I have had now a fifteen-year journey [this was written in 1996] with the second volume of A Course in Miracles, the Workbook for Students. I thought I would relate the story of my journey. What is particularly amazing to me is that Workbook practice has slowly gone from seeming nearly irrelevant and virtually useless to becoming a central part of my life and of my path to God.
I was given the Course by my fiancée and friends on my 21st birthday. According to my understanding at the time, the Workbook was the Course. So I started the Course—meaning, the Workbook—the next day and planned to finish it on my next birthday. I found the first lessons vaguely distasteful. Surely, after my three years on the spiritual path the idea that "nothing I see means anything" no longer applied. I continued for two months, and then forgot to bring the Workbook with me on a camping trip. Having no hope now of finishing on my birthday, I dropped it.
I started again several months later, after hearing an inspiring talk on the Course. This time I completed it, though it took me nearly two years to do so; on roughly half the days I was simply too busy to do it. What did I get out of it? I am not exactly sure. It seemed like a pretty empty exercise. Either saying a few simple words was not a sufficient method for real transformation, or the Workbook was using the wrong words. Where, I wondered, were the really impressive exercises that I expected, the long, detailed ones with specific visualizations and inner guides showing up, with special breathing techniques and explosive cathartic releases?
I must have received some benefit from doing it, however, since once done I decided that I wanted to keep focusing on a particular thought each day. Yet it didn't seem right for something outside of me to be giving me those thoughts. And, besides, I felt finished with the Workbook; I had graduated. So I decided that my lesson for each day would come from my interpretation of that morning's dreams.
For the next several years I didn't do much with the Workbook. I am pretty sure I did it once more, but since I cannot exactly remember, it must not have been a life-changing experience. Overall, I found its words inspiring, but I continued to suspect it was a sort of "wimpy" method of spiritual practice. For I knew that if you really wanted to get somewhere spiritually you had to sit down for long hours at a crack. Anything short of that was, well, amateurish. So I would spend long amounts of time each day down in my root cellar, which was lined with candles and lit by replicas of ancient oil lamps. I would pray and meditate, read, journal and work on my dreams. I really loved my time down there.
Then a terrible thing happened. My first child was born. When he wasn't depriving me of sleep, or needing food or a diaper change, I was wearing him in a pack on my front. I soon realized that my times down in my "cubicle" were pretty well done for. I sought guidance about this situation, and what came to me was that I should funnel my energy for spiritual pursuit into doing the Course's Workbook. This was a truly novel idea for me. It came right out of left field. Yet it also made sense. For by this time I knew that the Workbook was unusual in that its practice could be done in the midst of a busy day (including busy diaper changes). It also made sense in that a year before I had finally decided that A Course in Miracles was my sole spiritual path. Since the Course was my way to God, perhaps, just perhaps, I ought to devote myself to its method of spiritual practice. I could not deny the logic of this idea.
Thus began my second phase with the Workbook. Because of my years of studying the Course, those simple sentences I was asked to repeat carried a lot more meaning this time. The lessons had more impact. I would devote myself to frequently rehearsing them as I walked my son in the pack around the neighborhood. They would often wash over my mind and cause me to spontaneously take deep gulps of air. They unveiled my habitual thought processes and revealed feelings—both holy and unholy—I never knew I had. My stomach would churn as I faced deep attachments and brought them into contact with the light of that day's lesson. Whole days would be governed by that day's special thought, which would usually sound relatively empty when the day started, but would take on profound meaning somewhere in the afternoon.
Within a few months my study group completed our tour of the Text and we all decided to do the Workbook together. I, of course, had already begun, but they eventually caught up with me, since they had committed to doing a lesson every single day—another novel idea for me at the time. For the sake of our practice together I began researching the Workbook and putting together my observations about its practice. To my recollection I had scarcely heard a word breathed among Course students about the Workbook's practice instructions. Yet for years I had been noticing that these instructions were not random, but were instead very carefully designed, as one would design a building or a musical score. They were planned to gently lead us up a multi-faceted spiral staircase, which ascended towards ever higher, more frequent and all-encompassing practice. Studying and recording the patterns of practice in the Workbook is a love of mine that has continued to this day (I have shared my findings in our booklet, The Workbook as a Spiritual Practice).
Through this experience I began to resolve to really learn this practice. I had already learned that I work well with checklists and various other sorts of physical reminders—posted signs and beeping watches. They prod me out of my congenital laziness (at least it seems congenital) and don't really cause me guilt when I don't perform so well. So I formed the habit of writing the lesson on a square of paper, along with a summary of that day's instructions, and a series of boxes to check off as I did the instructed practice. This really helped me. I will never forget the first day I did lesson 40 as instructed: a practice period every ten minutes all day long. At the end of the day I was exhilarated, even though I had a slight headache.
