In his novella, The Recreations of the German Emigrants, Goethe tells the story of a group of friends who are forced from their homes during the Napoleonic Wars in Germany. They hole up in the country house of a baroness. In the first part of the story we hear a bitter argument between a young man, Carl, and an older man called S, who is a Privy Councilor. Carl, despite having lost part his inheritance because of the wars, praises the French and takes delight in their successes. S on the other hand doesn’t trust that the French will live up to their ideals and says that, if they win, they will surely hang innocent people (like Carl) from the upper classes. Carl responds by saying that he hopes that the guillotine ‘will reap a rich harvest in Germany.’ Here the argument ends because S, even though it is impossible for him to return to his home, takes his wife, a childhood friend of the baroness, and departs. His flight so upsets the other emigrants that the baroness commands that they all ‘banish from their conversations all references to the events of the day.’
A couple of weeks ago I met with a friend who is a psychologist, and she described an encounter with another psychologist on November ninth, the day after the American elections. The results of the presidential election had so stunned and depressed my friend’s colleague that she didn’t know how she could continue. How could she counsel her patients to work toward a more balanced and compassionate future when all the causes of the liberal movement were now threatened? How could she tell her patients that things were going to okay when she believed that the republic as well as any hope for reasonable environmental restraint were endangered? How could she help her patients envision a better future when she envisioned a future dominated by chaos, injustice, and oppression?
November ninth 2016, if it is remembered at all, will be remembered as a day of a collective existential crisis among thinking people in America. ‘What now?’ was the question of the moment. But the question, formulated in a more detailed way by my friend’s colleague, hinges on the assumption that we make ourselves into better people because there will be others in the future who will support and understand us. This, I think, is a flawed understanding of our actual situation and an erroneous way of looking at the process by which we create a better society. We become better people, first of all, for ourselves, and secondly because change in society can only happen individual by individual. Not all social problems have social or political solutions; some social problems are rooted in spiritual issues that cannot be changed if people remain as they are. And spiritual change always begins with self-knowledge.
In order to effect a change in society—especially in a modern ‘democratic’ society—we must first have men and women who not only act differently, but also think differently and to some extent remain unaffected by the swings and moods of the crowd. Good judgment depends on being able to stand outside oneself and see a situation not colored by prejudice and identification. And good judgment is a quality that is especially needed in difficult times. Though there are forces, both good and bad, that act on humanity as a whole, any real change needs to happen individual by individual. Change forced on individuals from the outside is not change, it is oppression.
So what now? Now we carry on. Now we do whatever is possible, not only in the political arena, but also in our day to day activities to make our lives less mechanical and more deliberate.
A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul. ~ Goethe
Reading is a good example of an activity that we all do every day that can be more or less deliberate. Often what passes for reading, especially online, is not actually reading but scanning for information. For instance if we fear something and want to be reassured, we can spend hours online scanning different articles and comments for information that we find reassuring. The same is true for people who are disillusioned. They can spend hours scanning the internet for videos and articles that feed their disillusionment. This kind of reading is almost always motivated by weakness or by features in personality. In other words it doesn’t feed what is highest in us.
The internet is a fact of life and anybody who wants to communicate with the world outside their immediate community now has to use the internet. At its most basic level the internet is just another medium, like a book or a film, for delivering information, but it has certain vulnerabilities built into it. What we gain by using the internet as a source is accessibility, but what we lose is any kind of quality control.
Also in a very real way the internet capitalizes on the general public’s inability to bridge intervals in octaves. In a simple ascending octave there are seven notes, plus the first note of the next octave: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, and do. But within these eight notes there are two intervals, one between mi and fa, and one between si and the new do. Because of the law of octaves we know that any ascending activity is going to have intervals that need to be bridged by effort. The mi/fa interval is characterized by a questioning of why you started the activity in the first place, and it usually comes toward the middle of an activity. If you’re reading an article in a magazine, at this interval you may look up from the magazine, you may think of other tasks you want to accomplish that day, and you will almost certainly question why you wanted to read the article. At this point it’s very easy to become distracted and start another octave. On the internet this interval is made more difficult to bridge because on an average web page there are maybe twenty links with pictures and headlines that are designed to attract your attention. The allure to jump from article to article without finishing any of them is far more temping online than it is when you read a book or a magazine simply because you are conveniently offered more choices for deviation.
