For a time in my youth I thought I might become an artist and was part of an art guild that was run by a man who had been recruited by the army as a sniper during the Korean War. He was as old as my father, but he seemed to like to spend his time with young people. I got to know him pretty well; in fact, a good friend of mine married his daughter. Before he divorced his wife and decided that he wanted to become an artist and run an art guild, he worked for the corporate giant Proctor and Gamble as an inventor. He was trained as a chemist and designed a line of ‘natural’ makeup for women. He claimed to have over fifty US patents. These patents, though a source a pride for him, were not a source of income as he had signed a contract with Procter and Gamble that gave them the rights to anything he invented during his employment. He wasn’t a bad painter, though he always, more or less, painted the same picture. He painted landscapes, generally from memory, and they all had a rising or setting sun. The pictures were painted in such a way that it was never clear whether it was dusk or dawn. I don’t remember that he did a lot of painting; mostly what I remember is sitting in his office drinking scotch with a crowd of his friends.
At the time I knew him he was going be through a period in his life when he was questioning his marriage, his time in the army, and his employment at Procter and Gamble. He felt that he made many mistakes because he had done what he was told or expected to do without really questioning it. He was a few years over forty at the time I met him, and for whatever reason, it was at this age that his emotions about what he had done during the war caught up with him.
I’m not sure if the alcohol helped him forget what he had done or if it opened him up to the memories that he wanted to examine, but when he drank he talked.
He had originally been drafted to serve in the regular army, but was recruited by Special Forces after his marksman skills were found to be in the top one percent. I don’t know if he exaggerated his stories, though I do know that he was comfortable around guns because one afternoon he showed me the pistol he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk. The way he handled the pistol convinced me that he was someone that he had some expertise in the use of firearms.
One night when the two of us were having a drink after a life drawing class, he told me, “Once they came to get me in the middle of the night. They woke me up, took me to a room in a building, and pointed out a man that they wanted me to kill. I wasn’t told anything about him. He was pointed out and I shot him; then they drove me back to where I was staying and I went back to sleep. That’s what amazes me the most: that I was able to just fall asleep afterward.”
I understood that he hadn’t been sleeping very well. That night he also told me something that he often said when he spoke about his war experiences: “And you understand that this is something I’m allowed to tell you; there are many things that I’m not allowed to talk about.”
A few years later while I was traveling with some friends to the west coast of America, I met another man who had been a sniper. This time in Vietnam. He was only a few years older than me. He was living in a university town along our route and it was arranged that we would spend the night at his house, but because of some car trouble, we ended up spending three days with him. I don’t even know what he was studying because it never came up. He didn’t seem to be there to learn, but to forget. He drank heavily during the day and then smoked marijuana and hashish in the evening. I can’t even remember how his being a sniper came up, but one night he told us about it. He wasn’t Special Forces; he was apparently just very good with a rifle. He described how one time he spent several days up in a tree with orders to shoot anybody that came within his range. He was a very intense young man that lived in an almost perpetual adrenaline state. Despite the alcohol and the drugs, he was never calm. In his case there was no attempt to examine what he had undergone. He was going to forget about it and move on, though I couldn’t help wondering if he would be more interested in examining his feeling about what he had done when he was older. In any case at the time I met him, he seemed determined to buffer his memories of Vietnam.
Buffering is a way we mechanically compartmentalize our experiences in order not to see the contradictions in how we feel about what we’ve said or done.
If a man throughout the whole of his life were to feel all the contradictions that are within him he could not live and act as calmly as he lives and acts now. He would have constant friction, constant unrest. ~ G. I Gurdjieff (as quoted in In Search of the Miraculous)
Buffers can take many different forms. Drinking can be a buffer. The expression of negative emotion is also a buffer. Opinions are also often buffers. Psychologically an opinion is a simplification of a situation that cannot be simply understood. In television shows and in movies actors playing snipers or policeman or spies buffer hurting or killing people with opinions: ‘They were bad people.’ or ‘They hurt us, so we had to hurt them.’ It’s alarming how often you see revenge touted as a justifiable motive for murder and acts of war in the movies. And unfortunately, it’s not only in the movies; you also see it in politics, in business, and in world events.
There is something satisfying about revenge for our lower selves. The Elizabethan playwrights understood the mass appeal of a man seeking revenge for an injury. Many of their plays were later categorized as ‘revenge tragedies.’ Even Hamlet, while examining the complexities and moral follies of acting from revenge, is essentially a revenge tragedy. Claudius murders Hamlet’s father and so Hamlet is called, by his father’s ghost, to murder Claudius. What the Elizabethans playwrights seemed to have understood better than our modern movie producers is that the act of taking revenge almost always destroys the hero, as it does in Hamlet.
