Keeping Watch

The first and most important thing to realise in the life of the inner person is that we are not our thoughts. We are the person who is experiencing the thoughts and feelings. There are some thoughts and feelings which we have claimed possession of and which now belong to us and there are some thoughts which are simply passing by and which do not belong to us – but our thoughts are never who we actually are whether we claim possession of them or not. 

Pelagius teaches that the influence of demons (by this he means unwanted thoughts and feelings – click here to learn more about this psychological understanding of demons) on the human soul is purely in the realm of suggestion. We can be tempted towards evil, but we cannot be forced to accept it. This truth gives us hope and casts aside despair because it means that we have the ability to say no to temptations. We are able to say no when we realize that most of these thoughts do not actually belong to us and that we exist outside of them. The practice of being aware of this truth and of consciously choosing which thoughts and feelings we wish to claim possession of, is what Pelagius calls “keeping watch.” This practice is something which can be done in a formal time of meditation, however, it is perhaps best used while in the midst of daily life and in response to the needs of our inner condition.

Many thoughts come to us which are not our own. They may be the thoughts of the adults who raised us when we were children. They may be the thoughts of our culture and society. They may be the impulses of our animal nature. They may be all sorts of things. Pelagius referred to these thoughts as suggestions and counsels. We have an array of thoughts and feelings which present themselves to us at any given moment and make suggestions to our mind. It is our task to choose from among them and this choice can either be one of intentionality or one of habit. Choosing from among them is not always easy, however, as most of these thoughts come to us and are chosen by us without us even being aware. The choosing of thoughts becomes automatic in most people and we end up making choices without even realising that we are making them. They happen so quickly and so automatically that we have no conscious awareness it is happening at all. When we are keeping watch over our thoughts and being intentional about what kind of world we create in our inner landscape, we are able to step back from these thoughts, realise that they are not actually ours, and choose which ones we wish to claim possession of.

In many ways the thoughts which come to us are like a newsfeed in social media. Mysterious algorithms tucked away in the hidden recesses of our hearts decide what to show us based primarily on what we engage with most. When we decide to latch onto a thought it is not dissimilar to liking a post in your newsfeed. The algorithms record your reaction to it and show you material similar to it again in the future. If you want to curate a meaningful newsfeed you have to like the kinds of posts you want to see. In a similar manner, if you want to have healthy and helpful thoughts arise in your mind, then you must be mindful which thoughts you engage with.

Once we have chosen to claim possession of a thought then it becomes our own and we must deal with it differently. Most people claim possession of thoughts without intention. We simply accept the thoughts as they are presented to us. This seems to be a tendency of the human mind. We cling to that which we learn about first. Often people will hear a piece of information about a subject which they are unfamiliar with and they will decide that it is true simply because it was the first opinion on the subject they have heard. When another opinion is presented, they resist it despite not having good reasons to do so. The best version of a song is usually the version you heard first. The original movie is usually better than the remake. The music of your youth is usually better than what’s on the radio today. We are quick to claim possession of thoughts just like we are quick to claim possession of opinions. We are reluctant to challenge the thoughts we have claimed, even though we have only claimed them because they were the first thoughts which appeared to us.

Thoughts appear to us more and more regularly the more we claim possession of them. If we claim possession of the thought that everything is our fault every time it comes up then that thought will continue to be presented to us on a regular basis. The more we reject a thought the less it will be presented to us. In this way, we are able to shape the thoughts which are suggested to our minds and we are able to find peace.  When a thought like this appears in your mind, try saying a simple prayer like “God please take this thought from me, I do not claim possession of it.” Keep it simple and short so that you can move on to other thoughts but repeat it as often as you need to, whenever an unwanted thought presents itself to you. This is kind of like choosing to unfollow someone on your newsfeed who posts things you don’t want to see – though it is not as quick and easy as that!

