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Patristic Cognitive Tools for Coping With Bad Thoughts

July 11, 2012

Anyone who is familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous knows that this most successful of self-help groups has many slogans by which the recovering alcoholic is helped in the struggle to overcome the desire to drink or self-medicate.  “Poor me, poor me, pour me another” is just one of the myriad slogans AA folk use in dealing with their addiction.  If we look closely at the slogan, we find two simple yet profound truths therein.  First, self-pity, the very opposite of Christian self-responsibility and repentance, often leads to engaging in destructive, addictive behavior, which the Fathers would characterize as passionate behavior or captivity by the passions. Second, the bad seed always first takes root in the thoughts only coming to fruition in action once that bad thought has been entertained and allowed to ferment in the mind.

The Fathers saw this process with amazing clarity and had similar cognitive tools by which they instructed Christians to cope with bad thoughts, i.e. those thoughts that lead us away from God and deprive us of inner harmony and peace.  In chapter 8 of my book, I discuss these tools in detail.  Here’s an excerpt that may spur further reflection:  “According to St. John Climacus, there are three basic approaches to the thoughts that correspond to the three stages of spiritual maturity:  purification in which the believer prays for deliverance from bad thoughts by entreating God, illumination in which he contradicts them with passages from Holy Scripture, and deification in which he utterly prevails over them because his spiritual eyes are riveted on divine theoria.  For the first two stages, the ascetic fathers take into account practical considerations and furnish the believer with detailed instructions that in a psychological context are usually associated with cognitive techniques.  For comparative purposes, we will embark on a brief expedition into those patristic meadows that are lush with advice given during those stages in order to help the believer fight and overcome bad thoughts.  More concretely, we will consider the use of prayer, confession, disdain, rebuttal, and analysis as responses to malignant thoughts.  Then from that vantage point, we will scout out preliminary cognitive techniques in psychotherapy for observing and responding to automatic thoughts that are maladaptive.”

In the next few blog posts, I’ll review these different techniques individually and give concrete advice taken from the Fathers concerning coping with bad thoughts.

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