In this third installment of what now looks to be shaping up as five-part series, I hope to bring a Wisdom perspective to that profound liminal sphere encompassing conception, birth, and the formation of the soul. For it’s in the metaphysical confusion surrounding these mysteries, I believe, that the roots of our present abortion conundrum really have their origin.
Note that I say “a Wisdom perspective” rather that “the Wisdom perspective,” for the Wisdom tradition is by no means monochrome. My comments here reflect the strands of the lineage that have most directly informed my own understanding, specifically, the Gurdjieff Work and the Christian mystical/esoteric lineage running through the Gospel of Thomas, the Philokalia, Jacob Boehme, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. They also reflect some of the thinking at the forefront of contemporary embryology, particularly as represented in the work of Dutch embryologist Jaap van der Wal.
THE BEGINNINGS OF LIFE
The Wisdom tradition would affirm vigorously that life does not merely begin at conception; it is already well underway by the time of conception—“life” here understood not as a purely biological phenomenon, but as flow, dynamism, and intelligent purposiveness. In contrast to earlier, more mechanical models, which tended to see conception in Darwinian terms (“the fittest sperm takes the egg”), contemporary embryological research suggests a much more collaborative model, far more akin to Nash-ian Game Theory than to Darwinian survival of the fittest. A myriad of sperm collaborate to place a single sperm before the egg, which then opens— volitionally—rather than simply being battered or overwhelmed.
There is evidence as well that conception occurs according to a full-fledged Law of Three model. It’s not simply sperm/egg//baby, but rather, sperm/egg/X//baby, where X represents the infusion of some mysterious animating force beyond the immediate biochemistry.
Those of us who participated in the 2012 Tucson Wisdom School will no doubt never forget that powerful moment when Wisdom student Nancy Denman, a research embryologist from British Columbia, described how the process of conception actually occurs.
“The egg opens to a single sperm,” she explained, “then closes. For about twenty-four hours there is stillness. Then all of a sudden, the egg starts vibrating violently. ‘Ignition!!!’ we all call it.”
Then she added parenthetically, “Those of us of a more religious bent might be inclined to describe it as “the descent of the Spirit.”
However this X-factor is named, it certainly seems to function as a third term in the old “nature versus nurture” conundrum, offering still another line of explanation as to why babies conceived by the same parents and raised in the same household under the same value system frequently wind up displaying such markedly different personality traits. “Our essence comes from the stars,” Gurdjieff always insisted. There is something in the formation of a new life that cannot be reduced to pure biochemistry; it seems to be an emergent property of the act of conception itself.
LIFE NOT SOUL
So far so good. There is nothing in the above that should raise any eyebrows whatsoever among even the most ardent pro-lifers. “What part of LIFE do you not understand?” If anything, we are pushing back the leading edge of life into even earlier in the process, into the intrinsic purposiveness that Teilhard de Chardin and others would see as part of the irreversible intelligence of evolution itself.
But hang onto your hats; this next step is where we are about to part company rather dramatically with traditional pro-life metaphysics. For the Wisdom tradition would suggest that life—which indubitably is present at the moment of conception if not well before—is not synonymous with Soul. The terms are often used interchangeably, and it is precisely here, in this confusion, that the Gordian knot is originally tied.
In traditional Catholic metaphysics, this “x-factor” would immediately be identified as “the soul,” the essence of the living human being. The soul is created by God and bestowed at conception. Once bestowed, it is henceforward immortal within the cosmos; death will change its state but will not destroy it. Thus, the soul trajectory is established from the very beginning; from this the moment of conception forward, this uniquely particular and fully formed human identity will make its way through the journey of life, along the way accumulating virtue or vice—in acknowledgement of which, it will be assigned its permanent dwelling place in either heaven or hell.
In the light of this venerable but antiquated metaphysical roadmap (note how it’s steeped in “substance theology,” long since invalidated by contemporary scientific models), it is easy to understand both the urgency and the pathos dominating the “pro-life” strategy. Denying the gift of life to even a two-cell fetus is tantamount to killing a defenseless human soul. The assumption governing much of the prolife rhetoric seems to be that somehow pro-choice folks don’t “get” that a human life is a human soul and need to be shown that it is, often in emotionally exaggerated and manipulative ways. Hence those “abortion stops a beating heart” billboards.
The Wisdom tradition—at least the lineage of the tradition I have been formed in—would see it differently. What is bestowed in that moment of “ignition” is not yet a soul, but rather, the potential to develop a soul. Soul does not come at the beginning; it comes at the end, forged and fused in the crucible of life itself (or perhaps better, in the womb of life) through the conscious weaving of that hand which is dealt at the moment of conception.
The notion of a “developmental soul” comes as a shock and perhaps even an affront to traditional Christian metaphysics. But hear me out here; it has been a staple in the Western esoteric tradition from the get-go, as I will document in my next blog. But even more compellingly, it holds the potential, I believe, to bring an authentic resolution to the abortion impasse, and to tie together that great desideratum so far escaping us: that integral “pro-life” stance that sees ALL stages of life as equally compelling and worthy of sacred protection.
Stay tuned for the next installment—to follow promptly.
Dear Wisdom Friends,
I received the following in my inbox this past week from Jerry Toporovsky. Jerry is a senior teacher of the Gurdjieff Work and was the leader of our pilgrimage to Uzbekistan in 2015. I found it so appropriate to those of us struggling to understand the relationship between non-identification and enlightened action that I thought I’d pass it on. Thanks for considering!
Love and blessing,
There is much fear and anxiety about; the time we live in can be defined as such. There is little that most folks trust; people do not fear a specific thing but EVERYTHING and will do anything to escape it. Uncertainty and doubt lead to following snake oil salesmen – destroying the competing vitriol is rarely a solution.
For us in the work the key is humility. We can be with anxiety and not attempt to escape; we can endure uncertainty and see that being so throws us off our smug island of certainty to a world of potential. We can even appreciate the pain and fear and allow them to wake us up.
Let us not lose ourselves in our emotions and remain non-identified. Be an activist if you wish, fight injustice, help those in need if that is your calling. Stay non-identified.
In addition, work on the cause of the problem, energy imbalance – stay within your atmosphere, not leaking, opening to finer energy, remembering who we truly are and connect with gratitude to the gift of being human.
In my previous blog (concurrently posted on both the Contemplative Society and Northeast Wisdom websites), I invited members of our Wisdom community to begin to engage a conversation on the emotion-charged issue of abortion rights as a means to promote respectful dialogue to think beyond this singular issue. It is with no little “fear and trembling” that I launch a foray into this quintessentially Catholic moral ground. But to the extent that abortion has become the tail wagging the dog, chaining much of the Catholic political conscience to the decidedly un-Christian agendas of the religious right—and to the extent that this “elephant in the room” continues to go unmentioned in the otherwise compelling moral analysis recently emerging from Vatican—I feel some obligation as an American citizen and a wisdom teacher to at least try to get the ball rolling.
