Tuesday, January 31, 2017

About The Meaning of Life, part 2- The Unclothed God

Alhambra, interior detail

“I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature.”

—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

God is Love; and He is thereby also Being. 

Being is a subordinate condition emerging from Love as its first and most essential aspect, but, one step removed, it is still in its heart Love itself. 

We can see thereby that God in His sacred nakedness is unclothed Love and unclothed Being. 

Swedenborg characterized this immediate and initial emanation of Love as the flow of Divine Love into Divine Wisdom; Wisdom (Being) is the child of Love. So we can understand that in His nakedness, that is, the exposure of the Lord in creation (for us, all the universe and all its actions) God reveals Being through Love. He is willing to unclothe Himself and emerge from the eternal, impossible mystery in which He dwells through His Love, and beget Being; Being is both the agency, and the territory He has prescribed, in which the action of Love becomes known. 

This Being is Wisdom itself; that is, knowing what is true and right and being just; having insight. We see even in this brief recapitulation all the qualities of the Lord as they are always described.

Love unclothes itself to prepare for the act of creation, and thereby takes on the three aspects of intelligence, materiality and emotion in the form of human Being (as indeed in all material forms, as appropriate to each) because this is what gives it life; and that life, eternally begotten, is purpose itself.

Our inner nature is formed, then, first and always of Love; all of our other qualities flow first from it; and we can begin our search for the root meaning of our own lives (of each and every life) first and always in Love. No matter how twisted the tree may grow, there is no other soil for it to root in.

For this reason it's necessary to begin first and always with an inner movement towards intimacy. I speak of this often, and yet it seems impossible to properly convey it to others; yet one can know exactly how receptive one becomes to Love, which alone can purify inwardly through the inflow of the Divine, by how one understands this word, intimacy

I wish I could teach folk how to understand intimacy; it's different than sensation, and it's different than prayer, self-remembering, mindfulness, or Zazen.  These are agents of intimacy, not its progenitors. I simply do not know how. My concern in general is that practitioners mistake agents of intimacy for intimacy itself; and yet these things are forever separated in such a way that once one learns the practical distinction even one single time, the result is transformational, since it affects understanding in a different and very new way.

Intimacy isn't a form, and perhaps that's the challenge; everyone wants a form and wants to understand through form, which is a consequence of the corruption (misrepresentation) that we inhabit through our nature. It is, in other words, all very well to emphasize abandonment of form; but one needs to know what one abandons form in favor of... and that is—must be—intimacy.

Jeanne Salzmann's work creates a formidable ground floor for entry into practice; yet the Organic Sensation of Being, which is what she very rightly concentrated on teaching for most of her life, does not alone open the inflow. I am sure she knew this.

Opening to the inflow is a three-centered action, and that action transcends the action of any one center. It relies, furthermore, above all on what Gurdjieff called the Holy Reconciling force, which is emotion. The inflow engenders Love through intimacy; and it is into this inward place of relationship with God that we enter naked (shorn of all things and all forms) to meet God, equally naked. This nakedness is a thing of beauty and of the purest Love alone; yet when we bring it outward it is already misrepresented, no matter how good our intentions.

So ultimate value in life can never come from outward actions or outward things; although they all appear to be the central axis around which values turn, it becomes apparent to every creature at the end of its days that it's in Being itself that the value lies; and that all else merely follows. Ecclesiastes attempts to explain this; that's the point of the book.

I can't begin to process an understanding of these matters until and unless I become invested in a different type of emotional relationship with myself and God; and, oddly, that relationship is, in our own cases, not transmissible. For each person the formation of an inward contact between the soul and God is an intimate and sexual action that must be kept private in order for it to function. It isn't fragile or tenuous, although it is cyclical and tidal; but it requires a veil protecting it from the world. Hence the understanding of a needed to separate one's self from one's self, another lengthy subject (see the upcoming post on Nov. 24, 2017.)

Now we come to Swedenborg's discussion of Divine Wisdom, and what he means by it.

 He says first of all that it acts on behalf of Divine Love; that is, it is its agent. It's important to understand this distinction; Love is not the agent of Wisdom. An agent always acts on behalf of its principal; thus Love is the principal. 

Although Wisdom is the agent of Love, as it acts on behalf of Love, it prepares a residence for Love; that is, Love without Wisdom remains unincorporated. It lacks a "body," a physical presence; it has no means of expression and can't enter into relationship. 

Love thus reciprocally flows into Wisdom. It inhabits its agent. 

Wisdom consists of three omni-forces: potency, prescience, and presence. Roughly speaking these are power, intelligence, and Being. If we understand the equivalencies here they translate to the physical, intellectual and emotional centers in man; and so we see that Being is ultimately a function of the reconciling force of emotional center. This must of course be the case, because Love begets everything; Being emanates from Love and is the primary embodiment of Love, even though it can't properly express its force without power and intelligence.

