Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Equilibrium

It strikes me that we are forever seeking equilibrium.

I see that my mind wants things to be quiet and calm, both inside and outside. It somehow wants everything to reach a state in which not only all outer circumstances are under control--the inner state ought to also be reliable, predictable, and serene.

What I actually want to do is exist in a blissful self-crafted bubble of perfection.

This idealized view of what my inner and outer states should be like is comparable to the idea that there is a "balance of nature." That phrase was used a lot in the beginning of the environmental movement, until biologists intervened and made it clear that there isn't any "balance" in nature at all.

Everything in nature is locked in a perpetual struggle (the classic phrase is "nature, red in tooth and claw.") The norm is for ecosystems to constantly veer off unpredictably in one direction or the other. Any impression we get of a steady state is mistaken.

It's true, there is some evidence that on a global scale, there are some self-regulating mechanisms that produce a kind of balance -- for example, the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have remained relatively constant for extremely long periods of time. Nonetheless, measured on geologic time scales, this has not been the same either. There was a time when there was very little oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. At that time, it was toxic to life as we know it today.

Another example is sea levels. Mankind has treated the coastline for the past several thousand years as though it were a fixed entity, whereas lessons from geology tell us that the coastline has moved about a very great deal, depending on fluctuating sea levels. There have been times when the ocean was more than 100 feet deeper than it is today; there have been other times, during major ice ages, when it was very much shallower, and the coastlines were miles from where they are now. 10,000 years ago, for example, the ocean was hundreds of feet shallower, and most coastlines were many miles further out from present shorelines.

That leads us directly to an obvious and interesting conclusion: all the major civilizations from that era, which were surely, like today's, concentrated along river banks and coastlines, are now deep underwater. When we presume that the earliest civilizations are the ones we've found and excavated, we exhibit a laughable naïveté. The very earliest settlements we have found-- for example, Çatalhöyük in Turkey--were almost certainly small provincial backwaters, well away from the coasts.

All the major ancient cities are deep underwater, where no one has ever looked for them. Atlantis never sank below the ocean; the ocean rose up and engulfed it when the ice melted.

So the equilibrium we presume on our coastlines as we build today's huge cities is illusory; given current trends, for example, it's very likely the city of Shanghai will be completely underwater in a few hundred years. This is the real question we are faced with when we discuss global warming, a question which is so difficult for us to confront that we would much rather squabble about whether or not it is even happening, than start planning to deal with the very painful realities that will arise as a consequence.

How much of our inner work is affected by a similar belief in an equilibrium that does not actually exist, and the delusional presumptions it provokes?

I recall that in the beginning of one of the Movements films, Jeanne DeSalzmann points out that everything is always in motion. Nothing ever stays in the same place; it is always moving up or down. If there is an equilibrium, it is system-wide and circulatory in nature; that is, equilibrium is perceptible only on a macroscopic scale, at the universal level, when all of the bumps and inconsistencies of the fabric of space and time are "evened out" by an all-encompassing understanding.

In the meantime, here on our level, our efforts to fix things at points in time and space amount to naught. This isn't just true of the external physical circumstances we attempt to control; it's equally true of our inner states.

I see this frequently in myself. In an effort to correct my partiality and bring the parts into a greater state of relationship, there is a presumption in me, if I reach a state where several parts or centers are more "balanced" in relationship to each other, that this can somehow be maintained.

It never actually works out that way, however; in the end, any equilibrium attained is fugitive. Almost the moment it establishes itself, it must inevitably move on to the next stage, whatever that may be. If I try to hold it in place, I damage it. The only way for me to participate in its life, in this life, is to move forward with it. It's not unusual for me to try to hold onto something only to discover that it has moved forward several steps past where I am. And perhaps this may be one of the lessons that Gurdjieff's movements try to teach us.

The difficulty is that every perception of equilibrium automatically invites what is perceived to become a fixed substance; I want to hold it there. The state, what ever it is, is satisfying, and I want to own it, to keep it, preserve it, and to have it at my disposal. I have "arrived" at something, and I would just as soon sit there with it. It is a lot safer than whatever may come next.

And that's the crux of the matter. I don't know what will come next. In order to progress within the context of the energies that flow within me and outside of me, I constantly have to be willing to take that next step into the unknown. I don't like doing that. Whether the known is blissful, or comfortable, or satisfying, or even just plain-old-pedestrian predictable, it is what I prefer.

Once again we come back to this question that we have investigated so many times over the past months, this question of faith. We have to be willing to trust in the process of movement, and apply our faith-- which is a form of trust -- to the point where the next step has to be taken.

I, like everyone else, am consistently filled with a wide variety of fears. This makes it difficult for me to take that step.

All of this reminds me of the moment many years ago when I finally admitted to myself that I was an alcoholic, and that something needed to be done about it. I had to take a terrifying step into the unknown, into Alcoholics Anonymous.

Once I took that step, I was asked to trust the process. To just show up, and trust the process.

In alcoholism, nothing is theoretical. Life and death are immediate issues, and the choices are our own to make, not ones made by authorities, politicians, or enemies. Confronting this disease takes us to a place where we have to stand naked in front of ourselves. There is no allegory; there's nothing beautiful here to romanticize about.

If you want to see group work conducted in a real-life situation, Alcoholics Anonymous may be as good a place as any Gurdjieff Foundation. The people in AA aren't safely playing roles in a pink-cloud game of spirituality. They are dirty, shuffling, irreverent herds of struggling animals, desperately trying to find their way in a nightmarish environment where they woke up one day to discover that the enemy is themself.

In a word, they are human beings.

What we call "real life" is a form of alcoholism. We meet what we call "real life" and chug-a-lug it down by the gallon full, staggering chaotically from one event to another, spending money, swilling food, spewing sex. In front of us we always carry the invincible shield of denial, and a carefree will to crush the obstructions in our path.

The ego is an alcoholic. It doesn't need booze to keep it stoked. It is, by its nature, self-stoking.

If we saw ourselves more from this perspective, as ego-drunkards staggering through life like fools, we might smack ourselves in the face and try to sober up. Indeed, I think awakening consists a bit of this. If we really see ourselves, we may be reminded of the famous statement Orage made: "when I first saw Orage, I realized that hanging was too good for him."

It's a well known fact in AA; alcoholics drink to try and establish equilibrium: a good drunk. It's the holy grail of the disease. So in adopting the allegory, we can be suspicious of the practice.

There is no equilibrium. Don't wish for it.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

the agony ...of ecstasy?

Ecstasy--taken from the point of view of an intense, euphoric and otherworldly experience -- is commonly understood to be something wonderful; something to be desired, an experience that mightily transcends our ordinary state. If we look back into the history of great religious traditions such as Sufism and Christianity, we encounter numerous references to this rapturous condition, usually as experienced by saints of one kind or another.

Not too many ordinary people encounter the euphoria of religious ecstasy except as a concept, or perhaps stumble across fragments of it in drug-induced states.

Looking back into history, it strikes me that such experiences reached something of a zenith in the middle ages. From the 12th to 13th centuries, the world produced a number of extraordinary masters such as Rumi, Dogen, and Meister Eckhart. Of the three, we can be certain that Rumi experienced religious ecstasy. It seems equally likely that Meister Eckhart was familiar with the phenomenon. In Dogen's case, it is more difficult to say; Zen Buddhism appears to me to have avoided the error of believing in this state as an end in itself. Nonetheless, in Dogen's poetry I think we can find hints of ecstasy, humbly disguised in the subtle hues of mother nature.

In any event, in the religion of the high Middle Ages, we hear stories of a world populated by saints who experienced varieties of religious ecstasy. Not all of them were masters; but there were many who walked the path, men and women both, who were called in ways that seem superstitious, bizarre, or frankly impossible to us today.

And it must be true --something quite extraordinary must have been taking place in the Middle Ages, in this one brief span of about 150 years, to have produced so many blessed devotees, along with great--one might even say unparalleled-- masters whose works resonate down to the present century with voices of authority.

