Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Eating life, one bite at a time

It's easy to understand what we chew and swallow as food. It's not so difficult to understand that air is food. But it is a bit more difficult to understand that the actual flow of life itself is food.

If it's difficult to understand that conceptually, it's even more difficult to experience it tangibly, that is, to have physical experiences of life that enter us deeply enough to see that they are actually food.

Nonetheless, the effects of the food of life are obvious enough. People who take in the wrong kind of impressions are often damaged by it. More often than not, the emotional state suffers- we become depressed or negative. This is one reason why it's important to practice some discrimination in life- that is, we should be a bit choosy about the kind of impressions we take in. And we should actually make an effort to take in right impressions.

Sometimes a few right impressions can make all the difference.

Last night I was exhausted and negative. I'd had a difficult day and I have been working a number of days straight through on top of jet lag and what have you. So we might say I was just about fed up with the flow of impressions- it was too relentless, for too many days in a row, without any down time. I was overstuffed and cranky. On top of all this I had to go into New York for my Gurdjieff group meeting and movements class. On the drive home I was inattentive and burnt out. The thought began to dawn on me that perhaps I'd skip, despite the fact that I had already missed two weeks of meetings in a row.

The day had started out with my movements shoes missing, which made me just a little nuts. I had to initiate a wild goose chase to buy shoes during my lunch hour. I was now racing home, crappy mood and all, hell bent for leather in order to re-engineer this marginal new footwear with suede and epoxy so that the satanically rubberized traction-rich soles wouldn't stick me to the floor of the movements hall like glue.

I came home to an equally crabby wife. I think the planets must have been out of kilter last night. We traded a few snarly words, I slugged down an espresso, climbed upstairs, slapped newly cut suede soles on the offending shoes, and let the glue set.

It was time to go in to the city, but by now I was just so damn tired I felt negative about the whole idea. When you're even feeling crappy about participating in your spiritual work you're hitting some kind of bottom for sure.

Something in me insisted on overcoming this.

I got in the car, dammit.

I grumbled into the city.

During the course of the evening, as I sat in my meeting and then went to the movements class, something changed in me. This was just the kind of food I needed. By the end of the evening the experience had soaked in like a drenching summer rain. Time itself opened up to leave room for the details.

By this morning I was positively reverberating with the impressions. The tone it struck inside me lasted all day long.

It was making the extra effort- the super-effort, as Mr. Gurdjieff might have put it- that I was able to become available. I offered myself to my life- and it offered something priceless back.

I'm grateful for this food of life. For the people, the work, the possibility of effort.

To all of you today-

Bon appetit.

Monday, January 15, 2007

This daily life- this daily bread

The Thai have this delightful habit of erecting small shrines in the middle of daily life.

They pop up everywhere-as evidenced from the picture, which was taken at the Chatuchak market in Bangkok. In each case they serve as a reminder that I am surrounded by the sacred everywhere I go, and no matter where I find myself. Because everything is sacred- every single thing- every single moment and circumstance and conjunction of events.

It's nearly impossible for us to understand this in our ordinary state, especially when something truly horrific happens. It takes the genius of a Viktor Frankl ("Man's Search for Meaning") or the spiritual depth of a Meister Eckart to help us gain insight into how even the worst events are sacred.

Still, most of us can recall some event in life where something that started out appearing as awfully bad eventually turned out to be very good. Not only that, all of us are familiar with the paradigm of the hero, who can never be tested and proven without the trials he faces.

The Thai practice reminds me that I don't need to just focus on peaks and valleys. This ordinary life, all of the mundane aspects I encounter in a day- each one of them is extraordinary. There isn't anything ordinary, in fact- the simplest, dumbest things are imbued with a hidden grace. Only by breathing my life in and out can I begin to get a sense of this. The entire universe is an expression of sublime and extraordinary divinity.

Even cigarette butts in the gutter are part of this immense and awe-inspiring event called creation. The fact that we have trivialized them (or anything) by using them, discarding them, and then defining them as worthless makes no difference to the universe. They still have the inherent value they began with as cosmic substances. The atoms they are made up of, forged in the furnaces of stars, are every bit as miraculous as they were before we puffed them into a conglomeration of tar-soaked dead leaves and and ash.

How like this thing called consciousness! No matter how battered and abused, it nurses a spark that simply cannot be extinguished. Even if, in this particular life, it appears to be corrupted and defeated, the essential inner light of Truth which comes from the heart cannot be destroyed.

It's hard to remember that when we meet our life with the inevitable mass of definitions and dismissals we are filled with by what we call "education" and a habitual disinterest born from years of overstimulation. We forget that this daily life is that daily bread Christ advised us to pray for. Each and every impression of life is a food to be grateful for.

In the making of that effort, may we dare to hope?- we may be discovered by something called Grace.

I found, when I was younger and rowed boats more frequently, that rowing seemed monotonous and tedious- unless I invested myself in the rythym and forgot about the destination. It was in the physical experience that I learned to appreciate every pull of the oar for the pulling itself.

Dwelling within the moment shrinks the distance between the heart and the object of its wish.
It is within this world of small, ordinary things that I discover a universe.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Gratitude, responsibility, and awareness

I have spent the week at a trade show in Germany. During the show there were a lot of rich impressions, but above all there were many opportunities to make the effort to be in relationship with other people.

This is a difficult question for me and perhaps for all of us. As I have noted recently, I often seem to be absent from relationship- first with myself, then inevitably with others- much of the time. This is such a signature feature of our state that Da Free John (who now calls himself Da Love Ananda) said the key question for all of us in life is, "avoiding relationship?"

I don't much hang my hat on this particular guru's work, but I think he has a real point.

In my experience of this week there was a lot of sharing on a very simple, honest and practical level. Nothing special. Just human beings making the best effort they can to meet their lives in a responsible way, with sensitivity to others. I saw a number of old friends- one of whom I haven't seen for many years. It was very feeding and I was left this morning with an enormous sense of gratitude for this life I have been given.

Life is a very precious substance and a terrific responsibility.

Why do I say this?

Consider this carefully, deeply. Meditate on it:

Awareness creates reality.

In my experience, we all belong to a force much larger than what we perceive as "ourselves." As the custodians of our own consciousnesses, which locate themselves within this immense field of forces that creates reality, we are given the vital task of receiving and transmitting the impressions of the world and our lives. Collectively, this force we call consciousness creates the world: without consciousness to perceive it, there is no world.

I have pondered this for some time after asking myself the questions, "why should there be something rather than nothing?" and "can there be nothing?" That is, is it even possible for there to be nothing?

The only condition under which there can be nothing is if there is nothing to perceive it. Existence cannot exist independent of perception. So reality is created by and arises from awareness.

The physicists can sit about arguing this one all they want to. If there were no consciousness then the possibilities of classical reality, quantum mechanics, and string theory, all of which seek to explain why there is a reality, would not even exist. Consciousness comes first.

Perhaps this insight is too simple to satisfy the scientists-or perhaps it is just that it will never succumb to their arsenal of mathematics.

Every one of us acts as a universe-creator within the field of our own awareness... ahem. Did I just refer to this idea as simple? My bad. The implications of this are too vast to swallow with the mind and I won't bother expounding on them here. (Go read a lot of Dogen. He expounds most wonderfully.) Instead I encourage readers to examine this proposition to see what is true. What does this mean in terms of our own responsibility? If all conscious beings are Gods that individually create the truth of a world through perception, what kind of Gods are they?

And what kind of Gods do we wish to be?

Speaking only for myself: in this awesome effort and act of understanding- physically, emotionally, and intellectually- that I both participate in the creation of, and reciprocally belong to, something much larger than myself, my being and my body resonate in oceans of sensation.
Waves of humility, gratitude, and devotion arise, all within this most ordinary, horizontal, daily thing we call existence. A sense of scale without magnifies itself within.

How am I responsible to my awareness?

With this thought I send love to all of you- today, most particularly, a certain special friend at school in Florida ...but hey, you're all special!

