I don’t mean to dismiss this urge towards improving ourselves. It’s natural; and there is something about the human character that embeds it deeply in the marrow of our bones. Yet if we really want to see ourselves as we are, it can’t begin with the idea of changing how we are. The dilemma is that the instant we see anything about ourselves, the urge to adjust it arises. We instantly sort what we are into good and bad, desirable and undesirable parts; and this tendency inserts itself into our spiritual practice, the level of attention we have, our frustration with the fact that we are not present to ourselves or our lives, etc. When we observe, and report on it to ourselves and one another, we always seem to see some kind of deficiency. All we seem to see most of the time is a disability of one kind or another.
The two pitfalls here are confirmation bias and self-fulfilling prophecies. Spiritual works generally tend to tell us we are sinful or asleep; and once we begin there, everything we see is colored with those presumptions. If a spiritual work were truly objective and intended to help us see ourselves as we are, to see life exactly as it is, it would not begin by telling us that we are deficient. It would simply ask us to observe. In the Gurdjieff work, because we are told up front we are asleep and don’t attend and don’t have a good inner connection and so on— the premises of the Gurdjieff work are almost entirely founded on this concrete platform — when we begin to look at ourselves, we do so expecting to confirm this. If we encounter information to the contrary, we dismiss it. This may be justified to some extent; but we train ourselves, through shared culture, habit and expectation, in such a way that these impressions are reinforced. We repeat them year after year in meetings and before you know it, they are a mantra.
This is where the mechanism of self-fulfilling prophecy comes in. If we keep telling ourselves that only the “special conditions” of our spiritual work bring us together in such a way that our inner lives can be more whole and receive a more enriched substance of life, how are we ever going to discover that it is life itself, in all its messy and chaotic variety, that is going to help us enrich our inner lives? We’ve already decided — and announced to everyone else — that the special conditions of our spiritual organization (it could be any organization) are the only conditions in which real growth can take place.
This is a selfish attitude, yet every spiritual organization tends to manifest it. It divides the world into us, and everyone else, and if we are looking for a world that is filled with rich relations with everything and everyone, starting out with a division of that kind is already at fault. We have even divided ourselves inside ourselves, as Jean Salzmann points out:
I seek what I am, to be what I am. I have a habit of thinking of “body," on the one hand, and of "spirit or energy" on the other. But nothing exists separately. There is a unity of life. I wish to live it, and I seek it through a movement of return toward myself. I say there is an outer life and an inner life. I say this because I feel myself as distinct, as existing apart from life. There is, however, only one great life. I cannot feel separate from it, outside it, and at the same time know it. I must feel myself a part of this life.
— Jean Salzmann, The Reality of Being, page 203
Perhaps most importantly, this raises the question if we are even being selfish towards ourselves; a question well worth examining. But the point is that however we decide we are going to see ourselves in advance — and make no mistake about it, any part of ourselves that comes from where we ordinarily are does this, even if it protests that it doesn’t — it becomes a prophecy that fulfills itself. If we see ourselves as spiritually incapable, we will be. This rarely gets discussed in the Gurdjieff work; but if we don’t grow a strong affirming part that makes a good effort under the assumption that we can be more whole, that we do have possibilities, we might as well forget about making any effort. This work was not designed to found itself on a pessimistic attitude. It was designed to struggle against that.
Any attempt to disengage in order to see ourselves has to be a disengagement first from the assumptions; whether negative or positive. And yet our exchanges, both inwardly between our various selves and parts, and outwardly towards others, always engage with the assumptions first and then proceed.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.