonstrated by our very presence in this world of separation. Since the thought system of the Holy Spirit is diametrically opposite to the ego's thought system, frequent repetition of the ideas of the Course is basic to our learning the Course.

All through the Text and Workbook, the same ideas are repeated and restated, over and over. In the lessons of the Workbook we are urged to repeat the idea for the day every hour, and in Part I each idea is reviewed so that we spend two days with it, at the least. Jesus recognizes that replacing the ego's thoughts with God's thoughts is a slow, gradual process, and there is no guilt in recognizing that while I may conceptually understand some idea from the Course (such as "Loss is not loss when properly perceived"—W-pII.284.1:1) I am still far from total acceptance of it. If I recognize my imperfect acceptance of the ideas of the Course, continued repetition of the idea and continued application of it in varied situations is the prescribed remedy.

Five Stages in the Process of Thought Change

Lesson 284 in the Workbook speaks directly of this process by which our thoughts are changed. Its title is "I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt." This is how it describes the process of thought change (W-pII.284.1:5-6):

This is the truth:

  1. at first to be but said
  2. and then repeated many times;
  3. and next to be accepted as but partly true, with many reservations.
  4. Then to be considered seriously more and more,
  5. and finally accepted as the truth.

There are clearly five stages in the process of thought change. Preceding all these stages is a state in which we believe the exact opposite, or have no opinion on the subject. For most of us, this Zero State is our condition when we first begin to read the Course.

Take, for instance, the simple statement given in this lesson: "Loss is not loss when properly perceived." Most of us open the Course firmly convinced that loss is loss, and it is very real; our belief in the reality of loss is unquestioned. In the Course we encounter very clear statements that tell us we are wrong, that loss does not really exist except as a mistaken belief in our minds. In working with that idea, we will slowly move through these five stages of thought change.

1. Verbal Belief — "at first to be but said"

Change of thought begins with what is really no more than lip service to an idea. At this beginning stage we are really saying no more than, "I think this idea is true and I would like to believe it." With many ideas in the Course, the Verbal Belief stage is even less than that: it is coming to the place of saying, "This may be true and I am willing to believe it." If we are honest with ourselves we will realize that with many of the Course's ideas, we have progressed no further than this. With some of the ideas of the Course, such as the teaching that God did not create the world, it took me nearly three years to even reach this stage of being willing to consider the idea as true.

2. Mental Belief — "and then repeated many times"

Having decided to admit the new idea into our thought system (Stage 1) does not do much; it isn't any more than cracking open the door to let it in. The next stage is where frequent repetition comes in. We repeat the idea over and over, perhaps aloud, perhaps silently. We buy cassette tapes of readings from the Course and listen to them over and over. We actually do the Workbook lessons. (I am convinced that the reason most of us "fail" in our practice of the Workbook lessons, "forgetting" to do the frequent repetitions, is that in truth we have not even reached Stage 1 with the idea in question; we are not willing to let it in.) We read the Text over and over. During this stage we still don't actually believe the idea; we are trying to convince our minds it is true. With most of the ideas of the Course, most students are still working in this second stage. I am sure that is true of myself.

3. Partial Belief — "next to be accepted as but partly true, with many reservations"

The frequent repetition of the idea brings us into situations where we find specific experiences that validate the truth of the idea for us. We have a holy instant, or a moment of forgiveness in one relationship, and we recognize the truth of something the Course has been telling us. This is the "Aha!" experience, the realization of "Now I know what the Course means by this!" Perhaps we experience a shift in perception with one person and see their innocence, see that there was no sin and therefore nothing to forgive. We now can see the truth of the Course in this situation. But we still have difficulty applying it to someone who deeply abused us, or to someone like Hitler, or to other mass murderers. We are still perceiving orders of difficulty in miracles. We accept the idea but "with many reservations." Some of us, with some of the ideas of the Course, have reached Stage 3.

