Thursday, February 18, 2010


Live, from the Yucatan.

It's not really possible for any of us to absorb--in any way, shape or form--just how many human beings have lived on this planet before us, or how vast even the supposedly smaller, "less important" civilizations than our own were.

Nothing hammers that home more than traipsing for days through jungle-covered ruins where countless lost cities used to stand, a thousand years ago and more. Everything these people built for, all that they believed in--

utterly and irrevocably gone.

Yet we dare to believe we are somehow different than they were, don't we?

No human being is, in their ordinary state, capable of seeing or understanding much more than their immediate impulses or environment. Gurdjieff, recognizing this, called on men to attempt to consider the "worlds" they inhabit from as many points of view as possible. It was one way of understanding our own nothingness--our own insignificance--in the face of time and space.

Nonetheless, we find ourselves sucked into life by forces that insist to us that what we're doing matters, that the whole world turns around the tiny little axle of our own ego. The conviction in all men is that our external actions are what life is about.

Contrast this with Gurdjieff's contention that all along, man has always served to feed something higher than himself: at one time, the development of the moon; now that mankind has been freed from that responsibility, another and perhaps greater purpose. Our life is not a life to be led enslaved by external conditions; instead, it's a life aimed (should we understand its true purpose) at Being.

Being, in the truest sense, meaning to fully experience our inner state and its relationship to the external. Jeanne De Salzmann unfailingly reminded her pupils of this, over and over, during the course of her lifetime.

Despite a lifetime in the Gurdjieff work (if we are in that work, rather than some other--but I think it applies regardless) we suddenly see--as my wife said tonight while we were soaking our tired, pyramid-tested muscles in a hot bath-- that if we admit it to ourselves, we don't actually work much. Oh, we talk a good game, as Frank Sinclair often points out-- but when the tire hits the pavement, there's no pavement or tire there. That is to say, we do everything we can to avoid friction (even and perhaps especially when exchanging amongst one another) even though friction is the only thing that can create enough heat in us to motivate.

This week, ostensibly on vacation--but in reality plagued by all the stress-filled moments one gets when one is not on vacation--I see how absolutely necessary suffering is, and how absolutely necessary it is to play the role of a negative pole, here in this life, here on this planet. Working, in the context of being present to the individual suffering we encounter and rubbing ourselves up against that friction, over and over again, is the only way in which we can help prepare conditions that may attract the assistance of a higher force that can actually help us.

Do we believe that? No, we do not.

All of us live life doing everything we can to make sure the way is paved as smoothly as possible. Even the consolations of philosophy end up being a form of what Gurdjieff called "the evil inner God of self-calming." It's only by staring down the barrel of the gun, as it were, when we point ourselves directly at ourselves and confront ourselves with our own mortality-- that we begin to realize we don't have any answers, we don't know what the hell we are doing, and, furthermore, that we are far more comfortable with that than we have any reason to be.

So-- I don't want to flatter myself with the idea that I am working much. I'm lazy. I don't try very hard. It's only when I stick my hand--by accident-- into a bee's nest that I wake up for a moment and see how little I work, and how very much of me simply does not want to work.

A few summers ago Peggy Flinsch mentioned to us, during an informal gathering, that there was a time earlier in the work when she and others questioned everything.

Her inference was that we have somehow lost that ethic, if ethic it is. Perhaps it would be better to call it a practice--and to recognize that that practice very quickly falls into disrepair if we fail to exercise it.

So-- for now, at least--perhaps you will join me in wishing that we not get comfortable with any ideas about how diligent and sincere we are in our work.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

still on vacation

Yesterday we were at Uxmal... without a doubt one of the most spectacular mesoamerican sites we've ever been to. Pack your bags and go! You won't regret it. The Mayans built some of the most beautiful temple complexes on earth.

The size of the civilizations on the Yucatan is staggering. The sheer number of ruins have to be seen to be believed. Along the way we've run into many interesting architectural, symbolic, and iconographic parallels between Angor Wat and Mayan art... more on that in a future post, later this week.

Until then,

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bragging rights

The sleepy little Mexican town of Chicxulub has been in the news ever since geologists identified it as being ground zero for a meteorite impact 65 million years ago. Many (myself included) think this is what spelled the dinosaur's untimely end.

I'm wiped out from traipsing around Mexican towns and the ruins of Dzibilchaltun, so I'm not writing a formal post today, but actually standing on the spot is a thrill I thought I'd share with readers.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

One sacred moment

Our community is digging out from about 14 inches of snowfall yesterday. Since I mentioned the calm over the Hudson River before the storm in my last post, I thought I would include a picture of it here.

The picture reminds me that there are an endless series of sunrise images out there associated with sacred moments, and with God. For tens of thousands of years, man has associated the sun with God, and no matter how sophisticated religions get, this very basic and very early understanding of man remains intact.

Yesterday, when we were walking in the middle of the storm -- snow pelting our faces until we winced -- Neal was looking at the famous dog Isabel, exercising all the dog power that allows her to run around with nothing more than a coat of fur in the middle of a blizzard, and she asked me if all of Isabel's energy came from the sun.

Those who are interested in biology probably already know that there are some very few organisms on this planet (okay, well, relatively few) who derive their energy, the building blocks for their organic bodies, from non-solar sources.

These are the creatures that live around hydrothermal vents. All other organisms on the planet are, to the very last one, dependent on the Sun as the ultimate source of their energy, so we are all creations of the sun, and, perhaps even more pointedly, creations of a unique molecule called chlorophyll, with remarkable properties that allow it to bridge the gap between the quantum level and the level that we live on, that is, the level of classical reality. (Those interested in this subject can find more on it in the fine book reinventing the sacred, by Stuart Kauffman.)

So in a biological sense we quite correctly associate the sacred, the higher, with the sun, because it is the source of life.

Gurdjieff taught us that suns are sacred entities; they are, quite literally, higher beings.

All of this, of course, sounds dramatic, romantic, and wonderful, but in us "as we are," it remains an idea. Even if if we see the sun and impressions or impulses of awe and amazement enter us, they are, for the most part, taken in and mediated by our most ordinary sensory abilities.

In order to have a true experience, feeling, or impression of the sacred, one must develop a capacity for a finer kind of sensation.

This finer kind of sensation is talked about a great deal in the Gurdjieff work, but it is unlikely you'll find too much mention of it in other esoteric works, and the idea is nearly absent in most exoteric religious practices. One could think of many reasons for why that might be the case, but in the end, I suspect many other works are just not helping people to produce this capacity. If they were, the teachers would understand it and be talking about it. Instead, what we end up hearing about is a great deal of psychological and emotional material ( Please don't think I'm implying that that material is lacking. A great deal of it is certainly valid, and even helpful. My point here is that it is incomplete.) Even in Hatha yoga, where this kind of capacity clearly has to be an aim, it is not specifically addressed. At least, not in those terms... which are unique enough to the experience that one would imagine they would have to be expressed in terms of sensation... if there were any real experience of it. I speak, of course, of the organic sense of being, which is a term I have used many times in this space.

Of course, there is a great deal of talk about connection between the mind and the body out there, but exactly what kind of connection this is is, perhaps, rather poorly understood.

This business of sensation -- of a truly physically centered sense, an inner gravity, connected to both the mind and the feelings -- is, for most people, a complete unknown, and even for those who have heard about it -- people in this work, for example -- it remains, perhaps for many years or even an entire lifetime, mostly a theoretical idea.

The specific search for a connection to sensation--one of Jeanne De Salzmann's core teachings-- is central to the understanding of three centered work.

Only when the mind, the body, and the emotions participate can we discover what it means to have a truly sacred moment. It only is in those unique moments, which cannot be forced, but only prepared for, that the real capacity for man's sensory ability becomes apparent.

Man was created with the capacity, the ability -- latent in almost all of us now, of course -- to physically sense God, to emotionally sense God, to intellectually sense God.

When he does even one of these things, he understands that his place on the planet is a place of service, that he has a responsibility to something higher. But when he does all three of these things at the same time, when all of the centers work together and sense the higher simultaneously, a true experience of transformation takes place.

That sense is fundamentally unavailable to a single center. If two centers are participating, it creates a space where that sense might enter... given the participation of a third center. And the way that that process takes places is not subjective-- that is, it works in a certain way and always works in that way, and both the foundation and the effort necessary for it are consistent.

