To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention and the standing before the invisible Lord, not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart. When the divine warmth comes, all this will be clear.
…When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by way of prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart. Placed by the creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals…. The intellectual faculty in man’s soul, though spiritual, dwells in the brain, that is to say in the head: in the same way, the spiritual faculty which we term the spirit of man, though spiritual, dwells in the upper part of the heart, close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.
It is certainly true that the heart’s native language is affectivity—perception through deep feelingness. But it may come as a shock to contemporary seekers to learn that the things we nowadays identify with the feeling life—passion, drama, intensity, compelling emotion—are qualities that in the ancient anatomical treatises were associated not with the heart but with the liver! They are signs of agitation and turbidity (an excess of bile!) rather than authentic feelingness. In fact, they are traditionally seen as the roadblocks to the authentic feeling life, the saboteurs that steal its energy and distort its true nature.
And so before we can even begin to unlock the wisdom of these ancient texts, we need to gently set aside our contemporary fascination with emotivity as the royal road to spiritual authenticity and return to the classic understanding from which these teachings emerge, which features the heart in a far more spacious and luminous role.
According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.
…Unanimously, the Christian wisdom tradition proclaims that the source of this lower-level noise is “the passions.” As the Philokalia repeatedly emphasizes, the problem with the passions is that they divide the heart.15 A heart that is divided, pulled this way and that by competing inner agendas, is like a wind-tossed sea: unable to reflect on its surface the clear image of the moon.
Here again is a teaching that tends to set contemporary people’s teeth on edge. I know this from personal experience, because the issue comes up at nearly every workshop I give. To our modern Western way of hearing, “passion” is a good thing: something akin to élan vital, the source of our aliveness and motivation. It is to be encouraged, not discouraged. At a recent workshop I led, a bishop approached me with some concern and explained that in his diocese, following the recommendations of a church consultant, he had managed to boost morale and productivity by significant percentages simply by encouraging his clergy “to follow their passions.”
Well-nigh universally today, the notion of “passionlessness” (a quality eagerly sought after in the ancient teachings of the desert fathers and mothers) equates to “emotionally brain dead.” If you take away passion, what is left?
So once again we have to begin with some decoding.
If you consult any English dictionary, you will discover that the word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer” (passio is the first-person singular). But this still doesn’t get us all the way, because the literal, now largely archaic, meaning of the verb “to suffer” (to “undergo or experience”) is literally to be acted upon. The chief operative here is the involuntary and mechanical aspect of the transaction. And according to the traditional wisdom teachings, it is precisely that involuntary and mechanical aspect of being “grabbed” that leads to suffering in the sense of how we use the term today. Thus, in the ancient insights on which this spiritual teaching rests, passion did not mean élan vital, energy, or aliveness. It designated being stuck, grabbed, and blindly reactive.
This original meaning is clearly uppermost in the powerful teaching of the fourth-century desert father Evagrius Ponticus. Sometimes credited with being the first spiritual psychologist in the Christian West, Evagrius developed a marvelously subtle teaching on the progressive nature of emotional entanglement, a teaching that would eventually bear fruit in the fully articulated doctrine of the seven deadly sins. His core realization was that when the first stirrings of what will eventually become full-fledged passionate outbursts appear on the screen of consciousness, they begin as “thoughts”—logismoi, in his words—streams of associative logic following well-conditioned inner tracks. At first they are merely that—“thought-loops,” mere flotsam on the endlessly moving river of the mind. But at some point a thought-loop will entrain with one’s sense of identity—an emotional value or point of view is suddenly at stake—and then one is hooked. A passion is born, and the emotions spew forth. Thomas Keating has marvelously repackaged this ancient teaching in his diagram of the life cycle of an emotion,16 a core part of his Centering Prayer teaching. This diagram makes clear that once the emotion is engaged, once that sense of “I” locks in, what follows is a full-scale emotional uproar—which then, as Father Keating points out, simply drives the syndrome deeper and deeper into the unconscious, where it becomes even more involuntary and mechanically triggered.
What breaks the syndrome? For Evagrius, liberation lies in an increasingly developed inner capacity to notice when a thought is beginning to take on emotional coloration and to nip it in the bud before it becomes a passion by dis-identifying or disengaging from it. This is the essence of the teaching that has held sway in our tradition for more than a thousand years.
Now, of course, there are various ways of going about this disengaging. Contemporary psychology has added the important qualifier that disengaging is not the same thing as repressing (which is simply sweeping the issue under the psychological rug) and has developed important methodologies for allowing people to become consciously present to and “own” the stew fermenting within them. But it must also be stated that “owning” does not automatically entail either “acting out” or verbally “expressing” that emotional uproar. Rather, the genius of the earlier tradition has been to insist that if one can merely back the identification out—that sense of “me,” stuck to a fixed frame of reference or value—then the energy being co-opted and squandered in useless emotional turmoil can be recaptured at a higher level to strengthen the intensity and clarity of heart perceptivity. Rather than fueling the “reactive ego-self,” the energy can be “rejoined to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” And that, essentially, constitutes the goal of purification—at least as it has been understood in service of conscious transformation.