Monday, February 26, 2007
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.