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.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Memory and Hope, part II

Vezelay, France

This question of my position in time — defined by memory and hope, which represent the past and the future in my psyche — is one of attitude. That is to say, understanding that the present is a fulcrum upon which memory and hope are balanced, and against which they leverage one another within me actively at this moment, is critical to seeing that my attitude is what makes the wholeness of my understanding of life and time.

My attitude is the position in which the fulcrum finds itself.

The relative length of the arms of hope and memory are determined by where my attitude lies. Now, attitude has multiple meanings. First of all, it can mean a physical posture of the body proper to or implying an action or mental state. Secondly, it can mean a habit or settled way of acting. Third, it can mean a position which is intentionally adopted.

The first definition implies a simple fact: this is my attitude. The second definition describes my habit: I build my identity through sameness, so consistent attitudes create my identity. For example, my politics are always this way or that way. Third, the attitude of intention — which is the most critical of all the attitudes, because it is only with an attitude of intention that I can determine where the fulcrum lies within me in regard to memory and hope.

The word attitude has its deep origins— germane to the theme of this essay, a memory of itself — in a Latin word meaning fitted or joined. Generally speaking, the implication is that attitude involves having something correctly positioned. Yet of course this is quite difficult; after all, both memory and hope jockey for position to position the inner fulcrum of now in their own favor.

Think about this. Intention must be properly fitted into my life. (This, by the way, is precisely how Emmanuel Swedenborg described the essential need for a proper intention.)

It’s why it is so important to have an awareness, an identity—what Gurdjieff called “I”—that can resist the subjective stress and temptation of memory and hope. These incubi  do not actually exist except as phantoms that attempts to exercise an influence on the now — in their perpetual action on the position of the fulcrum of my attitude.

My attitude, my fitness, my position all ought to be rooted in the now — and derive their essential intelligence from this impression of now. In a certain sense, only after that should they allow the participation of memory and hope, who have useful roles as servants but often make poor masters. If there is a master in the household, he has to exercise his authority now, using an awareness and intelligence that is not determined by the servants.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Memory and Hope, part I

I’m collecting and writing some essays and observations about the nature of time and our experience of it.

This morning, while I was thinking about events of the deep past, it occurred to me that once now is gone, what takes place in now is just as distant and missing if it happened 10 seconds ago as if it happened 10,000 years ago. This is not to say that the results of the immediate past are not more proximate; but what took place is just as definitively and equally over, no matter when it took place. So any measurement of distance in time that attempts to comprehend the past — or, for that matter, the future — is always 100% removed, that is, it is infinitely and eternally distant whether it took place before or will take place later.

This seems interesting, because our experience of the passage of time suggests to us, artificially, that that which will take place pretty soon or which just took place a little while ago is quite close to us. (“Soon,” a Germanic word, actually means “at once,” or “immediately.” So it carries the sense of the now, not “in a little while.”) We develop impatience when things don’t happen quickly enough; and much of our inner agitation also develops in relationship to events in time: either that which already happened, and can never be changed (already distressing, in many cases) or things which might happen, and would be bad.

I bring this up just to point out that we don’t at all understand our relationship to this entity we call “time.” We are always here. There isn’t any other location except in what Meister Eckhart called “eternity,” which is forever infinitely distant (boundless, without limit.) Hence our experience of the now becomes critical; everything depends on it. The now is a fulcrum on which the inner levers of our future and our past are perched; but it’s up to us to determine which of those levers is longer and, thus, can provide the most support for the weight our Being must carry.

There are times, then, when the arm of the past (memory) is long and has power and can be used to support the future; this can be good or bad, depending on whether or not this long past within us is perceived as a burden or a blessing. At other times, the arm of the future seems longer (hope) and it can leverage the past in unexpected ways.

This is why it is said, use the present to repair the past and prepare the future.

That information is practical and useful; yet the understanding of how absolutely distant events actually are before or after they take place, well, this is somehow interesting. It places all past and future events in exactly the same place, which is not now. That place, in a certain sense, has a value of zero; and our awareness places us here, where the value is always 100%.

These are my thoughts this morning.Hosanna.

Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

My mind is not the leader

This capital from the cathedral of St. Lazare in Autun 
has many extraordinary esoteric teachings embodied 
in what at first appears to be a fairly simple image.

March 23.

Underneath all of my talk about efforts and my apparent sincerity about making them lies a sneaky wish to get something through my efforts.

I want to make efforts for myself, because I can then “develop” or "evolve," or become "more spiritual." I don’t clearly see that it's necessary to make efforts for the sake of the efforts themselves, because it is right.

