Pilgrim’s Diary 11b. Philokalia – Nikiphoros

This is the second appendix to Part 11 and it goes over this sequence of Philokalia’s chapters recommended specifically for those desiring to develop inner prayer of the heart:

First of all, read through the book of Nicephorus the monk (in part two), then
the whole book of Gregory of Sinai, except the short chapters, Simeon the new
theologian on the three forms of prayer and his discourse on faith, and after that the
book of Callistus and Ignatius. In these Fathers there are full directions and teaching
on interior prayer of the heart, in a form which everyone can understand.

“And if, in addition, you want to find a very understandable instruction on prayer,
turn to part four and find the summarized pattern of prayer by the most holy Callistus, patriarch of Constantinople.”

“Nicephorus the monk” was a contemporary of Ramanujacarya, lived on Mt Athos, and was the guru of Gregory Palamas who, in turn was the father of Christian hesychasm. Wikipedia informs us:

Hesychasm (/ˈhɛsɪkæzəm, ˈhɛzɪ-/) is a mystical tradition of contemplative prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Based on Jesus’s injunction in the Gospel of Matthew that “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”, hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.

Sounds just what we need here. First things first, however. Nicephorus is spelled as Nikiphoros in this English translation of Philokalia (starting from page 1011), so I’ll use this spelling. Then, as I began this article, I thought I’d give a short summary of all the aforementioned fathers but after re-reading Nikiphoros several times, in both Russian and English translations, I think I’ll keep this installment to his teachings only. Maybe others won’t need as much space, I don’t know, let’s see.

Reclusive dwelling, Karuli, Mt
Hermits house, Karuli, Mt Athos

First Nikiphoros tells us who his book is for – it’s for those who “ardently long to attain the wondrous divine illumination of our Savior Jesus Christ; to experience in your heart the supracelestial fire and to be consciously reconciled with God” and so on. One crucial characteristic of the proper candidates however, is that they should have given up all attempts and all connections with mundane happiness. This is not for people who hope to extract anything from this world. It’s for true renunciates and this will be re-iterated later. And what does he promise to these people? He promises to relieve them from fear of something called “prelest” in Orthodox Christianity, which wasn’t translated into a singe word in English but it’s a big topic in these circles. It was discussed by many other saints in this mystical tradition and there is a separate chapter about this on our assigned reading list, too. So what is this “prelest”?

In Russian the word gives rise to adjectives like charming, lovely, adorable – all the good ones. In the context of spiritual progress, however, it’s a word for anarthas that misdirect one from true spiritual path. In our language it would be various apasiddhantas. They sound attractive to devotees who go into them but our acharyas warned us again and again that it would mark the end of our spiritual life. “Everything will be finished,” as Srila Prabhupada put it. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati treated followers of apasiddhantas as worse than non-devotees. Non-devotees are presumed to be innocent and can be taught the correct path, but with sahajiyas and others there is no hope as they won’t even listen. They think they know everything already. What is the problem? The problem is in accepting non-spiritual things bringing pleasure and comfort for genuine spirituality. Another candidate for our translation of “prelest” is “bhakty-uttha anarthas” – anarthas arising from the practice of bhakti itself – there is a list of those in Madhurya Kadambini. One can get recognition and become attached to fame or to service received as an advanced devotee. The very idea “I’m an advanced devotee” is said to be the deepest and the most difficult to give up.

Is there a need to expand on this “prelest”? Probably not – one has to smell these things from a mile away regardless of what exact form they take, and this is what Nikiphoros is talking about here. In our society there are plenty of devotees who embrace these distractions and give multiple reasons why they should be allowed to keep these attachments. This book is not for them. In Orthodox tradition “prelest” is the work of the Satan himself and it’s these “prelests” that are meant in the English translation of what Nikiphoros’ method is supposed to provide: “without the danger of being deceived or terrified by the demons. Terror of this kind we experience…” Comparing this to Russian I think a correction is in order – in English we can be deceived OR terrified, and then terror is described, but in Russian translation there is a terror of being deceived, too. This book is for those who are terrified of the possibility of being mislead. It’s for those who try to keep their nose clean and know that one step away from the path and they’ll be finished, at least for the rest of this lifetime.

