Letter 48: True mindfulness and watching the thoughts

We saw how Evagrius outlined the process of the unfolding of memories through the various stages of sensations and feelings, which amplify desires and cause the thoughts and the resulting action. He explained that the most important task we have is to ‘watch our thoughts’ and become aware of the connections and associations between them.

Evagrius is not asking us to watch the usual trivial junk that floats over the surface of our mind. That would be pointless and excruciatingly boring. He is concerned about the deep thoughts that are either expressions of our unmet needs and unpurified desires or desires coming from our deeper spiritual nature. We need to pay these significant thoughts and their associations the attention they deserve. They are the only indicators we have of what really motivates us for good or for ill.

Evagrius was highly respected for his sound advice on how to cleanse the thoughts overlaid with strong emotions. We will see that when he talks about ‘passions’, ‘evil thoughts’ and‘demons,(‘logismoi’ in Greek) he is talking similar to the Jungian terms of ‘archetypes’,of thoughts residing in the ‘collective unconscious’, concept fields woven out of thought and emotion. These ‘archetypes’ feed the ‘shadow’in the ‘personal unconscious’:in other words, our thoughts that are not purified tap into these latent energies and are amplified by them. He is of course a man of his time, so we have to allow him naming these ‘demons’. But since they are very powerful it is not difficult to understand why these forces were given distinct entities. It is important to stress once more that the‘demons’can gain influence on our life only through our thoughts. We need therefore to stop the sequence from sensation to thought before conditioned memory and imagination turn them into ‘disordered desires’ and then inevitably into action. We will see next week where these ‘demons’ come from and how they are associated with our survival needs.

Watching the thoughts’ ‘watching the mind’is an activity done in Buddhist practices during the period of meditation. But it soon becomes clear that what Evagrius is recommending is an awareness of the thoughts, emotions and actions outside the actual prayer/meditation periods. Meditation to the Desert hermits and us is the time when we temporarily silence the surface mind. Sometimes, though, a clear thought does arise during this period, which is very valuable. Insights do happen, as the meditative state allows information to pass from the unconscious to the conscious, from the ‘self’ to the ‘ego’. And our unconscious picks up a lot more important background information than our conscious mind, when we are dealing with problems or issues in daily life. We need to reflect on these intuitive insights in the time away from meditation, trying to understand what they tell us about the basic desires or needs that determine our behaviour.

According to Evagrius the way to identify our personal demons/evil thoughts ’is twofold: by prayer/meditation- by calling on spiritual powers to help us - and by effortto come to self-knowledge and awareness, which is achieved by watching the thoughts.He stressed that it is not something we achieve solely by dint of our own effort. Our higher ‘self’links us to the Higher Spiritual Reality, the Christ within. Insights, inspiration and healing come from that Source. This input of our higher mind is indispensable for true insight and growth. Hence the importance of clearing our mind of surface clutter and be open, trustful and faithful.

The first stage is identifying the thoughts. We need to listen carefully to the program on our own internal radio. What are the persistent, recurring thoughts? Sift the trivial from the more significant ones by labelling them. What is the desire feeding this? Are you aware of what sensations or feelings started the thought process?

Change will happen. Once we practice mindfulness and become more aware, we will come to understand what drives us. But we need to be patient and gentle with ourselves. Change can only happen gradually, sometimes even imperceptibly. We need to take a small step at the time and remember we are not alone on this journey to self-knowledge and becoming ‘fully alive’.

But the time will come when we become aware of the repeating triggers and then we will have the choice not follow their suggestions blindly. Naming your demons creates the space to follow them or not. We can then modify our habitual responses and avoid those automatic ‘knee-jerk’ actions. Name your demons and your heart will tolerate them better.

Kim Nataraja