Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Intentional suffering and voluntary suffering

Lately I've been reading C.S. Nott's "Teachings Of Gurdjieff - Journal of a Pupil," which recounts some of his early work with Gurdjieff, going back to the 1920s.

One of the interesting remarks he makes is that Gurdjieff avoided getting hung up on the language of the work. He didn't constantly use his own terms and overuse them. He recognized the fact that if you use a term too often, it becomes habitual, mechanical, it ceases to have meaning. Instead, he emphasized the living quality of work; a quality that does not rely so much on limited or narrow definitions, but that preserves flexibility in the face of real situations.

One of the terms that we often hear in this work is "intentional suffering." That term is often taken as being distinct from what is called "voluntary suffering."

Let's take a look at these two terms. I want to do so, because I note that in Nott's book he specifically says that during this period, Mr. Gurdjieff actually and specifically used the term "voluntary suffering."

I think that we are on a slippery slope here, because anyone who thinks that they have been able to accurately define what either term means and apply it in an active and meaningful way to their own inner work may well be deluding themselves. It is, in fact, more likely that it is the question of intentional suffering or voluntary suffering that we need to hold in front of us, that is, an active stance in opposition to our mechanical manifestations, and an examination of our willingness to bear them within ourselves.

We also need to acknowledge that Gurdjieff's form changed over the years. His later use of the word "intentional" may have been... well... intentional.

That being said, what is the difference... and why even ponder it? Let's examine intentional suffering first.

In order for a man to engage in the practice of what Mr. Gurdjieff calls "intentional suffering," a man would have to be able to do. That is to say, he would have to have enough will to form an intention and then carry it out. Gurdjieff contended that we are weak and unable to do this. Intentional suffering would thus appear to lie outside the boundaries of our capabilities, as we are.

The second question I have in regard to this term is, whose intentions are we talking about? There is an ever present danger of presuming that our own intentions are whole -- that they are three centered, that we know what we are doing, that we are prescient enough to have meaningful and worthwhile intentions. I'm not at all sure that is the case. More likely, I suspect, we are apt to undertake intentions that are willful and egoistic. (Yes, even in our work--let's not pretend that our work efforts live in some purer sphere untainted by these sordid attributes.) This means that we constantly live under the threat of having an intention which comes from the wrong place.

So, the confusion between ego, false personality, and the intentions I form is endemic. That is to say, the confusion is part of the current natural state of my organism. Until and unless the organism changes the way it works, my intentions are likely to pave a road to hell rather than one to heaven. In this regard, the moment I presume that the suffering I have intentionally undertaken is a right action, I may already be stepping off the path and into the brambles. If I try, so to speak, to construct my own suffering, invent my own trials, and then walk into that dwelling place, I may be inhabiting the wrong house for the wrong reasons.

The idea of intentional suffering is powerful, but it seems to me that it's a power tool for powerful people. Those who have already developed a real will and mastery of their inner state may well find it useful. I don't know. For those of us, however, who have not developed those qualities -- everyone who has, raise their hand here... you are now excused, and may leave-- exercising the muscles of intentional suffering may be a bit more than we know how to deal with. It's a bite that may look delicious, but our mouths are not necessarily large enough to chew it.

Let alone swallow.

Voluntary suffering is a different matter. If we consider the idea of voluntary suffering, we may begin to form an understanding that is related to offering ourselves to what takes place in our life.

This idea of offertory is, of course, found in most religions. But just what is it we are offering? Are we offering material things -- money, the pagan sacrifice of animals?

To suffer voluntarily is a different kind of offering. It is a submission, a surrender. An acknowledgment that I am not in power. Instead, I show up, bringing only what I can muster of my own presence. I offer myself to what takes place, suffering -- that is, allowing -- what arrives as best I can within the context of my own understanding in the moment.

If my effort comes from more than one center, I have the possibility of offering myself with some sensitivity. And in that offering of the self within the context of a greater sensitivity -- a receptivity, a willingness to be exposed to the impressions that enter more nakedly, without judgment -- new possibilities arise. Instead of finding myself in a place where I know everything, I can say to myself, "hey, you never know!"

Yes, this practice means that I must surrender my usual reactions to a new, raw, and much more immediate emotional experience, one in which I am in question: I don't know what to do next. I don't know much about where I am. I am simply here, and I offer myself. It could always be the case that I'm wrong, so I need to stay on my toes. It might often be the case that I am too coarse, too loud, too argumentative. I don't know. I think that's the point of self-knowledge. I discover, in the search for self-knowledge, that I don't know anything about myself or who I am. There are many potentials, none of which can be fulfilled if I assume that I know who I am or what I am doing.

Remaining open-- voluntarily suffering-- the arrival of the unexpected in the cold light of not knowing, a warmth is born. Yes, it's a paradox. Out of the fear of the unknown, the expectation of the unexpected, the revelation of the unrevealed, is born something new and different, which is not fearful, does not expect, need not hide from the light of life.

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

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Organic valuation

I see that there is a difference between value and judgment.

My wife Neal and I took the famous dog Isabel on an early morning walk along the banks of the Hudson River this morning. The sunlight was streaming in through the phragmites reeds in the salt marsh. It was tempting to think that everything was perfect and that existence on the planet is nothing but wonderful, but the deer flies did us the service of banishing that fantasy by relentlessly trying to suck a blood meal out of us.

When I receive an impression, the tendency is for it to be taken in by a single center. Whichever center that is (most often the emotional or intellectual center) it renders a judgment. That is to say, part of me says "this is good," or "that is bad."

The judgment is automatic. It doesn't wait for the participation of anything else; each center, having assumed center stage (if you will excuse the pun,) proceeds to file the experience in a little box of its own choosing. Judgment is a case-closed kind of affair; close on its heels follows the feeling good or feeling bad that always results from this kind of conclusion. And, of course, it's all intricately tied up in knots by vanity and self pride.

This makes for a tightly wrapped parcel: impenetrable, one might say. And that's a good description of how I am.

When more than one center participates -- even if two are working together -- the possibility of organic valuation comes in. So instead of judging, I value, which has a feeling element in it -- that is, a quality related to the activity of a higher part of emotional center, not just the ordinary reactive one.

This quality of organic valuation is an essentially sensory one, which transcends the idea of value -- that idea of value being all that judgment really deals with. I use the word organic, in the same way that I use it when I speak of "the organic sense of being," to denote a quality of valuation (or a quality of being) that is greater than the idea of value or the idea of being. This is because we are constantly caught up in our ideas of things, rather than the real experience of them.

So when I use it, the term "organic" means, quite specifically, not "natural" or "wholesome," but of the whole organism.

The other night, my wife and I were with Livia, another close friend from my group. We had occasion to recount a few memories of our recently deceased group leader, Betty Brown. The most vivid memory I will ever have of Betty was the night she said to me, of sensation, "make it organic."

It is in the making the sensation of our life organic that we begin to discover what it means to live, rather than have ideas. Ouspensky had ideas; Gurdjieff lived. Living is, of course, a much messier proposition, but it is the difference between the chicken that runs through the kitchen and the one in the soup pot. One is exciting; the other one can feed you.

In this organic valuation of life-- this sense of living from within, and using (insofar as I am able) all of the abilities of my organism -- I discover something more objective about the experience I receive. It acquires a three-centered quality: there is the content of the thought about it, the intellectual content (and indeed, that thought might well have judgment within it) but there is also a feeling, a sensitivity that transcends the judgment. There is a sensation which transcends the judgment, too, by simple reason of the fact that our physical sensation doesn't get so easily taken up by these convoluted matters of the mind and emotion.

