Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Question of Impressions

For those of you not familiar with North American birds, this is a wild bird, not a domesticate; a wood duck. There's a couple nesting across the street from my house on the Sparkill pond; this photograph of the male was taken this morning.

In examining all the questions about life, I have pointed out on a number of occasions that the only thing that seems absolutely certain at any given moment is that we inhabit the body we inhabit, and have the experiences we experience.

Attempting to interpret these facts, to insert them into cosmologies, intellectual structures, to manufacture meanings comes after the fact.

It seems as though the human mind has a obsessive need to meddle with everything. Some Zen masters discuss the conceptual mind with undisguised contempt though we ought to stomp it out like a fire ...and there are times when I completely agree with them.

The summary of our experience is impressions. Impressions are the collective records of all our sensory foods, as acquired by all of our sensory organs.

If we choose to be sensitive to our life, rather than accepting the insensitivity we usually default to, we may notice that all of these things we call impressions are food. The body we inhabit is constantly drinking in life from every direction and with every sense, both inner and outer. This feeding on what is taking place never ends. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every bit of life, every moment we encounter, every sound we hear and touch we sense is food.

Mankind evolved to take in impressions of the natural world. (This isn't my idea; it's taken from the Nobel prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson.) And no matter what cosmology, religious practice, or science we choose to sign onto, this particular fact seems self-evident. It isn't possible for men to have evolved in any other way, no matter what we have since appended to the situation with our artifice and technology.

The conditions of modern life have caused a great deal of what we eat in terms of impressions to deteriorate. To be sure, we have created a lot of wonderful and interesting impressions along the way, especially those that emerge from the arts. The fact remains that an overwhelming number of the urban and technological impressions we are inundated with probably have a debilitating effect on us. Edward O. Wilson argues that a failure to take in a sufficient amount of natural impressions leads to a form of psychopathy. Given the current state of society at large, I'd say this might well be true.

Men who attempt to refine their inner state have long understood that surrounding ourselves with intentionally chosen, more feeding impressions can help us. This is the whole point of creating pleasing environments. It's the point of Zen gardens; it's the point of a Botticelli painting, and the point of a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart sonata. In the end, every single one of these enterprises, no matter how we try to interpret it, ends up being about how we feed ourselves.

If we don't feed ourselves the right kind of food in life -- and it is very important for us to remember that this has to do with all kinds of impressions-- we get sick. A lot of our emotional disabilities arise from this failure to feed ourselves properly. When we don't get the right foods, we don't manufacture the right chemicals; and, as modern pharmacology has conclusively proven, when we don't have the right chemicals in our body, our emotional equilibrium suffers.

Correcting this with little colored pills can help--and by all means, if that's necessary, no one should hesitate, because the stunning advances in medicine over the last 20 years ensure that there is no need to go through life as an emotional wreck anymore! --, but it's not the optimum solution.

Those of us who work in the spiritual territory of life want to learn how to put ourselves together by creating our own inner chemical support, as much as possible.

The point of inner work is to become more responsible to our impressions in a general way. This means we try to discriminate more actively as to how we are, where we are, and what we are encountering. Above all, we begin to learn that discrimination does not just mean filtering out the "bad" impressions; no, discrimination means choosing to be present to all the impressions, to suffer ourselves, that is, to allow all of the impressions we possibly can to enter us in a whole, merciless, and uncompromising manner, so that they touch as many parts of us as possible.

It's this willingness to be touched, to remain a bit quieter and allow the world to come to us, rather than reaching out to seize it, that makes the difference. This reminds me of a pillow one of my best friends gave me on my 50th birthday.

On it, she embroidered, "By absence of grasping, one is made free."

This act of trying to receive is part of that effort. Nowadays, I try to make sure that I have small things around me every day that create specifically feeding impressions: in this way, I try to be a bit more intentional about my environment. For example, I may bring a few flowers to work; I always have fossils, mineral specimens, gemstones on my desk, along with some Buddhist statuary. I make sure that I drink a good cup of coffee, made with the best possible beans, and a dollop of rich cream.

One could argue that I am spoiling myself, stroking my ego with these little things, and perhaps that is true in one way or another. But if I do not give myself impressions of value, then I do not value myself. I need to have some tangible, intentionally acquired impressions of fineness every day, some physical reminders of the fact that I am very fortunate to be in this body. Physical reminders of the fact that I live all an extraordinary planet, where beauty is all around me in ways I constantly forget and probably cannot even imagine.

Be nice to yourself.

This is a lesson my teacher brought to me in a very simple way when I first got sober over 26 years ago, and in one way or another, it has never left me. Even now, when I am still quite a different person than I was then, her words are true. The nature of their truth has transformed itself into a different level of understanding, but Truth itself remains, no matter what level I am able to take it on.

And Truth, like all other impressions, is like this. It is a wine that grows finer with age.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Why even bother?

The negative parts of ourselves tend to run a great deal of the show, no matter how hard we work or how much effort we put in. We may well conduct our affairs as though we are mellow, calm, and collected, but the friction of the outside world--which routinely clashes with our inner attitudes, opinions, and demands-- inevitably builds up over time. It gradually generates a powerful, unstable charge of emotional energy, and sooner or later some tiny little thing triggers an explosion all out of proportion to the event.

More often than not, when the dust settles, we're bewildered by how all that happened.

Perhaps even worse, there are those times when nothing seems to go right, when life assumes a dull, gray, depressive aspect that we cannot seem to overcome. The inner judge takes over. We feel like failures, inadequate in all and everything; frustrated by conditions both inside and outside of us, with no visible way out of it.

Not only that, we have spent years of our life in a search for "something" that, no matter how hard we search, we cannot seem to find. When we were young, we heard of this marvelous place one could get to -- Paradise, or Heaven, or Nirvana-- but no matter how attentively or zealously we trudge through the landscape of our life, it never seems to change that much.

We grow frustrated. We feel alone, even embattled. We've all been there.

All of this emotional negativity arises chiefly because of our partiality. This partiality, this lack of relationship, it is the most prominent feature in the landscape of our life, and because we cannot even sense our inner parts rightly, we are utterly blind to it. These parts are not in the proper relationship; these physical entities, these organs within us don't exchange amongst each other in a right way.

As a result, the emotional center -- which is perhaps the most sophisticated and delicate part of our inner mechanism -- is starved for the food it needs. It ends up doing the opposite of what it is supposed to do, that is, support us. Instead of storing up energy, it leaks it out in every direction. And because it is starved, it lashes out like a cornered beast. The lower part of its nature is so firmly tethered to the animal in us that it doesn't know any better.

Henry Brown told me many years ago that it is important not to suppress negativity. To not express negative emotions is very different than to not have them. In fact, we probably need to have the negative emotions we have, and we need to know that we are having them. It's equally important not to condemn them, or fault ourselves for having them. ...This is, of course, quite tricky, because if we indulge in too much negativity, and allow it free reign, in its starved state it will eventually begin to feed on our inner life in a way that can permanently poison us.

So I would say it's our relationship to our negative emotions that needs to be examined, not the fact that we have them.

Some of you will know that I have mentioned it's possible to become free of negative emotions. That is an unusual state, and can't ever be produced under ordinary circumstances. It's a gift from a higher place. Even when it arrives, however, allow me to be clear in stating the negativity still exists.

The difference is that our relationship to it is transformed.

There's even more to this already complicated picture. If the inner organism begins to work properly, negative emotion can bring us a great deal of energy for our work. The very fact of its existence can, paradoxically, help us. I'm not really able to explain why this is the case; I just know from personal experience that it is.

So perhaps, when we find ourselves in the negative state, when we are rejecting our lives, and the world, and the people around us, we can take a look at that and see if there is any help available within the condition in itself.

If we just reject the condition -- believing that we should banish negativity, that it is useless, bad, and lowers us to a disgusting state (all of which may certainly, to some extent, be true)-- then we don't experience the condition or accept the condition.

