Saturday, May 10, 2008

creation and experience

I met with a good friend Saturday to discuss our personal work, and eventually got onto the subject of how we create ourselves.

The thinking mind--the formatory apparatus, as Gurdjieff would call it--manufactures a tremendous amount of the so-called "inner dialog" that takes place. This inner dialog instructs us as to how we are, how things outside us are, and makes a seemingly endless series of value judgments about the world around us--

and, yes, about ourselves.

The ego, or what Gurdjieff might term "false personality," is just this construction. It tends to have two polarized modes: either it aggrandizes situations, aggressively inflating the value of the individual, or it devalues situations, running an inner dialog that finds fault with everything and everyone, but perhaps most particularly with itself. Hence its two main modes are either positive narcissism, or negative narcissism.

Our formatory inner barometer is detached from any real, integrated work of centers--after all, its activity springs from a fraction of a center or at best a few fractions-- and is consequently almost unerringly inaccurate. We find ourselves in the unfortunate position of perpetually referring to a faulty instrument in our effort to assess where we are.

This ongoing assessment is an act of self-creation that re-creates us in our own image, rather than the image of God. Another way of seeing this is that we set ourselves up as our own Gods-- and, more often than not, tyrannical ones. We are consumed by our own creation: the image that pops into my mind is Goya's painting of Saturno devouring his son. A disturbing image, to be sure, and perhaps a little too close to home for any real comfort.

So if we invest in the conceptual activity of formatory apparatus, the process of thinking and psychology creates what we are. We analyze life; we confuse this analysis with truth, and all our experience is filtered through this mechanism. We aren't living the life we encounter; we're living our analysis of the life we encounter. The activity is reflexive, because analysis begets more analysis of the analysis.

The alternative we seek is to experience what we are, which does not require the mediation of the conceptual mind. Living within the immediacy of the moment is an act of participation, not analysis. And that act of living springs not from an experience of the mind, but an experience of the organism. That is to say, it is rooted in the organic sense of being, in the sensation of our cellular matter, and the sensation of the living energy that animates our body.

So we find ourselves betwixt the possibilities of creating ourselves through thought--and thus serving our own will, such as it is--or allowing oursleves to be created through the immediate experience of our lives.

Both are acts of creation, but in the one we are slaves to ourselves, and in the other we become servants of something higher.

When we allow ourselves to be created there is, indeed, no "I"-- as another friend, rlnyc, commented on yesterday's post. (Great comment-well worth reading.) There is, instead, "something else."

Whether we choose to call it "Truth" or not is perhaps immaterial.

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

Friday, May 9, 2008

getting colder

It's easy to prattle about the fires of the soul, but much more difficult to give a voice to things less known.

In the game many of us used to play when we were children, an object was hidden, and we had to find it. If we got closer to the object, we were told we were getting warmer, and if we moved away from it, we were told we were getting colder.

In this way, we grew up associating warmth with the direction we are supposed to move in. And there is something primeval in that direction; those of us from northern climates understand that fire draws men in the same way (and perhaps with the same results) that flame draws a moth.

We usually associate warmth with life, and cold with death. So by default we assume that if we are warmer, we are more alive. To be enslaved by the heat of our passions is, oddly, considered to be a good thing from the ordinary point of view. We crave hot ideas, hot food, hot sexual partners.

More often than not, we instinctively move towards sources of heat, seeking to warm things up so that there is more agitation. And in an inner sense, we may see ourselves as crucibles which need to be heated in order for base metals to be transmuted into spiritual gold.

All well and good, as far as it goes.

But what if it is an addiction to heat, to the passions of the hot flesh itself, that distracts us? What if something else is necessary -- a movement in a different direction?

What if we actually need to be discovered by something which is not hot, but cold?

There is a clarity in icy coldness that cannot be found in the tropics. An invigorating possibility of penetrating through the atmosphere, to stars that cannot be seen when they are fogged by moisture.

Think of visions of the northern lights: points of contact between our planet and cosmic forces that eventually become invisible as one moves towards the equator. It is only in the arctic deserts, where the tumultuous distractions of organic life have been stripped away, that a man can experience this ephemeral view of contact with the absolute.

This is, of course, an outer allegory, but I speak of something mysterious within.

Can we discover a coldness within ourselves that feeds our search? Is there an ice that comes from somewhere else within us that can chill the passions that distract us and draw us closer to this moment--


What we live within in the ordinary moment is a surfeit of heat; we are consumed by it. Identification is born of heat. Does it not need to be frozen, by a new force that moves within the body in a different way, if we are to learn to separate from it?

Look within. Consider this.

This coldness I speak of is not dispassionate; it is, however, impartial and objective. It serves as a balance to that heat which draws us away from our self. It does not arise from us or what we are or what we know; it belongs to something more cosmological in nature, and reaches down into the roots of soils outside the reach of our own tree.

It is not intellectual; I don't speak here of a remove from real life constructed from formulated thoughts or clinical analysis.

One might say that this coldness--this inner ice-- is composed entirely of passion, but it is an Arctic passion, not a tropical one. Inner ice may bring us to a stillness--a crystallized silence--as opposed to the frenzied collisions produced by our usually overheated matter.

When I speak of this question, I don't advocate an abandonment of the passions of life, or the heat that drives us within it. I speak instead of a balance to that force, a second force to counteract and offset it.

At first, the idea may sound oblique, unlikely. Yet some of you who read this may of a moment remember Gurdjieff's contention that the sun is not hot, but freezing cold.

When he said this, he did not speak about the measurable physical manifestations of the solar entity that dominates the system we live in.

He did not speak of the sun's radiation, perhaps--which is demonstrably rather hot--but rather its emanations.

Mankind can measure physical radiation with his scientific instruments, but the emanations of the sun are not measured in an outer manner. Rather, they're sensed by man's inner organs of receptivity: the inner flowers, the apparatus designed to form a connection between man and the level above him. These organs do not necessarily operate on the premise of heat which drives the ordinary physical body; they are constructed in a different matter altogether.

Might one perhaps even say that their ultimate purpose is to exterminate the ordinary passion that drives us? That only when everything stops can liberation be attained?

In this work, we function as capacitors. That idea deserves a good deal of technical examination, but it lies outside the scope of today's discussion.

For now, I will leave you to the weekend, to ponder this question of how we become open to something other than the coarse forms of heat we are accustomed to. The next scheduled post will take place on Sunday.

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

Thursday, May 8, 2008

today's experience

This morning, I read from Ecclesiastes. This, to me, one of the most extraordinary chapters in the Bible. A few of the passages that struck me today were as follows:

"This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun in the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot."" (Eccl. 5:18)

The verse encourages us to appreciate our lives, to take the ordinary and consume it as a gift. It reminds us that the work we do -- the effort we engage in -- is worth enjoying for itself, and not for the results it gives. Personally, I have almost always found this to be so. It is within the organic engagement of the moment that the satisfaction within life takes place.

"See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes." (Eccl. 7:29.)

A reminder, it would seem, to abandon form in our effort to perceive and understand. It is our complexities that ensnare us. This "devising of schemes" -- the formulations of the conceptual mind -- appear as repeated themes in many religions, almost always presented as an obstacle.

In a day, occasionally, there is an extraordinary moment when nothing stands between the experience of self and the impression of reality. Ordinarily, the formulations of the conceptual mind insert themselves between these two elements (which, loosely put, are indeed the inner and outer conditions of real life.)

Enough attentive effort with the finer energies which may become available from time to time in the body can indeed produce moments -- usually unexpected ones -- when the conceptual mind drops away temporarily.

I had one such moment this afternoon at lunch when I went to the gas station to have my positive-minded friend Washington fill my Prius with gas.

I was sitting there at the pump, staring in front of me, attending to some specific events within the inner centers. In the process, the conceptual mind ceased to exist for a moment.

In front of me I saw two entities. They were trees, but the label did not arrive with the impression. Instead what took place was that I truly saw the bark of the two trees, which was not bark, but two different and quite extraordinary languages, speaking in tongues that cannot be heard with the ears.

The impression was persistent; even as the conceptual mind remarked on the matter and attempted to insert itself, the moment asserted its integrity independent of any possible interference.

