Saturday, April 23, 2011

What is necessary and what is possible

One of the interesting and definitely unique features of Gurdjieff's teaching is that he assigns “numbers” to man. That is to say, there is a progression and a hierarchy of development, delineated in what one might call a scientific manner. One hardly encounters anything quite like this in other systems.

One part of me finds this system fascinating; the other part finds it annoying and even pretentious. Likely, there is some truth to it; yet, we are all men. Even Gurdjieff's legendary saint Ashiata Shiemash, Jesus Christ and Buddha were incarnated specifically to discover what it was like to be a man. So the condition of being human is a leveling condition, no matter what “number” a man is.

One of the distressing fallouts irradiating the Gurdjieff community is the habit of referring to man numbers 3, 4, 5, etc., as though anyone knew what they were talking about, or were actually able to distinguish clearly. In the worst cases, posers and con men have declared that they are man number 5, or 6, or whatever, in order to fleece their marks.

All of this numerical hierarchy stands in stark contrast to the intriguing Buddhist contention that there is no “enlightenment.” The declaration sweeps aside considerations of how to arrange a man in a line from bad to good, and calls us to just live. Gurdjieff himself remarked on more than one occasion that there was, in fact, only “one thing.” That being the case, even the divisions between men, real as they may be from a temporal point of view, are artificial.

Everything is part of the Dharma. It can definitely be sliced and diced up according to law, and understood in its minutia and particulars, but that does not change the fact that it is all one whole entity. And this habit of spiritual reductionism, as I have pointed out in other essays, is terrifically attractive to human beings. I pick things apart and think that that makes me able to understand them. In understanding the part, however, I invariably fail to understand the whole, and the whole is, in fact, composed of connections between all the parts, a number of connections so nearly infinite relative to my ability and my consciousness to understand that the process of trying to do so is inevitably doomed.

In any event, I am stuck with this man-numbering system of Gurdjieff's.

In the context of it, I was thinking yesterday about his point that the way of the Yogi–one would call it the way of man number 3, if one did such things–was superior to the way of the Fakir or the way of the Monk, since the Yogi–if he did reach "true attainment" (whatever that is)– would know what was necessary to complete the other two ways. Because the way of the Yogi is the way of intelligence–of the intellect–it has an ability to understand that that is not available to the other two ways.

So the intellect is essential in work. I cannot afford to be vague or refuse to exercise my mind. It is perhaps the most essential component of inner work, yet my mind is quite weak.

I don't know what is necessary. This is clear enough. I encounter what is possible in inner work; one of the classic mistakes, in my experience, is to encounter what is possible and think that it is necessary.

Not everything that is possible is necessary. Man has a huge range of possibilities in front of him–both inner possibilities and external possibilities. It's clear enough even from fairy tales (eg. the sorcerer's apprentice) that not everything which is possible in the sense of inner achievement and "power" is necessary. It's equally clear that outer life provides many possibilities that are hardly necessary.

Yet when I encounter a powerful inner experience, a real experience, which verifies itself, it is quite possible, because of my lack of development, that I will be inclined to believe that it is somehow necessary. This can cause me to reinforce false ideas that lead me off the path and into the forest. It is an incredibly common phenomenon. If what is possible is not congruent with my aim, to pursue it–no matter how fascinating or alluring it may be– is a distraction.

And yet, on the level I am at, not everything that is necessary is possible.

This is perhaps one of the central features of the Gurdjieff teaching. We have enormous possibilities that cannot be realized, because many things lie beyond our ability to “do.” All of the religious traditions place man in a scale, where help needs to come from above in order to facilitate his development. The enneagram, in its succinct depiction of the law of three intersecting with the law of seven, emphatically defines this situation in a visual manner.

There is a question of discrimination at hand here. One needs to conduct one's inner work with a sensitivity and intelligence in order to see what is necessary. One could even say that seeing itself, as I understand it, is in fact the act of active and intelligent discrimination to understand what is necessary.

To see may be to encounter the necessary.

One thing is quite certain. I am likely to get confused between necessity and possibility. Many things that are necessary are rather uncomfortable, and I tend to shy away from them. At the same time, what is necessary is what I need to point my aim at.

Let's examine one tiny microcosmic example in order to see how this functions.

I have heard in this practice of inner work (no matter which flavor I choose) that negativity is wrong. It's bad. I shouldn't have it. Yet the fact–the indubitable fact–is that I do have it. It is a real process, and it is well-nigh inescapable. Should I try to expunge it because of its badness? There are huge swaths of practice devoted to this kind of thing. It does produce compassionate individuals who are not outwardly negative.

Maybe this is terrific. I don't know. I admire such people, I have respect for them. However, I am in a work that is conducted in life. It doesn't have a set of rules or lists about how to conduct myself, as such. It asks me to be present to what I am.

So, if what I am is negative, I must be negative, and be present to it. This is most uncomfortable. I am forced to encounter myself exactly as I am, without any special layers of frosting that make the cake taste better. I have thousands of different flavors of inner frosting at hand–I am a professional baker, a frosting specialist– so to resist applying them is nearly impossible.

So there I am. It's possible to adjust my behavior so that I don't appear to be negative. This is, in fact, the way that society generally operates. Thick layers of frosting are spread over everything, wonderful words are spoken, World Peace organizations are formed, and then everyone proceeds to kill each other the instant something goes wrong. It's possible to not be negative, but no one has done what is necessary–which is to look deep inside and experience the negativity face-to-face.

My impression here–as in many places in life–is that we are in love with the possibilities, not with what is necessary.

I had an encounter with my 20-year-old son a week ago when he got a flat tire. He came to me asking me what to do.

He hasn't had to deal with getting a new tire for his car yet. He's smart, and very capable, so I basically told him to do it himself. He got very upset with me. This didn't look like help to him.

After we worked through it, I had to sit him down and explain to him that in this particular case, help consisted of having him do it himself. He needs to learn how to take care of these things within the context of his own life, without anyone else there to guide him. As I pointed out, I'm not immortal; I am not always going to be there to take care of these problems for him. If I deprive him of the effort of problem solving for himself while he is young, he won't be able to do it later when he is old.

I went on to explain to him that help, when it arrives, may not look like we expect it to. In this case, making him do it himself was help.

In the same way, in our inner work, what is necessary may not look like we expect it to. Once again, we are called to this act of an active and intelligent discrimination as we conduct our observation of ourselves.

What is necessary? What is possible? And what is the difference?

May our prayers be heard.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A subtle work

This work of living is a subtle work.

It isn't anything like anyone expects; whether inner work is strong or weak, outer life has great strength, both in its material manifestation and the power with which it falls into us and affects us.

I can't think of any poet who captures the mystery of this process better than W. S. Merwin; and even a talent as great as his stands baffled by the depth and glory of what confronts us in the simple process of living. Perhaps his greatness stems directly from his bafflement.

Never mind the complications of politics, of money; of interpersonal relationships, children, parents, pets; careers, births, and deaths. Reduce it to a sip of cold water; Dutchman's breeches blooming by the roadside.

What we encounter penetrates us.

It is the depth to which we are penetrated that determines transformation. Nothing that falls on the surface can transform; only that which works deep in the body can change a man. And that working is not of a man's doing; no, it only comes with Grace. Do I speak of mysteries, and in tongues? Perhaps. Or perhaps I simply say true things that have not found their roots in everyone yet. I can't say.

What is certain today is that the sense of worship, like sensation and the work of the inner life itself, must become organic. There is no prayer–no real prayer–that is not organic. We cannot speak of prayers of the skin, or prayers of the flesh, or even prayers of the bone. We must speak of prayers of the marrow; prayers that find their origins in the blood itself, prayers that are drawn naturally from the deepest levels of a man's being.

And we must not only give prayer; we must receive it. Remember Gurdjieff's controversial (and to some, outrageous) statement to his followers that they should “steal” the prayers of others–after all, he advised them, the prayers of others were weak, and "could not reach God."

An odd idea, I think... or at least so it struck me, as I was walking the famous dog Isabel along the river at lunchtime today.

