Oil Spills, Etc.

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We just had another major oil spill this past weekend. I remember the Exxon Valdes, and how my meditation teacher said the only way to prevent more of those was to reduce our dependence on oil. Obviously, that’s not the direction we’ve gone.

I read that oil has deleterious longterm effects on fish and other wildlife. I guess these organisms are eventually able to overcome the problems, but the BIG problem is that our technology is poisonous. Destroying the environment that gives us life for money (which I persist in seeing as an abstraction, compared to the natural world) seems to be an obviously bad idea, but almost all of us are connected to that way of doing things. I’m afraid the oil spill and the landslide in Washington state are just small examples of what we’re likely to see in the next years.

We don’t live in harmony with ourselves, let alone our neighbors, let alone the rest of the planet. Until we begin doing so we won’t be able to stop the trend towards destruction, let alone reverse it. Pollution (which includes climate change) I see as a problem that will persist for a very long time.

What will persist even longer is human stupidity. George Gurdjieff, mentioned in these posts before, said that two things are infinite: God’s mercy and human stupidity. Humans seem unable to learn anything much without the house falling in on them. Gurdjieff also said that when civilizations end people go crazy and destroy everything that’s been built up for centuries or even millenia. It looks to me like that’s happening now, which is pretty scary.

We’ve had at least 40 years to get ready for the end of oil and other petrochemicals, and have made what seem to me to be the wrong decisions every time. Our car engines have gotten more efficient, but people still like muscle cars, and we haven’t invested the time or money necessary to develop alternative energy sources. The reason again seems to money: energy companies want to extract the last nickle from oil, natural gas, and coal before considering any alternative energy source. Strip-mining and oil spills have been bad enough. Now we have fracking, which I think is even worse. Not only does it pollute (I don’t know to what extent), but it also seems to produce earthquakes; something I’d been hesitant to believe. I’d have preferred it not to be true.

In fact, our whole society is standing on shaky ground just because of our waste of resources, as if we didn’t have other problems. If we were rational we could decide to change our ways, but we’re not. At the same time that we’re using up our natural resources, we’re also fighting about science and religion, about race and class, and it seems very few people can talk about any subject that’s sensitive to anybody in a rational way. Is it because on some level we know we’re doing wrong, and feel guilty? That would make sense, because in my opinion, we certainly are.

My thoughts on this subject come from various sources. One is a book called Crossing the Rubicon, whose author pointed out that having cars run on electricity instead of gas SOUNDS good, but how is the electricity they run on to be generated? At present, the options are coal, oil, or natural gas. The very energy sources we need to stop using.

Other thoughts come from Wendell Berry, who is worried about our lack of concern for our environment in general, and for our method of food production in particular. Since he’s a farmer (traditional variety, of whom there are now few left), this point of view makes sense.

He says the industrial model of production, largely installed in the late 18th and 19th centuries, came to farms in the 20th. Maybe it was appropriate in other areas (maybe not, too), but it wasn’t appropriate for farms. Small farms, he points out, are generally better taken care of than the large industrial farms, and use much less in the way of artificial fertilizers and insecticides. The small farmer pays much closer attention to the needs of the land he farms than the industrial farmer can, and has more pride in his work. If he doesn’t have pride in his work, he doesn’t continue to be a farmer long.

But small farms started to be crowded out in the 19th century, and the process accelerated in the 20th. That’s a consequence of the idea that Bigger is Better. That’s not what the evidence shows. Bigger also makes for bigger catastrophes.

I visited Washington DC this past weekend, which seems like the epitome of what’s wrong with the country, and I’m not even talking about politics.

I was downtown, where all the architecture is monumental, not even including the monuments, and the traffic is horrible. Even on Sunday. There are cars everywhere, and it seems like about 2-3 parking garages per block. The Pentagon is nearby, and certainly hasn’t gotten smaller in the more than 50 years since I first saw it. Everything is high tech, which makes little sense when we’re actually entering an energy crisis. It doesn’t seem as if we are, since fracking is considered the new miracle technology, but the consequences of that seem horrendous to me. An energy crisis is intimately involved with an ecological crisis, which now seems inevitable. And probably not just one.

Dependence on oil, coal and gas don’t just pollute via the internal combustion engine, but in the form of plastic (and we put plastic, hardly biodegradable into just about everything), and in the forms of artificial fertilizers and insecticides. Those aren’t the only problems, either.

Many natural products are harmless in their natural forms, but when we distill them, they often become harmful. Especially if we overuse them. Gasoline is just one example of this.

Coca is an herb which is said to combat altitude sickness when chewed. It’s also the base from which cocaine is made. Cocaine has a legitimate use in eye surgery, but that’s probably not where you’ve heard of it.

The poppy is pretty harmless in its natural form, but from it opium, morphine and heroin are made, each more powerful than the former, and thus more likely to be abused.

Many grains and fruits produce alcohol, which, in the form of beer and wine are relatively harmless, but in the form of liquor is more harmful. Alcoholics have been with us quite awhile, and have contributed a great deal to societal chaos.

