Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite
Why the Mind Is Enslaved to Physical Pleasures
There are two reasons why the mind was enslaved to physical pleasures. The first and main reason is the fact that after the disobedience of Adam, his body received the whole of its existence and constitution from physical pleasure that is impassionate and irrational. Henceforth, man is sown with physical pleasure; he is conceived with physical pleasure and he grows and matures in the womb until the time of birth with physical pleasure. This is what the Prophet David was referring to when he wrote: “For behold, I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother bear me.” (Ps 50:5). The second reason, which follows the first, is the fact that even after birth man is nurtured with physical pleasure. Throughout the early years of childhood (and to a greater degree even during the nine months of pregnancy), the power to reason is not developed and the mind is unable to utilize the senses of the body in order to activate its own energy and be preoccupied with its own rationality and spiritual delight. Consequently, only the body utilizes these senses, and not merely for its necessary nourishment, but also for its impassionate pleasure. And to make things worse, the body even draws the mind itself, being still imperfect and indiscreet, to the same physical pleasure, thereby enslaving the mind to physical pleasure. The saintly Theodore of Jerusalem spoke to this point in his most philosophical treatise:
Because the mind is prepossessed by sense perception, we have the duality of desire and anger. These are irrational tendencies and under the influence of nature and not of reason, becoming a habit in the soul that penetrates all the parts of our being and is difficult to uproot. Thus the order is reversed. In other words, the physical senses are complete and strong while the mind is not yet active. In fact the mind is observed to be imperfect although it is actually powerful. Consequently, the mind can be charmed to consider these physical things as good, in the very same way that they are considered by the bodily senses. Thus the faculty of reason, which is intended to rule, is made subservient to the senses and we have the better being enslaved by the worse. This is why evil is older than virtue.[i]
St. Gregory of Nyssa seems to be in agreement with Theodore of Jerusalem: “The faculty of bodily sense comes into active being simultaneously with the first birth, while the mind must await until the appropriate age to start up. . . . Because of this the senses rule over the mind even when it is somewhat developed. . . . This is why it is so difficult for us to acquire the understanding of what is truly good, for we first receive the experience of the criteria of the physical senses and thus perceive good on the basis of what is easy and pleasing.”[ii]
How bitter, tiresome, and painful this early use of the senses becomes later for the unfortunate mind! During the childhood period of about fifteen years, when the mind is in a sort of stupor and led by the senses, the irrational and instinctive senses receive their fill of physical pleasure, as they are indulged without the restraints of reason. During this early stage the mind is unable to activate its own powers through the bodily organs that are not yet appropriately developed to receive it. Moreover, the senses have already become accustomed to the habit of physical pleasures by the time the faculty of reason has matured. If the passions deprived of reasonable controls direct the senses toward sin, who will then be able, tell me, to easily restrain them?
For example, once the eyes become accustomed to looking passionately upon the mature beauty of living bodies; once the eardrums are accustomed to the pleasing sounds of certain songs; once the sense of smell is delighted by the fragrances of myrrh and aromatic things; once the tongue and the mouth taste or rather become accustomed to the rich and tasty foods; and finally, once the sense of touch is accustomed to fine and soft clothing -who will be able after that, even if one is most eloquent and persuasive, to convince people that what they have up to now enjoyed is not a true and rational pleasure, but on the contrary an irrational and temporal one? Who will put a muzzle on the senses that silently contradict, disagree, and assert that the only pleasure that is to be recognized is the one they have experienced and not any other that is immaterial and spiritual? Will the mind do that? Unfortunately, while the mind knows that such pleasures are appropriate to irrational animals and not to itself, it cannot bring about this change. Remember that the mind too, together with the senses, enjoyed during those early years the same pleasures, and because of its simplicity and immaturity was attracted by these pleasures and considered them to be good. Thus the mind appears to be in a state of narcosis or rather bound by the five senses as by five steel cables. In this condition the mind suffers and is troubled because it sees that while it is really the ruler of the body, it has become its slave. And yet, whether it wants to or not, the mind tends to join the senses in enjoying physical pleasures. Who then will be able to convince these physical senses to change this situation? Can the constitution of our imagination and inner understanding do this? But even this faculty of ours is painted over and filled with passionate images and idols which have over the years been impressed upon it. Thus it rather serves to excite through the memory both the mind and the senses to enjoy the same pleasures. Who then can help? Can the heart help? Unfortunately, even the heart is filled with desires and drives that have been accumulated there over many years. This causes the heart to force the mind, the imagination, and the senses and the entire body to enjoy the same physical pleasures. Not only this, but the devil himself, who rules over the carnal pleasures, in turn excites the mind and the heart and the senses even more. The holy Fathers have said that the devil, though bodiless, finds his pleasure in enjoying the bodily pleasures of men. And, metaphorically speaking, these are but the dirt and dust that he was condemned to eat through the serpent: “And dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (Gen 3:14). St. Gregory the Sinaite wrote on this point: “Humanly speaking, because the devils lost their angelic joy and were deprived of divine pleasure, they have acquired a sort of materialistic nature through their physical passions and suffer to eat, as we do, the dust of the earth.”[iii]
