The perennial tension between belief and knowledge drives the cooperative but sensitive soul to the dichotomy of outward (belief) and inward (knowledge). Conformity to beliefs is conformity to the consensus of authority over the centuries. The sensitive soul is willing to understand the need for doctrine in terms of the efficacy of order and the use of symbols and rituals for the common people lost without them. But such a soul will chafe at the notion that that is all there is, that once one submits to authority or rote tradition, no more exists, neither of inquiry nor answers.

Such is the indirect origin of mysticism. Mysticism in the traditions from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism consists of the exhaustion of belief and the desire and the aspiration to attain knowledge that is not second-hand, not a body of laws or signs or formulas without spirit, without life. Mystic impulses are inevitable phenomena because the confines of the empirical, let alone the nostrums of culture, are too rigid to permit of speculation, contemplation, or identification with mystery.

Yet mysticism is often viewed as aberrant, as defiance of belief. Put in terms of individual responsibility for knowledge rather than mass expectation of conformity to tenets, “mystic” tendencies are present at the beginning, with the very “founders” of religious movements, of what become sweeping vehicles of individual attainment to knowledge of mystery.

Thus Moses is presented as holding mystical converse with God. The earliest Christian thinking was not the Judaic Paul but the mystic Paul, was not the authority of bishops and councils but the insights of gnostics perceiving a deeper resonance to the meaning of the life and teachings of Jesus. And the Sufi tradition in Islam predates the fundamentalism that eliminated the individual attainment of God for the structure and hierarchy of clerical authority.

In Hinduism, too, the revolution of the 5th century BC presents the spiritual insights of the Bhagavad Gita triumphing over the rigid caste system — a projection of belief — of the Brahmins. And the saying of Gautama Buddha in the Kalama Sutra rings out across the network of world-wide spiritual sentiment:

Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so. Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it. Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to. Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so. Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.

The test is, as Kierkegaard shows, ultimately subjective, in the sense that the self must be satisfied with the content of knowledge, that the self must be able to conform to the goal that the momentum of thought presents. This is belief that is not believed in but is experienced as authentic and not secondary. Even when an adherent will argue that authority or tradition or revelation accepted is good enough to provide a trajectory in life, that is still not knowledge but a sentiment based on conforming to an outside presentation.

Ultimate subjectivity makes the ideas and words knowledge by transforming the self, not in the direction of closeness to other adherents but in distance from them and identity with a greater universal identity, an identity with every particle of creation, not merely the convenient creation of one’s culture or tradition. And yet we remain such creatures that we need our culture’s symbols, language, social routines. The paradox is only broken by silence, stillness, the adjustment of the self to a reality that must inevitably transcend all of this culture, this social transmission of ideas, this world and its evanescence.

The Christian gnostics, among others in this way of thought, recognized that everyone should think for themselves, much as the Buddha said. This meant a separation from worldliness, from society wherein everyone conforms thoughtlessly, to a concentration on the well-being of the self. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say: “Blessed are the solitary and the chosen, for you will find the Kingdom.”

Scholar Elaine Pagels puts it:

This solitude derives from the gnostics’ insistence on the primacy of immediate experience. No one else can tell another which way to go, what to do, how to act. The gnostic could not accept on faith what others said, except as a provisional measure, until one found one’s own path. …

Those attracted to solitude [orthodox or gnostic] would note that even the New Testament gospel of Luke includes Jesus’ saying that whoever “does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Of course, Jesus also praised loyalty and compassion, but within a firm sense of knowledge and the necessity of coming freely to awareness, not mere belief or conformity to authority. Like the “founders” of all religions, the complex and unique personalities present themselves as ultimate solitary, ultimately able to attain a plane of experience that eludes disciples and adherents, let alone authorities intent on constructing a self-justified edifice of power. Without striving for that level of knowledge, that level of gnosis, no one does justice to the true heart of spirituality.

Gurdjieff’s way

G. I. Gurdjieff proposed a new way he called the “fourth way,” which requires examining the three assumed ways and the question of whether there are not still more ways.

The three ways are the way of the fakir, of the monk, and of the yogi. The way of the fakir corresponds to control of the body and senses; that of the monk to the emotions or feelings, the heart; that of the yogi to the mind. Gurdjieff proposes the image of concentric circles or squares, with the way of the fakir as the outermost. The problem is that no way intersects or allows the individual to work on integrating all three. Someone at the periphery, who must start with the body, will not have time or strength to attain to control of the heart, let alone the mind. This is the situation for all of us.

