Monday, December 28, 2009

snakes over the moon

On the heels of Christmas past--if not its ghost-- and after flying snakes over the very moon itself, some musings.

This week I was browsing through "Luba Gurdjieff: a memoir with recipes", as published by SLG books, Berkeley -- Hong Kong, 1997. Luba, for those of you new to the subject, was Gurdjieff's niece. She offers some refreshing points of view that are not colored by the Royal Keepers Of The Faith.

I came across this passage on page 11:

"I remember we girls wanted to wear lipstick. I was not allowed to wear lipstick until I was 18, but we wanted to wear it. When I was 16 we used to go out and put it on anyway and my uncle would say, "What is that rubbish on your face?"
He had a girlfriend, my uncle. She was French-Russian -- a funny woman. She wore more makeup than anyone else I've ever seen in the world. It was like paint. I would say to my uncle, "Why can she do it and not me?" He would say, "When you are her age you can whore yourself."

I was immediately reminded of the touching passages from "Beelzebub in America," in which Beelzebub encounters a young Persian man who struggles with his attraction to "woman-females," a degraded type of woman far from the pure -- if not downright puritanical -- ideal of "woman-mother."

And I thought to myself, well, well, well.

There have, by now, been far too many embarrassing peccadilloes on the part of various "spiritually developed" masters for any of us, I hope, to believe in any sense that spiritual genius-- even the genius of a man like Gurdjieff-- frees men from the confusing conditions we all face.

This remark of Luba's provoked a new line of pondering and inquiry about the overall nature and meaning of the book itself -- that is, "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson."

With the recent publication of Carl Jung's "The Red Book," the topic of allegorical autobiography is in the air. Are there parallels in Gurdjieff's magnum opus?

Well, of course, you idiot, people are going to say to me. Everyone knows Gurdjieff "was" Beelzebub. But I don't think it's quite that easily dismissed. To be that glib about it implies that we understand the subject.

In his role as narrator, Beelzebub is set apart from the ordinary sins and foibles of every man--that is to say, he offers what Jeanne DeSalzmann might have called "the look from above." Nonetheless, even he begins with a stain on his soul that was the cause of his banishment to the solar system. (...need we also remind ourselves here of the repeated and even grotesque [for heavenly beings] incompetence of Beelzebub's fellow countrymen, and at least one lofty Archangel?)

Despite Beelzebub's lofty perspective, from which he "descends" to pass various sage judgments on the "slugs," i.e., men, he is observing, one begins perhaps to get the sense that each of the characters and situations in the book represents, in one way or other, a struggle that Gurdjieff went through himself. That is to say, in addition to being a vast spiritual allegory with a depth of perception and a breadth of relationship that stitches together a staggering number of religious understandings and practices, it is a recapitulation of Gurdjieff's own life. This suggests a more compelling and intriguing text than the one--delivered in the apparently abstract, or more clinically allegorical form--that more conventional interpretations offers us.

From this perspective, we might understand that the character of Beelzebub himself represents an idealized version of what even Gurdjieff himself was aiming for, not what he had attained. We are presented, in other words, with man's two natures framed in the context of the entire structure of the book: Beelzebub as the higher nature, and the rest of the mess as the lower. Couched in the text we find out not just how difficult it was and is for mankind -- not just how difficult it was and is going to be for you, or for me -- but we also find out how difficult it was for Mr. Gurdjieff himself.

As we hear from Beelzebub himself on page 271 of "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson," These conscious observations and impartial verifications at last convinced Belcultassi that in his common presence of something was proceeding not as it should proceed according to sane being-logic."

Beelzebub experts and Beelzebub students alike, take note. If, as Orage suggested, Beelzebub has seven different levels of meaning and allegory, then an autobiographical depiction of Gurdjieff's highly personal inner struggles over the course of his lifetime may also be embedded in the book.

Indeed, psychologists (learned beings of new formation though they may be) might well support the premise that the author of any book -- no matter how conscious or unconscious he is -- puts a great deal of himself in his texts. All books are inevitably and irrevocably autobiographical, in one way or another. They spring uniquely from the being of the author themselves, and can come into existence no other way.

If we look at the book from this perspective, it may give us insight into some of the same urges, struggles, weaknesses, sins, strengths, triumphs, and defeats that Mr. Gurdjieff encountered during his own journey -- in what we might call a parallel to Carl Jung's exposé of his own inner journey through the collective unconscious in "The Red Book."

I'm not advocating revisionism here. The book still seems to me to be a totally extraordinary piece of work, and I think that trying to reduce it to any one perspective is a shamefully limiting activity. On the other hand, a call to broaden the perspective, to view the text from a more intimate and personal point of view, that is, as a document straight from the heart of the man himself, seems rather more interesting.

What does it tell us about the man himself, about his own contradictions and questions, as opposed to those of his alter ego Beelzebub?

When James Moore published his controversial -- to Foundation insiders, anyway -- biography of Gurdjieff, I found it touching. It humanized the man, took him off his pedestal, so to speak, and reminded me quite firmly that he was a man who dwelt among us, not some saint in white sheets. The reminiscences in Luba Gurdjieff's book, juxtaposed against the struggles of the young Persian man in "Beelzebub in America," remind me of this all over again.

For myself, it is in Gurdjieff's unabashed and unapologetic humanity -- his willingness to play the role of the "negative pole" in relationship to the higher -- that his true greatness resides. He did not spend time bullshitting people about how pure, compassionate, or enlightened he was. He was a gemstone with the dirt from the mine still on it, not all dressed up and faceted so that it looked good in the light.

May the living light of Christ discover us.




Thursday, December 17, 2009

Down to the roots

Some of us hit things for a living.

Last night I was asked by a percussionist what the Gurdjieff work was all about. I hate it when people do that; it puts me in a place where I feel as though I've been asked to explain Der Zauberberg in ten words or less.

I gathered my wits... such as I have, anyway... and explained that the Gurdjieff work is a system to discover a new way of being, a different connection to the body... it also, I continued, proposes a vast and comprehensive cosmology, but that may be almost beside the point. The cosmology, furthermore, defies compression into any brief discussion.

Those were, more or less, my "ten" words.

In examining this question of polarity... this question of negativity... we come up against over-arching philosophical questions, lofty questions that hammer against the impenetrable ceiling of what we know, and echo back down to the to empty rooms we live in without providing any clear answers.

We're left here in the midst of our own intellectual confusions, uncertainties, and questions, each one of us more than likely convinced--in one way or another--that our own particular point of view (inevitably borrowed from someone else) is the correct one.

I realized this when I considered, the day after writing my post on polarity, that it would be possible for me to write a second post, proposing a rather different cosmological premise, that contradicted some of the premises in "polarity," and that nonetheless made a great deal of sense and retained its own integrity.

Because of this dilemma--the propensity of the intellectual mind to invent multiple "solutions" to problems, to generate a diversity of explanations, experiments and hypotheses--most of us engaged in the act of inner questioning usually don't know quite which way to turn. The most sensible--the most intelligent--the most sensitive man--begins to see first of all that he isn't so sensible, intelligent, and sensitive. His ideas are not conclusions, they are explorations, and his thought process is a series of hypotheses--not all of them, unfortunately, testable. I mean, we're not going to pull out a measuring tape and find out how many inches long God's weenie is.

We discover ourselves in the midst of a process, not an answer.

One of the few comforts available for those who study and eventually accept Gurdjieff's cosmological premises is that, as he explained it, they have the benefit of being true... that they come from a higher level, "influences c" as he called them, and that they should not be confused with other cosmologies which are man's own inventions. For myself, after decades of study, I am entirely satisfied as to the truth of Gurdjieff's assertions, but of course one can hardly expect most people (who have neither the interest, time, nor patience to sort such things out) to sign on to such a proposition.

