The section, "I Need Do Nothing" is, I think, an extremely important, as well as profound, section. It is also, from my point of view, one of the most misunderstood sections in the entire Course. What exactly does "doing nothing" mean? Does it mean that we, as good Course students, should just go to bed, and, if possible, not even disturb the sheets? To address the meaning of "doing nothing," I have written the following summary of and commentary on this section (references are given for First Edition page numbers).
The body, sin and time
This section begins by sketching a very interesting relationship between the body, sin and time. We are asked, "What plans do you make that do not involve [the body's] comfort or protection or enjoyment in some way?" In other words, we see the body as an end in itself, rather than as a means for extending love to others (See Text, p. 140-146). And seeing the body as an end means seeing sin as an end. Why? Because the body is the symbol of sin. Let me explain.
"Sin" is a difficult word to define in the Course. In my opinion, "sin" is what we think attack is, when we mistakenly believe that attack is real. In other words, a sin is a real attack, with real destructive effects and real selfish rewards, and which, therefore, is really evil and entails real guilt. Sin says that we really did attack reality: We really did tear ourselves away from it, cutting ourselves off from its wholeness and holiness; we really did withdraw into our own individual life of private needs, needs which we fulfill through further real, destructive attack on the world outside of us.
The body is the outer symbol of all this, for the body is the prison wall of our separate existence, the source of private, selfish needs and the instrument of attack on the world. To value the body as an end in itself is to value attack as an end in itself. "…the ego's belief in the body as an end…is synonymous with the belief in attack as an end" (Text, p. 144).
Now comes a very interesting connection, the connection between the body, sin and time. "At no single instant does the body exist at all. It is always remembered or anticipated, but never experienced just NOW." How can this be true? I think this is exactly the same thing that is being said about the coffee cup in Workbook lesson 7, where we are told that our mental picture of the cup is merely a composite of different memories. Our body is just such a picture, being built up of thousands of memories of the past, as well as anticipations of the future—future dangers, future fulfillments of need and future actions. The body is basically a time instrument, our vehicle for doing things in time. Apart from time, it has no meaning. It is never experienced just now, in the present moment. It is mentally put together out of many, many past and future moments.
Sin is similarly time-bound. Its sequence of attack, destruction, personal gain and guilt must occur over time. Further, its goals are in relation to time. It constantly seeks revenge for past "wrongs" and then promises rewards in the future, rewards which never really materialize. The satisfactions it promised were never real in the first place, which is why they could only seem real when placed in the unreal past or unreal future. This is why A Course in Miracles suggests that if you come fully into the present, sin loses all of its attraction and you see that, rather than past vindication and future glory, the only "reward" it brings is present guilt.
The holy instant
The real keynote of this section is the holy instant, the brief instant of time in which we experience "the miracle of Atonement," the healing of our minds. To experience the holy instant we are told that just for a moment we must let go of this complex of body, sin and time. We must utterly forget the body, let it disappear entirely from sight. And we must be "willing to see no past or future." This also is just for an instant. So, to enter the holy instant, we must momentarily forget about the body, the past and the future. In doing so, the value of the body recedes, as does the value of sin, for both are time-dependent.
The holy instant, then, is gained by fully entering into the present. It is not, as we usually think, gained by working toward it in the future. Why is this? Because, while sin is truly a time phenomenon, salvation is not. Salvation is not earned over time. It is a gift from the Holy Spirit, already fully present and complete. It is not a process whereby a future condition that does not exist now is created over time by a progressive series of changes. Since we are already saved, already enlightened, it need not be a process at all, merely a recognition of what is already here. We just impose the appearance of time upon it. We make it look like a thing of time by gradually approaching over time what is really an already accomplished fact.
Yet the less of time we impose on it, the better. For instance, we are asked to give up preparing for the holy instant. Why? Because by preparing for it we are placing it in the future. And since when we receive the holy instant depends totally on when we choose to have it, placing it in the future delays it. Reaching it in this way takes a very long time, not because it really needs to, but because we think it needs to.
And there is a further delaying effect of preparing for it in the future. For it places our focus in the future, taking our minds out of the present moment. This obviously hampers our ability to experience the holy instant, since we experience it by fully entering into the present.
Preparing for the holy instant in the future, then, is a case of ambivalence, divided loyalty. It shows that you want it, but do not want it just yet. Imagine giving someone a million dollars, only to see him ignore the money in front of him and then go off on an excited search to earn that same million. He obviously wants the money, but feels so unworthy of it that he does not realize he already has it.
The Course says that you do eventually reach the holy instant in this way. Yet the irony is that after all your preparation, when you finally do reach it, "it always comes with just one happy realization; 'I need do nothing.'" In other words, after all that you did to achieve it, you find that it did not need to be earned at all. It was there all along just for the accepting. You could have had it any moment you wanted. You were not really seeking a future reality. Ironically, you were seeking the experience of the present in the future. You were working up to finally allowing yourself to be fully present.
This situation reminds one of The Wizard of Oz , in which Dorothy seeks all kinds of ways to get back home, going on crusades to earn her way back, seeking means of physical transportation. Finally, she is told that all she needs to do is click her heels together and say, "There's no place like home."
Instead of preparation, then, the Course urges us to practice the realization that "I need do nothing." It shortens all this time by reminding us that salvation is ours now, just for the accepting, just for opening our eyes. This unifies our allegiance, normally divided between having it now and having it later. "`I need do nothing' is a statement of allegiance, a truly undivided loyalty."
