Saturday, November 28, 2015

A deconstruction of the second striving, part I

Stone, Confucian Temple, Shanghai
Photo by the author
To have a constant and unflagging instinctive need for self-perfection in the sense of being.”

—the second obligolnian striving, G. I. Gurdjieff

I got up this morning with my curmudgeon on, and was promptly greeted with an inquiry about the meaning of this striving.

In my more than 40 years of exposure to the Gurdjieff work, I have noticed that its adherents sometimes seem to skip the process of questioning everything, and instead just more or less swallow Gurdjieff whole; his statements have acquired, in many cases, a peculiar luster of invulnerability. Yet, having donned my curmudgeon so early in the morning, it seems necessary to do so, in the same constant and unflagging skepticism Gurdjieff himself demanded of his followers.

 The bar is already set very high here. To have a “constant unflagging” anything is on the order of an obsessive-compulsive focus; no one has a constant unflagging need of any kind, unless it is driven by an unusual level of emotion. Ordinary emotion, when it produces this kind of drive, is usually working with sex energy — and generally speaking, according to Gurdjieff himself, that produces bad results in ordinary people, although they may be, from the external point of view, impressive.

Secondly, no one can provoke or create an instinctive need in themselves. Instinct doesn't work that way. Anything instinctive arises automatically—without the participation or even the need participation of ordinary consciousness or any conscious parts at all. The whole point of the instinctive is that it is unconscious, hard-wired, automatic and mechanical. That is the exact meaning of the word. Hence, instinct seems particularly inappropriate as a choice when talking about enterprises that are meant, in one way or another, to reflect conscious effort.

I believe what Mr. Gurdjieff probably meant here is deeply rooted; penetrating down to the marrow of the bones. Either that, or he is referring to a buried primordial instinct in man, turned towards God, which arises from the quantum fluctuation of atoms themselves as they find themselves separated from the Perfection (which means the Absolute, as distinct from the way the word is used in the striving) and seek to return to it. While it’s true that this striving is built in the universe at large, embedded in its fabric, it certainly isn't built into to human beings anymore in their average conscious state.

There are more paradoxes built into the structure of the statement, because despite our deteriorated state of consciousness, that feature of mankind is lawful—perfectly arranged, according to the way the cosmos is designed. That is to say, in a cosmological context, all things already have perfect Being, even if that being is, in our case, apparently damaged and relatively unconscious.

 It's difficult to square this with the idea of having “self perfection in the sense of being.” On the one hand, everything is already perfect within its complete unity in God; on the other hand, nothing is perfect, because all that which is separated from God has lost a portion of its perfection, being fractional, rather than perfectly unified. This is a snarled wad of fishing line.—it's all part of one correct and consistent thought that is very, very difficult to sort out.

If we turn to Gurdjieff’s own magnum opus on the subject,  Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, we'll note that even the highest being-bodies inhabiting the cosmos are flawed and make spectacular errors. It would seem, judging from this, that self perfection (a flawless and unerring self) is functionally unattainable; so perhaps we need to understand that the striving is good, even though its goal is impossible. In any event, once again, it sets the bar higher than any realistic expectation.

Does the striving mean that we should have unrealistic expectations of ourselves? It’s certainly possible to construe it that way.

Having deconstructed the statement, which is, like all deep thinking about the nature of being, filled with paradox, contradiction, and internal questions that will probably always remain unanswerable, we are left with a shell of fractured meetings that we become responsible for reassembling — and perhaps this is, in fact, the point of every statement Gurdjieff made, including the five obligolnian strivings. We can’t be passive in our interpretation of these statements and ideas; and we should definitely test their credibility. We're supposed to examine them carefully, challenging each fraction of them according to the abilities of our own critical mind, which needs both the exercise and the insights that may come from it. A religious attitude — an uncritical attitude, in other words — does not serve the teaching or its intentions well. It is better, in point of fact, to reject everything Gurdjieff said first, and then come back to it later, only after one has struggled to accept the various parts of it in one way or another.

 I don't think that the gist (the overall kernel) of meaning in this striving is faulty. But it is easy to misunderstand what it is saying, because it uses, in my opinion, misleading words to describe a subtle and unfamiliar inner state.

Now, it's only fair to Mr. Gurdjieff to point out that this is a typical problem in most statements about inner work, regardless of the esoteric tradition they come from — so if we have to approach his statements with great caution, it is no more than what we have to do with other like figures. We just need to remember to do it; and in this regard, unfortunately, we certainly don’t have a constant and unflagging instinctive urge to question everything, which is the first demand Gurdjieff himself impressed on his pupils.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

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