Gurdjieff International Review

A Fable for the Seeker Whose Search Is Not Going Well

Roger Lipsey

The fable speaks of a “he” who could also be “she.” At the time and place of utter doubt, resources that once helped become remote. His teachers, who offered the idea of seeking and shared their maps, are as silent as trees in the growing darkness. Factually, most of them died years ago, though he has remained in communion with them and sometimes perceives what they said and did as if it were close and new. But now they are far.

They have taken certainty with them. The maps they provided, and the ones he himself drew as time went on, have become all but illegible: he can scarcely read the worn names of landmarks, a stream looks like a road, a hollow could be taken for a hill. Fumbling with a match to light the campfire, he sets the maps ablaze and watches as cinders rise into the twilight. He could save them. “My maps!” he cries. But the sound strikes him as childish, and he settles in for the night without further regret. In any case, he’s long since memorized them.

More often than not, he has made his way with other seekers. And when they stopped together to rest, he pored over their gorgeous maps of tiered worlds and inner states with captions in Sanskrit, Tibetan, medieval Japanese, the Greek of Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, the French of Pascal, the Yiddish of the Baal Shem Tov. What grand maps. He avidly committed their features to memory. He felt the affinity of all seekers with all others. By this process, the circle of his teachers enlarged to include men and women of many centuries and regions. Those long departed could not correct him with the abrupt vivacity of a living teacher, but their works and example seeped in. In the vividness of the mind, he had quested for immortality with Gilgamesh, sat in the circle of Heracleitus’s pupils, wandered through China with Chuang Tzu, approached the caves where Milarepa meditated. In his own time, too, he had heard the great voices—Ramana Maharshi, Jung, Suzuki Roshi, Merton, Steinsaltz, Gurdjieff, still others. Their persons had inhabited him, he had thought their thoughts, and when he retrieved his sense of self, he knew gratefully that he had been enriched.

Yet now the teachers and companions, their kind conversation, their illuminating maps, are nowhere to be found, nor does he wish to find them. Is this the selva oscura, the dark wood where Dante passed? It is certainly dark. Is this the noche oscura in which St. John of the Cross learned so much? It is dark. But if not these grand things, it is surely a time of separateness and reflection. If there is to be conversation tonight, it cannot be as before.

In time there emerged from the darkness a questioning voice. It sounded much like the voice of a catechistic manual—uninflected, lofty, sure. Yet there was barely perceptible warmth, as if the questions were well-meant.

Seeker, your maps have gone up in flames. Can you describe your path?

Lately it resembles a Möbius Strip. I’ll try to explain. You are diligently following a path well-mapped though arduous, as foreseen by the ancestors and blessed by the saints. The traces of their footsteps are visible in sheltered areas where there is little wind to disturb them. Some seekers, fascinated by the pattern of footprints, become scholars or devotees and settle where the venerable prints are deep and clear. Their huts line the path, and everyone passing that way, apart from a few ascetics, appreciates their learning and hospitality.

But at a certain point, imperceptibly, the path begins to curve up and around, and soon you find yourself walking upside down in the opposite direction on a path with just one edge. When you lean out over that edge in an attempt to perform celestial navigation, as recommended by the ancestors and saints, you become so dizzy that you urgently withdraw and sit down—though, as I said, you’re upside down and so must sit up to sit down, or something of the kind. There are confusions.

In the few seconds you can bear to take in this aberrant landscape, you notice several disturbing things: 1) The seekers on the path below seem to be doing fine—they are steadily advancing in the direction you had in mind before you marched into the Möbius Strip. 2) It is unclear whether you took a wrong turn, and so entered the Möbius Strip, or took the proper path and face no more difficulty than the ancestors and saints faced in their time. 3) Whatever region you have entered, it is all but absent from the maps you can recall. Perhaps the ancestors and saints didn’t pass this way. If they did, were they unwilling to record it, as Pythagoras withheld the discovery of irrational numbers? Does the terrain change in every era, so that old travelers’ accounts are inapplicable? Be that as it may, your faith in your guides is shaken, and your faith in yourself is pulvérisé.

Or nearly so. After all, there are things to remember—for example, the Zen saying: at first mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; then mountains are no longer mountains, and rivers are no longer rivers; and at last mountains are mountains again, and rivers are rivers. It’s possible that this saying is a fragmentary report on the Möbius Strip of its era. Were that so, it would be better to continue than retreat, as things may sort themselves out in due course.

There are other fragmentary reports—for example, St. John of the Cross:

Oh, noche, que guiaste,
Oh noche amable más que el alborada.

“Oh night that offered guidance, oh night dearer than the dawn.” Yes. And then consider Simone Weil. She, too, prim and daring, must have passed this way. “The soul has to go on loving in the emptiness,” she wrote, “or at least to go on wanting to love, though it may only be with an infinitesimal part of itself.”

