Abbey of Villelongue, France
Photograph by the author
Like so many essays I begin, I want to speak about something simple and then end up following many different threads. The simple thing I intended to speak about when I began this was the question of how impressions blend within me, my own experience of it. I need to come into a more intimate contact with that; and in order to do that, I need to come into a more intimate contact with my sensation and my feeling.
In any given instant, my nature is a composite of what is received in that instant and the records of what has already been received before. I am a vessel into which the world flows; but the vessel already has a character, and the inflow itself alters the character of the vessel even as it receives. This is a truly dynamic inner environment; and I need to rely on my spiritual, or inner, instincts to sense this environment. It is, after all, a home — a mansion, to me — where my awareness resides. If I see myself as a resident within this environment, rather than as the environment itself, there may be a degree of what Gurdjieff referred to as objectivity. I am an inhabitant of my life and this world; and the nature of my inhabitation is life itself, awareness itself, that is, the metaphysical entity that inhabits this physical realm. This can be experienced pragmatically rather than as an act of imagination; the metaphysics lies in the function of the three centers, whose awarenesses are functionally and fundamentally greater than the physical world they interact with.
We can come back to my analogy about John 14: 2,3 here, because the inhabitant of the house (the Lord) or the mansion (my own awareness), however you want to view it, is not the same as the house that they live in. Life is a set of experiences; the self is the entity who perceives them. The mansion is, in one sense, the material world and the individual lives that inhabit its various rooms; yet it also has an inner meaning, which is related to the many constructions that are built from our impressions over the course of a lifetime. We erect a residence of our intelligence, attitude, opinions, experiences, and memories; then our awareness inhabits that residence, whether consciously or unconsciously — that is, whether actually aware or relatively unaware of the fact that we reside within this structure that has emerged in us through molecular relationships.
In this sense, sensation is quite useful, because it gives us the opportunity to examine the molecular relationships independent of the subjective memories, attitudes, and so on. All of those things inhabit this body which consists of sensation. Examined independently — that is, from the perspective of the mind of sensation, and not the mind of intellect — we begin to gain some distance from the impressions themselves and become more familiar with the vessel. It’s quite different than becoming familiar with the body through doing yoga or playing tennis. The action is much more subtle and takes place on a cellular level. It is integrated; and this is what ought to interest me the most.
When Gurdjieff said that a man does not have a soul, but needs to acquire one, he may have been alluding to this need to become more familiar with what we are, to see this question as a question of residence and awareness, rather than possession and consciousness. Everything we inhabit, we inhabit temporarily — then we move on.
What moves on is the soul. It is essentially, like the wayfarer in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, an itinerant: clothed in simple peasant dress, equipped for a journey, moving from house to house and inn to inn as a traveler through life, not one who sits in one place. The residence, in other words, is a mobile one, both inwardly and outwardly.
This idea is certainly unfamiliar to us overall. We expect residences to be permanent; and so we want to fix them in place. All of us get “stuck” like this by attempting to pin ourselves down in a particular range of impressions and ideas. We choose one piece of turf, one room in the house, and prefer to think it is better than any other. This prevents us from blending our impressions in creative and unexpected ways, which is essential for the growth of the soul.
Every human being is guilty of this. The question is whether we are allowed to let anything shake us up enough to discover something different.
Over the course of a lifetime, impressions form a rather extraordinary and deep web of experience within being. It is possible, from the right place within one’s awareness, to touch countless aspects of being which have all come together in this particular point of time to form my awareness as it is: that awareness to include everything that can be thought of or felt or sensed right now.
Reviewing this from within the context of the present moment, over and over again, has a definite value in terms of self-remembering.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.