And I think we should remember that we have to be within every condition in order to have that experience. Otherwise we don't grow.

This question is a very important one, because it touches on the question of the two natures, the forces that we live in between. We have one nature endowed within us from a higher level; and another one that is an animal, completely and rightly of this level.

Within the context of the animal, which lives according to instinct, and is, by its nature, "red in tooth and claw," there can be no "wrong. " If that were all we were, and that alone, it would be sufficient and there would be no wrong in it.

Even knowing that it is not alone, and that we have something higher in us, does not render anything of the animal "wrong." We just have to understand that the animal is of this level. It can't live according to any other set of laws; it is under all 48 of the laws on this level. The effort is for us to consciously recognize, through inner physical and inner emotional experience, that there is a part of us that comes from a higher level and is under less laws.

The two natures are separated and cannot be mixed. They exist in relationship with, but apart from, one another.

Everything can be going terribly wrong for the animal. And we have to inhabit that. If you want an example, take the example of Jesus Christ, who had just exactly that happen to him and allowed it to happen.

At the same time, while everything is going wrong for the animal, there is another part that everything can be going right for within us. If we want to get a hint of just where this thing called "Paradise," or "Heaven," or "Nirvana," is located, we have to look within ourself for this part of our nature, which is coexistent with but separate from the animal.

In order to discover that, of course, we have to engage in a great deal of discrimination, of inner scrutiny, of studying the condition until we finally come into contact with that beautiful and (at least for us, in our present condition) much more delicate nature, which only the emotional center is sensitive enough to touch and be touched by.

So even in the depths of negativity, perhaps we can remind ourselves that there is something worth bothering with. It's right here with us.

We just need to be willing to reach for it.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Spirit, flesh, faith

Today we're going to examine another interesting parallel between central ideas of the Christian faith and the Gurdjieff work, once again turning to Gurdjieff's "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson," as a reference point.

In chapter 39, "The Holy Planet Purgatory," pages 712-14, Gurdjieff explains that man has three "receiving apparatuses," or brains, built into his physical structure for his interaction with the sacred, externally arising manifestations of the cosmos.

Unlike modern medical science, which refers only to the organ found in the cranium as "the" brain, Gurdjieff referred to each of the three major neurological complexes in man as a separate brain. The distinction is important, because the spinal column and the sympathetic nervous system don't truly qualify as brains from the viewpoint of modern neuroscience: they aren't recognized as having any thinking function.

In the Gurdjieff system, they do have essential thinking functions. The type of thinking they do, however, is not what we would conventionally refer to as thinking. Gurdjieff (seemingly forever out in front of contemporary sciences) characterizes emotion and movement as intelligences which are equally important as the intellectual mind, albeit of a quite different order.

The "first brain," which functions as what he calls the "holy affirming" part, is what we usually call the human brain. The second brain, which functions as the "holy denying" part, is the spinal column. The third brain, which functions as the "holy reconciling" part, is the sympathetic nervous system with its nodes in the solar plexus.

In examining these parts from a biological point of view, we know that most of the higher functions of man's intellect, including his ability to reason -- which, despite the dubious reputation the intellectual center has inherited in today's Gurdjieff work, was something that Gurdjieff himself valued very highly indeed --are mediated by the cerebral brain.

The "lower brain" (the medulla oblongata) and spinal column are viewed as a more primitive type of brain, sometimes referred to as "reptilian" in nature, i.e. representing the lower end of the evolutionary tree. And we do see that the moving center is largely regulated by the nervous system located in the spine. It supervises what might be called a reflexive, automatic--mechanical--response to the environment.

Taking these two rough equivalents, it becomes apparent that there is a reasonable parallel here between these two parts and the pivotal Christian concepts of spirit and flesh as represented in Paul's letters.

Paul continually calls on men to an investment in the Spirit, or higher brain, which can exercise choice and initiative, rather than the flesh, or the lower brain, whose response to its environment is composed of reflexive or mechanical impulses. So in Gurdjieff's "holy affirming" and "holy denying" parts of the body, we find a direct parallel to Paul's conflicts between man's perpetual investment in the flesh, and the need for him to be called to the spirit.

In the vertical physical arrangement of these two body parts, we see a question of investing in the lower or investing in the higher, of the need to move towards something that affirms our higher nature, rather than that which denies it. Investment in the spirit is a call to man to live from intelligence, rather than instinct.

Of course both natures are needed, because if we do not have a choice between our two natures, no effort whatsoever is necessary. In both the Gurdjieff work and in classical Christianity, if man can derive any merit at all from his existence, it is in making the effort to choose a higher path.

In Gurdjieff's teaching, it is the emotional brain, or nervous system, that forms the bridge between the higher and lower. And in Paul's examination of the questions of the Spirit and the flesh, it is faith that helps make the choice.

I think we can make a fair argument that faith is an emotional quality.

Readers may object that in adopting Gurdjieff's model, we are confusing a physical part (the sympathetic nervous system) with an emotional quality (Paul's Faith) here, but seeing as all emotional qualities inevitably arise from our physical parts, I think the distinction between the two is merely one of semantics. Furthermore, it raises a question that is rarely examined within the confines of classical Christianity: what is the physical property of emotionality?

Here we come to a fascinating aspect of Gurdjieff's teaching. The understanding that is necessary in order to bridge the gap between the higher and lower levels is not, primarily, an intellectual one, as theologians would have us believe. It is, in fact, an actual physical one, a quality that arises from and is directly associated with a physical part. As such, we see that the emotion not only has a material aspect to it, but that it is experienced physically within the body -- that is, that surge of sensation we feel that accompanies emotion has a purpose and a place that we don't understand very well.

It is organic.

Not only that, the emotions are to be considered as a special form of intelligence -- a very high form of intelligence, as it happens, capable of joining two opposite worlds together.

Once again, that understanding isn't that far away from what Paul teaches us. Faith is superior to law; law is mechanical, it belongs to our lower part. By itself "law" has no way of closing the gap between itself and the higher. It needs help.

Gurdjieff taught that nothing real can take place in a man's work until emotion enters. In the end, no matter which discipline we practice, we find ourselves continually returning to the idea that the heart--that ephemeral center of the spine, the "ancient location" of the emotional complex--but still the location we refer to when we discuss emotion--must enter one's work. It's in the organic experience of sensation, and the organic experience of emotion, that we may begin to sense something greater than the ordinary mind. Hence my phrase, "the organic state of being." A state based on faith, on an inner emotional relationship, not our usual deductive logic.

Gurdjieff's teaching has a way of gently leading us away from Paul's distinguished metaphysics, back into the body, which is where all the work we wish to do must, on this planet, be done.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Our inner and outer natures

The subject comes up again and again around me and within me of understanding that we have two natures, and the question of inner and outer impressions . Regular readers know that this is frequently discussed in this blog.

We keep coming back to it because I feel it is a rather essential question which I explore on a daily basis.

These two natures I speak of are our inner nature and our outer nature. We can call them natures, because they are conditions we inhabit. Or we might also refer to them as forces, because they can both act upon us. Either term is sufficient, although neither one fully comprehends the situation.

Until something becomes more awake in us, we are unable to sense either of these natures as a true force. Under our ordinary conditions of sensation, we live in a flat, colorless landscape. It is very nearly two-dimensional in nature compared to what is actually possible.

Of course we do not perceive life that way; we're like a creature in Flatland. (Some of you may recall that Ouspensky spoke about this concept of dimensionality at length in "A New Model of the Universe.") So we are actually, in our sleep, unaware of the outer nature that enters us--which we are identified with-- and we are equally unaware of the nature that arises and exists within us--which we are separated from due to our partiality, our lack of relationship.

By experiencing these natures, I mean an actual experience of a rate of vibration. We acquire an ability to sense what Gurdjieff called the "vivifyingness of vibration" of an impression. And what we call reality is, of course, actually entirely composed of vibrations. The organism does not experience inner or outer life as a vibration, or a force, until a new degree of sensitivity appears.

