“A considerable percentage of the people we meet on the street are people who are empty inside, that is, they are actually already dead. It is fortunate for us that we do not see and do not know it. If we knew what a number of people are actually dead and what a number of these dead people govern our lives, we should go mad with horror.”
G. I. Gurdjieff
They are “empty” because they are disconnected from themselves, from the feeling, authentic, loving part of themselves. They are numb, lacking empathy, lacking warmth, also lacking a moral center; if you really consider it, it becomes terrifying.
This is what the spiritual practice of embodiment – the practice of returning to one’s body – is meant to combat and overcome. It is a kind of soul retrieval process, which takes time and healing to accomplish.
For many people, being in their bodies, feeling their feelings, experiencing the somatic reality of existence, is extremely painful and unpleasant. As a result of childhood trauma (even if that trauma is unacknowledged or unconscious), they learned a form of dissociation, which allows them to remain disconnected from their physical body, and focus their experience of life entirely in their head/mind. It is as though their soul hovers around the body, but refuses to actually get grounded in the experience of being human. The egoic conditions are so unfavorable, so inhospitably hostile to the values and principles of love, that the soul cannot bear to remain inside.
This work requires a processing out of pain, clearing out enough trauma, and learning some new patterns of internal relating, in order to make embodiment feel good and pleasurable. It is a huge indispensable part of the evolutionary transformation process. Without this kind of work, there is no authentic joy, love, or compassion, there is also no integrity, no morality, and no limit to egotistical impulses and behavior.
Sadly, this is how lots of people walk around in Gurdjieff’s “empty” state. (If you doubt this, take a look around at your local narcissists and sociopaths – they are walking egos, disconnected from their feeling loving selves, capable of unimaginable remorseless cruelty.).
“Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”
Sentimentality is a hallmark of a manipulator. It is an attempt at mimicking sensitivity, by someone who doesn’t actually feel anything real.
A person who does not feel is not sensitive. In truth, he does not care about others at all. He is careless and remorseless with his words and actions, hurting others regularly without concern. And yet, he likes to imagine that he is a deeply caring person, and he wants others to believe that he is a caring and sensitive person as well. But because he doesn’t know what real feelings feel like, or how they are authentically expressed, he tries to mimic them as best he can. He is merely pretending…
That’s what sentimentality is; it has the distinct flavor of a dramatic enactment. Our manipulator will drum up phony displays in emotionally charged situations in order to mimic sensitivity. He spools himself up on a story in his mind generating all kinds of created emotions. There can be waterworks, and gasping, and sometimes even fainting from the concocted overwhelm, except that it’s all fake.
Sometimes they are so good at it, that it can be hard to distinguish real tears from created ones. (And hard to call them out on it, for fear of being cruel to a person who may be genuinely upset.). However, if you are authentically sensitive, if you can feel and know how to listen to your feelings, then you can tell the difference immediately.
This is a little bit more on the interpretation of the Luke passage about hatred, with an unexpected twist. This is from the gnostic text – the Pistis Sophia. (It’s originally in Greek, but that version is lost. The only remaining version is one translated to Coptic, but that’s proving hard to track down online. This is the GSR Mead translation, Book 4 Ch. 131.).
This is Jesus speaking to his disciples:
“For this cause, therefore, have I in this manner brought the mysteries into this world which undo all the bonds of the counterfeiting spirit and all the seals which are bound to the soul,–those which make the soul free and free it from its parents the rulers, and make it into refined light and lead it up into the kingdom of its father, the first Issue, the First Mystery, for ever.
“For this cause therefore, have I said unto you aforetime: ‘He who doth not abandon father and mother and come and follow after me, is not worthy of me.’ I have, therefore, said at that time: Ye are to abandon your parents the rulers, that I may make you sons of the First Mystery for ever.”
Most interestingly, the language here is an “abandoning” of the parents, which would, at first glance, appear to be about detachment, but it’s not.
These words aren’t about abandoning worldly human parents, rather spiritual parents, “the rulers,” liberating oneself of their influence, and the counterfeiting spirit that keeps a soul trapped in the ignorant misery and suffering of reincarnations. That’s the larger context of this passage.
And it is through the mysteries that the seals and bonds are to be broken. What are these mysteries? They are the tools and practices of mysticism – the digestion and transmutation of pain (and hatred) into love. It is a purification and liberation of the soul, in this case from these demonic rulers (“parents”) that keep it trapped in the reincarnation cycle.
