Monday, April 26, 2010

the depth of work

This year we find ourselves in the midst of struggles. Friends are dying too young. Parents are growing older. The question of what we are doing here -- why we are here -- is more urgent than ever.

So many people reach the end of their life in confusion and dismay -- not knowing why they lived, what it was all about.

Mr. Gurdjieff once said that one of the aims of the work was "to not die like a dog." Living an entire life without any questions -- without a search for what is real -- reaching the end of it, even with wealth and achievements, and having nothing to show in one's inner life, never having formed anything real in oneself -- that is to die like a dog.

At least, it seems to me that that is what it is.

The possibilities in the Gurdjieff work have expanded far beyond anything we can read about in Ouspensky's "In Search Of The Miraculous." So many people have expended so much effort that the "miraculous" has become far more tangible. Those who work now benefit from an enormous reservoir of previous effort. Every one of us has a deep and awesome responsibility to that. We cannot drink from that water, take something, and then walk away without having to pay for it somewhere.

Of course, there are people who do that, but it is only possible if one is lacking in conscience, and furthermore has not, fundamentally, understood what it is we are really working for.

Make no mistake about it, there are many such people. We can't be responsible for them; the only thing we can do is attend to our own work and to take it as seriously as possible. Those who acquire something -- anything -- real in themselves, who have even one moment where they understand what the organic sense of Being consists of, who even once taste the real world -- well, then life becomes much more serious. It's possible to see what is at stake here.

We need to acquire a new kind of depth in ourselves. We must attend to an intimate part within us that contains the seed of real being. Yes, of course -- we must use our intelligence (such as it is) and think hard and long about many things -- cosmology, biology, physics, religion -- but then we must also sense with our bodies in a new way, and we must feel with our emotions in a new way.

This idea of using all of the parts of ourselves to meet our life is a unique and remarkable idea. Where else can you find it? Take heart! There is no need to die like a dog anymore.

Speaking of dogs. This morning, my wife and I were walking the famous dog Isabel--an occasion, regular readers will know, that more often than not leads to serious reflections--and I got onto the subject of the two great commandments. Mostly because I wanted to make a point about valuing ourselves, which is part of the second Commandment, but this evening I am going to write about something slightly different.

The first great commandment, of course, is, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind."

Gurdjieff rather famously said that man as he is utterly incapable of this--men can't even love those they know, how can they possibly "love" God, whom they do not know?

But how could that be? This commandment is, in the end, nothing more or less than a call to work with all centers to know God. We can at the very least try to do that.

The second great commandment is to "love thy neighbor as thyself." So the Commandments upon which, as Christ put it, "hang all the law and the prophets" both turn on a single quality.

The quality of love.

If Gurdjieff was correct, and man is fundamentally incapable of love -- in his present state, that is -- then Christ's words were wasted. He was asking humanity to start on a rung so far up on the ladder it couldn't be reached. That is what Gurdjieff implied--but I don't buy it.

The reason I am bringing this up is because Gurdjieff's pervasive pessimism about man was not so much a set of facts as a challenge. He was famous for demanding impossible things of his pupils and then giving them a quiet but heartfelt "bravo" when they informed him that what he asked for was unreasonable--or even wrong. Not only that, back in the old days, he wasn't canonized yet. Reading C.S. Nott's memoirs we discover that people had arguments with him-- loud, public arguments. He didn't want people to be sheep. He surrounded himself with people who struggled, who challenged, who didn't take everything he said for granted -- and he even gave misdirections intentionally, in order to see whether his pupils had the gumption to think things out for themselves.

Here we are, more than half a century later. The master has been converted into a saint. I attend events where his brooding, bald-headed picture presides over ceremonies like the Pope.

A work where people used to question everything has turned into a form of religion, where challenging what the master said is heresy... what, you don't think that's true? Just try it in a group sometime and see what happens.

Things are nowhere near as bad as Gurdjieff painted them out-- not, at least, for the individual who has a search within them. Our possibilities are real. And it is lawful that if we work and ask for help, it will be sent. Not only that, the capacity for discovering an inner force of love that will work on our behalf is far from gone in mankind.

Every one of us who searches has the capacity to search within ourselves and discover the seed of that force. Never doubt it.

In "In Search Of The Miraculous," Gurdjieff told Ouspensky "...if anyone desires to know and understand more than he knows and understands, he must remember that this new knowledge and this new understanding will come through the emotional center and not through the intellectual center." (page 235, Crompton hardcover edition, 2004.)

So Gurdjieff made it quite clear that in the end, that "third force" of yoga, the Bhakti yoga of the emotions--in the end, of love--was the only thing that could bring a new understanding to man--the only force that could truly foster inner growth.

Once again, we discover that the curmudgeonly old master never strayed too far from his Christian roots. And, perhaps more importantly, what he offered us was a chance -- through our own effort, our own questioning, our own work -- to make the understandings and ideas of the great religions our own, by causing them to come alive in us as real understanding, rather than just words that we profess a belief in.

The difficulty, you see, is that all three centers have to understand these questions. As man usually is, the only part that takes these ideas in is the intellect. For anything more real to form in a man, they also need to penetrate the body and the emotions -- an extraordinary process that takes many years, and cannot be undertaken directly.

Through that process, the impossible is achieved: things that before could not be true become true.

This is a very subtle work. Until we suffer and pay for all of these things, they are just concepts. As we suffer, and we pay, we discover many things -- and not all of them may be according to the canon.

Some of them may, in fact, even directly contradict what Mr. Gurdjieff said: and he may have intended it exactly that way. We can't know unless we work.

Above all, we should remember that the legacy he left us is as rich in parable as the Gospels -- and we all know how badly things go with mankind when they take those too literally.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Some readers will already be familiar with the fact that I write a good deal of poetry, little of which gets published on the web--with the exception of pieces that can be found on Parabola magazine's web site.

I am a bit guarded about publishing material in this space because some publications will refuse work already published in this manner.

Nonetheless, my poetry has become an inextricable part of my inner work, and as such most of it could find its way into this space in a comfortable fit.

In the interests of offering the readership and the general public some small fraction of what I am up to in this area, today I am publishing a piece I wrote in Cambodia earlier this month.

The Eyes Of Man

Poems in transition-Cambodia, April 2010

I am here

On the road

On the edge of the sun

On the edge of the rain

Where the light spills across the rice paddies

Which are covered not by water

But by sky

This is how it's done:

The sky lays down in the earth

Beneath the water buffalo

And together they come to the edge of the green sea

Where the hills drop down

To sand awaiting footprints

That may never get there and

The horizon disappears

In an endless silver light

I am here

Where egrets stalk frogs and minnows

Unaware of the elegance of death

But dedicated to it nonetheless.

And here

Where the careless movement

of a woman's finger

Traces out the curve of her pearl earring-

Touches her silken black waterfall of hair-

These things are enough to prove

That love incarnates eternally

That heaven can never drink enough blood

To be done with this endeavor

But will throw life against death forever

Just to be there

When beauty falls into the eyes of men.


May the living light of Christ discover us.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Reconciliation, and Mercy

There's no doubt that there are aspects of Gurdjieff's teaching that do not square properly with conventional Christianity.

At least, they do not appear to on the surface.

