Thursday, June 28, 2012

The First Step

When we begin to be concerned about having an inner work, a change in life, everything regarding this question forms within this life. We start here, where we are; we are in life, and we are always within the objects, events, circumstances, and conditions that have formed us.

Where we are is what we cling to; that's all we know. Yet if we are on a path, already, the moment we set out on a path, we are departing. The very acknowledgment that we should be on a path is the beginning of a departure, a leaving of the known. And this is a conflicted place; because above all, we fear the unknown, and we want to stay where we are.

If an inner work is to become real, ultimately, it must depart from what is known. And the recognition of one's own nothingness is absolutely necessary, otherwise, one will never become willing to leave the known.

It's very difficult to see how firmly everything in one's inner work clings to the known. Every condition within the mind is already a condition of attachment, of identification; every arising of mentation that forms connections to daily events is already fettered, already too involved with what is. There's a way to not be involved; it's possible to depart, and yet it is impossible to depart from here, from where we are. Paradoxically, we can only depart from a place that is one step away from here—we have to have already begun to leave home in order to leave. And it is that first step that is so supremely difficult.

 If we could truly take one step away from our lives, and towards God, truly and fully take that single step, already, we would be across the threshold of where we dwell, and the rest of the journey would become much easier. But that first step is nearly impossible. Lifetimes can be spent in preparation for that one step.

 There is a point where inner work departs from the known; it departs from the cosmologies, it departs from the books, it departs from the conceptions, ideas, beliefs, and plans, and it physically—not conceptually—steps across this threshold into territory which is truly unknown. At this point, it becomes a secret work; impossible to share. From a certain point of view, everything we have ever read about inner work can be boiled down to a single statement, that is, a report that there is a secret work. Beyond that, one can't go; all the reports that purport to "reveal" what that secret work is cannot convey that work. The true inner covenant between man and God can't be put on display, because it is an action, not a thing.

And it is this true covenant a man seeks, in the heart of his heart and in the soul of his soul. There is no other covenant; there is no other way to be, and no other path. The true covenant dispenses with all arguments and philosophies. It has a sacred property of light that falls everywhere, but the illumination is perceived, always and only, between one man or one woman themselves, and God.

 One property of this secret work, this true covenant, is that it must belong only to the man or the woman who discovers it, and no one else. Despite all the apparent teaching to the contrary, no other person can ever bestow their own true covenant, and the true covenant of another can never be adopted. The relationship is individual and unique, which is why Gurdjieff referred to idiots: a word that originally took its meaning from the Greek root idios, meaning "private;" and this word, interestingly enough, is related to the Latin privatus,  “withdrawn from public life," also, “single, individual."

 So there is a single thing, and it is private, withdrawn from public life. A man or a woman steps away from life; forms a secret covenant with the Lord from within; and to make this an outward property already betrays the relationship.

The trappings of organizations, hierarchies, politics, and teachings all appear to be the place in which work is vested, but work is only vested in the heart and in the soul. If it is not vested there, there is no work. Work is a living thing that cannot be attached to the world; when it is attached to the world, it does not take the first step.

To take the first step is one of the properties of God.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.


To strive means to make a great effort; to struggle vigorously and relentlessly to achieve an aim. This kind of activity is common in external life; men strive to achieve political freedom, they strive to win the heart of a loved one. Perhaps above all, in the current age, men strive to gain wealth, almost always mistakenly conceived of as money. 

Yet the idea of striving for something in an inner sense is, overall, a relative rarity. There's a vague idea about it, but money is more interesting. Even those who have apparently genuine religious strivings in today's world usually direct them outwardly; their idea of religious success absurdly consists of forcing other people to believe what they believe, rather than the development of a legitimate inner quality.

In the age of Ashiata Shiemash—in Gurdjieff's magnum opus, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, a near-mythical "golden" age of spirituality— men understood these questions in terms of the five obligolnian strivings. As we encounter them, embedded in a dense and apparently philosophical text, they appear to be a group of intellectual premises; ideas.  

Yet these principles are not just ideas. They're meant to be experienced as motive forces for life, the very engine that drives us. All of what arises within the organism, all of the energies that cause it to manifest, ought to turn around this axis. So, in a certain sense, these strivings ought to become our chief feature, a chief feature which replaces our Nafs, the ordinary egoistic impulses that drive us.

 How can that happen? These words appeared to just be ideas. They sound noble, to be sure; yet encountered as ideas, they simply carry the same weight as all the other religious or philosophical ideas one encounters, such as the idea that Joseph Smith found golden tablets in upstate New York. The five strivings need to become more than just ordinary ideas; they have to become active principles within us, and this is an alchemical process that takes many years of heat and refinement in order to occur.  The five obligolnian strivings need to become organic within us; they need to become so deeply embedded in us that our utmost desire is invested in them.

A tall order, perhaps; yet the whole point of developing conscience, of a tactile and immediate relationship with feeling, is to become invested in a different feeling than that of ordinary life, a feeling that arises from contact with energy of a higher order.

That's the aim, the initial aim, of inner work; to experience feeling that arises from contact with energy of a higher order. This is in and of itself, at once, transformational; there's no need to conceive of what that transformation might consist of, because such contact transcends conception.  It's the taste of oranges.

 This kind of action is what turns societies upside down; in the allegory of Ashiata Shiemash, his ideas—which come from a higher level—do in fact turn his society upside down. The entire order is rearranged and turned towards God. This is exactly what needs to happen in us; yet an intellectual assessment of the situation, while useful, is essentially impotent. The invocation of feeling, of conscience, must take place; the arrival of life force with a higher level of vibration.

