Saturday, October 31, 2015

To what practical effect? Part IV

Dragon, painted by Koizumi Junsaku
Kyoto, Japan
Photograph by Lee van Laer

What do we actually desire?

 What an appropriate question for Halloween.

This is a very dangerous question; because what we actually desire, from the parts of us that are not connected to something real, not devoted to God, come exclusively out of the darkness, and it is very deep indeed.

From time to time, more often every day now, an individual succumbs completely to what comes out of this darkness and we read about it in the news. The darkness is a very big thing, and it wants to swallow Being and goodness; everyone has this in them. It is part of the mystery: and a necessary one, although the reasons for it are impossible for us to understand.

 I think that when we encounter this idea of a struggle between desires and non-desires, we are inevitably in tempted to cast it in terms of a morality; and perhaps it does take place on that territory, but the morality is not one drawn in human hands. Many desires come from places that can't be defined, and seem to exist completely separate from all the real human impulses we ought to have; in point of fact, one could say — as they used to in classical times — that they come from demons, from urges, that is, evil spirits,  elemental forces that are destructive in nature.

In my experience, if a human being is truly willing to see their desires, they will surely know the difference between our lower and higher natures, and between God and the devil, because both God and the devil are inside us, that is, the territory occupied by the divine, or truth, and the profane, or untrue. This relationship is defined by the inner nature of our Being and by the nature of our consciousness, not by the external manifestations that take place after the conflict is engaged in within. Everything that takes place outside is only a consequence of this struggle, not the struggle itself. It takes place first in us; only then does it emerge as adultery, murder, war.

 There is no doubt that the good is real; but the good consists, one begins to suspect, of our non-desires, and not our desires.

 So there's peculiar irony, then, in wearing dress that casts us in the roles of witches, vampires, zombies. Perhaps this is the one night a year where we are willing to show ourselves and others what we are. Of course we can laugh about it and make it a lighthearted Mardi Gras of the dead; but as we go about, on every other day of the year, tearing each other — in the world — apart at the seams as we pursue our selfish wants, it doesn't seem so funny, does it?

This becomes the lead in for a series of essays I've been meaning to write about the difference between Love, the Good, and Mercy. That will be undertaken beginning with the next post.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

To what practical effect? Part III—our cold inner walls

Detail from Hans Memling's Annunciation-Mary
 Metropolitan Museum, New York
photograph by Lee van Laer

 The question of the particles of God's sorrow is an interesting one, because it leads us straight to the passion of Christ, which was so precisely designed to put this question in front of mankind in a way that could not be ignored.

In point of fact, one has to ask oneself why one needs Gurdjieff at all, when the lesson has been so accurately taught, so perfectly expressed, and so thoroughly expounded in a single action that came from a much higher level. We should, without doubt, note that Gurdjieff himself devoted a considerable amount of material to the life and death of Christ in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson; his complete omission of any extensive commentary on the life of the Buddha, or Mohammed, or anyone else besides the cryptic, proto-mythological figure of Ashiata Shiemash, along with the extensive (and exclusively Christian) angelic infrastructure and cosmological superstructure of the book, firmly nailed down the lid on the coffin of any pretense that the book is something other than a Christian allegory, no matter how heretical it may appear to the orthodox. Gurdjieff himself, was, after all, raised in the Greek Orthodox Church; and even the most cursory familiarity with Greek orthodoxy underscores how absolutely and completely Christian his early education must have been. It formed the core of everything he encountered and wrote about later in life.

I think, in fact, that it is essential to understand Gurdjieff first from the Christian perspective; not to pretend that there is a different angle one can take on it. And I furthermore think that we must not put our faith in Gurdjieff — he himself insisted we not do so, a fact that seems to be willfully and even arrogantly ignored by those who followed him. If we are going to put our faith anywhere, we must move past Gurdjieff and into Christ, because this is the direction in which faith must inevitably go: not in men, but towards God.

There has to be a practical turn of faith inward in life, that moves past all of the trappings that our teachers have hung on the walls around us; we have to get past the tapestries that insulate us from the fact that our inner walls are cold, and we must make efforts to survive on our own. We make our own warmth; and we do that by turning inward toward the warmth that radiates from God and the soul, which is that one spark that can ignite a fire that sustains us. Others do not light that spark for us; we light it ourselves. It isn't lit in a book; it is lit by the friction of our own inner fire as we confront the desires and non-desires that Gurdjieff spoke about. We have to, in a perfect sense, completely stop thinking about Gurdjieff, as though he never existed, and take only the ideas into ourselves as real and living things. This is what he would have wished for us; and of the cult of personality that has arisen in its place is a distraction to us from our real inner work, which is — as Gurdjieff himself said — one of perpetual suffering.

These realizations are, for me, hard won, and have required many years of suffering, both inwardly and outwardly, a process that I can now see will not end in this lifetime. But I see that one cannot choose to be a Gurdjieffian first, and then decide later whether to be a Christian, or a Jew, or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Muslim; first, I have to know that I am a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, Hindu, or a Muslim — for whatever religion or faith I am, I must fully embody and be that, not fool about like an idiot — and only then, once I have deeply and irrevocably accepted the very difficult and demanding tenets of my fundamental religious practice, only then can I begin to look at Mr. Gurdjieff's ideas and find value in them.

 I'm not sure those of us in the Gurdjieff community understand that properly. But I believe we ought to try.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

To what practical effect? Part II

 Detail from Hans Memling's Annunciation
 the Metropolitan Museum, New York
 photograph by Lee van Laer

These questions regarding conscience — which speaks to an inner spiritual presence quite different than the well-meant "spiritual – but – not – religious" attitude so often cited in today's aspiring souls — center at first around our capacity for an organic sense of being. 

