Thursday, July 10, 2008
At the very end of Gurdjieff's posthumously published "Views From the Real World," there is a list of aphorisms.
Each one is a meaty little piece of advice about how to conduct our inner work. Most of them seem, on the surface, to say something rather straightforward. Not only that, most of us in the Gurdjieff work are quite familiar with them and have probably been hearing them -- or versions of them -- for many years.
So we assume we know what they mean. Of course, we're well behaved, politically correct little Gurdjieffians, so if asked, we'd reflexively deny that. It's the stock answer: of course we don't understand. Everything is a mystery, yada yada yada.
The underlying part of us that takes things in always makes assumptions, however, and one of the first things that it always assumes is that it knows what's going on. That happens so automatically that that part is telling us we know what's going on, even while our mouth is saying to other people that we don't know what's going on.
Consider it thus, fellow seekers:
We think we understand that we don't understand. This is a corollary to Andre Enard's comment that "We dream the dream we are awake."
Anyway, given the propensity of Gurdjieff's material to reveal unexpected depths when pondered in detail, I thought I'd take a closer look at some of the aphorisms.
I hit a wall almost immediately with the very first aphorism.
"Like what it does not like."
We would generally assume that this means that we should go against our habits, our mechanicality. ...But conundrums immediately rear their ugly heads. If it is our habit to seek pleasure, does this aphorism mean that we should become accustomed to seeking pain? Surely, it is not a call to masochism. Simplistic explanations, in other words, don't serve the aphorism at all.
Peeling back the layers of the onion, we discover that this saying is more than an aphorism (i.e., a terse statement of truth.)
It's a koan.
What is "it?" Do we know what that is?
What is it to "like" something?
What is it to "not like" something?
All of these questions have to be examined carefully before we might presume to begin to understand the direction that the aphorism is pointing us in.
Once we begin to do that, we see that the aphorism is asking us to examine how we are in the present moment, to study the inner condition and see what we are attracted to. Before one can like what it does not like, one has to see it and see it liking. So contained within this kernel is the seed of the separation of self from self, and the act of seeing. In other words, the aphorism points in the direction of having an immediate attention to how we are.
"Well, duh," you are probably intoning by now, "that's so obvious. That's what everything is all about in this work anyway."
...But how obvious is it, really?
How often do we have the ideas, but not the attention?
The attention to life isn't composed of ideas. Ideas are the policemen; ideas are the institution; ideas are the property of the government and the state.
The attention is something else again. Real attention comes from a certain subtle kind of inner energy that does not belong to the government or the state.
The attention is an insurrection. An effort to defeat the form and find something much, much larger than the idea.
Something that lives.
Several months ago I heard Peter Brook assert that our very conception of the work itself-- all of the ideas that we have about it, everything that we think about it -- are our very greatest obstacle to inner work. Our conceptions, or, perhaps more properly put, our preconceptions, stand directly in the way of our working. And it is even the very idea that we know what working means or what work is, or that we know what we are, and what we are doing, that defeats us.
The effort at attention is perpetually hidden within, encapsulated by, the ideas, just as ou own attention is hidden within the act of what we call mentation. And this aphorism is a classic example of that. It reminds me once again of Paul's letter to the Romans, in which he advocates a circumcision of the Spirit.
Only by discarding the external portion of our spiritual quest -- the coarse and excess flesh of the idea, the form, that which insulates and conceals the inner reproductive apparatus of attention-- can we hope to progress.
So there is my little thought on this particular aphorism, for today.
Going forward, I plan to study some of the other aphorisms and comment on them a bit. Not excessively or extensively; after all, I would prefer to touch gently on the subjects, not pound them with a ball peen hammer.
In the meantime, I'll share one other thought that I had this morning.
Over the course of my life, I have had numerous occasions to deal directly with people who have crippling thinking disorders. By thinking disorders I mean disorders of the associative center that prevent them from organizing their thoughts in such a way as to function in good relationship to ordinary life. There are a lot of psychological terms for these disorders, such as bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and so on.
Regrettably, I know several of them up close and very personally. The diseases are complex and debilitating; they cause terrible problems both for the individuals that have them and the people around them.
I bring all this up because the associative center frequently gets a bad rap in the Gurdjieff work. People speak of it disparagingly, as though the things that came out of it were all crap. We talk about associative thinking as though it were worthless, and often all but sneer when the subject comes up.
This is a bit typical of all of us. We don't appreciate how important the ordinary parts of us are. All you need to do is spend some time around one person with a disorder like this and you will begin to get a whole new appreciation of associative center, just how important it is for ordinary functioning, and just how grateful we ought to be that we have one at all, let alone one that functions well for us.
If we don't learn to value these "devalued" parts, we are not balancing our inner life. Every part of us that helps us function -- even a mechanical one -- is our absolute friend and confidant, and to be treated with love and respect, not like a second-class citizen that we are only putting up with until the cosmic consciousness we wish for shows up.
Learning this lesson is part of right self-valuation. Be glad you have a machine. Be glad it works okay. Thank God every day for that.
It is the beginning of appreciating life for what it is, instead of what we wish it were.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Monday, July 7, 2008
Pondering this question, it strikes me that the pervasive vanity spoken of by the author of Ecclesiastes is roughly equivalent to the ego of modern psychology ...I have a problem with the word ego, because in spiritual works it tends to get slung around like hash in a cafeteria. Everyone uses it as though they understand what it means-- as though we had enough distance from it to be objective about it.
And nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
In studying the idea of the three minds, or three centers, that Mr. Gurdjieff proposed, it occurs to me that labeling the deficiencies of our vanities with a single word, "ego," may fall well short of what we need to understand. We speak of the ego as though it were a single thing... as though, in other words, we had an inner unity, which it is indubitably true that we do not have.
Let's suppose, for a moment, that each "mind" of man -- the body, the emotions, and the intellect --has an ego, that is, a motive force based on vanity -- that is peculiar to it. There is an ego of body. There is an ego of emotion. There is an ego of intellect.
The idea isn't a big reach. I think if you look around you, you may see that most human manifestations arise from vanities whose centers of gravity can be found in one or the other of these three centers.
In each case, the centers have a conceit that they are powerful. We see the extension of this conceit of the body in the myths of the super--powerful: bodies that live forever, can perform impossible tasks, and that exude a health and vitality far out of proportion to what is realistically possible. A great deal of modern culture goes into the worship of this ideal, in sports, health and beauty products, and so on; not to mention comic book super-heroes.
The emotions, too, fuel their vanity on exaggerated ideas about what is possible: this is especially visible in the world of popular music, where massive amounts of amplification are used to convey an invincibility of emotional sincerity, whatever type of emotion it may be. Love lasts forever, and sentiment replaces effort wherever it can.
The intellect is no different. We live in a society that is built on the unstable foundations of an endless number of theories, almost all of which fail when they collide with reality.
Given the proclivity of these "center based egos" to project themselves so forcefully on the larger canvas of popular culture, we should probably expect to discover similar features in our own psychic life. We do, I think; or at least I do. And it is these features of vanity within these three centers that I need to become aware of.
More often than not, the breaking down of the ego is cast in terms that suggest there is only one ego. Gurdjieff's own theory of the multiplicity of "I"'s suggests that perhaps there are many different egos. In any event, the breaking down of the ego is by no means just cleaning the furniture out of our psychological attic. That activity stems from forms, words, and understanding that are all born on this level, and it is our very entanglement with this level in itself that lies at the root of the problem. Every one of our centers is too invested in attempting to draw all its sustenance from the external, and, even worse, firmly believing that it can do so. In the absence of an alternative, the centers become more and more diseased, as they attempt to fit life to the form of their own desires.
Reframing it in somewhat new terms, all three centers must lose their ego in order for something new to take place. Each one of them has to learn to submit to a higher authority. It is a mental, physical, and emotional process, involving dreams, sweat, blood, and tears. A great deal of suffering is necessary in order for us to begin to understand this. Suffering taken not only in the ordinary terms, that is, things that are objectively difficult for us both intellectually, emotionally, and physically, but also taken in extraordinary terms.
