Thursday, December 3, 2009

Utterly human

...A photo of one of my best friends, Tom, at Betty Brown's memorial service.

Regular readers will know that Betty Brown was my group leader. Tom and I worked with her for many years.

It may seem incongruous to see a man expressing this much joy at what amounts to a funeral, but in a certain way it makes sense. Betty would not have wanted us to mope around. It wasn't her style. She was quintessentially human: down to earth, pithy, and a bit wild at heart. She was always totally committed to the Gurdjieff work, but she didn't like the version where the driver pulls harder on the reins all the time in a futile effort to control the horse. She knew how to apply a deft touch at the right moment, and gain an inner cooperation rather than coercion.

I heard it said recently that Lord Pentland once remarked that one of the main aims of the work was to produce genuine human beings.

Such human beings have different qualities than the ones that we men generally display. An egoistic, violent, and shortsighted approach to life is almost universally dominant, but it need not be so. There is an alternative-- born of an inner connection, resulting from a different inner order.

It is definitely possible for us to come in touch with that "finer substance" of Being. In doing so, we unfold aspects of our human nature that otherwise remain forever hidden.

The world talks about--and even craves--a greater intimacy between individuals, but we rarely hear talk about an inner intimacy within ourselves. Yet it is only this intimacy that begins to show us anything about what we are. The action of this force is quite extraordinary, and I find few -- if any -- traces of it in discussions from other works. Without this force, the intimacy we seek between ourselves and others lacks the inner support it needs. This is why so many outer relationships fail. They aren't built on solid ground.

This is not a question of self improvement. It is not about adjusting attitudes -- that comes afterwards, and grows out of intimacy in the same way that leaves naturally sprout from branches. If we do not begin with this more intelligent -- and I mean intelligent, not intellectual -- connection to ourselves, then nothing really grows out of ourselves, no matter how carefully and brilliantly we analyze the situation.

Inner growth is truly a voyage into the heart of what it means to be a human being.

This growth includes the discovery of our polarity: the need for both the positive and negative in ourselves. A discovery of that nature puts to lie the idea of a nirvana; of some idealized kind of self-perfecting that makes us thoroughly wonderful. Instead, we find that it is necessary to have two poles in order for a current to flow between them. If we do not have a negative and a positive side, there is no spiritual energy in movement. We become stagnant, dead, within negativity; or we become dead within positivity.

Either way, no good: one must include both sides for the energy to flow.

It's possible to understand this in terms of our two natures, that is, the relationship of the lower to the higher, as well. Our "lower" organic being forms a negative pole -- characterized in Christianity by the concept of "sin" -- and the divine, the level above us, constitutes a positive polarity.

When we explore the verticality implied by the image of the cross -- and we must always explore this organically, through the experience of sensation, the inhabitation of the body and blood -- we explore not just how we are in our lower, or, as the Christians would have it, sinful state -- we also explore the fact that there is something that lives above us that is indeed sacred and higher.

And although the vehicle through which this exploration takes place is indeed material, is indeed the body, the medium is the energy. This is the third force: the holy reconciling factor between man and God. It lies in action, it lies in the connection of the poles, and the movement between them.

As such, the attempt to sterilize or eliminate the negative, the attempts to "improve" it or deny it, eliminates what is needed to attract something higher. The very recognition of our state through the experience of intimacy is a call directed towards a higher power.

In religious work, there is a great deal of talk about joy. I think we would all like to feel joyful. In fact, just about all of us have, at one time or another. But this is a relatively superficial experience. The deepest joy lies in a union between joy and sorrow; and this is something that only experience and understanding can bring to a man. It is within the unity of positive and negative that real emotion appears.

To know this is to become utterly human; to become utterly human is simply to live.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Monday, November 30, 2009

three year anniversary

Today marks the three year anniversary of this blog.

Over the course of that period, over 580 essays have been posted. It seems impossible to believe; the effort was an experiment from the beginning, and there was no telling how long it would last, or where it would lead.

The anniversary catches me at a difficult moment, because I am very busy for the next week or so and it is unlikely I will have time to organize any decent thoughts or posts. I will, however, do my best to put something together Wednesday or Thursday night when I am in Georgia.

Tonight, I just want to thank the readership for taking the time to participate and read my material. There are many people all over the world who have followed this effort for weeks, months, and, in some cases, even years. Together, we form a loosely woven network -- a community -- of individuals interested in the ideas which Mr. Gurdjieff left us.

Almost all the people who knew him personally are now dead; it is up to us, those who remain, to carry the work as it stands on. There is no point in fearing that we are not up to the task, for we have it now. All we can do is do our best, and hope that we do not betray either the ideas, or the aim, of this great effort, which is -- as was said not so long ago by a very experienced member of the foundation -- "for all humanity."

On this site, those near the arctic circle can take heart knowing that Brazilians and Colmbians are reading with you. Americans and Frenchmen are reading with Iranians and Croatians. Australians are reading with Canadians and Dutchmen.

We continue, together, to participate in that mystery called life. We don't really know what life is -- the moment that we encounter it is always the most unexpected moment -- and it takes more than we can often muster in order to meet it.

Let us take courage and go forward together, with all of our flaws, our negativity--and the good things that are also in us--offering what we are to the world, and receiving in return.

Traditionally, every year, I change the sign off for this blog and use it for the next year. Regular readers may have noticed that. Today marks the day that I start to use a new sign off for the next year.

This year, I am choosing to sign off in a manner that is quite personal, and intimately related to my own work.

Some may feel that it is too specific for work as general as the work that Mr. Gurdjieff brought us. Others won't. But for some reason my new sign-off reminds me of something I heard a Sufi say in a film several years ago:

"There are Sufis in every religion."

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

blaming the object

In past posts, I've discussed attachment--as it's described by Buddhists--and identification, which was the word Gurdjieff used to describe the phenomenon, as analogous concepts.

Attachment is a concept common to both Buddhism and Christianity. In the Christian faith, attachment is indulgence in what would be called "sins of the flesh," the outer world. In the Philokalia, we are presented with the idea of turning away from the outer, i.e. attachments to the world, and towards the inner. And in Buddhism we also find that attachments are generally considered to be attachments to things of the world.

In pondering this over the past few days, it occurs to me that attachments, or identifications, are provoked by what we would call "things of the world," but in the end they are all exclusively inner phenomena. That is to say, every identification or attachment both arises and exists within ourselves.

This may sound so obvious as to be worthy of a "duh-" but I'm not so sure. I doubt that I truly appreciate how this sits in me.

We might examine the question from the point of view of center of gravity. Every identification represents such a device- a locus around which an inner attitude turns, a fixture which has appropriated the vitality of Being and redefined it. So when we become attached, or identified, our inner attitude has become the weight of the matter. It draws the psyche into it, and instead of "belonging to itself," Being orbits this new, and aberrant, central point. (Incidentally, let us be reminded of Gurdjieff's idea of Chief Feature here, and ponder it a bit.)

Extending the analogy of the inner solar system (one of the earliest posts in this space), it's as though all of a sudden Mars or Jupiter thinks it is the sun, and develops the mistaken perception that the rest of the planets--and, yes, even the sun-- rotate around it, not unlike the medieval view of the earth relative to our own solar system.

So we have what might be understood as planetary misconceptions. Our inner center of gravity is mislocated. Our identification or attachment may appear to have something to do with the outer event-- and it's easy to view it that way-- but this idea is a turkey (for those of you not familiar with American slang, that expression means, more or less, that it's silly and worthless.)

In the end one hundred percent of the issue is an inner issue, having little or nothing to do with what happened outside of us. Speaking for myself, I see that I have an almost obsessive need to "outsource the blame" for attachment and identification and blame the object. Doing this allows me the luxury of abjuring the responsibility for the whole mess.