This is because real feeling, that is, feeling connected to what Gurdjieff called the higher centers (i.e., the soul — Gurdjieff had a distressing penchant for obscuring straightforward things with complicated sounding names) is grounded in the awakening of sensation, that is, an active, living energy (referred to as prana in yoga, or chi in Asia but, in Christianity, the Holy Spirit) that can receive finer material that emanates from solar influences — and, ultimately, God. 

Without an awakening of this capacity, the angelic influences that seek to have a direct material effect on ordinary life do not enter into Being. Swedenborg spent many hours and wrote many words trying to explain how human beings can develop enormous intellectual capacity for discussing these things without ever actually understanding them from a practical point of view; and even if the organic sensation of being awakens — one can see how rarely that happens from how seldom the actual phenomenon is specifically discussed or described in spiritual literature — it serves as nothing more than a beginning.

Perhaps one of the chief values of Gurdjieff and Jeanne de Salzmann's teachings and work was that it put this forgotten question (especially in the case of de Salzmann) front and center, so that it could no longer be avoided. This resulted in an esoteric core group of persons, especially those closest to de Salzmann (and, later, the larger readership of her notebooks, as (substantially) edited and published in The Reality of Being) who struggled — & who are still struggling — to directly and practically understand the question of the organic sensation of Being...

which is a beginning practice.

 I say it is a beginning practice, because after this sense awakens, it takes many years of intense and sincere work — decades, in point of fact — for the finer materials of the Holy Spirit which are necessary for receiving the particles of the sorrow of God (which are unadulterated Love itself) to deposit themselves in Being. There is no doubt that those for whom the organic sensation of Being awakens think they're "somewhere special;" and to some limited extent this is true; yet the only truly special thing is that much more suffering becomes necessary. That can be a disappointment to people who are looking for spiritual ecstasy, inner peace, an expansive sense of love, and so on. Each one of these attractions is definitely available and presents itself; and all of them serve as instruction and reward, again, to a limited extent; but the spiritual seeker who has the organic sensation of being awaken, and becomes more directly open to angelic influences, is put under much more serious laws and conditions, in which a great deal more suffering is needed.

Why is that the case?

Well, it isn't complicated or mysterious. One has to understand that in order to come to true feeling — which is actually a higher level of sensation, directly connected to the organic sensation of being, but which takes place on an even finer scale than the cellular one of the organic sensation of being — one has to be prepared to suffer a very different and much more devastating kind of sorrow. 

That's because the particles of the sorrow of His Endlessness carry, each one of them, an exquisite and impossibly anguishing energy. It would not be going too far to say that each one of these particles carries, in its entirety, the entire passion of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ within it. With the receiving of every particle, as it is deposited, this sorrow becomes more and more present and more and more excruciating; and under ordinary circumstances, a human being is not psychologically prepared to absorb, process, or accept sorrow of this level.

We secretly flatter ourselves by thinking that we're strong; but we're weak. If we want to participate more directly in the passion of Christ — which, in both an allegorical and a practical sense — is what is being spoken of here — we need to prepare ourselves over the course of not just one lifetime, but the entire span of a soul's existence on every level. 

This is not something to be taken lightly, or read about in books. It isn't even something to be taught about by others, because it is a deeply personal and intimate experience that requires a kind of suffering about one's own existence that can never be undertaken by another soul. Each soul has its own very delicate, specific, and demanding work in this regard; and almost every soul would prefer to avoid it, since it involves a confrontation between parts — specifically referred to in the previously cited passage in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson — that no one can possibly enjoy undertaking.

In the process of confronting this, everyone has to see what they desire. Anyone who undertakes this will eventually discover that it is an obligation they must undertake, but can never, ever become comfortable with.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

To what practical effect? part I

The letter E (lower case)
Master ES
Metropolitan Museum, NY
Photograph by Lee van Laer

I woke up this morning— as is generally the case — in the midst of active sensation, which always forms the ground floor of living experience. With the experience of life emanating from this organic place, the usual active ponderings of the mind are present. And there are many things on my mind this morning. It reminds me of this gentleman, in a contemplative pose, who has all of these beasts battling inside his head. We try to reason things out. To what practical effect? It's not always clear.

I've spent the last week studying various questions on conscience and objective conscience in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. It's a complex subject; and yet in the end I want to come back to my own practical experience of the things that are discussed in this regard; especially in regard to the relationship between remorse of conscience and the particles of sorrow of His Endlessness, that is, God.

I've written and said a lot about objective conscience lately, most of which will not be published in this space, since the article — presuming it is accepted — is intended for presentation and publication at the annual A&E conference. (Should it not be accepted, readers will be offered a copy in this space.) Yet this is an academic pursuit, which, while valuable — we do need to study and try to understand with the mind, as well as the other parts — seems limited in its grasp, it's comprehension, of the question of our practical work.

Gurdjieff described remorse of conscience quite succinctly in the following passage from Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson: desires and non-desires. Yet the passage, with all that it says, is obscure without a specific, intimate, and direct experience of what it means to have a "localization of the particles of sorrow of His Endlessness," that is, to receive the material substance of God's sorrow which is so thoroughly and completely expressed in the passion of Christ.

 Let's be clear on this. One isn't going to understand this passage by trying to understand Gurdjieff and his "system" (presuming there is one, an assumption challenged by the factions, opinions, and obfuscation that follows in its footsteps.) 

Presuming there is anything at all to what Gurdjieff said — and, in fact, there absolutely is —one is only going to understand it by receiving the material substance of God's sorrow and knowing what it feels like. Understanding it theoretically from the book means almost nothing. 

