BEFORE I DIE, I want to understand what life is, and what or who I am. A few days before her death at the Prieure with Gurdjieff, Katherine Mansfield wrote in her Journal “the question is always: Who am I? You see,…if I were allowed one single cry to God, that cry would be: I want to be REAL.” Years later, Gurdjieff put the title on the 3rd Series of his All and Everything: “Life is Real Only Then When I Am.” Now it is my turn to ask who am I, and for what?
These are two ways, it seems to me, of putting the same question—a question that may only be answerable after I am freed of the body with its limited perception of reality, inner and outer. Yes, I am grateful that, even during my lifetime, homo sapiens has, inspite of these limitations, come a great deal closer to understanding the nature of reality and life and consciousness. But we are still embedded in bodies that have senses for only a fraction of what we now know to be the whole spectrum of vibrations that constitute what our ancestors used to call manifested reality. Have we now unconsciously come to assume that there is nothing beyond this manifestation, that there is no evidence for a Manifestor or Creator? Where does the Law of Causality stop, then? Most contemporary scientists would, I believe, hold that we cannot look for answers beyond manifested reality. They are clearly uncomfortable with anything they cannot measure, with infinity, with time, and with consciousness. From the time of the ancient Greeks, “man is the measure of all things.” In fact, most scientists would still agree with Max Planck’s dictum a hundred years ago that, “if it cannot be measured, it is not real.”
In the 9th century, Shankar Acharya of India spoke for a very different world view when he affirmed that all that can be measured is illusion; that even the Sanskrit word maya means both “measure” and “illusion.” From his perspective, if I may borrow Kant’s terminology, all measurable phenomena can only be understood in their relations to the noumenal world from which they come and to which they return. In all spiritual traditions, this noumenal world is the Source of all that is. It is the underlying Reality.
Over the years, I have come to realize that there is a remarkable unanimity among spiritual pioneers of every stripe, from St Augustine to Gurdjieff, that this Source Reality is everywhere. For St Augustine, there “is nowhere God is not.” For Gurdjieff, Consciousness is “omnipresent.”
These are difficult truths for the scientific mind-set to swallow but after long reflection I have come to accept that this is the View opening towards an expanding future for humanity, towards a View that embraces the best of Western science and Eastern insight, uniting what we call the outer and the inner worlds in One. This is the mysterious Unity “in which we live and move and have our being,” as St. Paul puts it. This is “I, You, Me, We,” as Rumi says. “I and the Father are One,” Christ affirms.
If we live with the scientific view of Max Planck, we are imprisoned in what Humberto Maturana and most other scientists call a “closed domain,” a measureable finite world with all the mystery squeezed out of it and not a hint of the noumenal Unity that underlies and subsumes the known phenomenal world. In a closed system, there can only be an end in death through entropy. Life requires an open domain, open to life, to mystery, to the unknown.
If we train our attention properly, I have found through observation that both views can be well justified by our own experience. Most of the time I am totally unaware of the noumenal Reality, caught in what Gurdjieff calls “hypnotic sleep,” an abstract world of associations expressed in language with which my attention is identified passively. But there are moments of presence when I become directly aware of my actual experience, unmediated by thought or language which can never be directly aware. It is the nascent human capacity for awareness that is our opening to the noumenal world and to a quality of awareness that shows us everything at once, wordlessly, in an instant of realization that can transform our being for the rest of our lives, awakening us to our essential nature and its relationship with the noumenal. That quality of awareness I cannot maintain, but through years of practice I have found that it can be briefly extended and found again more often than when I began on this path. It is in these moments of awareness that I am open to the Presence of God, to Life. The rest of the time I am as good as dead—passive, asleep.
This direct awareness of presence, I have come to see, is only possible because the essential experiencer, or the “I” in me, is a particle of the omnipresent Reality which it is given to glimpse occasionally. Without it, I would not be alive. If it were otherwise, how could there be any relation between my lowly level of being and the Highest One? But this unparalleled opportunity naturally carries with it a sacred obligation unconditionally to serve the One. That appears to be the cosmic purpose for which we were designed. But who can say that they do that?
