Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Arrogance

The plant pictured here is Lobelia Cardinalis, a native wildflower currently blooming in upstate New York.

Today Annie reminded me--in the heartfelt way that only a deeply Christian woman can--of Christ's active demonstration of service, in which he washed the feet of his disciples.

What better possible example can we find of a reminder of where we are, and what our role is?

In today's world, where religions have (as they always do) turned against themselves and produced suicide bombers, and where "scientists" argue that we don't need religion anymore -- as though science were a reasonable substitute, LOL-- it's most important to turn back to the truly great lessons of religion, and this is one of them.

I bring all this up because of a current perception of arrogance.

Governments are arrogant; religions are arrogant; scientific disciplines are arrogant, societies are arrogant, corporations and leaders are arrogant, and individuals are arrogant. And we hardly need mention the politicians, including our own political parties here in America.

The entire planet is being engulfed in a wave of attitude. Against it stand a very few public bastions, such as the Dalai Lama.

All of us in the work -- in every spiritual work -- treat this subject as though it was someone else's arrogance that were the problem. Krishnamurti ran into that attitude in an exchange in Amsterdam, I believe in the 1960s-- and he promptly set his listeners straight by explaining that we are the problem.

We always want to blame these problems on someone else, to outsource arrogance, to outsource ego. We, of course, are fine. We have it all together, and we know what we are doing.

Well, obviously that itself is arrogance. It takes the impact of real self-knowledge, of real seeing, to slap us back to reality. And that reality is that all of us proceed directly from arrogance, and to arrogance.

Betty Brown brought this up many years ago when she said to us that our very effort to engage in an inner evolution--our assumption that it is even possible--is arrogant. None of us have developed enough humility to offer the kind of nakedness I wrote about yesterday. Those of us who think we have are simply missing the mark.

It is only a constant and humble awareness of exactly how tiny and insignificant we are, and how harmful we are both to ourselves and those around us, that can help to transform our inner state so that we can perform those vital tasks that serve something higher than ourselves.

This is an extremely bitter pill to swallow.

That phrase reminds me of something that was said many years ago at St. Bartholomew's church on Park Avenue in New York. The rector there at that time, Tom Bowers, announced one morning to the congregation -- which included some of the wealthiest Episcopalians in New York -- as follows:

" It will be an extremely bitter pill for some of you to swallow, but the richest man in this congregation and the janitor who cleans out the toilet in this church are equal in the eyes of God."

That equality stems from the nature of the work we are sent here to do, which is a leveling factor. It doesn't matter how much money you make, or how "successful" you are in life. Those are not bad things, but they are treasures laid up on the earth, where moth and rust corrupt. What matters is how much one works. And to work is to be willing to suffer.

Above all, today, it occurs to me that one thing we really need to suffer and sacrifice is our own arrogance. Arrogance brings every misery this planet sees from man. It all starts there.

One man on the doomed Franklin Expedition was buried with a tombstone, crudely carved in a board of wood from the ship, that said:

"Consider your ways."

Wise words, I think, for all of us in this age of supreme and all-encompassing arrogance.

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What is our nature?

I am feeling a bit quiet since I got back from China. Once again, I am contemplating the impermanence of everything, including this enterprise. And there are days, like today, while I am no longer sure of a wish to move this particular aspect of my personal work forward.

Perhaps it is time for a change.

I don't know.

It has struck me quite clearly lately that everything we do in ordinary life is not our nature. We have families, and it is part of what we do, but it is not our nature. We have jobs, but this too is not our nature. Politics? Our obsession, perhaps, but not our nature.

We make things, we buy things; we acquire, we create, we destroy. But this is not our nature. Our nature is completely involved in all of this... yet completely removed from it.

That is to say, there is a separation between our nature and all of the things that we do in life, and what life requires from us. The actual function that we perform on this planet--which I will refrain from describing, lest it prejudice anyone and prevent them from discovering the matter for themselves -- serves a purpose that does not actually relate to the manifestation of cause and effect on this level. It is intertwined with it, and could not take place without its existence, but the ultimate aim of it has little or nothing to do with all of the delusions we fill our life with.

The aim of it is, to put it bluntly, both astonishing and incomprehensible.

So when we encounter all of these questions in Buddhism about discovering our original nature, or original mind, we are encountering a question that points us towards something entirely different from life as we know it. Our mistake is in perpetually "understanding" it from the point of view of life as we know it, and even trying to believe in it from the point of view of life as we know it.

We don't know life. We just think we know it. If we actually knew something real about it, we wouldn't know anything of what we know now. All of that would have to go. To stand on the threshold of this understanding is to have a taste of what Dogen meant when he said that we have to become "leavers of home."

Gurdjieff himself intimated this when he pointed out that the organ kundabuffer was implanted in man specifically to prevent him from seeing why he was here, or what was required of him--lest he kill himself.

Of course, the conditions have changed since then, but man is still here to serve a purpose that is not his own. It is only in the surrender to those conditions and a deeper understanding of them that a man can begin to know anything about what we actually are.

In the end, it is necessary to be stripped of all of the arrogance, the assumptions, the beliefs, and even the questions themselves.

Nakedness alone is suitable for understanding.

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

Monday, August 25, 2008

returned


just a quick post to let the readership know that I have returned, and am fine.

I've been taking a few days to get over jet lag. Posts will resume this week, possibly tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Departure, and Sorrow

Yet another post from the KAL business class lounge in Seoul, Korea.

There is a sorrow at the heart of the universe.

It is an endless sorrow born of love; a sorrow that knows no limitations. It is the sorrow of a parent for a lost child; a lover's sorrow for the death of the beloved; a regret for the very presence of time, let alone its awesome depredations.

Gurdjieff called this sorrow-- which, he tells us, every three brained being has an obligation to make an effort to sense --"the sorrow of His Endlessness." It is the sorrow of my master, the sorrow of our father. And somewhere within the depths of my soul, in the crevices where the parts of me that are not stained by this world are hidden, I smell the sweet, hopelessly eternal musk of this sorrow. Rising up like a fine perfume to color the experience of this world in a perfect way that joy could not.

