Spirit in the World

“When I am very much on the surface of myself, I have no freedom of action over letting go,” taught Madame de Salzmann.  To experience the freedom of letting go, we must learn to sink down into the experience of just being here in a body, breathing.   At certain moments, the simple act of breathing can seem like the essential act of living itself.  I can feel as if I am breathing with life, with the earth as it rolls on, with time as it unfolds, as if my breathing links me with other beings in all times, with a greater unknown Whole.

“In becoming conscious of the act of breathing, we will understand better the laws governing life and how serving them brings meaning to our existence,” taught de Salzmann.  One of the simplest and greatest laws to understand is that life passes.  All the while we dream and think and thrash about in the net of tensions and emotional reactivity that traps us on the surface of our lives, our real life is rolling on below us, unnoticed.  We plot and plan our escape from the surface of our lives but it can’t happen from there.  To be free we must learn to sink deeply into what is.

“I find that I look for God by going down, by descending, and that another way of naming ‘going down’ would be to say, ‘going into the body,’” writes Joshua Boettiger in an essay for Parabola’s wonderful upcoming “Spirit in the World” issue.  The rabbi relates a powerful story from Genesis about Isaac digging anew the wells of his father Abraham.  “Rather than going up to God, this story says that we can find the right spot and dig in, and with commitment, with time, with faith, we break through into water—nourishment, sustenance, source.”   Being with the experience of breathing, with the extraordinary ordinary experience of being alive in a breathing body, is a way to dig down into the source.

In every tradition and way there is digging to be done. At the end of the steps of the Buddha’s eightfold path, comes wisdom.  After we have followed the map, after we have trod in the footsteps of the masters and learned skills, we are left to glimpse the larger laws of life in the unmapped territory of our own experience.   Think of it as being alone in nature, left to make your own fire, left to read the signs.

Few people in the modern times know the steps of the noble eightfold path as well as Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi.   In 1972, as his fellow young Americans protested the Viet Nam War and sought a way out of the confining materialism of the age, he left Western culture entirely, entering the Theravada Buddhist monastic order in Sri Lanka.  Believing the best way to help the world was to work on himself, he lived in a monastery in Asia for decades.  A master of Pali, the ancient Indo-Aryan language in which the earliest Buddhist texts are preserved, he translated, taught, and lived the way the Buddha called, “the way to the cessation of suffering.”

Yet, as he relates in a galvanizing an essay written for “Spirit in the World,” his understanding of the Buddhist path—and the spiritual path as a whole—led to a mindful yet momentous change in perspective: “Our task today, in my understanding, is to complement the ascending spiritual movement with a descending movement, a gesture of love and grace flowing down from the heights of realization into the valleys of our ordinary lives.”

Returning to the United States after decades in Asia, the accomplished monk learned more about global issues and observed how Buddhism was being assimilated in the West.  It seemed to him Buddhism itself was being taken up as a path to personal fulfillment rather than a means of tackling the deepest roots of suffering both for oneself and others.”

The fruit of his concern was the founding of Buddhist Global Relief, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating hunger, developing sustainable food production, and the education and livelihood of women and girls.    Allowing that such activities may not square perfectly with the Buddhist orthodoxy that nurtured him,   Ven. Bodhi writes “that sometimes one must give priority to one’s deep intuitions over officially sanctioned norms.”

We find our deep intuition by going down into the body, by going back to the very beginning of the path (any path), to the beginning of life itself, to the primordial experience of breathing.



*Please watch for “Spirit in the World.” investigates and celebrates many inner and outer journeys off the established map of higher truth, into wild territory of our own experience.   May it inspire you. http://www.parabola.org/






27 thoughts on “Spirit in the World

  1. Hi Tracy

    Compare Aivazovsky’s painting of the Black Sea with the picture on the top of your post. You can click on it to enlarge it. They are similar but there is a difference


    “Our task today, in my understanding, is to complement the ascending spiritual movement with a descending movement, a gesture of love and grace flowing down from the heights of realization into the valleys of our ordinary lives.”

    I compared this to Gurdjieff’s Law of Three:

    “And as regards the second fundamental primordial cosmic law, namely the sacred Triamazikamno, cosmic Objective Science formulates it in these terms. A new arising from the previously arisen through the “harnel-miatznel, the process of which is actualized thus the higher blends with the lower in order together to actualize the middle, and thus to become either higher for the preceding lower or lower for the succeeding higher.”

    They are similar but there is a difference. But like the two paintings, I experience a difference in depth and meaning.

    Is it important? I believe so.