Hence the need to propose--and move on to--a new, a different, a deeper practice. It isn't, after all, the intellectual premises that we truly feed on-- even though they may be what initially attract us to this work. What we seek is, after all, truth, and truth is not and cannot be a product of the mind alone. We who are accustomed to seeking truth almost entirely within the parameters of the thinking mind, who have never paused to consider the deeper truths of the emotions, of the body, bring years of intellectual habit to the beginning of such understandings, and cling to these habits of the mind more intensely than a dog protects its bone.

But there is something inside us that allows for the possibility of a different experience. Down at the lowest levels of what we are--of our physical connection to ourselves, our inner sensation of being--there is an ability to sense and come into relationship with this experience of impressions that the body makes possible, and that in fact tethers us to the body.

This is worthy of deep study. The entire sensation of life: that is, the physical sensation of life-- is a phenomenon that is never far away from us (after all, it quite literally creates our existence) and yet rarely examined. We have the capacity to see how this is, to discover ourselves within the ongoing and irrevocable sensation of the body, and yet we do not have the inclination.

We don't see the value in it, and we don't have an interest.

Those who may have (or still do) smoke cigarettes will have a bit of an idea about this, because nicotine is an analog for one of the higher substances that makes such a connection possible. When we smoke a cigarette, we are touched by just a hint of what a real connection to sensation might be: hence its use as a sacred substance by the Native Americans, and its new role as an abused substance in modern society. (Please don't use this as an excuse to start smoking!)

This deeper connection to sensation, which needs to become active in its own right within our work--a living thing that supports our effort from its own initiative--may lead us to examine the ground floor of our connection to ourselves. This is where we can discover, as Gurdjieff explains, that there is a perpetual tension at the root of what we are. Our muscles are always inappropriately tense; as I explained in "Polarity," there is a tangible, material, physical rejection of ourselves, expressed in this tension.

Yoga describes it as the constricting serpent: a subtle, ubiquitous tension that strangles the life out of us. The idea of "kundalini," or serpent energy, is erroneous in at least one sense, because the energy of life does not belong to the serpent; the serpent is the force that blocks it. The energy itself is prana (read T. K. V. Desikachar's "The Heart Of Yoga" for a more detailed explanation of this.)

This "coiled serpent" of tension lies beneath everything we do, and even with an excellent connection to ourselves--should we be fortunate enough to develop one--, we discover that we need to take an active stance against this tension.

Only by examining it repeatedly, by being in touch with this root arising of our rejection, can we begin to take any steps towards letting it go. This is a lifelong process, because the fear within the organism repeatedly returns to this tension. And in the end, although much is indeed up to us, only grace-- in the form of a higher energy-- can fully and truly free us from this rather hellish little secret that lies at the root of our own tree.

This "attending to the root" is not an intellectual matter. The practice itself does not even really lend itself to explanations, because the only way to discover and engage in it is through an actual sensory experience; one that cannot be readily invoked by exercises or arrived at through verbal descriptions. Only a lengthy and intensive practice of self-observation can lay the foundation for the arising of the experience needed to sense this question and begin to investigate it. And once engaged, all intellectual constructions are of little use. This is an active and intimate practice, a deeper knowing of the self which eventually brings us into touch with emotional parts we do not, as a a rule, know we have.

It is the arrival of a mystery.

So while we are strongly drawn to the lofty cosmologies, the ideologies that purport to tell us how it is (or why it should at the very least be that way), we're turned in the wrong direction. We will find it more useful to throw all of that out, and to delve deep into the roots of our organism, seeing how we are from this very physical, experiential, and --yes, I do say it often--intimate point of view.

May the living light of Christ discover us.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Polarity


Yesterday Frank Sinclair gave me a copy of the revised (and second) edition of his book, "Without Benefit of Clergy." It contains some new material, so even for those of you who have already read it, it's well worth a second look. The preface alone--delivered succinctly, and with characteristically dry wit-- makes for a delightful read.

Now on to the meat.

I've touched on the issue of polarity a few times in the recent past, but I thought it might be worthwhile to explore the idea in more depth; this time, in the context of my wife's question of a few weeks ago, to wit, "what do we need negativity for?"

The subject of negativity is a "hot" one--both in the Gurdjieff work, and in other spiritual disciplines in general. For one thing, there's this presumption that we can rid ourselves of it... that saintly halos and angelic beatitudes await those who conquer these lower impulses we all have. For another, that our negativity is "bad," that we shouldn't be negative, that we should not express it (Gurdjieff's classic premise), etc.

So why, indeed, does negativity exist?

As I said to Neal during our morning walk a few weeks ago, negativity must exist. It is essential. Both we--and the cosmos-- need it simply because currents cannot flow without two poles to move between.

The whole universe is built this way. There's no exchange of energy without polarity: nothing happens. Material reality arises from the flow of energy and the tension between poles. If we propose a cosmos without polarity, there is no movement. It is a static entity.

So we tiptoe to what is for me perhaps the most interesting part of this question: negativity and its relationship to materiality.

We are told, in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, that God created the universe because the Merciless Heropass (time) was destroying the place of his existence. That is to say, God created materiality to counteract the effects of time. Space and time are not, in other words, a "space-time continuum." They are fundamentally different entities--wedded to one another, if you will, but with very different genetic backgrounds.

This critical distinction between time and space is more interesting than ever in light of the theories of Petr Horava, as reported in the latest issue of Scientific American. Mr. Horava's theories--which, by separating space and time at high energies, offer resolutions to some of the more perplexing contradictions between quantum mechanics and classical reality-- support Gurdjieff's vision.

We might suggest that materiality--space, the universe, all the arisings of materiality--in and of itself creates the negative "pole" which creates and supports the flow of energy emanating from God. In this model, we can envision a vast and cyclical engine created by the flow of energy from the divine, into material reality, and then back into the divine... in short, the ray of creation, more or less as Gurdjieff described it to Ouspensky.

This offers us a new point of view about materiality and its relationship to negativity--one I paint with broad brushstrokes, which will require some intuitive leaps to grasp.

So put your jumping shoes on.

In this expansive point of view, the universe of materiality itself, in its totality, is the functional "holy denying" force of the cosmos. It is roughly equivalent to "sin" in the Christian religion, or "suffering" in Buddhism. By analogy, the very expression of materiality itself becomes an anguished separation from Godhood, a "fallen" condition which must be overcome so that the higher forces which it attracts--which, indeed, it actually creates the conditions to attract--can gather and return from whence they came.

Hence, we equate materiality itself to negativity--one of the most vital forces in existence, which in and of itself creates all the possibilities for evolution. No matter what we do, the fact and consequences of materiality are inescapable. This is one of the points of Dogen's sophisticated arguments about cause and effect (per the Zen parable of the red fox, as recounted in his Shobogenzo.) It is furthermore the central axis around which St. Augustine's premise of original sin turns: we are inherently "sinful," that is, wedded to the materiality from which we spring, and fundamentally separated from God by our very physical existence, which (equally) stands as the root of our suffering, as the Buddha would have it.

In a universe that supposedly offers us the option of free will and choice, the idea of inherent sin doesn't make much sense. After all, if we can choose not to be sinful, then we are not inherently sinful. If we understand "sin", however, as being as fundamental and as simple as material existence itself-- that is, as being the negative pole that "stands against" the existence of God -- then it is indeed inherent. St. Augustine's arguments make more sense from this point of view than from any moralistic sensibility.

...Readers should take note that while I am, it is true, examining the word "sin" here in a much larger context than the narrow traditional parameters defined by "good" and "bad," the effort to reinterpret the idea of exactly what sin "is" has an equally longstanding tradition--Gurdjieff himself did it, and the question of exactly what sin consists of is still a very active one which ever lies at the root of all Christian practice.

In this regard, we discover that while we may not be what makes it possible for God to exist, our materiality itself might certainly be what makes God meaningful.

This, in turn, goes a few steps in the direction of explaining why Gurdjieff contended that God needs us as much as we need God. If we were to put our tongues in our cheeks (or, perhaps, our feet in our mouths) we might say that God needs sinners to save.