Does this mean that the human enterprise is a cosmic failure, unable to realize the expectations of the Designer? Not if we regard it as an evolutionary work in progress, still in its very early stages. In the last few years, cognitive scientists have been amazed to discover how much of the brain in our ordinary state is waiting to be used and how it “lights up” during peak experiences of Wholeness. During my sitting one morning recently, I was given another burst of light, starting from the head but soon enveloping the entire body and spreading into the surrounding space. In that state, I understood far more than I can now, or even an hour later, put into words or remember. I know only that it happened and that the quality of knowing was completely different from the successive “knowings” of daily life which follow a logical sequence along a horizontal time line. This was simultaneously knowing everything in the moment that was out of time, in a vertical dimension, eternal and endless, but then distracted and lost in the next moment of ordinary time. Now I only know that it happened and left another trace of blessing for which I am immensely grateful to I know not what. To Life, let us say, or to Consciousness, or to God, as humans begin to comprehend the Unknown “Being of Beings,” to borrow Gurdjieff’s apt phrase. Even as I slowly write these words on my keyboard, I am feeling the impossibility of keeping up with the flow of impressions arising from the well of this fresh experience of the sheer energetic abundance of what is available when we begin to open to our potential to live consciously, not only in the phenomenal world but also in the noumenal, which is the source of all creativity and ultimately the source of Life.
Just as in the phenomenal world there are many levels of matter and energy, so too, we may guess, there are many levels in the ontological or noumenal world of being. In both worlds, it seems, no energy can be alone, independent. There are just an infinity of vibrations of different wave lengths and qualities, interacting and interconnecting on every scale we know anything about, from nano to cosmic, and probably beyond in both directions. The phenomenal world is the world more or less accessible to our senses and to our sciences. The noumenal world is also a broad category for the reality of being and consciousness and life that is not yet directly accessible to our sciences but is palpable to spiritual pioneers and to most humans in their more sensitive moments. Whenever we are fearless enough to drop our habitual “thinking about it,” the awareness of presence lights up in us naturally, without any effort, when we relax and await it with fully attentive equanimity.
This, I have found, is a way to connect with the subconscious (as Gurdjieff called it) or the unconscious (to use Jung’s term) where the invisible noumenal, the real “I,” is hiding.
Science, and mainstream culture, are no longer (as they were with Max Planck) confined to the measureable or phenomenal world, but are now exploring the noumenal which they are beginning to call the world of information. In the Smithsonian for May, 2011, James Gleick writes: “Most of the biosphere cannot see the infosphere: it is invisible, a parallel universe humming with ghostly inhabitants. But they are not ghosts to us—not anymore. We humans, alone among the earth’s organic creatures, live in both worlds at once. It is as though, having long co-existed with the unseen, we have begun to develop the needed extra-sensory perception.”
So what am I afraid of? Death? Or the responsibility for living? Maybe both but in my case, especially the latter. As Nelson Mandela famously said at his Presidential inauguration, we are all more frightened of success than we are of failure, more afraid of our power than of our weakness. We lack trust in the power of presence which can manifest in us when we drop our self concern and self importance, our egotism and narcissism dressed up as spirituality. That is what keeps us powerless. I can see it in my posture, I can hear it sometimes in my tone of voice, and recognize it in my associative thinking, all of which can show me my lack of presence. But whenever I AM, I see and feel and know the difference at once. To the extent that I am present, I am a different being, a human being. At such moments of presence, I see that I embody a Life that is in resonance with the Great Life, and I am aware that I share that Life with other beings. In that sense, there are no “others.” None of us is alone. At our most awake moments, we know without the least doubt that we are designed for such an awakening, for such a transformation. That is our inner purpose and the cosmic purpose.
My outer purposes keep changing, but my inner purpose, whenever I remember it, is as unchanging as the compass needle heading north. I wish to BE! To be REAL! What more could any of us wish for at this early stage of human evolution?
—James George, from a talk given at the Toronto Institute of Noetic Sciences, October ©2011
James George is a friend of the Hawai‘i group. His interview with David Ulrich, To Let the Light In, was published in Parabola, Vol 39, No. 4, Goodness.
He is a retired Canadian diplomat who served with distinction as High Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Nepal and Iran. Chögyam Trungpa called him “a wise and benevolent man, an ideal statesman,” and the Dalai Lama refers to him as an “old friend.” He has known many important spiritual teachers of the twentieth century and has a long-standing commitment to environmental issues. A founder of the Threshold Foundation and president of the Sadat Peace Foundation, he led the international mission to Kuwait and the Persian Gulf to assess post-war environmental damage. He is the author of Asking for the Earth and The Little Green Book On Awakening. He lives with his wife, Barbara Wright, in Toronto.