Updated: Jun 30, 2021
By Matt Mirabile, June 2021
Vigilance is not a bad thing. A father vigilantly protects his family. A dog may vigilantly protect its master. A soldier will vigilantly protect an entry point. Vigilance is the attentive power we have to protect what is important. Hyper-vigilance occurs when that natural power is turned up to maximum all the time. It scans the situation looking for threats continuously and misinterprets normal events as threats.
Vigilance is good. Hypervigilance is harmful to our spirit, mind, and body. When we are always in alert mode, expecting the worst and ready for the worst, our bodies produce higher levels of stress hormones. The result is we always feel on edge, never have peace, and act in ways that complicate our lives.
Since vigilance is a natural human power, we can't eliminate it. But we can lower our hypervigilance to reasonable levels and direct it where it is useful. Hypervigilance is not useful vigilance. It uses up our energy and leaves us emotionally exhausted. Directing our vigilance on things that matter can help us gain control of it.
The desert fathers in the Christian tradition, monks that practiced self-denial in solitude, turned their powers of attention to the things that threatened their union with God, their purity and their peace. They scanned their thoughts continuously for things that hindered their spiritual progress. They called this "inner watchfulness" and it is a legitimate use of vigilance. Instead of scanning the outside world for threats, they understood that the greatest threats were from their own minds and hearts. Thoughts that suggested themselves to their awareness that tempted them with wrath, lust, envy, unforgiveness and pride were the greatest danger. They practiced being watchful for these thoughts and cutting them off.
Those who struggle with unwanted, harmful behaviors and patterns of thinking are often hypervigilant, but about the wrong things. It is time we learn to turn that power of attention inward, to guard ourselves vigilantly from thoughts that excite us in unhealthy ways. From thoughts that bring despair or despondency, anxiety and fear, and thoughts that stir addiction and obsession. When we learn how to stand guard over our emotional state to protect it, identifying thoughts and imaginations that threaten it, we are using our powers of vigilance appropriately.
It is possible to become overly scrupulous about our own thoughts, condemning ourselves over every minor fault or thought. Our hypervigilance in this case can turn into a canon aimed at ourselves that tears us to shreds. It all depends on which "you" is keeping guard.
One thing we try to achieve in the Deep Recovery approach is to help people rediscover the good, pure and wise self, rooted in the divine image. Once we accept this self and let go of the destructive, condemning self, that same self can take up the job of watchfulness. That self can keep watch for the condemning self, the self that focuses on failure or imperfection, and turn such thoughts away.
The healthy, good self is the vigilant self that, seeking wisdom from above, observes the mind-spaces and learns to turn away those thoughts that bring us down. Go easy on yourself. Me merciful to yourself. Forgive yourself.