Monday, August 3, 2020

The Poetry of Stone

April 24

This morning, a light rain is falling. It will become heavier later. It's still dark; and the birds are singing in a melodious but deceivingly disorganized manner. After all, to each of them, their birdsong is purposeful; yet because of their multiple intentions and species, there’s a rhythymic and melodic disunity.

I say it’s deceivingly disorganized because within me, it becomes a whole thing nonetheless. Although the intelligence hears the disorder, the feelings have the capacity to blend it into a single and pleasing whole that lends a sense of beauty to the morning. Without the feelings, this wouldn't happen.

This morning, I climbed up the stairs after getting coffee, as I do every morning. The stairs, like the house, are nearly 100 years old. Their creaks have informed many an early morning aside from my own. Like the birdsong and the rain, they’re reminders that I inhabit a continuity. I don't own any of these things. I receive their impressions.

There's a piece of bluestone here on my desk which I cut down to a rectangle of the right size to prop up my iPad at a slightly sharper angle. That stone is made from ancient layers of sandstone; yet despite its venerable history, by itself it seems generally uninteresting. Just a piece of rock.

The shape, however, and the color, have qualities that only this piece of stone can have. This morning I was struck – as I still am, looking at it – by the way the feelings receive it. It has a sacred quality to it, a quality of existence that mere seeing with the eyes or thinking with the mind can't conceive of. Both of those acts of perception have a literalism to them that cannot comprehend the feeling, the poetry of this piece of stone.

I say poetry, because the word itself means the creative use of literature, especially to convey feeling. Poetry takes words and somehow makes more of them than what they are by opening a psycho-spiritual space into which feeling can enter. To take something literally means to take words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory; to be poetic means to add more: not with more words, but with an invitation to feeling.

We don't know quite what feeling is — of course, it’s a perception, but of a refined nature that defies exact description with words. Yet we know quite clearly when we have it; and it imparts a quality to life without which life would be flat and essentially meaningless. “Play it with feeling,” the piano teacher says to their music pupil. It gives the impulse to everything we do: "I don't feel like it" shuts things down.

Yet what do I feel like? There are times when the inner landscape of feeling seems flat and without features. I hit a point like that last night just before dinner, after working on a song for an hour and a half without getting very far. The landscape was suddenly blank.

Fortunately, I'm not unfamiliar with moments like this, and instead of allowing it to become self-inflected in a feedback loop that leads, all too often, to a subtle but growing depression, I ignored it. It gradually subsided and my feeling re-populated the inner landscape with an appropriate and more sensitive response to this ordinary nature of life.

No one would argue that feeling has levels of refinement; yet we all too often invest that level of refinement in its products, such as music, fine oil paintings, expressive dance, an exceptionally well made piece of fabric. In doing so, we don't adequately scrutinize the way the feelings are within us--not in the objects--as part of our intelligence and understanding.

I don't use the word intelligence as a reference to intellect, the part that classifies and organizes and discriminates. The example I gave of the disorganized yet still beautiful birdsong shows the limits of the intellect. Only the feeling can blend the birds into beauty. It opens a window on the sacred. The sacred is, in religious terms, what is holy; and that in turn means what is whole. Feeling helps bring a wholeness to life.

A feature of our psyche this important might, you think, deserve a bit more attention than we give it. Our usual interaction with feeling is to take it for granted, rather than taking a close look at the way it acts within us on small things. Yet most of the food we need in our daily life to support ourselves emotionally comes from our feeling-relationship with the small events that surround us. Anyone knows that having a bunch of annoying little things go wrong will put you in a bad mood; and it's equally true many pleasing little things that go right put us in a good one. It reminds me of a quote that a friend offered me the other night from the architect Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe: “God is in the details.”

“Yes,” I reminded him, “But the devil’s in there too.”

The idea that both God and the devil live together within the details is an interesting one to me. It puts the sacred and the profane together in one place. It’s the action of feeling that discriminates between them.

