Sunday, December 31, 2006

Deep time

It is the turn of the year.

Sunday I began the day reading from Dogen's Shobogenzo before meditation. Later in the day, we went to church. Our church- Grace Church, in Nyack, New York- is an Episcopalian church modeled after the traditional gothic form. It boast a superlative set of stained glass windows and the ineffable sense of restrained magnificence that only gothic architecture can produce.

During the service we read old testament texts that come from as far back as the days of the Egyptian empire, sing hymns composed anywhere from the 11th to 17th century, and participate in a tradition that reaches back into deep time in an unbroken line of human transmission.

Dogen taught and wrote during the 12th century, but his work is still vibrant in human hearts and minds today. The church has roots that stretch back- how far? Into the roots of ancient Judaism, which coexisted with and emerged from the sacred practices of ancient Egypt.

So when we work, when we study, when we participate in these human enterprises called Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity, we reconnect with the buried roots of our humanity. We re-create a sense of connectedness not only with our culture, but with our biology. Somewhere within all of this we can sense that the organisms within which our being arises, part of this massive time machine called a solar system, exist in an unbroken line from the first cells that reproduced in earth's primordial seas. We are the living heritage of this great cosmic experiment called life. We do not exist apart from it.

We are the experiment.

In the face of ideas this massive and an enterprise this vast, we can only humbly bow our heads. Mankind is never going to fully comprehend or even grasp the scale, the scope, the meaning of this with the mind. No, it takes other, much deeper parts- parts we may not ordinarily even be aware we have- to taste the experience. Parts that vibrate with subtle currents we forget about in the hot-blooded rush of do this, do that.

We live quickly and are gone. But all around us are the elements of deep time, waiting for us to remember, and appreciate them. To appreciate and cherish them. To allow warm breath to meet cold stone and know that it is- for without warm breath, there is no cold stone, and indeed without warm breath nothing can ever be.

The universe has a voice, but it only speaks for as long as we are here to hear it. It has a being, but only for as long as we are here to perceive it. Nothing ever exists apart from perception.

As vehicles of consciousness, we have a responsibility and a sacred duty. Through the instrument of our attention, we become assistants in the creation and maintenance of this great entity called a universe.

For me, that's a sobering understanding.

Water flows abundantly

Hilltops not always in light
Valleys not always in shadow
Each transmits and receives
according to its true nature.

Water flows abundantly
Even where we do not see it
the embrace of Love
Cannot be contained or expressed
by small things.

Trees without leaves
Are still trees.
Already belonging,
Life is not ours to offer.

We are vessels
Into which the world flows.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

celebrity death match: Buddha vs. the dog

What is our relationship to our lower, animal nature?

The famous Isabel- immersed in her essential dog nature, and loving it- doesn't worry about such things. But those of us with three brains tend to ponder. Most human beings need more than a plain old stick to keep them amused.

There are a number of different ways to understand our two natures relative to the idea of centers, or chakras. All of them have their points. Maybe rlnyc, who occasionally offers comments on this blog, will give us a few of his many insights on this matter. In any event I'm going to sketch out a few of my own ideas about this today. As we continue, please excuse me for embarking on what will be a more theoretical discussion than my ordinary posts on this blog.

We are composed of two stories which reflect our higher and lower natures. The three centers in the lower story are the root center, the sex center, and the solar plexus. Together they form a trinity. In a theoretical sense some esoteric schools associate this lower story with our lower nature.

The upper story also has three centers. Now, a few years ago I would have given you one take on what those centers are and how they are in relationship, but my understanding of it these days is different. Rather than turn back the clock or examine a dozen different systems (there may be more than a dozen) I'm going to offer my latest up-to-the minute understanding of this. Which will probably change.

There are three key centers in the upper story. Two of them represent organs for receiving and containing the energy of what Gurdjieff called the "higher" centers. In his system they are higher intellectual and higher emotional center. I don't think we need to elaborate this idea in further detail. For our current purposes, the names are not so important.

One of the three centers in the upper story is located at the throat, which is actually the back of the neck, more or less the area of the medulla oblongata. This complex includes an area at the top of the brain stem, or base of the brain. The second center is the third eye. The third is the so-called seventh chakra, which is at the top of the head. In some systems, this "upper triad" supposedly represents man's higher or more spiritual nature.

So we have two triads of centers: an upper-story triad- the Buddha, if you will- and a lower-story triad- the dog. (see my blog on man's two natures for more on the Buddha/dog koan.)

There is an inherent danger in the above interpretation. It accidentally presumes that the "higher" nature of man is somehow better than his lower nature. Much tradition draws a picture of man's existence as being a conflict between man's higher and lower natures instead of a confluence. That is, somehow we are supposed to battle and vanquish our lower impulses.

This idea is to me just plain wrong. What man needs to seek instead is unity. In a unified state the higher parts inform the lower parts. They don't control or suppress them, but help them to naturally find their right place in the context of the system.

That brings us to the keystone piece in the "magical maze" of the inner centers.

The last chakra, which I have so far willfully skipped over, is located in the center of the torso. It's the heart chakra, although its physical location is not quite exactly where the heart is.

This is a very vital area. The upper and lower triads are connected by this center, and it is one of the three classic "blockage" points in yoga. (The other two being the top of the head and the base of the spine.) In Kundalini yoga, as I understand (warning: I'm certainly no expert on theory in this area,) the object is to "store" enough energy to allow it to rise from the base of the spine and pierce all three knots.

Man, as the Gurdjieff system teaches, is designed to be a bridge between the two levels. That is, to bring unity to them. So in the life of man both levels are of equal importance and absolutely necessary. Gurdjieff's Enneagram accurately depicts the unity of the whole system and shows us why all the centers, including the lowest ones, are of vital importance in the circulation of man's energy. This diagram conveys many subtle understandings of man's inner work that only years of direct personal study can begin to uncover. Suffice it to say that with work on this we can gradually begin to understand how it is that we must bring the inner centers into relationship.

In man, the chakra or center occupying the "gap" and forming the bridge is the heart. To me the implication is clear: man's rational being may be what separates him from the animals, but it is his emotional being that is meant to do the chief work of forming a bridge between the two levels.

The chief work of religion, in other words, is to open the heart. As Yogananda emphasized, above all we must learn how to do our work through Love. That Love is not the ordinary love proceeding from what we are, as we are, but comes from a higher level that can find its expression through us. Love is what opens the gates separating man from the divine, and that Love is not discriminatory or partial. It flows through the whole system, invests itself in every center, and values all of our inner parts equally.

As Christ said, "Love they neighbor as thyself." Informed, intelligent self-love (which may bear a relationship to what Gurdjieff called "conscious egoism") begins with right valuation of all our parts.

We're blind inside. Our dog can become a seeing eye dog for us-

but not if we beat him.

Sympathy for the Devil

Our cat Max runs around the house smacking things off tables, tipping over flower vases and splashing water about.

He can't help it. He's a cat. Every cat has its idiosyncracies, but all in all their cat nature carries a guarantee. We have to learn to live with that. I get irritated with him but in the end it's for me to see that he's a cat, not for him to see he ought to behave like a human.

Our habitual parts are like that. They are part of the machine and they have their own nature. Inevitably they are going to run about tipping things in life over and making a general mess of things.

Getting angry about these habitual, mechanical parts serves no purpose. Whether we are angry or not, they are what they are. We can't get rid of them- to do so would be the equivalent of killing the cat. We have to learn to include them in what we are, to coexist with them, to accept them. In other words, to have sympathy for this devil of a self we inhabit.

Self-observation teaches me that my habitual manifestations include a lot of irritating, negative, and even some downright disgusting parts. Everyone is like that. There's no way to wipe the slate clean; as I pointed out in my posting about forming an inner solar system, once matter has fallen into our gravity well and ended up on the surface of our inner planet, there's no way to get rid of it. The amount of energy it would take to eject it back into orbit is excessive. Instead, through the practice of acceptance, I need to come to terms with what's there, and through diligence and right attitude make an effort to rearrange the inner state so that what is there doesn't do damage. It's kind of like tying the cargo in a sailing vessel down so that it doesn't roll back and forth below decks smashing into everything.

