Monday, February 26, 2007

the absolute

I have been engaged in some discussions with friends lately in which the subject of the absolute has come up.

When one looks this word up in the Oxford English dictionary, one finds that it has a bewildering number of definitions. Some of the definitions include the idea of something being perfect, completely sufficient unto itself. Another way of understanding the word is that it means "unconditional."

So we could take this word as meaning "perfect, sufficient unto itself, existing before conditions." Already to me this sounds like some kind of a distillation of Zen Buddhism. Yet this is the very same word that Gurdjieff used so frequently in describing what we generally call, in Christianity, God.

It's a big word, there's no doubt about it. And it turns out that we sell it short; we know little about the many different definitions it has, the many different ways that it manifests itself in usage; in fact, it turns out that we probably don't know what it means at all. Which is all too appropriate for a word that in some senses stands at the crossroads of all the world's major religions.

Not to mention the world of physics.

I'm going to use the word in a particular sense today in order to describe something we ought to be aware of, yet rarely are.

Over this past weekend, I found myself in a particular state of organic awareness that grows out of what one might call a cellular awareness of breathing. This state is not about recognizing the mechanics of breathing but rather the chemistry of breathing, that is, what is in the air that enters us.

Gurdjieff had a great deal to say about breath and air; he frequently explained that it contained the material needed for the growth of what he called the "kesdjan," or astral, body. I cannot say much about that, except to remark that some of the damndest strange things arise if one takes on the practice of intentional and conscious breathing of air.

Anyway, back to the point. This particular state I refer to above generally calls one to a greater awareness of one's mortality.

We are not aware of the fact that we are going to die. We claim we are, but the only place that this awareness resides is within our ordinary mind, which is a tiny fraction of our total being. This particular fraction specializes in theory, and has little connection to the emotional or physical parts which could, if they were working properly, also sense that we are mortal. Many of you who read the works of Gurdjieff are familiar with his idea that only a constant sense of our own mortality could call us to legitimate spiritual work. He said this, I believe, largely because any such "constant sense" would have to be born of all three centers- not just a resident of the part of us that construct theories about what we are, what we should be doing, and so on.

When the breath connects to the organism in a different way, the fact that one is in a piece of meat that is going to die becomes much more obvious. Dogen speaks a good deal of how we are "bags of skin and bones." I think he- and other Zen masters- were discussing the development of an awareness of this organic sense of mortality.

Now, you might say to yourself, "damn, that idea sounds depressing." But it is not depressing at all. If the sense of our mortality is developed through a connection between multiple centers in the correct manner, it is simply a fact that leaves little room for fear. I know whereof I speak, simply because when I was younger I always feared death greatly, and there are parts of me that still do. This understanding of death which I speak of is a different kind of understanding.

And why do I bring all of this up under the title of the absolute? Because, quite simply put, we are absolutely going to die. Every moment that passes by us is an absolute moment: it is as it is now, and it will never be again. Death is built in to time as intricately as cells are made up of molecules. One could say, without stretching the analogy much at all, that the entire universe is made up of an infinite number of deaths that proceed simultaneously everywhere. This may be a bit of insight as to why Gurdjieff called time "the merciless heropass."

In the same way that death is built into the universe, it is built into us. We have no real sense that every breath we take is a countdown to the one last breath of our lives, because we live in a theoretical part. We need to become much less theoretical in order to understand our mortality. Let me stress- the only way to do that is through a connection to inner centers with a more practical understanding.

The centers that regulate breathing -- the instinctive and moving centers -- are eminently practical. If we stop breathing, we die right away. Being in charge of that kind of activity conveys a real sense of urgency. The parts that do that work. They work because they have to work, and they know it.

We don't bother working because we don't know we have to work. And that is the problem in a nutshell.

If we can develop a connection to the centers that do know we have to work, maybe we can get somewhere. For as long as we dwell in theory, rather than in sensation and breathing, we are unlikely to believe we have to work in any organic sense.

Within the context of active, organic mortality, we can discover a sense of acceptance and we can immediately begin to understand our lives less conditionally. By that I mean we see ourselves less in the context of the conditions our theories impose upon us and more in the context of the facts regarding how absolute life is.

Every moment where we encounter the absolute nature of a moment in life, we value it better, we learn more, and our sense of humility can grow.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dogen's water

Water plays a central role in man's life on Earth, and it also plays a central role in almost all of the world's great religions and religious practices. It is, in fact, a sacred substance in so many different ways that to begin a discussion on it is something like trying to describe a beach one grain of sand at a time.

In Christianity, water is understood to have the ability to become wine if a man reaches a certain level of understanding. The allegorical meaning of this, to me at any rate, is that the impressions of life, which flow into us like water, filling this vessel of our body, can begin to convey something much richer and more intoxicating into us. When the blessings of God fill us, this water of life becomes wine. The famous Sufi poet Rumi understood this well; too often he speaks of the presence of God as an intoxicant, a rapture, a magnificent experience of the ordinary which lies beyond the understanding we usually carry in us. So the idea of life as a rapture is not just an idea we find in Christ's love; the Muslims understand this the same way.

Let's take a look at what a Buddhist says about this sacred substance of water, which can be understood as the fundamental substance of our life.

Here is a quote from Dogen's sutra of mountains and water. I quote this text from the Shobogenzo, as translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, 1994.

"In general, ways of seeing mountains and water differ according to the type of being that sees them: there are beings which see what we call water as a string of pearls, but this does not mean that they see a string of pearls as water. They probably see as their water a form that we see as something else. We see their string of pearls as water. There are beings which see the water as wonderful flowers; but this does not mean that they use flowers as water. Demons see water as raging flames, and see it as pus and blood. Dragons and fish see it as a palace, and see it as a tower. Some see water as the seven treasures and the mani gem; some see it as trees and forests and fences and walls; some see it as the pure and liberated Dharma nature; some see it as the real human body; and some see it as the oneness of physical form and mental nature. Human beings see it as water, the causes and conditions of death and life. Thus what is seen does indeed differ according to the kind of being that sees. Now let us be wary of this. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistakenly assumed the various images to be one object? At the crown of effort, we should make still further effort. If the above is so, then practice and experience in pursuit of the truth also may not be only of one kind or of two kinds; and the ultimate state also may be of thousands of kinds and myriad varieties."

