It may seem odd to some to treat on the subject of death during Halloween, so close on the heels of the death of my sister, but you would have to know her in order to know that she had an entirely wicked and profoundly irreverent sense of humor. If she knew I was posting to tell a ghost story tonight–a real ghost story–not something made up–she would probably love it. Even though the ghost story involves her.
This is an absolutely true story. I'm telling it not only because I think that it 's appropriate for All Hallow's Eve, but also because it raises some interesting questions about the nature of life and death, consciousness, time, and our perception of reality.
There's a man named Joe B. who was a very close friend of mine. He shared numerous personal characteristics with my sister. He died in a tragic car accident in 1999. By that time, I had been working with him for 10 years and had been to Thailand and China with him many dozens of times. We were very close, but the relationship was deeply conflicted, because he was both charismatic and seriously bipolar. Although I loved the man in many ways–he was one of those people who could complete a sentence for me, and vice versa–he was also very, very difficult.
In the first 3 months after he died, Joe kept coming back to me in dreams over and over again. In every dream, we were in Thailand--his absolute favorite place-- and it eventually became clear to me that he basically wanted us to keep being together there, in this place he loved. In other words, he didn't want to go: he was clinging, stuck to this moment in our lives, and in life.
The dreams eventually became disturbing, because he just wouldn't leave. I finally looked at him in a moment of lucid dreaming and told him, “Joe, you're dead. You just can't keep coming back like this. You have to move on." In that last dream, he nodded at me to acknowledge that he understood. He disappeared from my dreams then for about 6 months, and only came back one more time, very briefly, in a cameo appearance to let me know he was okay.
He had not come back for over 10 years.
A month ago, about a week before I went to China, Joe returned in a dream again. When he came back, I thought it was very odd, because he had definitely moved on, and I couldn't for the life of me understand why he would come back after 10 years of complete silence. I decided to ignore it as a fluke, some unfinished piece of business I was working out in my subconscious.
It wasn't that easy. Joe came back the next night again. That night, what was left over when I woke up was a sense of great love for him. I understood that even though we had terrible moments together, the overarching relationship was one of love. It was a good feeling to know that.
Okay, I thought, resolved.
He came back again, for the third night in a row, about 3 nights before I left on the trip.
Enough was enough. I woke up that morning distinctly saying to myself, “Someone is going to die.” It was as though it was self evident, and I was dense not to have understood it before that. Joe had come to send me that message.
Well, I thought, perhaps one is just bound to imagine such things when a recurring dream like that arises. But I couldn't shake the impression, and of course I was worried it would be me. I have all these people to take care of, my children, wife, parents, and so on, I thought. Then I thought to myself stoically, “Well, I can't do anything about it if it's me.”
Then I started worrying that it was one of my children and I said, “dear God, please, don't take any of my children.”
Finally, I put it aside. I was superstitiously averse to telling my wife Neal-- or anyone else-- about it, because I felt that if I vocalized it, it would become real and gain power. Perhaps there's some irony in this, since it seems apparent in hindsight that it already had all the power it was going to have in the first place.
In any event, a day or two after my sister died, I suddenly realized that this was exactly what Joe had been trying to tell me. I feel quite certain that he came back to warn me.
Jeanne De Salzmann famously said, in a letter that she wrote after Mme. Ouspensky's death, "There is no death."
I've had ample evidence of that over the course of a lifetime, sometimes in most unpleasant ways that I wanted to have nothing whatsoever to do with. ( This post is hardly the only true ghost story I have--it's one of the least disturbing ones, in fact.) In other instances they have been nothing short of miraculous, blessings from above.
No matter how I try to process it, there is clearly a mystery to this question and a dimension that we can't possibly understand from this perspective.
In memory of all those who we love, and who are gone--
May our prayers be heard.
Monday, October 24, 2011
On Friday afternoon, October 21, my sister Sarah died quite sudden of what we believe was an abdominal aneurysm. She was fifty-one years old.
I have just returned from China and am suffering from considerable jet lag. When my brother-in-law called me to give me the news, something in me refused to process it at first.
There isn't any way to philosophize about these things. We all go through the ordinary emotions of the telephone calls, the expressions of grief, the tears, and the incredulity. One never gets the life one wants; one gets the life one has.
One of the last things that Jeanne de Salzmann reportedly said before she died was, "Be there in relation to a force. Then it doesn't matter so much, what happens.”
This is our task in life. To be there in relation to a force. This force that wishes to reach us confers a transparency and a radiance that cannot be measured by life; instead, it takes the measurement. We can know something real if a higher vibration takes the measurement, instead of us trying to take the measurement of what we think is (or isn't) a higher vibration.
Having returned from my trip to this terrible shock, I have discovered great value in just climbing the hill with my dog, the famous dog Isabel. I go down to the park by the Hudson River in the morning. The air is cool. I put one foot in front of the other and climb up the hill until I am maybe a third, maybe halfway, up the hill. It's the north side of the Palisades, so it is a bit shady, even when the sun is bright, and there is a tumble down of broken rocks and green moss all over the side of the hill. At this time of year, leaves are beginning to fall. The colors in these leaves have been crafted by the singing of cicadas all summer long; only now do the subtleties of their slowly changing palette begin to reveal themselves.
There is a texture and a grain to everything. Reality itself has this texture, a fine, granular nature, as though all of it were made up of very tiny, very fine particles, all gathering together into these objects and circumstances, yet together expressing a specific single and singular energy, an energy that permeates everything and animates matter in general, transcending the coarseness of manifestation, and expressing a finer underlying unity.
All of that is apparent in the detail and movement of the colors, the textures, the hardness and softness of the rocks and mosses. All of this comes into the body as a comprehensive statement of Being.
It just is.
With or without grief, there is no need to take the measure of anything; everything is already measured. What is necessary is to receive life and accept the conditions that I find myself in. The loss of my sister is part of those conditions, and it needs to be included in this effort to receive the impressions of life in the deepest possible way.
This question of deepness–of letting life penetrate into the body, of allowing life itself to add to the gravity of the body– is critical. There needs to be a specific and tangible value to the experience of life. It must be organic, not mental. It needs to leave enough empty space for impressions to arrive more directly.
