Cultivate Attention and Discernment (6)

Illustration of Ibn al-’Arabi | Image source:

“He who knows himself knows his Lord;
… indeed, He is his very identity and reality.

— Shaykh Ibn al-’Arabi

Reading time: 25-30 mins

The Qur’an

Orthodox Islam has a bad rap these days, and not without good reason. However, just as Christianity has wisdom and truth underneath all the centuries of re-writes and distortions, so too the Qur’an which buried the strains of Islamic mysticism infusing its origins before corruption set in. The Sufi tradtion and the Islamic mysticism it stands for is very different to the Islamism and Jihadism of the kind we have witnessed in the modern age. Here too, the importance of discernment is clear.

Like the Bible that constantly warns of temptations and lies that could “deceive the very elect” the Qur’an is equally explicit in its warnings regarding dark forces of the demonic or Jinn overseen by the Shaytān or “Whisperer,” both of whom seek to imperial travellers on the “straight path” with “insinuating thoughts” or waswasa. The strengthening of spiritual perception is necessary in order to discern the true from the false and shun the crooked path. Indeed, we have seen that intelligence as much as faith is crucial to seeing the unseen and the signs of higher states of consciousness which might lead us to embody the presence of a Universal Intelligence or God/Allah. As the Hermetic maxim reminds us – “as above, so below”. And like the Bible, one has to sift for the gold in the Qur’an in order to see the reflected light.

Dr. Kabir Helminski‘s translations from his 2005 book The Book of Revelations: A Sourcebook of Themes from the Holy Qur’an provide an excellent summary of the qualities needed to begin seeing the unseen and its relationship to self-development and spiritual practice. The teachings encourage us to reflect and perceive the conscious creative power of all that flows through Nature and the universe. By paying attention to: “…the change of the winds, and the clouds that run their appointed courses between sky and earth: these are messages indeed for people who use their intelligence.” [1]

So, rather than having our head in the clouds and seeking signs and portents of a superstitious nature, we are learning to observe life’s hidden symbols and patterns of meaning. We may then learn to recognise the patterns of creative and entropic influences which can be understood as extrapolations of truth as it applies in Nature and man. Regarding these “signs” embedded in converging and radiating “arrows of time,” we have the following injunction to remain aware that intelligent design is at work, not only in the evolution of organic life but from the influence of other dimensions of existence that interpenetrate our own. We only have to take note of this design in order to see how carefully the Earth and cosmos is a school for learning:

“He is the One Who causes the dawn to break,
and Who has made the night to be a source of stillness,
and the sun and the moon for reckoning
by the order of the Almighty, the All-knowing.
And He it is Who has made the stars for you so that you might be guided by them through the darknesses of land and sea:
clearly have We detailed Our signs for people of inner knowing.
And He it is Who has brought you all into being
out of a single soul,
and so designated for each of you a time-limit on earth
and a resting-place after death:
clearly have We detailed Our signs for people who can grasp the truth.
… Behold! In these things there are signs for people who keep the faith.” [2]

Faith is the lodestar of belief which keeps knowledge on track. When divorced from seeking truth without artificial boundaries, it merely becomes dogma. But that’s not what we have here. Reading the signs with intuition and reason provides insights which lead to knowledge and the light of awareness. For it is: “… God Who sends to His servants clear signs that He may lead you out of the depths of darkness into the Light.” [3] And faith is a property of discernment, because it acts as supporting tracks upon which awareness can gain the speed of light…

O you who have attained to faith!
If you remain conscious of God,
He will endow you with a standard by which to discern
the true from the false,
and will clear evil from you,
and will forgive you your mistakes:
for God is limitless in the abundance of His blessing. [4]

Yet, proper discernment must be practised because “the signs of God” in the human world can be disguised, thus subtle, much like the delicate beginnings of soul growth:

“No vision can encompass Him,
but He encompasses all human vision:
for He alone is Subtle Beyond Comprehension, All-Aware.
Means of insight have now come to you
from your Sustainer through this divine Message.
Whoever, then, chooses to see,
does so for the benefit of His own soul;
and whoever chooses to remain blind,
does so to His own harm.” [5]

The above verse is very close to revealing the quantum nature or “subtle metaphysics” of the Universal Intelligence/God/Allah. “No vision can encompass Him, but He encompasses all human vision,” Helminski paraphrases the meaning as “no seeing, no human mode of perception can fully grasp God, but God surrounds, encompasses, and enables human beings to perceive.” Which is to say, “wherever you turn is the Face of God” but at the same time, “God’s essence can be witnessed in every particle of existence and not as an object or entity distinct from everything that exists.” Hence the idea that God is “Subtle, the Aware,” or the most complete Awareness. And it is the job of the seeker of truth to align with such awareness and apply the knowledge gained by the act of discernment in our everyday existence.

