Letter 50: The demons hiding in our thoughts

In Praktikos Evagrius explains: ‘There are eight general and basic categories of thoughts in which are included every thought. First is that of gluttony [greed], then impurity [lust], avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and last of all, pride.’ As we will see, all of these thoughts are caused by wounds to our ego in childhood and are overcompensations for the survival needs that were actually - or only in our perception - partially met or not met at all. (Acediais here the exception and we will meet him/her next week)

We saw Evagrius’ emphasis on ‘watching the thoughts’, to be mindful. He further gives practical advice to find out what our most important persistent thoughts, our primal wounds, are: ‘We must take care to note the different types of demons and take note of the circumstances of their coming. We shall know these from our thoughts. We ought to consider which of the demons are less frequent in their assaults, which are the more vexatious, which are the ones which yield the field more readily and which the more resistant.’ His true knowledge of the human mind and his attention to detail is very impressive. Evagrius and his contemporaries saw the main ‘thoughts’or ‘passions’that drive us as ‘gluttony’ [‘greed’] and ‘pride’.All the other‘thoughts’follow logically from these two. ‘Greed’is seen as an over-indulgence in the senses in general, so applies to food/drink, possessions and sex, hence ‘impurity’[lust]. That in turn leads to‘avarice’- you want to keep what you have – or to ‘sadness’- you do not have everything you would like. Then ‘anger’(and envy) arises towards those who have what you lack, or who try to take it away from you. Then in turn come ‘vainglory’and ‘pride’– you want to show off your possessions and achievements and claim all the credit for them, not allowing for ‘talents’ you have received as a gift from the Divine.

The connection between these ‘thoughts’and our‘survival needs’, especially those that are perceived as ‘unmet’is easy to see. The normal, ordinary acceptable need to have sufficient for survival becomes because of these unconscious ‘unmet needs’ an overwhelming drive, e.g. ‘greed’. Then possessing things and people will give us the illusionary sense of the love, pleasure, security, esteem, power and controlwe crave.

As its prime consideration is survival, the ego hijacks our whole being into self-centredness, as Maximus the Confessor, a few centuries later than Evagrius, formulated: ‘Whoever has philautia has all the passions’ - the Greek word ‘philautia’means self-love, self-centredness, ego-centricity. He too linked this with the survival instinct: ‘The cause of this deviation of the natural energies into destructive passions is the hidden fear of death’.

We do need a survival instinct; it is an integral and essential part of our nature. You have only to see a new-born baby cling with all its might to your finger, when you pretend to lift it just with one finger from its cot, to understand truly how strong this survival instinct is. This is basically what the function of the ego is to help us survive, hence its importance. But what we have to avoid is the ‘demonic’dominance of the ego driven by the need to over-compensate for the wounds caused by perceived or real‘unmet needs’. Then we are not free, but literally demonically possessed. Only awareness and understanding will free us from their domination.

Hence the importance of paying careful attention and prayer/meditation. This is exactly what Evagrius emphasizes, as we heard a few weeks ago: the way to confront and to identify our personal ‘demons/evil thoughts’is twofold: by prayer/meditation – leading to the inner silence necessary for being aware of the supporting spiritual powers within and their gift of insight into our behaviour - and by effort, by paying attention outside the actual time of prayer, in daily life, to our thoughts and actions. Both will then lead to self-knowledge and awareness. We can only combat these demons by bringing them from the unconscious into the light of consciousness, and we can only do this with the help of our ‘true’self, the Divine force of Light and Love within us. As long as they are unconscious forces we have no control over them. Just by making them conscious, by being aware of them and accepting them we rob them of their power.

Evagrius, like Freud, Jung and many other modern therapists considers insight as the crucial start of healing, by the fact of bringing unconscious material to the light of consciousness. The source of insight is our spiritual intuitive consciousness, linked to Divine consciousness, but our rational consciousness is then needed to clarify this insight. Thus the injunction we hear in the Philokalia:‘Collect your mind in your heart.’ But the ‘mind’ referred to has to be rational consciousness free of ego wounds that have become ‘passions’: “reason is the most valuable and the most specifically human power of man and yet is subject to the distorting effects of passions. Only the understanding of man’s passions can free his reason to function properly”, as Erich Fromm, a German psychologist and psychoanalyst of our times mentions in Psychoanalysis and Religion.

Kim Nataraja