Prayer & Worship Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer

Roosh

Cardinal
Orthodox
Hesychasm, as I understand it, is a form of deep inner prayer, or prayer of the heart.
Hesychasm is a mystical tradition of prayer in the Orthodox Church. It is described in great detail in the Philokalia, a compilation of what various saints wrote about prayer and the spiritual life.

Hesychasm may involve specific body postures, and may be accompanied by deliberate breathing exercises. It involves acquiring an "inner stillness," ignoring the senses. The hesychasts interpreted Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "go into your closet to pray" to mean that they should move beyond the senses and withdraw inwards to pray. Hesychasm often includes repeating the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me [a sinner]".

St. Theophan the Recluse once related that body postures and breathing techniques were virtually forbidden in his youth, since, instead of gaining the Spirit of God, people succeeded only "in ruining their lungs."

Hesychasm was defended theologically by Gregory Palamas at about three separate "Hesychast Synods" in Constantinople from 1341 to 1351. St. Gregory was asked to by his fellow monks on Mt. Athos to defend it from the attacks of Barlaam of Calabria, who advocated a more intellectualist approach to prayer.
From my observation, the Greeks seem more into it than the Russians. Have you tried it? What introductory resources have you used? Here's one book I read that touches on it:
 

MichaelWitcoff

Ostrich
Orthodox
I am currently practicing it under the spiritual supervision of my priest, with guidance and advice from the abbot of a monastery. I do not recommend anyone try it off on their own without the boundaries laid down by spiritual elders, as it is very easy to cause spiritual harm to oneself with these sorts of things. I started doing it during my reading of the first Triad, "In Defense Of The Holy Hesychasts," by St. Gregory Palamas as a defense against the Barlaamites. In it you will find the basics of the practice, outlined vaguely without specific instruction, but which generally involves control of the attention. It is also necessary to understand Orthodox anthropology, or what "parts" a human being consists of, in order to understand what it means to withdraw the attention away from the senses and into the "nous" or spiritual organ.

Basically, the nous is the part of the human psyche that observes. It is like a flashlight that brings attention to whatever it is "pointed" at. The stillness described by the hesychasts, of which I have had only very minor and short-lived experiences, results from withdrawing the nous's "flashlight" from sensory data and then also from thoughts, feelings, imaginations, etc. It is the part of the psyche that observes not just sensory data but also the other parts of the psyche. The stillness results from the total cessation of mental and sensory awareness, and certain breathing techniques or body postures were occasionally found to be helpful to the hesychast monks (but not always).

I am currently reading "The Art Of Prayer," by Igumen Chariton, as recommended to me by the abbot I spoke with about all this (though I'd purchased it before our conversation since it already struck me as something to pay attention to). Anyone who looks into this stuff should keep in mind that doing it outside of the Orthodox Church is more likely to harm than help, and even those within the Church would be wise to do it under obedience and instruction. It is very easy for the Devil to use false mystical experiences to lead people into prelest (spiritual delusion), to such a degree that we are taught not to trust any mystical experience without bringing to our spiritual father and examining it under his wisdom and maturity.

I would start with the first Triad, if you are curious, as there is a lot more to it than just a discussion of hesychasm and there is a ton of spiritual treasure in the book.
 

Armenian Nationalist

Chicken
Orthodox
@MichaelWitcoff

Michael, Before coming to Orthodoxy, advaita vedanta practice as taught by Raman Maharshi was what I engaged in as "spiritual" practice. The main teaching is to turn our awareness away from the senses, thoughts, body etc. and turn it 180 degrees inward onto itself. Described as "awareness watching awareness". Likened to state of sleepless sleep, in that there are no objects but only the pure light of awareness, which is experienced as bliss/peace/joy.

I once went so deep into this state, that my breath was still and I was approaching absolute mental silence, awareness of body was gone. Then I felt myself basically disappearing, and it terrified me because I can only describe it as death of self, which the Advaitists say is just the ego dying and what remains after is permanent pure awareness and that this feeling of death is the final hurdle (sounds demonic in retrospect). But that "dying" feeling caused my mind to start to move again, thinking "what is happening to me" and "what will happen to my family" etc. The breath picked up again and awareness of the body returned, which was now extremely hot, sweaty and almost trembling for a short period.

