Tuesday, November 29, 2011


While chatting about time (which is seemingly the subject of the week, or perhaps month, or even year) this evening, a delightful irony occurred to me.

I've spoken before about the fact that Gurdjieff's God was not a God of unlimited power. He has, for example, no absolute control over time. Yet, even though time brings an end to everything (a fact which Gurdjieff's name for it, the Merciless Heropass, alludes to) he chose to refer to God as His Endlessness throughout Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson. Not only did he do this, but he introduced a cosmology in which God creates the universe because time is eroding the substance of his place of existence. The obvious inference is that this could bring God to an end.

So here we have a God referred to as His Endlessness, confronted with an even greater force that appears to be able to bring about His Ending. This strikes me as an exquisite and intentional irony: and no accident on the part of Gurdjieff. The very foundation of his cosmology itself was deliberately planted in dualistic thinking on the grandest of all possible scales: endlessness, or infinity, and zero, or, the erosion and disappearance of everything that infinity relies on in order to manifest.

Trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis  of His Most Holy Eminence's absolute endlessness and the ultimate, Heropassian threat of nothingness,  God is forced to create a universe: a third force that mediates between the two original opposing forces. The universe, moreover, is not just a static object: it is a series of events in motion, a relationship.

Or, if you will (and Gurdjieff also says this) a machine.

This relationship is, furthermore, a force based on awareness. The very act of awareness itself, the act of seeing, is already the whole force that sustains and extends the life of the universe. (Are we asked to subscribe to the anthropomorphic principal? Au contraire; because it isn't all about man. The very matter of the universe is a mediator of consciousness in and of itself; consciousness permeates it at every level.)

 In other words, the universe is third force. Material reality and its expression of consciousness is third force. To say that mankind is “third force blind” is to say that man does not understand his relationship to material reality and his own expression of consciousness. Instead of living within, of inhabiting, his awareness, he stands outside of it, in a peculiar separation from his natural place and state.

Jeanne de Salzmann was famous for asking pupils to see their lack. In doing so,  what does our existence consist of, and where is our attention located in it? We have thought: the intellect, the thinking center; and we have matter, the material world, the “body” of the universe. We are usually just stuck in our thoughts. Or, we are gratifying the pleasures of the flesh, and what needs to take place is stopped in our bodies. The mind and the body–thought and matter–do not come together. Even if they do, something is missing; there ought to be a glue that holds all of this together, but it's not there.

What is it?

The driver shows up and climbs onto his carriage; but there is no horse. It has wandered off. The driver, impressed with his carriage, doesn't spend much time thinking about the fact that it can't go anywhere without a horse. After all, it's one terrific carriage.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that what is lacking is feeling. The sensitivity of emotion that could connect our thinking process with the material of our aliveness is not present. We need to see our lack, to be in front of that question over and over again, and understand that the reconciling force–"the universe"–needs to be created in us.

It needs to be in movement.

It needs to be made of feeling.

 In this way, we are responsible for the recapitulation, during our lifetime, of the entirety of Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson. It is not just an allegorical tale about the universe and earth; it is a mirror in which the life of a single man, from birth to death, is reflected.

 I respectfully ask you to take good care.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Be the grass

This morning, I was pondering the role of time, and ended up reading part of Dogen's Uji,  or, “existence–time.”

 In the Tanahashi translation (Shambhala, 2011), we hear:

“Know that in this way there are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses [all things] throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth. The study of this is the beginning of practice."
"When you are at this place, there is just one grass, there is just one form; there is understanding of form and beyond understanding of form; there is understanding of grass and beyond understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time being is all the time there is. Grass being, form being, are both time. Each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.”

 Because Dogen routinely presents sophisticated ideas, and because his arguments appear to be dense and complex, one tends to be drawn towards an abstract, or intellectual, analysis.

 Yet I think that the whole point of his arguments is to defeat such an approach. His ubiquitous, self-reflective dialectic isn't meant as a de facto call to complexity; rather, it is to point our own complexity out to us, calling our attention to the fact that we are perpetually trapped in dualistic complications. His words and statements, one after another, throughout his teaching, morph into koans. Each one tries to point beyond the dualism that we know, the affirming and denying, towards a third force–a force of reconciliation–that we are not sensitive to. Gurdjieff, one may recall, indicated that man is “third force blind.” We are unaware of this reconciling factor, which could otherwise make the world whole.

So there is nothing academic or intellectual about this passage. We are called, rather, to a sensitive and emotional moment: and in this translation, the point has been deftly realized by referring to grass. (The Nishijima & Cross translation,which has its own transcendental moments, does not quite rise to the occasion in the same way this time.) Associations are called forth: the green color of grass, the delicacy of grass, its tenderness, flexibility, suppleness. The way that grass cover surfaces gently, its movement in wind, the ability of grass to be composed of myriad forms (blades) and yet be one thing, acting together, seen together, experienced together.

Buried deep in this teaching- in all of Dogen's teachings- are body, blood, bones and marrow, not just of the intellect, but of an emotional opening.

We are called to a simple moment, a moment that has nothing to do with trying to figure things out. We are called to this immediate moment. We are called to a relationship with grass, to form-  to a relationship with both our inability to understand form and the existence of form itself. Our awareness becomes a bridge in which we inhabit both the condition and our failure to understand the condition. ( I am reminded of my conversation with my daughter last night, in which she pointed out that for Kant, the sublime– the quality of spiritual purity or excellence–begins with our failure, our inability, to comprehend... "the study of this is the beginning of practice.")

We discover feeling.

 An emotional opening to the quality of grass and the existence of form brings us to a moment where wholeness is possible. Nothing is left out of the present moment. We are called to understand– and do not understand– the present moment, at the same time. Our understanding lies– as the understanding of Socrates lay– in being neither wise with our wisdom, nor stupid with our stupidity, but being just as we are.

"The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless." (Plato: The Collected Dialogues, Apology, p. 9, Hamilton & Cairns, Princeton University Press, 1989)

Hence we discover blades of grass that gather themselves together in a landscape: Zen Masters,  German philosophers, wise Greeks. All of them understanding that while we try, and while we fail, we still inhabit the wholeness of all the forms we know– and that this wholeness comprises an ineffable truth that cannot be denied.

