• October 15, 2019

    Let us say that your dominant characteristic, your ‘default program’, is fear. You are frequently fearful that strange and terrible things could arise from ordinary events. You are continually on the alert for possible difficulties, now and into the future.

    Your way of dealing with this fact is to try to ‘manage’ the fear, which means to reduce it in some way, perhaps by rationalizing it, noting its unreasonableness, breathing it away or to avoiding it through distractions. Fear is the enemy.

    But perhaps fear is your most useful asset. Fear makes you alert to what is happening around you, it summons energy and encourages active inquiry into what you are experiencing. Could fear be your steering wheel, helping you to navigate your terrain? But for this to be true, you must have enough separation from fear to give you the space to work with it. You cannot do this if you are the fear; you can do it if fear is your companion. Impartial observation of self could lead you in this direction.

    Every impulse, every perception, every sensation and every thought presents input, possible leverage in the ongoing battle to know and stay inside my experience, living it, using it.

    In a thousand times a thousand ways, each of us is looking for ways to ‘improve’ ourselves. I think I know what I need to be a better or more successful person. Seemingly the last thing I want is to deal with myself as I am. But I am the only path out of myself and into a wider universe. I can’t begin with some imaginary self-construction. Better to make my ‘flaws’ my companions.

    The Guest House

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.
    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.
    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still, treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.
    The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
    meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
    Be grateful for whatever comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

    — Jellaludin Rumi,

    translation by Coleman Barks

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  • May 13, 2019

    What happens when work on self makes it possible for me to work in a selfless way? What does this mean?

    It is easier to say what ordinary efforts are like. Ordinarily, I am identified with my work. My efforts are motivated by my wish for attention and praise, a feeling of worth, to belong, to achieve a personal aim, to make money that I ‘need’ for the things I want. This is all perfectly normal and mostly unconscious, but easily observed nonetheless.

    To be identified with one’s work is to harness the enormous power derived from making work an extension of me. In effect, I defend my work with my life. I may feign a cynical attitude or pretend to be detached but without the psychological props provided by my work, I virtually cease to exist. If I can live outside my work it is because I have found an even stronger identification. Ordinary work is animated by self and is an expression of self.

    So, to return to my question, what happens when it becomes possible to work in a selfless way? Could work efforts be much more difficult if they are not powered by ego and the perpetually humming motor of identification? Where will the motive come from? I suspect there would be less resistance if ordinary self is not involved, but the power plug I have depended upon all my life has been pulled.

    And how would I feel about my work? Ordinary work comes pre-defended by my ego. My view of my work is centered in me, I know what it means and what it is worth and I have my reasons to explain why others may not accept it. Without this protection, my work is incredibly fragile. I do not see it centered in my own context but in a much wider sphere where there are many eyes and judgments, all valid in their own way. The certainty with which I make a gesture is immediately prismed when it enters the world, fractioned by the limitations it must inhabit.

    This is my surmise. Selfless work, what I might call real work, is extraordinarily difficult and exhausting, not the effortless unfolding of some spiritual fiction.

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  • April 9, 2019

    Collage by Sae Kimura

    You continue to emphasize that everything in this work comes back to observation of self. I think I am beginning to know my habitual reactions but I do not see much change in myself.

    This is a subtle process. You may not notice the changes that arise over time. It’s a form of homeopathy, like curing like. The tendency to anger is observed as anger…its sensations and related gestures. The cure is the thing itself. Anger releases anger. Adopting a posture of peacefulness is most often a form of repression which does not release anger.

    By release you mean express?

    No. I mean a voluntary release of the impulse, which means that it is transformed into energy which can be expressed in other ways or not expressed at all. I have the power to choose, in the moment.

    So you are not erasing the tendency to react with anger?

    No. I am putting the anger reaction on wheels. I have baggage but it’s mobile.

    Perhaps you are missing a critical intermediate step. Observation, knowing the sensation and shape of your reaction as it takes place in real time, is the first step. The next step is to be impartial…that is, not reacting to your reaction. No judgment, no justification, just observation, recognition, perhaps amusement. Then you can easily move the reaction out of the way and respond to the situation at hand freely and creatively.

    The secondary reactions such as justification and judgment must also be observed impartially.

    When I discover and begin to track my habitual reactions, it’s natural that I should want to eliminate them. This is wrong motive. Perhaps it will come about, perhaps ongoing impartial observation will eventually erase the sensation-based electrical anomaly that sustains my reaction, but adopting this orientation risks becoming goal-seeking, which is not impartial observation. Our work is not a path to self-perfection, it is a path to freedom from self.

