Thursday, April 17, 2008

Spirit, flesh, faith


Today we're going to examine another interesting parallel between central ideas of the Christian faith and the Gurdjieff work, once again turning to Gurdjieff's "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson," as a reference point.

In chapter 39, "The Holy Planet Purgatory," pages 712-14, Gurdjieff explains that man has three "receiving apparatuses," or brains, built into his physical structure for his interaction with the sacred, externally arising manifestations of the cosmos.

Unlike modern medical science, which refers only to the organ found in the cranium as "the" brain, Gurdjieff referred to each of the three major neurological complexes in man as a separate brain. The distinction is important, because the spinal column and the sympathetic nervous system don't truly qualify as brains from the viewpoint of modern neuroscience: they aren't recognized as having any thinking function.

In the Gurdjieff system, they do have essential thinking functions. The type of thinking they do, however, is not what we would conventionally refer to as thinking. Gurdjieff (seemingly forever out in front of contemporary sciences) characterizes emotion and movement as intelligences which are equally important as the intellectual mind, albeit of a quite different order.

The "first brain," which functions as what he calls the "holy affirming" part, is what we usually call the human brain. The second brain, which functions as the "holy denying" part, is the spinal column. The third brain, which functions as the "holy reconciling" part, is the sympathetic nervous system with its nodes in the solar plexus.

In examining these parts from a biological point of view, we know that most of the higher functions of man's intellect, including his ability to reason -- which, despite the dubious reputation the intellectual center has inherited in today's Gurdjieff work, was something that Gurdjieff himself valued very highly indeed --are mediated by the cerebral brain.

The "lower brain" (the medulla oblongata) and spinal column are viewed as a more primitive type of brain, sometimes referred to as "reptilian" in nature, i.e. representing the lower end of the evolutionary tree. And we do see that the moving center is largely regulated by the nervous system located in the spine. It supervises what might be called a reflexive, automatic--mechanical--response to the environment.

Taking these two rough equivalents, it becomes apparent that there is a reasonable parallel here between these two parts and the pivotal Christian concepts of spirit and flesh as represented in Paul's letters.

Paul continually calls on men to an investment in the Spirit, or higher brain, which can exercise choice and initiative, rather than the flesh, or the lower brain, whose response to its environment is composed of reflexive or mechanical impulses. So in Gurdjieff's "holy affirming" and "holy denying" parts of the body, we find a direct parallel to Paul's conflicts between man's perpetual investment in the flesh, and the need for him to be called to the spirit.

In the vertical physical arrangement of these two body parts, we see a question of investing in the lower or investing in the higher, of the need to move towards something that affirms our higher nature, rather than that which denies it. Investment in the spirit is a call to man to live from intelligence, rather than instinct.

Of course both natures are needed, because if we do not have a choice between our two natures, no effort whatsoever is necessary. In both the Gurdjieff work and in classical Christianity, if man can derive any merit at all from his existence, it is in making the effort to choose a higher path.

In Gurdjieff's teaching, it is the emotional brain, or nervous system, that forms the bridge between the higher and lower. And in Paul's examination of the questions of the Spirit and the flesh, it is faith that helps make the choice.

I think we can make a fair argument that faith is an emotional quality.

Readers may object that in adopting Gurdjieff's model, we are confusing a physical part (the sympathetic nervous system) with an emotional quality (Paul's Faith) here, but seeing as all emotional qualities inevitably arise from our physical parts, I think the distinction between the two is merely one of semantics. Furthermore, it raises a question that is rarely examined within the confines of classical Christianity: what is the physical property of emotionality?

Here we come to a fascinating aspect of Gurdjieff's teaching. The understanding that is necessary in order to bridge the gap between the higher and lower levels is not, primarily, an intellectual one, as theologians would have us believe. It is, in fact, an actual physical one, a quality that arises from and is directly associated with a physical part. As such, we see that the emotion not only has a material aspect to it, but that it is experienced physically within the body -- that is, that surge of sensation we feel that accompanies emotion has a purpose and a place that we don't understand very well.

It is organic.

Not only that, the emotions are to be considered as a special form of intelligence -- a very high form of intelligence, as it happens, capable of joining two opposite worlds together.

Once again, that understanding isn't that far away from what Paul teaches us. Faith is superior to law; law is mechanical, it belongs to our lower part. By itself "law" has no way of closing the gap between itself and the higher. It needs help.

Gurdjieff taught that nothing real can take place in a man's work until emotion enters. In the end, no matter which discipline we practice, we find ourselves continually returning to the idea that the heart--that ephemeral center of the spine, the "ancient location" of the emotional complex--but still the location we refer to when we discuss emotion--must enter one's work. It's in the organic experience of sensation, and the organic experience of emotion, that we may begin to sense something greater than the ordinary mind. Hence my phrase, "the organic state of being." A state based on faith, on an inner emotional relationship, not our usual deductive logic.

Gurdjieff's teaching has a way of gently leading us away from Paul's distinguished metaphysics, back into the body, which is where all the work we wish to do must, on this planet, be done.

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

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