Monday, December 14, 2009

Dealing Softly with Our Thoughts

Our actions begin with a thought. Thoughts come into our mind all the time, so we must constantly be watchful. This is not just about wandering thoughts we experience in prayer. It's about a continual struggle.

Through the practice of the Jesus Prayer, we are given the gift of controlling our thoughts. With this gift, we are able to lift ourselves above the level of mind dominated by common thoughts where we can observe our thoughts without any action. Once this ability is given to us by God's grace, we can observe them all the time without taking actions on them. This is often called a state of "detachment."

Once we have this ability, how do we properly observe our thoughts? Abba Barnabas says, "If a thought comes, do not be alarmed.... the bad thing is not that a thief enters the house, but that he takes what he finds." We cannot stop the occurrence of thoughts. But we can stop them from stealing our virtue from us.

As we observe thoughts, we don't concentrate our attention on them, but, instead, observe them softly, seeing them as foreign intruders, something that is coming from outside us. In this way we keep our attention based in our higher mind, our mind attached to Spirit. This keeps us in the attitude of love. When we are able to maintain this perspective, we are able to discern those thoughts that are of help to others from those that condemn them, those which are of selfish interests from those which are of benefit to others. This is a level of discernment essential for a virtuous life.

As we develop this ability to observe our thoughts softly, we come to know with certainty that our thoughts are not who we are, but come from outside. It's our God given responsibility that comes with our free will to observe them without immediate action.

Saint Theophan writes,
"Having noticed the enemy approach––the beginning of a stimulus, thought, passion, or tendency––first of all hasten to realize that it is the enemy. It is a great mistake, and a common one, to honor everything that come up in us as the property of our own blood, for which we take a stand as for our own selves."


  1. I remember another proverb. you can't stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from building a nest in your hair.

    Fr. Stephen Lourie

  2. Father, thanks for adding this proverb. Perfect!


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