It happens to all of us some time. As wonderful as A Course in Miracles may be, a time will come when the joy and peace it brings seems to evaporate. The high suddenly becomes a low. Or, perhaps it isn't that extreme. Perhaps you wake up one morning to realize that the last day or last several days have been rather blah. However you might describe your feelings, "pure joy" would probably not be your first descriptive choice.
Course students often wonder what, if anything, they should do in such circumstances. Is the Course failing? Do they need to double up on practicing the Workbook lessons? Or, should they just live with it, on the premise that you can't expect to be living in pure joy all the time? The Course, however, provides quite a clear answer, and it is emphatic that not only can we do something about it, we should take note of every loss of joy and act to correct the situation. Pure joy is our natural state, and when we are less than wholly joyous, something is wrong.
The final two paragraphs of Chapter 5, Section VII, of the Text, give a remarkably clear and effective prescription for what we should do when we lose our joy or our peace. First, it describes how the problem comes about.
The steps leading up to the problem (T-5.VII.5:1-2)
- Something or someone says or does something that triggers an adverse reaction in you.
- You decide to react to this situation or person with a lack of love-fear, anger, judgment, withdrawal, or attack.
- As a result, you lose your joy. The loss of joy involves these sub-steps:
a) You perceive your response as "sin" and judge yourself for it.
b) You expect some kind of attack (from the other person or from God) in retaliation for your unloving response.
c) You become defensive.
That is how the problem develops. These steps describe the way we descend into guilt and fear, probably dozens of times, perhaps more, every day. The question we face is: How can we restore our joy? Or, we may be asking how can we return to full communion with God? Restoring divine communion and restoring our joy are really the same thing.
Improper attempts to solve the problem
The key to solving the problem lies in the third sentence of paragraph 5: We are the ones who have made the decisions, and we can undo them. Our unloving response was our own decision. No one else, nor any external force, has constrained us to react without love. Likewise, our reaction to our unloving response—our judgment of it as "sin," our guilt, our fear of attack—is also our own choice. We alone have decided to respond and react as we have done; therefore, we can reverse these decisions (T-5.VII.5:3).
Guilt, however, is definitely not part of the healing process; in fact, it is contraindicated. "Repentance in the usual sense" (T-5.VII.5:4), according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means "remorse or contrition for past conduct or sin." The same dictionary defines guilt as "remorseful awareness of having done something wrong." Clearly, then, "repentance in the usual sense" is the same thing as remorse and guilt. Repentance, in the sense of remorse and guilt, cannot be the solution because guilt is the problem! Guilt is what is producing our fear and keeping us apart from God. If we allow ourselves to feel guilty, we will simply reinforce the original error (T-5.VII.5:5).
The Greek term in the New Testament that is translated by the English word repent is metanoia, which means, literally, a change of mind, or thinking differently. Rather than speaking of sorrow and guilt over wrongdoing, the original meaning agrees precisely with what the Course is teaching: changing the way we think about ourselves and the world.
Another thing to notice about the process set forth by the Course is that it does not involve changing the other person at all! It is purely about changing our choice of how to respond.
Before I go any further into the solution, however, I want to linger a bit over the way we discover the problem, and to point out some things that may hinder or short-circuit the healing process.
First, the healing only becomes possible when I notice and admit that I am "not wholly joyous" (T-5.VII.5:1). If I never notice my feelings, I may never begin to heal. If I bury and deny my unloving reaction to my brothers and sisters, hiding it from myself because I don't want to admit to having such unholy feelings, I will never be motivated to change my mind.
Don't make yourself wrong for having upset feelings. I used to do that a lot, and sometimes I still do. You know how we think: "If I am spiritual, I shouldn't feel sad or depressed." That simply isn't true. We're all in process here. We still have egos. That's why we're still here. Just notice, without judging yourself, how you feel. Feelings are just an indicator of what is going on with you. The Course tells us that the only proper use of judgment is to judge how well we are guarding our thoughts by observing how we feel (T-4.IV.8:5-6).
As Jesus taught earlier in the Text, denial can be either healthy or unhealthy (T-2.II.2:1-4). Healthy denial is denying that any form of error can hurt me. Unhealthy denial is an attempt to conceal something. Burying or repressing my feelings is unhealthy denial. To have my joy restored, I first must allow myself to feel joy's absence. This may mean experiencing my anger completely, instead of trying to shut down the feeling. It may mean deliberately going into my sadness. Not that I should act it out or let it take me over; just that I should fully acknowledge what I am feeling, while I simultaneously realize that what I am feeling is purely the result of my own decisions (T-5.VII.6:2). I am not wholly joyous because I decided not to be wholly joyous. "I choose the feelings I experience" (T-21.II.2:4), the Course teaches.
Second, I cannot allow myself to feel guilty for having such dark feelings. I need to realize that my perception of them as "sin" is hindering my healing rather than helping it. An unloving response to my brother or sister is not something useful, nor is it a skillful way to interact. Unloving response does not heal anyone. Unloving response does not reflect the truth. For all of these reasons, unloving response is a mistake, but it is not a sin. The choice to respond in this way needs to be undone, but it does not need to be punished. It does not make me a bad person.
