"This Course Is a Guide to Behavior": Part I

by Robert Perry

I recently picked up the November/December 2008 issue of Miracle Worker, the magazine of the UK Miracle Network. What caught my eye was the editorial written by my friend Ian Patrick. It opened with these lines:

One of the most common pitfalls amongst A Course in Miracles students is to think the Course means less than it actually does. The more usual way this manifests is to succumb to the idea that the Course is a guide to behaviour, a kind of moral code for living in the world.

The Course is only interested in our thoughts, particularly whether we are coming from the thought of fear or love. It is not interested in our behaviour.

I have heard Ian make this point before, which would usually spark a vigorous discussion between us. So it is not news to me that he thinks this, nor is it news to him that I see it differently. However, I have heard this viewpoint in one form or another so many times, from so many people, that seeing it one more time in print prompted me to make a clear and thorough statement about it. The purpose of this two-part article is to show that behavior occupies an extremely important place in A Course in Miracles and to explain what that place is.

To begin with, I am not sure those who claim behavior doesn't matter in the Course fully appreciate the ramifications of that position. Behavior, quite simply, is the primary way we affect other people. If the mechanism through which I affect you doesn't matter, that implies that how I affect you (positively or negatively) also doesn't matter, which leads to the inescapable conclusion that you don't matter. Is this really what the Course is saying? This is the stance of a sociopath or a psychopath. Only a truly monstrous spiritual path would adopt such a position. Surely A Course in Miracles is not a "psycho-path."

To be fair, those who claim that behavior doesn't matter in the Course tend to soften that by saying that what matters is, as Ian says, "whether we are coming from the thought of fear or love." In other words, although the particular form of the behavior doesn't matter, the state of mind behind it does matter. Our actions ought to be motivated by love. This stance, however, takes us back to the same place as before, for even if I have love in my heart, different ways of expressing my love to you will inevitably affect you differently. Love has been expressed through all sorts of behaviors, from a slug in the arm, to a proposal of marriage, to mercy killing. If I don't take into account how very differently each of these would affect you, then I am obviously not taking you into account. When it's all about me—whether I am coming from love or fear—then the clear implication is that you don't matter. And can any state of mind based on that thought actually be called loving?

Jesus in the Course is fully aware of this. In an important passage early in the Text, he makes it clear we need to gear the form of our giving to the needs of the other, to what the other person can take in without fear:

In fact, if it [the Atonement] is used truly, it will inevitably be expressed in whatever way is most helpful to the receiver. This means that a miracle, to attain its full efficacy, must be expressed in a language that the recipient can understand without fear. (T-2.IV.5:2-3)

In the original dictation, this point was made even more explicitly. It said, "in whatever way is most helpful to the receiver, not the giver" (my italics). It is not enough to have love in my heart. I need to express that love in a way that is most helpful to the other, not to me.

In Part I of this article, I want to first show that the Course speaks openly and repeatedly of the importance of behavior. After that, I will describe the role of behavior in the salvation process. Then in Part II, I will cover what I see as the really interesting topic: the Course's thought system around behavior, including what has gone wrong with our current behavior and attempts to correct it, and what right-minded behavior really looks and feels like.

Quotes about the importance of behavior

One thing that is odd about the "behavior doesn't matter" position is that there is no shortage of quotes in the Course about the importance of behavior. That is what I hope to show through the following series of Course passages. They say in the clearest terms that behavior matters in the Course. They also contain many of the points I will make in Part II about how the Course sees the whole topic of behavior. Please read them carefully. I have put in boldface the words that speak of behavior (behave, action, active, do, expression, etc.). These quotes will answer far better than I can the position that we must refuse "to succumb to the idea that the Course is a guide to behaviour." (Please note the first sentence of the first quote.)

