As with all of Rumi’s material, there is so much that comes alive when we hear it. One possible thread is that the journey across the river is like the drawing back of the curtains. It is a journey between the sensitive screen of local experience (the Chinese painting) and the conscious field of the cosmos that appears like nothing itself (the Greek “painting”). It is surprising that the realization in the story comes from settling an argument between the artists. There is a friction between consciousness and experience that is not reconciled automatically of its own accord. The King steps in and decides upon a debate. The Greeks don’t want to debate. They simply want things to be shown as they are in the shifting light of consciousness. Their non-verbal answer shifts the occasion. With the drawing of the curtain, the entire situation of the poem dissolves its artificiality through one’s own contemplation of it. The story reconciles the question of which image is the real image by itself being an image that transmits baraka to the listener. Is the listener the listener still? Or do we enter into the creative inflow by making our own consciousness smooth and reflective in contemplating the mystery of the scene?
The Greek root of “essence,” ousia, signifies “to be” (etymonline.com). The Sanskrit, Hittite, Lithuanian roots say, “I am”. Gurdjieff taught that the essence of being for humans is consciousness. Listening for the echo of I in chest and solar plexus and bringing this into contact with the sensitive field of experience is one method of exploring “I am” which he teaches late in his third series, Like is Real Only Then, When “I Am”. Two further keys to inviting conscious energy are 1) to understand the depth of one’s own unconsciousness by first letting go of the assumption that one is already conscious and 2) to transform the impulses that one would otherwise spend on worry, doubt and confusion by directing these impulses to invite more consciousness. Be practical, but in a sly way. Direct some of your attention to your body and its complex instinctive instruments. Direct some of your attention to your energetic field of sensing, feeling and the vibration of thinking energy. Direct some of your attention to making contact between the conscious parts of yourself and the unconscious parts of yourself. Seek something in life that may have some objective purpose beyond your own conundrums. Create the conditions for more being. The journey is an occasion of being where the wolf, the sheep and the cabbage play the role of the Chinese artists and the traveler plays the role of the Greek artists.
Sometimes the initial shift into consciousness comes from the force of the moment. Maybe we’re lucky. In this case, it comes for free, as it were. This kind of luck tends to decrease over time as one’s reservoir of experience is spent away. Therefore, there is also the artwork of inviting the shift into consciousness. Normally this would be the result of arriving at responsible age. However, in Beezlebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff writes about a great shift in the inner and social life of people sometime during the Babylonian period, a cataclysm. Before this, there was no need for social power distinctions to last over longer periods of time. Men and women came to decisions privately and together because all could read and understand in a synergistic way. The instruments of each worked to their normal tempos. Leaders, when they were needed, were chosen based upon essential qualities suited to the task at hand. Yet, the tone of Gurdjieff’s writing does not express a subjective desire to return to a golden age. Certainly he offers no sentimental accounting. Far from it. His work communicates that he was very much in front of the conditions of his existence and the needs of the time in which he taught. He was very clear that some rightly centered intentional action was needed within us to sustain contact with essence. This is especially true at this time given the strange conditions of existence that abound.
It is the essential self that has an understanding of the value of playing roles. The Greek word “theatre” is one of the “th” words that Gurdjieff draws our attention to in Beelzebub’s Tales. He contrasts it with the “d” sound as in “devil”, “death”, “dire”, “doom” and many others. Gurdjieff writes about the theatre during the early Babylonian period as a holy place. Actors and audience direct their attention to the spontaneous play between characters on the stage. It is in the theatre that we look for clues into the question of character, the psyche, the soul. We suspend our disbelief not as a theatrical convention, but a requirement to opening the perceptions. The gift of creative play enacts the present moment as an occasion of unveiling, and it is consciousness that provides the blending of the cosmic and the experiential. The challenge is that sustaining a store of conscious energy requires a conscious effort, especially as we age. In this important sense, the crossing of the river represents a right of passage into the essential self, the self that can say, “I am”.
Conscious energy also brings the possibility of enchantment. The theatre can become a place of abandonment, a place of conjuring altered states. We can somehow mistake the source of I as our own imaginarium with its rich storehouse of colours and hues. There is no easy solution to this, it seems, once a sense of practicality is lost. By practical I mean taking the time, every hour even, to stop intentionally and watch over the heart and recall the states that have passed through. Find out what people nearby are doing; find out what’s going on for them. Stay grounded like the cabbage, sensitive like the sheep and perceptive like the wolf.
The role of the traveler is played by Tranzi, a woman of slender build whose words are at first enigmatic and strange. We wonder what she means. Yet, we come to understand that her apparent madness is really a kind of genius.
Next I will write a bit about the river and comment on the story process itself – what is the order of crossing and all that.