So as I practice, I try and form new habits that will serve me better. I can try to express negative emotions less- which doesn't mean I don't have them, just that I don't use them as cudgels to club myself and those around me. I can try to love myself- to use the phrase "it's not so bad, really" not just in regard to external events but also to my inner reactions and my bad habits. Only by seeing and accepting can I acquire the opportunity to change anything.

It's true that I am mechanical, insensitive, and helpless. All of mankind lives within this set of conditions. Forming and feeding an inner cult of self-criticism, however, is worthless. It does not amount to right practice. Instead, right self-valuation is paramount.

We all have a devil within us. Hating him won't do us any good. Remember: the one good thing about your enemies is that they can never betray you.

Or, as Gurdjieff said of man, every man has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The devil you can trust.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Negativity and Chief Feature

In the Gurdjieff work there is a thing called Chief Feature.

Chief feature is a part of ourselves around which everything else forms. In Gurdjieff's teaching this part is understood, generally speaking at least, to be an inner obstacle. That is, it's a major part of what blinds us to ourselves. As he said to Ouspensky, "Every man has a certain feature in his character which is central. It is like an axle round which all his 'false personality' revolves. Every man's personal work must consist in struggling against this chief fault" (In Search of the Miraculous, Harcourt Brace, p.226)

Chief feature is probably not "all negative." We actually need it. After all, in our relatively crippled ordinary state- we are all so partial we limp along through life without any inner unity, and are constantly trying to compensate for our lack of inner connection- we need at least some strong part to help us along. Life is always unexpectedly battering us in one way or another, and if we can't meet it in a right way- with balance and unity- then we better have a few defenses to deploy.

It is a deal with the devil. Chief feature becomes a steel shield formed at the very front of our being to protect us. Our conduct in life all takes place from behind this barrier. After we've finished forming it rather early in life, nothing really gets in, and a lot of our real essential self can't get out. No matter what happens, chief feature is right there, advising us, reassuring us, rationalizing, and making sure that we're comfortable.

Even if what we are comfortable in is a big pile of our own excrement.

The price of relative saftey is this imprisonment. Life is held at arm's length, producing a state referred to in various ways such as sleep, lack of relationship, attachment, or identification.
Dwelling behind this wall of our own making, we all convince ourselves that the view from the little slit through which all our exchanges take place is a damned good one.

In fact, the view is so good we don't even know we have a wall.

Chief feature is invisible. So invisible that Gurdjieff advised us if we are told what it is, we will most certainly deny it. I know a little about how this works because of my experience with denial in alcoholism. What little I know is scary, because what I do know is that I was absolutely delusional about my drinking.

The implication is that chief feature causes us to live in an equally profound state of delusion about ourselves. It takes great effort to see through a veil that thick.

A lot of what keeps chief feature "functioning within acceptable parameters" (as my favorite character on Star Trek- The Next Generation, Data, used to say)- is negativity.

Why does chief feature remind me of Data, you might ask? Well, first of all, he's a construction- a piece of hardware made for practical purposes. Like those who we call sociopaths- thank God he's not that type- he's not even human, even though he appears to be. Hiding behind our chief feature puts a little sociopath in all of us.

Data, however, is a very sympathetic character- for a robot. He's humorous (unintentionally, of course, but that is part of his pathos,) filled with facts, eager to contribute, always calculating, and has an earnest desire to understand these confusing, illogical beings called humans.

The problem is, robots don't have the equipment to do that. Like the cowardly lion of Oz, Data has no emotions- no heart. Above all, Data is a machine, and as we viewers all know, machines can't be human beings. Because he's a machine, important facts about humans completely escape him.

Ever feel that way about yourself? I sure do. I think we're all like Data, except that- lucky for him!- he doesn't have the capacity to be negative. Maybe that's why we feel sympathy for him.
(And perhaps it's not such a bad thing to have a little sympathy for our machine- which is the subject for a future blog under the heading 'sympathy for the devil.')

In the absence of any real emotion- real compassion, real empathy, reaf feeling, all of which our inner barriers actively exclude-, the machine of chief feature gets to work to devise the best substitue it can. And most of the time, unfortunately, that seems to be negativity. Negativity is much easier to manufacture than real feeling, because it can be effortlessly produced from the natural friction between our wall and the outside world. And there's always friction, isn't there?

The problem is, that friction generates heat.

Inside this inner fortress, we live in a perpetual state of fear. This fear is created by the very presence of the wall itself, which blinds us to 99% of what we need to know about what is going on around us. Over time, our fortress fills up with all kinds of volatile chemicals. Every so often the friction produces enough heat and the whole thing goes kablooey.

We all know what that feels like. The results of this repeated accumulation and detonation of inner negativity destroy everything we work for. If we don't come to grips with it, no matter what we try, we keep finding ourselves in the middle of a pile a rubble that- just a few moments ago- was supposed to be the foundation of an inner temple.

I probably don't spend as much time as I should studying this thing called chief feature. It's the core of what self-observation is all about. So- along with the study of my negativity- it could be interesting to make this a more active part of my questions about myself in 2007.

If anyone else reading the blog is interested in exchanging about their own experiences and work with their negativity- either privately via e mail, or in this public forum- I'd welcome hearing from them.

Oh, and in case you're wondering what today's photo is all about, that's moose at the entrance to Pompeii. Draw your own conclusions.

May we all feed well on this rich food of impressions called "life" today-

love to you all,


Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas day

Dec. 25

Last night a friend asked me "where does esoteric truth comes from?" She was speaking, it turned out, about its origins in the depths of time. Did it come from the Atlantean culture, as some new age people would say? If so, where did they get it from?

It appears, on the surface, to be a complex philosophical issue. One could ponder this question for a long time. Everyone, it seems, wants to remember where things came from so that we can place them and give them more meaning. After all, we think, nothing is good enough in itself. It's only if we add to it by assigning meaning that it obtains value.

Peculiar, isn't it?

I do not think the origin of esoteric- or inner- ideas lies within ancient cultures or secret societies or preisthoods. It isn't about culture and practice at all.

Culture and practice come after Truth. All of them are merely attempts born of Truth to return to itself.

Truth arises with the qualities of matter itself. It is a vibration that contains everything, but which we are usually unable to sense. That vibration is a supremely blissful emanation of Love that blossoms forth from the roots of reality itself. Nothing is apart from it, and nothing can be outside of it. The fact that we are separated from the sense of it does not mean we are apart from it. So this Truth is the ultimate "esoteric" idea- it is the heart of reality- and if it is sensed, no matter who senses it, it gives birth to the same understanding.

Dogen said "This Dharma is abundantly present in each human being, but if we do not practice it, it does not manifest itself, and if we do not experience it, it cannot be realized." (Shobogenzo, translated by Gudo Nishikima & Chodo Cross, Dogensangha 1994, P. 1.)

Christ referred to this Truth as the Father. It is the active principle which gives birth to all things. He called upon us to make the effort to experience this Truth within ourselves.

Dogen reminds us that it requires effort to attain it, and experience to understand it.

The magnificent flowers of our inner garden, fed by our breath and nourised by the root of our being, can bloom into the sunlight of this Truth. This is a long work and a manifestly joyful one.

Today perhaps all of us can share an effort to stay in touch with the delicate buds of that process and, with attention, try to nurture them.

Love to all of you on this day of remembrance and joy,


Sunday, December 24, 2006

On Christmas Eve

Christ brought mankind a message of love. To be a Christian is to attempt- as best we can- to live according to the precepts of Christ.

From everything we can gather reading the gospels- an admittedly fragmentary record- we see that Christ, like Buddha, called on mankind to exercise compassion, intelligence, humility- to become aware of himself and his place in his community. To share his food and to meet others not with rejection, but with unconditional Love.

Christ was a revolutionary. He embraced elements of society who were considered beneath contempt- adulterers and lepers and prostitutes- and demanded that others treat them not like diseased pariahs, but like human beings.

Over the centuries mankind has stained and soiled this message of Love, compassion, and tolerance with collectively self-serving misinterpretations and an endless series of crimes which we refer to as "history."

