Surgeon General’s Warning
This and two other works were written when I was half-drunk with Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.
There is much that is true and Orthodox in that title, and there is something to its core point, but it is the most occultic book, with strange and awesome powers given to half-conscious thoughts, that I’ve seen yet. This post is retained for archival purposes but it is not particularly recommended as the author does not particularly recommend the book that furnished its inspiration.
An intriguing book… found in questionable quarters
I have found a watershed moment after a friend gave me a copy of Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. I don’t know that everybody will have a watershed moment; perhaps others will understand its central point much more naturally than I do. But I am very grateful to be given the book.
Before going further, and talking about “work-mysticism”, there are some hesitancies I would like to mention. And I really don’t know how to say this with due kindness and courtesy to fans of Fr. Seraphim (Rose), including one dearly loved member of my parish.
Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives bears the “warning label” of the St. Herman of Alaska brotherhood Fr. Seraphim started. Let me blandly state that I have associated Fr. Seraphim’s following with some harassment, and it has resonated with others when I’ve said Fr. Seraphim’s following “tastes like Kool-Aid.” Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, like other titles from that movement, is exotic to the Western reader, really too exotic, almost as if works were chosen on unconscious, tacit criteria that included appearing sufficiently exotic to a certain kind of Western convert, and bears the mark of a rebellion against the common things of the West, where a more Orthodox response would be to be alienated from Western things without expending the energy to constantly fight it. It is also characteristic, though not universal, to read texts associated with Fr. Seraphim and get the feeling of a magic spell falling over me: after praying and being comfortable with the decision I read the “Nine Enneads” of Christ the Eternal Tao, but not more; my conscience felt almost like an instruction to “take two stiff drinks and stop cold.”
One person who commented to me over email knew quite specifically that I was a member of ROCOR (quite probably the one Orthodox jurisdiction with the most nostalgia for nineteenth-century Russia), and tried to specifically make the point that nineteenth century Russia was no golden age. That much was not news to me; the priest who received me into the Church repeatedly emphasized, “There was never a golden age.” He didn’t mention nineteenth century Russia so much, but he talked about the Age of the Councils as being an Age when Ecumenical Councils were called because of how truly bad the problems and heresies were. But the other correspondent argued to me that nineteenth century Russia was a “Gnostic wonderland,” with something for every idle curiosity, and in his opinion the worst century in Orthodox history, and this is a problem for Fr. Seraphim because Fr. Seraphim got his bearings in Orthodoxy primarily from nineteenth century Russia. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives tells of an elder who answered questions by speaking out of the Philokalia. I’ve read the Philokalia more than once, and the ascetical homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, and the Bible many times more, and everything that is interesting about Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is something I have never picked up even a little fromthe Bible, St. Isaac, and the Philokalia. Perhaps I haven’t read them enough, or grown enough, or something else enough, but I have not been able to pull a hint of Elder Thaddeus’s main points in any of the older classics mentioned.
With all that stated, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is a pearl.
Perhaps one place to begin is to challenge the simplified psychology of “I have my thoughts going on in my head and you have your thoughts going on in your head.” Someone who knows a bit of actual psychology may recognize something contagious about emotion, but let’s wave this aside: psychology is basically about your self-contained mind.
Not so, according to Elder Thaddeus and the Orthodox Tradition. What the West speaks of today as “the seven deadly sins” was originally known as “the eight demons,” demons who tempt us with particular temptations. A great deal of what we today classify as psychology has to do with the activity of demons intruding on our thoughts and experiences. Destructive thoughts may be something we make our own: but they are not our own, not from the beginning. They are stings where demons inject venom into our hearts. Now we do have a say in whether the injection succeeds: God help us if we had no defense or no say in the matter! The Philokalia works at length on the science of spiritual struggle and how “a stitch in time saves nine.” To quote the rather technical definition of “temptation” in the English glossary to the Philokalia:
Temptation (πειρασμος — peirasmos): also translated in our version as ‘trial’ or ‘test’. The word indicates, according to context: (i) a test or trial sent to man by God, so as to aid his progress on the spiritual way; (ii) a suggestion from the devil, enticing man to sin.
