Category Archives: Inner Work

Phase Transition

A story that’s making the rounds today concerns trending changes in the way people read. Here’s the lede, from today’s Washington Post: Claire Handscombe has a commitment problem online. Like a lot of Web surfers, she clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, […]

Between Two Chairs

Blessed is he who hath a soul, Blessed is he who hath none, Woe and sorrow to him who hath it in conception. – Gurdjieff

Gut Feelings

In Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, the magnum opus of the extraordinary Greek/Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, the central character, Beelzebub refers to the unfortunate inhabitants of Earth — us — as “three-brained beings”. This is in alignment with Gurdjieff’s division of the human organism into three parts: the intellectual center, emotional center, and ‘moving’ or […]

Potential

Mulla Nasrudin was carrying home some liver which he had just bought. In the other hand he had a recipe for liver pie which a friend had given him. Suddenly a buzzard swooped down and carried off the liver. “You fool!” shouted Nasrudin, “the meat is all very well — but I still have the […]

Junies

We’ve decamped for a few days to the woods near Wellfleet Harbor, and on this warm late-May evening there are some huge insects storming the screens at the doors and windows. June-bugs, I figured they must be, and wanting to know a little more I Googled junebugs Cape Cod. Here’s what I found. Massachusetts has […]

Give Me Your Tired, Your Mpffff…

As long as we’re on the subject, here’s a little mission statement that’s been making the rounds today.

Stumbling Block

Have you read Julian Jaynes’s provocative 1977 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? In it the author, a Princeton psychologist, argued that human self-consciousness — the real McCoy, the “I am, and I am aware that I am” reflective consciousness that is, for us, the essence of being human, […]

Unhappy Wanderers

The importance of mindfulness — the mastery of one’s attention, and the practiced ability to maintain conscious awareness of our subjective experience in the present moment — is a major principle of Buddhism, Sufism, the Gurdjieff work, and, I suspect, just about every esoteric system of inner development. (I’ve mentioned it before, for example here […]

It’s All In Your Head

In Tuesday’s post about the puzzle of consciousness (I was off duty last night, celebrating my 54th at an Argentine steakhouse on the Lower East Side), I mentioned having seen an item in the paper that day that I thought seemed timely. It was a piece in the Times about growing interest in the use […]

Two Views Of A Secret

A correspondent (and occasional commenter) and I have been exchanging emails over the past few days about the mystery of consciousness — a topic that used to occupy a fair amount of space around here, but which has been bumped off the page lately by political rants and screeds. My friend and I make fundamentally […]

Know What I Mean?

A few weeks back there was an interesting article by Natalie Angier in the science section of the Times, about a familiar word whose meaning, as it turns out, is not at all clear.

E Unum Pluribus

The Islamic mystic al-Kharraz tells us: “Only God has the right to say ‘I’.” This necessary insight has nothing to do with Islam, or even God.

Perspective

Mulla Nasrudin once undertook to take nine donkeys for delivery to a local farmer. The man who entrusted them to him counted them, one by one, so that Nasrudin could be sure that there really were nine. On the road his attention was distracted by something by the wayside. Nasrudin, sitting astride one of the […]

Salud!

If you are like me, you will, on extremely rare occasions, find yourself having had a great deal to drink the night before, and greeting the day with a challenging “hangover”. I have done a little independent research into this predicament over the years, and believe I have settled on the right approach to it. […]

Is God Necessary?

I have said often in these pages that it seems likely that the human propensity for religion is a cognitive adaptation that has flourished because it tends to improve the cohesion of social groups, thereby increasing the fitness of those groups in competition against others. As David Sloan Wilson argues in his book Darwin’s Cathedral: […]

Hop Heaven

I’ve just got my hands on something I’ve been looking for, off and on, for a couple of years now: a bottle of Dogfish Head 120 Minute India Pale Ale.