It's what keeps him busy.

This tension between materiality and Godhood serves as well as a central premise in Paul's letters, where forces of spirit and flesh find themselves in eternal opposition. Paul's continued emphasis throughout his teaching is about resolving the dilemma of material existence when measured against the Holy Spirit.

The Buddhist invocation of Dharma--truth, totality, or reality, depending on just how we choose to pitch our interpretation-- attempts to transcend the entire question of materialism by radically folding polarity, and its resolution through action, or the flow of energy, into a single whole: enlightened consciousness (=Godhood), time, and the material world, a tripartite cosmological relationship. I am not so sure there is any significant difference between this and the Christian position on this question.

Here's what I see as the central dilemma of both Buddhist suffering, and Christian sin.While we find ourselves irrevocably (until death) immersed in the flesh, a deep and unexamined part of ourselves fundamentally rejects this material condition. A tension arises because of our very refusal to accept what we are, accept the flesh, accept our separation, accept the fact that we are going to die.

So we live in a perpetual, deeply rooted, unseen, and unquestioned state of disbelief and refusal. Disobedience, in the Christian world view; suffering, from a Buddhist's point of view.
This condition is organic, in the sense that the whole organism lives in a state of inner denial about the actual conditions we are in.

Gurdjieff's conclusive admonition at the end of Beelzebub is that the greatest (and perhaps only) hope for man would be for him, during the course of his lifetime, to irrevocably and constantly sense the fact of his death.

This points us directly towards an ongoing practice which learns to accept the materiality. Admittedly, this stands in opposition to the standard religious practices of denial of the flesh... it actually, and perhaps perversely, constitutes an acceptance of the flesh... but then, of course, Gurdjieff's premise always was that the world's major organized religions had this one all wrong from the get-go.

Why, one might ask, ought this "acceptance of our materiality" make a difference?

In order to understand that, one must first ask, why are we here at all?

We are assigned a cosmological role in playing one end of a stick. In the Gurdjieffian cosmology, materiality is the negative pole which attracts the energy needed to maintain the universe. Man is in a position to play that role consciously, and it is only insofar as he does so that he attracts the "maximum" amount of higher energy, or "help", that can be mediated through his material existence. (This understanding also relates, of course, to the taoist ideas of man as a "nail" between heaven and earth.) The discerning reader may intuit other interesting parallels between various esoteric philosophies and this question of polarity and the flow of energy.

One ought, I think, to avoid philosophical discourse of this kind--and at this length--without getting back to some practical questions, that is, questions about our individual inner practice.

In order to understand this more fully, then, a conscious investment in our materiality is necessary. We must engage in sensation--inhabit what we are--be what we are, in order to play our role.

And being what we are is not trying to be angels. It is the inhabitation of the flesh, the acceptance of our inherent nature, the seeing and investment within the very fact of our material nature, our negativity, in all of its manifestations. As Martin Luther said, "since we must sin, let us sin boldly."

We have no real choice but to inhabit this material existence. Rather than escape it--escape the sensuality, the materiality, the struggle and the tension-- let us embrace it. Only by living fully within the exact conditions we are in can we fully understand that all the conditions are necessary.

Everything that is "wrong"--and right-- about material existence forms the ground floor of why we are here at all.

May the living light of Christ discover us.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lost in the mind

The internet has spawned a miniature explosion of Gurdjieff Kings and miniBeelzebubs--people who post long, rambling rants of various kinds. I've come across no end of lunatic "authorities" explaining the work, what it is, where it's at, how u do it.

Call it Gurdjibabble, call it Ouspenspeak: whatever it is, I find it repugnant.

My goodness. That does sound ironic coming from someone who has spent over three years expounding on Gurdjieffian ideas on the web. Doesn't it? So let's examine the question.

We all get lost in the mind. That is to say, we inhabit the intellect in a very mechanical way: we allow it to lead us here, there, and everywhere, dreaming magnificent dreams, while we delude ourselves that we're "awake," that we have become conscious--and even (in the most pathetic cases) issue haughty proclamations to that effect.

Some have referred to this propensity as "falling asleep in the work,: that is, becoming hypnotized by the intellectual aspects of the work, failing to grasp at all what three-centered work actually consists of. It takes a particular kind of vigilance, of organic self observation, to understand how this takes place, and to see how readily the mind usurps work efforts.

An overall failure to understand the need for sensation, relaxation, and a deeper connection between the mind and the body lies at the root of this dreaming. And in the end, only an organic, living connection to sensation, in which sensation becomes an active force, can create the support needed to carry inner work forward into deeper levels.

Teachers, writers, and authorities who are not putting the questions raised by this inner practice first in their approach may be sincere--they may be knowledgeable--they may be adept--but they are not engaged in investigation at the foundation of this inner work, which is where all real work must take place. Collectively, in service to both our own aims and the greater aim of the work itself, we are building a foundation that will take many years--many lifetimes-- to complete. The foundation must be carefully attended to, because without a sound foundation, the structure we put on it will collapse.

And that foundation is built within the organism, not in texts, whether on line or on paper.

So, like alcoholics, drunk on and addicted to the fumes of our own minds, we need to adopt the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Hence, my personal aim in this blogging enterprise has been to offer short, relatively succinct observations on the work, in an accessible format. The essays have to be relatively focused and examine a particular question. Of course, each post is an essay--that is, an attempt-- and there is no presumption on my part that my aim has succeeded. Each one is a shot in the dark.

More often than not, perhaps, I miss the mark. We are all like that. As such, I claim no special authority or insight. All I have is my own not grand, but very small, insights, which are certainly not unique and all gain their perspective, as it were, by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Inevitably, a good deal of anything said about inner work is recycled: that is, it has already been said by someone else, somewhere else, and perhaps even better. This does not excuse us all from the responsibility of exchange; it does, however, put us in a position of having to be attentive and responsible to what we say. Our thinking--presuming we do any--needs to be concise and focused. We need to have a sensation of ourselves "in the marrow of our bones" as we speak or write--or even as we read. And above all, what we say ought to come (as best as possible) directly from our own work and experience, and be grounded in it. This is what gives our work a living quality. Without it, we are merely members of that very successful organization which I call the Gurdjieff Quotation Society.

Without at least an attempt at this kind of inner intimacy--at the very least an awareness that it is possible-- we're lost. Lost not in the work, but in our ideas about the work, and our endless intellectual attempts to "figure it out"-- all of which might be characterized as an elaborate trick we play on ourselves, and each other, as we wait for something real to happen.

If anything real does happen-- if we are touched by those higher forces we seek a connection with--we get a terrible shock, as we see how faulty our understanding generally is, and how very little is accomplished by all our sophisticated intellectual meanderings.

So we can attempt each day to take in a little bit about the ideas--not a lot--to be gentle and careful about it, and to remember above all to attend to the energy within the body. If we don't cultivate an inner intimacy, what I call the organic sense of Being, all the ideas we encounter are, in the end, utterly worthless.

The question immediately before us is far simpler, more profound, and more intimate, than all our cosmologies put together:

How can sensation become an active force?

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Partiality, and the place of the intellect

Even after many years in this work, I get the impression that most people don't study the work of centers very carefully, and readily fall asleep within the idea of working on this question, rather than trying to live it.

Consequently, I see people of extraordinary intelligence completely forgetting themselves, becoming entirely -- or almost entirely -- emotional, and believing that they are being rational.

I equally see people with extraordinary emotional ability using it to interpret events around them with wild abandon, assuming that what they are doing is, once again, rational.

All of this in people who presume that their effort is dedicated to seeing the difference between centers, and understanding how they operate.

Where's the intelligence?

Let's get right down to the nitty-gritty. Most of us believe everything our emotions tell us. We are downright stupid that way. I know some very few people with extraordinarily fine intelligences who reject this way of living. They, unfortunately, are equally lacking, because they fail to see the emotional content in situations. It bites them in the ass every time.

