Acedia and Depression:
Author: Neil Preston
About the Author
So what is acedia? This is not a simple question nor has it a simple answer. Some writers have argued that the lack of using this word over the past 200 years or so may in fact be an attempt to ignore the difficulty of the concept of acedia altogether (Norris 2008), or otherwise include its phenomenology under the catch all phrase of depression. The purpose of this paper is to assist in providing some clarity as to the differences and origin of acedia and depression and how they can be named, understood and addressed. Indeed both concepts have been written about including their alleviation and eradication. Both have an origin, both have antidotes and even eventual cures. The importance here is to know the difference between the two phenomenologies, where they indeed overlap and what techniques are needed to alleviate their real impact on the personal and corporate lives of people.
What is acedia and how may it differ from depression?
The demon of acedia - also called the noonday demon - is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [or lunchtime], to look this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instils in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labour. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life's necessities more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind's eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle (Norris 2008).
What is important in this definition of acedia is not so much the description of the phenomenology, but the state or level the monk has developed along ‘the spiritual journey’ where such a phenomenological experience naturally arises. It is only when this person has renounced ‘his former way of life’ that such energies of spiritual indifference arise. Acedia strikes not in the shadow but in the very daylight of the spiritual life. Such a rich and clever metaphorical description of this phenomenon demonstrates and exposes the sufferer to a full frontal attack as to the intention of the person’s (in this instance a monk) acts of asceticism or self renunciation. Acedia is an attack on the meaning and indeed purpose of self-denial. The phenomenology is described as in full light of the noon day since the demon can not hide in the darkness when someone intends to denounce the false self including making ‘a real success of himself’ in full knowledge and intention towards something else. Indeed Pontikus describes this demon to ‘cause the most serious trouble of all’. Why would this be the case? Pontikus cleverly states that overcoming such a demon means that no other demon (trial, energy, thought or temptation) ‘follows closely on the heels of this one’ but the person is rewarded with ‘a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy (which) arise out of this struggle’. The promise is a sense of equanimity in relation to life’s challenges and indeed an inexpressible joy is also experienced.
Depression could be said to be different in the sense that it is likely to have a clearer aetiology of a known event or events in one’s life. While acedia is a pervasive sense of indifference towards leading a good life, depression is the loss of having lived a good life. This loss could be in the form of losing a loved one, a cherished vocation or job or physical or mental ability and autonomy. Depression in a sense is easier to ‘diagnose’ than acedia since an insult or insults in one’s life has clearly led to the expression of loss, indifference or indeed functioning.
Although the following antidote is simplistic it does provide some sense of how acedia is essentially an indifference towards leading a virtuous and disciplined life. Kathleen Norris (2008) observed that, anger is caring too much about unimportant things while indifference is not caring enough about the things that matter. Acedia appears on the bumper stickers of cars that simply reads ‘whatever’; it is a pervasive sense that life is both indifferent to me and I to it. All events and situations are treated with a sense of indifference as towards their ultimate meaning and purpose. With depression it can often be said (but not always) that too much meaning is invested into a person, object or event. Indeed cognitive therapy and rational emotive behaviour therapy (Beck 1976; Crosini and Wedding 1989) are techniques to combat depression from over valued core beliefs which are either self defeating or lead to negative affectivity.
Acedia also masks itself as what psychopathologists could call ‘agitated depression’. In the example of acedia by Evargrius Pontikus he states that the monk, ‘gazes carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [or lunchtime], to look this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]’. In other words he is constantly looking at his watch to see whether this very moment is over to distract him from the tedium and repetition that life brings and is constantly looking for distractions and stimulation. This agitation is an inability to stay in the present moment with its concomitant demands of repetition and tedium and the awful realisation that this very moment is as full and as empty as it is, requiring no more or no less participation within it. The monk seeks stimulation from the possibility that a quiet ascetical life simply answers life’s big question with a simple ‘this is it’. The agitation comes from the inability of the monk to accept this simple truth that life is repetitious, tedious and may often not require one’s heroic desire to change the world if this means that success is determined by one’s investment in the outcome. Such a realisation is a mortal blow to the constructions of the important false self. Such a realisation inevitably leads to a loss of meaning invested in false assumptions of one’s importance and naturally masks itself as a depression.