Our purpose is to Be; yet we must discover this action through a purposeful use of power and intelligence. When power and intelligence are turned first towards the material and external, they always develop all their force, which can be enormous, without Love—but, even more importantly, without Being, which is the highest, original, and most essential form that Love can take if and when it cojoins power and intelligence.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

About The Meaning of Life, part 1: The Perfection

Ceiling detail, Alhambra

"It is divine wisdom, acting on behalf of divine love, that has omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence belong to divine wisdom acting on behalf of divine love, not to divine love acting through divine wisdom."
"This is a secret from heaven that has never yet dawned on anyone’s understanding, because before this no one has known what love is in its essence, or what wisdom is in its essence, much less how the one flows into the other."
"Love, with everything that belongs to it, flows into wisdom and takes up residence there..."

—Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity

"Spirituality" is a fusion of intellect with superior emotions. A new order of receptivity comes from the union of intellect and superior emotion, but is not created by them."

—G. I. Gurdjieff, "The Meaning of Life," a lecture from the early 1920's.

“Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal.”

— Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Gurdjieff gave an early lecture on the meaning of life; although perhaps not at once evident, with study and reflection, one will see Swedenborg's comments share more or less identical premises with Gurdjieff's. 

Having read and then re-read Gurdjieff's lecture, I should like to work on my own understanding, which may be a bit less overarching and cosmological than Gurdjieff's. Nonetheless, it is composed of, I think, both consonant and harmonious tones.

That being said, this series of essays isn't in any way meant to be an evaluation or critique of Gurdjieff's comments on the matter, so put such thoughts aside, if you have any.  

Here, then, in my own words... and a bit more personally, since I like to try and work these understandings out for myself in my own type of detail.


Everything begins with Love; all things are created from it. 

Creation itself—that is, its action, not just its results—is the expression an essentially loving transcendental Presence. This root nature—and it is very important for the reader to attempt to understand this word, root, from a practical and organic (inward) point of view— of creation is usually hidden from us. It exists in the manifestation of reality itself, since reality is an emanation of The Reality, which is nothing more or less than Love itself. 

We have the capacity to receive this understanding directly from time to time, a capacity which I call The Perfection. 

Most recently I encountered The Perfection a few days ago on Thanksgiving day, in the form of a large, flat, and entirely pedestrian piece of bluestone on the hill behind our house. I've been past that piece of stone and stepped on it (it's a flagstone) countless times.  

This simple ordinary stone has always been and ever will be, like all other things, a complete and indivisible expression of The Perfection—itself eternally complete and indivisible. Yet it's only this once, for that brief moment, that its essential nature became temporarily (within time) evident; and that through Grace alone. In a single immeasurable instant, its presence penetrated me, not just to the marrow of my bones, but down to the molecular presence of my inner Being. That instant of penetration lies outside of time.

One can't force or invoke an experience (it isn't a vision, but an inner impression) of The Perfection. Furthermore, to experience the Perfection in anything but the tiniest of doses would kill a human being, since the powerful—no, overwhelming—natural tendency is for souls exposed to The Perfection to be dissolved directly back into it. Hence Swedenborg's comment that souls are unable to perceive God and His Love directly, as it would "kill" them... well, actually he doesn't mean this in the way we understand the word, but it will have to do for now, as I have no time to explain it further here. I'll just throw a tidbit to readers interested in cosmology and mention that yes, black holes do have a relationship to this tendency.

Mystics refer to The Perfection (if they know it) as a mystery, but really it's just a fact.  The Perfection only exists as a mystery within the limited capacity we have for receiving and understanding it. Yet The Perfection is an objective state which anyone who has experienced it will agree on—within the context and limitations of how developed their understanding of such things is.

All human beings have been created out of Original Love to have a capacity to receive and understand The Perfection. Whether it is understood as a mystery or a fact is in some senses unimportant; it's the receiving of Divine Love's impulse and influence that matters, not the analysis of it. Love cannot express itself without relationship, you see; hence, our existence. 

We are here to provide the context of relationship for Divine Love.

Mysticism often obfuscates such things; Gurdjieff certainly did. Perhaps this is because of the sensible call to a guarded, intense privacy in such matters. Every action of Love is, after all, an intensely intimate act of sexual procreation. When Gurdjieff said that "sex runs everything," he meant it, in the end, quite literally. It doesn't just run human affairs; sexual reproduction in the form of the union of Divine Love with creation is the eternal and universal condition—the engine which runs the universe (see below). Meister Eckhart's premise of the eternal and infinite fecundity of God rests on this fact. The fact that he (wisely) put limits on overt statements about its inherently sexual nature because of the times he preached in takes nothing away from the endless nature  of God's procreation, or its essential sexuality. (Gurdjieff said, in The Meaning of Life, "there is even a sensuality which can be pure, as in the Song of Songs, which gives the pulse of the physical movement of the universe".)

This subtle yet everlasting refinement of sexual energy is infinitely more beautiful and perfect in its inner action (action within all created things) than any of the results which follow it may be; and indeed all such results (i.e., reality, as we encounter it) are "accidentally" corrupted—in the sense that they betray the secret of the initial sacred impulse... by revealing it. 

Creation unclothes God; and although His nakedness cannot shame God Himself, who is forever perfect and shameless, all that which is less than God has at its core a dishonesty, in the sense that it represents the Lord but is not the Lord Himself. 

So be careful to understand this correctly, and not through automatic association of words. By corrupt is meant, misrepresented. 

All conscious Being within expressed reality (cf. Eckhart's creation) misrepresents God—not by intention, but because of its separated nature. 

