Tuesday, February 19, 2008


After a movements class last night designed specifically to humble anyone who thought they knew anything about how to "do" Gurdjieff's movements, I came home lathered in sweat, the echoes of dervish foot-stomping still reverberating through my being.

I awoke three or four times during the night -- every time, it was as though I was instantly, unnaturally wide awake -- and this morning, when the final moment of "awakening truth" arrived, it was to a condition in which I had to suffer every breath and sensation in all of its exquisite but agonizing demand.

Why do I think, in my imagination, that I live with such ease, when it is so clearly untrue? The amount of grueling physical labor that takes place in this body on the level of organs and cells is staggering, yet in general I have little respect for it. I should be thankful that parts of me have taken it upon themselves to illustrate to me just how hard this work of life is. Maybe--just maybe--I'll appreciate it all a bit more for that.

I find myself increasingly drawn into questions about inner relationships that have little or nothing to do with what is taking place outside. There was a time, when I was younger, that inner work was a perpetual footnote to my external life. Now it begins to seem, at times, as though my external life is a footnote to my inner work.

Both ideas are wrong, of course. In my own eyes, there can be little doubt that the art, as well as the science, of this work we call life is the balancing of these two elements. But I need help with that.

In inviting the Lord to rule within--"thy kingdom come, thy will be done"-- it seems as though I have to be willing to take the roof off this magnificent church I have constructed and let the sun in. My personality, my essence, my understanding, my Being-- all of these elements within need to become open to the elements. They must become willing to stand in a place where there is no shelter: where wind, rain, and sun can fall equally on them.

A willingness to be exposed in this manner is no easy thing. I'm used to keeping a solid roof over me and cowering in the darkness, cursing it. Yes, it's true: I light a few candles, but something in me senses that the reason I can't stand outside in the light is because I'd be blinded by it.

Sometimes (as in the recent picture from Antigua, above) it takes an earthquake to knock the roof off the church. Maybe it always takes an earthquake--I don't know.

I just know that once the roof is gone, it is good to stand there and look up at the blue sky.

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

Monday, February 18, 2008

First thing in the morning: Yaxha


First thing in the morning, the dim outlines of an unknown temple emerge preternaturally from jungle, fog, and mist.

There is a silence interrupted only by the drawing of breath and the beating of the heart.

It's at this very moment, perhaps, that our inner mysteries can be sensed most readily, touched most tangibly, tasted most fully.

How do we come to ourselves when we awaken?

What is the very first sense we have as we emerge from ordinary sleep?

I will offer here a set of impressions fresh, as it were, written just as I get up today.

In proper sleep, Gurdjieff advises us, the centers disconnect from one another, allowing them to rest. Investigating, verifying, I find that there is, indeed, an inner disassociation upon awakening from sleep. The inner parts are not related to one another in the same habitual or automatic manner that they are when we have been awake for an hour or two and the usual daily connections are reformed.

This means other kinds of possibilities--less habitual possibilities- exist.

In particular, for me, it is interesting to examine the exact state that I encounter upon awakening. Because the other centers are more or less quiescent (they have not "gotten up to speed," as it were) the sense of the work of instinctive center, particularly the breathing and sensation, can be examined in more detail.

This is well worth scrutiny, because in relationship to the many questions about food, how we feed ourself, and the organic sense of being which we have raised over the past year and more in this space, more is often accessible immediately upon awakening. Unlike the rest of our discombobulated parts, the instinctive center generally knows what it is doing.

If it didn't, we'd already be dead.

It's worth lying in bed at the instant upon which one awakes and checking to see the precise nature of sensation of the body. How much is there? Where is it located? Am I able to sense the body in a more complete manner? What exactly does it mean to immediately attain a complete sensation of the body?

Is that possible? Can "I" "do" that?

These questions can be raised within the context of the breath. How is the breath as it enters the body? Can I experience the manner in which it feeds the connection between the body and the mind and stimulates sensation?

The gift of air entering the body can be appreciated in a different way when the associative mind is less active. Even a fleeting sense of what this means can help provide an avenue into deeper examination of these questions.

In order to do this, as mentioned above, it is necessary to be precise. This is related to Dogen's frequent instruction to the members of his zendo to "take good care." To take good care is to examine with attention: to be interested in the details and to bring the attention to the details so that the question being examined can be examined from within, using the facility of the body and sensation itself to examine awareness, rather than the ordinary mind and the conventional associations we bring to life.

So upon awakening I invest within sensation; I invest within breathing. I examine the nature of these two fundamental principles of my existence. I see how the foundation of my being rests upon the inhabitation of the organism and the relationship between its parts--from the ground up, beginning not with the ideological constructs, but with the mechanics. Stripped of my typical associations, perhaps I can find a new appreciation for this body I inhabit.

This is not done for satisfaction or for pleasure; it is work. Experience of the body in the manner we discuss here takes us one step closer to the acceptance of our mortality. It is a sobering factor, rather than a step into the divine intoxications of a more wholly functioning spirit.

It is a way of deepening for ourselves the question of always sensing our mortality--an action which Gurdjieff cited as perhaps one of the few things that might yet save mankind from itself in its steady deterioration into spiritual oblivion.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of singing and dancing on the way to the grave, but it pays to keep our destination in mind,

...lest we act a bit too much the fool.

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

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Inner and outer sensation

There is an unfortunate tendency to resort to reductive analysis in order to understand where we are, what we are, and what we are doing.

Writing this blog inevitably feeds that tendency. Reading it does the same. The only hope we have is that, in addition to the good food for the mind that can be encountered in writing and exchange of this sort, something tangible and practical is occasionally offered, or the reader (or writer) manages to connect something that is said to something practical, i.e., related to practice, within their own work.

I say this because in the end the work that we engage in must be eminently practical. That is to say it must be immediate, of the now, within the moment, and be composed above all of an organic experience, a tangibly physical encounter with life which also carries within it reasonably balanced components of the mind and feeling, that is, real emotion.

We need, in other words, to sense our lives.

Every once in awhile I arrive at a point of work where a suggestion arises that points towards something a bit new and a bit different. Today I will discuss one such point.

Readers who follow this blog will know that for some months now we have examined the theme of the "coarse" five outer senses (the five ordinary senses of taste, touch, hearing, sight, smell) and the "finer" six inner senses, which comprise the inner structure of emotional center as delineated by Gurdjieff in the last chapter of Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. I have emphasized the need to develop an attendant discrimination in order to know the difference between these two things.

In the course of these discussions, we have also intimated that Zen masters such as Dogen probably had a similar understanding, and that the understanding of the division between the inner and outer senses is essential to beginning to sense our true nature.

A few days ago, I mentioned the "granular nature of reality," that is, the possibility of the organ of the skin -- which might be considered, essentially, one of the "outer" senses, as it represents the absolute interface between the body and material reality outside of it -- receiving impressions of vibration at a very fine level. This particular kind of perception transcends the ordinary function of the skin, which is to convey what we would call touch. What I might say here is that touch is the least of what our skin is able to convey to us.

Those of you who are not very deeply into such work may not recognize it yet, but the work of sensation, which begins inside the organism in an effort to connect it, is intimately related to the question of breathing air and developing a better connection to the body. Eventually, the understanding of this work must become twofold: that is, it must involve not only the air organ that fills the vessel (the lungs) but also the organ of the skin. It is necessary to develop a capacity for feeding oneself not only through the lungs and the sensation of the inner centers as they acquire something finer for our work; the same capacity must be arrived at with the outer organ of perception and breathing, that is, the skin.

In this way, one begins to have a sense of receiving such finer impressions through the entire exterior coating of the body and, at the same time, having the prana within air feed the inner centers inside the body, so that one is being penetrated both inside and outside by a finer type of vibration.