So there were forces at work on the planet then that produced possibilities that may not be as available today.

Sad to say--today's "miracle" consists, perhaps, of a piece of toast that looks like the Virgin Mary, sold on eBay.

The fact that we have, at least in the west, whored out a good deal of our religious tradition doesn't mean that today's world is bereft of ecstatic experience. It is, however, unexpected and maybe even alarming to have such an experience as a 21st-century person in a Western technological culture. Experiences like this strip us of our assumptions; they strip us publicly naked. I say publicly because, no matter where they strip us naked -- maybe even in complete seclusion or privacy--they leave us standing in front of ourselves and our lives with nowhere to hide. And to stand in front of ourselves and what we are-- that is truly public.

To encounter such possibilities, as extraordinary as they may seem, should not be understood as some form of spiritual gift or reward. To experience ecstasy is, rather, to be put under commandment.

I haven't heard it stated in these terms before, and perhaps you haven't either, so I think the term commandment requires some explanation.

When we use the phrase "thy will be done" in the Lord's prayer, we are quite literally requesting that we be put under commandment. That could require almost anything of us-- in reality, as we ask, we don't know even what it means. Subject to the commandments of our own will and our ordinary, everyday existence, we can have no idea whatsoever of what it means for the will of the higher to be done. That will lies outside our understanding. As Eckhart explains, absolutely everything we have within us has to go to make room for the will of God.

Understanding ecstasy as commandment means in essence, that ecstasy -- euphoria -- a leaving behind of what we know -- consists of a burden, something that must be suffered. It is a demand, not a gift.

Now, I'm sure that many of you are sitting there thinking to yourself, "What the heck is he talking about? How can euphoria--pleasure--be a form of suffering?"

In order to understand this better, perhaps we should turn to Gurdjieff's chapter "The Holy Planet Purgatory" in "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson." In it, those of you who have read it may recall, he describes a planet that is unimaginably beautiful, created expressly to provide its inhabitants with every kind of pleasurable and satisfying impression.

The inhabitants, however, don't take much refuge in this. They have reached a level of self perfection where they see that they are fundamentally deficient in regard to reunification with the prime principle, that is, God. There is something crystallized in them that is terribly flawed and prevents this most urgent desire from being fulfilled. As such, they spend all the moments of their existence in a perpetual anguish, knowing they are separated from the most holy principle they wish to serve, obey, and be one with. So their ecstatic experience of the holy planet Purgatory-- which to an outsider seems infinitely desirable and magnificent -- is actually combined with an infinite anguish.

I am not sure of what the exact imperfection in the beings Mr. Gurdjieff describes is. I can only glean inklings from my own inner experience and the state of my own work today.

It strikes me that the fundamental imperfection is that we do not want to be with God. There is a part of us, a defective fraction of us invested with an enormous amount of power, that prefers to remain separate. It imposes its own egoistic will on everything that we experience and encounter in order to keep us apart from God, and it manipulates us with pleasure and pain and fear, and any other tool in its arsenal, in order to remain separate.

This part that wants to remain separate is in a state of refusal to submit. A state of rejection. This is how I am; this is how I live. So when the bliss, the absolute ecstasy and surrender, of the higher arrives to attempt marry my inner substance to that of God, I am

...afraid.

We are hardly alone in this dilemma. Reading the Bible, even the most holy -- individuals of immense spiritual stature -- are terrified by their encounter with the higher. Moses was continually filled with doubt after God chose him. He didn't feel capable of anything, and even had the whining chutzpah to let God know about it. Mary was afraid of Gabriel. The shepherds with their flocks fell to their knees in terror when the Angels arrived to announce the birth of Christ.

And perhaps this, too, is the dilemma of the beings on Gurdjieff's holy planet Purgatory. They have seen the temple itself; the scaffolding falls away, and it is revealed in a blaze of unbearable glory.

There is the door, right in front of them.

But they dare not go in.

Well, of course, this is a bit of shamelessly melodramatic allegory. Nonetheless, we need a smidgen of theater in our work, as much as any of the other artifices we use to try and help us towards an understanding that we are still, and always, fundamentally incapable of grasping with this thing we call a mind.

may your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Monday, April 28, 2008

the invisible temple

The question of what we do know and what we don't know has been rather active for me lately. As the author of "The Cloud of Unknowing" points out, we are perpetually pressed up against questions that do not seem to have any answers, and so often are not even very well defined.

In contrast to--and perhaps even defiance of--that, we adopt belief systems and cosmologies that purport to explain where we are and what we are up against. I say "purport" because it is very rare for any man to encounter a force in his life which conclusively demonstrates -- to himself, at least, let alone anyone else -- that he actually knows and understands something, rather than just believing it.

In the absence of anything real and verified--from an inner point of view--we can't seem to get along without these structures that explain reality and spirituality, even though we know that all of them are, in one way or another, deficient. That becomes apparent because of their incessant collision with reality, which is hard and unyielding, and almost effortlessly breaks down our assumptions.

Even the ones really smart people make.

Such collisions are, perhaps, inevitable. When we try to use a top-down approach to describe the universe, not being at the top, but somewhere in the middle or even close to the bottom, it's impossible to get the kind of overview that explains anything very accurately. This means that the bottom-up approach is actually a better one for us.

So, if the construction of our elaborate cosmologies appears to be conducted at the risk of self-deception, what is the purpose of all of this description that we engage in?

Should we stop?

Let me give you an analogy that may be helpful.

Imagine there is an invisible temple within us -- outside us -- in fact, this vast invisible temple is everywhere. We can't see it, but within it is contained everything that is sacred.

The only way for us to understand any of the dimensions of this temple is to begin to erect scaffolding around it. The scaffolding gradually begins to outline the general territory the temple occupies. It gives us information about its size, its shape, and so on. It also helps us to know that there really is a temple there.

But the temple itself always remains invisible.

Erecting this scaffolding might be likened to throwing paint on an invisible man. There is a living thing there, a human being that cannot be seen. By throwing the paint on him, we see the outline: we see that the man exists. But all we can ever actually see is the paint. The man himself, who we could not see at all before, and were not even sure existed, now becomes more of a moving, tangible entity, even though the man himself -- his essence-- remains, in a certain sense, forever unknown.

Seen from the Zen point of view, we might say that you can throw paint on the Dharma and hence see its action, but you can never see the Dharma itself.

So we erect a scaffolding of cosmology and belief that surrounds this temple. Every architect is a little different, so from vantage point to vantage point, the scaffolding doesn't look the same. But the scaffolding is always still defining the same invisible temple. And it's only collectively that we can make much progress in this-- generally speaking, the temple is far too big for any one man's scaffolding to tell us much. Every once in a very long while, a man like Gurdjieff comes along and slams up a remarkably huge chunk of scaffolding that leaves the rest of us breathless ...then he, like everyone else, up and dies, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering how he did that.

We can understand this scaffolding analogy from both an inner and an outer point of view. From the outer point of view, the invisible temple consists of what Gurdjieff would call "understanding the laws of world creation and world maintenance." That is to say, the "invisible temple" is a place of knowing the universe and its nature.

From the inner point of view, there is an equally vast and unknown universe that we attempt to know. Over the course of a lifetime, within this invisible temple inside ourselves-- which is, in essence, a vessel that fills with our impressions of life-- we create our own sacred space.

Sacred, that is, if we respect both the enterprise and ourselves. There is all too great a risk that this inner temple can become profane, soiled by an inappropriate contact with ordinary life.

Over time, as we erect this scaffolding that is designed and applied by the conceptual mind, we begin to mistake the scaffolding for the temple itself. Only by constantly reminding ourselves that this scaffolding is a work in progress, and an attempt to define something much more magical, mysterious, and valuable than scaffolding, can we maintain enough objectivity to avoid this error.

In other words, don't get hung up on how beautiful the scaffolding is.

This, inevitably, leaves me with a question. If we erect enough scaffolding, can we ever see enough of the temple to find the door and enter it? Does the temple even have a door?