Pensée

From number 136, in the Krailsheimer edition: Sometime, when I set to thinking about the various activities of men, the dangers and troubles which they face at Court, or in war, giving rise to so many quarrels and passions, daring and often wicked enterprises and so on, I have often said that the sole cause […]

Isn’t It Romantic

With yet another hat tip to our friend JK, who has been tirelessly throwing odds and ends over the fence, here is an item that falls squarely in the “odds” category (though I suppose it involves “ends” as well).

Pensée

Number 47, in the Krailsheimer edition: “We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we […]

Dead Ahead

It is difficult for a thoughtful person to get into his fifties without a persistent and lurking awareness of our mortal brevity. At this point in life even those who have been fortunate enough to have been spared frequent doses of calamity have lost a good friend or a family member, and by the half-century […]

Gelernter on AI

Yale’s David Gelernter, the well-known computer scientist, has written an article in Technology Review on the problems that bedevil AI research. He has some interesting things to say — not only about AI, but also about consciousness itself — and it’s well worth your while to read it.

Lake of Fire

In the wake of the horror at Virginia Tech, folks around the world, and here at home, are expressing a predictable variety of responses. The Left is calling for stricter gun control, the Right for stricter immigration, the Europeans are criticizing our violent culture, and all sorts of people are focusing on the Asian-ness, or […]

Free as a Bird

“Ask yourself: are you free? Many are inclined to answer ‘yes’, if they are relatively secure in a material sense and do not have t worry about the morrow, if they depend on no one for their livelihood or in the choice of their conditions of life. But is this freedom? Is it only a question of external conditions?

Apply Within

It is very, very difficult to develop oneself harmoniously. We are not one, but a collection of parts, and the parts bicker, struggle for power, jostle for position. Very often, one gets out in front of the others, sometimes for a very long while, and the last thing that it wants is for there to be an overview, a higher vantage, from which our whole inner world, and the tumult and disorder therein, can be seen.

The intellect, the instincts of the body, the emotions, all have their jobs to do in a properly functioning organization, but we are not so well organized, and there is no-one in charge. In one moment the feelings are on top, in the next it is some idea or other; soon it will be the stomach, a little later the reproductive organs — each with their own wishes, their own aims. And what of our aim? Where are we amid this riot, this anarchy? We are gazing out the window, or sitting comfortably — we must always be comfortable — dozing, recalling the past, or imagining the future; or we are fast asleep, dreaming that we are awake, that we are in command. And meanwhile, the servants, dressed in our clothes, are painting the town red, and writing checks in our name.

Do Not Disturb

We are all, of course, thoughtful and open-minded people — a distinction that sets us apart from the rabble, from the average man who parrots the opinions of the braying donkeys he sees on television and reads in the papers. No, we are different; the views we express are carefully prepared, using only the finest ingredients: the facts at hand, our rich store of personal experience, and the wisdom of the many sages whose works we have absorbed. When we deliver an opinion, it is like a sauce that has been carefully reduced — a rich and flavorful concoction, complex and nutritious. How could it be otherwise?

Here’s how. We fancy that we are savants strolling the agora, but in fact we prefer to keep indoors, in our comfortable and well-appointed offices, and to let our secretaries answer the phone. They, of course, having none of our exquisite subtlety of mind, are expected to send the important callers in to see us, where we may give them and their questions the attention they deserve. But what happens, as we doze in our leather chairs, is that most callers never get past the front desk, where they are handed a brochure outlining the company policy and sent along their way.

That’s Better

This story, one of the enormous body of Mulla Nasrudin folk-stories, is taken from The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, by the late Sufi writer and teacher Idries Shah.

Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his windowsill. He had never seen a bird of this kind before.

“You poor thing, ” he said, “however were you allowed to get into this state?”

He clipped the falcon’s talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers.

“Now you look more like a bird,” said Nasrudin.

Rest Area

I’m back in Cape Cod this weekend, and as always it is restorative to be here. The effect is rather like pulling off at a scenic overlook during a long motor journey to stretch the legs, breathe deeply, and take one’s eyes off the road.