When we talk about "three centered work," in our ordinary way and with our ordinary associations, we talk about it as though we understood it and even understood its purpose; that somehow, we could stick it into ordinary life like you put a screwdriver into the top of a screw, and then turn it with ease and efficiency.

We fail to understand that three centered work is a sacred work with a sacred purpose, because we have so little real experience of it.

Real three centered work puts the sacred at the center of every moment and each movement within it. As such, chatting about it as though any of us truly understood it, or its purpose, is a disservice. A real three-centered experience is a taste of a higher level, because the harmonious functioning of the mind, body, and the emotions opens the capacity for the sensing of the sacred.

Drawing further on the biological analogy that I began this post with, we might understand it from the point of view of pores in a cell. There is a moment when all of the machinery of the cell is working properly, and an opening appears in the membrane, through which information from a higher level enters.

Suddenly, the cell senses its place. It communicates with its neighbors. It ceases to be an isolated entity, and forms a new kind of connection outside the walls that protect it. As a consequence, a new kind of nourishment becomes available.

One could certainly expand on this, but I have to wrap this up, because I have to get to work this morning. On mornings like this, after a heavy snowstorm, I feel gratitude for the fact that nowadays, my commute usually consists of turning from one computer monitor to another, rather than getting in a car and driving an hour down the Jersey Turnpike.

So, wishing all readers well in their search for Being today.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A New Box

We are awaiting a big snowstorm here in New York.

This morning, we walked the famous dog Isabel along the banks of the Hudson River, as the sun was rising.

Red bellied woodpeckers trilled to one another; golden light flooded out over the salt marsh. It was perfectly calm; the phragmites (salt marsh reeds) were eerily still. Not even a breath of wind disturbed the woods. Now, however, the sky is gray and overcast.

Consequently, I wanted to see something colorful at the top of this post. Hence a picture of my kite vendor in China. She and her husband sell all kinds of terrific kites; I brought this one home with me and will be flying it over the Hudson River on the Piermont Pier later in the spring, for anyone who wants to join me.

As cheerful as the picture looks, it appears in the context of an awful shock.

Less than a mile from here, this afternoon at 1 PM, it appears a decent young man killed himself. He was just out of high school; a personal friend of my son's. He was depressed because he had trespassed and broken a security camera belonging to the federal government while horsing around (as young men will) and they prosecuted.

He was facing a jail sentence.

One wonders how all the adults involved in this, who eagerly wanted to show this young man how much more powerful than him they were, feel about it now.

In any event, it thrusts into brutal highlight the fact that all we have is this life. Every one of us runs around flailing about as though we were important and understood things, but the only thing that we actually know is that we live.

In a supreme irony, that is the one thing we forget in the most aggressive manner possible. We don't pay attention to our lives; we don't pay attention to who we are and where we are and what we are doing. Instead, we allow ourselves to be hypnotized by every external factor that arrives at our sensory doorstep. All we do is react. The idea of right action is so foreign to us. We take actions that can lead to terrible forms of destruction, all the while thinking that what we are doing is absolutely correct.

Then, suddenly, something absolutely disastrous happens. "My goodness," we think to ourselves, "I certainly had all of that wrong."

But by that time is far too late.

Mr. Gurdjieff mentioned on more than one occasion that we need to remember our mortality. If we look at others and see, with sympathy, that every one of them is going to die--as we also will-- that everything we desire, all our wishes and hopes, will be taken away from us -- then we begin to understand, perhaps in a tiny measure, what real compassion could be. What real love might be.

The only thing we know is that we live. This is a precious thing, a real thing, and yet we become so confused that we forget we are alive. It's so obvious it becomes uninteresting. How is that possible? For a certainty, the instant one comes close to death, one sees how very interesting indeed the ordinary act of being alive is. I know that for certain, having survived a very severe car accident. Nothing looks the same after that.

So. Here we are in the midst of this very ordinary act, right now. Me, as I dictate this piece. You, as you read it. We are separated in time but together in the investigation of these ideas.

How are we?
What are we?
Where are we?

There are probably a trillion-- 10 trillion -- suggestions that claim to represent answers to these questions, but there can be no final answer, because each one of these questions states itself in relationship to a process in movement.

How we are is always changing.
What we are is always changing.
Where we are is always changing.

We are not "in" an ideology. We are not "in" a cosmology. We are in a process called life. It is idiosyncratic, messy, unpredictable, and refuses to fit properly into any of the boxes we so carefully make for it.

Caution dictates that we not make too many boxes, and that we not make them too large, or too small. Our boxes should not be too simple or too elaborate; they should be appropriate for the moment, and we should always understand that we will soon need a new box.

Over the weekend, we worked with a group in another city, and I had occasion to speak with a few people that are quite new to the work. The occasion reminded me that the simplest tools we have are still, after 30 years and more, the best ones.

An effort to attend to where I am.

In the midst of all the fancy complicated thoughts and plans, in the midst of the triumphs and disasters, in the midst of the ideologies of the cosmologies, these three things remain quite reliable.

So. Self-remembering doesn't have to be that complicated, folks.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

technical data

I'm under the impression that we often get confused between technique, and what our aim is.

For me, as I grow older, the aim is, increasingly, to live. Not to practice techniques that will allow me to live; not to learn about techniques that supposedly lead towards living. No; the aim is to live.

This aim transcends technique.

One of the signature features of Ouspensky's classic "In Search of the Miraculous" was that Gurdjieff taught him all kinds of techniques. The book itself is remarkably technical in nature, answering questions and explaining the nature of esoteric work in exhaustive detail. A lot of people get stuck on this book-- and on Ouspensky's analytical "version" of the work, convinced somehow that this is the real thing, and that anyone who deviates from it has missed the point.

Gurdjieff, on the other hand, changed his teaching methods radically as he grew older and stopped explaining everything in that way. He still gave esoteric exercises, but they were more circumscribed, and left a great deal to the student to discover. So I believe there was a recognition on his part that technique is not an answer. In a sense, at the end of his life and the end of his teaching, it turned out that he himself repeatedly did what he always exhorted his students to do: throw out the book, start everything over. One might say his teaching transitioned from one of technique to one of process.

Question everything.

Let's face it, you can go out and read any number of books by any number of yogis or spiritual masters, packed full of all kinds of techniques. If they really produced the results that are claimed, the world would be swarming with enlightened individuals, and it just isn't. The one thing that they quite definitely produce is a desire in people to act like grasshoppers, jumping from one technique and idea and practice to the next, as though it were always the next thing that was going to bring enlightenment.

There is something that, for me, misses the mark in all of this technique stuff.

The aim is to see the bark of the tree. Not to understand the technique that will allow one to see the bark of the tree.

Perhaps the difficulty is that the bark of the tree is too ordinary. It is a simple thing, if beautiful. If we really see the bark of the tree, if we really, really see it in a new way, we suddenly understand that we have never actually seen the bark of a tree.

But we don't see that. What we see is dry, brown, scabby stuff with bad-tempered squirrels running around on it.

Techniques and descriptions of techniques, on the other hand, are instantly alluring.
They are complicated.
They are attractive to the ego, which likes to show itself how very clever it is by understanding complicated things.
Techniques allow us to create "in groups" whom presume to understand something together, as opposed to the rest of those idiots, who don't understand anything. We all do this-- while solemnly swearing to ourselves that we would never, never do this.
And above all, they give us the illusion that we are powerful and can do things.

There is no doubt, I have spent plenty of time studying techniques, and I've even written about this -- in some cases, extensively. I am at a moment, however, where I doubt this enterprise, even in the case of my own work. I can go back and read anything I wrote about such work three or five or eight years ago, and poke all kinds of holes in it. Nothing that is written is complete; there is always more to add, mistakes that have been made, things that were not adequately understood then, and so on.

Looking back on what I thought I knew then, I increasingly see that everything I think I know now is suspect.

Not only that, techniques can be dangerous. I am unfortunately familiar with this problem, to the point where I have actually stopped discussing techniques I know with other people. What works for one man may not be good at all for the next one, and in any event, in the wrong hands (or at the wrong time), an excellent technique can turn into a form of inner poison. One has to be cautious, even within one's own work, in understanding this. You can't pour rocket fuel into a Honda and expect the engine to run well.

So, should we advocate the abandonment of technique?