Well, one could go on about this a great deal. One could even discuss what is taking place now, but it is not possible to put much of what takes place under the conditions of demand and effort into words. Perhaps it is better to just let the matter rest as reported, and spend a moment together here--me as I write, you as you read--sharing the mystery and the beauty of this life, as we drink it deeply--seeking to draw the substance of our life deep down into our bodies, so that it feeds every cell within us.

Can we sense that?

Short of attending to our inner state and turning the soil in such a way as to allow the relationships within us to grow, such things are not possible. And, in equal measure, it is important to attentively turn the soil of our outer relationships so that they, too, grow, and that they grow not twisted plants in barren soils, but healthy herbs that bear fruit for both us and those we associate with.

Over the past few days, I have been reminded once again of how extraordinarily fortunate I have been in my life in terms of those who have been sent to me to support me, and those who have stood against me to challenge me. There is a deep sense of gratitude in me for these people, and a sense of gratitude for the struggles I have had to engage in. Coming back again to the question of taking enjoyment in one's toils, which the author of Ecclesiastes recommends on at least three occasions, I see that this particular toil -- this work of staying in relationship-- is the most important food for me.

As I sit here, I consider it all in the context of ordinary daily experience-- whether it is a new kind of relationship with the bark of two different trees, or an appreciation of the relationship of a friend who reminds me of our work together. Whatever the relationship is, if I attempt to mediate, while attending to what is within me, something is created which never exists without the effort, without the attention,

...and without the gratitude.

In Ecclesiastes, we begin to get the impression if we read enough of it that we are here, from the author's point of view, to suffer. To suffer, above all, our vanities-- the many schemes that we devise.

One might argue that it is, oddly, within our iniquities themselves that we have the opportunity to discover Grace.

And if that is true, it is a transsubstantiation of an extraordinary and inexplicable nature.

God bless all of you. May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

under construction

Last night I had a dream in which I was in a car trying to drive on a road that was under construction.

This dream strikes me as an analogy for a much bigger picture. No matter where we go, and no matter what we do, we are always in a situation where everything is under construction. People speak about "The Path" as though the Way -- the spiritual journey -- were an established route, laid out on a map, paved and ready for us to walk it.

I think it pays to remind ourselves that all paths, and all Ways, are in a continual state of flux. They, like the universe they inhabit, are constantly changing. What is possible for one man on one day may not be possible for the same man on the next; we just don't know. It is up to us to pick our way through the obstacles as we encounter them, instead of trying to repeat yesterday at the expense of today.

The condition is completely lawful; if we look at the universe at large, we see that it, too, is continually under construction. Stars are being born and stars are dying. Matter is being created and annihilated. (Check out APOD. You'll be glad you did. Few websites anywhere do a better job of reminding us on a daily basis of how tiny we are, and how utterly nascent the universe is.)

Anyone who thinks there is a straight line from a to b which one travels in order to develop one's inner state is confused. There are directions; that is to say, you can go up or down. One finds one's self making an effort in the direction of involutionary or of evolutionary forces.

That does not mean that there are formulas.

Perhaps Zen's dogged insistence on the abandonment of form and the abandonment of formula is, in and of itself, absolutely necessary due to the constantly changing nature of circumstances. Referring back to Paul's letters, we're reminded that the difference between the spirit and the flesh is that the spirit is flexible; it moves in every direction and responds creatively to changing circumstances. The flesh is ruled by law, and the law is a machine. Machines are chiefly governed by their predictability and limitations.

We can draw inferences about this matter from Gurdjieff's words when we consider his analogy of the horse, the carriage, and the driver. He points out that the carriage was made to travel on rough roads; it is the very roughness of the road itself that helps distribute the oil that is needed to keep the joints of the carriage lubricated. By rough roads we can understand unexpected and difficult events; by rough roads, we can understand paths under construction, and a regular and willing personal contact with the refreshing and vital unpredictability that lies at the heart of the universe.

Unpredictability is part of what makes the whole machine run. Many biologists cite the apparent randomness of genetic change and evolutionary pressure as evidence that there is no God, and no essential meaning. They have it exactly backwards; randomness is one of the most holy forces in the universe. In the end, it makes everything possible, because it creates an endless series of new conditions which can be exploited for growth. Only a truly divine form of genius could create a universe as complex and beautiful as the one we see out of an endless series of accidents.

The law of accident, in other words, is not an accident.

If we take a look at what Gurdjieff said about the effects of the organ kundabuffer, we note that it caused men to derive pleasure from repetitive events. If this isn't a description of a fall from grace which involves trying to make things regular and predictable, I don't know what you would call it. One might say that the organ kundabuffer separated us from the will to live within the unconventional and unfamiliar. When one recalls Gurdjieff's further adage to never do anything as others do it, it just underscores the call to live within a reasoning, creative randomness, as opposed to a calculating, stultifying predictability.

So over and over again, in one way or another, we are reminded of the fact that the path itself is under construction. I distinctly remember Henri Trachol saying to us many years ago, "life is an experiment in which we are called on to participate. We have the choice, whether to participate or not in this experiment." The experiment is not based on knowing everything, or having a hard and fast set of rules; we don't know what will happen. There aren't any guarantees. Perhaps the whole point of the exercise is for us to learn how to pick our way between the obstacles. We can be sure, in any event, that if we meet no obstacles, the opportunities for growth will evaporate.

This can be truly helpful as we confront the challenges in our lives. It's going to happen again and again that we get hammered by life and our emotional center collapses temporarily. I have been through this several times this year; even my teacher, who is 88 years old, has struggled under similar conditions recently.

When we collapse, we often think it's because we are no good. We have this obtuse and absurd belief in ourselves, in the idea that we are better than others, more special, more able. Of course it isn't true. None of us are better than any others. Even the best of us have struggles we have to face. What makes the difference is whether or not we are willing to pull our pants up when this happens, instead of just wetting them.

As I said to a friend on the phone during a brief hiatus from writing this piece, all of us are worms. Some of the worms are bigger than others, but every single one of us has to eat the excrement and turn the soil down here. In doing so, we are enriching the entire environment we inhabit. Creating topsoil. It's a tough job, eating all the dirt of our lives, but someone has to do it.

In the dream I had last night, I remember that my initial reaction to the fact that the road was under construction was a bit panicky. I instantly saw, however, that I was right there, with this road in front of me, and I had to just keep going--without fear.

It's the fear in us that demands the predictability. This probably deserves further investigation and discussion--

but not today.

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

Monday, May 5, 2008

the unknown unknown

One of the most compelling things I ever heard said at a work event was that we don't know what's possible.

Within the range of what we see, hear, sense, and experience, we form a field of what is known within ourselves. That is to say, there is an agglomeration of observations, conventions, contentions, and agreements--both "inside" us and "outside" of ourselves--that conforms to a picture of what is possible. For example, we know a,b,c through x,y,z, and we call that an alphabet.

We might say that the experience of life is formulaic in a mathematical sense, because it builds on a set of axioms, forms hypotheses, and tests them. This is how every child learns. We may not generally understand it as being nearly identical to the scientific process, because it is so inherent and organic, but it is.

Within the range of what we know, we establish an identified range outside of what we know. This is extrapolated from where we are. Based on where we are, we can guess what is out there that we haven't encountered yet. We could call this the "known unknown."

Men usually live their whole lives predicated on the idea that most of what falls within the category of "unknown" lies in this territory of the "known unknown." We fail to take into account that there is a vast area of territory -- perhaps so much larger than a fragment of what we know that it staggers the imagination -- which is an unknown unknown. It is so far outside the range of the known that we can't even know what it is that we don't know. We don't know we don't know it.

Above all, we do not suspect that there is anything within us that falls into this category. Religious and spiritual forms all have a nasty habit of convincing us that the knowledge we seek and experience we wish for lies within what one might call the known unknown. This takes place because all of the information that such forms give us is born directly out of the known.

Sometimes, in a man's life, he may encounter a moment where he is confronted by the fact that if he wishes to go further, he must step into the unknown unknown.

This is a moment of sheer terror.