My intellectual mind thinks it knows what is right, but it really has no idea. It establishes a series of nearly aimless and random goals that wander in multiple directions, instead of collecting itself and focusing on an understanding that emanates from a deeper place in Being. The only way that the mind can do this is by ceasing its incessant reliance on the intellect alone, and discovering the organic and feeling natures of the mind, which need to participate.

Sensation, once again, isn’t the leader. It has a powerful effect and is actually much stronger than the mind; but its intelligence is related to functions quite different than any executive faculty that plans and sees with any extended associative powers. And feeling isn’t the leader, either. It has capacity that lie well beyond imagination of either other intelligence in me, but alone it is weak and can’t plan anything. Yet it alone has the true capacity to receive; the other parts are merely structural supports in that action.

If I want to sense what is right I have to feel it and sense it, not just think it. And my effort has to emanate from an organic, in fact instinctive sense of what is right.

It has to begin there without any pretensions whatsoever that it can do anything or acquire anything or that I deserve anything. Or that I have capabilities, and so on. My effort has to begin with an organic sense of what is right.

There is nothing here for me. I offer myself.

That sense of what is right is centered around an embodiment of the sacred. It is right to embody the sacred, to hold myself to the highest possible standard and act as a representative of the sacred in the best way that I can — again, without pretensions, without this stupid idea that I am better than others which I carry around so much, without any illusions that I know better than others how to do anything. No, I must just center this sense of doing what is right within myself, organically, and embody God and the commandment of Christ to love one another as I have loved you as best I am able.

This is a path that presents the first step towards a real inner humility, because it is absolutely true that if I begin here, exactly as I have just described it, I will infallibly see how helpless I am and how little love I have. 

Yet I must keep putting one foot in front of the other in this effort and attempting to embody what is right through effort alone — effort to respect and represent this sacred force that creates life and which has given me a life.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Where I actually am

March 18.

I want to begin this morning from where I actually am. Here in this body.

As I examine my life, I can see that I don’t understand anywhere near what I usually think I understand. I need to become much closer to myself in order to understand anything at all; and the outside world puts so many demands on me that I often forget the intimacy that’s necessary in order to be something more than just a set of reactions to what’s around me.

This morning I woke up very early and lay in bed, fully engaged with the sensation of myself and nothing more. There is a sacred energy that creates life and being and manifests in every cell of the body; and sometimes, in the morning, before anything else happens, it’s possible to live there and sense the breathing and sense that energy.

At times like this, mortality is more apparent that at other times. There is a sense that one could die at any moment; and then what? Have I lived honorably? Have I attended to my responsibilities? Do I truly care about anyone besides myself?

I need to ask these questions constantly, but especially when it is dark and things are very quiet and I can form a relationship with myself that is the specific and doesn’t make all the assumptions I make after I get up out of bed and start pushing through life like a bulldozer.

I keep centering my life again and again back on the inner questions raised by this more inwardly intelligent relationship. There truly is a cloud of unknowing that exists between me and God; I press against it with prayer, but perhaps I don’t even understand how to do this. I have to learn how to pray over and over again, almost every day, even though some might think I was some kind of expert at it. Spiritual regeneration requires a perpetual effort of renewal; yet my identity wants everything to remain the same, over and over. That, of course, is the original meaning of the Latin root of the word identity.

If I think that doing the same things over and over the same way creates my Being, then I haven’t honored my life. Something new must happen in me; and it demands a much more intimate and attentive examination of this energy which fills my body.

It is what gives me life; perhaps I can learn to respect it.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desires, Part IX

This is a subtle point worthy of more examination.

What I do not wish for — what I don’t care about, don’t see, or have little or no concern over — represents a vast, in fact unimaginably vast, piece of territory, because I am in a state of objective anguish, or narrowness.

This very narrowness is created by my desires; and, in a nod to contemporary (if not Gurdjieffian) Buddhist philosophy, my suffering is created by my desire. It arises from my limitations, my inability; and all of those things arise, in turn, from my egoistic refusal to engage in community and to go beyond my own desire.

The action of outer considering and intentional suffering are both practical undertakings that attempt to help me move past the limitations of my own desire. Yet, paradoxically, I have to desire those things in order to work on them; so there is a need for certain transformation of existing desire, insofar as that is possible. Anyone who is attempted to work on this knows how extraordinarily difficult it is, and how resistant we actually are to change. In our imagination, we have a range of capabilities that can be deployed to change our inner desire; yet in reality, we usually fail. Most readers will know that I struggled with alcoholism and became sober; there is an example of a real change in desire, but the cost was quite frankly staggering, and a relatively small percentage of alcoholics are ever willing to pay it. I also recently had an exchange with a dear friend who is in love with an alcoholic, an extremely destructive relationship which they have cut off for a long time now, but cannot let go of. Their desire keeps turning them obsessively back towards the situation, even though they have no contact with this destructive and objectively tragic individual and that person's own struggle with their desire.