This sorrow, however, is not sorrow alone; it is made of joy -- paradoxically, it is joy in itself, turned over and discovered in antithesis.

How can we hold the sweetness of time, of our life, between the sieve created by our fingertips? It's impossible. Everything passes --and this, perhaps, is the essential heart of the sorrow. we live, after all, in a world -- yes, in a universe -- of impossible beauty, a universe where beauty is revealed in every passing moment, in the movement of every photon, and the position of every electron.

It may sound romantic to put it that way, but it is true. And it is romantic in the sense of adventure, not sentiment. It's the very magnificence of the enterprise of cause and effect that evokes the emotion of sorrow at its transitory nature. Having created and embodied this endless perfection, God cannot but feel sorrowful for an inability to confer eternity on every event.

Gurdjieff once told Ouspensky that the difference between them was that Ouspensky sought beauty, whereas Gurdjieff sought consciousness. It may be, in the end, that to try to distinguish between the two is to split hairs.

All of this touches on matters too vast to comprehend. In the bliss of an inhaled breath with presence, in the sensation of the body within this existence, we can touch more closely on the question -- the mind alone can conceive of it, but is unable to sense it in ways that are meaningful. But we will never be able to plumb the depths of this mystery, which gives birth to every cathedral, every symphony, every dance.

When touched by this sorrow, we are called to work within ourselves even harder to become open to the presence of God, and to share the burden of this mystery and this sorrow.

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

lying, and the field of association

...Did you know you can eat lotus seeds? I didn't. Not until this trip, anyway.

At the end of a long trip, a bit tired, I've found it difficult to organize myself and muster the energy for a post the past few days. as it happens, I am about to get on a plane to come home tonight, and I felt one last post from here in China was in order.

It's a difficult thing to admit to ourselves that we are essentially dishonest. All of us, in one way or another. This summer I heard a reading of Mr. Gurdjieff's where he expounded on this. In the reading, he told the listener that everything in their life is based on lies.

Everything.

Of course, at the time, it occurred to me that he was painting the canvas a darker shader of black than was absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, looking back at it-having allowed it to percolate for a month, which is always needed--I can see his point.

For myself, living within the current experience of this life (that is, within a kind of self-observation which is no longer wholly based in intellect or imagination) I see that most of me has dishonest impulses, all of which arise within what I'd call the "field of association."

It's surprising how utterly self--serving my ego is, how it is always looking only towards what it can get for itself, and how sneakily, underhandedly, fundamentally dishonest most of the impulses that arise within the field of association are.

The fact is that I am constantly forced to go against these impulses if I don't want them to be the rulers and determinants of my life. And in order to do that I am required to constantly sacrifice--to make an effort to go against my lies, as best I can (which, truth be told, isn't very well.)

I say I am "surprised" by these parts, but that's not entirely true either. By now I've been watching them for so long that most of them are familiar old friends, even if their company is undesirable. I've seen my sleazy impulses once too often; when I was younger they were a bit harder to resist than they are now. Instead, today, the essential activity is one of watching this unpleasant side of me maintain a constant dialogue and critique of the events around me. It's rather annoying to have to watch one impulse after another which is dishonest and unseemly arise.

All of this calls into question just what I am. It turns out that anything worthwhile in me appears to be born precisely out of this mass of lying impulses, and the effort to prevent them from making the decisions.

The difficulty with finding oneself in the middle of this ocean of lies, and truly seeing it in a less partial way, is that the mooring for the ship is cast off, and one discovers that one is adrift.

The boat may be floating, but one sees that the direction is determined by the current, and one has not yet acquired oars or a rudder to direct it.

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

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Free Range Spirituality


In the organic food business, they sell us a product (not an animal, mind you, to them it's a product) called a "free range" chicken.

The image, as Michael Pollan explains in his excellent book "The Omnivore's Dilemma," is a marketing ploy that conjures happy chickens ranging free and unconstrained across the plains, pecking at wild grain and seed in the way that nature always meant.

Nothing, unfortunately, could be further from the truth. The average American "free range" chicken--unlike the Chinese chickens in the picture above -- lives out its life densely packed into a shed with many thousands of other chickens. The only difference that makes it "free range" is that the shed has a small open door, so that if the chicken wants to go out, it can.

All the food and security, however, is in the shed. The chicken doesn't want to go out-why the hell should it, when everything it needs is right there?

Hence, our "free range" chicken is raised, well, exactly like ordinary "factory farm" chickens, the only difference being that their chicken slum has an aperture.

When we enter a spiritual work, we all tend to end up as free range disciples. No matter what form we aspire or ascribe to, we believe that it's the one that really provides "freedom"-whatever we think that is.

We sign on to the agenda and then swiftly settle down with our fellow spiritual "chickens," content to be fed the rich fattening "grain," or ideas, with the rest of the flock. Yes, there may be a door over there with light coming in and some green grass showing, but why should we risk leaving? After all, all our pals--and all the goodies--are here in the shed.

It's safe here, guys.

If we want to truly experience our life, however, we've got to leave the shed. The shelter of forms and the safety of communities in "harmonious" agreement become pacifiers--distractions that fatten us up until the butcher comes along.

It's only when we realize that we have to take our work directly out of the orderly, comforting, and reassuring confines of the spiritual coop and into the dangerous, messy conditions of actual free-range life that we can acquire the opportunity to be come REAL chickens.

This parable bears a resemblance to Gurdjieff's Sufi tale of the magician's sheep-an illustration of which is, as some readers know, the frontspiece for doremishock.com.

So "work in life" becomes paramount. Not just in the external, abstract, and parabolic, but also in the most concrete inner sense. It pays to examine our "free range ideas"- the ideas, or associative thought patterns we have, which bogusly preserve the appearance of free and unfettered self-observation and awareness, but which actually just serve to preserve the illusion that we are outside under blue skies, flexing our wings and pecking at seed.

