What follows simply presents a list of topics and propositions relating to psychoanalysis, the Desert Fathers, Zen Buddhism, the self, breathing, silence, the unconscious, discipleship, counseling, and our deep and unsatisfied desire to be like Christ.
It is intended, however, that the list also serves as an argument in support of the simple proposition: Reformed Christians would do well to take a look at the proposals and practices of psychoanalysis, the Desert Fathers, and Zen Buddhism because these supposed ‘paths to human maturity’, at the very least, generate some important challenges and questions for us.
Ira the Angry Pastor
Ira is a respected 46 year old pastor with a loyal wife, three well-mannered children, and a very full schedule. He is a sincere and spiritually mature man. Consciously, so far as he is aware, his deepest desire is to love God with all his being and to love his neighbour as himself. He is faithful in using the means of grace. He is humble, aware of his sin, sensitive to it, and conscientious in dealing with it. He does not come across as an angry man: far from it, he is solicitous, able to weep at the needs of those who have been hurt, willing to listen to criticism and acknowledge the truth of it when he sees it. He is hard-working, cares for his family, loves the Scriptures, and longs for the glory of Christ. He meets the requirements for elders and bears the fruit of the Spirit.
However, Ira also carries with him a good deal of repressed anger and has done so from relatively early in life. By definition, because it is repressed, he is unconscious of it and because of his commonly used defence mechanisms of intellectualisation, isolation of affect, and reaction formation, neither he nor most others would think that he is an angry person or has a problem with anger.
Anger, however, is the passion which like a sharp-toothed fish is biting his legs and feet as he stands in the pond. These bites cause him pain but he thinks that this is the pain of life, not realising that there is a specific sub-surface trouble to which he should attend. He may regard the pain as the ‘normal’ sensations for standing in pondwater. Nevertheless, the presence of the fish does come out in various ways ‘above the surface’, i.e. in conscious, visible life. There are moments when there’s a swish or a bubble hinting that there is something lurking underneath, but Ira does not pay them any serious or sustained attention. If he did, then he would wonder what caused them and may stand especially still so that the water would un-muddy and he could discern something of what lay beneath the surface.
But Ira, though wholly sincere and genuinely godly, is not one to slow down, attend to the surface signs of unconscious passions, and connect with the associated emotions. He certainly has quiet times but in these his mind is busy – with intercessory prayer, memorising Scripture, and theological reflection. There is not time for extended, unhurried, radically honest, and exploratory conversation with another (therapist, counsellor, friend) and in any case, this would feel self-indulgent. Reference to the place of breathing, silence, dreams, free association, stillness (the stuff of psychoanalysis, contemplative prayer, and Zen Buddhism and the mindfulness-meditation brigade) seems to represent a departure from the Puritan spirituality he so cherishes and therefore (indistinctly, but with emotional force) to represent also a lack of trust in Scriptural ways of maturation.
Ira has sub-surface, long-standing, deep-seated anger and it causes him pain and manifests in various ways but he is simply not conscious of it. He is driven by anger but doesn’t think he’s angry and doesn’t look angry on the outside. (The repressed anger causes him pain because the very act of turning anger back upon the self requires psychic energy and that expenditure of psychic energy is experienced as stress, often manifesting as some form of depression. If, in turn, he represses the depression signals as they become conscious as part of his sincere endeavour to live a godly life, then he compounds the problem. And, in his case, the repressed anger manifests in his consciousness as a critical or reforming spirit which he identifies as the desire that things should be ‘right’. Again, as a spiritually mature man, he may control the conscious expression of this spirit and desire which can take the form of resentment at bearing responsibility, at an endeavour to control, at an obsession with correct doctrine or social conduct, as shame at the public sins or shortcomings of family members and so on. But what he doesn’t realise is that underlying several of these various emerging ‘pressure-points’ is the one unresolved, un-named, unconscious passion of anger.)
Ultimately for real psycho-spiritual health and maturity, what is required is that Ira’s anger is brought into consciousness and explored and addressed so that, to the degree that it remains a source of temptation or sinful inclination, it is now, at least, out in the open, i.e. in his consciousness. However, this presents a real difficulty for a person like Ira. He is living at point A: his anger is repressed but is affecting him unconsciously. He would like to be at point C: where passions and heart-deceits and inclinations to sin of which he is unaware have been brought into awareness and begun to be tackled using God-given means. But the only route from A to C is through B, which involves a particular sort of stillness and attentiveness in which the water clears and what is below the surface becomes visible. Extreme honesty with God (perhaps in the presence and with the support of another person) and a sort of liberation to unhurried exploration will enable tiny little stirrings and instances of the angry impulse to be noticed but now, instead of instant (activist or shock-at-my-sinfulness) conscious rejection and unconscious repression, the stirring / rising is acknowledged and put into words in the presence of God and with utter candour and is then investigated and traced back.
