Thursday, July 30, 2015

The inner landscape

 When we talk about spiritual work, we rarely encounter the idea of our inner being as a landscape — that is, an environment populated by an extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna, all growing things in constant movement and interaction with each other.

Yet our inner life is a direct reflection of the outer world — or, one might even say, it is the other way around, but that is a more complex metaphysical question. Let's just say that our inner life displays many characteristics that mirror the environments and ecosystems of the outer world — it's just that they are all hidden, metaphysical entities, metaphysical in the sense that while they all manifest within the physical body, they create this field, or landscape, which we call consciousness.

Consciousness has to be cultivated, just as a wild landscape needs to be tended to in order to organize it, if a person is to interact with it in anything other than the way a wild animal does.

One could argue that the entire process of consciousness is a landscaping process, since the seeds of awareness, both self-awareness and societal awareness, need to be planted in human beings from a young age and then carefully fertilized, cultivated, tended, and pruned to take a particular shape or form. The ideas and knowledge, the understandings, that a child is introduced to are (one hopes!) carefully juxtaposed against one another to produce a desired result (responsibility, maturity, and compassion come to mind); and the way in which unwanted ideas and directions are pruned and trimmed, the way parents either root or uproot concepts in their children, is analogous to the tending of bonsai trees.

There is, in other words, a deep link between the ecosystems and biology of our outer world, and the ecosystems and biology of our inner world. They function in similar manners. No matter how much a parent prunes and tends the child, and no matter how much a gardener prunes and tends his plants, the plant and the child must always ultimately assume responsibility for their own growth and find their own way within the landscape. Parents and gardeners can be no more than guides, although they may be good ones; and the landscape itself is always informed by, and grows through, the light that falls on it and the soil it contains.

This idea of light (incoming impressions) and soil (already existing materials) are closely aligned with Gurdjieff's understanding of the blending of new impressions with what has already been received; the present is built on the work of the past, the action is always highly interactive, growth never stops, and spiritual ideas (conscious effort) can only take place in appropriate environments, just as you can't plant a shade plant in bright sunlight, or vice versa.

If we saw our inner being in its constantly transitional state, understood the organic nature of being which we have already received and dwell within, and the dynamic nature of the new incoming impressions of life, which feed us for further growth in the same way that the sun feeds a plant, we might have a new and more tactile impression of the complexity of our inner life and our outer being.

It's my impression that Zen landscapes were meant to impart such a teaching in the juxtaposition of the Zendo and the garden that surrounds it; and it is to this piece of territory that we will turn in the next post.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Landscape and memory

Flower arrangement
Daikaku-Ji, Kyoto

Over the last few years, my wife has introduced me to a number of striking, original, and highly unusual landscapes and gardens, which caused me to reevaluate my estimation of gardening and landscaping as an art form.

To be sure, this has been an art form since ancient times; yet while we buy and sell small, often relatively insignificant and drab paintings by very famous artists for staggering sums of money — tens and perhaps even hundreds of millions of dollars, by now — there is no aftermarket for great gardens, nor has the art world managed to wrap its relatively small mind around the achievements in this area, which in many cases stand well above achievements by painters, sculptors, and the like — the former whose works often accidentally (or not) represent such gardens in their measured and crafted approach to landscape painting, and the latter, whose works are so often placed in such landscapes.

The lowly gardener, it seems, is too humble — his hands buried in dirt and tangled in twigs — to be worth all that money. The landscape, in modern times, simply becomes a setting for architectural gems (again, the buildings are perversely perceived as being more important than the landscapes they sit in) or an advertisement of the wealth and power of the landscape owner.

 Landscaping, in the meantime, has quietly persisted as an intelligent and extraordinarily aesthetic craft that manages to operate under the radar of the cognoscenti, the movers and shakers that determine what is aesthetically important. One can imagine, on almost any day, an article in CNN or the times extolling the virtue of a van Gogh or a Monet sold at Sotheby's or Christie's for $50 million; but when was the last time you read about a garden, Bonsai tree, or flower arrangement changing hands for a huge sum of money? Not gonna happen.

Having spent my entire life immersed in the arts, I come to the realization that landscaping is a high art very late in the ballgame — yet realization it is. No one can visit the mannerist Gardens in Italy or the Zen gardens in Kyoto without beginning to understand that man's interaction with his landscape ranks among the highest of all arts, even though we take it for granted. There could be a great deal more attention paid to this art; yet in most Western countries, it is an afterthought for all those except the small percentage addicted to the understanding of plants and their propagation. The Japanese clearly have a much greater understanding of this sensibility and art form; and their landscape reflects it. This isn't to say that the Japanese have been unflagging and attentive stewards of their environment—far from it. But they do craft better living environments and landscapes than we do.

