Thursday, April 30, 2009

Happiness, authority, and illusion

It seems as though I am only able to get to about one post a week these days. Starting this new job has been a time sink.

I've been pondering a number of subjects over the past few days, and decided to see if there's a way to cover them all in one post.

The question of happiness comes up around me a lot these days. My older stepson, just graduated from college last summer,  has had a hard time grounding himself. He wants a job doing something that will "make him happy."

 I pointed out to him that most of my jobs have not made me happy. What has happened as a result of that is that I have grown. I don't think we grow much if we sit around blissed-out and feeling utterly fabulous about everything.   Don't young people see that we need friction in order to grow?

This question of happiness never came into it in my life. It was understood from the time I was very young that the primary thing to do was to meet my responsibilities. This is how my parents raised me. Meeting my responsibilities was not about being happy; it was just about being Responsible -- what Mr. Gurdjieff would call being an Obyvatel,  a good householder.

 This, to my mind, is a critical point of personal work.

We spend a great deal of time worrying about our happiness in this life. I'm not sure that is the point at all. This planet -- and, in fact, the universe -- were created for reasons aside from our happiness. There are much bigger things going on here. There is a rampant narcissism afoot in humanity,  with little discussion about whether or not it's appropriate. If mankind began to really look at life on the point of view of meeting responsibility, everything could be quite different.  

As I have said before, the key is to discover happiness within conditions, not try to create conditions that lead to happiness. The first can be achieved through inner effort; the second is always doomed to failure. That's because one of them begins with the aim of inner transformation, and the other one is aimed at the manipulation of circumstances and the outside world, which actually remain forever beyond our control. 

This brings me to the next question, which is the question of  authority. One of the chief difficulties facing the Gurdjieff work today is the dogged persistence of the oldest generation. This is not an obstacle because there is anything bad about the oldest generation; some of them, in fact, are extraordinary people and extraordinary teachers.  And bravo to all of them for this fraction of their work effort!   

On the whole, however, my observations suggest that other significant fractions (or should I perhaps say factions?) are falling victim to a syndrome that is all too common everywhere: a refusal to let go and let the next generation step in. There is a mistrust;  a concern that the younger generation is misguided, that they (the seniority) are vested with an authority that must be exercised right up until the moment they die.  Let's face it: people want control. Anyone naive enough to believe that doesn't happen in spiritual works needs a major reality check.  The Gurdjieff work-- which has "evolved," and continues to "evolve," as an oligarchy by nature-- is no exception.

The failure of the senior membership to move people forward and step aside so that they can make their own effort has caused an unfortunate shrinking of membership.   Able and dedicated younger people get frustrated and leave.  At first it was possible to be self-righteous about such things, but the fabric of the membership is a little too aged and threadbare to allow that attitude nowadays.  To highlight the issue, I was recently in a room with over a hundred members where it was suggested that "the younger people" speak up-- and I suddenly realized, with a shock, that at the age of 53 I was one of the youngest people in the room- probably the youngest 5%.   

It makes one wonder.

I hardly have the answer to this problem, and I know there are plenty of self-justifying things the older membership can say to explain how wrong I am about this. I have already heard some of them from some of them. Nonetheless, as they watch the ranks dwindle, you might think they would figure out that they are doing something that doesn't work too well.   

It's really very simple. There is too much control being exercised.   Younger people have to be moved into positions of authority and allowed to make their own mistakes.  Mistakes have to be made. Learning will not take place, and the work will not grow, without them. 

This paranoia about doing things wrong has got to go. As Martin Luther said, "since we must sin, let us sin boldly."  

The older generation never wants to let that happen. It is a story as human, and as old, as the Bible. And older.

 A great deal of this behavior arises, I think, out of the mistaken belief that the authority we earn  and exercise within ordinary life is a "real" authority.  Mankind is utterly hypnotized by this idea.

I don't think anything could be further from the truth. The authority exercised in organizations, in man's day-to-day endeavors, stems directly from the will of man. Almost none of it comes from the will of the Higher, which is the only real authority that can be exercised anywhere.  

Of course, it's unrealistic to expect the will of God to become manifest and show up anywhere, isn't it? So I guess we are stuck with our own will, which is flawed. Nonetheless, this belief that any of us have authority is illusory. Only by completely surrendering our belief in our own authority do we discover any real authority, and  if  that by chance should happen, immediately, we see it is not our own. 