What to do when we are not joyous
I see five simple steps presented in paragraph 6, summarized in the italicized portion. The five steps, in my own words, are:
- Recognize the problem
- Be responsible for the solution
- Choose peace
- Refuse guilt
- Listen to the Holy Spirit
1. Recognize the problem
"I must have decided wrongly, because I am not at peace" (T-5.VII.6:7).
When you notice that you are not at peace or not wholly joyous, the very first thing you should do is acknowledge that your condition is the result of your own active decision to see another person lovelessly, not the result of what someone else did. You chose to feel this way (T-5.VII.6:2-3). When you choose not to love you are choosing not to be joyful, because "There is no difference between love and joy" (T-5.In.2:3). Use alternate words if you like: "I must have made a bad choice. I am choosing to feel angry. I decided not to love." Use whatever words work for you at the time.
This is a crucial step. We usually convince ourselves that our anger, hurt, pain, or distress-whatever the form our lack of love is taking—is caused by someone else. "You make me so angry!" is a common way of thinking. Often it is very difficult to break free from this perception and to recognize that the source of our upset is our own decision to withhold love, even when we know that the Course is correct. This is why Jesus admonishes us to "Be very firm with yourself in this" (T-5.VII.6:4). We dare not let any taint of such thinking remain or it will pollute all our thinking. (See W-pI.190.5.) As long as we refuse to accept that the problem is in our own minds, the healing cannot begin. If we are not at peace, it is because we made a wrong decision about how to react to our brother or sister. "It is impossible that happenings that come to [us] were not [our] choice" (T-21.II.3:2).
2. Be responsible for the solution
"I made the decision myself, but I can also decide otherwise" (T-5.VII.6:8).
By accepting responsibility for the original decision to perceive my brother without love, I recognize that I can decide otherwise. I can choose to let God's Love flow through me, rather than react in anger. "The power of decision is my own" (W-pI.152.Title). I must acknowledge the power of my mind to miscreate in order to recognize its power to heal. My "power of decision is the determiner of every situation in which [I] seem to find [myself]…" (T-21.II.3:3).
We are often afraid of the word responsibility because we associate it with blame and guilt. Real responsibility is just realizing that the source and solution of our upsets are not outside us, but within us.
You are the only one in control of your life. You are the only person who thinks thoughts in your mind. Acknowledging your responsibility is also recognizing your power. You can reverse the judgment you made against your brother. Your interpretation was simply mistaken. Recognizing that, you can make your upset disappear.
Sometimes we are so locked into our perceptions that, in all honesty, we really don't want to let go of them yet. We're angry and we don't want to stop. We're depressed and we don't want to be cheered up. That's okay. Go ahead and be angry or depressed! Don't fake it. Don't push yourself beyond where you really are. Don't think, "I should not be angry." Trying to make the feeling go away will just increase your guilt and make the situation worse.
The Course never tells us not to be angry. It just tells us to recognize that when we are angry, we are choosing that feeling, and nothing outside ourselves can be blamed for it. The Course says, "Anger is never justified" (T-30.VI.1:1). That doesn't mean, "Don't be angry," but it does mean "Don't try to blame your anger on anything outside your own thoughts."
3. Choose peace
"I want to decide otherwise, because I want to be at peace" (T-5.VII.6:9).
This is an expression of my will. It is not merely a wish, but the declaration of a firm choice. I am taking charge of my mind and directing its movement, determining what it will choose. I am making a choice to perceive my brother differently, recognizing that my peace has vanished because of my mistaken choice, not because of what he may have done.
This is the choice for peace. It is opening myself to the Holy Spirit so that He can change my mind about the situation. Do I want to hold onto my anger, my sadness, my judgment, or whatever form of upset I have? Or do I want peace? Which is more important to me? Would I rather be right, or be peaceful? (T-29.VII.1:9). It is possible to experience peace even in the midst of "upsetting" circumstances. In reality there are no upsetting circumstances, there are only upsetting thoughts about circumstances.
So, what do you do if, when you get to this step, "Choose peace," you realize that you really don't want to choose peace? One thing that has worked for me is to consciously give myself permission to continue being upset, whatever form that may take: Anger, depression, sadness, anxiety, or any form at all. I tell myself, "Okay, Allen, you want to be angry? Then be angry; it won't kill you. And God still loves you." I find that this makes me very aware that I am actually choosing the upset, and therefore choosing not to be peaceful. Sometimes, just the sheer absurdity of preferring my pain to peace gets me moving again in the right direction.
In T-30.I.8-9, the Course suggests that if you can't seem to let go of your feelings, you can at least notice that "I don't like the way I feel now" and, because you do not like the feeling, admit to yourself that "I hope that I have been wrong." In other words, the way you are looking at things (your unloving thought about your brother) has brought on unpleasant feelings. It would be good, therefore, if the way you are looking at things were mistaken. Realizing this may open the way for you to want peace.
