The Gifts of Madame de Salzmann and G.I. Gurdjieff

September 30, 2009 § 9 Comments

G.I. Gurdjieff once told some of his early students in Russia to consider the origin of things.  Where did this cup, this coffee, this food on my plate come from?  How did all these things that touch me come to be made?   Years later in America, Martin Luther King Jr. offered a similar example in a speech, saying that people and things from all over the world contribute to our daily survival.   Even more recently, and possibly influenced by the other two men, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn created a prayer before eating that encouraged people to recognize all the suffering that goes into growing, harvesting, and transporting the food to winds up on our plates.    This practice of looking into things can lead to a greater awareness of our interdependent state and to feelings of compassion.

When I first came upon it about thirty years ago,  Gurdjieff’s suggestion that we look into the origin of things–including the practices and beliefs of our ancestors–acted on me like a kind of slow-motion depth charge.   It blew open my mind to the mystery behind seemingly solid and straightforward things, like our bodies.  A few years ago, after I sent a sample of my DNA to National Geographic’s Genographic Project, I received a map that helped me picture what the Gurdjieff  exercise helped me begin to feel:  None of us really “own” our human bodies.  They are living legacies from distant common ancestors who arose in Africa and fanned out all over the globe.  They are living records of interconnection, and of search.

Now,  a gift has come to Parabola that reminds me–and will remind many other people who read it–that there is another dimension to the mystery of our lives.   In the next issue The Future (which will be arriving in mailboxes, at Barnes and Noble, and other outlets on November 1) there will be an excerpt from The Reality of Being by Jeanne de Salzmann, the foremost pupil of G.I. Gurdjieff.    These writings on the Fourth Way , which will be published as a book in May 2010, do more than instruct.  They embody and convey what it is like to wake up to and live from our full potential as human beings.   Even if one is far from being able to understand, let alone practice,  what the writings point towards, Madame de Salzmann’s words have a special quality.  They make a person feel that it might really be true, what Gurdjieff taught.  There might really be a lineage of wisdom that is far more ancient than Jesus or Socrates or Buddha–and it might be alive and waiting to lead us to the mystery of our relationship to the divine, to what is hidden in us and beyond.

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Wild Mind

September 22, 2009 § 3 Comments

In my last post,  I wrote of my visit to a faux New Amsterdam which was briefly set up in downtown Manhattan.   Since then, a few friends have asked me why I care about connecting with distant ancestors.  Why not just be the contemporary American that I am?   I think this periodic yearning to know what it was  like to farm  just hand tools and otherwise brave the unknown is rooted in this primal yearning to know a greater kind of awareness, an intelligence that isn’t confined to words and concepts but extends to the hands, the eyes and ears, the human being as a whole confronting the essential forces of life.    When I was a child, the ancestors I most wondered about and wanted to connect with were the Vikings.   Although both my mother’s parents are from Denmark, she knew very little about her earliest forebears except that they were “big and blond and wild.”   It was the wildness, the reputation for ferocity in battle that fascinated me.  Not surprisingly, I didn’t think of the Viking reputation for marauding and raping and pillaging as others do but of the brave warriors in Beowulf, men (and I added women) so hearty they went around in skimpy fur outfits in the dead of winter, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in open boats, who faced down evil monsters like Grendal and lived to unlock their “word hoards” and tell long, lyrical stories about it in the mead hall.  To be a Viking in my child’s mind was like being an Indian.  It meant being mindful and quick and resourceful in the way people learn to be when they live in a natural world full of powerful and dangerous forces.   It meant having a mind that included the body, that included great nature.  I made no distinction aside from geography between American Indians and ancient Indians from India.  When I grew up and went to college and learned of an Aryan migration that swept down into India from the north,  I pictured Vikings on horseback, riding like brave Sioux warriors into Mother India where they dismounted and perfected yoga and meditation.  But wisdom and insight that came pouring out in those beautiful forms and in the Rig Veda had to do with their wild openness to life, with that fact that their wild brave warrior minds never split off from Nature, from the awareness that the whole of life is connected in a great interconnected Whole.   And from time to time, even though I’m a long way from youg, up wells the powerful desire  to know that mind in my life time.