Living and working, as I do, in New York City, is to spend each day in a hyperkinetic environment of entirely human manufacture, wrought at an exclusively human scale. But here in Wellfleet, on this tiny spit of land flung into the restless Atlantic, one finds oneself in the presence of physical immensities that offer the tightly clenched spirit room to unfurl. To step outside, as I did last night, to stand in silence under a moonlit sky, pine-framed and ablaze with stars, and then to stroll this afternoon along a deserted beach beside the limitless ocean — a scene entirely devoid, in chill November, of even the slightest trace of Man’s teeming presence — is to enjoy a trans-physical unconfinement, a lebensraum of the soul, that many denizens of the congested antheaps we call cities no longer realize we require for our normal development.

Dig We Must

I’ve finished reading George Beke’s book Digging Up the Dog: The Greek Roots of Gurdjieff’s Esoteric Ideas, and must recommend it again, not only for those who are curious about Gurdjieff’s teaching, but also for those who wish a deeper understanding of Christian symbolism. Many familiar Christian ideas – the Trinity, the Twelve Stations of the Cross, even the word Alleluia – represent much older knowledge and traditions that found their way to us by way of the Greeks. Gurdjieff, who sometimes described his teachings as “esoteric Christianity”, once said, when asked about the connection between ancient Greece and the modern Church:

Everything Christian came from old Greek, then they spoil. All, all, comes from Greek.

Greek to Me

My friend George Beke, a tireless and erudite scholar of esoteric teachings, has just sent me a copy of his new book Digging Up the Dog: The Greek Roots of Gurdjieff’s Esoteric Ideas. In this slim volume George shares with us the fruits of his decades of research into the occult legacy of the Pythagoreans and Plato – which are often considered by modern Western thinkers to be merely mathematical and philosophical teachings – and their relation to the complex system for inner development brought forth a century ago by Gurdjieff. I look forward to reading it and commenting on it here. You can order a copy of your own – I can promise you that if you are curious about such things you will not be disappointed – here.

On Purpose

From Marcus Aurelius:

“At every action, no matter by whom performed, make it a practice to ask yourself , ‘What is his object in doing this?’
But begin with yourself; put this question to yourself first of all.”

Old News

My friend George Beke, in an online discussion of the Gospel of Judas, quotes G.I. Gurdjieff’s book Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. The book takes place on the spaceship Karnak where the horned Beelzebub, returning much older and wiser to his home planet after millennia of exile in our solar system for his youthful transgressions, is telling his grandson Hassein about the strange beings who dwell on the planet Earth.

Needs

As Mulla Nasruddin emerged from the mosque after prayers, a beggar sitting in the street solicited alms. The following conversation ensued:

Pressure Points

In times of stress, our breath tends to rise in the chest. The shoulders lift and tighten. The jaw clenches.

Over the past thirty years of kung fu (and other inner work), I’ve devoted a good deal of attention to this. When I watch inexpert students sparring, the signs are always there, and always the same. The students are nervous: they are putting their skills to the test, and they might receive a painful blow at any moment. Also, their egos are on the line, and they are being watched. I can see the tension in their shoulders, the stiffness and jerkiness of their movements, the quick and shallow breaths, the lack of connected power in their techniques.

The More Things Change

A Zen saying:

Before enlightenment,
I chopped wood and carried water.
After enlightenment,
I chopped wood and carried water.

Public Access

I’ve been rather torn about whether to write in this space about some very sad things that have been happening lately. My staid British upbringing tends to make me think that airing one’s personal sorrows in public is somehow ill-mannered, but weighing against that is my feeling that it is perfectly in keeping with the aim of this weblog to discuss universal human experiences, especially in the context of our struggle for inner growth and our wish to find meaning and harmony in our lives.

Last Friday I learned that my mother, who had been afflicted by nausea for a couple of weeks, has been diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer, and that the prognosis is very grim.

Watch Your Back

The practice of inner work begins with an attempt to observe ourselves. As I have discussed in earlier posts (here and here), it is very difficult for us to notice the edges of our conscious awareness. The more it ebbs, the less we realize it. Most of the time, we do not remember ourselves.

