Originally printed in the March-April 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Mitchell B., Liester. "Hesychasm: A Christian Path of Transcendence." Quest 89.2 MARCH-APRIL 2000): 54-59, 65.
By Mitchell B. Liester
An ancient mystical tradition was lost to the Western world nearly a thousand years ago. Now, at the dawn of the new millennium, this profound yet practical path of transcendence is being rediscovered. Its name is hesychasm, from a Greek root meaning "to be still."
Hesychasm's roots extend back almost two thousand years to the beginnings of the Christian church. Today much of what we know about this spiritual path has been gleaned from the writings of mystics who populated the Middle Eastern deserts in the fourth century. These early ascetics are known as the Desert Fathers.
In the eleventh century, the Christian church split into the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Catholicism rejected hesychasm, which encouraged individual experiences of the divine. As a result, hesychasm disappeared from Western culture but survived because the Orthodox church embraced and preserved this tradition of quiet meditation.
For the last millennium, hesychasm has remained shrouded in obscurity in the West. Why? One reason is that hesychastic texts preserved by the Orthodox Church were written in Greek or the languages of various eastern European countries. This made them inaccessible to most Westerners. Only recently have classics such as The Philokalia and The Ladder of Divine Ascent been translated into English. Another factor has been the cultural and political differences that separated Eastern Europe from the West. The fall of these barriers is permitting greater access to, and understanding of, this spiritual path.
Altered States of Consciousness
Practitioners of hesychasm, known as hesychasts, use Christian terminology to describe their experiences. If we permit ourselves the latitude of translating those descriptions into contemporary psychological terminology, we can glimpse the hesychast's inner world.
Hesychasts describe two types of consciousness: ego-centered and ego-transcendent. The former is a state dominated by attachments to the senses, emotions, intellect, and imagination. The latter involves detachment from those faculties.
The shift from ego-centered to ego-transcendent consciousness is called metanoia in Greek. The literal translation of this term is "transformation of the nous," but the English language contains no exact synonym for the word nous. Misleading translations are "intellect," "mind," or "reason." The nous bears no resemblance to the rational intellect (dianoia in Greek). Whereas the rational intellect uses deductive reasoning, the nous relies upon "immediate experience" or intuition. Therefore, the term metanoia is correctly understood as a shift from ego-centered to nous-centered, ego-transcendent, or, in hesychastic terminology, God-centered consciousness.
The ultimate goal for hesychasts is union with God (Greek theosis). Three steps are required to achieve this goal. The first is dispassion (Greek apatheia), which involves detachment from the senses and the emotions. The second is stillness (Greek hesychia), which requires detachment from the discursive intellect and the imagination. The final step is an abiding state of illumination called deification or perfect union with God (Greek theosis).
Hesychasts employ both physical and mental practices to achieve ego-transcendent consciousness. Although it is convenient to describe these practices separately, hesychasts view them as interwoven and inseparable.
Physical or "outer" practices are designed to help hesychasts detach from the senses and the passions. What are passions? They are intense emotions that attract and hold attention. The Desert Fathers referred to passions as "diseases of the soul" because they anchor us in ego-centered consciousness (Spidlik 268). Despite this characterization, passions are not considered bad. Rather they are viewed as neutral. Passions are "fallen" (bad) only when they are misdirected.
Hesychasts employ a number of outer practices. For example, novices are encouraged to "withdraw from the world." This practice involves both social isolation and detachment from the passions. Fasting may consist of either complete abstinence from food or moderation in eating. Moderation is considered preferable to extreme deprivation, for the latter is said to increase subsequent overindulgence. Prolonged periods of prayer in conjunction with sleep deprivation are known as vigils. The practice of prostrations involves repeatedly bending the knees and prostrating oneself on the floor. These are performed in order to prevent "distracting cares." The term silence, in the context of physical asceticism, refers to the avoidance of unnecessary talking. Hesychasts advocate limiting speech to a bare minimum rather than total muteness. Isaac the Syrian explained the purpose of silence as awakening the mind to God (Cavarnos, Paths 19).
