Monday, October 31, 2016

Death and sensation

Madonna of humility with angels and a donor
c. 1360
Anonymous Venetian

"The sole means now of saving the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant in their presence a new organ, an organ like kundabuffer, but this time having such properties that every one of these unfortunates, during the process of his existence, should constantly sense and be aware of the inevitability of his own death, as well as of the death of everyone upon whom his eyes, or attention, rest. 

"Only such a sensation and such an awareness could destroy the egoism now so completely crystallized in them that it has swallowed up the whole of their essence, and at the same time uproot that tendency to hate others which flows from it—the tendency that engenders those mutual relationships which are the chief cause of all their abnormalities, unbecoming to three-brained beings and maleficent for them and for the whole of the Universe. " 

—G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Chapter 47

Last night, we were having a conversation with S., and the subject of death came up. We came to it by way of the Tibetan book of the dead.

"How do I approach death?" she asked.

 Readers of the above passage may be helped by a specific comment in this passage from Beelzebub's tales.  We are asked to constantly sense and be aware of the inevitability of our own deaths.

 The point is critical. 

We are not asked to think about the inevitability of our own death. Such activity is pointless and can in fact be antithetical to spiritual work — even morbid. 

We're asked instead to sense the inevitability of death.  

Our awareness must rest in the sensation of it. In case we misunderstand, in the second paragraph, he says once again, "only such a sensation and such an awareness..." in order to double down on the point that it is the sensation of our death that we must become aware of.

 Now, of course, readers may ask themselves several questions. 

Why have I never heard of it this way? 

Why isn't it discussed in that context? 

Or... perhaps even more succinctly... 

What the hell does this mean?

 Well, in fact, we have heard since the very first moment that these words were written and published that we ought to approach the question of our death through sensation. That is exactly what Gurdjieff says. 

Very exactly. 

Yet the mind instantly grasps it and turns it into a thought of some kind. The fact that he introduces the idea by suggesting that it be induced through an organ — that is, that it be organic— is also papered over. The passage has, in other words, been routinely misunderstood ever since it was published. It's not a hypothesis or a theoretical construct. It's a statement of fact.

In order to understand this question correctly, it is essential that one awaken the organic sensation of being. As I have explained to readers before, this sensation contains the fact of one's own death in it

Within the context of our awakened sensation, mortality is assured through an organic understanding.

 This understanding is, furthermore, a grace. We make friends not only with ourselves through sensation; we make friends with our death, which is perfectly woven into the fabric of our life through this organic sensation. The two are inseparable; and one understands love most completely in the relationship between these two elements as they arise within being. God is there. Of course Gurdjieff didn't quite exactly explain this; but he certainly alluded to it, once again quite directly, by pointing out that it would uproot the tendency to hate others. So, you see, he told us everything we needed to know — in a sense, gave away the whole game — in this one passage.

If one awakens the organic sensation of being and receives the inward flow of the divine presence, one becomes aware of the inevitability of one's own death. This is a certain truth. 

Perhaps even more importantly, one becomes aware of what it means to have a loving relationship with the condition of mortality.

 So, on this theoretical day when death is cartooned into a joyful caricature of itself, try instead to sense death— from within the organic sensation of being— as a loving gift that already lives in us. This is a very, very different kind of understanding than what we are fed by our institutions and the nonsense we make up for ourselves as we go about daily affairs.

 The effort at awakening of sensation which is so central to the practical effort in the Gurdjieff teachings today is actually nothing more than the effort to implant this new organ. Sensation is the organ. If you want to understand why Jeanne de Salzmann's notes say what they do—why she devoted her life to this effort, why the book The Reality of Being reads the way it does— understand it in the context of this final passage from Beelzebub's Tales. 

The whole enterprise, from top to bottom, is an effort to implement this organ of sensation in us.  

 In case you were wondering, from the tiny, limited perspective of humanity and the desperate state we find ourselves in here, that's what this inner work is for.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Words of Our Imperfect Teachers, Part IV

Gilt Buddha
Shanghai, China

Perfect: Middle English: from Old French perfet, from Latin perfectus ‘completed,’ from the verb perficere, from per- ‘through, completely’ + facere ‘do.’