In the more intense and esoteric instances, I think, yes. At least in this work.

One of the beauties of Gurdjieff's " harmonious development" is that it is a subtle and deep work which sidesteps many of the questions of technique. That isn't to say that it doesn't have techniques, but they are relatively simple, all things considered.

And after delving into the intricacies of enneagrams and chakras, centers and hydrogens and so on and so forth, there comes a moment where one perhaps wakes up for a minute and realizes that trees have bark on them.

One sees that the techniques, in other words, have become another form of hypnosis. And until one actually sees the bark on the tree, and understands how that seeing is real, one is convinced that seeing bark on a tree is just not enough, that much more spectacular things must be done.

Well, I don't know if I've explained this very well, but in the end, it all comes back to the organic sense of being, the inner gravity, the understanding that we have to live first.

To inhabit the organism, not inhabit the technique.

One last note: I urge my readers to check out my friend Kathy Neall's new blog, Come to Capernaum.

Kathy and I have worked together for many years. Her input has been a fundamental influence during the evolution of the Zen, Yoga, Gurdjieff blog.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Going The Distance

Let's face it, there are times when any and all of us feel distant from our work.

No matter how magical our experiences -- no matter how deep our commitment -- no matter how serene our countenance -- it is impossible to live a life where the inner tone is forever the same.

I don't think we would want to, anyway. We need the challenges that life puts in front of us. We were incarnated into these bodies and into these lives because we needed those challenges. And of course, some of the challenges are temporal in nature, that is, they are challenges in terms of money, jobs, raising children, and so on.

But there are also inner challenges.

Those inner challenges need not arise, of necessity, in relationship to the external challenges. Sometimes they are challenges that arise within the organism, of the organism, and in the context of the organism's relationship to itself.

That is, no matter how our life is arranged -- good, bad, indifferent -- the connection to one's work is lacking. Lacking, that is, more than usual.

That is not all up to us. Planetary conditions determine, to a greater extent than we can imagine, what is available for us to work with in an inner sense. So we need not feel that it is all "us" if things are going poorly in terms of our inner relationship. Some of it is the weight of that juggernaut Mr. Gurdjieff called "the ray of creation" bearing down on us. We are, as he pointed out, in a very low place. A small, dark corner of the universe. And at this time, in the northern hemisphere, solar energy is at an ebb. So some of the support we can receive just isn't available right now.

There is a temptation, at times, to feel despair in moments like this. For myself, I find myself questioning what my work is, what I have understood, what I can really bring to life. In moments like this, I am not sure of any of that. At other times, a certain form of ego -- confidence imparts the belief that I have "mojo" -- that something real is going on in me, that there is forward motion (as if such a thing existed -- does it?) and that I am, in the vulgar sense of things, "getting somewhere."

If nothing else, it is good to bottom out at the humble floor of the keg, where I sit in the dregs of what I actually am and see that I actually cannot "do." It's not up to me -- I am, in fact, just one of those helpless little "slugs" that Beelzebub spoke of so often.

I don't think we can rediscover our own effort, redouble it, make it real, if we don't constantly bounce hard off the bottom of what we really are. It's only this repeated pounding of ourselves into the floor of our lives, with the consequent pain and doubt, that begins to render us porous enough for something higher to enter us. I know for a fact, in my own case, that it was only years of being battered by objectively horrific personal circumstances than anything opened in me. (It reminds me, in a perverse way, of the way that I pound veal on the countertop until it is nicely flattened.)

So the low points are not a bad thing.

Habit and routine can help get us past the worst of these situations. The whole point of developing a discipline-- a discipline of sitting, a discipline of reading, a discipline of doing the dishes properly -- is so that when we are incapable, the discipline keeps us on track.

Today, my wife and I took the dog up the hill along the Hudson River. We do this walk almost every day. It is about 2 miles long, and it goes up a steep hill along the Palisades. The park is usually empty -- astonishingly so, for a place so close to Manhattan. We are 30 minutes from the city driving time, and here we are in the middle of a vast open space looking out over the Hudson River with a salt marsh in the foreground.

There is not a soul around us. Just trees, rocks, ice, and the odd muskrat scampering around in the reeds.

Climbing the hill is always an exercise in determination. About two thirds of the way up the hill, there is a temptation to just turn around right at the top, without going around the little circle that represents "completion" of the top end of the walk.

This is so tempting, to cut that little detail off -- to make the walk just a little bit shorter, to cheat.

Every time I do this walk, I have to force myself to make that extra little effort to go around that circle.

This is what going the distance in my inner and my outer work is like. I always want to make these grand efforts, to engage in an act of self-calming where I show myself how sincere and businesslike and capable I am, and then right at the top of the hill, when the moment of truth is in front of me, there's this temptation to not go the whole distance. To cut off some significant part of what is required, and pretend that I have done the job.

This tendency is in me all over the place, not just on walks with the dog. I have to go against it constantly -- with the dishes, with yard work, with my children, and so on.

When I hit the low points in my inner effort, and it seems as though there is no energy to do anything -- not even any energy to help me do anything -- going the distance involves being patient enough not to give up. To remind myself that I will not feel this way forever. To remind myself that there is real help out there, and that it will find me again -- find us all again -- as long as we keep to our efforts.

As we get older -- I have many of my friends are now firmly in middle age -- these low points become more daunting.

We need to collectively pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and remind ourselves ever more firmly that our efforts are not in vain.

May the Living Light of Christ discover us.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

New poetry

No new post today.

However, a general announcement that several of my recent poems are featured on the Parabola Magazine web site.

May the Living Light of Christ discover us.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

We think we're big...

Back once again from China, landing safely in the home nest. My apologies for the inevitable gap in postings which is imposed every time I go on trips.

This morning, I collected myself to sit in my usual place, rather than a hotel room. It was one of those sittings when the inner state was right on the edge of receiving something significant; not quite a moment, if you know what I mean, where one actually smells the perfume in the air, but a moment when you know that there is perfume.

What struck me this morning the most was how tiny I am.

When I was speaking about it with my wife Neal this evening, I was belatedly reminded of something I heard in a sitting 15 or 20 years ago. Peggy Flinsch led that particular sitting, and she began it by saying, "we are tiny little creatures." She said it in that crisp, objective tone of voice that has still not left her at 102 years old. It penetrated into me and has stayed there ever since. In addition, as I sit here tonight, I am reminded of something my old group leader Teal Brown used to say to the effect that we are amazingly arrogant, thinking we can achieve anything in this inner enterprise we work at.

In an aside, moments after I wrote this, my screensaver -- which randomly picks up photographs from my collection and displays them -- pull up a picture of Teal which was taken as a youngster, probably when she was in her late teens or early 20s. It's a sobering thing to see the young face of this mentor in front of me, less than a year after she died at the age of 88.

It brings me just a tiny bit closer to this work I wish to see within myself.

Our very tininess limits anything that might be possible for us, and yet almost all of us live with the absolute conviction that we are big, significant creatures. We are convinced that we are powerful, capable, and can affect things around us in a meaningful way. The fact that most of what man has done in terms of affecting things around him in a meaningful way is to destroy them may be evidence of some capability in that direction, but it is pretty meager. Nonetheless, with few exceptions each human being is convinced, in one way or another, of his or her own extraordinary significance.

The age-old teachings passed down through every religion state that men are tiny, weak, and insignificant relative to God. Those teachings are increasingly forgotten in a world where technology and media deliver a steady and utterly ruthless stream of mass hypnosis, largely designed to convince us that we are significant--and will be even more so if we do what we are told, and buy what we are told to buy.

It's only once in a while, when a smackdown event like the earthquake in Haiti takes place, that we are reminded of how helpless we actually are -- and we are helpless not just in temporal matters, we are also helpless in terms of our ability to open ourselves and receive something higher.

To be sure, it is possible for us to receive something higher. And that is the ultimate form of recognition. In fact, no other form of recognition actually matters, although I see that -- at least in my own case -- I am fundamentally convinced that ordinary, temporal recognition is what I want, despite the fact that I definitely know better.

Today, I had to ask myself why I continue to be attached to -- to cling to -- to be identified with -- this need for temporal success, for recognition from my peers for my art (well, let's be honest about it, after 40 or more years of being an artist, that's less interesting to me than it used to be), my music, my poetry, and so on and so forth.

