Monday, September 13, 2010

A wish to be



It used to be a habit of mine to sit down and write a post without any prepared idea. It was interesting; I haven't done that in quite some time. So today, I am giving it a try– let's say, for old times sake.

One of the things that Betty Brown used to occasionally mention was an impression that we are arrogant to presume that we can attain anything whatsoever.

It reminds me well of the sitting I attended many years ago early one Thursday morning in New York City at which a venerable older one--who knew Gurdjieff personally--began by saying, “we are tiny little creatures.”

We are indeed. Take a look at the scale of things, even in our immediate vicinity, and ask yourself what is really possible for creatures as small as us.

One of the premises one may encounter in Zen Buddhism is that the very idea of attainment itself is faulty– An example, I think, of “opposites thinking," as Zen Master Seung Sahn put it in a talk recently sent to me by my friend Joe D (thanks, Joe!)

What Seung Sahn means, of course, by this rather cute term is dualistic thinking: in this particular case, in order for there to be attainment, there has to also be non–attainment. Dogen certainly emphasized the need to transcend such dualistic concepts in the approach to understanding. (Master Seung Sahn, oddly, speaks of attainment as an aim in this particular talk, which perhaps puts him amusingly--if mildly, after all, it's a very good talk-- at risk of contradicting his own understanding. This just goes to show that no matter what level one is on, there is always plenty of dog poop left to step in-- a lesson, incidentally, which Gurdjieff repeatedly hammers home in "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson.")

Let's try and take the dialogue (which takes two, and may thus also be dualistic, woe is me) into somewhat different territory, which, despite its pitfalls, has the merit of expounding the doctrine in a more Gurdjieffian way-- and we G- people are, no matter how much we may occasionally admire them, not Zen Buddhists.

Which affords us, by the way, permission to engage in "opposites thinking" without all the guilt.

If I am arrogant, it is because I presume to a level that does not belong to me–to understandings that I have not understood, to attainments that I have not attained. We are all, to the last man and woman, locked here within the level we are on–the world of the horizontal, a petri dish filled with microbes perpetually at war with one another, each one convinced that it should reign supreme.

There is, surrounding me, a medium that I dwell within which is made of finer substances than those I drink and breathe. That medium embodies a verticality. There is a level above me: there is a level below me. Any effort to “become” something, to “attain” something, inevitably involves developing a sensitivity to, a not-theoretical awareness of, and a connection with, these levels above and below me.

If I succeed in establishing such contact, a current begins to flow through me.

This idea of verticality is essential to understanding work as it is understood within the context of the Gurdjieffian practice. I'm not sure that Buddhism emphasizes this in the same way. In the cosmos we inhabit, our function is to become servants–to become receptive–to offer the opportunity for energies to flow from above us into our level, and down into levels below us. (The Taoists would certainly get this, but Taoism gets a rather bad rap from Dogen, who classifies it under his deadly label of "non-Buddhist thinking." ...Whatever were you thinking of, Dogen?)

At the same time, if we are fortunate, blessed with Grace, we will find a way to offer those energies back up, which is actually a more difficult work.

Receiving is a wonderful experience. When Grace descends, it can truly introduce us to an organic experience of that mystery which is referred to by Christians as “The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding.” (You knew I was going to slip Christianity in here somewhere, right?)

Nonetheless, this can't take place unless there is also an offering. Offering involves suffering. We need to surrender what we are in order to offer. (One has to admit that there is a substantial departure from any semblance of Buddhist thinking here; Gurdjieff points us towards an engagement with suffering--albeit a new kind of suffering, intentional suffering. Buddhism, however, suggests that we find a way to transcend suffering.)

Well, whether we engage or transcend, this particular aspect of the question is all about payment: and despite the differences, here we can perhaps find some renewed agreement with the Buddhists.

There isn't any attainment here. There is service. We're on a service level, not an attainment level.

So I need to do away, I think, with this imaginary idea that I am going to “become” something.
To wish to Be Is different from a wish to become. Perhaps one could argue I am putting too fine a point on it here, but the difference between the fourfold package of expectation, attainment, arrogance, and ego, and the single, simple act of Being, hinges on this question. In that sense, the Zen masters have it right. They are asking us to be–not to become.

To be involves an acknowledgment. It involves a seeing. It can only ever be of the moment: There isn't anything else. I manufacture both the past and the future within my imagination, and keep my gaze fixed steadily on those phantasms, while all around me, the world as it is–the Dharma–exists without compromise.

A couple of days ago, while my wife and I were walking the famous dog Isabel, Neal asked me how I thought I was different from who I was, say, about 30 years ago.

I had to ponder that question for a moment.

I finally replied:

"I see how small I am."

May the living Light of Christ discover us.

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