The known unknown is not so difficult to step into. It may be unknown, but we have some idea of where we are going because it starts here where we are. We can see a connection between here and there. It is the same as x,y,z following a,b,c. The situation contains a predictability we can live with.

The unknown unknown carries no such guarantees. What it contains is rather the suggestion that it will obliterate everything that is known. We can see the weakness of the known and the known unknown when we are confronted with the unknown unknown. It is the gnat facing the elephant, and wondering whether it is worth the risk of taking a bite.

The demands we face and the tasks we set ourselves within the known and known unknown are easy enough to live with. In these conditions, we set the agenda; they all fall within the range of the possible.

To step into the unknown unknown is to express a willingness to let the impossible set the agenda for us. That implies a level of surrender that transcends any testable hypothesis. We are asked to pull the switch before we know what will happen after the switch is pulled.

It's no wonder that we have to be driven, in many cases, into a corner from which there is no way out in order to take such an action. Only a situation where all conceivable outcomes have been exhausted can drive a man to attempt the impossible. Until then, he can attempt all he wants to. All he is ever able to attempt is what he thinks is possible, and everything he discovers using that method will look like what he already knows.

It's what we don't know we don't know that we seek; and no matter how much we ever know, it may always remain that way.

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

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Where are we?

It's a heartrendingly beautiful spring afternoon. My wife and I took the canoe across the street and plopped it into the Sparkill pond to paddle around a bit. The lily pads are up; we came across a few painted turtles, a green heron, and swirls of mud in the water, marking the locations that basking grass carp had just departed from.

About 15 minutes into our excursion, we came across a friend who lives on the banks of the pond.

Her mother is dying.

She's been caring for her elderly mother for so many years that, as she herself put it to us, that has become her identity. She's very panicky, almost desperate, at this point; not only is she losing the person who gave birth to her, and who has now become her child, in a sense; who she is and what she does is about to come to an end, and she doesn't know what's going to come next. Her agitation was palpable. All I could do, it was obvious, was quietly listen and be there for her. So I heard what she said and suffered with her.

I meet so many people in life at this age who don't know where they are, or what they are doing. When we are young, and we are driven by urges like sex, money, and the quest for power in society, everything seems clear. There always seems to be an aim, a goal, and a reward. We either get them or we don't; we measure what we are worth by whether we have the stuff or we don't.

It's only with the perspective of age that we begin to see how hollow all of this is. You get into your 50s, and all of a sudden it becomes apparent that the game is not as long as you thought it was; the things that glittered are not as bright as you thought they were, and there seem to be nothing but more questions, no matter what direction you look in.

We wake up in the middle of the night. The moonlight is shining in on the bed and there are parts of us that cannot rest.

We roll over on to one side, then another, then back again, breathing, feeling the pulse of blood as it courses through us. Hearing the eerie call of a nightjar somewhere back in the woods.

The tough questions--the ones we don't ask ourselves in the cold light of day, where things seems safe and normal-- begin to surface.

Where are we?

The traditional way of dealing with this moment in life is to have a midlife crisis. But that is the external way of dealing with it. It does not--cannot-- answer the real questions of why we live within time, what time is, why it passes. It doesn't explain why things fall down and break apart. It doesn't explain why a life is so filled with joy, struggles, sorrow.

Most of us enter spiritual works because we sense that these questions are more important than the ones people usually ask of themselves, and we believe that spiritual effort will give us the answers that are missing. But that isn't necessarily the case. We begin by asking ourselves about the mysteries of life, and as we progress along the path, we find ourselves immersed in mysteries and surrounded by mysteries. We begin to feel like we are peeling an onion with an infinite number of layers.

We want to know who we are, and where we are. The most difficult thing about aging may be that all of those things seem less and less obvious, the more experienced we get.

Lately, I see more and more for myself that I am just within this life. Things are constantly happening; there are a lot of big events taking place in my life right now, things that could cost money, things that are going to cause heartbreak, people who are struggling with dysfunctions. In short, my life is very much like everyone else's; there is a great deal happening, and all of it is challenging and impossible to predict.

More and more I see that this is just where it is, and I am just what I am. I live within these conditions; all of the conditions are mysterious. I try to make up pretty good stories about them; I do what I can to create a form that organizes this experience. But maybe the form isn't real; maybe I don't need the stories; maybe the existence of what is, is in its self a form that needs no explanation from me.

Maybe there is something much more magical and magnificent about just taking everything exactly as it is, inside and outside, than in trying to explain it.

That doesn't mean to stop trying to explain it. Trying to explain it is part of what is as well. It all goes together in one whole; knowing, not knowing, understanding, not understanding. There is just this one thing, this life.

I am in it.

Taking things in this way requires a certain kind of emptiness inside. A place where there isn't anything. Sometimes people refer to this empty place as silence, but even that is a name for it, and it doesn't have a name. It is just open, and prepared to receive life. I have to live in it. I have to inhabit it, that is, dwell within the immediacy of what it is.

I don't know how to do this very well. The challenges and sufferings of discovery leave me uncertain. And it takes a lot more courage to not know that it takes to be certain.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, the one thing that I can rely on is a relationship with my inner self and with the organic sense of my own being. That's real. I may not be able to figure out anything else, or know what anything means, but I can know when I am here and I can know when I am in my body.

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

Friday, May 2, 2008


The term "wrong work of centers" conveys multiple meanings.

Gurdjieff offered Ouspensky some highly technical definitions of the phrase. In particular, many are interested in what he said about wrong work of sex center, which he said is characterized by a kind of fanaticism. So we may encounter this and that kind of "knowing talk" about people's sex energy -- as though anyone actually understands it, or could do anything about it.

Trying to, er ...get one's hands on sex energy... is like presuming we can wrestle a grizzly bear.

Today, I want to open up the question and examine the idea of wrong work of centers in somewhat more relaxed, general, and perhaps unconventional terms. It's not a bad idea to do that from time to time, because getting hung up on the intensely technical details of Gurdjieff 's system can become a distraction that actually blocks us. Investing too much in the intellectuality of the system gives us just as partial a result as a failure to make efforts to understand that part of the system would.

This, of course, leads us back to the question of form, and how form in and of itself destroys our ability to truly see how we are in a moment. That's a huge issue, and we're not going to be able to get around it in a blog post, so we'll just drop it on the floor right over

...and move forward. Okay?

When we work, as we work, we make an effort to see how we are in life. The emphasis always has to be aimed at experiencing and understanding our position, located between the inner and the outer, the spirit and the flesh.

As we work within our lives, all of us find some conditions that help us, and others that hinder us. That is to say, we all find it easier to work under some sets of circumstances, and more difficult under others. A good deal of this probably has something to do with the tensions between centers, and each individual's unique affinity for some particular parts of their various centers over others.

Inevitably, we develop preferences for the circumstances under which we work. For example, we may find that our work is stimulated, that we are much more interested in it, when things start going badly for us. That's not unusual. On the other hand, some of us may find that we work better when everything is going just beautifully. In the first case, if things are going well, we just fall into a warm, comfortable sleep. In the second case, if things are going badly, we run in the other direction in fear, completely forgetting to work.

Most of us probably have experienced a blend of these two kinds of reactive conditions. The point that I want to get at is that we all come to rely on a particular, habitual set of conditions to work in. In doing so, we commit two obvious errors that we need to look at, and we develop three hang-ups--places where we get stuck.

The two obvious errors

The first obvious error that we commit-- usually a well-hidden error, since it insulates itself in a buffer of very effective denial that feeds on weariness, which is always available-- is that we issue ourselves a "hall pass." By that I mean an excuse to not bother working under other sets of conditions. When the conditions we like to work under (or from experience at any rate believe we can work under) come along, we agree with ourselves that we will try something, and when they go away, we just stop bothering. It's like we can go on a holiday whenever things don't suit us. This particular error might have something to do with Mr. Gurdjieff's adage to "like what it does not like." It may well be that the conditions when we least want to work are the most important ones for us to make an effort in.

