Friday, October 21, 2016

In Memorium: Sarah van Laer Hansen

Dec 19, 1959 - Oct. 21, 2011

In memory of my sister Sarah, on the fifth anniversary of her death.

You are loved, and missed.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Words of Our Imperfect Teachers, Part I: Crystal Bridges

William Wetmore Story

My wife and I were at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville yesterday. 

The collection is a fine one, with several gems; but perhaps the importance of it is not so much the individual works of art, but the way it traces a broad and intelligent trajectory across the transition that took place in art between the 18th and 20th centuries, a time of radical re-evaluation in the visual arts.  

Viewed through the lens of a single (and oft perceived-as-outlier) country and its artists, the magnitude of the change seems more apparent than when viewed at other institutions; and in addition to offering us a new lens through which to view that transformation, it affirms the fact that American art and American artists have steadfastly fashioned and truly owned their own unique, separate, and equally valid vision of art. 

Much more could be said about that; but what struck me during the museum visit was a simple exchange between ourselves and a young man serving as a security guard. We chatted a bit about the layout of the grounds; and during the exchange I realized that he had a mild speech impediment and was slightly disabled.

This struck a deep emotional chord in me. Coming fresh off a weekend of work with the Arkansas group, I was more directly receptive to such impressions; and it came to me suddenly that I have no real appreciation for how fortunate I am. 

"I have no right to complain," I thought to myself, "...but I do have an obligation to love."

I complain about a lot of things in my life, but in fact there's very little to complain about. I am of reasonably sound health and mind, and ought to not find fault with my conditions, which are in truth very tolerable indeed. I arrogate this right to complain to myself without thought or mindfulness; and it is entirely lacking in compassion. 

I DO have an obligation to love, which means, to follow the instruction of Christ: "love one another as I have loved you." This is a point of work I ought to question and take in much more actively and deeply in my daily life. This obligation to love ought to take precedence over the selfishness of complaint; yet I so often forget it. I risk becoming a tiny, whining creature unfit for any real service; and I need to keep a much closer eye on that. 

Really I do.  

I have been forced again and again by my life to the point where I'm required to see that I am unloving; and that I truly—not theoretically—ought to forgive all those around me as Christ forgave us. 

This forgiving I speak of is not a forgiving that took place long ago, when He died; or a forgiving I can attend to later when I am ready. In a certain sense I'm never ready to forgive, and I need to remember that. I need to forgive NOW; and I need most especially to forgive the people who I am truly angered by, the ones I like the least and who do me the most harm. 

Now, I've had to do this kind of inner work repeatedly over the course of a lifetime; and each time I do it I pretend to myself that I've learned something real. I want to award myself crowns of golden laurel leaves and pat myself on the back. But the simple fact is that it's inner bullshit; I end up finding myself at this same place over and over again because I haven't learned anything. 

I'm reminded here of an exchange between my teacher and myself some years ago where, after twenty years of work with her, she angrily said to me, "you haven't understood anything!"... And she was right. Not right, perhaps, in her anger; she often expected too much of me… which was her job. But she was right about my understanding. And I see now fifteen years later (having finally understood a few of those things she was upset with me about) that I don't understand forgiveness; it isn't an inherent part of what I am. I keep having to understand it over and over again, every time, because I am not forgiving. I suspect I never truly will be; it is a lesson to be learned again repeatedly through suffering.

It's only through this repeated humility of suffering that I come to a realization of just how small I am; and it is a real gift to see that. 


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


What was your life like as a child?

How did that help you form your impressions of the world? 

What are your impressions now?

I have a question today about living in the moment – which is what we claim our aim is. 

It's not enough to just live in the moment once one reaches a certain age. One has to consider one's life over the long arc of time, and see how what has already taken place, especially at the beginning, influences the trajectory. The overall trajectory from within, after all, was formed very early — outer circumstances push us in many different directions, but inward ones have more of a consistency to them, because they always begin from this point of withinwardness called Being. 

Our being may be weak or it may be strong, but it's indubitably there, because it is what God gives us at the beginning and it is what determines how everything else is formed from inside; what is received, how it is processed and related to other things, what grows in us.

This brings me to temptation. Temptation is the inner impulse towards selfishness and the gratification of the self. Throughout most of my life, when I heard this word in prayer, I always presumed that "lead us not into temptation" was intoned in regard to outward things, but that isn't the case at all, I think. Temptation is an inner thing. It may be stimulated by objects, events, circumstances, and conditions, but it always acts inwardly, and it always comes from a selfishness. 