On the whole, however, I was not doing near the amount of practice encouraged by the Workbook. Most of my little checklists looked like barren deserts spotted with a smattering of cacti. Yet, without question I was experiencing far more benefits, and I had faith that untold benefits would ensue if I just practiced more diligently. My resolve therefore increased. I just had to master this practice.
During this time period I did a workshop on the Workbook in Oklahoma. There I shared my enthusiasm for Workbook practice and the fascinating things I had learned about it up until that time. I also shared about my personal model for practice: Brother Lawrence, the seventeenth-century monk known for the spiritual classic, The Practice of the Presence of God. His practice was to remind himself at all times that God was with him, in him, around him, loving him, protecting him, etc. He apparently struggled through ten extremely difficult years with this practice. Yet after those ten hard years, his practice blossomed and carried him into the continual experience of God's Presence, which remained with him for the rest of his life. This, I announced to the audience there, was my goal. Whether it took me ten years or more, I was going to learn this Workbook practice until it carried me into a life-long state of exalted happiness.
Those words haunted me for years. For I sincerely meant them, and I said them in front of forty people. And yet, here I was, three years later and I was no closer to really living them. It was not just that I hadn't reached Brother Lawrence's state of bliss; I felt that I hadn't even started those ten years. I wasn't really giving myself to the practice. My morning meditations were spotty and generally unfocused. I was still lucky if, on a good day, I practiced a few times an hour. Many days I didn't practice at all. Some days when I tried to practice, the thoughts from the Course seemed as irrelevant as the Martian weather report.
One morning something in me gave way. My intense conviction that my whole life and journey to God depended on Workbook practice had built to a breaking point. I simply didn't care any more what learning this practice would require of me. I didn't care how much effort, or vigilance, or diligence, or apparent sacrifice, it would take. If it meant making my practice the central focus of each day and every hour of my filled-to-the-gills life, I didn't care.
Out of that thought I conceived a plan. I decided to take my traditional checklist idea to an extremity I had never considered (and would never recommend to Course students in general). I would record all of my practice periods throughout the day, not just the longer morning and evening times and the hourly practice, but even the shorter ones in between the hours. And I would give each one a pre-determined numerical value. And at the end of the day I would obtain a total score for my practicing in that day. In short, I would quantify my practice, so that I could tell with a simple number exactly how much practicing I had done. Eventually, I bought a hand-held counter that I wore on my belt, under my shirt, so that I could unobtrusively click off practice periods in the middle of conversation, driving, fixing meals, hanging out with the kids, etc. Of course, my friends now had an inexhaustible fodder for jokes and derision, as my "clicking off practice periods" was seen as fanatical and even somewhat "anal retentive."
As I said, it was a very extreme idea. And so I asked within if it was truly right for me to do. I got no answer, no intuitive sense of rightness or wrongness, nothing. I didn't care. My desire was too strong. I went ahead anyway.
Now I relate all this with some hesitation. At this point you might be wondering if this whole Workbook thing had driven me off the deep end. For this reason I was fairly private about my plan. It was a while before I told a single person. It seemed to make other Course students either feel guilty and outdone, or think I was insanely obsessed with form and ritual, or assume I must have some love affair with guilt. Yet for me it was simply a means to an end, a means that I felt would work for my particular temperament. If it took this to really learn the practice, then so be it. I would use this method to pull me up to a certain level of practice, after which I would no longer need such an extreme aid—or any aid at all.
So began the third phase of my journey with the Workbook. My son was now four and a half. In retrospect, I have often felt that this decision was one of the key decisions in my life. Few decisions, if any, have resulted in as much internal change in me. Few, if any, have so transformed the whole character of my journey home.
Shortly after this decision, I made another important decision. I decided that I had enormous promise as a student of the Workbook. As I entered more fully into the practice I uncovered a whole host of discouraging beliefs about my ability to practice: I am lazy, I am hopelessly forgetful, I can't focus my attention, I am unwilling to confront my judgments and ego attacks, I am a hypocrite, I never have the mystical experiences promised in the lessons, I don't hear a voice, I don't have earth-shattering holy instants, I am not motivated, I don't care much about spiritual awakening, I will never learn to forgive, I am hopeless. Unbeknownst to me, I had learned to practice those thoughts really well. Oddly enough, that kind of practice seemed to take no effort at all. I decided to stop practicing my drawbacks, and focus instead on the little natural ability I did seem to have. I noted that I am in love with true, profound and beautiful thoughts. I enjoy a good thought more than anything else in life. And since the Workbook's style of practice is about moving into a realm of thought that is more true, profound and beautiful than anything we can conceive, I decided that I had an untold potential for Workbook practice. Like a star athlete just out of high school, I decided I had incredible promise.
