The nineteenth century Christian Orthodox Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815 – 1894), one of the most important figures in Hesychast mysticism, viewed sin as a “demonic” state of egotism, of excessive preoccupation with one’s own self. However, this did not mean, in his conception, introversion or self-contemplation, but, on the contrary, a willingness to conform to the society’s norms so high that it makes one forget about one’s inner self and one’s connection to God. One becomes too trapped in social conformity, thinking only about how to present oneself to other people. Thus, one is concerned more about superficial things, such as beautiful clothes, or jewelry, and less about the real important issue, which is, in St. Theophan’s eyes, one’s connection to God and the salvation of one’s soul. The title of his book, “Turning the Heart to God” (which is actually another translation of the second part of what is considered to be St. Theophan’s magnum opus, “The Path to Salvation”), offers the key to repentance: letting go of one’s sinful ways and turn one’s inner self (one’s heart) toward God. This can be done, according to St. Theophan, only by destroying one’s old, “demonic” inner self, thus allowing the grace of God to come upon oneself. The change requires a bending of the will, producing a total psychological transformation.
The twentieth century brought Freudian, Jungian, and Lacanian psychoanalysis, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and Positive Psychology to the table, joining the old mystical texts in a very stimulating conversation. Feeding from old and new sources, the Orthodox scholar Archimandrite Zacharias’ book, “The Hidden Man of the Heart: The Cultivation of the Heart in Orthodox Christian Anthropology” (2008) highlights a few differences between the 19th century St. Theophan the Recluse’s Hesychasm and the 20th century one.
The two main differences are: first, a shift from the psychological realm to a more spiritual level of being, and second, a more positive approach of the inner transformation that one must make in order to be closer to God. Archimandrite Zacharias sees this inner transformation that one must perform as more than just a bending of the will, or of the mind, but a rather complete ontological-existential experience that turns one’s psychological occurrences (thoughts, desires and the like) into spiritual ones. If St. Theophan saw the old, false image of the “self” (that which is to be destructed) as “demonic,” Zacharias leans more towards Positive Psychology and puts much less stress on the idea of “demonism.”
Whether one is religious and believes in such things is not the point. These are two ways, old and new, of bettering oneself. If we take into account what Jess Byron Hollenback postulated (in “Mysticism: Experience, Response and Empowerment,” 1996), mystical practice can change one’s perception of the world, and at the same time empower one’s mind. According to Hollenback, through mystical practice one becomes more aware of one’s own thoughts and feelings; subsequently, one can gradually and subtly become more aware of other people’s thoughts and feelings, being more “in tune” with the world around oneself. If one wants to become a better human being, I think that’s a worthy goal in itself. And if one truly believes that mysticism and/or religion can help oneself achieve that goal, who am I to say they won’t?