There is no final resolution to this dilemma. The "organic" and "instinctive" shame Gurdjieff speaks of in Beelzebub's Tales (—chapter 29; and rarely, if ever, commented on in Gurdjieffian circles) is directly related to this situation, which deserves much further thought. Whole books could be written on the subject. It might be worthwhile, however, to at least mention that all of mankind's misunderstandings of God are rooted in the misrepresentation, which is in its own sense the universal essence of original sin.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The sun that neither lights nor heats

The Immaculate Conception
El Greco, 1607-13

"SO, MY DEAR Hassein… it will be enough for the moment to tell you how they understand and explain to themselves the reasons why there occur periodically on their planet the cosmic phenomena they call 'daylight,' 'darkness,' 'heat,' 'cold,' and so on. 

"All the three-brained beings of that planet who have reached responsible age, under the influence of the many and various wiseacrings they call 'sciences,' are without exception categorically convinced that these phenomena arrive on their planet completely ready-made, as it were, directly from their own sun and, as Mullah Nasr Eddin would say in such cases, 'no more hokey-pokey about it.' 

"What is most peculiar about this is that, apart from certain beings who existed there before the second transapalnian perturbation, not a single one of them has ever had the least doubt about this conviction of theirs. 

"Although their Reason, strange as it is, does bear some resemblance to sane logic, none of them has ever yet suspected the causes of these phenomena, nor has anyone manifested in this regard that peculiar trait of their common psyche, proper to the three-brained beings of that planet alone, known as 'fantasizing.' " 

Having said this, Beelzebub continued with a bitter smile: "You, for instance…  would be unable to contain your 'being-parkhitrogool,' or what they call 'irrepressible inner laughter,' at their astonishment if they should suddenly sense clearly, and understand beyond all doubt, that not only does nothing like 'light,' 'heat,' and so on come to their planet from their sun, but that this supposed 'source of heat and light' is itself almost always freezing cold…

"In reality, the surface of their 'source of heat,' like that of all the ordinary suns of our Great Universe, is perhaps \ more covered with ice than the surface of what they call the 'North Pole.' 

—G. I Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, “The Arch-Absurd” (Chapter 17.)

“…those who do not acknowledge that God is at work in nature move the eyes of their reason to the back of their heads rather than the front when looking at these phenomena. They are the type who derive every idea of their thought process from their bodily senses, and let themselves be convinced by false sensory evidence, saying, ‘You see the sun producing all these changes through its heat and light, don’t you? What is a thing you can’t even see? Is it in fact anything at all?’ 

“Those who attribute everything to nature do indeed see these phenomena, but their only thought is that they exist. They simply say that nature has that effect. They say this because they turn their minds away from thoughts about the Divine; and when people who turn away from the Divine see astounding things in nature they cannot think about them rationally, much less spiritually. They think with their senses and in a material way. They think in nature, from nature, and not beyond it…

“Those who believe in nature and worship it use these and similar animal phenomena to support their belief in nature. Those who believe in and worship God use the same phenomena to support their belief in God. The spiritual person sees something spiritual in these phenomena, while the earthly person sees something earthly; everyone sees it in her or his own way. To me, these phenomena have been evidence of an inflow of the spiritual world into the physical world—an inflow from God…

All who are willing to think about a divine inflow through the spiritual world into the physical world can see that inflow from these examples. If they are willing, they can say in their hearts that such knowledge cannot be acquired from the sun through its heat and light. The sun, nature’s origin and essence, is nothing but a fire. The flow of heat and light from it is utterly dead. From this they can conclude that these phenomena are the result of divine inflow through the spiritual world into the outermost aspects of nature. ..

Some do not view the universe as the handiwork of God and the home of his love and wisdom, but view it instead as a product of nature and as the home of the sun’s heat and light. They close the higher levels of their mind toward God and open the lower levels of their mind toward the Devil…

Until now, no one has known anything about the spiritual world, where there are spirits and angels and where we go after we die. The spiritual world has a sun that is pure love from Jehovah God, who is within that sun. The heat from that sun is essentially love, and its light is essentially wisdom. 

—Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity, selected excerpts from pages 19-33

Here we encounter one of the classic dilemmas presented by Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. From a scientific point of view, the idea the surface of the sun is cold is demonstrably untrue. Sophisticated instrumentation brings us conclusive evidence that the sun is enormously hot. Looking at it from this point of view, we can’t take the book literally: we must understand it as an allegory. While I have listened to those who attempt to come up with “rational” explanations of Gurdjieff’s comments about the sun, they always end up being absurd and convoluted.

It is, then, allegory. But what kind of allegory?

Gurdjieff’s remarks bear a striking resemblance to Swedenborg’s contention that men see nature as the source of everything, the motive force for its existence, and that all things arise from nature and are created by nature. This “natural thinking,” which he contrasts with spiritual thinking, leads human beings to deny the divine.

The relationship is hardly coincidental. Humanity is, in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, engaged in a serial and chronic denial of the divine. The entire book, from Beelzebub’s point of view, is an effort to counteract that malicious tendency.

