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-