Distracted by distraction from distraction. ~ T. S. Eliot
When I created Be Present First I was told by an internet marketing expert that nobody would read an article that was more 500 words and that I should write short, concise articles that described one idea. I tried to write like this for about six months, but in the end I found that couldn’t. What interested me was how fourth-way ideas connect together and how the practice of these ideas changed the way I perceived myself and the world. Simply put I found that I needed a longer form to communicate the experiences I wanted to describe. Also at a certain point I understood that I couldn’t compete with movie-star gossip and the latest political scandal, and what is more, that I didn’t want to compete for readers who are only interested in what Ouspensky called a thin film of false reality. The way I formulated it to myself was that if someone isn’t willing to find the time to read a 3000-word article, then they are not going to find the valuation to participate in a work that requires a lifetime of effort.
I already knew then as an undoubted fact that beyond the thin film of false reality there existed another reality from which, for some reason, something separated us. The ‘miraculous’ was a penetration into this unknown reality. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
For change sacrifice is necessary and more than anything else we need to give up our identifications. There is very often an element of permission in what we identify with. The lower parts of us are attracted to situations and information that confirm our weaknesses. People with fear go to the internet to confirm their apprehensions. Angry people go to the internet and get rallied up. And vain people go to the internet to support the illusion that they are smarter or more popular than others. The reality is that we really don’t need to spend a lot of time reading and watching videos to stay informed. When I lived in London, I found that I kept myself well enough informed about the events of the day by scanning the headlines in the Underground. We also have to start to question what we can actually do to change national or international events.
The idea that ‘man cannot do’ that Gurdjieff expounded so clearly to Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous is not a popular idea these days. We all feel that we have to do something. After all, the stakes are higher than they have ever been. Whether man as a species is intelligent and sane enough to survive his own greed and stupidity is an open question, and lately it seems that intelligence and sanity are losing the battle.
All that befalls a man, all that is done by him, all that comes from him—all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as rain falls as a result of a change in the temperature in the higher regions of the atmosphere or the surrounding clouds, as snow melts under the rays of the sun, as dust rises with the wind. ~ G. I. Gurdjieff
Effective action requires timing. At certain moments it’s possible to make a difference. But in order to see these moments, we have to be awake enough to see them. If we are blinded by fear or anger, then we will miss what opportunities we have. Being present and understanding our limitations (what we can and can’t do) are much better watchdogs than fear and anger. In the fourth way the focus is on inner effort because it is only these efforts that allow us to perceive the realities that face us. When we are identified, we see only what we are identified with. Identification, more than anything else, limits our perspective and impairs our judgment.
To change ourselves we must begin to work against identification. If nothing else we can start by limiting activities where we have a history of becoming identified. This can be anything from refraining from political debate (as the baroness required in Goethe’s novella) or from watching certain types of movies or from reading mystery novels just to pass the time. This kind of work is individual in the sense that there are no general rules because we all, to some extent, have different identifications. At the same time we must not fool ourselves. If we observe that an activity supports negative emotions like fear, anger, depression, indignation, or envy then we must give up that activity if we can.
In The Fourth Way when Ouspensky is asked about what to do and what not to do from the point of view of the system, he talks about negative emotions and then says something that is almost funny:
Work on being is always struggle against what you like doing or dislike doing. Say you like roller-skating and you are told to remember yourself. Then you must struggle against your desire to go roller-skating. What is there more innocent than roller-skating? But you must struggle against it all the same. Every day and every hour there are things we cannot do, but there are also things we can do. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
The point is that the activity doesn’t matter; what matters is whether we identify with it or not.
We have many illusions about identification. We think for instance that to be identified with a political cause or an injustice proves that we are sincere or serious. This is nonsense. Identification only restricts our ability to see what is front of us. Identification and the expression of negative emotions are an unpleasant and demeaning way to spend our time, and they are a terrible preparation for the future. The way out is to find ways to be present, to increase self-remembering, and, when we can, to connect to higher centers. Our job is to feed what is higher in us, through art or nature or through helping others. Our preparation is to become more awake and more courageous in the moment; only then will we be able to catch opportunities to act in the future. If we miss these opportunities, it won’t be because we weren’t sufficiently angry or properly indignant; it will be because we were too identified to see them.