One could argue that this selfishness is the selfishness of a child; and this sheds some light for me on Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 13:

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

Given that the rest of the passage is about love, which is an essentially unselfish impulse, it seems clear that temptation is an important part of the question. 

I'm tempted to be selfish. That comes first. After that unmindful and childish impulse, all the outer manifestations kick in: the objects of temptation, which are not objects in themselves (things to be tempted by) but only manifestations of my selfishness... my childishness. This is a root behavior worth, I think, careful examination. 

During the course of my day, I definitely see that I have two contradictory impulses that act in me constantly: one, to gratify my own wishes –which are probably carnal, or relate to acquiring wealth or having power and exercising it —and another which is generous and actually cares about other people. 

If I take the time to see it, I can be present to the way they struggle with one another. 

My unselfishness is pretty weak, isn't it?

We spend a lot of time sensing this or that part of the body, doing an exercise where we "come back" to ourselves. That's all very nice. But shouldn't we occasionally do exercises where we try to see these specific inner parts and how they influence us? 

If I don't have a question about my manifestations which is active and within me during the day, what can I really see? 

Even my failure to work is a result of this temptation to act childishly, to act through selfish impulse, rather than love and caring. After all, if I truly love myself and care about myself, I'll make an effort to attend to my inner life. If I don't, there are fundamental questions at stake. 

This is where my attention and mindfulness begin: as a child, from within temptation. I begin from within myself as a child, but I try to reach both inward and outward by discovering the adult.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

The meaning of life?

One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. 

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

—Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, Washington Square Pressp. 131

Continuing to reread Man's Search for Meaning, I insist every reader of this space ought to get a copy and read it for themselves. Frankl says so many absolutely essential things, in such a simple and uncomplicated way, without the pretensions so often attached to so-called "spiritual" works.

 Our essential task is to discover the meaning of our lives — not "the" meaning of life, which philosophies and spiritual teachings purport to impart, but the meaning of our own lives. 

It's this microscopic insertion of meaning into being, which takes place cell by cell and organism by organism, to which we must attend. 

To this end, I am reminded of a volume of poetry I recently read: all of it poetry purported to impart deep philosophical and spiritual meanings, written by a wide range of poets. Almost all of it, unfortunately, falls prey to this consistent, grandiose belief that we are able to comprehend things on vast scales—and then talk about them. 

Alas.  These theoretically better poets, bedecked with their many publications and awards, repeat the same tired old themes that innumerable less accomplished brethren hammer away at. Such sheet-metal always ends up being beat into mediocre shapes, because that is all it lends itself to. Contemporary poets, novelists, filmmakers and a range of other regurgitaters of popular ideas, philosophies, and mind–bogglings are obsessed with trying to capture vastness and contain it in tiny bottles; what they usually capture instead is embarrassing bombast. 

Not long ago, a poet who asked me for advice about their work received my comment that the cosmos won't fit in a poem; so don't put it in there. 

Poems—like individual lives—are too abbreviated to contain vastness. Whenever faced with the choice between the great and the small, always choose the small, because God and the cosmos are far more often revealed in the small things than in the huge ones (see Meister Eckhart's last words.)  

This particular insight bears a direct relationship to the questions I investigated in the recent series of essays published under the title "...Bacon?" We have to investigate the meaning of life within the context of our own life, within life. Using the external as an interpretive mechanism has validity; but only just so much validity, because the external is a world of generalities, whereas our inward Being is a world of specifics: It determines, specifically who and what we are, before the external circumstances are encountered.

That determination is intimate and immediate, and it is only in the context of our inward self examination that we can know anything about who we are, before the external ever affects us.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Dog Teaches Me

Bangkok, October 9

It’s different to come into relationship with an energy than to come into relationship with a thought.

I think — I use my thoughts — to believe that I understand the difference between these two things, but that isn’t quite true. In a certain way, if I want to come into relationship with an inner energy, I have to completely let go of the thought. Not in a stupid way, that is, unintentionally and without mindfulness, but rather intentionally: with a going-towards the energy and an experience of it that doesn’t have thought in it.

