Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Whose thoughts are they, anyway?

I ended the last post with the famous quote from Isaiah (55:8)

"For your thoughts are not my thoughts, and your ways are not my ways, saith the Lord."

This subject has been much on my mind of late. Our entire construction of life -- everything we think, everything we conceive of, everything we can think but haven't thought yet-- is completely rooted in this level. We are fundamentally unable to think or conceive on the level above us. Yet we stubbornly insist, in both the most flagrant and the subtlest ways imaginable, on believing that somehow there can be a point at which we manage to drag a higher level down to us, dissect it, and understand it.

The intellect is obsessive in this belief that this ability is available. The only thing that can ever destroy this belief -- this illusion, for illusion it is -- is a moment when a man or woman is touched by something that is truly higher.

Lifetimes go by without that experience. Our condition is so deteriorated, our contact with a higher level so ephemeral and fugitive, that it assumes the proportions of mythology, thus unintentionally feeding all the illusions about it. Perversely, the issue is not that God created man in his own image -- it's that man wants to create God in man's own image.

I have used principles of science on many occasions to illustrate spiritual truths, because they bear a close relationship to one another, despite the intense denial of the scientific community on this issue. Most frequently, when discussing levels, I cite the principle of emergence, which is such an important -- yet poorly understood -- feature of the universe that Robert M. Hazen cited it as the "missing law" in the very first chapter of his book "Genesis: the scientific quest for life's origins."

Because higher consciousness is an emergent property that arises from the collective behavior of lower levels, we can't understand it any more than an individual ant-- who acts according to a strictly limited, totally mechanistic set of behaviors -- can understand the way that his hive functions at a much more sophisticated level than he is able to as an individual.

The author of "The Cloud of Unknowing" knew this principle quite exactly, even though they would not have expressed it this way. There will always be a veil drawn between us and higher levels. If something of a higher level manifests, what "I am" now -- this collection of associations -- is subsumed, or replaced, by something of another order.

We are deeply mired in both the thought process of this level, and the material limitations imposed by the emergent property of consciousness. So Isaiah, a text written well over 2000 years ago, stated the situation quite correctly.

Knowing, as we do, that despite all this it is still possible for a man to be touched by a higher level of truth, we are left the question of how it is possible. How can we become available to the possibility?

Everyone's got a methodology, don't they? Mme. DeSalzmann told us to be present to ourselves and have attention. Hatha yogis recommend a variety of postures. Christians and Muslims pray a lot, when they are not busy killing each other. Buddhists have a complex lexicon of behaviors designed to provoke enlightenment.

It's kind of like the American health food and vitamin business. If you ate all the health foods and took all the vitamins that various claimants say are necessary for good health, there would be no room left for normal food, and you would almost certainly die of the cure.

We couldn't possibly consume and implement all the competing methodologies for religious awakening and/or enlightenment (or liberation, or whatever you want to call it.) The smorgasbord is overloaded. What's more, no matter how carefully individuals follow these myriad approaches, very few people end up where the methods say they will, and everyone argues about it. Krishnamurti said yoga wouldn't do anything to help a man attain consciousness; Catholics say people who aren't Catholic will all go to hell; Baptists say the same thing about other Baptists. Zen Master Dogen railed against alternate Buddhist philosophies.

Here we are, in other words, on this level, surrounded, as usual, by confusion. We are packed full of thoughts and theories -- almost all the thoughts and theories of other people. So packed full, in fact, of these thoughts and theories that having our own thoughts and theories is nearly impossible. If a man -- for example, Einstein -- comes along with something truly original, everyone is astonished.

Damn! How did he do that?

What I'm getting at here in this critique of presumed methodology is that higher levels don't do what we think they will. They don't act the way we expect them to act; they don't behave the way we want them to behave.

They do what they do.

Skepticism will do us no good; neither will blind faith. Higher levels don't operate according to the rules we are able to perceive. As Mme. DeSalzmann said once in Ravi Ravindra's presence, "There are no miracles. There is only a play of forces."

The tricky part here is that that play of forces lies behind a veil which we are not fully equipped to penetrate. Individuals who get a glimpse behind it race back with all kinds of reports, accurate or inaccurate, about how it works, what it is, how to peel back the veil yourself, and so on. The only spiritual teacher I am aware of who warned us not to get suckered by this kind of thing was Mr. Gurdjieff.