God bless


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

impressions and scale

We're told in the Gurdjieff work that there are three kinds of being food: material food that we eat, air, and impressions. Each of the foods is necessary, but air and impressions are at higher rates of vibration- that is, air is a finer food than what we chew and swallow, and impressions are a finer food than air.

There is a major, lifelong work to be undertaken in understanding the matter of ingesting impressions. I won't get into that here. Suffice it to say that there are moments- rare, to be sure, but as real as the day is long- when we can experience the ingestion of impressions much more tangibly. In such moments, the physical impact of impressions is quite different and we can experience their materiality in a different way. When this happens our centers take impressions in more deeply. They reach parts of us that they usually can't connect with.

Today I had such a moment at breakfast when I saw scale. For a brief moment I saw how absolutely tiny we are.

In that moment I was observing myself observing the bustle of the buffet at the hotel we are staying at here in Germany. We're at a big trade fair and there is a terrific amount of loose, ambient energy. A lot of it is sex energy running, like an animal, wild and free, but there are finer energies present too. Huge gatherings like this attract such energy, and some of it is just up for grabs.

Anyway there I was poised between healthy spoonfuls of pasty German Muesli- grains and oats with yoghurt- when all of the frenzied activity struck me as being on the level of bacteria.

I often think about the world of bacteria -for example, the immense wars that are fought ought within our own bodies. A mere pimple represents heroic unseen battles fought between foreign microorganisms who invade our pores, and the macrophages (white blood cells) who, in their role as selfless warriors on behalf of the organism, slay them wholesale using a wicked array of molecular weapons.

To us, the pimple is an annoying blemish. To that tiny world within us, it represents a killing field. Millions and even billions have fought and died on that swollen battlefield, and it is filled with the pain and anguish of that trial. As clumsy and insensitive as we are at this grossly larger level, we can still can feel that.

Our whole body is like this. All our trillions of cells are continually engaged in hyperactive explosions of activity which we can't even see. If we sit in Zazen and meditate to the point of a supreme and infallible inner stillness, on the microscopic level our inner state is still one of unrelenting, urgent movement and exchange. Our immune system does not have time to sit zazen. One moment of lapsed vigilance could spell a cold- or the flu- or cancer.

Human activity looks way large to us. This morning, everyone I saw before me appeared to be big, doing big things, going about big lives. In fact my perception of myself is that way- I'm big and important.

At the same time something came into me with the impression which measured it in a way I cannot fully explain and I saw that all of the activity was extremely small. There was a fleeting understanding that we are all bacteria- or perhaps even less. For a second humanity was in relationship to the planet in scale and it could be seen from within this level. This is perhaps the equivalent of a cell knowing how big it is and where it stands in relationship to us.

The whole idea became- for a moment- more than an idea. It was physically tangible, more real-


This raises many questions for me about what we are and how we live. In my more connected states, the entire collective, crazed enterprises of human life seems completely invalid to me. At least our immune system and bacteria seem to know what they are doing. I'm not sure we are even close to them in approaching that kind of understanding about ourselves and our place. In its delusions of grandeur, humanity forgets the humility appropriate to tiny creatures.

The writer of Ecclesiastes offers us a powerful set arguments that all of man's ordinary activities add up to one thing: vanity. That is to say, everything comes from ego. Looking at my experience of my own inner United States of Reaction, I'd tend to agree.

Ecclesiastes doesn't leave us groping. It concludes with the statement that only one task in life is truly important-

to worship God.

Making a more active effort to sense the scale of my life might help to remind me of that occasionally.

Monday, January 8, 2007

The location of consciousness

I like this picture of a bromeliad because it has these three little blossoms spiking up from the center that remind me of baby chicks with their mouths open, wating to be fed.

Our ordinary consciousness is in its infancy, poorly fed, and consequently very localized, but through practice, at least some part of it (hopefully) learns to stay poised in its nest hoping for a decent worm or two.

Gurdjieff mentioned to Ouspensky that man's development can in some ways be measured by just where his consciousness is located- for example, most of us have it in our heads, but some might have it lower down in their body, for example the chest or the solar plexus.

Recently books have come to my attention which "advocate" what the best location for consciousness is, arguing that in Japan they value a consciousness that resides in the belly, not the head. Some people use expressions for this such as "being more grounded."

It's true, there are such experiences, and they are good. But this does not mean that an experience of consciousness in the head is not good. That idea probably stems from the tendency we all have to devalue the familiar, and assign an artificially high value to the unfamiliar.

In my book, any experience of consciousness is good relative to no experience of consciousness. If you find it in the head, be grateful! However there is a broader aspect to this question.

There is a consciousness of the whole body. It is composed of the assembly of the awarenesses of all the inner centers- all seven of them. So to speak of any one(or two, or so on) centered consciousness as "good," or "bad-" or whatever, misses the point, because it tends to direct us towards yet another partial experience. Of course a new partial experience is very interesting simply because it's unfamiliar, but if we buy into it as the whole ball of wax we're still getting short changed, just in a new and more exciting way.

Undertaking the development of a consciousness that penetrates the entire body is a different and more whole way to approach this question. This is an effort towards a balanced awareness. Gurdjieff's enneagram is a geometric picture of such an awareness. It is interactive, dynamic, and complete.

As I have mentioned before, the material needed to feed the development of such an awareness is acquired through the long term study of conscious attention to breathing. Zazen is one vital tool in initiating such a study. We need to be working in the mud and roots, as Dogen puts it. More on that later.

I'm going to be at a trade show overseas for the next few days so my entries my be somewhat abbreviated, but I'll do my best to keep the journal functioning.

love to all,


Saturday, January 6, 2007

Gone fishing

January's tired of wearing
Cold thin garments made of ice
Time to dress like April,
Break out those fishing rods
And trample barefoot towards the river.

Astonishment ensues!

We're more impressed with changes in the temperature
Than death.

But death-
That's a change of weather, too.
Back to January
Who forgot herself
And thought she ruled the spring.

Today, while walking Isabel, my wife and I were on double duty doing neighborhood cleanup, picking up roadside garbage.

Lo and behold! As I lifted a scrap of flattened aluminium, what should I find but a salamander. A salamander in January, up and around, as frisky and alert as July itself. Wine-dark and delicate with moisture, with a graceful ripple of tiny ribs defining its sinuous body.

This glorious little creature allowed me to hold it for a brief moment , eye to eye, before seeking mother earth in a lithe twist of fear.

I haven't seen a salamander in the wild in years. I'm no longer at an age where I splash through streams turning over rocks and digging holes in rocky woodland- although, it occurs to me, perhaps I should be doing these things, regardless of age- just because I can.

No matter. What is amazing is that the absolute last time of year anyone would tell you to go out looking for ambient salamanders in New York is January. They just don't come out at this time of year.

Warm days, warm animals, warm hearts.

It's gratitude for these small blessings that shapes a life.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

horizontal and vertical

There's a passage in Dogen's Shobogenzo I liked a lot when first I read it:

"[Someone asks] "...What can a person who has already clarified the Budhha's right Dharma expect to gain from Zazen?"

I say: We do not tell our dreams before a fool, and it is difficult to put oars into the hands of a mountaineer; nevertheless I must bestow the teaching." (Bendowa, P. 11, Nishijima &Cross, Dogen Sangha, 1994)

At first I thought this reply was quite humorous. "Ha, ha," I gloated. "What an idiot this guy is to ask the master such a question."

As if I'd know any better. Eh?

After thinking it over for a few weeks it suddenly occurred to me that Dogen's reply- of which I have cited only the very first line- contains an unexpected depth.

He may perhaps be indicating, in a uniquely clever way, that the questioner is clumsy and lacks understanding. That does not really matter. More importantly, in this one simple line, he is expounding an extensive commentary on our nature and what is needed in our work.

What are mountaineers like?