The method to attain “wondrous divine illumination” within our hearts is given at the very end of the book and first Nikiphoros deals with objections, with “purvapaksa” in our speak. He proposes meditation in the heart with closing one’s consciousness to the external world as much as possible and surely people would object to that. I myself not sold on this whole thing – we are a preaching movement and, regardless of whether this kind meditation works or not, we make progress by following our prescribed methods. If Lord Caitanya told as to go and preach and to chant the Holy Name loudly for everybody to hear then this is what we should do and there is no other way. For us. Because it’s a personal matter – He asked us and we can’t say no, and we can’t be ungrateful, and we can’t say “I know better”. So should I proceed?

My answer is that preaching is effective only as a reflection of our inner realizations. We can give people only what we carry in our own hearts. Ages ago I wrote about reasons why sankritana devotees are so successful and the main one was that because they are the best devotees to begin with. They are first to get up for mangala arati, first to finish their rounds, they never fall asleep during Bhagavatam class (only temple residents can appreciate this ability now). They read books more than others and they remember what they read better than others, too. In other words, they first become perfect “inside” – in the temple, and then they can preach outside on the streets. I apply the same logic here -for Nikiphorus “wondrous divine illumination” might have been the end goal but for me it will always be only the means to an end. This inner glow MUST be projected outside. That’s what Lord Caitanya wants and I’m bound to His words.

Anyway, to defend his proposal Nikiphoros offers anecdotes from the lives of other saints or sometimes their straightforward teachings, and this comprises much of his book. Let’s go over those and story from the life of Father Anthony comes first. To my knowledge, “Father Anthony” was the first ever Christian monk, first person to introduce asceticism into their sadhana. He was living on top of a mountain and once two pilgrims were walking through the desert to meet him. They run out of water and one of them died while the other passed out and was on the verge of dying, too. Suddenly, on his mountain, Father Anthony called his disciples and told them to quickly grab a jug of water and run down towards Egypt. “One guy already died,” he said, “and if you don’t hurry the second guy will die, too”. In this way one pilgrim was saved. The moral of this story is that it’s by renunciation and by looking inside Father Anthony attained the perfect vision of the outside, too. If one asks why the first guy was allowed to die NIkiphoros’ answer is that his death was predestined and Father Anthony was not supposed to change that.

Second argument is from the life of “St Theodosios the Cenobiarch”. The name obviously meant something to Nikiphoros by itself because it looks like he simply cited him as an example of how solitude and renunciation lead to development of character and love of God. Basically, Nikiphoros states that Theodosios was so good because he was inward looking.

Then comes St Arsenios. Nikiphoros says that Arsenios never wrote any letters and never received any either, and not even talked with anybody despite being effortlessly eloquent in his speech. Why? He didn’t want anybody to think highly of him. For this reason even in the monastery he would choose a spot where nobody could see him and he didn’t have to look at anybody. He didn’t want to have any value assigned to his life in this world, he wanted nothing of it.

Then there was St Paul of Mount Latros. As the name says – he lived on Moutn Latros, alone, and if he ever came down to talk to people it would only be to instill the necessity of keeping mind under control, which is “watch over intellect” in English translation but “control the mind” is our usual phrase so I’ll go with it.

Then there was St Savvas, who, apparently, was a temple president back then. The point is that he demanded all the devotees to conquer their minds. Then, and only then, he would consider accepting them as resident devotees in his ashram. But that’s not all – he would allow them to live IN the temple only if they were frail and weak. Otherwise he told them to build their own hermitages. The point being that one absolutely must learn to keep his mind from indulging in mundane things. One cannot be a man of this world AND hope to attain enlightenment. Our devotees should be occasionally reminded of this, too.

