Friday, 21 September 2012

Praying with the body: the hesychast method and non-Christian parallels

Apologies for not getting around to responding to comments to the previous post yet, been tied up with practice and reading, had to share this though.

More on the the hesychast method, interesting exploring this after five years of reading around yoga.

A reminder of the Jesus prayer

" Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner"

Every word of that I find uncomfortable, troubling...disturbing....unsettling and yet ...beguiling and it's clever, oh so clever. Perfect choice for a mantra then because really, om namah shivaya while charming and pretty cool doesn't have that much cultural resonance for me lacks forty-five years

I came across an excellent treatment of the topic in an article this evening, highly recommend reading the whole thing which can be found here

from, Praying with the body: the hesychast method and non-Christian parallels

Metropolitan Kallistos addresses the question of whether there are parallels between the hesychastic method of prayer and other apparently similar techniques of prayer in Hinduism and Islam.

"One of the most thoroughgoing attempts in the history of Christian spirituality to ascribe a positive and dynamic role to the body during prayer was made by the fourteenth-century hesychasts. As an accompaniment to the recitation of the Jesus prayer they proposed a physical technique that has obvious parallels in yoga and among the sufis of Islam. This psychosomatic method of the hesychasts has often been severely criticised, as by the Polish steward in The Way of a Pilgrim:
‘Ah’, said he, ‘that’s The Philokalia. I’ve seen the book before at our priest’s when I lived at Vilna. They tell me, however, that it contains odd sorts of schemes and tricks for prayer written down by the Greek monks. It’s like those fanatics in India and Bokhara who sit down and blow themselves out trying to get a sort of tickling in their hearts, and in their stupidity take this bodily feeling for prayer, and look upon it as a gift of God. All that is necessary to fulfil one’s duty to God is to pray simply, to stand and say the Our Father as Christ taught us. That puts you right for the whole day; but not to go on over and over again to the same tune. That, if I may say so, is enough to drive you mad. Besides, it’s bad for your heart.’
The Pilgrim responds with a pained protest:
‘Don’t think in that way about this holy book, sir’, I answered. ‘It was not written by simple Greek monks, but by great and very holy men of old time, men whom your Church honours also [. . .]. It was from them that the monks of India and Bokhara took over the “heart method” of interior prayer, only they quite spoilt and garbled it in doing so.’[6]
Which of the two is right, the Polish steward or the Russian pilgrim? Is the ‘heart method’ of the hesychasts authentically Christian, a true way of fulfilling the in ­ junction, ‘Glorify God in your body?’ Or is it confused and even potentially harmful?
‘How easy it is to say with every breath. . . ’
The Jesus prayer as such — the repeated invocation of the Holy Name — appears to be considerably more ancient than the physical technique designed to accompany it.[7] Already among the monks of fourth-century Egypt it was the custom to use ‘arrow prayers’, short and fervent invocations frequently repeated, as an aid in preserving the continual ‘remembrance of God*. This practice came to be known as ‘monologic prayer’, prayer of a single logos, a single word or phrase. While the name of Jesus sometimes appears in these ‘arrow prayers’ of the Egyptian Desert Fathers, it enjoys no special prominence.
The real beginnings of a distinctive spirituality of the Holy Name come only with St Diadochos of Photiki (second half of the fifth century), who speaks regularly of the ‘remembrance' or ‘invocation’ of Jesus. This invocation eliminates distractions, empties the mind of images, and so helps us to attain an inner stillness. Half a century after Diadochos, the two Old Men of Gaza, St Barsanouphios and St John (early sixth century) recommend a variety of short prayers that include the name of Jesus. Around the same time or slightly later, the Life of Abba Philimon contains for the first time what came afterwards to be regarded as the standard form of the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’ The addition of the words ‘the sinner’ at the end is not found before the fourteenth century.
None of these early writers hints at the employment of any physical technique. At a somewhat later date, however, there are possible allusions to a co-ordination between the rhythm of breathing and the invocation of the Holy Name in three Sinaite authors, St John Klimakos (seventh century), St Hesychios of Batos (?eighth-ninth century), and St Philotheos (?ninth-tenth century). ‘Let the remembrance of Jesus be united with your breathing’, says Klimakos. In Hesychios the phrasing is slightly more specific: ‘Let the Jesus prayer cleave to your breathing.’ Philotheos simply states, ‘We must always breathe God.’[8]
How much should we read into statements of this kind? Perhaps the three are referring to a definite method for regulating the tempo of respiration so as to coincide with the words of prayer. Their vagueness and failure to supply explicit directions may in that case be deliberate. They may have felt — as many modern Orthodox teachers certainly feel — that instruction on such techniques is best communicated orally, rather than being committed to writing; an experienced spiritual guide in direct contact with his or her disciples can warn them against dangers which may not be apparent to the readers of a book. On the other hand the words of Klimakos, Hesychios and Philotheos may well be no more than metaphorical. Like St Gregory of Nazianzos (329-89) when he says that we are to remember God more often than we breathe,[9] they may mean simply that prayer should be as constant and spontaneous — as much a part of our instinctive existence — as the act of respiration. In that case, the references to our breathing in Sinaite writers are just a way of vividly restating St Paul’s precept, ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17).
We move on to firmer ground when we turn to Egypt and examine the Coptic Macarian cycle.[10] The material is hard to date with exactness, but seems to come from the seventh or eighth centuries. Here we read: ‘How easy it is to say with every breath: “My Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me! I bless you, my Lord Jesus Christ: help me!”’ As we breathe out and then breathe in once more, so the invocation of Jesus flows out from our lips and then is drawn back again: ‘Be attentive to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ with a contrite heart; make it flow from your lips and draw it back to you.’ None of this is very precise, but it seems to involve more than mere metaphor. A definite connection is being asserted between our respiration and the invocation of Jesus. What was later to become a central point in the physical technique of the hesychasts is plainly affirmed: Jesus is to be invoked with every breath.
