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Mindfulness

What is the Philokalia? And What Can it Teach Us?

Mindfulness and stress-reduction, 2,000 years ago.

Key points

  • Mindfulness theory and practice was documented in Egypt 2,000 years ago.
  • Ancient contemplatives had a sophisticated theory of emotional intelligence.
  • The stress-provoking aspect of emotions called "passions" was clearly outlined.
  • Mindfulness practices and breath regulation are ancient stress-reduction tools.
original oil painting, Frank John Ninivaggi MD
Ancient Desert
Source: original oil painting, Frank John Ninivaggi MD

"Philokalia" is a Greek word meaning the love of beauty, coined by the compilers of a series of books of the same name. The books span almost 2,000 years of ancient writings. These works documented the thoughts, guidance, and in-depth emotions of the Christian desert ascetics in the Middle East. Their pursuit elaborated "inner prayer" as a core part of spiritual pursuits.

This article focuses on the work's psychology, not its religious aims. The Philokalia unearths the workings of a complex mind newly discovered. These desert scholars may have been among the first to characterize the mind to be as compellingly complicated as we now realize it to be. The Philokalia provided a lifelong guide to body, mind, and equanimity, a psychological management tool to stabilize the mind's drifting. Restoring balance by normalizing emotions and cravings emerged as a prized byproduct.

The Philokalia: Its Psychological Impact Under-recognized

The Philokalia is the core mystical work of Orthodox Christian Churches. However, its impact reverberated beyond the local churches of the Orthodox. An abridged version was translated from the approximately two-thousand-year-old original Byzantine Greek to Slavonic in 1793. A Russian monk, Paissy of Velchkov, published this as Dobrotulyubiye (Love of God). Its influence on the distinguished writer, Dostoyevsky (c. 1866), has been recognized. Related to this are versions with titles such as The Way of A Pilgrim. Further translations of the complete Philokalia led to the current English versions in 1995.

The Philokalia's writings were composed from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries, mainly in the deserts of Egypt. However, compilations first appeared in Venice in 1782. In 1954 and subsequently, several editions in English were printed. Readers focused on contemplative frames to support a sound spiritual life grounded in health, well-being, and social justice.

Initially written in Byzantine Greek, then in Russian, the book's entry into English is recent. Even modern translators struggle with terminology to maintain precision without sacrificing nuance. For example, the translated term "intellect" may typically mean logic and reason. However, in the Philokalia, intellect centers on the Byzantine word "nous," an all-embracing grasp of what it seeks to comprehend. Thus, nous transcends logic alone and comprises feeling and intuition, while grasping lived experience.

Modern Mindfulness: A Two-Thousand-Year-old Perspective

Many of these ancient writings cover clear-cut psychological matters, notably emotions, impulsivity, restless minds, and impaired lifestyles. The writings discuss the causes of these dilemmas and the psychologically inspired techniques for managing them.

The decisive early papers and essays of the Philokalia addressed complicated topics. The text's editors chose specific English terms to convey the above as they carefully translated from Greek.

Passion

This word runs through the entire group of texts. Passion signifies emotion or feeling. However, the root of all passion is desire, the core of which is an almost irresistible dynamic flux of attraction and aversion. Emotions organize in reaction to their specific attractants, and both components complement one another to structure the emerging emotion in its attachment to its object. For example, if the attractant is pleasant, admiration and loving feelings organize; if the attractant is distasteful, the complementary emotion may be fear, anger, jealousy, or envy. The ancients discussed passions on a continuum from mild and healthy to the intensity marked by frenetic craving, typically leading to actual harm.

When used in a mindset of poor judgment, impulsivity, errancy toward extremes, and unambiguously harmful excess, passion denotes an inclination contributing to mental disorganization. The negative side of emotion breaks reason into a disorganized mind wandering, and a lack of focus. This distraction was a nagging tension and thus an impetus these ancients countered by mindfulness practices. However, the arousal and energy associated with such states of mind also supported positive problem-solving and enthusiastic task completion if used constructively. "Dispassion," a term also used, denotes the constraint of excess, not its elimination. Using passion or emotion constructively to refine the self and others, never solipsistically, were frequent themes.

