Have you ever wondered why we don't change faster? Why we seem so stuck in our patterns? Why we seem to awaken so slowly? After all, the Course teaches that we are in charge of the dream. We can choose whatever we want. We can choose to awaken right now. So why aren't we?
Recently, an answer presented itself to me in Workbook Lesson 136, "Sickness is a defense against the truth." This lesson contains a fascinating and disturbing account of how we defend ourselves against the truth.
Defenses are not unintentional, nor are they made without awareness. They are secret, magic wands you wave when truth appears to threaten what you would believe. They seem to be unconscious but because of the rapidity with which you choose to use them. In that second, even less, in which the choice is made, you recognize exactly what you would attempt to do, and then proceed to think that it is done.
Who but yourself evaluates a threat, decides escape is necessary, and sets up a series of defenses to reduce the threat that has been judged as real? All this cannot be done unconsciously. But afterwards, your plan requires that you must forget you made it, so it seems to be external to your own intent; a happening beyond your state of mind, an outcome with a real effect on you, instead of one effected by yourself.
It is this quick forgetting of the part you play in making your "reality" that makes defenses seem to be beyond your own control. (W-pI.136.3:1-5:1)
Here we have an account of how we keep the truth away from us. When the truth arrives and threatens to topple our secure world, we make a split-second decision to mount a defense, a decision that only seems unconscious because it is so quick. And then, just as quickly as we made the decision, we forget it. Now our defense goes forward, but it appears to just happen, without our involvement. It seems to be "an outcome with a real effect on you, instead of one effected by yourself" (4:3).
I'll call these decisions "IMIF decisions"—IMIF standing for "Instantly Made/Instantly Forgotten." Yet do we actually make IMIF decisions? How can we know if we do? After all, the nature of these decisions is that after making them we have no memory of doing so. It seems suspiciously convenient that Jesus says that we do something which, by its very nature, is extremely hard to catch ourselves doing. It's as if he said, "Your children's toys are actually alive, but you can't verify this because whenever you look, they act lifeless."
Yet I am really overstating the objection, for we can catch ourselves making IMIF decisions. I think the classic case is with diets. If you've ever been on a diet (and most of us have), you have probably experienced the phenomenon of a diet failing of its own accord. Somehow, it just stops working—or, worse yet, doesn't work from the beginning. This seems to be tied to a closely-related phenomenon: food getting into your mouth without you putting it there. No decision was ever actually made to eat that food, and yet there it is, in your mouth.
Of course, you did decide to eat the food, and you can catch yourself making that decision. In my experience, the decision is uncannily similar to what Jesus described above. I feel a threat of hunger, or of simply missing out on something I want. At first I may consciously decide to resist the temptation. This decision to resist may be quite deliberate, accompanied a little back-and-forthing, some pangs of regret, as well as mental slaps on the back. And then suddenly, bam! I decide to eat it. After all the previous deliberation, this decision is shockingly rapid. It is so instantaneous as to seem unconscious. It is no more than a flash of decision. And then, in a sort of twisted version of not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing, I instantly look the other way. I look away so quickly and completely that this decision can actually be forgotten, to the point where at times I can't actually remember deciding to eat what I am in fact chewing. It seems to have just landed in my mouth of its own accord.
You probably know exactly what I am talking about. This is not a rare phenomenon. I saw a TV show that tested the claim of many obese people that they have lower metabolisms. They must have lower metabolisms, they reason, because they take in so little food and yet put on so much weight. The scientists on this show had a way of precisely measuring their metabolism, and found that these people were actually burning more calories than the average person, not less, for the simple reason that they had more body mass. What this show concluded (whether true or false, I don't know) is that the real story behind obesity is higher appetite settings in their brain. Obese people weigh more not because their body burns fewer calories, but because their brain pressures them (with hunger pangs) to take in more calories. If these scientists were right, then the people they were examining must have been using the process Jesus describes here in spades. They not only didn't remember deciding to eat; they didn't remember eating.
Therefore, we are able to make IMIF (instantly made/instantly forgotten) decisions. Having established that, let's ponder two additional questions. First, what if these aren't a small minority of our decisions, but are actually the majority? Second, what if these IMIF decisions are the culprit behind our slow spiritual progress? What if they are responsible for our snail's pace along the path to truth?
