Archive for the ‘Mindfulness’ Category


Eight Selections From Forty Texts on Watchfulness — St Philotheos of Sinai (9th-10th century)

November 26, 2012

Unknown Desert Hermit

The Philokalia is “a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by spiritual masters” of the Eastern Orthodox hesychast tradition. They were originally written for the guidance and instruction of monks in “the practice of the contemplative life”. The collection was compiled in the eighteenth-century by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth.

Philokalia is defined as the “love of the beautiful, the exalted, the excellent, understood as the transcendent source of life and the revelation of Truth.”In contemplative prayer the mind becomes absorbed in the awareness of God as a living presence as the source of being of all creatures and sensible forms. According to the authors of the English translation, Kallistos Ware, G. E. H. Palmer, and Philip Sherrard, the writings of The Philokalia have been chosen above others because they:

…show the way to awaken and develop attention and consciousness, to attain that state of watchfulness which is the hallmark of sanctity. They describe the conditions most effective for learning what their authors call the art of arts and the science of sciences, a learning which is not a matter of information or agility of mind but of a radical change of will and heart leading man towards the highest possibilities open to him, shaping and nourishing the unseen part of his being, and helping him to spiritual fulfillment and union with God.”

It makes a certain kind of sense that anyone who can produce over 800 posts on the notion of Paying Attention would be inevitably drawn to a ninth century monk who posted 40 times on the topic of Watchfulness.


Introductory Note
‘It is not clear’, states St Nikodimos, ‘at what date our holy father Philotheos flourished and died.’ He is known to us solely as the author of the present work Forty Texts on Watchfulness. From his name it is evident that he was a monk of Mount Sinai, while the content of his Forty Texts shows that he followed in the tradition of St John Klimakos, abbot of Sinai (sixth-seventh century), whom he quotes (§20; cf §34). His spiritual teaching is also close to that of another Sinaite author, St Hesychios the Priest (? eighth-ninth century); the three of them may be regarded as forming together a distinctively Sinaite ‘school’ of ascetic theology. Certainly later in date, then, than Klimakos, and probably likewise later than Hesychios, Philotheos may have lived in the ninth or tenth century.  Clear and concise, the Forty Texts are especially valuable for the simple definitions that they give of key  concepts.

As the title indicates, St Philotheos assigns central significance to the quality of watchfulness or spiritual sobriety (nipsis). In common with St Hesychios, he sees this as closely connected with inner attentiveness and the guarding of the intellect: the three notions are virtually synonymous. But he underlines, more explicitly than does Hesychios, the importance of bodily asceticism and the keeping of the commandments; the inner and the outer  warfare go together.

Like the other two members of the Sinaite ‘school’, he commends the invocation of the Holy  Name, ‘the unceasing prayer of Jesus Christ’ (§2), which has power to ‘concentrate the scattered intellect’ (§27),  thereby enabling it to maintain continual mindfulness of God. Particularly striking is Philotheos’ insistence upon the  remembrance of death, which is to be viewed not as something morbid and ‘world- denying’, but rather as  enhancing the unique value of each moment of time. 

Contents 1-8

1 . There is within us, on the noetic [vocab: no•et•ic: From the Greek noēsis / noētikos, meaning inner wisdom, direct knowing, or subjective understanding.] plane, a warfare tougher than that on the plane of the senses. The Spiritual worker has to press on with his intellect towards the goal (cf. Philemon 3:14), in order to enshrine perfectly the remembrance of God in his heart like some pearl or precious stone (cf. Matthew 13:44-46). He has to give up everything, including the body, and to disdain this present life, if he wishes to possess God alone in his heart. For the noetic vision of God, the divine Chrysostom has said, can by itself destroy the demonic spirits. 

2. When engaged in noetic warfare we should therefore do all we can to choose some spiritual practice from divine Scripture and apply it to our intellect like a healing ointment. From dawn we should stand bravely and  unflinchingly at the gate of the heart, with true remembrance of God and unceasing prayer of Jesus Christ in the  soul; and, keeping watch with the intellect, we should slaughter all the sinners of the land (Psalms 101:8 LXX).

Given over in the intensity of our ecstasy to the constant remembrance of God, we should for the Lord’s sake cut off  the heads of the tyrants (cf. Habakkuk. 3:14. LXX), that is to say, should destroy hostile thoughts at their first appearance. For in noetic warfare, too, there is a certain divine practice and order.

Thus we should force ourselves to act in this way until it is time for eating. After this, having thanked the Lord who solely by virtue of His compassion provides us with both spiritual and bodily food, we should devote ourselves to the remembrance of death and to meditation on it. The following morning we should courageously resume the same sequence of tasks. Even if we act daily in  this manner we will only just manage, with the Lord’s help, to escape from the meshes of the noetic enemy. When this pattern of spiritual practice is firmly established in us, it gives birth to the triad faith, hope and love.