For a moment, I discover myself inhabiting life instead of critiquing it. Taken as a whole, I can no longer say that this or that is "good" or "bad" -- instead, I discovered that this or that just simply is.

This experience is a simpler experience than the experience of judgment. My indulgence in judgment is an open invitation to the involvement of countless associative attitudes. Immediately after judgment enters the picture, there is something in the organism that senses the fact that judgment just isn't right. I think that this is probably my conscience at work, letting me know that my presumptions are essentially bogus. But in any event, as a result, the first thing that happens is that an endless series of rationalizations (either pro or con) kicks off, spinning around in circles to support (or to reject) the act of judgment.

It takes me away from the outside world -- I am plunged into an inner maelstrom of thought and associative emotion that draws me away from what is happening here and now. Put in other terms, put in the traditional terms of the Gurdjieff work, my attention is taken.

And it all began with the interference of that one-centered judgment I spoke of at the beginning.

If there is an effort to bring more than one center to the situation, the possibility of organic valuation arises, and in the act of this organic valuation, the attention does not get caught so easily by the turning thoughts of associative mechanisms. Instead, a feeling of wholeness and relationship to the experience arises, in which one senses the essentially sacred nature of an impression, and the fact that all impressions -- every single impression -- has a nearly equal value. That may sound curious, but we are not talking about a flat landscape where everything is the same, boring, uninteresting, and relatively indistinct -- no, we are talking about an extraordinarily rich landscape where everything contains the luminous quality of the miraculous.

This question of organic valuation is intimately tied to the receiving of impressions and the responsibilities that are incumbent upon us as organisms. Again and again, throughout the course of a life involved with countless external details -- all of which are necessary -- I see that it is not the details themselves that matter, but how I encounter them, how actively I inhabit the conditions around me and make an effort in the direction of valuation, rather than judgment.

I have said it before: Art is not in the making, but in the seeing. The real artist, true artist, is the artist of the soul. The real architect is the architect of inner being; the real dancer is the one who moves in accordance with the music of their inner energies; the real musician is the one who writes a score in which the symphony of his sensory apparatus, the work of all of his centers, plays together in that greater harmony which no individual instruments can achieve.

Yes, it sounds romantic. But there is nothing romantic about this enterprise, unless we take romance to mean adventure and mystery. This theme is an aim of the real world and living in the real world. It is an aim not far off what the Zen Buddhists aspire to: a moment when life and art, when what is seen and the seeing of it, merge seamlessly into a single whole, where judgment and all of the ego-based machinations that accompany it fade, and where instead a humbling valuation and appreciation of what is arises.

This is, in fact, what Christianity and Islam aim for as well: a moment in which my own judgment, the action of my own will, is surrendered in favor of a higher principle, the action of which produces in us a sense of organic valuation.

In that organic valuation, I urgently and instinctively sense that my responsibility is to praise the Lord; this, one of the atrophied instincts that Mr. Gurdjieff so earnestly hoped might reawaken in the body of man.

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


A new page, "large oil paintings," has been added to the Compliquations web site. This page contains images of several major pieces, including all three panels of the "revelations" triptych.

In addition, there are a few more pieces of "art noir" on the oil paintings page. I have added some very disturbing images from my unfinished series of the seven deadly sins. I don't paint things like this any more, thank goodness.

Several new poems appear on the poetry page.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

a return to old themes

Every once in a while, I use the blog to jot down the not-so-idle musings of an afternoon. Here are some of today's unexpected impressions, and my equally unexpected ponderings on them.

Browsing through C. S. Nott's "Teachings of Gurdjieff--The Journal of a Pupil," I came across a passage where he mentions that Gurdjieff said the Sphinx in Egypt is the copy of a statue that dates back to 8000 years ago in ancient Babylon.

So this enormous statue, which is becoming a replica of itself due to the extensive restorations currently underway -- is a replica of a replica.

I just read the first half of Chapter 4 of "In Search of the Miraculous," in preparation for a meeting tonight. In doing so, a number of impressions struck me. The most prominent one is that after more than half of a lifetime in the Gurdjieff work, I still don't understand many of the ideas. Or, rather, I am finally beginning to understand many of the ideas, and one of the first things I understand is that I never understood them properly, all the while thinking that I understood something.

This seems odd to me in light of the enormous amount of swaggering that goes on around me -- especially on the Internet, but also in "real life" (presuming, of course, that what goes on at the Gurdjieff Foundation is, in fact, "real" life, a presumption that is very much open to question) and many other places -- a swaggering in which otherwise mature and intelligent people act like they know things.

If one studies the situation, it's quite shocking, really, how most of us who refer to ourselves as "adult" behave. We all sit around like frogs in our little ego-ponds, surrounded by a comfortable layer of familiar, identifiable scum-- all that slimy, self serving gunk we ooze over our tender, moist little skins and present to others in the form of our personality -- and we are just as happy as clams.

As we preen ourselves, we think, "Aren't we the smart ones, though? And... BLAP... we stick our tongue out and eat one of those delicious flies we thrive on.

To me, the most staggering thing about Gurdjieff's assessment of the nature of man is how very often he hit the nail on the head. For the most part, our being is of relatively poor quality. We are packed full of knowledge -- in this "information age," facts pile up like snowflakes in a blizzard -- and, as he pointed out, all it does is confuse us and complicate things. Yes, he says exactly that, go read chapter 4. Anyone who has spent enough time alive (of necessity, almost all teenagers are excluded from this set) will know how true that is. We are confused, and things are unnecessarily complicated.

As we preside over what is undoubtedly the most spectacular destruction of planetary ecosystems ever wrought by a single organism, we congratulate ourselves on our "progress." Yes, that is what takes place in the external world, and all of us have been called as witnesses to it -- those, that is, with enough shreds of consciousness and conscience left to admit the situation.


We have created an endless series of technological marvels which accelerate everything -- especially destructive processes. The metamorphosis of culture and materials, which used to take place on a scale that could at least be measured, has speeded up so much that within a few years landscapes and cultures are transformed so violently that nearly nothing of the past remains. We are like drivers who have been given a fabulous new car and are intent on pushing the pedal down to the floor and never taking our foot off of it.

I wonder, however, whether there is an analogous process taking place within each one of us.

After all, the entire process of our own life is an ecosystem -- a complex set of relationships that feed each other. Our consciousness lives within the context of that ecosystem. With the concurrent acceleration of the means of destruction of one's inner life-- a destruction that is taking place as a result of incessant bombardment by media, the veritable worship of technologies at the expense of human beings, the mechanization of processes so that individuals are crushed in a communist system posing as free enterprise capitalism (ask anyone who has had to deal with a bank lately, you will see exactly what I mean) from one year to the next, we are filled up with so much garbage that we are barely recognizable to ourselves.

The only hope we have is to revert back to a simpler form of living, and yet none of us seem to have the will to do that. Mr. Gurdjieff was right--we lack will.

And it seems possible that I--that we all--stand at the edge of one of those moments where civilization is destroyed because its knowledge outweighs its level of being.

The civilization I speak of here is not the external civilization, but rather the inner civilization -- the opportunity for unity within the man.

In this work, this inner work I undertake, I arrogantly assume that I understand. I read an observation of Gurdjieff's and I think I understand something. At time I encounter it, I think to myself smugly: "Well, of course, isn't he right about that? And I completely understand what he is saying. ...I, after all, am not like these people he is describing at all."