Okay, that's a long a mouthful of words. Some words, however, are worth more than the other words, and Dogen's words happen to be superior in almost every case.

Here he is speaking of water on a number of different levels, and explaining to us that this allegorical term means different things according to the level of being one is on.

In particular, he is speaking of water as the energy, or prana, that saturates all of reality and gives rise to everything that is. Because Dogen almost always speaks of practice- not theory, no matter how much people want to read theory into his words- he is speaking here of various practices, inner practices which involve the experience and transmission of energies.

The string of pearls is an esoteric practice involving forming a specific kind of connection between centers. Seeing water as wonderful flowers has to do with the practice of opening your inner flowers, which I have spoken about before on this blog. The inner state of dragons and fish, who experience the majestic palaces and towers of inner silence, is yet another type of experience. In fact Dogen cites seven different kinds of experience here, each one of which probably relates to a center. All of them are worthy of diligent investigation.

He goes on to say "when we keep this point in mind, although there are many kinds of water, it seems that there is no original water, and no water of many kinds. At the same time, the various waters which accord with the kinds of beings that see water do not depend on mind, do not depend on body, do not arise from karma, are not self-reliant, and are not reliant upon others; they have the liberated state of reliance on water itself."

What is this water he speaks of? It is nothing other than what Christians call the energy of the holy spirit: that rapture which descends from above, penetrates all, and contains everything within it. It is "our Father."

No matter what tradition one comes from, no matter what practice one undertakes, no matter what form one believes in, when one comes to this point of work, there has to be agreement.

To me, the value of the Dogen text is that it places an understanding of the rapture of this sacred water firmly within the practice of weaving a connection between the inner centers.

Yes, perhaps I am obsessive: this is a subject which I will continue to return to over and over again. In order to understand this, we must abandon the analysis: we must instead turn all attention inwards and intentionally seek a very fine "something" that exists within the body and can be used for that purpose. There is a great deal of assistance available for taking in the right kind of food if we learn to use our attention in an inward manner. This is the kind of work that turns water into wine.

If we want to receive the presence of God we must prepare a place for it. That place has to be a vessel, and the vessel has to be able to hold a little water.

The potter who shapes this vessel does not work like an ordinary potter. He undertakes a very physical kind of work, using a different kind of mind. He does not use the mind that makes noise or the mind that resides in silence. He does not use the mind he knows. He uses the mind of the unknown-

shaping a vessel precisely designed to receive what is needed

-where it is needed.

And even then the work is not done, because every pot, in order to be durable,

must be fired.

Love to all of you today, now let's get back to shaping clay-


Monday, February 19, 2007

The big picture

I have been blogging on this blog for over three months now, and, as scattered as the themes may sometimes seem to be, an overarching theme seems to me to be emerging from the posts. Hence the picture for this post, a structure in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Like my own structures, it is a bit worse for wear, but it will have to do.

First, my aim is to speak from within my own experience. After many years of exchange with others on spiritual matters, it strikes me that this is the most vital responsibility each of us takes upon themselves as we meet each other face-to-face in mutual effort. Granted, in this case face-to-face means reader-to-blogger, but the responsibility still stands.

This idea of speaking from within our own experience seems so important to me that I considered writing a blog just on this subject alone. One average thought that legitimately originates from within one's own experience, from within one's own organism, one's essence, is worth 10,000 brilliant ones imported and grafted on to this structure we call personality.

So wherever possible I try to speak about my life and my work as simply and as honestly as possible. I cannot always be smart or clever or probably even honest, but I can do my best to offer you what I have, no strings attached.

Now, as to the overarching theme. I formulate it thus:

What is Nature?

Of course this is a huge question, and we can comfortably agree there is absolutely no possibility of answering it in a blog, or anywhere else, for that matter. However each of us can contribute to the investigation of this question, and in my investigation of spiritual questions, worldly questions, and questions of biology, I continually tend to seek the common threads that bind them together. Above all, I am looking for a piece of fabric that speaks to me about what we are and why we are here.

There is something vast and mysterious taking place within biological life on this planet. Life, in all its variety, functioning as vessels, taking in the trillions of billions of unique conscious impressions of life. If one pauses for a moment to understand the number of impressions being ingested -- yes, that's correct, ingested --and processed on this planet in any given moment, the idea is immediately staggering.

What is this process? What is it creating?

Consciousness is a single living organism; it appears as many different organisms to us, but both our imagination and our perception are limited by our scale and the brevity of our lives. This single organism has been developing and changing itself for billions of years through a process that we call evolution. It contains life and death within itself; in that fact alone it appears to have qualities better ascribed to Gods than to nature. And here, perhaps, the animistic religions had it right-- something resides within nature so much greater than ourselves that to call it God seems reasonable, even if, in order to do so, we have to transport ourselves to the level of galactic clusters and beyond to appreciate just how vast nature really is, and how far beyond any understanding man can ever develop.

In Dogen's "Sutra of mountains and water" (Sansuigyo) he expounds on the relationship between nature and Buddhist thinking. They are intimately related. Christ drew analogies from many sources in nature for his parables; again, it seems impossible to separate the questions of Christianity from the questions of nature. And Gurdjieff, with his vast structural analysis of the cosmos and everything in it, tied us inexorably to the questions of what nature is and what our place in it is.

For many years, it has been my belief that a careful study of organisms, both our own and others, can reveal relationships that will tell us a great deal about the various levels in the universe and how they interact.

We are much better equipped to understand the levels below us than the ones above us; perhaps that goes without saying, but I believe it needs to be said in a world where everyone wants to reach upwards to God before they check to see where their feet are on the ground. We are given this animal nature we dwell within quite specifically in order to explore what it means and to use it as a tool for our development. We need to develop an intimate relationship with it and understand it in as many particulars as humanly possible. It may be that in our animal nature and in our very mortality itself lie answers to questions that we believe we have to seek from the Angels.

