Demons and Western Psychology: The Unbounded Potential of The Monastic Mind

Daniel Eastman on Inbar Graiver

Asceticism of the Mind
Inbar Graiver. Asceticism of the Mind: Forms of Attention and Self-Transformation in Late Antique Monasticism. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. pp. 248 Hardback $80.00.

How were Christian monks in the late antique Near East like modern cognitive psychologists? This question lies at the heart of Inbar Graiver’s Asceticism of the Mind, an exploration of monastic concepts of self and self-transformation through the lens of cognitive science.

Compact yet meticulously researched, Graiver’s book takes a deep dive into monastic literature – works written by monks for other monks – from the fourth through seventh centuries of the Common Era. Her main sources are the writings of monks in Egypt and the Levant, who represent what she terms the “Eastern monastic tradition.” Readers familiar with early monasticism will recognize many names here, from Anthony the Great to Evagrius of Pontus, John Cassian, John Climacus, and of course the collections of short sayings known as the Apophthegmata Patrum or Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Other works, such as the letters of Barsanuphius or the writings of Mark the Monk and Hesychius the Priest, may be less widely known. For the most part Graiver sticks to Greek texts (with the exception of Cassian’s Latin Conferences) and does not cover the plentiful and contemporaneous monastic writings of the Coptic and Syriac traditions, which certainly qualify as “Eastern,” but would perhaps stretch her archive beyond manageable limits.

Drawing on this corpus, Graiver outlines the features of what she calls “demonological psychology:” the conceptual system that structured how monks imagined selfhood and mental activity. Especially since David Brakke’s acclaimed Demons and the Making of the Monk, scholars have recognized the important role that demons played in monastic self-formation. Graiver focuses in particular on the ascetic imperatives of self-control and undistracted prayer, and the challenges that accompanied monks’ efforts to train their minds to remain attentive to God. As she demonstrates, demons played a major role in monastic mental training as instigators of distractions that caused the monk’s mind to wander, obsess over particular thoughts, or even go insane.

To her archive of monastic literature Graiver adds two other interlocutors, which she interweaves masterfully throughout the book: ancient philosophy and modern cognitive psychology. The former provides the intellectual backdrop against which demonological psychology developed, as Graiver traces conceptions of the self and its transformation from their Platonic and Stoic origins to their adoption and adaptation by ascetic Christian thinkers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Evagrius of Pontus. While Graiver is not exactly breaking new ground here, she does succeed in artfully drawing together threads explored disparately by other scholars in a way that is coherent, concise, and engaging, no mean feat given the historical and disciplinary breadth she is covering.

The central contribution of the book, however, is Graiver’s engagement with cognitive psychology. As she notes in her Introduction, her purpose is not to “imply doubt about the truth claims” of monastic writers, but rather to “appreciate” and “understand” early monastic demonology and the role it played in attention and self-transformation. Cognitive psychology, in other words, constitutes for Graiver a hermeneutic, rather than a corrective, for demonological psychology, which allows her to explore new questions of “how” and “why.”  Why did monks suffer so many distractions in their quest to focus their attention on God? How did they seek to overcome these distractions, and why did they fail or succeed?

In addressing these questions, Graiver argues persuasively for the existence of two selves in monastic literature: the perfect mind, undisturbed by distractions, that was the ideal of prescriptive literature, and the wandering, at times obsessive mind that constituted the reality for many novice monks. This latter, “empirical self” she finds in anecdotes and letter exchanges between monks, and it is in her treatment of these sources that her analysis is at its best. A good example is her discussion of “obsession,” which she defines as “uncontrollable preoccupation with unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges.” In contrast to the ideal self’s freedom from distraction, many monks struggled with thoughts that seemed alien to their professed wishes – a condition that monastic elders ascribed to demonic influences. As the seventh-century abbot John Climacus put it,

Anyone disturbed by the spirit of blasphemy and wishing to be rid of it should bear in mind that thoughts of this type do not originate in his own soul but are caused by that unclean devil… If you have blasphemous thoughts, do not think that you are to blame.

Graiver juxtaposes such advice with that of modern Christian counselors drawing on cognitive psychology:

If you are a Christian suffering from oppressive guilt feelings or unwanted thoughts so ugly that you wonder whether you are demon possessed, you might be surprised to learn that it could well be that you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder… People with an abnormally sensitive conscience end up hounded by the very thing they detest.

Whereas in the monastic literature that Graiver explores, unwanted thoughts are ascribed to demons, psychologists today tend to ascribe them to the natural state of an anxious mind prone to dwelling on the very thoughts that it seeks to avoid. How closely can these two explanations be reconciled? Graiver’s suggestion, here and elsewhere in the book, is that cognitive and demonological explanations are sometimes two sides of the same coin. That is to say, it was precisely because monks struggled so mightily to suppress and avoid distracting thoughts that such thoughts could become “obsessive.” Conversely, externalizing troubling thoughts as demons allowed monks to effectively release, dismiss, and move past them.