To take someone else's prayer...?

To take prayer in general, to take it in, rather than offer it up.

Trying to understand this outside the provocative context of Gurdjieff's fairly narrow statement, the sensation arose in me that life itself is a process not only of praying, but of drinking in prayer. An echo of Michel Conge's statement: “The whole universe is prayer. The whole universe is response to prayer." (Inner Octaves, Dolmen meadow editions, P.156.)

There is no existence separated from prayer. Existence not only emanates prayer in all of its aspects; it also receives it, takes it in. So prayer–this same question of worship which I took up in my last post–is a form of reciprocal feeding that emanates from, and feeds, higher emotional center. I feel unfortunate saying that, because we have now used technical phrases that come from what one might call “Gurdjieff work jargon” to describe a sacred process, which is much larger than the narrow context such language wedges it into.

A man's responsibility is to develop his inner sensitivity enough to begin to participate in this kind of reciprocal feeding. Jeanne DeSalzmann used the expression “higher energy” to try and express the medium through which this exchange takes place.

It is good, but in my own heart today, I find it is not good enough, because we speak of everything, and yet can say almost nothing.

So here we are. Called to life. Called to the gravity of life. Called to discoveries within ourselves that do not correspond to the standard texts or answers; called to material that does not come out of books and is not formed from mental ideas. Called, in point of fact, to the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow of this existence.

Called to the organic experience of being.

If there is anything to listen to: if there is anything to be heard–if there is anything to be understood–it lies here, within, where roots grow and the breath pauses.

May our prayers be heard.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An unerring sense of gratitude

Inevitably, if we vigorously engage in the practice of "questioning everything," habits will arise.

It eventually turns out that we question some things a lot, and other things very little.

Some questions never get asked at all. Other questions are frowned upon. Not all questions, it turns out, are created equal. It may even be that a wide range of questions is needed, but a narrow range is substituted. Questions, after all, get asked according to convention. Originality may not be rewarded, or even desired.

Currently, I am questioning praise and worship, and their place in the Gurdjieff work.

Now, one might argue that praise and worship are strictly in the domain of religious practice, and that Gurdjieff did not call us to a religious practice, as such. I would, as all regular readers already know, argue the point: Gurdjieff specifically called this work esoteric Christianity, and Christianity is in fact a religious practice. Arguing that the Gurdjieff work is not a religious work is sheer nonsense. Applying hedge clippers of that kind to this work will leave you with nothing but a dead stump when you are done.

In any event, let's get back to the question of worship and its place in inner work, whether ordinary or extraordinary. Are the praise and glorification of creation unnecessary as an aim within this work? Are they unnecessary as a means?

Where is my center of gravity on this question?

On page 55 of "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," Hassein cheerfully announces to Beelzebub's servant Ahoon:

"Didn't he just say that we must not oppose forces higher than our own, adding that not only should we not oppose them, but should even submit to them and accept all their results with reverence, at the same time praising and glorifying the marvelous and providential works of our Lord Creator?"

One might reasonably infer, reading this quote, that in Mr. Gurdjieff's eyes mankind is indeed under an obligation to engage in the praise and glorification of the Lord Creator and His works.

Said praise and glorification is an ancient practice. It is deeply embedded in the liturgical form of most religions; we know that it has been there since very ancient times.

To be sure, in religious contexts, it is organized--even distinctly Biblical. There are hymns, there are chants, and so on. In the Sufi dervish practices, whirling is construed as a form of worship; we therefore add dance to the list of said practices, and might go so far as to infer that the Gurdjieff movements–sacred movements as they are–are indeed a form of worship. It's fair enough to say that we may experience praise and glorification during some movements–and that's as it should be. But I'm not speaking of what is sent or given–I'm speaking of what is offered.

What are we offering?

I see praise and glorification of all creation as a fundamental requirement in inner work. Not as a rote act, performed mechanically through a sense of automatic duty. No, praise and glorification must become as organic as the rest of my practice.

This may sound like a peculiar concept; yet, anyone who has read the practice of the presence of God may encounter just such an understanding.

My effort is to continually deepen my sensitivity, the way I take the world in, so that what is inwardly formed becomes more whole. In this process, the entire world takes on a new dimension, and the worship and praise of all creation begins to well up from within all the cracks in this crust of personality, until it moistens this dry desert I live in.

In such conditions, when water arrives after many years without rain, green plants spring naturally from the soil. I don't need to ask myself to worship; worship arises naturally.

Admittedly, we can all see that this is a high practice. In my ordinary state, if I want to offer worship, the mechanical form of worship is about as much as I can muster. Nonetheless, if I don't try to approach this question and ask myself where the center of gravity of praise and worship of creation is within me, I will never look for it–and if I never look for it, it may never bother looking for me.

Inner work does not exempt us from ordinary emotional experience, or render it undesirable or unnecessary--even though we do seek to connect to a source higher than that. And the wish to worship and praise creation ought to be a natural and ordinary--perhaps even instinctive-- emotional experience, a reflection of a higher one that may invoke it naturally.

I cannot ignore this question... hence I ask myself what the act of worship that Hassein refers to consists of. (He may be an innocent, but his grandfather looks on him with great favor–in fact, on the following page, he tells him, “You are right, my dear Hassein, and for being right, even before the captain returns I shall tell you anything you like.”)

For me, questions of this kind are more important than ever at this time of year. The Easter holidays do not fall casually in spring; many awakening energies are reaching the planet, and even the crudest of atheists sense something different in the blooming of flowers and birthing of animals. It's incumbent upon us at this time of year to engage in the classic practices of repentance, contemplation, and worship.

We have been given an enormous number of gifts. Not just material gifts; we have also been given gifts of the spirit, which are there, no matter whether we attend to or deny them.

My availability during this period is critical. Much material may try to reach me now that I need; what I am seeking is an unerring sense of gratitude, as I mentioned yesterday.

An unerring sense of gratitude. This phrase came to me over the weekend. I had to roll it around on my tongue, so to speak, for several days to understand what it was trying to communicate to me–and I fear that too much reductionism, too much analysis and picking apart of the idea, might not serve it well. I prefer to just hold it in front of me for now as a question.

What would it mean to have an unerring sense of gratitude?

May our prayers be heard.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

River, Dog, Hill

Notes on today.

I never know quite where I am, or what is going on.

This seems to be because I don't have the presence of mind. By mind, I don't mean the mind that runs the show on this ordinary level. That mind seems to be reasonably functional most of the time. What I mean is a certain kind of intelligence, a presence, that is informed by a higher energy. I say informed, because this intelligence is inwardly formed by the presence of this energy.

I need to be there–that is, to be here–in relation to this energy. There is no other practice. The invention of words and ideas, and the pasting of them onto situations, does not pass for work. Only the sensation–the feeling–the intelligence of a finer energy, which is perpetually trying to reach me, can help to inwardly form a relationship to the real.

Its connection to my ordinary existence is generally transitory and ephemeral; yet the sensation that it is here with me never completely goes away. The difficulty is that I am unable to attend to it in a meaningful way.

Even the marginal presence of a finer energy offers me the opportunity to invest more deeply in my life, to inhabit the condition I am in, and even to do so seeing that I am, in a certain sense, a blank slate. When I am walking the dog down by the river, climbing up the hill, there is nothing there but river, dog, hill. There is no need to carry anything else in me, and there is no need to refer to all of the insistent contexts that are not with me: work, electronic devices, the Internet, money, politics.

I see the presence of all those elements in life as ideas passing through me, but they are not real in the way that the color of the marsh is real, or the way that the ruby crowned kinglet preening its feathers is real.

The real is immediate. The real is in relationship to my investment in this life. It isn't in my head being made up from moment to moment. It is an impression that I am receiving.

So I'm puzzled by this, because my understanding isn't very clear. There is an elemental state that is possible, a tabula rasa, in which I stand in relationship to this world, to this body that is inhabited, the sensation of my cells, the feeling which penetrates me as the world comes in, and the intelligence that perceives it-- all of it standing independent of the analytical facilities that are still in operation.

