Recently a few of my friends were discussing a book that has long sat on our shelf since nearly the beginning of our journey to Orthodoxy. I can’t remember who exactly handed it to us when we were asking questions of friends and others, but I think it may have been my boys’ godparents.
In the discussion, one friend thought there were some odd things in there, but that it still had some gems. I’d watched youTube video lectures and homilies by the author and really liked him so I wanted to know what was so odd in there. I zoomed through over half the book that afternoon (I never discovered the oddities myself). I’ve been thinking about the first two chapters ever since.
The book is Bread & Water, Wine & Oil: An Orthodox Christian Experience of God by Archimandrite Meletios Webber. Archimandrite means he is a monk that has been given the blessing to teach (or so said another archimandrite in a talk I heard last year). *Edit: I’ve been corrected and an Archmandrite is a heiromonk (can teach, serve as a priest) that is an Abbot of a monastery (but he no longer is which was not really the point of this post, but corrected anyway). I know from the youTube videos I watched in the past, that Webber is from England and has a background in psychotherapy. He discusses that a little in the book too.
The first two chapters of the book you can really tell Webber is in his element comparing and contrasting Western psychotherapy methods with Orthodoxy. It feels like it ends too quickly and the conclusion drawn too soon that where the limitations of psychotherapy are, Orthodoxy takes things to another level of healing and wholeness. The rest of the book is a primer on the Orthodox Church, explaining everything from the sacraments to the divine services. To be honest, I didn’t finish the book and probably won’t, having read my fair share of books that go over the basics of Orthodoxy.
There were quite a few quotes in there that were somewhat life changing and eye opening for me though. Many of them made conversations I’ve had with my father confessor in the past click in new ways and others shed light on struggles I have had connecting with other people, blogging, and oversharing (as silly as those last two sound as being life changing, trust me, they were).
So much of the difference between East and West seems to stem from the interpretation of the story of the fall, Adam and Eve. So many priests always seem to come back to this and Webber is no different:
Like almost everyone alive, the great teachers of Orthodoxy saw that the world is not a perfect place. God is perfect in Himself, but His creation, the world about us, has some obvious flaws. The Father attributed this situation to the narrative in the first few pages of the Bible that tells the story of our first parents, ‘the man’ and ‘the woman,’ Adam and Eve. Through a misuse of the freedom God had given them, Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise. We, their descendants, inherit and experience this state of exile with them until that moment when our participation in the life of Christ within the Church, and the healing that brings, leads us back to where we belong.
The way the Orthodox teachers look at the story of Adam and Eve is quite different from the way it is generally understood in the West. In the West, commentaries tend to emphasize the themes of disobedience, guilt, sin, and remorse, including a fairly heavy hint that the sin of our first parents was somehow sexual in nature–an attitude that would have enormous impact on the development of Western psychology many hundreds of years later.
For the East, by contrast, the story of Adam and Eve is, at its heart, a story of disintegration, fragmentation, and estrangement. The man and the woman–and the world in which they lived–were torn apart by their behavior, and vast gaps came to exist between God and man, between heaven and earth, between one person and another, between the genders, and finally within the human personality itself. Each and every person is internally fragmented and externally isolated from the outside world, right down to the ultimate depths of his or her being. Fragmentation within the human personality is observed essentially as the division between the mind and the nous or heart.
Webber expands on this theme of the divorce between the mind and the heart throughout the first two chapters. Explaining that this divorce is where much of our problems lie.
Western psychotherapy is often concerned not only with healing the mind, but also with encouraging patients to come to terms with their feelings and emotions. Moreover, at least in everyday speech, it is assumed that the source of these emotions or feelings is the heart.
In the East, we can discern another scheme. Here, the one thing that can be said of the mind is that it is divorced from the heart. In this fallen state, it issues a constant stream of logismoi, the torrent of ‘thoughts’ that accompanies our daily lives. However, in a less demonstrable way (the Fathers do not really talk about emotions), the mind is also the source of emotion and feeling. These originate in the mind as logismoi which are then felt, in a reactive way, in the physical body; these reactions are what we call feelings. Feelings then, in fallen man are as broken and unreliable as the thoughts that give them birth.
It is necessary to make a clear distinction between thoughts that we have when we make an effort to think; thoughts that have us, which seem to emerge automatically; and thoughts that come from an altogether deeper awareness which we may call discernment or intuition… most people can recognize the difference between using thought and being used by a thought. The ability to think logically plays an important part in our fundamental role as God’s cocreators. However, the stream of automatic thoughts which almost all of us recognize in ourselves needs to be regarded with some suspicion, as, according to the experience of the Church, it originates from a mind that is broken, divorced from the heart. It is these thoughts, (logosmoi) of a person that eventually turn into passions–those behaviors that cut us off from God. They stand in opposition to passionlessness, which the Fathers envisage as a state on the path to spiritual healing. Passionlessness (in Greek apatheia) does not mean a lack of love or concern, as it tends to sound to Western ears, but rather a state of being unaffected by the passions as defined above.
