Orthodox Psychotherapy

Today anxiety is the one thing that cuts across everyone who seeks professional help for depression, substance use issues, relationship problems, school problems, behaviour problems and the list goes on... There isn’t a single mental illness where anxiety is not a key piece. The only exception is if someone is a psychopath or a sociopath. Psychopaths are born but sociopaths are made from their environment. Even narcissists when they do something wrong they feel a certain amount of guilt and shame. More shame than guilt though, because they are concerned about how other people view them-shame is a public emotion. They do not like being viewed badly by the public eye and other people. But they will also feel a little bit of guilt: “I probably shouldn’t have done that”. Psycho and sociopaths have no guilt and no shame. They don’t feel remorse when they do something bad. They don’t care who gets hurt. They can easily be hired assassins or multimillionaires, because as we said, they don’t care who gets hurt. We will not get into these cases today. These people even if you teach them empathy they will soon return to their cold ways. These are people who are believed to have slightly different Autonomic Nervous System. Our Autonomic Nervous System is the part that holds the Sympathetic Nervous System.

For an average person when we break a rule, when we do something embarrassing or rude, when we go through a red light, our heart starts racing. We sweat, we look around because we are afraid of the consequences. Our Sympathetic Nervous System gets charged. A psychopath doesn’t have that same way of arousal. That’s why they can lie on a lie detector test. If they were to get on a roller coaster they wouldn’t feel this sense of excitement. Science has proved through special scans that the section of the brain which serves empathy doesn’t naturally light up on them. So the ones who commit violent crimes end up in jail and the ones who commit white collar crimes end up multimillionaires.

These people are charming and intelligent. This is what the psychologists call: “Antisocial Personality Disorder”. But why do we mention all the above? In order to get this diagnosis you have to show a pattern prior to the age of 15 with violence towards pets, other kids, stealing, skipping school, setting fires etc., without caring about anything. If we have kids that do not think about the consequences, kids that they act first and think later, we need to keep an eye on them and definitely pray for them. They will be capable of reading our weaknesses and use them for their benefit. They would easily sell us a car they would choose for us. Psychiatrists prescribe medication for mental disorders, but all these medications cannot fight the disorder directly. They minimise a certain symptom in order for the person to go back to the common way of processing things. Only then the psychologists will be able to work with this person to change his mindset and help him overcome his personal difficulties. Without this medication the psychologist cannot get the person to a cooperative level to help him understand what he needs to see differently. (Dr Ramani Durvasula PhD, Psychologist Author, Professor of Psychology).

But tonight we will not talk about these cases who need to be treated with medication and by psychiatrists. These are medical issues. We will focus on what a psychologist could offer but from a spiritual view. Church doesn’t treat people with psychological problems as clients but as souls and potential Saints. We will also try to talk about very common and usual problems and anxieties we all, more or less, face constantly or at some stage in our lives. How much worry is too much worry? Where is this line? How to prevent anxiety or even cure it using our faith in Christ? We all pray and strive for whatever we consider beneficial in our lives. When God fulfils our requests we consider Him Good. In case we do not get a solution to our problems our faith gets shaken. If we do not want to waste our lives, there are few things we need to take in consideration. We often have some issues which we call psychological. Some personal difficulties which we might think we carry from our childhood, from the way we were raised etc. A number of anxieties. But we often forget to take in consideration our spirituality. If we try to be close to God we find ways out of all these troubles and traumas we carry inside us and around our neck. We can set ourselves free. And this is for everyone. Not just for some of us. The thoughts are the base for the light or the darkness inside us. Our thoughts can become the beginning of a sin or the beginning of holiness. The beginning of becoming a Saint or be deluded. Because spiritual life is not just whatever looks right but what is in the deeper parts of our heart. God knows the depths of our hearts.

