The other day NPR interviewed someone who talked about a report that pharmaceutical companies don’t like. It says that treating longterm pain with OxyContin and Vicodin is harmful. The companies don’t like this because those drugs are big money makers for them. They make some money when people have hip or knee replacements, but the really big money is in longterm pain control, especially since those drugs are difficult to quit.
This recalls what William S. Burroughs, a narcotics addict himself, said about such drugs: they create the ideal customer, who will crawl through a sewer to buy.
This is a literal example of what Burroughs said. There are other less literal examples which nonetheless qualify as unethical.
One of these is predatory lending. Years ago I visited Mississippi to see the blues museum, and spent one night in Vicksburg. I saw rent to own stores EVERYWHERE, an indication that this was a poor town, and that poor people were paying inflated rates to get TVs and other things they wanted. Since that time the industry has evolved. There are now payday loans with inflated interest rates that insure anything you borrow from them will keep you in debt probably for the rest of your life. There are also car title loans which almost infallibly remove your car from your possession. This kind of business paraphrases Vince Lombardi’s famous quote: Profit isn’t the most important thing, it’s the ONLY thing.
Another example is college loan debt. This used to be a manufacturing country, where people could find work in factories and other industries where they could make enough money to live the middle class lifestyle without needing higher education. That’s no longer true.
College used to be for only the small minority that could afford it. It’s becoming that again, but people who provide the loans don’t want to admit that. They also don’t want to tell students candidly that certain majors won’t pay for themselves, and that even those which do may keep students in debt for a lifetime to repay.
There are also people who would do better to become plumbers, carpenters, or mechanics than trying to go to college. There’s not a lot of support for that either. The abyss between the wealthy and the poor grows daily, and the supposed cure for that is contributing to it instead. Profit is the only thing here too. This is such a good idea that many are trying to get rid of public schools so private “charter” schools can drain off all the profit. Maybe all charter schools aren’t predatory, but enough seem to be to call the whole idea into question.
For profit prison is yet another bad idea. What does it take to make prison profitable? Keeping the beds full, which means making sure that people keep getting arrested for things that aren’t that serious. It also means giving them substandard housing, food, and medical care, as well as contracting them out to large corporations and paying them almost nothing for it. This is how blacks, Latin Americans, and maybe especially illegal immigrants (including children) can provide profit to people who care nothing about them. A sort of revival of slavery.
Pollution is another example. Industries are supposed to be regulated to prevent it, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Republicans (at least some of them) want to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, or failing that, prevent it from doing its job. The most recent example is the switch of water supplies in Flint, Michigan, to water that leached lead from the pipes and caused brain damage to goodness knows how many children. I’m told the EPA was at fault in that case. I also hear that water supplied Navajo people in the southwest is even worse. Industries like polluting because it’s a convenient way to get rid of wastes. Who knows how many other water sources around the country are ticking time bombs which will damage if not kill American citizens?
Which brings us to fracking.
Fracking not only uses immense amounts of water, but puts chemicals in the water that the frackers don’t seem to want to tell the American public about. Granted, fracking has made gasoline, among other things, cheaper, and I benefit from that just like a lot of people. But in the longer run, I doubt that very many of us do benefit.
The water is pumped under pressure to break geologic structures that keep petroleum from being pumped to the surface. We don’t know exactly what damage may be done from destroying these structures, but what seems to be even worse is pumping the waste back underground. According to the New Yorker, this practice is what causes the earthquakes that have been associated with fracking for some time. What I wonder is where exactly that waste goes. Isn’t it inevitable that a good deal of it will end up in water sources that we hope to drink from? We were going to run short of potable water anyway in some regions of this country, particularly the southwest. Now what water they have may turn out to be polluted and unusable.
Republicans in particular (and probably not just them) want to deregulate a lot of industries. Why should we allow that?
I understand that there are probably a lot of regulations either unnecessary or which could be rewritten to be more efficient, but simply getting rid of regulations scares me. There are too many examples of industries failing to regulate themselves. Many of them advocate only their own interests, which are not mine. And since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision enshrines free speech for the rich, no one with any profits at stake will be willing to consider my interests. That’s because I can’t afford to pay to have them considered.
In a free country, where do your freedoms stop, and mine begin? For whom is the market free? How many people who own land can afford to keep frackers from buying the mineral rights? Not property owners who are poor. Farmers who don’t run factory farms have high costs, and their profits are far from guaranteed. A lot of them may find it more profitable to sell their mineral rights than farm.
People may believe that pollution does no harm, since it’s convenient to believe that. They may also believe that profit is always good, no matter how it’s arrived at, and no matter who gets it. That’s also convenient to believe.
