published in Noesis, the journal of the Mega Society, #180, March 2006
God is a concept by which we measure our pain.
—John Lennon, in his song “God”
I was born with hip dysplasia and a weak urinary system. I had a series of operations as a young child to deal with these problems and so, though my family was nominally Catholic, I received no formal religious training until I was sent to Catechism at the age of seven.
Before I was sent to Catechism I heard people talking about God and I had one predominant reaction: I was offended by the idea of a being superior to me and by what I perceived as the subservient attitude of those who spoke about this being. I suspect that, on a very deep level, this resentment of God plays a big part in many people’s attitudes toward religion and the world. In fact, there are a lot of people who say they don’t believe in God who are carrying around this resentment anyway.
The Catechism classes were taught by authoritarian nuns who demanded rote learning and were hostile to real questions. I resisted them and spoke insolently to them, but, against my will, the nuns eventually wore down my resistance and I became a devout Catholic. I still found the nuns’ approach stupid and rigid but I began to see that there was more to religion than that. I was interested in the doctrines, the history, and the ritual—and I began to feel that there was something very important at stake; I didn’t want to go to hell and I sensed that there was a profound understanding of human nature—and possibly of something far greater—at the heart of the spiritual teachings of the Church.
I confessed my sins and took my First Communion and later Confirmation.
I felt something special in church, a taste of another level of experience, and I understood that to truly participate in the Mass and other sacred rituals an effort of attention was required of me.
When I attended the University of California at Berkeley, just across San Francisco Bay from my home in Marin County, the ferment of ideas I was plunged into was so attractive that I had a lot of trouble focusing on my academic studies and I flunked out after only two semesters; this was to create difficulties for me for the next several decades.
At first, letting go of my former belief system brought a heady taste of freedom. Infinite possibilities seemed to lie before me. It was only a year or two later that I began to really feel the terrifying responsibility of finding my own way in the face of my limited powers, very partial understanding, and mortality.
I began searching seriously, though I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I investigated hundreds of philosophies, religious teachings, psychotherapies, and communal experiments. I read many books, but whenever possible I attended meetings with leaders of the groups that interested me. I was looking for answers to my questions, self-transformation, and a line on the metaphysical, another chance at immortality.
It soon became obvious that the great majority of the groups, teachings, and teachers I found brought nothing useful for me. Some were more-or-less-successful con games; some were feel-good philosophy; some were fanatical cults; and some just didn’t address my questions.
In Chapter 2 of Monkey, a Chinese “folk novel” by Wu Ch’eng-en, translated by the noted Chinese scholar Arthur Waley, the first few chapters of which were published separately as a children’s book and which I had as a child, the protagonist becomes a pupil of an “Immortal Patriarch” named Subodhi and engages in the following dialogue:
are three hundred and sixty schools of wisdom,” said the Patriarch, “and all
of them lead to Self-attainment. Which school do you want to study?” “Just
as you think best,” said Monkey. “I am all attention.” “Well, how about
Art?” said the Patriarch. “Would you like me to teach you that?” “What
sort of wisdom is that?” asked Monkey. “You would be able to summon fairies
and ride the
The Patriarch offers several more “schools of wisdom” and Monkey rejects them all, on the grounds that they don’t lead to his aim of immortality—which seemed eminently reasonable to me.
One day, at a discussion group I attended in the 1960’s, I heard a talk on “Gurdjieff's Ideas.” I was electrified, as Gurdjieff touched on many points which corresponded to my questions, extended them, and provided some practical approaches to matters which, while clearly important, had appeared to be beyond the reach of empirical investigation.
Among the subjects to which Gurdjieff brought unusual and illuminating perspectives were the questions of God’s existence and nature and man’s place in the cosmic scheme. Although I was unable to draw any firm conclusions about such matters from what I’d heard and read, new hope arose in me that something beyond the sterile prospects offered by positivist science was really possible.
The ideas in which I’d become interested offered a great deal of practical wisdom with regard to the human condition and an approach to the symbolic quality of scripture, ritual, and sacred art. And this new understanding made it at least plausible to me that something beyond life on earth was possible.
However, Gurdjieff taught that what is necessary to transcend death is exactly the same as what is required to live an honorable life. Taking this idea seriously allows me to put metaphysics aside and concentrate on working for my own benefit and (to the extent to which I am able to put myself in their place) that of other beings.
Gurdjieff said that his teaching was esoteric Christianity.
For an introduction to Gurdjieff’s teaching, see my web site:
For a more comprehensive introduction to Gurdjieff’s ideas, see In Search of the Miraculous, by P.D. Ouspensky (do not be put off by Ouspensky’s rather negative attitude toward science, which was not shared by Gurdjieff).
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