Why do I care about that, when I already know that the only kind of recognition that matters is for the higher to see me and help me? Compared to this, all temporal activities are relatively meaningless. In a certain sense, I engage in them only to mark time while I wait for contact with an angel. (Assuming, that is, that the word "angel" is adequate to describe such an encounter -- and perhaps it is not. Substitute a special word of your own, if you wish!)

So I think I am big. And I think I need ordinary recognition here on this planet. I constantly forget--even with the eternal and daily companionship of a higher, inner force that can help me--that I am mortal, that I am tiny, and that my first aim must always be to develop my inner work. The shocking thing is that even with the taste of God firmly in my mouth, I still find myself constantly distracted by the nonsense that life relentlessly shovels at me.

So, "how can I refocus?", I asked myself today.

First of all, I must constantly remind myself that my work comes first, the devotion to God comes in front of any other activity, and that that devotion cannot be formulaic or ritualistic. That devotion only comes by standing in front of life and taking it in -- or, more accurately stated, seeing how I usually don't take it in.

Second of all, when my desires and my wishes attach themselves to temporal things, I can accept that... I can understand that... and I can even go with it, but I must know that these desires and wishes are partial, that they are uninformed and incomplete unless they are connected to the experience of an inner force which will remind me of where the actual value in life lies.

Third, I think it's a good idea to remember that I am small. Operating within that context, instead of thinking that I am some big force that can do amazing things, helps me to keep my horizon close enough to myself so that actual work can be done, instead of drifting off into dreams of the beautiful mountains in the distance.

Thoroughly jet lagged, and a bit abstracted, I think I will wrap this post up right here, lest the temptation to ramble lead me further off into the briar patch.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

another trip

The above picture is the salt marsh at the mouth of the Sparkill Creek on the Hudson River, as it looked earlier this week.

I am traveling to China for the next two weeks. The Chinese government has restricted access to blogger, so unless they have relaxed their internet policy (which seems unlikely) I will be unable to post any new entries between now and Jan. 26 or so.

If I am able to get an intermediary to act on my behalf, there may be some entries, so don't hesitate to visit from time to time.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Monday, January 4, 2010

On the "meaning" of life

This picture was taken in Italy, at Ercolano. Back in 79 A.D., the entire city was destroyed by a pyroclastic flow by the eruption of Vesuvius, bringing many lives -- and in fact, an entire way of life, for that area -- to an end.


In my last post, I mentioned the "Great Question" that originally brought P. D. Ouspensky into contact with G. I. Gurdjieff in the opening years of the 20th century. By his own admission, he did not know what life was--but was certain that behind the façades, the appearances, of what we call "life," something much deeper, much more intriguing and real, lay hidden.

All of us who come to religious or spiritual practices of any kind probably bring to them this question of what life means. The entire significance of man's existence turns on this point, and yet there seems to be an enormous confusion about it. The gravity of outside forces which pulls us out of ourselves and into influences such as politics, art, sexuality -- you name it, anything external could be put here -- takes us away from ourselves and prevents us from seeing anything real either in ourselves and other people or situations.

Gurdjieff's principal message -- which was masterfully elaborated on and deepened by the subsequent work of Jeanne DeSalzmann -- was that we are "taken"(as she put it) by outside life. We are consumed. We are eaten by the things around us. We do not own a life; life owns us. Only the act of Being-- which represents a unique affirmation of the inner life-- gives us any hope of discovering what is real.

I have been pondering this in the context of my last post, and in contemplation of the nature of Being itself.

Readers who have stayed with this enterprise for several years have, on rare occasions, heard me mention the "enlightenment experience" I had over eight years ago. I generally avoid talking about this experience because I doubt it is useful to other people. Furthermore, I ultimately and intentionally renounced its results, because I saw that living in a perpetual sea of bliss and joy was not, in fact, an answer, although many men might well take it for one.

Over the years, as I incorporated this particular experience into a lifetime of various experiences, I have understood that there are many steps and stages within the idea of "enlightenment" itself, and that one should tread very gingerly in using the word, or when one hears other people use it.

I bring this subject up principally because the experience began with the understanding that we are vessels into which the world flows.

In a very real sense, the entire question of the meaning of life turns on that specific point.

First of all, the statement is more or less scientifically true. A bit of practical thinking about it will lead anyone to that conclusion. What is extraordinary is that an entire cosmos is formed in each of us as a result of this inward flow of impressions. This is what is hidden deep within life, the truth that Ouspensky sought. The "I am" within the vessel.

This brings me to Gurdjieff's "Science of Idiotism," that is, his peculiar practice of referring to everyone as an idiot. Buried underneath the obvious mockery-- he even referred to God as the "unique" or "supreme idiot" -- is a subtlety that relates to this understanding of vessels.

The word "idiot," which now means something quite different than it used to in its original form, was originally derived from the Greek "idios," meaning something that was "private," or "one's own."

That is to say, to be an idiot was to be singular, to have a specific personal characteristic. ( And the meaning of the similarly derived word "idiosyncracy" still retains that meaning.)

Gurdjieff was probably using the term in an archaic form, which pointed towards the specific singular nature of each of our own inner cosmoses. Each one of us is an "idiot;" the vessel that we inhabit, this carnal vehicle into which all of the impressions of life are poured, forms a unique and whole set of experiences. And it is the entire contents of the vessel, this complete experience from beginning to end which we call "life," that forms what we call "meaning."

In a conundrum worthy of Zen, the entire life itself as it is experienced becomes the meaning. All the cosmoses that Gurdjieff iterated in "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson" arise from the individualized perceptions and relationships between these myriad cosmoses, at the many levels on which they arise.

Much more could be said about that, but not today.

Of course, in the case of man, hundreds and even thousands of other ideas are grafted into the experience of life. It is as though a tree, while growing, dresses itself up in the leaves of many other trees, never seeing that it is a tree unto itself, and that its own leaves are what is most real and meaningful.

It is only in the recognition of the "inner tree" as a tree unto itself that this wholeness is formed in life, and that Being can be experienced. This means that there is a need to comprehend the entirety of one's life, to know all of it within a given moment, and to see that it has been made whole. All grafted meanings fall by the wayside with one real experience of the unadulterated life itself. One such experience may open up a mystery more profound than all the invented mysteries we so routinely adopt our myriad explanations for.

One of Gurdjieff's famous adages on practice was to " use the present to repair the past and prepare the future." It is in making the wholeness of life back into a single cloth, of understanding the vessel and its contents as a single whole thing, that we begin to come to an experience of ourselves that strips away the pretensions.

In order to do this, we must swallow everything at once, disregarding the difference between bitterness and sweetness. We are made of all of ourselves, not just the parts we like or don't like.

I ponder it thusly: If we believe that we are just the parts we don't like, we are diseased; if we believe we are just the parts we like, we are equally diseased. The entire contents of the vessel must be ingested and blended. This is a heroic task that involves coming to terms with life on a more objective basis; we stand apart from all the things that have happened to us, and in a certain sense, we even begin to understand that as far as the real part of us goes, the part that lives and breathes and struggles with the absolute and terrifying fact of our mortality... well...

all these various things that have happened to us don't even matter.

That may sound radical. Modern psychology is based around the idea that we all inevitably cling to our pasts like a limpet. And indeed, for as long as we are invested in them and believe so fervently in them, they are terrific little factories for creating fear of the future.

For myself, I find that on a daily basis I must try to move past the insufficiencies of life, and into the possibilities.

Making life whole can never be based on the idea that everything that already happened is somehow weak or deficient.

There must be an understanding that everything that already happens to me is indeed exactly sufficient, unto me such as I am. The vessel contains what it contains; I am as I am, and there is no changing of the contents of the vessel. I must come to terms with that, and work with what is already in me. I may well never be able to master the art of controlling what this vessel drinks in; even if I do, how am I to know what it should contain?

Coming back to this analogy of a tree, one might say that we must put ourselves into the strength of our wood, rather than the fluttering of our leaves.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Being this way and Being that way

I always live right here, at this particular point, on the cutting edge of what has been a lifetime of extraordinary experiences.

When I ponder existence, and sense the passage of time and all the things that have taken place since I was a child, it is a cosmos unto itself -- this point of being that I inhabit is the entire universe, for this point of being. It's a mystery that cannot be penetrated, only lived within.