Yet there is little doubt that Gurdjieff did indeed bring us "esoteric" Christianity -- a Christianity stemming from the deepest form of practice, not dissimilar from the "prayer of the heart" presented in the Philokalia, as it was practiced by the early church fathers. And the "mantras" (such as they are) of the Gurdjieff work, "Lord have Mercy" and "I am- I wish to be," have the undeniable taste of Old-Testament submission in them. Both bushes and souls find themselves on fire together in the midst of such practice.

I've been pondering how we reconcile the question of the Christian teaching of man's eternal soul with the question of Gurdjieff's assertion, that is, that man does not have a soul unless he earns it.

They can't both be right. And this is not a question subject to the "verification" that Gurdjieff calls on us to perform.

Because of a series of extraordinary events in my own life which began many years ago and which I will not recount in detail, I don't believe in God anymore. I don't believe in Christianity either.

Instead, I crossed a line, speaking strictly and only for myself, where I know there is a God and I know that what we call "Christianity" is real; it truly is one of those rare teachings that came from a much higher level. All the monkeying around that mankind could possibly do with it will never be able to change that.

One of the indubitable results of stepping over a line like this, in which one acquires an understanding -- and I speak here specifically of an actual understanding, not a theory or a belief -- that something is absolutely and irrevocably true is that one discovers that one cannot just have part of something that is true. If something is true, all of it is true. Ergo, I can't take a Gurdjieffian paring knife to Christianity. My own understanding, put in general terms, is that if one thing is true, everything is true. There may be some readers who understand what I am saying.

The stories in the New Testament were not written by a gang of gullible rubes, shepherds and farmers--nor were they crafted by spiritual con artists out to make a buck. They came from some of the most intelligent, urbane, and well-educated people of the world they emerged in. For us to presume some form of ignorance or naïveté on their part is nothing if not disingenuous.

I will take that statement one step further. Many of the stories we encounter in Christianity -- for example, Saul being struck blind on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-6) are not fantasies penned by gullible individuals with an agenda to sell. These are true stories of things that actually happened, written by intelligent people who had a true encounter with those "miraculous" properties Ouspensky so eagerly sought. So I happen to know, in this specific instance, that what happened to Saul is absolutely true.

I know this statement will be controversial to many readers, but I stand directly on my word.

Once one sees in such a radical manner that Christianity is, in its essence and at its heart, absolutely true--without swallowing the entire oeuvre in a paroxysm of abject literalism-- one is left with the question of what one can "throw out" in order to align what Gurdjieff taught with what the Bible says.

Of course, people easily divide themselves into two camps here: the ones who say that Gurdjieff was a heretic and must be cast out like the devil, and the ones who say the whole Christian religion is fundamentally corrupted and meaningless. I know people in both of these camps. They are utterly contemptuous of one another; the question provokes a great deal of negative emotions and even outright anger.

I would venture to say both camps are correct. That is, of course, an outrageous contention, an irreconcilable contention, and furthermore -- I know you are thinking to yourself, as you cultivate and nurse that little sense of outrage that is growing in you even as you read this -- a copout. That is to say, it somehow sidesteps the whole question and pretends it's not even there.

That simply isn't the case. I will explain.

In Phillipians 4:7, we come across a resonant phrase used by the apostle Paul which has found its way into the Christian service. It neatly bridges the gap between all our various opinions, understandings, and questions.

Paul refers to "the peace of God which passeth all understanding."

Now, there is no doubt that men can achieve understandings. Understandings are not, let us be clear, beliefs or knowledge. Anyone can believe; anyone can know. These things are ordinary. Understanding is a different quality in a man's being. It is a moment in which a man sees that he is under a higher authority.

Gurdjieff spoke often of the difference between knowledge and understanding, and wanted those who practiced his method to comprehend that there was a difference. Furthermore, although he did not explicitly explain it -- although it is implied in the relationship of the law of three to the law of seven, as delineated in the enneagram-- a man does not come to understanding by his own doing. That is, a higher force must provide what is called a "shock" in order for understanding to be present.

A man must have an indubitable, concrete, and absolute experience of the higher in order to know that it is real. Only then can he begin to understand. It's safe to say that men join works like the Gurdjieff work in order to acquire just such an understanding... not knowing, of course, what they are bargaining for, which is going to cost far, far more than the coin of personality they are so comfortably jingling in their pocket.

Even after such an experience, a man's understanding is inevitably limited.

Paul refers to a quality-- available to man-- which passes all understanding. He calls this quality "the peace of God." But it hardly matters what he calls it. His point is that there is an inner state that transcends what we call understanding.

From this perspective, it's pointless to argue about whether or not we have an immortal soul, or whether Christianity is true or not. The truth, such as it is, is absolutely transcendental-- it lies on a higher level, beyond our understanding. This is exactly what the author of the famous esoteric Christian work "the cloud of unknowing" was trying to get to.

So. One can understand a good deal, but it does not eliminate questions. I still often ponder this question of a soul.

We are all part of the body of God. We can't separate ourselves from it. Gurdjieff himself told us that the finest particles of what he called His Endlessness permeated every aspect of reality. Along these lines, we may begin to understand what Zen Master Dogen was getting at when he said that there was no such thing as enlightenment. We are all already enlightened -- we are made of light -- we are part of this body of God. We have simply lost our sense of it. Which is back to what I was getting at in the previous post, when I explained that we are trying to recover what we are, not "evolve up" to it or re-create it.

Perhaps it isn't the existence or non-existence of the soul that is the question... but rather, the nature of exactly what the "soul" is. I suspect we don't really understand that question. And perhaps this is where we cross the line into territory that does pass all understanding.

When we discuss the idea that man "has" a soul, we are presuming (well, perhaps we are presuming) that this "soul" belongs to a man, that it is his -- that it is, in other words, tangled up with this peculiar Western idea of private property, instead of just being an aspect, or a fragment, of God's existence, and thus-- insofar as there is a property of Being in man-- it is not his own property at all, but rather, an expression of something much more, as the Germans would put it, raffiniert.

Ah, dear readers. I am afraid I have failed to clarify anything whatsoever. Such is the fate of man: doomed forever to ponder and to reason, but never to sort things out properly.

One might say that within the more expansive framework I have presented, we may find the seeds of a form of reconciliation between the traditional, more generous Christian teachings on the subject, and the almost calvinistic Gurdjieffian viewpoints, which often oddly (and perhaps accurately) echo the doctrine of total depravity.

But maybe that's the optimist in me speaking.

One thing that I will say with certainty. We do not say "Lord have Mercy" in any idle way in this work; we say it because it is a true property of the Lord: the Lord is infinitely merciful. The story of Saul on the road to Damascus (the same road, let us take note, which Paul encountered his enlightenment experience on) is the story of a man who was truly, to put it bluntly, a right bastard.

Yet the Lord chose him as his instrument, forgave him his sins, and opened his heart so that he could be filled with the Holy Spirit.

This property of Mercy suggests to me that what Mr. Gurdjieff said was absolutely true: no effort is ever wasted. The property of Mercy offers all men the chance for redemption at any point on the path...

if only we open our hearts enough.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

it's not evolution

I have mentioned before that the Gurdjieff Work has a specific aim that produces rather specific results.

