Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Contemplation of Desire, Part I


Yesterday, I wrote a note to myself which said, 

“the essential problem with desire is that we are who we want to be.” 

It reminds me of another thought I had several days earlier where I asked myself the question whether my psyche and awareness was simply nothing more than a projection screen for my desires.

The word desire is derived from an archaic verb, desiderate, which is believed to come from the Latin -de, “down, ” and -sidere, “star.” In other words, it is something that comes “down from the stars,” from an higher level. It is probably related to the word consider, which means -con, with, and -sidere, “star.” 

Since we have come to the mention of considering, let’s consider Gurdjieff’s adage, consider outwardly always, inwardly never. We can reinterpret this now to say, “always think of others as born of heaven; but never think of yourself that way.” It’s an interesting wrinkle in the fabric of this phrase that deserves further consideration, and reminds me of the Dalai Lama’s comment that when he enters a room, he always sees himself as the lowest person.

In any event, desire is something that ought to come from a higher level — like our consideration of others. Yet when it comes from my ego, from myself, it is always considered as something for myself. Swedenborg’s contention was always that we are what we love; and of course what we love is what we desire. 

The difficulty is that we always love ourselves first.

I think it takes a great deal of contemplation and self observation to see this, “I am who I want to be.” It sounds childishly simple; yet the psychological and spiritual mechanisms behind it are extraordinarily complex and come cocooned in a thick felt of denial. 

I don’t see how this works; I just take myself for granted. If I don’t ask questions about my desires, they rule me. It comes back to Gurdjieff’s contention: 

“…like all three-centered beings of our Great Universe, we men existing on the Earth, owing to the presence in us also of the factors for engendering the divine impulse of Objective Conscience, must always inevitably struggle with the two quite opposite functionings arising and proceeding in our common presence, the results of which are always sensed by us either as "desires" or as "nondesires."

     "'And so, only he who consciously assists the process of this inner struggle, and consciously assists the "nondesires" to prevail over the "desires," behaves in accordance with the Being of our Common Father Creator Himself; whereas he who consciously assists the contrary only increases His sorrow.”

The whole reason for this recommendation is that I am what I desire

To the extent that I see “I am” as my own, my desire doesn’t come from the stars. It does not stem from what created me and gave me life; I think I give myself life. Already, this is a fundamental abrogation of responsibility; I’m not responsible to anyone, I owed debts nowhere. In this way, by default, instead of being the servant of something higher than myself, I’m the slave of my own desire; and I think the point I’m making in my opening remark is that I just don’t see how my desire enslaves me. I become myself; but in a perverse way that renders me incapable of right relationship.

In this modern world of “self-help” and “self-realization,” the self is generally cast as the hero. It actually encourages me to become the slave of my own desire. Engendering and nurturing – even propagandizing — the inflation of my desire is a good thing and a right thing. 

I have a right to be who I am. 

I should be who I am. 

Others should get out of my damn way so that I can be who I am.

The question of just who I actually am is thrown by the wayside. Entitlement trumps all other considerations (contemplations of a higher entity and purpose.)

So I become my desires; and my desires enslave me. I chase them all day long.  If I watch myself carefully, I can see this taking place. The average state of the mind is to function as a perpetual motion machine serving desire. I want this. I want that. Sex, money, food, and fear. 

If I erect a temple of morals or principles meant to counteract the attraction of these powerbrokers, it’s actually a huge, empty structure. 

More on this in the next installment.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Meditations on Responsibility, Part VII: Pondering


 It’s possible to develop to quite a high level, even one of conscious being, without fully shearing off the selfishness in us. In fact selfishness can become more concentrated and defended as one becomes more aware, because it retreats into a citadel when it sees the threat of self-awareness developing around it. Hence Gurdjieff’s Hasnamusses, creatures who obtain objective reason but are still contaminated with ego. The only antidote to this is to see one’s own nothingness; and ego has a way of deceiving us in order to make us think we are doing that, when in fact nothing of the kind is taking place.

Ego wants to pay for nothing. Au contraire. Ego is a miser; and it wants others to pay it.

Well, then, this is been a rather long excursion into some of the metaphysical infrastructure of the questions surrounding responsibility and payment. That wasn’t intended when I began the essay, but things seemed to inevitably lead in the direction they’ve taken us. 

The original point of the essay was about sensing our lives in a new way and becoming more responsible for them. To become responsible for everything. 

This requires pondering: it is a weighing, a critical re-examination of every event in life, the throwing away of all the assumptions I’ve ever had about my life and what it means. I need to throw away my attitudes and opinions about my life, things that are formed from simple thoughts and simple emotions. Instead I'm called to feel and to sense them in a new way, and only after I get the taste of my world through those two centers of being — only then, after —to bring thinking to the matter. To bring it only with a critical and skeptical eye, “I,” in which I doubt everything, fault everything I have ever done. This, mind you, not with the aim of tearing myself apart and breaking things down, but with the aim of finding every weakness in the structure and reinforcing it with something better than what it has now. This repairing the past can only be done through ruthless self-examination and ruthless self-criticism.

