Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The last post discussed this idea that I want to be a "chief." Essentially, that there is this ambition in me--in all of us-- this desire to be significant.
One thing I realized many years ago is that we are already significant. We start out significant... in fact, there is no way to remove our significance from us, ever, at any time. It would be easier to take a mountain and make it disappear than to undo our significance.
Yet all of us remain utterly convinced, in some, small, actually quite paranoid part of ourselves (which we label in many "special" ways, in order to justify it) that we are not significant--or that what little significance we have is threatened. (And part of this, of course, is our relentless attachment to the mistaken idea that our outer circumstances create our significance.)
So there is this desire, this desire to be meaningful. This desire to BE. And there is an odd paradox at the heart of this question in the Gurdjieff Work, because our mantra is "I wish to Be..."
And yet, we ARE. Aren't we?
It isn't that we are not; it is that we do not see how we are. If even once we were to see with the eyes that can truly see, what we would see is that we already are. This perception, this fear, that we are not is illusory... a myth we have signed on to.
It represents a lack of trust.
All of the ambition and wish for achievement that a man encounters in his life is, as Krishnamuri notes, a form of violence. It presumes a need that is not actually there--it's rather an artifice, created by our limitation--and perpetuates a violation of the already sacred, and fundamentally sufficient, essence that preceeds our desires.
To become free of desire, as the Buddhists would have it, would be to see and experience our sufficiency. To abide within the inherent abundance which surrounds us; an abundance which we are, in our ordinary state, unable to sense or acknowledge.
The difficulty I face is that even if I have a fundamental, life changing experience of this "inherent sufficiency," it is not enough. The parts in me that deny this, and lack a connection to it, are powerful, habitual, and convincing. The psychology that drives life as I currently know it is furthermore dedicated to the exclusion, even extermination, of such experience.
To know that I am sufficient with one center-- for example, the mind-- is simply not enough. All three centers need to understand this sensation simultaneously in order for anything approaching mental health to enter, and in order for that to happen, a quietness must arrive. A relaxation that is given--not demanded--must enter me. In other words, a force from another level must enter.
All I can do is prepare for this, to attempt to make myself available to it. It is not within my abilities to "achieve" this.
Krishnamurti says the following in his notebook (Gstaad):
" Why should all this happen to us? No explanation is good enough, though one can invent a dozen. But certain things are fairly clear.

1. One must be wholly "indifferent" to it coming and going.
2. There must be no desire to continue the experience or to store it away in memory.
3. There must be a certain physical sensitivity, a certain indifference to comfort.
4. There must be self-critical humourous approach.

But even if one had all these, by chance, not through deliberate cultivation and humility, even then, they are not enough. Something totally different is necessary or nothing is necessary. It must come and you can never go after it, do what you will. You can also add love to the list but it is beyond love. One thing is certain, the brain can never comprehend it nor can it contain it. Blessed is he to whom it is given. And you can add also a still, quiet brain."
May the living Light of Christ discover us.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Chief Feature

This morning, after a week that included a hectic and intense one day round trip to Cambodia (which in sheer defiance of all odds still provided the time to stop and climb a sacred peak where a number of kings were buried) I am back in China, and find myself with the time to ponder questions that have been percolating for quite a while.

The title of this post is a bit of a trick, because it involves a play on words. I've been thinking about the question of ambition, position, and hierarchy in spiritual works.

In his first conversation, Brother Lawrence made it clear that he only had interest in working with people whose first, and only, intention was to serve God.

This question of service is critical to all of us, because we presume, in ordinary life, more or less two general things. First of all, we presume we are going to serve ourselves; and then, we presume we are able to serve others.

Because I believe that I am able to have an action and an effect -- in effect, that I am able to "do"-- I presume that these two possibilities are active and available to me. I do, of course, have this lofty, generally abstracted, and sincere belief that above all, I want to serve God, but if I am honest with myself, I will see that that comes third at best. There are probably times when it finds itself even further down the list.

