Friday, February 29, 2008


The classic pop song line of the modern world is probably "I can't get no satisfaction."

It seems to be the swan song of western civilization, and perhaps civilization in general. After all, mankind, in his relentless pursuit of what he thinks is satisfaction-- a supposedly sated state in which he has grabbed, eaten, or screwed everything of an external nature within his vicinity--is well on in the process of trashing the entire planet. All because of a slavish devotion to the very crudest form of materialism: the idea that satisfaction is gained by acquiring or manipulating the external.

No idea is more ubiquitous, and no idea could be more mistaken. Real satisfaction, lasting satisfaction, can only arise from within a man, and must do so, initially, independent of his external circumstances. Satisfaction must stem from the organic state, from an inherent right work of the body and mind itself which begins before the external is encountered.

Anyone who has had a taste of this kind of satisfaction will know that it arises in places that cannot be defined, and is the result of ingesting substances we cannot even see. It's the satisfaction of the spirit, not the flesh: the satisfaction of a fine vibration of ordinary impressions, rather than gorging on overwhelming stimuli created and calculated only to impress.

In Dogen's Shobogenzo, the very last chapter--a stand-alone masterpiece in its own right-- is entitled Hachi-Dainingaku: "The Eight Truths of a Great Human Being." Here we find the following:

"2) To know satisfaction (to take within limits from among things already gained is called "to know satisfaction.)

The Buddha said, "If you bhiksus desire to get rid of all kinds of suffering, you should reflect on knowing satisfaction. The practice of knowing satisfaction is the very place of abundance, joy, and peace. People who know satisfaction, even when lying on the ground, are still comfortable and joyful. Those who do not know satisfaction, even when living in a heavenly palace, are still not suited. Those who do not know satisfaction, even if rich, are poor. People who know satisfaction, even if poor, are rich. Those who do not know satisfaction are constantly led by the five desires; they are pitied by those who know satisfaction. This is called "to know satisfaction." (Nishijima and Cross translation, Dogen Sangha press, p. 210.)

It would be difficult to make it clearer that real satisfaction never arises from reliance on the external. Yet all of us doggedly pursue "happiness" through outward life, outward practice, outward relationship, as though it were something we could catch.

Something we could grasp.

If we are made free through an absence of grasping, what is it that we should not grasp? Only an inner vision can help us find an answer to that question.

This type of satisfaction arises as a result of inner unity. Only by fostering the proper flow of inner energies between centers--a work conducted by unifying the relationship of the inner flowers--can we hope to begin to understand what that means. This is what my old group leader Henry Brown used to refer to as impartiality. Henry used this word often, and he never meant objectivity when he used it: that is something different.

Impartiality is wholeness of the parts, the welding into a single unit of the various inner organs that receive vibrations of various intensities.

In a state where energies are in relationship, satisfaction is inherent. It arises from within the organism to meet the circumstances: the circumstances do not flow into the organism to create satisfaction.

Through impartiality, satisfaction is derived from all states and all circumstances.

Because of this, perhaps we might say that impartiality leads to objectivity, because in an impartial state the weight of external factors is equalized. Our usual judgmental attitude evaporates and is replaced by an acceptance that does not reflexively value--and thus also reflexively devalue--outward circumstances. Circumstances become "just so." We cannot do this; but it can be done in us, as in, "thy will be done."

This particular state of receptivity is a mystery, because even from within it, we may not know where it comes from or where it goes. Such questions, however, no longer matter; the nowness of the present state and our ability to receive our lives become the priority. In not knowing anything, we know everything.

The potential for satisfaction lies within us, not outside of us, and it is very real--ultimately, more real and more durable than anything the "ordinary" or external world, the coarse world of the five senses, world can offer.

Only, however, by diligently pursuing an inner journey towards wholeness can we begin to approach the idea from a practical point of view.

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

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Faith, Law, Intelligence and Obedience

When Gurdjieff stated that "Man cannot do," he misspoke.

What he actually meant was "Man cannot do-- much."

This is clear enough, because if man was unable to do anything at all, inner development would not be possible. In that case, the whole concept of inner evolution would go out the door with the bath water. And, as Gurdjieff elaborately explains in Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson, God actually changed the universe from a universe in which everything proceeded absolutely mechanically and automatically to one where intervention of a different kind was necessary. Elements in the universe began to operate within an atmosphere of choice, rather than the law alone.

God, apparently, was lonely enough to want some other players in the game.

I don't blame Him.

Tension between the forces of faith and law is a recurring theme in Paul's letters. In every case, he cites faith as the superior force. This is because (as God Himself originally concluded) an inner evolution that takes place because of initiative -- faith -- is superior to one that takes place mechanically, according to law. The universe can run on laws, but without initiative, it is sterile. We might view the shock of organic life as the main force on our level that runs counter to law, even while it is subjected to it. Organic life, after all, disobeys fundamental principles of entropy by organizing itself into hierarchies of increasing complexity in situations where, from what we can observe about universal law, everything definitely ought to become more disorganized. So right there, it is outside the law.

Of course, "scientists" have come up with a clever explanation for this outright contradiction of ordinary entropic law by claiming that this kind of thing can happen in some places, as long as it is counteracted elsewhere, but to me this is an utterly bogus explanation, about as bogus as the invocation of "dark matter" to explain things that, more rightly said, nobody actually understands at all, in any way.

We can correlate this theme of faith and law to intelligence and obedience. Faith is a choice made by intelligence -- the man who has faith decides to act. The man who acts under law does so only because he has to.

However--I ask myself. Is it true that choice is always superior to compulsion?

It seems to me that there is a regular and inevitable tension between these two forces. We cannot have a universe without laws. The concept itself is fundamental. It is the action of choice within the context of a law that makes initiative meaningful: action outside of context cannot be meaningful. So the very fact that we live in a universe where certain things are compulsory is what makes the action of choice, and the concept of freedom in itself, meaningful.

In Paul's repeated exploration of faith and law, we continually encounter the clash between matters of the flesh, which are determined by obedience and law, versus matters of the Spirit, which are determined by intelligence and faith.

We can look at obedience and law as being connected to the literal, or the outer. They are concrete, physical, and completely mechanical. Their character is static and fixed. In a world dominated by these influences, external influences, man finds himself under the compulsions of biology, society: in short, the cravings and desires of the flesh. This is, allegorically speaking, Gurdjieff's universe-level of 48 laws.

Faith and intelligence insert a new element into the operation of obedience and law, one which understands that obedience and law, while valuable, have their limitations. They call a man to look inward, to a quality within him that is separate from compulsions imposed by his physical requirements. They call on him to begin to sense that there is something inside him that is different than what biology and society demand.

That there is something other than ordinary desire available, or, rather, a different kind of desire. This desire consists of what we call wish: an instinctive longing for God. The inward journey frees men from some of the laws and compulsions that they find themselves under when they are under outer influences.

Those who have read Gurdjieff's work will recall that he has several different essays, both in Views From The Real World, and in Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson, where he talks about men being strictly under outer influences. In every case, Gurdjieff ascribes this to an inner weakness.

These parables are reminiscent of the conflicts that Paul raises in his letters: the difference between matters of the law and matters of faith. Faith, as we know, is supposed to be a source of inner strength for man, whereas law is a crutch that man leans on to relieve himself of the need to make choices.

A man --"man" without quotation marks, man as he might be--relies on faith, he relies on intelligence. This requires effort.

A machine relies on law and obedience. Effort in this case is minimal, because all the requirements are predetermined.

This doesn't mean that an intelligent or faithful man is relieved of his responsibilities in regard to law and obedience: the difference is that he knows he has them.

The machine does not know that there is the possibility of faith and intelligence, because all it can be aware of is law and obedience. It is one rung down the ladder. This is where we we all find ourselves within what is called sleep: enslaved by the desires of the flesh, enslaved by law, and enslaved by obedience.