It's only later -- much later, perhaps years later -- that I suddenly see that I am exactly like those people he is describing, in fact, I am very precisely one of those deteriorated individuals he is describing, and I have a very long way to go, a very deep hole to crawl out of, before anything more will be possible.

In myself, I have created a replica of a replica of inner work.

I have no doubt about it, there is a real mystery; my reconstructed sphinx, my simulacrum of the Gurdjieff work, represents something real, and it's pretty nifty. Very impressive... thank you, thank you, thank you.

The difficulty is that I don't see that I am dealing with a replica of the replica. In order for me to peel back the layers and discover what is real within the context of Being, everything needs to be thrown away. There needs to be an effort to become completely naked, and stand before the chasm of time, and unconscious experience, that separates me from real understanding.

In the meantime, most of my mechanical behavior will continue to follow established forms, causing me to fail in any effort to develop a real wish that might bring me to this moment.

I wonder whether the real point of Mr. Gurdjieff's work was, above all, to bring us to a point where we understand just how helpless we actually are. It strikes me that this question lies close to the core of both Islam and Christianity; practices where we must get down on our knees and be humbled beyond a point that the ego can touch.

Gurdjieff mentioned on more than one occasion that if a man becomes wrongly crystallized, the whole of the man must be shattered in an experience of incredible suffering in order for him to start over. Maybe this is the actual, normal condition for every one of us as we are now.

As we gradually become more open to influences from a higher level, we can hope that they will help us, but we cannot rely on it. For those to whom much is given, much will be expected.

All of us will inevitably have to continue to conduct our investigations about the nature of understanding and nature of being in the midst of our own profound misunderstandings.

There may be no easy remedies for our misunderstandings, but there can, at least, be an acknowledgment.

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

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sense and Sensibility

One of Gurdjieff's five "Obligolnian strivings" (as found in Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson) is the need to work to understand the laws of world creation and world maintenance.

Let's ponder together for a moment in that spirit.

When we consider the alchemical idea "as above, so below," in conjunction with the judaeochristian idea that God created man "in his own image," we are presented with a question about the nature of perception and perceiving.

From the time the universe was created up to the present day, the majority of perception- in the raw form of what we would call "information exchange"- has taken place in the context of simple elctromagnetic exchange. I say "simple" because, reduced to a reflexive and mechanistic (reductionsts would say random and accidental) set of causes and effects, there is no "
meaning"- no sensitivty, no appreciation- contained within the form. It's only with the advent of agency (see Stuart Kauffman's "Reinventing The Sacred"), that is, consciousness, that the possibility of meaning arises.

When the universe first came into existence, it lacked context. Simple electromagnetic exchange was the only form of perception.

Why wasn't this adequate? Why, in other words, was there any "need" whatsoever for agency, for the advent of consciousness as we experience it?

Some scientists have pointed out (see John Barrow's "The Constants Of Nature" and Paul Davies' "Cosmic Jackpot") that the laws of nature-that is, physics- appear to have been
tweaked, in a manner that just about inspires outright incredulity, to allow for the exact conditions that make it possible for life to exist.

So it appears to some of us (those who don't believe accident alone is a sufficient explanation for the existence of reality) as though the Universe- God- had a specific "wish" for consciousness to evolve, that there was a need for this kind of perception to arise. In other words, the universe has an inherent
desire to perceive itself in more that just the simple way that electromagnetism, in the absence of agency, makes possible.

This possibility raises questions about the idea of the extinction of desire espoused in some esoteric practices, but we will not digress on that right now.

When I hear the sound of running water in the stream outside my friend's house this morning, it occurs to me that it took the planet, and the universe, literally billions of years and untold amounts of effort and suffering (in the form of life and death) to make this simple action of perception through agency possible.

From a coldly "scientific" perspective, there was no "need" for this. Only when we consider the idea of a creative force with a hunger for knowing the nature of its own creation can we begin to approach a
whole contextual meaning. That is, a meaning that contains not just physics and analysis, but that essential third force, an emotional element.

In the brush strokes of the picture where man is created in God's image, an image of
sleep and awakening emerges. God, like man, in the guise of the universe, started out asleep- within a creation that lacked the sensitive means of perception, the organic poetry, the art which agency can bring. Only after a great struggle to awaken, to develop new and much finer organs of perception- we call that struggle "biological evolution"- did an awakening become possible in which creation was perceived in a new way.

So man's struggle to awaken can be understood both as a microcosmic recapitulation of the struggle of the universe to sense itself, and as the
current, ongoing effort of the universe to sense itself.

Put in the simplest terms, life exists because God wants to hear the sound of running water, and the call of the blackbird on a summer morning.

We are here, as agents, to fulfill that responsibility.

May our hearts be open and our prayers be heard.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

the absolute mystery

As I bring myself up against the absolute mystery of this immediate moment, I see that the deeper the connection is, the more certain the awareness of my lack of understanding becomes. This is the moment in which a real opportunity to "stay in front of my lack" arises. Not an activity that I command, but, rather, one that may be invited.

Here, I understand more and more, within the context of gravity and sensation, that I understand almost nothing. And, in fact, that I cannot understand in the way that I think it is possible to understand.

In the context of the organic sense of being, of the actual inhabitation of the organism, everything is followed by a question mark except the experience itself. Because I am generally several steps removed from this state, I continually forget the difference between receiving life from within the awareness of the organism, and thinking about receiving life from within the awareness of the organism. And the energies that make it possible to sense such things, and to be, are not under my control.

I can know, but I cannot know very much. If any real understanding arises, it arises within this inhabitation of the body, and it only becomes real understanding if the heart begins to participate. Without the heart, there is no work. There can be preparation for work, but work itself cannot proceed unless the heart is active. Everything up to that point is just preparation, nothing more.

In life, we speak of love and compassion. But these things are just abstractions, concepts, philosophies. For myself, I see this. The only time that love and compassion become real is when something is more active in the organism. It's quite necessary to remind myself of this, because I live with the constant wish to invoke love and compassion, instead of allowing those flowers to open naturally. Maybe I have some buds, and can peel those buds open, but then I don't have a flower. I have the subject of a laboratory examination which has been dismembered.

I see, in fact, that a great deal of life is exactly that if it is not inhabited. It becomes a laboratory examination, not remembered but dismembered. I experience, and even before experience is over, I pick it apart to classify it. I want to analyze, to explain, to be an authority about this question of life. It's possible to do that -- armies of psychologists and spiritualists and scientists have appointed themselves to that role over the centuries -- but in acquiring that temporal and very ordinary kind of authority, something is lost.

What is lost is a sense of the absolute mystery of this condition we call existence. It is certainly possible to understand this condition, but the only way to understand it is from within it, from within a full inhabitation of it. The moment the mind sets itself apart from this inhabitation, relationship collapses. And the heart relies on the presence of relationship in order to enter and fulfill its role.

Above all, the heart and soul of human relationship is the relationship with other human beings. Christ certainly brought us that work. The Buddhists, too, take refuge in the Samgha: the discovery of Being within the community.

So in the hope of having a real understanding, I begin within relationship, and within the community I inhabit -- both of the community of my inner organism, and the community of the individuals that surround me. And as I begin in that place, I openly admit to myself that there is no understanding. There can't be understanding.

There can be an offering which is made from the heart--with a certain kind of innocence which the world, of course, will do everything it can to crush the moment that it appears. But that doesn't mean it should not be offered. Christ advised us to turn the other cheek: even when the world slaps our offerings and our innocence, we must come back again to offer.

