“There appear to be four obstacles which hinder the intellect in the acquisition of virtue. First, there is prepossession, that is, the ingrained influence of habits running counter to virtue; and this,operative over a long period, exerts a pressure which drags the intellect down toward earthly thing. Secondly, there is the action of the senses, stimulated by sensible beauty and drawing the intellect after it. Thirdly, there is the dulling of noetic energy due to the intellect’s connection with the body. … The fourth of the obstacles impeding the intellect in acquisition of virtue is the pernicious influence of unclean and hostile demons. It is impossible to speak of all the various snares they set on the spiritual path.” ~The Philokalia
Obstacles to Virtue
There clearly are obstacles to a life of virtue. The spiritual student must be aware of them if he is to succeed in his quest. There are a number of ways to group these obstacles that different schools and religions have used. That found in The Philokalia is as good as any other.
Habits, Bad and Good
Habits are generally a good thing. Many may not believe that, but it is true. We can walk because after falling many times as a baby, we learned to do it properly and keep our balance while we did. It became a habit. Eating, getting dressed, driving a car, and so on are all possible because they become habits. If we got into our car every morning and had to learn how to drive all over again, we would soon give up and take public transportation. It is only when it becomes a habit that we become comfortable with driving, swimming, walking, dancing, and many other things.
On the other hand, we can also develop bad habits. The kid who is constantly picking his nose has a bad habit. The teacher who is constantly clearing his throat while speaking has a bad habit.
Habits can prevent spiritual growth in a number of ways. Our spiritual teacher might advise us to get the Light of the Spiritual Sun at sunrise several times a week. If, however, we have developed the habit of getting up long after sunrise, it will be impossible to do that. We may have a habit of eating certain foods that limit out ability to grow spiritually. Or we may simply be in the habit of paying so much attention to the material things in life that we completely ignore the spiritual.
The senses of the physical body are also an impediment to growth of spiritual virtue. Each if the senses wants to seek out that which it finds most pleasurable, and avoid that which it doesn’t. The eyes seek beautiful things, the nose pleasant scents, etc. They avoid that which they find unpleasant.
This detracts from growth of virtue by getting us involved in other things instead. It also encourages us to avoid spiritual growth techniques when it causes one or more of the senses to be exposed to something unpleasant. We don’t want to go out into the sun when it is too hot or too cold. We don’t want to get out of a warm bed on a cold winter morning.
I believe what the Philokalia means here is that the intellect, being trapped in the brain and the body, are naturally more concerned with its needs instead of those of the spirit. That is exactly why it is so important to awaken the dormant spiritual faculties. When the spirit and soul have been awakened, the soul can keep the intellect in check and get it to seek higher things.
Demons and Dark Forces
It is unfortunate that many today find it hard to believe in demons and devils. They can believe in all sorts of alien creatures found in science fiction tales, but not angels and demons. For that reason, it may be better to concentrate on the dark forces rather than personalities within them.
We can understand forces like gravity and inertia. There is another kind of force that operates more on a spiritual level. Some of these forces encourage us to grow, both intellectually and spiritually. Others pull us toward destruction. In Native American legend, these are sometimes called the two wolves. One wolf will help you, one will destroy you. The legend says that the wolf you feed is the one who will control you. On a cold morning, if there is a warm fire going, the one who moves close to the fire and puts his hands over it to warm them will be warmed. The one who stands back twenty feet from the fire will not be warmed, and possibly freeze. So if you want to be “warmed” by the light of spirit, move closer to it and away from the demons and dark forces. Then you will, over time, achieve spiritual virtue.