Almost all humans have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) of the mind, which is why so many people become fearful, hate-filled, and wrapped around their negative commentaries. This pattern must be recognized early and definitively. Peace of mind is actually an oxymoron. When you’re in your mind, you’re hardly ever at peace, and when you’re at peace, you’re never only in your mind. The Early Christian abbas (fathers) and ammas (mothers) knew this, and first insisted on finding the inner rest and quiet necessary to tame the obsessive mind. Their method was first called the prayer of quiet and eventually was referred to as contemplation. It is the core teaching in the early Christian period and emphasized much more in the Eastern Church than in the West.
In a story from Benedicta Ward’s The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.'” But you don’t have to have a cell, and you don’t have to run away from the responsibilities of an active life, to experience solitude and silence. Amma Syncletica said, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
By solitude, the desert mystics didn’t mean mere privacy or protected space, although there is a need for that too. The desert mystics saw solitude, in Henri Nouwen’s words, as a “place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.” (The Way of the Heart) Solitude is a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure love. Quite often this can happen right in the midst of human relationships and busy lives.
Especially when outward distractions disappear, we find that the greatest distraction from reality and from divine union is our own busy mind and selfish heart. Anthony the Great said: “The man who abides in solitude and is quiet, is delivered from fighting three battles: those of hearing, speech, and sight. Then he will have but one battle to fight–the battle of the heart.” (Owen Chadwick, ed., trans., Western Asceticism)