Angels are vastly superior beings whose presence alone, were it not for their reassurances, might cause us to go mad. They are very busy with matters that will never concern us at our level, which is why they do not visit men often- you'll notice that they visit men almost exclusively when they are sent- and generally have little to say to them when they do. It is sheer arrogance on our part to seek their counsel or assistance.

On top of that, it is probably best we do not. Take note that in Gurdjieff's cumbersome but stunning classic "Beelzebub's tales to his Grandson" angels actually caused the original erroneous conditions on planet Earth- so much for any dreams about the infallibility of higher states of being- and the higher beings of Beelzebub's race resident on earth who tried to correct them botched the job in one way or another.

It is even more sobering to consider that in the end, it turned out that God had to go to the extreme of incarnating as a human and having himself nailed to a cross in order to fully understand just what was necessary to repair the damage that we humans have done to ourselves.

That is not to say Angels are without mercy, au contraire. Compared to us their mercy is infinite. But it is not a mercy we can understand, because it is unconditional, and everything about us begins with conditions.

Here on this planet, I do not wait for the Angels. I'd like their help, but cannot rely on it. I see that it is true that I am helpless, and- without the Grace of God- alone.

That Grace expresses itself within the context of nature and my impressions of it. In this organism, with this beating heart and these breathing lungs- if there is a God, this is where He will find me, within this vessel.

So if I am not examining the vessel -- examining its nature, examining its makeup, examining its contents -- I cannot know how prepare a place in my heart for God.

So there are the three legs of the stool:

To speak from within one's own experience,
To seek an answer to the question, "what is nature",
To make an effort to discover what it means to prepare a place in our hearts for God.

And if you are thinking here that this man's reach surely exceeds his grasp, you are correct.

Mea culpa.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Ice crystals

There's a hard layer of icy snow over our stretch of the Hudson valley this weekend- flat, perfect, unforgiving. This morning my wife and I trudged across it with the famous dog Isabel, leaving barely a print on its surface.

As we passed the crystalline block of lake ice you see above this text, I was reminded of the fact that the state of a matter is always a question of temperature. Under the right conditions, for example, silicon dixoide is a liquid- but we know it better as quartz.

Solid, liquid, gas- three states. The universe began as a superheated gas- cooled to a liquid plasma- crystallized into planets. We're not that different. DNA- the very stuff that forms us- is a crystalline structure.

The word crystal itself derives from the Greek "to freeze," or congeal. Crystals, however, don't just represent the end result of a loss of heat energy- they also represent its retention in a structured form. So crystallization is a way of preserving information. In separating themselves from their environment crystals preserve what they are, but it is at the expense of relationship and further change.

You'll perhaps recall that I prefer to understand the word information as not meaning data, but rather that which is formed within us. So, as Gurdjieff mentioned, men crystallize as they acquire material. Wrong crystallization is a real danger- once something inner is formed and crystallizes, the only ways to re-form what results are to break it or melt it. Either way the process is painful.

Does that sound kinda weird? People can crystallize?

Think it over. One of the definitions of "crystallize" is to give a definite or concrete and permanent shape to.

This idea isn't so foreign to our ordinary life. We all know that overcoming inner attitudes is incredibly difficult and usually involves a lot of pain and suffering. As we grow older, important parts of us get cold and hard. They become incredibly resistant to change, and to others, they stick out from the rest of our being just like the block of ice you see in the picture. In other words, those parts that solidify become prominent. In many cases we actually rely on them to "get the job done"- whatever the job of the moment seems to be. We all know how that is- no matter what comes up, whatever situation we confront, we may tend to repeatedly tackle it from the same part of ourselves. Even if it's apparent that part is inappropriate, or even disfunctional. Psychologist call it "playing tapes."

Those of you familiar with the Gurdjieff Work may see a similarity between this idea and the idea of "chief feature." No coincidences here.

We fall in love with those parts of ourselves. They can even be (s0mewhat perversely perhaps) very attractive to others. Crystals are bright and clean and pure and glittering. The fact that they represent a frozen state where the possibilites of change are all but gone is lost on us. The beauty of these solid, no longer mutable masses hypnotizes everyone. Before you know it we're all polishing up our inner crystals and holding them up to the light, exclaiming to ourselves about how groovy they look.

We forget that we are trapped in them.

Smashing the crystal is one way of changing, but almost no one is able to do that to themselves. It takes a terrible shock to do that and the results are unpredictable. Take a look at what happened to Humpty Dumpty.

Best not go that way if we can avoid it, huh?

The good news is, there's fuel in us. We have also stored a great deal of material that can be burned to produce heat. This material exists in the form of the experiences we take in over a lifetime. Those experiences are laid down in us like layers of peat, or solid trunks and limbs of wood.

So, in work, if we take that material of life, and we seek that spark of inner fire that God leaves forever burning in us, we can light a flame. With time we may be able to slowly melt that solid material in us. Become softer, more penetrable, bring ourselves to a state where a new chemistry can emerge. One that includes many important elements we left out of the original reaction.

I sense we need our whole lives for that- all the parts of it, every moment we have ever experienced. It is the whole that contains what we need to re-form ourselves.

How can I touch that wholeness of my life, of my being? It includes the past- the present- the future in ways I am unable to understand. There are moments when I brush up against that and sense the vast, mysterious nature of this thing called my life.

Perhaps, as in AA, I just have to go forward, be open, and trust in the process.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


OK, so I'm weird.

I don't find arthropods creepy. I tend to see almost all biological forms as beautiful, even dangerous poisonous ones. I've eaten scorpions in China and gotten up close and personal with tarantulas and big snakes. No problemo.

Two nights ago, I had a dream where I was pulling creepy little things out of my orifices: centipedes, mites. The oddest thing about it was that it did not bother me. It seemed entirely natural that my body would be host to these other organisms.

I woke up and processed that for a while. It didn't make sense. Why have a dream like that?

Later in the day it struck me: the dream was true.

We don't think about it much, but at any given moment our body is host to billions of other living organisms, including countless types of bacteria, nematodes (microscopic worms which are found by the trillions everywhere) and mites (you probably don't want to know this, but you have a mite living in the follicle at the base of every one of your eyelashes. Every single one of us has them. They are so ubiquitous that biologists think they may even be necessary for some reason we don't quite understand yet.)

