Seek Not to Change the World?

by Greg Mackie

"Seek not to change the world, but choose to change your mind about the world" (T-21.In.1:7). This well-known line is frequently used by Course students to say that trying to change things in the external world is not part of the Course's path. The implications of this stance are massive: Since all behavior by definition is an attempt to produce external change, this stance amounts to saying that behavior—including behaviorally extending help to others—is irrelevant to the Course's path.

But is this really what the line means? In my opinion, the answer is a definite no. In this article, I'd like to draw out what I think this line really means, and show how the Course's teaching on the importance of behaviorally extending to others is fully compatible with it. Along the way, I'll present a process for testing the standard interpretation of this line, a process that can be helpful for any line that has become a part of what we at the Circle call "Course lore." Finally, I'll discuss the great practical benefit of taking this line through the testing process: It enables us to wholeheartedly follow our desire to make a positive difference in the world.

A process for testing the standard "Course lore" interpretation of this line

Course lore consists of ideas about the Course that are not (in our opinion) accurate, but repeated so often among Course students that they become part of the accepted wisdom of the community—the standard interpretation, which is now the unquestioned gospel. A lot of Course lore is centered around well-known lines like "Do you prefer that you be right or happy?" (which I wrote an article about) and "I need do nothing."

"Seek not to change the world" definitely fits this category. When someone is talking about actively doing something to make a difference in the world—say, attending a peace rally, or supporting a political candidate, or sending aid to the starving people in Darfur—and someone else trots out that line, everyone "knows" what it means. We shouldn't try to change the world; we just need to change our minds, and that's all. Go ahead and do acts of kindness when the opportunity presents itself, but know that changing conditions "out there" is not part of the Course's way; if you think it is, that's your ego talking. The discussion is now effectively closed.

Instead of automatically slapping our standard interpretation onto the line, though, we need to stop and ask ourselves: Is this really what the line is saying? The following is a process for determining that.

Are there any self-contradictions in the standard interpretation?

This step isn't the most important, but I'm putting it first because it often pops up first for me when I hear conventional Course wisdom. For instance, when I express disagreement with other views (as I'm doing now), some Course students will inevitably respond by telling me that expressing disagreement is contrary to the Course. When I hear this, the self-contradiction leaps out at me: If this is so, then the very response is self-contradictory, because of course the respondents are disagreeing with me. They are saying, in essence, "I disagree with disagreement." (Robert recently wrote an article about this phenomenon, entitled "The Strange Taboo Against Disagreeing.") Not every incorrect Course interpretation contains such self-contradictions, but more than a few do. When you see something like this, a red flag ought to go up.

I see several self-contradictions in the standard interpretation of "seek not to change the world." First, the very act of saying that we must not do things to change the external world is—oops!—doing something that changes the external world. In my experience, those who insist we must seek not to change the world are often very passionate about declaring this view to the world in order to change the opinions of those who reside there. Second, the standard interpretation means that Jesus, the author of the Course, has contradicted himself in at least two ways: by doing so much to change the world in his life two thousand years ago, and by going to all that effort to dictate this world-changing Course to Helen. He never should have told her to "take notes," because that was doing something that would change the world. There's something fishy about this standard interpretation.

What does the line mean in its immediate context?

This step is the most important. Examining the immediate context is the single most effective means of clarifying the meaning of any line in the Course. We need to train ourselves to do this right away whenever a question about the interpretation of a particular line comes up. Here, then, is the immediate context of our line:

Projection makes perception. The world you see is what you gave it, nothing more than that. But though it is no more than that, it is not less. Therefore, to you it is important. It is the witness to your state of mind, the outside picture of an inward condition. As a man thinketh, so does he perceive. Therefore, seek not to change the world, but choose to change your mind about the world. Perception is a result and not a cause. And that is why order of difficulty in miracles is meaningless. Everything looked upon with vision is healed and holy. Nothing perceived without it means anything. And where there is no meaning, there is chaos.

