Sunday, June 24, 2018

The moment of response (no definite plan)

From a series of notes to myself written during May 2018.

Well then.

Here I am. There’s no question, there is life and I am within it.

Yet I don’t have a plan on how to fix life—and I don’t really know what it is going to do to me. I probably know something about how I'm going to respond; and yet that can be unpredictable as well, because many of my parts respond quite powerfully to life whether I want them to or not. So I need to keep a close eye on those parts with the living force of my Being.

I need to be there so that I can fully experience what I am and how I respond, without making a definite plan for how to do so in advance.

My definite plans won’t work anyway. If there is one thing that’s certain, it’s that my thinking part is unable to anticipate what takes place in life. It is simply too slow; and there are too many variables outside me. I can think something through to what I believe is perfection and then discover that it blows up in my face because most of what I thought was imaginary. So what I need to do is be intelligently prepared to inhabit the moment of response.

The inflow has an innate or inherent capacity to be present in the moment of response. This is what it's for; the energy is designed to help create and form relationship. One could think, in one’s imagination, that the energy of the inflow has all these different magical or sacred purposes, but its fundamental and primary purpose is relationship. There are many subsidiary and auxiliary side effects, but relationship is the ground floor of why the energy flows into me, and it is my sacred Being-duty and responsibility to be present in the moment of response in order to establish right relationship.

Now, of course, you might say to me, “How do you know what right relationship is?” And this would be a good question. Right relationship is a relationship that honors the other, and inhabits the moment with love. This needs to be an active and instinctive arising, not one crafted by what society has taught me, the religious, political, or social ideas I have been taught, or even the wide range of beliefs that have arisen in the as a result of this education. If I come into relationship with the inflow, those parts — those artificially crafted sections of my being — are available as tools, but I have to choose from the toolkit. There has to be a master craftsman in charge of the operation. Otherwise I won’t build a cabinet; wood will just get nailed together in random ways. It may make a structure, but it won’t serve a purpose or hold anything. It will probably tip over when I least expect it.

So I need to have this relationship to an active and instinctive arising. This instinctive arising within me is a sensation, and an intelligence, towards life that does not derive from what I think. It begins before I think. Many things can happen after it; and thinking is one of them. But the key to it is that I have to get there and be there before I think of anything.

The moment of response cannot be lived effectively if thinking tries to live it. It has to arise from parts of awareness that have an inherent capacity for what takes place now; not what took place before, or what I want to take place later. What took place before is already contaminated by my attitude; and what will take place later is contaminated by my desires. Both attitude and desire take me away from what is needed now; and it’s important I see that, because both of them color the way in which I enter the moment of response.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

An instinctive relationship to life

From a series of notes to myself written during May 2018.

One always tries to make a plan for how to meet life in one way or another. All of it takes place in imagination; there’s an effort to form an idea of how life ought to be, and then try to do two things: first of all, to make me conform to that idea through my behavior, and secondly, to try and thereby “force” life to be what I want it to be. One subtle issue with this is that I don't see how I am forcing — I always think that somehow what I'm doing is justifiable.

There are many ways that this applies to my day-to-day, ordinary life and the simple actions that I need to take care of, such as earning a living, cooking meals, interacting with others, and so on. That could be a whole discussion. But this morning, I want to discuss  how we meet life from an inner and a spiritual point of view. By spiritual, I mean according to the dictates of the inward flow of energy, which we ought to sense but usually don’t.

This idea of a planned approach, whereby I will be prepared for everything, set myself tasks, put aside special parts of the day where I meditate and attend to life, and so on, is all necessary. There is no doubt about it. I can’t live without structure. But let’s face it, life arrives as a big, messy, unpredictable situation. It doesn’t matter how many plans I make; life won’t conform to them. The outward world is endlessly creative and does not establish its direction or sustain its force through me. So there needs to be something within me that has a capacity for responding to that that is flexible, intelligent, and creative.

That living force arises from the inward flow of energy, which I call the inflow. This energy is inspired from a divine source that cannot be logically explained; it is the source of all life, and it transcends thinking in every way — at least, the kind of thinking that I am accustomed to doing.

In order to allow this energy to arise in me, I need to discover an instinctive relationship to life. By instinctive, I mean by impulse — that is to say, according to the natural force that arises within Being.

 This natural force is an impulse — it is that which imparts force and creates movement.  Force and movement are not inanimate in thinking creatures; they arise from a living impulse called agency.  Each of us has an impulse in us created by the inflow, the force of life which does not arise within material but only expresses itself through it. Our difficulty lies in the fact that we rely excessively on our relationship to material, and then interpret everything through it. If we came into an intimate relationship with the inward energy of the inflow, we would not make this mistake.

My life arises naturally. No matter what I do, until I am dead, life will always arise naturally in a reciprocal relationship: my inward life arrives naturally from the inflow, and my being exists. The other side of this is that life arises naturally from outside, in the form of objects, events, circumstances, and conditions. I find my life in the intersection between these two situations, which are actually not separated, even though my experience of them is.

Being has a capacity to arrive quite naturally and without any excessive force or rigid form. It can arise naturally and gently and place itself quite precisely at the point where my awareness brings these two situations together. I need to have a flexibility of intelligence and attention that places itself quite gently in this place and then sits there, quietly and in stillness, awaiting the moment of response.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Dishonorable World

The word honor is an ancient one, having preserved both its sound and meaning directly from Latin. It can mean respect, esteem, or reverence, accorded to exalted worth or rank. It can also mean chastity, purity, or a virtue of the highest consideration, dignity, etc. (Meanings are taken from the Oxford English dictionary.)

We ought to be treating one another honorably. That is to say, we should discover a genuine value in our relationship with others, and intelligence of action that causes us to speak kindly, act with charity and meaningful compassion, to actually see other human beings as living persons, not objects for us to oppose or approve of, as our whim dictates. In this context, it is even possible to treat one’s enemy honorably — which was an important part of many ancient traditions. In fact, civilized traditions place a greater emphasis on this than degenerate ones.