Above all, I want to be in charge of things. I want to be in charge of myself. I want to be in charge of other people by "helping" them (and let's remember that all tyranny begins with a twisted, but sincere, belief that one knows best what others should be up to.) So I want to be important. I want to be significant, meaningful, to others and to myself.

In short, I want to be a chief.

I want to be in charge of the tribe. I want to have authority, respect, even love. It doesn't matter whether I can or cannot take any external actions that make me deserving of such privileges; in my mind, and my rational analysis, I firmly believe that I have already done so. And I think I have earned a place at the top.

The old saying is, "too many chiefs -- not enough Indians." Everyone has this disease of wanting to take (or be given) a place in the hierarchy that is meaningful and important. I forget that if the tribe is all chiefs, and there are no Indians, it's not a tribe. And although it may be simplistic, there, in a nutshell, is a disease that affects humanity in almost every one of its many aspects, and perhaps the main reason that we see everything around us constantly collapsing into chaos and violence.

This question becomes ever more important in a spiritual effort. It has been said that when the Dalai Lama enters a room, he tries to see himself -- and to understand -- that he is the lowest status person in that room. Everyone else sees him as a great chief, but he is attempting to discover himself as an Indian -- as nothing more than a member of the tribe.

The Zen tradition has its share of parables about succession where a very ordinary monk who no one paid any attention to, and spent most of his time in the kitchen sweeping floors, turned out to be the chosen successor to the abbot when he reached the end of his days. And of course we have the classic Gurdjieffian parable of the Obyvatel, the absolutely ordinary good householder, who never sets out to "achieve" anything special in life, but merely attends to responsibilities, and consequently turns out to be quite extraordinary, simply because no one else around him behaves that way.

In examining my inner life, I constantly see this impulse to attach myself to external affairs and to discover a way to be a chief. I observe many of my friends and family members trapped in this same little hell we all create for ourselves. None of us are special that way: all of us are internally--and eternally-- jockeying for position.

It occurs to me that I have failed to understand something fundamental about the question of service.

I need to step directly past the ideas of hierarchy, position, reward, failure, importance, significance, respect, and every other concept that infers I deserve more than what I have. I need to see exactly where I am, as best as possible, without any of the color that these various qualities apply to the situation. It can become quite simple. I am just here. This is just now. That's all there is. I don't have to be more or less important, I just have to be.

Of course, that's a theory. Once again, we discover ourselves wading around in a mass of words which may or may not have anything to do with what we are able to bring to ourselves and our situation in an inner sense. And, as is always the case, it is only our connection to our other centers -- feeling and sensation -- that can help inform us as to whether the effort we try to make has any validity.

The question arrives in me of whether what I have right now is, in fact, exactly what I deserve, all that I deserve, and not only what I deserve, but what is necessary for me. If I hold that question in front of me, it allows for the possibility of exploring what is immediately in front, instead of rejecting it because it isn't sufficient to my supposedly higher status, which of course all the idiots around me fail to properly recognize.

Over the years, I have watched many people attempt (and sometimes succeed) in their efforts to climb the ladders in our organization and become important. It doesn't seem to have done much of them any good. Everybody ultimately ends up humbled and dying, and that process tends to reduce perceived achievements back down to a single point as it reaches its end. This single point being the question of whether or not one has served God. I've also watched people leave the Gurdjieff foundation because they get their work, their self-image, their ideas about themselves and their lives all tangled up in this struggle to rise above the pack and be appreciated, to be recognized.

We fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between inner growth and outer circumstances. Until we resolve that misunderstanding, our inner work will always be drained of some of its valuable energy. In other words, we need to discover the satisfaction available in being an Indian. The Indian is actually more important than the chief.

Without Indians, there can be no chief.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Sending

I arrived safely in China two days ago. For the first time, I'm posting to the blog using the e-mail method. This allows me to at least post, even though I can't scrutinize the results from where I am.