The point is that this individual is very nearly unable to make any change in the state of their desire; it is a fixed entity, and keeps forcibly turning this person back towards the desire itself. Desire, in other words, acquires its own impetus and a tremendous amount of force, and will do almost anything to keep itself alive — even kill the individual it arises in, which is how addiction often works out.

Now, we usually think of desire in limited and benign terms, emasculating it so that we can grasp it and preserve the illusion that we have some control over it. But if we understand that it is the force that ultimately leads, among other things, to suicide if and when it happens illustrates the unusual nature of the beast and the danger it presents. It relates to the idea of the monsters in us. (See An Organic Sense of Being.) Our desires don’t just limit what is possible for us; they enforce it. There is, in other words, an active quality to desire that causes it to function in an exclusively selfish manner, drawing the whole universe in around it. It manages to do this while at the same time remaining almost completely invisible, because I am identified with it — I have formed myself in conjunction with desire. While I may manage, if I see its destructive forces, to imagine myself outside its range, to practically place myself outside its range is an extraordinarily difficult action requiring a superhuman feat of will. That superhuman feat of will involves the action of all three centers.

 In a certain sense, we might say that Gurdjieff’s fourth way has always, in its own way, had the aim  of helping a human being overcome the limitations of their desire and finding their way to non-desire.

 The situation reminds me of the remark one of Gurdjieff’s followers once made about his work: that he was trying to change the stars people were born under. He was, in other words, trying to reverse the situation where we are under the stellar influences of the male, the brother, the literal part the part that consists of earthly desire; and make no mistake about it, those are also stellar influences. What he wanted us to do was come under the stellar influences of the sister, the higher, which must lawfully blend with the stellar influences of the brother, but on an equal footing — which is almost never possible when the desires of the brother  prevail.

Although this set of essays has been titled, collectively, the starry world of our desire, its nucleus is this question of limitation, and humility. If I see where I am, if I acquire a real humility, I begin to acknowledge these limitations. I begin to see how they emerge from my desire; and I begin, perhaps, to see how my non-desire — that which is not me, that which represents the unselfish side of being, has the potential to move beyond the limitations.

To go beyond the limitations the meaning of both true suffering — what Gurdjieff called intentional suffering — and love, which only arises as a result of the experience of intentional suffering.

For each individual who arises and has being of any kind, a universe arises with them. This is equally true for a gnat and an elephant, a human or a devil or an angel. That universe is a starry world that represents the entire sum of their being, on whatever level it is lived; and it always stands as a fragment of the great world of manifestation that represents the thought of God. We find ourselves on the razor’s edge between the worlds of our own desire and God’s desire; between the descending forces on the right side of the enneagram and the ascending forces on the left one.

We inhabit a metaphysical circulatory system; and the symmetry gives us insight into the nature of being. Both are lower and our higher nature are constricted by law, which takes on (both in the diagram and according to the lawful force arrangements of the cosmos) an identical geometric form — hence the reflection of the diagram along its vertical axis, so that the left and right sides mirror one another. The law of seven can also thus be referred to as the law of symmetry; and indeed, this was one of its names in ancient times, although that is now forgotten. The point is that there is a balance between the ascending and descending forces; they are mutually dependent, and just as our desires inhabit the descending arc, our non-desires populate the ascending one.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, Part VIII

There are times when a single observation within one’s range of perceptions and understanding opens up an entire world of inquiry.

This happened to me last night according to the arrival of a single phrase:

“I can only work within my own limitations.”

The word limit comes from Latin līmitāre, which means boundary or threshold. It also carries the connotation determine. This is because the idea of boundary has an implicit meaning of recognition; when we limit, or establish a boundary, we recognize the point beyond which we are unable to go.

Well, it is implicit and explicit that there are places we are unable to go. However, in my imagination, I am constantly expanding what is possible for me well beyond my own limitations. Every one of us, I think, secretly believes that we have power and control over one thing or another, no matter how humbly we bow our heads when life meets us. This is one of the deficits that the evil commanding ego exploits over and over again.

My own limitations. 

