Thursday, May 29, 2008

Penetration

Today, some observations that are just directly from now.

I am a bit tired today, and as is often the case when I am tired, I am softer.

When I am softer like this, a lot of questions about my life arise. I see, when I actually see where I am--with more than just one center--, that I don't know at all where I am. There are times when the entire aspect of this planet takes on a very alien character and is difficult for me to comprehend in any fashion whatsoever. Things that are quite ordinary and have names which I see every day turn into objects I am unable to understand, to know, or even to think about. They are just there, and I am here, and I don't know anything about them.

As I was leaving the supermarket today, I watched a very tiny baby crying on his mother's shoulder. I could see that he was in pain and bewildered because he finds himself in his body, which he doesn't understand or know anything about. Everything probably looks as strange to him as it does to me, I think.

For a moment, I feel a real moment of brotherly compassion for this tiny little guy. I can see he somehow knows, like I do, that he is on a messed-up planet, with a tremendous amount of work in front of him, and that things will not get any easier as time goes on.

Driving back to the office, the shadows falling on the road don't look like shadows. Each one is a living creature. The cars are creatures.

The colors are creatures.

I ask myself, did I cry like that when I was a baby? I probably did, but I see that I don't know.

I think about a remark a yogi reputedly made many hundreds of years ago when asked to offer a single thought about what man's existence consisted of.

He replied "Men are born, they suffer, and they die." we begin suffering at birth, and in one way or another, we stagger in confusion through this life, suffering most of the time. Within that suffering, we grow. I see that this is true. It leaves me with many questions when I read a text like the Flower Ornament Sutra, which I am still immersed in (and will be for some time, as it is a truly gargantuan, massive tome.) Everything there is endless, magnificent bliss.

Can that be legitimate? I know a good deal about that pink-cloud alternative from some direct personal experience, but in the end I didn't accept it. ...Should I have accepted it? Was I mistaken? It's difficult to reconcile this question of actual suffering with the question of bliss. I truly don't know the answer to that. I just know that dwelling in nothing but an ocean of bliss does not seem to be enough of a demand. More is required if a man wants to develop. I think he can stop there if he wants to, but I am not sure that it is a destination.

At this moment, what comes to mind is Jesus nailed to a cross. There is the intersection of man's suffering and internal bliss: a koan presented and paid for in blood.

So today I am softer. I am less assuming, less convinced, and certainly more skeptical of all the enterprises that I undertake, that we undertake. In this condition, it seems as though something a bit unusual can penetrate me. It is back to this question of living-within-vibration that I raised the other day.

I see that there is a division between what I call "me" -- that is, what I usually experience as my consciousness -- and what I actually am, which is a set of forces I don't know much about. In this seeing of the separation of the self from the self, I understand that the "self" is not the Self. Once I understand that there is a separation, then I have to come back to something which is within the single Self, and no longer fuss about the question of separation of "self" from Self.

I know this sounds confusing. So I will try to say it another way.

Often, in a day, I see the necessity of abandoning this question of self and not-self and just being within what is.

This is where I lack of understanding. There is a moment when everything can be thrown away and there can just be this, which is. It's strange to me how tangible this is, how often in a day I know this is true, that this vibration and energy penetrate me, and yet how easily I slip away from it (no, it doesn't slip away from me. It's always there, waiting for me to come back.)

I see that above all I am very clever and good at theorizing. This almost always enters, trying to define something that does not need the killing jar of intellectual definition. Cleverness is very attractive to me. It's probably a bad habit that I should try to give up.

But even that, I see, would be artificial. This is how I am. I am supposed to live with that, not fix it.

I see that as I encounter all these impressions of life--which are quite ordinary impressions today, nothing special is happening--that there is a tension in me as I resist the arrival of life.

I need to relax a little bit and just let go of that.

Above all, the effort has to be to become more simple.

Neal and I will be away at a work weekend, so there may not be another post until Sunday or Monday. Until then,

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Malaise and causation: the question of interpretation

As many readers know, I have been sick for the past month plus with a digestive disorder. In the end, it turned out that I am infected with a tropical parasite. Fortunately, although debilitating, it's completely treatable.

What fascinates me is how eager some of my friends were to have it my disease was of some cosmic spiritual nature. I got all kinds of advice about how this plague was a sign of some deep inner malaise--wrong work of centers--my energy out of alignment--and so on. The idea that it could be something as simple as a microbe just wasn't good enough. (Even my gastrointestinal specialist crawled to this conclusion--which I intuited the very first week--at a snail's pace.) Interpretations of a metaphysical nature had to be slapped onto the situation willy-nilly in order to make it either interesting, or valid, or whatever it is that we metaphysical types think has to be done in order to comprehend a nasty, inexplicable situation.

Sound familiar?

I don't know about the rest of you, but when I get a parasite, I want a modern doctor to treat me with the appropriate drug. I'm not in the mood to sniff catnip or have people burn moxie sticks over me. I don't have anything at all against homeopathic medicine--some of my best friends practice it, and I wholeheartedly (tho sometimes, I admit, skeptically) support them --, but I think I'll apply it after all of the flagellates are dead, thanks.

Along the same line, yesterday, while I was at Costco checking out I heard one woman say to another, "Everything happens for a reason."

This statement seems to be exactly along the lines of what I was hearing from everyone who told me my parasite was some informative visitation from a higher plane.

Now, I do think that everything that happens to us can be turned to our advantage. I learned a great deal from both an inner and outer point of view from this little bug (well, more accurately put, these billions of little bugs) I am hosting. They became a teacher for me. At the same time, I am not sure that we can say "everything happens for a reason" with any degree of confidence when it comes to ordinary explanations.

Those of you who have been following the blog may see that this idea "everything happens for a reason" is closely related to Dogen's examination of cause and effect. From a strictly technical -- not even metaphysical -- point of view, cause and effect dictate that everything does indeed happen for a reason. The reason that things happen is that the thing just before them happened, and so on. As is famously said, "Time is just one damn thing after another," or, "Time is nature's way of making sure that everything doesn't happen all at once."

The law of cause and effect is very much in line with Gurdjieff's observation about people wanting things in life to be different. "For one thing to be different," he said to Ouspensky, "everything would have to be different. And the world does not work that way." (excuse the quotes -- in fact, I am paraphrasing. But that's pretty much what he said.) And we cannot, as is often popular, invoke the uncertainty of the quantum level to sneakily point out that things are inherently random and somehow may work out very differently at any moment. It has been irrevocably proven that quantum uncertainty levels out to a very nicely predictable average once we encounter physical reality. Uncertainty may provide the undercarriage for reality, but only after it balances itself.

So, indeed, viewed from our level -- the one where atoms have, more or less, made up their mind about what's going to happen next --nothing can be different. While we find, in Gurdjieff's "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," that the course of the universe, and of man's individual life, may well be set within an irreducible matrix of cause and effect, we also see that from his point of view, man's participation in the experience of that matrix can vary a great deal.

The entire course of a man's life may be inevitable. How he takes it into himself is not.

I've spoken a number of times about the danger of our a priori assumptions -- that is, using a pre-existing formulation to interpret life, instead of using the experience of life to formulate. Hence, attempts to interpret life in any ordinary way using the statement "everything happens for a reason" are nothing more, in the end, than tempting the fates. In a universe of an infinite number of possible reasons, the chances of picking the wrong one are, well, just about infinite.

To me, the phrase ends up sounding more like a pacifier to suck on than a meaningful statement about how we are, and where we are.

I'll tell you a little secret here. It is absolutely true that everything happens for a reason.

However, it is not possible for the ordinary mind to know or even imagine what the reason is.

So when your friends (or even I) begin to explain ordinary things for you using metaphysical hooey--and don't think I won't, because I fall prey to this foolish habit just like the rest of us -- make sure you take it with more than one grain of salt. The reasons for what takes place are more inscrutable than we are capable of scruting.

All of this tends for me to underscore the constant interference of the ordinary mind, which insists on polluting our ability to experience in a more sensitive manner.

And on that note, I need to devote the remainder of my energy on this lunch hour to supporting the many smaller lifeforms that I am currently responsible for, pending the immanent arrival of their chemical eviction notice.

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

life-within-vibration


I have been pondering something that was said some weeks ago to the effect that we live in contradiction.