In this action, I’m inevitably forced to the present moment where I still (as always) engage in various indelible actions of ego and self-satisfaction. This moment is “the present.” But I can’t be passive in the present — I must use it. Using it means to engage in this comprehensive self-critical action of remorse; and in that already I prepare the future, because in the action of contemplating the entirety of my life, within the present, already my center of gravity relative to the acts of ego and self-satisfaction that are currently taking place in me is different. 

In that very difference lies the future I prepare for. It’s a future in which my conscience and my remorse leverage my selfishness; and the longer the lever, the further out of myself and into something higher I am lifted.

All of these ideas and concepts relate in deeper ways to the things that Meister Eckhart says about the action of the soul and the search for the good; and every one of them is related in one way or another to Gurdjieff’s practice and Swedenborg’s cosmology. These are not separate things; and each one of them contains an essential part of what is needed. If I were to liken them to the three centers, I would say that Gurdjieff’s practice is the body and the sensation of inner work; Swedenborg’s teachings are its intellect; and Meister Eckhart brings us its feeling. 

But these are just my opinions and represent theoretical positions. In reality, the teachings are part of a single whole.

Perhaps the reader will understand that much of what I speak of here is impossible to undertake when young. There’s by no means enough material in the average person under the age of 40 to begin contemplating the kind of inner action discussed here; even if one is attracted to this work at an early age, it can’t truly be undertaken until there’s enough material to work with. And it isn’t until the age of 60 or older that that material begins to reach a critical mass in which more real things might become possible. 

In the end, only the humility imposed upon us by the realization of our mortality can provide enough force, enough heat and enough pressure, to begin to weld these elements into a more durable entity.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Meditations on Responsibility, Part VI: Valuation and Payment

   Hopefully the reader has by now followed my line of reasoning and sees the meaning of and the need for three kinds of understanding.

Although there is a doctrinaire model of the three centers which explains that they can each, in their turn, play the role of holy affirming, holy denying, or holy reconciling force, in the broadest sense of the rough model, we are currently arranged in such a way that the holy affirming is the mind, the holy denying is the body, and the holy reconciling is the feeling. Before anything else happens, we first have to change positions and restore balance, because the holy affirming force of the mind has become overwhelmingly strong and dominates almost everything in most people. 

The most effective course of action, in most cases, is for us to learn to reverse the position and allow the body to become holy affirming. In the mind, we become holy denying: we become cynics, skeptics (in the classical philosophical senses of the terms) and reject everything — we question everything. This counteracts our deplorable habit of naively believing everything from outside ourselves. 

In the body, on the other hand, we invest deeply in sensation, which affirms a Being more innately powerful than that of the mind, which works far more slowly. Properly developed, it takes advantage of our intuition, which is from the beginning not a thing of the mind. 

Once this takes place, a certain kind of balance is restored, because the mind was already strong in the first place. Once the body develops strength in the organic sensation of Being, the two of them together make room for feeling to come in and play its role as a reconciling force.

This is a brief explanation of why the work on sensation is so essential, and why one who truly wants to balance themselves ought to simply forget about everything else and just work in this area to the exclusion of feeling this or that or thinking this or that. 

In a certain sense, it would be best to think or feel nothing for a while and to just study sensation. This is, after all, a study of the exact function whereby all impressions enter in the first place; and there is one of the esoteric meanings of Gurdjieff’s advice to Ouspensky that the way to digest impressions most effectively is to put the attention at the place where they enter Being. That place, specifically, is in the sensation, because impressions and sensation are uniquely linked in the act of perception and Being.

This is all well and good, you might say; but to what end? What is the point?

The point, as always, comes back to responsibility. I can’t become responsible for my life, I can not pay the debt I owe for it, unless I sense it in its entirety with a balanced set of functions and organs. I need to be consciously aware of its value first; because one is never willing to pay a debt for something one doesn’t value. Furthermore, one never becomes willing to pay a debt that exceeds the value of what it’s attached to. If you think about this carefully, you’ll see that it explains why you don’t work. You don’t work because you don’t care; you don’t care because you don’t see the value things have. If you truly saw the value within yourself, work would become a natural impulse; and clearly enough, it isn’t. So you need to learn how to have a set of sensations and perceptions that will convey that value to you.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the value lies in your work or “the” work. This is how you’ll perceive it for a long time; but the reason that you are supposed to work in life is so that you’ll perceive the value of life, not of your work. The value of “your” work is a selfish value; “your” work is about you, and its center of gravity is misplaced. 