Well, life sets limitations: and the place we are in the universe makes it quite clear that we are, as Margaret Flinsch once said to a group of us, “tiny little creatures.” We are really, as individuals, no more significant than bacteria — and perhaps even less so, seeing that bacteria outnumber us so decisively on this planet, and play a so much larger role than we do on populations, faith, and destinies. It is a sobering thought if one chooses to absorb it.

Yet we are interested in these ideas not from the cosmological point of view, fascinating though it may be, but from the point of view of our inner nature. And the phrase that came to me spoke to me of my own limitations — not the ones set for me by God or the cosmos.

This led me, of an instant, to ponder the nature of my own limitations. And it immediately came to me that my own limitations lie within the range of my desire.

My desires are egoistic. They ought to be things of the stars, derived from cosmic influences and the level above me; but they are not. And my desires draw rigid boundaries around me, because I never go outside of them to consider the desires of others, of the community, or to in any real and organic way consider the desire of God. This despite the fact that the desire of God is often active in me in such a way that I can see not only its sacred nature, but the difference between God’s desire and my own, and my resistance to it. This is a contradiction one must learn to live with on a daily basis if one wishes to establish anything real in oneself.

This boundary in me, which is not merely conceptual but actually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually in existence, is defined by my own desire and my earthly wishes. Many of the components that these boundaries are formed by are all-too-familiar to any of us who think about it. Money, power, sex, food: almost everything revolves around these forces. Last night, I jokingly pointed out to a male friend of mine that for males, the two great questions that need to be answered in life represent the contradiction between the sacred and profane that we embody (our higher and lower nature.) Those two great questions are, How much should I pray? And, how many women should I have sex with?  I will leave it to the (male) reader to illustrate for themselves, within themselves, exactly where the dividing line between these priorities lies; but I think the dilemma is obvious. The irony is equally self-evident; and if we believe that we do not live between these contradictions, we are imagining things.

I draw these boundaries within myself through the action of my desire. They limit everything that is possible for me in exactly the same way that my postures, thoughts, and emotions are limited by the repertoire I developed when young (I refer readers back once again to the stop exercise material.) My desires determine how I can work, when I can work, and everything I can achieve and work; they draw a circle around me that limits how far I can go. Egoism is the force and the power that holds that boundary in place, because it is in concert and partnership with desire.

Perhaps this helps readers gain a new insight on Gurdjieff’s contention that a man must learn to allow his non-desires to prevail over his desires. My non-desires, you see, live beyond the scope of my own limitations, which are defined by my desire.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Starry World of our Desire, part VII

March 3

So here I am, pondering the events of the last month, my illness — which was compounded and lasted for nearly a month as it was — and the consequences of Being and seeing how one is.

Our identity obscures everything, and we love it and believe in it. We don’t see how much of a garbageman it is, how it has determined what scraps of trash are worthwhile and how it has collected them over a lifetime over and over again. There are people who reflect this habit with an external hoarding which becomes the subject of bemusement or even mockery who those that don’t understand that; we’ve all seen the movies and documentaries about people who have basements (and even whole apartments and houses) filled with paper and junk until they can’t walk around, the walls of trash closing in around them.

This outward pathology is an outer reflection of something that goes on in every human being. We collect what is unreal and glue it to the shell of our personality like a hermit crab disguising itself; then we lug the shell around, tucking ourselves into it whenever a threat appears. If we see someone else with an attractive shell, we will try to steal a bit of it for ourselves, or find something similar to glue it to who we are; and so it goes. We all become trash bearers, envious of one another’s trash, and obsessed with collecting more trash to glue to our shells. And it works the same way as it does in the world of animals: what we collect is used to disguise ourselves:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. ( Matthew, 7:15.)

Do we see that almost all of our personality is a defensive posture? What a surprise if we remember that there are actual beings inside the shells! There’s a truth to this much deeper and more mysterious than the colorful, attractive piles of trash we accrete… a living spark of love, of tenderness, of agency and action within each human being that can be touched for a moment if we are willing to be human, instead of defending an identity.

This reminds me of the phrase that was taught to me many years ago, one of the three prayers — there is no I, there is only truth. The way to the truth is through the heart.

One hears something like this and it seems, on the surface, as though one might understand it. It may sound profound; or trite, if one is a devotee of mechanistic rationalism. But it contains a mystery that cannot be so easily penetrated; and it relates to this set of questions about identity, desire, non-desire, who we are and what we think life consists of.

What if there is no identity, no sameness?

What if all there is is truth… which we must meet?

