The Third Striving

3rdstrivingThe nature of wisdom is necessarily esoteric, because it subsists on a level which both transcends and is internal to, anything we can directly observe. Like any organic being, a given tradition knows conception, development, and demise (from the French desmettre, literally a “sending away,” a “putting away”). Neither the birth, life, nor death of wisdom traditions are like those of humanity, yet they are analogous. Wisdom lends strength and purpose to its human members, and yet the tradition cannot fulfill its purpose on this plane unless sufficient members remain whole and hale. I repeat, a wisdom tradition is a presence, and to the extent we sleep to this reality, we have not entered the current. 

This enigmatic volume, an illuminated manuscript rather than a book with diagrams, is written within the wisdom tradition of Gurdjieff (c.1866-1949), and is a worthy addition to that already formidable stream. To benefit from this volume, however, one must have begun with Gurdjieff. One could no more commence at this point without having studied Gurdjieff, and having his books at your fingertips, than one could read Proclus’ commentary on the Timaios without having first studied Plato’s dialogue, and continually referring back to it.

Buzzell’s work will be virtually impenetrable if you have not read Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, and Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous. If you have not studied them, the effort may prove uncommonly rewarding. In my view, Gurdjieff’s central insights are relevant to every wisdom tradition. Gurdjieff saw two things with great clarity: first, that to return consciously and consciencely (his word) to God, the Absolute who is All in all, one must become a whole integrated person; and second, that the greatest obstacle to our becoming conscious and being conscious of conscience is the prevalence of negative emotion in us. The question, then, is how do we become conscious? Or, what amounts to the same thing: how do we overcome negative emotion and arrive at conscience?

This is where the Gurdjieff groups and this book become relevant. Buzzell refers on several occasions to the Gurdjieff groups as being part of what he calls the “Great Tradition” and being a force for the development of consciousness in our world. The point of philosophy is not to interpret the world, or even to directly change it, with all respect to Marx. It is to understand the purpose of existence and to change ourselves. If, and only if, parts of the world change for the better, then the world too may move in that direction. Gurdjieff insisted that the ideas and methods he brought were to be put into practice. This slim book represents a sustained effort to do so. Books such as this are not to be confused with the “Work” which Gurdjieff enjoined, but they are its fruit, and they may lead to and inspire that work.

So high is the quality of Buzzell’s thought, and so powerfully is it presented in the generous illuminations, that the impressions can evoke a conscious response in the reader. Buzzell is a scientist, and has for many years been a physician. However, he came into medicine as he was studying for his Master’s in Music, and with the assistance of the Fifth Press and its dedicated staff, has produced a union of art, craft, and science. The pages are simply beautiful: tessera-like triangles stand bold in orpiment, while others glint with realgar. Wisdom seeks beauty.

And now to descend to the details. The “third striving” of the title is the third of Gurdjieff’s “Obligolnian Strivings,” i.e., the “conscious striving to know ever more and more concerning the laws of World-creation and World-maintenance.” Just as the Book of Genesis with all its anomalies, and perhaps even through those very anomalies, provides the context of the Jewish and Christian revelations, Gurdjieff’s creation myth serves a similar purpose in his tradition.

How our reality came into being, how it is organically structured, and how it may consciously evolve: these three aspects of the one mystery of creation are Buzzell’s special area of interest. Recent efforts have highlighted what Gurdjieff called his “whim,” to introduce a new concept of God. In this, the sixth volume of his series, the emphasis is, perhaps, on the concept of impartiality, and the capacity we have to see our condition, formulate a worthy aim, and to move in that direction by structuring thought.

The first important topic treated in depth is “the solar system as an individual.” In my comparison of tradition to a river, I have already touched on Gurdjieff’s insight that the humans are not the only conscious entities in the universe, even if we don’t really understand how to recognize different manifestations of consciousness. In this chapter, Buzzell characteristically notes that only through the third brain, our ordinary intellect, “can man come to consciousness of himself and of his functional expressions (in images) … the third brain can and does create images from the chemical and neural input ….”  The conscious fashioning of these images is perhaps the prime factor in our conscious transformation, to the extent that it takes place.

Buzzell then deals with the thought “TO STRIVE.” The striving is for impartiality: by coming to understand the fundamental cosmic laws we can see our present position in the world, and where we could be. For those who have already studied Gurdjieff, the diagrams showing first the independent, and then the combined functioning, of the fundamental laws in the enneagram will be a shock for the understanding. The symbols on page 15 will start to mean more to readers when they understand that the center point of the central triangle in the top right figure represents the unique Will of the Creator, containing within itself all potentialities. The triangle in which it is found is a triad, the symbol of the Most Holy Trinity, whose triune will and substance are expressed in the three sides of the triangle. This triangle, circumscribed by a circle, symbolizes the wholeness of what Gurdjieff called variously “World One” (the terminology used in Miraculous) or “the Most Most Holy Prime-Source Sun Absolute itself – ‘Protocosmos’” in Beelzebub.

Each side of the triangle is also an axis. The side can open out or “manifest” and, in unfolding, it creates another triad. As the book proceeds, the diagrams become more elaborate, detailing the place of humanity, our foods (solid food, air, and impressions), and our brains (organized and relatively autonomous organic centers of initiative, connected each to the other with varying degrees of efficiency).

To assist the reader, one might note that at pages 85-86 there is a useful table of the “worlds” of which Gurdjieff speaks: Worlds 96, 48, 24, 12, and 6. Buzzell describes each world in three parts: Verbally he illustrates both the physical and the psychological attributes, while geometrically he represents it using the triangles I have mentioned above, all manifesting outwards from the Will of the Creator.

