Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Wed. Oct. 4: Awareness ( and Gurdjieff), Part 1

Awareness is an interesting word. Like nervousness, or anxiety, or fear, or even happiness, it is a noun trying to cover the territory of a living set of feelings and perceptions and doings. Is there such a thing as awareness?

Or is it that we are aware?

Or are we aware-ing?

To say, I have “awareness” makes it a thing, like I am holding a “cat” in my lap. Even the word ”cat” doesn’t go far in giving the reality of this furry, purring, aloof/ demanding creature in our laps, but at least a “cat” seems to be one thing hanging out in one locale. But the “awareness” I have, where do I have that? And how do I know I have that? By awareness of my awareness, perhaps? And how do I know I have that? By awareness of awareness of my awareness, perhaps?

Awhile back, Idries Shah put out a bunch of fine books, including The Way of the Dervishes and The Sufis, and then about three Nasrudin books. Nasrudin is a Middle Eastern character, found in Jewish folk tales as well as Sufi. He is either a figure of wisdom, or a fool, but his stories bring something to light. As in the famous story, of the man, Nasrudin in the Nasrudin stories, outside, looking under a light for his key. And where did you last have the key, asks another.. In my house, says Nasrudin. Then why are you looking under the street lamp? Because there is more light here, replies Nasrudin.

Or the story, also a Gandhi story, or a mother bringing a child to Nasrudin/ Gandhi, asking for N/ G to tell the child to stop eating sugar. “Hmm. This is more difficult than it appears,” says N/G, “come back in a week.” The Mom comes back, child in tow, a week later. “Give me two more weeks.” Back she comes. “Another two weeks.” She comes and N/G looks sternly at the child and says, “Stop eating sugar.” The mother, exasperated, asks, “Why didn’t you just say that the first time?”

“How did I know it would take so long to stop eating sugar?” asks Nasrudin/ Gandhi.

Another fine Nasrudin story: N is meditating by a creek, gets thirsty and commands a goblet of wine to appear in the air, from which he takes a drink. A stunned would be student begs to learn Nasrudin’s secrets. “Very well. You must perform a task. Which do you want? A difficult one or an easy one.” “Oh, the difficult one,” says the eager student. “Big mistake,” says N, “and here’s the task. Build a fence between your house and your neighbors that will let you chickens get into his yard to peck around, but will prevent his chickens from getting in your yard.”

“Impossible,” says the student. “I told you that this might not have been the best choice,” replies Nasrudin.

And on and on.

These books often have strange and fanciful illustrations, some seeming to be barely about the story at all. In one, Nasrudin, getting progressively smaller, seems to appear behind himself, looking forward at himself, over and over and over.

As if I or you or he or she was aware of themselves, being aware of themselves, being aware of themselves being aware of themselves.

So that was why we took a Nasrudin detour. Ostensibly. Perhaps those other stories will come in handy.

The Sufis have an idea that there is another order of reality, an order of which we are not ordinarily aware. Gurdjieff, who followed a great deal of the Sufi Way, states that mankind is asleep and that until we wake up to this condition, we can be lead down any seemingly rosy path to world wars, genocide, wasted lives or ruining of a planet.

He appears to be right.

He also posits a grim alternative, with a seemingly fanciful cause. The seemingly fanciful cause, and who knows, this could be a metaphor for something else, is that as the earth is fed by the sun, so the moon needs to be fed by the earth. And there are two ways to the moon being fed. One is by human beings waking up to consciousness, and that very consciousness, which we haven’t defined yet, feeds the moon.

However, the grim side is that, lacking enough conscious people on earth, the moon is feed by dying creatures, especially dying humans, and in a world full of more and more humans, many of them dying in ridiculous and grizzly ways, his strangle parable seems to contain elements of some sort of haunting truth.

So what is consciousness? What is awareness? Moshe Feldenkrais split the two. One was for knowing where you were in the world when you woke up from your nap or your night’s check out. This he called consciousness. The other, to be aware, was to know the here and now pieces of your ongoing actions. In one book, he speaks of not just going up a stairs, but knowing how many steps you are taking up the stairs. That is awareness.

I’d add, to know, in sensation, where you were on the right foot or left and whether you were breathing in and out and what color were the walls and what sounds were in the room, as you went up the stairs was awareness. Or consciousness in the Gurdjieff story.

Whatever the word: there is the ongoing possibility. We can know, now, which finger is touching the keyboard, which parts of our skeleton are pushing most directly into earth or chair or floor. Whether our breathing is going in or out. What is the shape of our body. Where we are tense and where we are relaxed in this body.

We can know, sometimes, what "thoughts" are floating through or obsessing our brains.

This is the great veil, it appears. The chatter of words, flurrying around in our noggins. Usually, we can only be aware of all this chatter when we make an effort either at inner quiet or at focusing our attention on something real, and then noticing the difference, or the interference, realize that our attention has been chatter bound for the last twenty minutes, or four years.

This chatter is hardly ever in isolation, which is to say, it is not thinking, of the Einstein sort: if I were on a rocket and it shot out a beam from a flashlight then what would….

The chatter is almost always of the rehearsal and complaining and nagging and attacking sort. Attacking ourselves or attacking others. Pleading our case with others. Or demanding that others shape up and apologize or yield to our entreaties or see it our way, or realize how wonderful we are, or at least realize they were wrong for thinking we were so bad, or even more pathetic: a plea that someone stop accusing us of something which we imagine they are accusing us of, and they aren’t.

Which is to say this chatter is around the crux of what Gurdjieff calls our core slavery: our wish for outside approval and fear of outside disapproval.

And here might be a good place to recall the Byron Katie Prayer: “If I had a prayer, it would be: God spare me from ever needing or wanting the approval, appreciation or love of anyone else who isn’t in the mood to give their approval, appreciation or love.”

And here we are back at the Nasrudin chicken story, believe it or not. Because when other people’s chickens get in our yard and bother us, this is other people driving us crazy with being just how they always are: selfish or stupid or ambitious or not interesting in what we are interested in or not seeing things our way. This is the basis of a good life, often: allowing the “failings” of other people to be their business and not taking it personally.

And what has this got to do with being aware?


We can be saints, and let other people go because we are so full of love and compassion, we see how much they are suffering from their nonsense. Or we can withdraw our attention from the world of concepts and judgments (the outside streetlamp) and come into an awareness of the present moment (inside our own house), and then we don’t have room inside the old noggin for all that torturous chatter. We can figure out how to stop eating the sugar of blaming and demanding other people and come home to this breath and this movement and this sensation.

To be aware is to be present. That’s enough. It seems so little. It’s not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said. I wonder how many folks will take what Gurdjieff had to say about "food" seriously. The times are, as were, desperate.

With all good wishes,

Michael Flessas