Now, those of us who've been around the Gurdjieff work for a while have probably heard this before; in this case, however, I heard it from a unique individual who, at the time he spoke, I saw as a real master. Most of what he said I had heard before, but the way he said it, and the effect of his presence, caused me to hear what he said differently.

The reverberations of that experience are still with me. In this particular instance of reverberation, over the weekend, I began to contemplate the nature of my psyche and the inherent contradiction that arises within it.

The contradiction, as I see it today, centers around themes that have been developed for some time in the blog. The dialectic forms around a contradiction between the thinking mind, which formulates, and the organic experience of Being, which exists.

Back at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century, there was a preacher named Dominie who lived in Tappan, New York--that is to say, right in my neighborhood. He was known as an eccentric, an odd man who did odd things. Some of the tales about him remind me of stories of Zen masters.

He was well loved and deeply respected by his congregation. He had a saying that he repeated often: "Do not do to be; Be, then do." He considered this teaching important enough that he made it the point of his final sermon.

If, as Gurdjieff maintained, the world produces one-half a saint per century, this man may have been one of those halves. He was the epitome of what one might call colonial Christian Zen, and his message was simple.

We've got everything ass backwards.

We have a choice in front of us to experience Being in order to formulate, or to formulate in an attempt to experience Being. We almost always choose the latter; it's the top down approach. We start out with a set of assumptions, and then interpret everything through it.

A recent example that comes to mind is the video on youtube of neuroanatomist Jill Taylor speaking about her stroke experience. Neal and I watched this last weekend. Not to take away anything at all from her rather wonderful message, but she interprets everything that happened to her based on a set of assumptions about the nature of left brain/right brain symmetry. (And let it be known, not everyone in the scientific world completely agrees with those assumptions--they are probably an oversimplification of what is a very, very complex organ.) If she was a minister, for example, everything would have been interpreted from the point of view that God spoke to her. And there is nothing wrong with any of that, as long as we understand that the message was filtered by a set of preconceived notions.

Everything goes that way with men, and most especially with scientists. Perhaps no other class of supposedly objective people gets more upset when something comes along that challenges their assumptions.

Anyway, the inherent contradiction within me arises thus: my experience is immediate. It arrives at my doorstep without a formulation. The formulation gets slapped onto it as it enters my awareness-field of being.

So when I examine the contradiction between my immediate experience and my intellectual interpretation, I see that they are quite different. There can be no doubt, immediate experience contains far richer sets of information, and feeds the body in much deeper ways (our friendly neuroanatomist Jill speaks about this rather eloquently.) My conventional intelligence -- i.e., my formatory apparatus -- sterilizes life in a most effective way, and then selects specific dead items to arrange according to a preconceived set of notions.

So the way that I live is in direct contradiction to living itself. It is as though all of life gets put in a killing jar so that it can be stopped, sorted, and analyzed, instead of lived.

Another way of describing it is that imagination dominates most of what takes place in me. I see that I imagine everything, everywhere. The psychological formulation of life is, for me, more powerful than the experience of it, most of the time. The only thing I have going for me is the organic sensation of being, which at least serves as an anchor to keep bringing me back to the question of just what is going on here.

It is a continual, recursive movement back towards this experience of life-within-vibration that we are called to. That experience is not subject to contradiction. It simply exists. Anything and everything may invoke themselves within the range and context of that experience; we cannot say what may or may not happen. We can experience a connection to ourselves that takes it in a different way. And thanks, Jill, for telling us that in the terms you understand it by.

Here's to the life-within-vibration, rather than the life-within-reduction.

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

Monday, May 26, 2008

what is "enlightenment?"


I had a good laugh last night. Discussing various inner matters at a friend's house, an interrupter who felt she knew what "the point" was firmly informed me that I wasn't enlightened.

Damn. It was a huge shock to me because all this time I'd been walking around thinking I was enlightened. Good thing I had her around to enlighten me. LOL.

Basking in the afterglow of this intense little exchange, which created a good deal of useful and even somewhat pleasant inner friction, I come to this morning realizing that there isn't "a point." There are an infinite number of points... perhaps that is the point. Anyway, Neal and I lay abed this morning before we sat, pondering the nature of understanding. I was the ponderer, and she was the ponderee.

It went something like this:

The other day, I coined the terms "active sentience" and "passive sentience" to try and give us a new vision of the line of demarcation which man stands upon. We are at the juncture point of consciousness, below which awareness is unable to perceive levels, and above which the perception of levels is an essential quality of awareness. That is to say, man has the ability to understand, an ability to see where he is. And this perception of levels is an essential part of understanding. I could explain that further but I won't- I'd rather you pondered it for yourself to try and see the implications for yourself.

One final note on that, however: when man is asleep, he does not perceive levels.

In this crossroads we inhabit, man generally begins in a state which is referred to as dualistic by the Buddhists. This state involves an experience of separation which is born of the fragmentation of consciousness into its constituent elements ("us" versus "that stuff out there.")

Dogen (as well as many other Buddhist masters) points out that the idea of "enlightenment" is actually an endorsement of dualism. By using the term, we have already bought into the belief that that there is the state "enlightened" and the state "non-enlightened." The highest Buddhist masters have insisted that there is no duality--omitting even the possibility of enlightenment and non-enlightenment. Like the doctrine of not-dharma, everything is one single thing--and the perception that there could be a state of "enlightenment" separate and distinct from it is already a misunderstanding.

One of those annoying Zen paradoxes rears its stimulating little head here. When it comes to "enlightenment," we are already there--wherever "there" is.

The only part of us that has not come to the party is our "awareness" itself--in a state of egoistic contraction, it has pinched itself off from the wholeness of the all, like what physicists would call a "pocket universe."

And since, inevitably, our awareness itself is but a very tiny part of all that is--honestly, even in the case of ourself, it's just a fraction of what we are --, the vast majority of what is--including the vast majority of what we are--is already in right relationship.

The joke, it would seem, is on us. Not only are we already "enlightened," that is, fully and wholly participant in the ubiquitous and irrevocable reality of the dharma, we don't even have a choice about it. Even our failure to participate in truth is a weirdly legitimate fraction of truth.

The classic Zen story about the wild fox, which Dogen mentions and expounds on in numerous writings, is an indication of the situation. In denying that an "enlightened person" falls into cause and effect (i.e., he contends that the duality of cause and effect can be escaped) , the master was condemned to live five hundred lives in the body of a wild fox, hammering the irrevocable nature of cause and effect--the material consequences of reality and duality--home to him.

Cause and effect cannot be escaped. The material nature of reality is an absolute. Without it there would be no expression of the dharma. There is no escape from cause and effect: transcendental doctrines which argue in favor of the "elimination' of suffering or the "attainment of the void" are missing the point. It is not escape that is called for, but participation.

Or maybe we just need to stop thinking in terms of attainment and non-attainment, and even participation and non-participation ...and just live within what is, receiving it as graciously as we are able.

The wild fox master escapes the repetitive punishment of rebirth by ignoring cause and effect. He doesn't get rid of it; he stops worrying about it. Another way of seeing it is that he accepts it as one of the conditions. So he submits. In effect, he commences to ignore duality.

...There it is. So what?

It all reminds me of something Andre Ennard said to me many years ago:

"We must surrender everything--even our wish."

And on that note, perhaps, we should sound the late afternoon gong and close up shop.

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

article on incense


Consequent to two recent conversations, I hope to post later today (if not, I will tomorrow) on questions regarding the meaning of "enlightenment."

In the meantime, check this article on incense out...

have a great day, everyone...

Friday, May 23, 2008

Fractals, levels, impressions


A comment left on yesterday's post made a good point, which encourages a bit of further exploration of the subject of sensation from a technical point of view. As you all know by now, I often enjoy pondering this kind of question -- so why not?

While we don't actually know what's possible --our imagination limits us -- under ordinary circumstances, we do not actually have an ability to have consciousness at the level of our cells. We may have a sensation that touches our cells -- or, as I would explain it, an active experience of the vibration which arises at that level -- but our cells are on a different level of consciousness than we are, and for very good reasons.

I explained in some detail in the essay on the enneagram that the universe is fractal in nature. The multiple-level version of the enneagram in the essay depicts this quite clearly in visual terms, and the Gurdjieff system also makes it clear, even though the term itself was not current in Gurdjieff's day.