Or is the entrance, perhaps, located somewhere in its foundations -- lower down than we ever think of looking, with our sights perpetually fixed on some imaginary heaven?

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Friday, April 25, 2008

truth is stranger than fiction


This morning, as I was more or less stumbling around the house very early (no coffee yet,) I noticed a DVD titled "Stranger Than Fiction" in the living room, left there, no doubt, by one of the kids.

It occurred to me, after pondering this rather standard phrase for a while, that the only reason we think truth is stranger than fiction is because we are not familiar with truth. Almost everything we experience is an interpreted fiction of one kind or another, created by our imagination. Which reminds me of a quote from Winston Churchill, in which he said that most men stumble over the truth at least once in their life, but most of us pick up and carry on as before, as though nothing had happened.

All of this leads me back to the question of our fundamental perception of what it is that we are asking for when we ask for transformation.

All of us, as we pursue our individual efforts, agree with ourselves (and with others) that we seek inner change. And of course, we seek it because we have read books about it. Or we have met someone who talks about it convincingly. But we do not actually know what we are asking for.

We assume.

Nothing could make this clearer than the endless series of stories about Zen aspirants who think they have an idea about what they are up to, only to repeatedly get smacked down by the master (sometimes literally.) The naïve presumptions of the intellectual mind can't be overcome: this assumption that we have some idea of what enlightenment consists of is always hovering in the background.

Perhaps the ultimate absurdity in the context of this unknowing condition we live in is that many Zen masters ( including Dogen) have asserted that the condition we are in right now is not separated from Enlightenment; we just don't know that. All the conditions both within and outside of ourselves are themselves enlightened; it is our consciousness of it that fails us.

Hence the alien nature of ordinary reality: alien, that is, because of our inability to perceive it accurately. And it's not alien as long as we preserve the way that we currently perceive it; this is why we are so diligently invested in our efforts not to change, even though we profess a wish for it. As long as we keep it at arm's length, and interpret it so that it remains understandable, it's safe.

It's true that real inner change can be blissful; it's equally true that it is, as Ouspensky discovered (he recounts this in In Search of the Miraculous) profoundly disturbing. The moment that we encounter a state that is different than our ordinary, deadened level of receptivity, unexpected things begin to take place. Snakes arise and shake the tree; they twist and writhe and upset our apple cart. That's the only way it can happen. You cannot, as Jesus pointed out, put new wine into old bottles.

So we fix our sights on the unknown, setting course for a distant shore that we have never seen, trusting (based on hearsay) in the idea that once we get to that place, it will be a place we want to be in.

That does require more than a bit of faith, doesn't it?

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Top down--bottoms up?


This afternoon at lunch, I took a walk around the local neighborhood for half an hour, listening to my iPod. Set to shuffle, the musical choices covered everything from Black Sabbath to Weather Report. One might say it ranged from darkness to light.

During the walk, it occurred to me that the last two posts exemplify the extremes between which we often find ourselves in the pursuit of our intimate, personal spiritual work and man's "global "effort to understand the metaphysics of the cosmos.

The post about Tawhid presumes a top-down effort to understand the universe; yesterday's post about sitting and observing is , you may agree, more of an example of the bottom-up methodology we usually (but not always) prefer to employ in the Gurdjieff work.

In "The Black Swan" ( Random House, 2007,) Nicholas Taleb pitches a hard-core endorsement of the bottom-up approach. What he says is largely about finance (the world he is most familiar with,) but it might as well be about Gurdjieff's approach to metaphysics.

On page 268, we find the following:

"While many study psychology, mathematics, or evolutionary theory and look for ways to take it to the bank by applying their ideas to business, I suggest the exact opposite: study the intense, uncharted, humbling uncertainty in the markets as a means to get insights about the nature of randomness that is applicable to psychology, probability, mathematics, decision theory, and even statistical physics."

In most spiritual works, we encounter top-down cosmology. (Perhaps only Zen Buddhism is bold enough to throw that premise out the window right at the outset.) Gurdjieff certainly gave us a beautifully complex and elaborated one.

Nonetheless, in an apparent masterstroke which I do not see any clear parallels to-- at least in the spiritual realms we generally traverse--, after presenting his top-down approach to Ouspensky in considerable detail, he insisted that we throw all of that out and begin from the bottom by verifying everything for ourselves piece by piece.

The approach makes perfect sense, because only in this way can a man be certain that everything he arrives at is, at least for himself, of a whole piece of fabric. And Gurdjieff wanted "men" to produce men, not automatons or slaves. His is a work of originators, not imitators.

Because of this, as students of Gurdjieff's path, we agree to inhabit an inherent uncertainty. This has, of course, ended up codifying itself into a perversely buffered form of certainty, proving out the idea that everything eventually becomes its own opposite.

Even so, as we engage in our now disturbingly habitual exchange of phrases such as "we don't know anything," "everything is a question," and so on, we do agree that no matter how much we know, it isn't very much.

And, like those brave Episcopalians (fyi, includes me), who throw out the Pope and brazenly welcome just about anyone who appears at the Church doors, we agree that although we all "worship" the same way, no one of us understands it in quite the same manner as our immediate neighbor.

Needless to say, this does not make us popular with everyone. People, after all, want answers. Gurdjieffians have questions. To the average seeker, the Gurdjieff work looks like a soup kitchen for desperately hungry people which may be serving soup at some indefinite time in the future-

but not today.

The top-down approach, on the other hand, gives one soup to swallow right away, but one has to be willing to swallow it whole ...even the bits that taste bad.

In the bottom-up approach, we can reach deep places in our work which are mysterious and extraordinary and discover understandings which are immediate and compelling, and still not know exactly where we are, or where we are going. This is the humbling moment in which even ordinary statisticians, economists, and professors of uncertainty recognize--if they are pragmatists -- that we inhabit what Taleb calls Extremistan.

A universe where the extraordinary is not only possible, but lawful, and so far exceeds the ordinary that it is all but impossible for us to reliably calibrate anything to respond to it.

Taleb's approach, like Gurdjieff's, is to tiptoe up to this problem carefully, rather than trying to chug-a-lug quarks of metaphysics under the assumption that a temporarily filled belly leads to long term satisfaction.

This leaves us with the dilemma of whether to adopt Gurdjieff's sophisticated cosmology, or his grass-roots methodology.

I frequently find myself stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea on this question. Because I enjoy the beauty of intelligently constructed arguments, I am a sucker for the cosmologies.

At the same time, part of me yearns to dive much deeper than the intellectual shallows of my personal continent will permit. I want to swim out, out and then down--down into that benthic darkness where unknown leviathans lurk, and taste the ice cold waters that well up from places that cannot be seen with eyes, or described with words.

So, my friends, you will probably continue to be served both of these dishes here in this space, for as long as there is a cook to stir the soup, and a waiter to serve it.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Just studying today


I sit here, rather quietly. I am, however, speaking in order to create this post; using the usual voice dictation software.

As I sit here, uncertain of exactly what I will say today -- this is not a day where a specific question has presented itself, and some of the subjects I am preparing to work on are not yet ready for writing up-- I am just studying the energy in the body.

Recently I am acutely aware of how disconnected all of my parts are in the morning when I wake up. Because the parts are not connected and not exchanging well, there is a slowness to me then. It frequently takes a half hour to an hour to get things moving. I see that there is a process, upon arising from sleep, in which the body slowly starts up each of the various parts that work together and gets them running at speeds that make sense relative to each other.

When I am sitting first thing in the morning, I make every effort possible to bring the parts into relationship so that they can be reminded of each other. This requires a great deal of discrimination, scrutiny, and a repeated return to the effort, because, as with all efforts, there is a perpetual tendency to drift off course.

I accept this.

This morning, that effort was not so successful. There were a few moments where I really got into touch with one or another part, but in general, some of the efforts I made and aims that I had did not seem to bear much fruit.

I accept this too.

Despite the obvious resistance, I made the effort, presuming that it is worthy. As with most of my efforts, I tried not to judge it too harshly, but to just see it like this: "I am here, making these efforts."