The extraordinary form of suffering is in allowing: in accepting the conditions we find ourselves in, and willingly engaging in them, rather than struggling to escape. And perhaps the real "terror of the situation" is that, even long after this is understood with a more than just one part, the wish to run away does not leave us.
To stand up within our self, to learn how to occupy a vertical position between the inner and the outer, is the beginning of being willing to see what we are. And until, I think, we suffer our vanity for a very long time, we will continue to make terrible and terrifying assumptions about who and what we are. And we are so far gone, on the whole, that it is only the great equalizer -- death itself -- that can bring some of us back to sobriety.
I have mentioned this before, but I'll say it again. The most memorable sitting I was ever at was many, many years ago on a Thursday morning at the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York.
Peggy Flinsch led that particular sitting, and she began it with the words: "We are tiny little creatures."
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
One of the inevitable contradictions that arises in spiritual works is the question of what the master called on his followers to do, versus what actually happens after he dies.
Almost all spiritual masters -- from Jesus Christ to Buddha to the lesser, but nevertheless extremely significant, teachers such as Mr. Gurdjieff-- call on their followers to make an effort to develop a consciousness within this life, to make an effort now, to discover a personal authority now.
Generally speaking, from what I've seen, the organizations that carry on teachings after a master dies codify the teaching in such a way that the authority must always reside in the master. The root teaching almost invariably says that the individuals are supposed to acquire the same kind of authority that the master did, but that's just what they say. In organizations that follow in the footsteps of the teacher, to actually acquire a personal authority is almost forbidden; no one should be allowed to develop a meaningful personal authority that would supersede the master. Of course, no one would ever admit this, but the cultural immune systems of organized works and religions enforce the rule nonetheless.
We see this, for example, in Judaism: the Messiah is always coming, but he is always coming later. He won't be coming now. You can relax and stop worrying about that. In fact, if the Messiah comes now, he will screw the whole thing up. So the entire organization becomes invested in making sure the Messiah doesn't come. It's never now.
Christians have decided, on the other hand, that it is okay for apocalypse to come. The nonsensical but powerful idea of the "end times" has obsessed many biblically literal Christians in the South, who are blissfully unaware of the fact that there is absolutely no Old or New Testament support whatsoever for this made-up idea. They are quite eager for everything to be destroyed, at which point -- in the future, mind you -- then the Messiah will then be allowed to come. The proposition of actually attaining what Christ called us to, the idea of an inner transformation which puts us in direct touch with our Father now, is forbidden.
In Buddhism, great masters steer people away from the idea of enlightenment, because the idea itself implies that enlightenment is something that will happen later, in the future. --Not now, where it is supposed to be happening.
Of course, every practice produces some few mavericks who actually do discover something on the order of what the teacher was aiming at. The cultural immune system often tries to kick most of them out as quickly as possible, because others aren't willing to accept it. Even worse, because such personal authority is usually fragmentary -- that is to say, development arrives in almost all men quite partially -- the next thing you know, things split up and people go in different directions.
This is one of the difficulties with religions and practices that rely on personal revelation. Once you have admitted to the idea that any individual in the organization can attain an authority, you invite a splintering action.
The Mormons certainly discovered this. The idea of founding a religion based on the idea that anyone could prophecy turned out to be terrific, right up until it turned out that this meant anyone could be a prophet. Some time after crafting his religion, Joseph Smith realized this, and belatedly introduced an injunction that he was the only person allowed to prophecy--but by that time, the cat was out of the bag. Mormons began to spawn a seemingly endless number of authorities. You can read a fascinating account of the difficulties this created in "Under The Banner Of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer. The book, incidentally, is required reading for people who study religions of revelation. He raises a great deal of interesting questions in the last chapter which all of us ought to pay some attention to.
In any event, what happens in organizations that have codified teachings is that the power possessing beings at the head of the organization want to control the authority. One of the aims is to make sure that no one acquires an authority greater than the founder. The founder becomes a sacred cow, an object of worship. I have encountered this phenomenon myself in the Gurdjieff work. On several occasions, I've intimated that not every single action Mr. Gurdjieff ever undertook was entirely conscious. That is to say, I implied that he was human like the rest of us.
The reactions that I garnered from this statement were extreme. Many people got very, very upset ...darn, I never knew Gurdjieff needed so many defenders.
It surprised me, because it seems self-evident to me that this proposition has to be true. After all, we are taught that even Jesus Christ was a man, and had human characteristics. If he was so far above us that he did not experience any human failures, then he didn't experience what it is to be human, did he?
If you are human, but perfect, then you aren't human. You can't have it both ways.
Gurdjieff, alone among a wide range of spiritual masters, seems to have foreseen the pitfalls of master-worship. He drove a great many of his followers away just to prevent this kind of nonsense. It's a great irony, then, that we see it rearing its head in the almost cultlike devotion that some direct towards his memory.
I think it's safe to say that Gurdjieff's wish for us was to find a personal authority. That was one of the great points of his work, in some ways. Never mind whether the organizations we are in allow us to have a personal authority or not. If we get hung up on that, we are missing the point. Here is the question.
Are we willing to let ourselves discover a personal authority?
Or are we actually much more interested -- as Ouspensky by his own admission was -- in letting someone else be the authority for us?
The cult of charismatics that dominates so many spiritual works underscores the tendency towards this disease. The whole phenomenon of charisma is, in fact, a poison that distracts people from their own work. The moment I meet a charismatic, I'm suspicious. Call me undeveloped if you want to, I just don't trust that kind of energy. It's the people I don't like that I'm interested in. If someone is not oozing a suspiciously attractive kind of energy out of their pores, but nonetheless has a presence and a message I find compelling, well then ...there, to me, is one who may have an authority. The highways of spirituality are littered with the wreckage of people who mistook charisma for development. Consider it.
Can we actually recognize authority? Remember, many people who met Jesus Christ in the flesh did not see his authority. This implies that everyone's ability to understand what real spiritual development is is impaired. So maybe we don't know who has authority. Maybe we don't know what authority is. Maybe our assumptions about it are incorrect.
The next time that we see our egos raising their hackles at the prospect of someone else's authority, it might be a good idea to focus on where our own authority within ourselves lies, rather than worrying about whether they are or are not an authority. Just as we can discover an organic sense of being, so, too, we can reach within towards an organic sense of personal authority, an authority which belongs to us, and not to those around us.
Mr. Gurdjieff wrote about this eloquently in one of the last essays in "Views From The Real World:"
New York, March 1, 1924.
"You should understand and establish it as a strict rule that you must not pay attention to other people’s opinions, you must be free of the people surrounding you.When you are free inside, you will be free of them."
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Monday, June 30, 2008
We are going to stoop to a rather low subject today, both because it's interesting to me in context, and because it perhaps illustrates just how little we actually think about what things mean. It's also an exercise in attempting to understand something from many points of view, rather than the one that we reactively adopt when we hear a particular word.
When asked about the place of pleasure in spiritual work, Mr. Gurdjieff famously answered "pleasure is shit."
Gurdjieff was well known for using coarse language, and dismissing the ordinary motivations in life. Hence, it appears to be in character: the statement seems to be a devaluation of what most of us value.
Pleasure is intensely motivational. Biologists have conclusively demonstrated that most animals will work in order to obtain pleasure. From a biological point of view, we all operate on a stimulus/response mechanism. If the stimulus isn't pleasurable, we are unlikely to respond. Or if we do, the response will be one that tries to eliminate the stimulus in one way or another. We go towards pleasure. We run away from pain.
No matter, this. The bottom line is that when we hear Mr. Gurdjieff say, "pleasure is shit," we hear him saying pleasure is bad.
The interpretation is far too narrow. First of all, we know that Mr. Gurdjieff certainly indulged himself in a range of pleasures. He didn't find the activity below him. Secondly, Mr. Gurdjieff came from a traditional culture where the value of what we call "shit" was definitely very different than the way we see it in the developed world. All you need to do is take a trip to Pakistani villages and see the cattle dung formed into hundreds of neat round patties, slapped onto brick walls to dry for fuel to understand that other cultures view animal waste very differently than we do.