 I would like readers to be clear on this because focus, the center of gravity, of inner work can't be located within Gurdjieff or his ideas. It has to be located within Being and experience. By this, I mean living being, and living experience. not what you read in the books. One can fill one's head with just about anything; again, to what practical effect? One must not fill one's head; one must fill one's Being.

 With this in mind, we will go forward into a few other essays on this subject.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A simplicity of understanding, part III— To comprehend

 Autumn crocus, Sparkill, New York
 photograph by the author

One hears the word understanding a great deal when discussing spiritual matters; yet exactly what does it mean to understand?

One of the meanings is to comprehend; and if we look at the word comprehend, we discover it comes from the Latin comprehender, to grasp or seize.

 Now, let us think about that for a minute. 

One grasps with the hands — that is, one uses a tactile, organic, sensation-laden limb and digits to take hold of that thing (whatsoever it may be). To comprehend, in other words, is to employ the organic parts of oneself (in terms of the root, literally, the hand, but it must be understood on the scale of all the cells and organs) to gain a tactile, immediate, and sensational (physically sensed) experience. 

When I seek to understand, I seek exactly the same kind of direct contact and intimacy.

This idea of understanding as direct contact and intimacy is different than the intellectual knowing I usually ascribe to the word; yet it is exactly this intimate practice that causes me to understand. It has to come into the body in a new way, not just float around in the mind. So if there is a simplicity of understanding, it lacks complexity, yet it gains intimacy.

I might think of this the way I think of a lover, or an infant held in my arms. There is nothing complicated at all about it — love is love, and it is known from within without error when one encounters the real thing. It does not need to be explained with words, such as, "love is this thing," or,  "now I am in love." One knows it before one begins to explain it. In the same way, when one truly understands, one knows understanding to be true — to be part of the Truth, to be divine — before one defines it, verbalizes it, labels it, or puts it in front of others. 

So understanding comes as an inmate comprehension that comes before the words that describe it. Do you catch my drift?

Along these lines, let me speak about how I am now. There is an energy that is perfection which can be received in the body; and within that energy, one knows the perfection of God so certainly that one grasps, one comprehends, and one understands without any explanations, plans, or observations. 

To know this perfection is so exquisite, so fine, and so intimate, and on such a beautifully rendered scale of detail, that one is left in no doubt about how God is or how God comes into me. This perfection comes before there is anything except Being; and Being comes before the world. So there is perfection; then there is Being; and then there is the world, in that order. 

It is a holy Trinity. Being stands as the bridge between God's perfection and the world.

I cannot experience perfection anyway other than perfectly; I can't go out and get it, and I can't keep it. It works according to its own law, because it emanates from divinity, that is, truth, and comes before the laws. It is the law of laws.

Perfection is, in other words, not an external state at all. It is an internal one. In the same way that Gurdjieff asked his pupils to visualize Christ and then bring Christ into themselves, so does the perfection of God enter me, whether I visualize it or not. Remember: this isn't my perfection, and I am not perfect. Rather, I participate in this perfection that comes before my Being and then enters it and penetrates it. I become female in relation to the male of this perfection, because it is what enters me and plants the seed of perfection, which then grows in the body in such a way that every cell knows it.

One ought to ponder and consider this, because the perfection of God is not so very far away from anyone; yet we are rarely open to the experience of it. 

Why, I could not tell you; yet I do understand — I grasp, I comprehend, and I do so in this tactile manner, through the physical sensation and the feeling sensation that come when perfection is present.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A simplicity of understanding, part II— Being comes before lawful action

Autumn crocus, Sparkill, New York
photograph by the author

 So I'm back to this question of a simplicity of understanding; and the paradox of it is that although you and I must use words to discuss and conceive of it, it is wordless.

 The work of God is ever wordless; and from this point of view, it is simple, because it is pure and without duplicity. It never divides itself against itself, but is always a single and whole thing, no matter how many aspects it manifests itself within. Despite the extraordinary beauty of Northern Renaissance churches, of Buddhist temples and altars, of Hindu paintings and idols, they deceive, because they delve into extraordinary complexity to express the exuberant fecundity and endless creativity of God. We look at that complexity, and we think to ourselves, that's what God is. We don't want to do this — we simply can't help it, because it's in our nature to respond to this complexity with a sense of all and wonder, which is the appropriate feeling we ought to have one approaching God.

Yet God is really quite simple and direct, and lives within the expression of being, which always lies beyond the threshold of what is known. Being emerges from the unknown into the known; but let us not mistake it thereby as an emergent property. Emergence begets itself of complexity, and is a lawful action, but a physical one; being begets itself of simplicity, and comes before lawful action. It's important to understand this idea of Being coming before lawful action, because we almost always and forever confuse this and think that lawful action begets Being. In order to know the difference, one must first sense Being organically and understand how one's awareness  both resides within it and emerges from it, and only then can one begin to contemplate its relationship to lawful action.

It is this upside down understanding of lawful action in relationship to being that gets us so confused and causes us to not have a simplicity of understanding. We always begin with lawful action, which is by its nature complex, and then try to work backward towards being, which is simple. This is because we find ourselves perpetually ensnared in lawful action within the sphere of our awareness. That is, more or less, the process Gurdjieff called identification; we think we are the lawful action.

The ideas of the naturalistic sciences and of secularism in general is that Being is born of lawful actions. But let's avoid allowing ourselves to be confused by this; we must firmly understand within the realm of our sensation and our feeling, as well as our mind, that Being comes before lawful action.