This is one of the reasons that it is often said in the work (and this saying is equally often misunderstood) “the work is not for me.” The work is of life and for life; the work is of life’s of value and for life’s value. It’s a method of becoming objective about life and its value and one’s own inner world. Life and Being have, on behalf of God, collected an immense number of impressions within us over the course of our lifetimes; and to the extent that we become consciously aware and responsible for this collection, to that extent we begin to pay our debt.

This question of payment is thus a profoundly physical and practical one; yet it’s connected to profoundly metaphysical requirements.

For as long as one remains mired in one’s selfish perspective, it’s impossible to appreciate the debt we owe here and how it needs to be paid. 

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Meditations on Responsibility, Part V: A Single World


There’s a passage in In Search of the Miraculous where Gurdjieff discusses the meaning of the word “world” with Ouspensky. He points out that the word has different meanings to different people.

What he doesn’t point out is that the word actually has a single meaning from an esoteric point of view. The “world” consists of the entire sum total of all the impressions that a single human being takes into themselves over the course of a lifetime. This encompasses every definition of the word that Gurdjieff explores in the passage; everything that a human being can think of, every concept they encounter, every taste they taste, every bird and cloud they see, every symphony they hear, every man or woman they love or hate, every philosophy they espouse and all the information they learn over the course of a life.

Over the course of a lifetime, we have to become responsible for our world. This is critical to understanding Gurdjieff’s adage, “use the present to repair the past and prepare the future.” It’s meant to indicate our relationship to our world within the present moment.

We are vessels into which the world flows. “The” world is the entirety of our impressions; and this includes our impressions, both inner and outer. I’ve explained on numerous occasions that our being is a solar system into which material falls. Over the course of a lifetime, this material accretes; and eventually, presuming one is properly prepared, one must turn towards it in a comprehensive manner and become responsible for all of it. That is to say, I become a custodian of my own world, my own life, in its entirety; and I have two principal factors which must be engaged in that act of custodianship. Those two factors are conscience and remorse. They’re the only properties in my psyche and my soul that can help me to digest the food of my life and incorporate its raw material into Being in a meaningful way.

While the aim of the organic sensation of Being — and the development of Being itself — are essential aims at the beginning of work, they are by a wide measure not enough. They’re only the foundations of an action to be undertaken by remorse of conscience. That action is comprehensive; it must involve everything; because absolutely everything that has taken place in one’s life and one’s inner world has to be dealt with in the process of understanding. Not knowing: one can know just about anything, but this is done almost exclusively with the mind. Understanding is a quite different thing that takes place within feeling, which binds the mind and the body together into the single whole which Gurdjieff called three-brained being.

One of the difficulties with understanding spiritual work in general, and the Gurdjieff work in particular, is that people always want to gain understanding through one part or another, and skip the rest; it’s believed that to know through feeling can lead to understanding, or that to know through the body can lead to understanding. 

To support this contention, we must confess that there is no doubt that great understanding can arise within a single center. For example, I’ve been listening to recordings of piano music by Mahani Teave, a very talented piano player from Easter Island, and it’s clear that she has great understanding of the piano and of music itself within moving center. A professional tennis player has equally great understanding within the context of their own form. Yet this is singular understanding; and singular understanding is a form of overdevelopment that often comes at the expense of understanding in the other centers. 

We seek rather to develop a balanced understanding; and this requires work within the “whole world,” not just on “one continent.” 

In the context of responsibility, I owe my attention to the whole world, not part of it.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Meditations on Responsibility: Part IV. Notes from March 4.

I hear the words duty and responsibility. But what do I really understand of them?

For as long as I remain a slave to my selfish desires, which project themselves onto the movie screen of my awareness all day long, I’m just a spectator in the seats. Life is there to entertain me. I own everything; and everything from outside that displeases me must be rejected. I understand something of owing; but everything is kept in an accounting book where I am the master. Things are owed to me. If I have a sense of owing something back, it’s always within the context of the material. I owe John $50. And so on. God — virtue, honor, higher principles — are all abstractions. So I only owe to them to the extent that I have been told to owed to them by my upbringing, the school I went to, my country.

I ‘ve never developed an organic, an inner, sense of owing anything. This because I’ve never even conceived of how things could be arranged in such a way.

It’s only with the development of being and an inner faculty that has a three-brained quality that I can begin to sense anything higher than myself. This is the only sensation that can produce an understanding of what I owe; that understanding is dependent on a set of finer sensations and feelings that, under ordinary circumstances, never touch me at all. Ordinary life has arranged me in such a way that these experiences are kept distant. Gurdjieff said that “great nature” has arranged it that way; that forces larger than us would prefer we be kept asleep to these influences. Perhaps that’s true; perhaps it isn’t. One is prompted to ask oneself whether it might be my own fault, and not the fault of “great nature.”

