Confronting Our Thoughts

Confronting Our Thoughts November 10, 2023

Home Thods: Praying On Mountain / flickr

We constantly having all kinds of odd thoughts going through our minds, some of which tempt us to act in ways contrary to what our conscience tells us to do, others which provide strange notions which we find little to no real substance to them and yet disturb us because of what they imply. Other thoughts might confuse us as to how or why we thought of them, but we don’t take as much notice of them because they are rather benign. Nonetheless, we might ask ourselves, where do they come from as they seem to come out of nowhere.

A major source of inspiration for our thoughts is our senses. What they apprehend they use to create thought-seeds in our minds, seeds which sometimes remain hidden for a long time before they sprout, while other times, we water them, as it were, with constant attention and reflection, helping them emerge much faster in our mind.

We also find that our minds are influenced by the thoughts by others. When we talk with and listen to what others have to say, even if we consciously examine what we are told and reject it, what they say still produces a thought-seed in our minds, a seed which might wither away, especially if we actively fight against it, but also a seed which can slowly develop and influence us, leading us to think on and even accept something which we first denied. We can see the truth of this when we consider how propaganda works; it often fights against our resistance, so that more we hear it, the more it places seeds in our minds, seeds which might eventually spread and create confusion if not a change of mind.

We have many sources for the seeding of thoughts into our minds. While we might be aware of some of them, we usually are not aware of them all, which is why our minds end up producing thoughts which surprise us. Many, if not most, of them are seeded into our minds through one sense or another. Even when they are given to us by others, they use the senses as a means to plant such thought-seeds. Many come to recognize this problem, and so they try to become mindful of their senses and find ways to control what is and is not planted into their minds. This is why many people go on solitary retreats. They hope to limit what is being seeded into their minds, and then, to pacify or calm their minds, to cast out as many of the seeds as possible while having little to no new seeds planted within. Most of us cannot do this, or at least, do it well. We either do not have the time, the means, or the skills needed to disengage our minds so us to stop such thoughts-seeds from being planted within. Even those who have gained sort of control over their minds and what is seeded into them tend to have a limited ability to do so, meaning, they might be able to eliminate some but not all of such external influences.

What is important for us to realize is how much our minds are being seeded from outside influences so we do not become surprised with what flows through our them. We should not be shocked by even the most disturbing of thoughts, thinking their presence in our minds indicates there is something wrong with ourselves. If we do not agree with them, if we do not do as they suggest us to do, we show the strength of our character and how we transcend those thoughts. Until the day we die, we will find such thoughts arising in our minds, and we must not let that confound us. We certainly should not think we can do what is impossible (at least, without grace), which is to make them stop entirely. Abba Poemen, understanding this, told a monk who came to him that he must accept that he will face such thoughts throughout his life:

 A brother came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘Aba, I have many thoughts and they put me in danger.’ The old man led him outside and said to him, ‘Expand your chest and do not breathe in.’ He said, “I cannot do that.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘If you cannot do that, no more can you prevent thoughts from arising, but you can resist them.’[1]

We should not let ourselves become disturbed by the thoughts which go through our minds. If they suggest us to do bad things, we do not have to listen to them. They do not have to be seen as representing who and what we are, or who and what it is we are making of ourselves. Just because we have some disturbing thought arise in our minds should not make us feel as if we are guilty of doing what it is the thought suggested. If we say no to them, if we resist them, if we don’t act upon them, we certainly are not.

We might figure out how some thoughts have been seeded into our minds, and that we have a way to stop them from being seeded again. If they are troubling us, we have a way to fight against them, not only by consciously denying them, but by denying them access to our minds. We will find that we can do this with some such seeds, but not all of them. Similarly, we must recognize not all thought-seeds are bad. Some are actually good, and instead of focusing on how to stop bad seeds from being seeded into our minds, we can focus on how to have such good seeds put in them instead. The more we engage what is good, true and beautiful in our words and in our conscious reflections, the more we will find we will produce the kinds of seeds which we want. While it is unlikely we will be able to do so to perfection, we can at least make things better.

We should strive for inner peace. We should strive to purify our thoughts. Whatever peace we find within should be a source and inspiration for our actions, so that we can then  make the world  a better place. But, as Abba Poemen also said, “‘Even if a man were to make a new heaven and earth, he could not live free of care.” [2] That is, even if we make a spiritual paradise within, we still find themselves tied to the world at large, a world which we cannot control, and so a world which will confront us and implant all kinds of seeds into our minds.  For, if a man or woman makes a new heaven or earth, it must be understood, we are talking about something of their own making, something which is perhaps touched by grace, but nonetheless, something which is a human construct and as such, is not the same thing as will be revealed in the eschatological kingdom of God. We cannot create utopia or perfect peace, either within the world, or within our minds. Nonetheless, we should do what we can to make things at least a little, if not a lot, better.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 171 [Saying of Abba Poemen #28].

[2] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 173 [Saying of Abba Poemen #48].


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