I sense more and more in my life that this is the case; and as I confront my own nothingness and see how inadequate the accreted being— my identity — is to meeting the moment, perhaps it’s no wonder I feel a constant sense of anxiety and even terror. If I’m truthful with myself, most of what I am it is relatively worthless — this entire castle of identity I have built my worth on doesn’t have a real value. Only the actions I take in regard to others has a real value, only the way in which I honor and love them. Let’s face it, 90% or more of those transactions are selfish and egocentric in and of themselves. One can’t begin to confront one’s own being, one’s own identity — both the real one and the imaginary one, which are in inverse proportion to one another in terms of their importance — without suffering in every sense of the word. And that suffering, if it is connected to the higher influences we wish to be related to, is not depressing. It is anguishing.

Depression and anguish are different. What I am describing here is depressing, taken on this level; yet when one looks at the vertical trajectory, when the sister’s influences come in, what it provokes is anguish. Anguish as derived from the Latin word angustus, which means narrow or tight. (The German word angst, which means fear,  derives from the same root.) So we might say, using our metaphor, that depression is male and anguish is female.

The difference between anguish and depression becomes more apparent when we look at the root of depression, which comes from the Latin dēprimere, which means to press down. Depression is that which keeps us on this level, which drags us down into ordinary life, and our egoistic concerns. This can be absolutely devastating if it becomes powerful enough, and it absolutely eclipses every other featuring the emotional landscape when it does so. But it is different than anguish, which is a confrontation at the point where we meet the higher spiritual level of our lives. One can only feel anguish if one feels the constriction, the narrowness, of one’s own being and realizes that one is a rich man attempting to pass, like a camel, through the eye of the needle into heaven.

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13.)

It is this constriction or narrowness that weaves itself back in to the question of desire, which is of the stars.

At birth, the spark of life is engendered in this carnal being, within which two longings must inevitably arise: the first, the longing of the lower part to remain alive in the body (which dominates us powerfully) and the second, the longing of the higher part to reach back to heaven and reunite with God.

These two longings, or desires — stellar influences — are both necessary. The influence of the brother must inevitably engage in sacrifice, and the influence of the sister cannot become whole and grow back towards God if the brother does not fulfill his duties in this regard. We are born with two parts, one of which has to die in order to help the other part live.

We can see here that the broad way and the narrow way are the way of the brother and the sister. The broad way, generally speaking, is the way of ordinary life, and the narrow way is the way of the spirit.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, part VI

March 3

There is an art to sacrifice.

That is to say, if we want to be decent, loving, compassionate, and human, we have to give something up: and that is our identity, that is, the sameness which we have crafted over the course of our life using the brother, who has forgotten his task and no longer cherishes or protects the sister. No one wants to do this; and I think that we can see that the trend in humanity, especially in American society, has been to emphasize identity, that is to say, to encourage people to reinforce their “individuality”, instead of encouraging them to surrender that in favor of community. Some social scientists and progressive philosophers have recognized this dilemma; and the fury with which the idea of community is attacked by so-called “conservatives” (who often seem to want to conserve nothing more than their right to be indecent to others) demonstrates just how threatened the brother feels when he is advised that he ought to be protecting the sister.

 This idea of the sacrifice of identity is a consistent one throughout mythology and religious teaching. We can write a lot of noble words about it and tell a lot of tall tales; but in the end, it always comes down to how I am now and what I am willing to sacrifice now. This is a constant struggle.

When folks read Jeanne de Salzmann’s The Reality of Being, one tends to examine the trees and lose sight of the forest. It is a landscape of perpetual sacrifice where form and identity have to be struggled with and abandoned. There is no single moment when the final battle takes place and all is won; one gets the impression from her diaries that she struggled with these questions for her whole life. Any impression we might have that she “arrived” at a destination is mistaken; becoming human is a process. There is no location at which the journey ends. Short, of course, of death.

In speaking of these things, and where we find ourselves in terms of the authority of our identity, I had an impression the other day that we are wrong 80% of the time that we talk about spiritual matters. We are wrong 80% of the time in general, or perhaps more; and it is because form and identity insist on using the same template to explain a constantly changing environment. Now, of course this is well known in the social sciences and externally; all kinds of clever books are written about businesses that make this mistake. Yet the mistake is not an external one in the end; it lies close to the core of our being and what we are.