Antibiotics are very useful, but when overused become less effective, and the result is strains of microbes that are more and more difficult to treat.

Artificial fertilizers and insecticides are also made from petroleum, and often overused. Honeybees are dying in great numbers, and various insecticides seem to be implicated. Without honeybees, it will be very difficult to produce enough food.

Is that a big enough list of problems? Don’t count on those being the only ones. They’re merely the obvious ones.

The REAL problem is the way of thinking that makes it to okay exploit absolutely anything to make money. I could put that on capitalism, I suppose, but Communist regimes didn’t treat the environment any better. We’ve gotten into a dead-end street, and are accelerating down it. Almost all of us are implicated. That seems like the definition of insanity.

I think it was Gandhi who said, “Be the change you wish to see.” I can’t claim to have done that to any extent. That there may be people worse about it than I am is hardly comforting.

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Hiding in Plain Sight

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When you think of sociopaths you generally think of people with no conscience who commit horrible crimes. M.E. Thomas, in her memoir, Hiding in Plain Sight, identifies herself as a sociopath, but states that she is not a murderer or criminal. In fact, she says that sociopaths are often glamorous because they’re adventurous risk-takers. Yes, some do horrible things, but by no means all, and while they have difference from “normal” human beings, whom she calls empaths, they have a lot of similarities too.

Perhaps the greatest difference between sociopaths and others is that sociopaths don’t perceive certain emotional “wavelengths.” They’re not very sympathetic. On the other hand, they DO perceive people’s weaknesses, since their main interests have to do with power, aggression, and sometimes violence. If they have blind spots, so do “normal” people.

There’s a lot of talk about nature versus nurture in talking about deviations from the norm. Nature has a lot to do with such a condition, but Ms Thomas says that in her experience, nurture had a lot to do with it too.

Her parents had their weaknesses. Her father, she says, was mostly concerned with his image as a good father and good person. She was always threatening to him, because she didn’t buy his belief. Both parents played favorites, creating some rivalries among the children. She never depended on love, Ms Thomas says, because her experience of love was that it was undependable.

She gives one brother, just slightly older than she, as an example of nature. Presumably their DNA was very similar, but he was completely opposite as a personality, weaker, and passive. She could get him to do anything she wanted, and says that she and an older brother were cruel to him until they realized that he couldn’t take it, and have spent their lives since helping him.

On the other hand, she credits her family for giving her a clear sense of the rules. They were Mormons, and their rules were thus pretty rigid. If one doesn’t have a conscience, which presumably means an emotional intuition of how one’s actions may affect others, providing one with a desire not to hurt, knowledge of the rules is invaluable. She grants that she is impulsive, thrill-seeking, and desires to have power over others, but credits knowing the rules for helping her keep her desires in check.

She talks about being more intelligent than most, and using that advantage to just get by. She used it to maximize her college experience, manipulating to get the kind of experience she wanted, and again in law school. Eventually, however, she discovered that behavior didn’t work in a law firm. She lost her first job because of her behavior, and because she’d lost interest in the work she was supposed to be doing.

Eventually, she became a public defender, and spends much time explaining how she would manipulate the jury to give her the kind of verdict she wanted. She used her various ways of being attractive to woo them, usually successfully, and comments that if you’re in a really bad legal situation you want someone like her to defend you. Someone who isn’t repulsed by whatever you may have done or not done, but wants to win, and is willing to use any method to do so. Eventually, however, she lost interest in practicing law too.

She found what turned out to be the perfect job for her in teaching law. There weren’t a lot of rules she had to follow, she didn’t have to make a lot of effort, she could control everything that went on in the classroom, and she was very well paid for what she did. She admits that the perfection of the job may well be temporary: she might lose interest in it too, and have to find another source of income.

She begins the book by saying that she came to realize that she was a sociopath when her life took a downturn, and she began wondering why. She had always been willing to lie convincingly to other people, but came to see that she had also lied to herself, and didn’t know who she was. She went so far as to see a psychiatrist, to confirm her self-diagnosis, which he did. She also started a blog, in which she wrote about her experience, and invited anyone with similar experiences to visit and talk about them. Her blog became very successful, and the book she wrote grew out of it, as much as anything.

She sees sociopaths as being just another sub-group of humanity. Not necessarily sick, though they can do horrible things, but not mentally ill either, in the sense of having delusions. Empaths, which is how she refers to normal, non-sociopathic people, may be attracted to sociopaths because of their devil-may-care attitudes that empaths tend to lack. She also points out that sociopaths are not the only people who commit crimes, that empaths may commit them at an even higher rate, precisely because they get tangled up in emotions that sociopaths aren’t subject to.

She quotes a visitor to her site as saying that sociopaths are people-pleasers as often as not, because they aren’t interested in the drama that some empaths like. Of course they only please people if they feel it’s in their interest. If they decide to do something that WON’T please others, they’ll often do it without regard for those others’ feelings, or any guilt . It’s likely to be simply a cost/benefit calculation. Are empaths so different?

