Monday, February 4, 2019

A Residence for the Soul—Coda

Photograph by the Author

November 25, Sparkill

Last night, we had dinner with our good friends D. and G. 

G. and I got into a brief discussion about the word consciousness and awareness. There was an objection to the way I used the term "awareness" in discussing this essay.

 For those of you not familiar with the Gurdjieff work – one would presume some of the readers of this space may not be— it’s important to be aware (ha ha ha) that the word “consciousness” is used very specifically both by Gurdjieff and in the work he left as his legacy, to describe a “real”state of awareness, that is, a heightened state of being aware that is “conscious” instead of just being aware in an ordinary way, which Gurdjieff referred to as “sleep.”

There is an irony implicit in the way the words are currently used in the Gurdjieff tradition. The word conscious stems from a Latin root meaning “to know;” whereas the word aware comes from Germanic roots. One could almost conflate the two— the meanings are somewhat cross referential. 

Yet the Latin root definitively refers to a word meaning to know...

...whereas the Germanic root definitively refers to a word meaning to be watchful

As such — keeping in mind Gurdjieff’s distinction between the action of knowing, which is considered superficial, and the action of understanding — which is present ted by Gurdjieff as a spiritually deeper "wisdom practice"– the word awareness is actually far more appropriate to describe what the Gurdjieff practice attempts to develop, and, in fact, what spiritual practice in general is aimed at. 

We are, in other words, generally unaware of what the two words mean, or how they ought to be used.

Using this approach, the term "consciousness," while still extraordinarily vital (why should consciousness exist at all? the world of mechanistic rationalism, it shouldn't) , refers to an inferior position relative to awareness. 

Consciousness knows; awareness understands. 

The reason that I make this distinction in my own language is because consciousness is ubiquitous and penetrates all of the material universe, down to the lowest level of molecular Being, whereas awareness is specific to the ascending octave of spiritual intelligence and understanding of what one knows.

If we wanted to refer to it in terms of the enneagram, we could say that knowing takes place on the descending portion of the octave (right hand side of the diagram) and understanding takes place on the left-hand side. Equally, consciousness arises and completes itself on the right-hand side of the diagram, and awareness on the left. The passage from fa to sol represents the passage from mere consciousness to awareness—from nonbeing (mechanical consciousness) to Being— spiritual consciousness, real "I."

My friend G. objected to my use of the word aware instead of conscious because we habitually use the terms conscious and consciousness in the Gurdjieff work because of tradition and habit. There is no doubt, mind you, that this word conscious is of real significance; it shows up 405 times by word count in the first translation of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. The word conscience, on the other hand — which, by the way, stems from the exact same Latin root as conscious, also means “to know,” and (to confuse matters even more) is the same word as conscious in the romance languages — appears only a paltry 91 times, despite its central place in Gurdjieff’s arguments about man’s nature.

 Word counts aside, I think the point here is that when we speak of being conscious, we fail to understand the difference between ordinary consciousness, which is on the whole a rather mundane thing (even molecules have it) and awareness, which is a form of watchfulness, or, as it is so often called in the Gurdjieff practice, seeing. Awareness is far more on the order of having an inner attention—a watchfulness— than consciousness alone.

One ought to be more specifically aware of how we use words; and we should indeed make sure that we use words with all of our spiritual intelligence, not just our automatic parts.

 Some might say that this kind of analysis is on the order of splitting hairs. Yet if we want (as I do) to understand the fundamental nature of consciousness—

what it is, and whether or not it is a universal force of much greater scope than what modern science allows it—

and furthermore understand it in the context of awareness, which I maintain is a higher order of this fundamental ground of consciousness that has capacities consciousness alone does not embody—

we need to look at the question quite carefully and define its terms according not just to literary tradition (as is the case with Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson) an unexamined habits, but with respect to their original root meanings and the context that confers upon them in modern discourse.

Wishing the best for you on this day,


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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