It is necessary to wait for several centuries before anything as explicit as this is encountered in the Greek sources. The earliest detailed descriptions of a physical technique occur in two texts, the first dating from the late thirteenth century, the second in all probability more or less contemporary with it.
Thus Nikiphoros the Hesychast concludes his short work On Watchfulness and the Guarding of the Heart[11] by suggesting a bodily method to help the beginner to attain ‘attentiveness’. According to St Gregory Palamas, our main source concerning his life, Nikiphoros came originally from Italy, and was apparently a Latin brought up in the Western rite, not a Greek from Calabria. Becoming convinced that the West had fallen into ‘kakodoxy’ he travelled to the Byzantine empire and joined the Orthodox Church. He became a monk on the Holy Mountain of Athos, living there in ‘quietness and stillness’, according to Palamas, and eventually withdrawing to the ‘most isolated regions’ on the Mountain. Nikiphoros himself has left a description of the persecution that he underwent because of his opposition to the unionist policy of Emperor Michael VIII. He was arrested in 1276, taken to Constantinople and then to Acre, where he was tried before a Latin judge and exiled to Cyprus, although he was released in the following year. Probably he died before 1300. Palamas mentions the work On Watchfulness, stating: ‘Because he saw that many beginners were incapable of controlling the instability of their intellect, even to a limited degree, he proposed a method whereby they could restrain to some extent the wanderings of the imagination.’[12] Nikiphoros is sometimes termed the ‘inventor’ of this bodily method, but Palamas does not actually say this. Perhaps Nikiphoros did no more than provide the first written description of a technique that had long been traditional on Athos, and had been handed down orally from teacher to disciple.
A largely similar technique is outlined in a treatise attributed to St Symeon the New Theologian (959-1022), Method of Holy Prayer and Attentiveness, also entitled On the Three Methods of Prayer.[13] Palamas seems to accept the ascription of this work to Symeon, but it is today generally agreed that the New Theologian cannot be the true author. Fr Irénée Hausherr, in his edition of the Greek text of the Method, suggests that it may have been written by Nikiphoros himself, but con ­ clusive proof is lacking. Whoever the author may be, the text cannot have been written much after the year 1300, and perhaps belongs also to the late thirteenth century.
The physical technique is next mentioned by an influential writer slightly later in date than Nikiphoros, St Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346), who lived on Athos during the early years of the fourteenth century.[14] Probably he learnt about the technique on the Holy Mountain, although he may have been initiated into it while in Crete, before going to Athos. Gregory nowhere refers to Nikiphoros, and makes no direct citations from the treatise On Watchfulness; likewise he nowhere explicitly quotes the Method attributed to Symeon. While he may well have been familiar with these two works, it is possible that he acquired his knowledge of the physical technique from oral tradition rather than from written texts.
Shortly after Gregory of Sinai had finally left Athos around 1335, the physical technique became suddenly and unexpectedly the subject of violent invective. Along with the entire hesychast tradition of prayer, it was called in question by a learned Greek from South Italy, Barlaam the Calabrian, who had come to Constantinople around 1330. In 1335-6 a conflict arose between Barlaam and St Gregory Palamas, who was at that time living in seclusion on Mount Athos. At first the point at issue was the procession of the Holy Spirit. But by 1337 the Calabrian had enlarged the scope of the debate by attacking the claim made by the hesychasts to see the divine and uncreated light of Tabor, and also their use of the psychosomatic method during prayer. Barlaam had read the work of Nikiphoros On Watchfulness, and he had also met certain hesychast monks in Thessalonica. Some of these seem to have been persons of genuine spiritual stature, but others were apparently ignorant and ill-educated, and their description of the physical technique left Barlaam gravely perturbed. As he puts it:
I was initiated by them into certain monstrosities and absurd doctrines [. . .], the product of an erroneous belief and a rash fantasy. They told me about their teachings concerning marvellous separations and reunions of the intellect with the soul, about the fusion of the demons with the soul, about the different sorts of red and white lights, about certain noetic entries and exits through the nostrils in conjunction with the respiration, about some kind of palpitations which occur around the navel, and finally about the union of our Lord with the soul which comes to pass within the navel in a manner perceived by the senses with full certitude of heart.[15]
In ridicule Barlaam labelled the hesychasts ‘navel-psychics’ (omphalopsychoi), people who locate the soul in the navel.[16]
Palamas countered Barlaam’s polemic in his massive treatise Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts. Here Palamas’ main concern is not in fact with the physical technique as such — to this he devotes only one relatively short section of the Triads (I. ii. 1-12) — but with the much more fundamental doctrinal questions involved in the controversy: the uncreated character of the divine light and the distinction between God's essence and his energies. But, while not attaching central significance to the bodily method, Palamas none the less believed that it was theologically defensible. It was based, as he saw it, on a sound biblical theology of the human person, and he considered that, used with discretion, it could prove of practical help.
There is one last text from the fourteenth century which speaks in some detail about the physical technique, and that is the Exact method and rule concerning those who choose to live in stillness and in monastic solitude by St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos (written in a hundred chapters, this is often cited as the Century)[17] It was written in the last decades of the fourteenth century, more than a generation after the impassioned conflict between Barlaam and Palamas. Composed in a serene and eirenic spirit, totally devoid of all polemic, this is a particularly attractive presentation of the hesychast way of prayer: ‘a work of rare spiritual beauty’, as Fr Lev Gillet rightly terms it.[18]
Entering the place of the heart
What, then, do we find in these witnesses from the late thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, Nikiphoros, pseudo-Symeon, Gregory of Sinai, Gregory Palamas, and the Xanthopouloi? The psychosomatic technique which they describe, and which Barlaam the Calabrian impugned, contains three main points. A particular bodily posture is to be adopted; the rhythm of the breathing is to be controlled; and the hesychast is instructed to explore his inner self so as to discover the place of the heart.

