Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Letting the body speak

Jellyfish, Kitty Hawk, NC
Photograph by Lee van Laer

I used this phrase in the last post, letting the body speak.

I suppose it deserves some examination.

I'm not speaking about the body dancing, or adopting Asanas or Mudras. Those things are good, especially as they arise spontaneously in the context of the receiving of an energy; yet I'm talking about a much more intimate and mysterious kind of speech, a whole language of sensation that tells me everything about my life from the ground floor, rather than up here in the head where things are processed in a factory assembled mostly by other people, contaminated by the influence of objects, events, circumstances, and conditions.

I'm talking about language that is written in very fine, perfect letters, each one in the shape of a prayer, down amongst the molecules of the cells, where the language can be sensed not as a literal or intellectual phenomenon, but as a loving relationship within Being.

You have this ability to sense like this, but you don't know it; and, if what I sound like sounds mysterious or unfamiliar, you can know you don't know it. If it doesn't, then you are in pretty good shape. But if it is unfamiliar, and you don't understand it, then you haven't developed an active and organic relationship with your sensation, and you don't understand — yet, because you can, I assure you! — the absolute poetry that lies within the language of Being. The body is in fact a poet: not through the way it moves or the forms it assumes  outwardly, but in terms of the energy and relationships that come to it from within, from within that inner depth that forms Being itself.

 I use this word poet because poetry is the art of interfering as little as possible, and allowing meaning and understanding to arise between the words and the phrases; of course, many people may understand the word differently, but that's how I understand it, and that's how I use it. The body has a language that it writes in which allows the same kinds of understanding to arise between its own silent words and unspoken phrases, which nonetheless speak eloquently to what we are. Our Being is written deep in these tissues; our feelings arise in them, and without them, we have no thought.

A little more respect, then, for the speech of the body, which needs to be heard if I wish to form any kind of a new relationship within myself.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, September 28, 2015

My second question is organic as well

Sandpiper, Kitty Hawk, NC
Photograph by Lee van Laer

 There is too much noise in me; but in the morning, first thing, maybe there is enough silence to let the body speak.

I've tried to explain many times that the body has its own language, a rich and present language that begins with sensation and fills all of Being with its gravity. This is the essential first language, because it is the sense that it erases all of the noise on the page, leaving it blank, open, prepared, and receptive to receive a new kind of force, a different energy.

It's only when this energy arrives to fill that empty space that anything true can happen in me. It's only then that I experience real life; it's only then that I know what humility and compassion mean. These qualities, which we talk about as though we knew them, don't belong to human beings at all; they are universal forces that can manifest in us actively, but only if we are open and receptive to them. Everything that I try to do myself along the lines of humility and compassion is contaminated by the things I fill my life with; and it's only within the presence of this energy, and in the emptiness that arises from a connection to sensation and openness to something higher, that I begin to experience them for the objective forces that they are.

Well then.

I begin with this question of what is organic in me. And then I stay with it, which is why my second question is also organic. It's developing this intimate relationship to the sensation and what it can prepare me to receive that interests me; and if I am attentive — if I am mindful, which is a word that has been overused so much I find it irritating — so, again, if I am attentive — and even that word isn't a good one — then I can receive an impression of the sensation, and that is what forms my relationship to it, this active impression.

Nothing else in life matters, really, if I form a relationship to the energy. Everything else happens; and it is either good or bad, I meet it as it is, no matter. I become invulnerable; all of those fears that drive me don't seem to have much power anymore.

It's only when I am actively passive in this way that I receive something real; and that is the only thing I know about inner work that matters to me, this relationship that can be formed with something that is true about life.

I want to know something true about life; and that truth arises organically, not as a result of external objects, events, circumstances, or  conditions.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

My first question is organic

Sandpiper, Kitty Hawk, NC
Photograph by Lee van Laer

When I get up in the morning,  my first question needs to be organic.

That is to say, I cannot begin by investing myself in my thinking. There needs to be a clear and present sensation of being that begins in the organism, in the cells. There is a brightness, a clarity, an intelligence that animates me at this microcosmic level. I can become available to it; and that availability consists of a relationship.

What this means is that I am an organism, and I know it with the intelligence of sensation and the intelligence of the soul. These two things are not far apart from one another.

I need to begin with that intelligence first, before any other layers are put on it. Then I can come to this particular aspect of presence throughout the day, always referencing every other event from this perspective:

what is organic within me at this moment?

I will never have a full answer to that question, but I can live within a relationship to this presence, which provides a powerful inner gravity that neutralizes the strength of thought and leads to a form of emptying. It's as though my being—in its lower-case, minor sense, that is, the parts of me that are repetitive, habitual, identified, and banal—drains out of me through this grounded, intimate connection with the body and the earth.

The mind empties itself; and in becoming empty, it is filled with Real Being.

Then something new can happen.

 There isn't anything more  satisfying than this organic question; yet it is so often uncensored, ignored, neglected. If Being and body come into a right relationship, then this relationship offers itself generously and with love. It is the routed form of compassion, that is, compassion for the legitimate self, which begins at home, before one is capable of having compassion for anyone else or any other situation.

I would say this relationship is important in this sense because it arises, fundamentally and at its quantum level, from Love, which is what animates the cellular sense of Being and the organic impression of life.

So it is wholly legitimate to call this the Practice of the Presence of God, which is also the title of the fine little book that describes the life of Brother Lawrence. (Everyone should read this book—you can download it free here.)

May you have a blessed day today.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Not on the Menu

Kitty Hawk beach
Outer Banks, NC
Photograph by Lee van Laer

Notes from a dog walk, Sept. 16, a.m.