This is yet another point in which Gurdjieff's teaching significantly presages a concept found in modern science.

Because of the fractal nature of consciousness, and the essentially emergent nature of the phenomenon as a whole, each level--up until that of what I would call "active sentience"--can only acquire and execute a level of consciousness appropriate to the work that has to be done on that level.

Man is often described as a "bridge between levels" because he stands at the crossroads between active sentience (my own term)-- a state of consciousness which is capable (has the potential) of comprehending the possibility of states higher than his own, and perhaps even experiencing some of them -- and what I would call passive sentience, a state in which intelligence and consciousness definitely exist, but whose comprehension is limited by the lack of an intellectual or emotional center, at least as we usually understand them.

If man tried to do the work of his cells, he would be hopelessly inept at it. Our consciousness is far too broad and too coarse to do that type of work.

Our cells are able to work at a level of detail and understanding hopelessly beyond our conscious ability to attain -- molecular biologists are still groping in the dark on 99.99+++% of it. In the same way, the work of perception that man undertakes on his own level is actually a rather detailed work of taking impressions that in some senses are far too small in scale in their substance to be absorbed by higher levels until they have been processed and concentrated.

Maybe we can take an example from the natural world to illustrate this idea. Baleen whales-- such as the blue whale, which is one of the largest whales on the planet-- are filter feeders that eat krill, a rather tiny crustacean. As they filter and ingest masses of krill, it is concentrated, digested, and converted into a huge and magnificent body. That body, of course, goes on to serve other purposes that krill cannot.

Men serve as receivers and concentrators of fairly fine material in the same manner. I have discussed this in various allegorical terms, including those of forming an inner solar system. Given the specific role of mankind on this level in regard to this function, I would suspect that consciousness plays an analogous role at every level. Taken as a whole, everywhere it arises, it functions as a perceiving tool -- a sensory organ -- for what it is, in essence a single universal consciousness. This single consciousness is composed of near infinite parts, because that is the nature of material reality--the vehicle through which consciousness is expressed. The fact that the parts experience themselves as unique entities (through the process of individuation, derived from the word {individual} which, rather paradoxically, means to be undivided) is a consequence of the partial nature of each fragment. Hence Gurdjieff's emphasis on developing impartiality.

This brings us back to Gurdjieff's contention that everything is alive, everything is to one extent or another conscious, and, above all, everything is one single whole thing. ...if that doesn't remind you of Buddhism, well, it ought to.

In our efforts to develop a higher level of sensation, we are attempting to discover an intimate , tangible, and very real contact with this fundamental fact. This approach is the question of what is actually true, which is something that must be experienced within a man, in a physical sense--not merely represented as a mental construct in his intellectual center.

Inevitably, because of the confusion our language creates, we express it in different ways and say different things. I am certainly guilty of neologisms galore; I have made up my own set of terms for many experiences because the ones that others used did not seemed to reflect my experience--at least, not to my satisfaction.

So, for example, the Zen masters used to call developing a certain level of sensation "attaining the marrow." (many such Zen terms have specific esoteric meanings, which we can't get into here.) My own teacher expressed it in much the same way many years ago when she told me I needed to learn how to sense myself "to the very marrow of my bones."

Now, I say that it is a sensation of the cells themselves. Our commenter Peter pointed out that it actually isn't. His explanation was perhaps a bit more accurate from a technical point of view. Anyway, both of the expressions about marrow and cells are allegorical; each one is meant to allude to a very fine level of sensation that reaches down for contact to a level below us, and increases our sense of inhabitation of the organism. We need to understand the terms used to refer to it allegorically, rather than literally, because we are trying to reach towards something that must be tasted, rather than understood with the mind.

Back to the question of concentrating impressions. As a man collects the impressions of his life, everything that ever happens to him "falls into his vessel"-- or, is inscribed upon the famous "scrolls" on which everything is recorded, as Gurdjieff referred to it. At the moment of death--what Gurdjieff called the "Sacred Rascooarno"--, that entire reserve of concentrated material is released and surrendered to the higher. Christians, of course, refer to this as the moment of judgment. Other cultures have other ways of understanding it, but every religious practice understands in one way or another that death is a surrender in which something is handed over. That something is the contents of or lives, in the form of impressions.

In this manner, we see that Beelzebub's "process of reciprocal feeding" goes on in not just physical but also metaphysical senses. And why should it be any different? The physical and metaphysical are not separated. They are forever intimately intertwined.

My good friend rlnyc may be coaxed here into sharing his classic tale of the dervish who waited to take care of things until the moment he died. I don't remember the details exactly. Rlnyc can probably tell it better. Anyway, it would be cool to hear his take on the subject -- if he is kind enough to comment for us.

Because we are having a holiday weekend here in the United States, there may be a pause in posts over the weekend. We'll play that one by ear.

Until next time,

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

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Biophilia


Last night, I was watching nova on PBS, "Lord of the Ants." The program was about Edward O. Wilson, a gentle and charming Southern gentleman--from, of all places, rural Alabama -- who originated the ideas about sociobiology, and is one of the world's foremost experts on ants.

Regular readers will recall that two days ago, I mentioned the fact that ants communicate through a chemical language. On the program, Wilson points out that almost all creatures use chemistry to communicate with each other. The language of molecules is far more complex and involved than anything we have ever developed with words, and it has been in play for literally billions of years. What man calls "language" is an extremely crude and inaccurate latecomer to the party.

Wilson has propose the term "biophilia" to describe what he believes is an inherent affinity in man towards other living creatures. Leaving the question of religion out of the argument for the moment, Wilson sees man as an integrated part of world biology, not as an entity separate from it. His sociobiological concepts shocked and disturbed the modern world when he first introduced them, because he placed man firmly in relationship with his biology and environment, rather than separate from it. In an odd way, he married a modern and reductionist worldview -- that of Western science -- to the animism of traditional cultures. I'm not sure there is any great difference between a shaman who believes that nature is our mother and we are all born from it, and Wilson's view of man as being an inseparable cousin of all the other organisms around him.

In other words, Wilson went against hundreds of years of western separatist philosophy and science which placed man apart from and above the rest of nature, and demanded that we see ourselves as being in relationship with it. This might be the core point of his lifelong work.

This question of relationship to the rest of the planet is an important one. Members of the Gurdjieff work may recall that Jeanne DeSalzmann sometimes said that our inner work is for the benefit of the whole planet, and that without it, "the planet will go down." There are, of course, conservatives in the work who scoff at such statements (and even at Jeanne DeSalzmann herself, who some lines see as a revisionist who corrupted the Gurdjieff teachings) but overall, I think most of us understand that part of the work we are sent to do on this planet has to do with our relationship to nature and other living creatures.

The idea of biophilia is that there are deep roots we all spring from, and that man has an innate ability to sense them.

The part of Edward O. Wilson that is able to sense such things wasn't damaged. Wilson has argued that man evolved to take in impressions of the natural world, and that when he fails to do so, it creates psychopathy of various kinds. When you look at the increasingly technological nature of our lives, and the increasingly inexplicable levels of random violence and insanity we see arising in societies today, it's fairly easy to see that he called it absolutely right.

All of this relates closely to Gurdjieff's idea that man is meant to be taking in impressions in a right way. We can further presume that the impressions are not meant to be impressions of exploitation and destruction of our environment, but rather what the Buddhists would call a right valuation of our relationships -- both to ourselves, our fellow man, and nature in general. Almost all right-thinking people understand this requirement, and see that most of us fall short in this area.

Unfortunately, because man has lost his organic sense of Being, the vast majority of human beings no longer have any connection with this, and consequently, we are destroying the planet, and with it, almost certainly, ourselves.

It puzzles me that most of us would, it appears, prefer to watch things blow up (or people screw each other) on television screens than to have a healthy relationship with the natural world. I grew up, like Edward O. Wilson, fascinated by plants, animals, and geology, and yet my children show almost no interest whatsoever in this. I love my kids, yet I can't help but feel that there has been a terrible atrophy of sensitivity to nature from generation to generation.

As this takes place, we draw ourselves deeper and deeper into the extinction events which we are solely responsible for.

Biophilia may indeed be a real sensation man is supposed to have -- I feel quite certain that it is -- but man is losing the sensation, and in doing so, he may lose the thread that ties him to the planet. Consequently the planet may no longer need man. As Steven Jay Gould pointed out, the question of whether or not "consciousness" as man experiences it is actually "the" supreme evolutionary adaptation, or a defect that will ultimately lead to our extinction, is still very much up in the air.