 It's not enough to think about this; we need to feel it in the marrow of our bones.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

No words

Roof tiles, Grand Mosque
Xi'an, China

We live in a text based world.

You're reading a text now; think about how much of what we've learned over the course of our life comes out of texts. An enormous amount; the odds are that we first encountered spiritual ideas through texts, most likely the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Koran, or perhaps something more esoteric.

 Yet there's a conceit afoot in much spiritual work that somehow, it can all be done without words. And, indeed, there are places without words, and wordless experiences. Yet can we throw the words away?

Think of a world with no books or written words. There used to be such a world for mankind; a world where, while there were means of communication (almost certainly, a spoken language) nothing had ever been written down yet. Nonetheless, life and culture were fully passed from one generation to another. Nothing whatsoever came out of books; there was a fluidity to understanding, which had to be derived from the immediate, from what was around one.

That world is forever gone. Now we gather around our books, read them together; and our spiritual practice itself seems to begin in the texts, not in the real world. Did you ever get that feeling as you gathered around in a group, to fold your hands in front of you and solemnly refer to some sacred book? It's a peculiar inversion; we read books about how things are, or how they ought to be, and then we try to apply them to the real world. We select certain books and decide that they are "better" than other books, read them preferentially.  The worst of us kill other people because they don't read the books we read, or think the books we read ought to be interpreted differently.

All of this from a few sheets of paper with ink on them.

 We can't get rid of words, it seems; they dog us. And imagine, if you will, a world not with no books, but with no words at all. What would that world be? Words, after all, arise from the conceptual mind: The mind that “takes things together,” assembles things. A mind, in other words, that forms relationships.

If we wish to escape from the conceptual mind, we would have to escape from relationship itself. And the relationship is, indubitably, what everything consists of; time itself consists of relationships. Its properties are, as Beelzebub explains, fundamental and inescapable, being of the same order as divine Love. There is, hence, no actual escape from the conceptual mind possible; at least, not in the way that we conceive of it... if you sense a whiff of paradox, contradiction, and irony here, you should. It is an unanswerable question; the pregnant moment of what comes next—which no one knows. In any event, the idea of a world with no words at all suggests an empty world, in other words, a world that is no longer a world.

Perhaps the interesting thing about this act of questioning the world, from an inner and an outer point of view, is this moment of what comes next—the texts don't tell us that. The words don't tell us that. We stand on the cusp of the unknown. It's a place where books are relatively worthless. Yet we are not awake to it; and we lean on our concepts, our texts, our books, as though they contained the future in them, as though they could somehow tell us what comes next... what comes next in the intersection of Time and Love.

And perhaps that unanswerable mystery is the question we human beings will forever ask ourselves.

So we assemble our world; we assemble it with words, yet they are inventions.

It might be possible to assemble our world more exclusively from impressions, which have a three-centered quality; impressions of the body, physical impressions, feeling impressions, and these mental impressions, which themselves can also be formed without the use of words. Here, we might find a new meaning of the idea of things that are taken together, assembled: a conceptual framework for the world that is built out of the function of our parts, in relationship, hence congruent with the way that the world itself is formed; and not one that relies exclusively on a single part, as so much of what we conceive of with our mind does.

In The Reality of Being, de Salzmann says:

I need my thinking—but not just thoughts, words and images that capture the pure energy of the thinking and make it passive. I need my feeling—but not a feeling taken by images to which it is passably attached. And I need my body, free of any tension that holds back the energy. I see that I need the help of my functions, which otherwise will become an insurmountable obstacle. Without their help, I cannot open to the presence of myself.

 This begins in the real world. Not in books.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Aim now, for now

Gurdjieff made a great point to Ouspensky about the importance of having an aim. This subject was covered repeatedly in the early days of the work, and discussed almost exhaustively. It was viewed in technical terms, and aims were conceived of as being targeted towards some task, or some desired result. Examples such as wishing to know the future were given.

In any event, aim has been formulated, traditionally, as something related to a life task, a desire, an overarching goal, and so on.  If it's not  conceived of in these macroscopic terms, it applies to some task we intend to perform later—such as remembering to sense ourselves while we are washing the dishes, or to listen more carefully when we pick up the phone between 3 and 4 PM, and so on.

In other words, it is something we wish to do, and we want a result.

 There's no doubt this is quite useful in ordinary life, and indeed, motivation for work—and forward movement, if there is such a thing, in work—needs this. We can't bumble about aimlessly like idiots, can we? Although that's what we all seem to think we do most of the time, and I think our perception on this point is accurate. When we look at ourselves objectively, we see that we do bumble about like idiots most of the time.

 And why is this? It comes back to something Gurdjieff said in the quote at the above link. "The best formulation of those that have been put forward is the wish to be one's own master." Yet we are not our own masters, and no amount of wishing to know the future, or help other people, will help us become our own masters. Forward motion in life will not help us become our own masters. We don't need to move forward—we need to go deeper. Forward movement is quite different than deepening our relationship. And our aim, if we wish to become our own master, is to deepen our relationship, not just move the soccer ball down the field towards the goal.

Jeanne de Salzmann changed the emphasis of the work, I think quite rightly, to turn our focus towards this deepening of work, because without it, all the other aims are just about worthless. We must become whole within ourselves first; only then do things begin to make sense. Without a less partial state of being, there can be no real aim.

Aim, in other words, needs to be reformulated in the context of what is practical now, for inner work now. We always think that the ideal time for working will be some other time, in some other set of conditions. But there is only one ideal time for working, and that is now. It wasn't ideal yesterday; yesterday is gone. It won't be ideal later today or tomorrow; they aren't here yet. We can't “work in” yesterday or tomorrow; we can only work now.

