Begin at the Beginning
is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.
Reading about Buddha’s devoted attendant Ananda recently, I was struck by fact that although Ananda had served as a personal attendant to Buddha for 25 years, had a prodigious memory, and was responsible for the transmission of thousands of Buddhist sutras—he knew most of them by heart—in spite of these years and the accumulated knowledge, he still had personal inner work to do. When preparations were under way for the First Buddhist Council, held not long after Buddha’s passing, there were objections to Ananda’s attendance. It was said that he had entered the Way; however, he had not yet attained the state of one who has become—according to the etymology of the word arhat—deathless or immortal. Somehow, all of Ananda’s knowledge—the enormous quantity of superlative sutra knowledge he had memorised—was not enough. Something else was necessary: a change in his being.
How to change being is a question we all face.
We can extend our knowledge in any one of a myriad directions: the study of Chinese history, or Greek art, or the mating habits of kangaroos, or civil engineering, or quantum physics, or cooking, or hang-gliding, or music, or ballet, or banking, or Buddhist sutras, or, or... But none of these directions will necessarily change our being.
your effort must go in the right direction.
P. D. Ouspensky
What we need in order to awaken is a small set of simple ideas about which direction to pursue, and then efforts to translate these into being: efforts to be the words. Real change of being comes from personal efforts of internal verification, not from mere accumulation of external information. The ideas serve as signposts, but the travelling and change of being must be undertaken by our own efforts.
For the purpose of awakening into the Present, always here waiting for us, in what direction is it useful to extend our knowledge? The answer is simple: we need to increase our knowledge of ourselves. Everything begins from this. A person who does not know himself cannot move from where he is. In Plato’s Phaedrus, even the great Socrates himself has this to say:
and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things
before I have understood that.
Fourth Way school work provides us with a small, precious set of idea-signposts to follow in order to study and observe ourselves: ideas like the four states of consciousness, the many I’s, imagination, negative emotions, identification, unnecessary talk, and the four lower centres.
In addition to our efforts to be present to our lives, practical work begins with self-observation. We think we know ourselves rather well, but in fact we know almost nothing because we have never systematically observed ourselves. We may know, at any particular moment, that we are happy or hungry or tired or walking or reading. But knowing we are happy or reading as opposed to observing ourselves while happy or reading—these are two entirely different things.
Is it not strange that the Temple of Apollo at Delphi carried an inscription over its entrance: Know thyself? Why bother to put it in such an important location, the most sacred site in the classical world, if we all know ourselves like the backs of our hands?
Robert Earl Burton
Luckily, we can observe ourselves wherever we are and whatever is going on. We do not need any special conditions or special energy to do this. When we are ill, we can observe ourselves being ill. When we are happy, we can observe ourselves being happy. How are we sitting now as we read? What is our posture? Do we have tension in any of our muscles? What inner reaction are we having to these ideas?
The aim is to see and observe oneself impartially, as a zoologist might observe a new species. This is easier said than done: even with the best intentions, we frequently forget to do it; and when we do observe ourselves, we often react in shocked judgement or sleep-inducing analysis of what we see. What is necessary, in Gurdjieff’s phrase, is a crescendo of persistence.
No one else can do this work for us. Only by our own efforts do the idea-signposts bring us to something beyond the level of information, something that penetrates through to our essence and is not easily lost.
The remarkable thing about self-observation is that it is the beginning of a new faculty in us, one we are not born with and do not automatically develop. We have to be taught how to do it and work to acquire it. Acting on this help from outside, this received teaching about self-observation, is the beginning of real growth and change of being. A person who works to observe himself, even for short periods, is already on a different level of being from one who does not. He is already becoming a different type of human being, one stepping into the tradition of Socrates.
Robert Earl Burton
In the final series of his writings, Gurdjieff noted that the verifications we make through self-observation are the necessary foundation for the arising of “an energy of great intensiveness, with the help of which alone is a further work on [one]self possible”. He also noted that although self-observation is indispensible at the beginning for anyone striving for the truth, it should not become the centre of gravity of efforts in the long term. The real purpose of the energy generated is to feed our efforts to remember ourselves.
And what about Buddha’s attendant? The story goes that Ananda, spurred on in his efforts to translate his knowledge into being by the approaching council, attained full enlightenment the night before the council convened. He was then called upon to attend, reciting and helping to transmit the large corpus of Buddhist sutras, each beginning with the famous opening: “Thus have I heard . . .”
not going all the way and not starting.