    1. Nick, the pic on top of my post was taken from space. It is a real and valid perspective, as is Ven. Bodhi’s expression, as is Gurdjieff’s. I have grown very suspicious of the impulse of some in the Gurdjieff Work to rank some perspectives/expressions (theirs) above others. This “comparing mind”–that there is a seeming difference of depth between this NASA photo and that painting–can blind one to what is really being said. And what is being done for the good of the world by people like Ven. Bodhi. Respectfully, Tracy

  2. Nick,

    Absolutely no criticism intended whatsoever – in admitting I know very little about Gurdjieff, I really can’t be very objective. But I am curious. Having been exposed to various programs of “enlightenment”, I have noticed that most seem to semi-subconsciously present some dichotomy between esoteric and exoteric teachings, and that as you “ascend” in their program, more specialized terminology and concepts are employed. Thomas Frank wrote a very interesting article in Harpers an issue or so ago where he claimed that one of the problems that Democrats have in achieving elective office is that concepts are often presented in such highly technical terms, however true, that they fail to resonate with the general electorate. I also seem to remember that Thucidides said (and you’ll have to forgive me if I get this wrong – it’s been a long time since college) that there were three things to keep in mind when addressing any issue;

    1. Out of all possible strategies, pick the ones that are best for you,
    2. Out of those, pick the ones that are best for your CURRENT audience, and
    3. Out of those, pick the one that is most honest.

    I just wonder – if there is a practice that promises true enlightenment, what is our responsibility in initially presenting it in the most non-threatening or attractive manner? I probably should look more into Gurdjieff – but seemingly non-English-origin terms like “trimazikamno”, and “harnel-miatznel” tend to at first sight make me slightly self-conscious, as do practices of petitional prayer and relaxation/clearing my mind of all random thought. Such things seem to slow my appreciation of the practices – whether I finally decide to accept them or not.
    But this may be just an individual hang-up of my own – certainly beginning to stray from the topic at hand. Anyway, thanks for your enlightenment and patience!


    1. Hi Lewis, your point to Nick is very important. Can we find a language that can resonate with everyone who might read this blog, that doesn’t rely so much on technical terms, Gurdjieffian or otherwise? A heavy reliance on esoteric language does close hearts and minds, conveying a wish to obscure, to keep to ourselves, to be…a cult (occult).

  3. I do not like Buddhism because it seems a denial of life. But this interpretation is very good. It gives meaning to the concept that everything is linked. I knew you by your story of Elizabeth. I really liked your skepticism when needed and not have labeling that event. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Tracy

    A picture is a picture. However which depiction better represents what you wrote: “When I am very much on the surface of myself, I have no freedom of action over letting go,” taught Madame de Salzmann.

    The picture from space has no definition. However I feel the surface in Aivazovsky’s painting and the movement of my attention into the calling of the horizon or something rarely experienced within oneself. There is no discernable life in the picture yet the living aspect of the water similar to our being is within the painting.

    Does the good of the world only come from efforts within Plato’s cave or also those towards conscious freedom from its psychological prison? Most New Age efforts emphasize a quality of life within the cave. There is nothing wrong with that. However there is another side:

    Simone Weil and Thomas Merton were born in France 6 years apart – 1909 and 1915 respectively. Weil died shortly after Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani. It is unclear whether Weil knew of Merton, but Merton records being asked to review a biography of Weil (Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love, Jacques Chabaud, 1964) and was challenged and inspired by her writing. “Her non-conformism and mysticism are essential elements in our time and without her contribution we remain not human.”

    I believe Thomas Merton is right. These rare few like Simone bring a quality of energy into the cave that is a necessary awakening influence for becoming human. They serve the “good” of the world” in a way the World must reject to sustain the prison life of the cave.

    Is there a difference in the objective quality of these efforts? I believe so but that is just me.

  5. Hi Lewis

    I just wonder – if there is a practice that promises true enlightenment, what is our responsibility in initially presenting it in the most non-threatening or attractive manner?

    Unfortunately i’ve learned from experience that the non threatening attractive manner I was at one time drawn to only revealed its emptiness.