This course is a guide to behavior. Being a very direct and very simple learning situation, it provides the guide [the Holy Spirit] who tells you what to do. (Urtext version of T-9.V.9:1)

Miracles are the essential course of action for both of you. (Urtext)

The distinction has also been made here between "miracle-mindedness" as a state, and "miracle—doing" as its expression. (Urtext)

Revelation induces only experience. Miracles, on the other hand, induce action. They are more useful now because of their interpersonal nature. (T-1.II.2:3-5)

The slogan for this Crusade is "Listen, Learn, and Do." This means Listen to My Voice, Learn to undo the error, and Do something to correct it. The first two are not enough. The real members of My party are active workers. (Urtext version of T-1.III.1:6)

The action aspect of the miracle should be controlled by me because of my complete awareness of the whole plan. (T-1.III.8:4)

Simply by never using weakness to direct your actions, you have given it no power. And the Light of Christ in you is given charge of everything you do. (T-31.VIII.2:5-6)

His purpose folds the body in His light, and fills it with the holiness that shines from Him. And nothing that the body says or does but makes Him manifest. (T-25.In.3:4-5)

I have enjoined you to behave as I behaved—.[The Holy Spirit] teaches you how to keep me as the model for your thought, and to behave like me as a result. (T-5.II.12:1, 3)

There are ways of treating others in which only consistent courtesy, even in very little things, is offered. This is a very healing habit to acquire. (Urtext)

Consider the Golden Rule again. You are asked to behave towards others as you would have them behave toward you….The Golden Rule is the Order for appropriate behavior. (Urtext version of T-1.III.6:2, 4)

You cannot behave appropriately unless you perceive correctly. (T-1.III.6:5)

You cannot behave effectively while you function on different levels. (T-1.VI.3:2)

These errors inevitably introduce inefficiency into the miracle worker's behavior. (Urtext)

It is absolutely essential that you understand completely that behavior is erratic until a firm commitment to one or the other [light or darkness] is made. (Urtext version of T-3.II.1:4)

You are perfectly stable as God created you. In this sense, when your behavior is unstable, you are disagreeing with God's Idea of your creation. (T-3.V.3:4-5)

Only after the Separation was it necessary to direct the creative force to learning, because changed behavior had become mandatory. (Urtext)

Human beings can learn to improve their behavior, and can also learn to become better and better learners. This increase serves…to bring them in closer and closer accord with the Sonship. (Urtext version of T-2.II.5:6-7)

Everything I think or say or do teaches all the universe. A Son of God cannot think or speak or act in vain. (W-pI.RI.54.4:3-4)

Today we let no ego thoughts direct our words or actions. (W-pII.254.2:1)

There is not a moment in which His Voice fails to direct my thoughts, guide my actions, and lead my feet. (W-pI.60.4:3)

He is my home, wherein I live and move; the Spirit Which directs my actions. (W-pII.222.1:3)

Father, I give you all my thoughts today.—;I give You all my acts as well, that I may do Your Will instead of seeking goals which cannot be obtained. (W-pII.233.1:1, 4)

I honestly do not know how to maintain, in the face of this series of quotes, that the Course is not interested in behavior. And this is just a small sampling of an immensely larger body of quotes.

You may have noticed that several of the above quotes are only found only in the Urtext (the Course's original typescript), and that with several others I have used the Urtext's wording. The reason is that the editing of the Course had the effect of downplaying the theme of behavior. First, the editing (as per Jesus' instructions) removed the many stories from Helen and Bill's lives, stories that described behavior and thus sometimes mentioned the word ("This—weakened your own ability to behave healingly toward Bill at the time"). Second, the editing displayed an apparent bias against the word "behavior." This is the only theoretical bias I have been able to see in the editing, but it is there. For example, the Urtext line "Human beings can learn to improve their behavior" became "You can learn to improve your perceptions." Between these two factors (removal of personal stories and editing bias against "behavior") the number of references to cognates of "behavior" (behave, behavior, behaviorally, etc.) in the first five chapters of the Text was reduced from 73 in the Urtext to 20 in the FIP Course.

Some students, no doubt, will be tempted to assume the editors were guided to remove those references to behavior because they are inconsistent with Jesus' real emphasis on thought. Yet for a number of reasons this simply does not hold up. First, the editors removed the emphasis on behavior only sporadically. They left in some very heavy emphasis on behavior. You can't get more emphatic than Jesus saying "I have enjoined you to behave as I behaved" (T-5.II.12:1). Second, even though the editors often took care to remove the word "behavior," they seemingly took no care to remove the concept. When the concept was expressed in other words (like "do" or "action"), they left it alone. For instance, they never once changed the word "action," even though an action is obviously the same thing as a behavior.

