Tuesday, December 28, 2010

After all these years


Storms have come and gone. The Hudson river absorbs them... we continue to walk along the marsh, which never ceases to amaze.

It also provokes poetry.

After All These Years

After all these years
Love being what it is

Forgotten-
I walk along the river anyway.

Blackbirds swarm like locusts from the trees
And make their own wind

I exist in astonishment
That such a thing could be.

God has broken himself into many pieces
Thrown himself into the sky

Down upon the ground as leaves
And into the water as silent ripples

Lies across the leaves as frost
And scatters the sky with stars.

With every sunrise
I try to put him back together

So that He can remember who He is
And why He made us.


I'll probably get to a more detailed post later today... or at any rate, this week.

Until then, this interview with Gina Sharpe at Parabola is well worth reading.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Working and living

It's not unusual for us to unintentionally segregate our life from our work.

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.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Conjunction

I suppose it's inappropriate to use the word "conjunction" when the photograph depicts what is actually a full lunar eclipse–a decidedly different astronomical event. But what is on my mind right now is the conjunction of forces; the fact that the organism serves as a meeting place for so many different forces which are expressed within it as impressions are received.

That sentence, in its essence, sums up the truth of the situation. I construct an entity which I refer to as “myself,” and I drive it with an engine called the ego, but it is a construct; a veneer layered over depths that are filled with a lifetime.

The conjunction, the totality of all of the results of what has taken place up until now, might rightly be expected to have some kind of clarity, but it doesn't. My being is in shadow. Efforts to grasp it invariably result in failure; yet all of it is there, just not in an organized form that is tangible.

This is because I am partial. The only thing that ever brings me together into a place that seems more real is the genuine participation of emotion. All of the connection between the body and the mind that one likes, in the form of sensation, can take place, and yet there is the distinct impression that this is not enough–that it is inadequate.

Only in making the effort to be in relationship with others does emotion truly enter. It's interesting to me to see the sense of organic satisfaction and the truth of the moment when I discover myself in relationship with another human being. At that moment, it's possible to see the rightness of relationship with others; it's also possible, sometimes in minute detail, to see all of the egoistic engines and tricky machinations that inevitably deploy themselves in the midst of relationships, all of which are turned either towards making people like me, or getting something from them.

A number of contradictions arise here, because it's possible to see both the higher, more impartial impulse, and the lower one, simultaneously, if one makes the effort within the moment.

We truly do find ourselves poised between two worlds.

One of those worlds is an inner world that draws me deeply into myself; the other one is an outer world that draws me inexorably out of myself. It's much easier for me to firmly place myself in one or the other world than to sense them both at the same time. Why is that? I don't know.

What seems certain to me is that there has to be a way to discover a unity that includes and blends all of the many different elements in this universe I refer to as myself. And what seems equally certain is that I cannot accomplish this alone. I need help.

This time of year–the Christmas season–is when Christians worldwide remind themselves, figuratively and literally, that we need help in order to become something more real. The season reminds us, furthermore, that the exact nature of that help is a mystery, and even has some perhaps magical and mythological qualities to it. This characteristic is shared in common with almost every major religious movement. Only atheists–the tiniest of minorities on this planet–believe that human beings can exist without this understanding.

I need to truly understand, with the deepest part of my being, that I need such help, and I need to discover how to call for it from within parts of myself that are usually silent–parts that can, in fact, from their silence itself issue a call to a quality from a higher level which can help inform my effort.

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

transaction and gravity

One of the things that I've noticed lately, as I study the way I am and how my reactions take place, is that I prepare what I am about to say before it is said. That is to say, I see myself forming the words, and then out they come. I always have a question about this; is there any possibility of true spontaneity, or are we always pre-formulating the way we manifest?

I have stopped here and I'm trying to find an open place, a place from which to speak that isn't pre-formulated. Yet with every hesitation, the formulation enters. There is an inability to be truly spontaneous, to be within the moment.