In fact, even the idea of "work" is probably a bad idea. We think we can work; and we think that working is doing something, moving towards some goal, achieving some aim. We may protest that we don't think that, but the associative process of the word unavoidably brings us to that, even if we are unconscious of it.

What we ought to seek isn't to “work;” what we need to seek is relationship. And this is a very different thing.  I believe that anyone who reads The Reality of Being will see that JDS repeatedly calls us to a work in which we focus on the relationship within ourselves now.

Our aim, in other words, has to be an aim made now, for now. It is now that we can have an aim, and the aim can be to be in relationship now. It's not later; it's not some abstract task. It is an intimate attention of relationship to sensation and the organism.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

More meditations on determinism

On my trip to China, while I was contemplating the questions I raised in the essay A Done Deal, some distinct impressions arose in me, impressions that over the course of a lifetime have created an indelible conviction regarding the nature of our lives, and of reality.

 Readers who remember Gurdjieff's commentaries to Ouspensky about an experience of conscience, as recounted in In Search of the Miraculous, will recall that it consisted of a comprehensive sensation of everything a man is able to feel, recounted in a single instance of inner experience. It is a kind of insight that carries what is, from our current state's point of view, an incomprehensible understanding of one's position. This is not a philosophical insight, but a religious one, because it reconnects a man to the entirety of what he is. And the entirety of what we are is simultaneous, as is the experience of conscience; our notion of it as a series of sequential events is not a consequence of the nature of reality, but rather our failure to comprehend it.

 The whole self is what needs to be remembered. Conscience is an experience of that whole self, in its current state, with all of its mistaken perspectives and contradictions. Despite all the myths and metaphors, the whole self does not actually need to be reassembled by us; it already exists, throughout time, inside time, and outside of time. Each life is already formed complete; all lives have always been formed and will forever be formed, as Krishna implied in his discourse to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita. So when we experience life and participate in life, we don't decide anything; we don't create anything, we don't do anything. It is already there. Everything is already there.

To trust this is to know this, to not only know it, but to understand it. This idea of trusting in the Lord begins and ends in trusting in the wholeness of life, in the inevitability of our own arising and our own death; in understanding that our fate already exists, is a completed affair. The train station is already there; we just haven't arrived yet.

There's no point in feeling anxiety about life, because it already is what it is and what it will be. Our belief that we influence it is an illusion. We can't influence what already is; and the future already is, just as the past and present already are.

The only thing we can do is to remember ourselves, to remember life as we participate in it; and this is exactly what we forget. When we forget the self, what we forget is eternity, not in the sense of the time that flows on from one point to another, but in the sense of a time that is whole, not separated from itself by a sequence of events.

Our commitment to partiality, to identification, to what the Buddhists would call attachment, is a reflection of this failure to see the whole. We identify, and we become separated from ourselves, from our wholeness; first we are this thought, then that thought, then suddenly we are this or that emotional reaction, physical craving, and so on. The fundamental wholeness of our Being escapes us, even though we already dwell within it; and the wholeness of our life escapes us, even though we already dwell within this as well.

 Sometimes we hear allusions to a practice attempting to bring us to a realization of this kind, generally referred to as acceptance. This is a good practice, and certainly points in the right direction; yet the acceptance always seems to be directed towards the immediate event. Acceptance, in fact, would be a deep and organic understanding of the wholeness I refer to here, and the inevitability of life, from its beginning to its end.

 An understanding that the whole affair is already completely formed, that we are not in charge, might be a tremendous relief. Freedom consists of the moment where we release the idea that we are in charge of what takes place; instead of becoming commanders, our role changes, and we are participants. Either way, the same outcome ensues. Whether we believe we are commanders, or perceive we are participants, the same events take place. (Some readers may detect a flavor of Tolstoy's point of view in War and Peace here. He wasn't far off.)

Trust in the Lord consists exactly in the active inhabitation of this understanding. That, however, requires the participation of a higher energy in man, what is sometimes called the Lamb of God. The interaction between the Lamb of God and man produces the peace of God which passes all understanding.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Close to Kindness

I think it's a natural impulse, in all of us who have right attitude, to act with kindness.

Yet we don't.

One can't act with true kindness unless one is close to oneself; in the same way that one can't speak any way other than automatically, unless one is close to oneself. Without this direct quality of relationship, of intimacy, with the immediate fact of our Self—unless we see ourself within our Self—there can't be anything other than a reflexive reaction. And reflex does not truly know kindness.

Kindness is a property of intelligence. Intelligence is a property of intimacy. If we don't have intimacy with ourselves, we don't have respect for ourselves; and if we don't respect ourselves, why would we respect others? It isn't possible. It's important to see this, because what is automatic in us—what Gurdjieff would have called the machine in us—is not just habitual, it is ever present, and it is this very presence that takes away any presence we might otherwise have—an unknown presence.

So I need to stay close to what I say, be aware of it. I ought not speak mindlessly or without attention; it's the attention that I bring to this immediate moment that determines my possibility of kindness. I have to acknowledge the other, acknowledge relationship, acknowledge that I speak, and how I speak, as I speak. The minute that the cruise control is switched on, it's over.

No doubt, many good things can emerge when cruise control is switched on, but they don't have an intention or a direction. They have tremendous momentum, an impetus imparted by the whole of events that cause them to arise, but they lack intelligence. This means that they veer off in any old direction, and crash into things. Perhaps you know what I mean; one gets up in the morning, intending to be loving and kind towards others, and halfway through the day one discovers oneself yelling at a child or a partner for some relatively minor thing, instead of intelligently coming into relationship with the compassion that attention can engender. The purpose of life is to manifest this intelligence. It's our task, our obligation. That is what our wish is for.