My practicing improved dramatically. I began learning all kinds of things about how to make practice the main focus of a busy life. For one thing, I learned that my whole day of practice really rested on my morning quiet time. If I had a focused, centered, elevated quiet time, then I would be in a state of alertness and upliftment that allowed me to practice frequently all day long. Otherwise, the day was a wash. I used to the fullest my technique of slipping off to bathrooms for hourly practice periods. I learned that I should practice the lesson the instant I thought of it rather than waiting until the appointed time rolled around. I learned how to recover my practice if I lapsed for part of the day. And I learned how to best practice in the middle of conversation.
I also learned that the way I had traditionally practiced involved a subtle inner straining that, when I practiced more frequently, resulted in a constant uncomfortable tension in my head. This tension not only caused me to stammer and slur my speech, it also made me very irritable—the exact opposite from the effect I was shooting for. It took me months to train my mind into a different internal posture for practicing, one which wiped away these negative effects.
It was in the second year of my quantifying discipline that my practicing really intensified; I practiced roughly twice as much the second year as the first. For the first time I actually exceeded the Workbook's instructions, which eventually instruct you to practice about every ten minutes. Two things began to strike me: First, what this practice caused me to learn about the workings of my mind; second, what this practice did to my overall state of mind and quality of life.
Doing this practice, which meant attempting to constantly watch my thoughts, was somewhat like being on a permanent Buddhist meditation retreat. I felt as if I was journeying into the inner workings of my mind. I started a journal just to record these insights. I felt that I was penetrating into a kind of foreign terrain, a layer of thoughts that had always been present in my mind, yet which had remained almost totally undetected. Strangely, I saw that this undetected foreign territory had actually been governing my life—had always been governing my life. It was the hidden wellspring of my personal condition. How could it be that something was governing my life, yet was unnoticed?
I had thought years earlier that I felt no guilt, that I was too callous to feel guilt. Now I saw that my mind was a sponge soaked full of it. I had always had a hard time identifying with the Course's extreme emphasis on our fear; I didn't seem so afraid. Now I realized I was constantly permeated with different forms of fear. I had assumed I thought too highly of myself. Now I saw that I was endlessly ruminating on doubts about my ultimate validity as a being. And all these thoughts, and many more, had been actively produced and maintained by me without my knowing it.
I began to see the cause and effect connections in my experience. I began to see how my pain grew directly and constantly right out of the perceptions I chose to entertain moment-by-moment. Out of all those seemingly harmless thoughts about orange juice, snowballs, phone calls, socks, keyboards, and all the other mundane things of my day, spilled my basic condition of feeling essentially unhappy, afraid, separated from others and from my Creator.
Most of us, I think, wonder why we are so unhappy. The cause is simply not apparent. Most of us spiritual seekers wonder why we aren't further along, for of course we seldom indulge in egoic thinking. God, we assume, must be holding back on us. In short, there seems to be a large gap between how good our intentions are and the unhappy condition we must endure. The more I watched my mind, however, the more this mystery dissolved. I found egoic thinking running through my mind all the time. My intentions were, quite simply, not so good. An image formed in my mind of someone habitually sipping from a large straw right next to them; sipping while in the middle of conversation, sipping without thinking as they went about their activities, sipping because they constantly felt the hunger and instantly obeyed it. And after a whole day of doing this, they didn't remember doing it once. That is how I began to see our relationship with our egos; the ego, of course, being what we are sipping from.
The second thing I noticed about this practice is that it helped my state of mind and quality of life more than anything I had ever encountered. Once I noticed these perceptions I could observe the pain they caused and affirm that I no longer wanted them. I could sincerely question their ultimate validity and truth. I could answer them with the lesson for the day and see them dispelled. I could consciously open the curtains of my mind and let in the light.
As I focused on the Workbook lessons, I found my mind being lifted into a happier state. Life, which had always seemed somewhat drab and meaningless, took on a renewed meaning. I realized, in my better moments, that I was literally surrounded and suffused by infinite, shining meaning. Perhaps, I began to think, I had been wrong about everything. Perhaps life was an entirely different ball game than I had assumed. It started to dawn on me that there was only cause for joy; that any perception I had that was in any way unhappy could actually be let go, because there was no real cause for it. There was no basis for worry about the future, or depression about the present, or regret about the past, or anger over being mistreated, or loneliness over not being loved. None of it had any cause whatsoever. Dwelling on these and other truths, at times I felt a new sense of happiness and upliftment for days at a time; mind you, nothing spectacular, but quite significant for someone whose normal mood was a state of calm anxiety and mild displeasure.