Our landscape has the potential to be invested with an enormous amount of aesthetic and symbolic value, always in movement. Some ancient cultures understood their entire way of being through this mode of potential, growth, and change. (On the matter of the perception of life as a process of becoming, see my friend Stephen Houston's extraordinarily fine and interesting book, The Life Within—Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence.)  Only when we encounter mannerist landscapes as original as the Parco dei Mostri do we begin to understand the potential for landscape and gardening to inform the subliminal; and only when we encounter formal gardens such as the Villa Lante can we begin to understand the potential for formal gardens to express the aesthetic of inner perfection from a Western point of view.

The gardens and landscapes of Zen temples are another matter entirely, so it would seem; and yet the heart and soul of Zen gardening practice springs from the same hearts that beat in the same breasts as those of Western men and women. There is a deep and unspoken kinship between gardeners, the world around; it is a universal language. It remains forever unspoken except in the souls of those who walk the paths and taking the impressions; yet everyone understands it.

I'm not sure why we don't value this very high art form more; so much could be done to change that, yet it seems unlikely. Nonetheless, my musings on landscape and gardening led me to a group of insights and ideas about Zen gardening practice which I will continue to discuss in the next few posts.

One last note before I close out this post. Readers interested in a more in-depth treatment of the question of human beings in the relationship to landscape ought to read Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory,  an utterly fascinating book.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

What is self-individuality?

Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto

Some additional musings on this subject.

Gurdjieff used the term self-individuality  term to describe what he called a “perfection of Being.” 

This is, furthermore, a degree of perfection of Being, not the ultimate perfection of being. Perfection, in other words, is not perfection. To be perfect is to be in a state such as to allow no further improvement, to adhere to an ideal. In this case, we can clearly infer that perfection is hierarchical... that is, that a degree of perfection can be such that there are still other perfections possible, that there are, in other words, still imperfections within this degree of perfection.

We can liken this to a single note within an octave, which can be tonally pure and perfect within itself, refelcting an exact and conforming rate of vibration, yet allowing that other notes of higher rates of vibration exist. 

While we can be sure it’s a higher than ordinary degree of being,Self-individuality thus contains imperfections. One can come to the inner realization of self-individuality without being perfect.

My thought on it, based on some pondering—in conjunction with a number of years of experience in such matters—is that a state of self-individuality is such that one is able to realize one’s imperfections

It is, in other words, an awakening into what I am; not what I wish to be. This though relates to my recent post about the same subject.

I think, as I experience and analyze myself through the thinking mind, that I am seeing something about how I am; yet its only and ever through this sensing of what I am through sensation that I really gain any traction on the question of my actual being, as opposed to my theoretical being. Everything od the mind is of a theoretical being; only through the living medium of experiential sensation can the theory be tested. 

It is this testing of the theory of what and who I am that’s truly interesting; this takes place not within the mind but within the organism. The mind reveals itself to be a rather untethered creature, wandering here and there; tied to the body, its attention deficit begins to find a compensatory mechanism. 

I'm not what I want, or wish, to be; through sensation (not thought) I begin to see my insufficiencies. This is a form of trial, because it appears that I have to go through this life, which is a quite difficult task now, seeing more clearly. 

There is a long distance to go within this experience, and there are no guarantees. Attainment of responsibility does not confer a guarantee of honor.


Friday, July 24, 2015

The fifth obligolnian striving: an inner meaning

Bamboo forest, Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto

“The fifth: the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred 'Mart-fotai,' that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.”

This particular striving would, of itself, seem to resist inner interpretations. It seems so outwardly directed, doesn't it?

This striving represents the fifth note, or sol, of the progression.

That is the heart-note; it is the moment of passage into true Being, which confers not only a new freedom, but a capacity for selfless and compassionate action. It is, in other words, a transitional stage, a change in state, representing the potential for movement from inner towards outer. Only when real inner Being is established can change in outer Being be affected. This is where we encounter the heart-meaning of the practice; the deeply emotional territory which Gurdjieff's progressive inner work intends to help us encounter.

The striving echoes the Bodhisattva vow to assist all sentient Beings; and this isn’t possible until one has assumed a different level of inner responsibility, as outlined in the first four strivings.

Each striving requires an inner effort; this one, too, requires something of me from within. The implication is that even with a well developed inner attitude, and meaningful payment for, so to speak, one’s sins, I am still not enough inclined to help others; else, no striving would be needed. Indeed all the strivings represent an inner wish, an inner impulse towards the good; although this isn’t explicitly stated, we can understand each striving as a striving towards the good by default. They culminate in a striving towards the ultimate good; and that ultimate good is an inner wish for the sacred development of all Beings, not just myself. That development should be “most rapid;” an interesting remark, written as it is by a man who warned his pupils not to be in a hurry.