 Perhaps the reason that Gurdjieff gives us a cosmology of imperfection is hidden in the root meaning of the word perfect: to be "completely done.” In the cyclical cosmology of the enneagram— a symbol of eternal circulation, which is indeed the model of the created universe presented in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson — nothing is ever finished. There can be no final doing, because doing is what one might call a perpetual motion machine. One's work is never done; there is always one more step. The idea is certainly embedded in Christian prayer in the words, "world without end, amen.” 

A world without end is an unfinished world, a world forever in the process of creation and forever in the process of maintenance. (Think here on the third obligolnian striving.) It is by default imperfect.

 In this world of imperfection, meaning and value arise in the tension between where “I am” and what remains to be done. Viktor Frankl pointed this out in Man's Search for Meaning:

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him. (page 127.)

 From this doctrine of imperfection, we can derive a new insight and meaning from Gurdjieff's classic prayers: "I am — I wish to be” and “Lord have mercy.” "I am” is the awareness of my being; "I wish to be" is an acknowledgment of my striving towards a task; and "Lord have Mercy” is the potential meaning I must struggle to fulfill.

I say that "Lord have Mercy" is the potential meaning I must struggle to fill for a specific reason. We must remember here that Ibn al ‘Arabi— the preeminent, foundational, and unsurpassable scholar of Sufism — assigned us the place of vicegerents. A vicegerent is, literally, a person holding office — that is, one assigned responsibility. He explained quite succinctly that we are assigned as vicegerents of God, that is, those assigned to act on God's behalf.

We are, in other words, God’s agencies, and when we intone the words, “Lord have Mercy,” we acknowledge not just that we wish for God to have mercy on us. In saying these words, we are also required to take on the task — freely chosen, as Frankl explains it— to have mercy on behalf of God. Within this understanding are encompassed the ideas of intentional suffering, forgiveness, and Christ's sacrifice on the cross. We thus see that the Beelzebub’s cosmology of imperfection is directly related to these questions and inextricably intertwined with the ultimate meaning of spiritual work.
 In the context of both the cosmology of imperfection and Frankl's deeply spiritual existentialism, we are called upon to fulfill a role which we first need to see we are unwilling and unable to take on. We must furthermore understand that our search for peace and our search for perfection are actually antithetical to the task itself; our task precludes restful bliss and the absence of tension. It precludes a world of peace and beauty. God would have no need for agents in such a world; His vicegerents are called upon to act on His behalf only in a cosmos of imperfection.

 There are mysteries here that offer no easy path of penetration; but they demand a much deeper contemplation than we usually give them.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Words of Our Imperfect Teachers, Part III: The Cosmology of Imperfection

Sparkill, NY

“…this holy planet, which is called 'Purgatory,  called 'Purgatory,' is the heart, as it were, and place of concentration of all the final results of the pulsation of everything that functions and exists in the whole of our Great Universe. 

"Our Common Father Creator Endlessness appears there so often only because this holy planet is the place of existence of the most unfortunate of 'highest being-bodies' who obtained their coating on various planets of the whole of our Great Universe. The 'highest being-bodies' who have become worthy to dwell on this holy planet suffer as perhaps no one and nothing suffers in the whole of our Great Universe. 

"In view of this, our All-Loving, All-Merciful, and Absolutely Just Creator Endlessness, having no other possibility of helping these unfortunate 'highest being-bodies,' often appears there, so that by these appearances of His, He may soothe them, if only a little, in their terrible yet inevitable state of inexpressible anguish.”

—G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Chapter 39, The Holy Planet Purgatory.

 I’ve sometimes discussed the vision of God within life as an experience of The Perfection. The Perfection is sometimes sensible to us—yet glimpses of it are only granted under special circumstances. Gurdjieff's above comments are a specific reference to The Perfection, which is a gift granted. The gift of The Perfection is so great, as I have pointed out before, that it would ruin us if we were to see it frequently; God, in His Wisdom and Grace, apportions this to us only exactly in accordance with our spiritual need. Those who have not experienced The Perfection may take heart; they can be sure it is not necessary for them, and perhaps that’s a good thing. We can't know; it may be that only those of us who are further fallen and in more desperate need are given the Grace to occasionally sense such things.

 In any event, this question of The Perfection is very important, because the idea of perfect teachers and perfect teachings is an improper and even damaging one. 