OK, now that I've finished totally grossing you out, let's go on. The interesting thing is that we are habitats for other creatures: we are their world, their planet.

Wow, I thought. Amazing. This dream was telling me the truth in a very simple way. It was pointing me towards another important understanding about ourselves.

There is a tremendous similarity between men and planets. Human beings have all the characteristics we associate with planets: There's wind, in the form of our breath. The wind exchanges substances, creating weather (evaporation and precipitation.) Our bodies are filled with oceans called blood that run in currents. We have a hot core, eruptive volcanoes that release heat (sweat), and an atmosphere composed of our outward manifestations. There's material falling in from outside the atmosphere- the impressions we take in. Our bodies are affected by and run on a complex set of electromagnetic relationships.

This analogy refers us back once again to the idea of our inner solar system. From our level, we want to become like a solar system: we want to form an inner sun. However from the point of view of all the life forms that inhabit us we are a planet.

Now recall what Gurdjieff said about planets wanting to become suns and perhaps you'll see a bit more about why this analogy is so utterly, incredibly appropriate. You may also recall how he urged us to think about the idea of worlds and exactly what it meant.

Perhaps more important, when we understand ourselves as planets, we begin to see ourselves as the custodians of a community. We are composed of different communities: communities of cells, communities of organs, communities of biological organisms, symbiotes, parasites. You name it, it's all in there.

So perhaps this idea of the microcosmoses that make up our body can help us to make more of an effort to see ourselves within the context of the larger communities we inhabit.

It's all part of that work we were made to engage in here in the middle kingdom: serving as a bridge between levels, connecting the bottom to the top.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Psyche and centers

Shadows, slot canyon, New Mexico

I had a long drive to work this morning due to winter weather, and had plenty of time to ponder the nature of things. Today it was the connection between psyche and body, or centers.

Traditionally, the territory occupied by the psyche is seen as mysterious-impenetrable- marvelous. What we don't understand is that most of that is conceit. It isn't the psyche- our personality- that has all these qualities. It's the essence. And essence is not, like the personality, of, from, and for the outer world: it is born within the centers.

It is our most secret self. Thus I chose this picture, which for me evokes a real sense of the mysterious: a beautiful shadow that represents something we cannot quite touch from where we are now in life.

So, where to begin that quest?

In the beginning of a spiritual work, we inevitably take everything in with the intellectual mind, which I shall call the psyche for the sake of brevity.

By psyche I mean all the various commonplace elements of consciousness. Gurdjieff called this associative center; whatever you wish to name it, let's just note that in our ordinary state this is the "business end" of the complex combination of organic functions which we manifest. This is the locus of our personality.

Everything comes into us and is processed and turned around by this "business end" I'm calling the psyche. It can't be any other way; this is the main tool we have been given to work with as we begin our lives.

Welcome to the wonderful world of mental science! We study it; we analyze it; we try in every way possible to find out what makes it tick, what is wrong with it, so that we can improve its functioning, because, in general- especially in this day and age- everyone seems to agree that there are things wrong with theirs. In the Gurdjieff work we analyze it in very great detail, dividing it into parts and trying to see how each part of the psyche functions and affects us.

I’ve seen people spend most of a lifetime convinced they can find answers like this, working from the top down. Our personality, our intellectual part, spends a great deal of time offering convincing arguments to that effect. Our concept of what it means to work starts out inverted.

Sooner or later, though, in any real spiritual Work we have to come to what I would have to call a "ground floor recognition:"

The system cannot be changed from the top down, no matter how hard we try.

If any durable transformation ever takes place, it has to take place from the bottom up. This is foundation-up change: the rock upon which a church is built.

In this case it means, as Gurdjieff said, that change must be physiological. The work must invert itself to become of a work of connecting our centers, which are the locus of our essence. The whole state of our being, whatever it is, arises from the centers, not the psyche …Who really understands this? To get even a taste of it is a big thing.

The centers inside our bodies, which all speak in different languages, work at different speeds, and do not communicate with each other, must be brought into a new kind of relationship. They have to discover a harmony between each other. Refer you back to my earlier posting about the enneagram for a map of the connections between centers.

It isn’t until we recognize the fundamental need to connect our centers within that we can begin the real work of reassembling this broken machine we live in.

And that, as formidable a task as it may seem, is only a first step on the path to inner unity.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Intrinsic Joy

One of the things I have learned over the last five years of my life is that we are capable of achieving an inner state of joy that cannot be produced- or influenced- by external events.

Perhaps we could refer to this as intrinsic joy. It isn't born out of the things we do, or what we own, or how things are generally turning out in life. It is organic, that is, it arises from and resides within the organism itself. It's a substance that flows within the body, not an idea in the mind. It's part of the machinery of our lives, not part of the concept of them.

It occurs to me as I write this that this word "organic" is being used overly-much in today's world, and that I am officially one of the guilty parties. However, in this case it is difficult to think of another word that could mean "of the organism."

Intrinsic joy is not achieved through a better understanding of our psychology. It cannot be attained through the application of self-help programs, exercise classes, or any other external factor. It has to be sought and cultivated within the context of the body itself in its relationship with life.

That may sound peculiar to you. "What the hell does he mean," you are perhaps thinking. "If I can't get it by doing yoga, going to weekend retreats, seeing my shrink, winning at golf, or buying a terrific plasma screen television, why even bother discussing it?"

I think we need to discuss it because it's important for people to understand that the attainment of real inner joy is not dependent on materialism of any kind, at least not in the sense that we usually understand the word. The only material it depends on is the material of the impressions of our life and how we receive them. That, and Grace, which is a real and material force on the planet.

This work we call spiritual work- whether it's Dogen's work, Christ's work, Gurdjieff's work- is all about learning how to rightly receive and value our lives. It's within the development of that understanding that this joy I speak of can arrive. It may take years to discover, but it is available.

The atheists, agnostics, pessimists, and naysayers on this subject are all welcome to their own worlds. God bless 'em.