That being said, I'm not at all sure that Gurdjieff's aim remained the same over the course of his lifetime. There's absolutely no doubt that his methods of teaching and working evolved and changed... that his message evolved and changed... that the people he surrounded himself with also evolved and changed. All of these things are the signs of a dynamic, living, flexible work, a work in progress, a work that deepened its understanding of itself and reacted accordingly.

That is to say, Gurdjieff was not a static man, and his understanding was not a static understanding. Hence a work that is uncomfortable... uncomfortable in the sense that it is "unreliable," that is, it does not offer us a security blanket, a refuge to sit within and meditate. It requires a dynamism of interaction with life, and a corresponding flexibility both in the method and in the pupil to respond to new levels of understanding as they become available.

When Gurdjieff originally presented the work to Ouspensky, it was clearly a highly sophisticated branch of Djana Yoga-- a product of what Gurdjieff referred to as "the way of the yogi." The brilliant intellectual exposition of the ideas as recounted in "In Search Of The Miraculous" leave little doubt of that.

Nonetheless, after Ouspensky split from Gurdjieff, the work eventually morphed--through successive decades and through intimate contact with his principle inheritor, Jeanne de Salzmann--into a branch of what might be called Hatha yoga, or physical yoga.

Because its roots lay in a powerful intellectual tradition, literally transmitted from a higher level, it was unable to stray too far from that--but the strength of the movements as a practice, and De Salzmann's immense facility with them, re-created (of necessity, and, I think, quite rightly) a new form which relies to some extent on the Hatha idea of "storming the gates of heaven," by applying attention and sensation as "levers" to slowly pry consciousness "upwards."

Of course to put it this way is far too simple, and introduces suggestions that could easily lead to inaccurate understandings of the current state of the work, but I bring the point because (wearing, as I am today, my heretical "question everything" hat--and what a spiffy, wiseacreing little hat it is!) there is question in me as to whether we can actually have the "greater degree of attention" De Salzmann calls us to via invocation--or, to put it in other terms, will power.

That is to say, can we, by the force of our own effort, acquire a new level of attention? To do so suggests that we can "do"--something that Gurdjieff emphatically insisted wasn't possible (and yet Hatha Yoga rests its laurels on the premise that man not only can "do," but must "do" in order to develop. Hence my perhaps unwelcome and [to a certainty] partially inaccurate comparison of De Salzmann's approach to Hatha Yoga.)

I am not at all sure we are able to do any such thing. I am equally unsure that we can, as we are in our present state, understand anything whatsoever. Understanding is not actually a product of what the ordinary mind is capable of. It comes only if energy from a higher level arrives to help us. It's unfortunate to have to put it this way, but those who do not understand this do not understand what real understanding is.

Man, in his ordinary state, is fundamentally incapable of real understanding. It is only by impregnation by the divine that man can attain any new level of inner truth. And we resist this action in every possible way--both consciously and unconsciously, because we would have to give ourselves up in order to do that.

This leads me to the question of what the place of Bhakti Yoga-- the way of the monk, the way of Love-- has to do with the Gurdjieff work, and why it seems so much less represented in the lexicon of techniques, approaches and teachings we're left with. To be sure, almost everyone in the work "agrees" that love is the force that must eventually emerge from "real" work-- and yet the active practice of love and compassion in the work seems rather lacking. Heck, people hardly even talk about it.

Damn! We screwed up there, folks... the Fourth Way is supposed to be a combination of the other three ways...

but we went and left one out!

There are many who have left the work precisely because of this supposed lack, and yet love, real love, is at the heart and soul of the work itself. So much so that it seems to me that Gurdjieff's own evolving practice must have brought him ever more intimately to that question as he grew older--for that is, in the end, the overarching and lasting effect of the work he brought us.

Once again, to be sure, any real practice of love can emerge only as the result of a better inner connection, and perhaps there is no "direct" way to work on this... or is there?

We come here to the question of islam-- of submission, of surrender.

Ultimately, a recognition of our inability-- our inability to attend, our inability to develop or to understand-- leads us to a place where we have no other choice but to surrender to a higher power. It is perhaps only through confronting the despair of our inability--the inner state which consists of "weeping and gnashing of teeth"-- that we can wear down the thick layers of buffers and open ourselves to the compassionate force of a higher energy-- an energy of love, an energy of the holy spirit-- that truly can help us.

This leads me to even more awkward questions. For example, we say that the Gurdjieff work is about "inner evolution," yet is it really about any such thing, in the strictest terms?

In some ways it is. Evolution represents a movement towards a greater order--a force that goes against the law of entropy.

In other ways, it's not. It's about recovering what was lost. As the Hindus would have it, every man is imbued (filled) with a spark of the divine-- all of us already inhabit the very body of God itself. It is our connection to it that has been lost. In inner work, we're not trying to "evolve," we're trying to go back home.

The intellectual branch of the work-- the ideas-- is magnificent, but it is deeply unable to appreciate what this means, because any fundamental understanding of this question only lies within the capacity of emotional center, and then only when a connection between mind and body has prepared one for said understanding.

This work is, in fact, the deepest possible expression of love, and that is the reconciling force that draws a bridge between the physical manifestation of reality--sensation and inhabitation of the body-- and the extraordinary intellectual appreciation of what both concept and consciousness consist of.

So in my eyes, we are not working to "evolve" at all. We are here to try and learn how to love.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The sacred Impression

Landing today in Narita (Japan) I was utterly overwhelmed by the impression of the cherry trees in bloom along the runway.
Following along earlier impressions of the spring--unexpectedly early lilac leaves in our side yard, an early spray of forsythia along the roadside in Westchester- the impression reminds me of what this whole effort we call "work" is aimed at.

The principle task of men is to become servants of a higher power--not in the sense of externally mediated activities, the caring for of the poor, building of temples, singing of hymns or what have you--although all these activities are indeed laudable--but to become servants of the higher in an inner sense-- that is, to engage in effort that leads to an act of transformation within, one that allows our inner chemistry to take in impressions quite differently than we usually do.

All this, of course, was laid out in admirable theoretical detail by Gurdjieff, as recounted in Ouspensky's formidable "In Search Of The Miaculous." It is one thing to read the book, to try and "figure out" what all this obscure and sometimes tedious discussion of "higher hydrogens" is all about (and some scientifically minded folk might dismiss it outright, even though the premise of transformation of substances by the human body is entirely sound) but it is another to tread lightly into the territory where we no longer think about transubstantiation, about the possibility of change, and instead actually experience impressions in a different way.

This work is designed to help a man in such a way that if he works, and is diligent, the world can touch his soul. We are able to act as an intermediary between the material and the most intimate fragments of what can be called sacred consciousness; this is our purpose, and the allegory of the fall of man--of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden-- is in large part a parable about the loss of exactly this ability.

No matter how low we sink, no matter how difficult or desperate life becomes, there is always hope for those of us who work--hope embodied in this very possibility, this magnificent opportunity--hope that we will, for just a moment, sense the world as it was meant to be sensed and as it ought to be sensed. Not in the way that drugs make possible--of course, there are drugs that can trigger chaotic, partial experiences of this kind-- but in that delicate and beautiful way that only the whole of one's being can.

Life conditions on the planet are unusually difficult right now--all the earthquakes taking place this year underscore the unusual tension on the planet--and a major change of some kind is under way in nature. (For myself, I suspect the planet is finally beginning to engage in activity which will counter some of the depredations mankind has visited upon it of late.) The conditions for individuals are correspondingly difficult, especially for those who are working: it is a more difficult time with more resistance than usual.