Discernment or Diagnosis: naming and claiming the difference between acedia and depression and their overlap
The essential discerning difference between the two states of being often refers back to intention. Being tempted to run from the responsibility of an onerous task and to be distracted from performing it appears more at the heart of acedia than depression. Acedia often has the element of indifference while depression may have the desire towards virtuous or tedious tasks, but can not find the motivational energy to do so. The opposite however can also be true with acedia but not so with depression. With acedia the flight from boredom and despondency can be manifested in excessive busyness and activity. Acedia can also manifest in seemingly overly important projects and activities which prevent the person from sitting in the very nature of their existence (in the middle of the day) where time stretches into eternity without having to know ourselves through activity or achievement. Acedia presents in the mind’s eye of the sufferer, the notion of the great tedium of God where every daisy looks just like the other. Acedia resists the simple realisation that God (the ground of being) may have never grown tired of creating each daisy while we with each new flower see it as just another daisy. Acedia is indifferent to life including its mundanity. It screams there must be something more. Whether religious or atheist, each person must face this mystery that at the centre of things everything is empty and repetitive but always new. Bertrand Russell once observed ‘a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men …unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, in whom every vital impulse withers’. Indeed James Hillman sees the rise of depression in Western societies as a visiting daemon to slow down the frenetic pace of the demands of the modern condition. This frenetic pace could well be a product of a ‘manic defence’ against simply what is (Hillman 1976). In previous papers the writer (see Why Psychology Needs Theology Parts 1 and 2) alludes to the possibility that those sensitive enough to see the absurdity of the modern human condition and wish to enter into life more deeply may feel the weight of this absurdity through a sense of malaise or loss.
There is after all a purpose to acedia and its seeming mocking sense of senselessness. While acedia is attached to the notions of sin and morality both these concepts need to be reformed in order to understand the purpose behind acedia. The early Desert Fathers like Evargrius Pontikus and those who followed in their wake like John Cassian did not see morality as a list of ‘the do’s and don’ts’ but an effort to foster the right relationship with the divine. The concern was not whether one played and behaved by the rules, but whether one could penetrate the situation and see it clearly as it really is and overcome the distorting perception that constitutes sin. This is a far more mature relationship to the notion and practice of virtue and the sense of sin. Freedom is found in seeing clearly the nature of the separation, since punishment is provided within the sin itself which is the sense of alienation from the Divine. Acedia helps in stripping the layers of the false self with its sense of self-importance, hubris, and projects which seek power and control, affection and esteem, and safety and security (Keating 1986). The spiritual journey is characterised as a series of humiliations of the false self of which acedia acts as a handmaiden to mock our efforts to transform or transcend our false construction of ourselves and the divine. If understood in the right light, acedia shows us that the spiritual journey is made up as much of deserts as of gardens. It is possible that secular psychology seeks the same end where talking therapies are the sons and daughters of the confessional, where naming and claiming our thoughts and beliefs (referred to as demons by the Desert Fathers) are the starting point for finding a way through our false assumptions about ourselves, others and the world. Acedia really strikes an individual when their vain attempts at holiness are exposed as they really are ‘vain’. Evargrius and other Desert Fathers understood that at the core of acedia often lay anger and pride (known as vainglory). Often the source of anger was not receiving the graces and favour of God, and pride the overreaching sense that one’s effort alone led to an achievement of holiness. Freud once commented that depression was ‘repressed anger’, a form of bristlling resentment turned inwards into the self for not meeting expectations of themselves, others or the world at large. For the Desert Fathers, vainglory was seen as a more insidious character since it masquerades as puffed up pride in one’s accomplishments and sense of self and a form of righteousness difficult to confront. In modern times, such activities ‘as the power of positive thinking’ or ‘the positive psychology movement’ would be treated with scepticism within the psychology of desert monasticism since it could be seen as leading someone further away from the nature of reality as it is. The pursuit is one of truth in the spiritual life and not necessarily feeling good through thinking positively.