And what of this “degree of Self-individuality?” The organic sensation of Being, we may recall, creates one’s individuality; by individuality, we understand, furthermore, a self which is undivided. This undivided self arises through an inhabitation of Being through sensation. The fifth striving, in other words, confers a sense of circularity on the process, since it refers back to the awareness one seeks within the first striving.

It is not putting too fine a point on it to mention that this question of inner sensation of Being, along with the sense of personal intimacy it confers, is the fulcrum on which the entire premise of inner work is leveraged. It penetrates the substrate of the question, forming a structure that supports all other Being. The understanding that this foundational impulse steadily expands outward from its core, blossoming in the end into a compassionate inclusion of all other Beings, is a magnificent one; it forms both a whole work and a whole understanding where meaning centers around an organic compassion and an organic goodness, different from and superior to our intellectual conceptions of the matter.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The fourth obligolnian striving: an inner meaning

Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto

“The fourth: the striving, from the beginning of one's existence, to pay as quickly as possible for one's arising and individuality, in order afterward to be free to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our Common Father.”

Upon the encounter with this higher influence, a new type of inner responsibility is incumbent. The responsibility begins with a sense of indebtedness; I see, through the active presence of the inflow and a more direct, personal, and intimate feeling-experience of the natural sacred-impulse which ought to arise in all Beings, how I owe; how so much I take for granted has been given.

It’s worth nothing here that Gurdjieff said that our individuality arises from the organic sensation of Being; (see wartime meetings) so his use of the word individuality here is critical. The beginning of one’s existence starts not at organic birth—in that sense, everyone exists. It’s the beginning of one’s inner existence that is in question here; and that inner existence comes into being, becomes alive within the heart, only with the inner action of the first two strivings. 

As the strivings progressively arise and knit themselves together, in other words, I begin to see that they recapitulate a single, whole entity or action; its a living process of coming into being that can’t be so easily separated into discrete parts.

I remember distinctly the days following my own inner, organic awakening; it was clear to me then, as it ever is to me now, that I had never actually been alive before it took place. I spent forty-six years on the surface of this planet, in other words, before I was ever born; the difference was both astonishing and devastating. It’s a difficult thing to live so long and discover it was not actually life, but just a preparation for it. One learns very practically under such circumstances that one’s arising and individuality are very much a function of inner transformation, not the simple matter of one’s birth in a physical body. 

How do I pay for such a situation? Much has been given; one "arises" (enters into more conscious Being) strictly through Grace, no matter how much effort one has expended on the path. Will only serves as a template for Grace, not an arbiter; and so much as one receives, so much must one also pay.

The way Gurdjieff has phrased it makes it clear enough that our arising and individuality come first, as givens, only after which they must be paid for. The implication (and the inevitably correct understanding, should one eventually and organically understand it) is that an inner transformation comes, after which one is required to assume responsibility and pay for the blessing of Being. 

I pay through remorse of conscience; the coin of the realm is denominated in humility, confessional, repentance, and reverence. I pay, in other words, emotionally, through contrition, which is an action of loving God for His own perfections.

This payment frees me; and what it frees me from above all is the entanglement of ego.

That freedom allows me to lighten the burden of the sorrow of our Common Father. The action does not, however, begin with selfless, charitable outer action.  It is again an inner action, referring to the mystical transubstantiation of the cosmic substance of sorrow itself, which is one of the most refined elements in the universe. This element of sorrow, which permeates all creation, can be received and digested by the human organism, but only under the inner conditions outlined by the action of the first four strivings. 

It might seem unique and impossible to imagine a universe where the transubstantiation of such a thing... A particle of the emanations of God Himself... could be undertaken by so small and insignificant an entity, but here we have to rely on the biological analogy of our own digestive system and understand it from the perspective that the nourishment of our own bodies depends on a molecular process, mediated at the cellular level. When it comes to digestion, tiny entities must always do the work for much larger ones. That is a law.

The digestion of this substance of sorrow nourishes God; we are able to participate in this mystery, but we cannot be said to understand it. It draws each person who encounters such work into a deeply emotive relationship with the divine; this relationship is highly personal, and its depth and scope of action are highly dependent upon individual circumstance. 


Monday, July 20, 2015

The third obligolnian striving: an inner meaning

Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto

“The third: the conscious striving to know ever more and more about the laws of world-creation and world-maintenance.”

This striving appears in most ways to point towards an understanding of outer, cosmic laws; and indeed much intellectual muscle has been exercised over the many decades since it was published trying to understand the work ideas, the book (Beelzebub’s Tales, that is) and perhaps even Gurdjieff himself from this point of view. 

I don’t at all agree with such a limited interpretation of this striving, however; for while it has a definite validity, I have grown increasingly convinced over the course of my life that this striving refers above all to the laws of inner world creation and inner world maintenance. Only when these laws are so understood and attended to can any outer law begin to make sense. 

