Tuesday, December 28, 2010

After all these years


Storms have come and gone. The Hudson river absorbs them... we continue to walk along the marsh, which never ceases to amaze.

It also provokes poetry.

After All These Years

After all these years
Love being what it is

Forgotten-
I walk along the river anyway.

Blackbirds swarm like locusts from the trees
And make their own wind

I exist in astonishment
That such a thing could be.

God has broken himself into many pieces
Thrown himself into the sky

Down upon the ground as leaves
And into the water as silent ripples

Lies across the leaves as frost
And scatters the sky with stars.

With every sunrise
I try to put him back together

So that He can remember who He is
And why He made us.


I'll probably get to a more detailed post later today... or at any rate, this week.

Until then, this interview with Gina Sharpe at Parabola is well worth reading.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Working and living

It's not unusual for us to unintentionally segregate our life from our work.

We come by this habit honestly. Most all so-called “esoteric” work tends to cloister itself. The majority of esoteric practices are monastic in one way or another; even the schools that Gurdjieff himself says he obtained his knowledge from were in remote, inaccessible places, and the commonplace conception among esotericists is that real knowledge can only be obtained from these special, secret places that exist outside of society and ordinary life.

Contrast this, if you will, with the incontrovertible fact that Gurdjieff called us to a new kind of work, the fourth way, which is emphatically a work in life. He was clearly a different animal than the monks who shut themselves off from ordinary life in order to attain an inner unity. He was a visionary; he saw a way for us to work that included ordinary life, that firmly welded its influences to our inner effort and used them creatively to help us.

There is a certain irony in the fact that one often hears members of the Gurdjieff work disparaging ordinary life, talking about how inadequate it is and how only something higher is wonderful and true and different. The attitude seems to belie the entire point of what both Gurdjieff and DeSalzmann were aiming us at: a union of the higher and lower, not an enforcement of their separation, and a potentially elitist preference for one over the other.

The idea of working in life is frequently discussed, but take a look at what actually happens to us. We get together for meetings, work weekends, or work weeks, and talk about how we never work, or perhaps never even can work, meaningfully, unless we are at such events and under these special conditions. We sit-- together or on our own-- and there is a collective belief, well meant and goodhearted, but nevertheless mistaken, that this is when and where we are going to “receive” something from a higher level.

In other words, most of the so-called real work we do–much of which has to be subject to question as to whether it is, in fact, real work at all–centers around the idea of separation, of being cloistered, of needing a special set of conditions in order to work.

Life is the special set of conditions. All of it. Not just the life lived within the metaphysical ramparts of the Gurdjieff foundation.

I seem to recall that Michel DeSalzmann once referred to The Cloud of Unknowing as a magnificent book that transcended the narrow confines of its Christianity. The remark contains a certain truth; nonetheless, one has to wonder whether we are able to transcend the narrow confines of the Gurdjieff work, as we have conceived of it, bestowed form upon it, and layered it with our assumptions and–yes, inevitably–mechanical reactions to what we think it is.

I have said before in this space that what seeks us–this higher energy which wishes to become an expression of the divine within the atmosphere and on the surface of this planet–wishes to express itself specifically in ordinary life, as we go about our day to day business. No matter how much of it enters us in sittings, or under special conditions, if it does not find its way into day-to-day business and the face-to-face relationships we have with others, in the very moment of what is ordinary, then, in my experience, the practice suffers.

I chose this particular photograph, which I took on a trip to Egypt at the national Museum in Cairo some years ago, because it depicts such a moment. The rays of the sun enlighten a perfectly ordinary moment between the Pharaoh Tutankhamun and his wife. It is touching; it is warm; it is completely human. They aren't in meditative poses like the ones you see at Angkor Wat. They are just living their lives; and yet, the divine inspires them, legitimately, within the context of their day-to-day humanity.

And what is the most essential quality we sense in this piece of artwork? It is, I am certain, the presence of love.

For myself, I think I make this whole question of working and understanding what work is much too complicated. How can I begin to bring the organic root of my work, and an openness that might receive something finer, to the ordinary everyday activities I engage in?

My group leader Betty Brown was a master at cutting away all the nonsense and bring us back to this very practical, very ordinary ground floor.

This Christmas season, I'm going to do what little I can to remember her approach, and more actively explore how to be present, in an unfettered manner, for those around me.

At the same time, I will try to keep the wick of my lamp trimmed.

May our prayers be heard.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Conjunction

I suppose it's inappropriate to use the word "conjunction" when the photograph depicts what is actually a full lunar eclipse–a decidedly different astronomical event. But what is on my mind right now is the conjunction of forces; the fact that the organism serves as a meeting place for so many different forces which are expressed within it as impressions are received.

That sentence, in its essence, sums up the truth of the situation. I construct an entity which I refer to as “myself,” and I drive it with an engine called the ego, but it is a construct; a veneer layered over depths that are filled with a lifetime.

The conjunction, the totality of all of the results of what has taken place up until now, might rightly be expected to have some kind of clarity, but it doesn't. My being is in shadow. Efforts to grasp it invariably result in failure; yet all of it is there, just not in an organized form that is tangible.

This is because I am partial. The only thing that ever brings me together into a place that seems more real is the genuine participation of emotion. All of the connection between the body and the mind that one likes, in the form of sensation, can take place, and yet there is the distinct impression that this is not enough–that it is inadequate.

Only in making the effort to be in relationship with others does emotion truly enter. It's interesting to me to see the sense of organic satisfaction and the truth of the moment when I discover myself in relationship with another human being. At that moment, it's possible to see the rightness of relationship with others; it's also possible, sometimes in minute detail, to see all of the egoistic engines and tricky machinations that inevitably deploy themselves in the midst of relationships, all of which are turned either towards making people like me, or getting something from them.

A number of contradictions arise here, because it's possible to see both the higher, more impartial impulse, and the lower one, simultaneously, if one makes the effort within the moment.

We truly do find ourselves poised between two worlds.

One of those worlds is an inner world that draws me deeply into myself; the other one is an outer world that draws me inexorably out of myself. It's much easier for me to firmly place myself in one or the other world than to sense them both at the same time. Why is that? I don't know.

What seems certain to me is that there has to be a way to discover a unity that includes and blends all of the many different elements in this universe I refer to as myself. And what seems equally certain is that I cannot accomplish this alone. I need help.

This time of year–the Christmas season–is when Christians worldwide remind themselves, figuratively and literally, that we need help in order to become something more real. The season reminds us, furthermore, that the exact nature of that help is a mystery, and even has some perhaps magical and mythological qualities to it. This characteristic is shared in common with almost every major religious movement. Only atheists–the tiniest of minorities on this planet–believe that human beings can exist without this understanding.

I need to truly understand, with the deepest part of my being, that I need such help, and I need to discover how to call for it from within parts of myself that are usually silent–parts that can, in fact, from their silence itself issue a call to a quality from a higher level which can help inform my effort.

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

transaction and gravity

One of the things that I've noticed lately, as I study the way I am and how my reactions take place, is that I prepare what I am about to say before it is said. That is to say, I see myself forming the words, and then out they come. I always have a question about this; is there any possibility of true spontaneity, or are we always pre-formulating the way we manifest?

I have stopped here and I'm trying to find an open place, a place from which to speak that isn't pre-formulated. Yet with every hesitation, the formulation enters. There is an inability to be truly spontaneous, to be within the moment.