Hence, the conclusion that faith and intelligence, properly understood as an inner search, may move us in the direction of consciousness.

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

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Deepening the question

Surrounded as we are by the stunning, almost impossible-to-believe complexity and beauty of nature, how is it that we manage to separate ourselves so thoroughly from it, and become relentless "biped destroyers of nature's good" as Gurdjieff referred to mankind?

The damage that we do arises from a disconnect between the nature of our organism, its biology, and the intellectual (associative) mind, which has established itself as an independent authority. This mind, which seems to understand so much and have so many extraordinary capabilities, is actually lacking in fundamental tools of perception which are necessary to see our relationship to nature. Said tools lie within the scope of the emotions and the physical, or moving, center.

Emotions are generally experienced as a reactive force, but that is a relatively crude interpretation of their function. Emotions are above all sensory tools. They are just meant to sense reality in a quite different way than the intellect does.

The emotional center is capable of a completely different level of sensation than what we call "emotions" in ordinary life. In the Gurdjieff work, we often refer to such emotive abilities as "feelings" to distinguish them from ordinary emotions. In some ways, for me, the word lacks sufficient force, but it does indicate the delicate sensory capabilities.

Under generalized conditions, the only way a man will ever come into contact with this type of emotional sensation is by the ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs, which have the unfortunate effect of presenting everything at once, and in a completely disorganized manner. This is why cultures that use them for enlightenment purposes (shamanic cultures) do so only under the guidance of men with a great deal of experience in such matters. We don't have that benefit, so for us this path is fraught with unacceptable risks.

The reason that these drugs produce such effects is because the human nervous system is specifically designed to be able to perceive in that manner. It evolved that way. It isn't accidental, and it didn't arise by chance. Human beings are, by purpose and intention on the part of nature, able to see things in manners and on levels that the intellectual mind simply cannot comprehend.

Except in very special and unusual cases, in order for the emotions to function in this manner, years of work and meditation are necessary. No one wants to bother with this these days; more immediate gratification in the form of ordinary sensory pleasures is, as it always has been, very readily available. On top of that we have stacked an incessant stream of media, which functions pretty much the same way cocaine does, that is, by artificially overstimulating the senses until they are incapable of functioning normally.

If mankind reconnected his parts, his appreciation of nature and his place in it would deepen immeasurably. That does not seem like a likely prospect right now, given the overwhelming tide of blunted sensibility that is sweeping the planet.

It may sound pessimistic to say that the chances for mankind as a whole in evolving back in the right direction are low, but Gurdjieff himself would definitely agree. He always maintained that mankind's evolution as a whole would never be able to progress past what was specifically necessary for the planet at any given time. We may not even be meeting that benchmark right now as a species. Most of our activity seems to involve the wholesale destruction of our natural environment with absolutely no regard to the fact that without it, we will expire.

Nonetheless, as individuals, every one of us has opportunities. Every single one of you who is reading this has already made a choice to try and understand something differently. That doesn't mean you have withdrawn from life, or refuse to participate in what is taking place -- good or bad, media-saturated or otherwise.

It means that you are trying to learn how to draw a different kind of food from the life you live.

This food, which may well be subtle and difficult to encounter at first, is a food composed of impressions which is connected to the act of attention, the act of intention, and the inflow of air into your body, both inside and out. In other words, the work you -- and I, and we -- are attempting to undertake involves an increase in understanding the sensitivity of the body. It involves learning to discriminate between coarse impressions and finer ones. It involves knowing that your inner parts can take in impressions of a very different order than the ones that your outer parts can.

Now, it may be that you don't have any experience of this -- aside, perhaps, from some memorable psychedelic experience that you had as a youth. Nonetheless, you believe that a greater sensitivity is possible. Perhaps you have even tasted it on rare occasions.

That being said, you now assume that the taste itself is rare, and that it will always be rare, or even unattainable.

Mr. Gurdjieff said that no effort is ever in vain. If you work, if you deepen your work and look within yourself seriously--not just as a hobby, but as if your life itself depended on it--nothing needs to be rare or unattainable. Everything that we need is available. You are breathing what you need in and out at this very moment. The difficulty is that you are not acquiring it. That can definitely be changed with work. So if you feel that your work falls short, or you don't have enough marvelous experiences, or that nothing will ever actually happen, don't pay attention to that.

Just work.

As you work, don't just look upwards. Look downwards towards those roots from which your plant grows. Seek yourself in the cracks between yourself, in the dark and silent places where your Being arises as blood pulses and cells feed themselves.

Every growing thing that reaches for light first draws its sustenance from the hidden places where water flows.

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

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

True rootedness of being

The intellectual mind believes that it can apply a top-down approach to the development of awareness.

According to this idea, we use our minds to point ourselves at "targets of awareness," as defined by cosmologies, ideas, and beliefs, and achieve something. Most religions function this way; and most intellectually constructed conceptual approaches to spirituality end up using this technique. That includes ones such as Zen, which--in an exquisite irony--claims outright that the approach itself is invalid.

The concept, of course, fundamentally violates one of Gurdjieff's primary principles: "man cannot do."

For all its sophistication, the base line of the Gurdjieff work, however, steps into to the very same bear trap. This is especially true of work modeled on the earlier teachings of Gurdjieff, as transmitted through Orage and Ouspensky. Despite the rather different methodologies G evolved later in his teachings, it's not all roses now, either. Generally speaking, efforts aimed primarily at attention, intentionality, and the development of will--which presumably involve a faculty "above", or superior to, that of the ordinary mind--also fall victim to absorbtion by the mind.

It's quite a dilemma. How can we circumvent the mind's habit of seizing every opportunity to interpret and run the show?

Anything that comes from the intellectual mind will belong to the intellectual mind. Evidently, we need to recruit a new kind of conscious force to our efforts.

We need to begin to discover an effort that is born from the bottom up-- an effort that originates not in the mind as we currently, and usually, know it, but in the organism itself. I have referred to this quite often as the organic sense of being, but in this case we'll try a different phrase, that is, true rootedness of being.

I use the word "rootedness" because of a personal observation I have made about the nature of consciousness itself.

We recently examined the idea that consciousness is a force which finds itself in association with the vessel of the body. This force of consciousness is not ultimately dependent on the body: it arises independent of it and then inhabits it. It is invested in it; clothed in it. Our mental identification with the organism itself convinces us that the body is the source of the arising of consciousness but, as I pointed out in the earlier posting, consciousness ultimately arises as a consequence of quantum interaction itself.

Consciousness, in other words, is not limited to the body. It is a fundamental property of the universe rooted in the body. There are several different ways of understanding this, no one of which appears to me to be entirely accurate.

One way is to understand that consciousness "extends" into the body from what we would call "another level." It is attached to the body by many billions of tiny rootlets, so completely individuated that one might say there is a rootlet attached to each cell (which may well be the case.) That's a "top down" view which retains an essential validity.

A second way of understanding this is the "bottom up" view: consciousness "arises" from the action of the quantum, atomic, molecular and ultimately cellular nature of the body itself. This view, which is strictly reductionist in nature, presumes that consciousness is entirely dependent on the physical constructions (bodies) which manifest it. The viewpoint is what we would call an emergent one, in the sense that consciousness at its so-called "higher" levels (such as human awareness) "emerges" more or less out of nowhere from the aggregate actions of the support structure.

This second viewpoint does not of necessity admit of a possibility for the de facto existence of an irreducible "unit" of consciousness from which the aggregate emerges, even though it seems clear enough there has to be one.

Either way one wants to view this question, the fact is that Being is rooted within the organism. Unfortunately, the parts of man that can sense the rootedness of Being are, for all intents and purposes, completely atrophied.

In seeking for a deeper understanding of our true nature, it's necessary to move beyond the psychological, beyond the intellectual, in a direction not even visceral, but which is the basis of the visceral: this, in the hopes of awakening the parts of ourselves that have a direct sensation of the roots of Being.