Mountaineers climb heights. They are brave and well meaning people, perhaps, but they are concerned primarily with the vertical- always looking upwards, reaching for the higher. They don't feel like where they are is adequate; only a higher point with a greater view will do. They are desirous and willfull and grasping; ambitious in the face of challenges, arrogant about their own abilities; confident of their superiority, urgent to prove their mettle against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They take unnecessary risks for no obvious reason. They have, to be perfectly blunt, pretty huge egos- in many cases, approximately bigger than Mount Everest, as it happens.

Maybe they feel this is the only way to create a value for themselves; I don't know. For those who are interested, the journalist and mountaineer John Krakauer has written several fine, questioning books about this type, including "Into The Wild" and "Into Thin Air."

I think the overall point is that when our gaze is always directed upwards we fail to see what is around us. Like yesterday's blog, that's the story of my whole darned life.

With a single wry comment, Dogen points us instead to the oarsman, whose work is fundamentally and irrevocably horizontal. The work of the horizontal is broad and tangible; the oarsman spreads out his effort though the entire span of the level he lives in and is crossing.

He's not reaching for heaven. The oarsman is diligent and ordinary; under most circumstances, no one is going to see him as amazing for rowing across a lake. Rowing isn't glamorous or heroic, charismatic or amazing.

It's just practical.

If this isn't a picture of work in life, I don't know what is. Dogen says elsewhere we cannot separate practice and experience; they are one. Our experience of life is our practice. Our practice is our experience of this life.

The oarsman inhabits his environment. The mountaineer tries to conquer it. Perhaps if we look inward- and around us- instead of upwards, we may catch a physical glimpse of ourselves in ordinary life:

An oarsman afloat between heaven and earth, seeking the place of the heart.

I will leave you all to ponder on that further . I have to descend vertically from the blogging loft to deal with the more horizontal aspects of dinner.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007


It's interesting to me what kind of effort is needed to really have contact with other people.

So much of the way I behave and manifest towards others is automatic, habitual, that I rarely bring enough of my presence to the exchange to really honor them. I repeatedly see in ordinary life that I don't look at other people and don't value the contact with them enough. There is something inside me that turns away, even when interacting with people I really love, or people I am in regular relationship with- at work, for example.

I was talking with my teacher about this last night. She is 86 years old and still encountering precisely that same set of habits in herself- and still questioning it. I think no matter what we do, no matter how old we are, there may always be parts of us that just outright fail to make the effort to be in relationship. As Gurdjieff said, "Man cannot do."

Certainly this can improve over a lifetime, but only if I see it and study it.

Back in the years when I was, supposedly, an artist, I put art in front of people. That is, doing artwork was more important than being in relationship with other human beings. As though the canvas and sheets of paper somehow transcended life and breath. I finally put the artist thing behind me, at least for the most part, and now I spend more time with people and value them more- yet I still have this question about whether or not I am really there with them.

It seems to me to first take a more fully formed inner connection to myself if I want to be there with and for others. My lack of interest doesn't start with my lack of interest in other people; it starts with my lack of interest in myself. There are a lot of very interesting things going on inside this environment I call a mind and a body. I could pay a great deal more attention to them if I wanted to.

So why the indifference?

I think it stems above all from a disbelief in my own mortality. Whenever enough of me gets together to perceive anything real- after there is an organic sense of this state called Life, and Being- one of the first intuitions I receive is a tangible sense of how impermanent everything is, of how this moment will not come again. When the energy to sustain that kind of vision arises within me, there is a greater appreciation of the uniqueness of each moment- a uniqueness which is denied by the disconnected state I usually live in. That translates directly into a compassion for the other person.

None of us is here for long. A new understanding of value emerges.

What is it? In-formation. To form an inner connection so that one can perhaps welcome and entertain a guest by the name of deep appreciation.

That guest introduces me to a more three centered kind of work: the active, gritty physical act of seeing; the effort of intelligence to comprehend it; the feeling of gratitude that values it.

Here, within this formerly fallow earth of Being I can begin to reclaim a more organic experience of my life. A more ordinary experience which is extraordinary in the sense that I live so much in denial of it.

And- if I am fortunate enough, today or tomorrow, or the next one, to awaken to this sensation of inhabiting my life, then perhaps I will find you there with me.

In all other situations, my sheep are perpetually lost in a wildness of my own construction.

Love to you all,


Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Attend, observe, scrutinize

Today, at home, this orchid is in bloom, the night sky is clear, and the moon is full. All of them are aspects of one singleness of being called a universe.

...Oh, yeah. I'm here, too.

I repeatedly see in my own practice of self observation that there is the potential for a greater unity of being. At the same time, in my experience, that unity is lacking.

The question for the moment is what can produce a greater unity. Dogen empasizes, above all, Zazen: just sitting.

Perhaps this is because in sitting all of the complications that clutter us can begin to fall away.

Something else gradually emerges.

The experience of self is fundamental, and there is nothing fundamental about my usual distracted state of being. It's very partial: one part makes decisions and another part knows nothing about them.

What's left when I sit is not much: just the body and the experience of breathing in and out. Of course there are the gymnastics of the mind, but they are hardly significant once I accept them. The monkeys in the tree make a lot of noise, but when the monkeys leave, the tree is still there. And even monkeys cannot chatter incessantly. It just seems that way.

There is room, in sitting, for the development of a physical sense of rootedness that arises, very specifically, from the act of breathing. I do not use the term roots allegorically. We speak here of actual, sensible roots that grow into the physical substance of the body. The organic sense of being.

The simple work of attention to breath is the source of the energy that re-connects body to the mind. Careful attention to an unmanipulated, straightforward and practical experience of breath leads us to a subtle, detailed study of our inner parts and how they are informed by breathing.

One of the esoteric meanings of the Zen expression "attaining the marrow" is the development of a new, much deeper sensation of the body. In such a state of sensation there is a magnetic vibration that connects the mind to the body- right down to a very fine, molecular level of resonance. That sensation waxes and wanes like any tide, but in attaining the marrow, the ocean is ever-present.

A certain kind of greater sensation can definitely be, to an extent, willed. There are specific exercises for this. More importantly, however, the connection between breath and sensation can awaken to become a living thing in its own right.

This specific point of work is an important point because it transcends any ordinary understanding of willed attention to breath and sensation. In this case, breath and sensation understand us. It is not a case of us making an effort through will to sense and breathe. It consists of sense and breath simply arising, simply participating.

Human will is still required, to be sure, but it has a quite different place in this particular equation.

In this awakening of breath is already a different experience of the unity of body and mind, and an understanding of our mortality- without morbidity. It is a complete inversion of our ordinary understanding of breathing. We no longer own our breathing.

It owns us.

Such understanding feeds a growing unity of purpose between body and mind, and cultivates the inner garden.

Which brings us to the six practices:


Grow roots,
Draw nourishment,
Let flowers bloom.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Deep time

It is the turn of the year.

Sunday I began the day reading from Dogen's Shobogenzo before meditation. Later in the day, we went to church. Our church- Grace Church, in Nyack, New York- is an Episcopalian church modeled after the traditional gothic form. It boast a superlative set of stained glass windows and the ineffable sense of restrained magnificence that only gothic architecture can produce.

During the service we read old testament texts that come from as far back as the days of the Egyptian empire, sing hymns composed anywhere from the 11th to 17th century, and participate in a tradition that reaches back into deep time in an unbroken line of human transmission.

Dogen taught and wrote during the 12th century, but his work is still vibrant in human hearts and minds today. The church has roots that stretch back- how far? Into the roots of ancient Judaism, which coexisted with and emerged from the sacred practices of ancient Egypt.

So when we work, when we study, when we participate in these human enterprises called Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity, we reconnect with the buried roots of our humanity. We re-create a sense of connectedness not only with our culture, but with our biology. Somewhere within all of this we can sense that the organisms within which our being arises, part of this massive time machine called a solar system, exist in an unbroken line from the first cells that reproduced in earth's primordial seas. We are the living heritage of this great cosmic experiment called life. We do not exist apart from it.

We are the experiment.

