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The Role of the Mind and the Body in Behavioral Modification

July 4, 2012

The Fathers rightly understood that man is a composite of mind and body and that both must be addressed in order to correct the thoughts and actions.  Long before cognitive psychology appeared on the scene to correct one-side behavioralism, patristic tradition had a unified understanding of human mental functioning in terms of theoria and praxis.  For the Fathers, theoria and praxis refer to the inward and outward aspects of life in Christ respectively.  Theoria concerns the correct ordering and control of thoughts while praxis refers to properly ordered outward acts.  Nepsis (or watchfulness) and hesychia (or stillness) are the main weapons in the battlefield of the mind.  Bodily ascetical practices such as fasting, prostrations, vigils, and a prayerful stance are the armaments of praxis.

In chapter 7 “Following Ariadne’s Thread”, I discuss the importance of engaging both the mind and the body in the spiritual struggle.

“In the spiritual life, theoria is meant to guide praxis, which at a bare minimum means that cognition should govern behavior.  Thus, Saint Maximus the Confessor comments that in the saint, thoughts express true knowledge that regulates the body so that its actions are virtuous.  Hence knowledge illumines the soul through theoria and right cognition, while virtue sanctifies the body through praxis and proper behavior.  In the sinner, the malady of ignorance is a spiritual blindness or lack of theoria that both darkens the thoughts and causes the body to be profaned by the sickness of vice or a lack of praxis.    Thus, complete spiritual healing requires both changes in behavior by the practice/praxis of the virtues and in cognition by a spiritual vision/theoria that perceives the divine reason (i.e., the Logos) woven into the very fabric of reality.

In reality, theoria and praxis cannot be separated just as in this life the mind and the body can’t be separated apart from death.

This Patristic theory relates quite well to cognitive theory which also notes that behaviorally acting contrary to automatic thoughts weakens the strength of dysfunctional schemata and assists in the formation of new adaptive beliefs.  As I state in chapter 7, “when the church fathers recommend making use of praxis, bodily asceticism, or bodily virtues as tools in order to become righteous, cognitive therapists would be apt to view those tools as behavioral techniques in the service of cognitive change.

In developing strategies for sound therapeutic change, both mind and body have to be considered and addressed.  In my most recent posts concerning thoughts, I noted that salvation itself can be achieved or forfeited in this realm.  However, in order to address this most important issue in a therapeutic fashion, both thoughts and actions must be considered.

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