Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Evolution of minerals, and the dark energy of the brain

Pictured here: a spodumene (kunzite) crystal from my personal collection, on matrix in an unusual association with amethyst. The specimen is from China. (Here's another picture)

Technically speaking, we are all composed of minerals-- all organic life, in fact, relies for its existence on the complex crystalline structure of DNA.

An article (highly recommended reading) in the March issue of Scientific American by Robert M. Hazen entitled "Evolution of Minerals" explains how the majority of minerals present on earth were created by life processes.

His wrap-up paragraph mentions that we live in a cosmos with a consistent tendency to develop increasing levels of complexity, and, moreover, one that is in the process of learning to know itself.

As Stuart Kaufmann so eloquently points out in Reinventing the Sacred, we can interpret that statement in many different ways, so that both the religious and scientifically minded are satisfied both with its openness, and accuracy.

A second article in this issue of Sci-Am-- also well worth reading -- is "The Brain's Dark Energy" by Marcus E. Raichle. Simply put, the author explains that about 80% of all brain activity is what we call "background" activity, that is, the brain is constantly doing things that don't necessarily relate to any specific external event, and that is what most of its activities consist of. What we have here is, propositionally, "mindful mindlessness," a concept which ought to please not only the Buddhists, but also those type "A" personalities who feel guilty when sitting around doing nothing.

And everyone else in between.

Both of these articles might appear, on the surface, to be unrelated, but they are not. They both ask questions about what we are, where we come from, and how we perceive the universe around us. The tool that does the perceiving -- the brain -- is in essence a very complex organic crystalline matrix. It arises directly from the evolution of complexity in the minerals described in the first article.

All of this might seem rather boring to those of us who are devoted more to inner work than questions of science, but, as Gurdjieff pointed out, the subjects are not separated. Religion and science both seek self-knowledge. The universe has, inexplicably and mysteriously, produced organisms capable of perception, that act to increase the level of complexity in the universe--a tendency that contradicts seemingly known laws of entropy.

Why?

In answer to the "big" (for me) question raised by the first article -- can minerals "know" themselves? -- an apparent absurdity, the answer is, definitively, yes. The subject -- that is, the complex crystalline nature of molecular biology, based on minerals -- can see itself through self-created tools of perception. It seems to be a reflexive act undertaken by unintelligent elements, but as we have discussed many times before in this space, the universal property of emergence -- which is essential to any understanding of evolution, consciousness, and intelligence -- dictates that unintelligent elements will consistently assemble themselves into units that display greater degrees of intelligence.

( I am intentionally ignoring here the specious arguments advanced by some reductionist theorists of consciousness who argue that consciousness itself is illusory and doesn't actually exist. Lest readers somehow mistake these stupid contentions as some modern, albeit perverted, scientific version of Zen Buddhism, allow me to remind us that Dogen, the preeminent Buddhist theorist of the last 2000 years, would have firmly contradicted any such contention as non-Buddhist thinking.)

In answer to the second "big" (for me) question, raised by the second article, that is, what is the nature of consciousness -- well, here we see that the majority of consciousness is supported and created by what one would call "unconscious" constituent elements -- which bears a striking, if arguably superficial, relationship to the arguments Gurdjieff raised in " Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson" in which he explained that most of the conscious elements in man that still had any intact functioning had submerged into the unconscious -- painted in his sweeping allegory of the submergence of the continent of Atlantis.

The article on dark energy of the brain makes it clear that the majority of who we are, what we are, and what our potentials are, is indeed submerged beneath the surface of our awareness. Here we have one more piece of scientific verification on this question--lest there were any doubt at all left, and despite Freud's original sexual mangling of the question.

I am sure readers with less strongly developed intellectual interests (and there is nothing, indeed, wrong with that!) will be relieved to hear that this brings us to the point of our actual work.

Anyone who persists for decades in the inner effort proposed by the Gurdjieff Work will eventually discover properties of consciousness that are no less magical or extraordinary than the most outrageous ideas presented by popular culture.

They may not be as spectacular -- we are, after all, a species addicted to the impulse of showing off -- but they are much more profound, in that they are not produced by our fantasies. They are real.