The way we use opinions as a buffer is not complicated. Take the example of taking revenge on your rivals. When the memory of what you have done surfaces, you tell yourself that they were bad people or that they did something bad to you, or your friends, or your nation. And this very well may be part of what you feel about the event, but it is almost certainly not all you feel. Focusing on one emotion—in this case the wrongs committed by the people you hurt—is an effective way of making you feel better, but it only works as long as conscience is asleep.
Conscience is a state in which a man feels all at once everything that he in general feels, or can feel. ~ G. I Gurdjieff
When conscience awakens, we feel all our contradictory emotions connected to the people and the events of our lives. And the awakening of conscience is a necessary part of the work of self-remembering. It is one of the inevitable results of connecting to higher centers.
On one of my extended visits to Moscow, I stayed with a businessman, V., who was a friend of a writer I knew in Saint Petersburg. This was not long after the fall of the Soviet Union. I’m not sure what V. did before the fall, but he had some interesting friends. One afternoon he told me he had someone coming over who was curious to meet me. The man who appeared was friendly and was about my age. We chatted for about half an hour. Mainly he asked me questions about living in the United States, and I tried to answer as best I could; then we all watched a movie on the television—it was Apollo 13 dubbed into Russian.
After he left, I asked V. about him, and he said, “He’s KGB agent.”
“Why did he want to talk to me?”
“He doesn’t want to work for the KGB anymore. They don’t pay enough. He wants to work for AT & T; they’re starting up over here.”
“The KGB doesn’t pay enough?”
“No. They haven’t kept up with the inflation. You understand that during Soviet times you could buy a car for about five thousand rubles. Not a great car, but a decent one. Now what can you buy for five thousand rubles? A kilo of onions.”
That night we sat in V’s kitchen and drank vodka and ate cucumbers and meat pies. We spoke about another businessman I had met in Saint Petersburg, whose office had been robbed the day before. Three men just walked in with automatic weapons and beat up the first man they found, as an example. Then they made everybody lie on the floor, while they rifled through all the desks. They didn’t get much, about four hundred dollars and a fax machine
He was very philosophic about the robbery. “You have to expect these things when you do business in Russia,” he said.
“What about the police?”
He waved his hand in the air. “They won’t do anything,” he said. “Why should they risk being killed over this? It is not their business.”
“In America the police consider it their business. That’s what they do.”
“It’s different here. In Russia the police and the Mafia are about the same.”
I didn’t understand. I said, “You mean the police are corrupt.”
“Well, yes, but that’s not what I meant. If I understand rightly, in America there are laws that protect businessmen. But there are no laws like that here, or very few, and they change all the time. If the government decides to raise my taxes, they just do it. Nobody protects me. I pay five times the amount of tax I paid two years ago. Last year one of my business partners was thrown into jail for tax evasion. You understand, they had no evidence. The police just came one day and took him, and then they went through all his books, trying to find something. And he was an honest man. He was locked up for six months, while they looked. Of course he did no business in prison, so all his affairs went to hell. In the end they let him out, but by then he was ruined.”
He poured a shot of vodka for himself.
I asked, “So how does a businessman protect himself?”
“Every businessman has what we call a roof. A roof is his protection. In some cases his roof is a gang of thugs, but sometimes it’s the police. That’s what I meant when I said that the Mafia and the police are not much different. You see why our friend can’t just go to the police and report this robbery. Maybe the police committed the robbery, or helped organize it. They might be the roof of another businessman, who told them to commit the crime. You never know.”
“So you have a roof?”
“Yes. Of course.
“So if you had been robbed, would you have reported it to your roof?”
He drank his vodka as if it were water. “This robbery was nothing,” he said. “Kids I think. Very bold though. Our friend could decide to make an example and have one of them killed. But for what? For Four hundred dollars? This is nothing. Here in Moscow there is a man who owes me ten-thousand dollars, and he won’t pay. Why? Because he thinks I am weak.”
“How are you weak?”
“If I want my money, I have to say to him: give me my money or I will kill you. Then maybe he will give me the money. But maybe he will decide to try to kill me instead. Then there’s a war. The problem is that I have never killed anyone, and everybody in Moscow knows that. They say I cannot do it. And probably they are right. I don’t want to start a war.”
“So if you went to the people that protect you and say: ‘go and kill this man,’ they will do it?”