The idea of civilization relates directly to the idea of awakening this City of God within us. All of the denizens of the City have — unlike us — honorable and loving intentions. If we are under the influence of this City, our intentions are equally honorable and loving. We take thought before we act towards others, and our action makes an effort to be good, that is, to outwardly consider the other.

Humanity, unfortunately, is decisively degenerating. If you look at the average person in today’s world, they are filled with opinions and hatred, dismiss others who do not believe what they believe, and feel entitled to say horrible things about other people whenever they feel like it. They have no restraint; they embody no decorum; their intelligence is the absolute slave of coarse emotions.

Coming into relationship with others involves a great deal of suffering, and it can’t be undertaken without the awakening of that selfsame conscience which Ashiata Shiemash determined is necessary for the development of human beings. Conscience does not manifest without a struggle, because our outward personality is powerful and wants to have nothing to do with it. We need to find a niche for conscience within ourselves, a safe place for it to reside intelligently in the course of our everyday actions.

The situation is alarming to me personally, because I so often run into people who claim to be spiritually “developed” in one way or another, and yet display haughty, arrogant, dismissive, and even hateful attitudes towards others. The contradictions in these individuals are shocking, and even more shocking is the fact that they are absolutely blind to them.

How can this be? Is it truly possible for someone to study a set of esoteric ideas, especially Christian ones or those of Gurdjieff, for many decades and end up understanding nothing about this matter?

I’m afraid so. It doesn’t matter how much inner effort one makes or how much one “awakens” if the heart doesn’t open. The man or woman who does not acquire humility can acquire the whole world and all its treasures, both inner and outer — but without humility they are nothing. Nothing is nothing; it is not good or bad, but it does not exist. Existence is predicated on the presence of conscience. This feeling quality of being is unmistakable; and it has no arrogance. It always honors.

The awakening of conscience, as Gurdjieff called it, leads to a completely different set of inward ideas and attitudes, which then impose a certain authority over outward action. You can easily see the difference between people who act from conscience and those who do not.

Victor Frankl called them decent and non-decent people. These are people who actually care — have a wish — about how they treat others, and they understand the physical, substantial, and material meaning of the idea to act through love. 

Not through some theoretical idea about love which selects only what one likes; but the idea of love as a whole thing.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Exactly as it is, part V— A Divine Intelligence

In part two of this series, I said, “We acquire myopia through our inattention; and we rely on our forms to deliver our results, instead of our intelligence and intuition.”

I think this is worthy of some further examination. Once we adopt an external form, membership in an organization of any kind, it becomes a vehicle for our aspirations. Unfortunately, the aspirations end up becoming a part of the vehicle, instead of a part of ourselves.

We have a divine intelligence and intuition that is emanated into us through the action of life itself. Our very Being and all that we live and breathe is created by this; the divine is manifested through the action of life in every circumstance. Yet instead of understanding that the results of relationship are our direct responsibility, and that every action we take affects that, there’s this odd belief — which everyone is, in varying degrees, a victim of — that the institutions we become members of have an intelligence that automatically renders our ideas effective, and embodies our behavior.

This is never the case; it is always we ourselves who are responsible for the way the institutions function. Not the ideas that create them. It reminds me of situations I have found myself in many times during my professional career, where the owners of small private companies personally fail to take steps that meet the needs of their business, and then get angry and blame all their employees when things go wrong. They never stop to think that the institution — their business — is their responsibility, and that if things go wrong, it begins with their own personal actions, not the rest of the institution.

If we personally fail to directly, intelligently, and compassionately exercise the manifestation of the divine intelligence which we are responsible for embodying, and the outer results — the results of the institutions — are then failures in one way or another, it is not the failure of the institution. Everyone who is a member personally owns the failure. And until each member of an institution or society becomes personally responsible for their action inwardly, everything remains impossible.

When Gurdjieff was preparing material on his chapter about Ashiata Shiemash in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, he pondered this question at great length. Understanding that Faith, Hope, and Love had all been tried as a means of saving mankind, and that more drastic steps were necessary, he recognized that only the awakening of conscience — which alone survived in humanity as a vestigial organ of the Divine — would still be able to do the job. And he furthermore realized that mankind would need to have a completely different set of institutions (structures of existence) in order to awaken that conscience. The structures needed to be reconfigured so that conscience is awakened automatically.

Yet where is our individual conscience today? What is our relationship to it? How doe we use our time, and honor both ourselves and others?


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Exactly as it is, part IV: The City of God


Concerning the nature of the soul


The universal real Soul, within the heart and in the world

1. Om / [The teacher should say:] “Now, what is here in this city of Brahma, is an abode, a small lotus-flower. Within that is a small space. What is within that, should be searched out; that, assuredly, is what one should desire to understand.” 

2. If they [i.e. the pupils] should say to him: “This abode, the small lotus-flower that is here in this city of Brahma, and the small space within that—what is there, there, which should be searched out, which assuredly one should desire to understand?” 

3. he should say: “As far, verily, as this world-space (ayam akasa) extends, so far extends the space within the heart. Within it, indeed, are contained both heaven and earth, both fire and wind, both sun and moon, lightning and the stars, both what one possesses here and what one does not possess; everything here is contained within it.”

4. If they should say to him : 'If within this city of Brahma is contained everything here, all beings as well as all desires, when old age overtakes it or it perishes, what is left over there-from?”

5. he should say, “That does not grow old with one’s old age ; it is not slain with one's murder. That is the real city of Brahma. In it desires are contained. That is the Soul (Atman), free from evil, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hunger-less, thirstless, whose desire is the Real, whose conception is the Real.”

“For, just as here on earth human beings follow along in subjection to command ; of whatever object they are desirous, whether a realm or a part of a field, upon that they live dependent—

6. “As here on earth the world which is won by work (karma-fita loka) becomes destroyed, even so there the world which is won by merit (punya-jita loka] becomes destroyed.”  Those who go hence without here having found the Soul (Atman) and those real desires (satya kdma} —for them in all the worlds there is no freedom. But those who go hence having found here the Soul and those real desires—for them in all worlds there is freedom.”