And it is this emergence of something that is actually real and completely extraordinary, completely different than anything one was led to expect out of life or experience, that we work for.

One of the significant properties of the Gurdjieff work is that most of its technique -- as well as its activity -- is aimed at stimulating these areas of "dark energy," these mysterious underlying patterns of neurological activity whose exact functioning and purpose is just now being noticed, and remains utterly obscure to modern science.

We do not try to work in a literal manner-- which was perhaps one of the signature mistakes that Ouspensky ultimately made, one which he popularized and promulgated in his famous "In Search of the Miraculous -- Fragments of an Unknown Teaching." To this day, countless adherents of the teaching ascribe almost equal weight to this book and original works by Gurdjieff himself, when nothing could be further from the truth. This is because of our attraction to the superficial -- an attraction which serves us very well indeed, until we believe too much in it.

Based on my own experience, it is safe to say that no superficial interpretation or understanding -- no attempts at literalism -- can lead to the kind of inner opening which we seek. Gurdjieff understood this quite well, and left us with unique texts, unique music, and unique movements, all of which act over the course of many years on the unconscious parts of man. Like Jesus Christ's parables, they are meant to act on the parts of minds that lie outside the literal, superficial, or obvious parts -- exactly those parts, in other words, that fall in the range of the "dark energy" described in the Scientific American article.

There are those who will say that to compare Gurdjieff to Christ is a heresy. Gurdjieff himself would have agreed. But in comparing this specific area of teaching, the methodology is clearly quite similar, underlining once again the strong connection between the Gurdjieff practice and Christianity. One cannot separate Gurdjieff and his teaching from the teachings of Christ, because his work is so clearly and so firmly in the Christian tradition, despite what detractors may say.

So here, once again, we encounter that peculiar blend of Christianity, Eastern esotericism, and modern science, all coalescing together in a nexus of understanding that leads us towards the mysteries of what we are.

It reaffirms once again Gurdjieff's unique and extraordinary syncretism, express the best in his aphorism, "Take the understanding of the East and the knowledge of the West -- and then seek." (Views From The Real World, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1973, p 282.)

May the living light of Christ discover us.




Thursday, February 18, 2010

Diligence

Live, from the Yucatan.

It's not really possible for any of us to absorb--in any way, shape or form--just how many human beings have lived on this planet before us, or how vast even the supposedly smaller, "less important" civilizations than our own were.

Nothing hammers that home more than traipsing for days through jungle-covered ruins where countless lost cities used to stand, a thousand years ago and more. Everything these people built for, all that they believed in--

utterly and irrevocably gone.

Yet we dare to believe we are somehow different than they were, don't we?

No human being is, in their ordinary state, capable of seeing or understanding much more than their immediate impulses or environment. Gurdjieff, recognizing this, called on men to attempt to consider the "worlds" they inhabit from as many points of view as possible. It was one way of understanding our own nothingness--our own insignificance--in the face of time and space.

Nonetheless, we find ourselves sucked into life by forces that insist to us that what we're doing matters, that the whole world turns around the tiny little axle of our own ego. The conviction in all men is that our external actions are what life is about.

Contrast this with Gurdjieff's contention that all along, man has always served to feed something higher than himself: at one time, the development of the moon; now that mankind has been freed from that responsibility, another and perhaps greater purpose. Our life is not a life to be led enslaved by external conditions; instead, it's a life aimed (should we understand its true purpose) at Being.

Being, in the truest sense, meaning to fully experience our inner state and its relationship to the external. Jeanne De Salzmann unfailingly reminded her pupils of this, over and over, during the course of her lifetime.

Despite a lifetime in the Gurdjieff work (if we are in that work, rather than some other--but I think it applies regardless) we suddenly see--as my wife said tonight while we were soaking our tired, pyramid-tested muscles in a hot bath-- that if we admit it to ourselves, we don't actually work much. Oh, we talk a good game, as Frank Sinclair often points out-- but when the tire hits the pavement, there's no pavement or tire there. That is to say, we do everything we can to avoid friction (even and perhaps especially when exchanging amongst one another) even though friction is the only thing that can create enough heat in us to motivate.

