Of (staying in front of the lack of) Spring and blog posts – the Gurdjieff Internet Guide paper, Charles Fort chapter, and designing a working life

Here be very long (form) dragons!

This is a long post, just over 2600 words. I considered breaking it up but it ended up looking like rags instead of cloth. Think of it as a quarterly catch-up email from someone who used to write letters with a typewriter, and thinks blogging is a waste of time.

Now, of course, it’s Spring in Australia. As this is the internet, the only way I can express my dismay is through a GIF:

how is it september aleady

Because, dear reader, I saw this in August and thought of you – I really did:

And how it had been three months since my last confession about my lack of blogging:

I really was going to post something in August, honest!

Despite its provenance, I thought it would be a cute way to kick off a late winter blog post. But as August only has so many days, it wasn’t long before I looked down at my smart wrist and saw this:

Endlich macht sie auch Sinn.

A post shared by Felix Burger (@flx_brgr) on

But as a good friend pointed out to me, Nietzsche of not, as long as you’re alive and are willing to pick yourself up and dust yourself off, there are no last chances.

That gave me pause. For a dramatically perfectionist person (read ‘pro(fessional)crastiator’) like myself, that’s a terrifying thought.

Because it’s been a real shitty year, not just personally and in my wider circle, but – and I hesitate to say this without the proper humility – almost ‘cosmically.’ Those who have ears, let them hear.

Now I’m not one for quoting others in image macros <barely contains laughter> but it probably won’t be a surprise for anyone reading all of my blog posts (nor would it take too long) that I have often fetishistically printed and pinned up the following mid-twentieth century one liner:

The only opportunity I can see in shit is that it’s the perfect fertiliser for growing big trees from little seeds. Despite my ambling preamble, then, it put me in mind of an old proverb which I think is the real and best start for this post-Winter post:

best time to plant a tree

Now is as good a time as any, I suppose, I hear you shrug. But a good man who I hardly knew died a little over a fortnight ago. It was sudden and without warning. He was healthy and not much older than me. That in itself is a shock. Yet it was the funeral that broke my heart: not just eulogies from his siblings, wife and children not much younger than my own, but it was full to bursting of people who he had touched and who loved him for it. Like a character from one of Tolstoy’s short stories, I was involuntarily transported into his mortal issues. I found myself wanting: would my funeral be as well attended and rain as many healing tears?

Then as often happens I noticed the following haiku in one of my feeds and my machine was floored, in all senses of the word:

Life and death are of grave importance—
Impermanent and swift.
Wake up, all of you.
Do not waste your life.

From Zen Chants by Kazuaki Tanahashi, page 48

In the midst of that chaos before and after the funeral, I suddenly recalled an insightful online piece by a fellow student of Gurdjieff Patty de Llosa that I had stumbled across some time earlier and would normally have filled away to digitally rot in my Evernote account:

I suddenly realized that if, instead of correcting my stance or criticizing any childish internal reactions or longing to be better than I am, I simply entered into the state of uncertainty, confusion, and mixed messages — to stand there in the midst of it, acknowledging it, sensing it, and feeling it — a gradual change would take place. If I could stay long enough as witness, the reorganization of thoughts, reactions and the body’s strained position would happen all by itself.

“Eureka!” I thought. “Here’s the Rosetta Stone that can replace my busy drive toward making myself better than the flawed person I am.” But as anyone who attempts it will find, it’s not an easy shift to make. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable to stay there in the newly discovered imbalance that we almost never try, even if we’ve heard about it for years!

I first learned of this approach from Jeanne de Salzmann, who led us in the Gurdjieff teaching for many years. She would invite us to “stay in front of the lack,” suggesting that when we wake up to a moment of being lost to ourselves, we stay with the impression that we are not how we want to be, instead of immediately trying to change it. The moment I see something I don’t like in myself I could stay in front of it, as if looking into the mirror of my thought or action, rather than turning away toward some comforting shift of improvement.