In this particular example, we see where an argument of Beelzebub’s about the nature of the sun bears a close relationship to Swedenborg’s contention: that the light and heat of the sun are, in fact, not light and heat at all, but divine love and divine wisdom. In Swedenborg’s cosmology, all natural phenomena are “correspondences:” phenomena which exist as a reflection of divine properties. Readers should take note that this bears a striking resemblance, in its own turn, to Ibn al ‘Arabi’s contention that all of the manifest or created world is actually an iteration of God’s infinite perfection. 

“Correspondences,” in Swedenborg’s world, need to be understood as reflections of this divine perfection; and thus the “light” and “heat” of the sun are not, in fact, light and heat at all, but the material reflection of God’s divine love and wisdom. Their actual physical properties are unimportant relative to their nature as a reflection of the divine truth.

Furthermore, understanding Swedenborg from a somewhat deeper point of view, the light and heat of the sun are actually the physical and material representatives of God’s divine love and wisdom on this level. The sun serves as an aperture through which divine love and wisdom emanate into our solar system. All suns, it can be noted, serve the same purpose throughout the universe. In Swedenborg’s cosmology, this “effect” whereby we believe that the sun’s light and heat give life its form, substance, energy, and impulse for evolution, are not a natural one but a divine one; and we find a special correspondence of our own in Gurdjieff’s citation of “emanations,” as opposed to radiation, as a source for transmission of divine influences throughout the universe.

The points of contact here are more than casual, and well deserve further pondering.

There is a further correspondence worth considering in this material. The idea that nature by itself gives rise to everything is a uniquely egoistic perspective. Understanding that all of life arises from the emanations of divine love and wisdom requires a different perspective, one that submits to a higher authority — which is, indeed, the whole point of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. “Natural thinking,” thereby, becomes a product in Gurdjieff’s world of the maleficent consequences of the organ Kundabuffer; and it is Swedenborg’s “spiritual thinking” to which Gurdjieff would direct us. 

His comments about the nature of the sun are a case where this bone, while buried quite deep, can still be sniffed.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

On Gurdjieff and Swedenborg's Angelic Hierarchies

Detail from The Annunciation
Jan de Beer, c. 1520

Emmanuel Swedenborg, the 18th-century Swedish mystic who emphatically re-wrote Christian cosmology as it was then currently understood, brought us, in his writings, to a world where angels descended from heaven specifically to educate him in the matters of heavenly and angelic hierarchy and behavior.

Although the model was didactic and not literate, the premise bears a striking relationship to the developmental trajectory of Gurdjieff’s Tales to his Grandson, in which a high-ranking angel similarly intervenes in world affairs through direct contact with mortals. In the first case, admittedly, Swedenborg professed to be the receiver of angelic wisdom himself; although Gurdjieff makes no such overt claim, the idea that he shares an identity with Beelzebub in not just covert, but also overt, ways is central to imparting credibility to any of his text. The influences he claims to have garnered his teaching from are, after all, from what he calls influences C; given the cosmology of Beelzebub’s Tales, it is hard to imagine any source other than an angelic one as far such influences are concerned.

In certain major ways, then, Gurdjieff and Swedenborg share an identity of cosmology. Burrowing deeper into Gurdjieff’s ideas and Swedenborg’s texts, one discovers ever more striking commonalities of reasoning and purpose; if the two cosmologies are not brothers, they are at the very least first cousins.

We can trace Gurdjieff’s ideas about angelic intervention into human affairs at least as far back as 1922, when he said — in a meeting either June 30 or July 17 (the notes combine the two dates):

Cosmic forces know humanity en masse, not individuals at all, but help the "quickest" through intermediaries. 

Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is the story not just of the fallen angel Beelzebub, but a series of heavenly interventions by other angelic beings sent to help correct the course of humanity. The book is, furthermore, deeply populated by angels of varying abilities; the hierarchy includes Archangels, Cherubim, and Seraphim.

These angels represent a collection of persons; indeed, Gurdjieff’s heavenly population is intensely personal, with angels named. The situation finds a close mirror in Swedenborg’s heavenly hierarchies, where personhood is a quality share not just by the angelic host, but God himself. Gurdjieff’s characterization of God in his book seems equally personal.

The point may seem moot; after all, it’s impossible to present a book without personal characters. Yet the typical explanation of esoteric or mystical forces and their actions within man is one of mysterious “energies” — much like the kundalini energy that supposedly liberates man in the yogic teachings. These teachings tend to deal with mystical forces or higher energies as decidedly impersonal ones (think, for example, of the way Gurdjieff's ideas are interpreted in The Reality of Being.) Gurdjieff’s departure from that norm is significant. His personalization of angelic cosmology here once again shares an identity with Swedenborg’s.

Swedenborg proposes a heaven where most of the spirits and angels go about activities much like the ones they did in ordinary life. They display great interest in philosophical questions and the nature of human life, and engage in argument and discourse about the nature of the cosmos and God. Gurdjieff’s angels are, on the other hand, technocrats; they design spaceships and investigate the physical nature of the cosmos. While the trajectories of the two cosmologies depart in somewhat different directions here, both of them propose an angelic hierarchy which is inquisitive, industrious, intelligent, and dedicated to exploring the “sense and aim of existence,” as Gurdjieff would have called it. This insertion of a spiritual workforce into heavenly matters is once again somewhat unique to both cosmologies, since typical descriptions of heaven and hell throughout the range of Christian mysticism and literature depict heaven as a place exclusively devoted to worship, and hell as exclusively devoted to torture of the damned.