We speak a great deal about being in the moment, having attention, being free, and so on, but this appears to be rare. We are for the most part imprisoned by our formulations and what is already here. How to escape from it?

One of the observations I made earlier this week is that most of what we do in life is transactional. Ego-based manifestations are transactional. That is to say, there is a giving, and a receiving; I offer this, I get that back; you say this, I say that, and so on. All of these are formulated; they take place within a framework of commerce, a place of what Mr. Gurdjieff might have called “reciprocal feeding” (although this is perhaps an egregious misuse of his term.)

Evidently, the transactional basis of relationship is necessary; it does, after all, run most ordinary affairs, and I'm not sure at all where we would be without it. Nonetheless, the transactional basis of relationship is mercantile; it presumes we will do such and such or so-and-so, and make a profit. (Let us remind ourselves that there's no shame in this– Mr. Gurdjieff said to his followers in Russia during the revolution, “no matter what happens, we always make a profit.” Although once again, I'm not using the term in quite the way he meant it.)

There is a tacit acknowledgment that this transactional way of being is more or less inevitable, and that we have to participate.

Nonetheless, there is an existential and experiential reality that lies beyond the transactional. One might say that this is the noumenal of existence that lies behind (or beyond) the phenomenal of transaction.

Those of us who search forever hunger after this more sincere and deeper truth, yet we are chronically separated from it by our attraction to, and immersion in, transactional experience.

In order for me to approach the noumenal, the existential, a different center of gravity needs to appear. I don't use those words “center of gravity” allegorically; I mean, literally, a new center of gravity, a physical center of gravity, needs to appear that is quite different than my ordinary experience, which lacks any such center. I can't say much about that that really explains it; there isn't an explanation for such phenomena which "lead to" (or open to) the noumena. They are mysterious; and perhaps that is their foremost and most essential character. The only way to experience them is by experiencing them–I know that sounds stupid, but how else can one say it?

It reminds me of telling people that there is no conceivable way of comprehending what the architecture is like inside the Great Pyramid until one has actually stood there physically in person and seen it for oneself. At that moment, one understands that one is in front of a great mystery, an extraordinary fact that does not fit into anything one knows, and a new kind of awe and respect is born that could never be born from the pictures, the books, and so on.

There is nothing transactional in a moment of that kind; one simply experiences, and is overwhelmed by both the simplicity and of the complexity of the moment, which blend together into a seamless whole that transcends all previous formulations and associations.

It's like that–but of course, it's not like that at all, because we are talking now about something that is outward, and when I speak of the need for a new center of gravity, I speak of something that, in terms of its sensation, may have all the solidity and weight of those huge granite blocks that the pyramid is made of, yet is of nothing more than flesh and blood, and the immediate experience of it.

The availability of a different center of gravity shifts the place where things arise in Being-- and that is, of course, exactly what we are looking for, a different Being. Yet because we are so thought--oriented, and so utterly transactional, we don't suspect that this different Being may not be psychological, in the sense that we understand that term from where we are. It cannot, in fact, be psychological. There is no psychology here; psychology is “the scientific study of the human mind and its functions,” and there is not one human mind at work in this instance of gravity. There are three minds that must participate, and each one of them is quite different.

The blending of these three parts already lies outside my formulations, because my whole life has been led in a partial state, where I don't appreciate, understand, or even conceive of the possibility that exists here.

I am called to a new place within the center of myself, which interacts with a different energy and contains itself within a different understanding of what life is. In a certain sense, formulation as I usually know it–mechanical formulation, which perpetually arises and drives life forward–is disabled. It ceases to be in the driver's seat, even though it is still real and does not go away.

There is no doubt, life can change completely if one works. Living in this tiny corner of the esoteric world called the Gurdjieff work, I often wonder why it is so small, and why so very few of the people I know have any interest whatsoever in discovering that they are not in any way what they think they are, but rather, creatures with a completely different set of sensory possibilities.

It's almost as though we come from a species who was given the ability to drink ambrosia day and night, and chooses instead to drink mud.

Oh, well. Bottoms up!

May our prayers be heard.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Worship

One of the generalized understandings in all the major religions is a requirement of worship.

This--to me-- is understood to mean offering praise and thanksgiving upwards towards the higher, towards the Lord. We can cite hundreds of thousands-- probably even millions–of examples of artistic achievement and music which were specifically created with this aim in mind. One could argue, in fact, that most of the great works of art and music in man's history have this aim. (Which makes me wonder what the atheists would leave us with, if they had their way.)

The act of worship is central to all the major religions. It doesn't, however, seem to hold a strong place in our esoteric practice. This morning I found myself asking why.

In the Gurdjieff work, the form of worship we most often encounter–unfortunately, I'm going to have to say this, squirm as much as you like–is the worship of group leaders and elders. My own group leader Betty Brown frequently told me before she died that she found this devotion to the hierarchy and to supposedly more “developed” individuals both counterproductive and distressing.

Gurdjieff himself saw the strong temptation, in all of his followers, to lean on him for their work. He famously found ways to send them away in order to put an end to this, which engendered much subsequent gossip, badmouthing, and misunderstanding.

We are not any different today. The "hero culture," in which the older members of the work (and those who have passed on) are better than us, wiser than us, more spiritually adept than us, is alive and well. We doubt ourselves and believe our “superiors,” rather than–as Gurdjieff advised us--doubting our superiors and believing in ourselves.

Once broached, this question of worship and its place in inner and work naturally expands beyond the narrow horizon of hierarchies and temporal authority.

We rarely, if ever, hear about praising the Lord in this work. We ask for things constantly; “Lord have mercy” is a mantra.

We want to receive. We want to create alignment in us that allows us to become an embodiment of a higher power, at least for a moment.

We ask, ask, ask.

I think this is probably correct. There is no doubt that we have to ask a great deal. But we also have to offer. We need to offer praise and thanksgiving as often as possible in the practice of our daily life. Not publicly, in church–I am speaking of that offering which takes place inwardly, both silently–without any words–and also actively, with words, in which one intentionally gives thanks, according to one's inner inclinations, impressions, and understanding.

When I discussed this with my wife this morning, she had confessed that she can't recall any discussion of this subject in the Gurdjieff work, either now, or in the past. And neither can I. I find this peculiar, seeing as this has become such a spontaneous and ingrained practice on my own part. I can't recall anyone else in the Gurdjieff work ever having told me that this is a daily practice for them.

Am I off my rocker? Am I the only person who discovers this active within me? Is this some aberrant attraction towards pedestrian religious practice which I ought to sneer at, being the experienced esotericist that I am?

I know that brother Lawrence (the practice of the presence of God) well understood the spontaneous arousal of prayer within man, the need to offer praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, the rightness of it within the context of daily life and ordinary living. This is an instinct that should arise in human beings naturally, as a consequence of their work. Yet we don't talk about it.

I'm not saying I have the answers for this, and perhaps I'm not even saying that it should be talked about...very much. I truly don't know. I just have these questions about it, and they are active in me right now.

Do we worship? Do we not worship? What is the place of worship? Are we not attentive to this question? Is it unimportant?

This isn't the first time I've spoken thus in this space, although I don't do it very often. That's because the question of offering praise and thanksgiving to the Lord is a highly personal and private activity. There is no way for a man to do this legitimately unless it arises within him of his own volition. If priests and ministers stick it in you, so to speak, it becomes a machine, rather than a living offering. And most certainly, it is the living offering which matters.

