“The Watchful Mind” is the phrase used to translate the title of a nineteenth-century text by an anonymous monk of Mount Athos who gave early witness through his practice and writing to the importance of the Philokalia of the Sacred Watchful Fathers, published in 1782, sixty-nine years prior to the composition of his text.1 The Greek title, Nēptikē Theōria, points to the practice of sobriety and wakefulness of the speculative or spectating capacity of the soul, that is, of the mind’s eye. To live a life of ceaseless prayer cultivates the visual and visionary receptivity of the eye of the mind. While the monastic practices and ways of life advocated by the book will be out of reach for most of us today at least as a directly imitable model (for instance, the emphasis on the extraordinary copiousness of tears of contrition is a spiritual extreme), there are, strikingly and tellingly, indications of a contemporary resonance to the concept of the watchful mind.
Although not developed through the direct influence of the Orthodox tradition, “Mindfulness” is one contemporary term and movement that gives evidence of such resonance. Jon Kabat-Zinn, as the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, has been an important advocate of bringing the practice of meditation into [End Page 5] broader cultural acceptance, with important demonstrations of the effectiveness of the practice especially as a contribution to healing and as a means of reducing stress in the midst of business pursuits. Perhaps it is not as surprising as it might at first appear to be that meditative practice is finding a useful place in lives devoted to worldly activity. If the monastic life and the common contemporary life dominated by economic pressures and concerns stand as polarized opposites, it now becomes possible to provoke some awareness of the starvation of the watchful mind as a familiar though unnamed phenomenon, and through cultural complementarity we find our way toward what we most lack.
By beginning this reflection with a nod toward the tradition of the Orthodox Catholic Church I do not intend to claim that this tradition has been the most prominent source for the trickle of the spirituality of contemplation that continues to find a place in contemporary Western culture. Although Christian and Eastern forms of meditation differ significantly in a theological context, they do share a fundamental contemplative attitude toward the world. Hinduism through the widespread practice of yoga in the West provides many people with some contact with the spirit of meditative practice. Buddhism through its many ongoing encounters with the West, especially as mediated by the tireless efforts of the Dalai Lama, has brought the fruit of Buddhist practices and teachings to many people who might have been otherwise unprepared to receive spiritual instruction. I am thinking, for instance, of the testimony and development of knowledge exemplified by psychologist Paul Ekman in a book he coauthored with the Dalai Lama after extensive collaboration, Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion.2 Ekman makes it evident how the meditative practices of Buddhism empowered him both personally and professionally to achieve new insights into the emotional life and to enrich his repertoire of psychological knowledge. There is no doubt that most people who practice yoga or who practice mindfulness in the approach taught by Kabat-Zinn assimilate the practice without [End Page 6] disrupting the dominant economic values that shape so much of contemporary life.3 But the evidence of hunger for contemplative practices in contemporary culture bears significance, even though such hunger does not necessarily portend a readiness to explore and accept more broadly the teachings of Hindu and Buddhist traditions or the Christian revelation expressed in the theological teachings of the Christian tradition in its Eastern and Western forms.
The most penetrating analysis I know of the contemporary cultural condition likely to produce a kind of starvation for contemplative experience is Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture.4 Pieper in the years immediately following the Second World War saw a parallel emphasis on different versions of the totalitarianism of the world of work in both Marxist and Capitalist cultures...