The ascetic believes that he must purify his inner state through deprivation; the paring away of attachments to the senses, the elimination of the mind, extinguishing of thought, etc.
The Puritan believes that she must purify her outer state through deprivation, the refusal of lusts and passions, food, the swearing off of materialism, and so on.
Either way, there is a presumption that separation from the world is what is necessary. The world is impure; life is impure, our thoughts are impure, our bodies are impure, and so on. One way or another, through an inner or an outer action, there must be a rite of purification; only a burning fire, and immolation of everything that is, can leave the residual gold we seek so earnestly. Eh?
This paring away, this lopping off of leaves, twigs, and branches, is a mistaken approach. What is impure is, in fact, my selectiveness: my opinions, my partiality, my tendency to shy away from everything. In point of fact, it is my avoidance of relationship with myself that creates an impure state. (Here I come back once again to the esoteric meaning of the first conscious shock, overcoming the fear of the self.)
What is required is not deprivation; the narrowness of how I am in relationship to life is at the root of the problem. What is required is a new kind of allowing–a kind of suffering. To suffer, after all, does mean to allow, although we usually let our associations tell us that it means to feel pain of one kind or another.
Yet it is impossible that the Lord has an active wish for us to intentionally feel pain in order to complete ourselves spiritually, isn't it? He has no need for a cult of masochists. Yes, flagellants believe such things; one can wear hair shirts, or whip oneself. But this does not seem to be a right path: it has no respect for the body or its actual requirements. The early church fathers certainly believed in mortification of the flesh and denial of the body, yet we can see that Mr. Gurdjieff practiced nothing of the sort.
What, then, to make of it?
There is a point on the path where one begins to discover that to allow, to take life in with a generosity that actually refuses to deny anything, is in fact an enormous kind of suffering. The impressions that are trying to find their way into us, to penetrate us to the very marrow of our bones, are on such a scale and of such an enormity that we are absolutely unable to tolerate them. To serve for even a moment in a true state of openness is to drink so much sorrow and so much joy (they are no different from one another) at one time that one's cup does run over–one sees how great the task we are called to is, and how utterly unable we are to meet it in any capacity we ought – even though we have both the equipment and the ability.
I stand on the threshold of a draught that encompasses all of reality; yet even the slightest taste of it overwhelms me. I cannot do something as simple as meet my daughter's eye, face-to-face, for more than a moment, because the vastness of the space created by the simple fact of our existence together is so great I fall into it like a single atom plunging itself into an incomprehensible sea.
I'm afraid to see that; I am afraid to be in relationship with my life, with others, with myself, because to do so calls me down to the ground floor of my own humanity over and over again, moment after moment, in a way that creates an anguish and a joy unfathomable, and not digestible in any ordinary state I know.
Yet I must continue to put myself in front of this place where, as Jeanne de Salzmann would say, I see my lack.
I see, perpetually standing on this threshold of glory, how unable I am to stand in the face of this magnificent experience we call life and accept it without the deprivation; to allow it to enter me.
If I look closely enough, I see that my fear actually engenders an attitude of deprivation; sleep itself is self-deprivation.
I am afraid to live, even though the opportunity is in front of me at every moment. It is much more convenient, much easier, to deny myself life and turn away from it. And it is even more terrifying to see how much I want to run away from what is.
It is as though a man stood in front of the gates of heaven with the keys to the Kingdom already in his hand, and said, "No–I will not enter."
If nothing else brings me to the moment where I call out to the Lord for mercy, this much surely will.
May our prayers be heard.