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What We Are Obliged To Do: Thoughts on the Strivings
Throughout Gurdjieff’s tome, Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, we are told that the inhabitants of this planet do not act in ways which are ‘becoming to three-brained beings.” Humans, rather than fulfilling their lawful role in the cosmic and universal scheme of Reciprocal Maintenance, according to Beelzebub, are subject to negative behaviors such as “cunning, contempt, hate, servility, lying, flattery and so on.” (pg. 384) How we got this way is described repeatedly as the “consequences of the properties of that maleficent organ, Kundabuffer, which unfortunately their ancestor possessed.” (pg. 119) Although relieved of this organ, we still operate in ways, which do not recognize our place in the universe, and so have no 'genuine conscience'.
Gurdjieff postulated an ideal age, called the Ashiatian Epoch, after his divine messenger, Ashiata Shiemash. During this time, human organization changed for the better, so that all the “chiefs, directors and specialists’ “ were chosen by “objective merits which they personally acquired and which could be really sensed by all the beings around them.” (pg. 385) Gurdjieff makes it plain that whatever the manifestation of this personal work was, it was perceptible to others. Although not specified there, some examples are given before and after. For instance, and of great meaning to those of us who purport to ‘work, is the following. During this more appropriate era, humans began to ‘pay respect to each other only according to the merits personally attained by means of ‘being Partkdolg-duty,’ that is by persons of personal conscious labor and intentional sufferings.” (pg. 384) This had the effect that people now looked upon each other, not as separate, but as beings ‘bearing in themselves particles of the emanation of the Sorrow of our Common Father Creator.” To perceive oneself as part of the problem, if only a small particle, is to stop comparing one’s worth, through personal interaction or assumption of superiority due to being in the “right” group whether large or small, such as nationalism, classism and all the other divisions that one can name all around in the world. We can all see the tendency in ourselves, or if not, in others, to seek to gain ascendancy over others, whether by having more money, being of a higher caste, taller, more attractive sexually, more light-skinned, not this, not that, ad infinitum. It is all around us, this need to see ourselves as better or different, smarter or even more accomplished at being what we all are, human. Even in spiritual pursuit, the hankering to ‘rank’ oneself, to be a more favored student or have a ‘better’ teacher of the Way, all fall into the same disrespect that occurs when the ego is in control.
I have gone to great lengths to quote from a small amount of pages in order to set up several points about the Strivings, which have occurred to others and myself over a period of study. The first point is that this Work is for all people. During the Ashiatan epoch, again just before the Obligolnian Strivings, Gurdjieff says that “All the beings of the planet” began to pursue the course of self-study. To keep the work ‘hidden’ as has been done in the past is obviously not on point here. On this path, the results of inner work will appear as “objective attainments, perceptible to others.” (pg. 386) It is inner work made manifest in one’s behavior and being, behavior which then was in accordance with what was “becoming to three-brained beings” that must be overt. The standard Gurdjieff sets is that the results of inner work is perceptible to those around us. This is reminiscent of the Biblical exhortation to ‘let your light so shine before men, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, which is in Heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) The Work as source is praised and not the individual. I hope, along this path, we all have met individuals to whom we are attracted because of their being and demeanor. Kinder, more attentive and accepting, engaged with the world and a beacon to the sore at heart, these are qualities I have experienced in individuals who have come some way along this path. These and other qualities are perceptible, even palpable even to those who are not seeking.
Besides the diminution of the tendency to affiliate with social groups and become identified with such, what other behaviors could be a manifestation of the acquisition of genuine conscience? Beelzebub states that one manifestation was that war ceased in Asia and continued in places only too distant from the center of the teaching. In addition, both the death rate diminished as did the birth rate, rather different than on our planet where the death rate is diminished but the birth rate is rising, out of balance with the equilibrium of our planet.
Items that are more specific can be postulated in accordance with little effort. The statement about equilibrium of vibration resulting in human balance with the planet gives rise to the many other ways we are out of balance. We drive large gas-consuming cars, eat food that is factory farmed, resulting in air, water and soil pollution. Our industries pour poison into the seas as do our biological waste and the detritus of factory fishing practices. Humans work for money, of which there is never enough. The Catholic Church long ago recognized (if not practiced) that there are behaviors, which prevent attainment of conscience and therefore a balanced, becoming, ‘right life.’ Sloth, greed, wrath, gluttony, lust, envy and pride are delineated but there are many others that slow or prohibit becoming behavior based on conscience. Perhaps the venial sins can include shopping in venues for cheap prices when we know that the company pays low wages. Even the just man in Proverbs sins seven times a day. We need a functional conscience to keep it at that low number.
