Friday, January 30, 2009

the question of hope

Yesterday, I proposed the premise of hope without naïveté.

In pondering the question of hope bit more, and considering the question of death, I cannot help but run up against the many comments Mr. Gurdjieff made about the nature of man's soul.

Gurdjieff maintained, contrary to standard Christian belief, that man does not have a soul unless he earns it. This idea also contradicts Buddhist beliefs about the eternal nature of consciousness, and the standard belief in reincarnation.

Gurdjieff was, of course, a rebel. He delighted in upsetting conventions and challenging beliefs. And he was well known for asking his students to do things which, on examination, they knew they should not do, only offering a "bravo" when they came to him and said: "No, Mr. Gurdjieff, I can't do that."

So we see that his practice included active misdirection, in the hopes that his pupils would find the strength in themself not be so influenced, but to find their inner backbone and stand up straight.

On top of that, I know at least one person (now deceased) who knew Mr. Gurdjieff personally as a young adult and was in his presence when she heard him answer a question about whether or not reincarnation actually took place. She repeated the story to me several times: Mr. Gurdjieff, when asked, said something to the effect that words could not properly explain what happens after death, but that it was "something like that."

So, from the horse's mouth, and not on sheets of paper, an admission that the idea of the soul may not be so ridiculous after all.

We can add to that Madame DeSalzmann's famous statement: "there is no death."

So is it possible, in the end, that Mr. Gurdjieff challenged our beliefs about the soul simply because he wished us to not approach the idea as "taken for granted?"

In most religions, after all, we grow up with the idea that the soul is an absolute. This idea is a peg that the hat of many different hopes in mankind gets hung on. Most religious belief revolves around it in one way or another. Even in religious practices which appear to be more "philosophical" -- Zen Buddhism comes to mind -- the idea of an eternal element which is ever-present in manifested consciousness plays a central role.

Perhaps the most characteristic feature of all these beliefs is that they are mechanical, automatic. Human beings who practice religions with such beliefs agree with them by reflex. They are not examined with a critical mind.

That's perhaps the most remarkable feature of Gurdjieff's denial of the "soul owned by default." He dared to look at the question and offer not belief, but a critique. A challenge to the established order which may, in the end, be as profound as the challenges Martin Luther issued to the church.

This, without a doubt, alienates many mainstream Christians, Buddhists, and so on. First of all, it is scary; it implies a finite end to consciousness which none of us want to accept. Second of all, it appears to be arrogant. Who was this one man, to swim against a tide so strong and ancient?

Did Gurdjieff challenge this belief in order to force us to stop accepting the idea mechanically, and to consciously discover and affirm what the soul consists of?

There is certainly a chance of this. In the process of transformation, a real, organic, and tactile awareness of this question must be developed, as opposed to a passive, intellectual, and unexamined one. And in the development of such a tactile awareness --ah! there lies the miracle of life itself.

As I said to my wife this morning, there is far more hope buried in the rich earth of the Gurdjieff teaching than anyone suspects. It is hard-won hope; hope that is not given, but must be earned.

Nonetheless, for all the effort taken to earn this hope, it is worth so much more than a hope that is born without eyes to see.

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

1 comment:

  1. I too had a voice tell me at age 6, "There is no death" and I am 57 and have never doubted it's veracity.

    I also have a soul which I brought with me, and it was pretty well formed. Still it needed work and lots of it.

    I think that Gurdjieff is saying that most men are not born with a developed soul -- it is but a seed, and needs water and care to grow. There is also the issue of the emotional life of man as well as the mental life of man which do not have "shape"; without "shape" they do not exist except for the compelling existence of the body.

    So the work is to form these nebulous and amorphous things into rightfully shaped bodies, and if this is not done before the death of the physical body, then the whole thing simply falls apart and dissipates. In those cases it can be well said that those persons had NO souls to speak of.

    Ouspensky was driven nearly mad with his idea of recurrence, and once Gurdjieff saw him enter a cafe with a long face and said, "Oh look, sad Ouspensky. I will give you a favor and answer any question put before me, no matter what it is!" Of course Ouspensky had no choice but to ask about recurrence and re-incarnation and Gurdjieff said exactly what he told the certain woman you speak of, except that afterwards Gurdjieff told Ouspensky, "Now we have happy Ouspensky! Do you see how easily you are "turned"? Perhaps I just told you what you wanted to hear, and made it all up?

    The concepts of the Buddha are not quite as you report them -- but now is not the time to go into what would require a lengthy discussion. Christianity also had the notion of "Limbo", where those without souls went after death, so they too were not so far from the concepts promulgated by Gurdjieff.

    Lots to learn, but more need to work as we can, ceaselessly.

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