Exercise aimed at this kind of work may be difficult. I have some ideas about it, but it is not appropriate to offer them in a blog. I can only ask readers to investigate the question of vibration and sensation in an inner sense carefully -- as Dogen would say, "I respectfully ask you to take good care" -- and then to attempt to gradually extend this understanding to the outer coating.

For those of you who like the scientific angles we occasionally examine together in this blog, let me say that the potential is there to discover that we are Klein bottles, that is, topological constructs that do not have an inside or outside, but that exist within a medium that penetrates everything on all sides. You might also say that we are vessels with both inside and outside, and that the outside of the vessel is just as important as the inside.

Coming at this from a philosophical point of view -- which brings us back to those unfortunate mental constructs that we all love to rely on, but invariably get trapped by -- the vessel is a temporary container, always.

What is within the vessel is always also outside the vessel, and what is contained will never be contained forever. The vessel receives what it is given, and offers it back up. This is the way with every vessel of any kind. In some senses, the vessel is a temporary manifestation of individuality that belies the universal properties it encapsulates. Because the vessel has an apparent "separate" temporal existence that can be perceived, the individuality appears to be concrete, but in fact it is a result of circumstance and not a reflection of the essential nature of the absolute which the vessel mediates.

Consciousness is not the vessel. It is just the steward of the vessel. The vessel -- in this case our body -- is a tool that consciousness uses in order to objectify specific sets of impressions on a temporary basis. It is, in the alchemical sense, a retort for the refinement of those impressions.

The effort to sense the inward and the outward nature of vibration within this context can help to clarify more exactly the nature of consciousness and its relationship to what we call reality.

I would not presume to tell you what this consists of, because it does not belong in a set of fancy words ...nor can it be stuffed into them.

The experience, however, which must always remain private for each individual, certainly has something to do with what Jesus did when he changed water into wine.

That seems to be a pretty good place to wrap things up and go to church on this Sunday morning in February.

God bless you all.

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

Friday, February 15, 2008

Cause and effect

In nearing the end of my extensive reading of Dogen's materials, I have just come across two of the most extraordinary chapters in his Shobogenzo, which for me once again underline the striking depth of understanding he attained.

Chapter 89 of the Shobogenzo (Nishijima and Cross translation, Dogen Sangha press, book 4) is entitled "Shinjin-Iga," or, "Deep Belief in Cause and Effect."

One more time, in this chapter, Dogen recites the classic tale of the Zen Master who stated that people in a state of great practice did not fall into cause-and-effect, and was consequently born for 500 lifetimes into the body of a wild fox. This story has many interpretations, but in Dogen's expositions he continually returns to one specific point.

We are all subject to law. Our actions do have consequences. Seeking to attain a state where this is no longer true is a deeply erroneous concept.

In tackling cause and effect, the chapter deals with other subjects as well. Those of you interested in past lives and reincarnation may find this to be of interest (page 167):

"There are those among human beings, or among foxes, or among other beings, who innately possess the power to see a while back into former states, but it is not the seed of clear understanding: it is an effect felt from bad conduct. The world honored one has broadly expanded this principle for human beings and gods; not to know it is the utmost negligence in study. It is pitiful. Even knowing a thousand lives or 10,000 lives does not always produce the Buddha's teaching."

Gurdjieff appears, generally speaking, to have had equal disdain for the value of remembering past lives. (I have heard, on the other hand, firsthand accounts reporting that G. said the concept of reincarnation is essentially true ...at least insofar as humans are able to understand such things. To be specific, he used the words "it's something like that.")

In this chapter, Dogen repeatedly cites examples where conduct--that is, the failure to practice-- results in people being born into some new form of hell. Taken as a whole, it's quite clear that he says we cannot stand still: we are always moving either upward, or downward. These words convey the very same observation that Jeanne DeSalzmann used to introduce one of the Gurdjieff movements films. She and Dogen would, I believe, have found much to agree on in this matter.

Furthermore, a state in which we empty ourselves of everything is not desirable either. On page 169, we find the following:

"Master Gengaku produces 'The Song of Experiencing the Truth," in which he says; 'Emptiness' run wild negates cause and effect; and, in a morass of looseness, invites misfortune and mistakes." Clearly we should know, the negation of cause and effect is the invitation of misfortune and mistakes... to say there is no cause and effect is just non-Buddhism."

It's necessary to read the entire chapter -- which is brief -- in order to absorb the full impact of Dogen's observations about the immutability of law, the inexorable conditions under which we must work, and the dangers of a lack of rigor. He cites, in other examples, instances of accomplished masters believing they have attained a high level, when in fact all they have done is succumb to delusions and vanity which prevent them from making more efforts. In Dogen's ideal practitioner, there is always questioning, there is always the understanding that there is a lack, there is always an investment in seeing our humanity. Mr. Gurdjieff would have appreciated his message.

I meditated on this chapter this morning during my setting, and it struck me that the material helped me to understand something that has puzzled me for many years. As some of you know, I use the Lord's prayer as the opening for my morning meditation every single day, which means that I have invoked it many thousands of times. I've repeatedly studied each sentence and even word individually in an inner and outer sense in order to attempt to understand it.

I can safely report that the prayer continues to reveal new understandings even after many years of study.

The phrase "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" has always puzzled me. The temptation -- if you will excuse the reference -- is to believe in its apparent moralism. I think, now, that it rather refers to practice, and that what Dogen was talking about is directly related to this line in the prayer. To be led into temptation is to fall into the traps that Dogen outlines in "Deep Belief in Cause and Effect," and to be delivered from evil is to be spared the hell that we send ourself to if we fail to understand where we are and what we are doing. (cause and effect.)

Once again, I come away from the reading and the meditation with a deeply held understanding -- which consists of an emotional state, as well as an inner sensation and the intelligent effort to collect the meaning -- that the paramount task before us is to become human.

We must invest in our humanity, experience our humanity, live both within and outside of our humanity, accepting unconditionally the fact that we are human. It is somewhere within this deeply organic practice that we gain the transparency I spoke of yesterday, in which our awareness discovers its original nature, which is not tied to the materiality we so earnestly believe in.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bromeiliads and breathing; quantum awareness

Bromeliads are epiphytes. Like other plants, they derive their nutrition from photosynthesis, but do not sink roots into dirt--they get their water from the air. Hence their colloquial name, "air plants."

Over the life of this blog, we have examined numerous questions regarding the nature of air and breathing, as understood within the Gurdjieff system and other religious and esoteric disciplines. During the trip to Guatemala, one relatively new and, I think, interesting impression struck me.

On Tuesday morning last week, we were driving in the car towards Yaxha, one of the larger Mayan cities near Tikal.

The way that the world was arriving in my organism that morning had a remarkable and unique sensation to it: a sensation not completely unfamiliar, but one that, as it deepens over time, provokes a different level of understanding about the entire phenomenon of physical sensation itself.

I described it to my wife Neal as the impression of experiencing reality as being "granular" in nature.

As usual, the words basically fail to meet need, but words are all we have.

It goes something like this. "Reality" itself is a "soup:" it is composed of an infinite number of tiny "particles", or grains, each one of which is in fact a vibrational interaction. The particles are too fine to see, are constantly in motion, and forever undergoing transformation. But they are there: a veritable sea which we inhabit, a sea of fineness of impression which we are, generally speaking, much too coarse to perceive.

Consciousness arises directly from this ocean of interactions; it is an intimate part of it: cannot be separated from it. There is, in other words, no difference between consciousness and non-consciousness; all "mind" and "not--mind" arises from and exists within the same endless medium. At the quantum level, distinctions and boundaries cannot even be visible.

Hence the division between mind and not-mind absolutely must, as the Zen masters indicate, be artificial: even from a strictly scientific point of view.

