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.

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