There may well be regulations that are perverse, but regulation is necessary if we are to continue to function as a society. My suspicion is that a lot of powerful people no longer care, and only want to make as much profit as they can while civilization lasts, and that they don’t believe it will last much longer. That’s an interesting perspective from which to see a lot of profit making enterprises.
I would prefer not to believe that capitalism is inherently destructive not only of the powerless, but of itself. I don’t know if there’s a better system, but I have to consider this one very questionable, at least until such time as it’s willing to reform itself.


Gurdjieff Remembered


George Gurdjieff was a very impressive man. Dissatisfied with the explanation of the world he received, he traveled for some twenty years through Africa and Asia to discover real knowledge and develop his own view of things. After those years of spiritual achievement he became a teacher, setting up in Moscow and St. Petersburgh.
With the Russian revolution he traveled to the Caucasus, near where he’d grown up, followed by some of his students. They spent the civil war there, after which, as Russia was reclaiming all the parts of its empire, he, his family, and students traveled west; first to Istanbul, then to Europe, where he set up his headquarters (calling it the Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man) in Fontainebleu outside Paris.
Subsequently he wrote four books about what he’d discovered and his view of how the universe and human beings functioned. Many others also wrote books about him and his system of philosophy and teaching.
Fritz Peters wrote two books about him which were different from the others because Peters was a young teenager when he came to live at the Prieure (the estate where the Institute was headquartered, and where Gurdjieff, his family, and his students all lived), and stayed there four years, leaving when he was fifteen. Though he learned things there, he was never a formal student in the way the adults were. He worked on the estate, as did everyone else, eventually becoming an assistant to Gurdjieff, cleaning his rooms, among other things.
Thus, his books are more about his interactions with Gurdjieff, and Gurdjieff as a person than are the others written about him. The first, Boyhood with Gurdjieff, tells about his time at the Prieure, and is full of incident. The second, Gurdjieff Remembered, relates his interactions with Gurdjieff during the sixteen years after he left the Prieure. There are fewer incidents, and more ruminations about Peters’ impression of the man.
As an extremely powerful person, Gurdjieff collected extreme reactions. Some loved and idolized him, others hated him. Both reactions were exaggerations, and Peters found the latter unjust.
Katherine Mansfield was a famous writer who spent the last two or three months of her life at the Prieure, soon after Gurdjieff and his students had arrived and begun to put it in order. She was in the terminal stage of tuberculosis, had heard of Gurdjieff, wanted to spend time with him, and stay there. Gurdjieff allowed her to do so, giving her comfortable lodgings, healthy food and human contacts, and helping her reconcile herself to death. Letters she wrote to her husband, John Middleton Murry, indicate that she valued what she found there. Gurdjieff didn’t attempt to heal her, or to take heroic measures to prolong her life. Some outsiders said he had “killed” her. Peters wasn’t there when she was, but didn’t see it that way at all.
He compared that negative reaction to a couple who had stayed at the Prieure while he was there. The husband was partially paralyzed, and the wife spent much of the time pushing him in a wheelchair around the grounds. Gurdjieff had told them to begin with that he couldn’t cure the husband of his paralysis, and it was on those terms that he allowed them to stay. Peters had liked them.
Some years later, after he’d returned to America, Peters ran into them, and found that they now HATED Gurdjieff because he hadn’t cured the husband. He tried reminding them that that had never been part of the deal, but the couple couldn’t hear him.
Gurdjieff, being a powerful man, collected such injustices. A formal student of his, who later wrote a great deal about him, said that Gurdjieff experimented with people to find the best way to teach, and HOPED that they could benefit from what he taught them, but could guarantee nothing. Ultimately, they had to solve their personal problems themselves.
Gurdjieff was also not sentimental. He said that the vast majority of people would accomplish nothing but becoming fertilizer, adding that this was not a bad thing to be. Humans have far more potential than most realize, but few are willing or able to make the effort to really accomplish, especially in the area in which Gurdjieff taught.
This was the “spiritual” (which may not be the best description) area. He said that humans were generally unbalanced and “asleep”, and his teaching was aimed at helping students find balance and evolve to be what people potentially can and ought to be.
His teaching at the Prieure was interrupted by a very serious auto accident which almost killed him. As he slowly recuperated he realized that no one he had taught would be able to pass his teaching on, and decided to write books to present his system of thought and practice at least in theory. This happened shortly after Peters arrived there.