IMIF decisions are indeed an excellent candidate for this role. Think about what Jesus said about them. He said that they are how we defend ourselves against the truth, and that once they set in motion our defense, it seems to go forward of its own accord, outside of our will. The predictable result of IMIF decisions, then, would be to leave us wondering why on earth the truth is still so far away, given that we never remember actually pushing it away. This, of course, is exactly the condition most spiritual seekers are in. We try and try and try to get close to God, and then we wonder where He is, why He isn't holding up His part of the deal. We are working so hard; why doesn't He reciprocate?
Indeed, our spiritual journeys are a lot like our diets. We start them with the best intentions and the most ambitious goals. We grind it out, day by day. And yet, after all our efforts, we inexplicably fall short. Sure, we slipped up here and there, but not enough to account for our meager results. Some mysterious element in the process just didn't work, and we are left scratching our heads and wondering what went wrong.
Surely that mysterious element is our own IMIF decisions. And is this really a mystery? Who exactly are we trying to kid? We may firmly intend to restrict our intake of ego, yet throughout the day, we are mindlessly munching on ego snacks, chewing on ego-based thoughts. "She is way less spiritual than I am" (munch). "I am being treated so unfairly" (munch). "It's such a pleasure to see him get what he deserves" (munch). Yet with most of these decisions, the very instant we make them, we forget we made them. Thus, at the end of the day, we find ourselves bloated with ego and have no idea how it happened. Seeing what a grip our ego still has on us and how far we seem from God, we think, "I don't know if I have what it takes. I am hopeless as a spiritual seeker" (munch, munch).
One of the classic examples of these IMIF decisions, and the power they have to derail our spiritual journey, can be seen in "Rules for Decision" (T-30.I). There, we begin the day with a special dedication. We sit down and decide to have an unusually happy day, and the way we plan to have this happy day is that we will make no decisions by ourselves. All of our decisions will flow from the Holy Spirit's guidance. What we are doing in this morning time is establishing a "set" (T-30.I.1:3-5)—a mindset for the day that will remain in effect until we change our mind (see T-4.V.6:11).
This section then goes on to give us instructions in how to renew this mindset throughout the day. Whenever we can, we remind ourselves of the day we want and tell ourselves that we will have that very day, if we make no decisions by ourselves (T-30.I.4:1-2). Between these two procedures—the morning time in which we establish the set for the day and the frequent moments of reflection in which we renew the set for the day—we should be able to carry through with our intentions. We should be able to have that happy day.
Yet most of the instructions—eight out of twelve paragraphs—deal with what to do when our day goes off track, when we find ourselves "unwilling to sit by and ask" (T-30.I.5:3). We have secretly decided that in this particular situation, we know what the problem is, and we are afraid that the Holy Spirit's answer will address a whole different problem, leaving the "real" problem unsolved. So we decide that it's impractical "to sit by and ask" for His guidance; it's time to take matters into our own hands. Notice the significance of this moment: Our whole day is planned around making all our decisions with the Holy Spirit, yet here we have refused to make a decision with Him. We are changing our mind about what the day is for. We are nullifying that mindset we established in the morning. We are changing directions and setting out on a whole different day.
Seeing the decisive nature of this one moment, the section provides a "quick restorative" (T-30.I.5:5). Here, we repeat words designed to wipe clean the new agenda and return us to our original one ("I have no question. I forgot what to decide"—T-30.I.6:4-5). This culminates in asking for His help in the very situation in which we were refusing it. Now we are back on track. Yet the section acknowledges that the quick restorative may not succeed. So it gives us a longer restorative, in which we gently reason ourselves out of our fear of asking. This longer process culminates in the pointed question, "What can I lose by asking" (T-30.I.12:4; emphasis from the original dictation). This is meant, of course, to be followed by actual asking—asking for guidance in the very situation we had been afraid to.
As you can see, a lot of guns are aimed at this single moment, and why not? This is the moment in which we throw away the day we planned on and decide to have another kind of day. It makes perfect sense to aim a solution, and then a backup solution, at this moment. Yet when I practice the day this section describes, I find it very challenging to carry all this out. The truth is that I don't want to look at the fact that I am "unwilling to sit by and ask." I don't want to look at the fact that I have refused to ask and thereby decided to have a different day. Indeed, the investment to look the other way is so great that I often don't allow myself to notice that I have decided. After a time, I look back and realize the day went off track, but I can't tell you when or why. It just seemed to happen of its own accord. The simple truth is that I made an IMIF decision, and it changed everything.