In the face of ideas this massive and an enterprise this vast, we can only humbly bow our heads. Mankind is never going to fully comprehend or even grasp the scale, the scope, the meaning of this with the mind. No, it takes other, much deeper parts- parts we may not ordinarily even be aware we have- to taste the experience. Parts that vibrate with subtle currents we forget about in the hot-blooded rush of do this, do that.

We live quickly and are gone. But all around us are the elements of deep time, waiting for us to remember, and appreciate them. To appreciate and cherish them. To allow warm breath to meet cold stone and know that it is- for without warm breath, there is no cold stone, and indeed without warm breath nothing can ever be.

The universe has a voice, but it only speaks for as long as we are here to hear it. It has a being, but only for as long as we are here to perceive it. Nothing ever exists apart from perception.

As vehicles of consciousness, we have a responsibility and a sacred duty. Through the instrument of our attention, we become assistants in the creation and maintenance of this great entity called a universe.

For me, that's a sobering understanding.

Water flows abundantly

Hilltops not always in light
Valleys not always in shadow
Each transmits and receives
according to its true nature.

Water flows abundantly
Even where we do not see it
the embrace of Love
Cannot be contained or expressed
by small things.

Trees without leaves
Are still trees.
Already belonging,
Life is not ours to offer.

We are vessels
Into which the world flows.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

celebrity death match: Buddha vs. the dog

What is our relationship to our lower, animal nature?

The famous Isabel- immersed in her essential dog nature, and loving it- doesn't worry about such things. But those of us with three brains tend to ponder. Most human beings need more than a plain old stick to keep them amused.

There are a number of different ways to understand our two natures relative to the idea of centers, or chakras. All of them have their points. Maybe rlnyc, who occasionally offers comments on this blog, will give us a few of his many insights on this matter. In any event I'm going to sketch out a few of my own ideas about this today. As we continue, please excuse me for embarking on what will be a more theoretical discussion than my ordinary posts on this blog.

We are composed of two stories which reflect our higher and lower natures. The three centers in the lower story are the root center, the sex center, and the solar plexus. Together they form a trinity. In a theoretical sense some esoteric schools associate this lower story with our lower nature.

The upper story also has three centers. Now, a few years ago I would have given you one take on what those centers are and how they are in relationship, but my understanding of it these days is different. Rather than turn back the clock or examine a dozen different systems (there may be more than a dozen) I'm going to offer my latest up-to-the minute understanding of this. Which will probably change.

There are three key centers in the upper story. Two of them represent organs for receiving and containing the energy of what Gurdjieff called the "higher" centers. In his system they are higher intellectual and higher emotional center. I don't think we need to elaborate this idea in further detail. For our current purposes, the names are not so important.

One of the three centers in the upper story is located at the throat, which is actually the back of the neck, more or less the area of the medulla oblongata. This complex includes an area at the top of the brain stem, or base of the brain. The second center is the third eye. The third is the so-called seventh chakra, which is at the top of the head. In some systems, this "upper triad" supposedly represents man's higher or more spiritual nature.

So we have two triads of centers: an upper-story triad- the Buddha, if you will- and a lower-story triad- the dog. (see my blog on man's two natures for more on the Buddha/dog koan.)

There is an inherent danger in the above interpretation. It accidentally presumes that the "higher" nature of man is somehow better than his lower nature. Much tradition draws a picture of man's existence as being a conflict between man's higher and lower natures instead of a confluence. That is, somehow we are supposed to battle and vanquish our lower impulses.

This idea is to me just plain wrong. What man needs to seek instead is unity. In a unified state the higher parts inform the lower parts. They don't control or suppress them, but help them to naturally find their right place in the context of the system.

That brings us to the keystone piece in the "magical maze" of the inner centers.

The last chakra, which I have so far willfully skipped over, is located in the center of the torso. It's the heart chakra, although its physical location is not quite exactly where the heart is.

This is a very vital area. The upper and lower triads are connected by this center, and it is one of the three classic "blockage" points in yoga. (The other two being the top of the head and the base of the spine.) In Kundalini yoga, as I understand (warning: I'm certainly no expert on theory in this area,) the object is to "store" enough energy to allow it to rise from the base of the spine and pierce all three knots.

Man, as the Gurdjieff system teaches, is designed to be a bridge between the two levels. That is, to bring unity to them. So in the life of man both levels are of equal importance and absolutely necessary. Gurdjieff's Enneagram accurately depicts the unity of the whole system and shows us why all the centers, including the lowest ones, are of vital importance in the circulation of man's energy. This diagram conveys many subtle understandings of man's inner work that only years of direct personal study can begin to uncover. Suffice it to say that with work on this we can gradually begin to understand how it is that we must bring the inner centers into relationship.

In man, the chakra or center occupying the "gap" and forming the bridge is the heart. To me the implication is clear: man's rational being may be what separates him from the animals, but it is his emotional being that is meant to do the chief work of forming a bridge between the two levels.

The chief work of religion, in other words, is to open the heart. As Yogananda emphasized, above all we must learn how to do our work through Love. That Love is not the ordinary love proceeding from what we are, as we are, but comes from a higher level that can find its expression through us. Love is what opens the gates separating man from the divine, and that Love is not discriminatory or partial. It flows through the whole system, invests itself in every center, and values all of our inner parts equally.

As Christ said, "Love they neighbor as thyself." Informed, intelligent self-love (which may bear a relationship to what Gurdjieff called "conscious egoism") begins with right valuation of all our parts.

We're blind inside. Our dog can become a seeing eye dog for us-

but not if we beat him.

Sympathy for the Devil

Our cat Max runs around the house smacking things off tables, tipping over flower vases and splashing water about.

He can't help it. He's a cat. Every cat has its idiosyncracies, but all in all their cat nature carries a guarantee. We have to learn to live with that. I get irritated with him but in the end it's for me to see that he's a cat, not for him to see he ought to behave like a human.

Our habitual parts are like that. They are part of the machine and they have their own nature. Inevitably they are going to run about tipping things in life over and making a general mess of things.

Getting angry about these habitual, mechanical parts serves no purpose. Whether we are angry or not, they are what they are. We can't get rid of them- to do so would be the equivalent of killing the cat. We have to learn to include them in what we are, to coexist with them, to accept them. In other words, to have sympathy for this devil of a self we inhabit.

Self-observation teaches me that my habitual manifestations include a lot of irritating, negative, and even some downright disgusting parts. Everyone is like that. There's no way to wipe the slate clean; as I pointed out in my posting about forming an inner solar system, once matter has fallen into our gravity well and ended up on the surface of our inner planet, there's no way to get rid of it. The amount of energy it would take to eject it back into orbit is excessive. Instead, through the practice of acceptance, I need to come to terms with what's there, and through diligence and right attitude make an effort to rearrange the inner state so that what is there doesn't do damage. It's kind of like tying the cargo in a sailing vessel down so that it doesn't roll back and forth below decks smashing into everything.

So as I practice, I try and form new habits that will serve me better. I can try to express negative emotions less- which doesn't mean I don't have them, just that I don't use them as cudgels to club myself and those around me. I can try to love myself- to use the phrase "it's not so bad, really" not just in regard to external events but also to my inner reactions and my bad habits. Only by seeing and accepting can I acquire the opportunity to change anything.

It's true that I am mechanical, insensitive, and helpless. All of mankind lives within this set of conditions. Forming and feeding an inner cult of self-criticism, however, is worthless. It does not amount to right practice. Instead, right self-valuation is paramount.

We all have a devil within us. Hating him won't do us any good. Remember: the one good thing about your enemies is that they can never betray you.

Or, as Gurdjieff said of man, every man has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The devil you can trust.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Negativity and Chief Feature

In the Gurdjieff work there is a thing called Chief Feature.