Our organism has the ability to sense this. We don't need to take a drug like LSD to do it; of course, that will work, but the organism has the ability to perceive this without the addition of any artificial chemicals. It becomes a matter of doing enough inner work to become sensitive to the possibility.

A good deal of this has to do with the ingestion of the sacred substance oft referred to as "prana," and putting the intention and the attention at the point where air enters the body in order to acquire it-- a form of what is generally called "pranayama," which practice is actually closely related to the work of completing the inner octave. If it begins to work properly, the body can do a great deal of this type of work or on its own, but there is no substitute for our own effort even after that begins.

What struck me about the question on this particular morning was that air does not just enter the body through the nose, mouth, trachea, or lungs. It does not just enter the body through the inner flowers, either, although acquiring an understanding of that is relatively important.

The skin is, you see, perhaps above all a breathing organ.

The granular perception of reality is directly related to the way that the prana in air affects the body as it enters through the skin itself. That is to say, we are not just built as machines that can take in sacred substances through the "main passage" of the lungs which ultimately connects to the six sacred "points" or flowers within the body.

We are, in fact, sponges, with the ability to absorb prana throughout the entire body, at countless individual points (probably what the yoga schools refer to as nadis) located at the breathing pores of the skin.

This aspect of absorbing reality in its entirety through the entire organism as a single organ of perception is quite interesting to me. The potential for this is certainly contained within the implications of the enneagram, but apparently the question is larger than the way I originally formulated it in various earlier essays on the subject.

So it follows from this that the body itself, which appears to us--in both ordinary sensation and in terms of its visual and physical structure--to be solid, is actually a transparent entity. This is reminiscent of many things that have been said about the nature of physical reality by Yogis, Zen masters, and Carlos Castaneda's sorceror Don Juan.

It makes perfect sense. After all, from a quantum point of view, every organism (as well as every other physical manifestation) consists of quantum interactions, that is, vibrations that resolve into a physical reality. Every cell in our body is a seething collective of quantum interactions. The quantum level, the level of vibration itself, affects everything.

What I realized here, as I contemplated the granular nature of reality, and the impressions of life as they arrived through the skin itself, is that human beings have the ability to sense things at a very, very different level. There are many intimations of this in spiritual and esoteric literature; true, none of them describe it exactly that way, but if you peel away the layers of the onion, that is what they are saying.

This is truly miraculous, is it not?-- in a state of greater refinement, consciousness is able to perceive the quantum nature of reality.

God bless you all in your various efforts today. May sacred joys and sorrows fill your life and feed your being.

And, as always,--

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Paul: Dogen: the Maya

I have been alternating my morning readings between Dogen's Shobogenzo and Paul's letters. These might seem to have little to do with each other, coming as they do from alternate traditions on opposite sides of the world. Yet, as I read, I am oddly struck by the tone and the sincerity of both authors as they speak of a spiritual search that begins within the depths of man and cannot be conducted in any other place or any other manner.

Both men emphasize over and over again: practice, practice, practice. They both emphasize what an extraordinary and amazing gift this thing we call life is, and how vital our inner approach to it needs to be. They both speak from their own direct experience about the possibility of a transformation so profound that nothing in the world can ever seen the same after it is understood.

It's odd to me that so many academics and scientists so readily dismiss the religious question. Despite the overwhelming evidence of thousands of years of experience and discussion on these matters, the reductionist faction in society insists that it is all imaginary. Subjective. If it cannot be analyzed, apparently, it doesn't exist. They would actually have us believe that the generations of great spiritual masters are making everything up. Their response to geniuses like Meister Eckhart and Dogen is encapsulated in snotty little books and sound bites that today's overstimulated, mindless media is anxious to exploit.

Maybe the reason these little men shout so loud is because they are in such a tiny minority. It's sad for them, really: they're up against billions upon billions of living people who believe in the religious experience, and approximately 10,000 years or so of human history that is largely built on this question.

What makes matters even more frustrating for them is that they think that they know everything and have everything figured out. I am often like that myself, so I can well understand their frustration and their need to attack everything they don't feel represents a valid point of view. If it were not for the terrifying shock of my own religious experience, which radically transformed everything I thought I knew and everything I believed in, I might even be on their side.

When the intellect acts alone, it acts from desperation. Most of our modern culture is built on the intellect acting alone. A very close friend of mine from my group once said that Dr. Welch told him that today's world was a picture of intellectual center run amok. Couldn't agree with him more.

OK, now we come to the Maya. Here is a third force -- from a completely different part of the world than Paul's Roman Empire, and Dogen's Imperial China and feudal Japan.

The Mayan culture grew up, so far as we can tell, completely independent of influences from the old world. Their art looks very different than old world art. Their myths appear to be very different than old world myths. Yet they managed to develop an elaborate religious culture that in many ways emulates the religious elaborations we find in the old world.

We know very little about this religion, but we do know that it was a major force in their society. On the trip, it repeatedly occurred to me that understanding the Maya hinges on understanding their religion. Just looking at architecture and histories of who killed who will not give us any real insight into what went on back then.

The lack of written texts suggests that we may never understand their religious practices in any detail, but we can make some pretty reasonable assumptions.

The first assumption is that they were a lot like we are today. This is true of most ancient cultures. Believing that distance in time, or distance in geography, produces human beings and cultures that are completely different than one another is false. Viewed from a strictly Darwinian point of view, we must argue that cultures, traditions, and societies all spring from the same basic biological roots. Because they are a product of natural selection as much as anything else, they will tend to resemble each other anywhere, and will always fulfill the same functions.

This means that we can look for similarities between completely unrelated societies and cultures with some degree of confidence.

The second assumption is that their religion had an esoteric tradition. All religions do. Like Paul, and like Dogen, they had a powerful interest in the nature of the inner man. Maybe not all their rulers did; maybe not all their people did. There was, however, a priesthood deeply interested in the varieties of religious experience. And there is one excellent piece of evidence directly at hand to support this contention.

We know that the Maya ingested hallucinogenic on a regular basis; this was a practice all across Mexico, Central, and South America, and still is today. Anyone who has taken LSD can tell you that practices of this nature will have a profound effect on one's perception of reality.

There can be little doubt that their ingestion of peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and other psychoactive compounds informed their view of the inner man, raising questions that our own counterculture raised in the 1960s. Because their own work in this area was done over centuries, under the supervision of shamans who had extensive experience, they probably achieved more profound understandings than students on a college campus can.

I came across intimations of this when I was in Guatemala. As an artist and longtime student of symbolism, I tend to look at artworks in a slightly different manner than archaeologists, professors, and your average tourist will.

What repeatedly struck me about the art of the Maya was that they often appear to depict inner structures such as flowers and Chakras, much in the same way that we see them in Hindu, Buddhist, and Babylonian and Egyptian art.

From my own point of view, the location of the symbols leaves little doubt that the esoteric students in the Americas became familiar with the inner structure of man in the same way that the old world religions did, and that they did so independent of influence from the old world.

That in itself provides some weight to the scientific argument for the existence of these things, because when two societies that are completely separated and have cannot have influenced each other arrive at the same general conclusions about these matters, it indicates that there is an objective basis to the questions.

The questions run deep. While I was on my trip, I saw a few pieces of art that bore such striking resemblances to Asian art and mythology that one would be tempted to argue there were direct influences. I feel reasonably certain there were not, which suggests to me that the Maya were well acquainted with the ideas of chakras, and the various forces that can lead to the inner transformation of man. The fact that they, like all other societies, objectified these questions in an outward manner and turned them into a form of literalism is just one more point of contact that verifies they were much like the rest of us.

In other words, when we encounter these ancient cultures, those of us conducting an inner search can perhaps begin to sense a kinship with them that transcends the mysteries left by the erosive force of time.

These were, after all and above all, human beings; and it is only in the exploration of our humanity itself that we can discover what we are.