Yet this attention doesn't come from forcing; it doesn't come from trying, of making some big effort to work. It comes from being in relationship, which is a loving action that begins within the Self, and asks for the Self to be with the Self. If we say “I am—I wish to be,” who is? Who wishes to be? If there is no intimacy, no gentle effort at relationship, no one is there, and no one wishes to be. Then the words are just a chant.

I have nothing against chanting, but chanting isn't enough. Life can't just be a chant; a repeated formula which is applied over and over until some magical breakthrough occurs. There aren't any formulas; there can be, however, active relationships, which are a constant process of discovery.

So I need to be very close to myself, and see this constant process of discovery. What is that tree? Maybe I can experience it differently; forget about what it is. Just see it. Maybe bees stings are interesting instead of painful; maybe love involves just stopping and being there for a second.

In the end, everything is kindness, within attention. It's possible to discover that kindness is an attitude that permeates everything in life, and that there is a part of us that actively rejects everything that is unkind, petty, destructive, or demeaning. There are also, to be sure, parts of us—all of us—that prefer that kind of behavior, those kinds of news stories, that kind of an attitude towards this, that, or the other coworker, neighbor, or even pet who annoys us.

I think the point is that going against these negativities in ourselves, going directly against them, is hopeless. We can't go against anything negative in this direct way (although this is how we always try, isn't it?) Instead of going away from the negativity, we need to go towards ourselves, and see ourselves.

In the discovery of the Self, kindness itself is discovered. It comes; it doesn't need to be sought, or called for, it simply arrives, because when it sees that the Self has a wish to know the Self, it wants to be there with it.

This is one of the properties of God.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The taste of life

June 8. This morning, I found myself thinking back to my childhood in Germany, and the distinctive impressions that I collected over the course of many years as a youngster in Europe.

Certainly, it's not the same upbringing most American children received. But there is something distinctly different about my memory of life, and what it consists of. When I roll the taste of it over on my tongue, when I remember how life was, what it was like, for example, to hear The Who play Tommy for the first time—or the sound of cuckoos in the park on a spring morning in Hamburg, or a fossil I found on the banks of the Elbe River—in every case, life had a taste. There was a solidness to it, a flavor, a distinct impression of impressions, a tactile relationship with Being.

At the time, I'm not sure I realized there was anything unusual about this—how can a child know what life should be?—but as I grow older, and spend the majority of an adult lifetime immersed in an inner work, I begin to understand that this quality of perceiving life as an inner taste, of perceiving impressions as food, is unique and remarkable. Truthfully, we forget life is like this; and perhaps we don't realize until much later that an impression left a deep mark in our psyche. The only ones we seem to recognize as doing this kind of thing are traumatic; yet even the gentlest of impressions can carve a pattern in the bedrock of our soul, if we but knew it.

Look back, inside yourself, and trace the marks. Perhaps you will see what I mean.

The taste of this—all of the life that I have ingested—is what I carry in me, all what brings me to here, and now. With all of my questions, uncertainties, and the relentless presence of a fundamental, organic truth that forms a foundation for all of the largely pointless intellectual activity and imagination that takes place.

It's a task, every day, to bring this entire life together to this point, within the organic sense of Being. A gathering has to take place; an inner gathering. There needs to be a conscious collection of forces. First, the forces need to be experienced as forces; anything that takes me away from this direct experience of the inner state as a group of forces is already a collapse into imagination, and that is a regular event. Watch for that.

Second, there needs to be an investment in this force. If I am in any way, shape or form going to encounter or experience what Gurdjieff called the second body, I need to understand that the body is something I inhabit. If there is more than one body in man, it is an inhabitable entity. A tangible understanding of this needs to be acquired.

It's terribly difficult to “tell” anyone how to “do” this; one can't write a set of instructions. To live in the body is to live in the body. One can engage in exercises that are supposed to teach one how to live in the body, but they are exercises. One must just live, in the same way that when one eats food, one must just taste.

You can't teach someone what an orange tastes like.

In any event, there needs to be an investment in the force within the body, an intentional investment in force, a conservation of force, a comprehension and intimate encounter with force. Force may not be a big thing; it may be small, delicate, and yet contain a universe within it. It's the sensitivity that matters here, not how much power there is. Often the greatest power is in the smallest part of something. It goes unnoticed; in the rush to the coarse, which is easily perceived, we race past the fine. But we need to stop and examine the small things carefully.

This could be where we need to begin our collection, our bringing together, of inner forces.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Fundamental change

 There can be a fundamental change.

 This isn't a change in the words, or the ideas; it's not a change in how one approaches things, a new theory, a more stringent, or more stringently applied, discipline. A fundamental change is a change that begins at the root, that has its arising at the foundation of Being.

 This is a change in gravity. It's a change in sensation. It's a change in what is received; in what is perceived. One can't read about this change; it isn't known. One can measure the depths of a practice—or lack of it—by how much of this unstated fact exists, outside the philosophies and assertions, and outside the words that are used to describe.

So there is an unknown change that is a fundamental change. It arises from mystery; it is touched by mystery, and it touches mystery. It is the brother and sister, the mother and the child, of a secret force, a higher energy that we do not know. It has a language, but the language is not the language we speak; it has aspects, but none of them are aspects we are familiar with. It reroutes the premises of life itself, as though the computer were rebooted with a completely new operating system no one has ever seen before. Even the code itself comes from somewhere else. It's not programmed with the mechanical responses we expect and are accustomed to.