Chief feature is a part of ourselves around which everything else forms. In Gurdjieff's teaching this part is understood, generally speaking at least, to be an inner obstacle. That is, it's a major part of what blinds us to ourselves. As he said to Ouspensky, "Every man has a certain feature in his character which is central. It is like an axle round which all his 'false personality' revolves. Every man's personal work must consist in struggling against this chief fault" (In Search of the Miraculous, Harcourt Brace, p.226)

Chief feature is probably not "all negative." We actually need it. After all, in our relatively crippled ordinary state- we are all so partial we limp along through life without any inner unity, and are constantly trying to compensate for our lack of inner connection- we need at least some strong part to help us along. Life is always unexpectedly battering us in one way or another, and if we can't meet it in a right way- with balance and unity- then we better have a few defenses to deploy.

It is a deal with the devil. Chief feature becomes a steel shield formed at the very front of our being to protect us. Our conduct in life all takes place from behind this barrier. After we've finished forming it rather early in life, nothing really gets in, and a lot of our real essential self can't get out. No matter what happens, chief feature is right there, advising us, reassuring us, rationalizing, and making sure that we're comfortable.

Even if what we are comfortable in is a big pile of our own excrement.

The price of relative saftey is this imprisonment. Life is held at arm's length, producing a state referred to in various ways such as sleep, lack of relationship, attachment, or identification.
Dwelling behind this wall of our own making, we all convince ourselves that the view from the little slit through which all our exchanges take place is a damned good one.

In fact, the view is so good we don't even know we have a wall.

Chief feature is invisible. So invisible that Gurdjieff advised us if we are told what it is, we will most certainly deny it. I know a little about how this works because of my experience with denial in alcoholism. What little I know is scary, because what I do know is that I was absolutely delusional about my drinking.

The implication is that chief feature causes us to live in an equally profound state of delusion about ourselves. It takes great effort to see through a veil that thick.

A lot of what keeps chief feature "functioning within acceptable parameters" (as my favorite character on Star Trek- The Next Generation, Data, used to say)- is negativity.

Why does chief feature remind me of Data, you might ask? Well, first of all, he's a construction- a piece of hardware made for practical purposes. Like those who we call sociopaths- thank God he's not that type- he's not even human, even though he appears to be. Hiding behind our chief feature puts a little sociopath in all of us.

Data, however, is a very sympathetic character- for a robot. He's humorous (unintentionally, of course, but that is part of his pathos,) filled with facts, eager to contribute, always calculating, and has an earnest desire to understand these confusing, illogical beings called humans.

The problem is, robots don't have the equipment to do that. Like the cowardly lion of Oz, Data has no emotions- no heart. Above all, Data is a machine, and as we viewers all know, machines can't be human beings. Because he's a machine, important facts about humans completely escape him.

Ever feel that way about yourself? I sure do. I think we're all like Data, except that- lucky for him!- he doesn't have the capacity to be negative. Maybe that's why we feel sympathy for him.
(And perhaps it's not such a bad thing to have a little sympathy for our machine- which is the subject for a future blog under the heading 'sympathy for the devil.')

In the absence of any real emotion- real compassion, real empathy, reaf feeling, all of which our inner barriers actively exclude-, the machine of chief feature gets to work to devise the best substitue it can. And most of the time, unfortunately, that seems to be negativity. Negativity is much easier to manufacture than real feeling, because it can be effortlessly produced from the natural friction between our wall and the outside world. And there's always friction, isn't there?

The problem is, that friction generates heat.

Inside this inner fortress, we live in a perpetual state of fear. This fear is created by the very presence of the wall itself, which blinds us to 99% of what we need to know about what is going on around us. Over time, our fortress fills up with all kinds of volatile chemicals. Every so often the friction produces enough heat and the whole thing goes kablooey.

We all know what that feels like. The results of this repeated accumulation and detonation of inner negativity destroy everything we work for. If we don't come to grips with it, no matter what we try, we keep finding ourselves in the middle of a pile a rubble that- just a few moments ago- was supposed to be the foundation of an inner temple.

I probably don't spend as much time as I should studying this thing called chief feature. It's the core of what self-observation is all about. So- along with the study of my negativity- it could be interesting to make this a more active part of my questions about myself in 2007.

If anyone else reading the blog is interested in exchanging about their own experiences and work with their negativity- either privately via e mail, or in this public forum- I'd welcome hearing from them.

Oh, and in case you're wondering what today's photo is all about, that's moose at the entrance to Pompeii. Draw your own conclusions.

May we all feed well on this rich food of impressions called "life" today-

love to you all,


Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas day

Dec. 25

Last night a friend asked me "where does esoteric truth comes from?" She was speaking, it turned out, about its origins in the depths of time. Did it come from the Atlantean culture, as some new age people would say? If so, where did they get it from?

It appears, on the surface, to be a complex philosophical issue. One could ponder this question for a long time. Everyone, it seems, wants to remember where things came from so that we can place them and give them more meaning. After all, we think, nothing is good enough in itself. It's only if we add to it by assigning meaning that it obtains value.

Peculiar, isn't it?

I do not think the origin of esoteric- or inner- ideas lies within ancient cultures or secret societies or preisthoods. It isn't about culture and practice at all.

Culture and practice come after Truth. All of them are merely attempts born of Truth to return to itself.

Truth arises with the qualities of matter itself. It is a vibration that contains everything, but which we are usually unable to sense. That vibration is a supremely blissful emanation of Love that blossoms forth from the roots of reality itself. Nothing is apart from it, and nothing can be outside of it. The fact that we are separated from the sense of it does not mean we are apart from it. So this Truth is the ultimate "esoteric" idea- it is the heart of reality- and if it is sensed, no matter who senses it, it gives birth to the same understanding.

Dogen said "This Dharma is abundantly present in each human being, but if we do not practice it, it does not manifest itself, and if we do not experience it, it cannot be realized." (Shobogenzo, translated by Gudo Nishikima & Chodo Cross, Dogensangha 1994, P. 1.)

Christ referred to this Truth as the Father. It is the active principle which gives birth to all things. He called upon us to make the effort to experience this Truth within ourselves.

Dogen reminds us that it requires effort to attain it, and experience to understand it.

The magnificent flowers of our inner garden, fed by our breath and nourised by the root of our being, can bloom into the sunlight of this Truth. This is a long work and a manifestly joyful one.

Today perhaps all of us can share an effort to stay in touch with the delicate buds of that process and, with attention, try to nurture them.

Love to all of you on this day of remembrance and joy,


Sunday, December 24, 2006

On Christmas Eve

Christ brought mankind a message of love. To be a Christian is to attempt- as best we can- to live according to the precepts of Christ.

From everything we can gather reading the gospels- an admittedly fragmentary record- we see that Christ, like Buddha, called on mankind to exercise compassion, intelligence, humility- to become aware of himself and his place in his community. To share his food and to meet others not with rejection, but with unconditional Love.

Christ was a revolutionary. He embraced elements of society who were considered beneath contempt- adulterers and lepers and prostitutes- and demanded that others treat them not like diseased pariahs, but like human beings.

Over the centuries mankind has stained and soiled this message of Love, compassion, and tolerance with collectively self-serving misinterpretations and an endless series of crimes which we refer to as "history."

Over time, people have come to blame Christianity for the misdeeds of its adherents. Instead of the adherents being seen as failed Christians, they see Christianity as a failed set of values. Christianity gets rejected- religion itself is rejected.

Think about the arrogance of this for a minute. For a lot of people, Jesus Christ just isn't good enough.

What are we going to replace Him with, I wonder? Our science? Our machines and bureaucracies? The secular values the UN offers us? We've all seen just how effective those things are. They all come from the same level- earth- and nothing from this level can effect a real transformation in humanity. If anything can do that, whatever it is, it will have to come from the level above us.

About two thousand years ago, a woman named Mary was offered an opportunity to help bring a Force down into the planet that actually could change something. She was afraid- but she said yes. She opened her heart, her soul, and her mind and agreed to serve as an intermediary to give birth to this Force which we now call Christ. A Force which offers mankind the opportunity to learn how to act through love. Not the narrow, self serving and egositic love we batter ourselves and each other with but something much greater. Something imbued with the power to create an entire universe.

Something called Agape. Unconditional Love.

