We come by this habit honestly. Most all so-called “esoteric” work tends to cloister itself. The majority of esoteric practices are monastic in one way or another; even the schools that Gurdjieff himself says he obtained his knowledge from were in remote, inaccessible places, and the commonplace conception among esotericists is that real knowledge can only be obtained from these special, secret places that exist outside of society and ordinary life.
Contrast this, if you will, with the incontrovertible fact that Gurdjieff called us to a new kind of work, the fourth way, which is emphatically a work in life. He was clearly a different animal than the monks who shut themselves off from ordinary life in order to attain an inner unity. He was a visionary; he saw a way for us to work that included ordinary life, that firmly welded its influences to our inner effort and used them creatively to help us.
There is a certain irony in the fact that one often hears members of the Gurdjieff work disparaging ordinary life, talking about how inadequate it is and how only something higher is wonderful and true and different. The attitude seems to belie the entire point of what both Gurdjieff and DeSalzmann were aiming us at: a union of the higher and lower, not an enforcement of their separation, and a potentially elitist preference for one over the other.
The idea of working in life is frequently discussed, but take a look at what actually happens to us. We get together for meetings, work weekends, or work weeks, and talk about how we never work, or perhaps never even can work, meaningfully, unless we are at such events and under these special conditions. We sit-- together or on our own-- and there is a collective belief, well meant and goodhearted, but nevertheless mistaken, that this is when and where we are going to “receive” something from a higher level.
In other words, most of the so-called real work we do–much of which has to be subject to question as to whether it is, in fact, real work at all–centers around the idea of separation, of being cloistered, of needing a special set of conditions in order to work.
Life is the special set of conditions. All of it. Not just the life lived within the metaphysical ramparts of the Gurdjieff foundation.
I seem to recall that Michel DeSalzmann once referred to The Cloud of Unknowing as a magnificent book that transcended the narrow confines of its Christianity. The remark contains a certain truth; nonetheless, one has to wonder whether we are able to transcend the narrow confines of the Gurdjieff work, as we have conceived of it, bestowed form upon it, and layered it with our assumptions and–yes, inevitably–mechanical reactions to what we think it is.
I have said before in this space that what seeks us–this higher energy which wishes to become an expression of the divine within the atmosphere and on the surface of this planet–wishes to express itself specifically in ordinary life, as we go about our day to day business. No matter how much of it enters us in sittings, or under special conditions, if it does not find its way into day-to-day business and the face-to-face relationships we have with others, in the very moment of what is ordinary, then, in my experience, the practice suffers.
I chose this particular photograph, which I took on a trip to Egypt at the national Museum in Cairo some years ago, because it depicts such a moment. The rays of the sun enlighten a perfectly ordinary moment between the Pharaoh Tutankhamun and his wife. It is touching; it is warm; it is completely human. They aren't in meditative poses like the ones you see at Angkor Wat. They are just living their lives; and yet, the divine inspires them, legitimately, within the context of their day-to-day humanity.
And what is the most essential quality we sense in this piece of artwork? It is, I am certain, the presence of love.
For myself, I think I make this whole question of working and understanding what work is much too complicated. How can I begin to bring the organic root of my work, and an openness that might receive something finer, to the ordinary everyday activities I engage in?
My group leader Betty Brown was a master at cutting away all the nonsense and bring us back to this very practical, very ordinary ground floor.
This Christmas season, I'm going to do what little I can to remember her approach, and more actively explore how to be present, in an unfettered manner, for those around me.
At the same time, I will try to keep the wick of my lamp trimmed.
May our prayers be heard.