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Paradise and purgatory

During our trip we spent several days in Antigua and Chichicastenango, where we stayed in gorgeous old-world style hotels modeled on the villas of classical antiquity. To me, the most appealing feature of this architecture is the atrium; an inner garden/courtyard centered around a fountain. Located directly off the hectic bustle of the streets, the atrium creates an immediate impression of intimacy and tranquility, not to mention beauty.

The layout got me to thinking about the meaning of the word "paradise." The original Persian word which actually means "walled garden."The concept of paradise as a walled garden includes an inner space, set apart from the outer, which has very different qualities.

The outer world is agitated, busy, noisy; the inner world, within the impregnable walls of the garden, bespeaks an entirely different set of influences.

It is a sanctuary with a profusion of flowers blooming. Surrounded on four sides by the shaded, columned darkness, it explodes with sunlight in an exuberance regulated only by the strict discipline of its structural laws. In its center lies a fountain, a place where that substance which represents the essence of life--the Tao--wells up from an invisible, but seemingly inexhaustible source.

The garden is open to the sky; surrounded on four sides by walls, the aperture represents an opening to high influences, while the garden soil and the flowers tacitly acknowledge the inevitable debt owed to the lower.

So the symbolism of the walled Garden as paradise- a place of bliss, repose and beauty—is very apropos. Paradise, you see, is not somewhere else-

it is available inside us.

On the trip, as I took in repeated impressions of the lovely tropical country and the gardens of the monasteries, nunneries, haciendas and posadas, I was struck not only by a sense of awe. Awe is merely a footnote that hints at the presence of the divine; it comes from worldly places and speaks of worldly emotions. Don’t misunderstand me: awe is good; but there is more than awe in a man, and to stop at awe alone is to remain a spectator.

So for me, awe alone offers no alms and pays no dues. In order to truly enter the garden, a different kind of feeling is needed. I have to be willing to stand naked in the midst of this magnificent purgatory. And indeed, the Holy Planet Purgatory Mr. Gurdjieff describes is this planet, this holy place--where all is beauty. Yet here we are all forced to continuously confront the reality of how far short we fall of God’s wish for us.

I am convinced that the allegory he offers us is exactly about this earth, this time, this life.

Can we sense this on the inward breath? Does the faint and perfumed scent of musk tickle our sinuses? Is that glorious, subtle fragrance of God that Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians available to us?

Does it trickle into our heart?

In seeing my condition, and all conditions that we collectively labor under, I am filled with a kind of sorrow that has no person to it- it isn’t my sorrow, it is not a sorrow of what I am, or what we are, or what “it” is.

It is sorrow and sorrow alone, and furthermore, a kind of sorrow that is not sorrowful, but contains within it the seeds of an impermissible, impossible joy: one that touches me in such a way that the only possible response is to accept the sorrow. To drink the beauty around me in a condition of suffering—of allowing life to enter.

What crude things, words, to try and grasp this mystery. Yet words are all we have.

If we tend to our walled gardens, nurse our flowers, and drink from the cool and refreshing waters of the courtyard fountain, we may find ourselves in the midst of a new kind of life.

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

Monday, February 11, 2008

A volcano, and Huang Po's One Mind

Today's photograph is of Lake Atitlan, a caldera (volcanic crater) of massive proportions with three active volcanoes on its banks.

See them? Those three huge volcanoes are just the babies; the little guys that popped up after their mother was done venting. The lake is "the" volcano; or, rather, where the volcano was before it blew its top off.

The last major eruption of this whopper occurred 85,000 years ago, and created the lovely lake, which all the other cones could probably fit into. It's safe to say this eruption--which scattered ash as far away as Florida--messed things up pretty bad. If an eruption of this size took place today, Guatemala (and the rest of central America) as we know it would pretty much cease to exist, after being carpeted in three to ten feet of ashfall. The impact of the ejecta would probably alter the world's climate for years afterwards in a dramatic manner: it might even reverse global warming.

The area is still active; chances of another eruption this large--at any time-- are good. These sobering facts inject an underlying current of unease and excitement into what is otherwise a tranquil and magnificent scene.

In some ways it reminds me of the manner in which our negativity lurks underneath our calm surface until something explodes. We all look beautiful until the s**t hits the fan, don't we?

There are many fascinating impressions from Guatemala yet to be recorded on these pages. Today, however, they will have to continue waiting in the wings. Instead, I want to bring up something that struck me very deeply while I was on the plane on the way home last night.

In reference to my many posts about the six inner flowers, consider this quote from "The Zen Teaching of Huang Po", Grove press, copyright 1958 by John Blofeld, page 51:

"The term unity refers to a homogeneous spiritual brilliance which separates into six harmoniously blended 'elements.' The homogeneous and spiritual brilliance is the One Mind, while the six harmoniously blended 'elements' are the six sense organs. These six sense organs become severally united with objects that defile them -- the eyes with form, the ear with sound, the nose with smell, the tongue with taste, the body with touch, and the thinking mind with entities. Between these organs and their objects arise the six sensory perceptions, making eighteen sense-realms in all. If you understand that these eighteen realms have no objective existence, you will bind the six harmoniously blended 'elements' into a single spiritual brilliance -- a single spiritual brilliance which is the One Mind. All students of the Way know this, but cannot avoid forming concepts of 'a single spiritual brilliance' and 'the six harmoniously blended elements.' Accordingly they are chained to entities and fail to achieve a tacit understanding of original mind."

This single passage suggests that the Zen Masters (Huang Po was second or third generation in the direct line of transmission of Mind from the sixth great patriarch of Zen, Hui Neng) fully understood the type of work delineated by Gurdjieff with his enneagram. It's very much worthy of comparison to Gurdjieff's presentation in New York in 1924 (found in the very last chapter of Beelzebub) in which he mentions the same six sensory organs. Not only that, I think the basic understanding of the six inner senses, and their corruption by the five outward senses, was clearly understood by Zen masters as well.

Admittedly, there are some few differences between the more exacting interpretations I offer and the passage in question. However, we need to understand (as the translator points out in his introduction) that Chinese characters have mutable meanings, which allow implications that may not be evident to a translator. My opinion is that because the difference between the inner and outer senses is not well understood, translators routinely assume that the five outer and the six inner senses are somehow the same sets of senses. (We do find passages in Dogen that make it clearer this is not the case.)

In my eyes, there can be no doubt from the overall gist of the passage that Huang Po was referring to the completion of the inner enneagram by separation of the inner from the outer senses.

I encourage you to do some inner spelunking and draw your own conclusions.

I don't think it's profitable to spend too much time dwelling on what the "One Mind" means. Huang Po himself discouraged his pupils from doing so, insisting it could not be defined. He avoided the question so vigorously that reading his responses can become frustrating in very short order.

Nonetheless, I think he was wise to make sure there were no definitions applied here. In our own case, it is best we proceed with the work of making our inner parts whole, without worrying about what the results will be. As I have said before, when we get to Rome, we will know why we want to be there.

The only concern I have for the teaching offered by Huang Po is that it comes quite strictly from what is well-known to be the Dhyana school of yoga, that is, the way of perfecting the intellect, or, as Gurdjieff calls it, the way of the yogi. Ergo, what we find here--as in much Zen teaching-- is a method of perfecting one center. Those of us who choose the Gurdjieff work do so precisely because our instincts tell us this is inadequate.

Consistent with my choice, I am left with the distinct impression is that enlightenment as he presents it is not enough. His work is superior: it is not ultimate.

The participation of the other two centers is essential. It is only by subjecting ourselves to the deep and profoundly transformational power of emotion that we can truly reach the heart of our humanity. And it is only with the organic sense of being, with gravity, the full sensation of the body, that we can inhabit our humanity rather than abandoning it.