There is no work that does not involve wishing for, requesting, a fundamental change. There must be a trust and a faith in work, because one does not know what one is asking for. One must just face the unknown with one's wish, with one's longing, and ask. All that one knows is that one is insufficient. This insufficiency is absolute; and only when being, such as it is in us now, recognizes that, are we driven to the inner desperation that leads us to abandon what we know in the hopes of discovering the real.

So we ask for a change we don't understand. We want to know, perhaps, what gravity is; why birds sing, what causes a flower to grow. And maybe that is all in there; we can't know. But we do know, once we are touched by something real, that everything we know is unreal, has no substance, and that the real is a mystery we have never penetrated.

I remember the moment that I understood this. I was 46 years old, and due to certain inner changes, one morning, I suddenly understood everything quite differently. I saw that I had never understood life; I had lived for 46 years, but I had never actually seen the world around me, or myself.

It was a shocking moment, because I realized that for those 46 years, I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, even though for many of those years I had been in an esoteric work, an ardent student of mystery. And yet I didn't even know what mystery was. I didn't, in fact, even know what life was.  All of this in the midst of a serial certainty that I did know what was—and I didn't.

 The realization broke something in me.

If it is possible to go through that much of life and understand absolutely nothing whatsoever, if one realizes that one has completely mistaken everything—not just one's ideas, values, career, achievements, and so on, but everything, including what is heard, what is seen, what is sensed and touched, and above all, what is felt—if one can completely mistake all of these things, up to and including the fundamental things, that is, the sensory experience of life itself, well, then, what does one know? What can one know?

One can know that a fundamental change is possible. What that means may not be clear; they don't hand out roadmaps.

But what is certain is that nothing is what we think it is.

And most of the time, we don't even know that.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

scale and meaning

In May, I visited two well-known locations in Xi'an, China.

The first is the Grand Mosque in the old muslim quarter of downtown Xi'an, a city at the end of the silk road with thousands of years of history behind it. The link has a photo essay of my visit.

The second location is Famen temple in Xi’an, China, a famous Buddhist location which has undergone considerable change over the last five years. Again, click the link for the photo essay.

This second site, home to a purported relic of the Buddha (a piece of his bone) has been a well-established place of pilgrimage since the Tang Dynasty. The bone, accompanied by numerous truly remarkable pieces of devotional treasure, was concealed in a crypt under the original temple for many centuries. During the cultural revolution, a monk immolated himself rather than open the crypt. The treasures, astonishingly, weren't looted. The crypt (or "underground palace") was finally opened in 1987, and the contents removed, where they are now on display.

A Chinese architect from Taipei, C. Y. Lee, was enlisted to create a massive, in fact staggering, building complex in order to popularize the site and draw more tourists. What we have ended up with is a very modern version of the enormously popular sites of pilgrimage from the Middle Ages, such as Chartres Cathedral. 

The building complex itself is actually rather elegant. Both the scale and the stark simplicity of the style work well. Despite its size and the attendant crowds, it somehow, against all odds, manages to convey an atmosphere of serenity, and it incorporates traditional Buddhist iconography and style with modern architecture in a surprisingly effective manner. This is a considerable feat, when one contemplates the fact that it might well have turned out to be a monstrosity. The scale is designed to remind us of how small we are, and inspire awe; its minimalism evokes an economy of style and a comprehensively elegant austerity. It does, on the other hand, seem in some ways to represent an aggressive commercialization of spiritual practice.

Is it right or wrong? One can't say. (I heard conflicting opinions from my fellow travelers.) It must exist in its own right and be judged for what it is, not what we wish it would be. Almost despite myself (the place was ostentatious, after all) I enjoyed the visit; the impressions were unique. They stood in stark contrast to my visit to the old temple in the Muslim quarters the day before, a small, unusually intimate temple complex, steeped in antiquity and atmosphere.

The temple at Famen may have been built by human beings, but it is hardly on a human scale. On the one hand, one could easily complain that it overwhelms us; on the other, one could argue that its expansive vision represents something vast which we are meant to be reaching for. Both of those elements were present in the impressions one took away. One might furthermore object to its sheer newness; the appeal of the old temple (a replica of which still stands on the site, the original having suffered catastrophic damage over the centuries) lay above all in its age, and the mystery of the crypt — which was preserved, and certainly hasn't been changed much from its original state. But newness has always been an essential element of ground-floor popular and folk traditions; the perception that things which look old have a special aesthetic quality is a distinctly western idea, and a very recent one at that.

The temple in the old Muslim quarter, on the other hand, is on a completely human scale, and there’s nothing new about it. It speaks to an intimacy of practice which is mostly absent in the huge new Temple complex at Famen. Somehow, this modest old mosque strikes me as being all about what it is to be human. And perhaps this contrast represents exactly what has Islamic fundamentalists up in arms in today's world: the loss of human values to something of a scale which overwhelms us, takes away what we are and turns us even more into corporate machines than living organisms. (It must be noted, of course, that ironies abound here; the Hajj to Mecca has been commercialized on a scale that dwarfs the massive temple at Famen. One wonders how long it may be before Islam finds itself in reaction against itself because of situations like this.)

Human nature will probably always find itself torn between these two extremes: the outward, demanding huge displays of wealth, power, and ritual; the inward, demanding an intimate, contemplative understanding of who we are and where we are. 

In the midst of these currents, a man must make a choice about who he is, and what he wants to be.