Sociopaths tend to like attention. Don’t empaths? Sociopaths tend to be quite manipulative. Are other kinds of people immune to that? Sociopaths just tend to be better at it, entering into any interaction with the desire to win, whatever winning means to them in any particular situation. I think that’s not such a foreign idea to “normal” people, though they may approach situations differently, and see “winning” differently too.

It’s interesting to compare her story to to at least one character in science fiction writer Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. Ender is the third child in a family in which all three children are genius-level.The armed forces are recruiting children to combat the threat of an alien invasion, and monitor promising children. Peter, the oldest child, has been monitored but rejected for being too aggressive, too ambitious and ruthless, too irresponsible and intractable. His younger sister has been rejected for not being aggressive enough. Ender is still being monitored as the story opens.

Peter appears as a definite bully, with at least potential to become a monster. Ender accepts being inducted into the military (very little choice on his part) at least partly because it takes him away from Peter.

Peter gets older and more sophisticated, but also a little more mellow–comparatively. He still intends to rule the world–literally–and begins by at least his early teens to write essays that shape politics, in concert with his sister,whom he coerces into joining him. They keep these activities secret from their parents–they think.

It later emerges, though, that his parents have been aware of his activities and have chosen to pretend they aren’t. They don’t want to block him from doing something positive, so they talk to him about being honorable and ethical. Religious themselves, they realize that he is not, and to talk about religion with him would encourage him to tune them out. So they talk about the positive things religion influences people to do, without mentioning the religious component, a difficult tightrope to walk for people whose religious beliefs are important. And Peter seems to respond.

He eventually DOES become ruler of the world, and a pretty wise one, overall. Has Mr. Card ever dealt with a sociopathic person? I know little about his personal life, so I can’t say. Evidently he’s thought about how he WOULD deal with one in his own family. Such people can possibly be born in any family, so no one can exclude the possibility that his child might become one. I doubt any of Card’s children are sociopathic, but don’t doubt that he drew on his experience of his own family to portray Peter. The conclusions he draws are not so different from those of Ms Foster.

If Ms Foster is correct, sociopaths are just part of the spectrum of humanity, and not extremely different from other people. She and Mr. Card seem to agree that morality, or at least rules, are useful in providing people with guidelines as to how to behave. The spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff said that conscience is atrophied in modern man, and sociopathy seems to be an example of that. He also said that the awakening of conscience is the best guide to behavior, but failing that, knowing the rules and the benefits of keeping them seems to be the best alternative.

Unfortunately, we currently live in an unstable society in which sociopathic behavior is often highly rewarded. The rules seem to be unclear to many, so we often get unequal justice and transgression by the privileged, which often goes unpunished. And different groups have different rules, to make things more confusing.

For some, minorities, almost by definition, are evil. They’re concerned with sexual behavior and decry welfare for the poor, while implicitly sanctioning it for the rich. People with this viewpoint are uncomfortable with many facets of the modern world, sometimes with good reason. But in other cases their discomfort is related directly to their inability to understand other people’s lives and motivations.

Most of us are self-centered, and don’t behave as well as we could or should. But our world frequently rewards self-centered people who want to succeed at any cost, especially if the cost is to others. That could be a description of a sociopath, but as Ms Thomas points out, sociopaths aren’t necessarily evil. Nor are “normal” people necessarily good.

C.S. Lewis Connected to Other Issues

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One of my favorite things to read in my early teens was the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, and perhaps my favorite book of the series was Voyage of the Dawntreader. In this book Prince Caspian, now the ruler of Narnia, has decided to sail east to find the end of the world, and is joined by some of the characters of the original The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, plus one other. The other is a cousin of Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy, whom they find quite obnoxious. His name is Eustace.

Eustace is obnoxiously intellectual, secretly jealous of his cousins, and trying to hide it. They’re turned off by his intellectual posing, but can’t tell him about the things they’ve achieved without telling him about Narnia. Maybe they’ve actually tried to tell him, or let things about it slip, I can’t recall. If so, he’s skeptical, which is all the more infuriating.Then Edmund and Lucy find themselves suddenly being drawn into Narnia again, and Eustace is semi-accidentally taken with them.

Edmund and Lucy find themselves in their element. Eustace doesn’t like it. Sailing on a small ship he finds terribly uncomfortable, even in good weather, while everyone else hardly notices any possible discomfort. Eustace sulks, and makes no friends that way. He probably doesn’t have any friends in our world either.

But one of the most memorable scenes of the novel belongs to him. The ship docks at a small island, and Eustace disobediently goes exploring by himself, climbing one of the mountains near the ship. On the other side he finds himself overlooking a dragon’s lair. The dragon crawls from its cave and dies as Eustace watches. Though he prides himself on his rationality, Eustace is aware enough of fairy-tales to know that dragons have hoards of wealth, so he climbs down to explore. He finds the hoard, finds an arm-band that he likes, puts it on his arm, and decides he’s too tired to attempt the trip back to the ship. He decides to take a nap.