This, in turn, will mean that, over time, Ira finds himself telling God that he has spotted or come to suspect that there is hatred for X in him, rage against Y, the secret hope that Z would die, lust after N, the longing to possess M, the suspicion that P is a liar and hypocrite, the desire that Q would be humiliated, and so on. Unsurprisingly, given his mode of operation to date (and his suspicion of the unconscious), even the expression of these things will feel to the Ira like sin and his instinct, as a spiritually mature and conscientious man, will be to confess and ask forgiveness and turn from them rather than articulate them and sit with them. It is not a sin to sit (in a certain way and for certain reasons) and stare at sin long and hard and to be radically honest about it. But it feels like it to a man like Ira. And without this radical honesty (that of the psalmist, the desert father, and the psychoanalytic client) the root anger will remain repressed and so the person, even if spiritually mature at many levels, will remain psychologically immature – conflicted, fragmented, and incongruent – and therefore spiritually immature at the deepest level.
Paths to Human Maturity
In our pursuit of human maturity and wholeness or, more simply, of Christlikeness, we would do well to give attention to three particular ‘pathways’ which have been extremely influential outside of Reformed Christian circles over recent generations, namely, (1) psychoanalysis and other depth psychologies (2) Zen Buddhism and the associated meditation and mindfulness movements and (3) the Desert Fathers and the associated hesychast strand in Christian contemplative prayer.
In spite of their very different conceptual frameworks and ideological commitments, there are significant connections and commonalities across these three pathways, pointing especially to the need to slow down, go deeper, and embrace what might be called ‘egoic diminution’ as a critical part of and path to wholeness and maturity. The use of silence, the recognition of unconscious depths in the human psyche, the place of stillness and the breath in psychological exercise, and the imperative to awaken to the practice of present moment awareness are all (though variously) emphasised by these pathways.
From one perspective, the views of the ‘self’ held in psychoanalysis, in Zen Buddhism, and in the Desert Fathers could not be more different from one another. Psychoanalysis seeks to support a self-constructed, self-directed, increasingly self-possessed ego; Zen Buddhism denies the existence of a distinct and stable individual self; the Desert Fathers pursued continual self-execution and self-renunciation in order that Christ would take his place as their true Self. However, without for a moment suggesting that there is some deeper shared ground, there is, around these views, a cluster of themed challenges to Christians seeking maturity and the practices mentioned above (silence; breathing; connecting with the unconscious; present-moment-awareness) each has a part to play in the death and resurrection of the self which lie at the heart of human growth.
Two apparently decisive objections to giving close attention to these pathways (‘Are they true?’ and ‘Do they work?’) are based upon a misunderstanding of the proposal. The proposal is that we should investigate these pathways, not that we should adopt them, and the prima faciecase for such an investigation is that it is clear that the address to the self and associated practices which are found in these movements firstly, are impactful and secondly, have interesting connections with key biblical themes. Put simply:
- God’s Spirit and (therefore) the human spirit and self are described as breath; God breathes into dust to make Adam; Christ breathes upon the disciples to empower them with the Spirit; our breath and our life, our breath and God’s life are inextricably tied to one another;
- like the ‘unconscious’, the heart can stand for the depths of a person which shape their thinking, feeling, and behaving and yet which are beyond their own comprehension or control;
- obedience to the great commandment to ‘hear / listen’ presupposes a stillness and silence or attentiveness which are, in their own right, important aspects of human life in Scripture;
- de-automatization, waking up, becoming conscious and aware and present, knowing who, where, and why we are what we are, are all features of sound humanness and the unthinking, unaware, sleepful, distractedness or dullness which are the opposite are equated with immaturity and/or death;
- self-renunciation, poverty of spirit, becoming like a child, and the death of the old person on one side, and being born anew, becoming a new person, being indwelt by Christ so that it is ‘not I, but Christ who lives in me’ that now lives, on the other side, are, in Scripture, the foundations of human renewal.
Regardless then, of the ways in which and degree to which these pathways are themselves aligned with God’s truth or potent in effecting human change, they comprise a fresh set of questions for us to bring to Scripture and history demonstrates that there is little which unlocks Scripture treasure better than coming to it with new questions, so long as they are rightly motivated and relate to God’s priorities for us in Christ.
Could concepts of ‘the self’ and of egoic diminution, and do practices of silence, unlocking the unconscious, stillness, breathing, and present-moment-awareness, as found in psychoanalysis, Zen Buddhism, and the Desert Fathers, in any way inform or enrich our understanding and pursuit of human wholeness and our conduct of discipleship, counselling, and spirituality?
B. The context and need for such an exploration and the relevance of these three movements
- Dismayed by the discrepancy between believing and living the gospel, between ‘having’ and being like Christ, between our adherence to the truth and our attainment of godliness, Christians will explore and follow any and every legitimate idea or practice in their pursuit of Christlikeness.
- Developments either in human consciousness (such as those which marked the beginning of modernity) or in human knowledge (such as those in neuroscience, developmental, cognitive, and social psychology, in body language, in communications theory, in the study of emotions, and in pedagogy) are to be explored and exploited as we seek to make our discipleship and counselling as faithful and effective as possible.
- It is important for us to give attention to movements relating to the mending and maturation of humans (individuals and communities) which appear to have a significant impact on how people think, feel, and behave. Even where Scripture does not obviously or explicitly reference or address such things, our consideration of them will send us back to Scripture with fresh and generative questions.
