Mindfulness as Known by the Church Fathers


by Fr. George Morelli

Current behavioral research literature has found support for a clinical tool called mindfulness that can be used to break bad habits and troubling emotions. One psychologist, Kabat-Zinn (2003), defined mindfulness as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment." The 'patient' can focus on the sensory and physical aspects of the present moment, recognize thought patterns, feelings and physical sensations that are occurring and learn to tell the difference between sensations, thoughts and feelings. The 'patient' then practices making decisions based on the choices they really want and feel right.

The Buddhist Connection

Mindfulness clinicians and researchers (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Desbordes, Negi, Pace, Wallace, Raison, & Schwartz, 2012) attribute the mindfulness concept to Buddhist philosophy.i It may be noted that the study by Desbordes, et. al. (2012) found that mindful emotional processing would occur in meditative and non-meditative states. This suggests that mindfulness-meditation practice may stimulate learning that is not only stimulus or task-specific, and also may bring about lasting changes in brain function and thus may be “process-specific.”

The Christian Connection and Psycho-spiritual application

The early fathers of the Eastern Christian Church talked about the vigilance of the mind and heart [nepsis], which is similar to the cognitive-rational-emotive therapy technique employed by psychologists in helping patients to be ‘mindful’ and thus learn to control their thoughts and feelings. In response to this technique Beck (2011) writes that “. . . mindfulness techniques help patients nonjudgmentally observe and accept their internal experiences, without evaluating or trying to change them.” Of course, after such an observation period, challenging and restructuring of the distorted cognitions-automatic thoughts and replacing them with non-distorted cognitions must be doneii (Morelli, 2006, 2009). Some Cognitive-Behavioral (CBT) researchers and clinicians are actively engaged in integrating mindfulness practices with CBT, (e.g.: McCowen, Reibel and Micozzi, 2010; Williams, Teasdale, Segal, & Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Mindfulness is also similar to metacognition, that is to say, being knowledgeable and maintaining awareness of experiences individuals have about their own cognitive processes (Flavell, 1979). One way of describing this process is that one is ‘thinking about one’s thinking.’

A vigilance and watchfulness of the mind and heart somewhat similar to the cognitive-rational-emotive therapy technique employed by psychologists in helping patients to be ‘mindful’ and thus learn control of thoughts and feelings is a frequent theme in the writings of the early Fathers of the Eastern Christian Church.

These early Christian spiritual teachers taught their disciples to develop nepsis, that is, to be wakeful and attentive (from the Greek verb nepho: to be vigilant, mindful)iii to that which was inside and around them. Thus, we also need to practice being completely "present" to our thoughts and surroundings. This is analogous to a military scout at the head of a column, or a busy parent "attending" to their newborn infant (Morelli, 2009).

St. Antony the Great (251-356 AD) said: "…and this is just what we find; for the power of discrimination, scrutinizing all the thoughts and actions of a man, distinguishes and sets aside everything that is base. . . . (Philokalia I) This advice can be applied to all bad habits and feelings. Once we detect a habit that we have that is harmful, or an emotional reaction we have that is damaging to ourselves or others, we can choose to place ourselves “at the head of the column,” to be mindful, watchful, vigilant and to prepare a counteraction: an alternative competing response, a different interpretation of the events around us and a different feeling about the whole incident. This is would be applying the technique of Christian mindfulness.

The Theological Connection

An important caveat for orthodox Christians: there is a profound anthropological and theological chasm between the ethos of mindfulness as practiced by those committed to Buddhism and the nepsis practiced by those committed to Christ. Buddhism rejects any concept of ‘God,’ therefore it could be considered, in Cabezon’s (1999) words, “atheological.”

The words ‘intelligent,’ ‘intelligence,’ and ‘mind’ are easily confused in the English language. Beyond that, English translations of the nuanced terms used in the Greek of the Fathers needs some clarification. The Christian Patristic literature testifies to an understanding of the profound difference between mere human knowledge and what is called “noetic” knowledge. For example, Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos (1994) informs us that noetic knowledge is the knowledge comprehended through concrete encounter with God, referred to by the Fathers as a [pouring] of grace into the heart. St. Paul's injunction in his letter to the Romans (12: 2), “...be transformed by the renewing of your mind...,” would be understood by an English reader to refer to the rational mind (reason). On the other hand, the Church Fathers would understand that St. Paul is referring to knowledge from the depth of one’s heart, which they would call the nous or noetic mind. St. Gregory of Sinai (Philokalia IV, p. 212) explains it this way:

You cannot be or become spiritually intelligent in the way that is natural to man in his pre-fallen state unless you first attain purity and freedom from corruption. For our purity has been overlaid by a state of sense-dominated mindlessness and our original incorruption by the corruption of the flesh … mere skill in reasoning does not make a person’s intelligence pure, for since the fall our intelligence has been corrupted by evil thoughts … the wisdom of this world … falls far short of real wisdom and contemplation.