The only true Perfection lies in God, who is and will forever be unknowable; so the least and the most (worldly) perfections we encounter are always just pale shades and reflections of that true Perfection which lies beyond all knowing. 

The whole parable of Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson is a tale of imperfections: our protagonist Beelzebub is imperfect; the Angels and Archangels planning the mechanical operations of the cosmos are imperfect; the results of their labors are catastrophic, and all of the efforts to fix them are equally imperfect. The book is, if nothing else, a chronicle of ongoing failure. One notes that any deus ex machina an author might rightfully be expected to contrive in order to fix the situation is entirely absent. While the book is founded on the absolute premise of an all-knowing and all-loving Endless Creator (God), He does not step in to fix what has gone wrong, even though one might presume it is within his power. One can extrapolate from this that perhaps even God has His limits; or, at the very least, His creation does, and He chooses not to interfere with that. 

It is a cosmology of imperfection.

 This sets Gurdjieff's cosmology apart from other cosmologies, and other teachings — because it is a teaching of imperfection. The 30,000 foot view of the book, and the teaching itself, brings us this teaching of imperfection, a way to see our lack: which is what Mme. de Salzmann repeatedly exhorted us to understand. It is not in the “perfection of our higher being-bodies” that we can attain any freedom or any liberation, any enlightenment; it is in the recognition of our imperfection, which is, in absolute fact, the task in which every inhabitant of the Holy Planet Purgatory is engaged. Indeed, it’s said that when Gurdjieff adepts working with Jeanne de Salzmann saw that she had come to something real, and asked her to help them, she said, "I will — as far as I am able.” Even she saw the limits of her ability. 

One can directly inferred that it was through her acknowledgment of her imperfection that she gained some degree of freedom. We do not become “more perfect” as we grow. We see our imperfection, and it is in the context of this seeing our lack that any liberation from our ego can come.

It’s very closely related to the Christian path of humility: in fact, the roots of it lie deep in this exact soil, although it may not be apparent to adherents without a sound Christian upbringing, who disdainfully eschew Christian teaching in favor of more, but superficially, exotic teachings from the east. A real understanding of esotericism honors all teachings equally, and recognizes the root of humility as the true stock from which growth can come.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Tenth anniversary coming up!

Granada, Spain

 Mark your calendars. A month from today will be the 10th anniversary of this space.

 I'll be publishing an essay on the cosmology of All and Everything on that date.

 Essence can help with an emptying out of the non-sense. 

We don't see it — I usually don't, in any event, and I know the difference between when I do and I don't — but we are full of absolute non-sense. Every bit of it distracts from the present moment and what is actually true right now.

That organic truth is so much more compelling than my dreams. When I take the world in more directly through this organic sense, without the non-sense — the not – sensing which takes place when I live mostly in imagination — there is, in a certain way, almost nothing going on in me intellectually, yet the world is quite satisfying nonetheless.

One can't quite explain why it works this way. It's another example of how little we know about the real nature of human psychology, the soul, and what is needed in terms of meaning. Why can looking at a pair of glasses on my iPad end up being so satisfying relative to supposedly more sophisticated pursuits? 

No one knows.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Words of Our Imperfect Teachers, Part II: Betty Brown

Sparkill, NY

“I have sometimes said there is a power in the soul which alone is free. Sometimes I have called it the guardian of the spirit, sometimes I have called it the light of the spirit, sometimes I have said that it is a little spark. But now I say that it is neither this nor that… it is free of all names and void of all forms, and entirely exempt and free, as God is exempt and free in himself.”

— Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works, p. 80

I remember that many years ago, my teacher pointed out how easy it is for us to become identified with our inner work, so much so that we become nearly obsessed with it. This identification is called, in the Gurdjieff teaching, “falling asleep in the work;” and I fear it is far too prevalent a danger, and too often overlooked.

One gets the impression, at times, that wrong work of sex center drives people's interest in the Gurdjieff work. They apply a certain kind of fanaticism; and everything they do centers around Gurdjieff work activities and events. My teacher Betty's husband — a genuine teacher in his own right and a good man if ever there was one – was certainly such a person, despite his positive attributes.