As Dr. Kabir Helminski explains: “Spirit possesses us; we don’t possess It. We become aware of It and join with It. We become in Love with It. Eventually and incredibly, the ego, which had been such a tyrant, begins to lose its power and becomes a willing servant.” [6] We cannot hold onto that hard-won knowledge but must be prepared to share, connect and disperse that presence from the well-spring of the heart and its intuition, made integral and strong through will and reason. Then we might say, we become “blessed” because we are led from darkness to light by God/Allah “…Who sent down Discernment to His servant that it might be a counsel to all the world.” [7]

We can indeed receive the “gift” of discernment but only after considerable suffering. Since, we human beings take a while to learn our lessons. From the very process of seeking with sincerity despite all the pitfalls and stumbles along the path, we gain clues, signs, insights and symbols downloaded from a realm of pure thought, of Spirit. Eventually, we are able to achieve simplicity, detachment, non-identification toward the material world and its binary influences of gain and loss, pain and happiness. Slowly, we are no longer dependant on the physical world for our sense of Self because we have established an inner connection to something other than the lower centres in our mind-body and the possibility of higher expression through the activation of higher centres. Thus reality takes on a new more paradoxically objective significance. Or, as Helminski paraphrases the Qur’anic meaning:

“People and events do not lose their significance; they become witnesses and evidence of Spirit, transparent to the radiance of Spirit. We begin to see the qualities of the Creator in the creation. The heart is the manifesting part of the Spirit. It is activated through the unconditional love of life around us. Together with others we increase our life. If it weren’t for the presence of Spirit, this world would truly be a prison. But with Spirit and the faculty in humans that can perceive It, the world displays the infinite attributes of the One.” [8]

“When the mysterious unity between the soul and the Divine becomes clear, you will realize that you are none other than God. You will see all your actions as His actions; all your features as His features; all your breaths as His breath.”

— Shaykh Ibn al-’Arabi

Being/Non-Being, Ibn al-‘Arabi and Hamlet’s Conundrum

If you’re aware of the Persian poets and philosophers Rumi, Hafiz and Omar Khayyam then 13th Century Middle Eastern mysticism wouldn’t be complete without one of the greatest Muslim philosophers and Sufi mystics, Shaykh Ibn al-’Arabi. Coaxing out the “inner soul” of Islamic theology,   his scholarship covered everything from science, philosophy, theology, law, poetry and esotericism. In terms of discernment, al-‘Arabi’s cosmology and psychological insights are hugely pertinent. But in order to understand how al-‘Arabi’s view of discernment works, we need a brief look into the concept of “Being”.

This is one of those words that is bandied about without anyone really knowing what it refers to. It is used copiously in the new age movement added to the vagaries of world salad that so often characterise new age beliefs. We might view Being as another word for consciousness. It is the result of the interaction between the world of matter and the accumulation of experience. The quality of conscious can be defined by wisdom or by ignorance; by objective knowledge or by purely subjective experience based on illusion. So, Being is a combination of the two before one has chosen which stream to follow.

Consciousness is by definition subjective, but it is the concentration of acknowledged experience from both that defines the quality of our consciousness /Being. Subjectivity can be used to foster greater awareness. We cannot “know” Being but we can experience its causes and effects through the experiences we receive and set in motion. Therefore, just as we must use intuition with reason to arrive at an approximation of truth, so too the medium of subjectivity can be used as a tool for discovery with objective knowledge as the overriding aim. The more we develop the capacity to incorporate complexity, the greater the field of choices and the chance of interacting with reality creatively. Which is why changing our inner nature, our experience within must come before or parallel to changing our outer circumstances.