Another issue, which has arisen for me, is that the practice of the Obligolnian Strivings, which sit in the middle of Gurdjieff’s teaching, do not make us ‘special.’ The secrecy, the identification with lineage, all these issues have given an ‘esoteric’ edge to the Gurdjieff work, which Gurdjieff himself did not promote. Gurdjieff was known to talk to anyone and to literally pull people off the street to come see Movements demonstrations. He manifested towards both his students and the people in his world with great kindness, even when that kindness took the form of ranting at someone. By undertaking the practice of the Obligolnian Strivings, and the beginning of the workings of genuine conscience, we become “normal” human beings. Remember that the ‘three-brained beings”, those slugs, are functioning abnormally and are not fulfilling their role in Reciprocal Maintenance. Application in the real world of the aspects of the strivings makes us as we should be. The tendency to suppose that one is living a higher spiritual life, one that is deeper or more in touch with the wishes of ‘Endlessness’ is another function of ego.
All the above points are to predicate the study of the strivings in context. First, the strivings are the ONLY way to conscience. Because of this, they sit in the middle of the chapter about when humans acted according to their role in Reciprocal Maintenance. Two, we are told that the strivings are for everyone, that all beings began to work in such a way. Three: the strivings produced effects that were easily perceived by others and those individuals were a source of inspiration to all. Therefore, the fruits of our work (as opposed to the techniques, which are rightfully doled out in their proper time) should not be secret or hidden, thought of as too difficult for others to understand but by our actions and attitudes we produce a change in the world. And Four: following the strivings as our main practice does not make us special. We work to be normally human, in equilibrium with our fellows and the planet.
The Five Being-Obligolnian Strivings
1. The first striving: to have in their ordinary being-existence everything satisfying and really necessary for their planetary body.
While this first striving may seem the most straightforward, it is anything but. One tends to see these words in a context such as Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, but what indeed is satisfying about just food, shelter and warmth? In the West, most of us have achieved such, even if our financial issues may be fraught. There are other necessities, exercise, impressions and community, which act to be satisfying in a psychological sense. Do these qualify as part of the planetary body? I believe so, since the brain is a physical structure and is subject to pressures that are psychological as well as physical. We say in the Work that worry is a negative emotion, yet it has impact. We can stay awake worrying and so lose necessary sleep. So psychological health is as important as physical needs.
Impressions, too, have an impact. There are qualitative differences in impressions of even simple items. High quality food, well-prepared with attention and intention, for instance, imparts a different impression than eating frozen corn-dogs or fast food. Wearing natural fibers as opposed to polyester or nylon also affects our being. We can make choices, not out of specialness, but because the attention implicit in the act of choosing and the effects on the greater environment that is shared by all. In Ayurvedic medicine, certain substances are considered to impart more favorable impressions, including gold, silver, ivory and more. Art and beauty also could be said to be necessary for the planetary body and its impressions. There are many more aspects that one individually could choose but it enough to know that it is not just animal needs that are indicated in the first striving.
2. The second striving: to have a constant and unflagging instinctive need for self-perfecting in the sense of being.
No one feels that they have achieved a ‘constant and unflagging instinctive need” to be self-evolving beings. This is one of the barriers that I find people encounter and, feeling not ‘cooked’ enough, put themselves back into the crucible of sittings, movements, super-efforts in practical work and all the other techniques they have been shown or developed in order to achieve this aim. However, it is time to note that all the strivings are just that, efforts that we come back to again and again. What keeps us coming back could be seen as instinct, a small pricking of the conscience that Gurdjieff says happens to us. Unflagging is more difficult as we all find our efforts are sometimes superseded by impatience, anger, sleep and all the other ills that the flesh is heir to. However, my experience is that one keeps coming back to the taste of the real. If one makes efforts, one does have feedback, experience energies that are not normally available to oneself, especially in group work. Perhaps this ‘coming back’ to the practice, even if one takes a hiatus that can be said to be unflagging. Unflagging does not necessarily mean always active but in one’s awareness.