Betty insisted that we get out there in life and live. Anyone with the least amount of an honest perspective on Gurdjieff's approach to his own teaching will see that he required this of his pupils; we need to be in life. Our inner work is what supports our life; it is not a replacement for the outer world.

 Another point that Betty made is that our emotions take a while to catch up. We can’t gloss over them or avoid them; they are real, and to pretend that I don't have emotional reactions would be as na├»ve as pretending I don't need to use words to speak about things (another strange idea bred in the Gurdjieffian laboratory of genetic modifications.) I do have emotional reactions; and I have to come into relationship with them, suffer them, experience them, and above all allow them their time to work themselves out. This is always a painful process; a secret part of me always wants to discover a separate bliss in which I am free of such responsibilities, and can meet the world with a supreme indifference and distance that puts me above it. When I do this kind of thinking, I forgot that my life is here to put me in the world and live within it, not rise above it into some pretend sphere of higher consciousness. (For the record, I’ve dwelled at times within real spheres of higher consciousness, and they carry the same level of responsibility to live within the world that the lower ones do. Legitimate higher consciousness is not an escape clause — it is an invitation to participate—and to suffer. Christ came here to help us see this.)

 So I have to live through my emotional reactions and accept them. This is part of the humbling which needs to take place as I continually discover, and re-discover, the relationship with my ego and know how troubled it is.

 If one walks a maze, like the one at Chartres, one discovers that one constantly circles the center, coming closer to it and thinking that one has made progress, only to find that one turns away and is once again headed for the outer reaches, where one has to search for yet another new way towards the center. Work is very much like this; all of the impulse for it radiates from the divine spark of the soul—objective conscience—which dwells deep within the Being of every human. We come closer to it at some times and are further away from it at others; there are times when we are closer to our inward work and to a spiritual presence, and other times when we move away from it and are more taken by life. I don't think that we can identify the inwardly tactile difference between inner and outer life without repeated exposure to this kind of circulation; under the influence (inflow) of Heavenly Grace, we forget what life and suffering are, and dwelling within and identified with life, we forget the influence of Heavenly Grace. It's the tension between the two, and our conscious inhabitation of that reciprocally dilating and contracting space, that helps us to gain some presence of mind — some mindfulness — about the helplessness of our condition. This is an objective helplessness; without help from a higher level, we cannot find ourselves, in the same way that the Shepherd must help the lost sheep. 

But if I don't understand I'm lost — if I do not see how I stray from the flock, that inner center of gravity — I can’t understand the need to return.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, October 21, 2016

In Memorium: Sarah van Laer Hansen

Dec 19, 1959 - Oct. 21, 2011

In memory of my sister Sarah, on the fifth anniversary of her death.

You are loved, and missed.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Words of Our Imperfect Teachers, Part I: Crystal Bridges

William Wetmore Story

My wife and I were at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville yesterday. 

The collection is a fine one, with several gems; but perhaps the importance of it is not so much the individual works of art, but the way it traces a broad and intelligent trajectory across the transition that took place in art between the 18th and 20th centuries, a time of radical re-evaluation in the visual arts.  

Viewed through the lens of a single (and oft perceived-as-outlier) country and its artists, the magnitude of the change seems more apparent than when viewed at other institutions; and in addition to offering us a new lens through which to view that transformation, it affirms the fact that American art and American artists have steadfastly fashioned and truly owned their own unique, separate, and equally valid vision of art. 

Much more could be said about that; but what struck me during the museum visit was a simple exchange between ourselves and a young man serving as a security guard. We chatted a bit about the layout of the grounds; and during the exchange I realized that he had a mild speech impediment and was slightly disabled.

This struck a deep emotional chord in me. Coming fresh off a weekend of work with the Arkansas group, I was more directly receptive to such impressions; and it came to me suddenly that I have no real appreciation for how fortunate I am. 

"I have no right to complain," I thought to myself, "...but I do have an obligation to love."

I complain about a lot of things in my life, but in fact there's very little to complain about. I am of reasonably sound health and mind, and ought to not find fault with my conditions, which are in truth very tolerable indeed. I arrogate this right to complain to myself without thought or mindfulness; and it is entirely lacking in compassion. 