But the only way to get there is through the substance of human life – to first admit the truths to oneself, which is the original point of my interpretation. One cannot heal, cannot apply the mysteries, cannot liberate oneself, unless he has the courage to face his ugly truths and authentic (often unacceptable) feelings…
That means admitting to himself that he isn’t happy and the life he’s built isn’t making him happy (very hard for lots of people to do). That also means breaking the idealization of the parents and partners, admitting to himself that the people in his life are not who he imagines/fantasizes them to be (also very hard to do, but part of the psychological maturation process anyway). And coming into solidarity with the real feelings, so that the liberation work can begin.
The point here of course isn’t hate-mongering, or maintaining a condition of hatred in the mind, but rather an acknowledgment of truth, so that real transformation can begin to take place.
Another passage from Pistis Sophia. Book 1 Ch. 59.
“Then Mary, the mother of Jesus, came forward and said: “My son according to the world, my God and Saviour according to the height, bid me proclaim the solution of the words which Pistis Sophia hath uttered.
“And Jesus answered and said: “Thou also, Mary, hast received form which is in Barbēlō, according to matter, and hast received likeness which is in the Virgin of Light, according to light, thou and the other Mary, the blessed one; and on thy account the darkness hath arisen, and moreover out of thee did come forth the material body in which I am, which I have purified and refined,–now, therefore, I bid thee proclaim the solution of the words which Pistis Sophia hath uttered.”
And on thy account the darkness hath arisen!!!
Take this out of the conventional images we’ve been given of Jesus and the tender unconditionally loving Virgin Mary – what does this sentence mean in modern understanding, when someone is the cause of our darkness? It means that they have hurt us, traumatized us, destroyed a part of us, causing us to experience the pains of darkness. It is on their account, by their actions, that we are experiencing pain. And naturally, that would make us hate them, until that pain is processed through and forgiveness is reached.
Again, in these sentences we see the arc of the real human story – Mary was the cause of his darkness, the bringer of his pain, which he is being honest about directly to her. And she is also the one who brought him into the world, for which he is grateful. These are two perspectives held in the heart of a child who has worked through parental trauma. In this case, it is through the darkness Mary gave him that he was able to purify his human self.
And she is there, with him and among the disciples, not cast out somewhere in hatred.
This is the thrust of the actual work – to acknowledge the pain and darkness, to tell oneself the truth about the hatred, to process through the pain, and to return to love (and sometimes reconciliation, if that’s appropriate).
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.
Gospel of Luke
Many theological interpretations of this line in the gospel read it to mean that Jesus is telling us to leave everything behind, give up on our lives entirely, in order to follow him. It sounds a little possessive on his part, like we must somehow love him so much that we grow to hate everything else, and we ought to abandon it (in hatred!) in order to follow him. This is a mis-reading.
While letting go of the quotidian material life in favor of the spiritual is very much part of the teaching, (we see it in a few different places), this line is talking about something else entirely.
What he’s actually saying here is astounding. Real discipleship, the real awakening to spiritual work and implementation of his teachings, doesn’t begin until a person matures to the point of recognizing and admitting his hatred. It is only when a person is ready to open his eyes to the truth of his life, to the hatred he feels, then he is ready to become a disciple.
But how can that be, from the same person who told us to love our neighbor and turn the other cheek? How can Jesus be condoning hatred or requiring it as a pre-requisite?
Hatred itself is merely a cover for deep emotional pain, and for many people it lives under the surface of a fake happiness and idealization. We idealize our families, our partners, our friendships, and while living entirely in those illusions in our minds, we fail to really attend to how those relationships make us feel, in our bodies. We are all conditioned to be happy, and positive, and to proclaim that we love everyone, but that’s merely the social mask we are required to wear. Deeper truths are often more difficult to see or stomach.
When the buried hatred (and the pain underneath it) finally begins to emerge, that is when the awakened spiritual life begins. That is when discipleship begins. That’s the real “coming to Jesus” moment. It requires a willingness to look honestly at one’s life, one’s feelings, and one’s relationships, and in doing so to see the toxic patterns of relating that dominate unconscious unawakened existence. We begin to wrestle with our fears and our pain, with our wounds, and to take personal responsibility for ourselves and our portion of those dynamics. We begin to practice the true art of forgiveness, and compassion, and we open the wellspring of authentic love within ourselves.
