Does the Workbook expect too much from me?

Question: When I first started the Workbook it seemed to be easy for the first few weeks, until I got to Lesson 41. I believe the lessons are well planned and that this course is for all sorts of people, the saints and the very normal people like me! What does it mean, then, that already after only forty days of doing the lessons, he expects us to be able to find the quiet place in our mind and hear the Holy Spirit? It's very tempting to feel like a failure when we don't reach what he is expecting from us.

Answer: I know exactly what you mean. You are touching on something that is fundamental to the Workbook. The Workbook is a curious combination of meeting us where we are and expecting of us things that seem beyond us. Once you have this dual concept in your mind, you will notice both things everywhere.

Let's look first at how it meets us where we are. The Workbook starts out asking virtually nothing of us. It opens by saying, "You need not believe the ideas, you need not accept them, and you need not even welcome them" (W-In.9:1). Then, for the first nineteen days, it asks us to practice two to five times a day for about a minute each time. This is almost nothing. When Jesus increases the practice requirements in Lesson 20, he explains why they have been so "minimal": "You will not see if you regard yourself as being coerced, and if you give in to resentment and opposition" (W-pI.20.1:6).

From there, the practice begins to ask more and more of us, increasing in a gently ascending spiral as our practice muscles (so to speak) get stronger and stronger. Throughout this process, Jesus makes a point of respecting the limitations imposed by our worldly schedule. Thus, when he asks us to practice five minutes per hour (Lessons 93-110), he makes allowances for the fact that our schedule won't always permit us to do that, asking us at those times to merely repeat the day's idea (see W-pI.93.10). Shortly after these lessons, he explains that "Learning will not be hampered when you miss a practice period because it is impossible at the appointed time" (W-pI.rIII.In.2:2). What a wonderful concession to our busy lives!

Even while he is asking us to practice more frequently, he refrains from asking us to practice for very long at one stretch. It is four months, for instance, before we have our first solid half hour of practice (in Lesson 124). He makes his reason for this clear: " It is difficult at this point not to allow your mind to wander, if it undertakes extended practice" (W-pI.95.4:2). Sitting there for an hour while our mind wanders all over the place is simply a waste of time, and so he doesn't ask us to do it.

In these and many other ways, Jesus makes great efforts to work within our limitations. Yet that is only one side of the equation. The other side is that he seems to expect phenomenal results (as you pointed out).

In Lesson 157, for example, he says, " You have come far enough along the way to alter time sufficiently to rise above its laws, and walk into eternity a while" (W-pI.157.3:2). In the introduction to Lessons 181-200, he says, "Your motivation will be so intensified that words become of little consequence. You will be sure of what you want, and what is valueless" (W-pI.In.181-200.2:5-6). The prayer for Lesson 340 tops them all:

Father, I thank You for today, and for the freedom I am certain it will bring. This day is holy, for today Your Son will be redeemed. His suffering is done. For he will hear Your Voice directing him to find Christ's vision through forgiveness, and be free forever from all suffering. Thanks for today, my Father. I was born into this world but to achieve this day, and what it holds in joy and freedom for Your holy Son and for the world he made, which is released along with him today. (W-pII.340.1:1-6)

In fact, I count no less than nine lessons that state that "today"—the day of that particular lesson—is the day chosen for our release (Lessons 73, 131, 190, 198, 275, 286, 308, 310, and 340). Yet of course, most of us don't find ourselves on that particular day becoming "free forever from all suffering" (as the above prayer says). So why does he make these promises?

These high expectations are not confined to particular lessons, but are actually central to the overall progression of the Workbook. The Workbook may assume that we start out as an average Joe, hardly able to focus our minds for more than two minutes a day, but as it progresses, it increasingly assumes advanced development on our part. As we enter Part II, it says that we are almost done with the need to read words or even repeat words (in our practice). We have reached the place where we can "say some simple words of welcome" (W-pII.In.3:3) and then drop into "wordless, deep experience" (W-pII.In.11:2). By the end of the Workbook, it assumes that we are so in touch with the Holy Spirit that He will tell us from within both when to practice and what to do while we practice: "He will direct your [practice] efforts, telling you exactly what to do, how to direct your mind, and when to come to Him in silence, asking for His sure direction and His certain Word" (W-Ep.3:3).

These expectations are, to be honest, impossibly high. Has anyone ever finished the Workbook who is able to, without even repeating a single word, walk at will into the direct experience of God? Is there anyone who is so connected to the Holy Spirit that she receives constant inner direction, many times a day, about when to practice and how to direct her mind? I doubt it.

So what is the method to this apparent madness? Why take such pains to work within our limitations and yet expect us to reach such phenomenal spiritual heights—in just one short year? I don't think we can assume that this is carelessness or some kind of oversight. Both trends (working within our limitations and expecting us to go beyond them) are too consistent. Jesus is fully aware of what he is doing.

I think his reasons are not all that obscure. These "impossibly high" expectations represent our true potential. "Your learning potential, properly understood, is limitless" (T-12.V.9:1). The fact is that we will simply make more progress if we acknowledge the limitlessness of our potential, rather than put a cap on it.

Let's take as an example the lesson you bring up, Lesson 41. That is the Workbook's first meditation lesson and is really aimed at having an experience of God. Imagine that while meditating you think, "This will never succeed. I can't focus my mind. I am a spiritual loser." If this is how you think, how much of yourself will you give to the process? How much will you reach out and lay hold of what the Course says is yours? Not much. Without hope, we simply don't try.

Now imagine that while you meditate, you think this way: "It is quite possible to reach God. In fact it is very easy, because it is the most natural thing in the world. I might even say it is the only natural thing in the world. The way will open, if I believe that it is possible." How can we question that these words will release more of your energies into your meditation? As it turns out, these words are drawn directly from paragraph 8 of the lesson, just changed into the first person. This is how the Workbook is trying to get us to think. It wants us to be filled with the thought "I can do this."

Imagine constantly thinking, "My learning potential is limitless." "I cannot fail." "I will succeed today." "I was born into this world but to achieve this day"—all lines from the Course, placed in first person. How could this not lead to faster progress?

Actually, there is a way it could hold us back. If we let these thoughts of our true potential lead us into feelings of failure and despair, they can become roadblocks. If we say, "I never seem to tap my true potential. I must be hopeless," then the unbridled optimism of the Workbook can become a trap.

What this means is that, for optimal progress, we need to maintain a delicate mental balance while doing the Workbook. We need to hold in mind the limitlessness of our potential even while, day after day, we generally fail to access it. At the beginning of the day, we need to say, "Now is the time for [my] deliverance. The time has come. The time has come today" (W-pI.198.13:4-6). And then, at the end of that same day, we will probably need to say, "Okay, so I didn't reach my full potential today. But that potential is still there, exactly as it's always been. And tomorrow is a new day."

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