The Mind is Fractured: Reflections on Suffering and the Jesus Prayer

The following is a contribution from Fr. Joshua Schooping. The original post may be found here.


Stillness and watchfulness, which is to say hesychia and nepsis, are together a profound science of healing given by the Church to all of her children, “a way that is wonderful and most scientific” (St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite, Proem to the Philokalia). What, then, does it heal, and how does it do so? The present discussion will attempt to answer these two questions.
The mind is fractured by egotism, desire, and anger along a million subtle faultlines, and it is this inward fracturing that is bound up with all of our suffering. In this context, suffering refers specifically to the mental and emotional anguish caused by the passions, the darkening energies or inner movements which swirl about within us, clouding our vision and stirring up our will to depart from Goodness and from Life. The mind (nous) is darkened, and because the soul is not compartmentalized, this wounding darkness insinuates itself into all that we think, feel, say, and do. Rather than being filled with joy and love, contentment and calm, thanking God for His mercy and providence, we become rather proud and ungrateful, confused and dull, and so our darkened mind looks upon and interprets all that befalls according to the contours of our vanity and egotism, the million subtle faultlines of our passions.


With this darkened mind, then, the faultlines of pride produce faulty vision, a false interpretation, if you will, of oneself, others, and the world, a mode of seeing which comes to control or poison our life, a mode which then becomes the delivery system of our suffering; for all suffering requires interpretation in order to exist as suffering, which is to say mental and emotional anguish. In this sense, suffering is an interpretive act. Even natural physical pain, for example, is not automatically or unconditionally experienced as mental and emotional anguish, as many exercise enthusiasts will affirm, for when the exercise is such that it produces soreness, the exerciser interprets the soreness to “mean” that he or she is getting stronger, thus causing happiness instead of anguish. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a post-pain, post-sensation interpretation born of a mindset that preceded any given experience of suffering.


Suffering is equivocal, for it can either refer to pain considered in and of itself, or to the anguish produced by the passions in reaction to sensory events, and it is in this second sense that the assigned meaning of sensation becomes determinative of whether or not the experience is one of “suffering.” For example, St. Paul teaches that “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy (χαρά, chara) set before Him endured (ὑπομένω, hypomenō) the cross, despising (καταφρονέω, kataphroneō) the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Since the Cross involved not only physical pain but also anguish, St. Paul teaches that there was a superior meaning or purpose given to the Cross which enabled Christ to not only endure it but even to understand the cursed shame of it to be as it were nothing (καταφρονέω, kataphroneō) in comparison. In this sense, the passion or suffering of Christ was not the defining characteristic of His Cross, but the joy which was set before Him. In other words, the joyful reality which transcends the Cross completely redefined the experience of His crucifixion such that we can even glory (καυχάομαι, kauchaomai) in the Cross (Galatians 6:14).


And not only in Christ’s suffering can we glory, St. Paul teaches likewise of ourselves in Romans: “And not only this, but we also exult (glory, boast, from καυχάομαι, kauchaomai) in our tribulations (pressure, pressing together, from θλῖψις, thlipsis), knowing that tribulation brings about (accomplishes, achieves, from κατεργάζομαι, katergazomai) perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). In other words, suffering is eclipsed and brought into subservience to a greater reality.


Likewise, St. James: “Consider it all joy (χαρά, chara), my brethren, when you encounter various trials (afflictions, adversities, from πειρασμός, peirasmos), knowing that the testing (proving, from δοκίμιον, dokimion) of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).


In short, suffering is not a brute fact of sensation like, say, the color red or the hardness of stone. Suffering, from πάσχω (paschō), means to be acted upon, affected, to have a sensible experience, as by an extra-subjective source acting upon the senses, and thus all suffering requires interpretation, for suffering is an interpretation. But as seeing red or feeling a stone is to interpret color and hardness at the level of the five physical senses, in the case of mental and emotional suffering there is an additional dimension, that of the meaning assigned to the sensation. The eye senses or sees the color red, but the mind interprets this, say, as red blood. Seeing the movement of red blood, then, the mind can interpret this as bleeding, and whether this is an injury, a surgery, an accident, a crime, or an emergency or not would have to be built from other interpreted percepts.