I DO have an obligation to love, which means, to follow the instruction of Christ: "love one another as I have loved you." This is a point of work I ought to question and take in much more actively and deeply in my daily life. This obligation to love ought to take precedence over the selfishness of complaint; yet I so often forget it. I risk becoming a tiny, whining creature unfit for any real service; and I need to keep a much closer eye on that. 

Really I do.  

I have been forced again and again by my life to the point where I'm required to see that I am unloving; and that I truly—not theoretically—ought to forgive all those around me as Christ forgave us. 

This forgiving I speak of is not a forgiving that took place long ago, when He died; or a forgiving I can attend to later when I am ready. In a certain sense I'm never ready to forgive, and I need to remember that. I need to forgive NOW; and I need most especially to forgive the people who I am truly angered by, the ones I like the least and who do me the most harm. 

Now, I've had to do this kind of inner work repeatedly over the course of a lifetime; and each time I do it I pretend to myself that I've learned something real. I want to award myself crowns of golden laurel leaves and pat myself on the back. But the simple fact is that it's inner bullshit; I end up finding myself at this same place over and over again because I haven't learned anything. 

I'm reminded here of an exchange between my teacher and myself some years ago where, after twenty years of work with her, she angrily said to me, "you haven't understood anything!"... And she was right. Not right, perhaps, in her anger; she often expected too much of me… which was her job. But she was right about my understanding. And I see now fifteen years later (having finally understood a few of those things she was upset with me about) that I don't understand forgiveness; it isn't an inherent part of what I am. I keep having to understand it over and over again, every time, because I am not forgiving. I suspect I never truly will be; it is a lesson to be learned again repeatedly through suffering.

It's only through this repeated humility of suffering that I come to a realization of just how small I am; and it is a real gift to see that. 


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


What was your life like as a child?

How did that help you form your impressions of the world? 

What are your impressions now?

I have a question today about living in the moment – which is what we claim our aim is. 

It's not enough to just live in the moment once one reaches a certain age. One has to consider one's life over the long arc of time, and see how what has already taken place, especially at the beginning, influences the trajectory. The overall trajectory from within, after all, was formed very early — outer circumstances push us in many different directions, but inward ones have more of a consistency to them, because they always begin from this point of withinwardness called Being. 

Our being may be weak or it may be strong, but it's indubitably there, because it is what God gives us at the beginning and it is what determines how everything else is formed from inside; what is received, how it is processed and related to other things, what grows in us.

This brings me to temptation. Temptation is the inner impulse towards selfishness and the gratification of the self. Throughout most of my life, when I heard this word in prayer, I always presumed that "lead us not into temptation" was intoned in regard to outward things, but that isn't the case at all, I think. Temptation is an inner thing. It may be stimulated by objects, events, circumstances, and conditions, but it always acts inwardly, and it always comes from a selfishness. 

One could argue that this selfishness is the selfishness of a child; and this sheds some light for me on Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 13:

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

Given that the rest of the passage is about love, which is an essentially unselfish impulse, it seems clear that temptation is an important part of the question. 

I'm tempted to be selfish. That comes first. After that unmindful and childish impulse, all the outer manifestations kick in: the objects of temptation, which are not objects in themselves (things to be tempted by) but only manifestations of my selfishness... my childishness. This is a root behavior worth, I think, careful examination. 

During the course of my day, I definitely see that I have two contradictory impulses that act in me constantly: one, to gratify my own wishes –which are probably carnal, or relate to acquiring wealth or having power and exercising it —and another which is generous and actually cares about other people. 

If I take the time to see it, I can be present to the way they struggle with one another. 

My unselfishness is pretty weak, isn't it?

We spend a lot of time sensing this or that part of the body, doing an exercise where we "come back" to ourselves. That's all very nice. But shouldn't we occasionally do exercises where we try to see these specific inner parts and how they influence us? 

If I don't have a question about my manifestations which is active and within me during the day, what can I really see? 

Even my failure to work is a result of this temptation to act childishly, to act through selfish impulse, rather than love and caring. After all, if I truly love myself and care about myself, I'll make an effort to attend to my inner life. If I don't, there are fundamental questions at stake. 

This is where my attention and mindfulness begin: as a child, from within temptation. I begin from within myself as a child, but I try to reach both inward and outward by discovering the adult.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

The meaning of life?

One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. 

