In the widest possible sense our work toward trying to achieve a permanent connection to higher centers is fueled by our day to day, hour to hour, transformations. These transformations, together with our work to be present and remember ourselves, create the two shocks that can change not only the way we think and feel, but also the energetic and spiritual nature of who we are. The ability to transform our suffering, our difficulties, our negative emotions, or just the daily shocks that disturb our routines can be seen as a benchmark by which we can judge whether or not we have the capacity to endure the intensity of a conscious life. We must not forget that higher centers have an energetic side, that the perception we want to foster must bring with it an intensity that will be hard for the body to maintain.
All psychic processes are material. There is not a single process that does not require the expenditure of a certain substance corresponding to it. ~ G. I. Gurdieff
Of course, it is also this energy that ignites the immense joy and understanding that we seek.
I have recently read a number of personal accounts of spiritual transformations and it struck me that the process by which these transformations were accomplished is almost never talked about. Generally when people talk or write about transcendent experiences, they only describe how they suffered and then, how afterwards, they felt miraculously transfigured, how their suffering no longer existed, or, at least, no longer affected them. In some cases I believe that the people who underwent these transformations didn’t fully understand how it happened. To them it was all very mysterious. But since this process is at the heart of the work of conscious evolution, and it is a process that we are required to practice if we want to achieve a permanent higher perception, it is necessary for us to try to understand it.
By definition a transformation means a change (and in our case, a positive change). Something becomes something else, anger becomes compassion, suffering becomes understanding, loss becomes acceptance. We can’t really speak about a transformation if nothing is transformed, but whether or not a transformation is lasting is not an issue for us because it is our intent to be in a continual state of transformation. So if you transform your fear today and find that you are afraid tomorrow, you mustn’t be disappointed. The idea is to understand the process by which you transformed your fear, so that when it returns you know what you must do to be courageous or fearless. I don’t think any of us can expect to transform our weaknesses once and for all. If you have a predisposition for fear or anger or self pity, you cannot expect to completely rid yourself of this inclination, especially if it has a foundation in essence. What you can expect is to get to a point where you don’t believe it, where you see it, but don’t let it affect your life. In a real sense we render our weaknesses passive (second force) by making the process of transformation our focus.
The next point I want to make is perhaps the most crucial: without some kind of consistent program of controlling attention, self-remembering, or being present, our transformations will have no power to change us. Self-remembering is essentially an exercise in self awareness, and if it is looked at this way, you will understand that we cannot transform ourselves without knowing who we are or what our limitations are.
Self Remembering and being present create the first conscious shock and the transformation of suffering or negative emotions is the second conscious shock. It can be said that being present is the first step towards a connection to higher centers and that transformation is what we do to try to make this connection more permanent. It can even be said that we transform our suffering and our weaknesses into presence. It has to be understood that these two practices go hand and hand, that they feed each other, that the more we are present, the more we will be able to transform, and the more we transform, the more we will be able to be present.
Our aim here is to extract a few principles that will hold true for any type of transformation, because clearly, all transformations will have some elements that are individual to them. You cannot transform fear in exactly the same you transform anger, though if you understand the principles behind the process and what the aim is, you can take the principles of transformation and apply them to a wide range of difficulties. Also it must be remembered that some difficulties will call up a variety of negative emotions. If you are fired from your job, there may be some anger, but there will also probably be some fear and some resentment. So with most difficulties it’s best to concentrate on the negative emotions that are called up, rather than on the situation itself. In other words, you can’t transform being fired from your job without transforming your reaction to it. In some cases it’s possible to transform a situation externally. For instance, if you are fired from your job, you might be able to say something to your boss, or take some other action, in order to be hired back, but that is not what we’re going to talk about here. Obviously it would be impossible to extract principles from this type of situation, and, besides, our aim here is to change ourselves from the inside, to have a greater capacity to suffer (and transform) the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune.
I think it will be more illuminating if we begin at the end and then see what we need to do in order to achieve that end. In my experience the end or the result of transformation is a state of mind which is on a higher scale than the problem. In other words, you don’t solve the problem, but you get above it and look at from a higher perspective. This change of scale is most often related to time. For instance, if a friend acts in a way that makes you angry, to transform your anger you need to get to a place where you see the long body of your friendship. The event that made you angry, if you can put it in the context of the whole history of your friendship, becomes a much smaller issue. It becomes small enough that in most cases you see past your anger and find another emotion like acceptance or compassion. In some cases previewing the problem from a larger scale will be enough. For example, if you twist your ankle and are frustrated that you can’t get around as easily as you are used to, you can bring yourself to a place where you see and understand the scale of human suffering in the world. And so again, by putting the incident in larger context, you can transform your frustration by understanding how small it is compared what many people have to deal with.
What’s hard to understand about this different scale is that it is not thinking. You may arrive at this state by trying hold certain thoughts in your mind, but in the end the state is best described as an emotional understanding of yourself and your place in the world.