On waking up, he discovers that the arm-band, which fit loosely on his arm, has become much too tight. That seems a bit strange, until he realizes why: he’s turned into a dragon.

This is, of course, a moment for regret, but of course regret doesn’t transform him. He’s still a dragon with an arm-band that’s way too tight. The others, having noticed his absence, come looking for him, and find him. He can’t speak to them, but manages to spell words in the dirt, to let them know who he is. Of course they can’t do anything to help him either.

That night, as he’s sleeping, Aslan comes to visit. Aslan is the lion who is the Christ-figure of the Narnia series, having undergone a ritual very much like the crucifiction in the first novel, and who  turns up at unexpected moments to direct things into the right course.

Aslan tells him he must shed his skin to turn back into a boy. With great effort, Eustace does so, several times–but remains a dragon. Finally Aslan says that he will help, and claws Eustace deeply, so that Eustace feels penetrated to the heart. He turns back into a boy.

This is the perfect metaphor for the transformation that must take place for one to become a moral being. Realizing one’s sins can penetrate to the heart, and stimulate one either to repair what one has done, or to run away. There are possibly many forms of each.

Repairing one’s self is the only realistic way of beginning the gigantic task of repairing, reforming or revolutionizing the world. Ways of doing this have been laid out in all the great religions, but few manage to practice these ways in real purity. Many have said we must be in the world, but not of it. That’s not so simple. We are all products of our world, and attached to it in more ways than we can see.

Not all of these attachments are bad. Attachment of the farmer to the soil he works is necessary, as Wendell Berry points out, to enjoy any excellence in agriculture, or the culture at large. That means doing the task that needs doing for as long as it takes, or as long as one can. Most of us prefer to turn to entertainment instead.

The problem is ecological: everything affects everything else. When we prefer quantity to quality, eventually we’ll get neither. When we prefer entertainment to work we get depression, and other emotional ills. These easily turn into conflicts, whether substantial or trivial, and harmony is lost.

Berry sees this as the outcome of fragmented life: specialists concentrate on doing one thing, and are unable to do anything well. They have no perspective, since they concentrate on only one subject, so they have no corrective when they make mistakes. Forcing farming into an industrial model throws out all the knowledge of small farmers, and substitutes technology, specifically petrochemical technology. With almost all farming in the country industrialized, farming is impossible without machinery (powered by petroleum), fertilizers and insecticides.

Small farmers, says Berry, were easily able to sell whatever they produced that they didn’t need for themselves when he was growing up. Now milk and butter can no longer be sold by small producers, in the name of sanitation. He remarks that our current agriculture is remarkable for having substituted germs for poisons.

But what of Eustace, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader? After his experience as a dragon he’s no longer so much a focus of the novel, but becomes more like his cousins, and subsequently takes part in further adventures in Narnia. Perhaps CS Lewis saw him as an alienated teenager who needed to be reintegrated into a fairly healthy society. His experience in Narnia seems to do that, though we don’t see his experience in our world. Lewis probably saw all too clearly the sickness in his world, and created Narnia as a way of showing how humans ought to behave, and his belief in the presence of divinity in the world.

All the great religions speak of the divine, and try to interpret its work in the world. If there’s any truth to them, the divine exists, we can find it if we really want to, and it can guide us. Really wanting to is often the problem. In its presence we are likely to become acutely aware of our shortcomings, and tempted to flee the burden of a higher state of consciousness. Fragmentation of consciousness, as well as of activity, is easier, though in the long run profoundly destructive.

But the public face of religions is interpretation. When religion has too much political power it begins thinking in terms of punishing enemies instead of loving them. The path of power is exactly contrary to Jesus’s admonition to love your neighbors, but also your enemies. Having enemies makes fanatics happy, because they can do “God’s work” in working to destroy them. So in this country we get the interpretation on one side of the rich as the enemy, which some wealthy people seem to agree with; on the other side, the poor, the black, the Latin, the gay, the liberal. Deciding you have enemies is an excuse for war. A different interpretation could be an excuse for peace.

Some atheists are so disgusted with the frequently intolerant and power-seeking behavior of institutional religion that they decline to believe in God. I can understand that point of view, but don’t believe one needs to go to that extreme. I persist in thinking there is no NECESSARY conflict between religion and science, though some religious people and some scientifically oriented people certainly think so.

A recent conversation with a friend and her son started with a home-schooling course that taught geocentrism as a fact. Why that is even a religious concern is beyond me, since I think religion ought to be about how humans should behave, rather than about knowledge that science is more adept at obtaining.

On the other hand, the strict exclusion of the “supernatural” from scientific investigation makes Western science an incomplete model. I also persist in thinking that religious practices can be investigated scientifically (tested to see if they produce a different form of consciousness), and that people have done this in the past and present, though this may not be widely known.

