Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, part V

March 3

In the last essay, I talked about the desires of the soul and the starry world of desire. The essay largely centered around the habitual nature of identity, and how we don’t see or understand it. In order to explain how precisely accurate Gurdjieff’s understanding of the subject is, it will be necessary to take a close look at some recent discoveries in the world of robotics.

In order to understand this in more detail, I strongly recommend that readers get themselves a copy of the March 2018 issue of Scientific American and read the article “self-taught robots” by Diana Kwon. In it, Diana recounts the research efforts of Angelo Cangelosi at the University of Plymouth in England and Linda B. Smith, a developmental psychologist at Indiana University Bloomington. The article says, among other things:

A fundamental difference between us and many present-day AI systems is that we possess bodies that we can use to move about and act in the world… In a 2015 study, Cangelosi, Smith and their colleagues endowed an iCub (this is a kind of robot) with a neural network that gave it the ability to learn simple associations and found that it acquired new words more easily when objects names were consistently linked with specific body positions.”

Anyone who reads this article in its entirety will realize that Gurdjieff explained the relationship between the centers — between thought, emotion, and the body, in the 1920s explaining exactly the same thing: that the brain, the thinking parts of each center, learn by associating with the other centers and connecting them. Anyone who reads his various comments about posture and its relationship to thought and emotion in Views from the Real World will see that Gurdjieff studied with a school of esoteric philosophers that already knew what these robot designers are just learning over 100 years ago. The connections are categorically unmistakable; and the research, primitive as it is compared to Gurdjieff’s understanding (and there is a joke for you all in itself) absolutely proves that what Gurdjieff said about posture and the nature of the human being was entirely accurate.

The difference is that what Gurdjieff taught human beings can actually be used to understand and change human behavior; whereas all of these scientists are merely trying to build machines that behave like humans, as if that were in any way useful to human beings, other than to take away their jobs, their livelihood, and (when they have developed enough, which they will) quite possibly, their lives.

Of course, we should feel for the researchers, and find some sympathy for them. After all, they are trapped in the same limited roles created by their habits that we all are. They can’t have an identity any greater than the one they are in unless they throw the one they are in the way; and we are all in that situation.

I suspect that is scientific research into the nature of robotics continues, we will discover that more and more of what Gurdjieff said about human beings as machines is entirely accurate. Sooner or later, the scientific community will begin to wonder about why an Armenian mystic from the early 20th century knew all these things; but I’m not sure that will produce anything more than wonderment and some historical footnotes. The important point is to understand how the nature of our mechanical behavior and our automatic, habitual being influences the way we are in life, and how it completely masks any effort we might make to be decent, compassionate, loving, and human to one another.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this question is that we must of course also see that our ideas about being decent, compassionate, loving, and human are equally attached to this so-called “identity” we have developed. That is to say, even if we have an inkling about what these four words mean, they are boxed in to the tiny box of identity that was created over the course of our lives, and in most of the cases where we meet real life our attitudes, ideas, and understandings about these four qualities are just about worthless, because we have predetermined templates we want to apply in order to understand what they mean and how to “be that way;” that is, how to “use” them, as though they were tools that we could deploy instead of sacrifices that we ought to make.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, part IV

March 3

I think we all live lives in which we can bring up many examples in which we weren’t treated decently. We tend to carry these around in large suitcases, dragging them behind us in case we need to unpack them to justify some misdeed we have committed or plan to commit. Yet these suitcases take a tremendous amount of energy to drag around; and isn’t the point to forget about all of that and just try to treat people decently? I can only go forward. The bad things that were done to me in the past are over and while I am allowed to feel anguish about them — after all, every child of God is allowed to have a wish for goodness and anguish that they have not encountered it — I am not allowed to inflict that on others. It must become my own burden and I must learn from it in order to remember (and so often, almost always, I forget) and not do it to others. It is a cross, in other words, that I must carry to my own crucifixion, where I give up my identity — all the sameness of what I am and what I have always been — in favor of something that is new and more human. I want to be decent — which, in the original Latin decēre, meant to be fitting, proper, or suitable. If you think about this you will see the connection between identity — habit, repetitive behavior, and the way that the bad actor doesn’t know how to fulfill his role — and decency, which is a state in which the actor exactly fits his role by being fitting, proper, or suitable. So if we trace the roots of these words and thoughts we see how interconnected they all are.

In order to wrap this little discourse about my ponderings over the last month up, it becomes necessary to take a look at the word desire.

This word has surprising origins, and opens up a universe of meaning that would take more than a day or two to write about. But the short version is this: it is borrowed from a Latin phrase which (and this derivation is considerably compressed) comes from dē sidēre, which means, from the stars or constellations.

This is where the English phrase “when you wish upon a star” and the poem “star light, star bright, first star I see tonight” comes from. Desire is wish, and it is related to the starry world, that is, the astral level.

This opens up, as I alluded, to a very complex discourse about the nature of the astral level and how it has been depicted throughout many thousands of years of human history, right up to the present day. My friend Richard Lloyd's essay on the subject—available at this link—covers the subject in considerable detail and is well worth reading as an adjunct. Some of what follows is an expansion of his observations.

The question of desire is related to our connection to our spirit and our astral being, and to the influence of solar energies. Yet the word does not just allude to the higher levels of desire, which are connected to real being; when Gurdjieff speaks of desires and non-desires, he is speaking of the desires and non-desires that relate to our identity, which are directly opposed to the desires of the soul.

When a human being is born, two sets of desires exist side-by-side. Neither one is developed.

One of them is the desires of the spiritual being, which has just incarnated and needs to acquire its energy from the reconstruction of the soul, that is, the concentration of responsibility – the ability to respond.

The second is the desires connected to the physical body, which are all carnal and absolutely necessary in order for the body to develop. These two sets of desires are like fraternal twins, a brother and a sister, and many of the legends about brothers and sisters in religious mythology are related to this question. The point is that the sister is the desires of the spiritual being, which are receptive, fecund, and can receive energies from a higher level and give birth to a new kind of being.

