Monday, November 1, 2010

Remembering Self-Remembering

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread…
     [Milton, Lycidas]
I encountered the writings of P.D. Ouspensky roughly in the 1970s and soon learned about George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, who was Ouspensky’s inspiration. Both men were Russians born in the nineteenth century; both died in the late 1940s. Gurdjieff was the leader of a spiritual teaching movement; Ouspensky, while part of this grou for a while, was more broadly speaking a philosophical writer. Much later I discovered that Gurdjieff had latched on to his ideas from Sufi sources and turned a narrow slice of these into the foundations of his work; he himself characterized what he taught as esoteric Christianity and never acknowledged his debt.

I found Ouspensky’s (and later Gurdieff’s own) writings fascinating but strange. The essence may be rendered by saying that people are asleep; they have selves but not a genuine core self. That self, the real one, develops after arduous practice; the central technique for producing this initially absent self is self-remembering, thus becoming conscious of self, separating oneself from the flow of mentation, seeing the multiple personalities that constitute us (per G&O) as unreal, and gradually reaching genuine humanity.

I found this strange because I was only too aware—and indeed from childhood on—that I did too have a core self. My roots are in Catholicism, and you don’t go very far from those roots before you’re only all too aware that you have a conscience. But in truth I already knew that as a little child before I’d ever heard of anything like the catechism. Therefore, in the 1970s, the notion that I was an automaton sleep-walking through life was odd. I knew what it referred to, by and large, namely inattentiveness, absorption, passion, and the like, but the notion that you somehow created this self—and in its absence were sort of dismembered after death and blown into the void like dust, as Gurdjieff suggested—seemed illogical. How could you remember the self if there was no self there to do the remembering in the first place. Quite early on, of course, I’d learned Goethe’s famous saying: “Two souls, alas, reside within my breast.” True enough, of course, but Goethe, the third soul, as it were, knew this fact. Later yet I encountered the modern evolutionary doctrine that we are automata—and that our personalities are nothing but discrete (and ever changing) structures of nerve cells engaged in a Darwinian competition. But while that description also fits the G&O model of the ordinary, unenlightened common human, neither of these men came from that modern tradition.

The fascinating aspects of such doctrines is their narrow focus on some aspects of a teaching which, entirely legitimately, uses techniques to nurture human development. The very narrowness of focus is what makes bodies of teaching such as this one cult-like—thus with but marginal influence. The Sufis have developed many techniques of disengaging the human attention from the flux of ordinary life. The repetition of a single phrase, the zikhr—also known to us from the Hindu mantra—was another. Catholicism has both. Self-remembering has the same function as the examination of the conscience; and there is also the repetition of the Holy Name. But what makes a particular practice valuable is the comprehensive structure in which it is embedded. Some teachings tempt people because they promise success by some kind of recipe or formula. Therefore such groups attract those seeking power and—much more poignantly—whose who have been starved of meaning.

The core self is, indeed, enveloped in the material dimension—and, unless cultivated, can readily habituate itself to live in the continuous flux of stimulus that life produces. The proper preparation of the human takes place by nurture in a home and a comprehensively formed society. The vast number of religious and quasi-religious movements that have characterized the twentieth century testify to the failure of homes—and society as a whole—to assume the burden of nourishing the higher aspects of the soul. Then the hungry sheep look for almost anything that seems to offer help.

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