Weekly Questions and Answers, 05/25/2005

This week's questions/topics:

Q #732  About being stuck on the first lesson.
Q #733  Are our ego illusions an attempt to stave off guilt?
Q #734  If I do the Workbook lessons again does that give voice to the ego?
Q #735  Why are we born with egos? Does the ego have any useful purpose?

Chronological List of All Questions.
Interactive Index of all topics

Q #732: I can't seem to get past the first lesson in the workbook. I can practice the idea by rote, but I'm just saying words that don't seem to sink in. Every time I try to actually think about what I'm saying, I become very resistant. For example, if I am driving and I see a sign in the road that says “STOP”, and I say to myself, “This sign does not mean anything”, I have trouble taking that statement seriously. If I truly believe the sign does not mean anything, then I might keep driving and cause an accident. Do you have any suggestions on how to study this lesson?

A: The workbook lessons, along with everything A Course in Miracles teaches, are directed to the thoughts we hold in our minds, which derive their meaning in support of the thought system of the ego or that of the Holy Spirit. Belief in the ego gives rise to the world, and gives meaning to everything in it in defense of the separation, while the Holy Spirit's meaning serves to heal the mind of the thought of separation. However, since the separation never happened, everything in the world is meaningless, which is the message of this lesson. In the light of truth a stop sign is meaningless, in the world of the ego, the world we think we inhabit, it means stop. Since the Course is not about changing behavior in the world, the important thing to do at a stop sign is stop.

An important goal of the Course is to teach us that truth, not illusion, is meaningful, and that we have a mind with the power to choose between them. Meaning, as it is used in the Course, refers to content, not form. It is very important to keep this distinction in mind in practicing the workbook and studying the Course. Otherwise, we fall victim to level confusion, making it impossible to progress through the training program the workbook sets forth.

Your question covers many of the common stumbling blocks found in practicing the workbook lessons. Fortunately, foreseeing our predictable resistance, Jesus has covered all the bases in his instructions in the introduction to the workbook: “Some of the ideas the workbook presents you will find hard to believe, and others may seem to be quite startling. This does not matter. You are merely asked to apply the ideas as you are directed to do. You are not asked to judge them at all. You are asked only to use them. It is their use that will give them meaning to you, and will show you that they are true” (W.in.8). A careful review of these instructions will no doubt help you to move along in your practice. We are “not asked to judge” the lessons “at all.” Therefore, it is not only not necessary to think about them, it is not helpful to do so, as you have discovered. In fact, our thinking has gotten us into a lot of trouble (the dream of separation), which is why the workbook is teaching us a completely new thought system based on what is truly meaningful. Furthermore, we need not judge the lessons, because we cannot judge them due in our upside-down thinking, whereby we have decided what everything is for and think we know what everything means. The workbook lessons, on the other hand, are a puzzle to us; we do not know what they mean. They are specifically designed to teach us that we have everything backwards, since we have taught ourselves (and insist on believing) that illusion is true, and truth is false.This does not mean we should deny the meaning that we have given everything. In fact, part of the answer to your question has been waiting for you in Lesson 2: “I have given everything…all the meaning that it has for me.” Here, Jesus acknowledges our strategy to make the world real by deciding for ourselves what everything is for. We are asked simply to recognize our beliefs and to question them in the light of the teachings of the Course, which tell us we give meaning to everything in the world to defend our belief in the separation and to make the world real. That is the purpose/content the ego assigns to everything, as it is the purpose/content that changes through the practice of forgiveness. Even a stop sign can remind us how attached we are to our belief in the world, which is why the workbook lessons are meant to be applied to everything without intentional exclusion. It can also remind us that we are willing to learn a new way of looking at everything; i.e., seeing its purpose as serving the ego or the Holy Spirit. We thus shift our attention from the form to the content. But until we no longer hold any belief in our identity as bodies in the world, we should stop at stop signs and abide by all the other rules of the world. In fact, even if we were to remain in the body, no longer believing it is who we are, we would still stop at stop signs until we finally put the body down for good.

In practicing the workbook, it is very important to remember that Jesus does not expect us to accept or understand its teachings without stumbling and making mistakes. He is considerate of our fear and resistance with his gentle reminder: “Remember only this; you need not believe the ideas, you need not accept them, and you need not even welcome them. Some of them you may actively resist. None of this will matter, or decrease their efficacy. But do not allow yourself to make exceptions in applying the ideas the workbook contains, and whatever your reactions to the ideas may be, use them . Nothing more than that is required” (W.in.9, italics ours ). If we waited until we were able to do a lesson perfectly, not many of us would get past the first lesson. The important thing is to “use them” with willingness to notice the ingenious devices we invent to resist using them. However, “none of this will matter,” for, as Jesus tells us in the text: “Your part is only to offer Him [Holy Spirit] a little willingness…” (T.18.V.2:5). Just this “little willingness” will lead you from lesson to lesson.