It is possible to remind myself within the midst of each moment; efforts don't have to be good or bad; they just have to be efforts. The moment that I label them with values they lose value.

So now, I sit here in the middle of the day with, so to speak, the "results" of the efforts I have made this morning. Some parts are more open; other parts are more receptive. All in all, it appears as though the parts of myself which I am not usually aware of have been helped, and they are now reciprocating by doing work to support me in ways I did not anticipate or demand.

One of the consequences of this was a moment in a business meeting this morning when something became very open in the lower part of my body. At that particular moment, it explained everything. Of course, it does not explain everything now, because it was appropriate to that particular moment. For then, it was what was required, and it was quite perfect. Of course, something else is required now. What that might be is a question, and I may not be available to it in a way that I was then.

Everything is a moving target.

One thing that was clearly explained in the experience during the business meeting this morning is that I use too much force to do things. I often see this around me in everyone; it is more difficult to see it in myself.

I think that we are all trapped in situations where we use too much force. We have the opportunity to inhabit our lives and sit here within the present condition and just experience ourselves. That would be quite enough to manage our lives well; to contain ourselves, to sit within repose, to experience the materiality and the substance of our being and our life.

We do not, however, contain an inwardness of quality with enough gravity in it to encourage that. If we work in the direction of sensation, we may begin to encounter gravity; we may not. If we do encounter this inner gravity I speak of, it can help us to be more firmly planted in the soil of the present moment.

There is no other reason to be this way other than that we can be this way. There is no other reason to do this other than that we can do this. So in this way, openness and gravity make everything quite simple, and become sufficient unto themselves.

There is more than enough food in this to satisfy our wish for more life.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tawhid, by the seat of a dutchman's breeches


Yesterday, a good friend and I got into a conversation about the question of unity. In our discussion, she used the word Tawhid, which I (maybe like you) had to look up on Wikipedia.

Per Wikipedia, this principle, from Islam, "asserts the existence of a single, absolute truth that transcends the world; a unique in being who is independent of the creation; a real being indivisible into hypostatic entities or incarnated manifestation."

The expression reminds me greatly of Dogen's description of the Dharma, and certainly reminds me of the teaching that "there is no "I", there is only truth." Anyway, we ended up in a general discussion about whether our perception of individuation is or is not illusory, as my friends K. and R. (and, of course, the philosophical branches of many teachings) maintain.

It is easy for us to intellectually agree or disagree with such a premise. It is much more difficult for anyone (who I know, at least) to claim first-hand experience that sheds light on the matter in any conclusive way.

I will agree that it definitely sounds much cooler and groovier to say that our perceptions of duality are erroneous. First of all, it rejects the entire world as we encounter it in its current state, a condition that one master after another suggests is necessary in order for us to step past our ordinary experience. Second, it's just about doctrinaire to assert this kind of thing if one is a "spiritual type." And third, it sounds weird and different; let's face it, human beings tend to be attracted to things that are weird and different.

Having agreed that this sounds a lot cooler than to sign onto perceived duality, I will even admit -- before I informally (and very casually) argue the possible points against this question -- that I think it is probably correct to say that our perceptions of duality are indeed erroneous.

After all, if I didn't, it would torpedo my pretensions of being a cool, groovy guy.

That leads me to the question, are we all one Being? Or are we individual entities, and are there other individual entities? If there is one Being, is it composed of aspects that manifest as individual entities? (That is to say, are our perceptions of this accurate?)

Or does everything we perceive need to be flushed down the metaphysical toilet?

Even within states of enlightenment like the one that Jesus Christ and Buddha inhabited, we (rather annoyingly) come across references that continue to hint at (or even just assert, damn it!) a universe populated at all levels by individuated personhoods.

To confuse things even more, if we take the concept of illusion to its logical conclusion, then Christ, Buddha, and everything they taught are illusory. All teachings are in fact illusory. (I think hear my old friend rlnyc snickering in the background at this one.)

Bearing all that in (our illusory) mind, we march straight up to the annoying conclusion that illusory beings have left us with with illusory teachings suggesting that everything is (or isn't) an illusion.

I think that in principle--cosmologically--it's true that there is only one thing. However, to know that from our perspective could prove rather difficult. We can examine it scientifically, and agree that there is just one whole universe, period, the end. If one could "go out"--expand--to a scale which is very nearly infinite in size (or become really, really tiny, as in planck-lengths tiny) this might become apparent. It works more or less the same way that, while an apple looks whole to us, it turns out to be made of cells, and then molecules, and then atoms, and then atomic particles, and so on. Once you get big enough to see it "from above," it's an apple. Up until then it's little bits of stuff: constituent elements. And if seen from far enough below, well, everything is pretty much an undifferentiated soup.

There's no way around it, however: in between, there are a way waaaaay lot of constituents.

Ergo, to argue in favor of the "one whole universe which is a single thing" theory--and to sign on to the premise of our helpless psychic wagon train drawn in a circle, surrounded by savage illusions all around--we might have to presume that no such constituents exist. That seems to be quite a stretch.

Wholeness, in other words, appears on every level to require constituent elements.

Presuming we want to argue that that is an illusion, then wholeness itself may be composed of illusions, and subject to the same evaluation--i.e., illusory, like all its constituents.

Hence even the cosmic unity which we espouse (as we all so enthusiastically reject our condition of individuation) does not actually exist. In a rather perverse manner, just bringing the subject up eventually leads us into an unexpectedly nihilistic cul-de-sac.

All of a sudden, there isn't anything.

You see, this whole matter gets sticky very quickly. We are like insects here who wandered into a sundew plant, thinking we were going to get a nice sweet snack, and discovering instead that we are tangled up in a big old mess that will instead have us for dinner.

In his time, Dogen was surrounded by "non-Buddhists" who presented many and various suspicious arguments of this nature, and he roundly rejected them. If anything, Dogen affirmed the essential perceived nature of reality, even as he argued that it is inherently transcendental.

Can we agree that it's fair enough to say there is something? Admittedly, we don't know what it is, but there is a something -- as opposed to nothing.

There is a something ...what is it? Perhaps it's no coincidence that that sounds like a Zen Koan.

And if all of this leaves you confused, well, at least there is a nice picture of flowers at the top of the post.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A material relationship


What do our relationships consist of? And how can we establish a more material relationship with truth?

I ask myself these questions as a consequence of a brief drive I took at lunch to pick up some food for the dog. In my own case, more often than not, it's these unglamorous events -- rather than the cosmic glow of weekend spiritual retreats -- that produce miraculous insights. This reminds me that it pays to always and everywhere remember that the miraculous is always right here, right now--in the ordinary weave of a cotton placemat on my desk; light reflected from an oval heliodor gem; the fine, delicate swirls of a cobalt blue glaze on antique porcelain.

The click of the computer keyboard.

I don't need to run away to find miracles. I need to stay here so that the miracles can find me.

Spring spread its green-white wings this past weekend, and has achieved full flight. Driving down the local streets around the office in Metuchen, New Jersey, taking in the extraordinary explosion of new buds, leaves, and flowers on the trees reminded me of the story of Brother Lawrence, who saw the life that lurked within leafless branches in the dead of winter--and understood something completely new.

This thing called "spring" which I saw before me just a few minutes ago is part of what he understood.

It is not a small thing. There is an absolute mystery contained within this explosion of life. For a layman, I know a good deal about the biological processes that cause this, and yet none of them can at all explain the impression that I take in. There is a vibration emanating from it: of color, of light, of movement that cannot be described by any mental feat, by any science or philosophy.

I can, however, sense a relationship to it within my body. And that is what took place this afternoon.

As I was driving along, I realized that something in me is quite different than my ordinary state. There is a "forever-possible Truth" of experience available: something within that is in relationship to God ...even if God is not directly present.

And this something is material. It isn't in my mind. It begins within the roots of my body, down in crevices and cracks which cannot be defined by logic or seen with instruments. God has a material presence that can manifest within me and changes my intellectual, physical, and emotional state. This has a direct relationship to that inner force, that other nature, that I have discussed so many times before.