First of all, the hesychast is told to sit while reciting the Jesus prayer. ‘Seat yourself, then, and concentrate your intellect’, says Nikiphoros.[19] ‘Sit down in a quiet cell, in a corner by yourself’, states pseudo-Symeon.[20] Gregory of Sinai is more precise: ‘Sit on a seat one span high’, that is, about nine inches in height.[21] Evidently what the Sinaite has in view is not a normal chair but a low, backless stool. He adds that, if exhausted, one may occasionally say the Jesus prayer sitting or lying down on a mattress, but this is seen as something exceptional.[22]
When Nikiphoros, pseudo-Symeon and Gregory of Sinai suggest that the hesychast should sit while praying, this is surely to be seen as an innovation. Such advice would have appeared much more unusual to a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century reader than it does to us today. In ancient times the normal attitude for Christian prayer was definitely to stand. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, for example, St Antony of Egypt sees his guardian angel ‘sitting down and working, then standing up from his work and praying, then sitting down again and making a plait of palm leaves, and then rising once more again for prayer’.[23] When St Arsenios kept an all-night vigil, he stood in prayer for the whole time.[24] A monk might repeat verses from the Psalms as he sat at manual labour, and he might also sit while meditating; but when specifically engaged in prayer, to the exclusion of handiwork, he would nor ­ mally stand up.[25]
The low height of the stool recommended by Gregory of Sinai means that the hesychast will be in a crouching and almost foetal position: ‘Bend down laboriously’, he insists.[26] Although Nikiphoros makes no allusion to crouching down, pseudo-Symeon states explicitly: ‘Rest your beard on your chest, and focus your physical gaze, together with the whole of your intellect, upon the centre of your belly or your navel.’[27] Doubtless it was this posture that inspired Barlaam’s gibe about ‘navel-psychics’. But in fact the navel plays no special part in the somatopsychic symbolism of the hesychasts; their aim is to concentrate upon the heart rather than upon the region below it. It is significant that Palamas, when answering Barlaam, speaks more generally of the ‘chest or navel’: the spiritual aspirant ‘should not let his gaze flit hither and thither, but should fix it upon his chest (stethos) or navel as upon a point of support’.[28] Later writers, who usually drop all reference to the navel, speak rather of fixing the gaze on the place of the heart; and this is surely more prudent.
Palamas offers both a biblical precedent for this crouching position during prayer, and also a theological explanation. The biblical precedent is that of Elijah on Mount Carmel: ‘Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; there he bowed himself down upon the earth and put his face between his knees’ (1 Kings 18:42).[29] In his theological explanation Palamas refers to the two types of movement mentioned by St Dionysios the Areopagite (c. 500): the ‘direct’ movement in a straight line, whereby the intellect apprehends objects outside itself, and the ‘circular’ movement, whereby it ‘returns to itself’ and becomes aware of its own inner world. It is this second or circular movement, says Palamas, that constitutes ‘the intellect’s highest and most befitting activity’. He then goes on to affirm a basic principle of fundamental importance, to which we shall be returning shortly: ‘After the Fall our inner being naturally adapts itself to outward forms.’ The hesychast is applying this principle when he adopts the crouching posture in prayer: by ‘outwardly curling himself — so far as is possible — into the form of a circle’, he renders it easier to establish within himself the circular movement of the intellect, and so he is enabled more effectively to ‘return to himself’.[30]
Gregory of Sinai acknowledges that this crouching position will quickly prove uncomfortable, but he urges the hesychast to persevere undeterred. ‘You will suf ­ fer severe pain in your chest, shoulders and neck’, he warns, but in spite of this one should continue to ‘cry out persistently’. Elsewhere he writes, ‘Do not grow discouraged and quickly rise up again because of the persistent pain [. . .]. Should you feel pain in your shoulders or in your head — as you often will — endure it patiently and fervently, seeking the Lord in your heart.’[31] Modern teachers, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, commonly suggest that the body during prayer should be in a comfortable and relaxed position, so that as far as possible we are entirely unaware of it. Gregory of Sinai’s approach is markedly different. Doubtless he considered that an invocation such as the Jesus prayer which expresses penthos, grief and penitence, may appropriately be accompanied by physical pain rather than by feelings of ease, comfort and relaxation.