This is no work for arrogant people. The planet has enough of those; let those dead bury their own dead. Those who live must put arrogance aside and discover the humility that begins within an organism that first, and truly, understands that it understands nothing.

There is a moment in my work when I become comfortable with not understanding -- comfortable in the sense that I see I exist, and that this is enough to begin working on behalf of something bigger than myself. I don't have to be in charge, and I don't need to be an authority. I need to just be.

Gratitude plows furrows of sorrow, and sorrow can receive the sows the seeds of a real compassion -- one that is not built on my theories about how I (or others) ought to be compassionate, but rather, a compassion that exists within the roots of the organism, and belongs not to the mind, but the soul.

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

Monday, June 15, 2009

On Mixing Work

A tree always knows where its roots belong, but a man needs to constantly remind himself.

Readers will know I routinely examine questions from multiple spiritual disciplines. At the same time, you won’t find me sitting Zazen at a Zendo.

Why not?

In a day and age where exploration and the mixing of works has become routine—some of my best friends in the Gurdjieff work are up to their eyeballs in Qigong, Tai Chi, Hinduism, Buddhism, and who knows what else—I don’t do it. Yes, I still attend Church from time to time—religious practices are respected and even encouraged in the work. Nonetheless. Although I support and endorse my various friend’s involvements in other works, personally, I have a different opinion on the matter.

When I was very young in the work, my group leader Betty Brown advised me she couldn’t accept responsibility for what was produced if I started to engage in esoteric practices from outside the Gurdjieff work. In today’s world that admonition would be considered stodgy and outdated.

So why did she say that?

Inside the esoteric circles -- certainly, in any event, inside the esoteric circle of the Gurdjieff work -- the commandment "thou shalt not commit adultery" refers specifically to the mixing of work. One is not supposed to mix different spiritual works.

There's a reason for that. The Gurdjieff work is different because of its particular aims.

Gurdjieff made it clear to Ouspensky early on that there were other works which might well be legitimate, within the context of the Way that they came from. Gurdjieff, however, proposed a different sort of work.

There is a specific intention behind this work. And that intention is not a small thing, limited to one man’s development. Real Schools, as Ouspensky called them, must have much larger aims.

So Gurdjieff did not establish this work solely for his own evolution, although it surely helped him in his own aim. And he didn't establish it for everyone else's individual evolutions. The man had a much greater vision.

Now, we all say we “don’t work for results,” and in an immediate sense that is and must be true, for reasons I won’t bother expounding on here. In the end, however, there are results, else no one, anywhere, would bother practicing the esoteric arts: first of all, the “results” (in the form of realized masters) are what attract us to works in the first place, and secondly, why even bother to work if one has no wish for any kind of “result?” Even Buddhist masters might well find it specious to argue that we work simply so that nothing whatsoever will happen.

It may be true that most of us succeed in that kind of work, but that's beside the point.

The point I am leading to here is that the Gurdjieff work was designed to produce a result unlike the results of other works. One can argue as one wishes as to whether this is good, bad, desirable, undesirable, misguided, and so on. It doesn’t matter. The simple fact is that there was this specific intention behind Gurdjieff’s Work which has not been fully realized yet. The intention may take generations to come to fruition.

The intention behind the work can only be achieved if worked at by many different individuals and groups over a long period of time: not just years, or decades, but perhaps even centuries. And the overall aim of the work is not an individual aim, although individual aims may well be served by the work in proportion to how much an individual’s aim serves the work itself. The work as a whole is an entity with an aim that can only be achieved collectively, and which is not, in certain senses, a public matter, even within the ranks of the work itself.

It’s possible, with enough inner work, to begin to intimate what that aim is, but only after many, many years of personal work, and even then only with the dawning realization that the work is not personal. Our practice of "self observation" can at first lead us to believe that the work is in fact intensely personal, but eventually, we may discover otherwise.

Those who mix work or leave the work do so out of an honest but, I believe, unfortunate impression that their own work is personal; in other words, there is a “contaminating” egoistic element inherent in their assumptions. First, that they are working “for themselves,” and second, that the Gurdjieff work is not sufficient unto itself for its own purposes, and that they are developed enough to render judgment on that question. (This second point is perhaps one of the most peculiar features that develop in many individuals during the course of their inner work.)

In this regard it might be wise to remind ourselves of what Gurdjieff said in the prelude to “Beelzebub” (friendly advice:)” "Any prayer may be heard and granted by the Higher Powers only if it is uttered thrice:

First--for the welfare or the peace of the souls of one's parents;
Second--for the welfare of one's neighbor;
And only third--for oneself personally."

In other words, one cannot even begin to work for one’s self before one has undertaken work, so to speak, “on behalf of the whole.” We cannot put ourselves first if we wish to develop.

We’ve reached a moment in time when the Work needs to open its doors wider, true; this is perhaps inevitable, and a breath of fresh air is surely needed. But this need does not contradict the overall aim of the Work, or its need to remain "pure." This is not a question of politics or externals; it’s an inner question within a question, lying close to the heart of why we are working.

To dilute the work with other works is to dilute the aim.

Every individual who enters the work needs to ponder this carefully before coming on board; and every individual who mixes, or leaves, needs to ponder this quite carefully as well. It is not a casual matter; any tendency to treat it as such, as though it were like changing one’s socks until they suited one’s sense of fashion, is unfortunate.

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

Friday, June 12, 2009

On The Nature Of Sorrow

I write so much in the blog these days about practice that it seems appropriate, on occasion, to offer readers some more theoretical material—but only if it is based on insights gained through actual experience.

Sitting here 32,000 feet in the air (somewhere over Alaska, more or less) on Delta flight 432 to Shanghai, I have had one such insight, which triggered a set of inevitable logically-flowing associations that, in an organic impulse, all but demanded write-up, and publication.

This essay may not offer readers any durable insight on the nature of sorrow from the practical, inner point of view. That delicate, and demanding, work has to be left up to the individual. The question of sorrow itself is, however, discussed very little in the active practice of the Gurdjieff work—at least in the circles I move in—and this strikes me as rather peculiar, since, as with the question of taking in impressions, it has become quite central to my own work. Hence we depart on what, for this blog, will be a longer than usual excursion into the arcane.

Gurdjieff once said that one of the chief purposes of man’s ability to evolve was so that he could take up the task of sharing the burden of the “sorrow of His Endlessness.” This reminds us, perhaps, of the remark that Christ was a man “well acquainted with sorrows.”

We come almost at once to a nearly inevitable, yet curiously unstated, deduction about Gurdjieff’s cosmology and the place of man. To share in the burden of sorrow is to feel the sorrow; in other words, man’s chief place in the cosmos is to become an instrument of feeling.

So once again, we see that the question of man’s development is closely tied both to the nature, and the quality, of his connection to emotional center (see “On The Development Of Emotional Center” at This does not mean that the other centers play no role—in fact, their role is essential in this enterprise, because they are meant to help man investigate and cope with the inevitable consequences of this emotional work. (Another subject, for another essay.)

In order to better approach an understanding of just what this sorrow we speak of is, it’s well to remember that Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that everything in the universe is material. Sorrow is, in other words, a material substance produced by the interaction of other material substances.

In expounding further on this question of sorrow, it’s necessary, early on, to bring in another major idea, and that is the nature of time. Time, as both Gurdjieff and modern physicists would have it, does not actually exist. In “Beelzebub,” Gurdjieff described time in terms that today’s physics would probably be quite comfortable with: "'Time in itself does not exist; there is only the totality of the results issuing from all the cosmic phenomena present in a given place.’”