Damnation is your judgment on yourself, and this you will project upon the world. See it as damned, and all you see is what you did to hurt the Son of God. If you behold disaster and catastrophe, you tried to crucify him. If you see holiness and hope, you joined the Will of God to set him free. There is no choice that lies between these two decisions. And you will see the witness to the choice you made, and learn from this to recognize which one you chose. The world you see but shows you how much joy you have allowed yourself to see in you, and to accept as yours. And, if this is its meaning, then the power to give it joy must lie within you. (T-21.In.1:1-2:8)

These paragraphs are a commentary on one of the most fundamental principles of the Course: "Projection makes perception" (1:1). This principle says that what we perceive in the world is a projection of what we think or believe—in this passage, what we believe about ourselves. Therefore, what we perceive in the world is a witness to our state of mind; it serves as evidence of what we believe about ourselves. If we see the world as a wicked place victimizing us with disaster and catastrophe, this is evidence of our damnation of ourselves. If instead we see the world as a place of holiness and hope, this is evidence of our decision to see ourselves as innocent.

This brings us to our line: "Therefore, seek not to change the world, but choose to change your mind about the world." This is an injunction; it is asking us to apply the teaching. But what exactly is it asking us to do? Given the context we've just examined, here is my answer:

Because what you see in the world is a projection of what you believe about yourself, you cannot turn the world of disaster and catastrophe into a place of holiness and hope merely by rearranging external things within it. Instead, the way to see a world of holiness and hope is to change your mind by choosing to look upon the world with the vision of Christ. This is a decision to see your own holiness as well; because the world you see is a witness to what you believe about yourself, seeing a holy world will enable you to recognize your own holiness. Therefore, if you want all this to happen, seek not to change externals in the world, but choose instead to change your mind about the world.

Does this meaning require us to accept the standard interpretation?

If we answer this question quickly without thinking about it, we may be tempted to say yes. After all, the line does tell us that we shouldn't seek to change the world, right? But here again, we need to resist the urge to automatically slap the standard interpretation onto the line; instead, we need to look more closely at what it really says (and doesn't say). A closer examination reveals that the line is not a blanket rejection of doing things in the world to help others and bring about external changes. All the line says is that changing externals will not, in and of itself, lead to a new perception of the world; only our change of mind will do that. But this leaves open the possibility that the Course might want us to engage in external action for some other purpose. Thus, the meaning we've seen in our line doesn't require us to accept the standard interpretation of it. There are other possibilities, which leads to the next question.

Are there places in the Course that contradict the standard interpretation?

The short answer here is yes. The Course speaks in countless ways of the importance of extending behaviorally to the world. First, there are all the references to our function of saving the world. In lesson 63, we are asked to repeat, "I am the means God has appointed for the salvation of the world" (W-pI.63.3:5). Entire lessons are devoted to this idea, such as "Salvation of the world depends on me" (W-pI.186.Heading) and "I came for the salvation of the world" (W-pII.319.Heading). Now, it's true that the active ingredient behind our saving the world is changing our mind, but Jesus also tells us, "You are my voice, my eyes, my feet, my hands through which I save the world" (W-pI.RV.In.9:3). Clearly, there is an active component to this; Jesus needs our bodies as vehicles through which he can save the world. Communicating salvation through the body is crucial, because this form of communication is the easiest for people to understand and accept. A simple example: If you want to communicate love in a way another person will understand and accept, there's nothing like a kind word and a hug.

This theme of using behavior as a means to save the world can be seen again and again in the Course material. We are to use the body as a communication device, a means "to reach the minds of those who believe they are bodies, and teach them through the body that this is not so" (T-8.VII.3:2). Jesus says in the Urtext that "the real members of my party are active workers." We are told in the Psychotherapy supplement that "Nothing in the world is holier than helping one who asks for help" (P-2.V.4:2). We are even told in the Text that the change in external conditions that results from our extension of a miracle to a brother teaches us the saving truth that reality is changeless (see T-30.VIII.2).

