Thursday, January 27, 2011

Practice and experience

"The thought that practice and experience are not one thing is just the idea of non-Buddhists. In the Buddha Dharma practice and experience are completely the same. Practice now is also practice in the state of experience; therefore a beginner's pursuit of the truth is just the whole body of the original state of experience...

Because practice is just experience, the experience is endless; and because experience is practice, the practice has no beginning."

Dogen, Shobogenzo, Bendowa, pp. 10-11 Nishijima and Cross, Dogen Sangha press 1994

In this little tidbit from the Shobogenzo, I pick up a hint of work in life, which is what Gurdjieff wished for his pupils to undertake. I will grant you, it's true; this particular passage was referring specifically to the practice of sitting Zazen, not work in life in general, so those of you eager to accuse me of taking things out of context are correct.

Nonetheless, he goes on to expand the question beautifully and point out that practice and experience are not, and cannot, be separated.

As was indicated in the last post, there is a significant danger of over-thinking everything we do in terms of inner work. It's quite amazing to me that every indicator pointing towards a new way of working, be it a quotation from someone who understands the path, or an observation we make about ourselves, or an experience–remarkable or unremarkable–which manages to make a deeper mark on our consciousness than usual, the first thing we do is have discussions about it and analyze it. Even the most well-meaning people with the most sincere work fall into this pit on a daily basis. I do it myself. We do it automatically and unconsciously. Have you ever noticed this?

We are all like that... I see that other people talk too much–but I do it myself. I see that other people are self absorbed–but so am I. In fact, everyone around me is a nearly perfect mirror of what I am. Instead of feeling grateful to them for illustrating my own condition so beautifully, I am irritated because they don't meet my wonderful standards.

What a mess.

There needs to be something much simpler about practice and experience. I want to discover how to separate practical effort from analysis; how to just be within life and inhabit it, not critique it, second-guess it, and be dissatisfied with it. I would like, in a nutshell, to just have the experience.

This would take a degree of objectivity. Yesterday, I had a long discussion with one of my best friends about what an objective mind consists of. Now, we could have arguments about whether or not anyone actually understands that... what I will say about it here is that if you ever experience an objective mind, you will know it at once. It's not a mistakable condition.

The "mind" that we have–that is, the associative intelligence, which manufactures 99.9% of what we think we are in the course of day-to-day activity–is not an actual mind. It is clever, it is flexible, it is intuitive and agile–but it isn't aware. It is, as Gurdjieff described, a machine that is programmed to function in a certain way–and because it is very good at what it does, we more or less presume that nothing else is possible.

So my practice and experience needs to find a way to invest itself in a piece of territory that does not necessarily belong to "this" mind. That doesn't mean the territory will be inaccessible to the associative mind–inevitably, I will inhabit this hypothetical new territory in conjunction with the associative mind–but there are definite parts within me that can engage in this activity which don't rely on language, form, or interpretation to sense impressions of the world around me.

These parts–as you may have guessed–are sensation (the body) and emotion-- which, in its most sensitive state, is referred to as feeling.

Feeling is active; emotion is passive. We don't have a convenient word for active sensation, but it would be good if we did, because it is quite distinct in the same way that feeling is distinct from emotion. And, if we want real help in the discovery of what we refer to as “three centered” experience and practice, feeling and active sensation need to participate.

Why do they need to participate?

Simply because these two parts do not rely on language, that is, words, to form an understanding of what is taking place in the world. They have a quality of the immediate that is not unlike the quality of music–it is wordless, yet it is expressive, active, contains a form that it creates within itself and is intuitive, not an invented form that can be fixed, perverted, or otherwise manipulated.

Let me extend the distinction a bit more. If I have a thought about a politician, it immediately connects to thousands of other associations, and I tend to pick and choose ones that reinforce reflexive emotional reactions of one kind or another. If I hear music, however, I can't think it into some new context. It's simply there. I can like it or dislike it, but it isn't subject to manipulation, because it isn't verbal, and I can't sit there rearranging it to make it something other than what it is.

Sensation is quite similar. It is a fundamental reality, the perception of a mind that is one of the three minds the body has an immediate capacity for utilizing, and you can't really change it, fix it, or fool around with it. The sensation of ice cold snow on the skin is exactly and just that–it's not something else.

