Princesse Albert De Broglie, by Ingres
Metropolitan Museum, NY
When I speak about listening in my inner work, I probably don't see that one of the things I don't listen to is these parts I don't like so much.
Think that over.
If there's a person around you in your life you don't like, who bugs you and think is a kind of jerk, you don't listen to them much, do you? They just get dismissed. Every once in a while, of course, in our life, it turns out that someone you thought was a jerk it isn't a jerk at all; and you probably should have been listening to that “jerk” much more closely that you did, but just as you realize that, you discover it's too late. You have alienated someone you urgently need.
Our inner processes work very much the same way; the way that we act outwardly is almost without exception a direct reflection of the way we are arranged inwardly. So we can presume from our outer action that we are doing exactly the same things inside ourselves that outside ourselves; we just aren’t aware of it.
So if we want to listen, we need to engage in an inner listening.
One of the paradoxes of this idea of listening is that we tell each other that we ought to listen to each other outwardly; where really, the problem always begins inwardly. I can’t tell you how often I have had people who have, objectively, serious, and even pathological ego problems that cause them to not hear a single thing others ever say to earnestly tell me how important it is for everyone to listen to them. Sitting in the middle of experiences like these would be absolutely comical if it were for the danger such individuals close both to themselves and others.
So let’s forget about the idea of listening to others outwardly. One can do that all day and all night, for decades, and not really understand anything about how we don’t hear for ourselves how we are inside.
Of course, in the by now utterly habitual jargon of the Gurdjieff work, this idea of inner listening is more often called seeing; and that is an unfortunate label, because it implies that everything is visual. When we use the idea of seeing, there arises a certain unstated and unexamined tendency towards superficiality—simply because when people see something, instantly they think they understand.
My wife and I went to the Metropolitan Museum last year, and while we were there, we looked at paintings by both Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Barnett Newman. This particular painting — Princesse Albert de Broglie— happens to be one of my favorite paintings by Ingres because of the ethereal quality of the silk. While extolling its virtues to my wife, I explained that minimalist painters were inspired by these works, which gave birth to ideas about color we see coming to maturity in the abstract Expressionist movement. My wife was deeply skeptical when I told her that; but I was quite sure of it, because I instinctively sensed, as an artist, that this is how it took place. Admittedly, I was drop-kicking the idea — but I knew it in my gut.
Concord, Barnett Newman, Metropolitan Museum, NY
Now, my wife was pretty sure I was making this stuff up, because she saw the paintings and thought that was enough to know what they were all about. She didn’t in the least suspect that abstract artists such as Newman looked at paintings by Ingres and found expressions of great value in them which were later investigated in their minimalist work with color; no. She just assumed that because one was a painting of a beautiful woman and another was a painting of a big scrubby area of color that they didn’t have much to do with one another, other than both being “art.” She simply liked one and didn’t like the other... and assumed that pretty much served as an understanding.
When we got home, my wife looked up Ingres on Wikipedia. Imagine her astonishment when she scrolled down to the last comments about Ingres... and discovered that Barnett Newman actually cited him as an influence!
“How did you know that?” she said incredulously.
Well, I didn’t know it because I was smart or educated… It was because rather than seeing the paintings, I was listening to them. This is a deeply inward process.
So one may have seen a great deal; but but that does not necessarily mean one understands what one has seen.
In this way we can come to the idea that seeing and understanding are not the same thing at all. When I listen, I have wait attentively, openly, in suspense; when I see, things come in easily and I quickly become too facile with what I perceive.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.