Back once again from China, landing safely in the home nest. My apologies for the inevitable gap in postings which is imposed every time I go on trips.
This morning, I collected myself to sit in my usual place, rather than a hotel room. It was one of those sittings when the inner state was right on the edge of receiving something significant; not quite a moment, if you know what I mean, where one actually smells the perfume in the air, but a moment when you know that there is perfume.
What struck me this morning the most was how tiny I am.
When I was speaking about it with my wife Neal this evening, I was belatedly reminded of something I heard in a sitting 15 or 20 years ago. Peggy Flinsch led that particular sitting, and she began it by saying, "we are tiny little creatures." She said it in that crisp, objective tone of voice that has still not left her at 102 years old. It penetrated into me and has stayed there ever since. In addition, as I sit here tonight, I am reminded of something my old group leader Teal Brown used to say to the effect that we are amazingly arrogant, thinking we can achieve anything in this inner enterprise we work at.
In an aside, moments after I wrote this, my screensaver -- which randomly picks up photographs from my collection and displays them -- pull up a picture of Teal which was taken as a youngster, probably when she was in her late teens or early 20s. It's a sobering thing to see the young face of this mentor in front of me, less than a year after she died at the age of 88.
It brings me just a tiny bit closer to this work I wish to see within myself.
Our very tininess limits anything that might be possible for us, and yet almost all of us live with the absolute conviction that we are big, significant creatures. We are convinced that we are powerful, capable, and can affect things around us in a meaningful way. The fact that most of what man has done in terms of affecting things around him in a meaningful way is to destroy them may be evidence of some capability in that direction, but it is pretty meager. Nonetheless, with few exceptions each human being is convinced, in one way or another, of his or her own extraordinary significance.
The age-old teachings passed down through every religion state that men are tiny, weak, and insignificant relative to God. Those teachings are increasingly forgotten in a world where technology and media deliver a steady and utterly ruthless stream of mass hypnosis, largely designed to convince us that we are significant--and will be even more so if we do what we are told, and buy what we are told to buy.
It's only once in a while, when a smackdown event like the earthquake in Haiti takes place, that we are reminded of how helpless we actually are -- and we are helpless not just in temporal matters, we are also helpless in terms of our ability to open ourselves and receive something higher.
To be sure, it is possible for us to receive something higher. And that is the ultimate form of recognition. In fact, no other form of recognition actually matters, although I see that -- at least in my own case -- I am fundamentally convinced that ordinary, temporal recognition is what I want, despite the fact that I definitely know better.
Today, I had to ask myself why I continue to be attached to -- to cling to -- to be identified with -- this need for temporal success, for recognition from my peers for my art (well, let's be honest about it, after 40 or more years of being an artist, that's less interesting to me than it used to be), my music, my poetry, and so on and so forth.
Why do I care about that, when I already know that the only kind of recognition that matters is for the higher to see me and help me? Compared to this, all temporal activities are relatively meaningless. In a certain sense, I engage in them only to mark time while I wait for contact with an angel. (Assuming, that is, that the word "angel" is adequate to describe such an encounter -- and perhaps it is not. Substitute a special word of your own, if you wish!)
So I think I am big. And I think I need ordinary recognition here on this planet. I constantly forget--even with the eternal and daily companionship of a higher, inner force that can help me--that I am mortal, that I am tiny, and that my first aim must always be to develop my inner work. The shocking thing is that even with the taste of God firmly in my mouth, I still find myself constantly distracted by the nonsense that life relentlessly shovels at me.
So, "how can I refocus?", I asked myself today.
First of all, I must constantly remind myself that my work comes first, the devotion to God comes in front of any other activity, and that that devotion cannot be formulaic or ritualistic. That devotion only comes by standing in front of life and taking it in -- or, more accurately stated, seeing how I usually don't take it in.
Second of all, when my desires and my wishes attach themselves to temporal things, I can accept that... I can understand that... and I can even go with it, but I must know that these desires and wishes are partial, that they are uninformed and incomplete unless they are connected to the experience of an inner force which will remind me of where the actual value in life lies.
Third, I think it's a good idea to remember that I am small. Operating within that context, instead of thinking that I am some big force that can do amazing things, helps me to keep my horizon close enough to myself so that actual work can be done, instead of drifting off into dreams of the beautiful mountains in the distance.
Thoroughly jet lagged, and a bit abstracted, I think I will wrap this post up right here, lest the temptation to ramble lead me further off into the briar patch.
The above picture is the salt marsh at the mouth of the Sparkill Creek on the Hudson River, as it looked earlier this week.
I am traveling to China for the next two weeks. The Chinese government has restricted access to blogger, so unless they have relaxed their internet policy (which seems unlikely) I will be unable to post any new entries between now and Jan. 26 or so.
If I am able to get an intermediary to act on my behalf, there may be some entries, so don't hesitate to visit from time to time.
This picture was taken in Italy, at Ercolano. Back in 79 A.D., the entire city was destroyed by a pyroclastic flow by the eruption of Vesuvius, bringing many lives -- and in fact, an entire way of life, for that area -- to an end.
