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.

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