The classical patristic expression of the relationship between thoughts and passions and the effect of one on the other is as follows: First of all, a thought comes to exist in the mind of a person, seeking that person’s attention and awareness. There follows a period of interaction, during which the person dabbles in the possibilities the thought brings. The third stage is consent, where the person voluntarily gives in to the thought–sometimes hoping to stop the process immediately thereafter, only to discover that once embarked upon, this is very difficult. The fourth stage is captivity, in which the person is dragged further and further from the way of righteousness towards spiritual destruction as a result of the thought. The fifth stage, the goal of the thought, is labeled passion; here the person is entrapped, and sinful action is inevitable…
…To the world at large, it would appear obvious that the mind is the dominant force in a human being, even to the point of identifying itself as the entire person. However, the teachers of Orthodoxy generally indicate that this is not the case, or at least not the whole case. As a result of the Fall, a definite and definable spilt has taken place between the body and the ‘person’ (however that is experienced), and a vast abyss divides the heart and the mind. For the Orthodox writers, far from being the answer to all problems, the mind of man is the place where most of our trouble starts, and the path towards sanctity entails recovering the sense of intellect not in the head but in the heart.
Where the divorce between the mind and heart is most evident is in the fragmentation of people, particularly those with recognized mental illnesses. However, Webber argues that one need not have a mind with that extreme of a diagnosis to experience the fragmentation.
In the field of mental health, there are a number of conditions that indicate the process of fragmentation in people in rather extreme ways. Schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder (now often called ‘dissociative identity disorder’), and borderline personality disorder are all examples of conditions in which individuals are obviously and seriously troubled by the fact that they are internally fragmented. More accurately, they are troubled not so much by their internal fragmentation per se as by the way they cope with it.
However, normal people also exhibit indications that fragmentation exists; it is not merely a problem for the mentally ill. Although generally fairly subtle, this phenomenon is the most obvious when someone loses his or her temper, a condition that happens to almost all of us from time to time. On becoming very angry, people often feel a change occurring within themselves, and it is not uncommon for such a person to feel quite different, quite ‘other’ than his or her normal self. Questioning such a person at that moment is often fruitless, since he or she is not ‘present’ to be questioned… The person who loses his or her temper actually experiences the world and events within it from a point of view quite different from the one he or she normally experiences.
Webber also explains why the mind is the way it is by mere function of what it was created to be in us. He says that the mind is not evil in itself, that it was created by God and is a crucial part of our functioning as human beings, but it is just broken because it is cut off from the heart.
Estranged from the heart the mind has set up an independent operation; it begins to act with a sense of independence which, if unchecked, ultimately brings ruin and destruction to everything it touches. Why is this process so destructive? The answer lies mainly in the way the mind is set up to operate. The mind is the great defense system we need to process all the information we receive. However, in so doing, the mind is self-centered, judgmental, and fearful of attack. It expects and assumes the worst from the world, from other people, and ultimately from God. Every detail in the universe is measured by the mind against its usefulness to the mind’s story of the self, the ego. The mind attempts to replace the real center of being, the heart, with a center of its own creation.
How this really plays out day-to-day Webber also chronicles:
…it seemed obvious to our spiritual teachers, just as it seems obvious in the modern world, that there is something broken about the way the mind works, particularly in those situations where the mind seems to have a life of its own. Unlike a computer, the mind does not have an ‘off’ switch. When we are not actually using it, the mind carries on under its own power, behaving as if it were in charge and issuing a constant stream of comments and challenges, almost all of which are of a negative character. As we have seen, the Fathers call this activity logosmoi, and although these thoughts are not evil of themselves (most of them start as simple speculations of the ‘what if’ variety), the spiritual experts maintain that all sin has its roots in this stream of thought.
The stream of thoughts is negative because the mind dwells in a land of unrelenting desire and boundless fear, and it attempts to influence us to experience these two areas as our rightful home. Almost anyone who has ever lain awake at four in the morning listening to the workings of the mind knows what this feels like. Some people actually hear an almost constant stream of conversation going on in their heads throughout the day, encouraging them to want and need, to be afraid, to feel alienated and alone. Many people experience the mind as a commentary. Still others, though denying that they can actually hear anything, will quickly agree that it is a very difficult thing to keep the mind quiet. Any attempt at counting from one to ten without having an intervening thought (including those inevitable ones like ‘gosh, I’m able to count without having a thought’) will reveal just how difficult it is… Apart from anything else, the mind uses noise constantly to reassure itself of its own existence…
One noticeable way the mind works is that it rejects the here and now. This combines an undercurrent of negativity or dissatisfaction with a sense that the reality of God’s world is not good enough. Indeed, the motto of the mind, if it had one, might very well be, ‘Anywhere but here; any moment but now.’ It lives in an environment of constant complaint and discomfort.
