Two hundred years before Gregory the Great identified the Seven Deadly Sins, Evagrius Ponticus (one of the Desert Fathers) listed eight temptations as most likely to distract us from God and/or the spiritual path:

1. Gluttony: inordinate desire or self-indulgence

2. Lust: craving or coveting

3. Avarice: a belief in lack, selfishness, or “never enough”

4. Sadness: melancholy, depression

5. Anger: choosing rage rather than charity

6. Acedia, from the Greek akedia, or “uncaring”,

7. Vainglory: narcissism, glorifying yourself rather than God

8. Pride: believing you can be God better than God.

Evagrius and Gregory were writing for a church that was firmly based in monastic asceticism. This was an authoritarian age, with firmly regulated relationships between people and their rulers, and especially between humans and God.

We have now moved beyond the agrarian cultures that led to the axial religions: Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. The Age of Reason and industrial revolution led to a more mental or rational perspective including the “rights of man” and an almost unbelievably rapid change in the position of women and abolition of slavery.

From the industrial age, western societies are now making progress into the Information Age, as evinced not only by mass communications but by a new focus on relationships. The circle of care has widened to embrace the whole of humanity; we are now concerned about the entire planet, rather than just our individual families, football team, company, or country. Global change is clearly taking our spiritual realities along for the developmental ride – indeed, how could it be otherwise?

What eight ‘temptations’ are most prevalent now? I would suggest the following:

1. Grudges

2. Greed – ‘never enough’

3. Victim/learned helplessness

4. Anxiety/worry/hysteria – lack of faith

5. Depression/loneliness – lack of God-connection

6. Despondency/despair – giving up, lack of faith

7. Pride – self-absorption, narcissism, being God better than God

8. Acedia – a weary “whatever”, lack of enthusiasm/passion

I’d like to focus on Acedia, or spiritual sloth. The concept was popular throughout the Middle Ages, but seemed to vanish in about 1600, according to the OED. Classic acedia was frequently found among monastics; perhaps it didn’t breed as well after the Protestant Reformation.

Although depression and acedia are both noticeable for their lack of enthusiasm, I believe there are substantial differences as well.

Depression can be defined as a chronic feeling of sadness, anxiety, despair, helplessness, and grief. With depressed people, the crown chakra is shut down, and they cannot connect with Spirit.

Acedia relates more to the will. Classically, it combined apathy and laziness, although it can also be seen as hyperactive lack of focus. With acedia, people are able do what they know to be right, but don’t care enough to take action – hence akedia, or “not caring”. This is certainly at the root of the “whatever” we hear so frequently.

In a sense, depression and acedia are inversions of each other. To paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, “For despair, participation in the divine nature through grace is perceived as appealing but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible but unappealing.” He also saw acedia as the opposite of spiritual joy. Effectively, acedia sets in when the flesh overwhelms the spirit, and the person is no longer “fighting the good fight” for spiritual health, that is, we can’t be bothered to pursue the daily habits that keep us at the correct operating frequency – tuned in to the right radio station, as it were.

Obviously, there are fewer religious than in previous eras. In secular life, however, there has been a resurgence of acedia that far outstrips its monastic popularity. This “whatever” attitude clearly has little to do with lack of stimulation – if anything, we are overstimulated. Adults are overwhelmed with work, entertainment, the news, and all the other necessities of modern life. You would think we lack the leisure for acedia, and yet overwork and acedia can easily go hand in hand. In a way, the temptation of acedia lies in its apparent ability to assist us in switching off when we are overwhelmed with too many demands on time and attention. The fourth century monks described by Evagrius allowed acedia understimulation; today, acedia seems to arise through overstimulation.

Over/understimulation both have to do with incorrect focus. Acedia can only capture us through conditions that seem more attractive than living every moment with passion. In our daily lives, we make so many things more important than focus on excellence or purpose. When acedia hits, we make “not caring” more significant than purpose. Those affected can’t be bothered to fight the good fight in this world, much less on any higher plane(s). We are here to overcome the world – to rise above familiar conditions. However, in order to do so, we must engage with who we are, here and now. How can we do that if we are constantly being distracted and allowing the sweetness of life to be wasted on the desert air?

