Incense burner, Shanghai Confucian Temple
photograph by the author
Xiamen, Oct. 20
The second thought that I had this morning came while I was reading Gurdjieff's Wartime Transcripts.
He gives some very good and specific advices in this book, especially — in meeting 17, I think, I'm not going to look it up right now — how to distinctly sense your individuality. In any event, my point is not about these specific devices. It is a general one.
It doesn't do us much good to read these books if we don't know how to actively live within our inner being. The advice that he gives always needs to be taken in organically, at a deeper level than the formatory mind— that is, the mind that we generally use for everything we do, which we call "waking consciousness," which is really quite automatic and habitual (as he points out.) Taking things in at that level involves swallowing them in a different way, not letting them sit in the front the ordinary mind. So the advice is excellent, but almost everything that we hear goes into us superficially.
The deceptive part of this is that the superficial parts that take in inner teaching always think that they are the ones that understand it, and they have a real expertise in pitching that position to the rest of our being. We believe in it. The next thing you know, everything that takes place in relationship to it takes place quite superficially as well, all of it constructing an attitude that occupies most of the understanding we think we can muster in relationship to it.
It's very important (he makes this point, obliquely, in the text) to learn how to take things in organically, so that they live within the body is something more than just a passing thought. There has to be a sobriety way that we take things in — and this sobriety is an allegorical one, since it means we step back from the drunkenness of the ordinary mind and abstain from it. We stop drinking water thinking it is wine. It's the water that is making us drunk.
There is no doubt that the ordinary parts have to continue to function, that we need to give this dog considerable play on the leash. But that doesn't mean that the dog decides where we are walking, or when we have to stop and pee on things. If we let the dog stop us everywhere, we just end up marking our lives with the urine of our superficial being all day long.
This may seem like a rather repugnant metaphor, but it is actually like that. Our vanity is the urine we mark things with. (Once again, read the transcripts.)
In any event, it's quite impossible to understand any of what Gurdjieff said until we begin to digest differently. Then the words look like different words, the ideas seem to be different ideas, and we can accept what he is saying about ourselves in a different way. It's like forming a different relationship to death.
Given that we are all trapped in this superficial part of our Being most of the time, I'm not sure what one ought to do to really come taste of what I am getting at here. At the very least, a different kind of energy has to be in me in order to take this properly.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.