So here I have two parts that, if they actively help me, actually already contain the capacity for avoiding some of the traps that my associative mind has placed all around me. An investment in these sensory capacities, an inhabitation of the immediate–they have the potential to create a form of the now, not a form of the “what I wish things were.”

Ah, we have strayed rather far from Master Dogen's Zazen! Nonetheless, it's all connected.

It's undoubtedly true that the Gurdjieff work shares a great deal in common with the practice of yoga, and Zen (hence the title of this blog) but it distinguishes itself in some specific ways.

One of these is the emphasis on what Gurdjieff calls “three centered Being.” The need for this connection between the three parts is understood in other works, but not precisely in the way in which Gurdjieff brings it to us. Even more usefully, perhaps, he brought what was (for his time) a very modern mindset to what were essentially very ancient ideas. This makes the idea of three centered work perhaps more accessible for us than it would be, for example, if we try to plumb the depths of obscure yoga texts.

The second, and perhaps most intensely significant idea that we encounter in Gurdjieff's teaching, is the idea of remorse of conscience, and its role in leading us towards a moment where we can take on a unique burden, rarely discussed in any other work: to share in a portion of the sorrow of His Endlessness.

May our prayers be heard.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Words

"...we should remember that from the beginning we have never lacked the supreme state of bodhi, and we will receive it and use it forever. At the same time, because we cannot perceive it directly, we are prone to beget random intellectual ideas, and because we chase after these as if they were real things, we vainly pass by the great state of truth. From these intellectual ideas emerge all sorts of flowers in space: we think about the twelve-fold cycle and the twenty-five spheres of existence; and ideas of the three vehicles and the five vehicles or of having Buddha [-nature] and not having Buddha [-nature] are endless. We should not think that the learning of these intellectual ideas is the right path of Buddhist practice. When we sit solely in Zazen, on the other hand, relying on exactly the same posture as the Buddha, and letting go of the myriad things, then we go beyond the areas of delusion, realization, emotion, and consideration, and we are not concerned with the ways of the common and the sacred. At once we are roaming outside the [intellectual] frame, receiving and using the great state of bodhi."

--Dogen, Shobogenzo vol. 1, Bendowa, "A talk about pursuing the truth", P. 8, Nishijima & Cross, 1994.

"Our true nature, an unknown that cannot be named because it has no form, can be sensed in the stop between two thoughts or two perceptions. These moments of stop constitute an opening to a presence that is without end, eternal. Ordinarily we cannot believe in this because we think anything without form is not real. So we let pass the possibility of experiencing Being... The highest form of intelligence is meditation, an intense vigilance that liberates mind from its reactions, and this alone, without any willful intervention, produces a state of tranquility."

--De Salzmann, The Reality of Being, P.278, Shambala Publications, 2010

It's unusual for me to quote at such length in this space, but the relationship between these two passages–written nearly 1,000 years apart, on opposite sides of the planet, from a man and a woman exposed to completely different cultures and influences, is quite interesting. (Readers might want to buy both books, if you don't already have them, and read the entirety of the relevant passages.)

This morning, while I was sitting, the parts of me that are alive and that do not necessarily rely on words to function embarked on a search for a place where there were no words.

Every effort was mistaken, because the part of my mind that engages form is supple and energetic; at every turn, the attempt to release, to let go of it, was mediated by the form itself.

I am indeed engaged in something that takes, as DeSalzmann explains it, an "attitude of vigilance."

It requires intimate, careful observation; it needs to enter into territory that the intellect is incapable of evaluating.

And that which is necessary must be allowed to penetrate me... an action I unconsciously resist, without even knowing it.

I'm recommending Bendowa and The Reality of Being ( specifically, the essays included under “An Attitude of Vigilance”) simply because for me, they so deftly summarize what is necessary--

and cannot be realized with the mind.

May our prayers be heard.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Notebooks on inner work

Writing this blog is an enterprise that has been under way for over four years now. By turns, it has served as a way to present work ideas to the general public; a space in which to examine assumptions, dogma, form, and substance; and a personal notebook exploring my own observations, experiences, and impressions of what it's like to live, viewed from the perspective not just of the Gurdjieff work, but plain old life itself.

Today, it serves on the order of a personal notebook.

Yesterday I walked the famous dog Isabel alone along the Hudson River. I take almost exactly the same walk every day; part of it involves a scramble up a steep hillside to the top of the Palisades (pictured above) along a broken down stone staircase that dates from the 1930s, and is hardly serviceable anymore.