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

Friday, February 8, 2008

Guatemala update

We've been incommunicado for four days, visiting Tikal, Yaxha, Antigua (of which some very interesting "more" in a later post) Chichicastenango, and now, Lago Atitlan, where the net connections at the hotel are much better.

Tuesday we started with the reassuringly sinister impression of a crocodile in the lake by the hotel. Soon enough, though, we found ourselves immersed in the ruins of Tikal, one of the largest Mayan cities during what the western world calls the Middle Ages. Tikal, a site inhabited for over 2,000 years, reached its peak during the Mayan classic period, +/-A.D. 230-900.

Despite their majestic vertical scale, the temples around the grand plaza manage to create an intimate space. They achieve this by being located close together; this was probably the nearest equivalent the ancient world ever saw to a skyscraper environment.

On the way to the grand plaza, we paused to watch howler monkeys and spider monkeys (one of the howlers was a mother carrying a baby) and marvel at a large woodpecker. During the day, wild, weird howls of the monkeys echoed through the woods as though they were the ghosts of the ancient Maya, lamenting their death from the very bowels of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.

As we walked back to the car, I remarked to Neal that the experience of the woods, the trees, the shade, the sun and the clouds seemed to me today to be just as vital and important as the imposing ruins. It’s the combination of all these things that creates a day and creates an experience: not just the dream of the long-lost Maya, or the architecture of their cities. The day needs to be drunk in as one whole thing that sinks into the soul.

It’s a thing of this time, not of times past, and yet it carries within it the connections to the past. Every tree in the area is a direct descendant of a tree that the Maya looked at: every plant, every bird, every monkey.

In attempting to understand what Gurdjieff called “the laws of world creation and world maintenance,” we attempt to understand not just the workings of the universe—that would be drawing the question in terms too narrow.

Yes, too narrow.

Understanding world creation and world maintenance involves an effort to understand all worlds: the world of now, the world of then: the world of nature, the world of the Maya, the world of the passage of time. As I stand in front of the imposing façade of temple one, I attempt to understand not only the Maya, but their connection to our own world, and how overuse of resources can lead to the collapse of civilizations. I try to understand how the vestiges of each successive generation of humanity echo down through the ages to future generations, changing how they view the world: and once again the question of what my own responsibility is arises.

I think we are all engaged in an enterprise here to “grok the planet;” to see and hear and feel and understand the wholeness of earth, the wholeness of time, and the wholeness of being—to understand these things from both an inner and an outer point of view. And I think we are here to help bind things together, to weld a new form of being and a new form of thinking into a seamless whole. The earth itself has a need, and humanity can help meet it. By seeing the connections, by using our hearts to find the connections between times, between places, between peoples.

We have the opportunity to offer ourselves to each other in the shadows these pyramids cast through time, by placing ourselves in the center of a humility acquired through perception. The perception of mortality, the perception of fragility that crumbling limestone delivers, and at the same time the perception of continuity, vitality, and abundance aroused by howler monkeys, woodpeckers, crocodiles, and orchids.

We are all in this great enterprise called conscious effort together. If we do not pull together, we will all fall apart.

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

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Guatemala: so far, so good

No, the picture's not from Guatemala... the picture is from Banteay Srei in Cambodia. But the Mayans would have liked it.

We're waiting at the Guatemala city airport for our connection to Flores; I spent a large portion of the flight here perusing several textbooks on Mayan history.

Following close on the heels of our trip to Angor Wat, several things already strike me about Mayan iconography. Even though there is scant evidence for any contact whatsoever between the Americas and Asia over the past 2,000 years, the artistic record suggests that the Olmecs, Aztecs and Mayan cultures developed a rich spiritual understanding with elements strongly reminsicent of Asian traditions.

For the inevitable skeptics, I should point out there is some legitimate evidence for historical contact between Asia and Mesoamerica, , consisting largely of several very unique clay figurines on swing seats whose posture has its counterparts only in some few examples known from China (provenance, as I recall, coastal Peru--can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum, NYC), and an extraordinary method of papermaking on the pacific coast of central America using incised paddles that is clearly related to the way it's done in Polynesia. (Article in Natural History Magazine, about ten years ago.)

Anyway, we can put the argument aside for the time being. What's interesting is the possibility that experience in these areas is the same everywhere--that is, as Mr. Gurdjieff said, once one reaches the level of what he called "objective knowledge" there can be no disagreement. It's a shame, I think, that he appears to have left us no commentary on the religious practices of central and South America. They seem to be entirely absent from Beelzebub's Tales--the only continent that earns this distinction besides, logically enough, Antarctica.

The Mayans had a rich serpent iconography which we will be discussing in future posts, since some elements of it seem to relate to the way nagas were used in Hindu art. In other words, there are many images in Mayan art which indicate an interest in the energy of the spine, as well as depicting what appear to be well-known chakra locations in highly stylized manner.

One image I have in mind, which can be found on p. 94 of Willam Coe's concise little guidebook to Tikal (now out of print, but available on the internet) depicts a figure who appears to bear a distinct resemblance to tantric art from Tibet and India showing the three channels of yogic energy which run vertically through the human body. It's populated by elaborate ornamentation in the form of demiurges and gods which probably depict the actions of various higher hydrogens on the body. Some of the imagery reminds me, of all things, of Paul Reynard's artwork, which was clearly inspired by specific inner energy experiences.

What fascinates me about this is that it seems possible the priesthoods and esoteric schools of Mesoamerica had understandings similar to those in Asia. Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan offered us some possible insights into that lost world--and, to me, it does seem reasonable to believe that these schools did not become extinct. Castaneda's insights seem too profound for mere invention.

The overarching premise here is that the Mesoamericans discovered and explored questions about the inner world, outer world, and the nature of their interrelationship, reaching similar conclusions to the Yogis, albeit with very different cultural trappings.

I think it's fairly clear they employed hallucinogens to do so; their rich and unique art echoes LSD experiences. As even Gurdjieff himself pointed out, it's possible for a wise yogi to "take a pill" that will give him the "results" he seeks.

When one combines this statement with the things Wade Davis recounts in his books One River and Shadows in the Sun about the contemporary practices of South American Shamans with complex concoctions made from the Ayahuasca vine and other natural hallucinogens, the suggestion that real insights were gained by this method is compelling. Those of you who haven't checked out Davis' personal accounts of these Shamans ought to; it's utterly fascinating.

All of this aside, stay tuned for impressions of Tikal and Guatemala!

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

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Electromagnetism: and Vacation in Guatemala

One member of my "Gurdjieff circle" who is exceedingly intelligent has a great interest in the idea that we do not perceive time correctly.

I completely agree with him, but it seems as though grasping this with any ordinary part of ourselves is so difficult that the subject doesn't lend itself to easy discussion.

Of more interest to me is his contention -- correct, of course -- that every known phenomenon in the universe arises from electromagnetism. Taken down to the subatomic level, everything is an electromagnetic soup. The reason that it configures itself the way it does, giving rise to what we call reality, is something that we may be able to analyze using mathematics, but will never fully understand. The phenomenon cannot be reduced; it can only be experienced. Like time, we come up with words to describe it, but all words are inadequate.

There is a third fundamental thing, like time and electromagnetism, that seems to be impossible to fully grasp, and that is gravity. Indications that gravity is actually nothing more than a bend in the space-time continuum beggar the experience of the phenomenon. Just try falling down, for example.

Pain transcends physics.

Dogen's point of view on the Dharma as a transcendental phenomenon, one that cannot be grasped in any ordinary way, holds true for all three of these forces.

Yet, dear readers, I assure you it is possible to come up against a tangible experience of these forces within the body itself.

We are, after all, entirely composed of electromagnetic forces, and we have the cellular capacity for sensing them. I do not mean that we have the mental capacity for sensing them -- that isn't the case. We have a cellular capacity, that is, something inherent within the nervous system, within the ganglia and neurons of the organism as they are distributed all over the body.

