Monday, August 15, 2011

A technical work

Is the path to God a technical work? To be technical means "to do with art-" the "skillful means" of the Buddhist.

Over thousands of years, mankind has produced an endless series of technical treatises about heightened awareness and the approach to the consciousness of what we call God. Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Gurdjieffians, Muslims– everyone's in on it. There are tens of thousands of competing sets of how-to instructions, ancient to modern.

However, if you're a man–a male of the human species, that is–you are probably accustomed to starting up computer programs or assembling mechanical devices without reading the manual, and expecting them to work anyway. You fish your way through, and because of a combination of experience and intuition, things often work. (Sometimes, they don't.)

So it seems that for many of us, our natural instincts instruct us to skip the instructions, yet we still produce them ad infinitum.

Gurdjieff never wrote what one might call his own technical instruction book. He certainly gave a plethora of technical instructions to P. D. Ouspensky, who wrote them down in In Search Of The Miraculous, but his own "instruction book"–Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson–isn't an instruction book at all. It's a mythology. It may be popular with academics and other intellectual types to characterize mythologies as abstract sets of instructions, but mythologies by their very nature are meant to be intuited and speak to the unconscious part of the mind, not dissected and rationally analyzed. So if they are instructions, they're neither linear nor literal.

The notable divergence of these two texts, which are different in both content and character, has led to what one might call competing versions of Gurdjieff's teachings. Ouspensky, to some, is the purist–remaining faithful to the original teaching and its technical nature; to others, the heart and soul of the teaching lies in Gurdjieff's emotive and mystical writings and personal teachings, which do not subject themselves to facile explanations--or to reductionist comparatives to Ouspensky.

Here's the problem in a nutshell: when it comes to mysticism, technical works don't actually work. If they did, the planet would be overflowing with Enlightened Beings. Hmm? And it's not- au contraire, mankind is very deep in galoshes indeed.

The knowing of God is an effort to know an unknown which cannot be known, and every technical approach ends up being one more brick in a tower of Babel. Mystical Christian texts (the most important and vital of which are, in my limited and inexpert opinion, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Practice of the Presence of God, and Meister Eckhart's teachings) certainly take this into account, and Zen Buddhist texts (my personal pick is, as always, Dogen's Shobogenzo- read it all, don't cherry-pick it) are all founded on the premise that the knower must go beyond knowing. This certainly doesn't submit itself to technical analysis or techniques. Yet we persist in attraction to them.

The knowing of the unknown involves, inevitably and foremost, the unknowing of the known, and everything technical is known, or at the very least suggests that we can know (the ultimate arrogance of humanity's intellectualism being the presumption that with enough effort, anything can be known.)

On the contrary, for mystics, the world must, in a sense, become unknown to them, but this is a different kind of unknowing: it is not an unknowing born of ignorance. Intelligence must still be present. So there is a mystery-- and an apparent contradiction-- here.

The Lord does not wish for me to be born in ignorance or to live in ignorance. The wish is, instead, for the soul to be born in presence and to live within presence--including the intelligence, which is in fact essential to the process. Meister Eckhart advises thus:

“...the Eternal Word is spoken internally in the heart of the soul, in the most interior and purest part, in the head of the soul, of which I have recently spoken, in the intellect." (Sermon # 2, from Oliver Davies' Meister Eckhart, Selected Writings, Penguin Classics, 1994 P. 113)

When I speak of a "work within life," which is a common and compelling theme in the Gurdjieff practice, I thus don't speak of a technical work. I speak of an organic work, of a work in motion, of a work in sensation and intuition. Breaking it down into constituent parts and trying to glue them back onto or into my experience of life may be how I begin–of course, that is how Ouspensky understood it–but it can never be where I end. The Lord has given me a whole life, not many small pieces that I need to stick back together for Him. When I engage in a technical work, I am Humpty Dumpty. I have fallen off the wall, and then create a cohort of King's horses and King's men to try and reassemble my fragments.

How can I bring a work of living into the fullness of life? Perhaps I cannot. There are no manuals; there are no bargains to be made or prayers to be traded. Everything within me must be unconditionally offered, without expectation. This truly requires the surrender of the cohort.

And in surrender, no army knows what will come next. That is why surrender is feared: I rely absolutely on the mercy of what I surrender to.

I lack trust; I don't surrender. Here, perhaps, are the very horns of the dilemma itself.

May our prayers be heard.

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