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Going Beyond the Mind: Seeing the Truth in Action

May 18, 2009

There are many people who assume that spiritual work is mostly of the mind. One can go to satsangs, spiritual talks, and other such events and hear inspiring words about presence, self-realization, love, egolessness, non-duality, and so on. At such events, one will invariably notice the affirmative nods and smiles of most of the listeners, who clearly like what they hear. If, however, one consciously (or unconsciously) steps on the corns of some of the people attending such events, one quickly sees that not all is as it seems.

For example, after one such gathering–led by a well-known spiritual personage–someone I knew from a teaching I had studied for several years came up to me with a smile on his face and said “Hello, Dennis,” which I appreciated. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember his name. When I told him that I had forgotten his name, a dark cloud, a frown, flashed across his face, which, after several moments, turned back into a smile. Now I am all for smiling (I write about the importance of smiling and “the smiling breath” in many places), but it was clear to me at that moment that his smile was an effort to cover up his irritation and maintain the image that he had of himself. Perhaps he saw this identification with his self-image, and, if so, that is all anyone can ask.

Another time I was waiting in line to get my room assignment in San Francisco at the Whole Life Expo for a talk I was giving. The person in front of me was a well-known spiritual author and teacher. She had a huge smile on her face and was a paradigm of calmness. When the woman giving the assignments told her which space she was going to be speaking in, the teacher erupted with disbelief, irritation, and tension. “I cannot be in that room,” she said. “I want a better room. It’s impossible to teach in that room.” After about ten minutes of checking and rechecking what other spaces were available, she finally got her way. And, with a huge smile, headed off toward her talk. Did she see herself impartially during that exchange? I have no idea.

But that is by no means the end of the story. Who do you think got the space she had just rejected? Why, me, of course. And she got the space that was originally assigned to me. There was a certain spiritual justice about that since my talk was entitled Awakening to the Miracle of Ordinary Life. This indeed was “ordinary life”! When I walked into my newly assigned space, which happened to be quite large and noisy (with people walking by to get into other rooms), I saw why the other teacher hadn’t wanted it. But I also realized that this was a perfect situation for what I was going to be speaking of. So a certain calmness came over me and I discovered an entirely new way not just to speak (so that I could be heard) but also a new way to be in relation to the various thoughts, emotions, and sensations that were arising as I spoke. A great sense of inner freedom appeared, the freedom to welcome the truth.

Before any of these events took place, I had been seriously involved in the Gurdjieff Work in San Francisco for some 18 years. In “The Work,” as it was called (not to be confused with Byron Katie’s teachings), we worked with, among many other things, learning how to observe with absolute sincerity the energies and manifestations of mind, body, and emotions. And this work was not just a matter of listening to people speak, thinking about the teaching, and so on, but of actually testing our understanding and presence in the midst of intense activities with others, where, in fact, our corns were stepped on frequently. It wasn’t a matter of what we liked or didn’t like—in fact, Gurdjieff made clear that identification with our likes and dislikes was a big part of our inner slavery, our sleep. No, it was a matter of actually observing this process in action and, through these observations, discovering the power and clarity of consciousness itself. And the teacher did not just speak beautiful words and express great ideas while we listened (though that did happen), but also put us to the test in many ways. What was at stake was not just our mind but our entire being. Perhaps this little story will help convey a sense of what I mean.

Lord John Pentland

Lord John Pentland

I had been involved with the San Francisco Gurdjieff Foundation for three or four years, and I had gone to New York from San Francisco to take part in some special work activities there: group meetings, sacred dances, meditation, physical labor, and much more. Lord Pentland, who had worked with both P.D. Ouspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff and was the president of the New York Gurdjieff Foundation, invited me to his home outside the city before the organized events began, as he often did. When I arrived, he immediately put me to work raking leaves in his rather spacious yard. He instructed me to take the leaves I raked and dump them over the fence in an adjoining vacant lot, which already contained many piles of leaves. He then told me in no uncertain terms that my inner task was to be present to myself as I raked the leaves, to actually sense and observe what was going on in my inner and outer worlds.

After a couple hours of working in this way, and having found a comfortable sensation and rhythm of raking while taking in the smells that reminded me of raking leaves when I was a teenager in Wisconsin, I suddenly smelled and saw smoke coming from the lot where I had been dumping the leaves. I quickly threw the rake down, ran over to the fence, and saw that the leaves were in fact on fire. I also noticed that there were some houses that seemed very close to the fire. In near panic I ran back to Lord Pentland’s house and pounded excitedly on the front door. It took him what seemed like an eternity to come to the door and open it. When I told him about the fire, he slowly took a couple of steps outside, peered at the smoke that was visible over the fence, looked calmly back at me, remained silent for a minute or two, and then in a very calm yet serious voice said: “I told you that your only task was to stay present to yourself as you raked the leaves. Continue raking but don’t throw the leaves over the fence. I’ll take care of the fire.”

In great turmoil, partly because of the fire, but also because I had become so completely identified with my emotions of anxiety and fear and didn’t want to be seen by my teacher as having “lost it” (though I realized that I had), I continued raking the leaves. And in the midst of all the impressions of both the turmoil and my wish to follow my teacher’s instructions, I was brought back to the reality of how little relationship there was between what my mind believed it knew and my actual understanding. I saw my functioning and my being as it actually was. Within a few minutes, a fire truck arrived and put out the fire, which, in fact, turned out to be a rather small one. The houses that I had thought were so close to the fire were never threatened and, when I looked later appeared now to be much farther away than I had imagined.

Now, of course, you, like me, might assume that Lord Pentland started the fire for my benefit. And perhaps he did. But I never asked him. What I had learned that day was far too valuable to link up with my ego belief that I was somehow special enough for him to take this action on my behalf. The fact is, I don’t know. After the event was over, I remembered some kids playing around in the space. Perhaps one of them started the fire. But it really doesn’t matter, for life itself is constantly providing shocks that can help us awaken from our sleep. But what is our attitude when these shocks actually appear? It is in the face of this living question that there is a possibility to see and welcome the truth that is being revealed now, and to discover that it is the welcoming itself, the willingness to receive impressions of life just “as it is,” that is who or what we are at the deepest level of being. For me, at least, when this welcoming appears there is a deep sense of returning home.

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