Gurdjieff International Review

An Invisible Quality

He who loves the whole world as if it were his body can be entrusted with the world.   –Lao Tzu

Jacob Needleman


ould we ever hope to understand our planet without understanding why we have been brought forth on the Earth? Without understanding all that Earth needs from us? It cannot be merely to correct the ecological problems we have ourselves created. There must be another function for our unique species, our specifically human consciousness. So much is obvious. There is nothing purely accidental in nature, nothing that is not implicated in the wholeness of the living world.

Therefore, the burgeoning scientific study of consciousness actually represents an indispensable element in our study of nature and the Earth. We can no longer separate the study of nature from the study of man, the study of consciousness. Therefore modern science, despite originally denying consciousness, purpose and meaning as properties of nature, was sooner or later compelled to bring consciousness into the center of its enterprise. Ultimately, there can be no science of biology, no science of ecology without a true science of psychology. Nor, therefore, can there be a complete science of physics and chemistry without a fundamental linkage to the understanding of consciousness. Science itself needs to be inclusive of all of nature or it is not science at all; it is only an accumulation of fragmentary information and unstable theories devoid of meaning. For if there is something fundamental in nature that, in principle, it can never really explain—if there is some primal element of reality that it assumes it can never acknowledge and experience as real—then it means that there is no part of reality it will ever truly understand.

A world is a unity. All of reality is everywhere entangled in everything. And the study of this unity must itself be a unity. That has always been the great wish of science—to understand the laws that govern everything there is in nature. And nature includes Man. And Man is consciousness.

Therefore, the science of consciousness is inescapable.

And many people believe that this science has now arrived. That it is here—appearing everywhere under such names as neuroscience with its many branches such as neuropsychology, neurobiology, neurotechnology, neuroethics, neuroeconomics....

But in this far-reaching, burgeoning field of consciousness research there needs to be recognized a large invisible element in human consciousness comparable in its importance to the dark matter and dark energy that we are told comprises all but a small percentage of the known universe.

What is this invisible element, without recognizing which we can never understand consciousness and therefore never understand the unknown world that is man and the Earth and the universe itself?

It is not easy to characterize what that invisible element in human consciousness is, save to say that it has to do first with the role of feeling. We are speaking here of an inquiry that might be called “inner empiricism,” as contrasted with the sense-based “external empiricism” that is the bed-rock of the scientific method. That is, we are speaking of knowledge also rooted in direct observation, but in this case observation of the inner world of man, requiring a specific preparation of the inner world of the observer himself.

Throughout all of human history the great cosmological teachings that decisively influenced the development of entire civilizations have been deeply infused with this, to us, invisible element. All of mankind’s fundamental visions of the Earth and the universe have emerged from within traditions and methods of living that are meant to transform the level of human consciousness, including the function of feeling. Or, to say the same thing, that are meant ultimately to provide access to an energy that transforms the whole of the human organism, inescapably including feeling along with the intellect and the instinctive and motor functions that bring about action in the world.

To speak more precisely about this invisible element, it is necessary to draw a distinction between two aspects of the human psyche, a distinction that is not recognized in science or in the worldview of our scientifically conditioned modern civilization. These two aspects may be called feeling and emotion. In our ordinary thought and experience, these two words point to one general class of functions and reactions—love, hate, sadness, pity, resentment, compassion, fear, delight, etc., etc. But, as a general rule, in the inner practices that lie at the heart of the spiritual traditions, many of these reactions and impulses are recognized as egoistic and are understood as a fundamentally unnatural and unworthy element of human nature. In addition, and this point is obvious to any honest observer, these egoistic reactions and impulses are of little worth with respect to the attainment of knowledge. Our usual emotions are notoriously biased and, in a negative sense, subjective. Their main function of evoking psychological pleasure and pain serves as a motivating force in our lives, but in themselves they do not bring us objective knowledge either of our selves or of the external world.

Our modern scientific ideal of objectivity requires that we try to separate our attention from the dominating influence that ordinary emotion exerts upon our perception and thought. But in this task of freeing oneself from the self-centered emotions in order to obtain objective knowledge, science has unknowingly prevented itself from seeing the function of genuine feeling hidden behind emotion. This quality of genuine feeling is in fact indispensable in acquiring objective, impartial knowledge of the real world both outside of oneself and within one’s self.

Without the sustained development of the function of genuine feeling, the objectivity which science offers is therefore both humanly superficial and empty of meaning. Real truth, real objectivity, is never superficial, never empty of meaning, never cold, never disconnected from an overall sense of the living Whole and the higher purposes within the Whole. Knowledge that comes only from the operation of the isolated intellectual function brings neither warmth nor light: neither the warmth of meaning nor the light of understanding. The impartiality which it settles for is actually a kind of mirage, based as it is on the activity of merely one part of the whole human mind, namely, thought disconnected from feeling. Impartial knowledge requires the activity of all parts of the human mind, each part contributing its specific energy and quality of perception. That is the very definition of the word “impartial”: that is, knowledge that is not partial, not the product of only one part of the whole human mind.

