Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens, revolving as they do with such speed, so we cannot restrain our thought. And then we send all the faculties of the soul after it, thinking we are lost, and have misused the time that we are spending in the presence of God. Yet the soul may perhaps be wholly united with Him in the Mansions very near His presence, while thought remains in the outskirts of the castle, suffering the assaults of a thousand wild and venomous creatures . . .” (Teresa of Avila: Interior Castle: Fourth Mansions: Chapter One)
Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance. (Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
When plagued by chaotic thoughts, we can avoid being sidetracked from our spiritual and emotional health. Teresa says, “Most of these trials and times of unrest come from the fact that we do not understand ourselves.” Part of understanding ourselves is recognizing the difference between our thought and our faculties (e.g. reason, will, faith, memory, and understanding). Our faculties can be “united with Him in the Mansions very near His presence, while thought remains in the outskirts of the castle”. (We really can be in two places at once.)
We make two mistakes in dealing with distracting thoughts:
- We try to control these thoughts. We become fearful these thoughts will damage us so “we send all the faculties of the soul after it”. This compounds the problem because we push our faculties to the outskirts of the castle where they undergo attack as well. It then becomes impossible to center ourselves.
- We try to ignore these thoughts. The more we try to shut out these thoughts the more they gain control. Obsessing over the distraction becomes another distraction.
If we can’t control these thoughts and shouldn’t try to ignore them: What do we do? First, we acknowledge these thoughts will have a presence. To use the language of Annie Dillard, we “allow the muddy river to flow unheeded . . . acknowledging its presence without interest”. Secondly, we gaze beyond the muddy river of our thought to our faculties. The thoughts will fly! But reason, understanding, faith, and memory keep us centered at the interior of the castle near the King.
For more on Faculties: click here
For more on Self-Knowledge: click here