“Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, attached to their ignorance, attached to their fear, attached even to their own suffering — and possibly to their own suffering more than anything else.
A person must first free himself from attachment. Attachment to things, identification with things, keeps alive a thousand false I’s in a person. These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born.
But how can they be made to die?…It is at this point that the possibility of awakening comes to the rescue.
To awaken means to realize one’s nothingness, that is, to realize one’s complete and absolute mechanicalness, as well as one’s complete and absolute helplessness…So long as a person is not horrified at himself, then a person knows nothing about himself or life.”
– P.D. Ouspensky quoting G.I. Gurdjieff
I’ve always put up a Christmas tree. Despite the halfhearted participation (and groaning) of my boyfriends, I’ve faithfully, right after Thanksgiving, headed out and bought (or here on Vashon, cut down) a tree to lug home. It’s a ritual I rarely miss.
After visiting India some years ago I returned home in the winter and the notion of putting a bauble-laden tree on display felt absurd. This is a rite of passage for anyone who ventures to India: Your brain cells are rearranged and you never view your world, or its customs, the same. I know that was true for me as a Westerner. Christmas in America, after the dust and squalor of India, felt gluttonous. So I skipped the holidays that year — though I missed having a tree in the house.
I enjoy the act of arranging the colors, textures and lights on a tree. It’s similar to making a painting, the alchemy of conjuring art. Simpler, but no less magical. I especially love the ricochetting of light amidst the ornaments, as it envelops the tree at nighttime. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that the ritual of displaying a tree is a sacred act — although I’ve never fully understood why.
Most of us are familiar with the historical origins of the Christmas tree. Its association with the pagan rite of celebrating the solstice. When the light of the Sun ‘returns’ in the Northern hemisphere and begins its increase and ascent, the radiance grows stronger and longer through the ensuing months. Trees would be displayed to honor the burgeoning of light and life. And the fruits and trinkets that would decorate the tree honored the bounty, the wish of a successful harvest in the year to come.
And yet the historical perspective never impressed me much. I mean, none of those facts would drift through my mind as I’d lounge on the couch in the evening — no matter my age — and stare at the tree until I fell asleep. Nope, another set of mysterious associations would encircle me and send me into a reverie. And it wasn’t until I came to the conclusion of one of my favorite books this year that I began to make sense of my devotion.
Martha Heyneman‘s book The Breathing Cathedral is a fantastic interweaving of the cosmologies of Gurdjieff, Dante, Aquinas, Stephen Hawking and others, into a new model, a new interpretation of the universe we inhabit. I was drawn to the book because, as a longtime student of Gurdjieff’s teachings, I was intrigued to see how Heyneman, a zoology student turned poet, was bringing Gurdjieff’s teachings forward and marrying them to the world of science.
The last chapter of her book is titled O Christmas Tree, and at first the subject — the family Christmas tree — seemed an odd way to summarize all that she’d explored in the previous chapters. But in the end I understood completely. Read more
Fritz Peters recounts an episode when he was a twelve year old boy at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Prieuré in Fontainebleau-Avon:
He then asked me to look out of the window and to tell him what I saw. I said that, from that window, all I could see was an oak tree. And what, he asked, was on the oak tree? I told him: acorns.
“How many acorns?”
When I replied, rather uncertainly, that I did not know, he said impatiently: “Not exactly, not ask that. Guess how many!”
I said that I supposed there were several thousand of them.
He agreed and then asked me how many of the acorns would become oak trees. I answered that I supposed only five or six of them would actually develop into trees, if that many.
He nodded. “Perhaps only one, perhaps not even one. Must learn from Nature. Man is also organism. Nature make many acorns, but possibility to become tree exist for only few acorns. Same with man — many men born, but only few grow. People think this waste, think Nature waste. Not so. Rest become fertiliser, go back to earth and create possibility for more acorns, more men, once in a while more tree — more real man.
Nature always give — but only give possibility. To become real oak, or real man, must make effort. You understand this, my work … not for fertilizer. For real man only. But must also understand fertilizer necessary to Nature. Possibility for real tree, real man also depend just this fertilizer.”
From the book Boyhood with Gurdjieff p.43
Ansel Adams, Oak Tree, Sunset City, California 1962. From Ansel Adams at 100.
“Moreover, it happens fairly often that essence dies in a man while his personality and his body are still alive. A considerable percentage of the people we meet on the street are people who are empty inside, that is, they are actually already dead. It is fortunate for us that we do not see and do not know it. If we knew what a number of people are actually dead and what a number of these dead people govern our lives, we should go mad with horror.”
“And indeed often people do go mad because they find out something of this nature without the proper preparation, that is, they see something they are not supposed to see. In order to see without danger one must be on the way. If a man who can do nothing sees the truth he will certainly go mad. Only this rarely happens. Usually everything is so arranged that a man can see nothing prematurely”
“Personality sees only what it likes to see and what does not interfere with its life. It never sees what it does not like. This is both good and bad at the same time. It is good if a man wants to sleep, bad if he wants to awaken.”
Photograph by Masahisa Fukase from The Solitude of Ravens
Question: I don’t see exactly what path to follow and what aim to have in view.
Gurdjieff: A path isn’t necessary. It is only necessary that you obtain results in yourself. Collect, accumulate the results of the struggle. You will need them for continuing.
You must accumulate; you have batteries in you in which you must accumulate this substance, like electricity. This substance only can be accumulated by struggle. Therefore, create a struggle between your head and your animal.
Continue your struggle, but without waiting for results. Accumulate the results of the process of struggle. When we struggle interior with thought, feeling and body, that gives a substance in the place where it belongs.
We have no interest today in knowing where that place is. Accumulate. It is this that is lacking in you. You are young. You haven’t experience. You are empty. Continue the struggle accidentally begun. So that if you say that you are not satisfied, that proves you are on the right road. But you must not stop.
You know better than I what struggle. For example, whatever your body likes, whatever you have the habit of giving it, don’t give it anymore. The important thing is to have a continual process of struggle, because you need the substance that struggle will give you.