The other night, someone I know was speaking about their life, and they described this factor and that factor, and so on... 

and then they paused. 

They were waiting for me to comment. I wasn't sure what to say; after all, every life is so unique, and we just don't know what life is or what will happen next. 

Prompted, I finally replied, 

every day, we are served a life of impressions that we have to digest. It never looks like what we think we ordered.

I think we all come to this world with bare feet, and then spend most of our lives waiting for shoes to drop. That is to say, our expectations are a fictionalization of what actually happens; and that is the scene that plays in us, day after day. Because we become pretty good at guessing, there is always a degree of correspondence — that means that sometimes, our expectations are in fact met. It doesn't change the fact that most of them are fictionalizations of what will actually happen, and where things actually are.

If I am truly aware, I think, I don't expect much. I encounter; but I don't expect. It's this difference of encounter and expectation that marks the line between Being and expecting; within Being, I just meet life, whereas within expecting, I attempt to control it. 

I think it's like this for all of us. We want to replace the truth of relationship with the illusion of control. Entering a relationship is quite different than demanding control. But I don't see that. Entering relationship and entering a moment of participation creates the possibility of an agency that does not exist when I demand control. It's true that I can create a certain kind of agency through the demand for control; but doesn't that demand for control always create a certain kind of rigidity that resists the natural evolution of circumstances?

Every morning, I pray. I pray throughout the day, of course; and there are days when it seems difficult, or it doesn't come to me in the way that I hope it would, that is, absolutely naturally—as it should. This despite the eternally available Presence. 

But I think the point is that I make the effort most mornings. Some people call it sitting — some people call it meditation. But just sitting there doing nothing, attempting to be completely open and empty, is something I did for many years, and (like some others my age and older) I eventually began to see that although this led to some interesting inner places, it wasn't enough of a demand—it wasn’t intelligently active. 

Passivity is a good thing, I think, but only in measure.

So now, when I sit, I say that I pray; and I pray actively, that is, I make an inner effort to come into relationship and see how I am, while at the same time applying a prayerful mantra that demands both feeling and intelligence to accompany the sensation of sitting.

Engaged in this activity this morning, and watching the inevitable cartoons of my life that play across the surface of what is almost always an unquiet mind, I realize that trust may be the most important element in meeting life through relationship and participation. I could just trust what happens instead of trying to control it: what a revolutionary concept! Maybe it's acceptable to just show up and accept the Presence of God instead of trying to show up with a big stick, no matter how softly I speak.

I think we make things too complicated a lot of the time. We are always trying to figure life out, instead of being in it. 


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Let it be

Daitoku-Ji, Kyoto
Photograph by Lee van Laer

I had a European reader email me the other day. 

They took offense at my post suggesting that we (The United States, that is) or anyone else ought to take in far more refugees from the Syrian war—and, by extension, I suppose, refugees of any "strange, foreign" culture whatsoever who wish to enter our society as they flee the various kinds of violence that afflict so many smaller and less stable countries.

I suppose we can all sympathize to some extent with such sentiments; after all, we all fear one another — fear is what much of our daily lives is based on. 

Yet it isn't good enough; compassion and mercy, if we want them to express themselves in our own lives and through us, as vehicles of the divine, have to risk something. 

It isn’t, after all, safe to be compassionate; it isn't safe to be merciful. There are always forces and individuals who will take advantage of it, and use these things to destructive ends of their own.

Yet the whole point of compassion and mercy, I think, is that they are willing to take those risks; and they know that we can and must appeal to a greater good in ourselves, no matter how low others may sink.

One cannot dispense compassion and mercy by the teaspoonful; it isn't enough. In the same way, a man or a woman can't drink God by the teaspoonful; one takes in the whole thing or nothing whatsoever.

Christ can't be crucified halfway; his sacrifice has to be whole and complete. One nail is not enough; the nails have to go into all His hands and feet. Even that isn't enough. He has to be pierced by a sword and cut by thorns; and then He has to die. There are no teaspoons full of sacrifice dosed here; it is the whole bottle, all of it. That's how we have to drink God — to drink compassion, to drink mercy—by drinking the whole bottle, knowingly sacrificing ourselves on behalf of the better forces in the world.

It's not so easy.

Of course, I say the better forces in the world; but what I mean is the better forces in the universe, because the better forces are not of this world. Manifesting on our own level, in the selfish way we all operate, we don't, for the most part, represent the better forces; we fall prey to lower ones, the ones that would own for themselves, be greedy, and destroy. We even, I think, mostly want to be greedy and own even God for ourselves. We therefore — metaphorically, and only within ourselves, mind you, but it is still this way — destroy God as well.

I guess my point here is, we can't take the world, and then take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, taking only the parts we like; no, we have to take the whole world, and all that's in it, good and bad — and then dare to be loving

I suppose, as individuals and societies, we mostly don't dare to be loving; we fear giving things up, taking risks, because we somehow believe that we can keep everything — that we are immortal and can get, and have. 

We don't, I think, see that we have to risk everything and be willing to die to ourselves in order to become real for ourselves and for others.

In a way, I suppose the task the world has imposed upon us is impossible. We have to take all the good and the bad of the world in whole and at once, not by the teaspoonful; and in doing so, we are like a hero who has to drink poison in order to be able to overcome its effects; a foolhardy idea indeed. A foolhardy deed indeed. 

Yet that is what must be done; I have to take everything, as it is, and then dare to love, knowing that I will fail. That takes a peculiar kind of courage; and, again, that special quality of intelligence, a spiritual intelligence, which calls me so deeply—yet asks so much of me that I am, quite frankly, terrified by it. 

We will all fail each other; it's in our nature. Yet in my own experience there is one love that never fails, and that is the love of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of Mary and of God. 

