Friday, November 18, 2011

The Language Of Mindfulness

Late 15th century calligraphic text, Poems of Sa'di and Hafiz 
Metropolitan Museum of New York, Islamic wing

What does it mean to be mindful, to have a conscious practice?

I don't see that almost everything I do begins to fall into habit. Most of what I am consists of imitation and repetition. For example: I hear someone else say something intelligent about their spiritual practice, and the next thing you know, I am repeating the words that they used, and perhaps even the very things that they said. This problem is like an infectious disease; once the virus is in me, it multiplies and spreads both in myself, and to other people.

The next thing I know, everyone around me in my community is saying more or less the same things, using the same words.

In one way, this isn't a bad thing, because commonality helps to build community. But on the other hand, it makes everything too easy for me. I sound like I belong. I sound like I am working in the same way as others. I sound– horrors! –like I know what I am talking about. Others nod their heads in agreement when I use the right words and say the right things.

All of this is just a cleverer way of falling asleep. My language practice, like the rest of me, also needs to be conscious and sensitive. That is to say, I need to use my own words to describe my own experience–not just lean on the associations I encounter like a crutch. This requires a certain presence of Being. The thinking part needs to actively engage and precisely see what it is saying, at the same time that a sensation of the body is maintained. The feeling part needs to be used carefully gauge the relationship between the body and the mind, and intuit the intelligence that is necessary to, in the moment, say something that is both precise, accurate, and original.

Of course this is a quite difficult practice. How much easier it is to just say the right things and sound like other people!

I fall into habits so easily that I don't see they are habits. This is, in fact, the whole point of understanding my habits– that I am completely identified with them. I presume them to be creatures emanating from a source of awareness, when in fact, they aren't.

Once formed, habits deftly camouflage themselves as awareness practices. This is why I need to be on my toes– to practice as if my hair were on fire– in order to remain active. If my hair is on fire, I am dancing around, swatting at it, looking for water, rolling on the ground– in other words, I am not taking a single approach: I am in constant movement, attempting to extinguish the flames.

 Mindfulness can extend, in its intricacy, to the immediate use of language within the moment. In order to do this it is necessary to observe exactly how I am– insofar as I can determine that– within a given moment, as I speak. If I keep a close attention to what I say, and I am in the middle of it as it is said, I am much less likely to lose track of what I am saying. This kind of precise insight does not need to be a technical exercise– it is on the order of what is absolutely necessary in life- that is, my response.
Michel de Salzmann mentions that “what really defines and shows us a man is his response.” (Two Essays," pg. 6, Michel de Salzmann, Morning Light Press, 2011.)

In general, I'm often lazy about the use of language. I frequently see myself adapting the language of others, using it in a mirroring process that helps form bonds with others, but otherwise demands very little of me. It's much easier to engage in this habit than to attempt to use language precisely and with an active intelligence. To do so is to engage in a practice of the mind much like the Gurdjieff movements: one must be in the moment, one must see the movement of the mind, one must participate. This participation in response– an active participation– is a measurement of how present we are.

It's useful to watch the use of language for other reasons. It can help me see what parts of me are active. For example, when I attend carefully to the language I'm using, I can sense it in my body; I can see whether it is habitually associative, whether it is emerging mostly from the emotional part, whether it is entirely in the head, while the there is a grounding element– a kind of inner gravity– that connects it to the body. All of this can be an interesting study, but it requires a close attention that is not at all necessary when I speak. Speaking comes out of my machine without prompting; it is easy, it is automatic, it is mechanical.

In fact, if I'm fortunate enough to have a bit of presence, I may be able to observe myself speaking and see that the process usually comes out of a part that is probably not much more intelligent than a computer. My habitual parts are quite able, and know how to respond to 99% of what takes place in life without any need for active participation. That other 1%–

that is where the rubber meets the pavement.

How can I use a more active intelligence to become more precise in my language, in the moment?

May our prayers be heard.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Thirty years ago today, I got up in the morning and looked at myself in the mirror and realized that if I kept drinking the way I had been drinking, I would die young.

I saw death looking at me in the mirror that day. That's the only explanation. It was a clear and distinctive impression, and I can still remember it. I haven't had a drop of alcohol since that day.

I wanted to share that with readers, because we all need to know that death is inevitable, and that we need to be clear about this. The decisions we make in life should be directly related to that question.

One doesn't want to die having failed to live responsibly. To do so is, as Gurdjieff said,  to “to die like a dog.”

  I thought I'd write a few notes today about the role of the centers we don't talk about much– sex center and instinctive center. They are, after all, part of the “lower” complex of centers, and yet, when we speak of inner work, we speak of three centered work–intellect, emotion, moving center (i.e, the body.) The place where sex center and instinctive center fit in isn't immediately apparent– nor does anyone give instructions for how to work with them... well, it's true; there are instructions on how to work with sex center in some Tantric disciplines, but that is fairly obscure material for most people.

