April 2011

Fellowship of Friends


We hear the words “enlightened” and “enlightenment” bandied around a lot these days, and often the meaning seems vague and overused. So I’m grateful to the Fourth Way and its writers and teachers, who give us a more precise understanding of what it really is.

For “enlightened” I would freely substitute the word “conscious,” and for “enlightened one,” I would substitute “conscious being.”

Gurdjieff and Ouspensky teach us that there are four states of consciousness available to man. These are: the first state, when one is physically asleep in one’s bed, and passive to the world; the second state, when one is functioning as a human being, going to work, eating, passing time with friends and family, studying the Fourth Way, and everything else. One of the confusing things about initially developing an understanding of the second state is that we can perform complex, intelligent actions in this state of sleep as stimulus- response machines reacting mechanically to our surroundings. Some people have brilliant machines and can compose operas, speak beautifully about awakening, write wonderful novels, and split the atom, but it doesn’t mean that these things are done in a higher state of consciousness. Without making intentional efforts to change, we pass our lives in the second state, unaware of our selves.

Then we have the third state, where life starts to get much more interesting. When one is in the third state, one is in touch with something that is not mechanical in one. There are a lot of words for this something: the soul, higher emotional center, the self, presence, and so on. The third state can appear by accident, or in a moment of extreme danger, or it might be elicited by great beauty, giving us a foretaste of what enlightenment really means.

The fourth state—a place of total objectivity—is rarely discussed.

As an aside, I was often confused by the Zen stories when the master would wallop his disciple over the head with his staff and the student would experience enlightenment. Most probably, the student experiences a flash of the third state of consciousness, enabling him to temporarily overcome his mechanical limitations and have a glimpse of a more objective state, but I doubt that this could induce a permanent state of consciousness.

What gradually begins to dawn on anyone who has experienced the third state of consciousness more frequently, by making guided efforts to get there and stay there, is that this is our real identity, not the machine living in the degrading state of sleep. Schools exist for people who begin to suspect that they are machines, and who do not want to spend their lives reacting mechanically. To keep returning to the third state and prolonging it does, however, take constant, concerted efforts with the guidance of a master. Only then can our soul emerge. Ouspensky said that a man might find spare change in the street, but he cannot depend on it. At some point he has to get a job.

So what, then, is an enlightened master? Within the very satisfactory definitions of the Fourth Way we can say it is someone who spends most of his time in this third state of consciousness or can return to it at will. These people are rare, but they do exist, and it is their task to help others to this state.

And finally, is enlightenment a real, practical goal for mere mortals like ourselves? My honest answer would be, “I don’t know,” but it is one of the few things really worth striving for, and I am satisfied that work in a Fourth Way school helps us well along the way toward it.

Alan B.

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