Wednesday, May 7, 2008

under construction


Last night I had a dream in which I was in a car trying to drive on a road that was under construction.

This dream strikes me as an analogy for a much bigger picture. No matter where we go, and no matter what we do, we are always in a situation where everything is under construction. People speak about "The Path" as though the Way -- the spiritual journey -- were an established route, laid out on a map, paved and ready for us to walk it.

I think it pays to remind ourselves that all paths, and all Ways, are in a continual state of flux. They, like the universe they inhabit, are constantly changing. What is possible for one man on one day may not be possible for the same man on the next; we just don't know. It is up to us to pick our way through the obstacles as we encounter them, instead of trying to repeat yesterday at the expense of today.

The condition is completely lawful; if we look at the universe at large, we see that it, too, is continually under construction. Stars are being born and stars are dying. Matter is being created and annihilated. (Check out APOD. You'll be glad you did. Few websites anywhere do a better job of reminding us on a daily basis of how tiny we are, and how utterly nascent the universe is.)

Anyone who thinks there is a straight line from a to b which one travels in order to develop one's inner state is confused. There are directions; that is to say, you can go up or down. One finds one's self making an effort in the direction of involutionary or of evolutionary forces.

That does not mean that there are formulas.

Perhaps Zen's dogged insistence on the abandonment of form and the abandonment of formula is, in and of itself, absolutely necessary due to the constantly changing nature of circumstances. Referring back to Paul's letters, we're reminded that the difference between the spirit and the flesh is that the spirit is flexible; it moves in every direction and responds creatively to changing circumstances. The flesh is ruled by law, and the law is a machine. Machines are chiefly governed by their predictability and limitations.

We can draw inferences about this matter from Gurdjieff's words when we consider his analogy of the horse, the carriage, and the driver. He points out that the carriage was made to travel on rough roads; it is the very roughness of the road itself that helps distribute the oil that is needed to keep the joints of the carriage lubricated. By rough roads we can understand unexpected and difficult events; by rough roads, we can understand paths under construction, and a regular and willing personal contact with the refreshing and vital unpredictability that lies at the heart of the universe.

Unpredictability is part of what makes the whole machine run. Many biologists cite the apparent randomness of genetic change and evolutionary pressure as evidence that there is no God, and no essential meaning. They have it exactly backwards; randomness is one of the most holy forces in the universe. In the end, it makes everything possible, because it creates an endless series of new conditions which can be exploited for growth. Only a truly divine form of genius could create a universe as complex and beautiful as the one we see out of an endless series of accidents.

The law of accident, in other words, is not an accident.

If we take a look at what Gurdjieff said about the effects of the organ kundabuffer, we note that it caused men to derive pleasure from repetitive events. If this isn't a description of a fall from grace which involves trying to make things regular and predictable, I don't know what you would call it. One might say that the organ kundabuffer separated us from the will to live within the unconventional and unfamiliar. When one recalls Gurdjieff's further adage to never do anything as others do it, it just underscores the call to live within a reasoning, creative randomness, as opposed to a calculating, stultifying predictability.

So over and over again, in one way or another, we are reminded of the fact that the path itself is under construction. I distinctly remember Henri Trachol saying to us many years ago, "life is an experiment in which we are called on to participate. We have the choice, whether to participate or not in this experiment." The experiment is not based on knowing everything, or having a hard and fast set of rules; we don't know what will happen. There aren't any guarantees. Perhaps the whole point of the exercise is for us to learn how to pick our way between the obstacles. We can be sure, in any event, that if we meet no obstacles, the opportunities for growth will evaporate.

This can be truly helpful as we confront the challenges in our lives. It's going to happen again and again that we get hammered by life and our emotional center collapses temporarily. I have been through this several times this year; even my teacher, who is 88 years old, has struggled under similar conditions recently.

When we collapse, we often think it's because we are no good. We have this obtuse and absurd belief in ourselves, in the idea that we are better than others, more special, more able. Of course it isn't true. None of us are better than any others. Even the best of us have struggles we have to face. What makes the difference is whether or not we are willing to pull our pants up when this happens, instead of just wetting them.

As I said to a friend on the phone during a brief hiatus from writing this piece, all of us are worms. Some of the worms are bigger than others, but every single one of us has to eat the excrement and turn the soil down here. In doing so, we are enriching the entire environment we inhabit. Creating topsoil. It's a tough job, eating all the dirt of our lives, but someone has to do it.

In the dream I had last night, I remember that my initial reaction to the fact that the road was under construction was a bit panicky. I instantly saw, however, that I was right there, with this road in front of me, and I had to just keep going--without fear.

It's the fear in us that demands the predictability. This probably deserves further investigation and discussion--

but not today.

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

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