Sunday, August 29, 2010

Reality, revisited


I'm still in China, finally, fully over jet lag (of course... It's almost time to come home) and 120+ pages into "The Reality Of Being.".

The book is a fine... no, essential... piece of work for those involved in the work. Pragmatic, realistic, honest, unassuming... a study of the process of the art of Being.

Looking "out" from "in here"- how else does one describe what it is like to live, as I am?- one occasionally catches glimpses of the fact that our consciousness-such as it is-which seems to us, within the moment, to occupy a fairly specific and limited (but admittedly often rich) niche, is in fact part of an almost incomprehensibly vast landscape, filled with all of the impressions that we have ever encountered. A whole planet-an inner solar system.

It's in moments like this that I begin to sense, perhaps, that my life- this mysterious process which I so easily categorize and dismiss with that simple, four letter word- is a much more extraordinary, unusual, and complex phenomenon than I am able to imagine, limited as I am within partial understanding. It's only when a physical connection is available, and feeling enters, that any more comprehensibly accurate understanding of my situation arises... And it's only then that a state of unknowing becomes possible for a moment.

Such a state is what one might call a poetic state... an energized state... A state in which objects and events are seen not for what they appear to be, but something much more magnificent and intangible... An embodiment of what we call, in the work, "the higher."

That perspective can remind me of what I'm working for.

As I wake up, as I encounter life, as I see the negativity, the resistance in all three centers, the inner argument and the lack, I begin to sense that in the effort itself lies a possibility. Life is a constant struggle against the forces within me that wish to go downward. And there are many. The wish to be passive, to succumb to sleep, is powerful and wears many masks. It is, furthermore, firmly wedded to denial: in this sense it functions in exactly the same way that denial works in alcoholics.

I wish to go down, to be passive: it's an addictive drug. My negativity- whether physical, intellectual or emotional- is a kind of drug that gives me pleasure. First, I don't really see this- second, I LIKE going down, it's easy, it's familiar, it's normal- third, I tell myself I'm not going down, that there's nothing wrong with this.

If anything tries to take it away from me, I resist it. And I will attach every lie I possibly can to the process. In this, I am truly an adept.

Those who haven't struggled with addiction probably won't quite understand what I am talking about. But the understanding that we are addicted to our habit of going down, and that we are literally in denial about it, is what's needed. The effort to be aware enough of myself to stand in front of this problem, to see how it is, over and over throughout the day, is the inner equivalent of a man standing in front of a bottle of alcohol which he wants to drink- it's a craving that comes back again and again, no matter how many times he pushes it away- and saying "no" over and over. It's painful- but only by engaging in the process can he ever become sober.

The difference between recovering alcoholics and spiritual students is that alcoholics know they are struggling against death itself- they SEE the enormity of the need for real work, and they know they cannot afford to relax. When we are working on our inner state, however, we don't take it anywhere near as seriously. We think this struggle is casual and can be engaged in... well, later, when we feel like it.

We don't see that it is a struggle against death, just like alcoholism. The death I speak of is death not of the physical body, but within the moment.

In "The Reality of Being" De Salzmann reminds us that this struggle isn't, in fact, a struggle in the conventional sense of the word. It has to be understood differently. I won't try to quote or paraphrase her here, but my own impression of it goes back to a comment I made two posts back: it is the via negativa, posed negatively: the negation of the negation. I must say "no" to my "no." so what appears to be a struggle is actually an affirmation- an upward movement. Not a battle, but an effort.

The trick here is that addiction and denial cause the "no," the downward movement, to appear as though it's a "yes"- an upward one. I am well familiar with that sensation from my years as an alcoholic- but I also see that I'm well familiar with it all the time, because this is also how I perceive and experience my daily state. Only by rising above the denial through an inner affirmation, by going against what appears to be my "yes," can I begin to see anything real.

This is, undoubtedly, directly related to the famous Gurdjieff admonition- "like what it does not like."

May the Living Light of Christ discover us.


Friday, August 20, 2010

An inner precision


One of the expressions I use in describing what is needed in terms of my inner effort at seeing is intimacy.

This word is meant to remind me not just of an organic proximity to myself, but also a precision of attention: an inner scrutiny that is detailed, involved, that inhabits. Not an intellectual seeing: a seeing of what is within, by what is within.

