Sunday, July 25, 2010

What We Are II - Evolution and Animality

Some people think that we are highly evolved animals, cousins of the apes. Actually, it’s commonly supposed that most people think this, or should I say that most ‘intelligent’ people think this. By intelligent I’m excluding those who base their cosmologies on a book, as opposed to on organic relics dug up from the ground. Such ‘believers’ might consider themselves intelligent, but my point is that mainstream ‘respectable’ opinion does not.

Actually, it’s interesting to wonder what percentage of the 6.8 billion people walking the face of the earth ‘believe’ in evolution’.

Most people, I suspect, tend to believe either in ‘nothing’, by which I mean ‘that it is good for me and my family to get richer’, or else in reincarnation, a belief involving the ethical motivation to lead a good life to avoid coming back as a slug, or worse. The next largest group, I think, thanks largely to the power of Mecca and Rome (as well as its rebellious offshoots), believes with varying degrees of sincerity in its absolute importance in the eyes of a shy, generally invisible, all-loving, all-judging entity called ‘God’. So important do they think they are in the eyes of this being, indeed, that they suppose he’ll go to the trouble of deciding upon their fates based on everything they have ever thought or done and that he’ll then sustain their bodies and personalities for all eternity in one of two prepared places that he had gone to the trouble of creating – especially for them (as if the creation of the Earth, large and wide as it is, were not enough!!).

I’m not sure how or where or whether evolution fits into any of these belief systems. I suppose it sits happiest with the belief in ‘nothing’.

Still, believing in nothing hardly counts as a belief in evolution in my book. So, it seems that most people don’t believe in evolution after all, despite the rage it struts on the stage of ‘the world’. Most people just don’t care about evolution, I suspect. Or if they do, they tend to think that evolution is a shade barbaric. Most people, after all, don’t like to think they can be reduced to, and therefore explained away, as ‘animals’, whatever it is they think animals are.

On the other hand, I’ve also noticed that an interesting number of people in the West can’t get enough of this idea. The notion that we are ‘only’ animals fills them with delight! Why this should be, I suppose, involves a fair amount of fear and detestation of the spiritual, at least as far as ‘the spiritual’ has been understood in classically religious terms. Such terms usually have had a great deal to do with sex, or rather with its repression and denial; or if not about sex in such an explicit sense then at least about the general depreciation of the physical and empirical world and the seat of our senses, the body, that has been such a fashionable preoccupation in the Occident for over two thousand years.

Is this what it boils down to? Do people really want or do not want to believe in evolution because of whether they want or do not want to maintain that humans are ‘just animals’. If this is so questions must be raised about what animals actually are. And since we have never spoken to them or heard them give an account of themselves in their own terms, it’s very difficult for us to know, in ways other than by merely imposing our epistemological paradigms upon them, what they actually are. They merely embody and in that way prove our own preconceptions about them. That this is so, of course, makes it much easier for us to then eat them, or else kill them to fuel the flames of our vanity, than it would be if, well, we interacted and communicated with them as equals. Yet that this is so also means, ironically, that even though both believers and disbelievers in evolution care passionately about whether or not humans are animals, or the degree to which we are animals, we don’t actually know what animals are. No more, it might be said, than we know what humans are.

Monday, June 7, 2010

What We Are

Thinking about what we are is a reasonable thing to do, I suppose.

And when I say ‘what we are’ I mean that. I don’t mean ‘who we are’, which is different. Who we are is strictly sociological, by which I mean that the question already presupposes that we are essentially defined by our membership in human communities. Who implies name, rank, status, role. Who wishes to locate us in a position within the external human community. It has already decided in advance that we belong somewhere within it, and not anywhere else. Who we are, therefore, is not that profound a question since it presumes too much, too much of that which it just takes for granted.

What we are is much better. I remember realizing this dancing under an African sky in the summer of 1990. It was an almost mystical moment, an epiphany of insight. It felt so marvelous, suddenly realizing I didn’t just have to be human, indeed that I couldn’t just only be human. I saw that this understanding ‘human’ is one that humans themselves had constructed. How can that make it true, or at least exhaustively true? There may indeed by something real in what we think we are, but surely this understanding cannot be the whole picture since we can only see ourselves from the inside, from our own perspectives. There must be something preceding, left over, flopping around the edges of our self-images. Surely?

Monday, March 29, 2010

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff

Recently I've reacquainted myself with George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. A remarkable man of controversial reputation for whom I can admit to having a very profound respect and indeed love. This is certainly in part due to the circumstances whereby I originally came across him.

