Sexuality Good and Bad

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One of my Facebook friends posted an article about a gay couple who have been accused of molesting several of the boys they adopted. The article is written pretty objectively. It didn’t assume the allegations were true. Some would write it as exemplifying how evil homosexuals are, and this particular friend frequently posts messages about that. I suspect that was his intention this time too. I frequently disagree with him. It would be one thing if heterosexuals automatically behaved better than homosexuals. They do not.

My wife tells me of a girl she knew when they were both in their early teens. The girl told her she and her father were having sex, and showed her the building where this was going on. My wife told me about a day when they were taking a walk and encountered my wife’s brother and some of his friends. One of his friends called the girl away to have sex with her. She went and came back. Another called her, and she went and came back. Then another.

I don’t know, but suspect that the girl had a sad life. It sounds very much as if she didn’t feel she could say no to sex, whether she wanted it herself or not. Because of heterosexuals.

Perhaps we should warn people about the heterosexual agenda, which seems to be about molesting children.

The sentence above sounds counter-intuitive. It’s also at least an exaggeration. Many heterosexuals  are perfectly decent people, contrary to negative stereotypes about them. A lot of people have trouble believing the same is true of most minorities. Almost all of us like scapegoats to blame things on.

It’s easy to assume that gay men like to molest children. Actually, a significant number of pedophiles have sexual relationships with adult women too, and don’t confine their molestation to one gender. Heterosexuals are probably less likely to be used to being used as scapegoats than minorities are. They don’t like it any better than minorities do either, often claiming to be victims themselves, of reverse racism or anti-Christian bias, for instance. They seem not to imagine that anyone else might resent being blamed for bad or even criminal behavior.

Sexuality is, for better or worse, one of the main sources of human motivation, which means that power comes into the equation. If a person can, through being larger and physically stronger than a woman, force her to have sex with him, there are always men who will be tempted to do just that. The same is true in same-sex relationships, especially if men are involved. Testosterone can encourage men to be over-aggressive.

What’s the lesson here? If you’re powerful, you can punish someone for not having sex with you. You can also punish people for having sex in ways or with people you disapprove of.

The American South has long been notorious for racism, and disapproval of mixing the races. It took me a long time to realize that this, and the lynching that took place during segregation (we seem to have other forms of that now), were because white slave owners used black women sexually, and were afraid black men would return the favor. I really should have realized that sooner. As a favorite writer commented, no one erects a taboo against something that isn’t tempting.

A modern example of this was Strom Thurmond, a very conservative and racist member of Congress for a long time. It was reported that one of his colleagues said that he really believed the stuff about miscegnation. Imagine popular surprise then when it came out after his death that he had an illegitimate daughter with a black woman. That suggests he hated himself as well as others.

Reaction formation is the term for a type of behavior which reduces anxiety by asserting the opposite of one’s original feeling. Mr. Thurmond may well have felt humiliated by having succumbed to temptation. According to a news story, he gave his daughter money but never, when she and her mother visited him, called her mother by her name or acknowledged her as his daughter. Her mother had been a servant in his family home suggesting that Thurmond had felt entitled to have sex with her.

There’s some plasticity in human sexuality. That’s been noted in a number of circumstances. One was English public (private) schools, where upper class adolescent boys were segregated from women. Homosexuality became prevalent enough in that class that the word for it in Yiddish meant literally “the English disease”.

Another area was among sailors, especially before technology made voyages much shorter. Sailing between continents took months. Whaling expeditions could last two or three years. Pirates in the heyday of piracy in the Caribbean rarely had access to women. Women were not included in more legitimate voyages either.

A third area is prison. An acquaintance went to prison for a year or two for marijuana, and someone who had been in prison himself advised him to find a protector to have a sexual relationship with. The friend had the advantage of being gay, he did find a friend, and his stay in prison wasn’t too unpleasant.

But that’s not necessarily how it is. In a movie based on a Stephen King novel a prisoner is subjected to rape numerous times, though he manages eventually to get revenge on everyone who misuses him. Apparently, that kind of thing happens too.

What are we to make of people condemning homosexuality? Probably some sincerely believe it’s wrong, often because it’s condemned in the Bible, not imagining that people might engage in such acts because that’s their orientation, or that they might actually love each other. Maybe those condemning simply have never experienced that kind of desire. But if they’re vehement about it, we might suspect something else is going on.

The Bible condemns eating pork and shellfish, and wearing clothes made of two different fabrics. I’ve heard pork condemned, by a Muslim friend, but never shellfish or clothes of more than one fabric. That suggests cherry-picking.

Of course sexuality is one of the most intimate and  pleasurable things we can experience, so the experience can also be corrupted, or condemned for corruption even if unfairly. It’s notable that ancient Greco-Roman culture was quite tolerant of sexuality in general, and perhaps homosexuality in particular. Alexander the Great was certainly bisexual, Julius Caesar had that reputation, Plato seems to have had little interest in women, etc. Why exactly did Jewish and Christian culture condemn homosexuality?

It seems that an anti-sexual movement began about the same time as Christianity (whether Christianity was responsible for it or not) which influenced the new religion. Camille Paglia suggested, in Sexual Personae, that it may have been a reaction to Roman emperors like Nero, who behaved pretty outrageously in homosexual ways, but by no means only in those ways. In the case of Judaism, it’s been suggested that the ancient tradition reacted against some of the rites of the Great Mother religions, which featured homosexual behavior.

For many of us, the behavior seems strange, because unfamiliar. That in itself causes us to fear, but the word itself is negatively highly charged too. I noticed this when I found out my favorite high school teacher was gay, at a time when I was pretty unclear about sexuality in general. My assumption at the time was that most people’s sexuality is what it is. I didn’t feel much choice about MY orientation, so I thought it reasonable to assume most others didn’t either. Obviously, that’s not entirely true, but I don’t think it’s entirely untrue either.

When I used to listen to right-wing radio shows I used to hear the hosts say that homosexuality was a choice. I always wanted to ask them if they’d been tempted. G. Gordon Liddy I recall saying (in what sounded like a tone of wonder) that he had never indulged in homosexual acts while in prison. I never got the opportunity to ask him if he ever wanted to, but I wish I had. Would he have admitted to the temptation, or would he have denied it? I wonder.

A recent post on Facebook told of a woman who, some thirty years ago, decided to take care of people (usually gay men) dying of AIDS at a time when little was known about the disease and little research was being done on it. Many if not most of them had been abandoned by their parents, though often not by their lovers. She said she was deeply touched by the love shown by their partners.

That raises the question of just what constitutes marriage. Is marriage something that has been approved by the community, even though the two people involved no longer care about each other (or may never have)? Or does it have to do with the quality of feeling each person has for the other? I think it’s pretty clearly understood by most that relationships are never unchanging unless they have died. As long as they live, they change. Thus, the quality of heterosexual relationships can be inferior to homosexual ones. It would be more convenient for many if heterosexuality was equivalent to virtue. Unfortunately for we heterosexuals, it is not.

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Views of Satan and His Role

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Particularly interesting in William Patrick Patterson’s Eating the I is his interpretation of Satan.

The Fourth Way, which George Gurdjieff had brought to the West, was the program Patterson entered, and one of Gurdjieff’s peculiatrities was not emphasizing evil, as many religions teachers do. He said that humans were almost all asleep, and thus were not responsible for the whatever wrongs they committed. He also said that evil was a relative concept: for someone with a real aim, such as waking up from the hypnotic “sleep” which is our usual condition, evil would be anything that prevented him from waking up, while good would be anything that helped him. A much different definition than usual.

Patterson talks about studying the New Testament and becoming fascinated with the idea of Satan. He traced Satan back into the Old Testament, beginning with Genesis, and continuing through Job and the rest. Satan is often treated as a personality, but also as generic. A satan is one who obstructs, persecutes, or perhaps tests. Elaine Pagels think this term came first, and the personification after. Patterson thinks the opposite.