After four years Peters returned to America, didn’t find a wonderful reception from his mother and the man she had married since he’d been in France, but managed to find work and support himself. Gurdjieff visited him in America, and he traveled with Gurdjieff from New York to Chicago on a train, which he describes as nightmarish. Gurdjieff demanded service and attention, and constantly complained that Peters wasn’t treating him with the respect he deserved. Once they got to Chicago, he left Gurdjieff with his followers (who were buying all the negative things Gurdjieff was selling them about Peters), and left for New York.
After several months, he realized that he no longer worshiped Gurdjieff as a hero, but still loved and respected him, probably exactly the reaction Gurdjieff had aimed at by treating him that way. He met Gurdjieff several more times in America, but didn’t serve him as a companion again.
When World War II started he lost touch with Gurdjieff, who stayed in Paris. Peters was drafted into the army (and didn’t try to evade it, feeling he should experience the war), got a relatively safe job behind the lines, but was powerfully affected by the war, which he found sickening.
What was worse than seeing the effects of war from a distance was his experience of being spared death when others around him died, not just once, but over and over again. This put him into a state he describes as being even worse than depression. He had heard that Gurdjieff was living in Paris, and (since the Allies had recaptured it from the Germans) managed to get a leave to go find him. He had difficulty doing so, but managed it fairly quickly.
Gurdjieff didn’t at first recognize him, but when he did, immediately took him into his apartment, and gave him a bed on which to lie down. But Peters was too restless, and returned to the kitchen. He describes what happened next as there seeming to be a brilliant blue energy coming from Gurdjieff, and he began feeling better and better, while Gurdjieff turned grey. Gurdjieff excused himself, and came back fifteen minutes later, apparently restored. Peters says in the following days he saw Gurdjieff take such short “rests” several times. Peters felt that Gurdjieff had used his own energy to restore him, and that it had taken a lot out of him, but that Gurdjieff knew how to restore himself.
Peters spent much of the next few days alone, as Gurdjieff was often occupied with his students. But they did spend time together and have conversation.
One conversation was about the series of older people Peters saw visiting who were obviously not students. He asked Gurdjieff who they were, and why he was spending time on them.
Gurdjieff replied that they were people who had no families and no one else to turn to. During the Nazi occupation they had had no way to find food or anything else they needed. Gurdjieff had not been a partisan of either side, since each had its ideals and killed great numbers of the others. He had made deals with soldiers and police, and had obtained what he needed for himself, his brother’s family, probably his students, and these older people. He compared taking care of them to being like an old woman without much money who feeds birds every day in the park, because she loves birds. But, he said, he was more honest than that woman, because he admitted that he enjoyed doing it. And added that he was able to prepare them to die, which was something worth doing.
Peters also witnessed an old woman bringing Gurdjieff a painting, which he bought from her, and asked Peters to hang it on the wall. Someone had told Gurdjieff he had the largest collection of bad art in Paris. Gurdjieff told Peters that people could learn from the woman: one ought not to receive money from people without giving them something. This led to another conversation.
Gurdjieff had initially tried to support his work himself, by working all day at the Prieure and all night in Paris, or vice versa. His physical health wasn’t good to begin with (he had previously had three serious bullet wounds, and a number of diseases contracted during his travels which had become chronic conditions), so he became run down. Early in 1924 he had taken a number of his students to America, where they had performed oriental dances and he had solicited money from those interested. He had gotten enough to pay his debts, and planned to return to America later in the year. Then he had the auto accident which changed his course profoundly.
He commented to Peters that both rich and poor people were mainly concerned with money. Rich people despise poor people for not having any money, while the poor despise the rich for having so much more than they. Rich people, he told Peters, on giving him money felt he owed them something. Poor people wanted him to teach them how to make money. He could teach the possessor of either attitude very little, and few people seemed able to understand why this was a problem.
He told Peters about a wealthy woman who said that his teaching was important to her, and felt her money insulated her from life. Gurdjieff told her that she could give her money to him, knowing that he would make good use of it, and that learning to live with others under these new conditions would be valuable for her. She refused to give him her money, which proved, he said, that his teaching really wasn’t important to her. Only her money was.
Gurdjieff said goodbye to Peters not long after that. He died four years later. Peters remembered him not only as kind, vital, and energetic, but maybe above all, humorous. He had difficulties, but enjoyed life. Who, asks Peters, could fail to enjoy a man who could buy 200 bicycles for all the residents of the Prieure. Who else would even THINK of such a thing?
Peters concludes the book with a lengthy quote from P.D. Ouspensky, Gurdjieff’s most famous student, who wrote how love is the motive power for animals as much as for humans. Birds sing much more than necessary to attract mates. They build nests long before eggs are to be laid. Love is the underlying motive for life, and we rarely are aware of it.