So there has to be a material relationship in order for me to sense reality differently.
Once this material relationship becomes a living entity, rather than a conceptual construction, it supports itself. It isn't born of the mind; if it is born, yes, the mind "discovers" it exists, but it has always been there. It is my awareness that does not know it... my mind itself usually stands in the way of it. Here's the supreme irony: my mind swallows awareness. And in that state, I perpetually hope that "God" will swallow "me," instead of seeing that

..."I" must swallow "God."

When we inhabit a more organic state of being, we inhabit a living universe. Of course, we are always inhabiting a living universe, but with a new relationship to the organism, we know that we inhabit this living universe, not just with the head, but with all of our parts. In such a way, everything becomes more natural, flows more easily, makes more sense. The knee-jerk resistance that I prefer to offer to my life at most times is replaced by a more cooperative attitude that allows me to explore each situation, rather than trying to control it.

The difficulty with me is that I always seem to try to think the relationship. I treat life as though consciousness were a plot that could be laid out on a sheet of paper and then followed. "If I do such and such, I will be more conscious. If I behave so and so, I will be more meritorious."

This is a constant habit.

What I forget when I think in such a way is that to discover any truth, the truth has to be inhabited. Not thought about. So in trying to cultivate the inner relationship, which arises out of stillness in the silence, I make an effort to discover that I have substance. To discover that I am a living, breathing piece of flesh, rather than a ghost that arises from imagination, lives within imagination, and can never touch anything solid.

Can we be bold enough to replace "i" with "a"-- to inhabit ourselves rather than inhibit ourselves?

We can, at least, try.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Question of Impressions

For those of you not familiar with North American birds, this is a wild bird, not a domesticate; a wood duck. There's a couple nesting across the street from my house on the Sparkill pond; this photograph of the male was taken this morning.

In examining all the questions about life, I have pointed out on a number of occasions that the only thing that seems absolutely certain at any given moment is that we inhabit the body we inhabit, and have the experiences we experience.

Attempting to interpret these facts, to insert them into cosmologies, intellectual structures, to manufacture meanings comes after the fact.

It seems as though the human mind has a obsessive need to meddle with everything. Some Zen masters discuss the conceptual mind with undisguised contempt ...as though we ought to stomp it out like a fire ...and there are times when I completely agree with them.

The summary of our experience is impressions. Impressions are the collective records of all our sensory foods, as acquired by all of our sensory organs.

If we choose to be sensitive to our life, rather than accepting the insensitivity we usually default to, we may notice that all of these things we call impressions are food. The body we inhabit is constantly drinking in life from every direction and with every sense, both inner and outer. This feeding on what is taking place never ends. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every bit of life, every moment we encounter, every sound we hear and touch we sense is food.

Mankind evolved to take in impressions of the natural world. (This isn't my idea; it's taken from the Nobel prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson.) And no matter what cosmology, religious practice, or science we choose to sign onto, this particular fact seems self-evident. It isn't possible for men to have evolved in any other way, no matter what we have since appended to the situation with our artifice and technology.

The conditions of modern life have caused a great deal of what we eat in terms of impressions to deteriorate. To be sure, we have created a lot of wonderful and interesting impressions along the way, especially those that emerge from the arts. The fact remains that an overwhelming number of the urban and technological impressions we are inundated with probably have a debilitating effect on us. Edward O. Wilson argues that a failure to take in a sufficient amount of natural impressions leads to a form of psychopathy. Given the current state of society at large, I'd say this might well be true.

Men who attempt to refine their inner state have long understood that surrounding ourselves with intentionally chosen, more feeding impressions can help us. This is the whole point of creating pleasing environments. It's the point of Zen gardens; it's the point of a Botticelli painting, and the point of a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart sonata. In the end, every single one of these enterprises, no matter how we try to interpret it, ends up being about how we feed ourselves.

If we don't feed ourselves the right kind of food in life -- and it is very important for us to remember that this has to do with all kinds of impressions-- we get sick. A lot of our emotional disabilities arise from this failure to feed ourselves properly. When we don't get the right foods, we don't manufacture the right chemicals; and, as modern pharmacology has conclusively proven, when we don't have the right chemicals in our body, our emotional equilibrium suffers.

Correcting this with little colored pills can help--and by all means, if that's necessary, no one should hesitate, because the stunning advances in medicine over the last 20 years ensure that there is no need to go through life as an emotional wreck anymore! --, but it's not the optimum solution.

Those of us who work in the spiritual territory of life want to learn how to put ourselves together by creating our own inner chemical support, as much as possible.

The point of inner work is to become more responsible to our impressions in a general way. This means we try to discriminate more actively as to how we are, where we are, and what we are encountering. Above all, we begin to learn that discrimination does not just mean filtering out the "bad" impressions; no, discrimination means choosing to be present to all the impressions, to suffer ourselves, that is, to allow all of the impressions we possibly can to enter us in a whole, merciless, and uncompromising manner, so that they touch as many parts of us as possible.

It's this willingness to be touched, to remain a bit quieter and allow the world to come to us, rather than reaching out to seize it, that makes the difference. This reminds me of a pillow one of my best friends gave me on my 50th birthday.

On it, she embroidered, "By absence of grasping, one is made free."

This act of trying to receive is part of that effort. Nowadays, I try to make sure that I have small things around me every day that create specifically feeding impressions: in this way, I try to be a bit more intentional about my environment. For example, I may bring a few flowers to work; I always have fossils, mineral specimens, gemstones on my desk, along with some Buddhist statuary. I make sure that I drink a good cup of coffee, made with the best possible beans, and a dollop of rich cream.

One could argue that I am spoiling myself, stroking my ego with these little things, and perhaps that is true in one way or another. But if I do not give myself impressions of value, then I do not value myself. I need to have some tangible, intentionally acquired impressions of fineness every day, some physical reminders of the fact that I am very fortunate to be in this body. Physical reminders of the fact that I live all an extraordinary planet, where beauty is all around me in ways I constantly forget and probably cannot even imagine.

Be nice to yourself.

This is a lesson my teacher brought to me in a very simple way when I first got sober over 26 years ago, and in one way or another, it has never left me. Even now, when I am still quite a different person than I was then, her words are true. The nature of their truth has transformed itself into a different level of understanding, but Truth itself remains, no matter what level I am able to take it on.

And Truth, like all other impressions, is like this. It is a wine that grows finer with age.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Why even bother?


The negative parts of ourselves tend to run a great deal of the show, no matter how hard we work or how much effort we put in. We may well conduct our affairs as though we are mellow, calm, and collected, but the friction of the outside world--which routinely clashes with our inner attitudes, opinions, and demands-- inevitably builds up over time. It gradually generates a powerful, unstable charge of emotional energy, and sooner or later some tiny little thing triggers an explosion all out of proportion to the event.

More often than not, when the dust settles, we're bewildered by how all that happened.

Perhaps even worse, there are those times when nothing seems to go right, when life assumes a dull, gray, depressive aspect that we cannot seem to overcome. The inner judge takes over. We feel like failures, inadequate in all and everything; frustrated by conditions both inside and outside of us, with no visible way out of it.

Not only that, we have spent years of our life in a search for "something" that, no matter how hard we search, we cannot seem to find. When we were young, we heard of this marvelous place one could get to -- Paradise, or Heaven, or Nirvana-- but no matter how attentively or zealously we trudge through the landscape of our life, it never seems to change that much.

We grow frustrated. We feel alone, even embattled. We've all been there.

All of this emotional negativity arises chiefly because of our partiality. This partiality, this lack of relationship, it is the most prominent feature in the landscape of our life, and because we cannot even sense our inner parts rightly, we are utterly blind to it. These parts are not in the proper relationship; these physical entities, these organs within us don't exchange amongst each other in a right way.

As a result, the emotional center -- which is perhaps the most sophisticated and delicate part of our inner mechanism -- is starved for the food it needs. It ends up doing the opposite of what it is supposed to do, that is, support us. Instead of storing up energy, it leaks it out in every direction. And because it is starved, it lashes out like a cornered beast. The lower part of its nature is so firmly tethered to the animal in us that it doesn't know any better.