We can say that they [negative emotions] are transformed into some kind of emotion mixed with very much understanding. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
You can see why being present and self-remembering are essential to this type of transformation. From one point of view being present and self-remembering are exercises to bring you to self-awareness, and the transformation of suffering is an attempt to add an awareness of the world to your perception of yourself. The scale changes from yourself and your problems to a perception of your relative place.
The dynamics of these two shocks is at the core of conscious evolution. But they need to begin to work together. Without transformation self-remembering has no power to lift itself above the effort of remembering and then forgetting; it cannot lift itself into a continuous stream of consciousness. And without being present, the transformation of our difficulties is not likely to be grounded in reality. We need to know ourselves, our strengths and limitations, to successfully transform our difficulties, and we need to have some presence to be able to catch the moments when transformation is possible.
Let’s say you live in a city, and one morning you wake up with a positive feeling about you inner work. You want to be present, not just occasionally, but as much as possible for the whole day, or at least for the whole morning. You do pretty well for a while; you are able to be present here and there as you go about getting yourself ready. Nothing much unexpected happens until you are cleaning up from your breakfast and you knock over a nearly full bottle of olive oil, which falls to floor and breaks. So there you are in bare feet trying to be present with oil and glass all over the floor on which you stand. Something in you wants to be angry, but because you are watching yourself, you don’t allow it. Maybe you even think to yourself: I can use this anger to be present. Maybe you think: I will lose nothing by keeping my temper and cleaning up the glass and oil with as much attention as possible.
Because you are able to bring some detachment to what you need to do, you are smart and go put on a pair of shoes before you start. After sweeping up the oil and the glass and washing the floor four times, you begin to congratulate yourself on not becoming angry, but just when you think you are finished, you notice a piece of glass that you missed. Without thinking you bend down and pick it up, cutting you finger. You begin to curse, but catch yourself and stop. While you are washing and bandaging your finger, you realize that you had at some point lost the thread of you effort to be present. So you start again, thinking to yourself: this is a small injury, I am not really hurt.
After you return the bandages to the medicine cabinet, you notice yourself in the mirror. It’s a shock to see yourself. You had become so involved with your internal efforts to be present that you had forgotten that you have a body and that you look a certain way. Seeing yourself in the mirror in that moment is just enough of a surprise to connection you to the higher emotional center. Now feeling quite comfortable with your capacity to be present in more continuous way, you leave the house and start walking toward your bank in order to withdrawal some money from your account. On the street where you walk there are many people. Normally, when you walk in the city, you are so involved with your own thoughts that you hardly notice the people walking toward you. But on this day you are startled by what you see in the faces of the people that past you: one is lost completely in his dreams, another seems strangely sad, another is proud, and another is afraid. These perceptions come to you without any efforts on your part. All you do is try to hold your mind in the present moment and keep your thoughts down.
At the bank, when you try to use the ATM to take some money for your errands, a message appears on the screen that tells you that there are insufficient funds in your account. Your immediate reaction is fear. Something in you wants to panic. You don’t have much money in the account, but you know that you have enough to make the withdrawal. It takes you a moment to remember that you want more than anything else to be present, and so you try very hard not to imagine future scenarios where you will be unable to pay your bills and left destitute on the streets. You tell yourself: the best approach now is to find out what happened, to get information, and then to decide what to do.
Trying hard to not allow your mind to wander into the future, you go into the bank and wait until a teller is available. From the teller you discover that someone has used your card in a city two thousand miles away and has emptied your account. The teller is not surprised—apparently other accounts have been hacked into—and she explains that you will need to cancel the card and fill out some forms so that the bank can reimburse the lost money. So for the next thirty minutes you sit with one of the bank managers and fill out forms and ask questions. The good news is that what happened to you is a clear cut case of identity theft. The card was used that same morning in a place where it was physically impossible for you to be. The money will be reimbursed. The bad news is that it will take about a week. While the man describes to you what probably happened and how your card was compromised, you find yourself in the strangest state. Your nervousness and fear has been replaced by a quiet detachment. You sit there in the bank listening to this man, but at the same time you feel an extraordinary clarity of thought. You see that men are consumed by greed and driven to cheat and steal because of fear. They are seeking certainty in their own misguided way. And what is more, you see there is something in you that can stand above fear and uncertainty. This is what you want. You want to make this state permanent, because only in this state, only when higher centers function, can you confidently meet the difficulties and suffering that are an unavoidable part of human life. You realize that in this state your thoughts can light up and bring understanding to any area that you give your attention to. This state, with its undeniable clarity and scale, has given you a way of seeing yourself and the world that is transcendent.
I hope this example gives you some idea of what I mean by trying to be in a continual state of transformation. Shocks and difficulties appear and, instead reacting with anger and frustration, you use them propel you into a higher state, where you not only feel a deeper presence, but also have a greater understanding. Of course, there are more difficult situations to transform—disease, real injury, heartbreak, loss—but by using the present as your focus, you will almost always be able to break down the situation into moments that can be dealt with. The question you can ask yourself is this: Is there anything in this moment that I cannot transform? If you ask this honestly, the answer will almost always be no.