What is this? I don't know. I stand, mildly bewildered, at the intersection of forces I am unfamiliar with.

There are times when the feelings become so sensitive that even the slightest impression is overwhelming. At times like that, the sense of the world becomes quite definite, and yet completely other than my usual sense, which is blunted.

There is a need for me to stand in suspension: between both of these worlds-- invested in this world, and in relationship to a force which comes from places I do not understand.

Here I am.
No matter where I go, the river is around me.
I am surrounded by hills, and my dog is loyal.
Somewhere in me, there is an unerring sense of gratitude.

May our prayers be heard.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The blind watch breaker

Regular readers of this space will be familiar with my ongoing concern about how much time we spend using very habitual language to repetitively investigate the question of why we are not present.

If we are not present–as, I think we agree, we are not–we should at a minimum invest our ordinary attention in an effort to see this and be less habitual.

We ought not race past the ordinary requirements of life in our effort to discover the extraordinary: on the contrary, an ordinary attention to the necessary details of life is the essential foundation of practice. Nothing can happen if we don't attend to the ordinary; despite assertions I have heard to the contrary, a failure to respect the ordinary and make legitimate efforts in regard to it potentially invites a profound failure to understand anything real about inner work.

It's exactly this kind of nonsense that leads men to imagine they have psychic superpowers of various kinds. Gurdjieff referred to people of this kind as tramps and lunatics; his model for a solid practice was the obyvatel, the "good householder"-- an ordinary man who sets out to do nothing more but absolutely fulfill his responsibilities, putting him already well above most other people.

Unfortunately, this question of using the ordinary attention–as we must–to investigate the extraordinary produces all kinds of perverse and contradictory results... and we rightly ought to be aware of that.

Despite the fact that it's quite clear ordinary language does not suffice to describe the territory we seek to inhabit, we must continue to use it. Forced to accept the contradiction, we become lax; we use the same words and descriptions over and over again, speaking in a strange kind of code to one another. Our forms of exchange–whether they are religious, esoteric, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or what have you–become hypnotic, and yet we don't see that in the least. We don't even halfway invest our ordinary attention in an effort to be different in this matter. Even worse, perhaps, because we use the same words, we delude ourselves into believing that we share a common understanding, when it is likely that that is anything but the case.

We speak an enormous amount about listening. And it's true, we don't listen; and (ah, yes, welcome to the classic Gurdjieffian "endless list of qualifying statements!") listening also means more than just hearing the words.

However, if we don't listen with our ordinary parts and hear how blatantly repetitive and habitual our exchanges have become, how codified and formulated our words are...

just what are we listening to?

The cosmic all?

Once again, where is our ordinary attention? Do we use it for anything? Or do we treat it as something to be thrown out with the trash, because it's not sufficient for that magical kingdom we are so surely destined to inherit?

Above all, especially in the Gurdjieff work-- but I will hardly exempt the Buddhists, Christians, and the rest of the religious gang from this critique–we pick things apart with the mind and think that we are going to understand them by doing it. Mankind studies this aspect of himself; that aspect; those other aspects he forgot to study the first time, but which need to be studied. An endless number of books get written. An endless number of workshops take place. Everything becomes an act of deconstruction: a picking apart of the situation to look at its insides in bits and pieces. We are blind watch breakers: unable to see anything in the first place, we start taking the watch apart to see what makes it tick, unable to even know it is a watch in the first place.

Above all, we fail to understand that all these little parts we are seeing only have meaning in relationship.

Recently, while participating in events that followed this general course, it occurred to me that what we engage in could be called analytic deconstructionism. We take things apart and analyze them, always forgetting that life is a whole thing. It won't be possible to understand the whole thing by picking it apart-- we even sagely discuss amongst ourselves how we understand that it won't work–, yet we keep doing it.

The Buddhists have a fairly good term for the wholeness of everything: Dharma. This word encapsulates (at least for me; others may feel differently) the idea that everything is composed of a single whole truth. The wholeness of reality is always complete; it is the collapse and failure of our perception that sees it otherwise. We can't separate the ordinary from the extraordinary; they all exist together. We cannot separate sleep from wakefulness; the higher from the lower. They coexist, and any attempt to expunge one another is, at the ultimate level of understanding, impossible. Higher levels contain lower levels. Unity contains disharmony, and so on.

Of course, without an actual experience of this union, everything is theoretical, and we continue to engage in our destructive activities, whereby we pick the world into pieces and think we will gain understanding. Even the best of us, the avatars, are guilty of it.

Something new has to happen. This idea of an organic sense of being, of an investment in life, changes things somewhat. Maybe the first thing that it does is render us less interested in picking things apart. The problem is not in the picking apart; it is in the belief in it, the investment in that, instead of the investment in seeing the connections and the wholeness between things.

This does not mean that we engage in some mushy, vague and imprecise new age activity whereby we just merge with the cosmic all. Of course, it is true that the ordinary attention is not enough. It is, however, necessary: necessary, but not sufficient. The mind: by this I mean the intelligence, the attention, must become a more precise tool, whereby we inhabit the reality we encounter, experiencing it in a different way.

Information and our understanding of what is needs to change. Information is what is inwardly formed.

What is inwardly formed cannot be transformed without the participation and action of a different kind of energy, which does not belong to this level.

This is lucidly illustrated in the enneagram, which contains most–if not all–of the information, inwardly formed understanding, that a man needs in order to see what is necessary for transformation. So much of what is needed for inner work is so properly and objectively defined in this diagram that it fairly boggles the mind. Nonetheless, for most of us, it remains little more than an attractive looking symbol with some odd and intriguing properties, in the end having little or no real connection to our experience of ourselves.

Let me speak frankly and say that this should not be the case.

Perhaps the difficulty is that this information is not so readily accessible. It would take effort to understand it, and generally speaking, we shy away from work by copping out and claiming that nothing can be understood, there is no understanding, everything is a question, etc., etc.

"Understanding" of that kind is quite false–what Dogen probably would have called “non-Buddhist thinking”–and yet it is easy to sell, because it lets us off the hook. We can continue to be vague and insubstantial and touchy-feely.

Perhaps the greatest trap is that being touchy-feely is in fact very important. It is just that doing so without the clear direction of an active mind, one which is more invested in union than dissection, leads one into all kinds of bear traps. We start out wanting to make what Gurdjieff would have called "super-efforts," and end up lying on the couch with the remote in our hands.

Don't get me wrong. Everyone deserves to spend some time lying on the couch with the remote in their hands. The issue here is that one cannot afford to take up residence there as a permanent lifestyle.

We live in a universe of law. That is not a vague and insubstantial proposition. There is a relentless and precise demand put in front of us.

It does not exclude an obligation to the ordinary.

We would all do well to ponder that for a while.

May our prayers be heard.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Announcement: The open center in New York will host a significant Gurdjieff workshop event May-20-21.

Coming back from China always involves a period of disruption, in which I have to readjust to a diametrically opposed time zone and accommodate myself to the renewed flow of my usual impressions–that is to say, impressions of the place where I live, as opposed to hotel rooms and factories.

This particular weekend, my wife was away, so I spent four days largely by myself, doing little or nothing of any significance. It was a moment to simply stop, to live, to attend to small day-to-day things. Jet lag imposes a bit of a monastic regimen; one wakes up at extremely early hours, drinks coffee and meditates before the sun is up.

There is a lot of quiet. It is a great deal like doing the “stop” exercise not in the midst of a movement of the body, but in the middle of a movement of life itself.

And perhaps that is worth considering: is the exercise actually an allegory for what is necessary in life? Can it become more than an exercise--can it become a practice? A moment when we stop and study ourselves not just in the pose of the body, but in the pose of the mind, the pose of the emotions–maybe even the poses of our instincts and our sexuality–until, in a snapshot moment, we "stop" within the context of our entire life, take a deep breath, and see that we live.

There can be a good deal of satisfaction in attending to the small things in life just as they are. I fear we are losing this art.