C.S. Lewis was certainly a religious person, but not a crackpot, from all that I can tell, One of his remarks in Mere Christianity has stuck with me: that EVERYONE is concerned with right and wrong. Everyone either wants to believe or wants others to believe that they’re doing right, and that it’s the others who are wrong. This is as true of criminals, apparently, (no matter how heinous their acts) as anyone else. Where did this consciousness come from, however misguided? Is it hardwired into our genetic makeup, or is it strictly cultural? The latter is certainly influential, but I suspect the former also has something to do with it.

I loved Lewis’s Narnia books as a child and teenager, and still have a spot in my heart for them. Some would probably consider them a silly fantasy. Fantasy they certainly are, but I don’t consider them silly. They deal with courage and sacrifice, which are behaviors we ought all to aspire to, I should think. Their endings are happy, but, in my opinion, not trivially happy. They have a didactic element, but not one I found as tiresome as I did the novels of Ayn Rand a few years later. I suppose you could call her an idealist, but of a very different sort, and her happy endings didn’t make ME feel happy. Lewis’s did.

Meetings With Remarkable Men

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I’ve mentioned George Gurdjieff frequently in these pages. He was a very interesting man who searched for hidden knowledge, and found a great deal of it. He had hoped to set up an organization to teach what he’d learned directly, but had problems with that, and decided to write books to indicate how his discoveries differed from contemporary views. His first book, All and Everything, or Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson looks at the human race from the viewpoint of an alien from another world. One of Gurdjieff’s students called his abilities “superhuman”. This first book emphasizes the side of him alien to most ordinary people.

 

His second book, Meetings With Remarkable Men shows his more human side. It’s kind of a memoir organized around the various remarkable men that he’d known, and who had influenced him. The book is somewhat chronological, but jumps around somewhat too. In any case it at least hints at some of the things that influenced him in the path he chose.

The first remarkable man he writes about is his father, who seems to have been quite wise, though not especially educated in the intellectual sense. One thing he did was force Gurdjieff to get up early each morning and go bathe in the river, something that Gurdjieff said made it possible to stand the hardships he had to endure in his later travels.

Since the young Gurdjieff was quite intelligent, he also arranged for him to drop out of the regular school and be tutored by some very intelligent men in the area. He, and they, also would set the boy a task, and once he got familiar with and interested in it, would set him another quite different task. In this way he didn’t get specialized, but could make or fix a large variety of things.

His father was also a bard,  and would often take his son with him when he went to perform old songs and stories. In about the 1880’s the story of Gilgamesh was translated from clay tablets by archaeologists, and Gurdjieff realized that it was one his father had told. It had survived some 5,000 years. He began wondering what other knowledge might have survived unnoticed.

He studied a lot of things as a boy and young man, including Western science. But here he ran into a difficulty. He lived among a variety of people with different customs and religions, and witnessed several examples of what most would call supernatural: someone praying for rain, and it coming; a faith healing; another healing by someone who had dreamed the ingredients to use; and a Yezidi boy trapped within a circle drawn on the ground, and unable to get out until part of the circle was rubbed away. Yezidis are a religious group in the Middle East that reportedly believes that Satan created the world, but are nonetheless (or were) considered to be very moral, despite being (or having been) called devil worshipers.

This last instance particularly puzzled him, but he couldn’t find anyone who could explain it. One person talked about hysteria, but he already knew that hysteria was hysteria, and wanted more of an explanation. He eventually decided that modern science had an incomplete picture of the universe, and decided to look for a more complete one.

Having decided that he couldn’t find anything answering the questions he was asking in modern science, he started reading old books, with the impression that there had been a certain something in the past that had gotten lost, and looking for clues as to where to find it, if it still survived.

He found one in an old Armenian book in which the Sarmoun (or Sarmoung or Sarman) society was mentioned. This was a society which had supposedly been founded about 2500 BC to replace another such society, and was a group of very wise men. In the book was a letter by a priest from about 1200 years earlier, who mentioned that the headquarters of the Sarmoun society were near where the ancient city of Ninevah had been. He and a friend decided to go looking for this society, in hopes of joining it.

But on their journey in that direction they stayed for awhile with a man who told them he had an ancient map that someone had tried to buy from him, but that he’d refused to sell. That interested the boys, they managed to find the map and to trace it. It was a map of pre-sand Egypt, and they decided to pursue that instead.

That journey took Gurdjieff to Jerusalem, where he found the Essenes, also an ancient society which many think Jesus belonged to before he began his ministry. He pushed on to Egypt, and in the vicinity of the pyramids met another of his remarkable men. The two determined that they had interests in common, and decided to travel together to investigate the questions they had. They traveled up the Nile at least as far as Ethiopia, where they may have found information about the early history of Christianity. More people eventually joined the two and traveled singly or together in Africa and in much of Asia.

Gurdjieff apparently traveled as far north as Siberia, as far south as Tibet (where he stayed for some time) and India, and at least as far east as Chinese Turkestan and the Gobi desert. He also mentions Australia and some islands, presumably off southern Asia. Travel wasn’t easy. Some areas were inhospitable to foreigners, and he caught a variety of diseases, some of which became chronic, so that he probably experienced chronic pain in later years.