I don't have to face what I am, how I am: it's the fault of this outside matter.

This creation of a subject-object duality where the object (what took place outside of me, which is now a thing rather than an event) becomes the "participant at fault" is where everything falls down. And here, indeed, may be precisely where my inner subjectivity arises--in my acceptance of the outer as the object.

Outer events thereby develop a powerful center of gravity. They, not this body and this sensation, appear to be the locus of life. This despite the fact that any careful examination within the moment verifies that the actual center of gravity is within this body--that the arising of consciousness and life resides here, and not within what is taking place relative to this place of arising and sensing.

The ego invests itself quite powerfully in forms that have developed around these aberrant centers of gravity. We take in impressions of life and develop planets that force us into orbits around conceptions of ourselves based on "I am an artist," "I am a doctor," and so on. All of these "I ams" are attached to, or identified with, outer objects-- art, medicine, or what have you--and they are so well entrenched that the illusion that they are "the sun" is nearly impossible to dispel.

Perhaps this is why my old group leader Betty Brown said to me once, "the things we love the most are the first that have to go."

In the discovery of the inner sun-- the realignment of our inner solar system so that the true center of gravity is recovered-- tremendous perturbations are necessary. Our conceptions of ourselves are utterly wrong, based on premises created by what Gurdjieff would probably have called "false personality."

And what, exactly, is false personality? Another "duh" concept: it is a false person created within us. Do we really see that our personhood is false? Can we see that?

Our attachment to this false person is terribly powerful, and almost all of it revolves around this identification with, attachment to, the outer. So these ideas about "what we are:" our upbringing, our skills, talents, abilities, and place in life--well, the whole damn ball of wax is causing us to orbit around a planet, not our inner sun.

And it all has to go for something new to appear.

So in the end, we come once again to the organic sense of self, without which it is quite impossible to begin to sense what attachment and identification consist of. We must first see what we are--where the locus of our awareness arises-- in order to begin to understand its relationship to what lies outside us.

Until this new connection takes place, all of our understanding is trapped in orbit around external centers of gravity.

May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


The Chinese have a proclivity for placing ostentatious examples of heroic sculpture in the center of their cities. Despite their overstatement, sometimes they are pretty cool. They are even more interesting when, as in this case, a snapshot juxtaposes a reflection in an accidental, but entirely appropriate, place relative to the sculpture. The whole package works.

Sometimes we forget that politics is mostly about show. That it is about ego. We begin to take it seriously, and we think that the politicking is the core of what government is about. In America, the politicking has replaced what it is meant to lead to, that is, intelligent action on the half of the greater whole. To be fair, that may well be the case in many other parts of the world.

I'm not sure that any of us see that that is also the case in most religions, and even in esoteric work.

The politics of inclusion and exclusion pollute the Gurdjieff work in the same way that they pollute all the other facets of life. The whole affair is treated as a power struggle. The next thing you know, what group you are in, who you work with, who you take movements with, and who notices you is what is important. The ego wants to be placed in a heroic position where it is visible, where people value it, appreciate its "work," and think it knows what it is doing.

In the worst cases of this disease, we begin to think we do know what we are doing. We take on airs. We pass judgment on other people -- inevitably, I suppose, it's a human condition. We become aggressive, as though we think we are more developed than the next person.

We forget that we are all on this level together, that every one of us suffers under the same set of conditions, and that death is the great equalizer.

Of course, forgetting in this way is quite normal in the ordinary world. There is, however, an absurd presumption afoot in esoteric works that somehow those who work and (supposedly) have a spiritual connection of one kind or another transcend such nonsense, but nothing could be further from the truth.

On that point, I have watched for years as supposedly "developed" individuals in positions of power invested time and energy in politicking "promising" golden younger people into privileged positions only to have them pick up their bags and leave the work (sometimes even selling out precious material, such as movements instruction, which they had been given) while much more solid and reliable--but less glossy and exciting-- individuals who never had the spotlight cast on them trudge on loyally without any chance whatsoever to advance.

Before she died, my group leader Betty Brown mused to me about this on more than one occasion, wondering what good all that power did for them.

In my view, along with all the self remembering--a drum that is beaten with great vigor but tends to make little music--there is one thing that everyone ought to do their best to forget, and that is the politics.

This disease contaminates every inner activity. The instant that one is worried about where one stands, who one knows, and whether one was or wasn't invited to some "special" event, one has forgotten oneself and one has forgotten how to work. I've been there myself many times, so I feel qualified to speak about it.

If our work really depends on these outer things, then we have no work. If our work depends on what others think of us-- if it depends on whether or not we are given access to some secret text that has been hoarded away from the general public so that only the elect can read it-- if it depends on whether so-and-so has invited us to participate in such-and-such, or whether or not we have been asked to do something "important," we are doomed.

I watch the gremlins attached to this at work at me every time someone asks me to do something or participate in something. The ego's work is quite insidious, really. It's always there, chirping contentedly about itself. It leaps at compliments as eagerly as a dog begging for scraps. Only the man or woman who actively sees this and becomes deeply suspicious of it begins to see how much of his or her life is driven by such nonsense.

The only thing that real work can depend on is an organic connection within the self, and an attempt to cultivate that connection and re-order the inner state.

As such, politics starts out far from the point of real inner work, and marches away from it briskly with as much energy as it can muster, dragging us along by the hair.

If we let it.

The choice of where our center of gravity lies in our work is up to us. There needs to be an attention to the outer conditions and an understanding that real work does not lean on them as a crutch, any more than it leans on sitting silently like a monk for four hours a day. Real work lies in the middle, between the inner and the outer. It may be driven by the ego -- in all likelihood, a weak ego will never develop much of a will to work -- but it must not be owned by it. It may participate in politics, but it does not have to be taken by them.

So, if not politics... then what?

A few days ago, my daughter and I were discussing a personal situation related to her graduate school work. I pointed out to her that generosity in any situation is rarely misplaced.

If we have to be part of any political process and make any political statement related to our inner work, let us make it a statement of generosity. Rather than trying to get importance for ourselves, to seek position, to bask in a false limelight or acquire tans from the bogus light of artificial suns, let us offer ourselves unstintingly to the conditions and the individuals around us. Let us give what we have, in the hopes that we will receive in return.

We need not give stupidly or recklessly, but give we must, because if we do not feed one another in a real and honest and generous way, we will all starve together.

May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I am more or less on the other side of jet lag. It is unseasonably warm here on the banks of the Hudson River. The mornings are dark and filled with promise.

Today I was reading the writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, faber & faber, 1975. On page 280 I came across this passage from Hesychius of Jerusalem to Theodulus:

"Attention is unceasing silence of the heart, free of all thoughts. At all times, constantly and without ceasing, it breathes Jesus Christ, the son of God and God, and Him alone, it calls upon Him, and with Him bravely fights against the enemies, and makes confession to Him who has the power to forgive sins. Such a soul, through continual calling on Christ, embraces Him Who alone searches the heart; and it seeks to hide its sweetness and inner attainment from all men in every way, lest the evil one should have an easy entrance for his wickedness and destroy its excellent working."

Well then. Here, encapsulated, a brief summary of esotericism, and how to hold your work close to yourself -- and, perhaps, even why.

This passage is particularly interesting in the connection it draws between the heart, breathing, and the presence of Christ. It touches on the need for a more intimate organic relationship: the relationship with the higher is received within the body, and if we do not develop an inner attention, an inner relationship to sensation, we cannot receive anything from a higher level.