Walking up the same hillside with rocks and moss on it every day might seem monotonous. Yet there's a great deal there; everything, in fact, is right there. Life is right there. Breath is right there.
These qualities of life are essential. If I don't make an effort to experience my life in each moment, if I don't open my intimate Self in a sensitive way to the receiving of life, I do not honor my own life, and I don't honor the lives of those who I love.
One might say that it is this loving relationship with the intimate Self, and with the world in its immediate proximity, that creates all of the possibility for the love that is needed to support those around me. Even those who have died need support and love; there is a reciprocal relationship between the living and the dead that must be fed in the same way that any relationship needs food. This has been well understood since ancient times. Modern societies seem to be forgetting it.
There are mysteries here that cannot really be explained or perhaps even spoken of.
Where situations are impossible and words fail, Love suffices. Love is the best hope 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 life rests. There is no foundation greater than this; it is a good one, which time and death have no power over.
May our prayers be heard.
Friday, October 21, 2011
The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble/ Levon Eskenian
Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, ECM records
Tina Pelikan of ECM records kindly sent me a copy of this CD to review in this space.
Let me begin by saying that this is a very fine effort indeed. Directed by Levon Eskenian, fourteen of Armenia's leading folk instrumentalists came together to produce this group of pieces, which–naturally–focuses on pieces from the Gurdjieff/De Hartmann oeuvre with "roots in the Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian and Caucasian folk and spiritual music." Unsurprisingly, the instruments and performances bring the pieces back into that part of the world... with a vengeance. Played on these instruments, and in this manner, the music assumes an earthy organic nature that even Larry Rosenthal simply can't squeeze out of a piano.
Along the way, one is reminded how eerily a carefully applied vibrato can emulate a vocal performance; one gets to hear picks and fingernails skittering across strings like spiders, and human breathing modulating the sonorous notes of duduks and bluls. It's a pleasure to listen to this music brought back to the place it came from.
All in all, by reaching back into the past in such a comprehensive manner, this particular CD runs the risk of being– dare I say it?–New. You will not feel like you are hearing your father's Gurdjieff music here. It is not the same old, same old.
Delightfully, it turns out that when one is working with this material, there are several pieces where it becomes necessary to flail away vigorously on stringed instruments. When one is called to flail, nothing else will do. I was (on a definitely irreverent note) at one point reminded of Pete Townshend's performance on Pinball Wizard. This kind of playing invigorates the music in a way that is, once again, impossible on a piano–the instrument we almost always hear this music played on. And all of the performances are equally spirited, even when the spirit that animates them is introspective or contemplative.
Having spent what seems most of a lifetime sitting primly in absolutely still rooms in order to carefully and attentively listen to reverently formal performances of this music, squeezed into what amounts to a parlor format–even though, of course, the aim is much bigger than the aim of any parlor music–it was refreshing to hear it unbound, scratchy, breathy, searching for a voice that authentically conveys origins. The performances well exceed the boundaries of what we have come to expect from our indoctrination.
Paradoxically, this also becomes a question. Arguably, one of Gurdjieff's chief acts of genius in his collaboration with De Hartmann was to bring this improvisational Eastern sensibility to a Western instrument. It worked rather well–in fact, it worked wonderfully. Because of this, bringing the music back to its own folk-instrument roots actually obscures some of its unique and remarkable qualities. Because it is here performed on instruments that one more or less expects such music to be performed on (you will see what I mean when you buy it and listen to it, as you must) it is -weirdly- easier to dismiss it as something ordinary and predictable, at least judged within its own context. One does not fall into that trap when hearing it on a piano. I can't explain exactly why it works that way, except to say, that for me, it does. In that sense it actually put a greater demand on me to try and understand it from its purportedly sacred context. Once again, when we hear the Gurdjieff/De Hartmann music in this form, we're called to hear it anew.
An additional and admittedly more personal paradox layers itself on to this music. There is something anachronistic and inexplicable about a Western man who has grown up listening to rock music and who composes on computers with MIDI, samplers, and synthesizers immersing himself in a world of people twanging, banging, and puffing away on instruments that are slowly (and sadly) being eclipsed and forgotten. (If you don't believe me, spend a night in a boat on the Nile, eating dinner at midnight, and listen to what the bands are playing there. They aren't using ouds, bluls, and duduks to play their traditional music, they are using synthesizers and drum machines on amplified sound systems.)
The CD is, in other words, an excursion into a world that is being steadily lost to the relentless march of technology and the accelerating extermination of separated, unique world cultures.
I am not, however, a purist who believes that only acoustic music is “real,” and that the use of digital and electronic equipment is a Crime Against Nature. It seems fairly clear to me that Gurdjieff himself did not think this way either–else wise, why would he have owned so many tape recorders, which he so enthusiastically used to lay down an extensive repertoire of harmonium tracks? Like most men, he enjoyed using new technology... after all, he was only human.
Ultimately, I found myself wondering what the exact significance of this effort was apart from its lush ethnic sound and its ethno-historical value. This because, in a way, the whole point of what Gurdjieff did was to create a bridge between that world and where we are now–a bridge, so to speak, formed between the essence, in the form of folk origins, and personality, in the form of formal “classical” pieces played on the piano. In that sense his music legitimately represented the meeting of East and West.
In the end, I think the significance lies precisely in its re-invention of what we understand this music to be. Returning this music to its roots required considerable ingenuity in terms of both arrangement and appropriate instrumental interpretation. Mr. Eskenian and his artists with a doubt labored long and hard to produce a well-crafted work of integrity and value, yet they manage to make the result sound relaxed, informal, and effortless. The final transparency of the performances is refreshing.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
I expect everything that takes place in my life take place within an established order. After all, there is an order–we inhabit a universe full of laws, and I even presume to understand that. I interpret everything according to my current understanding of the order that I am in, or, at least, the order I can perceive.
What I don't see is that I am asking for a revolution.
