Monday, April 11, 2011

The blind watch breaker

Regular readers of this space will be familiar with my ongoing concern about how much time we spend using very habitual language to repetitively investigate the question of why we are not present.

If we are not present–as, I think we agree, we are not–we should at a minimum invest our ordinary attention in an effort to see this and be less habitual.

We ought not race past the ordinary requirements of life in our effort to discover the extraordinary: on the contrary, an ordinary attention to the necessary details of life is the essential foundation of practice. Nothing can happen if we don't attend to the ordinary; despite assertions I have heard to the contrary, a failure to respect the ordinary and make legitimate efforts in regard to it potentially invites a profound failure to understand anything real about inner work.

It's exactly this kind of nonsense that leads men to imagine they have psychic superpowers of various kinds. Gurdjieff referred to people of this kind as tramps and lunatics; his model for a solid practice was the obyvatel, the "good householder"-- an ordinary man who sets out to do nothing more but absolutely fulfill his responsibilities, putting him already well above most other people.

Unfortunately, this question of using the ordinary attention–as we must–to investigate the extraordinary produces all kinds of perverse and contradictory results... and we rightly ought to be aware of that.

Despite the fact that it's quite clear ordinary language does not suffice to describe the territory we seek to inhabit, we must continue to use it. Forced to accept the contradiction, we become lax; we use the same words and descriptions over and over again, speaking in a strange kind of code to one another. Our forms of exchange–whether they are religious, esoteric, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or what have you–become hypnotic, and yet we don't see that in the least. We don't even halfway invest our ordinary attention in an effort to be different in this matter. Even worse, perhaps, because we use the same words, we delude ourselves into believing that we share a common understanding, when it is likely that that is anything but the case.

We speak an enormous amount about listening. And it's true, we don't listen; and (ah, yes, welcome to the classic Gurdjieffian "endless list of qualifying statements!") listening also means more than just hearing the words.

However, if we don't listen with our ordinary parts and hear how blatantly repetitive and habitual our exchanges have become, how codified and formulated our words are...

just what are we listening to?

The cosmic all?

Once again, where is our ordinary attention? Do we use it for anything? Or do we treat it as something to be thrown out with the trash, because it's not sufficient for that magical kingdom we are so surely destined to inherit?

Above all, especially in the Gurdjieff work-- but I will hardly exempt the Buddhists, Christians, and the rest of the religious gang from this critique–we pick things apart with the mind and think that we are going to understand them by doing it. Mankind studies this aspect of himself; that aspect; those other aspects he forgot to study the first time, but which need to be studied. An endless number of books get written. An endless number of workshops take place. Everything becomes an act of deconstruction: a picking apart of the situation to look at its insides in bits and pieces. We are blind watch breakers: unable to see anything in the first place, we start taking the watch apart to see what makes it tick, unable to even know it is a watch in the first place.

Above all, we fail to understand that all these little parts we are seeing only have meaning in relationship.

Recently, while participating in events that followed this general course, it occurred to me that what we engage in could be called analytic deconstructionism. We take things apart and analyze them, always forgetting that life is a whole thing. It won't be possible to understand the whole thing by picking it apart-- we even sagely discuss amongst ourselves how we understand that it won't work–, yet we keep doing it.

The Buddhists have a fairly good term for the wholeness of everything: Dharma. This word encapsulates (at least for me; others may feel differently) the idea that everything is composed of a single whole truth. The wholeness of reality is always complete; it is the collapse and failure of our perception that sees it otherwise. We can't separate the ordinary from the extraordinary; they all exist together. We cannot separate sleep from wakefulness; the higher from the lower. They coexist, and any attempt to expunge one another is, at the ultimate level of understanding, impossible. Higher levels contain lower levels. Unity contains disharmony, and so on.

Of course, without an actual experience of this union, everything is theoretical, and we continue to engage in our destructive activities, whereby we pick the world into pieces and think we will gain understanding. Even the best of us, the avatars, are guilty of it.

Something new has to happen. This idea of an organic sense of being, of an investment in life, changes things somewhat. Maybe the first thing that it does is render us less interested in picking things apart. The problem is not in the picking apart; it is in the belief in it, the investment in that, instead of the investment in seeing the connections and the wholeness between things.

This does not mean that we engage in some mushy, vague and imprecise new age activity whereby we just merge with the cosmic all. Of course, it is true that the ordinary attention is not enough. It is, however, necessary: necessary, but not sufficient. The mind: by this I mean the intelligence, the attention, must become a more precise tool, whereby we inhabit the reality we encounter, experiencing it in a different way.

Information and our understanding of what is needs to change. Information is what is inwardly formed.

What is inwardly formed cannot be transformed without the participation and action of a different kind of energy, which does not belong to this level.

This is lucidly illustrated in the enneagram, which contains most–if not all–of the information, inwardly formed understanding, that a man needs in order to see what is necessary for transformation. So much of what is needed for inner work is so properly and objectively defined in this diagram that it fairly boggles the mind. Nonetheless, for most of us, it remains little more than an attractive looking symbol with some odd and intriguing properties, in the end having little or no real connection to our experience of ourselves.

Let me speak frankly and say that this should not be the case.

Perhaps the difficulty is that this information is not so readily accessible. It would take effort to understand it, and generally speaking, we shy away from work by copping out and claiming that nothing can be understood, there is no understanding, everything is a question, etc., etc.

"Understanding" of that kind is quite false–what Dogen probably would have called “non-Buddhist thinking”–and yet it is easy to sell, because it lets us off the hook. We can continue to be vague and insubstantial and touchy-feely.

Perhaps the greatest trap is that being touchy-feely is in fact very important. It is just that doing so without the clear direction of an active mind, one which is more invested in union than dissection, leads one into all kinds of bear traps. We start out wanting to make what Gurdjieff would have called "super-efforts," and end up lying on the couch with the remote in our hands.

Don't get me wrong. Everyone deserves to spend some time lying on the couch with the remote in their hands. The issue here is that one cannot afford to take up residence there as a permanent lifestyle.

We live in a universe of law. That is not a vague and insubstantial proposition. There is a relentless and precise demand put in front of us.

It does not exclude an obligation to the ordinary.

We would all do well to ponder that for a while.

May our prayers be heard.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.