Jeanne de Salzmann calls us back over and over to this act of seeing, this act of inhabiting the moment. Nothing is left out of the present moment. We do not need to change the present moment. The need is for the present moment to be seen.

It is not the present moment, its nature, or its content, that distracts us from experience and relationship; the present moment, its nature, and its contents are completely valid and true. They need not change; only our relationship to them must change.

Don't think about the grass... be the grass.

 I respectfully ask you to take good care.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Today is the fifth anniversary of this space.

 Most of us are “out there” looking for something. For the greater part, humanity devotes its search to material rewards: money, sex, power, and so on. Yet there are those of us who don't feel that these things can ever fully satisfy a person; we go poking about in obscure places to try and understand obscure things.

One might say this blog is one of those obscure places, asking such questions.  A waste of time, some would say; yet for those of us who understand such matters, it is the only way to spend time profitably.

This was a year that shook my own world down to the foundations; years like this are valuable, because once the earthquake is over, the landscape is reconfigured, and it is no longer possible to navigate based on previous assumptions. New questions arise; old ones, which may have been around so long they began to exert a hypnotic effect, drop off.

I see once again that I don't in the least know who I am, where I am, or what I am doing.

I remember that Dr. Welch had two favorite ways of opening meetings. One was to ask us, in his gravelly voice (weighted down with gravitas, yet invariably sensitive and gentle): “Why don't we work?”  The other one was to ask us, “Why do we work?” ...He managed to do this without ever posing as though he knew the answer.

 I used to live next to Calvary Cemetery in Queens, NY. For those of you who don't know the territory, it is a landscape in the middle of one of the most densely populated urban areas on earth, punctuated with tens of thousands of tombstones.

As in all cemeteries, every one of those stones marks an ego. That's where all the egos end up: silent, in the earth, swallowed up and forgotten.

Think on this.

There is something more in life. There is the possibility of relationship. The possibility of a new relationship, something different than ego. We won't put a name on it. It doesn't matter what it is called, because it is actually nameless. It is a process, a living thing, born of the ability of the organism to receive.

A man has to have an aim. When the earth shakes and the buildings fall down; when the floodwaters roar in and suck everything away; when the only thing left is to breathe and know that we are alive, we are much closer to knowing what our aim might be. In any event, to a certainty, we are closer to knowing what it isn't. We must lose the world if we want to see the world.

 Last night, after the Thanksgiving meal was over, and my family was in the kitchen washing the dishes, I went up the hill behind our house to check on the chickens and close up the coop for the night.

Pausing for a moment on the way back down, I stared out past branches, now bare of leaves in late November, and set my eyes to a sky yielding its last sunlight.

Night ever gives the land back to more distant stars, who will watch over it past the time of man.  No matter how fallen we are, every soul knows this when it turns its eyes towards heaven.

Somehow, hovering in the air– which is just beginning to acquire the exhilarating, sharp edge of winter– I could sense the presence of my sister: a long way away, and moving outwards towards unknown destinations. She is not completely gone yet, but she is slowly saying goodbye– speaking not in words, but in the language of time and seasons.

I'm going to leave readers today with the text of the requiem I read at my sister's funeral a month ago.

Requiem for Sarah Hansen

In moments like this I seek explanations
But my explanations break down.

I try to philosophize
But my philosophies break down.

I try to rationalize
But my rationalizations break down.

The only thing that does not break down is love.

The love of parents and children is tested. The love of brothers and sisters is tested. And the love of mankind is tested. But although love is eternally tested, it never breaks. The love of God for His creation does not break. No matter how many times love is tested, I repeatedly come to moments where I see that although I am weak, and my own love is weak, love itself is not weak, and it does not break.

For years, almost every day, I’ve climbed the same hill alongside the Hudson River with my dog. Last saturday, the day after Sarah died, I was climbing the hill and realized that it was the first time in my life I had ever climbed the hill without my sister in the world.

That thought stopped me two thirds of the way up the hill, just as I cleared the treetops to a spot where the sun shone through, filtered through afternoon clouds. It filled the sky with what seemed like the radiance of the soul.

I stood in that light and looked into that light, which was a light of truth and a light of hope, and I called out to Sarah,

“You are loved.”

We all carry our stories of Sarah in us, whatever they are, countless stories. There are too many to tell. All these fragments of memory help to make the fabric of life real, but what makes the fabric whole is love.

Sarah loved and was loved, and we’re all here to testify to that love, which doesn’t die, but lives on in each passing moment.

There is that love in all of us; and there is also the perfect Love of God, accompanying every act and circumstance of creation- even the terrible ones which we don’t want, and can’t understand.

Where situations are impossible and words fail, love suffices.

With that love, I remember Sarah’s passion; the wild cards she played, and her effort to struggle through a lifetime of chronic pain, yet still raise a family and find time for work and joy. I remember her creativity. I remember her courage and her crazy, irreverant sense of humor. I remember the way she filled the whole room with her own unique energy of life.

How can we speak of a life like this?

Words aren't enough. But love is enough.

Love is the best we have. It is made of ten thousand impossible things, so it is stronger than the possible. It will always be the foundation on which every memory of Sarah rests.
There is no foundation greater than this; it is a good one, which time and death have no power over.

Sarah, we love you.

One last note to readers.

 Those few who have followed this space for years will know that every year, on the anniversary, I change the sign off phrase for the blog.

For the last year, the sign off has been, “May our prayers be heard.” For the next year, I'm going to steal a phrase from Dogen, who sometimes ended his Dharma Hall discourses with the following phrase:

 I respectfully ask you to take good care.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gurdjieff and Buddhism

Some days ago, a passing visitor to this space intimated that Gurdjieff's teaching "had nothing to do with Buddhism."  This astonishing remark made me wonder what  the average person actually knows about the Gurdjieff teaching... next to nothing, it would seem.

Leaving aside the fact that nearly the entire contents of chapter 21 in his magnum opus, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, deals with the teachings of Buddha, and that one of the most important concepts in Gurdjieff's teaching– intentional suffering– was, according to him, originally introduced by Buddha, we find myriad connections between Gurdjieff and Buddhist practices.