- Whether or not pastors and theologians apply themselves to a discriminating appreciation of such things, we can be sure that those in our congregations and communities will be exposed to them and – sometimes with less discrimination – will experiment and adopt some of them for themselves.
- For all the difficulty in drawing stable and precise distinctions and boundaries between them, the technologies and mechanics of change are not in themselves theologies. However difficult it may be to articulate a theory of ‘levels of causation’ in these matters, we know that there is a difference between saying, for example, “God changes people”, “the Bible changes people”, “preaching changes people”, and “competent communication of Scripture truth changes people” and that by the time we reach the near (specific and particularized) end of such a chain, questions of what represent the most faithful and effective ‘technologies’ or ‘mechanics’ are not only permitted, but required. In this sense, pragmatism is not always a heresy!
- Whilst never forgetting the sufficiency of Scripture, the antithesis / impossibility of neutrality, and the need for discernment (especially where there are clear spiritual dangers), we can only evaluate what we understand and we can only understand that which we give attention to with honesty and an open readiness to discover what is really there.
- Psychoanalysis and other psychodynamic psychology; Zen Buddhism, along with associated mindfulness and meditation movements; and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, along with the hesychasm of the Philokaliaand strands in the contemplative prayer tradition all offer what might be regarded as ‘pathways to human maturity’ and, as part of this, promote particular ‘technologies of change’. There are several features which make the selection of these three particular pathways interesting. They all certainly have an associated worldview (necessarily implied, it might be argued, by their having a sense of what constitutes a well-functioning or authentic human being) and of these, one is, at least at its historical source, anti-religious, one is religious but not Christian, and one is Christian but seen as alien or remote by many Reformed Christians.
- Along with this, all three of these pathways have been extremely (though variously) influential over the last two to four generations and in some ways they have been most influential in their ‘popularized’ forms.
- Moreover, there are clear interplays and interconnections between these three pathways: psychoanalysis and Buddhism;Zen and Christian contemplative prayer and meditation; and attention amongst Christians oriented to contemplation to matters of true and false self, the shadow, and the unconscious (in movements such as those promoting ‘fourth way spirituality’, the Enneagram, or centering prayer). There are countless individuals and books which might be adduced.
- Finally, there are common interests across these pathways, both conceptual and applied, which mean that, in some sense, they represent boundaries around a shared space in which silence, stillness, breathing, attention to the unconscious, attention to attention, radical self-examination, deliberation about the ‘self’, recognition of the mind-body-emotion nexus, self-remembering and being ‘present’ or having present-moment-awareness, are all located.
- If, therefore, a ‘scheme’ was attempted, it might be posited that there is a common space created between and around the poles of (1) Psychoanalysis seen as undertaking radical self-examination through attention to the unconscious and especially in going ‘deeper down and further back’ in a psychotherapeutic relationship which is a sort of meditation à deux; (2) Zen Buddhism / mindfulness-meditation, seen as undertaking radical self-‘possession’ (paradoxically, given the doctrine of ‘no-self’) through the use of stillness and breathing, in both one-pointed meditation and awareness meditation, leading to a present-moment awareness, a disidentification from the false self and a de-automatization from habituated, mindless routines; and (3) the hesychasm of the Desert Fathers and their spiritual successors seen as pursuing radical self-renunciation and mortification through silence and contemplative prayer (backed by other disciplines) which confront the deep-seated passions with a Christlike willingness to let go of everything and trust the self to God.
- Freud may or may not have been a bad scientist, a bad man, and a bad clinician. He may or may not have been less original than sometimes thought, have used (or misused) unreliable sources and ideas in constructing his theories, and have been proved incorrect in many areas. And much more besides. However, none of this is, for our purposes, of interest. The construction and adoption of the ‘pathway to human maturity’ for which the name Freud (and subsequently, psychoanalysis, or psychodynamic psychology) can serve as a shorthand, has changed the world and has blessed the attentive church with striking reminders, fresh questions, and insightful challenges.
- A great deal of our psychic life (mental processes and contents) lies outside of our conscious awareness and control. Dreams, disproportionate affect, parapraxes, observable (to others) patterns of transference, and observable (to others) deployment of unconscious defence mechanisms give evidence of this. In spite of its wide and varied use, the vocabulary of the ‘heart’ in Scripture highlights this as a central theme of the Bible – that there are ‘depths’ in a human person which are beyond our understanding and control (but which are not, thereby, rendered morally neutral) and which account for many of our un-godly feelings, thoughts, behaviours, and relationships.
- Our infant lives install in us some ‘unconscious phantasies’ (pre-verbal global beliefs or dispositions) which act as filters for all of our subsequent experience (whilst being modifiable by it). What happens in our early life, before those things of which we have conscious recall later on, is a vital part of who we become.(After all, we do not remember being baptised as infants or receiving the Lord’s supper as infants but would recognise that these things shape and orient us at a deep level.) If a baby is horribly abused and shouted at and randomly hit and surrounded by screams and the smell of vomit for the first two years of her life, she will not, as an adult, have any conscious recall of these things, but it is difficult to doubt that they will have shaped her deep psyche.