In a certain sense, our universe is deterministic, and all events in the universe are contemporaneous. (Gurdjieff implies this quite directly in several sections of “Beelzebub,” and elsewhere: “For one thing to be different, everything would have to be different,” etc. Cogent arguments for a form of universal determinism also exist in Buddhism, e.g., Dogen’s Shobogenzo, essays on cause and effect.) Our sequential perception of time is perfectly attuned to the sensory perception of what is called “classical” reality, that is, the Einsteinian universe, but it is an inadequate or partial perception, based on the limitations of both our organism and our level of awareness. Time and causality exist within an “eternal soup” that has a permanent and real existence regardless of which exact “point” on the “time” line any packet of energy finds itself on.

In this sense, the substance of sorrow—that is, all of the sorrow that ever can be produced by the interactions of matter—is eternal in nature, that is, all the sorrow that has ever existed or ever can exist, already exists, and can never not exist. This sorrow, in varying degrees of what Gurdjieff might call “fineness of vibration,” is continually produced by the emotional interaction of matter at all levels of the universe; and it is produced precisely because there can be no relationship within the universe without emotion.

Examining this from the only perspective we have—the human perspective—we understand this to mean that the core of relationship is emotional in nature. Emotion is the glue that holds everything together.

Let’s examine that a bit further.

Things—the physical—represented in man by moving center, can have no relationship on their own, because the material existence of things, in and of itself, imparts no inherent meaning.

And the intellect, intelligence- facts, as one might crudely approximate—has no wish for relationship; it consists of analysis, but there is no heart to it—nothing that pumps blood, nothing that animates the question.

It’s only in the context of what we call wish in the Gurdjieff work, that is, an emotive quality, that relationship begins to arrive, and the question of—not the answer to—what we might call the “meaning of meaning” arrives. No coincidence that one often hears of people struggling to discover their wish—this emotive element which imparts an impetus is what is so often missing in us.

In a material sense, when emotion enters, the triad that makes relationship possible is formed, and makes possible the arising of the dual emotive qualities of joy and sorrow, which are, as I have pointed out elsewhere, (see "chakras and the enneagram" at actually the same emotion, as experienced from different angles. In other words, without the third force of emotion, the universe could not exist. Reality has the question of joy/sorrow woven into the fundamental warp of its fabric.

Here we come to the crux of today’s insight. The question of sorrow becomes paramount, because within a certain context of inner work it becomes evident that all of the sorrow in the universe that ever existed is eternally present within this immediate moment.

The entire universe is indeed constructed of Love, but this is not a Love consisting solely of joy alone—it consists of joy/sorrow, and according to Gurdjieff it is not man’s principle task to feel joy. This is, perhaps, the exact place where the Gurdjieff work unmistakably parts company with many other spiritual disciplines. We might suggest that while His creation feels joy, His Endlessness Himself feels sorrow, and He can only feel Joy insofar as His creation shoulders the overwhelming burden of sorrow. Yes, we have the sensory equipment for the sensation of joy, and through Grace it will come, but for us, as “particles of creation,” the question of sorrow is at the deepest heart of our inner work.

Bringing us back to this question of “time,” in a certain sense it is a man’s task to be able to sense and accept, as an emotional impression, all of the sorrow that has already gone before him in the "time of" (relative to) his life. This means that through inner evolution, a man can become capable of taking in a small yet tangible portion of the “sum total” of all the sorrow of all the organisms (human or otherwise) that have ever existed.

And in a certain subtle yet ungraspable sense, it is the duty of mankind to feel this sorrow for all those organisms that have gone before. To sense the sum total of their lives, their struggles, their deaths.

It’s not too bold to say that the emotional center, if it should open, stands on the threshold of a moment in which it might become possible, emotionally, to sense everything that has ever taken place in the universe in a single instant. This may sound allegorical, but it isn’t. We might call it a “universal impression of sorrow.”

The “universal impression of sorrow” is not one of sentiment, and it touches not just one, but all of, the centers. It is an organic experience—physical, intellectual, and emotional. Sorrow cannot be easily defined or translated into words, because the essential nature of sorrow is experiential. What Gurdjieff called the “sorrow of His Endlessness” is not evoked by a simple relationship of cause and effect: it is spontaneous, organic, intuitive and essential.

As such it’s quite distinct from the ordinary (and quite valid and necessary) sorrow that the causal circumstances of day-to-day life evokes. This type of sorrow can certainly provide a bridge to that deeper sorrow—in the extremis of emotional distraught, powerful higher substances with transformative potentials are certainly released—but it is not the same thing, and to participate in “unintentional sorrow” is quite different that to intentionally accept that higher sorrow which we are, through grace, called upon to share.

The question of the experience of sorrow is closely tied to three-centered work and the more active taking in of impressions into the body. One cannot work seriously on this question for long before encountering at the very least the glimmerings of a more universal sorrow—an aim of inner study which is unique, perhaps, to the Gurdjieff work.

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A more active stance

First a brief prelude, in which we place the author in the context of his environment.

I'm in Georgia. Working for a few days at my corporate headquarters before I head for China. It is astonishingly hot here; the heat is a living substance that pounds itself into the pores. For reasons I cannot explain, I find it natural to relax into its demand. It's almost pleasurable.

Working in the midst of this recently new, but now familiar, environment, all day long, I find a bit of time to work. In fact, for many years, life and work have become inseparable. Life itself, the sensation of life, becomes a reminding factor in a way that no set of rules or plans could possibly substitute for.

So. I live. I work.

What do I mean by that, I "work?"

Well, I mean something that my former group leader (God rest his soul) Henry Brown once said to me "Sometimes, working just means taking in impressions."

In my ongoing examination of this question, "What is the point at which impressions enter the body?", I see how passive I am.

This, of course, is something that Jeanne De Salzmann brought up many times when speaking. We are not active. In my own case, what interests me is just how much is available in terms of attention to incoming impressions, and just how little interest there is from some of my parts.

In the mass of stunning contradictions that one begins to see as one inhabits oneself in a more organic manner, the one thing that seems certain is that the attention to the impressions of life create what Mr. Gurdjieff would have called more "vivifying vibrations." In fact, when he was asked what the work did to people, he once said, "everything more vivid." And that can, at times, certainly be the case.

At the same time, there is a depth to the experience of awareness that cannot be summarized with such a simple phrase. The activity of the emotional center, if it becomes more connected, begins to cause a man to ask many questions about his life -- his emotional life, his physical life, his intellectual life, his entire life -- that are not asked without a better connection between the centers. "The terror of the situation" is just the beginning of an examination of the effects that that produces on a man.

And perhaps the most compelling formulation that arrives in the pondering of one's own helplessness is the irrevocable fact of that helplessness itself.

I don't ask enough questions about where I am, and what I am doing. Above all, I don't question myself actively enough to see that I am always, if I wish to be -- there's that famous phrase, "I wish to be"-- at the point where impressions enter. Bringing awareness to that point changes the transaction between Being and causality. That is a very big and very metaphysical way of putting it, but I'll just say it that way anyway.

Cause and effect do lie at the heart of this question. Intelligence -- in the sense of true awareness, of what Gurdjieff would have called three centered Being--exists as the intermediary between cause and effect. (This statement is a tempting philosophical digression which I will intentionally ignore.)