In recent times we have used the term depression to account for all sorts of phenomena whether their aetiology lies in acts of virtue or biochemical imbalances in the brain. While it may be true there are deficiencies in serotonin reuptake within the brain of those who suffer from depression, our ability to accurately bind the right receptors in an amazingly complex neuroplastic brain is provisional at best and marginal at worst. Despite all our advances in neuropsychiatry, maybe the most common thing we gain from science is sadness (Norris 2008). By this we mean despite what we know about neurochemistry, the question still remains as to what it means to be human? If more and more people are being prescribed anti-depressant medications is this because our nosology of depression is too broad and could benefit much more from a nuanced sense of discernment between acedia and depression? Could it be that most of what we see as depression in Western society largely reflects a lack of meaning and the mocking sense of senselessness that acedia presents rather than clearly defined aetiology of clinical injury? Is the ultimate form of acedia mocking us is the fact that veterinarians are now prescribing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (a form of anti-depressant medication) to our pets and paediatricians are doing the same to children as young as four? Are dogs and children participating in our sense of malaise? Do we know enough about this phenomenology and biochemistry to be engaging in such ‘experimental treatments?’
What are the antidotes to Acedia?:
A young monk once asked Abba Moses, (one of the great Desert fathers), how to reach the Kingdom? And he would counsel his monks saying: "go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." This was both a literal and metaphorical gesture. Other advice would be given to monks to ‘water a stick daily until it bears fruit’. The notion here is one of continued commitment to an emptying of false assumption about ourselves, others and the world. One simple antidote to restlessness is to stay put. In this advice the invitation was to ‘go through things’ and not ‘to get over them’. As stated in Evagrius Pontikus’s account of acedia the monk is tempted to leave their cell to see what the other monks are doing. This distractedness of intention is a sure sign that acedia is afflicting the individual. In other religious traditions such as Buddhism and Zen, the student is directed towards ‘single mindedness’ or ‘attention on the present moment’ (Hanh 1975). These techniques are used to assist the student to return to the present moment and resist thoughts that lead to distractedness and lack of focus. Such techniques have become very popular in new age and secular audiences particularly with books like ‘The Power of Now’ and ‘The New Earth’ by Eckhart Tolle (Tolle 2005). The fact that these books are so popular may indicate that the phenomena of acedia is alive and well in our society. Staying in our cell is a way of staying with the present moment. This advice invites the monk or spiritual follower to become present to whatever is going on both internally and externally without responding in a distracted way. The invitation is to penetrate through things as opposed to getting over or avoiding things. Recent psychotherapeutic techniques have also adopted these principles of presence and focus which include the use of ‘meta-cognition’, ‘acceptance and commitment therapy’ and mindfulness training (Harris 2006). This is an interesting development in psychotherapeutic techniques since it appears to decentre the person’s will and allows things to be as they are without too much interference from the analysand. Such techniques appear more aligned with ancient contemplative practices of a non-violent attitude towards the self, where a willingness rather than wilful approach to confronting and relating to our limitations are entertained (May 1982; May 1993).
Finding the sacred in the profane
Depression and acedia are different in the sense that depression tends to almost always have an identifiable and external cause, insult or event. Acedia on the other hand is far deeper and indeed far more subtle a condition. The Desert Monastic psychology recognised acedia to be one of the worst forms of demons since it is masterful at hiding behind other vices and laughs at any attempt to find its root cause. Acedia mocks the virtues of trying to be holy and at the same time indulges the ego in ‘vainglory’ on the success of ascetical practices. Acedia either deflates or puffs, depression simply deflates as an explanation of a sense of loss or failure. The old notion of anomie or what we may now call ‘a mid life crisis’ may come from the despair of finding no or little meaning and purpose in life and may be in part traceable ‘to the materialism of greed, the spiritual apathy of sloth and the self absorbed narcissism of pride’ (Schimmel 1997). These deadly sins are not deadly because they lead to hell in the afterlife as much as they deaden the spirit of the person now. Our ancient forefathers and mothers understood that what is life giving may be the very opposite to what our social strictures tell us. The blessing of acedia, as destructive and wounding as it is, could be that we have met the limitations of the programs for happiness. These programs are false assumptions held about reality that we are in control of our lives, that we will always find safety and security by our own effort alone, and that happiness is found in the affection and esteem of others (Keating 1986). We come to the realisation that more of this or that, whether it be success, relationships, being holy, insight or therapy are not what leads to an authentic response to life. The noonday demon mocks our attempts at trying to become something different but only because in this attempt at jettisoning these false assumptions of life, lasting joy and happiness can be found. Acedia could be a sure sign that one is progressing in the spiritual life by what St. Bruno says via a series of continued humiliations of the false self (Keating 1986; Keating 1995); self realisation is not a carpet ride to bliss.
