Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Something more specific

One of the most common words used during exchanges in the Gurdjieff work is "something."

I'm not guessing. Some years ago, a group of people auditing a wide range of official (i.e., not bootleg) tape recordings of Gurdjieff meetings and events actually studied this, and in analysis discovered that the word "something" was used more than any other in describing various esoteric experiences, energies, questions, and so on.

It coexists rather comfortably with the stock Gurdjieff Disclaimer, that near--mandatory preface: "it seems to me..."

All of this is well meant, of course, but perhaps we adopt such verbal habits out of a subtle fear. We're all afraid of being wrong... Of making a statement that others will object to. We all seek acceptance within the community (which may lead directly to an unfortunately imitative conformity) and we often fear looking stupid, or being otherwise diminished in the eyes of our peers and elders. And, to a certainty, egoism prompts us to wish to look smart.

Fear causes us to use excessive caution in both what we say and how we say it. This almost certainly isn't conducive to healthy exchange, but- speaking from my own experience- it seems rather difficult to overcome.

We're also afraid of making a commitment. If we say anything definite, well, gosh, that might look like an "answer," and according to our standardized dogma, we are not supposed to offer answers to anything... Even though the word "answer" means, primarily, a "response."

The upshot of it all is an unfortunate vagueness... a lack of focus. This outer lack is a direct reflection of a corresponding inner lack.

It's already a good habit to be more aware of how I speak and what I am saying in life... no matter where I am, whether in a spiritual exchange or just in "ordinary" life (as though that were separated from spiritual exchange, which it is emphatically not.) I find, for example, that it's especially useful to avoid the use of the word "something" and to try to substitute a more precise expression, if possible. Again and again, an active stance towards outward, verbal expression in life consists, for me, of a search within the moment for precision and, insofar as possible, originality, or authenticity, in choice of words. Not self-consciously or out of considering, but attempting to draw directly from that freedom and spontaneity that is born of an awareness of the moment.

I make this effort because it occurs to me that the tendency to be vague- to avoid commitment, to keep things fuzzy and undefined- is a reflection of my passive attitude. The easiest thing to do, I find, is to avoid any precise observation of the present state, and avoid any precise relationship to it. As long as it's kept in the area of vague, insubstantial, ephemeral, I can push it off to one side and excuse myself from looking carefully.

And it's this lack of care, of a clear and exact willingness to be here as I am, the way I am, that is at the root of my insufficiency.

I cannot see anything about how I actually am unless I have an intention to be more specific.

This specificity consists of an inner action, a more distinct relationship, between my parts. It doesn't mean I am seeking (or providing) more exact, accurate, or spectacular definitions of what I see. It doesn't mean that there is a predictable formulation taking place within me which can then be applied like a template to what arises.

Instead, it means a more precisely active stance in an inner sense. This is a living quality, not a thought. In some senses, in fact, I have to stop thinking in order for it to appear.

The act of becoming more specific, in other words, is an organic effort, not born of tension, not mediated by assumption, but rather discovered by invitation, and moderated by the participation of more parts than I usually muster when confronting the moment. All this, done NOW.

So, right now, I need to be more specific within myself. This involves a kind of discrimination, an inner examination, that calls me together. The discrimination is born of intimacy- a specific inner sensation of my self, a specific and tangible awareness of the sensation of Being.

This sensation of Being... I also refer to it as the "organic sense of Being-" is distinct and apart from organic sensation of the body. That is a distinct sensation of its own, and by itself, although of inarguably great value, it does not provide a sensation of Being. As formidable a foundation as it may lay for me, it isn't enough.

The sensation of Being is specific unto itself and arises from a combination of organic sensation of the body, organic awareness of the mind, and organic sensitivity to the feelings. I could use the word "active" instead of organic, but in a certain sense they are interchangeable- what is organic is essential, it is inherent, it is in and of the organism, and it exists in, of, and for itself.

So it is active. The organism, its capacities and potentials, are always active. It is "me"- this peculiar and poorly understood thing I refer to as the "self"- that isn't active within the context of my perpetually available organic potential.

Being does not hesitate or prevaricate- it arrives here in the moment, and participates.

I use the terms sensation of the body, awareness of the mind, and sensitivity of the feelings to try and move towards a more definite inner understanding that these three qualities, or minds, are distinct and independent entities within the body; that they can be sensed separately from one another; and that each one has a unique quality of its own that is not shared by the other two parts.

They have the capacity to share experience in blended form, even though each one speaks its own special language.

And it is precisely this capacity, if actively sensed, that makes way for the birth of real Being, as Gurdjieff described it in the last chapter of "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson." ("From The Author.")

In any event, I feel a need to move in a direction more specific than "something." This impetus serves as a starting point for my exploration of a more immediate quality in work in life: a willingness to be more intimate, and more specific, rather than floundering around in water rendered muddy by my own agitation.

May the living light of Christ discover us.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Being within one's self

It's as though there was a tiny light within.

My life is murky. There are vast expanses of impressions that don't define themselves well; tracts of sleep, with only a dim awareness of the fact that this is it, that I am alive, that every encounter is real, and that 95% of me (probably more) is not here to take things in properly.

But something can change.

It is possible to be within one's self. I see that.

I know that that is true; I understand. I have worked for a long time just to get this small bit of knowledge.

I call it a small bit of knowledge, but it isn't small at all. It's quite possible that I might have gone through my entire life without understanding this. Sometimes I wonder if it is sheer dumb luck that a light bulb got turned on, down here in this basement somewhere.

There is this glimmering; there is contact from something much higher, a life that wants to reach me. Even in the midst of the worst of what happens in ordinary life, I can sense this. It touches me. I appreciate it. It isn't a romance–an imaginary adventure. It isn't sentiment. It doesn't classify itself within any ordinary group of emotions. It is a different kind of energy.

Ultimately, this being within myself is what becomes precious in life. Anything else can happen; I can get money, have sex, eat food, cut myself with a knife by accident while making things in the kitchen–anything else can happen. All of these things involve impressions and sensation, many of them are alluring, but none of them have the value of being within one's self.

To be within one's self to have a different sense of what it is to be.

I suppose that this may sound obscure, or even uninteresting. What does that mean, to be within oneself? What good does it do anyone?

This is a question of gravity, of being within one's life in a different way. Without this sense of being within oneself, one doesn't have a life. There is no real state of Being that can be called the essence of a human being, the genuine property of existing, unless this sense is alive. The taste of it is already transcendental compared to the taste of ordinary things in life.

Transcendence doesn't have to be built out of mountain peaks with nuclear rays of sunshine beaming out of them in all directions. It is made of grains of sand.

Every day, when I wake up, I immediately examine the body, the mind, the breathing, the sensation, to see exactly what is available. This morning, for example, where I was going down the stairs in bare feet in the dark, I put all of my attention in the soles of my feet, to truly sense that touch, to truly live within those feet and see how it was for them to be what spoke, instead of the mind.

It was possible. It's interesting little things like this–which, in their smallness, are utterly glorious–that transform a life. It is an alchemical act to discover one's self within oneself.

This action–a form of living prayer, what we call having an attention, what the Buddhists call mindfulness–can become the whole of my life. It can be the most interesting thing that happens each day, every day, from dawn to dusk. Such days are much longer than one day long. So many impressions become more alive that it feels as though I have lived for a week in such days.

I want to believe, when such things are available, that they can always be available, but I am not that lucky. Or at least, not that disciplined, or fortunate. I can't live forever in some exalted state. I have to take what comes. It is developing an understanding that is willing to nurture what is available that makes a difference. That's where I need to be more active.

It's that good old sense of intimacy. Being close to myself, and staying close to myself. This is necessary within everyday life, within ordinary life. It's much more valuable there–for this work, at least, anyway–than it is when I am sitting in meditation. Life does not want to be cloistered and live in a dark little cell; it wants to live. It wants to express itself within the action of the body, the mind, and the emotions: to inhabit this chosen vehicle, which it embodied in itself in order to manifest.