Gurdjieff’s alternative is the fourth way, but as with all of his writings and narratives, no firm details are ever revealed. Gurdjieff preferred to work with people directly rather than have them read something. This is a characteristic of modern gurus, as Anthony Storr points out. So we are left with the summaries of P. D. Ouspensky to try to fathom what the “fourth way” could possibly be, though we have an inkling.

First off, Gurdjieff insists, the fourth way differs from the other three in that

it is never a permanent way. It has no definite form and there are no institutions connected with it. It appears and disappears governed by some particular laws of its own.

Schools to follow the fourth way appear, says Gurdjieff cagily, and people do work within them. But when the work is done, the school closes, for it is not a school for instruction or information. However, those who learn of the schools may attempt to follow its content. Such people then create new schools, which, however, are only imitations, and take on a “pseudo-esoteric” character, purporting to carry out work but are themselves “a lie” in respect to the truth of the real work. Such is the history of thousands of years, where ossified institutions and structures still extant carry on with only a grain of truth, representing only their perpetuation of power and control.

Yet concealed within such traditional organizations are surely those who know. Gurdjieff places them in Tibetan monasteries and Indian temples, where visitors or aspirants only pass through the circles corresponding to their adeptness. Most will not penetrate the inner sanctum of their selves, nor of the monasteries or temples — or equivalent institutions.

The fakir will know something about the body and its energies; the monk will know something, too, about fasting, deprivation, sacrifice, and bodily control, plus the feelings of his spiritual tradition; the yogi will know still more, of the body, of the stirrings of the spirit, but also mental exercises and control of thoughts. “In this way a yogi spends on the same thing only one day compared with a month spent by the fakir and a week spent by the monk.”

Gurdjieff insists that the fourth way offers the aspirant a manner of integrating all of the strengths of the fakir, the monk, and the yogi.

When a man attains will on the fourth way, he can make use of it because he has acquired control of all his bodily, emotional, and intellectual functions. And besides, he has saved a great deal of time by working on the three sides of his being in parallel and simultaneously.

The fourth way is sometimes called the way of the sly man. The “sly man” knows some secret which the fakir, monk, and yogi do not know. How the “sly man” learned this secret — it is not known. Perhaps he found it in some old books, perhaps he inherited it, perhaps he bought it, perhaps he stole it from someone. It makes no difference. The “sly man” knows the secret and with its help outstrips the fakir, the monk, and the yogi.

There are “proper and legitimate ways” to attain the fourth way, but, Gurdjieff notes, there are also “artificial ways which give temporary results only.” And there are wrong ways that give permanent but wrong results. And there may be a skeleton key to the fourth room, but with it the user may discover the room to be empty.

These threads, made unnecessarily exotic and abstruse by the sly man Gurdjieff himself, are perfectly legitimate perceptions of the inadequacy of historically dominant thinking and controlling. Gurdjieff was horrified by the limitless capacity for evil in the modern world (in this case, thinking of World War I, when Ouspensky interviewed him), and the need to disengage from it. What his model fakir, monk, and yogi have in common is that they all do find methods of disengaging from the world, but they are incomplete.

While a fourth way would seem to promise a breakthrough, Gurdjieff never develops this “way” and leaves it to his work with individuals, outside the realm of verification and publicity. As to the bulk of Gurdjieff’s known thinking on physics, astronomy, biology, psychology and the like all of it is too far afield from the goal of a fourth way, too irrelevant to a cogent philosophy of self-realization and disengagement.

A philosophy of solitude would include the work of the fakir, the monk, and the yogi, and would — as with Gurdjieff’s “work” — offer those in the world some understanding while they necessarily had to continue to work in the world — those less fortunate than the hermits and solitaries who would not have to continue to work in the world.

A true fourth way might be the way of the hermit, at least in the symbolic or archetypal sense. But that would require a new search for the mechanics of how it would be presented. It would seem to be cheating to take the route of the “sly man” and steal it from some other thinker or philosopher or poet or hermit. After all, as Gurdjieff owns, “He who wants knowledge must himself make the initial efforts to find the source of knowledge. … Knowledge cannot come to people without effort on their part.” Much less a way.

Systems and schools can indicate methods and ways, but no system or school whatever can do for a man the work that he must do himself. Inner growth, a change of being, depend entirely upon the work which a man must do on himself.