But he points out that the presence of Satan in the New Testament, testing Jesus, makes the story about good and evil, not just about people being asleep. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is a pretty clear reference to sleep, and Gurdjieff also pointed out that Jesus frequently talked about sleep during his ministry, but people seem seldom to notice this.

The myth of  Lucifer is that he was  already conscious (and considered by some to be Jesus’s older brother) when God ordered him to worship Man,  but refused to do so out of pride and lack of faith, and “fell”, because the vibrations composing him became lower, and he could no longer retain his highest level of consciousness. He remained fallen until he tempted Eve, when he became an obstructor and persecutor, and consciously evil. At least that’s the Christian version.

Gurdjieff, in one of his own books, told of a time when his reflection on the role of Satan gave him a reminding factor that enabled him to stay awake in his sense, free of the hypnotic power affecting most of us.

He thought of how Satan had been God’s favorite son (older than Jesus, according to old tradition), and how he had been punished for the sin of pride. But pride, Gurdjieff reflected, is common to young and immature beings, so his punishment seemed excessive.

Then he thought of what God’s motive for punishing Satan might have been: to send away from himself the being he loved most, so that he would miss him always. It’s an unusual thought that God, though immeasurably greater, should so resemble Man as to need a reminding factor to help him fight sleep.

Another story Gurdjieff told sheds light on the situation. There was once a magician with many sheep, but these sheep would run away, fall into gullies, or get eaten by wolves. Rather than hire shepherds or build fences, he decided to hypnotize his sheep. He told them that he loved them, that nothing bad would happen to them, at least not soon, and that they were not sheep. Some he said were lions, some men, others magicians. He never had problems with his sheep thereafter. This, Gurdjieff said, is very similar to the human condition. We sleep when we think we’re awake, but it’s an uneasy sleep, as we notice inconsistencies in ourselves and others.

This is much the same as the Indian concept of Maya, and Jesus’s temptation is paralleled by the Buddha’s experience when he decides to sit in meditation until he perceives reality. Demons tempt him, but he realizes their temptations are illusory, and refuses to give them attention .

The story of Adam and Eve is similar: God tells them not to eat of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, knowing that, being young and immature, they will. Patterson meets an enlightened man later in his story, who says that the above was necessary: the drama couldn’t begin until what people call the Fall happened. No one can choose better things without having some experience of worse things.

So if we want to evolve back into the direction towards God, we need to separate the coarse (representing Satan) from the fine (representing God) within ourselves. When done properly, Gurdjieff says, this is what the alchemists spoke of, and has effects on a physical level that we’re usually unaware of. Beginning this process is beginning the process of making a soul, which Gurdjieff says we are not born with, but have the potential to create.

There is energy that comes to us from outside, from God, along what Gurdjieff calls the Ray of Creation, which begins as fully conscious, but becomes increasingly mechanical as it descends to us. This is analagous to the energy we receive from the sun. If correctly trained, we can use this energy to help us create our souls. This Gurdjieff calls involutionary energy.

Evolving energy, which begins as only partly conscious, but has the possibility of ascending and becoming increasingly purified, can be said to oppose involutionary energy, but only (as far as I can see) because it’s going in the opposite direction, trying to reach God instead of directly coming from Him. This is the spiritual path to which many are called, but few are able to travel very far.

Jesus encounters Satan when he’s just beginning his ministry. He’s conscious, but hasn’t entirely completed his development. Satan tempts him to show off his powers: to make bread out of stone, or to jump from the top of the temple. Jesus doesn’t answer in his own words, because that might expose him to the sin of pride, possibly returning him to sleep. He answers that doing these things would not be God’s will. Then Satan gives his final temptation: Jesus can have the whole beautiful world if he will worship Satan.

This puts things in an interesting perspective. Can Satan give Jesus the whole world, or is he lying? Patterson quotes P.D.  Ouspensky (one of Gurdjieff’s students): ” The history of Man is the history of crime.” That’s the primary component of the history we learn, that money and power are the major motivators of almost all the makers of history. Satan COULD give Jesus the world, but Jesus again refuses, and completes his mission.

Nikos Kazantzakis, in The Last Temptation of Christ, has a parallel interpretation: his last temptation is for Jesus to live the much easier life of an ordinary man. And his Jesus rejoices on the cross when he realizes that he had not succumbed to temptation.

This is underlined by Patterson’s teacher, Lord John Pentland (another student of Gurdjieff’s), who says that temptation isn’t about doing or not doing this or that, but about living below the level of which we are capable. Satan fell through defiance, making it impossible for him to live on the high vibratory level he’d attained before. According to Gurdjieff (and modern science agrees), all matter is composed of vibrations (energy, as should be familiar to us from what little we understand of Einstein’s E=MC2). Surely this is a very common human failing. We make mistakes, or take the easy way out, live at an increasingly low level, and eventually have to take the consequences for what we have and have not done.

We may think of Satan as a personality, as a force, or as an archetype. The archetype lives within us, tempting us to do less than we should, or things we ought not to do. If Satan exists as a personality, we are unlikely to meet him at our usual level of consciousness. If we lay claim to a higher consciousness, that will be tested, and so it was with Jesus. Being able to say yes or no consciously, instead of identifying and behaving mechanically, will be the test of whether what we think is consciousness really is.

Patterson also points out that Sufis have regarded Satan (whom they call Iblis) as God’s greatest lover and protector. In a sense, that is why he tested Jesus. Since Jesus passed that test, his consciousness crystallized, which prevented him from ever losing it.

The idea of a fallen world is a very Gnostic one. Patterson tells of a particular Sufi, Sheik Adi ibn Musafir, who  founded the religious group called the Yezidis, who believe Satan created the world, and worship him as the principle of energy, believing him to have regenerated himself, and to have been given control over this world. According to J.G. Bennett, another of Gurdjieff’s students, Yezidis are (or were some 60 years ago) called “devil-worshippers”, but were also thought to be very moral.

Those beliefs are different from those of the Cathars, a Gnostic group that became known in southern France, northern Italy, and elsewhere in the 12th century. They seem to have been directly connected to the Bogomils who had become known in Bulgaria in the 10th century. Both groups became strong, and eventually alarmed the Christian churches in their respective areas. The Roman Catholic Church organized a crusade against them in the first half of the 13th century, and eventually either destroyed them or drove them deep underground. The Orthodox church’s response wasn’t quite as drastic, but eventually the Bogomils were also destroyed (presumably), or at least disappeared.

Both believed the world had been created by Satan, whom they identified with the God of the Old Testament. They believed Jesus had come from the higher God, whom they believed had no power in this world, although he had created human souls. Human souls they saw as being trapped in the material world, and longing to escape to God’s spiritual world. They believed matter was inherently evil, and that souls could get attached to it, especially through sexuality, so their method for getting free of this world was to be chaste, and not to eat animals (fish were allowed, as they weren’t considered to reproduce sexually), and to be nonviolent. But only the upper caste of this group, the Perfecti, were held to that standard. The Credente were the ordinary people, who would live much as ordinary people do, until near the end of their lives. Then they would receive the Consolamentum  ritual conducted by one of the Perfecti, and then would no longer eat meat, and might even fast until they died.

This may not sound too appealing to us, but it offered a much better life for ordinary people than the Catholic Church did. By this time the Church had become obviously corrupt, and was notorious for the wealth and greed of its  priests.The Perfecti offered a stark comparison, and also treated women much better than the Church did. Women could become Perfecti as readily as could men, and ordinary people could get training in crafts (weaving in particular) that would allow them to live in towns and make some money. This, and the belief that THIS world was Hell seems to have been enormously liberating. Catharism became popular quickly, and was a direct challenge to the Catholic Church, which took it as such, and set out to exterminate the Cathars, which they were pretty successful in doing. The Cathars claimed THEY were the true Christians, and not the Catholics. Catholicism couldn’t tolerate that. Besides the military crusade, they organized what would become the Inquisition, and instill fear in virtually all of Europe.