In these times, it is more important than ever to take heart and to remind ourselves that hope is there, and--could we but know it-- that we are cradled in the hands of powers far greater than ourselves. This idea is closely related to the idea of faith, which was the point where Gurdjieff and Ouspensky parted company. Gurdjieff maintained that it was a necessary element of work, Ouspensky would have none of it.

I am reminded here of Brother Lawrence, who saw a tree in winter; realized it would burst into leaves in the spring, and was filled with an understanding of the mercy of the Lord; it was the experience that caused him to lay down his weapons and join a monastery.

This is an excellent example of a truly sacred impression; understanding drawn directly from a simple seeing of the world that brought a different level of understanding into play. It contains the work of taking in impressions; transubstantiation of "water" (a bare tree in winter) into "wine" (the higher truth of its existence through time, and as a living element of the body of God) and hope-- the understanding that common experience, the "simple" taking in of impressions, is mankind's essential purpose, and a very high work indeed to be called to.

This seeing of truth is what we work for; if we see truly, deeply enough for the world to touch the soul, even once in a lifetime, we gain a treasure that cannot be gained in any other way.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Notes from Cambodia

After over a week in china, where spring is scattering its gentle blossoms over shanghai, I arrived late last night in Phnom Penh, dark and sweltering under an oppressive heat.

This morning it is raining, a biblical deluge, and I find myself locked in downtown traffic on a very long drive to a factory.

This trip has repeatedly brought me face to face, in an inner sense, with the incontrovertible fact that we cannot escape our ordinary inner and outer conditions. Regardless of whether or not we "develop"- and by this, in my understanding, I mean nothing more than to make the responsible efforts and do the responsible work our Creator calls on us to do on His behalf- we are still at the mercy of life: its physical infirmities, our fears, our anxieties.

How often I seek an excuse from these legitimate burdens! I wish for comfort: for pleasure: for a rest from work. Yet, as my mentor Betty Brown pointed out to me a few years after suffering the debilitating stroke that set her on a path of objectively heroic struggle at the very end of her life, just when she ought- by all rights- to have been given the respite she so surely deserved and had earned, "my life has always been one of work."

I don't like to acknowledge it--do not even want it to be so--, but true good fortune consists of constantly being called to be present to these most challenging conditions of our inescapable humanity.

It reminds me again of the story about one of Gurdjieff's pupils enthusing to him about some spectacular moment of inner revelation, to which the master wrly responded: "Ah. One day closer to golden day."

Speaking as a recovering alcoholic (sober now for over 28 years) I can attest to the fact that the inner work Mr. Gurdjieff brought to us is above all a call to spiritual sobriety. And that's the kind of work Betty Brown practised, right down to the end- even though she was known to be a bit fond of a tumbler of scotch, here and there.

There is no "golden day"--at least, not in any sense we would like. Everything real that we are ultimately offered in life is, first and above all, earned, and every happiness must be paid for. As Jeanne De Salzmann said at the beginning of the last major movements film (which is, regrettably, not available to the general public) everything is always in movement-going up or down. Nothing ever stays in one place.

I suppose this down-to-earth, feet-on-the-ground kind of work may seem dry, boring - uninspired - and utterly, perhaps even coldly, shorn of any of the magnificent doctrines of freedom and enlightenment offered to us by most religions (let's take the Buddhist's Flower Ornament Sutra, for example.)

But, as I ponder on an almost daily basis, what IS real freedom?

For myself, steeped firmly in the bittersweet and amber-colored brew of middle age, I see that freedom is freedom from my illusions. Freedom from the idea that I am here "for me," that I am intended as no more than the servant of my ego. Freedom from the delusional vanties Solomon so exhaustively catalogued and dismissed in Ecclesiates.

Freedom is, in other words, an ability to be honest about where I am and what is necessary. The retirement of grandiose and arrogant ideas that I can "do." Betty pointed me to this over and over again, God bless her. It's only through long trial and a continual inner confrontation with my lack that I begin to understand where she was coming from.

Have I attained such freedom? Definitively, no. Late in life, when asked by someone (it may have been Jeanne De Salzmann herself) how he managed to remain conscious, to be "awake," even Gurdjieff himself confessed to wrestling with his own his fallen nature in the middle of the night with "weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Would it be presumptuous to say that the true master recognizes he's not a master? That was the core epiphany of Socrates, as revealed in Plato's Apology-- and indeed it was said of Muhammad himself that his spiritual greatness lay above all in his recognition that he always fell short of pleasing Allah.

Sitting here in this Khmer Toyota, bouncing over roads that are seeking every possible way to crumble back into the seas of ochre mud they cover, I'm oddly heartened by this idea.

If I am able to accept my lack-- to understand its inevitability--perhaps I may find a path within me that better understands how to ask for help.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Friday, April 2, 2010

where am I?

Just bringing the readership up to date.

I've been In China sinceMarch 22 and unable to access blogger.

I'm in Phnom Penh right now and hope to assemble a post while I'm in Cambodia... who knows, maybe I'll splurge and write TWO posts.

In any event, apologies for the absence.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Whose thoughts are they, anyway?

I ended the last post with the famous quote from Isaiah (55:8)

"For your thoughts are not my thoughts, and your ways are not my ways, saith the Lord."

This subject has been much on my mind of late. Our entire construction of life -- everything we think, everything we conceive of, everything we can think but haven't thought yet-- is completely rooted in this level. We are fundamentally unable to think or conceive on the level above us. Yet we stubbornly insist, in both the most flagrant and the subtlest ways imaginable, on believing that somehow there can be a point at which we manage to drag a higher level down to us, dissect it, and understand it.

The intellect is obsessive in this belief that this ability is available. The only thing that can ever destroy this belief -- this illusion, for illusion it is -- is a moment when a man or woman is touched by something that is truly higher.

Lifetimes go by without that experience. Our condition is so deteriorated, our contact with a higher level so ephemeral and fugitive, that it assumes the proportions of mythology, thus unintentionally feeding all the illusions about it. Perversely, the issue is not that God created man in his own image -- it's that man wants to create God in man's own image.

I have used principles of science on many occasions to illustrate spiritual truths, because they bear a close relationship to one another, despite the intense denial of the scientific community on this issue. Most frequently, when discussing levels, I cite the principle of emergence, which is such an important -- yet poorly understood -- feature of the universe that Robert M. Hazen cited it as the "missing law" in the very first chapter of his book "Genesis: the scientific quest for life's origins."

Because higher consciousness is an emergent property that arises from the collective behavior of lower levels, we can't understand it any more than an individual ant-- who acts according to a strictly limited, totally mechanistic set of behaviors -- can understand the way that his hive functions at a much more sophisticated level than he is able to as an individual.

The author of "The Cloud of Unknowing" knew this principle quite exactly, even though they would not have expressed it this way. There will always be a veil drawn between us and higher levels. If something of a higher level manifests, what "I am" now -- this collection of associations -- is subsumed, or replaced, by something of another order.

We are deeply mired in both the thought process of this level, and the material limitations imposed by the emergent property of consciousness. So Isaiah, a text written well over 2000 years ago, stated the situation quite correctly.

