Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Diamond Mind

This week, they announced the find of a huge new diamond in Lesotho.

The gem got me to thinking about the nature of carbon. (Please don't think that I am about to embark on a discussion of the chemical factory when I say that. I am drawing an analogy from a very different angle today.)

As profoundly illogical as it seems to the eye, diamonds are a form of carbon. It's astonishing to me that this (usually) opaque, gritty black substance that forms the basis of organic life can, under enough pressure, become such a remarkably hard and utterly transparent substance.

The diamond may be extraordinary and beautiful, but in undergoing its transformation -- which involves incredible heat and pressure at a rather specific depth in the mantle of the earth --it sacrifices everything that makes carbon valuable on the surface of the planet. In this regard, it's somewhat like gold--which Gurdjieff pointed out is extremely dense, and worthless in terms of its ability to interact with other substances. (Human beings have a perverse tendency to value things more for how they look than what they can actually do. If--like ants and bees- we sensed the world mostly through smell and touch, gold and diamonds would be totally uninteresting to us.)

Carbon plays a central role in organic chemistry because of its structure and its unique ability to form many different kinds of bonds with many other elements. Organic life as we know it could not exist without it. It has been said that biology is based so solidly on a carbon foundation that if we discovered organic life in Betelgeuse, it would function chemically in very much the same way earth's does. (See Simon Conway Morris' "Life's solutions" for cogent arguments about why the physical morphology of life on other planets similar to earth would probably also be very much the same.) Biologists have tried to posit life based on other elements, such as silicon, but they present nearly insurmountable problems that would almost certainly prevent the type of diversity we see in organic life on Earth.

In becoming "perfect" in diamond form, carbon sacrifices countless possibilities for relationship. It is beautiful, but it no longer fills the gritty, incredibly creative role that it has in its ordinary state.

The relationship between carbon in its ordinary and its diamond form reminds me of intellect. We value intellect; we prize it. the development of Western culture is, above all, a development of the intellect. The difficulty here is that the intellect is developed largely at the expense of relationship.

We see this happen again and again around us. The entire subprime mortgage crisis was created by the intellect. The smartest guys out there: the Harvard MBAs, the geniuses, the movers and shakers -- these are the very people who engineered the greatest (and perhaps stupidest) act of financial destruction in history.

They were too damn smart. They forgot that reality consists of relationships: emotional and physical realities. Human beings, living in houses and paying their bills. Everything became numbers on paper. Everything was theoretical.

Even though it's important to have a good intellect in the Gurdjieff work -- or any spiritual work, for that matter -- intellect is the Achilles' heel. The Gurdjieff work in particular attracts intelligent people, and to a certainty they are well suited for it, but the smartest people are most at risk of interpreting everything through their intellect, of trying to evaluate and discover themselves through intelligence alone.

I know a good deal about this habit, because I am a fairly intelligent man, and I love to use my intellect to interpret things. I cling to it. I polish it, I exercise it, I show it off to people. I have a lot of friends that are very much like this; some of them read this blog. (And some of them are smarter than I am, no doubt about it.)

The problem here is that none of us are really all that "smart," because smart does not consist of being able to compress and polish the intelligence until it shines like a diamond. That's mostly what we smart people try to do, and it's mostly wrong.

There is a point at which it would be helpful to us smart people to get stupid. When I say "get stupid," I mean, lose the intellect. Give it up. We need to rediscover ourselves through our emotional state and our physical state, and ask the intellect to take a back seat for a while. The domination of the intellect -- what Zen masters have called the "discrimination of the conceptual mind" -- is perhaps our greatest enemy.

An intellect that isn't in relationship to the other parts of man sacrifices its ability to form many necessary chemicals. Like a diamond, it looks amazing, it reflects light beautifully, it is tough, and even worthy of immense respect. Nonetheless, all of the flexibility it could have had is gone. And how many times do we see ourselves -- and others -- go down, go down hard based on a set of inflexible intellectual premises? I'm sure there are any number of world financial gurus and leaders asking themselves that very question right now. In the absence of other influences, the more an intellect develops, the more rigid it becomes. When Gurdjieff used the phrase "wrong crystallization," he was probably referring to this tendency to become more and more rigid, losing the ability to interact flexibly with our lives.

Increasingly, we need to begin to discard our intellectual premises. If we want to use our intellect, we need to use it from the ground up, not the top down. The ground floor of intellect is the gritty place where all the little grains of intelligence are black, and each one of them retains a unique and extraordinary ability to relate through a sense of touch to the billions of different events that we encounter in the course of even a single ordinary day. Each one of those little tiny bits of intellect has the opportunity to form bonds with little tiny bits of emotion and little tiny bits of moving center, so that's something living can grow within us.

The diamond mind... as magnificent as it is... can't do that.

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

Friday, September 19, 2008

the mirror of the self

Perhaps the most insidious assumption we make in our ordinary life, in our ordinary state of mind, is that we "see" other people-- that we see the world as it is. And this is, perhaps, what "sleep" is all about: living comfortably within an automated group of assumptions, taking it for granted that what we think we "know" is correct, living off it, and acting on it. We perceive ourselves, we perceive the external, and we perceive a separation between the two.

It's us versus them. Sound familiar?

What if nothing could be further from the truth? What if everything we encounter in life is, in fact, a reflection of ourselves, of what we are?

The attributes we assign to others are actually projections of our own mind, our own ideas, attitudes, assumptions and beliefs. So when we see someone else and react to someone else, what we are seeing and reacting to is a actually nothing more than a reflection of what we are. The entire world consists of a mirror, reflecting us to ourselves.

Inevitably, this idea presents itself as a philosophical concept, not a practical tool for dealing with real life. But it is not just philosophy. To a certain extent, it is reality. Nothing within the range of our own perceptions could exist without us. If we cease to exist, the perceptions cease to exist with us. It is a difficult argument as to whether our perceptions could ever have any reality whatsoever, outside the context of our receiving of the impression.

We are what we see, how and as we see it.

In this way, the question of receiving impressions would give rise to the question of responsibility; we would become fully responsible for the way in which we receive every impression. This, of course, is a tremendous burden, and the inclination of every human being is to find every means possible by which to avoid responsibility. Life becomes an endless stream of outsourcing our reaction to impressions, blaming the external for both what we receive, and how we receive it.

In this manner we subjectify what is otherwise an absolutely objective process: things become personalized not through union, which is the original state, but through separation, which is an artifact. The chemical process of receiving impressions goes awry; impressions fall in the wrong places, giving rise to the wrong chemicals, and before you know it, we completely forget our responsibility.

When our chemistry allows us to become more receptive, we immediately begin to accept our conditions more readily. By acceptance, I mean that we begin to understand our relationship to our life more deeply. We see that this is our life; these impressions, these human beings, these conditions are all what our life is. We may even begin to see that our desperate struggle to remain independent of all the things we don't like -- and there are lots of them -- is impossible.

Oddly, it seems to be when the biggest, most life-changing events arise that their impact helps us to see how impossible it is to remain separated, to be independent of life as it arrives. When things are small, when life is ordinary, we continually indulge in the delusion that it can be managed. We feel that we can separate ourselves from life, that it's not a mirror of our own self and our own attitude, and that in maintaining separation we can attain a greater degree of control.

In Chogyam Trungpa's "Meditation in Action" he discusses the need to inhabit life by living directly within the moment. In this particular early work, that is more or less what his definition of compassion is. It isn't about finding a way to be nicer to people who are in need. It is about being immediately within this present life, inhabiting the current set of perceptions, and taking responsibility for them so that we can discover the appropriate set of responses. This doesn't necessarily mean an artificial removal, a mellowness, or a practiced set of personality-based responses that project an air of competence. It means responsibility and participation.

There is an old story about a Zen Master who, on attaining enlightenment, saw every single human being around him was wearing the exact same face as his. If we begin to see that life is a mirror reflecting ourselves to us, then perhaps we can discover an interest in becoming more responsible to it. It's an idea worth carrying into situations, even if only for use as an investigative tool. As situations arise, we might say to ourselves, "This is how I am." As we see others manifesting, we might say to ourselves "this is how I am."

If the question of work in life is a real question, it has to relate to this question of responsibility and participation. Are we responsible to ourselves, and for ourselves? Are we participating in our life? Both of these things are so rare, even for those of us who appear to be relatively competent. Any of us who flatter ourselves by believing that we understand these questions thoroughly is already off the mark.

