Acedia: The Noonday Demon

Acedia is best defined as relaxing one’s ascetical discipline to the point of dosing off into a sort of anemic haze, totally abandoning one’s commitment to the Recollective Resolve and surrendering to the subtle attacks of the demon:

The demon of acedia will attack either by overwhelming the monk with laziness when he is about to rise for the synaxis or he will introduce the agitation of thoughts during the time of prayer if the monk has not prepared his soul in advance with more sublime thoughts. The demon seeks to relax the intensity of the soul’s commitment and render it blind to contemplation. (Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus, The Greek Ascetic Corpus, pg. 27)

This not only occurs within a Christian ascetical situation, but for any self-disciplined adept of many diverse spiritual traditions, including among them the adept of Unborn Mind Zen. When the adept drifts away from determined and deep one-pointedness of Mind, Mara and his minions find a firm foothold by inducing a myriad of distracting thoughts which can ruin a dedicated spiritual career in even one instant of slothful carelessness. In this the demons show no partiality:

An essential truth is thereby overlooked: the vices which plague humankind are the same from time immemorial and everywhere; only their concrete forms vary according to people’s particular conditions of life. But acedia is one of the deadly vices!

The adversary of the human race is not tied to places, times, or conditions of life.

Therefore, Evagrius is of the opinion that the adversaries of human beings, that is, the passions or the demons that excite them, are the same the world over, although there are different levels in the intensity of the struggle. Lay people living in the world are tempted for the most part by concrete material things; those living together in a community and the cenobites, who live together in a narrow space, are tempted above all by their negligent brethren. There are all the small and large frictions of life in common, which indeed one is able to avoid far less in a monastery than in the world. The anchorites, on the other hand, who have given up not only material things, but largely also association with others, are tempted mostly by “thoughts,” that is, by all the images, representations, and so forth that are inevitably left behind in their memories…

One cannot close one’s mind to the insight that acedia is not at all a disease only of anchorites. If this were so, then the anchorites would have done better to leave their desert solitude as quickly as possible! Rather, despondency—like a shadow —is linked indissolubly with our human condition.

(Gabriel Bunge and translated from the German by Anthony P. Gythiel: Despondency, The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia, pg. 15-16; 34)

Evagrius writes that this form of “relaxation of spirit” eventually wears down the adept wherein one no longer finds the inner-strength to resist temptations in a noble fashion. This is especially true for those who have embraced an eremitical lifestyle, since one is left quite alone with their “thoughts” in an isolated setting in which to fend off the attacks of the evil ones. What will the demons do with these unguarded thoughts? Evagrius indicates that they are always standing nearby to “collect the weeds of thought and sow them at once in the heart.” He states that, for anchorites, the greatest demon of all is the “Noonday Demon”:

The demon of despondency, also called “the noonday demon,” is the most oppressive of all demons. He attacks the monk at the fourth hour and encircles the soul until the eighth hour.

Anyone who has ever resided in the east will recall the context of this image. The time between the fourth hour (10:00 a.m.) and the eighth hour (2:00 p.m.) is, at it were, the “dead point” of the day. The sun is at its highest; the heat is unbearably oppressive, and it causes all the powers of life and of the soul to fall asleep. The human being loses all desire to do anything. Usually during this time all the shops are closed, and life stands still for a few hours. During this time the “noonday demon” has a special taste for moving around, especially among the monks, since they, unlike other people, were not in the habit of lying down even a little. Only the evening brings relief, when monks traditionally take their first and only meal of the day after the ninth hour (3:00 p.m.). Acedia manifests itself, then, as a type of slackening of the natural powers of the soul. (Gabriel Bunge, pg. 33)

I know within my own daily spiritual sojourn that this type of demon activity is usually heightened during the latter-half of the day, between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. This is when the temptation to tune-into the tube supplants the daily regimen of sutra reading and disciplined dhyana. All sorts of thoughts become triggered during this period and if I don’t make a concerted effort to return again and again to the Recollective Resolve, these demons of spiritual despondency will win the day. Who has not, from time to time, fallen victim to the following malaise?

When he reads, the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to reading for awhile; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings. Later, he closes the book and puts it under his head and falls asleep, but not a very deep sleep, for hunger then rouses his soul and has him show concern for its needs. (Sinkewicz, from Evagrius’ Eight Thoughts, pg.84)

To avoid spiritual despondency the best course of action according to Evagrius is that one should continuously turn one’s thoughts toward the vision of things on high and practice ‘thoughts of light’. For a Lankavatarian, this can mean reading lines from a given Sutra out loud in a low rhythmic voice and by never drifting off into space but to practice unrelenting perseverance in this regard.

Another salient aspect of acedia is that it can occur when someone experiences what Evagrius refers to as a type of “dead point” in their spiritual life. This means that regardless of what concerted efforts one makes in meditation or contemplation a spiritual dryness occurs. It’s as if the abyss is always staring you in the face. John of the Cross referred to this as the Dark Night of the Spirit. As that series stated, “The rancid smells of the charnel house still cling to the spirit and if not sanitized by this passive dark night it will never be empowered to enter into the purity of the Clear Light of the Unborn Mind.” In other words, this aspect of acedia can be a form of blessing, because one no longer relies upon the discursive patterns of things, as one knows them now to be totally self-empty! Drop everything but the Unseen Light of the Unborn Spirit—yea, a darkness to carnal eyes, but a brilliant hue for those with little sand left in their spiritual faculties. Thus, in conclusion of this blog on acedia:

Despondency, as Evagrius understands and presents it, is an extremely complex and contradictory phenomenon, a parting of the ways (Scheideweg), as it were. The one who reaches this point, depending on how he behaves, sets his foot either on a path that leads him sooner or later to a spiritual and sometimes even physical death, or on a path to life. Depression can mean the end or the beginning of true life. (Gabriel Bunge, pg. 97)

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