So where does real authority come in? How can one see and know a real authority?

I suppose we will all have different opinions about this. I can only offer my own.  And it begins with the premise that authority has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with a wish to control. 

Real authority invariably arises from the fertile and sacred root of humility and compassion. If an action does not begin in humility and exercise compassion, it has no authority. Or, rather, it has the crude kind of temporal authority that we believe will help us get what we want, make others behave the way we think they should, and so on. 

Well, some of that is necessary. When one looks at the example of younger people who can't sort things out, guidance is certainly needed. But when it comes to dealing with human beings, face-to-face, peer-to-peer, on the common ground of our own humanity, if we do not begin in humility and exercise compassion, from the most organic and deepest roots of our being, we are bogus. 

Our "authority" is bogus. 

It's only in the moments where the organism is alive and  an impression is received without prejudice that I begin to get a taste of what real authority is--

--and I see, when that happens, that it never belongs to me, and it never has anything to do with most of the nonsense we get ourselves up to on this planet. 

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

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Work as Custody and Stewardship

We all have this conviction that our life belongs to us.

From an intellectual standpoint, there may be considerable understanding that this actually isn't true, at least from a metaphysical point of view. But the reality is that we all experience our life as belonging to us, because that is how the ego functions.

The dialogue is all too familiar in me. This is "my life." I want to make my life more complete. I want to live my life fully. I want to do this and do that. The choices are up to me, and I can do as I wish.

In the end, nothing could be further from the truth. In the Lord's prayer, the phrase "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done" is meant to be a specific confession of the fact that life does not belong to the individual. Life itself is a force, a force that cannot and does not belong to the vehicles that express it. The vehicles are expressors and expressions, not owners. This is true from the smallest microbe all the way to man.

Every one of us is a custodian of life. A steward of life. Each one of us discovers ourselves in the unique and poorly understood position of being granted the privilege of participating in this force called life. Every life is bought dearly; billions of years of evolution were required to bring us to where we are right now.

We dismiss all of that with simplicities. For example, we see a creature and we say "bird," as though four letters were a decent substitute for an absolute miracle born of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The bird is a custodian of everything that went before it -- in and of itself, it contains the entirety of everything that life expresses.

So do we.

So I come to my life as a steward. I have a responsibility to it. That responsibility is rooted in the organism and the active expression of life as it is created and goes forward in every moment. My stewardship consists of an effort to be within the moment and honor that moment. Within this context, every event, every action, every movement, every object, every breath is sacred.

The organism is built to sense this. Unfortunately, my own organism is blunted and damaged; it has some limited sensory ability to know and understand this truth, but that ability is circumscribed by the relatively poor functioning of my consciousness. I am disconnected. I may speak about being in the moment as though I knew what being in the moment were, or as though I could "do" being in the moment--but in the moment where one truly discovers the moment, one discovers that one does not know the moment, or even how to be in it.

Instead, one knows a few clever words, which become quite useless when truth arrives.

In moments of a greater connection, I begin to sense my stewardship. At moments like this, every event and circumstance is miraculous, and nothing belongs to me. I am humbled by the place I occupy and the privilege of seeing something as simple as a crack in the pavement. A deep humility grows as I see how small I am, and how incredibly little I understand. Even in the midst of participating in life -- in the midst of successfully starting a new job and offering intelligent work to my employers and the individuals I work with -- I see that I understand nothing about this planet or life itself.

The best I can say in the context of that moment is that everything is a mystery, and the parts of me that function in relationship to ordinary life do so only because they have learned it by rote.

In the meantime, the parts that can sense the miraculous nature of this stewardship more directly are bewildered by the astonishing variety of manifested nature, and the incomprehensible glory of even the simplest impressions.

How do I honor this life? Not very well. Do I understand that every individual and circumstance needs to be treated as though they were sacred? No, I don't. I generally live with the conviction that others should serve me as I wish, and that events and circumstances should serve me as I wish. It is my will that I want done. All this in sheer defiance of the prayers I study within myself.

Those prayers need to become more than words. They need to become active affirmations of an effort to discover the "I am" of stewardship.

If there is no deepening humility, no organic sense of sorrow, no humbling of the understanding, and no remorse in the simple act of taking in life, there is no work. Every drop of arrogance is a measurement of my lack. And, unfortunately, in this particular regard, my cup runneth over.