One of the most important figures in Beelzebub's Tales is Ashieta Shiemash, a heavenly representative  sent to Earth by His Endlesness. During Sheimash's era, mankind was introduced to the five obligolnian strivings. These tenets for sound living were meant to awaken the divine function of genuine Conscience.

The first obligolnian striving, “to have in one's ordinary being existence everything satisfying and really necessary for the planetary body” ( Page 352, Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson, Second Edition) is very nearly identical to Buddha's advice in the sermon at Benares, "...to satisfy the necessities of life is not evil. To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we will not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom and keep our mind strong and clear.” (The wisdom of China and India, Lin Yutang, Random House, 1942, p. 360.) 

 The second, “To have a constant and unflagging instinctive need to perfect oneself in the sense of Being,” and the third, "the conscious striving to know ever more and more about the laws of world-creation and world maintenance," (ibid) clearly reflect the Buddhist adage to strive constantly to, as Dogen says, "clarify the matter."

The fourth, "from the beginning of one's existence the striving to pay as quickly as possible for one's arising and individuality, in order to be free to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our common father," could well be interpreted as a call to identify, take responsibility for, and alleviate all suffering, up to and including the suffering of God... a distinctly Buddhist proposition, if ever there was one.

 The  fifth striving, "... the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred 'Martfotai' that is, up to the degree of self individuality.” (ibid),  is Gurdjieff's  own version of the Bodhisattva vow.

 Reading through the sermon at Benares, one cannot help but be struck furthermore by the continued emphasis on responsible living: the eightfold path consists of “right views; right aspirations; right speech; right behavior; right livelihood; right effort; right thoughts; and right contemplation.”

 If this is not a recapitulation, in straightforward words, of the entire Gurdjieff practice, there is no practice.

 These are just a few examples; more abound. One can consequently see that it is just as valid to call Gurdjieffian teaching and practice esoteric Buddhism as it is to call it esoteric Christianity.

These similarities were furthermore underscored by the open adoption of Zen Buddhist sitting practices through Jeanne de Salzmann, one of Gurdjieff's most important pupils and the head of the Gurdjieff Work after his death. In today's Gurdjieff practice, Zazen comfortably coexists and interacts with the Christian practice of the Hesychast's Lord have Mercy prayer.

 It's fair enough to say, as Guirdjieff did, that all esoteric works are, at their heart, the same practice. Just as I pointed out that there is only one biology and one chemistry on the planet, so there is only one religion–one possible kind of connection with higher forces– that results from it.

Gurdjieff's Beelzebub masterfully presents this premise not only by parading a succession of enlightened individuals, both known and unknown, from every religion across the stage of its history, all of whom share the same aim, but also by allegorically outlining the scientific biochemical processes that link all of these practices together. If ever there was a single text pointing towards a way to reunite the world's disparate and dysfunctional religions, this is it.

The fact that it has languished nearly forgotten as an obscure footnote to the world's greatest literature is peculiar. The fact that Gurdjieff is not well known outside esoteric circles, and viewed by turns as an imposter, quack, con artist, heretic, or crank by various mainstream individuals and religious institutions, is equally peculiar.

Here is a man who heroically fused world religious practice and teaching into a single whole–reassembling thousands of years of material that had been abused, changed, manipulated, and misunderstood by generation after generation. His book is a book for our age and our times. His practice is a practice for our age and our times. It is entirely consistent with every major religion, because all of them lie at its heart.

And yes, it's Buddhist.

 May our prayers be heard.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why the universe was created

I'm going to preface this post by warning readers that if they are not familiar with Gurdjieff's teachings, it probably won't make the least bit of sense to you. If not, move on for now (unless you enjoy being challenged); new posts with less specialized material will appear in a few days.

People who are intimately familiar with Gurdjieff's teaching are, however, likely to find this particular proposal to be of interest– so for those of you who are, read on.

It takes a lot of chutzpah (this is a Yiddish slang word meaning, more or less, unbridled arrogance) to say that one knows why the universe was created, but in this particular instance, according to Gurdjieffian cosmology, it appears there may be a very specific reason, and an exact explanation as to why it works that way.

Every reader who is familiar with Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson knows the story about why His Endlessness (aka God) created the universe. It was to counteract the flow of time, which Gurdjieff called the Merciless Heropass.

No complete explanation, however, was given as to exactly why the universe was capable of accomplishing such a feat, although (as you will see) it appears Gurdjieff unabashedly dangled the prospect in front of his readers.  I am going to offer a suggestion based on some fairly obvious deductions.

The matter is elucidated by the known fact that taking in impressions more deeply slows the flow of time to the perceiver.

Long-time practitioners in the Gurdjieff Work have, in many cases, had their own practical experiences with this, and in any event the phenomenon is specifically remarked on in Views From The Real World.

From this point, we can rather easily extrapolate. But before we do so, allow me to remind readers of the principle, “as above–so below.” If this experience functions in this manner in human beings, since we are a model of the universe, so to speak, in miniature, we can reasonably presume that impressions have the same effect on God.

Gurdjieff referred to time as the "unique subjective." (see Beelzebub's tales, pgs. 118-124.) In saying so, he carried on in considerable detail to explain that the perception of time is unique to the observer, in other words, malleable depending on conditions. (This is, by the way, consistent with the Einsteinian view of the flow of time.) One ultimately wonders why he went to such lengths- somewhere around four pages- to make the point.

So here it is, hidden, as it were, in plain sight:

 Because taking in impressions more deeply (i.e., consciously), and in greater quantity, slows the perception of the flow of time, we can understand that the universe was created, and functions as, the perceptive organ for God. It was created in order to change the flow of impressions into the Godhead and thus slow the action of time.

I will forward to you the suggestion that this is the specific action that the well-known trogoautoegocrat, or “law of reciprocal feeding,” cited by Beelzebub manifests.

Consciousness, in all its forms, acts as a sensory tool for His Endlessness to take in impressions, hence the understanding that we are all receivers. The more conscious impressions that God receives through His sensory organ (the universe), and the deeper the impressions are, the more time slows down.

This action effectively extends the life of His Endlessness and the place of His existence.

 Hence the essential responsibility of all living organisms to improve their sensitivity and receive deeper impressions. They benefit not only themselves, but the livelihood of the universe and of God himself, when undertaking this work.  This explains why the task of conscious beings is so essential, and why God needs man as much as man needs God.