Gurdjieff, as I pointed out in my last post, was firmly rooted in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which includes both esoteric practices such as Hesychasm-- the cultivation of an inner silence, something to be highly valued -- and the Eucharist, the "standard" exoteric transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

In Latin, transubstantiation was originally called "the sending." From early on in church theology, it was apparent to intelligent practitioners that even after you went through the service, to all appearances, the bread and wine were still bread and wine. Incredible as it may seem to us today, there were others who argued that an actual physical change took place. The collision between the literalists and the mystics led to a rather sophisticated argument that emerged in 1215 during the Fourth Lateran Council in which it was explained -- to all appearances, for the future of the Church, satisfactorily -- that it was the essential or inner character of the bread and wine that changed -- that is, the nature changed, even though the substance did not.

I bring this history up because we are engaged in a process that is meant to invoke the very same change in man--not metaphorically, as we might understand the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, but quite literally, in that a man can become a vessel which may receive something higher, which changes his inner essence.

Madame DeSalzmann dedicated her own work quite specifically to helping those who followed in Gurdjieff's footsteps understand this process. The master himself, of course, always had the aim of helping his pupils to understand the same question -- as early on as his initial meetings with Ouspensky ( see the chapter on the chemical factory in In Search Of The Miraculous.)

The terrific difficulty that creates obstacles for all of us in understanding any of this process arises from the large volume of associative material we form in our intellectual center. 99% of that has to go out the door before anything new can enter us, and of that 99%, 98% of it is glued into us more firmly than any epoxy could achieve. Unfortunately, the books -- all of them, even Gurdjieff's own writings-- contribute to the problem. What I am writing at this very moment in effect contributes to that problem.

How can we sidestep all this interesting, but essentially interfering, intellectual material, and reach something deeper in ourselves? At what point does the understanding that we are meant to receive something from a higher level cease to be theoretical, and become an actual question of experience?

Unless one is quite fortunate, it can take years to come to even the first point where something of real significance takes place in an inner sense. This makes the work we are in more difficult than it ever was before, because we now live in a society where everyone expects the quickest results possible. People want results quickly, they want big results, and they want them without spending much. It's like that everywhere. Works that take decades -- or even multiple lifetimes -- before concrete experiences arrive can't compete with glossy magazines that promise enlightenment pretty darn soon.

As truly serious practitioners of Zen might realize, one needs to spend many years running around in this maze we call our personality before one finally realizes how helpless one actually is. It is only at the point of what one might call absolute exhaustion that one finally begins to surrender enough for something more to become possible.

And it is at exactly that point that the phrase "Thy will be done" begins to have meaning, because it is only in the softening and dissolving of this hardened lump called "me" that a higher energy can arrive.

It's clear enough to me that I can't do much to bring this about.

But I can prepare.

Recently, I have been working to examine the question, in a practical and immediate manner, of what it means to put the attention to where the impressions enter. A good effort in this direction by default sidesteps a great deal of associative material, because it requires the attention to examine a wide variety of immediately available states and sensations that don't have any good labels or verbal descriptions that can be applied to them.

To put it in plain terms, once we are in the middle of it, well then, we are in the middle of it. It is a place that by its very nature tends to defy analysis.

This particular activity is closely related to the intimacy which I have suggested we attempt to cultivate in many earlier pieces of writing. We are not intimate with ourselves enough; that intimacy needs to be a physical and emotional intimacy, not just an intellectual familiarity with our psychology, which is where so much of our energy goes in what we call "self observation." That intellectual familiarity can be quite useful, up to a point, but it doesn't have that much to do with what we are, seeing as it is only about a third of us at best. Specific attention turned to the arrival of impressions produces an inner relationship of a distinctly unique character.

Cultivating this unique character of intimacy is helpful because it also brings me much closer to an immediate experience of my negativity, which manifests itself not just emotionally, but also quite clearly in both thought and in the body. Becoming lovingly close to my negativity is an important part of accepting what I am. I use this unusual expression, "lovingly close," because I cannot hope to achieve much by approaching my negativity in a limited, pejorative way and negating it or punishing myself for it. As odd as this may sound, it needs a little sympathy from me-- as I put it day before yesterday in a poem, a "kind intention towards the darkness."