The animal Being is obviously very different to human Being. The animal kingdom operates from an instinctive and spatial awareness of phenomena that serves an operational or functional purpose for carrying out the needs of procreation and survival, in turn, deeply embedded in the web of organic life and its needs to extract the energy of consciousness for the overall maintenance of growth and decay. The human being can begin to create unity and order in his consciousness so that he moves away from instinctive and rudimentary functions of lower limbic/mammalian survival needs to the potential of awakening to higher states of Being/consciousness; from ties to animal instincts and reactive emotion (and therefore mechanical or sleeping consciousness) to a conscious being in control of his choices.

Every level of nature touches the other through gradations of consciousness which accumulate complexity through experience. Consciousness lies in all things, it is only a question of quality or complexity. As al-‘Arabi poetically describes: “God sleeps in the rock, dreams in the plant, stirs in the animal, and awakens in man.” Just as domesticated animals being to exhibit traits and intelligence comparable to basic human awareness – sometimes with a faint approximation to self-awareness – by virtue of their association with human life, human beings can raise their level of Being and transmute what Boris Mouravieff called a “fictitious existence” into real existence. We can “touch” the hem of God by becoming aware – discerning – how God’s spark exists within us. When we fan such a spark into a flame this creates heat and with sufficient oxygen of thought, emotion and action creates a signal or resonance that aligns to a specific creative frequency of change which facilitates a new level of Being. The other side of the coin is to accept the path of Non-Being toward dissolution, a diminishing level of energy and thus the quality of consciousness.

If anything exists, it is said to have a particular level of Being, of consciousness. All sentient life – perhaps ALL life – has consciousness but it is the level of Being, it is its quality that determines its trajectory and direction. Thus non-existence is Non-Being. A creature with sentience may exist in physical terms but without self-awareness so that it functions as another transient force in the processing factory of organic life. The human being has a choice to follow that which leads to greater levels of Being or greater levels of Non-Being. The eye of the heart and creative imagination unifies. The eye of reason differentiates so that unity is connected to truth. For the first we need our intuition, for the second, we need discernment to keep both modes of perception aligned integrated.  In other words, “…with the eye of imagination, the heart sees Being present in all things, and with the eye of reason it discerns its transcendence and the diversity of the divine faces.” [9]

Al-‘Arabi’ saw Being as goodness, truth, creativity and the potential for true existence, whilst Non-Being he viewed as the lack of noble qualities, attributes or traits of God, thus evil and the path to matter and non-existence. We are a literal and metaphorical image of all the “Names of God” – Being and Non-Being. But we have to discern which ones we must embody and live in order to become an outpost of Godly creation. In other words, when we strive to assume the traits of the noble Names of God – of Knowledge and Light – this is akin to manifesting their essential qualities and their applications in daily life.

God is the consciousness in all things, thus He is light and dark, the particle and wave – evil and goodness. We must choose which “face of God” we wish to embody. If we ignore or shun nobility and choose the base, dark face of God, we also manifest those qualities. Searching for profound knowledge of the good, the true and the beautiful – the true Names of God – as well as perceiving the difference between the dark, horrific and maleficent in all its subtle detail – arranges a field of choices from which we an extract the essence of meaning.

Without that field through which we can weigh up, compare and test (discrimination) the muscle of discernment cannot be exercised. All we will receive is echos and impressions passing us by upon which we collect the flotsam and jetsom of superfically aggragated information. And from this we make our “decisions” and “choices.” It’s all too easy to deceive ourselves through a subjective appraisal whilst using the pretence of objectivity. Purely human reasoning or purely human feeling won’t cut it. The task is to integrate both and elevate them toward a higher union in order to tap into a Divine dimension.

Similarly, it’s not enough to discern the truth and imagine that’s enough. The “One in Manyness” that arises from all existence means we are all connected in very tangible and meta-physical ways. The illusion of separation must be seen and acted upon. Knowledge must be applied in ordinary life and with those for whom we interact and learn. Yet, proper discernment also allows us to comprehend that we are not Gods. God is One at HIS reality not at OUR mixed level of Being. We are like infants open to both good and evil, Being and Non-Being and without discernment we will create a complex mix of both within our psychology and Being. Once we discern those names of God, latent within us we purify and amplify their presence.