Nikiphoros says nothing about any alteration in the rhythm of respiration, but merely observes: ‘Concentrate your intellect and lead it into the respiratory passage through which the breath passes into your heart. Put pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your inhaled breath into your heart.’[32] Pseudo-Symeon is more specific, stating that the tempo of breathing is to be deliberately slowed down: ‘Restrain the drawing-in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily.’[33] Both Nikiphoros and pseudo-Symeon are speaking about what is to hap ­ pen before the hesychast has actually begun to say the Jesus prayer. The control of the breathing is not intended to accompany the recitation of the prayer, but is a preliminary exercise that precedes it.
Gregory of Sinai agrees with pseudo-Symeon in advocating a deliberate slowing down of respiration. The act of breathing out, says Gregory, produces a dissipa ­ tion of our attentiveness, and so we should try to hold back our breath for as long as we reasonably can: ‘Restrain your breathing, so as not to breathe unimpededly; for when you exhale, the air that rises from the heart beclouds the intellect and ruffles your thinking, keeping the intellect away from the heart.’ Unlike pseudo-Symeon and Nikiphoros, however, Gregory implies that this control of the breathing is not to precede the recitation of the Jesus prayer but to be simultaneous with it: ‘Restraining the expulsion of your breath as much as possible and enclosing your intellect in your heart, invoke the Lord Jesus continuously and diligently.’[34] This is an important development. No longer is the breathing-control merely a preliminary exercise, but it is directly combined with the actual invocation.
At the same time Gregory does not indicate exactly how the rhythm of the respiration and the words of the prayer are to be co-ordinated. His directions remain vague — perhaps intentionally so. In modern practice it is common to say the first half of the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’, while breathing in, and the second half, ‘have mercy on me, [the sinner]’, while breathing out. This is the technique recommended, for example, in The Way of a Pilgrim,[35] but it is nowhere proposed in Gregory’s writings. On the contrary his words, ‘Restraining the expulsion of your breath [. . .] invoke the Lord Jesus’, seem to mean that the entire Jesus prayer is to be said while holding back the breath, that is to say, between inhalation and exhalation. This is certainly the discipline advocated by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809): ‘Hold your breath a little until your inner consciousness has a chance to say the prayer once.’[36]
In Gregory of Sinai’s opinion, control of the breathing, although helpful, possesses no more than a limited value: ‘The holding-back of the breath, with the mouth tightly closed, stabilises the intellect, but only temporarily, for after a little it lapses again into distraction.’ What we need to control is our inner attention, not just our breathing: ‘Gently pressing your lips together when you pray, control the respiration of the intellect, but not that of the nose, as the ignorant do.’ The real discipline has to be inward, not outward; a physical technique may assist us in concentrating, but it can never be a substitute for the interior vigilance of the intellect. Any regulation of the breathing, Gregory adds, should be moderate, not violent: ‘Do not harm yourself by building up pressure.’[37]
Gregory Palamas for his part tells us nothing in detail about the control of the breathing, beyond stating that its rhythm is to be slowed down. ‘Nor is it out of place’, he writes, ‘to teach beginners in particular to look within themselves and to bring their intellect within themselves by means of their breathing. ’ The human mind is highly volatile, and ‘continually darts away again as soon as it has been concentrated’. A slowing-down of the respiration can help here: ‘That is why some teachers recommend beginners to pay attention to the constant exhalation and inhalation of their breath, and to restrain it a little, so that while they are watching it the intellect, too, may be held in check. This they should do until they advance with God’s help to a higher stage.’[38] This corresponds to Gregory of Sinai’s injunctions: the tempo of the breathing is to be decelerated. But, unlike the Sinaite, Palamas does not specify that this control of the breathing should accompany the recitation of the prayer. Perhaps, in common with pseudo-Symeon, he sees the breathing-control as a preliminary exercise that precedes the invocation.
Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, on the other hand, follow Gregory of Sinai in regarding the control of the breathing as a direct accompaniment to the actual saying of the Jesus prayer. They propound, however, a somewhat different method for combining the two. While Gregory of Sinai apparently intends the prayer to be said while holding back the breath, the Xanthopouloi seem to envisage the recitation of the prayer in its entirety while breathing in: ‘As you draw in your breath, introduce at the same time the words of the prayer, uniting them in some way with your breathing.’[39] The vagueness implicit in the phrase ‘in some way’ (pos) is perhaps deliberate; like Gregory of Sinai, Kallistos and Ignatios may have felt it inappropriate to give full instructions in writing. Yet, despite the lack of details, both Gregory of Sinai and the Xanthopouloi are clear on one basic point: the rhythm of the prayer and the rhythm of respiration are to be somehow merged and harmonised, so that the natural and instinctive action of breathing enhances our remembrance of God and renders it unceasing.
In The Way of a Pilgrim the Jesus prayer is also linked to the beating of the heart:
Then picture to yourself your heart in just the same way; turn your eyes to it just as though you were looking at it through your breast, and picture it as clearly as you can. And with your ears listen closely to its beating, beat by beat. When you have got into the way of doing this, begin to fit the words of the prayer to the beats of the heart one after another, looking at it all the time. Thus, with the first beat, say or think ‘Lord’, with the second, ‘Jesus’, with the third, ‘Christ’, with the fourth, ‘have mercy’, and with the fifth, ‘on me’. And do it over and over again. This will come easily to you. [40]
In none of the fourteenth-century sources have I been able to find any evidence of such a ‘heart-beat technique’, nor (so far as I am aware) is it recommended by Orthodox spiritual guides today, although it is used — as we shall see — by the sufis.