This involves taking a much more precise approach to the examination of the inner state. We must become very specific indeed in our inner investigation of the construction of the inner organism, what its parts are, and how they are related (or not related.) This examination needs to be conducted on a regular basis with the assistance of attention, and the breathing.

The awakening of a sense of the rootedness of Being can support inner work from the ground up, which brings me to another point.

We often find that we are 'dry' when it comes to what we call wish. That is to say, our mind, our current state of being, finds little of interest to motivate it to participate in a search within the present moment. Experience usually proves that no amount of intellectual leverage or intent can improve this situation much. It's something like trying to push a car forward when there's no gas in it. Safe to say we've all been there, in an inner sense.

In order for our wish to become more active, it needs to awaken, to become more alive--and this can only take place if the other minds within the body begin to actively participate in work effort.
In this way, parts of us other than the intellectual mind contribute to wish. When this takes place, a new interest level in our inner nature arises by default-- it emerges from the aggregate experience of the parts, in the same way that our consciousness arises from the aggregate experience of the parts. Because the origin of the wish now corresponds to the rooted and emergent property of consciousness itself, it has aligned itself with the conscious effort. In alignment, a great deal more becomes possible.

This is all a rather elaborate way of saying that the promotion of inner unity is central to our understanding of aim, wish, and effort. But the understanding that we need to seek carefully within the interstices of our physical being for the physical roots of our awareness may be of conceptual help.

If we are looking for joy--for bliss--for satisfaction, for understanding, or for any other life-force that can feed our effort--it all begins deep down below, at this root of the lotus.

It's this investment in the rootedness of Being that life begins. As Paul said,
"For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life." (2 Corinthians 5.4)

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

Monday, February 25, 2008

Biology and body-sensation

After nearly 2 years of steady reading, I have finally completed Dogen's Shobogenzo. This immense compendium of Buddhist thought seems to me to have no counterpart; Dogen has plumbed the depths of his practice in ways that ultimately defy efforts at conventional analysis.

To call Dogen's material difficult or demanding would be pointless; no matter how deep the ocean, as soon as the water is over your head, you have to swim.

Dogen asks us to swim, to discover the waters within us that feed our work, which have limitless depths and limitless breadth. He calls on us to continually rediscover a work that is without limitations, without presumptions, without definitions.

One of the phrases that haunts me from this staggering piece of work is, "we have acquired these bodies difficult to acquire."

Let's admit it to ourselves, no one thinks of their body this way. Who thinks their body was difficult to acquire? As far as we can tell, here we are. We just ended up here. No effort whatsoever seems to have been made on our part.

Dogen's remark pulls the rug out from under those assumptions. From his perspective, just ending up here within this struggling aggregate of cells already required a special kind of effort. We don't need to argue about whether this implies that we were reincarnated or not; all we need to understand for the time being is that he is asking us to respect the condition we find ourselves in. He is asking us to respect our biology; respect the fact that we are part of the planet (see quotes from yesterday;) respect our organism.

The idea of respect for our organism seems novel in a day and age where the organism is just about taken for granted. Outside of the select community of athletes, dancers, and practitioners of tai chi, judo, and so on, no one respects their organism very much until it breaks down. The routine is to abuse the organism, by taking drugs, drinking alcohol,engaging in silly stunts that damage it, injecting it with steroids, and so on. Few seem to suspect that this body we live in can be an enormous ally in the effort to deepen our inner work.

There are understandings from medieval practices (mortification of the flesh) and yoga practices (the way of the fakir) that suggest the body may be part of the path. Unfortunately, these practices suggest that harming the body, denying the body, causing it pain and literal suffering, are the way towards wholeness. That may well produce something, but -- as Mr. Gurdjieff advised Ouspensky -- it is a stupid something.

We need to work with more intelligence than that if we want to advance at anything better than a snail's pace.

Respect for the body involves taking a more nurturing attitude towards it, cultivating a relationship with sensation, and discovering what this delicate and extraordinary machine can do for us if we help it to get the right kind of food. As we do this, at every step and in every moment, we begin to understand that we are dealing with a temporary situation. The body is mortal. It will die. Hence the Dogen's admonition to "practice as though extinguishing flames from around the head."

We don't have that much time. One of our collective delusions is in believing that there is always more time. There isn't. We have just so much time to complete the work that is necessary in this body.

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

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Manipulation versus transformation

Yesterday I listened briefly to a talk by Pema Chodron available through Shambhala publications on the "use" of Buddhist practice in surmounting emotional deficits such as anger.

Generally speaking I like her approach and what she says; it appears to be of real value. Yet I fear that she, like many other teachers, helps to support and disseminate a fundamentally mistaken idea about inner work: that is, the idea that inner work somehow applies to the "correction" of what we confront in ordinary life, that it can "fix" what is wrong with us. I routinely encounter the same things in church when I listen to sermons.

Because every form presents its ideas in a tangible manner, interpretable by the ordinary mind, we presume that we are able to grasp the form. One of the fundamental ironies here, perhaps, is that of all the religious disciplines, Buddhism takes the lead in insiisting that form cannot be properly grasped with the mind--yet in this recording I listened to, Pema presents Buddhists ideas, within form, as graspable.

For myself (and I'll admit it just about sticks in my craw saying this) I think I prefer the worn-out old Gurdjieff adage that "we cannot know anything."

Even worse, as we present things within form and make them graspable, we actually begin to believe that they make life manipulable. This delusion that we can somehow manipulate life pervades everything that we do. To manipulate life is the same as the Buddhist "grasping-" the absolute opposite of acceptance, which has been the subject over the past few days. It ultimately reduces inner work to an exercise in psychology, an egregious error that makes itself comfortable in every spiritual discipline, and in every devotee, no matter how sincere. The mind invite this kind of interpretation, because it suits the mind is so well. Hence the famous line from The Cloud of Unknowing: "you cannot know God with the mind."

The ideas within Buddhism, as the ideas within Christianity, Sufism, Hinduism, and so on are all aimed not at the manipulation of ordinary life, but the establishment of inner unity. That is the primary objective; anything less than that puts the cart before the horse. The way that inner unity may affect life after it arrives is a different question, and one that does not need to be addressed by the seeker. In fact, it is better to leave ordinary life alone, in a certain sense, and apply oneself to the search without concern for how it affects ordinary life.

Using the ideas to fix what we are is pointless. That has been tried by organized formal religion for thousands of years, and it's conclusively obvious from the results that it never, never works.

As we are--and we are all "like this," that is, without inner unity (I suspect even Pema Chodron would admit that her practice falls short of "enlightenment")--we are fundamentally unable to conceive of what unity consists of.

Let's take a look at a quote from Dogen, taken from the Shobogenzo, Nishijima and Cross translation, Dogen Sangha press, volume 4, Chapter 91, found on page 189.

"The Buddha-Dharma cannot be known by people. For this reason, since ancient times, no common man has realized the Buddha-Dharma and no-one in the two vehicles has mastered the Buddha-Dharma. Because it is realized only by Buddhas, we say that "Buddhas alone, together with buddhas, are directly able to perfectly realize it." When we perfectly realize it, while still as we are, we would never have thought previously that realization would be like this. Even though we had imagined it, it is not a realization that is compatible with that imagining. Realization in itself is nothing like we imagined. That being so, to imagine it beforehand is not useful. When we have attained a realization, we do not know what the reasons were for our being in a state of realization. Let us reflect on this. To have thought, prior to realization, that it will be like this or like that, was not useful for realization."

This is a fancy way of saying that everything we think we know about enlightenment is wrong.
Conjecture that begins from here and tries to lead us there may be a false path.

We should consider this carefully as we carefully inspect the inner state and the state of our unity itself.

Gurdjieff made it clear: all inner work is about transformation, that is, the re-creation of the inner man in a new image. This involves, according to him, the creation of higher Being-bodies, that is, first, the nativity and growth of the astral body, which is a body connected to man's planetary nature.