We speak a great deal about being in the moment, having attention, being free, and so on, but this appears to be rare. We are for the most part imprisoned by our formulations and what is already here. How to escape from it?

One of the observations I made earlier this week is that most of what we do in life is transactional. Ego-based manifestations are transactional. That is to say, there is a giving, and a receiving; I offer this, I get that back; you say this, I say that, and so on. All of these are formulated; they take place within a framework of commerce, a place of what Mr. Gurdjieff might have called “reciprocal feeding” (although this is perhaps an egregious misuse of his term.)

Evidently, the transactional basis of relationship is necessary; it does, after all, run most ordinary affairs, and I'm not sure at all where we would be without it. Nonetheless, the transactional basis of relationship is mercantile; it presumes we will do such and such or so-and-so, and make a profit. (Let us remind ourselves that there's no shame in this– Mr. Gurdjieff said to his followers in Russia during the revolution, “no matter what happens, we always make a profit.” Although once again, I'm not using the term in quite the way he meant it.)

There is a tacit acknowledgment that this transactional way of being is more or less inevitable, and that we have to participate.

Nonetheless, there is an existential and experiential reality that lies beyond the transactional. One might say that this is the noumenal of existence that lies behind (or beyond) the phenomenal of transaction.

Those of us who search forever hunger after this more sincere and deeper truth, yet we are chronically separated from it by our attraction to, and immersion in, transactional experience.

In order for me to approach the noumenal, the existential, a different center of gravity needs to appear. I don't use those words “center of gravity” allegorically; I mean, literally, a new center of gravity, a physical center of gravity, needs to appear that is quite different than my ordinary experience, which lacks any such center. I can't say much about that that really explains it; there isn't an explanation for such phenomena which "lead to" (or open to) the noumena. They are mysterious; and perhaps that is their foremost and most essential character. The only way to experience them is by experiencing them–I know that sounds stupid, but how else can one say it?

It reminds me of telling people that there is no conceivable way of comprehending what the architecture is like inside the Great Pyramid until one has actually stood there physically in person and seen it for oneself. At that moment, one understands that one is in front of a great mystery, an extraordinary fact that does not fit into anything one knows, and a new kind of awe and respect is born that could never be born from the pictures, the books, and so on.

There is nothing transactional in a moment of that kind; one simply experiences, and is overwhelmed by both the simplicity and of the complexity of the moment, which blend together into a seamless whole that transcends all previous formulations and associations.

It's like that–but of course, it's not like that at all, because we are talking now about something that is outward, and when I speak of the need for a new center of gravity, I speak of something that, in terms of its sensation, may have all the solidity and weight of those huge granite blocks that the pyramid is made of, yet is of nothing more than flesh and blood, and the immediate experience of it.

The availability of a different center of gravity shifts the place where things arise in Being-- and that is, of course, exactly what we are looking for, a different Being. Yet because we are so thought--oriented, and so utterly transactional, we don't suspect that this different Being may not be psychological, in the sense that we understand that term from where we are. It cannot, in fact, be psychological. There is no psychology here; psychology is “the scientific study of the human mind and its functions,” and there is not one human mind at work in this instance of gravity. There are three minds that must participate, and each one of them is quite different.

The blending of these three parts already lies outside my formulations, because my whole life has been led in a partial state, where I don't appreciate, understand, or even conceive of the possibility that exists here.

I am called to a new place within the center of myself, which interacts with a different energy and contains itself within a different understanding of what life is. In a certain sense, formulation as I usually know it–mechanical formulation, which perpetually arises and drives life forward–is disabled. It ceases to be in the driver's seat, even though it is still real and does not go away.

There is no doubt, life can change completely if one works. Living in this tiny corner of the esoteric world called the Gurdjieff work, I often wonder why it is so small, and why so very few of the people I know have any interest whatsoever in discovering that they are not in any way what they think they are, but rather, creatures with a completely different set of sensory possibilities.