The intellect is an absolutely vital element, and in most men, it is weak and undeveloped. Being smart -- being stuffed full of facts, that is -- is not enough, not at all. We think that stuffing the mind full of facts is impressive, and have developed whole technologies around it. To be smart, however, is not to know a lot of different things. It is to have an acuity of intelligence that allows the intellect to see what is going on around us.

I am generally known as a highly intelligent man, but if I examine myself carefully, I see that the real intelligence in me is usually dormant. What people think is intelligence in me is just a very adept listing, review, and integration of stored facts. Real intelligence consists of seeing how I am in a particular moment, and I don't often do that.

I do, however, do it often enough to see that my emotions, which present themselves with absolute and irrevocable conviction at every step in my life, are basically liars that routinely come up with irrational interpretations of what takes place in life.

Yet, I trust them.

By now, at the tender age of 54, it would behoove me to develop a little bit of suspicion. Don't you think?

My emotions are extremely fast, but they often get things wrong. I spend a good part of every day, for example, watching little fears that have been manufactured by emotional center pop up in front of me. Every one of them is trying to provoke me to be fearful, to be afraid of what is happening. I play whack a mole with them all day long-- I smack one down, and another one pops up in its place.

As this goes on, I have to keep reminding myself (using my intelligence) don't be fearful. I say that to myself quite a few times a day, because I see that an enormous motivator within the negative engine in me is to have fear -- it keeps things moving. Not in a good way, but in a way that passes for living. And it seems certain to me that since my emotional center seems to enjoy fear, I should go against it. "Like what it does not like."

This is just one example. Many of the emotions that I see arising in me are bogus. They are the horse, running around in every direction towards what attracts it at the present instant. Unless the intellect becomes acute enough to observe this and go against it, I will live in relative chaos.

Mr. Gurdjieff certainly assigned the intellect this role. He advised us quite clearly that it can act as a policeman. But the policeman can't do a darn thing if he turns the other way every time the jewelry store is about to be robbed.

This means the attention within the intellect has to be on the present moment, and the work of the other two centers. For example, when the moving center is about to automatically stack two dishes on top of each other so that they may tip over, there has to be enough intelligence there to see what is happening and correct it.

I had a very interesting lapse of intellectual center yesterday which serves as an example of this kind of thing. I was at the ticket counter at the airport in Montréal. I took my wallet out -- that is, the center that is in charge of those things, moving center, took the wallet out -- and then instantly forgot it, because the moving center doesn't have much of a memory about such things.

About 5 seconds later, intellectual center looked in my pocketbook -- yes, I call it a pocket book, not a man bag -- and saw that there was no wallet in it. BANG! Emotional center exploded with fear. "OMG! I have lost my wallet!"

It took a second for the intellect to step in, say, "STOP," and then direct moving center to look on the counter... where my wallet was calmly lying.

This may seem simple, and a mere example of rather ordinary stupidity, but in fact, it is fairly representative of the way everything goes in life. One center does something, the next center doesn't remember it or know about it, and the next thing you know, emotional center is throwing a hand grenade into the situation, because it doesn't know how to handle things any other way.

The intellect can help a great deal by intervening in these emotional explosions. There is a need to step back -- to perform an inner stop-- and let the intellect do the work that it needs to, that is, to calm down the ruffled feathers and be more reasonable about situations.

We are partial. This means, essentially, that the three centers do not speak to one another effectively, and rarely work together. That needs to be studied in considerable detail, within each moment, and some presence. Those who have been in the Gurdjieff Work for 10 or 15 or 20-- or 50-- years and who think that they have somehow transcended the need for this kind of work because of their cosmic attachments to higher energies (which may even be real, by golly, who knows?) are missing the fundamental practice.

The same could be said about the practice of relaxation. There is never a time when it is inappropriate to turn ourselves back towards this question, no matter how advanced we are. The question of relaxation relates, after all, to the question of death, and this is one of the central questions of our existence. I will say no more about that; readers should simply ponder this statement and investigate it from an organic point of view. It is a very big question. Maybe I'll write about it further at some point.

Anyway, we underestimate the value of the intellect. It takes quite a bashing. Over and over again, we hear about how another person is "all in his head," etc.

And it is true -- the associative part of the intellectual center runs off in every direction in people. In an exquisite irony, this commonly happens when we think we are working and "have a good attention." But the intellect itself, that precise and well tuned device that can help balance the runaway work of the other centers, may occasionally remind us to make more of an effort to be here. It truly needs to work with us, and must be allowed its rightful place.

Without that kind of work, we truly are stupid. No one on this planet has a monopoly on such stupidity, but from the behavior of mankind, it certainly appears as though most people wish for one.

On another note entirely, I was looking over the five oblogolnian-strivings today, having printed them out so that they would lie around the house bothering me from time to time.

It struck me once again -- as it has so many times -- that the fifth striving is, in fact, the Bodhisattva-vow, translated into Gurdjieffian terms:

"...the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred 'Martfotai,' that is, up to the degree of self-individuality."

What struck me today is the way it speaks of "self- individuality." We believe that the self exists as a single thing, but the idea of partiality and a separated work of centers teaches us that the self is actually broken into pieces. To develop "individuality" is to become undivided. An individual is a whole being, one who has all of their inner parts unified.

In our quest for self -individuality, the study of our partiality is essential. The very attention that brings us to see it is what can help to make us more whole.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Utterly human

...A photo of one of my best friends, Tom, at Betty Brown's memorial service.

Regular readers will know that Betty Brown was my group leader. Tom and I worked with her for many years.

It may seem incongruous to see a man expressing this much joy at what amounts to a funeral, but in a certain way it makes sense. Betty would not have wanted us to mope around. It wasn't her style. She was quintessentially human: down to earth, pithy, and a bit wild at heart. She was always totally committed to the Gurdjieff work, but she didn't like the version where the driver pulls harder on the reins all the time in a futile effort to control the horse. She knew how to apply a deft touch at the right moment, and gain an inner cooperation rather than coercion.

I heard it said recently that Lord Pentland once remarked that one of the main aims of the work was to produce genuine human beings.

Such human beings have different qualities than the ones that we men generally display. An egoistic, violent, and shortsighted approach to life is almost universally dominant, but it need not be so. There is an alternative-- born of an inner connection, resulting from a different inner order.

It is definitely possible for us to come in touch with that "finer substance" of Being. In doing so, we unfold aspects of our human nature that otherwise remain forever hidden.

The world talks about--and even craves--a greater intimacy between individuals, but we rarely hear talk about an inner intimacy within ourselves. Yet it is only this intimacy that begins to show us anything about what we are. The action of this force is quite extraordinary, and I find few -- if any -- traces of it in discussions from other works. Without this force, the intimacy we seek between ourselves and others lacks the inner support it needs. This is why so many outer relationships fail. They aren't built on solid ground.

This is not a question of self improvement. It is not about adjusting attitudes -- that comes afterwards, and grows out of intimacy in the same way that leaves naturally sprout from branches. If we do not begin with this more intelligent -- and I mean intelligent, not intellectual -- connection to ourselves, then nothing really grows out of ourselves, no matter how carefully and brilliantly we analyze the situation.

Inner growth is truly a voyage into the heart of what it means to be a human being.

This growth includes the discovery of our polarity: the need for both the positive and negative in ourselves. A discovery of that nature puts to lie the idea of a nirvana; of some idealized kind of self-perfecting that makes us thoroughly wonderful. Instead, we find that it is necessary to have two poles in order for a current to flow between them. If we do not have a negative and a positive side, there is no spiritual energy in movement. We become stagnant, dead, within negativity; or we become dead within positivity.

Either way, no good: one must include both sides for the energy to flow.

It's possible to understand this in terms of our two natures, that is, the relationship of the lower to the higher, as well. Our "lower" organic being forms a negative pole -- characterized in Christianity by the concept of "sin" -- and the divine, the level above us, constitutes a positive polarity.