It's useful to understand that the three centers that man generally works in and lives in–intellect, emotional, and moving center– are, more or less, "sandwiched" between sex center and instinctive center. There is, in other words, a distinctive hierarchy. One could imagine them as a thread running down the center of the body. The exact locations of the energy and the way they work are not necessarily linear, but the analogy of the thread is roughly correct. (The precise analogy, one of circulation, is depicted in the enneagram.)

The ground floor in man is instinctive center. This center is what supports life; it regulates breathing and digestion, along with many other physical functions that man is unable to do anything with himself. We can't, for example, work at the molecular level to determine what nutrients need to be absorbed by the intestine. The instinctive center, however, can do that. Another good example is breathing. It's well known that Gurdjieff did not want his pupils doing breathing exercises. Once one interferes with the ordinary mechanical work of instinctive center, undoing the damage can be nearly impossible. It's not meant to be regulated; treated properly, it is self regulating and needs no special attention.

Because instinctive center occupies the lowest rung, it serves as a bridge between levels. It actually touches the microcosmic level beneath man and mediates its action in him.

Sex center is at the top of the arrangement; as Gurdjieff explained, it works with the highest “hydrogen” that man is capable of manufacturing on his own, that is, si 12. This higher substance makes it possible for sex center, under certain conditions, to touch another level– the higher centers– as it does for brief moments when human beings experience orgasm. Because of the powerful energy it works with, it is able to subordinate the work of all the other centers when it wishes to– this is why we often have very little control over our lusts and sexual desires.

In any event, sex center mediates the energy that serves as a bridge at the top end of the hierarchy. It "touches" the higher centers. Hence its connection to the third eye both in the yogic chakra systems, and on Gurdjieff's enneagram. That isn't to say that there aren't or can't be other energies involved here; as anyone who has studied Gurdjieff's chemical factory knows, there are two other octaves that can produce hydrogens at level 12, each of which can also serve as a bridge between levels.

In between these two centers, we find the mind, the emotion, and the body. All of these lie firmly within territory that can be influenced by our own action. Hence the emphasis on working with these three centers, rather than with all five. It isn't to say that the other two centers don't meaningfully participate; nonetheless, their participation lies, in some measure, beyond our grasp.

All of this might seem rather technical, but it's of interest if one is trying to sense the whole of one's Being. While we tend to concentrate on sensing thought, emotion, and sensation, the participation of both sexuality and instinct may be seen during anything more than a cursory examination. If all of the centers (the three centers we generally work with, that is) begin to work together more harmoniously, the action of the sexual center and the instinctive center become even more apparent, because a greater sensitivity to this type of experience exists. In general, without three centered work, instinctive center is completely ignored– it operates on cruise control– and sex center is experienced strictly in the form of intense and irrevocable identification.

So why all this talk about chemistry in spiritual work?  I suppose maybe it's pretty boring stuff–and I will confess, if there was one subject I hated more than any other in high school, it was chemistry.

Man, without a doubt, is a chemical and electrical being. Every spiritual experience is mediated by these forces. We can talk all we like about many paths, but there is only one chemistry. The chemistry of spirituality, of enlightenment, is a fixed entity, not one that varies from human being to human being. There is absolutely no doubt that Gurdjieff got that right. The enlightenment of the Buddhists is the same enlightenment bestowed by Christ consciousness, the same rapture as the Sufi saints. There can be no difference, because there is no group of men that produces special chemicals outside the realm of what is possible in human biology.

 Some may think that these ideas cheapen the spiritual quest; others might agree that it objectifies it. The good news is that one doesn't have to sit around titrating solutions in flasks and beakers in order to pursue a path. The chemistry of the human being is exquisitely attuned to respond to, and grow within, the conditions of life itself.

Lastly, a brief announcement: several interesting new releases by Morning Light Press, which can be reviewed and ordered by clicking the following link. Recommended.

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May our prayers be heard.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Portrait of a dervish, Uzbekistan, 16th century
Islamic collection, Metropolitan Museum, New York

We live in a troubled world.

Over the last few years, it consistently occurs to me that we have become victims of the old Chinese curse: "may you live in interesting times." Yet all of this trouble–if trouble it is, and from a certain point of view, it isn't–is created by man. Not a single other creature on the planet is even remotely aware of the “trouble” that mankind is in. Each one of them simply goes about its business.

We worry.

Today was a day where I didn't worry much. The larger events on the planet– currency crisis, environmental deterioration, absurd electioneering, war– seem oddly pointless. In the abstract, of course they affect everything I do, and certain parts of me consider this, ponder it, calculate. Nonetheless, there is very little I can do about them.

I can, however, attend to myself. Perhaps this sounds like an excessively passive approach; maybe I should get involved and occupy something. If I were younger, maybe I even would. Age, however, leads me to the perception that what I need to occupy is myself.

If I don't develop an intimate relationship with my Being, an active intelligence, an active interest, an active respect for myself and my life, nothing else will work well.  This is something I can have an effect on– as opposed to the downward spiral of the planet, which is well beyond my control. Don't get me wrong–I try to save water, turn off lights, and recycle. That is, I do the little things. But I can't save the Euro.