The brother, however, is male and dominant and, although the brother’s role was supposed to be exclusively to nurture, nourish, and protect the sister while she grew up — she is, after all, the weaker of the two in many ways — and he takes over. Not only that, once he assumes his identity — his habitual sameness — he decides that he has to run everything and often even forgets the sister.

My own relationship with my late sister explains this to me in much more detail, which is how I now understand it and I’m passing it to you. One has to understand the relation between these two sets of desires and the way that they mirrors a sibling relationship in order to see how, in relationship to our ordinary life, our desires belong to the brother and our non-desires to the sister. This situation is perfectly mirrored in the sister, whose non-desires are the desires of the brother.

And it is the sister whose desires relate to the starry world, the astral level, the spiritual influences above us which we can receive. In a certain sense, the Virgin Mary is the representative and protector of the sister, and if her influence enters our life, the sister has a chance to recover from her inferior position so that the “non-desires” — the influences from the stars which only she has the capacity to receive — can help the spiritual side develop.

This is always at the expense of the brother, who is and has always been expendable. He lays down his life for his fellow man (in this case, his sister.) It is an act of love and sacrifice, and again, there are many religious traditions and stories that relate to this.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, part III

March 3

So my identity is a series of repetitive actions — and I need to abandon those and go beyond them, go beyond everything I am (even though I must be what I am at the same time) and be willing to completely throw out all the nonsense that I bring to every moment. To see it in the instant it comes and say, “well, yes. There you are, but I'm in a relationship with other humans right now and that requires something other than you.”

I need to be willing not only to throw out this nonsense, but to do whatever seems to be necessary that is compassionate, loving, and caring — all of which are properties I habitually claim to have but which are actually only acquired through constant struggle against the ego and which are never mine as a permanent property, but must be earned again and again through honest spiritual effort.

It takes energy to support that effort; and every time I refuse to struggle and work or bring something real in myself (something, in other words that doesn’t belong to my “identity”) to the moment I am sacrificing and squandering that energy, which is only built up through my effort to go against my habit and my identity.

This brings us around to the question of desires and non-desires. Everything that I desire is attached to my identity, that is, the habits I have acquired which limit my repertoire. I think if you look at the way we live — the way we all live, not just you and me, but everyone — you'll quickly see how disconnected our identity and our desires are from the realities which confront us at every moment of life. Each identity is like a freight train which keeps crashing into other freight trains; and no one knows how to stop the trains from crashing into one another. Soon enough, the swords (or the nuclear weapons), come out and are waved —

and we suddenly realize that very nearly everyone is insane.

My desires are attached to things that keep repeating themselves in the belief that that makes them real. My non-desires, the things I don’t want — and which, in fact, like completely outside the sphere of my wanting — have the potential to see reality, because they are attached to my identity. They exist in that place which says “I am in a relationship with other humans right now and that require something other than you.”

An organic sensation of this situation came to me yesterday at work as I was walking to and from the men’s room. It’s quite interesting how a physical impression, when it is accompanied by proper sensation, can indelibly elucidate something that is otherwise obscure. In that moment, I quite clearly saw that all of the associative, habitual, and automatic things that I think, say, and do, all of which fall under this wonderful “identity” which I have, need to be discarded if I want to have an honest relationship with people. If I discard them, what will turn out happening is that I may sit around all day long — and all of us have parts that do that, you know — but then when I meet my enemy, I abandon that part and I discover myself and relationship and I try to act in a loving way because it is right, and in spite of my intentions and what the ego commands. That is to say, by abandoning all of the nonsense I make up constantly, and by abandoning the habit which I am generally so committed to, I gain the capacity to treat people decently. 

And if I do not gain that capacity, is life really worth living?


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, part II

March 3

Ego inflation causes me to think mostly of myself and what is important for me. This relates powerfully to two concepts that Gurdjieff brought up: first of all, identification, in which I become the outer parts of myself (I literally become them, my identity is attached to them and not to any other part) and, secondly, desires and non-desires.

In order to examine this question of identity, it may be useful to understand that it is borrowed from the middle French identité, which in turn comes from the Latin identitātum, meaning sameness or oneness. That is in turn extracted from the adverb identidem which means, quite simply, over and over again.

So identity actually means habit, or, what we continually repeat.

The idea that this continuity creates who we are immediately become suspicious to me. The implication here is that it is a continuity of sameness; that I keep doing something again and again and that that makes me myself. One might, for a moment, turn to Gurdjieff’s Views From the Real World and remark on the passages where he talks about postures.

In the first talk in Berlin, November 24, 1921, for example, he says,

everyone has a limited repertoire of habitual postures, and of inner states… An actor who is the same in all his roles — just himself — what kind of an actor is he? Only by accident can he have a role that entirely corresponds to what he is in life.”

In particular, it’s worthwhile to read the chapter the stop exercise on the subject; some excerpts are at this link: Posture. The book has a number of sections that discuss this subject, which will become significant later in an upcoming essay.

Now, from Gurdjieff’s remarks on the subject (which must be absolutely accurate, and, again, more on this later ) our identity is formed from these postures or habits. It isn't a particularly conscious entity. It is just, as he says, the repetitions of an uneducated and rather unskilled actor who doesn’t know how to inhabit the play he's in. I think, in other words, that I’m a great actor, but I'm actually an idiot who keeps doing the same thing. I'm asked in life to act first as a king, then as a tramp, and then as a lunatic, but (for example) I only know to act as a king. So I would do a terrible job of representing the other two roles, and everyone knows it. This is how we all manage to end up playing the fool so often in our lives.