Third, these early references to behavior in the Urtext are entirely consistent with what the Course says in other language throughout all three volumes. Later on, for instance, the Course speaks frequently of how we should "use the body" only for communication. We all understand that "use the body" is a reference to behavior. Similarly, when the Course talks about our relationships, do we really think it is excluding from those relationships our physical interaction? Or when it talks about giving to others, teaching them, setting an example for them, and speaking the words of the Holy Spirit to them, surely we realize that these, too, are mainly references to our behavior. So the same emphasis on behavior is there throughout the Course, just in different words.

In the end, then, all the editors succeeded in doing was sporadically removing the word "behavior" from the early chapters of the Text. They didn't remove the concept, either from those early chapters or from the Course as a whole. The concept is still there, all the way through. Given that, their bias against the word "behavior" is revealed to be just that—a bias. If Jesus had wanted behavior either removed or toned down, surely he would have wanted the concept to be removed or toned down consistently throughout the Course. Thankfully, however, this bias of the editors is one that had no real effect on the big picture.

The role of behavior in the salvation process

Behavior ends up playing a hugely significant role in the Course's thought system. Yes, the Course is all about changing our thoughts and realizing who we really are, yet from the Course's standpoint, we literally cannot achieve those goals without right behavior.

Let me explain why this is so. Our goal is to fully embrace the idea of love and fully realize our nature as love. This begins as an internal choice to change our minds from fear to love. It has to start there, on the inside. But it cannot end there. The process is completed only as we see love express through us and actually have an effect on others. And we do affect others. The Course makes no bones about this:

The power of the Sons of God is present all the time, because they were created as creators. Their influence on each other is without limit, and must be used for their joint salvation. (T-6.I.18:1-2)

How do we exercise this limitless influence on each other? Part of how we do so is purely on a mind level. Since minds are joined, a thought of love in my mind does affect other minds. But we cannot restrict it to that level. The reason is that at this time we are all such poor mind readers. If I want a thought of mine to affect you, I might sit there and think it at you for years without any noticeable effect. Many of us know this from experience! Often, we see a thought of ours only really have an effect once we sit down and share it verbally, or once we demonstrate it through some outward gesture. In the current state of humanity, the main way people find out about things is through their physical senses. Thus, if others are going to know about our love for them, chances are it will need to get acted out for their senses. The Course openly acknowledges this:

They [the teachers of God] need a medium through which communication becomes possible to those who do not realize that they are spirit. A body they [those who do not realize they are spirit] can see. A voice they understand and listen to….So do God's teachers need a body. (M-12.3:4-6, 8)

Using our bodies to communicate love, in fact, is so important that the Course tells us repeatedly that it is the only thing our bodies are supposed to do:

The Holy Spirit sees the body only as a means of communication, and because communicating is sharing it becomes communion. (T-6.V(A).5:5)

Remember that the Holy Spirit interprets the body only as a means of communication. (T-8.VII.2:1)

Healing is the result of using the body solely for communication. (T-8.VII.10:1)

The Holy Spirit teaches you to use your body only to reach your brothers, so He can teach His message through you. (T-8.VIII.9:1)

The body's function is but to let God's Voice speak through it to human ears. (M-12.4:1-2)

Notice that every one of these passages include some version of "only": "only as a means of communication," "solely for communication," "only to reach your brothers," "but to let God's Voice speak through it." Indeed, I count twenty-two times in which Jesus tells us to use the body only to communicate love (and I am sure there are many more). Clearly, in Jesus' mind, this is meant to constitute all of our behavior. This is a far cry from "the Course is not interested in our behavior." Rather than leaving our behavior alone, the Course wants all of it!

Behaviorally communicating love is so important because it is what actually completes the process of thought change. Once we actively give a thought to another person, three extremely important things happen. First, by sharing an idea with another it becomes strengthened in us. "The idea gains as it is shared" (T-5.III.2:2). We have all experienced this strengthening effect of sharing. This is the key principle that "what you share you strengthen" (T-5.III.3:5).

Second, we become convinced that the idea is genuinely ours. "An idea that you share you must have" (T-6.III.4:6). If it came forth from us, we reason, it must have been within us. This is the key principle that "giving is proof of having" (W-pI.187.1:2).

Third, we become convinced that this idea is part of our nature. The Course says we know a cause by the effects it produces. "By what it does, you learn what it is" (T-12.VII.2:5). Thus, by what we do, we learn what we are. This is the key principle that "from what [the mind] extends it knows itself" (T-6.III.1:2).

