Taming the Passions
Passions are initiated by our senses. If you are to become truly free and learn to live by God’s will, you need to learn to control the passions that result from the way you react to your senses. For example, you may crave certain foods. When you are deprived of them you become disturbed and possibly even angry. Gaining freedom from these likes and dislikes is what we mean by taming the passions. When you are able to do this, you gain the freedom to do God’s will and to love others by being less focused on your own desires. This does not mean you need to deprive yourself of good food or entertainment. Everything God created is good. It means you should enjoy what is necessary for your welfare but also forego all the indulgences based on your desires for sensual pleasure. You cannot simply ignore the passions. You need to recognize them and then train them to come under the control of your soul and mind. This is how you can live in ways that do not undermine your health, security, or freedom from sinful tendencies such as anger. With untrained passions it is like having a team of wild horses pulling your wagon. You think you are the driver, but the horses decide to go where they want. These wild horses are the untamed passions. The challenge is to harness and train your passions so they will follow your commands, just like a trained team of horses is obedient to the commands of the driver.
This task begins with acknowledging that you ARE often controlled by your likes and dislikes. Begin by learning to say no when you are being led to indulge in something you know is not good for you. Gaining discipline in what you eat is a first place to start. This is one of the benefits of the fasting we are advised to do. By choosing not to eat certain foods, you are, in effect, training your mind to be more obedient. When it becomes obedient, then it will be more capable of doing God’s will. You will gain greater freedom. In the tradition of the Church, fasting was always one of the first disciplines taught after prayer. This was taught to us by Christ Himself. The first thing He did after His Baptism was to go into the desert to fast and pray for forty days. Since He was both fully human and fully divine, He had to tame His human passions.
As was discussed earlier, the Orthodox way of life involves many fasting periods and days. There is the Great Fast before Pascha; we are to fast each Wednesday and Friday; and we fast before receiving Holy Communion. You can follow the church calendar for fasting guidelines that have been established by the Church to help you in your efforts to tame your passions. Always seek the advice of your spiritual father on what is appropriate for your personal situation.
Often you find that you are stuck in a rut and so conditioned to a particular like or dislike that you cannot bear even the thought of tearing yourself free from it. It is like there is a deep groove engraved in your mind, like a rut, that you cannot get out of. You do the same thing over and over without even thinking. These ruts need to be identified and eliminated so you are free to choose. When you are stuck with following your own desires that are automatically stimulated by your senses, and your ear takes in something another person says that triggers anger in you, you are headed for conflict. At the moment when you react with anger, you are unable to love as God commands. In fact you are immediately separated from God.
Try to become observant of all your likes and dislikes and recognize the passions they trigger. This means being able to appropriately say yes and to say no as a rational choice, not based on an automatic response. The answer is not necessarily abstinence. We want to go beyond relying on abstinence, but abstinence may be necessary as a start to break a pattern that controls us. Avoidance of situations that trigger your passions is one approach, but as you develop some of the other points presented here you will be able to intervene in the moment they are aroused and choose more appropriate courses of action. You want to be able to intervene in your thought process when desires arise. This is where watchfulness and the practice of the Jesus prayer are most important. Instead of reacting like a robot, you can condition your mind to call upon the prayer to interrupt and lift you out of the rut. As you identify your main ruts, you can pray for God’s help. If you maintain a regular prayer life, participate regularly in worship services and the sacraments, God will help you.
Our passions are like a pet. If you have ever had a puppy you will remember how they take a shoe or other item and chew on it and tear it apart. They growl when you try to take it from them. This is normal behavior for a young pup, but not one we want to have continue. If we do not train the puppy in the beginning, it will stay wild and even turn against us later on. Our passions are like puppies. Unfortunately many of us have grown up without properly training our passions. When we try to confront them they are not eager to cooperate. They rebel like angry pups. Controlling them becomes a difficult task but one that is essential to a virtuous life.
When you first begin to tame your passions, you may experience inner irritation. As you wrestle with them, you will find that the block is in the mind. Also, as you mature in your prayer life, you will find that you have increasing means to overcome the ruts conditioned into your mind. As you seek God’s help, you will be aided in this struggle. Through regular prayer, especially repetition of the Jesus Prayer, you will even be able to create new ruts that are beneficial to the health of your soul, new patterns that are stronger than the old ones. Eventually the soul will regain its normal position of being in control. The mind then becomes a powerful and useful tool under the enlightened direction of the soul for living the life that God desires for us.