We have become accustomed to so much overstimulation that it almost seems like a requirement. Even in the midst of a reduced demand like the one that I experienced over the past four days, the itch of stimulation seems to be ever present and wants to be scratched, even if by something so insignificant as e-mail, or surfing the web.

In contrast, I filled much more of my day with tasks like doing the laundry and hanging it out to dry; making sure the kitchen was clean; walking the dog. There is an odd wish in me to make sure that the small things in life are properly ordered. This is so far removed from the scale in which any of us usually think–the scale of jobs, money, world crisis, and so on–that it seems like a completely different world. Do you know what I mean? We forget to attend to the small things that are actually around us in life, the real things, and we are lost in dreams about things that are far from immediate, or that we have absolutely no control over.

We have lost our sense of inner gravity. We are floating, instead of grounded on our own planet.

This question of control has come up for me repeatedly. I like to control things. This is hardly special; I notice that everyone around me seems to like to control things as well. We all like it a lot. This is the case despite the fact that no one really has much control over anything. Things go wrong, and we throw ourselves up against them like Don Quixote charging a windmill with his lance. Of course, we should not be passive; nonetheless, we need to acknowledge to ourselves that beyond a certain point, we must see what our limitations are and accept them.

This particular question applies to inner work as well as outer work. The attachments that convince me that I have some kind of control over my inner life don't serve well; dwelling within a form of acceptance of my condition turns out to be more useful over time. If I just seek the specific gravity of my own being, stop, and plant myself there, many other things seem to take care of themselves.

There are times when I wonder whether or not my overall approach to life is actually a massive form of interference. Reducing my attention to what is immediately around me and trying to be more present to that turns out to be far more useful than my grandiose plans.

There is a great deal to discover in the dailiness of life. I forget this constantly. Then, suddenly, I am reminded: reminded by softened sky behind trees waiting to bud out; reminded by the color and texture of my dog, and the chair she is lying on; reminded by what can only be called an emotional understanding, which intervenes to join my thinking (when it is still for a moment) and the organic sensation of this body.

It is in those moments that life seems to acquire an unusual depth, which is always there, but which I am not there for. Peculiar, really; there are absolutely glorious qualities to tiny things.

Why don't I see that more often?

May our prayers be heard.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Entertainment value

Yesterday's post may seem tongue-in-cheek. Nonetheless, it raises serious questions about how we disseminate information in a spiritual work. The Buddhists, for all their foibles, have found effective ways to get their message across... good marketing is a skill, and an art.

Many religions have developed effective marketing, but more esoteric works generally find it rather difficult. Now, one might believe this is the whole essence of esoteric work–it is supposed to be obscure, secretive, hidden. But I think that that is a mistaken understanding of what esotericism is all about. It isn't necessarily secretive or hidden–although it has been just that in eras where persecution was a danger.

What esoteric work is is inner work. This means that it is focused inward, towards a centric view of the soul, rather than outward, towards an action of man in life.

Of course, in Gurdjieff's method, a balance between the inward and the outward is essential. That being said, it's still necessary to get the ideas about inner work out in front of the public. If one is a religion, with attractive formal trappings, this is an easier task. And religious organizations well understand the question of entertainment–if something doesn't have an entertaining aspect to it, people simply aren't very interested. This is probably more true than ever in today's entertainment-centered world.

I have been known to dabble in entertainment myself; I used to have a rock band. (Neutron Blonde's recordings can be heard by clicking the link.) More recently, while I was in Cambodia last month, I encountered some unique foods... to put it bluntly, I ate a tarantula. In the interest of offering the readership some flat out, unabashed entertainment, here is the link at YouTube:

Be forewarned, it is not for squeamish people! I didn't, however, do this to gross people out: I was just interested in the impression of what spiders taste like. To me, this was no big deal: I can eat almost anything, as a consequence of my many years of traveling in Asia, where unusual food traditions abound.

What is the role of entertainment in esoteric work?

Entertainment need not be idle amusement. To entertain can mean to welcome as a guest, and to feed.

Over the years, the Gurdjieff work has become a relatively stodgy, formalized organization. There is nothing outward or colorful about it. Yet, paradoxically, Gurdjieff himself was anything but stodgy. He was a masterful entertainer, famously hosting elaborate dinners with much laughter, a great deal of drinking, and so on. He presided over many public demonstrations of his movements, openly advertised in newspapers. He packed lecture halls.

There is, in short, absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he understood and actively implemented the value of entertainment in attracting people to a spiritual work.

Today's Gurdjieff work seems to have lost that touch. Perhaps it's because “the master” is no longer alive, and only he was capable of understanding. That does not, however, seem to me to be a very likely explanation. It sounds more like a cop-out.

More likely, ever since he died, we followers have been fearful of taking "wrong" steps--a disease that seems to have dogged and plagued successor generations for decades--and have pulled our antennae in more and more over the years, failing to get out there in front of people and let them know that the work exists--and that it can even be fun and joyful.

Yes! Joyful. Self remembering isn't self-flagellation- it isn't self-criticism. It is the deepest form of self-discovery.

Some brief footage retrieved from the archives that was taken at the Prieure nearly a century ago shows a young Jeanne de Salzmann on the lawn, doing the "stop" exercise with a group of adults and children. Above all, the impression one gets is one of joy and openness. They are having a good time. No formal, oppressive tone is in evidence. Instead, an air of spontaneity is conveyed.

The film is, consequently, entertaining-- even delightful.

Entertainment relies on this air of spontaneity. If entertainment is not in the moment, it generally isn't effective. It may be elaborately planned, rehearsed, and executed, but the air of spontaneity is always present.

If we don't understand the value of entertainment, both in ordinary life and in spiritual work, we miss something. One might argue that entertainment is mere frivolity, but this simply isn't the case. Entertainment is an invitation--it is a force and, like any other force, can be turned to service. It can serve higher interests as well as lower ones. And at its best, it can be effectively used in a lighthearted way to spread very serious messages, as John Stewart has so ably proven with his masterful Daily Show.

It's interesting to me that a man of Gurdjieff's stature, who relied so ably on entertainment to spread his ideas, has left behind a legacy of foundations and people displaying so little facility in this area. One would think there would be more films; that there would be public displays of movements, especially in large cities like New York.

Where is the movie based on Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson? The book offers the opportunity for a world-class piece of filmmaking, but, so far as I know, no one has ever attempted it... even though Gurdjieff himself openly foresaw such possibilities. Peter Jackson ought to tackle it.

The whole question needs, in my opinion, to be examined more thoroughly. The work ought to be joyful. It ought to be open, lighthearted, spirited. And it should present itself to the public–and to itself–with that open quality of joy.

Entertainment in all of its many guises might help to serve that purpose.

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


Lest one think that I am humorless–well, maybe I am, who knows?–I am going to be a bad boy in this post and say many naughty things.

Be forewarned.

I was reading a popular Buddhist magazine today–names will not be mentioned, in order to protect the innocent–and a number of things struck me.

First of all, the magazine was slick and beautiful. All the advertising photographs showed beautiful people in beautiful environments, meditating beautifully, with beautiful things beautifully organized, folded, and/or arranged on altars. It takes serious money to meditate like this, let me tell you. Go through the photos and add up the retail value of all the paraphernalia if you don't believe me.

Second of all, the magazine relies on "famous" Buddhists (the Dalai Lama is of course the ultimate celebrity, and nowadays mentioning him on the cover of Buddhist magazines is almost mandatory, in the same way that Cosmopolitan has to somehow mention sex on just about every cover) to spread the message. Hence my offhanded and cynical term for the whole deal, “celebrity Buddhism.” ( My apologies to all you Buddhists. I love you, and I subscribe to your magazines.)

Third, most of the essays (some of which, in my opinion, were pretty darn good) are positively filled with explanations and instructions. It's like this. It's like that. We are like this and like that, we need to do this and that.

All of this bothered me, especially coming from the Groovy Buddhists.

Where's the sense of mystery? The ineffable void? ...Maybe the ineffable void doesn't sell magazines. I daresay it's not part of an overall strategy for more effective living (which seems more or less to be the aim of today's Buddhism.) Think about it.