This, then, brings up the all-important issue of the mind (nous), for if the mind, the principle interpretive instrument of the soul, is that which in a manner of speaking creates suffering through its being fractured, then the mind is also that which can transcend suffering through its coming into wholeness. This is why the fractured mind is such a real problem, for everyone wants to relieve their suffering, but merely wanting to relieve it cannot accomplish anything because the mind will continue to remain fractured for as long as the necessary steps are not taken in order to unify it. Suffering, however, is not merely an issue of misinterpretation or misperception, but since instances of suffering are built of an interpretation borne of the mind’s fractured vision, without addressing this root fracture there is no possibility of addressing suffering at the depth level. Since the mind (nous), as noted above, touches if not comprises the whole being, and not only the intellect (dianoia), its fracture necessarily includes also that of the will and the emotions.


Therefore, the unification of the mind is the most important possible subject and work for a human being to engage in. This, moreover, being an outgrowth and consequence of faith, is an essential component of the Orthodox spiritual path, because the spiritual path is one of unification, union, and communion. Unless one actively, intentionally, decisively, and persistently engages with this path of making whole the fractured mind, then quite simply it will never happen. Therefore, upon the foundation of faith it is of utmost importance that one begin, and begin with knowledge, for without know-how nothing can be accomplished, not even accidentally. It is the path we must follow if we are to be free of the endless, repetitive cycles of pain we experience as a result of our impassioned, fractured minds.


The essential practice is simply to focus the mind ceaselessly on the highest possible unifying object, which ultimately is the Name of Truth, which is to say the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the “one essential work, to pray unceasingly in the heart” (St. Nicodemos, Proem). Now, the substance of the Name is the Named, which is to say the Person Himself, and so by focusing increasingly and ceaselessly on the Name of Truth, the Lord Jesus Christ, He Himself comes to be “formed” within the soul (Galatians 4:19), and “Christ be formed in your hearts by faith” (Ephesians 3:17). Over time, one’s mind and body, as a psychosomatic unity otherwise confused and enmeshed with sensory life, “our excessive attachment to visible things” (St. Nicodemos, Proem), converts more and more of its resources to this intentional act of focusing on the transcendental Christ, until deeper and deeper layers of the enmeshed psyche are slowly but surely liberated and motivated to join in the act of communing with Him: “Christ [who] is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).


His presence in the soul will itself effect the healing, for “through the warmth and energy that arise in the heart by means of the invocation of the All-holy name of Christ, the passions are consumed” (St. Nicodemos, Proem). This then heals the fractures of the psyche such that “the mind and the heart are gradually purified and are united with one another,” becoming whole and unified in Him, “God, the Blessed Nature, the Transcendent Perfection, the Creative Principle of all good and beautiful things, Transcendently Good and Beautiful” (St. Nicodemos, Proem). And more than ourselves, “This union is the final goal towards which are directed the creation of the world and the Dispensation of the Logos of God for our well-being, both temporal and eternal” (St. Nicodemos, Proem).


The state of the unified mind is indescribable, but it is characterized by calm joy, serene inner freedom, boundless compassion, and humble sobriety, and in the words of St. Paul, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-3). In order to attain this, one must work and work until the energy of the ego is completely converted to the task of intentionally, decisively, and persistently focusing itself on the Lord, with the guarding of the mind from alien thoughts and passions, on the one hand, and pure, undistracted, and concentrated prayer, on the other: “For without the unceasing remembrance of the Lord, and purity of the heart and mind from everything evil – a purity generated by this practice – it is impossible to bear fruit” (St. Nicodemos, Proem).


This complete conversion of the energy of the ego to the ceaseless flow of attention to the Lord is the crucification of the ego, the death by means of which the soul enters into Life, and Life into the soul, for the Lord is the Life of the soul. This is the Way of healing the fractured mind, which is also the Lord, for the Lord is Life and also Way. No other solution will work. If one is not connected to faith, which is the energy of the Lord working within the soul, the energy which connects the soul to, and also sustains it on, this path, then run, do not walk, to the exit. Enter immediately onto the Way. There is no point spending another minute of your life on something that will ultimately not solve your basic existential problem. The way to begin is to ceaselessly focus the mind on the All-holy Name: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” and so “let the Jesus Prayer be your breath” (St. Nicodemos).

 

In conclusion, practice, practice, practice, for this is “the science of sciences and the art of arts,” and let the thirst for remembrance of the Lord grow such that it conquers all of your other thirsts, and slowly your mind will unify in the experience of complete inner harmony through the presence of the Indwelling Christ. By absorbing oneself in the Lord, one will together with Him transcend all suffering for the greater joy that has been laid before you, “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

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