Today is the fourth anniversary of my sister Sarah Hansen's death.

Mme. de Salzmann's comments on death

I would like to read some thoughts which I believe are true:

There is no death. Life cannot die.

The coating uses up, the form disintegrates, but life is—is always there—even if for us it is the unknown.

We cannot know life. It would be pretense to say that we know what life is—what death is.

Some wise men have said that we can know life only after we know death. In any case, death is the end—the end of everything known. And because we cling to the known, the unknown is a fearful thing—for us. So we fear death—but we don't know what it is, really.

If we wish to know life, we need to die to the known and enter the unknown. It is hard to know what entering the unknown is. Perhaps it's just being here. At this moment—being here entirely. Just being here quietly as we try to express our love for the one who is entering the unknown.

In moments like this, in front of death, and being free from the known, we can enter the unknown, the complete stillness where there is no deterioration. Perhaps such moments are the only time in which we can find out what life is and what love is.

And without that love, we will never find the truth.

—Jeanne de Salzmann


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A simplicity of understanding, part I—Straightforward

 Shelf fungus on fallen tree (felled by hurricane Sandy)
 Tallman State Park, Piermont, New York
 photograph by the author

 In the last post, I came back to this question of sensation which so often haunts my diaries. The active nature of sensation is a mystery; and one can see how little is known about it by how rarely it is mentioned in esoteric literature, even though it ought to be a foundational stone, a cornerstone, in the experience of Being, since everything builds from it. The lack of discussion of this question reveals how head-centered, how abstract, psychological, and intellectual much contemplation can be. One must contemplate wordlessly with more than just the wordless parts of the mind; we also need to discover a wordless contemplation within the body and a wordless contemplation within feeling.

 It's surprising to me how little human beings appear to pay attention to these questions. There is no life in us without Being; and yet being itself, even without the organic understanding of it, is hardly discussed within life. No one seems interested in it. Humanity has, by and large, been completely consumed with an outward sense of being, like a fungus that grows on the bark of a tree without any sense at all of the heartwood at its center. The fungus is complex and elaborate, but it is superficial: a completely derivative entity that uses the tree for support, but does nothing real to contribute to the tree or its growth. Our personalities are something like this; yet unless we engage them, we believe in them as whole things, rather than understanding them as fractions of our inner life.

I come to a direct and intelligible physical sensation of myself, within the organic sense of being, the moment I wake up, before anything else happens. I prefer to dwell there for a few moments, reminding myself of how I am alive, and how I have this experience of being within sensation, before I get out of bed and begin to deal with the events of the day. It is a grounding experience that connects the current of my being to the earth of my life.

This roof of my life is the rich soil of experience that I have taken in. It has an extraordinary depth and range that is worth savoring; there is an entire universe of experience inside me that needs to be re-assembled and reconnected so that it forms a whole relationship. Yet that whole relationship cannot rely on complexity of understanding (see the last post) in order to understand itself: it needs to rely on simplicity of understanding.

 This word simple comes from Latin roots that originally meant lowly and common, or pure. It also used to mean without duplicity. Indeed, we still sometimes use these meanings today; so when I speak of a simplicity of understanding, I mean something that is common — basic, at the ground floor of being; something that is pure; something that is not duplicitous, in other words, straightforward, and not attempting to deceive.

This question of deception is deeply integrated into complexity; complexity, of itself, comes deceiving, because it obscures straightforward understandings.

More on that in the next post.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A simple thing

Red Tailed Hawk, Tallman State park
Photograph by the author

We spend a great deal of time seeking to be satisfied in life. As one ages, the question of what one is satisfied with changes; and there comes a point where one wonders whether we shouldn't just be satisfied with putting one foot in front of another. 

Dionysius the Areopagite suggests that we ought to be satisfied with simple things and simple thoughts when it comes to life and to God; and I think that Brother Lawrence must have felt the same way about it. Yet we live in a world, and in times, where it seems as though everyone is determined to make things more and more complicated. Technology, media, and the Internet have not simplified anything: they are tangling the world into more and more complex knots of information like a ball of fishing line that becomes increasingly snarled authority you pull on it. Every opinion races in every direction; every object competes with 10,000 other objects that offer nuanced different versions of each other.

Let's try to imagine complexity this way: hammers have been around for, oh, say, 10,000 years — and with a few variations, a hammer is a hammer. You use it to pound nails. They look pretty much the same; and there is general agreement about what a hammer ought to look like.

Now imagine a world in which every five minutes, some genius comes up with a new kind of hammer, and proclaims it to be the hammer that will save the world. The Internet is kind of like this: all it is is a tool to exchange information, and yet people are pitching it as a miraculous fix for all of the complex problems humans have. All of our technologies are more or less like that; they ignore the fact that the problems we have don't come from outside us; they come from inside us.

This insidious habit of making everything outside ourselves more and more complicated — fervently believing that the more complex things are, the better they are — is incredibly destructive, but the world hasn't really swallowed that one yet. In the meantime, our institutions and our societies are collapsing under the weight of the complexities we are loading into them.

This is a reflection of our inner state. Meditation and contemplation ought to be a process of emptying, of simplifying; we ought to be trying to bring our life back to the basics, sensing ourselves in our bodies, and becoming attuned to our Being— not our psychology, which is a different matter entirely. 

Our psychologies are complex but shallow; Being is simple, with much greater emotive depth. 

Psychology relies on Being to manifest — after all, without Being, there can't be anything at all — but Being does not rely on psychology. One must become attuned to one's organic existence and the simplicity of it in order to understand difference.