For example, World 48, the world of our sense-experience, is physically a world of bodies and their motions and is subject to gravity, etc., while psychologically it is marked by “uniqueness of the personal body and experience,” is a “world of opposites, with no reconciliation from within itself.”  We live in the “second state of consciousness (the waking consciousness).” Then World 24, for us the world immediately “above” (or within, it comes down to the same thing), is physically the atomic and ionic realm, which is open to new forms, reconciles active and positive interactions, and is very little subject to gravity. Psychologically, it is the third state of consciousness (consciousness of Being), with its potential for the reconciliation of opposing forces and the “inclusion of all other” (Buzzell’s italics). I have omitted much, but clearly a study of these two pages would assist anyone new to Gurdjieff to orient themselves among these ideas.

The section “sensitivity in the atomic world” in the short chapter on “Intelligence and Consciousness” evoked a response of sensitivity within me: The charged field about an atom is a field of possible interactions with other atoms and energies – which seems obvious once it is pointed out. And yet I had never seen that this potential for exchange is a prime quality of awareness, for without awareness, what possibility of interaction exists? The charged fields about our faces should have taught us that sensitivity, and hence some sort of consciousness, is a property of the atomic world. Suddenly, the more highly organized and enlightened consciousness sought through wisdom traditions seems more accessible, and in accord with the nature of reality.

The next topic, the emergence of a nervous system takes us from atomic fields to neural fibres, and thence to a centralized nervous system. Ionic waveforms are the essence of neural impulses: they can carry information or initiate chemical actions within a cell. The appearance of neurons facilitated both of these processes, and enhanced the possibilities of growth, for now appropriate food for cells could be identified, threats could be discerned, and light and sound recognized. From this developed, in time, the “first brain,” which Gurdjieff calls the “instinctive center,” which is concerned for “the individual survival of the organism.” Yet the most extraordinary aspect of this chapter is the small diagram of the “First-brain Survival Triad.” It shows how from the central point of the ‘Will-to-Be,” there manifests physical survival in the moment, survival into the future, and survival through food. To me, it was a graphic reminder that the Will-to-Be is deeply programmed into us, and should, therefore, be more accessible. Of course, one is not likely to seek access to what one is unaware of. But once we know it is there … this is yet another demonstration of how Buzzell’s intellectual and artistic development of Gurdjieff’s system is of so high a quality that it is practical.

Rather than continue in this wise, let me move on to one of the last chapters: “Consciousness – A Precondition for Love.” Buzzell states that genuine love can – he stresses that this is potential – enter our lives at what Gurdjieff called the “first conscious shock”. This surprised, even startled me at first, because the first conscious shock is what Gurdjieff called “self-remembering: that is, becoming conscious of, feeling, and sensing oneself as a whole, in the present moment. And yet on reflection, I asked myself, how could that be separate from love? As he states, when it appears, it is expressed as a real wish. He goes on to state: “The effort to initiate the first conscious shock is the beginning of a lifetime of struggle, impartial perception, choice and a multitude of failures.”.

Again this concept of impartiality. Without impartiality, our attention is at the mercy of our partialities. But unless we can direct our attention impartially to our functions, especially to our intellectual, emotional, and physical functions, they can never operate with the level of consciousness that they should (my paraphrase of page111).

I think that enough has been said to indicate why I believe that Buzzell’s work is amongst the most important fruits of the Gurdjieff tradition, at least those which are directly manifested in the public sphere: the conscious development of individuals who can formulate and pursue an objectively good aim (that is, one in accordance with conscience) must be prior to such achievements. The question of the relation of this tradition to others is something I will not enter into here, except to point out that Gurdjieff himself stated that his system was esoteric Christianity.

To conclude this review, now that we have seen something of what Buzzell is exploring, we can better understand the importance of this blend of analytic, artistic, and mystic writing. I began with the analogy of Neoplatonism partly because Gurdjieff, in my view, initiated a tradition which was parallel to it in certain critical respects, especially to the Eastern school of Iamblichus, most particularly in the striking idea of the formation of a vehicle for the soul. Then consider this passage from Armstrong’s translation of Porphyry’s life of Plotinus: “… he was present at once to himself and others, and he never relaxed his self-turned attention except in sleep.” I have published more of my reasons elsewhere: suffice to say that these and other concepts shared by Gurdjieff and the Neoplatonists seem to me to be so strikingly similar as to exclude coincidence.

And just as to understand these ancient writers one needs to learn a new vocabulary, almost a new language, so too, with Gurdjieff and Buzzell. The biblical priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26 cannot really be studied in any language other than Hebrew: one can see this from the notes in Milgrom’s Numbers, The JPS Torah Commentary, pages 346-348. The material in The Third Striving can be read in English, but the language of initiation is that of the ideas and methods of Gurdjieff.

I believe that the effort to acquire this “language” is worthwhile. The success of Buzzell’s work is itself a proof of the value of Gurdjieff’s teaching. We are invited to a work of intellectual initiative, so finely balanced and so impartial that the intellect knows when it must harmonize with feeling and organic instinct. The mind has this advantage over our other faculties–it has the best possibility of recognizing and accepting its true role, and of helping the other faculties to do the same in the way proper to them. And properly used, the Gurdjieff tradition, and Dr Keith Buzzell’s contribution to it, can help us if we do desire to rouse our minds from sleep.

Joseph Azize is a Maronite priest. He is an honorary associate in the Dept. of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, and an Adjunct Associate Professor in Theology and Ancient History at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He was really introduced to the ideas and methods of G.I. Gurdjieff by the late George Adie, a personal pupil of Gurdjieff.