Using the word in sense (ii), the Greek Fathers employ a series of technical terms to describe the process of temptation. (See in particular Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, 138-41, in vol. i of our translation, pp. 119-2-; John Klimakos, Ladder, Step 15, translated by Archimandrite Lazarus [op.cit., pp. 157-9; Maximos, On Love, i, 83-84, in vol. ii of our translation, pp. 62-63; John of Damaskos, On the Virtues and vices, also in vol. ii of out translation, pp. 337-8.) The basic distinction made by these fathers is between the demonic provocation and man’s assent: the first lies outside of man’s control, while for the second he is morally responsible. In detail, the chief terms employed are as follows:
(i) Provocation (προβολη — proslovi): the initial incitement to evil. Mark the Ascetic defines this as an ‘image-free stimulation in the heart’; so long as the provocation is not accompanied by images, it does not involve man in any guilt. Such provocations, originating as the devil, assail man from the outside, and so he is not morally responsible for them. His liability to these provocations is not a consequence of the fall: even in paradise, Mark maintains, Adam was assailed by the devil’s provocations. Man cannot prevent provocations from occurring; what does lie in his power, however, is to maintain constant watchfulness (q.v.) and so reject each provocation as soon as it emerges into his consciousness — that is to say, at its first appearance as a thought in his mind or intellect (μονολογιστος εμφασις — monologistos emphasis). If he does reject the provocation, the sequence is cut off and the process of temptation is terminated.
(ii) Momentary disturbance (παραρριπισμος — pararripismos) of the intellect, occurring ‘without any movement or working of bodily passion’ (see Mark, Letter to Nicholas the Solitary: in out translation, vol. i, p. 153). This seems to be more than the ‘first appearance’ of a provocation described in stage (i) above; for, at a certain point of spiritual growth in this life, it is possible to be totally released from such ‘momentary disturbance’, whereas no one can expect to be altogether free from demonic provocations.
(iii) Communion (ομιλια — homilia); coupling (συνδυασμος — syndyasmos). Without as yet entirely assenting to the demonic provocation, a man may begin to ‘entertain’ it, to converse or parley with it, turning it over in his mind pleasurably, yet still hesitating whether or not to act upon it. At this stage, which is indicated by the terms ‘communion’ or ‘coupling’, the provocation is no longer ‘image-free’ but has become a logismos or thought (q.v.) and man is morally responsible for having allowed this to happen.
(iv) Assent (συγκαταθεσις — synkatathesis). This signifies a step beyond mere ‘communion’ or ‘coupling’. No longer merely ‘playing’ with the evil suggestion, a man now resolves to act on it. There is now no doubt as to his moral culpability: even if circumstances prevent him from sinning outwardly, he is judged by God according to the intention in his heart.
(v) Prepossession (προληψις — prolipsis): defined by Mark as ‘the involuntary presence of former sins in the memory’. This state of ‘prepossession’ or prejudice results from repeated acts of sin which predispose a man to yield to particular temptations. In principle he retains his free choice and can reject demonic provocations; but in practice the force of habit makes it more and more difficult for him to resist.
(vi) Passion (q.v.). If a man does not fight strenuously against a prepossession, it will develop into an evil passion.
To put the same in nontechnical language, if there is a smouldering spark where it doesn’t belong, put it out as soon as you can. If you don’t, and its smouldering set an armchair on fire, drop everything and use use a fire extinguisher as soon as you can. If you let the fire spread to your whole house, call the fire department as soon as you can: there is a divine Fire Chief Who mightily rescued St. Mary of Egypt. However, the best portion by far is to be attentive and do whatever it takes to snuff out sparks when they’re still only sparks.
Mysticism that relates quite directly to work
“Save yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved.”
“Make peace with yourself, and Heaven and earth will make peace with you.”
These words are tantalizing, and Elder Thaddeus’s contribution in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives may be to offer a big picture of a world in which our thoughts matter, and not simply for us. A great deal of human misery stems from our needlessly warring against others in our thoughts.
Before digging further into workplace applications, I would orient things with a vignette of Elder Thaddeus’s biography:
In 1978 Fr. Thaddeus told G., one of his spiritual daughters, of another [rare] vision he had seen in a dream. “I had barely fallen asleep when I dreamt that I had died. Two young men led me into a room and had me stand on some sort of platform between them. To my right were the judges. Someone in the far left corner of the room was reading the charges against me. ‘That’s him! That’s the one who cannot get along with anyone!’ I stood there dumbfounded. The voice repeated the same accusation two more times. Then the young man standing on my right hand said to me, ‘Do not be afraid! It is not true that you cannot get along with anyone. You just cannot get along with yourself!'”