Outer laws, such as we see them, are mechanical, a point Swedenborg made all too clear in his very useful distinction between natural understanding and spiritual understanding. To understand the material universe and how it works is natural understanding; yet this is only ever a mirror for the truly higher nature of spiritual understanding, which is arrived at through an inner experience of the laws. Indeed, it might be said that no law ever means anything to a person (even if he is clobbered over the head by it) unless he or she has had a direct inner experience of it.

When I attempt to understand the laws of inner world creation and world maintenance—the concomitant question of responsibility ever-present, looking over my left shoulder—I see how little I really understand. As my work grows more and more inner, I see more and more how truly disorganized and unformed my inner world is. It is only in the context of my sensation and feeling capacities (the aim, so to speak, of the first two strivings) that I begin to see the possibility of a new and meaningful inner order—a sense of verticality, as Frank Sinclair has so often said. 

It’s this sense of verticality, which does not belong to or come from me, that begins to restore an inner order; and indeed the laws of world creation and world maintenance do in fact turn on this receiving of a higher influence (or inflow, as Swedenborg called it, a term I myself prefer) if a new inner order is to be born.

It is precisely this understanding of how a higher influence acts that this particular striving alludes to; and “to learn ever more and more” means, simply enough, to come ever more and more under this influence through a direct, experiential recognition of its presence and action. The inflow teaches; we learn. 

This examination of the matter helps, perhaps, to highlight how much difference there is between the inner and outer understanding of these strivings.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

The second obligolnian striving: an inner meaning

Screen, Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto

“The second striving: to have a constant and unflagging instinctive need to perfect oneself in the sense of Being.”

Gurdjieff said to his pupils more than once that they must work from intuition and instinct, not intellect and sentiment. The inner work, in other words, ought to come from a deeper place in ourselves than the structures we can manufacture out of ideas that support our inner work. 

In order to do this, I need to become a dowser instead of a plumber; there is more good witchery to any instinct than there is chemistry. The chemistry may come, but its not the chemistry of textbooks; it’s a rich blend of herbs, simmered slowly over a low fire. This implies attention; and that attention ought to be constant and unflagging in a deeply inner sense, not in the sense of an outward attention whose courage is screwed, so to speak, to the sticking point. (The witches know the inner state, whereas Macbeth only knows his outer one.)

This constant and unflagging instinctive need is an engine that drives inner work; and that need arises organically, intimately, from the roots of the sensation alluded to in the first striving. The process is, in other words, additive; first, a higher level of sensation of the body is necessary, and only then can a second and more urgent necessity—the desire (need) to perfect one’s Self, which is a powerful (constant and unflagging) feeling-based impulse towards the sacred—which lies within the essential nature of Self-perfection within Being.

To strive for perfection in the sense of Being must, as we can see, be construed in terms of three-centered action; hence the emphasis, in the first and second striving, on the physical and emotional arrangement of the inner life.

In both the first and second strivings, there is an unspoken call to perception of Being through a finer set of faculties; the organism needs to receive the impressions of Being through different minds than the mind of the intellect. The two strivings call me towards a tactile, not intellectual, experience of life; but I need to peer beneath the surface of the strivings in order to better understand them from an inner point of view.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

The first obligolnian striving: an inner meaning

Zen painting, Tenryu-ji, Kyoto

"The first striving: to have in one's ordinary being-existence everything satisfying and really necessary for the planetary body."

This sounds very much like a call to meeting the outer needs of the body; food, drink, sex, shelter, and so on. Yet a man or woman can have all of those things, even in excess, and not be satisfied. I’m drawn to understand what is truly satisfying, and what is truly necessary.

In order to understand this properly from an inner point of view, I need to understand it beginning with the organic sensation of Being. Nothing in the planetary body is truly satisfying until and unless this requirement of inner being-sensation is met; and so the first striving really turns upon a very critical and intimate, fully organic understanding, which is, I should stress, what is really necessary. The question of necessity, in this case, turns upon the point of what is necessary for Being; and we can, without any doubt, turn to the extensive body of work on this question established by Jeanne de Salzmann (see The Reality of Being) for a foundational understanding of the type of satisfaction and necessity intimated by the first striving.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The five obligolnian strivings: inner meanings—an introduction

Koi, Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto, Japan

Reading a thoughtful and well- constructed essay on developing a practical relationship to the five obligolnian strivings, I was drawn to a consideration of the inner meaning of these five strivings... that is to say, a series of questions and ponderings regarding the mystical implications of the teaching. 

This was not so much a didactic exercise as an attempt on my own part to organize and distinguish my own thinking on these matters.