Furthermore, nature is designed to extract the maximum number of impressions that it can- whether conscious or unconscious- as deeply as it can, in order to make sure that the uniquely perceived flow of time is slowed to the maximum extent possible. This is why Gurdjieff explained that what nature cannot get in terms of quality, it will extract in terms of quantity. The universe is furthermore constructed in levels so that both conscious and unconscious impressions can be extracted from every level, from the microcosmos to the macrocosmos.

The universe is, in other words, a tool designed for self observation, or, as Gurdjieff called it, self remembering– an activity that even God Himself is engaged in, through the instrument of his creation.

 This particular suggestion offers a further explanation as to why so much emphasis is placed on the action of taking in impressions in Gurdjieff's Work: a unique feature not generally reproduced in other works, and certainly not explained elsewhere in anywhere near the detail that he explained it.

 Seeing human beings–and all conscious organisms, human or otherwise–as particles in the body of God, sensory particles, as so many teachings do, fits rather neatly into this particular suggestion. The point is that the particles in the body of God have a function related to world creation and world maintenance, as Gurdjieff called it.

The third obligolnian striving,  "the conscious striving to know ever more and more about the laws of world creation and world maintenance" (Beelzebub's tales: page 352, second edition) actually refers (among other things) specifically to this question.  The striving consists of an effort to understand the role of the impressions, why we are created to take them in, and the action that they have both in a personal and a universal sense. Students of Gurdjieff's chemical factory (as found in Ouspensky's In Search Of The Miraculous) will notice that the taking in of impressions is capable of creating higher substances that reach all the way, so to speak, to God Himself.  This, too, fits in rather neatly with the critical role impressions play in counteracting the Merciless Heropass.

 I daresay a careful examination of this understanding may lead to explanations for other peculiar yet significant features in regard to this question of impressions, and their unique role in Gurdjieff's cosmology.

I leave it to readers to further ponder the matter, and see whether they think this particular point of view is correct.

May our prayers be heard.


This post is a reflection on Gurdjieff's myth of the creation of the universe, and is not meant to be a reflection by the author on current ideas in contemporary physics, which the reader should understand must inevitably differ from allegorical cosmologies and mythologies. Nor should the reader believe that the author by default subscribes to all of Gurdjieff's unique and unusual cosmological propositions-- although, in his opinion, they are certainly intriguing and most worthy of study.

In Beelzebub, Gurdjieff proposes a God with limitations, that is, a supreme deity nonetheless subject to the action of time, which is a separate entity.  Readers will note this proposal differs substantially from most religious conceptions of God, which propose a transcendental Being, or absolute state of Truth, without such limitations.

 What is perhaps Gurdjieff's most famous commentary on the matter can be found in P. D. Ouspensky's In Search Of The Miraculous,  where the theological student comments that "even God cannot beat the ace of spades with a deuce." (Page 95, Paul Crompton Ltd. Edition, 2004.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Language Of Mindfulness

Late 15th century calligraphic text, Poems of Sa'di and Hafiz 
Metropolitan Museum of New York, Islamic wing

What does it mean to be mindful, to have a conscious practice?

I don't see that almost everything I do begins to fall into habit. Most of what I am consists of imitation and repetition. For example: I hear someone else say something intelligent about their spiritual practice, and the next thing you know, I am repeating the words that they used, and perhaps even the very things that they said. This problem is like an infectious disease; once the virus is in me, it multiplies and spreads both in myself, and to other people.

The next thing I know, everyone around me in my community is saying more or less the same things, using the same words.

In one way, this isn't a bad thing, because commonality helps to build community. But on the other hand, it makes everything too easy for me. I sound like I belong. I sound like I am working in the same way as others. I sound– horrors! –like I know what I am talking about. Others nod their heads in agreement when I use the right words and say the right things.

All of this is just a cleverer way of falling asleep. My language practice, like the rest of me, also needs to be conscious and sensitive. That is to say, I need to use my own words to describe my own experience–not just lean on the associations I encounter like a crutch. This requires a certain presence of Being. The thinking part needs to actively engage and precisely see what it is saying, at the same time that a sensation of the body is maintained. The feeling part needs to be used carefully gauge the relationship between the body and the mind, and intuit the intelligence that is necessary to, in the moment, say something that is both precise, accurate, and original.

Of course this is a quite difficult practice. How much easier it is to just say the right things and sound like other people!

I fall into habits so easily that I don't see they are habits. This is, in fact, the whole point of understanding my habits– that I am completely identified with them. I presume them to be creatures emanating from a source of awareness, when in fact, they aren't.

Once formed, habits deftly camouflage themselves as awareness practices. This is why I need to be on my toes– to practice as if my hair were on fire– in order to remain active. If my hair is on fire, I am dancing around, swatting at it, looking for water, rolling on the ground– in other words, I am not taking a single approach: I am in constant movement, attempting to extinguish the flames.

 Mindfulness can extend, in its intricacy, to the immediate use of language within the moment. In order to do this it is necessary to observe exactly how I am– insofar as I can determine that– within a given moment, as I speak. If I keep a close attention to what I say, and I am in the middle of it as it is said, I am much less likely to lose track of what I am saying. This kind of precise insight does not need to be a technical exercise– it is on the order of what is absolutely necessary in life- that is, my response.
Michel de Salzmann mentions that “what really defines and shows us a man is his response.” (Two Essays," pg. 6, Michel de Salzmann, Morning Light Press, 2011.)

In general, I'm often lazy about the use of language. I frequently see myself adapting the language of others, using it in a mirroring process that helps form bonds with others, but otherwise demands very little of me. It's much easier to engage in this habit than to attempt to use language precisely and with an active intelligence. To do so is to engage in a practice of the mind much like the Gurdjieff movements: one must be in the moment, one must see the movement of the mind, one must participate. This participation in response– an active participation– is a measurement of how present we are.

It's useful to watch the use of language for other reasons. It can help me see what parts of me are active. For example, when I attend carefully to the language I'm using, I can sense it in my body; I can see whether it is habitually associative, whether it is emerging mostly from the emotional part, whether it is entirely in the head, while the there is a grounding element– a kind of inner gravity– that connects it to the body. All of this can be an interesting study, but it requires a close attention that is not at all necessary when I speak. Speaking comes out of my machine without prompting; it is easy, it is automatic, it is mechanical.