There can, to be sure, be a balance between thought and inward energy; and I experience that now as I try to express the differences between the two and their co-relationship within me. If I could study the balance here more carefully, I might learn something important about the nature of thinking and the nature of sensation, which are different but can be cooperative with one another.

As it stands, unless sensation is voluntarily active, that is, it provides its own support from its own corner of being, I am always trying to invoke it and come at it from thought. 

This prevents it from having the right to be alive in its own way. 

It’s as though I am commanding a dog, instead of coming into relationship with the dog, who has its own life and its own being and is in fact much more generous than I am. Not only more generous, but more loving as well. 

If I always want to be the master, there may be a rationale to it — and of course it’s true the dog has, in a certain sense, the need for a master — but the dog is also a whole being unto itself and ought to be allowed to be a dog, because I am not just the teacher of the dog. 

If I'm wise enough, the dog also teaches me.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Too precious

A subject that has been on my mind of late.

There are those who are superficially spiritual, merely paying attention to the form and believing that that suffices. 

Then there are those whose spirituality is quite "ordinary"; they infuse their lives with it in sincerity and devotion, and if it is largely outward, well, then, at least it has the force of real life in it.

Then there are those of us who pretend to a greater depth.

Gurdjieff had his share of suspicion for such folk, even though he was ultimately surrounded by them. Perhaps that's why he drove them away in such large numbers: pretenders? It could be. He reminded Ouspensky that the obyvatel, the ordinary householder who simply tries to meet his or her life-responsibility, often achieves a greater depth of Being than those with the lofty aspirations. And indeed, in Zen we constantly hear echoes of that tired old story of the humblest monk who was elevated to the head of the monastery.

What bothers me about spiritual aspirants in general is that we are all a little too precious. This habit is particularly prevalent among Gurdjieffians; the more hidebound and traditional, the more offensive such manifestations. We often, I fear, nurse a catastrophically mistaken belief that we are guardians of a secret faith that only the initiated can understand; and that its purity must be protected from the ravages of the lower creatures we're surrounded by.

Make no mistake about it: we, too, are the lower creatures.

This illusion that we are somehow different, separated, from ordinary life, ordinary impulses and ordinary people is just that—an illusion. 

Nobody is special. 

This is a lesson hard learned; and the danger is that the more special we believe we are, the less we see. It breeds an atmosphere where we believe we can and should instruct and correct, rather than  investigate and question; where we substitute reserved arrogance for open-hearted compassion, and where the confessional is deemed necessary for others, but not ourselves. 

Only a deeply troubled mind can come to true spiritual conscience. Flying back from China on this last trip, I watched "Doubt," the film with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman; and this film seemed to me to do a good job of capturing that truth.

A precious attitude does not engender a deeply troubled mind; I feel quite sure of this. If we separate from others and hold ourselves apart; if we believe we share, within our tiny circles (every human circle is, in the end, tiny, no matter how much we inflate them in our imaginations) some secret knowledge others aren't able to understand, ah! What a mistake. What separates us, if there is any separation, is our effort to understand: and if we confess, on bended knee as we grow older, that we do not understand, then how is it we can hold ourselves apart from those who we see as having less understanding than our own?

I declare myself as guilty as the next man or woman on this point; and I challenge us all to examine our attitudes on it. 

Just how precious and magical do we really think we are?

It reminds me of another point my teacher Betty Brown made to me many years ago: how arrogant we are, to think we can achieve anything spiritually. 

In the end, all of that emanates from ego; yet we don't see it, for it comes to us clothed in a robe of many colors, speaking soft words, promising membership.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: El Bosco: Hieronymus Bosch at the Prado, Madrid, September 2016

The Prado, Madrid

Okay... we're out of bacon now. Here's an omelet.

My wife & I were fortunate to be able to attend the Hieronymus Bosch 500th anniversary event in Madrid, skating in on the skin of our teeth the very last day. A follow-up to the spring show in Den Bosch, the Netherlands, the largest group of Bosch paintings ever collected together were presented in the rather more spacious circumstances of the Prado’s new wing. Despite this, crowds were still dense.

The show included a number of essential Bosch pieces which were not in the show at Den Bosch; notably, his acknowledged masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights; also, its essential companion piece, The Hay Wain. In addition, the Prado’s exceptionally fine Adoration of the Magi and the sumptuous Temptation of Saint Anthony (from Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon) were here, rounding out the assortment shown in the Netherlands with most of the remaining critical oil paintings in the Bosch oeuvre. 

