Tuesday, July 31, 2012


One of Gurdjieff's famous aphorisms is "Take the understanding of the East and the knowledge of the West, and then seek."

 There are arguments afoot as to whether or not Gurdjieff was an original, or a synthesist. Some claim his work was truly unique; others, that he cribbed it together from other sources.

I think the important point of the aphorism is that we are supposed to synthesize. Gurdjieff did not posit a static work, whether inner or outer, that stays in one place and becomes paralyzed by ideologies. He was actively interested in the sciences, and his own understanding and knowledge evolved during the course of his life—as it must for any man. He probably would have agreed with the  Dalai Lama, who, when asked what  Buddhism would do if science proved one of its tenets incorrect, replied, laughing, "Well, then, Buddhism would have to change." Or words to that effect.

 That is to say, Gurdjieff's understanding, were he alive today, would have continued to evolve and keep pace with discoveries in the sciences. It's absurd to contend that he might have stayed paralyzed in a mindset born of outdated or incomplete knowledge. One can't strive to "know ever more and more about the laws of world creation and world maintenance" unless one is willing to allow both one's knowledge and one's understanding to change. And in an evolving structure, slavish efforts to  retroactively fit every new piece of information that comes along to an old model isn't necessarily helpful. Rigidity can impart strength to structures under some conditions, but under others it can also impart weakness.

My recent essays on intelligence and emergence have examined some of our current ideas about biology and consciousness in light of Gurdjieff's teachings on the enneagram. Gurdjieff did not have the benefit of understanding these questions from the perspective of emergence or fractals; although versions of these ideas had been examined by the time he was alive, their implications were poorly understood, and their influences, insofar as they may have been intuited, were consequently underestimated. It does seem, however, as though these ideas dovetail into Gurdjieff's conception of the cosmos; and, we can be certain, he would have been interested in them.

In any event, our responsibility is to take the understanding of the East and the knowledge of the West today, and then seek. We can't use yesterday's understanding or yesterday's knowledge; the only understanding and knowledge that we can use belongs to the present moment, and it is always evolving. Because there is an infinite amount of understanding and knowledge to be acquired, what we do have will always be imperfect, markedly imperfect, because of the sheer impossibility of understanding or knowing even a tiny fraction of all there is to understand and know. Taking refuge in dogma of any kind may provide a certain comfort, but from the point of view of acquiring understanding, it's worthless.

 Hence Gurdjieff's adage to question everything.

 We have an East and a West inside ourselves. We may not sense it that way very often, but there certainly are understandings and us—even though they may be small ones—and we have certainly packed ourselves with knowledge of various kinds. It is the synthesis of these two forces, their interaction within us, that produces a dynamic and flexible approach to our lives.

We ignore this fact at our peril.

 I respectfully hope you will take good care.

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