“Man is a make-believe animal,” wrote William Hazlitt. “He is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.”
I am looking out at a white world through window framed with the uneven spikes of ice cycles.”What are these daggers I see before me?” I’m moving from Hazlitt to Macbeth because of the daggers of ice hanging from everybody’s house, and because reports of a coming “monster storm” have taken such an ominous, apocalyptic turn. People are talking about this latest evidence of the effects of climate change in the way they talked in the opening of the famous Scottish play– as if the world has been knocked out of balance by ill deeds. There is grounds for this, of course. The earth urgently needs our care and attention. But we also need to see what gets in the way of seeing situation clearly and responding, not just reacting and projecting? Today, because I am living in a little house in a wooded area that now looks today like a fairy tale cottage, all framed in ice cycles. Today, because my neighbors and I are burrowing in in the face of reports of a storm advancing like a great beast or monstrous army–today, I am aware that I am actually am living in a fairy tale.
I go walking through falling snow. As I slip and slide down the hill and around the lake, I am full of plans and worries and desires to have this and avoid that. Different scenarios well up and pass away. P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins and a founding editor of Parabola, said that everyone has to be the hero of one story: their own. Not to be is unthinkable. This is what the brain does, spins a story starring us, even if we are anti-heroes (which is not uncommon. Most of us are very self-critical). Whether we are or not we are almost always caught up in the narratives of our journey: This is who I am and this is what life is like. Yet there are moments when we wake up, moments when inner or outer conditions cause us to be here now. Anything might pierce us, a bird call, the pristine beauty and silence of the snow.
This morning it was a kindly neighbor telling me part of her roof has collapsed under the weight of the snow. What should she do? I told her to call her insurance company, there are nice people there who can tell her what to do. Hardly original, and such a small help, but still maybe a little helpful. I stood with her awhile and extending a little neighborly compassion lifted me up out of my own story. It reminded me that we can change our story or our role within it. We can learn to cultivate the “thin places,” those times when the dream isn’t so thick. At those moments, I believe we may begin to move from scripted character to co-author of our lives. At those moments, we may begin to learn how freeing it can be to act a part, to play a role.
“In order to be, we have to “play a role,” writes Madame de Salzmann. We need to find a way to reconcile our aspirations to awaken to the higher, to Truth, with our natural desire to express ourselves, act out all our various perfectly good and natural strivings and intentions in life. How can we do this? We must strive to be present, taught Madame de Salzman, Buddha, God himself. “To be present requires dividing the attention,” writes de Salzmann. “Three-quarters must be kept inside and only one-quarter allowed to support the movement toward manifestation.” By keeping the attention inside, I believe she means being mindfully aware of the body, feelings, thoughts moment by moment. By one-quarter of the attention supporting “the movement towards manifestation,” I believe she means living consciously. She means being with desires as they arise, neither repressing them or getting lost in them: “At one moment, for example, I may experience a wish to indulge a pleasure like smoking or eating. Either I immediately give in to the idea and have no contact with the desire, or I refuse and create conflict, again without contact because I have dismissed the desire. And everything that arises in me proceeds like this. The desire is life is life itself in me, extraordinarily beautiful, but because I do not know it and do not understand it, I experience frustration, a certain pain, in giving in or in repressing it. So, the struggle is to live with the desire, not refusing it or losing myself in it, until the mechanism of the thinking no longer has an action on me, and the attention is free.”
In other words, we can be with the energy of desire for this or that, not identifying it with the mind but experiencing it as a manifestation of the life force–extraordinarily beautiful! The movement to be made is not to repress or indulge but to invite or somehow kindle and keep lit an awareness that can accompany us as we seek to fulfill our desires.
Working this way we see that the realization of spiritual truth is situational, particular, a unique moment of alchemy when attention turns the lead of usual sleep into gold. We don’t obtain this kind of truth so much as give ourselves to it for a moment. It is an act of seeing and service.
Today, as I bring in wood and lay a fire in the woodstove in case of the massive power outages that are predicted in the “monster snow” now advancing across the country like a blind beast of an army, I vow to try not to be completely taken by the story of the storm and my desires for, say, electricity and internet and hot water. I vow to try to consciously play this role.
12 thoughts on “Make-believe Animal”
I don’t put much faith in prescriptions and flowing descriptions about how to be spiritual. My interest are in the hints, ideas and guidance of those elders whom I have known or have followed by way of their writings and advice to others. Amongst them are Gurdjieff, Tracol, Madame de Salzmann, Mr. Segal, Madame de Dampierre, Lord Pentland, Mrs Stavely, Paul Reynard, Lizelle Reymond, Sri Anirvan … ah the list seems large. How have I been so fortunate to have been touched by these truly great humans. But I ramble. The ideas and guidance of these folks sustain me. If I come in fact to experience the truth of an idea a step has been made. Never again will it remain just an idea. It has, in small part, formed my Being.