    Consider this excerpt:

    “The Gospels speak mainly of a possible inner evolution called “re-birth”. This is their central idea. … The Gospels are from beginning to end all about this possible self-evolution. They are psychological documents. They are about the psychology of this possible inner development –that is, about what a man must think, feel, and do in order to reach a new level of understanding. … Everyone has an outer side that has been developed by his contact with life and an inner side which remains vague, uncertain, undeveloped. … For that reason the teaching of inner evolution must be so formed that it does not fall solely on the outer side of man. It must fall there first, but be capable of penetrating more deeply and awakening the man himself –the inner, unorganized man. A man evolves internally through his deeper reflection, not through his outer life-controlled side. He evolves through the spirit of his understanding and by inner consent to what he sees as truth. The psychological meanings of the relatively fragmentary teaching recorded in the Gospels refers to this deeper, inner side of everyone.” – Maurice Nicoll; “The New Man”

    Sacred text is often written in a way that doesn’t appeal to our pride and vanity but instead is able to bypass them and touch a deeper part of our being we are normally unaware of. That is real art IMO and necessary for those needing truth or “the pearl of great price.”

    1. Nick,

      I think that there is perhaps more in common to our positions than there may seem. Your remarks about “inner evolution” seem similar to notions I have read concerning the “Hero Quest” – and here is my point. Ken Wilber speaks of Arthur Koestler’s notions about holons and hierarchies, which are simply series of holons – an idea that is central to Integrative Systems Theory. I am NOT suggesting that belief systems dumb themselves down in some politically-correct fashion to evangelize themselves through emptiness. Rather, I wonder if belief systems with something valuable to say should actually promote themselves in a more holistic fashion in regards to the needs and capacities of the populace at a given time. If enlightenment is a holon – several temporal frames building from the shadows of the relative truths of Plato’s Cave towards the absolute truth of the light outside (whether anyone can actually get outside the Cave while in this earthly realm without being on a par with God, thus challenging the linguistic boundary of the definitions of “man” and “God”, is probably best left for another day!), then perhaps belief systems should promote themselves on multiple levels, neither unnerving the novice nor discomforting more elder practitioners – as you seem to have been, but providing everyone their own unique path to be deeply touched by a sacred text.


  6. Hi Lewis

    I have nothing against people doing good in the world. I also know that natural law is such that everything turns in circles regardless of the best intentions. As a whole we underestimate resistance and the forces that keep everything turning in circles.

    “Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached.” Simone Weil

    I just further the minority who are open to the experience of resistance so as to see it for what it is.

    “There is no detachment where there is no pain. And there is no pain endured without hatred or lying unless detachment is present too.” Simone Weil

    This is what it would take to realistically experience inner resistance. Who is capable of it? It is far easier to avoid the experience of detachment and concentrate on doing the “right” thing. But if everything turns in circles, what happens to the “right” thing? That’s why I support the minority like simone who have lived lives capable of experiencing resistance for what it is and profit from the experience. IMO their influence is vital.

    Again, I’m not against the finest intentions. Instead I am for what I believe is essential to make good intentions become more than what paves the road to hell.

    1. With respect, Nick (and based on reading sacred texts, including some of the Pali Canon trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi) the highest level of detachment is awakening or enlightenment, and expresses itself in words and gestures of compassion. Ordinary mortals like us can start with a gentle detachment from our own views, our own cherished ideas, schools. Is it possible that people who have penetrated to great insights and understandings speak and write and teach in a way that is comprehensible to many, even children?

      Wouldn’t the greatest awakenings also lead to awakened hearts, and a wish to illuminate rather than obscure and discourage? It’s really an interesting question: What is the motivation and aim in any given expression? What serves?

  7. What is compassion? The best definition I have heard is a classical Buddhist definition: it is the quivering of the heart in response to suffering. It is an aspect of intelligence of the heart, an ability to feel a connection to others, to the whole.

  8. I do think contemplation is essential, and it is the center of contemplative practices like meditation. When the Buddha spoke of the quivering of the heart, he didn’t mean the quivering of emotional reactions, Nick. He pointed towards a deeper Being. That level of responsive is not reactivity or imagination but a deeper awareness. In the Gurdjieff Work, they would refer to it as the awakening of feeling, even a quality of higher feeling.

