“It is far better to struggle with a purpose than to struggle with no purpose.”
– The Personality Surgeon
I have always been interested in the way various philosophers, esoteric teachers and writers have divided the human mind and body. There is, of course, the popular ‘mind, body and spirit’ section in many popular book stores, but although this is interesting, I was most struck by Gurdjieff’s division – along with many others – into the ‘physical’, ‘emotional’ and ‘intellectual’ bodies. Now, as we experience ourselves we know that these are not so neatly divided; they are seamlessly connected, and if one observes oneself in an impartial way, you can see how one ‘centre’ or ‘body’ can quickly usurp the other. My own tendency, for example, is to allow my emotions to guide my intellect. And although I think that it is my intellect doing the work, it is in fact my emotions masquerading as my intellect. Often this is the case in philosophy, for Nietzsche encapsulates this when he said: “It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of – namely, the confession of its inventor, and a sort of involuntary and subconscious biography”.
A misanthrope, for example, can rationalise his contempt for mankind all he likes, but he is essentially misdirecting two centres: one validates the other, and in turn, the confirmation – through so-called logic – then sinks the emotions lower, until eventually he is afraid to go outdoors or engage with the general public. And eventually, such as the fate of many misanthropes, their physical body too starts to suffer. Even Ouspensky, the author of In Search of the Miraculous (1949), later in his life, succumbed to alcoholism and urged that it was the ‘higher emotional’ centre that needed to be developed. Colin Wilson pointed this interesting fact out in his short biography on Ouspensky, noting that although an enormous intellect, he was sadly underdeveloped in the emotional sense and turned to alcohol. Interestingly it was the same Ouspensky who, in Tertium Organum (1931), wrote:
“Emotions are the stained-glass windows of the soul; coloured glasses through which the soul looks at the world. Each such glass assists in finding in the contemplated object the same or similar colours, but it also prevents the finding of opposite ones. Therefore it has been correctly said that the one-sided emotional illumination cannot give a correct perception of an object. Nothing gives one such a clear idea of things as the emotions, yet nothing deludes one so much”
Low emotions, or a sense of apathy, can quite easily be remedied by alcohol, for it induces a relaxation and a sudden sense of excitement which feeds itself with reminiscences, associations, and the freedom of being freed of too much self-awareness. It bubbles up from below, sometimes over spilling and turning sour. The trouble is that emotions have a vacillating quality, and behave like a spoiled child all of a sudden excited and then quickly bored, evacuating all its energy with little self-control or discipline. And it has a sort of feedback-loop effect, whereby the more energy wasted in depression leads to more of the same, until we are finally led into a form of absolute passivity. The vision of life becomes so narrow we are, as Wilson says, prone to ‘close-upness’, a vision of reality so reduced of its grandeur that it is difficult to see any reason to carry on. Again, he basically suggests this as the problem with the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and others. In Beyond the Occult (1988), Wilson calls this state ‘Upside-Downness’ and diagnoses many writers and artists whose vision of the world was almost completely inverted, so they only saw the ‘close-upness’ of reality without ever really being able to step back and allow larger meanings to re-establish themselves. Like the misanthrope, they closed all the windows, locked all the doors while intellectually validating his choice to withdraw from society. However, he is left alone with poor air and reduced experience which in turn makes him feel even more certain that human existence is a bad joke.
However, if key figures in our intelligentsia are stricken with this same fallacy, it quickly leaps into everyday culture, and thus causes a validation of the lowest instincts in man, and produces a certain misplaced pride in being cynical and misanthropic. In fact, to have a low opinion of human existence is now associated with a degree of intelligence, for to utter a remark about the blight of man on the environment, or the meaninglessness of the cosmos, will no doubt inspire congratulation for your perceptive and state-sanctioned remarks. Whereas to suggest the other would perhaps be misconstrued as naïve and/or ‘the very reason we got into this mess in the first place!’. For it is perhaps seen as mankind’s high-opinion of himself, and low opinion of nature, that we have generated the ecological crisis. Usually the perceived intellectual who is driven by social mores will agree, not out of logic or reason, but because he or she finds mutual agreement too emotionally gratifying – so therefore it is fundamentally still an emotional drive, however masking as a reasoned opinion.
