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.

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