Wednesday, July 2, 2008

It's never now

One of the inevitable contradictions that arises in spiritual works is the question of what the master called on his followers to do, versus what actually happens after he dies.

Almost all spiritual masters -- from Jesus Christ to Buddha to the lesser, but nevertheless extremely significant, teachers such as Mr. Gurdjieff-- call on their followers to make an effort to develop a consciousness within this life, to make an effort now, to discover a personal authority now.

Generally speaking, from what I've seen, the organizations that carry on teachings after a master dies codify the teaching in such a way that the authority must always reside in the master. The root teaching almost invariably says that the individuals are supposed to acquire the same kind of authority that the master did, but that's just what they say. In organizations that follow in the footsteps of the teacher, to actually acquire a personal authority is almost forbidden; no one should be allowed to develop a meaningful personal authority that would supersede the master. Of course, no one would ever admit this, but the cultural immune systems of organized works and religions enforce the rule nonetheless.

We see this, for example, in Judaism: the Messiah is always coming, but he is always coming later. He won't be coming now. You can relax and stop worrying about that. In fact, if the Messiah comes now, he will screw the whole thing up. So the entire organization becomes invested in making sure the Messiah doesn't come. It's never now.

Christians have decided, on the other hand, that it is okay for apocalypse to come. The nonsensical but powerful idea of the "end times" has obsessed many biblically literal Christians in the South, who are blissfully unaware of the fact that there is absolutely no Old or New Testament support whatsoever for this made-up idea. They are quite eager for everything to be destroyed, at which point -- in the future, mind you -- then the Messiah will then be allowed to come. The proposition of actually attaining what Christ called us to, the idea of an inner transformation which puts us in direct touch with our Father now, is forbidden.

In Buddhism, great masters steer people away from the idea of enlightenment, because the idea itself implies that enlightenment is something that will happen later, in the future. --Not now, where it is supposed to be happening.

Of course, every practice produces some few mavericks who actually do discover something on the order of what the teacher was aiming at. The cultural immune system often tries to kick most of them out as quickly as possible, because others aren't willing to accept it. Even worse, because such personal authority is usually fragmentary -- that is to say, development arrives in almost all men quite partially -- the next thing you know, things split up and people go in different directions.

This is one of the difficulties with religions and practices that rely on personal revelation. Once you have admitted to the idea that any individual in the organization can attain an authority, you invite a splintering action.

The Mormons certainly discovered this. The idea of founding a religion based on the idea that anyone could prophecy turned out to be terrific, right up until it turned out that this meant anyone could be a prophet. Some time after crafting his religion, Joseph Smith realized this, and belatedly introduced an injunction that he was the only person allowed to prophecy--but by that time, the cat was out of the bag. Mormons began to spawn a seemingly endless number of authorities. You can read a fascinating account of the difficulties this created in "Under The Banner Of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer. The book, incidentally, is required reading for people who study religions of revelation. He raises a great deal of interesting questions in the last chapter which all of us ought to pay some attention to.

In any event, what happens in organizations that have codified teachings is that the power possessing beings at the head of the organization want to control the authority. One of the aims is to make sure that no one acquires an authority greater than the founder. The founder becomes a sacred cow, an object of worship. I have encountered this phenomenon myself in the Gurdjieff work. On several occasions, I've intimated that not every single action Mr. Gurdjieff ever undertook was entirely conscious. That is to say, I implied that he was human like the rest of us.

The reactions that I garnered from this statement were extreme. Many people got very, very upset ...darn, I never knew Gurdjieff needed so many defenders.

It surprised me, because it seems self-evident to me that this proposition has to be true. After all, we are taught that even Jesus Christ was a man, and had human characteristics. If he was so far above us that he did not experience any human failures, then he didn't experience what it is to be human, did he?

If you are human, but perfect, then you aren't human. You can't have it both ways.

Gurdjieff, alone among a wide range of spiritual masters, seems to have foreseen the pitfalls of master-worship. He drove a great many of his followers away just to prevent this kind of nonsense. It's a great irony, then, that we see it rearing its head in the almost cultlike devotion that some direct towards his memory.

