Years ago, when I was a young spiritual seeker, I was invited to a daylong retreat to experience the teaching and the presence of Jeanne de Salzmann, the foremost student of the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. The moment she entered the great hall of what had once been a firehouse, the atmosphere changed. Diminutive, with snow-white hair and the upright posture of a dancer, she scanned the crowd seated in tiers, her blue eyes shining bright with attention. She came from France, but it seemed as if she came from another planet or another level of being.
“My being is Being,” she taught, and this seemed to be true of her. She seemed whole and serene, not in parts like the rest of us. She reminded us that the cosmos is here, now, inside each of us. We felt more alive in her presence and full of possibility. What could anyone ask that would elicit an answer more powerful than the vibrating stillness, the cosmic awareness, she brought into the room? It felt like angels were watching.
But finally a young man did stand and ask a question in a loud, trembling voice: “Is there a God?” he asked. “Does this Work you bring lead us to God? I have a right to know.”
There was a collective holding of breath.
“Who asks this question?” She scanned the crowd.
He stood and said his name.
‘Who are you to ask about God?”
I knew who he was. He was a lonely, searching human being, just like me. He wanted to know if this path was a ladder up out of confusion and suffering and separation to a greater wholeness. He wanted to know if there was goodness and order to the cosmos, and he wanted to belong to it. And I understood that being a great teacher she was not going to tell him any of these things.
In a commanding French accent, she directed the attention back to his own experience in that very moment. Did he see that his thoughts yearned to know, but did he have a body? Did he have sensation? If I were in his position, I thought, I would be flooded with sensation. The blood would be pounding in my ears.
In the years to come, I would learn that the Buddha refused to answer similar questions about God or the origin of the cosmos in a similar way. In one story, a student demands that he be told about the beginning of the universe, threatening to stop following the Buddha if he doesn’t receive an answer. The Buddha serenely tells that student that he is like a man shot by a poisoned arrow. He is dying, yet he is demanding to know who shot the arrow. He would send messengers out to scour the countryside for the shooter. While they searched, he would die.
In other sutras, the Buddha does talk more about the rise and fall of worlds, his view of a beginningless and endless cycle of creation and destruction resonant with Indian views of his time. He spoke about how everything is related to everything else. And Jeanne de Salzmann did speak of God and the cosmic order. But her teachings always circled back to the equation between our being, our capacity for a collected presence, and cosmic Being.
“My being is Being,” she wrote in The Reality of Being. “To be one, whole in the face of life, is all that matters. So long as I remain conscious of this, I feel all life within me, and a peace that nothing else can give me. I am here, alive, and around me exists the entire universe. The life that is around me is in me. I feel this universal life, the force of the universe. And I feel myself existing as part of the world that surrounds me.”
We humans yearn to know. Thinking far beyond our present moment experience is as natural to us as breathing, and it has produced extraordinary achievements in science and the arts. The ability to reason and foresee and think scientifically has given humans a certain kind of mastery over ourselves and our environment. And yet, we can’t think our way out of our suffering. Liberation from a sense of separation from the world requires more than thinking. We must be willing to be fully present, body, heart, and mind.
In Paradise Lost, the poet John Milton gives Satan wonderful lines and dazzling arguments. Banished to Hell, Satan employs extraordinary rhetorical skill to rally his troops, personally volunteering to poison the newly created Earth and God’s beloved new creation, humankind. He braves great dangers alone, arduously traversing the Chaos outside Hell to enter God’s new World. Later, in the Garden of Eden, in the form of a talking snake he flatters Eve and then offers arguments that seem extremely reasonable and compelling. Maybe God wants you to show a little independence. How can you know what’s good if you don’t know what evil is?
God creates the World (Milton transfers the actual work to the Son), culminating in his creation of Adam and Eve. God gives Adam and Eve total freedom, but one explicit command: do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil. But Eve, as everyone knows, was easily seduced by Satan’s praise and fancy thinking, and disobeyed. Adam, not wanting to live in this world without his partner, fell after her.
Is there a way to understand our foundational creation myth that is less challenging to women? Is there another way to understand obedience that does not mean an admonishment to remain ignorant and passive? Years after that day in the firehouse, after a lifetime of bewilderment and rebellion against the concept of our (and especially women’s) fallenness, I came to see another way to view this story. Both obey and to be obedient come from the Latin obedire, which literally means “listen to.” We usually use the words to mean “pay attention to.” But if we substitute “give our attention to,” that act of attending includes more of ourselves. Obedience comes to mean giving our attention to reality, to what is unfolding here and now, leaving the self-enclosed world of our thinking to listen and sense and see—to bring a greater awareness—to the life inside us and outside us.