Both authors have hence solved an oddly mundane yet critical problem with heaven: what do creatures do there, anyway? By proposing an active and dynamic community of working beings, Swedenborg and Gurdjieff have imparted an intelligible purpose to heaven absent from the dreamlike abstractions of alternate cosmologies. Although the flow of events in each one is different, it’s not at all difficult to imagine them being contrasting descriptions of the same environment. In each of the two cosmologies, illustrations of this working community are detailed and elaborate; both human souls and angels are given rank within a hierarchy and tasks to complete.

The two cosmologies have suffered somewhat different fates at the hands of followers. While Swedenborg’s devotees generally sign on to his cosmology as an accurate description of heaven and hell, Gurdjieff’s adherents— while they treat the text of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson much like a Bible — ascribe to it a largely symbolic significance. The entire book, it would seem, is to be taken as allegory — except that the Gurdjieff community conducts intense investigations and arguments about how literally some portions of it can be taken, for example, the absurd contention that the sun neither heats nor lights. The painful process of listening to devotees discuss this and other similar questions is likely remind one of the argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. 

I think that the takeaway on this is simple enough: either the book is an allegory, in which case such arguments are moot, or the book needs to be taken literally, in which case one needs to come to grips with the complexities of angelic hierarchies and their interactions with man. The book, after all, presents an argument of over a thousand pages that personal individuals from the angelic hierarchies interact with human beings. If the intention is allegorical, the prosecution of the device seems excessive; one is left with the impression that Gurdjieff must have meant, more or less, that things take place the way he describes them. If one accepts this premise— which, I think, is somewhat inevitable given the nature of the book — Gurdjieff’s consonance with Swedenborg becomes quite apparent.

Both Swedenborg’s collected writings and Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub represent revelational texts: works that disclose a higher cosmology heretofore unrevealed to humanity. As such, it’s inevitable that these texts, in their entirety, take on an aspect of biblical lore. Scripture of this nature tends to attract adherents and even fanatics; conversely, it triggers suspicious reaction from those who are not believers. As such, the texts have polarizing effects on readers. This may tend to “magnetize” adherent communities in such a way that they tend to overlook or outright reject similarities between their own origin texts and those of other communities. This actively discourages comparatives that might otherwise underscore a common mystical heritage, as is the case here.

The premise of angelic interaction humanity is assigned equal validity in Swedenborg and Gurdjieff’s works. One can argue the details; but if the premise is absurd in one case, it must perforce be equally absurd in the other—if one is willing to allow for the possibility in Gurdjieff, one cannot avoid allowing for the possibility in Swedenborg. The chief difference, then, between the two on this point is that Gurdjieff reports third party interactions between heaven and earth; Swedenborg reports first-hand ones.

It’s worth noting that more than one of Gurdjieff’s pupils reported that he spoke the Last Supper “as if he had been there.” As such, one can intuit that Gurdjieff’s recounting of angelic interactions had more than a soupçon of personal, first-hand content. His third party "depersonalization" of the text in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson stands in contrast to the deeply personal material he presents in some of his other writings in the same series (Meetings with Remarkable Men and Life Is Only Real Then, When I Am.) He is not, in other words, adverse to playing the role of one who has interacted with “messengers from above,” exactly as Swedenborg claims to; and it is a role which many of his off-the-cuff remarks to his spiritual followers indicate he had a comfort level with.

We find, then, that despite their very different approaches to spiritual work, it’s not just the texts they wrote that show a commonality of experience and purpose. Swedenborg and Gurdjieff had much in common as persons, in that they both experienced a personal contact with angelic forces, received revelatory material, and were thereby transformed. Each one felt it their civic, moral, and spiritual responsibility to pass the teachings they encountered on in the form of books. 

Gurdjieff always said that he was the inheritor of a great tradition, not an originator. Reading Swedenborg in detail – as opposed to taking the view from above, as this essay has – one can’t help but come to the conclusion that Swedenborg was Gurdjieff’s predecessor in that same great tradition, which must inevitably, like a tree, spread many different branches from its core. 

As such, it seems to me that Swedenborg deserves a more sympathetic, and certainly much more detailed, examination by the Gurdjieff community than he has yet received over the 100 + year trajectory of its development.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

On Character

Yesterday, in an email exchange, an otherwise educated man challenged my evaluation of another person as a man of bad character. 

He asked me who the judge of character is, suggesting that there are questions about how we ought to judge character, and that perhaps my judgment in this particular area is off base. 

It’s quite clear to me that the gentleman in question needs more instruction in this area, and it can be given, but it should be mentioned that no human being can acquire a proper understanding of this matter without many years of study and inner questioning.

The word character, before 1333, meant an imprint on the soul. The word is taken from the Greek charaktér, meaning an instrument for engraving, or a distinctive mark.

So the word itself means that which is written in a man’s being

This is a very ancient idea indeed; that our being — our nature, who we are — is a book into which our life writes itself. According to many of the traditions, after death, the angelic kingdoms read that book: so it is essential that we pay attention to what is engraved in us, what our character is. 

