The question is not whatto do but how to see,” writes Jeanne de Salzmann, the foremost student of Gurdjieff and a great teacher in her own right. I knew her as a very old French woman with white hair, perfect posture, and a quality of presence that brought this quality of seeing together with a response that is hard to describe, a love of life, a stepping forward, a dropping of everything that gets in the way of being here. “Seeing is the most important thing—the act of seeing. I need to realize that it is truly an act, an action that brings something entirely new, a new possibility of vision, certainty and knowledge. This possibility appears during the act itself and disappears as soon as the seeing stops. It is only in this act of seeing that I will find a certain freedom.”
Seeing is more than looking–noting and naming, believing we know. Seeing, like praying, is the action of letting go of all that I think I know, opening to receive the unknown. Last entry, I set up an imaginary horror film, ending with a scene of bloody death and a question about what happened. Why did I cast it this way? It struck me with real force that what really happened–the real horror of the situation–was that a life was carried away by outside forces without the conscious knowledge or voluntary participation of the recipient of that life. And the real, real horror is that we act as If this is not a far-fetched situation when it is actually our usual state of being. When this leaving our body, this being spirited away without know, is actually happening to each of us all the time. We live our lives at a distance from life, closed to our true possibilities, unable to receive what is constantly being offered, lost in thought.
But sometimes life dishes up possibilities that allow us to see this. Last week, I went to the doctor because I’ve had a raspy hoarse voice for about three months. Those around me pushed me to go, tired of me labeling this husky voice as “woman of the world” or some nonsense. The doctor, being thorough, sent me for a chest x-ray to rule out lung cancer. I do not have lung cancer. But for a night and a very long day I had a chance to live as if it was a possibility. At moments, instead of why me, I considered why not me. After all, a number of wonderful people I know have received this news–why not me?
In those moments when I was not lost in self-centered thought, it was easier to open to the unknown, to look around and see. There seems to be something inherently negative about egocentric thought. Even when it involves dreaming about winning it casts life as a grubby kind of battle. But the truly breathtaking realization came in seeing that I live in a fog of thought and dreams and words and dreams and assumptions. In those startled moments of seeing, I felt unknown to myself, a mystery, an empty stillness inside a revolving swarm of thought. I felt unknown and also untested, a somewhat worn newborn who might have a capacity for something other than thinking–a capacity for stepping forward, for opening to receiving, and for manifesting qualities of heart needed to do that, qualities like truthfulness and determination. I saw at least for a few moments that we need to make a new kind of effort in life, in prayer or meditation or being in nature, or we run the risk of being carried away by the centrifical force of thought and other forces.
“I need to see the illusion of words and ideas, and the fear of my thinking mind to be alone and empty without the support of anything known,” writes De Salzmann. Can I be with the unknown? Not for long. I long for it and fear it (in fact, I think this is where the appeal of horror films comes from).
“Seeing does not come from thinking. It comes from the shock at the moment when, feeling an urgency to know what is true, I suddenly realize that my thinking mind cannot perceive reality. To understand what I really am at this moment, I need sincerity and humility, and an unmasked exposure that I do not know. This would mean to refuse nothing, exclude nothing, and enter into the experience of discovering what I think, what I sense, what I wish, all at this very moment.”
May we all have moments of such seeing, excluding nothing.
9 thoughts on “How to See”
“The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors. odd beings. terrors, and deluding images up into the mind – whether in dream, broad daylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared integrate into our lives.”
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Fiona, it’s amazing how powerful those vapors, those dreams are. We imagine whole worlds.
So true, if we can just be present to it and not draw back. It’s a topic which has risen this week in many guises from your blog, to Joseph Campbell, to a meditation by Joyce Rupp, to the 12th step in the 12 & 12………………….hmmmm it’ll be interested to see what emerges…………………………..if anything :-)
Funny, just before I read this I had been talking with someone about how cell phones and attempts at multitasking draws us out of ourselves and being present. I agree with you that we allow ourselves to be stolen away, drawn away by virtual distractions (and distractions of the mind) that prevent incarnational presence. And yes, there are demons in this. How many times have I seen a parent walking down the street, texting or talking on the phone, being trailed by young children crying for the attention and presence of that parent. Surely it is evil to not be present to one who depends on you for everything, including their ability to be fully present in their own future. Hence, we see increasing problems with attachment and disassociative disorders, surely terms that could have been plucked from the spirit world.
I am trying to initiate a conversation in my city about bringing mindfulness training into our subpar, struggling, urban schools. What an incredible gift it would be for these children to still the swirl of voices in their heads. What an incredible gift it would be for these children to be able to move their emotions from their centers to their peripheral consciousness so they could avoid escalating confrontations and simply walk away. What an incredible gift for all of us to “Be still and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10)
Being still with ourselves and with others is becoming incredibly rare and precious. It is a kind of evil, being not really being there for the ones we love. And I also feel we are meant to be all here, body, heart, and mind (at least some of the time) to witness, to literally hold, experience…we are meant to take our place…as small as we may think we are, it really matters.
“We live our lives at a distance from life… lost in thought.” ~ TC
“I need to see…the fear of my thinking mind to be alone…,” writes De Salzmann
Thank you for these important reminders.
It is as if I am training my mind to be like a confident swimmer. Rather than clinging to the wall of illusion, I can actually let go. I can swim without fear of drowning. I can move away from the wall.
Daydreams and illusions can make us feel excitement, a fleeting sense of the fulfillment of desire, even dread but like the demons of Mara, they take us away from the reality of being. If we continually succumb to their unreal manifestations, we can literally miss out on our lives.
But it takes courage to be in the midst of the here and now. Sometimes the here and now is boring or terrifying or more likely, not what our fantastic fantasies can conjure up. But by staying in the here and now, I can experience the miraculous.
Thank you for an opportunity to experience the miraculous.
Hi Elizabeth, letting go of thoughts and just being does feel like moving from the shallows to the depths, doesn’t it? It’s scary because we’re leaving the known for the unknown…but it feels miraculous when we manage to let go, doesn’t it?
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