Saturday, December 22, 2007

Many rivers

It's difficult to see how narrow we are. From within our narrowness, we believe we are wide. We are all Lilliputians: tiny creatures obsessed with the idea that we control forces much larger than ourselves.

We come up against huge forces that we give names to, such as religion, and war; we believe we have the power to accept or dismiss them, to direct them, to decide whether they are meaningful or not. In our arrogance, we don't see that they are bigger than we are, and have a meaning and an existence regardless of our opinion.

Last night, I was talking to a devoutly spiritual woman who insisted she was not religious, but philosophical. She dismissed the very idea of religion as though it were snot. She could not even see that she was, in fact, deeply religious, at least as it is generally understood by those who study such questions. But, like many people, she did not seem to understand what the term "religion" actually means (to re-connect, or re-member); she had merely adopted it as a slogan so that she could express reaction against it. In one of the deepest troughs of irony I have seen anyone wallow in lately, she described her intense meditation practice, centering around bliss, as "spiritual" rather than "religious."

Don't get me wrong. This person was a wonderful woman, intelligent, warm, and sensitive; I had a delightful conversation with her that I believe ended on a positive note, despite my habit of raising uncomfortable questions and challenging statements in order to see where she was coming from.

I walked away from it with, as usual, a further set of obnoxious personal questions about what we believe and think, and how it collides with the inevitable reality of existence.

One of the bon mots that this gentle woman served me was a stock phrase that I hear from almost everyone with a practice: "there are many rivers." Everyone repeats nonsense like this, as though there were a thousand different sets of practices that could lead people to consciousness, and any combination of them would work.

Human beings have fallen in love with the idea of many rivers because that way they can have their own river. Isn't that nice? A river of our very own. How special we are.

In acquiring our own majestic river, we forget one thing: there is only one kind of water. Yes, it may be salty or fresh, but water, in its essence, is still water, no matter how you flavor it or what you add to it. Water forms rivers; rivers don't form water. For once, it's not a chicken-egg question; we don't need to ask which one came first.

It is the water that is important, not the river. In falling in love with the river, we forget that it is not about the form of the river -- it is about its essence, what it contains -- that is, the water. You might say that we have all fallen victim to a syndrome where we cannot see the water for the rivers.

It's this exact disease of wanting our own river that the whole "spiritual" train derails on.

There are not countless different laws running the universe. There is a single limited set, a number of which are known. We may not be able to explain exactly why these laws are there, but we know that they are. In and of themselves, laws provide powerful constraints on every aspect of development within the universe. They constrain the direction that the interaction of matter can take; they constrain the direction of evolution; every cause and effect is ruled by law.

The question of the development of consciousness is no different. The whole point of Gurdjieff's enneagram is that it depicts the laws that govern such matters.

Not "aribitrary set of principles that vary according to the whims and beliefs of various individuals according to type."

LAWS.

As Beelzebub so often said to his grandson,

"...Well then, my boy."

We have to be very careful to avoid turning our work into a communist process, in which we adopt a set of slogans we repeat, and feed ourselves a steady stream of inner propaganda designed to support the regime. We should examine each statement we make with intelligence, and see how it all holds up. All too often, if we scrutinize what we are saying, we will find out that while it sounds marvelous, it contains inherent contradictions or even an outright lack of understanding of the terms we are applying.

This, of course, is the force of habit that dominates our daily exchange with life; we hear other people use terms, they sound good. We imitate them. Others are impressed because we, too, sound good when we say these things. So little of it is based on our own investigation and efforts; much easier to adopt the latest slogan.

Listen to yourself the next time you say some groovy thing that fits right in to the work you belong to. Do you really know what it means? This goes back to the point I made several times over the past week, about the fact that we don't even know what we lack. Our thinking part is unable to determine what we lack. The lack itself comes from our investment in that part.

It is definitely possible to know what we lack. We cannot do that with the ordinary mind. Man does not lack something generalized; what he lacks is something quite specific, which must be discovered by a careful investigation of the inner state. And, as Mr. Gurdjieff advised everyone quite clearly, a man's task is to see precisely what he lacks, in precise terms, and then set out to acquire it by lawful means. Not any old way, by kicking the football up and down the field at random until we happen to strike the goal.

No, Mr. Gurdjieff expected more of human beings that studied his system. He wanted them to become much more specific in their inner investigation, so that they would see and actually understand what it was that was missing.

He wanted us to have an aim.

I just want to pass on one more bit of information for readers. I have taken a brief break from Dogen's Shobogenzo and am reading the Platform Sutra, by Hui Neng, who was the sixth great patriarch of Chinese Zen practice. Hui Neng lived from 638 to 713 A.D. in southern China, not too far from Hong Kong.

This Sutra is the only Sutra outside the Buddha's personal core teachings which is held in the same reverence. It is highly recommended reading; it presents the essential ideas of Buddhism in a simple and accessible context, and lays them out in such a manner that some of their connections to the Gurdjieff work are easier to understand than by plowing the complex, deep soils of Dogen's fields. In its simplicity and beauty, it is comparable to the Tao.

The translation I am reading is by Red Pine and is published by Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006. There is, however, what appears to be an equally servicable translation available for free through links on the Wikipedia site.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

1 comment:

  1. Some time ago the Guardian Angels of mankind noticed that man had lost his way and so they decided they would erect a ladder from heaven to earth whereupon man could climb and thereby re-find his way up. It was a plain wooden ladder stretching all the way from the earth to heaven, and certain men began finding it.

    This worried the Devil, as he was losing souls as they ascended past the clouds and left behind the weather of emotional vagaries which alone the devil can use to turn men hither and thither until their demise.

    So the Devil asked his most trusted demons to think up something that would work against this unseemly event. They came up with something ingenious and the Devil was most pleased. The Devil then erected thousands of ladders going up from earth to heaven. Legally he was bound that all of these ladders should lead to heaven itself; it was not meat that they should just simply go to a dead end or into outer space, and the Devil is also subject to the law. So they were all ladders which led from the earth to the real heaven. But the Devil also had the brilliant idea of painting all the ladders in different vibrant colors and hues and to ornament them with beautiful gems and other interesting baubles.

    This worked with wonderful efficiency. First of all, most men do not seek a ladder at all, since it takes work to climb, and so they remain on the plains where they are easy pickings. But men who do seek a ladder are given thousands to choose from, each more beautiful than the other. Only a "fool" would bother climbing the plain wooden ladder that the Angels had set up when there are so many beautiful ladders to choose from. All the others began climbing various ladders. Some seemed easier to climb than others -- some seemed prettier than others, so men seeing other men climbing the various ladders began to argue amongst themselves as to who's ladder was better. This slowed the men down in their climb and often lead to a man climbing back down his own ladder and climbing up a new ladder. The end result was that almost nobody got up past the clouds and the atmosphere which contain the weather which alone can help the devil in influencing the emotions of man. So although all the ladders actually go to heaven, those who climb the most beautiful ones carry with them the pride of having climbed the "most beautiful ladder". When these reach the gates of heaven they are thrown off for their hubris and have to start all over if they survive the fall, and generally speaking, only those who climbed the plain wooden ladder were admitted through the gates.

    So yes, there are many rivers; many ladders; many paths, but it can be gain-said that there is only one ladder worth climbing -- a man's own. And since a man is plain, he is more likely to climb someone else's ladder, which leads him astray.

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