Several of the remarkable men he mentions had beliefs that he adopted for himself. One believed that no work is ever wasted, so kept himself physically busy, partly to work against his own laziness, and partly with the belief that working in this way would eventually pay off monetarily too. Another friend believed much the same thing, but concentrated on mental work, learning many languages. Still another contrasted local morality with universal morality.

In Muslim society, he said, any woman who invited men into her house, met them unveiled, and entertained them, would be considered spoiled and badly brought up. In Russian society any woman who DIDN’T do these things would also be considered spoiled, etc. These were examples of local moralities. He thought there were universal laws, higher than local moralities, which if followed would make it possible for one to live comfortably in any place. Gurdjieff adopted these practices for himself. He later said that conscience is largely submerged in modern man, but that developing it is a sure way to reach God.

In the book he doesn’t attempt to describe all his adventures, much less the training he undertook in various places. Eventually the Sarmoun sociey did contact him and invited him to a monastery in Central Asia. One of his students commented that Gurdjieff felt this was a sign he was making some real progress, and that this had been recognized. There in the monastery he found one of his old friends who felt he wouldn’t live much longer, and when the head of the monastery offered him a way to make the best use of his remaining time, he felt bound to accept the offer. So he and Gurdjieff spent several days together before he had to leave to begin his last days.

Gurdjieff recounts meeting several people apparently by accident. Two tell  how a person could  develop two bodies, besides the body each of us is born with, of very fine matter which increases consciousness, and their  strengths and limitations. This corresponds with what others have called the astral body. Most other teachers have said that everybody has one: Gurdjieff was practically unique in saying that the two “spiritual” bodies, which he equated more or less with spirit and soul, are only potential in humans, and must be consciously developed.

 One of these men  was an Italian who had become a missionary, then been abducted into slavery, from which he was eventually liberated. He had no desire to return to Italy since he had made contact with a monastery open to people of any religion who were sincerely seeking God. He says there were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, a Lamaist and a Shamanist, and Gurdjieff and his friends couldn’t tell which was which.

The Italian talked with them frequently, and one of Gurdjieff’s friends told him he ought to go back to Italy and preach to people there. The Italian replied that preaching is of limited use, like trying to fill a man with bread by wishing. He gave an example of two ministers who regularly visited the system of monasteries and spoke at each one. One was an excellent speaker, able to hold his listeners spellbound. The other was not. He didn’t speak well, and mumbled besides ( he hadn’t many teeth), but the messages given by the good speaker weren’t remembered long, while those by the bad speaker were. The Italian says this was because the good speaker spoke only mind to mind, while the other spoke Being to Being. Intellect is not enough. One must be developed in other areas as well to give messages that actually affect listeners deeper than the surface.

This was a major part of Gurdjieff’s message: Being. There is a chemical side to it, which I can’t claim to understand very well, but which has to do with transformation leading to higher consciousness. One of the key aspects, though, is choice.

He compared this process to making bread. One can put all the ingredients of bread together, but without heat, they will not transform into bread. The power of no, he said, is the heat which can lead to transformation. Such transformation can be accidental, but is best if guided by someone who knows the path, and correct the aspirant. An accidental transformation can lead to fanaticism, for instance.

In this book he doesn’t go very far into the things he discovered. Those are covered more in his first book, and in other books written by some of his students. In this book he mostly hints at some of the unusual knowledge he achieved.

But at the end of the book (minus an addendum about how he made money to support his mission) he and the friend he had met in Egypt meet for the last time many years later. Neither are young any longer, and the friend is much older than Gurdjieff. They decide to climb a mountain, taking the more difficult slope, which is nonetheless much easier than many mountains they had climbed during their travels. At the top, gazing at the surrounding landscape, the friend reminds Gurdjieff of the Italian monk, and says that experience had changed the friend’s outlook.

Prior to that, he said, he had only been concerned with egotism: pleasing himself and his children. The Italian monk had convinced him that there was something else, much more important, with which any more or less thinking man ought to be concerned.

The book ends with this not very specific admonition, leaving it to the readers to decide what that something might be. The effort is to evoke a sense more emotional than intellectual, but not sentimental. As great a tool as intellect can be, some things are more deeply perceived through emotion. What the author probably hoped was to stimulate readers to question and search for themselves. That will probably depend on each individual.

 

Science vs Religion

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Here in the West, generally Europe and the Americas, science is divided from religion, and the two are often antagonistic. I have never believed that to be necessary. Many would disagree.

Some feel the concept of evolution is diabolic. I can only ask why. Do some see it as making humans no different from animals? Are we so insecure that we can’t admit we are closely related to all life in this world, including the apes and monkeys which  seem closest to us?

The acceptance of the concept of evolution seems closely related to geocentrism: the idea that everything revolves around our world. Western science tells us, on the contrary, that our planet revolves around our sun, and that there are billions more suns like it in our galaxy alone, out of who knows how many other galaxies. Is this too much for our self-importance to tolerate? If we can’t feel special in this way, is there nothing else about which we can be confident?