This question of impressions and our presence -- our awareness in relationship to them -- can be applied anywhere, at any time, to any experience. So we are all granted a lifetime of unending opportunities to bring the attention to the place where impressions enter. It can mean so many things, under so many different circumstances. And the act of being present to this particular question, if it is applied correctly -- first, and foremost, in relationship to sensation, with a sense of pondering and precise examination within the moment-- creates a situation in which life, so to speak, has suddenly been put under a magnifying glass, where many things that were tiny or obscure and unclear suddenly spring into high relief, and create a sense of astonishment that they were not noticed before.

At the same time, the intellect, the ordinary thinking part of mind, must absolutely be less active in order for this to be possible. It's a paradox -- we think we need to think, and by thinking that, we fail to think in a real way. We fail to think, that is, in a way that includes more than one center.

When this happens, the place that thinking center usually occupies -- that is, 100% of what is going on within the field of awareness, more or less -- is changed so that perhaps only one third of what is being perceived arrives and is filtered through that particularly distorted lens. With the other lenses of awareness -- our emotions and our sensation --participating, the world looks quite different, and has a very different weight. The center of gravity of Being has changed.

One of the traditional methods of the Gurdjieff work is to have tasks and exercises. These are formulations and constructions that help us to begin to try and find a way to work on our own. There comes a time, however, when one must step across a line so that the examination of a question -- for example, this question of where impressions arrive -- is no longer a job to be done, or an exercise to be conducted and dispensed with after it is complete, but an active and living presence in the midst of life, where I take an active stance towards this question over, and over, and over again in the course of the day. Simply because the connection between the parts of the body is interesting, compelling, and vital. Simply because I see that I don't know much about this, but that it feeds me organically.

I will share a rather private, but distinct, impression that I took in of this kind today. It involves a subject we do not speak about much in the work, which is sex. Of course, we speak about sex energy, but mostly in a supremely intellectual manner, as though we had control over it, and it wasn't able to make us, so to speak, do any damn thing it wanted to.

In any event, I saw today as I was taking in impressions and within sensation -- inhabiting life in that way I often write and speak about--that I saw that this particular experience is often just as satisfying as sex, that is, as an orgasm ...although of course quite different ...and please don't ask me to explain why, because I won't.

Now, this is not a new perception, or even a new subject for me. I have noticed this before. What interests me is that overall, sex seems more attractive to me. I'm not sure why; perhaps it's because sex is hardwired, biological, inevitable, and habitual. But as the impression of taking in the impressions deepens, and the sensation of this quite extraordinary food arrives, I ask myself more and more why this is not more interesting to me, and why I am not more active towards it, when it has such a compelling effect--in point of fact, one that is both longer-lasting and in some ways far more interesting than orgasm.

It touches on the question of why we so perversely turn away from what is good for us.

That is a question that is repeatedly driven home in both the old and new Testaments of the Bible, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism. But it touches on a deeper part of that question, because this is not a turning away from something that is morally good, or socially desirable: it is a turning away from the food that the organism, the Being itself, not only definitely needs, but thrives when it receives.

Well then. How is it for every one else?

Go. Look. See.

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

Sunday, June 7, 2009

where do impressions come in?

This morning, while I was sitting, I asked myself the question, "where do impressions enter the body?"

This is hardly a casual question.  Readers may recall that when Gurdjieff was expounding on the chemical factory to P. D. Ouspensky in "In Search Of The Miraculous," (I'm referring to the frequently glossed-over-with-glazed-eyes Chapter 9) one of the points he made was that when a man puts his attention at the place where impressions enter the body, it causes the actual "transformational machinery"--the equipment that processes impressions as food--to be able to operate in a more efficient manner, creating substances in a man which can help his inner work enormously.  To be more precise, the specific food that is created through this activity is Mi 12,  which is the "higher hydrogen" that our inner work ought to be founded on, rather than what man usually tries to use-- si 12, which is sex energy.

Perhaps the theoretical aspects of this question  are interesting to readers; perhaps not. In order to understand the theoretical question, one has to delve fairly deep into the matter of the chemical factory and actually spend some time understanding the diagrams. That is not the point of this post.  Right now, I am just raising the practical questions about what this means, to put the attention at the place where impressions enter the body.

The matter deserves careful examination within the context of the organism.  Impressions enter the body at myriad points;  one might say, perhaps, the 10,000 directions of Buddhism. There are always impressions entering the body from what could be summarized as an infinite number of directions.  So no matter where one turns, if one puts one's attention there, one's attention is discovered where impressions are entering. There are many questions we can ask in the practical implementation of this work, for example:

Where do emotional impressions enter me? 

Breathing is an impression. Where does that enter me? Is it the lungs? The skin? The blood? How does attending to this impression affect my sensation of the body?

Thinking is an impression. Can I take an impression of thinking? Precisely where does that take place? Can I have an attention to that impression, of myself thinking?

If I attend to this question more precisely when I am sitting, and then perhaps later in the day as well, this can become a very interesting investigation. 

I am leaving for China  this Thursday, and hope to have a little more time to write posts while I am on the trip. Some trips provide rich material; we will just have to see how this goes.

In the meantime, hopefully, this brief post leaves us all with a question that can be looked at over the next few days. 

May our hearts be open and our prayers be heard .

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gravity and the perception of separation

It seems as though I am only getting to about one post per week these days. It has been a busy week, many meetings with work people. As is often the case, I encounter a great deal of material that it isn't appropriate to share in a blog. One of the disciplines in putting a public face on this work  is the need to separate formal work within groups from what one publishes.

Of course, after the fact -- quite long after the fact, as it happens -- people frequently publish things that went on in groups. This is usually done long after those involved have either left the work, or died. In my own case, I have a growing collection of essays about meetings with significant figures which I just can't publish now. Eventually, they will see the light of day, but it will not be this day.

Instead, let's look at a theoretical question, and then talk about practice.


Earlier this week I had the distinct impression within myself that there is a belief within the conscious mind that it is separated not only from the rest of reality -- the animals, plants, rocks, and even the events that take place -- but from the perception of itself. That is to say, I have two natures in a broad sense when it comes to the immediate experience of consciousness. 

Let's avoid getting this idea tangled up with the "two natures" discussed in the Gurdjieff work, as in the context of a higher and a lower nature, just for the time being.

The immediate experience of consciousness, under ordinary conditions, consists of "identification" and "sleep."  The Buddhists might call this attachment.  Broadly speaking, in terms of the Gurdjieff point of view, this simply means that I am habitual, perceptually rather coarse and insensitive, and don't even know I'm conscious. 

If one practices what we call "self remembering," that is, an awareness that is more than one centered -- in any event, this is how I generally understand self remembering now, at this point in my work -- one immediately perceives the separation between the habitual manifestation within the being,  and the awareness that there is something else. Thoughts, opinions, emotions, and even physical sensations arise -- that is to say, I observe the manifestations of my various relatively unconnected centers -- and I see, to a lesser or greater extent, that none of them are actually "I." 

Here I reach moments in inner work where I see that "I"-- this ordinary consciousness -- is identified, and that there is something more whole and more sensitive that is able to perceive independent of the automatized functioning of the various centers.

Then there comes a moment when there is a sensitivity that suggests that even this perception of separation between the seer and what is seen is, ultimately, inaccurate. 

One must begin to re-inhabit the ordinary manifestation, to allow it its place, and at the same time begin to understand, to understand with the most delicate tendrils of a new kind of intelligence, that both a state in which one is identified, or asleep, and the state where one sees that, are fragments that remain separated from a real sense of conscious Being, what Mr. Gurdjieff might have called real "I."