In fact, if I'm fortunate enough to have a bit of presence, I may be able to observe myself speaking and see that the process usually comes out of a part that is probably not much more intelligent than a computer. My habitual parts are quite able, and know how to respond to 99% of what takes place in life without any need for active participation. That other 1%–

that is where the rubber meets the pavement.

How can I use a more active intelligence to become more precise in my language, in the moment?

May our prayers be heard.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Thirty years ago today, I got up in the morning and looked at myself in the mirror and realized that if I kept drinking the way I had been drinking, I would die young.

I saw death looking at me in the mirror that day. That's the only explanation. It was a clear and distinctive impression, and I can still remember it. I haven't had a drop of alcohol since that day.

I wanted to share that with readers, because we all need to know that death is inevitable, and that we need to be clear about this. The decisions we make in life should be directly related to that question.

One doesn't want to die having failed to live responsibly. To do so is, as Gurdjieff said,  to “to die like a dog.”

  I thought I'd write a few notes today about the role of the centers we don't talk about much– sex center and instinctive center. They are, after all, part of the “lower” complex of centers, and yet, when we speak of inner work, we speak of three centered work–intellect, emotion, moving center (i.e, the body.) The place where sex center and instinctive center fit in isn't immediately apparent– nor does anyone give instructions for how to work with them... well, it's true; there are instructions on how to work with sex center in some Tantric disciplines, but that is fairly obscure material for most people.

It's useful to understand that the three centers that man generally works in and lives in–intellect, emotional, and moving center– are, more or less, "sandwiched" between sex center and instinctive center. There is, in other words, a distinctive hierarchy. One could imagine them as a thread running down the center of the body. The exact locations of the energy and the way they work are not necessarily linear, but the analogy of the thread is roughly correct. (The precise analogy, one of circulation, is depicted in the enneagram.)

The ground floor in man is instinctive center. This center is what supports life; it regulates breathing and digestion, along with many other physical functions that man is unable to do anything with himself. We can't, for example, work at the molecular level to determine what nutrients need to be absorbed by the intestine. The instinctive center, however, can do that. Another good example is breathing. It's well known that Gurdjieff did not want his pupils doing breathing exercises. Once one interferes with the ordinary mechanical work of instinctive center, undoing the damage can be nearly impossible. It's not meant to be regulated; treated properly, it is self regulating and needs no special attention.

Because instinctive center occupies the lowest rung, it serves as a bridge between levels. It actually touches the microcosmic level beneath man and mediates its action in him.

Sex center is at the top of the arrangement; as Gurdjieff explained, it works with the highest “hydrogen” that man is capable of manufacturing on his own, that is, si 12. This higher substance makes it possible for sex center, under certain conditions, to touch another level– the higher centers– as it does for brief moments when human beings experience orgasm. Because of the powerful energy it works with, it is able to subordinate the work of all the other centers when it wishes to– this is why we often have very little control over our lusts and sexual desires.

In any event, sex center mediates the energy that serves as a bridge at the top end of the hierarchy. It "touches" the higher centers. Hence its connection to the third eye both in the yogic chakra systems, and on Gurdjieff's enneagram. That isn't to say that there aren't or can't be other energies involved here; as anyone who has studied Gurdjieff's chemical factory knows, there are two other octaves that can produce hydrogens at level 12, each of which can also serve as a bridge between levels.

In between these two centers, we find the mind, the emotion, and the body. All of these lie firmly within territory that can be influenced by our own action. Hence the emphasis on working with these three centers, rather than with all five. It isn't to say that the other two centers don't meaningfully participate; nonetheless, their participation lies, in some measure, beyond our grasp.

All of this might seem rather technical, but it's of interest if one is trying to sense the whole of one's Being. While we tend to concentrate on sensing thought, emotion, and sensation, the participation of both sexuality and instinct may be seen during anything more than a cursory examination. If all of the centers (the three centers we generally work with, that is) begin to work together more harmoniously, the action of the sexual center and the instinctive center become even more apparent, because a greater sensitivity to this type of experience exists. In general, without three centered work, instinctive center is completely ignored– it operates on cruise control– and sex center is experienced strictly in the form of intense and irrevocable identification.

So why all this talk about chemistry in spiritual work?  I suppose maybe it's pretty boring stuff–and I will confess, if there was one subject I hated more than any other in high school, it was chemistry.

Man, without a doubt, is a chemical and electrical being. Every spiritual experience is mediated by these forces. We can talk all we like about many paths, but there is only one chemistry. The chemistry of spirituality, of enlightenment, is a fixed entity, not one that varies from human being to human being. There is absolutely no doubt that Gurdjieff got that right. The enlightenment of the Buddhists is the same enlightenment bestowed by Christ consciousness, the same rapture as the Sufi saints. There can be no difference, because there is no group of men that produces special chemicals outside the realm of what is possible in human biology.

 Some may think that these ideas cheapen the spiritual quest; others might agree that it objectifies it. The good news is that one doesn't have to sit around titrating solutions in flasks and beakers in order to pursue a path. The chemistry of the human being is exquisitely attuned to respond to, and grow within, the conditions of life itself.

Lastly, a brief announcement: several interesting new releases by Morning Light Press, which can be reviewed and ordered by clicking the following link. Recommended.

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May our prayers be heard.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Portrait of a dervish, Uzbekistan, 16th century
Islamic collection, Metropolitan Museum, New York

We live in a troubled world.

Over the last few years, it consistently occurs to me that we have become victims of the old Chinese curse: "may you live in interesting times." Yet all of this trouble–if trouble it is, and from a certain point of view, it isn't–is created by man. Not a single other creature on the planet is even remotely aware of the “trouble” that mankind is in. Each one of them simply goes about its business.

We worry.

Today was a day where I didn't worry much. The larger events on the planet– currency crisis, environmental deterioration, absurd electioneering, war– seem oddly pointless. In the abstract, of course they affect everything I do, and certain parts of me consider this, ponder it, calculate. Nonetheless, there is very little I can do about them.