I'm curious about this because so much of the satisfying meaning in life seems to be about developing a healthy feeling-relationship with the least of things. In each day, if I attend mindfully to the little things, the big ones generally take care of themselves. Early on in my education in inner spiritual work, my teacher gave me sensitively intelligent indications about that; and I had no real idea of their value. It's only now, nearly 40 years later, that it makes sense. And it makes sense in such small ways, such intimate ways, that I wonder how it could be so easily overlooked.

It’s as though in our rush to get to life, we always race past it.

That brings me back to the collective theme of my diary for this month, which is to cultivate an inner stillness—from which I stop racing, and begin to feel my life, instead of thinking about it.

Maybe where I am is acceptable.

Go. and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Simple Action of Awareness

Yesterday I cleaned up my office. I've been working in it at home for over a month and some of the shelves that housed my very eclectic victorian-style collection of artifacts and natural history specimens were too dusty to ignore any more.

I had to take over 100 small objects off two shelves and clean them. They have been collected over the course of a lifetime: fossils, crystals, small figurines made of stone and wood and ceramic, antique Japanese ivory carvings inherited from the Dutch side of the family. 19th century daguerreotypes of family members on my mother’s side, who can no longer be named with any confidence. Chinese plates. Delft plates. Spodumene, emerald, amethyst. Rutile from Graves Mountain, GA. Herkimer diamonds. Arrowheads, trilobites, spirifers, Devonian clams. Feathers, skulls, coral; bits and pieces of dinosaurs and opossums. Flotsam. Jetsam. Religious statues. Bronzes.

Each one of these items has a personal history behind it. Not one of them has a personal history that truly begins with me. I’ve just become a custodian for each of these objects. Taken together, they tell a story, but it’s incredibly complicated. It’s not a story not about me and my interests, but about the world and how it develops: the relationships between atoms, molecules, cells, evolution, art, science, religion, families, cultures, and attitudes. The dialogue that takes place between them involves materials, symbols, space, shape, color, beauty, and history.

Collectively, all of this is what's called meaning: and in the search for meaning within an individual life, a collection of this nature externally illustrates the way we are inside. Every one of the concepts and things I’ve just described emerges not from the inherent nature of these objects, but the awareness that perceives them. In this sense, all meaning arises within awareness: and awareness is a metaphysical, not physical, property. It arises out of an impossibly complex set of relationships that can never—never, ever—be defined or predicted by a computer algorithm. Yet the simple action of awareness holds them all together, in active relationship, at once, and with no effort.

Perhaps it seems odd that everything about the world is formed by a phenomenon of awareness that exceeds the world. Yet this is demonstrably true. No one can take awareness and put it in a bottle and show it to you; it is metaphysical in every sense of the word. So although I inhabit the physical, am formed by it, and have to pay it it's due, it is not what I am.

“I am” is something else.

Every morning I get up and I discover all over again that I don't know what or who I am. If I come up with 10,000 definitions, it turns out that definition 10,001 was inadvertently left out later on in the day. My assumptions about myself and life are continually confounded. Things that I thought worth fear turn out to not be worth fearing; people I’m angry or irritated with turn out to not be worth my anger or irritation. For that matter, all too often, my anger and irritation turns out to not be worth itself. There’s more goodness and intelligence in seeing a sparrow than in my reaction to a lot of things. So my reactions aren’t worth that much either. During this day I’ll probably see that a few times and invest less in them, keeping the coin of my person closer to myself, for down payment on more worthy inner tasks.

Yesterday, I mentioned the silence at the heart of being, and that’s where I began this morning, not knowing what I would write or which question I would examine. It turns out that that is, as usual, the central question, no matter how much the ideas and words around it may shine out of the darkness.

 That silence at the heart of being is where awareness resides.

In my desire, I want to fulfill the potential of each moment.

But if I’m still and wait within myself and receive life, the potential of the moment is naturally filled.

Go. and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Medium of Being

Spring beauties, Piermont, NY.

April 23.

We arise and are created as Self; and we meet life, which is not-self.

The experience of life—the conjunction between self and not-self— consists of impressions. 