- Especially important in the early years is the infant’s relationship with his or her mother and father. The importance of healthy ‘attachment’ in a person’s development flows naturally from the analogy between God’s relationship with humankind and human parents’ relationship with their children.
- The story of the world (played out in the history of the race and affecting each individual) is that of the Son who seeks to possess the Mother and do away with the Father. The Freudian parallel or parody of this is the Oedipal narrative. Adam (the Son) wants to ‘possess’ the created order (the Mother) without reference to and, indeed, through the deliberate exclusion (murder) of God (the Father). The history of the race (also instantiated in the lives of individuals) is the failure to recover from the ‘trauma of our infancy’, at least until another Son comes who will live in perfect submission to the Father. If, albeit on the basis of a distorted parallel rather than the original Biblical account, endeavours are made to understand human sadness, madness, and badness in relation to our early relationship with our parents, including dimensions of attachment, trust, dependence, imitation, rivalry, envy, and maturation involving guilt and gratitude, then Christians should be unsurprised and interested to learn more.
- Life is not about happiness; human beings are not fundamentally good; and we run and hide from our internal conflicts, our anxieties, guilt, fear, and anger by means of pervasive and perception-altering self-deception which in turn often deepens our maladaptation to the world and our misery in it.
- We are driven by primal instincts (and early deficits and traumas) which we are scared and ashamed to admit to ourselves, including the desire for radical honesty/intimacy, for the peace of the grave (to die), and for wild, uninhibited, playful sex. Perhaps it would be less unpalatable to frame and phrase this in terms simply of passions / desires and to point out that some of these come with original sin, some with corruption, some with finitude (as experienced by idolaters who resist finitude), some with patterns learned from family, some with the company we keep. But our desire goes deep and once that is misdirected and corrupted in and by the fall then ‘primal instinct’ combined with the idolatrous turn amounts to something profound, powerful, and often beyond our consciousness.
- We develop defensive unconscious patterns and habits of keeping psychic threat at bay and those patterns are often maladaptive and harmful. Our defence mechanisms mean that Christians whose pursuit of holiness is overly conscious will miss the hidden drivers. A person can be consciously a lover of God and others, a student of the word, faithful in prayer, diligent in service, sincere in repentance, and all the rest (i.e. genuinely spiritually mature) but by fear of attending to micro-motions of their heart (in case that attention represents compromise or increases temptation), they cut off in a milli-second the feeling of anger, lust, laziness, greed, pride, or whatever it might be and so never follow it down (in stillness, in patient, sometimes silent, exploration) to the root. So the (genuinely) spiritually mature pastor (for example) continues to be driven by an anger of which he is consciously unaware.
- There is, therefore, a distinction to be drawn between ‘psychological maturity’ and ‘spiritual maturity’ so long as this is not pressed too far (because ultimately complete psychological maturity would mean spiritual maturity and vice versa). Even a brief consideration of a modern psychologist’s description of psychological health would give most Christians pause for thought about their own discipleship.
- Related to this, even a cursory examination of the list of ‘presenting issues’ brought to contemporary psychotherapists will make clear that we are far from understanding the lives of many in our societies, far from addressing the complexity of modern life in our preaching, and far from having benefitted from the wisdom of Scripture precisely because we have not asked these questions of it. Addictions, bullying, chronic pain; agoraphobia, body image, career counselling; autism, bipolar disorder, compulsive spending: simply bringing these (illustrative) ABCs to Scripture will enrich our understanding of God’s grace and human need.
- (Emotionally-engaged) insight is critical to our healing and maturation. We need not set looking into ourselves and looking out to Christ against each other: rightly done, they are mutually informing and reinforcing. But a number of elements are needed to facilitate such radical self-examination in which we go ‘deeper down’ (into our unconscious) and ‘further back’ (into our formative years). The first of these is the conviction that maximal honesty about ourselves in the context of patient, accepting, and confidential listening generates transformative insight. It is surprising how little opportunity there is in many churches for a genuinely unhurried investigation in a context of trust. One setting for it is ‘therapy’ (or counselling, or Christian friendship) as a form of meditation à deux.
- Resistance to treating therapy (or counselling or Christian friendship) conversations like this as a project of radical self-examination is often combined with the claim that Biblical writers do not invite us to ‘go digging around in our unconscious’. This claim (which must be addressed) sometimes combines with approaches to discipleship or counselling which are mono-dimensional and/or superficial as though the task of healing and growth, of Christ being formed in us and us being patterned after Christ is some simple matter of ‘getting our thinking straight and doing what God commands’.
- Although Freud over-stated and inverted the ways in which our need for paternal protection and authority relate to our sense of God, the warning is well-taken that mistaking the superego (introjected paternal values) for God carries real dangers because our way of relating to an imperfect human father may well make (in some versions) for a repressedness, a generalised anxiety, an under-current of guilt, an activist drivenness, the sense that we are never good enough, an embarrassment about the body, or other difficulties. It would be very unhealthy, then, if these things were unconsciously allowed to shape our feelings towards God.