I can, however, attend to myself. Perhaps this sounds like an excessively passive approach; maybe I should get involved and occupy something. If I were younger, maybe I even would. Age, however, leads me to the perception that what I need to occupy is myself.

If I don't develop an intimate relationship with my Being, an active intelligence, an active interest, an active respect for myself and my life, nothing else will work well.  This is something I can have an effect on– as opposed to the downward spiral of the planet, which is well beyond my control. Don't get me wrong–I try to save water, turn off lights, and recycle. That is, I do the little things. But I can't save the Euro.

As they say in Zen, life is a matter of getting the flesh, the blood, the bones, the marrow of practice. There is a need to get to the heart of things, and the merry-go-round of human affairs is not at the heart of things: it is an artifice, a distraction that drags us away from ourselves.

I take the famous dog Isabel for her usual walk along the Palisades this afternoon. The weather for the past week has been dry, and all of the leaves are finally coming off the trees. Miraculous! It is one of those perfect fall moments when crisp, dry leaves lie deep in the forests and across the paths. Ten thousand subtle shades of brown catch the afternoon sun and curl it up in pockets.  It's unnaturally warm: mid-November, and I am walking in shirt sleeves.

 The inevitable sense of love as a constant presence is with me. I can sense it hiding under the leaves, lurking in all the negative spaces created by geometry. There are moments when all of the matter around me sings of love the way bees in a hive point one another towards the best honey.

In the midst of this, an enormous sorrow penetrates everything. A unique and particular sorrow, related to the very act of Being itself.


Well, perhaps not so inexplicable.

Yesterday, my wife Neal and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see their new exhibit of Islamic art–which is, by the way, absolutely outstanding, and so extensive that it was seemingly impossible to see more than half of it in one day. While we were there, I encountered the portrait of a dervish with which I have headed this post.

The inscription at the bottom of the picture reads: “Why am I then obliged to heaven that it has given me a soul? For it has created within me a source of sorrows from which that soul suffers.”

For me, the question here is the difference between personalized sorrow, a temporal or horizontal anguish, such as that which I feel on the death of a loved one, and that transcendental sorrow which penetrates reality, descends from above, and suffuses the soul with both the bitterest love and the sweetest anguish at the same time.

We truly lie at the intersection of forces we do not understand. If the soul does have a purpose–if it carries an obligation to heaven, which is the question the dervish asks–the obligation must be to help bear this sorrow, to inhabit life and to help carry that burden, on behalf of everything that is.

It is hard to remember this in a world that specializes in setting up windmills to tilt at.

May our prayers be heard.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


There are intimate relationships between practice in Zen Buddhism and the understandings we find in Jeanne de Salzmann's observations about the Gurdjieff work.

 I'll examine one specific example today, because I feel it's striking.

First, from Dogen's Shobogenzo:

“To carry the self forward and illuminate myriads things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening." 
(Treasury of the True Dharma eye, p. 29, Zen Master Dogen's Shobo Genzo,  as translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi,  Shambhala, 2010)

 Then, from, Jeanne de Salzmann:

"We do not see the simultaneous movements outward toward manifestation and inward toward a reality at the source, two kinds of vibrations. Always I nourish the feeling of my ordinary "I", clinging blindly to the first movement, the vibration that draws me outward. I am taken by my activity of the moment, and believe that in this vibration lies the affirmation of myself. In this identification I am lost in one or another part of myself, unconscious of the whole."

" I can come to [Presence] if I am actively passive, quiet enough for an energy of another quality to appear, to be contained in me. This is a state of deep letting go where the functions are maintained in passivity. I let my functions come into my presence. I do not go into them; they come into me. Only the attention is active, an attention coming from all the centers.” 
(The Reality of Being, pages 81–82, Shambhala 2010.)

 Admittedly, the passages from de Salzmann are far wordier, but at the same time they are (helpfully) more specific. They illuminate Dogen's meaning in a way that may not be immediately accessible to us.

Part of our difficulty in understanding Dogen's language is–first of all–that it's a translation. Second, lexicons of terminology and the associative meaning of words change over time.  The substantial differences between one of the last major translations of the Shobogenzo (Nishijima and Cross) and this new one (Tanahashi), which were accomplished not too many years apart,  underscores this issue.

Last but not least, all of us are accustomed to hearing the words of Buddhism quite habitually, so we come to them always with an ordinary, predetermined set of associations that is almost impossible to leave behind.

In some senses, an approach to understanding any esoteric literature involves not only leaving my associations with the words behind, but also developing a practical and physical relationship with what is being said. That, too, requires that I overcome the considerable obstacles that arise when such pursuits begin, in large part, as intellectual enterprises.

The habitual assumption that we understand the language of an esoteric practice is the reason that Gurdjieff, when he introduced a work that relied heavily on yoga teachings, completely eliminated the yoga terminology, substituting the word “centers” for chakras,  and so on.

 In any event, de Salzmann's  description of us going outward is the same as Dogen's carrying the self forward. Using the self to go outward and illuminate the world (by rough analogy, the concept of employing the ego as an interpretive mechanism which tries to "grasp" reality) is Dogen's delusion. This is much the same action as Gurdjieff (and de Salzmann's ) identification. Both masters are indicating that when we become identified with the outward movement of the self, it attempts to seize the world and make it its own property.

 I need to be careful not to understand this idea of going outward in a strictly psychological way. This action is an entire organic movement which must be physically sensed, intellectually sensed, and emotionally sensed, in the moment. (In other words, it must be seen.) The problem is not just a problem of the way that I think.

 Here we come to what intrigued me when I read the passage from Dogen this morning.  That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.

When I read this passage, it immediately struck me that this was perhaps very nearly identical to de Salzmann's indication that I let my functions come into my presence.

Both of these texts indicate that the action of awakening is an action of receiving the world, not trying to go out and get it. In order to understand this, I must organically begin to sense the difference between outward and inward movement. To carry the self forward–to go outward–comes only from my personality, my ego. To allow myriad things to come forth–to allow my functions to come into my presence–to not go into them, but to let them come into me–this is the action I often refer to in this space as inhabiting my life.  This is an action of essence, which has a completely different relationship to my life. Personality is a tourist. Essence is an inhabitant.

The tourist, arriving, feels the need to document everything, take photographs, buy souvenirs, attempts to own the space by seizing parts of it, claiming to understand it, trying to define it.