Esoteric traditions have always taught us that man must make this choice first in an inner sense, and not an outward one. No matter how large the sites of pilgrimage we build are, they mean nothing if we don’t have a sense of ourselves. And it’s only the sense of the intimate — of that which lies within — that can bring us to that. Huge buildings may inspire us, but no matter what we may think, they can't change us. Only we can change ourselves; and that change is an incremental change, that takes place in the tiny cracks and crevices, the concealed places of our being, the ones we can't touch directly without risk of damage.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A natural form of movement

A recent article in nature magazine sheds some new light on the nature of movement.

Lo and behold, it turns out that many–if not all–of our basic brain patterns, but most especially those that govern movement, arise in and emerge from rhythms. So movement and rhythm affect the brain; learning from this, most assuredly, we can understand that engaging the attention in rhythm and movement may change the way that the brain works.

In this model, rhythm is a naturally occurring phenomenon at the microbiological level. Rhythmic patterns in nature, governed by lawful mathematic relationships, give rise to a great deal of the structure we perceive and participate in. It turns out that our posture and are physical manifestations themselves are deeply linked to this phenomenon. So when Gurdjieff taught people movement, he was tapping in to the vast biological reservoirs that mankind has available to him to do his place in the evolutionary scheme.

The authors mention, “... the motor cortex is not the steering wheel, odometer, or speedometer representing real-world information. It is more like an engine, comprised of parts whose activities appear complicated in isolation, but cooperate in a lawful way as a whole to generate motion.” In an interesting way, this reflects the order that emerges in Gurdjieff's movements, when classes perform them. The authors go further to describe that “the entire neural population oscillates as one in a beautiful and lawfully coordinated way.” It might, under other conditions, be construed as a precise description of the impressions we get from the Gurdjieff movements. And it goes further: “each neuron behaves like a player in a band. When the rhythms of all the players are summed over the whole band, a cascade of fluid and accurate motion results.”

 Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that Gurdjieff's movements end up reflecting fundamental laws of the biosphere. What interests me is the emergence of a deep connection between the structures in the brain, the organization of neurons, and the outward expression of rhythm, music, and movement so prevalent in human societies.

The very existence of music, with its rhythmic order, seems to be an outward reflection of substantive organization in the brain. This type of organization in relationship, formed through oscillation (patterns), expressed in community, is a fundamental property of how organisms function. Because music and dance stimulate these parts of the brain in a mirrored action, and since they conform to predispositions in terms of neural structure, they form a feedback between the deepest parts of our brain structure and the outward structure of our societies.

Somehow, music and dance connect us in a very fundamental way to what it means to be human. Engaging in movement is more than an aesthetic form or a sports activity; it's an active exploration of how the brain works. Much of the satisfaction we derive from the use actions probably arises because of their close alignment to the fundamental premises of what we are, and how our bodies work.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A done deal

June 1. Traveling at high speed through Chinese countryside, oleander, magnolias, gray skies and a muted sun. Conditions that cry out for existential questions to accompany them... a post prompted by thoughts from my friend Richard H. in California. Hence, dedicated to him.

Our struggles, which appear to arise and exist within us, are- as Beelzebub so often points out- actually planetary, and astronomical, in nature. Just as we’re host to (or, one might even say, composed of) a colony of microorganisms that in large part dictate not only our physical health, but also our psychological well-being, in a complex and as yet poorly understood reciprocity, so we participate reciprocally in the life of our planet, and the solar system. Organic life creates new conditions for chemical evolution, producing entirely novel compounds and substances; and even man’s consciousness both influences and is influenced by astral and cosmic emanations and radiations.

The way we feel, in other words, doesn’t necessarily belong to us. We believe it ”is” us; yet it isn’t. Our treasured ”personal” inner state is actually an objective reflection of conditions on a much larger scale, as indeed must be the case in any evolutionary, emergent, and reciprocal system. We experience this reflection of conditions subjectively, but the reflection—the action—itself is entirely objective. It can’t be other than what it is. To this extent, all of life and all of experience are in fact deterministic, both from a western philosophical, Buddhist, and Gurdjieffian point of view.

It can be helpful to recognize this. In our zeal to do (ironically, by attempting to see how we can’t do) we forget that there is no doing. Everything is done. To participate in the done is greater than to try to do; in the first case, we fulfill God’s will, whereas in the second we merely presume to take His place, engaging in actions which appear to be volitional but are in fact ordained.

If all our doing were to become, in us, what is done rather than what we are doing, how different things would be. This isn’t a change in action, which is what we so routinely presume must be necessary; it’s merely a change in attitude, a quite different thing. And not just a change in psychological, in intellectual attitude; a three centered, a comprehensive change in attitude, in which a different center of gravity is acknowledged.

Every understanding of esotericism eventually leads us to this question not of doing, but of what is done.

Here we are. The local time is now.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Friday, June 8, 2012

To be intimate

Namaste Dagoba, Xia'an, China

Deepen intimacy with self and others

Please cherish your skin, flesh, bones, and marrow,
Knowing each other, intimate friends become even more intimate.
When someone asks the meaning of coming from the west,
[Bodhidharma] faces the wall for nine years,
Abiding at Shaolin.

—Dōgen, Eihei Kōroku
Leighton & Okumra, Wisdom Publications 2004, p. 313

What does it mean to be intimate?

The Latin roots of the words mean to impress upon, to make known, or, in addition... to eat something. 
Another interpretation is "close friend." 

So being intimate means, on the one hand, to take in impressions, to consume them as food; to gain understanding through an action of ingesting life. On the other hand, it means to be close to one’s self, but not just to be close; it means to be one’s own friend, to have the qualities of friendship in relation to one’s own being.