Over time, people have come to blame Christianity for the misdeeds of its adherents. Instead of the adherents being seen as failed Christians, they see Christianity as a failed set of values. Christianity gets rejected- religion itself is rejected.

Think about the arrogance of this for a minute. For a lot of people, Jesus Christ just isn't good enough.

What are we going to replace Him with, I wonder? Our science? Our machines and bureaucracies? The secular values the UN offers us? We've all seen just how effective those things are. They all come from the same level- earth- and nothing from this level can effect a real transformation in humanity. If anything can do that, whatever it is, it will have to come from the level above us.

About two thousand years ago, a woman named Mary was offered an opportunity to help bring a Force down into the planet that actually could change something. She was afraid- but she said yes. She opened her heart, her soul, and her mind and agreed to serve as an intermediary to give birth to this Force which we now call Christ. A Force which offers mankind the opportunity to learn how to act through love. Not the narrow, self serving and egositic love we batter ourselves and each other with but something much greater. Something imbued with the power to create an entire universe.

Something called Agape. Unconditional Love.

Agreed, we don't know much- if anything- about this thing called Agape, but we can all, if we wish, agree to become students. To try and learn to allow this greater Force, this Light, to act through us, which can only come through the gradual surrender of the cramped little creature we call ego.

Contact with and experience of this all-pervading cosmic Force of Love is the same enlightement the Buddha called on us to participate in- the Liberation of the Yogis... the Divine Rapture of the Sufis.

Even now, Mary, in her Astral presence, is still right here beside us offering to help us open our hearts if we are willing. This not conjecture- it is a certainty beyond faith itself. She lives quietly woven into every moment of the fabric of daily life.

As Jesus said,

Seek and ye shall find.

Love to you all,


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Making an effort

Today's image is one of bikes outside a factory in China.

For the last twenty years I have spent a great deal of time in China. I go there three or more times a year and spend weeks at a time working with manufacturers.

Generally speaking, the people there have a lot less than we do (compare the picture to the parking lot you park your car in at work and think it over for a second. This is their parking lot. Big difference, isn't there?) They don't have the privileges, freedoms, posessions and wealth that we take for granted here in the west. Because of this, I think, many of them have a better valuation of what they do and what they earn.

This is clear from their work ethic. They work hard. They work long hours. They work diligently. All of this is especially true of their young people. They are on the whole eager to achieve something real for themselves.

I contrast this to what I see in young Americans. The majority of them seem to me to be listless, lacking in effort. They see themselves as entitled and they feel they have the luxury of as much time as they want to pull themselves together. They are arrogant about the privilege they were born into, and their efforts in life are, sadly, weak.

There is an old saying the the Gurdjieff Work, "weak in life- weak in the work." Another way of putting this is that if one can't even manage to be ordinary, to do ordinary things, one cannot achieve any progress spiritually, because to be effective in an ordinary manner is a minimum requirement if one has any aspirations to being extraordinary. Gurdjieff called it being an Obyvatel, a "good householder." We see it in other practices, too: in Zen, over and over again, when the master points in a direction, it is in the direction of meeting ordinary responsibility: chop wood, carry water.

Just being completely ordinary is the heart of the path.

Our culture has produced a generation- or perhaps two or three- obsessed with the extraordinary. Every event has to be a bigger, better special effect than the one before it. Every car has to be larger, every house designed with more square footage and stuffed with more bigger stuff. Nothing escapes this disease of inflation. Go shopping for household goods: even our towels and potholders are bigger than they need to be.

Marching relentlessly along with it come the generations that that want to be extraordinary before they are ordinary. Chopping wood and carrying water are beneath them. The lie on the couch playing video games or surfing the web, dreaming of how utterly grand they are as they stumble along in real life doing little or nothing . I contrast this to the factories I visit in China, where 18 year olds are hunched over sewing machines making the towels and pillows we are stuffing our big houses with.

They work. We consume.

Perhaps this is nothing more than the standard conceit of youth, but I don't think so. Our media and our culture of outright materialism has manipulated values until life begins to present itself as some surreal form of lottery where everyone is already a winner. America has signed on to a cultural delusion which asserts that we are better than others and don't need to make the efforts they do, because we're so terrific and so special. And, chide the patriotic flags and slogans on our bumper stickers, don't you dare disagree with us!

It's a cult of specialness. Not only do we worship our own specialness but we publicly demand that everyone else recognize it.

Arrogance of this kind leads us into quagmires like Iraq, where we start out by aggressively misunderstanding everything and find ourselves in the midst of confusion and conflict that we measure with denial instead of humility.

Pride goeth before a fall.

This isn't just a cultural malaise. The cancer ultimately extends its crablike limbs into the muscle of our spiritual lives, convincing us that we are better than others. We sleep- we dream- and we do not do enough in an inner or an outer sense. Our essence- the heart of our inner life- becomes an Iraq, invaded and colonized by alien values. Our inner parts implode in tension and warfare.

To take a more active inner stance is needed. As individuals, we have to believe in ourselves, value ourselves, and be willing to work with humility, with diligence, on organizing our ordinary life. Of doing the laundry, washing the dishes, showing up for work on time. Getting the simple stuff done and getting it done effectively.

No one is special. Every last one of us is headed for the same sobering place, no matter how much noise we make and how many fireworks we shoot off on the way there.

It's best we roll up our sleeves, and get down to the daily business of remembering how to be effectively ordinary.

To me, that's making an effort.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Breathing in and out

There is a tremendous value to breathing in and out.

We do it every day but we're not there for it. It just happens.

Now, you may think to yourself, that's the way it's supposed to be- after all, the whole organism is arranged so that this takes place without us having to supervise it.

Good thing, too- because the way we usually work, if we had to remember to breathe in and out, well, some damn thing would happen and it would go right out of our mind and we'd forget to do it and we'd die.

Fortunately there's a center in us that understands this and keeps it going- just like it digests our food. We could never manage work that detailed or that fine with our ordinary mind, so we have a different mind that does it for us.

But in the matter of breathing, there is something else going on. This is an activity where the participation of the attention can effect a remarkable change in the relationship we have to our bodies, and what they can take in.

Air is saturated with prana. Yoga schools, knowing this, have all kinds of esoteric exercises designed to increase the intake and uptake of prana.

And just what is prana? Technically- that is, theoretically- speaking, it forms the physical bridge between the astral and planetary bodies. That's why the esoteric yoga schools take such a great interest in it.

In the larger scheme of things, however, we can only say with certainty that it's a mystery. Gurdjieff would have called it a higher substance. It may well be the same manna from heaven that fed Moses' tribe in the wilderness. Whatever it is called, however it is explained, this much is certain: it's a subtle food that supports our experience of being. In sufficient quantity it can transform our inner life, putting us into touch with a joyful support for our daily effort. It can truly bring about an experience of what Christ called "The peace of the Lord which passeth all understanding."

People just don't know prana is there. If everyone was aware of how ingesting prana can feed the joyfulness of daily life, we'd all be trying to do that. Unfortunately, it's generally inaccessible to us because we are not arranged properly inside. The parts that can take it in don't work well. The parts that can bring it to places where it can be of use don't work well. The parts that store it don't work well. We can get chemical substances that substitute for it- nicotine is one- but they are temporary, addicitve, immediately draining and ultimately posionous.

Yoga (if it's practised in its esoteric form, as opposed to a glorfied form of exercise) has a whole set of techniques for repairing the organism's prana mechanism. Unfortunately it takes a lifetime- or perhaps numbers of them- for any of this to succeed in most people.

Gurdjieff was better informed than most Yogis, and, I think, had a fairly simple and very practical method for bringing people into more direct contact with this work. It did not involve complicated physical exercises (although, to be perfectly fair, he had them, in the form of his movements.) No, Gurdjieff's method was this:

Put the attention at the place where impressions enter the body.

You can read more about this in P.D. Ouspensky's "In Search Of The Miraculous," pages 188-189. (Harcourt Brace edition,.) If you want to understand just how comprehensive Gurdjieff's understanding of this entire matter is, read the whole chapter. Your eyes may glaze over, true, but I can guarantee you'll never think about your body the same way again.

