You are not your thoughts

I’m reading through Fr. Damascene’s Christ the Eternal Tao, and expect it to occupy me for quite awhile. Not because it’s difficult reading, it’s quite clear and approachable. I can’t recommend it as an introduction to the topic—it may be that, but what I’m finding helpful are the connections it makes between Christian and Zen concepts, ideas I’m already very familiar with (though puzzled by) on their own. For any given pair of concepts (e.g. grace/virtue, mindfulness/watchfulness) I seem to have grasped different aspects of the idea in each tradition, and so focusing on the parallels has deepened my understanding of it in both traditions.

Fr. Damascene approaches philosophical Zen—the tradition as it originally existed around 500 BC, as opposed to later versions which took on the trappings of a religion—as a foreshadowing of Christianity. Put another way, Lao Tzu went as far as a man can go in intuiting the nature of God’s economy without the help of special revelation, i.e. the Way made flesh. He deliberately contrasts this with a syncretistic approach, which would try to extract the best of both worldviews and form a third. In one place online Fr. Damascene strongly suggests that Thomas Merton was guilty of such syncretism. I don’t know if that is true, but I do find Fr. Damascene easier to understand that Merton precisely because he is so dogmatic—his statements are clear and straightforward and above all confident. Perhaps overconfident at times, but I’ll sort through that eventually.

I’ve long been puzzled about how I should relate to my thoughts, in particular what if anything I can (or should) do to control them. Zen speaks to this, but I never understood what it said about it. Turns out the Eastern Orthodox mystics say very similar things, but in a way I find more approachable.

Above all, our inward attention should be directed at thoughts. This is because, in the words of St. Theophan, “Sinful passions and desires rarely attack by themselves. They are most often born of thoughts.” From this we can make a rule: Cut off thoughts, and you will cut off everything.

When thoughts come, we should not attempt to get involved or argue with them. For such struggle only binds us to them. As St. Silouan of Mt. Athos affirms, “The experience of the holy Fathers shows various ways of combating intrusive thoughts, but it is best of all not to argue with them. The mind that debates with such a thought will be faced with its steady development, and, bemused by the exchange, will be distracted from remembrance of God, which is exactly what the demons are after. Having diverted the mind from God, they confuse it, and it will not emerge clean.” Here he is speaking specifically of intrusive thoughts that come during prayer.

Struggle against thoughts is vain and futile. It is enough simply to observe the thoughts as they arise, and then let them go without reacting to them or following them. “When someone is in the beginning of his spiritual life,” says Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos, “he should not study a lot, but instead watch himself and observe his thoughts.”

Well, that’s certainly not the usual advice! And it’s reasonable to wonder whether it’s worth following, since it is often (as here) presented in the context of achieving some thought-free state.

But Fr. Damascene goes on to locate the benefits of such practice in other more practical areas.

In watching over our thoughts, we will be able to cut them off before they develop into passions. In the Philokalia, the growth from a thought into a passion is described with scientific precision. First comes the provocation of the thought, then the conjunction of the thought with emotion, then the joining or agreement of the will with the thought. If the soul does not pull back at this point, the thought becomes a habit, and the mind is constantly preoccupied with the object of his passionate urge.

Finally, the person falls into the captivity of the urge, and rushes gladly and violently to satisfy it. For this reason, it is much better to cut off the sinful thought when it first rises up in us, before it turns into a sinful passion. Just as it is much easier to pull up a tree when it is a seedling than when it is full-grown, so it is much easier to cut off thoughts in the beginning.

Now this I understand. In fact, I can related it fairly directly to Dallas Willard’s writings on how one develops Christian character. I took the goal as one of replacing bad thoughts with good—or, better, cultivating a character from which good rather than bad thoughts naturally arise. But perhaps that is only the result of a more fundamental change:

A spiritual son of Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos recalls, “The elder always tried to have good thoughts. He said to us, however, that it is not necessary to make this our final aim, namely, having good thoughts, because our souls should be purified, even of them, and be left naked, clothed only in the divine grace which we received for free in holy baptism.” The first stage is to cultivate good thoughts. The final stage is to be purified even of good thoughts, to just be enlightened by the grace of God.

(I should point out here that being “purified even of good thoughts” does not suggest that we somehow move beyond goodness, the idea is more that thoughts of any kind are still a mediator between us and God’s economy, and the ultimate goal is to be plugged directly into that economy, to be in perfect alignment with the grain of the universe, which would be true goodness.)

Purifying my own thoughts is a project I need to revisit. I think I’ve made significant progress in not being controlled by my thoughts, even to some extent in detatching from them. But I still trust implicitly in my thoughts, that they are accurate and discerning and even wise. But here lies a danger I haven’t given enough weight to:

The aforementioned Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos, a beautiful, innocent soul, and a much loved spiritual father of our times, once said, “The devil does not hunt after those who are lost. He hunts after those who are aware, those who are close to God. He takes from them trust in God, and begins to afflict them with self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism.” A very interesting statement for our times. These are things we are told that we are supposed to have: Self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism. We all should be critics. He says that the devil takes from people trust in God, and begins to afflict them with these things.

More good words from Elder Paisos on this:

We ought always to be careful, and be in constant hesitation about whether things are really as we think, for when someone is constantly occupied with his thoughts and trusts in them, the devil will manage things in such a way that he will make the man evil, even if by nature he was good.

