In most modern conventional belief the notion of a “Soul,” if considered at all, is seen as a timeless nonmaterial property of a human being. New Age thinking generally talks about the soul expressing or manifesting throughout one’s life, and then one returning to an ethereal soul state upon death.
In this context no effort is required or sought and everything simply happens at it should—“everything happens for a reason.” This is often tied to Eastern concepts of great cycles and it is thought that simple acceptance of “what is” is sufficient for a life well lived.
Then the more motivationally minded of New Age philosophers tend to suggest that “alignment” with the needs of a soul will lead to greater achievement, but in modern material terms. Books like “The Secret” provide a roadmap for “success” in worldly terms based on a belief that there is a Soul (or sole?) purpose that leads to abundance – but this abundance is generally seen in terms of productivity or material success.
The ultimate emptiness of these notions often leads seekers to despair. Even when they discover the illusion of the ego and a sense of being “no one” this can seem like an absurd end to a random and meaningless existence.
As the only child of a man born in 1900 and a woman who endured torture and deprivation, these various questions have dogged me.
Jacob Needleman, a student of this Work and prolific philosopher and author, has provided me with many insights; one of the most significant is the real meaning of “freedom.” In his book “The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders,” he directly addresses the modern notion of freedom; that is, doing whatever you please or fancy, by dispelling the notion that this is the freedom our founding fathers intended.
Rather, Needleman points out, many of the framers of the Constitution were Deists – with a profound belief in an impersonal God or higher power – and freedom to them meant living in alignment with His natural laws.
Indeed if you read the writings of Whitman and Emerson you might think you were reading Alan Watts in terms of seeing through many conditioned beliefs and arriving at some sort of “nothingness.”
But these thinkers went further; they felt a connection to a generational imperative to “perfect the soul” according to their intuitive intentions. A great deal of this work was done in silence, as evidenced by Thoreau’s time at Walden.
Gurdjieff’s teaching talks about different kinds of “food” that are essential for the care and growth of a soul that can develop. Food in this case is not just nutrients but also the oxygen and other elements of what is breathed in and out as “air” and perhaps most significant, the “impressions” that we take in.
This of course is significant in terms of our susceptibility to suggestion – so that we can see the result of the “impressions” taken in by our current culture through the powerful mass media. Advertisers and corporations are obviously using the power of impressions to sexualize or otherwise empower their messages that seem benign, but are created for their own purposes and not, of course, for the masses.
Impressions in this sense are not purely mental; and so it is that even modern psychology and neuroscience have discovered different “brains” in the gut, the heart, and perhaps even the skin. Impressions are also intentional; with the beginnings of awareness, some deep intuitive sense may inform one which to seek out and which to avoid.
One of my own deepest impressions came when I visited the pyramids. The sheer FACT of their existence and SCALE impressed upon me the immense intelligence that was at the heart of their creation and construction, and which I could only dimly sense and appreciate.
My own search has been greatly influenced by both my parents, to whom I was and continue to feel deeply connected. My father attributed his survival during World War II to his faith in a Jewish God; my mother, due to her horrific experiences, lost her faith entirely. But even now when I sense myself not living up to their standards a deeply conditioned sense of shame and revulsion can overcome me.
But what is it that they or Life itself asks of me? At one time I embraced the cultural norms and sought fame and wealth, and creature comforts still have a great appeal.
But what I truly yearn for is a sense of truth and connection that resonates with more traditional notions of family, community, and transcendence (remember that Emerson et al. were known as “Transcendentalists”).
Such a connection, when felt, “transcends” time, space, and language.
A huge element of all of these teachings is a recognition of the poverty of purely intellectual or mental truth – which is of course the basis of our scientific age. Explanations and theories which are simply labels suffice to many for what might be a deeper understanding; calling some conceptual theory of a great cosmic beginning the “Big Bang” is enough.
But the Deists and other deeper thinkers suggest that a connection beyond the intellect – to sensation, emotion, and indeed “being,” is the source for real truth, and this truth is lived experience moment to moment – it is literally the tapestry which one weaves through one’s unique life.
So what we do – in terms of sacred obligations – matters.
So it was that I became interested and was privileged to view a pilgrimage by Gurdjieff’s biographer — whose book I reviewed some time ago (“Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff – The Man, The Teaching, His Mission”) — William Patrick Patterson.
Not a book but a feature length DVD/film project, Mr. Gurdjieff’s Father’s Grave by William Patrick Patterson is a profoundly evocative journey through the geography of Gurdjieff’s amazing life, but also into his inner landscape.
Gurdjieff was about finding and living a vow – one’s sacred obligation. His intended purpose was to merge the teachings of East and West and to bring them to modernity, and to account for the “sense and significance of organic life, and human life in particular.” He sought to use the scientific “methods” of the west to elucidate and crystallize the mysteries of the east. And he paid a heavy price.
In his own book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, Gurdjieff wrote:
“Owing to the circumstances of my life not dependent on me, I have not personally seen the grave where the body of my dear father lies. . . . I therefore, bid any of my sons, whether by blood or in spirit, to seek out, when he has the possibility, this solitary grave.”
So that William Patrick Patterson’s DVD follows his 21-day pilgrimage to visit Mr. Gurdjieff’s father’s grave in Gyumri, Armenia. Travelling backward in time, he revisited Gurdjieff’s life and, without “spoiling” the climax, he honors and restores the grave site of Gurdjieff’s father.
In this way Patterson demonstrates a deeply held conviction and dedication not only to his teacher, and fellow pupils, but he actually weaves a thread that modern seekers and students can follow to get a taste of traditions and ways of being that are threatened with extinction. The film covers:
– Gurdjieff’s grave and the Prieuré in Avon, France
– Kumbaraci and Yemenici streets in Istanbul, where Gurdjieff and his students lived
– Prinkipo Island on the Sea of Marmara, where Gurdjieff often visited P. D. Uspenskii (Ouspensky)
– Tiflis, where Gurdjieff opened his Institute at 22 Nikolas Street and first named it the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man
– Kars, Gurdjieff’s home in the medieval quarter and the Kars Military Cathedral where he sang in the choir
– Ani, the ancient city where the Sarmoung manuscript was discovered
– Sanahin Monastery, Armenia, where Gurdjieff served as an acolyte
– Gyumri, Armenia, where Gurdjieff was born in the Greek Quarter at 222 Matnishyan Street
– Gyumri’s Old Cemetery and Mr. Gurdjieff’s father’s grave
This DVD is not a light and “positive” story; rather it is a heartfelt and deeply passionate tribute to an entire career and teaching, undertaken as lived experience. Watching it provides a brief and tiny glimmer into a sense of tradition, honour, and sacred obligation that is difficult to find in modern times.
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