Conduct and observance

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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Consciousness, Emergence and Ethics

Once in a while, we take a more technical excursion in this blog.

This morning a friend and I were discussing Gurdjieff's teaching as it is viewed by the academic world. She pointed out to me that Gurdjieff has not yet been taken seriously by the world of religious scholars. They generally tend to view his teaching as a cult. Kathy is in a graduate religious studies program, so I can reasonably presume she knows what she's talking about.

Our conversation this morning covered some interesting territory. Gurdjieff was the first religious teacher, perhaps the only religious teacher, to provide a legitimate bridge between the religions of the old world -- all the classical religions, Hinduism, Judaisim, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam -- and the new world of reductionist, high-technology science which was beginning to emerge as an extraordinarily powerful force at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Why do I say that?

Gurdjieff was the first, and to this day perhaps only, teacher of religious subjects who offered the uncomfortable proposition that man is a machine. I say uncomfortable because, although this is a position any biologist would find it nearly impossible to argue with, you won't find too many religious people agreeing with it. The concept is essentially abhorrent to them.

Gurdjieff furthermore maintained that man's psyche is divided into many parts (centers) which run at notably different tempos. In his system each one of them contributes to the whole in a significantly different manner, with the subject suffering from identifiable deficiencies when cognitive function in any one of them is hindered or impaired.

These ideas presaged many modern understandings of human psychology, and are on the whole supported by contemporary research. The "doctrine of "I"s," which presumes a man has many different "persons" acting within the field of his psychological manifestations, was another major contribution to the understanding of human psychology.

All of this being said, perhaps the most extraordinary (and advanced) insight Gurdjieff offered to us was the following:

Consciousness has levels, and is an emergent property of the parts.

The principle of emergence dictates that organized agents which follow simple rules display increasingly sophisticated behavior as the number of agents in action increases. A classic example of this is the ant colony, where individual ant behaviors are-- to put it bluntly-- idiot simple, yet collectively the ants behave in a remarkably intelligent manner, as though they are a single organism with much greater abilities than any one of the constituent organisms has on its own.

Consciousness as an emergent property of matter is another indisputable characteristic of the physical and biological world. Hardly a scientist alive could argue that it doesn't work this way. What was remarkable about Gurdjieff is that he explained to us that the human psyche works in exactly the same manner. Today's psychology is still playing catch up, as it gradually recognizes the fact that the human psyche displays healthy properties only in direct proportion to the vigor and connectedness of its individual constituent parts.

Gurdjieff's contention was that man's greatest potential lay in the unification of his increasingly dismembered inner state. By "self-remembering" -- reassembling the parts that do not speak to each other -- emergent properties with extraordinary qualities appear in a man's Being. Of course religions have maintained this in one way or another for thousands of years, but Gurdjieff offered us a legitimate scientific explanation for the phenomenon-- one that has certainly not been fully appreciated as of yet.

And of course, Gurdjieff's understanding brings us to a much vaster premise: that the universe itself displays emergent properties of consciousness on scales much larger than our own.

Gurdjieff himself pointed out that science and religion have the same aim- to understand the nature of life and the universe. In the flowering of Islamic civilization during the middle ages, this was well understood, but it may be the last time in man's recent history that these two disciplines found a comfortable consonance.

Nowadays they often seem to be locked in mortal combat.

This morning's exchange included a brief discussion of the nature of ethics as viewed from the Gurdjieff system's point of view. A few of my thoughts on the subject follow.

All religious systems tend to provide a code of ethics; the question is, what does Gurdjieff's code of ethics--if any--have to do with other religious practices?

Gurdjieff proposes an ethics of consciousness: ethics derived directly from the state of perception, according to how unified it is.

We were in general agreement that the Buddhist code of right thought, right action is more or less in line with this understanding, and that the closest thing the Christians have nowadays is WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") I don't offer this to be facetious; I think that WWJD is also in the direction of an ethics of consciousness-- an ethic born of an awareness of where you are, what is happening, and what is needed.

When we examine contemporary Islam and Judaism, it is more difficult to find an active and dynamic ethic of this kind. In addition, despite the WWJD "movement," fundamentalist Christians tend to reject a dynamic ethic. In all three cases, we find that a text-based, and thus rigidly fixed, ethic has been substituted for the dynamic ethic required by an effort of consciousness in relationship to God.

Text-based ethics outsource the responsibility for ethical behavior to the code itself, rather than individual practicing it. This makes it much easier to make ethical decisions, but also makes it much easier to make bad ones. In particular, text-based ethics are entities fixed in time which find it all but impossible to respond to entirely new situations which could not possibly have been anticipated when they were originally established.