Forgive me: this is long for a blog. But take it in small doses, and take your time.
SOME PRELIMINARY REMARKS
If my memory serves me correctly, in one of his earliest encyclicals the Pope already laid out some firm groundwork here when he warned against a myopic, single-point focus that inevitably twists moral issues out of context. That’s surely what the abortion issue has become in the US, an instantaneous flashpoint. But minus specific guidance as to how to back the Church down off this ledge, I don’t see a practical way to take the first step toward defusing the tension. Is anybody seriously going to be damned fool enough to say, “Hey, we’ve decided that human life doesn’t begin at conception,” or “The rights of the unborn don’t matter.” There seems to be “no way to get from he-ah to they-ah,” as we like to say in Maine, so the issue keeps running in circles.
SOME PRELIMINARY REFLECTIONS
Well nigh universally, the liminal zones bordering life and death—i.e., what happens before birth or after death—have been regarded as a Mystery entrusted to the great spiritual traditions. The traditions offer different perspectives and instructions, but always with a common baseline of: 1) respect for the sacredness of these passages, and 2) the need to prepare for these passages, and to live one’s life in conscious relationship with them. The plethora of spiritual practices offered by all sacred traditions are aimed, among other things, at developing a capacity to navigate this territory using more subtle and refined faculties of perception (in Christian tradition this has traditionally been referred to as “faith.”).
Across the board, the experience of most committed practitioners is that they eventually “live into” an intimate mystical familiarity with these liminal zones, acquiring the capacity to personally validate spiritual truths inaccessible by the rational intellect alone. Apart from this special training, the rational intellect remains dominant and is the basis of our common social contract. And this, I would say, is a good thing, for the attempt to impose theological dogma concerning the liminal when the inner faculties have not been yet developed to personally validate it leads to the devolution of faith into “blind faith” and opens the doors to theocratic totalitarianism and manifold forms of spiritual abuse to which our culture has become increasingly sensitized.
In former eras, when the population of any given nation was overwhelmingly of the same spiritual tradition, it was fairly simple to conflate these two tracks. The word “catholic ” (as in “Catholic church”) literally means “universal,” and back in the era when the foundations of moral theology were being down, the known world was indeed just that. There were Catholics, “heathens,” and missionaries: not much in between.
Nowadays, that is no longer even remotely true. Even in our tiniest nations—and certainly in a nation as vast and sprawling as the United States—there is no longer a single presumed overarching spiritual tradition. There are many—and increasingly none. The fragile glue maintaining civility across increasingly diverse populations is the social contract itself. “Co-exist” is indeed the watchword of our times. Any attempt by one group to reassert its claim that its vision is truly “catholic”—i.e. universally binding—inflicts inevitable misery and violence on the rest.
For this reason, I would propose to offer here what amounts to an essentially two-tier solution governing our deliberations on the abortion issue. The first tier (which one might argue is actually the more “catholic” in the original sense of the term) is consistent with our evolving understanding of human rights and our growing awareness, in a converging world, of the need for our common human family to set universal baselines for sustainable “best practices” with regard to environmental protection, resource allocation, disease control, and population control. The second tier, encapsulating the wisdom carried in the sacred traditions, bears witness to the sacred potential of human life to come to its full spiritual fruition.
I will argue here that this “second tier” wisdom, regardless of the tradition from which it emanates, is binding within that tradition, not beyond it. But within it, lived with fidelity and dept, it has the capacity—indeed, inevitably WILL—serve to redeem and purify the rather clumsier practice lived at the common level.
So here is my six-point proposal. This is clearly—to my mind at least—simply an opening gambit that perhaps opens up a new way of framing the impasse. I eagerly invite your comments and refinements. For the moment I am thinking of this solely in terms of the USA, but hopefully it might have some eventual broader applications as well.
THE FIRST TIER (the basic social contract)
1. We agree that it will be the government’s sacred responsibility to provide for the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of each of its citizens.
This is the classic social contract build into the foundations of our nation, and for 241 years it has served us well.
2.We agree that included among the fundamental rights implicit within these freedoms is the right for a woman to control her own body and to hold the decisive vote as to whether a new life will be formed within her body.
I know that this one will feel like a punch in the gut to those whose sense of moral duty has been firmly pinned in championing the rights of the unborn. But it is the logical and necessary consequence of Point 1, which is in turn the necessary starting point for a social contract founded on a clear separation of church and state. While the government will do its best to provide for the rights of ALL its citizens—including those in utero—nevertheless, in those difficult circumstances when the two are in direct conflict, we agree that the rights of the present and quantifiable members of its citizenry take precedence over the rights of those still under the custody of the liminal sphere.
But we have not thereby disposed of all concern for the unborn! For those feeling punched in the gut, please continue on to point 4.
3. We agree that in a world so deeply threatened by poverty, disease, and overpopulation, that the government should exercise responsible stewardship by providing access to birth control and family planning.
These are envisioned not as moral concessions but as fundamental health rights.
This, then, would comprise my version of a sustainable social contract, with strong legal and moral precedent in the American notion of individual freedom.
THE SECOND TIER
4. We agree that the spiritual traditions are individually at liberty to invite or impose a higher standard of conduct upon their adherents in accordance with that tradition’s understanding of moral and ethical obligation.
While this may at first sound like a double standard, I believe it is one where there is already strong precedent in the spiritual traditions. Already in Catholicism, for example (in fact, in all sacred traditions featuring a monastic expression), marriage is seen as the general baseline while celibacy is seen as a “higher way.” The decision to walk the celibate path is not universally imposed, but on those who choose it, it becomes morally binding.
Traditionally the inducements offered to invite this higher level of commitment were pitched around personal fulfillment or excellence: a higher spiritual attainment, admission to heaven, etc. But as the Wisdom tradition has consistently maintained (and as modern physics, specifically the concept of quantum entanglement, confirms), the real efficacy of this higher level of practice lies in its leavening effect upon the whole, raising the bar of spiritual energy and available grace for everyone. A spiritual path practiced with high integrity and commitment emits a transforming energy of its own, which goes much further in actually securing a higher level of spiritual understanding than individuals conscripted into a level of moral behavior they neither understand nor personally assent to.
My intuition is that a significant portion of Catholics voluntarily taking on the Church’s traditional moral teachings on family planning and abortion would do more to better the lot of the unborn than a entire nation forced into compliance with laws experienced as coercive and personally injurious. If the active practice of an authentic sacred tradition produces as its fruits “peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” as Christian tradition (and all traditions) have staunchly maintained, then it is to be expected that these qualities, once actually attained, would percolate through the entire body of our country’s citizenry, if nothing else elevating the climate and respectfulness of the civic discourse. It has always been said that Christians taught first by example—by the fragrance of a life lived with compassionate integrity. It is still our best bet going into the future, particularly where the changes we’re looking to see involve those liminal realms—birth and death—where the spiritual integrity of the gesture is far more impactful than the immediate victory wrested by means which belie their ends.
