My Gurdjieff teacher, Paul Anderson, felt, I believe, that spiritual teachers should be accorded various forms of recognition, including money, power, status, and, following in the footsteps of Gurdjieff himself, sex. Except for the last (and sometimes including the last in private), his position echoes that of most major religions – we must express our devotion to the Divine by honoring its earthly representatives, and our seriousness in pursuing the path by offering large amounts of money, time, and so on. In the Catholic Church, I notice that this last is more often expressed in terms of compassion for the poor, but noting the historical – and current – wealth of the Church, I think my description holds up pretty well. The leadership of the great religions, while espousing an abstemious lifestyle, in fact often live in extraordinary circumstances of wealth and privilege, reflecting the patterns of a status-oriented society: the environs of the Vatican in Rome, or the Potala in Lhasa are examples. I think the Bishop’s palace and surrounding acreage in Boston recently sold for 99 million dollars. Why did the Bishop need a palace? Tibetan Buddhist lamas actually acquired the custom of sitting on piles of cushions whose height reflected their rank – this originated from the fact that it was thought improper that high lamas should sit beneath the Chinese Emperor. My question is whether we are in fact glorifying God here, or man? A high lama who has seen the voidness of all things and the futility of attachment to them should neither care how his rank is reflected in his sitting position nor need the psychological advantage that height might confer.
My understanding of the interaction of a spiritual person with the world around them is that it should be as transparent as possible, so that fear, coercion, competition and the rest don’t enter into the picture. If you’re “in the world, but not of the world,” you certainly don’t need to dominate others, for whatever reason, and I, for one, find the association of money and spirituality unfortunate. Believe me that if you honestly care about what happens to others around you and do your utmost to benefit them, some of them will care for you too and listen to what you have to say. If you become wise in the practice of your religion, they will know without your telling them – the last thing you need is the kind of status and political power that institutions provide, which itself is a kind of coercion. The texts of the I Ching and the Tao te Ching repeatedly assert that the wise man does not act through power and does not need status – why? Because these represent ways of thinking that are really foreign to spirituality – that in general lead away from openness and so are self-defeating. As all karmic acts, such methods don’t really give the results that we expect. Highly spiritual people act through letting go, and because their feet barely bend the grass, so to speak, they interact with the world in a very different way which helps them to transform their surroundings – what use is dogma, status and the rest from that point of view? Instead of acting on the world, they become the world, and this can give them great power – but, of course, the wisest course is to leave power alone. Transformation requires a very light touch, and is ultimately the choice of the one being touched – any attempt to force or manipulate that relationship throws you right back into karma – that is, doing the same thing over and over, always getting a very different result than you hoped for, and never quite realizing it.
This points to a very different picture of will than that espoused by Gurdjieff, and in a more subtle form by most of the great religions. Gurdjieff saw lack of contact with our true will as a primary human problem: an image used to describe the power of will to me in this context was the story of the runner at Thermoplae who forced his body so far beyond its limits that he died upon completing his mission. This kind of imagery was integrated into the Gurdjieff work: Gurdjieff’s position was that the hope of eternal non-physical existence depended in important ways on the development of will and the ability to master, among other things, one’s response to pain: thus his trademark expression, “conscious labor and intentional suffering.” This imagery is also important in other religious contexts – the Crucifixion, for example, becomes a template for all Christians when they are advised to each take up their own cross. This is a view of effort and personal worth which harmonizes very well with the attitudes of the secular world; a quote I saw recently on the wall of my local Acura dealership – supposedly from an astronaut – emphasizes the point: “Failure is not an option.” But, as I love to add, lying about failure certainly is… It is also a view which tends to reinforce and justify hierarchies – why are we at the top? Because we’re the best (i.e.- the strongest, the most able to dominate self and others). It is a view which fits very well – one might say suspiciously well – into evolutionary thinking: only the “fittest” survive. But fitness must also be seen in the context of environmental niche. A species may have extraordinary attributes, but if it is not supported by the resources it needs to survive – food, water, climate, etc.: its environmental niche, or if it destroys that niche by exhausting necessary resources – as humans, given their primary philosophical orientation, may in fact do – it may not survive. And this illustrates the point I wish to make about will: our view of will is surprisingly one-dimensional and seems based, as authors such as Ann Wilson Schaef suggest, on a hierarchical model – the powerful act upon the weak, the passive – be it their own body, other people (usually women or those of lower social status), or simply the natural environment, and their power is defined by the force they can apply in that interaction. But we forget that the natural environment supports us, that women historically nurtured those around them, that the pyramids were built by the poor: all that will and power is dependent on the people and resources that support it. When Christ said that the meek were blessed because they would inherit the earth, he certainly wasn’t glorifying strength: he spoke from a viewpoint very foreign to human society in general, and foreign in many ways even to the church which bears his name.