Heretics, if they were found, would be tortured and burned at the stake. Authorities would press them to reveal the names of their associates and fellow believers. Many Cathars refused to tell, endured the torture, and went willingly into the flames, but not all were so strong. Besides the punishment of heretics, the Inquisition laid a burden of responsibility on ordinary people to tell of any they might suspect to be heretics, and on authorities to continually investigate anyone who might have the remotest connection to the Cathars. This was the model imitated 700 years later by the Nazis and Communists, a model which seems to be at least moderately tempting to most governments. In the 13th century and later these tactics created an atmosphere of paranoia which intimidated most, but also led to eventual rebellion.

The Protestant Reformation must have been at least partially influenced by the way in which Catholics had treated the Cathars, and possibly also persecutions of Jews and so-called “witches”, though Protestants also took part in the latter.

Rejection of the supernatural by science, and the consequent controversy between science and at least some forms of religion can probably be better understood from this perspective too.

It’s difficult to reconcile the behavior of the Catholic church to the teachings of the New Testament, though there are some things even there which were taken as precedents, as when the Gospel of John talks about how “the Jews” treated Jesus. The latter is ironic, since the writer of the Gospel was probably Jewish himself. But Hancock and Bauval say that Catholic behavior makes perfect sense from the perspective of the Cathars, who said the church was the representative of Satan in this world.

It seems that most historians think that the Bogomils and Cathars were just phenomena of their time and place, but neither Catholics nor Cathars thought that. Cathars considered themselves heirs of the Gnostics of early Christianity who had been suppressed, and that’s what Catholics thought of them too. Other groups are known of who were similar, and pretty much bridged the gap between the 4th century AD, when Catholicism became the state religion of Rome, and the 10th century, when we first hear of the Bogomils.

Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval in The Master Game speculate that history could have turned out much differently if Gnostic Christianity, which hated the material world, had succeeded in defeating the Roman Catholic Church. Their view is that both capitalism and communism, the main competing systems in the last century, were both materialistic, differing only in how material wealth ought to be divided in abstract, though not as much in practice.

Hatred of the material world can also be a weakness, though. The natural world, though arguably lower on the scale than pure spirituality, can be seen as a sort of machine that fits together beautifully, every part necessary to all the rest of the universe. That was Gurdjieff’s view of unity in diversity and diversity in unity, with everything connected and constantly transforming. The natural world is not evil, and we interfere with its function to our detriment. Hancock and Bauval contrast the attitude of Hermeticism, which they see as the survival of ancient Egyptian religion, and which was another of the underground spiritual currents of the late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and beyond, to that of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed the material world to be intrinsically evil, and human souls to be trapped in it, longing for a way out. Hermeticism taught, instead, that humans have both a lower and a potentially higher nature, because they are a sort of intermediary. Ideally, their spiritual selves will guide them, while their lower selves do the custodial work necessary to the natural world. This is much closer to Gurdjieff’s view.

Literalists see Satan as a personality trying to subvert if not destroy God’s creation. Others see Satan, even as a personality, serving an authentic purpose. George Gurdjieff saw evil as being a relative concept. Relative first to one’s aim, if one had one; and, from the widest perspective, as the negative pole necessary to every phenomenon. To him, good and evil were not absolutes, but part of the mosaic of reality. Neither, to him, was as important as the individual struggle to wake up, which could evoke the third, Reconciling force. That force might, if experienced, lead to a more healthy acceptance of reality, and reconciliation within ourselves of what we both praise and condemn. Acceptance and resolution of our own contradictions could lead to reconciliation with our neighbors, which in the widest sense is all of life. Violence in the pursuit of any agenda won’t serve us in that aim.

 

In Search of the Miraculous

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I am rereading PD Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, which I first read some 40 years ago, and am experiencing the same response: I find the book now, as I found it then, thrilling and fascinating, and am convinced that its picture of the universe is true.

Probably not everyone would agree. The worldview depicted (including cosmology) is very different from what is found elsewhere. It contradicts the scientific explanation for how the solar system was formed, for instance, but if one accepts its postulates, if only hypothetically, the description is very detailed and convincing.

Ouspensky was a prominent journalist in St. Petersburgh, who had published at least one book, gave lectures fairly often, and had a formidable intellect. A relatively recent book describes him as a “magician”: someone who had the ability to convince people to follow him. Early in 1915, when World War I was a few months old, and only about two years before the Russian revolution began, he met George Gurdjieff, an even more formidable “magician”. The book is about what he learned from Gurdjieff, and their relationship.

One of the beginnings of Gurdjieff’s  teachings is that people in general are “asleep”. This means, more or less, that people behave mechanically, without any real will or freedom,  their consciousness is much more limited than it could be, and distorted besides.

Part of the reason for this has to do with cosmology: he describes a “Ray of Creation” extending from the Creator through a series of seven universes until it reaches this planet and then the moon. This ray only concerns our world, though there are innumerable other rays. At each step away from the creator, each universe (or world) acquires laws, which operate mechanically rather than creatively. The world we know is relatively far from the Creator, and has 48 basic laws, so it’s much less free, and much more mechanical than the worlds higher than ours. These worlds, however, interpenetrate ours, but are made of material much finer than the matter science has been able to perceive.

This is something of a key to another subject: the soul. Gurdjieff is almost alone in saying that humans are not born with souls, and are able to live without them. He says there’s a “certain something” in humanity that survives after death–for awhile–but having a soul, which is something like the popular conception of the “astral body”, is something we have the potential to acquire, but must make great efforts to do so: “conscious labor and intentional suffering”, as he puts it. This is the key to another part of his teaching.

Much later than the time Ouspensky is describing, Gurdjieff writes that from an early age he questioned what the point of organic life in general and human life in particular was. This is an unusual question, something it never occurs to most people to ask. We know we’re alive, are brought up more or less well, and pursue our interests and desires, but mostly take the world as we see it pretty much for granted. Scientists have more curiosity than most, but western science has many of the same blindspots and other failings as the rest of us.

The answer Gurdjieff found was that organic and human life are transformers of energies. We’re familiar with transformations of energy on the material level: soil transforms seeds into plants, herbivores eat plants, and carnivores eat herbivores. One of the implications of evolutionary theory is that the world we see began accidentally, from the strictly materialist point of view. This Gurdjieff denies, though he also says that all the universe is material, composed of vibrations of higher or lower frequency. His view is that nothing in nature is superfluous, that each level of life and each species has a purpose. That purpose is to support the universe, with each level of life supporting at least one other. That’s the purpose of human life too: the energies we transform support the evolution of our planet’s moon, according to Gurdjieff. The moon, if everything goes well, will eventually become a planet like ours, and our planet will be its sun.

This sounds improbable, especially from the viewpoint of modern science about the formation of the solar system, but one need not literally believe that the moon is the place where our energies go to find the concept fascinating. This is ecology on the energetic level, rather than the material level, of which we’re more or less aware. It also says we’re an integral part of our world and the universe, though it’s popular to believe that we’re somehow “apart” from the natural world.

The idea that we’re the highest species in the world or universe leads to the idea that we have the right to use the world and its resources in any way we care to. The idea that there are beings or species superior to us put limits on how we can behave.

A key point about this concept is that humans have the choice (or responsibility) to transform energy consciously by seeking self-perfection, which will also provide the person with a soul. The process is difficult and complicated, but offers the possibility of reaching one’s potential for anyone willing to pursue it. According to Gurdjieff, few of us reach anything close to our potential.