Faith disposes us truly to fear God. Hope, transcending servile fear, binds us to the love of God, since ‘hope does not disappoint’ (Romans 5:5), containing as it does the seed of that twofold love on which hang ‘the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 22:40). And ‘love never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13:8), once it has become to him who shares in it the motive for fulfilling the divine law both in the present life and in the life to be. 

3. It is very rare to find people whose intelligence is in a state of stillness. Indeed, such a state is only to be found in those who through their whole manner of life strive to attract divine grace and blessing to themselves. If,  then, we seek – by guarding our intellect and by inner watchfulness – to engage in the noetic work that is the true  philosophy in Christ, we must begin by exercising self-control with regard to our food, eating and drinking as little  as possible. Watchfulness may fittingly be called a path leading both to the kingdom within us and to that which is  to be; while noetic work, which trains and purifies the intellect and changes it from an impassioned state to a state of  dispassion, is like a window full of light through which God looks, revealing Himself to the intellect. 

4. Where humility is combined with the remembrance of God that is established through watchfulness and attention, and also with recurrent prayer inflexible in its resistance to the enemy, there is the place of God, the heaven of the heart in which because of God’s presence no demonic army dares to make a stand. 

5. Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together. What is more disastrous than this ‘uncontrollable evil’ (James 3:8)? The tongue has to be restrained, checked by force and muzzled, so to speak, and made to serve only what is needful. Who can describe all the damage that the tongue does to the soul? 

6. The first gate of entry to the noetic Jerusalem – that is, to attentiveness of the intellect – is the deliberate  silencing of your tongue, even though the intellect itself may not yet be still. The second gate is balanced self-  control in food and drink. The third, is ceaseless mindfulness of death, for this purifies intellect and body.

Having  once experienced the beauty of this mindfulness of death, I was so wounded and delighted by it – in Spirit, not through the eye – that I wanted to make it my life’s companion,  for I was enraptured by its loveliness and majesty, its humility and contrite joy, by how full of reflection it is, how apprehensive of the judgment to come, and how aware of life’s anxieties. It makes life-giving, healing tears flow from our bodily eyes, while from our noetic eyes rises a fount of wisdom that delights the mind.

This daughter of Adam – this mindfulness of death – I always longed, as I said, to have as my, companion, to sleep with, to talk with, and to enquire from her what will happen after the body has been discarded. But unclean forgetfulness, the devil’s murky daughter, has frequently prevented this. 

7. It is by means of thoughts that the spirits of evil wage a secret war against the soul. For since the soul is invisible, these malicious powers naturally attack it invisibly. Both sides prepare their weapons, muster their forces, devise stratagems, clash in fearful battle, gain victories and suffer defeats. But this noetic warfare lacks one feature possessed by visible warfare: declaration of hostilities. Suddenly, with no warning, the enemy attacks the inmost heart, sets an ambush there, and kills the soul through sin.

And for what purpose is this battle waged against us? To prevent us from doing God’s will as we ask to do it when we pray ‘Thy will be done’. This will is the commandments of God. If with the Lord’s help through careful watchfulness you guard your intellect from error and observe the attacks of the demons and their snares woven of fantasy, you will see from experience that this is the case. For this reason the Lord, foreseeing the demons’ intentions by His divine power, set Himself to defeat their purpose by  laying down His commandments and by threatening those who break them. 

8. Once we have in some measure acquired the habit of self-control, and have learnt how to shun visible sins  brought about through ‘the five senses, we will then be able to guard the heart with Jesus, to receive His illumination  within it, and by means of the intellect to taste His goodness with a certain ardent longing. For we have been  commanded to purify the heart precisely so that, through dispelling the clouds of evil from it by continual attentiveness, we may perceive the sun of righteousness, Jesus, as though in clear sky; and so that the principles of His majesty may shine to some extent in the intellect. For these principles are revealed only to those who purify their minds.


Mind: Working With Thoughts – Dr. Mark Muesse

June 20, 2012

While these posts on Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology that deal with natural attitude and the turn we make to the phenomenological attitude called the phenomenological reduction may seem puzzling to you, they will be especially so if you are unfamiliar with the practice of mindfulness and mediation. So  let me insert this here.

This post takes up a lesson from my mindfulness course taught by Professor Mark Muesse –  70% off, go for it. In it you will find a discussion of mind and how to deal with thoughts. I think if you regard this and return to Robert Solokowski’s discussion of Phenomenology you will see some obvious connections. If Muesse is speaking to a daily practice of living, then Sokolowski is preparing a mindset for the practice of philosophy. Where Muesse is helping us to identify which thoughts to entertain and develop and which to observe and release, Sokolowski is informing us which intentionalities to identify and hold in abeyance. Read on and see if you don’t see the similarities…

You may also note that I place mindfulness under the category of prayer, as I believe the practice will strengthen the discipline needed to approach St. Augustine’s idea of “unceasing prayer.”