As they say in Zen, life is a matter of getting the flesh, the blood, the bones, the marrow of practice. There is a need to get to the heart of things, and the merry-go-round of human affairs is not at the heart of things: it is an artifice, a distraction that drags us away from ourselves.

I take the famous dog Isabel for her usual walk along the Palisades this afternoon. The weather for the past week has been dry, and all of the leaves are finally coming off the trees. Miraculous! It is one of those perfect fall moments when crisp, dry leaves lie deep in the forests and across the paths. Ten thousand subtle shades of brown catch the afternoon sun and curl it up in pockets.  It's unnaturally warm: mid-November, and I am walking in shirt sleeves.

 The inevitable sense of love as a constant presence is with me. I can sense it hiding under the leaves, lurking in all the negative spaces created by geometry. There are moments when all of the matter around me sings of love the way bees in a hive point one another towards the best honey.

In the midst of this, an enormous sorrow penetrates everything. A unique and particular sorrow, related to the very act of Being itself.


Well, perhaps not so inexplicable.

Yesterday, my wife Neal and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see their new exhibit of Islamic art–which is, by the way, absolutely outstanding, and so extensive that it was seemingly impossible to see more than half of it in one day. While we were there, I encountered the portrait of a dervish with which I have headed this post.

The inscription at the bottom of the picture reads: “Why am I then obliged to heaven that it has given me a soul? For it has created within me a source of sorrows from which that soul suffers.”

For me, the question here is the difference between personalized sorrow, a temporal or horizontal anguish, such as that which I feel on the death of a loved one, and that transcendental sorrow which penetrates reality, descends from above, and suffuses the soul with both the bitterest love and the sweetest anguish at the same time.

We truly lie at the intersection of forces we do not understand. If the soul does have a purpose–if it carries an obligation to heaven, which is the question the dervish asks–the obligation must be to help bear this sorrow, to inhabit life and to help carry that burden, on behalf of everything that is.

It is hard to remember this in a world that specializes in setting up windmills to tilt at.

May our prayers be heard.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


There are intimate relationships between practice in Zen Buddhism and the understandings we find in Jeanne de Salzmann's observations about the Gurdjieff work.

 I'll examine one specific example today, because I feel it's striking.

First, from Dogen's Shobogenzo:

“To carry the self forward and illuminate myriads things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening." 
(Treasury of the True Dharma eye, p. 29, Zen Master Dogen's Shobo Genzo,  as translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi,  Shambhala, 2010)

 Then, from, Jeanne de Salzmann:

"We do not see the simultaneous movements outward toward manifestation and inward toward a reality at the source, two kinds of vibrations. Always I nourish the feeling of my ordinary "I", clinging blindly to the first movement, the vibration that draws me outward. I am taken by my activity of the moment, and believe that in this vibration lies the affirmation of myself. In this identification I am lost in one or another part of myself, unconscious of the whole."

" I can come to [Presence] if I am actively passive, quiet enough for an energy of another quality to appear, to be contained in me. This is a state of deep letting go where the functions are maintained in passivity. I let my functions come into my presence. I do not go into them; they come into me. Only the attention is active, an attention coming from all the centers.” 
(The Reality of Being, pages 81–82, Shambhala 2010.)

 Admittedly, the passages from de Salzmann are far wordier, but at the same time they are (helpfully) more specific. They illuminate Dogen's meaning in a way that may not be immediately accessible to us.

Part of our difficulty in understanding Dogen's language is–first of all–that it's a translation. Second, lexicons of terminology and the associative meaning of words change over time.  The substantial differences between one of the last major translations of the Shobogenzo (Nishijima and Cross) and this new one (Tanahashi), which were accomplished not too many years apart,  underscores this issue.

Last but not least, all of us are accustomed to hearing the words of Buddhism quite habitually, so we come to them always with an ordinary, predetermined set of associations that is almost impossible to leave behind.

In some senses, an approach to understanding any esoteric literature involves not only leaving my associations with the words behind, but also developing a practical and physical relationship with what is being said. That, too, requires that I overcome the considerable obstacles that arise when such pursuits begin, in large part, as intellectual enterprises.

The habitual assumption that we understand the language of an esoteric practice is the reason that Gurdjieff, when he introduced a work that relied heavily on yoga teachings, completely eliminated the yoga terminology, substituting the word “centers” for chakras,  and so on.

 In any event, de Salzmann's  description of us going outward is the same as Dogen's carrying the self forward. Using the self to go outward and illuminate the world (by rough analogy, the concept of employing the ego as an interpretive mechanism which tries to "grasp" reality) is Dogen's delusion. This is much the same action as Gurdjieff (and de Salzmann's ) identification. Both masters are indicating that when we become identified with the outward movement of the self, it attempts to seize the world and make it its own property.

 I need to be careful not to understand this idea of going outward in a strictly psychological way. This action is an entire organic movement which must be physically sensed, intellectually sensed, and emotionally sensed, in the moment. (In other words, it must be seen.) The problem is not just a problem of the way that I think.

 Here we come to what intrigued me when I read the passage from Dogen this morning.  That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.

