Flash Flood Sutra

March 7, 2011 § 5 Comments

Sometimes life can unfold like a teaching.  This is what happened to me last night.  I lead a meditation at Yoga Shivaya in Tarrytown.  I had a few qualms about going and if anyone would come out because of the heavy weather and the storms that were predicted later.  But it was wonderful to sit with others and listen to the rain.   After the sitting and walking meditation, I spoke a bit about the reflexive tendency to judge our experience all the time, and about the deeper tendency to see things in terms of I, me, and mine.  I read a poem by W.S. Merwin, “To the Face in the Mirror,” about how, well, strange it seems sometimes to be to try to find a permanent self: “Because you keep turning toward me/ what I suppose must be/my own features only/ backward it seems to me/that you are able to see me only by looking back from somewhere….”

I spoke of those rare and liberating moments when we are filled or accompanied by a finer awareness, an awareness that may be with us in suffering as well as exultation.   True compassion can blossom at such times, when we are between judgements, between “yes” and “no,” when we are more in the present.

Most people seemed to find the talk somewhat beneficial, but not everyone.  A man spoke up and said that the practice itself was so simple, just letting go.  Why had I put all of these words on top of that utter simplicity?  He added that he just couldn’t get his mind around the words I was saying (He kept gesturing like he was raking in a bounty, only clearly not).  His reaction filled me with a deeper question.   Is it possible to be really present?  Even if we clear away the obvious obstacles, fear, anger, delusion.  Is presence possible?

This is the paradox that really hits you on a long silent retreat.  You watch the workings of the mind.  You watch how layered your defense against the present moment really is:  “There are experimental studies that suggest that we do not become consciously aware of a sensory stimulus until about a half a second after its onset,” writes Christian Wertenbaker in the “Imagination” issue of Parabola.  Since many of our reactions occur more quickly than this, it can be argued that our conscious choices are illusory, after-the-fact rationalizations, and in many circumstances this can be clearly shown.  So ‘free will’ does not exist.  But this does not take into account the power of the imagination.  We can anticipate various possible reactions to a stimulus, and prepare the brain to react in one way rather than another…..One can observe in oneself a constant interplay between perception of and reaction to external phenomena, and imaginative anticipation and prediction.”

This is what made Wertenbaker’s interesting article thrilling to come upon after a hair-raising drive home on flooded roads last night:  “In Gurdjieff’s Movements, or sacred dances, one is asked to maintain a constant awareness of bodily sensation and at the same to visualize the next position to be taken.  Thus the present comes into existence.”  Most of the time we are lost in the distant past or the possible future, but there are certain conditions like the Movements that act like a Zen koan, confounding us and pushing into a more vibrant, embodied state of awareness, pushing us towards presence:  “One can speculate that the constant interplay between the immediate past and the immediate future that occurs when the present is consciously attended is also a vibration, serving a mysterious role in the self awareness of the universe, and made possible by the proper use of imagination.”

Imagine that!  Most of the time we are constantly predicting the immediate future, suppressing its unpredictability or incorporating the unexpected into our self story:  I knew it would happen that way.  But last night driving home from the Tarrytown Sangha, the rain became so heavy, the Sawmill Parkway was closed because of flooding.  Almost home,  my car was overwhelmed with water. No visibility, no traction, I sat gripping the wheel and sensing my body, grateful no one else was on that patch of road, imagining what would come next.  Visibility cleared, I watched myself begin to tell a story about the immediate past–Boy, that was close!–only the story was cut short because something similar happened again.  A great wave of water splashed up over the windshield, then another way, then the tires losing traction.  I sat sensing myself sitting and breathing and trying to imagine what would come next.  Even as I type this, I can remember the stillness in that moment, the clarity of being between sensing what was and predicting what would come.  There was the attentive state of not knowing with great vigilence, there was waiting, there was knowing the unknown, knowing that certainty that that safety and control is mostly an illusion.  Knowing that what we call presence is open to Mystery.


§ 5 Responses to Flash Flood Sutra

  • Nick_A says:

    Hi Tracy

    As I see it, presence may be possible but to acquire more than an accidental appearance it, there must be something in us to sufficiently need it. By presence, I mean as Peter Brooke described it. Remember the Ninth Wave as you read it.


