Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Miserable gits

Andrew Harvey relates in his marvelous book, "A Journey in Ladakh' how he gave a Tibetan Buddhist monk Nietzsche to read, hoping to convince him that 'the West' had thinkers of substance. The monk duly worked his way through Nietzsche's work and replied, in essence, what an extraordinary insight Nietzsche possessed and what an extraordinary confession that he finally succumbed to madness clinging to the neck of horse being flogged, trying to protect it from harm. A confession because his thinking, his system lacked compassion.

Likewise A. E. Waite stood up in the middle of a lecture by P.D. Ouspensky, declared that there was no place for love in his, Ouspensky's system, and walked out.

Reading Gary Lachman's excellent book on Ouspensky and his relationship with Gurdjieff, I can only agree with the assessment of the scholarly mystic, Waite, that both men developed systems and ways of behaving within the teaching of those systems that lack a measure of both compassion and humour.

I was reminded of their equally brilliant contemporary (and countryman): Pavel Florensky and the humility of his care for his fellow inmates (in the Gulag) and the flashes of reverent humour in discussing his own teacher, the Elder Isidore.

It is clear from Lachman's account that Ouspensky was seriously impacted by his relationship with Gurdjieff. The accomplished and romantic thinker, lecturer and writer on the philosophical and esoteric dimensions of existence became the closed proponent of a system whose teacher, Gurdjieff, he needed to distance himself from and who had (to all appearance) bullied and humiliated him.

In exchange for what precisely? A system that had yielded certain results in self-awareness and momentary 'miraculous' experiences but which at the end (the special pleading of disciples apart), he rejected.

It is a strange tale that cautions against entrusting oneself to gurus especially outside any traditional, containing context. It, also, emphasizes the importance of a sustaining tradition, embedded in a community, that checks one's learning against known pathways, even as you press those pathways out in potentially new directions. It, also, counsels the importance of humility and humour as indicators of a reliable, fruitful and compassionate relationship that, I fear, neither Gurdjieff or Ouspensky appeared able to extend in any sustained, graceful manner to one another.

Finally, it punctures this strange search for the 'miraculous' -that the mystical life should be punctured by breaches of ordinary consciousness not by the cleansing power of attention and compassion but the 'paranormal' (as if this had any value over and above the context in which it is used, lovingly or not). This strange quest for 'experiences' rather than becoming vulnerable in love to all experience, most especially the most ordinary and everyday, rather does feel like a 'fool's errand'.

Perhaps there is hope in Ouspensky's last days, when having announced he had abandoned the 'system', he went about fixing moments of his past that were graced yet ordinary, hoping to carry them with him into a future life and work.

Meanwhile, the portrayal of Gurdjieff from this angle does not hallow him. How different he is here from the depiction by the de Hartmanns'. Whereas in their account, he granted them a difficult hope that hard work at 'the Work' would lead to liberation, in Ouspensky's case, he seemed to offer a difficult despair.

The lesson here is perhaps that even the best of teachers (and we may argue about whether Gurdjieff deserves the title) are not best for everyone. Finding a teacher is a complex dance of matching a particular embodiment of wisdom with a particular person's need - and the wisest teacher is the one who can refuse the 'wrong' pupil rather than imagine they can adapt to every need or alternatively blame the pupil for their particularly 'unhelpful' need.

This appears to have been Gurdjieff's particular shadow.

P.S. Miserable gits because I was irresistibly reminded of the two elderly gentlemen who watch the Muppet Show from their box, lamenting everything in sight as not up to scratch and intertwined and yet uncomfortable with each other, caught in a common way of seeing the world. An undoubtedly irreverent take on the two esotericists!




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