These depths determine what we truly are. If there is inner order there will be order in our lives in every aspect. St Silouan says to remember and be afraid of two thoughts. One telling you that you are Holy and the other one telling you that you will not be saved. Someone might say: these are not my kind of problems; I do not have a job, I am hungry or I am lonely, I am miserable, etc. All this kind of anxieties are an alibi. They are of course problems but our inner issue is one and only. Once we solve it, we don’t care if we do or don’t have food to eat. If we do not solve it we cannot survive even if we are full or have the best job ever. We will be lonely, miserable and depressed. An atheist might say: I don’t even know if there is a God. Why should I worry if I am Holy or if I won’t be saved? The idea of being a Saint often appears in a different form: “I am perfect! I am an important person! I can make things happen! I am consistent! I have honour! I have values. I follow the rules”, and so on. It takes a different form. This is self-sufficiency. Self-justification. Spiritual self-satisfaction. Self-certainty. A huge spiritual and psychological trap. It makes our hearts hard. It does not make us flexible and lenient, tolerant and merciful to others. It makes us unmerciful.

This is why the so called “good kids” or “good people” are very dangerous. They cannot forgive others. They demand others to be in a certain level. They even demand God to listen to what they request from Him. The 2nd thought: “I will not be saved” can be equally translated to: “I am nothing, no one cares for me, I am useless”. This person can be happy when people are getting in trouble. He goes for a hidden pleasure dip in self-pity. It is a misery which can somehow justify us. Because we didn’t make it to be first, we make ourselves enjoy being last. The other side of the same coin. Two equally pathological conditions. The same person who considers himself holy or perfect if he fails he will end up in despair and claim that he is useless and will not be saved. They are the one and same thing. Expressions of our ego. These thoughts they are not just external attacks. They express the condition of our hearts. They up-spring from inside us. They reveal themselves as thoughts, imaginations or even emotions we might talk about. Saint Silouan gives us the way out of both these thoughts. We should think that we are great sinners, but, the uncountable love and mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will save us too. Never lose hope.

This means that I am no longer concerned if I am Holy or not, but I focus on my relationship with God. Because my salvation is not a justification for some good acts I did, or a reward from someone not related to me, but my reward and my salvation is my relationship with God. This approach warms up my heart towards God. I am in a terrible spiritual condition but have my hope in God’s mercy, and therefore I will be saved. This hope develops a warmth between me and God and connects me with Him. It makes God the centre of my life. And Paradise is not the reward for good acts but this relationship with God. What is Heaven and what is hell? Heaven is the absorption of God’s love. Hell is when you have God’s love but you hate it. It makes you miserable and you can’t stand it. It is like the sun. Develops the life into the living and decomposes the dead bodies. The same sun does both at the same time. God will not cast out the condemned. This is how they will experience Him because this is what they have inside them.

The 1st though: I am a holy or good person, etc. positions myself in the centre. The 2nd thought: I will not be saved or I am useless etc. also places myself in the centre. On the contrary, thinking that I am a great sinner but yet God will save me, moves the centre from me to my Saviour. To God. The hope in God’s love will save us. The hope in God’s love includes power. If we don’t have our hope in God is because we believe in our own powers and we want to be justified through them. We will of course try to be in our best behaviour. It is just that we become aware that we cannot achieve even the smallest thing without God’s Grace. We no longer act only with our logic. By embracing the belief that God will save me, I embrace His behaviour and I treat my fellowmen the way He would. With love, understanding and compassion. We communicate and unite.

We become free from fears. Not because a psychologist taught us or because someone forced us to, but because this is what naturally comes out from a human who experienced God’s love. When a child experiences love from a young age, he can also offer love as a natural result of his experience. If a child was not raised in a loving environment, he will have fears, suspiciousness and no idea how to love others. The same way, once we experience God’s love and we see our unworthiness, once we understand the greatness of repentance, love and forgiveness will be flowing from inside us for everyone around us. This is why Aba Makarios says: “Acquire a heart and you will be saved”. Not a sentimental but a spiritual heart. To arise our inner man and let him express all these which God has put inside us. We then become different existence. New men. All the straggle in our spiritual life is not to become “good men” but “new creation”. New brain, new heart, new senses, new enlightenment, new man. So when we get this experience, we start looking at things differently. It doesn’t matter if I am a good or a bad person. These are psychological schemes. Will my heart wake up, start working properly and ask to follow what it was created for? We were not created to be “good kids” of a social system which adjusts to the ideas of its time. We were created to be living creatures who have overcome the fear of death. St Silouan continues and says: “Believe that God will forgive you and it will be done according to your faith”. So the forgiveness we receive depends on whether we believe in it or not. It is a great sin to go for confession and not to believe that God has forgiven you. It is an insult towards God’s love. We do not believe in the power of His Cross which can save, forgive and heal us. It is as if we tell Him: “Your Blood which you poured out on the Cross is not enough for me. My sins exceed Your Sacrifice”. Isn’t this an insult against His Love and Sacrifice? When we say: “even if God forgives me I could never forgive myself”, this means we do not believe in His Love. We have no faith. But this faith is not like I convince myself that I have a relaxed God, Who forgives everything. This faith is the inner truth of our heart. No one is forcing it to me externally.

