Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Destiny with a light touch

Michael, a.k.a. Ombhurbhuva, has an anecdotal post about a curious experience in India. And because I just mentioned The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, I suspect myself of possibly being an accomplice to the occasion of the post, though not the anecdote.

The citation from Ouspensky runs:
It may sound strange to you but the fact is that sometimes I see people who would like to come to me, walking along this street, but they cannot find my house. (spoken by the 'Magician' (Gurdjieff ?)from The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin by Ouspensky)
And the anecdote:
I had arrived in Delhi with a certain sense that a fate was a fait accompli. Still, you can't just decide your own fate in the way that might be expressed as 'this has to happen so I will decide to make it happen'. This is a 'saved' Calvinist tense that I could not comprehend then and cannot now. I could not simply decide to make my journey home a pilgrimage as a freak of my own....It amounted to unwarranted testing of my luck.
I was getting the feeling that it was time to move on, so the ultimate recourse of the marooned traveler would have to be resorted to – the Embassy. ....I had the address and I walked up and down but couldn’t find it. I wasn’t lost or anything like that, the fog wasn’t so bad but having spent hours looking for it I finally gave up the search....

‘This is not meant to be’, I said to myself and turned to make my way back. An elderly man passing by stopped and started talking to me. He turned out to be a devotee of Baba’s and he brought me along with him to a youth club that he was connected with. He gave me tea there and let me sleep on the floor for the night then in the morning he gave me breakfast and 20 Rupees. Having changed my mind or accepted that I should not have recourse to the Embassy, the speed at which my fortune altered was, what else, a sign.
The post adds that a couple of years later he had occasion to go to the Embassy, which turned out to be right where he'd been looking for it.

I tend to be sensitive, perhaps over-sensitive, to such events (or what I construe as such) and am aware of my capacity to subtly try to nudge the world into providing them. A fool's errand, for there is really nothing that can be done to prove to the Central Coincidence Coordinating Committee that one is ready for one's allotted propinquity. There is no way to sneakily tug at the universe's chain. (Really, one is trying to forge the chain, tiptoe up to the universe and slip it around it's neck.) Indeed, the trust Ombhurbhuva refers to is precisely (albeit subtly) the opposite of such chain-tugging. Much better to pray forthrightly: Give us this day...

One can in fact school oneself to be sensitive to such things. In fact, the crash course is all too easy. Just do what Michael did and plunge into the unknown... Go "seek your fortune," like the third child in the fairy tales. When your survival depends upon it, you start to see all sorts of things. Gurdjieff was aware of, and exploited this painted-into-a-corner tendency of the mind. Colin Wilson, that interesting case masquerading as self-declared genius, quotes, in one of the two books I've read by him (I think it was The Occult, but it might have been Mysteries), an ostensible remark of Sartre, which I've been unable to trace. The remark is to the effect that Sartre never felt so free, so alive, as when, during the Resistance, he might have been shot any day. I'm not sure Sartre said this or that he could have been in such a position, but the sentiment if common enough, and what it names is sometimes much more than a sense of burgeoning will-to-power. Gurdjieff exploited it to get students to awaken out of the general somnambulent state he considered most of the human race to be in most of the time. It's a Zen-master-'s-stick approach: a double-bind can sometimes snap you into the "wisdom of no escape" and the Pure Mind.

I can hear voices muttering in the audience, or is it my own bias-checking? First of all, Enlightenment is one thing, reading portents in your daily life is another. And secondly, if it comes to these portents, what about it? Out come the standard-issue tropes: we are, after all, "connection-making" creatures with brains that adapted to construe meaning; we "evolved to survive" and we survived by being able to see connections; when you press the survival instinct, no wonder the brain lights up in pretty colors. No need to get mystical about one more of natural selection's little side-effects. Yes, and this plus occasional neuronal twitches, kinship selection, and ordinary bad primate politics explains the history of religion from the neolithic through the Axial to the end of the species. Of course, I notice in my impatient reaction to these clichés a cliché of my own -- "More things in heaven and earth.." -- a twitch which marks for me the edge where two or my own strong mental tendencies overlap, like tectonic plates. I hasten to add, therefore, that there is such a thing as being crazy, and that one man's synchronicity is another man's symptom and another's so-what.

We do not live in a story, the critique goes. There is no narrative structure to our lives except the one we put there -- it isn't written in advance bu God or anyone else. The idea of these little "flourishes of God's pen" just follows from (or else it brings on, I can't remember) an outmoded God-as-artisan metaphysics we should've jettisoned by now; or else from a grandiose Romantic mythology of "life as a work of art." Our tastes are subtler, thank you. Stories that depend on foreshadowing, "symbols" (ugh), and coincidences, are easy to regard as heavy-handed and clumsy, or at best, middlebrow.

And yet.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
It is wrong... to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences... but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
Now, I'd want to hedge this with many a warning. The "plot" of our life is elusive (at best); it is only in the "theme" of our lives (in the sense of these words that I employ here and here) that we may discern this meta-aesthetic significance. Or, maybe better, I'd put things the other way around: this "dimension of beauty" does not orient us to any kind of narrative arc of our lives; but these "signs", if you like, may unfold for us into the motifs of our life, the light or the incidental music as it were.
Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life.
Michael notes that he finds, in the journal he kept at the time he was in India,
a great many references to glyphs and symbols that now baffle me. It is as though I swam in a sea of omens. ...the sea is itself for mariners a force that cannot be controlled and gives rise to the multitude of superstitions that chart it on the subtle plane. It was the alertness of fear and its attempt to control through augury what cannot be so controlled that made me interpretive beyond reason. I note the remark on the top of a page “I wouldn’t like to tell a psychiatrist any of this”.
The more interesting thing here isn't the fear of seeing things. It's the wisdom to decline to squint and try to see things. (This is especially tricky when you start to wonder what to do in response to your various "signs." A motif is not a cue. Those who press their coincidences into service as signs of destiny often wind up under trains, the playthings of their own phantoms. As a friend of mine once remarked to me: When something is communicated to you in a subtle way, you should respond to it in a subtle way.) There can be such a thing as reverence without making the world into a stage (or an idol) for your reverence, complete with little magic tricks by God or secret messages for your benefit.

One very wu-wei aspect of the Great Art, and, it would seem, not the least difficult, is to cultivate an openness to these moments, without at the same time trying to underhandedly organize them. A question of the right-hand and left-hand paths.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your close reading. I did as it happens spend nearly two months on the road getting home. During that time the coincidences multiplied to a riduculous level and at some later stage I will write about them. I don't doubt that I was being overseen but others must adhere to their own epistemic faith and retain their scepticism. Perhaps you noticed the blog post by Helen De Cruz at Prosblogion on learned mystical perception. It is like the Caucasian Chalk Circle that Gurdjieff wrote about in Meetings. She is within it and can't get out. A scruple of chalk is mighty powerful ju-ju.