"Verify everything yourself," he advised.

Even in this work, in other words, things may not work the way you are told or the ways you expect them to.

Be prepared for it-- and question everything.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Understanding liberation

Nobody understands liberation.

There are piles of books about it, but no one gains liberation by reading books. Masters expound theories about it, but hardly any master has attained liberation, except in a limited way. Many of the Masters who appeared to have attained liberation turned out to be charlatans. So there is always this question about "liberation."

I put it in quotation marks because it means different things to different people, in the same way that the word "world" means different things to different people. For one man, to be liberated is to be free of chronic physical pain he has felt all his life. For the next one, liberation is to be released from a repressive form of government. To the next one -- who very, very, very secretly thinks he is better than the rest of them -- it means to attain some inner kind of bliss or "enlightenment." What for? Supposedly, to end suffering -- whatever that means. Or to end delusion, or to rise above the ordinary, or what have you.

Basically, it means to be set free. This is the simplest definition of the word. But in the system Mr. Gurdjieff brought to us, every freedom is relative. There is no ultimate "liberation." Anyone who doubts this need only read the chapter "The Holy Planet Purgatory" from "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson."

The Holy Planet Purgatory is a special, very beautiful place for all the beings in the universe who, having perfected themselves to the absolute highest level imaginable, still discover that it falls short of true liberation, that is, union with God, or, as Gurdjieff refers to him, "His Endlessness."

In what has to be considered as a perverse turn to the entire liberation mythology, every being on the Holy Plant Purgatory suffers endlessly, and suffers worse than any being did before they got there, because they are all consumed with anguish in the face of their separation from the Almighty.

What kind of crappy liberation is that?

My liberation ought to consist of angelic wings, wonderful bright lights, an endless river of love, gems, diadems, and chocolate cake with a big dollop of whipped cream on top of it. eh?

I am reminded here of the Who's classic rock opera "Tommy," which culminates in the precursor to their famous anthem "Won't Get Fooled Again"- that is, "We're Not Gonna Take It," in which the Messiah's disciples discover the Nirvana they were promised doesn't measure up to their standards. (I might as well admit it to my readership -- I am a huge Who fan, and have been ever since I saw them play "Tommy" live on their first world tour for the rock Opera in 1969.)

Gurdjieff has proposed a different kind of liberation. Maybe we don't like it. It is, however, a liberation that is fundamentally grounded not in freedom, or release from law, but in responsibility, that is, an acknowledgment of one's place, and a choice of which laws one serves under.

This idea, of course, is a definitively New Testament idea, embodied in the parable about Christ and the Centurion, who knew his place, and thus qualified to have his servant healed, even from a distance. The Centurion understood his responsibility, and this made miracles possible.

Living in an adolescent nation -- the United States of brats, where everyone clamors to get what they think they deserve, grabs all they can, and almost all the adults, especially the most fortunate, richest, and powerful ones, act like babies on the media stage -- it seems strange to talk about responsibility. Mankind is obsessed with the abrogation of responsibility. The idea of shouldering it firmly is well outdated. The idea these days is to sneak out from under it.

In what may be the ultimate heresy, allow me to hint that perhaps even "Liberation" itself -- the transcending of what we call "reality"-- is just one more escape clause, one more mangy dog dressed up nicer than the rest of them so that it looks better... frankly speaking, anyone who has read Zen Master Dogen's "Shobogenzo" in any detail might conclude he'd agree.

I've spoken many times in this space about the need not to escape life, but to inhabit it -- not to rise above where we are, but to be within it -- not to try to avoid or suffering, but to face it and admit it to ourselves. All of these are bitter medicine. I think every one of us can truthfully say we would rather that everything be easy.

And yet, we cannot grow unless things are not easy. Just look at all the people who have it easy. Think about it.

Maybe the whole point of the lesson of being put in these bodies is because they are mortal. Because they will die, they will wind down, "use up" as Jeanne De Salzmann said, we are forced to see how things are whether we want to or not -- whether at the end, or earlier, that's up to us. But in any event, we are forced to shoulder the suffering or organic existence, and death.