My world is a world where you can seek a flower within yourself, let it bloom, and understand that joy is something that flows upwards from the roots of the universe , downwards from the blossoming light of the galaxies, and into every body that prepares a place to receive it. Every human being has these flowers within themselves. Most people never even know it. They may even see pictures of them-Buddhists love to make pictures like that- and not know that the pictures are pictures of themselves.

Even a trickle of this joyful lightness of being is transformational. It takes some work, I won't deny it. But it's worth it.

So- two worlds. Take your pick.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sacred vessels

Tree, New Mexico

Some will recall that in an earlier post I mentioned the first significant thing I ever really understood about our actual nature is that we are vessels into which the world flows.

Today I will offer a few further insights into that matter.

The idea of that which is contained, and that which contains it, is a common theme in sacred traditions. Vessels play important roles in many rituals, whether it's bull's blood in a clay bowl or the holy grail. Often the vessels are just as important as what they contain: they have to be made of certain substances, in certain shapes, in order to qualify for their contents. In other words, it’s not just about the stuff in the vessel; it’s about the relationships.

Three things are important to this set of relationships, container and the contained: the first two are what things are- that is, the essential nature of their being, their meaning- and where they are. We cannot make anything our own without an understanding of those two elements. If we do not know where something is- location-, we cannot find it, and if we do not know what something is- meaning-, we cannot use it.

The third relationship that is important in terms of vessels is conservation. Vessels confer a magical quality upon their contents: the contents become self. The intervention of the vessel’s walls distinguishes between what is inside and what is outside, and it conserves what is inside, keeping it pure. So, if for example we have a perfume that is placed in a sacred vessel, it is not just any perfume, it is that specific perfume, separate from the world and unique unto itself.

Evidently there is a lot going on in this idea of vessels and their contents.

So, we take man as a vessel that contains the world. As impressions flow into us, these three characteristics are defined for them: they acquire a location - within us- they acquire a meaning- what they consist of- and, in their containment within this vessel we call a body, they acquire an identity, a definable separateness.

What struck me about all this today was the following:

We are responsible not only for containing our own lives within this vessel as we receive them, but also the lives of all those we encounter.

That concept struck me around noon as I was pondering my relationship to my parents over a cup of coffee, staring out the window at a winter sky.

My parents are getting elderly, they are not as tough and invulnerable as they once seemed. I have lived for some time with the sense that they will not be with me forever, and it is sobering. Looking back on my life with them, I realized that their lives do not just belong to them- they belong to me as well, because as a container I have taken in their life from them, received the impressions of their being, and my container is holding that in the form of my experiences and my memories.

This is on the order of a very big idea. It is definitely not going to far to say that in doing this, we are participating in a sacred act. We become the custodians of the being of the individuals we interact with, because their being lives not just within their own impressions, but also in my impressions of them. The reverse holds true as well: what I pour into the vessels of others also enriches or pollutes the world of their vessel, according to my own effort.

Our life is not just our own: it is formed in equal part by other lives. Without that- what would we be? Not very much, certainly.

Upon realizing this I understood that there is a sacred responsibility incumbent upon us as the custodians of the impressions of others, both in giving and receiving. How do we take those impressions in? Do we respect them enough? Do we attend to them, do we cherish them? If we do a bad job of this our vessel will end up filled with stale and impure contents- and we all know how that feels. Understanding this idea better could truly help us to transform our relationship with others.

We are, for better or for worse, universally blended together, by our impressions, in a subtle brotherhood we do not even consider from day to day.

To know this better might be a step in the direction of what the Buddha would call right value. Somewhere within this understanding, I believe, lie the roots of the idea of Christ's compassion; the roots of Gurdjieff's practice of outer considering.

With all that in mind, let us better value one another as we ponder.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Lines of communication

I'll confess: I'm drop-kicking this blog. Starting with the photograph- telephone poles over the salt marsh on the Hudson river at the mouth of the Sparkill- I spontaneously extrapolated a title. Just to see what would happen.

Now, I'll just write.

So many things in a creative life begin like this, with a spontaneous exploration that begins with a single gesture, a single choice. A decision not unlike the decision at the quantum level, where waves and particles are distinguished by an act of perception far too fine for us to comprehend.

Before the decision, uncertainty; after the decision, the beginning of something we call existence.

The art- the magic- lies in taking that first step and then letting the piece that results emerge organically from its beginning. The first gesture is a seed; it contains complete genetic instructions for the entire entity within the moment of its genesis. That single gesture which begins a piece of writing- or art- or music- already finds its whole being contained within that first moment, that first movement.

That is the secret: in a real piece of art, the whole thing is already there when the first movement of creation takes place. That first Do defines the whole octave.

When it is whole, and wants to be born, the creation will flawlessly unfold from that gesture, almost without any interference from the artist. Indeed, if the artist manages- and this happens quite rarely- to fully inhabit the role of the artist, his or her presence within the piece remains almost unknown. The artist becomes transparent, a medium channeling a higher kind of force, not an agent controlling the process. In the greatest of art- and we see this constantly in nature- the artist is so completely invisible that it appears there is no artist.

If the artist truly inhabits the growth of an art event in this manner, they will tell you: it is as though they can do no wrong. There is a lawfulness to the birth and the growth of the piece: it makes itself, and the artist is left only to try to be present within the process, in a moment of stunned wonder, as the art, like a living organism, takes on its own life in front of them.

I've participated many times in this kind of exchange between artist and medium, in many mediums- writing, painting, graphic arts, pottery, music- and what results in those rare real pieces is always baffling to me when it is over. More often than not, I am unable to tell anyone just how I arrived at what came; in fact, I did not arrive at it at all. It arrived at itself; I was merely an observer that facilitated, not an agent that acted. It did not come from me. It came through me. In fact, over and over again, as I listen to my latest CD, the music does not seem like anything I could do. It does not belong to me.

Something is communicated through this process we call art. It is the higher reaching down into this level through these flawed, clumsy vehicles we call bodies, trying to send us a message. Often, the message gets twisted as it maneuvers through the labyrinth of our psychology, the narrow corridors of our tiny minds, and the cramped space occupied by our muscles. Nonetheless, the germ is there. We must learn to trust in the process, trust in that which wishes to communicate itself.