The reason that there is an emphasis, within the formal confines of the work, on the development of sensation is that the way that ordinary sensation touches us can eventually stimulate the awakening of a reciprocal and more durable inner force. One won't find this understanding in other works; it is fundamentally lacking. Allusions to it in other practices- such as "attaining the marrow" in Zen-- have been so aggressively misinterpreted as mental states in recent years that they have ceased to be practical.

I would tend to speak of this "beginning" understanding of sensation as part of our "outer" nature because the initial development of sensation is largely related to the ordinary senses and what they take in: it initially arises out of an effort by the ordinary mind. If attended to properly, however, this work leads to the discovery of the inner nature, and then we begin to physically and emotionally distinguish between the two natures.

This physical and emotional knowing of two natures is what is generally lacking in our current knowledge of "self," which is largely theoretical. I would argue, as it happens, that the first aim of self observation ought to be to discover this specific principle. Until it is discovered, there is no "self." There are instead a series of automatic behaviors that take the place of self. Studying these for too long is a dead end. It's like trying to learn about the biology of the cell by studying a computer motherboard.

Upon the arousal of living experience, the question of self moves into an otherness of territory which we won't cover here. So for those of you who are tempted to engage in philosophical discussions with me here about self, not self, and what does and doesn't exist, please restrain yourselves. These are good subjects, but not for today.

Outer sensations and impressions enter through the gate of the body through the five ordinary senses. Taken together they "create" ordinary life, which at face value appears to be all we can know. Inner sensations and impressions--which are, of course, much subtler, and more difficult to become receptive to -- emanate from the inner sensory organs.

So there are two nerve endings, a point where two worlds almost meet -- but don't.

What is missing?

It's possible to come to experience life as an intersection of forces between the inner and the outer senses, as I have discussed many times. Man, in his ordinary life, ought to function as an entity occupying a gap between these two nerve endings -- these two directions of transmission.

In this juncture, the place where two worlds of different levels meet, man's consciousness- his attention--serves as the acetylcholine (a chemical neurotransmitter) that helps bridge the neural gap and transmit signals in both directions. As such, if we become less partial, our organism should function very much like the meeting point of two nerve cell dendrites--two tiny branches that almost touch each other, but need an outside, catalytic, agent to help transmit the information from one to another.

It is the duty of our awareness--our attention--to occupy this gap, part of the essential work we do as living beings. One of my good friends and readers describes this as being a "nail" that holds heaven and earth together. And when Gurdjieff described "Being-Parktdolg-duty,"he was perhaps alluding to the same matter.

In fact, if all we ever did was this type of work, it would represent great progress over the activities we usually engage in. From a cosmological point of view, not much more is necessary, and at a minimum, anyway, almost all that we do undertake right now in an ordinary sense is absolutely unnecessary.

We all need to constantly deepen our practice in an effort to discover this new level of sensation within ourselves. This is a work that consistently bears fruit with enough effort. We must make the effort to raise the organic rate of vibration to a higher level so that it becomes alive on its own.

Once this takes place, instead of supporting the effort, the effort supports us. This is one point at which help arrives.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A subtle fragrance

This morning I cut a single hyacinth, among the flowers that I brought in to work. It only has seven little blossoms on it, but it is filling my entire office with its subtle fragrance.

These so very few flowers, and the scent that accompanies them, have changed the entire atmosphere of the workday. Even when I am not looking at them, their presence makes itself known. The scent may be quite invisible, but its effects are direct, immediate, tangible.

I am reminded of how the law of seven, along with the law of three, permeates everything existing.

This law, like all the laws of world creation and world maintenance, is invisible. You cannot take a law and slap it on the table and look at it. Mathematicians are able to describe some laws using numbers, but even then, the laws themselves are abstractions.

No one knows exactly why the laws exist at all, let alone why the laws exist as they do.

This makes the creation of a universe within time that causes things to appear and act as they do even more remarkable. "Accidentalists" would have it that everything that takes place in the universe is random, but cause and effect clearly aren't random at all. All of them follow the various laws. Hence, a determinism exists at this level of what we call classical reality. That is to say, everything has to be exactly as it is, based on what has already been just before it. As Gurdjieff put it, "for one thing to be different, everything would have to be different."

So here I am, surrounded by innumerable arisings according to law, permeated by law, existing within the law. All of these things are facts, yet none of them seem to explain a yellow vase-- purple flowers--this subtle fragrance that enters the body and penetrates down into the deeper parts of myself.

Should I be interested in the laws, or interested in the experience?

The intellect is obsessed with laws. We want things to be ruled according to law, we want predictability. We want life to be fair... of course we have not done a very good job of that. Our use of law in the absence of understanding has caused us to destroy a great deal of what we lay our hands on, both personally and in the larger sense of mankind's collective activity.

Yet while all of the truth we encounter inevitably arises within the context of law, the inherent nature of human experience seems to somehow lie outside of it.

In the New Testament, Paul repeatedly indicates in his letters that law alone is not enough to complete a man. Paul brings us back to this question we have examined before, faith.

I think that faith relates to the inhabitation of our environment, rather than the reductive analysis of it. We could easily present an argument that "law" represents, to Paul, mechanicality. It is automatic, and needs no conscious thought to give it validity.

Faith is personal and requires initiative. Law is impersonal, and does not.

This leads me to another thought which I had last night. When the universe was originally created -- a somewhat botched job, as we learn in "The Holy Planet Purgatory--," God was apparently unable to anticipate some of the consequences. (And if anything were to endear God ever more to our hearts, fallibility ought to.) The universe, we learn, was originally created so that the law of seven functioned mechanically, without the intervention of any outside forces. After things did not work out so very well -- a collapse of the situation, described as calamitous by Gurdjieff, took place--the evolution of the octave could only proceed properly with the intervention of outside forces, that is, the law of three, which comes from a higher level.

There is a reflection of this idea in the Christian Bible. The new covenant that Christ brought between God and man represented an intersection between this level and a higher level. One might say that Christ represented the law of three, intersecting with man's law of seven and providing the shocks that are needed to raise our level.

Whether one chooses to see it this way or not, the fact remains that in Gurdjieff's cosmology, the fates of God and of his creation were intimately intertwined from the very beginning, and became even more so once the law of seven became dependent on the Law of three for its proper evolution.

As I sit here, dictating this text and smelling the hyacinth, it strikes me as though this subtle fragrance represents an intersection between myself and something higher. There is something inestimably fine and beautiful about the vibration of this scent, and I feel an inner support that derives from it.

It is as soft and in tangible as God Himself; and perhaps, after all, it is God Himself, in ways that I am fundamentally unable to understand.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Results of Time

In "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson," Gurdjieff indicates that the reason the universe was created was because time -- which he calls "the merciless heropass"--was eroding the place of existence of His Endlessness.

Put in other terms, the universe was created out of an effort to understand and counteract time. From this point of view, we might suppose that the arising of consciousness itself took place in order to perceive and work with time.

Physics claims that time, in some senses, does not exist, and Gurdjieff found agreement with this. He explained that time is, put in plain terms, nothing more than the results of all the interactions of everything everywhere. As such, time falls into a category perhaps better described as "cause and effect," which, as regular readers of this blog may know, Dogen placed a good deal of emphasis on. The universe is formed of, and founded on, cause and effect.

Or, if you will, the results of time.

I bring this subject up because the essential element of what is called "sleep" is a failure to perceive time accurately.

When we are asleep, we are unaware of time; time ceases to exist. Moments of awakening are a shock simply because we see that before they take place, we do not see ourselves as existing within time (or at all,) and while they take place, we see that we are existing within time.

So we might argue that the proposition of being awake is the difference between knowing we live within time and knowing we do not. There are hints in this direction contained in Gurdjieff's admonitions. After analyzing mankind's foibles for over a thousand pages in "Beelzebub," his final word on the matter is that the only thing which might help man to develop is a constant sense of his own mortality -- that is, that he lives within time, that his time is limited, and that he will die. The awareness of time thus becomes critical in the question of inner work.