It's quite compelling, this relationship. It creates a bond between my parts, brings the organism into dialog with itself. It is a living thing; a life within this thing we call life. It craves an understanding of what I am.

I usually lack this precise and delicate intimacy, but when it is available, its presence and quality are unmistakable. It consists of an interest that is born from all three centers, that arises from their conjunction, and infuses the body, the entire organism, with an unexpected- yet oddly familiar- vitality. This old friend I have neglected sees. It can scrutinize- it has the ability to create an inner gravity, a quality that quite literally puts its roots down in the soul.

This rootedness is the place from which a real life begins. It is "only" a starting point, but it is THE starting point. I can't begin unless I am beginning here. It's simple; there are no grand fireworks: just a contrition. A willingness. The potential to receive myself into my world, rather than give myself out towards it.

I'm not going to be within this experience without a precision of attention. Not a forced or strained precision, but a gentle and loving one: a seeing that is precise because of its active nature.

This kind of precision draws me deeper into relationship. I hear a call to prayer: like one of Dante's souls in purgatory, I move towards an acknowledgment of my sorrowful condition- my iniquity- with joy.

In this way, to see my own nothingness can become a gift; to admit it a blessing.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Commentary on "The Reality of Being"


A rather long note from china. And yet another possibly heretical, but, in any event, not politically correct post... a commentary and critique of Jeanne De Salzmann's "The Reality of Being."

While it is pointless to defend this effort- after all, there can be no argument on the fact that I "am no Jeanne De Salzmann," raising the question of why I might dare presume to critique my spiritual "betters-" it seems salient to remark, first of all, that we are instructed by Gurdjieff himself to "question everything" - up to and including his own instructions, let alone those of his pupils - and, second, that published books ought to be examined for what they are, that is, (a) published books, not sacred objects and (b) records of what took place some time ago, not living experiences (or active person-to-person transmissions) taking place in the present moment. Which is what living work consists of.

One other important point, I think, is to not adopt a reflexive position of adulation and endorsement based solely on the source of this material, formidable though it may be. The work of the mind is to examine carefully and evaluate- not to swallow wholesale in an enthusiastic paroxysm of belief.

I haven't read the entire book yet, but rather the better part of the first section; journal entries reputed to be, for the most part, from the 1950's. As such, fresh though they may seem, these writings reflect inner work that was done some sixty years ago. Anyone who knew her might point out that De Salzmann's work progressed considerably, and for many, many years, after that.

Since (as I have pointed out before) the work is a living and evolving process- always changing, adapting, evolving its approach, understanding and technique to what is necessary NOW (as it must, both in individuals and in community) anything written this long ago is now encountered as a historical document, and like all such documents, although it may expound on universal principles with potential current applications, it can only do so in relationship to the level of understanding of that individual, at that time, and the stage and conditions of the work itself, relative to all the factors both in and around them. So it is a necessarily quite fractional and incomplete picture we see here.

In addition, we should keep in mind that these documents are, as l understand it, a record of De Salzmann's observations of herself. As such, they're quite personal. To read them without a sensitivity and a sympathy-even an empathy- for that would be, in my eyes, a mistake. These journal entries may be read as didactic exercises, but they don't appear to me to have been meant that way. They are, rather, a record of a struggle to understand.

All of these caveats and qualifying factors weigh into the following evaluation of the material.

I find it, on the whole, coherent, as well as compellingly consistent with some of my own experience and observation- although she uses somewhat different language than I might (or, indeed, than Gurdjieff himself used.) This is to be expected in any evolving and personal inner work. Expressions that remain static become habitual and stale, and we ought to be wary of them.

I do find some questions and disagreements at hand, and, the job of a critic being (in part) to raise such issues, the following few come to mind.

De Salzmann says that "nothing" has "any" value except the act of Being in relationship to the higher. This sounds grand- and indeed one might perhaps draw on corresponding inner experience that ostensibly corroborates it- but it is inherently false.

I've heard others say this as well. It sounds dramatic and important (and the Gurdjieff work is no stranger to drama) but it fails to serve the larger truth. It is, rather, the observation of a seeker in the midst of a struggle that commands an urgent priority... It isn't, in other words, properly balanced. Here's why.

