Monday, January 4, 2010

On the "meaning" of life

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 fa├žades, 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.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

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