Have I tried hard enough to understand my life? Do I ever think from any perspective other than my own? Outer considering, after all, is in its entirety a practice of placing the locus of thought outside of the narrow range of myself and my own desires. That takes some doing, doesn’t it? Yet Gurdjieff says to do it always—not just once in a while when the random thought happens to pop back into my mind.

The point here is that the practice has to become organic. The wish for being needs to penetrate down through the flesh and the blood and the bones into the marrow of being. 

The marrow of being is where a wish is actually born; and that wish is only born by seeing where I am and understanding — as Gurdjieff always said — my own nothingness. 

Something new can be born in that place, something which we cannot write down or explain — even to ourselves.

That new thing is an organic consciousness that abides in sensation and invites feeling. 

These two faculties, once they join thought, can place me quite clearly in the place where I understand that I owe. I owe a great deal; in fact, I owe everything, and so if I wish to fulfill the fourth striving —from the beginning of one's existence the striving to pay as quickly as possible for one's arising and individuality, in order afterward to be free to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our Common Father—in fact, I discover quite quickly that I have to pay everything. This is what Christ meant when he said that we must pay to the last penny. 

This question of responsibility cannot be so easily defined, then; because what duty is, what dues must be paid, are metaphysical and consist of a complete surrender on the order of what Meister Eckhart proposes is necessary. 

That kind of action can only spring from an organic conscious awareness. And even if that awareness is developed, it only helps at first to understand how vast the debt is, and how unwilling I am to pay it. This is where struggle actually begins: not the struggle to become aware, but the struggle, once aware, to understand what awareness demands of me.

  May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Meditations on Responsibility, Part III. More notes from March 3.


This question of responsibility is the greatest one we face, but we keep treating it like it is a small thing.

Gurdjieff emphasized duty: it’s well known that being-parktdolg-duty means, roughly put, “duty – duty – duty,” used in the sense of a debt owed. This is indeed the original meaning of the word. We owe a debt for our existence.

If we think we belong to ourselves, we don’t owe anyone a damn thing — and this is how most human beings proceed in life, taking as much as they can and giving as little as possible. Most of modern society is organized in this way, where people will do almost anything you please for money. I live in this world every day and it consistently astonishes me; well, perhaps not anymore, because I have finally accepted the fact that this is how human beings are.

Yet there is a much more important question on the table, and that is not what we can get, but what we ought to give. God has given us this extraordinary life with the extraordinary possibilities that our intelligence and our senses confer upon us; and we owe a debt to it to treat it as a treasure and a precious substance. We owe that same debt to our fellow human beings. Instead, generally speaking, everything is thrown on the trash heap as we root through what takes place like a pig hunting for truffles, that is, self satisfaction.

Responsibility to life is the payment of debt for its arising. Certainly an abstract concept to most people; and yet the organic sensation of being brings the question of debt into the immediate range of the sensations. Of the feeling. And it’s in sensation and feeling that we can begin to understand the question of what we owe very differently than through the intellect. This question is closely related to what Gurdjieff was talking about when he said that creatures have to acquire being: 

“…it is indispensable for the three-brained beings of your planet to have 'knowledge of being.'

     "Any information, even if true, in general gives beings only 'mental knowledge,' and this 'mental knowledge,' as I have already told you, serves them merely as a factor to lessen their possibilities of acquiring 'knowledge of being.'” (Beelzebub’s Tales, Chapter 41)

Through knowledge of being, I can begin to understand my debt. This question is separate from the external and individual circumstances of life. It is a whole thing related to the whole life. It doesn’t matter how many ideas I have or explore if I don’t undertake all of that work as an exercise centered on the development of sensation, in order to become a candidate for real feeling.

Our responsibilities are great and our sins are great. We spend most of our time writing ourselves little acquittals of one kind or another on inner notepaper, instead of confronting what we are and taking responsibility for it. To take responsibility requires a commitment that returns again and again to the moment and my relationship with it. I can think of anything I like; that doesn’t matter. What is important is to be here and to suffer what takes place. That is a form of responsibility.

Gurdjieff talks about “responsible” beings a fair amount in Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. These are those who understand what they owe. Payment of that debt is only through duty and through suffering and the putting aside of my own reactions, which will continue to harass me no matter what I do. I need to have a critical enough evaluation of who I am and what I’m doing to go at least one step than that in each situation. 

Of course I’ll fail; the fact is that I begin from a place where I am irresponsible. Yet if I don’t at least try to practice responsibility, I will never learn anything about it.

I became a candidate for responsibility nearly 20 years ago. I say candidate, because with all the advantages I was given and the assistance that was conferred upon me through initiation, there was still absolutely no substitute for all the work necessary to be done by me on my own in order to approach the beginning of responsibility. Only now do I begin to understand this not just in its flesh, its blood, and its bones, but in its marrow. I never could have understood the marrow of this question 20 years ago; and even now, I merely stand on the threshold, beginning to have an idea of its scope and its nature. 