These changes generalized into my outer life. I noticed marked improvement in my relationships, as I became willing to face my judgmental perceptions. A couple of people even took my change, and the resulting change in our relationship, as proof that I had been the problem all along. I noticed that my habitual avoidance of the world and physical tasks lessened (to a degree). And I brought to everything I did an increased mental alertness and clarity, and a greater willingness to examine my assumptions and change in mid-stream.
Out of this the Course became far more alive and personal for me than it ever had before. When I looked in my mind I found precisely what the Course told me I would find. It had described my inner dynamics to a tee. When I applied its methods, I found relief like nothing else had given me. During this time, my reading of the Course, which had always been a bit of a blurry struggle, blossomed into a consistently rich, moving experience. Part of this came from my practice, which showed me that the Course was giving me a diagnosis of my condition and a prescription for my salvation which seemed tailor-made for me. My practice also gave me a mind with enough clarity and focus that I could slow down in my reading and drink in every beautiful word of the Course.
On the night that I had completed two years of this intense regimen, I sat down to thank Jesus for what I considered a monumental phase in my life. In the back of my mind, however, I think I pictured him vaguely frowning on me. After all, this was the anniversary of the day that I went ahead with this discipline without knowing whether I had his confirmation or not. Yet more to the point was that I myself had been feeling increasingly uncomfortable with my regimen. I knew that I was only practicing so intensely because I was, in essence, keeping score. Without my counter and my checklists I knew I would not practice nearly as much. My practice was being, to a degree, artificially manufactured.
Yet a very surprising thing happened when I actually did speak with Jesus in my mind. I didn't hear words, but I felt something from him (or from what I assumed was him) that was so unexpected, so fresh and bright and out of the blue, that it left a deep impression on me. I felt him saying "thank you." I felt him conveying genuine gratitude to me for these two years of practice.
The next morning I got up, expecting to go at this regimen for at least another year. I went into my quiet time. And there another clear idea was impressed on my mind: "You are done." I just knew I was done. It was time to practice under my own power, without the help of outer props. This "knowing" seemed to fit with the sense of "thanks" I had felt the night before. Together they added up to the message that my regimen had served a useful purpose and that that purpose had been fulfilled.
So I moved into the fourth phase of my journey with the Workbook. That was over a year ago. Somewhat to my surprise, I simply felt compelled to continue consistently practicing. I didn't need any props. My experience over the last two years had formed in me an irresistible attraction to practice, because it had shown me on an experiential level that this was my road to happiness. I had realized that nothing else was going to do it for me, nothing. All the things I had mindlessly assumed would make me happy I now clearly saw would not. Even if my whole life changed, if all the people, situations and events obeyed my every whim, I would still not be truly happy. For even in this extreme scenario I would still have my current way of seeing things. And that way can make of any experience something lacking, unsatisfying, faulty and regrettable. Only a change in how I see things would do it for me. And only constant practice could bring about that change.
So my practice has remained a central part of my life. Of course, it rises and falls. And it continues to evolve. As you might imagine, I have gotten much more fluid with it. I still usually spend the day focusing on that day's Workbook lesson (sometimes I formulate a lesson of my own). Yet I no longer follow the specific instructions for practice for that day. What I do with the lesson is more creative and spontaneous, and more geared towards the needs of the moment. My focus is slowly switching from doing the practice well to monitoring and uplifting the quality of my state of mind. For this purpose, the particular lesson for that day serves as a kind of temporary nucleus for a large collection of Course concepts, practices and specific phrases that I have acquired over time—what lesson 194 calls "your problem-solving repertoire." Thus, while focusing on today's lesson, I also freely draw from that larger collection. As I do so, I find that my practice is gradually integrating itself into my normal thought process. My thought process is beginning to become more of an ongoing dialogue, a flowing exchange between the ego thoughts that habitually rise up and the Course-based thoughts and practices I have learned to respond with.