When feeling is active, it is possible to be moved in ways that would be artificial and unseemly under any other set of circumstances. It would be very nearly profane, for example, to worship mechanically, just following the formula because we are told to. But when feeling is active, worship is natural, instinctive. It is this understanding I seek to form a relationship with. If and when I do, I understand something quite new about my relationship with the higher.

To be fair, the one way one does hear about this in the Gurdjieff work is when people express gratitude. The feeling (it is indeed a feeling, not an emotional state) of true gratitude is, I think, a big thing. It's the beginning of a direction that might lead towards worship. And the taking in of an impression more deeply, more directly, without any specific words to accompany in it–that, too, is in the right direction, because it is a legitimate offering.

For myself, I often find that actively offering worship in a moment of feeling can help create more of an opening. I'm not sure whether others share that experience or not; perhaps my inner practice is a bit too religious for some to relate to. I don't know.

In any event, it strikes me that although we do have a form (protestations to the contrary notwithstanding) and we do have leaders, seniors, and people with a wonderful understanding, nonetheless, it falls on our own shoulders to discover our own work and our own form of worship.

The relationship with the higher is, after all, intimate, personal, and necessary. It is not, in my experience, a relationship where I get something. That element is present, but it is my ordinary self that constructs all of my transactions in life around that idea. This is a relationship that, when it is active, asks me to offer–not just to offer “something,” but to offer all that I have been, all that I am, and everything I might be, all at one time.

Of course that task is impossible. But, speaking for myself, that is the task that calls me in this life.

May our prayers be heard.


Monday, December 6, 2010

“There is no form”

Imagine a new Work.

Imagine people who dress differently, speak with different inflections, using different words and terms.

Imagine people who decorate their interiors with different designs and different textiles, and listen to different music. ( We can hardly imagine, can we, that Gurdjieff/deHartmann exhausted all the future possibilities for sacred music in their relatively tiny oeuvre?)

Imagine, if you will–heresy of heresies–that even their movements are different, although demonstrably from a real tradition.

Imagine that these people and everything they do are completely different, except for one thing.

They are studying the same ideas we study.

I bring this question up because there is a question of habit surrounding the outer form of the Gurdjieff work. I'm well aware of the fact that we preserve many traditions in this work out of veneration; we honor those who brought it to us and what it is. Or so we think.

Nonetheless, perhaps the Gurdjieff ideas have become too accustomed to the form that has grown around them. Has it encased the living work itself like a pupa that cannot be easily escaped from?

This wouldn't invalidate the ideas. They–and the people who study them–are as vital and as real as ever. The difficulty is that the wrapping paper–the external part of the work, the form in which it exists in the world and is presented to the world–has not changed in almost, perhaps, a century.

Is such repetition necessary? What does it mean? What is the relationship between form and repetition? And how does it relate to the question of habit?

I bring these questions not as a revolutionary, but an orthodox individual who has concerns that we are creating a religion–unintentionally, and unconsciously, all along intently insisting that we are doing no such thing .

Have we confused the content of the work with the form of the work? Has it become increasingly irrelevant to the world at large? ...We may not need a Martin Luther, but it wouldn't hurt to hire a new interior decorator.

In all fairness, esoteric spirituality always was and always will be irrelevant to the world at large, except as in regard to preserving the Heart of the world, in which it is supremely and irrevocably relevant. Nonetheless, those engaged in such activities have a responsibility to the present to discover a way to bring the ideas and the practice to the present in such a way that younger generations can relate to them. Most religions know how to do this; they've had thousands of years to practice at it. The Gurdjieff work, however, is a dilettante, having only existed in its current form in the West for under 100 years. And it is unique in the fact that it is a work in life, which seems to imply to me that it must absolutely relate to real, present, contemporary life in every one of its iterations. It can hardly afford to mire itself in the attitudes, appearances, expressions, and conventions of earlier decades, let alone centuries-- can it?

We are, quite frankly, doing a very respectable job of working–my personal interactions with individuals from around the world engaged in this practice verifies that (for me, at least.)

I say that we are doing a respectable job in sheer defiance of all the lamentations (objective and otherwise) that "we don't work," most of which are absolutely true. If we measure, however, the stunning lack of work around us, even the little bit that we can manage (which is not much, and is admittedly fraught with all kinds of delusion and misunderstanding) is already a lot. I think we can give ourselves a little credit for the effort, instead of perpetually whipping ourselves for how lacking we are.

In the end, after all, the real acknowledgment of our lack cannot and must not be made public, but is a sacred covenant made privately with God, without words, in a place that truly-- and forever-- has no form.

There is very real work being done around the world by Gurdjieff's followers. But not in the area of updating the external form of the teaching so that it has an appeal to the modern young person.

One might argue that this doesn't matter, but it does. This work needs to live. It is engaged in a vital activity of paramount importance, and some attention needs to be devoted to discovering how to breathe more life into it in the present moment. Readers of this blog will know that it is one small and perhaps pathetic effort in that direction; not much of an effort, because, of course, it is limited by "me" being "me"-- and I recognize my own relative powerlessness.

Nonetheless, we've got to keep making the efforts.

It's been said in this work that it's dangerous to change the work without understanding. This has been used as an excuse to avoid revisionism, and I think there's a great deal of validity to it. Nonetheless, to change the outer form of the work does not constitute a change to the inner form--if there is one-- and if there isn't, the wag in me is compelled to ask, how could we possibly be worried about changing it?

It should, in fact, be entirely possible to change the outer form of any esoteric work in order to make it palatable and discoverable to individuals who might have an interest, without any impact at all on the content. We are, once again, talking about the wrapping paper, not the gift. Not only should it be possible; it must be necessary.

If we "question everything” in this work (already a disingenuous statement) we must inevitably question the outer form. That means the whole ball of wax; the Sufi trappings, the victorian elements, the hippie counterculture baggage inherited from the 60s, the instinctive aversion to technology and ordinary ways of organizing such as newsletters and public events, etc. It's good to be different; but it's not that good. There is a point where "different" crosses over a line and becomes a form of rejection, a method of closing, instead of an opening, and invitation.

There is even a point where being different becomes being the same.

I think we all know that, don't we?

If, as is so often said, the inward form has no form, then no change we bring to it–short of a change that consists of the imposition of form–can damage the work. This actually opens the possibility of an enormous amount of freedom in the outward form of the work, but no one seems to have much courage in this area. The one individual I can recall who seemed to be willing to embrace modernism within the context of the work was William Segal, who is no longer with us.

I bring all of this up because I do hear people saying, quite often, in the context at least of the inner work, that "there is no form." While I am no aged guru, I am not a complete dilettante either, and I would have to argue this point... even with my betters. (Those who do not feel a slight twinge of fear when they encounter my essentially argumentative nature, ought to. I am stubborn, intelligent, and belligerent, which is an objectively terrible combination.) Like the beginning of the Persian fairytale, there is a form, and there isn't a form. Arguing the contrary, there is a form, since according to Gurdjieff, the universe is created through laws, and laws by default must confer form.

In the context of the outer work, from my point of view, we are pretty much locked into our form. The form of meetings... what is said at meetings... the celebrations we engage in, the architecture we favor, the activities we undertake, the art we prefer, the books we read... well, it's quite a list, isn't it?

We all need to take a look at that. I'm asking all these questions not because I want to tear anything down.

The fact is that, old-fashioned curmudgeon that I am, I kind of like the quaint, colorfully outdated form we embody.