This week, ostensibly on vacation--but in reality plagued by all the stress-filled moments one gets when one is not on vacation--I see how absolutely necessary suffering is, and how absolutely necessary it is to play the role of a negative pole, here in this life, here on this planet. Working, in the context of being present to the individual suffering we encounter and rubbing ourselves up against that friction, over and over again, is the only way in which we can help prepare conditions that may attract the assistance of a higher force that can actually help us.

Do we believe that? No, we do not.

All of us live life doing everything we can to make sure the way is paved as smoothly as possible. Even the consolations of philosophy end up being a form of what Gurdjieff called "the evil inner God of self-calming." It's only by staring down the barrel of the gun, as it were, when we point ourselves directly at ourselves and confront ourselves with our own mortality-- that we begin to realize we don't have any answers, we don't know what the hell we are doing, and, furthermore, that we are far more comfortable with that than we have any reason to be.

So-- I don't want to flatter myself with the idea that I am working much. I'm lazy. I don't try very hard. It's only when I stick my hand--by accident-- into a bee's nest that I wake up for a moment and see how little I work, and how very much of me simply does not want to work.

A few summers ago Peggy Flinsch mentioned to us, during an informal gathering, that there was a time earlier in the work when she and others questioned everything.

Her inference was that we have somehow lost that ethic, if ethic it is. Perhaps it would be better to call it a practice--and to recognize that that practice very quickly falls into disrepair if we fail to exercise it.

So-- for now, at least--perhaps you will join me in wishing that we not get comfortable with any ideas about how diligent and sincere we are in our work.

May the living light of Christ discover us.




Wednesday, February 17, 2010

still on vacation


Yesterday we were at Uxmal... without a doubt one of the most spectacular mesoamerican sites we've ever been to. Pack your bags and go! You won't regret it. The Mayans built some of the most beautiful temple complexes on earth.

The size of the civilizations on the Yucatan is staggering. The sheer number of ruins have to be seen to be believed. Along the way we've run into many interesting architectural, symbolic, and iconographic parallels between Angor Wat and Mayan art... more on that in a future post, later this week.

Until then,

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bragging rights


The sleepy little Mexican town of Chicxulub has been in the news ever since geologists identified it as being ground zero for a meteorite impact 65 million years ago. Many (myself included) think this is what spelled the dinosaur's untimely end.

I'm wiped out from traipsing around Mexican towns and the ruins of Dzibilchaltun, so I'm not writing a formal post today, but actually standing on the spot is a thrill I thought I'd share with readers.

May the living light of Christ discover us.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

One sacred moment

Our community is digging out from about 14 inches of snowfall yesterday. Since I mentioned the calm over the Hudson River before the storm in my last post, I thought I would include a picture of it here.

The picture reminds me that there are an endless series of sunrise images out there associated with sacred moments, and with God. For tens of thousands of years, man has associated the sun with God, and no matter how sophisticated religions get, this very basic and very early understanding of man remains intact.

Yesterday, when we were walking in the middle of the storm -- snow pelting our faces until we winced -- Neal was looking at the famous dog Isabel, exercising all the dog power that allows her to run around with nothing more than a coat of fur in the middle of a blizzard, and she asked me if all of Isabel's energy came from the sun.

Those who are interested in biology probably already know that there are some very few organisms on this planet (okay, well, relatively few) who derive their energy, the building blocks for their organic bodies, from non-solar sources.

These are the creatures that live around hydrothermal vents. All other organisms on the planet are, to the very last one, dependent on the Sun as the ultimate source of their energy, so we are all creations of the sun, and, perhaps even more pointedly, creations of a unique molecule called chlorophyll, with remarkable properties that allow it to bridge the gap between the quantum level and the level that we live on, that is, the level of classical reality. (Those interested in this subject can find more on it in the fine book reinventing the sacred, by Stuart Kauffman.)

So in a biological sense we quite correctly associate the sacred, the higher, with the sun, because it is the source of life.

Gurdjieff taught us that suns are sacred entities; they are, quite literally, higher beings.

