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The Desert Fathers, Christians who took shelter in the deserts of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine between the III and VII century, lived as hermits in huts, caves, in trees, or even on top of a stone pillar. They searched for a life of solitude, manual labor, contemplation, and silence, with the goal of growing spiritually. Convinced of the intimate union between the body, soul, and spirit, the Desert Fathers—who we could also say were the first therapists—developed recommendations to heal the “sicknesses of the soul.” Among these recommendations was that of controlling our thoughts, achieved thanks to one method in particular: guarding the heart. Jean-Guilhem Xerri, a psychoanalyst and medical biologist, has developed this practice, showing just how relevant it is in today’s society.
According to the Desert Fathers, uncontrolled thoughts are the origins of some of the sicknesses of the soul. They identified eight non-psychological sicknesses of a spiritual origin, classified by the monk Evagrius as: greed of any sort, a pathological relationship to sex, a pathological relationship to money, sadness, aggressiveness, acedia (an illness of the soul expressed by listlessness, boredom, laziness – a precursor to slothfulness) vanity, and pride. These eight generic diseases have a pathological source: narcissism, which the Fathers called philautia, excessive self-love.
One of the causes for these thoughts, which were considered as troubling, was the imagination. If an imagination is left uncontrolled it elicits visions which sometimes crowd our minds to the point of taking over. With worst-case scenarios stemming from pornographic images, undeserved accolades… “The imagination leads us to make up stories in our heads that are not always correct or pacifying,” sums up Xerri. Where it is in our power to control them: “Whether the thoughts trouble us or not is something beyond our doing. But whether they dwell within us or not, that they stir up passions or not, is something which is within our power,” wrote one of the Desert Fathers, John Damascene, in his A Speech Useful for the Soul. We will always be a theater of sensations and thoughts: the question is, what do we do with it? “Faced with such a thought,” Xerri reminds us, “man has various possibilities: to acquiesce or not, to feed it or resist it.”
For these ancient monks the objective of gaining control of their thoughts was to reach Hesychasm; a state characterized by peace, calm, rest, silence, and deep inner solitude; necessary for the spiritual contemplation of things and beings, and the understanding of God. The Desert Fathers prescribed many methods to achieve this: “guarding the heart”, sobriety, hospitality and practicing meditation.
Guarding the heart, in Greek nepsis (vigilance), is being attentive to everything that happens in our heart. It is a spiritual method which aims to free man of bad or passionate thoughts. It invites us to observe the thoughts which penetrate our soul, and to discern between the good and the bad. Evagrius said: “Take care of yourself, be the gatekeeper to your heart and don’t let any thought enter without questioning it.” As Xerri points out: “The elders noticed that holy thoughts led to a peaceful state, the others to a troubled state.”
The indispensable means of guarding the heart is paying close attention to thoughts and discerning between those which are good and healing, and those which are a source of distraction or obsession. The aim is to gain freedom, and to reach indifference, the ability to not be dominated by our thoughts.
Today cognitive sciences are in agreement with the diagnosis established by the Desert Fathers concerning the illnesses of the soul, which are growing rapidly today, along with the therapies which they had already recommended nearly 2000 years ago. It is recognized that today we are all suffering from countless and continuous demands no our attention, and that this trend disturbs our interiority. Xerri lists a variety of areas in which we are over-stimulated, thanks especially to digital media: food, material goods, sex, leisure, self-image, superficiality, criticism…
Permanently in demand and needing to be available immediately, we have on average between three or four decisions to take each second, according to Xerri. Therefore, it is fanciful to expect to be able to voluntary control our decisions in all consciousness, it’s simply impossible. “We are victims of a real hold-up of our attentional abilities,” laments Xerri, “Yet our attention determines our relationship with the world.”
The patristic tradition and the neurosciences agree: taking back control of our attention is a fundamental challenge for our mental health. The Desert Fathers recommended guarding the heart; the fashion today is mindful meditation. Both these therapies practice the observation of what is going on in and around us. Meditation, in the contemporary and non-religious sense, means opening oneself to present experience, with attention given to what we are going through. Like guarding the heart, it invites us to change our way of being in the world, and to make it a habit to pay attention to our thoughts which infiltrate our soul.
In their bid to find Hesychasm, the Desert Fathers would often empty their minds and recite the very simple Prayer of the Heart, or Jesus Prayer. So if you want a little help from our Orthodox forefathers in being able to control the thoughts that cross our minds, try and find time in the morning to say this prayer before the demands of the day really kick in: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Although “a sinner” was added over the years.)
Translated from French by Cerith Gardiner.