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

—Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, Washington Square Pressp. 131

Continuing to reread Man's Search for Meaning, I insist every reader of this space ought to get a copy and read it for themselves. Frankl says so many absolutely essential things, in such a simple and uncomplicated way, without the pretensions so often attached to so-called "spiritual" works.

 Our essential task is to discover the meaning of our lives — not "the" meaning of life, which philosophies and spiritual teachings purport to impart, but the meaning of our own lives. 

It's this microscopic insertion of meaning into being, which takes place cell by cell and organism by organism, to which we must attend. 

To this end, I am reminded of a volume of poetry I recently read: all of it poetry purported to impart deep philosophical and spiritual meanings, written by a wide range of poets. Almost all of it, unfortunately, falls prey to this consistent, grandiose belief that we are able to comprehend things on vast scales—and then talk about them. 

Alas.  These theoretically better poets, bedecked with their many publications and awards, repeat the same tired old themes that innumerable less accomplished brethren hammer away at. Such sheet-metal always ends up being beat into mediocre shapes, because that is all it lends itself to. Contemporary poets, novelists, filmmakers and a range of other regurgitaters of popular ideas, philosophies, and mind–bogglings are obsessed with trying to capture vastness and contain it in tiny bottles; what they usually capture instead is embarrassing bombast. 

Not long ago, a poet who asked me for advice about their work received my comment that the cosmos won't fit in a poem; so don't put it in there. 

Poems—like individual lives—are too abbreviated to contain vastness. Whenever faced with the choice between the great and the small, always choose the small, because God and the cosmos are far more often revealed in the small things than in the huge ones (see Meister Eckhart's last words.)  

This particular insight bears a direct relationship to the questions I investigated in the recent series of essays published under the title "...Bacon?" We have to investigate the meaning of life within the context of our own life, within life. Using the external as an interpretive mechanism has validity; but only just so much validity, because the external is a world of generalities, whereas our inward Being is a world of specifics: It determines, specifically who and what we are, before the external circumstances are encountered.

That determination is intimate and immediate, and it is only in the context of our inward self examination that we can know anything about who we are, before the external ever affects us.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Dog Teaches Me

Bangkok, October 9

It’s different to come into relationship with an energy than to come into relationship with a thought.

I think — I use my thoughts — to believe that I understand the difference between these two things, but that isn’t quite true. In a certain way, if I want to come into relationship with an inner energy, I have to completely let go of the thought. Not in a stupid way, that is, unintentionally and without mindfulness, but rather intentionally: with a going-towards the energy and an experience of it that doesn’t have thought in it.

There can, to be sure, be a balance between thought and inward energy; and I experience that now as I try to express the differences between the two and their co-relationship within me. If I could study the balance here more carefully, I might learn something important about the nature of thinking and the nature of sensation, which are different but can be cooperative with one another.

As it stands, unless sensation is voluntarily active, that is, it provides its own support from its own corner of being, I am always trying to invoke it and come at it from thought. 

This prevents it from having the right to be alive in its own way. 

It’s as though I am commanding a dog, instead of coming into relationship with the dog, who has its own life and its own being and is in fact much more generous than I am. Not only more generous, but more loving as well. 

If I always want to be the master, there may be a rationale to it — and of course it’s true the dog has, in a certain sense, the need for a master — but the dog is also a whole being unto itself and ought to be allowed to be a dog, because I am not just the teacher of the dog. 

If I'm wise enough, the dog also teaches me.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Too precious

A subject that has been on my mind of late.

There are those who are superficially spiritual, merely paying attention to the form and believing that that suffices. 

Then there are those whose spirituality is quite "ordinary"; they infuse their lives with it in sincerity and devotion, and if it is largely outward, well, then, at least it has the force of real life in it.

Then there are those of us who pretend to a greater depth.

Gurdjieff had his share of suspicion for such folk, even though he was ultimately surrounded by them. Perhaps that's why he drove them away in such large numbers: pretenders? It could be. He reminded Ouspensky that the obyvatel, the ordinary householder who simply tries to meet his or her life-responsibility, often achieves a greater depth of Being than those with the lofty aspirations. And indeed, in Zen we constantly hear echoes of that tired old story of the humblest monk who was elevated to the head of the monastery.