That love is forever here, present, and uncorrupted; and no matter how much I fail others or they fail me — we will all do this to each other, in our sorrow, our suffering, our struggle, and our pain — I know I can rely on that inner support from God and all of His heavenly Angels to come and bless me, and all of us, in our times of trouble.

For some reason, this reminds me of John Lennon's beautiful song, Let It Be. 

He sensed something true and real there. He was a man in rebellion, struggling with the darkest Angels of the soul — as we hear in his lyrics and see from his life — and yet he knew, in his heart of hearts, that mother Mary would come to him saying, "Let It Be."


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Pondering purgatory

Night Blooming Cereus, Sparkill, NY
Photograph by Lee van Laer

Beelzebub describes The Holy Planet Purgatory as a magnificent place, a planet filled with the most miraculous and marvelous creatures and landscapes—plants and trees, flowers, every imaginable form of glory. 

Yet this is a place of enormous suffering; and he says that every sentient being ultimately ends up purgatory.

We speak about purgatory as though it were an afterthought,  a future experience, a place that the spirit gets to maybe after many thousands of lifetimes of trials and tribulations; and indeed, maybe it is something like that. 

But this morning, just for a moment, I asked myself whether purgatory isn't inside of me, right now. Right here, where I am.

Is it possible?

I'm not sure; but over the last few days – and this is not the first time, by any means — I've experienced a nearly comprehensive understanding of how extraordinarily rich and magnificent all the impressions that come into me are; how they create a universe, populated by all the wonderful things I have seen over the course of a lifetime. 

If I am, as I indeed think is the case, a planet that things fall into and onto, then these wonderful things are part of me as much as anything else – including the external. 

But, all in all, what I'm left with is the personal sense of an extraordinary inner planet, much like the one that Gurdjieff described in Purgatory. This is a textured, colorful, finely grained and intimate entity, a tangible universe of being within the context of body, mind and emotion. It constitutes an ocean my Being sails on; and as with all oceans, I only see the surface of the water and the occasional, apparently miraculous, sometimes terrifying creatures that break the surface from time to time. 

So here I am in the midst of this glory, yet blind to it; I inhabit a landscape populated, in an inner sense, by the most fascinating and beautiful creations in the universe, an entire life, a comprehensive Being, filled not only with promise, but also the very truth of living, and—yes, even this — reality itself, which is reciprocally formed with it, and which I am relationship with.

In this sense, I am—we are— the perfect mirror of a celestial inner heaven which corresponds to the outer one; it lives within me. It is a real thing, not an allegory; it is where I live my life. Suffering, unable to reach God, yet catching a glimpse of Him from moment to moment, when He chooses to exercise His presence on this level—

that is, within me. 

I'm left wondering about this part of myself Gurdjieff speaks of—the one I can't cleanse, that can never attain a level of reunion with God. A part that cannot blend with what is real, with the most sacred and most divine parts of myself — and the universe. 

I had a dream last night – details don't matter that much — but it was a dream in which I was, for all intents and purposes, in hell. 

In the dream, I don't know why I am in hell; it seems entirely fitting, yet I don't know why I belong there. Surely I’m a creature poorly suited to the trials of hell; I don't have the right attitude for hell. First of all, I’m weak, and then my sins, such as they are, seem relatively trivial. Perhaps, it occurs to me, I am not even bad enough for hell. Wishful thinking, perhaps; but all my intentions instinctively steer me away from this place.

So why do I dream of a process of purging, of anger, of hatred and destruction; and why do I find myself in it, locked in conflicts that I don't understand, attacking people I don't know, with weapons I don't want to use? 

There aren't any easy answers for this one. I woke up at 4:30 after the dream, and the one thing that occurred to me was to pray to God that I don't end up in hell. I lay there for a good bit of time in bed living most directly through my sensation, and invoking just such a prayer.

Later this morning, I realized that we are the architects of our own hells; we put them together brick by brick with our desires, each one of which seems justified, although, probably, almost none of them are. 

All of these desires distract me from the glory of the life I've been given; and yet I focus on them, as though the goal were always one step further out, one step further away, but in any event, not awaiting me inside myself, in the celebration of life as it stands. 

I don't want to go to hell; but perhaps I'm already there. I just don't know. But the idea that this inner life of anguish is what Gurdjieff meant by Purgatory makes some sense to me.

If this life is a life that offers the opportunity to know myself, I seem to be failing even that.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Manipulation and desire, part II

Beaver, Hatch Lake, NY
Photograph by Lee van Laer

To manipulate means one of two things. It either means to operate skillfully, to handle and execute technical tasks, or to mislead by intention. To me, there is an irony in these two definitions, because they actually turn out to be one definition, in terms of the way that manipulation operates in us as human beings.

The act of manipulation always implies, by default, a wish to control. Whether the intentions are good or bad is what divides the first definition from the second one; if one manipulates with skill to a good end, the first definition applies, and if one manipulates with skill to a bad one, the second one does. Either way, there is an implication of agency — the ability to do — and a desire to control, that is, to be in charge, to be the one who knows.

There is no doubt that we need this ability to manipulate and turn things towards service; but when we lose the idea of service, and become fascinated with manipulation as an end in itself, it takes us away from what we need to be as human beings. There is no real love in control; it's about coercion. Mankind has been confused about the conflict between coercion and love since the beginning of recorded history; and we are confused about the difference between a loving God and a coercive one — or, if one is a pantheist, loving gods and coercive ones. To this day, society is locked in a struggle between those who believe in coercive gods that demand we adhere to a strict code of honor and sacrifice,  and those who believe in a forgiving God, who replaces the strict severity of demand and compulsion with an ethic of compassion and love. 

