In the Middle of Living

Do you live as I do, somewhere between this person plugging along in her life, doing her best to survive the blows of life and celebrate its special moments, and the energy that sometimes descends like grace to fill us when we’re open to it? And aren’t we always in the middle—of things, of demands on us, of crucial decisions to make? Living between the world that demands our immediate action and response and another world that awaits our attention.

I’m very much in the middle today—table piled high with books I want to read while my computer’s frequent ping! announces the arrival of emails from the world “out there.” To add to the pressure, my office needs a new ceiling as the old one has begun to crack, so I have to move papers and even furniture out these next two weeks. Yet in my heart is the hope that grace may descend on me even as I’m buried deep in activities. And whether or not I remember my wish, one thing is certain: there’s always work to be done.

Few rewards are as satisfying as finishing a job to which I’ve given my best professional effort. Yet after a lifetime of attempting to be single-minded, engaged, united in purpose, in spite of being pulled in many directions—the question remains. How to stay open to an ongoing call from another source as I go about my daily achieving maneuvers? That call is so easily forgotten.

Perhaps because I’m older, and at moments wiser, success seems less important nowadays than to acknowledge frankly that I’m divided, and that the unification of this multifaceted human being may never take place. I’ve accepted that this present moment, my opportunity to be here now, won’t provide an escape hatch to Nirvana. Only in my dreams can I get away from the primary human situation of living at the crossroads between yesterday and tomorrow, between earth and heaven. In the middle.

Pauline de Dampierre, one of the senior leaders of the Gurdjieff Work, helped me to accept this fact. When I told her of my efforts at opening to grace in the midst of an overactive life, she said: “Try to feel without guilt that the body is not attuned to something higher. Our work is not to get a higher state but to be aware of what we are. When I wish to work, what can I bring? Only a sensitivity of something heavy, something not tuned. When I stop feeling guilty about it, something else begins to appear.

“My body is not in a state to be open. I see that and don’t run away from it. Then something becomes related in me. I am quieter in a new situation. At first there is this quietness. Then I gradually begin to feel that I am two-sided. But I always identify with one current or the other. How to stay between the two worlds? We should not hate the coarse current. If you can, don’t go with it. Then what is coarser begins to feel it needs the other current and an assimilation begins. How can I work in that coarser state? I need to see it, but I fly away from it, so I’m unable to have the perception I need.”

The minute I began to agree with what she was saying, she stopped me:  “Find no explanation. Stay aware of the coarser state. It will help you and it is always there. You can count on it. The angel isn’t easily available. The devil can help you, as Mr. Gurdjieff always said. There are two energies in me. Don’t have an idea about anything. Accept to feel the heaviness of the body. My wish, my suffering, comes from the heaviness.”

Nevertheless, a lifetime may go by as we attempt to discover ourselves between these two worlds, seeking a path through our confusion. But what if we are the path? And, if so, where are we taking ourselves? In spite of those special moments of grace, I imagine that you, like me, alternate between longing for contact with spirit and identifying with the joys and sorrows of life on earth. Maybe you, too, have flirted with following a cloistered path, wondering if you could get to Cloud Nine and give up the struggle.

Gurdjieff himself assured us that no matter how deeply we aspire to self-development, or yearn to escape the harassments of life, the best place for us is not a monastery. “Sitting in your room you will not see anything,” he said. “You should observe in life. In your room you cannot develop the master. A man may be strong in a monastery, but weak in life, and we want strength for life.”

Where will strength for life come from? Like raja yoga, Gurdjieff’s teaching is a path of action in life. We hope to learn to act consciously and be acted upon by the forces that govern our possible growth of being. We look for a way of working that puts us in touch with an essential rhythm, the kind of rhythm that’s heard in the sounds of accomplished craftspeople in any field as they sweep the floor, saw wood, paint a house, cook dinner. Their work, inner and outer, flows freely into a movement for which daily, hourly, even momentary commitment is indispensable. The strokes, the moves, the instant decisions in the heat of the moment, all call the master-worker into balance.

How easy it is to fall into the trap of seeking an attainment—a crowning achievement—rather than recognizing that our life is a work-in-progress and that we are always in the middle. So to return to the challenges in my small corner of the world, how can I integrate thought and action, whether I’m sewing on a missing button, experimenting with a new kind of soup or trying to listen to my children’s problems without telling them what to do? The very attempt to find a place in the middle asks a question. And perhaps what I call integration is simply a return to what’s really been going on while I was lost in imagination or reaction. We need to fully occupy our own place: between heaven and earth, between body, soul, and spirit. In the middle. At the heart of life.

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