What strikes me in doing this year after year is how the same thing is always different. There is no same thing. It's like snowflakes; they look the same–but they aren't.

The impressions I take in on a walk depend largely on my inner state of receptivity. Over the years, it has become abundantly apparent that there are definite levels to this. When one is in contact with what we euphemistically, in the Gurdjieff work, refer to as "a higher energy"-- it is actually the Holy Spirit–the order and substance of what one encounters is transformed in the deepest sense of the word. Everything is still exactly the same, yet the experience of it is different by orders of magnitude.

How deep does a man have to reach into his own soul to see something differently?

All the way.

We cannot begin to see anything new unless we plumb the depths of our own emptiness, and enough space appears for the Spirit to manifest itself. It's in those moments that snowflakes become angels; that geese fall from the sky into the body like stones; that the cry of a chickadee in an ice covered marsh becomes a sacred hymn, opening the abdomen like a lotus blossom ready for the sun.

Lord, have Mercy.

This walk alone through a simple landscape, rendered stark by cold and powdery snow, reminded me once again in all of my parts of how insufficient I am; how much I owe; how glorious it is to be born in this body; how little I understand.

Moments like this, which are deeply sorrowful, in which the mortality of the entire universe seems to be tangible, in which the oppression of time is apparent–well, those words sound kind of like what happens, but they aren't, they will just have to do–pierce the heart of Being like a sword, causing the flesh to render up a plea to God.

We so desperately need help down here.

Look at where we are. Look at what we have done. There is nothing left but to ask for help; it's clearly impossible for us, as we are, to sort anything out or make anything work. Only when the higher informs us can any real work of any kind be done.

Everything in my ordinary nature stands in opposition to this.

If mankind does not work–if all of us who are capable of even the slightest and smallest amount of work do not render up real feeling, do not offer ourselves naked and unconditionally as best we can to the help that comes from above–if we don't ask for what is needed, it won't come.

And right now, it needs to come more than ever. Our work is so necessary. We are unable to even see how necessary it is.

Moments like this remind me of the famous remarks Jeanne DeSalzmann made in the later years of her life, when she said that if we did not work, “the planet would go down.”

I'm also reminded of what Paramahansa Yogananda said: it is lawful that if we ask for help, it must be given.

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Nothingness

In the Gurdjieff work, one frequently hears discussions about “seeing one's own nothingness.”

It's one thing to talk about seeing my own nothingness. Anyone can discuss it. I do it myself.

It is another thing entirely to begin to have an inner understanding about it. It's the threshold where levels intersect.

In the day-to-day business of talking about spiritual work, the words “seeing my own nothingness”--like so many other things I talk about--amount to a psychological exercise. Any clever man with experience in the jargon of esoteric work can speak about this as though the term were meaningful; as though he had experience with it. And from an intellectual point of view, measured against the scale of the cosmos, I come to the realization with relative ease. So much ease that, in the course of day-to-day life, it deludes me into believing I actually have some kind of a grasp of this question.

But today I see I can't grasp this question with the mind.

Like so many other aspects of the search for Being, no understanding whatsoever is possible without the participation of feeling–real feeling, not emotion–and this is only mediated through the arrival of a higher force: a force that descends from above, and informs–realigns what is formed inwardly. (Perhaps to speak of it this way is misleading; after all, without a higher influence, little or nothing is formed inwardly. What exists is chaotic, and lacks form. Attempts by the order of this level to sort that out lead nowhere.)

There is no substitute for the sorrow and the remorse that arises in conjunction with such seeing. Without help, I can't see; without seeing, help can't reach me.

How can I inhabit the experience and understand more fully–immerse myself deeper and deeper in this question of my nothingness, my insignificance, and the absolutely tangible, physical depth of my lack, in every regard, of the ability to correspond to what is truly sacred?

There are no instruction books for an encounter with such feelings and such forces. Gurdjieff and DeSalzmann gave us guidelines for how to approach such moments, but not how to live them. This living of my own insufficiency is part of what was alluded to in the last post; these moments of real feeling, naked before the eyes of God, are the ones which cannot be measured with rulers or weighed with scales.

Here is what I am called to, what all the ancient prayers and supplications allude to: a surrender, an admission, an acknowledgement of my helplessness. Perhaps this is the very root of the prayer, "Lord have mercy." Maybe it isn't; I don't know how others feel about it. Certainly, for myself, this is at the heart of my own plea for help.