"I"  am not apart.  My sense of separation  from anything, in every case, is incorrect. I am reminded of Lord Buddha's statement on p. 225 of "Beelzebub's tales to His Grandson:"

"It transpired that in his explanations of cosmic truths Saint Buddha had told them, among other things: ' Each of the three centered beings existing on the various planets of our Great Universe, and of course on the earth also, must in reality be nothing other than a particle of that Most Great Greatness which is the All-Embracing of all that exists; and the foundation of this Most Great Greatness is there Above, the better to embrace the essence of everything existing."  

There is a lot more to this passage,  which contains some most interesting commentary about the exact nature of Buddha's message,  but I will leave it up to readers to go check it out.

These theoretical questions about the nature of separation bring me back  to a point that I make to myself over and over again, in the course of my work: I must inhabit my life in a new way.  Consciousness itself must be worn like clothing.  I am reminded of Dogen's mangificent allegory in "Den-E",  The Transmission of the Robe, from the Shobogenzo, Nishijima and Cross, book 1 (page 125.) The robe is the clothing of liberation;  as Dogen deftly extends the allegory in this essay,  we slowly begin to realize that the robe is not a garment made of fabric,  but the Buddhist experience of life itself. 

The Gurdjieff work has the same aim; to clothe oneself fully in life,  so that one lives - one does not think one is living, analyze living,  or fail to meet life-  one abandons the separation within the context of a full experience that springs from all the centers.

Well, of course all of this is highly idealized, isn't it?  Nonetheless, perhaps we can catch a whiff, just a slight taste, of what it might be like, on the edges of our perception, when we are quite still within.


I have the possibility of discovering gravity within myself.

This is not just an ordinary gravity; not just that force of nature which Gene Kelly seemed to so easily  and delightfully defy, with his perfectly relaxed body, and his effortless ability to move with an inestimable grace.  Yes, that was a perfect kind of magic -- and yet that is not the magic I seek within my work.

 There is a different kind of gravity that grounds a man or a woman.  It is only born of inner work, and can never be acquired in any other way. Even then, it is hard won, and one may spend many years before one gets a taste of it.  Most of you in the work -- most of you reading this -- will give up early, before you ever know what it means. Some few of you will be determined enough, and suffer enough, and stay with it long enough, to come to know exactly what it means.  In any event, the good news--for those who are persistent-- is that this possibility is far more available than it used to be, thanks to the unrelenting effort of those many who have worked over the last hundreds of years in this manner.

The sense of inner gravity is born of a connection with sensation. We study sensation carefully over a long period of time in the Gurdjieff work;  this is no casual study. You will note that this study is not undertaken the same way in other works, because the question is not properly understood elsewhere. If it was, you'd hear about it; and you don't.  

If one does not develop a sufficient connection with sensation,  the foundation for an approach to three centered work is not laid down. 

There are, of course, very powerful works within the three traditional ways that can lead us to enormous understandings, but in the fourth way, the aim is somewhat different,  and the inner cathedral  which the fourth way is attempting to help us build -- the breathing cathedral, as my dear friend and mentor Martha Heynemann puts it -- cannot be built without that foundation.

So I discover sensation;  I discover sensation through breathing, one breath at a time, mindfully, without manipulation. The breath feeds the sensation;  perhaps I begin, slowly, to understand with more than just my mind that every cell in my body is a living creature with an extraordinary potential. 

In any event, I attend quite carefully to this inner sensation, even if it is faint and distant, hoping to feed it so that it will help grow.

Then I slowly begin to see that a gravity can exist which draws my life into me quite differently. I can be still within myself;  I can discover myself within repose as life arrives.  I become a receiver of vibrations of varying qualities,  and rest more objectively within that state of receiving,  because the weight of the gravity within my being and within my body roots me to the place and time of my existence in a different way.

My mind doesn't help much with this. The mind is agile and clever, and has many different facts at its disposal, but it is nearly useless in this work. Later, of course, perhaps it becomes useful in a different way, but at this moment,  at this point of work,  it must surrender its dominance, and it actually needs to become passive for me to receive something more real.

Well, enough of that.  I only write of this today because I write from where I am. Tomorrow, it will be something different. It always is -- work is like that.

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

Friday, May 29, 2009

Nobody gets anything

I woke up  before sunrise this morning  with the question of sensation and breathing in front of me, as is so often the case in the morning. 

 Last night, my wife and I went to see the movie "Up,"  which is, by the way, not just a brilliant masterpiece of comedy. It's also a masterpiece of magical realism, and a heartfelt examination of the human condition.  Very highly recommended.  

Before the movie, we went to a local restaurant so Korean that every other customer was Korean.   Situations like that are usually a guarantee that the food is authentic, and it was. 

During the meal, Neal and I pondered the question that everything that takes place in the universe is chemical. 

 If we take a planet like Mars, where there is not much running water (if there is any life, it is tiny, and very difficult to detect) we can see that there is not a whole lot going on in terms of chemical reactions. The range of impressions a living organism might take in on Mars is still vast, of course,  but it is pretty much limited to rocks, wind,  and gradual erosion.  Go take a look at the pictures on the website for the Mars lander.   You will see what I mean.

On Earth, on the other hand, there  is an incredibly rich range of experience taking place in terms of chemical interaction. Chemistry has, so to speak, just about reinvented itself with the advent of organic life, in the same way, as Frank Zappa once put it, that Eddie van Halen reinvented the guitar.  

 You could take a look at the periodic table of the elements (like the guitar) see what it consisted of, and think that you pretty much knew everything. 

Right up until stuff starts happening that you never expected. (click the guitar link for a demonstration.)

 So we, as living organisms with an awareness, can take in an incredible range of impressions. And it is useful in this regard to understand every living organism as a kind of "pore,"  an aperture of awareness,  into which and through which pour all of the sensory impressions of this rich interaction of chemicals and energies.  

Each conscious organism is actually an individual and personal representation of the total force of consciousness itself, which permeates the universe and is a fundamental condition of reality. We are, individually and collectively,  sensory tools assembled  from an incredibly creative set of atoms and molecules; all of us in service to something much greater than ourselves.

Scientists argue about how this happened. Of course, the secular view is that it all took place by accident. That explanation now begins to look a bit thin to many people in the science community;  it is, by now, becoming clear that there is something peculiar about the nature of the universe and life itself that suggests a much more active agency. (Those interested in the question of agency and its role in conscious experience might want to read Stuart Kauffman's superior "Reinventing The Sacred.")

 Over the course of the last 3+ billion years,  this planet has produced a vast body of conscious experience of life,  all of which has been absorbed through the organisms that experience it and offered onward at the point of death, or, as  Mr. Gurdjieff called it, "the sacred rascooarno."   

 Death is a necessary force, and yet it is impossible to understand it. Even Gurdjieff himself pointed out  that there is absolutely no way for a man to understand what Death means until he experiences his own death.  

So life itself culminates in an impenetrable mystery.  Yet, as we stumble through this set of experiences, our ego causes us to insist that it belongs to us, and we presume that somehow it can be explained.

 In the midst of this confusion, mankind  razes forests, builds cities, piles up pathetic little mounds of things which he thinks he "owns," and kills his fellow men as though the process were necessary and routine

Mr. Gurdjieff  wrote the lengthy book "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson"  with a set of complex aims in mind, not the least of which was to disabuse men of of their pathological and criminally egoistic obsessions  regarding the nature of their agency, that is to say, what we are here for

The whole point of the book is that mankind doesn't get it. 

What don't we get?  

We don't understand why we are here. Everything that we do, in a broad sense, misses the mark-- the main message in Ecclesiastes.