This brings me back to my most beloved subject, sensation, which is the heart and soul and essence of the threshold of Being upon which one can base a practice.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Visualization of the Passion

Lamentation of Christ-Lucas Cranach the Elder
Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Photograph by Lee van Laer

In Without Benefit of Clergy, Frank Sinclair's book on his experiences in the Gurdjieff work,  he mentions the recollections of Louise March on a gathering at the hotel Wellington in New York in the early hours of Christmas Day 1948. She recalls Gurdjieff saying:

"I wish give real Christmas present. Imagine Christ. Somewhere in space is." Mr. Gurdjieff forms an oval with both his hands. "Make contact but to outside, periphery. Draw from there, draw in, I. Settle in you, Am. Do every day. Wish to become Christ. Become. Be."

 The practice is deeply reminiscent of visualization practices; and perhaps we are reminded of St. Augustine's three stages of vision, beginning with corporeal vision — physical vision of our eyes — moving to spiritual vision that is, imagination and recollection, and then to intellectual vision, that is, the contemplation abstract entities. These stages of creative contemplation are equivalent to the vision of the body, the vision of the feelings, and the vision of the intelligence — in other words, imagination recast in terms of what Mr. Gurdjieff called "three brained being."

This practice of meditative imagination has long-standing precedent in the imagery and structure of Northern Renaissance painting, much of which was designed to act as a jumping off point for the aspirant; they were meant to imagine themselves directly into the events of the passion. 

It's a long-standing tradition in the Orthodox churches, both Greek and Catholic, to develop an intimate relationship with Christ, to take Christ himself directly into the heart.To become Christ.

Gurdjieff's statement reveals that he understood Christ as a real, active, living, and actual Being who we are capable of coming into intimate and direct contact with. This is a practical work that has little or nothing to do with the complex and elaborate mechanics of the chemical factory, or the abstract  esotericism of the enneagram. 

"Mathematik is useless. You cannot learn laws of world creation and world existence by mathematik."Idiots in Paris, J.G. Bennett, p. 27

 If we can't use the esoteric sciences — the inner physics of hydrogens and the multiplications on diagrams — to learn the laws of world creation and world existence, what do we use? 

The answer is quite clear. We use our intuition — our ability to acquire an inward teaching, a teaching of our own, that comes from the higher parts of the soul within ourselves. Gurdjieff cited this intuitive capacity as an essential part of inner work.

And it is quite interesting that Gurdjieff cited the inward tuition, the inward teaching, of taking Christ directly into ourselves as a practice directly related to his first prayer, I am — I wish to be.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Divine Feminine, part II

Ikat jacket, tailor made, Shanghai
Made from Thai ikat-dyed silk fabric, lined with chinese silk
Collection of the author

 In order to examine my impressions of the Divine feminine, I'd like to speak about the Virgin and Her nature.

 The divine, in the nature of God, emanates from an absolute unknowable. As Dionysius the Areopagite said,

... we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being... indeed the inscrutable one is out of the reach of every rational process. Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible good, this one, this source of all unity, this soup bread – existent being. Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name. It is and it is as no other being is. Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence, it alone could give an authoritative account of what it really is.
Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, translated by Colm Lubheid, Paulist press, New York, 1987, pages 50-51

(I might mention before we proceed that Dionysius the Areopagite says many wonderful and remarkable things, and is deserving of your serious attention if you are a reader of this blog.)

 The tricky part, of course, comes shortly thereafter, when our friend Dionysius advises us,

But as for now, what happens is this. We use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God. —ibid, p. 53

 So we understand that as we begin this discourse, we use words as best we can, even though they are always inadequate.

The mystery of Mary is equally impossible to express, because Her Being, although it can and does express itself on this level, emanates from so close to the divine (true) source of all being that she cannot truly be separated from it. The most esoteric Catholics fully understand this, which is why the cults of Mary have been so strong throughout the history of Catholicism; the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, among other great esoteric traditions, emerged from the womb of Mary's spiritual inspiration, as did the cathedral at Chartres and many other great works. Mary is the essence of fecundity emanating from the divine spirit; hence her place as the mother of Christ. Without her, even Christ could not come into the world: for God Himself required a mother to give birth to Him on this level.

 This reveals a great secret, that is, that even though God is the Father, He is also born of the Mother. One can get into theological chicken and egg discourses here, but there is no point to it. We need not rationalize through theology, but ought rather rather work through Theurgy — perform the work of God by understanding the Divine in both its masculine and feminine aspects.

Although she does not have corporeal Being, Mary is "essentially" female—she radiates a Divine feminine aura— and if you encounter Her, you'll most instantly know that, without any doubt. The knowledge will enter your heart like an arrow and pierce you to the depths of your soul with the knowing of her femininity, her motherhood, her perfection, and the essential embodiment of everything you could ever conceive of as Mary within Mary as She is.

At the same time, even though Her radiance unfolds itself in a way that in a single instant surpasses the entire Flower Ornament Scripture with all its heavens and angelic beings, she remains indescribable and beyond all Being as we know it. Yet if she touches you, you will know her in this way: through Truth, and Truth alone. This is an objective fact and has nothing to do with our opinions or thoughts about what Mary is.

Taking this into account, it appears as though on our level, the divine has a distinctive and irrevocable female aspect that can only be understood that way: divinity, that is, Truth, expresses itself to us through the mother first, before the father. This is why Mary comes before Christ, just as John the Baptist did, in the allegorical sense but far more intimately.

 I can think of no closer point to come to God and His inexpressible nature than first, through this point of contact in motherhood. Divine Motherhood is the point of radiance through which Truth is emanated into the material world; and so we are all the children of Mary, from the beginning and unto the end, because Her motherhood gives birth to the material world itself, and everything in it.