- The ways in which the radical self-examination in a therapeutic setting can help a person, through insight, to greater maturity include not merely specific ‘aha’ moments in which the fog about how and why we are as we are is cleared a little, but also the power of a better understood story (not least, the transformative realisation that whatever hurts, disappointments, losses, mistakes and moral failures may lie in our past, God was a constant, wise, faithful presence in every moment of that story). The “further back” of psychodynamic counselling means giving careful attention to what can be deduced about our significant experiences and relationships in early life. Biblically, it is clear that a race, a nation, and an individual is shaped by his/her ‘story’ and that the beginnings of that story often set both the “problem” to be addressed and the inadequate ways that the subject addresses it.
- Additionally, a new and deeper experience of being ‘contained’, supported, understood, and accepted can be transformative, as can the provision of a setting in which the appropriate emotional responses to given events or relationships can be freely experienced.
- The maximal honesty and radical acceptance needed in such a setting is only possible with Christian counsellors if they have a profound and emotionally significant experience of justification by grace alone. (In psychotherapeutic terms, this relates to the need, amongst other things, for the counsellor to be highly self-aware.) Only when a person fully convinced that their free acceptance in Christ means that what others think of them cannot harm them, is s/he able to listen with clean channels. The ‘helper’ who brings their own ‘stuff’ into the room without being aware of it, will do the counsellee a disservice. Similarly, only deep empathy, openness, humility, compassion, and patience will allow the counsellor to listen with generative attention. The psychoanalyst expects many, many hours of patient, non-judgemental listening will be required in supporting the radical self-examination and re-set of ‘therapy’. Some conservative pastors get restless after ten or twenty minutes of listening.
- A fundamental psychodynamic insight is that we unconsciously transfer to events, responsibilities and relationships all sorts of dispositions and emotions which were formed in events and relationships from our pre-recall early life but then fail to understand ourselves when the present situations do not seem to account for our feelings about them. Our sadness when we drop the cup is not about the cup. Our distrust of that sort of middle-aged Reformed pastor is not about him specifically. Our irritability about the teenagers is not primarily about the teenagers.What we are ‘really’ upset about is more often than not something other than the immediate presenting matter. In our early significant relationships (and especially attachment patterns) we learn and experience fears and idealisations and ways of getting what we want and unmet needs which we then (largely unconsciously) carry with us and which animate and shape our later responses.
- Specifically Jungian insights about projection and the ‘shadow’, the Self archetype and individuation, anima and animus, all warrant closer attention too, not least because they reinforce the need for a form of self-examination which combines asking a particular sort of difficult question of ourselves with the need to find ways of accessing hitherto unconscious material. There are innumerable practices designed to help with exactly these tasks.
D. The Desert Fathers, Philokalia and hesychasm, and the contemplative prayer tradition
- That there may have been confused or mixed motives and that there may have been unhealthy and unbalanced practices associated with the Desert Fathers and Mothers are not reasons to dismiss the possibility of our learning deeply from them, not least because extremism in defence of purity is no vice and moderation in pursuit of godliness is no virtue.
- The primary challenge with which the Desert Fathers and Mothers present us is to look again at Jesus’s own ‘anchorite ascesis’ and our practice (or neglect) of the relevant disciplines. The Desert Fathers saw that Jesus had no property, no wife and children; they saw that he was under orders at all times, that he fasted for nearly six weeks on at least one occasion, that he often chose not to sleep at night, so as to pray, and that he would frequently take steps to withdraw for the sake of quietness and solitude. They took seriously his teaching about constant and relentless self-execution, the renunciation and relinquishment of all things, and the need for a depth of love for God and devotion to the kingdom besides which all other attachments and affections would seem like hatred.
- The ‘research project’ undertaken by the Desert Fathers could be regarded as an expedition into extreme conditions for the purpose of discovering greater depths of the human heart and of the holy love of God.
- The Desert Fathers practised mortification of body and spirit in pursuit of purity of heart which in turn was sought for the sake of contemplation (the possession of God by knowledge and love), recognising, of course, that the power of grace flowed in both directions. The mortification of body was by means of the non-use, rather than the rejection, of food, sex, and sleep.
- The mortification of the spirit and purification of the heart involved various disciplines including material poverty, Psalm-chanting and recitation, keeping silence, prayers at canonical hours, consideration of death, and meditation on the Scripture. Both in keeping silence and accompanying their manual labour, two additional disciplines arose. The first was the prayer of the heart which developed into the continual recitation of what came to be known as the Jesus Prayer.
- A second emergent discipline, relating to keeping silence, was the cultivation of interior stillness – hesychasm – which both accompanied the detachment or dispassion of heart believed to be an expression of true self-renunciation and the fitting interior condition for contemplation and also became the setting for spiritual attacks from passions or ‘thoughts’ of the heart. Eight primary passions were identified (later, rather differently becoming the seven deadly ‘sins’) and the identification of these thoughts and conduct of spiritual combat with them represented a form both of radical self-examination and of spiritual purgation through a mix of constant vigilance and deliberate inner silence.
- Tears of compunction, disregard for personal reputation, willingness to ‘stay’ in the cell, maximal candour in confession, submission to elders and the ‘spiritual director’, and radical forgiveness of, generosity to, and compassion upon others were amongst the evidences of humility and self-emptying. Cumulatively, these disciplines represented a thorough-going endeavour to live out the beatitudes at a number of different levels.