And that in itself worries me.
May our prayers be heard.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The unformed word

The value and meaning of words is forever in question. They grow out of us as spontaneously as leaves, emerging, collecting energy, feeding something, and then falling behind us. Fertilizer, perhaps, for future ideas and future generations.

I have pointed out before the irony of speaking about the silence that we encounter in our practice. And indeed, we are left with these poor tools to express a quality of experience and life that, by general agreement, is inexpressible. The Zen masters invented koans, so it seems, specifically because they addressed this issue, issuing a challenge to go beyond words with the words themselves.

The deeper the experience, the more inexpressible it becomes. It calls for silence. And yet, perhaps we are reminded of the Yeats poem After Long Silence, which begins,

"Speech after long silence, it is right..."

So: we are called on to speak. We are, in fact, required to speak: silence alone cannot help us to share our search or, perhaps, even discover it for ourselves. In the end, a quality, a vision, an expression must form within us that corresponds to the experience of living.

Gurdjieff and DeSalzmann did not hesitate to express; rather, they expressed consistently, but with great precision and insight. And always leaving an open space for us to walk into as we attempt to penetrate that mysterious world of understanding that they were touched by so deeply.

In posts within the last year, I have spoken about the fact that touch is a language unto itself; that, in fact, we have many languages in us, each one the property of a particular sense. Language, in other words, cannot be restricted to the words alone; in nature, language is a language of chemicals, of photons... of birdsong, of electrical charges and sensory impressions. Man is unique in his reliance on words; all other creatures find different– and perhaps even more potent– mediums in which to express the truth of their existence and exchange with one another.

We are, in fact, filled with all of these languages, just as every other organism. Yet we incessantly rely on the one that you and I are sharing now in order to achieve–attempt, that is, to achieve–an understanding within ourselves and between one another.

Why do we do that? Well, once again–there is a requirement. This is a mystery that needs to be explored, and a question that needs to be asked. Words are necessary. But why?

Even more so, our inner work calls us to recognize that there is an unformed word within us–a "do," a word that begins before the words, a note that is sounded within the context of impression, and before association seizes it. DeSalzmann speaks about this idea in her book, “The Reality of Being.”

We should not, however, think of this as an idea. We should, rather, attempt to experience it as a truth. There is an unformed word. We inhabit it; we live within it. Yet we rarely recognize it or acknowledge it.

What is this unformed word that we wish to come to together? Is there a word for that word that is not a word?

One is tempted to invoke the word love, is one not? And indeed–this is the very word Yeats wrote his poem about.

After Long Silence

Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily Decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

May our prayers be heard.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Conscious Altruism


I am taking up altruism because I had a heated ( but still warm) debate with a very close essence-friend of mine in the work about the subject last Saturday.

He maintained–I will say up front, I think, incorrectly–that there was no place for altruism in the Gurdjieff work. I found this bizarre, to say the least, because it seems to me that the fourth and fifth obligolnian strivings are nothing if not altruistic:

"The fourth: from the beginning of one's existence the striving to pay as quickly as possible for one's arising and individuality, in order afterward to be free to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our Common Father.

"And the fifth: 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.

(p. 352, Beelzebub, second edition)

In order to wend our way through this discussion, we first had to dispense with the standard forms of dismissal in which I am told that words have hundreds of meanings (viz. Gurdjieff's dissertation to Ouspensky on the word “world” in “In Search Of The Miraculous.") Sophistry of this kind can be used to negate the value of any word whatsoever, and those who wield this sword routinely do so in sheer defiance of the fact that Gurdjieff's whole point was that we have to know and agree on what our definitions are when we are using words (something, BTW, I have discovered many people turn out to be rather weak at, when I become disgruntled with careless word slingers and open the dictionary.) This was, in fact, the whole point of his request for a more precise language when we exchange.

As I have pointed out before, our general tendency as we drift further and further from the temporal locus of Gurdjieff himself is to employ words like “something” ever more frequently, which does not (at least for me) do anything whatsoever to contribute to precision.

In any event. I am becoming crabby and irascible–which is certainly deeply ingrained in my nature–and we are drifting from the subject at hand.

The definition of altruism–which, by the way, I don't think is all that complicated or subject to multiple obfuscating interpretations– is a selfless act performed on behalf of the well being of another.

It is–lo and behold!–more or less the opposite of the word egoism. Yet we rarely hear about it--mostly, I guess, because we enjoy egoism so much more. The word egoism is wielded like a club in most spiritual works, where we are perpetually beat over the head with its awful badness and its myriad limitations.

In all fairness, Gurdjieff was probably the only teacher who found a positive and sensible place for egoism in his work, by labeling conscious egoism as a necessity, rather than a liability. What he was saying there, I think, is that we need to do something for ourselves.

This does not mean that we have to only do things for ourselves. The idea of altruism is one of the higher universal laws. I will now explain that proposition in two parts.

Firstly, let's take a look at how biologists understand the word. Altruistic behavior on behalf of organisms is almost exclusively understood in the context of genetic preservation. Whenever we see altruistic behavior, it is undertaken by organisms in order to help ensure that their genetic material–or that of their closest relatives–is passed on. It is, in other words, an essential feature of most, if not all, living systems. It even functions in bacterial communities.

Altruism, in other words, preserves and passes on value earned through effort. The study and understanding of altruistic behavior has become an essential part of understanding the meaning and function of biological systems. I have, for example, an entire hive of bees in my backyard, and almost without exception every single one of them (except the Queen) is a dedicated altruist, with spectacular-- and very sweet–results.

A second example of altruism, taken not from the biological but the spiritual realm, is the fact that the Bodhisattva vow is considered to be one of the highest vows of Buddhism. I've pointed out before that the fifth obligolnian striving certainly bears a striking resemblance to this vow-- if it is not, in fact, identical to it, which I rather suspect. The point is that this is a very high law indeed. We can take further steps into Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other religions, and repeatedly discover that altruistic or selfless behavior is considered vitally important to spiritual development and spiritual practice. Perhaps Christ's admonition that “Greater love hath no man, than to lay down his life for his friends," (John 15:13) is the example that comes to mind most immediately.

Altruism, in other words, is a necessary function for organic and conscious beings. Something on the highest level demands that we sacrifice our effort (make it sacred) by undertaking it not just on behalf of ourselves–although that is necessary–but, ultimately, on behalf of others-- without expecting anything in return.

I'm not sure about the rest of you, but my track record in this area is spotty. What I believe to be altruistic behavior is still usually accompanied by a sneaky little voice down underneath everything else–which I keep a very close eye on, mind you–asking me what I am going to get out of it, even if it is as simple as dividing up the meat and putting it on plates for myself and my guests... even more insidious, I see myself making sure the other person gets the best piece because then I'll be "good"... that is, altruistic, just like Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha... and, last but hardly least, my mommy... said I should be.

This kind of attitude pervades most of what I do, and I have thick, heavily padded buffers between me and that kind of behavior, so that it can be very difficult to see how the ego motivates everything.

This raises a fascinating question. If altruism is, indeed, the opposite of egoism, what would it be like if altruism motivated everything? Given the current set of circumstances, it seems clear that that ought to be equally possible–but it almost never works that way in human beings.

Does it now?

Like its counterpart egoism, altruism needs to be conscious altruism if it is to be meaningful or functional altruism. Altruism rooted in egoism (which is the most common form of altruism we encounter) is bogus, even if it produces "good" results; altruism engaged in reflexively and mechanically can have bad results–one can selflessly do something on behalf of another and then later discover one has done the absolutely wrong thing.

