Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Habit, convention, repitition


When Gurdjieff wrote "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson", he claimed that the chief effect of the organ kundabuffer-- an organ originally implanted in man so that he could not see reality clearly anymore -- was to cause people to feel pleasure through repetition.

It's pretty clear that habit, convention, and repetition are hallmarks of human culture. Within cultures, members collectively observe conventions; we all have habits, that is behaviors that repeat themselves, generally without any awareness of it on our part; and repetition in general is very satisfying. In music, for example, themes repeat themselves in order to establish and satisfy the listener. Music without any themes that repeat somehow seems lacking. The entire culture of pop music thrives on obsessive repetition. Television series (e.g., "House M.D.") repeat the same set of events over and over in endless variations.

That's what sells.

All of this is true of spiritual Works as well. It is the form that sells spirituality off-the-shelf: adopt it, and everything that it says and represents, you instantly become. Buy the books, wear the robes, burn the incense: take all the ingredients, and just add water in the form of a human body. Presto! Extreme makeover. Behold the new man.

The Gurdjieff work is no exception. It has a broad and deeply ingrained set of habits and conventions, and it repeats itself, if you will excuse the expression, repeatedly. My many years in the work have underscored my impression of this.

We often speak of being "open." Yes, it is true that there is an esoteric, or inner, meaning to that. However, the "openness" ought to have its counterpart in external life--it ought to embody a spontaneity --, and it often seems as though it doesn't. All too often, being "open" seems to mean sticking to the rut worn in the road by all the people who were "open" before we were.

Because of habit, convention, and repetition, we all expect people to behave a certain way, speak a certain way, use certain words. This collapse towards a narrowly defined consensus is typical of all forms and organizations; it actually squelches individuation, even though our aim is to be ourselves, that is, whole individuals. As collapses of this kind progress in organizations, people become increasingly convinced that they know exactly what it is they represent, and exactly what they are talking about. Repetition cultivates a buffer that tells us we know who we are, where we are, and what we are doing.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

I am continuing to read the Black Swan , by Nicholas Taleb, a man who may well be the first human being in the world who is arrogant because he thinks he doesn't know everything. A unique combination indeed.

Taleb points out that mankind repeatedly makes the mistake of thinking that it knows what is going on, and what will come next. The repetition that we engage in lulls us into a hypnotic state whereby we think that the world is consistent. This may well be what Gurdjieff was referring to when he spoke of "the evil inner god of self calming." Believing that events, circumstances, surroundings, and relationships are consistent and predictable--and behaving accordingly-- excuses us from the effort of meeting them in a real way.

That is, it puts us to sleep.

We cannot have it both ways. Either we know what we are doing, or we don't. If we really can't know anything and should question everything, then let's actually question everything, instead of questioning "everything except the things we don't want to question."

No assumption should be sacred.

Above all, we should aim within this life to absolutely be ourselves. If we just strive to blend into the crowd--if we are good little doobies that only obey the rules of the form, and speak "as is expected"--if we do not challenge, do not act and speak from our own authority,

well, then, we might as well be sheep.

The shock of going against the habit, against the convention, of our form in order to be ourselves, can be useful both to us and to everyone around us. This does not mean we have to be negative, cruel, rude, or unpleasant.

It simply means we have to try to be genuine.

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

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