It is only by asking the question constantly within the context of the moment that we can keep on our toes.

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

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What we know and don't know

We don't know much; but we don't know it.

We all think we know this, that and the other thing. Time and time again in my own work, I find that I think I know something, only to discover I was wrong. I knew only part of it--or maybe very little of it-- but I thought I knew a lot.

Understanding unfolds within the context of knowledge. It's the understanding that tells us how little we know, in the moment that it blooms, if it blooms--and then only after we have collected a very great deal of knowledge. Our weakness lies in our continual misunderstanding of knowledge as understanding.

One thing that puzzles me a great deal is the ubiquitous habit of self-righteously preaching at others about the overall lack of knowledge or understanding.

When one does this, one secretly assumes that one's own knowledge is, of course, on the other hand very groovy indeed, and ought to be listened to. And the standard trump card when others try to impart something of their experience or understanding is to pounce by saying that "we can't know anything."

This is a great way to shut out new information you don't want to be bothered with having to ponder. I see it used all the time.

We are miraculously impenetrable when it comes to absorbing knowledge and understanding from relationship with those immediately around us, unless we have--by virtue of our own infallible opinions--carefully selected the person who we are willing to absorb knowledge and understanding from by virtue of our own superior ability to know who we should be listening to.

To compound matters, we are ever eager to absorb understanding--or what we presume to be understanding--from highfalutin' books written by complete strangers, while ignoring practical and very real understanding that could be gleaned for real relationships with living breathing people who are right in front of us. Our best friend could speak from personal experience and tell us the exact same thing the highfalutin' book says, and we would dismiss or completely ignore it as worthless.

Books, you see, are more important and valid than real people, in the same way that stupid new theories about how to run banking institutions and loan money have recently trumped hundreds of years of common sense.

In my own experience, it's often the very people I assumed I didn't need to listen to--whom I roundly rejected as a result of my buffers and my reactions-- who turn out to be the most important people to listen to.

But in order to find that out I have to be willing to sacrifice a great deal of my own self importance, and most especially the assumptions I have about what I need to hear and who I need to hear it from. I need, in other words, to acquire a little humility.

I've got a suggestion--an exercise that is worth trying on for size. The next time you run into anyone who is saying something you feel isn't important, or who you have an immediate negative reaction to, try to go directly against that and see what it is that you're missing in the exchange.

Is it possible that that reaction, that rejection, that reflexive dismissal of the other as unimportant is in fact totally wrong?

I'm asking the question because it increasingly appears to me that this is in fact the case. We miss a great deal of what we need to be hearing because we have automatic mechanisms that shut it out before we even know it's happening. I see that happen so often in myself that I have recently become quite suspicious of it. Nine out of ten times it's taking place because my ego wants to make sure I miss something important.

What it is that I'm missing isn't perhaps even so important. It's the act of seeing how my reaction interferes with my ability to discover anything real in the substance of actual exchange with a human being that matters.

What is the substance of that exchange? Am I honoring the person I am in relationship with, or using my reactions as a shield? Am I willing to give anything up in order to learn something new about life?

What am I willing to pay to have a relationship with someone else? A real person--not a book, or a theory, or one of my clever ideas.

I should stop trying to base my relationships on what "it" likes or does not like. The question is what the immediate, sensed value of a relationship is, not what I like or don't like.

Live a little, folks. Cut your friend, partner, or associate some in-the-moment slack today. Try to let something new in.

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

spiritual circumcision

I come once again to the question that Paul poses in his letter to the Romans (chapter 2.)

Paul speaks mysteriously of a circumcision of the heart, of the Spirit. Now, we could try to understand this from the literal point of view, simply saying that it is a symbolic and abstract act of consecration, allegorically related to the Jewish practice of removing the foreskin.

I prefer to understand it from a more inner point of view.

Speaking again from this question of becoming naked (a metaphor I have invoked more and more frequently of late) to the truth of our condition, what is it to circumcise the heart? To circumcise the spirit?

In order to open to something that is real, we must be willing to expose our most intimate and sacred parts by removing the thickness that cloaks them. In our ordinary state, they are covered up with the thick foreskin of our personality. Personality as we have it today in the Western world is in excess; it prevents our intimate parts from breathing. Unclean substances build up in us as a result. The only way to counteract this is to shed our personality so that something more real and more intimate can come into contact with the forces that wish to help us.

In order to do this, I need to find a way to inhabit my humanity more thoroughly. That inhabitation needs to take place through feeling and sensation, not just the idea that I should inhabit, which arises in my mind.

My mind cannot take me there. It needs the participation of the other parts if it is to make any progress.

Everything that I am, all that I manifest as, is what Gurdjieff would have called "habit." It is a build up of layers that have been acquired from outside. Each one of those layers insulates me both from Truth and from the influence of forces that could help me. By now, I am so accustomed to being separated from those forces that I think I don't need them. I think I can hide. I cover my most intimate parts in the same way that Adam and Eve did when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. They no longer exposed the reproductive parts of their spirit to God; they discovered shame.

We still have that force of shame in us. To pretend that we don't would be absurd; none of us have escaped from the human condition that man fell into as a result of that allegorical set of circumstances. Gurdjieff referred to a lost sense of "organic shame." One doesn't hear this term discussed much any more, and I haven't heard too many people venture to suggest exactly what that means.

He did suggest that we needed to rediscover this lost quality. I believe that it relates to this question of spiritual circumcision.

Why do I believe that?

I believe that because in my own work I see that this wish to hide, this refusal to expose my most intimate part to God, essentially arises out of shame and fear. Whether or not it is true that I am "originally perfect" -- whether or not it is true that everything is "inherently good" -- we don't understand these things. They are philosophical arguments. We can, however, understand what happens when we encounter a force higher than ourselves and attempt to surrender.

What happens then, in my experience, is that I see how corrupted and unclean I have become in my personality. Hence the shame; hence the fear. Can any of us say, if we were truly honest and presented our self to God, that we would not tremble in fear in the admission of sin? At best, the very best of men can only see how very much more is necessary; the rest of us naïvely think we have done enough.

I cannot fix this problem myself. As they say in AA, the only way that it can be fixed it is to "believe that a power higher than myself can restore me to sanity." And of course, I can't be restored to sanity if I am unwilling to offer my most intimate self to the powers that are above me.

Paul calls us to a mystery. Mr. Gurdjieff's work contains an essential part of that mystery. Once we walk past the signposts of academic argument found in "In Search of the Miraculous," we encounter the extraordinary, rich, byzantine alleyways of Beelzebub.

Here, we slowly enter an uncharted territory where the call of the Mullah to evening prayer carries more meaning than the rule of laws and how to escape them. This is the point where we have to take an emotional risk in our work, rather than relying on how clever we are to carry us forward.

No wonder the Muslims bow their heads to the carpet. What else is left, when one finally admits that one cannot understand the majesty of God?

The act of spiritual circumcision that Paul calls us to is identical to the act of Islam -- submission. Only when we are naked in the eyes of the Lord -- only when we have agreed that we are nothing -- can anything else take place. It's reminiscent of Meister Eckhart's contention that every single last shred of our own will must be stripped from us before the will of the Almighty can emerge.

Mr. Gurdjieff, of course, said a good deal about submitting to another man's will. All of that as practice for being ready to submit to the will of the Almighty.

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

Saturday, September 13, 2008

What is work?

It's a common thing, in the Gurdjieff work, to talk about working, what working is, how we work, whether we work, and so on. After all, we do call it "the work.".

Right now I am reading a book by a man by the name of Stuart A. Kauffman, "Reinventing The Sacred." Now, I'm not at all sure the sacred needs to be "reinvented" -- although he means well. Nonetheless, this is a complex book with some excellent points, and I am only a hundred pages into it, so I can't say with any certainty where the author is ultimately leading us. He raises many vital questions that anyone involved with religious work or the sciences ought to be considering. And he does have many things absolutely right, among them, that emergence is probably one of the most compelling forces in the universe, a force that remains almost completely unexplained by science at its current level of development.

While I was reading, I came across this quote on page 90:

"If we ask what "work" is, it becomes surprisingly difficult to define. To a physicist, work is force acting through a distance (such as pushing a hockey stick and accelerating a hockey puck.) But chemist Peter Atkins says work is more than this. It is the constrained release of energy into a few degrees of freedom."

