One of the main maladies we suffer in our day is anxiety. Anxiety can literally kill us. It can also slowly suck the life out of us as it makes it difficult to sleep, to concentrate, and be present. Anxiety fills our bodies and our souls with tension and apprehension. One of the reasons for this rise in anxiety in our day is our dependence upon and even addiction to all the various forms of media and entertainment at our disposal. Just think about what has happened since the invention of the television. The average American watches at least five hours of live TV per day. Add to this, time spent on smart phones, tablets, and computers and it’s easy to see just how much time per day we spend in front of something filling our minds with information, images and noise. All of this clutter, while entertaining, is distracting and tempts us to escape from the present. Some devastating results of this new reality are a decreased attention span, information overload, the inability to guard our mind over thoughts, to stay in the present, and to focus on one thing at a time.
Watchfulness over our thoughts and senses is an important remedy to this challenge and will be the focus of this article. The temptation for us all is to allow our minds to couple with thoughts that come from the past or the future and to be held captive by them in a way that disallows us from being actually attentive to what we are responsible for in the present. It is important to note that I’m not saying that we should never reflect on the past or plan for the future. These are important activities, worthy of our attention. These should be present activities entered into intentionally. Dwelling in the past in a way that we try to rewrite or edit is an escape from reality. It is a part of what the Fathers call “fantasy.” Fantasy differs from our imagination, which allows for creativity, artistic expression and problem solving. Our creativity is part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Fantasy is a part of the fall. It is a departure from reality and a departure from attentiveness to the present moment. Fantasizing about the past is unreal precisely because the past cannot be changed in this way. Reflecting on the past, however, in a way that makes us wiser for the present and future is both necessary and profitable.
In the same way, allowing our minds to couple with thoughts of the future in a daydreaming manner is also fantasy. Rather than being a plan that we work out in the present that helps influence our future, we try to control in our minds things that we have absolutely no control over. This is a great source of anxiety, for fear is often associated with our thoughts over the future. This is due to our lack of control over these things. In our thoughts, we often imagine future events will seem far worse than they actually are when we experience them in the present. All the anxiety we subject ourselves to when we allow ourselves to live in our heads rarely proves itself necessary as our lives intersect with these events in the present.
Another aspect of dwelling in the future that causes anxiety is thinking about the whole day and all its events, tasks and responsibilities all at once. This is both overwhelming and sets us up to feel down and defeated. In this situation, which we probably face every day, we need to set up priorities and tackle one thing at a time, starting with the highest priority first. It’s important to remember that the highest priority might not always be the most important or urgent; it may simply be the thing at hand that presents itself in the present moment. Starting and finishing a project and moving on to the next one is important for us psychologically and emotionally. It’s important for us to have closure and completion and see a task get checked off our “list.” Each time, we get a sense of victory and accomplishment. This serves as positive encouragement for us and gives us greater confidence and peace to face what’s next.
In this whole area of watchfulness over thoughts, it’s imperative that we apply the three bucket principle. We have three “buckets” with which to help us determine which thoughts are worthy of our attention: the bucket of “control”, the bucket of “influence”, and the bucket of neither control nor influence. It’s easy to be tempted to think we have way more control over things in our lives than we actually do. For this reason, we get deceived into thinking about things we have neither control nor influence over. Rather than cutting off these thoughts, we couple with them and they captivate us. The result is a lot of noise in our minds and a lot of wasted time dwelling on something that we cannot get traction on or translate into action. It takes humility and prayerful discernment to realize when to cut off these thoughts and only concentrate on the few things we can control or influence.
It’s a central teaching of our Orthodox Christian Faith that we are to keep our mind attentive to God and to accomplishing His will in each present moment. Our goal should be to keep our mind undistracted and free from provocations. Provocations are thoughts that incite the passions and are unhealthy. This is what is meant by the Orthodox concept of “stillness” or hysychia. Distractedness is actually a result of the Fall and a symptom of spiritual illness. Watchfulness has always been important, but the frenetic pace of modern life, with its constant bombardment of noise and distractions, makes this spiritual practice even more essential than ever.
Even in the fourth century, St. Basil the Great exhorted the faithful to be watchful over thoughts, guard the senses and protect the heart from every external danger. He likened the human person to a home with its doors and windows. He compared the fallen world and spiritual warfare to a raging storm threatening the contents of the home. He encouraged each Christian to close the doors and windows to the effects of the storm through watchfulness and vigilance, in order to protect the contents and occupants of the home, which he likened to our soul.
It’s important to remember that watchfulness is the fruit of our remembrance of God and our dependence upon Him. Inner stillness of our mind and heart is both a gift from God and the fruit of our willingness to fast with our mind and our senses throughout the day. With less clutter in our heads, we will have far less raw material to fight off. This will allow us to stay in closer communion with God, be more present and productive in our activities and our relationships and be filled with the peace of God that “will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil.4:7)
From the Webmaster: If you would like to explore this topic further, find Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica in the Logos Bookstore. Highly recommended!