Meditation as a road to self-knowledge

According to Evagrius the way to identify our personal ‘demons’ is twofold: by prayer/meditation and by effort to arrive at self-knowledge and awareness.
Windy road

According to Evagrius the way to identify our personal ‘demons’ is twofold: by prayer/meditation and by effort to arrive at self-knowledge and awareness. An important role here is played by ‘watching the thoughts’: “If there is any monk [human being] who wishes to take the measure of some of the more fierce demons….., then let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. ..Let him note well the complexity of his thoughts,…..the demons which cause them. Then let him ask from Christ the explanation of the data he has observed.”                                                                                                             

Thoughts in general are of course not bad in themselves. Only when a thought or desire resonates strongly with a negative thought pattern, does normal emotional energy becoming ‘demonic’ and we are then driven to unwholesome action. We need to pay these significant thoughts and their associations the attention they deserve. They are the only indicators we have of what really motivates us for good or for ill. But his last sentence is the important one. We can’t reach understanding and find healing on our own. No rational explanations are sufficient. It is only the guidance of the risen Christ within that helps us come to awareness and insight. 

In this context there are two ways of prayer: deep, silent prayer and discursive prayer. The risen Christ gives us the initial, needed insight in the silence of pure prayer. He then guides us as we take this insight further at other times in discursive prayer. This is the process Evagrius describes as ‘watching the thoughts’, a process very similar to what is called nowadays ‘mindfulness’. We start with the recurrent thoughts going through our mind, becoming aware of the connections and associations between them. Then we need to take one step back to the feeling that underlies the thought. Feelings are thoughts felt in our body before we give them shape in words. The problem is that we are conditioned to ignore our feelings because of their seemingly irrational nature. They are, however, the first indication that we have, that there is something stirring in our unconscious depth. We need therefore to become aware and acknowledge our feelings rather than suppress them. Often according to Evagrius a sensation of some sort: a sound, the way the light falls, and especially a taste or smell evokes the feeling. Linked with this feeling is a strong emotion coming from conditioned memories. Our ‘demons’ wake up: Do I feel unloved? Insecure? Undervalued? Powerless? Recognizing these ‘demons’, acknowledging their strong influence over our motivation and behaviour, will alter our automatic reflex actions and remove blocks on our spiritual path. But Evagrius stresses that this is only possible with Christ’s help and by contemplation.

This is the step we all need to take – from meditation as relaxation leading to a sense of peace to meditation as the road towards self-knowledge and thence knowledge of God: “By meditation I mean not just the work of pure prayer but the whole life-field of self-knowledge which it drives.” (Laurence Freeman ‘Jesus, the Teacher Within)

Image by Frank Winkler from Pixabay

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