This is the second in a series of posts.
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There is an old saying from the literature of the Christian desert solitaries of the first few centuries of Christianity: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” To do that—to “stay in one’s cell” so that it may teach one all it has to teach, even and above all when one is constantly and recurrently beset by temptations that sometimes repeat themselves so rapidly they seem to be one giant temptation rather than a host of lesser ones, buzzing in and out of one’s mind like a swarm of gnats--calls for the sort of meditative practice in which one neither clings to, nor tries to drive away, thoughts as they come to one's mind, as they inevitably always will.
That is especially so with regard to one of the most stubborn and persistent of all the evil spirits that beset those who have entered into voluntary solitude (that is, taken up life in a hermit’s cell): “the noonday devil,” as it is called in eremitic literature. It is so called because it is the devil, the evil spirit, that most often comes to tempt the hermit in the middle of the day, when routine daily rounds have all been gone round and one no longer has anything available to occupy oneself with. It is the evil spirit that comes calling when, around midday, all one really has left to do is indeed to “stay in one’s cell,” meditating or doing the equivalent. That noonday devil’s name is acedia, often translated as “sloth” but perhaps best captured as “boredom.”
Boredom is a devil that we who live the ever-busy lives typical in contemporary society rely on our very busyness to keep away. Should it pass by us, we quickly throw ourselves into whatever is available, getting busy again with something, anything, right away. Our very activity, even if it is only to play endless video games, functions as apotropaic, designed to turn the deadly, deadening devil of boredom away. Any activity will do, just so long as it keeps us from being bored.
Unfortunately, however, the busier we become, the stronger the devil of boredom becomes. After a time of constant apotropaic activity, no matter how mindless or without worth, it turns out that even the briefest break from our constant busyness exposes us to that ever more strengthened devil, and we have to throw ourselves all the more into apotropaic activity in reaction. We get caught in a vicious circle such that the more we struggle against boredom, the more susceptible to it we become, just as germs grow stronger the more antibiotics we throw at them, until they become super-germs that are as ineradicable as the flea-beetle, to borrow a line from Nietzsche.
The wisdom of the desert hermits is that the only effective response to acedia, the devil of boredom that prowls at noon, is not to try to divert ourselves from it, in an unfulfilled, unfulfilled-able, and ultimately counter-productive—and magical—endeavor to ward it off and keep it away. Rather, it is to accept boredom, as one accepts a gift, and to remain with it. It is to let it wash over one, relaxing into it instead of stiffening against it.
The cell of boredom has much to teach us, if only we do stop stiffening against it as though it were a prison cell confining us. If instead we relax into it, then before long what had seemed to us a prison cell will, as it were, reveal itself to be in fact a power-cell—one that can empower us in turn, if we just stop running from it, stand still at last, and connect to it.
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To be continued.