Now, Gurdjieff spoke of impressions in this chapter in rather general terms, but based on a number of years of study I firmly believe he was pointing Ouspensky (and the rest of us) towards a very specific kind of impression: that is, the impression of air entering the body. He repeatedly draws chalk circles around the whole subject which point the reader in that direction.

There is a long, deep and joyful work involved in exploring this, and this isn't the place to expound on it.

It's enough to say that those who embark on a serious study of this question may discover things about air and breathing that suprise and astonish.

Breath supports life. Appreciate it.

Love to you all,


Wednesday, December 20, 2006


It's interesting to me how quickly I react.

Today at work there was a situation where I got in trouble for something that was- objectively- not my fault at all.

My negativity got to work on it right away, exaggerating, complaining, feeding fuel to the fire. I mentioned it to several co-workers, crabbing about how ridiculous it was.

I'm like this all the time. Emotional reactions- negative ones, that is- are very powerful, very convincing, and they tend to run the entire show as soon as they make their appearance on stage. They usually get out there unscripted, before the director has a chance to say anything, and damned if they don't determine the course of the whole play from that moment on. It may have started out as a comedy, or a simple drama, but before you know it it's tragedy- the emotions always want what the Germans call "Grosse Theater," that is, "grand theater."

In this particular case, almost before I knew it, my emotions were front and center suggesting extreme and ridiculous "solutions" to the matter- all of them, by the way, intensely stupid and damaging.

This would be laughable if it weren't for the fact that I know from past experience that every once in a while, if there isn't anyone sober sharing the stage with the hysterical fool, these idiot ideas get acted on. Very high-maintenance- and extremely unnecessary- disasters ensue.

Luckily, every once in a while, someone else shows up on stage with my emotional circus, watching the whole sordid affair with an intelligent sense of skepticism.

Today's uproar wasn't so awful because, first of all, I saw what was going on and was able to go against it a little, and also because in the end I saw that the whole thing wasn't such a big deal. I had to apply the "it's not so bad, really" filter to the situation several times in order to back down off the emotional ramp I was building. That filter really can help in a practical way. Today was one of those days.

The emotions are very quick, and they exaggerate everything. They tend to lie to me about most things- that is to say, the information they provide is self serving, partial, one-sided, and unreliable. It's true as far as it goes, but not often true in a helpful way. Emotions are like the song of the lorelei: they make a beautiful "sound" that lures me right onto the rocks and then they eat me. So when we use the phrase "consumed by passion," what we mean by it is in some ways literally true.

My life is food and I am supposed to be eating that food, carefully, intelligently, sensitively. When I am negative, partial, and fully invested in emotional reaction, however, my life starts to consume me.

This means that most of the time I am being eaten instead of eating. As I look around me I see that we are all prettyt much like that. It's another example of the inversion we create in life, where everything that is supposed to be coming in goes out, and vice versa. Day to day, we are bleeding from so many psychic wounds that we don't know where to apply the bandages first.

Triage involves self observation. We can't fix any holes in our inner state unless we learn to stand back anfd look for the leaks.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Filling those cracks

There are days when everything seems very daily and ordinary. For me, today was one of them. I didn't have any superbly profound thoughts or ideas. I didn't collect any amazing world class experiences. I didn't achieve any special goals or write any excellent words or climb any steep hills. I just went ahead and lived my little old life.

So today wasn't special in the way most of us want days- and life in general- to be special. Sparse moments of stimulation separated by big cracks of ho-hum. Know what I mean?

But wait a minute. What's this about ho-hum? By now, surely I know better: ho-hum is hokum. It's my sleepy, inattentive self that ho-hums. The parts in me that work can always find something profitable to extract from time. They have to become pointed, however.


There is a solid, saturated value to the day if I refer myself to the body I inhabit: the breathing in and out of air, the impression of colors- colors are quite remarkable, really, if I take the time to try and see them a bit deeper than just surface value- and the sensation I get as I touch things. Hey, even the green of the road signs on the New Jersey turnpike can be pretty darned interesting, all things considered.

This delicate sensibility, this immediate sense of contact with my life- that's special. But I need to do a number of things to help make that available for myself in a day.

First, I need to spend at least 30 minutes in prayer and meditation every morning. As it happens I have a quite structured routine for that but any routine will do as long as it includes having a routine.

The alternative to routine is chaos. Chaos is the enemy of discipline, and discipline is the architect of spiritual life. Yes, it means getting up early- but that's a good thing, because every waking moment, no matter how sleepy-eyed, is an opportunity to work on my response to my life.

Second, I need to have reminders during the day. Reminders to stop myself and come back to specifics. Now, that could take a lot of forms, but anything that works will do. The trick is to have ways to remind myself at least once an hour to stop for a moment- and then actually do it. I say that because to think of this is easy, but thinking does not constitute action. Instead, it convincingly poses as action, and if I am not careful, I buy right into this decoy and waste the precious ammuntion of my attention on a wooden replica.

If I want to shoot the ducks, I have to point my attention in the right direction. I must demand this of myself- it takes a little extra. The more often one demands it, the more often it becomes possible.

The important thing to do here is to remember to make the demand and then act on it.

Third, I have to believe in my possibility, to want it. I must tell myself, I can take responsibility for my life. This idea of assuming responsibility is very important because for as long as my inner dialogue is one of negation, of believing that everything is impossible- or at any rate far too difficult- I'm not going to even bother trying very much.

I have to believe in myself.

In the Gurdjieff work we often repeat to ourselves the phrase, or prayer, "I wish to be." That is an effort at self-affirmation. It's a way of asking ourselves to value ourselves. To value ourselves, rightly, positively. If we don't value ourselves we won't make the efforts we need to.

So with some preparation, even the daily grind doesn't grind so much. Every day becomes an exercise in right valuation, beginning within. Its encounter with the outer may be tentative or tenuous most of the time, but it is at least a beginning.

All the centers inside us have their own individual ability to value this being, this life, so there is a terrific amount of support available if I learn how to solicit it. It takes time and effort to awaken those "extra" senses, but as more of my parts participate, ordinary life becomes much richer, more tangible.

On days like this, as I participate, gratitude seeps into the still moments.

Check it out: Gratitude is the best cement for filling cracks.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The dog food incident

Today I was at the local Costco buying some dog food. Everything starts this way.

I stood on line for five or ten minutes, patiently awaiting my turn. There were two lovely young women- both in their twenties- doing the register and packing. I know them both by sight, having seen them many times.

The girl on the register is very attractive but given to wearing a bit too much makeup. This reveals a certain hidden insecurity. From her posture, however, I routinely see that she thinks quite highly of herself- she knows she's a beauty (at least with the right makeup, anyway) and is selling it. The fact that she's selling it, unconsciously, in the service of biology is immaterial. She thinks what she has belongs to her, and at that age it's normal. Only when time begins to visibly strip it from her line by line- in growing old, it's always the mirror that delivers us the cruelest of betrayals- will she realize everything she had was only out on loan.

The other one, the packer, is a blonde. She has things wrong with the way she looks: her nose is too big and it's crooked. She has that condition where one eye wanders off in its own direction, making her look wanky, and she's gawky, awkward and selfconscious. All in all, however, she looks remarkably sympathetic; her collection of flaws oddly trumps the standard aesthetic.

And those flaws bring wisdom, too: I think this one already knows a bit more. Life cheats us with the illusion that we're beautiful, and superhuman, but we're all just clumsy bags of skin and bone, grasping for things we cannot see with eyes that don't point straight.

As the opposing impressions of these two young women struck me I was overwhelmed by an emotion I cannot describe, and tears came into my eyes. I was touched by their youth, their innocence, and by the temporary nature of the moment. Here we all are, after all, the rich, the poor, the beautiful, the gangly and the middle aged, all participating in this mass event called life, and none of us really know what it is. It's drab, colorful, reassuring, confusing, alluring, and repelling, all at the same time.

And it all ends in death.

It was this temporariness that struck me the most, struck into my very bones in a tremor of inner gravity. From the moment we are born, each of us is a leaf hanging from the branch of life, just waiting to drop. I could feel the ground shaking under me, the branch shaking over me. Everything was somehow perfect, but there was no security in the midst of this perfection.