So what does all this have to do with our inner work? I think it has everything to do with our inner work. The development of sensation is not, after all, just a development of "sensation of self." To understand it in that manner is to understand it in much too narrow a way. What we are seeking when we seek sensation is what I call the organic sense of Being. I use this term because the term "sensation" seems entirely inadequate to me. Its accuracy is limited by context: sensation alone is not enough.

This organic sense of Being has an objective and impersonal quality; it's not all about what we own, and how we are, in the ordinary sense. It doesn't even belong to us; we receive it.

The organic sense of being goes beyond simple sensation to achieve a different level of awareness of our relationship to the planet. It is part of the chemical language that our bodies speak; a language that our words make us forget. When I speak about the entire dharma being expressed in a discarded cigarette butt, I speak about the organic sense of being bringing us to the moment where we are, so that we see what actually is.

The development of sensation begins with the development of the sensation of our cells. Our cells are entities on the level below us, and each one of them is actually an individual that does not belong to us. In a certain sense, we belong to it, because it is the collective effort of them that creates us. We ignore this at our peril. We need to serve ourselves properly by caring for our body nutritionally, emotionally, and so on, or the cells will break down, as everyone finds out sooner or later.

This takes me back to a principle I have expounded on many times in this blog, which is that man's consciousness must extend down as well as up. That is to say, consciousness must move in all directions in order to grow in a healthy manner. Just trying to connect with God may work, but if we do not connect to the lower levels beneath us, it is incomplete. Energy must flow and circulate, not move in one direction.

And, of course, this principle is expressed every single day in this blog, in the closing wish:

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

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The inner "as if"

The single most distinguishing characteristic in the Gurdjieff practice is self observation. In no other practice I know of do we find this emphasized so often, or in so much detail.

The practice of self observation as we actually encounter it in our lives is, however, probably a very idealized one. I say this because in real practice, it is nearly impossible to "do" this. True self observation would be to be present to the manifestations of the self -- the manifestations that take place within ordinary life -- with no manipulation whatsoever. To just be there. To actually live within the unadulterated, unaltered circumstances of the ordinary manifestations of being and its ordinary reactions without any interference.

I maintain this is next to impossible because the dualism of our ordinary mind, its insistence on right and wrong, good and bad, causes us to demand that we fix the way things are ordered within us in one way or another, whenever we encounter them. This is grasping.

To merely inhabit the conditions without interference would involve the birth, and nurture, of a different self which we are for the most part, at this point, entirely unfamiliar with. Consequently we conduct almost all our "work" and "self observation" from within the fortified walls of our own constructed psychology.

It is a very busy transit around an exitless circle.

My wife and I were discussing this this morning and she asked me, "Then what about Gurdjieff's exercise in which we behave "as if" we had already acquired something?"

I think this is worth discussing.

If we engage in the "as if" exercise in an outer sense, it may well become a materialistic activity. That is to say, it can too easily become affected, a pose. Everyone falls victim to this to one extent or another. It's in the imitative and habitual nature of men and women to do so.

We start from an assumption of how we should be -- formed from our beliefs and observations about what spirituality and development consists of --and then we attempt to conform to it. This may lead to legitimately compassionate and intelligent outer practice, but it can just as easily become a mask we wear. And even worse, it may become a reason to criticize ourselves when our "as if" behaviour fails to measure up to the wish we have.

In adopting such outer ways, we may not be invested in life, truly warm, truly open hearted. We may not be sincere. We are pretending to be a certain way and behaving a certain way because of our assumptions. We may in fact be absolutely convinced that the behaviour is legitimized. After all, if we imitate the teacher, aren't we treading on the right path?

But is it? Or is a great deal of it just ego and false personality having their subtle way with us? Is it perhaps even a con game we run on those around us?

This reminds me a lot of what people say about me. I keep hearing about what a "good man" I am. Actually, I'm not a "good man" at all. I have to suffer both my inner and outer manifestations enough to be quite sure of that. Anything "good" in me comes only from the mass of negative inner material which I have to go against on a daily basis.

Anyway, I think readers may agree that pretense, artificiality, and constructed behavior that follows a set of preconceived "bon ton" rules does not have a whole lot to do with legitimate self observation, or any definite act of real Being. We can behave "as if" we're enlightened all we want to--ultimately, if we're being honest with ourselves, all we can say is "good effort." We're not fooling ourselves. Following a constructed pattern of behaviour has little to do with living the life. More often than not, buying into that will lead to apostasy when one finally realizes it was all just a sham.

So let's consider an alternative: to engage in the "as if" exercise in an inner sense. This is a very different thing, and a very difficult thing to talk about--but I will try. And what I am suggesting here is a bit on the order of a new idea, an experiment. So please take it that way.

In attempting this inner "as if," we might try to behave in an inner sense as though it were possible for us to be whole. In other words, we encounter our assumptions, our artifices, and this entire construction that we call "me," and we try to adopt an inner posture that is independent of the construction.

It admits of a possibility.

We are not whole. We can see that we are not whole. And yet our inner effort rests on the presumption that a wholeness might be available. By affirming that possibility with an inner posture that allows it -- rather than subscribing to our ordinary inner pessimism and negativity -- we render the conditions more favorable for encountering openness.

We attract something.

There is a tricky thing embedded in this idea of inner "as if." It is actually the invocation of a kind of magical thinking, which is actually not thinking at all, but rather, the cessation of thought. We may not be able to stop thinking -- even if we try it, we are thinking about not thinking -- but we can try to taste or smell not thinking. We can pretend we are not thinking. We can try to drop everything on the floor inside; to adopt an attitude of complete inner unknowing. In order to understand, we have to stop knowing. So we have to behave inside "as if" we don't know--not talk sagely, outside, about how we don't know, and everything is a question.

Let's forget about talking about how we "don't know" or "don't understand" outside, in the process of ordinary life. It has become too strong a form. I think we should discard it.
Every time we do that, we pretend that we understand that we don't know and we pretend that we understand we don't understand.

We have all seen how far that gets us. We prattle on about it between each other, everyone nods their heads, as though something significant was being exchanged.

The act of not knowing has to become an inner act, of intentionally behaving within--innocently, slyly, silently, or in any other way we can--as if we didn't know.

What could happen then? Could something new arrive? Could something touch us that we are usually not in contact with?

In my experience, it can.

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

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Announcement: a new piece by Wulf von Himmel is now available on Doremishock.com.
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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Languages without words


Man is the only creature we know of who has languages that use words.

The entire universe is composed of languages -- methods of expression and communication -- that are nonverbal. Their vocabularies are made up of sight, taste, touch, smell, and sound. Take ants, for example--almost all their communication is accomplished using a complex of chemical scents. Amazing, isn't it?

Nothing conceptual or intellectual ever interferes in the transmission of information that takes place within these vocabularies. It's only in our own case that this kind of action takes place. It's interesting to me that we have become so powerfully hypnotized by our ability to conceptualize that we have actually all but lost the ability to sense directly, without the interference.

I often look at trees since they have come into leaf this spring, thinking about the way in which each particular tree represents a language of its own that speaks to its environment, carrying on a dialog that extends back through time to its evolutionary origins. The conditions on the planet have been informing each tree species, teaching it, for many millions of years, and the trees have been reciprocally informing their environment -- like almost all organisms -- by subtly altering the conditions immediately around them so that they are more favorable for them.

We might say that the entire universe is a book without words, a vast compendium of information and exchange that is filled with ideas that emerge from the superstructure of natural law.

We begin with what are, on our level, the fairly predictable laws of physics and chemistry--this is the alphabet with which the universe composes. What emerges from that alphabet is so complex and extraordinary that even a single cell is a greater feat of imagination and creation than anything a million Shakespeares could write.

Mankind is not able to read this language with his conceptual mind; it takes a set of senses we are no longer in touch with to discover its paragraphs and chapters. What it can write in one piece of bark, we cannot read in a lifetime. Every object, event, and circumstance contains that inexpressible quality within it.

I have a good friend who is in China for the first time. She is writing any number of exuberant and lengthy missives about how magnificent, spiritual, deep the country is. I would not, perhaps, deny that, but as I said to my wife the other day: no need to go to China. One can see the entire dharma expressed within a discarded cigarette butt right here in the street if one is in the right state.