So altruism, much like Jacob Needleman's “good,” (in context, they are, I think, intimate) only has value if it is born of something essential and unified. In that context–admittedly a rare context indeed–altruism can serve a "reproductive" function that preserves and passes on a sacred impulse.

We might say conscious altruism is a de facto reflection of the action of the highest, which is unendingly and unerringly altruistic. The Creator eternally and selflessly emanates love and mercy; the gift of life devolves upon the material universe from said emanation.

Only through acts of altruism, conscious altruism, can we honor this generosity and reflect even a tiny portion of it back in the direction it has come from.

I could probably say a great deal more about this, but it would quickly devolve into even more wiseacreing than what I have already engaged in.

May our prayers be heard.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

within the living of it

Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog. In keeping with my tradition from earlier years, I'll be changing the sign off I end every essay with.

This morning, I decided to drop kick this particular post–that is, speak directly from the moment, without any preparation–so I have no idea of what that sign off will be.

Yet.

It's a time of transitions. It's been a year when several people we knew died; others got cancer; some lost their jobs, and the world has been unsettled and quite difficult. We are all influenced by this. People who claim that they are not must be made of better steel than me.

I'm called to the question that Jeanne DeSalzmann consistently brought and put in front of us: what is there in me–can there be anything in me–that is stronger than this influence of outside life?

On a daily basis, I see that there are two currents working in me. One of them is an inner current that is connected to and arises from the formation of an inner solar system. The other is the current from within my associative parts, which is strongly formed by all of the things that happen around me. I'm quite attached to that.

Yet there is always a thread that connects me to sensation and reminds me that I live within this body.

I don't follow these threads that bind me to an active inner work very effectively. Even though the organic sense of being is perpetually available, I don't pay legitimate attention to it. This is a real question, because at this stage in my work and my life, there is a powerful underlying force that does not leave; it tugs at me all day long, physically reminding me that I ought to make an effort within my life. I suppose there are many who work who think that if they had such a force, it would fix things, and they would actually work instead of sitting on their asses.

Unfortunately, as I can attest, it does not happen that way. Such miraculous forces can and do indeed arise; yet I am terrifically resistant to them. (This is not all that surprising: the Bible recounts example after example of men being personally visited by God and categorically refusing to follow His instructions.)

My mechanical influences and my slavish devotion to external life-- including the repetitive obsessions and the childish pleasures–have a lot of muscle. They have been building up for a lifetime, and the forces in me that are more alive and connected to something higher have nowhere near that much practice. I find myself sitting in the middle between these two sets of influences and discovering that I am almost powerless, at many times, to go towards what is more inner, and what feeds me more.

For example, last night at dinner, my daughter Rebecca was back from Brown University and I took her out for dinner along with my son Adriaan and wife Neal. It was very ordinary, and yet I sensed at all times that there was a demand I was not meeting. There was a blank spot in me that ought to have been filled with something–that I wanted filled with something–and what it wanted to be filled with wasn't inner effort. It was external stimulation and a conventional, understandable, predictable and known set of facts, circumstances, and relationships.

I was sitting there with absolutely nothing in me except what was in front of me, and I was not invested in it.

I wasn't satisfied.

I saw all of this. It left me flailing around in an inner sense. It's easy to talk about having the wish to be in front of the unknown, and we encountered this idea constantly in “The Reality Of Being.” The fact, however, is that we have no such wish–and the unknown is something we prefer to avoid at all costs. When I discover myself naked and alone in front of a situation like the one I was in last night, I see how empty I usually am. And the first thing I want to fill the emptiness with is not Being, but doing.

This is a conundrum. Even with experience, and with help, we are relatively helpless. If we climb 3 rungs of the ladder, we are still close to the bottom of the ladder. The view is a little better from here, but we are a long way from the roof. A lot of climbing is necessary, but exhaustion sets in very early on.

I think one of the great dangers in inner work is to attain anything whatsoever. The instant I attain, I think I am higher up on the ladder–higher up than where I was, or higher up than other people. I think I can stay there; I think I can reproduce it; I think I “am” something. In other words, delusional behavior sets in very early on once energies are active within a being.

The only way to Work is with a great deal of suspicion and the willingness to renounce, in an effort to see more and to move further.

All of this may sound harsh to those who feel they have attained nothing, or those who feel they have attained something. Either way, I think we have it wrong. There is no attainment. There is only existence; there is only living. Life, and being, is discovered within the living of it. It is always in movement; only the living act of a question in this moment is in the direction of Being. And it's always a direction; it isn't a state.

So, on this eve of our great festival of Thanksgiving–a festival which should be devoted exclusively towards thanks directed at His Endlessness, the creator-- I have these questions about my helplessness, about my attraction to the lower, despite unambiguous and unrelenting support from a higher level. I suspect that this may well be connected to what both Gurdjieff and the Christian fathers described as sin–knowingly going in the direction of the lower, with the conscious knowledge that one ought to be headed the other way.

The Christians, for their part (regular readers will know, I count myself among them) subscribed to a dogma that says man's inherent nature is sinful. I don't think that this dogma means we are bad; rather, it means that we are consistently attracted to the lower, and are all too willing to be dragged down. My experience bears this out.

In reading both Gurdjieff's texts (in their massive entirety) and "The Reality of Being," I'm struck by how consistently DeSalzmann and Gurdjieff insisted that our efforts fall short. The optimist in me believes that we have possibilities; I could even say that the realist in me understands and knows that we have possibilities.

The difficulty is that I believe in the optimist a little too much. We are, collectively, in front of a very difficult struggle with limited resources. We take the support we get too much for granted, and we rest on our laurels more often than we should.

Self-flagellation is no solution either. I have to get out there and face life from within this organism in the best way that I can; even if I fall short, it is the effort that counts.

May our prayers be heard.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Machines and universes

Neal and I bought this orchid as a seedling (well, technically, a cloneling--hybrid orchids are almost all grown from clones, not seeds) on our honeymoon in 2002. It just bloomed for the first time ever.

No matter where you go “in” the Gurdjieff work, you always encounter the statement that man is a machine. People in the Work make this statement as though it were some miraculous revelation, even though biologists recognized this a long time ago, and it is commonly understood in all the sciences. Why we make such a big deal about this concept is a question for me.

What is frequently forgotten is that Gurdjieff told us the entire universe is a machine–which, in fact, is another hard-core revelation that the sciences came to a long time ago. Gurdjieff was, in fact, quite enamored of the sciences, had an interesting grasp of them, and displayed a Socratic and scientific mind of a high order. His cosmology, peculiar though it may be to some, was essentially scientific in nature. It presumes a fractal organization in which consciousness is an emergent property. I've explained this many times in earlier pieces; anyone who wants to can do a search on the terms within the blog posts and come up with plenty of material to bore themselves with.

The ramifications of this recognition–that the machine is the whole universe, not just man–dovetails neatly into some of Gurdjieff's other teachings. People often speak about "attaining consciousness" as though it amounted to “escaping" mechanicality. If we rightly understand his cosmology, however, there isn't any escape from mechanicality, because we live within the machine and will always be a part of it. We have the potential to dwell on a different level of the machine–we have the potential to develop an awareness which is superior to the automatized awareness of this level–but in one sense or another, that awareness is always still a part of the machine. One would have to literally leave the universe in order to completely escape the consequences of being within the machine, and a part of the machine.

