Fontenay Abbey, France
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.