In this sense, we realize that femininity is very close to the material fabric of the universe, and the must have a relationship, in a mysterious and poorly understood way, to the quantum expression of energies in the ground-floor fabric of reality. We are penetrated through and through with this feminine nature of Being; our very arising is rooted in it, because we, being material, begin as receiving vessels for the divine. In this way, every one of our cells, every one of our atoms and molecules, helps Mary — the feminine divine — play her role in the birth of Christ, which is the birth of Truth in all its aspects as it manifests in reality at large.

 Well, these are some big thoughts, aren't they? Maybe we had better settle down and come into relationship with our sensation — close to the root of our own being — and see how this has an essentially female quantity that receives life.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Divine Feminine, part I

October 3.

The question of the place of women in Gurdjieff's Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson came up in the last post; and I suppose that it throws down the gauntlet of a challenge to the validity of a book that dares to call itself All and Everything. Viewed from this perspective, that moniker is laughable; and we must view it from this perspective, because we are supposed to question everything. Everything.

Given that the upcoming issue of Parabola Magazine (Spring 2016) is The Divine Feminine, the question continued to reverberate in me; and I am writing an article that may appear in that issue as a consequence.

 At the same time, one of the things that I ask myself personally on this question is how, as a man, I experience the feminine within myself.

We live in an age of "gender discovery;" and we seem to celebrate the peculiar manifestations of sexuality: homosexuality, transsexuality, dual gender identity, and so on.  Very little examination of ordinary heterosexuality seems to be on the table these days; it's almost as though heterosexuals aren't worth noticing or speaking of. This minority emphasis may be distracting us from important questions about heterosexual identities, for those of us who are not in one of the minority sexual categories.

 I've never felt an absolute need to identify with or express machismo; although I've never been in any doubt that I am strictly male and strictly attracted to females from a sexual point of view, when I reached my teens I discovered that I enjoyed dressing flamboyantly, in what some would consider more feminine attire.

I still do it. I never really got interested in wearing dresses and women's underwear — the idea just doesn't appeal to me — but I do like wearing colorful clothing, as anyone who knows me would tell you (ikat woven Thai silk jackets and the like), and I see no reason not to put on a good-looking piece of jewelry, although my indulgence in this is on the minimal side of things.

In earlier centuries, the idea of men dressing in finery, wearing feathers, brocade, embroidery, and even elaborate jewelry, was an acceptable one, especially for the upper classes. It's difficult for me to see where we crossed the line into the sterile, intensely unimaginative mode of formal menswear we see today, where everyone is supposed to be in a suit and tie. I always felt this was wrong, ever since I was a child. It smacks of a kind of conformity that stifles the soul.

Yet these outward modes, as Wilson van Dusen points out in  The Natural Depth in Man, always reflect our inner attitude: so apparently, there is a deeply feminine side of me that, although it isn't connected to my sexuality, is a part of my Being. When we combine this idea with the fact that I'm an artistic "type," emotive, and allegedly creative — there is certainly some evidence to suggest that, whether my creativity is worthy or not — it seems as though the female side of me, the one that receives the world and gives birth to something through that receiving, has a certain animated life to it that being male has not managed to suppress.

I come, thus, in this roundabout way, to the question of how I experience the divine, and especially the feminine nature of divine — if I experience it that way — directly, in my personal inner experience. Because it is in this ground, where I experience femininity within myself, yet embodied as a man, that the interesting questions arise. If I am going to measure what femininity means to me outside of the outward, the ordinary, and the obvious attractions to and attachments to the female sex, this is a different thing.

Gurdjieff always said that sex, measured from the biological and physical point of view, was a function — that is, he equated it to the process of elimination. It was, in other words, mechanical; and mixing it up with other parts of our spiritual life was a mistake. He did allow for the possibility of sex as a spiritual process under special circumstances, but those allusions were not central to his teaching. And he certainly allowed himself sexual liberties.

How do we take a look at this question of sex within spirituality and divinity from a personal point of view, in our daily practice? That's what I'm going to take up in my next essay.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Missing Women

Cycladic Female Figurine
Metropolitan Museum, NY
Photograph by the author

While doing research on another matter in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, it suddenly struck me that there are almost no principle female characters in this book.

It was a striking thought. 

How could a book this long, covering a scope this vast, and purporting to outline, in a comprehensive manner, All and Everything, claim to be representative of mankind’s spiritual history when it effectively edits out 50% of the entire species? 

Excuse me, please.

The book is about humanity’s awareness; and, furthermore, not just a general awareness — which is definitely covered in the book — but also, higher or spiritual consciousness, which must of necessity have equally male and female parts. Yet the book is exclusively patriarchal; and after we finish making excuses for it, presenting the case that Gurdjieff was a traditionalist, a man who was raised in a patriarchal society, trained in the rituals, observances, and attitudes of the Greek Orthodox Church, etc., we are left with the fact that this is, quite simply, a stunning and epic omission.

In any society, women represent about 50% of the mix. It simply isn't credible that women played no significant, major supporting role in the spiritual saga of mankind. For goodness’ sake!—Gurdjieff’s own religious tradition, Christianity, assigns central roles to female characters, including Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene! It's clear, furthermore, that in early Christianity and in the Gnostic Gospels, women, especially Mary Magdalene, played central roles in man's spiritual understanding. 

Yet they aren't seen anywhere in Beelzebub.

To claim that the book represents any legitimate kind of spiritual history is difficult, because any such history has to include women. 

You can't just pretend they aren't there.

