Some principle of consciousness must already have emerged from the body, and have succeeded in studying all the manifestations of this body objectively in the favorable conditions of physical existence, before there can be any question of self-awareness in death. ~ Rodney Collin
In my youth it always amazed me that more people were not interested in the idea of conscious evolution. The concept that a man (or woman) can, by making specific inner efforts, establish a permanent principle of self-consciousness—and thereby create an astral body that survives the death of the physical body—seems to me to be not only obvious but also simple and elegant. Yet everywhere I looked, this idea is ignored and every kind of nonsense was touted. Now that I am older I better understand the difficulties of a life devoted to the practice of inner work.
Still, it does seem that our culture has become infatuated—to the exclusion of many important issues—with two cults: the cult of wealth and the cult of fame. Today you are far more likely to hear a businessman being described as a visionary than you are to hear the same term used in reference to a thinker or a spiritual leader. And there are far more books published by movie stars, wealthy businessmen, and famous athletes than there are by important novelists, social critics, or religious thinkers.
Perhaps it has always been this way. Bernard of Clairvaux in his preface to the life of Saint Malachy, written in the twelfth century, when the church was the dominant institution, complains that his story of a saint was particularly necessary.
Now indeed the very rarity of holiness requires it, since our age is only too lacking in holy men. ~ Bernard of Clairvaux
And one hundred years ago Gurdjieff was more explicit:
In the general mass of everyday life, especially modern life, the ways are a small, quite imperceptible phenomenon which, from the point of view of life, need not exist at all. But this small phenomenon contains in itself all that man has for the development of his hidden possibilities. ~ G. I. Gurdjieff
Maybe every age is essentially shallow, and our age only seems more extreme because our global economy and communications technology has distorted our idea of success. The potential of an enormous audience, millions of people, was not really possible for thinkers and artists in other ages, at least not in their lifetime. If you could figure out the number of people who saw a Shakespeare play in his lifetime or the number of people who read Montaigne’s Essays in his lifetime, I’m sure those numbers would seem paltry by today’s standards. The possibility of an enormous fan base has made our entertainers, our politicians, and our book and music publishers greedy for greater and greater audiences.
From all accounts Shakespeare’s death in 1616 went unnoticed by the general public, but three years later when Richard Burbage died—he was the actor who was famous for playing Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, and Richard III—all of London mourned.
Burbage, the player, has vouchsafed to die!
Therefore, in London is not one eye dry.
~ Unnamed Author
Throughout history we see the concept of a specific inner work that engenders enlightenment introduced by key artistic and religious figures and then ignored by later followers and scholars.
Experience this present moment with full attention. ~ Buddha
Some understandings of revelation depend upon practices undertaken in the midst of mystical states, and understanding of religious practices would not be complete without them. ~ Al Ghazali
The idea that a man’s personal evolution requires more than belief and more than intelligence is inconvenient. It is an embarrassment to popular religious culture, which emphasizes faith, and has conveniently ignored the texts that explain that the creation of an astral body (or soul) requires a program of controlling attention and deliberate revelation. It is an embarrassment to people who worship at the church of science and have discounted all mysticism as primitive superstition.
When I worked at a psychiatric clinic, I met a man who was said to be a genius in mathematics. He had two university degrees, one in mathematics and one in physics. (His mother told me this during his admission interview.) He was a young man and willingly admitted himself after a breakdown. He was very nervous and spent most of his first evening pacing up and down the ward. His pacing didn’t bother me, but it did bother the nurse in charge of the shift, and she asked me to speak to him. I couldn’t get him to stop pacing, so I paced with him and we talked. I didn’t really know what to tell him—he didn’t want to talk about what was bothering him—so I taught him how to remember himself. I explained the basic idea and then the two of us paced for ten minutes while trying to remember ourselves. I presented self-remembering as an exercise that might be able to calm him and to help him clarify the issues that were troubling him. And he willing tried what I suggested. The next evening I asked him if the self-remembering had helped. His answer surprised me. He told me that he found self-remembering very difficult, that he kept forgetting about it, and then added that he hoped that drugs that the psychiatrist had prescribed that morning would help him.
His response was surprising because he was honest. It is, in my experience, rare to find people who can admit to themselves that they can’t remember themselves. When Ouspensky’s first attempts to remember himself showed him how difficult it was, he went to Gurdjieff, and this is what Gurdjieff told him:
What else do you want? This is a very important realization. People who know this already know a great deal. The whole trouble is that nobody knows it. If you ask a man whether he can remember himself, he will of course answer that he can. If you tell him that he cannot remember himself, he will either be angry with you, or he will think you an utter fool. The whole of life is based on this, the whole of human existence, the whole of human blindness. If a man really knows that he cannot remember himself, he is already near to the understanding of his being. ~ G. I. Gurdjieff (In Search of the Miraculous)
There are many obstacles to recognizing the necessity of practices like self-remembering, but I will only talk about two because I think that these two are general enough to include many other personal obstacles. These obstacles, opposite thinking and imagination, explain why many people find it so easy to dismiss the importance of conscious evolution.