Watchfulness

The Byzantine Greek term, even used today, is "Nepsis." This core concept and practice are close to mindfulness in most definitions. Mindfulness is meeting yourself exactly where you are, engaging in the immediacy of the present moment with open-eyed awareness. Nepsis, mindfulness, and the "guarding of the heart" were intimately related experiences that comprised several ideas:

  • To pay attention, on purpose, non-judgmentally
  • To let go of literal truth or judgments when out of context
  • To live within the moment
  • To experience one's immediate sensations and feelings, and to radically accept them, whether positive or negative

"Guarding of the heart" relates to watchfulness. In this tradition, the "heart," the spiritual center, included emotions, the body, and the entire person.

Cognitive Discrimination

Discrimination was the ability to differentiate thoughts and organize them into hierarchies of significance. Significance includes the quality and quantity of value related to being realistic, practical, necessary, righteous, non-extreme, and having reasonable discretion.

Fantasy

This term and concept are one of the essential ideas in the Philokalia. Its meaning signifies an event without a material base in the external environment, a fantasy haunting the mind's inner world. The ancient explanations understand the fantasies as indicating a person's focus of attention. The spotlight is withdrawn from the outer sensory world toward the inner world of fantastic imagery and nonconscious processes. While creative use can be made of such fanciful experiences, the desert writers regarded the experiences more as sources of inevitable distraction, unrequited stress, and potential delusion. This caution was emphasized notably to those struggling to progress in mental self-disciplines in their early and middle phases.

Contemplation

Contemplation is often contrasted with practice, technique, and external action. Here, intellect (nous) differs from reason because it apprehends truth by direct experience and intuition. "Pure prayer" is highly refined contemplation. Individually tailored breath regulation was part of all mindfulness, watchfulness, and stillness practice. Nepsis and Hesychasm, or inner stillness, shown as silence, stillness, and active listening, are crucial.

Temptation

Temptation as acute and chronic stress was considered a trial or test to aid progress toward improving the journey to becoming human. Temptation was a prelude to chronic self-sabotage and destructiveness. Because of its ubiquity, it was studied carefully and understood as having developmental stages. Desire as seeking, craving, and doing unfolds in this way. Six cascading phases included provocation, momentary disturbance, communion, assent, prepossession, and passion. The similarity between temptation's role in habit formation, craving, and addictions is apparent.

  1. Provocation was one's initial exposure; it assumed a neutral reaction.
  2. A momentary disturbance was exposure that elicited a brief but passing excitation.
  3. Communion was a lingering that entertained the "forbidden" act.
  4. Assent was an internal plan to act upon the event in the future.
  5. Prepossession was retrieving former memories of events already acted upon in the past.
  6. Passion was the emotional conviction leading to the arousal needed to culminate the event in action.

Rediscovering the Ever-present Now

Knowing one's past provides insight into our human forbearers and their attempts to make sense of their humanity. The Philokalia is a little-known document, only recently coming to light. Such a glimpse into an almost two-thousand-year-old series of scholarly commentaries on the mind's struggling to understand and improve itself is extraordinary. Realizing that a core tool centered on mindfulness existed thousands of years ago is impressive. Its contemporary incarnation as an effective tool, using mindfulness for modern stress reduction, is itself another extraordinary realization.

References

Palmer, G., Sherrard P, & Ware, K. eds (1979). The Philokalia Complete 4 Volume Set.

New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Kadloubovsky E., & Palmer G. (1954). Early Fathers from the Philokalia. Boston, MA: Faber and Faber LTD.

Ninivaggi, F. J. (2020). Learned Mindfulness: Physician Engagement and MD Wellness. New York, NY: Elsevier/Academic Press.

Ninivaggi, F. J. (2017). Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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