And it's something quite solid: it settles in the body, penetrates through the flesh, blood, bones, and marrow, until the gravity of the situation is reflected physically, as well as emotionally and intellectually.

May our prayers be heard.

Monday, January 17, 2011

the innermost aim

Many years ago, Betty Brown advised me not to mix levels. The context isn't necessarily important; the message is.

This level comes with an inevitable set of conditions. Last week, we examined evidence that Zen master Dogen-- like Gurdjieff–endorsed both the absolute materiality of this fact, and the inescapable consequences of cause and effect.

I would like conditions to be different; I would like materiality not to be absolute. Consequently, I spend a great deal of time dreaming about other conditions, and imaginary situations that transcend material reality. Typically, I refuse to inhabit conditions of this level in a legitimate way.

I am inadequate.

I am selling my work, and what I am here for, short. I've been put in these conditions in order to understand something; instead, like the Zen master who inhabited the body of a wild fox for 500 lifetimes, I indulge in denial of conditions and avoidance of conditions.

There may be many psychological reasons for me to do this; above all, my fear, but there are many other mechanisms–egoism, self-love, greed, and so on. It seems likely that if we took a look at the list of the seven deadly sins as expounded in Christianity, we'd see that they sum it all up quite neatly. In any event, I dream of other levels, while refusing to inhabit and make an intelligent use of the level I am on.

Gurdjieff called us to an extraordinary relationship within the level we are on, as well as relationships with both higher and lower levels. That relationship must begin here, on this level–organically, in this body–not in the clouds, and not in the underworld.He did not want us to wear white robes and be angels. The aim is to live fully–here, where I am.

I don't begin here, because I lack the capacity. Furthermore, I don't understand that I lack the capacity. I only think I understand that.

The organism has all the equipment necessary to be in superficial relationship with this level, and there is an assumption that that's enough. All I have to do is repeat the right prayers, and follow the formulas: pay the bills, get enough food, trade the right stocks, engage in some gratifying sex, and so on. I am built, in a sense, to be satisfied by that.

The parts of me that wish for a higher good are generally atrophied, even though they ought to be central to the organic condition.

Consequently, everything is perceived from this level–everything is measured from this level–all of my assumptions derive from this level. Every single thought I have about other levels is a product of this level; even the true sensations and experiences that come from above are contaminated by what I am, and how little I know.

This is probably the most difficult thing for me to see. It's only with the assistance of a higher energy–the presence, if you will, of the Holy Spirit–that anything real about this condition can begin to be seen. It is then that I see that this level is quite different than the level above me; that I have, in large part, almost nothing to do with it; that it is filled with Love and Mercy of both a quality, and a quantity, that absolutely exceed my comprehension.

For myself, I find this inner work--which becomes so specifically intimate and so specifically personal for each man and woman who attempts it–consists of clearly seeing, over and over, how deeply I lack any capacity in relationship to the level above me. If I don't see how small I am, how aggrandized my vision of myself is relative to that truth, I'm always tempted to think that I do have something to do with the level above me; that somehow, secretly, I embody its qualities. Right on the heels of that assumption, I believe that I can be a mediator; that I can manipulate.

There is, in other words, a part of me that wants to take what is God's, and own it for myself. The servant in me is a thief; he has no honesty.

Within the context of his--or her--own deepest inner work, a man or woman must make, and honor, a covenant with God.

Such work can only be--and must remain--secret; what God asks of one is not the same thing that he asks of another. According to his own lack, each must make a different set of promises; willing to be held accountable for how they are, secretly, within themselves, suffering their own nature.

Perhaps this has something to do with why Gurdjieff told his "adepts" that it was paramount to establish their own aim, and keep it... that aim need not be public... perhaps it must not and cannot be public.

It's likely, after all, that every aim that is put on display will be corrupted by the ego:

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 6:1)

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Seven limbs

Once one cracks open the Shobogenzo, it's not so easy to leave it!

Today I thought we'd take a look at something Dogen says in chapter 73 (37 elements of Bodhi) -- volume 4, pages 11-12, from Nishijima and Cross' translation by Dogen Sangha Press.

This particular quote is significant, I think, because it encapsulates so many essential ideas we find in esoteric teachings, including the Gurdjieff work.