To take a work-related example of the basic issue, I remember feeling really sorry for a train conductor who said it made things easier to say that there was “one Monday, then three ‘Almost Fridays’, and then Friday.” My concern is not that this was a crutch; some crutches are legitimate and quite helpful. My concern was that this is not a crutch that makes work bearable at all; it is a crutch that makes work simply unbearable. It’s a crutch that makes you relate to work as something you have to barely endure.
Now some jobs are barely endurable, or simply unendurable. In areas of the third world, there are sweatshops where women are expected to work fifteen hour days, seven days a week, even if they are violently ill, and rape is used as a mainstream disciplinary measure. On a lesser scale, I’m not sure I’d do well as a customer service doormat constantly dealing with verbally abusive customers. And I know that various grades of harassment exist in the first world as well. But beyond that, how many jobs in the U.S. really are beyond all endurance? I’ve left one job, not when my boss was rude to me and humiliated me in front of all my colleagues, but because the work was other than as advertised in a way that was increasingly impacting my health (and other attempts had failed to produce results), and I think that I may have been justified, but there are still things I would rather have handled differently. But even if “people don’t stop working for companies; they stop working for bosses,” the number of times it’s the right thing to leave is rare compared to how quickly we do resign.
Let’s look at this on a bit deeper level. The issue is not that the situation does not need to improve; the work situation quite probably does need to improve. But not from the angle of what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “a geographical solution,” moving in the hope that your problems will go away. Elder Thaddeus wrote:
4.5. If in each family there were just one person who served God zealously, what harmony there would be in the world! I often remember the story of Sister J. She used to come and talk to me often while I was still at the Tumane Monastery. Once she came, together with an organized group of pilgrims, and complained, saying, “I can’t bear this any longer! People are so unkind to each other!” She went on to say that she was going to look for another job. I advised her against it, as there were few jobs and a high level of unemployment. I told her to stop the war she was fighting with her colleagues. “But I’m not fighting with anyone!” she said. I explained that, although she was not fighting physically, she was waging war with her colleagues in her thoughts by being dissatisfied with her position. She argued that it was beyond anyone’s endurance. “Of course it is,” I told her, “but you can’t do it yourself. You need God’s help. No one knows whether you are praying or not while you are at work. So, when they start offending you, do not return their offenses either with words or with negative thoughts. Try not to offend them even in your thoughts; pray to God that He may send them an angel of peace. Also ask that He not forget you. You will not be able to do this immediately, but if you always pray like that, you will see how things will change over time and how the people will change as well. In fact, you are going to change, too.” At that time I did not know whether she was going to heed my advice.
This happened in the Tumane Monastery in 1980. In 1981 I was sent to the Vitovnica Monastery. I was standing underneath the quince tree when I noticed a group of pilgrims that had arrived. She was in the group and she came up to me to receive a blessing. And this is what she said to me, “Oh, Father, I had no idea that people were so good!” I asked her whether she was referring to her colleagues at work and she said she was. “They have changed so much, Father, it’s unbelievable! No one offends me anymore, and I can see the change in myself, as well.” I asked her whether she was at peace with everyone, and she answered that there was one person with whom she could not make peace for a long time. Then, as she read the Gospels, she came to the part where the Lord commands us to love our enemies. Then she said to herself, “You are going to love this person whether you want to or not, because this is what the Lord commands us to do.” And now, you see, they are best friends!
There is, at least in the U.S, the issue of what is called “an instrumental view of labor.” That is to say, work is a necessary evil we do to get money, and there would be no reason to work if we didn’t need the money. And work has indeed been cursed and disfigured by the Fall, but not created in the curse of the Fall. And really the “thorns and thistles” affects all our work, not just agricultural workers. There is no job under the sun that is free of thorns and thistles. Some jobs may have a honeymoon period, but as with a real honeymoon, it stops at some point and lets the real work begin. Life may indeed be easier with the wisdom Elder Thaddeus puts forth, but Elder Thaddeus had a difficult life; one of the dimensions of holier living is that it is more of a crown of thorns the more closely you approach the Christ God Who wore a Crown of Thorns en route to his crucifixion.