The second obvious error is that we begin to lean on specific circumstances for our work. For example, let's say that I have low back pain. (And, at many times in my life, I have.) Or let's say there's this particular individual who I have a really difficult time with--I always have a negative reaction to them. If I see such a situation, understand it as an opportunity for work, and begin to center my struggle around that particular issue, I become myopic. I actually get taken by a specific point of my work, and end up sitting in it, milling around. So you see, it's quite easy to literally get identified with points of one's work.

I think we all do this. The trick is to learn to work within many different sets of circumstances, in many different conditions, with many different people, under many different sets of demands. What is needed is a suppleness: the willingness to remain on ones toes, and remain in touch with an inner quality, a finer vibration of inner energy, at all possible times and in all possible circumstances.

The three hang-ups

We don't want to get hung up on the mental and psychological aspects of our work -- which are mediated by the conceptual mind, and are usually our first and greatest obstacle.

We don't want to get hung up on the physical aspects of our work, where we begin to see energy within us and become identified with it, so that the energy itself takes us. This would be to become too inward, instead of striking a balance between the two parts. A great temptation.

We don't want to get hung up on the emotional aspects of our work, which have enormous force and can perhaps, once they manifest, become more interesting and attractive than any other single aspect of work, since all inner work ultimately centers around the necessity of investing more deeply in them.

All three of these partial approaches to work, each one of which begins with a completely valid and legitimate effort on the part of one of the major centers, can keep someone very busy indeed. The difficulty is that by focusing on one aspect of work, we lose sight of the relationship that is needed.

And absolutely everything in this work is about seeing the relationship.

It might well appear as though I am playing a bit fast and free with the whole idea of wrong work of centers here. But I don't think so. After all, all work within the being is done by the centers. Every time they get attracted to something that is habitual, provokes identification, or relies on a monotonous regularity to achieve a bogus equilibrium, they aren't working properly.

And yes, that leads us to the obvious conclusion that they never work properly.

Not a surprise.

The whole point is to stand in the middle of this mess we live in and see it. Not manipulate it, not judge it, not try to fix it. Just see it.

Even up here on our relatively macroscopic level, we are still actively engaged in the mediation of a quantum activity, resolving the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, as it were--in much the same way that the mere presence of an observer changes the outcome of an experiment. The action of the attention itself, as it learns to exist within this set of conditions, changes the conditions by its very presence alone.

And the way that it manages to do that is by being present without any thoughts that emanate from work that is being done incorrectly--for example, all the thoughts that the conceptual mind routinely applies to define and control what it sees.

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

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Swallowed, Submerged: Gurdjieff's Atlantis

Yesterday I mentioned that Atlantis never actually submerged beneath the waves; in fact, what most likely took place was that the waters rose as the ice from the last Ice Age melted, and swallowed the city. This may seem like a unique (and is certainly a non-Platonic) interpretation, but the historical background of coastlines renders it all too plausible. There may indeed be the remains of a vast civilization out there somewhere under the ocean, waiting to be discovered.

Another analogy that comes to mind when we think of entities (people or cities) being swallowed is the Biblical parable of Jonah being swallowed by the whale.

In "Monster of God," David Quammen examines the premise that men evolved in an environment where carnivorous predators were a constant threat, looming so large in the landscape that they took on mythological proportions and assumed the aspect of gods.

This suggests a connection with the tendency of ancient religions to present the concept of God and Gods as fearsome, often animalistic deities, angry and vengeful, capable of consuming man if he did not cooperate. The God of the Old Testament may not have had the head of a crocodile, but He certainly had "sharp teeth" and a very bad temper. The defensive mechanisms in man's psyche evolved as much in response to this legitimate fear of predation as to any other danger surrounding him. And, distracted and absorbed by the very process of survival itself, men ultimately confused an animistic and animalistic literalism with the real, and invisible, higher forces that surrounded them.

We might even propose that the break between the old and New Testament --the "new covenant" between God and man--was in the casting off of this primitive, dualistic religious skin of predator/God and human/prey, so that man could step into a new set of spiritual shoes based on relationship and unity, rather than separation and conflict. (a question recently examined in the post "Struggle and relationship.")

In the allegory of being swallowed versus that of submerging, we encounter the difference between disappearing and becoming hidden. In being swallowed, all significance (or, if you will, information) is lost. In being submerged, the significance is preserved, and merely becomes hidden. Modern physics mirrors this question in its ongoing investigation of whether or not the matter, or information, swallowed by a black hole is forever lost to our universe. (See wikipedia entry, black holes: last paragraphs, entropy and Hawking radiation)

Swallowed versus submerged: it's the difference between nothingness and invisibility. Nothingness is a negation of Being; invisibility is the concealment of being--perhaps even for its own protection.

Atlantis, of course, is always perceived as having been submerged in traditional mythology. There's a logical reason, of course, for interpreting the disappearance of Atlantis as submergence (preservation) versus swallowing (destruction.) It serves the myth by invoking an unspoken implication that somehow, even after all these thousands of years, the city is still with us.

Or within us.

Covering the subject of Atlantis at great length in "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," Gurdjieff uses the analogy of submergence to indicate concealment, not annihilation. Considering the allegorical possibilities, we can liken the sinking of the continent of Atlantis to the submergence of man's conscience into his unconscious parts. Gurdjieff explains that when this took place, the conscience--an essential part of man's Being-- was insulated from the damaging effects of man's mechanical manifestations, and thus survived nearly intact in him while other vital parts of his psyche steadily deteriorated.

Let's speak about this idea of being swallowed in relationship to identification. Identification is a process of losing our self in the outer world; when we identify, what we call "I" is swallowed by the external. The world eats us. One might say that the world feeds on us, rather than us being fed by the world. This is certainly implied by the analogy of Jonah and the whale.

The supreme irony, of course, is that man sees himself as the big fish that will swallow life. This inverted delusion, which is actually a powerful buffer in humanity at large, causes him to arrogantly swim right up to the jaws of his nemesis, who dangles all manner of fleshy enticements in front of him like the lure of an anglerfish.

Gurdjieff's recommendation that we learn to "separate ourself from ourself" -- a practice that is commonly understood to take place through developing an intelligent habit of self observation -- is an effort to find a way to take one step back from life, that is, the forceful agent of ordinary reality which devours.

In separating, we attempt to learn to discriminate in a tangible and material manner between the inner and the outer conditions of life.

I think it's very important to focus on the fact that this discrimination must be tangible and material. It is based on the actual substance of experience, this immediate experience, not a conceptual analysis of our situation. The conceptual analysis of our inner situation is the enemy; the physical contact with how we are and what we are, the intimate sensational and vibrational relationship with the body we inhabit, these are the real tools for our spiritual development.

In reaching for these tools, we reach down into our self for help from something which is hidden. It has submerged itself for our own sake and for its own protection; it lies within us, dormant, awaiting a moment where our own efforts may create enough gravity to allow it to participate.

It's been said by some that because we live under the law of reciprocal feeding -- which runs the universe -- that all of us eventually become food for one thing or another.

Returning once again to the classic Pauline theme, which delineates the most essential parameters of both Paul's Christianity and Gurdjieff's esotericism, we must make the choice in this lifetime of whether to swallow the Spirit, or be swallowed by the flesh.

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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


It strikes me that we are forever seeking equilibrium.

I see that my mind wants things to be quiet and calm, both inside and outside. It somehow wants everything to reach a state in which not only all outer circumstances are under control--the inner state ought to also be reliable, predictable, and serene.

What I actually want to do is exist in a blissful self-crafted bubble of perfection.

This idealized view of what my inner and outer states should be like is comparable to the idea that there is a "balance of nature." That phrase was used a lot in the beginning of the environmental movement, until biologists intervened and made it clear that there isn't any "balance" in nature at all.

Everything in nature is locked in a perpetual struggle (the classic phrase is "nature, red in tooth and claw.") The norm is for ecosystems to constantly veer off unpredictably in one direction or the other. Any impression we get of a steady state is mistaken.

It's true, there is some evidence that on a global scale, there are some self-regulating mechanisms that produce a kind of balance -- for example, the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have remained relatively constant for extremely long periods of time. Nonetheless, measured on geologic time scales, this has not been the same either. There was a time when there was very little oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. At that time, it was toxic to life as we know it today.