We may not be able to control particular thoughts, but we can influence the conditioned mind that gives rise to particular thoughts. We can prepare a fertile mental soil that increases the likelihood of germinating wholesome, skillful ideas and decreases the likelihood of growing distracting ones — but such a mind must be tended with a watchful eye. Unwholesome thoughts grow fast and wild and leech vital. nutrients from the thoughts that are conducive to our freedom and happiness.

The Tamed Mind
The mind is a double-edged sword: It is capable of doing us great, benefit as well as great injury. Naturally, we want to cultivate our mental processes in such a way that we maximize the mind’s capacity for doing good and minimize its tendencies for causing suffering. The skills we refine as we develop moment-to-moment awareness in sitting meditation are the same used in shaping the mind to function in more wholesome ways.

As we’ve observed both casually and in formal meditation, the untamed mind tends to operate in a rather haphazard way, bounding from thought to thought with little or no apparent prompting or direction. The mind seems to have a mind of its own. Thus, it might appear that our thoughts are thoroughly beyond our control — that we have no choice about the kinds of things that drift across our minds.

Although thoughts may seem to come out of the blue, they are, in fact, conditioned by previous patterns of thought. The thoughts that our mind produces now have been shaped by its history of thinking.

Recent neuro-scientific research has shown that routine patterns of thought make incremental but substantial changes in the way the brain is structured and the way the mind functions. These structural alterations make the brain more effective at doing what it is asked to do.

If we habitually think in certain ways, the mind becomes more adept at those patterns of thought. Thus, as the concept of conditioning suggests, wholesome thoughts create a propensity for more wholesome thoughts, and unwholesome thoughts predispose the mind to produce more unwholesome thoughts.

Fortunately, we can use this dynamic principle to our advantage. While we may not be in conscious control of each and every thought, meditation practice shows us that we can choose which thoughts to entertain and develop and which to observe and release. In this manner, we can influence the kinds of thoughts we are likely to produce in the future.

In the meditation practices we’ve discussed so far, our practice of releasing thoughts has been indiscriminate. We’ve been training the mind to drop any thought as soon as we become aware of it, without regard to its content or quality. The purpose of this particular practice is to reinforce our ability to focus and be attentive.

When we have become sufficiently proficient at using these techniques, we can add another component to the practice that will enable us to manage our thinking more consciously. In this new method, we will endeavor not only to become aware of thoughts as they arise, but also to identify the kind of thoughts we are having. Once identified, we can make conscious choices about how we will handle them.

The Unskilled Mind
Because of our conditioning, the great majority of our thoughts are not conducive to our well-being.
In the mindless state, our thoughts can be highly critical of others — and of ourselves. When you attend carefully to the quality of your thoughts, you might easily conclude that most of them serve little constructive purpose in our lives.

Because of the mind’s overproduction of unwholesome thou; it redounds to our benefit to be able to respond appropriately immediately when such thoughts arise. Doing this, of course, requires sharp attention and the capacity to discern wholes from unwholesome thoughts.

Unfortunately, the unskilled mind finds this difficult to do. Just as the untrained mind has difficulty even knowing when it is absorbed in thought, it finds it hard to know when a thought is edifying or corrosive. Often, the undisciplined mind even fails to appreciate the importance of this distinction.

The mindfulness tradition offers very specific ways of identifying harmful thoughts and enables us to see why they are problematic; according to this tradition, an unwholesome thought is one that is not conducive to freedom and happiness but, rather, promotes suffering. Conversely, wholesome thoughts diminish suffering and foster happiness and freedom.

Unwholesome Thoughts
Unwholesome thoughts may be recognized by certain telltale traits. Specifically, unwholesome thoughts — which we can also call unskillful thoughts — are connected to selfish desire, hatred, or delusion.

Thoughts associated with selfish desire are predicated on our voracious appetite for pleasure. An unwholesome thought of this sort may prompt us to act or speak in a way that provides us with momentary gratification.

Whereas thoughts based on selfish desire draw us toward an act that we believe will give us pleasure, thoughts associated with hatred repel us from people or situations we think will cause us pain or make us feel uncomfortable.

Deluded thoughts are at odds with reality and result from our failure to see ourselves and the world as they really are. On the basis of delusion, we can generate grandiose thoughts about our own importance or our own worthlessness, or we can somehow come to believe that we are immune to the vicissitudes to which everyone else is subject.

It requires skill, of course, to recognize these unskillful thoughts, and ultimately, it takes knowing ourselves very well — the kind of self-knowledge that comes only with ruthless honesty and dispassionate observation.

To give you some practice at identifying unskillful thoughts, try this simple exercise the next time you meditate or sit in the park. Whenever you catch your mind drifting in its usual haphazard way, take a moment to examine the character of the thought that has captured your attention.