There is no need to see something that is different than a cigarette butt to see the truth.

The truth is complete within each moment, object, event, and circumstance, no matter how incomplete we are in meeting it.

And that, of course--our incompleteness -- is the problem.

In order to work in life, we have to adopt a new alphabet, composed of sensation and attention. We have to construct a new language within ourselves that knows how to drink what is in front of us, instead of writing recipes for ale. It's within this language of no words that the encyclopedia of creation begins to form.

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

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Work in Life, a bit more specifically


coral root orchid buds, Tallman State Park, NY

As best I can determine, this very peculiar looking plant is a dwarf variety of saprophytic orchid (I have been unable to identify the exact species--if any reader knows what it is, please let me know) that spends most of its life growing under leaf litter. It doesn't have any leaves, and it doesn't use sunlight to produce chlorophyll. It grows completely hidden until the moment in the spring when it blooms. As such, it is a highly atypical, almost magical flower.

In the context of this post, it represents that which is hidden within us, which emerges to bloom when we least expect it. It doesn't look like we expect it to, it doesn't behave like we expected to, but when it arrives, it flowers.

The phrase "work in life" comes up a lot in the Gurdjieff work these days, although one can't really find it per se in the traditional Gurdjieff literature--for example, Ouspensky may have used the phrase, but if so, I don't recall where.

There are multiple levels of meaning in this phrase.

Before we can say we know what "work in life" means, we have to say that we know what "work" means. And most of us don't really know what "work" means, most of the time, because we are trapped in our psychological understanding of what work means. We actually have to throw that away -- to be daring enough to not know what we're doing -- in order to start knowing what we are doing. The entire form and context that we attempt to frame our "work" in is wrong, because it all springs from an interpretation, rather than arising from the experience.

One might say that our aim is to discover what it means to "work" without quotation marks.

So if work means having the immediate experience and being within it, in the absence of fundamental interpretation -- which is an extremely high practice indeed -- then "work in life" means being right here, right now, not knowing what the hell is going on, and being comfortable with it.

Actually, being uncomfortable with it, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Being within this moment involves seeing that there are two forces at play for which we stand between. One of them, which is overwhelmingly powerful, is the set of actual events and circumstances of this life, which keeps seizing us by the scruff of our neck, picking us up, and shaking us like some kind of prey. And in a very real sense, life is a predator, and we are the prey. It eats us at every step we take, sucking our energy and our being out of us and consuming it for its own purposes. If you were wondering what all those bizarre images of Tibetan and Hindu demons with a billion arms and mouths and sharp teeth, belts hung about with skulls, are trying to say to us, what they are saying is, "life devours us."

The other force that we stand next to is within us, and for almost all of us, it is usually much more delicate. Actually, it has a tremendous power, but not in the way that it is currently expressed. It is a finer energy that arises from what the Chinese would call the Tao. Christians, Sufis, Hindus all have different names for it -- the Holy Spirit, love, prana -- no matter what you want to call it, it is ultimately nameless.

The point is that we need to have a more conscious relationship to that energy as we stand here in life.

We forget to do that all the time. Even though we know that there is something that can feed us from another level, we rarely stop to sip that particular glass of nectar. Our outwardness takes us in almost every circumstance.

I am in the midst of that experience on a constant basis right now, because despite most of a lifetime of inner effort, I am confronted right now with health issues and many personal demands of a professional and responsible nature that are pressing me very hard. They are generating a good deal of friction and fear in me. Not only that, because my body isn't getting the right kind of nutrition, and I speak here of just plain old food, the chemical substances needed for support are in scarce supply.

In the midst of this, I repeatedly see that there is another part of me that is not attached to this particular set of circumstances, and is working on completely different questions in a completely different way. All of these questions are inward, and all of the work being conducted by "the other half" is also inward. Because of the separation between inward and the outward -- I am not bringing them into relationship sufficiently -- the inward work, which has an undeniable power, is unable to provide much support to the outward question.

So once again, I see that I am standing in front of my lack -- in front of my inability to bring two worlds together and stand in the middle of them.

It is not a bad thing to be ruthlessly confronted with my own weakness and inability. It is terribly trying from an emotional point of view, but I consistently see the value, and I know that it is slowly breaking down the ego-assumptions which I have carried with me for a lifetime.

So this idea of work in life is a call to see how I stand between my two natures, and to be willing to stand there. Above all, in the midst of this maelstrom called life, I need to understand that there is a hidden nature within me which is growing, and to value it properly.

I need to touch that more often, in the day--to nurture it, and to never forget that its blossoms will become available,

in their time.

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

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Trungpa, Gurdjieff, and the Apostle Paul: work in life

When we consider Chögyam Trungpa and Gurdjieff, we find some interesting parallels.

Both men brough a new way of inner work to the west. Both men were unabashed rebels, leaping far outside the traditional forms of their own heritage (In Gurdjieff's case, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and in Trungpa's case, monastic Tibetan Buddhism) to offer a radically new perspective on both the method, and the meaning, of inner transformation. In the process, they alarmed and alienated most of the traditionalists around them; they were revolutionaries. Not, it's true, on the level of Christ, but certainly well within His tradition.

Perhaps Trungpa summed it up best in a heretofore unpublished note from his personal diaries:

"In particular, my own situation is due to the fact that no one [else] could understand everything all together--both worldly and spiritual views, and how to live one's life. That is not to say I am more skilled, more learned, and more experienced in the dharma. There are many people who are more learned than I and more elevated in their wisdom. However, I have never made a separation between the spiritual and the worldly. If you understand the ultimate aspect of the dharma, this is the ultimate aspect of the world. And if you should cultivate the ultimate aspect of the world, this should be in harmony with the dharma. I am alone in presenting the tradition of thinking this way." (from The collected works of Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala publishers, Boston & London, 2003, volume one, pgs xxxv-xxxvi.)

Well, not quite alone.

Gurdjieff certainly emphasized the same approach--and look at how strikingly similar the two men were. Both prodigious drinkers, adept and aggressive socializers, and notorious adulterers, they lived life in sheer defiance of our traditional concepts of "spiritual" behaviour: abstinence, purity, serenity. No white robes for these men. They didn't even propose storming the gates of the temple: they ignored the temple. The temple, to them, paled in significance when compared with the scale of the undertaking. Here again we encounter that aggravating, life-filling oscillation between the scylla and charybdis of carnal demand and holy perfection; and here are not one but two masters of twentieth century practice who insist that we must inhabit life in all its contradictory, uncompromising, and even perhaps repulsive forms rather than trying to polish it or escape it, if we wish to discover anything real within ourselves.

Both men challenge us to invest within this life, to be clothed by it. To be sure, practitioners within the Gurdjieff work may well understand that question in a different way than the Shambhala Buddhists. Nonetheless, the aims are not at all that different. And Trungpa's teachings are of more than passing interest to students of the Gurdjieff method. There's even an intimation that some of Gurdjieff's seminal influences may have come from the same tradition that Trungpa was raised in: the similarity between the names (Trungpa's Surmang monastery, Gurdjieff's Sarmoung brotherhood) is, at the very least, intriguing.

Both men presented some seemingly contradictory ideas, framing their very work itself as a zenlike koan-in-motion: life itself as an active question.

Gurdjieff said everything is material; unlike the Hindus and Buddhists, to whom everything is an illusion, he embraced the concretization of all form, stressing its absolute unity. In Gurdjieff's cosmos, even illusion itself (if that is what everything is) would have to be considered material. The divine cannot express itself outside the context of materiality, yet that very materiality is transcended by the divine.

In my recent experience, this paradoxical relationship between illusion and reality finds itself best expressed in a passage from "The Zen Teaching of Huang Po," translated by John Blofeld. (Grove press, NY, copyright 1958 by John Blofeld, pages 64-65): "You do not see that the fundamental doctrine of the dharma is that there are no dharmas, yet that this doctrine of no-dharma is in itself a dharma; and now that the no-dharma doctrine has been transmitted, how can the doctrine of the dharma be a dharma?" [Blofeld's rather delightful word-for-word translation, typically Chinese in character, is found in the footnotes: "Dharma original Dharma not Dharma, not Dharma Dharma also Dharma, now transmit not Dharma Dharma, Dharma Dharma how can be Dharma?"]