Incongruously, I began to sing the doxology softly, spontaneously, to myself.

"Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost."

I don't know why I began to sing that but it seemed necessary when faced with this brief vision of perfect beauty so irrevocably rooted in the shadow of the valley of death.

My own mortality- the mortality of all that we are and everything around us which looks so vivid and alive- it weight upon my soul then. Somehow I briefly tasted not just my own death, but perhaps even- impossibly- death itself, in that moment.

I can't describe what it tasted like, but it called something forth from the depths of my soul, and that something was not despair, or fear, or horror.

It was praise.

God bless all of you today.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

assumptions and support

If the first question I asked myself about my relationship with other people was how I could support them- really support them in a meaningful way- I'd be getting somewhere.

Too much of my life is lived in circumstances where I see people from the point of view of what I want them to be- not what they are in and for themselves. The fact is I spend little or no time trying to really see how they are and what they need. Every time I devote even a moment to making that effort, the very first thing I see when I open my "inner eyes" is that everyone else- including all of those closest to me- is a mystery to me.

I don't- and can't- actually know what is inside them, how they are feeling, what they are thinking. Instead I have a series of ready-made assumptions about them which I apply to just about every interaction.

The assumptions are a form- just like our religious forms- that provides me with a template upon which to base my behavior. These inner templates aren't very useful. Whether we are approaching God, our spouses, co workers, or our children, they just get in the way.

Whenever possible, I can try to remind myself: isn't there the possibility of having an unmediated experience with this other person- an experience, that is, that isn't touched by the soiled fingers of my assumptions?

An experience that is honest and true and direct and just allows everything to be as it is, instead of how I want it to be?

In moments where that becomes possible- they're rare enough, that's for sure!- a new kind of vibration is present. I'm not speaking figuratively here- there is a literal vibration in the being that is different. It produces a humility that is totally absent in me under ordinary conditions.

Well, perhaps we shouldn't speak of these things. But perhaps we should. Do we really know, really understand, that something inside us can be fundamentally, radically different? That a revolution, a turning, can take place wthin, and that everything can change?

That we can perceive and receive with parts that until now we did not even know existed?

If we aren't willing to allow for that much miraculous, perhaps we should hang up our hats and settle down in front of the television, where effortless miracles are served up digitally 24/7, without any need for effort on our own part.

That's enough for some people, for sure- those immune to the troubling wasps of conscience- , and blessings be upon them. As for myself- I'm a Dutchman, and Dutch people are idiots and hardheads. They expect things to be harder than that, and they expect to work.

Hell, they like to work. And when they see dirt they have an irrepressible, uncontrollable urge to scrub it clean. Inner dirt, outer dirt: it doesn't matter. Dirt is dirt to a Dutchman.

My work these days turns out to be mostly with the people in my life, all of whom are perpetually teaching me a lot of stuff I didn't know: furthermore, stuff I didn't know I didn't know. People like me, you see, wake up every morning convinced they know just about everything, and today will no doubt be the day to fill in those last little dark corners of ignorance and dust our hands off in satisfaction at a job well done.

All the people in my life- even, perhaps especially, the ones I don't like- are constantly teaching me that they need my understanding- my compassion- my support. Like me, thay all have challenges and broken parts and screwed-up ideas, and we're all in this same messy business we call life together.

As Mr. Gurdjieff often put it, "in galoshes up to our eyebrows." Or, as we say in AA, "There but for the grace of God go I."

So if I put those lazy "inner eyes" to use the first thing I may see is that I ought to be compassionate- Gurdjieff called it "outer considering-" and try to see how I can support the people I live and work with instead of faulting them.

Being this active within calls on more than my usual set of assumptions. I need to be within the present moment and ask myself a lot of questions:

Just how is it that I am?
Just how is it that the other person is?
Just how are we together?

And once again I am drawn back to that perennial, inevitable, infallible question my teacher asked me so many years ago:

"What is the truth of this moment?"

I think a significant part of that truth always lies within an effort to support. An effort I forget all too often in my rush to make sure that I am supported.

In this question of support, perhaps it would be good if I remembered to always give it first, and never bother to think about the getting of it.

Anything else is just dirt, and even when it's seasonally gift-wrapped in my elaborate rationalizations-

dirt is dirt.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Signs of spring

It's unnaturally warm for December. Many plants around our house are still green; the winter jasmine is blooming, adding a touch of yellow that echoes the forsythia riots of the spring.

Skunk cabbge is one of the earliest plants of springtime here in the Hudson valley. It begins to send its green shoots up while snow is still on the ground, melting holes in the frozen layer above it so that it can reach the sun.

If you crush skunk cabbge it smells bad- hence the name. But left alone it exudes not stench, but beauty. Its green leaves speak to me of abundance and proliferation.

Skunk cabbage gets going early. It looks for the sun even though conditions around it are tough. While the rest of the plant world is still drowsy, trying to recover from the various insults of winter, it's up and around, spreading gorgeous early swaths of green in damp, sulphurous places where water pools up and leaves rot. Places that other plants find it difficult to root in. There's a kind of courage and optimism in its lifestyle.

Life is like that: taking root everywhere- no matter how tough conditions may be. For example, this week marine biologists discovered the mariana arc tonguefish- a fish that lives near volcanic vents in the ocean floor. This little critter is so tough it that can pause for a two minute rest on a pool of molten sulphur that's 355 degrees farenheit! Seems impossible- yet there it is. (read more at

Skunk cabbges and tonguefish. Pretty different organisms, but they have this much in common: they accept what appear to us to be very difficult conditions- uncondtionally. They adapt to them and make a living. That's a lesson I could afford to learn from.

There's anothing thing about skunk cabbage. It remind me of what grasping does to things.

When I grasp this life of mine too tightly I crush it, and it releases the same kind of inner stench. The smell is pretty powerful and so it's all I think about it: life stinks. There's my negativity in a nutshell: a bad smell that arises from my insistence on using my force inappropriately, by holding onto everything I think I want too tightly.

If I leave life alone, am less identified, less attached- it sings.

It's within the slow appreciation of each moment that beauty begins to to emerge from my frozen coating of indifference, lack of relationship. The ice thaws. The water, air, and sunlight of daily life become my food, my daily bread.

So. How to let this water of life flow in? How can I become, inside, as adaptable as life itself?

Today's another day to give it a shot. With a little luck, and a bit pf practice, maybe I'll put a bit of green in front of the sun... instead of releasing more bad odors.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Finding all the value

Life is a prickly process. A lot of it seems irritating or boring. Prickly and boring invariably provokes fear, and a run-away response.

Most of this is a product of my sleep. Every time I come back to myself I'm surprised to see that I have forgotten that the value is right here. When I dream, all the value is out there, somewhere else. The value of people is elsewhere. The value of things, events, and circumstances is outsourced to some ephemeral future date when what is later will be better than what is now -which I am not paying attention to.

At such times I couldn't even find the value in the moment of now if I wanted to. I'm not there for it. I have already dismissed it. What a shock it is to realize that the only moment there is is now, and that I am forever dismissing it. I don't honor the moment. I don't try to make it sacred through appreciation. Instead I depreciate it, which was hardly the intention I began with. I mean, I don't (at least I hope I don't) get up in the morning thinking about how I am going to mark down the various moments of the day to the cheapest possible price. But the red pen comes out early in the day drawing lines through everything I think is undesirable.


The other mistake I seem to make a lot is in assigning different classes of value. This part of life is good, that one isn't. So I'd rather be in this part than that one, or that one than this one, and so on. My value becomes a function of my dreams and my subjective ideas about how things ought to be arranged. I always want to be elsewhere so I'm never here. It's perverse: I want to get value out of life, but I am not paying into life with the hard coin of attention to the present moment.

In order to change any of this I need to find all the value. Not just the value I think I want, but the value that is actually there. So I have to accept everything I encounter as having a value of some kind. That is to say, there has to be a paradigm shift in which I finally see that everything is worth something. The only worthless moments are the ones I fail to invest attention in, and they are only worthless because I have made them worthless. In and of themselves they are completely valuable, completely true. What is false is me.

