Negative emotions

Question:What can I do when strong negative emotions seem to hinder my Course practice?

Short answer: Based on the Course's instructions and my own personal experience, I recommend the following as ways to help deal with negative emotions that seem to hinder Course practice:

  1. Build a foundation of Course study.
  2. Build a foundation of Course practice.
  3. Do what you need to do behaviorally to set up a situation that is conducive to practice.
  4. Remember that your thoughts cause your emotions.
  5. Develop a problem-solving repertoire of Course practices.
  6. Remind yourself how important your practice is to you.
  7. Practice with gentle firmness.
  8. Get support.

The Course claims to be a complete spiritual program "in which nothing is lacking that is needed, and nothing is included that is contradictory or irrelevant" (W-pI.42.7:2). It tells us that it is "a course in mind training" (T-1.VII.4:1) which can heal our minds completely if we do what it says. If this is so, then its program should certainly be effective in dealing with emotional upsets like fear, anger, or grief. Yet many if not most of us have experienced emotional upsets of such intensity that they seem to hinder the very practice that is meant to help overcome them. What can we do in those moments when the disease is so strong that it seems to block the very thing that would cure it?

First off, I think we should remind ourselves that dealing with negative emotions is exactly what Course practice is for. Therefore, emotional upsets aren't hindrances to practice; effectively dealing with them is the purpose of practice. Keeping this in mind, here are some tips for how to make Course practice more impactful. Some are drawn from the Course itself, while others are more from my own personal experience. Applying these ideas in my own life has definitely made my own practice more effective in dealing with strong negative emotions.

Build a foundation of Course study

Study of the Course's thought system is the foundation of effective Course practice, as the Introduction to the Workbook tells us:

A theoretical foundation such as the text provides is necessary as a framework to make the exercises in this workbook meaningful….It is the purpose of this workbook to train your mind to think along the lines the text sets forth. (W-In.1:1,4)

Course practice consists mainly of frequently repeating ideas which are part of the Course's thought system, so that those ideas will sink more deeply into our minds. But for this to be effective, we must first understand those ideas, at least to a certain extent. If we are to train our minds to "think along the lines the text sets forth," we need to have some understanding of what the text sets forth. To get that understanding, we must study it.

The value of study has proven itself time and time again in my experience. I have found that the more I understand an idea from the Course, the more potent practice of that idea becomes. Course practices that used to be total duds for me have become "mighty forces" (T-16.II.9:5) in my life as I've come to understand the theory behind them. And the more powerful my practice has become, the more effective it has been in helping me deal with strong emotional upsets.

Build a foundation of Course practice

As important as study is, it is not enough in itself. In order for our study of the Course's ideas to really change our lives, we need to practice those ideas:

Yet it is doing the exercises that will make the goal of the course possible. An untrained mind can accomplish nothing. (W-In.1:2-3)

The ultimate purpose of the Workbook's program of mind training is to "make the goal of the course possible." Without such training our minds can accomplish nothing, and so practice is essential. How much practice are we to do? This depends on how far we've progressed through the Workbook, but the further we go, the more practice we are asked to do. Moreover, practice does not end with the Workbook; Section 16 of the Manual outlines the daily practice of the beginning teacher of God, who has completed the Workbook. Clearly we are to develop a firm foundation of daily practice.

Personally, I try to spend at least 30 minutes of quiet time with God morning and evening, in addition to following the instructions for my daily Workbook lesson as closely as possible (I'm going through the Workbook again this year). I have found this foundation of practice to be an absolute lifeline for me when faced with intense emotional situations. Many of us, myself included, have a tendency to put off practice until we are confronted with a major crisis, which I have found to be a recipe for disaster. Asking an untrained mind to deal with a major crisis is like asking a couch potato to run a marathon. I find that my practice is cumulative. If I do a lot of it during the day, it grows in strength and power, as if I were constantly adding fuel to my spiritual gas tank. If I'm properly "fueled up" with Course practice when an emotionally distressing event comes my way, I'm much better able to handle it. But if I'm not properly fueled up, then I'm a dead duck. My gas tank is empty and I don't stand a chance. I think that developing a rock solid foundation of Course practice is an absolute must if we are to deal effectively with the more stressful situations we're confronted with.

Do what you need to do behaviorally to set up a situation that is conducive to practice

While the Course is adamant that healing comes from changing our minds rather than our behavior, taking behavioral action to make our situation more conducive to practice is simply practical. Done in the right spirit, such behavioral action is simply a temporary measure that we can use to keep our situation relatively calm as we work on healing our minds. I can think of at least three things we can do behaviorally to help us clear the way to better Course practice:

First, we can physically remove ourselves (temporarily) from whatever is triggering our negative emotions. This is such a simple thing to do, yet it can really make a difference. It's just so hard to deal with strong emotions when we're right in the middle of a stressful situation. Taking time out and stepping away can give us the space we need to calm our minds and do our practice.

