Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The dead man's handle

It appears as though some material from the essay I'm working on will be leaking out through this blog as I progress. Rather than struggle against the process, I have decided to accept it.

Today's subject matter occurred to me two weeks ago. At that time, I hadn't conceived of the essay, and saw it as material for a stand-alone piece. It was only today -- in a car on the way to a quilt factory in Pujiang-- that I realized it belongs in the essay. At the same time, it doesn't seem right to deprive it its original place, that is, here.

So here it is.

In old-fashioned railway steam engines, the engineer (i.e., driver) had to deploy a device called the dead man's handle in order to move the train forward. (Richard Thompson has a great song by that title, by the way.) It was designed in such a way that if he ever let go -- for any reason, but especially the reason that he was dead (by heart attack, or pistol shot, or whatever) -- the handle would automatically move back to the off position, stopping the train.

Not long ago, in my immediate vicinity, the question was raised as to what we have in us that might stop us from assuming we have developed to the highest level (or any higher level whatsoever) when, in fact, we have not. In other words, how do we know if we have reached a level -- any level? Metaphysical history is, after all, littered with the sad remains of what I call “99% masters”-- men who thought they knew everything, but were in the end missing something vital that fell into what we would call the "unknown unknown” ...for those men.

Spiritual works that unfetter themselves from traditions can tend to produce such situations. Traditions, hidebound and form--oriented though they may be, tend to have safeguards. Mavericks, outsiders, and Unique Celestial Gurus may routinely eschew such limitations, but they do so at their own risk.

In Christianity, and Islam, and Buddhism, the dead man's handle consists of compassion and humility. No matter how far we go, in these traditional practices, it is firmly understood that in the absence of these two features, any development whatsoever is ultimately flawed. And, indeed, we discover these two practices at the heart of Gurdjieff's work. No coincidence, perhaps, considering his firmly Christian roots, his deeply Islamic practices, and the large dose of (apparently) Tibetan Buddhism he spiced his teachings with.

The practice of outer considering is above all a compassionate one. And the sensing of one’s own nothingness is perhaps the quintessential ingredient in humility.

In the first practice, we work to develop and understand empathy. In the second, we kneel before what Gurdjieff called "his endlessness" in abject acknowledgment of our subservience. The entire chapter of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is about the second practice. It's likely that no other single piece of literature sums man's vanity and obligations up in such a comprehensive manner.

These two understandings are closely tied to development of emotional center. As the emotional octave becomes more whole, these two experiences should deepen. And, in fact, they relate to the two intervals of the octave.

The practice of outer considering is above all a practice of attention. In order to have compassion, we must attend to those around us -- discover their humanity, see that we are just like they are. We must attend to their manifestations, attend to their needs, attend to an understanding of the difficult and even desperate situations we all fall victim to. So, in a very real sense, the practice of compassion is directly related to conscious labor.

The practice of sensing one's own nothingness is related to intentional suffering. In placing the ego under the authority of something much larger, of course we suffer. None of us want to give up this thing that we believe makes us what we are. It is only the willingness within us to intentionally allow a force greater than ourselves to act that can make anything real possible. This is directly related to the idea of submission, of the surrender that Islam demands of man.

And why, you may ask, are these two qualities of compassion and humility so important? It’s quite simple, really.

In the way of the fakir and the way of the Yogi, tremendous strength and tremendous intelligence may be developed, yes. However, in the absence of the development of emotional center -- the way of the monk -- they are subject to abuse. Only the proper development of emotional center can help a man who develops in other ways to avoid the disaster incumbent upon one who has too much strength, or too much intellect, without enough heart.

And in both cases, without the heart, one will inevitably lead others astray -- a crime which is difficult to redress.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.