Monday, May 2, 2016

Becoming one's own teacher, part I— anti-egoism

Martanda (an aspect of the sun God, Surya)
Gahadavala, 12th Century A.D.
National Museum, New Delhi

Becoming One's Own Teacher- Part 1 of 6 

Spring is in full flow. Outside my window, the redbuds are blooming; flocks of geese are flying up the Sparkill, through the gap from the Hudson, towards the inland of New Jersey.

 I am returned from journeys, Holland, India, China, and filled with an enormous set of impressions not only of the world and its condition, but of my inward journey and the many contradictions I inhabit as I ingest and digest my life.

I was just at the annual All and Everything conference, which took place in Salem, Massachusetts. There were, of course, many different threads of work and idea at this conference; I was one of the presenters, and did my best to represent an inward work as I understand it. That's all any of us can do. 

Much could be said about that experience, but perhaps I will leave it for later. What I wanted to come to this morning was a subject my wife and I discussed on our drive back from Salem, which took much longer than we expected due to Passover traffic.

The subject of teachers came up; and I reminded my wife that the aim of inner work is always, in the end, to become one's own teacher. She was understandably apprehensive about this idea; after all, so many people understand it egoistically— often in quite subtle ways, without seeing that they do so — or with a sense of arrogance that allows them to fail to practice outward considering in a right way. (For those of you who do not know what outward considering is, it consists of putting yourself in the shoes of the other person. That's the short and simple explanation.) Like egoistic and anti-egoistic suffering, which are two entirely different things and need to be clearly separated from one another in understanding and experience, one's personal inward teaching ought to assume an anti-egoistic form; yet perhaps this isn't well understood.

So how do I become my own teacher, and what does that mean? I'm going to try to explore that in the next series of essays.

No matter where we go or what we do in life, we always begin with ourselves; and this is the original sin, the temptation to egoism as it arises at the beginning. Yet it is equally only ourselves that we have; and on any inward path, the self needs to form a new and sacred relationship with God that changes the center of gravity so that the ego does not just draw the world into it and try to own it, which is how we usually function. 

Anyone who practices self-observation will eventually see that the ego is like a giant magnet that wants to own everything; it's complex and greedy and swallows life and self faster than self and life can muster defenses against it. An inward teacher needs to be formed that has some kind of authority to preserve a piece of territory that does not belong to ego; and this is a terribly difficult thing. All the great esoteric teachings attempt to help one do this.

Yet no matter how many outward resources are thrown against this problem in the form of works and teachers, only the inward transformation of Being can begin to change this, and that always becomes, ultimately, the responsibility of the individual who is working. In order to do this, one has to work one's way through a nearly endless series of delusions—much like the distractions of the Bardo in the Tibetan book of the dead— in order to reach a place where some form of anti-egoistic authority can form. In Islam, this is submission; in Christianity, surrender to Christ; in Buddhism, nothingness — but not in the way we understand nothingness, but rather, nothingness of self, which is directly analogous to Gurdjieff's admonition that we see and experience our own nothingness.

 In the next installment, I'll speak more about this idea of forming an anti-egoistic inward authority. 

In the meantime, readers might want to avail themselves of a copy of Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom, which is probably one of the most delightful and useful ancient texts on this matter.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.


  1. Very helpful. Thanks.
    'Ibn Arabi[edit]
    Muhyiddin Muhammad b. 'Ali Ibn 'Arabi (or Ibn al-'Arabi) AH 561- AH 638 (July 28, 1165 – November 10, 1240) is considered to be one of the most important Sufi masters, although he never founded any order (tariqa). His writings, especially al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya and Fusus al-hikam, have been studied within all the Sufi orders as the clearest expression of tawhid (Divine Unity), though because of their recondite nature they were often only given to initiates. Later those who followed his teaching became known as the school of wahdat al-wujud (the Oneness of Being). He himself considered his writings to have been divinely inspired. As he expressed the Way to one of his close disciples, his legacy is that 'you should never ever abandon your servant-hood ('ubudiyya), and that there may never be in your soul a longing for any existing thing'.[163]'

    Wondering if he is another mystic who ultimately denies any individual souls..."oneness of being". The christian heresy of 'monopsychism'.

  2. 'However, the rabbi condemned monopsychism for the same reason as the
    Christian Scholastics. Such a view did not allow for the diversity of human nature,
    neither for the salvation of the individual soul.'

    Actually, this is of more than mere scholastic interest. Mme de Dampierre once told me that Henry Corbin, the french sufi scholar, wanted 'the work' to die. There is the anecdote that Corbin said to G. 'I don't exist' (typical mystical/sufi statement). G. replied 'that's a pity'.
    I also know from Michel de Dampierre that Idries Shah tried to get a list of all the Paris foundation members for a take-over bid! :)
    G was obviously influenced by 'sufism' but he wasn't one of them.


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