Saturday, April 3, 2010

Notes from Cambodia

After over a week in china, where spring is scattering its gentle blossoms over shanghai, I arrived late last night in Phnom Penh, dark and sweltering under an oppressive heat.

This morning it is raining, a biblical deluge, and I find myself locked in downtown traffic on a very long drive to a factory.

This trip has repeatedly brought me face to face, in an inner sense, with the incontrovertible fact that we cannot escape our ordinary inner and outer conditions. Regardless of whether or not we "develop"- and by this, in my understanding, I mean nothing more than to make the responsible efforts and do the responsible work our Creator calls on us to do on His behalf- we are still at the mercy of life: its physical infirmities, our fears, our anxieties.

How often I seek an excuse from these legitimate burdens! I wish for comfort: for pleasure: for a rest from work. Yet, as my mentor Betty Brown pointed out to me a few years after suffering the debilitating stroke that set her on a path of objectively heroic struggle at the very end of her life, just when she ought- by all rights- to have been given the respite she so surely deserved and had earned, "my life has always been one of work."

I don't like to acknowledge it--do not even want it to be so--, but true good fortune consists of constantly being called to be present to these most challenging conditions of our inescapable humanity.

It reminds me again of the story about one of Gurdjieff's pupils enthusing to him about some spectacular moment of inner revelation, to which the master wrly responded: "Ah. One day closer to golden day."

Speaking as a recovering alcoholic (sober now for over 28 years) I can attest to the fact that the inner work Mr. Gurdjieff brought to us is above all a call to spiritual sobriety. And that's the kind of work Betty Brown practised, right down to the end- even though she was known to be a bit fond of a tumbler of scotch, here and there.

There is no "golden day"--at least, not in any sense we would like. Everything real that we are ultimately offered in life is, first and above all, earned, and every happiness must be paid for. As Jeanne De Salzmann said at the beginning of the last major movements film (which is, regrettably, not available to the general public) everything is always in movement-going up or down. Nothing ever stays in one place.

I suppose this down-to-earth, feet-on-the-ground kind of work may seem dry, boring - uninspired - and utterly, perhaps even coldly, shorn of any of the magnificent doctrines of freedom and enlightenment offered to us by most religions (let's take the Buddhist's Flower Ornament Sutra, for example.)

But, as I ponder on an almost daily basis, what IS real freedom?

For myself, steeped firmly in the bittersweet and amber-colored brew of middle age, I see that freedom is freedom from my illusions. Freedom from the idea that I am here "for me," that I am intended as no more than the servant of my ego. Freedom from the delusional vanties Solomon so exhaustively catalogued and dismissed in Ecclesiates.

Freedom is, in other words, an ability to be honest about where I am and what is necessary. The retirement of grandiose and arrogant ideas that I can "do." Betty pointed me to this over and over again, God bless her. It's only through long trial and a continual inner confrontation with my lack that I begin to understand where she was coming from.

Have I attained such freedom? Definitively, no. Late in life, when asked by someone (it may have been Jeanne De Salzmann herself) how he managed to remain conscious, to be "awake," even Gurdjieff himself confessed to wrestling with his own his fallen nature in the middle of the night with "weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Would it be presumptuous to say that the true master recognizes he's not a master? That was the core epiphany of Socrates, as revealed in Plato's Apology-- and indeed it was said of Muhammad himself that his spiritual greatness lay above all in his recognition that he always fell short of pleasing Allah.

Sitting here in this Khmer Toyota, bouncing over roads that are seeking every possible way to crumble back into the seas of ochre mud they cover, I'm oddly heartened by this idea.

If I am able to accept my lack-- to understand its inevitability--perhaps I may find a path within me that better understands how to ask for help.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

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