The insidious part of this is that every single part of this operation comes from the associations that constantly play themselves out inside me. There are countless little voices saying this, that, and the other thing about how people ought to treat me, what I deserve, and what idiots those other people are. The longer one engages in self observation, the more painfully aware one becomes of these habitual parts, which really haven’t learned anything new since I was a child. They're all connected to the evil commanding ego by puppet strings; and the ego manipulates them to keep me identified—that is, I believe in everything I say to myself.

One can't so easily escape from this, as I pointed out; yet Gurdjieff’s idea of false personality is closely tied to this understanding of identification — which means, in summary, habit. The only way that anything new can happen is if I'm committed to abandoning all of this associative nonsense that takes place in me constantly, and I become willing to throw myself into the moment without any props—as honestly as possible in the relationship.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Starry World of Our Desire, part I

March 3.

I’m in my office/studio this morning. The geese on the creek are making quite a racket. We are on the tail end of a nor’easter and there is a good deal of wind; it is cold, but not very cold considering it’s early March. The last few weeks have been unusually warm.

Over the last month, I’ve had a great deal of opportunity to ponder the question of our emotional well-being — both temporally and spiritually, that is, from both an outer and an inner point of view. I say this because there is a distinct and measurable difference between one’s emotional nature from a spiritual point of view and a temporal point of view. They touch one another; and there is food that passes from one to another. Yet they are quite separated; and this is a mystery not so easily penetrated.

I had the flu in China in late January. Although I caught it early with Tamiflu, the after effects were devastating and I spent several weeks depressed — temporally depressed, that is. I did not feel spiritually hopeless, but the energy it took to fight off the flu left me feeling empty about ordinary life and external requirements. I found myself feeling quite negative, in fact, about life in general. Negative in the sense that all of the so-called “achievements” I think I have made — and this concept expanded to everything human beings do – seemed to be hollow and not connected to the realities of our spiritual being or what the purpose of life is.

The aftereffects of this and the slow recovery as I built up my inner and outer energies again are complex and difficult to record here; but one of the things that came to me as I saw how these parts function next to each other is that we underestimate the strength of the opposition.

That is to say, we do not see at all how powerfully opposed to the spiritual world and everything it represents our ordinary being is. We can even make a great deal of spiritual "progress" (if there is such a thing) and begin to forget that this opposition is there; but it very much plays the long game. It is incredibly patient and knows how to hide until a moment arrives which it can seize for its own purposes. This reminded me strongly, especially yesterday afternoon, of Ibn Arabi’s “evil commanding ego.”

We can't escape this part, even though we think we rise above it; and we forget or ignore it at our peril. Part of acquiring real inner humility is learning to respect this evil part and acknowledging that it is always there looking for way to get through a chink in our armor. It has to be allowed its due; and I need to remember that it's always active in one way or another in me.

There's a persistent part in me that thinks I am better than others, for example, and it feeds on the fact that there are certain areas where this is true. Every human being has a few parts here or there that are "better" (more facile, quicker) than the parts of most of those around them. Some of those parts may be good, some bad; but the fact is that everyone has assets and deficiencies that are constantly deployed.

Our inner universe, however, undergoes an act of inflation in which the ego continually grows larger, seizes everything around it, and interprets it to its own advantage. One can see this happening not only in oneself, but in everyone else, on a nearly constant basis.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A real Aim

The spiritual search, to the seeker, frequently looks like a search for answers. 

The penetration and explanation of mysteries; a realization, an enlightenment. We secretly hope to get something from it. Or maybe we publicly hope that; either way, there is an acquisitive element at work.

I wonder how often we consider the idea that one step deeper into mystery simply leads to more and deeper mysteries. This is not, in reality, just an idea; it is true, because the nature of God is forever concealed from man. It is possible for us to go all the way to God and still not know Him; and even if we became God, we would not know God, because God is unknowable even to Himself. (That is what He has us for.)

Anyway, this kind of thought is simply conjecture. One must start from the mystery of where one is, and see in a quite simple way that the mystery of our organic relationship with ourselves is not understood. We begin quite crudely in this area; and for most of us, the questions about our organic relationship to the energy of our life and our Being — the higher energy, the energy of life, that is — never really come up. We have relationships to hunger and pizza; to alcohol and sex. But our relationship to God, which manifests organically, goes begging. It is a categorical unknown without long and disciplined work.

I am reminded of meeting a German Catholic woman at the Cistercian Abbey of Senanque in July of 2017. We had a very pleasant conversation with her; she was earnest and heartfelt, grounded and sincere, and spoke with great conviction of the unusual experiences she had had there doing week-long silent retreats with the monks.

“After you work like this for a while,” she said in quiet, guarded reverence, “you can feel the prayer. You feel it in a different way… in your body.” 

The italics are hers. She had understood something new which was only made possible by working with the monks; and even then, she was in a special place designed to help induce such experience of prayer. Discovering a relationship to it in a cafeteria or at a football game is a highly unlikely prospect.

Yet it is exactly this kind of energy that we ought to encounter and bring into daily life. Only how? We don’t know what it is; we don’t know how to “make it happen.” We can induce it in the chakras, perhaps, using yogic exercises, but it doesn’t last and we don’t know what it means. It never becomes a part of every cell in us, speaking in its own language to us all day long, which is what is really necessary in order for a transformation to begin. 

It’s frustrating; we want something. We want to understand. Yet each step towards the cellular sensation of Being turns out to be another step deeper into mystery; and there are many, many steps into that mystery. So many that each time we think we have reached a place where we understand something, we go a little further and see that we were mistaken once again. 

Eventually, this happens so many times that we are willing to give up a little bit of our obsession with acquisition, and just try to carefully observe.

With luck, that observation becomes such an active process, and is so deeply inserted into the interstitial spaces between the cells, that it invigorates a constantly active energy which is a “permanent” sensation of Being. This is another mystery, because it does not have an origin. I only receive it. It has properties that make it quite clear to me that it is not my own and does not originate in me; it has properties that speak of life itself and the way that it flows into Being from another level that I have no real understanding of at all. I say that this happens with luck, but that isn’t true at all; it only happens through Grace, and with a directed intensity of attention and intention that is willing to engage with the energy and be truthful to it in a different way.

