Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Commentary on "The Reality of Being"


A rather long note from china. And yet another possibly heretical, but, in any event, not politically correct post... a commentary and critique of Jeanne De Salzmann's "The Reality of Being."

While it is pointless to defend this effort- after all, there can be no argument on the fact that I "am no Jeanne De Salzmann," raising the question of why I might dare presume to critique my spiritual "betters-" it seems salient to remark, first of all, that we are instructed by Gurdjieff himself to "question everything" - up to and including his own instructions, let alone those of his pupils - and, second, that published books ought to be examined for what they are, that is, (a) published books, not sacred objects and (b) records of what took place some time ago, not living experiences (or active person-to-person transmissions) taking place in the present moment. Which is what living work consists of.

One other important point, I think, is to not adopt a reflexive position of adulation and endorsement based solely on the source of this material, formidable though it may be. The work of the mind is to examine carefully and evaluate- not to swallow wholesale in an enthusiastic paroxysm of belief.

I haven't read the entire book yet, but rather the better part of the first section; journal entries reputed to be, for the most part, from the 1950's. As such, fresh though they may seem, these writings reflect inner work that was done some sixty years ago. Anyone who knew her might point out that De Salzmann's work progressed considerably, and for many, many years, after that.

Since (as I have pointed out before) the work is a living and evolving process- always changing, adapting, evolving its approach, understanding and technique to what is necessary NOW (as it must, both in individuals and in community) anything written this long ago is now encountered as a historical document, and like all such documents, although it may expound on universal principles with potential current applications, it can only do so in relationship to the level of understanding of that individual, at that time, and the stage and conditions of the work itself, relative to all the factors both in and around them. So it is a necessarily quite fractional and incomplete picture we see here.

In addition, we should keep in mind that these documents are, as l understand it, a record of De Salzmann's observations of herself. As such, they're quite personal. To read them without a sensitivity and a sympathy-even an empathy- for that would be, in my eyes, a mistake. These journal entries may be read as didactic exercises, but they don't appear to me to have been meant that way. They are, rather, a record of a struggle to understand.

All of these caveats and qualifying factors weigh into the following evaluation of the material.

I find it, on the whole, coherent, as well as compellingly consistent with some of my own experience and observation- although she uses somewhat different language than I might (or, indeed, than Gurdjieff himself used.) This is to be expected in any evolving and personal inner work. Expressions that remain static become habitual and stale, and we ought to be wary of them.

I do find some questions and disagreements at hand, and, the job of a critic being (in part) to raise such issues, the following few come to mind.

De Salzmann says that "nothing" has "any" value except the act of Being in relationship to the higher. This sounds grand- and indeed one might perhaps draw on corresponding inner experience that ostensibly corroborates it- but it is inherently false.

I've heard others say this as well. It sounds dramatic and important (and the Gurdjieff work is no stranger to drama) but it fails to serve the larger truth. It is, rather, the observation of a seeker in the midst of a struggle that commands an urgent priority... It isn't, in other words, properly balanced. Here's why.

Meaning always exists (and evolves) according to level. Every meaning is real within its own context: meaning within levels (let's call it "horizontal meaning") is legitimate and real- it is just limited by its scope. Dismissing it as irrelevant is misleading and irresponsible. In work we seek to discover and assign meaning its right place- not obliterate it as though higher meanings always "trumped" lower ones, and indeed could even exist without them. The higher depends on the lower- and the same holds true for meaning within the context of levels.

There seems to be little need to belabor this point any more than this. It may seem technical, but it isn't. The higher seeks relationship with the lower. If there were no meaning in the lower, it would not bother. Meaning-and our respect for it- at any level cannot be so casually discarded.

The second area of questioning I raise relates a bit more to practice. In De Salzmann's touching and, I find, very real struggle to sort out what's going on in her, she vacillates between two broad polarities. One is the stated "Gurdjieff work dogma" (which actually represents a law on our level, and a vital higher truth) that "man cannot do.". She says this in many different ways. One might say her approach is the via negativa, presented negatively (a tricky thing, this, which in the interests of brevity I must refrain from expounding on here.)

On the other hand, her repeated exhortations about focusing the attention subtly presume an unstated assumption that we CAN do. They are certainly a step in the direction of a "via positiva"- after all, we are not mere blobs of protoplasm!- and suggest that there can be real efforts that do lie within our power.
Any (dare we say it?) attentive reader of the first section will notice the repeated tension that arises between these two positions- revealing a real struggle, and bringing some firsthand life to our experience of how she may have felt as she wrote this material. It helps make it real, as opposed to just a static historical document.

In the end, scattered throughout the text, there are acknowledgments that what comes, comes mysteriously- out of the unknown, and into the unknown of ourselves- intimating that we cannot, finally, for all our efforts, "do"- despite the laudable (and necessary) heroism of the inner struggle she describes.

In my own practice and experience, it's a compelling emotional understanding of our helplessness that leads to something higher- an idea Gurdjieff introduced and expounded on again and again. This question relates to receptivity and feeling- to our mortality-to an intimacy which corresponds to Madame's questions and investigations in this first section. The deep, organic, acknowledged experience of helplessness- a three-centered experience of the absolute need for help- is the sign of an inner maturity that may open us, if we are fortunate.

It will be rather interesting, I think, to read the rest of the book and see if, and how, this theme develops. A more elaborate examination of Madame's methodology might reveal how her approach "uses" inner effort to bring us to this point, but I won't undertake that here.

There are some sins of omission here. For me, above all, the question of relationship to the higher is a religious one. The search in this section of De Salzmann's notebooks is cast, for the most part, outside those terms- she avoids referring to God very much- but for me this is just ducking the issue.
The action is a search for a connection with the divine. Pitching it in secular terms ultimately misses the mark. I ask myself, did she feel this Presence regularly? If she did, my impression is that she did not receive it, or understand its implications, in the same way that I do. Perhaps this merely underscores the uniqueness of such experience of the higher; or perhaps there is indeed something missing here. Readers will have to judge for themselves.

Furthermore, after reading enough of this material, I'm struck by how analytical it begins to seem, as though there were an attempt to ferret out with the intellect understandings that, it was already known to the journal-keeper, can't be comprehended with the intellect.

Another less obvious, but equally real, struggle unfolds itself here. Once again I discover a sympathy for De Salzmann, who so clearly acquired a "view from above," as she might have called it, yet found herself ultimately constrained by the same human limits as the rest of us. It reminds me once again of one of the strengths of this work, in which Mr. Gurdjieff invited us to meet one another on the common ground of our shared humanity.

One last note. I think she's rather hard on herself in these entries. There's a severity of tone I find unbecoming, a hint of self-flagellation- which is, to be sure, a time honored practice, but not quite what I expected.

It serves to illuminate the point that the Lord always has far more mercy towards us than we have towards ourselves.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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