Knowing, as we do, that despite all this it is still possible for a man to be touched by a higher level of truth, we are left the question of how it is possible. How can we become available to the possibility?

Everyone's got a methodology, don't they? Mme. DeSalzmann told us to be present to ourselves and have attention. Hatha yogis recommend a variety of postures. Christians and Muslims pray a lot, when they are not busy killing each other. Buddhists have a complex lexicon of behaviors designed to provoke enlightenment.

It's kind of like the American health food and vitamin business. If you ate all the health foods and took all the vitamins that various claimants say are necessary for good health, there would be no room left for normal food, and you would almost certainly die of the cure.

We couldn't possibly consume and implement all the competing methodologies for religious awakening and/or enlightenment (or liberation, or whatever you want to call it.) The smorgasbord is overloaded. What's more, no matter how carefully individuals follow these myriad approaches, very few people end up where the methods say they will, and everyone argues about it. Krishnamurti said yoga wouldn't do anything to help a man attain consciousness; Catholics say people who aren't Catholic will all go to hell; Baptists say the same thing about other Baptists. Zen Master Dogen railed against alternate Buddhist philosophies.

Here we are, in other words, on this level, surrounded, as usual, by confusion. We are packed full of thoughts and theories -- almost all the thoughts and theories of other people. So packed full, in fact, of these thoughts and theories that having our own thoughts and theories is nearly impossible. If a man -- for example, Einstein -- comes along with something truly original, everyone is astonished.

Damn! How did he do that?

What I'm getting at here in this critique of presumed methodology is that higher levels don't do what we think they will. They don't act the way we expect them to act; they don't behave the way we want them to behave.

They do what they do.

Skepticism will do us no good; neither will blind faith. Higher levels don't operate according to the rules we are able to perceive. As Mme. DeSalzmann said once in Ravi Ravindra's presence, "There are no miracles. There is only a play of forces."

The tricky part here is that that play of forces lies behind a veil which we are not fully equipped to penetrate. Individuals who get a glimpse behind it race back with all kinds of reports, accurate or inaccurate, about how it works, what it is, how to peel back the veil yourself, and so on. The only spiritual teacher I am aware of who warned us not to get suckered by this kind of thing was Mr. Gurdjieff.

"Verify everything yourself," he advised.

Even in this work, in other words, things may not work the way you are told or the ways you expect them to.

Be prepared for it-- and question everything.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Understanding liberation

Nobody understands liberation.

There are piles of books about it, but no one gains liberation by reading books. Masters expound theories about it, but hardly any master has attained liberation, except in a limited way. Many of the Masters who appeared to have attained liberation turned out to be charlatans. So there is always this question about "liberation."

I put it in quotation marks because it means different things to different people, in the same way that the word "world" means different things to different people. For one man, to be liberated is to be free of chronic physical pain he has felt all his life. For the next one, liberation is to be released from a repressive form of government. To the next one -- who very, very, very secretly thinks he is better than the rest of them -- it means to attain some inner kind of bliss or "enlightenment." What for? Supposedly, to end suffering -- whatever that means. Or to end delusion, or to rise above the ordinary, or what have you.

Basically, it means to be set free. This is the simplest definition of the word. But in the system Mr. Gurdjieff brought to us, every freedom is relative. There is no ultimate "liberation." Anyone who doubts this need only read the chapter "The Holy Planet Purgatory" from "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson."

The Holy Planet Purgatory is a special, very beautiful place for all the beings in the universe who, having perfected themselves to the absolute highest level imaginable, still discover that it falls short of true liberation, that is, union with God, or, as Gurdjieff refers to him, "His Endlessness."

In what has to be considered as a perverse turn to the entire liberation mythology, every being on the Holy Plant Purgatory suffers endlessly, and suffers worse than any being did before they got there, because they are all consumed with anguish in the face of their separation from the Almighty.

What kind of crappy liberation is that?

My liberation ought to consist of angelic wings, wonderful bright lights, an endless river of love, gems, diadems, and chocolate cake with a big dollop of whipped cream on top of it. eh?

I am reminded here of the Who's classic rock opera "Tommy," which culminates in the precursor to their famous anthem "Won't Get Fooled Again"- that is, "We're Not Gonna Take It," in which the Messiah's disciples discover the Nirvana they were promised doesn't measure up to their standards. (I might as well admit it to my readership -- I am a huge Who fan, and have been ever since I saw them play "Tommy" live on their first world tour for the rock Opera in 1969.)

Gurdjieff has proposed a different kind of liberation. Maybe we don't like it. It is, however, a liberation that is fundamentally grounded not in freedom, or release from law, but in responsibility, that is, an acknowledgment of one's place, and a choice of which laws one serves under.

This idea, of course, is a definitively New Testament idea, embodied in the parable about Christ and the Centurion, who knew his place, and thus qualified to have his servant healed, even from a distance. The Centurion understood his responsibility, and this made miracles possible.

Living in an adolescent nation -- the United States of brats, where everyone clamors to get what they think they deserve, grabs all they can, and almost all the adults, especially the most fortunate, richest, and powerful ones, act like babies on the media stage -- it seems strange to talk about responsibility. Mankind is obsessed with the abrogation of responsibility. The idea of shouldering it firmly is well outdated. The idea these days is to sneak out from under it.

In what may be the ultimate heresy, allow me to hint that perhaps even "Liberation" itself -- the transcending of what we call "reality"-- is just one more escape clause, one more mangy dog dressed up nicer than the rest of them so that it looks better... frankly speaking, anyone who has read Zen Master Dogen's "Shobogenzo" in any detail might conclude he'd agree.

I've spoken many times in this space about the need not to escape life, but to inhabit it -- not to rise above where we are, but to be within it -- not to try to avoid or suffering, but to face it and admit it to ourselves. All of these are bitter medicine. I think every one of us can truthfully say we would rather that everything be easy.

And yet, we cannot grow unless things are not easy. Just look at all the people who have it easy. Think about it.

Maybe the whole point of the lesson of being put in these bodies is because they are mortal. Because they will die, they will wind down, "use up" as Jeanne De Salzmann said, we are forced to see how things are whether we want to or not -- whether at the end, or earlier, that's up to us. But in any event, we are forced to shoulder the suffering or organic existence, and death.

Gurdjieff proposed a universe where God Himself suffers, and where man's payment for his arising -- his responsibility, the very reason for his existence -- was rooted in the need for him to take on a portion of that suffering from a higher level.

I've mentioned before that we are vessels into which the world flows. But what is that world? Which world flows into us? Buddha saw that the world that flows into us is suffering. He proposed an escape from that; that's what he called liberation.

Gurdjieff, however, does not propose escape; he suggests, rather, that it is in the very opening up and the drinking of this bitter cup--that same cup that Christ held his hands in the Garden of Gethsemane-- that we attain our purpose.

To take this too literally, on the level of the ordinary suffering of life, would be a mistake. Nonetheless, every suffering in ordinary life (as I believe Meister Eckhart would agree) is indeed preparation for men in order to receive this different, this divine, this higher kind of suffering which we can almost never taste, and may not even understand.

This higher level of sorrow is a material substance that vibrates in the matter of every material thing. It permeates the entire universe; just as the universe is created out of love, so it is also created out of suffering. There can be no eternal, glorious, and illuminated love without eternal, glorious, and illuminated anguish. Only when the two meet together -- whether in a sun, or in a human being -- does reality manifest itself.