I think that, in some sense, this is the standard day for a student of A Course in Miracles. We get up in the morning, we read the Course, we do our lesson, perhaps we meditate or pray. We feel so tuned in, so at peace. We look at the day in front of us and decide that today we are going to really live what we believe. Love and peace are going to flow from our fingertips to everyone we meet. We are going to be conscious of our lesson all the time. We then embark on the day, and we start out really well, but then somewhere along the line, we begin to lose it. That initial peace fades away. And then about mid-afternoon we think, "What was my lesson again?" That spiritual day we planned on is nowhere in sight. The pressures of the day just swept us up and slowly ground us down.
No, that is the illusion. The truth is that somewhere along the way we made a decision, a crucial decision to toss out the priorities we set in the morning and have a different focus for the day. We made this decision so rapidly and forgot it so quickly that it seems as if we never made it at all. The memory of it is gone. All that is left of it is its legacy: a completely different day than the one we planned, a day in which, rather than feeling wrapped in the Arms of God, we maintained our distance from the "threat" of truth.
Are you beginning to see what a significant issue IMIF decisions are? Let me raise their significance one more level. In the Course's original dictation, Jesus spoke the following line: "The unwatched mind is responsible for the whole content of the unconscious." The unwatched mind, obviously, is the mind in which things happen while we aren't watching, in which decisions are being made without our noticing. This is the very thing we have been talking about, isn't it? The unwatched mind is where those IMIF decisions take place. Which means that IMIF decisions are responsible for the whole content of the unconscious. Have you ever felt at the mercy of your unconscious? Have you ever felt imprisoned by all those weird reactions that spew out of it, overruling your best intentions? Well, you programmed your unconscious, and you did it with all those IMIF decisions.
How, then, do we gain control of these decisions? As we might expect, Lesson 136 contains an answer. The lesson says that if we do our practice period correctly, we will experience the truth we have been defending against. This will in turn place our body under a remarkable state of protection. The lesson then says this:
Yet this protection needs to be preserved by careful watching. If you let your mind harbor attack thoughts, yield to judgement or make plans against uncertainties to come, you have again misplaced yourself. (W-pI.136.19:1-2)
Notice what we are asked to do: "careful watching." We are supposed to watch all those little thoughts that usually go unnoticed—attack thoughts, judgments, self-made plans—all those little decisions that have the power to derail our mind from the holy track on which we started our day (notice the similarity with "Rules for Decision"). We need to watch the unwatched mind. We need to catch our IMIF decisions in the act. Once we do, the lesson instructs us to "Give instant remedy" (W-pI.136.20:1), by silently repeating an expanded version of the lesson for the day, which is then provided.
We can see a formula here:
- Watch carefully the unwatched mind.
- Catch your IMIF decisions in the act.
- Then instantly replace them with holy decisions, which you do by repeating Course-based thoughts.
Oddly enough, this is exactly what we do in "Rules for Decision."
At this point, you are probably thinking, "Oh Lord. You mean that Jesus really means for me to do all that practice in the Workbook?" If you are like other Course students, you have probably settled on your reasons why you don't actually have to learn the constant mind-watching the Workbook is trying to teach. You have probably made your peace with the idea that your spiritual journey need not include really training your mind. Yet maybe that was just a decision to let the fox guard the henhouse. Perhaps it is time to rethink our laissez-faire attitude toward mental discipline. Perhaps we need to reread the opening paragraph of the Workbook, which says:
An untrained mind can accomplish nothing. It is the purpose of this workbook to train your mind to think along the lines the text sets forth. (W-In.1:3-4)
IMIF decisions are a simply massive issue on the spiritual path. They are the fine print that is undermining our whole spiritual contract. They are the termites in the walls that are weakening the entire structure. Yet even though their current effects are sobering, the potential they represent is exhilarating. If we could only learn to catch ourselves in the act, and replace those sneaky ego decisions with responsible holy decisions, think what could happen! We could lay hold of all of the spiritual treasures we ever wanted. We could virtually fly forward to the gate of Heaven. That slow progress we complain about would be a distant memory.
All it would take is being willing to train our mind.