4. Refuse guilt
"I do not feel guilty, because the Holy Spirit will undo all the consequences of my wrong decision if I will let Him" (T-5.VII.6:10).
Don't make yourself wrong for the reaction you had to your sister or brother. Refuse to feel guilty. There is absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. Your reaction was, in reality, a distorted call for love. Only your negative interpretation of that reaction makes you feel guilty. (The negative interpretation is based on a negative belief about your self; i.e., that you are a bad person.)
Peace comes through acceptance, and acceptance of your own feelings, without judgment, is the start of acceptance of others. The desire to hurt someone who hurt you can be a source of guilt and further attack, or it can be the start of healing—as we recognize that we really had that desire, and that it is actually a distorted call for love. It does not call for punishment, it calls for the love that is lacking. When we see that, we can begin to understand that the other person's "attack" is, like our own anger, a misguided, twisted attempt to express love or to ask for it. Their attack arises from fear, which is simply a lack of love. When we forgive our own fears we can begin to forgive the fears of the other person, and peace is the result. (See also T-12.I.8:5-13.)
If you get angry, if you attack someone else, if you give in to depression, that is not a cause for guilt. There is no cause for guilt. You made a mistake, yes; you made a wrong decision, yes. But that does not alter who and what you are. You are Love. You are the Son of God. You don't deserve punishment, you don't need to make yourself miserable to pay for what you did. You simply need to change your mind! For a moment you forgot who you are; that is all. In forgetting, you thought you saw sin in yourself. You can choose to remember who you are, right now. You can translate that perception into one of love. You will see your brother differently. You will see yourself differently.
All you need to do is turn it over to God and change your mind about it, that is, to make the decision over. You allow the Holy Spirit to decide for you; you decide with Him for God, which means He will give you a different way of perceiving the brother you have judged. If you do that, the Holy Spirit will undo all the consequences of your loveless perception of your brother. That is such an amazing statement! As Jesus said two sections earlier (T-5.V.7:9), undoing is the key to the solution because it eliminates the guilt. When the Holy Spirit is done with His job, the consequences of our mistaken choices have been erased.
He may show us that we have a part to play in His undoing, some action to take or some words to say—or He may not. We will know what to do or say: "For Your Voice will tell me what to do and where to go; to whom to speak and what to say to him, what thoughts to think, what words to give the world" (W-pII.275.2:3).
5. Listen to the Holy Spirit
"I choose to let Him, by allowing Him to decide for God for me" (T-5.VII.6:11).
You let Him take the guilt away, and in response, you listen to His Voice and do what It tells you. You hear His thought about the situation. It is not up to you to interpret the events of your life. It is not up to you to decide what is true and what is not. God has already decided that, and the Holy Spirit will "decide for God for [you]." The only decision you have to make, the only choice, is to listen to the Holy Spirit instead of the ego. You might say that the only real decision is the decision not to make decisions by yourself (T-7.X.6:5-8 and T-30.I.2:1-4).
The Holy Spirit will always interpret everything that arises in you or your brother as some form of love, or a call for love (T-12.I.3:1-4). Any action you then see fit to take will be one that is toward joining with the other person.
Notice how all this is dealing primarily with your own feelings of guilt. The ego is going to tell you that you are a bad person, that your anger or hurt feeling has separated you from God and from your brother. The Holy Spirit is going to tell you that nothing bad has happened, and nothing has been lost; you are still perfectly one with God. What you did or what you felt has not changed what you are. All that happened was that you interpreted your brother and yourself incorrectly; if you let Him, the Holy Spirit will transform your perceptions.
All of this is dealing with your own guilt feelings, and the other person is seemingly forgotten! You are changing your mind, not changing circumstances or other people. As you change your mind (which is the source of all your experience), you will see that your experience also begins to change, but that is not the first objective. You don't have to change anything. Leave that part to God. Don't try to fix the other guy; let go and let God.
As you change your thoughts about yourself, and decide differently about yourself, you will begin to see how the same thing that is true of you is true of the other person. They are making the mistake of choosing to react without love, out of fear. You'll see how that isn't anything to be angry about, and your desire toward them will shift from trying to defend yourself or trying to attack them, to wanting them to find the same peace of mind that you have found. Your forgiveness of yourself will lead naturally to forgiving the other person as well.
This whole process is remarkably similar to what Jesus began to describe way back in Chapter 4, Section IV. I encourage you to read over that other section now, particularly T-4.IV.2:1-5 and T-4.IV.5:1-6.
As a final remark on this remarkable prescription for peace, let me encourage you to memorize these lines. The effort will repay itself hundreds of times over.
Try using the Course's prescription with a personal example.
- Examine your mood or feelings right now, and see if it is "wholly joyous."
- If not, search your mind, and try to identify the loveless perception of a brother or sister that is causing your loss of joy.
- With that example in mind, slowly repeat the words of this exercise from the Text. As you do, open yourself to a new perception of your brother or sister, one that comes from love. You will be surprised at how powerful this exercise can be!