Impressions are what is pressed into us; that is, they leave a mark. The mark that they leave is, put in general terms, in our psyche; yet our psyche is not just one aspect of sensory experience. It is made of three different kinds of experience: the physical experience of sensation, the psychological experience of the intellect, and the emotional experience of feeling.

In the arts, what makes or receives a mark is called a medium. Dust, ink and paper or oil and canvas are mediums.

If the medium that I receive my life and the impressions of it in is my intellect, my thought, the medium is ephemeral and fleeting. It doesn't have the substance to receive an impression and record the mark deeply in Being. 

Perhaps this one observation alone can instruct us on why we don't work; nothing in us becomes permanent enough to sustain its action.

If, however, the medium that I receive my life in is sensation, the body, it leaves a much deeper mark. 

The medium that being grows in is sensation. 

This is why the Vedic sage Kasyapa ordered his verses about three-centered work (see the post of July 24) beginning with the work of the three centers, and focusing on sensation first (inward breath—outward breath—diffusive breath.)

I could belabor this point, but I think it’s simple enough.

Go. and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, July 24, 2020


I've always discovered a terrific irony in speaking about silence. Not that I'm much of a pioneer; the irony comes built-in. All I do is remark on it to myself. Yet there it is. 

It's a ploy of spiritual seekers, especially ones who think they have some kind of authority, to remind others un-silently of how they should remain silent about this or that, or remain silent in general. Another typical stance is to solemnly sit with one another and declare out loud how important silence is and how earnestly one is seeking it. There is, in other words, a furtive dishonesty around the whole enterprise of discussing silence which simply has to be listened to to be believed.

I make no apologies for discussing the subject; it is not off-limits, nor should it be avoided. Or used as a means of scolding people for their practice.

Is silence the mere absence of sound? Not quite; because, it turns out in esoteric disciplines, that silence means not just the absence of sound, but specifically, the absence of sounds that might reveal some special secret or make something too obvious; sounds that are considered crude and inappropriate, and so on. In every sense, in other words, the word sound – and the word silence – are taken quite literally. This in the sense that they refer to physical sounds, sounds we can hear with our ears, sounds that form ideas and convey meanings.

This is not the kind of sound or silence I wish to speak of. There is a metaphysical silence; and this silence is not tied to the worldly, earthly, or conventional understandings we have of silence. Not at all. It refers, instead, to a silence that takes place inside being, but outside the world of physics – and a listening that takes place not with the ears or the thoughts that follow them, but with a finally tuned attention that arises in sensation and turns toward feeling.

One can undertake a search for the silence that is naturally present behind all else using these faculties. The organism is designed to come in to an intimate relationship with that silence. That silence, furthermore, lies at the root of creation and can never be removed from creation, in any sense, from any place, at any time.

It is always with us.

Human life obscures this silence. Without a sense of presents, the silence disappears – it’s absorbed into the background simply because it is silent. We only pay attention, it seems, to things that make noise of one kind or another. 

Yet it's entirely possible to have an attention to silence at the same time everything is going on around me. This attention depends on my connection to organic sensation; the moment that that connection becomes active, the silence is present within. Everything else in life becomes an argument; the silence is a fact. It has a capacity to receive everything that takes place without being disturbed. 

On this note, let’s examine a quote from Kasyapa in the Vedic hymns:

I am undisturbed, and undisturbed my soul,
undisturbed my eyes and ears 
undisturbed my inward breath, my outward breath
undisturbed my breath within—undisturbed the whole of me.
— Atharvaveda, Book XIX

Of importance here is the residence in silence, which is what the word undisturbed refers to. It merits a whole verse of its own.

The fourth line, which mentions the breath within, is also translated as the "diffusive" breath. This is a reference to the act of organic sensation, which is fed by finer substances inhaled. While this may be obscure to the uninitiated, it is indubitably so. 

This verse, furthermore, refers to the first center: the physical body.

This capacity for silence is essential, because the place in which it receives life—which is the subject of the next verse in the Veda—is what feeds Being:

Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire the primal seed and germ of Spirit,
O Kama (wish) dwelling with the lofty Kama (higher wish), give growth of riches to the sacrificer, (...)
Prolific, thousand eyed, and undecaying, a horse with seven reins Time bears us onward,
Sages inspired with holy knowledge mount him, his chariot wheels are all the worlds of creatures.