One reason is that we in the civilized world particularly have lives that are too easy. The system Gurdjieff taught requires great efforts that cut very deeply. One reason we see things inaccurately is because we lie to ourselves and each other constantly. It’s very difficult to stop lying, and many will not care to try. Doing so would mean seeing ourselves clearly, and many would be horrified at what they see: that we fail miserably to live up to our ideals, and for stupid reasons. People ordinarily erect what Gurdjieff calls “buffers”, which distract us from reality. Thoughts and fantasies we enjoy, roles we play with different people, and other methods of escape. If we were to decide to try to wake up our buffers would put us back to sleep again.

There are other factors that contribute to sleep. According to Gurdjieff, we have three body centers (an oversimplification): the moving/instinctive center, the emotional center, and the intellectual center. The moving/instinctual center does things like take care of driving the car once we’ve learned. It does this much better than our intellectual center could, because it works faster.

The three centers ought to be equally developed, but in our time and culture usually are not. Perceiving something with any one of the centers (which in some contexts Gurdjieff calls brains, referring to humans as “three-brained beings”) gives us knowledge, but only by perceiving with all three centers can we have understanding, which is better than knowledge. Knowledge may be forgotten. Almost everyone any of us can know lives primarily in one center or the other, which produces three different character types: those in the moving/instinctive center care mostly for the fulfillment of physical needs and desires. Emotional people value emotional satisfaction more than anything, while intellectual people live mainly in abstraction. These are ways of only seeing partially.

Another important distinction is between essence and personality. Essence is what a person has of his or her own; personality is what is learned from others. A person who lives close to nature and has to struggle to survive may have a very developed essence, but undeveloped personality, without which he or she is unlikely to be able to develop further. A person living in a city is likely to have a very developed personality, but undeveloped essence. These qualities need also to be balanced.

Gurdjieff also introduces to the group of which Ouspensky is a part,  a “Table of Hydrogens”, which shows important elements and how they function in different worlds. These elements don’t correspond with the periodic table of western science, as it calls atoms the smallest division of any substance that still retains the properties of that substance, so that some “atoms” may be big enough to see. This turns out to be important because it connects with the material basis for the cultivation of a soul.

That, in turn, is connected with the Law of Seven, which Gurdjieff calls one of the basic cosmic laws. It refers to how processes develop in seven different steps before beginning over. But the important thing about this concept is that at two different points the process needs shocks from the outside to continue in the correct direction. Gurdjieff cites three different “foods” that humans need. The first is what we usually think of as food, the second is air, and the third is impressions. Creating a soul requires separation of fine material from less fine material, and this is possible because of the fine elements of air and impressions.

There are two practices (at least) that facilitate this. One is self-remembering, not easy to understand. It has to do with observing one’s self and trying to be conscious of everything one does, and opens the way for finer elements to reach a place in the body where they can coalesce and begin to construct a separate body. Without this practice, the finer elements never reach the correct place. The other practice has to do with learning to control and transform negative emotions, and has a similar function.

The Law of Seven has much bigger implications than that, though, as it controls all processes in the universe. One example Gurdjieff gives of a process gone wrong because of lack of shocks at key points is Christianity, which went from being a religion of love to being the religion of the Inquisition.

All the valid religions, Gurdjieff says, have three levels: the exoteric, which is what most people believe, often erroneously; the mesoteric, which are students who have begun to learn something, but more on the theoretical than practical level; and the esoteric, which are those who experience directly what the religion is about, and are able to undertake practical tasks using that experience. Things that people who inspire religions say are true on an objective level, but since most people live on a subjective level, what they say is misunderstood or disregarded. Their ideas come from outside of ordinary life, and once within that life become distortions of what was actually meant.

Gurdjieff himself was a Christian, though he also respected the other major religions, and learned what he could from anyone with something to teach him. Though he’d been brought up in Orthodox Christianity, and liked some of their spiritual exercises, he had little good to say about conventional organized religion, which he said had been mostly dead for the last two or three hundred years. He was not interested in belief in dogma, but in teaching the means to real spiritual experience, and the ability to see reality.

The latter, he said, is very difficult, and usually when people reach that level of perception they pass out, or their minds blank out. This corresponds with what is reported of a very deep stage of meditation, called samadhi. 

To be able to reach such a stage one must learn how to avoid wasting energy through unnecessary tension, etc, and learn how to make our bodies, which can be compared to factories, make more energy. This also has its difficulties, of course, but anyone who can learn to do it then has access to energies which make the different centers work well, as well as constructing the soul.

Different centers work on different energies, and work at different speeds. Intellect works the slowest of the three. Both the moving/instinctive center and the emotional center work much faster, and there are things to be learned through the emotional center in particular that aren’t available to the intellect.

The emotional center is the driving force of humans, but must be harnessed to produce anything of importance. This also means harnessing the body, which can fall into lazy habits. When Gurdjieff later set up his Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man in France he attracted mostly intellectuals, whom he put to work at jobs very physically demanding. Those who were willing to persist found their minds and general perceptions much clearer. This kind of work, he said, required a teacher, because no individual could push him or herself sufficiently.

In fact, he said that schools were necessary, because these could provide the kind of conditions for development that individuals, at least at first, could not (or would not) provide for themselves. Such conditions include living with people one wouldn’t choose to live with, and living in uncomfortable circumstances, as well as doing hard physical labor. In addition, Gurdjieff taught sacred dances, many of which dated back well before Christianity. And one of the exercises practiced was the Stop.

This was used to combat physical habits. Each of us has a limited repertoire of physical stances, and when we move, we move from one to another. In the Stop exercise the teacher may call, “Stop!” at any time, and the students have to freeze in whatever position they are in, not moving anything, and feel the unusual posture. This gives them a more realistic view of their bodies and selves in general  than the postures they’re used to.

The emotional center is what can comprehend what Gurdjieff calls “objective art”; that is, art that expresses to everyone (depending on their ability to receive it) the same effect. The art we know is almost entirely subjective, so that our response to it depends on associations. A sad song may remind us of a happy time, and vice versa. The emotional center can comprehend more because it’s faster and more subtle than the intellect. Of course many who live primarily in the emotional center may be sentimental, but they may also have deeper insight into people than others less comfortable with emotion.

Living in one center or another determines what sort of religion a person may have. Man Number One, who lives in the moving/instinctive center, may like showy dramatic religious ceremonies, or may go to church mainly for social reasons.

Man Number Two, living in the emotional center, is attracted to a devotional religion, but is also most prone to becoming a religious fanatic, persecuting heretics and starting religious wars.

Man Number Three, living in the intellectual center, will be attracted to more abstract religions, or may be repulsed by religion altogether.

The centers are also the means of developing unusual powers. One may work primarily on the body, developing great control over it, and undergoing a certain transformation, but may have little idea what to do with this power.

Another may work primarily on the emotions, and also undergo a transformation of sorts, but again not know what to do with the power attained.

Working on the intellect can give a person knowledge of what to do, but not the power to do it.

What Gurdjieff taught was what he called the Fourth Way, which aims to develop all the centers more or less at once with exercises suitable for each stage. He said that this preceded all the ways still being practiced (but that there used to be other ways in the distant past) and stands alone. According to one fairly recent account, he discovered the basics of this system in Ethiopia in the 1890s and spent another 20 years or so at least partly in tracking the diffusion of this system into Asia.

Working with all the centers at once is a way to develop human beings, those willing to work, into types on a higher level than almost all. Besides the ordinary types are Man Number Four who is balanced, has a philosophy he or she lives by, knows where he or she is going, and is willing to do whatever necessary to get there. But this is a transitional type. There are three types above this which we who are ordinary can’t see because their internal organization and perception have no analogy to what we perceive on lower levels. This very vague description is what self-perfection means, and is not something that interests everyone, and not something everyone interested can attain.