Yet as my practice was beginning to move more into my ongoing stream of thoughts and roam around there, I noticed a startling thing: My mind is a veritable junkyard of exceptions to the Course. My mind is littered with people, situations and events that I have not seriously considered applying the Course to—after all this time. For some time this observation weighed on me. I talked about it with fellow students. I prayed for the willingness to make no exceptions. Finally, after a few months of this pressure building, one morning something in me broke loose. My mind had somehow shifted over. Rather than merely wanting to be willing to make no exceptions, I suddenly and somewhat inexplicably felt deeply committed to making no exceptions. I realized that up until then my goal had really been to apply the Course frequently. It really hadn't been to apply the Course to everything. Yet now I suspected that it was actually harder to apply it frequently than to apply it to everything. That may sound strange, but it does make sense. For my little Course-based thoughts kept having to swim against the great tide of all those exceptions. And that tide kept trying to eject all of my little swimmers and throw them back onto the beach. Surely it would be easier to just get rid of the tide and replace it with a vast throng of swimmers, all of them heading for the wide horizon.
I felt bolstered in this new commitment by two things. First, it happened one year to the day from when I realized I was done with my counting discipline. Second, later that very same day Jeanne Cashin, one of our staff here, gave me a list of five points that she would like to see implemented in the Circle. The very first point said, "I would like to see all of us support each other in practicing the principles of the Course related to everything [her emphasis]. I would like us to be committed to this goal, and to this practice." I found this to be highly synchronistic. It was a restatement of the very commitment I had made that morning, one which Jeanne and I now joined on together.
The question now was: How to go about making no exceptions? For it was not such a cut and dry matter. In any given instant my mind is viewing twenty things from an unhealed perspective. If I am not constantly asking myself how I am perceiving things (I call this doing a "mind sweep"—searching my awareness for mental "mines," for perceived sources of discomfort), then, unhealed perceptions will go zooming by me like roadside scenery, completely unaddressed. In an attempt to stay on my toes, I have done a few things. In the morning I dedicate each day to making no exceptions. Also, I have started keeping a journal of my efforts to discover and relinquish my exceptions. Further, Jeanne and I have committed to supporting each other in this dedication to no exceptions. Finally, I created the following list, which encapsulates the spirit of my commitment. I read it each morning and rehearse it during the day. I love this list, because it captures so much of what my practice has convinced me of.
1. There is another way of looking ateverything, including what is in front of me right now, thatwill yield unimaginable joy. If I am not in such a state of joy, I am not seeing things correctly.
2. Changing my perception is the most practical, relevant and true thing I can do in any situation, including this one.
3. My real purpose for being in this situation, or for doing this thing, is to change my perception (and extend that changed perception), not to make a safe, satisfying and comfortable life for my "self."
4. Changing my perception will open up whole new experiences for me. It will spark interactions and situations I never thought possible. It will take me places I have never gone before. To change my perception, then, I must want things to be truly different, rather than wanting the "safety" of things staying the same.
5. What I look forward to as I think about my day or about my life are changes in my perception, not desired sets of outer events.
6. I commit myself to the Holy Spirit's way of perceiving, even though it is radically different from mine, and trust that I can reach it and that it will satisfy me completely.
So we will see how this new phase goes. It feels like a major shift to me, yet it is still only several weeks old.
So what, you may ask, has all of my effort done for me? Obviously I cannot tell you that I am totally transformed, filled with nothing but love and light and peace. In some ways I feel as if I am just starting off down the path. Although my devotion to this practice is unusual for Course students, this kind of devotion is unremarkable for students of more established paths that know the value of spiritual practice. And, I expect, it will not be remarkable for Course students of the future. I honestly believe that Course-based practice will one day produce highly advanced spiritual beings, respected and revered by people of all paths.
Despite the above qualifiers, I truly cannot calculate the final significance for me of Workbook practice. I do believe I will look back and see my decision to dive into this practice as one of the key decisions of my life. I already do. Through it I have learned that perception is the only game in town. I have learned that how I perceive things is the source of all my suffering, and that changing perception is the royal road to salvation. I have learned that care of the mind is far more important, and deserves far more attention and effort, than care of the body or management of external affairs—those two things that soak up our days, promise our happiness, yet never deliver. Additionally, the Course has become a living, breathing path for me. It has become a deeply personal instructional manual, written just for me, which reveals the roots of my current condition, and lays out in practical detail the way out. I feel as if I have finally laid hold of this manual with both hands and at last set both feet firmly on its path.
The net effect is that I am gradually growing up emotionally, gradually experiencing my perception turning right-side up, slowly seeing life through calmer, happier eyes. And I feel I am being readied, in my understanding and motivation, to give myself completely to that greatest of quests, to scaling that highest of mountains: to learning how to forgive. My journey with the Workbook, which started out so seemingly meaningless and inconsequential, has turned into the journey to God.