Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Shades of Oblivion— a discourse on Gurdjieff’s fundamental Humanism, part I

oblivion | əˈblivēən |
1 the state of being unaware or unconscious of what is happening: they drank themselves into oblivion.
the state of being forgotten, especially by the public: his name will fade into oblivion.

A friend recently described oblivion as being a “true state of Godness,” as described by the Upanishads, Buddhists, and even Gurdjieff (although it is entirely unclear to me which references, if any, he read into that statement.) 

It seems worthwhile to examine this question. 

First of all, it’s quite clear that the word itself means a state of forgetting, of unconsciousness. It seems a difficult reach to in any way recast Gurdjieff’s question of higher consciousness into territory explicitly defined as a lack of consciousness; so the use of the word appears to be  categorically and definitively incorrect in this case. It does, however, sound very important; and people who have had experiences of divinity (or what they are at least convinced are experiences of divinity) are prone to proclamations about it. The impulse to seize on words (usually intentionally vague ones)  that sound important to describe such states—especially if they are words that imply the annihilation of words—is nearly irresistible. 

The facts—that the impulse is almost certainly misguided, that the situation is complex, that there are many higher states of consciousness—are abandoned in favor of a kind of apocalyptic, apophatic evangelism. This is often accompanied by an attitude that implies the speaker knows far more than those around them about the matter. It’s an intelligibly, deeply manipulative technique; how can one possibly argue with those who use words to proclaim words have no value? They have already occupied all the available territory with a smugly preemptory lie. The method has been used by countless bogus gurus, and will no doubt continue as a highly effective weapon in their arsenal.

Words that sound important are often incorrect, or at least used incorrectly; and this isn’t just because the higher is undefinable or exists in a state without words. I’m personally and intimately familiar with a range of states of bona fide religious ecstasy, and I’m careful not to speak about them too much—or to misrepresent them. To do so is to risk misleading others; of even more concern is the fact that such states are sacred states which as Ravi Ravindra once said to us, do not fare well under the cold light of analysis. 

My intimacy with the questions of religious ecstasy and enlightenment states has persisted for many years. I treat them with suspicion, as befits a sober alcoholic. Perhaps it’s only a sober alcoholic or recovering addict who can, in full measure, appreciate not just the bliss of religious ecstasy but also its deceptions. The situation is too complex to explain—it would take an extended and rather boring discourse in metaphysics to fully cover it. Even if I did so, it would only produce a theoretical understandings of the question in the reader.

I am left, then, to offer a few observations on the matter that derive from a summary of experience, rather than deconstructed philosophical details. My own path, which highlighted the differences between drugs, alcohol, religious ecstasy and various states of enlightenment—along with the irrevocable obligations human life entails—has supplied a portfolio of propositions which may be worth examining.

First of all, the aim of spiritual work is not oblivion—or bliss. 

"If we could connect the centers of our ordinary consciousness with the higher thinking center deliberately and at will, it would be of no use to us whatever in our present general state. In most cases where accidental contact with the higher thinking center takes place a man becomes unconscious. The mind refuses to take in the flood of thoughts, emotions, images, and ideas which suddenly burst into it. And instead of a vivid thought, or a vivid emotion, there results, on the contrary, a complete blank, a state of unconsciousness. The memory retains only the first moment when the flood rushed in on the mind and the last moment when the flood was receding and consciousness returned. But even these moments are so full of unusual shades and colors that there is nothing with which to compare them among the ordinary sensations of life. This is usually all that remains from so-called 'mystical' and 'ecstatic' experiences, which represent a temporary connection with a higher center.

Only very seldom does it happen that a mind which has been better prepared succeeds in grasping and remembering something of what was felt and understood at the moment of ecstasy. But even in these cases the thinking, the moving, and the emotional centers remember and transmit everything in their own way, translate absolutely new and never previously experienced sensations into the language of usual everyday sensations, transmit in worldly three-dimensional forms things which pass completely beyond the limits of worldly measurements; in this way, of course, they entirely distort every trace of what remains in the memory of these unusual experiences. Our ordinary centers, in transmitting the impressions of the higher centers, may be compared to a blind man speaking of colors, or to a deaf man speaking of music."

Gurdjieff, as told to Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous, p. 195.

 We won’t spend time deconstructing this quote—it does a very nice job indeed of speaking for itself. The point is that misunderstandings of Godhood, God-consciousness and the like existing as states of oblivion derive almost exclusively from contacts with higher centers of the kind Gurdjieff describes here. 

There are yogic exercises that can produce such states, and to an aficionado they would be not only known but reliably reproducible. Persons who instruct on such states—or even produce them in other persons—without precisely understanding their nature can form whole cults and movements, as did Osho. The fact that such states are ultimately partial—and sometimes destructive—is as forgotten as the rest of the path, once such energies become regular food for a person. 

Per Gurdjieff’s teaching, whether one likes him or not, true contact with higher centers comes without oblivion; and only those who have undergone such experiences understand what this means. It does not at all mean what folks think it does; suffice it to say that the knowledge gained, the information imparted and the state experienced do not in any way, shape or form, lighten inner burdens. 

Instead they intensify them.  

Gurdjieff was certainly aware of this. The fact that even the Gurdjieff work has produced bacterial strains inside its petri dish that don’t grasp the essential question here— that believe in the doctrines of oblivion—is interesting. Many student of Gurdjieff’s methods have mixed works to come up with such understandings—and we can probably assign some responsibility for this migration of influence to Jeanne Salzmann’s adoption of Zen techniques after William Segal introduced her to Zen masters in Japan. It’s produced a clear, lasting change in direction which does not, in its particulars, wholly agree with Gurdjieff’s essentially Eastern Orthodox roots, or the specific intention and direction of his work as it was designed and in line with what it was meant to produce.

This is not to say that the direction the Gurdjieff work has taken is wrong, or bad, or what have you. My point is that Gurdjieff had a specific and very focused aim which is best understood (at least from a conceptual perspective) through close and repeated reading of Beelzebub’s Tales. It did not aim for oblivion or self-obliteration. It didn’t include Zen techniques. And it didn’t present Buddhism (presuming it did at all) in anything like the form it’s understood in today. It was, when he brought it, esoteric Christianity


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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