How the Mind Is Freed from Physical Pleasure
After this period of childhood and the full development of reason, the mind may learn on its own or may learn by hearing Holy Scripture and the holy Fathers that its natural and appropriate pleasure is something altogether different. What happens then? The mind, being by nature rational and prudent and loving whatever is good, cannot suffer to see the senses of its body so enslaved to their pleasurable objects. The mind cannot continue to be a co-prisoner with the senses and a contradiction: the king becoming a slave; the ruler becoming the ruled; he who by nature is self-ruled and in authority becoming the obedient subject. The mind, finally, cannot bear to receive such harm that will gradually bring it to annihilation and to hell.
It is to this end then that the mind undertakes its entire struggle. At first it seeks to show that it was created by God to be the ruler and the king of the body. That is to say, it seeks through the assistance of divine grace and all of its courage, all of its will, and all of its knowledge to uproot out of the senses of its body those long standing and entrenched habits which they have acquired among physical things. And it does this in order to free them from the bitter tyranny of the death-bearing pleasures they have experienced. Moreover, the mind seeks to subdue with ease the physical things to its own will. This struggle is truly a mighty one because the mind comes to the knowledge of truth at a late point in life. For if the soul had not been overcome by anyone, our task would have been simply to keep it pure. But because it has now forged itself into a strong link with passions and tendencies, we all know how very difficult this struggle is to break this bond, to liberate the soul from the worship of matter and to have it acquire the habit of virtue. And how is this done? How indeed are the senses liberated from physical passions and in turn placed under the obedience of the mind?
When a certain king plans to subdue easily an enemy city that is fortified by strong walls, he cuts off the food supplies to those people in the city and thus causes them such hardship that they in time decide to surrender themselves. The mind uses the same strategy in subduing the senses. Little by little the mind deprives every sensory faculty of its customary bodily and pleasurable passions. It no longer permits them to indulge themselves and thus easily and in a short period of time brings them under its control. All the time that this method is being utilized to control the passions, the mind does not stand idle. Not at all. By receiving a certain ease and freedom from bodily concerns, the mind turns to its own natural and spiritual nourishment which is the reading of Sacred Scripture, the acquirement of virtues, the doing of the commandments of the Lord, the practice of prayer, the understanding of the purposes of the physical and spiritual creations, and all the other spiritual and divine thoughts and deeds which are to be found in the writings of the holy Fathers, especially those who are called the neptic Fathers in the anthologies of Philokalia and Evergetinos, and St. John Climacus and St. Symeon the New Theologian and others.[iv]
As the Senses Attracted Originally the Mind to Physical Pleasures, the Mind Now Attempts to Bring the Senses Back to the Spiritual Pleasures
In addition to its own efforts to nourish itself spiritually, the mind also attempts as much as possible to bring back the senses toward the mind so that they too may enjoy with it spiritual pleasures and thus become accustomed gradually to prefer them. This is how it happened before with the mind when it became accustomed through the senses to prefer physical pleasures. At first, generally speaking, the body attempted through the senses and the physical pleasures to make the mind and the spirit of man into flesh. On the contrary now, the mind seeks purposely through the enjoyment of the immaterial and spiritual realities to uplift the body also from its physical heaviness, and in a sense to make it into spirit, as St. Maximos has witnessed in many of his writings. Here is one example:
When desire is added to the sense perception, it becomes a passion of pleasure procuring for itself a specific image. When the sense is moved by desire it ag,ain makes the perception it receives into a passion of pleasure. When the soul is attracted against its very nature toward matter through the body, it insinuates upon itself the earthly form. Knowing this, the saints seek to move toward God through the natural tendency of the soul, while at the same time they try appropriately to familiarize the body with God through the practice of the virtues, hoping thus to beautify the body with divine outward appearances.[v]
St. Gregory the Theologian too spoke about this important point, saying that this is the reason why the soul was joined to the body: to be for the body what God is for the soul, that is, to instruct and guide the body and to bring it home to God.