The italics are my own. I added them because this is a striking definition of work; it connects the idea of work directly into aim. The point is that the energy in work is aimed at is these very "few degrees of freedom"--yet which of us, if pressed, can say that we know what freedom is? It seems clear that the real use of energy for a good purpose needs to be a use that relates to freedom, but we don't know much about that. And if this particular definition of work does not bring the movements to mind--well, then, what does?


Work involves the gathering of energy as well. So it is not just about the release of energy; it is about acquiring or receiving energy. At the foundation of biological life on this planet (with some very few exceptions we will not cover here) is the act of photosynthesis, which is all about receiving energy and converting it into a form that can be passed on or acquired by other creatures. This model alone serves to prove that a definition of work includes receiving. Stuart Kauffman has not so far included this concept in his book--a surprising omission, considering how much else he has covered.

So in order to work, an organism does not just expend energy within a few degrees of freedom. An organism must first make sure that its mechanism is functioning well and acquire energy. In the biological world, this acquisition usually operates through what Gurdjieff called "the law of reciprocal feeding," but in the metaphysical world of man's higher energies, a man must learn to be open in order to receive energy. It is not until this happens that he can do anything else whatsoever.

This is where Mr. Kaufman and I part company, despite the fact that I admire his book, intend to finish it, and heartily recommend it to everyone who thinks about these matters.

The sacred does not need to be "reinvented" -- it needs to be discovered.

Mr. Kaufmann and the scientific community fully intend to "reinvent" the sacred by using the mind alone -- and he has an excellent mind, no doubt about it. The difficulty here is that the mind alone is unable to comprehend. Understanding consists of sensing and feeling as well as thinking. One can only discover the sacred by combining the three centers so that they all work simultaneously. And the strictly intellectual scientific approach, as it is understood today, just does not and cannot ever understand that.

I will probably comment more on this nonetheless fine book at a later date. In the meantime, I want to mention one other thing.

Today a friend of mine passed on some wonderful notes from a talk by Don Alberto Taxo, a native teacher from Ecuador, who was stressing the very critical moment that the planet finds itself in. Taxo said a number of things that I've mentioned many times in this blog, most particularly, that one of the most important things we can do right now is to develop a sense of gratitude for our lives.

This theme has come up so often in my own work that it is no longer a question, it is a condition.

Taxo's contention is that it is vital for every working --I mean this in the esoteric sense -- organism to reach deep into their sensation to understand the question of gratitude right now.

I totally agree with him. Everything I have been writing over the last two years points towards this effort. We must sense, we must offer ourselves, we must be grateful. This gratitude must spring from a connection to the organism, beginning in the very roots of our being.

Some of you may have encountered this teacher's material already, I don't know. It's making the rounds. At any rate, it's quite possibly true that at this particular moment in the planet's destiny, nothing could be more important than offering ourselves.

The more we are opened, and the more that is asked of us, the more difficult everything becomes. There are forces that align themselves against effort. We must keep going.

This reminds me of something that took place when I was reduced to ashes over seven years ago. Demands were placed on me that seemed impossible, confusing, otherworldly, and I did not understand anything that was happening. At the same time, I saw that I had been given an incredible amount, and along with the demand, Grace was abundant.

I recall breaking down in tears at the steering wheel of my car in a supermarket parking lot. The feeling, sensing, and thinking that were taking place within me had reached a crescendo that can't really be described.

All I could say to the forces that were working on me was, "I will not give up."

When God gives us work, He may well give us work that is beyond our understanding and beyond our comprehension. Of course it will be that way much of the time; how else could it be? At these times we must take a vow within ourselves to go forward with faith regardless of circumstance.

We must not give up.

I say this because I think that what Gurdjieff said in Beelzebub is entirely true. There are many cosmic forces affecting both this planet and the solar system -- let's not bother trying to describe them, pretending that our tiny brains are able to properly comprehend these questions -- that are depending very much on the work of man. Our work is needed. We are needed.

We have not been put here casually; let us not be put here in vain.

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

meaning, essence, and personality

Coming on the heels of my observations about identity, some further ponderings about meaning.

There is an origin of meaning, which is its "essence." This is the precursor to the iteration of meaning, which creates a "personality."

The origin of meaning is inherent. Immediately upon the existence and manifestation of the physical world, meaning already exists with it. Identity is initially congruent with meaning. "I am that I am" contains both identity and meaning. They are not separated at the root, they are one.

Before I even begin to think, in the instant that my consciousness exists and perceives, meaning and identity are already present. So, for example, if I am driving down the New Jersey Turnpike towards work (as I was earlier today) and I see a blue truck, before I know that there is "blue" and before that I know there is "a truck," both the blue and the truck exist and are perceived. They do not need a form to exist within (which I supply.) Even if I don't have a form for them, the perception, the experience, is real. So the essence of meaning (seeing) exists before its personality (iteration, assignment of form.)

The elaboration of meaning through the arising and description of form--which is a function of the conceptual mind -- constructs what might be called the personality of meaning. So the comprehensive varieties of material expression we encounter--trees, clouds, minerals, animals, planets, galaxies and so on-- are constructions that emerge from original meaning, giving it color and character. [The iteration of cosmoses Gurdjieff presents in Beelzebub (The Holy Planet purgatory, page 695 on) describe this progressive, and wholly fractal, process.]

The effort to return to the original state of mind in Zen Buddhism, the effort to recognize the total unity of all creation in Christianity and other religions, is an effort to help a sense of the essence of meaning within a man to grow. In our current state, we are so invested in, and attracted to, the personality of meaning, which might otherwise be referred to as "form," that we have forgotten the essence of meaning. (Sensory attachment, which is of course eschewed by ascetics, is the chief culprit here, but I doubt we can get rid of it, in one form or another, short of death.)

To suggest that the forces of essence and personality operate on a cosmological level is not too outrageous. Given the standard "as above, so below," we might well expect it to be this way. As a rule we don't, however, consider that the tension between essence and personality--which we usually view solely through our microcosm of man's awareness --creates a locus that extends from the "top" of the universe to the "bottom." (Actually, given the ubiquity of directionality, everything extends fractally from everywhere to everywhere, rather than directionally from "top" to "bottom," which are relativistic dualities we use to describe a hierarchy of scale. So the phrase might better be said "as everywhere, so everywhere," except for the fact that it excludes the hierarchy of scale, which definitely needs to be indicated in one way or another, viz. the passage in Purgatory in Beelzebub.)

Knowledge and understanding are closely linked to this idea of essence and personality. To obtain the knowledge of the form of reality, which is the chief activity of the conceptual mind, is very different than to obtain understanding, which is related to the act of perceiving the essence of reality.

The difference between knowing and understanding is the difference between being able to collect data about the personality of meaning--that is to say the varieties of existence, cause and effect, and so on--and to understand the essence of meaning by seeing that meaning already exists a priori, that is, before anything else takes place. So our difficulty in understanding identity and even in understanding existence itself comes from our desperate attempt to manufacture meanings from a knowledge of the personality of existence, rather than to understand, discover, and accept the essential meaning we are freely given in the very beginning.

Christ's message in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6 , 27:28) specifically address this issue of the futility of manufactured meaning. Mankind is utterly distracted by obtaining knowledge of personality (form.) This prevents him from seeking an understanding of essence (origin,) which is supposed to be his primary task as an organism.

When I speak of understanding this "essence of meaning," I don't speak of a theoretical mental state. I am speaking about a particular physical, emotional, and intellectual experience of reality, which is quite different when it is invested in the one activity as opposed to the other. In this particular way of sensing and understanding life and reality, meaning does not have a verbal construction.

Meaning is an experience, not an explanation. When Brother Lawrence spoke of the practice of the presence of God, he spoke, I think, of discovering this essence of meaning, which is at the heart of God's wish for us, and--if it is not too bold to say so--at the heart of love itself.

For it is within our manufacture of meaning that we create all the negative forces and hatreds that corrupt and tear down.

One of the questions I have as I wrap this post up is whether, on a cosmological level, the purpose of personality (the myriad developed expressions of form, or as Gurdjieff would have called them, cosmoses of varying levels) is--as it is on this level--to feed essence.

It certainly seems as though that's possible. I leave it up to you to ponder the question further.

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Generally speaking, everyone-- purported "spiritual Masters" included -- carries an unconscious conviction that we acquire an identity based on events.