The last two points are more general, extending beyond the specific abortion issue in order to attempt to establish a climate in which a pluralistic nation, in rapid social transition and spanning at least a three-level gap in levels of consciousness as measured by contemporary evolutionary maps (from amber to green, tribal to world-centric) might still continue to engage in civil discourse and a healthy give-and-take:
5. We agree that government will not intervene with the internal standards of conduct imposed by a spiritual tradition upon its adherents, so long as these standards do not directly threaten the public health or safety. Neither will it establish and promote these standards as binding upon all its citizens.
I would expect this to be a continuing grey area—and rightly so—in that ongoing dance between religious freedom and public safety. There will still be regular legal challenges—as to, for example, whether Christian Scientists should be compelled to seek medical attention for their children or Old Order Mennonites forbidden to use corporal punishment on theirs; whether homophobic town clerks should be required to issue marriage licenses to gay couples or homophobic merchants be required to bake them wedding cakes. In a less polarized society than ours has now become, this would all remain within the realm of healthy give-and-take by which the collective social conscience is slowly nudged ahead.
In order to back down the polarization, however, which by now has escalated to unmanageable levels, I would add in a corollary here which, while it personally breaks my liberal heart, is I believe the only realistic concession that will represent a significant stance of “bargaining in good faith” to ease the present stand-off:
5a: The government agrees not to use its juridical power to impose secular affirmative action standards upon dissenting spiritual groups operating within their own sectarian networks.
In this matter, I am much guided by the model set by my own Episcopal Church in its landmark decisions to embrace women’s ordination and gay marriage. While these decisions, once passed by the General Convention, became the law of the Church, there was a long timeline for total compliance, and wide latitude was given for dissenting clergy and congregations to slowly acclimatize to new state of affairs through continued conversation and study, with the right to personally opt out of participation in actions that felt to them morally offensive (bishops opposed to women’s ordination, for example, would be able to place their women postulants under the care of a neighboring bishop, nor would a church adamantly uncomfortable with women priests have one foisted upon them). Time was allowed for healing and assimilation, with responses erring on the side of forbearance rather than a self-righteous pressing of the issue.
6. Spiritual groups will refrain from seeking to impose their specific moral values or agenda as the law of the land, to the extent that these values either exceed or undercut baseline freedoms already guaranteed above.
A WORK IN PROGRESS….
The proposal set forth here admittedly a compromise. But beyond perhaps easing the polarization, I believe it actually restores a generically rightful balance. In arguing that sacred teachings are binding within a specific spiritual tradition but not beyond it, I believe I am not only acknowledging one of the realities of our pluralistic world, but actually calling on an inherent capacity of these two complimentary streams to counterbalance and bootstrap each other. At its best, the secular state can rescue the sacred traditions from their tendency toward monological thinking and extremism. And at their best, the sacred traditions remind us that the meaning of life is derived from exactly those liminal edges, in the renewed and deeper stabilization of the capacity to live as human beings according to those higher faculties of perception which have never been fully actualized—and by my estimation never will—within purely secular models. Severally and collectively, the spiritual traditions are the evolutionary omega, calling us on to what we have forgotten, or what we may still become.
I realize that many of my Catholic friends will be saying, “yes, but what about all those unborn babies?” As you recall, this proposal began with two assertions, both emerging from my perspective as Wisdom teacher. The first is that pre-birth and post-death belong to those great liminal Mysteries of life, and are best left in the custody of the sacred traditions; the second is that the spiritual practices carefully curated by each of these traditions afford access to these Mysteries in ways that the rational mind cannot comprehend. In the absence of this specific spiritual training (in Christianity, its lineage flows through contemplative prayer), perception will default to the rational mind, where abortion indeed looks like “baby killing,” and emotions instantly bridle at this presumed assault on the innocent. From the more rounded, three-dimensional perspective that opens up from “mind in the heart,” the situation takes on an entirely different coloration. It is this Wisdom perspective that I will be exploring in my final blogpost.
Both my spirits and my hopes have been raised by the recent appearance of an important and already game-changing new article in the most recent edition of La Civilta Cattolica. This is a prestigious Jesuit publication, whose contents are personally vetted by the Vatican Secretary of State and which can thus be seen as a bellwether if not a de facto mouthpiece for papal policy. Entitled Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism, the article is the first attempt I have seen to drive a significant intellectual wedge into the murky moral alliance between conservative Catholicism and Protestant evangelical fundamentalism that helped to catapult Donald Trump into office and is still a cornerstone of his support.
In this learned yet accessible study, co-authors Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa (a Roman Catholic and a Presbyterian pastor, both of them respected editors and close friends of the Pope) trace the rise of Protestant Fundamentalism in the early 20th century, exploring its major doctrinal assertions and detailing its increasing infiltration into American politics. They conclude with a pointblank rejection of these doctrinal claims as antithetical and dangerous to authentic Catholic belief. The article’s “blockbuster” assertion (understandably receiving wide play in the social media) is that there is basically no ideological difference between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam: both draw their juice from an identical “cult of an apocalypse,” featuring a final confrontation between good (“us”) and evil (“them”) which will destroy the planet as we know it and usher in the reign of God.
The article represents a significant intellectual milestone and augurs a significant potential windshift in Vatican political activism. It’s well worth some close study and discussion in our Wisdom circles. Over the next two or three blogposts I’ll share some of the reactions and implications it’s been stirring up for me.
An “Ecumenism of Hate”
While there are few surprises here for those already familiar with American religious history, the most welcome surprise is the message clearly being signaled that the Vatican is finally waking up to the theological implications of this “surprising” alliance that a significant segment of American Catholicism has been flirting with and is now taking a firm intellectual stance against its three constituent threads: the aforementioned “cult of an apocalypse,” the “prosperity gospel” (which has deeply influenced several US presidents including our current one), and a particularly distorted notion of religious liberty which sets the Church in permanent mortal combat with the presumed secularity of the state. The article powerfully calls the question on the present “ecumenism of hate,” as the authors name it, and lays out in contrasting detail Pope Francis’s vision of impartial and active engagement with the secular state in the hopes of securing a sustainable future for all humankind.