  9. Hi Nick,
    Sorry for not responding for so long – had to attend a low business tea on Wed., among other things.
    Anyway, I am intrigued by the image of the circle – a figure without beginning or end, as well as the concepts of attachment and detachment. Bear with me….
    If God doesn’t exist, then the universe is pretty much without meaning. If man in this case is without free-will, then he is a machine, at best suffering from the delusion of free-will. If man does somehow have free-will, it is only in the service of those decisions that will prolong his life a few days further.
    Either way, man is of little value.
    If God does exist but denies man free will, then the Malign Thug has created a race of automatons – apparently for his own sadistic pleasure. But if God gave man the gift of free will — then man CAN HAVE value. He can share in the holon of Creation as well as the holon of man’s potential.
    A potential for growth.
    A potential for change.
    A potential for spirit’s connection with God
    But what to do with such a state? It’s hard for me to believe that a Good God, as defined, would go to all of this trouble for man, as defined, if the result is only to spin in circles.
    I believe the dangers of unresolved subconscious emotions and unintended consequences weigh in here. Consider Descartes. When he uttered “I think, therefore I am”, instead of “I love”, or “I give”, or “I serve, therefore I am”, I personally detect no malice – the statement is simply an exemplar of brevity and logic – as far as it goes. But without reference to it’s necessary relationship to man’s constant responsibility to man – if man has value – the unintended consequence has been the emergence of egoism in science, which degraded into egotism, and finally solipcism – the omniscient self of scientism (read the experiments of Nazi doctors on slave-laborers).
    I think this is a problem for societies that abandon the conscious possibility of inner growth in favor of the rewards of cynicism.
    Societies running in circles.
    But what if, instead of circles, spirals? True, in short frames of time the same old circularities would be apparent. But in the long run, directionality appears. Man can, if he chooses, to start spiraling out of the relative dark shadows of Plato’s Cave towards the bright absolute light outside.
    Along still another holon.
    Pain and dissapointment are funny things – no matter how well read, how well trained in reason we are, the enevitable flaws of a life lived can derail us.
    I know.
    And are attachment and detachment as presented real, or are they slightly off-center? As a false-dichotomy?
    I really don’t know – the one thing that strikes me is that anything that speaks to Plato’s Static Universe, anything that speaks to a loss of faith and cynicism strikes me as counter-intuitive to a life of value – life designed for us by God.
    Regardless of what our literary heroes, each of who I believe have not, as human beings, reached the Absolute Truth of God, but are somewhere on their own Hero Journey – a single holon stacked together as a process, a holon we call life.
    Anyway, thanks for putting up with all my blathering.
    One more thing – this prematurely graying, chai-tea drinking epileptic Pisces suspects that the broad-shouldered, long-nosed scotch-drinking Ares probably deserves more than a few mindless blondes at his bedside -don’t be afraid to find the courage to die to yourself and grow to see the value you have to yourself and society.
    Although the chess sounds good.



  10. Nick,
    Again I get the sense that we are largely saying the same thing – it’s just a few definitions and ideas that may differ.
    Creation indicates a creator. I am imagining an individual entity/God – not tied to any given religion or sect. I suspect all have some small puzzle piece of the truth – it’s just all the ridiculous cultural concerns getting appended that cause trouble.
    If this God is omnipotent (if not, we run into another definitional problem), if God is not a sadist yet man exists only to serve this God/universe, then why not just create things at the desired, somehow utopian end-point – instead of messing with this tragic reality that we are locked into – a reality where it does’t seem we are serving anything very well?
    I think the only answer is that the PROCESS is of greater critical importance.
    And process is change.
    Yes, I can see the power of apprehension being latent in man AT SOME POINT – perhaps at the very holon of birth. But again, the idea of man being trapped in a cycle where his free will is essentially meaningless doesn’t make sense to me. A man comes to a fork in the road – two possibilities present themselves. But if man is pre-programmed – even against free will in some way, to choose left over right, how can he find value in himself?
    And what does this say about the value of God if He has to stack the deck in His own favor?
    The notion of holons appeals to me because, not only does it destroy the idea of dichotomy and the hidey-hole of isolation, it reinforces the concept of relationship – and the responsibilities therein. In the mathematics I have studied, a true equation can only be as such if it is in some sense reverseable. Physical and chemical reactions are propelled via the inequities of entropy to be sure, but given the right circumstances (and enough energy at the right time!) these reactions can theoretically be reversed also. This seems to be a law of nature – things exist at any one time along the spectrums or holons of relationships – in a two-way fashion.
    Why not God and man? How define undeveloped – constant or no? I can only speak for myself – I haven’t lived past 50, and I haven’t had a near-death experience – neither have I died, so I don’t know what the state of my human nature will become as the holons of my life pass by. But why fight gravity in favor of grace if we are little more than unchangeable little pellets of Play-Doh, doomed to just return to and serve the giant blob in eternity? I just think Gurdjieffe and Needleman (and yourself) are right in a TEMPORAL fashion. We see one holon of undevelopment, lack the perspective and the ability to spelunk around in someone’s brain – so we can’t see the potential development that man can undergo.
    So we assume that there was none.
    But doesn’t it just make sense, regardless of what anyone else reasons out, that a Good God wouldn’t want to allow for value – wouldn’t want to see His creations, made in His image have the power to actualize their potential – however microscopic the level.
    And I am not knocking cute blondes and good scotch – it’s just that I suspect you are deserving of more – including HONEST compassion when needed.