Whether we believe that or not, life leaves a mark in our being. It is a character, like a letter: a symbol, a representation of what we are. It isn't just defined by the words whereby we describe it; it is described by our actions, by the whole of what we are, which words can point towards but never completely explain. It's in the wholeness of a man's or woman's action and nature that their character emerges, not in any one feature or moment.

As we live, our being is imprinted by that which we take in. It’s true that we begin with an essential core that is independent of external circumstances; but as a man or woman grows through life, they take in a vast range of impressions, which engrave themselves upon their personhood. 

This “engraving “ which life imparts upon a human being lies in the deepest part of their psyche, where the impressions are collected and concentrate themselves into their internal (and, consequently) external form of Being. 

External behaviors in mankind flow outward through the medium of these collected and concentrated impressions. In this sense, a human being can never be more than what their inner form consists of. Everything they do, every behavior, flows outwardly from it.

The engraving in the being of a man or a woman that takes place over the course of a lifetime tends to follow “grooves” which are etched in the psyche and reinforce themselves. This means that instead of acquiring much new material and constantly learning, human beings strongly tend to engage in confirmation bias and revert again and again to already established tendencies, which are often called habits. Habits are all too often bad for a person, since they frequently prevent new material from entering. (They can be of great use, however, if rightly formed and employed for spiritual betterment.) Over the course of a lifetime, a human being forms buffers, barricades, and barriers which automatically reject new material that differs from what they already believe. Without a determined and intelligent effort to actually see this process taking place and go against it, it is impossible for a human being to undergo further inner development. Consequently, most people end any meaningful inner development in their early years.

Over the course of many thousands of years, mankind has collected wisdom — passed down through the ages — that imparts direction to this process of taking in impressions and forming inner Being. If the process results in a human being who is loving, honest, unselfish, caring towards others, and honors the being of other people, we call the results good; if a person is hateful, selfish, does not care towards others, and behaves dishonorably towards them, we call the results evil. 

These ideas of good and evil are not new inventions of my own, but ancient traditions that have withstood the test of time throughout countless civilizations and cultures, both advanced and primitive. The records of these understandings are found in many different texts from many different societies, beginning from as early as mankind wrote anything down. 

Collectively, the texts and traditions gathered themselves around the core of what we call the religions. Although religious understandings have been misinterpreted, misapplied, and abused by many generations of people of bad character, the understandings themselves are valid and clear. Human beings, on the other hand, lack critical judgment and always tend towards the evil. Because of this, they prefer to interpret the traditions according to their own whims and vices, rather than attending to the fairly clear instructions encoded in them.

One does not have to be religious to understand the traditions and their implications. Emmanuel Swedenborg made it quite clear, in his books on heaven, hell, and divine love and wisdom, that a human being does not have to be religious in order to qualify for heaven. Even if one chooses to completely discount and discard the metaphysical question of heaven, Swedenborg’s contention is that a human being can be an atheist and still clearly understand that to be loving, honest, unselfish, caring towards others, and honorable towards the being of others is the right thing to do. 

This is what builds societies, trust, and value between human beings; and even today it doesn’t matter whether you are a Buddhist or an atheist, it can be readily understood. The moment one lowers one's standard below this, one is already tending towards evil; and human beings make this choice in every moment. One cannot ever stay in the same place; one goes up or down. Without what the Buddhists call mindfulness, or what Jeanne Salzmann calls intention, one goes down. This is a lawful action; entropy affects man’s being just much as it affects matter.

Reading the words and repeating them to one another is not enough. Human beings need to hold themselves personally, from an inner point of view, accountable to the highest possible standard they encounter and can enforce in order to help society and their fellow humans establish right relationships and proper values. 

This is the responsibility of a man or woman who wants to live in harmony and intelligent order in relationship to others. It means that they cannot engage in reprehensible behavior where they say hateful things about others or treat them in a hateful way. In the Christian world, it means that they have to treat one another with love and kindness; in the Buddhist world and the Jewish world, the Hindu world, and the Islamic world, it means the same thing. There are few societies where, at the core, the idea that one can say hateful things about others and treat them in a hateful way is considered to be a right thing. 

Human beings spend very little time personally observing the way they themselves actually behave, as opposed to the principles they claim to believe in. It’s common for men and women to openly contradict the principles they claim to represent by behaving in inappropriate and inconsistent ways.

It takes many years to obtain a proper education in the grounded philosophical and religious practices that the traditions represent. Ideally, a thinking person needs to not only live through a life which is filled with suffering, trials, and disappointments, but also constantly question their own moral and civic behavior. 

They should read a wide range of texts from multiple different religions in order to understand what the traditions teach about human values. If a human being immerses themselves solely in the pursuit of material aims, and believes that their material welfare is the only point of their life, they are quickly consumed by selfishness. This lesson was thoroughly explained by Emmanuel Swedenborg; and it’s quite a shame that modern Westerners no longer read his texts, since the standards he sets for behavior are universal, whether one is religious or not.