Amusingly, it would seem that what we are after here is what Gurdjieff subtitled his book Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, that is, ‘an objectively impartial criticism of the life of man’. But how does one go about approaching this? It seems to me that Wilson attempted to do just this with phenomenological analysis, and he made a huge leap with the identification of the ‘outsider’. For in his first book, The Outsider (1956), he presents extremely insightful character studies into men who were intensely driven – either by their emotions, their physical bodies or their intellect. He argues that, in a sense, these drives were precisely the death or demise of them, and had they been able to step-back from themselves, and correctly identified their impulses, these men would have been even greater, that is, more fully integrated. And yet they kept slipping gear, falling into deep depressions, suicides or toxic ennui.
The ‘outsider’, with which he identifies these intensely driven, socially detached individuals, I believe is somewhere within us all (to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the individual). It is certainly not difficult to identify with one or more of them. One can see, I think, that in certain moments of our lives we are taken over by one of these ‘modes’ of being; we may over-intellectualise, be victim to our emotions or pulled along by the physical body and its desires. We know intuitively that if these could be correctly understood, we would cease to struggle with our identities and become great, evolutionary individuals. Instead of being a victim, we could instead make a start at evolving our being. In moments of ‘peak experience’ we know this, for we are above our normal state of consciousness and have momentarily stepped into a ‘birds-eye view’, where we can as if from a mountain, our lives in a suddenly intensely meaningful context. Yet when we slip back down, we are subject to a ‘close-upness’, and deprived of any large-scale perspective. The ‘purpose’, whatever it might be, suddenly seems so distant as to be basically irrelevant, barely worth pursuing. It is what Gurdjieff basically meant when he said most people are incapable of ‘doing’ anything; and that the development of the individual increases freedom to ‘do’.
Mysteries is perhaps Wilson’s most Gurdjiefian book, dealing as it does with a ‘Ladder of Selves’ and the notion of multiple, conflicting ‘I’s. Indeed, Wilson’s ‘schoolmistress effect’ is basically what Gurdjieff called a ‘shock’, which causes a change in the ‘octave’ of being, thus silencing, if you will, the collective of squabbling I’s and bringing them under discipline. Wilson has always referred to Gurdjieff throughout his work, and it is remarkable that it is in The Outsider, for it tallies so well with the ‘outsider’ that it may well be ‘the Work’ – as it is called by individuals involved in the Fourth Way of Gurdjieff’s method – was particularly designed for outsiders!
There is a tremendous and invigorating sense of a ‘way out’ of the ‘outsider’s crisis’ by reading The Outsider and In Search for the Miraculous in tandem, for the two complement each other wonderfully. Indeed, a non-‘Work’ writer on Gurdjieff’s ideas, Michel Waldberg, dedicates a chapter (in Gurdjieff An Approach to his Ideas) particularly to ‘The four ‘bodies’ of man’ and ‘Man’s possible evolution’, which argue that the emotions, in the ‘second body’, are prone to “whims and crazes” which may lead even to a form of sickness, where the man not only knows what he likes, but becomes obsessed with what he dislikes. Of course, most existentialists seem to be in the ‘second body’, obsessed with what they dislike – for if one reads a lot of existentialist literature, it is effectively a diary of a misanthrope, trapped as he is, in a cosmos reduced of value. Even the work of the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, or the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran strikes one of this sickly man, obsessed with the void.
In The World of Violence (1963) Wilson has a character called Uncle Sam who locks himself away in a room as a revolt against god, a character who is very much an intellectual-emotional in extremis. He has entirely ceased to ‘do’ anything apart from a metaphysical strike against existence itself. Uncle Sam describes his realisation thus:
“Certain malcontent intellectuals have taught the workers to feel dissatisfaction with their employers. But it seems to have struck no one that human beings are grossly exploited by God. We are expected to bear misfortune, to learn from experience (like obedient schoolchildren), to offer thanksgiving for benefits received; our role is in every way that of a slave and the sycophant. We are entrapped in the body, which we carry around like a suit of armour weighing a ton, and we have to endure with patience its stupidities and enfeeblements”.
