Gurdjieff International Review
Staying with Emptiness
The following exchange with Dr. William Welch is excerpted from the transcript of a group meeting on May 5, 1995 in New York.
Question: When I turn to myself and find emptiness, I never get any further. I think something should be there because I turned to look. But how does one try? How does one knock on the door and then continue to stay there even if it doesn’t open?
Dr. Welch: Where is the inner perception that can awaken in me when I’m not in touch with myself? Nothing awakens. And I know the difference, but I’m distracted by my daily life. Instead of staying with the emptiness, I turn away because there’s nothing there. I don’t stay there because it’s difficult to bear or it’s boring or it’s many things. There’s no awakening because I don’t stay there. And I can’t say that I see my emptiness. Rather, I immerse myself in it.
You ask, “How can one try?” so already you have judged it. “Oh well, there I am, empty. I must be somebody very nothing.” Yet it has been suggested that nothingness is an experience I could undertake to be in touch with, without chastising myself, in the same way that I can be in touch with ‘not knowing.’
How to experience the freedom that can come from being free of these things ‘I know?’ I may say I know my emptiness, but I don’t know it at all. I have already judged it and put it away and gone about doing something else.
It’s been suggested that I not be morbid about this but we tend to flirt with it. In comes a little self-pity, and in comes “Oh, what a shame. I once knew something glorious and now I don’t have the force required to lift myself to a place I know perfectly well.” I remember it’s been said that “in order to get there you have to be there” and, “There isn’t any way from here to there but only from there to here.”
We all know these sly, circuitous ways of threading everything through the head rather than undertaking, from wherever I am, to come into contact with myself through the only rent in the tent that Gurdjieff acknowledges.
You can’t have a very close, objective experience of your feelings, and anybody who says he can observe his mind and the flow of thoughts has a lot of explaining to do. However, it’s possible to remind ourselves about attention—one of the great mysteries. I can hear Madame de Salzmann saying, “The work is not sensing your left leg.” The work of sensing is to learn to anchor your attention; to learn about another quality of attention and to exercise it.
You and I know the possible intensity of the sensation of oneself which, in spite of oneself, brings about, not necessarily a connection between higher mind and the body, but whatever connection I have at that moment with my head and my body. Another relationship is there, different from when I was contemplating my emptiness.
What I need here is not some spiritual inspiration. I need some interest in the recognition that I don’t know very much about this. I don’t care how many times I try it, in what solemn assemblies I undertake it. I know, inside, that it’s very difficult to get away from my ego, from what I’ve been told, from finding what they said I would find, and from literal-mindedness.
But that’s the way it is. I didn’t expect to turn into an Ange.1 And I remember Gurdjieff said you can’t trust your Ange, you can only trust your devil. Because your Ange is like you, he’s bucking to be an Archange.
Same Questioner: When Madame de Salzmann used to say, “Very good is not enough,” is that related?
Dr. Welch: Yes. There’s a place where I can come in touch with not-knowing, with that stranger I thought I knew but was never quiet enough to contact in another way. So you try to make this effort and the kids holler and kick you in the shins. A pipe bursts. Something burns on the stove. The telephone rings. You say “Aagh” or you say “Well, I tried.” You give yourself a little ‘A’ for effort and go about scrambling eggs for lunch.
Same Questioner: It’s not the feeling of not knowing, it’s the feeling of non-being.
Dr. Welch: Well, you can’t have non-being. Being is not transcendence. Being is how we are: distracted, confused, mildly miserable, more or less content with the dilettante’s life. We think that tomorrow it will be different, it will be more possible to take advantage of what I really know pretty well anyway, because “I am in the Work.”
You know, just because the candle sputters sometimes, doesn’t mean it’s going out. In strong winds and in light rain it can be dampened a little, but it can be re-lighted. I don’t think for a moment that your experience is fatal, permanent, or necessarily all that important. One of the things about Gurdjieff’s worldview is that once you get vaccinated you have a hard time catching anything else.
We get so solemn. It’s too bad. It’s part of the journey, dry periods and moments of disenchantment, misinterpretations, failures to see, all of which are considered so near to what I am speaking about that everybody knows them.
But seeing is not so easy. Seeing is very different from being lost in not-seeing.
~ • ~
Traditional Studies Press plans to publish a recording of Dr. Welch reading René Daumal’s Mount Analogue. Dr. Welch saw this book as a many-facetted jewel, and appreciated its poetry, its humor and its truth. He reads it with great gusto and delight. Look for it soon at: www.traditionalstudiespress.com.
1 French for Angel.
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Featured: Spring 2007 Issue, Vol. X (1)
Revision: April 1, 2007