In the summer before my last year in high school my older sister’s best friend, Jeni, was killed in an automobile accident. A woman driving an enormous station wagon pulled onto the highway by way of an exit ramp, drove twenty miles in the wrong direction, and collided with the small car driven by Jeni’s husband. Jeni was killed immediately, but her husband wasn’t hurt at all, and the woman who caused the accident suffered only minor injuries. The accident occurred at around midnight on the day of Jeni’s wedding. Only two hours earlier I had watched her and her husband leave the hall where the reception was being held. My sister was the maid of honor in the ceremony, and if Jeni was her age, then she was nineteen at the time of her death. I was seventeen. I had bought my first car three months earlier. Two years later, I walked away from what could have been a fatal accident on the same highway where Jeni was killed, but during that summer I still lived without any real awareness of death. My grandmother on my father’s side had passed away when I was ten, but she had been sick as long as I had been around, and so it was almost a relief to everybody when she finally died. Her funeral didn’t affect me the way Jeni’s did; the abruptness and finality of Jeni’s death demonstrated to me that life was uncertain and that it could be lost at any time.
Jeni’s funeral was held two days after the accident. The service was in three stages: the visitation (where everyone came to see the body laid out in a coffin at the funeral parlor), the mass, and then finally the burial at the cemetery. I only attended the visitation. It was scheduled in the afternoon, and people, like myself, who were not close friends or family, simply arrived at any time during a three-hour period and stayed as long as they felt appropriate. That summer I had a job working outdoors, and so on the day of the funeral I left early, arrived home at around noon, showered, and then dressed in the same suit I had worn for the wedding. I went by myself; my younger brothers and sisters had gone earlier with my parents.
The corpse in the coffin didn’t look like Jeni. The face was bloated and distorted. It took me some time to understand that this was the body of my sister’s friend, a person that I had often seen at our house as a child.
I stayed for maybe thirty minutes, though I could have left earlier. I observed the other mourners. My sister was there, but the rest of my family had left by the time I had arrived. No one said much; there wasn’t much to say. I don’t even remember that anyone cried, except one girl. I knew this girl from school. She was my age, but unlike me, she was very devout. She cried and spoke to Jeni’s mother in a state of disbelief. She couldn’t understand how this could have happened. She kept repeating that Jeni was so good, that God had no right to take her, and that there were so many others who were less worthy. Jeni’s mother spoke to her. I couldn’t hear what she said, but she seemed to be trying to console her. But the girl refused to be comforted. She continued to cry, and repeated again and again that it wasn’t fair, that God had no right.
At first I watched this scene dispassionately, but after a time it seemed to explode inside me. I don’t know if I suddenly understood that I was one of the less worthy, or if I felt that this strange and inconceivable event was being blackened by a wish for simplistic explanations. Perhaps it is more right to say that I felt both, and much more, but my initial feelings were unimportant because they gave way to a sudden awareness of my life. I saw my life in pieces, as if it were played out for me at an incredible speed. I saw that I hadn’t lived, that I was still trying to figure out what other people wanted me to be, and that I trying to fashion my life so that my parents and friends would be happy with who I was. And when I tried to think about what I felt, I saw that I didn’t understand what I wanted to become or how I could change myself; I only knew that I wanted to be stronger and more focused. I was very aware of myself sitting in the room with the other mourners the whole time. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel this; feel, that is, the passing of my life, all the time. It was so simple, yet I had missed it, and, what is more, no one had told me about it. I wondered how I could have been taught so much that was useless, and not be told about this. But then, when I looked around at the faces of the mourners, I had my answer: they didn’t know about it either. It was clear from their expressions that they lived inside their thoughts. They were sad, or worried, or felt embarrassed, and it was all based on the illusion that the others were watching or at least concerned about them. But the others were not concerned; they hardly noticed the others because they were so involved with their own thoughts. They were all blind, and I was blind too. I saw and understood that all my childish desires and ambitions meant nothing when confronted with the simple fact that we were all going to die.