In pseudo-Symeon the control of the breathing is closely connected with an inward quest for the place of the heart:
Restrain the drawing in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily, and search inside yourself with your intellect so as to find the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul reside. To start with you will find there darkness and an impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practise this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy. For as soon as the intellect attains the place of the heart, at once it sees things of which it previously knew nothing. It sees the open space [literally air] within the heart and it beholds itself entirely luminous and full of discernment. From then on, from whatever side a distractive thought may appear, before it has come to completion and assumed a form, the intellect immediately drives it away and destroys it with the invocation of Jesus Christ.[41]
From this it is evident that the inner exploration, like the control of the breathing, is a preparatory exercise, preceding the Jesus prayer rather than accompanying it.
Nikiphoros offers a somewhat fuller rationale of this inner exploration:
You know that what we breathe is air. When we exhale it, this is for the heart’s sake, for the heart is the source of life and warmth for the body. The heart draws towards itself the air inhaled when breathing, so that by discharging some of its heat when the air is exhaled it may maintain an even temperature.
As our breath passes through the nostrils, down the lungs and into the heart, we are to make our intellect descend with it:
Concentrate your intellect and lead it into the respiratory passage through which the breath passes into your heart. Put pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your inhaled breath into your heart. Once it has entered there [. . .] train it not to leave your heart quickly, for at first it is strongly disinclined to remain constrained and circumscribed in this way. But once it becomes accustomed to remaining there, it no longer desires to wander outside. For the kingdom of heaven is within us (Luke 17:21).
The experience of entering the heart resembles a joyful homecoming after a long absence:
Just as a man, after being far away from home, on his return is overjoyed at be ­ ing with his wife and children again, so the intellect, once it is united with the soul, is filled with indescribable delight.
Having found the place of the heart, the hesychast may then commence the invocation of Jesus:
When your intellect is firmly established in your heart, it must not remain there silent and idle; it should constantly repeat and meditate on the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, and should never stop doing this.[42]
As in the text of pseudo-Symeon, it is clear that the invocation of Jesus occurs at the end of the process, not at the beginning. The search for the place of the heart comes first, the recitation of the Jesus prayer afterwards.
The two Gregories are much more cursory in their references to this process of inner exploration. Gregory of Sinai says briefly, ‘Compel your intellect to descend from your head [or brain] into your heart [. . .]. Gather your intellect into your heart, provided it has been opened.’[43] Gregory Palamas is equally imprecise: we are to ‘install or hold the intellect within ourselves’, to ‘send into the heart the power of the intellect that is outwardly disposed’.[44] Neither of the Gregorys follows Nikiphoros in suggesting that we should mentally picture the movement of the breath as it passes through the nostrils and down the lungs. Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, on the other hand, quote in full the passage from Nikiphoros about inner exploration, although without adding anything new of their own.[45]
When Orthodox writers speak in this way about ‘descending from the head into the heart’, ‘finding the place of the heart’, or ‘remaining firmly established in the heart’, what sense are they attaching to the word ‘heart’ (kardia)? This is crucial for any proper assessment of the bodily method of the hesychasts. Already in the fifth century Diadochos of Photiki had insisted that the remembrance of the name of Jesus should take place ‘in the depth of the heart’.[46] Diadochos, however, and likewise the fourteenth-century Greek hesychasts, do not mean by ‘heart’ merely or primarily the affections and emotions, as in our modern usage of the word. For them the heart signifies, as in the Bible, the centre of the human person in its totality. The heart, that is to say, has a connotation both physical and spiritual, both literal and symbolical. It means first of all the bodily organ situated on the left side of the chest, and as such it is the controlling element in our physical structure, ‘the source of life and warmth for the body’ (Nikiphoros). But it is also the spiritual centre of our personhood, the place ‘where all the powers of the soul reside’ (pseudo-Symeon).
As the spiritual centre, then, the heart is the seat not just of the emotions and feelings but of thought, intelligence and wisdom. It is the determinant of our moral action, the place where the conscience expresses itself and where voluntary choice is exercised. It signifies likewise the point of encounter between the human and divine, the inner shrine where we experience God’s grace and become aware of ourselves as created in his image, ‘the place of our origin [. . .] in which the soul is, as it were, coming from the hands of God and waking up to itself’.[47] In this way the heart is the meeting-point within ourselves between the unconscious and the conscious, between soul and spirit, between our created human personhood and the uncreated love of God.[48]
Palamas makes it abundantly plain that, when speaking of the physical method, he is using the word ‘heart’ in this all-embracing Semitic and scriptural sense. He speaks of ‘that innermost body within the body that we term the heart’, and he calls it ‘the ruling organ, the throne of grace’. He quotes the Homilies of Macarius (?late fourth century): ‘The heart rules over the whole bodily organism, and when grace takes possession of the pastures of the heart, it reigns over all a person’s thoughts and members. For the intellect and all the thoughts of the soul are located there.’ Developing the point, Palamas continues:
Our heart is, therefore, the shrine of the intelligence and the chief intellectual organ of the body. When, therefore, we strive to scrutinise and to amend our intelligence through rigorous watchfulness, how could we do this if we did not collect our intellect, outwardly dispersed through the senses, and bring it back within ourselves - back to the heart itself, the shrine of the thoughts?[49]
When, therefore, pseudo-Symeon and other hesychast texts speak of ‘finding the place of the heart’, they mean in the first instance that we are to concentrate our attention upon the region of the physical heart. But, since the heart is at the same time the spiritual centre of the total human being, through this concentration upon our physical heart we are enabled to enter into relationship with our deep self and so to discover the true dimensions of our personhood in God. To make the intellect ‘descend from the head into the heart’ is thus to achieve integration, to realise oneself as a unified whole formed in the divine image. The outer concentration upon the movement of the breath through the nostrils, down the lungs and into the heart, is an effective symbol, a sacramental sign, of our inner journey from dispersal and fragmentation to simplicity and primal singleness in God.
Let us conclude our description of the physical technique of the hesychasts by mentioning one final point. None of our authors makes any reference to the employment of a komvoschoinion, a prayer-rope or chaplet, while saying the Jesus prayer. The basic principle of the komvoschoinion can in fact be found at least a millennium earlier than this. The monk Paul of Pherme, in fourth-century Egypt, whose custom it was to recite three hundred set prayers each day, used to put three hundred pebbles in his lap, throwing out one pebble at each prayer.[50] Paul had only to string his pebbles together to make a primitive prayer-rope, but it remains unclear precisely when such prayer-ropes first appeared in the Christian East. Here is an interesting subject for further research. Unfortunately the book of Eithne Wilkins, The Rose-Garden Game: the symbolic background to the European prayer-beads (London 1969), sheds little light on the matter."