The work of sensation is an effort to connect with that experience. Sensation has many different levels; to encounter one deeper level of sensation may be quite extraordinary, but one needs a wooden dipper with a very long handle for this kind of work. Ultimately, the sensation we seek resides within gravity and electromagnetism, not within our idealized perception of the concept. The whole body is a magnet; the whole body is a weight. Every cell can begin to attract every other cell; all the cells together can seek the planet in the same way that the soul seeks God.

These specialized parts of the nervous system, distributed all over the body, relate to what the yoga schools call nadis. In the chapter "The Holy Planet Purgatory" in his magnum opus "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," Mr. Gurdjieff explained this system as the distributed sensory parts of the emotional mind. He indicated that this was the Holy Reconciling force that acts between the Holy affirming part of the brain and the Holy Denying part of the spine.

I don't think we need to get too analytical in trying to figure out just what this means. It's much more important to connect with the breathing, to deepen the inner connections, to cultivate the inner state, and to seek an intimacy that may awaken the capacities we do not know we have. In order to do this, I think we have to stop believing in what lies outside us for a little while.

Not forever; after all, it, too, is part of the Dharma. But we have to penetrate the inner before we reestablish our relationship with the outer.

Once we know ourselves, and our cells know us, and all of us together know how we stand here on this planet in the midst of life, in the midst of time, gravity, electromagnetism --

Then we know something, and we can begin to know more.

Neal and I will be in Guatemala for the next week. I'm not sure how internet connections there will work out. Blog postings may be interrupted.

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

Friday, February 1, 2008

taking refuge

Chapter 88 of Dogen's Shobogenzo is entitled, "taking refuge in the three treasures."

The idea is expressed in Chinese characters which carry the literal meaning of "returning to and depending on." Let's keep that in mind as we look at the three things that we are supposed to rely on and take refuge in:

I take refuge in Buddha
I take refuge in Dharma
I take refuge in Samgha.

Taking refuge in Buddha
From what I can gather after extensive study, the Buddha may indeed be a historical personage, but in exactly the same way that Christ consciousness is not only an individuality (conscious entity,) "Buddha" is also also an energy that penetrates all living matter. "Buddha" represents something much larger than a person, even though the aspect of His person is real.

This paradoxical existence of individuality within universality does not subject itself to reductive analysis; we can only breathe the concept in and out with our experience. I have encountered the living reality of it myself, and am unable to explain how it "works," even though I know it is true.

It seems clear to me that taking refuge in the Buddha does not mean paying homage to the historical individual (even though this would be meritorious.) It means relying on and dwelling within the inner, within something higher in ourselves.

Taking refuge in Dharma
The Dharma is reality. We are asked to inhabit reality. In a world where most of us seem determined to flee reality in every way, shape, and form (especially through the abuse of media) the idea of taking refuge in reality seems peculiar, perhaps. After all, reality, in the form of time, is a ravenous beast that ultimately consumes all of us. Unsurprisingly, most of us would prefer to forget this as often as possible, in any way possible. A vast, colorful, and depraved array of human vices proves this point out quite admirably.

Yet everything we do lies within the realm of reality. Even indulging in fantasy does not remove us from reality. We could view it from this perspective: there is no escape from reality. As such, we are asked to accept reality by taking refuge in it, that is, inhabiting it. In this sense, to me, taking refuge in the Dharma implies acceptance of reality above all else.

I am moved once again to remember my teacher Betty Brown's question, "What is the truth of this moment?"

We can run but we can't hide. Reality with all its broken glass, pins, and needles needs to become our ally, not our enemy.

Taking refuge in Samgha
This means to take refuge in the community. We are asked to be in relationship with others. We come back again to the subject explored in taking refuge in the Buddha: individuality within universality.

Observe the symmetry: individuality, reality, community.

I am an individual, but I belong to a community of other individuals. Together, the community is one whole thing: it is an organism that I participate in. If I begin to understand my existence as being that of one cell in a larger organ, perhaps I can begin to see that it is not all about my individuality. Instead, every action I take contributes to the health of the whole organism. In this way, I come to a new sense of responsibility that I cannot see from the point of view of individuality alone.

Taken all together, the idea of "taking refuge" in these three aspects of existence means returning to them. The idea presents a key understanding within the Gurdjieff work: we are not "with ourselves," we are identified, we live within the external, which takes us away from what is real. That is to say, in our ordinary existence, we continually, through what Gurdjieff would call sleep, leave what is real behind us through a lack of attention.

It is in attending that we return to ourselves.

In addition, we depend on these three aspects of existence, that is, our existence cannot be there unless they, too, exist. There is a reciprocity here which reminds us of Gurdjieff's Law of reciprocal feeding. It is understood that the community feeds the individual, and the individual feeds the community.

Instead of turning away from reality, Buddhism asks us to dwell within it in acceptance.

Paul's efforts to help the Corinthians and Romans understand community from this point of view seem to approach the same question. In both cases -- Christianity and Buddhism alike -- we are informed that the approach does not begin with the way we behave outwardly.

Nothing deep and real can come from that; it is all just aping one another, the activity of the monkey mind. If that is the best we can do, I suppose we will have to settle for it -- after all, it is better to achieve peace through monkey-imitation than to have no peace at all -- but lasting peace can only come when it is born from within the flower of each soul, not copied on a Xerox machine of intellectual ideas and distributed like a pamphlet.

The most difficult thing about achieving peace of this kind is that I don't want to give anything up. I have to be willing to put everything on the table to acquire something real, and I just won't do that.

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

Thursday, January 31, 2008


Last night Neal and I were watching the show time series "the Tudors." There's a scene in the second episode between Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey where Wolsey tells More that service to one's King will always cost you what you hold most dear. More replies that for him, that would be his integrity.

The writers cleverly avoid having Wolsey deliver a reply. Instead, he offers Thomas More an arch look, implying that that is exactly what service to Henry VIII will cost.

I asked myself this morning: what, exactly, is integrity?

In general, this word means a kind of moral wholeness. In ordinary terms, integrity consists of an outward aspect: it is the moral doing of right, and this is how we always understand such things. We believe that morality, an outward code, behavior, is what establishes piety and spiritual virtue. Every religious tradition emphasizes this. Every society celebrates it. Despite their opposing points of view, it's at the heart of both the liberal and the conservative philosophies.

In reading Dogen's Shobogenzo this morning, I noted that he understands the question differently. Virtue, he maintains, does not lie in not doing bad things. Virtue is a question of inner integrity. In the particular passage I am referring to (Kuyo-Shobutsu, Shobogenzo Book 4, page 147,) Dogen characterizes virtue as arising not from doing, but from offering:

"Therefore, the virtue which is the Buddha-effect of bodhi, and the truth which is all dharmas are real form, are not as in common thoughts of common men in the world today. Commen men today think that all dharmas are real form might apply to the commitment of wrong, and they think that the buddha-effect of bodhi might relate only to gain." (Nishijima and Cross translation, Dogen Sangha Press.)

Integrity is an inward characteristic. It means that our parts are integrated. It implies a wholeness of the soul, not a wholeness of outer action. If the soul is whole, all outer action will be whole with it.

If the soul is not whole, then no amount of right outer action will ever heal it.

This brings us back to Gurdjieff's critical idea of impartiality. Understood from his point of view, if all of the inner parts are consonant, if they work together, then we acquire virtue. Virtue arises as an innate characteristic. It is born within structural state and relationship of the organism, not the fleeting emotion or psychology of man as he usually is.

Impartiality is very difficult to acquire. The structural arrangement within me is well set in the concrete of past experience; I am solid, unyielding. My concept of integrity forms around my interaction with the external, not an experience of the internal. Many shocks are needed in order to shake up this status quo. None of them are pleasant, because each one of them aims at what I think my integrity consists of.