In my last post, I mentioned the "Great Question" that originally brought P. D. Ouspensky into contact with G. I. Gurdjieff in the opening years of the 20th century. By his own admission, he did not know what life was--but was certain that behind the façades, the appearances, of what we call "life," something much deeper, much more intriguing and real, lay hidden.
All of us who come to religious or spiritual practices of any kind probably bring to them this question of what life means. The entire significance of man's existence turns on this point, and yet there seems to be an enormous confusion about it. The gravity of outside forces which pulls us out of ourselves and into influences such as politics, art, sexuality -- you name it, anything external could be put here -- takes us away from ourselves and prevents us from seeing anything real either in ourselves and other people or situations.
Gurdjieff's principal message -- which was masterfully elaborated on and deepened by the subsequent work of Jeanne DeSalzmann -- was that we are "taken"(as she put it) by outside life. We are consumed. We are eaten by the things around us. We do not own a life; life owns us. Only the act of Being-- which represents a unique affirmation of the inner life-- gives us any hope of discovering what is real.
I have been pondering this in the context of my last post, and in contemplation of the nature of Being itself.
Readers who have stayed with this enterprise for several years have, on rare occasions, heard me mention the "enlightenment experience" I had over eight years ago. I generally avoid talking about this experience because I doubt it is useful to other people. Furthermore, I ultimately and intentionally renounced its results, because I saw that living in a perpetual sea of bliss and joy was not, in fact, an answer, although many men might well take it for one.
Over the years, as I incorporated this particular experience into a lifetime of various experiences, I have understood that there are many steps and stages within the idea of "enlightenment" itself, and that one should tread very gingerly in using the word, or when one hears other people use it.
I bring this subject up principally because the experience began with the understanding that we are vessels into which the world flows.
In a very real sense, the entire question of the meaning of life turns on that specific point.
First of all, the statement is more or less scientifically true. A bit of practical thinking about it will lead anyone to that conclusion. What is extraordinary is that an entire cosmos is formed in each of us as a result of this inward flow of impressions. This is what is hidden deep within life, the truth that Ouspensky sought. The "I am" within the vessel.
This brings me to Gurdjieff's "Science of Idiotism," that is, his peculiar practice of referring to everyone as an idiot. Buried underneath the obvious mockery-- he even referred to God as the "unique" or "supreme idiot" -- is a subtlety that relates to this understanding of vessels.
The word "idiot," which now means something quite different than it used to in its original form, was originally derived from the Greek "idios," meaning something that was "private," or "one's own."
That is to say, to be an idiot was to be singular, to have a specific personal characteristic. ( And the meaning of the similarly derived word "idiosyncracy" still retains that meaning.)
Gurdjieff was probably using the term in an archaic form, which pointed towards the specific singular nature of each of our own inner cosmoses. Each one of us is an "idiot;" the vessel that we inhabit, this carnal vehicle into which all of the impressions of life are poured, forms a unique and whole set of experiences. And it is the entire contents of the vessel, this complete experience from beginning to end which we call "life," that forms what we call "meaning."
In a conundrum worthy of Zen, the entire life itself as it is experienced becomes the meaning. All the cosmoses that Gurdjieff iterated in "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson" arise from the individualized perceptions and relationships between these myriad cosmoses, at the many levels on which they arise.
Much more could be said about that, but not today.
Of course, in the case of man, hundreds and even thousands of other ideas are grafted into the experience of life. It is as though a tree, while growing, dresses itself up in the leaves of many other trees, never seeing that it is a tree unto itself, and that its own leaves are what is most real and meaningful.
It is only in the recognition of the "inner tree" as a tree unto itself that this wholeness is formed in life, and that Being can be experienced. This means that there is a need to comprehend the entirety of one's life, to know all of it within a given moment, and to see that it has been made whole. All grafted meanings fall by the wayside with one real experience of the unadulterated life itself. One such experience may open up a mystery more profound than all the invented mysteries we so routinely adopt our myriad explanations for.
One of Gurdjieff's famous adages on practice was to " use the present to repair the past and prepare the future." It is in making the wholeness of life back into a single cloth, of understanding the vessel and its contents as a single whole thing, that we begin to come to an experience of ourselves that strips away the pretensions.
In order to do this, we must swallow everything at once, disregarding the difference between bitterness and sweetness. We are made of all of ourselves, not just the parts we like or don't like.
I ponder it thusly: If we believe that we are just the parts we don't like, we are diseased; if we believe we are just the parts we like, we are equally diseased. The entire contents of the vessel must be ingested and blended. This is a heroic task that involves coming to terms with life on a more objective basis; we stand apart from all the things that have happened to us, and in a certain sense, we even begin to understand that as far as the real part of us goes, the part that lives and breathes and struggles with the absolute and terrifying fact of our mortality... well...
all these various things that have happened to us don't even matter.
That may sound radical. Modern psychology is based around the idea that we all inevitably cling to our pasts like a limpet. And indeed, for as long as we are invested in them and believe so fervently in them, they are terrific little factories for creating fear of the future.
For myself, I find that on a daily basis I must try to move past the insufficiencies of life, and into the possibilities.