When I read this passage, it immediately struck me that this was perhaps very nearly identical to de Salzmann's indication that I let my functions come into my presence.

Both of these texts indicate that the action of awakening is an action of receiving the world, not trying to go out and get it. In order to understand this, I must organically begin to sense the difference between outward and inward movement. To carry the self forward–to go outward–comes only from my personality, my ego. To allow myriad things to come forth–to allow my functions to come into my presence–to not go into them, but to let them come into me–this is the action I often refer to in this space as inhabiting my life.  This is an action of essence, which has a completely different relationship to my life. Personality is a tourist. Essence is an inhabitant.

The tourist, arriving, feels the need to document everything, take photographs, buy souvenirs, attempts to own the space by seizing parts of it, claiming to understand it, trying to define it.

The inhabitant has no need for such activity: already inhabiting, the inhabitant is already there. There is no need to attempt to take and hold what surrounds the inhabitant, because it is already a part of her, and she of it.

In my eyes, there is a subtle relationship between these ideas and the ideas of God the Father and the Virgin Mary: Mary seen as the female principle, a vessel that receives the energy and expression-the activity-of the father, or inseminating agent. Of this, something new and quite extraordinary may be born. It might not be too bold to say that being born of the Holy Spirit begins with allowing my functions to come into my presence.

This is not different than allowing myriad things to come forth and illuminate the self.

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Giving thanks

What is it to give thanks for our existence? I mean, to really give thanks, intentionally, and with all three centers?

On page 728  of Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson, new edition, we encounter the following passage:

     "Perhaps, my boy, you do not yet know anything about the 'holy sacrament of the great Serooazar'?" Beelzebub asked his grandson.
     To this question of Beelzebub, Hassein replied:
     "No, dear Grandfather, I do not yet know the details of this; I only know that these dionosks are regarded among us on the planet Karatas as great, holy days and are called 'helping-God dionosks.'  And I also know that at the end of these great holy days, all our beings, 'actavas' and 'passavas,' begin to prepare themselves for the next ones; and that one 'loonia' before the beginning of this sacred mystery both old and young cease to introduce the 'first being-food' into themselves and, through various sacred ceremonies, mentally give thanks for their existence to our Common Creator."

Wandering about (and often lost) in the fascinating technical esoterica of Gurdjieffian lore, perhaps we forget how recognizably Christian, how fundamental and perhaps even "ordinary" many of the practices Gurdjieff called us to are.

 To give thanks for my existence.

 Unless I see the wholeness of life, the wholeness of how nature expresses itself in the three forces of thought, material, and emotion (see the previous post) I don't see why I should be thankful. When Dogen says, “We have obtained these bodies difficult to obtain, and encountered this dharma difficult to encounter. Therefore, let us practice as though our hair were on fire,” he is indicating just how precious and important this life itself is. 

To practice as though my hair is on fire is to give thanks.

To see the wholeness of life is to understand that 100% of it, all of it, everything that is given, is a gift for my work. It isn't just something that happens. Life is sent through Love and in Love, and all of creation manifests within that Love to participate in community.  I speak here not just of the community of human beings, but the community of matter–the community of the earth, the planet–the community of the solar system. The question of community expands, ultimately, to include everything there is.

The deepest sense of this life and its value–which is, at the objective level, absolute, not relative–cannot be understood without taking in impressions properly, taking them in deeply. Receiving life in a different way than I usually receive it.

Jeanne de Salzmann refers to this by saying that understanding is based on conscious impressions, and that “understanding is a precious treasure that must enter as a living element in my effort.” 
(The Reality of Being, Shambala, 2010, pages 79–80.)  

So if I have a real impression of my life, a true impression, I see that it is, in its entirety, a precious treasure. This essential sacredness must be sensed organically, in the deepest part of the being. The sense of this sacredness is connected to the action of what Gurdjieff called Hanbledzoin; this substance marries the thought to the feelings. Only if thought is connected to feeling can I begin to sense this. This is a substantive action, a material action, not a theoretical or mental action.

The action of giving thanks begins here. It begins immediately, in this life, with a sense of how complete and whole life is, with the sense that everything is bound together into one great expression, referred to as the Dharma by Buddhists. The Dharma is not just a mental conception. It is the entire field of energy–thought, sensed, spoken, felt– which I exist in, and which includes me.

Dogen liked to refer to his pupils as “Buddha ancestors.” Gurdjieff, perhaps more prosaically, called them his "adepts." Either way, the inference is that we are on a path towards understanding. This thing called understanding, which we hope to acquire on this path, is precious; that understanding is a treasure. It has an immeasurable value that cannot be extracted from the Dharma; it resides within it, and our only option is to surrender ourselves in that direction, to inhabit the Dharma itself, thereby participating in its truth.

Once I understand, I give thanks. 

Even in the midst of grief, and fear, if there is any sense of wholeness in me, any appreciation of how completely extraordinary this life is, I still give thanks. In this way, every act of living becomes a prayer. Michel Conge touches on this fundamental principle in his fine book Inner Octaves (which is, unfortunately, not available in stores, a lamentable situation that definitely ought to be corrected.)

