Thursday, July 10, 2008

Like what it does not like

At the very end of Gurdjieff's posthumously published "Views From the Real World," there is a list of aphorisms.

Each one is a meaty little piece of advice about how to conduct our inner work. Most of them seem, on the surface, to say something rather straightforward. Not only that, most of us in the Gurdjieff work are quite familiar with them and have probably been hearing them -- or versions of them -- for many years.

So we assume we know what they mean. Of course, we're well behaved, politically correct little Gurdjieffians, so if asked, we'd reflexively deny that. It's the stock answer: of course we don't understand. Everything is a mystery, yada yada yada.

The underlying part of us that takes things in always makes assumptions, however, and one of the first things that it always assumes is that it knows what's going on. That happens so automatically that that part is telling us we know what's going on, even while our mouth is saying to other people that we don't know what's going on.

Consider it thus, fellow seekers:

We think we understand that we don't understand. This is a corollary to Andre Enard's comment that "We dream the dream we are awake."

Anyway, given the propensity of Gurdjieff's material to reveal unexpected depths when pondered in detail, I thought I'd take a closer look at some of the aphorisms.

I hit a wall almost immediately with the very first aphorism.

"Like what it does not like."

We would generally assume that this means that we should go against our habits, our mechanicality. ...But conundrums immediately rear their ugly heads. If it is our habit to seek pleasure, does this aphorism mean that we should become accustomed to seeking pain? Surely, it is not a call to masochism. Simplistic explanations, in other words, don't serve the aphorism at all.

Peeling back the layers of the onion, we discover that this saying is more than an aphorism (i.e., a terse statement of truth.)

It's a koan.

What is "it?" Do we know what that is?
What is it to "like" something?
What is it to "not like" something?

All of these questions have to be examined carefully before we might presume to begin to understand the direction that the aphorism is pointing us in.

Once we begin to do that, we see that the aphorism is asking us to examine how we are in the present moment, to study the inner condition and see what we are attracted to. Before one can like what it does not like, one has to see it and see it liking. So contained within this kernel is the seed of the separation of self from self, and the act of seeing. In other words, the aphorism points in the direction of having an immediate attention to how we are.

"Well, duh," you are probably intoning by now, "that's so obvious. That's what everything is all about in this work anyway."

...But how obvious is it, really?

How often do we have the ideas, but not the attention?

The attention to life isn't composed of ideas. Ideas are the policemen; ideas are the institution; ideas are the property of the government and the state.

The attention is something else again. Real attention comes from a certain subtle kind of inner energy that does not belong to the government or the state.

The attention is an insurrection. An effort to defeat the form and find something much, much larger than the idea.

Something that lives.

Several months ago I heard Peter Brook assert that our very conception of the work itself-- all of the ideas that we have about it, everything that we think about it -- are our very greatest obstacle to inner work. Our conceptions, or, perhaps more properly put, our preconceptions, stand directly in the way of our working. And it is even the very idea that we know what working means or what work is, or that we know what we are, and what we are doing, that defeats us.

The effort at attention is perpetually hidden within, encapsulated by, the ideas, just as ou own attention is hidden within the act of what we call mentation. And this aphorism is a classic example of that. It reminds me once again of Paul's letter to the Romans, in which he advocates a circumcision of the Spirit.

Only by discarding the external portion of our spiritual quest -- the coarse and excess flesh of the idea, the form, that which insulates and conceals the inner reproductive apparatus of attention-- can we hope to progress.

So there is my little thought on this particular aphorism, for today.

Going forward, I plan to study some of the other aphorisms and comment on them a bit. Not excessively or extensively; after all, I would prefer to touch gently on the subjects, not pound them with a ball peen hammer.

In the meantime, I'll share one other thought that I had this morning.

Over the course of my life, I have had numerous occasions to deal directly with people who have crippling thinking disorders. By thinking disorders I mean disorders of the associative center that prevent them from organizing their thoughts in such a way as to function in good relationship to ordinary life. There are a lot of psychological terms for these disorders, such as bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and so on.

Regrettably, I know several of them up close and very personally. The diseases are complex and debilitating; they cause terrible problems both for the individuals that have them and the people around them.

I bring all this up because the associative center frequently gets a bad rap in the Gurdjieff work. People speak of it disparagingly, as though the things that came out of it were all crap. We talk about associative thinking as though it were worthless, and often all but sneer when the subject comes up.

This is a bit typical of all of us. We don't appreciate how important the ordinary parts of us are. All you need to do is spend some time around one person with a disorder like this and you will begin to get a whole new appreciation of associative center, just how important it is for ordinary functioning, and just how grateful we ought to be that we have one at all, let alone one that functions well for us.