When I invest in now- that is, clothe myself in it- I generally see right away that it has a value I have forgotten. The value is always there. It's me that's not there.

Instead of assigning value willy-nilly, I think I have to become more willing to let life itself assign the value, and show up to register it.

Inner gravity can help with this. It gradually becomes a force that rejects less material and draws more in. Draws it in with the air, depositing a fine material within the body that appreciates life in a way the ordinary mind doesn't.

Every breath that I can physically locate my value in is a blessing. It just takes time.

Time, and attention.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

life, death, sacrifice

Yesterday one of my best friends wrote to me about sacrifice.

He reminded me of how this word means "to make sacred." We more often conceive of it in terms of giving up. Either connotation seems fine to me.

One of the images that always occurs to me when I think of this idea isn't the one of Christ on the cross. It's Abraham, preparing to sacrifice his son to God, at God's command, and being willing to go through with it. Only at the last moment does God stay his hand.

The concept seems barbarian at first glance. How could any man do such a thing? It's only when we examine it as allegory that we see it means a man must be willing to go to extraordinary lengths- to give up what he holds most dear- in order to create a new possibility for himself.

In the sacred arrangement between biology and the cosmos, we all make the supreme sacrifice of our entire lives at the end of our lives. Every organism does this- it's an irrevocable part of the deal. It's pointless to fret about whether the deal is fair or unfair: it's just the deal.

In a very definite sense we are all nothing more than vessels designed to take in and hold the impressions life feeds us. In a way too mysterious to explain, these all become a kind of food for God when we die. The moment every organism reaches at the end of its natural life, where it gives up-surrenders- all of the impressions it has gathered into itself over the course of a lifetime, is literally the moment of truth.

This is the moment when everything that is true for that organism, from its birth to its death, becomes apparent as one whole, now irrevocable, Truth in that single, final moment of epiphany. The summary moment where the entire contents of the vessel is absolutely surrendered to the Will of God, to absolute truth, without any choice.

This is a tricky thing, to see that the purpose of life is all aimed at that one single moment. No one should want to meet it without being able to face one's entire life without shame. Of course this is very difficult- we probably all have many things to be ashamed of- but it is in the effort we made to overcome those shameful parts of ourselves that we may earn something respectable enough to carry us through the moment of death without despairing.

It would be nice, after all, to try and make sure we're not tipping a vessel with really crappy contents towards the infinite mouth of Truth.

Wouldn't it?

Traditional cultures seem to get this idea better than the modern ones. Tibetans, for example, have a strong tradition that all of life is merely a preparation for death. It's true, I think. Who wants to meet their last moment the wrong way? As Gurdjieff once said, we want to earn enough for ourselves in this life that we don't "die like a dog." That is, in a state of dependence and fear.

There is one other possibility available to us. That is to reach this moment of complete surrender before we die. If we are able to do that, we surrender what is God's to God- what belongs to Truth to Truth- by choice. This is the moment where, as Meister Eckhart describes it, the Will of God is born in man. The moment where he gives up everything that is his, that he "dies," so that something entirely new can enter him.

Of course this is theoretical for us. Of course it's idealized. Nonetheless, I think each of us can initiate a search deep within ourselves that takes us on a trek towards a moment when we might finally allow ourselves to let go of this egocentric, misunderstood life and find a better way. We can make our whole life sacred by surrendering it all, now, while we still live and breathe.

Abraham had tremendous courage. He was willing to go the distance. Most of us cling much too tightly to our life as it is to step over such an awesome and terrifying threshold.

The search for that moment goes on. If we absolutely have to go somewhere, I think it's better to try and get there on our own than it is to lie around waiting for someone to pick us up. After all, we don't want to be late for our own deaths.

As my busily, currently sacrificing friend always tells me, when he dies, he'll say to himself:

"Jeez, this is great! I should have done this years ago!"

The science delusion

I am a sometimes admirer of Nobel Laureate Richard Dawkin's work (see "The Ancestor's Tale, a very good piece of science writing) , but he has certainly overstepped his bounds with his new book "The God Delusion." This book is an irresponsibly blunt, if not downright arrogant, dismissal of God.

If a minister or a yogi were to approach Mr. Dawkins and state that they had plumbed the depths of, say, physics, and answered its most essential questions without a proper and accredited education on the subject, and with no experimentation whatsoever, he would rightly dismiss them. He does not seem to understand that, in any discipline, just as in science, proper investigation of any serious set of questions requires many years of study. In the study of the question of God, it requires rigorous inner discipline, prayer, and meditation.

Surprise! Mr. Dawkins would have us believe he knows what the results of this study are without ever having acquired the education or performed the experiments himself. Then again, perhaps that is not really so surprising. Men who are stuffed full of facts and consequently believe they know everything are a dime a dozen, as Plato so deftly pointed out in his Apology. What is interesting here is that Mr. Dawkins-- a "scientist"with credentials-- so blindly presumes to have a kind of knowledge he has done no work whatsoever of his own to acquire.

Perhaps the the bliss of ignorance makes a fair substitute for that of saints and yogis, but I sincerely doubt it.

Despite the standard arguments- we've heard them all, thank you-, blaming religion for mankind's woes is sheer foolishness. Practice demonstrates a surpassing ability on the part of mankind to exercise stupidity all by itself, without any heavenly assistance. Countless historical misdeeds have been initiated without ever once invoking the name of God- in other words, the world's scientists, aetheists and agnostics have been just as guilty of moral outrage as those who profess religious leanings. We could cite Hitler or Stalin, or Ghengis Khan-- or, for that matter, Edward Teller.

Sadly, the vast preponderance of what scientists and their technologies have so generously given us as they wax is an exponentially accelerating ability to destroy not only men, but the ecosphere of the planet itself. All this from an enterprise that claims to be driven by "intelligence." Measured against this, the concept of a God seems a relatively innocent and minor delusion by comparison. Once again, this problem stems from knowing far too many facts and having far too little wisdom, a disease Mr. Dawkins and his kind are far more prone to to spread than to find cures for.

To add to all this, I try to picture to myself a world where we build gothic cathedrals, compose hymns of praise, and paint great artworks to celebrate- what? Molecular biology? Quantum physics? It takes a special kind of idiot to believe in such a world. Frankly I find it far easier to believe in God as a bearded man on a cloud in a white gown.

If Mr. Dawkins properly understood the magnificent question of God, he would understand that it lies at the root of consciousness, the physical universe, entropy, biology, and properties of emergence. He would further understand that investigating this question can form a completely new inner relationship between a man's organism and his mind.

He doesn't, and because he has already made up his mind, he will not. As his education, attitudes and opinions so eloquently demonstrate-- and as anyone with any common sense knows-

Watchmakers aren't blind, but watches certainly are.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Our father

Okay, today we're going Out There.

Bear with me.

In "The Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas," Dogen says:

"When you examine "the entire earth" or "the entire universe," you should investigate them three or five times without stopping, even though you already see them as vast. Understanding these words is going beyond buddhas and ancestors by seeing the extremely large as extremely small and the extremely small as large. Although this seems like denying that there is any such thing as large or small, this [understanding] is the awesome presence of active buddhas." (p. 83, "Beyond Thinking", edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambala books 2004.)

This saying reminds me of my own work with the Lord's prayer, specifically the first two words of that prayer.

If duly contemplated, the first word of this prayer, "our", extends well beyond the limits imposed by our anthropocentric view. It implies the entire universe- all of reality in its myriad manifestations. It can be experienced as both personal- in the sense of our person as it contemplates- and impersonal- as our person attempts, through an attuned awareness and inner sensation, to extend its understanding past the established boundaries , to include all that is.

This may or may not include visualization, but to visualize actually isn't necessary. It is the act of sensing this commonality that invokes a relationship with a certain kind of vibration. This commonality extends from the "strings" of vibration that create reality at the quantum level all the way up to the galaxies that populate the universe. ... and of course it's called the universe because it is all one thing. So the universe is our common property- we belong to it and it belongs to us.

The United States of Vibration.