Recently, despite what have undeniably been many years of, among other things, the deepest joy in life, I have found myself in a state where I consistently discover that I am having negative reactions towards all the doctors of joy and doctors of happiness out there. Everywhere I turn, it seems that I am being exhorted by advertisements, books, magazines, and so on -- both secular and sacred -- to be happy, to be fulfilled, for everything to be wonderful.

I regret to report that in my experience, it is not this easy.

We need to experience the fullness of life. That fullness must include everything; it must include the "bad" as well as the "good," and it must include the full depth of experience of the "bad" along with an organic acknowledgment that this, too, is an inescapable fact of human condition that cannot be erased by feel-good philosophies.

One thing that Mme. DeSalzmann consistently said in her writings and when she spoke was that we must learn to be. She did not say, we must be this way or be that way. She simply said that we must make the effort to be.

This is distinct from the many teachings, philosophies, psychologies and religious ideas that we encounter in what one might call ordinary life. In this world we live in, we are constantly being told that we shouldn't be this way, we ought to be that way; we should be happy, not sad; fulfilled, not frustrated; and so on. In particular the Christian and Buddhist industries -- in the United States more than anywhere -- have generated a massive amount of well-meaning and heartfelt propaganda aimed at telling us how we can transform ourselves to be wonderful, for life to be wonderful, for life to be filled with joy.

Lest I begin to sound like the irascible curmudgeon that I actually am, let me state unequivocally that I fully support this idea of being joyful and wonderful and happy. I think that this is a good ordinary aim. All of us should have it.

I think the point -- at least from my perspective -- is that those of us who search, who search deeply and without any great mercy towards ourselves, for what is actually true in life are called to discover an aim that is not ordinary, but extraordinary.

That is to say, the aim is to go beyond what is ordinary in life -- the search for ordinary pleasure, which is as strong in me as in anyone -- and toward something that asks a greater question. This requires me to do something which is in itself extraordinary -- I must go beyond the bliss.

And this is not a step a man can take easily, because it demands the surrender of something magnificent in the hopes--and the risk--of going further.

Why dare do such a thing? Why would any of us give up what appears to be perfection, if we should perchance attain it?

Functioning here, as usual, as a reporter rather than as a teacher, I can't say for any other person what that greater question, that question that lies beyond the bliss and the joy, is or should be. In my own case, the question keeps changing, so that it constantly draws me deeper into this unknowing of life, this recognition that I do not know what life is despite the fact that I am constantly within it. According to his own report, that is the quintessential question that drew P. D. Ouspensky to Gurdjieff in the early years of the 20th century, triggering a series of events that changed the world of esoteric spirituality. This single question, and perhaps this question alone, has the power to change one's inner cosmos.

And it is in my ongoing movement deeper into the question of what this life consists of, with the consequent seeing of negativity -- the seeing of it, not the attempt to fix it -- yes, it is in this movement itself that I discover the act of living.

Instead of trying to be this way, or be that way, and listening to audio recordings telling us how to be, and reading books by people who supposedly know which way to be, our effort can, conversely, be reconfigured: to simply discover how to Be.

That being must be radical -- it must spring from the root -- and it must not be conditioned by expectations or statements about what it should be. It must, in a very real and practical sense, be expunged of all our ordinary expectations like happiness and unhappiness. This may sound cruel or too demanding, but those who have on occasion approached a fundamental sense of the organic depth of the sorrow of our mortality will perhaps begin to understand where I am coming from, and what I believe we must move towards.

The great Zen masters such as Dogen profoundly understood this point of work. That is almost certainly why Mme. DeSalzmann, as her work evolved, adopted the Zen practice of sitting, and made it what is now a standard fixture in the Work.

Mme. DeSalzmann was relentless in her effort to point men and women around her in this direction. This direction where we have the question of Being in front of us. Not the question of happiness; not the question of right action; not the question of what one should do or how one ought to act, but the question of how to inhabit the act of Being.

The immense gravity that the forces of ordinary life emit constantly draw us away from this question. They are of enormous power. It is only by standing in opposition to that gravity-- yes, perhaps even in opposition to these external forces that relentlessly demand that we be happy and normal and wonderful -- that we can hope to acquire something for ourselves that is real.

This does not mean that we shouldn't be happy, normal, and wonderful.


May the living light of Christ discover us.

Monday, December 28, 2009

snakes over the moon

On the heels of Christmas past--if not its ghost-- and after flying snakes over the very moon itself, some musings.

This week I was browsing through "Luba Gurdjieff: a memoir with recipes", as published by SLG books, Berkeley -- Hong Kong, 1997. Luba, for those of you new to the subject, was Gurdjieff's niece. She offers some refreshing points of view that are not colored by the Royal Keepers Of The Faith.

I came across this passage on page 11:

"I remember we girls wanted to wear lipstick. I was not allowed to wear lipstick until I was 18, but we wanted to wear it. When I was 16 we used to go out and put it on anyway and my uncle would say, "What is that rubbish on your face?"
He had a girlfriend, my uncle. She was French-Russian -- a funny woman. She wore more makeup than anyone else I've ever seen in the world. It was like paint. I would say to my uncle, "Why can she do it and not me?" He would say, "When you are her age you can whore yourself."

I was immediately reminded of the touching passages from "Beelzebub in America," in which Beelzebub encounters a young Persian man who struggles with his attraction to "woman-females," a degraded type of woman far from the pure -- if not downright puritanical -- ideal of "woman-mother."

And I thought to myself, well, well, well.

There have, by now, been far too many embarrassing peccadilloes on the part of various "spiritually developed" masters for any of us, I hope, to believe in any sense that spiritual genius-- even the genius of a man like Gurdjieff-- frees men from the confusing conditions we all face.

This remark of Luba's provoked a new line of pondering and inquiry about the overall nature and meaning of the book itself -- that is, "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson."

With the recent publication of Carl Jung's "The Red Book," the topic of allegorical autobiography is in the air. Are there parallels in Gurdjieff's magnum opus?

Well, of course, you idiot, people are going to say to me. Everyone knows Gurdjieff "was" Beelzebub. But I don't think it's quite that easily dismissed. To be that glib about it implies that we understand the subject.

In his role as narrator, Beelzebub is set apart from the ordinary sins and foibles of every man--that is to say, he offers what Jeanne DeSalzmann might have called "the look from above." Nonetheless, even he begins with a stain on his soul that was the cause of his banishment to the solar system. (...need we also remind ourselves here of the repeated and even grotesque [for heavenly beings] incompetence of Beelzebub's fellow countrymen, and at least one lofty Archangel?)

Despite Beelzebub's lofty perspective, from which he "descends" to pass various sage judgments on the "slugs," i.e., men, he is observing, one begins perhaps to get the sense that each of the characters and situations in the book represents, in one way or other, a struggle that Gurdjieff went through himself. That is to say, in addition to being a vast spiritual allegory with a depth of perception and a breadth of relationship that stitches together a staggering number of religious understandings and practices, it is a recapitulation of Gurdjieff's own life. This suggests a more compelling and intriguing text than the one--delivered in the apparently abstract, or more clinically allegorical form--that more conventional interpretations offers us.

From this perspective, we might understand that the character of Beelzebub himself represents an idealized version of what even Gurdjieff himself was aiming for, not what he had attained. We are presented, in other words, with man's two natures framed in the context of the entire structure of the book: Beelzebub as the higher nature, and the rest of the mess as the lower. Couched in the text we find out not just how difficult it was and is for mankind -- not just how difficult it was and is going to be for you, or for me -- but we also find out how difficult it was for Mr. Gurdjieff himself.

As we hear from Beelzebub himself on page 271 of "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson," These conscious observations and impartial verifications at last convinced Belcultassi that in his common presence of something was proceeding not as it should proceed according to sane being-logic."

Beelzebub experts and Beelzebub students alike, take note. If, as Orage suggested, Beelzebub has seven different levels of meaning and allegory, then an autobiographical depiction of Gurdjieff's highly personal inner struggles over the course of his lifetime may also be embedded in the book.

Indeed, psychologists (learned beings of new formation though they may be) might well support the premise that the author of any book -- no matter how conscious or unconscious he is -- puts a great deal of himself in his texts. All books are inevitably and irrevocably autobiographical, in one way or another. They spring uniquely from the being of the author themselves, and can come into existence no other way.

