Monday, February 22, 2016

On the nature of I

Ammonite 
Museum of Natural History, New York


Not much is said any more today about Gurdjieff’s doctrine of many “I”s— the idea seems to have fallen out of vogue. 

Yet I think this is a subtle and extraordinary teaching about who we are which can only be appreciated after many years of effort, and inward changes that are hard-won.

 The theoretical aspect of the idea is simple and, for the most part, self-explanatory. One can read about this idea, absorb it, and carry it around in oneself as an intellectual concept for decades without actually understanding it. Of course, I ought to remind readers that this is the case with almost everything we encounter. The intellect is adept at absorbing and "understanding"  — that is, comprehending within its own realm — concepts of this kind. Yet understanding within the realm of intellect alone is not real understanding. It is only one third of it.

The critical point about this arose last night as I was driving home on the Palisades Parkway. It was nearly 6 PM; it was almost dark, and I was in the cocoon of light created by my automobile, a womb-like environment, from a certain point of view. I suddenly had a deep and extraordinary impression of the way in which the individuals, the so-called “people,” who are in me are not even real things. They are both real and unreal at the same time.

I spend my life with various entities, that is, individuals, commenting on every single impression that enters. All of them appear to be alive — but every single one of them is a tiny machine created out of its own opinions, which are selfish and utterly divorced from my conscious Being. Consciousness itself is a separate entity that has a purity and vitality, an energy of Being that is uncontaminated by these different individuals. The individuals exist alongside it and parasitize it in one way or another, attempting to influence it, but consciousness itself is a pure force that exists apart from and outside of these entities. Because of what Gurdjieff calls identification, I don't distinguish between consciousness and these small mechanical beings that attempt to influence it — so I think they are me.

One of the things that made this impression of myself extraordinary was its depth. There was a clear-cut separation between these parts; I could see how this particular “I” (out of many) was operational, and the force of pure, unadulterated consciousness existed alongside of it as a truth. This insight was gained after more than 34 years of intensive inner effort and struggle, and took place long after — decades after — I thought I had understood and mastered this idea. It reminds me of how na├»ve I am when I think I understand things; and it reminds me of how absolutely difficult it is to truly understand anything Gurdjieff said about our inner nature. We think we grasp things from the beginning; yet nothing could be further from the truth. The parts that grasp things from the beginning are these little mechanical beings in us, who claim they know what is going on. Yet the ultimate aim of conscious effort is to understand consciousness as a separate and a pure force; and even long after that capacity develops in us, a true understanding of the separation between consciousness of Being and consciousness of personality eludes me.

 This particular insight relates to the Buddhist idea that everything is an illusion. By “everything", what is meant is these countless fractional Beings within me that are not part of consciousness as it manifests, which is what gives me substance.

 Well, of course, this is presented within a context that can't quite convey the impression, but I think it quite important that even those who have worked for many many years and think they know the difference between “I” and consciousness consider this question more carefully. 

I cannot know consciousness, but consciousness knows itself.

Hosanna.






Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

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