The unexpected range of expectation
Lee van Laer, iPad pro & apple pencil, 2016
A., a long time friend and neighbor in the Gurdjieff Work – came over yesterday and talk turned to All and Everything, or, as it is also known, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson.
Our conversation percolated overnight; and in light of a number of different circumstances, which spread threads out through posts that will take place two months from now, events planned for the fall, and things that have happened long in the past, some few things occurred to me while I was taking a shower. I feel certain they are important to pass on, because most important thoughts, by and large, take place in the shower.
First of all, the obsessive reading, rereading, discussion, and analysis of this book is a great mistake. The book is like medicine; it is designed to treat a condition — our inner condition — and anyone who takes medicine knows that you ought to take it only for a certain period of time, and then stop.
One doesn't just keep taking more and more medicine over and over, forever; and furthermore, one doesn't always just take the same kind of medicine forever either. One takes a dose, allows it to have its effect, and moves on. Of course, one may need to re-treat from time to time; but one should limit the doses of medicine to what is necessary, not just partake of it wholesale according to one's greed or for its immediate effects.
The same can be said of The Reality of Being; we should not read these vital books over and over, obsessively, like dogs gnawing bones.
When Gurdjieff was alive, he did not have books of this kind to read. He read extensively and voraciously, through many different kinds of material. He was a seeker of truth; and he did not stop, like so many of his Greek orthodox family, friends, and acquaintances, with the Bible (although that is a perfectly good place to look, mind you.) He sought far and wide: he did not sit in recurring meetings with his hands folded, in his lap primly discussing the sacred text.
In this context, it's best to remind ourselves that a collapse onto our own literature and material is about the same as material that falls onto the surface of a black hole: everything gets sucked in to a single point, and the light goes out of it. An obsessive-compulsive focus on the literature of the Gurdjieff work — and especially the subject of this essay, All and Everything — ultimately constitutes the antithesis of what was intended with the material.
All and Everything is an extraordinary book. It has what are quite literally magical properties: read even once in its entirety, with even a small amount of attention, the medicine penetrates deep into Being where it can have effects on the deranged operation of our unconscious that help straighten things out over a period of many years. The reason it can have this effect is because it was written by a master that understood both the aim, purpose, and process of mythology: and he created a practical mythology for our times which can be ingested in the way the ancient spiritual myths were, only suitable for the digestive systems of modern man. These things operate in realms outside the range of our ordinary thinking (as they should and as they must); they operate in the same way that Christ's parables did, and do.
So misusing the book can produce contradictory results. The most important lesson that brings us is that we must go out into life to discover what is true; and Mme. de Salzmann's efforts, teachings, and the personal words from her diaries bring us that selfsame lesson. Book-work may be good; but I think we must not become a book work. One must constantly remind oneself that we are in a life work, and immerse oneself in the process of one's life — not the things in books.
Furthermore, we must immerse ourselves in the process of our own lives, lived from our own perspective — not our own lives lived from Gurdjieff's perspective or Jeanne de Salzmann's perspective.
This is the task we are given. We surrender it to the excessive influence of others at our peril:
"When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden...
This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears... will never be able to throw away his life."
—Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, Beacon Press, Boston (hardcover edition) pos 73-75. The passage has been considerably edited for brevity; refer to the original for the full scope of his remarks in this section.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.