Q #733: I often hear Ken recounting the mythological tale of sin, guilt and fear the ego tells the Son of God (decision maker). Ken describes the ego as if it were a separate entity. I realize he does this for pedagogical reasons.    My understanding is that, once we choose the ego, however, we become the ego. Are we not, at that point, really telling the story to ourselves in an effort to 1)stave off the overwhelming guilt and to 2) preserve our chosen specialness?

A: Yes, we not only become the ego, we become the “story.” However, rather than stave off the guilt, we actually seek it to use as fuel in defense of the belief in sin and to justify fear: “ The attraction of guilt is found in sin, not error. Sin will be repeated because of this attraction…As an essential part of what the ego thinks you are, you will always want it” (T.19.III.1:1,2,7). Thus, the story goes: “I do not remember the sin, but since I feel guilty I must have sinned, and am therefore deserving of punishment by an angry God. My fear, therefore, is clearly justified.” In the insanity of the ego's “logic,” the guilt is then projected out in an attempt to be free of it, while at the same time it is preserved as the ego's foundation.

To make matters worse, beyond the attraction for guilt and seeming fear of punishment we find the fear of love: “The attraction of guilt produces fear of love, for love would never look on guilt at all…As love must look past fear, so must fear see love not. For love contains the end of guilt, as surely as fear depends on it…Fear looks on guilt with just the same devotion that love looks on itself” (T.19.IV.A.10:1,3,4,9). So, guilt is attractive and must be preserved, while love is fearful and must be defended against. What makes love fearful is the realization that in love's presence specialness disappears, and, as you point out, we are dedicated to its preservation. The goal of this psychotic arrangement is to make sin real, which keeps the illusory world of separation real in our experience. Thus the whole story, which has its origin in the choice for separation, is justified, defended, and cherished.

The ego predicament is further compounded by the heavy layers of denial that camouflage this story. The best disguise/defense is the projection of these ego dynamics onto God, making Him the One Who hurls His wrathful condemnation upon us for cutting ourselves off from Him. We then seem to have no choice but to protect ourselves through our vast variety of special relationships, designed to project all responsibility for our dilemma out into the world of bodies. The “story” thus twists around itself in a seemingly inescapable maze. As bodies, we have no life apart form this dirge. Escape is possible only by undoing this thought of separation/ego, which is the goal of A Course in Miracles . It is accomplished by forgiving ourselves for our madness, beginning with seeing this “story” in operation in our lives. Every recognition of the mind's choice for the ego's insanity is an acknowledgement of the power of the mind to choose, and lessens belief in the body/ego identity, even if only slightly and for a brief moment. Willingness to be vigilant in recognizing the ego story without justifying, judging, or defending it is what will eventually lead us beyond it. It is, after all, a lie, and herein lies the hope Jesus offers us in the Course. Forgiveness unravels the story and leads us out of it: “ It looks on lies, but it is not deceived. It does not heed the self-accusing shrieks of sinners mad with guilt. It looks on them with quiet eyes, and merely says to them, “My brother, what you think is not the truth (W.p.I.134.7:3,4,5). Although it is not easy to see that we do believe we are “sinners mad with guilt,” shrieking accusations at ourselves, we must look at this madness as Jesus tells us in this passage. Only then will we learn to accept that this is not our truth, and the lie will be undone.

Q #734: I was told by a friend who completed A Course in Miracles that we “should not” do the lessons in the workbook more than once, as that will give voice to our ego. I would like to do the workbook lessons, text, and manual for teachers for the rest of this illusion of a life here on earth. Please advise.

A: While there is no need to do the workbook lessons more than once, there is nothing wrong with doing them more than once if you feel so guided. And there certainly can be great value in reading them through more than once. About the only strict guideline the Course offers for how to use its material is not to do more than one workbook lesson a day when you are putting the lessons into practice the first time (W.pI.in.2:6) .

As with all things, the form of what you are doing is not what is essential, but rather the purpose for which you are doing it -- “what is it for?” (T.17.VI.2:1,2). Your friend's prohibition may come from a misunderstood but nevertheless legitimate concern that repeating the workbook lessons represents an attempt to do them until you “get them right,” which would be falling into the ego's trap of focusing on form rather than content (T.14.X.7:3,4,5; 8:1,2,3). Past religious training may have urged repetition of prayers until the offering is purified and pleasing to God, but that is not the goal of the workbook lessons. Their purpose is twofold: to help us realize that we have a right mind as well as a wrong mind, and to learn to desire and thus choose the right mind over the wrong mind more and more of the time, all the while forgiving ourselves when we don't.