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

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Gurdjieff Ouspensky, and Christ

There have been a number of occasions on which I have discussed the connections between Gurdjieff's metaphysics and Christianity, most particularly inherently Christian.
In the last post, I mentioned Hesychasm and the Philokalia, and I feel it would be instructive not only to direct readers to links explaining these terms, but also to discuss their implications in terms of an examination of Gurdjieff's teachings.

The Philokalia are a set of teachings from the early Church fathers in which one can easily discover the roots of many of Gurdjieff's ideas. Not only do we encounter the (central) idea of inner silence as it is taught in the work today, we also repeatedly encounter the idea of sensing the inevitability of one's own death, and the need for relentless efforts in the pursuit of inner perfection. Even one of the key "mantras" from the Gurdjieff work-- Lord have mercy -- is nothing more than a contraction of the prayer of the heart: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me."

Gurdjieff carefully and intelligently deemphasized the Christian elements of his teaching in order to make it accessible to as many searchers as possible. His efforts in this area were good, but they weren't "perfect"-- in the end, one can't take the apple out of the apple juice. One suspects from his own comments, that it was, in the end, Gurdjieff's gradual approach to the core of his own teachings -- a core which was irrevocably Christian -- that led Ouspensky to leave him. We can collectively delight in the irony that the almost Calvinistic severity Ouspensky reflects in "In Search Of The Miraculous"-- the unending need for effort, the deep and difficult slope that has to be climbed, the constant demand on a man in order to reach his aim -- all appears, almost to a certainty, to be derived directly from the teachings of the early Church fathers as encountered in the Philokalia.

It's true that these texts use language that centers all of their practice powerfully around an understanding of Christ, and polarizes it with the constant invocation of demons and Satan as the opposition. If one just changes a few words, however, one ends up with a set of texts on esoteric practice that even a Buddhist might feel quite comfortable with.

Ouspensky's "In Search Of The Miraculous" does an excellent job of expounding Gurdjieff's cosmology, but at the same time it sets a tone I have never been entirely comfortable with. There is an underlying taste of negativity in the severity he presents. And it is indubitably true that anyone who tries to reconstruct the Gurdjieff teaching from this book will get it wrong. The way that the Gurdjieff work as it has been passed down from master to pupil, directly from Gurdjieff himself in a straight line, is not accurately reflected in this book. Outsiders may argue this statement, but with few exceptions anyone now in a direct line of transmission from Gurdjieff will agree that it is essentially true.

A second difficulty with the book is that it is a document frozen in time. Works evolve and change according to the times, the circumstances, and the individuals practicing them. The record of the work as it existed in the early part of the 20th century is a document, not a living tradition. And that is what we have in this wonderful book. We have a document. The living tradition resides in the efforts and the relationships of the individuals who practice. That can never change. All the wishful thinking in the world about transmitting the work over the Internet will never make it so.

The Gurdjieff work today is populated by a diverse range of pupils, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, agnostics, and even atheists. (I will confess I don't understand what the atheists are doing here, but they are welcome. Anyone who wants to work on themselves is welcome in this work.)

Some may question how a work that was so clearly influenced by yoga--in fact, in many ways Gurdjieff's work is a reinvention of yoga, with new terms-- could really have much to do with Christianity. I think the answer to that question lies in the reverence that yogis in India hold for Christ. In yoga, there is truly no controversy or contradiction about the idea that godhood can be embodied in man. One need only refer to Paramahansa Yogananda's writings to see just deeply the understanding of Christ can be integrated into yoga tradition. And, as I have pointed out in other essays, to presume that Jesus Christ did not encounter the ideas or practices of yoga beggars the question. He lived in a region where those ideas and practices must have influenced religious teachings for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, simply by virtue of the fact that ideas traveled on the silk Road along with the merchandise.

In summary, the practices are not at all separated.

Anyone seeking to gain a powerful understanding of the roots of Gurdjieff's teaching needs to pick up a copy of the Philokalia and to read it in some depth. There are particularly interesting passages regarding the practice of using the sensation of breath to connect the mind to the heart. Readers of my own essays on esoteric practice as found at will probably recognize those connections (although I had not read the Philokalia at the time I wrote those pieces.) It simply underscores the fact that the Gurdjieff work, if properly practiced, inevitably brings one back to practices that the desert fathers well understood -- practices which an Indian yogi or a zen buddhist might be entirely comfortable with.