I think that when I work, when I engage in what I call a "spiritual" practice, somehow it fits into what I know. Whatever comes, whatever happens, will be bartered, transformed, trimmed, clipped, wedged, and pigeonholed into where I already am. The idea that everything will somehow step directly outside itself–that is, that nothing will be the same, and that all of what I call order will come to a definite end, if any real transformation occurs–this is terrifying. It can't even be considered. It isn't even possible to consider it, because it lies out in what we call the unknown unknown.
I don't know what I don't know, and I can't even know that I don't know it.
For life to be truly experienced in a new way, an inordinate amount of Grace is necessary. This does not have anything to do with me, because Grace is a force that lies outside me and is not under my command. It is inordinate in two ways: first of all, if I am to receive life as life truly can be received, already, it is impossible for me to do this. Only the intervention of higher forces can mediate that experience. So it is inordinate in that it is in excess of anything I know; larger, more generous, on a scale that I know nothing about. In the second way, it is inordinate in the strictest sense of the word: it does not belong to the known order–it lies outside it.
We use the words "attention" and "prayer" as though they were different, but in many senses that is not the case. Attention is a form of prayer, and prayer is a form of attention. Both of these actions in me are necessary, but neither one is sufficient. Only Grace is sufficient, and I cannot know Grace. It can know me, but I cannot know it.
So I ask for a revolution that I don't know about and don't even really believe in. It isn't, after all, possible to believe in the unknown. One can only believe in the known. So the unknown cannot even be a belief of mine. If I believe it, it has already been reduced to the scope of my limited understanding and vision. Only when what arrives is both unknown and unbelievable will I know; and then the words will fail.
The demand is enormous. Grace does not arrive intending to take half measures, or settle for less than everything. Is it a demand I am familiar with; the kind of demand I would put on myself? Of course not. This demand puts me in the position of the lowest common denominator, and takes an eraser to the blackboard I scrawled my life on.
It is as though a man were asked to drink strong wine, never having had it before, and not knowing how difficult it is to drink wine that is so strong. Even with the first draught of the wine, he is overwhelmed. Perhaps, even though he has spent his life wishing for such strong wine, he suddenly sees that he knew nothing about it.
Someone must hold his head up to help him.
May our prayers be heard.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
It occurred to me during the course of this trip that I am just over a month away from the 5th anniversary of the ZYG enterprise. Starting out as it did–a tiny effort, almost ridiculously small and insignificant in its scale, and as wrinkled and helpless as any infant when it emerged–it's surprising to me that I am still writing these essays. It turns out, more than anything else, that I write them to myself–to organize my impressions and thoughts about this effort we call inner work, to collect observations, to express experience. Undertaken publicly, however, the experience undergoes a transformation, because a general public who I do not know and will for the most part definitely never meet reads these essays and incorporates them into their own impressions of daily life.
It's important to remember that we are all down here at street level together. I don't know how you feel about it, but as I grow older, I increasingly see that every single human being I encounter becomes a teacher for me in one way or another–the ones I love, the ones I hate, the ones that have done good things for me, and the ones who have done things that objectively harmed me. If I have a real sense of my life, an organic sense of life, I see how everything I receive is food for growth. There is an attitude we can adopt where we constantly seek the value in what takes place, not the stories of personal adversity we often prefer to feed ourselves.
And there is a point of work where we begin to understand what is meant by the phrase, "above all, do no harm." So, as Zen master Dogen often used to say at the end of his Dharma hall discourses, "I respectfully ask you to take good care."
The other night, my wife and I were talking about the difference between the Gurdjieff work say, 20 years ago, and today. She mentioned that all the luminaries are dying. That is to say, almost all of the people who knew Gurdjieff personally are dead. (We are fortunate enough to know some very few who are still alive, but the number is tiny.) Most of the so-called "great leaders"–and some of them truly were great–are dead. Although there are people of enormous quality in this work today, and leading it–all of whom are, rightfully, owed deep respect for their effort, intelligence, and sensitivity (as well as their inevitable lack of those qualities, at times, a disease that affects all of us)–we do not, I think it would be agreed, have teachers of the caliber of Jeanne de Salzmann to sit in front of us and lead us. While those teachers can still send influences from other levels, this is rare and a quite different thing which can't be transmitted except to individuals.
This leaves us with an organization stripped of its charismatics, stripped of its visionaries, humbled to a fault, and forced to confront the realities of its own existence under the harsh conditions of present-day life. This is a good thing; the community becomes an organism that pulls together on its own and generates the value that was once left to individuals who shouldered a greater part of the burden for all of us. On the other hand, there is no lightning rod to gather around; we are left with the individual efforts of the community, and that alone.
In the same way that every age creates its own myth of a Golden age, every life creates its own myth of a golden life. There aren't any golden ages, and there are no golden lives; any reasonable student of history eventually reaches this conclusion. We have this age and these lives, and dreaming about alternatives is pointless. To get back to my original example, it's easy enough for anyone to see that efforts like my essays are, for all intents and purposes, trivial–and yet the effort of any single bacteria is trivial. I am nothing more than a bacteria–I may dream of glory, but there isn't really any glory available to bacteria. All of us are tiny creatures.
Glory does not belong to us.
This morning, while I was sitting, it occurred to me that it would be a big thing to just do the job of a bacteria. To not expect anything, to not aggrandize this life or its conditions or possibilities, but to just work. To just meet life as best possible, within the intimate, sensitive, carefully examined context of inner work, understanding that little or nothing may be possible, and, to steal a phrase, this may be as good as it gets.
Is it up to me to decide what would be good? Knowing my propensity for self will, if angels came down and put the kingdom of Heaven in front of me on a golden platter later today, I might well refuse it. That's how I am. It may be a unique condition, but I somehow doubt it. It strikes me that this condition is probably very close to where almost all of us are.
There's an Old Testament quality to this life. We are born into it, and we watch the mighty fall. It's a consistent theme in the Bible; readers of Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson will take note that it's a consistent theme in that book, too. We are all, together, participating right now in the end of an age of Empire, where the schemes of the rich and powerful to defraud the rest of us are being exposed, and it has become apparent that the emperor is naked.