Paths, ways, roads, journeys

The symbolism of the path can be studied in order to understand why it is the fundamental image for life’s progress. Yet the path overlaps our other cultural images: way, road, journey. Each is different, as a stage or in themselves, and we need to consider where we are at any given point.

A path is a natural part of a natural landscape. We are so familiar with artificial landscapes that a natural path in them seems to be visually disruptive, violating some injunction against trespassing. But in a natural landscape (or in our symbol mind’s-eye) the setting and path must be natural.

A path is distinct as figure to ground. A path is visible and distinct but it arises from the occasional traversing by someone else. Who that someone else is we do not know, nor can we assume some motive or purpose too readily. The path is not marked, not controlled by anybody. We come to such a passage with similar intention, however. The path seems just wide enough for one, or, rather, just narrow enough. We step forward of our own volition, hoping the path will lead us somewhere but also let us be on our own. The experience will be our own, regardless of the outcome. Perhaps the experience will come to override our original purpose – we don’t know.

But the path is not a way. A way is established by a predecessor and the landmarks are already pointed out, the highlights emphasized, even if the destination is not clear. For a way is not a matter of destination but an experience. On a way, we cross various landscapes, not all of them visible yet, and some changing behind us. At least we set out on a way with a guide, even if only a literary or historical one. A way remains objective; sometimes we don’t understand the guide and have to look for ourselves, and sometimes we look ahead or behind without clarity. But we have the confidence that others have trusted our guide, however much our guide leaves things to our own potential.

If we travel on a road, we are no long on a path or way, for we have left the subjective experience for someone else’s. A road is intentional, but not our intention — somebody else’s. A road is organized y others, maintained by them, available to others as long as they obey the rules of those whose road this is. We pass over a road with necessary intent, with a preordained goal, measured out and specified as to where and when. We see rapidity, efficiency, and inevitability with a road. You must know where you are going in order to take exit. Or, if you do not know, you will be told so. On a road, one must keep pace with all the other travelers, or you will be singled out and perhaps thrown off the road.

A journey is a grand project. A journey is an abstraction, a desire, a hoped for outcome that remains in a shrouded distance. A journey will take up all of our resources, all our strength, our focus. We will have no choice but to give ourselves wholly to the proposed journey if we are to make a success of it. At least the journey is the product of our own mind: the success or failure of reaching our imagined goal is up to our own fortitude and skills. But the journey may take far longer than we expected. The hazards on the way may divert us for a long time, and the pleasures on the way may divert us indefinitely. We cannot resume a journey as on a road, for the goal may shift, the possible manners of completing the journey may expire or change. The journey may overwhelm us, due to circumstance but more likely to our own shortcomings. All journeys are perilous, involving risk. There is the possibility that we may end up not in the place we thought but in the place from which we began.

These thoughts are inspired by Wald and Ruth Amberstone and their book The Secret Language of the Tarot. The title is popularized; the book is better than its title. The authors’ intent is simply to draw out symbols and to reflect on their meaning. In the symbolism of the path and its counterparts, they see spiritual paths:

All point to some version of escape from the dilemma of the suffering small self in the great world, and they all lead, at the very least, to magnificent self-improvement and refinement.

Thus the great traditions propose only paths, and the rest is up to us: the Buddhist Eightfold Path derived from the Four Noble Truths; the Great Path of Return in Hindu tradition; the Path of Ascent in Gnostic tradition, among others. To pursue any other equivalent to the simplicity of the path is undertaken at our own risk. Meditating on the symbol of the path allows us to set ourselves in a great context and to work our way forward according to a clearer insight of will, meaning, and purpose.

Simplicity and poverty

Simplicity is a qualitative application of principles, whether aesthetic or ascetic. Simplicity represents a conscious attempt to reduce the complexity of objects and appearance in some function of life. Nature is the model of simplicity because it represents functionality, efficiency, effectiveness, and a discrete harmony. Nature is as simple and as complex as anything we can conjure. That very wide-ranging activity challenges us in trying to make nature a model, but functionality and not functions is the focus of simplicity.

On the other hand, poverty is a material condition or setting which evolves with the individual into a physical and mental condition. Poverty is deprivation of functionality, absence of harmony, and the breakdown of the natural relations of one object to another.

For individuals, simplicity is a goal and opportunity to take on as a project involving self or just an external like art, design, or environment. Thus simplicity can apply to diet, exercise, dwelling, thought, or spirit. Simplicity can be principles for self-expression in literary forms.