This has to do with the growth of something within a man that comes from a different level -- that is, as I have said before, it is alien to what we are. It is as different as a butterfly is from a caterpillar. The metaphor may be overused, but a creature that crawls on leaves and eats them cannot be reasonably compared to a creature that flies through the air and drinks nectar. The caterpillar knows nothing about being a butterfly. In fact, it has to die to what it is in order to be something new.

Lest we think that Pema's Buddhism somehow aims at something different, let's return once again to Dogen (same chapter, page 191:)

"An eternal Buddha said:

The whole earth is the real human body,
The whole earth is the gate of liberation,
The whole earth is the one Vairocana,
The whole earth is our own Dharma body.

The point here is that the real is the real body. We should recognize that the whole earth is not our imaginations; it is the body which is real."

On page 193, he goes on to elaborate:

"How, then, are we to understand that this state of Buddha is the same as us? To begin with, we should understand the action of Buddha. The action of Buddha takes place in unison with the whole earth and takes place together with all living beings. If it does not include all, it is never the action of Buddha. Therefore, from the establishment of the mind until the attainment of realization, both realization and practice are inevitably done together with the whole earth and together with all living beings."

This fundamental call to an understanding of unity acquired through the growth of the astral body -- that is, the body connected to the welfare of the planet, rather than the welfare of the limited, ordinary self --is the fundamental point of esotericism. Once again, as in so many other instances, I think we see that Gurdjieff's practice and Dogen's practice display an unerring consistency at the heart of the matter.

That unerring consistency is a consistency in understanding the need for the cultivation and transformation of a man's inner qualities, not his outer ones.

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

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A temporary respite

Today is a day of saturation; of magnetism; of inhalation.

I'm going to take a break and resume with a new post tomorrow.

regards to all.

Friday, February 22, 2008

acceptance, engagement, withdrawal

We've visited the subject of accepting conditions on a number of occasions.

This practice involves awakening to the active exploration of our immediate environment, our inner and outer circumstances, in what is called an impartial manner: that is, according to what Gurdjieff's Beelzebub would call "sane being mentation," or, "objectivity."

All in all, it means that we make the effort to meet the present moment without identification, without attachment, without a set of egoistic opinions and assumptions that stem almost entirely from personality. That's a tall order, perhaps, and yet a new understanding of inner order--inner unity, the wholeness of the inner enneagram--may help take us in that direction.

Accepting conditions does not mean passivity. It does not mean stepping back and just letting everything be. If we accept conditions, we are invested in conditions; clothed in them, inhabiting them. It means we implicitly acknowledge things, now, as they are: not coloring them, but rather allowing them their own color, which is the vibrant color of life itself: the color not of our interpretation, but the color of the dharma.

This is a color that has no cast, or tone, or hue; it is the color of light itself, which contains all colors, just as the essence of each moment secretly carries within it the entire truth of the universe: manifest, whole, and undivided. The fact that we are, in our current "unenlightened" state, unaware of that does not change it.

The true nature of things cannot be separated from itself by ignorance.

Here we find acceptance-practice, as opposed to acceptance-concept. Acceptance-concept is intellectual and psychological; acceptance-practice is emotional and physical. I say emotional because it requires us to suffer the conditions emotionally; physical because it involves sensing the rooted nature of mind-in-body, and using the inner gravity of physical sensation to ground the Being in the reality of what is taking place now.

There aren't any prepackaged responses in acceptance-practice. Far from allowing us to sit in the back seat as mere observers, efforts at acceptance may well thrust us into the moment when real courage and decisive action is required. Acceptance doesn't mean bowing to abuse, or ignoring inequity or evil. In acceptance, every Christian heart needs to be tempered with a bit of Roman iron.

Acceptance relieves us of no requirements, removes no obligations; rather, it calls on us to deepen our sense of responsibility to our lives and ourselves. After all, in every tradition, the universe (as embodied in personages, God, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Mohammed, etc.) is not seen as calling on us to sit around doing nothing. In every case, there is a need to act, to manifest Being within the context of engagement. It's in the relationship of action to action and in interaction that the presence of God is made manifest. Not through an artificial repose. Hence Dogen's emphasis on the reality of cause and effect.

This is true from the ground up: the physical world is built of relationships made manifest, starting at the quantum level. Are we arguing that the practice of acceptance has something to do with that? ...We don't need to argue: yes, it does. Every single manifestation within the known universe is a functional subset of quantum interaction: all of it arises because of choices that are made at the root of reality.

This brings us back to questions of earlier postings: the nunnery, the hermit, and a point I want to make about them.

The traditional model of withdrawal, of disengagement from the ordinary world, which over centuries has been repeatedly literalized into a practice of retreating, even of renouncing the world and sitting in caves or cells, is a fundamental misinterpretation of what disengagement means.

It is an inner withdrawal that is called for, a detachment from the allure of the outer senses, which must be practiced within the context of ordinary life.

What do I mean by that? Isn't it necessary to actually, physically withdraw, to literally renounce all the sensory pleasures of life, if I want to practice non-attachment?

...Isn't it my outward behavior that determines and feeds the level of my spiritual state?

I recall a good friend of mine who once told me that she wanted to get rid of all her things in order to practice non-attachment. I had to patiently explain to her that it doesn't work that way; you have to keep all the things if you want to practice non-attachment to them, because if there aren't any things, there isn't any practice.

All you've done in that case is put yourself under artificial conditions of deprivation to imitate a state of non-attachment.

In the same way, a literal practice of withdrawal--physically hiding in caves or cells-- only imitates the inner withdrawal that is necessary in order to begin to see the distinction between the inner and outer sensory apparatus, and the inner and outer awarenesses within one's Being.

Think about it: does going on a spiritual retreat sound like a way to advance?

The "spiritual retreat" must become an active part of everyday life, and the retreat must be not a physical one named as spiritual, but a spiritual one conducted as physical. In this practice the force of our Being, what we breathe in through our life--within acceptance--is contained, held back, conserved. (This idea is connected with with what yogis call pranayama.)

The power of Gurdjieff's "Fourth Way" is the power of acceptance: the power of acting within life, of not trying to artificially escape the conditions, manipulate the conditions, or re-create the conditions that man finds himself within, but to accept the conditions in an active manner. Acceptance, in Gurdjieff's world, does not mean letting all remain as it is, or being passive in the face of life; it means engagement.

In this regard I will always recall one particular image of Jeanne de Salzmann at a January 13 celebration many years ago: spontaneous, fiery; enthusiastically keeping time with the music being played, both arms waving in the air like a dervish : in one word, living.

There was nothing passive in her there, in that accepted moment; instead, what instantly came across was her ability to live wholly, fully, directly from the heart.

For those who are interested, try Heart Without Measure, by Ravi Ravindra, available through By The Way books-- a moving report of his personal experiences with Mme De Salzmann.

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

Thursday, February 21, 2008

comfort levels

It's inevitable that every single one of us, as we pursue our lives and make the effort to become more aware (and consequently more human) will run into the conflicts, frustrations, and negativities that ordinary life puts in front of us.

In my experience, seeking escape from the actual conditions of the ordinary is pointless. I tried it with drugs and alcohol, and it didn't work. Sobriety, of course, didn't lessen the demands any: instead, they became greater. No matter where I go and what I do, life keeps battering me in unexpected ways.

Nor, in my experience, does affecting, cultivating, or even actually discovering a rapturous inner aloofness makes sense either. I've watched others try to pull this off by adoption, and it almost invariably collapses when it collides with reality. As to the discovering- well, I had a set of extraordinary experiences some years ago, but ultimately determined that wallowing in a cloud of inner bliss isn't the answer either. I intentionally renounced that particular set of conditions because it appeared to me that more is required.

Not sure about the rest of you, but I didn't get born here--"acquire this body difficult to acquire," as Dogen would put it--in order to sit on my ass feeling marvelous about anything, and next-to-nothing, 24/7.