The outward questions in regard to these strivings are compelling ones; yet in attempting to fathom the gist, or essence, of the Gurdjieff work one must also reach towards the inner meaning, the heart-meaning, as it were, of Gurdjieff’s practice. I say the heart-meaning, because it is the emotional level of vibration that both contains and conveys the highest level of meaning available to us. Indeed, this is the place closest to where God can touch us; and if we do not conduct our inner work in the hopes that God can touch us, why bother working?

In working outwardly, I think outwardly and I reason outwardly, no matter how much I may reference the inner. I engage in what’s called formatory thinking; and it is called formatory because it has a form. Everything that adheres to form, no matter how "good" or practical or valuable it is, remains formatory; and yet it is the going beyond form, into the unknown and perhaps forever unknowable inner realms, that matters, because it is here in this unformed and unknowable realm that our inner life arises and thrives.

This habit of form causes me to treat everything I encounter in terms of "work ideas," religious ideas, and so on as toolkits. In this sense even the higher ideas Gurdjieff presents us with are toolkits, to be employed something like a Swiss army knife. It’s nearly impossible to resist this temptation, which crops up everywhere in life; yet it’s in spiritual territory where such temptation becomes the most insidious.

When I perceive ideas and forms as a Swiss army knife, I see them as though the form had a set of blades that were adapted for every situation: a knife, a saw, a file, and even tweezers. Of course I’m going to approach these five obligolnian strivings from the same perspective and see them as toothpicks and pliers; I cant help it. Yet these outward applications that appear to provide me with ways of "fixing" my inner state of Being and my outer circumstances aren’t quite the point of the whole exercise, even though the rational mind can scarcely conceive of any other way to experience them.

The Swiss army knife, I see, is never enough. If I buy one (adopt the form) and it has one hundred blades, almost immediately something will happen for which I discover there is no blade. The knife is eminently practical and attractive, but it cant help me in this new circumstance; instead I have to rely on my intuition to discover a response.

That intuition is an inward knowing, not an outward toolkit; and although the toolkit may yet prove to have its use in this new situation, nonetheless, it cannot be employed without the creative and unpredictable intervention of consciousness. That is, so to speak, the one-hundred-and-first blade, the blade that can never be fashioned, but is always needed.

With all of this in mind... and attempting to at the same time open the mind to admit something far greater and more tactile... over the next few posts, I'll be taking a look at the five strivings from an inner point of view.  


Monday, July 13, 2015

Supplicants need not apply

Temple Bell, Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto

I've been thinking about this following a conversation with my wife about something Merton said in The Seven Storey Mountain:

Is it in fact acceptable to pray to God for my needs?

I don't think so.

To pray to God for my needs is, I think, to presume a distrust in God. God already knows all needs, sees all needs, and indeed has all needed things for every part of His creation eternally in front of Him. By eternally is meant, always and everywhere; so there is never a moment within creation where God has not already seen to—and provided for—every need not only in the present moment, but in advance. 

He doesn’t need reminding.

In fact I don’t clearly know what my needs are; so when I pray for them, even if they are needs so seemingly obvious as the need to breathe or the need for food, or love, or health, I am in a state of unknowing, because in each moment the essential and most Godly nature of my need may be quite different than my presumptions, which are always not heavenly but earthly.

In this way I misunderstand, because I don’t see how I perpetually live within a state of entirely and precisely fulfilled need. 

I encounter this practically in the simplest of ways; for example, one night, I itch terribly. To me this is undesirable and ought to be taken away from me; yet—mysteriously—it’s what is necessary. I can see this sometimes if I gain enough perspective on what takes place in life. This is a simple trial, yet I resist it, even with the example of Christ before me, whose trials were far more terrible and far more necessary. 

So my prayers are unnecessary. I don’t need to ask God to do what is necessary for me since He will inevitably give me all such things, anyway; and this is simply because to put me within the fulfillment of my needs is in its essence all-merciful, which is the very nature of the Lord Himself in the first place. He won’t actually ever do otherwise, because of His nature, which is eternally gracious and eternally merciful. 

This leaves me with the question of what purpose prayer is meant to serve in the first place, if not supplication. I believe in myself as a supplicant; perhaps that’s my first error, in that I assume an identity different from the one God originally gives me, which is a receiver of His Grace and Mercy. 
Religions need supplicants; God does not.

Prayer serves above all to honor the Lord; it is a form of thanks and ought to remain so. It’s all right for me to pray in need and desperation, as long as I know that it’s only from within my own misunderstanding and my own lack that I need such prayers; for God certainly doesn’t need them. 


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Straw brooms

Gio-Ji, Kyoto

I just completed a three-day trip to Kyoto, during which we visited several important Zen temples. This is not my first trip to Japan, but it is the first one wholly for recreational purposes; and it did not disappoint.

