Thursday, May 14, 2015
A brief history of inner work, part I: experimental subjects are irradiated
This question tempted me to ponder the idea that I might dare to have an opinion on this matter.
One ought, I said to myself, to be very, very careful in pondering such possibilities, and even more very ultra-careful in saying anything specific about such things, for fear of treading soundly on the toes of power-possessing Beings spread across the wide (but also small) world of Gurdjieff studies. And even, for that matter, close personal friends and associates in formally established Gurdjieff circles, to whom I owe not only the deepest respect, but even, in many cases, a certain kind of fealty.
This reminds me of an expository statement my daughter made about academics yesterday. She explained that the process of becoming a respected academic involves having everyone argue with everyone else and disagree ever more and more intensely; and the higher one rises in the ranks, the more controversial and disliked one becomes. In the end, once one becomes an acknowledged leader in one's field, one reaches the level of near-universal dislike, and unrelenting criticism.
It is, in other words, exactly like politics... well, hell, it is politics.
And the Gurdjieff work—as Betty Brown told me many times indeed— is politics, as well.
So, intuiting that this subject may expose me to the radiation of politics, which inevitably kills anything it touches, I must first state unequivocally that I don't know much about this subject my dearly beloved one so indelicately asked me about.
If, however, I did think I knew anything—what I thought I knew might sound something like what follows.
Gurdjieff left an unfinished, perhaps even failed, work.
This must be said respectfully, because any serious task human beings undertake is always, to some extent, failed and unfinished, life being what it is. It is in the nature of things to be humble enough to admit our failures and admit that work is never good enough and never done; indeed, in the Zen tradition, it is always said that every pupil must go farther than his or her master. So incompleteness and failure is, as perverse as this may sound, an objective badge of honor; and the admission of it is a worthy thing.
Throughout the course of his life, Gurdjieff continually reinvented his work. His methods were revised; he tried first one thing and then another, always searching for the right combination. Theory, music, writing; breathing exercises, meetings, crazed road trips.
No methods lay too far outside his reach.
But let's call a spade a spade. If the man had truly known how to help people transform their inner life—if he actually had a method that "worked"—such constant experimentation would not have been necessary. Let us recall his remark in Wartime Transcripts:
Questioner: ... I wanted to ask you if there was, for developing attention, only the method of "I am" or if there are other special methods?
Gurdjieff: One thing I can tell you. Methods do not exist. (meeting 15.)
We can, then, intuit that whatever he brought to the west—whatever esoteric schools it came from— was and remains a work in progress.
He had no final answers: and as he himself rather cynically admitted, he conducted some of his schools as experiments using guinea pigs, a matter he wrote openly about in Herald of Coming Good, a book which proved so embarrassing (read, revealing) that it is said he and his pupils later tried (unsuccessfully) to remove it from publication.
Comfortable or not, there was more truth to it than anything else; but the idea of inner work as experimental process makes people profoundly uncomfortable.
What if the experiments go wrong?
I will examine this unsettling question in the next post.