I’m reminded here of something I’ve written about before: the way that I woke up one morning in 2001 and everything in me was different. That’s happened twice, of course; the first time was in 1981 where I woke up one morning and realized that my alcoholism was killing me. Everything was different in me at that moment; and it saved my life. But the moment in 2001 was a bit different, in fact vastly different: too much to say about that here. Yet one of the most important points was that I woke up that morning in 2001 and realized that I was completely wrong about my being, who I was, what I was. In particular, I had formed my entire being for the past 30+ years around the very rigid idea that I was an artist of some kind; and that morning, when I woke up, I wasn’t an artist. Not anymore. I had become a human being, which is a very different thing; and I discovered in that moment that what was real about my identity did not include being an artist, even though I had spent 30 years convinced that this was the case.

I don’t think I’m special or different in this regard. I think it’s entirely possible for any of us — perhaps all of us — to spend 30, 40, or 50 years thinking we are one thing, being very certain of it, only to suddenly have a terrific shock (or wake up with grace within us) and realize that we are not that thing at all. At that moment, we realize that we were not wrong 80% of the time — or even 90% of the time. We discover we were wrong about ourselves 100% of the time: and this is what I’m getting at in terms of the inner truth. When we speak about who we are and what we believe in and so on and so forth, we are wrong about it 80 or 90 or even 100% of the time. 

We don’t see this; we credit ourselves with credibility. Yet there is none. This ought to provoke radical, life-changing, identity-crashing realizations in us; yet how often does that happen?


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, part V

March 3

In the last essay, I talked about the desires of the soul and the starry world of desire. The essay largely centered around the habitual nature of identity, and how we don’t see or understand it. In order to explain how precisely accurate Gurdjieff’s understanding of the subject is, it will be necessary to take a close look at some recent discoveries in the world of robotics.

In order to understand this in more detail, I strongly recommend that readers get themselves a copy of the March 2018 issue of Scientific American and read the article “self-taught robots” by Diana Kwon. In it, Diana recounts the research efforts of Angelo Cangelosi at the University of Plymouth in England and Linda B. Smith, a developmental psychologist at Indiana University Bloomington. The article says, among other things:

A fundamental difference between us and many present-day AI systems is that we possess bodies that we can use to move about and act in the world… In a 2015 study, Cangelosi, Smith and their colleagues endowed an iCub (this is a kind of robot) with a neural network that gave it the ability to learn simple associations and found that it acquired new words more easily when objects names were consistently linked with specific body positions.”

Anyone who reads this article in its entirety will realize that Gurdjieff explained the relationship between the centers — between thought, emotion, and the body, in the 1920s explaining exactly the same thing: that the brain, the thinking parts of each center, learn by associating with the other centers and connecting them. Anyone who reads his various comments about posture and its relationship to thought and emotion in Views from the Real World will see that Gurdjieff studied with a school of esoteric philosophers that already knew what these robot designers are just learning over 100 years ago. The connections are categorically unmistakable; and the research, primitive as it is compared to Gurdjieff’s understanding (and there is a joke for you all in itself) absolutely proves that what Gurdjieff said about posture and the nature of the human being was entirely accurate.

The difference is that what Gurdjieff taught human beings can actually be used to understand and change human behavior; whereas all of these scientists are merely trying to build machines that behave like humans, as if that were in any way useful to human beings, other than to take away their jobs, their livelihood, and (when they have developed enough, which they will) quite possibly, their lives.

Of course, we should feel for the researchers, and find some sympathy for them. After all, they are trapped in the same limited roles created by their habits that we all are. They can’t have an identity any greater than the one they are in unless they throw the one they are in the way; and we are all in that situation.

I suspect that is scientific research into the nature of robotics continues, we will discover that more and more of what Gurdjieff said about human beings as machines is entirely accurate. Sooner or later, the scientific community will begin to wonder about why an Armenian mystic from the early 20th century knew all these things; but I’m not sure that will produce anything more than wonderment and some historical footnotes. The important point is to understand how the nature of our mechanical behavior and our automatic, habitual being influences the way we are in life, and how it completely masks any effort we might make to be decent, compassionate, loving, and human to one another.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this question is that we must of course also see that our ideas about being decent, compassionate, loving, and human are equally attached to this so-called “identity” we have developed. That is to say, even if we have an inkling about what these four words mean, they are boxed in to the tiny box of identity that was created over the course of our lives, and in most of the cases where we meet real life our attitudes, ideas, and understandings about these four qualities are just about worthless, because we have predetermined templates we want to apply in order to understand what they mean and how to “be that way;” that is, how to “use” them, as though they were tools that we could deploy instead of sacrifices that we ought to make.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, part IV