Later there is a comparison and discussion on the similarities and differnces with to yoga

"Byzantine yogis?
Enough has been said to indicate the genuinely Christian and biblical basis of the bodily method. But there still remains the question raised by the Polish steward in The Way of a Pilgrim: what are we to make of the non-Christian parallels?
Needless to say, a parallel is not in itself proof of direct influence. The practice of monologic prayer is to be found in a wide variety of religious bodies, both Chris ­ tian and non-Christian. It is something that could arise spontaneously in separate groups, altogether independently of one another. And it is in no way surprising that many of those who use monologic prayer should find it helpful to link this repetition with the rhythm of their breathing. Such an idea could easily occur to different people without any conscious borrowing from each other. Are the similarities then, between hesychast spirituality and other traditions in fact close enough to imply direct interaction?
Let us begin with a parallel from the Christian West, mentioned by Fr Lev. The invocation of the Holy Name of Jesus was widely practised in the medieval West, not least in England,[75] but there seems to be no evidence of any method for coordinating this invocation with the rhythm of the breathing. A breathing technique is, however, proposed by St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) in his ‘third method of prayer’:
The third method of prayer is that, at each breath or respiration, prayer be made mentally, saying one word of the Lord’s Prayer or of any other prayer that is being recited, so that only one word be said between each breath, and in the length of time between each breath let attention be specially paid to the signification of the word, or to the person to whom the prayer is directed, or to one’s lowness, or to the distance between that person’s great dignity and such great lowness of ours. Then he will proceed in the same way and method through the remaining words of the Lord’s Prayer.[76]
The parallel, as Fr Hausherr points out,[77] is not altogether exact: Ignatius Loyola nowhere mentions invoking the name of Jesus, and he envisages successive words of prayer at each breath, not the repetition of the same phrase. There is no question here of any direct borrowing from the hesychasts. Nevertheless there is genuine similarity: Loyola, like the hesychasts, establishes a link between the words of prayer and the tempo of the respiration.
In the second place, Elijah’s crouching posture in prayer — with the head placed between the knees — was certainly practised within Judaism at least until the first century AD. The Galilean Hasid Hanina ben Dosa, for example, is said to have ‘put his head between his knees and prayed’ for a miracle.[78] Similarities between the Jewish school of Merkabah (‘Chariot’) mysticism and the hesychast tradition deserve to be further explored.
Thirdly, and much more significantly, there are striking parallels between the hesychast practices and Indian yoga. As an aid in meditation, the yogi repeats a mantra or short formula, often employing a chaplet as he does so. His aim is samadhi (stillness, hesychia), and he may experience a vision of light. The need for an experienced guide or guru is emphasised. More specifically we find, as among the fourteenth-century hesychasts:
(1) The recommendation of specific postures (āsanas).
(2) Control of the respiration (prānāyāma). The breathing is to be slowed down and reduced: ‘Restraining the breath [. . .] breathe quietly through the nose.’[79]
3) Concentration of the attention upon particular physiological centres (chakras).
These Indian practices, which date back to the pre-Christian era, are of course much more ancient than the bodily techniques of the hesychasts.

Yet if there are evident similarities, there are also differences. The hesychast crouches with his chin resting on his chest; in the ‘lotus’ posture of yoga the back is upright, (although there are other postures in yoga which involve a crouching position). The breathing techniques in yoga are far more complex and elaborate than anything suggested in the Byzantine tradition; the hesychast method corresponds only to the first and simplest exercises of yoga. In yoga the inner exploration is extended to the regions below the heart, but in the hesychast tradition this is strictly forbidden. In yoga, moreover, there is not only a movement of descent but also a corresponding movement of ascent from the kundalini centre up the vertebral column to the chakra in the forehead between the two eyes (the third ‘eye’), and then to the supreme chakra at the top of the head. There is no equivalent to this in the symbolic imagery of hesychasm; the hesychast, having once descended into the place of the heart, remains there and does not re-ascend. When the physiological terminology of yoga is compared in detail with that of hesychasm, the resemblance turns out to be not very close.
Most important of all, while the Jesus prayer is specifically an invocation to God incarnate, ‘the connection of God with yoga is tangential’, as Abbé Monchanin points out. Yoga is primarily a technique for concentration, using the natural human powers; unlike hesychast prayer, it does not depend at every point upon divine grace. Taking account of all this, we may agree with Monchanin that ‘direct borrowing is certainly unlikely’; the similarities are probably due to independent ‘convergence’.[80] Yet the Indian parallels are still illuminating. Both the yogi and the hesychast affirm that the body has a dynamic role to play in the contemplative quest, and both accept the principle of ‘analogy-participation’ between the bodily and the spiritual".

The article continues with a fascinating comparison at length of the bodily techniques of the hesychasts with dhikr

"The fourth and final area of comparison is the most interesting of all: and that is the parallel between hesychast prayer and the practice of dhikr — the memory and invocation of the name of God — in Islam, and more particularly among the sufis".

Read the rest of the article here


  1. I also recommend reading Thomas A' Kempis' "Imitation of Christ" as a source book for all items in the discussion above. A true gem. And true yoga.

  2. Greetings Grimmly,

    I am a long time reader of your blog and have been practicing Ashtanga yoga, primarily at home, for the past two years. Thank you so much for your contributions, many of which have been particularly helpful in my practice. In light of your recent posts on the practice of japa-yoga, hesychasm in Orthodoxy, and dhikr in Sufism, I wanted to share a few paragraphs which I found enlightening on the subject. They are from an essay by a philosopher and metaphysician by the name of Frithjof Schuon. The essay is entitled A View of Yoga from his book "Language of the Self." I can only quote a few paragraphs, but the essay goes on to compare yoga to hesychasm, and other analogous spiritual methods.