The definition of (large B) Being itself is hard to determine. As noted elsewhere, Madame Ouspensky defined Being as ‘what one can bear.’ Of course, we all know about ‘bearing the manifestations of others unpleasing to oneself’ or sometimes written ‘the unpleasant manifestations of others.’ These two phrases have different implications. The first one says that the psychological repugnance lies in oneself, a problem of intolerance in ourselves. The behaviors may have no or little effect on others but we find that person and his or her manifestations unpleasant. I usually find that it is because some aspect of myself that I have repressed is mirrored in that person and so, as well as denying that such exists in me, I actively dislike it in others. The second phrase implies that the behavior of a person is objectively unpleasant and yet that behavior may arise out of problems that the individual is unable to deal with effectively. It is our work, in this case, to bear the behavior, even if it is unpleasant because of the opportunity to work. A person like this serves our own inner work tremendously and, as Gurdjieff reminds us, we should thank them. Bearing their unpleasant manifestations is a golden opportunity. There is a further issue here also, that by being borne, the individual or situation has an opportunity to perceive a better way to be and so, without resistance, can change more easily. Putting negative energy into an already unpleasant situation or person compounds rather than smoothes the moment. It is in the moment that we have an opportunity to change the energy to one of greater possibilities and pleasing outcomes.
With our group’s work with this second striving, there appeared a common theme. Most all of the observations about working on our own being is in relationship to others. I have come to believe that one can sit in meditation for years, work diligently on the study of self, and acquire huge powers in effort, counting, inwardly reciting the Kyrie, zikr or the Lord’s Prayer and still be without being. Being is both acquired and manifested in our treatment of others, both those like ourselves and one’s of other forms. Gandhi once said that the measure or moral progress of any civilization is how they treat animals. A quick look at American factory farming will be instructive in our national level of being. As is said in the Tales, real being is perceptible to others. Perhaps another Biblical quote (since Gurdjieff referred to his system as esoteric Christianity) can show us the meaning. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he says about our relationship to others, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.” Love in this case is translated as caritas or charity. If we cannot hold charity in our heart towards our fellow beings, of similar or other forms, then all the spiritual practices in the world will not avail. We are empty of the one of the most, or according to St. Paul, THE most necessary aspect of being, charity.
3. The third: the conscious striving to know ever more and more concerning the laws of World-creation and World-maintenance.
Why should this be? The laws as presented by Gurdjieff frequently sound arcane and inaccurate according to high school science books and to emotional or body-centered types pose obstacles to pursuing them deeply. Other types, especially those predisposed to the intellect do nothing but study the laws. I have found this to be the case in much of the Work, which seems to attract those with a taste for the esoteric detail in which study and individual effort in techniques replaces the emotional experience of insight and sacrifice. Along with this tendency to ‘hide one’s light under a bushel’, I view such as a flight from the messiness of humanity, those ‘sleepers’ who are not part of the hidden world of the spiritual cognoscenti. Indeed, I have experienced many times, those with compendium knowledge of the text use such as a way of putting others down and thus support ego. Obviously, the striving exists for a much more serious and practical reason than ‘angels on a pin’ arguments. The questions are universal and should stun us all with their impact.
Where do I belong in the universe? What is my role as a human species member? Can I, as a person who takes these strivings seriously, use them to behave becomingly? For instance, when one reads of Reciprocal Maintenance, and takes the time to study a simple ecosystem on earth, one can see interconnectedness. So to take such a concept further is not a huge step but to SEE how one personally can act in ways which are a benefit and not a negative, both act upon but with the right attitude and experience how the atmosphere changes. One can begin to extrapolate from experience upward and downward, to see how one thing impacts another, both physically and in ‘atmosphere’ or energy.
Many people today are beginning to understand that their impact on the earth is far more than what they give. The ‘debt of our existence” is huge. In the soil beneath our feet are micro-organisms who are also ‘feeding and breeding’ on the planet Earth. These organisms, in their processes, enrich the soil in a variety of ways. Working with sunlight, water and mineral earth, which has been formed by geological processes, microorganisms break down the organic materials available to them, dead plants and animals, creating humus, which holds minerals together to form soil. The greater the number of organisms, the richer the soil formation and the more fertile the land is to grow grasses, forests and shrubs, which in their turn, transform carbon dioxide into oxygen. . These in turn are eaten by herbivores, which then become prey to carnivores or complete their existence and die, returning to the soil via the same microorganisms, beetles, worms etc. This transformational cycle enhances the planetary life-carrying ability and serves all species.