Excerpt From: Robert Ernest Hume, “The Thirteen Principal Upanishads.” Pages 262-63

It’s said that the kingdom of heaven is within. In order to understand this, it’s important to remember that the kingdom is composed not just of a single entity, but many different places, vast lands that have cities in them. And just as the outer is a reflection of the inner condition of mankind, and actually not a real entity but just the reflection — that is, the inner gives birth to the outer, and not the other way around — the inner kingdom of heaven is constructed much like the outer world appears to us. The difference is that although we see the outer world is real and the kingdom of heaven as an imaginary or abstract construction, in fact it is the other way around. It’s necessary to reverse this understanding within Being in order to begin to understand the kingdom of heaven as an experience rather than an idea.

The kingdom of heaven has a representative city within each person, which is the City of God. This is a very ancient understanding, as its presence in the Upanishads shows. But the understanding need not be distant. It is available today within us, under the right conditions. You can verify it.

 The city of God is located in the heart of each human being. It is an actual city that exists on a different level in us.

This miraculous City is a hidden, and in many senses forbidden location; generally speaking, the city of God is closed. It is the entryway to our portion, or residency, in the kingdom of heaven; yet we are not really ready to live in the kingdom of heaven. We were born and designed to live here on earth, which is a place of exile in which we undergo trials. So every time we attempt to escape life with practices that bring us to inner states of “nothingness” or “bliss,”—each time we seek the void— we’re attempting to escape the very conditions that are most essential for the growth of the soul. It does not mean we have no entitlement whatsoever to immersion in nothingness and bliss — in fact, nothingness is not nothingness, and bliss is not bliss, and both of them are permitted as experiences to mankind — but attempting to transform our outward or inward spiritual life into a perpetual state of this kind would avoid the kind of trouble, difficulty, chaos and conflict needed for the soul to grow in its humility and devotion to God.

As the narrator in the Upanishads explains, In it desires are contained. That is the Soul (Atman), free from evil, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hunger-less, thirstless, whose desire is the Real, whose conception is the Real. 

This particular place in the heart is the exact place that is opened by God during religious ecstasy; and it releases all of a human being's true inner wish, the divine wish, which is both of the kernel of being and its essence, the alpha and omega of existence which is hidden from us. The reason it opens so rarely is that the experience is, for the most part, overwhelming. Yet it can open in a small way and feed life; that is to say, allegorically speaking, if we make a good in our effort and align ourselves in humility with God, we are able to establish an encampment outside the city where we can await the arrival of the master, which only happens if the gates are opened. Living in this encampment requires great patience.

One should not try to open the heart, the city of God, on one’s own. Certainly there are exercises that can do this, but there are reasons mankind is not supposed to open the inner flowers or the city of God on its own. To hope for God to open these places through prayer, supplication, and devotion is fully permitted, since to God all things are allowable; but to force them open using “skillful” means is forbidden.

Now, because there are ways and means of constructing our spiritual life, both outwardly and inwardly, and we create forms of both kinds, we begin to see ourselves as architects. Indeed, born into life, the ego sees itself as an architect from the beginning, somehow crafting its own life and being. Yet we never craft anything that has anything to do with being; being emanates from God, and will never be subject to our own construction. We mistakenly think, because our ego runs everything, that we are the architects of life, and that the structure we inhabit — the building of our being — is both something that we understand, control, and have power over. This  entire idea is so profoundly mistaken it’s difficult to convey it; we don’t see how thoroughly this idea of ourselves as architects penetrates every crevice of our life and every action that we take. Even if we adopt a spiritual stance that insists we don’t see ourselves this way, that itself is often part of our architecture, what we think we have built. When we deny our view of ourselves as architects, we do so as sly and clever human beings who have simply added another wing to the building.

Consider, if you will, a different view of ourselves in life: that is, as residents. The resident does not own the building or the apartment, but leases it; he or she is an itinerant, only therefore the length of the lease. During the tenancy, the resident has a responsibility to keep the apartment clean; to maintain good relationships with the other renters, to be respectful to the landlord, to understand the privilege that comes with being able to rent. There are many other analogies to spiritual life; no need to list them all here. The point is that if we see ourselves as residents, we no longer run the show, but instead become individuals with the responsibility to help maintain the place where we live. This applies to both our inner and our outer life.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Exactly as it is, part III: An Organic Relationship to Life

In the regard of this practice, exactly as it is, we ought to begin to understand the world from Meister Eckhart’s perspective:

 Some people want to find God as He shines before them, or as He tastes to them. They find the light and the taste, but they do not find God. A scripture declares that God shines in the darkness, where we sometimes least recognize Him. Where God shines least for us is often where He shines the most. Therefore we should accept God equally in all ways and in all things.

— Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works, page 588

Exactly as it is requires us to put aside our assumptions and our confirmation bias, our self-fulfilling prophecies, and engage in a simple observation of the facts. The moment that there's an inflection, it's not our world we are participating in, it is God’s; and the difference can be known in the organic relationship to life.

The organic relationship to life is formed from an organic, that is, gravitational, relationship within each of the parts: thinking, sensation, and feeling. The relationship begins at a molecular level and consists of a vibration that centers being within a field of gravity. That field as an electromagnetic potential belonging to a different level than my psychology or my personality; and it attracts the impressions of life in a quite different way, because they are no longer in orbit around my inner planet, which is the location of my psychology and personality. They fall into the gravity field and enter the center of being, where they add to the mass of being. The confusion that the circulation causes is replaced by a stillness that receives.

This is the place where God lives; it is a place where the kingdom of heaven touches the inner life. On the human level, this place which has an organic connection is called the city of God; and, although it may sound peculiar to you, this location, which forms the center of our being, it is a secret chamber which is not allowed to be opened by ourselves. It forms our Being; but it emanates from God, and even though the impressions that we take in feed the building of that city and affect its  structure, the city does not belong to us. We can become a resident; but we are not and can never be the architect.