When we explore the verticality implied by the image of the cross -- and we must always explore this organically, through the experience of sensation, the inhabitation of the body and blood -- we explore not just how we are in our lower, or, as the Christians would have it, sinful state -- we also explore the fact that there is something that lives above us that is indeed sacred and higher.

And although the vehicle through which this exploration takes place is indeed material, is indeed the body, the medium is the energy. This is the third force: the holy reconciling factor between man and God. It lies in action, it lies in the connection of the poles, and the movement between them.

As such, the attempt to sterilize or eliminate the negative, the attempts to "improve" it or deny it, eliminates what is needed to attract something higher. The very recognition of our state through the experience of intimacy is a call directed towards a higher power.

In religious work, there is a great deal of talk about joy. I think we would all like to feel joyful. In fact, just about all of us have, at one time or another. But this is a relatively superficial experience. The deepest joy lies in a union between joy and sorrow; and this is something that only experience and understanding can bring to a man. It is within the unity of positive and negative that real emotion appears.

To know this is to become utterly human; to become utterly human is simply to live.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Monday, November 30, 2009

three year anniversary

Today marks the three year anniversary of this blog.

Over the course of that period, over 580 essays have been posted. It seems impossible to believe; the effort was an experiment from the beginning, and there was no telling how long it would last, or where it would lead.

The anniversary catches me at a difficult moment, because I am very busy for the next week or so and it is unlikely I will have time to organize any decent thoughts or posts. I will, however, do my best to put something together Wednesday or Thursday night when I am in Georgia.

Tonight, I just want to thank the readership for taking the time to participate and read my material. There are many people all over the world who have followed this effort for weeks, months, and, in some cases, even years. Together, we form a loosely woven network -- a community -- of individuals interested in the ideas which Mr. Gurdjieff left us.

Almost all the people who knew him personally are now dead; it is up to us, those who remain, to carry the work as it stands on. There is no point in fearing that we are not up to the task, for we have it now. All we can do is do our best, and hope that we do not betray either the ideas, or the aim, of this great effort, which is -- as was said not so long ago by a very experienced member of the foundation -- "for all humanity."

On this site, those near the arctic circle can take heart knowing that Brazilians and Colmbians are reading with you. Americans and Frenchmen are reading with Iranians and Croatians. Australians are reading with Canadians and Dutchmen.

We continue, together, to participate in that mystery called life. We don't really know what life is -- the moment that we encounter it is always the most unexpected moment -- and it takes more than we can often muster in order to meet it.

Let us take courage and go forward together, with all of our flaws, our negativity--and the good things that are also in us--offering what we are to the world, and receiving in return.

Traditionally, every year, I change the sign off for this blog and use it for the next year. Regular readers may have noticed that. Today marks the day that I start to use a new sign off for the next year.

This year, I am choosing to sign off in a manner that is quite personal, and intimately related to my own work.

Some may feel that it is too specific for work as general as the work that Mr. Gurdjieff brought us. Others won't. But for some reason my new sign-off reminds me of something I heard a Sufi say in a film several years ago:

"There are Sufis in every religion."

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

blaming the object

In past posts, I've discussed attachment--as it's described by Buddhists--and identification, which was the word Gurdjieff used to describe the phenomenon, as analogous concepts.

Attachment is a concept common to both Buddhism and Christianity. In the Christian faith, attachment is indulgence in what would be called "sins of the flesh," the outer world. In the Philokalia, we are presented with the idea of turning away from the outer, i.e. attachments to the world, and towards the inner. And in Buddhism we also find that attachments are generally considered to be attachments to things of the world.

In pondering this over the past few days, it occurs to me that attachments, or identifications, are provoked by what we would call "things of the world," but in the end they are all exclusively inner phenomena. That is to say, every identification or attachment both arises and exists within ourselves.

This may sound so obvious as to be worthy of a "duh-" but I'm not so sure. I doubt that I truly appreciate how this sits in me.

We might examine the question from the point of view of center of gravity. Every identification represents such a device- a locus around which an inner attitude turns, a fixture which has appropriated the vitality of Being and redefined it. So when we become attached, or identified, our inner attitude has become the weight of the matter. It draws the psyche into it, and instead of "belonging to itself," Being orbits this new, and aberrant, central point. (Incidentally, let us be reminded of Gurdjieff's idea of Chief Feature here, and ponder it a bit.)

Extending the analogy of the inner solar system (one of the earliest posts in this space), it's as though all of a sudden Mars or Jupiter thinks it is the sun, and develops the mistaken perception that the rest of the planets--and, yes, even the sun-- rotate around it, not unlike the medieval view of the earth relative to our own solar system.

So we have what might be understood as planetary misconceptions. Our inner center of gravity is mislocated. Our identification or attachment may appear to have something to do with the outer event-- and it's easy to view it that way-- but this idea is a turkey (for those of you not familiar with American slang, that expression means, more or less, that it's silly and worthless.)

In the end one hundred percent of the issue is an inner issue, having little or nothing to do with what happened outside of us. Speaking for myself, I see that I have an almost obsessive need to "outsource the blame" for attachment and identification and blame the object. Doing this allows me the luxury of abjuring the responsibility for the whole mess.

I don't have to face what I am, how I am: it's the fault of this outside matter.

This creation of a subject-object duality where the object (what took place outside of me, which is now a thing rather than an event) becomes the "participant at fault" is where everything falls down. And here, indeed, may be precisely where my inner subjectivity arises--in my acceptance of the outer as the object.

Outer events thereby develop a powerful center of gravity. They, not this body and this sensation, appear to be the locus of life. This despite the fact that any careful examination within the moment verifies that the actual center of gravity is within this body--that the arising of consciousness and life resides here, and not within what is taking place relative to this place of arising and sensing.

The ego invests itself quite powerfully in forms that have developed around these aberrant centers of gravity. We take in impressions of life and develop planets that force us into orbits around conceptions of ourselves based on "I am an artist," "I am a doctor," and so on. All of these "I ams" are attached to, or identified with, outer objects-- art, medicine, or what have you--and they are so well entrenched that the illusion that they are "the sun" is nearly impossible to dispel.

Perhaps this is why my old group leader Betty Brown said to me once, "the things we love the most are the first that have to go."

In the discovery of the inner sun-- the realignment of our inner solar system so that the true center of gravity is recovered-- tremendous perturbations are necessary. Our conceptions of ourselves are utterly wrong, based on premises created by what Gurdjieff would probably have called "false personality."

And what, exactly, is false personality? Another "duh" concept: it is a false person created within us. Do we really see that our personhood is false? Can we see that?

Our attachment to this false person is terribly powerful, and almost all of it revolves around this identification with, attachment to, the outer. So these ideas about "what we are:" our upbringing, our skills, talents, abilities, and place in life--well, the whole damn ball of wax is causing us to orbit around a planet, not our inner sun.

And it all has to go for something new to appear.

So in the end, we come once again to the organic sense of self, without which it is quite impossible to begin to sense what attachment and identification consist of. We must first see what we are--where the locus of our awareness arises-- in order to begin to understand its relationship to what lies outside us.

Until this new connection takes place, all of our understanding is trapped in orbit around external centers of gravity.

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



Sunday, November 22, 2009

Politics

The Chinese have a proclivity for placing ostentatious examples of heroic sculpture in the center of their cities. Despite their overstatement, sometimes they are pretty cool. They are even more interesting when, as in this case, a snapshot juxtaposes a reflection in an accidental, but entirely appropriate, place relative to the sculpture. The whole package works.

Sometimes we forget that politics is mostly about show. That it is about ego. We begin to take it seriously, and we think that the politicking is the core of what government is about. In America, the politicking has replaced what it is meant to lead to, that is, intelligent action on the half of the greater whole. To be fair, that may well be the case in many other parts of the world.