This idea of the quality of friendship in relation to one’s own being may seem odd, yet I believe we have a rather impoverished experience of this. All the self help books in the world, for example, do little for the truly desperate to improve or bolster their self-image; emotional deficits create chasms in a soul that cannot be backfilled with intellectual material, no matter how much is shoveled in. And simply knowing that we ought to value the self, to nuture the self, is not enough. We ought to know how to value and nuture the self; and we don’t. We aren’t close enough to this idea of friendship, of intimacy, because the vital energies that ought to flow in us, the ”Qi” we need in order to be, is dormant.

To begin with, we ought to befriend ourselves in a quite ordinary way, with a generosity and a quality of forgiveness. Can we start there? Perhaps. It can’t hurt.  Rather than being our own taskmaster—the role we all usually assign ourselves—perhaps we can become our own assistant. This is a different role, and I believe we would all rather have a helper than a man with a whip standing over them. Wouldn’t we?

At the same time, to know the self we need to begin in a place that is rooted at the foundation of being. What does not start there has no chance of going anywhere serious. And this rootedness cannot be discovered without a willingness to question, to question over and over again, who we are and what we are, and why we are. This sense of intimacy, which might lead us to an inner light, is born in darkness and in secret. We can’t find it in books, or perhaps even through prayer; not prayer as we conventionally know it, anyway. 

In calling us to do the impossible, Jeanne de Salzmann calls us to what might be called impossible prayer; a prayer to the unknown, asking for the unknown. And it’s this exact quality of unknowingness that requires us to pray in question, and to hold this question in front of even our questioning itself. To pray, in other words, only with the aim of understanding what it means to pray... because if we admit it to ourselves, we don’t even know this.

We are trying to ingest something about our being; to eat ourselves, to allow what we experience as ourselves to become a kind of food. Is is a quite physical action, not an act of psychology; and yet it is a foreigner, a stranger, because we can’t conceive of food for the soul as anything but psychological. 

The idea that our daily bread might be bread we must knead, bake, and eat ourselves; the idea that sacred action begins with intimacy; this idea is a different one, located at a different point of understanding than our conventions of heaven, hell, and everything that lies in between.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In the Service of Being

 Over the course of my life, many times, I've interacted with individuals who think that they are valuable and important because they are successful in business, creative, or rich. Maybe even all three.

I've been pondering this since yesterday, while I was browsing through C. S. Nott's  Further Teachings of Gurdjieff, in particular, the poignant chapter entitled "The Last Visit to the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man."

 In it, he reminds us, “how futile it is to be attached to, identified with houses and land and all the things pertaining to the planetary body which, though necessary, are ephemeral." (p. 72.)

This chapter also contains a description of Gurdjieff and his all-too-human participation in the descent of an outer octave of his life, one in which he suffered enormously. The picture, for me, underscores the man's compassion and his essential humanity, as well as his nearly superhuman efforts to build something real on a level, and on a planet, where the norm is for everything to steadily decay into illusions.

Nothing characterizes humanity so much, on the level of individuals, as the propensity to believe that we are important.

 In particular, society as it is arranged today, and has been for many thousands of years, depends on the fact that people think they are significant. We think the politics we engage in is important;  we think the way we plunder resources is important. We think our churches, museums, literature, art, and sciences are important. And each one of us is important because we participate in these activities. The more active one is, the more recognized, the more important one is. And the more one “achieves,” the more one's self worth becomes inflated.

This is a dilemma, because one cannot do nothing. A dedication to outward activity is a necessary requirement. Yet this does not truly defined the way in which we are actually important, which relates to the way we take in impressions.

Gurdjieff insisted that a man must first know his own nothingness in order to become anything. As in so many other instances, he turned the cart upside down and left the wheels spinning in the air. What we think we are is pretentious, arrogant; what we might become is unknown. Yet there is a call that comes from the unknown that, no matter how perverted it becomes, leads to all of the expressions we think are important. A paradox? Indeed. I feel it every day. Yet I, like everyone else, am—if my awareness allows me—invested in the irrevocable fact of mortality.

This sobering presence does little to put the brakes on the insanity mankind engages in; sometimes, it seems to press the pedal down harder. Nonetheless, a thinking man or woman can't help but give themselves pause if they sense this question.

The essential fact is that we are here to sense, to perceive. All of the ways in which we think we serve a sacred purpose—mostly in our imagination—are eclipsed by this singleness of purpose, which is a forgotten purpose. The organism has forgotten how to sense and how to perceive. The mind has forgotten how to sense and how to perceive. And as for feeling, well, this finer quality is well-nigh unavailable in ordinary life. Only years of inner work can help bring a person to the point where something of this is sensed.

Gurdjieff's admonition to Ouspensky was to put the attention at the point where impressions enter the body. This is perhaps the axis on which the whole premise of the chemical factory as recounted in In Search of the Miraculous turns. We are here to perceive. We perceive on behalf of something higher. And only to the extent that we perform this task can we feed our organism with anything that might help us acquire Being.

 Without an active participation in perception, everything else is conjecture.

Outwardness has an insistence that must be tamed in the service of Being. It can't be tamed through punishment; although many may try this way. Being requires the cooperation of outwardness, not its subjugation. Seeing outwardness—and all of the automatic, unmindful manifestations that accompany it—as the enemy only creates more obstacles. Outwardness can become a support to work, as long as one understands one's own essential nothingness. It's the encounter with outwardness that actually helps create Being. Only our identification with it prevents us from making it a useful factor in this sacred task of perception.

I think what we lack, actually, maybe a right attitude towards outwardness. We're always trying to either be outwardness itself, in an absolute absorption and identification, or trying to push it away and deny it so that we can be "pure."

