Monday, January 6, 2014
The essence of choice, part II
If you have not by nature a critical mind your staying here is useless.
This is one of the aphorisms inscribed on the walls of the study house at the Prieuré. The word critical is derived from the Greek krinein, to judge, or decide.
So it's a call to discernment. Let us not forget that discernment requires an intention to discern.
If considered in detail, these aphorisms reveal interesting features of how Gurdjieff understood certain questions. In the first post in this series, we examined the aphorism if you already know it is bad and do it, you commit a sin difficult to redress. This apparently simple aphorism needs to be probed at greater depth in order to understand its implications.
In the first place, to be able to know it is bad directly implies the ability to discriminate, to judge. This is a function of the critical mind; and above all, it directly indicates the presence of Swedenborg's intention, that is, a capacity for choice. Gurdjieff hereby unambiguously indicated that we have the ability to discriminate, then choose—and, furthermore, that this ability is essential if we wish to avoid committing sin.
Secondly, we see that Gurdjieff indubitably believed that there were right and wrong actions — as well as our ability to identify them by knowing that some are bad. There's no sophistry here; the statement is direct and simple, and constitutes evidence of the firm grounding of his practice in the history of traditional religious understandings. So we have the capacity to know what is right or wrong, and the capacity to act on it. This inherently describes the action of choice, which is related to intention. In this aphorism, we see that intention determines the nature of sin. That is, an intention that is bad creates a sin that is difficult to undo.
One might argue this is, in essence, a very brief recapitulation of Swedenborg's entire teaching, without the angelic hosts that accompany it. But Gurdjieff did, after all, populate his universe with a plethora of angelic hosts. So one can hardly divorce his ideas and attitudes from those of Swedenborg; their angelic populations took on different literary guises, but they were amply present in both cases.
In examining these two aphorisms, we see that we are called to self-awareness in order to exercise discernment, judgment. Our judgment exists in order to help us distinguish between selfish and unselfish action — admittedly, I am reading that into the two aphorisms, but we can do so quite readily when we factor in Gurdjieff's distinction between inner considering and outer considering, which are quite clearly, by turn, selfish and unselfish action: The chief means of happiness in this life is the ability to consider externally always, internally never. This aphorism indicates quite clearly that service to others — another chief feature of Swedenborg's teachings — is essential to actual, as opposed to superficial, happiness.
The implication that we have the capacity to discriminate and the capacity to choose and act seems to contradict Gurdjieff's admonition that man cannot "do." But that statement, often misunderstood, actually related to a far more esoteric question: the opening to and receiving of a higher energy. Man cannot, categorically, "do" that. But all of the ordinary action related to life on this level — that, man can "do."
And, as the aphorisms show, the manner in which a man "does" all of that is essential in forming the character of his Being and the nature, such as it stands, of his sinfulness.
Sin, in all its varieties, implies by default the judgment of a higher power upon us. This, as well, is an entirely traditional feature of most religious landscapes. Gurdjieff did not set himself apart from the traditions here, either; and both he and Swedenborg indicated that this matter is of great consequence in regard to the life of the soul.