Making life whole can never be based on the idea that everything that already happened is somehow weak or deficient.
There must be an understanding that everything that already happens to me is indeed exactly sufficient, unto me such as I am. The vessel contains what it contains; I am as I am, and there is no changing of the contents of the vessel. I must come to terms with that, and work with what is already in me. I may well never be able to master the art of controlling what this vessel drinks in; even if I do, how am I to know what it should contain?
Coming back to this analogy of a tree, one might say that we must put ourselves into the strength of our wood, rather than the fluttering of our leaves.
I always live right here, at this particular point, on the cutting edge of what has been a lifetime of extraordinary experiences.
When I ponder existence, and sense the passage of time and all the things that have taken place since I was a child, it is a cosmos unto itself -- this point of being that I inhabit is the entire universe, for this point of being. It's a mystery that cannot be penetrated, only lived within.
Recently, despite what have undeniably been many years of, among other things, the deepest joy in life, I have found myself in a state where I consistently discover that I am having negative reactions towards all the doctors of joy and doctors of happiness out there. Everywhere I turn, it seems that I am being exhorted by advertisements, books, magazines, and so on -- both secular and sacred -- to be happy, to be fulfilled, for everything to be wonderful.
I regret to report that in my experience, it is not this easy.
We need to experience the fullness of life. That fullness must include everything; it must include the "bad" as well as the "good," and it must include the full depth of experience of the "bad" along with an organic acknowledgment that this, too, is an inescapable fact of human condition that cannot be erased by feel-good philosophies.
One thing that Mme. DeSalzmann consistently said in her writings and when she spoke was that we must learn to be. She did not say, we must be this way or be that way. She simply said that we must make the effort to be.
This is distinct from the many teachings, philosophies, psychologies and religious ideas that we encounter in what one might call ordinary life. In this world we live in, we are constantly being told that we shouldn't be this way, we ought to be that way; we should be happy, not sad; fulfilled, not frustrated; and so on. In particular the Christian and Buddhist industries -- in the United States more than anywhere -- have generated a massive amount of well-meaning and heartfelt propaganda aimed at telling us how we can transform ourselves to be wonderful, for life to be wonderful, for life to be filled with joy.
Lest I begin to sound like the irascible curmudgeon that I actually am, let me state unequivocally that I fully support this idea of being joyful and wonderful and happy. I think that this is a good ordinary aim. All of us should have it.
I think the point -- at least from my perspective -- is that those of us who search, who search deeply and without any great mercy towards ourselves, for what is actually true in life are called to discover an aim that is not ordinary, but extraordinary.
That is to say, the aim is to go beyond what is ordinary in life -- the search for ordinary pleasure, which is as strong in me as in anyone -- and toward something that asks a greater question. This requires me to do something which is in itself extraordinary -- I must go beyond the bliss.
And this is not a step a man can take easily, because it demands the surrender of something magnificent in the hopes--and the risk--of going further.
Why dare do such a thing? Why would any of us give up what appears to be perfection, if we should perchance attain it?
Functioning here, as usual, as a reporter rather than as a teacher, I can't say for any other person what that greater question, that question that lies beyond the bliss and the joy, is or should be. In my own case, the question keeps changing, so that it constantly draws me deeper into this unknowing of life, this recognition that I do not know what life is despite the fact that I am constantly within it. According to his own report, that is the quintessential question that drew P. D. Ouspensky to Gurdjieff in the early years of the 20th century, triggering a series of events that changed the world of esoteric spirituality. This single question, and perhaps this question alone, has the power to change one's inner cosmos.
And it is in my ongoing movement deeper into the question of what this life consists of, with the consequent seeing of negativity -- the seeing of it, not the attempt to fix it -- yes, it is in this movement itself that I discover the act of living.
Instead of trying to be this way, or be that way, and listening to audio recordings telling us how to be, and reading books by people who supposedly know which way to be, our effort can, conversely, be reconfigured: to simply discover how to Be.
That being must be radical -- it must spring from the root -- and it must not be conditioned by expectations or statements about what it should be. It must, in a very real and practical sense, be expunged of all our ordinary expectations like happiness and unhappiness. This may sound cruel or too demanding, but those who have on occasion approached a fundamental sense of the organic depth of the sorrow of our mortality will perhaps begin to understand where I am coming from, and what I believe we must move towards.
The great Zen masters such as Dogen profoundly understood this point of work. That is almost certainly why Mme. DeSalzmann, as her work evolved, adopted the Zen practice of sitting, and made it what is now a standard fixture in the Work.
Mme. DeSalzmann was relentless in her effort to point men and women around her in this direction. This direction where we have the question of Being in front of us. Not the question of happiness; not the question of right action; not the question of what one should do or how one ought to act, but the question of how to inhabit the act of Being.
The immense gravity that the forces of ordinary life emit constantly draw us away from this question. They are of enormous power. It is only by standing in opposition to that gravity-- yes, perhaps even in opposition to these external forces that relentlessly demand that we be happy and normal and wonderful -- that we can hope to acquire something for ourselves that is real.
This does not mean that we shouldn't be happy, normal, and wonderful.