The Sayings of the ‘Desert Fathers’ and the Quest(ion) of the Self

Borut Škodlar, Jan Ciglenečki


The Sayings of the “Desert Fathers

and the Quest(ion) of the Self:

A General Outline


“Desert Fathers” and their spiritual practices

The following paragraphs are a loose set of ideas for our forthcoming research on the psychological dimensions of the teachings of the “Desert Fathers”. Within the framework of the project “Heritage of the Desert Fathers” we are interested in different mental conditions in relation to various spiritual practices behind the sayings and anecdotes of the “Desert Fathers”. These early Christian ascetics pursued gradual penetration of outer sets of emotions, sensations, feelings and thoughts into a deeper, more fundamental layer(s) of human being, and by doing that they employed a variety of ascetic techniques, renunciation from the world, isolation and confinement, fighting the dark sides of oneself (“demons”), contemplation of sacred texts, constant prayer and meditation. The collections of sayings of the “Desert Fathers” are a rich treasury of psychological insights that can often help us understand the course and individual stages of the process of re-connecting to innermost layer(s) of the human psyche.

We are primarily focused on the methods and techniques of the “Desert Fathers” – also in comparison to some other spiritual traditions, e.g. yogic practices, Sufi traditions, mindfulness (sati) and other Buddhist meditative practices – to quiet the passions and to detach from outer feelings and thoughts in order to attain the panoramic view of psychological landscape on their path to the ultimate insight, i.e. union with God (unio mystica). On this path, hermits aspire to conscious detachment and thorough deconstruction of peripheral layers of (one)self, which may represent potential obstacles, dangers and distractions. Thus they can return to a more basic and fundamental experiencing of oneself, which supposedly constitutes the basis of mystical experiences in Christian as well as in other spiritual traditions.


The Foundation of the Self

The central problem within the phenomenological and psychological research dealing with religious, mystical and meditative experiences on one side and psychotic experiences on the other, gravitates around the question of the self. Our previous research on the relation between mystical and psychotic experiences (cf. Ciglenecki&Skodlar, 2013) revealed a need for further investigations of different dimensions of human experience. In phenomenological tradition (cf. Zahavi, 2005), we distinguish the basic, pre-reflective self-awareness (basic, minimal or core self) and reflective, personality-forming self-experience (narrative or extended self). Our main hypothesis would be that in psychotic (schizophrenic) vulnerability or disposition we witness the instability of all layers of the self, i.e. basic (core) and extended self; through spiritual (meditative) practices on the other hand one aspires to deliberate instability (deconstruction) of extended (peripheral) layers of the self meanwhile the core layer of the self gets stabilized. We are aware that defining layers of the self and its core dimensions is far from unequivocal.

It seems to be impossible to have instability only on the level of pre-reflective self-awareness, since reflective self is always dependent on the former (e.g. patients with schizophrenia, where instability of pre-reflective self-awareness is postulated; Parnas&Sass, 2011). The big question is, whether we can influence and stabilize this pre-reflective self through spiritual practices, which are depicted in the sayings of the “Desert Fathers” and which primarily depart from the level of reflective self. Similarities between delusional insight/epiphany (Wahneinfall) and mystical revelation seem to imply radical commotion or destabilisation of all layers of self (including total collapse of common sense and breaking-down the subject-object dichotomy; Vörös, 2013), being an intrinsic feature of both.

Why then a psychotic doesn’t and mystic does come back to a well-tempered everyday life? It is important to distinguish between the psychotic and/or mystical states themselves and the routines and life-styles based on or simply following such experiences. In religious traditions, we also encounter variety of life-styles and stances, where intertwinement of spirituality and madness is so complex that an external observer can hardly discern one from the other. Good examples are “holy fools” in Christian and Islamic traditions, “sadhus” in Indian traditions etc. There are also many (auto)biographical accounts and reports about people deliberately withdrawing into madness or being seduced by it.


Implications for Psychotherapy

Assuming that mystical and psychotic experiences are in some cases and to some extent similar and related, brings us back to the psychotherapeutic relevance of the rich psychological insights, preserved in the sayings of the “Desert Fathers”. The originality of their approach, dealing with ultimate concerns, such as death, existence, God, salvation, freedom, relations to others and meaning/purpose of life, can inspire psychotherapy. Their approach can be seen as closely connected to the existential psychotherapeutic paradigm (Yalom, 1980), which sees these ultimate concerns as a major source of anxiety and formation of defence mechanisms leading to a variety of symptoms and signs of mental distress.

Sayings and testimonies of the “Desert Fathers” are particularly interesting, since they do not depart from theoretical considerations, but from practical experiences, ascetic practices and their thorough observations of states of mind, emotions and moods, fantasies, dreams and visions. They were particularly attentive to the dangers, obstacles and distractions on their spiritual path, which can be analogously compared to psychotherapeutic process. Strategies and techniques used in spiritual guidance, provided by “Desert Fathers”, can thus inspire psychotherapy and can be particularly relevant for supporting patients’ creative and spiritual quests, which is often neglected and misunderstood within the classical forms of psychotherapy. They are valuable and even crucial for reconnection with inner sources of healing, resilience and hope.



– Jan Ciglenečki & Borut Škodlar: Mistična in psihotična izkustva: projekt ‘Parmenides’. In: Sebastjan Vörös: Mistika in misel, Poligrafi 71/71, 2013.
– Josef Parnas & Louis A. Sass: The Structure of Self-Consciousness in Schizophrenia. In: Shaun Gallagher: The Oxford Handbook of The Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
– Sebastjan Vörös: Podobe neupodobljivega, (Nevro)znanost, fenomenologija, mistika, Ljubljana: Kud Logos, 2013
– Irvin D. Yalom: Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books, 1980.
– Dan Zahavi: Subjectivity and Selfhood. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.