Being truthful to the energy means arriving in relationship with it without interference, without judgment, without assumptions and without any effort to manipulate. It must trust me and my actions, it must understand that it has an autonomy of its own in which to work. If I can bring this kind of respect to it, then it manifests quite differently and will not go away; but under any ordinary set of circumstances it understands that I have grown up a terrorist, and it is deeply suspicious of both my motives, my activities, and my intentions. Why should it trust anything I do? I am a maniac.

Well, perhaps I give myself too much credit. A maniac might have some potential and be able to do things. In fact, I am just an idiot, a kind of fool that stumbles about. So if I can dispense with a bit of the foolishness and become more reliable, already perhaps that is an invitation of a kind.

If this takes place, I need to learn to sit for a very long time and do almost nothing except observe. 

And what I am primarily observing is not the manifestations of my ego, the ups and downs and ins and outs and my cravings, desires, lusts and so on, but simply just seeing the energy present in the body and forming a better relationship with it. All of the nonsense I get myself up to in ordinary life isn’t the point of this activity, no, not at all. The point of every activity is to develop an inner sense of gravity that holds itself independent of the outer action, and forms a core relationship with this energy of sensation. 

No matter what I am doing, I ought always to attend to this question and come back to it. Once we form a good alliance, the sensation itself will help me with this all the time; but for as long as I think I am some kind of a conductor with a baton telling sensation where to go and what to do, forget about it. The energy has to be allowed its autonomy, its own core of stillness and sphere of action, in order to manifest independently and grow in strength.

All of this growth is nearly useless for outer activity. One might even argue it’s pointless, in light of the fact that we believe—everyone believes—that absolutely everything we do must have an outward “result” of some kind in order to have “real meaning.” 

The development of a relationship with this mystery has a very different aim. It’s intended almost entirely to help grow a new part that has a feeling capacity of a quite different kind than my ordinary emotions. Once again, that feeling capacity is a mystery, and although I could describe it with a number of words, it is nearly useless. Nonetheless, since we must say something, we speak of it as suffering, because this is a pretty good word for it, seeing as it’s so open-ended and conveys, in some small measure, the glorious anguish which we are requested to come into relationship with. 

This is the glorious anguish of the Lord, of God Himself, who shares His anguish (which is the greatest blessing one can earn) in direct proportion with one’s willingness to engage intimately with the energy that helps form the seed for it.

If we were to have a real aim—if we knew what a real aim was—it would center itself irrevocably around this action.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018



"Meister Eckhart was besought by his good friends, 'Give us something to remember, since you are going to leave us.' 

He said, 'I will give you a rule, which is the keystone of all that I have ever said, which comprises all truth that can be spoken of or lived.

'It often happens that what seems trivial to us is greater in God's sight than what looms large in our eyes. Therefore we should accept all things equally from God, not ever looking and wondering which is greater, or higher, or better. We should just follow where God points out for us, that is, what we are inclined to and to which we are most often directed, and where our bent is. If a man were to follow that path, God would give him the most in the least, and would not
 fail him."

—ME, The Complete Mystical Works

The subject came up in regard to this quote of taking in impressions. (And thank you, SG, to whom so many very great things are owed, and whom I will never quite repay.)

Taking in impressions.

In reality the term is a bit misleading, because every organic experience we have is a taking on of impressions. We can’t pretend there is any other action; it’s thus so generic it becomes, in a certain sense, meaningless; while at the same time sounding important enough that it poses as meaningful. There are many things like this around us; and we spend very little time thinking about it. A superficial impression (there’s that word again) that we understand something is all too easily created; and once we have it, everything is over.

Let’s think about “taking in impressions” as food, which is the way that Gurdjieff originally presented it.

In order to understand this question in more intimate detail, think of it in terms of swallowing. There is an action related to food whereby it is taken in intentionally; and the sensation and emotional experience related to this action has roots much deeper in Being than the thought of swallowing. The action provokes a three-centered, organic and integrated response in which even the instinctive and sex centers participate.

So its action lies beyond three centers and incorporates all of Being. The entire psyche feeds on the sum of all the organic experiences it receives, which are a totality of relationship. In the end, every instance, every simultaneous relationship between every atom in the body finds its summary somewhere in the totality of experience.

Our attention is capable of extending downward into the body — which expresses the totality of Being — and sensing much finer levels of interaction between atoms and molecules, but that is only if sensation becomes very active indeed. Until that happens, this idea is entirely theoretical. Once it does happen, we understand the question of attention and lower levels much more thoroughly — which teaches us, ironically, that we do not understand the question of attention and lower levels. I will refer you back to what I said in the second paragraph of this essay, “a superficial impression that we understand something is all too easily created.” Only real (organic) sensation and Being can correct the superficial impression we have of what sensation and being mean.

Now, this is an intimate and sexual action. That cannot, once again, be understood unless one is within the state. But there is a sexuality, a reproductive activity, that takes place on the cellular and molecular level which can be sensed once one develops connections to Being. I often use the word intimacy to describe this because it is an extremely intimate relationship with both the lower and the higher level at the same time, which take place together and in the same place. They are not separated. It is my awareness that brings them together in the union that they are always supposed to be in; and this is a creative action that gives birth to a new attention. The attention is not mine, nor is it for me: I simply become responsible for it.

To experience finer impressions is to engage in a level of intimacy that does not just imply, but rather invokes, a sacred action. In meeting life’s incoming flow, should the impressions flow deeper into Being, this is the meaning of water being changed into wine. It isn’t a spiritual allegory, but the organic transubstantiation of substances that feed us.

The sacred action relates to the law of reciprocal feeding, because in ingestion of these very fine details of life, which are embodied in the least things, we are in turn fed by God in repayment for our service. This binds us to the Lord; we swallow one another, for as I eat, so am I eaten. 