In my own experience, and by my choice, I see it is necessary to ruthlessly (that is, without rue) confront the realities of my existence and engage with them. That is--once again, in the words of Dogen-- "to practice as though extinguishing flames from around my head."

As his imagery so graphically suggests, this is anything but comfortable. I am required to take both my inner and my outer resources and bring them together at a point in front of me where things may not be going well at all. At such an instant, I see, it is likely that my outer senses, my outer resources, my habits, reactions, ego, and opinions are already dominating--or at any rate want to. The trick is to bring something else to that moment as well, so that there is more of a balance.

The inner senses can be present in such a moment, and not be negative at all. They are forced at that time to confront the reality of what the outer senses create in us, and the friction between these two states may wake me up. At a minimum, if this happens, I actually see that I have two natures, and I see how they are at direct odds with one another.

Achieving a better inner connection and achieving a state in which there is regular support from a part of myself which draws water from a different well does not in any way excuse me from the ordinary conditions of life, nor does it cure me of what I am. If anything, it requires me to meet life with at least as much force as I did before, but with the addition of a substance--

called conscience.

This substance is, according to Gurdjieff, the one part of man's psyche that, having been submerged beneath the thick layer of his so-called "conscious" personality, is still relatively intact. Despite all the damage done by lives dwelling in dissolution across generations, he maintains, there is this one part inside man that is still relatively whole and healthy.

Conscience can change the way we express ourselves and how we react to other people: maybe not much, but certainly enough to make a difference. It calls on us to act in the interests of the situation and the other people, not just our own interests. It requires us to use our force.

When one looks at spiritual teachers like Gurdjieff, who did things that appeared to be at best peculiar, and sometimes controversial, distressing, or even abusive, one begins to suspect that he was acting from conscience. He was aware enough to know that what a person wanted done for them was not what was good for them, in the sense that what they wanted was likely to impede their growth, rather than foster it.

We are all in that position in regard to ourselves and our own inner work. If, in such a moment, we actually see a relationship between our inner nature and our outer nature, and we see that there's a division, we will often see that what needs to be done is something "we" do not want.

We do not want it because it contradicts our outer nature, which we have been invested in so thoroughly, for so long, that we have forgotten our inner nature: as Gurdjieff says, we have "forgotten ourselves."

It is only when we begin to make the choice to contradict our outer nature -- that is, as Gurdjieff advised us, to go against what "it" wants, to go against habit --of our own volition that we begin to understand that we cannot wait for someone else to tell us what to do.

Our work begins here, now, in front of us, in ordinary life, not in an idealized set of conditions where things are arranged so that we can be mellow, calm, and groovy.

Moments may not call for serenity--they may not call for a laid-back approach or a forgiving, laissez-faire attitude. They do not call for a manufactured spirituality, based on supposition and imitation, which so many bring to life. No matter how impressive they may be, such faux-enlightened attitudes are ultimately the manifestations of sheep.

Life in action, life taken "directly from the heart," so to speak, calls for a new kind of involvement. It may well be involvement in a way that makes us uncomfortable, that makes everyone uncomfortable, simply in the interests of helping us all to meet a little more friction, be a little more awake. A life approached and engaged in this way may be crude, it may be gritty, and it certainly won't be pretty. But it's the discomfort that matters.

Being "comfortable" does not help us learn or change. All it does is teach us to be complacent and lazy.

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sobriety and purpose

This rather cryptic photograph is an underground chamber at the ruined nunnery of the Capuchins in Antigua.

The nunnery dates from the 18th century. Today it is a picturesque ruin with charming gardens and--where there were once thick walls, cramped cells, and oppresive ceilings--open spaces that admit air and sunlight in abundance.

All is not air and light, however. Tantalizing hints of a different past remain. Hidden within the labyrinth of walls and flowers one comes across passages that lead downward into womblike darkness.

This photograph is where one of them ends.

No one knows precisely what the circular crypt was used for; speculation ranges from storage to more morbidly fanciful ideas such as arcane punishments, or even torture. The chamber is located directly underneath the cells that nuns lived in while in isolation, in a structure referred to as the tower. Conjecture that it may have been used as a storage room seems foolish to me. Someone went to an awful lot of trouble to build this circular structure; there are much easier ways of creating storage rooms. There is an impression of a more than casual intention behind it.

When Neal and I first entered the room, I was instantly struck by an otherworldly sense that work had been done here; work of a very serious and intimately sacred nature. Right away, it seemed clear to me that the room was designed so that one might walk in circles. To add to that, the acoustic properties were nothing short of extraordinary. The slightest tone uttered within the confines of this room hangs in the air for what seems to be an eternity. (The only other room with acoustic properties approaching it that I have ever been in is the King's chamber in the great pyramid in Giza.)

I came away from the space with an impression of nuns circulating, chanting and mouthing muted hymns, with the sounds of their prayer filtering upward into the tiny, lonely cells of the nuns above them.

Maybe it wasn't that way--we'll never know.

But if it wasn't, it should have been.

Now, as to the nuns. Gurdjieff certainly roundly disparaged the idea of shutting oneself into a cell in order to attain spiritual wholeness, and of course, to our modern minds, the idea seems totally absurd. When Dogen vigorously extolled the virtues of "leaving family life," i.e. becoming a monk, it seems equally unlikely he had anything quite like this in mind. Yet, to be sure, the two men were quite different. Gurdjieff urged us to work within ordinary life -- an approach many of us definitely endorse-- and Dogen urged men to withdraw from it, knowing that it is all too easy to get lost within the attractions of life.

Yes, to inhabit our ordinary life seems to be the correct path: today, the idea of monks and nuns, of withdrawing from life in order to find the true meaning of life, seems antiquated and bizarre.
We live, after all, in a seething new-age sea of work-in-life, where colorful yoga ads hammer us by the dozen from the shelves of organic food stores, and every weekend retreat offers the possibility of attaining spiritual wholeness, as though it was only one throw into the end zone away.

Different worlds, different times.

When one sees the tiny cells that the nuns used to live in, one can't help but be touched by the single-mindedness of purpose that led these women to the nunnery. Now, of course, it's true there were those who ended up in these places through no wish of their own. But for those who came intentionally, their purpose was deadly serious, and their aim was a more powerful force in their life than anything most of us know.

After all, what are we willing to pay? How seriously do we take our work?

How many people would be willing to spend most of their lives in a tiny room in order to achieve their aim of spiritual unity? All in favor, raise your hands now.

I'm not sure that any of us see that we already do this, only involuntarily. Today, in what must be the quintessential age of selfishness, we carry our prisons around inside us. We construct a little tiny cell for ourselves with ego and personality, and we live in it for most of our lives: frivolously, carelessly, often the grasshopper and rarely the ant. Not only that, we inhabit these little cells called bodies, and that on a very temporary--yet generally ignored--basis.

So for those who sealed themselves up in order to contemplate, meditate, and pray, perhaps the sacrifice did not seem so great after all.

Going into a monastery or a nunnery requires a special kind of sobriety. Within it lies the implicit understanding that we are supremely mortal, that a very great deal is at stake, and that almost anything is worth sacrificing in order to align properly with forces greater than ourselves. Rather than scoff at the way these people lived, I stand in awe of their commitment.

One other note. This morning, I was sitting in the employee cafeteria when our resident spiritual guru -- Annie Carmine, who at 62 years old is probably one of the most fully realized Christian souls I have ever met in my life-- walked in to get coffee.

Being in one of those pensive, pondering, questioning moods that I so often find myself in, even in casual moments, I asked her what it meant when it was said that Jesus Christ was a "man well acquainted with sorrows."