It's all very amusing, in a certain perverse sense, to see this play out on the world stage. One is tempted to self righteously puff oneself up and say, "I told you so." What I don't stop to consider is that this passion play, this farce, is just a mirror of what goes on inside me. If I truly saw that, and truly understood, in anything more than the glimpses I get on a daily basis, how different everything would be.
The image came to me this morning of a man taking apart a temple, a pyramid, a magnificent structure reaching to the heavens–carefully, and with a quiet attention, taking one brick after another, walking down the temple stairs, and neatly stacking each brick on the ground.
In the process, as the Temple is taken down, an open space is cleared where it once stood.
Plants and flowers move in; then trees. Birds and insects come to live where the Temple stood; and instead of a powerful edifice of bare stone, a symbolic representation of some higher idea of life-- now the space is filled with much smaller things:
Rich new impressions of actual lives being lived.
May our prayers be heard.
Friday, October 14, 2011
To inhabit the body, to have a true connection with the body, not just the idea of a connection with the body, one must have a personal sense of gravity.
This is not a condition I create or manufacture; not a condition I will. It is something that can be discovered: encountered unexpectedly, arriving without explanation. All true things arrive without explanation; they don't need explanations. So it is with gravity.
Gravity is, in general, understood as a theory, a force that affects objects and their relationships between one another. It's easily understood in terms of material action: fall down, and it hurts. A personal sense of gravity, however, arises from within the condition of life and is part of the condition of life. One could say that life itself is a form of gravity, since Being, if it manifests in any degree above the ordinary, has a force that attracts life itself. It does not attract events, circumstances, or objects; it attracts impressions. In this way, life attracts life, and makes itself more whole. Under ordinary circumstances, life has no force of attraction. It can't be seen. It isn't experienced. There is an intelligence that floats around here in me, but it isn't really a living intelligence. It is an abstraction. As with Plato's prisoners chained in a cave, I mistake the shadow for the substance, because I don't know any better. Equally, when I see an apple falling from a tree, I think that is gravity, because I don't know any better.
There is a difference between life as an idea or a series of perceived experiences, and life as a perceived and experienced force.
Life and gravity are closely related. This is not an Einsteinian phenomenon we speak of, at least not in the conventional sense. When life is lived, it has weight. Weight is sensible; it is tangible; it speaks for itself. It does not need to take a position because it is already in one. It doesn't need to have an opinion, because it is impartial: it contains its own wholeness, and there is an objectivity that does not get mixed with what Gurdjieff called inner considering. Weight does not have anything to consider. Gravity does not have anything to consider. These things are just facts when they manifest. Nothing needs to be added; nothing needs to be subtracted.
A connection with the body isn't thinking about the body, or having a sensation of thought. In some senses, speaking of the connection between these two centers is already misleading, because if the two centers are "connected," they interpenetrate one another and become a simultaneous expression. Although one could speak of distinction, there is no distinction; and in the same way, if one experiences what Gurdjieff called "three centered Being," already, it is a single whole thing, not a division between three different things. There are some subtle implications about the meaning of the holy Trinity here, but we will leave it be.
It has been said before in the Gurdjieff work that your level of Being attracts your life. It's important to understand that this is not about events, good or bad. Those who want to understand it from this point of view misunderstand the point of inner work in general. Inner work has little or nothing to do with improving external circumstances in one way or another to increase one's comfort. It may have that effect (or not) but that is beside the point. The point is the quality of Being.
What is my quality of Being? How do I stand inside myself in direct relationship to the force of life? By force of life, one means, the energy that arises.
Over the years in this notebook, a number of concepts have been developed that are in a language slightly different than the conventional language of the Gurdjieff work. This is not to say that the language, as it developed over the decades, is deficient, or inaccurate. It is just to say that individuals must find their own means of expression within the context of the forces we live in and work with. Anyone can repeat the words of others. What are my own words? It's important that this question be active, because to repeat the words of others too often opens one to the real danger of becoming hypnotized and believe that one is actually understanding something. There needs to be a constant striving to discover what the words are now. They may not be the same words that I have already heard from others.
In work like this, one just has to be honest and do one's best. Some things are going to be wrong. Some things will be said badly or not properly understood. I find this to be so in my own way inside myself every day. There is a requirement to re-examine the question over and over again, in each moment. To be baffled and uncertain is a good thing, because that is almost certainly a little bit closer to the truth. When Socrates said, in his apology, that he would rather be stupid in the way that he was stupid than smart in the way that others were smart, he wasn't kidding.
Some of the contexts and expressions I've developed, and which regular readers are probably familiar with, are the organic sense of being; a sense of intimacy; the need for generosity; and now, this idea of a personal sense of gravity. I'm distinctly reminded of the Zen masters, who refer to flesh, blood, bones, and marrow- an expression close to the heart of what I am examining here. In Zen, as in Christianity, references to the body and to blood are not casual metaphors, as so many assume them to be. They refer to the organism and its state, its physical expression of force in an inward sense.
All of these concepts and questions are linked. The organic sense of being includes an intimacy of attention and a personal sense of gravity. These forces may not manifest together at all times, but they often follow one another, and are brothers and sisters in experience.
Together, these experiences give birth to a sense of generosity, both towards our own Being, and that of other people.
May our prayers be heard.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Over the last few days, I've been pondering questions of Grace and error.
My separation from myself–the lack of connection between the parts–leads me immediately into error. The Masters referred to this sometimes as grave error, because it is error that has gravity, or weight. If the soul should (as the Egyptians thought) be like as a feather at death, then every sin weighs it down. Now, we don't like to talk about sin much in the Gurdjieff work, but Mr. Gurdjieff himself certainly spoke of it, so the idea cannot be walked away from so easily.
Error is everywhere. There's more truth in a single turn of the tide than in all mankind, and yet I think I turn the tides. Yes, this is a metaphor, but in seeing the outward illustration of truth, embodied in nature, even in every insect, how can I avoid seeing how different than that truth my inner state is? If I am truly seeing–if there is any effort in me–then the denial becomes at once apparent.
It is only through denial of how I am now that I arrive in error. If I wish to be–if I intend to exercise the necessary affirmation of Self which the Lord expects me to become responsible for–I must confront this denial.