Ultimately, the Fourth Way turns out to be a religious practice, but is different from conventional religion. Most religions, Gurdjieff said, were begun by people around highly developed individuals and groups who observed what these groups did from the outside, and copied them. They may have derived some benefit from this, but didn’t have the inner experience that enabled those practicing to continue growing. Thus we have religious groups of outer forms which eventually become outmoded. What they believe may have some valid basis, but may as easily be distorted, and no longer alive in either case. Another difference from organized religion is that the Fourth Way appears at a particular time and place to accomplish some aim, and after a certain time disappears again. People belonging to the group may continue it to greater or lesser effect, but it may also simply disappear.

The descriptions I’ve written here are necessarily incomplete (In Search of the Miraculous is packed full of information that can’t be easily summarized) and misleading because I’m perceiving it imperfectly, never having had contact with it, except through books, let alone having tried to practice it. So all this is what Gurdjieff termed, “Pouring from the empty into the void,” so I’m probably just wasting my time and yours, though I feel compelled to write this.

There is a great deal more that could be said, which would also be misleading to anyone on my level. The development of Gurdjieff’s work in Europe did not run smoothly. He had some outstanding students who were also flawed and didn’t manage to contribute what he had hoped, but he also had students less publicly visible who carried the work on. I suspect that what he brought to the western world is still making a contribution, though not a very visible one.

Ouspensky left Gurdjieff after several years because of conflicts with him, setting himself up as a teacher on the basis of what he’d learned from Gurdjieff. He seems to have been fairly effective, at least outwardly, generating interest among many English people, including several famous ones. But he hadn’t learned enough to be ultimately effective, began having health problems, and near the end of his life reevaluated, and used what he’d learned to his benefit.

After less than two years in France, Gurdjieff suffered a nearly fatal auto accident, and decided he couldn’t proceed as he’d been doing. His health wouldn’t allow him to put sufficient energy into his Institute,  he decided he had to convey his ideas and knowledge in some other way, so he took up writing, producing four books to publicize he knowledge he had gathered. These books are purposely not too easy to read. He wanted anyone interested to make an effort to understand, and also not make any knowledge with the potential to be misused too clear. Ouspensky’s account is very different.

Ouspensky, I think, also tries to be discreet, and not irresponsibly reveal anything that ought not to be revealed, but he writes with tremendous clarity. His greatest strength was also his greatest weakness: he is the consummate intellectual, both seeing and articulating with great insight, but staying within his comfort zone as an intellectual.

William Patrick Patterson, a more recent student in Gurdjieff’s system, believes that the reason for Ouspensky’s break with Gurdjieff was because Gurdjieff tried to get him to open emotionally. Patterson notes that all Ouspensky’s family had died by the time he was 29, and suggests that his intellect was his defense against feeling. He was a great man in a number of ways, but was unable to meet the challenge Gurdjieff gave him.

At the same time, his book about Gurdjieff and the teachings is masterfully done. Like Ouspensky, its achievement is that it gives a sense of understanding that is ultimately incomplete without the complementary physical and emotional work. But that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of what he DID achieve.

Gurdjieff, speaking one hundred years ago, believed that our time is “an empty and abortive interlude”. He didn’t deny the possibility of a general human evolution, but saw few signs that it was happening. He saw human evolution as being a matter of individual choice. Most of us, even people of notable achievement we may particularly admire, don’t choose to evolve in the sense that he meant. The ordinary world is easy for most of us to live in, so we prefer not to make the efforts that would carry us higher and deeper. Our civilization demands automatons, and many if not most of us comply without realizing that there are alternatives.

Henry Miller, in his book about Arthur Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins, sees Rimbaud as yearning for evolutionary advance, and cites a number of other 19th century figures who felt much the same: Van  Gogh and  Nietzche were only two of many others. Most of them ruined their lives because they didn’t know how to proceed.

The twentieth century had its own gallery of outstanding figures whose efforts led to little, and some of whom also destroyed themselves. Gurdjieff is, to my mind, the most outstanding of these figures that included Freud, Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and a number of others. Despite all their best efforts, and in spite of some accomplishments that seem laudable, the underlying problems remain with us, and the consequences of our collective and individual behavior may be just beginning. Humans in general are notable for their reluctance to learn. It may well take catastrophe to make us generally more willing to seek a better way to live.

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.

Phil Donahue, and How the World Has and Hasn’t Changed

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Listening to an interview with Phil Donahue about the beginning of his career underlines how different the world is now.

He began his interview show in 1967, the year I graduated from high school. And it was ONLY interviews, which was something new. I wouldn’t have a TV for 2 or 3 more years, so I was unaware of him till then.

Before having his own show he’d been a journalist, and told a story of a disaster in which 28 miners were trapped. A minister led the other miners in prayer and song, and Donahue inadvertently didn’t get the episode on tape, so he asked the minister to do it again. The minister was uncomfortable with the idea, and didn’t.

What a contrast, Donahue commented, with some ministers, then and now, who would be desperate for that kind of publicity.

When Donahue’s own show began, his first guest was Madalyn Murray O’Hare, famous for being an atheist.. Another early guest was a gay man. Those were shocking people then. Atheism isn’t particularly controversial anymore, and gay people are accepted on a scale unimaginable then.

Maybe people were more fiercely loyal to their religions then, perhaps because those religions were THEIRS, more than for other reasons. Religion was the context of community, probably more than now, and belief was frequently blind. I’m not so sure how much the nature of religious belief has changed. There are probably more skeptics now, but there are still plenty of people who don’t reflect on what they’re asked to believe too much.

Homosexuality was almost universally condemned. Donahue’s interview was 2 or 3 years before Stonewall, which was when things began to change in that area. Gays did exactly what conservatives had done and still do: organized to assert their rights and state their point of view. Both groups have been quite successful, but they tend not to like each other much.

Donahue says he was brought up  a conventional Catholic, but found things in college, and then in his career, that started him thinking. It was a particularly interesting time to be a journalist, with the Civil Rights movement, and the movements that grew out of it, and then the negative reaction to much of it.

I was around then, and vaguely aware, but too self-absorbed to have much perspective. I was certainly for Civil Rights for everyone, and against the Vietnam war, but only abstractly. None of it touched me very deeply.

Of course Donahue lost his edge, as other talkshows left the old variety pattern, and became forums for serious discussion. The world also became less easy to shock, and shock became the reason for lots of shows,  instead of the byproduct. More people wanted to be famous, and fewer cared what they were famous FOR. Now people have to be shocking just to get noticed, it seems.

I was fortunate to grow up in a real community, a sect of Quakers more open-minded than American culture generally at the time. They were called conservatives in the context of Quakerism, but political conservatives, then or now, wouldn’t call them that. They had their imperfections, but weren’t as blatantly hypocritical as many groups, religious or otherwise.

One of my high school teachers used to talk about the “growing edge” of life. Quakers had once been  there, and still haven’t entirely relinquished that position. Donahue found himself on that edge, probably unintentionally, through his career, engaging with people and issues he probably would have remained unaware of otherwise.

I think it would be fair to say that liberals have generally wanted society to be more inclusive. Conservatives have generally wanted society to stay the same, and to continue to exclude. My meditation teacher said he realized, when he saw motorcycle gangs, that society wasn’t inclusive enough. It didn’t have room for people who wanted to behave that way.

One might compare this to Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow, or Freud’s of the unconscious. More happens in those areas than in what we call consciousness, and both men wanted to bring those hidden processes to light. As individuals and societies we are potentially much more and much better than we usually show. We are also potentially much worse.