Simplicity is optional, embraced voluntarily, pursued freely. It is hard to imagine society insisting on simplicity, except where the individual happens to be aware of other cultural styles — which, just because they are foreign to a culture will be seen as threatening, decadent, unethical, or complex. The Amish will insist on simplicity — when aware of society outside itself. And there are many other anthropological examples.

Simplicity usually begins with the level of material and emotional culture and is taken by the individual to a deeper level of purification. As the world shrinks and globalization exposes every small or private culture to the ways and vices of other societies, the individual is increasingly overwhelmed. To become simple and retain simplicity in daily life and thought becomes virtually radical and anti-social. Yet there are always opportunities to implement simplicity.

Simplicity movements in the West begin with a given level of material and cultural premises. Art, style, public thought, and technology are already given, are already forced upon the awareness. There is nowhere to go confronting the world (or society) with simplicity except to deconstruction. Deconstruction is always perceived by social authority as threatening. Yet for the individual, the elimination of superfluities and dysfunctions that harm life and spirit — the dysfunctional complexities that all advanced societies inevitably create — simplicity is healthy and refreshing.

Here simplicity is not contrarianism or a kind of agnosticism. Simplicity is not a lack of faith or hope, but it is a reduction that will be perceived as either naive, soulless, or threatening.

Simplicity is not minimalism, which is almost quantitative but projects a qualitative value after the fact. Often, minimalism is a crude eviceration rather than a simplification, the removal of interrelations by cutting rather than unraveling. Simplification is not a rescue from complexity but a dropping-away or disengagement from dysfunction. Complexity is not the “enemy” but rather dysfunction. By identifying what does not work, what can be shown to be a superfluity that does not work, the complexity can be understood and even accepted. The complexity of the human body, for example, or of microbes, soil science, hydrology, meteorology, cosmology, etc., is not offensive, and does not affect simplicity as a model of philosophy and ethics.

This is the wonderful irony of, for example, modern diet. By removing the imagined gist of, say, a fruit rich in vitamins, a pill is manufactured and presented as superior to the original food. Only after the fact is it discovered, many years later and after illnesses, that the original food contained countless complex products that make it more rich and healthy than the pill, product of expensive labs, research, and profit.

Poverty is a human condition but can be understood as a condition of nature, too — nature that is deliberately harmed by conscious intent, human intent. Human intent is not necessarily individual culpability. Why some peoples are poor is not the direct action of a given individual, but the result of generations of social conditions. However, if recognized as a deprivation or dysfunction, then poverty is the moral equivalent of malevolent cells in a physical body, a body which also supports the far-off individual. (The pill that replaced the fruit is poverty, deliberate or not.)

Poverty is a deprivation even of what is salutary. But what is salutary for the person embarked on implementing simplicity? Where do the two paths intersect? Is the path to simplicity pursued by the ignorant or immature in fact a dangerous direction towards poverty? The ignorant or immature person actually embarks on a path to poverty when not understanding the qualitative character of simplicity, when psychologically coerced to believe that simplicity is deprivation. (This is why ascetic traditions have a feedback loop to a sage or elder who can counsel the ways of fasting, etc.) Deprivation is poverty because deprivation means lacking in the salutary, which the individual must define and comprehend before even the first step of the journey.

How many people in search for themselves have failed to carry this careful distinction? Solitude is a grand field of nuance, and many who enter it are fleeing introspection in fear, are involuntarily whirled or thrown into a psychological abyss. Hermits who disappear, or starve themselves, may be equivalent to the many people who suffer involuntary solitude, those described by Sue Halpern in her book Migrations To Solitude: imprisoned, addicted, depressed, lonely, ill, etc. Eremitism must be informed and conscious, scrupulously honest to self in motive and method. Simplicity is an excellent tool for provisioning daily life.

Only the totality of a person’s life will reveal the nature of their solitude and decisions. Only the totality of their lives will reveal the nature of simplicity, and whether they lived or died simply or “poorly.”

Silence and suffering

The most succinct statements are usually the best. Thus, Kierkegaard’s short essay “What We Learn from The Lilies of the Field and The Birds in the Air” (admittedly not a succinct title but clear enough) is the epitome of his thought, style, clarity, and fiercely unambiguous philosophy of life. In fact he contrasted this view (he was a Christian of his own sort) which he called — “Religiousness A” — with the conventional Christianity of his day, the paradoxical-historical “Religiousness B.”