The great danger of entertaining any thought that arises from selfish desire, hatred, and delusion is its eventual effects on the shape of our minds. Even the thoughts that remain confined to the interior of our skulls can proliferate, generating habits of thought that form our personality and character.

Attending to Unwholesome Thoughts
The mindfulness tradition offers a variety of very practical ways to assist us in disempowering unwholesome thoughts and relaxing their corrosive effects on the mind. They’re all forms of relinquishment, and they’re all dependent on our ability to recognize an unwholesome thought when it arises.

  1. Replacement
    In some ways, replacement is the simplest and most effective method of disarming a harmful thought. When an unwholesome thought arises, we immediately supplant it with a wholesome one. The Buddha likened this method to the way a woodworker might knock out a coarse peg with a fine one.

    This approach is most effective when the unskillful thought is replaced by a skillful one that directly counteracts it.  Thoughts based on selfish desire, for example, can be substituted by thoughts about the impermanence of the object of desire. Thoughts grounded in hatred can be replaced with notions of friendliness and compassion. Finally, thoughts founded on delusion can be overcome by thoughts based in reality.

    Initially, the technique of replacing thoughts may seem awkward and artificial, but if you act in a certain way over time — even when it doesn’t feel authentic — those actions will eventually begin to feel and be real and genuine.

  2. Reflecting on Results
    We can also contemplate the consequences of the unwholesome thought by reflecting on the results
    . When unwholesome thoughts arise, we think about the effects of holding these unwise notions. Consider the kind of person you become when you entertain and foster a particular unwholesome thought. If mind shapes our experience, then our thoughts have ineluctable consequences.

    Follow the trajectory of an unwholesome thought. It’s not even’ necessary to reflect on the consequences of acting on these thoughts; you can simply think about having your mind packed with such ideas.

    The Buddha compares the unwholesome thought to a snake or animal carcass around the neck of a well-dressed person. Such a thought, he argues, is unbecoming to a wise and compassionate human being. When the unskillful thought appears, don’t denounce it; just let it go, reminding yourself that it is not reflection of who you truly are.

  3. Redirecting
    Redirecting is simply diverting attention away from the unwholesome thought to something more beneficial. The Buddha compared this technique to averting one’s gaze to avoid staring at certain objects.

    In sitting meditation, when the mind has been distracted by thought, we simply escort the attention back to the breath. Thus, our practice of meditation strengthens our ability to employ this technique.

    Redirecting attention relies on the impermanence of reality to work. We’re all aware that everything in the world will change and pass away. That thought usually occasions within us a feeling of sadness or melancholy. However, the impermanence of reality can be a source of comfort and happiness when we accept it, and we have to be constantly reminded to accept it.

    Redirecting attention helps us to accept the impermanence of the world and to use that fact to our benefit. Thoughts, like everything else, pass away. To maintain a thought, we have to renew it, which is why we have to be reminded of life’s transience. Of course, if we renew the unwholesome thought, it will arise again, at which point we escort our attention elsewhere. Eventually, by redirecting attention, the unwholesome thought will lose its power and fade.

    Redirecting attention need not use the breath as its anchor; any wholesome thought or activity can suffice. Far better to keep oneself diligently engaged with wholesome activity lest the straying mind comes to dwell in greed, aversion, and delusion.

  4. Reconstructing
    Reconstructing involves analyzing the formation of the unskillful thought. In reflecting on results, we contemplate the forward trajectory of an unwholesome thought, considering its consequences for the future. With reconstructing, on the other hand, we examine the antecedents that have given rise to the unwholesome notion.

    Through the process of reconstructing, we can begin to examine the assumptions supporting a particular belief. This allows us to see. how unwholesome thoughts can be rooted in untenable assumptions that we make about the things that will make us happy, and it allows us to examine those assumptions more rationally.

    When we’ve analyzed the root causes of envy enough times, we come to recognize a peculiar pattern of unskillful thinking that most of us routinely practice. It’s a manner of thought strongly encouraged by our competitive culture.

    The mindfulness tradition calls restructuring “comparing mind,” which is the insidious habit of seeing how we measure up to other people. Our culture is obsessed with it and, in a sense, thrives on it.

    The foremost disadvantage of comparing mind is the unnecessary suffering it causes: We not only feel bad about ourselves, but we often begin to wish ill upon the person we envy — sometimes to the point where we take steps to realize those wishes.

    Whether we judge ourselves favorably or unfavorably, the practice of comparing mind is unwholesome. It causes us harm, expends our precious mental energy, and erodes our relationships with others.

    Although it is generally unskillful, there are times when comparing mind can be used skillfully, but doing so is an advanced practice that requires great wisdom. For most of us, however, certainly in the early stages of mindfulness practice, it is a habit that is best acknowledged and then relinquished.


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