    The freedom is in the moment, to be able to set aside the reaction because impartiality has put it on wheels.

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  • April 4, 2019

    I get the impression that service to the Absolute…what Gurdjieff called world maintenance…is not supposed to be the same thing as service to humanity. I’m uncomfortable with this. I think dedicated service to humanity is the best we can expect from ourselves and is really service to the Absolute.

    Let’s begin by asking ‘who do I serve?’ This is not a theoretical question. I cannot serve beyond my understanding. Do I understand what it means to serve humanity? Do I understand what it means to serve the Absolute?

    Do I ‘love’ humanity but have very little patience for human beings? Do I really have any connection to humanity unless I know my own humanity…what I share with all others of my species?

    These questions point to the absolute importance of first undertaking work on self. I do not know my humanity. I do not know myself. I have all sorts of ideas about humanity and the ideal of serving it, perhaps by working with the poor or the sick. I would like to think I can alleviate their suffering. I would like to think I can change the world.

    But I fail to see that I am unreliable, that my motives almost always serve my ego. I fail to see that I must begin at the beginning, by knowing myself impartially, which changes me and my relationships with everything and everyone.

    I think it is possible to commit to serving people in our life…not ‘humanity’ but rather actual human beings…and use that commitment as a means for observing self. Take on work for others in order to work on self. Perhaps you think that this is too self-focussed but how can you expect to change the lives of those around you if you do not work to change your own? In this way, service to others supports your work on self.

    As for service to the Absolute, this is not for everyone. It is not an aim I can adopt for myself. Do I have a sense of His Existence? Do I feel His Presence calling me to Himself? I think it is not for us to know the meaning and value of our service to the Absolute but, as the Sufis say, He knows best.

    As always, the use of traditional pronouns in English does not confer a gender on the Absolute Who is beyond all such distinctions and differences.

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  • March 14, 2019

    In ordinary life, we seem to experience two realities. One of them is physical reality. Another is the reality of our emotional-mental space. The second reality is the one that gets almost all my attention.

    Do I notice the quality of sunlight, the presence of trees, the continuity of the building on the corner which is there every day? Yes, but mostly in passing. In my ‘inner’ world, I am continually thinking and reacting, experiencing my likes and dislikes, my wants, my fears and expectations. These occupations appear to be as permanent as the physical world ‘out there’, or that is how I treat them, but they are not. They are of my own making.

    It seems to me that the aim of work on self is to find that the inner world, the one where I expend most of my time and attention, can be changed in a fundamental way. The key is to find my habitual emotional reactions�not just the big, fat ones full of ‘sturm und drang’ but also, and more importantly, the smaller habits…of avoidance, giving up, feeling sorry for myself, impatience, pointless irritation, petty anxiety and so on. Each of these is a tool with a handle. Seeing them arise and turning them along a different path shifts my world fundamentally.

    In a state of no-work-on-self, I take the world as a given and I fight against it to get the outcome I want, often unsuccessfully. In a state of work-on-self, I observe and change my reactions, using them to shift my world at the point of contact, to find greater fluidity and new possibilities. The world becomes more workable. This is a great benefit of impartial observation of self.

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  • October 13, 2018

    I sometimes find it very difficult to forgive others when their actions have offended me. How can I work on this block in myself?

    This question uncovers a number of issues related to work on self. Your assumption seems to be that you should be able to forgive. That it is expected of you.

    The common conception of forgiveness is that it is an act of generosity on the part of the one who forgives, that it is a sign of being non-judgmental, that it signals virtue. From the point of view of our work, this is nonsense. The real question is why you were offended in the first place. Can you observe your reactions objectively and, over time, come to see impartially that your being offended is indefensible, unnecessary and even foolish. Without this, your forgiveness is likely imaginary, an affirmation of a positive quality you are expected to have or an ongoing suppression under the cover of “it’s ok, it doesn’t matter.” If it is real, to forgive is to forget.

    The one who seeks forgiveness has an even greater work opportunity. Please understand this. To receive forgiveness I must feel I have earned it. Real forgiveness is a transformative action that encompasses forgiver and forgiven and therefore includes my forgiveness of myself. The one who is forgiven must participate in the action by agreeing to be forgiven. At first, I do not agree, I feel humiliated, unworthy. I who seek the action of forgiveness sense remorse, activating conscience. These are the signs of contrition. The transgression must be confessed, at least to myself, without blaming others or defending myself. I must be willing to make amends and do so if possible.

    To be forgiven is not to forget.

    The one who seeks forgiveness is really in a sacred struggle to preserve conscience and an awakened heart. This struggle is more valuable than the relief that comes with being forgiven.

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