The soul was joined to the body perhaps for other reasons which only God who joined them knows and anyone who has through God understood these mysteries. As far as I am able to know together with those who are with me, there are two reasons why the soul was joined to the body. One reason is that by struggling against the lower things, the soul may inherit the heavenly glory. . . . The other reason is so that by drawing the lesser unto itself and to a degree releasing it from its material thickness, the soul may draw the body upward toward God. Thus, that which God is to the soul, the soul becomes to the body, instructing and guiding through itself its fellow servant, the material body, to become familiar with God.[vi]
There is an interaction and mutual influence of the soul toward the body and vice versa the body toward the soul, according to the metaphysicians. The attributes of each communicate with each other because of the ineffable and natural bond which unites the soul and the body, even though the exact reason for this union remains essentially unknown to all philosophers and theologians.
The Fall of Adam. The Reason for the Lord’s Coming. The Ascetics
This then is the nature of that most renowned fall of our forefather Adam. He rejected the spiritual nourishment and pleasure and lowered himself to the pleasures of the bodily senses, according to virtually the entire tradition of the holy Fathers. From this original fall of Adam, we too have inherited that primordial drive toward the material. This is why Theodore of Jerusalem wrote: “Adam, by using the senses wrongly, marvelled at the physical beauty and considered the fruit to be beautiful to the sight and good for eating. By tasting of this fruit, he gave up the enjoyment of spiritual things.”[vii] “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Gen 3:6). According to St. Maximos, that tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the passionate perception of the visible creation. “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the visible creation, for participation in it produces naturally both pleasure and suffering. . . . The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is also the sense of the body, in which the activity of irrationality clearly abides, and which man has experienced. Although man received the divine commandment, he was in practice unable to keep it.”[viii] This is also confirmed by Niketas Stethatos and others. St. John Damascene especially wrote:
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil can be understood as the visible and pleasurable food which appears to be sweet but which in reality brings the partaker to a union with evil. For God said, ‘You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’ Naturally, physical food requires continual replenishment for it is subject to corruption. He then who partakes of physical food finds it problematic to attain incorruptibility.[ix]
For as soon as the senses know and experience the good, that is, sensible pleasure, they also necessarily experience evil, for the sister of pleasure is suffering. This is why in general all the sensible pleasures are customarily called painful pleasures.[x]
In connection with this subject St. John Chrysostom wrote: “What is easier than eating? And yet I hear many saying that even eating is a wearisome toil.”[xi] In agreement with the above St. Gregory of Nyssa also wrote: “In the fruit of the forbidden tree there are two opposite elements comingled. God said that those who partake of it will die, just as one does who suffers the evil effects of poison that has been mixed with honey. By the same token, as far as the pleasing of senses is concerned, it seems good, but as far as the destruction of the partaker is concerned, it is the ultimate evil.”[xii] For this same reason, we have read in the history of the Romans that they worshiped two deities -joy and sorrow- at one and the same time. Even though they had dedicated to each a separate temple, they used to offer sacrifice simultaneously to both. This way they indicated enigmatically how very close joy and sorrow are united, just as pleasure and suffering are. When one deity gives joy the other creates fear, and when one harms and grieves us, the other gives us hope.
From this point of view the reason for the coming of the New Adam, Jesus Christ, can be said to be our liberation from seeking and loving only the visible things, and at the same time our exaltation to love and enjoy the spiritual realities, thus indicating our true transference to what is indeed better. Those who wanted to achieve this very goal with ease, that is, the cutting off of worldly pleasures and the enjoyment of the spiritual ones, were the true philosophers and ascetics who abandoned the inhabited places where there are always so many causes for sinful attacks and went to live in deserts and caves. Not finding there the usual causes of worldly pleasures, they were more readily able to subdue the senses and in relatively short periods of time were able to rise up to the sweetest enjoyment of the spiritual and divine realities.