This needs to be drawn down much more deeply into being not as a set of thoughts, but as a magnetism that can attract real effort from all of my various parts through the concentration of its force.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Meditations on Responsibility, Part II: March 3 2021


Lee and Sarah, Scheveningen, Holland, May 1963.
Sarah is 3 years old in this photograph. I am 7.

March 3

To become responsible means, within the context of its linguistic roots, to pledge myself once again to support the other. 

Respond (late Middle English (as a noun): from Old French, from respondre ‘to answer’, from Latin respondere, from re- ‘again’ + spondere ‘to pledge’. The verb dates from the mid 16th century.)

Every morning when I get up I pledge myself again to the process of this day of life. 

So the first thing that I do in the morning is become responsible. 

I pledge to bring what I can in myself to support this life and the requirements it has. We’re in a reciprocal relationship, this life and I; the substances of its nature flow into me, both through the food, the air, and the impressions; and equally my intention and manifestation flow back outward into it. 

If I’m in a good state — it happens a little bit, every day — I receive a precious sense of how extraordinarily valuable the simplest things are, such as a fig, or a piece of bread. 

If my sensory apparatus is in a good relationship I know this in an organic way that has nothing to do with the theory of such things. The complexities that put these matters in front of us are impossible to sort out, understand, or ever fully appreciate; yet they’re here for our benefit and the benefit of the whole world. Everything on the planet has evolved that way and is in its place according to that great goodness that emerges from the love at the heart of creation.

One of the thoughts I had yesterday is that it’s strange the way human beings think they'll understand how things work. In any instant, trillions of microorganisms, living creatures in the form of viruses and bacteria, are interacting inside us in their individual natures and molecular understandings; and together they are producing “me.” The microbiome, scientists are discovering, is actually the chief and absolute source of the balances between mind and body, illness and health. 

That realm is so complex and dynamic that our interferences with and adjustments to it can never be more than the grossest of phenomenon. In each moment, trillions of relationships are engaged with; trillions of compromises and balances are struck. My consciousness exists on a level far above that and can’t really interfere in any truly effective way. Most of what it does in regard to these infinitesimal phenomena are guesswork. It’s true that I may be able to take some direct actions of very specific kinds, such as a vaccination for a disease; yet when I try to understand how it affects my psyche, that is a very different matter. 

There is no vaccination for anger or confusion.

There is no vaccination for bad influences that lead me astray. 

This brings me to the thought I had yesterday about the phrase from the Lord’s prayer, “deliver us from evil.” 

The word deliver comes from Latin roots meaning to “get away from” and “set free.” (Middle English: from Old French delivrer, based on Latin de- ‘away’ + liberare ‘set free’.)

Yet the evil that I need to be set free from isn’t (as we so stubbornly presume) an external evil. 

It is my own inner evils that I need to be delivered from. 

Being responsible means to pledge myself again to a life that moves in a direction away from evil and towards a loving understanding from within. 

I recently spent several weeks contemplating the question of good and evil from the point of view of Meister Eckhart and Gurdjieff; and while the matter is complicated, we can’t hope to understand any of it without long and careful contemplation. Knee-jerk reactions to the ideas of good and evil are almost always formed around things we learn from outside ourselves; and the only way to begin to understand them is to study how we are inside, the way our inner relationships function.

Within our psyche, the functions are (metaphorically speaking) just as complex as the function of our biome: myriad interactions of thought, emotion, and physical sensation take place in the course of the day. This day, for example, will be exactly like that. Every day is. And so I need to be prepared to receive the day and see with some greater care how my thoughts, my emotions, and my sensation interact. 

If I pledge myself to that attentive scrutiny, a gentle presence that accompanies my action, and I'm sensitive and delicate about its application, I see a little more clearly what’s going on. 

Perhaps I even begin to understand that I need to receive my life gracefully as it is, not with the evil I have in myself which wants to manipulate it, command it, control it, wield it as a weapon. 

If I'm attentive and I look carefully, I see that this weaponization of my psyche and my life is all too common in me.

What of it, then? This inner dictatorship, this embattlement?

I live this life as though I were immortal and could control things; and most especially, I live this life with the subtle, relentless,  and unexamined conviction that I'm better than others. The first thing that needs to go is this belief that I’m somehow above the rest. We are all in this mess together; and if that doesn’t produce a little compassion for others, nothing will. 

I have a very close friend who is dying of a degenerative disease. Much preparation is taking place in their life and the lives of those around them who love them. 

The sense has now developed that the end will be relatively soon, not measured in years. 

There’s been much thought about death and its nature as a result of this. We live with this fact on our doorstep at every moment and yet we pretend that it doesn’t affect us. Even covid has failed to impress upon our nation in general and the world at large that there are much more serious things to do than fight amongst one another for selfish purposes. 

