Thursday, February 9, 2012

From Melancholia: Acedia, the Noonday Demon

AND when this has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance, as if they were careless or unspiritual. It also makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory. It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading, and he often groans because he can do no good while he stays there … a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some one of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone. – John Cassian, Institutes
Around 415, Cassian came to Marsilla (modern-day Marseilles, France) to establish a monastery and nunnery there. He came to a region where the old order was fast crumbling: while it remained nominally a Roman province, power in Gaul was largely vested in the hands of local strongmen. Many of the Gallo-Romans residing in Marsilla had been driven there by the collapse of the Empire's northern border and the subsequent confiscation of their estates by invading Visigoths. Faced with social breakdown, many sought solace in religion. They realized their treasures on this earth were transitory and hoped to gain a share in the kingdom of heaven.

Although there was considerable interest in monastic life, there was little in the way of monastic experience. Aspiring Gallic monks and nuns had heard stories of the incredible austerities practiced in Egypt and the miracles wrought on a daily basis by Egyptian holy men. But they had no realistic picture of a contemplative life, nor any idea of the difficulties faced by these ascetic hermits. Cassian provided them with personal guidance as a spiritual leader, as was the Egyptian custom. The Desert Fathers looked with suspicion on written texts, fearing that they might fall into the hands of those not spiritually prepared for advanced knowledge and do them more harm than good. But at the request of several high-ranking Church officials, Cassian agreed to write down some of his experiences. To that end, he wrote two influential tomes, the Institutes and Conferences.

Among those works was a list of the "eight deadly sins" which he had received from the Egyptian Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus. These would later become the famous "Seven Deadly Sins" after "sorrow" and "acedia" were lumped together under the rubric "sloth." But while sloth has come to mean simple laziness, Evagrius and Cassian had a more nuanced view of these shortcomings. As Cassian said:
There are two kinds of sadness. The first is begotten once anger has ceased, or from some hurt that has been suffered or from a desire that has been thwarted and brought to naught. The other comes from unreasonable mental anguish or from despair. There are two kinds of acedia (anxiety or weariness of heart). One makes those who are seething with emotion fall asleep. The other encourages a person to abandon his home and to flee.
Acedia manifests as an inability to concentrate on the tasks at hand alongside a deep dissatisfaction and ennui. Sufferers find no joy even in work which they normally love: the whole process seems unbearably tedious. Acedia might begin early in the day but normally became most troubling at noon, the time when rest seemed far away and the prayers felt like they had gone on forever: as a result, many monks called it "the noonday demon." And while it was first diagnosed in the 4th century, it remains a pressing problem today. Aldous Huxley stated that the modern age had seen "the triumph of the noonday demon" and noted that acedia had progressed
 …from the position of being a deadly sin, deserving of damnation, to the position first of a diseaes and finally of an essentially lyrical emotion, fruitful in the inspiration of much of the most characteristic modern literature. The sense of universal futility, the feelings of boredom and despair, with the complementary desire to be "anywhere, anywhere out of the world," or at least out of the place in which one happens at the moment to be, have been the inspiration of poetry and the novel for a century or more.
Exercise 5-3: Acedia

Almost every goal, every job, every achievement, will require a certain amount of tedious and repetitive activity. An athlete training for a race, a student studying for a test, a programmer trying to finish a project before the deadline – all may find themselves faced with a sudden deep distaste for the work at hand and, by extension, for the circumstances which have brought them to this place. And as the monks realized, acedia is insistent: if you give in to it once, you may soon find yourself in the habit of shirking your duties and blowing off important but unenjoyable tasks.

Acedia was particularly troubling to solitary monks: as a communal monastic lifestyle became more prevalent, it became a less common complaint. In today's post-industrial workplace many of us also spend long hours engaged in unstructured solitary brainwork – and thanks to e-mail and social media we can "desert our cell" without leaving our cubicle!

Although it may seem paradoxical, one of the most effective ways of overcoming acedia is dedicating full concentration to the tedious task at hand. John Cassian told the story of Abbot Paul, who overcame acedia by weaving mats and baskets while he prayed. Because his cell was too remote to carry his wares to market, he burned them at the end of each year and started anew. Jiko Linda Cutts, a Sōtō Zen priest, says "Doing our daily activities of laundry, dishes and grooming is an expression of our connection to life… That is the mystery of the everyday. Everything is included."

Setting definite goals for yourself can be helpful. Something as simple as "I'm not going to look out the window until I've finished X" can make time move faster and help you get through the worst of the bout. Be sure to set realistic goals: if you say "I am not going to stand up until I finish War and Peace," you're setting yourself up for a disappointment that will only provide the noonday demon material for its internal monologues. ("Of course you couldn't follow through. You never can. What's the use? You don't really care about that class or that degree. You'll never get through college anyway…").

It is important that you refrain from making life decisions based on acedia. If you feel like your career is meaningless and your life is empty, it could be that you need to make radical changes and fulfill your dreams at all cost. Or it could be that you're suffering from ennui related to your current project. When in acedia's grip it is common to think that the grass is greener somewhere else, that everything in your life would be better if you were out of this situation and away from this task. Acedia will magnify the faults of your superiors, your co-workers and your assistants: it will try to convince you that you deserve better or that you don't deserve what you have, depending on the moment. The best response is a rational one: consider the evidence for all the accusations the noonday demon is throwing at you. Chances are you'll see that most are baseless and easily refuted. Once you've exposed that disordered thinking you'll find it much easier to return to your duty and finish your work.