If we attempt to become God at this level, by conflating oneness and matter as a means to evolve is to veer towards a form of existential Satanism – to appropriate God-like vision at this level is to keep ourselves firmly locked into this material plane. This is the nature of Official Culture after all, which mirrors the same conflation of spiritual truths and lies, distorted and twisted toward Non-Being, it’s outer form appearing entirely benevolent. But to change our inner nature and thus our Being is to align and prepare ourselves for a state which slowly marks a return to that Divine Being at some point in space-time.  Our job is to align with the qualities and “attributes” which connect to that Oneness in order to manifest it “down here” – despite duality and cycles of constant binary change dominating this world.

Our Being holds conscience in potentia, and once activated a new world is brought froth in thoughts and actions. Otherwise, we just remain on the battlefield of our impressions drawn strictly from the narrow vision of the material world or the metaphysical worlds. Both must be embraced and the knowledge we gain from these impressions we receive put through the light of awareness. And if we are able to do this objectively, we will slowly align ourselves with the face of God that is truth. We are all a closed loop of unrealised information waiting to be heated into applied Knowledge.

According to al-‘Arabi, “…the first Divine Command is BE!” A word that activates a creative awareness that you are a sovereign being with ability to comprehend that Being and Non-Being exist simultaneously within you and the external world. And if all things are exactly how they must be, perfect in their imperfection, then everything manifests “the Real” or (al-Haqq) with each property from animal, mineral, human type and natural formation as a specific face of God. From this perspective, there is nothing “false” in the cosmos only the opportunity to choose. The second command, therefore, is to discern, discriminate and differentiate the attributes of the Real in order to make an authentic choice according to one’s nature. [10] We can see how closely the internal and external worlds fuse or collide based on what we see and perceive.

Shakespeare’s famous quote from the first line in the soliloquy from Hamlet is about as close as you’ll get to describing the struggle between Being and Non-Being and the conflict which can ensue from such vacillation:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life. [11]

Do we take on the noble names of God and use them to battle life’s troubles, thereby gaining nobility of Being? Or instead, do we choose the sleep of Non-Being that gives up and returns to matter, the endless sleep may breed regret for the soul we have lost passing on its memories of what could have been through the medium of dreams, which may haunt us still? Or as Hamlet states later: “the dread of something after death…”.

If there’s one thing that is certain the internal struggle is one that has consequences for the individual and all who are connected. It is the Taoist philosophy of the constant, to return to stillness and the sacred space that ceases inner considering and the stasis which results. Al-Arabi’s “perspicacity” is the light that shines on traits within ourselves and the material world. It is the light which was never bright enough in Hamlet’s troubled mind to go beyond the closed-loop of inner considering. It is the primary tool through which Being and Non-Being is discerned. Without perspicacity, we cannot know the difference between evil disguised as good and good disguised as evil.

To perceive on its own does not imply understanding. Perception must be complemented by the ability to discern, which in turn arrives from knowledge, correctly applied. The evidence or “proof” gained from this experimentation provides the needed will to persist in the face of inevitable trials and tribulations. If it is in our nature to align to Being and objectivity of God’s Truth as opposed to subjectivity and God’s darkness we will experience often intense struggle before some measure of self-regulation and balance is attained. We are using God’s eyes to see Divine truth. Not the other way around. This is Divine grace bestowed upon those who have sacrificed and suffered enough to merit attention. Humility married to discernment and sufficient will might just prepare the vessel. According to our nature, different paths will open up to us, but although the Way may be narrow and circuitous all paths lead back to God.