Even more interesting is the stress that the writer puts on the need to hide what one is given. This, certainly, is not the way of the world today: everything is on display. Glossy magazines and slick books sell us the words we supposedly need to hear about spirituality; but what is it that remains unsaid amidst this cacophony?

What lies between the lines that are written? What delicate insight and intuition is needed to find one's way between the letters, and sense a vibration of a different kind?

It is, in fact, so often what is not said that counts. The noise that is made is not the heart of the soul; it is just the sound of a stick beating on its skin. It touches only the outside. It looms so large that it seems to fill the room; but it is only when the stick pauses, and the noise slowly fades inside the vessel from which it emanated, that we begin to get the sense that there is a vessel.

Yes, the noise is just an echo of the action, which takes place in emptiness. It takes place in the place that waits; it takes place in the darkness, at the root of things. It's true that we lie at the base of this root; it's true that we can receive light from above, that it is possible to engage in what one might call photosynthesis, a fixing of magical substances (for a brief moment at least) in positions where they can do work. But this is not work meant for the public eye, or the public ear.

And how great the temptations of the ego! Of course we must hide the best of ourselves, even from ourselves. For we are our own thieves, the enemies of our own most precious efforts. No sooner do we work for something, then we lose it again, or we destroy it in anger and reaction.

How different this idea of concealing any attainment is from our expectation, that we should attain and be recognized for it. This is truly confusing to all of us.

It's only with long effort, and a patience that comes only after our own patience is utterly exhausted, that we can begin to understand how silently and how secretly we must work. Do we know this? Do we understand it? It can only be through signs and miracles that the first taste of such an understanding arrives, and even those are things we wish to have as our own.

Well then, these are indeed somewhat private musings. And they touch lightly on the motive force of some of the poetry I have been writing lately. But in the interest of intimacy -- a subject I bring up quite often -- it seems at times to make sense to offer something a bit more intimate, rather than ongoing clinical analysis of work ideas, which there is plenty of out there.

One theme that has occurred to me recently is a question about self-observation. One of my good friends Red Hawk has recently written a book on the subject. Apparently, it's quite popular. That's good to hear; it's encouraging to think that the subject has become of greater interest to people.

For those of us, however, who have heard this phrase for most of a lifetime, there may be in need to reinvent the question under slightly different terms. For myself, it is no longer so much a question of self-observation as self-inhabitation.

How can we inhabit ourselves more fully, in a more three centered manner? How do we overcome the clinical, the intellectual, the analytical aspects of work in order to discover a more vibrant and living relationship to ourselves?

Is it possible to make this an active question that originates not just in the mind, but also in the body and feelings?

This is a subject worthy of daily study.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

a greater sensitivity

It is Saturday morning, gray and rainy. There is a resistance in me to the rain, but at the same time I see it is possible to accept it as a blessing. There's a softness here that speaks of receiving life in a different way. A way that is less predisposed to criticism.

I arrived home on Wednesday to the November issue of Parabola, and the newly published material from Jeanne de Salzmann's journals.

Reading the material caused me to ponder one again what it is that can truly "help" us in our effort to understand what inner work is. There's no doubt, these readings can be helpful. But at the same time, one cannot transmit the body of the work effectively in words. Not written ones, at any rate. And that means that no matter how "superior" De Salzmann's words may be, relative to what can be brought from my own work to this page, in the end they occupy the same territory, on what is in some senses a level playing field. Both are, after all, just words, and it is only in the living experience of an organic connection that any real experience of what it is to engage in inner work can arise.

We live in a bookish (and now increasingly media-driven) culture. Our slavish devotion to acquiring knowledge through the written word, and, now, through electronic media, steadily removes us one step further from the immediate, the now. It's possible to retain a sensation of many inner and outer parts of the body as I write this, but it is seen (as the reader may, upon examination of their own immediate inner state, also see) that there is a strong tendency for the head to dominate--which is exactly where we always find ourselves in relation to this question, and to life. The abstraction of life into the "head space"--a vacuum which, it might be argued, draws our awareness in to fill itself at the expense of our (potential) three-centered being--perpetually takes us away from the question of what this life is and how we can actually live it.

This requires a greater attention within the organism, and a greater sensitivity towards the workings of that organism. A delicate balance must be struck between outwardness and attention to ordinary life, and that inwardness which includes an awareness of the inner vibration of more subtle energies, which are fed by our impressions.

It's a tricky thing; the awakening of such an awareness is there by varying degrees, and our intention will not and cannot always be even partially present in relationship to those sensations. It's up to us to remember as often as we can, and to study the partiality of the organism-- the "not-connectedness" of the parts--in relationship to the potential wholeness we all might inhabit.

To have an inner sensitivity is one of the aims of this work. To be sensitive to the inner being at once draws us towards a greater outward sensitivity--both to the impressions we receive, and the interactions we engage in. It's only with inner vigilance (another word, perhaps, for self-observation) that we can bring more attention to the moment. And that inner vigilance cannot be supported or carried by the intellect. The intellect is not strong enough to do this kind of work.

Our mistaken impression that it can do such work is the very seed of our undoing. Reading words often brings us to a belief that we know or even understand something, when it is in fact very far from the case. It's only through a desperate act of living (I call it desperate not in the sense of despair, but in the sense of great need or desire) that we come to understanding. Understanding is a living, breathing quality never conferred by mere collections of facts or clever words. Understanding derives from a new sensitivity to the immediate surroundings of our being-- a sensitivity to a new kind of energy, a tangible inner vibration that is active, that seeks relationship with these fragmented lower parts we inhabit.

There is little need, in the end, to become tangled up in the complex metaphysical and cosmological questions that fascinate us. Many of the insights we may gain into these overarching principles are available in a new (and decidedly less intellectual way) if we simply educate ourselves to a sensitivity to the conscious inhabitation of ordinary life. The life that is worth living is often revealed in the nuances and details.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The mind, the brain, and Being

After two weeks of intensive work in China, I return to my home turf... which is decidedly less urban. Now that I am back here, we will see what can be done about some more practical attention in this space.

As readers know, philosophical and technical questions are discussed here, as well as actual personal observation, practice, and matters of more immediate interest to those who wish to work in a new way to connect the mind and the body.

Of course the latter type of discussion is more interesting to some, but there are times when it's necessary to grapple with intellectual questions. We cannot afford to allow our work to be nothing but "touchy--feely" material, that is, emotional/body work. The intellect must be applied, in a practical and immediate way, to elucidate questions related to Gurdjieff theory. Not in a complex, obscure manner, but in a way that is simple and practical enough for the average Joe to get the gist of it.

So here is an article of that nature.

During the trip, I had occasion to ponder some questions about the mind, its relationship to the brain, and some particular parts of the brain. In order to discuss this, we are going to have to ramble around a little bit. Hopefully you will bear with me.

One of the perceptions of modern science is that the brain is the place where the mind originates. That is, the mind, intelligence, awareness, whatever you wish to call it, arises from the brain and cannot exist without it. Red is not red without a brain; wind is not wind, the stars are not stars.

In this decidedly reductionist worldview, it's difficult for us to imagine a universe without intelligence. In fact, there cannot be one, because in such a world view there is no universe without intelligence. That is to say, if there are no brains to receive impressions, nothing actually exists. This premise has actually been argued by some leading theorists. There is an ever present and all-too-common danger with our modern, hyperintelligent scientists: they become so incredibly smart that they reach a peak, turn a corner, and plunge back downward into stupidity without even noticing it.

Building on the complex cosmologies and perspectives of the Gurdjieff work, and speaking from my own personal experience, I will offer a rather different hypothesis: the brain is not a place where the mind arises: it is a receiving mechanism for the mind.