I'm not sure that it's possible to pursue the Gurdjieff work to the depths and heights that it offers without coming to grips with the question of Christ. I know that this idea makes many practitioners uncomfortable, and there are forums populated by individuals on the periphery of the work, or not formally associated with direct lines of work, who strongly object to that understanding. Nonetheless, I stand by it.

One cannot practice this work without seeking Christ.

There is good news in all of this. Episcopalians (I am a member of the Episcopal Church) have an agreement among themselves that we all understand the religious texts used in the service -- as well as the text in the Bible -- differently, but that we all agree to worship together. This creates an atmosphere of unity in diversity.

On the other side of the coin -- the secular side, so to speak -- we have Stewart Kauffmann, who offers essentially the same perspective in his terrific book "Reinventing The Sacred."

The point being that we can put our disagreements and (opinionated) understandings aside and instead simply agree to work together. It is within the actual context of the relationship, within the act of working its self, that we discover both our effort and ourselves. If a man or womam needs to understand the idea of Christ differently than I do in order to approach it, so be it. She or he may understand it as light. He or she may understand it as love.

However it is understood, it leaves us in the position of acknowledging that there is a mystery on the level above us that we need to open our hearts to.

And, as I continually experience, if we do not open our hearts to one another -- if we do not learn to more openly trust and love and support one another -- we have no business pretending that we can open our hearts to a higher level.

The work begins here and now, between each one of us.

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

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Remembrance of things past

Readers have probably noticed the lack of posting in recent weeks. I have been getting ready to start my new job, which I began today.

The job is in Georgia, in McDonough--a town very close to the one I used to live in before my divorce. Consequently, when I arrived here last night, I drove down to Griffin to take a look at the house I lived in. I have been getting it ready for sale, and I wanted to see what kind of condition it was in after my ex moved out.

The drive down was a poignant passage through time to the places where I raised my children. I passed the Burger King we used to buy them food at, drove down roads lined with azaleas and dogwoods in bloom. I finally reached the property on the south end of town, right where the countryside truly begins.

When I reached the house, twilight was setting in. It was the first time I have set foot on the property in over nine years.

The house was dilapidated, deserted, ruinous, and the property was overgrown. Long shadows cast by Leyland Cypress trees -- I planted them when they were knee-high, they are now over 30 feet tall -- painted a somber light on the west side of the house. In the backyard, there were ruined sofas and stereo systems on the patio. The picket fence around my garden was twisted and skewed by an overgrowth of bramble. The swing set my children used to play on stood in mute testimony to happier times. The house, trimmed with rotting wood and flaking paint, looked far more like an abandoned tenement than the upstairs, exclusive property it ought to be.

The sight did not make me sad. Instead, I pondered the truth of it. This particular moment in life, where I see the conclusion of something that started in hope and with promise, is connected to what went before it every way. I consumed the impressions of my life from then until now. I see that so much of what happened along each step of the way was imaginary relative to where I stand today.

The future is never what we think it will be; it never takes place where we think it will take place. It always takes place here and now.

As I stand at this moment in time, beginning a new job, I see again and again that I am within a moment of life that is new and that will never come a second time. Moments of lucidity arrived today in which I saw that life was forming itself within the moment. It reminds me of a line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love In The Time Of Cholera":

"... he allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves." (p. 165)

As I stand in front of this new octave in my life, which is inevitably and irrevocably formed from everything that has gone before it -- both the perpetual creation of life, and its concommitant destruction -- I see that I cross vast chasms of time as I live, forever unable to fully see into the reservoir below me. The impressions I take in send roots deep into the darkness of my psyche, and I am filled with countless things that I cannot remember, but that nonetheless form part of everything I am and will ever be. Here,within the flow of impressions, is where the sacred river runs--through caverns measureless to man.

In revisiting my past here, and standing within the moment of re-forming my future-- which is always now -- I hear voices speak within me of what has gone before.

Not all of them are benign.

The Hesychasts of the Philokalia would tell us that the negative voices we hear within us are the voice of Satan -- and I am not so sure, in the end, that they are wrong. There may be demons in us, but they are our own demons, not any creature of God's creation. The voices sometimes wish us to think that we cannot go on, that bitterness is sweet, that the keeping of accounts and revenge is just.

Every man who searches discovers a negative side within him, and every man who searches must come to terms with the destruction of his hopes and dreams as they meet with the cold light of reality. The test that we have put in front of us is to discover our value in the context of reality, not in the context of our dreams.