This verse refers to the second and third centers: 
  • Emotion (desire and Kama) is a horse with seven reins (a reference to the law of octaves)
  • Intelligence (sages with holy knowledge mount him.) 

So in this Veda, it teaches that what begins in the silence of the body lays the foundation for three-centered work. It mentions that feeling (desire) is what gives birth to the soul (the germ of spirit) and that wealth is gained through suffering (growth of riches to the sacrificer.) 

What moves Being forward through life is all the worlds of creatures, that is, his chariot wheels. This is, in other words, an allegorical call to work in life — which begins undisturbed, in silence.

What is most important about this teaching is its emphasis on what is undisturbed –everything, basically, that begins within Being. This is a reference to that selfsame silence that is present behind all else.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Disobedience and Its Folly

A lot of one’s inner work turns out, for one reason or another, to be a struggle with one's self over parts one perceives as being disobedient. 


This has, as it happens, a great deal to do with the passage from Beelzebub’s Tales as quoted in the last post. 

Keep my simplified translation in mind:

…no matter who they are, if people are able, in the midst of all external circumstances, whether favorable or unfavorable, to weigh the collision between their expectations and what actually happens, they can correctly evaluate how important they are, and what their place in the world is.  

The question of obedience, of what conforms and what does not, rises precisely in this collision between our expectations and what actually happens. We expect ourselves to be good, then discover we aren't; or we expect the world to be good, and then it isn't. Of course, the converse is true as well in both cases. That is not the point. The point, as Gurdjieff draws our attention to it, is that we have a set of expectations in the first place; the world collides with it – inevitably, because the world has, in objective measurement, precisely zero to do with our expectations—and then we find out.

Er, what do we find out? 

Precisely that. That the world has nothing to do with our expectations.

Yet our ego and most of our life is formed in a very hardened and rigid kernel around our expectations. Gurdjieff suggests that we ponder how important we are and what our place in the world is according to the weight of our observations—our objective observations—about what is. 

In the end, it adds up in simple English to an act of seeing our own nothingness.

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise readers that we find out that in the end, Gurdjieff used 145 words to say, in what I’m pretty sure is the most very complicated way possible, that we should see our own nothingness 

– four words. 

In the last essay, we reduced Gurdjieff's excess verbiage by a lightweight 60%. In these four words, seeing our own nothingness, one has actually removed 97% of his single-sentence paragraph and thereby reduced it to an adage famous in his work. If that trend is extrapolated, it turns out the book has the potential to be only 34 pages long. 

Worth pondering.

All humor aside, I actually intend to make a point about obedience. The dilemma in front of us is whether to obey our own ego, or obey the facts about the world. Despite the insistent perspective of my all-controlling ego, I actually have no control over the disobedient world—or my disobedient parts. 

Yet both inwardly and outwardly I too often find myself in a pitched battle with one, or both of them, same time. This is a battle I'm not going to win.

As I suggested to someone recently, a more productive approach might be as follows: 

Don't focus on what is disobedient and resist it. 
Find what is obedient and train it.

Not all of us is in rebellion. We can perhaps work more productively with what is, rather than what isn't.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Pondering pondering

Detail from the Tympanum of St. Foy, in Conques. 
A devil and an angel weigh a soul.

Likewise, an all-round awareness of everything concerning these sacred laws also conduces, in general, to this, that three-brained beings irrespective of the form of their exterior coating, by becoming capable in the presence of all cosmic factors not depending on them and arising round about them—both the personally favorable as well as the unfavorable—of pondering on the sense of existence, acquire data for the elucidation and reconciliation in themselves of that, what is called, ‘individual collision’ which often arises, in general, in three-brained beings from the contradiction between the concrete results flowing from the processes of all the cosmic laws and the results presupposed and even quite surely expected by their what is called ‘sane-logic’; and thus, correctly evaluating the essential significance of their own presence, they become capable of becoming aware of the genuine corresponding place for themselves in these common-cosmic actualizations.

Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, pages 756-57, 1950 edition.

Gurdjieff’s magnum opus has acquired the dubious status of a Bible among most Gurdjieff aficionados; criticizing it is a moribund art in those circles, and – let's face it – most other circles simply ignore the book, which is a silent but perhaps more pointed form of criticism.

The book, like the works of James Fenimore Cooper – which in no way whatsoever ought ever to be compared with Gurdjieff’s writing, other than the one you are about to hear –finds itself guilty as charged of Mark Twain's criticism of Cooper, to wit, “he never uses one word where 50 will do.” The above sentence has 145 – count them, 145 – words in it. I am hoping this sets some kind of a record for any language, but I'm not sure. It's possible there may be even longer sentences in this book.

Why bring this up? Well, by the time honored-traditions of accident and serendipity. It's mostly because having recently been party to a conversation about the word pondering, a search for it in the book was called for. 

It only comes up some 25 times or so throughout the entire course of the novel, which is not a lot, but the word has acquired a good deal of weight in Gurdjieff circles. This is perhaps rightly so, and entirely appropriate — the word, after all, is derived from the Latin root -pondus which refers to weight.

To ponder is not just to think over, which is what the word means today. It means to deliberate—which, not coincidentally, also refers to weight in its Latin origins, -de, meaning down, and librare, from Libra, or scales. 

Ahem—since I speak as a Libra, I think we can all agree I’m uniquely qualified to comment on this. Amen.

The point of pondering is not just to think

It is to weigh, which is a physical action, involving an impression and sensation of the way that gravity affects comparable objects. Furthermore, it is not just to weigh, but to thereby discriminate, to distinguish between.

Pondering, in other words, involves having a physical sensation of a question, not just a mental one, and using the impression that that conveys in order to make a choice between the two. The element of choice is essential in the act of pondering, because there is no point in weighing and comparing things unless the aim is to first understand the difference; and to then choose one or the other.

This ties the action of true inward discrimination to the question of the gravity of sensation of Being. And, as I explained to someone the other night, if we have a sensation of Being, it changes our thinking a very great deal. Without sensation, thinking is not tethered down. It floats around like a balloon, affected by every breeze that comes along. As soon as sensation enters the picture, thinking assumes a subservient position. With gravity in place, it becomes relatively motionless and prepared to receive what arrives. The more organic sensation, the more this is true.

Just as a public service, I’m going to engage in sacrilege and translate Gurdjieff’s paragraph into something simpler:

A complete awareness of these sacred laws also helps in this: no matter who they are, if people are able, in the midst of all external circumstances, whether favorable or unfavorable, to weigh the collision between their expectations and what actually happens, they can correctly evaluate how important they are, and what their place in the world is.  

This is the gist of what Gurdjieff says, with better than 60% fewer words. 

And, mind you, people call me loquacious. 

This, then, is the essence of pondering. To weigh what is within Being. Notice, furthermore, that in the same criminal run-on sentence which Gurdjieff mentions this word pondering, he points out that the result of pondering is an act of discrimination. 

One does not ponder just for the sake of pondering; one ponders in order to discriminate. Pondering, in other words, cannot be some aimless, mindless mental noodling that stumbles from one subject to another without understanding, touching on many ideas without sorting them out. 

It has a purpose—an aim—a direction

There's more.

Before one weighs anything, one has to decide what to weigh. One can't just throw the whole world on a set of scales at one time and sort it out. Scales are designed to accommodate two comparative objects at a time, no more. In this sense, the discrimination begins even before one ponders. It begins as the impressions enter the gravity of one’s being. First, one must just be present for that, in order to know what ought to be pondered.

Ponder that.

Readers who wish to read my monograph on the tympanum at St. Foy in Conques, which is much more fun than it sounds, may email me for a free copy.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

An exercise in exercise

The subject of exercises has been floating around for a number of months now. It began, I suppose, with Joseph Azize’s new book on the subject of Gurdjieff exercises, which provoked ire on the part of some people I know, and either interest, mild interest or indifference in others. 

