These thoughts do not mean anything. They are like the things I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place].
One can understand Lesson Four of A Course in Miracles as an introductory step to several sustained practices that will – in addition to being the subject of future daily lessons – become essential to our daily practice as course students.
Those principles are:
a) Learning how to separate the meaningless from the meaningful (W-pI.4.3:2);
b) Learning to see the meaningless as external and the meaningful as internal (W-pI.4.3:3); and
c) Learning to recognize what is the same and what is different (W-pI.4.3:4).
The first three lessons direct our attention to a world that is apparently outside of us. Collectively, they challenge our certainty about what we perceive externally, what its meaning is, and the nature and depth of our understanding.
In a sense, they precipitate an existential crisis with respect to our experience of being living human beings in a world.
Lesson four directs our attention to what is apparently inside of us: our thoughts.
The usual admonitions about judgment obtain: we aren’t supposed to judge a given thought as being better than or worse than another. For the purposes of learning, they are all equal. But – in keeping with the overarching principles listed above – the workbook extends this meaning of “equality.”
You will find, if you train yourself to look at your thoughts, that they represent such a mixture that, in a sense, none of them can be called “good” or “bad.” This is why they do not mean anything (W-pI.4.1:6-7).
Thus, our judgment with respect to our thinking is as useless as it is with respect to understanding and perceiving an external world.
In this sense, apparent external objects and our thoughts are the same.
A note later in the lesson lesson suggests that what we consider our thoughts – the very subject of the lesson – are actually not our real thoughts at all (W-4.2:3). If the first three lessons set the stage for the undoing of reliance on our physical senses as producing anything real or true, then ACIM Lesson Four opens the door to the dismantling our current thought system, that seeming stream of words and images passing by the other side of our eyes.
Small wonder the workbook characterizes this as a “major exercise,” one we will repeat over and over, albeit in different form (W-pI.4.3:1).
For some of us, this is a disorienting exercise – even after we’ve done it a few times. I think this happens because it is actually easier to contemplate the tenuous nature of the external world than that of the internal.
That is, it’s easier to question objects than the observer observing them. As Descartes argued long ago – cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am. His logic (and the duality it implies) has haunted our western tradition for centuries; this lesson testifies to that.
Still, at least implicitly, the distinction of Descartes makes sense to us. The observer – the narrative I – the interior self watching and judging and directing our living feels so intimate and real that we often don’t even notice it, let alone raise it to inquiry.
Lesson four invites us to do exactly that: notice its function and question its veracity.
This is consistent with characterizing A Course in Miracles as a course in mind training (T-1.VII.4:1). Its objective is to enable us to better relate to our thoughts – to slow and redirect their aimless wandering, to quiet their incessant chatter, to minimize their constant caroms and collisions. In doing so, our experience of a discrete self dissolves, taking with it the illusion of an external objective world.
Taken together, our present thoughts obscure our real thoughts which, the course points out, are those that we think with God (e.g., W-pI.45.2:5). Thus, our remembrance of Heaven is contingent on our willingness and ability to bring the interior chaos of our thinking to light which – by revealing its disorder – allows for stillness and order.
We do not undo our thoughts, but we do consent to their undoing. Lesson 4 is the first step in that offer of consent, a process that feels, appears and unfolds differently for all students.
As I sometimes point out, this lesson exposes a cherished idol for me – my thinking. Language and ideas are dear to me; I did not (and sometimes still do not) easily subject them to the light of love. The first time I heard a Zen teacher say one’s thoughts were unimportant and should be allowed to drift through mind like passing clouds I felt pity. If only Roshi were familiar with the profound and awesome thoughts jangling in *my brain . . .
I had a lot to learn. And I have given good teachers with whom to learn it, thank Christ.
Although the form of application has shifted through the years, I tend to apply this lesson frequently through the day. Indeed, it almost happens on its own, an aspect of the epistemic humility that has become so necessary to my practice.
If you’re new to the lessons, that level of repetition is probably inadvisable. Indeed, we are cautioned against over-indulging it, lest we end up “pointlessly preoccupied” (W-pI.4.5:4). In time you’ll find your own sweet spots, the lessons that are integral to your learning, and the natural way that occur for you.
Yet I do think it’s okay to take any lesson straight to the edge of our comfort zone. Doing so can keep us in a state of readiness, a state of slight disorientation which can be helpful because it allows a fundamental reorganization and clarification to more efficiently take place.
The real work is interior and we do not do it. Yet we can manifest a willingness that it be done, and this willingness is often an effective and pragmatic trigger.
Note, too, that this lesson helpfully calls to mind an early definition of miracles.
A miracle is a correction introduced into false thinking by [Jesus]. It acts as a catalyst, breaking up erroneous perception and reorganizing it properly. This places you under the Atonement principle, where perception is healed (T-1.I.37:1-3).
Indeed, until this reorganization has taken place, “knowledge of the divine order” remains impossible (T-1.I.37:4).
Lesson 4 is an opportunity to part the heavy curtains that we drew shut to impose against the light of God and love. That light – even the faintest ray of it – acts as an antidote to our habitual confused and irrational thinking.
The resultant changes – unfamiliar, awkward, even frightening shifts in thinking – are what we really want. They presage remembrance of our union with God.