Then there was Abba Agathon, who was once asked what is more important – following sadhana or meditation. Agathon replied that sadhana, the practical devotional service, is like leaves on a tree and meditation is like fruit. If a tree doesn’t bear fruit then it should be cut down and used as firewood. The goal of growing a tree to is relish its fruits, and so that is the relation between sadhana and chanting.

There there a letter from Abba Mark to Nicolas where Abba Mark says that if one wants to ignite his inner light of knowledge to guide him through treacheries of Kali yuga then there is one simple method that does not require physical exertion – one must learn to control his mind. “Attentive understanding” was another phrase used for this attainment. In our speak it would probably be “awareness” where consciousness is sharp, attentive, all knowing, but peaceful and largely inactive. To attain this state Abba Mark instructs to look deep inside one’s own heart and purge three enemies of awareness – forgetfulness, sloth, and ignorance. This can be achieved only by relying on God’s help so one should seek it first, and at all times, too..

Next is St John Klimakos who instructed that one should strive to “enshrine what is bodiless within the temple of the body”. He explained that this is possible only by controlling one’s mind – again. I would point at the proposal itself, however – to enshrine means to place something that wasn’t there before and it might mean to invite God into our hearts, as if He wasn’t there already. In Russian translation it’s not what St John was talking about – he specifically meant to keep one’s own soul within confines of one’s body, meaning to not allow consciousness to wander in the outside world. In this state the body might sleep but the heart, the consciousness, is still awake and aware. Biblical reference is “I sleep but my heart is watchful” (Song of Songs 5:2). Lock the door to keep your body in your cell, close your mouth to keep silence, and lock your heart to keep “evil spirits” from getting inside and messing you up. By this practice one can learn the pathways бы which “prelests” try to enter into one’s heart. Actual word was “robbers” and I don’t know what was the original Greek – there IS Greek equivalent for the term but they also say the word “prelest” is not used in official Bible translations. Anyway, the metaphor given is that by sitting high up one can see the ways for robbers to get inside the garden and steal the grapes, and so by placing one’s awareness above the body one can see how anarthas find their way inside the heart. St John draws distinction between guarding against evil thoughts and watching over intellect, which is not immediately clear to me. Perhaps he means getting the mind back on chanting as opposed to never allowing the mind to slip away in the first place. This second ability is more important but more difficult to attain. He then compares buddhi to robbers again but in a different way – robbers who properly case the place know exactly how to get to the valuables and so does the intellect when getting the mind under control. Perhaps English translation makes more sense – those who want to rob king’s palace do not attack indiscriminately and so the mind, controlled by the intellect, cannot be penetrated easily. In Russian translation it’s not the mind controlled by the intellect but “heart infused with prayer”. In English translation it’s “enshrined prayer within his heart”, which takes us back to the need to rely on the Lord to control one’s mind. He (either St John or Nikiphoros – not clear) then asks the reader if divinity Lord’s instructions become visible in his words. He says most of the time we miss the point and pass on these instructions as if we were voluntarily deaf. Meaning words remain words and we do not see the Lord speaking through the guru. In this case he was quoting the Bible a lot so it wasn’t posturing – in these instructions he genuinely wanted to convey Lord’s orders.

Then there is St Isaiah the Solitary who taught that only when one detaches himself from one’s mind one can start to see the scope of his sins and his sinful propensities. No, sorry, I wish he said that, but he said that one has to separate himself from evil, not from the mind, which would have been a super cool realization. Anyway, what he said is known in our practice as the phenomenon of people thinking that they are essentially good until, after practicing Krishna Consciousness for a while and restricting themselves, they realize that their hearts are full of slime, gunk, and smut. Then one starts to understand the real meaning of shame. St Isaiah then says that if our hearts are corrupted then we should at least keep our bodies clean and do not indulge – do not break regulative principles. Then maybe we can expect some mercy.