After I had this thought, I used a few simple search tools to determine how prominently male and female figures are featured in the text by simply searching for the number of times that the word "he" and "she" appear. After all, as denominators of the sex of a particular character, their frequency in the text ought to more or less represent how often characters of that sex are appearing, on the basis of straight statistics. Completing this search, I discovered that the word "he" appears in the text 1,222 times as a whole word; and the word "she" appears a total of 98 times. 

This indicates that men are represented over women at a ratio of a staggering 10 to 1 in this book. The word "man," furthermore, appears 304 times; "woman," 43. The deficiency of representation seems consistent across this range of words as well.

So. Essentially, what makes this book truly exceptional (in the introduction, Gurdjieff proudly insists his book is extraordinary and exceptional) is that there aren't any women in it. I daresay it would be nearly impossible to find any other tale of this length that's managed to so effectively suppress and ignore the female element of humanity and her presence in society at large. It smacks of a deeply ingrained and unconscious chauvinism. That may sound damning; but given our context, it would be even more damning, wouldn’t it, to suggest that he consciously excluded women?

Now, we know that that chauvinism was not evident in Gurdjieff's practical teachings and in the way he handled pupils. He even showed, in some ways, favoritism towards his female students; and at times, he vaguely asserted that they had perhaps better spiritual abilities, more sensitive spiritual abilities, than men did. It's also equally true that many women assumed important positions of authority in Gurdjieff’s tradition, and a number of them ended up inheriting his laurels, including Jeanne de Salzmann, who was his appointed heir at the time of his death, and carried on the inner work in a powerfully positive tradition.

The temptation is to begin to make excuses for him; after all, when a teacher of this stature emerges on the world stage and then dies, he leaves flaws, missteps, and misconceptions behind; and generations of apologists arise to explain these away instead of looking at them straight in the eye. 

I think the most troubling issue here is that a man who was truly conscious of what he was writing and how he was writing it would have managed to create a text, which, while following history, assigned women an important, meaningful, and respected place in a book of this scope. 


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Cycladic Figurine
Metropolitan Museum, NY
Photograph by the author

Figurines of this nature have always been presumed to show a steatopygous person; yet they are found on islands in the Aegean, very, very far outside the known range of peoples with this genetic trait, all of whom are African.

No one knows who made these distinctive statues, or why; theories about fertility cults, goddesses, and so on have consequently proliferated.

What is certain to me is that these figurines, as expressive as they are, embody in a highly symbolic manner the phenomenon of inner gravity.

Now, the experience of real inner gravity is a mystery that one does not read about much; when discussions about gravity take place, they usually refer to the external phenomenon, which is an obvious physical one, or gravitas, that is, a certain weighty emotional dignity. Yet gravity, in an inner sense, becomes cellular relative to the receiving of solar vibrations; and the anchoring of one's entire being in a most physical way, which is experienced by the psyche itself as a weight, a literal weight, not a figurative one, creates an inner movement rooted in the foundation and essence of Being itself.

These figures seem to find a way to express that visually; and I suppose there is no other way to do it, since words always seem to me to be absolutely inadequate in the expression of this mystery, which is perhaps one of the deepest and most profound mysteries I can think of.

Just as we are vessels into which the world flows, so does this gravity embody that principle — one draws in the world.

To me, these figures equally express a reminder of the receiving of a different kind of inner energy. Even the tall, thin ones, with their angular faces express dignities that seem long ago and far away from our present state of spiritual deterioration. Their simplicity, their gravity, and their angularity all express measures of nobility; how many of our arts today can do that? Paleolithic and Neolithic artworks seem to express that dignity in their nature itself; those qualities cannot be divorced from the work, because they are inherent. One doesn't need to look for them or read them into it; it is already there from the beginning, as though that spiritual dignity where the whole reason that the work were made in the first place.

A friend of mine remarked on going from the John Singer Sargent show at the Metropolitan Museum into the African Pavilion, at noticing a striking difference between art of the ego and personality — which Sargent exemplified — and art of the essence, which is all one really sees in the art of Oceana and Africa. Each one of these represents a polarity; and each brings to us its own versions of both refinement and crudity, which exist on either end of the spectrum. But there is something about the cycladic art, the art that predates the eruption of Hellenistic realism, that speaks about mankind catching its collective breath at the end of the cycle.

Hellenism certainly represented the striking of a new note; but cycladic and Minoan art — even, to some extent, Etruscan art — seem to be the final reverberations of a much older and fully mature octave. Something different was taking place in human culture then; and their ancient arts reflect it. Picasso noticed it; and it had an enormous influence on the way he painted. He was, in his own way, trying to erotically resurrect the ancient Mediterranean cultures of his homeland. He came close; but what he tried to do was the work of magicians and gods.

We cannot resurrect Being as it was; all we can do is embody Being as it is. If we don't find the gravity, the gravity of the soul, that dwells within us, we will embody very little indeed.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The memory of time

 Cycladic figurine, circa 2600 BC
 Metropolitan Museum, New York
 photograph by the author

As I mentioned in the last post, I'm immersed — among other things — in reading about Mediterranean culture. Having spent a lifetime of traipsing through museums, archaeological sites, and so on, I felt I ought to devote more than cursory attention to this period in Western history; and it has been well worth the effort. There is far more to the story than Egypt, Greece, and Rome — oh yes, and that Babylon place. It turns out that mankind's cultural history in this region spreads further and runs deeper than any history can tell, because so much of the history is lost to us. We see only tiny fragments of where we came from. It's as though we only ever saw a single fingernail cut from the pinky of one of our parents, and felt thereby we knew our family.

Somewhere folded deep within the curves of our flesh and bone, we hold a memory of time that is deeper than what we think.