The nervous systems of animals, and all biological life, can be compared to radios. All of them receive molecular and vibrational "waves" from their surroundings. If we consider a radio, I believe we can all agree: even if there is no radio to receive radio waves and play the music in them, the radio waves still exist, and the information in them is still real. We can, in fact, detect and measure the waves without the radio. There are probably even devices that could extract the information in the waves, though they might not play it in audio format the way radio does.

So the universe, the color red, and the wind, do exist independent of the brain and other neurological systems. One might argue that neurological systems impose arbitrary subjective interpretations of all of these phenomena on the impressions that they receive, but I don't think the interpretations are arbitrary at all. There is a remarkable consistency to them across a broad range of organisms. The organisms all exploit the properties of the environment they inhabit in similar ways, in the same way that many different radios with various receiving capabilities all function in a similar manner. There is, in other words, a commonality to the enterprise that is very strictly imposed by the constraints of chemistry and physics.

So we come once again to one of the key questions in philosophy, that is, does the existence of everything that is depend on the mind, or would it be here, even if there was no mind to perceive it?

The human brain and other neurological systems are not generators, they are receivers. They do not generate the universe. They perceive it. As such, the universe and everything in it exists a priori, and the arising of organisms, and consequent neurological complexes, to sense it is a dependent consequence. If organisms are receivers, then the mind exists before the organisms do; they are simply tools which mind adopts in order to express itself.

This idea exhibits some interesting parallels with Buddhism and other religious practices which I will leave it to the reader to ponder further.

The Gurdjieff system is unabashed in its insistence that everything is material; as such, we might suggest that Mr. Gurdjieff was perhaps the very first spiritual teacher in any century who insisted that there was an absolute scientific basis to the development of what is called, in various religious practices, "the soul," "enlightenment," and so on. The expression of what he called higher mind -- that is, a receiver with the capacity to receive far more impressions of mind than what are usually received -- is entirely dependent on the restructuring of both the chemistry and the neural anatomy of man.

Those who are familiar with with P. D Ouspensky's discussion of the chemical factory in "In Search Of The Miraculous" will be well familiar with the idea that Gurdjieff said man's inner chemistry must change if he wishes to develop his inner Being. The idea that the brain itself needs to physically change is one that we don't encounter there.

Yet, it is incontrovertibly true, and the study of one particular structure in the brain tells us a very good deal about what some of the aims of Gurdjieff's work were.

In 2004 or so, Scientific American published an article on the function of the cerebellum, a structure in the brain which has been receiving far more attention in recent years.

The cerebellum is often referred to as the "primitive" or "reptilian" part of the brain, that is, the oldest part of the brain. It's frustrating to see the oldest structures in organisms as being called "primitive" by scientists and biologists. It's not only frustrating, it's patently stupid. The oldest structures in organisms of any kind are the most advanced structures, because evolution has been acting on them for the longest period of time, optimizing their ability to perform. Any structure that has recently arisen has been less fully tested and, we can be certain, will not perform as well as more ancient structures that have been tested through millions of years of evolution. So let's not call the cerebellum a "primitive" part of the brain at all. It is, more than likely, the most advanced structure in the brain. And this is a suggestion that is being borne out by a great deal of recent research. You might say that study of the cerebellum has been... well... blowing scientist's minds.

The cerebellum has more nerve cells than all the rest of the brain combined. In other words, this rather small part of the brain has more capacity to work than any other part. Secondly, its response times are remarkably quick. Third, it is connected to the cerebral cortex -- the part that gives us our higher thinking functions -- by something like 40 million nerve fibers. So it has an incredible capacity to process and pass on information. Connections to parts of the brain that regulate emotion are also highly developed.

After I read the article on the cerebellum (a bit more on that in just a moment) I passed it on to the late Paul Reynard, who was one of the most important figures in the teaching of the Gurdjieff Movements during the late 20th century. I gave it to him because the implications that connected the development of the cerebellum to the Gurdjieff movements were unmistakable.

And, as I suspected, he was utterly fascinated by it.

The cerebellum, you see, is the center of motor development in the brain, and it contains complex perceptive and timing mechanisms that must, by default, be deeply involved in the execution of any physical exercises such as the Movements. There can be no doubt that one of the principal brain structures the Movements are designed to stimulate and affect is the cerebellum.

The first main point of the article made is that the "primitive" cerebellum has the capability of learning. That is to say, it is been recognized that the cerebellum has a rich ability to form new neural pathways, and that, in fact, it may well grow new neurons during the course of a human's lifetime, in response to novel stimuli. This discovery contradicted the idea (by now an outdated one, to be sure) that new neurons don't form after a human being is fully grown. So this brain structure is flexible, creative, and capable of growth.

A second point the article made is that the cerebellum has an extraordinarily dense set of nerve fibers connecting to the parts of the brain that are known to regulate emotion. As such, the development of a greater and more sensitive capacity in the cerebellum would almost certainly have an effect on the emotional state of man.

Gurdjieff's Movements, unlike the slow movements of tai chi and yoga, are demanding physical exercises executed at what are sometimes lightning speeds. They are ideally designed to stimulate the cerebellum by putting intense demand on it. And, although it is not at all obvious (at least most of the time) to those who engage in these exercises, it's quite clear that the formation of new pathways in this part of the brain may well enhance the emotional capacity and sensitivity of those who participate in them over long periods of time.

The Movements, of course, are also performed in accompaniment to music, another element that is nearly absent from practices such as tai chi and yoga, but which is definitely known to stimulate the emotional center.

As such, when we study the known physiological characteristics of the brain, the known role of the cerebellum, and we consider one of the core aims of the Gurdjieff work -- the incorporation of emotional center into the life in a new way -- we suddenly see how utterly sophisticated The Movements are when taken from a completely new point of view, that is, the material work that they engage in in the stimulation and development of a part which is generally neglected in life. The work of the cerebellum, one might argue, is habitual, but when it is actively and deliberately stimulated, remarkable new things can take place.

Here we have stumbled across a "secret" purpose of the Movements. It is never about "doing the Movements right;" of course, if we do "do the Movements right," we see beautiful dances, and an organic satisfaction arises, but the very act of the effort -- of simply engaging in the practice -- is quite literally capable of causing physiological changes in the brain of those who engage in it. Those who practice movements may never be consciously aware of the effect they are having, at least not in the sense that they "know" what the "results" will be. Nonetheless, the activity is setting the stage, laying the groundwork, for the development of a new capacity of sensation, of a new capacity for emotion.

Readers interested in further exploration of the place of emotion in this work are invited to read the suite of essays on the subject on my page at

May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

back again

Apologies to the readership for the long delay since my last post. I have been in China, and the Chinese government has, unfortunately, blocked access to blogger (as well as facebook and several other US social networking sites.)

I will resume posting in the next few days, allowing for jet lag.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A discussion of levels

A number of different encounters over the last week have repeatedly reminded me of how poorly the idea of levels is understood in science, in the general population, and even in spiritual seekers.

I thought I might take the occasion to write an essay -- and perhaps several essays -- investigating this question of levels and how we experience it.

On Friday night, I was discussing some of the implications of the enneagram with someone who recently read my 2003 essay, chakras and the enneagram. We were discussing the implications of the conscious "shocks" and what it means that they emanate from the law of three, as is clearly depicted in the diagram.

One could say many things about this, but perhaps the simplest thing one can say is that the shocks come from another level. The "source" of the first and the second shock which help the octave to develop emanate from do; the energy needed to accomplish this comes from a higher level.

This much ought to be obvious to everyone who studies this subject: we aren't "conscious" in the sense of the way that the Gurdjieff work uses the word conscious. That is, we are not even able to engage in conscious labor, i.e., the first shock.