They don't throw it away like we do, flushing it as far out of sight as quickly possible... why, they save it!
Manure also has inestimable value as a fertilizer. Traditional cultures save it and make sure that it goes onto their land, so that the crops will be richer. When I first traveled to Shanghai, over 20 years ago, the whole city was still collecting human excrement in pots to be picked up every morning so that it could be distributed to the surrounding fields (which now sport factories and high-rises.) Of course, China has lost that in the big cities, but the point is that even in today's world, shit has a real value.
It's difficult to believe that Gurdjieff did not have all of this in mind when he made his statement.
The positive role of excrement in life holds true from a biological perspective as well. Everyone has seen dogs eat excrement; it seems disgusting, but the fact is that there is still plenty of nutrition in excrement, and dogs know it. Other animals know it too, which is why the practice is fairly widespread in the animal kingdom. Not only that, there are many animals that make their meals almost exclusively from this substance, particularly insects of a wide variety. One of these insects, the scarab beetle, was considered to be a sacred animal by the Egyptians, rather than a profane one, despite its execrable diet.
We can go a step further. The very soil itself -- the dirt in which we grow the plants that sustain our life, and the life of all the animals on the planet -- is made primarily of worm excrement. Darwin's very last book -- published in 1882, the year before he died -- was a groundbreaking examination of this process, one that was originally dismissed as unimportant and peculiar, but now understood as fundamental and extraordinary.
So the idea that pleasure is shit doesn't dismiss pleasure and its place in our lives at all; it redefines pleasure. We might, for example, regard it as the soil in which our life and being grow. In other words, Mr. Gurdjieff's statement, which implies at face value that pleasure is the least important and least valuable thing in life, might in fact mean that it is a most important, and most fundamental, thing. Now, mind you, I'm not saying it is -- I'm just pointing out that this is a possibility, and an intriguing one, given how reflexively we usually understand terms.
Pleasure as a fertilizer; pleasure as a fuel. Pleasure as a food source. Pleasure as just as much of a necessity as manure is.
Pleasure has one more dimension that becomes evident when we consider Gurdjieff's contention that every pleasure is experienced only as the result of some other suffering already experienced. It means that pleasure is a byproduct, just like excrement.
It is the result of something that has been properly digested.
If we are looking for a justification -- not that we need to, but what the heck -- for seeking and enjoying pleasure within life, I think that we can see an affirmation here of the idea that adopting an ascetic lifestyle to support spiritual endeavors is not only not necessary: it's not even desirable. It extinguishes one of the main impulses in life, along with the vital support that impulse offers to the act of being itself.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Friday, June 27, 2008
Some of my best and closest friends in the work enjoy characterizing our efforts as a warrior's struggle.
I can support their effort and their view. This is certainly one of the potential contexts and paths of interpretation from which we can view inner effort. Ouspensky's "In Search of the Miraculous" opens a window on the early era in Gurdjieff's teaching, where these ideas certainly dominated both Ouspensky's interests and Gurdjieff's transmission.
Not only did the book seem completely valid and accurate to me when I first read it over 30 years ago, it continues to present a compelling cosmology, one which, in the light of recent discoveries in physics and biology, seems increasingly relevant to man's contemporary understanding.
Nonetheless, the book has a dark side, and many people who read it are concerned by the impossibility of the work it proposes. We are in desperate circumstances, under desperate conditions, and desperately short of resources for this work -- that point is made over and over again. Our chances seem limited, our possibilities tightly constrained by how badly mankind's conditions have deteriorated. This is a message, incidentally, which Gurdjieff's classic "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson" also drives home in a hundred different ways.
The other great flaw of this book is that it is annoyingly intellectual. I actually value it for that quality, but the material in it obscures a great deal of what might be understood because it is not accessible to people whose intellect isn't strong and persistent.
That problem did not escape the master himself. It seems clear to everyone who knew him that Gurdjieff's emphasis on teaching method had changed considerably by the time he died. Ouspensky himself openly confessed that he left Gurdjieff because Gurdjieff's work was becoming too spiritual for him. I think it's clear that Gurdjieff began, from his highly evolved djana yoga practice, to integrate the development of the heart into his work in a new way. In other words, having understood what was necessary -- as he explained to Ouspensky -- he then proceeded to acquire it. And what was necessary was love: not love as we ordinarily understand it, but an objective love that encompassed everything and everyone.
It seems to me that although she admitted to--and never abandoned the question of -- the difficulties alluded to in the early teachings of the Fourth Way, Jeanne DeSalzmann continued in Gurdjieff's footsteps by offering us a work with more hope. Not only that, she transformed the work to a work that puts more love at the heart of the enterprise. Ravi Ravindra's "Heart Without Measure" is a document of that transformation. And I think that today's work at the various Gurdjieff Foundations worldwide has certainly expanded that flowering tree so that many blossoms are now in the process of opening.
So what of the terrible difficulties? What of "the terror of the situation?" And what of the Warrior's Path?
It's true we are in a terribly difficult position. However, the temptation to see it as an extremely negative position is just another artifact of our ordinary state. Violence will not lead us where we need to go. In my own experience, our temptation to see it this way is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Framing our inner effort as a struggle is less productive than framing it as an effort at relationship. All of the oldest people in the Work continually bring that point back home on a regular basis. The drama of struggle is attractive, but the world is not made of warriors alone.
It needs farmers to feed them, and women to love them, too.
We must not adopt a philosophy or a working method which implies a permission, or even a need, to dismiss and devalue everything about our ordinary life. We do not, as I understand it, need to eliminate these impulses. We need to form a different relationship to them.
A gradual and balanced inner transformation will lead us to a relationship that accepts these impulses and their mechanicality, along with the fact that they do exist and have a value on the level they manifest on, in a healthy way.
It is not the condemnation of what we are that will lead us to an inner transformation. It is the exploration of what we are. As Henri Trachol once said to me, "Life is an experiment in which we are called upon to participate."
I wish to point us all back to the idea that every manifestation, every arising, on every level is both valid and true. Events, circumstances, and manifestations differ according to level, and some of them appear to be difficult or even horrible. All of them, however, are both necessary and lawful. Mr. Gurdjieff made this point many times in his discussions with Ouspensky.
An objective point of view takes this into account without judging. The difficulty we are in stems from our partiality. By viewing the events, circumstances, and manifestations on this level partially -- that is, without a wholeness of the inner centers -- we fail to understand their significance or how they can help us to grow. All of them are food, and all of them can be ingested differently, according to inner relationship.
In confronting this question, it is our opinions that give us indigestion.
As regular readers know, I deal with the questions of psychology, as opposed to inner work, on a regular basis in this blog. There is a constant temptation on everyone's part to confuse the machinations of ordinary life and ordinary psychology with what is necessary for inner transformation. We all find ourselves locked in the middle of this confusion. It is, in the end, a mixing of levels, which my own teacher admonished me about many years ago. It took me many years to understand what she meant by that.
If we truly begin to distinguish between the inner and outer self, a discrimination can emerge which will begin to clarify that question.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
What is self observation?
The practice of self observation usually revolves around what is observed. Agreed, that may sound pathetically obvious; bear with me here for a moment.
When we discuss our work on self observation amongst each other--or even with ourselves--, we usually describe what we see. Then we draw inferences from it.
This invariably leads to elaborated psychological analysis of one kind or another. By turning the behaviors that we see in ourselves into objects, rather than fluid events, we degrade our possibilities of understanding. Above all, we fail to understand that our interpretations are not sufficient. They already come after the fact; by the time we reach them, we have already walked right past what is vital.
The things that are seen in us, and by us, are not objects. They are not static; they are not "things." We are not this way or that way; we are many different ways. What we see when we observe ourselves is actually a constantly changing state of experiences, impressions, and reactions. It is seeing the movement itself, perhaps, that is most significant.
In the conventional and literal interpretation of the practice of self observation, one might say, we try to freeze the various aspects of this movement so that they can be studied, but they don't bear any more relationship to our "real" life, in a way, than a dead bug pinned to a board does to a living one. It's true that the dead bug comes from the living bug, but it has lost the most essential character that defines it. Referring back to what was seen already obscures the present.