Agreed, we don't know much- if anything- about this thing called Agape, but we can all, if we wish, agree to become students. To try and learn to allow this greater Force, this Light, to act through us, which can only come through the gradual surrender of the cramped little creature we call ego.

Contact with and experience of this all-pervading cosmic Force of Love is the same enlightement the Buddha called on us to participate in- the Liberation of the Yogis... the Divine Rapture of the Sufis.

Even now, Mary, in her Astral presence, is still right here beside us offering to help us open our hearts if we are willing. This not conjecture- it is a certainty beyond faith itself. She lives quietly woven into every moment of the fabric of daily life.

As Jesus said,

Seek and ye shall find.

Love to you all,


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Making an effort

Today's image is one of bikes outside a factory in China.

For the last twenty years I have spent a great deal of time in China. I go there three or more times a year and spend weeks at a time working with manufacturers.

Generally speaking, the people there have a lot less than we do (compare the picture to the parking lot you park your car in at work and think it over for a second. This is their parking lot. Big difference, isn't there?) They don't have the privileges, freedoms, posessions and wealth that we take for granted here in the west. Because of this, I think, many of them have a better valuation of what they do and what they earn.

This is clear from their work ethic. They work hard. They work long hours. They work diligently. All of this is especially true of their young people. They are on the whole eager to achieve something real for themselves.

I contrast this to what I see in young Americans. The majority of them seem to me to be listless, lacking in effort. They see themselves as entitled and they feel they have the luxury of as much time as they want to pull themselves together. They are arrogant about the privilege they were born into, and their efforts in life are, sadly, weak.

There is an old saying the the Gurdjieff Work, "weak in life- weak in the work." Another way of putting this is that if one can't even manage to be ordinary, to do ordinary things, one cannot achieve any progress spiritually, because to be effective in an ordinary manner is a minimum requirement if one has any aspirations to being extraordinary. Gurdjieff called it being an Obyvatel, a "good householder." We see it in other practices, too: in Zen, over and over again, when the master points in a direction, it is in the direction of meeting ordinary responsibility: chop wood, carry water.

Just being completely ordinary is the heart of the path.

Our culture has produced a generation- or perhaps two or three- obsessed with the extraordinary. Every event has to be a bigger, better special effect than the one before it. Every car has to be larger, every house designed with more square footage and stuffed with more bigger stuff. Nothing escapes this disease of inflation. Go shopping for household goods: even our towels and potholders are bigger than they need to be.

Marching relentlessly along with it come the generations that that want to be extraordinary before they are ordinary. Chopping wood and carrying water are beneath them. The lie on the couch playing video games or surfing the web, dreaming of how utterly grand they are as they stumble along in real life doing little or nothing . I contrast this to the factories I visit in China, where 18 year olds are hunched over sewing machines making the towels and pillows we are stuffing our big houses with.

They work. We consume.

Perhaps this is nothing more than the standard conceit of youth, but I don't think so. Our media and our culture of outright materialism has manipulated values until life begins to present itself as some surreal form of lottery where everyone is already a winner. America has signed on to a cultural delusion which asserts that we are better than others and don't need to make the efforts they do, because we're so terrific and so special. And, chide the patriotic flags and slogans on our bumper stickers, don't you dare disagree with us!

It's a cult of specialness. Not only do we worship our own specialness but we publicly demand that everyone else recognize it.

Arrogance of this kind leads us into quagmires like Iraq, where we start out by aggressively misunderstanding everything and find ourselves in the midst of confusion and conflict that we measure with denial instead of humility.

Pride goeth before a fall.

This isn't just a cultural malaise. The cancer ultimately extends its crablike limbs into the muscle of our spiritual lives, convincing us that we are better than others. We sleep- we dream- and we do not do enough in an inner or an outer sense. Our essence- the heart of our inner life- becomes an Iraq, invaded and colonized by alien values. Our inner parts implode in tension and warfare.

To take a more active inner stance is needed. As individuals, we have to believe in ourselves, value ourselves, and be willing to work with humility, with diligence, on organizing our ordinary life. Of doing the laundry, washing the dishes, showing up for work on time. Getting the simple stuff done and getting it done effectively.

No one is special. Every last one of us is headed for the same sobering place, no matter how much noise we make and how many fireworks we shoot off on the way there.

It's best we roll up our sleeves, and get down to the daily business of remembering how to be effectively ordinary.

To me, that's making an effort.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Breathing in and out

There is a tremendous value to breathing in and out.

We do it every day but we're not there for it. It just happens.

Now, you may think to yourself, that's the way it's supposed to be- after all, the whole organism is arranged so that this takes place without us having to supervise it.

Good thing, too- because the way we usually work, if we had to remember to breathe in and out, well, some damn thing would happen and it would go right out of our mind and we'd forget to do it and we'd die.

Fortunately there's a center in us that understands this and keeps it going- just like it digests our food. We could never manage work that detailed or that fine with our ordinary mind, so we have a different mind that does it for us.

But in the matter of breathing, there is something else going on. This is an activity where the participation of the attention can effect a remarkable change in the relationship we have to our bodies, and what they can take in.

Air is saturated with prana. Yoga schools, knowing this, have all kinds of esoteric exercises designed to increase the intake and uptake of prana.

And just what is prana? Technically- that is, theoretically- speaking, it forms the physical bridge between the astral and planetary bodies. That's why the esoteric yoga schools take such a great interest in it.

In the larger scheme of things, however, we can only say with certainty that it's a mystery. Gurdjieff would have called it a higher substance. It may well be the same manna from heaven that fed Moses' tribe in the wilderness. Whatever it is called, however it is explained, this much is certain: it's a subtle food that supports our experience of being. In sufficient quantity it can transform our inner life, putting us into touch with a joyful support for our daily effort. It can truly bring about an experience of what Christ called "The peace of the Lord which passeth all understanding."

People just don't know prana is there. If everyone was aware of how ingesting prana can feed the joyfulness of daily life, we'd all be trying to do that. Unfortunately, it's generally inaccessible to us because we are not arranged properly inside. The parts that can take it in don't work well. The parts that can bring it to places where it can be of use don't work well. The parts that store it don't work well. We can get chemical substances that substitute for it- nicotine is one- but they are temporary, addicitve, immediately draining and ultimately posionous.

Yoga (if it's practised in its esoteric form, as opposed to a glorfied form of exercise) has a whole set of techniques for repairing the organism's prana mechanism. Unfortunately it takes a lifetime- or perhaps numbers of them- for any of this to succeed in most people.

Gurdjieff was better informed than most Yogis, and, I think, had a fairly simple and very practical method for bringing people into more direct contact with this work. It did not involve complicated physical exercises (although, to be perfectly fair, he had them, in the form of his movements.) No, Gurdjieff's method was this:

Put the attention at the place where impressions enter the body.

You can read more about this in P.D. Ouspensky's "In Search Of The Miraculous," pages 188-189. (Harcourt Brace edition,.) If you want to understand just how comprehensive Gurdjieff's understanding of this entire matter is, read the whole chapter. Your eyes may glaze over, true, but I can guarantee you'll never think about your body the same way again.

Now, Gurdjieff spoke of impressions in this chapter in rather general terms, but based on a number of years of study I firmly believe he was pointing Ouspensky (and the rest of us) towards a very specific kind of impression: that is, the impression of air entering the body. He repeatedly draws chalk circles around the whole subject which point the reader in that direction.

There is a long, deep and joyful work involved in exploring this, and this isn't the place to expound on it.

It's enough to say that those who embark on a serious study of this question may discover things about air and breathing that suprise and astonish.

Breath supports life. Appreciate it.

Love to you all,


Wednesday, December 20, 2006


It's interesting to me how quickly I react.

Today at work there was a situation where I got in trouble for something that was- objectively- not my fault at all.

My negativity got to work on it right away, exaggerating, complaining, feeding fuel to the fire. I mentioned it to several co-workers, crabbing about how ridiculous it was.