“To stay in front of the lack”, this has become one of my practices, part of my work, as they say in the Gurdjieff Work. This is why I’m back here on this blog and why I’ll keep coming back.

If you are still with me, dear reader, and haven’t done this yet:

He’s making a monkey out of my attention economy! make it stop!

lest you think I have been overcome by Churchillian optimism once again, I will close my arboreal meditation with one of my favourite horticultural quotes, as recorded by Fritz Peters in his memoir A Boyhood with Gurdjieff:

“Nature make many acorns, but possibility to become tree exist for only few acorns. Same with man – many men born, but only few grow. People think this waste, think Nature waste. Not so. Rest become fertilizer, go back into earth and create possiblity for more acorns, more men, once in while more tree – more real men. Nature always give – but only give possibility. To become real oak, or real man, must make effort. You understand this, my work, this Institute, not for fertilizer. For real man, only. But must also understand fertilizer necessary to Nature. Possibility for real tree, real man also depend just this fertilizer.”

Gurdjieff Internet Guide paper

This segues well enough into the acorns I’m most immediately trying to grow that will prevent me from posting again until next month at least.

I’m currently madly trying to finish writing a paper on the Gurdjieff Internet Guide for another Journal for the Academic Study of Religion special issue on Gurdjieff. The abstract is below:

‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ ‘Gurdjieff Studies’, ‘Gurdjieff Internet Guide’ and the growth of the Gurdjieff Industry

It is one of the great ironies for the student of contemporary religions that G.I. Gurdjieff and his followers have produced the largest body of literary works of any modern esoteric movement. To explore and explain this dynamic within the critical study of religions, three themes will be pursued: category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions,’ in this case between the hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups founded after Gurdjieff’s death by Jeanne de Salzmann that tried to formalise Gurdjieffian principles and exercises, and the independent groups founded by other first generation of Gurdjieff’s followers that remained outside of it. The themes meet in the ‘Gurdjieff Internet Guide,’ originally an online bibliographic catalogue for Gurdjieffians that has developed into a repository of spiritual exercises crowdsourced by the Gurdjieffian community itself. In this light, the possibility of a more critical study of Gurdjieff through a digital humanities approach to enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners is finally circumscribed.

It’s a riff on a piece I wrote for the Religious Studies Project podcast series earlier this year. I’m trying with this one to learn how to write ‘less’ – my last article for the previous Gurdjieff special issue was just over 8,000 words, and this time I’m aiming for half of that. To do that I’ll need to be more focused on one exercise or example – really try to make it a ‘one idea’ article. If I keep trying to overcompensate (he says noticing the word count is now at 1386) I’ll never be able to bang out stuff for publication quickly enough and pretty soon I’ll be dead. I’ll post up excerpts of my submitted material in my next post for comment, but happy to hear from you before then.

Charles Fort chapter

After that’s done this month, I have a book chapter to complete on one of my intellectual heroes, Charles Fort, by the end of October. The abstract for this call for papers:

‘Measuring the Circle: Hegel, Western Esotericism and Charles Fort‘s Natural Supernaturalism’

Although a renaissance of intellectual appreciation for Fort has begun (e.g.,Steinmeyer, Kripal), the preponderance of Hegel in Fort‘s work has been little examined, and as there has been some recent solid work on Hegel as part of the (modern) western esoteric tradition, I want to look at the intellectual relationship between Fort and Hegel, especially in the laters capacity as a ‘gateway drug’ (at least at the time) to the secularised western esotericism, and in the context of what Abrams called the ‘natural supernaturalism’ of the Romantics. This will help answer the question as to what is the relationship at least historically between the categories of the relatively new ‘Fortean’ and the more traditional ‘esotericism’ in the Western imaginary.

The aim is again around 5,000 words, and again to bang it out as quickly as possible, to fight against my dramatic perfectionist tendencies. If Fort is your thing and you have some ideas or suggestions, let me know in the comments below.

