Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On the action of feeling, part I

Madonna and Child (in progress)

Yesterday, my wife talked about a reading she attended which was was, among other things, about seeing one's own nothingness.

Ah, Yes. The sacred writings. We gravely transcribe them from other languages and read them to one another as though they were going to change things in us. I would be tempted to laugh, except that the situation is so very dire indeed.

A very great deal has been said about seeing our own nothingness. People repeat this like parrots. Yet the phrase goes unexamined; and it deserves examination.

Do we have nothingness; is there such a thing? To speak of "our own" nothingness implies that it's a characteristic we have, that one can somehow ascribe it to us. Yet there is no such thing as nothingness; already, the universe begins with something. 

There is existence. There is Being. And it is impossible, quite frankly, to recognize nothingness from nothingness. If nothingness actually existed, even then, something would need to recognize it. 

Else, no conversation at all, about anything. Ever.

I think perhaps one begins, right away, to see from this that the idea of seeing our own nothingness, taken at face value, is utterly worthless. We haven't really pondered this; we don't understand it.

When the idea of seeing our own nothingness is mentioned, it only means our own nothingness in relationship to something else which is greater. It is not an absolute nothingness; it isn't an emptiness, a not–being. It is a being that lacks

So it is not the nothingness that we have to see; it is an inadequacy, a lack, an insufficiency. It isn't that I am nothing — I am not nothing. As a particle of His Endlessness, of God himself, I am something; it is just that I'm an infinitesimally small something, something that lacks. So, relatively speaking, I am “nothing,” which actually means, not nothing, but instead something—something very tiny and inadequate.

I only measure this purported and nonexistent “nothingness” relative to that something which is God; and since we cannot know God in any real way from our level, but only through His action, which is Love alone, what I am "nothing" in relationship to is Love. 

This is something I can in fact see; my love is "nothing" in relationship to God's Love. If I see my own nothingness, I don't see nothingness at all; I emphatically see something, which is that I am — and in that action of seeing that I am, I see how tiny and insufficient my love is relative to God's Love.

There are those, to be sure, who will hold up their transcendental experiences of annihilation and bliss within annihilation, of going into the silence and the light, as examples of how wrong I am about this. I am familiar with such experiences, and they don't suffice in terms of understanding this question. 

We are not supposed to go towards the light. It is far too easy to take refuge in nothingness; from a spiritual point of view, it might be said, any idiot can do it. It takes a great deal more work, effort, and inner courage to see my lack — which is a much better way of describing the situation, and the phrase which we rightly ought to be using in place of this faulty idea of seeing our own nothingness. If we truly had nothingness, we wouldn't be; the fact that we are at all calls us to a responsibility to be more than nothing. We are first called to see that we are something; and yet even that it isn't enough. 

We then need to see what we are.

Here is where the action of real feeling comes in. One can spend decades working on the awakening of organic sensation; and it is absolutely necessary. Even if one achieves something real in the realm of sensation, it then takes decades for it to develop a complete and permanent aspect within Being. And only then does real feeling begin to have any permanent action within Being; because without that foundation, no matter how impressive its action, it is always temporary and leaves one confused about its purpose. One catches the smell of the chicken soup wafting through the kitchen; but there is no broth on the tongue, there is no meat between one’s teeth.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The gravity of respect

The Tortoise. Page from "The Wonders of Creation."
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Notes from Shanghai, April 9.

Yesterday, I was having lunch with a good friend here in Shanghai. Speaking to her across the table at a posh, modern restaurant on the Bund, it suddenly struck me how different we were. 

She had never thought of inner work; of what it means to have Being. The matter simply wasn't of interest to her, it wasn't a question. Yet this is a 46-year-old woman who has certainly been through her share of struggles and wonders what her life is all about.

I see a good deal of this when I'm over here. Under the conditions here in China, I'm working "alone;" I'm not surrounded by a community of like-minded individuals. The people I work with are just like me in terms of external factors: we all have an attraction to money, power, sex, food, and so on. The mechanical levers that provide movement in our external lives are all the same.