Gurdjieff proposed a universe where God Himself suffers, and where man's payment for his arising -- his responsibility, the very reason for his existence -- was rooted in the need for him to take on a portion of that suffering from a higher level.

I've mentioned before that we are vessels into which the world flows. But what is that world? Which world flows into us? Buddha saw that the world that flows into us is suffering. He proposed an escape from that; that's what he called liberation.

Gurdjieff, however, does not propose escape; he suggests, rather, that it is in the very opening up and the drinking of this bitter cup--that same cup that Christ held his hands in the Garden of Gethsemane-- that we attain our purpose.

To take this too literally, on the level of the ordinary suffering of life, would be a mistake. Nonetheless, every suffering in ordinary life (as I believe Meister Eckhart would agree) is indeed preparation for men in order to receive this different, this divine, this higher kind of suffering which we can almost never taste, and may not even understand.

This higher level of sorrow is a material substance that vibrates in the matter of every material thing. It permeates the entire universe; just as the universe is created out of love, so it is also created out of suffering. There can be no eternal, glorious, and illuminated love without eternal, glorious, and illuminated anguish. Only when the two meet together -- whether in a sun, or in a human being -- does reality manifest itself.

Approaching this is indeed a mystery, and it is the deepest mystery that we are confronted with when we undertake this obscure, and relatively unknown, work that Mr. Gurdjieff brought. It is part of what makes this work unique, makes it different, causes it to ask questions and provoke emotions that are different than those we ask and struggle with when we confront ordinary life.

It is a deeply inner task, a task that calls us not always just into the light, but also, into the darkness. Not just into choruses of hallelujah, but also into a penetrating silence where heartbeats grow slower, breath grows shallower, and we begin to touch the fabric and the substance of a fundament far more mysterious than anything we can know with the mere mind.

As is said in Isaiah 55:8, "for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways," saith the Lord.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fragments of an Unknown Being

The title of Ouspensky's well-known book on Gurdjieff's work is "In search of the Miraculous--Fragments of an Unknown Teaching."

The book lays out a complex and magnificent cosmology, which touches us (if at all-- far from everyone likes it--) intellectually--but leaves a great deal of what the Gurdjieff work is actually all about in question. Anyone who has worked in groups in any direct line of descent from Gurdjieff himself will know that the teaching is not passed on in the same manner as it's expounded in Ouspensky's book...

not at all.

"Inside" the Gurdjieff work (as if there was such a place- ha!) we're not, in the end, seekers of a teaching of cosmology. We may be interested in cosmology-- we may encounter and appreciate cosmology in the course of our work-- but we don't work for cosmology.

We work to acquire that most ephemeral, unmeasurable, non-quantifiable property of life called Being.

And real Being will never, in the end, submit itself to the limitations of analysis.

This, of course, does not prevent us from attempting to analyze -- the disease runs deep in all of us. (It is probably one of the deleterious consequences of the properties of the organ Kundabuffer.) But if our work ever becomes real in us, even for one moment in a day, we remember suddenly that what we are working for is not an idea about what could be, but a new understanding of this immediate reality.

There is a Being that lies within us which is unadulterated and divine. But, as Gurdjieff proposed, we are in pieces -- fragments -- and cannot, in our present state, know the true nature of our Being. Hence the title of this piece, "fragments of an unknown Being."

As I have pointed out in much earlier posts, the nature of consciousness, and Being itself, is fractal. This means that each human consciousness is a fragment of a larger consciousness on a higher level, in exactly the same way that an ant's consciousness is part of a greater super-organism which acts in what is a demonstrably higher level of awareness than an individual ant. (A property referred to as "emergence" in science.) Gurdjieff's enneagram is a graphic representation of this relationship between levels, if studied, and if properly understood.

Because we have lost the connection within ourselves that helps us to sense our relationship to this higher Being of which we are a part, we mostly stumble around like idiots.

Why are we here? What is Being "for?"

Nature struggled for over 3 billion years to put our individual consciousnesses in a place where we can hear, for example, the eerie and magnificent call of a red bellied woodpecker. It also struggled for 3 billion years to produce the creature that made that sound.