My question is, how would you compare the end goal of the advaitists (ego death, a state of pure awareness with no thought) to the goal of hesychasm? I can still access that stillness and it does provide a deep peace and joy, and I plan on asking my spiritual father this too, just want to get your take on it. As I can't help but see the similarities in the description of the practice. Thank you
 
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MichaelWitcoff

Ostrich
Orthodox
@MichaelWitcoff

Michael, Before coming to Orthodoxy, advaita vedanta practice as taught by Raman Maharshi was what I engaged in as "spiritual" practice. The main teaching is to turn our awareness away from the senses, thoughts, body etc. and turn it 180 degrees inward onto itself. Described as "awareness watching awareness". Likened to state of sleepless sleep, in that there are no objects but only the pure light of awareness, which is experienced as bliss/peace/joy.

I once went so deep into this state, that my breath was still and I was approaching absolute mental silence, awareness of body was gone. Then I felt myself basically disappearing, and it terrified me because I can only describe it as death of self, which the Advaitists say is just the ego dying and what remains after is permanent pure awareness and that this feeling of death is the final hurdle (sounds demonic in retrospect). But that "dying" feeling caused my mind to start to move again, thinking "what is happening to me" and "what will happen to my family" etc. The breath picked up again and awareness of the body returned, which was now extremely hot, sweaty and almost trembling for a short period.

My question is, how would you compare the end goal of the advaitists (ego death, a state of pure awareness with no thought) to the goal of hesychasm? I can still access that stillness and it does provide a deep peace and joy, and I plan on asking my spiritual father this too, just want to get your take on it. As I can't help but see the similarities in the description of the practice. Thank you
There are some similarities between hesychasm and non-Christian eastern mystical practices, but they tend to be relatively superficial in light of the source of the practice, the purpose of the practice, and the intended end for the practitioner. For example, we are not trying to experience “ego death” or anything of the sort in which the personality is dissipated into some kind of ocean of impersonal “source energy.”

Instead, we are seeking to transfigure our personhood - fully intact, and in a certain sense actually more intact - by way of creating a place in our hearts in which a personal God can dwell. For us the stillness is not the goal, but rather a method and a necessary state of being in which we can receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. There is no fear or negative emotion involved, aside perhaps from Godly contrition at our sins, and in my extremely limited experience there is no sense of “losing oneself.”

If we empty our mind of thoughts and imagery, it is only to fill that mind with God instead; we are creating a blank tablet so that God can impress it with His designs instead of our own. All this revolves around two fundamental tenets that are absent from non-Christian mysticism: a personal God who loves us, and the fact that we are created in His image and likeness. Without those tenets it would simply become some kind of transcendental meditation with the outcome of less anxiety; instead, our withdrawing from sensory experience is a way of supplicating to God and trying to live out what He commands us in the Bible: “Be still and know that I am God.”

I wish I were advanced enough in this to give you a more thorough answer. By God’s grace perhaps someday I will be, but for now I hope this helps explain the difference to whatever tiny capacity I am able to understand and communicate it.
 
“We do not come to God with bodily steps, but with those of the mind, the first of which is faith.” —St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Jn 6, lect. 4.

Yoga-like breathing techniques are not the way, Orthos.


Felix Koneczny on the anti-Christian roots of Hesychasm and Bogomilism…
Source: The Byzantine Civilization (vol. 2), Feliks Koneczny, pp. 336-9.
 
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DanielH

Pelican
Orthodox
“We do not come to God with bodily steps, but with those of the mind, the first of which is faith.” —St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Jn 6, lect. 4.

Yoga-like breathing techniques are not the way, Orthos.


Felix Koneczny on the anti-Christian roots of Hesychasm and Bogomilism…
Source: The Byzantine Civilization (vol. 2), Feliks Koneczny, pp. 336-9.
This is such a poor argument that I say the same about Catholics genuflecting "we don't come to God with bodily steps," but that would be a ridiculous and uncharitable comparison.
 