The ancient fathers did not trust their thoughts at all, but even in the smallest things, when they had to give an answer, they addressed the matter in their prayer, joining it to fasting, in order to some way “force” divine grace to inform them what was the right answer according to God. And when they received the “information” they gave the answer.

Today, I observe that, even with great matters, when someone asks, before he has even had the time to complete his question, we interrupt him and answer him. This shows that not only do we not seek enlightenment from the grace of God, but we do not even judge with the reason that God gave us. On the contrary, whatever our thoughts suggest to us, immediately, without hesitation, we trust it and consent to it, often with disastrous results.

Almost all of us view thoughts as being something simple and natural, and that is why we naively trust them. However, we should neither trust them, nor accept them. Thoughts are like airplanes flying in the air. If you ignore them, there is no problem. If you pay attention to them, you create an airport inside your head, and permit them to land.

I’ve gone on too long here, but I’m approaching the punchline, the observation that punched me in the gut, about the dangers of being judgmental:

Above all, judgmental thoughts block us from God, since in the very act of harboring them, we are trying to take the place of God, who alone is judge. When we feel an exhilaration by seeming to get on top of someone through judgment, then sooner or later this will lead to inward conflict. If the source of the conflict, which is the soul playing God, is not eradicated, then it can lead to depression and to despair, and even to physical sickness.

The person who is truly following Christ will immediately recognize that the indulgence of a single judgment separates him from God. Therefore, when judgmental thoughts intrude upon his mind, begging to be attended to, and promising the exultation of pride, he immediately cuts them off and lets them pass into oblivion. It does not matter how sagacious, how compelling, how profoundly psychological such judgments appear to him. He wants God above all else, and these thoughts deprive him of God, and so he rejects them.

The 19th century Russian elder, St. Ambrose of Optina, gave this practical advice to his spiritual daughter: “Look at everything simply. Living simply means not judging. Do not judge anyone. For example, ‘Here comes Elikonida. She passed by, and that is all.’ This is what thinking simply means. Otherwise, at seeing Elikonida passing by, you could think about her bad side—she is such and such, her character is thus and so—that is not simple.”

It is not only people that we can judge. We can pass judgment on our surrounding circumstances, or even on life itself. In doing so, we are at heart judging God, himself, often without even knowing it. This, too, is a way of playing God, and so it separates us from him, the source of our life.

This is what I needed to hear. I’ve always been very judgmental. I’ve tempered it over the years by becoming slower to judge, holding my judgments lightly, deepening my understanding of how people and situations came to be where they are, emphasizing the positive over the negative, resisting the temptation to use them for rationalizing. But they remain.

I thought that by getting them in line with God’s judgments (!) I would be doing the right thing, even contributing my best effort to extend the kingdom. Now I think that this attitude may be akin to one we’ve encountered in every child at some point, which inspired our family catch phrases “You’re not the parent,” and “Don’t be the parent, get a parent.” There must be a way to embody goodness without usurping God’s role, and I need to be more diligent about finding it.

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3 thoughts on “You are not your thoughts

  1. So, when he says “thoughts” does he mean all of them? I mean, what’s supposed to be happening inside your head? I love the title, “You are not your thoughts,” and I’m learning that I’m not my feelings, but I’m having trouble picturing what the goal is here.

  2. I’m having trouble picturing what the goal is here.

    Join the club … I think (!) that “thought” here refers to something calculated, as opposed to a spontaneous response. Spontaneity is mentioned fairly frequently in the Tao-related writings I’ve read, seemingly referring to action derived from a direct connection to ultimate reality as opposed to rational calculation. We are able to do what is good and right in a given moment to the extent that we are aligned with the grain of the universe, not because we reason it out.

    This doesn’t mean that our spontaneous responses are irrational, just that they weren’t arrived at by means of reason. I have a couple of examples I’ve been pondering where I don’t think the “right” response is easily calculated (at least by my feeble mind!).

    One is the free sample display at the sushi counter of our local grocery store. I love sushi, even these little rolls that barely qualify. But I would never pay real money for one at this store. And they clearly set them out in hopes of enticing me to buy. Given that, should I take (a) one, (b) more than one, if I feel like it that day, or (c) none?

    The second is an offer of free movie tickets in exchange for your email address. We need eight, but only four of us have email addresses, two of us multiple addresses. Should we ask for only four tickets? Tickets for each address we have? Set up additional email addresses in order to get eight tickets? And is it OK to unsubscribe from their mailings once we’ve received the tickets?

  3. Thanks for this lengthy reply. I’ve been thinking (hah!) about it since then, and reading the Sermon on the Mount this morning threw some more light on it. When Jesus “take no thought” he’s saying, “Don’t be anxious, don’t worry.” He can’t be saying, “Seriously, don’t think about it at all,” because the virtuous wife in Proverbs is praised for not having to worry about the coming winter since she has provided well for her family — she is provident, which means that her brain has been working, but obviously she’s not anxious and worried over how to provide for her family because it says she rejoices at what’s to come.

    Rereading that chapter of Proverbs just now I’m struck by the way it seems she does just flow with the need of the time. When it’s time to plan the work of the day she does that, when it times to spin she does that, when it’s time to serve she does that, when it’s time to buy she does that. Even the image of the merchants’ ships builds on that. For the most part a ship of that nature would sail when the winds were favorable and would stay home during the stormy seasons. The ship itself doesn’t work — it carries the load, but the wind and waves do the work.

    It does have oars though, so it can be guided in and out of harbor. Hm. Guess I’ll have to think some more. :-p

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