Unless there’s some factor I’m missing, that seems to be the attitude of those who reject the findings of science, and turn to literal belief in the Bible. Why is science so unacceptable?

Some of the reason is probably historic. Christianity seized political power in the 4th century AD, and began persecuting its perceived enemies–for their own good, of course. It was “natural” for the Church to claim all knowledge. Jesus had said humility was one of the virtues. The Church no longer believed that.

Geocentrism was one of the first places science clashed with teachings of the Catholic church. High officials of the Church didn’t buy it, but didn’t react as violently as against witches and Jews.  But when a course for home-schooling teaches geocentrism as fact, 400 years after Galileo, I have to ask, is THIS what religion is about? I think religion is, or ought to be, about the REALLY important questions of how humans ought to behave and develop. Whether geocentrism is true or not is a peripheral question at best, and I think trivial.

There was a reaction among science-oriented people in the centuries following Galileo. Historians looked for natural causes for the miracles described in the Bible. Science-oriented people denied that anything in the Bible was historical. According to one source, the idea of ice ages was conjured up because scientific people didn’t want to admit there had been a world-wide flood, despite evidence that pointed in that direction.

But other stories from ancient times have proved true, despite the belief of scientists. Troy was found to have been an actual city. The Sumerians and Assyrians were also part of history that had been forgotten, until archaeologists uncovered some of their cities, and learned to read their writings. But ice ages remain the dogma, and the Great Flood is still considered a fantasy.

Western science has been very good at what it does, but there are other sciences, and our version has its own faults. One of the other versions is Chinese medicine, founded on an entirely different paradigm from ours, but one that also works. It might not be able to replace our form of medicine, but might well complement it.

Nor is the predominant form of medicine practiced in this country the only one that’s been practiced here. Homeopathy was as well-considered as our current form of medicine until about a century ago, when a determined campagin made it out to be a quack practice, whether that was true or not.

Jerry Garcia, guitarist of the Grateful Dead, marveled at how many different individual realities and beliefs flourish in the world, and yet somehow manage to mesh together. He deplored, however, the clause that insisted each belief was THE only true one. Why, he asked, was that necessary?

The obvious reason is because many humans have an innate desire for power. Years ago my cousin’s daughter began learning how to cook, as well as other skills, at about the age of seven. She decided this made her an adult. And what did being an adult mean? That she could tell the other kids what to do, including her older brother. Years later she is the mother of two children, and apparently a pretty good one. But I can’t forget the insight into the human pwer-drive she gave me. This drive, on a larger scale, seems to be the reason for dogma, and organized religion is not the only dogmatic entity.

Consider the case of Wilhelm Reich. His research was into sexuality (always a sensitive subject), and he took that reseach into a different direction than anyone else had. He eventually left that behind and began even stranger researches. One result of his work was his being sent to prison (where he died) and his writings being burned. This seems a strange thing to happen in the USA, which has always prided itself on freedom of speech. Perhaps stranger yet was that though he had pursued his researches scientifically, keeping detailed records, etc, no one attempted to replicate his experiments, in contrast to usual scientific practice.

Immanuel Velikovsky was another researcher pronounced heretic by mainstream science. One of his main contentions was that the solar system had been unstable in the past, and that both Venus and Mars had come very close to this planet, causing catastrophes, including the plagues of Egypt, as told in the Bible. Whether or not this was true, he managed to make some very accurate predictions that I suggest were not obvious.

One was that Venus was a very hot planet, which has been confirmed. Another was that Venus was once a comet (according to ancient accounts), and had a tail. Although the tail is no longer visible, this too has been confirmed. Yet another was that Jupiter emitted radio waves. That’s been confirmed too.

Although Velikovsky’s first book about this, Worlds in
Collision
, became a best-seller, mainstream science reacted viscerally against his claims. By threatening boycott they forced his publisher to transfer his work to a different publisher, and Carl Sagan made it his business to denounce Velikovsky’s theories. If there was nothing to his ideas, why make such a fuss over them? And how did he manage to make accurate predictions of the sort he did?

One possible reason for mainstream science’s reaction is that it had become a sort of secular religion, which militated against the open-mindedness science is supposed to ideally have. One would like to believe in that open-mindedness, but remembering my cousin’s daughter, I am skeptical about the purity of at least some scientific intentions.

There are also questions science has yet to answer. There are a great many mysteries associated with ancient Egypt, but let’s ask just one: how was the Great Pyramid built?

Egyptology (which apparently is not a very hard science) has said that the rock used in its construction was cut with copper tools, and the stones transported and set with human muscle power. The individual stones of most of the structure were quite heavy, maybe a ton or two apiece. The really hard part to fathom is the roof of the so-called King’s Chamber, covered with slabs of about 70 tons apiece. How were these cut, how were they lifted, how were they transported, and how were they placed? Science has yet to give us a believable scenario for these things.

