During Holy Week, I picked up Kyriacos C. Markides’s The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality, which is where I first encountered the word. At one point, recounting a conversation with a monk from Mount Athos, he writes:
“Logismoi are much more intense than simple thoughts. They penetrate into the very depths of a human being. They have enormous power. Let us say,” Fr. Maximos went on to clarify, “that a simple thought is a weak logismos. We need to realize, however, that certain thoughts, or logismoi, once inside a human being, can undermine every trace of a spiritual life in its very foundation…
“Such persons who may be attacked by a perverted, or let us say a sinful logismos, are unable to realize that such a logismos does not necessarily emanate from within themselves, but is directed toward them from the outside. They feel guilty and begin what the late Paisios used to call the ‘the repetition of those whys.’ They become obsessive. Oversensitive persons become even more sensitive and blame themselves with all kinds of questions: ‘Why do I have such a thought, why?’”
The discussion of logismoi reminded me of the psychological phenomenon of intrusive thoughts or, in one particular case, what the French call l’appel du vide. Intrusive thoughts are the kind of image that just pops into your head and surprises and frightens you, regardless of whether you act on it. Think of things like the desire to yell a curse word during an exam or wondering what it would be like if you just hit someone, etc. L’appel du vide, or “the call of the abyss” is a particularly common one: the thought, when near a steep drop, “What if I jumped?”
If you haven’t heard of logismoi or intrusive thoughts or l’appel du vide, it’s easy to assume, when these thoughts come up, that they’re coming from you. You must be alone in having these bizarre temptations, and there must be a part of you that’s really suicidal or really does want to hurt someone or behave badly. And there’s an obvious sampling bias that reinforces that assumption; since people are unlikely to bring up their intrusive thoughts in conversation, it feels more and more like this condition is particular to you. This can lead to the unhealthy rumination that Fr. Maximos discusses.
(If I were to speculate as a non-specialist, I might guess that part of the reason for intrusive thoughts is your brain trying to be helpful. i.e. “Gosh it would be awful if I did X! I should bring it to the rest of the brain’s attention so we’ll be prepared if it happens for any reason!” I still tend to think of cognitive biases as your brain’s version of your cat bringing dead mice to you in bed, and looking very proud about how helpful it’s been.)
Learning that something is common enough to have a word, and, what’s more than that words that crop up independently in different cultures can be a help in knowing that every bad thought I have isn’t proof that there’s something uniquely wrong with me. And once you see that it’s a shared problem, you can turn to the traditions that named it, to see how they manage it. Of course, in my case, my preferred tradition is musical theatre (lots of bad language):
In the lyrics of that song are a helpful reframe that I like using,
Why is it that if some dude walked up to me on the subway platform and said these things, I’d think he was a mentally ill asshole, but if the vampire inside my head says it, It’s the voice of reason.
Or, more simply, if instead of thinking a logismos, you found it written down in, say, a fortune cookie, would it be compelling? Would it feel like it belonged to you?
Once you enforce a little distance you can bring the prayer practices that Fr. Maximos recommends to bear or go through the rituals of cognitive behavioral therapy or just enjoy the boggart-banishing effects of noticing what a ridiculous idea the temptation is once you take a clear look at it.
Today is the sixth day of the Divine Mercy novena.