In order for it to do that, I have to keep this question of living in front of me. So often, it's the case that nothing comes in meditation; nothing can be attained (ah, the irony!) Nothing is available; I seem like a lump of meat. You are familiar with the experience, no?

This isn't a bad thing, when sittings appear to be unproductive. It's a lesson to me; after all, again and again, all of the sacred energy that one can encounter has a wish to be in relationship, not stuffed into a dark little box.

It is the expansion of that energy into this level, through the agency of our own action, that creates a world. Each one of us is responsible for taking part in that, as best we are able.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What am I trying?

Years ago, older people in the Gurdjieff work would often ask me, "What are you trying now?"

I would always struggle to immediately come up with a decent answer, instantly constructing a lie that sounded as beguiling as possible, to make it sound like I was actually trying to work on something.

On some rare occasions, I actually was trying something (by sheer luck, most likely,) only I didn't know what I was doing.

Looking back on it now, I see that even though I thought I knew what I was doing, I had no idea whatsoever of what I was doing.

It's probably like that now. I think I know what I am doing. Or, at any event, I think I know what I am not doing. What never dawns on me is that I don't know anything about anything. That is the fundamental state.

I am packed full of facts. I am packed full of memories. I am packed full of imaginary futures. None of these circumstances--these conditions-- actually understand what this act of living is.

The act of living comes in through the organism. It is only understood by itself, through itself, and of itself. It is a beginning and an end. It does not need reference points of the kind that I perpetually manufacture.

The art of Being -- it is an art, the only real art -- arises from a ground of not trying. We all usually think that "the work" -- any spiritual work -- is "trying" to "do" something. We speak about efforts; we speak about work. We speak about both of these things as though they were possible for us, and as though we understood what they meant. In reality, there cannot be any trying in the art of Being.

Being does not try. It just is.

If the work -- if any work -- tries anything real, what it tries is to undo all of this "trying" in us. My old group leader Henry Brown used to refer to this as "the effortless effort."

Of course, we are tempted to get tied into knots. We will try not to try. We will not try not to try. All of us run around in complicated circles, every one of them tightly circumscribing our ego, and keeping us well inside it--mostly by convincing us that ego is a quality that exists apart from us, whereas, in actual fact, it is us.

There has to be a letting go in order to take a step outside of this very appetizing vortex. That letting go only comes from a relationship that stems from an energy within the organism.

We may speak of energy that comes from somewhere else -- from "above" -- let's say, for the sake of argument, above the top of the head, as Jeanne De Salzmann and others have described it. All of that may be well and true. Nonetheless, anything that comes from "somewhere else" ultimately ends up within, and acts from within us. When we speak of energy from somewhere else, we are speaking, in other words, of catalysts, what is referred to as "help" in esoteric circles.

There are a lot of words for that: the Holy Spirit, Prana, Chi. All of them are fine. None of them are different from one another. There is only one source of higher energy, and regardless of its permutations and levels, it all exists within one truth. Ultimately, the aim is for this to express itself from within us: for us to become vehicles that embody that, and dwell within it with as little separation as possible.

That can only happen when the energy is active from within us and arising in us. If we rely on help alone, we are leaning on a crutch.

It is a wonderful crutch. In fact, we need that support from time to time. But in the end, we have to cultivate the inner relationship that is available to us from within us in order to express Being, which is, in and of itself, the source of all energy.

That cultivation does not come from what I would call "trying this or trying that." Trying this or trying that is, invariably--in my own experience, at least-- a form of tension.

There has to be a new kind of inner action that is not expressed in this way in order for Being to manifest.

No matter how succinct and, and, I think, accurate, instructions on cultivating this inner action may be-- up to and including the excellent work presented in "The Reality of Being"-- I discover for myself that instructions may not be helpful. The cultivation of Being involves a spontaneity that does not lend itself to books or lists. Every accurate description bears a relationship to the situation, but every situation in every individual is perpetually new.

As a consequence, I am required by default to invent my own work as I go along. What is said by others is certainly helpful, but it is not gospel.