One thing that becomes more and more noticable to me, visiting various religious sites, is how domesticated forms make a practice. Practice ought to be more like a wild animal, unattached to a single place and time, able to penetrate the nooks and crannies of life in all its manifestations and varieties; yet form limits and tames it. As soon as there is a place to practice—no matter how beautiful or appropriate it is—practice somehow gets glued down, groomed and turned out so that it looks its best. It’s true at Chartres; it’s true at Tenryu-ji and Ginkaku-ji.

We can love and marvel at these places as we visit them; and they can instruct—yes, they can. Yet they are shadowed by the perpetual danger of becoming spiritual versions of Disneyland. They are tamed places; and as we domesticate our practices, they may give milk, but they loose their teeth. The wild hairs of life can’t be clipped off and stuffed in ornate jars; they have to be allowed to let the wind blow through them.

The Zen temples I visited were a little too perfect, too manicured, too ordered; it was only when I got to the relatively remote, quiet, and somewhat ramshackle temple of Gio-ji, where the moss grows bullfrog-green in profusion, that I began to sense some of that unfathomable contemplative wildness that every temple ought, I think, to cultivate. The trees gave up deep shadows here; the building was tiny, even humble, its low-slung thatched roof a thing of subtle inner witchery. You could taste the mystery; and this was precisely what was missing from the polished perfections of its greater and more famous cousins.

That mystery is preserved and accentuated by the demand; a healthy hike up hillsides and through deep bamboo forest, which imparts antcipation if one gets there early in the morning, before the crowds do (rest assured, they’re there for the bamboo, not these unassuming little temples.) One enters through a narrow, darkened set of small steps; and nothing here smacks of grooming, even when one encounters two acerbic, briskly practical old ladies crouched over the moss, straw brooms crisply whisking off the errant leaf or two.

They’re part of the landscape, the life of the place; and one senses an eternal nature to their presence. I’ve never thought of sweeping off moss; yet here, what could be more entirely natural? It’s this soft ground floor of life itself that creates the magic here; the building, the women, we ourselves- perhaps unnecessary. Interlopers, like the random thoughts that so persistently distract me from my own inherent presence.

Domesticated in ten thousand ways, I still want my inner life untamed; and something in me years for that outwardly as well, in a place just one—perhaps two—steps past all these forms I have no choice but to submit to.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

This is it

Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto

An observation I made in Japan last weekend.

I think most of us on spiritual paths share a secret conceit that we are going to become better.

In the course of our journey, we think we’re going to become nicer... more compassionate, more serene... more thruthful, sincere and virtuous. The process of spiritual awakening will guide us into a new and improved Being in which we act honestly and treat others better. 

There is, in other words, an expectation of enrichment.

Such expectations are confounded by ideas of spiritual impoverishment, the stripping away of things: the via negativa in which we are enriched by not having, rather than by having. A dialectic arises; either way, I am subject to change, searching for it. Either I start from where I am and gain new goodness, or I begin from the same place and lose old badness.

What I dont see is that I always and forever awaken to myself from inside myself, from where I am; there is no other place I can Be.

This awakening within myself and living within myself as I am now, without any changes, requires an objectivity. It isn’t an acceptance; acceptance would imply I can choose to be myself or not be myself. This idea of acceptance of self is a pervasive element of understanding-practice; yet let’s forget about accepting myself for a moment and just see that awakening requires me to unconditionally live within myself, regardless of such attitudes. Attitudes come after Being, not before it. It’s true, attitudes are inevitable; yet to awaken within myself is a living action that begins without attitude. Attitude is one of the things I awaken to; it is not a reaction to awakening. 

I awaken to myself as I am.

This isn’t an action of ease or comfort. There is no escape from here to the green, green grass of self improvement. What I am now is as sharp as a steel blade; and this experience cuts to the quick. I am not going to get better from here, because there is nowhere to go. So I can forget about improvements, forget about impoverishments. 

This is it. 


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

An Unseen Mystery, part II

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. —Matthew 6:6

Religion and prayer are so often outward things. Yet the sacred ought to be set apart; set apart inwardly, so that it is not touched by what is of the world.

There's a paradox here, because so much of religion is outward form. We tend to externalize any and all religious activity... so much so that both asceticism and baroque splendor become a part of that action. Perhaps this is necessary—can any information about a "secret" inner activity be conveyed without any outward signs?

That is to say, if transmission is necessary, doesn't it of necessity have to be outward?

Well, yes. But even all of the necessary outward signs must in the end be separated from the inward act of prayer.

This is what "go into your room, close the door" means to me: there needs to be a segregated inner space that is more than symbolic.

My wife and I were speaking of this yesterday and she asked me, if I felt this way, how I felt about, for example, prayer at meals. I confessed that I'm uncomfortable with it, as I am all outward religious activities that fall outside the scope of formal, organized religious service. I always have been, as though this personal "showing" of prayer and devotion were revealing something that ought to be secretly and strictly between a human being and God.