Another way the ego could be seeking to join your use of the workbook lessons that's helpful to recognize would be any attempt to turn their practice into a ritual -- a recurring form from which you seek to gain comfort and relief. As Jesus observes in the workbook, “Rituals are not our aim, and would defeat our goal” (W.rIII.in.2:4). This is in fact the ego-based tendency that can be observed in most formal, organized religions -- to turn a form, which was only meant to symbolize a living inspiration, into a “sacred” or “holy” ritual in itself, believing it can be imbued with the content that it was only intended to point to. While it is not a sin to make the workbook lessons into a comforting ritual, it does reduce them to the level of magic and this is certainly not their purpose. In fact, that is why the later lessons have less and less structure built into them, directing us to turn increasingly to our Inner Teacher for guidance. That is their ultimate purpose, so a continuing reliance on the lessons for their own sake can become self-defeating.

The Course for most of us is likely to be a process for the rest of our lives, so take with a grain of salt advice that comes from anyone who may claim to have completed it. For as long as we believe our life is here in this world, in the body we think is our identity, regular study of its words, if the Course is our path, will continue to be of value. But rather than simply committing ourselves to a lifetime of regular reading of its text and repeated practice of its 365 lessons, the deeper commitment is to the lifelong practice of its principles in our daily lives, as reflected in the process of forgiveness.

The issue of how to do the workbook lessons and whether to repeat them has also been addressed in Questions #64 and #92.

Q #735: I understand perfectly how the ego tries to keep us away from our Creator, my question is what is the nature of the ego? What kind of entity is it? Why are we born with egos? Can it be compared with Satan or evil forms? What is the test to distinguish each voice (the ego´s and the Holy Spirit´s)? Does the ego have any useful purpose in our lives?

A) The ego is not an entity of itself. Jesus speaks of it as if it were a separate, autonomous thing in order to “persuade you that you cannot dismiss it lightly, and must realize how much of your thinking is ego-directed” (T.4.VI.1:4) . It is, though, “nothing more than a part of your belief about yourself. . . . the part of the mind that believes your existence is defined by separation” (T.4.VI.1:6; VII.1:5) . Interestingly, Jesus redefines the traditional biblical notion of the devil to mean this belief in separation (T.3.VII.5:1) , which he expands on by saying that this belief “is powerful, active, destructive and clearly in opposition to God, because it literally denies His Fatherhood. Look at your life and see what the devil has made. But realize that this making will surely dissolve in the light of truth, because its foundation is a lie” (T.3.VII.5:2,3,4). Thus, we only deceive ourselves when we believe we have separated from God, and in so doing bring a great amount of pain into our minds. All that we need do about this is bring that lie to the truth in us and it will be dissolved. This is Atonement without sacrifice (T.3.I) .

Why are we born with egos? The assumption here is that there is a self that is born, an assumption A Course in Miracles teaches is false and that it sets out to correct. In fact, we are advised to have the willingness to question every value we hold if we are to learn this course (T.24.in.2:1) , and that includes all of our beliefs about who we are and how the world works. Briefly, thus, the Course teaches us that it is the mind that decides to split off from its identity as a mind and become an individualized bodily self in order to keep the separation a reality. That is the origin of all bodies; in other words, bodies are the outcome of the mind's strategy to preserve its existence as a separate entity. But since ideas leave not their source , the body is never anything other than a thought in the mind, and an expression in form of the mind's dynamics of self-preservation and salvation from guilt. Because of space limitations, we cannot go into this any further, but recommend that you have a look at Question #354 , and then perhaps study the first five paragraphs of “The ‘Hero' of the Dream” (T.27.VIII) and the first two paragraphs in “The Secret Vows” (T.28.VI) , sections that help fill in some of the details of the Course's view of the body.

Many, many people ask how to distinguish the ego's voice from the Holy Spirit's. While this discernment can be a problem, Jesus talks explicitly about it in several places. Since specialness is one of our most powerful defenses against awareness of our oneness with each other, he points out that our demand for specialness is one sure way to block out the Voice for God: “You can defend your specialness, but never will you hear the Voice for God beside it. They speak a different language and they fall on different ears” (T.24.II.5:1,2) . This is pretty clear, but still there are times when we will not know for sure. We have responded to this concern in Questions #285, #309, #486, and #536, all of which we hope will be helpful.

Finally, the ego is useful to us to the extent to which we see our lives as classrooms in which we are being taught, if we choose Jesus or the Holy Spirit as our Teacher, how we can awaken from the nightmare of separation from God. In that sense, we can redirect the use of everything of the ego to serve the Holy Spirit's purpose. He will use everything that we made to harm for the purpose of healing our minds (T.25.VI.4) . See also T.24.VII.6 and T.29.VI.5 .