Other seminal religious texts of modern and ancient times that are worth reading in order to help establish guidelines for understanding what character means and how it ought to be applied to an individual life include the following:

Meister Eckhart: the complete mystical works
Brother Lawrence: the Practice of the Presence of God 
The Cloud of Unknowing

Adin Steinsalz, TheThirteen Petalled Rose

Sri Anirvan: Inner Yoga
Patanjali: Yoga Sutras

Ibn Arabi: The Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom
The Bezels of Wisdom

Dante’s Divine Comdey
Emmanuel Swedenborg: Heaven and Hell
Divine Love and Wisdom
Wilson van Dusen: The Natural Depth in Man

Platos’ complete works

Dogen: Eihei Koroku (Extensive Record)

Chogyam Trungpa: Cutting through Spiritual Materialism

Of course there are countless religious texts one could refer to in pursuit of this matter, and my shelves are filled with them. I would, however, recommend that one read the above 13 or 14 works in their entirety, carefully, over a period of some time in order to properly absorb their lessons. My extensive reading in this field over the last 40 years have left me with the impression that many of the essential understandings human beings need to acquire can be found in this specific range. I could recommend at least another two dozen books that any thinking person interested in this question ought to read.

For a review of the failure of enlightenment ideology and the progressive downfall of man’s inner understanding, the following books are well worth reading

G. I. Gurdjieff: Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson

William Chittick: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul

For an ongoing dialogue about the need for proper inner understanding in mind, I recommend Parabola magazine, a publication of which I am one of the editors.

Reading is not enough. however.

In order to understand the way that character functions, every person should go to at least one concentration camp and review both its premises and the documentary materials there, to take in an impression of what the ultimate consequences of evil behavior may be. One should travel to the poorest countries one can reach — in my case, India, Pakistan, and Cambodia serve as examples — and spend a good deal of time breathing the air and mixing with the people there in order to understand the consequences of selfishness, the unequal distribution of wealth, carelessness towards others, and destruction of the environment.

Above all, one ought to take in the lessons of modesty, humility, and an understanding of the emotional harm we cause others when we speak rashly or cruelly towards them, treat them dishonestly, bear contempt for their race, religion, or sexual preferences, mock their disabilities, dismiss their legitimate concerns, or bear false witness. It doesn’t matter whether one is religious or not—these behaviors, according to the traditions, are evil ones. Trying to excuse them by claiming it is necessary to act in such a way on a public stand is wrong, no matter who does it.

We should all remember, in the deepest sobriety, that every action we undertake is written in our soul. This is an ancient teaching that is shared by the esoteric branch of Judaism (the Kabbalah) and all of the esoteric branches of Christianity and Islam. Modern students of human character such as Swedenborg and Gurdjieff taught exactly the same thing; and we ignore the lesson at our peril, since the way we are as human beings inside is what really matters about life. Anyone who doubts the deep and ancient classical roots of this premise needs to read their Plato all over again, a second or even a third time. This was the whole point of Socrates’ teaching; and that is why Neoplatonism had such a huge influence on Christianity, not to mention Islam and even Swedenborg’s teaching.

Below is a link to this same essay on my website, which contains links to all the books mentioned above.

 On character


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

God's wormholes, part III

Humanity is the Earth's nerve ends, through which planetary vibrations are received for transmission.

—Gurdjieff, during a meeting either June 30 or July 17, 1922

Divine love is the same from eternity to eternity. The nature God’s love has now and will have in the future is the same nature it had when creating the world.

If you understand all this in the right way, you will be able to see the universe as a coherent work from beginning to end, a work holding purposes, means, and results in indissoluble connection.

—Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity

So, although these essays on God's wormholes are at least intriguing, you might wonder what the point of it is?


The point, for me, is that in this very instant we represent the inflow of God into His material creation. We are conscious representations of God's Love and its force of expression through us; and although, under ordinary conditions, we remain largely unaware of this, it is possible – through the development of a voluntary and awakened sensation — to directly experience the arrival of the presence of God through the permeable membrane of creation.

We rest on this side of that membrane; yet the "higher energies," the "finer materials" which Mme. Salzmann so emphatically calls on us to receive are, in point of fact, the receiving of the force of God's love itself as it arrives in this universe and manifests. Extraordinary spiritual possibilities rest in coming into relationship with this force. All of one's spiritual essence begins to align with God's love in a different and new way.

So we are able to consciously experience all of the cosmological phenomena which I have discussed in these three essays. Our organisms are designed to do precisely that; it's why mankind exists.

Generally speaking, creation— animals, plants, and so on— receives the manifestation of God's love through this permeable membrane that rests at the base of reality passively — that is, there is no conscious awareness of God's presence, just a unity with it.

Mankind, however, has the capacity for active, conscious awareness of this presence. That's a very different thing; because it implies a completely different responsibility.

 Sense yourself for a moment and understand your experience of life from this perspective. Relax enough to receive a hint of this subtle vibration of the divine which animates everything. It moves through us as a current; it enlivens everything that we do, all the emotions we feel, all the sensations we experience, all the thoughts that guide us. It is life itself; we receive life

So we do not have anything ourselves as we are; but we receive the manifestation of the divine within our Being. It does not belong to us, but is a gift we are meant to be responsible for.

 Every human is ultimately responsible for trying to understand this and what it means. 


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Relationship and offertory

Relationship is an offertory and a sacrifice, not a means of acquisition.
Yesterday, after breakfast, this thought came to me in regards to how we perceive one another and how we come into relationship with one another.