Conscious labor is something that works in us and is on the order of help sent to us which can move us forward.

The second shock is no different.

Man's belief that he can "do" relates exactly to this question. If man were able to provide these shocks, they would be coming from his level. And they don't. So anything that leaves us under the illusion that we are in control of the process of our inner development is -- to put it bluntly -- an illusion.

We cannot develop without help from a higher level.

Mankind makes a specialty of ascribing magical and miraculous powers to himself. The world has been treated to thousands of years of charlatans parading so-called "abilities" to heal, to cure, control, command, compel, and manipulate people and objects. The last two centuries have seen installments and sequels of this perpetual comedy, as increasingly media-savvy gurus and spiritual masters appoint themselves to supervise the development of hordes of eager pupils.

All the while, the esoteric core of every single religion has always reminded man, quietly and in a sober way, that we can't do anything without God's help. Of course, the exoteric memberships of the churches, temples, and mosques take this quite literally, but it is most important to understand it from an inner point of view, and this is exactly where we are getting it wrong in today's world, where works are mixed up like alcoholic drinks in a blender and served up in four different flavors at once, with a sprig of mint leaf. We are perpetually doomed, it seems, to seize the circumstances of this level and pretend that they can address the questions we need answered.

So the question of levels is not understood. It is not understood even by esoteric groups who think they understand it, because the only way to actually understand the different level is to encounter it in person. This is a rare and terrifying event, if the door to another level truly opens any more than a crack. That kind of experience puts a shock in a man that will humble him permanently.

My wife brought the question of levels up this morning when she began to discuss inner considering. We talked about the difference between inner considering -- which is, most of the time, a kind of self judgment -- and a sense of one's own nothingness. The two are quite different, because they are connected to different levels of experience.

Inner considering, the action of judging ourselves (or others), is a negative emotion that springs from this level. If we judge ourselves and decide that we are "bad," because we have done bad things, thought bad thoughts, and so on, we are engaging in a kind of destructive behavior that stems from automatic associations and emotions. We may feel worthless as we do this, but that is not a sense of our own nothingness. It's just feeling crappy.

To sense one's own nothingness is to have an experience that touches on another level. This is a deep and organic experience that takes us to a connection between the higher level and ourselves. It is, in other words, a religious experience, not a prosaic experience. Inner considering will always prevent us from having this kind of experience, because it is actually a form of egoism. Inner considering always puts us in front of everything else. We are the center of the universe. If we are worthless, we are the worthless center of a worthless universe, but no matter how we pitch this to ourselves, it is egoism.

To sense one's own nothingness is the beginning of a loss of egoism. It only comes when the action of higher substances in a man begin to act in the right way, so that the ego is weakened. If the ego does not become weaker, if it does not pay out some of its energy to help the essence develop, we can't become more open to higher influences.

It's a little difficult to approach this idea, because we can't go there on our own. Only many years of inner work and self observation, and the incremental deposits that that puts a man, can lead him to a place where something more becomes possible. More often than not, our impatience, our unwillingness to go well past the point where one wants to give up, is what stands in our way.

Most of the delusions that man engages in stem directly from his failure to sense quite clearly the fact that he is on this level, and that there are levels above him and below him. Unfortunately, mankind has little or no sense of this whatsoever, and an intellectual understanding of it is the next best thing to useless. One must sense this question in the organism and feel it with the emotions, not just think about it.

We need, in other words, to acquire a little humility.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

ego and essence

I had some encounters this week with a young man who has a powerful ego. They were wearying; one forgets how damaging ego really is until one sees it at its worst. The delusions are exaggerated, grotesque; and it's easy to forget that we all have this same problem. Instead, like any substance abuser pleased to find a person with a problem worse than their own, we think to ourselves, "what a jerk that guy is."

The bottom line is that personality is in a perpetual state of denial. It is an addicting substance that feeds itself. I suppose we need it; without it, many of the ugly little things we have to do to stay alive -- the compromises we make in relationships, in business, which are largely compromises between our little selves and any legitimate morality -- would become unbearably painful. It acts, in other words, like a convenient mask, a big soft covering of felt that we put between us and the reality of where we are and what we are doing.

The alternative, we are taught, is something that Mr. Gurdjieff called "essence." Now, readers familiar with the Gurdjieff work -- probably most of the readership -- will be familiar with this term.

But are we really familiar with it? What do we understand about essence?

It's easy to get drawn into theoretical discussions about essence. It takes a different kind of inner work to actually come into contact with essence, to discover how different it is than personality, and how much deeper inside the body it lives. We don't hear about this particular question in most other kinds of work. Not, at least, in the (relatively) specific terms we do in the Gurdjieff teaching.

Descriptions of essence are one thing. You get them in the texts. To have, on the other hand, an actual organic sensation of essence-- which is an entirely different entity than personality-- is a revolutionary experience. I say revolutionary, because until one has this sensation, one has no idea that there is anything other than personality. From a certain point of view, one might as well be discovering America. It's this huge, unknown continent, rich in wildlife and unknown resources, which has been there all along with no one to attend to it. And, if we are lucky, it may issue us an invitation to open its doors and explore it in person.

This is probably one of the reasons it is so difficult to transmit the ideas in the Gurdjieff work to people outside of it. Think about it. It is actually difficult to transmit the ideas to people inside the Gurdjieff work.

That's because "transmitting the ideas" isn't about transmitting ideas, it is about slowly and gently bringing people towards a state where they have a real experience of something new in themselves. This is a rare thing indeed. A very rare thing. The mind, personality, and intelligence, are exceedingly clever and persist in presenting experiences as "new" in order to defend themselves. There are any number of ways that mental or theoretical insights, connected to a set of impressive associations, can convince a person that they have achieved some new level. All of these things are, of course, delusions of one kind or another.

One experience of essence is enough to begin to strip away the delusions.

And what do we find then? Essence and ego are, for all intents and purposes, nearly opposed to one another. The growth of essence will mean the diminishment of ego. Not that we will lose ego; not that it will be destroyed. What will happen is that it will begin to shrink and assume its right place in a structure it was usurping. That happens naturally, as awareness resides more within essence, and less within personality. There is no need to "make" it happen. (That does not need we should not take care. No ego shrinks with any reasonable degree of willingness.)

So how, one might ask, do we come into contact with this mysterious property of essence? We need to do that though a connection with the organism. In order to do that, we need to study the organism.

Unfortunately, a great deal of what we all engage in when we try to attain what we call "self-knowledge" is the study of personality. We look at how we think, and our automatic behavior, ad infinitum -- we quantify them, analyze them, pick them apart and whine about them. All the while, the part of ourselves that we need to know -- the "self" that we truly can acquire something new by understanding -- goes begging.

That part, which can only be sensed by creating a stronger connection between the mind and the body -- a more intimate connection -- is asking for a kind of self-knowledge that isn't produced in the books or our ideas.

This study of the essence is, in other words, much more closely related to our study of sensation than we may suspect. Essence is not a theoretical entity. It is a living force in our bodies that we can encounter. It has an intelligence that takes in life very differently than personality.

The transmission of this "idea" usually takes many years and requires a good deal of patience. One has to work well past one's frustrations and one's perceptions of inability and negativity in order to touch something real--one must go, in other words, well past the point where one wants to give up. And in this regard, community and relationship become important supports -- a matter which is well understood in many esoteric works.

Above all, the transmission must take place between individuals working together in person. All the words in the world will not effect this transmission. This is why we need to seek each other in real life, and be together in real life, after we have read the books and the posts on the Internet.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.

Friday, October 9, 2009

What is Being?