Right in front of us, in the action of taking in impressions, we discover the essence of everything we are supposed to be doing on this planet.   The badly deteriorated state of the internal connections in the organism prevents us all, in the course of day to day activity, from understanding any of this.  And perhaps the greatest difficulty lies in the fact that, even if we agree to this premise --  which is far from a certain thing, for most people -- it is still entirely theoretical. One can wrap one's intellectual mind around this question day and night and not get anywhere.

That brings me back to where I began, which is, breathing and sensation. It's quite necessary to understand the organism itself in a new way in order to understand even the first thing about what we are. 

 Because of formal considerations, most readers will understand, I am unable to directly report to the public on the process or the contents of any meetings I attend at the Gurdjieff Foundation. There are, however, moments when it might be appropriate to pass on a broad question which was raised, and which, in the scheme of things, is always in front of us all anyway.

  Like most teachings, the Gurdjieff work has "lines," that is, groups of people who work together that were originally formed by individuals who worked personally with Gurdjieff. One of the unfortunate consequences of this is that groups split up. (I remarked last week, in response to someone who was lamenting the continuous  and often contentious fragmentation of the work,  that the Giurdjieff work is a form of bacteria -- constantly undergoing reproduction by meiosis.)

 I am in the Welch line of work. This means that I meet in a group that was originally formed by Dr. Welch, the physician  who was in attendance at Gurdjieff's request at the time of his death. As a consequence, I had occasion to meet with Dr. Welch speak  in person numerous times while he was still alive.

One of the questions he raised over and over again -- almost every time we met -- was, "Why do we work?"

 This question was raised again last week in intimate circumstances.  So I put it in front of the readership, as I put it in front of myself.  

Why are we here? Why do we work?

 It's not as though we are going to find any definitive answer to this question. After all, we don't get it. The whole world is, in a sense, missing the point, even those of us in spiritual works who have signed on to, and practice, complex cosmologies and intricate theologies.  

It's not as though there are no answers. But the answers, such as they are, cannot be penetrated the mind.  They arise in the organism in the context of experience, and cannot be verbalized.

Gaining an appreciation of this through a new connection with breath and sensation can lead us to the edge of an understanding that is new and different.  

And the content of that understanding, in my own experience, always begins with the understanding that I don't understand.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers heard.

Friday, May 22, 2009

In memorium: Betty Brown

Who is this unmasked woman?  Well, without her, you almost certainly wouldn't be logging on to this site, or reading these words.

She is my former group leader and mentor Elizabeth Brown, who died quite peacefully on Wednesday, May 20.  

She didn't like being called a teacher or a group leader.  I remember that in one of the last work events she attended, she told us: "Don't follow me... I may not lead.  Don't lead me.  I may not follow."  Unpretentious and practical to the last, she insisted from the beginning that we find our own work, and not rely on so-called "group leaders" to guide us.  I distinctly recall her saying, on many occasions as we sat together at the Gurdjieff Foundation, "What would you do if this building closed its doors forever tomorrow?"

She was disdainful of those who fell under the thrall of charismatics and blindly followed the  instructions of "power possessing beings."  In fact, when she took me into the work she made me take a vow that I would never put the Gurdjieff work--as an organization, that is-- in front of my personal obligations.  Instead, she asked me--as she asked all of her "nestlings" (we call ourselves "Brownies") to work in life.

Betty- Teal, as she was known to her best friends--was not one of those "faux Sufis" who one sometimes encounters in the Gurdjieff work.  For her, the work was never about appearances.  She was all-American, solidly middle class, watched a good deal of television, read ordinary books, cooked ordinary food, and did ordinary things.  Her husband Henry was an admirer of Melville and Patrick O'Brien and an avid Yankees fan.  They were solidly Republican (in an age when that still meant something) but never talked politics.  They even ate hot dogs

One never went over to their house only to discover one's self amidst the trappings of inner work. No, one went there and discovered one's self within actual conditions, despite the persistent ordinariness of the surroundings. Teal had a knack for delivering the unexpected, of shaking things up when one least expected it.  Not in any colorful or ridiculous way--not in the manner of one who engages in the "showmanship" of demand--but surprisingly, gently, causing you to realize that all along, there was an inextinguishable spark in her that was keeping the lamp wick trimmed, and the flame of inner interest lit.

Not to say that she was gentle at all times.  She held my feet to the fire until I flinched on more than one occasion.  

Our group was with her, in body and then in spirit, for over twenty-five years.  It takes that long, working together, to begin to discover something real--perhaps longer.  This "haida yoga," this "fourth way," this formless form, is not a way of weekend workshops and overnight sensations. It's a work that slowly penetrates into the bones of the matter until one discovers one's self up against the threshold of the unknown.

Many years ago Betty sent me her favorite translation of part of the Tao:

In dwelling, be close to the land;
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true,
In ruling, be just,
In business, be competent,
In action, watch the timing.
No fight; no blame.

I've had it posted on my computer monitor for many years now, wherever I work.

God bless all of you today.

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

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Naked and Alone

Back  from China, and in  the midst of recovery  from jet lag.

One of my essence-friends, a woman with whom I usually agree, objected to my use of the words "naked and alone" in the last post.   Her contention is that the perception we are alone comes from ego;  in her formidable world view,  we are all part of God, and any perception to the contrary is a false one.

I don't actually disagree with her concept, but there are several problems with it. 

First of all, it ignores the fact of levels. Consciousness manifests itself on many different levels, and in every successively lower level, the fragments of consciousness are smaller than they are on a level above them. Thus, in an actual sense, a separation -- we could call it an adumbration,  or branching -- of consciousness does take place, and it isn't possible -- short of being a fully realized master -- to reconnect with the wholeness of consciousness as it exists in the body of God -- that is, the entirety of the universe itself. 

 The second difficulty I have with this is that any premise that supposes we understand the context of such consciousness is purely theoretical. It's nice to talk about it,  and it may even be true, but that doesn't mean we are there

In the process of opening,  consciousness is required to confront itself within multiple contexts. The idea of "seeing" as it exists in the Gurdjieff work is, in part, a process of consciousness rediscovering itself.  

Treading the path involves a recognition that we have become separated.   In order to reconnect -- to participate in the process of religion -- we must first understand that we are separated. Awakening is, in part, acquiring this understanding.   The ego needs to see how helpless it is. This is why Mr. Gurdjieff said  a man must come to know his own nothingness. For a man to know that he is a part of God, on the other hand,  he would have to come to know his somethingness,  which is not an exercise Gurdjieff emphasized to us, short of "I am- I wish to be." 

In any event,  having an intellectual discussion -- or argument -- about the nature of ego, and whether or not we are part of God, is somewhat beside the point.   When I said that we need to discover what it means to be naked and alone,  I meant something quite specific within the context of a deep inner work  that does not lend itself to the kind of intellectual analysis that my friend delights--and has expertise--in.   

Interested readers will need to spend time studying this remark of mine within the context of Islam -- that is, submission -- in order to understand what I am getting at.  If they do, they will discover that what I mean is not part  of a thought process.   It is a three centered experience  that involves a surrender to something much higher.   

It is entirely true that this could offer us the opportunity -- if the process were consummated -- to reconnect, to actually discover what religion means in an inner sense, instead of the outer sense that society understands it in.   But in order to have that opportunity, one must participate in the process. 

One cannot skip over the rungs in the ladder jut because one has been told about what the view from the top may look like. As it's said in AA: "The elevator to sobriety is broken. Please use the steps."

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