    Yoga is the most direct and also the most ample manifestation possible of a spiritual principle which, as such, must be able to reveal itself whenever the nature of things permits or demands it: this principle is essentially that of a technique – or an "alchemy" – designed to open the human microcosm to the divine influx. Yoga itself is defined as a "cessation of the activities of the mental substance," and strictly speaking there is only one Yoga – the art of perfect concentration, of which Hatha-Yoga and Raja-Yoga are the two essential forms, and of which the other Yogas (Laya and Mantra) are special modalities or developments. It is true that the word Yoga also designates – in virtue of its literal sense of "Union" – the three great paths of gnosis (jnāna), love (bhakti) and action (karma); but the connection with the principle that characterizes the yogic art is then much less direct. Yoga, as defined in the Sūtras of Patanjali and related works, is always the interior alchemy, or the ensemble of technical means for realizing – with the aid of intellectual, corporal, moral and sometimes emotional elements – union through ecstasy or samādhi.

    The following example will serve to clarify the distinction just established – though admittedly too schematic, it is nonetheless instructive: with jnāna, "humility" is awareness of the nothingness of the ego considered from the standpoint of its relativity; with bhakti, humility is self-abasement before the beauty of the Beloved everywhere present, self-annihilation before the Divine glory; with karma, the same virtue becomes the disinterested service of one's neighbor, the humiliation of self for the sake of God; but from a strictly yogic point of view, this same virtue will be in a way "geometrical" or "physical"; it will appear as a leveling of the activities of the animic substance, abstention from all mental affirmation.

    The fact that the possibility of a spiritual technique results, not from a human willing, but from the nature of things, replies in advance to the objection – an all too human one – that Yoga is something useless, or even "artificial," and contrary to the true love of God. In reality, the yogic principle has its foundation in the cosmological aspect of man, an aspect that implies the possibility of applying to the microcosm disciplines which are "quasi-geometrical" and consequently as foreign to the circuitous ways of reasoning as to the impulses of sentiment; that is to say, these disciplines have a character that is purely "physical," using this term according to its primitive sense as applying to the whole realm of "concordant actions and reactions," hence to all that is subject to the impersonal laws and forces of the cosmos.

  3. A few more paragraphs from the same essay:

    On the other hand, when viewed according to a more profound perspective, the yogic principle is based on the idea that man is as though steeped in the Infinite: his essence – that by which he exists and knows – is "not other than" infinite just as a piece of ice is not other than the water in which it floats; man is "Infinity congealed" – if one can express oneself thus. It is our hardness alone, the opacity of our fallen condition, that renders us impermeable to the pre-existing Grace; the practice of Yoga is the art of opening – on the basis of our cosmic structure – our carapace to the Light which infinitely surrounds us. It will doubtless be objected that no technique could suffice in itself, that physical means could never alone and unaided permit man to transcend his own limits, that man is not simply a bundle of impersonal factors but also an intelligence and a will, therefore a living ego; this is evident, but it is precisely for this reason that yogic disciplines are always accompanied with intellectual and moral elements, elements of contemplation and virtue. Yoga does not "produce" sanctity; when reduced to its characteristic principle, it appears rather as a negative activity, comparable, say the Hindus, to the breaching of a dike: this operation, without producing anything by itself, permits water to flood a field. Only intellection – or love – can realize union positively, with God's help, and to the degree that belongs to them respectively.

    The technical or impersonal character of yogic science links it to gnosis rather than to love, somewhat as the subjective character of musical emotion links it to the path of love rather than to that of gnosis.

    * *

    Semitic and European minds have a tendency towards irreducible alternatives, whereas the Hindu mind works readily by integrations and syntheses. It is difficult for a Westerner to reconcile the idea of a spiritual technique with an attitude of piety and virtue; this mixing of "coldness" and "warmth" seems to him to lack cohesion, sincerity and beauty; positions which are complementary seem to him to stand in irreducible opposition, whereas a Hindu without difficulty reconciles the apparent antagonisms, which he regards as poles of one and the same fundamental intention; he even goes so far as to consider his own fervor in an entirely objective manner, changing perspective in accordance with what is spiritually opportune. The European sees himself, practically speaking, before the following alternative: either he believes in piety, virtue, duty, moral beauty and the free gift of grace, in which case he will be prone to scorn the technical point of view and see in it nothing but "fakirism"; or else, reacting against religious sentimentalism, he opts for the yogic point of view (whether rightly or wrongly is not in question here), in which case he will tend to despise, or at least to undervalue piety and virtue and to uphold the "amoral" side of Yoga ; such a reaction, it must be said, is often sentimental in its own way, but in a "frigid" manner, and in that case we would without hesitation prefer pious sentimentality, which at least is what it purports to be. Be that as it may, the idea that the intellective assimilation of a symbol can replace or even surpass pious works shocks the individualism of those who affect not to believe in "techniques," and who – through lack of imagination on this plane – are far from surmising all that the practice of such apparently "easy" means entails morally.

  4. Christianity is in its general structure a path of love; therefore the yogic element, which by its "objectivity" is related to gnosis, does not appear in the foreground; one encounters it in the Hesychast tradition – which includes aspects of gnosis from the very fact of its strict dependence on the Greek Fathers – but also, under a more sentimental form, in the mysticism of Saint John of the Cross. Doubtless it could be pointed out here – apart from any question of gnosis – that the love of God is not by definition sentimental, that it is above all the act of will that "chooses God," and that willing is not synonymous with emotivity: this is true when will depends on Knowing, but when such is not the case then will inevitably allies itself with feeling; because a path of pure willing is inconceivable, will depending always upon some factor that is either cognitive or emotive.