In the aftermath of the spiritual awakening I experienced as a 19 year old, Gurdjieff brought a clearer shape and deeper understanding to my effforts to reintegrate myself into the world of others after months of what had seemed to be an intense mystical absorption. This absorption, luscious and sublime though it was, was isolating. In its most vivid moments it left me at a loss to know how I could harness what had come to feel like an entirely new mode of being to the context of the public, social world. For sure, I often felt that I was supremely happy, even that I'd like nothing better than to grow wings or drift off into the ether. Other thoughts of an even more eccentric nature suggested that the world itself would soon joyously unravel, to be swept into the arms of the eschaton, joining me in my rapture. Despite that, however, a core of sanity prevailed, a voice of sense that wouldn't let me conclude that the world would soon end, but rather spoke to me of my need to attend to the sensible. The objective options were just two, or so it seemed. To get a job or to return to university. Subjectively, however, I had to get a handle first on what had happened to me, to readjust to the groove of objective involvement. My psychic states at this time were the opposite of pathological, so I had no need of a psychologist. I needed a spiritual master. Somehow who could give me insight into the human condition of a kind that would allow me not to fly from 'reality' and the 'affairs of the world' but, on the contrary, to return to them-to come back down to Earth, even though I knew there was no going back to the person I had been before my spiritual awakening; as indeed there has not been. For this readjustment to the public life of objective engagement I have Gurdjieff to thank. Not that my life has been 'a bed of roses' since then.

Indeed, maybe the onset of my troubles, my worldy confusion and sense of dislocation, which began in 1993 and gathered force in 1994, whatever other causes they may have had, can be linked in part to my abandonment of Gurdjieff. The reasons I had for doing so are not as clear to me now as they were then; but I remember that I had felt these reasons authentically at the time. This does not mean, however, they they were not mistaken. Great errors are often hovering around us, waiting, ready to be made. Perhaps rejecting Gurdjieff's influence was one of them. Perhaps, alongside the various regrets that I have, I can add the regret of forgetting this man.

Gurdjieff is different. Don't take my word for it. Investigate for yourself. He's different in the way Morrissey is different and Jim Morrison are different in the world of popular music. In the way T.S.Eliot is different from other modern poets. But it's easy to waste words eulogising someone. I am biased by my love, and the effects he has had on me. No doubt we are all biased by our experiences in singling out particular people as special. Maybe they are all 'different', only to us. Maybe we only attach objectivity to that difference to justify the arbitrary nature of our attachments. So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he's not different. Maybe he's just another guru. On the other hand, maybe he's not.

Recently I composed a summary of my understanding of  his teaching. Not that he was only a teacher of a certain body of thought, mind. He also composed sacred music and a was a choreographer of sacred dance.

But at the core of what he did lies what I'd call his vision. Aspects of it, in isolation, are not original. Even he acknowledged this. What else was he doing, after all, wandering around Central Asia for 20 years if not collecting insights and knowledge given to him by others. But a man doesn't have to say something new in order to be something new. In addition, a man can say something new just by saying things that are not new in a new way, or in new combinations. And even if what he says is not new, it can still be felt as new - as it was when he said it, when he appeared out of nowhere in pre-First World War Russia and began to shake that part of the world that would listen with his being.

“Gurdjieff’s most essential idea is that we are ‘asleep’. Our consciousness is degraded. It is not as it should be, or at least could be. We cannot marshall, but instead squander, the power of attention, since we are internally fragmented and misaligned between mind, body and feelings. So Gurdjieff’s problem with the human subject is not just a mind-body problem. This misalignment and internal incoherence means in the West that we tend to be lop-sided. We are too rational, too intellectual, and what he called our physical and emotional ‘centres’ are underdeveloped and out of synch, especially the emotional centre. In other cultures, things can be different; there, people might be too emotional or too physical. Since humans in general, however, lack the genuine power of attention, we forget our ‘higher’ selves, which we might only sometimes, rarely, or never experience. Instead, we are overtaken by a multitude of lower-level competing ‘I’s, all of which are different from each other, yet all of which think they alone are the true self when they are dominant. This fragmented mass-of-selves is often indecisive, ineffective or even chaotic in the face of events and experience, even if it might believe the contrary about itself. There is no abiding Master Self in charge; we are the victims of what Gurdjieff sees as our automatic reactions to external and internal stimuli. His view of the self, then, as a diagnosis of what is found, is pessimistic. Still, in terms of humanity’s potential future development, he seems much more optimistic than Freud – for whom normal, as opposed to neurotic, unhappiness was the ideal. What we can do now is to work on our powers of attention and on integrating mind, body and feelings, so that our higher self will be more active and awake in our everyday experiences; such that both our happiness and our effectiveness (what he called our ability ‘to do’) will be increased and our development, as both individuals and societies, made more harmonious.”

I do not claim to be an expert on Gurdjieff, nor to have read, alas, even most of his works, nor to have participated in any of the Group Work which he believed to be essential to effective development, so if you do claim to be an expert and you take issue with what I write, herein, perhaps, may lie the explanation.

The best free online resource I know about Gurdjieff is the Gurdjieff International Review and it can be found here: