Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book, L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire [The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology], contains a striking wood engraving that depicts a missionary of the Middle Ages who tells that he had ‘found the point where the sky and the Earth touch’. At this intersection, where heaven and earth meet, the missionary is able to pass his head through the sky and glimpse the realm which lies beyond the heavens. Flammarion makes clear the purpose of his imagery:
Whether the sky be clear or cloudy, it always seems to us to have the shape of an elliptic arch; far from having the form of a circular arch, it always seems flattened and depressed above our heads, and gradually to become farther removed toward the horizon. Our ancestors imagined that this blue vault was really what the eye would lead them to believe it to be; but, as Voltaire remarks, this is about as reasonable as if a silk-worm took his web for the limits of the universe. The Greek astronomers represented it as formed of a solid crystal substance; and so recently as Copernicus, a large number of astronomers thought it was as solid as plate-glass. The Latin poets placed the divinities of Olympus and the stately mythological court upon this vault, above the planets and the fixed stars. Previous to the knowledge that the earth was moving in space, and that space is everywhere, theologians had installed the Trinity in the empyrean, the glorified body of Jesus, that of the Virgin Mary, the angelic hierarchy, the saints, and all the heavenly host…. A naïve missionary of the Middle Ages even tells us that, in one of his voyages in search of the terrestrial paradise, he reached the horizon where the earth and the heavens met, and that he discovered a certain point where they were not joined together, and where, by stooping his shoulders, he passed under the roof of the heavens…
As a vision of how we view this thing called life, it is striking for its ability to provide a vivid conceptualisation that accounts for the idea that what we see is not all there is. Yet in apprehending there is more to life, is to also acknowledge that we may not be able to glimpse the more, let alone touch it, because we are not able to fine the point where heaven meets the earth. This idea got me to thinking about a much neglected thinker, Pyotr Demianovich Ouspenskii. More commonly known as P.D. Ouspensky.
Much of Ouspensky’s work revolved around George Gurdjieff’s philosophy of the Fourth Way and was elucidated in a series of talks given between 1921 and 1946. Ouspensky’s students published his thinking in a book, The Fourth Way, which repays the reading because it searches for an alternative to the more traditional schools of monks, yogis and fakirs that all require practitioners to cloister themselves away from the world:
- The Way of the Monk The Monk works to obtain mastery of the attention (self-mastery) through struggles with [controlling] the affections, in the domain, as we say, of the heart, which has been emphasized in the west, and come to be known as the way of faith due to its practice particularly in Catholicism.
- The Way of the Yogi The Yogi works to obtain the same mastery of the attention (as before: ‘self mastery’) through struggles with [controlling] mental habits and capabilities.
- The Way of the Fakir The Fakir works to obtain the same mastery of the attention (self-mastery) through struggles with [controlling] the physical body involving difficult physical exercises and postures.
Instead of these three paths, the Fourth Way seeks to provide an alternative in which a student can seek to find a sense of mastery while still living their everyday life. Remaining in and of the world instead of apart from it.
The Fourth Way is also unique in that it stresses the importance of self-verification. In so far as while a student of the Fourth Way may have a teacher, there is no emphasis on acceptance of the teacher’s practices. Instead, a student is encouraged to verify ideas for themselves and only practice that which they understand.
In an increasingly connected world, there are tantalising parallels between these ancient practices and the stress and strain that results from a life in which we are always on.
We can pursue the way of the monk and ameliorate our ad strewn and often ‘triggered’ online existence by seeking safe spaces and corners of the web where we feel emotional fulfilment through doctrinal confirmation.
We can pursue the way of the Yogi and seek mastery of our digital lives through filters to control our mental habits by invoking improved algorithms and more personalised recommendations that enforce our preferred mental habits.
We can pursue the way of the Fakir and seek escape through going offline and testing our physical abilities so that we are cleansed of digital contamination.
Or we can pursue a Fourth Way and manage communication via pull rather than push, so that content is served when we seek rather than when we are found. By preferring systems that liberate rather than lock in, by choosing substance over form and by understanding, as Ouspensky observed, that ‘it is impossible to recognize a wrong way without knowing the right way. This means that it is no use troubling oneself how to recognize a wrong way. One must think of how to find the right way’.
As I increasingly find new communities, protocols and processes, the right way steadily becomes clear. Enabling me to look back on the wrong paths I have walked and to enjoy the illuminating thought that I can now recognise them as such.
Goodnight and good luck.