These paintings, taken together, reaffirm Bosch’s unchallenged status as the western world’s greatest symbolic and esoteric painter. He has no rivals; given the quality, originality and scope of his work, there are not even really other contestants. It can well be said of today’s visual world: everything we know about hell, we learned from Bosch. 

Painters, for the most part, are judged first on the excellence of their skills as artists. Using this yardstick, Northern Renaissance painters trump any other western school, at least of Bosch’s period; yet let us remember that the most essential measure of artists is not necessarily taken from the technical skills they exhibit. Art ought to first be about meaning, and only after that technique; painters are not athletes, but aesthetes. 

The essential meaning in any art must be imparted first by content and subject matter; even a fool should know that a technically perfect painting of banality remains banal, no matter how deft or contemporary its execution. (The celebration of banality is by now a passionate vice in our culture; but never mind.) And despite the modern obsession with such things, posturing, mockery, and dialogues about the deployment of materials, no matter how fascinating, end up being no more than intellectual masturbation—another favorite vice in contemporary art. The same has to be said for art so personal it effectively isolates itself from its audience — yet another all-too-common contemporary failing.

On this point of rich, mysterious, and intelligently—intentionally— imparted meaning, Bosch has few, if any, equals.  The meaning in his paintings is powerful, relentless, and insistent; his subjects provoke an endless and relentless questioning in the viewer, challenging and overthrowing assumptions about what art ought to look like, what it consists of, and what it means. 

In challenging our assumptions about art and life (Bosch’s painting are dramatically different that other artists of his own time, and they knew it as clearly then as we know it now) the paintings challenge our assumptions about the world; and this is the essential purpose behind Bosch’s paintings. They are, after all, not made just to delight, look pretty or provoke astonishment (although they so easily do all these things); they are of a certainty made to investigate; to educate. 

And they educate not just on the superficial level to our ordinary consciousness, but reach much deeper, into the cthonic, Jungian territory of our collective unconscious. In doing so, they touch and awaken very personal nerves… even ones we didn’t know we had.

The reader needs to be reminded that images in Bosch that may appear, to the uninitiated, to be sensationalist, prurient, or just plain sick or weird, are all in fact quite intentional and contribute significant informative value to each narrative. Many strange and bizarre images in Bosch paintings turn out to have straightforward and easily understandable meanings once the overall narrative is understood in the form of a nonverbal rebus for the viewer; and the design is such that the paintings can continue to yield to new meanings, since most images can be read on several different levels and in the context of multiple relationships.

Comparing Bosch to superlative contemporaries such as van Eyck and van der Weyden—masters of the greatest possible technical beauty and sophistication—is therefore nearly useless. professionals at technical execution and in the understanding of beauty, both artists were amateurs in the use of symbolism — that is to say, the symbols they use are from a standard lexicon used by almost every artist of their century and, for that matter, both earlier and later ones. They give us exactly what we expect, even if they do it better than everyone else.

Bosch displays no such weaknesses. The content is so different that analogies fail at once, even if we strain at them. Bosch is on a different level, a level of psychological and spiritual dialog his contemporaries were simply unable to engage in.

A show like the show at the Prado makes this clear. Seeing all the actual greatest work, at a single time, together, the magnitude of his achievement becomes evident in a way no book can bring across. If one of his paintings taken alone is extraordinary, all of them taken together are impossible. What flowering of inner genius produced this bounty?

One of the strongest impressions I took away from the show was the fact that Bosch’s paintings don’t just tell narratives within each painting. The major paintings are connected, forming a pilgrim’s progress where each tale is part of a greater whole. One can’t quite understand what Bosch was up to, in other words, unless one looks at many of his paintings together and sees the common symbolic and narrative threads: the colors, images, circumstances and situations that link them together.

The overarching narrative is man's life and his spiritual search, both inner and outer. This is, of course, examined in a specific sense in each individual painting; yet the paintings enter into dialog with one another as well as the viewer, laying out a comprehensive vision. The interconnectedness is fascinating; for example, jugs, knives, musical instruments of the same kind crop up again and again, implying a commonality of meaning and purpose. We can’t possibly think this was because Bosch’s imagination was too limited to paint a wide variety of such objects; the very idea is laughable. His objects are chosen because their place and use in each piece has a meaning that connects the narratives to one another.

