Monday, July 28, 2008
experience and intention
The common understanding in the Gurdjieff work is that it is a work of experiential nature. That is to say, inner development ultimately depends on--and must be verified by--personal experience.
Experience, however, is not enough. Everyone has experienced. Experience is, so to speak, cheap. In a certain sense, the whole universe is made of it.
There are a number of schools of thought about the significance of experience. Reductionist schools (schools formed by modern Western scientists) argue that experience exists, arises according to physical law, but is ultimately accidental and devoid of objective meaning. Some -- perhaps many -- Buddhist and Hindu schools might argue--at the core, anyway -- that experience is illusory or even nonexistent. Then we have the vast majority of schools, philosophical, religious and otherwise, who argue that experience must be interpreted through a cosmology or structure, at which point it is assigned a meaning -- usually a subjective one, even if it includes the concept of God.
So here we have three interpretive forms for reality: existence without meaning, nonexistence, and existence with meaning. Broadly speaking, this is the question of experience as viewed on a larger scale.
On the individual scale, experience inevitably begins within structure. That is to say, consciousness inhabits a body. In the classic yoga Sutra which Gurdjieff so famously and so often repeated, it is represented by the carriage, a vehicle which carries consciousness. (Astute readers will note that Gurdjieff's Beelzebub makes all of his voyages in the spaceship Karnak, whose name resembles the root Latin word for flesh, carnis.)
Despite the heartfelt efforts of the more nihilistic branches of metaphysics, it's difficult to dispel this particular condition. The flesh exists, and within it arrives experience. We are left with a choice between meaningless experience (and hence a meaningless existence,) and meaningful experience.
So, I ask, myself, what confers meaning?
It is not the experience alone, but the intention of the experience.
We have experience in our lives whether we want it or not. In fact, for most of us, more often than not we don't want experience. Life, as the Buddha determined, consists largely of suffering, then death. We have designed a thousand ways to distract ourselves from this objective suffering of inhabiting a body. We turn away from the reality of our incarnation. The entire condition of sleep consists of a turning away from relationship.
This past week, I again had the experience of seeing that I truly don't like inhabiting this body. It is terribly difficult. It is demanding. It can also be frightening. True, there are an awful lot of good things about it, but in the end, I don't think I would be here if I did not have a compelling inner question that could only be answered by confronting the question of mortality. And the body is, absolutely, the tool for that work.
It is in the turning back towards the experience of the body, within the body, that the glimmerings of meaning can begin to arise. This requires intention.
In our own work, we have three centers. When we begin to seek within ourselves, it always begins with the intention of the mind. It is only much later than intention can arise in other centers, and that only after prolonged effort to interest them in a cooperation. Until then, we live only in the mind. Our approach is partial; we analyze experience instead of investing in it. To invest in experience is to become clothed in it, saturated by it, to dwell within it and inhabit it. This kind of activity may not have much to do with what we usually believe living and experience consists of. There is an immersion required that is not of the intellectual mind.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, perhaps experience--and hence existence--within meaning does not stem from the constructions our intellect creates. They are all subjective; they compete with one another, but nothing can prevail, because everything is of equal weight. A man can spend his entire life constructing a meaning with enormous care, only to see it catastrophically collapse when some new fact he didn't take into account suddenly arrives on the scene. This is a rather common experience for human beings.
Meaning has to arise from within the organism, not be artificially constructed from outside of it. Animals--despite, or even perhaps because, of their obvious intellectual limitations--still have the capacity to live this way, but man has forgotten it.
In man, the only way for him to rediscover this capacity is to have an intention. The intention must be to have an attention within the centers. And that intention cannot arise when the experience of centers is limited to mental constructions.
The only way to remedy this is to form connections to the emotional and moving center which awaken their own wish. A man has to have a tangible, concrete, irrevocable experience and understanding of the actual existence of these centers in a different way before he can begin to see how they fail to be in relationship.
This means that a person can spend many years -- 20, 30 years -- in the work before they actually begin to understand this in anything other than a theoretical matter. It is only there that the real work begins.
To most people in today's world, this will seem like a pessimistic assessment; I'm sure it will drive many people away from the work if they pause to consider it. We want, after all, to obtain results right away -- preferably on a two-day retreat to some serenely pleasant environment upstate, or so on -- and go right back to our ordinary lives speaking wisely, and being more wonderful, more compassionate people. No one wants to put in the years or pay the hard coin it takes to gain something permanent and real.
If one persists, even the first real experience of seeing the centers -- or even their parts -- already consists of one of the extraordinary miracles Gurdjieff said man was capable of. To actually experience that there is something in us other than this mind we abuse is already a huge transformation. Of course, measured against the external world of substances, that knowledge doesn't seem to be worth much. Unless, that is, one wants to know what it actually means to be a human being.
Gurdjieff famously said "Man cannot do." For myself, I say it a bit differently. "Man cannot do much."
Man can have an intention towards himself. Yes, we may forget it constantly. Yes, we may be weak and confused. But we do have the potential to stand up inside ourselves and discover respect for ourselves and our organism.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.