Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Exoskeletons and Endoskeletons

Today, once again, we are going, using lessons from nature, to examine the ideas of the Gurdjieff work, and esoteric spiritual work in general: this time, in comparison to more conventional religious practice.

So, here's the question: What exactly is the difference, if any, between a work such as the Fourth Way and what we might call "conventional" religion?

If we examine the way that organisms exist-- what their being is, so to speak, "mounted" on-- we see that all organisms have support structures called skeletons. Even cells themselves have skeletons. It is all but impossible to organize life at all without a structural support to mount it on.

In the macroscopic biological world, there are two major kinds of skeletons: exoskeletons and endoskeletons.

Arthropods in general, and insects in particular, have exoskeletons. These are hard support structures that form a shell around the insect, protecting it from the outside world and giving it a complete, if limited, structure within which to exist. Some arthropods such as crabs have evolved the ability to molt (shed) their exoskeletons and thus grow larger. Insects, however, do not retain an ability of this kind once they reach their adult form, even though they may shed exoskeletons during their larval stages and in metamorphosis. Exoskeletons are an "outside- in" arrangement. They are, in the most literal sense of the words, superficial and external: what you see on the surface is exactly what you get.

But make no mistake about it. Despite their limitations, exoskeletons appear around us in a wide range of alluring and fantastic shapes. Within their range, they are supremely adaptive. Every one is a remarkable marvel of natural engineering.

And, as anyone who studies arthropods will tell you, they are both extremely beautiful, and very, very cool.

Mammals, birds, fish and other organisms with spinal columns have endoskeletons. These are internal structures that support the life of the creature. They work, so to speak, from the inside out.

Unlike exoskeletons, they are hidden. Only in death is the extraordinary beauty, integrity, and value of the endoskeleton revealed to the world.

We can liken the function of conventional religion to an exoskeleton. It forms a structure around man, gives him a set of rules to live within, explains just about everything, and makes it clear what he is supposed to do.

In addition, almost every religion, as practiced by its adherents, forms a defensive system against the outside world. Perhaps the greatest difficulty with religion is that it functions in this exclusionary manner. It holds the stranger -- those who do not adhere to the religion -- at arm's length, often excluding him-even with the use of force. So religion creates a fixed location- a kind of virtual fortress- within which Being can exist, and it actively excludes the outside world.

There is a terrific power in this paradigm. Just as ants have strength disproportionate to their size, so do religions.

The Fourth Way is a bit different. It's religion, but it's religion turned upside down. In this type of work, the support structure for Being is formed within. It automatically presumes the necessity for a vulnerability that religion does not admit. In other words, it insists on exposing the organism -- the spiritual embryo -- to all the influences of the outside world, without attempting to discriminate one from the other.

In the case of religion, discrimination takes place as a result of the outer structure, the exoskeleton. In the case of the Fourth Way, and other esoteric works, discrimination becomes the personal responsibility of the individual, because his endoskeleton does not protect him from outside influences.

Religion has a way of outsourcing responsibility in this sense. Once you know the rules in a religion, you always know pretty much what you should do. In the Fourth Way, it is necessary to constantly question everything and re-examine one's position, because there is no protection available from an external support structure.

In a certain sense, one has, by agreeing to this type of work, agreed to expose oneself to all of one's own fears.

In the Fourth Way, we agree to attempt to become aware of our exoskeleton and gradually shed it as we attempt to replace it with a more sophisticated, and more flexible, inner structure.

In the action of shedding this external structure-often called "ego" or "personality"- we make an agreement to submit to conditions. We make an agreement to let the world in a new way.

We make an agreement that we don't know anything.

It is not safe. We only have our own faith to lead us forward in the assumption that the risk is worth it.

Let's be fair: both types of support structure are necessary under certain conditions, both for organisms, and for spiritual works. Each one is valid, and each one carries within it enormous potentials. Nature would not produce both exoskeletons and endoskeletons if they did not each confer specific advantages. Hence, Gurdjieff's admonition to respect all religions.

There is one last thing I would like us to look at today-attempting to see this from the point of view of evolution on a greater scale.

Mother nature did her first experiments with creatures that have exoskeletons many millions of years ago. During the Carboniferous period, insects were very much larger than they are today. Dragonflies had wingspans 3 feet across. Over the course of their evolution, colonial insects such as wasps, ants, and bees evolved extraordinarily complex social structures. (Ants are actually descended from wasps, but that is another question.)

Some of you will no doubt recall P. D. Ouspensky's observation that insects were a failed experiment in the Earth's effort to evolve higher forms of consciousness.

Why do you think that happened?

The reason that insects failed was because they lacked flexibility.

In the end, their social structures were just as stiff as their exoskeletons, utterly ruled by a rigid, mechanical set of habits. Studies of ants, for example, have shown that their individual behavioral capabilities are remarkably simple. To this day scientists marvel at how very complex behavioral responses emerge from a community of creatures with such a limited range of abilities. (This property is called emergence. Emergence is the "universal organizing principle" that produces consciousness itself.)

If a man cannot expand his horizons and improve his flexibility, he will ultimately achieve no more than an insect can achieve. The choice is up to us. We need to work together in community as human beings to break down these exoskeletons-- our belief systems, our egos and personalities-- that separate us, and nourish our endoskeletons, which is the only support structure worthy of being called a truly human support system. This is the effort of a man attempting to shed the exoskeleton of his quotation marks.

This question of a vulnerability and flexibility, which nature offers us so readily and so generously, is right in front of us at all times. It relates directly to the question of compassion.

The compassionate man, unlike an insect, lets the world into his heart and seeks a response using all of his parts. Of course it's dangerous; as we attempt to practice in this manner, we will get hurt again and again.

But what did Jesus Christ tell us about this? He advised us to turn the other cheek. We must keep trying to grow this inner structure that supports our lives, even if it means suffering in a way that we needn't tolerate when we rely on our shell.

If we want to grow an inner structure, we must offer ourselves to our lives instead of using our barriers to shut them out.

In this effort, we might perhaps try to understand both nature, and nurture, this way:

Always feed the hand that bites you.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

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