We then proceed to apply all of our current set of opinions, preconceptions, supposed understandings, and so on to the dead bug, coloring it, in the process, even more than death itself did. In this way, I think, most of what we call self observation -- the collecting of so-called "facts" about ourselves -- forms a construction of spectacular inaccuracies.
It is not what we see that matters. It is to dwell within the act of seeing itself.
This act of seeing can take place only within consciousness, which occupies the exact location between the inner receiving apparatus and the external arisings of life. Seeing is, in other words, the fulfillment of the task Mr. Gurdjieff assigned his pupils when he told them to "place the attention at the point where impressions enter the body."
Of course, this instruction has multiple meanings and possibilities, but no matter where it is applied -- whether to the external arisings of ordinary life, or the breath as it enters the body-- it always involves occupying the middle ground. It involves being within life as it takes place, not thinking about what is happening.
In seeing, I think one of the things we may see is that we have parts that perpetually insist on turning everything that is seen into something dead--and the sooner, the better. The conceptual mind functions as the killing jar of spiritual entymology.
More often than not, these same parts prefer to impart a negative value to a great deal of what goes on. There needs to be a constant letting go in order to move past this. Otherwise, every inner criticism, every finding of fault with ourselves -- or with others -- becomes another dead bug.
A few days ago, someone I know in the Arkansas groups raised the question of why it seems most of us, when we do talk about what we "observe" in ourselves, speak about seeing things which are, for the most part, negative in one way or another. Things that we feel are wrong with ourselves, things that ought to be fixed in one way or another.
I thought it was an excellent question. If we are truly seeing ourselves, shouldn't we be seeing all of the aspects of ourselves? How often do we observe ourselves -- even in a quite ordinary way -- and say to ourselves, "Gee, I am pretty good at that," or, "this is one of the good things about me"?
As I have pointed out many times over the years, I suspect we are nowhere near as "bad" as we think we are. If we are going to forgive trespasses, and ask that our own be forgiven, we should perhaps also remember to forgive ourselves first.
This all leads me back to my "stupid man's Zen," whereby no matter what one encounters, one simply looks at it and says
"it's not so bad, really."
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
This morning I began my day as I usually do on weekdays, with a cup of espresso and a reading from the Flower Ornament Sutra, followed by meditation.
It's tempting to get the impression that the Flower Ornament Sutra is boring. It reiterates the same concepts so many times that it can be difficult to digest. On the other hand, the very structure of the text itself reflects its content: an infinite universe, filled with an incomprehensible number of perfect arisings, all informed by Buddha nature. Taken from this point of view, the text itself is a perfect reflection of its own nature, and that is a considerable feat. Despite the obvious and penetrating differences between this text and Gurdjieff's "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," I have found myself comparing them. Each book seems to be unique and extraordinary, and have an aim that transcends any of our ordinary understanding.
Above all, the Flower Ornament Sutra conveys a magical sense of being: a universe in which limitless positive possibilities exist, in which every atom is a unique expression of Godhood. The deluge of blossoming, multiplying, glorious oneness which the text pours over the reader is not only overwhelming to the Western mind; it would be overwhelming to any mind, and the author (or authors) seems to understand that. Again and again, the text refers to the unspeakable and incomprehensible nature of reality.
This idea of incomprehensibility has fallen by the wayside in our technological culture. We have devolved into creatures who believe that everything can be comprehensible, if only we apply our minds vigorously enough.
And comprehensibility, of course, provides for the extinction of magic, because magic, by its very definition, cannot be comprehended.
As my wife and I were walking the dog this morning, I came to a moment where I was walking past a neighbor's lawn where there seemed to be a single tiny drop of dew on every single blade of grass. Here were the selfsame jewels and adornments of the flower ornament sutra, the myriad arisings of perfection and blessing, oceans of worlds, each one suspended on its own green scepter, sparkling in the light of the sun like a moist, tiny star.
At another moment we passed a log, and here again was an entire world within an ocean of worlds, a place of hardness and softness, decay and grubs and worms.
The baroque text of the Flower Ornament Sutra is about nothing more than this present reality. Everywhere we go, we are surrounded by an extraordinary universe of vibration, and worlds within worlds.
Because we externalize, we impart the magic to the objects, and indeed, the objects contain something. But just as in the case of art, which I discussed yesterday, what is contained in the objects does not create the magic. The magic lies within the experience of perception.
Our externalization of magic, our externalization of meaning, creates the self by separating us from meaning and magic, by placing it over there, while we are here. What we don't see is that the meaning and the magic arise within us; there is no "over there." Rather than reaching out to the objects so that they can be our touchstones, it is the taking in of the objects through all of the senses -- both inner and outer --that creates food for the soul.
To use the external as the barometer is our profound and chronic mistake. We want to measure the world with books, and instruments, and maps, and perhaps even magical objects.
We forget that the only measuring instrument that can measure our world correctly is the heart.
So don't forget, as you go forward into this today and the next one, to measure yourself from within yourself, to see where you are, and to live as much as possible from the heart -- from the center of the body -- and from the organic sense of your own being.
Look for those drops of water that sparkle at the ends of countless blades of grass.
Look for the clouds of tiny insects that hover in a beam of late afternoon sunlight.
Look for the deer, and the rabbits, and redwing blackbirds speeding towards hidden marshes, where the reeds are rich and green.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Monday, June 23, 2008
After a seven-year hiatus, I have begun to do artwork again, having finally rediscovered a connection -- albeit a different kind -- with my artistic inclinations.
The first results of this resurrected impulse were posted on the blog last week in the entry "Crossing the Bridge." The piece--a phoenix, appropriately enough, in colored pencil, 30" x 40"--is part of an intended series called "creatures of light and darkness -- images drawn from the collective unconscious."
In taking this enterprise up again, it occurs to me that most of us do not really understand art. I'm not talking about understanding it from the perspective of materials, technique, art history, critique, or commercialism. Anyone with a reasonable mind and motivation who wishes to can educate themselves in these areas. [Those who are interested in the biological roots of art would do well to read Ellen Dissanayake's "Homo Aestheticus," a highly academic work that manages to brilliantly place art at the heart of man's evolutionary enterprise, rather than at its periphery.]
I'm going to present a completely different idea about art today.
All of us mistake art for being the objects or the events. We make something beautiful -- and that beautiful thing is called art. We write music, and then what we hear when we hear it played is called art. We see dance, and the dance is referred to as art. Any and all of these things, these external experiences, objects, and juxtapositions, are collectively labeled as art. Dissanayake recognizes that these enterprises cover such a wide range of territory that the word "art" may be too narrow. She calls it "making things special."
A revolutionary possibility arises from an inversion of our usual understanding: art is not within the objects, events, or circumstances.
Art is always and ever in the seeing.
The experience of the object is art. That is to say, the arrival of the impression of whatever it is that is being perceived is the actual event called "art.". Art is, in other words, a neurological phenomenon, and only exists in the context of the perceiver and what is received.
This means that man-made objects -- which, we can all absolutely agree, may greatly stimulate such perceptions -- are not the only form of art. And indeed, if we read P. D. Ouspensky's "A New Model of the Universe," we discover that before he ever met Gurdjieff, he had recognized that the extraordinary forms, shapes, colors, organisms and lifestyles that nature produces are actually a form of art. He called it "fashion in nature," but it's clear he understood that nature itself is an artist. Or at least he understood that the perception of nature has the question of art resident within it.
If we look at Emerson's writings about the nature of art and the nature of nature itself, we discover that he asked similar questions about the nature of art in relationship to the perception of the sacred. He always felt that nature expressed art in a manner far higher than anything man was capable of. If this was Romanticism, it was Romanticism in the classical sense: not a romanticism of sentiment alone, but a recognition of the fact that the exploration of nature with our senses is an unparalleled, magnificent adventure that lasts through a lifetime.
Neither one of these remarkable thinkers took the final step in to seeing that the art lies in the perceiving, not in what is perceived.