All of this, of course, sounds dramatic, romantic, and wonderful, but in us "as we are," it remains an idea. Even if if we see the sun and impressions or impulses of awe and amazement enter us, they are, for the most part, taken in and mediated by our most ordinary sensory abilities.

In order to have a true experience, feeling, or impression of the sacred, one must develop a capacity for a finer kind of sensation.

This finer kind of sensation is talked about a great deal in the Gurdjieff work, but it is unlikely you'll find too much mention of it in other esoteric works, and the idea is nearly absent in most exoteric religious practices. One could think of many reasons for why that might be the case, but in the end, I suspect many other works are just not helping people to produce this capacity. If they were, the teachers would understand it and be talking about it. Instead, what we end up hearing about is a great deal of psychological and emotional material ( Please don't think I'm implying that that material is lacking. A great deal of it is certainly valid, and even helpful. My point here is that it is incomplete.) Even in Hatha yoga, where this kind of capacity clearly has to be an aim, it is not specifically addressed. At least, not in those terms... which are unique enough to the experience that one would imagine they would have to be expressed in terms of sensation... if there were any real experience of it. I speak, of course, of the organic sense of being, which is a term I have used many times in this space.

Of course, there is a great deal of talk about connection between the mind and the body out there, but exactly what kind of connection this is is, perhaps, rather poorly understood.

This business of sensation -- of a truly physically centered sense, an inner gravity, connected to both the mind and the feelings -- is, for most people, a complete unknown, and even for those who have heard about it -- people in this work, for example -- it remains, perhaps for many years or even an entire lifetime, mostly a theoretical idea.

The specific search for a connection to sensation--one of Jeanne De Salzmann's core teachings-- is central to the understanding of three centered work.

Only when the mind, the body, and the emotions participate can we discover what it means to have a truly sacred moment. It only is in those unique moments, which cannot be forced, but only prepared for, that the real capacity for man's sensory ability becomes apparent.

Man was created with the capacity, the ability -- latent in almost all of us now, of course -- to physically sense God, to emotionally sense God, to intellectually sense God.

When he does even one of these things, he understands that his place on the planet is a place of service, that he has a responsibility to something higher. But when he does all three of these things at the same time, when all of the centers work together and sense the higher simultaneously, a true experience of transformation takes place.

That sense is fundamentally unavailable to a single center. If two centers are participating, it creates a space where that sense might enter... given the participation of a third center. And the way that that process takes places is not subjective-- that is, it works in a certain way and always works in that way, and both the foundation and the effort necessary for it are consistent.

When we talk about "three centered work," in our ordinary way and with our ordinary associations, we talk about it as though we understood it and even understood its purpose; that somehow, we could stick it into ordinary life like you put a screwdriver into the top of a screw, and then turn it with ease and efficiency.

We fail to understand that three centered work is a sacred work with a sacred purpose, because we have so little real experience of it.

Real three centered work puts the sacred at the center of every moment and each movement within it. As such, chatting about it as though any of us truly understood it, or its purpose, is a disservice. A real three-centered experience is a taste of a higher level, because the harmonious functioning of the mind, body, and the emotions opens the capacity for the sensing of the sacred.

Drawing further on the biological analogy that I began this post with, we might understand it from the point of view of pores in a cell. There is a moment when all of the machinery of the cell is working properly, and an opening appears in the membrane, through which information from a higher level enters.

Suddenly, the cell senses its place. It communicates with its neighbors. It ceases to be an isolated entity, and forms a new kind of connection outside the walls that protect it. As a consequence, a new kind of nourishment becomes available.

One could certainly expand on this, but I have to wrap this up, because I have to get to work this morning. On mornings like this, after a heavy snowstorm, I feel gratitude for the fact that nowadays, my commute usually consists of turning from one computer monitor to another, rather than getting in a car and driving an hour down the Jersey Turnpike.

So, wishing all readers well in their search for Being today.

May the living light of Christ discover us.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A New Box

We are awaiting a big snowstorm here in New York.

This morning, we walked the famous dog Isabel along the banks of the Hudson River, as the sun was rising.

Red bellied woodpeckers trilled to one another; golden light flooded out over the salt marsh. It was perfectly calm; the phragmites (salt marsh reeds) were eerily still. Not even a breath of wind disturbed the woods. Now, however, the sky is gray and overcast.