What we are able to do–as he explained–is put ourselves under different sets of influences. We will always have to be under one influence or another; what we do have is the ability to make a conscious choice of which influence we fall under. This idea of “free” will–the ability to choose our position–is common to most religious practices, and even atheists believe that there is such a thing as free will. Gurdjieff's contention was that our will can't be free on this level–we are trapped in a set of automatic reactions, and it is only by putting ourselves under influences from a higher level that we can be less trapped, under less automatic reactions. (Don't forget that according to Beelzebub, when the universe was originally created, consciousness itself evolved automatically. It was only after a cosmic disaster referred to as the "chootboglitanical period" that the automatic evolution of consciousness was forever suspended.)

Astute readers will be able to easily substitute the word "laws" for “automatic reactions.” The influences we are under are, after all, laws, and the laws are what create the mechanical nature of the universe. On each level, a specific number of laws affect the way things work, and one is under more and more laws as one descends by level. The analogy of the “weight” of the ray of creation applies here.

I'm bringing all this up because it strikes me that this fact–that we will always be a part of this vast machine, and that we are always under one set of laws or another–is almost forgotten. There is a zeal to believe that we are going to break on through to the other side and burst forth like a butterfly into some cosmically wonderful new world of love.

Unfortunately, the sorrow of His Endlessness–which was what Gurdjieff described, more or less, as the basic and most essential quality of the universe–more or less precludes the idea of glorious cosmic perfection. (Lest you wish to argue the point, refer back to Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, in which terrible things are constantly going wrong, and even the highest being bodies make the most atrocious mistakes.) Underneath the fabric of material reality, there is an essential suffering that must always be faced and cannot be escaped.

This is not to say there is no joy, or that there is no love. I am saying, however, that although I value and crave the experience of these things, I cannot afford to be hypnotized by the idea that they are going to overwhelm "evil" and save the universe. We live in a complex system where suffering and joy are both elements of the same energy. They need one another; efforts to eliminate one in favor of the other are doomed to failure.

Readers who follow this space regularly will know that I have spoken on any number of occasions about my highly personal observations regarding the nature of sorrow, and its place in work. In my own experience, the deepest and most true experience of the higher always has an extremely powerful element of this sorrow in it, which is also a form of joy. Sorrow and joy are, in fact, perfectly blended in the Godhead.

The nature of the machine is that it is a whole. Efforts to live within one part of it or extract one part from another fail to take the conditions or consequences of existence into account. The earthy, pithy, contact-based encounters with Gurdjieff, as recounted by those who knew him, underscore the fact that Gurdjieff was not one to avoid conditions and consequences.

Instead, he created them.

It takes a bold man to do that. I'm hardly made of that stuff. I can, however, recognize and admire a man who has the courage to live that way. That's one of the reasons I am in this work.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.



Monday, November 15, 2010

Expression

I am an expression of a force.

In fact, everything that material exists is the expression of a force. Physicists more or less recognize this; there is an understanding that somehow forces are unified at some subtle level which we cannot access. Hence the idea of what is called a “unified field theory,” an overarching understanding that brings all of the energies together under one umbrella.

But this is merely an intellectual construction. All the energies are already together under one umbrella. Here I am; I am the expression of a single force. The sound of my voice is part of the expression of that force; trees and sky, planets and elements are all expressions of that force.

The nature of my awareness is such that it is also an expression of that force. There is a possibility for me to be in relationship with that... or not.

Everything depends on my relationship to this question. I dwell essentially separated from this force in my mind, in my consciousness. My ego thinks that the force which I am part of is my force; I think that my life is my life; everything that happens is personal.

I find myself unable to escape this impression. Yet when I sit in the morning, or when the energy connects me in a specific way to myself so that there is gravity present, I begin to see that "I" am not "I." I am not what I think of myself as; instead, this entire manifestation which is referred to as “I” is simply the expression of this force.

It's interesting to try and contemplate this; pondering it requires a willingness to inhabit a place where there is nothing but expression, where the elements of personality are assigned a different and subordinate place.
This is probably an impractical place from which to attempt to conduct daily affairs, but it's possible to keep a thread alive. That thread is organic and connected to sensation and to the body. When it is there, there is food available to help support all the other efforts, even while the other efforts are flailing around and spinning off in their own stupid directions–which is what most of my life consists of.

I was pondering, along with this question of expression, my general level of effort these days, and what I am actually capable of. This often happens when I have jet lag; the body is pretty much wiped out, and by the middle of the day, I feel like a lump of lead, unable to do just about anything effectively, most especially inner work. 100% of my inner work is dependent on forces I have no command over; I cannot do. Of course, I don't admit that to myself; being Mr. Superhuman, I think I can do a very great deal, most especially, wrestle cosmological and metaphysical forces into position so that I will eventually attain enlightenment.

I sometimes wonder if all of us in various spiritual works are not delusional on that point. We are, as Peggy Flinsch said at a sitting I was at many years ago, “tiny little creatures.” That's the sum total of it. Betty Brown used to comment to us that we were arrogant in our presumption that we could achieve anything.

It takes a force as unstoppable as jet lag to bring me up against that and admit to myself that, basically, I am helpless.

Rather than trying to wrestle with the metaphysics, it might be possible for me to allow the act of living to become something more simple: an expression. I don't have to be in the way of that; I can participate, instead of directing. This may be in the direction of what Betty meant when she admonished me, “don't force it!” There is a need to discover way to be within the expression and allow it, rather than trying to be the tyrant, i.e., one who seizes power without a legal right.

So I think I'll explore this question of inhabiting the expression of a force for a few days, and see where that leads.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Creativity, part 2


It may seem peculiar to suggest that man has an obligation, or a responsibility, to be creative. No one, however, would dare argue that we don't have a proclivity for it; consciousness and creativty seem like very nearly indivisible forces. Art critic Ellen Dissanayake has argued (to great effect, in my own opinion) that creativity is at the very heart of what distinguishes man from other animals-- a trait hard-wired into the species.

I think we can safely label creativity as the most mysterious and extraordinary of forces readily apparent in man. It mirrors the mystery of life itself: material appears as if from nowhere, taking on shapes and forms no one could have foreseen. It's furthermore quite clearly connected with our emotional capacity: it not only appears, in most cases, to arise from emotional roots, it stimulates us emotionally in powerful ways, connecting it to the selfsame emotional forces which Gurdjieff always said were indispensable to the development of man's soul.

To be sure, the idea is hardly unqiue to Gurdjieff; that theme has surfaced countless times throughout history. The understanding, however, translates quite directly to the inner work we do. Inner work is, in the end, an intensely creative act, and remains so regardless of whether we mistakenly believe that we "do" the work that leads to inner development--an unfortunate dilemma originating in and exploited by the ego-- or acquire an unbrokered experience of the creative action of the divine, Mme. De Salzmann's "higher energy," within us.

The very act of opening, of allowing a higher energy to enter us, may superficially appear to be a destructive act--certainly, there is more than one work that speaks of the "dissolution" of the ego, as though something were being destroyed or lost--but it's actually a stepping aside to allow the mysterious generative forces which the human being is inherently endowed with to do their work: a work our ordinary psyche routinely interferes with.

Indeed, if there are destructive impulses in us, they are the property of the ordinary mind, the mind of this level. The higher, as it's referred to in this work, is endowed exclusively with a most unique and extraordinary positive creative power: one of the aspects of Mercy.

