So the associations we have with the word seeing—which are by now deeply ingrained—cause us to assume that when we use the word we have actually seen; yet even if we have seen something, perhaps we haven't understood it — we don't know.
In the end, all valuable inner action comes from the realm of unknowing, that is, an agency that stops knowing and starts listening, on the way towards understanding.
These three pillars, seeing, listening, understanding (one can liken them to intellect, body, and emotion)— well, one can argue about this one or that one and how relatively important it is, but all of them are necessary, and they form a cooperative — not competitive — inward environment.
The inner environment needs to become one where forces don't rub against each other and compete all the time. Of course competition is necessary; and suffering is necessary. But there is a point at which there also has to be cooperation.
Gurdjieff was, in many ways, a master who thought we should storm the gates of heaven. He said to his pupils, truth can only be acquired by force and more force. (From a lecture given about March 2, 1923.)
All of Gurdjieff’s ideas are powerful, but not all of them, by any means, entered from stage left or right as mature entities. Some of them, let us be frank, were downright crude at the beginning; even he himself admitted that in hindsight. By the time he grew old—and by the time Jean Salzmann and then Michelle Salzmann came along—the understanding of the use of force within the Gurdjieff work underwent a considerable evolution; and the idea behind it as we currently understand it is far more nuanced and intelligent than it was when it was perceived as a way of muscling one's way into spirituality using brute force, which is an idea which finds its roots in Hatha Yoga.
Yes, we do need to have conflict, tension, and suffering; we do (urgently) need to be broken inwardly; but we also urgently need to form a cooperative community that is loving and intelligent that can survive the difficulties that those struggles unleash. That is to say, in essence there needs to grow a kernel of being — always being gently fed by the struggle — that has a completely different attitude.
Perhaps all of this sounds new and different. Perhaps you think to yourself, "that's not doctrinal." But when we fall victim to dogma and believe only what we have read in books, we failed to conduct our work in an intelligent and growing manner. If there’s a manual about how to grow mustard, and it only covers how one grows mustard in conditions where there's enough water, for example, or where the day generally produces an average of 13 hours of sunlight, that book becomes useless the minute that one enters a territory where the conditions are different. For example, one where the soil is more alkaline, or there is less rain so one can't rely on the manuals.
Every spiritual text we read may be seen as a manual that maps out the territory a particular individual covered. Taken across a long trajectory, what the traditions teach is, of course, averaged out to more evenhanded, tried and true, and time-tested forms; but the danger of that is that the forms, at the same time, become steadily diluted.
So we need the overall measurement of the tradition; but we also need the spicy, pithy reports of individual experiences, which look into all the nooks and crannies that were smoothed out as the tradition developed. Many people have features that render them more suitable for one nook or cranny or another; so the average practice always lacks some of the intensity needs.
There can be intensity in cooperation as well as competition. In fact, the Gurdjieff work is largely about intensity and cooperation; but that is a faculty that it says we need to develop in the face of intensity amidst competition.
The struggle is supposed to produce cooperation; not more struggle. Gurdjieff himself said that the struggle did not go on forever:
“Sacrifice is necessary,” said G. “If nothing is sacrificed, nothing is obtained. And it is necessary to sacrifice something precious at the moment, to sacrifice for a long time and to sacrifice a great deal. But still, not forever. This must be understood because often it is not understood.Sacrifice is necessary only while the process of crystallization is going on. When crystallization is achieved, renunciations, privations, and sacrifices are no longer necessary. Then a man may have everything he wants. There are no longer any laws for him, he is a law unto himself.”
—In Search of the Miraculous, P. D. Ouspensky, page 33
Over the course of my many years in this work, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of unintentional — and, let’s say it— unconscious severity. Some serious folk think that being severe is necessary, and good. There is, in other words, a disturbing form of Puritanism afoot; and this is found throughout the practice.
It isn’t just found in the Gurdjieff work; one can discover this in almost any religious practice. It stems, I think, from some fundamental misunderstandings about our inner nature and the need to discover a cooperation between the parts.
This cooperation has to be a loving cooperation, not one based on punishment following anger towards one’s inner or outer manifestations.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.