I am experiencing it internally, like a relationship. If someone tells me that he loves me, it is not enough for me. I need to believe it myself, meaning to develop a spirit of trust. I have personally experienced God and I trust His love. And I believe He will forgive me. Not because the priest says so. Otherwise I will end up asking how much of a sin is this or that and how much punishment will it occur? These are theories, words and scholasticism. My heart needs to give birth to the belief that God loves me and therefore He will forgive me.

This is sometimes our fight with our own heart and with God. St Silouan who tells all the above to us was someone who was extremely ascetic, he was not sleeping much, he was fighting with the demons, he had a lot of anxiety, for a number of years he was suicidal because he was experiencing the hell’s suffering itself. This is to help us understand that our Saints are not fairy-tales, are not imagination. They were very human and went through dirt to approach God. He went through sweat and blood to achieve all these revelations. But a human who does not go through such suffering does not become truly human. We live in an imaginary level. “This person did this to me or said such and such” etc. These are fairy-tales to fill up our time. On the other hand we should not rely on our personal ascesis. There was an ascetic who was doing thousands of prostrations daily. He thought therefore that he was definitely going to be saved. But this was a delusion. When the time of his death arrived he panicked because he didn’t rely on God’s mercy and love but he was relying exclusively on his personal efforts and powers. Thus everything was self-centred and wasted.

So it’s not important to just labour spiritually but do everything in a God-centred way. Our salvation is a gift. Once we understand this we can easily forgive others and let all the weight of our souls fade away. By going to confession and receiving the forgiveness from God, we move forward into building a relationship with Him, Who is our Creator and Whose love can free our hearts from every anxiety and cure our souls not temporarily but eternally. But to be able to experience God’s love and forgiveness we need to also show our love and forgiveness to others. In case we find it difficult we need to pray for it. There is no other way to free ourselves from our personal anxieties. We are then not just an open book, but an open book that talks about love and forgiveness. A book which embraces in its pages everyone and humbly offers everything possible to everyone around. Even one bad thought about our fellow man, if we entertain it, could fill us up with demonic energy. We become negative and cold. Therefore we are in danger to lose God’s Grace. And we then get filled up with new worries and anxieties. And then we realise that without God’s grace we are rubbish. Wasted. But never despair and never give up. God loves the brave fighter.

And who is the brave fighter? The one who doesn’t give up regardless the uncountable falls he has faced. More brave than the person who just fights is the person who keeps fighting regardless the falls. Even on the level of an everyday relationship, the relationship gets interrupted once you start thinking you are above, or you know better than the other person. This is pride. This is the mother of all sins. The reason why people get deluded. If you believe you know more than your spiritual father, you set up yourself for a great fall. For a number of unnecessary anxieties. Understanding and loving others are qualities transmitted from us to everyone around us. But what do we fill up our hearts with when it comes to dealing with others? Fears, insecurities, negative thoughts. What happens next? We kill each other. We cannot communicate. We lock ourselves in our personal castles and we become defensive and offensive from our anxiety that we will lose the game. Pride means that I do not trust God’s love and I expect to solve my problems using my own abilities. In a relationship I always want to be in charge. But this is not a relationship. This is me being afraid, being anxious and insecure. When I do not trust the other and I want to know if he hides anything etc., this indicates that I do not have enough love to overcome such issues. So I want to control and correct the other person. This is a proud and at the same time disable person. Therefore if I do not leave myself in God’s Hands, this means I am proud and spiritually disable. I do not trust my own Creator! As if I could ever do anything better than Him. The humble person entrusts himself in God’s Hands. This is true freedom! A lot of issues which we could call psychological are deeply down results from the occupation of our mind with thoughts of negativity or pride. If you take a “good kid” from a “good family” who from very young was taught to be right and always first, this kid will slowly develop the deception that he is a small “god”. He will always straggle to be successful. And along the way he develops the fear: “will I make it or will I not make it? Will I be 1st or 2nd?” And then the comparison thoughts take over: “Is the other one better or worse than me?” And he suffers. He develops stress and anxiety especially when later in his life he has responsibilities to deal with. He ends up with panic attacks.