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Mother's day comes early this year.

Shanghai, April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday

I haven't doubled down on a blog post in so long I can't remember the last time, but today I will.

Over the last few days, several discussions about how Mr. Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that human beings want Christ to be their teacher, but no one is at that level.

Any serious work on this question from an inner point of view will eventually verify that; and of course, even after that happens, it does not remove from us the obligation of praying to Christ, or the hope that we can draw His influence into our soul.

Yet we can much more certainly rely on the influence of Mary as intercessor; and, traditionally, this has been understood for many centuries. J. G. Bennett sensed this quite acutely and wrote about it several times; and his instincts in this area were very good.

It appears in the meantime that the powerful influence of Mary on the Gurdjieff work has been very nearly overlooked by the lines of work that Jeanne de Salzmann established; and I sometimes wonder whether those of us from those lines understand at all how very powerful Her help can be, and how pervasive Her influence in this work is.

Of course, being "on Her payroll", one might expect me to say such things. Yet it is absolutely true; and yet in Gurdjieff circles one almost never hears Her mentioned — let alone Christ, who is of course the most critical component of understanding the esoteric branch of this already esoteric work.

The Work asks us to listen; but the ignorance on this matter manifests as a deafening silence— proving that silence may not be all it is cracked up to be when invoked by esoteric scientists. One could suppose that the reason for this is that religion makes people uncomfortable; but Gurdjieff did not design his work to make people feel comfortable.

And so here we are. Let us allow the discomfort, if there is any, to expand.

Gurdjieff pointed out, in his early talks, that the inner circle of humanity was what influenced the building of the Gothic cathedrals; and, of course, because Meister Eckhart’s teachings, the art of those times, and nearly everything that happened in medieval society were powerfully tied together in a way that is altogether unimaginable for modern minds, we know that the inner circle of humanity was the motive force behind the great religious developments of the Middle Ages.

That religious development, moreover, was emphatically, decisively, and absolutely centered around the worship of the Virgin Mary. The inner circle of humanity was well aware of how powerful Her influence was and how necessary it is to bring it down to this level.

It may seem a bit askew to speak of this on Easter Sunday; but without Mary, there would be no passion of Christ. We would not have the birth; we would not have the resurrection. She is essential to the process because She is what makes all of God’s intercession on this level possible.

The metaphysical reasons for this are complex and actually get rather boring if one lays them out in writing. It is only the organic experience of Mary’s Grace that really matters here.

For those who are nonetheless interested in a very sound technical treatment of the matter, read Jean Hani’s book on the Black Virgin. Be forewarned that because he is brilliant but rather theoretical, it introduces at least one fundamental and profound error which I'll explain to anyone who intends to read it, if they should so wish.  Nonetheless, on the whole it's a thorough piece of work.

In any event, these matters have been much on my mind because it is so necessary to represent Mary, insofar as possible, in every action we undertake. If we all approached our work with the understanding that it is our responsibility to hold up a standard She would approve of, we would at least avoid acting — and then dying — like dogs, an aim Mr. Gurdjieff felt was well worth pursuing.

The passion of Christ and His sacrifice is a Great Matter; and it speaks for itself better than anyone can speak for it. The need for Mary’s influence is different; this is within the range of what we can understand and receive. 

Hopefully in this coming year mankind will open our hearts to Her more, and receive Her Grace, so that better conditions come to exist on the planet.

Christ is Risen. Hosanna.

The Isenheim Altarpiece was a transformational artwork for Paul Reynard—it conveyed the suffering, in his experience—and served as the inspiration for a number of his paintings with color fields of similar cast. 

Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

The second doing

The Crucifixion
Fontenay Abbey, France
January 27, Shanghai

 I’m sitting in my hotel room in Shanghai recovering from a nasty little brush with the flu.

I was very fortunate to have had Tamiflu with me and started it immediately when I understood I had the flu (a temperature of 102.7° is pretty good evidence.) It turns out the drug is highly effective, even when it's past its expiration date; I'm sitting here a little over two days later and fever free, (although still a bit hoarse from coughing for two days, and rather weak.)

The week has been a very difficult one on top of that, because when I arrived in China it was only to discover that a valued Chinese colleague had suddenly died the day I arrived. He was a good man; a man who instinctively understood some portion of what it means to be a genuine human being. The shock from this reverberated through the course of the illness, compounding the emotional impact. It was a peculiar blend that reminded one of mortality from every direction.

While pondering these events, I've just finished a book by Irish author Mike McCormack, Solar Bones, which is highly recommended. His writing is brilliant and he touches on elements of inner work in his prose. The book is a meditation on the nature of living one’s life wholly, and the nature of death. In addition, I’ve been digesting bits and pieces of the new Conge book. (Life— Real Life Behind Appearances.) Also recommended, although it is a rather thin little volume.

Today a friend and I were speaking about the nature of inward presence, which Conge speaks about lucidly, and we both agreed that the manifestation of presence—awareness of Being—is more important than all the things that happen around us. A very great deal more important, so much so that what we do externally may not matter much at all relative to what we work on inside. We are working, after all, to become human; and it’s quite important for us to understand what that means.

We aren’t working to become angels, gurus, or demigods. Human beings are none of those things. A human being is a creature designed to serve in three directions: first, to serve God, second, to serve those around him or her, and only after that to serve themselves. We are allowed to keep some of what we work on for ourselves, but it should never be more than this one third. And it should only be allocated after we have performed our other services. The difficulty in learning to be human is that we all start out with this particular hierarchy inverted; we always serve ourselves first with about 70% of what we have in the way of energy — then we allocate another 20 or 25% (I am being very generous there) to serving others; and if there is anything left, then God gets it.

Being, being human, ought to invert this and correct the function of service. The only way that this can take place is if we become whole individuals and see much more clearly how backwards we do things. It's very important, moreover, to see that the ego enforces this; from ourselves, we can't invert the order. A right order can only be established, as Frank Sinclair has said to us so many times, by engaging with a new alignment, a verticality that brings a higher order to us and rights our impression of life.