Then I began to wonder whether I am not guilty of the same didactic, explanatory type things, even though I don't have celebrities to put in my blog, or groovy photographs of groovy people meditating.

Am I jealous? Am I clueless? These thoughts occurred to me.

I suppose that the salient difference between what I consider to be active Gurdjieffian practice and all of this instructive, formula based text being laid out in other religious practices is our emphasis on questions.

Now, I will be quite frank with you. The emphasis on questions itself has become a formula. How often have we sat in rooms and heard people say “my question is...?" It becomes positively irritating after a while, at least for me. We also have the annoying habit of prevaricating with everything we say: the stock disclaimer before many statements is “it seems to me.” So we have our own formulas, habits. (It is an interesting exercise in awareness to sit in a group and intentionally try not to use any of these habitual phrases, but to find entirely new ways of saying things. Try it sometime.)

All this being said, I think the emphasis on questioning is ultimately a defensible one. We need to keep, I find, a constant question in front of us. The idea of perpetually wondering whether or not we know anything at all–seeing where we are right now–asking ourselves what is going on–this is an active stance.

I don't really know anything. I sling around opinions quite vigorously, but whenever I come up against reality–whatever little slice of it I can sense–I see that I don't really understand anything about it, I don't know anything, it's always new and quite unusual. For example, turning once again to what is right in front of me as I dictate this text–a motley assortment of gemstones, fossils, civil war buttons, and dried insects, all of which dwell under my computer monitor–every one of these objects has tremendous depth and dimension in terms of its existence, context, and line through time, which I routinely manage to edit out of my awareness.

I don't have enough questions about things, that is all there is to it. It's possible to question everything–and yet, instead, I bring a presumption to everything I do. And oh, how different the world does look, if I shed that presumption.

I've mentioned before that aesthetic has nothing to do with the object that is perceived, and everything to do with the perceiver. Art is an action, not a thing, and it is located in what sees, not the object itself. In the Western world, we mistakenly assign the value to the object. This turns art into a thing, and an answer. It is a formula, an instruction.

If we invert this relationship and see that it is in the perceiving that the art exists-- and above all, experience the receiving of the impression as a question, an open ended suggestion that creates a new possibility (isn't that the whole point of art, after all?) we discover that practice is a question. Aesthetic is a question. Art is a question.

The standardized formula for approaching spirituality seems to be to state a problem, analyze it, and come up with how one should be in relationship to it. Even Gurdjieff and Jeanne de Salzmann's teachings run their ship onto these rocks. Maybe there isn't any other way to do it–but maybe there is.

“Notes on the next attention” seems to manage it somehow. It's terribly practical, and it keeps asking questions about how I am right now, and what my relationship to myself and the energy in my body is. It reminds me powerfully of exactly the way that Henry and Betty Brown, who led our group for many years, asked us to approach inner work.

There are times when I think I need to throw out every other little piece of garbage and just try to come from there. There are no instruction manuals for that practice. There is just a work of presence.

And that is engendered by this simple act of questioning.

May our prayers be heard.

Monday, March 28, 2011

establishing relationship

The question of establishing direction in work came up the other day.

This question of direction is interesting. As Chris McManus pointed out in his excellent book “right hand, left hand,” there isn't any absolute directionality in the universe. Up and down, North and South, left and right–all of these things are arbitrarily assigned relative to a presumably (but not actually) fixed location.

The problem with this question of directionality is that nothing is fixed–everything is constantly in motion. The only way that one can assign a direction is relative to something else.

As such, there is no directionality. There is only relationship. And it isn't a direction that we attempt to discover when we try to establish an inner work: it is a relationship. in this sense, my question is not, “where am I going?” but rather “what is my relationship?”

The difficulty is that I am not here. That's a question of location, not direction. I can't go anywhere if I can't Be in myself, and I do not know what Being is. Yes, after all these years, I have some inklings–there are experiences. The question of actual versus theoretical inner relationship may no longer be completely obscure. Yet in spite of this understanding, my work in this area remains largely theoretical.

I can't afford to flatter myself with the idea that my smidgen of understanding has lifted me above the theoretical realm. I need to come back myself again and again, all day long, seeking active relationship. The difficulty is that I am passive in regard to this question. There needs to be an intention in me to be actively related, and that intention is weak.

How can I be in myself? It is this question of being rooted, being firmly planted in life, with a flexibility, an intelligence, a freedom that does not depend on external circumstances. This is definitely possible, yet it calls on an action in me that I am not familiar with. I'm always forgetting it. There are times when I suddenly rediscover it–or, more properly put, it rediscovers me–and it is always a surprise. After all, this action is entirely natural, entirely right, and the birthright of the organism and of consciousness itself–yet I am not in relationship with it. I have forgotten what relationship is.

Some elucidation about the question of exactly what self remembering is can be discerned here. The rediscovery of relationship is self remembering. There isn't any self without relationship. It is the relationship that disappears–the relationship is what I do not understand, and what I do not in fact have. To be sure, I have established an ersatz relationship–a construction which substitutes for actual relationship, a machine that provides a set of automatic responses. But if I am ever truly present to what I am, I see that while I have a truly remarkable–miraculous–e ven amazing machine, the human element is missing.

I remind people of this often in relationship in ordinary life–I am dealing with a clerk, or a bureaucrat, or so on, and they are reciting the usual rules about how the regulations for the insurance company, bank, corporation, and so on and so forth, only allow a thing to be done in such and such a way, and I have to remind them that we are human beings. We don't have to apply cookie-cutter solutions to life. We have the freedom to make more constructive choices than the ones the machines provide for us.

It is increasingly important for us as human beings to come to this moment over and over again, because we live in a worldwide society that seems determined to crush humanity simply by applying various rules to it. Amazingly, most of this crushing is being done merely so that a mostly imaginary substance called “money” can be extracted from individuals.

It's surprising how comfortable we all are with that.

My direction-oriented thinking is perhaps another example of this transactional nature I often speak about. I want to go here, to go there, to get this, to get that. I don't see that I need to be here, just to be here. It isn't about getting from one point to another. It is about being within the point that I am at.

It is not that I abandon direction completely. What needs to happen is that it needs to be subordinated to an understanding of my inner location. If I am not here, I can't go anywhere. Only by establishing the root of my being, of where I am, can the question of any direction whatsoever be undertaken. Trying to understand direction without beginning at the root is like being lost in the forest and thinking that I know the way out, when in fact I'm not even sure where I am in the first place.

In a sense, my inner work is constantly taking stock of this question of location. It reminds me once again of that classic and internal question that my teacher and mentor Betty Brown so often used to pose:

What is the truth of this moment?

May our prayers be heard.

Friday, March 25, 2011

impressions from the field

As is so often the case, on a business trip, I discover myself re-examining all of the premises of my life, and the current state of my inner work.

Typically, I find that I can only write poetry when on trips. For some reason, the change in tempo, and the different surroundings–which, although they are different, are quite familiar to me in a certain way–opens up a part that can allow this process to take place. Windows onto such activity open sporadically at best, and they do not stay open long. So I write as much as possible when the material is flowing, and intentionally abstain in conditions when I see that it is not.

On this particular trip, I have also been reading “Notes on the Next Attention,” which is, in my experience, the best possible book currently available to describe–albeit in terms perhaps inaccessible to the general public–the current state of the Gurdjieff work today, as it has been directly transmitted. I want to stress this statement, “as it has been directly transmitted,” because there are so many third-party versions of the Fourth Way out in the world now that we might say we now have a fifth way, composed of all the bogus Fourth Ways.

Even though “Notes on the Next Attention” may seem to be simple, beautiful, flowing, and oddly disconnected from the majority of other work on the Gurdjieff practice, it is anything but. The material describes what is actually a rigorous and demanding practice, a practice of what one might call absolute attention, but an absolute attention that has no tense or punitive characteristics. This rigor and demand are entirely in keeping with, and flow directly from, the work that Mr. Gurdjieff brought.