Approaching this is indeed a mystery, and it is the deepest mystery that we are confronted with when we undertake this obscure, and relatively unknown, work that Mr. Gurdjieff brought. It is part of what makes this work unique, makes it different, causes it to ask questions and provoke emotions that are different than those we ask and struggle with when we confront ordinary life.

It is a deeply inner task, a task that calls us not always just into the light, but also, into the darkness. Not just into choruses of hallelujah, but also into a penetrating silence where heartbeats grow slower, breath grows shallower, and we begin to touch the fabric and the substance of a fundament far more mysterious than anything we can know with the mere mind.

As is said in Isaiah 55:8, "for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways," saith the Lord.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fragments of an Unknown Being

The title of Ouspensky's well-known book on Gurdjieff's work is "In search of the Miraculous--Fragments of an Unknown Teaching."

The book lays out a complex and magnificent cosmology, which touches us (if at all-- far from everyone likes it--) intellectually--but leaves a great deal of what the Gurdjieff work is actually all about in question. Anyone who has worked in groups in any direct line of descent from Gurdjieff himself will know that the teaching is not passed on in the same manner as it's expounded in Ouspensky's book...

not at all.

"Inside" the Gurdjieff work (as if there was such a place- ha!) we're not, in the end, seekers of a teaching of cosmology. We may be interested in cosmology-- we may encounter and appreciate cosmology in the course of our work-- but we don't work for cosmology.

We work to acquire that most ephemeral, unmeasurable, non-quantifiable property of life called Being.

And real Being will never, in the end, submit itself to the limitations of analysis.

This, of course, does not prevent us from attempting to analyze -- the disease runs deep in all of us. (It is probably one of the deleterious consequences of the properties of the organ Kundabuffer.) But if our work ever becomes real in us, even for one moment in a day, we remember suddenly that what we are working for is not an idea about what could be, but a new understanding of this immediate reality.

There is a Being that lies within us which is unadulterated and divine. But, as Gurdjieff proposed, we are in pieces -- fragments -- and cannot, in our present state, know the true nature of our Being. Hence the title of this piece, "fragments of an unknown Being."

As I have pointed out in much earlier posts, the nature of consciousness, and Being itself, is fractal. This means that each human consciousness is a fragment of a larger consciousness on a higher level, in exactly the same way that an ant's consciousness is part of a greater super-organism which acts in what is a demonstrably higher level of awareness than an individual ant. (A property referred to as "emergence" in science.) Gurdjieff's enneagram is a graphic representation of this relationship between levels, if studied, and if properly understood.

Because we have lost the connection within ourselves that helps us to sense our relationship to this higher Being of which we are a part, we mostly stumble around like idiots.

Why are we here? What is Being "for?"

Nature struggled for over 3 billion years to put our individual consciousnesses in a place where we can hear, for example, the eerie and magnificent call of a red bellied woodpecker. It also struggled for 3 billion years to produce the creature that made that sound.

We live in a universe where nature, in sheer defiance of the laws of entropy, has relentlessly worked to produce a situation where the cosmos can know itself through the organs of perception of living creatures. This represents an immense amount of time, and an immense amount of labor. Uncountable deaths have been required to bring things this far -- each and every one of them a sacrifice to move the process forward to this moment, where we inhabit these bodies. As Zen master Dogen oft described it, "We have acquired these bodies, difficult to acquire, and encountered this dharma, difficult to encounter..."

This situation confers a responsibility on us to question where we are, what we are doing, why we are here. Every time we fail to arrive threshold of our lives with at least some small part of an intention to be more aware, to be more sensitive, to be more present, we are trespassing -- failing to do the task we are here for. We are supposed to be feeding a different level of consciousness -- not our own, but another one, of which we are a fragment.

A reader in the UK recently asked me whether I felt it was true that men "serve the moon." This is, of course, a premise that is spoken about a good deal in the Gurdjieff work.

My observations about the question, which dovetail quite neatly into this apparently sprawling subject, are as follows:

Gurdjieff made it quite clear in "Beelzebub's tales to his grandson" that man no longer has to serve the moon. The original reason that the organ Kundabuffer was implanted in man was because that at that time in the solar system's history, the consciousness of men was forced, due to unforeseen circumstances in the form of outright mistakes on the part of higher cosmic individuals, to feed the earth's unintended and accidental satellite.

To put it quite bluntly... according to Gurdjieff, mankind got screwed.

The situation was, fortunately, not irretrievable. At a certain point in the evolution of the solar system, men were no longer required for this unhappy purpose, and, as Beelzebub explains, the organ Kundabuffer was removed from man, only to find that its properties had "crystallized" in him, ruining his consciousness for most intents and purposes.

So the teaching is clear enough on this point. We no longer need to serve the moon. Man was released from that debilitating responsibility.

Now, one can argue all one likes about whether or not we still do serve the moon, but my experiences within the foundation over the last 30 years underscore one singular and inescapable fact: in this era, responsible beings in the Gurdjieff Work report that we are now here to serve the earth.

Jeanne De Salzmann used to say that if we do not work, " The planet will go down." More recently, senior inheritors of her tradition -- individuals who spent many years working shoulder to shoulder with her, so to speak -- have remarked that we are here to work "on behalf of humanity."

Our task, in other words, is to turn our attention towards the service of the earth and of mankind. Everyone of us that undertakes the effort of inner work undertakes an effort to serve not only the interests of their own development, but also the health and well-being of a planet which is being relentlessly destroyed by most of our species.

It is, if you will, our own version of the Bodhisattva vow. And we are on an uphill climb, aren't we?

When we examine the relative insanity of our day-to-day lives -- I think most of us would agree, the things that go on in us, and around us, are baffling, delusional, in short, as my Dutch grandmother (a bona fide whacko) used to say, flabbergasting -- it becomes apparent that a great deal of the flailing around within material reality that mankind is engaged in is in total contradiction to any sense whatsoever of consciousness or self.

Mankind's real purpose has nothing to do with the destructive tendencies we engage in. It is, rather, to become much quieter, to touch something more real in ourselves, and to develop a new sense of the sacred. This involves a new valuation from within-- one that treasures an intimacy within the act of living itself.

In those moments of quietness, I begin to see how fragmentary my relationship to my life is. I see a stark contrast between the moments where there is what one would call real feeling, and those moments when I'm numb, inactive, filled with frenzied activity, yet stupidly passive towards any real sense of myself.

As the end of the above quote from Dogen goes,

"... let us therefore practice as though our hair were on fire."

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


It strikes me this morning that modern existence is a continuing process of deeply dysfunctional relationship which consistently views itself as functional.

In "Beelzebub's tales to his grandson", Gurdjieff lays this proposition out in black and white. Man's consciousness has deteriorated -- it no longer works properly -- only one part, conscience, is intact, and it has submerged into the subconscious, covered up by thick layers of ruined psyche.

If we look around us, we see that everyone -- including ourselves -- carries within us this stubborn and completely delusional insistence that, somehow, we are functional. Individuals do it. Societies do it. Governments, incredibly, do it. And when there is dysfunctionality around us... well, hey there... it is always someone else's dysfunction, isn't it?