Second, we can express our emotions in an appropriate, non-harming way—we can have a good cry, or pound a pillow to vent our anger. Now, I don't want to emphasize this idea too much, since the Course does not consider physical expression of emotions to be healing in and of itself. Rather than physical expression, the Course consistently counsels us to immediately counter negative emotions with a Course practice as soon as we're aware of them, as in this typical practice instruction: "The idea for today should…be applied immediately to any situation that may distress you" (W-pI.32.6:1). This is what we should try to do, if we are up to it. However, that being said, certainly there are times when the emotion is simply too intense for us to practice with it right away, and at those times we needn't feel guilty if we decide simply to let it all out. The Course seems to suggest that there are times when this will happen as we progress along the path: "You will weep each time an idol falls" (T-29.VII.1:2). Taking the edge off of our intense emotions through appropriate expression is only a temporary expedient, but it can be a useful one. It can get the raw emotional energy out of our system so that we can focus our minds on the Course practice that will truly heal negative emotions.

Third, we can set up our daily life situation to make it more conducive to practice. This can be done in a number of ways. For starters, I think that simply taking care of ourselves physically can make a big difference. It's very difficult to practice when you are hungry, sleepy, or in physical distress. I myself have found that something as simple as the amount of sleep I get can make or break my practice—if I don't sleep enough, I nod off during my meditations, which is hardly conducive to spiritual awakening! In addition to taking care of ourselves physically, we can also make our practice easier by setting up regular times and a quiet place for daily practice. The Course recommends that we do this, at least at the beginning stage of our journey:

Try, if possible, to undertake the daily extended practice periods at approximately the same time each day. Try, also, to determine this time in advance, and then adhere to it as closely as possible….This is part of the long-range disciplinary training your mind needs, so that the Holy Spirit can use it consistently for the purpose He shares with you. (W-pI.65.4:1-2,4)

The exercises should be done with your eyes closed and when you are alone in a quiet place, if possible.
This is emphasized for practice periods at your stage of learning. (W-pI.rI.In.3:3-4:1)

Like all of the behavioral suggestions I've discussed, setting aside the time and space to practice is only a temporary measure. Ultimately we will need to get to the point where we "require no special settings" (W-pI.rI.In.4:2) for our practice. Indeed, we are told that "you will need your learning most in situations that appear to be upsetting, rather than in those that already seem to be calm and quiet" (W-pI.rI.In.4:3). But until we have become so advanced that we can practice anytime and anywhere, I think we would be wise to set up our lives in such a way that regular practice is a scheduled priority. Doing this will greatly increase the odds that our practice will be effective in those unpredictable situations when strong negative emotions arise.

Remember that your thoughts cause your emotions

Emotions seem so powerful. They seem to have a life of their own; most of us, I think, truly believe that "emotions alternate because of causes you cannot control, you did not make, and you can never change" (W-pI.167.4:2). Compared with the tempestuous drama of our emotions, our thoughts can seem rather weak, pallid, and unimportant. Given these beliefs, addressing emotional upsets with the mental repetition of ideas from the Course can seem like facing a dragon with a rubber sword.

But the Course sees things differently: It tells us that thoughts cause emotions: "It is always an interpretation [i.e., a thought] that gives rise to negative emotions" (M-17.4:2). For this reason, "correction belongs at the thought level" (T-2.V.1:7). Repeating thoughts as the Course directs, then, is not weak and ineffectual; rather, it is the most powerful practice imaginable because it changes our minds, and "by changing his mind, [the Son of God] has changed the most powerful device that was ever given him for change" (T-7.V.7:6). I find that simply reminding myself of this both encourages me to practice more and makes my practice more impactful. As I face the dragon of my emotional upset, I try to remember that this is no rubber sword I have in my hand—this is Excalibur.

Develop a problem-solving repertoire of Course practices

In Lesson 194 of the Workbook, we are encouraged to add the idea for the day to our "problem-solving repertoire" (W-pI.194.6:2). The implication of this is that in the course of doing the Workbook, we have developed a repertoire of various Course practices that we can use whenever we encounter difficult situations. Adding to this the Workbook's injunction to practice with "great specificity" (W-In.6:1), I believe that Jesus is encouraging us to learn through experience which specific practices are most effective for us in specific situations. Learning this will give us some powerful personalized tools to use when faced with these situations.