All of this (and much more) clearly contradicts the idea that actively doing things to save the world has no place in the Course's system. The standard interpretation is now looking fishier than ever.

What are the options for resolving this apparent contradiction?

Now that we have this apparent contradiction, what do we do? I see two options. The first is to adhere to that standard interpretation, and use it to effectively erase all of those other passages. One way of doing this, preferred by Ken Wapnick, is to dismiss the other passages as "metaphor," not to be taken as literal instruction. In my opinion, however, this is not the way to go. There are numerous passages that speak of the positive role of external action, and there is nothing in the passages themselves that suggests Jesus doesn't mean them literally. Choosing to erase them on the basis of a dubious interpretation of one line (and similar lines elsewhere) amounts to massively rewriting the Course.

Fortunately, there is another option. Since we've already seen that the meaning of "seek not to change the world" doesn't require us to accept the standard interpretation, and there are lots of passages that contradict that standard interpretation, it is the standard interpretation that needs to be erased. What we need is an alternative interpretation of the whole picture presented by these apparently contradictory ideas, one that harmonizes our line with the other passages we've seen.

What alternative interpretation would resolve this apparent contradiction?

There is indeed an alternative interpretation. The key to it is the answer to this question: Why is extending behaviorally to others in the world important? What role does it play in the Course's system? The short answer: It communicates your healed perception to others and thus reinforces it in you. The Course gives us a three-part formula: You receive healed perception from the Holy Spirit, then give that healed perception to others (which heals them), and as a result fully recognize the healed perception you received. This formula is repeated again and again. At one point, we are told that the idea that "we will not recognize what we receive until we give it" has been "said a hundred ways, a hundred times, and yet belief is lacking still" (W-pI.154.12:1-2). Here is another of those hundred ways, which ties this idea to the idea of saving the world:

Ideas must first belong to you, before you give them. If you are to save the world, you first accept salvation for yourself. But you will not believe that this is done until you see the miracles it brings to everyone you look upon. (W-pI.187.3:1-3)

Notice that same three-part formula: You receive salvation for yourself, then you give miracles to everyone you look upon, and as a result you come to fully recognize the salvation you received. And the giving in this process clearly includes giving behaviorally. Not only have we seen examples of that in some of the passages above, but the very lesson from which this passage is drawn says that the principle can be applied to giving forms, which can only be done behaviorally: When you give a form to someone, you are giving the thought behind it. "Things but represent the thoughts that make them" (W-pI.187.2:3). Whatever form our giving takes, it is through this process of receiving, giving, and recognizing that we save the world.

Now we have everything we need to come up with an alternative interpretation that is true to both the meaning of "seek not to change the world" in its immediate context, and all those passages which speak of acting to save the world. The key is realizing that while changing externals cannot change our mind, changing externals has a part to play in salvation after we have changed our mind: it communicates that change of mind to others, which heals them and thus reinforces our own healing. Here, then, is an alternative interpretation that harmonizes everything we've seen:

If you want a new perception of the world, the way to get it is not to change the world externally, but to change your mind about the world. However, once you have changed your mind and thus healed your perception, you must extend this healed perception to others—an extension which often includes behavior that changes the world externally. This extension will communicate your healed perception to others, heal them, and thus reinforce your healed perception. Through this process, you will save the world.

"To all the world we give the message that we have received"

The great benefit of the correct interpretation of this line is that it resolves the tension between our desire to make a positive difference in the world and the message we constantly get that this desire is contrary to our path. I see this tension in Course circles all the time. I've encountered Course students who have a real yearning to be of service to others. Every Course student I know admires people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and of course Jesus, people who actively extended loving perception to others and changed the world as a result. While the impulse to do this can be co-opted by the ego, the impulse itself is a holy thing—at one point, the Urtext even calls it the "miracle-drive." Yet my impression is that while Course students feel the pull to express that miracle-drive and do so to some extent, they often hold back because they hear that bit of Course lore whispering in their ear: "Seek not to change the world."