We might conclude that in spite of its putative illusory nature, the experience of self within the material contains no essential contradictions: it's only in the context of that process of discovery that the "ultimate Dharma"--presuming there is such a thing--can be encountered.

Trungpa may well have argued, like Marpa, that everything is illusory--I haven't yet conducted a major review of his body of work, which I will soon be undertaking, so I'll suspend judgment there--, but, like Gurdjieff, he argued for the immersion within real life as the path.

Is there one real world--the world of tangible reality, of the flesh, of materialism? Or is that world an illusion, and is the only real world the "real" real world, the total expression of the dharma, within which resides naught but perfection?

Or are both worlds quite real?

Let's suspend that fascinating question--hold it in front of us, so to speak--and apply color to the context of Trungpa and Gurdjieff from a much earlier perspective. Once again we return to the Apostle Paul's discussions about faith, which is of the spirit, and law, which is of the flesh.

Law presumes an order, a structure, a methodology. As such, it attempts to establish a preordained, top down approach to the matters of the soul. We might argue that law is materialism in its most inflexible form: a materialism cast in concrete, a materialism that attempts to freeze events and circumstances within a single perspective.

The spirit, on the other hand, is a "bottom up" approach to the spiritual: a willing concession to, and investment in, materialism that nonetheless discards the presumptions of law.

Faith and the spirit insist on the inhabitation of life through experience, not the interpretation of life through law. Faith requires an ongoing, willing, and active confrontation with uncertainty: Law requires nothing more than repetitive, mechanical behaviour.

As such, it's not much of a leap to argue that both Gurjdieff and Trungpa call on us to invest ourselves in the same qualities of faith and spirit that Paul presents. To live not through a dry recapitulation of life constructed from the inflexible, judgmental laws of a vengeful God (or cold, indifferent universe,) but rather through a rich, fluid experience of life, forever presuming nothing more than a compassionate, intelligent willingness to be present to the encounter itself.

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

Thursday, May 15, 2008

vengeful gods, infinite Bliss, and the middle ground


I have been concentrating my reading in two areas lately. One of them is the Bible, and the other is the Flower Ornament Sutra as translated by Thomas Cleary.

During Passover, I re-read Exodus. Most everyone remembers the inspirational moments of this book, such as the parting of the sea of reeds. The more unsavory details -- such as the incident when Moses and the tribe of Levi put thousands of people to the sword after he comes down off the mountain and finds them worshiping idols -- openly invite whitewashing. It's these gruesome Biblical moments (another example is the slaughter of the people of Jericho) that reinforce the classic Old Testament image of the vengeful God, the jealous God, the God who is willing to kill and maim in order to get what he wants: obedience, worship, and adoration.

Christian though I am, let's face it, this is a pretty crappy God. Forced to choose between religious alternatives, who (except the masochists) would honestly opt for the Old Testament?

I'm not one of those who argues that every word in the Bible was divinely inspired and actually written by God; my impression is that those who wrote many of these texts fundamentally misunderstood many important basic principles. Even if one wants to argue that they are allegories, they are deeply flawed allegories whenever they take a position that inspires fear. And there is, to be sure, a supreme irony in the flight of the Israelites: fleeing enslavement under the cruel Pharoah they find themselves under the yoke of an equally (perhaps even more) cruel God, who lures then with milk and honey, but then threatens them with death if they do not worship him appropriately.

Our patently human hero Moses even has to talk God out of this imprudent course of action on at least one occasion, which suggests that God may not be the brightest of light bulbs in the firmament after all.

To me, the whole story smacks of blindly trading one form of enslavement for another. A case of better living through denial.

In the Flower Ornament Sutra, we encounter the polar opposite of jealous, vengeful gods. In the first chapter, one is presented with a cavalcade of perfect and divine beings living in a universe that is blissful, gemlike, perfect, and gloriously incomprehensible. It's certainly a whole lot more appealing than tired, dirty hordes of paranoid nomadic peoples who run around putting their fellow tribesmen to the sword: it's heavy on the honey, instead of liberal with the vinegar.

At a certain point though, the flowery language and the endless images of perfection, joy, magnificence, bliss, and purity take on a cloying aspect. Can things really be this perfect? Look at where we are. Locked in the struggle of this level, this life, where even the gurus and masters get horrible diseases...

...or get nailed to crosses and die.

In short order, reading the Flower Ornament Sutra -- which is undeniably beautiful -- leaves one with the impression that a great deal of denial is at work, here, too. It's a true "pink cloud "text, despite its obvious spiritual virtues. One cannot reasonably construct a universe where everything is beautiful and perfect. The very premise invites enslavement to an ideal that appears equally subjective: this idea of an elusive perfection that does not, we see, reflect itself in billions of sharp-toothed, ravenous animals that eat each other, asteroids slamming into planets, or the very messy, highly explosive process of nuclear fusion.

This isn't to say that there isn't beauty and bliss here with us, and within us. There is plenty of it, and spiritual work can certainly bring us into contact with moments of that kind.

It's naïve to presume, however, that this is how the entire universe manifests. It has a great deal more dimension to it than that.

In the Gurdjieffian understanding about the nature of reality, we are treated to a more balanced point of view. There are plenty of bad things, to be sure. There are also plenty of good things. Instead of urging men to live through fear or to live through bliss, Gurdjieff asks us, as men, to just live--to inhabit the middle ground, seeing them both objectively.

Our work here is not to transcend and eliminate pain and suffering; our job here is to experience and acknowledge them. This type of work is certainly intimated in the Bible. Of Jesus Christ it is said he was "a man well acquainted with sorrows." Buddha called on men to transcend suffering; Christ took it on his shoulders and carried it like an ox. We might argue here that we are seeing a difference between the temptation to flee from reality -- which is certainly possible -- and a willingness to bear its burden.

Gurdjieff intimated that the task of man is to take on a portion of the suffering of God himself. If we adopt the Gurdjieffian perspective, we acknowledge that Gurdjieff did not ask men to escape suffering.

He asked them to participate in it intentionally.

And despite my ongoing interest in all things Buddhist, I think it is here, more than anywhere else, that I diverge from the Buddhist agenda of permanent escape.

The "Truth" that is attainable doesn't eliminate suffering; it includes it. Yes, perhaps it transforms it as it includes it; but the suffering is still there. The two polarized texts I cite as examples here are both examples, perhaps, of a failure to understand how to occupy this middle ground-

which, after all, is what Buddha called on men to understand.

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

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

where do we find ourselves?

Due to circumstances beyond my control, it turns out I have time to do a post today anyway. And as it happens I really like this photograph, so am recycling it.

I've been through a series of digestive health problems over the past month that have been, to say the least, debilitating. You can't possibly realize how utterly mechanical we are about eating and digesting food until every meal you eat makes you feel bad. It reminds me of when I had very severe sciatica in college, at which time I found out that we all take ordinary things such as walking for granted.

I see that the energy that this is taking out of me has left a very little in me for emotional support. As a consequence, I see a definite negative trend developing. At my best moments, I'm pretty darn good, but at my worst, I am a whiner and a moaner, in need of a change of diapers.

This negative reaction is all taking place in my ordinary parts. The self that is separated from these parts still seems to be quite healthy, and--to my great surprise, gratitude, (and even resentment at times--I won't bother trying to explain that)--is very busy working on its own agenda.

I get these two parts confused frequently, because I forget that they are really quite separate things, and that whatever "I" am currently calling "I" stands in the middle between these two natures. There is an inherent tendency in us to try and pollute our two natures with each other. ...Is "committing adultery" mixing the higher with the lower, or the lower with the higher? I wonder. That phrase has numerous esoteric meanings, but that one hadn't occurred to me until just now.

If I have learned anything from this humbling experience, it is that we need to see ourselves within life exactly as we are now, as objectively and honestly as possible, without mincing any words or beating around any bushes. We need to see that we are emotionally fragile. We need to see that we are not strong.

This reminds me of something that my old group leader Henry Brown (God rest his soul) said to us once: "The work is not for strong people. We are here because we are weak, and we see it. Strong people don't need the work."

His comment reminds me of the need to admit that we are powerless in alcoholics anonymous. And that leads us back to Psalm 51, doesn't it?