I cannot think of a more succinct example of the existential problem, and this, in its logical way, is hard to disagree with – for life is full of banalities, boredoms and physical discomforts. And yet, by ceasing to move or evolve seems more like slavery than anything else, for one – despite the freedom of mind – has essentially consigned oneself to a vegetative state. Neither do you alleviate the problem of the body, the emotions or the intellectual problem by simply refusing to go on like a character from a Samuel Beckett play. Wilson understood this, and said that “opportunities increase as they are seized” and opportunities only come about in being active. Passivity in fact reduces the development of opportunities. What Uncle Sam is really asking for is to be blessed with a mystical insight, or profound alleviation out of the material realm by some sort of cosmic pity which hands out, to its stubborn ‘victims’ a get-out-of-jail-free-card! To cease to ‘do’ is to pause the evolution of your mind, for the mind requires a certain discipline – that of friction of existence – to acquire a healthy purpose. In fact, a purpose is a form of detachment from the trivialities of everydayness, and a re-focussing on what really matters. Victor Frankl knew only too well that an impersonal goal in fact reinvigorates the mind and body, and that even death itself seems banal in the light of the meaningful purpose implicit in human existence.
Wilson expresses idea again in a much later essay, The Human Condition (1984), in which he talks about ‘left-brain awareness’ and its tendency to focus on the particulars out of their context, thus reducing the world to “magnified objects” where we can see the individual trees but not the wood. He continues: “And at this point, the emotional body intervenes, with its negativity and self-pity and mistrust, and turns the wood into a forest of nightmare. . . It can be overcome only by recognising that it is a mistake”.
Modern life, unfortunately, blinds us with temporal values, which diminish as soon as they are grasped; instantaneousness seems to be the unifying goal for all things. Long-distance purpose, the notion of a careful development of one’s psyche through ‘self-observation’ sounds, I think, too archaic for the modern mind. It is little wonder why a book like The Power of Now can become a best-seller, as I have seen it, being placed alongside business and economic books alongside other entrepreneurship and prep-talk guides. Ironically Eckhart Tolle’s book is precisely about expanding one’s awareness of the present moment, reducing the mind’s tendency to ‘magnify’ reality and time into consumable items, without the savouring quality present in appreciating the relatedness, the unfolding horizons of correspondences. The over-active left-brain awareness tends to plague our reality in the modern world, and it is to this right-brained sense of an authentic meaningful context that we have unwisely ejected. Moreover, the emotional body is starved, provided with no positive ‘background of values’ due to the overarching materialism and its rejection of a meaningful universe. Instead materialism only has value, which, although fleeting and perfectly adapted to the emotional tendency to vacillation, ends up by cancelling itself out, causing a leakage of energy and an upsurge of anxieties, depressions and ennui.
In an important insight from Gurdjieff, the struggle with emotions is given a very significant purpose:
“In the sphere of the emotions it is very useful to try to struggle with the habit of giving immediate expression to all one’s unpleasant emotions. . . Besides being a very good method for self-observation, the struggle against expressing unpleasant emotions has at the same time another significance. It is one of the few directions in which a man can change himself or his habits without creating other undesirable habits. Therefore self-observation and self-study must, from the first, be accompanied by the struggle against the expression of unpleasant emotions”
Again, a struggle against oneself is precisely where evolution occurs. And yet, there are more opportunities than ever in our society to express ourselves, particularly in public, online and so on, whereby the act of self-observation can become either more difficult, or, conversely, easier than ever. This is why Wilson’s The Personality Surgeon is so important, in fact, and stands as one of his most accessible and contemporary novels. The outsider who ceases to be an outsider through self-analysis and applied phenomenology is an extraordinary leap in human consciousness, for it has with it the higher development of self-consciousness directed towards an evolving purpose. If man is defined by his self-awareness, which animals have a lesser degree, plants even less so and the mineral kingdom none whatsoever, the rising of a ‘life force’ can be seen as an exponential increase of conscious freedom, of matter being imbued with the inner world of consciousness and imagination.