When the mind looks at the preset moment, it sees nothing, or at least nothing worth considering. The present moment has no shape or form, so there is nothing to measure. Since defining things through labeling and measuring is the main task of the mind, when it comes to something formless, it simply ignores it. The mind prefers to work in the past or future, since these dimensions are both actually constructs of the mind’s own workings and thus the mind controls them. The present moment, however, is completely outside its control and therefore ignored.
The mind is the guardian of memories and fantasies, the past and the future respectively…
Unfortunately for the mind, the present moment is the only moment that is, in any sense, real. Moreover, in spiritual terms, the present moment is the only possible occasion in which we can meet God (or anyone else).
The mind attempts to be almost completely absent from the present moment–this is actually what we experience when we lie awake early in the morning. All anxiety, all fear, all disturbance come from memory or from anticipation, from the past or from the future, but not from the present. The present rarely (perhaps never) poses a problem; it just presents a situation.
In our society it is not uncommon to meet people who carry huge burdens of pain around with them, all of which exists either in the past (as unhappy memories) or in the future (as anxiety). Society in general and their minds in particular do not announce to them that carrying this burden is actually an optional activity. We are not our thoughts. The pain such people feel is real enough, but actually exists only in their thought processes and absolutely nowhere else. It certainly does not exist in the present moment, the only part of their life that is ‘real’ in all its dimensions. The present moment has many special qualities, but it is almost always full of joy. However, this joy, which is available to anyone and everyone, is for many people completely obliterated by the pain of the past or the future, urged on by the mind.
The movement of emotion further clouds the way the mind works as our bodies react to the thoughts the mind is producing. Whether felt physically as a tightening in the chest, a knot in the solar plexus, or stomach pains, or just vaguely experienced as a sort of cloud, emotions get our attention quickly. Unfortunately, they tend to be rather vapid, easily manipulated, rapidly changing, and often undifferentiated…
Today we have more time to dwell on our problems than our ancestors ever did. Our free time, whether in old age (now greatly extended) or simply between tasks, is dominated by a hundred and one distractions, often organized to take place one after the other. Thus, when we do get a free moment, the thoughts in our heads think that nothing is happening and want to move on quickly to something more pressing. This leaves us with a feeling of ‘lack of fulfillment’ which some people actually mistake for life itself, when in fact it is simply the chattering of the mind. It is no more life itself than the exhaust of a bus is the bus itself…
The mind lives in a realm in which everything that is known has to have an opposite. ‘Up’ must have a ‘down,’ ‘good,’ bust have a ‘bad.’ The energy of the mind consists in comparison: ‘I’ with ‘not-I,’ this experience with that experience, this word with that word. The mind sees everything in contrast, valuing differences and ignoring identity.
We may be forgiven for thinking that this is the normal state of things. However, it is worth considering that Jesus often used terms in a way that makes it plain that they have no opposites. ‘I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10). Here, as in other places, Jesus is not referring to life as the opposite of death. Nor, indeed, is He talking about life in any quantitative fashion; having life ‘abundantly’ has something to do with quality, not quantity. Quantity belongs to the mind. Issues of quality belong to the heart.
So all those huge block quotes and such to say, that I basically realized that most of the time what I feel like sharing with the world on this blog or on Facebook is really my logosmoi–the torrent of internal thoughts that mainly centers on wanting and fearing–and so is much of what other people share and tends to produce the biggest reaction in me (where I feel like I MUST comment on that controversial thing that was said). I think my priest has kind of said this to me before, having followed my blogging and Facebook posts for a few years now, but I just wasn’t really understanding what he was saying until I read this book. In any case, whether we call it oversharing, being honest, being real, etc. as all the above points out, most of it stems from that fragmentation in ourselves and is actually not accurate interpretation, being honest or being real because “the mind is self-centered, judgmental, and fearful of attack. It expects and assumes the worst from the world, from other people, and ultimately from God. Every detail in the universe is measured by the mind against its usefulness to the mind’s story of the self, the ego.” I also realized another way my mind dominates is that I tend to be a big complainer, “One noticeable way the mind works is that it rejects the here and now. This combines an undercurrent of negativity or dissatisfaction with a sense that the reality of God’s world is not good enough. Indeed, the motto of the mind, if it had one, might very well be, ‘Anywhere but here; any moment but now.’ It lives in an environment of constant complaint and discomfort.” Again, this is my logosmoi talking. Yes, there are plenty of things in my life to complain about right now, but there are also plenty to be thankful and joyful about in the here and now and embracing that. Blogging for the most part is my way of doing this:
One emotional day when I had to shut myself off from the Internet because it seemed like everything was offending me and I told my priest as much he said, “Ultimately these are all part of [their] logosmoi, why would you even want to go there?” Now that I have a better understanding of the logosmoi and the divorce between mind in heart, why indeed would I want to go there with any of my friends or family? Why would I want them to go there with me?