Another example is sea levels. Mankind has treated the coastline for the past several thousand years as though it were a fixed entity, whereas lessons from geology tell us that the coastline has moved about a very great deal, depending on fluctuating sea levels. There have been times when the ocean was more than 100 feet deeper than it is today; there have been other times, during major ice ages, when it was very much shallower, and the coastlines were miles from where they are now. 10,000 years ago, for example, the ocean was hundreds of feet shallower, and most coastlines were many miles further out from present shorelines.

That leads us directly to an obvious and interesting conclusion: all the major civilizations from that era, which were surely, like today's, concentrated along river banks and coastlines, are now deep underwater. When we presume that the earliest civilizations are the ones we've found and excavated, we exhibit a laughable naïveté. The very earliest settlements we have found-- for example, Çatalhöyük in Turkey--were almost certainly small provincial backwaters, well away from the coasts.

All the major ancient cities are deep underwater, where no one has ever looked for them. Atlantis never sank below the ocean; the ocean rose up and engulfed it when the ice melted.

So the equilibrium we presume on our coastlines as we build today's huge cities is illusory; given current trends, for example, it's very likely the city of Shanghai will be completely underwater in a few hundred years. This is the real question we are faced with when we discuss global warming, a question which is so difficult for us to confront that we would much rather squabble about whether or not it is even happening, than start planning to deal with the very painful realities that will arise as a consequence.

How much of our inner work is affected by a similar belief in an equilibrium that does not actually exist, and the delusional presumptions it provokes?

I recall that in the beginning of one of the Movements films, Jeanne DeSalzmann points out that everything is always in motion. Nothing ever stays in the same place; it is always moving up or down. If there is an equilibrium, it is system-wide and circulatory in nature; that is, equilibrium is perceptible only on a macroscopic scale, at the universal level, when all of the bumps and inconsistencies of the fabric of space and time are "evened out" by an all-encompassing understanding.

In the meantime, here on our level, our efforts to fix things at points in time and space amount to naught. This isn't just true of the external physical circumstances we attempt to control; it's equally true of our inner states.

I see this frequently in myself. In an effort to correct my partiality and bring the parts into a greater state of relationship, there is a presumption in me, if I reach a state where several parts or centers are more "balanced" in relationship to each other, that this can somehow be maintained.

It never actually works out that way, however; in the end, any equilibrium attained is fugitive. Almost the moment it establishes itself, it must inevitably move on to the next stage, whatever that may be. If I try to hold it in place, I damage it. The only way for me to participate in its life, in this life, is to move forward with it. It's not unusual for me to try to hold onto something only to discover that it has moved forward several steps past where I am. And perhaps this may be one of the lessons that Gurdjieff's movements try to teach us.

The difficulty is that every perception of equilibrium automatically invites what is perceived to become a fixed substance; I want to hold it there. The state, what ever it is, is satisfying, and I want to own it, to keep it, preserve it, and to have it at my disposal. I have "arrived" at something, and I would just as soon sit there with it. It is a lot safer than whatever may come next.

And that's the crux of the matter. I don't know what will come next. In order to progress within the context of the energies that flow within me and outside of me, I constantly have to be willing to take that next step into the unknown. I don't like doing that. Whether the known is blissful, or comfortable, or satisfying, or even just plain-old-pedestrian predictable, it is what I prefer.

Once again we come back to this question that we have investigated so many times over the past months, this question of faith. We have to be willing to trust in the process of movement, and apply our faith-- which is a form of trust -- to the point where the next step has to be taken.

I, like everyone else, am consistently filled with a wide variety of fears. This makes it difficult for me to take that step.

All of this reminds me of the moment many years ago when I finally admitted to myself that I was an alcoholic, and that something needed to be done about it. I had to take a terrifying step into the unknown, into Alcoholics Anonymous.

Once I took that step, I was asked to trust the process. To just show up, and trust the process.

In alcoholism, nothing is theoretical. Life and death are immediate issues, and the choices are our own to make, not ones made by authorities, politicians, or enemies. Confronting this disease takes us to a place where we have to stand naked in front of ourselves. There is no allegory; there's nothing beautiful here to romanticize about.

If you want to see group work conducted in a real-life situation, Alcoholics Anonymous may be as good a place as any Gurdjieff Foundation. The people in AA aren't safely playing roles in a pink-cloud game of spirituality. They are dirty, shuffling, irreverent herds of struggling animals, desperately trying to find their way in a nightmarish environment where they woke up one day to discover that the enemy is themself.

In a word, they are human beings.

What we call "real life" is a form of alcoholism. We meet what we call "real life" and chug-a-lug it down by the gallon full, staggering chaotically from one event to another, spending money, swilling food, spewing sex. In front of us we always carry the invincible shield of denial, and a carefree will to crush the obstructions in our path.

The ego is an alcoholic. It doesn't need booze to keep it stoked. It is, by its nature, self-stoking.

If we saw ourselves more from this perspective, as ego-drunkards staggering through life like fools, we might smack ourselves in the face and try to sober up. Indeed, I think awakening consists a bit of this. If we really see ourselves, we may be reminded of the famous statement Orage made: "when I first saw Orage, I realized that hanging was too good for him."

It's a well known fact in AA; alcoholics drink to try and establish equilibrium: a good drunk. It's the holy grail of the disease. So in adopting the allegory, we can be suspicious of the practice.

There is no equilibrium. Don't wish for it.

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

the agony ...of ecstasy?

Ecstasy--taken from the point of view of an intense, euphoric and otherworldly experience -- is commonly understood to be something wonderful; something to be desired, an experience that mightily transcends our ordinary state. If we look back into the history of great religious traditions such as Sufism and Christianity, we encounter numerous references to this rapturous condition, usually as experienced by saints of one kind or another.

Not too many ordinary people encounter the euphoria of religious ecstasy except as a concept, or perhaps stumble across fragments of it in drug-induced states.

Looking back into history, it strikes me that such experiences reached something of a zenith in the middle ages. From the 12th to 13th centuries, the world produced a number of extraordinary masters such as Rumi, Dogen, and Meister Eckhart. Of the three, we can be certain that Rumi experienced religious ecstasy. It seems equally likely that Meister Eckhart was familiar with the phenomenon. In Dogen's case, it is more difficult to say; Zen Buddhism appears to me to have avoided the error of believing in this state as an end in itself. Nonetheless, in Dogen's poetry I think we can find hints of ecstasy, humbly disguised in the subtle hues of mother nature.

In any event, in the religion of the high Middle Ages, we hear stories of a world populated by saints who experienced varieties of religious ecstasy. Not all of them were masters; but there were many who walked the path, men and women both, who were called in ways that seem superstitious, bizarre, or frankly impossible to us today.

And it must be true --something quite extraordinary must have been taking place in the Middle Ages, in this one brief span of about 150 years, to have produced so many blessed devotees, along with great--one might even say unparalleled-- masters whose works resonate down to the present century with voices of authority.

So there were forces at work on the planet then that produced possibilities that may not be as available today.

Sad to say--today's "miracle" consists, perhaps, of a piece of toast that looks like the Virgin Mary, sold on eBay.

The fact that we have, at least in the west, whored out a good deal of our religious tradition doesn't mean that today's world is bereft of ecstatic experience. It is, however, unexpected and maybe even alarming to have such an experience as a 21st-century person in a Western technological culture. Experiences like this strip us of our assumptions; they strip us publicly naked. I say publicly because, no matter where they strip us naked -- maybe even in complete seclusion or privacy--they leave us standing in front of ourselves and our lives with nowhere to hide. And to stand in front of ourselves and what we are-- that is truly public.

To encounter such possibilities, as extraordinary as they may seem, should not be understood as some form of spiritual gift or reward. To experience ecstasy is, rather, to be put under commandment.

I haven't heard it stated in these terms before, and perhaps you haven't either, so I think the term commandment requires some explanation.

When we use the phrase "thy will be done" in the Lord's prayer, we are quite literally requesting that we be put under commandment. That could require almost anything of us-- in reality, as we ask, we don't know even what it means. Subject to the commandments of our own will and our ordinary, everyday existence, we can have no idea whatsoever of what it means for the will of the higher to be done. That will lies outside our understanding. As Eckhart explains, absolutely everything we have within us has to go to make room for the will of God.