Seeing this through organic experience, and taking responsibility for it as a mystery and a question, I am called to engage within in a new and different way on each occasion.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.



Monday, September 13, 2010

A wish to be



It used to be a habit of mine to sit down and write a post without any prepared idea. It was interesting; I haven't done that in quite some time. So today, I am giving it a try– let's say, for old times sake.

One of the things that Betty Brown used to occasionally mention was an impression that we are arrogant to presume that we can attain anything whatsoever.

It reminds me well of the sitting I attended many years ago early one Thursday morning in New York City at which a venerable older one--who knew Gurdjieff personally--began by saying, “we are tiny little creatures.”

We are indeed. Take a look at the scale of things, even in our immediate vicinity, and ask yourself what is really possible for creatures as small as us.

One of the premises one may encounter in Zen Buddhism is that the very idea of attainment itself is faulty– An example, I think, of “opposites thinking," as Zen Master Seung Sahn put it in a talk recently sent to me by my friend Joe D (thanks, Joe!)

What Seung Sahn means, of course, by this rather cute term is dualistic thinking: in this particular case, in order for there to be attainment, there has to also be non–attainment. Dogen certainly emphasized the need to transcend such dualistic concepts in the approach to understanding. (Master Seung Sahn, oddly, speaks of attainment as an aim in this particular talk, which perhaps puts him amusingly--if mildly, after all, it's a very good talk-- at risk of contradicting his own understanding. This just goes to show that no matter what level one is on, there is always plenty of dog poop left to step in-- a lesson, incidentally, which Gurdjieff repeatedly hammers home in "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson.")

Let's try and take the dialogue (which takes two, and may thus also be dualistic, woe is me) into somewhat different territory, which, despite its pitfalls, has the merit of expounding the doctrine in a more Gurdjieffian way-- and we G- people are, no matter how much we may occasionally admire them, not Zen Buddhists.

Which affords us, by the way, permission to engage in "opposites thinking" without all the guilt.

If I am arrogant, it is because I presume to a level that does not belong to me–to understandings that I have not understood, to attainments that I have not attained. We are all, to the last man and woman, locked here within the level we are on–the world of the horizontal, a petri dish filled with microbes perpetually at war with one another, each one convinced that it should reign supreme.

There is, surrounding me, a medium that I dwell within which is made of finer substances than those I drink and breathe. That medium embodies a verticality. There is a level above me: there is a level below me. Any effort to “become” something, to “attain” something, inevitably involves developing a sensitivity to, a not-theoretical awareness of, and a connection with, these levels above and below me.

If I succeed in establishing such contact, a current begins to flow through me.

This idea of verticality is essential to understanding work as it is understood within the context of the Gurdjieffian practice. I'm not sure that Buddhism emphasizes this in the same way. In the cosmos we inhabit, our function is to become servants–to become receptive–to offer the opportunity for energies to flow from above us into our level, and down into levels below us. (The Taoists would certainly get this, but Taoism gets a rather bad rap from Dogen, who classifies it under his deadly label of "non-Buddhist thinking." ...Whatever were you thinking of, Dogen?)

At the same time, if we are fortunate, blessed with Grace, we will find a way to offer those energies back up, which is actually a more difficult work.

Receiving is a wonderful experience. When Grace descends, it can truly introduce us to an organic experience of that mystery which is referred to by Christians as “The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding.” (You knew I was going to slip Christianity in here somewhere, right?)

Nonetheless, this can't take place unless there is also an offering. Offering involves suffering. We need to surrender what we are in order to offer. (One has to admit that there is a substantial departure from any semblance of Buddhist thinking here; Gurdjieff points us towards an engagement with suffering--albeit a new kind of suffering, intentional suffering. Buddhism, however, suggests that we find a way to transcend suffering.)

Well, whether we engage or transcend, this particular aspect of the question is all about payment: and despite the differences, here we can perhaps find some renewed agreement with the Buddhists.

There isn't any attainment here. There is service. We're on a service level, not an attainment level.