Man has broken the cycle. Although he partakes of the abundance provided by the cyclic transformation and in some instances, enhances it, through good husbandry, more often, he is a drag on the earth, taking more than he provides. Even by being cremated, he denies worms their food, as Gurdjieff said, was proper. We deny to these ‘primary producers’ their due. If , indeed, we have to pay our debt quickly, in order to fulfill our purpose, how can we begin?
Many people ascribe to certain behaviors, recycling, composting, vegetarianism and more in order to lessen their consumption. Perhaps they have given up their vehicle, or choose an electric hybrid car, use pubic transport or ride share. All these behaviors lessen our impact but do not put a positive movement towards our debt. It is like a loan that we struggle to cover the interest but the balloon payment awaits, at the moment of our death. What is this pay now or pay later debt? And how can it be discharged? It is only but finding our purpose, in the Kirkegardean sense of making a meaningful decision about one’s use in the world and discharging it. It is not that all the above small efforts, which require a conscientious approach, are not without value but they are preparatory, a keeping of that debt before us. They are indeed practices that we choose but insufficient in themselves. We need to do more. Understanding the Laws allow us the chance to take up our position as co-creators of this world, as Gurdjieff himself saw the work. J.G. Bennett called his introductory book “Gurdjieff: Making a New World.” We indeed, as the people in the Ashiatan Age, need to make this world new by our manifestations. Our understanding of the Laws allow us to see our place in that task.
4. The fourth: the striving from the beginning of their existence to pay for their arising and their individuality as quickly as possible, in order afterwards to be free to lighten as much as possible the Sorrow of our COMMON FATHER.
The fourth striving has several demanding aspects, which I shall attempt to parse. Perhaps the first note should be to speculate on what it means ‘from the beginning of their existence.” We, of course, exist from birth in this world and could not have taken up the work at that moment. Nor can we be blamed as schoolchildren of having shirked this exhortation. (Although we could speak about how we ‘educate’ our children and to what real end). However, there is a hint in Gurdjieff’s book title, Life is Real, Only Then, When I Am. Gurdjieff marks the beginning of ‘real’ life when one has gotten a taste of “I Am”. This is the beginning of real existence and where we become responsible beings. Now it up to us to work on ourselves, ‘as quickly as possible’ in order to move to our real purpose. There is a certain pressure here not to immerse oneself in one’s own interests; there is a greater task awaiting. This does not imply that we need to be done with the work of transformation, to be enlightened or wise or to have finished paying for our arising and individuality, only that there should come a time-quite early in our Work, where the focus must shift from ourselves and our personal transformation to our lawful and intended purpose, being-Partk-dolg Duty, conscious labor and intentional suffering
Take a moment to contemplate the frank ‘before and after’ construction of this striving. It tells us that we have done the beginning work of the first, second and third strivings and that “afterwards” comes a pivotal moment of focus. The strivings are constructed in an order, using ordinal numbers which delineate sequential movements and the fourth striving gives us not just a feeling of accumulation of effort but also direction. Direction is aim. Nothing happens without aim. The aim is genuine Conscience. Conscience allows us to function becomingly, and act according to our purpose in World Creation and World Maintenance . Becoming behavior also lightens the ‘Sorrows of our Common Father’, however you choose to define such and parenthetically creates a better world for all of us.
Does this mean that one can only work on one striving at a time and only in sequence? Of course not, however, some issues apply. It is very hard to work, for instance, if one is without life necessities, food, shelter and safety. Gurdjieff postulated the role of the obyvatel, the good householder as a beginning place for work. A Czech word, meaning peasant or inhabitant, the obyvatel, according to Gurdjieff, is one who can ‘support twenty.’ Perhaps this may be objective, but consider, in our family and community, how many you, yourself, support. We pay taxes that support those less fortunate and help our elders to appointments and social interactions. Supporting twenty is not really that hard, even if one is not deeply invested in volunteerism or has a large family. Beginning with the first striving, we can work toward not just satisfying our own needs but support the needs of others. Such behavior opens the door to the second striving as does practice in sittings, movements and practical work in groups. Experiencing the different energy produced by these practices gives rise to the desire to study how the world of energies and our role in them functions. Indeed, the first three, coupled with the drive to reach a higher level of understanding for oneself, dovetail nicely.