The passage in Matthew deals with this question; and if what is secret is indeed secret, then it cannot be shown to others. If we reveal even the least part of it outwardly it is already compromised.

In my own experience this secret place ought to be very private indeed; and it ought to be a place in which great inner suffering takes place. This suffering is part of that unseen mystery which I confront in my relationship with God; and it always pivots around my inner lack. A lack of relationship, a lack of appreciation, a lack of gratitude. It's in the moments where a real feeling quality imparts this understanding that my wish arises in a new way.

In the outer world, I craft my own sorrows; yet there are sorrows God crafts for me, if I dare to move closer inwardly.

It's in those sorrows, which must be kept as a secret inner treasure, that I receive a different influence than what the outer brings me.


Sunday, July 5, 2015

An Unseen Mystery

Shanghai, June 28.

Early morning. The city has been shrouded for days in low, gray clouds, rain coming down relentlessly.

Yesterday, my wife and I were discussing the questions of relationship and Being. The difference between God being in all things, and all things Being in God. 

The question is not one of mere semantics or a trick of inversion; it goes to the heart of what Meister Eckhart tried to convey in his teaching on the nature of Being and the Lord.

 To discuss whether or not God is in all things is to discuss a matter of location; to discuss Being within God is to discuss the matter of manifestation. As Swedenborg points out, there is no physical distance in heaven; all proximity is measured through the presence or absence of loving intention. 

This is a measurement not of time and space, but of Being.

Real wish, if and when it can ever be measured within this immediate manifestation of Being, arises from loving intention only; that is to say, a true impulse towards love must lie behind both wish and intention, which establishes this non-physical spiritual directionality. Spiritual direction takes its aim from the compass of compassion; it exists within the endlessly creative and infinitely fecund world of both time and space, but of itself it points outside it, to an origin which is, as Eckhart says, uncreated.

 Tellingly, as Mr. Gurdjieff points out in his fifth obligolnian striving, all such intentions must ultimately devolve on a wish for all other beings. The true impulse of love may rely, for its arising, on a right and true love of self — what we might call, for the lack of better words, the unselfish love of self — but in the end, it is measured in terms of its love for others. It does not find its resolution in I wish to be — it finds its finest hour in we wish to be. And indeed, prayers in temples and churches may contain the individual, but they present themselves in the form of the collective. There is an enterprise of bringing together in spiritual direction; and any religious impulse that attempts to do this using any force other than love for the gathering of community and relationship is not a real or true religious impulse.

I can measure my own spiritual direction on a daily basis using the same barometer. Each intention and action can be confronted and questioned based on this; and it is in this action that I see my own lack.

Everything that arises with me arises within creation. If I wish to move past creation and into the uncreated, which is the source of all Love — the fountain of Truth and Being from which all creation arises — I must surrender what I am to a greater good and a greater sense of self, one which moves into all others, instead of dwelling within the deceptive shelter of my own created limitations.

In the end, as I said to my wife, I need to discover myself not within my own authorship — not within my own authority — but within an authority larger than who or what I am—and, yes, an authority larger even than that of my own community, which, like me, is part of creation.

That greater authority I speak of is a mystery that flows into creation, not one of the countless mysteries that come out of it on the other end, were we can see them. All of the mysteries that I can see, I see with my mind and measure with my mind. But it is this unseen mystery, measurable only through the heart itself, that creates all Being; and only insofar as I taste that, within the context of the motive forces of loving intention and compassion, does it gain any legitimacy in this effort I engage in within myself.


Friday, July 3, 2015


I recently attended a talk, and film, about the life of Thomas Merton. At one point there was a quote to the effect that one can find God in all things.

I cannot agree with this statement, although I know the concept—and perhaps even the impression—is a popular one. 

I would say, rather: one cannot find God in all things, or in any thing; but one can find all things in God.

God cannot be found within the known; and perhaps, as Ibn al Arabi maintains, I cannot ever find God at all, except in what is unknown. 

All things are known; they fall into the category of what is created. Yet when I seek God I must transcend the created; this takes place not directly, through appreciation of what is, but in the perception of how I am not

For it is what I am not, as seen through a three-centered experience of that notness—a physical, intellectual and feeling perception of my own lack—that leads me in the direction of a feeling perception (which is the finest and most intimate kind of perception) of God, which arises as I see—not God, but my own separation. 

It is within this weakness, this lack, and this separation that I can discern, ever so faintly, that greater presence which represents the threshold—and no more than that— of the Divine. 

As soon as I begin to see and understand these experiences as goals, as things unto themselves, they become things and lose their power to transcend; but in a state of objectivity, that is, if I am not interfering, they retain their power to act as a connective tissue between me and a quality of Being which lies beyond what I am. 