 Of course the coercive gods are gods of manipulation. These are the invented gods, the invented codes and ethics, which we hammer out of sheets of steel in hellish forges and make into the shapes we  need to justify our own lower urges. We want to manipulate; so God must also want to manipulate; we broadcast the horrors of our own desire into heaven and color its skies with our selfishness. This obsessive wish to manipulate, with all of its reductive, object oriented baggage, starts out with lofty goals such as understanding the makings of the universe, but it always ends in one form of tyranny and destruction or another.

Perhaps this is why the image of the hand is so powerful and religious iconography. The word manipulation itself is derived from the Latin word for hand; and indeed, it's the hand — not the foot or other part — that changes everything for man. We pick things up with our hands and change them: we control them. The hand itself is what contains, in a certain way, the transformative power of being in the world that sets us apart from animals. We manipulate; we use our hands to change things. If we were intelligent in the way we are now, but were creatures with fins such as dolphins, it would never have been possible for us to manipulate and destroy in the way that we have over the last 10,000 years or so. Our hands have made us makers; but they have always also made us killers, killers in a way that is quite different than the way other creatures are.

The hand has, however, the power to transform in many different ways; and the mudras of Christian and Buddhist art, the gestures of prayer that communicate compassion and care, indicate a different potential for the hand.  This potential is subtle: in every prayerful gesture or mudra, we see a hand that is not primed to take and control, but, rather, a hand that wishes to stay quiet and to receive. The hand symbolizes the whole inner state of Being; we have the potential to receive our lives, instead of taking our lives. The entire inward attitude is different here; it implies a different kind of inner measurement, and then inwardness that receives, rather than the coercive and compulsive outward in this we have, which wishes to take. Instead of an extraction mentality, it is a mentality of relationship, in which I come together with the world, rather than wishing to consume it.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Manipulation and desire, part I

Night Blooming Cereus, Sparkill, NY
Photograph by Lee van Laer

It’s interesting to me how convinced I am that life is written in the grand gestures, out there in the future somewhere where, if I only try, I can touch it.

Last night, dozens of very small impressions touched me inside— and this is where my center of gravity, as I sense it, ought to lie, in the little things. The immediate sensation of life.

 When we talk about impressions and the way they affect us, I doubt any of us truly sense just how intimately tactile and enormously deep the contact between different impressions is. 

A combination of moonlight, stars, night air, bees clinging to the outside of the hive; a night blooming cereus just beginning to open a single,  enormous but ephemeral flower in the hope of the right moth; blended into all of that, an entire life and all that it has encountered. All of these things flowed together into a limbic moment that was just on the edge of an understanding; and this is where I always seem to find myself, right on the verge of an understanding — a great understanding, and understanding that, if you will forgive me, I can’t understand. Standing on the edge of this, I get the sense that this is the hope of consciousness: an ability to take everything in in its entirety, blended together seamlessly until it finds a complete relationship, and accept it within the heart, mind, and soul of my being.

 There is an entity, a Being, that does have this capacity in its entirety, and we call that Being God. Of course God is a person, because only a person could comprehend what we stand on the edge of; and yet, divided as it is into all the fractions of reality that blend together into the hole, personhood as we know it is unable to grasp the question properly. That is, I am unable to grasp the question properly. I can sense it organically; and that is where all of my interest lies.

I was surprised, in researching the word aesthetic, to discover that it once meant everything that is of the senses — not, as we so commonly use it today, a specifically artistic sensibility. 

I have always said that I was an aesthetician;  yet I didn’t know, using it in the sense of my skill at perceiving the artistic (I am much better at seeing what the art in a thing is than making things with art in them or, even, making things artistically) how exactly true it was. In knowing that I am a vessel into which the world flows, I see that this is a whole thing and a whole practice, greater than mathematics or philosophy; and in fact, the world of technicalities and ideas can draw us away from what we are as Beings, leading us into details that turn us into manipulators, instead of receivers.

We are a society—and a civilization—of manipulators.

More to come on this subject in the next few posts.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Special announcement

My friend Ted Lebar has, after many years of research and unflagging labor, completed several new  and unusual books on the subject of Gurdjieff's Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson.

 One of the two books consists of a dictionary with interleaved meanings and interpretations of the unique and unusual words in the book. While they can't be called "definitions" as such, they give us substantial insight into the various languages and routes from which Gurdjieff drew these special words.

 The second book is a new translation, word for word, of the book from Russian into English. It is interlinear, that is, the Russian text is mirrored by English translation directly below it.

Full descriptions for the two books, along with links to purchase them, are available at the following link:

Ted Lebar's Book Page


Monday, September 14, 2015

Extraction mentality

A few months ago I pointed out, via a facetious Facebook post, that most of man’s activities consist of digging holes in the ground or burning things:

Outline for mankind's modern program of activities:
1. Dig stuff that burns up out of the ground. 
2. Dig more stuff that melts up out of the ground. 
3. Melt that stuff with the stuff that burns to make new things which can both dig more stuff up and either burn that stuff or melt more stuff, or both.
4. Make more stuff out of it. Stuff that gets us to where we can dig up more stuff to burn and melt, for example.
5. Increase the volume of stuff that needs to be burned and stuff that needs to be melted.
6. Find endless ways to craft it into ingenious new stuffs, which support ever more activities that will cause more stuff to be burned and melted.
7. Declare, in the process, that burning stuff and melting stuff is a capital affair, vital to all national and human interests.
8. Burn or melt people who disagree with the way stuff that is burned or melted is distributed.
9. Continue, ad infinitum

I’m reminded of this cynical post by a recent observation about life. We live, I think, within what I’d call an extraction mentality: that is, we see life as a thing we want to extract things from. The process of living becomes a process of mining: we’re constantly looking for what we can get out of life, what it can yield to us in terms of pleasure, satisfaction. The idea is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as “the pursuit of happiness:” an inalienable right, was well as an activity. When we talk about what we can “get out of life;” it is an essentially selfish point of view.

