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.
Like what you’re reading? Consider signing up for my weekly newsletter. No sales, no spam. Just thoughtful writing about love and A Course in Miracles.
I found out about putting the url in with the lesson number, from a recent friend who surprised me when he mentioned your name, and then how the lessons were found. I’ve been brewing in these a few weeks, and find myself here at 4 now. I’d love to exchange on all of them, but will try out this one. I find import in the handle of “it is actually easier to contemplate the tenuous nature of the external world” (that we come to accept that as actually helpful). Since the thought are like other images (especially if auditory ones are recognized as so) the sense of tangibilty of the physical is the more easy. The watching of thoughts was frustratingly meaningless to me, because I couldn’t record them, keep them tanbible to even understand what it meant not to judge them. I would have died for a way to have a transcript of them so I would gladly do as instructed! But the current appreciation of that “transcript” being just a thought to look at now, is what is available, at least as a sentence I can form about it. So pointing out that we can let objects not mean anything, means I’m doing that for thoughts which are just like them. The thought of “I’m a failure at even apprehending my thoughts like other people seem to meaningully understand being instructed to do so” I even don’t ferret out (it’s only a sentence that’s frustratingly offered for a whole complex and haze of other half thoughts, and really feelings that form them and come out of them, with no fish hook to retrieve anything definitive out of that milieu). But I do relate to how they must be like what I can see and otherwise sense. The vengeance of a later lesson, has been converted into a reminder that they only refect a meaningless idea of that there could a separate (inner) observer coming up with these objects in the fist place (much less judging and maintaining misunderstanding of them). So instead of vengeful or “threateningly” meaningless (giving meaning that meaing, lol), there’s curiosity (and willingness and seemingly its determination) to see things differently. I just go blank as soon as “thoughts” are focused on. Although they’re just outside my focus and plenty of them, like floaters in my cornea, that I can’t quite aprehend when I “should” investigate, including the one that “shouldnt’s”, or the one that scolds the inabilty.
Thanks for sharing on the lessons, and hearing out the floating by of my thoughts. BTW I like the layout of the new web page. I thought it was done a couple days because my url bar’s recently visited the /blog appendage. But luckily I had gotten used to seeingthat the lessons’ pages didn’t iclude that and figured it out. Read you later, or hear you soon on Youbube, and love for now.
Thanks for writing this, Mike.
Thought is weird. It feels less like a sequence of separate events/objects and more like a river with a lot of features that’s always flowing. When I abstract it that way, then it seems to become less pervasive, less aggressive.
Then – as you know – it becomes somewhat easier to give attention to the one is looking or attending thought and *that has always been a fruitful exercise for me. That has always led to silence and stillness, a familiar one.
I think the course points to a state beyond self-awareness (beyond the one who is one with everything, which is just another construct of our dreaming) and so even this kind of analysis – thought is a river, there is no looker – retains the basic structure of duality.
“There is nothing to do” is not a comforting phrase but I think the course – and good nondual teachers generally – end up leaning into this. Whatever happens is just not translatable into terms or concepts that permeate the embodied experience, even when that experience is very gentle and loving and seeing God in all things.
Thank you for being here.
Thank you Sean for your ability to express concepts in a way for me to see them in my mind’s eye. I’ve been very visual and creative in art and writing. To be the witness without labels, judgements, past associations was first taught to me by a woman who held meetings at her home to do Vipassana meditation. I attended those meetings 5-6 early mornings a week for about 4 months straight. I had asked The Holy Spirit prior to.meeting my teacher to show me how to be in the present moment and let go. When I do lesson 4 and examine my thinking my mind goes into meditation and no mind. No thoughts. I have instead observed when Ive rememberef to thoughts and use the idea. Like you expressed, my journaling, reading, writing pursuit of words has been relentless. Journaling helped me survive. When I wrote and emptied out my thoughts it was only then that The Wisdom of The Holy Spirit could lead me, guide me and walk beside me. My mind has been a meaning making machine as they say in Landmark Education. These 10.000 horses must all be put in their corrals. Lol. I thank you again for taking your precious time to write to us who are embarking on a road you’ve traveled and are passionate about sharing. May God continue to Bless you and your family and the new travelers into greater consciousness.
The ten thousand horses is a beautiful image 🙂 But yeah, the meaning-making mind needs to quiet down and let the Given show itself.
Thank you for sharing here. I’m glad the posts are helpful & grateful for the good company walking with me 🙏