We live in a universe where nature, in sheer defiance of the laws of entropy, has relentlessly worked to produce a situation where the cosmos can know itself through the organs of perception of living creatures. This represents an immense amount of time, and an immense amount of labor. Uncountable deaths have been required to bring things this far -- each and every one of them a sacrifice to move the process forward to this moment, where we inhabit these bodies. As Zen master Dogen oft described it, "We have acquired these bodies, difficult to acquire, and encountered this dharma, difficult to encounter..."

This situation confers a responsibility on us to question where we are, what we are doing, why we are here. Every time we fail to arrive threshold of our lives with at least some small part of an intention to be more aware, to be more sensitive, to be more present, we are trespassing -- failing to do the task we are here for. We are supposed to be feeding a different level of consciousness -- not our own, but another one, of which we are a fragment.

A reader in the UK recently asked me whether I felt it was true that men "serve the moon." This is, of course, a premise that is spoken about a good deal in the Gurdjieff work.

My observations about the question, which dovetail quite neatly into this apparently sprawling subject, are as follows:

Gurdjieff made it quite clear in "Beelzebub's tales to his grandson" that man no longer has to serve the moon. The original reason that the organ Kundabuffer was implanted in man was because that at that time in the solar system's history, the consciousness of men was forced, due to unforeseen circumstances in the form of outright mistakes on the part of higher cosmic individuals, to feed the earth's unintended and accidental satellite.

To put it quite bluntly... according to Gurdjieff, mankind got screwed.

The situation was, fortunately, not irretrievable. At a certain point in the evolution of the solar system, men were no longer required for this unhappy purpose, and, as Beelzebub explains, the organ Kundabuffer was removed from man, only to find that its properties had "crystallized" in him, ruining his consciousness for most intents and purposes.

So the teaching is clear enough on this point. We no longer need to serve the moon. Man was released from that debilitating responsibility.

Now, one can argue all one likes about whether or not we still do serve the moon, but my experiences within the foundation over the last 30 years underscore one singular and inescapable fact: in this era, responsible beings in the Gurdjieff Work report that we are now here to serve the earth.

Jeanne De Salzmann used to say that if we do not work, " The planet will go down." More recently, senior inheritors of her tradition -- individuals who spent many years working shoulder to shoulder with her, so to speak -- have remarked that we are here to work "on behalf of humanity."

Our task, in other words, is to turn our attention towards the service of the earth and of mankind. Everyone of us that undertakes the effort of inner work undertakes an effort to serve not only the interests of their own development, but also the health and well-being of a planet which is being relentlessly destroyed by most of our species.

It is, if you will, our own version of the Bodhisattva vow. And we are on an uphill climb, aren't we?

When we examine the relative insanity of our day-to-day lives -- I think most of us would agree, the things that go on in us, and around us, are baffling, delusional, in short, as my Dutch grandmother (a bona fide whacko) used to say, flabbergasting -- it becomes apparent that a great deal of the flailing around within material reality that mankind is engaged in is in total contradiction to any sense whatsoever of consciousness or self.

Mankind's real purpose has nothing to do with the destructive tendencies we engage in. It is, rather, to become much quieter, to touch something more real in ourselves, and to develop a new sense of the sacred. This involves a new valuation from within-- one that treasures an intimacy within the act of living itself.

In those moments of quietness, I begin to see how fragmentary my relationship to my life is. I see a stark contrast between the moments where there is what one would call real feeling, and those moments when I'm numb, inactive, filled with frenzied activity, yet stupidly passive towards any real sense of myself.

As the end of the above quote from Dogen goes,

"... let us therefore practice as though our hair were on fire."

May the living light of Christ discover us.






Saturday, March 6, 2010

Overgrown

It strikes me this morning that modern existence is a continuing process of deeply dysfunctional relationship which consistently views itself as functional.

In "Beelzebub's tales to his grandson", Gurdjieff lays this proposition out in black and white. Man's consciousness has deteriorated -- it no longer works properly -- only one part, conscience, is intact, and it has submerged into the subconscious, covered up by thick layers of ruined psyche.

If we look around us, we see that everyone -- including ourselves -- carries within us this stubborn and completely delusional insistence that, somehow, we are functional. Individuals do it. Societies do it. Governments, incredibly, do it. And when there is dysfunctionality around us... well, hey there... it is always someone else's dysfunction, isn't it?