Meaning always exists (and evolves) according to level. Every meaning is real within its own context: meaning within levels (let's call it "horizontal meaning") is legitimate and real- it is just limited by its scope. Dismissing it as irrelevant is misleading and irresponsible. In work we seek to discover and assign meaning its right place- not obliterate it as though higher meanings always "trumped" lower ones, and indeed could even exist without them. The higher depends on the lower- and the same holds true for meaning within the context of levels.

There seems to be little need to belabor this point any more than this. It may seem technical, but it isn't. The higher seeks relationship with the lower. If there were no meaning in the lower, it would not bother. Meaning-and our respect for it- at any level cannot be so casually discarded.

The second area of questioning I raise relates a bit more to practice. In De Salzmann's touching and, I find, very real struggle to sort out what's going on in her, she vacillates between two broad polarities. One is the stated "Gurdjieff work dogma" (which actually represents a law on our level, and a vital higher truth) that "man cannot do.". She says this in many different ways. One might say her approach is the via negativa, presented negatively (a tricky thing, this, which in the interests of brevity I must refrain from expounding on here.)

On the other hand, her repeated exhortations about focusing the attention subtly presume an unstated assumption that we CAN do. They are certainly a step in the direction of a "via positiva"- after all, we are not mere blobs of protoplasm!- and suggest that there can be real efforts that do lie within our power.
Any (dare we say it?) attentive reader of the first section will notice the repeated tension that arises between these two positions- revealing a real struggle, and bringing some firsthand life to our experience of how she may have felt as she wrote this material. It helps make it real, as opposed to just a static historical document.

In the end, scattered throughout the text, there are acknowledgments that what comes, comes mysteriously- out of the unknown, and into the unknown of ourselves- intimating that we cannot, finally, for all our efforts, "do"- despite the laudable (and necessary) heroism of the inner struggle she describes.

In my own practice and experience, it's a compelling emotional understanding of our helplessness that leads to something higher- an idea Gurdjieff introduced and expounded on again and again. This question relates to receptivity and feeling- to our mortality-to an intimacy which corresponds to Madame's questions and investigations in this first section. The deep, organic, acknowledged experience of helplessness- a three-centered experience of the absolute need for help- is the sign of an inner maturity that may open us, if we are fortunate.

It will be rather interesting, I think, to read the rest of the book and see if, and how, this theme develops. A more elaborate examination of Madame's methodology might reveal how her approach "uses" inner effort to bring us to this point, but I won't undertake that here.

There are some sins of omission here. For me, above all, the question of relationship to the higher is a religious one. The search in this section of De Salzmann's notebooks is cast, for the most part, outside those terms- she avoids referring to God very much- but for me this is just ducking the issue.
The action is a search for a connection with the divine. Pitching it in secular terms ultimately misses the mark. I ask myself, did she feel this Presence regularly? If she did, my impression is that she did not receive it, or understand its implications, in the same way that I do. Perhaps this merely underscores the uniqueness of such experience of the higher; or perhaps there is indeed something missing here. Readers will have to judge for themselves.

Furthermore, after reading enough of this material, I'm struck by how analytical it begins to seem, as though there were an attempt to ferret out with the intellect understandings that, it was already known to the journal-keeper, can't be comprehended with the intellect.

Another less obvious, but equally real, struggle unfolds itself here. Once again I discover a sympathy for De Salzmann, who so clearly acquired a "view from above," as she might have called it, yet found herself ultimately constrained by the same human limits as the rest of us. It reminds me once again of one of the strengths of this work, in which Mr. Gurdjieff invited us to meet one another on the common ground of our shared humanity.

One last note. I think she's rather hard on herself in these entries. There's a severity of tone I find unbecoming, a hint of self-flagellation- which is, to be sure, a time honored practice, but not quite what I expected.

It serves to illuminate the point that the Lord always has far more mercy towards us than we have towards ourselves.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Friday, August 6, 2010

More on feeling

What is real feeling?

I'll speak, as usual, only from my own point of view, and from my own experience.