I'm not sure that any of us see that that is also the case in most religions, and even in esoteric work.

The politics of inclusion and exclusion pollute the Gurdjieff work in the same way that they pollute all the other facets of life. The whole affair is treated as a power struggle. The next thing you know, what group you are in, who you work with, who you take movements with, and who notices you is what is important. The ego wants to be placed in a heroic position where it is visible, where people value it, appreciate its "work," and think it knows what it is doing.

In the worst cases of this disease, we begin to think we do know what we are doing. We take on airs. We pass judgment on other people -- inevitably, I suppose, it's a human condition. We become aggressive, as though we think we are more developed than the next person.

We forget that we are all on this level together, that every one of us suffers under the same set of conditions, and that death is the great equalizer.

Of course, forgetting in this way is quite normal in the ordinary world. There is, however, an absurd presumption afoot in esoteric works that somehow those who work and (supposedly) have a spiritual connection of one kind or another transcend such nonsense, but nothing could be further from the truth.

On that point, I have watched for years as supposedly "developed" individuals in positions of power invested time and energy in politicking "promising" golden younger people into privileged positions only to have them pick up their bags and leave the work (sometimes even selling out precious material, such as movements instruction, which they had been given) while much more solid and reliable--but less glossy and exciting-- individuals who never had the spotlight cast on them trudge on loyally without any chance whatsoever to advance.

Before she died, my group leader Betty Brown mused to me about this on more than one occasion, wondering what good all that power did for them.

In my view, along with all the self remembering--a drum that is beaten with great vigor but tends to make little music--there is one thing that everyone ought to do their best to forget, and that is the politics.

This disease contaminates every inner activity. The instant that one is worried about where one stands, who one knows, and whether one was or wasn't invited to some "special" event, one has forgotten oneself and one has forgotten how to work. I've been there myself many times, so I feel qualified to speak about it.

If our work really depends on these outer things, then we have no work. If our work depends on what others think of us-- if it depends on whether or not we are given access to some secret text that has been hoarded away from the general public so that only the elect can read it-- if it depends on whether so-and-so has invited us to participate in such-and-such, or whether or not we have been asked to do something "important," we are doomed.

I watch the gremlins attached to this at work at me every time someone asks me to do something or participate in something. The ego's work is quite insidious, really. It's always there, chirping contentedly about itself. It leaps at compliments as eagerly as a dog begging for scraps. Only the man or woman who actively sees this and becomes deeply suspicious of it begins to see how much of his or her life is driven by such nonsense.

The only thing that real work can depend on is an organic connection within the self, and an attempt to cultivate that connection and re-order the inner state.

As such, politics starts out far from the point of real inner work, and marches away from it briskly with as much energy as it can muster, dragging us along by the hair.

If we let it.

The choice of where our center of gravity lies in our work is up to us. There needs to be an attention to the outer conditions and an understanding that real work does not lean on them as a crutch, any more than it leans on sitting silently like a monk for four hours a day. Real work lies in the middle, between the inner and the outer. It may be driven by the ego -- in all likelihood, a weak ego will never develop much of a will to work -- but it must not be owned by it. It may participate in politics, but it does not have to be taken by them.

So, if not politics... then what?

A few days ago, my daughter and I were discussing a personal situation related to her graduate school work. I pointed out to her that generosity in any situation is rarely misplaced.

If we have to be part of any political process and make any political statement related to our inner work, let us make it a statement of generosity. Rather than trying to get importance for ourselves, to seek position, to bask in a false limelight or acquire tans from the bogus light of artificial suns, let us offer ourselves unstintingly to the conditions and the individuals around us. Let us give what we have, in the hopes that we will receive in return.

We need not give stupidly or recklessly, but give we must, because if we do not feed one another in a real and honest and generous way, we will all starve together.

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I am more or less on the other side of jet lag. It is unseasonably warm here on the banks of the Hudson River. The mornings are dark and filled with promise.

Today I was reading the writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, faber & faber, 1975. On page 280 I came across this passage from Hesychius of Jerusalem to Theodulus:

"Attention is unceasing silence of the heart, free of all thoughts. At all times, constantly and without ceasing, it breathes Jesus Christ, the son of God and God, and Him alone, it calls upon Him, and with Him bravely fights against the enemies, and makes confession to Him who has the power to forgive sins. Such a soul, through continual calling on Christ, embraces Him Who alone searches the heart; and it seeks to hide its sweetness and inner attainment from all men in every way, lest the evil one should have an easy entrance for his wickedness and destroy its excellent working."

Well then. Here, encapsulated, a brief summary of esotericism, and how to hold your work close to yourself -- and, perhaps, even why.

This passage is particularly interesting in the connection it draws between the heart, breathing, and the presence of Christ. It touches on the need for a more intimate organic relationship: the relationship with the higher is received within the body, and if we do not develop an inner attention, an inner relationship to sensation, we cannot receive anything from a higher level.

Even more interesting is the stress that the writer puts on the need to hide what one is given. This, certainly, is not the way of the world today: everything is on display. Glossy magazines and slick books sell us the words we supposedly need to hear about spirituality; but what is it that remains unsaid amidst this cacophony?

What lies between the lines that are written? What delicate insight and intuition is needed to find one's way between the letters, and sense a vibration of a different kind?

It is, in fact, so often what is not said that counts. The noise that is made is not the heart of the soul; it is just the sound of a stick beating on its skin. It touches only the outside. It looms so large that it seems to fill the room; but it is only when the stick pauses, and the noise slowly fades inside the vessel from which it emanated, that we begin to get the sense that there is a vessel.

Yes, the noise is just an echo of the action, which takes place in emptiness. It takes place in the place that waits; it takes place in the darkness, at the root of things. It's true that we lie at the base of this root; it's true that we can receive light from above, that it is possible to engage in what one might call photosynthesis, a fixing of magical substances (for a brief moment at least) in positions where they can do work. But this is not work meant for the public eye, or the public ear.

And how great the temptations of the ego! Of course we must hide the best of ourselves, even from ourselves. For we are our own thieves, the enemies of our own most precious efforts. No sooner do we work for something, then we lose it again, or we destroy it in anger and reaction.

How different this idea of concealing any attainment is from our expectation, that we should attain and be recognized for it. This is truly confusing to all of us.

It's only with long effort, and a patience that comes only after our own patience is utterly exhausted, that we can begin to understand how silently and how secretly we must work. Do we know this? Do we understand it? It can only be through signs and miracles that the first taste of such an understanding arrives, and even those are things we wish to have as our own.

Well then, these are indeed somewhat private musings. And they touch lightly on the motive force of some of the poetry I have been writing lately. But in the interest of intimacy -- a subject I bring up quite often -- it seems at times to make sense to offer something a bit more intimate, rather than ongoing clinical analysis of work ideas, which there is plenty of out there.

One theme that has occurred to me recently is a question about self-observation. One of my good friends Red Hawk has recently written a book on the subject. Apparently, it's quite popular. That's good to hear; it's encouraging to think that the subject has become of greater interest to people.

For those of us, however, who have heard this phrase for most of a lifetime, there may be in need to reinvent the question under slightly different terms. For myself, it is no longer so much a question of self-observation as self-inhabitation.

How can we inhabit ourselves more fully, in a more three centered manner? How do we overcome the clinical, the intellectual, the analytical aspects of work in order to discover a more vibrant and living relationship to ourselves?

Is it possible to make this an active question that originates not just in the mind, but also in the body and feelings?

This is a subject worthy of daily study.

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

Saturday, November 14, 2009

a greater sensitivity

It is Saturday morning, gray and rainy. There is a resistance in me to the rain, but at the same time I see it is possible to accept it as a blessing. There's a softness here that speaks of receiving life in a different way. A way that is less predisposed to criticism.

I arrived home on Wednesday to the November issue of Parabola, and the newly published material from Jeanne de Salzmann's journals.