What we’re aware of is at least partly a matter of choice and values. If we choose to be predators, to profit at any cost, it will be difficult to see other aspects of life. The profit motive is strong, and what we choose as profitable determines much of what we see. And limited perception is often more comfortable than vision broad and deep that demands action, and often uncomfortable action.

Donahue spoke of, many years later, hearing from someone who thought the gay man he’d interviewed at the beginning of his career, had been the inquirers uncle. Th inquirer wanted to get a tape of that show.

Donahue told him that he didn’t think any tape survived, but that the an he’d interviewed had had more moral courage than anyone he’d met. Few people at the time would have seen that man as courageous. The very idea went against everything they believed.

And that’s where a lot of things have changed. As a society we’re more aware of people who aren’t like us. Acceptance doesn’t come easily for quite a number of people, but more people are more accepting than used to be the case.

My generation may have been the first in a long time in which a large number wanted to make a new world. There had certainly been people before them who had believed in equality, and worked for it, but they were generally a minority, and only a few became powerful.

One book, The Greatest Generation, told about the American generation who grew up in the Great Depression, and won World War II. Another, The Greater Generation, said that my generation was better because it fought inequality here at home, which the previous generation had mostly not done.

That wasn’t entirely true, of course. After World War II the armed services were desegregated, which was quite a step forward, and the Civil Rights movement began to take off in the 1950s, with the Brown vs the Board of Education suit, and the Montgomery bus boycott which started with Rosa Parks, and brought Martin Luther King to public attention. But in the 1960s things REALLY began to change.

Part of it was because people my age felt more secure than people who had grown up in the Depression. Some of it was because the people who protested were being mistreated themselves, but it’s notable that a lot of protesters were protesting OTHER people being mistreated, as when white protesters went to Mississippi to protest injustice there. Many Mississippians resented that, of course, and there was a huge backlash, which continues to this day, but a lot of things changed because of what white students, among many others, did in the 1960s, and continued to do later in life. Not all of them, of course. Some moved away from that kind of thing when it became unfashionable, but a good many continued to work for causes they thought important.

Unfortunately, a lot of things DIDN’T change. We’ve fought unjust and unpopular wars since then, as a society we continue to pollute and misuse the earth unsustainably, and inequality both never entirely went away, and has made quite a comeback. There are quite a few different factors in all this, but I suspect a large part of it is that there are many things we don’t want to know.

It may be overgeneralizing to say that most of us don’t want to know what our responsibility is. We’re in this world, and I think few of us know why. Life is a very mysterious matter, and while religions tell us what we ought to do, they don’t really tell us WHY.

Why should we treat each other justly? Why should we love each other? And how do we do those things? One answer is that things go better when we treat each other decently. But go better to what end?

For some, the reason for life is to profit, and make their families wealthy and secure. I don’t think that’s a bad thing in itself, depending on how it’s done. But the question then is, how do we make the whole society profit? What IS the most profitable thing to do?

George Gurdjieff, mentioned previously in these posts, quoted his father as saying that obviously a man should live in such a way as to have a happy old age. How would that be done? A later commentator said that each of us has a debt to pay for life, and that the sooner we pay that debt, the happier our old age can be. What debt do we have?

That gets into the question that Gurdjieff asked himself, to which he found an unexpected answer: What is the reason for organic life in general, and human life in particular? His answer was, to transform energies, and that these energies go to support other forms of life. This support works to combat entropy, which would otherwise cause all systems to run out of energy. Humans are able to do what we can do in part because both plant and animal life support us, not only biologically, but energetically. And that’s the reason why the way we have arranged our technological society is such a bad idea. Not only are we using up resources which are finite, but we’re destroying ecosystems that support us in more ways than we know.

Our society supports our being self-centered, while the lesson of nature is that things work best in harmony. The natural predator isn’t evil. And maybe there’s a place for the predator within humanity too, but the predator has in many cases taken over. Our way of life is unbalanced, and that affects each of us.

One place it shows is in our attitude towards money. Gurdjieff told a younger man about a rich woman who came to him and said she felt that her money alienated her from others. He said she could give her money to him, he would have a good use for it, and she could learn to live without money, which would be helpful for her. But this she couldn’t do, just as the young rich man couldn’t give up his money and follow Jesus.

Both rich and poor, Gurdjieff said, only understand money. The wealthy understand life with money, and despise anyone who doesn’t have it, while the poor understand life without money, and hate those who DO have it. Neither, said Gurdjieff, could learn much from him. Wealthy people gave him money, but then expected his teaching as a reward. With that kind of attitude they couldn’t learn much.

Poor people, on the other hand, wanted him to teach them to make money. That wasn’t what he was teaching, and he said it would only give them a new set of problems.

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves commented that the gods we do worship are actually Apollo (science), Hermes (theft), and Pluto (money). These are gods with tremendous power over human beings, but none of them get to the heart of life, and why we are here. The God that does has spoken in every age, but few are able to hear, at least in part because few want to. If we did hear, we might have to forsake our comforts. Few want to do that.

The surface of the world has changed a lot since Phil Donahue began his career. But the age-old problems remain the same. Humans have tremendous powers, without the wisdom to use them properly. With power comes responsibility, and consequences for the failure of responsibility. Fear stalks us visibly, and we have reason to be afraid.

The Way Out of Cataclysm

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In a recent post I said that pollution is the largest objective problem that faces us. I should probably make clearer what I mean by that.

Objective means that the consequences of our reckless behavior have already begun, and will probably continue to happen for some time after we’ve begun to behave more rationally. Underlying that problem, though is the more profound problem of human nature that causes us to make stupid decisions.

We see examples of that daily. Crowds running over each other to buy things on Black Friday that many of them probably don’t even need. Republicans and Democrats indulging in hatefests rather than actually serve the public. Wars that nobody seems to be able to stop. It doesn’t seem as if these behaviors are going to end soon, but our survival as a species ultimately depends on ending them. As most of us are now, we don’t know how to stop, but need to learn. Catastrophes will underline that need, and may actually motivate us to learn.

But it doesn’t always work that way. The American Civil War didn’t end racism: both North and South were predominantly racist to begin with. The South blamed blacks for the war, and the North wasn’t much more welcoming to them, so the problem has persisted until now. There are some signs that it may be going away, but the time of this country actually becoming color-blind has not arrived..

The saying that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it still applies. Each side of politics in this country condemns the other for wanting to dictate, and there seems to be some truth on both sides. The President having power to kill any American he deems an imminent threat to the country sounds like more power than any one person should have, and even if it’s handled cautiously at one time, that doesn’t guarantee it will be in the furture.

Rigging elections by gerrymandering (and I’m told that Republicans do this a lot more than Democrats, though probably a lot of Democrats wouldn’t be averse) or by suppressing voter’s rights sounds to me like the slippery slope to dictatorship. Radical Republicans are recapitulating Lenin’s behavior when he purged anyone from the Bolshevik party he considered insufficiently radical. The difference in views doesn’t matter in this instance. The behavior is much the same, and the outcome could be a party where only the insiders are trusted, and the great mass of the population have few or no rights.

So how do we fix human nature? The answer seems to be by overcoming the most noxious parts of it, obviously easier said than done, but necessary for survival (humans tend not to pay attention when survival isn’t involved) and to reorient our world.

We have the recent example of Nelson Mandela, who became a revolutionary, was imprisoned for a large part of his life, but used the imprisonment to grow and understand more and more about the world. Even that wasn’t enough, though. When he was released from prison, he later said, he realized that he had to put away hatred, and because he was able to do that (and because he was a masterful politician), he was able to become president of South Africa, and preside over its transition to a democracy without the usual accompaniment of blood and terror–or at least minimal amounts of it.

Nonviolent revolution wasn’t entirely unprecedented. The Soviet empire broke up with minimal violence too, though violence did come later. But nonviolent revolution remains the exception, not the rule.