Directly proximate to this experience, arising just outside it as a tangible Presence, is a new understanding: an irrevocable immersion in the fact of what I am, and my own inadequacy. 

On this threshold I can sense the presence of Mercy and the presence of a real Good which is not my own good, but something much greater: a Good which is greater not only than myself, but greater than all others, and greater even than creation itself. 

Within this unknown goodness, which announces itself so clearly through my own lack, is a new impression of compassion; not my own compassion, but a much greater compassion that isn’t constrained by the material world. It is an immaterial compassion; and in its immateriality it is transparent, so that it penetrates all of the materiality it encounters.     

Wish is implicit here within this state; and it is not my own wish, which comes from coarseness. It is a higher, finer wish, what Jeanne de Salzmann called a nostalgia—the pain of wishing to return home.

All things (all of creation) are contained within this greater Good; thus all things are found in God, for it is only within God that such a discovery can take place. 

To find God in things is to shrink God down to a manageable size; and God is not meant to be manageable. 

God is unmanageable; this is the whole point of such understanding in the first place. Once I stop managing, the taste of this can begin to develop.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Coincident Multiverse, part IV

One of the signature ideas behind the concept of the multiverse, as it exists today, is the idea that different universes would have different laws. The coincident multiverse proposes a potentially infinite number of different universes that have the same laws; which is, I believe, a departure from what we might call the current "standard model" of the multiverse.

 I propose this simply because law is law; in biology, we know that convergent evolution produces the same morphological types over and over again, simply because that is what works. In the same way, chemistry produces similar substances to perform specific functions in biological organisms, which are often surprisingly similar – or even nearly identical — in a wide range of different creatures, simply because chemistry has laws, and what works in one case is what will work in another.

The idea of the coincident multiverse is a somewhat more powerful one, because it argues that the particles we have in this universe — which "appear" and "disappear" in a baffling and seemingly impossible manner — are the same in all the universes, and that they serve the same function in all those universes. They are an ethereal fabric upon which all of the universes that arise as a result of them are based. The idea of the coincident multiverse is, in other words, a consonant multiverse, one in which an essentially identical quantum fabric is shared across a range of individual space-times. When one thinks about it, the proposition is in fact quite logical.

Much has been made in modern physics of the fact that if the physical laws of this universe were even a tiny bit different, the universe could not exist. I have yet to read a physicist who has asked the question, what if the laws cannot be different? That is to say, what if the idea of the consonant/coincident multiverse is correct, and that universes can only exist one way, that is, by the exact and singular manifestation of the laws we perceive? This is reminiscent of Gurdjieff's statement that for one thing to be different, everything would have to be different. Physics imagines multiple universes where the alteration of law puts them beyond the reach of each other; but in putting them in such a region, we also put them beyond the reach of reality as we know it. 

I think this is the essential problem with claiming that quantum particles appear and disappear — nothing that we know of appears and disappears by some invoked magic that allows it to exist in this universe, cease existing, and then exist again on a scale of time so tiny that it is nearly immeasurable. The quantum particles — the energy packets that appear and disappear — do not cease to exist in these instants — they simply relocate from one position in one universe to a consonant position in another nearly identical universe, which shares identity through law, although not necessarily the exact progression of circumstance.  That is, although their specific role will vary from universe to universe, their power, their action, the mechanistic nature of their manifestation, does not vary. A gluon in this universe does the same thing that it does in all the other universes it transits in a single second.

This  proposition preserves the information in atoms and subatomic particles, as well as the logic behind their existence — the alternate universes they arise in also benefit from their information package, just as ours does. The mechanism does not require quantum particles to perform magical feats of death and reincarnation — it logically explains their departure and arrival from measurable existence through a mechanism of location alone.

Our consciousness and awareness of ourselves may perform quite similar functions, and pondering this could be of considerable interest. It may be that consciousness and awareness which we experience is shared on levels that we are unaware of, which bear a direct relationship to the consonant or coincident universe theory.

 Human beings have a habit of inventing fantasies that lie beyond any possible reality; yet any scientist would tell you that, generally speaking, reality as we see it makes a good predictor for what will come next. This proves true over long stretches of historical time in biology, physics, chemistry, and even in societies and philosophies. There is, in other words, a consistency that only fantasy (in the sense of imagining what could only be unreal) can transcend. Swedenborg, among others, insisted that the entire natural world as we see it is a correspondence to a higher spiritual level; that is, his own model of earth and heaven rested on the idea that the identity was significantly shared. To the point, he said earth and heaven are so alike that many souls who die are not aware they are dead unless it is clearly explained to them. 

The metaphysical implications of these ideas are too large for me to digest in a few brief days; I  suspect I'll be pondering them for some time.