 This is a question I can carry in myself in every moment of every day. Am I giving thanks? I give thanks by making a conscious effort–by trying to remain in touch with my wish, in touch with my sensation, my feeling, my thought.

Of course, I describe all these things as though they can be explained. The simple fact is that they cannot. It's possible to experience all of these actions, but reading about them–or writing them down in a diary–does not begin to approach what we are actually dealing with. 

Because, after all, all of this in one way or another represents what life actually ought to be about and what life actually ought to be for, and all of us have strayed very far from that path.

May our prayers be heard.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Being Penetrated

The nature of being on this level is such that I am thick.

Materiality as I experience it is coarse and crude. I may think it's quite refined;  when I encounter great works of art or music, striking pieces of architecture, or the objectively beautiful impressions of nature, I see goodness. So within the range of its usual ability, my sensory experience conveys a certain kind of satisfaction.

Yet none of this is enough. This is not what I was born for. I live in a universe and a field of forces that I am generally unaware of. Coming in to contact with what Gurdjieff called "higher energies,” the influences of the sacred, a slow form of dissolving takes place.

What I am is more or less crystalline. My entire personality and all of the things that I think I am have crystallized and set into a rigid entity that I inhabit, thinking it is quite right. I don't know any differently.

It's only contact with an emotional force, a reconciling force that enters to influence the materiality I inhabit, that begins to help me intimate that this form, which seems to be so substantial, is actually empty. Paradoxically, I need to start to become empty to understand that where I am right now is the epitome of emptiness. What I "have" needs to dissolve.

This can only happen through the action of suffering. Not suffering in the sense of allowing bad things to happen to me, or admitting my iniquity, not in any literal sense. The suffering has to take another form.

 That form is expressed within experience and presence. I need to be present to the experience. I need to inhabit my life. Impressions take on a different quality under such circumstances, but it is not the nature of that quality that matters. One might say that that quality was perfect, or sublime, or so on and so forth. Yet the quality of my impression, fine though it may be, is not necessarily the point. Every impression that is taken in more deeply has a finer quality to it. Yet it is the action that is important–the experience of the impressions as they enter. Not their definitions.

Impressions that enter me more deeply help to begin to dissolve what I ordinarily am. It is as though one were drinking a very fine medicinal beverage, one that slowly cleans out all of the garbage and nonsense acquired over a lifetime, replacing it with a certain kind of emptiness which has far more substance than what came before it.

This emptiness is an emptiness of quality that stands ready to receive what arrives. It doesn't make decisions in advance about how anything is going to be; it stands ready to allow what is to be what it is. It sidesteps the complications I create with my intellect. It makes an end run around the expectations I create.

 Within this emptiness, this suspension of the world as I know it, lies an emotional quality that sustains. Without a sensitivity to that, and a willingness to allow that emotional quality to enter, nothing real can happen in me. The taking in of deeper impressions is, in fact, the arrival of an understanding relative to the nature of what life is.

The world has a clearly material quality expressed in terms of the objects that I encounter, and it has a clearly intellectual quality expressed in terms of the relationship between those objects–all of which are, as we know, subject to physical and chemical laws.

Generally speaking, I relate to the nature of life and to nature itself in a one centered manner; maybe I'm pounding nails into a board, interacting with the material quality. Maybe I'm thinking about the way physics works, interacting with the intellectual quality. Maybe I am even thinking about how physics affects the nail I am pounding, achieving a crude yet effective two-centered impression of my world.

What I do not see is that nature, as I encounter it, also has an emotional quality that binds all of the parts of material reality together. I can't be sure of why, but the fact is that man has generally lost the ability to sense this in any direct way, even though the organism is designed to receive vibrations of that kind. Of course, there is accrued emotional relationship to nature which, when it's there, consists mostly of association and enthusiasm; nonetheless, this is sediment. I say sediment, because it accretes in layers  that appear to acquire significant meaning, but it might just as well be sentiment.

This emotional quality that exists within nature is the third force that binds reality together, acting between material and thought. It has more than a little bit to do with all of the discussions I have had in this space about the nature of Love; yet this force that ultimately creates reality is so sublime that it's probably better not to put a word on it at all.

 This ineffable nature that binds thought and material together can enter the body. Not in any intellectual or sentimental way; no, it can enter the body in a way that dissolves what I am.

This three centered sensing alone, should I choose  to become available to it and allow its action, can have a profound effect on my understanding.

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fear of the Self

Over the last two days, I've been contemplating once again relationship with the two chief prayers used by Gurdjieff, that is, "I am-l wish to be" and "Lord have mercy."

I had mentioned earlier that one of the esoteric meanings of the first of the
two prayers is to overcome the fear of the Self.

Why do I fear myself? If I dig down deep into myself, beyond the superficial
fears, horizontal fears, all of the ordinary fears that drive my relationships with life, perhaps I can begin to see that at my core I fear my own mortality, and I fear that I do not have Being. Because I manifest in this clearly mortal body, my fundamental fear is that this is all my Self is, that there is nothing more, and that it will end.