Who listens when this is sent? Almost no one. Everyone thinks that what they do is good and what others do is not. 

This observation drew me, last week, to write that any selfish impulse to return to a selfish good is in itself evil. We must discover an objective good; and that can't come from us as we are, because all of us are subjective.

For some weeks I’ve kept a picture taken of my sister and myself in Scheveningen (Den Haag, in the Netherlands) on my desk. The photograph dates from May 1963. It’s a symbol of an entire world; and it is a reminder for me of what is truly precious, which is so often see only in hindsight. 

It reminds me of death and how it separates us from everything in this world, no matter how firmly we wish to cling to it. 

We so firmly believe that death is “bad.”

Yet it is not evil. 

I was reminded of this last night in a dream. I have, you see, actually died once before in my life, but I won’t explain how. The point is that it wasn’t a bad thing. It was actually an enormous good; not the good I want, but true good in its own essence. 

So I know precisely what death is and how it functions; and last night I was reminded of that in the dream, a teaching dream to point out to me once again that I don’t understand anything, I don’t understand what a great benefit this life is — and I don’t understand that death is also a great benefit.

This humbles me beyond measure. I will probably still retain some fear of death, because the organism doesn’t know any better; yet the spirit, the soul, the psyche can know something more of it, and in that there is nothing to be feared. It’s a movement towards a much greater love than we can have of ourselves; and in that alone it is a deliverance from the very evil that we inhabit within the selfish realm of our own desires…

which do not respect where we are and what we are doing.

So I hope to become responsible — to pledge myself again to these questions and this life this morning.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Meditations on Responsibility, Part I: March 2, 2021


 March 2.

I begin this morning with the question of responsibility.

There's a picture  of my sister Sarah and I taken in Scheveningen (Den Haag) in Holland in May 1963 which I keep on the desk in my office these days. It reminds me of a lifetime of responsibility; and what I have failed at. Not that there haven’t been any successes; but Gurdjieff always felt that we should hold our failures in front of ourselves, face them, take responsibility for them. Feel remorse for them. This, not a remorse for anything but my own action in regard to others.

To be responsible comes from the old French respondre, taken in its own turn from Latin respondere, a combination of “re”— “again” and “spondere,” to pledge. So to become responsible means to pledge again. To pledge means to act as a surety to another, to help fulfill an obligation on their behalf.

The word, in other words, carries a rich set of meanings related to the idea that we are here on this planet to fulfill a set of obligations on behalf of God; that we are, as Ibn Arabi puts it, vicegerents, agencies appointed to act on God’s behalf on this planet. Gurdjieff’s work was deeply invested in this idea; and the mycelium of its body runs throughout the growing medium of Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, penetrating every grain of it in an intimate contact that binds it into a single whole.

In this sense, the book becomes not a Bible — some record of ancient tales and moral obligations — but a map. I can't afford to approach it with any sense of worship; yet it is essential to knowing where I am. 

And the thought occurs to me here that you cannot know anything about a map unless you study it carefully. 

Not worshipfully: carefully.

Maps are very rough approximations, in fact absolute abstractions, of the substantial, three-dimensional, most extraordinary depth and diversity of the actual landscape. They only lay out broad, approximate locations; points of reference, landmarks. Even then they only convey the tiniest fraction, infinitesimal, really, of the actual nature of the landscape. And that landscape is my inner and outer life.regard to the way I dwell

How absurd, then, to refer to the map as though it were a real place. Everything about the map is already deceptive; and unless I recognize it as a map and keep it only as a touchstone, a minor point of reference in regard to the way I dwell in the landscape, I make a great mistake. The map may begin as one of my most valuable tools in terms of orientation; but, as anyone knows, maps are in the end awesomely deceiving and can never contain more than the flimsiest of sketchbooks about the land and its inhabitants. They are tales told by idiots with only one aim in mind: to let us know more or less where we are, and more or less where we might go from here.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Good and Evil in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Part VII: Coda


Part VII of a seven-part series

 In the complex universe of Lentrohamsanin and Ashiata Shiemash, one must come under and acknowledge an authority. It’s a question of which authority. In this argument, and most especially in the parable of Lentrohamsanin, we see that it is the authority of established tradition, heritage, the old ideas, that have the much greater value. No reader familiar with the man will be surprised to find this embedded in Gurdjieff’s exposition.

That tradition and heritage are an intimate part of our inner world, an indelible awareness to be likened to Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. In Gurdjieff’s parables, this collective unconscious contains mankind’s most precious possession: conscience. Not just the instinctive knowing of the difference between good and evil, but a capacity for remorse in regard to our action in said context. 

In Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, this priceless inner world is under continued assault by the demands and allure of the outer.

The tension in any examination of Gurdjieff’s concepts on good and evil ultimately rest on the difference between the objective and subjective. In broad brush strokes, one concludes that Gurdjieff did believe in an objective evil that lies outside men themselves, located in the metaphysical realm of virtue. 