To be able to ‘do’ as Gurdjieff expressed it is to struggle, but also to manifest one’s self in life most satisfactorily. First there has to be a realisation of purpose, and a working towards it. Learning to ride a bike is a painful and tedious process at first, but as the child tries more, and can balance for longer, his confidence increases until eventually he can freely glide along, predicting the terrain and compensating for the bumps and curbs. A musician too, once he grasps his instrument finds that he can express himself in a most exciting way; he can feel himself evolving as he pursues his music, being transported by its relational aspects and touching others. This is the positive side to emotions, that they can feed energy into other pursuits such as physical – in lovemaking or sports – and intellectual, for the sheer joy of thinking is buoyed up by the emotional body, providing an exciting dynamic where an individual becomes immensely satisfied by the energy his own creative impulses provide him.
A mystical experience, similarly, is an overwhelming feeling of joy, whereby all the facilities glisten with potentiality – that from upon the ‘peak experience’ they can see the relational canyons and vaulting possibilities of man’s coming-to-be. The ‘higher emotional centre’ is a form of relationality of the emotions, reaching out over larger distances and pulling inwards and intentionally firing outwards the evolutionary impulse as it is realised as well as made manifest in acts of creativity.
To be able to ‘do’ is what freedom is all about, for without it we are effectively passively accepting our fate, and by doing this we are, as Gurdjieff pointed out, victims of circumstance; drifting and pulled under by any current of emotion, once again without ballast or steering. Wilson often emphasised that it is always the mind which falls victim, being oddly separated both from the world and the body, and when this happens a sense of unreality sets in – much like Uncle Sam, who fled entirely from the world by locking himself in a windowless room. The poet Zenrin Kushu expresses the mind-body problem in a satisfying metaphor:
Trees show the bodily form of wind;
Waves give vital energy to the moon.
It is, of course, pointing out the ‘invisible’ forces which shape the more physical, visceral reality of matter. Yet the mind is what bestows freedom into matter and particularly into physical existence – we can exist, and yet, like Sisyphus pushing the rock up and over the hill for eternity, still maintain a high degree of inner freedom. The trouble is that left-brain awareness symbolises reality, and thus turns our experience into a surreal, dream-like set of simplistic associations. We become detached from reality, which the right-brain adds a dimension of ‘realness’, or an extra dimension of meaning and relationships. Alan Watts, in his book, The Way of Zen, describes this situation perfectly:
“Convention therefore encourages him to associate his idea of himself with equally abstract and symbolic roles and stereotypes, since these will help him to form an idea of himself which will be definite and intelligible. But to the degree that he identifies himself with the fixed idea, he becomes aware of ‘life’ as something which flows past him – faster and faster as he grows older, and his idea becomes more rigid, more bolstered with memories. The more he attempts to clutch the world, the more he feels it as a process in motion”
Man thus becomes a victim of time, his own ‘immediacy perception’ and becomes adrift in the reduced meaning of a symbolic, detached form of consciousness which decreases the processing of sensory and existential information. For our experience of time is very much relative to the amount of information-processing we undergo in our lives (time goes slower for a child because everything seems so new), and as we habituate our consciousness we thus become mechanical, passive and are therefore prone to developing a pessimistic, fatalist view of our existence.
The way out, then, it would seem, should be to develop the mind’s muscles, and to somehow shock it out of its passivity; its over-reliance on what Wilson called ‘the Robot’. For we are like Roquentin in Sarte’s Nausea:
“… when I suddenly woke up from a six-year slumber . . . I couldn’t understand why I was in Indo-China. What was I doing there? Why was I talking to these people? Why was I dressed so oddly? . . . Before me, posed with a sort of indolence, was a voluminous, insipid idea. I did not see clearly what it was, but it sickened me so much I couldn’t look at it”
He had clearly been adrift too long, but, in a sudden flash he realises the essential absurdity of his existence. What he does not proceed to do is identify it as his over-reliance on the left-brain, its automatisms which rob our experience from us by its tendency to habituate. I believe Ouspensky, in his later life, also fell victim to this, but he knew that it was the ‘higher emotional centre’ that needed developing, that through drinking, he could experience its opening up, its widening of vision which allows more meaning in. Sadly, Ouspensky seemed to fall a victim to it in the end. However, Wilson managed to most clearly identify this problem, and this is his biggest contribution to philosophy.