I have forgotten my Self. I am unable to realize that the Self is not the body.
Paradoxically, the full realization of this lies deep within the physical and
mortal practice of relaxation and sensation, yet I am unable to relax and sense in the comprehensive way that is necessary. (Only with help from a higher level can that take place.) Because I have forgotten my Self, I no longer sense the sacred relationship that binds me eternally to those higher forces which create the universe. I live only within the constraints of my own fear, the fear of my death, the constant underlying fear that I am not more than this lump of flesh.

The real manifestation of "I am" is an acknowledgment of my conditions,
including both mortality of the body and the necessity of realizing that there is something more. This is why the words "I am" are followed by the words "I wish to be." The first prayer has two actions; and the second action, the wish to be, represents a reconciling force leading me towards a reconnection with the higher.

I was contemplating the parable of the prodigal son yesterday, and I realized that this parable may cast some light on this situation. Let's forget for a moment about the indignant brother who stays home and is a good boy; he seems important, but maybe he's not really the main character.

The son who leaves home goes all the way away from home; he immerses
himself in a life of the flesh, the horizontal life, a life where he has truly and
fully manifested on the lower level. Having done that, he turns around and
comes home. He has manifested "I am," and in returning home, he manifests "I wish to be." Presenting himself, he asks for mercy, and his father is generous. He has completed the cycle; and to the incredulity of the other son, who has stayed home, he is rewarded.

It isn't possible to understand the Self without fully leaving home.

I am manifested in the flesh, confronted by my own mortality, and ever fearful.
My fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between my Self and the
Lord causes me to fail to manifest fully in the first place; and in having failed
to live, to inhabit my life fully, that is, consciously and with attention, I
haven't even fulfilled the first condition that the prodigal son fulfilled. He left
home; in fully leaving, he created the possibility of fully coming back. I haven't
even fully left home. This recalls Zen master Dogen's reference to Buddhist
monks as "leavers of home." It's a koan: I cannot come back home unless I fully
leave it. My own wish cannot be fully manifest, and I cannot try to return home
honestly, if I don't fully leave home in the first place.

The fear of the self, this fundamental paranoia about my mortality, is what
keeps me here at home-in the comfort zone, asleep. As Christ pointed out, the
Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. Perhaps this is because he has fully
accepted his mortality and the conditions he is within, and works relentlessly
and without rest to surrender himself fully and return home.

This question of overcoming the fear of the self is a deep one. If I examine my
manifestations of my life carefully, I see that it penetrates most of what I do. A
great deal of my habitual inner dialogue consists of creating various buffers and
defenses that prevent me from acknowledgment of where I actually am. A
complete abandonment of this nonsense would of course allow me the freedom
to completely leave home; but that would be a huge step, one I cannot take so
easily. It is easy to theorize about it, but the organic necessity of freedom is
different than the mental picture of it.

And, of course, my forgetting of the self and its connection to the higher
always brings me back to the fact that I don't trust.

This question of the two prayers and their relationship to one another bears a
great deal of fruit for me as I continue to consider them.

May our prayers be heard.

Monday, October 31, 2011

All Hallow's Eve

Happy Halloween!

 It may seem odd to some to treat on the subject of death during Halloween, so close on the heels of the death of my sister, but you would have to know her in order to know that she had an entirely wicked and profoundly irreverent sense of humor. If she knew I was posting to tell a ghost story tonight–a real ghost story–not something made up–she would probably love it. Even though the ghost story involves her.

This is an absolutely true story. I'm telling it not only because I think that it 's appropriate for All Hallow's Eve, but also because it raises some interesting questions about the nature of life and death, consciousness, time, and our perception of reality.

There's a man named Joe B. who was a very close friend of mine. He shared numerous personal characteristics with my sister. He died in a tragic car accident in 1999. By that time, I had been working with him for 10 years and had been to Thailand and China with him many dozens of times. We were very close, but the relationship was deeply conflicted, because he was both charismatic and seriously bipolar. Although I loved the man in many ways–he was one of those people who could complete a sentence for me, and vice versa–he was also very, very difficult.

 In the first 3 months after he died, Joe kept coming back to me in dreams over and over again. In every dream, we were in Thailand--his absolute favorite place-- and it eventually became clear to me that he basically wanted us to keep being together there, in this place he loved. In other words, he didn't want to go: he was clinging, stuck to this moment in our lives, and in life.

 The dreams eventually became disturbing, because he just wouldn't leave. I finally looked at him in a moment of lucid dreaming and told him, “Joe, you're dead. You just can't keep coming back like this. You have to move on." In that last dream, he nodded at me to acknowledge that he understood. He disappeared from my dreams then for about 6 months, and only came back one more time, very briefly, in a cameo appearance to let me know he was okay.

 He had not come back for over 10 years.

 A month ago, about a week before I went to China, Joe returned in a dream again. When he came back, I thought it was very odd, because he had definitely moved on, and I couldn't for the life of me understand why he would come back after 10 years of complete silence. I decided to ignore it as a fluke, some unfinished piece of business I was working out in my subconscious.