If I think about what I can put into life, how I can serve life—that is to say, serve life in all its various guises, in terms of objects, events, circumstances, and conditions—and in terms, as the Buddhists might put it, of all sentient Beings—perhaps even all living Beings, for all living things are sentient in one way or another— only then am I thinking unselfishly. 

This idea takes me back to Swedenborg’s view of the aim of life, which is that of serving others, and God. It calls me to a higher purpose than one of extraction; instead, it’s one of insertion. The concept is interesting to me, because so much of my own negative thinking revolves around what I can get for myself, or haven’t yet got, which I want. Once I view my responsibilities and tasks to be done as a privilege—the privilege of serving others, the duty to serve others—things look very different indeed. The point of view is not far off Gurdjieff’s obyvatel, the good householder: the one who attends to what is needed for those around him, his household.

This extraction mentality is encouraged by the excesses of modern living: we can all see that, I think, yet we’re swept away so easily by the flow of events. It’s how I anchor myself in my own personal sense of duty that can make a difference in this matter; and that duty must be, first and foremost, always to God—His Endlessness, as Gurdjieff called him. 

Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub is a character who well understands how his duties lie first in this direction; yet how often do we discuss that when we discuss his character? Beelzebub’s life is, in the end, one of an ever more fully realized service. He is not, in that way, deviant from Swedenborg’s fundamental principles of Being: and therein lies a point of work that both man and angel share.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Spiritual imperialism

Blue heron, grooming 
Sparkill Pond, Sparkill, NY
Photograph by Lee van Laer

I mentioned this idea of spiritual imperialism in my last post, on the iron maiden — the forms we create inside ourselves that tend to do us in.

Chogyam Trungpa’s “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism”— a classic in its own right — comes to grip with one aspect of our spirituality, the tendency to turn it into an object. But he never, as far as I can recall, mentions spiritual imperialism, which is the tendency both people and cultures have to turn spirituality into an invading force. It gets militarized and weaponized, both figuratively and  (disastrously) literally.

The idea of holy wars, crusades, mayhem and the death visited upon peoples for supposedly spiritual reasons, isn't a new one. But perhaps the idea that it is a form of imperialism — the effort to create empires which dominate other, lesser peoples — is perhaps less familiar. All of these actions begin with a narcissistic hubris — the idea that those in one particular spiritual discipline know better than others how they ought to behave — and, even more insidiously, what they ought to believe. In an empire, when diplomacy fails, the use of force is a default.

Spiritual imperialism is closely tied to the force of ego in an individual. Now, it may seem difficult to draw a parallel between an individual person and a country, or an empire — yet in classic works of philosophy such as Plato's Republic or Ibn Arabi’s Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom, human beings are seen in exactly this way. Each of us rules a peculiar, tiny, self-inflected and (in its own closeted way) supremely ignorant empire of Being— populated by a rowdy, undisciplined crowd of impulses, desires, beliefs, and attitudes whose most prominently shared feature is arrogance. No wonder that we try to export our inner kingdom and rule others with it; as with all militaristic adventurism, it distracts the population from its own problems and points it towards an imaginary common enemy — in this case, other people, and the outside world.

Spiritual imperialism is, in other words, a natural outgrowth of the fact that we would much rather rule other kingdoms than bring our own kingdom into order. It has ever been this way with outer governments and empires; why should the inner world function differently?

It seems to be left to the philosophers such as Plato and al Arabi to think and write wisely about this situation; but the matter is much more immediate. Every human being inhabits exactly such a kingdom, here, and now; and yet no one ever thinks of it, or comes to a question about what their own responsibility ought to be. It is an accepted thing that one ought to inflict one's inner attitudes and life on others; that's how the world works.

Yet, as I think everyone, regardless of race, creed, nationality, sexual preference, or political leaning agrees, the world doesn't work well at all. We can't agree on anything else; but we can agree on this. Yet the will to turn inward and seek a better order within ourselves first is weak at best; and we continue to behave without shame.

The problem begins here, and begins now; I need to see how I am within much better than I do now. Each human being who makes this effort contributes in some very small way to the painfully incremental progress, if any, which the human race is making in this area. One could argue that we have only had a few tens of thousands of years to see this problem and correct it; so perhaps we are doing pretty well, all things considered. Parabola Magazine serves, for those who care about such things, as a lens through which we can try to better focus the collective light we need to see our way towards the good.

Yet I doubt, looking at the world the way it is, whether we have much longer to get this right. The optimist in me — who has always had a reasonable margin over the pessimist, despite my desperately aging cynicism — believes we can get it right; but it seems evident this will not happen in my own generation, or that of my children. Each one of us can't be anything more than a single foot soldier in this long march. It is an inner march, not an outer one; and the opposing force that we march towards for the final confrontation is an inner one as well.  

As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy — and he is us."


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, September 11, 2015

never mind the bones

Yesterday, the breaking news was that paleontologists have made an astonishing discovery about mankind's ancestors.

 I've always been fascinated by paleontology and archaeology; but this morning, while pondering this news, it occurred to me that finding out that our distant, ancient relatives buried their dead is hardly a groundbreaking discovery that will change our perception of who we are.

Why don't we discover why we are selfish? 

Why we murder each other? 

Why we fight wars?  

