Watchfulness is the action to guard us from our automatic reactions to thoughts stimulated by our senses. It is being attentive to your inner self. The Greek word that is translated as watchfulness is “Nepsis”. It comes from “nepho,” which means to guard, inspect, examine, watch over and keep under surveillance. Watchfulness has been described by Elder Ephriam of Philotheou as “the axe which shatters the large trees, hitting their roots. When the root is struck, it doesn’t spring up again.”
Saint Hesychios sees watchfulness as follows:
"Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart... If we are conscientious in this, we can gain much experience and knowledge of spiritual warfare."
He shows us that this involves an effort to intercede on our thoughts, forcing them to be examined, to shine the commandments of our Lord on them. He emphasizes the importance of this by calling it warfare. We know in warfare we need to have effective weapons that are stronger than those of the enemy.
Another church elder from modern times, Paisios, tells us about some of the consequences of not being watchful:
"When our soul lives carelessly without watching over its thoughts, it will consequently fill up with dirty and sly thoughts."
As a result, people start developing psychological problems which gradually pile up.... Some people, while they are found in this situation and come face to face with the problem itself, they do not realize it, and thus are unable to humbly confess to their spiritual father their fall. Instead, they look for a “secular” solution and consult a psychiatrist, who will inevitably prescribe medication... The only solution is to become aware of the problem and confess it to a spiritual father and then humbly follow his advice.
In our days, people have lost control over their lives, and they do not know what they are doing. The reason being, that they do not wish to be guided; they want to live undisturbed, following their own free will, which will eventually bring their total destruction... when man uses his freedom and independence without taking into consideration his human weakness, he becomes deceived; he experiences and interprets everything by using his own logic. Instead of God’s grace, human logic rules his life, and his mind is in confusion. This is terrible.”
It is essential to develop self-control over the inner workings of our mind. Most importantly, you can learn to harness the actions of your mind which tends to run wild and unchecked. This unbridled condition leads you to rely on mental programming that needs to be changed if you are going to live the Orthodox life.
Being watchful means you have the necessary self-discipline to guard your inner sanctuary from being invaded by thoughts stimulated by your senses that lead you to sinful actions such as anger. It is an ability to intervene in the process of choosing how to act based on any kind of stimulus that leads to a thought. It is a capacity to intervene in real time in your thought process.
How do you experience the distractions in your mind? Reflect on the times you notice that you were distracted in your daily activities. Was it due to an argument? Was it due to having too many commitments and you could not live up to all of them? Was it a recurring worry? Did it come from a feeling of guilt? Was it sadness that distracted you? Maybe you felt lonely and began to feel sorry for yourself. Was it a fear of something? Maybe you wanted something you don’t have? Each of us will have our own set of issues that are distracting us and keeping us separated from God.
A mind that is left to its own devices will remain untrained. An untrained mind is impossible to control. It will remain jumping from one thought to another just like a butterfly in a field of flowers. It will quickly jump from one flower to the another in what seems like a random pattern. To develop mindfulness or watchfulness requires ascetic disciplines, such as prayer and fasting, as well as help from the Holy Spirit.
Doing one thing at a time is a good way to become more watchful. Focus totally on each activity. Don’t let your mind wander. Make this a discipline until you feel you have this capacity of watchfulness. Of course the regular reciting of Jesus prayer will help develop this ability. Ordering your life will also help you create a less distracted life situation. Participating in worship and the liturgical cycle of the church will help to keep your mind focused on God. As long as you insist on living life as if you can do many things at the same time without any regard for God, you will remain scattered in your mind and you will not remember Him when you need God the most. Slow down, order your life, and focus on one thing at a time. Turn your whole life into a prayer.
With God’s help, in the context of the Church, you can train your mind to become focused and pointed so it acts more like the laser beam, with the power of the Holy Spirit.