Now, however, I hope you've seen that this Course lore needn't hold us back at all. Yes, it is important to remember that merely rearranging externals isn't going to heal our perception of the world. This is a vitally important Course teaching. But once we have changed our minds and let healed perception in, even if only a little bit, it is equally important to go out into the world and share our healed perception in whatever way the Holy Spirit directs. We need to extend it to others in thought, word, and deed, just like those amazing people we admire so much. We must do this if our healing is to be fully realized.

I'd like to conclude with an inspiring passage from Lesson 245. This passage would be erased by the standard interpretation of "seek not to change the world," but fits perfectly with our corrected interpretation. Its essence is that we receive the peace of God, give what we have received, and thus recognize all that God in His limitless Love has given us. Rather than standing above it all and heroically refraining from doing anything "out there" that might change the world, giving to all the world the message that we have received is the Course's pathway home:

Your peace surrounds me, Father. Where I go, Your peace goes there with me. It sheds its light on everyone I meet. I bring it to the desolate and lonely and afraid. I give Your peace to those who suffer pain, or grieve for loss, or think they are bereft of hope and happiness. Send them to me, my Father. Let me bring Your peace with me. For I would save Your Son, as is Your Will, that I may come to recognize my Self.

And so we go in peace. To all the world we give the message that we have received. And thus we come to hear the Voice for God, Who speaks to us as we relate His Word; Whose Love we recognize because we share the Word that He has given unto us. (W-pII.245.1:1-2:3)


  1. administrator
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    What is not love is a call for love and the response is always love. We ask for atonement from the Holy Spirit—change my mind about this person or situation—and with our healed perception, the vision of the Holy Spirit, we are able to extend and express the love, peace, compassion and forgiveness in response to the call for love. The Urtext tells us that the only prayer we need ever pray is, 'Atone for me.' Thank you Greg for demonstrating to us the way in which we become miracles workers in the Great Crusade!
    Priscilla Cole

  2. Carol
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    "Seek not to change the world, but choose to change your mind about the world"
    Thanks for sharing your perceptions of the "ACIM."
    I find your article interpretation an "seek not to change the world" a bit left brain, analytical and a contradictory of the true meaning, I say contradictory for lack of a better word, because I see no contradiction in the "course". The principle idea the course is offering us awakening from the dream for our salvation. There is nothing to do because the world is an illusion!, "I need do nothing."
    The course tells us; the thinking mind (ego) constantly contradicts itself, (from Text; Reason and forms of error), constantly finds fault, constantly sees contradiction, as you are finding these contradictions in the Course, perhaps over thinking it, causes it to be picked apart and then attempting to reassemble it in your own perceptions. "the ego's whole continuance depends on its belief you cannot learn this course. Share this belief and reason will be unable to see your errors and make way for their correction."
    OK, So, Not sure I understand your point? Do you think others find the course is wrong or confusing that you need to clarify? It has a tendency to be confusing to the ego but that is the point. The concepts are written in such a way as to bi pass the ego's critical mind thinking which seeks to dissect confuse and find fault to gain control of our perceptions within the illusory world. That is why ACIM tells us we need the "little willingness" to see things differently as God sees us rather than the way the world is offering a definition of who we are. If the world is an illusion, it doesn't matter if you help the starving masses or not. You only are feeding the starving masses within yourself. If the opportunity to feed the hungry presents itself in the dream, by all means partake as you see fit. And remember you are in the dream while doing so. "even as you do unto the least of these you do unto me" Jesus said somewhere in the bible. You are feeding yourself.. you who are the Holy Son of God.
    If it suggests that we Heal the war within so the war will heal that we see, in essence it is a nudge to awaken from a nightmare.
    When my dog is Buddy is having a nightmare crying and barking in his sleep, I go over and pet him and speak softly, "it's OK Buddy" and he calms down, even though he is still sleeping and dreaming, perhaps now his dream is less frightening. His world within the dream seems to have healed, but not completely until he wakes up. So, If a person is confused about what to do or not do, because of the lesson "Seek not to change the world, or I need do nothing", that is a temporary part of their illusion of temporary suffering to be confused as nothing is really happening within their life/dream. When we have suffered enough, we seek a better way. If it is through doing and not doing then perhaps that will bring enlightenment to their mind. It doesn't matter.
    There can be no contradictions to the "course" because it is either 100% True or 100% false. It is a whole lot of talking about Love and nothing, where as Love being the only thing that is real. So, To do or not to do?
    Doing and not doing in the dream of illusions, doesn't matter. If you feel the need to do, then do. No need to judge. I always say, "show me the miracle within this moment." The experience is the illusion that something is happening and it is our own personal mind made perceptions and our opinions about the illusion that make it good or bad or healed or unhealed, done or undone. "Every Loving thought is real" that is all that matters.
    Thank you,