None of these, however, in my opinion, are what is the aim and the direction of the strivings. Wanting enlightenment or personal control over emotions or a kesdjan body are still about self. The fourth strivings calls us to turn away from our own self-interest to what is our real function in the cosmos. It is only in doing so, this whole-hearted volte-face that anything further can be reached for us. In fact, sacrifice of spiritual ambition is the ONLY things that allows us to progress beyond a certain point. We may sit, do movements, attend meetings, make efforts but until the hoped-for result of such is truly sacrificed, we will go no further. Verily, our reward will be being good at movements or able to sit for long periods, leading to false self-regard and soi-disant ‘puffery.’ One is even in danger of becoming an ‘Enlightened Idiot,” an unenviable position.
5. And the fifth: the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred ‘Marfotai’, that is up to the degree of self-individuality.
This striving, the fifth and last, holds danger even as we contemplate it. Helping can become a disease very easily and ego can take root as one does “good.” I remember, many years ago when I was studying the Alexander Technique in London, being given a book entitled, The Zen of Helping, by Andrew Bein. The problem with any therapist, body worker, social worker or charity person is that they may fall into a pernicious form of self-congratulations. Yet we are enjoined to do just that, assist others on their way. How can be we work at this striving while being aware of the devil tempting us to vanity and self-love?
To me, the answer lies in the fourth striving, the sacrifice of personal fulfillment in the Work that we do. I am reminded here of what J.G. Bennett referred to as the Master Parable, that of the Sower and the Seed. He points out in this lecture how the sower is neither the reaper nor the eater of the products of his labor, another word for Work. Indeed, not only is the results of his labor in the future but he demonstrates indifference to the result, casting everywhere. We cannot know what influence we have in these instances and so must not attribute virtue to ourselves by dint of what we do.
Probably the most common interpretation of this striving is that one moves up to being a group leader, perhaps giving lectures about the Work. Indeed, in my time with the Gurdjieff Work, I have met many who wish to see themselves as ‘teachers of the Work.” Most of these individuals, sadly, have come to some sort of hopefully reversible disaster in their Work. Here, too, the need or wish to be helpful needs mitigation with at least a ‘practice’ of being a sower, indifferent to outcome but sowing because he or she must. It is in indifferent imperative that we can find the narrow path. Then one is faced with the second temptation of gratitude, and must be also well-prepared for it.
However, there are other manifestations of Work that can be seen as ‘assistance.’ I have mentioned a few, for instance, bearing the manifestations of others unpleasing to oneself. In fact, in every moment, we have the opportunity to manifest in ways that bring help into the world as we function as conduits from the unseen world of values into this physical one. One can think of such systems of Karma Yoga, from the Bhagavad-gita, where one’s actions, when in tune with one’s Work, to surrender to what is conscionable without expectation of outcome, good or bad. We all can ascribe to such values as love, peace, patience, attention, kindness, and charity and yet find ourselves manifesting their opposite. It is in the present moment that we can assist others, both those like ourselves and those of other forms, by being true to those values we know are becoming to us.
Again, I will beg your attention for a short recap. As I have come to experience the strivings, and I am not done yet, if ever, these are tentative conclusions I have reached with the help of others.
1. This Work is for everyone. We can no longer be secret. That does not mean that all is revealed to everyone. The Work has a functioning system of groups but many are confined in their activities to those ‘similar to themselves.’ The Work needs to be inclusive, both of other paths and those whose life work lies in other areas.
2. This work does not make us special in any way. We begin as being abnormal and strive, through this teaching, to become as we should be, participators in the cosmic order; in many ways, co-creators of our world.
3. The strivings, while not entirely sequential, do have a pivotal moment in the fourth that is a profoundly necessary sacrifice, in order to proceed. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to give up all hope for personal spiritual attainment to actually reach such.
4. The Strivings are at the center of the teaching, the one guide, and everything else is very similar to Hillel’s quote, “All else is commentary.”
5. In addition, as the title suggests, the strivings are our human obligations.