G.I. Gurdjieff once told some of his early students in Russia to consider the origin of things. Where did this cup, this coffee, this food on my plate come from? How did all these things that touch me come to be made? Years later in America, Martin Luther King Jr. offered a similar example in a speech, saying that people and things from all over the world contribute to our daily survival. Even more recently, and possibly influenced by the other two men, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn created a prayer before eating that encouraged people to recognize all the suffering that goes into growing, harvesting, and transporting the food to winds up on our plates. This practice of looking into things can lead to a greater awareness of our interdependent state and to feelings of compassion.
When I first came upon it about thirty years ago, Gurdjieff’s suggestion that we look into the origin of things–including the practices and beliefs of our ancestors–acted on me like a kind of slow-motion depth charge. It blew open my mind to the mystery behind seemingly solid and straightforward things, like our bodies. A few years ago, after I sent a sample of my DNA to National Geographic’s Genographic Project, I received a map that helped me picture what the Gurdjieff exercise helped me begin to feel: None of us really “own” our human bodies. They are living legacies from distant common ancestors who arose in Africa and fanned out all over the globe. They are living records of interconnection, and of search.
Now, a gift has come to Parabola that reminds me–and will remind many other people who read it–that there is another dimension to the mystery of our lives. In the next issue The Future (which will be arriving in mailboxes, at Barnes and Noble, and other outlets on November 1) there will be an excerpt from The Reality of Being by Jeanne de Salzmann, the foremost pupil of G.I. Gurdjieff. These writings on the Fourth Way , which will be published as a book in May 2010, do more than instruct. They embody and convey what it is like to wake up to and live from our full potential as human beings. Even if one is far from being able to understand, let alone practice, what the writings point towards, Madame de Salzmann’s words have a special quality. They make a person feel that it might really be true, what Gurdjieff taught. There might really be a lineage of wisdom that is far more ancient than Jesus or Socrates or Buddha–and it might be alive and waiting to lead us to the mystery of our relationship to the divine, to what is hidden in us and beyond.