Returning to an instrumental view of labor, it treats the here and now that we are often to work in as the sort of thing that one endures, a negative to obtain a positive. And that much is fundamentally mistaken. We are created to work. Certain classes of work, such as a broad stretch of volunteering, activism, developing open source software, and also artistic activities like writing, musicianship, provide additional outlet to work beyond one’s regular job. We really are made to work. An allergic reaction to the experience of (paid) work is part of the U.S. culture that need not be there, like finding waiting more than a few minutes to be unpleasant (there are cultures where people can wait an hour without being ruffled), and it is possible to enjoy working. And be at peace with oneself.
Here are twelve strategies drawn from Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and the Orthodox spiritual Tradition:
- Be grateful.Count your blessings and be aware of how many blessings you have. Does your body work? That’s a blessing.I’ve studied several languages, and the more I’ve studied languages, the more I’ve become convinced that if you are knowing to know one word or phrase in your neighbor’s language, it should be “Thank you:” Spaseba—Russian; Terima kasih—Malaysian/Indonesian; Sheh-sheh—Chinese; Muy muchas gracias—Spanish. (See “Thank you” in many languages.)When I’ve said “Thank you” to people in their own heart language, they’ve been surprised and delighted at the gesture. No one seems to be offended at my pronunciation. Ever. If anything, clumsy execution only makes the endeavor more endearing.I’m not specifically suggesting that you learn languages, if that is not your thing. (For most people, it isn’t.) But please, pretty please, by all means, learn to be grateful, to say “Thank you” in letter and in spirit.
- Cultivate a deep respect for others with whom you cross paths.What can be respected about a mean boss or a crotchety co-worker? They are made in the image of God, and they are part of the royal family of the human race. There is something made for eternal glory that God himself respects in each person you meet. This doesn’t mean it is always easy to respect others, but the holier a person is, the more he finds something to respect in each person he meets. Some people are wary of giving compliments that feed a person’s vanity, but even then there is a lot of respect that can be given without inflicting needless temptation.
- Thirst for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor.This is a difficult step, and I one I have not mastered well. I want the most glorious assignment, or the most interesting, or whatever else would be most attractive to me, but I endure those that are menial. But it is a stroke of the masters to want the most menial work, and then perhaps be pleasantly surprised when some of their work is not menial.One health-oriented poster said, “Take the worst parking spot!” because it means a scant minute or two more walking. But it would be better, spiritually as well, to pick the least attractive parking spot. This point is made in the Gospel, Luke 14:7-11:
And he put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief rooms; saying unto them, “When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, ‘Give this man place;’ and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, ‘Friend, go up higher:’ then shalt thou have veneration in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
- Be obedient, in thought and action.As far as it is not sin, obey your boss, however wrong he may be, and offer him obedience on as many spiritual levels as you can.
- Pray for your co-workers, especially the ones who are difficult.We should pray for everyone, but watchful prayer that quashes, as far as possible, the faintest thought of hostility is best.
- As far as you can, go the extra mile and turn the other cheek.There is only so much we can do, but the Sermon on the Mount is clear on this point and gives it attention. Also relevant are the words of The Ladder of Divine Ascent: “[Humility] is to forestall one’s neighbor at a contentious moment and to be the first to end a quarrel.”
- Let the other person have the upper hand, be “higher.”It seems entirely natural to establish the upper hand if one can, and so much of our conversation, even banter, has a thread of control. But if one can seek the lower room, you will be someone no-one struggles against.
- Forgive seven billion times.In a Biblical culture where most people could not count to twenty without taking off any shoes, the strong rule was “Three strikes, you’re out!” St. Peter made a rather ludicrous question of the Savior: “Should I forgive seven times?” The Lord’s answer was even more ludicrous: “Not seven, but seven times seventy [or, more accurately, seventy-seven].” He might as well have said seven billion.We are to keep on forgiving.
- Beware the “demon of noonday”.Today we speak of a “midafternoon slump” and perhaps “low blood sugar.” The ancient monastic tradition spoke of a demon that tempts us to escape and makes the early afternoon something tedious that makes the here and now something intolerable, to escape. It is fought by rejecting escape as far as we can and by praying through it, until we realize God’s Creation is not the sort of thing one rightly wants to escape from.
- Be watchful of your thoughts, especially warring thoughts or negative thoughts.Different times have had different ideas of the worst sin; in caricature at least, Victorians were imagined to have made sexual sin the ultimate sin, while contemporary Protestantism usually gives that place to pride. In ancient times, apparently echoed by Elder Thaddeus, the worst sin was anger.One of the central themes that he keeps coming to is that we keep on holding warring thoughts, that if we would work on repenting and praying of, we would defuse a problematic situation, but we keep on holding onto our piece of the problem. Read Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives for all of the many things it says about the warring thoughts we are unaware of holding against our neighbors, including every boss and co-worker.