We arrive once again at the point where the crossing of the bridge between the outer and the inner is the enterprise where meaning arises.
Understood in this manner -- that art is in the seeing -- we discover that there is an essential quality to seeing in which every manifestation of an external reality becomes a perfect expression of the sacred. This understanding, which is born of the organism in a moment where it truly sees, lies close to the heart of the concept of essential perfection that we encounter in Sufism, Buddhism, Christianity, and other major religions. All events, all circumstances, all arisings, are art if they are perceived properly.
I realize as I explain this that the word "art" is insufficient. We can begin there, by turning the concept of art on its head and saying that the object is not art, the act of perception of the object is art, but then we start to tiptoe up to territory in which the word "art" cannot express what needs to be expressed.
The inherent nature of deep organic perception--seeing--transcends what we call art, it transcends what we call beauty. It begins to touch an emotional well within the human soul that the casual experience of Beethoven's symphonies or van Gogh's paintings only hint at.
Worth looking at, this.
Perhaps even worth seeing.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
As many of you know, I have contended for some years that Gurdjieff’s System of cosmology is best understood using two relatively new ideas in science theory.
One of them is fractals; Gurdjieff’s universe, as modeled in the enneagram,
portrays the universe composed of multiple levels, where each level
exactly mirrors the levels both above it and below it. The enneagram is,
in fact, a true fractal structure, although one has to delve into it a
bit in order to understand that.
The second idea is the idea of emergence; admittedly, this idea does not appear as such in Gurdjieff’s system, but he would have readily understood it. (Readers not familiar with the idea should click on the link and refer to the Wikipedia explanation.) Gurdjieff’s universe, which from top to bottom is one gargantuan machine, fits well with science’s view of reality. God is an emergent property of the universe, dependent upon it for His own existence.
July issue of Scientific American—recommended reading!—presents almost
identical arguments drawn from the cutting edge of physics in the
article entitled, "The Self-Organizing Quantum Universe", by Jan
Ambjorn, Jerzy Jurkiewicz and Renate Loll.
It turns out Gurdjieff had it right all along. It has only taken the rest of the world almost 80 years to catch up with him.
Readers interested in possible broader overall implications of this development might check out my essay, “light and the resolution of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle,” which not only predates the scientific American article by some five years, but also proposes some unique possibilities in regard to the nature of light and matter, which relate to the idea of an emergent universe and the emergent nature of consciousness itself.
Central to the arguments in the Scientific American article, the only way to invoke a self-assembling universe from a simple group of quantum constituents with relatively straightforward properties is to invoke cause-and-effect at the root of the organization. That is to say, the laws of cause-and-effect run everything, and the linear development of time itself is what makes the emergence of classical reality from the quantum state possible.
are intriguing parallels here to Gurdjieff’s contention that God
created the universe in order to counteract the effects of time. The physicists are essentially arguing that without time as we understand it, there could be no universe. In
Gurdjieff’s cosmology, without time, there would be no need for the
universe: cause-and-effect are linked at the root of time and space.
The central nature of cause-and-effect in the understanding of both the cosmos and personal practice is repeatedly emphasized in Dogen’s work. As he points out in his Shobogenzo, the famous lesson in the koan about the red fox underscores the fact that there can be no escape from the laws of cause-and-effect. Transcendence is not about escaping the universe; it is about inhabiting it.
All of this is a rather roundabout way of getting me to the subject that I have been planning to write about for the past few days, which is the question of scale.
To put the number of stars in the known universe in perspective, consider this: there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of this planet combined. If that sounds staggering, let me go further and say that that is a very conservative estimate. It could be double or triple; it could be quadruple. No one is quite sure. Taken from that point of view, man is an incredibly tiny organism.
We are, in fact, infinitesimally small, so small that we’re much closer to atoms in scale than to any galactic structures. One might say that we are the atoms of sentient life-the very tiniest of constituent elements. We stand in relationship to higher levels of sentient life (which, as Carlos Castaneda points out, may well be inorganic) as our cells stand to us.
I bring this question of smallness up because our illusion is that we are large. We constantly believe that we are important, that what we do affects things in a dramatic and meaningful way, that our art, our sciences, our technology, our cultures and our civilizations have a weight, a gravity, a grandeur that somehow reaches out into the universe.
This idea is anthropomorphic narcissim. Nothing could actually be further from the truth. The organic life on the skin of this planet taken as a whole affects only the immediate vicinity of the planet itself, and perhaps – if we want to agree with Gurdjieff –has some effect on some of the planetary bodies around us. Beyond that, we mean almost nothing. If this planet was immolated in a supernova tomorrow morning, the overall effect on the galaxy – let alone the universe –would be completely negligible. Constituents on our scale are expendable. It’s no different with cells. If one of our cells dies, we don’t notice it. It’s true, if a billion of them die, we‘ll notice it. But individual cells are almost insignificant.
All of this brings me to a point that I realized a few nights ago. Man tries to construct his understanding from facts.
It’s true that there are facts. Ouspensky was obsessed with the idea of facts, and all but demanded that Gurdjieff deliver them. Gurdjieff, of course, promised him there would be facts. And there are.
Nonetheless, the law of cause-and-effect renders attention to facts irrelevant.
Facts can be assembled in any number of ways to prove anything you like. They’re like Lego blocks. Each one of them is a reality in itself, but you can make different structures out of them over and over. All of the elements within the structure are true, but that does not mean that the structure itself is true. It is a moving entity within time, subject to change.
We can believe anything we want to; things always take care of themselves regardless. The law of cause-and-effect guarantees that the universe proceeds according to law regardless of man’s opinions or subjectivity. This is why the suspension of judgment and the effort to simply inhabit what is leads us closer to the heart of what is true.
Truth incorporates all facts, but it is not assembled from them.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Today I'm going to discuss an aspect of practice that has come to my attention recently which is a bit delicate. This is another one of those unfortunate occasions (like all of them, lol) when we have to use words to investigate a wordless phenomenon, and try to use descriptions to define the indescribable.
Practice in the sense of meditation and inner study always springs out of form, and form always begins with words. So, for example, if we are studying the Lord's prayer in our meditative work, we might be studying the phrase, "thy will be done." I am just taking this particular phrase as an example, because any object of inner study or meditation could serve equally well.
In any event, one of the practices that we can attempt is to truly find an understanding of a phrase within the context of our meditation, as we sense our bodies, our breathing, and our overall state. This is a deep way of going into prayer and studying the individual aspects of a prayer, in order to absorb it into the marrow of the bones themselves. This particular effort is one invariable aspect of my daily practice.
In working in this way this morning, I perceived that there is a direct parallel between the question of spirit and flesh, the inner and outer sensation of life, and what one might call an inner and outer aspect to the question of form and no-form within the body of organic experience itself. So this question of form and abandonment of form can become a completely organic question in the context of the meditation.
The outer aspect is the encounter of the body, the mind, and the emotions with the object of study within the context of form.
The inner aspect is the territory in which the form is abandoned, and a complete immersion in the questioning takes place. I would try to describe that further, but I see I can't, so I will stop there.
What interests me is the moment where we find the point between the form, where attention, intention, and effort originally reside, and the actual entry into the aim of the form. In this moment one engages the intention and the attention to cross a bridge from the known to the unknown. One discovers here the difference between the hypotheses and the experiment; between the aim of the archer and the flight of the arrow itself.
Understanding this moment in a deeper way, and discovering a greater interest in it, would represent a leap forward in terms of understanding what it means to stand in the middle. In fact, I see that I have stood in this place many, many times, but I did not know where I was standing. That is to say, I knew, but I did not understand.
So perhaps we can suggest this: one does not have to abandon the form; one does not have to completely immerse oneself in the question of the inner, at the expense of the outer. It is possible for consciousness to discover its balance between these two points so that an exchange can take place between them. And in fact it was not too long ago that a man I considered to be a true master intimated to me that the whole point is to stand in the middle there and see this, rather than to be taken by the form, or absorbed into the absence of form. His contention was that it is exactly here where the birth of something new can begin to take place.