I think it's safe to say that Gurdjieff's wish for us was to find a personal authority. That was one of the great points of his work, in some ways. Never mind whether the organizations we are in allow us to have a personal authority or not. If we get hung up on that, we are missing the point. Here is the question.

Are we willing to let ourselves discover a personal authority?

Or are we actually much more interested -- as Ouspensky by his own admission was -- in letting someone else be the authority for us?

The cult of charismatics that dominates so many spiritual works underscores the tendency towards this disease. The whole phenomenon of charisma is, in fact, a poison that distracts people from their own work. The moment I meet a charismatic, I'm suspicious. Call me undeveloped if you want to, I just don't trust that kind of energy. It's the people I don't like that I'm interested in. If someone is not oozing a suspiciously attractive kind of energy out of their pores, but nonetheless has a presence and a message I find compelling, well then ...there, to me, is one who may have an authority. The highways of spirituality are littered with the wreckage of people who mistook charisma for development. Consider it.

Can we actually recognize authority? Remember, many people who met Jesus Christ in the flesh did not see his authority. This implies that everyone's ability to understand what real spiritual development is is impaired. So maybe we don't know who has authority. Maybe we don't know what authority is. Maybe our assumptions about it are incorrect.

The next time that we see our egos raising their hackles at the prospect of someone else's authority, it might be a good idea to focus on where our own authority within ourselves lies, rather than worrying about whether they are or are not an authority. Just as we can discover an organic sense of being, so, too, we can reach within towards an organic sense of personal authority, an authority which belongs to us, and not to those around us.

Mr. Gurdjieff wrote about this eloquently in one of the last essays in "Views From The Real World:"

New York, March 1, 1924.

"You should understand and establish it as a strict rule that you must not pay attention to other people’s opinions, you must be free of the people surrounding you.When you are free inside, you will be free of them."

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


  1. In my opinion this is one of the best posts you have written in a long time; it is extremely well articulated and raises its own questions while musing over a lot of ground.When I was a member of alcoholics anonymous, I read the big book, which is the Bible of AA.  It was written at a time when no one had been sober for more than four years, so I often wondered why people could stay sober for decades without reaching the biblical sobriety described in the book.  And with alcoholics, the suffering comes first, so theoretically they should be prepared.Jesus Christ himself said that he would send the Paraclete, and that those who came after him would be greater then he.  This quickly got swept under the rug.Mr. Gurdjieff once said that anyone could be as he was and that it was easy: all they had to do was to suffer as he had suffered.The Buddha's last words were reported to be "Work out your own salvation with diligence."Preparation and diligence.  These seem to be two indispensable ingredients to the spiritual aspirant.As to your description of organizations and your metaphor of the "cultural immune systems of organized works and religions", it is an extremely powerful image.If I am sick and I go to the hospital (which by the way is probably one of the last places a sick person ought to be -- surrounded by other sick people and endless amounts of disease); then after I am well I ought to leave the hospital, posthaste.If I go to school or college I might have brilliant professors, and I am supposed to develop my own intelligence and talents so that I can meet my potential either in being myself a professor or by contributing something to the world -- not just the academia.Mr. Gurdjieff always described his schools as schools -- not as houses of worship.  As the so-called Foundations turn on their short leg according to law, Gurdjieffianism becomes a religion -- Gurdjieff becomes a God and the Foundations become a church.But his teachings abide, and are quite different from his "schools", which he often described as repair shops. Once repaired, you either leaves or one continues, as it were, in perpetual acedemia, or as in a church.  Neither is especially bad in itself, but the repaired and healthy are meant to be sent home.--rlnyc

  2. I love this post! The question you ask is one of great importance, "Are we willing to let ourselves discover a personal authority?" Being excommunicated from the Mormon church at a young age I can appreciate this question. Having to search for your own truth is terrifying for anyone who was brought up in an oppressive religion, it is much easier to blindly follow others. What I love most about this work is that there is a personal effort needed on a daily basis in order to grow in anyway-no one has to tell you anything you just know inside where you are.


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