Sunday, January 6, 2008

keeping secrets

I make a practice of trying to look situations right in the eyeball and calling a spade a spade. I'm about to do that here.

I am certain some people I know won't agree with this post, but it asks some questions I believe we all tend to avoid.

There is a tendency in esotericism to believe in keeping secrets. The hoarding of information, lore, and technique is an age-old practice.

Part of it originally stemmed from the strictly practical fact that knowledge that fell outside of accepted practices in ancient societies was branded as witchcraft. Esoteric practitioners were thus literally at risk of their life. Religion, as John Dominic Crossan has pointed out, is in some senses a form of state-sanctioned magic, and magic practiced outside the control of the state is a threat to authority.

Thankfully, in most western societies, we've outgrown such medieval notions, and hence—one would think—the need for secrecy has abated.

The need, however, for individuals to exercise control and power has not abated whatsoever; and the practice of keeping secrets has continued in esoteric circles.

Most of this habit of hiding things stems from fear- a fear of loss of control and a fear of giving up power. In addition, of course, hierarchies that hide "secrets" and confine access to knowledge and information to a select group of special initiates do so out of an arrogance that presumes they know what is best for people.

In the minds of such people, they are certain they are special enough to know what is "right" for others, what they should be exposed to. These individuals become self-appointed "protectors of truth," which makes them very special indeed- in their own minds.

The most unfortunate outward manifestation of this kind of narcissism ultimately ends in terror bombings; there may not seem to be a connection, but it all stems from the same narrow type of thinking.

In the open way, there can be no secrets. There isn't even a need for secrecy; actually, most people are not interested in the truth, one can put it directly in front of them and they simply ignore it. There's no need to hide things: better that they be presented openly, honestly, out in the light where everyone can measure them.

While sanctimoniously preaching to Ouspensky about secrecy, Gurdjieff himself made "secret" knowledge very public indeed when he introduced his followers to the enneagram- an ancient diagram that had been hidden in schools for generations. As such, he flouted both his own dubious advice and traditional conventions, opened the doors, and openly invited participation--even at the known risk of distortion of the ideas, which of course took place, and with vigor.

He did this, too, in his public demonstrations of movements, which attracted many people to his work.

All of this stands in marked contrast to the behavior of the formal Gurdjieff work's leaders following his death. The Work became more and more closed and protective, until it acquired an aura of secrecy unfortunately reminiscent of scientology. The efforts of the "inner circle" to "protect" information ultimately failed; today, the internet abounds with material that various power-possessing beings in the Work tried to control.

The situation deeply underscores the absolute futility of such behavior. After all, even the presumably “developed” masters who passed knowledge of the enneagram on to Gurdjieff called it wrong—after all, they trusted him with a long-standing, closely held secret, and he outed it. Furthermore, in the essay on “the Science of Idiotism” (attributed to Bennett), we discover that this understanding, too, was an esoteric practice Gurdjieff made known to his pupils even after he was specifically asked not to do so.

And then there was Gurdjieff's advice to steal secrets if one had to... subtly suggesting that he actually held the concept of secretism in a certain degree of contempt.

In the end, as is abundantly clear, even those who are considered to be “developed masters” are unable to know who can be trusted. Take, for example, the messy and embarrassing questions of succession that arose as a consequence of Trungpa’s lack of judgment about the quality of some of his followers. (Read “Dragon Thunder.”)

What can we conclude, but that every person who makes calls about what to hide and what not to hide, what to control and not to control, is falling victim to a vanity in which they presume to know?

As Gurdjieff said to Ouspensky, “To be able to keep a secret a man must know himself and he must be. And a man such as all men are is very far from this.” (In Search of the Miraculous, p. 15, Harcourt 1977.)

So we’re all in the same boat. The difference is, perhaps, simply one between those who know they are in the boat, and those who have convinced themselves that they are not.

In our collective effort to discover Being, perhaps we ought to recognize that to withhold, to refuse to share what might help others, is at its root paranoid and exclusionary.

Doesn't it seems as though Agape, the open-hearted practice of love and acceptance, must be founded on trust and fearlessness?

Are there alternatives?


One can always choose to aim for LESS than Agape, if that is what one wishes for. Perhaps those with such aims feel there are higher callings than love.

Personally, I believe that would demand less than is necessary, and offer less than is possible.

There is one other aspect to this question of secrecy. I believe that all the real secrets lie within a man, not outside him.

Once again it is the mistake of externalizing what should be internal, of mixing the lower with the higher, that leads men to think that control of outer circumstances can affect anything.

If you doubt me, and think men actually control anything, go out and stare at the milky way for a while. Contemplate it. After that, read Ecclesiastes.

Then come back, if you wish, and we’ll discuss exactly how big you think we actually are, and how very much you believe we can control.

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


  1. I agree and still find it funny when I run across it. Psst...have I got a deal for you...

  2. Gurdjieff indeed said it clearly in Ouspensky's Fragments/AKA In Search and it's just as true now...nothing is "hidden," people just have to be willing to pay: time, attention, effort. This is especially true now in the so-called "information age"--you can find out virtually anything about anything and if you don't, your own laziness and stupidity are more likely than not to blame.

    Of course you also have to be able to RECOGNIZE, DISCRIMINATE, DIGEST and INCORPORATE knowledge but that's already something else.


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