This friend and I were pondering the difference between “getting things done”, which is how we live our lives—the first doing—, and the far more important action of “thy will be done.” This second Doing is what Frank refers to when he speaks of a new alignment; and it isn’t so much an opposition to the first doing as it is a countervailing current. The current is necessary in both directions.

However, if I can’t see how these forces act within me, what their relative strengths are, and what my relationship to them is, all of my efforts to “work” end up being in vain. All efforts in total, after all, always begin with the first doing, and come from that current for many decades. There are occasional glimpses of truth; but they invariably get co-opted. It is only when sensation awakens as an active conscious intelligence of its own (the organic sense of Being) that a real inversion takes place, and then more decades of effort and experience are necessary, because none of this takes place quickly, no matter what one wants. One might as well demand that the baby be born a month after conception. Some people construct spiritual paths that make demands of this kind, of course; and “quick” babies are born. But these “preemies” always end up being, in one way or another, squalling little things that do not in the end confer the dignity that decades of suffering will bring a human being to.

After illness — in the midst of it — or just in the midst of life itself, we pause sometimes in the middle of this first doing and we think to ourselves that we aren’t getting enough done.

Yet if we attend to ourselves first, and we render our service unto God first in this degree, and then remember those around us and honor their being with our own efforts toward them in relationship—ah, then we are engaged already into the second Doing, and we have always done enough in that case, even if all the events around us collapse like a house of cards externally.

We should remind ourselves that that is going to happen sometimes anyway, no matter what we do, because external things are, as I pointed out in an earlier post, impossible — they can’t be grasped.

We can be; but comprehension is not our great strength, no matter how many facts and rationalizations we throw at it. Comprehension is God’s tool, not man’s; and although we can get a little bit of it here and there, it never resolves anything until we open ourselves to relationship with a higher energy, and comprehension does for us what we cannot do ourselves.

So here I sit, in effort but not certain of what I understand: yet I Am.

For now, and always, this is enough of a place to begin.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

An impossible set of conditions

The Nativity
Fontenay Abbey, France

We come in this life to what is essentially an impossible set of conditions, where everything is continuously unexpected and every plan we make does not correspond to what will actually happen.

On top of that, we complicate everything much further by developing an intense and inflexible set of opinions about how we are and how everything ought to be; and we then try to force the world in that direction. This is the story of almost every human being.

The contradiction ought to be obvious, but perhaps it isn’t, so I’ll explain it.

The impossible set of conditions and our reaction to it are in direct opposition to one another. The impossible set of conditions demands an amazing flexibility; and yet everything in me conspires to prevent that. The force of personality and its sheer size becomes more and more impressive as one sees how deliberately it sabotages every effort at flexibility. In a certain sense, the construction itself isn’t even necessary; I could throw the whole thing out and I would probably still be able to deal with every impossible set of conditions as it arose. I have, in fact, had practical experiences instructing me on this matter; but those were given, not something I owned, and if a human being doesn’t earn their flexibility, in some senses it is worth far less.

This is why we have what we call a “struggle” in life. It may be oversimplifying the matter, but not by much.

Having a single sense of Being by connecting several of the centers in active work can shed light on this dilemma. It’s almost always the mind and sensation that would be connected first, although there are rare instances where emotion and the mind may play a role of their own. That’s much more difficult because of their relative speeds — sensation almost always has to play the middleman. The reason that the single sense of Being serves this function is that I am able to much better see the fractured nature of my inward continuity through this faculty. I see that I have been the victim of this function called personality for most of my life; I see its selfishness. I see its willfulness and how mistaken it is about other individuals and even events in my life itself. And I am required, without exception, to more consciously confront all of the fear that it manufactures in relationship to my impossible set of conditions.

Using the word impossible is quite important here. It sounds like it means something that cannot be; but this isn’t the etymological meaning of the word at all. It originates from the Latin posse, to be able. This means that what is impossible is that which isn’t able — that which cannot do. And the word able comes from habilis and habere, meaning that which is in the hand — that which can be grasped. So “impossible conditions” doesn’t mean conditions that can’t take place — it means conditions that are not in hand, conditions that I am not capable of grasping.

In this way we say that we are confronted by an impossible set of conditions, which means a set of conditions that cannot be grasped or understood, that cannot be held in the hand — it is essentially, in its own nature, unknowable, it is a mystery. We are unable to overcome the conditions — and yet that is our exact response, we think we will overcome them because we see ourselves as having the potential to master them. This hubris is the classic failure of human beings.

We can inhabit an impossible set of conditions. We do inhabit that. But we cannot overcome them, because the conditions are always out of hand.They are ungraspable; they do not conform to what we know or what we believe or what we expect. We need, instead, to develop a capacity for being present to them and developing an authentic, or personal, individual response of agency in order to meet them.

The individual response of agency is another new concept, or at least term, to use when examining how we are. The world demands an individual responsive agency. This is true from the smallest molecules and organisms all the way up through human beings and life as we know it. It is, by the way, a fact that the individual response of agency is also a burden laid upon planets and suns, but that takes place on a level too high for us and is not really worth discussing right now.
The individual response of agency is a fancy and more technical way of referring to Gurdjieff’s conscious intelligence. But it isn’t an intelligence just of the mind, but rather of the entire being, which must take responsibility — a conscious understanding of the ability and necessity of responding — in order to play an appropriate role.

There is a huge difference between the demands of legitimate awareness and mechanical responsibility on the atomic and molecular level, where all of the responses are automatic and according to strict law. Responsibility becomes increasingly aware throughout the development of lifeforms, and by the time we reach human consciousness it is understood — even by atheists, who understand almost nothing else — that there is a requirement for response of an intelligent and ethical nature.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, March 26, 2018

How we are not whole

The Flagellation of Christ
Fontenay Abbey, France

Jan. 23.