It is in our cells; it is written in every strand of DNA. There are times when those strands of chemistry vibrate in such a way that one senses one's life connected to time itself — and one can reach back within to the gravity that drew our ancestors towards the earth they walked upon. That gravity is common to all of us; we have it inside us. It connects us to the planet; it connects us to each other — and, I daresay, it connects us to God, in such a way that when God is present, there can be no argument about it.

This is, of course, generally unknown; yet it is true, in ways that science cannot mark with instruments.

 What good can that do us? Some might ask. Yet what more can we want to know than to know, in a different way, how much more alive we are than we think we are? When we live from deep within ourselves towards the outside, it is not the same as living from outside ourselves towards the depths within. Both are necessary; each one forms a relationship with gravity. One of them receives, the other gives. But the reciprocity must exist within our sense of time and gravity. If we are not within the sense of time and the sense of gravity in daily life, we forget we are alive. This is how I find it.

I hope each reader who shares these thoughts and ponderings with me will take care, and find a moment to love something deeper in themselves today.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

One must be something more than a fool

Detail from the Haywain
by Hieronymus Bosch
 The Prado, Madrid

 The day before yesterday, a friend and I went to see the play Mercury Fur by Philip Ridely. I didn't go because the play was recommended; one of his son's best friends was starring in it.

The play is an unrelentingly violent and horrifying exposé of human depravity in an apocalyptic setting. Watching it, I was continually challenged by the question of what the possible purpose of such a play could be. What is the point? It was, really, a form of pornography — well-crafted and intelligently acted and directed pornography, but without any of the uplifting qualities that art ought to try to represent to humanity. 

It is possible to create an art where destruction and violence serve as their own ends, but it is irresponsible, and betrays both the impulse and its origins. 

Yet so much of the world is like this today, isn't it?

A second impression of hopelessness came this morning with an article in the New York Times about veterans from the war in Afghanistan committing suicide. Each one of them, after their combat experience, was overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and a lack of meaning. The presumed threat of our mortality — which is imparted to us because of an unspoken assumption that it is somehow unnatural — brings hopelessness very close to home. It's easy to believe that because everything is temporary, nothing means anything. And it is at this time of year, when the fall air begins to blow in, that that brilliant gasp of autumn which illuminates the coming end of summer sinks into the bones. One can sense it in the very marrow; summer will die. Yet it is exhilarating, filled with promise, not desperate and bleak. So there is the possibility for us to sense hope even within the end of things, if we understand life properly. There are those who can draw strength from such ideas; and our arts, literature, music, philosophy and sciences should help us to absorb these lessons. When they serve the opposite purpose, they do not serve man — they serve his devils.

There ought to be a nobility of substance in our enterprises, don't you think? A way of seeing, sensing that transcends — an effort to incorporate mortality, not dismiss it. If we bury death itself, we lose what makes us live with it. This is a question we need to carry within us always.

 We don't begin to formulate any perspective on questions like this without a deep education. One has to study everything in order to begin to grasp the mystery we are faced with.

I'm currently beginning my interpretive work on the Haywain; the outer panel shows the wayfarer, the spiritual seeker.  In the detail above, as he transits the landscape of life, the gallows is directly above him: a reminder that death is always with us, and a reminder that we should remember this. Putting it in the distance also reminds us that we think of it as a distant possibility; yet it's ever present in our landscape.

Another line of work I'm currently engaged in is a comprehensive reading of  The Making of the Middle Sea  by Cyprian Broodbank; and although I doubt many readers will have the patience to read through 600 pages of detailed — yet lucid, fluid, and masterful — archaeology, I can wholly recommend the book to anyone interested in where Western civilization began; for most of what we have inherited in terms of art, architecture, philosophy, and religion owes a great deal to this region. 

One of the things this book drives home over and over is the vast depth of time throughout which civilizations, large ones, have existed and traded with one another; most of them entirely forgotten, swallowed by time in the same way that blue whales swallow plankton. Measured against the scope of time and scale presented in this book, no matter how important what we think we are doing is, it is a tiny thing indeed. Even the greatest men and the greatest achievements will eventually be swallowed by time in the same way. This is why Gurdjieff called time, which he named the Heropass,  merciless.

Absorbing impressions of this is a humbling experience. My wife and I walk through the Metropolitan Museum today and specifically visited the Cycladic and other Mediterranean galleries to expose ourselves, for just a few moments, to the tiny fragments which remain of these ancient and magnificent cultures, to whom we owe so much. (Picasso, for example, drew much of his abstract toolkit from Cycladic form, recycling it in a way that made it look strikingly original — which it isn't.)

I think the point is, we come up against hopelessness in terms of scale; we come up against hopelessness in terms of time; viewed through this constricted lens, the whole world could, easily, be construed as a meaningless exercise. 

That is the easy way out. Men reach for desperation and bitterness, I think, out of selfishness itself — we are tempted to drink it like hemlock and then lie back and let everything expire. Now, it's true, that there are clinically depressive conditions that may do this to individuals, but there is no excuse for doing it as a culture — which is where my objection to this play I saw begins and ends. Any idiot can tell a tale where things end badly— take Game of Thrones, for example. If one wishes to be an artist, one must be something more than a fool.

It is up to us to create an art and aesthetic, a cultural value, that echoes down through time in such a way that we can taste the lives that went before us, and uphold a goodness from it that we pass on into the future, and the lives that come after us.

I think that this is what hope is all about. It is hope, as Gurdjieff said, of consciousness: and that consciousness must be a consciousness of positive value, of meaning, of a world where we do not see everything as continually destroyed, but, rather, continually created.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.