4. Increasing Belief — "Then to be considered seriously more and more"

Stage 4 is what the Course refers to as generalization. Once we have seen the truth of one of the Course's ideas in one situation, we begin to experience it more and more, in situation after situation. Here, in this stage, is where serious Course students will spend most of their lives. If Stage 1 was mental acceptance and Stage 2 was mental repetition of the idea, then Stage 3 is experiential acceptance and Stage 4 is experiential repetition of the idea. We realize that if the idea was proved to be true in this situation, then perhaps we can apply it to that situation, and another, and another. Over and over, again and again, we must validate the idea in one experience after another.

Even in this late stage, we have not arrived at total acceptance of what the Course is saying. I believe that is what Helen Schucman meant in her frequently quoted statement to the effect that she knew the Course was true, but she didn't believe it. She was perfectly aware that she still had many reservations, and was in the process of considering the ideas seriously, more and more, but she had not yet arrived at final acceptance. We find her statement a little shocking or disturbing only because Helen was more honest than the rest of us. Very few have moved beyond this stage.

5. Total Belief — "finally accepted as the truth"

This final stage is our goal in this world; it is the end of the journey. Here, the idea which started out as a mental concept, won a fuller place in our minds through frequent repetition, began to be applied in experience and gradually grew to encompass more and more of our lives, has finally been completely generalized. We now see the idea as completely true, applying to everything equally. There is no more order of difficulty in miracles, and there are no more reservations and no more exceptions. As I said above, few, if any, have reached this stage with more than a few of the Course's concepts.

It is like learning a foreign language. At the start the sounds of the foreign language are incomprehensible (we all have probably had that experience with the Course!). You choose to take in the language. You apply yourself through frequent repetition. You begin to be comfortable with the language in limited situations, gradually extending your experience with the new language to more and more aspects of your life until one day, if you are diligent, what you take, takes you. The language becomes your own; it becomes part of you and you part of it. It now seems to come naturally to you, without effort. But it took a great deal of effort to reach the state of effortlessness.

Learning to play a musical instrument proceeds through exactly the same stages: struggling with the strings of a guitar, feeling unnatural and uncomfortable; learning chord after chord, song after song; playing scales, repeating things over and over and over. Then, one day, you find that you don't even have to think about it; it just happens. What you take, takes you.

This stage is the final goal, the end result. If you expect simply to leap into effortlessness without any effort, you will never get there. With the ideas of the Course, we are in the learning process, somewhere in those first four stages. That is the purpose of our being in the world-learning, healing, changing our thoughts.

Being a Happy Learner

The Course advises us, "Be you content with healing" (T-13.VIII.7.1). While we are in the world, we are healing, learning, going through these stages with one aspect of truth after another. When learning is over there will be no more need to be here, so we should expect no more than this learning process as long as we stay here. We need not be guilty because we have not yet arrived at the goal.

In "The Happy Learner" (T-14.II) and the section that follows, Jesus offers us some advice about the process we are in:

1. Learn to be a happy learner.

"The happy learner cannot feel guilty about learning. This is so essential to learning that it should never be forgotten" (T-14.III.1:1-2).

2. "Learning is living here" (T-14.III.3:2).

And living here is learning. That is all that living here is: being in the process and not being guilty about it. "Be you content with healing" (T-13.VIII.7:1).

In other words, the world's purpose, for us, is to be a school. What we do here is to learn. That's what we are here for. So settle down, don't be stressed out that you haven't learned it all yet. Learning will get you where you are going, so be content with it, be happy to be in the learning process, and be patient with yourself for not yet being complete.

If you are confronted with a hard truth, something difficult to accept, and you realize that you are still in the first stage of thought change, mere verbal belief, don't be upset that you can't immediately make your mind accept the truth completely. Just get on with the learning process. Repeat the idea as often as possible to yourself. Use every situation to teach it to yourself. Be at peace with the apparent slowness of your progress. Learning is what you are here for, and you have all the time in the world.

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