Henry Brown told me many years ago that it is important not to suppress negativity. To not express negative emotions is very different than to not have them. In fact, we probably need to have the negative emotions we have, and we need to know that we are having them. It's equally important not to condemn them, or fault ourselves for having them. ...This is, of course, quite tricky, because if we indulge in too much negativity, and allow it free reign, in its starved state it will eventually begin to feed on our inner life in a way that can permanently poison us.

So I would say it's our relationship to our negative emotions that needs to be examined, not the fact that we have them.

Some of you will know that I have mentioned it's possible to become free of negative emotions. That is an unusual state, and can't ever be produced under ordinary circumstances. It's a gift from a higher place. Even when it arrives, however, allow me to be clear in stating the negativity still exists.

The difference is that our relationship to it is transformed.

There's even more to this already complicated picture. If the inner organism begins to work properly, negative emotion can bring us a great deal of energy for our work. The very fact of its existence can, paradoxically, help us. I'm not really able to explain why this is the case; I just know from personal experience that it is.

So perhaps, when we find ourselves in the negative state, when we are rejecting our lives, and the world, and the people around us, we can take a look at that and see if there is any help available within the condition in itself.

If we just reject the condition -- believing that we should banish negativity, that it is useless, bad, and lowers us to a disgusting state (all of which may certainly, to some extent, be true)-- then we don't experience the condition or accept the condition.

And I think we should remember that we have to be within every condition in order to have that experience. Otherwise we don't grow.

This question is a very important one, because it touches on the question of the two natures, the forces that we live in between. We have one nature endowed within us from a higher level; and another one that is an animal, completely and rightly of this level.

Within the context of the animal, which lives according to instinct, and is, by its nature, "red in tooth and claw," there can be no "wrong. " If that were all we were, and that alone, it would be sufficient and there would be no wrong in it.

Even knowing that it is not alone, and that we have something higher in us, does not render anything of the animal "wrong." We just have to understand that the animal is of this level. It can't live according to any other set of laws; it is under all 48 of the laws on this level. The effort is for us to consciously recognize, through inner physical and inner emotional experience, that there is a part of us that comes from a higher level and is under less laws.

The two natures are separated and cannot be mixed. They exist in relationship with, but apart from, one another.

Everything can be going terribly wrong for the animal. And we have to inhabit that. If you want an example, take the example of Jesus Christ, who had just exactly that happen to him and allowed it to happen.

At the same time, while everything is going wrong for the animal, there is another part that everything can be going right for within us. If we want to get a hint of just where this thing called "Paradise," or "Heaven," or "Nirvana," is located, we have to look within ourself for this part of our nature, which is coexistent with but separate from the animal.

In order to discover that, of course, we have to engage in a great deal of discrimination, of inner scrutiny, of studying the condition until we finally come into contact with that beautiful and (at least for us, in our present condition) much more delicate nature, which only the emotional center is sensitive enough to touch and be touched by.

So even in the depths of negativity, perhaps we can remind ourselves that there is something worth bothering with. It's right here with us.

We just need to be willing to reach for it.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Spirit, flesh, faith


Today we're going to examine another interesting parallel between central ideas of the Christian faith and the Gurdjieff work, once again turning to Gurdjieff's "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson," as a reference point.

In chapter 39, "The Holy Planet Purgatory," pages 712-14, Gurdjieff explains that man has three "receiving apparatuses," or brains, built into his physical structure for his interaction with the sacred, externally arising manifestations of the cosmos.

Unlike modern medical science, which refers only to the organ found in the cranium as "the" brain, Gurdjieff referred to each of the three major neurological complexes in man as a separate brain. The distinction is important, because the spinal column and the sympathetic nervous system don't truly qualify as brains from the viewpoint of modern neuroscience: they aren't recognized as having any thinking function.

In the Gurdjieff system, they do have essential thinking functions. The type of thinking they do, however, is not what we would conventionally refer to as thinking. Gurdjieff (seemingly forever out in front of contemporary sciences) characterizes emotion and movement as intelligences which are equally important as the intellectual mind, albeit of a quite different order.

The "first brain," which functions as what he calls the "holy affirming" part, is what we usually call the human brain. The second brain, which functions as the "holy denying" part, is the spinal column. The third brain, which functions as the "holy reconciling" part, is the sympathetic nervous system with its nodes in the solar plexus.

In examining these parts from a biological point of view, we know that most of the higher functions of man's intellect, including his ability to reason -- which, despite the dubious reputation the intellectual center has inherited in today's Gurdjieff work, was something that Gurdjieff himself valued very highly indeed --are mediated by the cerebral brain.

The "lower brain" (the medulla oblongata) and spinal column are viewed as a more primitive type of brain, sometimes referred to as "reptilian" in nature, i.e. representing the lower end of the evolutionary tree. And we do see that the moving center is largely regulated by the nervous system located in the spine. It supervises what might be called a reflexive, automatic--mechanical--response to the environment.

Taking these two rough equivalents, it becomes apparent that there is a reasonable parallel here between these two parts and the pivotal Christian concepts of spirit and flesh as represented in Paul's letters.

Paul continually calls on men to an investment in the Spirit, or higher brain, which can exercise choice and initiative, rather than the flesh, or the lower brain, whose response to its environment is composed of reflexive or mechanical impulses. So in Gurdjieff's "holy affirming" and "holy denying" parts of the body, we find a direct parallel to Paul's conflicts between man's perpetual investment in the flesh, and the need for him to be called to the spirit.

In the vertical physical arrangement of these two body parts, we see a question of investing in the lower or investing in the higher, of the need to move towards something that affirms our higher nature, rather than that which denies it. Investment in the spirit is a call to man to live from intelligence, rather than instinct.

Of course both natures are needed, because if we do not have a choice between our two natures, no effort whatsoever is necessary. In both the Gurdjieff work and in classical Christianity, if man can derive any merit at all from his existence, it is in making the effort to choose a higher path.

In Gurdjieff's teaching, it is the emotional brain, or nervous system, that forms the bridge between the higher and lower. And in Paul's examination of the questions of the Spirit and the flesh, it is faith that helps make the choice.

I think we can make a fair argument that faith is an emotional quality.

Readers may object that in adopting Gurdjieff's model, we are confusing a physical part (the sympathetic nervous system) with an emotional quality (Paul's Faith) here, but seeing as all emotional qualities inevitably arise from our physical parts, I think the distinction between the two is merely one of semantics. Furthermore, it raises a question that is rarely examined within the confines of classical Christianity: what is the physical property of emotionality?

Here we come to a fascinating aspect of Gurdjieff's teaching. The understanding that is necessary in order to bridge the gap between the higher and lower levels is not, primarily, an intellectual one, as theologians would have us believe. It is, in fact, an actual physical one, a quality that arises from and is directly associated with a physical part. As such, we see that the emotion not only has a material aspect to it, but that it is experienced physically within the body -- that is, that surge of sensation we feel that accompanies emotion has a purpose and a place that we don't understand very well.

It is organic.

Not only that, the emotions are to be considered as a special form of intelligence -- a very high form of intelligence, as it happens, capable of joining two opposite worlds together.

Once again, that understanding isn't that far away from what Paul teaches us. Faith is superior to law; law is mechanical, it belongs to our lower part. By itself "law" has no way of closing the gap between itself and the higher. It needs help.

Gurdjieff taught that nothing real can take place in a man's work until emotion enters. In the end, no matter which discipline we practice, we find ourselves continually returning to the idea that the heart--that ephemeral center of the spine, the "ancient location" of the emotional complex--but still the location we refer to when we discuss emotion--must enter one's work. It's in the organic experience of sensation, and the organic experience of emotion, that we may begin to sense something greater than the ordinary mind. Hence my phrase, "the organic state of being." A state based on faith, on an inner emotional relationship, not our usual deductive logic.