I don't think that we can divorce the question of time and how we perceive it from any moment of our work. Either we live within time in the context of consciousness, or there is no consciousness, and there is no time.

The entire process of consciousness itself exists strictly to examine the nature of time. If you look at every enterprise that man engages in, it is about time in one way or another. All of the scientific disciplines are about time. Evolutionary biology is about how life experiences time and changes over time. Physics is the study of mass, and motion through time. Geology and paleontology, we hardly need mention, History, psychology, sociology: all work within the question of time. Every single discipline is built upon the examination of time.

It even comes down to our ordinary activity. Everything we do is done within the context of time. When people buy television sets, they are doing so so that they can use their time in a particular way. Time is so tangible it has a commodity in today's world. Everything seems to be speeding up: we talk about wasting time, using time, taking time, and not having time.

We are so immersed in the process of space and time that we take them for granted, instead of seeing that we are born here specifically to perceive and understand time within the context of the space we occupy.

I understand here that many will feel I am stating the obvious, but it is not obvious at all. The perception of time within the organism is not a given. Time becomes quite different when there is an organic connection, when sensation is available. Time perceived within the context of a moment of greater awareness is very different than time perceived when there is little or no awareness.

It is possible, it occurred to me this morning, that our very existence itself is predicated upon a universal effort to understand time. I'm suggesting that because the universe was created specifically to counteract the force of time, it would appear that the study of the force of time is essential. This is a work in progress; as we see in "Beelzebub," unforeseen consequences flowed from the creation of the universe, ultimately resulting in the need for the holy planet purgatory. This suggests that although His Endlessness studied time sufficiently to discover a mechanism to counteract its maleficent effects, even He was unable to understand the consequences of time in enough depth or detail to foresee some of the eventualities that arose.

The question of time is also related to the question about struggle and relationship. We might say that the universe was created as a struggle against time; on the other hand, we might also say that the relationship between time and the universe is intimate, because the universe exists within time and depends on time in order to defeat the actions of time.

This paradoxical situation would have delighted any Zen master.

I'll leave you to ponder this more on your own.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Struggle and relationship

If we just read Ouspensky's books, we might easily come to the conclusion that inner work is all about a struggle.

Gurdjieff certainly characterized work in that way many, many times. And there is no doubt that other traditions seem to present work as a struggle of one kind or another. The Zen masters, Dogen included, certainly emphasize struggle-- in their case, mostly with the nature of the mind, which makes sense--but it is still a struggle.

There is a continued emphasis on this idea of struggle in the Gurdjieff work. People come to the work struggling with their inner questions, groups exchange about the struggle they have in their ordinary life and with themselves, and often enough everything eventually starts to revolve around how difficult everything is, and how much of a struggle it is.

This reminds me greatly of why I left Alcoholics Anonymous about 24 years ago. I would go to meetings only to listen to people go on and on about how diseased they were. As though nothing else mattered. My own attitude was that people needed to get over it, accept where they were as alcoholics, and move on to something more positive. Dwelling on our known deficiencies does not move us forward. It is only an inner effort to overcome them by accepting them graciously that we can hope for any freedom.

Hence my oppositional reaction to the idea of the work as a struggle. To me, inner work is not, ultimately, about a struggle. Yes, of course it begins there, but that is because our understanding begins psychologically, and this is not the center of gravity for inner work. Ultimately it must go on to a completely new place.

Inner work is about a relationship.

The relationship that I speak of is an inner relationship with our self. If all we do is struggle with ourselves, we find ourselves in a perpetual internal wrestling match. This may appear to be what work is about, because it's compelling and has a lot of vigor to it. But all it actually does is cause us to run in circles and sap our energy.

Instead, we must be called to seeing not just how we behave--which is inevitably repetitious, because we are largely mechanical -- but how we are constructed within ourselves.

In seeing this, in seeing the nature of our inner sensation and our inner apparatus, we can be called to help make it whole. This is about creating an inner relationship between the parts: becoming less partial, fostering an inner unity.

It is an act of peacemaking, not the art of warfare against the lower nature we already know we have.

We must not bring the complaints we have about ourselves and our deficiencies to our work or to our self. At a certain stage in our work, it becomes vitally important to put those aside. We must recognize that struggling against our badness will not conquer badness; to do so is as though to believe one can erase sin one's self, instead of understanding, as the Alcoholics and Christians do, that only a higher power can do that for us.

In my many years in the work, I have certainly noticed a tendency among the members to dwell upon how we cannot "do," we are asleep, we cannot see ourselves, and so on. This continued emphasis on our inability does not serve us well. The idea of man's inability is well established in the work, and repeating it to each other over and over does not constitute work. It's just the expounding of doctrine. Speaking about it with a good deal of emotion certainly makes it convincing, but it is the impetus that makes that attractive. It's an illusion of meaningful movement.

Movement without direction is pointless. Instead of just becoming attracted to velocity alone, we must make an effort to become more interested in location, that is, inhabitation. We must become more three centered in our exchange within life.

I would like to change the subject here just a bit and offer an observation from this morning's sitting.

In an effort to more specifically establish this inner direction I speak of so often, there needs to be a new kind of inner sensation and a new kind of inner connection.

One way to help foster this is to conduct (somewhat in the way that alcoholics do) a fearless "inner inventory" of ourselves, an inventory not of our flaws, habits, and so on, but an inventory of our parts. These parts are structural and tangibly physical, not conceptual. We might call them our "inner Egypt." We need to "discover" these parts--brush the sand off them-- and know what they are. In order to do that, we must begin to sense ourselves within, not with the mind, but with the body.

I bring this up because this morning I noticed that no matter how adept one becomes at work of this kind, there is a tendency to take the inventory of the body with the mind. This is especially true because under ordinary circumstances, there is only a trickle of the kind of support needed to go deeper.

We need to sense our inner organs of perception with the organs themselves, with sensation, with a finer kind of substance which sometimes is called "attention," but actually does not have a name. That is to say, don't try to sense the body with the mind -- try to sense the body with the body.

I am offering the suggestion this week that readers participate together with me in exploring this idea of struggle versus relationship in all areas of our life.

Look at it in the family. Are we struggling, or are we in relationship? Look at it in the workplace. Is our workplace about a struggle, or a relationship? Remember, the outer is a reflection of the inner. The way we handle ourselves externally in relationship or struggle says a great deal about our inner posture. Just an effort to be aware of how we are, as we are, is already a step towards something more complete. If we bring this idea of relationship to each situation, how is it then?

Above all, especially, let us look at the inner state. Is this about struggle, or relationship? What is the difference? Are we able to see one?

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A mind turned towards God

In a mind turned towards God, all conditions are favorable.

We do not know what we are, or where we are. And perhaps it is the very wish to understand that, itself, that stands between us and understanding.

The dilemma within this is that the mind turned towards God has to be turned towards God in a way that is not of the mind.

We do not wish to think of God, but rather to live within God.

We think, therefore we are not.

Living is not thinking. Living is living. If we begin to experience living as inhabitation of where we are, rather than thinking about what we are, things become less complicated.

And I am really quite certain that we make everything much more complicated than it actually is. An effort to simplify and to be more immediate can only serve us well in our effort to turn ourselves towards God.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Inner and Outer attentions

Occasionally, in our work, we may discover that there is a much finer set of substances present within us than what we ordinarily encounter in our lives.

That can happen anytime. It does not have to happen when we are meditating, or doing movements, or in some special set of conditions artificially designed to make that more possible. It could happen when we are lying in bed in the morning. It could happen when we are doing the dishes. But whenever it happens, there is one unmistakable fact:

this is not an ordinary experience.

The kind of awe, exuberance, satisfaction, or joy that we derive from encountering a spectacular sight or hearing an amazing piece of music has little or nothing to do with this kind of impression. It's not about feeling great. I'm speaking here of an impression of something that comes from a place other than the external.