As Graiver notes, comparisons like the one above highlight a fundamental difference between ancient and modern anthropological assumptions: monastic theologians understood the pre-lapsarian, undistracted condition as the natural state of the human mind, retrievable through training in the present life, whereas today psychologists tend to assume that near-continuous, low-level distractions are a normal aspect of mental life. In other words, the ancient categories of “natural” and “unnatural” (kata physin and para physin) do not map cleanly onto the modern categories of “normal” and “pathological.” Highlighting such differences is a second overarching goal of Graiver’s book. Along with understanding monastic demonology, she aims to provide a cross-cultural perspective from which cognitive psychologists (and those who read their work) can gain some “reflective distance” from the explanatory models of modern cognitive psychology. It is, she asserts, because things such as selfhood, attention, and obsessive behavior represent “pan-human cognitive phenomena” that they are useful avenues for comparing ancient and modern anthropology in general and psychology in particular. This comparative enterprise remains a secondary focus of the book – Graiver’s analytical lens stays for the most part squarely on the monastic texts, rather than on the cognitive theories she employs to understand them – but it is a laudable goal, and one that is interwoven throughout the study.

Some of the most rich and most thought-provoking parts of the book are those which deal with the question of how monks’ “empirical selves” or actual embodied existence figured in their efforts at attention management and self-transformation. For example, Graiver suggests in passing that sleep deprivation and the sensorial monotony of the monastic cell may have contributed to monks’ failure to overcome obsessive thoughts, and cites psychological literature linking sensory deprivation with increased mind-wandering. Part of what makes this hypothesis fascinating is that it contradicts prescriptive monastic literature, which tends to identify vigils and “guarding the senses” as means of preventing distracting thoughts. In another particularly intriguing section (published also in a recent article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies), Graiver discusses the practice of self-disclosure, whereby monks described their thoughts to a monastic superior. Relying on letter exchanges between older and younger monks and engaging with research in the field of linguistics, Graiver argues convincingly that the grammatical practice of describing unwanted thoughts as entities that acted upon the monk (e.g., “the thought tells me” as opposed to “I think”) helped monks distance themselves from the thoughts they sought to avoid.

Monastic self-formation was not a disembodied mental practice. Factors such as environment, diet, ritual practice, social relations, and sleep patterns all played important roles. Graiver’s insistence on the existence of “purely mental” training in late antique monasticism, as opposed to bodily or physical training, is thus the greatest shortcoming of Asceticism of the Mind, albeit one that is probably attributable to the need to frame mental asceticism as a distinct area of inquiry. While late antique writers did sometimes distinguish between training the body and training the mind or soul, over-emphasizing this dichotomy obscures the holistic nature of ascetic practice: the extent to which mental training took place not just in tandem with, but through bodily training. Evagrius may have been famous in late antiquity for his ability to discern demonic thoughts, but he was also quick to counsel his visitors to limit their intake of water as a means of limiting their exposure to those same demonic thoughts; demonological psychology was at least as much about the monk’s body as it was about his mind.

The extent to which the embodied existence of late antique monks affected their mental formation speaks directly to the utility of cognitive psychology as a standalone hermeneutic. Exactly how universal were the mental issues faced by late antique monks? Unlike cognitive psychology, which tends to generalize claims derived from studying particular humans (often North American college students) to the rest of the human population, monastic literature is typically more selective in its claims. The texts in Graiver’s archive were written by, about, and for a particular segment of the population: Greek-educated, adult Christian men undertaking the monastic lifestyle. They are, often explicitly, not written for women, children, non-Christians, or even non-monks, because (monastic writers assert) the psychological issues, along with their causes and remedies, discussed in monastic literature do not apply in the same way to other demographics. The disconnect in scope between demonological psychology and cognitive psychology leads to some awkward readings. For example, Graiver spends several pages treating an anecdote of John Cassian about a monk who was repeatedly troubled by nocturnal seminal emissions prior to the weekly service. In Cassian’s account, the monastic elders reassure the distraught monk that his emissions are the result of demonic interference beyond his control, whereupon he ceases to suffer from them. Graiver comments that this leniency “implies a recognition that there are limits to our capacity to control our bodily functions.” Who is the “our” in this sentence? Humans in general? Here Graiver’s sharp focus on the mind as distinct from the body leads her to overlook the gendering of Cassian’s account and assume that categories such as “human body” and “bodily functions” were the same in antiquity as they are today. In her treatment, Cassian seems to have adopted the generalizing assumptions of a modern cognitive psychologist, rather than the specific concerns of a monk situated in the cultural context of the late antique Mediterranean.

Graiver herself is the first to acknowledge the limitations of cognitive science as a hermeneutic, and shows herself willing to bring in other lenses, with brief forays into linguistics and neuroscience; she even includes a brief section on the risks associated with meditation in East Asian traditions. If some of her readings seem awkward, they nonetheless remain thought-provoking efforts to understand monastic mental discipline and query the assumptions of cognitive psychology.

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in training and self-formation in late antique eastern monasticism. Graiver engages skillfully with this literature, and readers will find her copious footnotes and bibliography a fruitful source for further exploration. One recent title that appears to have escaped her notes but takes a similar approach is Paul Dilley’s Monasteries and the Care of Souls in Late Antique Christianity, which also employs cognitive science to describe monastic training. The two books felicitously complement one another, for while Graiver focuses on Greek literature associated with the Evagrian contemplative tradition, Dilley concentrates primarily on Coptic communal monasticism.

Asceticism of the Mind concludes with the optimistic vision of the nearly unbounded potential of the monastic mind, a vision that Graiver hints may be more realistic than some historians have thought, in light of recent research on neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change in adulthood through training. While there are limits to the historian’s ability to capture the monastic goal of divine contemplation –as Graiver puts it, “the experience of mystical union falls outside the scope of this study” – it is to be hoped that other scholars will follow her lead in affording readers “an opportunity for reflection on the tacit anthropological assumptions underlying contemporary Western psychology.”

Daniel Eastman is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Yale University. His dissertation explores the theory and practice of emotions in late antique monasticism.