As well as its primary manifestation of listlessness, acedia brings in its train “idleness, somnolence, rudeness, restlessness, wandering about, instability of mind and body, chattering, and inquisitiveness”. Perhaps multi-tasking is simply acedia in disguise!

With acedia, we settle for being less than we truly are, because we cannot bring up the energy to do our daily tasks with joy. We don’t engage with the problems around us, and end up neglecting the social issues or patterns that are everyone’s task to address. Acedia pulls us away from psychological insight, distracting us from actions and behaviors that would show us what we think and feel, if we were paying attention.

With apologies to Lewis Carroll, we can also see acedia as equal parts ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision. Acedia fills us with discontent for what we have chosen; it makes us envious and ambitious (in a negative sense), believing that we are always entitled to an unspecified ‘more’.

Acedia’s prime tool is distraction. By persuading us that anything is more important than what we should be focused on, acedia makes it easy to look away from what we have set ourselves to do. Distraction tells us to check our email 15 times a day, when it’s more important to wash the dishes.

Uglification is, of course, the opposite of beautification. When you are under acedia’s spell, everything looks worse than usual. The world becomes grey and mediocre, with equal lack of enthusiasm for sin or virtue.

The demon of acedia also relies on derision for maximum effect. Acedia persuades us that we are superior to the mundane, whether it be work assignments, personal chores, homework, housework, spiritual homework, or any of the myriad daily details of life, such as listening to our children or spouse.

Acedia has to do with focus – or where we don’t focus because we have lost the heart-connection to what we are here to do. God only speaks to us through the heart; if our heart is jaded, we cannot hear that “small, still voice”.

The desert fathers had one main prescription for when acedia strikes: stay in the cell. Like any other giant, acedia backs down when you face it fearlessly. Start by knowing yourself sufficiently well that you can identify ‘non-you’ thoughts, feelings, or phenomena as they come up. Find out who you truly are, and be that rather than a role or mask. We need to stand up for our significance, rather than wallowing in childhood wounds or other forms of self-absorption. Instead of moving beyond our flaws, acedia insures that we enjoy “an almost voluptuous pleasure in our own emotional sufferings”. We wallow in our wounds and celebrating the depth of our traumas instead of healing them and moving on.

Acedia is primarily a sin of omission. Instead of overindulgence in food, alcohol, sex, rage or gossip, acedia lacks enthusiasm for anything much, even wickedness or sin. This can lead to coldness or cruelty because the person lacks any interest in how his or her actions affect others. The counterpoise to acedia is zeal: enthusiasm, spiritual joy, pleasure in what is praiseworthy and excellent. Of course, if we had the self-discipline to keep on doing assignments with enthusiasm, then we wouldn’t have acedia to start with!

What can we do about acedia now? It’s a four-step process:

1. Identify when you can’t be bothered doing something you should love.

2. Acknowledge the acedia. Look it in the eye.

3. “Return to Sender!”

4. Find something positive to focus on right now!

What if you are already stuck in acedia? As with alcoholism, pulling back from acedia has to be done one day at a time. Acedia takes us out of the Now, so restoration of spiritual health depends on being in the Now as much as possible. Stop worrying, which is reliving the past and projecting it into the future. Find something you enjoy and do that with full attention, even if it’s only for five minutes. There… doesn’t that feel better? Now, go get on with your life!

Author's Bio: 

Rev. Kyre Adept, Phd, a certified Geotran practitioner/instructor, writer, chef, and founder of the Church of Chocolate. Her practice Human Energy Science is based in Santa Barbara, CA. To find out what Human Energy Science can do for you, contact Dr. Kyre Adept at dr.kyre@humanenergyscience.com, or 805.440.5573.