Please don't get me wrong. Taking in an external impression in the right way is an excellent thing. If the right substances are active in us, that can stimulate an extraordinary response in the inner senses. But without a primary sensitivity within the inner senses, without a willingness to discover, and then be in relationship with, this "something much finer", that isn't possible. In this work, everything has to begin on the inside, in a certain sense.

I've spoken many times about trying to develop a sensitivity to this, about attempting to really turn the attention inward towards the parts, to see them individually, to sense them from within themselves, to see what they eat, how they are fed, how one can become more open to feeding them. This requires a new kind of inner, not outer, attention.

I bring this up because I am not sure we discriminate between these two kinds of attention very effectively. When we use the word attention, we constantly associate it with our attention to the outer. But if it does not begin with an attention to the inner, a cultivation of the inner, our attention to the outer, no matter how developed it may be, eventually collapses. The tree of our life has to develop its organs of sensation from water and minerals drawn up through the roots of our being, before it ever spreads its leaves to receive the sunlight.

After studying this question for a number of years, I still believe that the chief lack in our collective work is in a failure to understand this particular question, to discriminate between the different kinds of attention that are possible within us, and to understand better what kind of effort is needed in terms of what is called "conscious labor" and "intentional suffering." These two acts of being-duty are to be primarily understood as actions within the self, for the self, and not actions that are undertaken in relationship to outside forces or circumstances.

Unfortunately, we all relentlessly attempt to understand our work externally, and psychologically. In a sense, it would be good for all of us if it were possible to actually just turn the thinking part off with a switch, to shut it down, so that it stopped interfering with the work of the other two parts. It is so active that it behaves like a whirlpool, sucking everything that happens down into its vortex, and it consequently makes a very great mess of things,

Gurdjieff speaks at the end of the chapter "Purgatory" about the absolute need to ingest the second and third being foods consciously. This, too, is an inner act that can only be understood with the work of the inner attention, and that is not something we can think about. It is an action we must undertake that is better understood with the tools of sensation and emotion than anything the mind can bring to it.

So why is this generally so difficult?

All of us labor under a rigid set of planetary laws that have their own requirements. The Earth and the solar system mercilessly extract what they need from mankind, just as they do every other organism. Because we exist in a state of sleep, the extraction takes place without our knowledge or participation. As such, we are enslaved by the planetary conditions we are under. The wise man, knowing this, reserves his effort for what is possible, when it is possible, because to try things at other times is almost useless and may even lead to despair.

I don't mean to sound overly dramatic in that last line, but one sees so many otherwise intelligent people who eventually begin to believe that inner development is impossible, and give up. One is almost better off with the stupid naïveté of an innocent in an ordinary faith than with these developed "brains of the Western world," which render us so top-heavy that our work falls over under the weight of our own ideas.

Don't give up. It is possible to discover an inner attention, but it won't be what you expect. It won't feel like you expected it to feel, and you won't react to it the way you expect to react.

That's okay, however; as what arrives enters us, we should just relax, and be gentle and easy within this life--both to ourselves, and others.

That's quite enough to bring a taste of love to the lips, and the soul to the point where our cup runneth over.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

...but do we need faith?


Every morning, I get up between five and 5:30 a.m. when it is still dark. I have a cup of coffee and I do some reading from a particular spiritual tradition. For two years, it was Zen Buddhism. Right now, I'm working on the New Testament.

This darkness of the morning reminds me of the darkness I live in. Both Zen Buddhism and the New Testament speak of enlightenment; yet, like most people, I only know a tiny little bit about that subject. I am a man trying to see the entire interior of a vast palace through a keyhole in the front door. Within this body and this life, I'm surrounded by a kind of darkness. Rays of light may penetrate here and there to illuminate, but the overall condition is one of unknowing.

Nonetheless, one thing I know for a fact is that this entire darkness is penetrated by love. This love is a very fine kind of material substance that can support me in my effort. I have to have a wish to contact it, however; if I ignore it, if I don't care about it enough to take some initiative, it becomes much more difficult for it to reach me.

It's difficult to live surrounded by the darkness of ordinary life. I am pulled in so many directions by its demands that I forget to attend to my inner conditions and requirements. I get confused, because my mind and my body both invent passions, desires, and beliefs that aren't very helpful in my search to be in contact with something finer within myself.

As Gurdjieff eventually told Ouspensky (perhaps when he finally thought he could handle it,--if so, he called that one wrong--) I need faith to help me stay the course in my effort and my work. So perhaps the Christian idea of faith is all-too-oddly orthodox, in this otherwise apparently unorthodox work.

But is the Gurdjieff work so unorthodox, after all? Could a Greek Orthodox boy really run away to join the spiritual circus, and never come home again?

Or do the roots of his practice penetrate deeper into the heart of conventional Christian faith than we usually admit to ourselves?

Towards the end of Hebrews, we find the question of faith examined over and over again. (all quotes taken from the Oxford University Press New Oxford Annotated Bible, 2007)

"But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the Word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible." (Hebrews 10:39-11:3)

What is it that causes me to shrink back and be lost? It is always a question of my fear. If I let my fear dominate me, it will shake my faith and destroy it. I need strength and courage in my work in order to go forward.

I need to remember that what is seen is not the end of things. The roots of reality lie--as any physicist might remind me --in places less obvious than what my ordinary senses collect and interpret.

Immediately after this passage, Hebrews lists the many men of the Old Testament who worked and suffered through their faith, despite the fact that they went unrewarded.

"All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city for them." (Hebrews 11:13-16.)

Here I think we see clearly that we come from somewhere else. We are strangers and foreigners on the earth, seeking something beyond this place where we find ourselves.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us... Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood." (Hebrews 12.1-4)

In the reference to the great cloud of witnesses, and the preceding litany of Old Testament figures and events, we find allusions to the untold amounts of work done by those who have gone before us. In it, there are echoes of Gurdjieff's contention that mankind is engaged in a much greater effort, overall, than what any one man can understand.

The Buddhists maintain quite the same thing in their understanding that all mankind must eventually become enlightened. What is encouraging here is the suggestion that that we draw strength in our work from all of the efforts of those who have gone before us.

Here, in other words, we find an understanding of what Michel DeSalzmann instructed--the community is the teacher. It is the collective action both through time, and within the faith, that gives us our possibilities.

And indeed, there is a moment in "Beelzebub's tales to his Grandson" where Hassein ponders just this question. Beelzebub wisely advises him to not worry about this too much, but to attend rather to effecting a greater unity of his own inner parts. It is always, in other words, the work at hand that we need to be concerned with.

"Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather healed. Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled." (Hebrews 12:11-15.)

This passage might as well have been written by the Buddhists. In addition to its call for right action, it issues a command for us all to act as bodhisattvas.

As a friend of mine in the work pointed out yesterday, the Gurdjieff practice is indeed esoteric Christianity. As I grow older, I am able to embrace this wholeheartedly, and without embarrassment. In doing so, I embrace the Christian faith itself as being much larger than what I find between the margins of any page, or the walls of any church. Its contacts with the other great traditions are intimate and heartfelt.

Let not the petty-mindedness of literal Christians, Gospel-peddlers and Hell-and-brimstone moralists distract us from the vibrant heart of this great tradition. Instead, we can draw courage from its roots, which reach far back in time, to men and Schools unknown, who paid in hard coin to bring us the understandings which we still benefit from today.

Like the alcoholic who is tempted to drink--and I know this beast all too well, it has haunted me for over 26 years of sobriety--I must not grow weary or lose heart. Instead, when the inebriating temptations of my doubt assault me, may I redouble my efforts and redouble them again. This is just like not drinking-- every day I must make the effort.

In this regard, even the most unlikely characteristics may be of use.

In "Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness," Suzuki Roshi recalls that the reason he succeeded as a Zen monk was because he was dull, stubborn, and obstinate. He was at the monastery long after the Zen superstars around him burned out and left. He never perceived himself as being on a race track to enlightenment -- always just walking along a path. He had a faith that motivated him and a persistence that supported him. And he knew, I think, that this darkness we inhabit is penetrated by love in every direction.

