Don’t Think About It
Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green · August 21, 2013
Frederica reminds us that a passion begins to die when you don't think about it.
I’m happy to say that I’ve lost some weight. I lost about 15 pounds ever since the beginning of Great Lent, which is not a real headlong pace for losing weight. How many months is that now? They say it’s good; they say it’s good to lose it slowly, and you’re more likely to keep it off. There was something really different this time—because I’ve lost weight before: usually I keep most of it off, but then some comes back on. I realized that this really is a passion. This is one of my passions: overeating. [And I realized] that I’m a bad witness. I am a bad witness for Christ when I live and I eat the way that I do and I’m self-indulgent. It doesn’t show that I am really being conformed to the image of God, and I need to get on top of this. I need to control my desire to overeat.
I realized that it’s like everything else in the spiritual life: it has to do with your thoughts. It has to do with your thoughts! I was spending so much time thinking about what I wanted to eat next and planning how I was going to get it or how I was going to cook it or whatever [that] it just was taking up a lot of room in my thoughts. Here’s what I thought about.
A couple of years ago, I was talking to a guy who was developing a 15-week parish program for people struggling with all different kinds of sexual temptation. The goal of it really is to reorganize your thoughts, to put your thoughts in different channels. This makes sense. If you think about somebody who has an addiction to porn, well, the first thing you do is you stop looking at porn, and you’re overwhelmed with desire, and the passions are driving you, but it does no good even to think about it. You just have to stop thinking about it. You have to turn your mind to some other thing.
This guy was saying that he had been, at one time, very active in the gay lifestyle. He was gay; he was extremely active: an activist for the cause. [He] had some prayer, had some life experiences with people, ended up getting married. He said it really has to do with controlling your thoughts. It makes immediate sense when he said it: A passion begins to die if you don’t think about it. That would be true not just of sexual temptations, [but] of every kind of temptation. You make things worse if you make your mind linger over it. If you starve it, if you refuse to let your mind go there, it gets weaker and weaker and weaker.
This really isn’t a surprise. Once you hear this: “Yeah, of course that’s true!” We know how difficult it is for some people, struggling against a sexual compulsion or a compulsion to look at porn or something like that. It’s almost like [a] slap to your forehead: “Oh, yeah: don’t think about it!” Not that that’s really easy, but every minute you think about it, stop yourself and turn your mind to something else.
I found that that really has worked, that there have been times that I’ve tried to diet when I still spend all of my time thinking about what I was going to get to eat, when. It makes a big difference to just walk out of the kitchen. Just walk out of that room, and [away from] all the jumbled thoughts that are still arguing, that are telling you what you deserve, what you could do if you wanted to, or what you’re not allowed to do but you’re going to do it anyway. Just walk away and think about something else. It’s been really a wonderful feeling of mastery over that, of being able to subdue those thoughts.
What I thought about is that, for one thing, this is the basis of the entire spiritual life as we know in Orthodoxy. It has everything to do with what we let our minds linger over, and continually turning our minds to the presence of God, to standing in the presence of God and learning to pray constantly, as St. Paul said over and over again, to pray at all times, to always be in the Spirit, to often be vigilant. The exhortations to pray all the time were often linked to vigilance: be watchful, be alert. Christ said, “Watch.” If you knew the hour that the thieves were coming, the householder would not have fallen asleep. “I say to you what I say to all: watch.”
Watchfulness, vigilance, and control of what your thoughts are dallying over is really the basis of the entire spiritual life. As St. James says in his epistle, that’s how sin begins. It’s attracted, and it lingers over it, and then it falls, it becomes captured by sin. Sin, when it’s fully matured, brings about death. So this emphasis on our thoughts and controlling our thoughts, how obvious that is as a strategy. It really does underlie everything else about our spiritual life.
Maybe what you’re struggling with is not overeating; maybe it’s not what my struggle was. I think there are many struggles, certainly sexual temptation is a lot stronger even than the impulse to overeat. You just have to doff your hat to people who are trying to struggle with sexual temptation and to say, “I respect you, and I respect how really, really difficult that is.” The good news is that, as you practice controlling your thoughts, it gets easier to control your thoughts. As you practice this, temptation gets weaker and weaker and weaker, every day that you’re able to practice this. If you fall, get up again. That’s always the bottom line: if you fall, get up again. You will see temptation just begin to die, like a fruit that is cut off from the vine.
It occurred to me recently that this emphasis in our Orthodox spirituality on control of the thoughts—control of the attention, what you’re focused on, learning to focus on the Lord instead—this is borne out and proved by a marshmallow experiment. [It’s] called the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, which you may have heard of. This was a study of delayed gratification. It was done with children in the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s. The way the experiment went was that the tester would have a child, one between four and six years old, in a room, and come in and give the [child] a [treat]. They’d say, “What would you like? I’ve got an Oreo, a marshmallow, a pretzel,” and the child would say which one the child would like the best. So he’d say, “I’m going to give this to you, and then I’m going to go out of the room. If you can wait 15 minutes before eating it, when I come back, I’ll give you another marshmallow; you’ll get two of them.”
Basically, that was a very simple experiment. They found that as soon as the man walked out of the room, some would eat the marshmallow instantly. That was that. But there were others that were able to hold out, and it was misery for them. They could see them through the one-way mirror. The kids were writhing in their seats and counting the ceiling tiles and pulling on their pigtails and looking off in the corner. The thing was, it was clear they were trying to think about something else. They were trying to distract themselves, trying to push that marshmallow—which was on the table right in front of them—out of their minds, so they’re not thinking about it and not seeing it. They’re focused on anything else.
And the ones that could do that, surprisingly had much better lives. It wasn’t just that they got a second marshmallow. The kids that had that tactic, that strategy of how to distract yourself, how to put your mind on a different thing, those were the kids that, ten years later, they were getting really high SAT scores, and ten years after that they’d gotten graduate degrees, they had good marriages, they didn’t divorce, they were not obese. It was like their whole life, this ability to put their mind on a different thing really turned out to be a wonderful skill to have.
So that’s called the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, and it just goes to show the ancient wisdom of our Orthodox fathers and mothers, that the way to fight temptation is not to fight it by wrestling with it, but to turn away and think about something else. That’s really true; it really works. I felt sort of an homage to this friend of mine. I just can’t imagine how hard it would be to not only have desires but have to actually, actively lived in that life for a decade. What would it take to overcome that? And he did. He did something so much more courageous than what is asked of me. I thought it’s a pretty crummy witness if I’m not able to control my own thoughts about food. Taking him as my example, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. So far, so good. Just walk out of the kitchen; think about something else. It’s working pretty well.