Opposite thinking. Opposite thinking is not really thinking. It is a way the mind categorizes ideas by opposites: if this is true, then that must be false. One of the characteristics of opposite thinking is that it compares ideas to find differences. It is also incapable of holding more than two ideas at a time. The aim of opposite thinking is not to understand, it is to pigeonhole ideas: is this idea right or wrong, is it liberal or conservative, is it scientific or religious?
In order to be capable of understanding esoteric theory, you need to be able to see the connections between many different and apparently contradictory ideas, and if you have a habit of thinking in opposites, of drawing conclusions instead of trying to understand, esoteric ideas will seem to you like all other ideas. In other words you see esoteric ideas as either right or wrong and will be content with that.
Another hallmark of opposite thinking is that it results in opinions rather than understanding. Opinions are beliefs that stop understanding. We have all met people who hold a particular political view and believe that anything that contradicts that view is wrong. And it is the same in spiritual matters. For instance, a person who believes that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ will not recognize esoteric ideas in other religions. Their belief that Christianity is the only path keeps them from seeing that the ideas and practices that Jesus taught are actually much older than Christ. It keeps them from recognizing that the same ideas were taught, in another form, by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. This does not mean a Christian, a real Christian, cannot find his way to higher centers by practicing Christianity. But in order to do that, he would have to recognize what is esoteric in Christianity, and separate out the distortions that have been added to Christian thought because of opposite thinking.
Opposite thinking is very prevalent in everyday life. Wars are fought because of opposite thinking.
I think a good modern example of opposite thinking in a public forum is the so-called debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the majority of these debates only two views are admitted as possibilities: Darwin’s scientific evolutionary theory and the literal Biblical view, sometimes called (ironically) ‘intelligent design.’
The first thing that is obvious about these debates is that nobody is learning anything or trying to understand anything. And nobody is convinced by either side. There is very little debate or exchange. Each side speaks to their audience who are like-minded. On one side you have a group of religious extremists who are certain that texts (that are obviously symbolic) are literal. And on the other side you have a group of believers in science who appear to think that these extremists (or literalists) are representative of all religious and spiritual people, and that Darwin’s theories somehow refute all religious thought, all mysticism, or any philosophy that admits the existence of something that cannot be examined and prodded physically.
Of course the real aim of these debates is to sell merchandise, to create an entertainment that is commercially viable. And, as every comedian knows, extreme characters are more entertaining than people who are thoughtful and open-minded.
Imagination. Imagination is another obstacle to recognizing esoteric ideas. In this case by imagination I don’t mean creative imagination—imaging a novel or a picture before you write or paint it—or daydreaming, though daydreaming is also a problem for the everyday work of self-remembering. What I mean here is imagining that you possess certain qualities that you do not possess. For instance if you believe that you are awake, or as awake as any man can be, you will not be interested in systems that say that you are asleep or in practicing exercises that are designed to help you awaken. In this case the illusion that you already possess what enlightenment offers keeps you from recognizing the necessity of practices like self-remembering.
Of course you don’t need to conquer all your illusions before you can recognize the necessity of inner effort. There are degrees. Everyone comes to inner work with certain illusions. But it is also true that to wake up, you, to some extent, have to awaken and see that you are asleep.
Look around, we all live in a world surrounded by our own delusions.
In Paris I met a man who shaved his head and waxed his mustache like Gurdjieff. He was convinced that he had achieved all a man could achieve and went looking for disciples. In California I heard about a man who was so taken by Ouspensky’s (or Nietzsche’s) idea of the superman that he went about in a red and blue Superman costume. And when I was a teenager, I read a novel by Colin Wilson called The Philosopher’s Stone that tells the story of how a researcher finds himself in a higher state of consciousness by implanting a minute bit of a metallic alloy into his prefrontal cortex. And today you only have to look at a list of popular Hollywood movies to see the prevalent forms of imagination in relation to man’s possible evolution. In these films the bite of a spider or a pill or mutant genetics are the source of extraordinary powers.
What all these stories have in common is that there is no understanding that consciousness can be increased by inner effort, or that many of the powers that we imagine we want can be had through the work of conscious evolution. It is true that higher centers sometimes manifest by accident, or through the clever use of drugs, but that, as Ouspensky says, is like finding money in the street. It’s nice when it happens, but you can’t live on it. The energy of higher centers can be thought of as a substance that can be added to over time, and if we sit on our hands and wait for it to appear, we will never have enough of it to become different.
You must decide: do you want to work or not? ~ P. D. Ouspensky
Self-remembering, being present, and the transformation of negation emotions are exercises that help us establish a foothold in higher centers. They are the means by which we can come to possess a vehicle that is stable and rigorous enough to manifest itself without a physical body.
The goal of our career is death. ~ Montaigne
What is generally not understood about consciousness is that, even at higher levels, it is variable. We can always be aware of more or be awake for a longer time. We can establish a longer and deeper connection with higher centers, but for this effort is needed. At the beginning of the work and for a long time afterward, we cannot control higher centers. But we can control our attention and our focus. The practice of conscious evolution requires that we bring the best of what we have together in one moment. The moment is all we have, and if we learn to bring our best faculties to it, we can awaken. The efforts we make are small, human efforts, but over time they accumulate and change us. Eventually we no longer identify with the physical body and its needs and desires; eventually we become the part of us that quietly observes the moments of our lives.