The next issue of Parabola magazine will feature writing from the upcoming new book "The Reality of Being" by Jeanne De Salzmann, which is scheduled for publication next year -- probably in May -- by Shambhala publications.

One thing I think I should make clear. I'm making this announcement in the blog strictly because there are readers who may not hear about it through other channels. Yes, it is on the order of an advertisement, but it's simply in service to the work. The book is likely to be an important one, judging from what I know of this remarkable woman and her works.

I must also provide readers with the caveat that I have not been privileged to see or hear any material whatsoever from this upcoming book, so please don't make the mistake of thinking that anything I am about to say on this subject is colored or influenced by it. My observations are, of course, indirectly influenced by her work, in so far as all of us who study these questions work within a collective group of influences that is an amalgamation of the work of all those who went before us.

Ok, enough disclaimers, I think, to satisfy even the most rigorous "defenders of the faith."

This question of Being is central to the Gurdjieff work. It is, in its own right, as mysterious, impenetrable, and resistant to reductive analysis as the Tao, or what the Buddhists refer to as "enlightenment"-- which, to be perfectly fair, some Zen Masters say doesn't even exist.

One of the greatest difficulties all of us have in struggling with this idea is that we treat it as an idea. Being is treated as a concept, a place to go to, a state that can be attained. In a certain sense, we all view it from the perspective that we aren't there yet, but we could get there, if we only tried hard enough. Or something like that.

As though we weren't already Being, whether we want to or not.

One of the delightful things about the Buddhist position on Enlightenment -- that is, the suggestion that it doesn't actually exist -- is that it indicates we are already there. Put in somewhat different terms, enlightenment is, viewed from the perspective of set theory, a larger set that already includes "non-enlightenment" within it. So even within "sleep"-- this lower state of consciousness that dominates us -- we participate in the total expression of a higher, enlightened state. One could alternately view it from the Hindu perspective -- everything is a dream in the mind of God. There is no way out of this. No matter which way we turn, no matter how low we sink, or high we fly, we are within the mind of God. If you will, a fragment of the mind of God.

I'm not suggesting that we use this concept stupidly, that is, as an excuse to sit on our rear ends and do nothing from within an illusion that we are "completed." It can, rather, serve as an inspiration to bring us to right now.

Right now, we are a divine expression of reality.
Right now, all of the potential that we wish we had is already there.
Right now, the higher is at work within us.

One could argue that this is delusional -- that it contradicts everything Ouspensky said about Gurdjieff's teaching: about how far we have sunk down, how messed up everything in us is, how impossible it is for men to develop, and so on and so forth. There are those who seem to delight in this rampant kind of pessimism. I'm not one of them. The motive force of Love, which creates and powers the universe, does not leave us quite so bereft as the dark ones would have us believe.

Let's instead remind ourselves of what Beelzebub says to his grandson: it's possible to have hope of consciousness. It's possible to have faith of consciousness. It's possible to have love of consciousness. That is a hopeful message, not one that leaves us begging in the dust with no bowl to put our food in. I think that that kind of positivist attitude creates more possibilities for us than a pejorative attitude towards our thoughts and circumstances that assumes they are all almost irretrievably corrupted.

Being is an affirmation of existence. Not a negation of it.

Such an affirmation cannot begin in the mind alone, nor can it be limited to it. Yes, one third of the expression of this affirmation must be undertaken by our intelligence. But the other two thirds -- an affirmation of the body, through sensation, and an affirmation of the emotional state, (perhaps through what Jeanne De Salzmann might call "sensing our lack")-- are also indisputably necessary to rediscover the compelling ground-floor nature of our existence.

Being does not arise from one center. Under the right conditions, it may "appear" within one center, but because it is missing the support of the other two centers, it is lopsided and falls over on itself the moment that it attempts to become vertical. The only way for us to discover what is called a verticality is for all three of these ordinary parts to begin to participate together.

So the idea of consciousness, the idea of Being, it's not an idea. It is an action. It is a particular process that takes place within the context of organic interaction. When the centers are more connected, this action is more possible.

We must resist studying this with the mind all the time. As counterintuitive as it may seem, we actually have to go in the other direction, away from the mind. We do not want to look this question directly in the eye, because the mind will take it from us. Instead, we want to look away--perhaps to the side-- in the way that Christ suggested. (Matthew 6:3: "But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth".)

It is only through this intentional "defusing" of the mind's interference that the right expression of the body and emotions can begin to come into play. -- well, if you are wondering what that's all about, it's rather a tricky thing, isn't it? Don't think about it. Try to sense it instead.

As I've pointed out many times before, the emotions and the body represent actual, comprehensive, and complete minds of their own within the human body. We spend so much time experiencing ourselves from directly within the mind of the intellect--identifying with it, that is-- that we are mostly unfamiliar with these other minds. We don't know that they can wake up and become conscious in their own right, and have their own conscious wish that is as strong as -- or stronger than -- the wish of the intellect. We don't invite them to come participate and support us. We don't make room for them. We don't realize that if we had their support, our work would become much deeper and more powerful.

There is a parable about where this "organic wish" needs to be born embodied in the story of Christ's birth. He was not born at the inn-- it was too crowded. The inn is the intellect, the place where personality dominates. It is already full up with residents.

The only place where something new to be born is in the stable-- the manger--that is, the place where animals are fed. That is to say, what is new in us can be born in the place where the organism is fed.

In the body.

There is room there for something new to take place, and there is, as the parable indicates, a tremendous amount of support there. It's even possible that the birth of something new in this place might attract something higher that brings great gifts (the three Kings.) But nothing can take place within the ordinary workaday environment of the inn. It's already filled. Our difficulty is that that place is where we spend all of our time. It's much more lively! Filled with interesting people, good food to eat and things to drink, lots of noise and chatter. Why would we ever want to leave there?

Why, indeed?

If we constantly bring our experience back to the practical question of the organic sensation of the body, we are constantly grounding our effort and attention within a vessel that has the possibility of receiving in a way that the intellectual mind cannot. This receiving is not accompanied by the cacophony our minds create -- the tower of Babel. It has the potential to take something in a much deeper way. A much more essential way.

The taste of this is unmistakable. It is a capacity that man has forgotten. If he remembers it even once, he will never sleep soundly again. One taste of reality will create a lifelong search within a man.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Form and Process

The title of this post reflects another entry in my series of essays on the question of outwardness and inwardness.

Form is an outward process. Form exists outside of us; in man, it is the intellectual center that imposes form. Form exists as a thing in itself (a "Ding an sich," as Immanuel Kant would have it) but it is an unlimited form, that is to say, the structure is so great that it is--as Dogen might say-- ungraspable by the mind.

The intellectual mind in man is specifically designed to shrink form down to what appear to be understandable relationships. This is kind of like taking 99% of the pixels out of a photograph so that we can comprehend it better. We may see what little is left with a great deal of accuracy, but there is so little left that we don't actually know what we are seeing anymore. The mind routinely does this when it comes to form.

A good deal could be said about how differently the emotional and physical minds in man perceive form. They don't take it in in anywhere near the same way that the intellectual mind does. They are, as it happens, more attuned to a perception based in what will be discussed below, that is, process. Animal strength and intuition is not based on form. It arises from an inner engagement with process, uncomplicated by the interference of an intellectual center.

In the process of shrinking everything down to fit within this relatively small neurological complex called the brain, we begin to believe that the representations it creates are the real world, and not just representations. (Gurdjieff called this process identification.) To be sure, it creates practical models, but only to the extent that it allows a certain kind of technical functioning within specific contexts. Everyone knows that almost every model eventually meets its own special moment of failure, because it failed to take the other 99% of the picture into account. Evolution, for example, is able to prepare a creature for almost everything it encounters in ordinary day-to-day existence, but it cannot prepare a species for asteroid impacts. (Not, at least, at the high level of violence and irregular frequency with which they occur on earth.)