The Course and other teachings
In my mind, one of the most important things about this section is that it compares the Course's teaching with other teachings; in fact, with the main currents of spirituality, East and West. It does not label its characterizations as that, but they obviously are. This is how it describes the characteristic Western approach:
…those who wrestle with temptation and fight against the giving in to sin…reach Atonement by fighting against sin…struggle against temptation…
This is how it describes the characteristic Eastern approach:
…the mind given to contemplation…contemplation and long periods of meditation aimed at detachment from the body…contemplation…
I find this fascinating. I think the Course has captured the basic methods of God-seeking in East and West very well. In the West, we have tried to reach God by fighting against temptation, wrestling with the devil, so to speak. In the East, they have tried to reach God through meditation, and detachment from the body, the senses and the world. Whereas the Course basically throws them into the same overall category: methods which do not work as well as the Course's, it does seem to slightly favor the East's. We are told that "It is extremely difficult to reach Atonement" by the Western route. While on the other hand, we are told that the Eastern route is merely not "necessary."
These two methods are basically used to illustrate what the Course means when it talks about preparing for the holy instant. Both the Eastern and the Western approaches express the belief that I am not worthy now and must therefore work toward achieving a state that I do not now possess. For this reason, they take longer. The Course, in fact, is quite emphatic about the amount of time its way can save you. The idea of saving time is woven into many of the paragraphs in these sections and is the basic purpose of realizing that "I need do nothing." At one point, indeed, we are told, "Believe it for just one instant, and you will accomplish more than is given to a century of contemplation, or of struggle against temptation."
However, this point is balanced out by the fact that even though these other methods take longer, they do work. Only on the level of means does the Course differ; the goal is the same. And because of their goal, the methods of struggling against sin and long periods of meditation will succeed; they will get you to God. In fact, "This course does not attempt to teach more than they learned in time…."
So, the Course is setting itself apart from traditional modes of God-seeking in saying that its teaching makes practical use of the fact that enlightenment is a current fact, not a future attainment. Yet, there is also another way in which the Course distinguishes itself.
A holy relationship is a means of saving time. One instant spent together restores the universe to both of you….Time has been saved for you because you and your brother are together. This is the special means this course is using to save you time.
The traditional methods of East and West, especially the more serious ones, were approaches to individual salvation. The Course's approach is one of group salvation, finding God through joining with others in common purpose. Notice the word "together" occurring twice in the above couplet of passages. The Course is really talking about seeking God together, or, better put, seeking Him through our togetherness.
Finally, there is this extremely important line: "You are not making use of the course if you insist on using means which have served others well, neglecting what was made for you ." This is the only plea I know of in the Course of this nature, but it is a very important one. It is saying, "If the Course is your path, use it. These other paths are not bad; they have served others well. But they are not yours." This brings to mind the line from the Manual, "you are not free to choose the curriculum, or even the form in which you will learn it" (Manual, p. 4).
What is doing nothing?
We now come around full circle to our original question: What does it mean to do nothing? Fundamentally, "I need do nothing" means, "I am already saved, already one with God, already enlightened, already awake. Therefore, I do not need to earn a future state of which I am presently unworthy."
Yet at present, I am quite profoundly unaware of this. So, how do I realize my already present salvation? The answer to this is the main thrust of the section. What I do is I make practical the fact that I need do nothing by entering a moment of time in which I let all doing go. I let my body, the instrument of doing, go, forgetting it is even here. I let past and future, the arena of doing, go, coming fully into the present. I create a space in which nothing moves. "To do nothing is to rest, and make a place within you where the activity of the body ceases to demand attention."
It is then that the holy instant occurs and produces in me a place of non-doing, "a quiet center," into which the Holy Spirit comes and abides with me. Once established, both the quiet center and the Holy Spirit remain. The Holy Spirit "will remain when you forget, and the body's activities return to occupy your conscious mind." And, "This quiet center, in which you do nothing, will remain with you, giving you rest in the midst of every busy doing…."
Yet in this timeless moment, there is also an interpersonal dimension: I encounter my brother. This is what the Course calls "the holy encounter," in which I forget my brother's past, clean my mind of all old ideas about him, become totally present to him, totally open to who he really is, and share salvation with him. In fact, careful reading reveals that when this section says, "Save time for me by only this one preparation, and practice doing nothing else," it is talking about the holy encounter.
The thing to remember, however, is that this instant is just that: an instant. It is only momentary: "not…for more than an instant…" "just for an instant…" "for just one instant…" This instant is an island of non-doing surrounded by doing, both before and after. Beforehand, in order to reach this instant, we must undo all of our mental activities, our preoccupations with various processes that stretch over past, present and future. Strictly speaking, this is not a doing, but an undoing. But those who have attempted it know that it is not exactly without effort.
And, once the holy instant is over, we not only return to bodily doing, but, now that the Holy Spirit has been established in our "quiet center," we engage in inspired doing. We are told that "from this center will you be directed how to use the body sinlessly." In other words, He will break for us the body-sin connection that our minds have built up. The body is not inherently sinful, or even inherently attacking. Only seeing it as an end in itself associates it with the idea of sin. Further, we will not only be doing, the Holy Spirit will direct our body to be quite busy. There is explicit reference to "every busy doing on which you are sent."
Overall, then, this idea of doing nothing, though having a profound metaphysical base, is brought down to earth and made very practical. Doing nothing is both a brief instant in which all activity—physical and mental—literally ceases, and an inner center that remains with us when activity resumes. It is not discordant with the Workbook's emphasis on inner practice, for it takes mind training to enter the holy instant of doing nothing (see Text, 282, lines 5-7). Nor does it contradict physical doing. We are told, in fact, that the holy instant will help ground a new kind of physical behavior, behavior that is guided by the Holy Spirit; thus initiating a life, which, rather than idle, will be filled with "busy doing."