In Paradise Lost, God sends the angel Raphael to Earth, to explain to Adam the story of creation in human terms that he can understand (playing the role of subservient partner, Eve retreats from the scene, waiting for Adam to explain things to her). Adam is hungry for knowledge, asking Raphael about the motion of the stars, sun, and planets. Do the planets orbit the Earth? Raphael indicates that it may only appear to be so, echoing Galileo, who was a contemporary of Milton—the cosmic order was hotly debated in Milton’s day. Raphael says that it doesn’t really matter if the sun and the planets move around the Earth or the Earth moves around the sun. The larger point is that God does not intend for humans to know everything about His creation.
Raphael warns Adam to resist his thirst for knowledge and to focus instead on his and Eve’s daily spiritual lives. Yet Milton himself was educated at Cambridge, including in science. He mastered many languages and purportedly believed in scientific questioning. And yet through Raphael he was telling us that the truth, at least the deepest truth, should be pursued only through faith.
We humans are endowed with a capacity to be, not just to know. Our being is connected to Being. We miss this because of our tendency to think past the felt experience of the present moment. We can be great scientists and poets in this world (which is in need of them). And yet as human beings we must also be willing to descend into the sensation and feeling of being alive here on earth, not knowing what will come. Sometimes bringing awareness to our experience without comforting thoughts and stories can feel like descending into Milton’s “wild Abyss,” everything raw, molten—”of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire.” But slowly it dawns on us that it is our willing awareness to be present—to listen to or obey reality—that brings order and light.
Years after that day in the firehouse, listening to Jeanne de Salzmann scorch that no-longer-young man, I found myself punching the buttons of an elevator that would take me up to the Chelsea loft space that was New York Insight Meditation Center. I had an impression of myself from the inside. I was preparing to play the role of teacher, pulling myself up straight and tall, giving myself a little pep talk.
“All the world’s a stage,” wrote Shakespeare. We all play many parts. Different postures—different selves—are automatically triggered by different conditions. We are endlessly affirming ourselves, our stories and beliefs, endlessly arguing our case in imaginary courtrooms, defending ourselves against pain, especially the pain of being no one in a vast, indifferent world.
The Buddha saw that there is no one self. We are pulled this way and that, inhabited by many disparate selves, each with their own memories and momentum. Gurdjieff said that we don’t usually see this strange state of affairs because we have “buffers,” which he compared to the shock absorbers between train cars.
But sometimes those buffers come down. Just for a moment, we see ourselves as we are—one self giving-way to another, a wounded child defended by a posturing teen or a pompous adult. Seeing this unstable, changing state of affairs can make our hearts twist. It also sets us free. We see that we are not one role. We are not one trauma or a general deficiency. We are the awareness that sees. We are being. And Being.
“There is a crack in everything,” as Leonard Cohen sang in his gorgeous song Anthem. “That’s how the light gets in.”
There is another way to inhabit the role of teacher, I have learned. We can give up trying to be somebody, especially somebody special. We can be willing to show up as we really are, vulnerable, changeable, subject to pain and embarrassment, to overreaching. We can trust that if we are truly and honestly present to ourselves and others, at moments the light of presence will shine through.
I entered the loft space that was New York Insight. I took my seat beside a big bronze bell, and in front of a beautiful stone statue of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. I pictured that Buddha in a long line of buddhas stretching back to the beginningless beginning—that Buddhist cosmology derived from the Indian culture of the time. I envisioned all those awakened ones as infinite points of light —a Milky Way of awakening. It relaxed and opened the tight little fist of my ordinary thinking, imagining an infinitely vast universe that included bright benevolent forces. But it was the sound of that bell resonating inside me that truly touched my heart, reminding me that I belong to a much larger world.
That bell stopped our forward momentum, sounding depths in us, inviting us to be still and to listen with our whole being: body, heart, and mind. The root of heal means to make whole. When we give our lives our whole attention, we remember that we are made to be part of a greater whole.
“Ring the bells that still can ring,” is another line from that beloved Leonard Cohen song. “Forget your perfect offering.”
We are all cracked. But we are also part of a greater Wholeness. ◆
This piece is excerpted from the Summer 2023 issue of Parabola,
THE COSMOS. You can find the full issue on our online store.