And it is hardly a work for beginners, even though it describes a work that is, invariably, an eternal beginning.

The effort to be within life is an effort that I perpetually fall short in. Even my best attempts are fraught with deflection. There comes a time in one's work when one must see this and make one's peace with it: our souls cannot be driven into heaven at the point of a whip. There is a perpetual return to the moment in which one sees that a rigorous and demanding practice must also be gentle and loving.

Above all, I keep seeing that there is a need to inhabit life in a new way. It doesn't involve anything more than being in life. The direct experience of being in life, while maintaining a relationship with a new kind of attention, creates a great deal of energy for further work. Michel de Salzmann emphasizes this over and over again in his words, and, for anyone who understands at least the "first word" in the process, it is a verifiable proposition.

One of the strengths of this particular book is that it doesn't propose to sell any cosmologies, moralities, or give any instructions for how to conduct oneself or live. It begins and ends with the proposition that we must attend. Everything else follows this.

Stripping the practice down to this specific essential is a service. For the most part, we are too complicated to approach anything in this way. One feels nothing but gratitude for material that comes right down to the ground floor, and remind us that we are standing on it.

If we don't come into relationship with a finer energy, nothing else is possible. The only way to call this is with a better attention. Formulas are not going to do it; forms are not going to do it. There is a specific and directed inner effort that must be engaged in. It doesn't belong to a form or a formula. It doesn't belong to a method or cosmology. It belongs to itself, it arises from itself, and it feeds itself. Discovering the relationship and living within the experience are the form and the methodology.

If this sounds cryptic, I have to apologize. Real work is, after all, cryptic. It is encoded in languages that we do not speak fluently except with the body and the emotions, and it belongs to a level that is different than our own, rendering it as untouchable as the Tao.

It is impossible to come to these points of work by reading books and discussing things online. The only possibility is provided by going out into one's life and living it. Something new may happen; it will not be what I expect.

But it will represent a possibility.

May our prayers be heard.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The act of unknowing

Following on yesterday's discussion of form. I realize that no amount of intellectual analysis of this question, no amount of formulation, can truly address the compelling issues that face us when we actually conduct inner work.

Let me look at myself now–as I am. How am I?

Right now, to come to the question in an immediate, organic, and tangible manner–a manner that grows from sensation and feeling as well as thought–requires me to throw out any assumptions. The inquiry becomes immediate and does not have an answer. It is rooted in, invested in, the unformed experience of Being. I use the term unformed, because Being is forever unformed and always in the process of formation. It grows from the root of this moment into the root of this moment, and this moment is always unique.

It's possible to take this moment and compare it to past moments. This is possible because of our associative parts, and because all moments are in relationship to one another through law. Nonetheless, it may be misleading. Despite the relationship, the moment is indeed unique.

One of the great values of "The Reality of Being" is the emphasis placed on inhabiting this particular question. No matter how many discussions one might engage in on the exact nature of what Jeanne de Salzmann asks us to undertake–and to any astute reader, it is immediately clear that what she calls us to is a mystery to our ordinary state–one thing is certain, and that is that there is a call to a new kind of investment.

This word is specific to the requirement. Investment may mean, among other things, the wearing of clothing. The energy that we embody, the expression of energy that all matter embodies, is an investment–energy wears the "clothing" of matter. It doesn't really matter whether you are an atheist or a religious person–a circus clown or a scientist. This basic understanding is unavoidable and more or less inarguable.

The difference between reductionist views of the universe, of atheistic and scientific premises, and the premise of inner work, is that from the perspective of inner work, this investment is not indifferent--it carries with it a responsibility. That is, there is a call to experience the relationship actively, to understand that our interaction with it ought not be passive. Within the immediate context of this investment, consciousness carries with it both the ability and the responsibility to be present to it, to call it into question, to investigate it.

In other words, I am poised here within this body, engaging in sensation, experiencing thought, and investigating the question of feeling–seeking that subtle and higher force which can bring thought and sensation together in an emotional state that binds them.

This makes a new kind of awareness possible. But it is only through this investment that such a thing can be known. My inner work, in other words, must be tangible. It must be organic. It takes place in an unformed–a perpetually forming–set of conditions. While the conditions are lawful–they conform to the nature of this universe–they are unique and inexpressible onto themselves. One might say that it is exactly this inexpressible quality that we are called on to sense.

Of course we can't use the form we already understand to do that. We begin without that capacity. The capacity is not inherent–it can only appear with participation.

The word investment is a loaded word, because it also carries a transactional value. I have discussed before the importance of trying to discover an understanding that lies beyond the transactional–I get this, I give that–and enters this spontaneously experiential state which we are discussing.

Nonetheless, investment also means to save something–to take value and accrue it, so that it grows. In this particular sense, the sense of growth, the idea of investment in my inner life is equally compelling, because I am feeding something when I invest in myself. I am not feeding the coarse material of my cells, but the finer material of what religions call my soul.

Of course this is controversial. The word soul is bandied about endlessly, used reflexively and mechanically by religious people as though were it were a defaulted and obvious property, and ridiculed by areligious people as an unproven–perhaps even imaginary–entity. But the soul is not so intangible. It already dwells within the actual finer energy that suffuses and penetrates every human being. It can certainly be sensed–it is a tangible force, if one understands the question properly. And it can be squandered or invested in, as one chooses. The outward movement of my attention without any containment is that squandering. The inward movement of my attention, which brings a measure of containment, begins the process of investment.

However, every investor knows that if the money just sits in the bank forever, there is no point to the investment. There are well-known parables about this in the New Testament.

It is the interaction between the investment and the real world that is the whole point of the action. This means that there has to be a balance. I can't just pile up experience, sensation, an investment in my inner life, and sit on it smugly thinking that I have achieved something. I must bring this material into contact with the external world. That is the responsibility of my consciousness, which is supposed to be actively engaged in, and mediating, this process.

A failure to understand this question of investment and value as an interactive process between the finer material of inner experience and the coarser material of outer experience leads, in mankind, to a mistaken valuation in which all value is assigned to an external action. The attempt to build up value in the external world was clearly addressed by Christ when he advised man as to where one should "lay one's treasure up." Our one-sided assignment of value to an external action inevitably leads to destruction, because without the counterweight of inner understanding, value has velocity, but lacks direction--it runs into things and smashes them.

Instead of attempting to inhabit an inner or outer argument of form, or no form, I am offered the opportunity to participate, in the presence of an active question, and the absence of my assumptions. One just doesn't know where that will lead. And perhaps that is, after all, a point of work–

the intentional act of unknowing.
May our prayers be heard.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Formless forms, and mushianism

I'm on the road again, travelling in China. As always, the change of surroundings has provoked new impressions, a change in tempo.

Before I left the USA, I picked up a copy of "Notes on The Next Attention" by Fran Shaw. I very highly recommend this book to all readers. It carries the authentic flavor of inner work as it's practised today... a book, if you will, "outside the realm of books." It's an essential companion to "The Reality Of Being," since it traces the direction forward from Jeanne De Salzmann's work into the present. It's a breath of fresh air for those interested in "non-technical" Gurdjieffian practice, and a taste of where we are if we are willing, for a moment, to allow ourselves the freedom to throw away the book "In Search Of The Miraculous" and actually engage in a search for the miraculous.

It's in there.

This leads me into a subject I have been pondering for some weeks- that is, the question of form. The tension between form and "no-form" continually arises, as we walk the line between effort- all of which is attached to form of one kind or another, struggle as we may to free ourselves from that web- existence, which clearly has a form (although that form itself is creative and ever-evolving, mediated through the direct experience of life)- and the unknown, which is inherently formless.

So here is my own formulation to define the territory between form and the abandonment of form:

Effort leads us through experience, and into the unknown.

That is, essentially, how the game plays itself out, inwardly and outwardly. n'est ce pas? I'm reminded of how Persian fairly tales might state it: "once upon a time, there was a form, and there wasn't a form."

Perhaps we can understand the idea of form and its place (or lack of place) a bit better by understanding form in terms of levels.

