Thursday, April 24, 2008
Top down--bottoms up?
This afternoon at lunch, I took a walk around the local neighborhood for half an hour, listening to my iPod. Set to shuffle, the musical choices covered everything from Black Sabbath to Weather Report. One might say it ranged from darkness to light.
During the walk, it occurred to me that the last two posts exemplify the extremes between which we often find ourselves in the pursuit of our intimate, personal spiritual work and man's "global "effort to understand the metaphysics of the cosmos.
The post about Tawhid presumes a top-down effort to understand the universe; yesterday's post about sitting and observing is , you may agree, more of an example of the bottom-up methodology we usually (but not always) prefer to employ in the Gurdjieff work.
In "The Black Swan" ( Random House, 2007,) Nicholas Taleb pitches a hard-core endorsement of the bottom-up approach. What he says is largely about finance (the world he is most familiar with,) but it might as well be about Gurdjieff's approach to metaphysics.
On page 268, we find the following:
"While many study psychology, mathematics, or evolutionary theory and look for ways to take it to the bank by applying their ideas to business, I suggest the exact opposite: study the intense, uncharted, humbling uncertainty in the markets as a means to get insights about the nature of randomness that is applicable to psychology, probability, mathematics, decision theory, and even statistical physics."
In most spiritual works, we encounter top-down cosmology. (Perhaps only Zen Buddhism is bold enough to throw that premise out the window right at the outset.) Gurdjieff certainly gave us a beautifully complex and elaborated one.
Nonetheless, in an apparent masterstroke which I do not see any clear parallels to-- at least in the spiritual realms we generally traverse--, after presenting his top-down approach to Ouspensky in considerable detail, he insisted that we throw all of that out and begin from the bottom by verifying everything for ourselves piece by piece.
The approach makes perfect sense, because only in this way can a man be certain that everything he arrives at is, at least for himself, of a whole piece of fabric. And Gurdjieff wanted "men" to produce men, not automatons or slaves. His is a work of originators, not imitators.
Because of this, as students of Gurdjieff's path, we agree to inhabit an inherent uncertainty. This has, of course, ended up codifying itself into a perversely buffered form of certainty, proving out the idea that everything eventually becomes its own opposite.
Even so, as we engage in our now disturbingly habitual exchange of phrases such as "we don't know anything," "everything is a question," and so on, we do agree that no matter how much we know, it isn't very much.
And, like those brave Episcopalians (fyi, includes me), who throw out the Pope and brazenly welcome just about anyone who appears at the Church doors, we agree that although we all "worship" the same way, no one of us understands it in quite the same manner as our immediate neighbor.
Needless to say, this does not make us popular with everyone. People, after all, want answers. Gurdjieffians have questions. To the average seeker, the Gurdjieff work looks like a soup kitchen for desperately hungry people which may be serving soup at some indefinite time in the future-
but not today.
The top-down approach, on the other hand, gives one soup to swallow right away, but one has to be willing to swallow it whole ...even the bits that taste bad.
In the bottom-up approach, we can reach deep places in our work which are mysterious and extraordinary and discover understandings which are immediate and compelling, and still not know exactly where we are, or where we are going. This is the humbling moment in which even ordinary statisticians, economists, and professors of uncertainty recognize--if they are pragmatists -- that we inhabit what Taleb calls Extremistan.
A universe where the extraordinary is not only possible, but lawful, and so far exceeds the ordinary that it is all but impossible for us to reliably calibrate anything to respond to it.
Taleb's approach, like Gurdjieff's, is to tiptoe up to this problem carefully, rather than trying to chug-a-lug quarks of metaphysics under the assumption that a temporarily filled belly leads to long term satisfaction.
This leaves us with the dilemma of whether to adopt Gurdjieff's sophisticated cosmology, or his grass-roots methodology.
I frequently find myself stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea on this question. Because I enjoy the beauty of intelligently constructed arguments, I am a sucker for the cosmologies.
At the same time, part of me yearns to dive much deeper than the intellectual shallows of my personal continent will permit. I want to swim out, out and then down--down into that benthic darkness where unknown leviathans lurk, and taste the ice cold waters that well up from places that cannot be seen with eyes, or described with words.
So, my friends, you will probably continue to be served both of these dishes here in this space, for as long as there is a cook to stir the soup, and a waiter to serve it.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.