As historian and metaphysician Laura Knight-Jadczyk describes it:

“Knowledge acquired through study and work is only a temporary—but essential—stage. Only Higher Love can reveal the Divine Nature, and this springs directly from God. But if there is no vessel built by Knowledge to receive Gnosis, there is no possibility of anchoring the Forerunner Spirit which will open the gates to the Holy Spirit. The Gatekeeper is Knowledge. But for this to occur, the sign of Knowledge, that is, the Sign of St. Matthew/Science, must be correctly oriented. And this means that the Seeker must be liberated from lying and believing in lies. Without this, there is no possible access to the Era of the Holy Spirit. No matter how well meaning the individual, if they are following practices or teachings that are based on lies, they will not achieve the Grail. [*] And so, we see why knowledge and discernment is essential.” [12]

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart”

— Confucius

The Four Voices

The Contemplative Society is an organisation is “committed to recovering the mystical heart of the Christian Wisdom tradition.” They offer some constructive insights into the use of discernment by reaching back to the roots of Celtic and Gnostic Christianity alongside Fourth Way and orthodox teachings.

Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault has taken inspiration from the Sufi tradition, esoteric Christianity and 4th Way inspiration, to create a framework for cultivating discernment called The Four Voices. The idea behind the adaptive method was to help her create clarity when faced with important decisions during daily life and in times of potential crises. She also wanted to address the underlying challenges of the “little ‘I’s” or, as she states, “the multiple selves within me, each one with its characteristic slant and agenda.” She continues: “Before a decision can be made that has any chance of holding water, it’s important to allow all of them—or at least the four major players, whom I call Nafs, Soul, Spirit, and Heart—to weigh in and come to terms with each other. Failure to do so will result in a discernment where the dominant voice pushes its agenda and the others proceed to sabotage it: the usual ‘hung jury’ incapacitating any real action.” [13]

Under Bourgeault’s framework she outlines voices or “four discernment co-conspirators” as she calls them. These comprise firstly, the Sufi word Nafs which equates to the “the lower passional soul” or the self that is formed from social, cultural and childhood programming. It is the ego running on the reward circuitry of the mammalian brain mixed in with personality distortions. Second, the Soul as the essence or “core identity” where deep memory of the Real “I” resides. It is the heart of conscience and the potential Holy Grail of human consciousness. Third, Spirit is according to Bourgeault, the “deeply interiorized voice of my own highest spiritual reality.” [14]

We might translate that as the guiding Higher and completed Self distinct, though not separate from the growing soul.  And finally, “Heart” which she also has trouble defining but sees as having “a considerable overlap with Soul but there is an entirely different “sound” to it: intimate and personal, yet spacious and fiercely grounded.” (This appears to be a label for accessing the higher emotions). in order to get these voices “talking to each other” she uses a simple table format with four columns labelled Nafs, Soul, Spirit and Heart with one column containing two questions:

  1. How do you feel about the situation?
  2. What should I do next?

She applies this to any situation where the instincts, emotions and circular thinking have taken over and we are no longer feel in control.

Imagine you have been invited to a party. You’ve had a tough year and been somewhat of a recluse since your divorce the year before. You’ve been depressed, bitter and cautious. But your best friend Bill has urged you to come and you finally relented. Maybe it will be good for you? Perhaps it’s time to re-enter the world and begin to trust people again? It’s time to make an effort and stop feeling sorry for yourself. Arriving at the party you are nervous and self-conscious, but it soon gets easier as you chat and loosen up. Half-way through the night, across the other side of the room between all the smiling, laughing people, you spy your ex-girlfriend on the arm of a Neanderthal with fake teeth. It’s your worst nightmare come true. All the feelings of betrayal, anger and grief come flooding back on a crashing tide of adrenalin. Your heart – despite being shattered into tiny fragments all over again – beats in your ears and you think you might pass out. The bathroom is a step away and you grab the door handle and dip inside. As you switch on the light and lock the door, you remember what you promised yourself: “I must learn to pause, breath and see.” It is time to walk the talk.

Nafs:  How do I feel? Exactly as I did when she told me she was leaving: anger, horror, shock and excruciating pain. I can’t catch my breath….I can’t stop my heart beating. I want to punch the wall. I feel hate for all those people enjoying themselves. How could she be here? Bill must have known? Was it some kind of sick, practical joke? Breathe…Breathe…

What should I do? Get the hell out of here; just leave quietly with no fuss. Walk out the door, down the street and keep on walking. (Should I phone for a taxi?)  Got to MOVE!