May the Living Light of Christ discover us.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Gurdjieff and Augustine

For today, just a few "technical" notes that occurred to me after reading McCulloch's commentary on Augustine.

Readers who are familiar with Christian history will know that St. Augustine's ideas had an inordinate and perhaps pernicious influence on the church.

Above all, his doctrine of "original sin" -- the idea that all men are, in their essential nature, "fallen"-- penetrated the church to the bone and left us with a decidedly pessimistic view of human existence. We are all "bad."

He believed, furthermore, that a man's destiny was predetermined -- because God, in his view, knows all, sees all, and controls all, God already knows who will be "saved" and who will not.

He presumes, of course, a theology where not everyone will be saved -- hardly a hopeful point of view.

All of this shares a peculiar kinship with much of what Gurdjieff said. Anyone who reads "Beelzebub's Tales" will come away with the distinct impression that the way the universe was created, no matter how carefully and thoroughly a Being perfects his or herself, there is always an essential or fundamental flaw that prevents final reunion with the divine.

Hence the holy planet Purgatory, a place of repose for those anguished souls who have done everything they can to recombine with the divine source, and yet retain those essential imperfections that are inherent to the nature of the material and spiritual universe.

One might argue that Augustine's conception of sin and the conception of imperfections contained in Beelzebub are in fact different qualities, but I think they bear enough of a relationship to one another to argue that they stem from a similar worldview: more precisely, to argue that Gurdjieff's views on the subject are distinctly colored by church doctrine. This supports my ongoing contention that the Gurdjieff practice is much closer to traditional, formal Christianity than many would like to admit to themselves.

Taking it one step further, Gurdjieff argued that the way the universe is arranged, it is essentially deterministic, that is, everything that happens must happen, because, as he says "for one thing to be different, everything would have to be different." This is true down to the atomic level. Without dragging us into the quagmire of quantum arguments, I think we can admit that at the level of ordinary reality, once quantum dilemmas have resolved themselves, one thing does beget another in a maddeningly consistent manner.

The argument is hardly unique to Christianity. Zen Master Dogen repeatedly presented arguments about this causality that suggest it is inescapable (see the Shobogenzo) , despite wishes to the contrary on the part of some Buddhists; in Gurdjieff's cosmological causality, events will always take place in the only way they can; destiny is inescapable, and only attitude in regard to it can be changed.

This bears a distinct resemblance, once again, to Augustine's arguments that the universe is deterministic and that everything has, in a sense, already been decided.

I think we can agree that Gurdjieff brought more optimism to the matter, because he presumes that a man's actions can affect things, whereas Augustine seems decidedly more pessimistic on the question. Nonetheless, it appears that they are pondering the same subject, and from similar directions. Not only that, Gurdjieff parades a deep enough streak of pessimism vis a vis mankind for us to suspect he may have quaffed rather more than a single jar of Augustine's brew.

If there is any explanation for the divergences that do exist, it once again lies in the history of the church. Augustine's overt pessimism and his belief in a basically arbitrary dispensation of Grace by God never sat well with Eastern Christianity, as Diarmaid McCulloch points out in his in his recent history of the church. Gurdjieff, born and raised in Eastern Orthodoxy, would have naturally sought an alternative interpretation.

All in all, a man cannot be separated from his influences. All through the intricate tapestries woven by Gurdjieff in his active years as a teacher, we find threads directly colored not just by Christian traditions in general, but by the specific Christian traditions he was raised with. Even some of his prayers, such as "Lord have Mercy," bear unmistakable relationships to some of the earliest prayers in the Christian church. No amount of obfuscation or sterilization can change these simple facts.

Of course, rebel to the core, it would be unfair to say that Gurdjieff found himself limited in any way by the relatively narrow confines of Orthodox Christian practice. A healthy streak of Sufism runs through his work, and Buddhist ideologies are far from alien.

Perhaps the important point is that his work speaks from the heart of each of these religions, the center of the practice which circulates the blood to the periphery.