Thus, mindfulness that is separated from God is never a true Christian mindfulness. The mindful, noetic, mind of a person is enlightened by an illumination from God, through the Holy Spirit, in the depth of the heart and mind, which allows perception of spiritual experience. True and purified reason will burn more brightly, like a light. If the noetic mind is darkened by partial mindfulness, that is actually mindlessness; by drawing away from God, reasoning is darkened. In the spirit of St. Maximos the Confessor that ‘grace builds on nature,’ committed orthodox Christians can use the techniques of mindfulness as discovered by research science as long as these techniques are enlivened by Christ. As St. Maximos (Philokalia II p. 239) tells us: “...the Holy Spirit does not actualize in the saints a spiritual knowledge of the mysteries apart from that faculty in them which naturally [emphasis mine] searches out such knowledge.”

To attain true Christian mindfulness it is important, therefore, to practice the counsel of our contemporary (1924-1994) saintly Spiritual Father, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (2008, p. 304):

Spiritual health equals pure thoughts, an enlightened mind, and a purified heart that unceasingly harbors Christ and the Panaghia. Watchfulness over ourselves and prayer are a great help in acquiring spiritual health. Prayer is essential for the purification of the soul and prudence is essential for the preservation of a healthy spiritual condition.

 

REFERENCES

Beck, J.T. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond. (2nd ed.). NY: Guilford Press.

Cabezon, J. I. (1999).  Buddhist theology in the academy.  In R. Jackson & J.J. Makransky (Eds.),  Buddhist theology: Critical reflections by contemporary Buddhist scholars. London: Routledge, 25–52.

Desbordes, G., Negi, L.T., Pace TW, Wallace, B.A., Raison, C.L. & Schwartz, E.L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 6, 292-330.

Elder Paisios of Mount Athos. (2008) Spiritual counsels II, Spiritual Awakening. Thessalonica, Greece: Evangelist John the Theologian Monastery.

Flavell, J.H. (1979). "Metacognition and cognitive monitoring. A new area of cognitive-development inquiry". American Psychologist 34: 906–911.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based Interventions In Context: Past, Present And Future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10 (2), 144-156.

McCowan, D., Reibel, D., & Micozzi, M.S. (2010). Teaching mindfulness: A practical guide for clinicians and educators. NY: Springer.

Morelli, G. (2006, May 08). Orthodoxy and the Science of Psychology. Available: www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliOrthodoxPsychology.php.

Morelli, G. (2009 January 09). Suicide: Christ His Church and Modern Medicine. Available: www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles-2009/Morelli-Suicide-Christ-His-Church-And-Modern-Medicine.php.

Palmer, G.E.H.; Sherrard, P.; and Ware, K. (Trans.) (1971, 1981, 1988, 1990). Philokalia,  I- IV. London: Faber and Faber.

Williams, J.M.G., Teasdale, J.D., Segal, Z.V., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness. NY: Guilford Press.

Vlachos, Bishop Hierotheos, (1994). Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers. Lavadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery




i Also to be noted is the similarity of mindfulness to the Latin Maxim attributed to Plautus (254-184 BC) [http://age-quod-agis.over-blog.com/pages/Que_signifie_age_quod_agis-948541.html], “Age quod agis” (Do what you are doing [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Latin_phrases_(A)]), - since it is used by many in the Western Church. For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola impressed it on the Jesuits as a mental discipline:  - ‘Do what you are doing. Pay strict attention to the actions in the present moment.’

ii Cognitive Distortions:

See Morelli (2009) for a fuller explanation

  • Selective Abstraction: The focusing on one event while excluding others
  • Arbitrary Inference: Drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation.
  • Personalization: Interpreting a general event in exclusively personal terms.
  • Polarization: Perceiving or interpreting events in all or nothing terms.
  • Generalization: The tendency to see things in always or never categories.
  • Demanding Expectations: Beliefs that there are laws or rules that must be always obeyed.
  • Catastrophizing: The perception that something is worse than it actually is.
  • Emotional Reasoning: The judgment that one's feelings are facts.

After identifying the Distorted Cognitions-Automatic Thoughts three challenging questions help the patient to restructure them to lead to rational cognitions, normal emotions and functional behaviors:

  • Where is the evidence?
  • Is there any other way of looking at the situation?
  • Is the situation as bad as it seems?

iii I want to thank my editor Anne Petach for this suggestion [http://ancientchristianwisdom.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/the-therapeutic-strategy-of-nepsis]:  “The word nepsis (νήψις) in antiquity literally meant to drink no wine, but by extension it also included the metaphorical sense of being sober-minded, sane, alert, and finally vigilant.”