New Spamsterdam

September 13, 2009 § 4 Comments

“Is this the Dutch Village?” my friend Liz asked the big New York City cop standing by a turning windmill in Bowling Green Park in Manhattan.  “This is New Amsterdam,” said the cop with deadpan irony.   We had come all the way down from Northern Westchester in the rain and gloom,  so that I could walk through what The New York Times said would be a colonial village with “12 traditional houses, a windmill and a greenhouse.”   It was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage up the river of the same name on behalf of Dutch commerce.  I knew perfectly well it would be hokey.  I knew there would be wooden shoes and cheese.   Still, I pictured being able to walk through humble little cottages, seeing past all the hokiness to gain the tiniest inkling of what life must have been like for my early Dutch settler ancestors on a rainy day in New Amsterdam.  I knew I was really reaching for an ancestral mind state.  But it was mortifying, strangely personally embarrassing to take Metro North down to this row of Ye Olde Dutch facades on little kiosks selling french fries, gouda, herring burgers, tulips, and yup, wooden shoes.  “Your early ancestors really knew how to shop,” said my friend.   She asked me if I wanted to go to the Museum of the American Indian, which is housed in the old customs house right across from the “village” but I had to get out of there.  We walked down to the ferry docks and looked at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island before heading uptown and taking refuge from the rain in Les Halles (We’re both big fans of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations).  We had a decadent late afternoon brunch that was worth the insomnia that came with it.

Especially as I lay awake thinking,  I happened to think of that Indian Museum overlooking “New Amsterdam.”    I had been lying there observing how shallow most thinking is–just random associations, mental spam.  But the image of that museum overlooking that feverish little “village” of consumption and travel promotion, it jogged a deeper memory–of Carl Jung’s encounter with an elder named Mountain Lake in the Taos Pueblo in 1925.   I quote from Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

“See,” Ochwiay Biano said, “how cruel the whites look.  Their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds.  Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something.  What are they seeking?  The whites always want something…We do not know what they want…We think they are mad.”

I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad. (This is Jung doing the asking)

“They say that they think with their heads,” he replied.

“Why of course.  What do you think with?”  I asked him in surprise.

“We think here,” he said, indicating his heart.

I lay there in the dark with indigestion, registering how hollow it is to try to lay claim to something with just the head.   How much bolder it is to be fully present and receptive in the body, to really be open and attentive and and not just thinking we are.   Then respond from the heart.  Just imagine if more of the early settlers had done that…before they got on with the getting and spending.

May All Beings Be Free From Suffering

September 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

Eight years ago this morning,  I was riding a Metro North train down to Manhattan when a conductor ran through the train with the terrible and surreal news that the World Trade Center towers had collapsed and that the Pentagon had been hit.  I knew about the two planes going in when I boarded the train but in a distant echo of the way so many other New Yorkers acted that day,  my instinct was to head towards the trouble.   When I heard the terrible news, I spontaneously began to say a Buddhist metta prayer for all the people I pictured falling to their deaths:  May you be free from suffering….May you be at ease.  I  wasn”t in denial.  It was one of those rare moments in life where the heart steps in and takes over for the head and all the distracting thoughts, fears, and sense of separation between myself and others came down.   It was as if my heart was with them, as if they were the same as I was.     My yoga teacher called for a moment of silence this morning, standing in mountain posture with our hands in prayer position.  I hadn’t even registered what it day it was.   At the end of the class, as we lay on our mats in silence, she asked us to consider the word “service” and the question (or questions) “How or what should we serve?”    This reverberated.  Up welled that experience on the train and that memory of how my heart opened and the walls of separation came down for instant.   I felt that I was part of a larger body–wishing that all beings be free and at peace, not just little me.  I think that knowing how and what to serve is best begun that way, letting the heart open to what is happening right here and right now.   More and more,  I find myself thinking about  service.   As Ram Dass once said, “What else do you have to do with your life?”