When we hear the word, we think of it as an emotion. Immediately, we mix the idea of it in with all the emotions we have routinely experienced for a lifetime. This is natural... after all, we have no other point of reference, and who can possibly blame us for assuming that what we already know is sufficient?

The only difficulty is that it's not an emotion--not, in any event, as we "understand" emotion in horizontal life. Feeling, as we refer to it in the Gurdjieff work, is a capacity we work towards--not one we have. And indeed, it's hardly a secret: there are exercises in the work where we are asked to sense one part of the body, and to feel another.

Yet what this exercise consists of is subtle indeed--on a very high order--, and often sabotaged by my assumptions.

The organism is capable of depths of perception--alternate modes of perception--that easily exceed what we're used to. The development of that greater capacity for living, that greater capacity for the sensing, the feeling, the thinking of life, is one of the aims of the work. We are hoping to help the body re-integrate its senses so that they support one another in a completely new way. A substantial way, one related to the manner in which the physical substance of impressions is taken in and transformed in a fundamentally different manner.

It takes many years of work to begin to gain an inkling of what this might mean. Only then can we begin to appreciate this very material, very substantial, capacity for feeling ourselves, feeling our life in a new way.

Feeling is, for lack of a better description, a thread that provides a connection to a higher energy. It's an enlivening material which sustains organic processes we're largely unfamiliar with. Furthermore, it's closely related to that quality of attention, that quality of inner investigation which I refer to as intimacy.

To have feeling is to discover an intimacy within one's Self: that Self which consists of all my parts in a living, breathing interaction--not just the fragments I use to manage my outer world with.

It's this intimacy that can help deepen my search. It's a quality that may be found in a relationship between the body and the breath, first thing in the morning when I wake up; a trembling yet delightful uncertainty that suffuses my limbs on the sight of a flower; that peculiar moment when I see that something more delicate, more sensitive than my usual bull-headed approach is needed.

It is, in another sense, the quality that I discover when I stop lying to myself for a moment and just see. The inner dialog stops; the flow of associations which dominates "waking" life voluntarily enters suspension for a minute, and a silence arises, a silence that simply asks, wordlessly, of itself--

what is.

Feeling can't be forced or invoked. It is a blessing that comes with work, but it takes its own time and writes its own rules. I can await it, I can seek it, I can hope to understand it--yet when it comes, I always see that the only real action I can take is to prepare for it... and attempt to nurture it, should it choose to arrive.

It's a mystery, this "feeling." It's the open question of emotional center--integrated, sensitized, hoping for a tactile experience that will feed it in a new and deeper way. I don't know it; knowing this "not knowing," seeing this "not seeing," is what creates the gaps in my armor where it might leak in.

Feeling has, perhaps above all, the capacity to soften me, so that the world enters me more generously, and so that I am--God willing--more generous in my receipt of it.

It's well to ponder such questions. Gurdjieff repeatedly told his pupils that nothing new could begin to happen in a man without a new kind of participation of an emotional nature.

If I do not hold the question of feeling in front of myself--even as I ask myself what I lack--

If I am not searching for that unsentimental, unattached, yet exquisite and sorrowful receptivity which can be born in a man who prays--

Who constantly prays, as best he can--

well then, in my experience, I'm hardly in working order.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A divine comedy: inner and outer relationship

It's difficult to reconcile my inner and outer relationships.

On the one hand, there's a sensitive (well, hopefully it's sensitive!) part that comes into contact with something intimate: discovering itself inside the body, inside the breath, in a relationship with the cells-- and perhaps even the very marrow of my bones. It's a current -- a flow of energy.

This part is what I would call a "secret" part -- it definitely isn't to be put on display, in fact, to stick it out on a platform where the rest of the world could see it would be very nearly criminal. Work with this part needs to be done in private and without any fanfare. It is devotional in nature -- it lies close to the heart-search for love and for the higher.

In the other hand, I have this animal--this monkey--which is used to doing almost everything in ordinary life. He looks cute, but when you get too close to him, it turns out he is a suspicious (and maybe even dangerous) bastard. He has nasty teeth and claws he wasn't showing you before. He snaps, he hisses and bites, he tries to grab food away from others, and he wants to screw all the females.

Well, okay, I'm probably not quite that bad -- after all, my mother did teach me some manners -- but all in all, the animal is an animal. There is no way to get around that. And the animal has an attitude that it ought to be in charge of everything--even the sensitive part.