Soul: How do I feel? I still love her. I miss her. I miss her smile and the way she used to flick her hair away from eyes…The discussions we used to have… the way we used to. How can I go out there and pretend it’s all fine? How can I hold my head up when she’s with this…this….person? We had good times even so…

What should I do?  Just be still for a moment … Get your breathing under control. Just stop the rushing thoughts….Just relax…Wait…Think of the football, think of the coast and surfing….Take a moment. Breathe…Now, observe this from above … Don’t do anything until my breathing is better, my heart has stopped beating so wildly…Just wait. Maybe she didn’t know I’d be here. Maybe Bill didn’t know. Perhaps she just turned up. Josie liked to be spontaneous and unpredictable. SURE. She’s always been THAT…(Breathe) I’m not a victim. Because I know it wasn’t just her. I know I played a part but I couldn’t see it. if I want to grow I have to do what I said I’d do if that moment ever comes…

Spirit: How do I feel? This is a lesson. This is an opportunity for me not to react and not to do what everyone else expects me to do – what society expects me to do. There is more to be than the pain of the past. There is more to this than meets the eye. I need to let go. This isn’t all about me. No one else even knows there is a problem so why make one? It’s up to me. It’s hard! But then…It’s not meant to be easy…

What should I do?  Don’t make a big deal out of this. Don’t identify with the pain anymore. There is so much more waiting…Shit happens.

Heart: How do I feel?  Still angry, afraid. Afraid of standing in front of her, afraid of not being able to cope. But I know I can flip this. What are the odds? If this means anything then it’s a choice between freaking out or calming the waters. If I don’t do it for her then I certainly do if for me.

What should I do? Continue to mingle. Or be bold and go up and say hello? Too much. Making a point. Just let go of identifying with any need to make a point – positive or negative. Just do what you would have done. Let it happen naturally….If it must.

So, there are several different descriptive permutations possible in the above, but you get the idea. A framework for discernment at least allows us to order our thoughts and allow the space for proper discernment of the situation even if this is somewhat rag-tag and chaotic at first. In time, such a structure can become more complex and efficient in the way we use our energy and what action we will take. Calming the emotions and observing ourselves as our body and mind react goes a long way to reducing that emotional static so that we can see the situation more clearly. And even 1% more clarity can mean the difference between a giant disaster or at least, a peaceful outcome.

Bourgeault and the Contemplative Society have essentially taken the teachings of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Mouravieff and ideas of the Christian Holy Trinity to make a practical tool for discernment to flourish. Seemingly irreconcilable opposites of these Four Voices – we might say “I”s of our personality and the respective centres – will look at the situation from “their” perspective. By using this formula and respecting each interpretation that comes forward we are allowing them to work together to find a contextual resolution with the heart that forms the anchor.

From this simple format, she introduces the idea of The Law of Three, a triad of forces which underlie all phenomena and which have an active, passive and neutralising or unifying role. She transposes to Nafs as the first force (affirming, desire, action) Spirit (clarity, wisdom, abstract – which includes the Soul) and the Heart as the unifying third force. This is an esoteric Christian idea adapted by Gurdjieff and bears some resemblance to the Buddhist practice of the middle path.

The heart or unifying force tends to emerge situationally or as she states: “The higher blends with the lower to actualize the middle, which then becomes the lower to the preceding higher and the higher to the preceding lower.” The heart is the “operational system” through which all the voices flow and it is this organ of perception that allows the Higher Self to facilitate proper discernment. When the “heart speaks” and “the quality of ‘seeing’ the solution combined with the power to do is suddenly released” this allows an open feedback system to function by allowing one’s essence, the Real “I” or Self to speak to which Bourgeault defines as the “… deep, integrated, fully finite and personal yet integrated and unboundaried Self which is who we actually are, but have no dependable access to in this earth plane.” She continues: “That Self—essential Self—emerges as the “new arising,” or fourth in a new dimension, which emerges when that dyad of Nafs/Spirit is brought into new relationship through the reconciling force of Heart. Then discernment will come, and it will be sustainable.” [15]

The soul’s influence speaks through the new quality of the Heart “now manifesting on a higher plane.” Bourgeault sees soul influence as:

“…what “I” look like when I construct myself from the outside, using my faculties to “take a picture” of myself and project it into time and space. Heart-speaking is what “I” sound like when I am expressing myself from the center of my essential beingness. The images drop out, but the quality of aliveness remains the same. I am no longer seeking for myself in a painstakingly constructed picture of myself; rather, I spring like a coiled tiger from the center of my own being directly into the situation at hand. All the self-translation drops out.” [16]

In other words, intuition and gut feelings complement logic, reason and common sense to allow this unifying third force to do its work which immediately stimulates the role of the 4th higher dimension beyond the 3rd in the process of conscious learning. If that’s as clear as mud, let’s briefly look more closely at the relationship between these forces and its importance for attention and discernment.