Understanding ecstasy as commandment means in essence, that ecstasy -- euphoria -- a leaving behind of what we know -- consists of a burden, something that must be suffered. It is a demand, not a gift.

Now, I'm sure that many of you are sitting there thinking to yourself, "What the heck is he talking about? How can euphoria--pleasure--be a form of suffering?"

In order to understand this better, perhaps we should turn to Gurdjieff's chapter "The Holy Planet Purgatory" in "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson." In it, those of you who have read it may recall, he describes a planet that is unimaginably beautiful, created expressly to provide its inhabitants with every kind of pleasurable and satisfying impression.

The inhabitants, however, don't take much refuge in this. They have reached a level of self perfection where they see that they are fundamentally deficient in regard to reunification with the prime principle, that is, God. There is something crystallized in them that is terribly flawed and prevents this most urgent desire from being fulfilled. As such, they spend all the moments of their existence in a perpetual anguish, knowing they are separated from the most holy principle they wish to serve, obey, and be one with. So their ecstatic experience of the holy planet Purgatory-- which to an outsider seems infinitely desirable and magnificent -- is actually combined with an infinite anguish.

I am not sure of what the exact imperfection in the beings Mr. Gurdjieff describes is. I can only glean inklings from my own inner experience and the state of my own work today.

It strikes me that the fundamental imperfection is that we do not want to be with God. There is a part of us, a defective fraction of us invested with an enormous amount of power, that prefers to remain separate. It imposes its own egoistic will on everything that we experience and encounter in order to keep us apart from God, and it manipulates us with pleasure and pain and fear, and any other tool in its arsenal, in order to remain separate.

This part that wants to remain separate is in a state of refusal to submit. A state of rejection. This is how I am; this is how I live. So when the bliss, the absolute ecstasy and surrender, of the higher arrives to attempt marry my inner substance to that of God, I am


We are hardly alone in this dilemma. Reading the Bible, even the most holy -- individuals of immense spiritual stature -- are terrified by their encounter with the higher. Moses was continually filled with doubt after God chose him. He didn't feel capable of anything, and even had the whining chutzpah to let God know about it. Mary was afraid of Gabriel. The shepherds with their flocks fell to their knees in terror when the Angels arrived to announce the birth of Christ.

And perhaps this, too, is the dilemma of the beings on Gurdjieff's holy planet Purgatory. They have seen the temple itself; the scaffolding falls away, and it is revealed in a blaze of unbearable glory.

There is the door, right in front of them.

But they dare not go in.

Well, of course, this is a bit of shamelessly melodramatic allegory. Nonetheless, we need a smidgen of theater in our work, as much as any of the other artifices we use to try and help us towards an understanding that we are still, and always, fundamentally incapable of grasping with this thing we call a mind.

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

Monday, April 28, 2008

the invisible temple

The question of what we do know and what we don't know has been rather active for me lately. As the author of "The Cloud of Unknowing" points out, we are perpetually pressed up against questions that do not seem to have any answers, and so often are not even very well defined.

In contrast to--and perhaps even defiance of--that, we adopt belief systems and cosmologies that purport to explain where we are and what we are up against. I say "purport" because it is very rare for any man to encounter a force in his life which conclusively demonstrates -- to himself, at least, let alone anyone else -- that he actually knows and understands something, rather than just believing it.

In the absence of anything real and verified--from an inner point of view--we can't seem to get along without these structures that explain reality and spirituality, even though we know that all of them are, in one way or another, deficient. That becomes apparent because of their incessant collision with reality, which is hard and unyielding, and almost effortlessly breaks down our assumptions.

Even the ones really smart people make.

Such collisions are, perhaps, inevitable. When we try to use a top-down approach to describe the universe, not being at the top, but somewhere in the middle or even close to the bottom, it's impossible to get the kind of overview that explains anything very accurately. This means that the bottom-up approach is actually a better one for us.

So, if the construction of our elaborate cosmologies appears to be conducted at the risk of self-deception, what is the purpose of all of this description that we engage in?

Should we stop?

Let me give you an analogy that may be helpful.

Imagine there is an invisible temple within us -- outside us -- in fact, this vast invisible temple is everywhere. We can't see it, but within it is contained everything that is sacred.

The only way for us to understand any of the dimensions of this temple is to begin to erect scaffolding around it. The scaffolding gradually begins to outline the general territory the temple occupies. It gives us information about its size, its shape, and so on. It also helps us to know that there really is a temple there.

But the temple itself always remains invisible.

Erecting this scaffolding might be likened to throwing paint on an invisible man. There is a living thing there, a human being that cannot be seen. By throwing the paint on him, we see the outline: we see that the man exists. But all we can ever actually see is the paint. The man himself, who we could not see at all before, and were not even sure existed, now becomes more of a moving, tangible entity, even though the man himself -- his essence-- remains, in a certain sense, forever unknown.

Seen from the Zen point of view, we might say that you can throw paint on the Dharma and hence see its action, but you can never see the Dharma itself.

So we erect a scaffolding of cosmology and belief that surrounds this temple. Every architect is a little different, so from vantage point to vantage point, the scaffolding doesn't look the same. But the scaffolding is always still defining the same invisible temple. And it's only collectively that we can make much progress in this-- generally speaking, the temple is far too big for any one man's scaffolding to tell us much. Every once in a very long while, a man like Gurdjieff comes along and slams up a remarkably huge chunk of scaffolding that leaves the rest of us breathless ...then he, like everyone else, up and dies, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering how he did that.

We can understand this scaffolding analogy from both an inner and an outer point of view. From the outer point of view, the invisible temple consists of what Gurdjieff would call "understanding the laws of world creation and world maintenance." That is to say, the "invisible temple" is a place of knowing the universe and its nature.

From the inner point of view, there is an equally vast and unknown universe that we attempt to know. Over the course of a lifetime, within this invisible temple inside ourselves-- which is, in essence, a vessel that fills with our impressions of life-- we create our own sacred space.

Sacred, that is, if we respect both the enterprise and ourselves. There is all too great a risk that this inner temple can become profane, soiled by an inappropriate contact with ordinary life.

Over time, as we erect this scaffolding that is designed and applied by the conceptual mind, we begin to mistake the scaffolding for the temple itself. Only by constantly reminding ourselves that this scaffolding is a work in progress, and an attempt to define something much more magical, mysterious, and valuable than scaffolding, can we maintain enough objectivity to avoid this error.

In other words, don't get hung up on how beautiful the scaffolding is.

This, inevitably, leaves me with a question. If we erect enough scaffolding, can we ever see enough of the temple to find the door and enter it? Does the temple even have a door?

Or is the entrance, perhaps, located somewhere in its foundations -- lower down than we ever think of looking, with our sights perpetually fixed on some imaginary heaven?

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

Friday, April 25, 2008

truth is stranger than fiction

This morning, as I was more or less stumbling around the house very early (no coffee yet,) I noticed a DVD titled "Stranger Than Fiction" in the living room, left there, no doubt, by one of the kids.

It occurred to me, after pondering this rather standard phrase for a while, that the only reason we think truth is stranger than fiction is because we are not familiar with truth. Almost everything we experience is an interpreted fiction of one kind or another, created by our imagination. Which reminds me of a quote from Winston Churchill, in which he said that most men stumble over the truth at least once in their life, but most of us pick up and carry on as before, as though nothing had happened.

All of this leads me back to the question of our fundamental perception of what it is that we are asking for when we ask for transformation.

All of us, as we pursue our individual efforts, agree with ourselves (and with others) that we seek inner change. And of course, we seek it because we have read books about it. Or we have met someone who talks about it convincingly. But we do not actually know what we are asking for.

We assume.

Nothing could make this clearer than the endless series of stories about Zen aspirants who think they have an idea about what they are up to, only to repeatedly get smacked down by the master (sometimes literally.) The naïve presumptions of the intellectual mind can't be overcome: this assumption that we have some idea of what enlightenment consists of is always hovering in the background.