This is, once again, a current -- a source of energy that flows with great vigor, and is only on public display. And it's all very confusing, because this appears to be the more compelling of the two forces within life. It's got all the capacity for pleasure, all the stuff.

And if I cooperate with it and work the pump handle hard enough, I can have that stuff.

A struggle arises.

I have to be outward. I have to conduct business, be tough on people, offer opinions (which I may or may not agree with or believe in, but have to offer anyway, since most of what I do involves adopting the protective coloring of a multitude of lies I am forced to pretend I agree with in order to move things in life forward.) And so on.

Yet the bottom line is that I have had a taste of what the other current can bring me, and I know that it is so much sweeter -- so much more refreshing and restoring, even in the smallest measure, than every single thing that the outward life can bring-- that I long for it, even as I relentlessly and perversely contradict that impulse with my animal nature.

"I"--whatever there is of me-- stand in this place where "I" am responsible for the meeting of these two currents. One of these draws its power and movement from an undeniably sacred source:

"The rays and motion of the holy lights
draw forth the soul of every animal
and plant from matter able to take form;
but your life is breathed forth immediately
by the Chief Good, who so enamors it
of His own Self that it desires Him always.

(Dante, Paradiso, Canto VII, lines lines 139-142, Mandelbaum Translation.)

The other current is made of considerably coarser material.

As Dante would have it (and I believe he's quite right) all that coarse material is moved by love as well, only it's love turned in the wrong direction. It has (as both Virgil and Beatrice explain it) cast its eyes downwards towards earth, instead of upwards towards that glorious heaven of which I have been given sufficient evidence.

Invested as I am, for the most part, in this coarse matrix, it's difficult to believe in the gem. There is a general forgetting that gems occur, for the most part, in crude and unforgiving ores, or that both the gem and the ore spring from the same source.

The idea that everything has love as its motive force (an idea I explored in my essay on chakras and the enneagram) is a powerful one if I can remember it. It suggests that in every ordinary, coarse life situation I encounter, if things are going wrong -- inside me, or outside of me -- the current that flows through them is the same. It is the relationship that is failing, not the power behind it. There is always the chance to make a choice from the heart that can turn things around.

I don't trust my heart a lot of the time. Maybe I shouldn't. The monkey is notoriously unreliable. But that doesn't mean that the monkey doesn't have potential. The monkey can sometimes be brought into relationship with a terrifically powerful resource that is much wiser. If he just gets a little closer to that, all kinds of remarkable things might happen. Compassion and humility might arise. Admittedly, it's a long shot, but it could happen. It could happen any time. All of the elements that can produce that in me are right next door. They are right next door all the time.

I just don't go visiting the neighbors that often. I like it more where I am.

This question of forming a better relationship -- a friendlier, more accepting relationship -- between the monkey and my inner resource is an important one.

It represents hope.

Sometimes people ask me why I bother with this obscure practice called the Gurdjieff work. Admittedly, most of the time I'm at a loss. What am I going to tell people? That everything inside you can change until you are no longer the same person, and that miracles become possible?

I could say that. It would sound like baloney, right?

There are, however, aims and values that might be easier to put in front of another person. And if there were, they would speak about a wish for understanding compassion, understanding humility.

These two qualities are the greatest qualities a man can acquire in life. (Call that an opinion if you need to... it's okay.) If he really, actually acquires these as organic qualities, he has achieved almost everything that the Lord wishes for us. All of what is truly necessary in the life of the soul proceeds from the understandings that these qualities bring.

They are, of course, the outward and inward manifestations of real Being, which is made of nothing more or less than pure love, breathed forth-- as Dante so eloquently says--from the breath of God Himself.

And-- borrowing another idea from the Divine Comedy--

If my aim does not always have its head raised high and its sight set on this goal, why should I even bother living?

May the living Light of Christ discover us.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

life, feeling, and sensation

I've discussed the fact before that man has the capacity to take life in a much deeper way than the way we are usually accustomed to it. Impressions -- which consist of the sum total of all the sensory information that flows into us at any given moment -- usually fall on superficial parts. The analogy might be the difference between a brief rainstorm on the hard, dry soil of the ego-- where the water rolls off-- and a deep, penetrating rain on soft, friable soil that has been harrowed so that the water soaks in and goes right to the roots of the plant.