This belief is so absolutely fundamental and reflexive that it is barely even questioned. It underlies almost everything that takes place in life, as though it were a natural force, such as gravity, that we must take for granted. It's so subtle, furthermore, that we usually don't even notice it.

On the surface, it seems impossible to separate our identity from events. After all, without context, ...without a story line, without the achievements and the failures, what are we? As Laurie Anderson put it in her song "Big Science" (from the album of the same name, 1982): "I think we should put some mountains over here. Otherwise, what are all the characters going to fall off of?"

Conversely, remember the verse from the Bible in which God told Moses to tell the Israelites "I am that I am." Here we encounter identity divorced from events. Never mind that God meets Moses on a mountain; the event, and the context, are ultimately unimportant. The sense of identity, alone, is the essence of God's message.

By now, I may know something about having an identity separate from events, but at the same time, perhaps I should admit to myself that I don't know very much.

It is possible to understand this question partially, and in fragments, and at the same time see that there is a possibility of understanding it in a much more complete way that I do not currently understand.

Who are we? We repeat the well-known mantra of Gurdjieffians: "I am. I wish to be."

But who are we?

Are we what we make ourselves?
Are we what events make us?
Are we simply, nothing more and nothing less, what God makes us?

The Zen Buddhists place this question at the heart of the practice as well: a man is asked to see his face--to know his identity--before he was born.

Gurdjieff's discussion of "identification" is about exactly this habit of acquiring our identity through events. The event takes place, and it defines who we are. We are an Olympic swimmer who wins (or loses.) We are a banker who makes or loses millions. We are a father, a mother, a businesswoman, and so on, each role defined and measured by perceived success or failure. Each one of these vocations or professions, in the hands of ego and personality, becomes a form which is co-opted in an attempt to create a value for ourselves. (The value of learning to play a role in the Work is related to the idea of fulfilling these functions without identifying, that is, learning to more clearly distinguish one's essential identity from outward life.)

Most of us rarely, if ever, get the chance to see what we would be worth if we were truly stripped naked and had nothing-- which is, in fact, exactly what is required if one ever wishes to see anything real.

Victor Frankl, unlike most of us, had the opportunity to find out what that is like when he was sent to a concentration camp during the second world war. Even when herded into a cattle car, heading towards what everyone knew might be death itself, he and his fellow prisoners discovered that they still had value. It is on the order of revelation -- identity comes before events. "I am" exists before circumstances arise, it does not need circumstances to validate it. Maybe this was the message God was trying to give to Moses and his people.

If I examine my fears closely enough, I see that every single one of them is based on some form of presumption that the events are what make me what I am. That mechanism is perpetually in motion, even though I know it's faulty. And here is another potential angle on Ashiata Shiemash's " the terror of the situation." We all have these little tiny fear generators in us that are perpetually trying to undermine our inherent, original Being.

Personality, it seems, has constructed itself strictly in the interests of parasitizing and perhaps even destroying our essence.

Why is that? Why is all of this necessary?

"Experts" from all walks of life will tell you that they can explain this problem and what causes it. Priests, psychologists, and gurus all have one answer or another. But no matter what you come up with, there is no definitive answer, and no "cure" short of an intimate and ongoing self-examination. Even that, of course, is not enough, but it's a start.

Without the proper nurturing of essence, we cannot get any closer to "I am."

Of course, I speak as though we were able to nurture our essence, and if we could do that we could "do." This kind of nurture only takes place with the assistance of forces that we do not have dominion over. Perhaps the best way of expressing it would be to say that the nurture of essence can only take place if the loving hand of God extends itself to us. ...Others, of course, might put it differently. But however you choose to say it, we need help.

The greatest mistake we make from day to day, perhaps, is in believing that our identity and our validity spring from events and circumstances, rather than from breath and sensation.

If we begin to see that breath is identity and sensation is validity, then perhaps we begin to know what it is to be an organism that lives, rather than a machine that exists.

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

Monday, September 8, 2008


Over the weekend, my wife was reading "In Search of the Miraculous" and she came across a passage that says something quite interesting.

In order to discuss it, I will have to offer you a quote. This is taken from page 161 of "In Search of the Miraculous", P.D. Ouspensky, Harcourt Brace edition, 1977.

"I mentioned before about fate and accident in man's life. We will now take the meaning of these words in more detail. Fate also exists but not for everyone. Most people are separated from their fate and live under the law of accident only. Fate is the result of planetary influences which correspond to a man's type. We will speak about types later. In the meantime you must grasp one thing. A man can have the fate which corresponds to his type but he practically never does have it. This arises because fate has relation to only one part of man, namely to his essence."

It seemed clear to me on reading this passage that Mr. Gurdjieff was using the word fate in a quite different context than others. So just what did he mean by this?

First of all, it seems clear that fate is the result of astral, that is, planetary, influences. So it operates in a much larger context than ordinary life. Usually, we take fate to mean the final result of everything that ordinary life leads up to, as in "he met his fate." But in doing so, we ascribe fate to the accidental happenstances of a life.

I draw a quite different meaning from Gurdjieff's interpretation.

When he says that a man can have the fate which corresponds to his type, he indicates that types play specific roles in the planetary sphere. In the same way that a liver cell does what a liver cell does, and a brain cell does something quite different, even though they share the same DNA and live in the same organism, so one type of man plays a role in terms of the transmission of energy that is quite different than that of another man.

Another way of viewing it is that different men occupy different notes in the octave of human life. If one is playing a concert piece that is in the key of A minor, for example, every note has a specific role within that context. If the note doesn't play its role, it does not serve the concert properly. One gets cacophony instead of music... much like "real" life is today on this planet.

This question might be further understood from a much larger point of view, that is, the role of biology on the planet.

Organic life on this planet fills a shock. As I have pointed out before, taken as a whole, it's not even a note in the octave of development of the solar system--just a shock, a mediator. (That does not separate it from functioning within the law of octaves, of course.)

All biological life represents (as everything material does) the interaction of electromagnetic forces. In the Gurdjieff work, we refer to this as "energy," but ultimately it all boils down to electromagnetism, or perhaps subtle variations thereof.

Now, within the context of human life -- which occupies a specific niche within the context of biology -- we are all transmitters and receivers of electromagnetic forces. Gurdjieff's remark is meant to explain, I believe, that the nature of the transmitter/receiver varies by type. This expands our understanding of the question of human types because we see that various types serve specific purposes within the context of the machine of organic life.

This model is entirely in keeping with the way that modern science understands organisms to be constructed. Not only that, although I have never heard it explained this way by anyone in the work before, it makes perfect sense, at least to me.

The types that we speak of only serve, however, if they are able to come into a fuller relationship with their essence. For those that do this, they can "meet their fate" -- that is, fulfill the specific purpose for which they were created. This implies that there is a logical and lawful endpoint for every human type if it fulfills its role. Taking the parable of the mustard seed--which appears to be, among other things, about exactly this question -- once again, we see that types who are dominated by personality are unable to grow into reproductive organs, that is, mustard plants. They don't flower and they don't set seed, which one might argue is the "fate" of organisms that grow in good soil.

Gurdjieff repeatedly emphasized the need for man's essence to grow. Now we see a reason for it. In the context of service on the behalf of the astral, or planetary, level, man cannot serve without getting in touch with his essence. Until he does so, everything is accidental. And indeed we see that the parable of the mustard seed presents the beginning of the enterprise in exactly the same way. Seeds are scattered, randomly. Accidentally. They fall where they fall. Every seed meets a unique set of challenges.

So "fate" as it is presented here relates to a much larger question than the results and end of an individual life. It touches on cosmological questions of a much larger nature, intimating that man is a tiny part of a far more comprehensive process. It also intimates that different types have different fates. That is to say, not only on this level, but in the passage to the next one, one type may serve in a very different way than the next.

It's not for me to say what that might mean. There are very big questions implicit in what is being discussed, and of course a few paragraphs barely scratch the surface. It's interesting (to me in any event) that a single paragraph from Gurdjieff can indicate so many questions that need to be investigated. One sometimes finds that it's as though a single phrase of his has somehow managed to encapsulate an entire universe.

Like some of the other investigative posts on this site, one might take it as a theoretical question. But it isn't. Even now, as I dictate this piece -- and again, now, as you read it -- we are all serving something higher, whether we know it or not.