Even if we begin to acknowledge our own dysfunction, as some few of us do, we tend-- probably largely as the result of the influences of the supposed "science" of psychoanalysis -- to try and outsource the blame for it. We do not see, as we eventually must, that the root of it--and the responsibility for it--lie buried deep in our own being.

I was sitting this morning and examining this process of mind, which has absolutely and ultimately overgrown what is real. The potential for reality exists within me -- the taste of reality is tantalizingly close to me -- the organic experience of reality is indubitably buried deep within my being. But it is overgrown. It is covered by an endless series of associative thoughts and an entity which is not real, yet cleverly calls itself "mind." This entity is what I usually refer to as "me." Yet, upon careful examination, it is a layer of vegetation. As mindless, in its own way, as plants, which are capable of receiving the sun, but do so in a strictly mechanical manner. Certainly, they serve a purpose and create food, but they lack intelligence and independence.

So here I am, within this life, and within this body, overgrown with this vegetation of an associative mind. This is a thick jungle with many resilient vines; it's populated with an incredible variety of colorful creatures. And it is, undeniably, attractive. I am so attached to it and attracted to it I am unable -- fundamentally unable -- to see how much has to be given up to discover that there is more in the jungle than vegetation and animals.

This is the dilemma we are presented with. This irrevocable conviction that the mind as I know it is a "real" mind. The knitting together of the three centers which could produce something of a higher order is no more than a theory, and my methods of working towards it remain largely untested hypotheses. The reason for this is that all of the approach to these questions is owned by the very entity that stands between me and the organic sense of being -- this ephemeral, artificial "mind" which is my principal tool for interaction with life.

I've been reading Ravi Ravindra's fine commentary on the Patanjali sutras. The book is to be recommended not just for his concise, insightful, and eminently practical interpretation of these yoga texts in relationship to our ordinary life, but also for the many quotes he offers us from Jeanne De Salzmann. Pending the upcoming publication of "The Reality of Being," scheduled for May, Ravi's writings -- most particularly "Heart without Measure," which much of the readership will of course be familiar with -- are one of the few legitimate public sources of material from her. In relating her understanding to the Pantajali sutras, he offers us fresh insights and underscores the immense value of her approach to inner work.

Again and again, she stresses to us that the body is here to receive a certain kind of higher energy. In order to do that, we must get rid of the tension that blocks us -- a deep inner relaxation and a certain kind of posture is necessary. To interpret that as a physical action alone is too limiting. There is no doubt, our bodies are much too tense. No doubt whatsoever. We do not, however, see (except superficially, and then only with the very parts that are tense) how tense our minds are, and how tense our emotions are.

The type of relaxation she calls us to has to be global in nature, and all three "minds," that is, centers, have to learn to engage in a much deeper letting go. It's safe to say that when we finally encounter real relaxation for the first time, we understand once and for all that we have always assumed understanding--yet remained utterly unfamiliar with what that term actually means.

The dense overgrowth of ordinary personality over essence, of mechanical activity over intentional being, has covered up the temple inside me. This takes constant study both in meditation and in life. I don't really believe there is any overgrowth -- I'm so busy marveling at what it has produced that I don't see it is obscuring what is real. And every time I come back to myself, I am astonished by how much is actually lacking, how little I notice it, and how many opportunities to be in relationship in my life just fall by the wayside, willy-nilly, right, left, and center, as I proceed relentlessly forward like a juggernaut.

As always, I see for myself that a connection to sensation is the only lifeline through which I can grasp the beginnings of this work.

And here I am. Well over 30 years into efforts centered around the teachings of Gurdjieff, and-- as usual, as always --

just beginning to understand that maybe, with enough effort, I may understand something.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Natural and Supernatural

The so-called "great debate" between science and religion these days seems to hinge on the question of whether or not there is anything "supernatural" in the universe -- that is, are there forces that cannot be explained within the context of natural law, and nature itself?

The presumption on the part of science is that all natural law is, at least, knowable, even if it isn't known yet. This presumption is based on the idea that there are a finite set of natural laws -- which is, in and of itself, a unproven (and possibly unprovable) hypothesis.

Abandoning, for the moment, this apparent flaw in scientific reasoning, let's just go with the idea that the set of natural laws is very, very large. That seems like a pretty safe bet.

Hypothesizing within this context, one would have to suggest that the collective knowledge of mankind -- no matter how large it grows -- may be unable to grasp the full set of natural laws and their manifestation. If that is true, there may be phenomena that are completely natural and yet will forever remain inexplicable.

Science has absolutely no compunction about using vaguely deistic concepts -- that is, concepts that have absolutely no proof of any kind behind them-- such as dark energy and dark matter to explain unknown phenomena. We have seen many things in the universe that suggests that dark energy and dark matter exist, but we have never seen or physically measured either one. We simply presume they must exist because of the way things behave.

This isn't at all different than the way people believe in God, but scientists aren't really interested in buying that.

There is no reason to suppose that God, presuming such a force exists, isn't completely subject to natural law like all other forces. This, of course, limits the scope of God's abilities, which will not sit well with many religious people. At the same time, such a God is exactly the kind of God that Gurdjieff proposed in his dialogues with Ouspensky, invoking the theological student who advised his professor, "Even God cannot beat the ace of spades with a deuce."

So those of us who subscribe to the Gurdjieffian cosmology find ourselves straddling the fence between the scientists and the fundamentalists, in that we propose a God, but a God who is part of, and subject to, natural law and natural forces.

Gurdjieff proposed this in some detail when he explained that there were no "miracles" or "magic," but that all such phenomena were the expression of laws from higher levels that mankind simply wasn't familiar with.

In this cosmology, therefore, nothing is "supernatural." The universe is natural, God is natural, consciousness is natural. In summary, one might say that this bears a relationship to what the Buddhists call the Dharma-- truth, or, alternately, reality.

Gurdjieff, as Ouspensky reports, went so far as to report that everything is alive--so much so that one would have to go down to an almost unimaginably low level to find anything that was not. The universe, in other words, is a natural field of living consciousness. That phrase seems to me to be about the simplest way to put it.

Coming once again to that moment when we try to bridge the gap between theory and practice, we may ask ourselves in what way we act as representatives of that natural field of living consciousness.

Speaking for myself, I see that it is almost impossible to encounter or experience anything in this life without having it filtered through ego. Ego, as my friend Patty Llosa succinctly pointed out, is an insidious force that manages to contaminate everything, and, especially for those of us on a spiritual path of one kind or another, specializes in engaging in elaborate masquerades to conceal itself and convince us it's not there.

Of course, in this particular work, we are pragmatically told that we need our egos -- not much can go on unless there is an ego motivating it. It becomes more interesting, as we work, to work from within ego and see how firmly we are always within ego. There's no point in getting depressed or frustrated about this -- it is both lawful and inevitable. But if we truly begin to inhabit the ego in a new way, we begin to learn about it as a real aspect of ourselves, rather than a theoretical one which we study as though we were not already constantly identified with it. The ego, too, is a part of natural law, an inseparable part of the field of consciousness, and not susceptible to extermination -- at least, not in the romantic way that we think it is if we sign on to various scripted paths to enlightenment.