Passage through the Möbius Strip is either a great test or a great loss, the end of authentic seeking or a new beginning. But as I say this, I am suddenly ashamed. Every familiar answer or description is shameful. Even the notion of a new beginning is suspect, as if one gathered toward oneself reassurances that anticipate the certainties of a future that may never come to pass. The memory of other seekers who passed through something of this kind provides only enough encouragement to look to one’s own resources. Must one risk everything? Must one set aside teachings and teachers, maps and certainties? Must one sit ill in the dust and wait? How long and for what? “In the night I commune with my own heart: and my spirit made diligent search,” sang the Psalmist. He, too, must have passed through the Möbius Strip of his era. Perhaps he sang that song nearby.

To trust oneself too soon would have been an error: who was there really to trust? To trust too late would be like betting on a horse when the race is over—and you, dear, are the horse. Just here, miserable and alone, upside down on a reverting path to an unknown place, must be the time to trust oneself. Is this what the teachers did? You do not know. The question is invalid. Is this good? You do not know. The question is invalid. Is there a pattern, is this a tiered world with gods and helping spirits? Are there gongs? I like gongs. You do not know. The question is invalid. Am I here? Yes. Can I continue? Yes.

Seeker, what have you found?

I’ve found so little and so much. I’ve found that the “ten thousand things” are bright with life and identity, each distinctive and astonishing. As a young seeker, I feared some and disdained others. I was sure they would delude me and disturb my concentration, and some were so much bigger than I was. I refused to read the newspaper: it was about the wrong world. But now I’m more neighborly. Reality is a teeming ocean, and the more friends one has the better. They paddle on, I paddle on, and where our courses cross or coincide there is almost always good cheer.

One must see as much as possible before one dies. This impulse has power; it must be written in us. But why see as much as one can? Are we impressing all things encountered on mind and memory, as if to carry them with us always? Are we obeying a hidden law of love and knowledge, which asks us to receive? “Tout est symbole et nous est addressé,” wrote the seeker, Luc Dietrich—all things are symbols, and speak to us. Are we deciphering ourselves when we attentively encounter each of the ten thousand things? That seems narrow but has its good grain of truth. Adam naming creatures set in motion a responsibility that one feels at the base of oneself.

When I need to concentrate, I ask the ten thousand things to let me be, and close my eyes. The ten thousand aren’t especially obedient—like house pets, they brush against me, many find the way in, and some are forever wild—but they grasp the general idea, and our relations are by now tried and true. They do their best to cooperate, and I do my best to concentrate.

I have perceived the brightness of the ten thousand things by means of an awareness within, which seems made to appreciate and touch the brightness. There is a brightness within, matched perfectly to the brightness outside. The two are rolled together: the brightness within gives to the brightness outside through attentive concern. The brightness outside gives overwhelmingly to the brightness within—it gives a world. I must remove myself from the middle between the two brightnesses, so that each can fulfill itself unmolested.

Seeker, if you remove yourself, what will be left behind?

That is one of the most confusing points. Even highly accomplished people, let alone this doubter, can find it difficult to put into words the qualities of a self that has been studied and challenged, washed and given to the sun, retrieved and allowed to live freely. I have met men and women with remarkable selves—people of force, character, and purpose, yet empty and receptive—who say that the goal is to see through the illusion of self. But what is it I perceive in them? It must be self, or so I have persisted in thinking: self that has been cleansed and opened to greater truth than its original thickness and boundaries revealed. I have admired the selves of selfless people. In the end, the wording or emphasis of teachings doesn’t matter as much as their germ of truth. Some teachers exaggerate to make sure we are paying attention. Self or no self, what matters is brightness and good will, sensible purposes and the accumulation of experience to be able to fulfill them.

Seeker, you must be weary. Isn’t it time for you to settle? You might build a hut at some attractive spot along the Möbius Strip. You could work on the underlying mathematics of the Strip—as I recall, there are unsolved problems. You could advise seekers who come this way.

So you are a tempter. I was curious about that. There’s one more thing to consider before we make dinner over the fire and get some sleep. By the way, you’re welcome to stay the night—there’s nowhere to go until dawn, at least nowhere to go safely.

What I’ve found is paradoxical but for me inescapably true. I’ve checked with other seekers, who report much the same thing. The journey is satisfactory at every stage. Owing even to the slightest awakening, there is such brightness, such learning, such companionship that one is completely filled and content. Yet one remains discontent. Strange, isn’t it? A more or less mature seeker is big enough to bear the contradiction with grace. Do you recall the image of Hotai, the Buddha of Prosperity? He has a big belly. It’s not that he overeats—at least, I don’t think so. It’s because he carries within himself both the utter contentedness and the utter discontent of the seeker.

~ • ~

This conversation is dedicated to the memory of Curt Huddleston, seeker and friend.

Copyright © 2007 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2007 Issue, Vol. X (1)
Revision: April 1, 2007