Reading the material caused me to ponder one again what it is that can truly "help" us in our effort to understand what inner work is. There's no doubt, these readings can be helpful. But at the same time, one cannot transmit the body of the work effectively in words. Not written ones, at any rate. And that means that no matter how "superior" De Salzmann's words may be, relative to what can be brought from my own work to this page, in the end they occupy the same territory, on what is in some senses a level playing field. Both are, after all, just words, and it is only in the living experience of an organic connection that any real experience of what it is to engage in inner work can arise.

We live in a bookish (and now increasingly media-driven) culture. Our slavish devotion to acquiring knowledge through the written word, and, now, through electronic media, steadily removes us one step further from the immediate, the now. It's possible to retain a sensation of many inner and outer parts of the body as I write this, but it is seen (as the reader may, upon examination of their own immediate inner state, also see) that there is a strong tendency for the head to dominate--which is exactly where we always find ourselves in relation to this question, and to life. The abstraction of life into the "head space"--a vacuum which, it might be argued, draws our awareness in to fill itself at the expense of our (potential) three-centered being--perpetually takes us away from the question of what this life is and how we can actually live it.

This requires a greater attention within the organism, and a greater sensitivity towards the workings of that organism. A delicate balance must be struck between outwardness and attention to ordinary life, and that inwardness which includes an awareness of the inner vibration of more subtle energies, which are fed by our impressions.

It's a tricky thing; the awakening of such an awareness is there by varying degrees, and our intention will not and cannot always be even partially present in relationship to those sensations. It's up to us to remember as often as we can, and to study the partiality of the organism-- the "not-connectedness" of the parts--in relationship to the potential wholeness we all might inhabit.

To have an inner sensitivity is one of the aims of this work. To be sensitive to the inner being at once draws us towards a greater outward sensitivity--both to the impressions we receive, and the interactions we engage in. It's only with inner vigilance (another word, perhaps, for self-observation) that we can bring more attention to the moment. And that inner vigilance cannot be supported or carried by the intellect. The intellect is not strong enough to do this kind of work.

Our mistaken impression that it can do such work is the very seed of our undoing. Reading words often brings us to a belief that we know or even understand something, when it is in fact very far from the case. It's only through a desperate act of living (I call it desperate not in the sense of despair, but in the sense of great need or desire) that we come to understanding. Understanding is a living, breathing quality never conferred by mere collections of facts or clever words. Understanding derives from a new sensitivity to the immediate surroundings of our being-- a sensitivity to a new kind of energy, a tangible inner vibration that is active, that seeks relationship with these fragmented lower parts we inhabit.

There is little need, in the end, to become tangled up in the complex metaphysical and cosmological questions that fascinate us. Many of the insights we may gain into these overarching principles are available in a new (and decidedly less intellectual way) if we simply educate ourselves to a sensitivity to the conscious inhabitation of ordinary life. The life that is worth living is often revealed in the nuances and details.

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


Thursday, November 12, 2009

The mind, the brain, and Being



After two weeks of intensive work in China, I return to my home turf... which is decidedly less urban. Now that I am back here, we will see what can be done about some more practical attention in this space.

As readers know, philosophical and technical questions are discussed here, as well as actual personal observation, practice, and matters of more immediate interest to those who wish to work in a new way to connect the mind and the body.

Of course the latter type of discussion is more interesting to some, but there are times when it's necessary to grapple with intellectual questions. We cannot afford to allow our work to be nothing but "touchy--feely" material, that is, emotional/body work. The intellect must be applied, in a practical and immediate way, to elucidate questions related to Gurdjieff theory. Not in a complex, obscure manner, but in a way that is simple and practical enough for the average Joe to get the gist of it.

So here is an article of that nature.

During the trip, I had occasion to ponder some questions about the mind, its relationship to the brain, and some particular parts of the brain. In order to discuss this, we are going to have to ramble around a little bit. Hopefully you will bear with me.

One of the perceptions of modern science is that the brain is the place where the mind originates. That is, the mind, intelligence, awareness, whatever you wish to call it, arises from the brain and cannot exist without it. Red is not red without a brain; wind is not wind, the stars are not stars.

In this decidedly reductionist worldview, it's difficult for us to imagine a universe without intelligence. In fact, there cannot be one, because in such a world view there is no universe without intelligence. That is to say, if there are no brains to receive impressions, nothing actually exists. This premise has actually been argued by some leading theorists. There is an ever present and all-too-common danger with our modern, hyperintelligent scientists: they become so incredibly smart that they reach a peak, turn a corner, and plunge back downward into stupidity without even noticing it.

Building on the complex cosmologies and perspectives of the Gurdjieff work, and speaking from my own personal experience, I will offer a rather different hypothesis: the brain is not a place where the mind arises: it is a receiving mechanism for the mind.

The nervous systems of animals, and all biological life, can be compared to radios. All of them receive molecular and vibrational "waves" from their surroundings. If we consider a radio, I believe we can all agree: even if there is no radio to receive radio waves and play the music in them, the radio waves still exist, and the information in them is still real. We can, in fact, detect and measure the waves without the radio. There are probably even devices that could extract the information in the waves, though they might not play it in audio format the way radio does.

So the universe, the color red, and the wind, do exist independent of the brain and other neurological systems. One might argue that neurological systems impose arbitrary subjective interpretations of all of these phenomena on the impressions that they receive, but I don't think the interpretations are arbitrary at all. There is a remarkable consistency to them across a broad range of organisms. The organisms all exploit the properties of the environment they inhabit in similar ways, in the same way that many different radios with various receiving capabilities all function in a similar manner. There is, in other words, a commonality to the enterprise that is very strictly imposed by the constraints of chemistry and physics.

So we come once again to one of the key questions in philosophy, that is, does the existence of everything that is depend on the mind, or would it be here, even if there was no mind to perceive it?

The human brain and other neurological systems are not generators, they are receivers. They do not generate the universe. They perceive it. As such, the universe and everything in it exists a priori, and the arising of organisms, and consequent neurological complexes, to sense it is a dependent consequence. If organisms are receivers, then the mind exists before the organisms do; they are simply tools which mind adopts in order to express itself.

This idea exhibits some interesting parallels with Buddhism and other religious practices which I will leave it to the reader to ponder further.

The Gurdjieff system is unabashed in its insistence that everything is material; as such, we might suggest that Mr. Gurdjieff was perhaps the very first spiritual teacher in any century who insisted that there was an absolute scientific basis to the development of what is called, in various religious practices, "the soul," "enlightenment," and so on. The expression of what he called higher mind -- that is, a receiver with the capacity to receive far more impressions of mind than what are usually received -- is entirely dependent on the restructuring of both the chemistry and the neural anatomy of man.

Those who are familiar with with P. D Ouspensky's discussion of the chemical factory in "In Search Of The Miraculous" will be well familiar with the idea that Gurdjieff said man's inner chemistry must change if he wishes to develop his inner Being. The idea that the brain itself needs to physically change is one that we don't encounter there.

Yet, it is incontrovertibly true, and the study of one particular structure in the brain tells us a very good deal about what some of the aims of Gurdjieff's work were.

In 2004 or so, Scientific American published an article on the function of the cerebellum, a structure in the brain which has been receiving far more attention in recent years.

The cerebellum is often referred to as the "primitive" or "reptilian" part of the brain, that is, the oldest part of the brain. It's frustrating to see the oldest structures in organisms as being called "primitive" by scientists and biologists. It's not only frustrating, it's patently stupid. The oldest structures in organisms of any kind are the most advanced structures, because evolution has been acting on them for the longest period of time, optimizing their ability to perform. Any structure that has recently arisen has been less fully tested and, we can be certain, will not perform as well as more ancient structures that have been tested through millions of years of evolution. So let's not call the cerebellum a "primitive" part of the brain at all. It is, more than likely, the most advanced structure in the brain. And this is a suggestion that is being borne out by a great deal of recent research. You might say that study of the cerebellum has been... well... blowing scientist's minds.