All of my manifestations, born from sleep and the lack of attention, are already in error. I read about how Jeanne de Salzmann warned Bennett that those who over-exerted themselves had obtained "bad results," but I don't see how I am already in the middle of bad results. Denial is a powerful thing. Encouraged by the immediate presence of arrogance, which underlies everything, I think that I know. And the man who thinks he knows is already lost.
Even the immediate and undeniable presence of Grace–which is a presence that cannot be denied, seeing it as it comes from a higher influence–denial itself does not die. I reach a pivotal point in understanding my position when I see that even when the Lord sends support, I myself am unable. I still construe Grace as a force that will help me do what is necessary–I don't see that Grace is a separate force, having nothing to do with my doing or my ability, which is freely granted. Grace emanates directly from the Lord; it originates in unattachment and arrives in unattachment. Unable in the least to conceive of unattachment, it is already in my nature to seize this.
So even in the arrival of presence, I immediately fall into the grave error of believing that presence is mine, despite perfect proof to the contrary.
If this does not illustrate my lack of understanding, nothing will.
In my own pondering, I continue to deepen my question about the underlying feature of fear in me, a feature which seems to found the cornerstone of all my lack of Being. There is no trust in me. I think I trust, but everything I trust in is in the first place insufficient, and in the second place mistaken. Repeatedly, throughout the ages, all the Masters have insisted that trust must be placed in a new location, that a new kind of trust can arrive. These are excellent words, and men have listened to them for thousands of years, yet we all listen to them with parts that do not and cannot trust.
The irony is apparent.
I think we are all born with an instinct that believes we can carve a path to truth ourselves, and a machete to go with it. Faced with what looks like a thick underbrush of life, we stumble forward hacking a crude path all around us, looking for truth, not seeing that we already inhabit it in every moment. If I move from one blindness to the next, thinking I see, all I have to live within is my denial.
I think I am somewhere. Life has this way of insisting that there is a location of being already, that this, that, and the other thing is happening–my children, wife, job, intellectual and artistic achievements and so on–and that all of these things provide a location that I am in. It is a temporal location triangulated from the events, the circumstances, and the materials around me. Any inkling of a different kind of location–of a location comprehensive enough to contain an intuition of the Dharma, of truth–is absent. Drawing on my belief that all the treasure is on earth, I've always located myself on earth, relative to the treasure. My belief in this location is quite firm, despite all my protestations to the contrary.
It is much more helpful if I understand, every morning when I get up, that I am already lost. We have many parables in the Bible about lost sheep, and they seem to be children's tales, sweetened up with cloying pictures of Jesus dressed as a shepherd. But there is more direct truth in them, I think, than we understand. By more actively see what this idea of being lost means, it might provide a clearer point of understanding.
I have a search–everyone talks about spiritual work this way, about their search.
How often do I see that I am not already here, in a place that is known, a location that is desirable, just trying to acquire more, and see that I am actually starting out lost, and have nothing?
Those familiar with Gurdjieff's music may recall moments during performances where this understanding can be palpably sensed.
May our prayers be heard.
Saturday, October 8, 2011
I was exchanging e-mail with Tracy, one of my fellow Parabola editors, earlier today on the subject of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. I pointed out to her that, although I'm certainly sympathetic in many ways towards their movement (as vaguely defined as it is), the root causes of our current plight are extremely complex and confusing.
It's true that outward action is needed. Nonetheless, if my outward action does not spring from a prior inner action, an action that moves me in the direction of occupying the ground of my own Being, that action cannot be sincere. It has perhaps a sound emotive impulse, but it lacks intelligence and force, because it comes from what Gurdjieff would have called a formatory place–a churning sea of impressions based on opinions and superficiality. Granted, almost everything that happens in this world arises from just such a place–yet more is definitely possible in me, and if I continue to indulge myself in the reactions that usually rule my daily life, I am little more than a hamster running on a wheel in its cage.
This dilemma cannot be used as an excuse for inaction, but if action does not begin with the question "Love?"–as I pointed out in a post about a week ago–it cannot be real action.
And this word, "Love"–what does that mean? Some readers have cheerfully complained to me that I don't know what I'm talking about when I use the word. Well, we are not going to ban this word Love! Not in this blog, anyway. And since I must use it, I use it boldly.
Love is a universe unto itself. Let us say, to limit it for the time being to a tangible set of possibilities for examination (in reality, its meanings are limitless) that it refers to a universe of Attention, Intimacy, Compassion, Questioning, and Prayer.
We live in a world of corporations and acronyms. Things get reduced to soundbites, slogans are invented in order to encapsulate and convey ideas and principles. Should spiritual works succumb to the same apparently facile and simplistic techniques?
Maybe they aren't all bad. Maybe we should keep the acronym AICQP in mind.
Attention, Intimacy, Compassion, Questioning, Prayer. These are the elements I need to contain within my effort to remember myself, to occupy Lee. and if I don't occupy Lee, the "corporate forces"–the machine which runs my reactions and my generally opinionated attitude towards life–will continue to have ascendancy over me. It is a direct reflection of exactly what's happening in the world out there: of course it is, because what is happening in the world "out there" is in fact what is happening in the world in here. In other words, the problem isn't some external agent called "Wall Street"–the problem is an internal agent whose name is legion, that is, it is the name of every human being, because we are all "doing this" to each other together.
Why do I cite these 5 forces- Attention, Intimacy, Compassion, Questioning, Prayer–as essential? It sounds dangerously like I am trying to suggest that we should actually try something tangibly practical in the Gurdjieff Work, doesn't it?–Well, maybe we need to. This is supposed to be a work in life, not one that gives us permission to stand aloof from it, while we watch Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and everyone else out there make efforts that are somehow beneath us.
Let's take a look at it.
In action, I need to have the Attention of my intelligence–an Intimacy with my physical body–the Compassion of my heart–the affirming Question of "I am" (for us, "am I?")–and the surrendering Prayer of "Lord have Mercy"–all active within me, simultaneously and in the moment. An effort at three centered action must come first: not a strained effort, but a natural effort. Then, both the affirmation and the surrender of the self, which are not separate actions. They are two "higher" actions-shocks- that come together within each moment.