For as long as we conceive of ourselves as the architects of our being and the mayor of our city, we increase our arrogance. Even if we do so in a negative way by presuming humility by way of personality, intelligence, in psychology — adopting it as a superficial truth glued to everything we think we are — we are still attempting to create something, rather than inhabit what we are. If we carefully observe the questions we ask in our spiritual search and the way that we present them to one another, maybe we can see how insidious this tendency is. It permeates everything. The organic relationship to life takes a completely different position which is well worth considering from the actual experience, not from a theory about it. Yet the organic relationship to life, which is born from the inflow, the influence of God, must awaken from within on its own. We are not actually able to awaken it.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Exactly as it is, part II—A Special Mess

New York Orchid Show, 2018
Bronx Botanical Gardens

One of the assumptions that I seem to hear a great deal from people is that we can become free of our negativity, that we can overcome the mess within ourselves, the turning thought, the monkey mind, the chaos of our lives and our ordinary being. This is actually an aim for most people in spiritual work; one wants to get better, one wants to fix one’s life so that one is deep, contemplative, relaxed, spiritual, wise, insightful, and whole. All of these impulses come from the ordinary part of our being, which desperately sees — if it sees anything first — all the confusing parts which we are told are there. Well, let’s admit it — we already knew they were there anyway, as if we needed Ouspensky or Gurdjieff to tell us about this. But when spiritual teachers tell us we are a mess, suddenly, it’s important. Before they did so, the mess was ordinary — and now it’s a special mess. I can do something with it. What I may be able to do is beside the point — the mess now has more meaning.

Yet in our rush to “understand” Gurdjieff’s point of view — in fact no one but Gurdjieff will ever precisely do that, because he, like everyone else, was an idiot, a unique individual that no one else will perfectly replicate — we forget that the whole point of life is struggle. As I put it to some others a week ago, all of these messy parts within us have a function. Even the mess they are in is part of that function. Without this negativity, without chaos, there is nothing to work against. As I pointed out during that conversation, if we look at what God did with it, we realize that chaos has enormous potential. In relationship to our chaos, we need to become our own gods, struggle with it, and form a universe with laws.

This idea that “a man cannot "do” has a certain truth to it, but again it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One thing that a human being can certainly do is struggle; what we struggle with, if we understand struggle, is our negativity, our opposition. We are all filled with it. An impulse to try and become free of it fails to see the value behind the negativity. If it were not there as a spur, we would never try anything. So we need our negativity as much as anything else; and it is only in seeing it and positioning ourselves against it with intelligent effort and meaningful affirmation, that we generate an inner energy that can help create enough heat to fuse our parts.

That fusion happens organically and naturally if enough struggle takes place; but the struggle cannot just be in the mind. The struggle — which is not exactly a struggle, but a form of acceptance — must take place in all of the parts. There is a field of engagement in the thinking, but there is also a field of engagement in the body and in the emotions. In this field of engagement, which has both inner and outer aspects, I train myself to see my negativity as a fact. In order to do this, I cannot be identified with it; there has to be a separate part that sees the negative polarity in action. That part sets itself against the negativity; and this effort generates the force that is needed to attract reconciling influences to my inner work.

We are not, in other words, meant to become free of anything. We are meant to inhabit life and immerse ourselves in it, everywhere we go, not just in some special place. It’s absolutely critical that we meet life exactly as it is, where it is, as much as possible in order to experience this.

The idea that the only place we encounter an opportunity to come into relationship with a higher energy, an intensified sense of being, and work with others in that state is within our own special spiritual organization is a destructive one which should be wiped out. The “special conditions” we spend so much of our lives wishing for and relying on in order to encounter inner growth are supposed to be a ground for preparation. Not a place we go to to soak up higher energy and then just forget about once we walk out the door. We must make an effort to use our inner energy to be fully engaged in life first, and then go to the special conditions as a touchstone. What we are forgetting is that the real “special conditions” are in our life itself, in the ordinary part of it. Instead we are too often allowing ourselves to become hypnotized by our spiritual organizations.

This all too often may lead to the kind of hypocrisy whereby we profess a love for all mankind, but in reality love only ourselves. It's a trap many individuals who are otherwise sincerely devoted to their religious groups and spiritual practices find at least one foot stuck in. We acquire myopia through our inattention; and we rely on our forms to deliver our results, instead of our intelligence and intuition.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Exactly as it is, part I

There’s a conviction, I think, in nearly every one who pursues a spiritual life that if things were we were different, we would be more spiritually whole. We have an illusion of “progress” in front of us at all times: always, we are deficient, and always, we ought to do better.

I don’t mean to dismiss this urge towards improving ourselves. It’s natural; and there is something about the human character that embeds it deeply in the marrow of our bones. Yet if we really want to see ourselves as we are, it can’t begin with the idea of changing how we are. The dilemma is that the instant we see anything about ourselves, the urge to adjust it arises. We instantly sort what we are into good and bad, desirable and undesirable parts; and this tendency inserts itself into our spiritual practice, the level of attention we have, our frustration with the fact that we are not present to ourselves or our lives, etc. When we observe, and report on it to ourselves and one another, we always seem to see some kind of deficiency. All we seem to see most of the time is a disability of one kind or another.

The two pitfalls here are confirmation bias and self-fulfilling prophecies. Spiritual works generally tend to tell us we are sinful or asleep; and once we begin there, everything we see is colored with those presumptions. If a spiritual work were truly objective and intended to help us see ourselves as we are, to see life exactly as it is, it would not begin by telling us that we are deficient. It would simply ask us to observe. In the Gurdjieff work, because we are told up front we are asleep and don’t attend and don’t have a good inner connection and so on— the premises of the Gurdjieff work are almost entirely founded on this concrete platform — when we begin to look at ourselves, we do so expecting to confirm this. If we encounter information to the contrary, we dismiss it. This may be justified to some extent; but we train ourselves, through shared culture, habit and expectation, in such a way that these impressions are reinforced. We repeat them year after year in meetings and before you know it, they are a mantra.

