I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20).
In my last two posts, I have written with some care about the “false self,” which has also been referred to as the ego. I have also spoken about the heart, the seat of the true self that is “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). An obvious question has been asked: “How do we move from life in the one into life in the other?” It is the practical form of the question, “What must I do to be saved?” For the death of the “old man,” and life in the “new man” is the primary ground for the working out of our salvation in Christ in this world.
An answer to the question is something that far exceeds the ability of a blog. However, I will offer some observations and suggestions that I hope will prove helpful.
There are many classical descriptions of the union of mind and heart. Met. Hierotheos Vlachos has written extensively on the topic (many of his other works cover some of the same territory and are not as expensive). The small book by Tito Coliander, is also excellent. Virtually everything found in the asecetic fathers applies to the question. Fr. Meletios Webber’s small book, Bread & Water, Wine & Oil has a slightly different approach. He gathers the tradition up under the approach of personal relationship, language that is much more accessible than many of the classical presentations. Regardless of the approach used, the guidance of a good confessor or parish priest is extremely helpful. A danger in describing any “method,” is that we are talking about the human heart and mind, not the multiplication table. Patience, kindness towards the self, and no form of slavish obedience are required. If anything within the following description seems unhelpful or too obscure – please feel free to ignore what is written here.
A key element in the previous articles has been the distinction made between the true self of the heart and the false self created by the mind (thoughts and emotions). Our persistent identification of our selves with this life-long, ever-changing narrative, is a bondage to a losing proposition. The behavior of our thoughts and emotions, when not rooted in the heart, is beyond the reach of reform. We will try – but we will fail. However, to simply acknowledge that this story that I maintain is not the same thing as “me,” is huge. It can be very difficult to accept this. We think, “If I’m not who I think I am, then who am I?” The answer: “You are hid with Christ in God.” Christ will reveal who we are as we learn to dwell in the heart.
Where do our thoughts and emotions come from? They come in response to the things and people around us – or they come from memories triggered by those occasions (sometimes buried quite deep). Many thoughts and feelings are entirely appropriate and helpful and would occur even were our minds united with the heart. But these thoughts and feelings are not the problem. Such thoughts do not race through the brain or recycle themselves ad insanitatem. Neither are such feelings the dark moods that color the world and our inner state and poison the world around us.
These insane thoughts and poisonous moods are the dark side of our self-constructed narratives. They are the wounds and fears that have gone untreated. Many of them are hidden even from our own consciousness. They are the primary origin of anxieties and panic. They feed depression and generate anger. They nurture a nervous self-consciousness in which we notice, compare and judge those around us. They construct the rules of our daily life and condemn us when we fail to measure up. At worst, they are the material from which we construct false images of God, endowing our self-constructions with an authority that is nothing more than idolatry
We have already acknowledged a first step towards sanity: admit that the “story of me,” is of my own making and not God’s. The self-made man is no man. All of my success, achievements, failures, and defeats, my knowledge and ignorance are not the content of my life. To admit this is to begin the path of humility. Humility is not about feeling less special – it is about recognizing that I do not know my own self. My self is an open book for God to fill its pages. My self is an empty vessel waiting for God to give it content.
The fathers often describe the initial stage of the spiritual life under the heading, “purification.” We all too easily mistake this with “moral improvement.” It is our enthrallment to the passions that the fathers have in mind. We are not only deluged by the thoughts and emotions of the false self – we feel powerless to do anything about them. Frequently, we are powerless because the toxic cause of our thoughts and emotions lies unidentified and unhealed. This is a very difficult and even “delicate,” object of healing. Memories and wounds such as toxic shame, arising from abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), can be anchored deep within a person, spewing thoughts and emotions towards almost every situation. Perfectionism, depression, anxiety, panic, critical thoughts, etc., are only a few of the inner behaviors frequently associated with shame. Purification in such cases means attending to the psychological/spiritual needs created by such deep wounds. Working with a skilled confessor/spiritual counselor in a setting that feels emotionally safe can be a place to start for some. Working with a skilled therapist or in a group setting might be useful for others. One book that is fairly straightforward and helpful is Letting Go of Shame by Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron. There are many other helpful books on the topic. I have found this one accurate and easy-to-read.
Attending to such major problems such as toxic shame can allow a person to move forward in dealing with thoughts and emotions. Unattended, such deep wounds will generally not allow us to be free of the cycles of the false self.
The primary daily battle of heart and mind can be put under the general heading of “mindfulness” (nepsis). This term is used in therapeutic circles but is equally applicable to Orthodox efforts to ground the mind in the heart. A brief reminder from Fr. Meletios Webber:
The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling…. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. (From Bread & Water, Wine & Oil).
We do not have to create the heart (it already exists). We do not have to make the mind behave as if it were the heart. However, becoming aware of the heart (which is itself entry into the heart) involves the struggle of laying aside those things that do not belong to the heart. Putting away, noise, deduction, past and future, fear, desire, defense, justification, etc. are the primary efforts in this inner struggle.
We cannot do this all at once. Setting aside five minutes of our time for daily prayer as a place for practicing such “mindfulness,” is a sufficient start. Met. Anthony Bloom’s small book, Beginning to Pray, speaks very specifically to this effort. Breathing in a relaxed manner (from the diaphragm) helps the body to relax. Shut off thoughts of the past or future. For five minutes, all that matters is the moment. When thoughts that take you away from the moment occur, just dismiss them and return to the moment. Some weeks of such practice will begin to yield results. Our attention to the moment becomes easier.
That “moment,” is the place of the heart. This same moment can gradually be “accessed” at other times and places. Stopping and breathing slowly can be a helpful trigger. Adding the use of the Jesus Prayer to our awareness of the moment is the beginning of “prayer” in the moment. None of this should be forced and we should be patient with the entire exercise. Patience belongs to the moment.
This is but a brief description for the beginning efforts of acquiring the place of the heart. In my experience, there are some days when the entire thing seems wonderful. Other days, various events both outward and inward leave you feeling as if you have acquired nothing at all. And so we return to patience.
The struggle to acquire the place of the heart is a far more fruitful work than the struggle to create, refine and defend the narrative of the false self. Generally, life will be lived one place or the other.
These are simple beginnings – far more depth can be found in the books and authors I’ve suggested.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7)..