Saturday, October 15, 2011

Street Level

It occurred to me during the course of this trip that I am just over a month away from the 5th anniversary of the ZYG enterprise. Starting out as it did–a tiny effort, almost ridiculously small and insignificant in its scale, and as wrinkled and helpless as any infant when it emerged–it's surprising to me that I am still writing these essays. It turns out, more than anything else, that I write them to myself–to organize my impressions and thoughts about this effort we call inner work, to collect observations, to express experience. Undertaken publicly, however, the experience undergoes a transformation, because a general public who I do not know and will for the most part definitely never meet reads these essays and incorporates them into their own impressions of daily life.

It's important to remember that we are all down here at street level together. I don't know how you feel about it, but as I grow older, I increasingly see that every single human being I encounter becomes a teacher for me in one way or another–the ones I love, the ones I hate, the ones that have done good things for me, and the ones who have done things that objectively harmed me. If I have a real sense of my life, an organic sense of life, I see how everything I receive is food for growth. There is an attitude we can adopt where we constantly seek the value in what takes place, not the stories of personal adversity we often prefer to feed ourselves.

And there is a point of work where we begin to understand what is meant by the phrase, "above all, do no harm." So, as Zen master Dogen often used to say at the end of his Dharma hall discourses, "I respectfully ask you to take good care."

The other night, my wife and I were talking about the difference between the Gurdjieff work say, 20 years ago, and today. She mentioned that all the luminaries are dying. That is to say, almost all of the people who knew Gurdjieff personally are dead. (We are fortunate enough to know some very few who are still alive, but the number is tiny.) Most of the so-called "great leaders"–and some of them truly were great–are dead. Although there are people of enormous quality in this work today, and leading it–all of whom are, rightfully, owed deep respect for their effort, intelligence, and sensitivity (as well as their inevitable lack of those qualities, at times, a disease that affects all of us)–we do not, I think it would be agreed, have teachers of the caliber of Jeanne de Salzmann to sit in front of us and lead us. While those teachers can still send influences from other levels, this is rare and a quite different thing which can't be transmitted except to individuals.

This leaves us with an organization stripped of its charismatics, stripped of its visionaries, humbled to a fault, and forced to confront the realities of its own existence under the harsh conditions of present-day life. This is a good thing; the community becomes an organism that pulls together on its own and generates the value that was once left to individuals who shouldered a greater part of the burden for all of us. On the other hand, there is no lightning rod to gather around; we are left with the individual efforts of the community, and that alone.

In the same way that every age creates its own myth of a Golden age, every life creates its own myth of a golden life. There aren't any golden ages, and there are no golden lives; any reasonable student of history eventually reaches this conclusion. We have this age and these lives, and dreaming about alternatives is pointless. To get back to my original example, it's easy enough for anyone to see that efforts like my essays are, for all intents and purposes, trivial–and yet the effort of any single bacteria is trivial. I am nothing more than a bacteria–I may dream of glory, but there isn't really any glory available to bacteria. All of us are tiny creatures.

Glory does not belong to us.

This morning, while I was sitting, it occurred to me that it would be a big thing to just do the job of a bacteria. To not expect anything, to not aggrandize this life or its conditions or possibilities, but to just work. To just meet life as best possible, within the intimate, sensitive, carefully examined context of inner work, understanding that little or nothing may be possible, and, to steal a phrase, this may be as good as it gets.

Is it up to me to decide what would be good? Knowing my propensity for self will, if angels came down and put the kingdom of Heaven in front of me on a golden platter later today, I might well refuse it. That's how I am. It may be a unique condition, but I somehow doubt it. It strikes me that this condition is probably very close to where almost all of us are.

There's an Old Testament quality to this life. We are born into it, and we watch the mighty fall. It's a consistent theme in the Bible; readers of Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson will take note that it's a consistent theme in that book, too. We are all, together, participating right now in the end of an age of Empire, where the schemes of the rich and powerful to defraud the rest of us are being exposed, and it has become apparent that the emperor is naked.

It's all very amusing, in a certain perverse sense, to see this play out on the world stage. One is tempted to self righteously puff oneself up and say, "I told you so." What I don't stop to consider is that this passion play, this farce, is just a mirror of what goes on inside me. If I truly saw that, and truly understood, in anything more than the glimpses I get on a daily basis, how different everything would be.

The image came to me this morning of a man taking apart a temple, a pyramid, a magnificent structure reaching to the heavens–carefully, and with a quiet attention, taking one brick after another, walking down the temple stairs, and neatly stacking each brick on the ground.

In the process, as the Temple is taken down, an open space is cleared where it once stood.

Plants and flowers move in; then trees. Birds and insects come to live where the Temple stood; and instead of a powerful edifice of bare stone, a symbolic representation of some higher idea of life-- now the space is filled with much smaller things:

Rich new impressions of actual lives being lived.

May our prayers be heard.