The Natural and Unnatural Pleasure of the Mind
I beseech you to do this, this very same thing. You have come to know precisely on your own, being prudent, and through Holy Scripture, being a lover of learning, that the natural pleasure of the mind is to always be preoccupied with and nourished by the beauty of spiritual realities. St. Maximos wrote: “Intelligible things are food for the mind.” You have also come to know that the tendency of the mind toward the pleasures of sensible things is contrary to the nature of the mind; it is a tendency that is forced, passionate, corruptive, and entirely foreign to the mind. St. Isaac wrote that “when the mind is attracted by the physical things, it partakes of the nourishment of the beasts and becomes, so to speak, beastly.” According to St. Kallistos, only the spiritual pleasure can be properly called pleasure and be primarily pleasure because during the course of enjoying it and after the enjoyment, it still brings us joy. On the contrary the sensible pleasure according to the flesh cannot be properly called nor in fact be a pleasure. Physical pleasure uses the name of pleasure falsely, for in the enjoyment of it and afterwards it brings sorrow to the heart. Again, St. Kallistos wrote:
This is what should properly be called pleasure, namely that which by nature and reason cannot be condemned and which lasts and is ever more active, bringing joy and gladness to the heart even after it is fulfilled. Anyone therefore who would desire, let him seek the pure pleasure that is not mixed with sorrow, the intelligible and spiritual pleasure. For this is indeed the true and main pleasure of the heart. . . . Carnal pleasure that is not of the mind and the spirit is even wrongly called a pleasure, for it is induced and as soon as it is done it creates a bitter regret. It is clearly a lie to call it a pleasure, for it is a spurious and counterfeit pleasure.[xiii]
St. John Chrysostom wrote: “The pleasures are harsh executioners of the body, in fact they are worse than that, for they strain and force the body with bonds not made by hand.”[xiv] It seems to me too that pleasure is like a rough file smeared with oil, which when the cat licks it up, it also licks with it the blood of its own tongue. Or it is like a fly in the honey that tastes a certain sweetness but is at the same time entrapped in the honey and dies. Pleasure is also a bait that is superficially sweet, but when swallowed brings about a painful death. This is why the wise Solomon wrote: “The lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as gall” (Prov 5: 3).
For a long period of time now your senses have become accustomed to charge after physical pleasure. They have been drawing with them your mind, not permitting it to be nourished by thoughts that are natural, proper, and related to it. You have not been able to enjoy the appropriate spiritual growth in life and pleasure. What must you do? I have reminded you by what I have so far written that it is necessary to seek as much as possible to govern with great prudence your five senses. To those which are essential, that is those which sustain the body, give them what they need. Those which are not essential but only create pleasure must be cut off. In this will you prove yourself to be lord of your passions: when you will be able through your entire courage to liberate your senses from the corruptive, painful, and false pleasures, and when at the same time you will liberate your hegemonious mind from their distracting attempts, leaving it thus free to return to the desirable beauty of intelligible things which are really and truly good.
According to St. Basil the Great, it is truly inappropriate for man to allow the senses to be filled with sensible things and at the same time to block the mind from its own proper activity among the intelligible things. He wrote: “I consider it inappropriate to allow the senses unhindered to be filled with their own matter, while the mind alone is shut out of its own proper activity. For as the sense is to physical things so is the mind to intelligible things.”[xv] Our senses then have in a way become hooked to the physical pleasures, not only during the early years of our youthful life, as we have indicated thus far, but also during the later years. Our own mind and that of the entire human race has also been hooked upon the bait of the same physical pleasures. Consequently, we have been shamefully deprived and have all lost that blessed and true pleasure of ours. By the same token, if these senses of ours are not freed from the physical pleasures, the mind itself will not be able to be freed from them and to return to its natural pleasure. It is impossible for this to happen in any other way. It is indeed impossible.
St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain - A Handbook of Spiritual Council – Chapter 2; Concerning the Mind pp. 76-85 (“The Classics of Western Spirituality” series.)