Gurdjieff's teaching has a way of gently leading us away from Paul's distinguished metaphysics, back into the body, which is where all the work we wish to do must, on this planet, be done.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Our inner and outer natures


The subject comes up again and again around me and within me of understanding that we have two natures, and the question of inner and outer impressions . Regular readers know that this is frequently discussed in this blog.

We keep coming back to it because I feel it is a rather essential question which I explore on a daily basis.

These two natures I speak of are our inner nature and our outer nature. We can call them natures, because they are conditions we inhabit. Or we might also refer to them as forces, because they can both act upon us. Either term is sufficient, although neither one fully comprehends the situation.

Until something becomes more awake in us, we are unable to sense either of these natures as a true force. Under our ordinary conditions of sensation, we live in a flat, colorless landscape. It is very nearly two-dimensional in nature compared to what is actually possible.

Of course we do not perceive life that way; we're like a creature in Flatland. (Some of you may recall that Ouspensky spoke about this concept of dimensionality at length in "A New Model of the Universe.") So we are actually, in our sleep, unaware of the outer nature that enters us--which we are identified with-- and we are equally unaware of the nature that arises and exists within us--which we are separated from due to our partiality, our lack of relationship.

By experiencing these natures, I mean an actual experience of a rate of vibration. We acquire an ability to sense what Gurdjieff called the "vivifyingness of vibration" of an impression. And what we call reality is, of course, actually entirely composed of vibrations. The organism does not experience inner or outer life as a vibration, or a force, until a new degree of sensitivity appears.

The reason that there is an emphasis, within the formal confines of the work, on the development of sensation is that the way that ordinary sensation touches us can eventually stimulate the awakening of a reciprocal and more durable inner force. One won't find this understanding in other works; it is fundamentally lacking. Allusions to it in other practices- such as "attaining the marrow" in Zen-- have been so aggressively misinterpreted as mental states in recent years that they have ceased to be practical.

I would tend to speak of this "beginning" understanding of sensation as part of our "outer" nature because the initial development of sensation is largely related to the ordinary senses and what they take in: it initially arises out of an effort by the ordinary mind. If attended to properly, however, this work leads to the discovery of the inner nature, and then we begin to physically and emotionally distinguish between the two natures.

This physical and emotional knowing of two natures is what is generally lacking in our current knowledge of "self," which is largely theoretical. I would argue, as it happens, that the first aim of self observation ought to be to discover this specific principle. Until it is discovered, there is no "self." There are instead a series of automatic behaviors that take the place of self. Studying these for too long is a dead end. It's like trying to learn about the biology of the cell by studying a computer motherboard.

Upon the arousal of living experience, the question of self moves into an otherness of territory which we won't cover here. So for those of you who are tempted to engage in philosophical discussions with me here about self, not self, and what does and doesn't exist, please restrain yourselves. These are good subjects, but not for today.

Outer sensations and impressions enter through the gate of the body through the five ordinary senses. Taken together they "create" ordinary life, which at face value appears to be all we can know. Inner sensations and impressions--which are, of course, much subtler, and more difficult to become receptive to -- emanate from the inner sensory organs.

So there are two nerve endings, a point where two worlds almost meet -- but don't.

What is missing?

It's possible to come to experience life as an intersection of forces between the inner and the outer senses, as I have discussed many times. Man, in his ordinary life, ought to function as an entity occupying a gap between these two nerve endings -- these two directions of transmission.

In this juncture, the place where two worlds of different levels meet, man's consciousness- his attention--serves as the acetylcholine (a chemical neurotransmitter) that helps bridge the neural gap and transmit signals in both directions. As such, if we become less partial, our organism should function very much like the meeting point of two nerve cell dendrites--two tiny branches that almost touch each other, but need an outside, catalytic, agent to help transmit the information from one to another.

It is the duty of our awareness--our attention--to occupy this gap, part of the essential work we do as living beings. One of my good friends and readers describes this as being a "nail" that holds heaven and earth together. And when Gurdjieff described "Being-Parktdolg-duty,"he was perhaps alluding to the same matter.

In fact, if all we ever did was this type of work, it would represent great progress over the activities we usually engage in. From a cosmological point of view, not much more is necessary, and at a minimum, anyway, almost all that we do undertake right now in an ordinary sense is absolutely unnecessary.

We all need to constantly deepen our practice in an effort to discover this new level of sensation within ourselves. This is a work that consistently bears fruit with enough effort. We must make the effort to raise the organic rate of vibration to a higher level so that it becomes alive on its own.

Once this takes place, instead of supporting the effort, the effort supports us. This is one point at which help arrives.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A subtle fragrance

This morning I cut a single hyacinth, among the flowers that I brought in to work. It only has seven little blossoms on it, but it is filling my entire office with its subtle fragrance.

These so very few flowers, and the scent that accompanies them, have changed the entire atmosphere of the workday. Even when I am not looking at them, their presence makes itself known. The scent may be quite invisible, but its effects are direct, immediate, tangible.

I am reminded of how the law of seven, along with the law of three, permeates everything existing.

This law, like all the laws of world creation and world maintenance, is invisible. You cannot take a law and slap it on the table and look at it. Mathematicians are able to describe some laws using numbers, but even then, the laws themselves are abstractions.

No one knows exactly why the laws exist at all, let alone why the laws exist as they do.

This makes the creation of a universe within time that causes things to appear and act as they do even more remarkable. "Accidentalists" would have it that everything that takes place in the universe is random, but cause and effect clearly aren't random at all. All of them follow the various laws. Hence, a determinism exists at this level of what we call classical reality. That is to say, everything has to be exactly as it is, based on what has already been just before it. As Gurdjieff put it, "for one thing to be different, everything would have to be different."

So here I am, surrounded by innumerable arisings according to law, permeated by law, existing within the law. All of these things are facts, yet none of them seem to explain a yellow vase-- purple flowers--this subtle fragrance that enters the body and penetrates down into the deeper parts of myself.

Should I be interested in the laws, or interested in the experience?

The intellect is obsessed with laws. We want things to be ruled according to law, we want predictability. We want life to be fair... of course we have not done a very good job of that. Our use of law in the absence of understanding has caused us to destroy a great deal of what we lay our hands on, both personally and in the larger sense of mankind's collective activity.

Yet while all of the truth we encounter inevitably arises within the context of law, the inherent nature of human experience seems to somehow lie outside of it.

In the New Testament, Paul repeatedly indicates in his letters that law alone is not enough to complete a man. Paul brings us back to this question we have examined before, faith.

I think that faith relates to the inhabitation of our environment, rather than the reductive analysis of it. We could easily present an argument that "law" represents, to Paul, mechanicality. It is automatic, and needs no conscious thought to give it validity.

Faith is personal and requires initiative. Law is impersonal, and does not.

This leads me to another thought which I had last night. When the universe was originally created -- a somewhat botched job, as we learn in "The Holy Planet Purgatory--," God was apparently unable to anticipate some of the consequences. (And if anything were to endear God ever more to our hearts, fallibility ought to.) The universe, we learn, was originally created so that the law of seven functioned mechanically, without the intervention of any outside forces. After things did not work out so very well -- a collapse of the situation, described as calamitous by Gurdjieff, took place--the evolution of the octave could only proceed properly with the intervention of outside forces, that is, the law of three, which comes from a higher level.

There is a reflection of this idea in the Christian Bible. The new covenant that Christ brought between God and man represented an intersection between this level and a higher level. One might say that Christ represented the law of three, intersecting with man's law of seven and providing the shocks that are needed to raise our level.

Whether one chooses to see it this way or not, the fact remains that in Gurdjieff's cosmology, the fates of God and of his creation were intimately intertwined from the very beginning, and became even more so once the law of seven became dependent on the Law of three for its proper evolution.

As I sit here, dictating this text and smelling the hyacinth, it strikes me as though this subtle fragrance represents an intersection between myself and something higher. There is something inestimably fine and beautiful about the vibration of this scent, and I feel an inner support that derives from it.