    But, it will be argued, is not Hindu bhakti also a more or less emotive spirituality – and therefore after all passional? Our answer is that one must take into account the spiritual temperament of the Hindus, their contemplative plasticity, the particular character of their emotivity, which is more "cosmic" and less individualistic than that of Europeans, as well as more "aesthetic" and less prone to moralizing. Furthermore, the Hindu, while being a powerful logician, is little given to rationalism, a fact that must not be regarded as paradoxical, because he is above all an intuitive type whose intelligence is open to the essences of things; he does not live, like the Westerner, upon rational alternatives; metaphysical ideas, far from forming for him a more or less inoperative background, on the contrary intervene actively in his methods, even though their influence is doubtless less direct with the bhakta than with the jnānī.

    Aesthetic factors (giving this expression its most profound meaning) hold nearly the same importance in Hindu bhakti as intellectual factors; the same can be said of the mahabbah of Sufism, as represented by Omar Ibn Al-Faridh, for example, or Jalal ad-Din Rumi. A European of Latin formation tends primarily to see in beauty as such passional attraction, seduction, or "the world"; in general he lacks the intuition of essences, the spontaneous sense for universal analogies and cosmic rhythms; he is given to replacing contemplative aestheticism by an ascetical form of sentimentality; he does not fall into ecstasy, like Ramakrishna, before some beauty of nature, or rather, before the celestial beauty therein reflected; it is rare for him to look on nature with the eyes of Saint Francis of Assisi. Music for a Westerner is indeed a sensible consolation, but it rarely amounts to more than that; he does not readily hear in it "the sound of the gates of Paradise opening and closing," according to an expression of the Mevlevi Dervishes; he does not know sacred dance, although Saint Teresa of Avila had a presentiment of it and would certainly have appreciated its value. The Westerner distinguishes above all between worldly or immoral beauty and beauty with a religious content – but on the other hand, since natural beauty binds him to passion instead of raising him towards the Infinite, he comes to identify passion with the beautiful, whence the loss of sacred art. It is easy to understand why the samkīrtanas of the Hindu bhaktas or the "spiritual concerts" of the Sufis often appear to the Christian as a facile playing with emotion, and in point of fact a fluctuation between the intuition of the heart and natural emotion does exist, so much so that certain Sufis were opposed to the extension of these practices. Howbeit, the spiritual efficacy of aesthetic supports is in the nature of things; therefore it must actualize itself under certain conditions and it is unreasonable to deny this because of some moralizing preconception.

  5. From the yogic point of view everything capable of promoting concentration is by that fact utilizable, at least in principle; here the criterion of efficacy – apart from the intrinsic value of beauty – is therefore to be found in the unifying power of the aesthetic experience.

    In order to clarify still further the difference between the Hindu and European mentalities, we can say this: the Christian, like every Monotheist – save in gnosis – finds himself situated intellectually between dogma and reason, whence the "obscurity of faith"; he is, as it were, suspended between divine mystery and human incapacity; intellection – supra-rational intuition – is then replaced by grace or "consolation." Such consolation is to be met with in all spirituality, Eastern as well as Western, for the simple reason that it answers to a general possibility of the human soul; what is particular to Catholic mysticism is not the existence therein of consolations but their importance and the absence of analogous factors of another order and of an active nature. This restriction is not unrelated to a certain concern for collective expediency, for formal cohesion and apologetic convenience, or, in other words, to a tendency to reduce the mystical life to a single easily controllable type.

    The problem of faith and consolation brings us to that of "temptations against faith": these are possible because faith is situated in the will and not in the intellect. Faith is a matter of grace, of will and of reason, at least in the perspective of love whereby Christian spirituality is determined in a quasi-exclusive manner; it has an aspect of "obscurity" which calls forth temptations, rather as the fallibility of reason calls forth errors, or as liberty in regard to evil calls forth sins. However, even when one takes faith in its ancient and integral sense, as including also, or even especially, gnosis, temptations nonetheless remain possible, but then they alter their characteristics: the rift between dogma and our strength of intuitive adherence to it is then replaced by the rift between intellectual certitude and human weakness, or rather it is the acute actualization of this rift that constitutes the trial. Christ's cry, “Eli,Eli, lama sabachthani” is the prefiguration of the mystical temptations against faith: just as the Christ is overwhelmed for an instant by the human obscurity He wills to taste in order that it may be vanquishable by man, so is the love of the mystic invaded by the obscurities of his own soul which the devils moreover have every interest in exploiting. Contrary to what takes place with Christ, who embraces the entire cosmos, the mystic suffers only on his own account, unless he also, out of charity, expiates an obscurity foreign to himself; such a human expiation will, moreover, necessarily remain partial.

    A mysticism that is passional, and fraught with suffering by reason of this very feature, will readily see in the yogic technique a pretentious and facile attempt at shortcuts and avoidance of suffering; from the standpoint of the Yoga-principle, as from the standpoint of pure gnosis, it is precisely the passional character of the mysticism of love which can take on an appearance of facility, though not in a blameworthy sense; "difficulty" will then reside not in suffering, but on the contrary in detachment and in a serenity which turns away from the passional and therefore "easy" movements of the soul; the difficulty in gnosis is subtle and qualitative, not dramatic. There is nothing individualistic about pure Yoga; it treats the plastic matter of the soul with a logic that is wholly impersonal, at least in principle and a priori.

  6. Thanks for the reminder Anon, seem to remember reading that or some of it years ago.

    Wow Karem, tanks for this , will print it out and give it a read. thanks for taking the time to cut and paste it all in to the comments.


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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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