“They may argue with me, but, yes, in the end they will kill the man.”
“Would you do it?”
He thought about this before he answered. “No. Really, I think I’d rather be poor.”
We who are weaker, let us take parts that are both easier and less hazardous. If the public welfare requires that a man betray and lie and massacre, let us resign this commission to more obedient and suppler people. ~ Montaigne
This quote from Montaigne comes from an essay entitled The Useful and the Honorable. What Montaigne calls the useful here is what we might call the expedient. He gives a number of examples from history where a man was asked to do something for the public good by less than honorable methods and then was destroyed because of the service he rendered. In this quote he considers himself to be one of the weak because in his diplomatic ventures he refused to deceive one side or the other but told both sides what he actually thought. (During the Religious Wars in France Montaigne acted as a negotiator for the Catholic King Henry III and the Protestant Henry of Navarre, both of whom respected him.)
Remember V. was also considered weak for being unable to order the death of his rivals. I would not call either man weak. In the case of V. his refusal to give into either the greed of wanting more money—he made about a million dollars in his first year of business—or the fear that he will become destitute if he didn’t kill his debtors seems commendable and even strong.
Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. ~ Mahatma Gandhi
In Montaigne’s case, I think he showed an uncommon strength to speak frankly to power.
What both men had in common was that they refused to sully their inward world with memories that they would later regret.
It is better to die of hunger, so that you be free from pain and free from fear, than to live in plenty and be troubled in mind. ~ Epictetus
In the fourth way our first business is the creation of a permanent connection with higher centers. So if we can avoid events that make this connection difficult, then we should, and if we can’t avoid such events, then we need to find ways to work with them and transform them as best we can. For higher centers to thrive, we need to accept and transform painful and regrettable memories. The process for doing this is not complicated. If you are present and observing yourself when painful memories appear, the energy you receive from observing yourself in the moment will create an arc between the present and the moment of the memory, and that arc will contain an understanding of all that has passed between the moment of the trauma and the present. In other words you will see who you have become in the interval, as well as all the emotions you felt then and now about the event. Of course this presupposes that you have changed in the interval, that you have become more conscientious and awake. It also presupposes that you have the capacity to remember yourself for more than a moment at a time.
You shouldn’t believe that you can continue to make decisions that feed your greed, your fear, or your heartlessness. You must not put too much strain on your capacity to account for your stupidity and weakness; it defeats the will.
Without self-remembering we inevitably identify with the memory of a trauma, which essentially means that we revert back to the person, or the being that we possessed, at the time. This kind of flashback can create all kinds of psychological problems, as we saw with the two veterans I described. And if there is no way to understand and transform traumas, then it becomes necessary to buffer the memory. Some of the patients I saw at the psychiatric clinic where I worked had lost the ability to buffer, and believe me they were very unhappy people. It is a kind of madness for people who are not trying to awaken, to go through life without some mechanism for keeping difficult past events from intruding too much into the present.
Everyone has within him thousands of contradictory feelings which vary from a deeply hidden realization of his own nothingness and fears of all kinds to the most stupid kind of self-conceit, self-confidence, self-satisfaction, and self-praise, to feel all this together would not only be painful but literally unbearable. ~ G. I. Gurdjieff
In ordinary life the ability to buffer is considered a positive quality. Again all you have to do is look at the movies being produced, especially here in America. The modern hero is a man, sometimes a woman, who has the ability to witness horrible impressions and be part of terrifying events and not be affected. I guess it is natural for people to admire this kind of detachment. Life for most of us is filled with unpleasant events, and so to remain unscathed seems like an attractive quality. But this picture of detachment doesn’t really work for people who want to change, and it certainly doesn’t work for people have chosen self-remembering and conscious evolution. We are molded by events, especially by difficult events, and buffering is the way we protect ourselves from the friction and the contradictions that have the potential to inspire our work to become different.
In the beginning it’s difficult to see the difference between not-identifying and buffering, but they are very different states. Non-identification lays the groundwork for transformation; buffering is an attempt to ignore or categorize an impression or event so that we don’t see it or have to deal with it. It’s like the difference between taming a wild dog and caging it.
By being present and letting difficult moments touch us, we connect ourselves to a scale of thinking and feeling that is a part of higher centers. And this, in turn, feeds our desire to remember ourselves more, which in turn feeds richer and more profound realizations about who we are and about the world in which we live. When we do not buffer an event, when we instead let it become part of my experience, we allow it to inform our understanding about our own luck, and our own vulnerabilities and strengths.