As I put it to my wife several days ago, we must discover our happiness within the adversity of life, instead of trying to eliminate the adversity in order to discover happiness. Almost all of us have this backwards most of the time.

So when standing in the driveway of the house that I moved to in 1995, believing in a future for my children-- and my marriage -- which was never to be the way I dreamed it would be, I can look back on everything that took place, stand here and now, and make the determination that I will look forward.

This going forward will not be any easier than what went before. There will be good things and bad things. I will be afraid, and I will be hopeful, and there will be joy and pain. These are the conditions that God gives us. In the end, seeing the wholeness of my life, I can begin here with gratitude for the fact that I have lived at all, and contrition for my inability to meet my life in the way that our creator wishes us to.

Last night, I slept uneasily. In my dreams, a cast of characters from my past (and present) came together at the checkout area of a Home Depot for a meeting: my ex wife, my children, my old girlfriend, and even my golden retriever Socrates, who died many years ago.

My ex-wife asked if there was bread in the house, and I told her yes.

I am left with the faith that in this life, there can be a healing. That healing is not mine to create or to give, but rather to receive. As Mr. Gurdjieff instructed us, we can make an effort to use the present to repair the past and prepare the future.

There is bread in the house.

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

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

To Grace, Through Experience

My goodness! Where have I been lately? Not to Lake Atitlan, although that would have been super. I have been busy getting ready to start my new job, with a side excursion to see my parents on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

I have also been waking up in the middle of the night and studying the question of how I breathe. There are moments in the darkness, when I find myself alone within my organism, where the simple study of the fact that there is breath and sensation becomes a deep meditation of its own.

During the last week I also came across the Philokalia, and immediately decided that I had to own a copy of these writings; so much of them speaks directly to the search I find myself within. They are a reminder of a deeply, and most esoterically, Christian aspect of my inner work-- what one might call a hidden side that does get discussed in this space on occasion, but must for the most part remain absolutely private.

On our way back from the Outer Banks, my wife and I began to discuss Grace, and how one comes to it -- if one does.

It is only within a state of receiving, a state of Grace, that I discover and establish a material experience of life. The material experience of life is absent in sleep. There is, of course, a substantial presence of materialism within ordinary life, but to have a material experience of life is not all the same thing as the ism of it. One is the tangible ingestion and digestion of impressions; the other is an attachment to objects. The processes of the organism are not objects, they are experiences. An investment within the experience -- especially the organic experience -- leads to a kind of food that is not available under any other kind of circumstances.

So when I speak about investigating my breathing in the middle of the night, the connection between breath and the body, I speak about a material experience, and I speak about an inner search that wishes to discover the real nourishment that is available within that experience.

So what do I mean when I use the word Grace? After all, this word is used so much, there seems to be little doubt different men could mean different things when they use it.

For myself, it means to have a certain kind of inner connection deep within the body, a sense of the bones of my bones. The living sensation of the marrow. At the same time, to have a real feeling, a sensitive and quite physical emotional contact with the immediate circumstances of my life. That experience may be somewhat devoid of what I ordinarily might call thinking. It does not, at any rate, consist of intellectualizing. There is a quite definite form of awareness there, but that awareness primarily consists of sorrow and the understanding that I am mortal.

Within that sensation, that three centered experience of my life, there is a much more immediate sense of being fed, and of having a direct responsibility for my manifestations. Are there elements of what one might call the sacred? Of course there are, but how can we describe that? The sacred can only be indicated by the spaces between each word, and perhaps never by the words themselves. We point to the sacred with what we do not say, rather than what is said.

For myself, I see that I must allow the inner process to help me cultivate a much deeper respect for, and appreciation of, others. Without labeling it watchfulness, or attention, or mindfulness as I live within the experience, I must allow experience -- I suffer experience. Within that context, deepening my tolerance (as one of my essence-brothers calls it) I grope my way towards manifestation as befits a three brained being, or a man without quotation marks.

Thinking about how I will do this is pointless. I cannot do this. There is, however, the possibility of discovering how to inhabit my life, in which case, something can be done.

What is then done, however, is not of myself.

It is a gift that we might, if we had to use words, also call Grace. That gift is only earned by payment in advance, and that payment can only be made through participation in experience.

Tomorrow's post, presuming I follow today's aim -- which is not, as readers probably know by now, guaranteed-- will be an interesting (to me, at any rate) comment on the Yogic Christ.

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