In Sanskrit there is an expression, Smashan Vairagya, that describes what I felt in the days that surrounded the death of Jeni. Smashan Vairagya translates as the ‘detachment of the burial ground.’ The detachment of the burial ground is felt when the death of someone close to us reminds us that our interests and hopes are empty and have no weight when seen in the light of life’s uncertainty and the inevitability of death. Ordinarily the effect this state produces is one of loss of motivation. The pleasures of life, because they are seen as transient, no longer hold the same power they once held. An attitude of ‘what’s the use’ overwhelms our motivations to pursue the compensations that ordinary life offers. The result is often a period of depression or inaction.
Usually this state is temporary. In most cases the passing of time dulls the power of seeing that all our pleasures and all our dreams exist only for a while and then pass away. For people who are not interested in the inner work of conscious evolution, this state is seen as an interruption that needs to be worked through or waited out. They speak about ‘getting back to their lives. And what they mean is that they again want to find a feeling of security and again want to believe that their pursuits have meaning. But in the fourth way we take a different attitude toward shocks that remind us that life is uncertain.
Essentially conscious evolution is the pursuit of a perception through exercises like self-remembering and the transformation of suffering, and this perception, because it is based on a longer scale of time, brings with it an understanding that everything is transient. Basically inner work teaches us that what we feel in the cemetery is closer to the truth of our situation than what we ordinarily feel. In other words, it tells us that life is uncertain.
The irony of the work of self-remembering is that it is the only thing that has the possibility of giving us a lasting sense of meaning; yet its practice forces us to confront the meaninglessness of what, in sleep, we take as important. Inner work, if it is done consistently, is a revolution. It changes what we value and how we see the world. When higher centers function, what seemed important to us no longer seems important, and what we did our best to avoid, the reality of our situation, is strengthened and, eventually, embraced.
If a man could understand all the horror of the lives of ordinary people who are turning round in a circle of insignificant interests and insignificant aims, if he could understand what they are losing, he would understand that there can be only one thing that is serious for him—to escape from the general law, to be free. ~ Gurdjieff
Gurdjieff’’s image of people ‘turning round in a circle of insignificant interests and insignificant aims’ is a picture of all of us. This can be seen in our day-to-day activities and by where we choose to focus our energy. In a very real way, we allow ourselves to become identified with not only entertainments and friends and money but also with large-scale events that we have no power to change. Without a focus of conscious evolution we inevitably move from one preoccupation to another; that is, until something happens. A shock, whether it is the death of a friend or the unexpected rise of a tyrant, brings a sense of scale that is part of the normal functioning of higher centers. But if inner work is not already established, the urgency to change ourselves is quickly replaced by ‘a circle of insignificant interests’ as Gurdjieff called it. On the other hand if inner work has been established, the shock reinforces our aim to connect to higher centers.
In this work we measure our being by our capacity to keep returning to the present and to keep our focus on self-remembering. In other words our being is determined by our ability to keep coming back to the urgent necessity to awaken and to combat sleep.
When one realizes that one deceives oneself, that one is asleep and one’s house is on fire, always, permanently on fire, and that it is only by accident that the fire has not reached one’s room at this very moment, when one realizes this, one will want to make efforts to awake. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
When life is uncertain, we must find a way to keep ourselves focused in the present. When shocks come, if we stop and look around at what is happening to us in the moment, we will usually find that nothing terrible threatens us. We were attracted to conscious evolution in the first place because we understood that life was uncertain, so now, when this uncertainty is reinforced, we must work even harder to focus our efforts on connecting to higher centers. The anxiety we feel can be transformed, but only when self-remembering becomes more permanent and we perceive ourselves and the world at large from the scale of a different time, a time that not only has the possibility of giving understanding but also of providing lasting contentment. The contentment we want is not based on our hopes and fears, but on the reality that everything is passing.