Hermetic Seal

Kingfisher
Orthodox
Gold Member
“We do not come to God with bodily steps, but with those of the mind, the first of which is faith.” —St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Jn 6, lect. 4.

Yoga-like breathing techniques are not the way, Orthos.


Felix Koneczny on the anti-Christian roots of Hesychasm and Bogomilism…
Source: The Byzantine Civilization (vol. 2), Feliks Koneczny, pp. 336-9.

Oh man, THE Felix Koneczny? No way!

The burden of proof is on you to explain why I should care about some random name-drop on a crappy-formatted blog with photos from some book that they couldn't even be bothered to transcribe into the post.

They're not sending their best, folks.
 

josemiguel

Chicken
Orthodox
I am currently practicing it under the spiritual supervision of my priest, with guidance and advice from the abbot of a monastery. I do not recommend anyone try it off on their own without the boundaries laid down by spiritual elders, as it is very easy to cause spiritual harm to oneself with these sorts of things. I started doing it during my reading of the first Triad, "In Defense Of The Holy Hesychasts," by St. Gregory Palamas as a defense against the Barlaamites. In it you will find the basics of the practice, outlined vaguely without specific instruction, but which generally involves control of the attention. It is also necessary to understand Orthodox anthropology, or what "parts" a human being consists of, in order to understand what it means to withdraw the attention away from the senses and into the "nous" or spiritual organ.

Basically, the nous is the part of the human psyche that observes. It is like a flashlight that brings attention to whatever it is "pointed" at. The stillness described by the hesychasts, of which I have had only very minor and short-lived experiences, results from withdrawing the nous's "flashlight" from sensory data and then also from thoughts, feelings, imaginations, etc. It is the part of the psyche that observes not just sensory data but also the other parts of the psyche. The stillness results from the total cessation of mental and sensory awareness, and certain breathing techniques or body postures were occasionally found to be helpful to the hesychast monks (but not always).

I am currently reading "The Art Of Prayer," by Igumen Chariton, as recommended to me by the abbot I spoke with about all this (though I'd purchased it before our conversation since it already struck me as something to pay attention to). Anyone who looks into this stuff should keep in mind that doing it outside of the Orthodox Church is more likely to harm than help, and even those within the Church would be wise to do it under obedience and instruction. It is very easy for the Devil to use false mystical experiences to lead people into prelest (spiritual delusion), to such a degree that we are taught not to trust any mystical experience without bringing to our spiritual father and examining it under his wisdom and maturity.

I would start with the first Triad, if you are curious, as there is a lot more to it than just a discussion of hesychasm and there is a ton of spiritual treasure in the book.
Hi Michael, interest in Hesychasm and the Jesus prayer is what got me to go to an Orthodox Parish the first time 4 years ago. How long have you been doing it, and was it difficult finding a priest and a monastic that could "coach" you?
 

Lawrence87

Chicken
Orthodox
Having been into Buddhism and stuff, I feel as though I have some degree of understanding of the difference between something like a mantra and the Jesus Prayer.

The fundamental difference is that in Buddhism there is a paradox at its core. One is required to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps. The goal of Buddhism is the realisation of egolessness but this is achieved by an exertion of self will, which is fundamentally paradoxical, and therefore probably the only result is extreme prelest, and the demonic illusion of "enlightenment".

The Jesus Prayer or the other hand disregards self will and places oneself entirely in the hands of Christ. If there is success in the prayer it is through His grace. There is none of the paradox that lies at the heart of using a mantra. Mantra tends to be done with the aim of inducing a trace, a state wherein the demons can easily lead you on the road to prelest, which is then further enforced by the idea 'wow I'm really good at this, soon I will be so good that I'll be able to annihilate my ego'. There is no such pride and self will at the heart of the Jesus Prayer, it is the surrender of those things.

Edit: I should add of course that egolessness is not the goal of the Jesus Prayer. There is a big difference between the egolessness of Buddhism and the humility of Christianity but that's probably another topic for another day
 
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