Our own form, as we are, on this level, both inwardly and outwardly, takes on a shape defined (as Gurdjieff explained it) by forty-eight laws. So there must be a lawful form and order according to level: if there truly were no form, there could be no universe. One must recognize here that a complete lack of form would require us to throw away every conceivable cosmology, including Gurdjieff's, and propose a universe of pure mush. Mushianism, if you will. Bliss-filled mush, perhaps, but mush nonetheless.

For those of us who don't believe in Mushianism, a working proposition might be as follows: form is an emergent property of level- that is, the convergence of the laws applying to a particular level (for the level "above" us, for example, twenty-four laws) create the form for that level. Levels are separated by a divergence of form: what that means is that the form we dwell in within our own level is not capable of recognizing, understanding or digesting the form of the levels above us.

This means, in essence, that for any Being, on any given level, a relationship with a higher level involves a relationship with a higher level of form which cannot be recognized: hence, for all intents and purposes, the level above us is "formless." That is to say, it is incomprehensible to us as we are.

That doesn't mean it does not exist: it only means that it isn't accessible to us. Only by abandoning all of our formed assumptions about it might it become possible to leave an inner opening that might allow a new degree of contact.

Is this information at all practical? Hints of it abound. Today I was driving from Shanghai to Nantong, and saw a man selling oranges from a cart. For one second, somehow, I was touched by this impression in parts that canot be described or redacted: no analysis applies. All I can say is that I saw this man, these oranges, in such a way that it transcended all my assumptions about the form of this level. It was filled with content that does not exist; it carried vibrations, information, feeling that does not fit into our usual context. And indeed, all legitimate religious experience falls into this category: the transcendence of form, of this order, so that a NEW order may be perceived.

All of that from the most ordinary events- which are, indeed, absolute embodiments of the divine.

It isn't disordered. It isn't formless. The abandonment of form actually involves embracing an entirely new form: formless relative to the form we know, yes, yet very fully formed indeed.

At the risk of sounding a good bit too clever: as Christ put it, new wine must go in new bottles;

but there are still bottles.

May our prayers be heard.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On the Origins of Life

Everyone who reads in this space is well aware of the fact that I am a firm supporter and devoted follower of the work principles that Jeanne DeSalzmann brought to us when she carried on in Gurdjieff's footsteps. She was, however, intensely focused on the practical aspects of inner work–as perhaps she should have been. We don't see evidence from her of an interest in the sciences on the same order as what Gurdjieff brought.

Once again, this doesn't seem remarkable–they were different people. However, in light of Gurdjieff's instruction, in Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson to engage in “the constant striving to know ever more and more about the laws of world creation and world maintenance,” which he cited as the third "obligolnian striving," it would appear we have an equal obligation to study the material principles of the outside world as well.

This brings us to the subject of today's post, which is about discovery of fossils which provide the strongest evidence yet that life did not originally evolve on earth, but elsewhere, and that it arrived here in meteorites. This particular theory, which has been accepted as one of the potential correct explanations for the origin of life by biologists, is referred to as panspermia.

This theory, which majority opinion rejects, finds considerable support because of evidence that life appears so early in the fossil record on this planet. The planet is considered to be somewhere on the order of 4 billion years old, but at 3 1/2 billion years, there are already strong fossil evidences of stromatolites- structures formed by cyanobacteria, organisms that are still alive today and are indubitably DNA-based lifeforms.

What makes this meaningful is that the DNA molecule is a highly sophisticated molecule. It has clearly undergone millennia of evolutionary pressure in order to reach the state we meet it in today--and the evidence of fossil and contemporary stromatolites shows that it had already undergone that evolution by the time it first showed up here on earth.

The odds of that type of evolutionary pressure and development taking place on early Earth, where we know conditions were almost certainly inimical to life (nothing, after all, can spring to life on a flaming ball of lava and boiling steam) are very nearly zero. Prominent paleontologist Simon Conway Morris explained this in considerable detail in his fine book “Life's Solutions.”

Despite this (to me) rather compelling argument, this explanation for where life on earth originally came from is not currently in the mainstream.

Nonetheless, this particular article in the New York Times about evidence for alien life in meteorites appears to provide hard evidence supporting the theory. The evidence is not ephemeral; it's detailed, and there is a good deal of it. Anyone interested in examining the original journal publication for all the details can look here.

The significance of this discovery is that the life in the meteorites is not, in fact, alien at all. It appears to be evidence for cyanobacteria–one of the earliest forms of life on earth. In other words, it is exactly the kind of life that would have seeded the planet, if anything did.

The significance of this discovery, if it is indeed the real thing, cannot be understated. Gurdjieff explains that life is ubiquitous, that is, it occurs all over the universe. He furthermore claims that life shares the same types of forms over the whole universe–that is, three brained beings, or animals with emotional, intellectual, and physical capacities exist everywhere, and that even other life forms familiar to us, such as wheat, are common to all planets with life.

Those who scoff at such ideas and think that aliens would adopt radically different forms would do well to read Morris's book. it simply and almost definitely is not the case, despite what all the science fiction movies you have seen would tell us. Morris explains rather neatly how very narrowly constrained the paths of DNA-based evolution actually are, and why we see almost identical life forms arise again and again because of that.

Not only does this discovery and its ramifications underscore my impression that Gurdjieff was a scientifically minded man, as well as a spiritual master–making him without any doubt unusual within the context of his vocation–it also offers a perspective that once and for all eliminates any narcissistic idea about man being special or unique. This particular foible of mankind was one that Beelzebub mercilessly and repeatedly laid waste to throughout the course of his conversations with his grandson Hassein.

Now, perhaps, are we are finally invited to join the rest of the universe, and admit that we are part of it, not some special case or exception with unique or magical abilities, whether they be scientific or metaphysical? We'll see.

It's unlikely, of course, that mankind will acquire any humility as a result of this. But those of us engaged in spiritual work may, perhaps, feel just a bit more of a connection with this vast enterprise we call a universe--

and pause with even deeper questions inside of us at night when we look up at the stars.

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Relationship, Duty, and Understanding

I'm don't understand the nature of relationship.

Yet I see today that it is my duty to understand the nature of relationship.

Maybe that sounds odd, so I'll try to explain.

My failure to understand relationship causes everyone around me to suffer. I manifest in one way or another, in other words, and everyone else is affected by it. They have to tolerate it, experience it, and deal with the consequences. Thus, if my actions are born of ignorance, are unconsidered, and lack discrimination, everyone around me has to pay for them.

Of course, I think I am the one who has to pay–one way or the other, good or bad. How I affect other people isn't necessarily a question for me... it is, course, if I want something from them; but this attitude is a consequence of my transactional approach to life.

The word relationship means the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected. So I see it as my duty–my obligation–to understand how I am connected to the world. Ever since I was a small child, I have had an instinctive and organic desire to understand how I am connected to this phenomenon I experience, called life. It's not a mystical calling; it's an active, living question.

This particular instinctive and organic desire finds its expression in human beings in ten thousand ways. Most of them are outward and mechanical, automatic– sense-driven, centered around transaction and extraction-- because of the childish ego: everything is me, me, mine. There are, nonetheless, forces in man that can cause a man to see, with a sense of wonder, that the questions are much larger than this.

Above all, the sense of wonder, of mystery, derives from an awareness of Being. Despite the weirdly "technological" sense of inner work that P. D. Ouspensky ultimately derived from his study with Gurdjieff, the tangible ground-floor of the Fourth Way, of inner work as Gurdjieff proposed it, has always been a tactile and human affair.

It's about being in this body, sensing it: pondering, as Gurdjieff said, the sense and aim of one's existence.

Last night, at 11:00 PM, I sat in bed doing nothing. Uncharacteristically, I didn't have a book out; I wasn't using my iPad; the television was turned off. My wife asked me what I was doing. She couldn't understand why I was just lying there that late at night, doing nothing.

I wasn't doing "nothing." I was actively engaged in this task of pondering the sense and aim of existence. It involved being still, and actively sensing the organism.