Peters, like others, characterizes Ouspensky as being overly intellectual, and that Gurdjieff had told him that “knowing”, such as Ouspensky had shown in his quote, was a passing thing. Understanding lasts much longer.
And Gurdjieff understood, specifically about human beings and the logic that underlies them. Peters compares the quality of his awareness to that of a highly trained psychologist one sometimes meets who has a bit of such awareness. Gurdjieff, he says, had a tremendous amount of it.
Katherine Mansfield, in her letters to her husband, had mentioned how Gurdjieff always gave one something at precisely the right time. Peters agrees with this, and attributes it to love, saying that Gurdjieff’s love was unlike anything most humans experience: it was unrestrained, though that is probably not a good word for it.
His love was such that he felt COMPELLED to teach, which seems strange for someone who had achieved freedom. Peters tells how Gurdjieff told him he should consider himself shit, as well as everyone else he knew, and that if he then found something good in others or himself, this would be a cause for celebration. Peters asked him why he taught then, since so few would be able to learn from him. Gurdjieff replied that there was always a CHANCE that someone could learn something.



Addiction is complex, and isn’t just about illegal drugs, as problematic as that issue is. It’s not just a metaphor, but literally encompasses a great deal of human behavior.
Illegal drug use has spread and become more persistent. Heroin used to be an urban problem. It’s part of the rural landscape now too.
The War on Drugs has been going on for more than forty years, and we’re losing. One big reason for that is that illegal drugs intersect with something very American: capitalism. There’s an immense demand for illegal drugs, and as long as that’s true there will be people to supply them. Illegal drugs are among the most valuable substances there are, and the behavior around the others is comparable.
This was true of alcohol during Prohibition. One might think lawmakers might have learned from that, but maybe they learned the wrong lesson. A business that profitable probably supports legislators, as well as others. Prohibition only lasted long enough to give us organized crime. The War on Drugs has given us organized crime on steroids.
But illegal drugs are only a small part of addiction. Alcohol is legal again, tobacco always has been, but both are very destructive. Alcohol can destroy families as thoroughly as drugs (it may or may not take longer), and tobacco is good for destroying health.
But these are still only part of the story. Sugar and salt are the two substances that sell most processed foods, even though we know too much of them is bad for us.
I used to drink like an alcoholic, but had increasing trouble tolerating it. I haven’t taken a drink for at least a couple of years, but it took a very long time to quit entirely.
It’s been almost a year since I last smoked. I don’t feel the desire too strongly, but know that if I started again I probably wouldn’t stop. I’ve smoked most of my life.
I like sugar in particular about as much as anyone, though I also like salt. But those aren’t my only addictive behaviors.
I’ve read more than most people all my life, which takes us out of the realm of substance abuse as ordinarily understood. In this sort of category are TV, movies, computers, and video games. I’ve probably been less addictive about TV and movies than most, and I’ve hardly played video games at all. Computers are another matter.
Computers are an immense resource in the sense of available knowledge, as well as a great way for merchants to advertise and sell. I’d be willing to guess a major part of computer use is to interact with others, though. That was the initial attraction for me, as it seemed easier than trying to meet people in bars, for instance. That can be positive. but trolling is a familiar word now.
In any case, other forms of behavior can also be addictive. Sex is probably as addictive as anything else people do, since it’s intensely pleasurable, as well as being a fundamental drive.
Nor does it stop there. Few of us are entirely authentic. We identify with whatever we say “I” to, and identification is a form of “sleep”, which is a way of not being conscious, and addiction is a way to avoid consciousness, because consciousness can be painful.
How did narcotics come to be abused? They kill pain, and not just physical pain. There are plenty of people with chronic physical pain, but arguably even more with chronic emotional pain. Illegal drugs will numb both. So will legal drugs, like alcohol and tobacco, to say nothing of tranquilizers. You can add coffee, sugar, and chocolate to that list too. And money.
In this country, and much of the rest of the world, we are convinced that buying things will make us happy. There’s evidence to suggest there are limits to this happiness, but few of us are willing to give up all we own, as Jesus recommended. We make the people who sell things very happy, and many of them happily cut corners to make themselves even happier.
A lot of what is sold can be called convenience. Central heating, cars, computers, and cellphones are all convenient. We’d rather not have to do the intense physical work our ancestors did even a hundred years ago when technology had already begun to make a real impact on our lives. Nor do we care that the convenient products tend not to be biodegradable, or to pollute in other ways. Our desire to be less conscious masks the natural world for us, and how our behavior harms it, and ultimately ourselves. Ideology about individuality has as much to do with the right to pollute and mistreat one’s employees as anything else, it seems.