I applaud their work here because it lays a firm theological foundation for articulating the dangers implicit in the growing entanglement of the Catholic Church in American rightist politics. The article sets out clear standards by which, for example, self-styled über-Catholic Steve Bannon (specifically mentioned in the article) is in fact peddling a dangerously distorted version of Catholic teaching. It lays out clear benchmarks by which Catholics can sort through the confused rhetoric of evangelical fundamentalism and name its widening drift from classic Catholic doctrine. While the authors could have done more to clarify that evangelical fundamentalism represents a perversion of Protestantism as much as of Catholicism (not merely another of Protestantism’s myriad confusing expressions), their analysis is nonetheless a solid intellectual milestone. It is also reflective of the Pope’s strategic way of thinking: his preference for first building a solid theological and historical foundation for reflection and action, rather than simply leaping in with rhetorical or kneejerk responses.
But the elephant in the room remains……
While I am deeply gratified for the breakthrough this article represents, I must say that I find it naïve to expect that it will shift a single stone in the present Catholic/ fundamentalist political alliance. The article mounts a strong case theologically, but in a glaring omission it manages to overlook the crucial point on which any practical consequences turn—namely, that the real basis for the alliance is not theological but strategic. Nor is this merely a minority dalliance, to be laid at the doorstep of a small subset of Catholic ultraconservatives; it represents the united “bottom line” of the Roman Catholic Church in America: the vast majority of its bishops, seminaries, and the message percolating into the parishes. The real root of this alliance lies in the Roman Catholic Church’s continuing fixation on the abortion issue, together with this issue’s now vigorously reemerging sidekick, birth control. This is the practical motivation behind the devil’s pact with fundamentalism; if it takes casting one’s lot with a “cult of the apocalypse” to ensure that Roe versus Wade is legally overturned, well, that’s the unfortunate cost of doing business.
It seems unfortunate that in an article otherwise so thorough and scholarly, this rather sizable elephant in the room escapes mention. The article thus creates the impression that all we have to do is wake up to the theological errors inherent in the alliance with Protestant fundamentalism, and Catholics will come streaking back to a more inclusive and life-affirming version of the gospel. Well, maybe. But if you think this translates into any significant flipping of the Catholic vote in 2018, don’t hold your breath.
To their credit, I am not sure that from the European (or even South American) perspective, the Vatican can really understand the ferocity with which the abortion issue has enthralled the popular American Catholic imagination. It’s a quintessentially American stew, comprised in equal doses of high idealism and sentimentality run amuck. One need only to drive the interstate almost anywhere in the American South or Midwest and see the fully emblazoned billboards with a flat-lining EKG announcing “ABORTION STOPS A BEATING HEART” to begin to appreciate the pungent mix of sentiment and sentimentality that makes this particular issue such a moral flashpoint. I personally know many Catholics (perhaps even the majority of my Catholic acquaintances) who, although good, solid, thoughtful people, not otherwise inclined toward hysteria, feel so strongly that this issue is so essential to their practice of Catholicism—and so underrepresented by any other advocacy group— that they will reluctantly sacrifice the entire rest of the gospel’s “pro- life” teaching (as it might apply to immigrants, Muslims, accessible medical care, gun control, capital punishment) in order to secure this one point. It is this “unholy alliance” that really has provided the undefended back gateway—in fact, sluiceway—by which unethical politicians can continue to occupy their seats in congress, pawns in a game whose real movers and shakers are in fact the Ayn Rand-style kleptocrats (such as Paul Ryan, The Koch brothers, the Trump dynasty) or apocalyptic Armageddon-mongers such as Steve Bannon.
My continuing hope—which I have alluded to in articles and posts before—is that our brilliant and committed Pope will move increasingly in the direction of giving issue-specific theological guidance and direction to begin to disentangle this Gordian knot in a way that is both respectful of Catholic tradition and profoundly responsive to the desperate need of our one planet, trembling on the brink of environmental and social collapse.
In the face of this unprecedented global crisis, it is not enough merely to name and proclaim the ways in which the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism represents a perversion of Catholic doctrine. It is not enough merely to repeatedly denounce those currents in American politics fueling radical isolationism and environmental irresponsibility. It is not enough simply to continue to decry the Muslim ban, or lament the moral corruption of our present executive and congressional branches. These stances are all good insofar as they go. But we need to connect the dots. What is really needed—and comprises, I believe, the real Catholic moral priority of our time— is to develop specific guidelines for faithful Catholics clarifying how, when push comes to shove, to weigh priorities and make those difficult trade-offs so that abortion does not become the tail wagging an increasingly rabid and dangerous dog.
I am not a moral theologian—or even a Catholic for that matter—so I recognize that I will have no standing in that particular conversation. But as a Christian Wisdom teacher and a concerned planetary citizen, I know that it is important for this conversation to be taking place and for imaginative new thinking to be invited from all quarters. Deliberations on this all-important topic so far left in the hands of the Catholic experts have yielded us no appreciable results, they’ve merely solidified the impasse. This is a human dilemma, and it is as a human family that we will solve it.
And so I propose here to engage this conversation among our Wisdom Community, asking us all, from our collective data banks of spiritual insight and life expertise, to engage this crucial impasse and see if the act of intelligent conversation can itself generate a bit of third force.
Over the next two or three blogs (writing not yet begun but intention herewith signaled) I will attempt, first of all, to lay out a potential pathway toward a new social contract with regard to the abortion issue> a pathway which, though admittedly a compromise, might be one that both Catholics and non-Catholics could live with. In the following, more extended blog, I will reflect on what light the Wisdom tradition has to shed on the beginnings of life and the nature of the soul, both key components in the present gridlock.
A good start has been made in this article, and I commend it to you all for deeper study and reflection. But in accepting its conclusion that joining forces with a distorted Christian fundamentalism is not an option, the next step is to move courageously to confront the “root of the root” of this nefarious allegiance and speak directly of—to— the elephant in the room.
Our Second Annual Maine Wisdom Ingathering is now only a little more than a month away! This e-letter comes to bring you all up to date about how this year’s event is shaping up—and to announce that there are still places for a few last-minute recruits if you’re willing to arrange your own housing.
Our program this year, June 4-11, 2017, will have two tracks. In the morning we’ll be continuing our work with Teilhard de Chardin, this year with a specific focus on what he might have to say to a world suddenly thrust into volatile and perilous circumstances. The title of our exploration is “A Survivor’s Guide to the Galaxy: Teilhard for Troubled Times.” We’ll be considering the ways in which his expansive evolutionary vision and deep mystical hope offer surprising new insights and resources for a world which all too often nowadays find itself steering rudderless.
And speaking of rudders…
In the afternoon, we’ll be exploring our local Celtic seafaring saint, St. Brendan the Navigator, by way of an original mystery play I created in his honor about twenty years ago. I’m envisioning this afternoon track as creatively staged lecture-discussion-scene study drawing us deeper into that perennial Wisdom genre, the voyage narrative, an obvious allegory for spiritual transformation. There will be roles for actors, musicians, boat-builders (at least stage-worthy boats, if not ocean worthy!), and of course, our inimitable children’s troupe!