I know all of this sounds complicated and technical, but in the end, this so to speak "5 centered action" aspires towards action centered not in the gravity of my own confused and weak will, but in the Will of a higher principle. We can't do that- but we can aspire towards it.
Reading once again from a book I have quoted extensively in recent days– Early Fathers from the Philokalia, as translated by Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Faber & Faber 1954- we find St. Mark the Ascetic saying the following:
"So let us begin the work of prayer and, gradually making progress, we shall find that not only hope in God but also firm faith and unfeigned love, absence of rancor, love for one's brethren, self-mastery, patience, the innermost knowledge, deliverance from temptations, gifts of grace, heartfelt profession of faith and fervor and tears are given to the faithful through prayer. And not only these gifts alone, but also endurance of afflictions, a pure love of one's neighbor, knowledge of spiritual law, acquisition of God's righteousness, infusion of the Holy Spirit, the gift of spiritual treasures and all that God has promised to give the faithful here and in the future life– (all this they receive through prayer.) In short, it is impossible to reestablish the image of God in oneself other than by the divine grace and faith, granted to a man who with great humility remains with his mind in undistracted prayer." (page 74-75.)
To pray is to live.
Perhaps the greatest mistake humanity makes from moment to moment is believing, fervently and without doubt, that the inequalities, cruelties, and injustices that arise are caused by external agents. Collectively, we are the external agents, and without right inner action, no right outer action can ever be possible.
Does this set an impossibly high standard? How high the standard is isn't the point. It establishes the only standard. There is no alternative to right inner action. Action that begins anywhere else has already deviated from what is actually necessary.
Only the effort to occupy my own ground of Being and take it back from the Corporation in an inward sense can end up having any right effect on the outer world.
May our prayers be heard.
Friday, October 7, 2011
There's a difference between conditions and opinions about conditions.
For the greater part, I mistake opinions about conditions for actual conditions. This is a powerful habit; in addition, I blithely assume that one ought to have opinions about conditions. The greater part of intercourse between us–conversation, in all of its varieties–consists of opinions about conditions. This leads to an enormous amount of talking, but much of the talking is pointless.
Conditions are conditions. There is an objectivity within conditions that does not exist and can never exist in opinions. If I learn to be more still in myself, and I discover the consistent arising of opinions within me from this place of stillness, I begin to see that conditions are conditions and opinions are opinions. The distinction between the two will lead one who perceives it to have less interest in opinions. There isn't anything real about them; I race about having them ad infinitum, but in the end, they're empty. Subjectivity loses its glamour as one sees it more clearly.
What is it to perceive conditions?
There ought not to be a division between conditions and Being. To Be is to Be within conditions; they are simply facts. Some of us may recall the way that Mr. Gurdjieff assured his protégé Ouspensky that "there will be facts," as reported in In Search of the Miraculous.
Perhaps I take that to mean that somehow there is some higher truth that will magically appear at some point, some drawing back of the curtain to reveal reality. And perhaps, if I do take it that way, I am expecting a lot.
Trees are just trees, and rivers are just rivers. Facts are nothing more than what appears following the collapse of opinions, which strips reality down to just what is. What is, doesn't have any opinions, in the same way that starlings and frogs don't know there is a stock market. Things that are invented in my mind are in and of my mind; the objectivity that lies outside this realm of mine escapes me, maybe because I don't want to see it. So the idea that "there will be facts" may indicate simply that an objective state can arrive.
As I write this, I am looking out of a hotel room window on the 48th floor of a skyscraper in the middle of downtown Shanghai. The city is laid out below me. I have all kinds of opinions about cities; I have opinions about this one, about the things that are in it, the nature of the air pollution that I see over it right this moment, the architecture of the buildings, and so on.
Nonetheless, there are also facts. Here I am. There is this. We are together; I am in front of it, as much as it is in front of me. There is not as much separation as I would like to believe.
My instinct to separate arises from my paranoia; I feel that I need to be apart. It gives me an excuse to feel superior, different, above the rest. In other words, my opinions are an action designed specifically to bolster my ego. It's a subtle action, because denial is always at work here: my opinions present themselves as objective. It's built into the machine.
A massive amount of this goes on all day long. It's possible for a separation to take place between this activity and something that is more sensitive and more objective, and that is the only separation that is truly needed. The manufactured separation I engage in is a different matter entirely.
I often refer, in my writings, to the organic state of being. This is not a hypothesis or a direction; it is a statement that resides within the flesh, blood, bones, and marrow of Being. The statement is not complicated. Things are quite a bit simpler than my opinions make them.
Reading in the Philokalia the other day, I can across this passage from St. Antony the Great:
"All rational beings, whether they be men or women, have an organ of love, by which they can embrace both the divine and the human. Men of God love what is of God; men of the flesh love what is of the flesh. Men who love what is of God, purify their hearts from all impurities and the affairs of this transient world, hate the world and their own souls, and, bearing their cross, follow the Lord, doing His will in all things. Therefore, God comes to dwell in them and gives them joy in sweetness, which feeds their souls, nourishes them and makes them grow. Just as trees cannot grow, if they have no natural water, so too with the soul, unless it receives heavenly sweetness. Only those souls grow, which have received the Spirit and are watered by heavenly sweetness." (trans. Kadloubovsky & Palmer, Faber & Faber 1954, p. 47-48)
To modern ears, it's nearly certain that the phrase indicating men ought to "hate the world and their own souls" sounds overly harsh. However, it echoes a principal expounded by Mr. Gurdjieff: "like what it does not like." To "hate the world" is to abandon opinions. To "hate our own souls" is to abandon the ego ("my own soul" is not the essential soul God has given me–it is what I think I own, but do not.) The idea presented here is the idea of non attachment, non-identification. And to gain distance from opinion has little or nothing to do from dismissing opinion mentally, or having negative opinions about opinion itself.
To love what is of God is to gain such distance. In order to find a new path towards the heart of this question, I need to begin to recognize conditions as conditions. Already, here, a sweetness can arise–but not of me. Only through me.