Yet there is this inner difference between us that is vast. I care about a question within life that is of almost no interest whatsoever to these others. 

It's like this not just here in China, but everywhere. What's everything to me is nothing to most people.

There is some intimate and subtle difference between me and others on this point; and I cannot say exactly what it is. 

If I don't know what it is, how much danger am I in of losing it? Do I know what the spark of my work, my inner life, consists of, where it comes from? 

If I don't come into intimate contact with it and have a perpetual respect from it, am I not always in danger of losing it? How precious, how valuable do I think this is? 

I treat it like it is a horse I can always bet on; yet that may be a mistake. Part of my question must always be what the spark of life is, and how I honor it. 

Without the gravity of respect, everything may be at risk.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Organic Agreement of Being, part 2

Notes from Shanghai: April 7 2017

This morning, I began to read Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. Part of my program to fill in voids in my understanding of English literature, which were created by my concentration on German literature during my college years.

One of the things that strikes me this morning is that the attraction of the external so strongly encourages us to forget to lead our own lives. We are exposed to so many other things; so many other lives, so many other influences; and each one attracts us. Instead of being drawn into ourselves to see how we are and what we are, we are drawn outside towards how other people are and what they are. This is a nonsensical conflict; because of course we ought to invest ourselves quite firmly in what we are, and yet this tension arises. One wants to be someone else.

At the same time, as Woolf so subtly and deftly captures it in the very first pages of her book, sacred influences flow into us. They are varied; and sometimes a person who is "insane" is more open than others, more prone to see the transcendent in life. One must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments, thinks Clarissa to herself; and it is so. This is the sensitivity to the small and daily things that Meister Eckhart said were so vital to an understanding of God's priorities.

It brings me back to this question of organic agreement — to agreeing to my life as it flows in. After 17 years of studying this question of being a vessel into which the world flows, which has led to as many new questions as it has understandings — probably more — this question of the inward and outward flowing of life and being is still acute. Even if one is aware of it and responsive to it, the question remains as to whether or not one is in agreement with it. To be in organic agreement with it is to have a consonance of purpose between the intellect, sensation of the body, and the intelligence of feeling. Only by bringing these three parts together at the point where the inflow takes place creates an agreement: that agreement is a harmony.

Following the trace of the words, one discovers that agreement comes from a Latin root that means pleasing; and of course the word harmonious is also used. Harmonious is pleasing; agreement is pleasing. 

That is to say, it satisfies something real; and satisfaction is a kind of food. 

By extension, agreement is a kind of food; and agreement with what I am, with who I am, and where I am consists of a willingness to acknowledge that food and consume it. If we look carefully at Virginia Woolf's treatment of her characters at the beginning of the book, we see that they are accepting and consuming their lives in one way or another; so there is an understanding implicit in the writing that perhaps hasn't been recognized from the esoteric point of view.

I don't bring this up to extol the virtues of Virginia Wolf; one simply has to take into account that this woman, who had an enormous and insightful talent not just for writing but in actually seeing things about the human condition, suffered enormously during the course of her life, and as a consequence saw some things that generally escape us. This question of harmonious agreement — which, by the way, absolutely can include conflict, it's important to remember that — is essential to understanding the human condition. 

I don't agree with my condition; this is where all the problems begin. If there were a harmonious agreement present in life, an organic agreement as to what is, I'd be quite different. Instead I begin by disagreeing; first with myself, and then afterwards with everyone else. 

I can see the results of this all around me, yet I'm blind to the fact that it begins with my failure to achieve an organic agreement of being within me. 


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Organic Agreement

Notes from April 2

Yesterday, a close friend and I were discussing the way in which experience arises in us and we encounter it. He brought up a technique presented during a retreat led by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.

The idea suggested was that as each thing arises within us, we see it and put it aside, so that we continually move on without attachment. This seems like an entirely correct practice to me. 