If we look at the book from this perspective, it may give us insight into some of the same urges, struggles, weaknesses, sins, strengths, triumphs, and defeats that Mr. Gurdjieff encountered during his own journey -- in what we might call a parallel to Carl Jung's exposé of his own inner journey through the collective unconscious in "The Red Book."

I'm not advocating revisionism here. The book still seems to me to be a totally extraordinary piece of work, and I think that trying to reduce it to any one perspective is a shamefully limiting activity. On the other hand, a call to broaden the perspective, to view the text from a more intimate and personal point of view, that is, as a document straight from the heart of the man himself, seems rather more interesting.

What does it tell us about the man himself, about his own contradictions and questions, as opposed to those of his alter ego Beelzebub?

When James Moore published his controversial -- to Foundation insiders, anyway -- biography of Gurdjieff, I found it touching. It humanized the man, took him off his pedestal, so to speak, and reminded me quite firmly that he was a man who dwelt among us, not some saint in white sheets. The reminiscences in Luba Gurdjieff's book, juxtaposed against the struggles of the young Persian man in "Beelzebub in America," remind me of this all over again.

For myself, it is in Gurdjieff's unabashed and unapologetic humanity -- his willingness to play the role of the "negative pole" in relationship to the higher -- that his true greatness resides. He did not spend time bullshitting people about how pure, compassionate, or enlightened he was. He was a gemstone with the dirt from the mine still on it, not all dressed up and faceted so that it looked good in the light.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Down to the roots

Some of us hit things for a living.

Last night I was asked by a percussionist what the Gurdjieff work was all about. I hate it when people do that; it puts me in a place where I feel as though I've been asked to explain Der Zauberberg in ten words or less.

I gathered my wits... such as I have, anyway... and explained that the Gurdjieff work is a system to discover a new way of being, a different connection to the body... it also, I continued, proposes a vast and comprehensive cosmology, but that may be almost beside the point. The cosmology, furthermore, defies compression into any brief discussion.

Those were, more or less, my "ten" words.

In examining this question of polarity... this question of negativity... we come up against over-arching philosophical questions, lofty questions that hammer against the impenetrable ceiling of what we know, and echo back down to the to empty rooms we live in without providing any clear answers.

We're left here in the midst of our own intellectual confusions, uncertainties, and questions, each one of us more than likely convinced--in one way or another--that our own particular point of view (inevitably borrowed from someone else) is the correct one.

I realized this when I considered, the day after writing my post on polarity, that it would be possible for me to write a second post, proposing a rather different cosmological premise, that contradicted some of the premises in "polarity," and that nonetheless made a great deal of sense and retained its own integrity.

Because of this dilemma--the propensity of the intellectual mind to invent multiple "solutions" to problems, to generate a diversity of explanations, experiments and hypotheses--most of us engaged in the act of inner questioning usually don't know quite which way to turn. The most sensible--the most intelligent--the most sensitive man--begins to see first of all that he isn't so sensible, intelligent, and sensitive. His ideas are not conclusions, they are explorations, and his thought process is a series of hypotheses--not all of them, unfortunately, testable. I mean, we're not going to pull out a measuring tape and find out how many inches long God's weenie is.

We discover ourselves in the midst of a process, not an answer.

One of the few comforts available for those who study and eventually accept Gurdjieff's cosmological premises is that, as he explained it, they have the benefit of being true... that they come from a higher level, "influences c" as he called them, and that they should not be confused with other cosmologies which are man's own inventions. For myself, after decades of study, I am entirely satisfied as to the truth of Gurdjieff's assertions, but of course one can hardly expect most people (who have neither the interest, time, nor patience to sort such things out) to sign on to such a proposition.

Hence the need to propose--and move on to--a new, a different, a deeper practice. It isn't, after all, the intellectual premises that we truly feed on-- even though they may be what initially attract us to this work. What we seek is, after all, truth, and truth is not and cannot be a product of the mind alone. We who are accustomed to seeking truth almost entirely within the parameters of the thinking mind, who have never paused to consider the deeper truths of the emotions, of the body, bring years of intellectual habit to the beginning of such understandings, and cling to these habits of the mind more intensely than a dog protects its bone.

But there is something inside us that allows for the possibility of a different experience. Down at the lowest levels of what we are--of our physical connection to ourselves, our inner sensation of being--there is an ability to sense and come into relationship with this experience of impressions that the body makes possible, and that in fact tethers us to the body.

This is worthy of deep study. The entire sensation of life: that is, the physical sensation of life-- is a phenomenon that is never far away from us (after all, it quite literally creates our existence) and yet rarely examined. We have the capacity to see how this is, to discover ourselves within the ongoing and irrevocable sensation of the body, and yet we do not have the inclination.

We don't see the value in it, and we don't have an interest.

Those who may have (or still do) smoke cigarettes will have a bit of an idea about this, because nicotine is an analog for one of the higher substances that makes such a connection possible. When we smoke a cigarette, we are touched by just a hint of what a real connection to sensation might be: hence its use as a sacred substance by the Native Americans, and its new role as an abused substance in modern society. (Please don't use this as an excuse to start smoking!)

This deeper connection to sensation, which needs to become active in its own right within our work--a living thing that supports our effort from its own initiative--may lead us to examine the ground floor of our connection to ourselves. This is where we can discover, as Gurdjieff explains, that there is a perpetual tension at the root of what we are. Our muscles are always inappropriately tense; as I explained in "Polarity," there is a tangible, material, physical rejection of ourselves, expressed in this tension.

Yoga describes it as the constricting serpent: a subtle, ubiquitous tension that strangles the life out of us. The idea of "kundalini," or serpent energy, is erroneous in at least one sense, because the energy of life does not belong to the serpent; the serpent is the force that blocks it. The energy itself is prana (read T. K. V. Desikachar's "The Heart Of Yoga" for a more detailed explanation of this.)

This "coiled serpent" of tension lies beneath everything we do, and even with an excellent connection to ourselves--should we be fortunate enough to develop one--, we discover that we need to take an active stance against this tension.

Only by examining it repeatedly, by being in touch with this root arising of our rejection, can we begin to take any steps towards letting it go. This is a lifelong process, because the fear within the organism repeatedly returns to this tension. And in the end, although much is indeed up to us, only grace-- in the form of a higher energy-- can fully and truly free us from this rather hellish little secret that lies at the root of our own tree.

This "attending to the root" is not an intellectual matter. The practice itself does not even really lend itself to explanations, because the only way to discover and engage in it is through an actual sensory experience; one that cannot be readily invoked by exercises or arrived at through verbal descriptions. Only a lengthy and intensive practice of self-observation can lay the foundation for the arising of the experience needed to sense this question and begin to investigate it. And once engaged, all intellectual constructions are of little use. This is an active and intimate practice, a deeper knowing of the self which eventually brings us into touch with emotional parts we do not, as a a rule, know we have.

It is the arrival of a mystery.

So while we are strongly drawn to the lofty cosmologies, the ideologies that purport to tell us how it is (or why it should at the very least be that way), we're turned in the wrong direction. We will find it more useful to throw all of that out, and to delve deep into the roots of our organism, seeing how we are from this very physical, experiential, and --yes, I do say it often--intimate point of view.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Yesterday Frank Sinclair gave me a copy of the revised (and second) edition of his book, "Without Benefit of Clergy." It contains some new material, so even for those of you who have already read it, it's well worth a second look. The preface alone--delivered succinctly, and with characteristically dry wit-- makes for a delightful read.

Now on to the meat.

I've touched on the issue of polarity a few times in the recent past, but I thought it might be worthwhile to explore the idea in more depth; this time, in the context of my wife's question of a few weeks ago, to wit, "what do we need negativity for?"

The subject of negativity is a "hot" one--both in the Gurdjieff work, and in other spiritual disciplines in general. For one thing, there's this presumption that we can rid ourselves of it... that saintly halos and angelic beatitudes await those who conquer these lower impulses we all have. For another, that our negativity is "bad," that we shouldn't be negative, that we should not express it (Gurdjieff's classic premise), etc.

So why, indeed, does negativity exist?

As I said to Neal during our morning walk a few weeks ago, negativity must exist. It is essential. Both we--and the cosmos-- need it simply because currents cannot flow without two poles to move between.