The United States of Vibration inevitably contains all the collective consciousnesses of the universe, so it has an inherently conscious property. You can't take the consciousness out of this unity without denying consciousness itself. By this we absolutely know that one of the properties of the universe is consciousness- and if the universe at its root is one thing, one single supreme state of vibration, well, consciousness is part of its nature, isn't it?

"Father," the second word in the prayer, refers to the single source of prime arising that gives birth to reality- the sacred Om, the single prime or "male" vibration that penetrates the female nature of all matter, collapsing the quantum state and giving rise to what we call material reality. This force is also at once both personal and impersonal. It too is an indiviudal- that is, an undivided being- composed of a single thing, which is vibration. Its individuality is too vast to comprehend, however. I say it's impersonal because it is also objective- that is, untouched by human concerns. Alien to us and supreme in purpose- a single manifestation of truth alone.

In the act of contemplation and sensation during the study of this prayer, I can attempt to sense within me the intersection of both the incomprehensible scale of the universe and the "quantum web" of vibration that gives rise to my being. This exercise connects a "cellular" or "magnetic" sense of being to the vastness of all that is. Here the extremely large- the universe- becomes small as I try to allow it to dwell within me, and the extremely small becomes large, as I try to encompass and accept the vibration at the root of reality. I'm extending my experience of being in both directions, upward and downward, from a center of sensation and awareness that forms a bridge between these levels.

There is rich ground to explore here. It needs no manipulation, only participation. In and of itself it already knows what it is. I'm the one who is still in the dark.

Within the exercise it's sometimes possible to gain a taste of what Dogen is saying. We find within it that tangible bridge between Zen and Christianity which so fascinated Thomas Merton- and within it, too, we find a gesture that underscores a hidden connection between the two "opposing" forces of science and religion, which, as Gurdjieff pointed out, actually have the same aim.

There's a lot more to work with this prayer, of course. The first two words are just an appetizer for a meal that will take a lifetime- or perhaps several of them- to consume.

One last note: Dogen asks us to contemplate "the earth" or "the universe" three or five times without stopping. Perhaps this is a suggestion that in meditation, we try to examine the question from the point of view of three or five centers- in other words, to sense this question with all our various minds, rather than just the one that plays with words.

There are other exerices more specifically attuned to that undertaking but they lie beyond the scope of a blog.

Love to you, my various friends and strangers-


Saturday, December 9, 2006

Additional intelligence

Gurdjieff teaches that each center has a "brain," or mind, of its own.

We encounter glimpses of this concept in other systems, but no matter where we encounter it, it probably seems theoretical and inaccessible. Body and mind and emotion may be separate "brains" in man, but we think we experience them simultaneously, and perceiving separation becomes difficult.

The difficulty is that there's no way to think about this. The idea isn't tangible unless the "brain" of the body wakes up, that is to say, it begins to manifest consciously on its own, next to the brain of the intelligence. And then it isn't thought about, it is sensed, which is different. So our perception of our being is one centered, or, based on observations from only one brain. Living our lives from one center's point of view, we cannot even know what the other minds or centers "taste" like.


Each of the six main "minds" or "brains" in man are alseep. These correspond to the six "lower" chakras in man (the seventh being understood as belonging to another, higher level.)

By using the word "asleep " we try to indicate that they are not functioning with full awareness. They are on autopilot, and they do not interact with each other very much. Each one has its own active intelligence, its own "thought" process- which may not manifest as what we usually call thought at all- and its own agenda.

Instinctive center, for example, may decide it would be good to eat a lot, no matter what intellect, emotion and body have to say about it. The next thing you know we get fat, and then a tense struggle ensues because the centers are not listening to each other.

In ordinary life, we are accustomed to finding what we call "I", or our sense of being, within the context of the thinking mind and the emotions. What we don't realize is that what is called "real I" in the Gurdjieff work-- and would represent a state of relative enlightenment in other works- emerges when most or all of the centers wake up and start to work together. This inner act of reassembly of the separated inner minds is an esoteric meaning of the task of "self re-membering" Gurdjieff calls on us to engage in.

In this re-awakening, re-attachment, no one center replaces another as superior to the others. Instead they re-exist simultaneously, in conjunction with one another, but always distinct.

What emerges from the mind can only ever emerge from the mind. So this piece of writing emanates from one mind and enters another. It carries seeds of ideas that might touch the other minds in other bodies but of itself it cannot be more than what it is.

All it does, in other words, is advise intellect that there are other minds in the body it could cooperate with. Five of them, to be exact. If you have ever wondered why we human beings often seem to function as though we're about five times stupider than we ought to be, this could well be the reason.

The body is one accessible place to begin to sense our additional intelligence. Over the years I have begun to learn that it really is an intelligence all its own, separate from this intelligence which speaks and writes, but equally valid. This gives me a new repsect for it: there is much, much more to me than the part that thinks. Like that part which regulates breath (the instinctive center's mind) the body's mind is a deeply intelligent awareness of its own that has serious work to do- often far more serious than what my "monkey mind" comes up with in the course of a day. It just expresses itself quite differently than my mind's awareness, which takes the form of thought.

If I listen to it more carefully, it often surprises me. It consistently informs me of my life in a different way. For one thing, it remembers I'm alive- something my mind, with all its machinations, has a way lot of trouble doing, believe me. In remembering this, it repeatedly calls me back to a greater sense of attention.

That kind of support can be vital in a spiritual practice. Through a continuing observation of the different minds, or centers, within me, I can gradually encourage them to participate more wholly in this thing we call life.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The inner structure

I've been very fortunate of late.

There's a lot of serenity in my life. I'm blessed by a great deal of work to do, challenges to meet, family and friends to support.

This means I have to be active a lot and do a lot of things I don't want to do, and deal with difficult people like my wife and children and friends and co-workers.

And myself.

So my plate is full and I'm under a lot of pressure: financial pressure, pressure of relationships, pressure at work.

Technically speaking I should not feel serene at all. So I've been trying to figure out just how, and just why, I can have a hands-down, yell-at-each-other fight with another person and still feel pretty darn terrific inside... and not even really be mad at them. How I can be under tremendous pressure at the office, with certain situations absolutely melting down, and yet still feel that life is... well.. fundamentally OK.

Certainly a large part of it comes from working to form a support structure inside- which is very different than the external structures I discussed yesterday.

After all, an inner structure, if it's sound, can be far more durable than an outer one. It has a resilience born of the fact that it's built out of my natural parts: not ersatz mental concepts I imported from books about psychology or architecture or even my various esoteric disciplines. It's tangible and immediate and more practical than that. It's built out of breathing and digesting and eliminating. Out of loving and thinking and exercising. These are pretty durable qualities.

So part of this improbable serenity is the inner support structure, all right. But perhaps more important than that is what the inner support structure connects to. That's much more subtle. And it's up to each seeker to discover that for themselves, because the reflection of one's inner gems cannot be put into words. Collectively they call on something much more essential- and expansive- than the corner my personality usually backs me into.

Serenity may be felt by the emotions, expressed by a quality of mind, and sensed by a relaxation of the body, but it's born of seeing the rich pasture of relationships within my organism, and seeing the relationship of the organism to life.

Within this pasture, gratiutude arises. I see that my wish is to become ever less of a warrior and ever more of a farmer. To take those swords of my negativity and not beat-but coax- them into plowshares of support and compassion.

It's no fun hacking people up, anyway. Competition does not serve- it demands. Some people never seem to get tired of it, but I for one am increasingly worn out. Sure- I can, and will, play that role as long as it's demanded, but, as the ineffable Mr. Gurdjieff once put it,

"only with my left foot."

These days I just want to raise a little maize on the back acre.

Have a terrific day, everyone!

Wednesday, December 6, 2006


We usually feel meaning is attained through structure. That is to say, things happen and we put them into order of one kind or another until a structure emerges, and that becomes a meaning for us. This is how we justify: we discover meaning through structure, and that is what we think will create our validity.

It works, more or less, when we're organizing things or trying to discern patterns in nature. But the everyday events of life are so chaotic that they generally defy classification.

In doing so, they subvert structure- no matter how hard we try to impose it, something constantly comes along to upset it. In doing so, the meanings we construct gets lost, because we were expecting them to emerge from the structure- and it turns out the structure isn't fundamentally valid. No matter how hard we try to order things, something unexpected comes along to put a spoke in the wheels, and all of a sudden it seems we're starting from scratch again.

