Saturday, August 27, 2016

Guilt, part II—unto the death

 Mindfulness practice — the effort aimed at an inward presence and attention — requires me to be in the moment and see how I am.

Perhaps I interpret this to mean seeing I'm this way, or that way — I'm happy, or depressed, or nasty, or reactionary, or generous, or forgiving, and so on. Yet each of these evaluations becomes a static and assigned condition once it's identified. I tell myself, upon seeing this or that, that it is so, that it is true; and perhaps one of the things I may see is that I am guilty about one thing or another.

In adopting this idea of guilt, I generally take the fourth definition cited in the last post (the state, meriting condemnation and reproach of conscience, of having willfully committed crime or heinous moral offense.) In other words, I may see that I blame myself. That can sometimes be the precise inner state I am in; and, when it arises, it generally attaches itself to some outward action.

It's not uncommon, for that matter, for it to attach itself to my evaluation of how" good" my inner work is; how much effort I made, how attentive I have been, how seriously I take my work — whatever the word means to me — and so on. And then I blame myself. It's very common for us, whether we are in Gurdjieff group meetings or sessions with our psychologists, to talk about how we see ourselves as having failed in one way or another. That failure is always (unless we are cheerfully unattached sociopaths or psychopaths) some form of guilt. In other words, I blame myself for not having performed my duties.

The classic representation of how seriously a man or woman ought to take their duty — at least in Christian culture — is the crucifixion of Christ, who took his duty unto death in the way that God assigned it. In a more secular context, I'm reminded of Lord Nelson, who at the Battle of Trafalgar, lying mortally wounded below deck on his ship, was reported to have said with his last breath, "I have done my duty." Either way, we understand duty here to be something that is a requirement unto the death.

If we're reminded here of Gurdjieff's adage that the only thing that could save man or woman would be a constant sense of the inevitability of his or her own death, it's an appropriate association. We should remember that we are mortal; and we should remember, with utmost seriousness of purpose and of soul, that we only have a brief period on this planet in which to fulfill our duties, which ought to be our primary aim. In Nelson's case it was duty unto Caesar; and in Christ's case it was duty unto God. It's not an either/or proposition, either; one must inevitably fulfill both duties as best one can. Or at least this is the way we generally understand it.

In a materialist sense, devoid of religious context, we might say that we try to do our duty strictly in order to avoid guilt; but that is the way of a selfish man, as described by Swedenborg. The selfish man only does his duty out of fear for himself (he doesn't want to feel guilt) and fear of others (he does not want others to condemn him.) This is not enough. Fear of guilt, whether inner or outer, is not sufficient. One must do one's duty because it is the right thing to do; one must choose, moving past one's inward fears, to do the right thing because it is right, not because you want it for yourself.

In this sense, we need to transcend guilt, in both its humorous and unamusing forms, in order to understand where we are. Hopefully, for readers who understand Gurdjieffian terminology,  this explains why he said, consider outwardly always, inwardly never. Guilt is the essential form of inner considering; and it serves almost nothing except ego.

This of course leads us to a complex and not easily examined question about whether a lack of inner considering has something to do with sociopathy; but I will not take that up here.

Instead, the question turns to what duty is and how we understand it — since right fulfillment of duty would be the aim, rather than simple avoidance of guilt.

We will take that up in the next post.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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