I've spent a lifetime in the creative arts, with mixed "results." In the process of living this act of what I would call perpetual discovery, I've had to endure countless encounters with my own egoism; at the same time, I've had to endure the objective embarassment of praise that comes my way for being "talented," even though I can honestly say I have never felt talented... only
interested.

And what interests me is this way in which truly good work
does not come from me.

When a piece of art is worthy... When a painting has a magic to it, when a song very nearly writes itself, when a poem emerges from some unknown space and thrusts itself on to a page while I sit by watching, I am invariably baffled by the question of where it comes from. There was nothing there a moment ago... and suddenly there is a new thing: this artifice which contains a quality of sacredness appears as if from nowhere, and is born into the world.

It reminds me in a way of the big bang: every time it takes place, I feel all over again as though I am miraculously present at the creation of a new universe that did not exist before. Of course the anaolgy may be stretched a bit too thin... After all, a poem is hardly a whole universe... Yet there is a definite relationship between the two actions. They share, put in different and "more scientific" terms, a property of emergence, which is the driving force behind the evolution of complexity... and hence consciousness itself... in the universe.

The Deepest Heart

I wrote a piece for my last CD, "
Elapsed Time Remaining," called "The Deepest Heart." The piece is what it is-- and it's certainly a bit atypical of my compositions. But the title points towards an inner space which receives, and understands, the act of creation differently.

The ultimate repository of creativity in man's inner being--the "deepest heart" of his obligatory creative pulse--lies not within the object that is materially seen, or the musical vibrations which arise in the air. Yet in reviewing and interpreting the "results" of art--be it an Aerosmith song, a Beethoven symphony, or a van Gogh painting, we often make the mistake of thinking that it is the material existence of the artistic piece which is significant.

I say mistake because the ultimate value of what is created--whether by nature or by man-- is never in the material creation itself, but
always lies in the seeing of it.

It is this act of
seeing, so often revisited as the core practice of inner work in "The Reality Of Being," wherein true creativity resides. It's true enough that there is an inherent reciprocity, but through an organic act of receiving more deeply--of allowing life to flow into the centers in a new way, so that we actually live in a less superficial manner--we are able to see that art lies in the seeing and the living, not the doing and the making. The doing and the making are merely paths leading us in the right direction. Ultimately, if we wish to participate in the most intimate form of creativity, we must do this through the receiving of impressions in a much deeper way.

And this is, indeed, exactly why the act of creativity is obligatory for man, why we crave it, and why it is so central to "saving the planet," as Mme. used to say. It is, in fact, what man evolved for, and lies very close indeed to the most essential purposes of his existence.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Creativity


I'm on my way back home from China today.

It occurred to me that it's a rather sobering job to carry on this effort of presenting material- both personal, and of a broader scope-- in a contemporary voice representing a viewpoint which is, as best it can be, formally aligned with the Gurdjieff Foundation, and the lines of work established by individuals who knew Gurdjieff personally.

No one ever asked me to do this... and perhaps I'm a fool for trying. There are times when I hardly feel up to the task, and no matter what, I am certainly "standing on the shoulders of giants," as Newton put it.

Or at least trying to.

Nonetheless, the effort is what counts. We must all do our best to meet life as honestly as we can in the midst of our shortcomings, without pretending that they either negate our actions, or excuse us from taking any action.

Along these lines, today it occurred to me that man is under an esoteric obligation to engage in creative work.

One of Gurdjieff's "obligolnian strivings" is an ongoing effort to understand the laws of world creation and world maintenance. This striving cannot be undertaken passively or intellectually: the understanding that's called for here must absolutely be three-centered, since anything short of that isn't real understanding. It needs to be organic.

In order to understand in this way and at this level of Being, a specific kind of participation is required. Now, we all automatically and mechanically participate in these laws--in this no choice is offered (short of the absolute refusual of suicide, the danger of which was, readers may recall, why the notorious organ Kundabuffer was originally installed in man.)

However, a mechanical participation isn't enough. We are called on by our Creator to participate actively in the creation and maintenance of worlds- both inner and outer. That is, a call comes "from above"- from a mystery which we are born into, but have for the most part forgotten how to sense-- to participate consciously in the action and consequences of world creation and world maintenance.

This means that man is actually under a cosmological obligation to create. It's not for the glorification of ego, or of humanity (goals we are all too easily lured into believing in, by the largely secular forces of this level), but for the fundamental support of the universal process of evolution of consciousness.

In the arts, we see levels. There are more and less conscious elements. (Poetry, for example, is "more conscious" than prose: it is able to transmit what is inwardly formed at higher rates of vibration.) Make no mistake about it, creative endeavors are all, in one way or another, part of the effort by the universe to raise the level of vibration-- a subject Mme De Salzmann broaches multiple times in "The Reality of Being."

Man, as part of this general effort, is triply obliged to make efforts to create, as a consequence of this obligolnian striving: first, to help himself understand his own inner world (the aim of all artists); second, to help men understand each other (the aim, collectively, of "the arts"); and third, to help men understand God--the aim of mankind.

Even atheists can comfortably sign on to the first and second premise, but perhaps that's beside the point. What we are investigating here is the fundamental obligation and responsibility of men and women to engage in creative activity.

I recall Betty Brown telling me, years ago, that Mme used to say that man's creative activity would be what "saved the planet." And indeed, we all taste something of the essential in the creative act: an undercurrent that reminds us that this is-- after all the uproar-- what life is for.

What we may not see is how vital this effort is to the nurture of not only our own Being, but also that of mankind, and the planet itself.

I hope, insh'Allah, to write a further entry on questions of creative effort later in the week. But this is enough for now.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

payment, suffering, and offering

In the Gurdjieff work, we speak about needing to make payment.
We also speak about suffering.

In its "classic" form, this is one way Gurdjieff framed his work. We must pay, and we must suffer. Certainly there are plenty of Old and New Testament stories to support this perspective on man's position.

Nonetheless, the form concerns me. I say this with reservations, because there is absolutely no doubt in me based on years of experience than an enormous amount of payment and an equal amount of suffering must take place. Nonetheless, these are words, and because they automatically narrow the question down to certain points which are plagued by our associations, in my eyes, they can't possibly do the question justice.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that payment and suffering are ideas, and that they constitute a form. We hear them and we accept by default that they are true -- and we even have experiences that support that idea. But we don't question our relationship to them, what they really mean, or how we are "stuck" in our form.

Payment is for capitalists, and suffering is for victims. Offering, on the other hand, is-- quite simply-- human.

We are not trying to be capitalists or victims. We are trying to discover something much greater than these ordinary qualities. So when we label our efforts with such words, which are routinely associated with rather coarse lower activities, perhaps we are coarsening our effort itself.

Not only that, we are investing ever more deeply in the form, rather than letting it go. Payment and suffering may become a form of drama, rather than an act of contrition.

This occurred to me this morning when I was having a conversation with my wife Neal; she talked about how deeply our friend Eve who died last Thursday had suffered… and in another context, how all those who make efforts in their inner work must pay.

I was in complete agreement with everything she said (which highlights how questioning itself does not consist of opposition, but rather inquiry, a fact my competitive nature tempts me to forget), yet it occurred to me that what takes place, if it takes place, must take place voluntarily -- intentionally.

And there is a transformation implicit in the act of paying intentionally and suffering intentionally.

To pay intentionally and to suffer intentionally is, put in a different way, to offer. So if we need to frame our efforts, then framing them in a form that involves a giving, which is what payment and suffering are -- we give material and emotion to the quality of life -- offertory is a more powerful interpretive symbology, which contains both the giving and the intention.