Now, here is the trick of the parable, which is just like free range chickens. It's easy to be outside under blue skies. Remember, the magician who hypnotized his sheep did so so that he wouldn't have to fence them in. Just like the "free range" chickens, they were free to leave any time. The only thing that prevented it was their hypnosis.

Above all, our habituality preserves our hypnotic illusions. So breaking the spell, even in a simple and temporary way, can be useful.

A rich ambrosia of inner and outer experience lies just outside the boundaries we paint for ourselves. And it doesn't take much effort to discover it.

But you gotta go out the door first.

And maybe that is why Gurdjieff kept driving his "disciples" away from him.

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

Friday, August 15, 2008

Explanation and immersion

You, dear readers, may feel by now that you are getting more than your fair share of photographs of Buddhas from Lingyin temple in Hangzhou. This one, like many of the carvings that still exist -- bunches were destroyed -- is from the Yuan dynasty, or, about 400 years old.

I could post pictures of electrical components that I took this morning in Shenzhen, but somehow, they just don't seem to have the same charm.

If you stop to think about it, all of us live most of our life in an atmosphere of explanation. Our educational system is designed, from the ground up, to explain the world and its workings; our religions and metaphysics, to explain the unseen.

Even the most sophisticated teachings, which assert that the unseen cannot be explained, become, perversely, explanatory anti- explanations.

I routinely have to listen to the league of anti-explainers (numerous friends of mine are members, but mostly by imitation) prattle on about entering "the inner silence" and wonder (cynic that I am) why, if it's silence that holds the key and silence that we must seek, they don't stop talking about it.

In the same way, perhaps we all ought to just stop discussing "the energy." I'd say there's more than a flagon or two of "Don't do as I do, do as I say" ale served at the average Gurdjieff dinner table when it comes to these matters.

I am not one to speak too much about silence, because I value it. And at the same time I am not shy about participating in the merry-go-round of explanation, which my fellow seekers sanctimoniously proclaim they are not actually riding, even as they grab for the rings.
The whole thing reminds of the joke about the Christian scientists in hell, chanting "we're not here."

Well, me little droogies, we ARE here.

In his expositions on cause and effect, Dogen demonstrated-satisfactorily, I think- that everything has a reason ...whatever it is. And that may be true. Whether it is or it isn't, in exercising the mind, it seems near-impossible to escape from this hamster wheel of explaining.

Smacking up against the wall of explanations are massive waves of things which definitely cannot be explained. They outnumber the explanations by such a healthy margin that we need not fear. The weight of our experience always rests on a foundation of the inexplicable. There's no real danger of the explained pulling the carpet out from under the unexplained, and there never will be, except, perhaps, in the paranoid fantasies of radical preachers.

In the face of the explained-that is, my usual experience, my usual state- I welcome the unexplained. That is, those moments when immersion in life transcends encounter with it.

That immersion consists of tangible contact with the inner roots, awareness of outer impressions--and ever-present mysteries that we then may taste, but can never touch with the tongue.

Whenever I come up against this question of immersion in life, which just accepts the current condition without presupposing, I end up in a place where I don't know anything at all. Or, rather, what I know is primarily emotional and physical. When I try to think things out, I see that the mind is inadequate to grasp the enormity of how temporary this life is, and how little we attend to one another.

I find myself understanding that every moment I am having is the first and last time I will ever have that moment.

It's a sobering condition.

All of this goes back to the question of value, which we must continually investigate. Our failure to value (which stems in large part from the inadequate development of our emotional presence) is at the heart of why we are asleep. Even a vague taste of real value wakes us up a bit more. It's a theme that needs to be revisited over and over again in the context of our failure to sense..

As Mr. Gurdjieff so famously said,
"Blödsinn, blödsinn,
Du mein Vergnügen,
Blödsinn, blödsinn,
Du meine Lust."

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

Thursday, August 14, 2008

rushing past the taste

I am by nature an impatient type. One prominent feature in my inner landscape is the tendency to go too fast. Certainly, this has to be genetic -- my son definitely has the same tendency.

One thing I notice about myself is that I am perpetually rushing past the taste of food to get to the swallowing. It would do well for me to slow down and savor the taste of both my food, and my life, a bit more precisely.

Of course, I'm only able to observe this habit clearly in myself, but I rather suspect that most of us are like this. The urges of the stomach and sex tend to drive us forward more powerfully than we are consciously aware of. Perhaps one of the chief features of sleep is that while we think away furiously, thinking that the thinking is in charge, the belly and the sex organs are running the show from behind the curtains.

Don't get me wrong here. There's nothing wrong with eating or having sex. Gurdjieff certainly didn't think so -- his size alone indicates that he ate enough, and his sexual appetites were not a hidden matter. I think that the question is whether or not we are aware of these urges. Seeing them in operation rather than letting them just operate is an educational experience. Seeing them, furthermore, may put a bit of a spoke in the wheels. The trouble they cause arises from our lack of awareness of them as forces in life.

In my own case, the question becomes how to slow down. How to more fully savor life in its individual tastes; how to let the impressions fall more deeply within me. And certainly, this is possible. Only, however, if I become more interested in the taste, as well as the swallowing.

It's particularly difficult to organize the machine and the inner energies when one travels across multiple time zones. I have always maintained that it takes about three days to get over jet lag, but that isn't true. What it actually means is that after three days, you don't tend to pass out in your hotel room at eight o'clock at night. It takes about a week for the inner clock to reset itself fully, so that you get to a morning -- as I did today -- where you wake up and you realize that you feel pretty much "normal" again. Whatever, that is, "normal" means. As one gets older, "normal" develops all kinds of unpleasant aspects one never considered when one was young, and none of them seem normal, despite the fact that they have moved in to stay.