We find parallels to this in a struggle of the American government to reconcile today's technologies with a constitutional document written over 200 years ago, but it is not my intention to explore politics here. The point is that ethical decisions fixed in time and fixed on paper will inevitably come up short at some point in the future.

Religious systems that preserve a flexibility of ethical behavior, born of conscious effort within the moment, are a different story. They preserve a respect for human intelligence that dogma inevitably extinguishes.

Fixed point ethical systems carry another major liability in that they require constant defense, because of their innate inability to adapt to new situations. This defensiveness often turns in to an evangelistic paranoia which justifies any action in order to defend the ethical code-- even actions that directly contradict the code itself. Hence we end up with religious people who are willing to kill other religious people simply because they don't agree with each other on what "religion" consists of. In other words, fixed point ethical codes tend to end in violence.

I think we can reasonably conclude that fixed-point ethical systems which originated in distant times ultimately fail everyone. The Gurdjieffian/Buddhist idea of "ethics in action" offers an opportunity to act ethically within context, which is the feature most prominently lacking in the fixed point systems.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

On children

Today I am going to reach for and discuss something quite difficult. It grows from a specific impression I had a few days ago.

I'll confess. As I compose this, it appears clumsy and inadequate. These ideas were not meant to be expressed in words.

Nonetheless, like Noah's ark, the heart of it is made of true wood. Perhaps if we are willing to enter the vessel with all of our animals, it will lift us above the daily flood of compulsions which drowns our inner civilization.

What is the relationship of this experience we call consciousness to what is experienced?

This thing that we call consciousness, or being, is quite literally the child of a much larger consciousness. I want to stress that I do not mean this as a metaphor. I am speaking of concrete facts here. This very understanding is embedded in the first two words of the Lord's prayer. it is in fact the first thing Christ wanted us to attempt to understand when we pray.

It is not our ego, our personality, that is the child of a larger consciousness, but rather our consciousness itself. This consciousness, this Being, exists and begins before ego and personality begin to toy with it. It is eternal and indestructible. As Zen would put it, it is the face that we had before we were born.

One esoteric meaning of the idea of adultery -- as it is presented in the ten Commandments --is the idea of the dilution of consciousness with ego. This is the mixing of the higher with the lower, of putting new wine into old bottles, which is forbidden.

When we contaminate our original state of consciousness with ego and personality, it becomes adulterated--that is, diluted, polluted with something that does not belong in it. The state of Christ consciousness was born of the Virgin Mary in the sense that it was born of consciousness unsullied by this other, artificial part of us.

So we are not outside of God's consciousness. We exist within it. In fact there is no actual separation between our consciousness and God's consciousness. There can never be such separation. Any experience we have, at any level of consciousness, belongs to this larger consciousness and is born from it.

This is a subtle point. It isn't possible to not be a part of God. The very idea is erroneous and betrays an understanding of what God is. If we study Meister Eckhart, we find this idea. We also find it in Gurdjieff, in Dogen's work, as well as other masters.

There is only one thing. There is only truth. There is only Dharma.

Can we perhaps begin to see ourselves as children of this larger Being? As a nascent possibility, captured in the act of reaching back towards the supreme and unerring maturity of its original source?

To do so would be to drop our carefully constructed and defended pretense of separation. This is a dangerous act from the point of view of our ego and personality. After all, these parts of us can only exist within the separation. If it dies, they die. Everything that we cling to-every trespass we commit and every trespass we hold against others, every temptation we succumb to -- all of that has to die.

What would that mean? Let us all frankly admit it lies well beyond our comprehension, why don't we?

To understand that we are children of something larger is to understand that it is our consciousness itself that is made in the image of God-- not our bodies, and certainly not our deeds.

The living movement of experience itself is the image of God. It is the mirror in which God is reflected.

To understand that we are children also explains why that which gives birth to us loves us. It is in the nature of the parent to love the child, to educate the child, to nurture the child and forgive it unconditionally for its errors.

This idea of the experience of our own Being as the child of a greater Being contains much food.

It is worth pondering with the mind, but it is also worth exploring with the breath , with sensation, and the tastes and smells of the things we touch.

What does it mean to do these things?

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.


In his Shobogenzo, in the chapter "The Dignified Behavior of Acting Buddha," Dogen remarks, "The 'mindfulness' of the common man and the mindfulness of the Buddhas are far apart: never liken them." (from the translation by Nishijima and Cross, Dogen Sangha Press.)