Perhaps one difference between fulfilling the will of the Lord -- "thy will be done --" and our own will is the difference between being invested in our personality, which is of this world, and our essence, which corresponds to a responsibility which has little to do with the ordinary events of daily life.

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

Thursday, September 4, 2008

the good ground, the deep earth

We have a fundamental lack of sensitivity.

This isn't a sensitivity related to psychology or thinking. It is not a lack of compassion or outer considering (although those, too, are serious issues.)

It is a lack of sensitivity to our inner connections.

"Man cannot do," we are told, and indeed, we are unable to manufacture a sensitivity to our inner connections. Many different spiritual disciplines intimate, in one way or another, that one can manufacture such a sensitivity, but it is by no means certain. People may spend lifetimes, for example, practicing yoga and tai chi without truly understanding this question from a certain fundamental point of view. Those practices, like any practice, easily become sensory attachments and objects, rather than processes for participation. The ego and the mind routinely co-opt form to their own ends.

This lack of sensitivity only becomes apparent to us in the moments when sensitivity actually arises. That is to say, we don't even know that we are lacking sensitivity, or what kind of sensitivity we are lacking, until it arrives. At that point -- if such an arrival ever takes place-- we are astonished, because we did not know that sensitivity of this kind was possible.

We see that we know nothing about it. We see that we do not understand how to do it. We see that we do not understand where it comes from, or where it goes.

The only thing that we understand is that it exists, and that raises innumerable questions.

In the midst of the political atmosphere here in the United States, it is nearly impossible to avoid being touched by the influences of the outer, which provoke powerful emotional reactions. No matter which party or philosophy one subscribes to, the distress of the nation is evident; it has become a tangible, palpable presence. The blame-laying is upon us everywhere: leadership in America has failed and continues to fail, and the evidence is all around.

Like everyone else, I discover myself in reaction. It almost doesn't matter what I am reacting to; I could be a Republican, or Democrat; I could be rich, or poor, it wouldn't matter. The point is that this inner reaction takes place, and I see it. I become identified with it, and then I see that identification.

At the same time, there is a counterpoint that plays itself off against this in many moments. That counterpoint is this note of sensitivity--an awareness of both life and breath that is entirely different than my reaction. The reaction insists on trying to acquire all the weight for itself; Being stands in bewildered contrast, measuring the depth of my inability to be independent of such influences. I see the lack.

Is it just politics?

No. It's like this with sex; it's the same way with money, with my job, with everything. Today, the politics merely highlight the situation by intensifying it and making it more uncomfortable. The fact is that this is how it always is, with me.

I lack.

I want to participate in the blame laying: it's the government's fault. It's his fault. It's her fault. I don't want to take responsibility. This is the big question. What is my responsibility? Do I want to blame, or do I want to work? I have to make a choice.

Then a new force arises -- arrives from somewhere -- that renders sensitivity.

There is an opportunity for an intimacy within the organism that needs to be sought, appreciated, cultivated. I discover a wish to get in touch with myself not just from some abstract psychological point of view, but by moving my attention, my inner sense of touch, to a point much closer to what I actually am, as opposed to those things that the world would make me.

As I receive these reminders -- as I lie awake in bed in the middle of the night, seeking my innermost self -- I see how little I know of myself. How completely I am taken by the external, by the outer state. And how, at the same time, a sacred gift is offered: an invitation to the inner state. An opportunity to value this small life differently. To value the people a little differently. To value even the people I disagree with differently.

Of course, that demands something of me. I don't want to give that up. It's much more interesting to disagree with other people as self righteously as possible. That is, after all, what life and politics today are all about, and we parade it shamelessly, as though arrogance was the virtue, and humility the vice.

What is supremely difficult to understand (although the sensitivity helps) is just how very much of myself has to go in order for me to be anything real. As I put my attention in the places where it is truly needed -- as opposed to delivering it directly into the hands of the hypnotist--I see that almost 100% of me is wrong. There is only a tiny part that knows what is real. It is that same mustard seed that we hear about in the parable. (Matthew 13:3-8.)

In order to be sensitive, I need to discover the good ground, the deepness of the Earth within me. I cannot allow my work, rootless, to be scorched by the sun until it withers away.

And how difficult--how very, very difficult -- it is to discover that good ground, if I let the soil of my life run through my fingers as though it had no value.

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Inherently Christian

Coming on the heels of Monday's post about Matthew 6, another set of questions.

Everyone with an interest in the Gurdjieff work eventually discovers that Gurdjieff referred to it on more than one occasion as "esoteric Christianity."

Might we say that the Gurdjieff work is, in other words, inherently Christian?

And if it is, why don't we hear more about Christ in the Gurdjieff work? Why aren't Christ's teachings ever discussed? ...Can we study an elephant and try to understand it--without ever mentioning an elephant?

Memoirs of exchanges while Gurdjieff was alive indicate that questions on Christianity were often raised and discussed, but in over twenty-five more or less uninterrupted years of work within the Gurdjieff foundation, I can probably just about count the number of times Christ has been mentioned in a group or a meeting on the fingers of my two hands.

On the first point, it's evident, one can discover disagreement. In the first place, there's little doubt that the Gurdjieff work owes more than a passing nod to Islam, and, perhaps more specifically, Sufism. (One can, of course, mount a cogent argument suggesting that Sufism and even Islam in general owe more than a passing nod to Judaeo-Christianity. But let's not run in circles.)

The other apparent non-Christian source of genesis for the Gurdjieff work is Tibetan Buddhism. Here again we find interesting correlations, parallels which are not too surprising, given the indications that Gurdjieff spent time in Tibet.

Above all, however, Gurdjieff's roots lie in his Eastern Orthodox childhood. There can be no doubt that the origin of his religious impulses began here, and that (as I have pointed out before in other posts) he never abandoned them.

The intricacies, majesty, and glory of orthodox Christianity (be it Roman or be it Eastern) find direct parallels in the extraordinary iconography, ritual and outright magic of both Hinduism and Buddhism. In my own view, all of the planet's "great religions" are one religion. Born and raised a Christian, I openly admit my Christianity and embrace it wholeheartedly. My own personal experience defaults me back to Christ over and over again, regardless of my interest in and respect for other practices.

Thus I find myself asking why we don't discuss Christ's words more in the Gurdjieff work. Over the years, I have discovered, it is a common practice for apologists to explain that this is because we are not a religion. This despite the fact that some aspects of the Gurdjieff work seem to suggest we are trying to become one ...albeit rather clumsily. So far, the formal branches of the Gurdjieff work haven't even qualified as a decent cult. We are too disorganized-- and, of course, we should probably be thankful for that, even as we scoff at ourselves, and each other.

In any event, it's not just discussion of Christianity that is missing in the Gurdjieff work. We don't discuss a lot of important concepts when we meet in groups. One rarely hears discussions, for example, about love. I've heard all kinds of excuses about that, primarily one that suggests we don't discuss it because we don't really understand what it means. The argument is an unfortunate one, because if group discussions were restricted to subjects we truly understand, there wouldn't be any group discussions, would there?

This lack of attention to the question of love seems bizarre to me, given that love lies at the very heart of this work. Many people have left the work because they determine, in the end, that (for them at least) there isn't enough emphasis on love. It seems to me that the Work may be doing a poor job of communicating this by remaining a bit too silent on the subject. Perhaps it would be all right to talk about love, if we are willing to blather on about so many other things we don't really understand, such as "silence," "energy," and so on.

What do you think?

In the same spirit, perhaps it would be all right to actually study and discuss Christ's words. The man said the most extraordinary things, things no other man has ever said. If the literalist Christians, the fundamentalists, and the organized church are the only institutions laying claim to Christ's words and examining them, then we have only ourselves to blame for what we get. It may be that esoteric organizations such as our "famous" Gurdjieff work ought to be paying more attention to the question of Christ.

If the work is esoteric Christianity, it is inherently Christian. And if it is inherently Christian, should there perhaps be a bit more time spent examining the questions of Christianity itself? Not from the point of view of the books that Gurdjieff wrote, but from the perspective of the New Testament? After all, despite the disturbingly fawning reverence with which the book is treated in the Work (but don't get me wrong here-- I feel it is an extremely valuable piece of work), Gurdjieff did not ever say that his teaching was "Esoteric Beelzebubianity."

This raises yet another awkward question: the quintessentially disturbing dilemma that Gurdjieff mischievously shrink wrapped his entire enterprise in.

Can one be an admirer of Beelzebub and a follower of Christ at the same time?