Consequently, I wanted to see something colorful at the top of this post. Hence a picture of my kite vendor in China. She and her husband sell all kinds of terrific kites; I brought this one home with me and will be flying it over the Hudson River on the Piermont Pier later in the spring, for anyone who wants to join me.

As cheerful as the picture looks, it appears in the context of an awful shock.

Less than a mile from here, this afternoon at 1 PM, it appears a decent young man killed himself. He was just out of high school; a personal friend of my son's. He was depressed because he had trespassed and broken a security camera belonging to the federal government while horsing around (as young men will) and they prosecuted.

He was facing a jail sentence.

One wonders how all the adults involved in this, who eagerly wanted to show this young man how much more powerful than him they were, feel about it now.

In any event, it thrusts into brutal highlight the fact that all we have is this life. Every one of us runs around flailing about as though we were important and understood things, but the only thing that we actually know is that we live.

In a supreme irony, that is the one thing we forget in the most aggressive manner possible. We don't pay attention to our lives; we don't pay attention to who we are and where we are and what we are doing. Instead, we allow ourselves to be hypnotized by every external factor that arrives at our sensory doorstep. All we do is react. The idea of right action is so foreign to us. We take actions that can lead to terrible forms of destruction, all the while thinking that what we are doing is absolutely correct.

Then, suddenly, something absolutely disastrous happens. "My goodness," we think to ourselves, "I certainly had all of that wrong."

But by that time is far too late.

Mr. Gurdjieff mentioned on more than one occasion that we need to remember our mortality. If we look at others and see, with sympathy, that every one of them is going to die--as we also will-- that everything we desire, all our wishes and hopes, will be taken away from us -- then we begin to understand, perhaps in a tiny measure, what real compassion could be. What real love might be.

The only thing we know is that we live. This is a precious thing, a real thing, and yet we become so confused that we forget we are alive. It's so obvious it becomes uninteresting. How is that possible? For a certainty, the instant one comes close to death, one sees how very interesting indeed the ordinary act of being alive is. I know that for certain, having survived a very severe car accident. Nothing looks the same after that.

So. Here we are in the midst of this very ordinary act, right now. Me, as I dictate this piece. You, as you read it. We are separated in time but together in the investigation of these ideas.

How are we?
What are we?
Where are we?

There are probably a trillion-- 10 trillion -- suggestions that claim to represent answers to these questions, but there can be no final answer, because each one of these questions states itself in relationship to a process in movement.

How we are is always changing.
What we are is always changing.
Where we are is always changing.

We are not "in" an ideology. We are not "in" a cosmology. We are in a process called life. It is idiosyncratic, messy, unpredictable, and refuses to fit properly into any of the boxes we so carefully make for it.

Caution dictates that we not make too many boxes, and that we not make them too large, or too small. Our boxes should not be too simple or too elaborate; they should be appropriate for the moment, and we should always understand that we will soon need a new box.

Over the weekend, we worked with a group in another city, and I had occasion to speak with a few people that are quite new to the work. The occasion reminded me that the simplest tools we have are still, after 30 years and more, the best ones.

Relaxation.
Sensation.
An effort to attend to where I am.

In the midst of all the fancy complicated thoughts and plans, in the midst of the triumphs and disasters, in the midst of the ideologies of the cosmologies, these three things remain quite reliable.

So. Self-remembering doesn't have to be that complicated, folks.

May the living light of Christ discover us.




Wednesday, February 3, 2010

technical data

I'm under the impression that we often get confused between technique, and what our aim is.

For me, as I grow older, the aim is, increasingly, to live. Not to practice techniques that will allow me to live; not to learn about techniques that supposedly lead towards living. No; the aim is to live.

This aim transcends technique.

One of the signature features of Ouspensky's classic "In Search of the Miraculous" was that Gurdjieff taught him all kinds of techniques. The book itself is remarkably technical in nature, answering questions and explaining the nature of esoteric work in exhaustive detail. A lot of people get stuck on this book-- and on Ouspensky's analytical "version" of the work, convinced somehow that this is the real thing, and that anyone who deviates from it has missed the point.