“Life in the universe is nothing but a perpetual process of creation in every domain, on every plane, and at every step. In addition, for every event, large or small, important or insignificant, an act analogous to the First Creation of the entire Universe is produced, with all proportions maintained. In this act, the three forces act as a replica of the three conditions which conceived the created universe before the manifestation.”

— Boris Mouraveiff, Gnosis, Book One

The Law of Three

We are all used to thinking of things operating in strictly dualistic or binary terms: good and evil, man and woman, action and reaction, sun and moon, happy and sad, love and hate etc. The Law of Three gives us a visual and mental tool to navigate changes in our own behaviour and the time-honoured dynamics playing out in our environment as part of schema of natural processes. None of these forces operate in isolation and each plays a different role. The interrelational context of the three at a given moment is key. It is this specific interplay that provides the defining nature and quality of consciousness that we must discern.

According to 4th Way cosmology and the Work, all life comprise three forces or the Law of Three, emblematic of the Christian Holy Trinity:

  • The active force, or the Holy Affirming. (positive)
  • The passive force, or the Holy Denying. (negative)
  • The neutralizing force, or the Holy Reconciling. (neutral)

The active force can be seen as dynamic, the passive as static and the neutralising as unity, equalisation or the equilibrium established through creation.

Another way to view them from an I Ching perspective would be:

  • H.1: The Creative Power, The active dynamic
  • H. 2: The Receptive Power, The passive dynamic
  • H.3: The Manifest Power, The actualising dynamic.

We could make it simpler still by using the analogy of the:

  • Sun: Creates energy      (affirms existence)
  • Moon: extracts energy  (denies existence)
  • Earth: Allows a “vessel” (reconciles existence)

Sunshine and daylight begin the chemical reaction of photosynthesis inside a plant to produce nourishment. The plant reaches up toward the “heavens.” The moon induces the “pull” and stimulates electromagnetic fields to vivify the plant systems (while, perhaps, extracting the energy as the debt paid by all new life for its existence?). And the soil provides the dark vessel through which the plant’s roots can reach down and gain nourishment anchoring it’s self in the Earth. Two forms of nourishment and growth are then “reconciled” or “unified” by the manifestation of the plant neutralising negative and positive equation into the answer of physical form. Again, it is context which determines the outcome of the unifying force.

We can also see how the Three can be applied to inner work as we seek to refine our emotions, thoughts and moving/instinctual forces so that they adopt their proper roles and do not take energy from their neighbouring centres. For example, we can pick a few elements of inner work: through self-observation (active) we are able to self-remember (passive) and integrate disparate elements within our unconscious so that a synthesis (unifying) eventually occurs. As Cynthia Bourgeault mentioned: “The higher blends with the lower to actualize the middle, which then becomes the lower to the preceding higher and the higher to the preceding lower.” This is the formula for creative change.

There are many more examples of the Law of Three which exist in Nature, human relationships and in the creation of stars in the cosmos. The most obvious example would be a man and women who meet and over time produce a reciprocal exchange resulting in a biochemical bonding and higher emotional connection or love. Moving down to the molecular level, the physical act of making love initiates the action of sperm speeding toward the ovum which eventually travels back to the macrolevel to result in a foetus. The defining factor is that precise combination of the third force that leads to a particular manifestation, and which at any moment in that process could be in this case, literally still-born.

The Law of Three occurs at all levels of existence as a fractal repetition of Creation. We might be able to grasp the idea of two forces at work, but we seldom entertain the prospect of a third force. It can be an enormously complex set of “holy trinities” existing at various levels of phenomenology, yet this is a key component of proper discernment.