One of the things I find appealing about the way Dogen expounds is his poetic sense of allegory, which, I believe, expresses itself quite beautifully in the below passages.

Seven limbs of the balanced state of truth.

The first is deciding among teachings as a limb of the truth, the second is diligence as a limb of the truth, the third is joy as a limb of the truth, the fourth is elimination as a limb of the truth, the fifth is detachment as a limb of the truth, the sixth is balance as a limb of the truth, and the seventh is mindfulness as a limb of the truth.

Deciding among teachings as a limb of the truth is “if there is a thousandth or hundredth of a gap, the separation is as great as that between heaven and earth.” Thus, to arrive at the truth is neither difficult nor easy: all that is necessary is to decide for oneself.

This statement reminds me of Gurdjieff's admonition to verify everything for oneself. The truth we discover must be our own truth; we must be within our own truth, and not separated from it. Let's not overcomplicate! The truth is immediately in front of us... what is the truth of this moment?

Diligence as a limb of the truth is never having plundered a market. Both in buying oneself and in expending oneself, there is a definite price, and there is recognition of worth. Though we seem to suppress ourselves and to promote others, a blow through the whole body does not break us. While we have not yet ceased expending the self on a word of total transformation, we meet a trader who buys the self as a totally transformed mind. Donkey business is unfinished, but some horse business comes in.

No doubt that we begin to encounter a bit of the mystical and the obscure in this quote. Nonetheless, we can see that this refers to containment, and self-valuation. Those qualities empower our inner state, so that the external does not affect us as much. Unexpectedly, an interested party arrives: help from a higher level, willing to invest. There is a blending of two levels.

Joy as a limb of the truth is the sincerity of a granny's mind when blood is dripping. The thousand hands and eyes of great compassion! Leave them as they are, immensely busy. Plum flowers are peeking from the December snow. In the scenery and coming spring a great master is cold. Even so he is full of life and belly laughter.

Compassion and joy are both fundamental and organic; natural forces that express themselves. We inevitably suffer, according to both law and nature; nonetheless, we discover an inherent capacity for joyfulness.

Elimination as a limb of the truth is, when being in oneself, not getting involved with oneself, and when being in the outside world, not getting involved with the outside world. It is me having got it, you not having got it. It is ardently expressing ourselves and going among alien beings.

Here we encounter the fundamental principles of Gurdjieff's non-identification, as well as an admonition to truly inhabit our lives, and to do so honestly, in the midst of the unfamiliar.

Detachment as a limb of the truth is “though I have brought it, others do not accept it.” It is Chinese, even when barefoot, walking like Chinese. It is Persians from the southern seas wanting to get ivory.

We must trust in our own authority and our own nature: not in a superficial and outward way, but deep within the soul, where our Being is formed. Detached, without inner considering, we walk according to our nature, we wish according to our nature.

Balance as a limb of the truth is, before the moment, preserving the eye that precedes the moment; it is blowing our own noses; and it is grasping our own rope and leading ourselves. Having said that, it is also being able to graze a castrated water buffalo.

Here we discover a reference to seeing: a capacity for seeing in the moment that comes before the definition, before the words; for clearing the nonsense away, and attending to ourselves. It is a way of feeding our animal, who has been tamed and put into service.

Mindfulness as a limb of the truth is outdoor pillars walking in the sky. Thus, it is the mouth being like an acorn and the eyes being like eyebrows, and at the same time it is to burn sandalwood in a sandalwood forest, and it is the roar of a lion in a lion's den.

We are called by mindfulness to our own nature; we stand up within ourselves. in mindfulness, our words are seeds, and what we see can lift us up to something higher. We catch the scent of our own nature from within our own nature; we hear our own nature within the life we inhabit.

The practice is demanding; the practice is serious, the practice requires a new kind of depth from us. Nonetheless, it is filled with beauty; it is poetry, it is romance–romance in the sense of a constant exploration, and inner and outer adventure. Moreover, the practice is inherent: the leaver of home instinctively finds themselves within a landscape inviting the journey.

Coming to us from somewhere around a thousand years ago, Dogen's words still have the potential to inspire: to help us breathe in a sense of action, a sense of movement, a willingness to engage with our lives in a new way.

In the midst of the helter–skelter rush of life, there's an invitation here to something more quiet. The sense of a thread that can bind me together.

I'll be looking for that over the next few days. I hope you will join me.

May our prayers be heard.