A continued return to the three ways to the divine
As an illustration towards this point, Jung noticed a highly intelligent young man who once came to him for therapy with a fully constructed publishable monograph of his pathology based upon the latest scientific literature and theory (Jung 1933). Indeed Jung agreed that ‘after reading his monograph I was forced to grant him that, if it were only a question of insight into the causal connections of a neurosis, he should in all truth be cured’. On further investigation Jung noticed that this young man went on expensive holidays to St Moritz or Nice which were paid for by a poor-school teacher ‘ …who loved him (and) had cruelly deprived herself to indulge the young man in these visits to pleasure-resorts’. Jung noticed that the fundamental error and cause of this young man’s neurosis lay in his moral attitude to life. The young man found the explanation shocking since his scientific analysis could not ‘ …spirit away the immorality which he himself could not stomach. He could not even admit that a conflict existed, because his mistress gave him the money of her own free will’ (Jung 1933). The issue here was not a scientific fact of neurosis but a moral concern of the practice of virtue. His neurosis was informing him of his moral duty not to exploit the vulnerability of others less fortunate. Any form of ‘scientific rationalisation’ may not resolve the inner conflict of the practice of virtue.
Reforming acedia into a modern context
Some writers argue that most of modern psychology mistakes choice for freedom, and egotism for self-image (Schimmel 1997). For example the self-esteem movement would rarely consider humility as an exercise in self fulfilment and are more likely to suggest ‘assertiveness training’ rather than ‘self acceptance’. Self acceptance requires allowing for the ‘wheat and the weeds to grow together’ (Mat 13:30) or participation in an act of unknowing (Griffin 1981) as a way of understanding the self. These ancient ways of understanding the psychology of the human person was both an integration of the moral and psychological aspects of the self. Indeed such concepts were not split in ancient times and modern people could well do to examine the psychology behind such concepts to restore wholeness back to a culture that increasingly feels fragmented and disorientated. This is not to say that modern contributions to the understanding of the human condition need to be jettisoned for the ‘glory days’ of past moral virtue. It is important to state that there were never any ‘glory days’. The position here is one of the both/and rather than either/or and to restore the phenomena of acedia to its rightful place is also to simply restore the human condition to a more holistic view. In other words, psychological states do not operate in a moral vacuum. Practicing the virtues was seen as a way towards happiness and wholeness. Acedia was seen as a process of movement of the person towards a higher good beyond the self. Acedia mocks such a desire with a sense of moral indifference or being ‘lukewarm’ to such a desire. As stated before such a lack of desire in doing what is good, appears in the ‘whatever’ bumper sticker on the back of cars or the distant cool look in popular music images.
As a society we are impoverished by not differentiating acedia from depression, understanding their overlap and listening to ancient antidotes that may return us to a more holistic way of being. The catchall phrase of depression is too simplistic and may miss the moral aspects of the indifference towards doing the good even and especially amongst the symptoms of depression and loss. The paradoxical movement of finding and performing virtuous acts during our indifference towards the good, or finding a contemplative space when becoming over busy or viewing busyness as being threatens our sense of self and the divine. Other antidotes which include seeking the sacred in the mundane, help us resist acedia’s mocking voice that the sacred can only be found in ‘peak experiences’ and that there is freedom in commitment and not in an endless pursuit of choice and keeping ‘our options open’. Such antidotes as these may restore some of the social malaise our society is experiencing with its symptoms of dislocation and meaninglessness; and that what presents as depression in the therapist’s couch or doctor’s surgery could well be acedia’s mocking sense that our lives don’t matter and our search and desire to achieve the good is useless. The antidotes set down by the early desert monastic tradition could teach us a lesson on how to confront and indeed overcome acedia with the promise that ‘ …no other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle’.
Avila, T. o. (2003). The Interior Castle. New York, Riverhead Books.