- The place of silence and solitude; the importance of self-renunciation and non-attachment or disidentification; the cultivation of focussed attention and the diagnostic power of distractions will be considered more below. But the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Philokalia and hesychasm, and the contemplative prayer tradition serve to foreground questions of ‘ego-reduction’ and especially of the way in which our ‘identifications’ (i.e. regarding this or that possession, achievement, affiliation, or other feature, as essential to our identity so that for it to be attacked or lost is felt to undermine our selfhood) create ‘noise’ or obstructions in our fellowship with God.
- Along with this, the acceptance / non-attachment dimension of self-renunciation associates with a unqualified submission to ‘adverse’ circumstances as necessary instruments of God’s good nurture and discipline; and there is a natural connection between frequent meditation on one’s physical death and the prior death-of-self, death-to-self which is the form of discipleship.
- Quite apart from its critical influence upon the development of monasticism, the ‘spirituality’ of the Desert Fathers had a number of important concomitants, corollaries, and consequences of relevant to our wider study. The enneagram, a popular personality profiling and spiritual growth model, is related both to the eight passions identified by Evagrius of Pontus and to a conviction (found, it might be argued, across psychoanalysis, Zen, and the Desert Fathers) that ‘noticing’ passions and distractions itself carries within it the power of change.
- Along the same lines, the place of attention and distraction in contemplative prayer, and the importance of stillness, has influenced the formation of the discipline of ‘centering prayer’ which claims to be a devotional expression and concretization of the self-emptying spirit of the Desert Fathers.
- The unease which contemporary Christians have about the contemplation of God (often associating it with unhealthy individualism, over-interiorization, or a world-denying stance) is challenged by the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
E. Zen Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness practices
- It is not possible for a single person to understand, organise, and evaluate the history, literature, and complex taxonomy of the set of worldviews, religions, psychologies, and practices which are widely known as Buddhism. And a logical or theological deconstruction of the (plural) metaphysics of Buddhism, especially the monistically (or non-dualistically) based doctrines of Buddha-mind, one-mind, no-self, impermanence, and karma, could occupy a thousand lifetimes of a thousand scholars. But epitomised and popularised ‘Buddhism’, particularly as it reinforces epistemological and metaphysical agnosticism and promotes the practices of meditation and mindfulness, represents a ‘pathway to human maturity’ which generates helpful questions and therefore warrants attention.
- The agnosticism of popular ‘Buddhism’ is often associated with the paradoxes and mysteries of quantum physics (“Something unknown is doing we don’t know what” as Sir Arthur Eddington said in relation to the uncertainty principle); with the commonplace of perception and consciousness studies that there is no such thing as direct, unmediated, unfiltered experience of ‘the world outside’; and with a sense that verbalisation is intrinsically reductive or distorting. Cumulatively, and positively, these perspectives can produce epistemological humility.
- The aspect of this agnosticism which relates to the human knowing subject is, in popular ‘Buddhism’, put at the service of the doctrine of ‘no-self’, which is not dissimilar to Hume’s insistence that ‘we’ are a bundle of impressions, sensations, or perceptions, and in turn (see below) challenges overly-simple assumptions about the continuity of personal identity and frees a person from the identifications which themselves cause suffering by chaining our experienced happiness to what happens to things which are not themselves ‘us’, such as our hand, our car, or our reputation.
- The fundamental objective of zazen (sitting meditation) in its various forms is purposeful disenchantment, the removal of the multiple layers of distorting mental filters which will enable a person to awaken to reality (which in Buddhist thought, is non-dual).
- Observation of the breath plays an important part in some forms of Buddhist meditation, primarily as a preliminary, framing discipline which cultivates both single-pointed attention and, by training a person in being and staying mentally present, opens the way to an ‘awareness of awareness’. The repeated questioning (though not by means of philosophical soliloquy) of who or what the thinking subject is, serves as a device further to undermine the false self.
- Regulation (as against observation) of the breath, though usually downplayed in Zen literature, does have a part to play since bated breath and a pause at the end of the out-breath both facilitate a more intense present-moment awareness. This is combined with a heavy emphasis upon right posture and opens out into a consideration of the enormous domain of mind-body relationships which incorporates: the physiological basis (and locatedness) of our emotions; the usefulness of ‘body-work’ in addressing trauma; the interplay between posture and movement on the one hand, and our emotional state on the other. Scriptural data relating to the significance of posture render these aspects of Zen practice unsurprising.
- The practice of zazen, then, whether (to mix categories), in its vipassana form of sophisticated body scan, in its shikantaza form of extreme stillness and mental self-emptying, or in its koan-based form of ‘not-thinking’ to awakening, is understood to lead to disidentification, de-automatization, acceptance of people and circumstances, disentanglement from self-reinforcing spirals of aversion and desire, a detachment from the sensation of pain which itself reduces suffering; and the cultivation of mindfulness (and, paradoxically, self-remembering) in the whole of life and not merely in the sitting meditation itself.