Wednesday, January 12, 2011

in the bodies of wild foxes

It's been several years since I cracked open my copy of the Shobogenzo as translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, published by Dogen Sangha.

Dogen, a contemporary of both Rumi and Meister Eckhart--albeit on the other side of the planet-- was undoubtedly among the most profound thinkers Zen Buddhism ever produced. Nonetheless his works seemed to be largely forgotten, especially by Western philosophers and spiritual seekers, despite the extraordinary insights he presented.

In volume 4, we encounter chapter 89, Shinjin-Inga, or, "Deep belief in cause and effect."

It's always difficult to interpret Dogen. He is writing, more often than not, from a level we do not understand, and within the context of a rich spiritual tradition unfamiliar to Western minds. Nonetheless, we can find points of contact that will interest any spiritual seeker.

Dogen's contention was that cause-and-effect are very real. He unequivocally states, “In general, the truth of cause and effect is vividly apparent and is not a personal matter: those who commit evil fall down, and those who practice good rise up, without a thousandth or a hundredth of discrepancy"(p.171)

We're not presented with some ethereal spirituality here; it is a world of consequences. The idea that everything merges into the void (another idea Dogen rejects) or that there is no good or bad doesn't enter into it. It is not a completely relativistic universe, where we cannot measure merit or value. Any number of philosophies and religions have arisen during what we call the “new age” which claim to negate cause-and-effect, but–as this particular chapter so eloquently demonstrates–to negate cause and effect is to invite calamity.

We are presented, and other words, with a cosmology of consequences that bears a relationship to Socratic ideals of a higher good, as well as Gurdjieffian ideas–perhaps most tellingly, Jeanne DeSalzmann's statement that nothing is ever static–everything is always going up, or down. And, she reminded J. G. Bennett (as recounted in Idiots In Paris) "bad results" may be obtained.

Gurdjieff himself made no bones about it: those who don't make an effort in their lives, a material effort, are destined for a place where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This question I raised yesterday of justice and punishment spills over into the question of cause and effect. We are material beings–expressions, no doubt, of energy, which has the potential to vibrate at a higher or lower level. Our very materiality itself is a reality, not a fantasy or work of the imagination, as some Hindu ideologies would have it. And it is only our materiality that makes us available to the expression of the good or the bad, the higher or lower.

It's not all relative.

Dogen understood that a man must continually question both his inner state and his motives: "Do not be unclear about cause and effect." This is, in fact, the phrase that releases the cursed Zen student who was trapped in the body of a wild fox for 500 lifetimes.

In a way, we are all that Zen student, who told his pupils that people in a state of great practice do not fall into cause and effect. Believing (mostly through the ego) that we are somehow exempt from higher laws–others, of course, must obey them, but we are somehow special–we fail to see that it is impossible to escape from cause-and-effect. We thus find ourselves in the bodies of wild foxes.

What is the truth of this moment? If I want to clarify cause and effect, I must see how I am now, and what it produces. I am immediately and irrevocably responsible. Every moment where I manifest that I don't take responsibility, I am still held accountable.

As I was explaining in my last post, the stark reality of that inevitable accountability, which devolves upon a man or woman at the moment of his or her death, is a sobering draught.

If we truly, uncompromisingly engage in life, this doesn't have to be a depressing weight that drags us down. Under the right conditions, it can be a source of inspiration– or even a spark that lights the soul on fire.

May our prayers be heard.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Justice and Punishment

The concepts of justice and punishment are routinely considered in terms of external life; when I apply the ideas to inner work, however, I find they inhabit a very different landscape.

In inner work, every external "punishment" must be understood as just. I put the word punishment in quotation marks, because negative things that happen to me externally-- which I might consider as punishment-- are actually help. That is to say, every condition that punishes me, that brings me to contrition or an understanding of difficulty, is sent to me strictly to help heal me. I encounter this idea in Meister Eckhart's teachings, as well as other places.

This is very difficult to understand. The ordinary self–the ego, the "I" I usually work with–doesn't see difficulty, pain, or challenge as anything positive. It is incapable of it. This understanding can only arrive when the centers come together in a certain way, and a real feeling enters. When this experience--a seed of the remorse of conscience-- arrives, one can begin to understand that what one has encountered in life is not only fully just, but is, in fact, exactly what one needed in order to work.

I don't really understand this, but God is actually being generous when such difficulty is sent. All of the great possibilities in a life arise directly because of these terrible difficulties, which are a form of Grace and Love.