 It wasn't that easy. Joe came back the next night again. That night, what was left over when I woke up was a sense of great love for him. I understood that even though we had terrible moments together, the overarching relationship was one of love. It was a good feeling to know that. 

Okay, I thought, resolved.


 He came back again, for the third night in a row, about 3 nights before I left on the trip. Enough was enough. I woke up that morning distinctly saying to myself, “Someone is going to die.” It was as though it was self evident, and I was dense not to have understood it before that. Joe had come to send me that message.

 Well, I thought, perhaps one is just bound to imagine such things when a recurring dream like that arises. But I couldn't shake the impression, and of course I was worried it would be me. I have all these people to take care of, my children, wife, parents, and so on, I thought. Then I thought to myself stoically, “Well, I can't do anything about it if it's me.”

 Then I started worrying that it was one of my children and I said, “dear God, please, don't take any of my children.”

 Finally, I put it aside. I was superstitiously averse to telling my wife Neal-- or anyone else-- about it, because I felt that if I vocalized it, it would become real and gain power. Perhaps there's some irony in this, since it seems apparent in hindsight that it already had all the power it was going to have in the first place.

 In any event, a day or two after my sister died, I suddenly realized that this was exactly what Joe had been trying to tell me. I feel quite certain that he came back to warn me.

 Jeanne De Salzmann famously said,  in a letter that she wrote after Mme. Ouspensky's death, "There is no death."

 I've had ample evidence of that over the course of a lifetime, sometimes in most unpleasant ways that I wanted to have nothing whatsoever to do with. ( This post is hardly the only true ghost story I have--it's one of the least disturbing ones, in fact.) In other instances they have been nothing short of miraculous, blessings from above.

 No matter how I try to process it, there is clearly a mystery to this question and a dimension that we can't possibly understand from this perspective.

 In memory of all those who we love, and who are gone--

 May our prayers be heard.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Intimate Self

On Friday afternoon, October 21, my sister Sarah died quite sudden of what we believe was an abdominal aneurysm. She was fifty-one years old.

I have just returned from China and am suffering from considerable jet lag. When my brother-in-law called me to give me the news, something in me refused to process it at first.

There isn't any way to philosophize about these things. We all go through the ordinary emotions of the telephone calls, the expressions of grief, the tears, and the incredulity. One never gets the life one wants; one gets the life one has.

 One of the last things that Jeanne de Salzmann reportedly said before she died was, "Be there in relation to a force. Then it doesn't matter so much, what happens.”

This is our task in life. To be there in relation to a force. This force that wishes to reach us confers a transparency and a radiance that cannot be measured by life; instead, it takes the measurement. We can know something real if a higher vibration takes the measurement, instead of us trying to take the measurement of what we think is (or isn't) a higher vibration.

Having returned from my trip to this terrible shock, I have discovered great value in just climbing the hill with my dog, the famous dog Isabel. I go down to the park by the Hudson River in the morning. The air is cool. I put one foot in front of the other and climb up the hill until I am maybe a third, maybe halfway, up the hill. It's the north side of the Palisades, so it is a bit shady, even when the sun is bright, and there is a tumble down of broken rocks and green moss all over the side of the hill. At this time of year, leaves are beginning to fall. The colors in these leaves have been crafted by the singing of cicadas all summer long; only now do the subtleties of their slowly changing palette begin to reveal themselves.

There is a texture and a grain to everything. Reality itself has this texture, a fine, granular nature, as though all of it were made up of very tiny, very fine particles, all gathering together into these objects and circumstances, yet together expressing a specific single and singular energy, an energy that permeates everything and animates matter in general, transcending the coarseness of manifestation, and expressing a finer underlying unity.

All of that is apparent in the detail and movement of the colors, the textures, the hardness and softness of the rocks and mosses. All of this comes into the body as a comprehensive statement of Being.

 It just is.

 With or without grief, there is no need to take the measure of anything; everything is already measured. What is necessary is to receive life and accept the conditions that I find myself in. The loss of my sister is part of those conditions, and it needs to be included in this effort to receive the impressions of life in the deepest possible way.

This question of deepness–of letting life penetrate into the body, of allowing life itself to add to the gravity of the body–  is critical. There needs to be a specific and tangible value to the experience of life. It must be organic, not mental. It needs to leave enough empty space for impressions to arrive more directly.

 Walking up the same hillside with rocks and moss on it  every day might seem monotonous. Yet there's a great deal there; everything, in fact, is right there. Life is right there. Breath is right there.

 These qualities of life are essential. If I don't make an effort to experience my life in each moment, if I don't open my intimate Self in a sensitive way to the receiving of life, I do not honor my own life, and I don't honor the lives of those who I love.

One might say that it is this loving relationship with the intimate Self, and with the world in its immediate proximity, that creates all of the possibility for the love that is needed to support those around me. Even those who have died need support and love; there is a reciprocal relationship between the living and the dead that must be fed in the same way that any relationship needs food.  This has been well understood since ancient times. Modern societies seem to be forgetting it.