It's this learning of humility, of seeing our place, of seeing that we are not very developed, that is so essential. Only by constantly coming up against the humbling circumstances of my life do I put aside the ego-aggrandizement that I constantly create for myself. It is in these moments of real human existence that I see what is true about my life.

This morning, as I was being wheeled into the operating room to have a minor procedure done (they looked inside my stomach with an orthoscopic device, which sounds so cool it seems a pity I had to be unconscious for it) I was deeply touched.

I was touched by every human being I encountered; each one of them a real person, making an effort -- no matter how mechanical -- to serve other people. In those few moments, the relationships with these strangers were what fed me. I truly saw how all of these people are there to help support us and to work to try and help us be healthy. I must say real tears came to my eyes as I lay there on the gurney and saw my fragility, my rather petty minor fears, and the support that these people working around me were trying to offer.

One could accuse me of just being sentimental about this, but there was something much deeper taking place. This is my life. This is real life, this is how my life is. How often do we really stop to see that? To consider where we are, and who the people around us are? To actually be there for what is happening, to sense it with the body?

It's a difficult thing, to experience this human life. If we really want to open ourselves, and accept it, we have to accept the emotional blows that we hate.

We have to suffer our suffering.

So I come again to this moment that has happened to me often this year where I see how delicate my emotions are; I see my weakness; I see how necessary it is to be honest with myself about this. At the same time, I see that there is another side to this life, a part that, although it is also weak, is trying to develop a connection with something much deeper and more sincere than my ordinary parts.

And I see that forces higher than myself are willing to support me and feed me

...only not according to my own agenda.

My confusion in the midst of this is no surprise. I don't know much about the higher; I don't know much about the lower. I have spent so little time inhabiting this place between them in any real way that I am bound to be ignorant. It's much easier to be identified with the lower, where the machine knows exactly how to respond to everything, and there is no responsibility on my part. And it's much more difficult to find a connection with the higher, which exceeds my ability to understand, and which I generally would prefer to use or abuse in an incorrect way when it touches me.

These conditions are humbling. As my own teacher told me last night, "we reach this moment where we see we haven't developed very much." We need to be honest about that. Believing that we have achieved something, that we have somehow become amazing, compassionate, powerful creatures, is perhaps the greatest delusion that we can engage in.

For myself, all of this hammers home the famous statement by Jeanne DeSalzmann, "I must stay in front of my lack."

Consequently, it seems to me at this moment that daily practice might best be turned towards the inner contemplation and outer experience of these two words:

Open. Accept.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun

Monday, May 12, 2008

culture clash


Last week, I was reminded of the classic question that confronted early Christians: is man essentially holy, pure, and good, but with sinful aspects, or is man inherently sinful, with the possibility of being cleansed? (After a way lot of hard work?)

In the dialog between early Church fathers, of course, St. Augustine won this argument with his premise that man is inherently sinful. This idea that, so to speak, we "start out bad" has colored Christianity for the next 1600 years or so.

Despite all the sincerest efforts of the rainbow crowd, let's face it, it's not a pastel religion.

In Gurdjieff's world, man may not have started out bad -- in fact, his fall from grace was initiated by an asteroid colliding with the planet (an event well outside his own control, unlike the Biblical version, which just features a lil' old silver-tongued snake in a tree) but we certainly ended up in a bad place. I think Gurdjieff's idea of man's mechanicality corresponds well to Augustine's contention that man is driven by sin that arises from his lusts. Lust, or desire, is, after all, a reflexive response-- a habitual and mechanical one. We all find ourselves enslaved by this. The Buddhists have a rather similar understanding about desire: it corrupts a man's being.

It's gotta go.

This idea of cleansing dominates many religious practices. In yoga, purification is considered to be essential if one wants to open the channels of the body to the energies that can lead it to a higher awareness. In Islam, ritual bathing (a whopping five times a day, no less) is an essential part of the act of prayer: in other words, there is an inherent acknowledgment that man is a creature that is dirty, unsuitable to present himself without cleansing. And in Christianity, we have the 51st psalm, which is of course a Judaic text and thus covers both religions quite neatly.

Some of my closest spiritual advisers and friends think that this whole idea that we are not worthy is a load of crap; other close spiritual advisers and friends think that it is completely true.

To the great dismay, perhaps, of the ones who think it's a load of crap, I lean towards the other side. My experience of myself is one of a fallen nature; I am, as one friend would say, "a frayed wire," transmitting much higher energies than my insulation can usually handle in a spastic and erratic manner. And, to be sure, I have the weight of spiritual tradition on my side; far more traditions view men as a fallen creature trying to stand up than as a standing creature who falls down occasionally.

Anyway, dear readers, going back to the 51st psalm, this particular piece touches on the essential suffering that I think it is absolutely necessary for us to experience. The writer truly understood something we all need to understand about our lower nature, and the distance we need to travel within ourselves in order to receive something real:

"The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit."

This bears a striking resemblance--doesn't it?--to the Buddhist idea that the ego must be destroyed. And in it we also find "precursory echoes" of Meister Eckhart's contention that man's will must be completely surrendered in order for the will of God to manifest.

In one of my classic forked-tongue cop-outs, I am now going to straddle the territory of good and evil and contend that both statements are true. We contain two natures within ourself, and each one has its own inherent quality. The nature of the higher is pure and unsullied Buddha-nature; the nature of the lower is that of the dog. So the dog has Buddha nature--which takes us back to a relatively ancient post, in the context of this blog--and Buddha nature has a dog.

This argument even bears a relationship to the old argument of the biologists: nature versus nurture. What creates a man?

His relationship with his lower nature, which is that of the dog--a mercurial animal, dominated by a pack mentality, lusting for raw meat and status?

Or his higher nature, which we might say is formed from a grace whose instinct is to nurture and protect?

Or is man created by the intersection of these two natures? And is his task to stand between those two natures, earnestly seeking the higher, while actively suffering the lower?

I believe we might agree that mankind's entire history, both sociologically, psychologically, historically, and spiritually, reflects the tension that arises between these two impulses, and the effort to reconcile them. Each one of us, as individuals, finds ourselves called to an outer responsibility corresponding to the reconciliation of these forces, and each of us chooses a role in life and society reflecting our understanding.

In the same way, each of us is faced with an inner dilemma of equally compelling--perhaps even more compelling--proportions.

--Are we essentially good--golden nuggets trying to polish off a grimy coating of karmic bad?
--Are we essentially bad, attempting to immolate the dross so that what little good there is can shine like gold?

Or are we just, essentially---

what?

Maybe it is indeed in a ruthless (i.e., without the bitter taste of rue--try it sometime and you'll see what I mean) seeing, rather than the good and the bad of it all, that we ought to invest ourselves.

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

Saturday, May 10, 2008

creation and experience


I met with a good friend Saturday to discuss our personal work, and eventually got onto the subject of how we create ourselves.

The thinking mind--the formatory apparatus, as Gurdjieff would call it--manufactures a tremendous amount of the so-called "inner dialog" that takes place. This inner dialog instructs us as to how we are, how things outside us are, and makes a seemingly endless series of value judgments about the world around us--

and, yes, about ourselves.

The ego, or what Gurdjieff might term "false personality," is just this construction. It tends to have two polarized modes: either it aggrandizes situations, aggressively inflating the value of the individual, or it devalues situations, running an inner dialog that finds fault with everything and everyone, but perhaps most particularly with itself. Hence its two main modes are either positive narcissism, or negative narcissism.

Our formatory inner barometer is detached from any real, integrated work of centers--after all, its activity springs from a fraction of a center or at best a few fractions-- and is consequently almost unerringly inaccurate. We find ourselves in the unfortunate position of perpetually referring to a faulty instrument in our effort to assess where we are.

This ongoing assessment is an act of self-creation that re-creates us in our own image, rather than the image of God. Another way of seeing this is that we set ourselves up as our own Gods-- and, more often than not, tyrannical ones. We are consumed by our own creation: the image that pops into my mind is Goya's painting of Saturno devouring his son. A disturbing image, to be sure, and perhaps a little too close to home for any real comfort.

So if we invest in the conceptual activity of formatory apparatus, the process of thinking and psychology creates what we are. We analyze life; we confuse this analysis with truth, and all our experience is filtered through this mechanism. We aren't living the life we encounter; we're living our analysis of the life we encounter. The activity is reflexive, because analysis begets more analysis of the analysis.