So I need to do away, I think, with this imaginary idea that I am going to “become” something.
To wish to Be Is different from a wish to become. Perhaps one could argue I am putting too fine a point on it here, but the difference between the fourfold package of expectation, attainment, arrogance, and ego, and the single, simple act of Being, hinges on this question. In that sense, the Zen masters have it right. They are asking us to be–not to become.

To be involves an acknowledgment. It involves a seeing. It can only ever be of the moment: There isn't anything else. I manufacture both the past and the future within my imagination, and keep my gaze fixed steadily on those phantasms, while all around me, the world as it is–the Dharma–exists without compromise.

A couple of days ago, while my wife and I were walking the famous dog Isabel, Neal asked me how I thought I was different from who I was, say, about 30 years ago.

I had to ponder that question for a moment.

I finally replied:

"I see how small I am."

May the living Light of Christ discover us.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Preparing your meals

Back from China. I struggled with a long bout of jet lag after this trip. Jet lag doesn't always hit you the same way; there are easy adjustments, and difficult ones.

This last one was very difficult. It wiped me out for a full week. I'm just now feeling back on my feet.

It's reported that Gurdjieff once said that cooking was not a branch of medicine; rather, medicine was a branch of cooking.

Tonight, I made an extra effort to make a meaningful, worthwhile meal: homemade pesto with basil straight from the garden, and veal Parmesan. I prepared everything myself from scratch. Frankly, the food tasted better -- much better -- than just about anything I've eaten in the past month, much of which was exotic food prepared by chefs at five-star restaurants.

This got me to thinking about why it is that food we prepare ourselves tastes better to us. I think this actually goes deep into the question of what we are as beings, and how impressions enter us.

Food that is prepared by other people always gets whisked in front of us more or less as a surprise. We may read the words on the menu, but that hardly gives the body any understanding of what it is about to consume. If we take ingredients and spend an hour or more carefully preparing them, the organism gets a chance to see exactly what it is that it is about to partake of. On our gross physical level -- the level of what we call "intelligence," which is not really that intelligent at all -- we are unable to understand what is going on there, but the body, which has its own mind and its own ability to understand things, including things on the chemical level (using instinctive center, which also has an exquisitely detailed and finely constructed intelligence) knows exactly what is happening.

As we prepare food, a molecular series of events begins to take place, in which the sight, touch, and smell of each ingredient is evaluated on deep -- what we could call subliminal -- levels. As this takes place, the entire body, the salivary glands, the muscles in the mouth, the stomach, the rest of the digestive system -- in fact, all the cells in the body -- are carefully preparing for what is about to be eaten.

The preparation of the food is also a preparation of the body for the food -- a preparation that doesn't take place if we aren't preparing the food ourselves.

So something quite critical takes place here, when we prepare our own food. The food tastes better, and is more satisfying, because we are more prepared for it, as it is prepared for us. It is the impressions -- the finer vibrations of everything that goes into cooking -- that helps set the stage for that. We are better able to digest the food, because our body has prepared for it better. So the act of cooking itself is actually part of what it means to eat healthy food.

This means, in essence, that if we go into an organic food store to buy the best possible prepared foods, and pay careful attention to eating a well-balanced diet, we still may not be getting the right nutrition at all! Half of healthy eating is in the preparation of food. Prepackaged foods, meals prepared by others and then whisked in front of us, are depriving us of essential impressions that are actually part of the digestive process.

This may go a long way towards explaining why the modern world has so many food issues.

This may sound theoretical, but there's nothing theoretical about it. Go out a few times and prepare food carefully for yourself, then sit down and observe your impression as you eat it. Then go out and order a fine meal at some restaurant, and see how it is. I daresay you may sense a qualitative difference. The food you cook at home may be quite ordinary in comparison to the restaurant meal, but I think you are going to see that it actually tastes better and is more satisfying.

That is, at any rate, my experience. There is an essence--satisfaction in the eating of food I make myself that I rarely, if ever, get from food prepared for me.

This question of preparation is essential in all work. If we want to see how we are, if we wish to take in meaningful impressions and have them fall deeper inside of us, preparation is absolutely required.

We can't digest impressions properly if we are not prepared to receive them.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.