Through the regular practice of such physical or outer techniques, hesychasts experience a state known as apatheia (dispassion or passionlessness). This state is necessary to maintain higher states of consciousness. Maximus the Confessor, a seventh century hesychast, explained (Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Early Fathers 297):
As a bird tied by the leg, when it starts to rise upwards is pulled back to earth by the string, so the mind which has not yet attained passionlessness, although rising to the knowledge of heavenly things, is pulled back to earth by the passions.
Despite its great importance, passionlessness is a means, not an end. Once attachments to the senses and passions are transcended, attachments to the intellect and imagination remain. Mental or inner practices are used to release those attachments.
Hesychasts utilize meditation and prayer to detach from their thoughts. The Greek word nipsis describes a state of focused attention in which the object of attention is the thoughts of the intellect. With time and practice, nipsis facilitates detachment from these thoughts.
Four levels of prayer are experienced by hesychasts: verbal prayer, mental prayer, prayer of the heart, and contemplation. Although these can be described as distinct types of prayer, hesychasts do not experience them that way. Instead, they are experienced as unfolding levels of prayer that occur during the spiritual journey.
Verbal prayer (or physical prayer) consists of reading, chanting, or reciting psalms. This form of prayer is sometimes used by hesychasts when they have difficulty sustaining mental prayer. Mental prayer involves speaking words inwardly with the mind, rather that outwardly with the voice. The most common form of mental prayer is the "Jesus Prayer," which has been described by Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain as follows (Cavarnos, Paths 28):
A person placing his mind within the heart and, without speaking with his mouth, but only with inner words spoken in the heart, [says] this brief and single prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."
The Jesus Prayer is not exclusively a mental prayer. It can be spoken aloud or inwardly with the mind, and can also emanate from the heart.
Various psycho-physiological techniques are associated with the Jesus Prayer. Some monks use a prayer-rope to count recitations of the prayer. Others link this prayer to the breath, heartbeat, prostrations, or thoughts of death.
The third level of prayer, known as pure prayer or prayer of the heart, is said to evolve out of mental prayer. Prayer of the heart has been described as follows (Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings 156â€“7):
The mind should be in the heartâ€”a distinctive feature of the third method of prayer. It should guard the heart while it prays, revolve, remaining always within, and thence, from the depths of the heart, offer up prayers to God.
The final stage of the hesychastic journey is called theoria or contemplation. This stage involves the cessation of all mental activity, at which point one is able to "see God in everything" (Spidlik 327).
Experiences Associated with Hesychastic Practices
On the path to union with God, hesychasts may encounter extraordinary experiences. These are not viewed as byproducts of spiritual practice, as our Western minds might interpret them. Instead, they are attributed directly to God. These experiences include: hesychia, spiritual gifts, divine light, and agape or love.
Hesychia is a state of detached awareness experienced during regular spiritual practice. Hesychia is not merely a phenomenon of the intellect. Instead, it involves detachment from the egoâ€™s faculties (the senses, emotions, imagination, and intellect). It is "a state of inner tranquility or mental quietude and concentration" (Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware 1:365).
Spiritual gifts are said to originate directly from God, yet hesychasts generally distrust these gifts because they are viewed as distractions on the spiritual journey. Saint Paul (1 Cor. 12.4) described nine spiritual gifts, which Kelsey condensed into five categories: healing and miracles, gifts of proclamation, revelations, discernment of spirits, and wisdom or spiritual knowledge.
Hesychastic writers give sparse attention to the gift of healing, a term that refers to the ability to cure diseases. Their writings clearly state, however, that miracles and healings are gifts, not accomplishments. This distinction highlights the fact that miracles are viewed as resulting from the divine acting through the individual, rather than as an accomplishment of the individual.
The gift of proclamation is more commonly known as prophesy. Contemporary use of this term implies a foretelling of the future, but originally this term had a different meaning. The term prophesy described the transmission of information from ego-transcendent consciousness (a revelation of the Holy Spirit), regardless of whether it related to the present, past, or future.
Today, revelation is often misunderstood as well. This confusion can be attributed to our inability to discriminate between related phenomena. Nikitas Stithatos described revelation as a form of trans-sensory awareness that occurs "when the purified and illumined soul is able to contemplate in a way that transcends normal sense-perception" (Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware 4:124). Revelation is different from sensory or intellectual knowledge.