He also brought up the point that in the old days, in Tibet, in some practices the Masters continually created chaos and disruption in the practice of the pupils, so that they never got comfortable with their work. 

Gurdjieff did the same thing; work of this kind becomes a war against bad inner habits. And it is entirely necessary, in a certain way, because the minute a person gets comfortable with everything and arranges their inner and outer work so that is it serene, attractive, and undisturbing, one stops working and rests in an artificially created atmosphere of bliss. Even if the bliss is real — and it certainly can be — it creates an insulated bubble through which real material for growth can't enter anymore.

In any event, while we were discussing it, I pointed out something specific about the nature of seeing each thing that arises within us and putting aside that I'd like to share with readers. It is not enough to just see and then put aside; in seeing, I have to agree.

Agreeing is a subtle practice, because it requires something quite different of me. I can't just see alone; this is too passive, and it's one of the pitfalls of self observation. If I just observe, I run the risk of creating an imaginary world where "I" am objective and apart from what is seen, rather than understanding that the duality of who is seeing and what is seen needs to be resolved. 

I need to agree; and this means that within the action of seeing, I have to agree that "this is what is true."

It's not quite exactly right to say, "I agree, this is who I am," because the metaphysical question there is complex and not so easily or lightly resolved. 

But what I do is agree that this is what is true

That is to say, following the analogy of it being necessary to have all three notes to form a three note chord, the three parts of this action are:

—the observer
—what is observed
—the agreement

Agreement acknowledges the truth of the situation, the Dharma. So I agree that it is so. Inwardly, not through logical argument. And I want to stress this very strongly, because this agreement I speak of is not an intellectual agreement or an argument. It contains no spur suasion. 

It is an organic agreement.

It's quite important to remember this, because the tendency is to reject what is so, to explain it this way or that way, to qualify it, define it, adjusted, own it — pretend I am in control of it or that it belongs to me — and then put it aside in one way or another, thinking I have dealt with it. This is an insidious practice that helps nothing. The instant that I think I have made something my own, that it belongs to me in this way or that way, I have already dismissed it as unimportant, because now I am the authority. I don't really see how I make myself the authority constantly in all matters. To become a servant is an entirely different matter; and it begins with this question of agreement. Truth has an objective quality that can’t belong to me.

 The organic agreement does not contain words. It contains facts; and, as one may learn, real facts are so often not expressed in words.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Personal notes on the fundamental nature of sensation, part II

Photograph from the orchid show
 New York Botanical Garden, March 2017

Personal notes from March 31, part 2

(continued from the last post)

The mind, after all, has been stealing material from the other two centers my whole life; and why should I trust a thief who keeps trying to usurp my place and do my work for me? It is a waste of my time.

I need to see this quite clearly. When Gurdjieff spoke about wrong work of centers, he was discussing just such thievery; but he didn't explain the results of that problem, which are — emphatically – that the centers don't trust one another. 

So there is a terrible lack of trust in me, and I need to get out of the way of my other parts in order to let them actually own the one-third of my Being that is their rightful territory. If one rightly understands all the different exercises in Gurdjieff's wartime transcripts, one begins to see that all of them have something to do with this question.

The feeling, like sensation, absolutely has its own authority, which is again completely different than the authority of the intellect and the authority of the sensation, that is, the mind of the body. Of the three, it has the most powerful and comprehensive authority, because it is closest to God and has the capacity to come into contact with the higher emotional center and allow a transfer of material from the sacred into my own Being. 

One should never underestimate the extraordinary power of such an experience; yet these should not be peak experiences that come once or twice a year — or a lifetime — during an intensive retreat or meditation period; Nor should they be experiences induced by someone else, where a teacher opens the pupil. The whole point of developing harmoniously is to bring the centers into a relationship gently, without manipulation, so that they naturally express these abilities throughout ordinary life, every day.