I've developed my own problem-solving repertoire over time, and I've found it to be indispensable. I have indeed found that certain practices are especially potent for me in particular situations. For instance, in fearful situations, I have found the simple repetition of "There is nothing to fear" (W-pI.48.Heading) to be effective. For pain of various kinds, I often use "Whatever suffers is not part of me" (W-pII.248.1.Heading). In situations where I must forgive a brother, mentally saying to him, "Give me your blessing, holy Son of God" (W-pI.161.Heading) seems to do the trick. Each of us, I'm sure, will find different practices that are effective for us. The key is to find what works for you and use it. Having such a problem-solving repertoire is really helpful when confronted with negative emotions; if your past experience has already shown you what practices are especially effective for you in dealing with a particular emotion, your practice is much more likely to really work.

Remind yourself how important your practice is to you

Simply holding an attitude in your mind which says, "Course practice is important to me" can really strengthen that practice. The Course encourages this attitude in its practice instructions:

What is needful is a sense of the importance of what you are doing; its inestimable value to you, and an awareness that you are attempting something very holy. (W-pI.44.8:1)

For me, keeping this in mind helps to counteract my tendency to believe that other things in my life are more important than practice. So often, I tend to let practice slide because "it interferes with goals [I] hold more dear" (W-pI.rIII.In.4:2). I think most of us are probably prone to this. It especially happens when we are faced with emotional upset—in upsetting situations, we often spend a lot more time trying to fix the external situation or get back at the person who "hurt" us than we do practicing. Reminding ourselves of the importance of our practice can help make our practice a priority; reminding ourselves that we are "attempting something very holy" can make that practice much stronger.

Practice with gentle firmness

Practicing with an attitude of gentle firmness has, perhaps more than anything else, made my own practice come alive. What is "gentle firmness"? The phrase itself occurs in Workbook Lesson 73, where we are told to repeat the idea for the day with "gentle firmness and quiet certainty" (WpI.73.10:1). To me, this phrase conveys an entire attitude toward Course practice, an attitude I believe the Course wants us to adopt.

This attitude is rooted in the recognition that, all appearances to the contrary, our true will is one with God's: "There is no will but God's. I cannot be in conflict" (W-pI.74.3:2-3). It certainly seems as if we have two wills—God's and the ego's—that constantly battle for control of our minds, but only the will we share with God is real, while the other "will" is literally nothing. There is, therefore, no real battle (which means one shouldn't take my sword and dragon analogy above too literally). Based on this understanding, practicing with firmness means firmly committing our minds to the will we share with God by affirming that God's Will is the only will, the only thing we really want. Practicing with gentleness means gently letting go of our false "will" (the ego) rather than fighting it, by reminding ourselves that the ego is nothing, and therefore not something we really want. Putting firmness and gentleness together, practicing with gentle firmness means practicing in a way that firmly reinforces our true will and gently lets go of our false "will."

I think that an attitude of gentle firmness is absolutely vital in applying our practice to negative emotions. If we see practice as a battle between opposing wills, we will have the tendency to use Course practice to hammer our emotions into submission. This is not the kind of firmness the Course is advocating. Using practice to crush emotions we don't like will just drive them into hiding, where they will continue to run our lives. Instead, we are to be gentle in dealing with them. We are not to strain or try to fight them off. The kind of firmness we are to apply to them is a gentle but firm recognition that however powerful they may seem to be, negative emotions are nothing, and the will we share with God is everything. We don't really want painful emotions, and we have both the desire and the power to let go of the thoughts that cause them. "Light does not attack darkness, but it does shine it away" (T-8.IV.2:10). Practicing with gentle firmness does not attack our negative emotions—it shines them away. This "shining away" is hard to describe in words, but when you experience it, you know what it feels like. Course practice done with the right attitude doesn't just repress negative emotions—it truly releases them.

For more about the idea of practicing with gentle firmness, see my article Gentle Firmness: A Powerful Antidote to Our Resistance to Practice, on this website.

Get support

"Salvation is a collaborative venture" (T-4.VI.8:2). I don't think that any of us can deal with intense emotions like fear, anger, or grief without help from another person. The Course's program is a challenging one, and we need each other's support for it to be successful. We can get help from Course teachers, our fellow Course students, and, if needed, from healing professionals. The last one, in particular, is one I don't think we should overlook. If we are wrestling with very intense emotional trauma, the help of a trained psychotherapist may simply be required. We should take every opportunity to accept the help that is available to us. And, of course, one of the most powerful ways to facilitate our own healing is to give help to others, both in our minds and behaviorally when asked.

"Your practicing can offer everything to you."

To conclude, I would simply reiterate that dealing with negative emotions is exactly what Course practice is for. If we practice the Course with understanding, consistency, diligence, commitment, and support, I truly believe that there are no limits to the healing it can offer us. As the Course says, "Your practicing can offer everything to you" (W-pI.rIII.In.4:5). Course practice can undo the core beliefs from which all of our distress arises, and thus it offers much more than a quick fix or temporary alleviation of emotional pain. Since it undoes the cause of negative emotions, Course practice will ultimately undo them for all time.

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