Friday, January 17, 2014

Skillful means

Every touch of the Lord is meant to remind me of Him, and help me remember to turn my face towards Him; yet I always forget. In fact, although there may be remembering in me (there is, now) there is little trust; I would much rather trust in outwardness of life than inwardness of faith, even though I understand quite clearly the difference between the two, and the great superiority of inward faith over outward actions.

It puzzles me year after year. One would think that an intelligent person would not make this mistake, and yet it is consistent.

The Buddhists call techniques skillful means; and surely Gurdjieff's original teachings, as expounded by Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous, appear to be long on technique. The approach to inner work is nothing, here, if not technical... an extended exercise in explanations, understandings, and analysis. If ever there were a spiritual effort founded on the precise and frightening arts of vivisection, this is it.

Yet the inner work which Gurdjieff brings us undergoes a metamorphosis; and it begins, metaphorically, at the end of Ouspensky’s book, where the two men part ways because Ouspensky cannot, as he reports, take any things on faith—Gurdjieff has become, in his eyes, too religious for his tastes. And indeed, the next literary installment of Gurdjieff's work (Beelzebub's Tales) embarks on a grand tour of human history filled with anecdotes—an alembic that distills inner work until all the math and science is boiled off, leaving only the concentrated, warm, and mysterious stuff of the soul and its struggle. The scalpel is put away in favor of a heart that beats, unseen and undisturbed, in the breast of man, fueled not by sciences, but the far more evocative property of conscience.

Even the final iteration of the Gurdjieff method as expounded by Jeanne de Salzmann in The Reality of Being preserves more of the mystery than the mathematics; yet the skillful means still seem to be there, buried beneath her repeated calls to non-form.

The tension in the questions of the Gurdjieff work itself mirror, in other words, the tension between the inner and the outer- the struggle between formlessness and form- that we confront in our own inner effort. We have to both create a form and, at the same time, give it up: a paradox worthy of Greek myths and Armenian magicians. No wonder that one of Gurdjieff's earliest and most famous (though perhaps least referred to) works was a play called The Struggle of the Magicians... and that his enneagram recapitulates the descent of the soul into the depths of the material with all its divided iterations, only to attempt, on the grand scale of acquired Being, to rise again towards that transcendant unknown from which it came, shedding the cast-off skin of the ego like a snake willing to sacrifice all the outer trappings of its existence in the trust of some greater, as yet unknown, good.

All well and good, this allegory, you may say; yet why consider it? It is, it seems to me, so important; because we live in an age enamored of the technical, and because so many of the ancient spiritual arts, tantric and yogic alike, rely (it seems) on those very same "skillful means" to achieve... charting our inner journey as a progression, an ascending arc built on escalating stairs of inner energy and predictable logics.

Yet who has ever really experienced God through such means? He does not, so far as I can see, obey our rules; nor should He. The whole point, perhaps, of God is that His ways are impossible to comprehend; yet we build whole outer works and, yes, even our own inner effort (at least we think we build it) on those same rules we claim He must, by His very nature, transcend.

In the end, in order to accept the reality of God, we must first believe, and then understand, the opposite of what the seminary student once asserted: God not only can beat the ace of spades with a deuce; he must beat it.

It is in His very nature.

We cannot, in summary, have a God that loses at cards, any more than we can have one we reach by climbing ladders of our own making. So the skillful means, no matter how much we love them, must go; and we then face a void much greater than any esoteric sciences can bridge.

It is somewhere in that measureless chasm that the truth lies; and if we wait, breathless and suspended, it may come to us; but not by any paths we chart.


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