And in my own view, all the world's great religions share the same heart... even though each one of them may represent a different limb.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A compelling simplicity

It has been hot and humid -- I have been traveling a lot, as usual -- and I am preparing to leave for China again on Tuesday.

One thing that has struck me over the last week or so is how excessively complicated we make everything. The adoption of a form -- whatever form it is -- is already complicated. I'm reading Diarmaid McCulloch's "Christianity -- the first 3000 years" (which is, by the way, a fine piece of writing, worthy of your summer reading list, if you plan for a very long summer) and one is immediately struck by how quickly Christianity diverged into competing practices with conflicting ideologies, each one of which vied with one (often violently) another for supremacy. Most of them amounted to arguments about which end of a soft-boiled egg one ought to split open.

In our own case, we Gurdjieffians are presented with an immensely complex cosmology in one of our two so-called "classic" texts -- In Search Of The Miraculous -- and a rich and even more complex mythological parable in the form of Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson.

Ultimately, it could be argued that either book's intention is to help us discover a new capacity for inner understanding, but they go about it in two very different ways.

The first one constructs an ingenious, massive intellectual framework within which to put the context of spiritual effort.

The second one constructs an even more massive framework that is aimed at parts of us other than the intellect -- a kind of emotional WD-40 of the soul, an "oil" that is meant to penetrate through the layers of rust that our associative mind produces, reaching deep into the organism to lubricate the parts that have frozen up.

And it is no snake oil, this remarkable oil. The frozen parts within us truly can loosen up, but only if we become active in parts other than our intellect, as I have mentioned so many other times when writing in this space.

The complexities of the associative mind are a large part of what render us incapable of "ordinary" Being. In the midst of the endless stream of associations -- the "noise" which stands in opposition to what my dear friend and mentor Martha Heyneman calls "the silence" -- we forget that our work is, quite simply put, to take in impressions on behalf of God. (If you click on the link, it will take you to Amazon, where you can get a copy of Martha's fine book "The Breathing Cathedral." Summer reading list!)

We are, she mentioned to me yesterday, "the sense of touch" for the divine... a description which is all too apt. And this capacity of ours--to act on behalf of a higher level as a sensory tool--is both an honor, a privilege, and a responsibility. No one who engages in this effort could possibly fail to sober up and sense the enormous implications of the simple fact of our existence.

One of the finest short books on the subject is that classic of medieval Christianity, The Practice of the Presence of God, which is about Brother Lawrence and his life. Like The Cloud Of Unknowing, this is another fine piece of work which everyone studying Gurdjieff's ideas ought to pick up and ingest at some time during their work, preferably this summer.

Ah, but I sense readers growing weary. Who needs another long list of books to read--especially in the summer, which ought to be play time, n'est ce pas? They are not going to give us the kind of material we need to work. They will enrich us with ideas -- but that is never enough.

What is enough is to be within this moment, sensing the body, understanding that the cells are at work. To make an effort to take in the impressions of nature that surround us in a more active way, to participate more immediately in the rather simple events of daily life. There is a food available in this kind of activity -- in the dailiness of ordinary existence -- that is not available in all the books that have ever been written. And it's only within a willing, gentle, and generous encounter with daily life that I can begin to rub up against the truly extraordinary sensation of the ordinary.

This is a compellingly simple act that essentially sidesteps the confusing complications of my personality.

After all the extraordinary experiences have been experienced and cataloged, interpreted using the fancy yoga understandings, the brilliant Ouspensky understandings, and the subtle Gurdjieff understandings-- after we have packed ourselves full of every possible explanation for everything -- we come up against the same mystery that Walt Whitman recounts in Leaves of Grass (mea culpa, I am being a very a bad boy with this book thing, but I must insist this is yet another book everyone should absolutely and infallibly add to their summer reading list) when a child brought him a handful of grass and said,

"what is this?"

-- and he could not tell the child, because he did not know any more than the child did.

It reminds me of what Christ said: a man must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven.

I must be willing to approach this simple state of not knowing, toss aside the baggage, suspect my own cleverness, and accept with gratitude and grace that is given in the extraordinary, yet daily, bread I encounter.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.