Perhaps the ultimate absurdity in the context of this unknowing condition we live in is that many Zen masters ( including Dogen) have asserted that the condition we are in right now is not separated from Enlightenment; we just don't know that. All the conditions both within and outside of ourselves are themselves enlightened; it is our consciousness of it that fails us.

Hence the alien nature of ordinary reality: alien, that is, because of our inability to perceive it accurately. And it's not alien as long as we preserve the way that we currently perceive it; this is why we are so diligently invested in our efforts not to change, even though we profess a wish for it. As long as we keep it at arm's length, and interpret it so that it remains understandable, it's safe.

It's true that real inner change can be blissful; it's equally true that it is, as Ouspensky discovered (he recounts this in In Search of the Miraculous) profoundly disturbing. The moment that we encounter a state that is different than our ordinary, deadened level of receptivity, unexpected things begin to take place. Snakes arise and shake the tree; they twist and writhe and upset our apple cart. That's the only way it can happen. You cannot, as Jesus pointed out, put new wine into old bottles.

So we fix our sights on the unknown, setting course for a distant shore that we have never seen, trusting (based on hearsay) in the idea that once we get to that place, it will be a place we want to be in.

That does require more than a bit of faith, doesn't it?

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

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Top down--bottoms up?

This afternoon at lunch, I took a walk around the local neighborhood for half an hour, listening to my iPod. Set to shuffle, the musical choices covered everything from Black Sabbath to Weather Report. One might say it ranged from darkness to light.

During the walk, it occurred to me that the last two posts exemplify the extremes between which we often find ourselves in the pursuit of our intimate, personal spiritual work and man's "global "effort to understand the metaphysics of the cosmos.

The post about Tawhid presumes a top-down effort to understand the universe; yesterday's post about sitting and observing is , you may agree, more of an example of the bottom-up methodology we usually (but not always) prefer to employ in the Gurdjieff work.

In "The Black Swan" ( Random House, 2007,) Nicholas Taleb pitches a hard-core endorsement of the bottom-up approach. What he says is largely about finance (the world he is most familiar with,) but it might as well be about Gurdjieff's approach to metaphysics.

On page 268, we find the following:

"While many study psychology, mathematics, or evolutionary theory and look for ways to take it to the bank by applying their ideas to business, I suggest the exact opposite: study the intense, uncharted, humbling uncertainty in the markets as a means to get insights about the nature of randomness that is applicable to psychology, probability, mathematics, decision theory, and even statistical physics."

In most spiritual works, we encounter top-down cosmology. (Perhaps only Zen Buddhism is bold enough to throw that premise out the window right at the outset.) Gurdjieff certainly gave us a beautifully complex and elaborated one.

Nonetheless, in an apparent masterstroke which I do not see any clear parallels to-- at least in the spiritual realms we generally traverse--, after presenting his top-down approach to Ouspensky in considerable detail, he insisted that we throw all of that out and begin from the bottom by verifying everything for ourselves piece by piece.

The approach makes perfect sense, because only in this way can a man be certain that everything he arrives at is, at least for himself, of a whole piece of fabric. And Gurdjieff wanted "men" to produce men, not automatons or slaves. His is a work of originators, not imitators.

Because of this, as students of Gurdjieff's path, we agree to inhabit an inherent uncertainty. This has, of course, ended up codifying itself into a perversely buffered form of certainty, proving out the idea that everything eventually becomes its own opposite.

Even so, as we engage in our now disturbingly habitual exchange of phrases such as "we don't know anything," "everything is a question," and so on, we do agree that no matter how much we know, it isn't very much.

And, like those brave Episcopalians (fyi, includes me), who throw out the Pope and brazenly welcome just about anyone who appears at the Church doors, we agree that although we all "worship" the same way, no one of us understands it in quite the same manner as our immediate neighbor.

Needless to say, this does not make us popular with everyone. People, after all, want answers. Gurdjieffians have questions. To the average seeker, the Gurdjieff work looks like a soup kitchen for desperately hungry people which may be serving soup at some indefinite time in the future-

but not today.

The top-down approach, on the other hand, gives one soup to swallow right away, but one has to be willing to swallow it whole ...even the bits that taste bad.

In the bottom-up approach, we can reach deep places in our work which are mysterious and extraordinary and discover understandings which are immediate and compelling, and still not know exactly where we are, or where we are going. This is the humbling moment in which even ordinary statisticians, economists, and professors of uncertainty recognize--if they are pragmatists -- that we inhabit what Taleb calls Extremistan.

A universe where the extraordinary is not only possible, but lawful, and so far exceeds the ordinary that it is all but impossible for us to reliably calibrate anything to respond to it.

Taleb's approach, like Gurdjieff's, is to tiptoe up to this problem carefully, rather than trying to chug-a-lug quarks of metaphysics under the assumption that a temporarily filled belly leads to long term satisfaction.

This leaves us with the dilemma of whether to adopt Gurdjieff's sophisticated cosmology, or his grass-roots methodology.

I frequently find myself stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea on this question. Because I enjoy the beauty of intelligently constructed arguments, I am a sucker for the cosmologies.

At the same time, part of me yearns to dive much deeper than the intellectual shallows of my personal continent will permit. I want to swim out, out and then down--down into that benthic darkness where unknown leviathans lurk, and taste the ice cold waters that well up from places that cannot be seen with eyes, or described with words.

So, my friends, you will probably continue to be served both of these dishes here in this space, for as long as there is a cook to stir the soup, and a waiter to serve it.

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Just studying today

I sit here, rather quietly. I am, however, speaking in order to create this post; using the usual voice dictation software.

As I sit here, uncertain of exactly what I will say today -- this is not a day where a specific question has presented itself, and some of the subjects I am preparing to work on are not yet ready for writing up-- I am just studying the energy in the body.

Recently I am acutely aware of how disconnected all of my parts are in the morning when I wake up. Because the parts are not connected and not exchanging well, there is a slowness to me then. It frequently takes a half hour to an hour to get things moving. I see that there is a process, upon arising from sleep, in which the body slowly starts up each of the various parts that work together and gets them running at speeds that make sense relative to each other.

When I am sitting first thing in the morning, I make every effort possible to bring the parts into relationship so that they can be reminded of each other. This requires a great deal of discrimination, scrutiny, and a repeated return to the effort, because, as with all efforts, there is a perpetual tendency to drift off course.

I accept this.

This morning, that effort was not so successful. There were a few moments where I really got into touch with one or another part, but in general, some of the efforts I made and aims that I had did not seem to bear much fruit.

I accept this too.

Despite the obvious resistance, I made the effort, presuming that it is worthy. As with most of my efforts, I tried not to judge it too harshly, but to just see it like this: "I am here, making these efforts."

It is possible to remind myself within the midst of each moment; efforts don't have to be good or bad; they just have to be efforts. The moment that I label them with values they lose value.

So now, I sit here in the middle of the day with, so to speak, the "results" of the efforts I have made this morning. Some parts are more open; other parts are more receptive. All in all, it appears as though the parts of myself which I am not usually aware of have been helped, and they are now reciprocating by doing work to support me in ways I did not anticipate or demand.

One of the consequences of this was a moment in a business meeting this morning when something became very open in the lower part of my body. At that particular moment, it explained everything. Of course, it does not explain everything now, because it was appropriate to that particular moment. For then, it was what was required, and it was quite perfect. Of course, something else is required now. What that might be is a question, and I may not be available to it in a way that I was then.

Everything is a moving target.

One thing that was clearly explained in the experience during the business meeting this morning is that I use too much force to do things. I often see this around me in everyone; it is more difficult to see it in myself.

I think that we are all trapped in situations where we use too much force. We have the opportunity to inhabit our lives and sit here within the present condition and just experience ourselves. That would be quite enough to manage our lives well; to contain ourselves, to sit within repose, to experience the materiality and the substance of our being and our life.

We do not, however, contain an inwardness of quality with enough gravity in it to encourage that. If we work in the direction of sensation, we may begin to encounter gravity; we may not. If we do encounter this inner gravity I speak of, it can help us to be more firmly planted in the soil of the present moment.

There is no other reason to be this way other than that we can be this way. There is no other reason to do this other than that we can do this. So in this way, openness and gravity make everything quite simple, and become sufficient unto themselves.