- Blessed are the meek: Be meek!One repeated characteristic of martial artists is that those who are truly good tend to be the last person you would ever find in a fight, and the more likely to put up his hands and say, “You’re the tough guy!”I’m not specifically recommending martial arts, but if martial arts produce in its experts what the Tao Te Ching says as “A great warrior is not warlike,” what then is to be expected of the true brothers and true sisters of the Prince of Peace? Quite a lot, in fact.
- Lastly, keep in touch with your priest or spiritual father, and do not engage in spiritual warfare above your strength.If following this advice would represent a basic change for you, then it is normally the sort of thing you should check in with your priest or spiritual father about. And there are some people you should, perhaps, leave alone, and there are some activities you should, perhaps, leave alone. Every spiritual father is different, but there have been a few specific situations where my spiritual father has advised me, appropriately under the circumstances as far as I can tell, not to try to mend fences. And if your priest or spiritual father does think this is helpful, you will have his blessing to boot!
Quotes and broader context
If I could fairly quote all of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives without threatening others’ income or running afoul of the law, I would. However, here are a few gems from the collection. I am limiting myself to the first chapter, “On Thoughts:”
1.1. Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If out thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.
1.7. A man who has within him the Kingdom of Heaven radiates holy thoughts, divine thoughts. The Kingdom of Heaven creates within us an atmosphere of Heaven, as opposed to the atmosphere of hell that is radiated by a person when hades abides in his heart. The role of Christians in this world is to filter the atmosphere on earth and expand the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God.
We can keep guard over the whole world by keeping guard over the atmosphere of heaven within us, for if we lose the Kingdom of Heaven, we will save neither ourselves nor others. He who has the Kingdom of God in himself will imperceptibly pass it on to others. People will be attracted by the peace and warmth in us, and the atmosphere of heaven will gradually pass on to them. It is not even necessary to speak to people about this. The atmosphere of Heaven will radiate from us even when we keep silence or talk about ordinary things. It will radiate from us even though we may not be aware of it.
1.16. An old woman came to me and told me that her neighbor was bothering her. She said the other woman was constantly throwing things so she was at her wits’ end. I asked her why she was always quarreling with her neighbor. But the old woman said she never even spoke to her evil neighbor. I insisted that she quarreled with her every day. I said to her, “You are convinced that she is doing evil things to you, and you are constantly thinking about her. Let her do whatever she is doing; you just turn your thoughts to prayer, and you will see that it will stop bothering you.”
1.19. Thoughts are planted in our minds all the time, from all sides and directions. Were it given us to see the radii of thoughts, we would see a real net of thoughts. Everyone has a “receiver” in his mind, one that is much more precise and sophisticated than a radio or television set. How wonderful is the mind of man! Unfortunately, we do not always appreciate this. We do not know how to unite ourselves with the Source of life and to feel joy…
It is my suggestion that Elder Thaddeus’s mystical theology in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives has every relevance to the world at work. It has relevance to other places as well; in passages not quoted, the author speaks emphatically about family life and Chapter 1, “On Thoughts,” is followed up by Chapter 2, “On Family.” But it is no diminution of Elder Thaddeus to look at what his wisdom and legacy spell out for success at work. Perhaps Christians are not called to worldly success in the sense of abundant wealth; the Bible includes very wealthy business owners like St. Abraham and St. Job the Much-Suffering, and very poor prophets like St. Elias (Elijah) and St. John the Baptist and Forerunner. But I think of my Aunt Gail talking about a conversation she had with her son about his business, and praying that he would always have “enough.” And she was emphatic about “enough”: although she did not use the terms “wants” or “needs”, she was clearly praying that her son would enjoy the kind of success that was truly beneficial for him as a person. And usually that’s not “as much money as you want.” But it is “enough.”
And if this work-mysticism is not a door to abundant treasures on earth, at least not for all, it is a door to treasures in Heaven. It is an invitation to find treasure in difficulties as well as pleasant times, in conflict and dishonor as well as people who are easy to get along with, a door to living the life of Heaven starting here on earth. The joy is intertwined with suffering—but the joy is deeper than the suffering.
Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!