What are Passions?
Passions (πάθος) are the emotions that control you. They include sexual desire, anger, envy, desire for material goods, rejection, fear and love to name a few. They are all desires that cannot be satisfied. You can never gain all the material goodies you desire. You will never gain all the recognition you feel you deserve. You will always have a desire for tasty food, but if you fill your desire for it you will get sick. The same goes for sex and many other desires. Passions are an expression of your ego-centeredness. It’s all about yourself and what you want for your own pleasure and gratification. In reality, your passions are futile attempts to satisfy your spiritual longing by this world’s means and are doomed to failure.
Paul reminds us, Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Gal 5:24) Jesus reminds us, From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within and they defile man.” (Mark 7: 21-23)
You can also look at the parable of the sower where Christ tells us about the seeds that were sown among the thorns. He tells His disciples, “As for what fell among the thorns, they are those who, hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” (Luke 8:14) The passions that come from your inner bodily programming do block you from your goal to be united with Christ.
Passions are no more than forces that dominate your soul and are etched into your brain and its neural structure, programing your automatic responses. They need to be rooted out, or overlaid with new programs. You can assume that some of this programing is hereditary. We know we inherit ancestral sin from Adam and Eve. This means this task is not a simple one. It requires God’s help along with a committed effort on your part.
Traditionally the passions are gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, self-esteem, pride and vainglory. We can think of them in two types: natural and unnatural passions.
The natural passions depend on our physical nature and the maintenance of our physical being. These include our appetite for food, our fear of being harmed, and our sexual attraction to the opposite sex. These are all necessary for our preservation. They are a central part of our animal nature and common to all animals. These are not a problem unless they go beyond the need for self-preservation.
Saint Maximus says,
“The natural passions become good in those who struggle when, wisely unfastening them from the things of the flesh, use them to gain heavenly things. For example, they can change appetite into the movement of a spiritual longing for divine things; pleasure into the pure joy for the cooperation of the mind with divine gifts; fear into care to evade future misfortune due to sin; and sadness into corrective repentance for present evil.”
Then there are the unnatural passions. These are our natural passions that we mistakenly connect with our longing for spiritual wholeness. We continually seek happiness only to find pain on the other end. Then feeling pain or dissatisfaction, we again seek more pleasure only again to find again pain. Saint Maximos reminds us,
When man isn’t focused on distinguishing between what is spiritual and things of the senses he disobeys the divine command. He errs when the irrationality of feeling is the only form of discernment. He is captured by pleasure and avoidance of pain.
Saint Anthony writes,
Things that are done according to nature aren’t sins, but those done by choice; it’s not a sin to eat, so that the body will be properly maintained in life without any evil thought, but it is to eat without gratitude and improperly and without restraint; neither is it a sin to look with chastity, but it is a sin to look with envy, pride and desire; it is not a sin to listen quietly, but it is with anger. It’s not a sin to let the tongue be unrestrained in thanksgiving and prayer, but it is to speak evil; to not let your hands do acts of mercy, but to commit murder and theft. So each of our members sins if it does evil instead of good, doing things its own way and not according to the will of God.
Recently scientists have studied similar issues from the perspective of the physical world. One of these is Dr. Antonio Damasio who developed a theory about how emotions work in us. He says that first something from our senses initiates a response. Then the brain sends a command to the other regions of the brain and to most everywhere in the body. This happens through chemical injections into our blood stream that act on receptors in the cells of our body tissues. This tells us that its even more complex that just the trillions of connections in our brain, but our entire body acts as an integrated organism. In the neuron pathways, commands take the form of electromechanical signals that act on the other neurons or on muscular fibers or organs which in turn can release chemicals of their own into the blood stream. The result is a response that causes a change of state of our entire organism. Once this happens we become aware of a feeling. We feel irritated, angry, pleased and so forth. This tells us that we cannot simply rely on the idea that we can wait for our feelings to develop to control our behavior, but that we have to change the programing that leads to the response of feelings. By the time we have an emotion the organism is already jolted into action and it is difficult to change its course and we may have already sinned.
The bottom line is that you cannot wait for your feelings to develop to control your behavior. You need to interact at the time of the stimulus and change the automatic responses that lead to the emotional response of the body. Of course you can also try to avoid the situations where you are stimulated to some degree as well, like what you do and who you do it with.
There are two places where you can interrupt this cycle. One is when you first receive the sensual stimulus. The second is when you notice the emotional feeling, but before you automatically take an action. The Church Fathers instruct us to do both of these and especially the first. This is called guarding your “Heart” or ”Watchfulness.”
Daniel Siegel is another modern scientist who gives us insight into this issue. He says we can actually focus our minds in a way that changes the structures and function of the our brain.
He proves that attentional processes, emotion regulation and capacity to observe internally, to introspect and reflect are all considered trainable skills.
By developing this attentiveness in your mind you can prepare yourself to act in cooperation with God. You will see later in our discussion of prayer, fasting and worship that our Orthodox religious practices can help you develop this attention.
You need to first recognize the limited nature you have of your understanding of what you sense. You must realize that your brain is taking shortcuts all the time. What you sense, what you have in your memory and the mental images you have, only give you a symbolic representation of the world. You will never have the whole picture of reality. These shortcuts allow your brain to identify what it believes to be significant so it can ignore the rest and take appropriate action.
There are numerous brain imaging studies that suggest the frontal lobe of our brain is critical in directing our ability to act freely and to make decisions. This shows that free will is a conscious choice involving an introspective monitoring of the self.
The studies show that the more you concentrate on a moral idea, the easier it becomes to act on that belief. In other words, the brain becomes reprogrammed. The frontal lobes monitor our ability to stay attentive and alert, helping us to focus on a task. They have done studies on nuns in prayer. Their brain scans show a different brain pattern when they are in prayer that involves a greater activity of the frontal lobes of the brain indicating this attentiveness. We don’t fully understand this, but we do know that the brain is functioning different when in prayer than otherwise.
Andrew Newberg also adds to our understanding in his studies reported in Why we Believe What We Believe. He found that if you want to maintain a sense of well being you have to work at it continually reinforcing positive feelings and beliefs. This is clearly one of the benefits of prayer, worship and other spiritual practices. The key to creating any reality is based on a concentrated repetition of ideas.
The more you stay focused on an object of contemplation the more real the thought becomes. You must be careful about what you pray for or meditate on, because it may eventually become your personal truth. If you want to make spirituality a central part of your life, he says, then by all means focus on spiritual ideals as often as you can.
Of course you don’t have to turn to modern scientists for this kind of advice. Apostle Peter says, Gird up the loins of your mind... not conforming yourselves to the former lusts but ... you also be holy in all your conduct. (1 Peter 1:13-15) Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul... submit yourself to every ordinance... (1 Peter 2:11, 13)
Apostle Paul says, Put to death therefore what is earthly in you; unchastity, uncleanness,, passion, evil desire and greed, which is idolatry... But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col 3: 5-10)