Stop Making Sense

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, wrote a post today called Nirvana as Asphyxiation. He’s been reading Emil Cioran, whom he quoted as having written:

In the Benares sermon, Buddha cites, among the causes of pain, the thirst to become and the thirst not to become. The first thirst we understand, but why the second?

Bill goes on to examine the question of salvation. What lies at the end of the path? Annihilation of self? Why should we desire that? But if not that, then what? Some sort of “life of Riley” upgrade? A fluffy cloudscape, and an eternity of harps and halos? Might wear thin after the first million years or so. An endless carnal romp with a half-gross of raven-haired virgins? Not bad for a weekend in Vegas, but as a reentrant “lockout groove” for aeons without end? I’d rather play the record again. So Bill has set himself, and the rest of us, a philosophical problem. I quote from his post:

It is the problem of elaborating a conception of salvation that avoids both annihilationism and reduplicationism.

But is this, in fact, a philosophical problem at all?

One Way Out

When the ear hears, observe the mind. Does it get caught up and make a story out of the sound? Is it disturbed? You can know this, stay with it, be aware. At times you may want to escape from the sounds, but that is not the way out. You must escape through awareness.

-Ajahn Chah, “Still Forest Pool”

Blue Note

From Chapter 5 of Rumi’s Masnavi-ye Manavi:

Melancholy may enter your soul, and ambush your happiness; but it will prepare you for true joy. Melancholy drives out all other emotions and feelings, so the source of all goodness may occupy the whole house. It shakes the yellow leaves from the tree, allowing fresh leaves to grow. It pulls up old bodily pleasures by the roots, allowing divine spiritual pleasures to be planted. Melancholy takes many things from the soul, in order to bring better things in return.

The Pressures of the Flesh

As usual, there is an interesting conversation underway at Bill Vallicella’s place. Dr. V offered a post, entitled Lust, that is brief enough to quote in its entirety:

It is both evil and paltry. The lecher makes himself contemptible in the manner of the glutton and the drunkard. The paltriness of lust may support the illusion that it does not matter if one falls into it. Thus the paltriness hides the evil. This makes it even more insidious.

But there is room for discussion here.

We Meet Monsieur Gurdjieff

I’ve alluded rather obliquely in some of my posts to various schools of inner development, without going into a lot of detail. I’d like to begin to talk about one such system with which I have had various levels of contact all of my life. The ideas in question are those brought to the West by the Greek/Armenian teacher G.I. Gurdjieff.

The Moving Finger

It wasn’t until I began blogging that I realized how different it, and journalism generally, is from what one usually has in mind when one contemplates taking up writing. We have a mental image of the writer toiling in solitude to leave his brilliant existential mark; one thinks of the words, once set down, as going up on permanent display, for the delight of the ages, and certainly this is the case for the successful author of books. But the journalist’s or blogger’s work is more like the chef’s – meant to be consumed as soon it is prepared, it is served up in single portions, with a new dish offered every day. There is, though, a certain sadness at seeing a favorite post work its way down, and eventually off, the screen.

But for those who seek inner enlightenment, blogging is the perfect avocation – like the elaborate sand mandalas prepared by Tibetan monks, it teaches us that life is a process, not a destination, and helps train us to avoid the attachment to results that is such a spiritual trap.

On the other hand, if you are Oprah Winfrey, and think that The Best of waka waka waka has a nice ring to it, do get in touch. To really train oneself to avoid attachments, it’s good to have something substantial to work with.

Caught in the Web

I am increasingly aware of how different my twenty-first century life is from the world I grew up in, and in fact from the life led by anyone more than a very few years ago. When I was a young boy, color televisions were a big deal. I remember the introduction of push-button telephones, audio cassettes, digital watches, and hand-held calculators. But the real revolution, of course, is the Internet.

I work as a software developer for a company that does Web search, so perhaps my immersion is deeper than some people’s, but I am noticing that it feels more and more odd to be “offline”. My life consists more and more of being seated at a computer, managing simultaneous streams of information – email, blog posts, online chess games, instant messages, Skype calls, PubSub alerts, news bulletins, desktop weather data, and so forth. Many times a day I wish to know something or other, and immediately retrieve the datum in question from some or other online source. I can swoop down on any part of the world with Google Earth.