Our own intellectual, emotional, and physical lives are much like this. Our forms are eminently practical, but invariably inadequate.

We never live within forms. Forms as we create them are abstractions. They are static. We only live within the organism. We live within a process, and process is in movement.

If we are engaged in the process -- if we do not apply forms so much, but rather, attend to the organic process that takes place within us -- we begin to live. We are not planning to live, we are not conceiving of how to live, hypothesizing how to live, or Monday morning quarterbacking how we have lived.

We are living.

The process of living life includes having the forms. It does not include relying upon them, solely, as an accurate guide. They are merely reference points; we are not the form. We are the process.

Process contains form, but form--although it may help describe process-- cannot contain it. Process exceeds form because it is not a static entity.

In Buddhism, and in other practices -- even in some of my earlier essays, as it happens -- the idea of abandonment of form is discussed. This sounds pretty interesting, but it isn't possible. Not in the way we think of it, at least. "Abandonment" sounds like it means "elimination," but form can't be eliminated. Instead, abandonment involves non-identification with form, non-attachment to form, not the elimination of form.

If we wanted to romanticize it, we could say that the aim is to live within an infinite variety of forms, accept them all, yet adopt none of them as ourselves. Our being is independent of form, except to the extent that it does consist of inhabiting the form of being.

To be is to live within process.

There has to be a level of trust in us in order to do this. The idea of living outside of form, of not relying on the external and our manipulation of it, but living rather within ourselves, and from an inner process, is at this point quite impossible. It requires a revolutionary rearrangement of our inner state, and that cannot take place overnight. It is a long, arduous process which must be undertaken gently and with sympathy towards both the organism and the conditions. If it's rushed or forced, it can actually damage us instead of helping us.

There is an energy available to man that can help him become more inward. All the teachings point towards this. Every single one of them, unfortunately, has become a form, and begins within each man to serve -- according to his nature -- as a crutch, rather than a limb. That is to say, the form is pasted onto the organism, it is artificial -- it is not an organic part of the practice. True "form"-- the Ding an sich of form, the a priori nature of form--is universal and infinite. All of the form that we attach to through the process of ordinary intellect is fragmentary, fractional. In this fragmentation, form has disconnected from itself.

Nonetheless, if form truly becomes a limb instead of a crutch, it is no longer a dogma we lean on. It develops a thread that reconnects it to the living process. And our work -- which is, in the end, everything we are, if we make it so -- is our form.

Our work needs to be a living thing.

How do we make our form become an organic part of our practice? What does it mean to deepen the relationship in the organism so that there is enough intimacy? How do we attend to the details of how we are within ourselves? Do we have respect for these questions?

Do we even remember that they are questions?

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Drinking God

One of the recurring miraculous images from the New Testament is the idea of water changing into wine.

Those of you familiar with the standard Gurdjieffian ouevre will recall what Maurice Nicoll said about this image, to the effect that it represented different levels of truth. In keeping with the tradition of allowing for many rich layers of interpretation within the context of allegory, there is no reason to discard this idea. However, if we want to bring it a little closer to the heart of the work, we can bring it back to the question of impressions.

Above all, learning to work is learning how to take in impressions. Now, in our ordinary state, impressions flow into us like water. They flow into us whether we are conscious of it or not. Mr. Gurdjieff pointed out that being conscious of the arrival of impressions has a dramatic effect on the way that the human organism operates. He is, so far as I know, perhaps the only spiritual teacher who ever suggested such a thing in such a specific way. Psychologists and scientists have, of course, assembled a great deal of evidence that suggests this is true, but it has never been assembled into a single comprehensive picture in the way that Gurdjieff did.

In any event, the most singular and remarkable contention G. offered us is that the human organism can undergo unanticipated and miraculous changes if the attention is applied to the place where impressions enter the organism. People who have taken drugs such as LSD certainly have an inkling of what this might mean, but it is a confused and disorganized one. Going about it this way is like opening all the floodgates on the Hoover dam when what you need to do is water your garden. In any event, the human organism has sensitivities we are unaware of in our ordinary state, and it is able to drink in impressions that fall into the body in places we are now unaware of. Much deeper places that can affect us in transformational ways, transcending our ordinary psychology, and leading us into territory that no longer admits of description in any ordinary terms.

This, it seems almost certain, was what Christ was referring to when he spoke of changing water into wine -- or did it. The water of impressions can change into a wine. That is, if the body becomes more sensitive to the intake of impressions, if they go deeper into us, the effect is much richer and more powerful. It feeds parts of us that have been starved for most of our lives. It leads us down paths we did not know existed, into places we have never seen or touched or sensed or felt.

The fact is that not all of these places will be comfortable or reassuring -- they are, after all, strange and unknown. Nonetheless, on the whole, the organism -- if it is gently led into an awareness of its own work, and not forced or pushed into that awareness, as so many works attempt to do -- will know the way it must go, and will sense the rightness of the unknown in relation to the known.

This taking in of impressions is man's primary work on the planet. Or at least, it is where his primary work begins. A man cannot begin to fill what Gurdjieff called his "Being-Parktdolg-Duty" (which, according to some are "official" interpretations, means "Duty -- Duty -- Duty," or, three centered duty) unless he lays a foundation by doing this work of taking in impressions.

I entitled this post "drinking God" because, in a certain sense, when we actively take in impressions (which has implications in relationship to suffering which I will not go into here) we are in fact drinking in tiny particles of God, which gradually coat the various inner parts of the being and render it more sensitive to receiving the vibrations of His Endlessness.

The work of a connection with sensation of the body-- to work towards developing an organic sense of being-- is a direct precursor to the effort to take in impressions more actively. Generally speaking, almost all the impressions we take in are taken in with the intellectual mind alone. The mind of the emotions and the mind of the body are not participating. This is one of the central dilemmas of our condition as it is: we ingest most of what we ingest using the mind, and mistake it for a full nourishment, instead of seeing how intensely partial it is.

One of the reasons that it is quite necessary to work in person with other people who understand this question is because it cannot really be understood or communicated by reading things. Which brings me to another thing I have noticed.

I have an almost instinctive aversion to the many forums online which discuss Gurdjieff ideas. In pondering this strong reaction, which I have almost every time I log on to one of these sites, I have often wondered if it is some form of hypocrisy on my part, since I myself write about ideas online.

I recently reached a few conclusions about this situation.

This blog is not an online forum. Comments are welcome, but not necessarily encouraged. The blog is not here for people to praise what I write, or tell me I am a blithering idiot -- both of which things have happened-- thank God, more the former than the latter. (I, after all, am human like everyone else, and do not like criticism that much.) So the blog is a bit different than forums. It is a place that one can come to quietly get something that might feed them a bit without a bunch of argument, or batting balls back and forth across the net at the tennis court.

This is a place that is supposed to offer the opportunity for something that could be contemplated.

I've got to confess, coming from a background of argumentation -- I have often said that my family should have been named the "van arguments"-- that as I grow older, I am particularly tired of long discussions that try to literally explain, or arguments that aggressively prosecute, one or another point of the Work. It seems to me that most of us would benefit from an effort at just working quietly more often.

I include myself in that observation.

Now, I have no intention of trying to squelch or even critique the active discussion and all the online forums, some of which have many earnest people who mean well. It's just that this kind of "mind exchange" is not a useful substitute for working directly, physically, with other people in your life.