Even if we begin to acknowledge our own dysfunction, as some few of us do, we tend-- probably largely as the result of the influences of the supposed "science" of psychoanalysis -- to try and outsource the blame for it. We do not see, as we eventually must, that the root of it--and the responsibility for it--lie buried deep in our own being.

I was sitting this morning and examining this process of mind, which has absolutely and ultimately overgrown what is real. The potential for reality exists within me -- the taste of reality is tantalizingly close to me -- the organic experience of reality is indubitably buried deep within my being. But it is overgrown. It is covered by an endless series of associative thoughts and an entity which is not real, yet cleverly calls itself "mind." This entity is what I usually refer to as "me." Yet, upon careful examination, it is a layer of vegetation. As mindless, in its own way, as plants, which are capable of receiving the sun, but do so in a strictly mechanical manner. Certainly, they serve a purpose and create food, but they lack intelligence and independence.

So here I am, within this life, and within this body, overgrown with this vegetation of an associative mind. This is a thick jungle with many resilient vines; it's populated with an incredible variety of colorful creatures. And it is, undeniably, attractive. I am so attached to it and attracted to it I am unable -- fundamentally unable -- to see how much has to be given up to discover that there is more in the jungle than vegetation and animals.

This is the dilemma we are presented with. This irrevocable conviction that the mind as I know it is a "real" mind. The knitting together of the three centers which could produce something of a higher order is no more than a theory, and my methods of working towards it remain largely untested hypotheses. The reason for this is that all of the approach to these questions is owned by the very entity that stands between me and the organic sense of being -- this ephemeral, artificial "mind" which is my principal tool for interaction with life.

I've been reading Ravi Ravindra's fine commentary on the Patanjali sutras. The book is to be recommended not just for his concise, insightful, and eminently practical interpretation of these yoga texts in relationship to our ordinary life, but also for the many quotes he offers us from Jeanne De Salzmann. Pending the upcoming publication of "The Reality of Being," scheduled for May, Ravi's writings -- most particularly "Heart without Measure," which much of the readership will of course be familiar with -- are one of the few legitimate public sources of material from her. In relating her understanding to the Pantajali sutras, he offers us fresh insights and underscores the immense value of her approach to inner work.

Again and again, she stresses to us that the body is here to receive a certain kind of higher energy. In order to do that, we must get rid of the tension that blocks us -- a deep inner relaxation and a certain kind of posture is necessary. To interpret that as a physical action alone is too limiting. There is no doubt, our bodies are much too tense. No doubt whatsoever. We do not, however, see (except superficially, and then only with the very parts that are tense) how tense our minds are, and how tense our emotions are.

The type of relaxation she calls us to has to be global in nature, and all three "minds," that is, centers, have to learn to engage in a much deeper letting go. It's safe to say that when we finally encounter real relaxation for the first time, we understand once and for all that we have always assumed understanding--yet remained utterly unfamiliar with what that term actually means.

The dense overgrowth of ordinary personality over essence, of mechanical activity over intentional being, has covered up the temple inside me. This takes constant study both in meditation and in life. I don't really believe there is any overgrowth -- I'm so busy marveling at what it has produced that I don't see it is obscuring what is real. And every time I come back to myself, I am astonished by how much is actually lacking, how little I notice it, and how many opportunities to be in relationship in my life just fall by the wayside, willy-nilly, right, left, and center, as I proceed relentlessly forward like a juggernaut.

As always, I see for myself that a connection to sensation is the only lifeline through which I can grasp the beginnings of this work.

And here I am. Well over 30 years into efforts centered around the teachings of Gurdjieff, and-- as usual, as always --

just beginning to understand that maybe, with enough effort, I may understand something.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Natural and Supernatural

The so-called "great debate" between science and religion these days seems to hinge on the question of whether or not there is anything "supernatural" in the universe -- that is, are there forces that cannot be explained within the context of natural law, and nature itself?

The presumption on the part of science is that all natural law is, at least, knowable, even if it isn't known yet. This presumption is based on the idea that there are a finite set of natural laws -- which is, in and of itself, a unproven (and possibly unprovable) hypothesis.

Abandoning, for the moment, this apparent flaw in scientific reasoning, let's just go with the idea that the set of natural laws is very, very large. That seems like a pretty safe bet.

