The Inner Meaning
When we examine our cultural heritage, particularly in literature and the visual arts, many of humanity’s greatest works—Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible stories, the Greek myths, the poems of the Sufis—can appear to be enigmatic, nonsensical or even banal, if we are looking at the external meaning. And yet they seem to possess a grandeur incommensurate with their apparent content. They pluck at our sleeves. Surely these great, noble works have more to say to us?
We are of course familiar with the idea of allegory and metaphor in literature: “My love is like a red, red rose”. If we take a closer look, we can see that there is another quality in some works of art that can bring us to a deeper experience, one that isn’t immediately explicable on the logical level of the painting or play or poem.
So, let’s take a leap of faith and assume that Shakespeare’s timeless plays were written by a conscious being with a message of awakening for mankind. When the Bard says, “To be or not to be, that is the question”, what does he mean by this most quoted, yet least understood line from Hamlet? If we re-phrase it in Fourth Way terms as, “To be present and therefore exist, or to be asleep and not exist, that is the question”, then the meaning leaps out to those working with esoteric ideas. It is the fundamental—perhaps the only—issue in the master game of conscious evolution. No wonder that line is so famous!
If we view Macbeth’s castle not as a fictitious building in Scotland, but as a map of the warring internal elements of a human being who is beginning to see himself and to wish to awaken, then the inner meaning of that play, too, begins to unfold.
Religions also seem to hold, in addition to the outer meaning, an inner meaning that needs outside help before one can recognize it. What if Moses symbolizes the steward, the highest part of the human machine, the part that wishes to promote awakening? That interpretation would explain why Moses led the Israelites, (the thoughts that desired consciousness) across the Red Sea of imagination or sleep, to Israel, the Promised Land, (presence, God). It also explains why Moses could look out on the Promised Land, but not enter it himself, for consciousness is a property of the higher centers, not the machine.
From this vantage point we begin to see that the concepts of holy war or pilgrimage have been tragically misinterpreted by those who take only the literal meaning. No one, for instance, seems to remember that Mohammed said, “The real jihad is within.”
When Rumi says, “But why would any soul in this world want to escape from the Beloved?”, is he simply talking about erotic or emotional love for a fellow human being? Or is this great spiritual being talking about uniting with his own higher Self?
Or when Omar Khayyam speaks about the pleasures of wine, is he talking about the joys of inebriation?
Came stealing through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and 'twas--the Grape!”
No. Especially when such a passage leads into profound, but initially opaque, lines such as:
That all the misbelieving and black Horde
Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul
Scatters and slays with his enchanted Sword.”
It seems that the Sufis bravely chose wine to symbolize the higher states they sought – the presence of God. “Bravely” because wine was either forbidden, or at least frowned upon, by the practitioners of their religion. And is Mahmúd, like Moses, the steward once again, the hero with a thousand faces, who slays those parts of us that oppose our own awakening?
When, the night before his arrest, Christ prayed while his disciples “slept”, are we seriously supposed to think that his followers were actually getting forty winks in one of the most emotionally-charged episodes in the history of spirituality? Yet we can understand, when we have made our own efforts to remember ourselves, that even at the moment of their teacher’s despair, his students were unable to join him, to be conscious as he was conscious.
It seems that with the advent of Gurdjieff’s teaching in the early twentieth century the concept of “consciousness”, “presence” or “self-remembering” became more openly available to the world. Previously it had only been alluded to or represented by symbols, often in fairy tales, myths, or parables that were widely known. The question then arises, “Why bother to veil the meaning, when it could just be described or presented as it truly is?” There seem to be several possible reasons for this.
Tales or plays presented as an emotionally charged narrative are easy to remember, enjoy, and repeat, and many have stood the test of time. They then have the chance to seep into our awareness, and their message can gradually connect with something deep inside us which yearns for spiritual awakening.
Furthermore, symbols or myths can speak to the higher parts of us and bypass the limitations of our intellect, which is characterized by opposite thinking and is proud of its ability to debate and analyze. The intellect rebuffs and dilutes esoteric ideas with logic and relativity. Inner meaning is food for an inner world where ideas and impressions are not taken literally but received directly, without filters, as children receive them.
Perhaps the saying about “pearls before swine” means that if knowledge were presented to those parts within us that are not interested in spiritual evolution, it would be wasted or lost.
Using the “keys” of the Fourth Way, much of the world’s more profound and enduring art reveals esoteric messages designed to contribute to the awakening of future generations. If we are willing to leave behind our learned habits of interpretation, these works spring to life, and we can enjoy them in a new way that furthers our own spiritual development.