Perhaps the trick is to avoid having ego become too dominant. We can be playful with it; we can acknowledge it, accept it, allow it its due even as we search for other parts of ourselves that can participate in our work. If the organic sense of being joins the ego -- well, this might represent considerable progress. I think the point I am making here is that the path is unscripted. One of the central ideas behind the Gurdjieff work-- the idea that everything must be questioned-- demands the deconstruction of scripts. It suggests that we treat every moment as a moment where we are launching ourselves forever into the unknown.

And you know, dear readers, I increasingly see that my life is exactly like that. In every instance, I move into a new unknown, where there are an infinite number (okay, I'm guessing, but it's approximately infinite) of unknowable--yet completely natural--laws affecting me.

I find myself in a paradox where, although I am fundamentally limited by the effects of these laws, truly extraordinary possibilities that I don't know about or understand are also out there.

So in each ordinary moment of this ordinary life that we ordinarily live-- where things can be counted and measured, where much of what happens is expected and predictable-- perhaps we can remember that we stand forever exactly at the edge of a wave that naturally, gracefully, breaks onto unknown shores, made of water that can travel to places, high and low, which lie beyond the realm of our imagination.

Let us hope that all of us engaged in this enterprise of self-knowledge may, with sincerity and effort, reach past that imagination--

and into a more natural state of reality.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Evolution of minerals, and the dark energy of the brain

Pictured here: a spodumene (kunzite) crystal from my personal collection, on matrix in an unusual association with amethyst. The specimen is from China. (Here's another picture)

Technically speaking, we are all composed of minerals-- all organic life, in fact, relies for its existence on the complex crystalline structure of DNA.

An article (highly recommended reading) in the March issue of Scientific American by Robert M. Hazen entitled "Evolution of Minerals" explains how the majority of minerals present on earth were created by life processes.

His wrap-up paragraph mentions that we live in a cosmos with a consistent tendency to develop increasing levels of complexity, and, moreover, one that is in the process of learning to know itself.

As Stuart Kaufmann so eloquently points out in Reinventing the Sacred, we can interpret that statement in many different ways, so that both the religious and scientifically minded are satisfied both with its openness, and accuracy.

A second article in this issue of Sci-Am-- also well worth reading -- is "The Brain's Dark Energy" by Marcus E. Raichle. Simply put, the author explains that about 80% of all brain activity is what we call "background" activity, that is, the brain is constantly doing things that don't necessarily relate to any specific external event, and that is what most of its activities consist of. What we have here is, propositionally, "mindful mindlessness," a concept which ought to please not only the Buddhists, but also those type "A" personalities who feel guilty when sitting around doing nothing.

And everyone else in between.

Both of these articles might appear, on the surface, to be unrelated, but they are not. They both ask questions about what we are, where we come from, and how we perceive the universe around us. The tool that does the perceiving -- the brain -- is in essence a very complex organic crystalline matrix. It arises directly from the evolution of complexity in the minerals described in the first article.

All of this might seem rather boring to those of us who are devoted more to inner work than questions of science, but, as Gurdjieff pointed out, the subjects are not separated. Religion and science both seek self-knowledge. The universe has, inexplicably and mysteriously, produced organisms capable of perception, that act to increase the level of complexity in the universe--a tendency that contradicts seemingly known laws of entropy.


In answer to the "big" (for me) question raised by the first article -- can minerals "know" themselves? -- an apparent absurdity, the answer is, definitively, yes. The subject -- that is, the complex crystalline nature of molecular biology, based on minerals -- can see itself through self-created tools of perception. It seems to be a reflexive act undertaken by unintelligent elements, but as we have discussed many times before in this space, the universal property of emergence -- which is essential to any understanding of evolution, consciousness, and intelligence -- dictates that unintelligent elements will consistently assemble themselves into units that display greater degrees of intelligence.

( I am intentionally ignoring here the specious arguments advanced by some reductionist theorists of consciousness who argue that consciousness itself is illusory and doesn't actually exist. Lest readers somehow mistake these stupid contentions as some modern, albeit perverted, scientific version of Zen Buddhism, allow me to remind us that Dogen, the preeminent Buddhist theorist of the last 2000 years, would have firmly contradicted any such contention as non-Buddhist thinking.)

In answer to the second "big" (for me) question, raised by the second article, that is, what is the nature of consciousness -- well, here we see that the majority of consciousness is supported and created by what one would call "unconscious" constituent elements -- which bears a striking, if arguably superficial, relationship to the arguments Gurdjieff raised in " Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson" in which he explained that most of the conscious elements in man that still had any intact functioning had submerged into the unconscious -- painted in his sweeping allegory of the submergence of the continent of Atlantis.

The article on dark energy of the brain makes it clear that the majority of who we are, what we are, and what our potentials are, is indeed submerged beneath the surface of our awareness. Here we have one more piece of scientific verification on this question--lest there were any doubt at all left, and despite Freud's original sexual mangling of the question.

I am sure readers with less strongly developed intellectual interests (and there is nothing, indeed, wrong with that!) will be relieved to hear that this brings us to the point of our actual work.

Anyone who persists for decades in the inner effort proposed by the Gurdjieff Work will eventually discover properties of consciousness that are no less magical or extraordinary than the most outrageous ideas presented by popular culture.

They may not be as spectacular -- we are, after all, a species addicted to the impulse of showing off -- but they are much more profound, in that they are not produced by our fantasies. They are real.

And it is this emergence of something that is actually real and completely extraordinary, completely different than anything one was led to expect out of life or experience, that we work for.

One of the significant properties of the Gurdjieff work is that most of its technique -- as well as its activity -- is aimed at stimulating these areas of "dark energy," these mysterious underlying patterns of neurological activity whose exact functioning and purpose is just now being noticed, and remains utterly obscure to modern science.

We do not try to work in a literal manner-- which was perhaps one of the signature mistakes that Ouspensky ultimately made, one which he popularized and promulgated in his famous "In Search of the Miraculous -- Fragments of an Unknown Teaching." To this day, countless adherents of the teaching ascribe almost equal weight to this book and original works by Gurdjieff himself, when nothing could be further from the truth. This is because of our attraction to the superficial -- an attraction which serves us very well indeed, until we believe too much in it.

Based on my own experience, it is safe to say that no superficial interpretation or understanding -- no attempts at literalism -- can lead to the kind of inner opening which we seek. Gurdjieff understood this quite well, and left us with unique texts, unique music, and unique movements, all of which act over the course of many years on the unconscious parts of man. Like Jesus Christ's parables, they are meant to act on the parts of minds that lie outside the literal, superficial, or obvious parts -- exactly those parts, in other words, that fall in the range of the "dark energy" described in the Scientific American article.

There are those who will say that to compare Gurdjieff to Christ is a heresy. Gurdjieff himself would have agreed. But in comparing this specific area of teaching, the methodology is clearly quite similar, underlining once again the strong connection between the Gurdjieff practice and Christianity. One cannot separate Gurdjieff and his teaching from the teachings of Christ, because his work is so clearly and so firmly in the Christian tradition, despite what detractors may say.

So here, once again, we encounter that peculiar blend of Christianity, Eastern esotericism, and modern science, all coalescing together in a nexus of understanding that leads us towards the mysteries of what we are.

It reaffirms once again Gurdjieff's unique and extraordinary syncretism, express the best in his aphorism, "Take the understanding of the East and the knowledge of the West -- and then seek." (Views From The Real World, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1973, p 282.)

May the living light of Christ discover us.