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Eric Scheske offers himself up as living proof that, if you don’t control your thoughts, they’ll control you.
BY Eric Scheske
A hesychast wannabe. That was me.
I was about 25 years old and
hip-deep in Eastern Orthodoxy’s spiritual treasures. I closely read the
beautiful Russian narrative Way of a Pilgrim, sagely
nodded over the bedrock of Orthodox spirituality, The Philokalia,
and gamely noted every nuance in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses.
I was enamored. So much so that I
declared to my wife, “I’m going to become a mystic.”
I know now that was a stupid, even
illogical, thing to say. To declare that you’re going to become a mystic is
kind of like declaring that you’re humble. Your words self-evidently contradict
reality. You might as well verbally declare that you’re mute.
But I didn’t know that, so I bolded
out in my efforts at mysticism. The first step: silence. Not mere outward
silence, the Orthodox spiritual masters taught, but inward silence. Stilling
the inner chatter. That’s hesychasm. Shutting down the parade of ideas that go
through one’s head every minute of the day. Making the mind empty.
It’s not easy. The mind works almost
autonomously. We don’t normally control our thoughts any more than a lone
rancher with no dogs, fence or rope controls a pack of mustangs.
But I tried. I sat in the quiet,
trying to stop any thoughts from going through my head. It was brutal, some of
the most rigorous mental stuff I’ve ever done. It was also kind of weird. I
tried it off and on for about a year or two. I never formally quit, but the
practice kind of wore off and I surrendered my mind to those mustangs.
Ten years later, I read Marist
Father Thomas Dubay’s Prayer Primer. I was
startled when he advised readers to avoid such practices. “One should be aware
of techniques for emptying the mind,” he wrote, calling such pursuits
“unnatural” because our minds are “made to be filled, not emptied.”
That’s a pretty big divergence of
opinion on an important religious subject.
But the two sides agree on one
crucial thing. In our mental life, we have two fundamental options. Our
thinking can be directed or our thinking can be grabbed. We can control our
thoughts or our thoughts can control us.
You ever wonder why it’s often hard
to read a book? It’s because reading forces you to direct your attention. You
must tame the roving mustangs and settle them on the page.
It’s also one of the reasons prayer
is hard. Elevated prayer ranges between reading and hesychasm. We stifle our
thoughts like the hesychast, but we give our mind things to think about:
Christ’s life and death, words from Scripture, the lives of the saints. It’s
called “meditation” or “contemplation.” And it’s difficult.
Yet it’s worthwhile. Not only does
the practice advance our pursuit of holiness, but it also exercises the highest
faculties of our human existence.
Every person should understand a
fundamental truth: Something will always occupy our attention. The only two
questions are: What will occupy it — and will you have anything to say about
what occupies it?
We can go through our days mentally
aimless, letting our mind wander “where it will go,” as the Beatles sang during
their psychedelic phase. As if desolate daydreaming were an unreservedly good
A kind of “thralldom” is what the
economist-turned-philosopher E.F. Schumacher called it, spending our days
“captivated by this or that,” drifting, carrying out “programs that have been
lodged in our machine.”
Or we can flex some cognitive
muscle, setting aside times of the day when we will harness those mental
mustangs and make them serve us — and God, the author of the human mind.
Eric Scheske writes from