This is where the mechanism of self-fulfilling prophecy comes in. If we keep telling ourselves that only the “special conditions” of our spiritual work bring us together in such a way that our inner lives can be more whole and receive a more enriched substance of life, how are we ever going to discover that it is life itself, in all its messy and chaotic variety, that is going to help us enrich our inner lives? We’ve already decided — and announced to everyone else — that the special conditions of our spiritual organization (it could be any organization) are the only conditions in which real growth can take place.

This is a selfish attitude, yet every spiritual organization tends to manifest it. It divides the world into us, and everyone else, and if we are looking for a world that is filled with rich relations with everything and everyone, starting out with a division of that kind is already at fault. We have even divided ourselves inside ourselves, as Jean Salzmann points out:

I seek what I am, to be what I am. I have a habit of thinking of “body," on the one hand, and of "spirit or energy" on the other. But nothing exists separately. There is a unity of life. I wish to live it, and I seek it through a movement of return toward myself. I say there is an outer life and an inner life. I say this because I feel myself as distinct, as existing apart from life. There is, however, only one great life. I cannot feel separate from it, outside it, and at the same time know it. I must feel myself a part of this life.

— Jean Salzmann, The Reality of Being, page 203

Perhaps most importantly, this raises the question if we are even being selfish towards ourselves; a question well worth examining. But the point is that however we decide we are going to see ourselves in advance — and make no mistake about it, any part of ourselves that comes from where we ordinarily are does this, even if it protests that it doesn’t — it becomes a prophecy that fulfills itself. If we see ourselves as spiritually incapable, we will be. This rarely gets discussed in the Gurdjieff work; but if we don’t grow a strong affirming part that makes a good effort under the assumption that we can be more whole, that we do have possibilities, we might as well forget about making any effort. This work was not designed to found itself on a pessimistic attitude. It was designed to struggle against that.

Any attempt to disengage in order to see ourselves has to be a disengagement first from the assumptions; whether negative or positive. And yet our exchanges, both inwardly between our various selves and parts, and outwardly towards others, always engage with the assumptions first and then proceed.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Trust is quite difficult

One of my best and most dearly beloved friends asked me this morning, “What does God want from us?”

This might seem like a tricky question, because it looks so open-ended. Yet I am quite sure that God wants us to trust Him; and this is the first and only thing He wants from us. Everything else follows quite naturally if we only render to God this one true inner action.

For some reason, which is not clear to me inwardly, I am a distrustful creature, despite the fact that God has seen fit to bless me with His presence on an almost continuous basis. There is never a day that He is not present within me in one way or another; and in fact one would have to say that I am shamed by it, because still I don’t trust Him, and still I disobey.

Despite this, Grace flows abundantly throughout me; and this isn’t a Grace that does anything more than bring me to an organic sense of how extraordinary God’s Love is and how wonderful He is and how truly miraculous and perfect every single instant of His creation is.

Yet I don’t trust Him. And if Grace can flow this abundantly and trust is still not present, then the question of trust must fundamentally define the chasm that lies between us and God’s Love.

Another friend of mine said that God wants contrition, humility, chastity, and so on from us… and I think this is perhaps true.

Yet these conditions would be natural and reflexive if I trusted. They might not even be necessary; because within Grace, contrition, humility, and chastity cease to be meaningful. Each one of these is a condition that needs to be imposed because of my lack of trust. Once I trust, God is ever present; and the only thing that I quite definitely feel when God is present is the sorrow of his everlasting Love, which is both perfect and joyful and anguishing and lies beyond all human understanding — yet it lights up the soul with a gentle and brilliant fire that in one instant can sense and see and feel all the truth in the world.

Each one of us already lives in eternity. The amount of Grace that has been invested in a single life, even that of a bacteria, is already beyond any measurement; this is what Christ was trying to explain when He spoke of the lilies of the field. One moment of human life with all that flows through it is already more glorious than that; and each one of us has been vouchsafed that experience—which we casually discard as though it were unimportant.

We fundamentally misunderstand what God is and what the Kingdom of Heaven is. We do have the Kingdom of Heaven within us; and it might be said that God wants nothing “from” us. He does not want anything from us, but rather, He wishes to give to us. He would willingly give us the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven at any time, because what He wishes for is to immerse us in His Love so that we can share His Being. Within this lies greater glory in any moment than what mankind can create with whole civilizations.

But, strangely, we don’t seem to want His Love… we love ourselves too much. And it is excruciatingly unclear to us how different His Love is from our own.

I am pressed to understand all of what we do from this question of trust. What of the exercises? What of all the “efforts” and the earnestness, the false sincerity—and of course its real counterpart, just as much of us—the maneuvering and positioning, our confident misunderstanding?

What good does any of this do if we do not first trust?


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Why everything always happens now

There is a large building. It has many companions, but it never speaks to them. All of them do the same thing over and over again in silence.

Bridges lead to and from the large building, passing over streets too busy to accommodate pedestrians. The bridges are covered with steel and glass so that the weather will leave them alone. People rush back and forth across every bridge in and out of the building. Each of the people is very important, with essential tasks to be done. Few of them know one another. Each one of them is on a mission from God, but they never discuss their missions with one another, and each one of them assumes their mission is much more important than the missions other people have.

Inside of the building is an elevator that moves up and down through time. The elevator stops in different centuries on every floor. The passengers do not know this; they forget which century they are in from floor to floor and whatever floor they get out on, they assume it is the century they belong in. Everything in each century on each floor arranges itself to accommodate the visitors flawlessly. Because the passengers are forever forgetting where they came from, who they are, and where they are going to, they always feel they are in exactly the right place, doing exactly the right thing. Even when things feel wrong to them they assume this is normal.

There are two old men in the building, one in the basement and one on the top floor. Each one of them is in charge of a coterie of angels, who take care of changing the centuries. Each century is like a spark plug that triggers an avalanche of events the moment it is invoked. One angel is in charge of the Middle Ages; another one the 20th century; and so on. The angels in charge of centuries with pyramid builders, Jesus and Buddha, and so on are a bit full of themselves. So many other centuries depend on them, they think, not realizing that without the other centuries no one would care about their century at all.