- Several of the aspects of the present-moment-awareness promoted by the mindfulness movement are elementary features of Christian discipleship. Present-moment-awareness applied to the created order, to objects in front of us, to things we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch, is the experience of godly appreciation and gratitude. Applied to the person before us and what they are saying, it is the fully engaged attention which is part of what it means to love someone. Applied (as the development of the so-called ‘inner witness’) to our moods and feelings, it is the mature self-observation which is a part of taking moral responsibility for our emotional life. Applied to events (and, particularly in the dimension of ‘acceptance’ which mindfulness promotes), it is the moment-by-moment recognition that God comes to us disguised as our circumstances. And applied to the task or activity of the moment, it is the single-minded, whole-hearted focus which takes seriously that here-now, thisis God’s calling to me.
F. Consciousness and attention
- God’s triune life is one of infinite self-conscious presence in which the simplicity of God and the oneness of will of the persons ensure that God’s infinite self-consciousness and perfectly free spontaneity and congruence are mutually empowering. A human being’s consciously experienced life is determined by their attention and to give or pay attention is to offer our selves.
- For all of the complexity of consciousness studies, a practice-based consideration of our own experience justifies the description of much of human life as being lived while asleep or ‘on automatic pilot’. The parallels between sleep and death in Scripture; the psychological assertion that much human life is lived from our unconscious; the connection between self-awareness and self-realization; that Siddhartha Gautama when asked if he were a god, a reincarnation of a god, a wizard, a man or what, replied, “I am awake”; the Gurdjieffian image of humans as ‘machines’, are all expressions of this. Unthinking, habituated behaviours and responses characterise the overwhelming proportion of human life. The fact that as simple a 20-second action as to pause the breath in the mid out-breath, to attend to the sensation experienced in your stilled hands, and to listen intently as if searching for silence behind the noise, itself gives a sense of presence, as does performing any action very slowly, serve only to underline how absent we are from ourselves psychologically for much of our lives.
- Self-remembering, self-observation, self-awareness, de-automatization, ‘waking up’, and being present are ways of describing the use of particular sorts of attention to generate a particular sort of consciousness. Attention to the body, and especially to the breath, along with stillness, silence, and exercises to bring what is unconscious into consciousness all serve this consciousness and in devotional literature the ideas both of recollection and of the practice of the presence of God are connected.
- Studies from many directions help us understand these matters of consciousness and attention including, for example, the phenomenology of meditation with its distinctions between single-pointed attention and open awareness; and neurobiological observations about brainwave patterns and neural activation in different types of concentration, in multi-tasking, and in the filtering and processing of sensory data. Simone Weil and William James’s comments are both well-known: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer” and “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”
G. The self
- My ‘true Self’ (what makes me me) is the breath or Spirit of God in me as the life-animating, energy-giving, meaning-bestowing, loving, purposeful, presence of the infinite God by means of his localised attention to this ‘piece’ of space-time finitude (creature). The identity-defining (as well as existence-bestowing) ground of my being is God in me (or, more specifically, God’s thought of me or God’s ‘regard’ of me – which cannot be separated out from his being infinitely present to me, more present than I am to myself). The deepest depths of a person (or any creature) is God’s actively conscious, infinite, simple, distinguishing presence to them by ‘thinking’ of them. (It is not necessary to become Edwardsean idealists here, but it may help.)
- This ‘true’ self is subject to accretions and distortions. Firstly, the self is subject to accretions. Our identification with things which are not non-negotiatingly or permanently essential to our identity (the body made up of these atoms, molecules, and cells; the thoughts of this moment; the emotions and moods we experience; our possessions, status, affiliations, group memberships, preferences, status, achievements and attainments) consists of the sort of attachment which means that when one of these things is taken from me or in some way ‘attacked’, then I feel as though I myself am attacked.
- It is in connection with this phenomenon of (false) identification that the non-attachment and even, in one sense, the ‘no-self’ agenda of Zen is parallel to the gospel requirement for total renunciation and relinquishment. It is attachment, not possession, that is the ‘problem’ and Jesus’s relinquishment of Philippians 2 is played out in Paul’s of Philippians 3 and required of all in the constant self-execution, total renunciation discipleship demands.
- Secondly, the ‘true’ self is subject to distortions. The mask(s) we prefer to God’s image have attached to our face and God’s image has withered behind them. Layer after layer of false self builds up and these hide, smother, replace and kill our true self. Just as the attachments of identification must be removed by renunciation, so the distortions of accumulated false self must be ripped away and replaced by the death of the old person and Christ being born / formed in us.
- We thereby return to our true selves, only this true self can be more precisely described as Christ dwelling in us by his Spirit such that our true self is “not I, but Christ living in me”. A life of ‘faith’ is, amongst other things, a life of self-remembering present-moment-awareness which stays conscious of being the dwelling-place of God and increasingly looks with the eyes, thinks with the mind, loves with the heart, and speaks with the mouth of Christ. The ‘de-automatization’ required, the ‘waking-up’ of the sleeping human combines (as Van Til so clearly asserted) godly self-determination and godly spontaneity in a gift, process, and experience of true self-realization.