What I am getting at is an expansion of a concept that has been offered for some months now. We've investigated the question of inner and outer impressions and the inner and outer senses for quite some time. The question of the position of consciousness between the inner and the outer in the overall sense of the organism is of course critical. This is where the questions of attention and intention are best investigated.
However, there is an identical set of circumstances within the inner life itself. In the act of meditation, the tension created by the crossing of this bridge between form and absence of form has a magnificent potential.
The flow of energy between the form we create with what we might call "our outer inner being"--that part that calls for help to the unknown -- and the formlessness of the inner inner being, which is in intimate contact with that place that is not silent, but has no words -- is a powerful subject for study.
Man, after all, is a bridge between levels. The nature of the bridge is not to try and be the left side of the river, or to be the right side of the river.
The nature of the bridge is to serve so that movement can take place between the two sides of the river.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Monday, June 16, 2008
Just before I went to lunch today, a good friend of mine who is a fascinating study--a brilliant , Pentecostal Brahman from India with an MBA, endowed with all the easy arrogance of his caste, and a great sense of humor--advised me, "There's a devil at every level."
We both had a good laugh at that.
I've had a good deal of devils lately, all the way from microbes to "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," which, it turns out, will apparently never be fully sound edited. On top of that, my friend rlnyc is invoking devils in his musical theory, while my various religious friends, peers, and instructors alternately either insist that Satan is absolutely real, and utterly bent on destroying us all,
...or a figment of our imagination which we create ourselves, consequently destroying the perfection of the world.
I'm still reading the Flower Ornament Sutra. This magnificent text creates a picture of countless thousands of deities, each one of them an individual god, but all of them part of one single God. In this vision, we find no devils. Only a universe composed of infinite perfections, each one of which is infinitely revealed.
It occurs to me today that the devil is in the labels themselves. On this level, because we are unable to perceive from anything other than our dualistic perspective, good and evil emerge effortlessly from our perception. We cannot, as Gurdjieff so uncomfortably intimated, see that they are just two ends of the same stick.
In perceiving deficiency, which is in the nature of dualism, our natural instinct is to wish to fix it. To resolve it, to make it go away, so that everything conforms to our own uniquely partial idea of what perfection should be.
We forget that according to Zen practice, perfection does not exist. Imperfection does not exist. Even the very belief in enlightenment itself is mistaken: it implies an opposite state. When U.G. Krishnamurti said that there was no such thing as enlightenment--that men are, just as they are, already complete and perfect, but just don't know it-- he was echoing the observations of Zen, and perhaps those of Buddhism at large, if we want to judge from the perspective of the Flower Ornament Sutra.
At our own level, in the midst of perceived imperfections, there is an inevitable and driving urge to correct them. Perhaps man can't live without such urges: after all, in Beelzebub, Gurdjieff paints a picture of fallen mankind, endlessly striving to lift its level of Being up to one appropriate to that of a "three brained being." The allegory is conducted, inevitably, in terms of external influences and circumstances, but the quest is, in the end, forever inner.
In this context, we are tempted, when we actually touch the elephant--or are touched by it--to believe that the elephant's strength, its purity, its nobility and its heart of Truth can be turned to the task of "correcting" what is seen as deficient in the ordinary world.
Perhaps, however--just perhaps-- it doesn't work that way. Perhaps elephants are elephants, and ought to be left to be the elephants they are. Perhaps the work of the elephant is an inner work that, although it touches this world, can never be quite of this world--or at least not in the sense that we understand it.
Perhaps the elephant knows just what it is up to, despite the interference of our ordinary mind, our ordinary needs, our ordinary insistence.
I bring this up in order to remind us all that--as the Christian prayer says--we are here to lift our hearts up to the Lord, not to bring the Lord down to our level. When we confuse the energy, and the work, of the inner with the coarser work and even cruder requirements of the outer, we attempt to blend two separate levels, rather than mediate between them.
I am here, in other words, to bear witness to the separation and participate in the mediation--not to manipulate this ordinary life with an energy that is, in the end, both too sacred and too fine to apply to the matters of the flesh.
The seeing is just seeing. The Being is just Being. In the midst of this, we live our lives, we have our reactions, we engage within the contexts required of us by life itself. To stand between-- this is where we can begin to learn what we are.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Everyone has probably heard the old story about the blind men and the elephant.
To all appearances, this story is about the elephant, and the way that the blind men fail to perceive it because of their affliction.
Today, however, I'm going to discuss a different aspect of this story.
The story is not just about how the blind men perceive the elephant; it is about how they go about perceiving the elephant.
The blind men cannot use their minds -- allegorically speaking, the input of the eyes -- to see the elephant. They have to use their sense of touch. In other words, the way that the blind men perceive the elephant is by a tactile encounter with it, not by analyzing it using their vision.
Not only that, the story shows that the only way to know the elephant for the blind man is to use the most intimate form of contact possible -- touch.
I bring this up in relation to my ongoing investigation of the question of the inner and the outer qualities that are encountered in life. We stand, so to speak, between two elephants. One of them is the outer world. We have a set of senses that interfaces with this outer world quite readily; we are not blind in regard to the outer world. It is our inner world that we have a blindness towards. And it is that inner elephant that the blind man of our soul reaches towards.
What this means for us in our inner work is that we have to develop a tactile sense of our inner work. The language that we speak to ourselves, within ourselves, has to become a language of touching, a language of intimate contact, a language that is not composed of words but rather sensations. It may be "silent," but the silence is filled with communication of many different kinds.
We can turn, by way of comparison, to an example from the natural world. If we look at ants, we see that it is largely silent in an ant nest underground. Ants, after all, don't even have ears to hear with. They can sense vibrations, but sound is not the key component of their exchange. They live in a darkness where touch and the scent of chemicals say everything that needs to be said.
This is not, in the end, unlike the place that the soul must go to to discover its source. In that place is a place where the soul can touch, and be touched, by what is called the Heavenly Father in Christianity. Other religions and practices have different names for it, it doesn't matter.
The point is that our inner journey can become one of touch.
I've said before that man is like an electrical component, a cathode that stands between two points where charges are transmitted. One of the points lies within him; this is where the inner life can touch a certain kind of energy, and be touched by it. The other is the outer life, to which this energy ought to be transmitted. Man stands as a gatekeeper between these two sets of forces. If he develops his inner sense of touch, so that he receives more of the energy he is supposed to be mediating, there is a better chance of being able to stand between it and the outer world and transmit some of it forward.
This is the art of standing in the middle. It is an art; each individual is a craftsman called on by nature itself to design and inhabit what we call a life. Each life is an art that mediates between the unknown and the known. Anyone who has ever created their own piece of artwork or music will have at least an inkling of what I speak of here. But that is only a coarse, materialistic analogy for the type of work we are trying to do. In the end, we do not want to create objects, but mediate relationships, which is much more difficult and demanding.
A mistaken effort to craft our lives into objects, and treat the events and people in them as things, may cause us to falter in both outer and inner work. That question is worth a look.
When Gurdjieff brought the Work to Ouspensky, of course, what he brought was cosmology, chemistry, science, and technique. That all works very well indeed up to a point. There is a moment, however, where it fails, because all of these factors are of necessity born from the mind, and the other parts in us understand things in quite different ways.
This inner sense of touch that I speak of leads us in the direction of the blind men, the men who want to know their inner elephant.
The lesson of the blind men also illustrates that even using the overwhelming the intimacy of the inner sense of touch, we cannot know the whole elephant properly. With touch, we can be much more accurate about what we encounter within; it's good to remember, however, that even then, whatever we encounter is partial-- just as the parable teaches us.
Yes, there is a whole elephant, but in order to fully understand what it was, the blind man in us would have to regain his sight--
his eyes would have to let light in once again.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
I am just sitting here quietly at lunchtime today: not feeling very theoretical, not interested right now in doing a great deal of analysis of highfalutin' ideas.
For the first time in many weeks, I am feeling a bit more at home in a body that was damaged more deeply than I thought by this parasite I had.