Then comes St Makarios the Great who said the most important task for an ascetic is to “enter into his heart, to wage war against Satan, to hate him, and to battle with him by wrestling against the thoughts he provokes.” He stresses that if the mind is allowed to engage in all sorts of mundane thoughts then keeping the body clean has no value. This seems to contradict St Isaiah above but Nikiphoros says that this is not so and that following four regs is a must in all cases, but keeping purity of the mind is more important and it’s what actually counts. Christian word “spirit” used here could mean the mind, it could mean the heart, and could mean the consciousness. I would say it’s a failure of intelligence – one must have a very clear conception of right and wrong and then the mind would naturally stay within the boundaries. If the intelligence is weak then the mind explores the opportunities. These opportunities do not come from the external world, as one might assume – it’s the intelligence that allows for existence of various maybes. It’s in these maybes that the mind senses potential value and tries to explore. The intelligence has to shut these possibilities completely and put its foot down. Then the mind won’t flow towards undesirable things. I hope this clarifies St Makarios’ message.

Then comes St Diadochos who outright tells us that for those who dwell inside their hearts there are no distractions of porn. He who already lives “in the spirit” does not know desires of the flesh. Temptations, or “assaults of the demons” can’t reach him anymore. This is similar to what I said in the previous paragraph but I want to say a few extra words about this – Christian references to the demons sound a bit naive but, if we think about it, lusty desires rising up in our minds are not necessarily ours. There are sooo many beings that “live” in our body, too, in a sense they express themselves through parts of our bodies. All the demigods live inside our bodies already, for example, but not in the same way that we live here – they occupy a certain slice of ALL bodies simultaneously while we claim ownership of the whole thing, but only as a single unit, one single body. The point is that it’s possible that there is a controlling demigod who gets off by observing lusty thoughts in our minds. Christians might call him a demon but we know that by chanting we can change his/her nature, too. We expect that eventually all the demigods will come to visit our minds and various other bodily parts to appreciate sankirtana and be engaged in devotional service. That’s one way to explain what it means when we say “by chanting all the demigods become satisfied”. They are not our enemies, we just have to preach to them and make them appreciate our chanting.

Then there is St Isaac the Syrian, which I can quote in full: “Strive to enter the shrine within you and you will see the shrine of heaven, for the one is the same as the other, and a single entrance permits you to contemplate both. The ladder leading to that kingdom is hidden within you, that is, within your soul: cleanse yourself from sin and there you will find the steps by which to ascend.” That’s a very elegant way of putting it. I can add many equivalents from our practice but these comparisons might simply distract us from the main point. By SELF-realization we will attain God, too, and Krishna Himself will illuminate our path towards Him as caitya guru inside. There is no need to look elsewhere, unless specifically directed, like towards the Holy Name, which is a sound outside of our bodies.

Then there is St John of Karpathos who says that attaining the state of brahma bhuta requires a great effort but in this state one starts to see God within his heart. In Russian translation there is “reaching another sky, the inner sky of the heart” but there is no equivalent in English that I see. It’s a beautiful point – there IS an entirely different space within our hearts and when traversing this space we don’t need to pay any attention to the world outside. What is this space and what is this traveling? I wish I could speak from experience but I can point the way, roughly as I did here, in an addendum to Pilgrim’s Diary part 8. Eventually our chanting should lead to perceiving the meaning of the holy name and we should notice that there could be multiple meanings there, too. This variety of meanings creates space where some are close to each other and some are far apart. We respond to these meanings differently and our response makes the holy name to reveal the next meaning, too, and this change from one meaning to another, from one response to another, constitutes movement, ie traveling. One can do it by mental efforts, as I think I described in the linked article, but the idea is to become an observer and let the mantra flow by itself. Then we can step off the mental plane of being the controllers and finally learn to HEAR different meanings, which is a kind of hearing that happens in the heart. Then creation and discovery of this new “sky” inside our hearts starts to take place on its own, without us forcing it to go this way or that, which is undesirable in the beginning. Let’s move on.