Rather more of this is owed to one's life than one gives, and yet, it appears as though nothing is being "done" when one works on this.

The question of the sense of existence–what is it? Why does it even matter?–and its aim–in what direction is it going?–seem to me to be intimately connected to this question of relationship, which is a duty, and requires understanding. There don't seem to be any clear answers to this. I simply found myself trying to have an experience of life, as it was. To be in relationship with myself–to try to discover what it means to be connected to myself.

The question of what life means arises in the act of the sensation of the self. It does not need to be answered: it needs to be experienced. This doesn't involve any outward doing. it involves beginning where I am.

If I don't understand how to discover an inner relationship, it strikes me, there's no point in exploring the question of outer relationships. How can I know the nature of where things “end”–outside me–if I don't know the nature of where they begin? It's the nature of this beginning–of the root experience of life itself, which either does-- or does not-- have that unique, elusive, and mysterious quality called “Being”-- that I need to understand first. That's why I am in a practice that asks me to perform seemingly technical tasks like “self observation” and “self remembering.”

These tasks are, I think, profoundly and frequently misunderstood. In my experience, they aren't technical: they're not on the order of observing and cataloging. They are on the order of experiencing and encountering.

Until these actions become a tangible, physical, intelligible, and emotional experience, they are just thoughts. It is the actual inhabitation of life, the insertion of the self and of Being into the definite and real immediate moment of inward and outward motion, that fosters an understanding of what these tasks mean. There's nothing technical or dry about them. They aren't about lists or judgment. They are simply about living. From where I am, it looks to me like I know how to live–but that simply isn't the case. When I begin to look, I see that I don't know. I have instead a set of rote formulations that I try to apply to an unformulated movement.

It's my duty–my obligation–to live. I have a responsibility to it: there is an organic need to act within the context of discrimination, not outwardly imposed moralities (although those are, of course, not all bad, and should not perhaps be utterly abandoned) but a lively inward sensitivity. In order to do this, there needs to be a bit more awareness and attention than I usually apply.

Jeanne de Salzmann repeatedly spoke of asking us to see our “lack.” This is a big thing. What do I lack? What does that mean? Circling the question–in orbit around it, so to speak, but unable at this moment to penetrate directly into its heart, to let the gravity of the question pull me into it–I sense a taste of a lack of relationship, a lack of understanding.

I don't see the connection.

In the midst of all of this work, attempting to understand what I am, I am continually visited by the impression of a deep and graceful love, supporting every effort, mercifully, and unconditionally, without regard for my fallen state or my separation.

This deep and graceful love is not a theoretical or imaginary force. It is spun into the very thread of the universe itself–the carpet of reality is woven from it. How strange that I do not always sense it; how strange that it cares not how little I care for it; how strange that I am unable to open myself to it in the way that seems so absolutely necessary.

How strange that I so consistently betray it.

Ah, yes... here I have arrived at the end of yet another of my rather personal pieces, which asks so many questions, and may even seem obscure.

May our prayers be heard.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

An intimate action

It's all very well to talk about cosmological theories, an endless sea of bliss and love that awaits us all, the unity of all things, and so on. I'm all for it... sometimes.

Perhaps my own difficulty with these well-meaning spiritual cheerleading activities is that they don't necessarily give me much insight into where I am, and how I am.

My aspirations and intuitions, which do legitimately seek, and perhaps even touch on, levels higher than myself, inevitably end up colliding with what I face in external life.

There's a story from Chogyam Trungpa's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism that comes to mind:

“Marpa was very upset when his son was killed, and one of his disciples said, “You used to tell us that everything is an illusion. How about the death of your son? Isn't it an illusion?” And Marpa replied, “True, but my son's death is a super-illusion.” (Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism," The Guru," Page 41, Shambhala publications, 2003.)

Perhaps one of the most compelling features in Gurdjieff and Jeanne de Salzmann's teachings is the insistence that we do indeed inhabit this level; that we are subject to its laws, and that above all, we must become grounded in our humanity--not don white robes and float. (Trungpa's other comments about Marpa stress the fact that an earthy humanness characterized his practice.) There is a comment in Lord Pentland's Exchanges Within in which he points out to a questioner that if you are not born with the 32 signs of Buddhahood, you are unlikely to become a Buddha.

So here I am. This is the reality. There is an inner and outer life; there is an intersection. But, as Jeanne de Salzmann repeatedly points out, I am “taken.” That is, outer life dominates me, and under ordinary circumstances, my reactions to it–all of which tend to be associative and reactionary–determine everything that is possible for me.

I have no freedom from external events. They rule me.

It's quite important to study this question right now, because I think we all recognize that external events are, so to speak, “worse than usual.” That is to say, planetary conditions are deteriorating, the psyche and physical surroundings of mankind are not in healthy shape, and it is affecting almost everyone in one way or another. I want to “do” something, but the simple fact of the matter–as Gurdjieff explained it–is that on this scale, I can't really affect anything. The events that are taking place are in accordance with the development level of mankind at large, as it currently stands. No individual at my level, at our level, can really make a decisive difference. (Now, maybe some of you out there think you can–if so, bravo. I hope you are right!)

The situation calls the question of aim, of inner conditions, of what work means, into the spotlight. What am I working for? Am I trying to save myself? The planet? Do I want to arrange outer conditions so that they are better, or do I want to rearrange inner conditions so that they correspond to reality, rather than my own visions, dreams, and fantasies? There are a lot of choices open to me here. Almost all of them are ambitious. Few of them are achievable in my present state. I recall here my own teacher Betty Brown asserting, towards the end of her life, that we were somewhat arrogant to presume we could achieve anything. This little video of the relative size of things may help put us in perspective.

Think that one over for a while.

Aside from the obvious dangers of living with delusions about how much power I may have over the external world, there is an ongoing danger of mixing levels. That is, I misunderstand the nature of inner work, and I begin to believe that somehow it is there to fix what is outside me–or even that I can "fix" something that is outside me. The idea, of course, is laughable–if I am truly working, I quickly see that I can't fix anything inside me, let alone outside, even the smallest thing.

I have no authority. To turn yesterday's analogy from Dogen on its head, I am sitting adrift in a boat without any oars... and I have filled it up with mountain climbing equipment.

In my current condition, I have no freedom. A new inner order–a new alignment-- might offer the possibility of freedom, but it involves changes in the way that my machine works, such subtle and profound changes that they are actually beyond my immediate understanding in any ordinary moment. It falls, in fact, under the comment that Gurdjieff once made to Ouspensky: “for one thing be different, everything would have to be different.”

So everything in me has to be different. And all of this depends on my permeability, my willingness to surrender, my openness to a finer quality of attention, which doesn't belong to me.

My ordinary attention and my ordinary mind are unable to conceive of such an attention. Well, perhaps that's not fair: I can conceive of it, but only within the context of my ordinary attention and my ordinary mind. The fundamental paradigm of understanding, in other words, is flawed from the outset.

Above all, as the external world continues to deliver one blow after another–and they are falling everywhere, on everyone–the essential task is to realign the inner mechanism so that it can receive something more real. Without this, my Being is all soft tissue–no backbone, every impact damages me, and I am perpetually in reaction. Only by working can I create a stillness that might receive something to strengthen my Being. Of course, it's quite difficult for me to see this. I can talk about it; I can write about it. But the living, intimate action that is required–well, this is mysterious, and I am prone to ignore it most of the time.

Readers who read through the material on solioonensius earlier this week may have noticed that Mr. Gurdjieff said the process has the potential of affecting us such that “the need for evolving, in the sense of acquiring Objective Reason, increases... by itself.”

Translated, I would suggest that what we are being told is that the energy that is sent during such periods supports our wish.

Since my wish is generally weak–often so weak that I cannot even find it in myself–periods like this one represent extraordinary opportunities.

Above all, I feel the need to study the question of seeking help, of becoming more open to a finer quality, as a reality–not a theory.

There are forces that act within me which clearly touch on this direction. I'm not in a proper relationship with them. A more intimate action is required. How can I become more sensitive to that?

May our prayers be heard.