He even goes to the Church and he develops the same fake relationship with God too. He cannot surrender himself in His Hands. He is afraid. He is afraid of sins, and tries to demand God’s assistance. What is the way out? Humility. To say: “Do You my Lord want me to be last? Let it be blessed. Do You want me to be useless? Let it be blessed. Do You want me to be in hell? Let it be blessed. All I ever wanted is You”. But do you know what a “good kid” will say? “What will I do if in Heaven the people I do not like are above me?” He will suffer even then and for this reason he won’t accept this position in Heaven. What is pride? To believe in our thoughts and judgments. There is no greater delusion than to believe in our own thoughts and judgments. There is no greater slavery than the slavery of our thoughts. They can literally drive us crazy. The free man is the fool for Christ. “I do not know anything. You my Lord do as You wish.” How easily can we accept this? When we grow in an antagonistic environment and we always want the best positions, we will get there but, we won’t achieve happiness.

There is no grater or more painful crucifixion than the crucifixion of our logic. To be willingly and with full conscience fools for Christ. Don’t ask to be the 1st and don’t ask to be the last. Just ask for God Himself. If we are peaceful wherever he positions us we will be free and happy. This is not easy because we have reactions inside us. We need to reject the worries and become like children. When we accept a proud or a judgmental thought against our brother, God will allow us to fall in other temptations to become humble again. And in case we do not fix our positioning and our attitude, God allows flesh temptations to tempt us. This is because the sins of the flesh are without a doubt noticeably bad, even from those who commit them. So noticeable that you can’t keep being proud. They humiliate us. But once we humble ourselves God will grant us peace and all the adversary thoughts will disappear. Pride leads us into temptation and will keep us there until we humble ourselves.

This is the secret of the spiritual life. Humility makes us receptive of God’s Grace. Difficulties in life are not to make us holy but to make us humble. Humility casts away every anxiety. When you are around humble people you feel peaceful and free too. Why don’t others feel this way around us? Because we are proud. We believe in our thoughts and ourselves, and therefore we create a separation from the ones around us. When a disease has no symptoms it is extremely dangerous. There are no signs to help us realise there is something wrong with us. The same way our numerous sins are the symptoms of the dipper sin of pride inside us. We should be grateful to God for allowing us to fall into these temptations, not because we want to sin, but because these are the warnings of the hidden pride in us. Afterwards we need to maintain with all our powers the humility, otherwise we will fall again and again. Our problems are not an excuse for anxiety. We need to keep a space in side our hearts which will be unapproachable to all the surrounding problems and difficulties. This is the holy altar of our hearts where we will meet God. This is something which a hermit and an ascetic might not have developed but a married person could possess. The centre of our existence needs to stay virgin and off limits to every worry and trouble. This is not only the way for spiritual success but also for success in life because this is the way to stay psychologically healthy.

The healthy relationships start from inside us. Such a person knows the reason of his existence and fulfils it. Such a person has meekness. A meek person doesn’t move psychologically regardless if you praise or blame him. He does not stress about it because his constant focus is elsewhere. On God. Our Lord indicates that if we learn from Him to be meek and humble in our heart, our soul will find comfort. Meaning no psychological issues could ever trouble the person who is full of God’s peace. Full of the Holy Spirit.

Transcript: A talk lead by His Grace Bishop Emilianos of Meloa

for the Youth of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, NSW.

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