Next is St Symeon the New Theologian and in Russian “theologian” is like a compound word made of “God” and “speak”. Well, he speaks a lot in this passage and his words are godly, but there are just too many of them. It’s about the original sin and what I get from this is that we have to guard our minds from indulging in it again, which means ignoring Lord’s advice and doing our own thing because we think we “got it, will take it from here”. What we need to do is to guard our hearts and minds against ideas like this, which becomes possible by being attentive to the Lord, which means constantly directing our minds towards Him, by praying, by relying only on His help etc.

At this point Nikiphoros asks the reader if all these pramanas are sufficient to accept that inner meditation is, indeed, the way to go forward. Obviously everybody should agree, and then Nikiphoros moves on to his proposed method of achieving it. First he answers a question from the audience – okay, we got it, controlling the mind and concentrating it on the heart is important, but how to achieve it? With God’s help, answers Nikiphoros. We can’t do it on our own and we need the Lord to guide us.

Different people call this process by different names, like I used our familiar “control the mind” here, but all these terms point to the same thing, except our “control the mind” instructions can apply to external activities as well – do not watch this youtube video, watch that instead. Do not talk to this guy, do not look at that girl, read this book instead of that and so on. What Nikiphoros talking about here is attaining total stillness of the mind, however. It’s not that the mind needs to be engaged but it has to be stopped from doing all external activities altogether. Impossible and inadvisable, we might hear in reply, and that’s why this is not for every devotee. However, EVERY devotee must come to this point eventually – to the point where the mind becomes peaceful and undisturbed. It’s not that we will sit and do nothing either – we always have to chant so “still mind” means mind absorbed solely in listening to the holy name. At some point it must become possible, and it’s the entrance to brahma-bhuta prasannatma stage. Whatever objections we raise – this is still the entrance to actual bhakti, there are no alternatives, and we are not talking about some substitutes brought over from Christian religion here. Neither we are talking about shortcuts – all the same stages we must pass according to our tradition are still there and we still must pass through them. Pilgrim’s diary only offers a slightly different description of what should be happening. It’s not magic – these things MUST happen and mind must be brought under control. Mind should not be just directed to spiritual activities but actually brought under control where it can sit and listen to the maha-mantra for prolonged periods of time. Once it can do that we can, and we must direct it outside – to preaching. As I said earlier, what was the end goal for Nikiphoros is only the beginning of the real sankirtana for us.

Nikiphoros says that this mind control (maybe pratyahara and dharana in astanga yoga) has to be practiced under the guidance of an experienced guru who can observe and direct the disciple every step of the way. Some can do it alone but it’s rare and it happens only by Lord’s special mercy so we can’t count on that. If a guru is unavailable then one must spare no efforts in finding him, and that’s all Nikiphoros has to say about that. Devotees spend years and decades seeking a guru to take initiation from so finding a guru who himself had this kind of experiences and is willing to guide us seems impossible. Well, then we have to pray, what else is there? Nikiphoros’ own solution, and that’s what he literally says – if you don’t have a guru then pray to the Lord and do what I say.

I don’t think should retell his instructions in my own words so I’ll just paste it here:

You know that what we breathe is air. When we exhale it, it is for the heart’s sake, for the heart is the source of life and warmth for the body. The heart draws towards itself the air inhaled when breathing, so that by discharging some of its heat when the air is exhaled it may maintain an even temperature. The cause of this process or, rather, its agent, are the lungs. The Creator has made these capable of expanding and contracting, like bellows, so that they can easily draw in and expel their contents. Thus, by taking in coolness and expelling heat through breathing, the heart performs unobstructed the function for which it was created, that of maintaining life.


Seat yourself, then, concentrate your intellect, and lead it into the respiratory passage through which your breath passes into your heart. Put pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your inhaled breath into your heart. Once it has entered there, what follows will be neither dismal nor glum. Just as a man, after being far away from home, on his return is overjoyed at being with his wife and children again, so the intellect, once it is united with the soul, is filled with indescribable delight.