Any idiot can break rocks with a hammer. But water, wind, and time can break them down, and render them beautiful at the same time.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The requirement of Faith

A friend of mine passed this poem on to me today.

I said to the man who stood
at the gate of the year:
Give me a light
that I may tread safely
into the unknown.

And he replied: Go out
into the darkness and
put thine hand into
the Hand of God.

That shall be to thee
better than light and
safer than a known way.

--M. Louise Hopkins

The poem hits a nerve for me.

As I dig deeper into the soul and the self, longer in life, unearthing successive layers of experience and being, I begin to see that almost everything is unknown.

There is no map of the world.

There is no up or down, no north, no south, no east or west, except as things stand in relationship to one another. The constellation of Orion, which looks so beautiful, so arranged--so perfect--from where I stand on starry nights in Sparkill, is a temporary arrangement. Viewed from elsewhere in the universe, it looks nothing like this at all.

What we believe in are fixed points, but we have none. Everything is meaningful only within the context of relationship.

Knowing this, I confront a moment where I have to find myself within this vast ocean of life, of space, of time, and just swim, trusting in my ability to do that--regardless of whether or not there is a shore to be reached.

I am reminded of a moment in many years ago when I was walking down a street in Taiwan, and it seemed to that with every step I took, everything was uncertain. The Earth could shake -- buildings could collapse -- everything that holds life and understanding and truth together seemed fragile and insignificant. The line that divides sanity from insanity seemed thin enough that day that nothing a man could think or do was to be considered reliable. The clearly ordered events and circumstances around me were actually an ocean of uncertainty. Nonetheless, one foot had to continue to find its way in front of the other.

This is where the requirement of faith comes in -- I have to believe in the walking, the forward motion--in the swimming itself.

No matter how hard we swim, and how many horizons we swim towards, we repeatedly come back to discover ourselves, not where we thought we were going, but right here, in the thick or thin water of this present experience. The horizon, which perhaps seems to be the point and place of our salvation, is always in the distance--filled with a promise, but always unknown, and always out of reach.

In the midst of this uncertainty, the best hope I have, I find, is the hand that holds mine.

I may not always sense it-- but it's there.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Surrendering the Heart

The heart, or, the center of the spine, plays a special role in work. You will notice that it occupies the position of five in the enneagram.

Most of us understand the heart as being the organ that pumps our blood. It's located in the breast--in the same vicinity, that is, as where the "third brain" of man used to be located.

In "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," on page 713 (new edition) Gurdjieff mentions the following: "As regards the place of concentration of this localization, which serves the common presence of terrestrial three brained beings as a 'regulating' or 'reconciling principle', it should be noted that in the beginning, in them as in us, this third concentration existed in your favorites in the form of an independent brain, localized in the region of what is called the breast."

The chief functioning apparatus of man's 'reconciling brain' has, as Gurdjieff goes on to point out, redistributed itself, with a nexus of nerves in the solar plexus. In my own experience, however, this does not change the very important role that the heart--this location in the center of the spine-- ought to play in our work.

Well then. We could get very technical about this. For those who are so inclined, I recommend that you go and read the chapter "The Holy Planet Purgatory." It has enough of such technical matters in it to satisfy just about anyone. Instead, from here on, I want to talk about life in a bit less analytical terms, because the experience of something penetrating the heart (center of the spine) is different than knowing about the structure, or some kind of technique that supposedly may help us achieve that.

So how is it, exactly?

We all develop a hardness in us as we encounter this life. I see it constantly in myself. Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of my intellect, which judges and condemns, and my organism, which experiences and receives, I need something to help sort out the difference between the two. This reconciling factor--my heart--which ought to be active, isn't. In my current personal work, I constantly encounter this problem, and I repeatedly have to suffer moments where I am caught between these two forces, seeing how wrong my resultant negativity is, and having little or nothing that I can do about it.

So I find that I do have a hardness, and it lies in this central area of the spine, like a knot that prevents my parts from being in a more productive relationship.

Reading Hebrews the other day, I came across the following passages:

"Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end. As it is said, today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion." (Hebrews 3:12-15.)

If ever a passage called us to live within the moment -- today -- with a softness of heart and a willingness to receive, this is the one. We "harden our hearts in rebellion" by refusing to accept our conditions.

Acceptance later is worthless. Acceptance has to be practiced within the current moment, and when we begin to try to do that, we discover how supremely difficult acceptance actually is. I'm not sure about the rest of you, but I know very little about this, and I stand in front of that lack in most of my relationships. I ought to be grateful for every single moment that I am alive, and humble before my fellow man, but this is impossible for me.

My heart needs to be pierced by something new -- something that comes into the center of my being, in the middle of the spine, and melts the hardness there.

"Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from Spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before Him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the One to whom we must render an account." (Hebrews 4:12-13.)

Here again, we see that what is needed has to enter us physically, to affect the very construction of our body itself, and help us to see how we are. We cannot do that by ourselves. Only the doubly sharp sword of a real conscience, the piercing anguish of seeing our actual condition, can humble us to the point where we are willing to admit how we actually are, as opposed to the optimistic assessments our ego bolsters us with.

Today, there is more than the usual available in this area for me. I actually had moments where I spent enough time to be in relationship with strangers I usually don't give the time of day to -- for example, a man my own age who pumps my gas. His name is Washington. He's probably used to being ignored by everyone, because he is a small man with a small job, but Washington has something subtle awake in him.

I saw today that this man has a big heart -- and I was grateful for knowing him. I think maybe he is a better man than I am, because he knows something about staying positive even when he is pumping gas, and in the midst of my own wealth and good fortune, I tend to complain.

Today I see that.

Today, I am grateful for the spring flowers, which is easy and hardly worthy of note. What is remarkable is that I am also grateful today for the people at the post office, who I usually detest for their slowness and clerical mindsets.

All of this gratitude comes from the center of my body and the center of my being, and it isn't my property.

As I take the time to be in relationship with these people that I usually ignore, or actively dislike, and think are inferior to me,

My, oh my,

how everything changes.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Today we saw the BAM production of "Macbeth" as presented by Cichetser Festival Theater production. Directed by Rupert Goold, the play was at the Lyceum theater in Manhattan, and starred Patrick Stewart as Macbeth.

One couldn't imagine a more current or chilling Macbeth. Right from the very beginning, as the troops storm into the underground bunker, and the nurses (who also turn out to be the witches) roll in the wounded man on the stretcher, you know you're in for something completely different. There's no Monty Python here, however; instead, we found ourselves in the grip of a snake that slowly, mercilessly tightened its coils until our very breath itself was suspended.

The production turns the play into a contemporary commentary on totalitarianism, with uncanny twists on modern culture. The actors wear jackboots and camouflage; they brandish pistols and AK-47's. Electronic hums, sparks and white noise saturate the stage. Erratic videos projected behind the players turn the environment into surrealistic montages of marching troops, interrogated hostages, and sylvan forests. A high pitched, unrelenting Lady Macbeth broadcasts disturbingly vampiric overtones. The witches could hardly be more revolting; twitching, spastic creatures who are dressed in uniforms of hope and light, but whose behavior oozes out of the darkest corners of our collective unconscious. Their chanted spells are delivered in a perverse, syncopated rap. And in a superlative and unmistakable act of homage, Banquo's blood spills out of the eerie light of a caged elevator to flood the backdrop for the stage: an unabashed tribute to Kubrick's "the Shining."

Nothing, however, trumps the scene in which the witch nurse nuns reanimate corpses laid on gurneys in order to channel and deliver their dreadful prophecy. It's probably one of the most appropriate, sickest, and downright ingenious pieces of theater I've ever seen.

The director manages to bring out Macbeth's human side: a side all too often ignored in our rush to condemn him as a monster. And indeed, it's Macbeth's very humanity itself that makes him a monster.