This question, in and of itself, invites its own special brand of trouble. In the interest of avoiding a tongue-in-cheek endnote, I will try to summarize in a less flippant manner.

The work is inherently Christian. We cannot sign on to the Gurdjieff work and avoid this question. If we consider ourselves Gurdjieffians, it behooves us to study what Christ said, and study it carefully. It not only behooves us from the point of view of our own inner work -- which definitely needs to be informed, that is, inwardly formed, by effort at a relationship with Christ. It is also our solemn responsibility, as members of this work, to strive with all of our being to understand what Christ called us to, to penetrate the mystery he presented us with, so that the words of Christ are not left to be prostituted solely in the hands of the circus acts, the ignoramuses, and the jailers.

One of the most stunning revelations in recent years was Frank Sinclair's memoir ("Without Benefit of Clergy") of Gurdjieff exhorting his followers, one Christmas Eve, to seek Christ and to call on him as though he were real and could come to help us.

If it was good enough for Mr. Gurdjieff to call on Christ, I think it is good enough for me.

I may not get an answer, but to be humbled by the mystery as I call is enough.

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

Monday, September 1, 2008

Recognition and ambition

Ambition, one might say, is the chief tool of the devil. It is neatly paired with recognition: the ambition to be recognized. To recognize literally means to "become aware of again," but another meaning is that of a wish to be seen by others.

Together they become the twin elephants of our personal terrain: huge animals that roam around, gobbling up all the nourishing vegetation, and trampling both our inner and outer landscape until it's all about them.

When examining the premise that absolutely all of the activities of what Gurdjieff called "false personality" center around bolstering the ego in one way or another, one begins to see that the chief need of ego, of false personality, is to be recognized. That is, to be seen as having significance, having meaning, in the eyes of others: to have a value.

In this action, we all unconsciously subscribe to a belief that value, meaning, and significance derive from the approval of others, or the achievement of external goals in life. We fervently believe that our value is not inherent--as Christ clearly implied in the sermon on the mount (see Matthew6:25-34.\)--it is acquired. And it is in the effort to acquire value that we fall into blindness.

The ambition to be recognized--even if that, oh-so-very-subtly, consists of an ambition to recognize ourselves--is what drives men forward in life. We don't stop to see how utterly self-important this renders us, and how each one of us unwittingly casts ourselves in the role of a slave to our own little recognition-achieving group of rules and conditions.

The most frightening thing about this, perhaps, is that if this feature of our inner landscape begins to go, there doesn't seem to be much of anything left. Are we truly willing to risk that? To accept the nakedness that comes with a realization that the value is already there, within us, and that we have nothing to do with making it or bestowing it? That there is no need for the ambition to be recognized?

And isn't that the central, primal, and supreme argument of revelation we find in the final verses of Matthew 6?

One would think that to recognize inherent value would be a singular act of liberation. After all, if we start out valuable- if we are already valid--it's an amazing thing. A burden has been lifted from our shoulders. That frenzied search for meaning, for value, for significance, is over.

We already have it.

This, of course, is directly related to the idea of "primary enlightenment" which we encounter in Buddhism: that is, the concept that we are already enlightened, already perfect, and just don't realize it. Christ was saying almost exactly the same thing in the last verses of Matthew.

There ought to be a tremendous relief in this idea. But there isn't.

We don't want it to be this way. Ego and false personality--having handily usurped the job of God, as prime movers, motivators, and controllers of the illusory universe of "I"--would immediately find themselves jobless if this premise of primary enlightenment were acknowledged. That just can't be allowed. Too much of what we think we are has formed around this idea. So the entire mechanism of false personality is chiefly turned toward the task of preventing any such understanding.

A friend stopped by yesterday to sit on the front porch. He began to ponder those cosmic questions we love so much: why, why, why. I was all but compelled to respond: we must try, after all, to meet one another's need. Nonetheless, the episode seemed less important, less fraught with inner and outer significance, than an earlier, simpler moment of the day, when I found myself doing nothing more than holding the famous dog Isabel, wet, on a leash.

In our grasping, the why is perpetually lost. We can't think our way to why.

The dog is wet. That's enough to know.

What do I mean by that?

We can, in the simple moments of life, discover each other in relationship, on the common ground of our own humanity. After all the theories are retired, and all the conjecture is abandoned, this alone may be enough to help us discover the true nature of our inner work, and what we actually serve.

Hence the "secret" of Gurdjieff's "obyvatel"- the good householder. He isn't trying to be real--in just honestly being, he is real.

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


The plant pictured here is Lobelia Cardinalis, a native wildflower currently blooming in upstate New York.

Today Annie reminded me--in the heartfelt way that only a deeply Christian woman can--of Christ's active demonstration of service, in which he washed the feet of his disciples.

What better possible example can we find of a reminder of where we are, and what our role is?

In today's world, where religions have (as they always do) turned against themselves and produced suicide bombers, and where "scientists" argue that we don't need religion anymore -- as though science were a reasonable substitute, LOL-- it's most important to turn back to the truly great lessons of religion, and this is one of them.

I bring all this up because of a current perception of arrogance.

Governments are arrogant; religions are arrogant; scientific disciplines are arrogant, societies are arrogant, corporations and leaders are arrogant, and individuals are arrogant. And we hardly need mention the politicians, including our own political parties here in America.

The entire planet is being engulfed in a wave of attitude. Against it stand a very few public bastions, such as the Dalai Lama.

All of us in the work -- in every spiritual work -- treat this subject as though it was someone else's arrogance that were the problem. Krishnamurti ran into that attitude in an exchange in Amsterdam, I believe in the 1960s-- and he promptly set his listeners straight by explaining that we are the problem.

We always want to blame these problems on someone else, to outsource arrogance, to outsource ego. We, of course, are fine. We have it all together, and we know what we are doing.

Well, obviously that itself is arrogance. It takes the impact of real self-knowledge, of real seeing, to slap us back to reality. And that reality is that all of us proceed directly from arrogance, and to arrogance.

Betty Brown brought this up many years ago when she said to us that our very effort to engage in an inner evolution--our assumption that it is even possible--is arrogant. None of us have developed enough humility to offer the kind of nakedness I wrote about yesterday. Those of us who think we have are simply missing the mark.

It is only a constant and humble awareness of exactly how tiny and insignificant we are, and how harmful we are both to ourselves and those around us, that can help to transform our inner state so that we can perform those vital tasks that serve something higher than ourselves.

This is an extremely bitter pill to swallow.

That phrase reminds me of something that was said many years ago at St. Bartholomew's church on Park Avenue in New York. The rector there at that time, Tom Bowers, announced one morning to the congregation -- which included some of the wealthiest Episcopalians in New York -- as follows:

" It will be an extremely bitter pill for some of you to swallow, but the richest man in this congregation and the janitor who cleans out the toilet in this church are equal in the eyes of God."

That equality stems from the nature of the work we are sent here to do, which is a leveling factor. It doesn't matter how much money you make, or how "successful" you are in life. Those are not bad things, but they are treasures laid up on the earth, where moth and rust corrupt. What matters is how much one works. And to work is to be willing to suffer.

Above all, today, it occurs to me that one thing we really need to suffer and sacrifice is our own arrogance. Arrogance brings every misery this planet sees from man. It all starts there.

One man on the doomed Franklin Expedition was buried with a tombstone, crudely carved in a board of wood from the ship, that said:

"Consider your ways."

Wise words, I think, for all of us in this age of supreme and all-encompassing arrogance.

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What is our nature?

I am feeling a bit quiet since I got back from China. Once again, I am contemplating the impermanence of everything, including this enterprise. And there are days, like today, while I am no longer sure of a wish to move this particular aspect of my personal work forward.

Perhaps it is time for a change.

I don't know.

It has struck me quite clearly lately that everything we do in ordinary life is not our nature. We have families, and it is part of what we do, but it is not our nature. We have jobs, but this too is not our nature. Politics? Our obsession, perhaps, but not our nature.

We make things, we buy things; we acquire, we create, we destroy. But this is not our nature. Our nature is completely involved in all of this... yet completely removed from it.

That is to say, there is a separation between our nature and all of the things that we do in life, and what life requires from us. The actual function that we perform on this planet--which I will refrain from describing, lest it prejudice anyone and prevent them from discovering the matter for themselves -- serves a purpose that does not actually relate to the manifestation of cause and effect on this level. It is intertwined with it, and could not take place without its existence, but the ultimate aim of it has little or nothing to do with all of the delusions we fill our life with.

