Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Practice makes practice, part I

Notes from March 30

One of the things that I consistently hear from people struggling with their effort to understand their lives—who and what they are—is what one can do about one's condition. I hear this all the time these days... as we age, the question becomes more and more pressing... especially (and interestingly) among men.

So many folk sense that they lack something; there’s an almost instinctive understanding that we’re missing an inward connection that makes the difference between Being and not-Being. We so often see ourselves “slip away” and come back repeatedly throughout the day; and there is just no durability in an inner sense. Nothing reliable to hang one’s spiritual hat on. It isn't possible to have a good attention, to be mindful; it is even impossible to truly see how one "ought" to work.

People have an irresistible urge to do something about this. I get asked about it all the time.

I don't think we understand, really understand, how thoroughly true it is that man can’t do anything. We’re in an inner work, one kind of work or another — for example, it could be Buddhism, Sufism, or Christianity — where we’re taught exercises, and believe they’ll will help us get to this or that magical inner place. We think we can meditate or pray ourselves into awareness; that we can do workshops, retreats, heath yoga, hot yoga, tai chi, and somehow widen our awareness. This or that special posture, drumming, chanting, a prayer, the intonation "I am"—can produce results. Even channeling energy through crystals or burning cleansing herbs. The list of spiritual-technology inventions is endless. We live in an action-oriented environment, where there’s a constant belief that I can produce those sought-after, lofty results...


In the Gurdjieff work, there are a group of exercises which the master himself relied on as a method of — supposedly, at least – producing results.

I’ve spent most of an adult lifetime surrounded by other adults who’ve made efforts of this kind and still make them, who feel baffled and sense that after thirty or forty years they still can't understand what they ought to do... how to grow a better inner connection within themselves. 

After watching this for all these decades, I have concluded that the exercises don't actually work.
Yes, they may produce results for a time; but then they go away. The exercise becomes the result; and this is a terrifying thing, because when the exercise becomes the result, one becomes locked into a program of spiritual calisthenics where one gets up every morning and does inner jumping jacks, push-ups, and chin-ups... then one does them some more during the day. 

Rah, rah, rah, say our inner cheerleaders: perhaps we can get there using sheer enthusiasm.  This works in youth; but as we age, the convictions flag, and perhaps with good reason.

In the midst of all this exercise, in an attempt to do something about what is wrong inside  (nothing is actually wrong)– to do something about one's lack of Being — one has become a devotee of exercises and effort, not Being and awareness.

Now, one must be very careful not to misunderstand what I’m saying; because exercises are helpful to the limited degree that they lend assistance; and an effort is always necessary. But mistaking effort and exercise for practice is once again a terrifying thing, because exercises aren’t practice; they are a preparation for practice. One makes efforts and does exercises in an effort to learn how to practice. If the efforts and the exercises were the practice; one would already know how to practice, and one would be getting those beautiful and marvelous "results" that everyone wants… or, at least, thinks they want – because when and if a person really got "results", they would to a certainty deeply conflict with one's established ways of being—

making one distinctly uncomfortable and leading to the discovery that everything one believes is, in one way in or another, subtly contaminated and false. 

The balance of my notes from March 30 will publish on July 1.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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