I'm like this all the time. Emotional reactions- negative ones, that is- are very powerful, very convincing, and they tend to run the entire show as soon as they make their appearance on stage. They usually get out there unscripted, before the director has a chance to say anything, and damned if they don't determine the course of the whole play from that moment on. It may have started out as a comedy, or a simple drama, but before you know it it's tragedy- the emotions always want what the Germans call "Grosse Theater," that is, "grand theater."

In this particular case, almost before I knew it, my emotions were front and center suggesting extreme and ridiculous "solutions" to the matter- all of them, by the way, intensely stupid and damaging.

This would be laughable if it weren't for the fact that I know from past experience that every once in a while, if there isn't anyone sober sharing the stage with the hysterical fool, these idiot ideas get acted on. Very high-maintenance- and extremely unnecessary- disasters ensue.

Luckily, every once in a while, someone else shows up on stage with my emotional circus, watching the whole sordid affair with an intelligent sense of skepticism.

Today's uproar wasn't so awful because, first of all, I saw what was going on and was able to go against it a little, and also because in the end I saw that the whole thing wasn't such a big deal. I had to apply the "it's not so bad, really" filter to the situation several times in order to back down off the emotional ramp I was building. That filter really can help in a practical way. Today was one of those days.

The emotions are very quick, and they exaggerate everything. They tend to lie to me about most things- that is to say, the information they provide is self serving, partial, one-sided, and unreliable. It's true as far as it goes, but not often true in a helpful way. Emotions are like the song of the lorelei: they make a beautiful "sound" that lures me right onto the rocks and then they eat me. So when we use the phrase "consumed by passion," what we mean by it is in some ways literally true.

My life is food and I am supposed to be eating that food, carefully, intelligently, sensitively. When I am negative, partial, and fully invested in emotional reaction, however, my life starts to consume me.

This means that most of the time I am being eaten instead of eating. As I look around me I see that we are all prettyt much like that. It's another example of the inversion we create in life, where everything that is supposed to be coming in goes out, and vice versa. Day to day, we are bleeding from so many psychic wounds that we don't know where to apply the bandages first.

Triage involves self observation. We can't fix any holes in our inner state unless we learn to stand back anfd look for the leaks.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Filling those cracks

There are days when everything seems very daily and ordinary. For me, today was one of them. I didn't have any superbly profound thoughts or ideas. I didn't collect any amazing world class experiences. I didn't achieve any special goals or write any excellent words or climb any steep hills. I just went ahead and lived my little old life.

So today wasn't special in the way most of us want days- and life in general- to be special. Sparse moments of stimulation separated by big cracks of ho-hum. Know what I mean?

But wait a minute. What's this about ho-hum? By now, surely I know better: ho-hum is hokum. It's my sleepy, inattentive self that ho-hums. The parts in me that work can always find something profitable to extract from time. They have to become pointed, however.


There is a solid, saturated value to the day if I refer myself to the body I inhabit: the breathing in and out of air, the impression of colors- colors are quite remarkable, really, if I take the time to try and see them a bit deeper than just surface value- and the sensation I get as I touch things. Hey, even the green of the road signs on the New Jersey turnpike can be pretty darned interesting, all things considered.

This delicate sensibility, this immediate sense of contact with my life- that's special. But I need to do a number of things to help make that available for myself in a day.

First, I need to spend at least 30 minutes in prayer and meditation every morning. As it happens I have a quite structured routine for that but any routine will do as long as it includes having a routine.

The alternative to routine is chaos. Chaos is the enemy of discipline, and discipline is the architect of spiritual life. Yes, it means getting up early- but that's a good thing, because every waking moment, no matter how sleepy-eyed, is an opportunity to work on my response to my life.

Second, I need to have reminders during the day. Reminders to stop myself and come back to specifics. Now, that could take a lot of forms, but anything that works will do. The trick is to have ways to remind myself at least once an hour to stop for a moment- and then actually do it. I say that because to think of this is easy, but thinking does not constitute action. Instead, it convincingly poses as action, and if I am not careful, I buy right into this decoy and waste the precious ammuntion of my attention on a wooden replica.

If I want to shoot the ducks, I have to point my attention in the right direction. I must demand this of myself- it takes a little extra. The more often one demands it, the more often it becomes possible.

The important thing to do here is to remember to make the demand and then act on it.

Third, I have to believe in my possibility, to want it. I must tell myself, I can take responsibility for my life. This idea of assuming responsibility is very important because for as long as my inner dialogue is one of negation, of believing that everything is impossible- or at any rate far too difficult- I'm not going to even bother trying very much.

I have to believe in myself.

In the Gurdjieff work we often repeat to ourselves the phrase, or prayer, "I wish to be." That is an effort at self-affirmation. It's a way of asking ourselves to value ourselves. To value ourselves, rightly, positively. If we don't value ourselves we won't make the efforts we need to.

So with some preparation, even the daily grind doesn't grind so much. Every day becomes an exercise in right valuation, beginning within. Its encounter with the outer may be tentative or tenuous most of the time, but it is at least a beginning.

All the centers inside us have their own individual ability to value this being, this life, so there is a terrific amount of support available if I learn how to solicit it. It takes time and effort to awaken those "extra" senses, but as more of my parts participate, ordinary life becomes much richer, more tangible.

On days like this, as I participate, gratitude seeps into the still moments.

Check it out: Gratitude is the best cement for filling cracks.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The dog food incident

Today I was at the local Costco buying some dog food. Everything starts this way.

I stood on line for five or ten minutes, patiently awaiting my turn. There were two lovely young women- both in their twenties- doing the register and packing. I know them both by sight, having seen them many times.

The girl on the register is very attractive but given to wearing a bit too much makeup. This reveals a certain hidden insecurity. From her posture, however, I routinely see that she thinks quite highly of herself- she knows she's a beauty (at least with the right makeup, anyway) and is selling it. The fact that she's selling it, unconsciously, in the service of biology is immaterial. She thinks what she has belongs to her, and at that age it's normal. Only when time begins to visibly strip it from her line by line- in growing old, it's always the mirror that delivers us the cruelest of betrayals- will she realize everything she had was only out on loan.

The other one, the packer, is a blonde. She has things wrong with the way she looks: her nose is too big and it's crooked. She has that condition where one eye wanders off in its own direction, making her look wanky, and she's gawky, awkward and selfconscious. All in all, however, she looks remarkably sympathetic; her collection of flaws oddly trumps the standard aesthetic.

And those flaws bring wisdom, too: I think this one already knows a bit more. Life cheats us with the illusion that we're beautiful, and superhuman, but we're all just clumsy bags of skin and bone, grasping for things we cannot see with eyes that don't point straight.

As the opposing impressions of these two young women struck me I was overwhelmed by an emotion I cannot describe, and tears came into my eyes. I was touched by their youth, their innocence, and by the temporary nature of the moment. Here we all are, after all, the rich, the poor, the beautiful, the gangly and the middle aged, all participating in this mass event called life, and none of us really know what it is. It's drab, colorful, reassuring, confusing, alluring, and repelling, all at the same time.

And it all ends in death.

It was this temporariness that struck me the most, struck into my very bones in a tremor of inner gravity. From the moment we are born, each of us is a leaf hanging from the branch of life, just waiting to drop. I could feel the ground shaking under me, the branch shaking over me. Everything was somehow perfect, but there was no security in the midst of this perfection.

Incongruously, I began to sing the doxology softly, spontaneously, to myself.

"Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost."

I don't know why I began to sing that but it seemed necessary when faced with this brief vision of perfect beauty so irrevocably rooted in the shadow of the valley of death.

My own mortality- the mortality of all that we are and everything around us which looks so vivid and alive- it weight upon my soul then. Somehow I briefly tasted not just my own death, but perhaps even- impossibly- death itself, in that moment.

I can't describe what it tasted like, but it called something forth from the depths of my soul, and that something was not despair, or fear, or horror.

It was praise.