Dealing with all this is frightening; I have to be willing to not know, willing to be insecure. And it's not my integrity, but my security I actually value the most: I'd rather be safe than be whole.

This paradox doesn't have any easy resolutions. Most of what I am forms around my fears, and my fear is always about protecting myself, protecting the way I am.

Yet, as I get older, I increasingly see that I don't actually know anything about how I am. This raises more questions. Why am I defending myself, if I don't even know what I am defending?

Oddly enough, this question helps me. This has been a week of one emotional blow after another, and today was no exception. Today I had an experience unique in the past 25 years, where a superior yelled at me not because I did something wrong, but because I properly executed my job according to ordinary standards. The situation was a surreal enough that another superior (one the yeller reports to) called me immediately after the incident to advise me that, not only was what I had done vital to the company's interests, but that I was to expand on it and try to make it happen even sooner.

My whole emotional state is singing like a tuning fork, but somehow, my realization that something new is required has given me the resilience to ground myself and sit here in the middle of it without becoming anywhere near as negative as one might expect, especially from me. I went out to my car about a half an hour ago to get lunch, and as I walked into the parking lot, I said to myself, "it's good that I'm getting yelled at. It's an opportunity for me."

I wasn't just saying it, either. I really feel that way. It's okay that I am in the middle of this intense situation. It's a moment to step over the line and adopt a new attitude towards these external events.

Certainly, part of me wants to pack up everything in my office and walk out. That's an old story.
What is far more interesting is to have enough inner integrity to suffer the blows more objectively, without so much reaction.

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Remorse of conscience

What is real remorse?

Feeling bad about the things we do is just scratching the surface. This, while it's a beginning, is a mere externalization of the issues and the problems. We might apply the old saw from psychology here: "the rejected gets projected."

Remorse over things we do reduces the argument to one of the outer: if we behave better, we will be better. Doing good and being good, however, do not necessarily have anything to do with one another. This is a matter of what is perceived, rather than what is innate.

It is not in works that we will know God. Understanding that leads in this direction must be inner, that is, innate, not "created" by the outer practice of virtue. What inner work leads us towards is an inner practice of virtue, which may be quite different than what is taking place within our outwardness. Here we meet with the Christian idea of prayers offered in secret, which are rewarded in secret.

We could get into further philosophical discussions about this, but I want to avoid that, if possible. Instead I prefer today to turn inwards, to examine what the question of remorse means from the point of view of the organism, and my relationship to myself.

Remorse is a form of payment.

It is connected to an inner work, not the outer world. Yes, it involves my relationship with the outer world, but the payment is made from within, in terms of my relationship to myself, and my relationship with God. Remorse springs directly from my lack--the way in which I fall short of my wish.

In the course of ordinary life, living in contact with my ordinary being (the outer self, or personality, which we have talked about a great deal over the last six months) my "inner self " becomes progressively soiled with the negativities and poisons of my insufficiency. Under ordinary circumstances, this seems so normal I am not even aware of it. It's possible that this ignorance is directly connected to the absence of what Mr. Gurdjieff called "an organic sense of shame," a term that is, so far as I know, unique to him. He asserts that humanity lacks this quality, which ought by rights to be inherent.

This progressive poisoning of the inner state is linked to the ideas of "karma" in Buddhism and "sin" in Christianity, but words can never quite touch the reality of these "dirty things" which fill me so completely in my ordinary life.

Do I see them? Do I suffer them? No, I celebrate them.

It's only when the inner hammer falls, when a force demands that I be relentlessly honest with myself, that I begin to sense what I am actually filled with. Because of my blindness, I don't even know it, but this is what I always work in the hopes of: to find myself directly on the anvil, willing to suffer the blows that are needed to re-shape the soul into a tool more useful than a blob of slag.

By myself I cannot even come close to doing this. It is only when an outside force descends to intervene that it becomes possible.

If the blows are hard enough, and I truly sense my sin, a real remorse of conscience for what I lack may arise.

Real humility may show itself.

Real compassion may come to visit me.

It is in the remorse, the tears, "the horror of the situation," as Mr. Gurdjieff would call it, that I can cleanse myself in preparation for something better than what I am now.

This is the refinement of gold, the heating of the crucible, the driving out of what is impure by the fires of sorrow. It is a process of transubstantiation, the alteration of inner substances into something altogether new and subtle. It is a work of the body, and the emotions:

the mind cannot grasp it.

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

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Different vibrations

I have hit a point in my personal work that's a little different than where I have been in quite some time.

On Thursday, I thought this was just a passing low, but I now realize something a bit different is afoot.

My divorce in August 1999 dealt a repeated series of intense emotional blows. I was able to bear up relatively well under the stress--thanks in no small part to the amazing support I received from family and friends--, and in many ways it was a tremendous relief to be finally out of the marriage.

Nonetheless, I went through a period for a year or more where I would suddenly burst out in tears for no apparent reason, for example, standing in the middle of the supermarket aisle in front of the produce section, when nothing in particular actually seemed to be wrong.

I have learned by now that when emotional states like that begin to manifest, they usually come because there is something inside that is hard, and cruel, and insensitive that needs to be broken.

The only way that is going to happen is by submitting, by surrendering, by experiencing the utter truth of what I am, and being willing to stand naked in the middle of my life and accept it.

Right now, I am suffering in this manner. I don't just have to see it, I have to allow myself to feel it, and admit to myself that right now, this is how this life is, and this is how these feelings are.

From this vantage point, it seems like I am the one that is lacking in every situation, even when it is other people who are being unpleasant, or unkind, or just plain ornery. I see that they cannot help how they are; they are just ordinary people, being ordinary.

If I am the one who wants to work, I am the one who has to make the choice to exercise compassion, instead of reaction, and I don't know how to do that. A new kind of vulnerability has to be offered.

This doesn't mean being stupid about life, or becoming a doormat for others. It means actually becoming sensitive and accepting. Now, we all talk about acceptance and compassion, we Buddhists and Christians and Muslims love talking about this kind of thing. I talk about it myself.
I start out quietly with the best intentions, and end up making an awful lot of noise. This does not mean that I am practicing. It means that I know the right words, not that I understand what right action is. Far too much of me is right words, and not anywhere near enough of me is right action.

Right action starts with disintegration. It starts with a vibration inside me that tells me this hard shell I wear, this aura of confidence and authority, this lack of real feeling -- as opposed to emotion, which I have in excess -- all those things have to go.

The walls of Jericho have to come tumbling down inside, not "out there" where the enemy appears to lie.

As I engage with my life and I encounter this process, sorrow arises. I am back where I was last Thursday -- I am back where I was in 1999 and 2000--I don't know where I am, or who I am. I only know that the fortress does not offer protection anymore. I cannot hide behind walls and still be alive. I need to drink from wild streams and walk through leafy forests, not hoard my treasure and man the ramparts with slings and stones and arrows.

So I tremble, I sense, I feel. I stand in front of life without my armor. I actively abandon opinions --in the immediate moment, I discover, they are worthless when attempting to deal in a real way with real human beings. My assumptions don't work -- they are all based on the false premises of my ego, which knows nothing. And in these exchanges--intimate, heartfelt, raw--I don't know what's going to happen next...

Where do I go next, as tears flow and every person takes on a new aspect that demands a different kind of contact from me? I don't know. I have to live in this body, and encounter this moment. Beyond that, all bets are off.

This is not a bad place to be. I am seated at the table of the Lord.

And here, in my experience, when the cutlery falls, when the plates are broken and the crystal is shattered, it means that a new kind of food will soon be served. One that does not rely on its dinnerware to look good, but a food that is whole within its Self, and can be appreciated for what it tastes like--

not how nice it looks when it comes out of the kitchen.

