Saturday, February 8, 2014

On Hesychasm and Eastern Christian mysticism

There is much in the Eastern Orthodox Rite of Christianity that is relatively unknown in the world, but offers much in the way of an effective path to Godhead. It is largely unknown in the wider spiritual community due to a smaller number of adherents than other mainstream Christian sects, and in general followers tend to be born into it via a small number of ethnic cultures. Until quite recently, the writings related to Hesychasm have been available only in Greek, Russian or minority language texts.

Hesychasm (Greek: ἡσυχασμός, hesychasmos, from ἡσυχία, hesychia, "stillness, rest, quiet, silence") is an eremitic tradition of prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine Rite practised (Gk: ἡσυχάζω,hesychazo: "to keep stillness") by the Hesychast (Gr. Ἡσυχαστής, hesychastes).

Based on Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray", hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God. (Wikipedia)

The Hesychasm movement also has many similarities to other mysticism traditions such as Sufism, Hasidism, and certain Indian schools.

Some key concepts and practices:

- Use of mantra/japa, along with breathing. Especially with the "Jesus prayer"
- Use of both somatic and psychological exercises (postures, heart and vital centres focusing, repitition of phrases, constancy in practice, fervour devotion/bhakti, etc.)
- seclusion to quiet places
- mystical leadership
- practice in stillness, inner silence
- Divine grace vs self-will or self-effort
- Repentance and self-honesty (confession)
- Self-observation and daily review
- transformation of thought and energy

Having studied the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky movement for some time, it strikes me as interesting how much Hesychasm features in the Fourth Way, yet is rarely acknowledged over other possible influences such as Sufism. Yet Gurdjieff himself remained an Orthodox Christian throughout his life, and was buried with an Orthodox service. Commonalities in both movements include self-observation, self-remembering, intentional suffering and voluntary spiritual labor, self-honesty, and the acknowledgement of Grace before one's own impotency to change.

One small point of interest is the use of the "Jesus prayer" or "Lord Jesus <or God>, have mercy on me, a sinner."

As with any devotional mantra, its use verbally is only a start. All sages agree that such mantras much be accompanied with sincere devotion and longing towards the Divine.

The use of this phrase is an excellent way to foster:
  • humility and self-honesty
  • increased devotion to Godhead
  • increased desire for liberation
  • the feeling of non-doership and release
  • attention to the self ("me")- which is nothing short of the direct path of self-inquiry/self-attention/"I AM" yoga.
Such facts were probably known to contemporaries such as Gurdjieff, who made use of this prayer, and of course, sages in the Eastern Rite, who made profuse use of this phrase accompanied with certain yogic or somatic practices.

As with any yogic or somatic spiritual exercise, guidance from an experienced mentor is highly recommended over going it alone.

Some further reading:

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