Stages of Practice

by Allen Watson

In Review I of the Workbook (page 80 in both editions), the third and fourth paragraphs present a theory of practice that is useful in understanding why the Workbook is structured as it is. Furthermore, it implies a lot about the changing importance of structure itself as we progress in our practice. The review quite clearly identifies five stages.

1. Highly structured with formal setting

In the beginning of our study, the Course recommends quite highly structured practice, with attention to certain forms. The earlier lessons in the Workbook all go to great lengths spelling out the specific details concerning how to practice the lesson. This Review, for instance, tells us that we do not need to review the comments after each of the five daily thoughts in any great detail. Rather, we are to focus on the central point and think about that, allowing related ideas to come to us as we have been doing in recent lessons. (The "related thoughts" concept is already starting to move away from strict formality, teaching us to think on our own along the lines of the Course.)

In addition it tells us that "the exercises should be done with your eyes closed and when you are alone in a quiet place, if possible." This is what I mean when I say it pays attention to form. It deals with where we should be (in a quiet place) and specifically what we should do with our eyes. It adds that this kind of instruction is "emphasized for practice periods at your stage of learning," which is obviously understood to be the beginning stage.

The idea behind this sort of instruction seems to be that, at this stage, we need structure, and we need physical solitude and quietness. We need to close our eyes to shut out distractions because our minds have not been sufficiently trained to ignore the distractions without doing so. We are training ourselves to have inner peace, and at the beginning it is helpful to encourage that state of mind by arranging our environment.

2. No special setting

As we advance, it will become necessary to give up the formal setting and structure, so that we can "learn to require no special settings in which to apply what you have learned." Initially, to find peace of mind, we need a quiet place, and we need to close our eyes. But as we go on, the intent is that we begin to apply our learning in situations that appear to be upsetting. After all, when do we most need peace? Obviously, we need it when something happens that seems to upset us.

We have begun to advance when we learn to generalize, when we are able to take what we have learned in the "laboratory" of quiet practice and apply it in distressing situations. This will happen almost without conscious volition. Suddenly we will notice that things that used to upset us instantly no longer do so. Or we will find ourselves reacting with love instead of anger.

The Workbook practice encourages this "spread" of the lessons into our lives by asking us to remember the thought for the day whenever something happens that upsets us. This takes the lesson out of the laboratory and into our lives. This kind of expanded practice, or "response to temptation" as it is called, is vital if the Course is going to make a noticeable difference in our lives.

3. Bringing Peace with Us

As our practice of the first sort continues, and as we begin to respond to upsets by choosing to experience peace instead of the upset, we begin to move into a third stage. We start to bring peace with us into every situation. In the second stage we are reacting to a situation and choosing peace; here, we are proactively bringing peace with us into distress and turmoil, healing the situations we find. Our quiet practice has established a certain level of peace within our minds, and now we bring the quiet with us as we move through our days. "This is not done by avoiding [distress and turmoil] and seeking a haven of isolation for yourself."

At this level of development we have ended any attempt at monastic isolation and we are reaching out into the world, bringing healing to it. We may still withdraw periodically to "recharge," as it were, but we no longer fear distress and turmoil; we even begin actively to seek out situations in which our healed mind can bring healing to others.

4. Recognizing Peace is Part of Us

At a higher level still, we begin to realize that peace is not some quality or condition that comes and goes; rather, it is an inherent part of our being. Here we have realized that peace is not conditional. It does not depend on conditions. It is inherent in our nature; it is what we are. We have become identified with peace so that, simply by being there, we bring peace into every situation in which we find ourselves. We no longer need to get alone or shut our eyes to feel peaceful; we are the peace. Conditions around us do not affect our peace; instead, our peace affects the conditions.

5. Peace Seen Everywhere

At the highest level, we will realize that our physical presence is not required to affect any situation. We realize that, "there is no limit to where you are, so that your peace is everywhere, as you are." This is the state of mind of the advanced teacher of God, or what, in some circles, might be called a Realized Master. This state of mind will not long abide in a body, because it has transcended bodily limitations.

This broad overview of where the Course is taking us can be very encouraging as we struggle with the elementary level. Look at the scope of the Course's program. Starting with a level at which our peace is so vulnerable that we must close our eyes and shut out the world, it moves to transcend the world entirely. We may long to be at the highest level right away; it doesn't work that way. We can't skip steps, as Ken Wapnick often points out.

Don't get caught in the trap of thinking, "I ought to be able to experience peace anywhere," and because of that refuse yourself the support of being alone, quiet, and shutting your eyes. At the beginning those props are necessary and even, in the Course's curriculum, emphasized. Don't think you are being untrue to your highest understanding by setting up a formal structure for yourself, perhaps setting an alarm to remember your practice times, writing the lesson on cards and carrying it around, or asking a friend to remind you and check up on you. At the beginning, almost anything that helps you remember is useful.

The structure won't last, and should not last. But we need the structure at the start to get to where being unstructured will work for us. Try to skip immediately to unstructured practice and we'll end up not practicing at all. Use structure, but don't get attached to it. Don't make an idol of it. The structure is like training wheels on a bicycle, necessary and useful as we are learning, but to be discarded as soon as we have learned to keep upright on our own.

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