What bothers me about spiritual aspirants in general is that we are all a little too precious. This habit is particularly prevalent among Gurdjieffians; the more hidebound and traditional, the more offensive such manifestations. We often, I fear, nurse a catastrophically mistaken belief that we are guardians of a secret faith that only the initiated can understand; and that its purity must be protected from the ravages of the lower creatures we're surrounded by.

Make no mistake about it: we, too, are the lower creatures.

This illusion that we are somehow different, separated, from ordinary life, ordinary impulses and ordinary people is just that—an illusion. 

Nobody is special. 

This is a lesson hard learned; and the danger is that the more special we believe we are, the less we see. It breeds an atmosphere where we believe we can and should instruct and correct, rather than  investigate and question; where we substitute reserved arrogance for open-hearted compassion, and where the confessional is deemed necessary for others, but not ourselves. 

Only a deeply troubled mind can come to true spiritual conscience. Flying back from China on this last trip, I watched "Doubt," the film with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman; and this film seemed to me to do a good job of capturing that truth.

A precious attitude does not engender a deeply troubled mind; I feel quite sure of this. If we separate from others and hold ourselves apart; if we believe we share, within our tiny circles (every human circle is, in the end, tiny, no matter how much we inflate them in our imaginations) some secret knowledge others aren't able to understand, ah! What a mistake. What separates us, if there is any separation, is our effort to understand: and if we confess, on bended knee as we grow older, that we do not understand, then how is it we can hold ourselves apart from those who we see as having less understanding than our own?

I declare myself as guilty as the next man or woman on this point; and I challenge us all to examine our attitudes on it. 

Just how precious and magical do we really think we are?

It reminds me of another point my teacher Betty Brown made to me many years ago: how arrogant we are, to think we can achieve anything spiritually. 

In the end, all of that emanates from ego; yet we don't see it, for it comes to us clothed in a robe of many colors, speaking soft words, promising membership.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: El Bosco: Hieronymus Bosch at the Prado, Madrid, September 2016

The Prado, Madrid

Okay... we're out of bacon now. Here's an omelet.

My wife & I were fortunate to be able to attend the Hieronymus Bosch 500th anniversary event in Madrid, skating in on the skin of our teeth the very last day. A follow-up to the spring show in Den Bosch, the Netherlands, the largest group of Bosch paintings ever collected together were presented in the rather more spacious circumstances of the Prado’s new wing. Despite this, crowds were still dense.

The show included a number of essential Bosch pieces which were not in the show at Den Bosch; notably, his acknowledged masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights; also, its essential companion piece, The Hay Wain. In addition, the Prado’s exceptionally fine Adoration of the Magi and the sumptuous Temptation of Saint Anthony (from Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon) were here, rounding out the assortment shown in the Netherlands with most of the remaining critical oil paintings in the Bosch oeuvre. 

These paintings, taken together, reaffirm Bosch’s unchallenged status as the western world’s greatest symbolic and esoteric painter. He has no rivals; given the quality, originality and scope of his work, there are not even really other contestants. It can well be said of today’s visual world: everything we know about hell, we learned from Bosch. 

Painters, for the most part, are judged first on the excellence of their skills as artists. Using this yardstick, Northern Renaissance painters trump any other western school, at least of Bosch’s period; yet let us remember that the most essential measure of artists is not necessarily taken from the technical skills they exhibit. Art ought to first be about meaning, and only after that technique; painters are not athletes, but aesthetes. 

The essential meaning in any art must be imparted first by content and subject matter; even a fool should know that a technically perfect painting of banality remains banal, no matter how deft or contemporary its execution. (The celebration of banality is by now a passionate vice in our culture; but never mind.) And despite the modern obsession with such things, posturing, mockery, and dialogues about the deployment of materials, no matter how fascinating, end up being no more than intellectual masturbation—another favorite vice in contemporary art. The same has to be said for art so personal it effectively isolates itself from its audience — yet another all-too-common contemporary failing.

On this point of rich, mysterious, and intelligently—intentionally— imparted meaning, Bosch has few, if any, equals.  The meaning in his paintings is powerful, relentless, and insistent; his subjects provoke an endless and relentless questioning in the viewer, challenging and overthrowing assumptions about what art ought to look like, what it consists of, and what it means. 