My wife Neal referred to this kind of unexpected and unpleasant development as "the new normal" some years ago while we were in Costa Rica, contemplating an SUV I had cleverly managed to wedge perpendicular to the road between two rather high banks of dirt during a rainstorm.

Anyway, negotiating the vagaries of time changes, jet lag, business appointments, and perpetual immersion in a sea of Chinese people, one comes to a moment where it appears the adjustments have been made.

At that moment, one sees that one constantly makes assumptions about one's inner state, assumptions which are usually wrong. We are not very much in touch with ourselves, we haven't developed very much -- no matter what our fantasies or arrogance may tell us -- and it's a surprise to see that we didn't even know how we were, or that we are again how we "usually" are, until we get back to a more familiar place. The bottom line is, we stumble from one moment in life to another, much like Mr. Gurdjieff's drunkard, who wants to go to the Place D'Etoile, but will be lucky if he gets to the next lamp post.

This reminds me of a thought that I had this morning about the dailyness of life--which is the territory from which all these deceptively rambling thoughts are garnered.

The Obyvatel-- Mr. Gurdjieff's famous "good householder" -- makes his living by not thinking that he's special. He doesn't try to do anything special. He doesn't act like he's special. He tries to meet his responsibilities within the context of ordinary life. He may be a drunkard, but he's a drunkard who is smart enough to know that the next lamp post is what he needs to aim for.

How many of us can say that?

Speaking as a former drunkard, or, rather, a drunkard who hasn't been drinking for the last 27 years, I can say that I distinctly remember walking home late at night on a cobblestone street in Hamburg, when I was so totally smashed that my awareness had become completely detached from my body. I recall staring down at my steadily marching feet and being astonished that they knew where to go, and were taking me there.

It was nice to have a reliable partner like that , seeing as I had abrogated every possible claim to responsibility. The lesson drawn from this is that moving center, at least at that time, was far more sensible than the rest of me. It suggests we might want to think about respecting and trusting our "unconscious" parts a bit more than we usually do.

Sometimes, they are the parts that can see the next lamppost.

So. I am routinely confronted with the dailyness of life, and the manufactured cravings that food and sex thrust upon me (not to mention fear and money.) I want things to be less daily, and more special. I want to be more special.

I miss the point, which is that ordinary life already is special. Or, as Jack Nicholson said in the movie,

"...what if this is as good as it gets?"

There are, of course, moments when it can be seen that this is indeed as good as it gets. The moment this afternoon, for example, when I saw a dirty curb with a bit of moss on it and was filled with a sense of how enormous and beautiful and quite perfect this moment was. But that's not how I usually am. It takes something special to help me see things like that. Something special that does not belong to me, but that occasionally inhabits me.

In the meantime, immersion in and acceptance of my ordinary life--the way of the good householder -- is the path towards that possibility. It's true -- I will sleep through much of this. With some luck, however, I will remember to come up for air every once in a while, and be grateful that at least I have encountered a real work in my life, even if I fail at it too often to mention.

So here's to the good householder, who seeks responsibility, rather than avoiding it; who shoulders his burdens in spite of his fears rather than because of them; and who loves life enough to participate in it, even when what it requires is not much fun at all.

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Help comes

Sojurns in China. From Hangzhou to Shanghai to Guangzhou--and now Shenzhen--immersed in the day to day of business life, taken (as usual, like all of us) by the trials and circumstances of the daily--ness of this life,

I see that support is needed.

Inner connections are always present and available in one form or another; for example, organic sensation rarely leaves. But such sensation is not enough.

Organic gratitude arises- but again, gratitude is not enough.

What is so often missing is the wish to be more present than through mind and sensation alone, and the willingness to make an effort.

The lack of self remembering is the chief factor behind this failure to make an effort, and a great deal of this lack is, I see, in the weakness of the mind.

Not the mind I ordinarily inhabit, that formless formatory tool, but a mind with impetus, with a force behind it.

The mind can begin to acquire some of this through an interest with--and food from--a more intimate connection with the organism, but my efforts at that, real though they are, are clumsy efforts-- beginner efforts. The fumblings of a child whose fingers cannot yet grasp a button or tie a shoelace.

In order for more to become possible, I see this morning, I must acknowledge that I cannot do. That the doing--should there be any--begins, and ends, with help from a higher power. And in order to become available to that I have to be willing to give up what I think I am. What I think I can do. The only things I do not have to give up, it would seem, are the patience to wait for help, and the recognition that help will come.

Do we really believe that- CAN we really believe that--

That help will come?

I bear personal witness to the fact that help comes. Of course, that can hardly be transmitted to another, but HELP DOES COME. When Mr. Gurdjieff told his pupils (as recounted in Frank Sinclair's "Without Benefit Of Clergy") to appeal personally to Christ for help, he was not offering us the HYPOTHESIS of help.

He was offering us the real, absolute, concrete FACT that such help can come if we ask for it. If you don't believe that such astral intercession is possible, well,

sorry-

You're wrong.

I admit this idea may seem theoretical, farfetched, and distant to readers. I have never (and may never) offered a definitive public (i.e., blogged) explanation of how I came to know this. But I do not only know--even more importantly, I understand--that help can come.

For me, it is not a theoretical premise.

So today, in the midst of my own ordinariness and my own long, and boldly impatient, waiting, I pass this on to readers without embellishment or detail.

Just the simple fact that help comes.

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

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Not of this world


It's a rainy morning in Shanghai. My hotel window looks out over the brave New World of the Bund, where early 20th-century European architecture (laden with the classical burden of 2000 years of Greco-Roman culture) has been overwhelmed by the bold and often peculiar vision of China's new architects.

One of my friends and readers was remarking about the spectacle of the Olympic opening, which suggested cultural depths we don't understand. I agree with him. It has struck me repeatedly on my trips to China that this is a culture, and a nation, that believes in itself. They contain a commitment (to the external, at least) that we have lost.

