I attended a Climate Change Day of Action event this weekend and felt the seriousness of our predicament. We are approaching the inevitable tipping point but are unable to change course. It would seem that, as a race, we are intransigent ingrates and incorrigible biters of the hands that feed us. Can we feel the terror of the situation in time?
Rumi said “a man’s capacity is equal to the breadth of his vision,” which is to say that we respond to what we can see. If all we see are the desires that revolve around self-involved appetites and ambitions, these are all we have the power to actualize. But if we see the impulses arising from a deeper part of ourselves, a part that recognizes our unity with others, then at least we are presented with a choice, and in choosing can begin to develop the habit of choosing what serves that larger world.
I find it useful to look at the question in light of the idea that each person is a microcosmos—a direct reflection of the whole of humanity. In other words, the ignorance, greed, and blithe indifference to what matters, shown by governments, corporations, academicians, and religions to what matters, are present in us also. But that is not all that is within us. There is also a knowledge of truth, a conscience, if you will, that is present within our confusion.
In the teachings of Gurdjieff, the word conscience has a specific, technical meaning. It is an instrument deep within the emotional center that attunes to reality, and provides intelligence for suitable responses. It is the “still, small voice” which is not speaking against our self-involved fantasy of ourselves and our role, but above it. It is not some prepared set of ideas or dogmas. Conscience is our source of living intelligence, and we need only quiet the cacophony of competing voices to hear it. If we can hear it, we can obey it, for it is the voice of self.
In his system Gurdjieff points to a means of hearing the voice of conscience. He said we are all made up of many different selves— “I’s”—that compete for control, like so many monkeys in a car, each taking its turn in the driver’s seat, and steering the car in a different direction. But in our distracted state we don’t see when the I in charge changes, and are left with the illusion that our multiple personalities are one, integrated self.
The I’s are often contradictory to each other. One wants to love his neighbor and the other hates him for running the leaf-blower at 8 o’clock on Sunday morning. One wants to be fit and thin, and another eats pints of Ben & Jerry’s in the middle of the night. Each I has its own aim, however miniscule or destructive, and each has its own satisfactions. Each conducts some of our real power—our feeling and desire—with the summary result that our power is dissipated in multifarious counterproductive or destructive directions.
The means Gurdjieff suggests for awakening conscience is to remove the cushions from between the different I’s so we can feel the real impact of their contradiction. We have all had the experience of being shocked to discover some truth about ourselves, and awakened to a new state of tenderness and compassion. The shock could be a near-fatal accident, in which we see our blithe and disinterested state against the backdrop of our inevitable death. Or it could be the threat of the loss of an important relationship as a result of selfish habits—we realize that though we profess love for another, we ultimately love our habits more. But when these two separate I’s come into proximity, and collide, the emotional energy flowing though each as separate tributaries combine to become a single, stronger flow, and in their collision create an inner shock to awaken conscience, even for a moment.
Unfortunately these awakenings are fleeting, and rarely last. Clearly it takes more than an accidental shock to sustain an awakened conscience. It takes work, and that work is struggle with our habits, for it is the habits that allow the endless easy transition from one tiny fraudulent I to the next.
This is the opportunity for us personally and for the whole world. We collectively say we understand our dependency on and unity with all life on earth, and yet we are on a collision course with environmental catastrophe. We want alternative energy but we don’t want windmills turning in our backyards. We want peace, but we want the spoils of war—a lifestyle that can only be sustained by stealing from the rest of the world. How close will we get to annihilation before we truly feel its imminence and are shocked by the destructive contradictions of our many wants; feel it enough to individually and collectively awaken conscience—a summary perception of what is true?
The most sacred prayer in Hebrew begins with admonition Sh’ma—“hear.” If we can hear the truth, we can act on it. But do we have the capacity to listen?