In some cases the connections are more obvious, as in the relationship between the Hay Wain and the Garden; in others, one needs to dig deeper, because Bosch has buried the bones of his dialog across a range of paintings. 

This is particularly interesting because it shows us that even though he knew the works would ultimately be sold and divided, so that they could not be seen together, he conceived of them as a single whole: the wisdom paintings represent a thought on a major scale, with individual works collectively representing an entire octave of tones and half tones.

Bosch’s paintings, then, represent an octave, a harmonious musical scale; the notes have individual sounds, but a far greater meaning emerges from their relationship to one another. The idea of an octave cannot of course be applied literally here, but figuratively, it serves us well.

The collected works, which have not until now ever been seen together in this manner (and may not again for more hundreds of years) reveal themselves as a Decameron, a visual Canterbury tales. The literary precedent for such collections was set, of course, over a century before Bosch’s time, so perhaps he had exactly this in mind. 

Regardless, the deep interconnectedness between his paintings—such as still survive— tell us the master was up to an even greater enterprise than his individual works, each one great in itself, reveal. Across the breadth and throughout the depth of his works, Bosch chronicles a spiritual search undertaken across two frontiers: mankind’s outward, but even more importantly, inward worlds.

My books on Bosch are available at the following links, or (for apple users) in the iTunes bookstore.

The Esoteric Bosch

Bosch Decoded


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, October 10, 2016

... Bacon? Part IV

I assume—incorrectly—that I can know and understand.

I think this is my fundamental error; because only God knows, and only God understands. Filled with the Holy Spirit—if such Grace arrives, and that too is of God's will, not mine—there can be a knowing, but it is a subtle and unknown knowing, a knowing that does not belong to me but is only made manifest within me. When such an unknown knowing occurs, I am a vehicle for it; no more. That Grace which comes belongs to no self but the true Self of God.

All of the impressions formed in me are a part of that vehicle—that vessel—which has the capacity to receive such Grace; and it's a part of the Divine Mystery that this vessel filled with impressions is what becomes a worthy receptacle for our Savior, which is another way of speaking of this Grace. Worthy, mind you, only through Grace; my own worthiness is worthless in comparison with God.

I'm often interested in how stubbornly I believe in the things of this world and the things which are not of God. It is obsessive, really; I constantly imagine that I'm preparing for the events and circumstances of this world, forgetting all the time how temporary it is and how uncertain, really, every event that lies in the imagined future is. I'm reminded of those who've died young; my sister, Rohan, Thurston, Joseph, among others. Each one of them imagined they were preparing for a future which looked predictable and was, without a doubt; of this world. Yet for all of them this world ended abruptly, without resolution. 

This can happen to any of us; even my father, who died at 84, died without resolution, and I could see how it troubled him. Resolution doesn't lie in this world or it's things, I see; it lies in the preparation of the soul and the receiving of Grace. 

That never excuses me from the demands of this world, unfortunately; like all of us I am condemned to prepare for this world anyway, since it is put upon us as a task. Yet I need to also remember, every day of my life, that the true preparation must always lie within—and that what I prepare for is not only unknown, but sacred, and inextricably linked to the health and welfare of the soul.

We have, I think, little sense of the urgency of this in today's world; people who are engaged in inner work so often complain that they "don't work." This was one of Dr. Welch's classic public  remarks: he'd open January celebrations and group meetings with the gruff, brusque, yet sincerest and challenging question, "why don't I work?" One always got the sense he was asking it of himself, not the rest of us.

It's this devotion to the world, I think, that consumes us. Our intuition is too attached to it; little wonder it can find any time to do the real work it needs to do within. Like the attention, the intuition needs to be inverted for an inner sense of the Divine to be established. In both cases, that inversion needs to be turned towards an unknown: and perhaps that is why we avoid it with such vigor. It seems weirdly fruitless to me; what I can hold in my hands often seems far more substantial than what I can hold in the soul. 

Through Grace, I can know the difference; but never through my own works.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Notes from Shanghai, October 6, part II

Granada, Spain
Photograph by the author

One writes notes to oneself in the morning; one writes again in the evening. 

Between the two, a day elapses: it is a long day. An extraordinary number of events have taken place; time seems, as it so often is, dilated and extended, as if each day were a landscape composed of the elements of eternity. 

...Of course, everything actually is composed of the elements of eternity; so there you are.