Yet it isn't the outward form, the world, that  contaminates us. It's our relationship to it. And much of the problem with that relationship begins with the fact that we think we are important.

If I want to suffer what I lack, pondering the questions in this piece of territory are a good place to begin.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Don't mix things up

American Elm Tree
Tallman State Park, New York

It occurs to me that there's a temptation to try and apply what one learns about life through inner work, and somehow directly apply it to outer life. That is to say, we want to mix our work up with our life. We may think that work in life involves taking some work principle, like the law of three or the law of seven, and using it like a screwdriver to apply to a relationship, our job, or some other situation.

In a certain abstract sense, it's true that everything functions according to laws of this nature. But the delusion that we can somehow apply them is dangerous. Understanding of law is mostly useful from the point of view of understanding one's own inner development—not outer brouhaha. And the act of mixing the perceiving, the seeing, with what takes place is a form of adultery.

 The act of seeing, the act of inner observation, ought to be a sacred act. The act of perceiving is what God sent us here to do. It's not supposed to be contaminated by having us use it to "do" this, that, or the other thing. It is supposed to exist by itself, in a pure state, as itself, as what it is.

It needs to be separated, alone, and secret.

The stillness of inner work lies within the seeing. There is never any stillness in outer manifestation—outer manifestation is always a stirring of water. The inner life, the perception, needs to be quite clearly understood, seen, and held apart from life. Not aloof from life—that would be quite different, because the inner part does have an action, but the action belongs to itself. Seeing belongs to itself. Perceiving belongs to itself. Trying to throw them into the muddy water serves nothing.

 Separating oneself from one's self is allowing the part that is still to be still, and the part that must be a movement to be in movement. They come together within a moment of consciousness, but they are separated. Mistaking one for the other is a mistake; trying to force one to be the other is a mistake. And so much of what we think is inner work unfortunately consists of trying to force what is in action and movement, what is and must forever be external, to be still and internal. We have a square peg and we are trying to ram it into the round hole of our inner life.

One can't begin to understand this principle of not mixing without many years of work. Anything that one comes too quickly which one thinks answers this question or explains the situation is already wrong, because what we seek is a flavor that only develops in Being after many long years where the pot has been quietly simmering on the back of the stove. A great deal of patience is needed in order to begin to approach this understanding.

The arising of meaning through relationship can't be perceived without the act of seeing. But the act of seeing needs to be a secret, an inner action of an intimate nature that is never on public display, and never intentionally mixed with the outer. It must be perceived itself, and even this third force of interaction between the inner and the outer must be understood as a question of a relationship, not a thing.

Conscious awareness of that which sees, which stands one step back from life as a presence that is vertical, upright, correctly aligned within Being—this can be an aim. Gradually, one begins to see how one inhabits two different parts, and must maintain an intelligent and responsible consciousness towards both of them.

This tripartite form of experience brings with it a meaning that grows within the organism and the psyche, not within the achievements of external life.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

What Things Mean

Tang Dynasty Tomb Guardian, detail
Shanghai Museum

It's a strange thing that we insist on trying to assign meaning to the external action of life, when it's so clear that man's affairs have relatively little meaning.

Meanings understood through the sciences, that is, meanings related to the biological and physical worlds—by this, I mean the world of chemistry, physics, and so on—are fairly objective. Contrasted, the day-to-day external events in life, which seem to be going in one direction or another (almost always an imaginary direction, which turns out to have been misperceived) are almost entirely subjective.

 Reality consists of relationships, not things. Everything, down to quantum interaction, is composed of relationship. It is the interaction of energies that creates what we perceive as things. So things in and of themselves have no meaning; relationship has meaning—action has meaning.

An inner sense of the world brings with it the understanding that it is the inner sense of the world that determines how relationship is received, perceived, and understood. None of this receiving, perceiving, or understanding can be readily expressed through any verbal constructions. Of course, we're left with the problem—and the responsibility—of trying to squeeze this verbal toothpaste out of the tube. One way or another, words need to be implemented in order to share relationship—yet by rights we ought to know quite clearly that meaning is not vested within the words. Ultimately, meaning is vested in the action, and words always remain a poor conveyor of what is actually taking place. 

We forget this every five seconds.

The Zen tradition, with its superficially baffling and essentially mysterious exchanges between masters—including questions that don't have any rational answers—is merely a reflection of this problem which are written in the texts of the practice. Over and over again, they allude to the fact that the practice is what is real, not the texts.

The danger with relying on texts is that we think this is what things mean. It's a danger with this space, because people read it, and somehow think that meaning can be gleaned here; it's a problem with books like Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson, because once again, people think that meaning can be gleaned from it; it's a problem even with The Reality of Being, a book that quite forthrightly states that meaning arises through relationship, and not anywhere else—making the book, in a certain ironic sense, subtly and supremely superfluous to its own message.

One of the reasons that allegory more properly conveys meaning is because it is an action—its meaning arises through activity, not through a static statement of fact. The activity is an inner activity, not an outer one, and the meaning arises from within, not from outside. Every human being attempts to construct meaning from arisings outside of their inner life, rather than the other way around. Without a proper sense of the inner, the outer—the other—will never make sense. And since almost no one has a proper inner sense, no outer arisings ultimately fall into any kind of intelligible alignment. We are faced with the chaos of an external life that remains unpredictable and bewildering.

 We want meaning—but we can't get it. It can't be pinned down, and we can't hold it anywhere. Meaning is an evolving structure, and investing oneself in any particular part of it at the expense of the evolution carries a price.

The experience itself is the meaning in life. This has some subtle aspects be explored in the next post.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.