And yes, music. Darlene Franz will be back once again to draw us deeper into wisdom chanting, joined this year by our own homegrown Celtic priest-harpist, The Rev. Debra Brewin-Wilson, and guest recorder artist Heather Vesey. Yes, there will be drumming, guitars, fiddling: a merry hullabaloo! And this year we’re expanding the chant repertory to include a “Taizé jam” as well: a chance to revisit your old favorites and learn a few new ones as well…
Allen Bourque will be back to lead us in daily Contemplative Movement, and Guthrie Sayen to lead us in daily Centering Prayer.
And yes, there will be plenty of built-in time for local adventuring, shopping, and gourmet delights. The local Stonington merchants are as delighted you’re all coming as you are, and are already stocking up on those fresh-off-the-docks lobster rolls and home ground 44 North coffee. As a special treat this year, local furniture designer Geoff Warner, creator of the acclaimed Owl Stool, will be giving a talk on “The Ergonomics of Healthy Living” and leading a half-day “Build your own Owl Stool” workshop at his Stonington studio.
So it’s all good….and if you’re enticed to jump aboard for this family-friendly, laid-back, community-building, one of a kind event, do be in touch with our Ingathering coordinator, Wendy Johnston (firstname.lastname@example.org; 207-348-3093 H; 717-926-6912 C); she can help hook you up with our local rental housing agents and with others in our community who might want to share a rental. For more information, go to our event page on our website, and if you wish to register online, go directly to the online registration page.
A reminder that registration ($150 for an individual, $200 for families) plus balance due on any NEW-sponsored housing is due immediately. Please send your checks to Wendy Johnston, P.O. Box 608, Stonington, ME 04681.
I can’t wait to welcome you all once again to my home town. Safe travels and see you soon!
Looking forward to our time together!
Here are some photos from last year.
In honor of Holy Week, I wanted to share with you an excerpt from my “Becoming Truly Human: Gurdjieff’s Obligolnian Strivings” e-course, just now winding down.
“And the fifth: the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred ‘Martfotai’, that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.”
It’s one thing to be willing and able to help a fellow being: to send them strength, reassurance, even an energetic boost. But is it possible to actually change places with them so that we take the weight on our own shoulders and they are permanently set free?
Definitely not, most spiritual traditions say. In the words of my Sufi teacher, a butcher’s son: “Every mutton hangs by its own leg.” Assistance, yes; baraka, blessing, clarity, counsel, and strength: in all these ways we can help. But spiritual liberation itself is non-transferable. You can’t become conscious unconsciously, by someone else doing it for you. It is the fruit of your own inner work.
I raise this point, obviously, because we are now less than a week out from the beginning of Holy Week. And during that week, Christians universally will be staring straight into the face of the claim that Jesus did precisely what most the other sacred traditions see as impossible: that he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World.”
The usual way in which Christians have come to hear this statement, however, is through the distinctly dark filter of “atonement theology.” In its starkest version, God is seen as being angry with the people of Israel for their repeated backslidings; He requires a human substitute to pay the price. (In Christian fundamentalism this is often languaged as “Jesus died for your sins.”) The roots of this theology lie in the Old Testament temple ritual, where each year a compulsory scapegoat was sent out into the desert, carrying on its back he collective sin of the Hebrew people. Early Christians simply took over this metaphor and Jesus became the cosmic scapegoat.
The English mystic Charles Williams was working from a whole different model when he brought forward his notion of substituted love, a teaching which had actually been present all along in Christianity, but under-emphasized. Essentially it overrides the idea of victimhood, that punitive mainstay of atonement theology. Rather than passively enduring a victim’s death at the hands of an angry God, Jesus steps up to the plate and voluntarily offers himself in an intentional act of “lightening the burden of our Common Father”—i.e., taking on his own shoulders a bit of that collective burden of suffering that weighs so heavily upon the human condition.
Fundamentally, for Williams, it’s all about carrying another’s burden. It can be as simple as carrying the shopping bags for an elderly neighbor or as wildly fantastical as taking upon yourself an attack of black magic aimed at your companion (the plot of his own spiritual masterpiece, All Hallows Eve.) It is widely celebrated in C. S. Lewis’s well-loved fantasy, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when the innocent lion-king, Aslan, voluntarily offers his life in payment of the debt incurred by the wayward Edmund. But it is also as concrete and historical as civil rights activist Jonathon Myrick Daniels stepping before the gun of a deputy in Haynesville, Alabama, and taking the bullet aimed at his black companion.
These actions make no sense in the world of formal cause and effect. Nothing really changes; the carnage still goes on. And yet, from each of these examples, there rises a certain fragrance, a deeper and more mysterious scent of what it might mean to be a human being. Precisely situated on the line where kenosis (self-emptying love) crosses “exchange”—(“love your neighbor as yourself”), they speak powerfully of a love which is deeper than human origin, and hence, not bound by finitude.
When a candle is snuffed out, it sends up a final plume of smoke, bearing the fragrance of all it has been. When Jesus died on the cross, according to the gospels, the fragrance of his being, rising like incense, knocked the Roman centurion on guard right off his feet. “Truly, this man was the Son of God,” he proclaimed. And the strength of that fragrance still lingers in our world to this day; in fact, it continues to rise.
My friend Kabir Helminski once observed, “Two stones cannot occupy the same space, but two fragrances can. “I offer that image as a way of picturing, perhaps, how this fragrance of substituted love at the heart of the Paschal Mystery might mysteriously intertwine, interpenetrate, and ultimately enfold our sorrowful planet in the at-ONE-ment of its embrace.
The course will continue to be available as a private or small group study; please visit the Spirituality & Practice website for more information.
I watched them disappear this morning into the snowstorm, making their way home through the Maine winter after an extraordinary weekend of prayer, tears-and-laughter, teaching, stories, and conversation. My tiny, plucky ‘conscious circle…how it tugged at my heart to see them go.
I had called them all together, impromptu, about a month ago: a baker’s dozen of the most experienced and steady folks in the Wisdom network, to join me for a weekend here in Stonington (in February, utter madness!) to see if we could collectively begin to discern what the cosmos seems to be up to in the wake of that traumatic election upheaval and what Wisdom might expect of us in response.
The conversation around this topic has of course been flowing nonstop on the social media since well before November 8, but so much of it has been at the horizontal level, driven by historical and political analysis—and of course, from the perspective of the now duly-chastened secular intelligentsia. Shock, trauma, disorientation, and/or denial have been the dominant modes in the circles I mostly travel in, a still-dumbfounded inability to fathom what happened and why.