This selfsame virtue—“the good”—is a quality that Antisthenes and other Cynics saw as objective; it far outweighed the opinions and actions of ordinary men. Hence their contempt for them. Beelzebub’s Tales is an explicit work of cynicism in the best and deepest sense of the tradition. 

Socratic and cynical insight lose the essence of their perspective the instant that subjective personal opinions contaminate them; and of course, his early essay The Meaning of Life Gurdjieff (which probably dates to the early 1920s, well before Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson was completed) presents this as the essential difference between what is pure and what is impure

His central preoccupation with this theme of impurity through “the admixture of subjective properties” (see The Holy Planet Purgatory) is thus long-standing and a recurrent theme throughout his works. The concept not only links his work to the idea of metaphysical or external values which trump any subjective perspectives we may have on life; it intimately links it with Swedenborg’s concepts of selfishness and unselfishness and their role in the development of the human soul and its place in heaven or hell. 

It is, by the way, quite impossible that Gurdjieff would have reached the level he did in the review of metaphysical philosophies without reading Swedenborg. The man’s books were, by the time Gurdjieff lived, translated into dozens of European languages and one of the preeminent metaphysical influences on 19th century spiritual thinking. Just as there are correspondences between Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and traditional 19th century adventure-story forms by Jules Verne and other authors (as I pointed out in my book Novel, Myth, and Cosmos), so does Gurdjieff’s cosmology glitter with various reflections of Swedenborg’s angelic hierarchies and the struggle between the objective and subjective denizens of heaven and hell. To pretend, then, that Gurdjieff’s ideas and writings arose in some kind of literary and cultural vacuum is to propose an absurdity.

In any event, the question on the table is not the heritage of Gurdjieff’s work, interesting though that may be. The question ultimately becomes one of whether or not the man was a moral relativist; and I think that the evidence demonstrates that this can’t possibly be the case. Gurdjieff rather aspired his followers — and, judging from the scale of Beelzebub’s Tales, all mankind —to the morality of the cynics, which is a very high morality indeed: at the same time both distinctly metaphysical and at powerful odds with the average moralities of the average man. 

To argue that we can excise good and evil from this picture is a nonstarter. It isn’t a question of whether or not good and evil exist, but what their nature is — and this is the exact inquiry that Gurdjieff would have us undertake, not through outside influences and what other people tell us (that is, filtered through the maleficent after-effects of the organ kundabuffer) but by means of our own ability to use critical reason and to discriminate. 

These faculties, in Gurdjieff’s teaching, must not be the superficial implants imparted by education and imitation, but rather organic qualities that derive from Meister Eckhart’s inflow of God’s good into the most intimate regions of the soul — a process that cannot take place when it’s mixed with the subjective nature of our perception. May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Good and Evil in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Part VI: Lentrohamsanin


 Part VI of a seven-part series

Лентро Хамсанин, phonetically, Lentrohamsanin.  

The phonemes for this character are composed of fragments of Lenin, Trotsky, and xamca,  which means “anchovy” in Tajik. We can suppose Gurdjieff may be indicating that the character’s propositions “taste fishy.” 

Lentrohamsanin is said to have had an inner “double center of gravity,” specifically cited for the reason that he developed objective reason. This interesting phrase is not used anywhere else in the book, but it bears contemplation. 

He records his teaching on 100 buffalo hides, an indication that it’s both “super”-superficial and a giant pile of BS. 

Lentrohamsanin, who destroys the results of Ashiata Shiemash’s labors, bases his appeal on human ideas of “freedom,”  which seize the population and ultimately leading to war —an action which Gurdjieff specifically mentions elsewhere as the consequence of solioonensius. 

There’s an obvious connection here also worthy of further consideration: Lentrohamsanin’s teaching is the result of what should have been a higher sacred process that goes wrong when appropriated by members of a lower order. In other words, Lentrohamsanin himself recapitulates Beelzebub’s cardinal sin: “we ourselves will be masters of our own circumstances and no longer they, who rule our lives…” He thought he knew better than God:

“But then, owing to his youthful and still unformed Reason, as well as to his callow and impetuous mentation with its unequally flowing associations, that is, a mentation based on a limited understanding—which is natural for beings who have not yet become fully responsible—Beelzebub once saw something in the government of the world that seemed to him "illogical" and, having found support among his comrades, unformed beings like himself, interfered in what was none of his business.

Thanks to the force and impetuosity of Beelzebub's nature, his intervention, supported by his comrades, soon captured all minds and brought the central kingdom of the Megalocosmos to the brink of revolution.” 