After writing the essay on the importance on establishing one’s undivided state, one’s individuality, a number of conversations on the subject took place. I can’t recount every single one of them; but a number of observations echo through me, and — once again sitting in a hotel room in the early hours of the morning in Shanghai — I wish to jot them down for my own purposes.

Perhaps I should stress that everyone thinks they are already a single person, undivided. This is where the trouble begins. The greatest difficulty lies in the fact that it is so challenging to see how we are not whole; everything in the personality militates against it. It might be said that the only way to understand how divided we are is by becoming undivided. Until then, everything is opinion; and afterwords, everything is fact. Perhaps this becomes a lesson in how absolutely committed we are to our opinions. It’s quite astonishing, really. From within an undivided state one sees how forceful opinion is — because, you see, it does not go away. The difference between a divided and an undivided state is not in the losing of things, but the seeing of them. In an undivided state one has no choice but to absolutely confront all of the fractured Being that one gave oneself an endless series of excuses about in the past.

In this sense, no one really wants to be whole, because it involves an intensification of suffering within Truth of Being. This brings us to contrast with teachings that speak about how all is one, everything is beautiful, and so on. From an objective point of view this is true. Those interested in a brief snapshot of how that can affect a man in extremity should read the new Conge book, Real Life Behind Appearances, and absorb his description of his war experiences.

Yet the problem isn’t with the nature of the universe, but in man’s nature. We constantly confuse our own nature with the nature of The Reality, and believe that because we are part of The Perfection there is some kind of an excuse available to us, and everything will be all right.

I want you to think this over very carefully and understand our mortality. Nothing is all right at all, and this needs to be looked at intimately and with a willingness to suffer exactly what we are.

There is an incredible amount of grace bestowed upon us in the very fact of our existence, and at every moment we throw this away as though it were a cheap thing that could be discarded after use, like a plastic bag. So we are beings with grace discarded all around us; yet we don’t see the mess we are living in. If we were able to see through individuality just how filled with grace every moment is we would treat them all as more precious; our attitude here is a serial failure, and until we come to grips with that, we actually see very little.

Perhaps I should warn you. The more you are willing to take your own suffering in and digest it, the more suffering will come. We develop this capacity in order to be of service, and this means we must give something of ourselves up. So don’t take this inward work lightly, because it will demand — and what it demands will not be what I want it to demand, but rather what is objectively demanded. It’s a worthwhile exercise to try and see that everything that I think is “demanded” in a spiritual work and an inner effort are things that I want to be demanded, not things that are actually and objectively demanded. That is to say, I construct a fantasy about what ought to be and will be asked of me in order to become spiritually obedient. If real spiritual obedience is demanded of me it will always be a shock because the demands are not familiar ones and I never thought them up while I was sitting around in my hotel rooms or at home dreaming about my spiritual work.

One will be able to recognize real spiritual demand by exactly this quality, if it should arrive.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The single sense of Being, part IV

Cathedral, Lyon

Well then, dear readers.

We come back around to the question of this fragmentary sense of Being.

We must study this condition... our actual nature—

not what we wish it would be or dream it could be—

very carefully, and come to know it in all of its aspects without fiddling with it.

Real suffering comes from experiencing all of one’s manifestations exactly as they are, not as one has adjusted them or wishes them to be. It is subtle and nearly impossible for us to see from the perspective of our intelligence, which rationalizes everything, but every adjustment we make to what we are from where we are is an attempt to reduce the amount of suffering we must undergo, to avoid it.

In other words, it relates to what Mr. Gurdjieff called the evil inner God of self-calming.

We are meant to come to our spiritual work exactly as we are. Our own wishes for improvement will always and forever fail; because only the Presence of God truly improves. That Presence improves on its own terms and within its own context and has no egoistic content; it is not of us, but of the Lord.

The single sense of Being is a vessel that needs to be prepared in order to receive this presence; and the single sense of Being, as embodied quite precisely by the phrase, is the equivalent of Gurdjieff’s “conscious egoism.” Conscious egoism, in other words, is not a psychological or spiritual device for the benefit of he or she who has that capacity or quality; it is a state, or a condition, which is prepared to receive influences from a higher level and has the capacity to retain them due to its unified state.

Without that capacity, one may receive all the higher influences one likes; they will just dissipate.

There is no better practical advice than an intimate and caring attention to sensation over the long term for the development of the single sense of Being. If one develops this sensation, acquires the capacity to have it distributed in equal measure across all of the parts, so that it exists without preference and objectively in all of the parts of the body, then one will understand individuality quite differently, because over a number of years, as sensation deepens and becomes more permanent and more perfectly blended with the organism and its awareness, the understanding of time and why we perceive it as being so "short" will grow in concert with sensation.

In addition to the dilation of time, which is necessary in order to fully appreciate our manifestations (we forget about them in an instant if we are not whole) the capacity for real feeling, which is relentlessly and forever an experience of suffering and sorrow, will also grow. This is how we were meant to Be as organisms and beings; and while you might think that the description of it somehow sounds depressing, it is anything but.

This is the fullest meal one could ever eat, and the food is of the finest variety. Every morsel has a savor that cannot be tasted for as long as life divides itself and Being is not whole.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The single sense of Being, part III

Cathedral, Lyon

Make no mistake about it. These are not “esoteric”, secret, obscure, or apocryphal matters. You have within yourself the capacity to experience the things I am describing on a direct, intimate, and personal level, because your physical being on this material level was created to receive and transubstantiate these energies.