  3. Raveena Nash
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Dear Greg,
    I have just read your interesting article and would like to say "thank you" as I have been trying to make sense of this important passage from the Course for some time. I would definitely agree that although changing the world won't bring an end to chaos and conflict, because it is our minds that need to be changed, it is, nonetheless, important to demonstrate love and forgiveness in all our actions. I think that would include trying to help those who are suffering in any way. So good deeds are important.
    Kind regards,

  4. Patricia Weberman
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Dear Greg Mackie,
    Thanks so much for clearing this up. I too have heard much debate on this topic. I haven't read your complete article as yet I will when I download it, but when the topic comes up what I remembered from the Course is this: "You are not asked to correct your brother."
    I don't even recall where this is in the Course, but since the world and all our brothers are projections of our erroneous perceptual filters, this makes sense. The only one capable of correction is the Holy Spirit, wherein we invite a little willingness to see this differently.
    Blessings to you on your brilliant work, helping us all get home. I cannot donate right now as my husband has been out of work for over a year. I hope to in the near future.

  5. Posted October 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this article.
    On the topic of changing the world I have to frequently remind myself that the world doesn't really exist. The world is nothing more than the collective projection of our collective unconscious mind. In this regard, it's a colossal, metaphorical dream depicting our fearful state of mind.
    When one person manages to make one small "change in the outer world" i.e. when one person manages to hold a more compassionate less condemning view of another person in their inner world, this is the one and only act that can really change the world because this it is the only and only act that controls what makes the world in the first place.
    It doesn't really matter what game you choose to play in this world, what political party you belong to, who you vote for or what uniform you wear. God doesn't take sides. He's on everyone's side. In the end, the only "game" that matters and the only "game" that will ever change this world is love. The only real game is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only catalyst for changing this world
    I'm reminded of the Course teaching that says that forgiveness makes miracles multiply into an endless unbroken chain of forgiveness. The forgiveness we share with one person is shared with another person and then another and another and another, etc. etc. etc. In the end, it is the singular means by which any of us can ever really change this world. To me, forgiveness doesn't mean you have to agree with another person's actions. It merely means you don't fight fire with fire, you don't fight hate with hate. Like Jesus and like Gandhi, you lay down your arms. You extend compassion. Then you quietly go about your business of opening your heart to love a little bit more each day. This is the only way I believe any one changes the world, and this is what we are all called to do.
    Loretta M. Siani, Ph.D.
    Clinical Hypnotherapy
    Wedding and Funeral Ministry
    (562) 434-7429

