Monday, November 29, 2010

Conscious Altruism


I am taking up altruism because I had a heated ( but still warm) debate with a very close essence-friend of mine in the work about the subject last Saturday.

He maintained–I will say up front, I think, incorrectly–that there was no place for altruism in the Gurdjieff work. I found this bizarre, to say the least, because it seems to me that the fourth and fifth obligolnian strivings are nothing if not altruistic:

"The fourth: from the beginning of one's existence the striving to pay as quickly as possible for one's arising and individuality, in order afterward to be free to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our Common Father.

"And the fifth: the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred 'Martfotai,' that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.

(p. 352, Beelzebub, second edition)

In order to wend our way through this discussion, we first had to dispense with the standard forms of dismissal in which I am told that words have hundreds of meanings (viz. Gurdjieff's dissertation to Ouspensky on the word “world” in “In Search Of The Miraculous.") Sophistry of this kind can be used to negate the value of any word whatsoever, and those who wield this sword routinely do so in sheer defiance of the fact that Gurdjieff's whole point was that we have to know and agree on what our definitions are when we are using words (something, BTW, I have discovered many people turn out to be rather weak at, when I become disgruntled with careless word slingers and open the dictionary.) This was, in fact, the whole point of his request for a more precise language when we exchange.

As I have pointed out before, our general tendency as we drift further and further from the temporal locus of Gurdjieff himself is to employ words like “something” ever more frequently, which does not (at least for me) do anything whatsoever to contribute to precision.

In any event. I am becoming crabby and irascible–which is certainly deeply ingrained in my nature–and we are drifting from the subject at hand.

The definition of altruism–which, by the way, I don't think is all that complicated or subject to multiple obfuscating interpretations– is a selfless act performed on behalf of the well being of another.

It is–lo and behold!–more or less the opposite of the word egoism. Yet we rarely hear about it--mostly, I guess, because we enjoy egoism so much more. The word egoism is wielded like a club in most spiritual works, where we are perpetually beat over the head with its awful badness and its myriad limitations.

In all fairness, Gurdjieff was probably the only teacher who found a positive and sensible place for egoism in his work, by labeling conscious egoism as a necessity, rather than a liability. What he was saying there, I think, is that we need to do something for ourselves.

This does not mean that we have to only do things for ourselves. The idea of altruism is one of the higher universal laws. I will now explain that proposition in two parts.

Firstly, let's take a look at how biologists understand the word. Altruistic behavior on behalf of organisms is almost exclusively understood in the context of genetic preservation. Whenever we see altruistic behavior, it is undertaken by organisms in order to help ensure that their genetic material–or that of their closest relatives–is passed on. It is, in other words, an essential feature of most, if not all, living systems. It even functions in bacterial communities.

Altruism, in other words, preserves and passes on value earned through effort. The study and understanding of altruistic behavior has become an essential part of understanding the meaning and function of biological systems. I have, for example, an entire hive of bees in my backyard, and almost without exception every single one of them (except the Queen) is a dedicated altruist, with spectacular-- and very sweet–results.

A second example of altruism, taken not from the biological but the spiritual realm, is the fact that the Bodhisattva vow is considered to be one of the highest vows of Buddhism. I've pointed out before that the fifth obligolnian striving certainly bears a striking resemblance to this vow-- if it is not, in fact, identical to it, which I rather suspect. The point is that this is a very high law indeed. We can take further steps into Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other religions, and repeatedly discover that altruistic or selfless behavior is considered vitally important to spiritual development and spiritual practice. Perhaps Christ's admonition that “Greater love hath no man, than to lay down his life for his friends," (John 15:13) is the example that comes to mind most immediately.

Altruism, in other words, is a necessary function for organic and conscious beings. Something on the highest level demands that we sacrifice our effort (make it sacred) by undertaking it not just on behalf of ourselves–although that is necessary–but, ultimately, on behalf of others-- without expecting anything in return.

I'm not sure about the rest of you, but my track record in this area is spotty. What I believe to be altruistic behavior is still usually accompanied by a sneaky little voice down underneath everything else–which I keep a very close eye on, mind you–asking me what I am going to get out of it, even if it is as simple as dividing up the meat and putting it on plates for myself and my guests... even more insidious, I see myself making sure the other person gets the best piece because then I'll be "good"... that is, altruistic, just like Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha... and, last but hardly least, my mommy... said I should be.

This kind of attitude pervades most of what I do, and I have thick, heavily padded buffers between me and that kind of behavior, so that it can be very difficult to see how the ego motivates everything.

This raises a fascinating question. If altruism is, indeed, the opposite of egoism, what would it be like if altruism motivated everything? Given the current set of circumstances, it seems clear that that ought to be equally possible–but it almost never works that way in human beings.

Does it now?

Like its counterpart egoism, altruism needs to be conscious altruism if it is to be meaningful or functional altruism. Altruism rooted in egoism (which is the most common form of altruism we encounter) is bogus, even if it produces "good" results; altruism engaged in reflexively and mechanically can have bad results–one can selflessly do something on behalf of another and then later discover one has done the absolutely wrong thing.

So altruism, much like Jacob Needleman's “good,” (in context, they are, I think, intimate) only has value if it is born of something essential and unified. In that context–admittedly a rare context indeed–altruism can serve a "reproductive" function that preserves and passes on a sacred impulse.

We might say conscious altruism is a de facto reflection of the action of the highest, which is unendingly and unerringly altruistic. The Creator eternally and selflessly emanates love and mercy; the gift of life devolves upon the material universe from said emanation.

Only through acts of altruism, conscious altruism, can we honor this generosity and reflect even a tiny portion of it back in the direction it has come from.

I could probably say a great deal more about this, but it would quickly devolve into even more wiseacreing than what I have already engaged in.

May our prayers be heard.


1 comment:

  1. Lee, you have stumbled onto a topic which is so hot as to be the proverbial "scalding potato" -- so hot that none can hold it for even one second let alone place it in their mouths. All I can say to your approach is that it finds a deep echo in my own thinking, which is that the moment we help ourselves by working on ourselves as Mr. Gurdjieff indicated we ought, we become BOTH altruistic and egotistical at the SAME TIME. They are in fact, two sides of the SAME COIN, much as "Suffering and Bliss" are the selfsame coin. When we work on ourselves it affects the entire of mankind.

    Sometimes we have to hit them so hard they forget their Grandmother, as our beloved Master once put it.

    There is nothing wrong with "becoming crabby and irascible" if this is in our essence nature, because we need to keep BOTH the sheep and wolf alive and well in us. As one of my teachers used to say repeatedly, "I did not join the Work to become a "goody- goody two shoes" or an "Angel"; I joined the Work because Mr. Gurdjieff was a MAN"

    Neither did I, sly dog that I am, and I will fight to the death anyone who proposes otherwise. I guess that's why I am discarded by some of the "Council of Elders", because they have allowed the rigor of the work to become rigor mortis. Stiffened by their "work faces", they have become as hard as nuns in a nunnery, a line of fearful robots.

    The living organism of the work can and will survive them, and I for one, have the patience to simply wait for my inheritance.

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