And that is precisely the moment (when our pain makes us hate everything and everyone) that the spiritual work begins. That’s when all the teachings begin to really resonate and make sense at depth, and we can hear them with a profound echo across the centuries.
Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.
Do the thing you do to the best of your ability. Work hard to perfect it, for its own sake and for yours. Fall down again and again, learning how to do better. Take feedback and advice from those who have walked in your shoes, especially from those who have tried and failed. Learn, and learn, and keep learning and following the call in your heart.
But do not bend to please others or to make it fit. Do not bend to avoid criticism or ridicule. Do not be afraid of being strange. Do not allow your confidence to be shaken by those who are threatened. Because if you do your thing well, they will be threatened, and they will try to tear you down. Do not hold back in fear of what others think of you. If you do, you will betray your own soul.
You seek too much information and not enough transformation.
When faced with the prospect of having to feel difficult feelings, of processing pain, grief, or shame, naturally we all prefer avoidance. It’s understandable and perfectly human to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
Some of us go to great lengths to avoid dealing with negative feelings all-together. With the right numbing mechanisms and mindset, one can spend his entire life trying to outrun the pain.
But spirituality is oriented in the opposite direction – it is fundamentally about turning towards the feelings, confronting the negative difficult material, and working through pain and suffering in order to heal.
During that process, the pain is transmuted into wisdom, leading to maturity, soul growth, and evolution of consciousness. The practice, at its heart, is one of profound transformation.
One would think that on the spiritual path avoidance wouldn’t happen. And yet, one of the most common traps is avoidance by a certain kind of intellectualism, by that I mean the seeking and collecting of knowledge and information pertaining to spiritual matters, without the actual implementation of them. It is an academic approach, which remains entirely in the mind, and refuses any sort of authentic transformation.
Having the appearance of spiritual work and seriousness, this is a form of distraction at best, and an ego-feeding mechanism at worst. Spiritual work is about real tangible transformation, from the inside out. Too much information, too much intellectual spinning around abstract concepts, becomes a hindrance to the real inner work, not an asset.
The just man is not the product of a day, but of a long brooding and a painful birth. To become a power for peace, a man must first pass through experiences which lead him to see things in their different aspects: it is necessary that he have a wide horizon, and breathe various atmospheres–in a word, from crossing, one after another, paths and points of view the most diverse, and sometimes the most contradictory, he must acquire the faculty of putting himself in the place of others and appreciating them.
We must be careful not to confuse spirituality with political ideology. They are not the same thing. Being “awakened” does not necessarily mean alignment with progressive political ideals. Truth and justice (and moral governance) lie across the political spectrum.
Strong political alignments represent merely an external expression of internal psychological experience.
A proper spiritual journey will take a person across political landscapes, so that he or she may experience life from various internal points of view.
With deep inner work the psychological landscape changes, and with it the conscious belief system and its political affiliations will find themselves shifting as well. Sometimes these shifts will be shocking, causing tremendous internal upheaval. The practitioner’s political views will necessarily swing wildly, first one way, then back, again and again like a pendulum, until a balance point is reached.
The authentic practitioner must experience this shifting from within, to genuinely know and understand various views, positions, and dogmas. They must be able to actually feel and understand other points of view, rather than guess and intellectually condescend to them.
This experience of expansion of mind allows for the inclusion of all viewpoints, with real compassionate understanding, without resistance or rejection. This is the path towards a genuine non-duality, which is inclusive of all that is.
If you’re in recovery from narcissistic abuse, there’s some very interesting stuff here, which may be validating and help untangle confusing experiences.
Naming and understanding what’s happening is usually half the battle.
The double bind theory was developed in relation to schizophrenia, where it seemed to be in favor for a while, but then less so. In my experience, people who suffer from schizophrenia are always historically the victims of vicious narcissistic trauma, and their stories help to demonstrate these patterns in vivid color.
I have a slightly different view of double binds: I see them as the method and mechanism of psychological abuse, but also, afterwards, as a road to healing.
Double binds are standard operating procedure with psychological abusers. That’s precisely how gaslighting works, and how they seem to destabilize others, producing anxiety so effectively.
The double bind theory suggests that it’s mixed messages or communication issues, and it hesitates to assign blame. For those of us who have been victims of abuse, we know that it’s not merely a problem of communication, but something much more nefarious.