Diakresis or discernment of spirits is the ability to discriminate between different types of thoughts. More specifically, it refers to the ability to distinguish between thoughts originating from the ego and thoughts originating from ego-transcendent consciousness. It is "a kind of eye or lantern of the soul by which man finds his way along the spiritual path without falling into extremes" (Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware 4:429).
Knowledge obtained by the nous is different from knowledge obtained by the ego. The former is referred to as spiritual knowledge (Greek gnosis), whereas the latter is called natural knowledge or theoretical knowledge. Gnosis is nondualistic or intuitive, whereas sensory and intellectual knowledge are dualistic. Maximos the Confessor explained: "Spiritual knowledge unites knower and known, while (natural knowledge) is always a cause of change and self-division" (Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware 2:282).
Divine Light is an inner light described as "spiritual" or "divine" and "the light of the spirit" (Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware 2:39, 280; 3:43). This divine light can be seen with the eyes of the body, the eye of the soul (the nous), or both. Accounts of this light do not reflect an intellectual experience of light, nor are they metaphorical. Instead they describe a direct experience of a suprasensible light which provides knowledge that transcends time, space, and reason.
Agape or spiritual love is the final gift of the spirit. Agape has been described as theocentric as opposed to egocentric love (Sorokin 5). Maximus the Confessor described agape as "that good disposition of the soul in which it prefers nothing that exists to knowledge of God" (Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Early Fathers 287).
Progress on the hesychastic path is associated with increasing degrees of agape and decreasing levels of fear. Eventually, fear is completely transcended as it is replaced by what Diadochos of Photiki referred to as "perfect love" (Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware 1:257).
Pitfalls Along the Path
The hesychastic path, like other spiritual journeys, is fraught with pitfalls. These range from relatively minor impediments to serious, life-threatening dangers. Three categories of pitfalls exist, although hesychasts do not group them in this way: early pitfalls, late pitfalls, and pitfalls resulting from interactions with others.
Early pitfalls occur when ego detachment is incomplete. Beginning hesychasts must overcome myriad attachments, so incomplete or partial detachment frequently occurs. For example, hesychasts can detach from thoughts, but not passions. Maximus explained (Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Early Fathers 329):
It is one thing to be freed from thoughts and another to be freed from passions. Men are often freed from thoughts when the objects of their passion are not before their eyes. Yet the passions meanwhile lie concealed in the soul and manifest themselves when the objects appear.
Another pitfall is distraction by mental images. This can lead to discouragement and despair. Ego suppression, which differs from ego transcendence, is yet another danger. Hesychasts strive to transfigure or "deify" their egos rather than suppress them.
Late Pitfalls follow some degrees of ego detachment. For example, travel beyond the limits of the ego can be a frightening experience, particularly if one is ill prepared. From the perspective of the ego, inner silence feels like death. Thus, the preparation that precedes ego detachment can influence whether this journey is a terrifying gauntlet into psychosis or an enduring state of transcendence. For this reason, hesychasts advise that the spiritual journey not be undertaken lightly. Symeon the New Theologian warned: "Some have become totally possessed, and in their madness wander from place to place. . . . Some of them have committed suicide" (Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings 153).
Misconstruing transitory experiences of transcendence for an abiding state of transcendence is another danger. This results in a condition termed laziness. Laziness occurs when an individual experiences ego transcendence, but does not work to maintain ego-detachment.
Ego-inflation is another problem. When the rewards of transcendence (or the Grace of God) are mistakenly viewed as accomplishments of the ego, ego-inflation results. Maximus the Confessor warned: "Knowledge is usually followed by conceit and envy, especially in the beginning" (Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Early Fathers 340).
Attachment to spiritual gifts or mystical phenomena is another obstacle. Hesychastic writers teach that such phenomena distract from the ultimate goal of union with god. Therefore, they do not view spiritual gifts as goals to be attained.
Attempts to understand ego-transcendent realms by the rational intellect invariably fail. The ego is incapable of understanding spiritual knowledge. Therefore, attempts at rational depictions of spiritual realms result in incomplete or distorted information.