There is a good gravity today that draws me deeper into Being and connects me with myself. It's the kind of Grace that I all too often take for granted; it somewhat left me alone during the period of my travels in Spain, leaving me to wonder why Grace is so clearly and physically present at some times, and not so much at others. There I was, traipsing through all kinds of beautiful (but admittedly for the most part secular) environments, and God—although He is always with me—was remarkably quiet. That is, He chose, as is so often His inclination, to withdraw His Presence. 

Perhaps this is because He wants me to have some solid ordinary flow of impressions. It’s a reasonable point. One cannot live on a steady diet of nectar.

In any event, His Grace has returned, and perhaps it was because I sat in meditation this morning and issued a quite intentional call, after a night where I woke up a number of times sensing Presence and understanding that I need to refocus. (This morning’s post, published two days ago, definitely reflects that. I am a sheep, and I am definitely lost; it is my habit to stray.) 

Yet in the end I need to turn my face back to God, who is my strength and my sustenance, who teaches me what love is because, as always, I don’t know that at all.

So this morning I sat in prayerful meditation and intoned the threefold prayer (the prayer of Glory, Grace, and Mercy) aloud, something I don’t always do. It provoked a spontaneous chanting of the sacred Aieioiuoa; followed by Tantric chanting. Of course these chants are only effective when they arrive by themselves; and then one has to follow their own internal logic, which already knows what type of vibration is necessary. 

This activity was quite helpful in focusing me better.

Somehow, oddly, I get the impression that those of us on spiritual paths think we must always try so hard to manifest positively and be good people, be nice to others, be positive, and so on, when in fact the exact opposite is necessary. I need to suffer terribly, both externally, and within myself in my own manifestation. This is how I learn humility. So when I am negative, I am combative and difficult, when bitterness and thoughts of revenge suffuse my being, it is actually extremely helpful for my inner work. It reduces me and I see what an abject creature I am; and in some senses, the more it goes on, and the more I cooperate with seeing the truth of my lower being, the more determined the spiritual parts of myself become to turn back towards God. 

Meister Eckhart did explain this in some of his sermons, that is, that the suffering we endure (and this certainly has to include suffering ourselves as we are) is always meant to help turn us back to God.

 The issue we have is that if we think we are already turned towards God, we never think we have to bother doing any turning. A peculiar kind of inner hubris infects us, in which we believe ourselves superior to others, and even above our own sin, which is of course impossible — but we do think that, don’t we?

I am grateful for all of my life, even the parts that turn away from God. If I work, I see that in fact, I am never turned towards God, even though He never gives up on me and never turns away from me.

It’s most extraordinary.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Notes from Shanghai, October 6

Granada, Spain
Photograph by the author

There will be more bacon served soon.

This morning it occurs to me that in each day, I only know what I know for that day.

It may be that knowing and understanding are cumulative — we certainly seem to agree to that, in terms of how we build meaning in ourselves and in societies. 

Yet I only ever understand what I understand right now, in this moment; and things only acquire meaning now, even if that meaning is in a context that includes the now of past experience and the now of associative flow within the mind. (We all dwell forever in this now.)

I know that sounds a bit complicated. 

What I am getting at is that I start each day all over again, trying once again to start from a zero — awakening from sleep — and re-creating my being, myself, my day, my world, and everything that proceeds within me and outside of me for this day. 

That re-creation of self, although founded on what is already here, is nonetheless a task and a responsibility that has to be met every day. It’s true there is someone already here; it’s the same as when a baby is born, it comes into the world with something that is already there. Yet the responsibility always becomes one of now; and although now can discover itself through past experience and a reservoir of what is already known, it cannot trust those things to fully equip it with what is necessary for this moment.

So “I am” now; and I try to re-create myself in this day.

What is missing?

I don’t know how to love. 

I avoid love. I fear relationships with other people and I’m not honest. These are all true things about me. What is missing most, I see this morning, is a true devotion within this moment now to Christ’s admonition: “love one another as I have loved you.” I ought to be applying this daily, to my own parts first, and then to all those around me, using an effort to be positive. I don’t do that. There is a selfishness in me that is consumed by obsessions with my own welfare, my own opinions, my own anger. In now, I become responsible — obliged to respond — to go beyond that. The possibility of being positive and loving lies just one step past the selfishness in me, and yet I am not awake enough, aware enough, caring enough to take that one step.

