Spiritual traditions seem to agree that the human brain poses a problem and a potential obstacle in the spiritual life.
Thinking has its place. It is a useful tool to help navigate the intricacies of life. Thinking is good for baking a cake, reading a map, and solving numerous practical problems. But life is not a cake; it does not come with a road map. Life is not a practical problem to be solved; it is a mystery to be entered into and lived. Living a mystery requires a skill deeper than thinking.
For most of us, much of the time, a great deal of our thinking is useless. It takes on monstrous proportions and brings untold turmoil and anxiety. Our brains waste time regretting the past, fretting about the future, and scheming in the present. We replay endlessly the old stories of regret, resentment, and lost opportunity. We fantasize about what could have been, should have been, might have been. It seems at times humanly impossible to get a moment’s respite from the thoughts that churn endlessly in our brain.
The ancient desert tradition understood deeply the impact thinking has upon our inner lives.
A brother said to an old man, “My thoughts wander, and I am troubled.” The old man answers, “Go on sitting in your cell, and your thoughts will come back from their wanderings. If a she-ass is tethered, her foal skips and frolics all around her but always returns to its mother. So will it be with the person who for God’s sake sits patiently in the cell. Though his thoughts wander for a time, they will come again.”
To “go on sitting in your cell,” is to find a quiet steady place deep within that is deeper than thinking, deeper even than the constant flux of feeling. This is the place where we encounter God. It is the place where we know that we are held, that the centre of the universe is not arbitrary and threatening but faithful and beneficent. This is the place Jesus called the place of prayer instructing his disciples,
when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret will reward you. (Matthew 5:6)
To “go into your room and shut the door,” was understood in ancient tradition as sinking beneath the constant turmoil of the mind and letting go of the barrage of thoughts. The door is closed for a time to the constant chatter of the thinking mind. The “reward” is that the heart opens to a deep consciousness of God’s presence that sustains and upholds all of life.
You cannot think your way to the deep trusting awareness of God’s presence. It grows through the practice of being still and silent. We connect with that part of our being that is aware of God’s presence as we return to our cell.
In Scete a brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word. Abba Moses said to him, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Thinking may help clear the way to the “cell”. Feelings may point us towards the depth of our true being. But neither is the ultimate vehicle to get us to the place of deep abiding trust where we are conscious of the presence of God.
The ancient poet in the Hebrew Book of Psalms points the way towards the encounter with God when he writes,
For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. (Psalm 62:1)
The prophet Isaiah counsels,
Sit in silence, and go into darkness. (Isaiah 47:5)
In my experience, the intentional practice of silence has the power to enable the incessant clatter of my mind to grow quiet for a moment making it possible for me to become sensitive to the mysterious Presence that is the source of all being and the sustainer of all creation. This is the place I want to spend more time.