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

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Banteay Srei: Hindu Legominisms in Cambodia

Gurdjieff students who have read Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson will be familiar with the chapter "Beelzebub on Art," which discusses Gurdjieff’s concept of Legominisms, a device whereby important esoteric teachings are recorded in popular works of art so that they will survive social cataclysms where violent conflict destroys the schools or priesthoods where said teachings are passed on.

Historical Cambodia is, without any doubt, one such culture--even recently--, and at Banteay Srei we discover a prime example of the phenomenon. Strictly speaking, of course, the following examples may not precisely fit the definition of legominisms--which "ought" to illustrate the law of seven and contain lawful inexactitudes--but I think what we find here will be interesting enough to allow some leeway from all but the strictest traditionalists--and we'll have some fun while we do it.

I have provided links (blue underlined text) to several key photographs in this post which need to be clicked on in order to see the actual pictures, which are collectively posted at my other blog.

Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple about 1,000 years old in Cambodia, within a day’s drive from Angkor Wat. It’s famous because it exhibits some of the most exquisite and intricate stone carvings in the entire country—if not the world. Collectively, the carvings recapitulate a wide variety of Hindu myths. As I have mentioned in other posts, much of the iconography reveals a deep connection between the folk traditions of Hindu mythology and inner work of various kinds.

During the work weekend, my old friend Paul and I were reviewing photographs of Banteay Srei, when we noticed something rather intriguing about one of the lintels at the temple.

In this particular lintel, a God sits at the center of an elaborate, floral naga. He is interacting with two characters: an elephant, and a lion. The God may be Vishnu, but I am not an expert on Hindu iconography by any means, so I can't tell you for certain. (If we have a reader who is certain, let me know, and I will correct the text accordingly.) The important point is that each deity or God in the carvings can be taken to represent an aspect of the higher self.

What first struck me about this particular carving is that the God (we'll assume it's Vishnu for now) is clearing pushing the lion away with one hand, and “adopting” the elephant with the other.

Why would Vishnu be doing that? I asked myself.

When related to other imagery in the lintel—and elsewhere—it began to suggest a number of fascinating possibilities.

When we examine the idea of the lion, we may think of boldness, of aggression, of a predatory nature. He’s a meat—eater, a fierce and dangerous animal, and he certainly looks like one the way the artists depicted him at Bantey Srei. Perhaps, I thought to myself, the lion is a symbol of our outward being, the passions of the flesh. Clearly, Vishnu is shunning this—distinctly pushing the lion away with his left hand. On the other hand, he is grasping and adopting the elephant with his right hand. At the left and right extremes of the lintel--the outer fringes of the frieze-- the lion rides atop the elephant suggesting a domination of the inner (the elephant) by the outer. In the center--the point where the balance is found, and where the "opposing points" of the symbolic naga (which may represent the human spine) are found-- the deity is provocatively making a clear and undeniable choice for the elephant.

It’s unlikely any of this symbolism is coincidental. It’s true, of course, that traditional peoples of the regions used elephants as the “muscle” of their animal workforce, and that lions were dangerous predators to be avoided, but the repeated use of Gods in the imagery suggests that the literal interpretation carries an important underlying spiritual message.

The elephant has served as a symbol of benevolence and good fortune in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Elephants are known as emotional creatures: highly familial, social, protective of their young, loved ones, and clan. And it’s known in modern biology--as it was no doubt known to ancient peoples, who almost certainly understood nature's nuances far better than we understand them today--that elephant society is built on strong matriarchal bonds. These, when in place, ensure an intact heritage of social tradition and the effective sublimation of aggression in males into relatively non-destructive channels. [see comments in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel about the grasp of their immediate natural environment by contemporary Papua New Guinea tribesmen, as opposed to the relatively feeble understandings of westerners.]

Elephants, in other words, may represent both inwardness and inner order.

Consistent with this idea, we see a female deity- possibly Devi--elsewhere in a meditative pose, sheltered under the protective trunks of two elephants. The elephants form a "cave" of sorts, certainly intimating the presence of a sealed vessel. She appears to be taking blissful refuge in Her inwardness, practicing containment. This iamge of e meditative deity within a symbolic vessel occurs repeatedly throughout the temple.

Even more interesting to me was the use of the lion in other areas. We see the lion emerging from the mouth of a naga, or serpent. The lion is vomiting (there’s no other word for it in my eyes) what appear to be, according to doctrinaire symbolic interpretations, a chain of lotus blossoms.

I don’t think they are lotus blossoms, however; their distinct resemblance to a spinal column can’t be overlooked. Given the intimate association between nagas and the “esoteric” study of energy within the spine (see my other posts on the subject) it seems this may be no accident. We might infer, in other words, that outwardness, in the form of the lion, ejects, or wastefully spends, the energy of the spine, which rightfully belongs to the inward nature. Perhaps this is symbolic of the loss of spiritual energy through outwardess, or emotional, reaction.

In another section of the temple we see what may be Vishnu (holding a mace) triumphant on a triad of elephants, surrounded by water, on which float teams of beatific worshippers. Here is the inner spiritual seed of man elevated by intimate association of the three minds (intellectual, emotional, moving) with one another in an enclosed, nurturing environment: an environment which is hermetically sealed and does not waste its energy. The image is repeated elsewhere underscoring its symbolic importance.

Elsewhere in the temple, we see a complex allegorical image bearing an unmistakable image of a horse, a carriage, a driver, and the master of the carriage. This represents a traditional Yoga sutra which Gurdjieff adopted as a fairly central theme, recounting and discussing it a number of times in the literature that emerged from his teaching. This one is hard to miss.

The temple is rife with such imagery; a terrific place to visit, if you should have the chance.

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

Friday, January 25, 2008

The unexpected

We set out early this morning for a work weekend in Arkansas, only to find that an ice storm had delayed and otherwise scattered the participants. Instead, we spent an evening at the local home of friends in the Work, gathered around the welcome warmth of their fireplace.

The conversation turned, as it so often will, to matters of the heart.

For myself, I discussed how I used to feel that it was important to sound intelligent when I spoke.

It's still true of me: when I speak or write, I want to sound coherent, sensible, well informed. My wish is to make a favorable impression, of course--in the end, most all of us have that wish for ourselves. As I put it to my wife, exchange is always, in part, a process of recruitment- we wish to have others "on our side," we want them to come to the conversation as willing participants and even allies, in the discovery of a mutuality, a common territory of both emotion and thought--linked together by the universal body language of gesture.

So in exchange there is the aim of marking out common ground, of mutual discovery, of an interaction that feeds both parties. We wish to give--but we also wish to be sensitive enough to receive.

Well, in my own case, in general, it has "worked." Within exchange I often manage to achieve my aims, recruit favorable responses, find common ground. I am reasonably respected by my peers despite my foibles and weaknesses.

Nonetheless, when I speak in groups, I still often feel fear, especially as I first begin to speak. I find it quite difficult to speak sincerely and without fear: to speak with any real connection or presence requires that I put much more of myself on the spot than I am generally willing to reveal or to risk. I'm afraid: afraid of saying something incorrectly; afraid of making a bad impression; afraid of being honest.

We are all so judgmental of each other, so critical, so quick to dismiss and quick to reject. The discovery of trust under conditions of this kind is rare. We have all been burned enough times in life that we begin distrustful; and yet trust is perhaps the most important gift we can offer to one another, isn't it?

As I grow older, I see that it is more and more important to speak plainly; to speak as honestly as I can; to offer what I offer as simply as I can (I am poor at that, being inclined to rather intricate thoughts) and to offer it with compassion and sensitivity.

To be close to myself as I speak, to not lose the thread that connects the mind, the body, and that delicate emotional quality that keeps me aware and on my toes as I open my mouth.

Keeping close to a vibration within the center of the body can help in this.

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