This morning, I remarked to my wife as we were walking along the Hudson on this beautiful July morning that this suggests everything we may think of as practice of mindfulness is not actually such practice. After all, all of our understanding of practice comes from what we are -- common men.

I have spent a lifetime being exposed to various spiritual ideas, practices, and disciplines. Everyone seems to have a different idea of what this might mean. There are dividers, who suggest that their own way and only their own way is correct, and there are uniters, who suggest that every way is correct. But no one actually knows what they are doing. We are all just making up a story that seems to suit the present moment.

Something entirely new needs to happen, doesn't it? This mindfulness, this attentiveness, this discipline and this effort is just preparation. When something truly new happens, it is a revolution.

As Dogen says only a few paragraphs after his comment on mindfulness, "In the heavens above, (the state of acting Buddha) teaches gods; and in the human worlds, it teaches human beings. It has the virtue of flowers opening, and it has the virtue of the occurrence of the world, without any gap between them at all. For this reason, it is far transcendent over self and others and it has independent excellence in going and coming."

If we acquire the virtue of flowers opening, perhaps we can begin to see that every assumption is incorrect. This opening of flowers is the dissolution of the ego into something more refined that is at the same time both more and less specific.

So if the practice that we think is practice is not practice at all, what is it good for? It is good for the effort itself. We could examine this question in the light of the very effort of this blog, which is after all composed of words and ideas.

What good does it do to write words?

What good does it do to read them?

In the formal lineages of the Gurdjieff work I participate in, this is often seen as intellectual work, and in our work the word "intellectual" has acquired a meaning somewhat equivalent to the word "shit." To say that something is "intellectual" is to dismiss it as worthless. In their unparalleled zeal to pursue three centered being, many of my fellow Gurdjieffians seem to feel that the intellect is the very best kind of doormat to wipe the crap off their feet on.

In other words, it turns out they actually believe in two centered being, which is loving and powerful, but-- we must suspect-- willfully stupid.

I say this only because I have repeatedly seen so many avoid the effort of using the thinking part. After all, to truly think requires a lot of work. It is not so easy. Gurdjieff left us many difficult ideas, modern-day koans, which have to be struggled with in order to understand how we don't understand.

Nowadays, many sincere friends of mine in the work approach complex ideas like the Enneagram and the chemical factory by allowing their eyes to glaze over. They proceed to claim no one can understand these things, it's too difficult, not their kind of thing, not their way of working, "too one-centered", etc.

Perhaps the most classic defensive position is to assert that we shouldn't try to understand these ideas because that would be "explaining" (another Gurdjieffian code word for "shit.")

Having successfully ducked the tedious responsibility of thinking, our membership then reinvests themselves in a formatory kind of chit chat consisting of sanctioned words, phrases, and methods of exchange which are eminently safe and reassure everyone that things are taking place in just the right kind of way to encourage a slow, steady march towards consciousness.

It's quite true that it's no better to invest oneself in an overly identified way with the complexity of the intellectual ideas. However, as a very good friend of my and I have discussed recently, the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater becomes too great.

Our minds are lazy. They want to believe. We need the effort and stimulation of ideas. We need to work on them every day.

This blog, which is now topping out at probably 100,000 words of commentary, represents a significant amount of work with ideas.

Readers can read these ideas and either accept or reject them at their leisure; it is inevitable that they will do so. Every encounter with this blog, and similar efforts like it, will result in subjective reactions on the part of the one who encounters it. That is lawful and acceptable. I have even had at least one reader cheerfully advise me that all of my material is "new age" and comes from "influences one," which is a Gurdjieffian codeword for "superficial bullshit."

It took me a little while to digest that one.

Let's be honest about it: the whole enterprise is not about whether the words are right or wrong, whether we can grasp anything with the mind, whether we will discover truth or falsehood.

The enterprise is about the effort.

If there is mindfulness, it lies in the effort; if there is action, it lies in the effort; if there is value, meaning, significance, life, it lies in the effort. The effort itself is where we find life.

Let's take an example from one of my favorite sources, biology.

If we truly learn to pay attention to our breathing and form a relationship to it which is more organic, we may begin to see that breathing itself, which we absolutely take for granted, actually represents an enormous effort on the part of the organism, which it undertakes on its own, without regard for whether "we" like it or don't like it.

This body is a factory that is working relentlessly to support the enterprise of our consciousness.

Do we know this? Do we understand it?

Now that's effort.

May your lungs breathe air.

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