Why does the Course say “life is thought” when some enlightened teachers say that thought is of the ego?

Q. In Lesson 54, it says “If I did not think I would not exist, because life is thought.” Some enlightened teachers like Eckhart Tolle or Sri Nisargadatta Maharash say that thought is of the ego and that our Self exists in a state of pure being. They claim to not think except when they want to use thought. The statement in ACIM seems to contradict this. I also know from personal experience with meditation that I can reach a state with no thought. Can anyone help me resolve this seeming contradiction?

A. That’s a great question. In my opinion, it highlights the need to honor the differences in different teachings, as well as to pay attention to the use of terms.

To approach the Course on its own terms, we need to honor its overwhelming emphasis on thought as the primary means of salvation. My (albeit extremely limited) understanding of Eckart Tolle’s teachings is that thought is good for worldly matters, but needs to be set to one side for the sake of spiritual awakening. If this is an accurate representation of Tolle’s teachings, it is a profound difference with the Course; so profound that, if we try to explain it away, we will end up fundamentally altering one teaching or both.

Just look at the Workbook, for instance. There are meditation practices in which we try to clear our mind of our normal thoughts, and these are very important. However, there is no way around the fact that the vast majority of the practice in the Workbook consists of dwelling on thoughts in the form of verbal statements. Here, thought is not just a tool to help us navigate through a world of form. It is a powerful tool for awakening.

Why is this? Because awakening in the Course is not about the experience of pure consciousness. You could say that it is really about laying hold of our true relationship with God, our brothers, and our own Identity—with all of reality. Right now, we have chosen a predominantly negative relationship with all of reality (whether we are conscious of that or not). As a result, we exist in a state of fear (again, whether we are conscious of that or not). Spiritual awakening comes from choosing our true, positive relationship with reality.

How do we choose our relationship with reality? By choosing the meaning that we will give it. We can give it a negative meaning: “Reality is full of danger and I am on my own.” Or we can give it a positive meaning. The word for that positive meaning is “love.”

And love, according to the Course, is a thought. Yes, it is an emotion, but the feeling-aspect of the emotion is an experience of the thought of love. What is the thought of love? It simply says, “That person has great worth, as well as great value to me. Therefore, I want to be near her, to give to her, receive from her, and join with her.” Behind every feeling of love is a thought that is more or less like that.

Therefore, to choose a positive relationship with reality, to choose love, we need to sincerely apply the meaning I just described to every living thing, to God, and to ourselves. That is how, in the Course, we wake up. We choose a meaning that amounts to “I see such worth and value in everything, that I want to be close to, and even at one with, everything.” That is the choice to be one with the All.

I hope you can see from this why thought has such a central place in the Course. Its role is infinitely more important than figuring out what groceries to buy or how to drive your car from A to B. It is the means through which we choose what our fundamental relationship with reality will be. It is how we decide whether our stance will be one of cringing in separateness from a fearful reality, or uniting in love with a glorious reality.

In keeping with ascribing this level of importance to thought, the Course also defines thought much more broadly. In its terminology, thought is not confined to fleeting, verbal thoughts about earthly matters. Rather, it seems to include any act of attention that holds a meaning, a perspective, even if no words are attached.

Therefore, meditation in the Course is definitely not void of thought. Meditation should seek to be free of verbal thoughts about concrete things. But in their place, it should still have a form of thought. There should still be attention that holds meaning, that implies a point of view, even if that point of view is not articulated. For example, in the meditation exercise in Lesson 188, we find this line: “Exclude the outer world, and let your thoughts fly to the peace within” (W-pI.188.6:4). So you aren’t thinking about the outer world, but your attention is going toward the peace within. This attention is called “thought,” I believe, because it still carries meaning—it views peace as positive and desirable.

In the meditation for Lesson 183, we find similar remarks:

Sit silently, and let His Name become the all-encompassing idea that holds your mind completely. Let all thoughts be still except this one. And to all other thoughts respond with this, and see God’s Name replace the thousand little names you gave your thoughts, not realizing that there is one Name for all there is, and all that there will be. (W-pI.183.8:3-5)

Here again, thought is defined more broadly than normal. We aren’t thinking about all the “little names” of the world, but we are keeping our attention on “the all-encompassing idea” of God. And that is thought.

This expanded definition of thought allows the Course to literally reverse the kind of relationship between thought and spiritual reality that you mention for Tolle and Nisargadatta. In the Course, our normal thoughts are not our real thoughts. Rather, our real thoughts are wordless, changeless, limitless realities that our true being thinks with God for all eternity. So, rather than thoughts being of the ego, and our Self being free of thought, real thought is only of our Self, being something that we are actually incapable of in the egoic state.

Clearly, some of the difference between the teachings here comes from a different definition of thought. But this difference in definition results in profound differences on the practical level, which we see in the Course’s heavy emphasis on a spiritual practice that mainly consists of repeating verbal statements.

As an aside, it seems to me that the power of verbal statements to draw our mind toward a different meaning and thus a different relationship with reality is still there in the teachings of Tolle and Nisargadatta, for both heavily emphasize verbal teachings. Many years ago when I read Nisargadatta’s dialogues in I Am That, I felt I saw a masterful use of the same basic power that the Course harnesses in its Workbook practice—the power of thought to pull our mind toward spiritual reality.

I hope this helps. My knowledge of the two teachers you mention is very partial, but there’s one thing I am sure of: to honor the Course we need to honor the importance of thought in its system. Otherwise, we end up stripping out something that lies at the core of its teaching and practical application.

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