Strangely, this act of reducing reality to symbols feeds back into the emotional centre, robbing us of its important energies; in turn, it becomes vacillating, undisciplined and trivial-minded. Again, sensory information of the objective world is something it thrives on, and yet our left-hemisphere tends to push things away, place them into isolated, vacuum-packed chambers where the right-hemisphere can’t grasp and project its extra-dimension of inter-related facts upon the world. It is as if we fire out the arrow of attention, but we get a trickle of a resonance from what it is we perceive; a mere echo, faint and vague returns, and we take this lack of hemispheric communication as if it were an objective fact of existence. So it is not exactly only one ‘body’ of ours which robs the whole, it is a combination of all three, but also the way in which we apprehend reality. There is a knock-on effect, where the energy of each centre steals from the other, which in turn, is confirmed intellectually, felt emotionally and expressed physically (we become lazy, tired, our eyes – we say – ‘fall upon the object’).
It is as important to see with all the centres, to energise the body, to suddenly look out of our eyes at the world, while being embodied, and also to bring the emotions up, to invigorate its excitability which in turn can stimulate the intellect – all of a sudden, if all three centres are working correctly, it is like a well-disciplined, highly motivated force singing, passing on energy and encouraging each and every one. Eventually it grows, grasping meanings, increasing our ‘birds-eye view’ and resultantly leading into greater degrees of freedom as our purpose is grasped, our seized opportunities expand.
Existence, in a sense, is a form of traction which we can get our feet into, and the gravity, although pulling us down, helps us not to float off into a dispersed, vaporous quality of a mind too detached from reality (which the intellect has a tendency to do). And all of Wilson’s ‘outsiders’, in one way or another, represented each centre – each centre at its greatest and its weakest. He knew that these individuals, despite their shortcomings, were also embryonic superman, making the leap, but without the necessary scaffolding of an insight to correctly judge, what it was necessary to do, to reach these summits of peak experience.
At this point Rene Daumal wonderfully demonstrates human existence in an allegorical description of mountain climbing:
“A climber far more experienced than I told me, “when your feet will no longer carry you, you have to walk with your head.” And that’s true. It is not, perhaps, in the natural order of things, but isn’t it better to walk with your head than to think with your feet, as often happens?
If you slip or have a minor spill, don’t interrupt your momentum but even as you right yourself recover the rhythm of your walk. Take note of the circumstances of your fall, but don’t allow your body to brood on the memory. The body always tries to make itself interesting by its shivers, its breathlessness, its palpitations, its shudders, sweats, and cramps. But it is very sensitive to its master’s scorn and indifference. If it feels he is not fooled by its jeremiads, if it understands that enlisting his pity is a useless effort, then it falls back into line and compliantly accomplishes its task”.
Its severity, at first, may seem too much. And yet, it is a certain amount of self-discipline and perseverance that seems necessary to ‘do’ anything. People are all very well, but it is more about realising your own existence first by an act of phenomenological analysis (or self-observation). At some point, one may be able to crystallise a purpose higher than their three ordinary bodies, which understands that the three below it have a tendency to exaggerate.
The philosopher Edmund Husserl basically meant this with the idea of a ‘transcendental ego’. It is a purposive, evolutionary aspect of our psyche which acts rather like an inner-sun to which we grow our mind and bodies. An impersonal idea, which seems both distant and vividly more real, is often correctly positioned far in the distance like the real sun – for if it was too close there would be no life on Earth. Meaning and purpose, when fully realise, are self-evident as the light of the sun illuminates every day. And yet, it is taken for granted, habituated and we cease to grow. Yet an idea, or an evolutionary philosophy like Wilson’s, can be used as a ‘guide for the perplexed’ (E.F. Schumacher’s book of the same name is a highly recommended), which acts and encourages our tropism towards some greater purpose. . .