March 3

I think we all live lives in which we can bring up many examples in which we weren’t treated decently. We tend to carry these around in large suitcases, dragging them behind us in case we need to unpack them to justify some misdeed we have committed or plan to commit. Yet these suitcases take a tremendous amount of energy to drag around; and isn’t the point to forget about all of that and just try to treat people decently? I can only go forward. The bad things that were done to me in the past are over and while I am allowed to feel anguish about them — after all, every child of God is allowed to have a wish for goodness and anguish that they have not encountered it — I am not allowed to inflict that on others. It must become my own burden and I must learn from it in order to remember (and so often, almost always, I forget) and not do it to others. It is a cross, in other words, that I must carry to my own crucifixion, where I give up my identity — all the sameness of what I am and what I have always been — in favor of something that is new and more human. I want to be decent — which, in the original Latin decēre, meant to be fitting, proper, or suitable. If you think about this you will see the connection between identity — habit, repetitive behavior, and the way that the bad actor doesn’t know how to fulfill his role — and decency, which is a state in which the actor exactly fits his role by being fitting, proper, or suitable. So if we trace the roots of these words and thoughts we see how interconnected they all are.

In order to wrap this little discourse about my ponderings over the last month up, it becomes necessary to take a look at the word desire.

This word has surprising origins, and opens up a universe of meaning that would take more than a day or two to write about. But the short version is this: it is borrowed from a Latin phrase which (and this derivation is considerably compressed) comes from dē sidēre, which means, from the stars or constellations.

This is where the English phrase “when you wish upon a star” and the poem “star light, star bright, first star I see tonight” comes from. Desire is wish, and it is related to the starry world, that is, the astral level.

This opens up, as I alluded, to a very complex discourse about the nature of the astral level and how it has been depicted throughout many thousands of years of human history, right up to the present day. My friend Richard Lloyd's essay on the subject—available at this link—covers the subject in considerable detail and is well worth reading as an adjunct. Some of what follows is an expansion of his observations.

The question of desire is related to our connection to our spirit and our astral being, and to the influence of solar energies. Yet the word does not just allude to the higher levels of desire, which are connected to real being; when Gurdjieff speaks of desires and non-desires, he is speaking of the desires and non-desires that relate to our identity, which are directly opposed to the desires of the soul.

When a human being is born, two sets of desires exist side-by-side. Neither one is developed.

One of them is the desires of the spiritual being, which has just incarnated and needs to acquire its energy from the reconstruction of the soul, that is, the concentration of responsibility – the ability to respond.

The second is the desires connected to the physical body, which are all carnal and absolutely necessary in order for the body to develop. These two sets of desires are like fraternal twins, a brother and a sister, and many of the legends about brothers and sisters in religious mythology are related to this question. The point is that the sister is the desires of the spiritual being, which are receptive, fecund, and can receive energies from a higher level and give birth to a new kind of being.

The brother, however, is male and dominant and, although the brother’s role was supposed to be exclusively to nurture, nourish, and protect the sister while she grew up — she is, after all, the weaker of the two in many ways — and he takes over. Not only that, once he assumes his identity — his habitual sameness — he decides that he has to run everything and often even forgets the sister.

My own relationship with my late sister explains this to me in much more detail, which is how I now understand it and I’m passing it to you. One has to understand the relation between these two sets of desires and the way that they mirrors a sibling relationship in order to see how, in relationship to our ordinary life, our desires belong to the brother and our non-desires to the sister. This situation is perfectly mirrored in the sister, whose non-desires are the desires of the brother.

And it is the sister whose desires relate to the starry world, the astral level, the spiritual influences above us which we can receive. In a certain sense, the Virgin Mary is the representative and protector of the sister, and if her influence enters our life, the sister has a chance to recover from her inferior position so that the “non-desires” — the influences from the stars which only she has the capacity to receive — can help the spiritual side develop.

This is always at the expense of the brother, who is and has always been expendable. He lays down his life for his fellow man (in this case, his sister.) It is an act of love and sacrifice, and again, there are many religious traditions and stories that relate to this.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, part III

March 3

So my identity is a series of repetitive actions — and I need to abandon those and go beyond them, go beyond everything I am (even though I must be what I am at the same time) and be willing to completely throw out all the nonsense that I bring to every moment. To see it in the instant it comes and say, “well, yes. There you are, but I'm in a relationship with other humans right now and that requires something other than you.”

I need to be willing not only to throw out this nonsense, but to do whatever seems to be necessary that is compassionate, loving, and caring — all of which are properties I habitually claim to have but which are actually only acquired through constant struggle against the ego and which are never mine as a permanent property, but must be earned again and again through honest spiritual effort.