Annie is a teacher. She never misses a beat, and somehow she always manages to drive the nail directly into the wood with one blow. Without hesitating for a moment, she affirmed to me that Jesus was "well acquainted with sorrows" because within his willing act of incarnation -- the full, unreserved, and wholehearted inhabitation of our humanity -- he knew everything of us, all our passions, all our woes, and yes-- in the end -- he knew of our pain, our humiliation, our suffering, and our death.

Only through knowing all this was he able to understand fully the position we are in, and bring the help we need.

We might say that Jesus was God's way of saying "I am with you all the way."

To the death.

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


After a movements class last night designed specifically to humble anyone who thought they knew anything about how to "do" Gurdjieff's movements, I came home lathered in sweat, the echoes of dervish foot-stomping still reverberating through my being.

I awoke three or four times during the night -- every time, it was as though I was instantly, unnaturally wide awake -- and this morning, when the final moment of "awakening truth" arrived, it was to a condition in which I had to suffer every breath and sensation in all of its exquisite but agonizing demand.

Why do I think, in my imagination, that I live with such ease, when it is so clearly untrue? The amount of grueling physical labor that takes place in this body on the level of organs and cells is staggering, yet in general I have little respect for it. I should be thankful that parts of me have taken it upon themselves to illustrate to me just how hard this work of life is. Maybe--just maybe--I'll appreciate it all a bit more for that.

I find myself increasingly drawn into questions about inner relationships that have little or nothing to do with what is taking place outside. There was a time, when I was younger, that inner work was a perpetual footnote to my external life. Now it begins to seem, at times, as though my external life is a footnote to my inner work.

Both ideas are wrong, of course. In my own eyes, there can be little doubt that the art, as well as the science, of this work we call life is the balancing of these two elements. But I need help with that.

In inviting the Lord to rule within--"thy kingdom come, thy will be done"-- it seems as though I have to be willing to take the roof off this magnificent church I have constructed and let the sun in. My personality, my essence, my understanding, my Being-- all of these elements within need to become open to the elements. They must become willing to stand in a place where there is no shelter: where wind, rain, and sun can fall equally on them.

A willingness to be exposed in this manner is no easy thing. I'm used to keeping a solid roof over me and cowering in the darkness, cursing it. Yes, it's true: I light a few candles, but something in me senses that the reason I can't stand outside in the light is because I'd be blinded by it.

Sometimes (as in the recent picture from Antigua, above) it takes an earthquake to knock the roof off the church. Maybe it always takes an earthquake--I don't know.

I just know that once the roof is gone, it is good to stand there and look up at the blue sky.

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

Monday, February 18, 2008

First thing in the morning: Yaxha


First thing in the morning, the dim outlines of an unknown temple emerge preternaturally from jungle, fog, and mist.

There is a silence interrupted only by the drawing of breath and the beating of the heart.

It's at this very moment, perhaps, that our inner mysteries can be sensed most readily, touched most tangibly, tasted most fully.

How do we come to ourselves when we awaken?

What is the very first sense we have as we emerge from ordinary sleep?

I will offer here a set of impressions fresh, as it were, written just as I get up today.

In proper sleep, Gurdjieff advises us, the centers disconnect from one another, allowing them to rest. Investigating, verifying, I find that there is, indeed, an inner disassociation upon awakening from sleep. The inner parts are not related to one another in the same habitual or automatic manner that they are when we have been awake for an hour or two and the usual daily connections are reformed.

This means other kinds of possibilities--less habitual possibilities- exist.

In particular, for me, it is interesting to examine the exact state that I encounter upon awakening. Because the other centers are more or less quiescent (they have not "gotten up to speed," as it were) the sense of the work of instinctive center, particularly the breathing and sensation, can be examined in more detail.

This is well worth scrutiny, because in relationship to the many questions about food, how we feed ourself, and the organic sense of being which we have raised over the past year and more in this space, more is often accessible immediately upon awakening. Unlike the rest of our discombobulated parts, the instinctive center generally knows what it is doing.

If it didn't, we'd already be dead.

It's worth lying in bed at the instant upon which one awakes and checking to see the precise nature of sensation of the body. How much is there? Where is it located? Am I able to sense the body in a more complete manner? What exactly does it mean to immediately attain a complete sensation of the body?

Is that possible? Can "I" "do" that?

These questions can be raised within the context of the breath. How is the breath as it enters the body? Can I experience the manner in which it feeds the connection between the body and the mind and stimulates sensation?

The gift of air entering the body can be appreciated in a different way when the associative mind is less active. Even a fleeting sense of what this means can help provide an avenue into deeper examination of these questions.

In order to do this, as mentioned above, it is necessary to be precise. This is related to Dogen's frequent instruction to the members of his zendo to "take good care." To take good care is to examine with attention: to be interested in the details and to bring the attention to the details so that the question being examined can be examined from within, using the facility of the body and sensation itself to examine awareness, rather than the ordinary mind and the conventional associations we bring to life.

So upon awakening I invest within sensation; I invest within breathing. I examine the nature of these two fundamental principles of my existence. I see how the foundation of my being rests upon the inhabitation of the organism and the relationship between its parts--from the ground up, beginning not with the ideological constructs, but with the mechanics. Stripped of my typical associations, perhaps I can find a new appreciation for this body I inhabit.

This is not done for satisfaction or for pleasure; it is work. Experience of the body in the manner we discuss here takes us one step closer to the acceptance of our mortality. It is a sobering factor, rather than a step into the divine intoxications of a more wholly functioning spirit.

It is a way of deepening for ourselves the question of always sensing our mortality--an action which Gurdjieff cited as perhaps one of the few things that might yet save mankind from itself in its steady deterioration into spiritual oblivion.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of singing and dancing on the way to the grave, but it pays to keep our destination in mind,

...lest we act a bit too much the fool.

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

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Inner and outer sensation

There is an unfortunate tendency to resort to reductive analysis in order to understand where we are, what we are, and what we are doing.

Writing this blog inevitably feeds that tendency. Reading it does the same. The only hope we have is that, in addition to the good food for the mind that can be encountered in writing and exchange of this sort, something tangible and practical is occasionally offered, or the reader (or writer) manages to connect something that is said to something practical, i.e., related to practice, within their own work.

I say this because in the end the work that we engage in must be eminently practical. That is to say it must be immediate, of the now, within the moment, and be composed above all of an organic experience, a tangibly physical encounter with life which also carries within it reasonably balanced components of the mind and feeling, that is, real emotion.

We need, in other words, to sense our lives.

Every once in awhile I arrive at a point of work where a suggestion arises that points towards something a bit new and a bit different. Today I will discuss one such point.

Readers who follow this blog will know that for some months now we have examined the theme of the "coarse" five outer senses (the five ordinary senses of taste, touch, hearing, sight, smell) and the "finer" six inner senses, which comprise the inner structure of emotional center as delineated by Gurdjieff in the last chapter of Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. I have emphasized the need to develop an attendant discrimination in order to know the difference between these two things.

In the course of these discussions, we have also intimated that Zen masters such as Dogen probably had a similar understanding, and that the understanding of the division between the inner and outer senses is essential to beginning to sense our true nature.

A few days ago, I mentioned the "granular nature of reality," that is, the possibility of the organ of the skin -- which might be considered, essentially, one of the "outer" senses, as it represents the absolute interface between the body and material reality outside of it -- receiving impressions of vibration at a very fine level. This particular kind of perception transcends the ordinary function of the skin, which is to convey what we would call touch. What I might say here is that touch is the least of what our skin is able to convey to us.

Those of you who are not very deeply into such work may not recognize it yet, but the work of sensation, which begins inside the organism in an effort to connect it, is intimately related to the question of breathing air and developing a better connection to the body. Eventually, the understanding of this work must become twofold: that is, it must involve not only the air organ that fills the vessel (the lungs) but also the organ of the skin. It is necessary to develop a capacity for feeding oneself not only through the lungs and the sensation of the inner centers as they acquire something finer for our work; the same capacity must be arrived at with the outer organ of perception and breathing, that is, the skin.