The aim of it is, to put it bluntly, both astonishing and incomprehensible.

So when we encounter all of these questions in Buddhism about discovering our original nature, or original mind, we are encountering a question that points us towards something entirely different from life as we know it. Our mistake is in perpetually "understanding" it from the point of view of life as we know it, and even trying to believe in it from the point of view of life as we know it.

We don't know life. We just think we know it. If we actually knew something real about it, we wouldn't know anything of what we know now. All of that would have to go. To stand on the threshold of this understanding is to have a taste of what Dogen meant when he said that we have to become "leavers of home."

Gurdjieff himself intimated this when he pointed out that the organ kundabuffer was implanted in man specifically to prevent him from seeing why he was here, or what was required of him--lest he kill himself.

Of course, the conditions have changed since then, but man is still here to serve a purpose that is not his own. It is only in the surrender to those conditions and a deeper understanding of them that a man can begin to know anything about what we actually are.

In the end, it is necessary to be stripped of all of the arrogance, the assumptions, the beliefs, and even the questions themselves.

Nakedness alone is suitable for understanding.

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

Monday, August 25, 2008


just a quick post to let the readership know that I have returned, and am fine.

I've been taking a few days to get over jet lag. Posts will resume this week, possibly tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Departure, and Sorrow

Yet another post from the KAL business class lounge in Seoul, Korea.

There is a sorrow at the heart of the universe.

It is an endless sorrow born of love; a sorrow that knows no limitations. It is the sorrow of a parent for a lost child; a lover's sorrow for the death of the beloved; a regret for the very presence of time, let alone its awesome depredations.

Gurdjieff called this sorrow-- which, he tells us, every three brained being has an obligation to make an effort to sense --"the sorrow of His Endlessness." It is the sorrow of my master, the sorrow of our father. And somewhere within the depths of my soul, in the crevices where the parts of me that are not stained by this world are hidden, I smell the sweet, hopelessly eternal musk of this sorrow. Rising up like a fine perfume to color the experience of this world in a perfect way that joy could not.

This sorrow, however, is not sorrow alone; it is made of joy -- paradoxically, it is joy in itself, turned over and discovered in antithesis.

How can we hold the sweetness of time, of our life, between the sieve created by our fingertips? It's impossible. Everything passes --and this, perhaps, is the essential heart of the sorrow. we live, after all, in a world -- yes, in a universe -- of impossible beauty, a universe where beauty is revealed in every passing moment, in the movement of every photon, and the position of every electron.

It may sound romantic to put it that way, but it is true. And it is romantic in the sense of adventure, not sentiment. It's the very magnificence of the enterprise of cause and effect that evokes the emotion of sorrow at its transitory nature. Having created and embodied this endless perfection, God cannot but feel sorrowful for an inability to confer eternity on every event.

Gurdjieff once told Ouspensky that the difference between them was that Ouspensky sought beauty, whereas Gurdjieff sought consciousness. It may be, in the end, that to try to distinguish between the two is to split hairs.

All of this touches on matters too vast to comprehend. In the bliss of an inhaled breath with presence, in the sensation of the body within this existence, we can touch more closely on the question -- the mind alone can conceive of it, but is unable to sense it in ways that are meaningful. But we will never be able to plumb the depths of this mystery, which gives birth to every cathedral, every symphony, every dance.

When touched by this sorrow, we are called to work within ourselves even harder to become open to the presence of God, and to share the burden of this mystery and this sorrow.

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

lying, and the field of association

...Did you know you can eat lotus seeds? I didn't. Not until this trip, anyway.

At the end of a long trip, a bit tired, I've found it difficult to organize myself and muster the energy for a post the past few days. as it happens, I am about to get on a plane to come home tonight, and I felt one last post from here in China was in order.

It's a difficult thing to admit to ourselves that we are essentially dishonest. All of us, in one way or another. This summer I heard a reading of Mr. Gurdjieff's where he expounded on this. In the reading, he told the listener that everything in their life is based on lies.


Of course, at the time, it occurred to me that he was painting the canvas a darker shader of black than was absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, looking back at it-having allowed it to percolate for a month, which is always needed--I can see his point.

For myself, living within the current experience of this life (that is, within a kind of self-observation which is no longer wholly based in intellect or imagination) I see that most of me has dishonest impulses, all of which arise within what I'd call the "field of association."

It's surprising how utterly self--serving my ego is, how it is always looking only towards what it can get for itself, and how sneakily, underhandedly, fundamentally dishonest most of the impulses that arise within the field of association are.

The fact is that I am constantly forced to go against these impulses if I don't want them to be the rulers and determinants of my life. And in order to do that I am required to constantly sacrifice--to make an effort to go against my lies, as best I can (which, truth be told, isn't very well.)

I say I am "surprised" by these parts, but that's not entirely true either. By now I've been watching them for so long that most of them are familiar old friends, even if their company is undesirable. I've seen my sleazy impulses once too often; when I was younger they were a bit harder to resist than they are now. Instead, today, the essential activity is one of watching this unpleasant side of me maintain a constant dialogue and critique of the events around me. It's rather annoying to have to watch one impulse after another which is dishonest and unseemly arise.

All of this calls into question just what I am. It turns out that anything worthwhile in me appears to be born precisely out of this mass of lying impulses, and the effort to prevent them from making the decisions.

The difficulty with finding oneself in the middle of this ocean of lies, and truly seeing it in a less partial way, is that the mooring for the ship is cast off, and one discovers that one is adrift.

The boat may be floating, but one sees that the direction is determined by the current, and one has not yet acquired oars or a rudder to direct it.

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

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Free Range Spirituality

In the organic food business, they sell us a product (not an animal, mind you, to them it's a product) called a "free range" chicken.

The image, as Michael Pollan explains in his excellent book "The Omnivore's Dilemma," is a marketing ploy that conjures happy chickens ranging free and unconstrained across the plains, pecking at wild grain and seed in the way that nature always meant.

Nothing, unfortunately, could be further from the truth. The average American "free range" chicken--unlike the Chinese chickens in the picture above -- lives out its life densely packed into a shed with many thousands of other chickens. The only difference that makes it "free range" is that the shed has a small open door, so that if the chicken wants to go out, it can.

All the food and security, however, is in the shed. The chicken doesn't want to go out-why the hell should it, when everything it needs is right there?

Hence, our "free range" chicken is raised, well, exactly like ordinary "factory farm" chickens, the only difference being that their chicken slum has an aperture.

When we enter a spiritual work, we all tend to end up as free range disciples. No matter what form we aspire or ascribe to, we believe that it's the one that really provides "freedom"-whatever we think that is.

We sign on to the agenda and then swiftly settle down with our fellow spiritual "chickens," content to be fed the rich fattening "grain," or ideas, with the rest of the flock. Yes, there may be a door over there with light coming in and some green grass showing, but why should we risk leaving? After all, all our pals--and all the goodies--are here in the shed.

It's safe here, guys.

If we want to truly experience our life, however, we've got to leave the shed. The shelter of forms and the safety of communities in "harmonious" agreement become pacifiers--distractions that fatten us up until the butcher comes along.

It's only when we realize that we have to take our work directly out of the orderly, comforting, and reassuring confines of the spiritual coop and into the dangerous, messy conditions of actual free-range life that we can acquire the opportunity to be come REAL chickens.

This parable bears a resemblance to Gurdjieff's Sufi tale of the magician's sheep-an illustration of which is, as some readers know, the frontspiece for

So "work in life" becomes paramount. Not just in the external, abstract, and parabolic, but also in the most concrete inner sense. It pays to examine our "free range ideas"- the ideas, or associative thought patterns we have, which bogusly preserve the appearance of free and unfettered self-observation and awareness, but which actually just serve to preserve the illusion that we are outside under blue skies, flexing our wings and pecking at seed.

Now, here is the trick of the parable, which is just like free range chickens. It's easy to be outside under blue skies. Remember, the magician who hypnotized his sheep did so so that he wouldn't have to fence them in. Just like the "free range" chickens, they were free to leave any time. The only thing that prevented it was their hypnosis.

Above all, our habituality preserves our hypnotic illusions. So breaking the spell, even in a simple and temporary way, can be useful.