If we don't learn to value these "devalued" parts, we are not balancing our inner life. Every part of us that helps us function -- even a mechanical one -- is our absolute friend and confidant, and to be treated with love and respect, not like a second-class citizen that we are only putting up with until the cosmic consciousness we wish for shows up.

Learning this lesson is part of right self-valuation. Be glad you have a machine. Be glad it works okay. Thank God every day for that.

It is the beginning of appreciating life for what it is, instead of what we wish it were.

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


  1. As always, you provide rich material for pondering. The only issue I would take up is the following, and it is probably simply a linguistics slip, but when you say

    "If it is our habit to seek pleasure, does this aphorism mean that we should become accustomed to seeking pain? Surely it is not a call to masochism."

    Certainly we should not be seeking pain, and if we do it indicates a real sickness, and masochism is a pleasure derived from a derrangement of the sex center, if not the entire organism.

    But I would argue that what we are called upon in our work is to seek suffering, which is very different from any definition of the word pain.

    "Like what it does not like" also means "Do not like what it likes".

    This means for the most part that what we have to suffer is ourselves. As Mr. Gurdjieff said very early on, if we could actually see what our lives consist of and how we go round and round in our little wheel of non-being, we would go mad.

    This is why it is sometimes said that the Work is gentle; we are so constructed with buffers and our consciences buried so deeply that we are not allowed to see ourselves clearly, perhaps for many years -- perhaps never, until the moment of the first Rascoorno. Otherwise it would be too much for us.

    We must, as Madame De Saltzmann would say, look on ourselves tenderly and with affection. We are construed all wrong, but it is not all our fault -- the sins of the father are visited unto the seventh generation, so that we do not come into the world unsullied, but rather with the cross of our tribal totem upon our backs.

    We are crucified into a certain time and space and under conditions which develop us into different essences and personalities. The Work is Alchemical, and the work of the parable of the Robe of Glory.

    I have been at several meetings with Peter Brook. He has perfected a manner of speaking which is unassailable. I am not particularly fond of the pathless path of Mr. Brook, which reminds me of Krishnamurti -- all clouds and air and profundity, but no damn ballast.

    Holy Affirming
    Holy Reconciling

    We stand in the middle. There is no going up without going down.


  2. All this talk about be present to the moment, to know oneself from moment to moment, to have an “immediate attention to how we are,” as you put it, sounds terrific but it may not correspond to my everyday reality and our everyday reality. Krishnamurti spent his life talking about knowing one self from moment to moment and then spent most of his life beating his women. I have know people who have been thirty or forty years in the in the Work, talking that kind of talk, who also spent their lives beating their wives. Conversely, I have know people who have been in the Work the same amount of time, who do not talk that kind of talk, and are warm and considerate human beings. I like Mr. Gurdjieff. He never used that kind of talk. He told us that as our bright side grows so does our dark side and that the only thing we can do is to be there, in the middle, in order to be able to choose which way we go. He told us to know ourselves not from moment to moment but how we really are in life, to bring the Work into Life and not Life into the Work, how monstrously we behave with our neighbors. We can know ourselves from moment to moment and be totally unfair to others. Mr. G said that it is better to be an egoist than to be unjust. He also said, “Sent to everyone the love you felt for your parents.” I understand this kind of talk but I don’t understand the kind of talk you have used in this post.

  3. As for myself, at least I don't beat my wife.

  4. My implication is not that people who use the kind of language you used in your post beat their women. My implication is that we have to try to come back to the language Mr. Gurdjieff taught because is closer to Real Life. “Life is real only then, when ‘I am;’” but when “I am,” “You are,” “He is,” “She is,” “They are,” and “We are.” There can be one “I am” separated from another “I am.”

    I AM THOU,

  5. My attempt at humor seems to have fallen flat.

    As you said, you don't understand the kind of talk I use in my post. So there we are.

    I encourage you to turn to the sources you feel you do understand for your sustenance. Let's leave it at that.

  6. To Anonymous.

    There has long been idle speculation as to whether one can be a "conscious asshole." (Some people even say Gurdjieff was one of these.)

    And I think I agree with your inference that yes, Work is not designed to make us into saints with halos.

    However it IS meant to awaken conscience in us. And if these people I imagine from your post are taken by me as potentially real and not fictional, then I have to suggest that the Work has very likely done nothing for them. A man with a functioning conscience does not beat his wife. Period.

    Studying and applying esoteric systems does not give you special indulgences to be a miserable son-of-a-bitch.

  7. To David,

    You said, "A man with a functioning conscience does not beat his wife. Period." I could never have put it any better. I also say: "A man present to the moment may not have awaken to Conscience."


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