    What we call ordinary life is played out within a field of energies whose limits are strictly circumscribed, and which, using the musical metaphor, rise and fall within a small number of scales. Thus the level of our awareness is low, our power of thought is limited, and these energies produce little vision. little purpose. Gurdjieff demonstrates that there are two exact points in every scale where an evolving movement comes to a stop, where there is an interval that can be bridged only by the introduction of a new vibration of precisely the necessary quality. Otherwise. as nothing in the universe can stay still, the rising energy will inevitably sink again to its starting point. This is an astonishing and radical notion: it implies that all energies, and consequently all human activities, can only rise up to a certain point on their own initiative, like the arrow shot into the into the sky which must at a certain point exhaust the impulse that launched it, so that it reaches its peak and curries downward toward the earth. However, if the crucial point where the first energy begins to fade can be accurately observed, at this point what Gurdjieff calls a “shock” can occur – which is the conscious introduction of a new impulse that will carry the rising movement across the incisible barrier and permit it to continue in its upward path. This imagee enables us to understand how it is that without this “shock” lives decay, enterprises and empires pass into decline, calculations are proved false, and heroic revolutions turn back on themselves and betray their great ideals. The same laws show that a certain force exactly applied could have prevented this return to zero, but the basic principle is seldom recognized. So we blame others and ourselves with bitterness and frustration.
    If however. at the crucial moment, the energies that are in action can make contact with energies of a different order, a chance of quality takes place. This can lead to intense airtistic experiences and to social transformations, but the process does not end here. Intermingling with energies made finer by the intensity of their vibrations, consciousness rises to a higher scale that transcends art; this in turn can lead to spiritual awakening – and eventually to absolute purity, to the sacred – for the sacred can also be understood in terms of energy, but of a quality our instruments are incapable of recording.

    In all esoteric traditions, there is a division between a higher level and a lower level, between the body and the spirit. Gurdjieff puts this division in a very different context. Man, he says, is not born with a ready-made soul; he is born incomplete. A soul is material like the body. matter is energy, and each human being can develop finer substances within the body by himself, through conscious efforts. But this is not easy, and neither pious intention nor grim determination is sufficient.

    The transformation of a human being only begins when the sources in the body, which Gurdjieff names “centers,” from which stem movements, thoughts, and feelings, cease to produce spasmodic and erratic bursts of energy and begin to function harmoniously together.

    Then, for the first time, a new quality appears, which Gurdjieff calls presence.” As the intensity of presence rises, the matrix of our reactions and desires, which we call the ego, gradually becomes elastic and transparent and in the center of our automatic structure of behavior a new space is formed in which a true individuality can arise.


    Is it possible to play the piano? A person could ask this when they first sit at a piano and realize they cannot do it. But we know that sufficient motivation, practice, and talent, can make it possible. The mind, body, and emotions, can work together to create a pianist.

    Is Man number 4 possible? It requires learning to play ourselves like a person learns piano. The difference is in motivation.

    Where egotism can help motivate the pianist, it is the need for truth at the expense of preconditioning that motivates the conscious efforts that could produce Man number 4 and greater instances of presence. The trouble is that only a rare few have a sufficient need for objective truth, the pearl of great price, to sacrifice everything else for it..

    If we live as described in Plato’s cave analogy, what else could be expected? It is the human condition.

  • Ron Starbuck says:


    There is something that I wish to undestand that is really a terminology question or a language question in the piece you wrote above. It may seem odd for me to aske this now, but keep in mind that my exposure to the Gurdjieff Legacy is really very limited.

    I read the book The Fourth Way, way back in college, I had a copy of it in my library, I may still, but I never studied with a Gurdjieff group, or did much else with the book to tell you the truth. I took from it what I needed at the time and move onto to other things. At that age, I had plenty of other desires and distractions grabbing my attention.

    What do you mean when you speak of presence and mystery? Are speaking of a presence, as in the presence of God or the presence of the Holy Spirit, to place it in a Christian context. The same for mystery?

    I’ll stop trying to define for now, and let you tell me what is meant by these words. But, I’m thinking now that they may be unique when used in relation to the Gurdjieff Legacy.

    Does this question make any sense?


    Ron Starbuck

    • tracycochran says:

      Hi Ron,

      I was using presence in the way a Christian would use it–and also in the sense of acquiring presence through the work of trying to become more sensitive and aware.

      The Gurdjieff work does give the word a unique resonance–around acquiring or accumulating presence. But I don’t use it in that sense.

      I like to let words be words, so much more resonant on their own, off the leash, wild and free.



  • Tracy,
    I have had that experience (probably most of us have at one time or another)…where it seems that time has stopped. You are held in abeyance, waiting for the outcome, not knowing what it will be and helpless to do anything about it.
    I think that is truly a time of being in the present or Presence. And I agree, it really tells us in a profound way how little we are in control. How wonderful to be open to this Mystery, and to be grateful.

  • tracycochran says:

    Thanks, Elizabeth. That is what it is like.

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