Gurdjieff, on the other hand, changed his teaching methods radically as he grew older and stopped explaining everything in that way. He still gave esoteric exercises, but they were more circumscribed, and left a great deal to the student to discover. So I believe there was a recognition on his part that technique is not an answer. In a sense, at the end of his life and the end of his teaching, it turned out that he himself repeatedly did what he always exhorted his students to do: throw out the book, start everything over. One might say his teaching transitioned from one of technique to one of process.

Question everything.

Let's face it, you can go out and read any number of books by any number of yogis or spiritual masters, packed full of all kinds of techniques. If they really produced the results that are claimed, the world would be swarming with enlightened individuals, and it just isn't. The one thing that they quite definitely produce is a desire in people to act like grasshoppers, jumping from one technique and idea and practice to the next, as though it were always the next thing that was going to bring enlightenment.

There is something that, for me, misses the mark in all of this technique stuff.

The aim is to see the bark of the tree. Not to understand the technique that will allow one to see the bark of the tree.

Perhaps the difficulty is that the bark of the tree is too ordinary. It is a simple thing, if beautiful. If we really see the bark of the tree, if we really, really see it in a new way, we suddenly understand that we have never actually seen the bark of a tree.

But we don't see that. What we see is dry, brown, scabby stuff with bad-tempered squirrels running around on it.

Techniques and descriptions of techniques, on the other hand, are instantly alluring.
They are complicated.
They are attractive to the ego, which likes to show itself how very clever it is by understanding complicated things.
Techniques allow us to create "in groups" whom presume to understand something together, as opposed to the rest of those idiots, who don't understand anything. We all do this-- while solemnly swearing to ourselves that we would never, never do this.
And above all, they give us the illusion that we are powerful and can do things.

There is no doubt, I have spent plenty of time studying techniques, and I've even written about this -- in some cases, extensively. I am at a moment, however, where I doubt this enterprise, even in the case of my own work. I can go back and read anything I wrote about such work three or five or eight years ago, and poke all kinds of holes in it. Nothing that is written is complete; there is always more to add, mistakes that have been made, things that were not adequately understood then, and so on.

Looking back on what I thought I knew then, I increasingly see that everything I think I know now is suspect.

Not only that, techniques can be dangerous. I am unfortunately familiar with this problem, to the point where I have actually stopped discussing techniques I know with other people. What works for one man may not be good at all for the next one, and in any event, in the wrong hands (or at the wrong time), an excellent technique can turn into a form of inner poison. One has to be cautious, even within one's own work, in understanding this. You can't pour rocket fuel into a Honda and expect the engine to run well.

So, should we advocate the abandonment of technique?

In the more intense and esoteric instances, I think, yes. At least in this work.

One of the beauties of Gurdjieff's " harmonious development" is that it is a subtle and deep work which sidesteps many of the questions of technique. That isn't to say that it doesn't have techniques, but they are relatively simple, all things considered.

And after delving into the intricacies of enneagrams and chakras, centers and hydrogens and so on and so forth, there comes a moment where one perhaps wakes up for a minute and realizes that trees have bark on them.

One sees that the techniques, in other words, have become another form of hypnosis. And until one actually sees the bark on the tree, and understands how that seeing is real, one is convinced that seeing bark on a tree is just not enough, that much more spectacular things must be done.

Well, I don't know if I've explained this very well, but in the end, it all comes back to the organic sense of being, the inner gravity, the understanding that we have to live first.

To inhabit the organism, not inhabit the technique.

One last note: I urge my readers to check out my friend Kathy Neall's new blog, Come to Capernaum.

Kathy and I have worked together for many years. Her input has been a fundamental influence during the evolution of the Zen, Yoga, Gurdjieff blog.

May the living light of Christ discover us.




Monday, February 1, 2010

Going The Distance

Let's face it, there are times when any and all of us feel distant from our work.

No matter how magical our experiences -- no matter how deep our commitment -- no matter how serene our countenance -- it is impossible to live a life where the inner tone is forever the same.