How, in a moment, do I come to understand? A mystery. No formula will do, none at all. No story will suddenly bring me to experience its reality, its truth. What then I ask does? It appears, most often, when I am wrought in an intolerable situation. One that perhaps has reapeated for years. It wriggles itself into my soul, so to speak, and a need arises, a need to not continue in the same rut. But I do not know what to do. I have tried this and that. Nothing worked. Of a sudden there is light and I see that the intolerable situation is because I did not feel in my gut the necessity for something else. Even when this feeling is there I don’t know what or how to do but then help comes from above. I am suddenly shown a new route a new path, a new way. And perhaps it was a seemingly simple idea, a simple suggestion that stayed with me over the years just waiting for its time to light up inside me.
Your description of finding yourself in an intolerable situation is what I meant by truth being situational, particular, lived in the moment or not real at all.
Tracy, Reading your post earlier today, I was taken back to find the page numbers in both the hardcover of Kathryn Hulme’s Undiscovered Country (mid-page of page 131) or in the paperback (mid-page of page 103), which we read at out 13th celebration in St. Louis with Kansas City and we two from Des Moines, Iowa. As I write at nightfall bracing for more of the snowstorm, I thought the mentioned section would be worth sharing with you and Jeffrey on the eve of this helluva storm. and maybe the words read of a New Year’s gathering for warmth as Gurdjieff speaks about candlelight being the best lighting because blends, where electric lighting does not blend. Maybe you have some candles for the occasion, all the better. In case you don’t have one of the books there, let me know and I’ll type it out for some additional warmth. I do enjoy your posts. And a warm hello to Jeffrey as well.
Hi Elizabeth, Thank you for your kind words. I will definitely look and dig out this book, and candles! Stay safe, cozy, and warm. It’s going to be a helluva storm from Des Moines to New York.
Dear Tracy and Elizabeth,
This beautiful passage from “Undiscovered Country” was copied out recently for the “Parabola” Christmas Newsletter and it was also read at our 13th celebration here in Toronto:
“He was sitting on his divan and nodded as we filed past him and found places around the Christmas tree. He seemed rested.… He asked Canary [in later years, Gurdjieff customarily gave special names to his pupils] to put out all the lights and to plug in the contact that lit the tree. We sat in silence for several minutes. Then Gurdjieff said: “This I like. Such tree makes you quiet, peaceful inside. It is like sitting before an open fire. Coziness.”
The mirror over the mantel reflected the tree’s colored lights. Wendy whispered, “I see two trees …” and started our master talking about reflected light, a chapter out of his unknown past.
“It would be better if it was candlelight,” he said. “Candlelight blends better; electricity does not blend. But the most beautiful light I know, is the light I saw many times in Persia. They make a clay cup, fill it with mutton fat, put twist of cotton in, and this they burn for holiday, fete, wedding. This light burns longer than any other kind of light—even for two days one such small cup will burn. And such light—the most beautiful for blending. For Mohammedan fete, once I saw a whole house lit by such lights … such brightness you cannot imagine, it was like day. You have seen Bengal lights? This I speak about was even more bright. For man, it is the best light for reading …” A note of nostalgia for the Near East came into his voice. “In Persia, they even arrange rooms for such light. Once I saw one I can never forget. They hang mirrors everywhere, even floors and ceilings have mirrors—then around, in special places to make decoration, they put such clay cups with mutton fat, and when you see—it makes the head spin. Wherever you look, you see lights, endless, thousands. You cannot imagine how it was. Only, one must see—and when you see you would never imagine that such a beautiful sight comes from such small idiot thing as this clay cup of mutton fat.…”
“One other thing about such lights,” he went on, “is most original. When they make them with frozen fat, this they put together in layers, each layer with a special perfume, with separations between layers so that when they burn—first you smell, then the room fills with one perfume; after half an hour with another, and then another—all planned exact! Such knowledge they had before … such candles they made consciously and everybody had them. Such was life then! Now … they make them automatically …”
A sadness settled over our spirit after he had spoken, as so often happened when he made a glowing picture of how man once was—simple, unspoiled, aware of his soul and its needs.”
–Kathryn Hulme, Undiscovered Country: A Spiritual Adventure, Boston: Little Brown, 1966, pp. 131–33.
Luke,your typing out the full reading from Kathryn Hulme’s Undiscovered Country was so helpful. I knew I couldnt’ do it without tons of mistakes, due mostly to cataracts. So thank you for that really useful addition. Best regards, Elizabeth Evans, Des Moines, Iowa
Hello Elizabeth and Luke,
I read this passage last night, cozy under a pile of blankets, and I remembered it from Parabola’s Christmas newsletter. Ice is falling outside and I might soon be experiencing the coziness of candlelight and firelight for quite a while. What struck me reading it, and writing to you now, is that capacity in men and women is not past. We can still be “simple, unspoiled, aware of [our] soul and its needs.” As I prepare for this ongoing “monster storm” I see that that attitude is still in me, waiting for conditions to be right, like a seed waiting to be watered. And I recognize it in relationship, including this internet space. Coziness. Thanks!