If we are not intentional in which thoughts we claim possession of, then we automatically claim possession of the first thought which comes to us and therefore those thoughts come more and more regularly. This creates a vicious cycle in which we are trapped by our own lack of intention into a downward spiral of other people’s thoughts and opinions. One of the very first things we have to do in the inner life is to take control of this cycle. We do this by keeping watch over our thoughts and deciding which ones are true based on actual facts and observations and not the regularity with which these thoughts assail us. Because our default is to claim possession of thoughts as they come to us, we must be ready to say no to these suggestions and reject their counsel. The more quickly we are able to say no to them, the less often they will be presented to us in the future. When we have curated a selection of beautiful thoughts and allowed them to become habits then we will find that our inner condition is much more healthy. We will also find that keeping watch becomes easier and less burdensome with practice, though it is something we will always need to do while living in this world.

When we are caught in the cycle and claiming thoughts as our own simply because we have done so many times before, we are living out of what Pelagius refers to as habit. We do so many things out of habit, which really just means not doing them out of a place of intentionality. For most people, the inner person operates almost entirely out of habit. Our thoughts have become so habitual that we are not even aware of the moment in which we accept these suggestions. Most of us are so lost in our habits that we do not even realize we have a choice to accept or reject the counsel which these thoughts present to us. We are so blinded by habit that we think we are actually our thoughts rather than the person choosing them. We begin to think that our habits are actually our nature.

Therefore, the practice of keeping watch over our thoughts is so essential. We do not have to accept every thought and feeling which comes to us. We can choose to only claim possession of those thoughts which bring us closer to God and to holiness. Pelagius also points out that those thoughts which are only suggestions and which we have not claimed are not sinful in any way, even if they are suggesting sinful things. There will be terrible thoughts which come to us without our consent. We often see things in our minds which we have not chosen – which we would never choose. These do not belong to us and they are not our responsibility – except that we must choose not to lay claim to them. 

We must only possess those thoughts which we have deemed to be healthy and life-giving. We discern between good thoughts and bad thoughts by comparing them to what we have learned in our study of the scriptures and the writings of saints and mystics, and also by sharing them with a wise person who we trust. We can also use our emotions as hints to what thoughts we may be accepting out of habit. If we are feeling shame, then there is likely a thought behind it which tells us that we are not good enough. If we are feeling anger then there is likely a thought behind it which is telling us that we need to defend ourselves. Our emotions are often by-products of our habitual thoughts and that means they can be used to uncover the thoughts we are choosing by habit. When we identify the thoughts then we are able to say no to them.

This practice of keeping watch is essential if we wish to come to a place of recollection. It helps us to heal our inner person and to gather together the scattered thoughts which we experience on a daily basis. Our outer life is a byproduct of our inner life and so this process of keeping watch will help heal both the inner and outer person. As Pelagius said,

“It is perfectly safe, however, for the mind to become accustomed to differentiating between one thought and another – always subject, of course, to careful and watchful control – and, at the first stirring of the mind, either to approving or disapproving of what it is thinking, so that it either nourishes good thoughts or immediately destroys bad ones. In this lie the source of good and the origin of sin, and thought is the beginning of every great offense in the heart, painting every single deed on the tablet of the heart, as it were, before doing it; for every deed and every word, whichever it may be, is laid out for inspection in advance and its future is decided by thoughtful consideration”

One of the greatest pitfalls that novices experience at the beginning of the contemplative life is to become disheartened by the chaotic state of their inner person. This largely comes from the false assumption that these unwanted suggestions and habits are who the inner person is. Therefore, it is essential that in the beginning we come to learn that we do not own these suggestions and that we are not responsible for them.

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3 thoughts on “Keeping Watch

  1. This is excellent guidance you offer here. We hear thoughts from God and thoughts that are not from God. I like how you advocate learning discernment of thoughts. Thank you, Justin.

  2. How do i become aware of thoughts before i blurt them out, usually inappropriate ones?

  3. Interesting, it seems you want to externalise clearing the ‘bad’ thought to God, whereas I think it’s important that it comes from the self. My shorter internal phrase is, “that would not be good”. The thought is then let go of. Do this often enough and it works a treat. Granted, it may be by the grace of god that it is cleared, but the impetus is to discipline the self.

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