Looking at this from yet another angle, payment is material, and we pay with the body. Suffering is emotional, so it connects to feeling. Where is the place of the mind in this? It must form the intention. If we don't, the offering is not an offering any more, it is simply an extraction.

Great nature can easily extract what it needs from us. Only we are able to offer what we have to a higher level. This is part of the question of what consciousness is... it contains and expresses an element that lies outisde the machine, that has the ability not just to suffer or pay, but to choose to suffer and pay.

One could conceivably argue that this discussion of offertory--as opposed to suffering and payment-- is a form of revisionism. Nonetheless, we must reinvent the teaching and the language, each one of us, in each generation, for ourselves--hearing what was said before and incorporating our own understanding. Otherwise we become, as I said recently, mere parrots.
In my view, to offer is a much more powerful paradigm that better describes my relationship to life and the effort that is needed to meet it. I am going to pay and suffer within the context of that offering, but I can focus not on what is given up and lost, but rather, my intention, which is in a direction that emerges from my aim.

If I am going in the direction of my aim, I am engaged in an act of sacrifice -- that is, the effort to make my actions align with the sacred by offering myself.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A living work


I keep finding myself in the midst of life... And, invariably, daily, within the question of life itself... a compelling question, one that arises not from any casual thought, but from the depths of the organism itself.

Work in life, I see, must be a living work. It can't just remain a work of the intellect, a theoretical work. That may be where it began for me, many years ago, but it has since- like water percolating downwards into the darkest, most intimate parts of the earth- penetrated into the very bones, the marrow, of my life.

This is how it needs to be. My work needs to permeate me, to saturate me, or my wish has no power.

If I misunderstand this need... If I keep searching from within intellect... My wish is a lost wish. I'm puzzled by where it is, why it doesn't motivate me more... Why, as Dr. Welch used to say, I don't work.

So many of us reach middle age without a clear understanding of this point. It's at this point, however, that the shock of realization can become most powerful, and create the most fertile possibilities. That moment when I see that I am turly growing older, that this process ends in death (yes, finally I begin to irrevocably admit that to myself, rather than equivocating it) and that the "meaning" I try to extract from the achievement of outward tasks pales in comparison to that question.

I am headed towards an appointment with death. How am I conducting myself?

So it's here, at this age, where I face the real terror of the situation, that I discover the greatest possibility. It's possible for the elements inside my body to enter a new relationship, where the intellectual urgency of the situation...fused with the beginning of a meaningful emotional understanding... meets with a newly energized, active physical force that actually has the power to sustain an effort in life, instead of just thinking about it.

We talk a lot about that force, and we read about it. Yet we have so little understanding of it. In some ways, the discussions about it and the intellectaul framing of it- the form we assign it- are a hindrance. It's only by the living of it, the sensation of it, that I can investigate it, and the moment I deconstruct that to attempt an understanding, I have already misunderstood.

In a way, then, it is only in the silent contemplation, the silent appreciation, of this moment that I can approach the question. (The only medium I have discovered with the potential to leave enough open air in the question to allow it to breathe naturally is poetry.) These discussions of life we engage in become wearying... They're so repetitive,, aren't they? We must find a way to be more than just parrots... and yet the parrot in us so dearly loves itself.

We have both an obligation and a responsibility to engage, and to exchange. It's not enough to just sit here absorbing the vibrations- I'm called upon to be active enough to stand in the middle, between the active and the contemplative elements of my life, and to supervise a dialog between them.

Ah, that sounds good... Yet "I" don't "do" this. If it happens, when it happens, it is the living work itself that does it... And perhaps we might say that this living work has no "I", at least not as it is understood now. The living work is already connected to- arises from- transmits- a force that transcends this little "I" that loves itself so much.

So to be touched by this potential for a living work already requires a surrender. I don't well understand the nature of that surrender... I can taste it with the soul much better than I can touch any part of it with the mind.

And it's that intimate contact alone which can lead me deeper into this question of what I am, and why I am here.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

No prepared statements

The idea of living in the moment is often forwarded in spiritual works–the Gurdjieff work as much as Buddhism, for example. But how often do we actually approach anything that way?

For example, I have a spare hour here, and I thought I would post to the blog. But immediately, I see that what I want to do is plan something out–have a subject, say something special and intelligent. There is an inability in me to just take the enterprise as it stands, as I am, right here, right now, and begin to speak, quite naturally, dictating just what comes, and not some plan which I have devised.

Even when I try to stop for a moment and launch myself, so to speak, “into the void,” in that very instant, I find myself making plans about what to say. It is insidious: there is a part in me that forever wants to generate the form that will follow, not participate in the form that precedes me.

This was a rich week, filled with plenty of impressions. There were conflicts. (There always are, aren't there?) I read my poetry and showed slides of Asia at the Orchard House Café in Manhattan on Wednesday. There have been a number of exciting walks with the famous dog Isabel. (Who is doing just fine, thank you.) And the whole week has been filled with a windy, cloud-spattered sky, and the green, red, and golden colors of autumn.

Above all, there is a sense of being here. Just being here. Not much needs to be done; the simple act of existing has a gravity to it that transcends much of the activity that life requires. Oh, yes: the activity takes place. It is real. And yet the relationship is with the body, with the gravity, with the inner sense of self, not with the activity.

When Jeanne DeSalzmann says that we are taken–that was the word she usually used for it–it is this activity that we are taken by. What goes on around us consumes us. There is an absolute conviction, isn't there, that the activity is what it is all about? At least, I find it so, unless and until the gravity of my own Being is strong enough to resist that. At that point–a point I have been at any number of times this week–most of the activity, although it needs to be engaged in, becomes an afterthought, and seems, in many ways, unimportant.

So if the activity–if the daily requirements of life–seem unimportant (and I mean that in a qualified way) then what is important?

Well, paradoxically, these exact same daily requirements are all of paramount importance, but in a completely different way.

What is important is the relationship to Being within the context of these daily requirements. That is to say, the inhabitation of these daily requirements, this daily bread–if you will–and the inward flow of these impressions of life, these absolutely ordinary impressions of life–which are the selfsame water which, under the right conditions, turns into wine.

The New Testament parables about this phenomena of changing water into wine were characterized by Maurice Nicoll, in “The New Man,” as the transformation of one level of truth to another. That transformation can only take place right now, within the human being who perceives it. And it is nothing more or less than the transformation of the ordinary. In this transformation, the levels of vibration in the body quite literally change-- tangibly, organically.

So the daily requirements are still here, but the relationship to them has changed a great deal. Specifically, the way that they nourish the Being has changed. And it is this nourishment of Being that becomes interesting and is of such paramount importance, as opposed to the things that take place.

Things that take place are all dead ends, in a certain sense, unless they are ingested in such a way that they participate in the inner transformation of my life. This is why people can reach the end of their lives wealthy and famous, and yet be terrified and alone. It's not uncommon. When things alone are what a human being pursues, they are left, in the end, with nothing, because things in and of themselves are perishable, and ultimately useless.

Only the transformation of the soul matters in the end.

That transformation takes place by small degrees, in the taste of the air by the side of a marsh, in the yellow color of leaves about to fall; it is in the wings of birds and the curl of a cat in my studio.

We think we will find ourselves in the grand gestures, but it turns out that all of life--what it is, what it can be– lives within the smallest details.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.