Gurdjieff fully understood the very personal, non-obliterating role of suffering and how integral it is to spiritual development. True contact with the higher centers will make this matter much clearer, but it comes at tremendous cost. Only those I know who have suffered the most—in what are almost intolerable conditions which destroy the existing inner world—begin to grasp this matter in its entirety. Whether I like them or not, these people are true brothers and sisters in the inner work we seek to represent.
The Christian masters of the Middle Ages understood this matter better, perhaps, than anyone since in the western world. Speaking in a language we no longer fully (or in many cases even partially) understand, they described the necessary state as an awareness of sin.
This word used to mean something quite different than it does today and, once again, one could write an entire book about it. (The word is not derived from action or attachment in the outer world but applies in its esoteric sense exclusively to inner contradictions.) Gurdjieff, through his understanding of remorse of conscience and intentional suffering, more properly represents the question in front of us than any philosophy, whether theoretical or practical, of obliteration. Viewed from this perspective, liberation philosophies and doctrines of obliteration of Self are a cop-out.
A decent analogy of mankind’s position in regard to the question of bliss is one of a parent owning a candy store. With the trusting parent in absentia, the child is left in charge of the sweets; but instead of respectfully guarding the wares, he or she begins to eat the sweets, not realizing that as tantalizing as they are, they are not meant for them.
There are fairy tales about such things, such as Hansel and Gretel and the gingerbread house. In that case we see that Hansel and Gretel very nearly become food for the house of bliss, rather than the other way around. It is their very unawareness, their naiveté itself (the obliteration), that presents the danger. Lost and unconscious, they stumble across inner treasures; not knowing their right place or value, they enter the house (fully identify with its nature.) Tellingly, in this case, the ginger in the house is a spice from the east. The fairy tale may thus—at its root, pun intended— represent an esoteric warning against various naive forms of eastern liberation philosophy.
We can see the inherent danger in adopting philosophies or practices of oblivion; the annihilation (the making-into-nothingness) of the ego is not an answer. The ego exists to offer the opportunity to suffer it; extinguishment removes the source of conflict from which true suffering arises. Again, the metaphysical laws and reasonings behind this are complex; but the fact itself is rather simple. One doesn’t need to know how all the gears work to know that the hands of the clock show us the time.
This leads me to the second question on the table in my discourse, which is the value of wordlessness. It follows on the philosophy of obliteration, since obliteration dovetails quite neatly into the evaporation of awareness, rationality, and everything they represent—including the words to describe them.
It’s quite true that there is a place beyond words available to consciousness. As I have pointed out many times before, however, it is not just the metaphysically endowed (“higher”) states of awareness without words which we seek to encounter. There are awarenesses without words right next to us, so proximate in consciousness that we routinely take them for granted and ignore them; and these are the “places” (minds) without words that actually matter in the cultivation of our inner metaphysics, in the balancing of the centers Gurdjieff described as necessary in order to usefully receive higher states.
These two “wordless minds” are the intelligence of the body (sensation) and the intelligence of emotion (feeling.) Both are fully functioning fractions of our summary intelligence, ignored and suborned by the intellect in its prosecution of our rational (i.e., calculated) agendas. Yet these two wordless intelligences lie within our purview, not in some imaginary realm of better purity.
I would like you, for a moment, to imagine an idealized “world without words” in which all of the denizens never speak a single word to one another. I think we can agree that this world describes the world not of mankind, but of animals; and even they have languages, so perhaps we do not reach low enough down the scale when we say that. The point, i think, is that everything that human beings are, enlightened or otherwise, depends on the language we so eagerly banish when we try to speak about higher states of Being.
Without language—without words— there is no art, no culture, no architecture, tradition, science, or society. Humanity as we know it ceases to exist—a welcome development, perhaps, for the proponents of oblivion, but clearly insufficient as either a condition, cause or objective of human existence. So these philosophies of oblivion, experiential or otherwise, are essentially inhuman.
They contradict the tradition of God as a person, of mankind as a microcosmic expression of God, and the entire nature of existence itself as it manifests in the juxtaposition of God and man. They are, in other words, so apophatic that they do away not only with the signs of man and God, but with man and God itself. The idea, once examined with intensity, is so profoundly and essentially stupid it would not be worth examining, but for the blithely unexamined Very Important Sounding things said in its name.
We are thinking creatures; it is part of our nature, and we deny it at our peril. God is, as well, a thinking nature-above-creation, a pre-existing thought before thinking. Our spiritual development does not, in other words, excuse us from thinking in an invitation to infinite realms of divine and nihilistic thoughtlessness; it requires an intensification of attention and thought, which is precisely what Gurdjieff brought, over and over again, to his pupils—and in his metaphysics and mythology. There are no realms of inattentive bliss mapped out in Beelzebub’s cosmos; even purgatory (which would seem to be the most likely candidate) is a place of contemplation intensified to the level of the intolerable. Gurdjieff’s famous aphorism, “If you have not by nature a critical mind your staying here is useless,” sums it all up; but all his aphorisms are directed at an intensification of intelligence that requires words.
Pretending that we can do without them is a form of rank sophistry; and yet one hears such talk quite often.
Yes; there are wordless places; yes, perhaps from time to time we touch them (or, more properly, they touch us.) Yet this is of no use in the enterprise of relationship, which demands that we do much more than just sense—or just feel—or just think. There is thought without thought; there is thought within thought; and there are parts that think without words, yet express in their own language nonetheless.
We should stop acting surprised about this. It is not the territory we stake out; it is the life we inhabit.
Let us stop speaking about the silence. Let us speak as we speak; and be silent as we may be silent; but in either case, let us be as we be, not as declarative shades of oblivion or wordlessness would have us be.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.