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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The 'First Movement' of the Mind

Long before the invention of psychology, the monks of Christianity have studied the human mind.  They have many interesting things to say to us in the modern world if we can overcome the terminological barriers.

One interesting concept is what was called 'First Movements' of the mind, from the Latin primi motis.  In Greek, the term protopatheia is used, literally 'first suffering.'  These terms are used to describe the initial image that enters the mind.  These images are not in and of themselves sinful, but it is what we do with them that is the problem.  

The Greek notion of pathos is to 'suffer,' and this suffering is not merely pain inflicted as a wound, but also the pain caused by lack.  The thought that enters the mind, if it encounters a desire within the person, will stir up that desire and cause suffering.

So, the thoughts that torment us are causing us harm not because of what they are, but rather what we are.  The problem is within us.  We are tempted because of our condition, and we cannot blame the thought or image itself.

For example, it is not that you have sinned if you stand in line at the supermarket and happen to glance over and see the cover of one of 'those magazines,' but it is quite another thing to stare and begin to fantasize about the person on the cover.  The 'First Movement' is the initial image, which then triggers a response.

In our daily lives, we are bombarded by these 'First Movements.'  We live in an age where we are constantly hammered with information that all demands a response.  What is worse, the human mind is plastic enough to be molded and shaped by these images.  Cultures do this to humans by consistently telling us what is good and bad.  We develop our tastes as a result, and are often stunned when we encounter the odd beliefs and preferences of peoples from other cultures.

It is impossible to prevent these 'First Movements' without utterly cloistering ourselves, which is why monks ran off into the desert.  But, if a First Century man needed to flee into the desert to find peace and examine his passions, how much more do we?

What's more, can we really go from hours of being bombarded to a few minutes of silence and expect our minds to stop the dizzying pace we have set for ourselves?  A few people are discovering that knowing everything and doing everything might not be the best answer to the problem of happiness.  Modern thought has told us that knowledge leads to happiness.  That's wrong: knowledge usually leads to more unhappiness because you begin to see how much things are screwed up.

I will readily admit that I do not spend as much time in silence as I need to for my own health.  It takes ma great deal of work to slow my mind down to the point to where I can examine each thought.  We cannot even discern what thoughts come from the devil and which one's are our own if we do not cultivate the clarity and stillness necessary to carry out such tedious work.  That's why we repent of them all.

So, how do we deal with these 'First Movements'?  The answer from the Fathers: cut them off.  If you find your mind wandering into a bad place, then walk it to a better place.  You cannot stop thinking, but you can choose to think about something else.  You can develop a strategy by working out what you will think about when a particular thought enters your mind and starts to pluck the heart-strings of your passions.

If you fight the thought, you will think about it all the more.  Let is go and move to the better one.

This is a difficult practice, but it can help you cope with these 'First Movements' until God has healed your passions enough to remove the temptation.  Then the thought can enter, but will not trigger sinful contemplation.

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