As it happens, the Catholic liturgy and the receiving of communion was meant, at one time, to serve as a daily initiation into not just the memory but the actual practice of these energetic disciplines. I say discipline because it is a form of training, for all three centers. Unfortunately, the ritual of the Catholic liturgy and the communion became detached from real inner understanding, and the fact that we receive Christ in the body and blood — that the actual physical substance of the blood itself receives the physical particulate matter of a finer substance, Gurdjieff’s Hanbeldzoin— has been forgotten. We literally receive Christ in the blood, because Christ is the representative of the solar influence, of God himself and his physical manifestation within this planetary system. The feminine part which receives this is mediated by the heavenly presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We participate directly and actively in God’s work of insemination of the material by the divine when we connect with our sensation to bring divine energies to the moon within ourselves, and open our feeling to the solar influences which flow into us from above. Only through the single sense of being can we participate directly in this; and so the communion represents a symbolic action of making ourselves whole within ourselves, through the receiving of grace, so that we can make our individuality, our undivided this, available for this sacred and necessary work.

This represents, in its entirety, the true purpose of man on earth, and reveals to us (if we develop the single sense of being) the opportunity that we have for ourselves, which is only one-third of our responsibility, but represents what we are allowed to keep because of our effort.

The sacred Communion reminds us that we receive, we mediate, and that we are also given a gift for our effort of relationship. In this way, we understand that feeling, thinking, and sensing represent three forms of relationship with God and three forms of service: feeling being the worship of God, thinking being the relationship with community and others, and sensing becoming an awareness of ourselves.

I was asked yesterday about why the communion, which used to serve this purpose, doesn’t “work” anymore. What went wrong? I thought this was quite a good question at the time, but did not anticipate that I would bring it up as a consequence in these essays. The fact is that the reason the communion no longer functions in an active role for the development of being is exactly the same reason as the problem this essay attempts to define. It is our lack of a single “I” that has fractured both the function of a human being’s presence and the function of the holy Communion. Nothing real can be received and retained unless being is whole. Sensation serves as the receptacle for Being which is received from a higher level.

This is, once again, why Mary (the fecund, fertile, infinitely compassionate and merciful mother) stands on the crescent moon. She receives; the moon is the vessel that retains. We can remind ourselves here that Mary represents, in a certain way, not divine Love — that is Christ’s role – but divine Wisdom.

We don’t traditionally think of Mary in this way, but the understanding of man’s role in the rate of creation and Mary’s role in the mediation of Christ’s love for mankind puts the question squarely in front of us and demands that we think about it much more carefully. It also raises the question of the fundamental and inherent intelligence of the material world, which at every level continually marvels biologists that study it.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The single sense of Being, part II

The Blessed Virgin Mary
The Cloisters, New York

Of course, we always return to the question of what can effect this unification of Being.

And there is only one single thing that can possibly do it, no matter how many exercises one tries to engage in. That is the fundamental organic and living connection to our sensation, which connects the current that flows within Being that can open the rest of Being to the inflow.

That inward flow or influence from a higher level provides a very fine material that allows the emotional center to do the work that is necessary to unify Being.

Even that takes a very long time, yet of course we want quick results. We want to be "better" right now, or at least by no later than tomorrow. Even worse, we want to be better. This will never happen; and we are wasting your time on it, dreaming about how we will improve ourself instead of attending quite specifically, intimately, and organically to this quite simple question which lies at the root of everything we think we wish for.

There is a huge difference between the single sense of Being and the ordinary parts, which exchange places automatically and pose, each one of them, as being complete. Only the single sense of Being can provide enough perspective to understand how thoroughly we become identified with one or the other centers; and, as Gurdjieff says, only our sensation can create your individuality. Only the organic sense of Being can lead, eventually, to one “I” which experiences the world continuously without having it divided into constant fugue states which interrupt one’s observation of one’s nature.

I suppose that readers presume some smooth path towards this with clear signposts; but there is no such thing. It is an uneven road that needs to be traveled in many directions at the same time in order to reach one’s destination; an enormous amount of creativity and flexibility needs to be applied, and above all this flexibility is necessary, because falling into the trap of a form or a rigid set of ideas about how one ought to do this or that is certain to ruin everything. Our opinions and judgments are the first things to meet most of life; and every one of them wants to assert itself and create just such a box and stuff our Being into it.

Only if we bring a loving and compassionate attitude to our work with ourselves, one that embraces rather than dividing, can we hope to slowly introduce the parts to one another in such a way that they cooperate. Once again, sensation provides the vehicle for that, because it brings a sense of gentle mystery to what we are. It is the first introduction to a finer substance that can manifest within the body, a more subtle and higher rate of vibration that has a wish to form a relationship with us. One minute of work like this is worth a thousand hours of philosophy.

I’ve explained this before, but it’s always worth understanding it from a new perspective. Think of the way that the solar system is arranged, with magnetic energies flowing from the sun through the Earth’s magnetosphere and eventually being transferred to the moon. Mankind is built in exactly the same way; and as I have again explained before, we are meant to come under solar influences in this work. That is meant quite literally; we are required to re-create the ray of creation within our being. This means that we transmit higher energies which we receive from the sun through our body and bring them to the moon. Many ancient esoteric systems embodied symbolic languages that showed this relationship (think of the Virgin Mary standing on a crescent moon) and it is only recently— speaking in historical terms—that human society-at-large has, for the most part, forgotten this relationship.

In this system, roughly speaking, sensation — physical sensation of a higher kind — belongs to the moving center, which mediates the connection to the moon or lunar influences.

Feeling is under solar influences, and our earthly being stands in the middle as intelligence.

So feeling is the most sacred of the properties, being closest to the sun and receiving the higher influences from the Lord; intelligence is the next most sacred, mediating (when it is properly arranged) conscious relationship between the sun and the moon; and the third sacred property is material existence, represented by the moving center and manifested through sensation.

A truly sacred energy of a finer kind must flow downward through the opening created by feeling, into the embodiment of intelligence which represents life on this level and exists within the center of our being, also called the heart in esoteric systems, and then flows downward into the moon, or sensation, which is the receiving vessel that takes the energy downwards into lower levels of the cosmos, which for us includes ourselves and even the molecules we are made of.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.