A rich ambrosia of inner and outer experience lies just outside the boundaries we paint for ourselves. And it doesn't take much effort to discover it.

But you gotta go out the door first.

And maybe that is why Gurdjieff kept driving his "disciples" away from him.

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

Friday, August 15, 2008

Explanation and immersion

You, dear readers, may feel by now that you are getting more than your fair share of photographs of Buddhas from Lingyin temple in Hangzhou. This one, like many of the carvings that still exist -- bunches were destroyed -- is from the Yuan dynasty, or, about 400 years old.

I could post pictures of electrical components that I took this morning in Shenzhen, but somehow, they just don't seem to have the same charm.

If you stop to think about it, all of us live most of our life in an atmosphere of explanation. Our educational system is designed, from the ground up, to explain the world and its workings; our religions and metaphysics, to explain the unseen.

Even the most sophisticated teachings, which assert that the unseen cannot be explained, become, perversely, explanatory anti- explanations.

I routinely have to listen to the league of anti-explainers (numerous friends of mine are members, but mostly by imitation) prattle on about entering "the inner silence" and wonder (cynic that I am) why, if it's silence that holds the key and silence that we must seek, they don't stop talking about it.

In the same way, perhaps we all ought to just stop discussing "the energy." I'd say there's more than a flagon or two of "Don't do as I do, do as I say" ale served at the average Gurdjieff dinner table when it comes to these matters.

I am not one to speak too much about silence, because I value it. And at the same time I am not shy about participating in the merry-go-round of explanation, which my fellow seekers sanctimoniously proclaim they are not actually riding, even as they grab for the rings.
The whole thing reminds of the joke about the Christian scientists in hell, chanting "we're not here."

Well, me little droogies, we ARE here.

In his expositions on cause and effect, Dogen demonstrated-satisfactorily, I think- that everything has a reason ...whatever it is. And that may be true. Whether it is or it isn't, in exercising the mind, it seems near-impossible to escape from this hamster wheel of explaining.

Smacking up against the wall of explanations are massive waves of things which definitely cannot be explained. They outnumber the explanations by such a healthy margin that we need not fear. The weight of our experience always rests on a foundation of the inexplicable. There's no real danger of the explained pulling the carpet out from under the unexplained, and there never will be, except, perhaps, in the paranoid fantasies of radical preachers.

In the face of the explained-that is, my usual experience, my usual state- I welcome the unexplained. That is, those moments when immersion in life transcends encounter with it.

That immersion consists of tangible contact with the inner roots, awareness of outer impressions--and ever-present mysteries that we then may taste, but can never touch with the tongue.

Whenever I come up against this question of immersion in life, which just accepts the current condition without presupposing, I end up in a place where I don't know anything at all. Or, rather, what I know is primarily emotional and physical. When I try to think things out, I see that the mind is inadequate to grasp the enormity of how temporary this life is, and how little we attend to one another.

I find myself understanding that every moment I am having is the first and last time I will ever have that moment.

It's a sobering condition.

All of this goes back to the question of value, which we must continually investigate. Our failure to value (which stems in large part from the inadequate development of our emotional presence) is at the heart of why we are asleep. Even a vague taste of real value wakes us up a bit more. It's a theme that needs to be revisited over and over again in the context of our failure to sense..

As Mr. Gurdjieff so famously said,
"Blödsinn, blödsinn,
Du mein Vergnügen,
Blödsinn, blödsinn,
Du meine Lust."

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

Thursday, August 14, 2008

rushing past the taste

I am by nature an impatient type. One prominent feature in my inner landscape is the tendency to go too fast. Certainly, this has to be genetic -- my son definitely has the same tendency.

One thing I notice about myself is that I am perpetually rushing past the taste of food to get to the swallowing. It would do well for me to slow down and savor the taste of both my food, and my life, a bit more precisely.

Of course, I'm only able to observe this habit clearly in myself, but I rather suspect that most of us are like this. The urges of the stomach and sex tend to drive us forward more powerfully than we are consciously aware of. Perhaps one of the chief features of sleep is that while we think away furiously, thinking that the thinking is in charge, the belly and the sex organs are running the show from behind the curtains.

Don't get me wrong here. There's nothing wrong with eating or having sex. Gurdjieff certainly didn't think so -- his size alone indicates that he ate enough, and his sexual appetites were not a hidden matter. I think that the question is whether or not we are aware of these urges. Seeing them in operation rather than letting them just operate is an educational experience. Seeing them, furthermore, may put a bit of a spoke in the wheels. The trouble they cause arises from our lack of awareness of them as forces in life.

In my own case, the question becomes how to slow down. How to more fully savor life in its individual tastes; how to let the impressions fall more deeply within me. And certainly, this is possible. Only, however, if I become more interested in the taste, as well as the swallowing.

It's particularly difficult to organize the machine and the inner energies when one travels across multiple time zones. I have always maintained that it takes about three days to get over jet lag, but that isn't true. What it actually means is that after three days, you don't tend to pass out in your hotel room at eight o'clock at night. It takes about a week for the inner clock to reset itself fully, so that you get to a morning -- as I did today -- where you wake up and you realize that you feel pretty much "normal" again. Whatever, that is, "normal" means. As one gets older, "normal" develops all kinds of unpleasant aspects one never considered when one was young, and none of them seem normal, despite the fact that they have moved in to stay.

My wife Neal referred to this kind of unexpected and unpleasant development as "the new normal" some years ago while we were in Costa Rica, contemplating an SUV I had cleverly managed to wedge perpendicular to the road between two rather high banks of dirt during a rainstorm.

Anyway, negotiating the vagaries of time changes, jet lag, business appointments, and perpetual immersion in a sea of Chinese people, one comes to a moment where it appears the adjustments have been made.

At that moment, one sees that one constantly makes assumptions about one's inner state, assumptions which are usually wrong. We are not very much in touch with ourselves, we haven't developed very much -- no matter what our fantasies or arrogance may tell us -- and it's a surprise to see that we didn't even know how we were, or that we are again how we "usually" are, until we get back to a more familiar place. The bottom line is, we stumble from one moment in life to another, much like Mr. Gurdjieff's drunkard, who wants to go to the Place D'Etoile, but will be lucky if he gets to the next lamp post.

This reminds me of a thought that I had this morning about the dailyness of life--which is the territory from which all these deceptively rambling thoughts are garnered.

The Obyvatel-- Mr. Gurdjieff's famous "good householder" -- makes his living by not thinking that he's special. He doesn't try to do anything special. He doesn't act like he's special. He tries to meet his responsibilities within the context of ordinary life. He may be a drunkard, but he's a drunkard who is smart enough to know that the next lamp post is what he needs to aim for.

How many of us can say that?

Speaking as a former drunkard, or, rather, a drunkard who hasn't been drinking for the last 27 years, I can say that I distinctly remember walking home late at night on a cobblestone street in Hamburg, when I was so totally smashed that my awareness had become completely detached from my body. I recall staring down at my steadily marching feet and being astonished that they knew where to go, and were taking me there.

It was nice to have a reliable partner like that , seeing as I had abrogated every possible claim to responsibility. The lesson drawn from this is that moving center, at least at that time, was far more sensible than the rest of me. It suggests we might want to think about respecting and trusting our "unconscious" parts a bit more than we usually do.

Sometimes, they are the parts that can see the next lamppost.

So. I am routinely confronted with the dailyness of life, and the manufactured cravings that food and sex thrust upon me (not to mention fear and money.) I want things to be less daily, and more special. I want to be more special.

I miss the point, which is that ordinary life already is special. Or, as Jack Nicholson said in the movie,

"...what if this is as good as it gets?"

There are, of course, moments when it can be seen that this is indeed as good as it gets. The moment this afternoon, for example, when I saw a dirty curb with a bit of moss on it and was filled with a sense of how enormous and beautiful and quite perfect this moment was. But that's not how I usually am. It takes something special to help me see things like that. Something special that does not belong to me, but that occasionally inhabits me.

In the meantime, immersion in and acceptance of my ordinary life--the way of the good householder -- is the path towards that possibility. It's true -- I will sleep through much of this. With some luck, however, I will remember to come up for air every once in a while, and be grateful that at least I have encountered a real work in my life, even if I fail at it too often to mention.

So here's to the good householder, who seeks responsibility, rather than avoiding it; who shoulders his burdens in spite of his fears rather than because of them; and who loves life enough to participate in it, even when what it requires is not much fun at all.

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