The inhabitant has no need for such activity: already inhabiting, the inhabitant is already there. There is no need to attempt to take and hold what surrounds the inhabitant, because it is already a part of her, and she of it.

In my eyes, there is a subtle relationship between these ideas and the ideas of God the Father and the Virgin Mary: Mary seen as the female principle, a vessel that receives the energy and expression-the activity-of the father, or inseminating agent. Of this, something new and quite extraordinary may be born. It might not be too bold to say that being born of the Holy Spirit begins with allowing my functions to come into my presence.

This is not different than allowing myriad things to come forth and illuminate the self.

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Giving thanks

What is it to give thanks for our existence? I mean, to really give thanks, intentionally, and with all three centers?

On page 728  of Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson, new edition, we encounter the following passage:

     "Perhaps, my boy, you do not yet know anything about the 'holy sacrament of the great Serooazar'?" Beelzebub asked his grandson.
     To this question of Beelzebub, Hassein replied:
     "No, dear Grandfather, I do not yet know the details of this; I only know that these dionosks are regarded among us on the planet Karatas as great, holy days and are called 'helping-God dionosks.'  And I also know that at the end of these great holy days, all our beings, 'actavas' and 'passavas,' begin to prepare themselves for the next ones; and that one 'loonia' before the beginning of this sacred mystery both old and young cease to introduce the 'first being-food' into themselves and, through various sacred ceremonies, mentally give thanks for their existence to our Common Creator."

Wandering about (and often lost) in the fascinating technical esoterica of Gurdjieffian lore, perhaps we forget how recognizably Christian, how fundamental and perhaps even "ordinary" many of the practices Gurdjieff called us to are.

 To give thanks for my existence.

 Unless I see the wholeness of life, the wholeness of how nature expresses itself in the three forces of thought, material, and emotion (see the previous post) I don't see why I should be thankful. When Dogen says, “We have obtained these bodies difficult to obtain, and encountered this dharma difficult to encounter. Therefore, let us practice as though our hair were on fire,” he is indicating just how precious and important this life itself is. 

To practice as though my hair is on fire is to give thanks.

To see the wholeness of life is to understand that 100% of it, all of it, everything that is given, is a gift for my work. It isn't just something that happens. Life is sent through Love and in Love, and all of creation manifests within that Love to participate in community.  I speak here not just of the community of human beings, but the community of matter–the community of the earth, the planet–the community of the solar system. The question of community expands, ultimately, to include everything there is.

The deepest sense of this life and its value–which is, at the objective level, absolute, not relative–cannot be understood without taking in impressions properly, taking them in deeply. Receiving life in a different way than I usually receive it.

Jeanne de Salzmann refers to this by saying that understanding is based on conscious impressions, and that “understanding is a precious treasure that must enter as a living element in my effort.” 
(The Reality of Being, Shambala, 2010, pages 79–80.)  

So if I have a real impression of my life, a true impression, I see that it is, in its entirety, a precious treasure. This essential sacredness must be sensed organically, in the deepest part of the being. The sense of this sacredness is connected to the action of what Gurdjieff called Hanbledzoin; this substance marries the thought to the feelings. Only if thought is connected to feeling can I begin to sense this. This is a substantive action, a material action, not a theoretical or mental action.

The action of giving thanks begins here. It begins immediately, in this life, with a sense of how complete and whole life is, with the sense that everything is bound together into one great expression, referred to as the Dharma by Buddhists. The Dharma is not just a mental conception. It is the entire field of energy–thought, sensed, spoken, felt– which I exist in, and which includes me.

Dogen liked to refer to his pupils as “Buddha ancestors.” Gurdjieff, perhaps more prosaically, called them his "adepts." Either way, the inference is that we are on a path towards understanding. This thing called understanding, which we hope to acquire on this path, is precious; that understanding is a treasure. It has an immeasurable value that cannot be extracted from the Dharma; it resides within it, and our only option is to surrender ourselves in that direction, to inhabit the Dharma itself, thereby participating in its truth.

Once I understand, I give thanks. 

Even in the midst of grief, and fear, if there is any sense of wholeness in me, any appreciation of how completely extraordinary this life is, I still give thanks. In this way, every act of living becomes a prayer. Michel Conge touches on this fundamental principle in his fine book Inner Octaves (which is, unfortunately, not available in stores, a lamentable situation that definitely ought to be corrected.)

 This is a question I can carry in myself in every moment of every day. Am I giving thanks? I give thanks by making a conscious effort–by trying to remain in touch with my wish, in touch with my sensation, my feeling, my thought.

Of course, I describe all these things as though they can be explained. The simple fact is that they cannot. It's possible to experience all of these actions, but reading about them–or writing them down in a diary–does not begin to approach what we are actually dealing with. 

Because, after all, all of this in one way or another represents what life actually ought to be about and what life actually ought to be for, and all of us have strayed very far from that path.

May our prayers be heard.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Being Penetrated

The nature of being on this level is such that I am thick.

Materiality as I experience it is coarse and crude. I may think it's quite refined;  when I encounter great works of art or music, striking pieces of architecture, or the objectively beautiful impressions of nature, I see goodness. So within the range of its usual ability, my sensory experience conveys a certain kind of satisfaction.

Yet none of this is enough. This is not what I was born for. I live in a universe and a field of forces that I am generally unaware of. Coming in to contact with what Gurdjieff called "higher energies,” the influences of the sacred, a slow form of dissolving takes place.

What I am is more or less crystalline. My entire personality and all of the things that I think I am have crystallized and set into a rigid entity that I inhabit, thinking it is quite right. I don't know any differently.

It's only contact with an emotional force, a reconciling force that enters to influence the materiality I inhabit, that begins to help me intimate that this form, which seems to be so substantial, is actually empty. Paradoxically, I need to start to become empty to understand that where I am right now is the epitome of emptiness. What I "have" needs to dissolve.

This can only happen through the action of suffering. Not suffering in the sense of allowing bad things to happen to me, or admitting my iniquity, not in any literal sense. The suffering has to take another form.