It takes energy to support that effort; and every time I refuse to struggle and work or bring something real in myself (something, in other words that doesn’t belong to my “identity”) to the moment I am sacrificing and squandering that energy, which is only built up through my effort to go against my habit and my identity.

This brings us around to the question of desires and non-desires. Everything that I desire is attached to my identity, that is, the habits I have acquired which limit my repertoire. I think if you look at the way we live — the way we all live, not just you and me, but everyone — you'll quickly see how disconnected our identity and our desires are from the realities which confront us at every moment of life. Each identity is like a freight train which keeps crashing into other freight trains; and no one knows how to stop the trains from crashing into one another. Soon enough, the swords (or the nuclear weapons), come out and are waved —

and we suddenly realize that very nearly everyone is insane.

My desires are attached to things that keep repeating themselves in the belief that that makes them real. My non-desires, the things I don’t want — and which, in fact, like completely outside the sphere of my wanting — have the potential to see reality, because they are attached to my identity. They exist in that place which says “I am in a relationship with other humans right now and that require something other than you.”

An organic sensation of this situation came to me yesterday at work as I was walking to and from the men’s room. It’s quite interesting how a physical impression, when it is accompanied by proper sensation, can indelibly elucidate something that is otherwise obscure. In that moment, I quite clearly saw that all of the associative, habitual, and automatic things that I think, say, and do, all of which fall under this wonderful “identity” which I have, need to be discarded if I want to have an honest relationship with people. If I discard them, what will turn out happening is that I may sit around all day long — and all of us have parts that do that, you know — but then when I meet my enemy, I abandon that part and I discover myself and relationship and I try to act in a loving way because it is right, and in spite of my intentions and what the ego commands. That is to say, by abandoning all of the nonsense I make up constantly, and by abandoning the habit which I am generally so committed to, I gain the capacity to treat people decently. 

And if I do not gain that capacity, is life really worth living?


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, part II

March 3

Ego inflation causes me to think mostly of myself and what is important for me. This relates powerfully to two concepts that Gurdjieff brought up: first of all, identification, in which I become the outer parts of myself (I literally become them, my identity is attached to them and not to any other part) and, secondly, desires and non-desires.

In order to examine this question of identity, it may be useful to understand that it is borrowed from the middle French identité, which in turn comes from the Latin identitātum, meaning sameness or oneness. That is in turn extracted from the adverb identidem which means, quite simply, over and over again.

So identity actually means habit, or, what we continually repeat.

The idea that this continuity creates who we are immediately become suspicious to me. The implication here is that it is a continuity of sameness; that I keep doing something again and again and that that makes me myself. One might, for a moment, turn to Gurdjieff’s Views From the Real World and remark on the passages where he talks about postures.

In the first talk in Berlin, November 24, 1921, for example, he says,

everyone has a limited repertoire of habitual postures, and of inner states… An actor who is the same in all his roles — just himself — what kind of an actor is he? Only by accident can he have a role that entirely corresponds to what he is in life.”

In particular, it’s worthwhile to read the chapter the stop exercise on the subject; some excerpts are at this link: Posture. The book has a number of sections that discuss this subject, which will become significant later in an upcoming essay.

Now, from Gurdjieff’s remarks on the subject (which must be absolutely accurate, and, again, more on this later ) our identity is formed from these postures or habits. It isn't a particularly conscious entity. It is just, as he says, the repetitions of an uneducated and rather unskilled actor who doesn’t know how to inhabit the play he's in. I think, in other words, that I’m a great actor, but I'm actually an idiot who keeps doing the same thing. I'm asked in life to act first as a king, then as a tramp, and then as a lunatic, but (for example) I only know to act as a king. So I would do a terrible job of representing the other two roles, and everyone knows it. This is how we all manage to end up playing the fool so often in our lives.

The insidious part of this is that every single part of this operation comes from the associations that constantly play themselves out inside me. There are countless little voices saying this, that, and the other thing about how people ought to treat me, what I deserve, and what idiots those other people are. The longer one engages in self observation, the more painfully aware one becomes of these habitual parts, which really haven’t learned anything new since I was a child. They're all connected to the evil commanding ego by puppet strings; and the ego manipulates them to keep me identified—that is, I believe in everything I say to myself.

One can't so easily escape from this, as I pointed out; yet Gurdjieff’s idea of false personality is closely tied to this understanding of identification — which means, in summary, habit. The only way that anything new can happen is if I'm committed to abandoning all of this associative nonsense that takes place in me constantly, and I become willing to throw myself into the moment without any props—as honestly as possible in the relationship.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.