Friday, 2 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Anger 2 — Rejecting the Tempting Thought

We said in the last post that at the most basic level, the monk gets rid of a tempting thought by rejecting it. Let’s look at this rejection a little more carefully.

In Orthodox monasticism, the tempting thought is—well, a temptation. It is an invitation to sin. It must be refused. This marks a very big point of divergence between Orthodox mental ascesis and Tibetan Buddhist systems of meditation. In at least some Tibetan Buddhist systems of meditation (we are by no means experts on the matter), the monk is encouraged not to reject the thought that comes to him, say of the touch of silk, but to give himself over to the thought, invoking a higher god or guru, which god or guru will raise his mind to a higher state of consciousness over and above the thought. In tantric meditation, the monk is often directed to visualize himself as engaged in tantric yoga with a goddess.

Orthodox mental ascesis proceeds in a completely contrary fashion. The thought is to be rejected at its inception, or as soon after its inception in the monk’s consciousness that the monk realizes that he has the thought and can reject it. Orthodox mental ascesis is an emptying from such thoughts, a battling with such thoughts. The origin of these thoughts is considered to be the demons.

Accounts of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices leave the Orthodox monk with a deep unease, precisely because the Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice is for the monk not to reject the thoughts but to give himself over to them. The Orthodox fears that the Tibetan Buddhist is giving himself over to demons.

How does the Orthodox monk reject these thoughts? There is a fairly detailed but very difficult ascetical literature on the matter, much of which is represented in the first volume of the Philokalia or in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai. Much time is spent in this literature on the very early stages of a tempting thought. This is a very subtle Christian psychology of meditation.

Let us take the easiest way first. That is for the monk—or layman—to return to the words of the Jesus Prayer. This is how beginners are taught the Jesus Prayer, and it makes sense. Because our mind can think only one thought at a time (because of the way it’s built), if we return to thinking or saying the words of the Jesus Prayer, we have taken our mind off the tempting thought, which will eventually get tired and stop.

St John of the Sinai in the Ladder points out that the beginner usually does not have the strength to get rid of the tempting thought on his own power (he will acquire that strength as he grows in Hesychasm). He must, St John says, use petitionary prayer. Now St John was writing these particular passages for full-blown Hesychasts, but the principle remains the same even for us beginners: as we are practising the Jesus Prayer and are afflicted by tempting thoughts, we may find that our only recourse is to ask Jesus for help. This is a little tricky, because if we actually stop the Jesus Prayer to ask for help, then we have been defeated. The thought has accomplished its purpose: we have stopped the Jesus Prayer. Since we should always have in our daily program a period of petitionary prayer in addition to the Jesus Prayer, we can ask for help then. Of course, if things are really bad, then we may have no choice but to stop the Jesus Prayer, and pray in a petitionary way for help. This requires discernment.

In the case of the tempting thought of rancour, the above principles apply. We said in the last post that the monk was involved in an altercation and got angry, and that when he began his period of Jesus Prayer he then had a tempting recollection of the altercation. Now we can see how we beginners should in the first instance proceed: we should make every effort to keep our mind on the words of the Jesus Prayer and not to entangle our mind in the recollection of the altercation. Moreover, when we have finished our period of the Jesus Prayer (or even before that period), we should pray to Jesus Christ that he free us from the tempting thought of rancour. Moreover, since we should be conducting a daily examination of conscience, we should at some point during the day also have an opportunity to examine coolly whether in fact we sinned in the altercation: it may be that we have the persistent thought of rancour because we have in fact committed a sin or fault and need to repent (and in some cases even to see the priest).

In the case of tempting thoughts related to the other seven passions, we proceed in much the same way. In no case do we give ourselves over to the thought; in no case do we visualize ourselves engaged in practices which are not permitted to Christians and Christian monks.

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