In this way, one begins to have a sense of receiving such finer impressions through the entire exterior coating of the body and, at the same time, having the prana within air feed the inner centers inside the body, so that one is being penetrated both inside and outside by a finer type of vibration.

Exercise aimed at this kind of work may be difficult. I have some ideas about it, but it is not appropriate to offer them in a blog. I can only ask readers to investigate the question of vibration and sensation in an inner sense carefully -- as Dogen would say, "I respectfully ask you to take good care" -- and then to attempt to gradually extend this understanding to the outer coating.

For those of you who like the scientific angles we occasionally examine together in this blog, let me say that the potential is there to discover that we are Klein bottles, that is, topological constructs that do not have an inside or outside, but that exist within a medium that penetrates everything on all sides. You might also say that we are vessels with both inside and outside, and that the outside of the vessel is just as important as the inside.

Coming at this from a philosophical point of view -- which brings us back to those unfortunate mental constructs that we all love to rely on, but invariably get trapped by -- the vessel is a temporary container, always.

What is within the vessel is always also outside the vessel, and what is contained will never be contained forever. The vessel receives what it is given, and offers it back up. This is the way with every vessel of any kind. In some senses, the vessel is a temporary manifestation of individuality that belies the universal properties it encapsulates. Because the vessel has an apparent "separate" temporal existence that can be perceived, the individuality appears to be concrete, but in fact it is a result of circumstance and not a reflection of the essential nature of the absolute which the vessel mediates.

Consciousness is not the vessel. It is just the steward of the vessel. The vessel -- in this case our body -- is a tool that consciousness uses in order to objectify specific sets of impressions on a temporary basis. It is, in the alchemical sense, a retort for the refinement of those impressions.

The effort to sense the inward and the outward nature of vibration within this context can help to clarify more exactly the nature of consciousness and its relationship to what we call reality.

I would not presume to tell you what this consists of, because it does not belong in a set of fancy words ...nor can it be stuffed into them.

The experience, however, which must always remain private for each individual, certainly has something to do with what Jesus did when he changed water into wine.

That seems to be a pretty good place to wrap things up and go to church on this Sunday morning in February.

God bless you all.

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

Friday, February 15, 2008

Cause and effect

In nearing the end of my extensive reading of Dogen's materials, I have just come across two of the most extraordinary chapters in his Shobogenzo, which for me once again underline the striking depth of understanding he attained.

Chapter 89 of the Shobogenzo (Nishijima and Cross translation, Dogen Sangha press, book 4) is entitled "Shinjin-Iga," or, "Deep Belief in Cause and Effect."

One more time, in this chapter, Dogen recites the classic tale of the Zen Master who stated that people in a state of great practice did not fall into cause-and-effect, and was consequently born for 500 lifetimes into the body of a wild fox. This story has many interpretations, but in Dogen's expositions he continually returns to one specific point.

We are all subject to law. Our actions do have consequences. Seeking to attain a state where this is no longer true is a deeply erroneous concept.

In tackling cause and effect, the chapter deals with other subjects as well. Those of you interested in past lives and reincarnation may find this to be of interest (page 167):

"There are those among human beings, or among foxes, or among other beings, who innately possess the power to see a while back into former states, but it is not the seed of clear understanding: it is an effect felt from bad conduct. The world honored one has broadly expanded this principle for human beings and gods; not to know it is the utmost negligence in study. It is pitiful. Even knowing a thousand lives or 10,000 lives does not always produce the Buddha's teaching."

Gurdjieff appears, generally speaking, to have had equal disdain for the value of remembering past lives. (I have heard, on the other hand, firsthand accounts reporting that G. said the concept of reincarnation is essentially true least insofar as humans are able to understand such things. To be specific, he used the words "it's something like that.")

In this chapter, Dogen repeatedly cites examples where conduct--that is, the failure to practice-- results in people being born into some new form of hell. Taken as a whole, it's quite clear that he says we cannot stand still: we are always moving either upward, or downward. These words convey the very same observation that Jeanne DeSalzmann used to introduce one of the Gurdjieff movements films. She and Dogen would, I believe, have found much to agree on in this matter.

Furthermore, a state in which we empty ourselves of everything is not desirable either. On page 169, we find the following:

"Master Gengaku produces 'The Song of Experiencing the Truth," in which he says; 'Emptiness' run wild negates cause and effect; and, in a morass of looseness, invites misfortune and mistakes." Clearly we should know, the negation of cause and effect is the invitation of misfortune and mistakes... to say there is no cause and effect is just non-Buddhism."

It's necessary to read the entire chapter -- which is brief -- in order to absorb the full impact of Dogen's observations about the immutability of law, the inexorable conditions under which we must work, and the dangers of a lack of rigor. He cites, in other examples, instances of accomplished masters believing they have attained a high level, when in fact all they have done is succumb to delusions and vanity which prevent them from making more efforts. In Dogen's ideal practitioner, there is always questioning, there is always the understanding that there is a lack, there is always an investment in seeing our humanity. Mr. Gurdjieff would have appreciated his message.

I meditated on this chapter this morning during my setting, and it struck me that the material helped me to understand something that has puzzled me for many years. As some of you know, I use the Lord's prayer as the opening for my morning meditation every single day, which means that I have invoked it many thousands of times. I've repeatedly studied each sentence and even word individually in an inner and outer sense in order to attempt to understand it.

I can safely report that the prayer continues to reveal new understandings even after many years of study.

The phrase "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" has always puzzled me. The temptation -- if you will excuse the reference -- is to believe in its apparent moralism. I think, now, that it rather refers to practice, and that what Dogen was talking about is directly related to this line in the prayer. To be led into temptation is to fall into the traps that Dogen outlines in "Deep Belief in Cause and Effect," and to be delivered from evil is to be spared the hell that we send ourself to if we fail to understand where we are and what we are doing. (cause and effect.)

Once again, I come away from the reading and the meditation with a deeply held understanding -- which consists of an emotional state, as well as an inner sensation and the intelligent effort to collect the meaning -- that the paramount task before us is to become human.

We must invest in our humanity, experience our humanity, live both within and outside of our humanity, accepting unconditionally the fact that we are human. It is somewhere within this deeply organic practice that we gain the transparency I spoke of yesterday, in which our awareness discovers its original nature, which is not tied to the materiality we so earnestly believe in.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bromeiliads and breathing; quantum awareness

Bromeliads are epiphytes. Like other plants, they derive their nutrition from photosynthesis, but do not sink roots into dirt--they get their water from the air. Hence their colloquial name, "air plants."

Over the life of this blog, we have examined numerous questions regarding the nature of air and breathing, as understood within the Gurdjieff system and other religious and esoteric disciplines. During the trip to Guatemala, one relatively new and, I think, interesting impression struck me.

On Tuesday morning last week, we were driving in the car towards Yaxha, one of the larger Mayan cities near Tikal.

The way that the world was arriving in my organism that morning had a remarkable and unique sensation to it: a sensation not completely unfamiliar, but one that, as it deepens over time, provokes a different level of understanding about the entire phenomenon of physical sensation itself.

I described it to my wife Neal as the impression of experiencing reality as being "granular" in nature.

As usual, the words basically fail to meet need, but words are all we have.

It goes something like this. "Reality" itself is a "soup:" it is composed of an infinite number of tiny "particles", or grains, each one of which is in fact a vibrational interaction. The particles are too fine to see, are constantly in motion, and forever undergoing transformation. But they are there: a veritable sea which we inhabit, a sea of fineness of impression which we are, generally speaking, much too coarse to perceive.

Consciousness arises directly from this ocean of interactions; it is an intimate part of it: cannot be separated from it. There is, in other words, no difference between consciousness and non-consciousness; all "mind" and "not--mind" arises from and exists within the same endless medium. At the quantum level, distinctions and boundaries cannot even be visible.

Hence the division between mind and not-mind absolutely must, as the Zen masters indicate, be artificial: even from a strictly scientific point of view.