Today's Hollywood villains are cardboard emperors of evil who lust after badness, and take a stupid, simple joy in it. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, have consciences they struggle with. And it is their very willingness to do evil despite this which horrifies us the most. This is where real evil, if there is such a thing, arises: it is in the recognition of wrong, combined with a will to do it anyway. This is what Gurdjieff called black magic; and Macbeth reeks of black magic, a world that still has a moral compass which has nonetheless gone horribly wrong.

Perhaps what's most unsettling about this production of Macbeth is, in the end, just how comfortable it makes itself with its references to Hitler, to Stalin, to everything we remember about propaganda, control, and war. Nothing has changed since Shakespeare penned this play; mankind still falls far too easily under these influences. And in this case, the old shoe fits the new foot far, far too well.

Only a greater awareness of ourselves might pull us out of such a swamp; and yet, in the grip of our outer passions, we invariably end up, as Macbeth finally says to us, as stars in "a tale told by an idiot." Without an inner "stop" to guide him--a moment that materializes for him only once, at the beginning of the play-- he has no control over his destiny. He becomes the almost reluctant pawn and victim of every influence he encounters.

What goes wrong with Macbeth and his wife? Gulled and hypnotized by the tidal force of their external passions, they succumb: and in doing so, the poisonous waters gradually pollute the innermost recesses of their souls, until there is no rest, and nowhere to hide. While watching, I was reminded of the fact that once we have ingested the monstrous, there is no way to spit it back up. We carry every act, no matter how well or ill-considered, to the grave.

We must consider our ways, for, as the bard says: "What is done cannot be undone."

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Inward Nature

I was working once again last night on editing the sound files for "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," chapter "The Holy Planet Purgatory." In it, Gurdjieff expounds at length on how beings ought to consciously intake their three being foods in order to properly feed the development of the higher being-bodies.

Of course, this question may seem rather theoretical to most of us. Nonetheless, as I sit here, (attending to the sound of my voice as I dictate this essay) I see that there is an inward nature that receives the food of impressions in a quite different way than what my outward self is capable of.

This inward nature is variable in quality: not always active, and not always available. A great deal of what is active and available depends not on me, but on planetary conditions. It is up to me to take advantage of these conditions when they are favorable; going against them when they are not costs a lot of energy without producing much in the way of results.

If I am going to make any progress at all in ingesting my life differently, I need to learn to discriminate between times when things are possible and times when they are not. I also need to learn how to discriminate quite specifically between the two natures, the inner nature and the outer nature, in order to make use of the tools and equipment that are available for an experience of life that becomes more than superficial.

In order to do that I need to first discern, and then scrutinize, the level of vibration within the centers. Without an initial awareness of this, no intelligent alignment seems possible.

It's striking to me that one can understand a great deal about this question and still fail to work in a right way. Even the most practical understandings based on experience are rather easily torpedoed by the overwhelming influence of outside life.

If any set of circumstances whatsoever were going to teach me clearly how helpless I am, these would be it.

I have had a great deal of support over the past few days from various external factors. As usual, whenever this happens, I find myself provoked to examine my breathing much more carefully within the ordinary context of life, because so much of what becomes possible for me is clearly mediated by what can be acquired from the second being-food, using nothing more than attention.

Having a such connection arise is one thing; participating with it in order to feed oneself more deeply is another. One thing that has struck me recently is that awareness of the inner nature can cause one to withdraw into it, which is hardly the aim. What ends up happening is that I become too absorbed in my organic experience of life, and actually sacrifice a relationship with the outer.

This reciprocal relationship is, however, absolutely necessary from a balanced point of view. I wish to to bring my inner and my outer world together. I wish to inhabit the point of intersection, where my consciousness can participate in a more meaningful way. It is in the blending of these two conditions that my life arises at its most vibrant, and yet both the habit and the temptation is to be more invested in one or the other.

In attempting to discover a less partial relationship, I need to constantly turn my attention to the tools provided by the organic state of being, and apply them to the incoming flow of data from ordinary life through the senses.

There is living; there is breathing; there is hereness.

Turning back to an understanding that brings this into relationship with the ideas discussed over the past few days, I cannot escape influences. The idea that I can eliminate any aspect of reality as it stands from the picture, and thereby achieve something, is itself an illusion.

As Gurdjieff himself reminded us, a man must inevitably be under one set of influences or another. The question for us, as he posed it, is whether we are going to be under influences that are imposed mechanically, or influences that we make a choice to be under. A man can attempt to choose his being-location: inside or outside himself; or he can have that done for him. There are a great many influences in life that can drag a man downward, but there are also many that can lift him up.

It's a certainty- I'm not stationary. In every day, there will be an outer and an inner movement, up or down.

If I make the attempt to choose my location by beginning with the choice to be connected inwardly--to value myself rightly--I can at least know where I stand at the outset of this journey.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

What is the place of suffering?

Suffering is understood differently in different practices.

In Buddhism, the aim is to awaken and completely eliminate suffering. In the Gurdjieff work, the act of intentional suffering is understood as offering the opportunity to bring man into contact with something higher. We also find suffering at the heart of the Christian paradigm, in the form of Christ on the cross. Here, suffering is materially linked to joy in a mysterious manner that defies any easy explanations. Those who are literally minded and outside the Christian faith are often repulsed by the image.

I was reading Shambhala magazine this morning, and was struck by the insistence of one of the writers--an insistence shared, of course, by most Buddhists-- that the aim of Buddhism is to eliminate suffering. Of course, it's not the first time I have heard it. This is one of the central tenets of Buddhism. The Buddhists, on the whole, seem rather sure they know what suffering is. Gurdjieffians are a bit more confused about the subject--or at least, more circumspect in their assumptions about it.

Gurdjieff's teaching differs substantially from Buddhism in at least one major way: he maintains that there is a sorrow at the heart of the universe which it is man's responsibility to share. We don't encounter this idea of man shouldering part of the burden of existence in any major religion other than--perhaps--Christianity. This peculiar idea has little in common with Buddhist ideology, even though it's generally agreed that Gurdjieff's work owes some portion of its existence to understandings that derive from Tibetan Buddhist practice.

To the heart of the matter. I realized this morning that I find myself in disagreement with Buddhist philosophers on the question of suffering. I feel they've got it wrong.

I don't think it's the aim of life to eliminate suffering. Actually, if we want to legitimately acknowledge the most essential tenets of Buddhist philosophy, we would have to say that suffering cannot be eliminated; it is, after all, an inseparable aspect of the Dharma.

In this context, just as we are what we are, everything that happens just happens. We can label any event suffering or non--- suffering (and ah, how we men love labels!) ; it all depends on perspective, which is at our level completely subjective in nature. From the point of view of the insect, to be eaten by a bird is suffering; from the perspective of the bird, it is a gift, it is nourishment.

Suffering depends on viewpoint; it is very real, but like time itself, it changes depending on location and velocity. This one point is worth considerable pondering, because it potentially links man's emotional understanding to some very deep structural aspects of the universe.

We usually spend a lifetime trying to escape our suffering instead of investing in it.

I don't think we see that the suffering we encounter in life is inescapable; in fact, we need it. It is part of the food that feeds both us and the universe itself. Without it, inner development would be well-nigh impossible. In other words, there is a requirement of suffering, just as there is a requirement for non-suffering.

I believe it is in the overall acceptance of conditions that we find the heart of practice. Conditions inevitably contain both suffering and not suffering. So there is no need to escape the suffering.

In fact, from a very strictly Buddhist point of view, to wish to be free of suffering is just one more attachment. (I seem to find very little material from contemporary Buddhists addressing this distressing contradiction.) Every wish or desire is attachment.

of suffering, however, is not attachment, but rather acceptance. This goes back to what I said yesterday -- we are what we are. Everything is what it is. The Dharma exists. It does not exist positively or negatively. It is nothing other than true.

This brings me back to one of the central hypotheses within my own practice:

"There is no "I," there is only truth."

