I work with someone who is active in the local yoga scene, wears Indian clothing, eschews meat, and wears boots made from hemp to avoid contaminating himself with animal products. He has Sanskrit words of prayer tattooed on his forearm, Hindu talismans on his key ring, and wishes to go and live in India to “work on enlightenment.” However, he hates the boss, doesn’t get on well with colleagues or clients, continually expresses negativity about almost anything, and his only topic of interest is himself.
Gurdjieff talks about “B influences”—influences that enter human life which are divine in origin but mechanical in expression. That is, something may originate with an awakened spiritual teacher, but by the time it has been written down, painted, or composed, it has become mechanical in expression. When we consider the quantity of plastic Buddhas in the local department store and the crucifixes worn more as accessories than as affirmations of faith, we understand that B influences can become quite far removed from their original conscious sources.
Now, my colleague clearly regards himself as having a spiritual life. This has lead to several conversations with friends in the Fourth Way about what it really means to live a spiritual life. We could start with the Oxford Dictionary definition of spiritual: “Relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things”—a nice starting point.
It seems that all the great world religions start with a simple call to presence: “Watch, do not sleep,” or “remember yourself” as Gurdjieff put it. The Fourth Way, as taught by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, is based on the two pillars of self-remembering (being present) and the transformation of negative emotions (which begins with their non-expression). When we express negative emotions (and there are many ways to do this!), we are not in a spiritual state, but rather are squandering our finest energies. These energies have been given to us to either construct or make a connection with the soul that can survive the death of the body. So, perhaps one could define the spiritual life as one involving the constant effort to nourish and protect that part of us which can become eternal. How do we do this? By striving to be present rather than “asleep,” and to transform our negative emotions and our suffering.
A century ago, the concept of presence and sleep wasn’t widely known under those words, and those hearing Gurdjieff’s direct teaching in the early twentieth century would rightly have felt that a great secret was being opened to them. Today, hundreds of thousands of people read Eckhart Tolle’s bestsellers about being present, and Oprah Winfrey fans make nationwide attempts to be present simultaneously. Are all these people having a spiritual life, and are these efforts enough to enable them to survive death? The answer is probably “no,” for a number of reasons.
To make any substantial progress, constant efforts have to be made over time to put presence at the center of one’s existence. This is easier said than done, and usually requires consistent group work under the guidance of a conscious teacher. Being present once in a while is unlikely to result in a permanent change in an individual’s fundamental being.
Today there are so many teachings and churches that it is difficult for the spiritual aspirant to distinguish what will actually help him fight his personal war against sleep. How does one decide on a particular path, and then how can one verify that it is real and neither a financial con nor a self-deluding practice leading nowhere?
This question can probably only be answered by something within the seeker. Gurdjieff called this the magnetic centre, something that can develop in a man or woman—through the accumulation of B Influences—that begins to orient him or her toward a valid teaching. According to my understanding, if this develops correctly, the magnetic center will recognize a real teaching and teacher when it encounters them. Only then can the aspirant start the uphill struggle, ultimately ending in the ability to be present, transform negative emotions, and develop an immortal soul.