At the same time, my overwhelming impression of this culture from an inner point of view is that they have exterminated a great deal of what used to make the wheels turn here. Buddhism has been stamped down, if not out; spirituality is of no great interest to most of those whom I meet. They are dominated instead by an intense interest in getting rich. No one here believes in the idea of putting one's treasure up in heaven; rather, the idea is to force heaven to cough up its treasures here and now.

Of course, that's how we all operate. Throughout human history, spirituality has been dragged down to and contaminated by this level, where everything operates on a "gimme" basis. Instead of considering what it ought to offer, mankind thinks in terms of what it can get.

As I meditate, I see that this attitude contaminates me even at the deepest levels, where surrender to forces I do not want to surrender to is not an option, but an absolute necessity.

It is a very difficult thing for any of us to come to the understanding that nothing -- I repeat, nothing -- that we do or gain in this world of the external has anything to do with our true purpose. We are like larvae that inhabit a pile of dung, and happily believe that the dung is our destiny. We are completely unaware of the idea that metamorphosis might ahead, and that our destiny could be to take wing and fly, not crawl around in the shit forever.

I suppose that's not surprising. To we larva, shit is life.

On the insect level, clinging to this belief is a hardwired instinct. It doesn't make any difference; unless a bird plucks grub from poop, eventually nature will have its way, and a fly or beetle with (perhaps) a magnificent iridescent carapace will emerge. In our own case, however, a bit more is required. It may or may not be that heaven takes care of metamorphosis for us all, in one way or another.

Nonetheless, every great religious tradition insists that the result of our inner metamorphosis is not guaranteed. The insect metamorphoses from a grub into a creature with an exoskeleton. This hard, durable protective cover (it's possible to recover insect exoskeletons from the age of the dinosaurs that still consist of their original chitin) comes with some pretty ironclad guarantees, but it's inflexible.

Man comes from a line of evolution with endoskeletons. That is, his inner structure can be far more durable in substance than his outer coating. At the same time, if his bones are weak, he'll collapse. In my ongoing investigation of the intersection between the inner and the outer, this question of inner structure is paramount.

The more we invest in our attachment to the outside world, the more we convince ourselves that modern architecture, Olympic spectacles, and Krugerrands are where it's at. We don't see how ephemeral and temporary all of this is. I find myself sitting around plotting how I can arrange things more comfortably, get more money, have more sex, be more important. In my own case the ironies are more than redoubled; inner experience has verified again and again that these are not the truly satisfying aims of life. And I find myself in what I might call a pitched battle (a poor analogy) between the demands of the outer life and the needs of the inner one.

The tension arises from the inhabitation of this organism, which is actually a factory with perpetual demands for fuel and stimulation of various kinds. Those demands do not always coincide with what consciousness sees as necessary, and they often exceed consciousness in terms of their motive force. In other words, the mind is weak, and trapped in a position where it seems that it has to spend most of its time shoveling coal into a furnace.

Typically, we call this a struggle.

It is actually a call to value relationship. The value needs to change.

Even when we know this, we resist. Even when we are touched by an inner force that can change us, we say no.

Why do we do that?

Perhaps this is the paramount question we must continually ask ourselves as we stand in front of our perverse, and adamant, refusal.

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

compassion, humility, foundation

One of the Buddhas at Lingyin temple in Hangzhou.

One of the consequences of many years in the Gurdjieff work--as, perhaps, in any spiritual work -- is that one actually begins to change.

One starts out in any work being told that change is possible, but requires effort. One acquires a theoretical idea of what change consists of. But once change truly arises, one discovers that the theories one had are inaccurate.

In this particular work, we are told to commit ourselves to self observation, and we stumble around with the idea for many years, doing our best to understand it from many different angles. We are not, necessarily, told exactly what to observe or how to observe it -- just to observe. And indeed, in the long run, one is both told -- and one discovers -- that the point is to just see.


In the acquisition of this understanding, factors in life begin to change. We are not, in the Gurdjieff work, specifically told how we will begin to change, or what will change, or what should change.

Now, this is certainly different than religions. They damned well tell you what must change.

Or else.

Brazenly do-it-yourself spirituality such as Gurdjieff's doesn't hand out such information on a silver platter. So in many ways, we in the work undertake this practice of self observation on faith. We are told that we will begin to "awaken.". Or at least, that we will not sleep so soundly.

What does all that mean?

To a certainty, we are not sure. I have watched people who are decidedly my seniors in the work continue to struggle with this question after many years of dedicated effort. Some of us come to one thing; some of us come to another; some begin to question whether they are coming to anything at all. This is a work that tries the soul with hammer and tongs; no ready-made answers await us. We must each heat our own anvil and make shoes for our own horse.

Perhaps we may all be a bit baffled by what we do--or don't--come to. Many of us eventually see definite "results" of one kind or another, and in numerous cases, when we compare notes, we begin to see points of contact. Nonetheless, for each man or woman, his or her inner voyage of self-discovery is unique, and we are left seeing ourselves--whether with disgust, astonishment, or sympathy--are ultimately surprised at what we see, not knowing whether this is what was "supposed" to happen.

Is anything "supposed" to happen? Are we supposed to know what will happen? Regular readers will recall that I have said many times, anything we can imagine will happen is wrong. Real "results" of inner work consistently defy imagination and defy expectations.

So let's talk about that for a minute.

For myself, one of the most unexpected turns in my work, a turn onto a path that emerged over seven years ago, is a turn deeper and deeper into the question of seeing my own smallness. Or, as Gurdjieff would call it, my nothingness.

Continually confronted with this understanding -- which, I must say, is a chemical and organic understanding, not an idea I have -- the twin forces of humility and compassion become ever more active questions for me in the exercise of life. Now, mind you, that doesn't mean I have humility or that I have compassion -- it just means that they may visit me from time to time, and when they arrive, I welcome them like old friends, because I know that they are teachers who come from far away to help me.