That seems unjustifed to us. It's not fair. We have worked like the very devil himself to create this structure of understanding and then >>blap!<< something comes along and upsets the whole applecart.

There's an alternative to this hamster wheel we're on: we can attempt to discover what inherent justification might mean.

What is inherent justification? Inherent justification arises from the fact that everything is just so. It doesn't need to be any different. Structure and lack of structure are immaterial to inherent justifcation.

Things begin as already justfied.

If the meaning we perceive and accept is inherent, discovered in the simple nature of the moment itself, rather than the organization we discover within the moment, well, that's already different, isn't it? Meaning of this kind becomes, in a sense, invulnerable, because it stems from the experience itself- and not the definition of it.

And wouldn't another word for "invulnerable meaning" perhaps be "Truth?"

Something as simple as attention to our breathing in our ordinary life can help feed the parts of us that are able to receive this impression. The breath is connected to parts that are not concerned with the elaborate structures our mind is forever working on. Breath is directly connected to a physical part that knows, all day long, every day:

Do this at once, or we will die. Not sooner or later: we will die NOW.

This understanding contains an urgency the mind is fundamentally unable to sense. They live side by side, but nonetheless we are not aware of that part. That part's understanding is so deep and so urgent that it functions even when we're asleep. It can't afford to take any time off.

A part like that can really help us care more about our practice.

It's worth investigating.

On valuation

I had one of those days today where I'm just grateful. It was another very hectic day, but at the end of it, as I walked out of the office, I was glad that I have the job I have and work with the people I work with. I'm glad I have the problems I have. All of it helps me to learn something new about life.

This isn't a matter of psychology. When we're really glad about things there's no need to engage in tricks to help make ourselves think we're happy. Happiness is intrinsic. There's no way to think one's way into it.

Another way of looking at it is that it's organic. I know I keep coming back to that word almost obessisvely- are you sick of hearing about it? Sorry about that. But I keep using it for a reason.

The reason is that when it comes to satisfaction, we have to find what we are seeking within the organism first. Trying to find it in the mind is useless. The mind is a dog that endlessly chases its own tail.

We already know a little bit about that because we understand the satisfaction that comes from a good meal: some risotto with mushrooms, for example, or a nice bowl of soup. But we don't know enough about it.

All the impressions we take into ourselves during a day are food, too, and generally speaking they are excellent food, if we receive them correctly. Once we begin to straighten out the way we receive impressions, they feed the whole organism differently. Air tastes different. Colors look different. Yelling at our kids feels different. All of that stems from an active engagement with our inner being, and an active force that arises within the body. When the mind develops a deeper connection with the body life just feels better, that's all there is to it. It's an end in itself.

I was speaking to a person I work with yesterday and we were discussing an exercise, and I reminded him : Don't do it with the mind. The difficulty is that we try to do just about everything with the mind.

In the traditional stories, every Zen master repeatedly points towards this. We have to go beyond the mind to go anywhere real.

Going beyond mind involves finding not just the lotus, but the root of the lotus. In western culture, we believe that it's the flower of the mind that sustains our being, but actually it is the exact opposite.

The root of being, planted in the firm, warm mud and exquisite darkness of the body, is what nourishes and sustains the flower of the mind. As we cultivate our garden, it informs our lives and gives birth to leaves of attention.

These spread themselves in gratitude to receive the sunlight of our impressions. And we learn how to pray not just with words, but with our whole life.

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Terms of Exchange

Every event I perceive is a transaction between my inner self and the outer conditions. We could say there is an exchange between the two.

How does that go?

Whenever things don't correspond to my terms, I react negatively to them almost the instant they arrive. I see this in myself all the time. For example, I am sitting at work and I get some unexpected, annoyingly nit-picking demand in an e mail that's going to take time and effort to execute, and I get angry right away.

It invariably takes a second to stop and remind myself that this is what I get paid for- that it's entirely proper for me to have to do this, and I should acquiesce and take care of it, not react belligerently.

Usually- after I pause, breathe, and tell myself that it's not so bad, really- it gets done and it turns out it was no big deal. Certainly not as significant as my initial reaction to it was.

I tend to identify things that don't conform to my expectations as obstacles. I want to control everything, you see, and I don't understand that life is not about control of the exchange. It's about participation in it. So I misunderstand the terms of the exchange from the very beginning.

Why do I do that? I think it's because of fear of outcome. I want to control the outcome of every exchange so that it satisfies me. I don't see that (a) that's completely impossible and (b) entirely unreasonable. After all, it's an exchange, and the half of it that lies outside myself is forever entirely outside my control. Even if I do what appear to be exactly the right things, they may not produce the expected results. So, as the saying goes, it's all in God's hands from the get-go. What's required of me is to make my best effort, and I can't do that if I start out by misunderstanding the terms of exchange.

In order to better understand the terms of exchange in my life I have to be willing to surrender the fear of outcome. If I go into exchanges unburdened by that fear, then some new things can happen.

First of all, I don't have a negative inner tyrant automatically making all my decisions for me. He's still in there, sure, but his voting power is diminished. There's a flexibility available.

Second of all, conditions don't automatically get labeled as obstacles. We all have a machine in us that does that on a 24 hour basis. Once a condition doesn't get identified as an obstacle, I can begin to perceive it differently.

I can get creative with it.

Maybe that condition is an asset! Who knows? I definitely don't- every condition that arrives is actually is new and untested- and only by exploring it can I inform myself. In my own case, it's downright surprising how many conditions that I would have- or did- label as obstacles turned out to be assets.

Accepting the terms of exchange and surrendering the fear of outcome is a lifetime work, I think. These ideas help remind me of why cultivating acceptance is so vital to my inner practice.
The obstacles I encounter, inner and outer, are obstacles only for as long as I continue to refer to them as obstacles.

If I can perceive them differently- participate in their existence, so to speak, instead of trying to batter them down and trample them- they begin to slowly melt.

It takes time, but a little sunlight can melt a lot of ice.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Light and creation

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent. It's a time when the whole Christian world begins the month- long process of celebrating the fact that a new force can enter our world. That the old order can be turned upside down and a new one established.

Christ called on us all to become open to an inner light. We remember His birth as an occasion of Joy because of His message to all mankind that everyone can become available to this light of God.

Christians aren't the only ones who cultivate this practice. The Buddhists refer to enlightenment- the process of becoming filled with light. The Mevlevi Dervishes whirl not just to pray, but because they understand they have a sacred duty to bring light down into the world from above. The Jews celebrate Chanukah, the festival of lights.

This idea, it seems, is shared by most of mankind, and it offers us all hope- hope that things can improve, that the dirty little crevices of darkness we all covet and carry around inside us can be illuminated, then swept clean with a broom made of sturdy twigs. All of this to leave room inside us for something much bigger than ourselves.

The idea even goes a bit deeper than that. Suns are the engines of creation. All of the elements in the universe begin as hydrogen, which in the vast nuclear crucibles of suns are fused into the heavier elements.

Creating an inner sun within ourselves is analogous. We can literally begin to create new substances in our bodies which are, under ordinary circumstances, either completely lacking or in very short supply. This is important, because in order to erect a more durable and useful inner structure, we're going to need all those additional elements. If all we have in us is that elemental hydrogen, we're basically nothing more than bags of hot air.

It's often helpful to me to understand by analogy in this manner. It helps me to form a deeper sense of the absolute interconnectedness of all things, and of how every level of the universe works in a similar way : from suns to bodies to cells, everything engaged in one perpetual act of creation.

There is no destruction. Everything we call "destruction" is just transformation, as new states continuously emerge from old ones.

When speaking of this unity, Dogen once said, "In the great way of going beyond, no endeavor is complete without being one with myriad things. This is ocean mudra samadhi." ("Beyond Thinking," p. 78, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambala Publications 2004)

When we open our eyes, we all find our dwelling place in this ever-emergent ocean of truth and light.

I hope December affords us all myriad opportunities to open ourselves ever more deeply to this light and to love, and to share the gift of life as openly as possible with others.