Even if one is in a place where there are no Gurdjieff groups, and one may never have the chance of joining one, to just look another man in the eye when you speak to him once in a day, to speak honestly to one person, to engage in one act of generosity which is sincere and in which your being participates -- well, this is what we call work in life.

To paraphrase something that Gurdjieff once said about making money, it's fine to read things on the Internet, or in books... as long as one only does it with one's left foot.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.

Monday, September 28, 2009

in the midst of life

I haven't contributed to the blog for quite some time now. Possibly the longest since I began nearly 3 years ago. I have written so much--in some cases too much-- and I grow weary of the effort. Compounding the situation is the fact that a great deal of what I am working on right now is worked on in silence, and can't be written about or even spoken of.

At the same time, I undertook this task with a sense of responsibility to the community at large, and it seems that now, when I am the least interested, is perhaps the very time that I must put the demand on myself to continue to offer something as real as I can, from what I am pondering and working on in my own life today.

In the midst of this life we live, we are all convinced that life is for the living. Life is about living, being alive, that the purpose of life is to live to the fullest.

Yes, in a certain sense, this is all true, but this is the outward understanding of life. It's only if life feeds something more inner, more organic, much deeper within ourselves, that anything real takes place. If we are outward, and we live within outwardness, we live within an illusion. It's only if life feeds the roots of our being that life is serving any actual purpose. Otherwise, it is a sophisticated kind of masturbation.

And I think it is fair enough to say that society as it stands today has developed that capacity until very little else is left. Even the things of the intellect, of culture, and civilization, that we think represent the deepest -- and loftiest -- achievements of man spring from an outward form of self love. We have built giant engines of rationalization to convince ourselves that this isn't true, and they are working quite well.

Life is not about living. Life is a process of preparing to die.

This is, of course, quite impossible to see from the perspective of youth, which believes that there is no death. As we age, however, even within the numbest of men the sense begins to develop that there is something else going on here. Questions arise. Even the rich and powerful take one step back to consider their ways. At least some of them do.

We are here to prepare to die. We are here to gather material within ourselves, to take in impressions in the deepest manner we are able, so that our soul can grow into something useful enough to be of service when it leaves this body. This opportunity will not be available when life ends. The time that men must work within themselves is now.

Now, we don't come to our impressions of life honestly. We are all messed up by the way we were raised, the values we were pumped full of -- not all of them are bad, to be sure, but we never really made them our own -- and the illusions which we feed ourselves so eagerly from our own imaginations.

All of this baggage stands between me and my ability to see something honestly.

This morning, I stood on the banks of the Hudson River at about 7:00 AM or so, and watched a tangerine sliver of sun peek out over purple rushes. The part of me that was taking in this impression more deeply was searching "the parts with all of the baggage" to try and find a way to express it, in words -- poetically -- that could bring something of it to others... and I realized that there are no words that can ever truly do this.

That moment was absolutely sacred, the light was sacred, everything was imbued with the presence of God. So I saw how things were honestly, and it became clear to me that there was no way to actually bring that to any other place or time. The honesty only existed within the witnessing, the receiving of the impressions, in that moment. Everything that could be brought away from it was a relic, an artifact.

This idea of taking impressions honestly has everything to do with the process of preparing for death. I can't really explain this effort properly in words; it is a point of work that we can only bring ourselves to through many years of suffering and effort.

I can only suggest that readers who do not understand what this process is continue their search within themselves, within what they are--how they are organically, within sensation, within their emotions--and see that the universe of meaning is built within the man, and does not--cannot-- exist outside of him.

This process of living so that we can prepare to die is a vital one. If we live to the fullest, we only live to the fullest in order to be able to die to the fullest.

Is this an accessible mystery?

Perhaps not, but it is one that we must inevitably explore--with every breath, if we are able--right until the final moments of our lives.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Yesterday, a negative comment was posted. It was, as usual, a useful moment for me, because it gave me the opportunity to see my emotional reactions and my own negativity.

I like to make negative comments a special feature in the blog. What better way to make sure the commenter's voice is heard?More often than not, in pondering such comments, an expanded set of questions is raised.

The very brief comment was about yesterday's post, "Mystery," and read as follows:

"Just another of Van Laer's (sic) self-serving screeds."

Unfortunately, in addition to overlooking the finer points of attention about how my name is spelled-- it's a SMALL "v", thank you--, the author doesn't seem to know what the word "screed" means, although they did understand that it's a put-down of some kind, which is undoubtedly why they used it.

Let's set the record straight. In general terms, the word "screed" is usually used to refer to diatribes, that is, bitter, sharply abusive denunciations or attacks, which--I think it is fair enough to say-- is hardly the category the post fell into.

Then again, if one takes only 23 seconds to read a post--which is what my tracking software indicates-- one has not spent enough time reading the post to understand its overall tone, let alone any of its contents.

The comment was, of course, posted by "anonymous."

This is how it is with all of us, most of the time. We hide behind a mask that buffers us from who, and what, we truly are, and from that imaginary position of security, where we think we are smart, we judge others. In the midst of that, most of us imagine ourselves as intelligent, sensitive, compassionate... or, more darkly, perhaps we don't. Some are criminally proud of their ability to be arrogant, dismissive, to treat other people poorly. They justify it... the intellect is very good at that. There are those who are like this, even among people who believe they are in the work, believe they are "developed."

I think this is one of the points yesterday's post tried to make: unless I am in touch with something real in myself, my behavior invariably misses the mark. For as long as I hide behind the mask of all the different selves I have, and I am not in touch with at least a tiny sliver of my true self, I am always willing to judge, and to harm the other--sometimes, even intentionally harm them.

It is only when something real touches me, and the process of a real, deep, terrifying, and anguishing inner remorse emerges within me -- such as was discussed yesterday -- that this propensity disappears. If I am in touch with anything real I cannot harm another person-- as Needleman points out in "Why Can't We Be Good?", real compassion, organic compassion, does not allow that kind of activity.

Usually, we are unable to use the better parts of our emotional center to see what a terrible mistake that is -- how every single moment that we look at others and think and react this way emotionally--by rejecting--, we are failing to see how we are.

The source of all harm to others begins right here, within this blindness of arrogance, where we presume to judge. It's a sobering fact.

There is another question that deserves examination here, and that is the question of self-service. The commenter was right; every post on this blog is self-serving.

Very little comes out of man, out of any of us, that is not self serving. We ignore this fact at our peril, and the comment very deftly highlights that point. It was also self-serving: it scratched an itch in the writer to communicate his or her inherent superiority, their position "above" where the blog post came from.

It probably made the writer feel powerful; and this is hardly unique behavior. However, as I said in July, this is not how we work. Not where I come from, anyway.

Gurdjieff said on more than one occasion that he was not interested in working with people who could not help him move his own aim forward. He was, in other words, very self-serving indeed.

There is a principle at work here: there must be an aim that serves the self. It may be a mistaken aim, a flawed one: we are hardly able to make "good" aims in our present state. We must, nonetheless, try. If we do not learn to serve ourselves responsibly and with respect, we can never learn to serve anyone or anything else--right up to and including God.

This blog is an exoteric service, to be sure. My own aim since its establishment has been to offer readers a contemporary commentary on one individual's personal experience, as viewed from the perspective of the "formal" Gurdjieff work-- the Gurdjieff Foundation membership, as opposed to the hordes of people on the internet who have never worked in a direct line, but presume to understand the work.

Every post I write attempts to serve that definitely personal aim of this "compound self" in one way or another... some well, some not so well. Serving aims in this public manner inevitably exposes one to criticisms. As an artist, writer, and musician, I am familiar enough with the process to absorb it, even though it's often unpleasant.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.