Heroic Labors

September 5, 2009 § 2 Comments

On this Labor Day weekend, I am thinking about work and about what elevates some work to the level of the heroic, the mythic, the stuff of art, legend, and inspiration for us all.    Usually, my days are filled with work and information.  It’s not all unpleasant but there is an endless but unmemorable quality to the tasks that can leave me a particular feeling of sorrow at the end of the day, as if my life is vanishing like water into the sand, leaving no trace.  Do you know this feeling?  It usually comes with a kind of questioning or longing for life to make more of an impression, to penetrate more deeply, to make a mark.   For some time now, I’ve been thinking about how Buddhism and other spiritual traditions teach through stories–even though the aim of Buddhist practice is liberation from stories.   I’m realizing that there is something about the way certain kinds of stories unfold that satisfies that deep need that feels hardwired in to us humans to live a deeper life–to have life be a journey that leads straight out of ourselves to something greater.   The best kinds of stories have an unlikely hero, someone who is called out of a grinding, humdrum life to face adversity, to take on great risks or labors,  a story where an seemingly ordinary man (and all too rarely a woman) is called by circumstances to go beyond the rest of us, to be like Milarepa or David, going up against Goliath.

About 35 years ago, in the founding issue of Parabola,  P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, wrote that the raw material of these mythic stories could be found in The New York Times.  It just took a certain kind of mind to see through the mere facts to the deeper truths. The New York Times and other news outlets are currently reporting that bribery accusations are being made against a judge overseeing the $27 billion dollar contamination lawsuit against Chevron in Equador. In the current issue of Parabola, I interviewed Joe Berlinger, the director of Crude, a powerful documentary about this on going legal battle, in which the remarkable 35-year-old lawyer Pablo Fajardo is representing some 30,000 rainforest dwellers and indigenous people against Chevron for being responsible for an alleged “death zone” of a land that was a fertile paradise even during the Ice Age.   Among other deeper truths that come through in this messy, seemingly endless case, is that every life–including Indian and poor peoples’ lives–matter.  Clean water, land, and food matters.  And it isn’t in spite of our hardships and hindrances but through them that something creative and deeply true can come into being. Plunging into the jungle and into the heart of this crucial case, Crude fulfills what Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers called in that long ago essay, “the essential mythical requirement: the reinstatement of the fallen world.”

Pay Attention!

September 2, 2009 § 3 Comments

How to close the gap between what we think and what we feel?  How do we come to know our deepest aspirations and intentions in the midst of welter of large and small actions and reactions that fill an ordinary day?  A little while ago, I received a comment from someone (who was clearly familiar with the Gurdjieff ideas and work) suggesting that the difference between a feeling from another level and our ordinary egocentric emotions (as grandiose as those can be) is the questioning that can come in its wake…a questioning that wakes us up:  How can I be responsible?   Sometimes (certainly in my case) it gets framed as:  What have I been doing with my life?

A few days later, this same person quoted from Exchanges Within by the brilliant student of Gurdjieff, Lord John Pentland:  “Sensation is the relating element.  How do you feel what you think or think what you feel?  It is through sensation.”

How do we go about this?   Tear your nose away from that proverbial grindstone,  peel your eyes away from the screen,  pull your poor, worried addictive mind away from its current desire and pay attention to what is left in that wake, experience desire as desire, experience your life.  Attention can be magic. It can unlock the secrets of life.

To demonstrate, here is a wonderful passage from a story the great contemporary writer, Lorrie Moore: “O.K.,” I said.  “Sounds good.”  Sounds good.  It was the Midwestern girl’s reply to everything.  It appeared to clinch a deal, was somewhat the same as the more soldierly Good to go, except that it was promiseless–mere affirmative description.  It got you away, out the door.”

Attention can reveal the unexpected depths in seemingly ordinary things.

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