  6. administrator
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Hi there,
    In response to your article on "seek not to change the world" Greg says that he believes we are to take part in the world rather than not. OK, but who doesnt take part in the world anyway in one form or another? Looking at the famous people he mentioned, did they really make a difference? The world still just repeats itself, wars continue on,cruelty continues on, looks like nothing changes.
    I think that you do a take on where you find yourself. Even if your lying down in a coma perhaps? You may find yourself in a situation where you literally can do nothing externally. Because this course recognizes this it emphasises just our internal condition, because that is enough to contend with. Paul the apostle once said that doing good works isnt it, but grace is everything, or something like that, and I feel the course says the same thing.
    I notice my greatest ego temptation is to change something, but even if I succeed it doesnt mean that I have done a good thing always. My intention is good but the outcome can be not so good. I would so love to change the world but it wont change 🙂

  7. Ralph Renick
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Good Morning Greg,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the idea of "seek not to change the world". I see your interpretation of the idea and agree. I would, however appreciate adding my thoughts to this.
    As I consider what Jesus was saying in his many statements on this concept I ask myself "what do we, as Course in Miracles believers know without ANY doubt?" The answer that I feel is the most basic point Jesus is trying to make is that in order for us to "change the world" we as individuals do, as you have said, have to change our way of looking at the world. We, ourselves have to completely believe and understand that what we percieve as happening in the world is only OUR interpretation of what is happening. Our concept of what is happening is built on news articles, or other peoples' concepts or biases of what is happening and our own internal processing of information comming to us. As miracle workers we are taught by Jesus to give up on looking at the world and our brothers with this mind of past lies and half truths and see them as ONLY what they are, equal, sinless sons and daughters of God.
    As we change our way of looking at them and project this very basic miracle attitude to them, then, and only then are we going to have a chance to change the world. As we give the miracle to that one of our brothers we have to simply believe and know that our miracle is working in him. As the miracle works in him he will learn to see his brother in the same way.
    Will we do this nation by nation or city by city? No, probably not. But Jesus asks us to do this brother by brother, and as we teach one brother then the miracle will grow exponentially to the rest of Gods children.
    I see this fulfilling the old saying " Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime". If we take food and clothing to a shelter for the homeless we are doing good, no doubt. But if we live the miracle that Jesus is teaching and teach our brother to see other brothers as what they are, perfect, sinless sons of God, then we change the world much more effectively.
    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say this. I enjoy your commentary and that of the other Circle members so much.
    Thank You.

  8. Kirt McCurdy
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Phenomenal article Greg!
    I could feel the Miracles happening in my mind as I read your words that left my old perception in the dust. Your interpretation of Seek Not to Change the World resonates much more soundly with me.
    Many thanks,

  9. David Pomatti
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Hi Greg,

    A movie scene comes to mind: In “A Passage to India,” the Hindu Prof. Godbole tells the British Fielding, “Excuse me, but nothing you do will change the outcome.” / Fielding: “So do nothing. Is that your philosophy?” / Godbole: “My philosophy is you can do what you like, but the outcome will be the same.”

    I see the Course passage as advice on our attempts to redress “grievances” by tackling their supposed sources in the external world. As our experience of that world is a reflection of what we believe about ourselves, if we do succeed in changing externals without changing our self-beliefs, that world will simply adjust to give us the same quality of reflection through other means: the grievance will return in another area.

    Efforts to change the world without prior self-change may be like the hypocrisy of ‘talking the talk without walking the walk.’ I’m reminded of the Gandhi anecdote: a mother brought her young son to him and said, “Gandhi-ji, tell my son not to eat sugar.” Gandhi told her and the boy to come back in two weeks. When they did return, Gandhi told the boy, “Don’t eat sugar.” The mother asked why they had to wait two weeks for this. “Because,” answered Gandhi, “two weeks ago I still ate sugar.” Among the things I take from this is the recognition that my words–and my efforts to change the world–will have force only if they carry integrity and reflect my own change. Again, the famous Gandhi quote applies here: “Be the change you would see in others.”

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