The human body also must play its fundamental role in the attainment of knowledge, and everything that needs to be said about the invisible element of real feeling needs also to be said about the unique contribution of sensation. But it will be enough now to concentrate on the role of feeling, if only because the role of the physical body in sense perception is of course well known, being one of the main pillars of modern science as the ultimate test and authority upon which theory is based. That the human body’s capacity of sense perception, while representing the strength and firmness of science, actually represents only the mere surface of the human body’s possible contribution to objective knowledge need not detain us for the moment. It is the hidden element of feeling that is most important now.

And it is most important because even here, in the realm of genuine feeling, we are still not at the root, not in sight of the level of feeling that nourished the ancient teachings about nature and the cosmos—and which nourished the ancient teachings about human consciousness itself.

As has been said, spiritual practice, in its many forms and in its many variations of sequence and emphasis, generally seeks to free man from the level of consciousness in which egoistic emotion dominates our lives. But spiritual practice also inescapably involves the persistent, continuing cultivation and refinement of authentic feeling as a necessary element of its work, the inner work leading to the awakening of the Self.

Such authentic feeling—non-egoistic feeling—is known to every normal person. The sense of wonder before nature, wonder not yet mixed with the desire to do anything with the wordless knowledge it brings, is one such common feeling that is unmixed with self-love.... But this motivating energy of the love of knowledge, which is actually the yearning for consciousness, is easily deflected or absorbed by mental and emotional associations involving action in the external world—in a word, technology. And what modern technology ultimately serves, honorable as it may often be in its original aims, is the part of the human mind that seeks safety, self-love, comfort, power, recognition, wealth, etc. The love of knowledge, which is actually the yearning for Being, may be present in the individual scientist, but it is almost always hijacked by the aims and purposes of a culture in which humanity is increasingly at the mercy, inwardly and outwardly, of elements which have no interest in the development of consciousness.

The love of knowledge, which is actually the yearning for consciousness, and which almost all of us vividly remember from our childhood, is in fact a taste of experiential knowledge brought by non-egoistic feeling. Many scientists as well as many artists and poets treasure this form of non-egoistic feeling throughout their life and work.

But precious as this quality of feeling is, it is still not in itself the invisible element of feeling at the root of the objective knowledge of nature in the teachings of the ancient traditions. What, then, is this invisible element of feeling that plays such an essential role in the attainment of objective knowledge? From all that has so far been said, one thing should be clear. The invisible element of feeling we are speaking of involves a certain personal struggle with oneself, a certain level of inner sacrifice, suffering of a kind that is also largely unknown, invisible, in our general culture.

Just as there is a quality of experiential knowing that is unknown in our modern worldview (a knowing that is carelessly and superficially labeled “mystical”), so there is an unknown quality of suffering and sacrifice that is also profoundly unknown in our daily life and in our world. There is a quality of suffering and personal sacrifice that brings about objective knowledge and understanding—itself blended with the capacity for love of mankind and love of one’s neighbor—even the neighbor next to me now and here, for whom I may feel no emotional liking at all.

Here, too, every normal man or woman has experiences that show the existence of this otherwise invisible quality of feeling. A great shock, an earthquake, an accidental confrontation with one’s own moral failure, or with immense loss or the mystery of death, can bring about a radiant, however temporary, capacity of love and compassion—evidence that this capacity has been latent within the very essence of one’s own human nature, but has been blanketed by the norms and mores of the external world and our childhood conditioning.

An individual has to be willing to undergo intentionally and willingly, and usually for a considerable period of time, the kind of suffering and inner sacrifice that opens the heart in order to approach, and experience as one’s own, something of the vast reaches of the unknown levels of the human mind, unknown levels of self-knowledge and knowledge of the Earth and the universal world. An ordinary “scientific attitude,” sincere as it may be, can yield at best only glimpses of certain physically perceivable biological or neurological concomitants of deeper levels of consciousness.

We can hardly imagine what the Earth will offer us in return for its being seen and understood by the whole being of Man. Earth and Nature need this from us more than anything else. And only from this inner transformation of the mind can right action toward nature and the Earth be pursued without ultimately resulting in “the same old story”—that is, division, conflict and violence. □

Jacob Needleman, An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth (2013) New York: Penguin Group, pp. 164–173.


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Featured: Winter 2019/2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (1)
Revision: August 13, 2020