And a lot of people would prefer violence. Grievances often linger. That was the reason Mandela had a Truth and Reconciliation commission set up: to expose the lingering bad feelings so people could forgive themselves and others for what they had done, or what had happened to them in the past. Anyone who refuses to consider that they might be wrong will find it difficult to forgive.

One writer, (J.G.Bennett, whom I recently posted about)   commented that during World War II he didn’t disagree with the stance of pacifists, but felt that war could not be prevented until individuals rid themselves of the causes of war within them. Hardly anyone is able to proceed so far, I think, but each individual effort is worthwhile.

The same author thought that the current crisis in human affairs would be resolved through human willingness to cooperate with Divine Intelligences. Whether by this he meant God, angels or other Divine subordinates, I don’t know, but our current problems are such that we, as we usually are, will have great difficulty not only finding solutions (scientists have been looking hard for technological solutions for some time), but in getting people in general to accept and cooperate with any solutions. They won’t do anything that doesn’t look sensible, from whatever perspective they have.

To say that the solution to our problems is to love our neighbors and enemies may be true, but people will generally see that as impossible, and refuse to even try. That’s why setting up the Truth and Reconciliation commission, as Mandela did, was so necessary. It gave people a structure to work with and through, which led to deeper understanding and forgiveness. It didn’t mystify the process, but did manage to persuade enough people that it was worth undertaking. Such a process could be a beginning in many places, including here. Injustice is everywhere. That, at least, would be an alternative to using violence to resolve problems.

A spiritual teacher recommended a much deeper mode of training that would lead to the same end, but would be inaccessible to many. What good would that do? Those who were able to benefit by the training would influence others. The salt of the earth that hasn’t “lost its savor.”

Sufis have played that role for centuries, particularly in the Muslim world, which hasn’t prevented Muslims in general from doing things they ought not to, any more than Christian teaching in Europe prevented terrible behavior. That doesn’t mean it’s an approach that should be dismissed, though.

Bennett also commented that his teacher, George Gurdjieff, believed that there was always a group of highly developed people who looked ahead for centuries, trying to influence the human race into better lines of development. The Theosophists, like Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, believed in a Great White Order that watched and tried to help human societies. Their view was romanticized, though, and presented people who might belong to such an order as all-powerful. According to Bennett, from the way Gurdjieff presented his views on such a group, they were by no means all-powerful, and influenced human societies by the introduction of new ideas that could encourage new ways of seeing and behaving which would lead to new directions of development.

The great example Bennett provided was the 7th to 6th centuries BC, when a number of new religions or religious figures appeared, all with a common message. Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism were either new religions, or became prominent during this time. This was also the time of several of the more important Hebrew prophets, as well as Pythagoras. Their common message was that all humans had the right to seek their own path to salvation, which had never been considered before. In the Middle East and Europe of the fertility religions, there were elites: priests, warriors and kings, who were more important than common humanity. Salvation was reserved for them. Bennett commented that although our record for atrocities is no better than it was then, our worldview has still completely changed.

If there is indeed a group such as Gurdjieff spoke of, they no doubt do have abilities beyond the ordinary human ones, and can do more than just introduce new ideas if they wish to. They may be a source of help to humans in general in the future, but it would be unwise to count on them to save us, and not make any efforts ourselves.

The latter is always a temptation, and I’m certainly vulnerable to it. It’s one thing to see that our current civilization is built on unsustainable foundations, another to disconnect from it, and begin building better ones. But those willing to make such an effort may well receive help when totally committed. Just what those foundations should be, I wouldn’t be willing to speculate in great detail, nor how to begin building them. But I suspect it will take great effort, thought and faith to build them wisely and sustainably. It may arouse enmity among others, too.

Enmity is already present. Just read about the conservative reaction in this country to what Pope Francis has been saying and doing. From my point of view, his speech and actions are simply obvious applications of the message of the New Testament. Conservatives don’t see it that way. The message they get from the New Testament is not one of love, for either one’s enemies or one’s neighbors. Pope Francis is correct in saying their god is money, I think.

And then there’s the refusal of Congress to extend unemployment benefits to people who have been out of work for a long time, to say nothing of the conservative preference not to raise the minimum wage. They’re still buying into the narrative that anyone who remains unemployed for very long is simply lazy. This idea has been debunked before. Of course there were some at the bottom of the ladder who game the system, but the harm they do isn’t comparable to those at the top doing the gaming.

The recent budget deal also raises military funding, which in my opinion, is already too high, and doesn’t do anything to take on the real pressing needs of the country, like rebuilding infrastructure, which would also have a salutary effect on the economy by providing more jobs. I don’t see any of these positions as being rational. We’re supposed to be one country, and to work for everyone’s benefit, rather than the benefit of only the few. Capitalism could be a good way to do that, if it hadn’t become corrupt, seeking profit in dishonest and unsustainable ways.

I don’t think many people would be against people making profits for worthwhile goods and services. But making profit by poisoning land, water, air and people, and by selling people worthless consumer goods is a dynamic that can’t continue to work.

It’s a dynamic that many powerful people want to continue, though. Energy companies want us to continue using coal and oil to provide most of our energy, and not to object when pollution is the side-effect. In a way, it’s a tradition, though not a very long one. We only began using oil for power no more than about 150 years ago; already we’re running out, and turning to fracking, which is only going to cause more pollution. It’s convenient for gas prices to come down, but not so convenient for our environment to become poisonous.

What would be an alternative to the current way of doing things? Doing things sustainably would mean to turn away from using petroleum and coal for power. It would mean stopping using artificial fertilizers and insecticides. It would mean not using antibiotics promiscuously in raising animals for food, and moving away from the factory farm model of agriculture. There ARE other options out there, which people are exploring, but which are also being opposed by vested interests.

And one thing that I think is often not recognized in this country is that despite our wealth and power, many people are unhappy. There’s a big industry supplying drugs just for depression, which is only one of a whole spectrum of mental health problems. Why would the country with the highest standard of living have such a problem with depression?

A friend recently noted that Victor Frankl, who spent time in Nazi concentration camps, said that depression was ultimately the result of not doing what life demands. If that is true, then our whole civilization (at least in this country) is on the wrong path.?

And what, in general, does life demand? George Gurdjieff said that when he was quite young he asked a question: What is the reason for organic life in general, and human life in particular? He had other questions too, after having witnessed apparently supernatural events, which Western science (in which he was also interested) not only couldn’t, but didn’t even try to explain. He traveled over most of Asia and some of Africa trying to answer these questions, and eventually did.

The reason for organic life, he said, is to transform energies. There are many energies that affect us, and many of them we’re unaware of. He also said that none of us is born with a soul, but each has the potential to make one, through “conscious labor and intentional suffering.” Doing this would transform the energies we’re intended to transform.

What is the consequence if we don’t do this? The energies we transform are intended to support types of life that are on a higher level than we are, as we depend on life lower on the scale than we. When we don’t live as intended, the energies must come from somewhere. If we’re unwilling to live in a truly conscious way (Gurdjieff said that most of as are “asleep”, which isn’t hard to believe when we look at how things happen) we can supply the energies by dying. This, he said, is the cause of both war and overpopulation, two of our most serious problems.

Labor and suffering don’t sound particularly attractive, but does depression sound more so? Isn’t setting goals, accomplishing them, and overcoming obstacles more likely to make us happy than neither trying nor accomplishing?

Propaganda tells us happiness lies in buying and owning things. Not many of us disagree to any great extent, but the rate of depression in this country seems to suggest it’s not true. Feeling that our lives matter, and that we’re contributing to something important seems a lot more likely to make us happy.

It’s a bit like my concept of marriage. You don’t get married certain that you’ll be able to do everything required of you, but you make a promise to give it your best effort. I think that’s what we are asked to do.