I’m reminded of Gurdjieff’s discovery — as he recounted in “life is only real, then, when I am” — that despite his yogic powers, he was not present. He could not remember himself, even though he spent a lifetime teaching people that this was necessary. 

Now, we can have arguments about what “remembering oneself” means; yet I feel certain that it has a great deal to do with what I am mentioning here — that is, the propensity to be self-aware enough to act from love and not selfishness. 

That is not something that comes naturally or easily to any of us, even Gurdjieff himself — it takes an effort to go against a descending force, a downward movement, that insists on its own interests rather than an objective love for others and for the good.

 When I read the quoted passage from Gurdjieff (at the above link) which I am well familiar with but, it turns out, don't quite understand — or at least I didn't — this morning, it occurred to me that many of the processes he describes here are nearly identical to processes taking place within me at this stage in my life. I wonder if he wrote it at the same age — in his early 60s? In any event, so much of it was familiar. 

This passage is, to me, incredibly touching, because it is here that he acknowledges his essential humanity and reminds us that we are all in this mess together.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, October 7, 2016

...Bacon? Part III

Gurdjieff advised his pupils to work with their instinct.

Instinct, in the sense we use the word today, is an animal quality, a genetically programmed and essentially mechanical aspect of intelligence. Yet of course it's quite impossible, knowing his teaching in any depth, to assume he meant the word in this way. Instinct, in this case, means intuition; we must work with our intuition.

Intuition is the most subtle aspect of consciousness. It touches on the function of the psychic centers and the soul itself, those parts that can know the future; and of course we know quite well (if we are at all familiar with the literature and the teaching) that Gurdjieff said we can know the future. 

We do this through intuition.

The sum total of our impressions, everything we have taken in throughout the course of a lifetime whereby we act as vessels into which the world flows, creates an inner world. The inner world belonging to each individual is an entire universe; and in this sense we can see every individual life as an individual universe within a multiverse of many different, yet completely separate, universes—called, collectively, society. 

Because life on this level perfectly mirrors life on other levels we can intuit from this that the multiverse model of the universe is a valid one; but we can furthermore understand that far from being a multiverse of many different kinds of universes where laws differ, in fact the multiverse consists of an infinite number of universes all of which function under the same set of laws. This is a critical point, because we can thereby understand how consistent the will of God is; there's nothing arbitrary about it, and assuming there might be universes different than ours where the laws are different is actually an absurdity. Law emanates from the One Will; and it cannot vary, in the same way that human beings all ultimately follow the biological law of DNA and its action.

I am getting a bit off the subject there, but readers will hopefully forgive me, since the point is quite interesting and deserves a great deal more thought. 

In any event, our inner impressions form our own universe; and it is within that universe that we must use our intuition, feel our way, towards the essential meaning of our lives.

The essential meaning of life on our level is, of course, one of suffering, questioning and learning; hence our responsibility to ponder, as Gurdjieff put it, the "sense and aim of our existence." Such pondering only arises when in intimate, loving, and skeptical contact with our innermost and most intimate parts and all of the impressions that they record. Intimate, because we must remain very close to ourselves; loving, because we must always exercise love towards our innermost Being, lest we harm ourselves; and skeptical, because we must always doubt where we are in ourselves and seek a better, deeper understanding of who we are, what we are, what our lives consist of and what our relationship and responsibility to God may be.

No life of any serious depth can be excused from these activities. And (turning back to the first essay in this series) there are no rule books, no standardized set of guidelines, no templates that can automate such activity or guarantee results. Because each life is so individual, it's impossible to use formulas in the development of Being. It becomes the responsibility of each person to use their own spiritual gift of intuition, in conjunction with guidelines, suggestions and the form of an intelligent inner work in its general sense, to conduct the necessary exploration.

At the same time, intuition can't become a serious part of inner work until quite late in life, once a very great deal of impressions have been taken in and digested, slowly, over a long period of time. If this is done in a right way, intuition grows and can eventually become more active. There's a matter of inner trust on the table here; and I recall, in passing, how my own teacher Betty Brown so often asked our group, "what can you trust in yourself?" 

Of course the question seems baffling to younger people; under ordinary circumstances, we stupidly and mechanically trust everything in ourselves—the classic pitfall of naïveté which is the norm for us in our younger years. A life of inward examination, however, eventually leads us to understand that we can't trust anything—the second classic trope of the Gurdjieff work, and most valid inner works, in which we eventually see (if we are lucky) that we know nothing and understand nothing.