It is as soft and in tangible as God Himself; and perhaps, after all, it is God Himself, in ways that I am fundamentally unable to understand.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Results of Time


In "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson," Gurdjieff indicates that the reason the universe was created was because time -- which he calls "the merciless heropass"--was eroding the place of existence of His Endlessness.

Put in other terms, the universe was created out of an effort to understand and counteract time. From this point of view, we might suppose that the arising of consciousness itself took place in order to perceive and work with time.

Physics claims that time, in some senses, does not exist, and Gurdjieff found agreement with this. He explained that time is, put in plain terms, nothing more than the results of all the interactions of everything everywhere. As such, time falls into a category perhaps better described as "cause and effect," which, as regular readers of this blog may know, Dogen placed a good deal of emphasis on. The universe is formed of, and founded on, cause and effect.

Or, if you will, the results of time.

I bring this subject up because the essential element of what is called "sleep" is a failure to perceive time accurately.

When we are asleep, we are unaware of time; time ceases to exist. Moments of awakening are a shock simply because we see that before they take place, we do not see ourselves as existing within time (or at all,) and while they take place, we see that we are existing within time.

So we might argue that the proposition of being awake is the difference between knowing we live within time and knowing we do not. There are hints in this direction contained in Gurdjieff's admonitions. After analyzing mankind's foibles for over a thousand pages in "Beelzebub," his final word on the matter is that the only thing which might help man to develop is a constant sense of his own mortality -- that is, that he lives within time, that his time is limited, and that he will die. The awareness of time thus becomes critical in the question of inner work.

I don't think that we can divorce the question of time and how we perceive it from any moment of our work. Either we live within time in the context of consciousness, or there is no consciousness, and there is no time.

The entire process of consciousness itself exists strictly to examine the nature of time. If you look at every enterprise that man engages in, it is about time in one way or another. All of the scientific disciplines are about time. Evolutionary biology is about how life experiences time and changes over time. Physics is the study of mass, and motion through time. Geology and paleontology, we hardly need mention, History, psychology, sociology: all work within the question of time. Every single discipline is built upon the examination of time.

It even comes down to our ordinary activity. Everything we do is done within the context of time. When people buy television sets, they are doing so so that they can use their time in a particular way. Time is so tangible it has a commodity in today's world. Everything seems to be speeding up: we talk about wasting time, using time, taking time, and not having time.

We are so immersed in the process of space and time that we take them for granted, instead of seeing that we are born here specifically to perceive and understand time within the context of the space we occupy.

I understand here that many will feel I am stating the obvious, but it is not obvious at all. The perception of time within the organism is not a given. Time becomes quite different when there is an organic connection, when sensation is available. Time perceived within the context of a moment of greater awareness is very different than time perceived when there is little or no awareness.

It is possible, it occurred to me this morning, that our very existence itself is predicated upon a universal effort to understand time. I'm suggesting that because the universe was created specifically to counteract the force of time, it would appear that the study of the force of time is essential. This is a work in progress; as we see in "Beelzebub," unforeseen consequences flowed from the creation of the universe, ultimately resulting in the need for the holy planet purgatory. This suggests that although His Endlessness studied time sufficiently to discover a mechanism to counteract its maleficent effects, even He was unable to understand the consequences of time in enough depth or detail to foresee some of the eventualities that arose.

The question of time is also related to the question about struggle and relationship. We might say that the universe was created as a struggle against time; on the other hand, we might also say that the relationship between time and the universe is intimate, because the universe exists within time and depends on time in order to defeat the actions of time.

This paradoxical situation would have delighted any Zen master.

I'll leave you to ponder this more on your own.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Struggle and relationship

If we just read Ouspensky's books, we might easily come to the conclusion that inner work is all about a struggle.

Gurdjieff certainly characterized work in that way many, many times. And there is no doubt that other traditions seem to present work as a struggle of one kind or another. The Zen masters, Dogen included, certainly emphasize struggle-- in their case, mostly with the nature of the mind, which makes sense--but it is still a struggle.

There is a continued emphasis on this idea of struggle in the Gurdjieff work. People come to the work struggling with their inner questions, groups exchange about the struggle they have in their ordinary life and with themselves, and often enough everything eventually starts to revolve around how difficult everything is, and how much of a struggle it is.

This reminds me greatly of why I left Alcoholics Anonymous about 24 years ago. I would go to meetings only to listen to people go on and on about how diseased they were. As though nothing else mattered. My own attitude was that people needed to get over it, accept where they were as alcoholics, and move on to something more positive. Dwelling on our known deficiencies does not move us forward. It is only an inner effort to overcome them by accepting them graciously that we can hope for any freedom.

Hence my oppositional reaction to the idea of the work as a struggle. To me, inner work is not, ultimately, about a struggle. Yes, of course it begins there, but that is because our understanding begins psychologically, and this is not the center of gravity for inner work. Ultimately it must go on to a completely new place.

Inner work is about a relationship.

The relationship that I speak of is an inner relationship with our self. If all we do is struggle with ourselves, we find ourselves in a perpetual internal wrestling match. This may appear to be what work is about, because it's compelling and has a lot of vigor to it. But all it actually does is cause us to run in circles and sap our energy.

Instead, we must be called to seeing not just how we behave--which is inevitably repetitious, because we are largely mechanical -- but how we are constructed within ourselves.

In seeing this, in seeing the nature of our inner sensation and our inner apparatus, we can be called to help make it whole. This is about creating an inner relationship between the parts: becoming less partial, fostering an inner unity.

It is an act of peacemaking, not the art of warfare against the lower nature we already know we have.

We must not bring the complaints we have about ourselves and our deficiencies to our work or to our self. At a certain stage in our work, it becomes vitally important to put those aside. We must recognize that struggling against our badness will not conquer badness; to do so is as though to believe one can erase sin one's self, instead of understanding, as the Alcoholics and Christians do, that only a higher power can do that for us.

In my many years in the work, I have certainly noticed a tendency among the members to dwell upon how we cannot "do," we are asleep, we cannot see ourselves, and so on. This continued emphasis on our inability does not serve us well. The idea of man's inability is well established in the work, and repeating it to each other over and over does not constitute work. It's just the expounding of doctrine. Speaking about it with a good deal of emotion certainly makes it convincing, but it is the impetus that makes that attractive. It's an illusion of meaningful movement.

Movement without direction is pointless. Instead of just becoming attracted to velocity alone, we must make an effort to become more interested in location, that is, inhabitation. We must become more three centered in our exchange within life.

I would like to change the subject here just a bit and offer an observation from this morning's sitting.

In an effort to more specifically establish this inner direction I speak of so often, there needs to be a new kind of inner sensation and a new kind of inner connection.

One way to help foster this is to conduct (somewhat in the way that alcoholics do) a fearless "inner inventory" of ourselves, an inventory not of our flaws, habits, and so on, but an inventory of our parts. These parts are structural and tangibly physical, not conceptual. We might call them our "inner Egypt." We need to "discover" these parts--brush the sand off them-- and know what they are. In order to do that, we must begin to sense ourselves within, not with the mind, but with the body.

I bring this up because this morning I noticed that no matter how adept one becomes at work of this kind, there is a tendency to take the inventory of the body with the mind. This is especially true because under ordinary circumstances, there is only a trickle of the kind of support needed to go deeper.

We need to sense our inner organs of perception with the organs themselves, with sensation, with a finer kind of substance which sometimes is called "attention," but actually does not have a name. That is to say, don't try to sense the body with the mind -- try to sense the body with the body.

I am offering the suggestion this week that readers participate together with me in exploring this idea of struggle versus relationship in all areas of our life.

Look at it in the family. Are we struggling, or are we in relationship? Look at it in the workplace. Is our workplace about a struggle, or a relationship? Remember, the outer is a reflection of the inner. The way we handle ourselves externally in relationship or struggle says a great deal about our inner posture. Just an effort to be aware of how we are, as we are, is already a step towards something more complete. If we bring this idea of relationship to each situation, how is it then?

Above all, especially, let us look at the inner state. Is this about struggle, or relationship? What is the difference? Are we able to see one?

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.