Of course folks generally think that such things happen only under "special conditions;" and so,  repeating this commonly held misunderstanding over and over and reinforcing each other's confirmation bias regarding the subject, everyone trains each other to only have such experiences when one is in touch with the magical work, the magical people, the magical conditions. 

This is a kind of magical thinking that simply hypnotizes everyone who works into thinking that they can't work in their ordinary life. In fact, the exact opposite is true; it's in ordinary life that one has to work in order to understand these experiences, and is so often the ashram, the organization, the culture that indoctrinate people into getting it backwards. 

Alas. This is a terrible habit, but there is no way to break it; because our spiritual cultures are also good. It's just that we love them too much.

Back to the point of the authority of the centers other than thinking, which thinks it is the only authority; if we were familiar with the authority of the sensation or the feeling, truly familiar with it, we’d respect it. But we have no respect. 

We need to develop not only trust, but a capacity for respect; because in many ways, when the authority of the mind submits to the authority of sensation and the authority of feeling, it is submitting to a hierarchy in which it occupies the bottom rung of what can be perceived. It is, of course, an absolutely necessary faculty; yet it plays the lesser role in this interaction. Once one understands that, a wide range of other things can be understood. But one must understand this through the actual experience of the authority of sensation and the authority of feeling, not through my theoretical explanation of it.

Sensation and feeling are the silent intelligences in us; neither one of them uses words to express itself. If one enters the silence, as it is so often described in meditation, one enters first through the silence of sensation and then through the silence of feeling, both of which are worlds of enormous power that do not use words to say or do anything whatsoever. 

So the stillness, the silence, are directly related to our ability to cede the authority of the mind in favor of these other two intelligences.

Sensation is the vehicle in which Being resides. 

Feeling is the vehicle in which Being can come to know itself. 

The role of the intelligence is as the vehicle which sees; but it is not a vehicle which does.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Personal notes on the fundamental nature of sensation, part I

Photograph from the orchid show
 New York Botanical Garden, March 2017


Then one must change the way of working. Instead of accumulating during one hour, one must try to keep constantly the organic sensation of the body. Sense one's body again, continually without interrupting one's ordinary occupations—to keep a little energy, to take the habit. I thought the exercises would allow you to keep the energy a long time, but I see it is not so. Wet a handkerchief, wring it out, put it on your skin. The contact will remind you. When it is dry, begin again. 
The key to everything—Remain apart. Our aim
is to have constantly a sensation of oneself, of one's individuality. This sensation cannot be expressed intellectually, because it is organic.

— Transcripts of Gurdjieff meetings, 1941 — 1945

Personal notes from March 31, part 1

I'd like to say a few things about the nature of sensation that relate to the comments I make in my book Being and Impression

It occurred to me last week, while working with one of the groups I attend, that we need to allow our sensation to develop and express its own authority.

This is a very important point, because with some few exceptions, most people — even people who have been working for many years — do not understand sensation as a voluntary or active force. The mind encounters “sensations” of many different kinds and believes that this is what the intelligence of sensation consists of; but it is no such thing. Sensation is an absolute and an entire mind unto itself which can cohabit with the mind of my intelligence; and it has its own authority, not an authority conferred upon it by the words I use to describe it or what its experiences are. This is precisely what Mr. Gurdjieff means in the passage that opens this piece.

Encountering sensation as an experience of the body — touching the bark of a tree is a good example — is a beginning. The exercise with the wet handkerchief is a precisely similar point of departure; yet it is not just the sensation of the wet handkerchief that one needs to experience, but also the silent intelligence that encounters it. It is this intelligence that we seek to awaken. All of the many exercises in sensation, sensing the limbs, moving sensation around the body, and so on, provide experiences of the flow of energy within the body, but they do not represent the awakened sensation of being.
Readers familiar with my work will know that for the past 10 years, or thereabouts, I have generally referred to this as the organic sensation of being — a term Gurdjieff also used, because the experience of it is entirely organic and cannot be termed any other way. The expression is objective, just as the experience is; whereas ordinary sensation is entirely subjective. If one reaches an objective sensation, it is comprehensive, ubiquitous, and permanent. Objective sensation is an awakened consciousness, a second mind within Being. Attempting to understand it with the first mind of the intellect is a waste of time; all one can do with the first mind is conceptualize it.