I don't claim to understand this particular teaching, which was given to me, not invented by me. It serves as a central point around which many other questions in my own work turn. I think the phrase itself bears a striking relationship to a great deal of what is said in Buddhism. It doesn't, however, take any definite position on the question of suffering.

Instead, it indicates that this truth around us contains everything within it. It exists regardless of our opinions, attitudes, forms, philosophies, ideas, or desires. It is absolute and irrevocable, and transcends every effort to define it. To eliminate suffering, in other words, would require us to eliminate the Dharma--reality-- itself. This leaves Buddhism's stated aim in a rather desperate set of circumstances--it proposes a kind of nihilism which, we can be certain, Dogen would have roundly rejected.

There are moments in a man or woman's work when he or she may get free enough to get a taste of the inestimable vastness we inhabit--a landscape as much emotional as physical, in every universal sense of the word--, and know for a moment that all the conditions we labor under are both inevitable and acceptable.

That's rare, but it's possible.

In a moment like that we may encounter that sorrow that lies at the heart of existence. Paradoxically, contact with that sorrow is joy--and who can explain such a contradiction? Impossible. Better to just let the organism sense it with all of the parts that it can, and move on.

In accepting life and receiving life, we eventually see that something beyond comprehension is taking place both in our existence and in relationship. We will encounter what the Buddhists call suffering, that is inevitable. It is in the transformation and transubstantiation of that same suffering, which in and of itself remains exactly what it is -- because it can never be more or less than that -- that liberation takes place.

Liberation, in other words includes suffering.

Perhaps this understanding offers a bridge between the Buddhist understanding of the elimination of suffering--which more rightly might be called the surpassing or transformance of suffering--and the inclusion of suffering within the heart of the Gurdjieff work, and Christianity.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

We are what we are

Yesterday, I had occasion to think once again about Dogen's comments regarding our nature, and our perception of our nature.

In the Gurdjieff work, we practice the art of self observation, which begins being understood as one thing, and is eventually understood as something else entirely. Along the way, it is understood in many different ways. It is thus safe to say that self observation is, in its self, a process, and a moving target. We do not understand the self in any way, shape, or form; and it is difficult, isn't it, to observe something we do not understand?

In the Buddhist conception of the "ultimate" reality, there can be no legitimate separation between consciousness -- in whatever form it manifests itself -- and total awareness. Even what Gurdjieff would call "sleep" and what the Buddhists call "illusion" are an aspect of the manifestation of total awareness. In fact, in Buddhism, every single manifestation of any kind whatsoever is all simply an aspect of the Dharma, which contains everything within existence.

In Christianity, insufficiency of awareness -- manifested as negative behavior -- is characterized as "sin." Gurdjieff's conception of sin was not that different (He indicated "sin" can only exist once a man knows the difference, i.e., has achieved a level of sufficient awareness.)

It may well be that when we try to understand "sin" as acting badly, which is the conventional Christian perception of the word, we are painting it in terms much too narrow for a complete understanding. "Sin" can perhaps be better summarized as meaning our present state as we are. This encompasses Saint Augustine's contention that we are all inherently in a state of sin. I used to believe that he meant by this that we are all essentially bad, but I'm not sure at all that this is what he was actually getting at now.

In traditional Christianity, recognition and admission of sin-- which could be construed as an act of self awareness, self observation, or awakening -- is what is necessary in order to come to a recognition of God. In other words, even within our inherent state of "sin" -- which I am now, in this argument, expressing as nothing more than our "thusness"--we are already fully within the body of God (the Dharma) since nothing can be separated from it.

Using these hypotheses, we see that there may not be much separation at all between Buddhism and Christianity in this matter, despite their apparently rather divergent understandings.

This means that our state of consciousness as it is is already sufficient and true, needing no improvement, no correction, no change, in order for it to flow in complete accordance with the Dharma.

Sounds ridiculous, eh? Surely, then, we might all ask ourselves, why the perpetual perception of inner insufficiency that brings us all to spiritual work?

I think that the difficulty arises not from our state as it is, which is in some senses insurmountable--there may well be an inherently deterministic element to this and Gurdjieff certainly implied as much in Beelzebub--, but our perception of our state. Perception in man has become separated from reality. Even this separation itself, which consists of an artificial, or contrived, divorce between subject and object is a product of reality.

In what appears to be the supreme paradox, accepting the illusion -- accepting all of the conditions, including our insufficiency, and our state exactly as we are--including our sleep, including our sin, including our illusions -- offers the possibility of transcending the separation.

This suggests that we need to immerse ourselves in what we are, rather than trying to change it, improve it, or find out what is wrong with it. We are what we are. If we fail at all, it is first in the knowing of what we are that we fail, not in the being of what we are.

This returns me to the question of what it means to inhabit my life, a question of immediate interest to me as I sit here crafting this essay.

More on this question tomorrow, insh'Allah.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

On inner notes

If I'm going to be hanged for a penny, might as well be hanged for a pound.

This is another one of those posts where some individuals will think I'm posing as some kind of "teacher," so let's preface it by saying that this is not an attempt to "teach." I am merely passing on specific observations of my own about the technical nature of certain Gurdjieff ideas. Most of these observations can probably be directly derived from any logical study of the material.

It is entirely up to the reader to evaluate their accuracy based on their own work and experience.

Inevitably, in the course of discussing such ideas, I relate them to my own practical experiences, so far as I am able. If what I say sounds mystical or revelational, it's not out of an intention to impress, or to obfuscate. It's simply that it's quite difficult to put most inner experiences into words. In addition, it's a bit difficult to extract the revelational experiences from inner work. They are in the nature of the beast.

When we consider the enneagram, and its fractal nature, whereby every level is a model of all levels, we see that man has an octave within him.

This is a material fact, not a conceptual one. That is to say, the existence of the various notes re, mi, fa, sol, la, si in man is a material existence, not a conceptual existence. The notes represent both physical substances and the locations, or organs, that they are associated with. (Readers not yet familiar with this idea should refer to the essay for the initial work on this question.)

The broad implication of this understanding is that man is, within his own body and in the sense of his inner work, responsible for the notes "do" of six subsidiary octaves. A single note of a man's inner work plays the role of the "higher" for each of these lower octaves. In every case, the energy from that particular note -- be it, for example, mi or la--acts as the motive force, the higher "do," that provides the necessary shocks for the octave below it. The enneagram clearly depicts this relationship.

This is a fairly big deal, because it demonstrates that every one of us has been given responsibility for the maintenance of certain supporting octaves, or "worlds," or "universes," that lie below us.

This raises a much larger question. In our perpetual reaching upwards, looking upwards, striving to connect with the higher, how many of us pause to consider the very sobering and sacred responsibility that is imposed upon us in our stewardship of the lower-- of these individual notes?

Perhaps it means that if we don't do our inner work in a serious manner, we cannot feed the levels that support us properly. So we don't just "find ourselves" by looking up. We also have to look down, to consider what is needed for what lies beneath us. This requires an organic form of stewardship that arises within sensation, not within mentation.

The nature of the relationship underscores the intimate interconnectedness of our own nature and that of the universe.

It also raises many questions about exactly what it is that we are up to when we attempt to discover the flowers within ourselves and help them to open. In every instance, our effort to be in relationship with our inner centers in a deeper and more lasting manner feeds enterprises at levels lower than us which we are not even aware of.

So in completing our own inner octave, we undertake a work too large to be squeezed into words. It can, perhaps, be comprehended with the breathing, and through sensation, but the intellectual mind cannot draw a circle large enough to contain it. All it can do is offer a framework, a beginning. The physical and emotional work that we do is what puts flesh on these bones.

I've spoken many times in this blog about the need for members of the work to study the enneagram carefully, and to understand that it lies at the heart and that the soul of the work we undertake. It is not a peripheral symbol; it is what Gurdjieff called "the map of pre-sand Egypt," that is, a symbol that lays out the skeleton of worlds within us, which are covered by the sand of our ordinary senses and experiences, blown over the remains of our essential civilization by the constantly changing winds of our personality.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.