However you parse it to mean – up to you. Personally, I’m not impressed, not very clear, and do not know where to start. First of all, I’m not going to give up chanting for this so unless there is a way to draw the breath inside while chanting, as well as the way make the Holy Name descend into… Wait – into what? This doesn’t make sense already. He is talking about actual lungs and hearts and an actual region in space where the heart is and where the “intellect” should be compelled to enter. To locate this region one must look at it from the outside and so we have me, the observer, and my heart, the location in space, and now me the observer should force my mind to go into that location. Am I supposed to continue observing my mind hanging around inside my heart? From which vantage point should I observe this? Where is my consciousness during all this? In the heart? With the mind? Or at that vantage point?

Russian translation is not helpful here either as it describes the same process and so raises the same questions. I suspect Nikiphoros had all the answers but today’s translators can’t understand what he was talking about and so interpret this passage in a way that raises questions. I suspect original Greek is not understood today either as we no longer have experiences of what these words refer to. Perhaps familiarity with mechanics of astanga yoga could help but I’m not going to study yoga to figure out what to do with my life – we already have all the instructions we need.

Nikiphoros says that if one can’t enter the heart despite many efforts he has to pray to the Lord for help and follow his additional advice:

…everyone’s discursive faculty is centered in his breast; for when our lips are silent we speak and deliberate and formulate prayers, psalms and other things in our breast. Banish, then, all thoughts from this faculty – and you can do this if you want to – and in their place put the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, and compel it to repeat this prayer ceaselessly. If you continue to do this for some time, it will assuredly open for you the entrance to your heart in the way we have explained, and as we ourselves know from experience.

Perhaps things have changed since this was written, but we think with our heads now, not our breasts. We might feel something with our hearts or we might have a “gut feeling”, but it’s never as articulate as Nikiphoros describes. Perhaps original Greek word for “breast” here meant something different. Russian translation is the same as English so not helpful. If we ignore this physical location, however, then this advice is no different from our common advise to banish all thoughts from our minds and simply chant Hare Krishna. If this is the way to go from “breast” into the “heart” then there is nothing to object.

If we don’t treat this spatially then it makes sense. There IS a way to hear the maha-mantra with all one’s heart, a way where the mind becomes excluded. When a child cries for his mother the mind is similarly has no place – the child cries, he doesn’t think about what he is doing. There IS a way to focus our consciousness on this “heart” and it might as well be spatially located where the heart is, but analyzing these spatial relations should be excluded just like the mind is excluded when crying. This analysis is done by the mind anyway. Another point is that by “mind” we often mean the thought generating faculty which is not the mind but the sense called “speech”. Thoughts are still words, except physically imperceptible. Similarly, our dreams are physically imperceptible, too, but we still “see” them with our sense of sight. Anyway, this thought producing facility can by shut down, at least for a while, but it’s not the same as shutting down the mind itself, technically speaking. Nikiphoros himself calls it “discursive faculty” rather than the mind or intellect, too.

Finally, Nikiphoros talks about a two stage process – mechanically enter the heart and THEN start chanting the Jesus Prayer. I hope other gurus on the reading list will not make such a distinction and will tell us how the prayer itself can be used to draw our consciousness into the heart. For this reason I don’t think Nikiphoros’ method was anti-climactic but it was a good first glimpse just as Krishna’s instructions in the Sixth Chapter of Bhagavad Gita were not the last word in yoga. We can’t follow those either but we don’t reject them, we rather expect more instructions suitable specifically for us. Nikiphoros’ preconditions are similar to Krishna’s instructions to go into the mountains, find a proper place, and learn to sit there comfortably for a long time. His method works, but not for us, we need more help and we expect this help from the Holy Name. If you remember, the pilgrim used the Jesus Prayer itself to draw it inside his own heart, too. He synced chanting with his breathing to achieve that, which is already a step beyond NIkiphoros’ advice to mentally force the consciousness inside the heart.

And let’s not forget the lessons from various holy fathers above – assimilating them into our consciousness should already make the whole exercise worthwhile.

Another image from Mt Athos:

Reclusive dwelling on Mt Athos