In times such as these, it is a traditional practice in the Wisdom tradition to convene a small gathering of Wisdom “elders” to assess the situation from a deeper spiritual perspective, and to re-establish contact—through prayer, spiritual practice, sohbet (spiritual conversation), and sincerity of heart—with what Gurdjieff calls “the conscious circle of humanity:” that broader bandwidth of guiding presence always encircling our globe in its compassionate embrace and helping keep the course steady even in the midst of these periodic cavitations. The invitation—in fact, the imperative—to connect with this source of assistance is strongly underscored in Wisdom teaching, and it seemed to me that it was the one stream of input not being heard in our present anguished state of national soul-searching.
And so our small cohort of conscious circle postulants convened at the Stonington Town Hall on February 3, having arrived from all over the country. We deliberately chose to meet there, both because of the obvious civic tie-in (yep, the red, white, and blue voting booths still line the east wall), and because the light there happens to be beautiful, streaming in right off the ocean through glorious, ten-foot-high windows. Thanks to the generous underwriting of the Northeast Wisdom, we were able to partially subsidize the costs of everyone’s lodging and meals, but the response to my invitation offered by our thirteen participants was an instantaneous “Yes,” long before any funding was secured. It was that pure spirit of “Hineni”—“Here I am, Lord”—that really launched us into orbit and was both the modus operandi of our being together and ultimately the marching orders received.
The first two days were devoted mostly to teaching, as we collectively explored some of the major resources at our disposal for reframing and enlarging perspective. We reviewed the resources in Teilhard’s evolutionary vision, particularly the reassurance that deep hope flows over deep time, and that the evolutionary imperative toward the higher collectivity (the next level of “complexity consciousness” manifest as the one body of humanity) was still flowing serenely and strong. We then explored Gurdjieff’s Five Obligolnian Strivings (which I’ll be offering more widely in a Spirituality and Practice e-course upcoming this lent see link) and in particular, his conviction that there is a certain cosmic expectation laid upon the human species as part of its participation in a dynamic cosmic web of “reciprocal feeding.” Our human contribution is made in the form of the higher energies of compassion and clarity yielded as we submit ourselves to the practices of “conscious labor and intentional suffering.” The fruits of this transformed being- energy are qualities such as peace, love, joy, forbearance, patience, compassion—traditionally known in Christian language as “the fruits of the spirit.” What makes Gurdjieff’s take interesting is that they are not only “qualities” but actual energetic substances needed for the feeding and building up of our common planetary (and interplanetary) life. When we fail to produce these qualities—or worse, produce the opposite, the false fruits of entitlement, greed, deceit, violence, and fear—then the whole cosmic equilibrium is thrown out of whack.
We took an extended pass through the Ken Wilber “Trump and a Post-Truth Era” article and found both the perspective (the evolution of consciousness) and the general analysis helpful. His ability to zero in on the progressive dysfunctionality of the “green” or pluralistic level of consciousness, the leading edge of social conscience and evolutionary change, as it found itself caught in a cul de sac of “aperspectival madness, hit home for many of us and offered valuable cues as to how to begin to work with the circumstances now before us.
On Monday afternoon the conversation started to flow, as we broke into triads and then reunited for deep, searing, imaginative, and energy-filled exchanges. While it would be premature to say that any “charter of action” emerged from our deliberations, a remarkable consensus emerged that whatever the long-term political outcome may be, the instructions remain the same: to hold the post, stand with courage and equanimity, and be able to hold a resilient space for third force, staying close to that “light within” that is already shining brightly in the midst of this tunnel, not just awaiting us at the end of it.
Part of the empowerment of the whole gathering was to be able to hold those “unimaginable” conversations, standing lucidly as we stared right into the face of that nameless, paralyzing dread that has so much of our nation in its grip and discussed with strength and lucidity scenarios such as the collapse of democracy, global conflagration, and the means of self-protection when operating in the presence of unleashed forces of evil.
The greatest reassurance—and I admit, surprise—came for me in our times of spiritual practice and in a Sunday morning Eucharist which palpably exploded with the presence of the risen Christ. (In fact, it detonated so powerfully that the explosion was picked up all the way in British Columbia by one of our Wisdom circle there, who emailed me “What just happened?”) It was an unmistakable confirmation and teaching from that very conscious circle to which we had humbly presented ourselves for guidance.
While the courses of action that emerge from each one of us may differ, what was eminently clear to each of us was that this protective field of tenderness and responsive concern to our planetary anguish is alive and well, and that we can and MUST turn to it…daily, hourly, with every best. In best of Wisdom fashion, our hope shifted away from outcome and back to source.
Others in the circle will no doubt offer their own takes, on the Wisdom Community Facebook page and in blogs of their own. And of course, the real reverberations of the work we did this past weekend will reveal themselves only gradually, as they percolate out through the “circles within circles” in our Wisdom network both by direct transmission and through quantum entanglement. But for me, the heart of what we were about this weekend and where we got to spiritually hovered closely within the words of the haunting melody that Laura Ruth sang for us on our final night:
Though my soul may set in darkness.
It will rise in perfect light.
For I’ve loved the stars too fondly
To be fearful of the night.
Thank you, one and all, who made this gathering possible I am more than ever convinced that wherever our times have landed us and whatever may be in store, this is Wisdom’s finest hour.
Meanwhile, I invite you all to ponder collectively these powerful words from Connie Fitzgerald, from her paper FROM IMPASSE TO PROPHETIC HOPE, delivered in 2009 before the Catholic Theological Society of America. I believe it frames the window of opportunity for all of us, while not mincing words on the challenge:
Any hope for a new consciousness and a self-forfeiture drawn by love stands opposed by a harsh reality. We humans serve our own interests, we hoard resources, we ravage the earth and other species, we scapegoat, we make war, we kill, we torture, we turn a blind eye to the desperation and needs of others, and we allow others to die. Our ability to embody our communion with every human person on the earth and our unassailable connectedness with everything living is limited because we have not yet become these symbiotic “selves.” We continue to privilege our personal autonomy and are unable to make the transition from radical individualism to a genuine synergistic community even though we know intellectually we are inseparably and physically connected to every living being in the universe. Yet the future of the entire earth community is riding on whether we can find a way beyond the limits of our present evolutionary trajectory. (37-38)
An overview and critique by Cynthia Bourgeault.
Now that Ken Wilber’s paper on “Trump and a Post-Truth World” is officially posted and making its rounds on the internet, I feel at liberty to share my initial “cliff notes” and comments a bit more widely.
My comments below were generated originally (and somewhat hastily) for a group of senior Wisdom students who are already working their way through this tract. It is still to be regarded as primarily a “working draft” for limited circulation, not a formal response to Ken’s thesis.
The first part is a quick overview of the main points of Ken’s argument as I understand it. The second part raises a few points for feedback/critique/further reflection.