Why aren't all of our scientists, sociologists, politicians, and leaders fascinated with answers to these questions, and solutions for these deficiencies? Human beings seem to be eternally fixated on either digging up the past, or dreaming about the future. The immediate moment, when we actually could affect things that are taking place, becomes the subject of endless argument instead of practical action... I hate to burst everyone's bubble, but a bunch of dry bones deep in a cave aren't going to change the trajectory that mankind is on, in any way, shape, or form.

We ought, as creatures, to be able to do much better than we do — we are excited about all the wrong things and fascinated with all the wrong questions. I think that if we ever managed, as a society, to take an objective look at how we are right now—never mind the bones the results would horrify us far more than we claim they horrify us as we glance briefly, and then look away. 

It reminds me of the subject of yesterday's post, which discussed the need for me to suffer myself in order to understand anything.  I'm in the inner habit of exploring my past — creeping around in tiny, dark caves inside myself and then returning triumphantly to the surface with a scrap of bone, claiming that it represents a revelation of one kind or another. 

It may be far more profitable for me to stay here in the light, seeing what is actually going on right now, than believing my past will really shed any major light on who I am, or why I behave the way I do. 

It is today that needs to change — not yesterday.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Iron Maiden

From The Garden of Earthly Delights
by Hieronymus Bosch
The Prado, Madrid
The Iron Maiden

I think we tend to create inward forms of our own — adopted, that is, from things we encounter outwardly — and then stalk each other with them. 

This process is writ large on the social and political landscape; but it begins inside us. We love nothing better than to outsource the blame for this process; in this way, we become, unwittingly, spiritual imperialists.

If a human being really wants to understand who they are, it involves introspection and suffering. We are meant to look very closely and critically at what we are, inside ourselves, and try to discern what is true about the way we work within all the intimate and invisible cogs and years that make up our psyche. To engage, in other words, in an attempt at some objectivity about the way all our disparate parts function together. Any effort in this direction quickly begins to yield evidence that we are filled with grotesque contradictions; yet we willfully ignore them.

It takes a special, yet at the same time paradoxically ordinary and ubiquitous, kind of denial to not see this. The odd thing is that everyone has become an expert in this. When I was an alcoholic, I was unable to see it; and in the same way, we are unable to see the insides of ourselves, because we don't want to suffer them.

This takes me into territory where I would rather make everyone outside myself suffer for what I am. I think, from what I see, that I would much rather make others suffer than suffer myself, inwardly. Yet it is exactly this inward suffering of what I am, my own contradictions, that leads me towards compassion — both towards myself, and everyone else locked in this iron maiden of contradictions.

Alas. This is where we find ourselves as creatures or societies. We would rather craft our own forms and then use violence — literally, violence, as with militant religious practice (the most obvious example) to force others to conform to them. Politics is just another form of this; the dialogues deviate from compassion into contempt, devaluation, and compulsion. Our fear-based media feeds us a steady diet of these destructive impulses, and no one ever stands up to say, stop.

Perhaps we can't be blamed for this collective failure. No one really wants to suffer; yet if we want to outgrow the (at best) adolescent impulses which rule us, we have to.

All the great traditions understood this. There is a requirement for suffering. One must suffer in order to see what one is and how one actually behaves towards others. This is a meal that needs to be eaten many times during a life, and digested over and over again, because it has an endless number of flavors and textures.

It's much easier to repeatedly cook and serve a bogus dish consisting of rice and a standard sauce; it keeps a person alive, and makes no demands. When one settles over and over again for the same dishes, cooked in the same fast food restaurant, one gains safety — but at the expense of imagination. This isn't to say that consistency isn't valuable; but one needs to suffer one's consistency along with everything else. 

No tree grows strong enough to prosper unless it is shaken by the wind.

It's strange, the way we inflict ourselves on one another  without any shame, in the microcosms of our own lives, yet blame the world at large for behaving this way on the inflated scale of society — and, yes, even civilization itself. We don't see that it begins here at home, inside ourselves.

Perhaps that realization is just too painful for us to face; my drinking was like that, until I finally realized that if the drinking did not go, I would. It was a matter of life and death; and the only way to resolve it was through even more suffering.

I endured, because there was no other choice. 

There are days when I wonder whether we can, as mortal beings, wake up in the morning to confront our own iniquities and admit that they may defeat us here at home, inside ourselves, before we are defeated by the world at large. If I don't take responsibility for what I am — if I don't suffer what I am, which is what I mean by take responsibility — how can I expect anything outward to be different?


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The inner forms the outer

Human beings are peculiar creatures. We can think; and it sets us apart from other creatures, who can think some (consider the honeybee) but not much. Thinking, over the last 10,000 or so years (a rough estimate,) mankind has occupied himself, in the disciplines of science and philosophy, with the question of what, exactly, we are. This is, indeed, the question at the core of all the great traditions as well, which presume a spiritual — or inner — nature that forms the outer one.

Lo and behold! We are nothing like what we think we are; and even what we think is formed in different ways than we think it is. Scientists, investigating the question of the microbiome, that is, the billions or even trillions of tiny microorganisms that live in our bodies, have finally come to the realization that we form a holobiont: that is, we are not individuals, single entities, at all, but a collection, a community, of many organisms.

The microorganisms that inhabit our gut, our skin, and more or less all the other parts of our body, are our partners in biology; and it turns out that they help form the way we think and behave

This has been true for hundreds of millions of years, as it happens; huge dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus (a.k.a. Brontosaurus) developed their enormous bodies to house the bacteria in their guts that digested the vegetation they ate. The question is a profound one, because for more than a century the perception of evolution has always been that it is driven by outer circumstances, and that the outer parts of organisms are the ultimate indicators of fitness. No one ever stopped to consider an alternative. 