So I will say it again. We need to allow our sensation to express its own authority.
I have been asked how one can "do" that. Clearly, those who understand it is possible — even instinctively, in some cases, but in any event at least with the intellect, after many years of work — are curious about how one "gets there." The best that I can say is that one must learn to have a certain kind of trust. The mind thinks it knows everything; it pitches in itself as the boss of the whole world, and one might even say, metaphorically speaking, that the sensation and emotions turn away from it in disgust because it occupies so much of the territory and doesn't want to allow other authority to manifest. Put in other terms, the problem is that the intelligence of our sensation and the intelligence of our feelings do not trust the mind; any more than the mind trusts them. The mind, after all, has been stealing material from the other two centers my whole life; and why should I trust a thief who keeps trying to usurp my place and do my work for me? It's a waste of my time.

Part II of the notes on the fundamental nature of sensation will publish on July 7.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Practice makes practice, part II

Notes from March 30, part II

...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 deeply conflict with 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...

This, of course, isn't the kind of "result" that people really want; yet a subtle practice actually leads in that direction. Real awareness produces a profound spiritual discomfort, and even anguish. Folk often shy away from this confrontation and discover ways of obliterating it by going into the "silence", by accepting immersion in stillness and nothingness… which is not enough, and actually consists of an avoidance of life-Being-responsibility.

In any event, getting back to this idea that people can "do" something. This is simply impossible. I can't do anything; all of the activities I undertake are just placeholders for real activity. When real activity arrives, it’s the result of the work of the organism, not me; the spiritual body of practice becomes actionable (assumes its own authority) and begins to take precedence over all the manipulations I impose on myself. 

When the spiritual action, the inward action, takes precedence, it is because the inflow is taking place. I am what is called "open" in the Gurdjieff work; of course there are various other words for it, but in the Gurdjieff work that specifically means the same thing as what Swedenborg does when he talks about the inflow. 

It’s the arrival of the Presence that can transform. Nothing else has that ability.

That Presence is not my presence. When I start talking about “having” a sense of Presence, I am already using the wrong words for it. I never "own" a sense of Presence. My Being hosts a Presence; but that Presence is not me. It comes from a much larger place and has much more power than I have; in fact, unlike me, it can “do.” And this is the difference between what I think about work and what work actually is. The difference between actual practice, and thinking about preparing for practice by doing exercises.

One never knows when the Lord will arrive. This isn’t a date or time marked on any calendar. And when the Lord does arrive, when this presence does manifest, it needs to be most available always within life– not in the context of some ashram or meditation chamber. 

Living, inhabiting my life, is not a cloistered activity. Real being is designed to travel every road and meet every person, not be shut up in a closet somewhere where it can light candles and chant. Real being encounters the moment—the unevenness, the otherness, the discomfort of other human beings, and takes that into account lovingly — because presence has loving it, whereas I do not.

I should like to remind everyone that love is truly the aim of inner work. This is so often forgotten; and just as much as one ought to have an organ in one that constantly reminds oneself that one has an irrevocable sensation of Being, one also needs to grow an organ that loves. Or, to put it more exactly, that can receive love; that has an irrevocable feeling of Being. That organ isn’t the awakened mind of sensation, which receives and is a vehicle for Being. It is the awakened mind of feeling which can receive real feeling. 

In this sense, our body (sensation) and emotion (feeling) are simply mirrors that can reflect the image of God's Presence, God's love. Presence without Love is worthless; love without presence is unstable. One needs both; but there is tangible hierarchy in which there must first be Presence before there can be Love. There may be unstable possibilities where Love comes before Presence, but they are not durable, because presence is the foundation upon which love is built.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.