Occasionally a fellow angel reminds them of this and they become depressed. This is problematic, because a depressed angel can ruin the mood of a whole century for as much as a century at a time. When this happens, the people moving in and out of the century through the elevator also come out depressed, and the depression can quickly spread through the whole building. For this reason the old men at the bottom and the top of the building have asked the angels not to speak to one another much, and frequently make them take their meals separately and sleep on different floors, even though angels naturally prefer to congregate together and suffer when they are separated in this way.

The old men on the bottom and top floors of the building sometimes wonder whether every building has a similar arrangement, but they are not allowed to travel to other buildings. Only the visitors are allowed to do this. For this reason they frequently eavesdrop on the conversations between visitors, even though this is strictly forbidden and a violation of the trust placed in them. It is furthermore a waste of time, because the visitor’s memories of other buildings— as with other centuries — is grotesquely inaccurate, and no one can possibly assemble a picture of anything that is actually going on using this hearsay.

 The angels realize that the two old men have become weak custodians. They hold weekly therapy sessions together and try to boost the morale of their depressed brethren, even though they themselves are responsible for the problem in the first place. Angel therapy, it turns out, is a very complicated subject. They all do much better when they band together and sing hosannas, which they do frequently. When they get drunk they reminisce about the good old days when they were allowed to do annunciations, appear to people in dreams and wrestle them, and so on. This is forbidden now because angelic visitations had so many unpredictable results. Every once in a while an angel breaks the rules and sneaks a little bit of angel material into a human here and there. Because of the general confusion between the centuries, the self-important people, and the milling about in the building, it usually goes unnoticed, but if an angel is caught, they are sent to the basement for a month, during which their century is neglected. Centuries have been known to run down in a perfectly awful way during such periods, but rules are rules. There is nothing to be done about it. The angel that caused the second world war in this way was banished and sent to another building, presumably a much smaller one where he or she could do less harm. Again, no one knows because the buildings are not allowed to speak to one another.

It is said that there are buildings where all the centuries play out differently. It is probably true, because each building is part of a huge experiment attempting to make everything that can possibly happen all happen at once. God has been working on this for all of eternity, because it is theoretically possible given that He is God. Nonetheless, the fact that it is theoretically possible does not mean that it is easy to do, and the act of creation, along with its endless maintenance, has turned out to be a very time-consuming task. It has, in point of fact, used up 100% of all the time that it will ever be possible to create; and so while God tries to do everything all at once, He forever labors under a condition where there is no additional time to do it.

 This is why everything always happens now.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Shades of Oblivion— a discourse on Gurdjieff’s fundamental Humanism, part II

Gurdjieff fully understood the very personal, non-obliterating role of suffering and how integral it is to spiritual development. True contact with the higher centers will make this matter much clearer, but it comes at tremendous cost. Only those I know who have suffered the most—in what are almost intolerable conditions which destroy the existing inner world—begin to grasp this matter in its entirety. Whether I like them or not, these people are true brothers and sisters in the inner work we seek to represent.

The Christian masters of the Middle Ages understood this matter better, perhaps, than anyone since in the western world. Speaking in a language we no longer fully (or in many cases even partially) understand, they described the necessary state as an awareness of sin.

This word used to mean something quite different than it does today and, once again, one could write an entire book about it. (The word is not derived from action or attachment in the outer world but applies in its esoteric sense exclusively to inner contradictions.) Gurdjieff, through his understanding of remorse of conscience and intentional suffering, more properly represents the question in front of us than any philosophy, whether theoretical or practical, of obliteration. Viewed from this perspective, liberation philosophies and doctrines of obliteration of Self are a cop-out.

A decent analogy of mankind’s position in regard to the question of bliss is one of a parent owning a candy store. With the trusting parent in absentia, the child is left in charge of the sweets; but instead of respectfully guarding the wares, he or she begins to eat the sweets, not realizing that as tantalizing as they are, they are not meant for them.

There are fairy tales about such things, such as Hansel and Gretel and the gingerbread house. In that case we see that Hansel and Gretel very nearly become food for the house of bliss, rather than the other way around.  It is their very unawareness, their naiveté itself (the obliteration), that presents the danger. Lost and unconscious, they stumble across inner treasures; not knowing their right place or value, they enter the house (fully identify with its nature.) Tellingly, in this case, the ginger in the house is a spice from the east. The fairy tale may thus—at its root, pun intended— represent an esoteric warning against various naive forms of eastern liberation philosophy.

We can see the inherent danger in adopting philosophies or practices of oblivion; the annihilation (the making-into-nothingness) of the ego is not an answer. The ego exists to offer the opportunity to suffer it; extinguishment removes the source of conflict from which true suffering arises. Again, the metaphysical laws and reasonings behind this are complex; but the fact itself is rather simple. One doesn’t need to know how all the gears work to know that the hands of the clock show us the time.

This leads me to the second question on the table in my discourse, which is the value of wordlessness. It follows on the philosophy of obliteration, since obliteration dovetails quite neatly into the evaporation of awareness, rationality, and everything they represent—including the words to describe them.

It’s quite true that there is a place beyond words available to consciousness. As I have pointed out many times before, however, it is not just the metaphysically endowed (“higher”) states of awareness without words which we seek to encounter. There are awarenesses without words right next to us, so proximate in consciousness that we routinely take them for granted and ignore them; and these are the “places” (minds) without words that actually matter in the cultivation of our inner metaphysics, in the balancing of the centers Gurdjieff described as necessary in order to usefully receive higher states.

These two “wordless minds” are the intelligence of the body (sensation) and the intelligence of emotion (feeling.) Both are fully functioning fractions of our summary intelligence, ignored and suborned by the intellect in its prosecution of our rational (i.e., calculated) agendas. Yet these two wordless intelligences lie within our purview, not in some imaginary realm of better purity.

I would like you, for a moment, to imagine an idealized “world without words” in which all of the denizens never speak a single word to one another. I think we can agree that this world describes the world not of mankind, but of animals; and even they have languages, so perhaps we do not reach low enough down the scale when we say that. The point, i think, is that everything that human beings are, enlightened or otherwise, depends on the language we so eagerly banish when we try to speak about higher states of Being.