THE ARGUMENT IN A NUTSHELL
Ken Wilber’s wide-ranging and fundamentally hopeful monograph is an analysis of the recent presidential election from the perspective of levels of consciousness as developed primarily according to his own Integral Evolutionary Theory. The powerful contribution he brings here is to move us beyond the reactivity gripping both sides of the political spectrum and offer a much broader perspective. He proposes that Trump’s upset victory reflects an “evolutionary self-correction” necessitated by the fact that the leading edge of consciousness, the so-called green level, lost its way in a mass of internal self-contradictions and gradually failed to lead. His 90-page paper is a lengthy, often verbose, occasionally brilliant analysis of how this situation came to be and what needs to happen to heal it.
To enter this discussion, one first needs to have some familiarity with the general schematic of levels of consciousness which Wilber has been steadily developing and refining for more than thirty years now (since his Up from Eden, first published in the early 1980s.) Wilber summarizes this in an early section of his paper, but here’s the cliff notes version:
Levels of consciousness are “color coded” as follows:
Red: egocentric, self-referential, instinctual
Amber: (alias “mythic membership): ethnocentric, authoritarian, premodern
Orange: world centric, rational, individualistic, modern
Green: world centered, pluralistic, postmodern
Green, the highest evolutionary level consistently attained to date, began to emerge in the 1960s and has gown steadily for the new five decades, to the point that by Wilber’s estimate, some 25% of the population are presently functioning at that level (how does he generate this data?) But along the way, green began to wander off course, increasingly caught in some internal contradictions that were inherent in its worldview from the start, i.e:
- Its inherent tendency to relativism, which progressively morphed into the claim that there is no such thing as universal truth or universal values.
- An inherent “performative contradiction” between its claim that all values are equal and its inner assurance that its value (“that there is no universal truth”) is nonetheless normative and binding.
- A failure to distinguish between “dominator hierarchies” (based on oppression) and “growth hierarchies” (based on evolutionarily necessary differentiation), and a general dislike of all hierarchy
- A growingly hyper-sensitive political correctness that consistently stirred the pot of resentment and anger (both within green itself, the so-called “mean green meme,” and certainly against it, among the other levels of consciousness.
This “aperspectival madness,” as Wilber terms it, left the ostensible evolutionary leading edge caught in an increasing cul de sac of “nihilism and narcissism.” Trump was able to successfully fan the smoldering fires of resentment building at all three lower levels—red, amber, and orange—into a roaring blaze of anti-green sentiment—an “anti-green morphogenetic field” that went on to torch the entire green value system. However apparently contradictory and volatile Trump’s agendas may be, Wilber points out, the common denominator is that they are always anti-green.
Without condoning these agendas, Wilber does lay out a scenario through which it is possible to discern a coherence (I’ll stop short of saying a “justification”) behind the otherwise unfathomable upheaval that awaited the world on November 8. Rather than simply further demonizing Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” that put the man in office, or resorting to ominous and paralyzing specters of Hitler and Armageddon, Wilber’s hypothesis offers a way to make sense out of what happened—and to cooperate with evolution in making the necessary adjustments.
In the final section of his paper, Wilber does exactly that. He lays out several steps (some theoretical, others quite practical) whereby green could help heal itself and get back on track. In the end, however, Ken’s conviction becomes increasingly transparent—and finally explicit—that the basic performative contradictions inherent in “green-think” are so deep as to be unsalvageable, and that the only longterm and truly satisfying solution will come only from a robust emergence of the next level of consciousness: Integral, (color-coded turquoise or teal) which is truly “second tier” (i.e., transitioning to the non-dual), capable of integrating and including all perspectives, unafraid of healthy hierarchy, and hence truly able to lead. It is from this level, he believes, that the ultimate evolutionary resolution will emerge—once a “tipping point” of about 10% of the population functioning at that level is stabilized.
Comments and Critique from Cynthia
- The greatest contribution of this paper is that it gets the scale right: it “nails” the arena in which events are actually playing out and offers a plausible hypothesis as to the underlying causes, a hypothesis which restores both coherence and an empowerment. Virtually every other analysis I have seen—political, sociological, Biblical—is working from too narrow and limited a perspective (that’s the nature of intellectual discourse in the postmodern era; you either get rigor or breadth, rarely both). While I do not share all of Ken’s conclusions, I am totally in agreement that the evolutionary frame offers our best shot at a coherent explanation and a mature and skillful resolution.
- And as Teilhard discovered a generation before, it is at the evolutionary scale—i.e., over deep time —that “deep hope” becomes possible. I am gratified that Ken seems to agree with Teilhard that evolution is intrinsically purposeful (and in much the same terms as Teilhard sees it: moving toward greater “complexification/consciousness”—not specifically so-named— and an ever-fuller manifestation of Love (or “Eros,” in Wilber languaging.) I wish Teilhard were more generally cited in Wilber’s work; it would certainly draw the dual streams of Teilhardian and Integral evolutionary theory into a more creative and ultimately illumining dialogue.
- I continue to suspect that Wilber often conflates “levels of consciousness” with “stages of growth.” The two are not identical, at least according to the criteria I have gleaned from my own Christian contemplative heritage. I remain to be convinced that orange and green are actually different levels; to me they look more like simply progressive stages of the same level. Orange may be individualistic while green is pluralistic, but both are relying on the mental egoic operating system (“perception through differentiation”) to run their program; green’s “groups” therefore, are merely “individuals writ large,” (which “co-exist” not a new holonic unity (which “coalesces.”)) Or another way of saying it: green is simply orange looking through a postmodern filter.
This, incidentally, I believe to be another fatal “performative contradiction” undetected by Wilber; greens think FOR oneness but FROM “perception through differentiation;” how crazy-making is that? It’s a pretty significant developmental gap to navigate, causing their minds always to be out ahead of what their psyches can actually maintain. Hence the anger, the arrogance, and the hypocrisy.
- I’m no political historian, but I think Wilber takes some pretty large leapfrogs through the history of the political parties in the US. I’d be highly skeptical that he can make his assertion stick that Democrats by and large function in a higher level of consciousness (green/orange) than Republicans (orange/amber). This may be true of the past few decades, but given that prior to its infiltration by the Religious right, The Republican part was more often the standard bearer for the leading edge of consciousness case in point: Abraham Lincoln), while the Democratic party was the home to most ethnicities and nearly all of the South. Thus, it’s difficult to see how it would be without its share of well-entrenched ethnocentric (amber) perspectives.
- Finally, and most substantively, the most important corrective Christian mystical tradition has to bring to current secular or Buddhist-based models of “second tier” (and higher) states of consciousness is the insistence that the leap to this new level of conscious functioning is not simply an extension of the cognitive line but requires “putting the mind in the heart,” not only attitudinally but neurologically. There is a supporting physiology to each tier of consciousness (which is why I think green and orange are still basically at the same level), and that all-important shift from 1st tier to 2nd tier will only happen when grounded in an active awakening of the heart.