That particular book has now been the subject of a review in Parabola, which speaks for itself. I will mention that a number of my friends solicited opinions on it; I have nothing against the book myself.

On the other hand, I pointed out to them, I don’t have much interest in exercises in the first place. 

I see people around me doing them all the time. Some of them have done them for years. It hasn’t magically transformed them. I did many exercises for many years, some of which were taught to me by Gurdjieff’s own pupils, and others by higher-than-mortal authorities. I eventually quit doing exercises almost entirely. I don’t think they will do anyone much good, despite all the glib talking and sage nodding-to-oneself-and-others that takes place around them.

The simple fact is that life is the exercise. This is why Gurdjieff called it a work in life. 

My friend Paul recently passed on a quote from Michel de Salzmann published in Parabola (volume V. No. 3 – August 1980.): 

“The increasing spate of books about Gurdjieff should not blind us to their almost unfailing and therefore tragic irrelevance to what is essential.”

This quote, although entirely and delightfully new to me, is precisely why I dubbed the book of Mme. de Salzmann's notes “The Be-ality of Reading” when it first came out.

So what is essential? 

Are exercises essential?

The word comes from the Latin exercere, which means to keep busy. To be busy means to be occupied with or concentrating on a particular action; or—and here is a most disturbing thought—it also means that something is excessively detailed or decorated — fussy.

I feel and fear from here in this place and this time that exercises decorate our inner work with fussy ideas about how to do this or that, how to become a magical creature, how to get results. 

Equally, they occupy our time with tiny obsessions about how one ought to be and what one ought to do to be. 


There is no doubt that certain exercises can open powerful energy centers; and I never teach those exercises because if one isn't prepared to receive that energy (almost no one is) and can’t digest it properly, it will damn well mess them up. ("bad results," as cited by de Salzmann to Bennett.)  

This, as well, is 100% in keeping with my declared aim in life, which I announced to my mother on February 20, 1962 (I was six years old at the time) that I intended not to be an astronaut or some flashy, important person, but to just be a regulyar (sic) man.

There are reasons for knowing exactly what date that took place. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure them out. 

The point is that my aim has always been, since I was what my father called a "wee tiner," to become a human being and not some special magical creature. I didn’t know it at the age of six, but it turns out the only person in us who wants to be a special magical creature is the ego, and behold! It is born thinking it already is one. This monkey on the inside of our back rides us for a lifetime; and if one thinks about it, we get more than enough exercise carrying it without taking on additional exercises to get rid of it.

When Michel de Salzmann refers to “what is essential”, he speaks of our work now, in this present moment, our own effort to be. 

Not Gurdjieff’s effort to be. 

Not his pupil's efforts to be. 

The effort to be must belong to the individual who undertakes it; and they must acquire full ownership of that effort, not outsourcing it to other people’s ideas, other people’s efforts, other people’s exercises. One must learn, in the end, to make one’s life one’s own — and this means to take ownership of both the good and the bad and live within them mercilessly, knowing both the joy and the remorse of their contradiction.

Today, in keeping with the absolute law that one must both have contradictions and fearlessly (difficult!) embody them, I wrote a bit of a lunchtimey piece about what an exercise in life might consist of. It isn’t one of these inner things where one repeats phrases and senses one’s sphincter or moves energy from one chakra to another. 

It’s a metaphysical, rather than a physical, exercise – a search with the spirit and the soul, which in concept at least integrates all of the parts. 

This particular exercise assuredly won’t open any dangerous energy centers or lead to Nirvana, so I consider it safe to pass on to others.

An exercise in life, # 1

It’s my task to use my awareness creatively. I cannot just be passive in the midst of my centered being, no matter what centers are active and how many centers participate. 

I must make an effort to seek the goodness in this day. Each day has an essential goodness to it, it’s true; yet my task as an idiot is to discover the idiosyncratic goodness of this day—the goodness that belongs to my own impressions and participation.

I first try to understand goodness; I understand that it can be found within my awareness as it participates. That it exists organically. 

