Monday, December 6, 2010

“There is no form”

Imagine a new Work.

Imagine people who dress differently, speak with different inflections, using different words and terms.

Imagine people who decorate their interiors with different designs and different textiles, and listen to different music. ( We can hardly imagine, can we, that Gurdjieff/deHartmann exhausted all the future possibilities for sacred music in their relatively tiny oeuvre?)

Imagine, if you will–heresy of heresies–that even their movements are different, although demonstrably from a real tradition.

Imagine that these people and everything they do are completely different, except for one thing.

They are studying the same ideas we study.

I bring this question up because there is a question of habit surrounding the outer form of the Gurdjieff work. I'm well aware of the fact that we preserve many traditions in this work out of veneration; we honor those who brought it to us and what it is. Or so we think.

Nonetheless, perhaps the Gurdjieff ideas have become too accustomed to the form that has grown around them. Has it encased the living work itself like a pupa that cannot be easily escaped from?

This wouldn't invalidate the ideas. They–and the people who study them–are as vital and as real as ever. The difficulty is that the wrapping paper–the external part of the work, the form in which it exists in the world and is presented to the world–has not changed in almost, perhaps, a century.

Is such repetition necessary? What does it mean? What is the relationship between form and repetition? And how does it relate to the question of habit?

I bring these questions not as a revolutionary, but an orthodox individual who has concerns that we are creating a religion–unintentionally, and unconsciously, all along intently insisting that we are doing no such thing .

Have we confused the content of the work with the form of the work? Has it become increasingly irrelevant to the world at large? ...We may not need a Martin Luther, but it wouldn't hurt to hire a new interior decorator.

In all fairness, esoteric spirituality always was and always will be irrelevant to the world at large, except as in regard to preserving the Heart of the world, in which it is supremely and irrevocably relevant. Nonetheless, those engaged in such activities have a responsibility to the present to discover a way to bring the ideas and the practice to the present in such a way that younger generations can relate to them. Most religions know how to do this; they've had thousands of years to practice at it. The Gurdjieff work, however, is a dilettante, having only existed in its current form in the West for under 100 years. And it is unique in the fact that it is a work in life, which seems to imply to me that it must absolutely relate to real, present, contemporary life in every one of its iterations. It can hardly afford to mire itself in the attitudes, appearances, expressions, and conventions of earlier decades, let alone centuries-- can it?

We are, quite frankly, doing a very respectable job of working–my personal interactions with individuals from around the world engaged in this practice verifies that (for me, at least.)

I say that we are doing a respectable job in sheer defiance of all the lamentations (objective and otherwise) that "we don't work," most of which are absolutely true. If we measure, however, the stunning lack of work around us, even the little bit that we can manage (which is not much, and is admittedly fraught with all kinds of delusion and misunderstanding) is already a lot. I think we can give ourselves a little credit for the effort, instead of perpetually whipping ourselves for how lacking we are.

In the end, after all, the real acknowledgment of our lack cannot and must not be made public, but is a sacred covenant made privately with God, without words, in a place that truly-- and forever-- has no form.

There is very real work being done around the world by Gurdjieff's followers. But not in the area of updating the external form of the teaching so that it has an appeal to the modern young person.

One might argue that this doesn't matter, but it does. This work needs to live. It is engaged in a vital activity of paramount importance, and some attention needs to be devoted to discovering how to breathe more life into it in the present moment. Readers of this blog will know that it is one small and perhaps pathetic effort in that direction; not much of an effort, because, of course, it is limited by "me" being "me"-- and I recognize my own relative powerlessness.

Nonetheless, we've got to keep making the efforts.

It's been said in this work that it's dangerous to change the work without understanding. This has been used as an excuse to avoid revisionism, and I think there's a great deal of validity to it. Nonetheless, to change the outer form of the work does not constitute a change to the inner form--if there is one-- and if there isn't, the wag in me is compelled to ask, how could we possibly be worried about changing it?

It should, in fact, be entirely possible to change the outer form of any esoteric work in order to make it palatable and discoverable to individuals who might have an interest, without any impact at all on the content. We are, once again, talking about the wrapping paper, not the gift. Not only should it be possible; it must be necessary.

If we "question everything” in this work (already a disingenuous statement) we must inevitably question the outer form. That means the whole ball of wax; the Sufi trappings, the victorian elements, the hippie counterculture baggage inherited from the 60s, the instinctive aversion to technology and ordinary ways of organizing such as newsletters and public events, etc. It's good to be different; but it's not that good. There is a point where "different" crosses over a line and becomes a form of rejection, a method of closing, instead of an opening, and invitation.

There is even a point where being different becomes being the same.

I think we all know that, don't we?

If, as is so often said, the inward form has no form, then no change we bring to it–short of a change that consists of the imposition of form–can damage the work. This actually opens the possibility of an enormous amount of freedom in the outward form of the work, but no one seems to have much courage in this area. The one individual I can recall who seemed to be willing to embrace modernism within the context of the work was William Segal, who is no longer with us.

I bring all of this up because I do hear people saying, quite often, in the context at least of the inner work, that "there is no form." While I am no aged guru, I am not a complete dilettante either, and I would have to argue this point... even with my betters. (Those who do not feel a slight twinge of fear when they encounter my essentially argumentative nature, ought to. I am stubborn, intelligent, and belligerent, which is an objectively terrible combination.) Like the beginning of the Persian fairytale, there is a form, and there isn't a form. Arguing the contrary, there is a form, since according to Gurdjieff, the universe is created through laws, and laws by default must confer form.

In the context of the outer work, from my point of view, we are pretty much locked into our form. The form of meetings... what is said at meetings... the celebrations we engage in, the architecture we favor, the activities we undertake, the art we prefer, the books we read... well, it's quite a list, isn't it?

We all need to take a look at that. I'm asking all these questions not because I want to tear anything down.

The fact is that, old-fashioned curmudgeon that I am, I kind of like the quaint, colorfully outdated form we embody.

And that in itself worries me.
May our prayers be heard.


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