Although this is a natural evolution – our success as a species is due above all to our gift for communication, and the Internet might well, I think, be on its way to being the wellspring of an emergent, collective human intelligence that will begin a new chapter in the history of mankind – we have also increased our risk of losing touch with the very real world around us and inside us.

Your Attention, Please

One of the things that people like to do is “boil down” the staggering complexity of the world into comprehensive rules and principles. Surprisingly, the world itself often cooperates by revealing itself to be, in fact, a rather orderly place that does indeed seem to behave according to laws that are simple enough for us to ferret out.

Some of the rules we have worked out are abstruse, detailed and complicated, yet have held up well under critical examination – quantum mechanics and general relativity come to mind – while others are vague generalities like “there’s a sucker born every minute” and “faint heart ne’er won fair lady”. Some are obviously wrong, like “a watched pot never boils”.

Sometimes we pick one thing and make it the central orgainizing principle of the world. My friend Bob Wyman, for example, has worked out a plausible system of ethics entirely based upon the idea of resisting entropy. Another friend, songwriter Larry Mcnally has written that “Love is everything – everything else is nothing.” He’s not the first to take that stance, but it’s a good song.

Well, I’m not immune to this temptation either, and sometimes I think that the fundamental currency in human affairs – the fungible coin in which the business of mankind is transacted – is attention.

Mind Over Matter, Part II

A recurring theme in here, and in some of the blogs I’m fond of visiting, is the mystery of consciousness. How is it that “mere” matter can become self-aware? Canmatter be the engine of consciousness at all, or does it merely serve as a temporary and intermittent host?

There seem to be three avenues by which people approach this mystery – philosophy, science, and mysticism. I have the intuitive conviction that they will, ultimately, give consistent answers – in other words they are all three digging toward the same hidden truth, though from different directions, and with different tools. My wish is to try to follow the progress on all three fronts, and to participate actively where I can.

Seeker

Mullah Nasrudin was on his hands and knees in the street. A friend saw him, and came over to ask what he was up to.

“Mullah! What are you doing?”

“I’ve lost my key.”

“Well, where did you last see it?”

“In my study.”

“So why are you looking for it out here?”

“Because the light’s better here, of course!”

Arms and the Mind


“Just as a monkey roaming through the forest grabs hold of one branch, lets that go and grabs another, then lets that go and grabs still another, so too that which is called ‘mind’ and ‘mentality’ and ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another by day and by night.”

(Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 595)

Personality

Here in the Western world, we tend to lionize those with the “big” personalities – the people who, brimming with confidence and untrammeled by self-doubt, bask in the glow of public attention as they go about their important business. They are the envy of all, and serve as models for the aspiring. Even the word “lionize” is telling – we admire the lion for his fierceness, courage, and power, but most of all for his dominance. The lion gets what he wants. Should we, then, be lions too, if we intend to get what we want? The answer is not so simple: it all depends on what we want.

Please Don’t Spoil My Day,
I’m Miles Away

A common idea in esoteric teachings is the notion that we live our lives too mechanically, that we are in fact in a kind of waking sleep. The notion seems silly at first. Of course we aren’t asleep! Sleep is what we do at night in our beds. During our busy days we are conscious, we are active, we are engaged. But consciousness is a tricky business, and one of its sneakier properties is that it can’t see its own edges. To put that another way, it takes consciousness to be aware of consciousness, and that means that unconsciousness cannot be aware of itself.

Waking Up is Hard to Do

There are some new and interesting threads unwinding over at Bill Vallicella’s website, the Maverick Philosopher. Currently under examination are “mystical” teachings, in particular Buddhism. But in particular there was one little post, seemingly unrelated, that caught my eye. In this brief piece Bill presents a lamentably problematic question: should we think for ourselves?

The problem is that if we do, we are unlikely to find and correct our errors. But unquestioning submission to authority is an obvious mistake also, as witness the horrors of Nazism. What to do?

I think that the mystical traditions have something to say about this question.