Then I seek to be open and sensitive to it. I search for it within Being and through the participation of my centers. It’s my task to embody the grace, the sweetness of life, the opportunity for what is good. To be there for it. 

I can formulate this aim with multiple parts of my being.

As I proceed, I give thanks for each good thing I encounter, according to its manifestation. 

At the same time, I curse the bad, because it deserves to be cursed. 

The good is selfless; the bad is selfish. This law applies in all cases. One is pure; the other, impure.

I can know the difference organically. This is what my faculty of discrimination is for. 

Go deep in your heart, and be well-


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

What is Death? Redux

After finishing what is, considering the subject, a very brief discourse (and as yet unpublished) on the nature of death from a metaphysical perspective, it seems to be worthwhile to discuss the nature of death as it is, now, perceived through sensation.

Our society has found many different ways to push death off to the side by diluting the strength and character of our family life, assigning management of its existence to professional institutions who view human beings through a numbing filter of statistics and cost, and emphasizing frivolous, brand-based lifestyles that celebrate youth and health alone. 

This results in a form of mass hypnosis, whereby death becomes a cartoon. Motorcycle gangs and heavy metal fans wear skulls on their shirts; for them, death is a fashion. It makes them cool.

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised by this; we've lost respect for almost everything by eroding every institution and tradition we adhere to or come across. Resurrected traditions become cartoons as they are retrieved from the garbage dump, resurrected, and infused with various kinds of snake oil to make them look vigorous. Even those with the best of intentions can't help doing this, because snake oil is everywhere in our culture and it infuses what we do as readily as water seeps through cracks. It takes inner muscle, a determined effort, to cleave to a real tradition; to develop an integrity that isn't contaminated with this result of modern living.

We have taken the face off death; but we need to know it, instead of casting it in the role of the unwanted stranger.

If we were aware of death, through the sensation of our life itself—which is an intimate relationship with our Being, the fact of our existence as it is, which includes our mortality at this instant—we might have a new respect for ourselves and others. And this is desperately needed; a respect that is born from our organic sense of being, not the media and its demands that we do this or that. Respect instilled in us from outward demand is, I suppose, better than nothing; societies have relied on that in one way or another for millennia in order to establish and preserve their cultures. But all along, throughout history, there has been an undercurrent carried by both individuals and religious institutions that demands we discover an inward respect born of a sensation of an authority higher than ourselves. I believe that somewhere deep down inside us we still have the sense that that might help us, if we only listened: that evokes a sacred call to the mystery of what it means to be alive.

Those who read Parabola magazine (see will find, in this issue, which is about Presence, several articles about addiction and recovery, including one about Bill W., who founded Alcoholics Anonymous. You may think to yourself that addiction and recovery don't actually have anything to do with cultivating a personal sense of presence; but they have everything to do with it. Speaking personally as a recovering alcoholic, I can affirm that addiction is a very real battle on the gritty, unforgiving turf of one’s existence between life and death. 

Addicts don't have the luxury of sitting in armchairs and philosophizing about getting real. Either they do it, or they die. They have no choice but to learn how to submit to a higher authority than their own; simply put, their own authority is what's killing them. In this, the parallels between the paradigm of addiction and the way our society and our "leaders" behave are disturbing.

The moment when I got sober was the moment one morning when I got up after a binge and looked in the mirror and saw death looking back out of it at me. 

In the end, nothing demands presence like death does. It is the reminder. We only manage to get up every morning and treat others poorly because we’ve forgotten the way in which death looks back out of the mirror at us as we brush our teeth.

There is nothing morbid about this. Death is a reminding factor that can infuse us with a much greater respect for our own life and the lives of others. The value of the present moment, along with its meaning, is much better measured against the yardstick of death that it is against all the other nonsense we make up for ourselves. The presence of death itself, when properly sensed, confers sobriety; not just from substance abuse, but from the abuse of other human beings; the abuse of our philosophies, our institutions, our relationships, and our materials. There are times, watching today’s cultural dialogue and the feeding frenzy of modern media, that it seems nothing can wake us up.

But the presence of death can wake us up… 

if we let it.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.