It's almost as though we come from a species who was given the ability to drink ambrosia day and night, and chooses instead to drink mud.

Oh, well. Bottoms up!

May our prayers be heard.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Worship

One of the generalized understandings in all the major religions is a requirement of worship.

This--to me-- is understood to mean offering praise and thanksgiving upwards towards the higher, towards the Lord. We can cite hundreds of thousands-- probably even millions–of examples of artistic achievement and music which were specifically created with this aim in mind. One could argue, in fact, that most of the great works of art and music in man's history have this aim. (Which makes me wonder what the atheists would leave us with, if they had their way.)

The act of worship is central to all the major religions. It doesn't, however, seem to hold a strong place in our esoteric practice. This morning I found myself asking why.

In the Gurdjieff work, the form of worship we most often encounter–unfortunately, I'm going to have to say this, squirm as much as you like–is the worship of group leaders and elders. My own group leader Betty Brown frequently told me before she died that she found this devotion to the hierarchy and to supposedly more “developed” individuals both counterproductive and distressing.

Gurdjieff himself saw the strong temptation, in all of his followers, to lean on him for their work. He famously found ways to send them away in order to put an end to this, which engendered much subsequent gossip, badmouthing, and misunderstanding.

We are not any different today. The "hero culture," in which the older members of the work (and those who have passed on) are better than us, wiser than us, more spiritually adept than us, is alive and well. We doubt ourselves and believe our “superiors,” rather than–as Gurdjieff advised us--doubting our superiors and believing in ourselves.

Once broached, this question of worship and its place in inner and work naturally expands beyond the narrow horizon of hierarchies and temporal authority.

We rarely, if ever, hear about praising the Lord in this work. We ask for things constantly; “Lord have mercy” is a mantra.

We want to receive. We want to create alignment in us that allows us to become an embodiment of a higher power, at least for a moment.

We ask, ask, ask.

I think this is probably correct. There is no doubt that we have to ask a great deal. But we also have to offer. We need to offer praise and thanksgiving as often as possible in the practice of our daily life. Not publicly, in church–I am speaking of that offering which takes place inwardly, both silently–without any words–and also actively, with words, in which one intentionally gives thanks, according to one's inner inclinations, impressions, and understanding.

When I discussed this with my wife this morning, she had confessed that she can't recall any discussion of this subject in the Gurdjieff work, either now, or in the past. And neither can I. I find this peculiar, seeing as this has become such a spontaneous and ingrained practice on my own part. I can't recall anyone else in the Gurdjieff work ever having told me that this is a daily practice for them.

Am I off my rocker? Am I the only person who discovers this active within me? Is this some aberrant attraction towards pedestrian religious practice which I ought to sneer at, being the experienced esotericist that I am?

I know that brother Lawrence (the practice of the presence of God) well understood the spontaneous arousal of prayer within man, the need to offer praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, the rightness of it within the context of daily life and ordinary living. This is an instinct that should arise in human beings naturally, as a consequence of their work. Yet we don't talk about it.

I'm not saying I have the answers for this, and perhaps I'm not even saying that it should be talked about...very much. I truly don't know. I just have these questions about it, and they are active in me right now.

Do we worship? Do we not worship? What is the place of worship? Are we not attentive to this question? Is it unimportant?

This isn't the first time I've spoken thus in this space, although I don't do it very often. That's because the question of offering praise and thanksgiving to the Lord is a highly personal and private activity. There is no way for a man to do this legitimately unless it arises within him of his own volition. If priests and ministers stick it in you, so to speak, it becomes a machine, rather than a living offering. And most certainly, it is the living offering which matters.

When feeling is active, it is possible to be moved in ways that would be artificial and unseemly under any other set of circumstances. It would be very nearly profane, for example, to worship mechanically, just following the formula because we are told to. But when feeling is active, worship is natural, instinctive. It is this understanding I seek to form a relationship with. If and when I do, I understand something quite new about my relationship with the higher.