I don't think we would want to, anyway. We need the challenges that life puts in front of us. We were incarnated into these bodies and into these lives because we needed those challenges. And of course, some of the challenges are temporal in nature, that is, they are challenges in terms of money, jobs, raising children, and so on.

But there are also inner challenges.

Those inner challenges need not arise, of necessity, in relationship to the external challenges. Sometimes they are challenges that arise within the organism, of the organism, and in the context of the organism's relationship to itself.

That is, no matter how our life is arranged -- good, bad, indifferent -- the connection to one's work is lacking. Lacking, that is, more than usual.

That is not all up to us. Planetary conditions determine, to a greater extent than we can imagine, what is available for us to work with in an inner sense. So we need not feel that it is all "us" if things are going poorly in terms of our inner relationship. Some of it is the weight of that juggernaut Mr. Gurdjieff called "the ray of creation" bearing down on us. We are, as he pointed out, in a very low place. A small, dark corner of the universe. And at this time, in the northern hemisphere, solar energy is at an ebb. So some of the support we can receive just isn't available right now.

There is a temptation, at times, to feel despair in moments like this. For myself, I find myself questioning what my work is, what I have understood, what I can really bring to life. In moments like this, I am not sure of any of that. At other times, a certain form of ego -- confidence imparts the belief that I have "mojo" -- that something real is going on in me, that there is forward motion (as if such a thing existed -- does it?) and that I am, in the vulgar sense of things, "getting somewhere."

If nothing else, it is good to bottom out at the humble floor of the keg, where I sit in the dregs of what I actually am and see that I actually cannot "do." It's not up to me -- I am, in fact, just one of those helpless little "slugs" that Beelzebub spoke of so often.

I don't think we can rediscover our own effort, redouble it, make it real, if we don't constantly bounce hard off the bottom of what we really are. It's only this repeated pounding of ourselves into the floor of our lives, with the consequent pain and doubt, that begins to render us porous enough for something higher to enter us. I know for a fact, in my own case, that it was only years of being battered by objectively horrific personal circumstances than anything opened in me. (It reminds me, in a perverse way, of the way that I pound veal on the countertop until it is nicely flattened.)

So the low points are not a bad thing.

Habit and routine can help get us past the worst of these situations. The whole point of developing a discipline-- a discipline of sitting, a discipline of reading, a discipline of doing the dishes properly -- is so that when we are incapable, the discipline keeps us on track.

Today, my wife and I took the dog up the hill along the Hudson River. We do this walk almost every day. It is about 2 miles long, and it goes up a steep hill along the Palisades. The park is usually empty -- astonishingly so, for a place so close to Manhattan. We are 30 minutes from the city driving time, and here we are in the middle of a vast open space looking out over the Hudson River with a salt marsh in the foreground.

There is not a soul around us. Just trees, rocks, ice, and the odd muskrat scampering around in the reeds.

Climbing the hill is always an exercise in determination. About two thirds of the way up the hill, there is a temptation to just turn around right at the top, without going around the little circle that represents "completion" of the top end of the walk.

This is so tempting, to cut that little detail off -- to make the walk just a little bit shorter, to cheat.

Every time I do this walk, I have to force myself to make that extra little effort to go around that circle.

This is what going the distance in my inner and my outer work is like. I always want to make these grand efforts, to engage in an act of self-calming where I show myself how sincere and businesslike and capable I am, and then right at the top of the hill, when the moment of truth is in front of me, there's this temptation to not go the whole distance. To cut off some significant part of what is required, and pretend that I have done the job.

This tendency is in me all over the place, not just on walks with the dog. I have to go against it constantly -- with the dishes, with yard work, with my children, and so on.

When I hit the low points in my inner effort, and it seems as though there is no energy to do anything -- not even any energy to help me do anything -- going the distance involves being patient enough not to give up. To remind myself that I will not feel this way forever. To remind myself that there is real help out there, and that it will find me again -- find us all again -- as long as we keep to our efforts.

As we get older -- I have many of my friends are now firmly in middle age -- these low points become more daunting.

We need to collectively pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and remind ourselves ever more firmly that our efforts are not in vain.

May the Living Light of Christ discover us.