Being Impulsive: A Problem for Moderns and Ancients

A number of psychological disorders that cause people a good deal of distress, such as addictions of all stripes, have to deal with the problem of acting imprudently on impulse. One contemporary definition of impulsivity is "... a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without regard to the negative consequences of these reactions to oneself or others" (Moeller FG, ES Barratt, DM Dougherty, JM Schmitz and AC Swann (2001) Psychiatry aspects of impulsivity. Am. J. Psychiatry 158, 1783-1793). The ancient fathers of the Church had their own theory of … [Read more...]

Exposing Bad Thoughts and Spiritual Healing

In one of my previous posts, I discussed how the Fathers counseled their spiritual children to cope with bad thoughts.  In that post, I categorized the various coping methodologies in the context of purification, illumination, and deification.  In this post, I shall briefly review the salutary effects of exposing bad thoughts to another person as well as in the sacramental context of confession where such thoughts are exposed and confessed to Christ through the mediation of the priest who serves as a witness. Let us turn once again to the practices and principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.  In … [Read more...]

The Passions, Remembrance of God, and the Jesus Prayer

In the daily struggles of life, most of us assume that the passions such as anger, envy, jealousy, or lust are engendered by the circumstances in which we live.  One who perceives a negative situation, either from a demanding boss, a critical spouse, or a difficult child and yields to the passions may think “Well, if my boss hadn’t made that comment I wouldn’t be angry” or “If my husband would just do what I ask him. . .I wouldn’t have given in to anger or judgment.”  Once we begin to think this way, we start to give in to sinful behavior ourselves.  We justify such behavior by concluding that … [Read more...]

Patristic Cognitive Tools for Coping With Bad Thoughts

Anyone who is familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous knows that this most successful of self-help groups has many slogans by which the recovering alcoholic is helped in the struggle to overcome the desire to drink or self-medicate.  “Poor me, poor me, pour me another” is just one of the myriad slogans AA folk use in dealing with their addiction.  If we look closely at the slogan, we find two simple yet profound truths therein.  First, self-pity, the very opposite of Christian self-responsibility and repentance, often leads to engaging in destructive, addictive behavior, which the Fathers would … [Read more...]

Pain of Heart

In Chapter 2 of my book I discuss the problem of pain in terms of cognitive therapy and the ascetic tradition.  While there may be some outward similarities, there are also some really important differences.  Here’s an excerpt to clarify both: “In terms of a diagnosis of the human condition, cognitive therapy locates the sources of human psychological dysfunction in (1) egocentric biases leading to inappropriate anger, envy, cravings, etc., and false beliefs, (2)underlying self-defeating beliefs that reinforce biases, and (3) attaching negative meaning to events.  These dysfunctional … [Read more...]

The Role of the Mind and the Body in Behavioral Modification

The Fathers rightly understood that man is a composite of mind and body and that both must be addressed in order to correct the thoughts and actions.  Long before cognitive psychology appeared on the scene to correct one-side behavioralism, patristic tradition had a unified understanding of human mental functioning in terms of theoria and praxis.  For the Fathers, theoria and praxis refer to the inward and outward aspects of life in Christ respectively.  Theoria concerns the correct ordering and control of thoughts while praxis refers to properly ordered outward acts.  Nepsis (or watchfulness) … [Read more...]

More on Thoughts. . .

One might wonder why I’m spending quite some time on the nature of thoughts.  Well, they are at the root of every human act-whether it be virtuous or full of vice.  The act starts in the thoughts.  It’s also in the realm of the thoughts that the spiritual warfare is fought.  In chapter 8 of my book, entitled, “To Survey the Thoughts”, I note that “monastic tradition enjoins beginners in the Christian life to turn to prayer whenever they are confronted with enticing, ambiguous, or deceitful thoughts.  For example, St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite advises those who are unable to resist or repel … [Read more...]

Loneliness and Monasticism: Incompatible Concepts

Monks, as the name suggests, are solitary sorts who enjoy keeping to themselves. And yet, I think it is safe to say that monks do not suffer extensively from loneliness.  Still, it is not unusual for monks, especially hermits, to be asked if they are lonely. It would appear to be a perfectly natural question from outside of monasticism, but within the cloister walls it sounds strange indeed. When Saint Herman of Alaska was asked if he felt lonely on Spruce Island, he replied, “No, I am not alone there. God is there, as God is everywhere.” His answer suggests not only a qualitative difference … [Read more...]

Monasticism and Mental Health

Orthodox monasticism is an exceptional way of life that requires exceptional resources of the mind and spirit. Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea and revealer of heavenly mysteries, set forth teachings on Orthodox monasticism that have defined it to this day. In his Discourse on Renunciation, he relates "Many come to the virtuous life [meaning monasticism], but few are able to take on that yoke. The Gospel declares, 'The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.' It calls those disciples of Christ to voluntarily endure corporal weariness by the denial … [Read more...]

Healing and Well-being in the Fathers and Contemporary Psychological Research

Therapy and psychological counseling have been concerned for years with pathology-oriented models, essentially borrowed from medicine. Today, however, there is a turning towards Seligman's  "positive psychology" movement and an examining of notions of well-being in order to promote positive psychological functioning with resiliency to stressors. In trying to understand well-being, psychologists define well-being either hedonistically in terms of pleasure or happiness or eudaimonically in terms of self-actualization, meaning, and purpose. These are good attempts, but they fail to offer a … [Read more...]