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.

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