The whole universe is built this way. There's no exchange of energy without polarity: nothing happens. Material reality arises from the flow of energy and the tension between poles. If we propose a cosmos without polarity, there is no movement. It is a static entity.

So we tiptoe to what is for me perhaps the most interesting part of this question: negativity and its relationship to materiality.

We are told, in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, that God created the universe because the Merciless Heropass (time) was destroying the place of his existence. That is to say, God created materiality to counteract the effects of time. Space and time are not, in other words, a "space-time continuum." They are fundamentally different entities--wedded to one another, if you will, but with very different genetic backgrounds.

This critical distinction between time and space is more interesting than ever in light of the theories of Petr Horava, as reported in the latest issue of Scientific American. Mr. Horava's theories--which, by separating space and time at high energies, offer resolutions to some of the more perplexing contradictions between quantum mechanics and classical reality-- support Gurdjieff's vision.

We might suggest that materiality--space, the universe, all the arisings of materiality--in and of itself creates the negative "pole" which creates and supports the flow of energy emanating from God. In this model, we can envision a vast and cyclical engine created by the flow of energy from the divine, into material reality, and then back into the divine... in short, the ray of creation, more or less as Gurdjieff described it to Ouspensky.

This offers us a new point of view about materiality and its relationship to negativity--one I paint with broad brushstrokes, which will require some intuitive leaps to grasp.

So put your jumping shoes on.

In this expansive point of view, the universe of materiality itself, in its totality, is the functional "holy denying" force of the cosmos. It is roughly equivalent to "sin" in the Christian religion, or "suffering" in Buddhism. By analogy, the very expression of materiality itself becomes an anguished separation from Godhood, a "fallen" condition which must be overcome so that the higher forces which it attracts--which, indeed, it actually creates the conditions to attract--can gather and return from whence they came.

Hence, we equate materiality itself to negativity--one of the most vital forces in existence, which in and of itself creates all the possibilities for evolution. No matter what we do, the fact and consequences of materiality are inescapable. This is one of the points of Dogen's sophisticated arguments about cause and effect (per the Zen parable of the red fox, as recounted in his Shobogenzo.) It is furthermore the central axis around which St. Augustine's premise of original sin turns: we are inherently "sinful," that is, wedded to the materiality from which we spring, and fundamentally separated from God by our very physical existence, which (equally) stands as the root of our suffering, as the Buddha would have it.

In a universe that supposedly offers us the option of free will and choice, the idea of inherent sin doesn't make much sense. After all, if we can choose not to be sinful, then we are not inherently sinful. If we understand "sin", however, as being as fundamental and as simple as material existence itself-- that is, as being the negative pole that "stands against" the existence of God -- then it is indeed inherent. St. Augustine's arguments make more sense from this point of view than from any moralistic sensibility.

...Readers should take note that while I am, it is true, examining the word "sin" here in a much larger context than the narrow traditional parameters defined by "good" and "bad," the effort to reinterpret the idea of exactly what sin "is" has an equally longstanding tradition--Gurdjieff himself did it, and the question of exactly what sin consists of is still a very active one which ever lies at the root of all Christian practice.

In this regard, we discover that while we may not be what makes it possible for God to exist, our materiality itself might certainly be what makes God meaningful.

This, in turn, goes a few steps in the direction of explaining why Gurdjieff contended that God needs us as much as we need God. If we were to put our tongues in our cheeks (or, perhaps, our feet in our mouths) we might say that God needs sinners to save.

It's what keeps him busy.

This tension between materiality and Godhood serves as well as a central premise in Paul's letters, where forces of spirit and flesh find themselves in eternal opposition. Paul's continued emphasis throughout his teaching is about resolving the dilemma of material existence when measured against the Holy Spirit.

The Buddhist invocation of Dharma--truth, totality, or reality, depending on just how we choose to pitch our interpretation-- attempts to transcend the entire question of materialism by radically folding polarity, and its resolution through action, or the flow of energy, into a single whole: enlightened consciousness (=Godhood), time, and the material world, a tripartite cosmological relationship. I am not so sure there is any significant difference between this and the Christian position on this question.

Here's what I see as the central dilemma of both Buddhist suffering, and Christian sin.While we find ourselves irrevocably (until death) immersed in the flesh, a deep and unexamined part of ourselves fundamentally rejects this material condition. A tension arises because of our very refusal to accept what we are, accept the flesh, accept our separation, accept the fact that we are going to die.

So we live in a perpetual, deeply rooted, unseen, and unquestioned state of disbelief and refusal. Disobedience, in the Christian world view; suffering, from a Buddhist's point of view.
This condition is organic, in the sense that the whole organism lives in a state of inner denial about the actual conditions we are in.

Gurdjieff's conclusive admonition at the end of Beelzebub is that the greatest (and perhaps only) hope for man would be for him, during the course of his lifetime, to irrevocably and constantly sense the fact of his death.

This points us directly towards an ongoing practice which learns to accept the materiality. Admittedly, this stands in opposition to the standard religious practices of denial of the flesh... it actually, and perhaps perversely, constitutes an acceptance of the flesh... but then, of course, Gurdjieff's premise always was that the world's major organized religions had this one all wrong from the get-go.

Why, one might ask, ought this "acceptance of our materiality" make a difference?

In order to understand that, one must first ask, why are we here at all?

We are assigned a cosmological role in playing one end of a stick. In the Gurdjieffian cosmology, materiality is the negative pole which attracts the energy needed to maintain the universe. Man is in a position to play that role consciously, and it is only insofar as he does so that he attracts the "maximum" amount of higher energy, or "help", that can be mediated through his material existence. (This understanding also relates, of course, to the taoist ideas of man as a "nail" between heaven and earth.) The discerning reader may intuit other interesting parallels between various esoteric philosophies and this question of polarity and the flow of energy.

One ought, I think, to avoid philosophical discourse of this kind--and at this length--without getting back to some practical questions, that is, questions about our individual inner practice.

In order to understand this more fully, then, a conscious investment in our materiality is necessary. We must engage in sensation--inhabit what we are--be what we are, in order to play our role.

And being what we are is not trying to be angels. It is the inhabitation of the flesh, the acceptance of our inherent nature, the seeing and investment within the very fact of our material nature, our negativity, in all of its manifestations. As Martin Luther said, "since we must sin, let us sin boldly."

We have no real choice but to inhabit this material existence. Rather than escape it--escape the sensuality, the materiality, the struggle and the tension-- let us embrace it. Only by living fully within the exact conditions we are in can we fully understand that all the conditions are necessary.

Everything that is "wrong"--and right-- about material existence forms the ground floor of why we are here at all.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lost in the mind

The internet has spawned a miniature explosion of Gurdjieff Kings and miniBeelzebubs--people who post long, rambling rants of various kinds. I've come across no end of lunatic "authorities" explaining the work, what it is, where it's at, how u do it.

Call it Gurdjibabble, call it Ouspenspeak: whatever it is, I find it repugnant.

My goodness. That does sound ironic coming from someone who has spent over three years expounding on Gurdjieffian ideas on the web. Doesn't it? So let's examine the question.

We all get lost in the mind. That is to say, we inhabit the intellect in a very mechanical way: we allow it to lead us here, there, and everywhere, dreaming magnificent dreams, while we delude ourselves that we're "awake," that we have become conscious--and even (in the most pathetic cases) issue haughty proclamations to that effect.

Some have referred to this propensity as "falling asleep in the work,: that is, becoming hypnotized by the intellectual aspects of the work, failing to grasp at all what three-centered work actually consists of. It takes a particular kind of vigilance, of organic self observation, to understand how this takes place, and to see how readily the mind usurps work efforts.

An overall failure to understand the need for sensation, relaxation, and a deeper connection between the mind and the body lies at the root of this dreaming. And in the end, only an organic, living connection to sensation, in which sensation becomes an active force, can create the support needed to carry inner work forward into deeper levels.

Teachers, writers, and authorities who are not putting the questions raised by this inner practice first in their approach may be sincere--they may be knowledgeable--they may be adept--but they are not engaged in investigation at the foundation of this inner work, which is where all real work must take place. Collectively, in service to both our own aims and the greater aim of the work itself, we are building a foundation that will take many years--many lifetimes-- to complete. The foundation must be carefully attended to, because without a sound foundation, the structure we put on it will collapse.