  11. Nothing to add really, except that I cannot wait until the next issue is out. ;-)

    I’m late to the conversation, as seems to be usual for me these days. Too many irons and too many fires, all good though.

  12. It seems to me that one possible way to distinguish “dishonest compassion” is that it is driven by the need or expectation of receiving some form of recognition in return for whatever act of generosity has been offered in response to whatever has set off the “quivering heart”. It is manipulative at its base.

    “Honest compassion” requires no recognition whatsoever in return for the act. The more cynical among us might point out that such acts do bring a certain self-satisfaction to the doer – a certain self-recognition of “myself as a good person” or perhaps “myself compensating for my negative acts in the world”.

    In any case, we have no choice but to act in the world – and it’s all in the nuances of the choices we make, either consciously or not, as we go about it.

    1. Hi Chris, I think this is a very wise measure of the nature of compassion–or anything else. And we can see how our motivations change moment by moment, how intricate every action feels.

  13. Hi Nick,
    Well, perhaps there are a few things that we will have to agree to disagree with – for now.
    Just a few final thoughts before Tracy’s next missive:
    1. Just because the personal God is unsatisfying, does that necissarily mean that He doesn’t exist? If on the off-chance that He does, should He change for you, you for Him, or some middle ground that true relationships usually encourage if they are to survive?
    2. Perhaps humanities purpose is to find it’s value by choosing to “detatch” mindless mass-media garbage that we are innundated with in favor of “attaching” to our common-sense experiences – especially if it requires us to proove our value by rejecting the beloved beliefs of the relative shadows of a previous holon in favor of the slightly more absolute, less shadowy holons coming up on the radar-screen of life – even if they are only a micrometer closer to the truth.
    3. Is such faith an example of “knowing thyself”? (Quite frankly, even though I think I have always agreed with St. Paul in Romans 7, his strange mix of narcissism and masochism has always made me leery of regarding him as a ‘fully enlightened being” worth following without question – a rock to be sure, but set on an unstable foundation).
    4. Yes, “Know thyself” should be the STARTING POINT – what else can we work with from the first? But if there is the slightest possibility that the sections of circularity we are allowed to se can potentially unite into a spiral of direction towards something better, GRAB FOR IT – what have you to loose if you are wrong – will the Ayn Rand police come and arrest you for “attempted hope”? Will Rush Limbaugh denounce you on air for “criminal compassion? – (come to think of it, that might be a very satisfying thing!). If you could choose to find some sort of Zen balance between gently encouraging thoes who need enlightenment, while getting in the face of the a******s who are helping to disintigrate the possibilities of this culture with their lies, you might find an even higher value in yourself.
    5. Finally, I see honest compassion comming from thoes who actually mean it, offering it not because they feel society demands it, but out of a sense of love – on some level. Dishonest compassion either arises from said cultural ignorance, or thoes parasites who have mixed motives.
    Anyway, that is my rant for today.


  14. Dear all,

    Your comments are appreciated. But in addition to being truthful, useful, and timely, please also be mindful of length. Thank you.

  15. Lewis

    Simone only appeals to a minority. I believe along with Thomas Merton that her infuence for the minority open to it is essential.

    But as you can see, it rocks the boat as is the norm for the modern way. Philip Zaleski appreciated the human condition. Doing so in these times is largely considered disruptive as it has become here.

    It is no use continuing. I am more attracted to the value of the raw reality that has been rejected. What I draw from it benefits me so it is natural to be a part of and support the minority that can profit from it.

    All the best


    1. Dear Nick, Lewis, all,

      Please understand that it is not the views express that disrupt the flow of conversation–Phillip Zaleski is beloved family member and his evolving views flow freely. It is the way that views are expressed that can be disruptive. Long, long, long comments–along with having private conversations that stray far from the subject–shut down the flow of exchange. It is not facing raw reality to highjack a blog that invites exchange. It’s just plain rude. In spite of hearing from readers who have left off reading this blog, put off by what they felt were tangents, I decided to be completely open. Now, however, I feel it is most helpful to encourage you to participate with more awareness, or have private email exchanges–or launch your own blogs.

  16. Dear All,
    If in engaging in this conversation I have managed to get off tangent – or I have been rude, I am very, very sorry. This was not my intention. (I’m not the brightest person!)
    Nick, if I am reading you right, I just was to say that I think everyone is stronger with you that without you.
    Please reconsider.

    1. Dear Lewis,

      Apology accepted. I do not think you were intentionally rude. But if you and Nick wish to have long exchanges addressed exclusively to one another, it is best that it be done privately.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.