And when we can really, truly step aside to let the art become itself, then the art is good- because it isn't art-

It's celebration- it's joy-

it's worship.

And that which deeply calls us to prayer,

That which calls us to our knees the way the Mullah calls the faithful to afternoon prayer,
Calls us the way Gurdjieff's music calls us to search,
Calls us the way a church bell rolls across frozen fields on a dark gray winter morning,
Anything which deepens our communication with an organic inner connection to the sacred,

that can be respected.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Ground floor symbolism

The above photograph is a portion of a carpet in a private collection, reproduced here with permission of the owners. (click on the image to see a handsomely enlarged version.)

The design of this carpet is quite simple: a large framed medallion in a repeat. If you inspect it more closely, you’ll see the medallion is composed of a number of flowers, arranged vertically and contained within several larger structures.

It’s not just a pretty design—although we can be entirely comfortable reading it that way! The carpet contains a detailed diagram of the inner energy structures of man—referred to as Chakras by the Hindus, and Centers by Gurdjieff.

Inner centers, like the universe, operate according to the law of octaves, and we can read information about our structure and the work to create a bridge between levels in this carpet.

In the accompanying diagram, I have marked what I believe are the major features of the diagram. “Primary” structures—the centers themselves- are circled. Secondary and auxiliary structures are marked by rectangles.

I have taken the liberty of indicating some structures you may be unfamiliar with based on my own work. It is not possible to outline the exact meaning and nature of some of these auxiliary structures, although they play definite physical roles in man if they are active. However I will offer some commentary on a few interesting features that are more accessible to brief discussion.

The top of the diagram is the 7th Chakra which is Do, or higher intellectual center, in the Gurdjieff system. This center lies outside the rest of the system because it represents energy from a higher level (see my essay “Chakras and the Enneagram” for more detail about this. Available upon request.) It is surrounded by three contact points representing the law of three, which is the higher law whose action is mediated by the higher note Do.

The largest single feature in the diagram is the throat Chakra, a complex structure that includes several auxiliary structures related to the Zen energy practices of piercing the nostrils and tending the ox. (Horns and nostrils.)

The size and significance of this center is interesting. Paramahansa Yogananda identifies the medulla oblongata as the chief apparatus for receiving astral energy. This diagram appears to assign it a similar significance. You’ll furthermore note that the center has a red center, like the solar plexus, which creates a visual relationship between these two important sources of stored spiritual energy.

The other most significant feature of this diagram is the manner in which it depicts the upper and lower stories in man, with the heart serving as the bridge. The upper story is much larger than the lower, symbolically representing man’s effort to allow his higher nature to instruct the lower, rather than the other way around.

Some of the structures in the diagram represent “secret” chakras and other significant points of energy storage, flow and/or blockage. Take for example the very interesting complexity of the solar plexus, often understood as occupying a single specific location. The diagram shows the subsidiary chakras that play important roles in the storage and release of higher energies in this center's work. To be honest, I took a few liberties in creating this diagram and there are some innaccuracies there that probably ought to be addressed.

It may, however, be more interesting for you to find out about that through personal work. A careful study of this carpet, with a further effort to relate it to inner processes, may yield the persistent student with significant insights into the process of opening the inner flowers within the body.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Octaves, and some notes about impressions

As promised, the diagram of the enneagram, showing dependent octaves. Unfortunately this diagram does not display so wonderfully well on the web- the really itty bitty octaves are just blobs-, but you get the idea.

There is a very great deal I could say about this diagram, but let's try to keep it limited for now.

As it happens, the understandings here are hardly new. However, other pieces of art I have seen depict the relationships incorrectly, most often by failing to properly show that every note is the "Do" of a completed octave beneath it. Seeing this helps us to understand levels and their lawful relationships, in that every level is a fractal version of the levels both above and below it. The levels are dependent on each other. ...This might remind you of the idea that God actually needs our work, and if it does, you're on the right track.

Also, take a look at the nature of the enneagrams that fall in the locations of the shocks. Interesting.

This morning I was considering the idea of receiving an impression with all of my parts. What might that mean?

One of the first true things I ever understood with more than just my mind was that we are vessels into which the world flows. We are designed as receiving apparatuses- nerve cells in the body of God, so to speak.

I rather think all of organic life fulfills this function: every organism is designed to take in impressions of this planet at the level it lives on. (Pause here and take another look at the enneagram and its dependent octaves.) When one considers the fact that at every moment there are countless trillions upon trillions of trillions of microorganisms exploring every nook, crevice, and cranny of this planet from the inside out, one realizes that the planet is equipped with a very fine sensory apparatus indeed. The sheer number of impressions of reality being experienced during every nanosecond on earth is so huge as to defy comprehension.

This is an incredibly satisfying realization from the point of view of biology alone: but poetically speaking, that's God, exploring His creation. We're lucky enough to be part of that grand experiment: think of us, perhaps, as the lead members of a huge spelunking expedition from the astral level. A party who has forgotten who we are, where we came from, and why we are here.

With flashlights that have batteries of a strictly limited life span.

For the individual, this extraordinary collective enterprise narrows itself down into a fine point called consciousness. Consciousness is here to perceive. Each time, in this moment.

Think about that. Consciousness is not here to make money, or build buildings, or drive cars, or even to have sex or eat. First and foremost and above all, it is here to perceive all of those things. Animals aren't encumbered with equipment to interfere; however, in the case of man, that simple fact has been buried under an avalanche of assumptions.

How to return to something a bit more basic?

When I sense an impression more fully, the following processes arise in me:

Sensation. A moving center response.
Perception (comprehension). An intellectual center response.
Gratitude. The emotional center response.

Of the three, gratitude is the one that most informs me that a more three-centered experience is under way. I speak here of an organic, intelligent, and autonomous gratitude that arises within the body and all of its parts. It can, under more favorable conditions, produce a spontaneous call to prayer. In extreme cases it produces religious ecstasy, which is an equal blend of sheer joy and absolute anguish.