I have elsewhere expressed my sense that the world is changing in important ways: one of the most central is that for the first time in several thousand years, this essentially hierarchical view of human effort and value is being seriously called into question. As the powerful in industry and government award themselves huge salaries and engage in their internecine wars, I believe the rest of the population is slowly moving right out from under them: in 1999, when it came down to impeaching a president that Republicans in congress had tried to marginalize in just the way of power, by identifying a flaw in his behavior according to a rigid and hypocritical morality which could then be used as a weapon against him, the public just didn’t buy the whole show, even though the media and certainly the government did. This is not to say that the Democrats don’t have issues: the same president later signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act into law – removal of this protection is widely considered to have been a primary cause of the market crash of 2008. When the media decries voter apathy, I actually think this actually has its good points: voters are aware they’re being manipulated – that, to quote Simon and Garfunkle – “laugh about it, shout about it, when you’ve got to chose, each way you look at this you lose.” Somehow, I think it’s going to take more to solve this than just increasing voter registration.
But what, then, is the solution, or, to put it another way, what was Christ pointing at when he said the meek would inherit the earth? To answer, let me recount an experience I shared with a student, a type of experience that I would say is generally characteristic of my style of piano teaching. A few years ago, I was teaching an eleven year old girl a new piece by Bela Bartok called Study for the Left Hand. She had learned the music well, but was having some trouble focusing and remembering some of the transitions, and played it rather slowly and with a fair amount of force and tension, especially in her left hand. In my experience, this would both limit the final speed of her performance and slow down her learning process. So I asked her to do an exercise I call the wave exercise, which developed out of my use of meditation in piano playing, and which helps coordinate arm and wrist motion to bring weight to the keyboard with minimal stress. We worked on the exercise for several minutes, with me making several corrections, but, as usual in our lessons, the atmosphere was light and she was having fun. She then started to play the piece at the original tempo, but I stopped her because she still seemed tense, and I wanted to slow things down to give her body a chance to respond to the exercise in the context of playing. Before actually letting her play the piece, I asked her to play some of the difficult left hand in a way that reflected the movement of the exercise, and slowed this small section down until she could do it with little effort and virtually no stress. I then had her play the piece slowly and then at faster tempi. What happened was remarkable: not only did she play with far less tension, but the problem of mental focus disappeared, and in general both her state and mine seemed better – we both felt more open and relaxed. This was temporary to be sure, but such moments, once achieved, can be extended. To summarize: we worked with an exercise developed through meditation to minimize stress and then attempted to integrate it with the more complex situation involved in playing, trying at the same time to prevent earlier habits of tension from sabotaging the process – that is, where she would want to immediately push to get a result, I asked her to slow down and go through a series of steps, which in itself implies a certain degree of letting go. Because things were going well, I actually went a little farther and tried to get her to the point where there was almost no effort before increasing the tempo again, because the body carries much of this effortlessness back to faster tempi: I call this “going under the difficulty.” Although I was certainly directing things, these were things she wanted to do, and if she had not wanted to do them, I would have changed my approach to reflect that – not exactly to please her to but to seek the best result under those circumstances. The point here is that I cannot just force a response from the student: my actions must come from awareness and must reflect the situation, including the student’s autonomy, if they are to be balanced. Beyond a certain reasonable respect for the teacher, power and status – and for that matter, manipulation and coercion – are not useful in this context; I think it’s better to just let go of power: to be meek, if you like. Of course I don’t read “meek” as “timid” in this context: rather, to quote Wikipedia, “the Greek word translated ‘meek’ is praeis and refers to mildness, gentleness of spirit, or humility”.
This little narrative certainly implies a different model than that of Mr. Gurdjieff, the major religions, or even most “serious” piano teachers. No one was struggling under threat of failure against some assumed sense of sin or inadequacy, and no great acts of self-control or control of others were required. Certainly, we used focus and discipline – more than you might imagine – but the point was not to force the student to do something difficult, or for that matter, for her to bend her own body to her will, but to use awareness and focus to find a point of balance where force was unnecessary. At the balance point, it appears that the need to repeat the same conditioned patterns over and over becomes much weaker – this is why the use of fear and dogma in religious teachings is such a dubious choice: it’s hard to see how this balance can be reached through conflict, coercion, or hierarchical power. To me, the point of balance, of effortlessness, appears to be a kind of fault-line in our inner reality, a point where the rules change and transformation is possible. Does this approach to piano playing mean that you don’t need to practice, to learn to develop focus and discipline? Not at all – in some ways learning to be balanced is more difficult than just pummeling the piano (or the student). Does a spiritual approach based on balance mean that we can escape the need to face our weaknesses, even to die to them as Christ suggests? Not so much: seeking balance will lead you directly into conflict with your failings, your wounds, and your way will rapidly be blocked by one attachment or another. But the answer, as with the little girl, is not to coerce or to suppress, and it is probably also not to hand responsibility for our lives over to some other person or group with dubious qualifications: it is to examine the reasons for our problems, to understand their true nature and see whether our conditioned solutions really give us what we think we’re getting, to gradually try to move our actions toward balance, and finally to face the pain that we have been hiding from for so long – the pain that drives us to live as we do: but in a loving way, an open way; not because we’re running from something else. As the Sufi teacher Idries Shah said at a meeting I attended more than twenty years ago, using the language of the Gurdjieff Work: “learn to love your twisted ‘I’s, learn to accept them… love them to death.” Through these efforts we seem to find that what we were trying to steal, to keep for ourselves – the answer to the aching wound that never seems to heal – is already ours if we will but receive it openly.
©2000 Stephen James – All Rights Reserved