Intuition is the part that can grow as a result of this unknowing. It is, so to speak, an opening, an aperture, that develops in the midst of unknowing. A small part, connected to the real spiritual self—Gurdjieff's "real I"— which can know and does know, because it belongs not to us but to God. This intuition is related to that essential spiritual spark referred to by Meister Eckhart. It represents a spiritual genius, yet it's not a human genius. 

Genius in all its guises arises from the heavenly inflow and belongs exclusively to God; this is why it alone can be trusted. 

Yet we need to seek and develop a relationship with that genius if we wish to work more deeply.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Notes from Spain, part IV

October 3

We've completed our itinerary through Seville and Granada, including the Alcazar and Alhambra; along the way we were treated to the architectural inspirations of the ancient collaboration between Christianity and Islam—a moment in time that, although distant, attests to both the potential for harmony and the value of man's better side. 

There's a much greater flowering of beauty in cooperation than in discord; a lesson often forgotten in the shouting of the discontent.

Plunged into the intricacies of the Alhambra and other Spanish palaces—whether medieval, renaissance, or baroque—one all too often forgets that almost of this grandeur was accomplished on the backs of slaves, whose history in nations other than the United States is obscured by the absence of a definitive race. 

Such slavery has always been there, nonetheless; and it is, I think, equally obscured within ourselves, where the tyranny of our own fears and anger all too often obscure the precious nature of our Being. We erect great palaces in our lives; but they are palaces of our own egos, built on the backs of other parts of ourselves. 

The course of a man's or woman's outer and inner life mirror the course of civilization. In the process of building this kingdom we live within—both inner and outer—we continually have to choose between creating harmony and waging war. The reason civilization at large reflects the same choices and values is because it is created by individuals. Before societies create people, people create societies. We get the nations we deserve, whether inner or outer, because we make them ourselves.

Have attained the tender age of 61 during the course of the trip, I look at my own kingdom as a skeptic. 

Inwardly and outwardly, the flow of associations in me is subjective; the impulse of stimuli is organic; the power of emotion is reactionary. The blend of these elements produces what I call a life; yet I am still not sure of how to measure it. I was more certain when I was younger; far too certain, probably. But laying out the course of my own life against the long lines of time and history increasingly underscores its temporary nature, and the question of exactly what—if anything— any of our achievements mean.

On that note.

Yesterday we stood at the grave of Goya at the Hermitage of San Antonio. It is an extraordinary chapel, and possibly Goya's greatest work. I would argue it is among the most sublime and greatest creations ever achieved in fresco painting, rivaling and even exceeding Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, which beside it begins to look overstated and overblown, not to mention gaudy. 

Goya's masterpiece displays a restraint and sobriety lacking in the majority of frescos; his pallette, muted and intelligent, speaks not of the exuberance of life but the length, breadth and depth of the grave itself. It thus serves as a memento mori, a reminder of our own death; this is all too fitting, given its subject matter, and one has to presume, given Goya's own intense personal involvement with the question of mortality and death (his disasters of war stand as the definitive testament in this matter) that he fully intended this effect. Depressing it isn't; it's uplifting, but intelligently uplifting. In the end, the story being played out around the cupola seems less important than the legions of angels in the arches around it, as though the whole world were being held up by angelic forces: a powerful argument indeed, and one achieved indirectly enough that we are wooed by it, rather than having it forced, as is the case with so many ceiling frescoes of renaissance and post-renaissance provenance.

Instead of Homer's endless darkness, there is an illumination in Goya's death. No matter how bitter his cynicism may have been after surviving a near-fatal illness and witnessing the horrific procession of Napoleon's war machine through Spain, the angels in his frescoes are still creatures of light. His genius shines most here, in the temporal and even tentative nature of their condition: hovering above the abyss, beating their wings to hold back the ever-present danger of eternal darkness. An ancient and subliminal echo of Homer's underworld, in other words, still lurks here. 

Standing there yesterday, I got the impression of angels poised much closed than comfort to the realm of the fallen; still in danger of being drawn away from that light whose only source in the fresco emanates from above the altar, where angels gather just above the esoteric light of the cross.

If I embrace salvation, I do so, like Goya, warily—ever mindful of the darkness in my lower nature that would so eagerly consume me. 


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.