Using design thinking to design myself (into a design thinking job)

It’s my struggle with the same dramatic perfectionist tendencies that led me to this thing called design thinking. There’s been a lot of ferment online about it recently, that its: come of age; no longer a competitive advantage now that everybody’s doing it; going to fail. It’s even managed to make it to the cover of the Harvard Business Review:

This is already such huge topic that I’m going to completely avoid filling you in on it and move my story along [if you are interested, though, you cannot do better than checking out the blog of PhD candidate Stefanie Di Russo who is writing what will be ‘The  Book’ on the subject: go on! If you’ve read this far, I’ll still be here when you get back. This is the internet, after all].

In the last 12-18 months, I’ve used design thinking in a number of projects, including:

And I’ve concluded that I could think of nothing better than getting paid to design solutions with and for people as my ‘day job’. You might think that as I work in Canberra (‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help!’) this may be an easy fix, but it’s proved a lot harder than it looks. Roles specifically for this kind of design are still rare, although this is changing and I’m starting to apply like crazy.

My observations of the current professional status of design thinking in Canberra is the topic of another post. But it has meant that, in classic design thinking style, I’ve had to cast further afield in my quest to become what to some is called a business designer and for others an impact designer:

Out of all this recent online material, some of the best advice I’ve seen is to use design thinking to introduce design thinking into a new sphere like government. However, the one that effected me most deeply was Katie McCrory‘s seemingly simple article in the Guardian: How to design your life for happiness. It’s a quick snapshot of how she used the design thinking principles of empathy, innovation, iteration, prototyping and testing as “design-led life hacks” to “to change my life”.

Suspending your judgement about her selection and description of design thinking principles for a moment [as while there is a broad consensus on principles there isn’t one ‘method’ or way of doing them], the story of how she ended up moving to Copenhagen from her life on London, which she once loved but now “just felt so badly designed”, moved me, too. Three points she made I keep coming back to:

  1. “Start with empathy: It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself, but do you truly understand what the heart of the problem is? Take the time to unpack the things which upset and delight you – and talk to people who know and love you. They often see things you may otherwise miss.”
  2. “Create your prototype: … ‘minimum viable products’ … Start by doing something, anything. Don’t let imperfection prevent you from action.”
  3. Charles Eames – designer of the iconic Eames chair – said it perfectly: ‘Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.’ So what’s your purpose? Let’s stop thinking about our lifestyle and start thinking about our lifedesign to get us there.

That start is what is coming up next.

Next!? Fear not: the lack of an end is just the beginning

For now, a world of deadlines – which normally looks like this:

And this:

The question of how to break the N+1 cycle was the one I started my year with:

For a long time, like a lot of us, I was ashamed of “my” procrastination. But maybe I’m actually OK as I am, I just have to figure out how to use it to get our new Satan (same as the old Satan) behind me:

My experience with design thinking has also shown me that this can actually be framed as a capability: procrastination can be a good. In a way of working that is built around short sprint projects created out of constant, rapid and strictly timed iterations, it becomes an asset, not a liability. I could restore my fallen angels.

What’s does all that have to do with Gurdjieff and the fortean, I hear you say with hindsight? What’s the connection? This is something I hope to explore in shorter pieces over the summer break. There are some superficial similarities (for example, Gurdjieff was among other things a designer as were some of his followers; the devil was a hero to both Gurdjieff and Fort, and designer’s are often the devil’s advocate), but beyond that I suspect that they have at least one deeper theme in common: all three require a ‘staying in front of one’s lack’ by the cultivation of ever greater awareness in attending to and embracing the anomalous. Perhaps metaphysically, in design terms, to paraphrase the now forgotten physics James Jeans, who said:

And that maybe:

I look forward to your own design thoughts on this idea, your experiences of landing a design role (or trying to!) and any suggestions you may have for either my Gurdjieff Internet Guide paper and/or the Charles Fort chapter.

In the meantime, even summer will get here eventually:

– and as good men and women everywhere remind us, the road to our lack is wide open …

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