I suppose that sounds stupid, doesn't it? Horrible things happen to people. Is that Grace and Love? My ordinary being questions that–even rejects it, struggles with it, argues that it is impossible, and demands that revenge be extracted. Are you familiar with that? Most of us are.

Yet if real understanding arises, I can understand within myself–only within myself, and from the perspective of myself–that the punishment that I encounter in my life is just.

This complex emotional understanding is only available in understanding the context of sin, or, what the Hindus and Buddhists would referred to as karma. Now, that idea has baggage that does not necessarily apply in the Gurdjieff work or Christianity, but the concepts are, I believe, linked.

A man's relationship with his own sin is a private matter between himself and God. We make the question of sin, of justice and punishment, a public one in our religions and our institutions, and yet it is only in the deepest and most inaccessible parts of a man's soul that these questions can really be confronted and understood.

I'm pondering this because I had a moment today where I saw how absolutely just my own punishment has been throughout my life. I always experience my own difficulties as negative when they are taking place; I never value them, I always resent and resist them. Yet later I see how absolutely necessary they were for me. How else can I wake up, if I don't truly suffer in many ways? How will my arrogance never be softened if it is not beaten with sticks?

This is where I begin to encounter a taste of some real humility for what I am, for how I have lived, for how far short I fall of what is needed.

Perhaps all that sounds harsh. And one needs to be careful to distinguish between real experiences of remorse, a real understanding of this question, and perverse self-flagellation, which is a very different matter. One must not judge oneself; one must see, and above all, one must see that life as it is presented is in fact just. The universe is arranged that way. The souls in Dante's purgatory have it absolutely right: they willingly accept their punishment, they understand that it is completely and utterly just--that it is what they need.

Moments when I confront these truths, these understandings that arise from an emotional reconciliation, are the moments that mark the difference between a dead universe ruled by accident and circumstance, and a living reality which is universally penetrated by divine intelligence.

The odd thing may be that we have to choose between those two alternatives. One would think that one or the other had to be true; that one possibility excludes the other.

In man, according to the level of his development, that is exactly the case.

May our prayers be heard.



Monday, January 3, 2011

A new year

It's amazing how much significance we attach to this idea of a new year, as though today were really any different than yesterday.

This morning, I was walking the famous dog Isabel alone, down by the Hudson River, pondering the sense and aim of my existence as the sun was rising.

The train roared by on the other side of the river in Westchester; for a moment, I wished that all the sounds of man, and even man himself, would disappear, so that a clear moment of perception of the reeds, a hawk, the silent golden light of the sun, could arise without the intervention of humanity and all its implications.

Such things cannot be. We exist; and at once, we interfere. It is in our nature. We are the genie that has been let out of the bottle.

What is this thing I call my existence; this life? I see that I am filled up with the past, brimming with it, overflowing with it, and bringing all of its results to every moment that I live. Is it a support, or an impediment? It's a mystery. I have lived through this experience I call life, but I have not understood.

This morning, I recalled a foolish thing–it doesn't really matter what it was, it was truly insignificant–I did when I was younger, and intent on destroying myself, not understanding that the world ultimately consumes and destroys all of us, whether we want it to or not.

I recalled this foolish thing, and I felt a genuine sense of remorse. There was remorse of conscience, applied to one tiny point, a microscopic selection, from an entire life. The moment itself could almost have been random; in itself, it didn't signify, it was just a symbol for myself and how I have lived.

In that moment-- where a finer sensation and a real feeling emerged, there, by the marsh, while the snow lay on the ground, and the dog looked for the things that dogs look for-- in that moment, the past dropped away into the present, and there was a wholeness that asked itself what it means to repair the past, to prepare the future.

And, as always, the sorrow.

I live a vast distance away from my life, but it is a distance of the imagination. In reality, it's not possible to go very far from here–here is where I always am, immersed in a life that I will not allow myself to sense, and that I refuse to allow to sense me. My contact with my life is clumsy; how can I improve it, helpless little creature that I am?

There is too much fear in me, and I don't trust enough. I have known this for some time. There is no cure for it.

I'm tempted to try and draw conclusions, to wrap this up in some neat, sage way that might imply I know what I am doing, or am at least clever and able. But none of those things are true, and I am not inclined to conclusions today. So we will leave things here.

May our prayers be heard.