And that foundation is built within the organism, not in texts, whether on line or on paper.

So, like alcoholics, drunk on and addicted to the fumes of our own minds, we need to adopt the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Hence, my personal aim in this blogging enterprise has been to offer short, relatively succinct observations on the work, in an accessible format. The essays have to be relatively focused and examine a particular question. Of course, each post is an essay--that is, an attempt-- and there is no presumption on my part that my aim has succeeded. Each one is a shot in the dark.

More often than not, perhaps, I miss the mark. We are all like that. As such, I claim no special authority or insight. All I have is my own not grand, but very small, insights, which are certainly not unique and all gain their perspective, as it were, by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Inevitably, a good deal of anything said about inner work is recycled: that is, it has already been said by someone else, somewhere else, and perhaps even better. This does not excuse us all from the responsibility of exchange; it does, however, put us in a position of having to be attentive and responsible to what we say. Our thinking--presuming we do any--needs to be concise and focused. We need to have a sensation of ourselves "in the marrow of our bones" as we speak or write--or even as we read. And above all, what we say ought to come (as best as possible) directly from our own work and experience, and be grounded in it. This is what gives our work a living quality. Without it, we are merely members of that very successful organization which I call the Gurdjieff Quotation Society.

Without at least an attempt at this kind of inner intimacy--at the very least an awareness that it is possible-- we're lost. Lost not in the work, but in our ideas about the work, and our endless intellectual attempts to "figure it out"-- all of which might be characterized as an elaborate trick we play on ourselves, and each other, as we wait for something real to happen.

If anything real does happen-- if we are touched by those higher forces we seek a connection with--we get a terrible shock, as we see how faulty our understanding generally is, and how very little is accomplished by all our sophisticated intellectual meanderings.

So we can attempt each day to take in a little bit about the ideas--not a lot--to be gentle and careful about it, and to remember above all to attend to the energy within the body. If we don't cultivate an inner intimacy, what I call the organic sense of Being, all the ideas we encounter are, in the end, utterly worthless.

The question immediately before us is far simpler, more profound, and more intimate, than all our cosmologies put together:

How can sensation become an active force?

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Partiality, and the place of the intellect

Even after many years in this work, I get the impression that most people don't study the work of centers very carefully, and readily fall asleep within the idea of working on this question, rather than trying to live it.

Consequently, I see people of extraordinary intelligence completely forgetting themselves, becoming entirely -- or almost entirely -- emotional, and believing that they are being rational.

I equally see people with extraordinary emotional ability using it to interpret events around them with wild abandon, assuming that what they are doing is, once again, rational.

All of this in people who presume that their effort is dedicated to seeing the difference between centers, and understanding how they operate.

Where's the intelligence?

Let's get right down to the nitty-gritty. Most of us believe everything our emotions tell us. We are downright stupid that way. I know some very few people with extraordinarily fine intelligences who reject this way of living. They, unfortunately, are equally lacking, because they fail to see the emotional content in situations. It bites them in the ass every time.

The intellect is an absolutely vital element, and in most men, it is weak and undeveloped. Being smart -- being stuffed full of facts, that is -- is not enough, not at all. We think that stuffing the mind full of facts is impressive, and have developed whole technologies around it. To be smart, however, is not to know a lot of different things. It is to have an acuity of intelligence that allows the intellect to see what is going on around us.

I am generally known as a highly intelligent man, but if I examine myself carefully, I see that the real intelligence in me is usually dormant. What people think is intelligence in me is just a very adept listing, review, and integration of stored facts. Real intelligence consists of seeing how I am in a particular moment, and I don't often do that.

I do, however, do it often enough to see that my emotions, which present themselves with absolute and irrevocable conviction at every step in my life, are basically liars that routinely come up with irrational interpretations of what takes place in life.

Yet, I trust them.

By now, at the tender age of 54, it would behoove me to develop a little bit of suspicion. Don't you think?

My emotions are extremely fast, but they often get things wrong. I spend a good part of every day, for example, watching little fears that have been manufactured by emotional center pop up in front of me. Every one of them is trying to provoke me to be fearful, to be afraid of what is happening. I play whack a mole with them all day long-- I smack one down, and another one pops up in its place.

As this goes on, I have to keep reminding myself (using my intelligence) don't be fearful. I say that to myself quite a few times a day, because I see that an enormous motivator within the negative engine in me is to have fear -- it keeps things moving. Not in a good way, but in a way that passes for living. And it seems certain to me that since my emotional center seems to enjoy fear, I should go against it. "Like what it does not like."

This is just one example. Many of the emotions that I see arising in me are bogus. They are the horse, running around in every direction towards what attracts it at the present instant. Unless the intellect becomes acute enough to observe this and go against it, I will live in relative chaos.

Mr. Gurdjieff certainly assigned the intellect this role. He advised us quite clearly that it can act as a policeman. But the policeman can't do a darn thing if he turns the other way every time the jewelry store is about to be robbed.

This means the attention within the intellect has to be on the present moment, and the work of the other two centers. For example, when the moving center is about to automatically stack two dishes on top of each other so that they may tip over, there has to be enough intelligence there to see what is happening and correct it.

I had a very interesting lapse of intellectual center yesterday which serves as an example of this kind of thing. I was at the ticket counter at the airport in Montréal. I took my wallet out -- that is, the center that is in charge of those things, moving center, took the wallet out -- and then instantly forgot it, because the moving center doesn't have much of a memory about such things.

About 5 seconds later, intellectual center looked in my pocketbook -- yes, I call it a pocket book, not a man bag -- and saw that there was no wallet in it. BANG! Emotional center exploded with fear. "OMG! I have lost my wallet!"

It took a second for the intellect to step in, say, "STOP," and then direct moving center to look on the counter... where my wallet was calmly lying.

This may seem simple, and a mere example of rather ordinary stupidity, but in fact, it is fairly representative of the way everything goes in life. One center does something, the next center doesn't remember it or know about it, and the next thing you know, emotional center is throwing a hand grenade into the situation, because it doesn't know how to handle things any other way.

The intellect can help a great deal by intervening in these emotional explosions. There is a need to step back -- to perform an inner stop-- and let the intellect do the work that it needs to, that is, to calm down the ruffled feathers and be more reasonable about situations.

We are partial. This means, essentially, that the three centers do not speak to one another effectively, and rarely work together. That needs to be studied in considerable detail, within each moment, and some presence. Those who have been in the Gurdjieff Work for 10 or 15 or 20-- or 50-- years and who think that they have somehow transcended the need for this kind of work because of their cosmic attachments to higher energies (which may even be real, by golly, who knows?) are missing the fundamental practice.

The same could be said about the practice of relaxation. There is never a time when it is inappropriate to turn ourselves back towards this question, no matter how advanced we are. The question of relaxation relates, after all, to the question of death, and this is one of the central questions of our existence. I will say no more about that; readers should simply ponder this statement and investigate it from an organic point of view. It is a very big question. Maybe I'll write about it further at some point.

Anyway, we underestimate the value of the intellect. It takes quite a bashing. Over and over again, we hear about how another person is "all in his head," etc.

And it is true -- the associative part of the intellectual center runs off in every direction in people. In an exquisite irony, this commonly happens when we think we are working and "have a good attention." But the intellect itself, that precise and well tuned device that can help balance the runaway work of the other centers, may occasionally remind us to make more of an effort to be here. It truly needs to work with us, and must be allowed its rightful place.

Without that kind of work, we truly are stupid. No one on this planet has a monopoly on such stupidity, but from the behavior of mankind, it certainly appears as though most people wish for one.

On another note entirely, I was looking over the five oblogolnian-strivings today, having printed them out so that they would lie around the house bothering me from time to time.

It struck me once again -- as it has so many times -- that the fifth striving is, in fact, the Bodhisattva-vow, translated into Gurdjieffian terms:

"...the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred 'Martfotai,' that is, up to the degree of self-individuality."

What struck me today is the way it speaks of "self- individuality." We believe that the self exists as a single thing, but the idea of partiality and a separated work of centers teaches us that the self is actually broken into pieces. To develop "individuality" is to become undivided. An individual is a whole being, one who has all of their inner parts unified.

In our quest for self -individuality, the study of our partiality is essential. The very attention that brings us to see it is what can help to make us more whole.

May the living light of Christ discover us.