This sweetness which Antony speaks of is not ephemeral or metaphorical. There is a true sweetness that can visit us, nourish us. It is indeed a sweetness born in Heaven.
There is a Light greater than the word light, and a Glory greater than the word glory.
May our prayers be heard.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Readers who recall Gurdjieff's remarks to Ouspensky as recounted in In Search of the Miraculous will recall that he said the following:
“This means that to proceed with any further study we must find the exact purpose of each 'hydrogen,' that is to say, each 'hydrogen' must be defined chemically, psychologically, physiologically, and anatomically, in other words, it's functions, its place in the human organism, and, if possible the peculiar sensations connected with it must be defined."
--In Search of the Miraculous, P. D. Ouspensky, Paul H. Crompton Ltd. 2004, P. 191-192
To the best of my knowledge, no one out there has ever actually engaged in this activity: I've never seen much of anything written about it, and of the matter is rarely discussed in today's world, highly technical approaches to Gurdjieff's work having largely fallen out of favor. Nonetheless, it presents some interesting possibilities for discourse.
Most of the unusual language and specific concepts that Gurdjieff brought to his work represent higher experiences that are only produced by the presence of "hydrogens" which are not usually present in man. Some of the language that comes to mind are the following concepts:
remorse of conscience
the sorrow of His Endlessness
and so on. Each one of these experiences is an experience that, while it is expressed in our ordinary language, actually represents something quite different than ordinary experience, which can only be understood when it actually takes place in the organism, producing an organic result that is quite clearly of a different order than the usual organic results we use to navigate our way through life.
Each one of these particular experiences is associated with the action of a particular higher hydrogen.
When we consider the food of impressions–which is the only food that can make the production of these higher hydrogens possible–we barely stop to think about how we are actually taking impressions in. It is, in larger part, a theoretical prospect. The threads that connect the inner work all exist in us, so to speak, separately, as though they didn't need to be interwoven. That part that needs to have an attention–even a love for–how things are being taken in now is not only weak, it's dysfunctional.
The action of each of the special words that Gurdjieff chose in order to describe what are essentially religious experiences of a higher order is contingent on the way we feed ourselves, and nothing at all is possible if we don't handle that well. So this action of attending to the immediate prospect of life with an organic Love is an absolutely essential action, and the action of every other particular phrase or condition that relates to a higher principle working in the organism is dependent on how we conduct that.
One of the difficulties in discussing things like conscious labor, intentional suffering, and so one is that by using familiar words, immediately, and without any intention at all on my part, I assume I am able to “do” these things. Even if I intellectually protest that I don't think I can do such things, the whole organism is hardly signed on to that prospect. There is always a secret corner, hidden from the rest of me (but most especially everyone else!) in which I most certainly believe I can do such things. It doesn't matter how much I spout the party line at meetings or elsewhere: I'm lying. I think I can do things. I think I know what these words mean.
It is only when the light switch gets turned on, as the result of days or weeks or months of work, or of a particular moment of Grace, that an actual condition of conscious labor or remorse of conscience arises; then it becomes quite apparent that this is the action of a higher substance, and that "I" am not in charge of it.
We could generalize and say that Mr. Gurdjieff's remarks to Ouspensky on this matter, while they appear to be incredibly specific, are actually there just to indicate to us that we ought to study this question quite precisely, in order to understand that the process is physical and chemical, that it is not related to what we ordinarily understand, and that it is not under our control.
Learning to sense each of these particular sensations and emotional attitudes that arise from higher hydrogens may furthermore help us to remember them, and bring ourselves closer to an intimacy with ourselves that helps generate further possibilities.
All of these higher ' hydrogens' are without any doubt related to, if not identical with, hormones that medical science has identified and studied from a pharmacological point of view in the years since Gurdjieff first brought his work to the Western world. Substances that come to mind which are almost certainly in this category include serotonin, dopamine, and so on. Nicotine in particular is a specific analog to a higher hydrogen, underscoring the fact that many drugs people take emulate the action of these natural substances.
The difficulty, of course, is that taking drugs merely produces a result, not a state that lasts. It furthermore cripples the action of a person's internal chemistry by weakening it instead of helping it work to grow stronger and make what is needed.
If there is any transformation whatsoever available to human beings in the context of this work, it lies in this territory. A man or woman needs to understand how to taking impressions more sensitively, with all of his or her parts; to take them in with Love. He or she needs to understand that this task is actually far more important than making money or acquiring things, than looking good or having pleasurable experiences; and a loving attention needs to be paid to the parts that are doing this kind of work as it is under way.
May our prayers be heard.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Readers familiar with my routine will know by now that occasionally I am in Shanghai; as I am now; and that when I am, I am unable to post the customary photographs which accompany my blog entries. My apologies for this; new photographs to accompany posts will be added at the end of my trip, some 2 weeks from now.
I find that with me there is often a confusion between experience and judgment.
I have experiences; I presume that somehow this collection of experiences–impressions–that has filled me over the course of a lifetime (resulting in what amounts to a single small universe of forms, images, and ideas) gives me the right to judge not only the world, but other people. My assumed right to judge ought to be superseded by that higher authority of the Lord, which does have the right to judge–but it isn't. Everything is in me and of me, in my will and of my will. I think I know something; it almost doesn't matter what it is, the point is that I think I know something.
Only the presence of a higher energy in the body–it can't express itself in any other way, remember that–has the capacity to remind me that I live within unknowing. This is an organic quality, not a mental one; and yet the mental faculties that function persistently insist that to know my unknowing is mental.
Yes, I see that that sounds a bit convoluted. Yet please try to follow it. Only a certain rate of vibration in the body brings us to humility; without the expression of that hydrogen, the existence of that rate of vibration, the only condition we can exist within is that of our own arrogance.
No collection of experiences, of impressions, within any being is "wrong"–each one represents a sum total truth of what is received, a fragment of the Dharma. The Dharma may be received and collected in fragments by conscious entities, but it always and forever exists, and is expressed, in a single whole. The individuation of truth into separate entities with egos [that's us, in case it wasn't obvious] creates this situation in which Grace is lost, and personal judgment begins.