It seems obvious that the way to be happy is to do pleasurable things, but the great religions contradict that picture. Jesus talked about it being more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than pass through the eye of a needle (the eye of the needle was a very narrow gate into Jerusalem, which a camel could enter only if its baggage was removed). Capitalism seems largely to be about selling us pleasures, if not entirely. It does pretty much reduce the world to buying and selling, and strongly implies that these are the means to happiness.
William S. Burroughs observed of his experience with narcotics that the perfect customer was an addict “who will crawl through a sewer to buy”. Look at advertising anywhere and ask yourself how much of it is to sell anything people really NEED. In very many cases, perhaps most, it’s trying to stimulate a desire to be satisfied by buying something, and an awful lot of the time it’s not something really NEEDED.
Anytime we say “I” to any of our desires, whether it’s to buy something, or to behave in a certain way, that can be called identification. Or attachment. Either can be seen as a form of addiction. And addiction is essentially lack of balance.
George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher of the last century, said that non-desires should predominate over desires. Another way to say that is that we should discipline ourselves and refuse to indulge. How many of us actually do that, no matter what we tell ourselves?
It is the constant temptation of manufacturers and merchandisers to amass more profits than they really need by selling products to people THEY really don’t need. What is the consequence?
On the production side, the person has more wealth and possessions than they know what to do with, which makes little sense on an individual level, since they know (but may not believe) they’re going to die, and can’t take their money or possessions with them. If they have family or friends to leave them to it makes slightly more sense, but it’s questionable how much good the money does their descendants. It keeps them out of poverty, but suppose all that is taken away. Like any other addiction, once it’s withdrawn, the former possessor may go into withdrawal. But keeping the bequest may lead to arrogance. Rich children sometimes are able to earn their own money–especially if their inheritances give them a great advantage–and sometimes not. But they tend to see themselves as better than others, and others do too. I doubt that’s good for them.
For those of us not wealthy, are the consequences much better? If we amass money and possessions that leave us below the wealthy level, are we better off than the really rich? We still can’t take our possessions with us. Our children need to learn how to make their own livings too, and without the advantage wealthy children have.
Perhaps the worst thing is living in the money universe and believing it’s all there is. Actually, we live in worlds within worlds. The natural world, which is what keeps us alive, is seen as a bank we can withdraw from without depositing. It’s also seen as a place we can dump our trash without consequence. That’s a dangerous way for us to live.
Addiction also makes us self-centered, no matter the substance, behavior, or anything else. Addiction makes us desperate too, willing to do almost anything to anybody for our own satisfaction. We as a nation are addicted to oil to power our buildings and vehicles, which has led us into destructive behavior in the Middle East, not least to ourselves.
It’s not like we have no idea about this. The ostensible reason for the War on Drugs, as well as Prohibition, was to protect people from addiction. It was never the real, or at least only reason, though. It was used to feed other addictions, not only to money, but to power as well.
Power may be the worst of the addictions. It promises us the ability to change the world. Our motives may be good or not so good, but if we’re drawn to power, we may well be corruptible.
Of course power is a reality in human life. Some individuals and classes will be inevitably more powerful than others. Some will also be more responsible with power than others. Plato thought in an ideal society those who were to be trusted with power should not be allowed other pleasures, like sex and family. They should also not DESIRE power. Is this humanly possible? Not to a very large extent.
We see in our own country that power has corrupted our political and economic leaders to greater or lesser extent. The power of being able to possess has also corrupted the rest of us. Few of us want to have less. We almost always want to have more, and given how many of us there are in the world, this is not sustainable. That’s not hard to see, but we prefer not to see it.
Suppose we have a catastrophe that destroys our capacity to produce electric power or fuel our buildings and vehicles. How will we survive? It would be nice to dismiss that as impossible, but it isn’t. If it happens, a great many people will not only struggle to survive (quite possibly in not very nice ways), but will enter more than one kind of withdrawal.
That’s the kind of change we live in fear of, and which explains at least some of the hateful rhetoric and actions many of us indulge in. We fear to lose what we have, with which we (more often than not) have an addictive relationship. Look at drug and alcohol addicts who have quit. Often they simply exchange one addictive habit for another: coffee for alcohol, for instance. Reality is still too fearsome to experience “naked”. What will happen when we lose things that seem even more necessary than drugs, with which we also have an addictive relationship?
I’m not better in this area than most people. I too want to live comfortably. I hope not to see social collapse in this country, or anywhere else. We’ve already seen it in Asia and Africa, and it’s not pretty. It would be nice to believe it can’t happen here, but that would be stupid. And unless we begin to be willing to change our behavior in very fundamental ways, it’s almost inevitable.