Those are more special conditions, granted, but they help indicate just how truncated our ordinary state is.

Gratitude of this kind plays a special role in religion. There are countless prayers praising and extolling the virtues of God. Nonetheless, to experience them organically as a natural response to the ordinary conditions of life is, perhaps, a bit unusual. That's because I am not properly connected inside. If I were, this would strike me as a far more routine event.

My, this is a long blog. How I do go on. I think I'll pack it in for tonight.

Tomorrow: if there is time: a photograph of a rather special rug, with some interesting observations about its design.

Regards to all,


Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Perspective, and what brings us together

The above diagram charts a set of relationships between Gurdjieff's Ray of Creation and the various subjects of centers, chakras, notes, and numbers. It serves to underscore relationships between man's organism, his cosmological identity, and the numerical relationships contained in the enneagram. I meant to post it yesterday but it seemed confusing to have both this and the enneagram in the same post.

The diagram may help you to understand why Gurdjieff said that man has a universe within himself. In fact, man has physical organs whose roles correspond to the roles played by celestial bodies. See my post the inner solar system for a bit more on this concept.

The chart helps map some relationships that will be of interest in further work. I call your attention in particular to the relationship between 2- sex and 8- third eye. The relationship between these two centers is well known to yoga schools (see Paramahansa Yoganada's comments on the subject) but only Gurdjieff's diagram explains why by connecting the two directly within the circulatory system of human energy.

...Stay tuned for tomorrow's posting of a very interesting diagram of the nature of relationship between dependent octaves.

In the future I will be hosting a web site that offers much more detailed information on these questions. Please be patient while it is under construction.

However, today I'd rather not get into further discussion about the theoretical implications of this chart. Instead I have an interest in discussing how we view ourselves.

This morning I went upstairs with a bowl of cereal at 6:30 a.m. and pestered my infinitely patient wife Neal into waking up to chat. Why she tolerates this kind of behavior from me is unclear, but it certainly leaves the needier parts of me grateful.

During our chat, I made the observation to her that our view of ourselves is much too narrow. Once having fielded that thought, it seemed worthy of further examination.

Spiritual work involves a broadening of view. We wish to see more of how we are and what is around us. But we find ourselves stuck in identifications- Buddhists call them attachments- that rule us.

Attachments implies that we manage to preserve a separation between ourselves and "temptation." It should be clear to all that, in truth, we don't. Gurdjieff understood that we become what we are attached to. In regard to the Buddha's concept, I'm not sure whether we want to call this revisionism, reinvention, or reinterpretation, but whatever it is, it is formidably more accurate.

I much prefer the term identifications because the word better describes the way that "it"- the attractions of the experience of the outside world- becomes "I." That is, "I" is totally composed of "it." "I" as we experience ourselves is hence a seething mass of desires, complusions and impulses that perpetually react to outer circumstances. Our force of Being- what little there is- is absorbed like a sponge. And in case you hadn't considered it before, that world out there is a pretty damn big sponge.

Scale once again comes into play as we see that we are handily outclassed by the forces around us. We can't help but be influenced. All we can do, as Gurdjieff said, is choose which forces to be influenced by.

And the narrower our perspective, the less choices we have.

In my own case, I am reminded of how I spent almost thirty years absorbed in what now seems a very narrow definition of myself, which dictated that I spend an inordinate amount of time making art. I did this at the expense of human relationships and I really believed I was doing something quite important. It took a terrible shock and the almost complete destruction of the subjective circumstances of my outer world in order for me to see how constricting this idea was.

Dropping an idea about myself, especially one that I have used for most of a lifetime as an interpretative tool (by that I mean a tool I use to give this set of experiences called "life" a context and a meaning) may seem very threatening, but in reality it is an incredibly powerful tool in the search for liberation. It turns out, you see, that almost all my ideas about myself are wrong, and yet they are so compelling I am utterly blinded by them. Every single one of them appears to be too important to sacrifice.

And each one of them serves as a device that divides me from myself.

This is perhaps the most difficult thing to understand, that we use the "conceptual discrimination of the mind" to cut ourselves into little pieces.

We can change our focus with some effort. What's needed, I think, is to begin to understand life from the point of view of what brings us together, not what divides us. Too much of life is spent focusing on divisions, and a house divided cannot stand, whether inner or outer.

This means re-casting the questions of our life so that we affirm our possibilities. Instead of engaging in an inner dialogue of critique- whether a critique of myself or of others- I can try to ask myself, in any moment, how can I support others? What positive contribution can I make?

Just as we need to make inner efforts to knit together the disparate notes of the inner octave, so we need to find a path towards wholeness in our outer life. This path is organic, because in essence it is discovered and birthed beginning through the inner effort.

Inner energy, if rightly ordered, has a natural wish to bring us under more positive influences.
If we work to open the inner flowers of each center, we cannot help but find ourself in a more positive state, because the energies that regulate and arise from this process cannot have any negativity in them.

It is not too bold to say that this is the path to what Christ called "The Peace of God which passeth all understanding."

You can find it. It's in there.

with love-


Monday, February 5, 2007

The energy system

I've written on a number of occasions about the role of centers in inner work, and the fact that Gurdjieff's enneagram is- among other things- a diagram of inner energy centers, or chakras.

This point seems lost on a lot of people I talk to. I have even had the reaction, from very intelligent and serious people, long term "aspiring disciples of Gurdjieff," so to say, of:

"So what?"

Here's what.

Various schools of yoga, and other schools interested in the flow of "esoteric" energy (AKA chi, prana, etc.) within the body, have proposed a wide variety of systems to explain how, when, where and why energy flows in this, that, or the other direction. Proposals include energy flowing up, down, in circles, front, back, and so on.

The body is an extremely complex system. In the absence of a comprehensive interpretive tool to understand it, so many different things go on that it's well nigh impossible to bring order to it. The temptation is to make up the best analogue you can.

Gurdjieff's diagram removes the subjectivity from this question. This diagram is a picture of how the inner centers of the human body are set up, what the relationships between them are, and how energy flows between them. In other words, this is a picture of your inner machine.