The essay uncompromisingly presents the lily and the bird as ultimate teachers from which we ought to learn “silence, or learn to be silent” (emphasis his). Speech distinguishes humans from animals, but not necessarily in an advantageous way, for humans fail to master the art of silence due to silence not being their default nature. Speech is only a functionality, opposed to the core of what the lily and the bird teach. The core teaching is simply Jesus’ own statement: “Seek first God’s kingdom …”

But what does this mean, what am I to do, or what is the effort that can be said to seek, to aspire to God’s kingdom? Shall I see about getting a position commensurate with my talents and abilities in order to be effective?

No, answers Kierkegaard emphatically. First seek the Kingdom of God. Shall I give up my possessions to the poor? No, first seek the Kingdom of God. What about going out and preaching the doctrine of God’s kingdom? No, first seek the Kingdom of God.

No duty or imperative should come before the existential necessity of actually doing what the Gospel enjoins as first and primary, of actually pursuing or seeking the Kingdom of God.

But then in a certain sense it is nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense it is nothing. In the deepest sense you shall make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to be silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is to seek first God’s kingdom.

The “doing” of this state of nothingness is “becoming silent,” an art to be learned. Wanting to speak is a corruption; one should be conscious of a state of fear and trembling to assume the audacity of speaking, about speaking of anything but especially of or to God. But we learn this only by heeding the gospel words, by emptying ourselves for silence, and then realizing that nothing is needful but God’s kingdom.

This is why the words of the Gospel, seek first God’s kingdom, upbringingly muzzle a person’s mouth, as it were, by answering every single question he asks, whether this is what he shall do — No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

This sense of silence as method is learned from the lily and the bird. Nature’s silence has of it “something divine” and is objective, not the silence of a mind in which chatter has been reduced but silence as virtually a palatable being.

There is silence out there. The forest is silent; even when it whispers it nevertheless is silent. The trees, even where they stand in the thickest growth, keep their word, something human beings rarely do despite a promise given: This will remain between us. The sea is silent; even when it rages uproariously it is silent.

Even in meadows, farms, natural places where birds chirp, their voices come out of silence, part of “a mysterious and thus in turn silent harmony with the silence …”

The bird responds to the change of season and does not announce or reflect on it but extends it with its modest song. The lily does not comment on the seasons (“We have too much rain” or “Now it is too hot,” etc.) but understands and makes use of the moment, or waits in patience for the unfolding of what is to be.

Kierkegaard contrasts the human response: “O you profound teachers of simplicity, should it not also be possible to find the moment when one is speaking? No, only being silent does one find the moment.” We cannot keep silent about what is around us, nor can we wait and accommodate the unfolding of time and circumstance. But one other characteristic distinguishes the human and animal, and we see it in the bird and the lily: they suffer, but in silence.

The bird suffers, and sighs, but returns, inevitably, to silence. There is no trace of contrived solace, of duplicity, in the bird’s reconciliation with reality. This reconciliation is not in anger but in silence. How different the human being, who would roar in anger like a storm. Rather, says Kierkegaard, “if you could be silent, if you had the silence of the bird, then the suffering would certainly become less.”

Likewise with the lily. It suffers, and like the bird does not dissemble but reveals its condition without disguise. The human who passes by would see the flower suffering. But the passerby does not care about the silent flower withering or bruised, does not notice the flower as “its head droops, feeble and bowed.” But the lily is silent.

When suffering is accepted as precisely what it is, neither more not less, it is “simplified and particularized as much as possible and made as small as possible.” It is not that the suffering becomes less than what it is, but rather that it is no more nor less than what it is. Suffering becomes extended and immense when it becomes indefinite, and is reduced to what it is when its definiteness is again understood and restored. But none of this can happen without our being silent, and this we learn from the bird and the flower.

Kierkegaard offers this counsel not as the “dreamy poet,” the romantic poet who idealizes nature into what it is not. The simplicity of nature contrasts with our own contrived complexity of mind and consciousness. If we are aware of the lily and the bird, we become conscious of their presence before God, and, indeed, our presence before God, even though our chatter and distraction and worldly worries blind us or fill our ears with noise. We lose the capacity for profoundness, depth, and identity. We lose the opportunity to understand. For without being silent, we neither understand God, the birds and flowers, nor ourselves.