This passage from Chapter 2 of Beelzebub’s Tales is, for all intents and purposes, an exact recapitulation of Lentrohamsanin’s actions.  But for a single detail, Beelzebub himself is Lentrohamsanin; the only difference between the two is that Beelzebub, ever the cynic and ruthless critic of all that he observes, finds himself at the beginning of the story on a path to redemption; Lentrohamsanin, on the other hand, is irredeemable. (How very apt it is to label Gurdjieff a cynic; the appellation, after all, originally meant “doglike, churlish;” and Gurdjieff’s famous aim in his writing was to “bury bone deeper.”)

What is the only essential difference between the two? Lentrohamsanin lacks objective conscience.

Lentrohamsanin’s transgression is a collapse back into the subjective on the part of the already objective: in other words, the danger of this is perpetual, perhaps no matter how high the level of inner development. 

And, indeed, it results in what Gurdjieff would have called objective evil. It results in a population influenced by powerful outer circumstances and divided by hatred. Civil war ensues. The image of an inner state divided against itself arises; this is a mirror of the struggle in a human being between the “new ideas” and the “old ideas” which Gurdjieff mentioned on his deathbed. 

The first principal lesson in this parable is the danger of being influenced by another, no matter how much authority they may seem to have. The second principle lesson is about the value of tradition and community, easily destroyed by the combination of suggestibility and the arrival of outside ideas in the absence of critical evaluation.

The net result? Even the highest part of an individual (Lentrohamsanin himself) may do such great damage that it crystallizes at a level where it can never be undone. Beelzebub himself, in the course of his tales, avoids this fate: but the cautionary element for all, even Beelzebub himself, is impossible to avoid. One might say that Lentrohamsanin is not just the “anti-Ashiata Shiemash,” but the “anti-Beelzebub.”

Various etymological roots of the word Hasnamuss from Persian, Turkmenistan, and Kurdish phonemes bring us meanings connected to miserliness, that which is mean, vile, or bad; also, something to do with honor or reputation. Roots for various words meaning “peculiar” or “particular to” are also present. The rough portmanteau translation of the word might be “uniquely powerful and vile individual.” 

The word implies of itself an objective force of evil that goes against objectivity itself; and given Gurdjieff’s cosmology, with its unabashed adoption of hierarchies of angels, we can’t avoid a picture of that very same “heaven” and “hell” which he seems to dismiss in other parts of the book. It is one of the peculiar and intentional features of Gurdjieff’s writing that he embeds his own inner struggle and contradictory ideas within his tales of the cosmos, mirroring the need for critical and objective reasoning. The device forces we the readers into a world where we are inexorably drawn into that selfsame struggle.

This means that looking for consistency in Gurdjieff’s cosmology and mythology is a profound mistake: the inconsistencies in it are there to reflect, in literary form, the exact same forces he speaks of. The conflicts are inherent and not resolvable by anything except conscious reasoning; and thus, taking any single statement Gurdjieff makes about a matter is already wrong. His interest is not in having us believe one thing or another that he says; his interest is oft in provoking active mentation by saying two different, perhaps even ridiculous, things and forcing us to live in the middle of them. One might surmise that approximately half of them are nonsense; and a close reading of the book will bear that out even for the average reader. This process closely mirrors the way in which he engaged in practical work with his students.

It would be a useful device, by the way, for the reader to conceive of the book as an exclusively inner cosmology cast as comprehensively outer mythology. All of the events described in it take place “on various planets;” that is, in physical worlds; yet the discussion about the events takes place on a spaceship, that is, within the metaphysical realm, from a point of view decisively removed from the storyline. The spaceship Karnak is a place of objective mentation about outer events.

 In this sense of the book as an inner cosmology, every character in the book represents a part of the psyche and spiritual body of a single individual. We all have an Ashiata Shiemash and a Lentrohamsanin in us; they represent the function of the parts that bring man’s soul (his conscious action) into contact with God (Ashiata Shiemash) and the parts that bring man’s soul into contact with the ordinary world. 

Think of the book, then, as a story about a single individual— yourself – and your inner order. In one way or another, every single tale has something to do with that. Believing in any of it as a record of actual outer events is a mistake. We might say,

“This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.”

Put in the simplest of terms, the struggle between Ashiata Shiemash and Lentrohamsanin is a struggle between inner good and inner evil. That struggle, as it happens, is provoked by the inward flow of outer circumstances, contrary to the inward flow of a higher influence in the form of divine energy. This struggle is a recapitulation, in complex mythological form, of Meister Eckhart’s analysis of the structure of man’s soul found in Sermon One. The third or reconciling force in this struggle between two opposing flows is a human being’s own awareness, which must take responsibility for its place between these two worlds in order to discriminate. Ultimately, as with the case of the population of Babylon and other countries confronted with Lentrohamsanin’s teachings (the influences of the outer world, which appeared to have great authority) one has to be free of the outer influences— and perhaps most especially the ones which promise freedom. 

The irony, once appreciated, is beautifully delivered.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.