Is that what Gurdjieff intended for us? I don't know. I do know that it lies very close to the bones of Christianity; or, if you will forgive an entirely inappropriate comparison, it's the very meat of Buddhism. LOL. My own take on it is, if Gurdjieff did not intend for us to understand these questions, his work must be flawed, because it has led me inexorably down this path, despite the fact that compassion and humility do not seem to be prominently signposted features of the Gurdjieffian landscape.

Well, perhaps I am not being entirely accurate there. Certainly, in "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," these ideas are touched on enough times, if from oblique and unexpected directions. Nonetheless, I don't necessarily meet people discussing these "results" all that often in groups or elsewhere. The experiences I have -- experiences of what I believe Gurdjieff would have called "organic shame," the deepest sense of sorrow about my own lack -- the anguish that visits me in an inner sense whenever I draw closer to something that is real and true within myself -- well, I don't hear much about this from other people.

Am I becoming too Christian? Too Buddhist?

Is there such a thing?

I can't tell you. I don't always spout the party line in the Gurdjieff work, but I see myself as a conservative. I don't believe in mixing lines of work, and I feel reasonably sure I have some things wrong that even more conservative folks -- especially older ones -- would probably set me right on.

That worries me, because I see that I don't know enough, and I increasingly see that, as Gurdjieff said, the elder is the teacher. Some of those hidebound, conservative, annoying older people who I secretly (and sometimes publically) object to are probably much closer to the truth than I want them to be. Because of this, as I grow older, I learn. Sometimes what I learn is that they had it right all along, silly me.

So anyone who catches me backing down from a position in this blog, don't be surprised. I get things wrong all the time. As I have said before, these are the best experiences -- when I get things wrong. After all, if I get something wrong, and realize it, then I have learned something new. Getting things right just encourages me to keep trudging over the same territory again and again.

There is one area, though, where I will not cede any territory, and this is in the area where I insist that we must all attempt to deepen an organic understanding of compassion and humility.

Every ounce of effort that we expend criticizing one another, fighting one another, is an ounce of effort that could have gone in to a better kind of inner work. I wish to come to the table of my own life every day and make sure that everyone else who sits at it is served the largest possible bowl of forgiveness. I need to learn to meet others on the common ground of our own humanity.

That is an increasingly humbling place, worthy to share with my friends and enemies alike.

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

Friday, August 8, 2008

public and private faces; transmission of the unknown


I had an extremely groovy picture of a Buddha for this post, but it got edited out in favor of the above image, for reasons that will become apparent. Read on. More Buddhas tomorrow.

Occasionally, as the readership knows, I end up posting a more tactile and personal piece. Then again, the point of this enterprise is to offer not just theories, facts, and ideas, but something a little closer to the bone as well.

Once again, in his latest comments, rlnyc seems to psychically sense the questions I’m pondering. Perhaps this is reasonable—we know each other well, and have worked closely together for some time now—but the synchronicity of it consistently startles me, nonetheless. It's just downright weird, the way people who are closest to my own personal work will be working the same point as I am, even if we are on opposite sides of the globe.

After nearly two years of publicly writing about my own inner work, and inner work in general, I’m struck by the chasm between what we are able to offer outwardly and what we experience inwardly.

The outer life, outer events, circumstances, forms, and exchanges, all have a materiality that is fundamentally different than the inner condition. Our Being—such, insh'Allah, as we may have it—stands at the juncture between the known and the unknown: the intersection of an inner world, umbilically and viscerally connected to forces unknown, and the outer world, crudely steeped in, and forever celebrating, its own literalism.

The images that come to mind when I ponder this dichotomy are Mithraic in nature: I’m reminded of May 2001... of going down into a cult crypt in Ostia Antica near Rome, where a preternatural life-sized statue of a bull sacrifice all but fills one end of the small room: lined with benches, with dappled lichen yellows and moss greens smoldering in sunlight that streams down from a hole in the roof.

Ultimately, our inner work inhabits this underworld of the ancients; a world of power, hidden from this one, in which the immense natural forces we serve touch us in ways we don’t understand and can’t elaborate. They have no images or names; in our imaginations and our dreams, we cast them as evangelistic bulls, winged angels, men with the faces of dogs. Logic and reason fail; Horus and Anubis rule these realms.

This is the world of myth; it’s a world we carry within us, timeless, mysterious, and forever resistant to our stubborn attempts at interpretation. Here in these hidden inner spaces, our real work takes place. Like naïve children, we grasp hold of it and draw fragile elements into the light of day; parade them in front of one another, as though we understood something. Yet the deepest meanings are forever hidden; and perhaps we even sometimes sense that the worldly urges that compel us to show the faces of our souls to others are perversions, even the betrayal of a sacred covenant between Lord and maker.

Perhaps that’s why religions cloak themselves in mysteries, prophets speak in tongues and parables, and Gurdjieff himself “buried his bones” in the epic mythology of “Beelzebub.” In the end, we can’t bring anything of that world to this one; all we can offer one another are the pale shadows which Plato’s prisoners see cast upon the walls of their cells.

Nonetheless, somewhere within this dialectic between seen and unseen, we manage to transmit some faded version of our experience in a way valuable enough that we help each other grow. How that happens is mysterious; it may not even take place within the words themselves, and perhaps we’re naïve to believe it does; naïve, even, to believe that any of the forms we create and share actually have an impact.

It may be that the subtle currents, the electromagnetic pulses and pheromones that we exchange in proximity to one another, are far more important in the end than any words. Certainly, coming out of the work week two weeks ago, after seven days of immersion in waters unknown, drinking deep from streams of collective endeavor, I had no sense whatsoever that the words were what fed me.

Certainly, they were part of it; and even here, they are not without purpose. Nonetheless, it’s wise to call them into question.

To doubt the very words themselves, and look past them.

May we all sink deep within the inner life of the self this day, and discover a point of breath that draws the darkened silken thread of Being into contact with our sleep.