Pitfalls associated with encountering others who have not yet experienced ego transcendence is the last category. Such encounters can result in criticism, judgment, or even condemnation. Symeon the New Theologian warned: "Those taught by God will be regarded as fools by the disciples of such as are wise in the wisdom of this world" (Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware 4:47).
Contemporary Christian Contemplative Practices
Today the largest community of individuals who follow the classic hesychastic tradition is found on a Greek peninsula known as Mount Athos. This community consists of about two thousand monks of Greek, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Rumanian decent who live in twenty monasteries scattered about the peninsula. The oldest of these monasteries dates back to the tenth century.
Certain restrictions are maintained on Mount Athos. For example, no automobiles, carts, children, dogs, or musical instruments are allowed (Cavarnos, Anchored in God). Also, no women are permitted to visit (Cavarnos, Holy Mountain).
The hesychastic tradition is now surfacing within the Catholic church. In 1975, Father William Menninger developed the practice of centering prayer, which has been described as "A method of refining oneâ€™s intuitive faculties so that one can enter more easily into contemplative prayer" (Keating, Open Mind 34; Keating, Invitation 1). It involves the repetition of a sacred word, which facilitates inner silence. Keating (Open Mind 40) likens this process to the emptying out of a bathtub:
Emptying the mind of its customary routines of thinking is a process that we can only initiate, like taking the stopper out of a bathtub. The water goes down by itself. You don't have to push the water out of the tub. You simply allow it to run out. You are doing something similar in this prayer. Allow your ordinary train of thoughts to flow out of you.
Hesychasm is an ancient mystical tradition that offers time-proven methods for detaching from the ego and experiencing transcendent states of consciousness. This tradition is not limited to reclusive monks. Anyone can be a hesychastic. The divine Chrysostom wrote (Cavarnos, Paths 44â€“5):
Even a man living within a city can imitate the life of monks. Indeed, even a man who has a wife, and who is occupied with the demands of his household, can pray, fast, and learn contrition. . . . Let us cultivate self-mastery and all of the other virtues, and let us bring into our cities the way of life which is sought in the deserts.
One of the unfortunate occurrences regarding the hesychastic tradition has been the mistranslation of ancient Greek terms by individuals who clearly had not themselves experienced transcendent states of consciousness. For example the Greek word hamartia means "to miss the mark." Hesychasts used this word to refer to the state in which one remains attached to the passions. Contemporary versions of the Bible translate hamartia as "sin," which implies a malevolent action deserving punishment. Similarly, the term metanoia, which refers to a shift from ego-centered to trans-egoic consciousness, is translated as "repentance," a term with profoundly different connotations.
Studying the words the hesychasts use to describe their tradition makes it apparent that much of our contemporary Christian terminology has been mistranslated. In this process, the original mystical meanings have been lost. In their place we discover the fingerprints of the Biblical translatorâ€™s egos and their dualistic judgments (good/bad, right/wrong, etc.), which have left an indelible mark on much of contemporary Christianity, particularly fundamentalist branches, which lean toward literal interpretations of the English Bible. Journeying back to the early Christian writings of the hesychasts, we encounter a much kinder and gentler Christianity. We discover a tradition that provides a rich body of instructions for transcending the ego.
What happens when the Prayer of the Heart is repeated? A shift in consciousness occursâ€”a shift to a deep abiding peaceâ€”a stillness of mind that transcends everyday consciousness. A wellspring is opened from which another mode of being flows. In this state, trans-rational knowledge is acquired. This is the realm of intuition, revelation, and prophecy. This is the realm of ineffable experiences for which metaphors offer only approximate glimpses. This is the realm in which time and space are transcended. This is the realm of inner silence, which is available to each and every one of us, if only we are willing to listen.
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- Keating, Thomas. Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation. New York: Continuum, 1995.
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Palmer, Gerald Eustace, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, trans. The Philokalia. 4 vols. London: Faber and Faber, 1983â€“95.
Sorokin, Pitirim. The Ways and Power of Love: Types, Factors, and Techniques of Moral Transformation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1954.
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Mitchell B. Liester, MD, is a psychiatrist in Monument, Colorado. His articles have appeared previously in the Quest, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and Journal of Near-Death Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.