Double binds are primarily venom, sugar-coated. But because our sense of perception and self-trust is so traumatized to begin with, we become unable to discern what is really happening. We are afraid of our own discernment. We are afraid of the truth underneath, which is often too painful to bear. Additionally, the elements of the psychological abuse are often not evident to others, and so trusting our own perception, when no one else can validate it, becomes extremely dangerous ground. The abuser typically has no awareness of what they are doing, and if confronted, will categorically deny any ill-intent. (They will usually respond with over-the-top horror or anger at the mere suggestion that they harbor any negative intentions or have caused any sort of harm.).
In action, the double bind is contempt, control, cruelty, and hypocrisy, wrapped in the appearance of love. It’s “do, and don’t you dare.” It’s “you must be vulnerable, but I’m going to use that vulnerability against you.” It’s “you must trust me blindly and be loyal, but I’m going to lie and betray you without remorse.” It’s “you must tell me the truth, but I’m going to hurt you for the things you say.” You can feel that they’ve punched you in the gut, that they’ve trapped you in a no-win situation, but on the surface (to you and everyone else) it sounds like they are being loving and nice.
Your feelings know the difference! And that leaves you, the victim, conflicted, torn, anxious, unsure, destabilized, all of which is crazy-making stuff. And we all know, that if you try to call this out, if you react in any negative way, you’ll be seen as the problem… (Been there. Have the t-shirt. It’s part of the problem.).
But further, on a constructive note, if we go into depth, double binds are extremely important areas of soul growth. They feel awful, but I love working with them. When they show up in our lives, they can sometimes cause panic, paralysis, and other times cause a full blown psychosis eruption. And yet spiritually, they are considered deeply significant and important. In fact, sometimes they show up circumstantially, without an “other,” playing the role of abuser. When they show up, they lay out the healing map, if discovered correctly. Double binds hold the keys to the conflicts in the soul that are seeking emergence and resolution. By looking at them, we can immediately see where to go with our work and their resolution brings great peace and liberation.
Also, check out the Gibney pdf she links to at the bottom of this post. There are some really great case studies and illustrations of this concept that will make you feel a lot less alone!!
If one would have a friend, then one must also be willing to wage war for him; and in order to wage war, one must be capable of being an enemy.
This is an unexpected piece of wisdom. On the surface, the suggestion of enemies and solidarity in warfare seems to run counter to spiritual ideals of peacefulness, unity, conflict resolution, and mutual understanding.
However, as we navigate the rich depths and practical nuance of peace as an ideal, we find some very surprising counter-currents. It turns out that the road to peace is full of virtue-cultivating battles.
There are circumstances in life when the call of justice transcends the need for quiet restraint, bringing the issue of unavoidable conflict into our lives. I’m focusing here only on the microscopic minutia of internal psychological dynamics and interpersonal relations, not large political questions or issues. What happens externally is a reflection of what’s going on within, and large political issues are often just reflections of what’s happening “at home,” so to speak. The depth of this teaching is speaking to something within ourselves and externally in our intimate relationships.
This instruction is asking us to deal with conflict avoidance, which can masquerade as peace-keeping behavior. Generally, peacekeeping is seen as “good,” but if the behavior is rooted in fear it can cause unjust harm, and is not considered virtuous. There are dysfunctional forms of peace-keeping which can be just as abusive as outright hostility. Thus this issue needs to be honestly seen and grappled with, if we are to talk about attaining real peace.
The call of justice means that sometimes we must embrace conflict, and stand in solidarity with what is right, and as an enemy to what is wrong, turning towards the conflict in order to overcome our fears and learn its lessons. This seems like an obvious concept, and yet in practice, in the reality of human relationships, this is much more difficult to do than it appears.
Fearful conflict avoidance usually manifests itself as the consummate diplomatic peacekeeper. We can think of this expression as a particular type of person, or as an attribute in each of us (if we look deeply enough). That fearful diplomat is the intended recipient of this particular wisdom; it is calling forth his fear, and is elevating it to the surface, so that it may be seen and reconciled.
We must set aside for a moment the destructive types – those who love conflict, confrontations, and chaos, the people who are constantly taking sides, creating divisions, hate-mongering, and demanding school-yard types of solidarity. They are not the audience for this wisdom, and their form of solidarity is not what’s at issue here.