Nothing is guaranteed, but that effort is likely to at least begin solving our problems, and make us happier as well.

Catastrophe

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I had never heard of Wendell Berry until a few years ago, from one of my online friends. I’ve by no means read all his writing, but have read several of his novels, and was most impressed by Jayber Crow, which I think was published nearly 50 years ago. Berry is still around, though, still farming the land that has been in his family for 200 years, near Louisville, Kentucky along the Kentucky River. Tonight I got to watch a recent interview he did with Bill Moyers, and continue to be impressed by him.

His farm is a family farm, while agriculture has shifted in this country to the factory farm. Factory farms are huge enterprises using lots of land, and artificial fertilizers and insecticides. Animals raised to provide meat are never allowed outside, but kept in stalls for their short lives. The fertilizers and insecticides are among many pollutants in the environment, which are helping to destroy the biosphere we all depend on to live. What are his thoughts about that?

For one thing, that we have to stop the people who claim to own the world outright: they’re ruining it, though I have to add that most of us are also complicit in this process. He says that capitalism from the beginning aimed to replace people with technology, and is closer now to achieving that than it has ever been.

Of course we run into an ideological problem with a statement like that. Those who love capitalism will obviously respond that he’s espousing Communism. I argue that he’s doing no such thing. Communism, as practiced in Russia, China and eastern Europe has no better environmental record than capitalism, and turned out to be even less democratic than our corporate society now is. Although socialism, as practiced in western Europe, for example, is not the same as Communism, it’s still a highly technological society, though much more concerned about the environment than is our country.

True believer capitalists frequently talk about liberty, and how overly large government takes it away. That isn’t untrue, as far as i goes, but governments are not the only entities that can take liberty away. So can big corporations, which are much more wealthy and powerful than most individuals, and are committed to inhuman behavior, as long as it makes a profit, until they are forced to change.

And humans aren’t the only things that can take liberty away. The forces humans have set in motion with industrialization supporting the lifestyle most of us live in this country have prepared many timebombs for us. Pollution of air, food and water, I have come to believe, are the greatest objective threat to humanity that we face right now. Of course this threat isn’t disconnected from other things.

Climate change has been a controversial and divisive issue for several decades, but not, I think, on its merits as an argument. People don’t like the idea because it would force responsibility on them that they don’t want. They’re comfortable with the world as it is–for now. Climate change is merely one of the results of pollution created by humans. Dispassionately viewed, I think (and always have thought) it to be quite a plausible thesis, though we don’t know all the causes or effects of how it happens in detail. I saw a snippet of a TV program in which a corporate head said that we’re now conducting an experiment as to how hot we can stand the world to get, and that if there’s even one percent chance that we can make it too hot, it doesn’t seem like an intelligent thing to do. The interviewer asked him what percentage of chance he thought was likely, but I don’t think he answered. The probability seems a lot greater than one percent to me.

And that’s not the only thing pollutants of various sorts are bringing us. When talking with a woman from Colombia, she mentioned that many in her city were diagnosed with psychotic depression (as best I remember), and questioned what would cause that. I remembered reading that artificial fertilizers and insecticides might have such an effect, and that the United States has a higher rate of insanity than many countries in the world, so I asked if they were used in her area.

She said yes, they were, to such an extent that there were no longer fireflies there. Anything that’s bad for fireflies is likely to be bad for humans too.

We’ve also been losing large amounts of honeybees, which could be catastrophic for agriculture. The most definite statement I’ve read is that it may be a mixture of insecticides and other chemicals, and that it would be difficult to ban all of them. I’ve also read that a large American corporation is being sued on this basis in Europe to prevent them from producing and using these chemicals. The corporation seems to be fighting the suit.

I’ve read that aluminum is liked to Alzheimer’s dementia, often via canned drinks, though I also recently read about some baby formulas that contain high levels of the metal. If so, it makes me wonder if autism too is connected to pollution. A quick check of Wikipedia seems to say that if it is, the factors are currently unknown, but I wouldn’t think this would preclude pollution being part  of the picture.

One of my friends of the past decade told me about her grandson, who was diagnosed autistic. His parents were very careful about his diet and other things he was exposed to, and she said that when he was about seven the diagnosis was withdrawn. That certainly suggests that pollution might be an influential factor.

Much of our current behavior, including behavior regarding pollution, can be seen as driven by overpopulation. With a population of 7-9 billion, the world is close to its limits of human population it can support. I think that many of us are subconsciously aware of this, and frightened. Americans have generally felt that bigger is better, but that’s not always true, and sometimes things have to be destroyed to allow new and more healthy growth. We can see this in the history of the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, which swept away decadent societies in the Middle East to provide the chance for something new . As a world, we seem to have reached a point where this is necessary, and if enough of us don’t undertake it, nature will. For two centuries we’ve been engaged in making a world we can’t live in, and the consequences have begun to arrive.

George Gurdjieff, the spiritual teacher I’ve mentioned in other posts, said there is a reason for overpopulation. The reason is rooted in a question he asked when he was quite young: What is the reason for organic life in general, and human life in particular? He spent a great deal of time seeking the answer to this and other questions, and eventually found an answer. Life is used to transform energies, some of which we can already see, some of which we’re generally unaware of. There are different levels of life, and the lower levels support the higher ones.

We see an example of this in soil, which is a very complex phenomenon. It is a very small percentage of the world, but one of the most important parts of it in supporting life. Its fertility can be increased, but it can also be destroyed by mismanagement. Artificial fertilizers and insecticides are arguably one sort of mistreatment that can destroy soil fertility, as well as introducing pernicious factors into our environment and bodies. There are, of course, many others.

Mining and manufacturing are two other such factors. They release chemicals into soil, air and water that are bad for the environment as a whole. And whatever is bad for the environment is also bad for us as individuals. By poisoning the environment in these and other ways, we also poison ourselves.

Gurdjieff went on to say that humans have the possibility of transforming necessary energies either consciously, or by dying. Learning to do this consciously is not easy, and although there have been many messengers sent to us, we’ve generally disregarded what they taught, so that we generally don’t live as we were intended to. Because we don’t provide the energies that nature needs, nature tries to compensate by producing more of us. And because there are still very few who consciously transform energies, we have wars. These produce what is necessary.

J.G. Bennett, a student of Gurdjieff’s, said that there is a close link between insects and humans, which isn’t easy to see. We generally have little use for insects (other than bees). Some people include them in their diets, but relatively few. Bennett said that insects have a high level of sexual energy, and that this supports human creativity. Indeed, I remember reading many years ago that insect penises are often bent, making them difficult to insert into the female, so a high degree of sexual energy must be necessary for insects to reproduce. That makes the proposition at least plausible.

If very much of this point of view is accepted (and of course many will NOT accept it), it’s clear that the human race is in deep trouble. Unfortunately, we seem to HAVE to get into trouble to realize that we have to do things differently. There are certainly people, like Wendell Berry, who have realized at least part of the problem, and are trying to do something about it, but most of us are connected to the industrial system, and don’t know how to live without it.

I don’t have a garden, I don’t hunt, I drive a car to work, and have computers and a cellphone. I use electric power, probably generated by coal. I use things made of plastic constantly, whether at work or home. As convenient as these products of technology are, I know they’re bad for the environment, but don’t yet know how to do without them; or rather haven’t made the effort it would take to live more naturally. A good many people have and do, but only a small percentage of this country and the world.

Wendell Berry remarks in his interview with Bill Moyers, that we don’t have the right to ask the question of whether we can successfully stop the catastrophic process most of us are involved in. We have to decide what’s right to do, and start doing it. We’re not guaranteed good outcomes; we’re probably guaranteed a lot of bad ones until we’re willing to start learning and doing things more in tune with nature and life. In this respect, I am certainly little if any better than anyone else.