It seems to be worth holding front of me within me in an intelligent and sensitive way as I begin the day today.

When I come into relationship with other people, there’s always an element that seems to want to acquire something for myself. We have fairly simple and straightforward words for this, such as egoism and selfishness, but they tend to oversimplify and mask the core experience.
These forces in me have a disrespectful insistence in regard to others, and they’re always trying to dictate the terms of relationship. They are living forces, with a subtle animation to them that undermines any attempt to live honestly and with compassion towards others. If one wanted to view them in mythological or metaphysical terms, one might call them the roots of evil. But perhaps we don’t need to go anywhere so grand in order to see the simple matters, such as the fact that they want to acquire from others.

This use of relationship with others as a means of acquisition is a habit rooted in the fear that I can’t ever have enough, and that I need to protect myself by getting more. So personal transactions become, in a subtle and insidious way, a means of mining and extracting other beings for intellectual, emotional, and physical gratifications. I think a little self-examination will reveal, in anyone, a drift towards this tendency.

How different life would be if it emanated from a sense of offertory — of offering what I have to others. Without expectations, without insistence — just laying out a table of inward abundance and offering it to others, presuming that I have enough and can simply just give. Now, an abstract conception of this isn’t going to help me much, but if I’m connected to something more alive and intelligent in me, it's possible to understand the idea of offertory. After all, it’s entirely built into every system of prayer and worship; and although it always seems to point towards God and “go there,” it’s easy to be unmindful and forget that it starts here.

This idea of sacrifice in relationship is equally important. If I understand relationship in terms of sacrifice, I see that I not only offer — I am also willing to give up for someone else. That is, I not only undertake an inward work of generosity and compassion in regard to them, but I also suffer on their behalf — inwardly, in terms of what our relationship costs — for the challenges they face themselves, their own inadequacies, the struggle they have to engage in. So I agree, and sacrifice, to shoulder the burden of others as well as myself.

This isn’t something that can be undertaken outwardly. It’s not the same as helping someone else get a bowl of rice or pay their bills. Those can be good things, such acts of charity — yet an act of charity that reconfigures my inner understanding is more powerful, and can serve as a foundation for everything else that I do.

It’s true these concepts set a high standard, one that I will certainly fail at. But keeping the ideas alive in me can at least help me to engage with my own contradictions and question exactly what I’m up to when I enter a relationship with other people, no matter how trivial the transaction seems to be.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, January 16, 2017

God's Wormholes, part II

Once we understand the principal of God as law flowing into a “vacuum” that receives His  Love — an endless series of vacuums, that is — we understand that the nature of the human being is identical to the nature of the universe, and that we began as an emptiness into which God’s Divine Love must most perfectly flow. Meister Eckhart mentioned on more than one occasion in sermons that if a human being empties themselves, God must perfectly flow into them, because once the human vessel is thus unimpeded, God has no other choice. 

In this way, every human being becomes a microcosmic universe which has the potential to Be and consequently fully re-create all of God’s Divine Love in its entirety, in the same way that each universe expresses this absolute law. This is a real potential, which mankind was created for—not a potential that lies beyond our ability. The fact that we don't fulfill that potential is a different matter.

Remember that according to Gurdjieff, God created the universe because time was eroding his place of existence. Let's consider that before the universe was created and God came in to relationship with creation through His Love, he could sustain himself at his place of existence only through self-love. This was a situation that contracts, rather than one that expands; in other words, there is a lesson learned: even Love itself cannot love alone. It must have an object and exist reciprocally in order to maintain itself. We enter very high-level philosophical and theosophical territory here, but Gurdjieff’s explanation of universe creation (which was of itself somewhat inadequate, but the best that could be achieved given the subject of his book) was meant to illustrate Swedenborg’s contrast between selfishness and unselfishness. Unselfishness is heavenly and moves towards God; selfishness is hellish and moves towards the devil.

Now, folk ask why there is a devil; and one needs to understand that this is because he is a part of God like everything else. Even God’s own impulses circulate between a selfish love, which is godly but involutionary; and an unselfish Divine Love, which is evolutionary. So of course the universe reflects this: it's a mirror of God. Before creation, God was trapped in a cycle of involution and understood that only through circulation into a creation which renewed itself through relationship could this cycle be overcome. All of creation recapitulates that tension and that circulation, because it is a natural reflection of God’s own need to come into relationship, in order for Love to not be and remain a forever contracting entity.

Cosmologically, we might understand here that God’s original condition was something like a black hole: that is, His Divine Love could have contracted forever until it became a singularity. If Divine Love becomes a singularity, it closes itself off from everything and contradicts its own nature. It was thus constrained by its own nature — which cannot actually contradict itself — to engage in the act of creation, even though God knew from the moment it became necessary that creation would be forever functionally and practically separated from Him, and have to struggle to return — a situation that carries an inevitable and unintentional aspect of cruelty.  This begets the great material anguish that lies at the root of creation.

Given our nature, we're forever tempted to see this all in temporal terms; but this action is eternal, which is to say, it takes place outside of time and is always taking place in everything

Hence Gurdjieff's All and Everything, whose timeline of events is, metaphysically speaking, equally eternal.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.