Capital at Basilique St. Madeleine, Vezelay, France
Photograph by the author
When my wife asked me what this matter of inner measurement consisted of — what I meant by it — I said to her, the yardstick is death.
This isn’t being overly dramatic; we must measure every moment and our action in it relative to our mortality if we want to understand how much sobriety is necessary in our action. In point of fact, a great deal of sobriety is necessary; it is nearly unlimited, because we are tiny, mortal creatures and in the perspective of the universe, its scope, and our temporary nature, we ought to feel a sense of what Gurdjieff called organic shame in relationship not just to our whole lives (we always love to see these things on some grand scale) but in regard to the molecular, granular nature of our action, of each small thing we do.
Gurdjieff, of course, offered this formulation of always remembering our own death in the last few paragraphs of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson; yet one can find the exact same formulation in the discourses of Epictetus. The idea was not, in other words, a new one at all, so there is no need to dramatize Gurdjieff’s adoption of it. He simply saw what was true and had been known to esoteric schools for thousands of years, and reported it.
I will say it again in a slightly different way: in the landscape of attention, death is the yardstick by which we measure.
We think that we die tomorrow; but we die always. It is not a matter for some other time; and the path to understanding our own death is through the organic sensation of Being. There is no other way to approach this. Intellectual formulations are useless in this regard, so until one develops an organic sensation of Being, the question will always remain theoretical. The development of that sensation and the consequent understanding of death as a living force lead to some radical rearrangements in Being; and even then, they are only a beginning. These are not, furthermore matters that bring any comfort; and since we often seek comfort first when it comes to spiritual matters, it can be quite disturbing to discover that real inner work does anything but.
In pondering this further this morning, in a later conversation with my wife—on my China trips, these talks get broken up into discreet little packages by breakfasts, hotel checkouts, taxi rides, and airport waits— a question of the larger picture emerged.
While it’s true that our experience of death as an active force in life needs to become absolutely organic, intimate, and personal, understanding it from a much larger scale is still important in order to put a perspective on Gurdjieff’s comments about the suffering of God, and the place of our own suffering in relationship to it.
The universe exists on death.
This series will continue in part III on Feb. 15.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.