No man is excused from this act of judging–whether unfortunate or fortunate, the action is necessary in order to navigate life. To be necessary, however, does not mean it is sufficient–it is far from the only thing that is necessary. Much more is, in fact, necessary. A transparency can enter in which the act of judgment itself is transformed. We could call this unattached judgment; call it what you will.
Each man will ultimately judge only from the context of his own experience. Ultimately, if enough impressions are received in a certain way, and the organism begins to work in a different manner, what Gurdjieff called a state of "objectivity" begins to rise. Unfortunately, my delusional state frequently insists that I am being objective–that I know something about this idea–when exactly the opposite is in fact the case. For example, I think that I know what the word "Love" means, and that other people don't–when in fact perhaps I have everything quite wrong. This is not an unusual state, in anyone. Those who presume that such states exist in others, but not themselves, commit the gravest of errors. These are the pedestals we erect for ourselves so that we can stand on them.
There are what one would call objective truths. There is a bottom line. But that can only be experienced through an inner rate of vibration, not by the expression of thinking. It gets translated into the clumsy tools we call words; even in the act of doing this, the quality of transmission deteriorates.
[As an aside, one of the characteristic errors in judgment that arises from experience in mankind is the differentiation between religions. Religions compete with one another in claiming that they occupy some higher ground of truth that the other religions don't; yet this clearly can't be the case, as is conclusively demonstrated by Mr. Gurdjieff's explanation of the chemical factory.
All human bodies are essentially the same in the way that they work; all of them produce the same substances, higher or lower. True, what Mr. Gurdjieff called a "more developed" man will produce some substances that a "less developed" man cannot; nonetheless, potentials and the chemistry remain the same regardless of the person. This means that in the expression of religious experience, it must be objectively the same across the entire range of human experience; the only differences that arise can be ones of terminology. For example, we have the Holy Spirit, Chi, and Prajna; the body chemistry that produces these states can't be different from person to person. It's not as though mankind has separated itself into different species with entirely different body chemistries.]
There are moments when a man's inner work with experience and impressions crosses a line from which there is no going back. I suppose that Mr. Gurdjieff would have called this a moment of "crystallization," in which the results of a series of so-called "higher" impressions (I qualify this, in order to leave open the question of what that might mean) create a result in which both understanding and the work of the organism itself change in a certain way, and something new enters daily manifestation of the Being.
These moments are possible. They aren't psychological; they are not mental. They are, rather, physiological in the concrete sense of what Mr. Gurdjieff would have called "three centered work;" and they create new polarities in the body. As one close friend of mine pointed out the other day, polarity need not mean "polarized" in the context of having a positive and a negative charge; it can also mean, organized around the center. So what I am saying is that a change in the work the body can create a new center around which one's experience circulates. All experience in mankind circulates within; there are differences, however, in the order and quality of circulation. In almost all human beings, circulation is disordered, sometimes in the extreme.
Polarity–in the sense in which we are using the term today, the organization of inner energy around a more definitive center of gravity– creates a new order. Without that new order, a man cannot and will not see the deficiencies in his own reason; he will not see the flaws in his judgment. He will continue to interpret his experience in a wrong way.
Living can harden a human being, or soften them. Being hard has its merits, as regards the horizontal expression of force, but it locks out much of what is needed to soften a person and allow them to receive the higher influences so vital to inner development. There is little doubt that many–perhaps even the majority–of people on the spiritual path (no matter which path we speak of) acquire a great deal of experience, material, and insight, harden in their convictions as a result of it, and close themselves off from many of the influences that they might receive if their own opinions and judgments did not have so much power over them. One of the reasons I have been stressing the need for Love as a conscious force in one's own inner effort is because this is one of the only influences (per Christ's teachings) that can counteract this otherwise grave danger.
What is needed in order to receive something higher is a softening. It is not enough to come to this late in life, with a terrible shock, as so many do, and see that one has squandered one's inheritance and that it is too late to change anything.
The pilgrimage towards a new kind of inner poverty must begin now, while there is still time to hand life over to a higher authority.
May our prayers be heard.
Saturday, October 1, 2011
I'm fifty-six years old today.
We are born into the womb of this life from Love, and every human being begins with the light of Christ shining in their soul. We may forget; it may be buried, but it can never be extinguished. What we come from is Holy, and its sacred nature cannot be destroyed.
Because our planet turns, we think there is darkness, but the light never stops shining, whether our faces are turned towards it or away. Because men sin, we think there is evil, but evil is nothing more the soil from which good grows, and the bad is ever nothing more than the servant of the good-- no matter how much it thinks itself its own master.
The womb of this life is here to hold us, to hold us in the hands of Love, and to help us grow into an understanding beyond the understanding we think we can grow into. We are only here to be born, and for no other reason: our own distractions may cause us to forget this, yet souls grow with or without the eyes of men upon them. If we forget Love ten thousand–a hundred thousand– times a day, She will forgive us, because this is in Her nature.
Love is the gift we begin with; our struggles are struggles we make ourselves. Everything is already given; the generosity of the Spirit has no limits. It is required, however, to try to wedge itself into this the narrow crack of our life; no wonder it has such difficulty. When the whole universe and all the Love in it tries to fit itself into a small space, not everything can go there; the camel cannot go through the eye of a needle so easily.
Yet the camel is still a real camel, and even if the needle is small, and has an even smaller eye, the needle is there to serve, and can do its job with precision. We can count on camels and we can count on needles, and we need not confuse them. Even though they don't seem to go together, they are one in spirit.
Take no delight in the sinister; and believe not in the twisted things that make the soul turn from Love. If there is temptation, it is here: to wish for something less than the light of the Lord.
We can deny anything, even the hands of Love that hold us: as, in their time of fear, the apostles denied Christ, so our own lower natures may deny what we are; they cannot help themselves. Yet a loving attitude towards them will help them to see that there need be no fear, and that we are born here, exist here, and will die here only out of Love.
To turn towards the machines of the soul alone is not enough; if a man builds a cathedral, but no heart inhabits it, it is a cold and lonely place.
May our prayers be heard.