Saturday, November 29, 2008


This morning, a friend and I were exchanging mail about the experience of age, and time. Having just replied, I discover myself sitting here pondering the question of time, memory, and how it affects us.

One might think this was largely an intellectual enterprise, but, surprisingly, I believe there is an important relationship to emotional reaction.

As we go through the time of our lives, having experiences that build a web of connections within us, we are assembling a structure. This structure is sometimes referred to as personality in the Gurdjieff work. In any event, it is a vast network of connections that determine our behaviors.

As we grow older, and more and more material is added to the structure, it becomes more and more rigid. At least, that is the case in many people. Of course there are always exceptions. But the point is, for most of us, we undergo a process that Mr. Gurdjieff called "crystallization."

Crystallization takes place on many levels. For example, DNA is a crystalline molecular structure. It, like us, has a set of memories which it uses to measure and evaluate, and seeks to replicate.

Crystals are highly organized entities. Once they begin to organize, they follow a set of nearly inexorable internal laws. In order for a crystal to manifest as anything other than itself, it has to actually be destroyed, to dissolve, and be replaced by something else. Even then, the new thing follows the shape of the original crystal. In mineralogy, such minerals are called pseudomorphs.

I think we're much like that. The material we acquire causes us to become rigid. And our rigidity is expressed, quite often, in the emotional reaction we have to new material as it arrives. Our tendency to reject things begins with the fact that they don't fit into the rigid crystalline structure we have. The structure itself, moreover, has a defense mechanism. It does not want to take in a foreign material. Even if it does, it wants to fit it into the shape of what is already there. So in encountering our inner state, it can't remain as what it is; we turn it into a pseudomorph, changing it until we can force it into a pre-existing mold. This may well have something to do with what the Zen masters called the "discrimination of the conceptual mind."

So we have a rigid little fortress in us.

Mr. Gurdjieff's aphorism states: "Use the present to repair the past, and prepare the future."

That's exactly, come to think of it, what DNA does.

This invites us to discover a kind of flexibility; not only a retrospective flexibility, but an anticipatory one. Our consciousness finds itself poised at the intersection point of everything that has been, and everything that will be later.

We are the agent that observes and collapses quantum probability.

Everything that has already taken place is classical reality, a manifested fact, a locatable, measurable, concrete entity. Directly in front of us --now-- is the moment when all that can be --a set of probabilities we call the future --"collapses" into our experience of what it is. Our mind, oddly enough, even knows this, because it is a tool for evaluating probability and resolving it.

The tool, of course, does not belong to us: a product of billions of years of evolution, it belongs to the universe, which produced it for reasons rather too inscrutable for us to directly know. Our belief, as a species, that it was produced "for" us, that we own it, and should do as we please with it, is a conceit that has, for the most part, not led us to a deeper understanding, whether of nature or ourselves.

This tool of awareness measures what could be and takes an action, makes a choice, to realize one probability over another. The more flexible and imaginative the tool remains, the better it measures probabilities, and the more able its choices can be.

This, to me, is strongly reminiscent of the role that the chlorophyll molecule plays in transmitting the energy from a photon into a sugar. It does this with a 95% efficiency because it is able to remain "open" to all the probabilities by exploiting a state called quantum coherence. (Those of you who are interested in learning more about this should read Stuart Kauffman's "Reinventing The Sacred.")

So flexibility, a willingness to arrive at the moment without relying on the crystalline structure of our personality, may well be the element that offers us a new opportunity to experience our life.

Noodling around in the head about time and the cosmos is a pretty cool activity, if one is interested in such things. But I don't think that it leads us directly to any lasting understanding.

Arriving within a particular moment and seeing that flexibility is needed, that our standard reaction will not serve, that we don't know what to do and have to discover it --this raw, unplanned and unscripted awareness of our responsibility for helping to decide what will be --is at the crux of our work. Every time I find myself in front of one of my children and remember that my effort could be to offer compassion and intelligence, rather than reaction and authority, I take a step into the unknown of both our lives, which we share together.

Mr. Gurdjieff famously and repeatedly told us we cannot "do." Of course this phrase has so many meanings that taking any one of them as "the" meaning cheapens it.

When I stand in front of a moment that requires flexibility, rather than the rigidity I am made of, I have the opportunity to see that although I may not be able to "do," I am offered the opportunity to be.

Once again, this reminds me of something I heard Henri Tracol say many years ago:

"Life is an experiment, which we are called upon to participate in. We have the choice, should we wish, to do so."

Thanks, Dan, for provoking this line of inquiry this morning.

May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.

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