The psychological interpretations of this diagram pale in significance to this physical understanding, because if one works to comprehend this system through inner exercise, one obtains a key to gently unlock the secrets of the system in a balanced manner.

The dynamic nature of the diagram, and its intricacy, go a long way towards explaining why there are so many systems claiming to explain how energy moves. Each one of them understands part of the picture, but few, if any, of them really see how the whole system is in relationship. Furthermore, none of the other systems understand the role of the law of three- a higher energy- in producing shocks to raise the rate of vibration at the critical junctions (3 and 6.)

I have taken the liberty in the diagram above of providing a specific set of relationships between body centers, or chakras, and the various notes in the enneagram.

It's essential to obtain a direct and practical understanding of this diagram and its action within the body if you want to understand your machine. Nothing we wish to achieve can take place outside the context of this inner structure.

There are a great number of valuable inner exercises that can be undertaken using this diagram. Many of them will help to explain piecemeal understandings from other systems. Relationships involving upper and lower triads, as well as the exchange of energy between them and their dynamic interation with each other, are all subject to the laws of the ennegream and can be discerned and put in a reliable context with a discriminating use of the system.

The most remarkable thing about this diagram, for me, is that it deftly knits the teachings of many other systems together.

Remember: in Gurdjieff's system, the functions of the universe are determined by the law of three and the law of seven, which interact directly in the enneagram to produce completed octaves. Unless we want to subvert and throw out the whole of Gurdjieff's teaching, we must presume things can't happen inside us any other way. Even if they happen wrongly, or don't happen at all, they do so in the context of these laws.

Using this valuable tool to study our inner condition is well worth the time. If the energy in the body is brought even one step forward into right relationship, many other things which seem quite impossible now will gradually take place of their own accord.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Threads of time

Today I am in Ithaca, NY and I had occasion to visit Trumansburg, the town where my girlfriend lived 30 years ago. During the summer I would frequently take the bus down from Canton (a 4 hour ride) and then hitchhike into Trumansburg.

Seeing the house she lived in 30 years later provoked a kind of pondering that has struck me many times in the past five years.

My life is connected from that time to this time, and I often think that we ought to be able to connect forward in life as well as backwards. That is, I ought to be able to sense the future and see how it is as easily as I can recall the past. That may sound odd, but it continually strikes me that there is a truth contained in this continuity of life: what has happened is true and will always be true. It was all already true "before it happened," so to speak.

I believe that there is a certain element of inevitability here; call it determinism, fate, or whatver you want to. It remind me of Mr. Gurdjieff's adage: For one thing to be different, everything would have had to be different, and that is on the order of suggesting the entire universe and everything in it would have to be different. Things cannot be different than they are, and how things are now has everything to do with how things will be later.

How do we really sense our connection to our own past? There is a mystery contained within this that I wish to be more sensitive to. The posssibility of seeing this life as one single whole thing becomes increasingly interesting. If that really took place, something quite new would be seen.

Threads of energy run through our bodies. The threads of our experience run through time. Existence is a loom that shuttles those threads into patterns designed by a master weaver we do not know and cannot see.

We can sense those threads, though- at least some parts of us can. In a moment like that we know how we contain the whole of our life within this vessel, tangible within a single inward breath.

It's all a matter of continually tuning the inner state to receive the impressions of our life.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Elements of consciousness

Yesterday I mentioned a thought about location. Today I'll discuss that thought.

I was walking the famous dog Isabel on Wednesday morning at about 6:00 am when it struck me how cold it seemed to be.

In passing I briefly seized the massive iron girders of the bridge that crosses the sparkill- iron straight from the heart of a dead star, I thought to myself- and realized that from a certain perspective, it wasn't cold at all.

It was warm.

The universe is composed of immeasureably vast stretches of space and innumerable planets where it is intensly colder than the range of temperatures we inhabit. On top of that, it is equally stuffed full of places where it is intensely hotter. In fact, I realized, our conscious beings inhabit an incredibly tiny, limited range of temperatures.

Put us anywhere outside that range and we're instantly done for.

Contrast that now, if you will, with the observation that everything is conscious. Consciousness , as I have pointed out before, is an irreducible property of the universe. It manifests in different ways according to level, but it is present everywhere, from the quantum level upwards. Viewed from the objective vantage point of both physics and my own subjective personal epxeriences, consciousness is fundamentally electromagnetic, and: no consciousness, no universe to be perceived, hence no universe.

So what we call (and perceive as) consciousness is a tiny thing that lives within a narrow range of temperatures. We can't know anything about consciousness outside of that range...

yet it is there.

Change the temperature twenty degrees and "I' am cold. But the astral-or planetary- level of consciousness includes a range that runs from the very hot core of the planet to the extremely cold outer reaches of the atmosphere. We're talking changes of tens of thousands of degrees, not to mention pressures that would squash us flatter than a bug. The earth's astral consciousness, however, is entirely comfortable within that deafening range.

Think about it a little further: let's take the sun. In order to have a relationship with that level of consciousness you'd have to be able to take on some real heat. I sometimes hear people speak about "developed" others having a "solar" nature, but when I look up at the sun- intending no disrespect towards the achievements of others, I think the term may be used a wee bit too loosely. Such allegory is a wonderful thing- up until it collides with the material consequences of nuclear physics.

This whole line of reasoning may seem abstract, but it isn't. It raises questions of level and scale, two properties of the universe that Mr. Gurdjieff spent a good deal of time discussing. In spiritual work, we make an effort to see our place and know what we are, under the presumption that we must know at least that much before we can add anything worth having to it.
One might argue that these questions of heat are just material questions of physics, of matter, but let's recall what Mr. Gurdjieff said: everything is material. Consciousness itself is embedded within this material universe: it is the fabric of space-time itself that is conscious.

So what we seek to have a relationship with- different levels of consciousness- is quite alien to us, not just in metaphysical but also in very physical ways.

What does all this mean? I do believe it has implications we should consider, but in the end I can't tell you. It is a more a line of inquiry meant to provoke a sense of wonder, and to serve as encouragement to use the mind to ponder.

Even if we aren't very smart.