Simone Weil wrote: “I can, therefore I am.”
“I can” what? If she is right it means that “to be” requires becoming able to be. Madam de Salzmann IMO illuminates the idea in “The Look from Above.”
I consider “I Am” to be the ultimate connection and unification of above and below as levels of reality.
Madam de Salzmann wrote:
This is my struggle: a struggle against the passivity of my thought. A struggle without which nothing more conscious can find room, can be born. It is a struggle to leave the illusion of “I” in which I live, in order to come closer to a more real seeing. At the heart of this struggle an order is created in the chaos, a hierarchy: two levels are revealed, two worlds. As long as there is only one level, there can be no seeing. Recognition of another level—that is the awakening of Thought.
Without this effort, thought falls back into a sleep inhabited by words, images, set notions, approximate knowledge, dreams and various disturbances. It is the thought of a man without intelligence. It is terrible to realize suddenly that one has lived without one’s own independent thought. Without intelligence. Without anything that sees what is real. And so, without connection with the world Above.
It is in my essence that I reunite with that which sees. If I could stay there, I would be at the source of something unique, something stable, at the source of that which does not change.
At times we can admit how far we are from this ability so as to become oneself. I believe this humble experiential recognition is a necessary beginning.
I was without power for two days, therefore no water (I have a well with electric pump), no heat, no light, no tv, no computer. The weather disturbed all my habits and brought them to light. It is amazing how asleep I am to the routine things I do over and over each day. With the power off, even so, each time I went into the bathroom I reached for the light switch. I reached for the fawcett handle, impulses came again and again to turn on the tv. I kept day dreaming about a hot shower. Habit after habit became visible and I saw that living I am mostly automatic. Why should I not be present each time I turn on a light even though it is automatic? But maybe this is way beyond my capability.
Art, If we are a plurality as suggested, how could it be any different? If we were conscious, our lower centers would react harmoniously in accordance with higher conscious influences.
P D Ouspensky : “When a man begins to know himself a little he will see in himself many things that are bound to horrify him. So long as a man is not horrified at himself he knows nothing about himself.”
This is where Simone helps me. Modern philosophy and New Age thought lead us towards “wonderful thoughts” that help us to avoid experiencing and admitting the reality of the human condition while furthering our attachment to those two primal sins: false pride and vanity.
Simone was one of those rare individuals willing to recognize and consciously experience the human condition and allow those capable to get a glimpse of what we lose by this denial. She invited through impartial detachment these situational moments Tracy refers to.
Of course this attitude is only for a minority and should never be imposed on anyone. Yet my heart goes out to these rare individuals who both suffer so much and are slandered by society.
Gurdjieff Aphorism 29:
Blessed is he who has a soul, blessed is he who has none, but woe and grief to him who has it in embryo.
This used to frighten me but now I at least accept intellectually that it must be in the same way a chick struggles to break an egg or a caterpillar struggles to escape the cocoon. The only difference is that for man it is a conscious struggle with the dominance of the shell he has created around himself.
Glad you have heat and light, and all the rest. It’s very much like this when you go on a silent meditation retreat also. You hear the inner automatism, not just the associations but the inner pressure to think and dream.
Bearing Water for Brigid
Sketches for a water vessel —
bottle and message elide on waves.
Voice of Brigid calls.
All who hear: Imagine.
Exposed to wind, to grit, to rain
rock faces erode.
Designated fixed space
Conveyor through fluid
Creates place, surface to paint.
diffusement of emotion,
beatitude, foment of dueling farce.
Harsh edges polished,
blend in the dark.
of giddy illusion
just enough to guilefully entice.
Sparkling Neural net
wild eternal child,
ages’ flamboyant fool,
(Voice rains from within)
A wound is a sacred vessel.
Pain carves into flesh
carries the seed
of its own demise.
engulfed in life
learns anew to be whole.
Wounded with the potential for wisdom
when eyes are are pried
from seeping, sucking, suffering
aching to censure what future we admire.
Redefine the schizm.
This wound is our project.
To heal, discover the vision;
realign the seam to fit
Let loose that genie of desire.
Ride rushing blood streams.
Build a roaring pyre of grief,
insane belief in wrathfilled deities.
Revile that old refrain: “life is pain” or a game
to be lost.
No Faustian bargain.
essence of ecstasy.
Don’t wait for the rest to see
Stretch your sail.
Take sight of your guiding star.
The only failure is self-denial
in favor of the vile lie
that pain is destiny
instead of faithful friend
Slice vivid memories.
Exult in the tastes, the textures.
Enliven your way.
In the end
the vessel breaks.
There the Goddess stirs