To add to the difficulty of the pyramid, is the fact that it was built with extreme precision. Christopher Dunn, a machinist for 30 years, studied the Great Pyramid inside and out very closely, and was astounded. The rectangular structure in the King’s Chamber he discovered had absolutely precise angles, inside and out. The outer bases of the pyramid weren’t precisely of the same length, but the error was extremely small. How did the ancient Egyptians manage to build on such a huge scale (to begin with) and to build so precisely at the same time? The only reasonable conclusion is that they had both knowledge and technology of which we have very little idea. Dunn added that NOBODY builds with such precision without a very good reason. So far that reason is speculative. Mainstream science hasn’t given us an answer.

The other scientific bugaboo to many Christians is evolution. The only reason immediately occurring to me as to why this is hard to accept is that it doesn’t differentiate us from other forms of life on this planet. That being said, does that make a materialistic concept more likely to have produced the world we see about us than a world created by a Divine Being?

In 1967 Louis Leakey was asked about the “missing link”. He replied that there are HUNDREDS of missing links. Darwin’s conception is that evolution is proceeding (very slowly) at all times. If that’s the case, I think we should have seen during the 5,000 years or so that humans have been writing about history, the evolution of at least one species from another. More tellingly, despite the many fossils we have, we see very few of intermediate forms developing from one species into another. We DO see various forms of life differentiating into different breeds within a species, but not into entirely different species.

The problem with accepting Darwin’s theory that he himself saw was that of flowering plants. Nonflowering plants existed for a very long time, and reproduced asexually. The mechanism of mutation is not enough to explain how flowers and sexual reproduction began. Flowers are dependent on bees and perhaps other means to reproduce. Without an outside entity to fertilize another plant, how could flowers reproduce? As flowers depend on bees, so bees depend on flowers. One or the other could have occurred accidentally, I suppose, but could both occur accidentally at once? That stretches the law of probability a bit too far.

In the second half of the 19th century a young man named George Gurdjieff was growing up in what is now northeastern Turkey. He was an intelligent boy, and his father arranged for him to drop out of school and be tutored by local people with a great deal of knowledge. He was very interested in Western science, but came to believe that it gave an incomplete picture of the world.

While growing up he met a variety of different people with different customs and religious beliefs. He also witnessed “supernatural” events, as he tells us in his semiautobiographical book, Meetings With Remarkable Men. One was someone praying for rain, and rain coming. Another was a faith healing. Still another was a young woman healed by a woman who had been given the method in a dream.

Perhaps even more puzzling was when he saw a young Yezidi boy crying within a circle drawn on the ground around him, unable to step outside it until the lines on the ground were brushed away. Yezidis are a religious group in the Middle East said to believe that the world was created by Satan, but who have a reputation for being very moral nonetheless.

Gurdjieff was unable to find any explanation for any of these occurrences in Western science, which explicitly excludes the “supernatural” from its researches. If it regarded the supernatural as being real, but inaccessible to scientific methods, that would be one thing. Instead, it simply denies there is any reality to the supernatural at all. Of course this is an area in which people can easily be mistaken, through lack of knowledge, but enough examples of “miracles” have been attested to that it seems an area worth investigating. So Gurdjieff believed, and set out on travels to learn what he called “real knowledge”.

Whatever the real knowledge that he sought was, we have the testimony of many people who knew, or at least met him, that he was something entirely beyond their previous experience. He said that most humans exist at a low level, but that higher levels are possible, and the testimony is that he exemplified that possibility.

One writer, who met him, and observed him teaching, said that it’s unusual to meet anyone who embodies an archetype. Gurdjieff, he said, embodied two: The Magus and the Trickster. Such an example of Being is probably unquantifiable by science. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

And Being can be perceptible to us to the extent that we’ve achieved something of it for ourselves. Music, for instance, is a very mysterious art. I don’t think it’s very obvious why it should mean anything to us (musicians and scientists may disagree), nor do I see it as obvious why we experience some music as trivial, and some as profound. There’s a good deal of disagreement about that; few people like every genre of music, and many consider some genres inferior to others.

But there are areas of agreement too. As a boy I became familiar with Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies, and enjoyed them. I probably first heard his Ninth symphony when I was just entering my teenage years, and immediately perceived that it was much greater and more profound than the earlier two. That’s something most people interested in classical music will agree with. Some say his last string quartets are even greater than the Ninth symphony. So far, I’ve been unable to hear that, which may say something about my own lack of Being.

There are areas of experience that few of us are able to define in great detail, though we may be able to experience them. Western science is oriented toward measuring and constructing theories about the material world, and some scientists go so far as to deny there is anything to the world that is not material.

Actually, George Gurdjieff agreed that everything in the cosmos is material, but added that some materials are so fine that Western science has yet to discover them. I think this means that there is a great deal more to the cosmos, to life and to reality than any of our usual sources of knowledge are aware, let alone able to express. To enter into conflict over these areas we can’t even define clearly is a very prevalent form of stupidity, one willing in its extreme to destroy the world rather than admit it might be wrong.

Surely we can learn to do better than that.