Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Understanding each other
I’m interested this morning in what we mean by “understanding.” The word has a special meaning for people in the Gurdjieff Work; it’s considered to be the measure of an individual.
One thing we might try to “understand” before we try to speak of anything else is that what we seek is actually beyond understanding: as Paul says in Philippians, we seek “the peace of God which passeth all understanding.”
So (as Dogen so often emphasizes) the aim for inner unity and its consequences actually lies beyond understanding. Understanding as we understand it now is conventional, a product of this mind, this state of awareness. By the time we actually understand, something quite different has taken place in us...
Why, then, the interest in understanding?
When I was much younger my own teacher once asked me whether I understood the question of sensation “down to the marrow of my bones.” We were one-on-one at the time, after a meeting (allow me to make that distinction clear for those who may be concerned lest I speak here about material from my group.)
I saw that I didn’t understand the question at the time, and I was honest about it. It took many years after that before understanding arrived. But what was signature to me about that moment was that Betty didn’t know whether I understood the question or not, and she was honest about that.
We can’t really know anything about another person’s level of understanding through presumption. We can watch them act like an idiot, or do something contrary to work principles, and make some reasoned assumptions. But even that doesn’t necessarily tell us what their overall level of understanding is. Understanding changes just as much as levels of attention and consciousness do—it is, in short, a moving target--, and under many circumstances, it’s sheer arrogance on our part to presume we know anything much about another person’s level of understanding.
Yes, perhaps there are some few instances. But in the big picture, from what I can see, there is no one at the level of a Mme. de Salzmann or a Gurdjieff in the Work right now who could actually know another person’s level of understanding without a good deal of intimate personal contact. Even then, many assumptions would have to be made. Let’s face it, even Jesus Christ himself did not appear to have understanding to some of the more elevated Jewish religious authorities, and one might presume Christ had more than the average amount of presence.
By way of analogy, imagine you are given the contents of an opaque bottle that has a hundred different pebbles in it. You may guess it has pebbles in it, but you have no idea of how many pebbles there are, or what size or color or shape they are. You can make guesses, but the odds are that if you ever saw the contents of the bottle—which is forever impossible in this hypothetical case-- you’d discover you called a very great lot of it wrong.
We are all opaque bottles to one another. The act of presuming we know what another person understands all too often rests on a willingness, and perhaps even a will (driven by a heavily buffered egoistic impulse,) to judge the other. And this is one act that contradicts every inner principle of contrition, humility, and compassion we seek to cultivate through inner practice.
In fact, in the right state, it is not even possible to do it.
I’ll offer you some examples from my own life.
My wife and I have a very close friend, a woman named G. She is a member of my original group. She introduced Neal and I to one another, and I owe her a very great deal beyond that one deed in terms of life-changing input.
Nonetheless, G. is nothing like me. She’s interested in things I’m not interested in and perhaps even skeptical about, and we sometimes lock horns and disagree intensely, even unpleasantly.
I have come to see over the years that this woman is a very special force in my life. The struggles and disagreements I go through with her mean absolutely nothing relative to the gift of her presence.
She has deep experiences of her own which I do not have; she has a tremendous life work as a registered nurse, caring for terminally ill patients and seeing them and their families through their final moments. She is generous, kind and engaged; supportive and patient. She’s smart and active, outgoing and involved, even inspirational.
She can also be a huge pain in the ass, and she indulges herself in some new age ideas and practices I find patently ridiculous (despite my apparent exigencies, I’m a doggedly orthodox Gurdjieffian when all is said and done.) Nonetheless, I have learned to respect those “ridiculous” things, because perhaps…just perhaps… I don’t know everything, and perhaps I should be open to learning from her, and cultivate a compassionate respect for her practice, even though it differs so much from mine.
She’s taught me that as a peer, simply by staying in relationship with me. And it is this willingness to stay within relationship that organically becomes teaching.
I can allow those sniping, nasty little parts of myself that fault her to be there, but they are now folded into a much larger “sheet” of my own inner understandings that forms a deep respect.
I can cite another example of a friend in the work who is much older than me who I had a positively disastrous encounter with six years ago. I unintentionally crossed her and she lashed out at me in a very nasty manner. Of course I judged her right back with equal intensity.
As time wore on I began to see that we did not understand each other at all, and had simply fallen victim to one of those stupid chemical explosions all of us are prone to. We now consider each other friends and, even more important, she has become a real teacher of mine.
I see the real value of the other only when I put my impulse to judgment aside and open my heart to the real, the human, the inner qualities they possess.
In deepening my own work, I begin to see that my understanding of everyone else’s understanding is flawed. Almost every dismissive, reactionary, accusatory, and negative response I have to others is based on my own fears and inconsistencies.
Ultimately, in my own experience, the only judge of our actual understanding is God; all our presumptions about one another stand exposed as arrogance when the light shines on them.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.