And, as always, may your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

meaning and value

Regular readers may have noticed by now that I have just about never published a photo of myself on this blog.

Today, at the end of the day, one of my vendors was kind enough to take me to Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, where one of my staff members took this picture. The Buddhas are pretty cool, so I decided to make an exception.

This morning, while I was walking around West Lake, I was pondering the questions of meaning and value. I think that I had some pretty intelligent observations about the question. I say I think so, because by now (6:30 p.m.) I am whipped by jet lag, and feeling about as stupid as a log.

Anyway, I will try to dredge up some of the observations.

Maurice Nicoll said in his commentaries that we are all looking for meaning in life. Meaning, however, is not an intellectual construction -- even though in today's world a great deal of it is configured that way. Intellectuals, academics, bankers, businessmen, and so on try to construct meaning using facts. Generally speaking, that's our habit. In my own experience, however, as good as I am about learning things and remembering things and assembling lots of different facts, that type of meaning is as flat as table rock. (table rock, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, refers to large expanses of featureles bedrock that have been polished flat by glaciers.)

Meaning actually consists of the emotional content within life. If the emotions are off -- if the emotional parts are not working well -- almost everything loses its meaning. We've all had the experience of breaking up a relationship or losing a loved one, and discovering that our formerly rich world suddenly seems featureless and colorless.

Emotion, in other words, is what assigns meaning to our lives. It is the chief tool of measurement of life. We don't measure life with facts, and figures, and statistics (and when we try to, we end up with disasters like the subprime loan crisis)-- we measure life with our emotional parts. And in the measurement, we assign the valuation.

Because our emotional parts work faster than any other part, valuation is assigned to almost anything just about instantly. This means that our emotional part values before anything else gets to the situation. Or it devalues before anything else gets there; that's very common. What that means is that unless our emotional parts are working well, values that may well be invalid get slapped all over everything. And in fact, in watching impressions fall into me, that is almost exactly what happens. Everything just arrives willy-nilly, and who the hell knows where it is going or how it gets organized once it arrives.

Even more important, I know I can't trust my emotional reactions. It's already become quite clear that they are undisciplined and frequently irrational. It's perfectly okay for me to have them -- after all, I can't get rid of them -- but acting on them is generally unwise. I am not sure about the rest of you, but if I truly started acting on impulse, Doom would swiftly ensue.

A third observation is that emotional center isn't well-connected in the morning. I always need a while to get things organized there.

One of the principal difficulties with emotional well-being is that we are trapped in what I would call the lower part of the emotional octave. That is to say, we keep repeating over and over within a range of emotional value that attaches itself too firmly to the material.

In order to improve the situation, we need to nurture our emotional well-being in ways that psychology alone cannot bring us to. An organic sensation becomes necessary; that is to say, emotion needs to become connected to the body in the same way that the mind becomes connected to the body.

This is a subtle point. You'll notice that many teachings talk about the mind/body connection. It's almost as though everyone has forgotten that there needs to be a certain kind of emotion/body connection.

Because emotions immediately provoke physical reactions, we think they are connected to the body already. That is of course true, but only in the crudest sense. I'm speaking here of a new kind of connection between emotions and the body. A connection with a great deal more awareness in it than just the usual reactions we have. If we want to look for what is missing in the picture, this is a good place to start. For myself, whenever I bring my attention to the point of relationship, I notice this missing element almost immediately.

Where is it? I'm not sure. I need to make more efforts in order to bring the parts together.

This kind of connection is what needs to develop in order for emotions to begin to become more whole. As they do so, valuation assumes a completely different weight both in the body and the mind. Meaning changes. We begin to see that what we thought had meaning was insignificant, and that things we never paid attention to before are paramount.

One final note to readers. After a good deal of work on the essay about the structural nature of man, I decided to go ahead and publish it in what is to some extent an unfinished version (click the link.) After you trudge through the technical details, you will discover that a good deal of the essay is about the questions raised in this post.

All the essential points are present. I have not, however, set it up as available for download yet.

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The dead man's handle

It appears as though some material from the essay I'm working on will be leaking out through this blog as I progress. Rather than struggle against the process, I have decided to accept it.

Today's subject matter occurred to me two weeks ago. At that time, I hadn't conceived of the essay, and saw it as material for a stand-alone piece. It was only today -- in a car on the way to a quilt factory in Pujiang-- that I realized it belongs in the essay. At the same time, it doesn't seem right to deprive it its original place, that is, here.

So here it is.

In old-fashioned railway steam engines, the engineer (i.e., driver) had to deploy a device called the dead man's handle in order to move the train forward. (Richard Thompson has a great song by that title, by the way.) It was designed in such a way that if he ever let go -- for any reason, but especially the reason that he was dead (by heart attack, or pistol shot, or whatever) -- the handle would automatically move back to the off position, stopping the train.

Not long ago, in my immediate vicinity, the question was raised as to what we have in us that might stop us from assuming we have developed to the highest level (or any higher level whatsoever) when, in fact, we have not. In other words, how do we know if we have reached a level -- any level? Metaphysical history is, after all, littered with the sad remains of what I call “99% masters”-- men who thought they knew everything, but were in the end missing something vital that fell into what we would call the "unknown unknown” ...for those men.

Spiritual works that unfetter themselves from traditions can tend to produce such situations. Traditions, hidebound and form--oriented though they may be, tend to have safeguards. Mavericks, outsiders, and Unique Celestial Gurus may routinely eschew such limitations, but they do so at their own risk.

In Christianity, and Islam, and Buddhism, the dead man's handle consists of compassion and humility. No matter how far we go, in these traditional practices, it is firmly understood that in the absence of these two features, any development whatsoever is ultimately flawed. And, indeed, we discover these two practices at the heart of Gurdjieff's work. No coincidence, perhaps, considering his firmly Christian roots, his deeply Islamic practices, and the large dose of (apparently) Tibetan Buddhism he spiced his teachings with.