Our organism has the ability to sense this. We don't need to take a drug like LSD to do it; of course, that will work, but the organism has the ability to perceive this without the addition of any artificial chemicals. It becomes a matter of doing enough inner work to become sensitive to the possibility.

A good deal of this has to do with the ingestion of the sacred substance oft referred to as "prana," and putting the intention and the attention at the point where air enters the body in order to acquire it-- a form of what is generally called "pranayama," which practice is actually closely related to the work of completing the inner octave. If it begins to work properly, the body can do a great deal of this type of work or on its own, but there is no substitute for our own effort even after that begins.

What struck me about the question on this particular morning was that air does not just enter the body through the nose, mouth, trachea, or lungs. It does not just enter the body through the inner flowers, either, although acquiring an understanding of that is relatively important.

The skin is, you see, perhaps above all a breathing organ.

The granular perception of reality is directly related to the way that the prana in air affects the body as it enters through the skin itself. That is to say, we are not just built as machines that can take in sacred substances through the "main passage" of the lungs which ultimately connects to the six sacred "points" or flowers within the body.

We are, in fact, sponges, with the ability to absorb prana throughout the entire body, at countless individual points (probably what the yoga schools refer to as nadis) located at the breathing pores of the skin.

This aspect of absorbing reality in its entirety through the entire organism as a single organ of perception is quite interesting to me. The potential for this is certainly contained within the implications of the enneagram, but apparently the question is larger than the way I originally formulated it in various earlier essays on the subject.

So it follows from this that the body itself, which appears to us--in both ordinary sensation and in terms of its visual and physical structure--to be solid, is actually a transparent entity. This is reminiscent of many things that have been said about the nature of physical reality by Yogis, Zen masters, and Carlos Castaneda's sorceror Don Juan.

It makes perfect sense. After all, from a quantum point of view, every organism (as well as every other physical manifestation) consists of quantum interactions, that is, vibrations that resolve into a physical reality. Every cell in our body is a seething collective of quantum interactions. The quantum level, the level of vibration itself, affects everything.

What I realized here, as I contemplated the granular nature of reality, and the impressions of life as they arrived through the skin itself, is that human beings have the ability to sense things at a very, very different level. There are many intimations of this in spiritual and esoteric literature; true, none of them describe it exactly that way, but if you peel away the layers of the onion, that is what they are saying.

This is truly miraculous, is it not?-- in a state of greater refinement, consciousness is able to perceive the quantum nature of reality.

God bless you all in your various efforts today. May sacred joys and sorrows fill your life and feed your being.

And, as always,--

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Paul: Dogen: the Maya

I have been alternating my morning readings between Dogen's Shobogenzo and Paul's letters. These might seem to have little to do with each other, coming as they do from alternate traditions on opposite sides of the world. Yet, as I read, I am oddly struck by the tone and the sincerity of both authors as they speak of a spiritual search that begins within the depths of man and cannot be conducted in any other place or any other manner.

Both men emphasize over and over again: practice, practice, practice. They both emphasize what an extraordinary and amazing gift this thing we call life is, and how vital our inner approach to it needs to be. They both speak from their own direct experience about the possibility of a transformation so profound that nothing in the world can ever seen the same after it is understood.

It's odd to me that so many academics and scientists so readily dismiss the religious question. Despite the overwhelming evidence of thousands of years of experience and discussion on these matters, the reductionist faction in society insists that it is all imaginary. Subjective. If it cannot be analyzed, apparently, it doesn't exist. They would actually have us believe that the generations of great spiritual masters are making everything up. Their response to geniuses like Meister Eckhart and Dogen is encapsulated in snotty little books and sound bites that today's overstimulated, mindless media is anxious to exploit.

Maybe the reason these little men shout so loud is because they are in such a tiny minority. It's sad for them, really: they're up against billions upon billions of living people who believe in the religious experience, and approximately 10,000 years or so of human history that is largely built on this question.

What makes matters even more frustrating for them is that they think that they know everything and have everything figured out. I am often like that myself, so I can well understand their frustration and their need to attack everything they don't feel represents a valid point of view. If it were not for the terrifying shock of my own religious experience, which radically transformed everything I thought I knew and everything I believed in, I might even be on their side.

When the intellect acts alone, it acts from desperation. Most of our modern culture is built on the intellect acting alone. A very close friend of mine from my group once said that Dr. Welch told him that today's world was a picture of intellectual center run amok. Couldn't agree with him more.

OK, now we come to the Maya. Here is a third force -- from a completely different part of the world than Paul's Roman Empire, and Dogen's Imperial China and feudal Japan.

The Mayan culture grew up, so far as we can tell, completely independent of influences from the old world. Their art looks very different than old world art. Their myths appear to be very different than old world myths. Yet they managed to develop an elaborate religious culture that in many ways emulates the religious elaborations we find in the old world.

We know very little about this religion, but we do know that it was a major force in their society. On the trip, it repeatedly occurred to me that understanding the Maya hinges on understanding their religion. Just looking at architecture and histories of who killed who will not give us any real insight into what went on back then.

The lack of written texts suggests that we may never understand their religious practices in any detail, but we can make some pretty reasonable assumptions.

The first assumption is that they were a lot like we are today. This is true of most ancient cultures. Believing that distance in time, or distance in geography, produces human beings and cultures that are completely different than one another is false. Viewed from a strictly Darwinian point of view, we must argue that cultures, traditions, and societies all spring from the same basic biological roots. Because they are a product of natural selection as much as anything else, they will tend to resemble each other anywhere, and will always fulfill the same functions.

This means that we can look for similarities between completely unrelated societies and cultures with some degree of confidence.

The second assumption is that their religion had an esoteric tradition. All religions do. Like Paul, and like Dogen, they had a powerful interest in the nature of the inner man. Maybe not all their rulers did; maybe not all their people did. There was, however, a priesthood deeply interested in the varieties of religious experience. And there is one excellent piece of evidence directly at hand to support this contention.

We know that the Maya ingested hallucinogenic on a regular basis; this was a practice all across Mexico, Central, and South America, and still is today. Anyone who has taken LSD can tell you that practices of this nature will have a profound effect on one's perception of reality.

There can be little doubt that their ingestion of peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and other psychoactive compounds informed their view of the inner man, raising questions that our own counterculture raised in the 1960s. Because their own work in this area was done over centuries, under the supervision of shamans who had extensive experience, they probably achieved more profound understandings than students on a college campus can.

I came across intimations of this when I was in Guatemala. As an artist and longtime student of symbolism, I tend to look at artworks in a slightly different manner than archaeologists, professors, and your average tourist will.

What repeatedly struck me about the art of the Maya was that they often appear to depict inner structures such as flowers and Chakras, much in the same way that we see them in Hindu, Buddhist, and Babylonian and Egyptian art.

From my own point of view, the location of the symbols leaves little doubt that the esoteric students in the Americas became familiar with the inner structure of man in the same way that the old world religions did, and that they did so independent of influence from the old world.

That in itself provides some weight to the scientific argument for the existence of these things, because when two societies that are completely separated and have cannot have influenced each other arrive at the same general conclusions about these matters, it indicates that there is an objective basis to the questions.

The questions run deep. While I was on my trip, I saw a few pieces of art that bore such striking resemblances to Asian art and mythology that one would be tempted to argue there were direct influences. I feel reasonably certain there were not, which suggests to me that the Maya were well acquainted with the ideas of chakras, and the various forces that can lead to the inner transformation of man. The fact that they, like all other societies, objectified these questions in an outward manner and turned them into a form of literalism is just one more point of contact that verifies they were much like the rest of us.

In other words, when we encounter these ancient cultures, those of us conducting an inner search can perhaps begin to sense a kinship with them that transcends the mysteries left by the erosive force of time.

These were, after all and above all, human beings; and it is only in the exploration of our humanity itself that we can discover what we are.

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