Yet it turns out, suddenly, that the outer form of a huge creature such as Apatosaurus was shaped, in great part, by the need for an environment in which to house the (in this case, undoubtedly) trillions of bacteria that helped it to digest its food. Evolution, in other words, does not just take place from the outside, putting survival pressure on creatures and causing their insides to respond; inside every creature, all kinds of things are going on that cause the outside to change.

All of this may seem like it has very little to do with our spiritual condition; yet all of the woes and the difficulties that human beings face begin inside human beings, not outside them; yet, being outwardly directed creatures, we seek outward solutions for our problems first. The solutions are political; they are technological; they are organizational; they are physical, chemical, liberal, conservative, and so on. But all of them turn out to be reactions to problems that begin inside human beings — and not just inside them in terms of the tiny organisms that help make us what we are, but also the thoughts we have — which are, in their own way, also invisible microscopic organisms.

Think of it this way, if you will. Every person who is in need and wants for something — food, shelter, care, protection — goes wanting because someone else, inside themselves, doesn't want to share with them. One could argue that an enormous number of the problems we share in societies begin right there, inside people, and only then express themselves outwardly. It is the inner evolution that matters here as well: if we don't recognize that we are filled with these "organisms," these symbionts called thoughts that do so much towards forming our outward behavior and our societies, we don't see the inner community that determines our outward form and our outward behavior. Those inward parts of ourselves are invisible to others; and, unfortunately, they are so often invisible to us ourselves, as we are, as well. It takes a great deal of introspection to see how these powerful reflexive, yet invisible, entities rule our every day outward life.

It's a strange world, indeed; it turns out that tiny bacteria may have something to do with us being greedy, or selfish, or deranged. Could it be that they may also have something to do with us being generous, loving, or kind? If so, are we all just magnifiers of the inherent nature of these microorganisms — vessels that concentrate their force?

I doubt it is that simple — but I also doubt that we are free of these concerns. We express a whole community from within ourselves, both biological and philosophical; and it is in the organic contemplation of this situation, as it exists within us in the present moment, that we can seek a sobriety that brings something better to the world than what we are without such effort.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Intelligence and service

Night Blooming Cereus
Sparkill, NY
Photograph by Lee van Laer

Like all of us, I've been watching the developments on the borders of Europe — the influx of desperate refugees, the corpses of children — in a mixture of astonishment and horror.

 We live in what we believe to be an intelligent society. A society that is properly educated, one that has informed itself — that is, has inwardly formed right attitudes and understanding. After all, this is what intelligence is all about: understanding.

Yet the developments in the current refugee crisis call all of our understanding into question. What good is intelligence if it does not lead us to compassion? If we are smart, if we are ingenious, but remain selfish and petty, is this good enough? I don’t think this meets the minimum standard for intelligence; so perhaps we are not as intelligent as we think. Intelligence is not just a force to be deployed in universities and laboratories; it needs most, above all, to live in the real world, where it can make a difference.

 Emmanuel Swedenborg insisted that the right spiritual attitude produced a human being who cared first for others and for God. Raised, as I was, in the Episcopalian tradition, it is impossible for me to believe that we ought to be any other way. 

I see in myself—as I think many of us see in ourselves—that I always care for myself first. This produces an inner struggle which I need to overcome if I am a Christian. The struggle is the same, I would imagine, for Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. All the various peoples of Faith need, each in their own way, to struggle against their selfishness in order to rise towards a more heavenly intelligence. Certainly, Swedenborg would have formulated it this way. Intelligence, he reported, is divine; and any intelligence we seek to express in our own lives ought to aspire towards, and mirror (as best it can) that same divinity.

Speaking as an American, living in what so many characterize as a “Christian nation,” I cannot help but feel that in a true Christian nation, all the leaders would stand up at once and not just suggest, but demand, that we place ourselves squarely in front of this need and take not a few thousand, but hundreds of thousands, of refugees in. One can leave all the politics out of it — this is what is right. If we must (and therein lies a whole terrifying argument outside the scope of this essay) fund and fight wars, we must take those fleeing them in. How can it been seen any differently? Christians—and, I think, all men and women of all faiths—ought to lead by example, not proclamation. 

It is the sacred responsibility of compassionate human beings to care for one another. We embarrass ourselves as human beings when we refuse to extend the offer of compassion when need —  demonstrable, undeniable need — is so great. I think it’s a measure of our selfishness, which has reached epic proportions, that we deny such need so effortlessly, as though it were right and proper to watch our neighbors starve while we eat. 

America and the rest of the world did the exactly same thing to the Jews during the rise of the Nazis—have we learned nothing from that?

We flatter ourselves with the belief that we know what intelligence is. We bedeck ourselves with our technologies as though they were glittering gems and baubles, and in liar’s clothing, we show up pretending the world is a grand ball, with all adoring eyes on us. But all of our acts ring hollow if our intelligence doesn’t lead us to the compassion that is needed in moments like this one. In the end, what reveals itself instead is a dark and spreading stain of self-interest.

I rather suspect, with worldwide developments as they are, this is just the beginning of the demand that will be placed on both our intelligence and our compassion in the coming decades. Much greater demands await us; if we cannot rise to meet even this first moment in a way that reflects a true intelligence, a humanitarian intelligence, a compassionate intelligence, then we sacrifice the right to call ourselves intelligent. 

We sacrifice other rights with it; the right to call ourselves courageous, the right to call ourselves righteous, the right to claim that we are compassionate. 

We can, it’s true, take all of those qualities off the table and decide that they are not important for us as a society and as a people; but if we do that now, where do we go from here?