This wisdom is for the “nice person,” the one who is always running around smoothing things over. His aim is always to appease everyone, and calm things down whenever conflict erupts. He is the first one to jump in with a distracting joke, a phony string of patronizing compliments, a categorical demand for compassion, or some other mechanism of invalidation, typically in order to to divert attention from the conflict-producing issue. He seeks to de-escalate at all costs, and unwilling and unable to take sides, will often unjustly silence the weaker party who is more easily oppressed. His actions, though seemingly well-intentioned, create a false moral parity between victim and aggressor, even at times when there is no moral ambiguity. This adds great harm to the victim and unfairly and prematurely absolves the wrong-doer.
This sort of diplomacy, though lauded in our social consciousness, is not a virtue. This person suffers from blurry moral vision on account of tremendous fear, often leaving him unable to distinguish right from wrong, nor stand firmly on the side of justice when that’s required of him. This kind of peacekeeper is deeply traumatized by dysfunctional conflict, and is therefore very viscerally conflict avoidant. He doesn’t have the capacity to actually consciously take sides. He can’t. Being embroiled in conflict, being an enemy to someone, being hated by someone, runs counter to his dire people-pleasing needs. Being a proper enemy, not in the heat of reaction, but in a considered and tempered way, is internally an untenable position.
And because he can’t stand to be hated, because he is so blinded by his own fear and urgent need to silence the discomfort of conflict, he cannot see what morality dictates in any given situation. He unwittingly ends up siding with the bully/aggressor. We know him sometimes as the abuser’s enabler. He cannot consciously discern the bully from the victim, and even if he could, standing up to the bully isn’t “nice,” and will escalate conflict, so he won’t be doing that anyway. He is incapable of being an enemy, really, even when justice requires him to stand strongly in solidarity with the victim.
This person is easy to identify within any small social group, and is pretty obvious externally, but he exists first and foremost inside the mind. We see him outside because he exists inside. Finding him within is the primary focus here, because learning how to “take sides” internally with what is right and true, and standing in solidarity with that (with the inner victim, the small true self) against the bullying egoic voice is the real battle. To be a loyal friend to our inner child, to be a friend to the heart and the soul, we must become an enemy to the ego. We must take sides, and go to war when necessary, and stand in integrated solidarity with what is true within, even when that means we will be hated by others.
This wisdom is calling out this pattern in all of us. It’s asking us for courage and discernment. It’s asking for moral fortitude, rather than people pleasing fear. It’s asking for solidarity with our inner victim, our inner truths, against the bullying force of the ego, and its external reflections in our lives.
For true devotion must issue from the heart, and consist in the truth and substance alone of what is represented by spiritual things; all the rest is affection and attachment preceding from imperfection; and in order that one may pass to any kind of perfection it is necessary for such desires to be killed.
St. John of the Cross
As far as I can tell, there are two distinct meanings to these words, depending on the depth of spiritual work.
The first is the admonishment against attachment to ritual and sacred material objects, over the substance of those things. It is extremely easy to get lost in spiritual materialism as it distracts from the difficult and painful parts of the path. Those who become too focused on the symbols, as ends in and of themselves, end up reducing spirituality (and the quest for real liberation) to religion and indoctrination. Ritual can be helpful, to focus the mind and intention, to set aside dedicated time and space for the work, but perfecting rituals it is not the goal of the work.
The second meaning is significantly deeper. Given St. John’s writings about the second dark night, and the excruciating purgations of the spirit which take place there, these same words take on a deeper meaning. It is an instruction to the monastic-level practitioner, and echos quite a bit of the buddhist teachings on this subject as well.
It has to do with the internal separation from egoic investment in mystical experience – the substance of the experience is representative, a reflection, symbolic. It is not ultimate truth. It is personal truth, intended to further the discovery work.
Getting attached to the content of mystical experience, using the experiences themselves to feed self-worth or status, turning the content into vanity is also a distraction. We must utilize the content, understanding that it is purely personal, and then detach from the content. We must come to understand the mystical experiences as a visit to a house of mirrors – reflecting for us, in grand design, our own hidden selves, so that we might see ourselves more clearly. To mistake the symbol for the substance, to mistake the experience for the truth, is in fact an error.
Killing off the aspects of ego that cling and attach to mystical experience is part of the process of perfection and purification.