Monday, September 29, 2008

without quotation marks

One of the famous aims of the Gurdjieff work is for a man to become a man "without quotation marks."

What does that mean?

I think most of us agree that it means to be authentic, to be "real"-- whatever that means. Like the definition of the word "world," I think that if you asked a dozen different people for descriptions of what "authentic" and "real" consisted of, you would get a dozen different definitions. One man would say that being authentic meant being sincere, another would say it meant being true to yourself, a third would say that it meant being compassionate, and so on.

Musing on this question, I am reminded of something that my mother reports I said when I was six years old -- and, in fact, her memory is correct, because I remember the exact moment that I said it. We were in the car in our neighborhood on Burchard Lane in Stamford, Connecticut, just leaving the driveway. It was midmorning, and it was a sunny day. I believe it was spring. (I may have that part wrong.) They were announcing on the radio that John Glenn had just orbited the planet. I said to my mother after listening to the announcement, "Mom, when I grow up, I don't want to be an astronaut or anyone famous. I just want to be a regulyar (sic) guy."

This story about me is a famous family story, of how I wanted to be a regulyar guy. I didn't want to be special. I just wanted to be ordinary in the right kind of way.

Quotation marks set a man apart from other men. And this is how we all are; we think we are special, different, somehow entitled to more, or to better, than what we have. That is the chief function of the ego and of what Gurdjieff called chief feature: it causes us to feel that we are set apart. Our ego invites us to live in a parody of real compassion and real effort.

To just be ordinary is a very big deal. In fact, under the conditions we live in, it is nearly impossible. Gurdjieff's "obyvatel"--the "good householder," the man who never sets out to do anything other than meet his responsibilities -- is the essence of this ordinariness. If we can begin to taste what this means, we are no longer set apart from life, from our fellow man, and from the planet. We begin to discover how to inhabit our lives, rather than how to "lead" them. Inhabitation within ordinariness becomes an instruction in its self.

To lose our quotation marks, in other words, is to recognize where we are. Within this act of becoming ordinary we may discover the qualities that a man values if he is on the spiritual path: acceptance, humility, compassion, respect. Acknowledgment of our smallness.

Maybe we can even, for a few moments, drop this idea that we are important and simply suffer -- as in allow--the ordinary conditions of this ordinary life.

Of course I never knew Gurdjieff, except in my dreams, where he has made a few vivid cameo appearances. Nonetheless, I have met many people who did, and from them, one gradually picks up a faint taste of what the man was like. No one said he was ordinary, of course, but there is an overwhelming impression that he was supremely compassionate and loving. And the controversial biographies that have been written about him paint us a picture of a man who struggled not only with others, but with himself. A man who made mistakes and corrected them; a man whose spiritual effort and spiritual work evolved and changed over the course of his life -- as it should.

None of us will ever be a Gurdjieff. We can't be. We are different flowers that will bloom in different ways. But we can all take heart from his example, as a master who pointed us towards the possibility of taking a right role in our relationship to great nature.

That role may well begin by discovering what it means to be ordinary.

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


  1. And in the generous spirit of your post, another story can be shared:

  2. Lee, Thank you for your recent contributions. I have taken up touching base with your blog. It is possible now to say that life can offer up to me its treasure bag of possibilities when I need them, how I need them and why I need them. And it has struck me that this is a very personal and impersonal thing while remaining and moving both in the known and the unknown at the same time. It seems to me that it is one of love's configurations in terms of scale and its question of nutritional value is one of actual and continual discovery.
    In short, I feel we are called to a life that is a shared loving action. Thanks once more. K.


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