It's interesting to see just how much a foreign organism can take out of one, both physically, intellectually, and emotionally. This is the first day after the medication started wearing off that I can see that there is some recovery under way. In seeing that, I see how much damage was done. Up until now the symptoms had obscured some of that.
It represents an opportunity to become much more specific in observing the body, especially its inner tensions, the state of relaxation it's in, which organs and areas fear arises in, and so on. So it's a good chance for study.
I had to cancel my trip to China, because my doctor does not want me traveling soon after an infection like this. This is interesting also, because I had formed my entire concept of my summer around this trip, and I am now faced with weeks that will be quite different than what I expected.
I haven't really grasped this completely yet. In fact, today, I'm satisfied to be here today, and not try to grasp that future, which is different. It occurs to me that every future is always different than what we imagine, even if the overall form is more or less what we expected. Our imagination creates a future that does not exist; when we get to the moment, we are too often in the imagination instead of the moment, and so, of course, we end up lying, as I mentioned in the last post.
So in the midst of this sensation of myself, I'm coming back to simple things. Maybe you could do that for just a second now as you read this:
Sense your breath as it enters you. Look around at some small things and try to see the value in them, just as they are. We don't stop enough in a day, really stop, to try and see where we are.
So now, as I sit here dictating, I have my eyes closed and I am trying to go a bit more deeply into myself.
It's quite extraordinary, really, how many different energies there are working within the body. We talk about energy as though it were one thing, but the body is actually host to many different forces, all acting at once.
Can we see that?
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Every once in awhile, one reaches a specific point in one's work where one comes up against a question that is discussed a lot in the work literature, but hasn't become very alive for one.
Sometimes this happens even after 20 or 30 years, long after one accepts and even thinks they understand the term that is used. And suddenly something in them connects in a different way and they see that they never actually understood the term at all, and that now that there is something alive within the being contemplating it, seeing it in ordinary life
--they finally understand what the question was all along.
When that happens, it's usually pretty much of a shock. The first thing we realize is that we don't know what we're doing, even when we think we do. Secondly, we see that a vast area of inquiry has been misunderstood.
Third, the rug has been pulled out from under us. We are starting over.
It suddenly occurred to me yesterday that I'm not sure whether anything I say or do is "true." I found myself in the middle of an exchange with my boss, watching myself speak, and saying things that were quite reasonable and made a good deal of sense from a business point of view. They also served the situation well, because it helped us to reach a resolution, supported her view, and built a relationship. But in the middle of the exchange I realized that I didn't know if anything I was saying was actually true.
Actually, I saw I was lying.
It's a bit difficult to explain this point. Only by seeing yourself in a state of complete uncertainty as you speak, being aware of yourself and the fact you are speaking and so on, and seeing how mechanical and automatic it all is, can you begin to assemble a picture where you see that the whole state of being that we exist in is a lie. This question is closely connected to the idea of illusion, the world of Maya, and so on.
How can I know if I am lying if I do not know myself?
It's quite certain that I don't know myself; by now, so many examples have been given that the doubt has evaporated. Measuring that lack of self-knowledge against the question of truth, I come up a good deal short of the mark.
If the things I say serve others, does that make them true?
If they are factually correct, does that make them true?
What does lying actually consist of?
I'm not sure any of us understand this question very clearly. It struck me today that lying is a much bigger question than anything our ordinary being can absorb. The question of whether we are lying or not goes all the way down to the roots of Being, extending to a place we are not connected to and know very little about.
Lying is not about the ordinary kind of honesty that we use to serve ourselves in ordinary life. Lying, at its core, is a question of relationship to self. If I am not in relationship with myself, then I am lying. It doesn't matter what I am saying; I could say anything or do anything, it could all be very honest and upright and even morally correct, it could follow all of the knowledge in exactly the right order, and it would still be lying if there was a lack of relationship with the self.
In order to not lie, a man must be whole--impartial in an inner sense, all his parts have to be connected and working together. So basically, what I am saying is, it appears to me that all of us are lying all of the time, and we don't even know it. We don't know it because we don't know what lying actually is. We measure and judge what we call our "lies" based on external, subjective factors. We don't see that real lying emerges directly from our lack of inner relationship.
In order to avoid lying, I need to know myself and to have a sense of presence. Only then can I begin to see that how I am is actually within a state of lying.
This question of lying relates to the issue I have brought up on a number of occasions recently about cleverness. Cleverness is very quick, and almost necessarily relatively one centered. It relies on the emotional parts of centers to spit out something that's just right for the moment.
So there is intellectual cleverness, and emotional cleverness, and moving cleverness. There are also blends of them. This use of the emotional parts of centers to avoid relationship is very habitual with us. because those parts are quick enough to have insight into a situation that's deep enough to be appropriate to it. They allow us to insert something that appears to be sincere, when in fact it's quite partial.
It strikes me here, as it so often strikes me, that we should all learn to go a bit more slowly -- to see what we are saying, and how we are saying it, from within the saying itself.
To see how it might be to not lie.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Monday, June 9, 2008
Now, of course, she would not tell you she was "developed" in the area of the body, but this is a big area of interest for her, and it is probably the weakest area of interest for me. I went to her for some sound advice on approaches to take, and we had a wonderful and very deep exchange.
I see that I think I know everything. This is very typical of smart people like me; we think we can grasp the whole world with our mind. It's quite difficult for us to ask our egos to take a back seat and show up in front of another person admitting to ourselves that they know more than we do about something.
On that note, I will always remember my old group leader Henry Brown (God rest his soul) saying to us one night, "I was working with this man, and I saw that he was better than I was at what we were doing. That was true. He was just better, and I needed to see that and admit to myself that it was true."
Henry was calling us to a bit of real humility there -- a moment where we see that we are not superhuman, that others can inform us.
Anyway, here I was discussing the role of the body, and I gained an interesting insight into a particular aspect of my own work.
Gurdjieff always said that each center (thinking, emotional, moving) is divided into three parts of its own of the same kind. Now, most of us are captivated by the task of identifying how the three centers function in interaction, but we rarely try to see how we might be functioning from one part of one center. It may, based on my personal observations, be that most of us are not only predominantly stuck in one center -- for example, we might be very emotional, or very "moving oriented" -- but that we are, in fact, even stuck in one part of one center.
Looking at my propensity to enjoy logical argument, I suspect that I may use the emotional and moving parts of intellectual center more than the intellectual part. I say that because although I can handle detail, I find it frustrating, and enjoy using the mind to intuit. I will never, for example, be an effective microbiologist or accountant. I know people who are, and they are certainly very smart, but they are not smart in the way that I am smart. So to have fully balanced work in even one center, that's already a fairly major advance over where we are.
We can consider this in some more detail. (Does white man now speak with forked tongue about detail? Maybe so.) If three centers are going to work together, and in their own inner work within themselves is not balanced, there will still be deficiencies in three centered work. This means that it might be a good thing -- as my friend nurse G. suggested yesterday (tho she didn't know exactly that that was what she was suggesting)-- to examine the needs of a center within ourselves from the point of view of all three of its functions.
So, for example, if I see -- as I do now -- that my moving center has been clobbered (I am still recovering from this parasite -- and even more so, the horrific Flagyl medication I took to get rid of it) it needs to be built up in several different ways. In addition to investing more within the living sensation that is usually present -- a connection, perhaps, to the intellectual part of moving center -- there is a need to nurture the emotional part of moving center by feeding it with the breathing, and there is also a need to get out there and do some real physical exercise, something middle aged white males are well known for avoiding.
So I think my dear friend G. not only nailed it with some excellent advice on things I need to pay more attention to, she also opened a question about how acutely we observe the question of work of centers.
G's big question was, how am I nurturing myself, and I think she has a real point here.
How would it be if I more actively examined the needs of my centers? Can I do that? I think it's worth a look.
Last weekend, we heard a reading from one of Mr. Gurdjieff's third series essays, where he points out that a man should have everything that is necessary, but nothing more.