When the centers are working properly, impressions can fall much more deeply into the body. There are a number of objective consequences. The perception of time, for one thing, flows more slowly. One could say a good deal more, but I won't.

There are, of course, drugs that can produce such states, but the drug-induced state is next to worthless. It is disconnected from the work of centers in unity-- they are all working at higher rates of vibration, but they are for the most part colliding in relative chaos--and above all the feeling, that is, the part of the emotional center that is capable of coming into contact with higher emotion, doesn't participate in the right way.

This question of feeling is essential. Among some Gurdjieffians, it's not uncommon to refer to feeling as distinct from emotion.

"Emotion" in its entirety is a summary of the usual reactive states we find ourselves in. The emotional center is, however, capable of producing finer perceptions in man if it is functioning properly... as is the moving center, which in conjunction with some support from instinctive center (which in most people works more or less well) produces sensation.

"Feeling" is a distinctive experience which does not relate to our normative emotional experience. As with living sensation, which arises from the awakening of moving center and an action which emanates from it using its own force, feeling arises when the emotional center aligns itself correctly and begins to participate actively in what we refer to as wish.

Back in the old days, when Ouspensky's "version" of the Gurdjieff work was either ascendent-- or at least current-- many technical understandings of the centers and their work were studied and exchanged. All of those studies and exchanges, by and large, concentrated on using the intellectual center to do most of the work.

While that branch of the work took on a life of its own, stood up, and walked, Jeanne De Salzmann's line undertook a new, different, more direct (NB. I use that word with reservations) and in any event more practical study of the question -- that is, a study undertaken directly within the immediate physical, emotional, and intellectual experience of the practitioner.

The naturally evolving division between these branches of work may have separated us all a bit both from an understanding of just how specific the distinction between the centers is, and our ability to experience that. A real experience of feeling or sensation is, one might say, just as clinical and objective as Ouspensky's material describes it, and at the same time just as unknown, mysterious, and extraordinary as De Salzmann attempted to indicate with her own work.

It may be useful to explain that these various centers do not manifest in a localized manner if they are working in a right way. In three centered experience, the entire organism discovers itself within living feeling, living sensation, and living mentation.

These three forces, that is, minds, are completely blended, existing alongside each other within the organism in an equal balance of energy and "weight," and although they produce a unified experience, let us call it a "field of being," each one can be properly sensed as entirely distinct from the other two. What we call "consciousness" is, in other words, an unconsciously experienced blending of three completely different awarenesses, two of which do not and cannot use words for communication.

The experience of this can become conscious. That is one aim of inner work.

There are so many gradations of experience that relate and lead up to a conscious experience of this kind that one could hardly list them or measure them. In addition, such analysis doesn't seem useful. Centuries of deconstruction of such questions have, so far as I can see, failed to produce anything useful enough to move seekers forward in any meaningful way. Only Gurdjieff's "subtle system"-- which, I will stress, cannot be understood by just reading the books-- balances such technical work with practice in such a way as to render it truly meaningful, within the limited context that it can be. In other hands and practices, it has certainly produced results, but they are different results, and far from all of them are what one would call "good" results.

Misunderstandings of Gurdjieff's own work, which are all too easy to acquire and apply, can lead one down equally questionable paths.

Perhaps the important thing to remember is that all of the efforts and work one puts into the effort to collect the attention, connect the mind to the body, and awaken what I call the organic sense of being are gradually... very gradually... leading us towards a place where a different level of experience of Self becomes possible.

One might call it extraordinary -- except that it is not extraordinary. To be ordinary means to belong to an order. Anything that is extraordinary falls outside that order. What we are speaking of here is not the banishment of order or the transcendence of order; it is alignment with a new level of order.

So the attempt to re-member--to reconnect all the severed limbs of our inner being-- is an attempt to become ordinary, it's just a different kind of ordinary. It is not a mysterious or magical process, it is a process that belongs strictly to the natural order-- just a different level of it -- and must be understood as such.

We are just trying to reclaim what should rightfully belong to us.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.