There is more than enough food in this to satisfy our wish for more life.

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tawhid, by the seat of a dutchman's breeches

Yesterday, a good friend and I got into a conversation about the question of unity. In our discussion, she used the word Tawhid, which I (maybe like you) had to look up on Wikipedia.

Per Wikipedia, this principle, from Islam, "asserts the existence of a single, absolute truth that transcends the world; a unique in being who is independent of the creation; a real being indivisible into hypostatic entities or incarnated manifestation."

The expression reminds me greatly of Dogen's description of the Dharma, and certainly reminds me of the teaching that "there is no "I", there is only truth." Anyway, we ended up in a general discussion about whether our perception of individuation is or is not illusory, as my friends K. and R. (and, of course, the philosophical branches of many teachings) maintain.

It is easy for us to intellectually agree or disagree with such a premise. It is much more difficult for anyone (who I know, at least) to claim first-hand experience that sheds light on the matter in any conclusive way.

I will agree that it definitely sounds much cooler and groovier to say that our perceptions of duality are erroneous. First of all, it rejects the entire world as we encounter it in its current state, a condition that one master after another suggests is necessary in order for us to step past our ordinary experience. Second, it's just about doctrinaire to assert this kind of thing if one is a "spiritual type." And third, it sounds weird and different; let's face it, human beings tend to be attracted to things that are weird and different.

Having agreed that this sounds a lot cooler than to sign onto perceived duality, I will even admit -- before I informally (and very casually) argue the possible points against this question -- that I think it is probably correct to say that our perceptions of duality are indeed erroneous.

After all, if I didn't, it would torpedo my pretensions of being a cool, groovy guy.

That leads me to the question, are we all one Being? Or are we individual entities, and are there other individual entities? If there is one Being, is it composed of aspects that manifest as individual entities? (That is to say, are our perceptions of this accurate?)

Or does everything we perceive need to be flushed down the metaphysical toilet?

Even within states of enlightenment like the one that Jesus Christ and Buddha inhabited, we (rather annoyingly) come across references that continue to hint at (or even just assert, damn it!) a universe populated at all levels by individuated personhoods.

To confuse things even more, if we take the concept of illusion to its logical conclusion, then Christ, Buddha, and everything they taught are illusory. All teachings are in fact illusory. (I think hear my old friend rlnyc snickering in the background at this one.)

Bearing all that in (our illusory) mind, we march straight up to the annoying conclusion that illusory beings have left us with with illusory teachings suggesting that everything is (or isn't) an illusion.

I think that in principle--cosmologically--it's true that there is only one thing. However, to know that from our perspective could prove rather difficult. We can examine it scientifically, and agree that there is just one whole universe, period, the end. If one could "go out"--expand--to a scale which is very nearly infinite in size (or become really, really tiny, as in planck-lengths tiny) this might become apparent. It works more or less the same way that, while an apple looks whole to us, it turns out to be made of cells, and then molecules, and then atoms, and then atomic particles, and so on. Once you get big enough to see it "from above," it's an apple. Up until then it's little bits of stuff: constituent elements. And if seen from far enough below, well, everything is pretty much an undifferentiated soup.

There's no way around it, however: in between, there are a way waaaaay lot of constituents.

Ergo, to argue in favor of the "one whole universe which is a single thing" theory--and to sign on to the premise of our helpless psychic wagon train drawn in a circle, surrounded by savage illusions all around--we might have to presume that no such constituents exist. That seems to be quite a stretch.

Wholeness, in other words, appears on every level to require constituent elements.

Presuming we want to argue that that is an illusion, then wholeness itself may be composed of illusions, and subject to the same evaluation--i.e., illusory, like all its constituents.

Hence even the cosmic unity which we espouse (as we all so enthusiastically reject our condition of individuation) does not actually exist. In a rather perverse manner, just bringing the subject up eventually leads us into an unexpectedly nihilistic cul-de-sac.

All of a sudden, there isn't anything.

You see, this whole matter gets sticky very quickly. We are like insects here who wandered into a sundew plant, thinking we were going to get a nice sweet snack, and discovering instead that we are tangled up in a big old mess that will instead have us for dinner.

In his time, Dogen was surrounded by "non-Buddhists" who presented many and various suspicious arguments of this nature, and he roundly rejected them. If anything, Dogen affirmed the essential perceived nature of reality, even as he argued that it is inherently transcendental.

Can we agree that it's fair enough to say there is something? Admittedly, we don't know what it is, but there is a something -- as opposed to nothing.

There is a something ...what is it? Perhaps it's no coincidence that that sounds like a Zen Koan.

And if all of this leaves you confused, well, at least there is a nice picture of flowers at the top of the post.

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

Monday, April 21, 2008

A material relationship

What do our relationships consist of? And how can we establish a more material relationship with truth?

I ask myself these questions as a consequence of a brief drive I took at lunch to pick up some food for the dog. In my own case, more often than not, it's these unglamorous events -- rather than the cosmic glow of weekend spiritual retreats -- that produce miraculous insights. This reminds me that it pays to always and everywhere remember that the miraculous is always right here, right now--in the ordinary weave of a cotton placemat on my desk; light reflected from an oval heliodor gem; the fine, delicate swirls of a cobalt blue glaze on antique porcelain.

The click of the computer keyboard.

I don't need to run away to find miracles. I need to stay here so that the miracles can find me.

Spring spread its green-white wings this past weekend, and has achieved full flight. Driving down the local streets around the office in Metuchen, New Jersey, taking in the extraordinary explosion of new buds, leaves, and flowers on the trees reminded me of the story of Brother Lawrence, who saw the life that lurked within leafless branches in the dead of winter--and understood something completely new.

This thing called "spring" which I saw before me just a few minutes ago is part of what he understood.

It is not a small thing. There is an absolute mystery contained within this explosion of life. For a layman, I know a good deal about the biological processes that cause this, and yet none of them can at all explain the impression that I take in. There is a vibration emanating from it: of color, of light, of movement that cannot be described by any mental feat, by any science or philosophy.

I can, however, sense a relationship to it within my body. And that is what took place this afternoon.

As I was driving along, I realized that something in me is quite different than my ordinary state. There is a "forever-possible Truth" of experience available: something within that is in relationship to God ...even if God is not directly present.

And this something is material. It isn't in my mind. It begins within the roots of my body, down in crevices and cracks which cannot be defined by logic or seen with instruments. God has a material presence that can manifest within me and changes my intellectual, physical, and emotional state. This has a direct relationship to that inner force, that other nature, that I have discussed so many times before.

So there has to be a material relationship in order for me to sense reality differently.
Once this material relationship becomes a living entity, rather than a conceptual construction, it supports itself. It isn't born of the mind; if it is born, yes, the mind "discovers" it exists, but it has always been there. It is my awareness that does not know it... my mind itself usually stands in the way of it. Here's the supreme irony: my mind swallows awareness. And in that state, I perpetually hope that "God" will swallow "me," instead of seeing that

..."I" must swallow "God."

When we inhabit a more organic state of being, we inhabit a living universe. Of course, we are always inhabiting a living universe, but with a new relationship to the organism, we know that we inhabit this living universe, not just with the head, but with all of our parts. In such a way, everything becomes more natural, flows more easily, makes more sense. The knee-jerk resistance that I prefer to offer to my life at most times is replaced by a more cooperative attitude that allows me to explore each situation, rather than trying to control it.

The difficulty with me is that I always seem to try to think the relationship. I treat life as though consciousness were a plot that could be laid out on a sheet of paper and then followed. "If I do such and such, I will be more conscious. If I behave so and so, I will be more meritorious."

This is a constant habit.

What I forget when I think in such a way is that to discover any truth, the truth has to be inhabited. Not thought about. So in trying to cultivate the inner relationship, which arises out of stillness in the silence, I make an effort to discover that I have substance. To discover that I am a living, breathing piece of flesh, rather than a ghost that arises from imagination, lives within imagination, and can never touch anything solid.

Can we be bold enough to replace "i" with "a"-- to inhabit ourselves rather than inhibit ourselves?

We can, at least, try.

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