Hypothesizing within this context, one would have to suggest that the collective knowledge of mankind -- no matter how large it grows -- may be unable to grasp the full set of natural laws and their manifestation. If that is true, there may be phenomena that are completely natural and yet will forever remain inexplicable.

Science has absolutely no compunction about using vaguely deistic concepts -- that is, concepts that have absolutely no proof of any kind behind them-- such as dark energy and dark matter to explain unknown phenomena. We have seen many things in the universe that suggests that dark energy and dark matter exist, but we have never seen or physically measured either one. We simply presume they must exist because of the way things behave.

This isn't at all different than the way people believe in God, but scientists aren't really interested in buying that.

There is no reason to suppose that God, presuming such a force exists, isn't completely subject to natural law like all other forces. This, of course, limits the scope of God's abilities, which will not sit well with many religious people. At the same time, such a God is exactly the kind of God that Gurdjieff proposed in his dialogues with Ouspensky, invoking the theological student who advised his professor, "Even God cannot beat the ace of spades with a deuce."

So those of us who subscribe to the Gurdjieffian cosmology find ourselves straddling the fence between the scientists and the fundamentalists, in that we propose a God, but a God who is part of, and subject to, natural law and natural forces.

Gurdjieff proposed this in some detail when he explained that there were no "miracles" or "magic," but that all such phenomena were the expression of laws from higher levels that mankind simply wasn't familiar with.

In this cosmology, therefore, nothing is "supernatural." The universe is natural, God is natural, consciousness is natural. In summary, one might say that this bears a relationship to what the Buddhists call the Dharma-- truth, or, alternately, reality.

Gurdjieff, as Ouspensky reports, went so far as to report that everything is alive--so much so that one would have to go down to an almost unimaginably low level to find anything that was not. The universe, in other words, is a natural field of living consciousness. That phrase seems to me to be about the simplest way to put it.

Coming once again to that moment when we try to bridge the gap between theory and practice, we may ask ourselves in what way we act as representatives of that natural field of living consciousness.

Speaking for myself, I see that it is almost impossible to encounter or experience anything in this life without having it filtered through ego. Ego, as my friend Patty Llosa succinctly pointed out, is an insidious force that manages to contaminate everything, and, especially for those of us on a spiritual path of one kind or another, specializes in engaging in elaborate masquerades to conceal itself and convince us it's not there.

Of course, in this particular work, we are pragmatically told that we need our egos -- not much can go on unless there is an ego motivating it. It becomes more interesting, as we work, to work from within ego and see how firmly we are always within ego. There's no point in getting depressed or frustrated about this -- it is both lawful and inevitable. But if we truly begin to inhabit the ego in a new way, we begin to learn about it as a real aspect of ourselves, rather than a theoretical one which we study as though we were not already constantly identified with it. The ego, too, is a part of natural law, an inseparable part of the field of consciousness, and not susceptible to extermination -- at least, not in the romantic way that we think it is if we sign on to various scripted paths to enlightenment.

Perhaps the trick is to avoid having ego become too dominant. We can be playful with it; we can acknowledge it, accept it, allow it its due even as we search for other parts of ourselves that can participate in our work. If the organic sense of being joins the ego -- well, this might represent considerable progress. I think the point I am making here is that the path is unscripted. One of the central ideas behind the Gurdjieff work-- the idea that everything must be questioned-- demands the deconstruction of scripts. It suggests that we treat every moment as a moment where we are launching ourselves forever into the unknown.

And you know, dear readers, I increasingly see that my life is exactly like that. In every instance, I move into a new unknown, where there are an infinite number (okay, I'm guessing, but it's approximately infinite) of unknowable--yet completely natural--laws affecting me.

I find myself in a paradox where, although I am fundamentally limited by the effects of these laws, truly extraordinary possibilities that I don't know about or understand are also out there.

So in each ordinary moment of this ordinary life that we ordinarily live-- where things can be counted and measured, where much of what happens is expected and predictable-- perhaps we can remember that we stand forever exactly at the edge of a wave that naturally, gracefully, breaks onto unknown shores, made of water that can travel to places, high and low, which lie beyond the realm of our imagination.

Let us hope that all of us engaged in this enterprise of self-knowledge may, with sincerity and effort, reach past that imagination--

and into a more natural state of reality.

May the living light of Christ discover us.