 That form is expressed within experience and presence. I need to be present to the experience. I need to inhabit my life. Impressions take on a different quality under such circumstances, but it is not the nature of that quality that matters. One might say that that quality was perfect, or sublime, or so on and so forth. Yet the quality of my impression, fine though it may be, is not necessarily the point. Every impression that is taken in more deeply has a finer quality to it. Yet it is the action that is important–the experience of the impressions as they enter. Not their definitions.

Impressions that enter me more deeply help to begin to dissolve what I ordinarily am. It is as though one were drinking a very fine medicinal beverage, one that slowly cleans out all of the garbage and nonsense acquired over a lifetime, replacing it with a certain kind of emptiness which has far more substance than what came before it.

This emptiness is an emptiness of quality that stands ready to receive what arrives. It doesn't make decisions in advance about how anything is going to be; it stands ready to allow what is to be what it is. It sidesteps the complications I create with my intellect. It makes an end run around the expectations I create.

 Within this emptiness, this suspension of the world as I know it, lies an emotional quality that sustains. Without a sensitivity to that, and a willingness to allow that emotional quality to enter, nothing real can happen in me. The taking in of deeper impressions is, in fact, the arrival of an understanding relative to the nature of what life is.

The world has a clearly material quality expressed in terms of the objects that I encounter, and it has a clearly intellectual quality expressed in terms of the relationship between those objects–all of which are, as we know, subject to physical and chemical laws.

Generally speaking, I relate to the nature of life and to nature itself in a one centered manner; maybe I'm pounding nails into a board, interacting with the material quality. Maybe I'm thinking about the way physics works, interacting with the intellectual quality. Maybe I am even thinking about how physics affects the nail I am pounding, achieving a crude yet effective two-centered impression of my world.

What I do not see is that nature, as I encounter it, also has an emotional quality that binds all of the parts of material reality together. I can't be sure of why, but the fact is that man has generally lost the ability to sense this in any direct way, even though the organism is designed to receive vibrations of that kind. Of course, there is accrued emotional relationship to nature which, when it's there, consists mostly of association and enthusiasm; nonetheless, this is sediment. I say sediment, because it accretes in layers  that appear to acquire significant meaning, but it might just as well be sentiment.

This emotional quality that exists within nature is the third force that binds reality together, acting between material and thought. It has more than a little bit to do with all of the discussions I have had in this space about the nature of Love; yet this force that ultimately creates reality is so sublime that it's probably better not to put a word on it at all.

 This ineffable nature that binds thought and material together can enter the body. Not in any intellectual or sentimental way; no, it can enter the body in a way that dissolves what I am.

This three centered sensing alone, should I choose  to become available to it and allow its action, can have a profound effect on my understanding.

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fear of the Self

Over the last two days, I've been contemplating once again relationship with the two chief prayers used by Gurdjieff, that is, "I am-l wish to be" and "Lord have mercy."

I had mentioned earlier that one of the esoteric meanings of the first of the
two prayers is to overcome the fear of the Self.

Why do I fear myself? If I dig down deep into myself, beyond the superficial
fears, horizontal fears, all of the ordinary fears that drive my relationships with life, perhaps I can begin to see that at my core I fear my own mortality, and I fear that I do not have Being. Because I manifest in this clearly mortal body, my fundamental fear is that this is all my Self is, that there is nothing more, and that it will end.

I have forgotten my Self. I am unable to realize that the Self is not the body.
Paradoxically, the full realization of this lies deep within the physical and
mortal practice of relaxation and sensation, yet I am unable to relax and sense in the comprehensive way that is necessary. (Only with help from a higher level can that take place.) Because I have forgotten my Self, I no longer sense the sacred relationship that binds me eternally to those higher forces which create the universe. I live only within the constraints of my own fear, the fear of my death, the constant underlying fear that I am not more than this lump of flesh.

The real manifestation of "I am" is an acknowledgment of my conditions,
including both mortality of the body and the necessity of realizing that there is something more. This is why the words "I am" are followed by the words "I wish to be." The first prayer has two actions; and the second action, the wish to be, represents a reconciling force leading me towards a reconnection with the higher.

I was contemplating the parable of the prodigal son yesterday, and I realized that this parable may cast some light on this situation. Let's forget for a moment about the indignant brother who stays home and is a good boy; he seems important, but maybe he's not really the main character.

The son who leaves home goes all the way away from home; he immerses
himself in a life of the flesh, the horizontal life, a life where he has truly and
fully manifested on the lower level. Having done that, he turns around and
comes home. He has manifested "I am," and in returning home, he manifests "I wish to be." Presenting himself, he asks for mercy, and his father is generous. He has completed the cycle; and to the incredulity of the other son, who has stayed home, he is rewarded.

It isn't possible to understand the Self without fully leaving home.

I am manifested in the flesh, confronted by my own mortality, and ever fearful.
My fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between my Self and the
Lord causes me to fail to manifest fully in the first place; and in having failed
to live, to inhabit my life fully, that is, consciously and with attention, I
haven't even fulfilled the first condition that the prodigal son fulfilled. He left
home; in fully leaving, he created the possibility of fully coming back. I haven't
even fully left home. This recalls Zen master Dogen's reference to Buddhist
monks as "leavers of home." It's a koan: I cannot come back home unless I fully
leave it. My own wish cannot be fully manifest, and I cannot try to return home
honestly, if I don't fully leave home in the first place.

The fear of the self, this fundamental paranoia about my mortality, is what
keeps me here at home-in the comfort zone, asleep. As Christ pointed out, the
Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. Perhaps this is because he has fully
accepted his mortality and the conditions he is within, and works relentlessly
and without rest to surrender himself fully and return home.

This question of overcoming the fear of the self is a deep one. If I examine my
manifestations of my life carefully, I see that it penetrates most of what I do. A
great deal of my habitual inner dialogue consists of creating various buffers and
defenses that prevent me from acknowledgment of where I actually am. A
complete abandonment of this nonsense would of course allow me the freedom
to completely leave home; but that would be a huge step, one I cannot take so
easily. It is easy to theorize about it, but the organic necessity of freedom is
different than the mental picture of it.

And, of course, my forgetting of the self and its connection to the higher
always brings me back to the fact that I don't trust.

This question of the two prayers and their relationship to one another bears a
great deal of fruit for me as I continue to consider them.

May our prayers be heard.