Gurdjieff International Review
You Will Not Forget Work
What does it mean to incorporate work into daily life? What does it mean to bring the Divine into everyday life?
Our current western culture separates religion, or spirituality, from ordinary life. In medieval times religion played a more dominant role in the daily lives of people. Some paintings from that period indicate that ordinary, everyday household objects were symbolic of the Divine, and thus it could be read that God was ever-present in descending into one's daily life, or that one could momentarily raise oneself up towards Heaven through remembering that a sheaf of wheat meant bread or the body of Christ, as in "give us this day, our daily bread."
There is at least one present-day culture in which religion, art, and daily life are not separate from one another. In Bali several times each day people make offerings of flowers and grains of rice and burn incense to honor the formless deities. Once I walked into a telephone office to make an overseas call. The man behind the desk nonchalantly got up, walked to a small altar on the wall, and lit a stick of incense. Then he returned to his desk to help me make the call. A mask-maker and religious dancer I befriended on the island expressed to me that painting pictures, making masks, performing the religious dances, loving his wife, and raising his children were all sacred; they were all part of a sacred whole. Having visited the West, he felt that our technological culture fragmented our lives, separating us from wholeness.
In the early 1970s after I had been living at the Chardavogne Barn for a few years, I contemplated leaving and possibly going to a place where there would be no Gurdjieff group. I told my teacher Mr. [Willem] Nyland, whom I first met in 1965, that I was afraid that I would forget work. His answer to me was, "No. You will not forget work." It was such a definitive answer, and just by the way he looked at me, I knew that I would not dare forget work. He went on to explain that once one has had indelible experiences of work on oneself, of waking up, one does not forget. He further expressed that one's wish must be strong and serve as a guide for one's life in work.
Work in life is a way of life, a practice of the constancy of being in the midst of activity. My day-to-day life is filled with doing things, thinking about everyday affairs, being critical and going through varied and often conflicting emotions. How do I remember work when I am so engaged? Certain things can trigger a remembrance of work for me. These "things" come in the form of circumstances that I associate with work because they are situations in which I have worked before, over and over again. For example, my arm reaches out to pick up a cup of coffee, something "clicks" within the stance of my mind and body, and awareness takes place without my formulatory mind saying "I am working on myself." This is why practice, or to make work attempts over and over again, is so important when one is learning about work.
Whether it is observation by an impartial 'I' or the practice of the presence of something higher, once work is deeply rooted in our life, our attitude and approach towards everyday activities will take on a different coloration. We are still asleep, but we know that awareness moment by moment is possible. The mistake is to expect external circumstances to become better. They may or may not regardless of whether we work on ourselves or not. To improve outside conditions is not the purpose of work. Rather, our internal response to the external situation can be influenced through work.
There is so much about ourselves that is unconscious, for the regular state of human beings is sleep. We think we know things, but we are totally mistaken about the real nature of ourselves. Buddhists call this ignorance or mis-knowing, but Gautama Buddha demonstrated that we can become enlightened. From the Bible we have the verse "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face." Gurdjieff titled his third series Life Is Real Only Then When I Am. Thus different traditions are telling us that it is possible to wake up. This possibility resides in daily life; it is not reserved for a cave in the Himalayas, a monastery, or an ideal setting of peace and quiet away from society.
Members in groups can remind each other about work by talking about their experiences. My lifelong quest of self-study, be it chosen or thrust upon me by life's sudden vicissitudes, is the driving force behind my spiritual practice. Well-grounded in the Gurdjieff work via the teachings of Mr. Nyland, I have studied other religions and meditation practices. Besides sitting meditation, there is meditation in action. In karma yoga there is performing selfless service (often in the form of physical work) while chanting a mantra of God. Such studies and practices have augmented my understanding and appreciation of Gurdjieff. When I, after having been in work for 23 years, first went to study with Mata Amritanandamayi, she instructed, "See me as an extension of your previous teacher and your spiritual progress will go that much faster." In more recent years during an intensive with Sogyal Rinpoche, there occurred a singular moment as I was looking at him when his gaze penetrated the veil of my ordinary mind. Through him came the transmission: "then face to face." The richness of my experiences with Mr. Nyland, Mata Amritanandamayi, and Sogyal Rinpoche only expands my quest of self-inquiry. Many of these experiences are more mystical in orientation, and words are inadequate to express them. However, they feed my wish for growth and inspire me to practice. Remembrance of that reality stirs within me a longing for the ineffable.
In a devotional or emotional approach to work, the language is not as exact as in the ABC of observation, impartiality, and simultaneity. The emotional approach is more religious, and most people are not comfortable talking about it. Perhaps it is not to be talked about. Perhaps it is best expressed in poetry, as in Rumi or St. John of the Cross. The metaphor most often used is the lover longing for the Beloved. The devotional approach is private; it is something that is between you and God, no one else. Such an inspiring relationship feeds your wish to work and sustains you to continue on the path of work when there is no one else around.
The Gurdjieff work is a balanced way of life. The aim is to become a harmonious human being with all three centers functioning without discordance. The guide and measure for my life are the Five Obligolnian Strivings. These strivings deal not only with the three bodies but also express the aspirations of true conscience and compassion.
I often chant the following prayer from All and Everything and because I have done so for many years, it immediately triggers within me a "work stance," or as Mr. Nyland used to say, "Mars, the state of puff, ready to work," a state of constant readiness to receive something higher.
Sources of Divine
Rejoicings, revolts and sufferings,
Direct your actions upon us.
Transubstantiate in me
For my Being.
Have mercy on us.
~ • ~
This essay was written by Charlotte Lee in November of 2006.
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Revision: April 1, 2009