I think that the whole world has to call itself, as we stand today, into question,  and open not just our armories and our pocketbooks, but our hearts, our borders, and our doors and pantries, to those in need. It’s true that this is a tremendous demand that will cost us much; but it is better to decide to do what is right and then figure out how to pay for it, than to cynically calculate how much the right thing will cost before we decide whether or not we ought to do it.


Note to readers: This essay will also be appearing in the notes section of the Parabola web site.

Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A single moment in the Lord

Great Blue Heron
Sparkill, NY
Photograph by Lee van Laer

In the last post, I used this phrase, a single moment in the Lord.

 There can't ever be anything more precious than such a moment; yet they belong to the Lord alone, and the great difficulty is that I labor under this continual illusion that I want all the moments too be mine.

Artists, writers and musicians—frequent readers will know I have been (or at least posed as), at times, all three—all suffer from the desire to make moments their own. I've been noticing this in writing in particular lately; writers who want to call attention to their own skills, rather than practice their craft quietly.

A friend of mine pointed out years ago that if a sound editor is successful, no one knows they were ever there; and so it is not only with all editing, but with all creative skill. The deft artist or musician, the one under the influence of a higher power, ceases to exist: the viewer is effortlessly led into territory where only the presence of God is revealed. Mankind has, in its creative impulse, the potential to serve as such a vehicle for expression: to channel an unmediated impression of divinity. This is, I think, what Gurdjieff actually meant by the term "objective art"—regardless of the somewhat tedious and pretentious descriptions Ouspensky reports to us.

Art is objective, in other words, when there is no artist.

Now, I've struggled for most of a life time to "be" an artist. I've struggled because, for the greater part, I wasn't gifted with a natural and effortless ability to paint and draw. This didn't stop me from trying n(I'm a very stubborn man, to be sure); and an active (though in my own eyes quite limited) imagination compensated in some small part for some of these deficiencies.

As it happens, it turned out rather late in life that I'm a better musician than I am a painter; and that I am, in turn, a better writer than I am a musician. More or less.

Yet in every case, the goodness only comes from my ability to get out of the way so that a higher influence can express itself. It's only when I am not "being Lee" that anything good comes of my creative impulses; and, having learned how thoroughly this is the case (it is 100%) I spend a great deal of my creative time not doing anything.

Not doing anything is what is necessary when the inflow isn't active. This is an impatient time for an artist, because when we wait for the muse (which is what it was called in more old fashioned times) there is little or nothing to do. Best occupy one's self in other things; building a wooden stair case, perchance. Feeding the chickens. Anything but attempting to create.

Those who've read The Idea Factory  (if you haven't, do so) will be introduced to a cast of characters whose creative and technical genius was, to be fair, fair in excess of even exceptional men and women. Yet to all appearances they spent a lot of time not doing anything. They were scientists who understood that the great ideas flow from within, from unknown places—inspired by God, although those in the sciences might be offended by the inference—and cannot see the light of day unless one is patient enough to become silent within, to listen, and to hear that single moment in the Lord.

Over the years it has become distressingly evident to me that in my own case, especially in the visual arts, I am far more adept at appreciation than I am at execution. This is no mean thing; to be an aesthetician is not a minor matter, and in this metastasizing age of  Philistinism, perhaps appreciators—those who know how to value and, more importantly, what to value—are more important than ever.

I say distressingly evident because, turning on the locus of my pride and egoism, I have always wanted to be a creator: coming only in late age to the realization that even when a person is a creator, one discovers, in supreme irony, that one isn't the one creating at all.

Of course, none of this is quite exactly what I mean by a single moment in the Lord; that is another matter, one for our secret souls to listen for,—

and savor.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Hoping past God

Reading a wide range of material lately, it strikes me how proud and overly arrogant we are as a species.

I suppose the comparison may not be apt; after all, we are (so far as we currently know) the only species capable of pride and arrogance; yet we seem determined to make up for this deficiency in other creatures by overcompensation alone.

Pride, like ego, is a subtle thing; it penetrates every action and inserts itself in hidden ways. The action of an inner presence is the only palliative for this; yet it is so rarely present.

I had a dream the other night in which I was in a group of people, speaking to someone else; and in the dream, I was acutely aware of how much I put myself on display through what I said. That is, the entire exchange just wasn't about being in relationship with the other person, despite appearances; inside me, it was about looking good. Or smart, or clever, or superior. I wanted the others in the dream to see me as capable, competent, well informed and important.

I was posing.

I suppose we all need a bit of this kind of recognition. Yet recognition from other human beings is treasure on earth, if ever there was any; and I crave that perhaps more than recognition from God. God gives in abundance and recognizes us in Glory, Grace, and Mercy; perhaps the whole point of that sequence of prayer is, for me, an objectification (in itself a dangerous thing, but never mind) of God's willingness to recognize.

Yet—although this is the one thing which, through both my own personal spiritual experience (as opposed to belief) and my professed Christianity, I ought to most crave and seek, I take it for granted.

I move on, hoping past God into some further territory populated by people and things.

This inner action of hoping past God consists of overlooking the sacred, and failing to acquire an exact appreciation, an exact valuation, of that which is given—that which I already have through the inarguable action of those qualities of Glory, Grace, and Mercy, which I am, in my essence, asleep to.

A single moment in the Lord is greater than all the moments in men; yet paradoxically, I want the moments in men. To further complicate matters this very same wanting embarrasses me; if I am given recognition, I somehow don't want it. There is a part of me that sees how untoward it is to wish in such an egoistic way.

Yet secretly, inside myself, these egoistic wishes are very strong things. They form the greater part of my intention; and that is what I ought to try and better see.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.