To be fair, the one way one does hear about this in the Gurdjieff work is when people express gratitude. The feeling (it is indeed a feeling, not an emotional state) of true gratitude is, I think, a big thing. It's the beginning of a direction that might lead towards worship. And the taking in of an impression more deeply, more directly, without any specific words to accompany in it–that, too, is in the right direction, because it is a legitimate offering.

For myself, I often find that actively offering worship in a moment of feeling can help create more of an opening. I'm not sure whether others share that experience or not; perhaps my inner practice is a bit too religious for some to relate to. I don't know.

In any event, it strikes me that although we do have a form (protestations to the contrary notwithstanding) and we do have leaders, seniors, and people with a wonderful understanding, nonetheless, it falls on our own shoulders to discover our own work and our own form of worship.

The relationship with the higher is, after all, intimate, personal, and necessary. It is not, in my experience, a relationship where I get something. That element is present, but it is my ordinary self that constructs all of my transactions in life around that idea. This is a relationship that, when it is active, asks me to offer–not just to offer “something,” but to offer all that I have been, all that I am, and everything I might be, all at one time.

Of course that task is impossible. But, speaking for myself, that is the task that calls me in this life.

May our prayers be heard.


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.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The unformed word

The value and meaning of words is forever in question. They grow out of us as spontaneously as leaves, emerging, collecting energy, feeding something, and then falling behind us. Fertilizer, perhaps, for future ideas and future generations.

I have pointed out before the irony of speaking about the silence that we encounter in our practice. And indeed, we are left with these poor tools to express a quality of experience and life that, by general agreement, is inexpressible. The Zen masters invented koans, so it seems, specifically because they addressed this issue, issuing a challenge to go beyond words with the words themselves.

The deeper the experience, the more inexpressible it becomes. It calls for silence. And yet, perhaps we are reminded of the Yeats poem After Long Silence, which begins,

"Speech after long silence, it is right..."

So: we are called on to speak. We are, in fact, required to speak: silence alone cannot help us to share our search or, perhaps, even discover it for ourselves. In the end, a quality, a vision, an expression must form within us that corresponds to the experience of living.

Gurdjieff and DeSalzmann did not hesitate to express; rather, they expressed consistently, but with great precision and insight. And always leaving an open space for us to walk into as we attempt to penetrate that mysterious world of understanding that they were touched by so deeply.

In posts within the last year, I have spoken about the fact that touch is a language unto itself; that, in fact, we have many languages in us, each one the property of a particular sense. Language, in other words, cannot be restricted to the words alone; in nature, language is a language of chemicals, of photons... of birdsong, of electrical charges and sensory impressions. Man is unique in his reliance on words; all other creatures find different– and perhaps even more potent– mediums in which to express the truth of their existence and exchange with one another.

We are, in fact, filled with all of these languages, just as every other organism. Yet we incessantly rely on the one that you and I are sharing now in order to achieve–attempt, that is, to achieve–an understanding within ourselves and between one another.

Why do we do that? Well, once again–there is a requirement. This is a mystery that needs to be explored, and a question that needs to be asked. Words are necessary. But why?

Even more so, our inner work calls us to recognize that there is an unformed word within us–a "do," a word that begins before the words, a note that is sounded within the context of impression, and before association seizes it. DeSalzmann speaks about this idea in her book, “The Reality of Being.”

We should not, however, think of this as an idea. We should, rather, attempt to experience it as a truth. There is an unformed word. We inhabit it; we live within it. Yet we rarely recognize it or acknowledge it.

What is this unformed word that we wish to come to together? Is there a word for that word that is not a word?

One is tempted to invoke the word love, is one not? And indeed–this is the very word Yeats wrote his poem about.

After Long Silence

Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily Decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

May our prayers be heard.