The practice of outer considering is above all a compassionate one. And the sensing of one’s own nothingness is perhaps the quintessential ingredient in humility.

In the first practice, we work to develop and understand empathy. In the second, we kneel before what Gurdjieff called "his endlessness" in abject acknowledgment of our subservience. The entire chapter of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is about the second practice. It's likely that no other single piece of literature sums man's vanity and obligations up in such a comprehensive manner.

These two understandings are closely tied to development of emotional center. As the emotional octave becomes more whole, these two experiences should deepen. And, in fact, they relate to the two intervals of the octave.

The practice of outer considering is above all a practice of attention. In order to have compassion, we must attend to those around us -- discover their humanity, see that we are just like they are. We must attend to their manifestations, attend to their needs, attend to an understanding of the difficult and even desperate situations we all fall victim to. So, in a very real sense, the practice of compassion is directly related to conscious labor.

The practice of sensing one's own nothingness is related to intentional suffering. In placing the ego under the authority of something much larger, of course we suffer. None of us want to give up this thing that we believe makes us what we are. It is only the willingness within us to intentionally allow a force greater than ourselves to act that can make anything real possible. This is directly related to the idea of submission, of the surrender that Islam demands of man.

And why, you may ask, are these two qualities of compassion and humility so important? It’s quite simple, really.

In the way of the fakir and the way of the Yogi, tremendous strength and tremendous intelligence may be developed, yes. However, in the absence of the development of emotional center -- the way of the monk -- they are subject to abuse. Only the proper development of emotional center can help a man who develops in other ways to avoid the disaster incumbent upon one who has too much strength, or too much intellect, without enough heart.

And in both cases, without the heart, one will inevitably lead others astray -- a crime which is difficult to redress.

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


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

shadow and substance


Keeping in the tradition of this blog, I am posting from the business class lounge in Seoul, South Korea, on the first leg of another one of my journeys into mainland China.

I want to begin by apologizing to the readership for my failure to publish my structural essay before I left on the trip. The subject matter is complex, and I decided to divide the essay into two parts, including a "warm, fuzzy" part that simplifies it and discusses it in more practical terms. That second portion is not finished yet, and there is no point in rushing something on a serious matter into print.

I hope to have it finished within this week, at which point it will be made available. There is no harm, however, in discussing a little bit of what it's about.

We are taught in the Gurdjieff work that everything proceeds according to the law of octaves. This means that every set of events represents the evolution of energy according to a set of laws of vibration. The argument would not be unfamiliar to physicists, and proponents of string theory in particular; according to them, the entire universe -- all of reality -- arises from what we might call meta-cosmic strings which vibrate at different rates. Anyway, all of that is extremely technical. The point here is that everything that precedes inside us is also subject to the law of octaves.

The essay's premise is that every center has its own inner octave, and that the octaves of all the inner centers are closely interrelated in an unexpected way.

The details should be left to the essay. The open question that can be asked outside that context is, how do we sense this question in our own bodies?

The question cannot be left as a theoretical one. If we are going, as Jeanne DeSalzmann suggested, to "stay in front of our own lack," the lack we ought to be staying in front of is our failure to sense this process in ourselves. We don't bring our attention to the question of the inner rate of vibration. That action involves a much closer inspection of the organism and its process.

In attempting to approach this, we struggle with the difference between shadow and substance. Too much information on the matter stimulates our imagination; the danger is that instead of truly experiencing our inner state, we will imagine we are doing so. This danger is all too prevalent, and everyone in the work falls victim to it somewhere along their own path. The whole point -- one of the whole points -- of working in groups is so that we can help curb each other's imaginary impulses.

On the other hand, not enough information causes us to completely overlook this question, to not even understand where the question lies, and to fall into a soft, mushy, and relatively undefined territory where we become satisfied and even complacent with insufficient efforts. We don't understand that we need to be working with a more exact, more clear, more awake and aware understanding of this question.

...

In a stunning example of synchronicity (or is it something more?...) my good friend rlnyc left a comment on the last post about how our work extends down to even the quantum level. He is absolutely correct; the forthcoming essay already discusses this.

Many will believe that this is an analogy, but it is not. The processes that drive the emergence of classical reality from the quantum level are the exact same processes that cause a manifestation of Being to arise from the intersection of consciousness and matter. It's necessary to understand this from direct experience; no amount of writing about it will do.

I must confess, after rlnyc's post, the prospect of putting this information out in front of readers gets me so excited that I am tempted to race off, finish the essay right now (I don't have time, because my flight will be called in a half an hour or so) and slam it onto the Web.

Fortunately for all of us, I'm unable to do that. Instead, it is possible for me to offer this brief excerpt from the essay.

Laws, the enneagram, and quantum theory

...Just a brief "aside" here to point out that the law of three, as viewed within the enneagram, corresponds to momentum. The law of seven corresponds to location. In the same way that the existence of a particle “magically” emerges from the dialectical tension of quantum uncertainty (velocity versus location) through the agency of an observer, the existence of Being within man emerges from the effort of the physically observed interaction of the two laws. In this sense, in order for being to emerge, a man has to actually inhabit his own enneagram. Unless his awareness observes the process of interaction, the emergent potential of Being-- which represents "reality," rather than the illusion man perpetually dwells in -- goes unrealized. He continues to dwell in an unresolved “quantum dialectic” which represents potential, blocked by contradiction.

The relationship between the enneagram and the broad concepts of quantum uncertainty and emergent classical reality is perhaps an unexpected one. Nonetheless, the principles confirm Gurdjieff's contention that this diagram describes everything, if one only knew how to read it. Is it truly surprising that the process of Being arises in the same way at every level? Being, we discover, is a lawful phenomenon embedded at the root of reality, and reaching all the way to its apex.


For now, friends, that's all... but I look forward to continuing the enterprise from China, where postings will continue... with or without progress on (or completion of) the essay.

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