Without language—without words— there is no art, no culture, no architecture, tradition, science, or society. Humanity as we know it ceases to exist—a welcome development, perhaps, for the proponents of oblivion, but clearly insufficient as either a condition, cause or objective of human existence. So these philosophies of oblivion, experiential or otherwise, are essentially inhuman.

They contradict the tradition of God as a person, of mankind as a microcosmic expression of God, and the entire nature of existence itself as it manifests in the juxtaposition of God and man. They are, in other words, so apophatic that they do away not only with the signs of man and God, but with man and God itself. The idea, once examined with intensity, is so profoundly and essentially stupid it would not be worth examining, but for the blithely unexamined Very Important Sounding things said in its name.

We are thinking creatures; it is part of our nature, and we deny it at our peril. God is, as well, a thinking nature-above-creation, a pre-existing thought before thinking. Our spiritual development does not, in other words, excuse us from thinking in an invitation to infinite realms of divine and nihilistic thoughtlessness; it requires an intensification of attention and thought, which is precisely what Gurdjieff brought, over and over again, to his pupils—and in his metaphysics and mythology. There are no realms of inattentive bliss mapped out in Beelzebub’s cosmos; even purgatory (which would seem to be the most likely candidate) is a place of contemplation intensified to the level of the intolerable. Gurdjieff’s famous aphorism, “If you have not by nature a critical mind your staying here is useless,” sums it all up; but all his aphorisms are directed at an intensification of intelligence that requires words.

Pretending that we can do without them is a form of rank sophistry; and yet one hears such talk quite often.

Yes; there are wordless places; yes, perhaps from time to time we touch them (or, more properly, they touch us.) Yet this is of no use in the enterprise of relationship, which demands that we do much more than just sense—or just feel—or just think. There is thought without thought; there is thought within thought; and there are parts that think without words, yet express in their own language nonetheless.

We should stop acting surprised about this. It is not the territory we stake out; it is the life we inhabit.

Let us stop speaking about the silence. Let us speak as we speak; and be silent as we may be silent; but in either case, let us be as we be, not as declarative shades of oblivion or wordlessness would have us be.

Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Shades of Oblivion— a discourse on Gurdjieff’s fundamental Humanism, part I

oblivion | əˈblivēən |
1 the state of being unaware or unconscious of what is happening: they drank themselves into oblivion.
the state of being forgotten, especially by the public: his name will fade into oblivion.

A friend recently described oblivion as being a “true state of Godness,” as described by the Upanishads, Buddhists, and even Gurdjieff (although it is entirely unclear to me which references, if any, he read into that statement.) 

It seems worthwhile to examine this question. 

First of all, it’s quite clear that the word itself means a state of forgetting, of unconsciousness. It seems a difficult reach to in any way recast Gurdjieff’s question of higher consciousness into territory explicitly defined as a lack of consciousness; so the use of the word appears to be  categorically and definitively incorrect in this case. It does, however, sound very important; and people who have had experiences of divinity (or what they are at least convinced are experiences of divinity) are prone to proclamations about it. The impulse to seize on words (usually intentionally vague ones)  that sound important to describe such states—especially if they are words that imply the annihilation of words—is nearly irresistible. 

The facts—that the impulse is almost certainly misguided, that the situation is complex, that there are many higher states of consciousness—are abandoned in favor of a kind of apocalyptic, apophatic evangelism. This is often accompanied by an attitude that implies the speaker knows far more than those around them about the matter. It’s an intelligibly, deeply manipulative technique; how can one possibly argue with those who use words to proclaim words have no value? They have already occupied all the available territory with a smugly preemptory lie. The method has been used by countless bogus gurus, and will no doubt continue as a highly effective weapon in their arsenal.

Words that sound important are often incorrect, or at least used incorrectly; and this isn’t just because the higher is undefinable or exists in a state without words. I’m personally and intimately familiar with a range of states of bona fide religious ecstasy, and I’m careful not to speak about them too much—or to misrepresent them. To do so is to risk misleading others; of even more concern is the fact that such states are sacred states which as Ravi Ravindra once said to us, do not fare well under the cold light of analysis. 

My intimacy with the questions of religious ecstasy and enlightenment states has persisted for many years. I treat them with suspicion, as befits a sober alcoholic. Perhaps it’s only a sober alcoholic or recovering addict who can, in full measure, appreciate not just the bliss of religious ecstasy but also its deceptions. The situation is too complex to explain—it would take an extended and rather boring discourse in metaphysics to fully cover it. Even if I did so, it would only produce a theoretical understandings of the question in the reader.

I am left, then, to offer a few observations on the matter that derive from a summary of experience, rather than deconstructed philosophical details. My own path, which highlighted the differences between drugs, alcohol, religious ecstasy and various states of enlightenment—along with the irrevocable obligations human life entails—has supplied a portfolio of propositions which may be worth examining.

First of all, the aim of spiritual work is not oblivion—or bliss. 

"If we could connect the centers of our ordinary consciousness with the higher thinking center deliberately and at will, it would be of no use to us whatever in our present general state. In most cases where accidental contact with the higher thinking center takes place a man becomes unconscious. The mind refuses to take in the flood of thoughts, emotions, images, and ideas which suddenly burst into it. And instead of a vivid thought, or a vivid emotion, there results, on the contrary, a complete blank, a state of unconsciousness. The memory retains only the first moment when the flood rushed in on the mind and the last moment when the flood was receding and consciousness returned. But even these moments are so full of unusual shades and colors that there is nothing with which to compare them among the ordinary sensations of life. This is usually all that remains from so-called 'mystical' and 'ecstatic' experiences, which represent a temporary connection with a higher center.