God bless all of you today.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

assumptions and support

If the first question I asked myself about my relationship with other people was how I could support them- really support them in a meaningful way- I'd be getting somewhere.

Too much of my life is lived in circumstances where I see people from the point of view of what I want them to be- not what they are in and for themselves. The fact is I spend little or no time trying to really see how they are and what they need. Every time I devote even a moment to making that effort, the very first thing I see when I open my "inner eyes" is that everyone else- including all of those closest to me- is a mystery to me.

I don't- and can't- actually know what is inside them, how they are feeling, what they are thinking. Instead I have a series of ready-made assumptions about them which I apply to just about every interaction.

The assumptions are a form- just like our religious forms- that provides me with a template upon which to base my behavior. These inner templates aren't very useful. Whether we are approaching God, our spouses, co workers, or our children, they just get in the way.

Whenever possible, I can try to remind myself: isn't there the possibility of having an unmediated experience with this other person- an experience, that is, that isn't touched by the soiled fingers of my assumptions?

An experience that is honest and true and direct and just allows everything to be as it is, instead of how I want it to be?

In moments where that becomes possible- they're rare enough, that's for sure!- a new kind of vibration is present. I'm not speaking figuratively here- there is a literal vibration in the being that is different. It produces a humility that is totally absent in me under ordinary conditions.

Well, perhaps we shouldn't speak of these things. But perhaps we should. Do we really know, really understand, that something inside us can be fundamentally, radically different? That a revolution, a turning, can take place wthin, and that everything can change?

That we can perceive and receive with parts that until now we did not even know existed?

If we aren't willing to allow for that much miraculous, perhaps we should hang up our hats and settle down in front of the television, where effortless miracles are served up digitally 24/7, without any need for effort on our own part.

That's enough for some people, for sure- those immune to the troubling wasps of conscience- , and blessings be upon them. As for myself- I'm a Dutchman, and Dutch people are idiots and hardheads. They expect things to be harder than that, and they expect to work.

Hell, they like to work. And when they see dirt they have an irrepressible, uncontrollable urge to scrub it clean. Inner dirt, outer dirt: it doesn't matter. Dirt is dirt to a Dutchman.

My work these days turns out to be mostly with the people in my life, all of whom are perpetually teaching me a lot of stuff I didn't know: furthermore, stuff I didn't know I didn't know. People like me, you see, wake up every morning convinced they know just about everything, and today will no doubt be the day to fill in those last little dark corners of ignorance and dust our hands off in satisfaction at a job well done.

All the people in my life- even, perhaps especially, the ones I don't like- are constantly teaching me that they need my understanding- my compassion- my support. Like me, thay all have challenges and broken parts and screwed-up ideas, and we're all in this same messy business we call life together.

As Mr. Gurdjieff often put it, "in galoshes up to our eyebrows." Or, as we say in AA, "There but for the grace of God go I."

So if I put those lazy "inner eyes" to use the first thing I may see is that I ought to be compassionate- Gurdjieff called it "outer considering-" and try to see how I can support the people I live and work with instead of faulting them.

Being this active within calls on more than my usual set of assumptions. I need to be within the present moment and ask myself a lot of questions:

Just how is it that I am?
Just how is it that the other person is?
Just how are we together?

And once again I am drawn back to that perennial, inevitable, infallible question my teacher asked me so many years ago:

"What is the truth of this moment?"

I think a significant part of that truth always lies within an effort to support. An effort I forget all too often in my rush to make sure that I am supported.

In this question of support, perhaps it would be good if I remembered to always give it first, and never bother to think about the getting of it.

Anything else is just dirt, and even when it's seasonally gift-wrapped in my elaborate rationalizations-

dirt is dirt.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Signs of spring

It's unnaturally warm for December. Many plants around our house are still green; the winter jasmine is blooming, adding a touch of yellow that echoes the forsythia riots of the spring.

Skunk cabbge is one of the earliest plants of springtime here in the Hudson valley. It begins to send its green shoots up while snow is still on the ground, melting holes in the frozen layer above it so that it can reach the sun.

If you crush skunk cabbge it smells bad- hence the name. But left alone it exudes not stench, but beauty. Its green leaves speak to me of abundance and proliferation.

Skunk cabbage gets going early. It looks for the sun even though conditions around it are tough. While the rest of the plant world is still drowsy, trying to recover from the various insults of winter, it's up and around, spreading gorgeous early swaths of green in damp, sulphurous places where water pools up and leaves rot. Places that other plants find it difficult to root in. There's a kind of courage and optimism in its lifestyle.

Life is like that: taking root everywhere- no matter how tough conditions may be. For example, this week marine biologists discovered the mariana arc tonguefish- a fish that lives near volcanic vents in the ocean floor. This little critter is so tough it that can pause for a two minute rest on a pool of molten sulphur that's 355 degrees farenheit! Seems impossible- yet there it is. (read more at

Skunk cabbges and tonguefish. Pretty different organisms, but they have this much in common: they accept what appear to us to be very difficult conditions- uncondtionally. They adapt to them and make a living. That's a lesson I could afford to learn from.

There's anothing thing about skunk cabbage. It remind me of what grasping does to things.

When I grasp this life of mine too tightly I crush it, and it releases the same kind of inner stench. The smell is pretty powerful and so it's all I think about it: life stinks. There's my negativity in a nutshell: a bad smell that arises from my insistence on using my force inappropriately, by holding onto everything I think I want too tightly.

If I leave life alone, am less identified, less attached- it sings.

It's within the slow appreciation of each moment that beauty begins to to emerge from my frozen coating of indifference, lack of relationship. The ice thaws. The water, air, and sunlight of daily life become my food, my daily bread.

So. How to let this water of life flow in? How can I become, inside, as adaptable as life itself?

Today's another day to give it a shot. With a little luck, and a bit pf practice, maybe I'll put a bit of green in front of the sun... instead of releasing more bad odors.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Finding all the value

Life is a prickly process. A lot of it seems irritating or boring. Prickly and boring invariably provokes fear, and a run-away response.

Most of this is a product of my sleep. Every time I come back to myself I'm surprised to see that I have forgotten that the value is right here. When I dream, all the value is out there, somewhere else. The value of people is elsewhere. The value of things, events, and circumstances is outsourced to some ephemeral future date when what is later will be better than what is now -which I am not paying attention to.

At such times I couldn't even find the value in the moment of now if I wanted to. I'm not there for it. I have already dismissed it. What a shock it is to realize that the only moment there is is now, and that I am forever dismissing it. I don't honor the moment. I don't try to make it sacred through appreciation. Instead I depreciate it, which was hardly the intention I began with. I mean, I don't (at least I hope I don't) get up in the morning thinking about how I am going to mark down the various moments of the day to the cheapest possible price. But the red pen comes out early in the day drawing lines through everything I think is undesirable.


The other mistake I seem to make a lot is in assigning different classes of value. This part of life is good, that one isn't. So I'd rather be in this part than that one, or that one than this one, and so on. My value becomes a function of my dreams and my subjective ideas about how things ought to be arranged. I always want to be elsewhere so I'm never here. It's perverse: I want to get value out of life, but I am not paying into life with the hard coin of attention to the present moment.

In order to change any of this I need to find all the value. Not just the value I think I want, but the value that is actually there. So I have to accept everything I encounter as having a value of some kind. That is to say, there has to be a paradigm shift in which I finally see that everything is worth something. The only worthless moments are the ones I fail to invest attention in, and they are only worthless because I have made them worthless. In and of themselves they are completely valuable, completely true. What is false is me.

When I invest in now- that is, clothe myself in it- I generally see right away that it has a value I have forgotten. The value is always there. It's me that's not there.

Instead of assigning value willy-nilly, I think I have to become more willing to let life itself assign the value, and show up to register it.

Inner gravity can help with this. It gradually becomes a force that rejects less material and draws more in. Draws it in with the air, depositing a fine material within the body that appreciates life in a way the ordinary mind doesn't.

Every breath that I can physically locate my value in is a blessing. It just takes time.

Time, and attention.