H. Practices: breath; stillness and silence; the unconscious
- Our breath is God’s life in us and it is our life and our self. To breathe out is to lay out our life, to give up our self, to allow our spirit to return to God. At the end of our out-breath, we are in momentary ‘death’ and then if God gives us another in-breath, we live again. He gives us his purposeful energy / our self and life in the new in-breath with the expressed intention that we should not hold on to it but let it go once more in loving service of others. Indeed, to try to hold onto our breath / self would be to lose it. As we breathe in, we are ‘inspired’ with the life of God. As we breathe out, we ‘expire’, letting go of our life into obedience, praise and service. In this breathing in and out, we ‘conspire’ with God – in a shared purpose and shared rhythms which take the world from one degree of glory to the next.
- It is not surprising, given the centrality of breath in expressing God’s purposes for and ways with humankind, that the physical act of breathing, (managed autonomically and yet susceptible to our willed management and alteration, i.e. sitting at the boundary of the conscious and the unconscious), has such potency in relation to our sense of self. That slow and deep breathing, broadly speaking, activates our parasympathetic nervous system is merely the biological form of the psychic reality that breathing is critically important for (1) emotional regulation (‘breathe deeply and count to ten’ as our mothers told us), for (2) consciousness of being ‘here-now’, of being awake and aware (see above) and therefore for (3) the sense of God’s presence, of our calling and identity, and of the moment we are in which themselves support the practice of godliness.
- Breath – through ‘slowness and stillness’ – is linked closely to silence, just as silence (or stillness) is connected to present-moment-awareness. If we wish to listen intently (is that a mouse behind the cupboard / an intruder upstairs?) then the silence we bring to intense listening will often be accompanied by bated or temporarily held breath. And silence is, first and foremost, the implied condition of listening, which, in turn, is the first duty of humankind.
- Silence is both quantitative and qualitative. Praying the sixty-three words, the twelve clauses of the Lord’s Prayer in the conventional, congregational thirty seconds is a different ‘experience’ from praying them more slowly with a five second pause after each clause. A three second pause after a sentence retrospectively (retro-audibly?) changes that sentence.
- The common objection to some forms of meditation that ‘the endeavour to empty your mind’ is always, instantly, inherently dangerous and wrong, is at best a misconception, and at worst a refusal to ‘pause’ before God. Being silent to ‘listen to God’ need not mean, “we do not know what God says but if we are silent we may hear a word of revelation” but may mean, “we already know what God says and if we pause ‘after’ he has said it, we will hear it differently and more deeply”. And the contemplative prayer traditions begins with the confidence that God has spoken in Christ so that the twenty-minute or two-hour or forty-day or ten-year silence we give to contemplative prayer is a transformative pause, humbly and resolutely cleared of the pursuit of fresh cognitions in order to honour the already-spoken word. This sort of ‘emptying of the mind’ is a devotional instantiation of the self-emptying which is one half of the core of human renewal and an equivalent of the pause at the end of the out-breath as an enacted trust-fall into the hands of God.
- Practices relating to ‘making the unconscious conscious’ have mostly to do with getting out of our own way because the significant unconscious is what it is not because we are unobservant or forgetful but because we are keeping at bay that which holds psychic threat. There are a hundred ways of ‘getting out of our own way’ but since the single most important shared feature of the behavioural and mental defences deployed by the anxious conscious is that of noise, busyness, and distraction, then the primary requirement of those pursuing the radical self-examination found in making the unconscious conscious will be a willingness to slow down, to sit still, to notice things in the silence, allowing the stirred up mud to settle so that we can see more clearly into the depths.
- Thus silence (or the slowing down which is aided by counselling as meditation and which may be aided by certain breathing practices, it might be added) facilitates the radical self-examination which, in effect, brings to the surface those attachments and distortions which comprise the false self. Defences which keep emotions at bay or which promote an unwarranted sense of psychic stability serve to hold a person back from knowledge of their need, from appreciation of grace, and from entry into the greater freedom and maturity of the integrated self who enjoys the safety of being poor in spirit, experiencing that ‘he that is down needs fear no fall’.
- There are numerous specific, individual and communal (liturgical and pastoral) practices which further the stillness and silence, the self-remembering and present-moment-awareness, and the disabling of defence mechanisms needed to promote radical self-examination. The widespread failure of Christian pastors and laypeople to given discriminating and discerning attention to these practices impoverishes our discipleship, counselling, and spirituality.
To restate what was said at the beginning, Reformed Christians would do well to take a look at the proposals and practices of psychoanalysis, the Desert Fathers, and Zen Buddhism because these supposed ‘paths to human maturity’, at the very least, generate some important challenges and questions for us.
David Field has been interested in the topics of this essay for some 35 years. During that time he has lectured in seminaries in Nigeria and England, served as minister of a local church south of London, and worked in business as an executive search consultant for leading international universities. He studied at Oxford, completed his PhD on Puritan theology at Cambridge, and has published books on the Puritan John Howe and on Obadiah. David lives in Oxford with his wife Sue, and has three grown-up daughters and two grandsons. David Field will be teaching a Theopolis intensive course on the topic of this essay, March 11-15, 2019.