Only very seldom does it happen that a mind which has been better prepared succeeds in grasping and remembering something of what was felt and understood at the moment of ecstasy. But even in these cases the thinking, the moving, and the emotional centers remember and transmit everything in their own way, translate absolutely new and never previously experienced sensations into the language of usual everyday sensations, transmit in worldly three-dimensional forms things which pass completely beyond the limits of worldly measurements; in this way, of course, they entirely distort every trace of what remains in the memory of these unusual experiences. Our ordinary centers, in transmitting the impressions of the higher centers, may be compared to a blind man speaking of colors, or to a deaf man speaking of music."

Gurdjieff, as told to Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous, p. 195.

 We won’t spend time deconstructing this quote—it does a very nice job indeed of speaking for itself. The point is that misunderstandings of Godhood, God-consciousness and the like existing as states of oblivion derive almost exclusively from contacts with higher centers of the kind Gurdjieff describes here. 

There are yogic exercises that can produce such states, and to an aficionado they would be not only known but reliably reproducible. Persons who instruct on such states—or even produce them in other persons—without precisely understanding their nature can form whole cults and movements, as did Osho. The fact that such states are ultimately partial—and sometimes destructive—is as forgotten as the rest of the path, once such energies become regular food for a person. 

Per Gurdjieff’s teaching, whether one likes him or not, true contact with higher centers comes without oblivion; and only those who have undergone such experiences understand what this means. It does not at all mean what folks think it does; suffice it to say that the knowledge gained, the information imparted and the state experienced do not in any way, shape or form, lighten inner burdens. 

Instead they intensify them.  

Gurdjieff was certainly aware of this. The fact that even the Gurdjieff work has produced bacterial strains inside its petri dish that don’t grasp the essential question here— that believe in the doctrines of oblivion—is interesting. Many student of Gurdjieff’s methods have mixed works to come up with such understandings—and we can probably assign some responsibility for this migration of influence to Jeanne Salzmann’s adoption of Zen techniques after William Segal introduced her to Zen masters in Japan. It’s produced a clear, lasting change in direction which does not, in its particulars, wholly agree with Gurdjieff’s essentially Eastern Orthodox roots, or the specific intention and direction of his work as it was designed and in line with what it was meant to produce.

This is not to say that the direction the Gurdjieff work has taken is wrong, or bad, or what have you. My point is that Gurdjieff had a specific and very focused aim which is best understood (at least from a conceptual perspective) through close and repeated reading of Beelzebub’s Tales. It did not aim for oblivion or self-obliteration. It didn’t include Zen techniques. And it didn’t present Buddhism (presuming it did at all) in anything like the form it’s understood in today. It was, when he brought it, esoteric Christianity


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

men of good will

I’ve risen this morning and I’m looking out over Pudong and Shanghai, with the sun in my eyes.

We don’t really appreciate the whole value of life most of the time. Our organism just isn’t aligned organically in such a way. Yet when we are open, and the Perfection can flow into us — even in the smallest amount — God's Grace is so abundantly evident, it seems impossible to deny it.

The most exact interpretation we know of what was said to the shepherds by the choir of angels after the birth of Christ is, “Peace on earth to men of good will.” The word will, in this context, clearly means intentions. The two associations in spiritual literature that immediately come to mind are Gurdjieff’s obyvatel, the common man who simply does his duty and fulfills his responsibilities— and in pairing this concept with the biblical shepherds in the field— those who watch their flock, or, observe themselves — we see quite clearly where his meaning came from. It is an ancient idea: the simplest of us, with good intentions may be more aligned with God’s will than any other.

The other spiritual source is that of Swedenborg, who said that a human being’s eligibility for heaven or hell is determined by their intentions. This idea is essential to any legitimate self-examination.

What are our intentions? We need to look at this quite carefully. Mindfulness, measured in any spiritual discipline, is all about this question.

If we are simple, if we attend to our responsibilities, and we have a loving attention, we don’t need to be power brokers. We could occupy the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder and still find peace on earth — because that peace comes from our relationship with God—our good intentions, our willingness to attend to our responsibilities, no matter how basic they may seem—and an intelligent, intentional love for others.

Having spent the greater part of my life deeply immersed in metaphysics, which are much too complex for the average person to be interested in — let alone comprehend, which is difficult for even the most skilled of us who are — I must say that the great joy of God’s Grace and Presence does not lie in the intelligence, although it may be found there. Not, at least, in the intelligence of the mind. It is a whole thing that is given to us through Grace, that includes all of our Being. In point of fact it is our Being itself — all of us — that finds this peace in the midst of our ordinary suffering of being alive and trying to discover what we are.

A very good friend of mine, a woman who has always had an inner touch of the honorable to me, told me recently that she was retiring. She said she hopes she can use the time she has left in life to "figure out what she wants to be when she grows up.”

I know the feeling; it is a moment, here in the afternoon of existence, where real humility begins to emerge from the fog that life creates around me.

If I can sit here in the morning with the sun shining and a cup of coffee in front of me, and simply relax and allow the gratitude for my life and God’s Grace to flow into me, then—in accepting His goodness and the eternal perfection of this moment—I have already served better than when I climb the tall mountains, whether in reality or my imagination.

As I so often remind myself when I write these morning missives, I hope I can keep a bit of this in me as I go out into life today and remember to exercise just a little more tenderness and attentiveness to those around me; to remember that love penetrates everything, that there is no other “answer" to life, and that it is my responsibility to attempt — even though I am unable — to counter every cruelty that arises with an effort to represent God and all His goodness here on this planet.

It is much too tall an order, of course, for any ordinary mortals; yet we are offered Grace, and the opportunity to try, and if we give it a shot, and support one another, maybe we can actually create better conditions for the love to grow. Not some naïve love, mind you, that we will sing pop songs about, but a solid, grounded love that begins in our organism and is offered in humility, with a sense of the peace available to us if we make an effort on behalf of what is real.

In the biblical story, much is made of Mary’s annunciation by the angel Gabriel — and of course this is an extraordinarily important story. But the annunciation of the shepherds is equally important, because for those of us who are not the blessed virgin, the idea that we are also vessels, and that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, may find a place within us, is a vital idea.

We are invited to participate in this peace; so may it bless each one of you, and all of us, as we go forth into life in this day.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.