Certainly, the proper nurture of, investment in, and relationship between the parts of centers is necessary: and should be as important as seeing this from the point of view of the "whole" centers themselves.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Friday, June 6, 2008
Today, while I was at the supermarket, I met a very congenial man named Jesse. He's this short, round dark man with a huge round face. Nonetheless, his smile is up to the task of filling all that space the instant he turns it on.
Turns out that Jesse comes from Palau, famed island Nation of the South Pacific. So I initiated a chat about Carl Safina's book, "Song for the Blue Ocean,", in which Carl has an encounter with the chief of Palau. (I'd love to talk about that more today, but we won't. Go read the book. You won't regret it.) We had a great exchange.
What struck me as I walked away from this very touching encounter with this man was how we instantly took to each other. What was the reason for that? Maybe it was because I was present in myself when I encountered him, and I took the time to see him, not as a thing, but as a human being.
It was a certain kind of magnetism that arises from an effort at presence that connected us, and he felt the connection.
It may sound peculiar to put it this way, but love arose spontaneously in this brief and initially impersonal encounter, because we both suddenly became human beings, encountering each other as human beings, and not just as objects with a transaction to complete. The quotation marks around the word "man" dropped away from the two of us for just a moment.
At the end of our conversation, as Jesse had to stop and service other customers, he turned to me with some real emotion, and said, "Hey, we'll definitely talk again next time!" I reached out to shake his hand, because I agreed. We had had a real moment together.
As I walked away, it touched me that two human beings from two so completely different cultures and backgrounds can encounter each other and discover that our humanity transcends the differences. All it takes is enough time to recognize the fact that the other person isn't an object. In this particular moment, I had offered myself, and something came of it.
For some odd and not quite explainable reason, I saw, felt, and sensed this impulse arising in me: "I can die, and it won't even matter, as long as I continue to offer myself."
Unfortunately, I see that I treat many people -- perhaps even everyone -- as things most of the time. I rather suspect this weakness exists in every human being, and gives rise to a great deal of the misery and suffering we cause each other. We don't try to be present; we don't see each other as subjects, we all become things, and things are only meaningful in terms of how we can manipulate them.
Well then, I began to ponder this idea that we call "objectivity" in the Gurdjieff Work, and what the word objectivity means, and what the Word "object" means.
"Object" can mean a material thing, it can mean something we aim at, or it can be something that opposes us. Oddly enough, it turns out that in a way this word encompasses the holy law of trinity:
A material thing that exists -- holy affirming,
Something that opposes us -- holy denying,
something we aim for -- movement, direction, holy reconciling.
I had never thought of it that way before, but it occurs to me all of a sudden that when Mr. Gurdjieff told us that we needed to become objective, perhaps he chose that word more consciously than we suspect. Of course we all agree that he meant we should do three centered work, but it's very interesting to see how this word contains those three concepts within it.
In exploring this a little further, I see that if I treat someone as a human being, a real manifestation before me, I affirm them. they become more concrete. They are objects, but objects in a new sense -- that is, animate and interesting. This is what happened with Jesse.
If I treat human beings as things that oppose me, I deny them. This is, perhaps, a state where externally directed negativity arises.
And yet, if I treat them as an aim -- someone to connect with, someone to be in immediate relationship with-- it reconciles these two opposing tendencies. The polarities of Being and non-Being come together at the juncture between active sentience and passive sentience, and I stand as both a witness and a mediator of the transmission of energy from one to the other.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Uniquely, the Gurdjieff work draws a clear-cut division between what is called knowledge and what is called understanding.
Zen Buddhism has a similar approach, but it is not stated in quite the same manner. To penetrate a koan in Zen would be called understanding; everything else is knowledge.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty we face as a species is that we are immersed in knowledge, all the while thinking that we know what understanding is. The construction of knowledge itself generates this word called "understanding," along with the definition of it; so everything that we think we understand about understanding actually comes from knowledge.
In the same way, as you read this, you know what I am saying, and I know what I am saying, but this division is separate from understanding. Understanding includes knowledge; knowledge does not include understanding. What we are looking at here when we speak of knowledge is a subset of real intelligence.
We might describe knowledge as a list of facts; as the tangible, as that which is of material reality, and of the flesh. It is the domain of the scribes and the Pharisees, who Jesus held in such disdain.
Understanding is born, on the other hand, from the web that connects everything together, and that is a living force, not a list of facts. It is a taste, an inner flavor. It is the tactile quality of the organism--not the mind--encountering what is true. Human beings on a spiritual path often spend their lives knowing that something is missing, and they don't know what it is. They constantly have a question about what it all means. One might say they are trying to know what it means, instead of allowing themselves to discover understanding. If they discover understanding even once, it will arouse an inner thirst that can never be quenched. When this happens, a man knows at least one true thing.
That is, in part, what we work for. It's better to understand one true thing than to know everything, but not be sure of what is true. And if the only true thing that we ever understand is how little we understand, and we understand it organically, with all of our parts--not just with our mind--, that is a very big thing.
Another way of putting it is to say that understanding is our reach towards the unknown: the real measure of how much we understand is taken by how much we see that we don't understand. And when we are touched by the unknown -- then, and only then, do we understand.
Lists of facts have great power; in magical systems, knowing something's name gives one power over it. But you may notice it is always a material power, a power of this level, that allows us to manipulate, creates our nifty technologies, and so on. It gives us no power over our psychic lives, as we see repeatedly in the life of man, who destroys everything around him and is almost constantly miserable. In many fairy tales, we see that magic -- knowing names -- gives a man the ability to change adverse outer circumstances, but it usually turns out that this does no good. It's his inner understanding that is mistaken. No matter how much he changes the outer, his efforts backfire. He knows, but he doesn't understand.
It is only when we actually enter a moment of understanding, which is an experience, not an analytical deduction, that we discover the difference between knowledge and understanding. Until then, we think we understand, but we don't. And even after that moment of understanding, the knowing seizes it.
Perhaps this very fact is why so many Zen masters actually refuse to explain things to their students. The explaining creates the false perception that we understand. When understanding strikes, it is a lightning bolt, a revolution, a force that stands outside our knowledge.
Everyone stumbles around thinking they understand everything. My "understanding" gets set up against your "understanding", and we compete. This is very typical of males in particular. Instead of being born with horns like rams, we are born with intellects, and we butt them up against each other like rutting sheep. I watch this a lot in men around me. The male ego loves this kind of activity.
In fact, no one understands anything. We just know lots of stuff.
I am a prodigious knower of a lot of stuff, and am able to measure it against some legitimate understandings. This qualifies me to tell you that knowing stuff, and being clever (which I am) are not worth much more than a rat's ass when it comes to inner work. Now, it's true, every rat needs his ass, but its activities are not glorious. Furthermore, its chief responsibility is to remain completely open to the new, because if it closes and stays closed,
you can just imagine what happens to the rat.
If we are touched by real understanding, the first thing that arises is humility, and that is an organic and emotional experience, not one that anybody can think about. It is in this context that I say understanding, as a three centered activity, is the moment where emotion bridges the gap between the too-powerful intellect and the neglected organic body.
I think the most important thing is to see that without any attention -- with no effort at presence -- even the most remote hope of understanding is lost. Attention actually calls a right emotion to it if it is practiced enough.
We mostly think our "attention" is a quality that has something to do with our intelligence, that is, our intellect. And the fact is that there are moments of exceeding quality that are born out of the intellect when all three parts of it are operational. That is to say, there is a special kind of clarity that arrives from three centered being within the intellectual center, which has three parts.
This "three centered seeing from one center," as I would call it, where all three parts of one center are functioning together in harmony, as they ought to, is frequently mistaken as a whole attention and a whole understanding. In and of itself, it's unusual and quite remarkable. There are masters who complete themselves in one center like this and achieve significant understandings that are nonetheless one-centered. I'm not sure if this would qualify as what Gurdjieff calls "wrong crystallization," but it is certainly an elevated yet partial state.
"Three centered seeing from one center" is not the same as having three centers participate in attention. The latter is characterized by the arrival of a higher emotion.
That emotion conveys a deep and indescribable sorrow, as we see our lack.
To me, that is the beginning of understanding.