The cerebellum has more nerve cells than all the rest of the brain combined. In other words, this rather small part of the brain has more capacity to work than any other part. Secondly, its response times are remarkably quick. Third, it is connected to the cerebral cortex -- the part that gives us our higher thinking functions -- by something like 40 million nerve fibers. So it has an incredible capacity to process and pass on information. Connections to parts of the brain that regulate emotion are also highly developed.

After I read the article on the cerebellum (a bit more on that in just a moment) I passed it on to the late Paul Reynard, who was one of the most important figures in the teaching of the Gurdjieff Movements during the late 20th century. I gave it to him because the implications that connected the development of the cerebellum to the Gurdjieff movements were unmistakable.

And, as I suspected, he was utterly fascinated by it.

The cerebellum, you see, is the center of motor development in the brain, and it contains complex perceptive and timing mechanisms that must, by default, be deeply involved in the execution of any physical exercises such as the Movements. There can be no doubt that one of the principal brain structures the Movements are designed to stimulate and affect is the cerebellum.

The first main point of the article made is that the "primitive" cerebellum has the capability of learning. That is to say, it is been recognized that the cerebellum has a rich ability to form new neural pathways, and that, in fact, it may well grow new neurons during the course of a human's lifetime, in response to novel stimuli. This discovery contradicted the idea (by now an outdated one, to be sure) that new neurons don't form after a human being is fully grown. So this brain structure is flexible, creative, and capable of growth.

A second point the article made is that the cerebellum has an extraordinarily dense set of nerve fibers connecting to the parts of the brain that are known to regulate emotion. As such, the development of a greater and more sensitive capacity in the cerebellum would almost certainly have an effect on the emotional state of man.

Gurdjieff's Movements, unlike the slow movements of tai chi and yoga, are demanding physical exercises executed at what are sometimes lightning speeds. They are ideally designed to stimulate the cerebellum by putting intense demand on it. And, although it is not at all obvious (at least most of the time) to those who engage in these exercises, it's quite clear that the formation of new pathways in this part of the brain may well enhance the emotional capacity and sensitivity of those who participate in them over long periods of time.

The Movements, of course, are also performed in accompaniment to music, another element that is nearly absent from practices such as tai chi and yoga, but which is definitely known to stimulate the emotional center.

As such, when we study the known physiological characteristics of the brain, the known role of the cerebellum, and we consider one of the core aims of the Gurdjieff work -- the incorporation of emotional center into the life in a new way -- we suddenly see how utterly sophisticated The Movements are when taken from a completely new point of view, that is, the material work that they engage in in the stimulation and development of a part which is generally neglected in life. The work of the cerebellum, one might argue, is habitual, but when it is actively and deliberately stimulated, remarkable new things can take place.

Here we have stumbled across a "secret" purpose of the Movements. It is never about "doing the Movements right;" of course, if we do "do the Movements right," we see beautiful dances, and an organic satisfaction arises, but the very act of the effort -- of simply engaging in the practice -- is quite literally capable of causing physiological changes in the brain of those who engage in it. Those who practice movements may never be consciously aware of the effect they are having, at least not in the sense that they "know" what the "results" will be. Nonetheless, the activity is setting the stage, laying the groundwork, for the development of a new capacity of sensation, of a new capacity for emotion.

Readers interested in further exploration of the place of emotion in this work are invited to read the suite of essays on the subject on my page at www.doremishock.com.

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

back again

Apologies to the readership for the long delay since my last post. I have been in China, and the Chinese government has, unfortunately, blocked access to blogger (as well as facebook and several other US social networking sites.)

I will resume posting in the next few days, allowing for jet lag.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A discussion of levels

A number of different encounters over the last week have repeatedly reminded me of how poorly the idea of levels is understood in science, in the general population, and even in spiritual seekers.

I thought I might take the occasion to write an essay -- and perhaps several essays -- investigating this question of levels and how we experience it.

On Friday night, I was discussing some of the implications of the enneagram with someone who recently read my 2003 essay, chakras and the enneagram. We were discussing the implications of the conscious "shocks" and what it means that they emanate from the law of three, as is clearly depicted in the diagram.

One could say many things about this, but perhaps the simplest thing one can say is that the shocks come from another level. The "source" of the first and the second shock which help the octave to develop emanate from do; the energy needed to accomplish this comes from a higher level.

This much ought to be obvious to everyone who studies this subject: we aren't "conscious" in the sense of the way that the Gurdjieff work uses the word conscious. That is, we are not even able to engage in conscious labor, i.e., the first shock.

Conscious labor is something that works in us and is on the order of help sent to us which can move us forward.

The second shock is no different.

Man's belief that he can "do" relates exactly to this question. If man were able to provide these shocks, they would be coming from his level. And they don't. So anything that leaves us under the illusion that we are in control of the process of our inner development is -- to put it bluntly -- an illusion.

We cannot develop without help from a higher level.

Mankind makes a specialty of ascribing magical and miraculous powers to himself. The world has been treated to thousands of years of charlatans parading so-called "abilities" to heal, to cure, control, command, compel, and manipulate people and objects. The last two centuries have seen installments and sequels of this perpetual comedy, as increasingly media-savvy gurus and spiritual masters appoint themselves to supervise the development of hordes of eager pupils.

All the while, the esoteric core of every single religion has always reminded man, quietly and in a sober way, that we can't do anything without God's help. Of course, the exoteric memberships of the churches, temples, and mosques take this quite literally, but it is most important to understand it from an inner point of view, and this is exactly where we are getting it wrong in today's world, where works are mixed up like alcoholic drinks in a blender and served up in four different flavors at once, with a sprig of mint leaf. We are perpetually doomed, it seems, to seize the circumstances of this level and pretend that they can address the questions we need answered.

So the question of levels is not understood. It is not understood even by esoteric groups who think they understand it, because the only way to actually understand the different level is to encounter it in person. This is a rare and terrifying event, if the door to another level truly opens any more than a crack. That kind of experience puts a shock in a man that will humble him permanently.

My wife brought the question of levels up this morning when she began to discuss inner considering. We talked about the difference between inner considering -- which is, most of the time, a kind of self judgment -- and a sense of one's own nothingness. The two are quite different, because they are connected to different levels of experience.

Inner considering, the action of judging ourselves (or others), is a negative emotion that springs from this level. If we judge ourselves and decide that we are "bad," because we have done bad things, thought bad thoughts, and so on, we are engaging in a kind of destructive behavior that stems from automatic associations and emotions. We may feel worthless as we do this, but that is not a sense of our own nothingness. It's just feeling crappy.

To sense one's own nothingness is to have an experience that touches on another level. This is a deep and organic experience that takes us to a connection between the higher level and ourselves. It is, in other words, a religious experience, not a prosaic experience. Inner considering will always prevent us from having this kind of experience, because it is actually a form of egoism. Inner considering always puts us in front of everything else. We are the center of the universe. If we are worthless, we are the worthless center of a worthless universe, but no matter how we pitch this to ourselves, it is egoism.

To sense one's own nothingness is the beginning of a loss of egoism. It only comes when the action of higher substances in a man begin to act in the right way, so that the ego is weakened. If the ego does not become weaker, if it does not pay out some of its energy to help the essence develop, we can't become more open to higher influences.

It's a little difficult to approach this idea, because we can't go there on our own. Only many years of inner work and self observation, and the incremental deposits that that puts a man, can lead him to a place where something more becomes possible. More often than not, our impatience, our unwillingness to go well past the point where one wants to give up, is what stands in our way.

Most of the delusions that man engages in stem directly from his failure to sense quite clearly the fact that he is on this level, and that there are levels above him and below him. Unfortunately, mankind has little or no sense of this whatsoever, and an intellectual understanding of it is the next best thing to useless. One must sense this question in the organism and feel it with the emotions, not just think about it.

We need, in other words, to acquire a little humility.

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