Hesychasm is a mystical tradition of experiential prayer in the Orthodox Church. It is described in great detail in the Philokalia, a compilation of what various saints wrote about prayer and the spiritual life.
The Hesychastic prayer
In practice, the Hesychastic prayer bears some superficial resemblance to mystical prayer or meditation in Eastern religions (e.g., Buddhism and Hinduism, especially Yoga), although this similarity is often overly emphasized in popular accounts.
For example, it may involve specific body postures and be accompanied by very deliberate breathing patterns. It involves acquiring an inner stillness, ignoring the physical senses. The hesychasts interpreted Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "go into your closet to pray" to mean that they should ignore sensory input and withdraw inwards to pray. It often includes many repetitions of the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me[, a sinner].". While some might compare it with a mantra, to use the Jesus Prayer in such a fashion is to violate its purpose. One is never to treat it as a string of syllables for which the "surface" meaning is secondary. Likewise, hollow repetition is considered to be worthless (or even spiritually damaging) in the hesychast tradition.
Saint Theophan the Recluse once related that body postures and breathing techniques were virtually forbidden in his youth, since, instead of gaining the Spirit of God, people succeeded only "in ruining their lungs."
Gregory Palamas: Defender of Hesychasm
Hesychasm was defended theologically by Gregory Palamas at about three separate Hesychast Synods in Constantinople from 1341 to 1351; he was asked to by his fellow monks on Mt. Athos to defend it from the attacks of Barlaam of Calabria, who advocated a more intellectual approach to prayer.
- The Jesus Prayer, a very straightforward exposition.
- On Practicing the Jesus Prayer
- Three foundational aspects of the Theology of St Gregory Palamas