And this means, basically, it will happen in the domain of devotion—i.e., our heart’s emotional assent and participation in the ultimate “thouness” of the cosmos and the experiential certainty of the divine not simply as “love” but as Lover. That is to say, I believe it happens beyond the gates of secularity, in the intense, holographic particularity of the upper echelons in each sacred tradition. This is for me the profound strength of Teilhard’s model, as over and against Wilber’s more secular model; it unabashedly is able to stir the fires of adoration and spiritual imagination as it “harnesses the energy of love.” Striving to light this same fire with metaphysical matches, Wilber is left essentially “anthropomorphizing” evolution, transforming it into a new version of the classic demiurge, the creative and implementing arm of the logoic omniscience.
I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback. I repeat: this is a groundbreaking and heartening essay, at the right scale, and headed in the right direction. It’s worth taking the time to grapple with.
As this sea-change of a new year gets underway, this comes to call your attention to two timely opportunities for further Wisdom study and reflection along the lines of inquiry I’ve opened up in my two “post-election” blogs this past fall.
Coming right up on January 15, our beloved Wisdom brother Bob Sabath will be leading an 11-week introductory exploration of the Gurdjieff material anchored in Nicoll’s Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky—arguably the most immediately practical access point to this great canon of transformational material. As Bob rightly points out, this is a “soft launch” into the great, wide world of Gurdjieff, geared toward illuminating practical inner skills, and cross-referenced by parallel passages in Christian lectio divina. It’s a beautifully thought-out exploration and will get many of us working and thinking together in this new terrain. I encourage you to join in. Click here for the link to the full details and sign up procedures for this online study work group.
A little further down the pike, beginning February 27— for Ash Wednesday—I’ll be launching a Lenten e-retreat based on Gurdjieff’s “Obligolnian Strivings,” the heart of the Beelzebub’s Tales material I’ve been referring to in those earlier emails. The course will be hosted on the Spirituality and Practice website, with accompanying Spiritual Practice tasks, audio divina, and the 24/7 Practice Circle for posting comments and reflections. Here’s the link to the “Becoming Truly Human” e-retreat.
The “Obligolnian Strivings” are five aspirations (or qualities of awareness) that in Gurdjieff’s opinion comprise the essential earmarks of a true human being, functioning at the level of Being actually required of humans for harmonious cosmic functioning. These are:
>The first striving: to have in one’s ordinary being-existence everything satisfying and truly necessary for the planetary body.
>The second striving: to have a constant and unflagging instinctive need to perfect oneself in the sense of Being.
>The third: the conscious striving to know ever more and more about the laws of world-creation and world-maintenance.
>The fourth: the striving, from the beginning of one’s existence, to pay as quickly as possible for one’s arising, in order afterward to be free to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of out Common Father.
>And the fifth: the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the ‘sacred Martfotai’, that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.
In our upcoming e-retreat we will spend a week on each of these five strivings, approaching them from a variety of reference points and practical implications, as we strive to understand better what is required of us at this critical tipping point in the evolution of human consciousness and planetary oneness. In the final week we’ll be considering those two sacred transformative agents, conscious labor and intentional suffering.
I hope you’ll join Bob Sabath and myself in either or both of these online opportunities as we discern what the cosmos may have in store for us—or better, is calling forth from us.
Dear Wisdom friends,
Wow! What an amazing heart outpouring from all of you! I feel the energy, the strength, and most important, the clarity. I believe that in the space of merely a week we have already become a “morphogenetic field” out there in the cosmos. And the space which the “conscious circle of humanity” needed to have occupied is now activated and beginning to make its presence felt.
I see that many of you are already gearing up for the deep dive into Beelzebub’s Tales, so I did want to briefly share with you these few clarifications and tips. Teaching and reading groups are already starting to self-organize, both formally and informally, on the ground and in cyber space. I hope that by shortly into the New Year we will be able to put together a resource directory helping our keen band of wisdom seekers find their way to the most appropriate venue. But meanwhile…
First, you should all know that I will myself be offering a Lenten e-course with Spirituality and Practice on “The Obligolnian Strivings,” the heart of Gurdjieff’s brilliant vision of human purpose and accountability, and the ethical climax of the first book of Beelzebub’s Tales. So stay tuned! The course begins with an orientation on February 27, then kicks off on Ash Wednesday, March 1. Shortly after the New Year it should be available for sign-up on the S & P website.
Now, if you’re determined to forge ahead on your own, know that what you’re dealing with here is Gurdjieff’s sprawling cosmological masterpiece: brilliant and outrageous in equal measures—and definitely not an easy read. Beelzebub’s Tales is also the reason Gurdjieff is sometimes hailed as one of the founding fathers of modern-day science fiction! Set in a vast, intergalactic universe and narrated by the now-nearly-redeemed fallen angel Beelzebub, this cosmological epic unfolds the “tragical history of the unfortunate planet earth,” gradually revealing how human conscious development went so badly off course here. It lays out an alternative history which may at first appear totally mad—but it’s curious how many cosmological facts first “spun” by G in this epic yarn have subsequently been scientifically confirmed….So, caveat emptor here!
It’s largely Book One we’ll be concerned with in this study, which basically lays out the mythic narrative. I am interested in it chiefly because It furnishes some important alternative concepts and images as we engage the work I envisioned in my former blog: i.e., exploring the ley line (or is it a fault line?) of causality that runs through 800 years of Western intellectual history. The serious questions I want to explore this spring will be easier to grasp if you already have under your belts:
- Some idea of what a real Wisdom School is (i.e., the ancient Society Akhaldan of Atlantis versus the later Babylonian “talking heads”),
- The roadmap of human purpose laid out through “the saintly labors of the holy and Essence-loving” Ashiata Shiemash, and
- The destruction of those saintly labors by the “democratic” reforms of the “Eternal Hasnamuss” Lentrohamsanin (chapters 25-28). That in and of itself will furnish more than we need to get ourselves to 2020, the year of perfect vision.
That’s what you’ll find in Book One. Meanwhile, a few more tips:
- Unless you’re already a diehard Gurdjieff fan, I’d recommend skipping the Introduction, “The Arousing of Thought.” Begin with chapter 2.
- Forget “analytical mode.” This is middle-eastern story-telling in flavor, extended to epic scope. Gurdjieff’s father was an ashok, a local bardic poet who could recite the oral history of the world back 10,00 years. Think in this mode: playful, mythologic, humorous, not “buttoned down” mental/esoteric.
- Take it little at a time. Reading out loud with a partner, at least in certain sections, can extend and awaken the range of meaning.
- There is a very good introductory summary in Part II of James Moore’s Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth that will help get you oriented.
Remember that there is some method in my madness here. If this big unwieldy tome doesn’t speak to you, don’t feel obligated to wade through it just to get to some concepts that I’ll be unpacking in my own teaching in due course. But since many of you are itching to get underway, I thought I’d at least throw you these few leads.
With Christmas blessing and love,