Saturday, March 13, 2010

Understanding liberation

Nobody understands liberation.

There are piles of books about it, but no one gains liberation by reading books. Masters expound theories about it, but hardly any master has attained liberation, except in a limited way. Many of the Masters who appeared to have attained liberation turned out to be charlatans. So there is always this question about "liberation."

I put it in quotation marks because it means different things to different people, in the same way that the word "world" means different things to different people. For one man, to be liberated is to be free of chronic physical pain he has felt all his life. For the next one, liberation is to be released from a repressive form of government. To the next one -- who very, very, very secretly thinks he is better than the rest of them -- it means to attain some inner kind of bliss or "enlightenment." What for? Supposedly, to end suffering -- whatever that means. Or to end delusion, or to rise above the ordinary, or what have you.

Basically, it means to be set free. This is the simplest definition of the word. But in the system Mr. Gurdjieff brought to us, every freedom is relative. There is no ultimate "liberation." Anyone who doubts this need only read the chapter "The Holy Planet Purgatory" from "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson."

The Holy Planet Purgatory is a special, very beautiful place for all the beings in the universe who, having perfected themselves to the absolute highest level imaginable, still discover that it falls short of true liberation, that is, union with God, or, as Gurdjieff refers to him, "His Endlessness."

In what has to be considered as a perverse turn to the entire liberation mythology, every being on the Holy Plant Purgatory suffers endlessly, and suffers worse than any being did before they got there, because they are all consumed with anguish in the face of their separation from the Almighty.

What kind of crappy liberation is that?

My liberation ought to consist of angelic wings, wonderful bright lights, an endless river of love, gems, diadems, and chocolate cake with a big dollop of whipped cream on top of it. eh?

I am reminded here of the Who's classic rock opera "Tommy," which culminates in the precursor to their famous anthem "Won't Get Fooled Again"- that is, "We're Not Gonna Take It," in which the Messiah's disciples discover the Nirvana they were promised doesn't measure up to their standards. (I might as well admit it to my readership -- I am a huge Who fan, and have been ever since I saw them play "Tommy" live on their first world tour for the rock Opera in 1969.)

Gurdjieff has proposed a different kind of liberation. Maybe we don't like it. It is, however, a liberation that is fundamentally grounded not in freedom, or release from law, but in responsibility, that is, an acknowledgment of one's place, and a choice of which laws one serves under.

This idea, of course, is a definitively New Testament idea, embodied in the parable about Christ and the Centurion, who knew his place, and thus qualified to have his servant healed, even from a distance. The Centurion understood his responsibility, and this made miracles possible.

Living in an adolescent nation -- the United States of brats, where everyone clamors to get what they think they deserve, grabs all they can, and almost all the adults, especially the most fortunate, richest, and powerful ones, act like babies on the media stage -- it seems strange to talk about responsibility. Mankind is obsessed with the abrogation of responsibility. The idea of shouldering it firmly is well outdated. The idea these days is to sneak out from under it.

In what may be the ultimate heresy, allow me to hint that perhaps even "Liberation" itself -- the transcending of what we call "reality"-- is just one more escape clause, one more mangy dog dressed up nicer than the rest of them so that it looks better... frankly speaking, anyone who has read Zen Master Dogen's "Shobogenzo" in any detail might conclude he'd agree.

I've spoken many times in this space about the need not to escape life, but to inhabit it -- not to rise above where we are, but to be within it -- not to try to avoid or suffering, but to face it and admit it to ourselves. All of these are bitter medicine. I think every one of us can truthfully say we would rather that everything be easy.

And yet, we cannot grow unless things are not easy. Just look at all the people who have it easy. Think about it.

Maybe the whole point of the lesson of being put in these bodies is because they are mortal. Because they will die, they will wind down, "use up" as Jeanne De Salzmann said, we are forced to see how things are whether we want to or not -- whether at the end, or earlier, that's up to us. But in any event, we are forced to shoulder the suffering or organic existence, and death.

Gurdjieff proposed a universe where God Himself suffers, and where man's payment for his arising -- his responsibility, the very reason for his existence -- was rooted in the need for him to take on a portion of that suffering from a higher level.

I've mentioned before that we are vessels into which the world flows. But what is that world? Which world flows into us? Buddha saw that the world that flows into us is suffering. He proposed an escape from that; that's what he called liberation.

Gurdjieff, however, does not propose escape; he suggests, rather, that it is in the very opening up and the drinking of this bitter cup--that same cup that Christ held his hands in the Garden of Gethsemane-- that we attain our purpose.

To take this too literally, on the level of the ordinary suffering of life, would be a mistake. Nonetheless, every suffering in ordinary life (as I believe Meister Eckhart would agree) is indeed preparation for men in order to receive this different, this divine, this higher kind of suffering which we can almost never taste, and may not even understand.

This higher level of sorrow is a material substance that vibrates in the matter of every material thing. It permeates the entire universe; just as the universe is created out of love, so it is also created out of suffering. There can be no eternal, glorious, and illuminated love without eternal, glorious, and illuminated anguish. Only when the two meet together -- whether in a sun, or in a human being -- does reality manifest itself.

Approaching this is indeed a mystery, and it is the deepest mystery that we are confronted with when we undertake this obscure, and relatively unknown, work that Mr. Gurdjieff brought. It is part of what makes this work unique, makes it different, causes it to ask questions and provoke emotions that are different than those we ask and struggle with when we confront ordinary life.

It is a deeply inner task, a task that calls us not always just into the light, but also, into the darkness. Not just into choruses of hallelujah, but also into a penetrating silence where heartbeats grow slower, breath grows shallower, and we begin to touch the fabric and the substance of a fundament far more mysterious than anything we can know with the mere mind.

As is said in Isaiah 55:8, "for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways," saith the Lord.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.