The alternative we seek is to experience what we are, which does not require the mediation of the conceptual mind. Living within the immediacy of the moment is an act of participation, not analysis. And that act of living springs not from an experience of the mind, but an experience of the organism. That is to say, it is rooted in the organic sense of being, in the sensation of our cellular matter, and the sensation of the living energy that animates our body.

So we find ourselves betwixt the possibilities of creating ourselves through thought--and thus serving our own will, such as it is--or allowing oursleves to be created through the immediate experience of our lives.

Both are acts of creation, but in the one we are slaves to ourselves, and in the other we become servants of something higher.

When we allow ourselves to be created there is, indeed, no "I"-- as another friend, rlnyc, commented on yesterday's post. (Great comment-well worth reading.) There is, instead, "something else."

Whether we choose to call it "Truth" or not is perhaps immaterial.

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

Friday, May 9, 2008

getting colder


It's easy to prattle about the fires of the soul, but much more difficult to give a voice to things less known.

In the game many of us used to play when we were children, an object was hidden, and we had to find it. If we got closer to the object, we were told we were getting warmer, and if we moved away from it, we were told we were getting colder.

In this way, we grew up associating warmth with the direction we are supposed to move in. And there is something primeval in that direction; those of us from northern climates understand that fire draws men in the same way (and perhaps with the same results) that flame draws a moth.

We usually associate warmth with life, and cold with death. So by default we assume that if we are warmer, we are more alive. To be enslaved by the heat of our passions is, oddly, considered to be a good thing from the ordinary point of view. We crave hot ideas, hot food, hot sexual partners.

More often than not, we instinctively move towards sources of heat, seeking to warm things up so that there is more agitation. And in an inner sense, we may see ourselves as crucibles which need to be heated in order for base metals to be transmuted into spiritual gold.

All well and good, as far as it goes.

But what if it is an addiction to heat, to the passions of the hot flesh itself, that distracts us? What if something else is necessary -- a movement in a different direction?

What if we actually need to be discovered by something which is not hot, but cold?

There is a clarity in icy coldness that cannot be found in the tropics. An invigorating possibility of penetrating through the atmosphere, to stars that cannot be seen when they are fogged by moisture.

Think of visions of the northern lights: points of contact between our planet and cosmic forces that eventually become invisible as one moves towards the equator. It is only in the arctic deserts, where the tumultuous distractions of organic life have been stripped away, that a man can experience this ephemeral view of contact with the absolute.

This is, of course, an outer allegory, but I speak of something mysterious within.

Can we discover a coldness within ourselves that feeds our search? Is there an ice that comes from somewhere else within us that can chill the passions that distract us and draw us closer to this moment--

now?

What we live within in the ordinary moment is a surfeit of heat; we are consumed by it. Identification is born of heat. Does it not need to be frozen, by a new force that moves within the body in a different way, if we are to learn to separate from it?

Look within. Consider this.

This coldness I speak of is not dispassionate; it is, however, impartial and objective. It serves as a balance to that heat which draws us away from our self. It does not arise from us or what we are or what we know; it belongs to something more cosmological in nature, and reaches down into the roots of soils outside the reach of our own tree.

It is not intellectual; I don't speak here of a remove from real life constructed from formulated thoughts or clinical analysis.

One might say that this coldness--this inner ice-- is composed entirely of passion, but it is an Arctic passion, not a tropical one. Inner ice may bring us to a stillness--a crystallized silence--as opposed to the frenzied collisions produced by our usually overheated matter.

When I speak of this question, I don't advocate an abandonment of the passions of life, or the heat that drives us within it. I speak instead of a balance to that force, a second force to counteract and offset it.

At first, the idea may sound oblique, unlikely. Yet some of you who read this may of a moment remember Gurdjieff's contention that the sun is not hot, but freezing cold.

When he said this, he did not speak about the measurable physical manifestations of the solar entity that dominates the system we live in.

He did not speak of the sun's radiation, perhaps--which is demonstrably rather hot--but rather its emanations.

Mankind can measure physical radiation with his scientific instruments, but the emanations of the sun are not measured in an outer manner. Rather, they're sensed by man's inner organs of receptivity: the inner flowers, the apparatus designed to form a connection between man and the level above him. These organs do not necessarily operate on the premise of heat which drives the ordinary physical body; they are constructed in a different matter altogether.

Might one perhaps even say that their ultimate purpose is to exterminate the ordinary passion that drives us? That only when everything stops can liberation be attained?

In this work, we function as capacitors. That idea deserves a good deal of technical examination, but it lies outside the scope of today's discussion.

For now, I will leave you to the weekend, to ponder this question of how we become open to something other than the coarse forms of heat we are accustomed to. The next scheduled post will take place on Sunday.

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

Thursday, May 8, 2008

today's experience


This morning, I read from Ecclesiastes. This, to me, one of the most extraordinary chapters in the Bible. A few of the passages that struck me today were as follows:

"This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun in the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot."" (Eccl. 5:18)

The verse encourages us to appreciate our lives, to take the ordinary and consume it as a gift. It reminds us that the work we do -- the effort we engage in -- is worth enjoying for itself, and not for the results it gives. Personally, I have almost always found this to be so. It is within the organic engagement of the moment that the satisfaction within life takes place.

"See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes." (Eccl. 7:29.)

A reminder, it would seem, to abandon form in our effort to perceive and understand. It is our complexities that ensnare us. This "devising of schemes" -- the formulations of the conceptual mind -- appear as repeated themes in many religions, almost always presented as an obstacle.

In a day, occasionally, there is an extraordinary moment when nothing stands between the experience of self and the impression of reality. Ordinarily, the formulations of the conceptual mind insert themselves between these two elements (which, loosely put, are indeed the inner and outer conditions of real life.)

Enough attentive effort with the finer energies which may become available from time to time in the body can indeed produce moments -- usually unexpected ones -- when the conceptual mind drops away temporarily.

I had one such moment this afternoon at lunch when I went to the gas station to have my positive-minded friend Washington fill my Prius with gas.

I was sitting there at the pump, staring in front of me, attending to some specific events within the inner centers. In the process, the conceptual mind ceased to exist for a moment.

In front of me I saw two entities. They were trees, but the label did not arrive with the impression. Instead what took place was that I truly saw the bark of the two trees, which was not bark, but two different and quite extraordinary languages, speaking in tongues that cannot be heard with the ears.

The impression was persistent; even as the conceptual mind remarked on the matter and attempted to insert itself, the moment asserted its integrity independent of any possible interference.

Well, one could go on about this a great deal. One could even discuss what is taking place now, but it is not possible to put much of what takes place under the conditions of demand and effort into words. Perhaps it is better to just let the matter rest as reported, and spend a moment together here--me as I write, you as you read--sharing the mystery and the beauty of this life, as we drink it deeply--seeking to draw the substance of our life deep down into our bodies, so that it feeds every cell within us.

Can we sense that?

Short of attending to our inner state and turning the soil in such a way as to allow the relationships within us to grow, such things are not possible. And, in equal measure, it is important to attentively turn the soil of our outer relationships so that they, too, grow, and that they grow not twisted plants in barren soils, but healthy herbs that bear fruit for both us and those we associate with.

Over the past few days, I have been reminded once again of how extraordinarily fortunate I have been in my life in terms of those who have been sent to me to support me, and those who have stood against me to challenge me. There is a deep sense of gratitude in me for these people, and a sense of gratitude for the struggles I have had to engage in. Coming back again to the question of taking enjoyment in one's toils, which the author of Ecclesiastes recommends on at least three occasions, I see that this particular toil -- this work of staying in relationship-- is the most important food for me.

As I sit here, I consider it all in the context of ordinary daily experience-- whether it is a new kind of relationship with the bark of two different trees, or an appreciation of the relationship of a friend who reminds me of our work together. Whatever the relationship is, if I attempt to mediate, while attending to what is within me, something is created which never exists without the effort, without the attention,

...and without the gratitude.

In Ecclesiastes, we begin to get the impression if we read enough of it that we are here, from the author's point of view, to suffer. To suffer, above all, our vanities-- the many schemes that we devise.

One might argue that it is, oddly, within our iniquities themselves that we have the opportunity to discover Grace.

And if that is true, it is a transsubstantiation of an extraordinary and inexplicable nature.

God bless all of you. May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.