To apply all of this to the realization of love in our minds, when we give another a thought of love, that thought is a) strengthened, b) proven to be ours, and c) shown to be part of who we are. We can see the second and third of these in this one beautiful quote: "Teach only love, and learn that love is yours and you are love" (T-6.III.4:9).

When I talk about giving a thought of love, however, that is really shorthand for a whole process set in motion by giving. The giving by itself is not sufficient. We need two other things that are sparked by the giving. Both of these are mentioned in the following passage:

How can you become increasingly aware of the Holy Spirit in you except by His effects? You cannot see Him with your eyes nor hear Him with your ears. How, then, can you perceive Him at all? If you inspire joy and others react to you with joy, even though you are not experiencing joy yourself there must be something in you that is capable of producing it. (T-9.VI.1:1-4)

Becoming aware of the Holy Spirit in us is another way of talking about the goal of learning "that love is yours and you are love." How do we become aware of His presence in us? According to this passage, in two ways: We inspire joy in others and others react to us with joy. These two things convince us there must be Something in us that produced that joy. Our act of giving, then, is only the start. We then witness its positive effect on others—we see it inspire joy in them. And finally they return that positive effect to us—they react to us with joy. All of this involves behavior. Through our behavior we give the joy. Through their behavior (even just their facial expression) they show us they have been inspired with joy. And then through their behavior they return the joy to us. The process is so behavioral, so physical, because to truly believe that the Holy Spirit is in us, we need to actually witness Him having effects through us. The Course tells us this in the clearest of terms:

You cannot see the Holy Spirit, but you can see His manifestations. And unless you do, you will not realize He is there. Miracles are His witnesses, and speak for His Presence. What you cannot see becomes real to you only through the witnesses that speak for it. For you can be aware of what you cannot see, and it can become compellingly real to you as its presence becomes manifest through you. (T-12.VII.4:1-5)

Most of us are accustomed to an inner realization model of spiritual awakening, in which everything leads up to a profound inner experience or series of such experiences. And then we are done; we get it (and then usually laugh uproariously). The Course's model is actually quite different. This model starts at the same place the other one does, where a great deal of spiritual effort (in the form of study and practice) leads to inner awakenings, to shifts away from fear and toward love. But then this model keeps going. In order for these shifts to be completed, they need to get expressed through our behavior. We need to actually see them inspire joy in others and then get returned to us as joy from others. Only this will strengthen the idea of love in us and finally convince us that we are that idea. Even though this sounds like a puzzling alternative to the dominant inner realization model, Jesus repeatedly tells us this is actually the only model, the only way to reach full enlightenment:

There is one way alone by which we come to where all dreams began. And it is there that we will lay them down, to come away in peace forever. Hear a brother call for help and answer him. It will be God to Whom you answer, for you called on Him. There is no other way to hear His Voice. There is no other way to seek His Son. There is no other way to find your Self. (P-2.V.8:2-8)

This model of enlightenment, with its heavy focus on our behavioral interaction with others, may sound like so much more than we thought the Course was asking for. But it is what the Course teaches. I could show you hundreds of passages that speak of this process. Yet rather than doing that, let me just leave you with a series of questions. If the goal is to know that you are love, not just accept it intellectually, but know it beyond a shadow of a doubt, do you really think you will reach this knowing without seeing overwhelming evidence for it? Without watching yourself being genuinely loving, seeing your love truly uplift the lives of others, and then receiving that love back from them, as their heartfelt statement that love is the only thing you deserve? Do you really think an inner experience alone will convince you that you are love, while you continue to watch lovelessness constantly issue forth from you, leaving others cold and wounded, and then being returned to you as their icy statement that you are not love?

Is it possible, then, that truly helpful behavior toward others is not something separate from our inner awakening, not some goodie-two-shoes sidelight that distracts us from the crucial focus on the inner? Could it be that you literally cannot have total awakening without loving behavior? The Course's answer to that question is unequivocal:

The only way to have peace is to teach peace. By teaching peace you must learn it yourself, because you cannot teach what you still dissociate. Only thus can you win back the knowledge that you threw away. An idea that you share you must have. It awakens in your mind through the conviction of teaching it. Everything you teach you are learning. Teach only love, and learn that love is yours and you are love. (T-6.III.5:3-9)

Read Part II