In challenging our assumptions about art and life (Bosch’s painting are dramatically different that other artists of his own time, and they knew it as clearly then as we know it now) the paintings challenge our assumptions about the world; and this is the essential purpose behind Bosch’s paintings. They are, after all, not made just to delight, look pretty or provoke astonishment (although they so easily do all these things); they are of a certainty made to investigate; to educate. 

And they educate not just on the superficial level to our ordinary consciousness, but reach much deeper, into the cthonic, Jungian territory of our collective unconscious. In doing so, they touch and awaken very personal nerves… even ones we didn’t know we had.

The reader needs to be reminded that images in Bosch that may appear, to the uninitiated, to be sensationalist, prurient, or just plain sick or weird, are all in fact quite intentional and contribute significant informative value to each narrative. Many strange and bizarre images in Bosch paintings turn out to have straightforward and easily understandable meanings once the overall narrative is understood in the form of a nonverbal rebus for the viewer; and the design is such that the paintings can continue to yield to new meanings, since most images can be read on several different levels and in the context of multiple relationships.

Comparing Bosch to superlative contemporaries such as van Eyck and van der Weyden—masters of the greatest possible technical beauty and sophistication—is therefore nearly useless. professionals at technical execution and in the understanding of beauty, both artists were amateurs in the use of symbolism — that is to say, the symbols they use are from a standard lexicon used by almost every artist of their century and, for that matter, both earlier and later ones. They give us exactly what we expect, even if they do it better than everyone else.

Bosch displays no such weaknesses. The content is so different that analogies fail at once, even if we strain at them. Bosch is on a different level, a level of psychological and spiritual dialog his contemporaries were simply unable to engage in.

A show like the show at the Prado makes this clear. Seeing all the actual greatest work, at a single time, together, the magnitude of his achievement becomes evident in a way no book can bring across. If one of his paintings taken alone is extraordinary, all of them taken together are impossible. What flowering of inner genius produced this bounty?

One of the strongest impressions I took away from the show was the fact that Bosch’s paintings don’t just tell narratives within each painting. The major paintings are connected, forming a pilgrim’s progress where each tale is part of a greater whole. One can’t quite understand what Bosch was up to, in other words, unless one looks at many of his paintings together and sees the common symbolic and narrative threads: the colors, images, circumstances and situations that link them together.

The overarching narrative is man's life and his spiritual search, both inner and outer. This is, of course, examined in a specific sense in each individual painting; yet the paintings enter into dialog with one another as well as the viewer, laying out a comprehensive vision. The interconnectedness is fascinating; for example, jugs, knives, musical instruments of the same kind crop up again and again, implying a commonality of meaning and purpose. We can’t possibly think this was because Bosch’s imagination was too limited to paint a wide variety of such objects; the very idea is laughable. His objects are chosen because their place and use in each piece has a meaning that connects the narratives to one another.

In some cases the connections are more obvious, as in the relationship between the Hay Wain and the Garden; in others, one needs to dig deeper, because Bosch has buried the bones of his dialog across a range of paintings. 

This is particularly interesting because it shows us that even though he knew the works would ultimately be sold and divided, so that they could not be seen together, he conceived of them as a single whole: the wisdom paintings represent a thought on a major scale, with individual works collectively representing an entire octave of tones and half tones.

Bosch’s paintings, then, represent an octave, a harmonious musical scale; the notes have individual sounds, but a far greater meaning emerges from their relationship to one another. The idea of an octave cannot of course be applied literally here, but figuratively, it serves us well.

The collected works, which have not until now ever been seen together in this manner (and may not again for more hundreds of years) reveal themselves as a Decameron, a visual Canterbury tales. The literary precedent for such collections was set, of course, over a century before Bosch’s time, so perhaps he had exactly this in mind. 

Regardless, the deep interconnectedness between his paintings—such as still survive— tell us the master was up to an even greater enterprise than his individual works, each one great in itself, reveal. Across the breadth and throughout the depth of his works, Bosch chronicles a spiritual search undertaken across two frontiers: mankind’s outward, but even more importantly, inward worlds.

My books on Bosch are available at the following links, or (for apple users) in the iTunes bookstore.

The Esoteric Bosch

Bosch Decoded


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.