There are mysteries here that cannot really be explained or perhaps even spoken of.

Where situations are impossible and words fail, Love suffices. Love is the best hope we have. It is made of ten thousand impossible things, so it is stronger than the possible.

It will always be the foundation on which life rests. There is no foundation greater than this; it is a good one, which time and death have no power over.

 May our prayers be heard.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Review of The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble CD

The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble/ Levon Eskenian
Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, ECM records

Tina Pelikan of ECM records kindly sent me a copy of this CD to review in this space.

 Let me begin by saying that this is a very fine effort indeed. Directed by Levon Eskenian,  fourteen of Armenia's leading folk instrumentalists came together to produce this group of pieces, which–naturally–focuses on pieces from the Gurdjieff/De Hartmann oeuvre with "roots in the Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian and Caucasian folk and spiritual music." Unsurprisingly, the instruments and performances bring the pieces back into that part of the world... with a vengeance. Played on these instruments, and in this manner, the music assumes an earthy organic nature that even Larry Rosenthal simply can't squeeze out of a piano.

Along the way, one is reminded how eerily a carefully applied vibrato can emulate a vocal performance; one gets to hear picks and fingernails skittering across strings like spiders, and human breathing modulating the sonorous notes of duduks and bluls. It's a pleasure to listen to this music brought back to the place it came from.

All in all, by reaching back into the past in such a comprehensive manner, this particular CD runs the risk of being– dare I say it?–New. You will not feel like you are hearing your father's Gurdjieff music here. It is not the same old, same old.

 Delightfully, it turns out that when one is working with this material, there are several pieces where it becomes necessary to flail away vigorously on stringed instruments. When one is called to flail, nothing else will do. I was (on a definitely irreverent note) at one point reminded of Pete Townshend's performance on Pinball Wizard. This kind of playing invigorates the music in a way that is, once again, impossible on a piano–the instrument we almost always hear this music played on. And all of the performances are equally spirited, even when the spirit that animates them is introspective or contemplative.

Having spent what seems most of a lifetime sitting primly in absolutely still rooms in order to carefully and attentively listen to reverently formal performances of this music, squeezed into what amounts to a parlor format–even though, of course, the aim is much bigger than the aim of any parlor music–it was refreshing to hear it unbound, scratchy, breathy, searching for a voice that authentically conveys origins. The performances well exceed the boundaries of what we have come to expect from our indoctrination.

Paradoxically, this also becomes a question. Arguably, one of Gurdjieff's chief acts of genius in his collaboration with De Hartmann was to bring this improvisational Eastern sensibility to a Western instrument. It worked rather well–in fact, it worked wonderfully. Because of this, bringing the music back to its own folk-instrument roots actually obscures some of its unique and remarkable qualities. Because it is here performed on instruments that one more or less expects such music to be performed on (you will see what I mean when you buy it and listen to it, as you must) it is -weirdly- easier to dismiss it as something ordinary and predictable, at least judged within its own context. One does not fall into that trap when hearing it on a piano. I can't explain exactly why it works that way, except to say, that for me, it does. In that sense it actually put a greater demand on me to try and understand it from its purportedly sacred context. Once again, when we hear the Gurdjieff/De Hartmann music in this form, we're called to hear it anew.

An additional and admittedly more personal paradox layers itself on to this music. There is something anachronistic and inexplicable about a Western man who has grown up listening to rock music and who composes on computers with MIDI, samplers, and synthesizers immersing himself in a world of people twanging, banging, and puffing away on instruments that are slowly (and sadly) being eclipsed and forgotten. (If you don't believe me, spend a night in a boat on the Nile, eating dinner at midnight, and listen to what the bands are playing there.  They aren't using ouds, bluls, and duduks to play their traditional music, they are using synthesizers and drum machines on amplified sound systems.)

The CD is, in other words, an excursion into a world that is being steadily lost to the relentless march of technology and the accelerating extermination of separated, unique world cultures.

I am not, however, a purist who believes that only acoustic music is “real,” and that the use of digital and electronic equipment is a Crime Against Nature. It seems fairly clear to me that Gurdjieff himself did not think this way either–else wise, why would he have owned so many tape recorders, which he so enthusiastically used to lay down an extensive repertoire of harmonium tracks? Like most men, he enjoyed using new technology... after all, he was only human.

Ultimately, I found myself wondering what the exact significance of this effort was apart from its lush ethnic sound and its ethno-historical value. This because, in a way, the whole point of what Gurdjieff did was to create a bridge between that world and where we are now–a bridge, so to speak, formed between the essence, in the form of folk origins, and personality, in the form of formal “classical” pieces played on the piano. In that sense his music legitimately represented the meeting of East and West.

In the end, I think the significance lies precisely in its re-invention of what we understand this music to be. Returning this music to its roots required considerable ingenuity in terms of both arrangement and appropriate instrumental interpretation. Mr. Eskenian and his artists with a doubt labored long and hard to produce a well-crafted work of integrity and value, yet they manage to make the result sound relaxed, informal, and effortless. The final transparency of the performances is refreshing.

Highly recommended.