This is what Gurdjieff has to say about the third force:

The first two forces are more or less comprehensible to man and the third may sometimes be discovered either at the point of application of the forces, or in the ‘medium,’ or in the ‘result.’ But, speaking in general, the third force is not easily accessible to direct observation and understanding. The reason for this is to be found in the functional limitations of man’s ordinary psychological activity and in the fundamental categories of our perception of the phenomenal world, that is, in our sensation of space and time resulting from these limitations. People cannot perceive and observe the third force directly any more than they can spatially perceive the ‘fourth dimension.’ [16]

And learning to apply the process of attention, discrimination and discernment lead us to perspicacity which bridges the gap between the material, three-dimensional world and a “fourth dimension”. Yet, because we view life through a subjective lens it is only possible to be aware of one or two forces at any one time – the true essence of matter, the property of the real world as connector to the “Real “I” and the consciousness/spirit that is apparent through the diversity of forms.  If we were to develop our discernment and level Being we may see the true Names of God and the manifestation of three forces in all life dynamics. Which is why The Law of Three is a big part of working on the self.

If you can begin to differentiate between the various forces operating in your inner and outer life then you are well on the way to discerning your own place in the world and gaining true independence. For example, if you are depressed or stuck in a rut then the passive force is too dominant. If too passionate and constantly burning out the active force is exerting too much control and a third force is needed to balance the two. If you are merely gaining knowledge about self-transformation and resisting any kind of practical change the third force in this context may be faith, courage and will to attain equilibrium. In this way, we attain a higher level of being.

Any one force dominating as a habitual dynamic and its path never corrected, ultimately moves us in the direction of non-Being. By discerning all the various micro-forces replicating this law, with the aim of integration or self-regulation, we might begin to create order within. Our desire is the active/positive force, our automatism or mechanical, unconscious habits represent the passive/negative force and each will balance or claim dominance over the other. Either way, weakness will define their presence cancelling out each other and extinguishing the possibility for constructive action of a third force to bring our whole system to a higher level. A new experience, insight or relationship can ignite a chain reaction of realisation and the needed initiative to apply the knowledge. And as Gurdjieff explains: “…the initiative, with the support of this third force, may conquer inertia and the man becomes active in the desired direction.” [17]

From duality (Being vs Non-Being, creativity vs entropy) comes the tripartite relationship manifesting new states of consciousness. But the key to observing a third force in operation is slowing down enough to observe and contemplate accompanied by right intent. Without proper motive or intent, a balancing third force cannot be brought to awareness or is unable to be birthed.

We do not live in a black and white world so nuance and complexity must be sifted in order to extract the truth. Taking too much or giving too much achieves imbalance. Believing our cognitive biases is a sure way to keep our work on the self in a state of static decline and strengthening the survival mechanisms of the false self.  If we are able to observe our intent and the context into which we find ourselves, conscience can be allowed to formulate our decisions thus inaugurating a morality that bypasses Official Culture.

So, from all the above we can see that attention, discrimination/discernment and perception are a crucial process without which no development can take place. No wonder then that we find the art of seeing in almost every religious, philosophical, occult and metaphysical tradition. But before we continue further into the metaphysical rabbit-hole we need to remind ourselves of the cognitive obstacles to recognising and achieving levels of discernment and perspicacity that signal meaningful change.

However, to build our ability to discern the truth of the matter it isn’t just a case of being more rational, critical or logical in our analysis, although that’s certainly part it. Intuition and feeling sit alongside reason. We pass an impression through our intellect and then through our feelings. How does this situation, event, occurrence feel now that we have analysed it carefully? What choices are presented and are they real choices? Is there resistance to an action or an instant desire to make a decision over another? If so, why?

Discernment: Service to Self Vs Service to Others

The first port of call when exercising discernment is to be aware of those two streams of Being and Non-Being as potentials within us, often called “service to self” or “service to others”. It is the latter that activates conscience by seeing all persons as reflections of our own struggle and thereby worthy of assistance and the former which may offer the mask of conscience and altruism but is reflective of contractile, self-love seeking to covet energy that is not our own, the exclusive path to self. That doesn’t mean everyone is evil or deranged. But we live in a service to self world after all. Life is just asking us to learn to see so that we be as close to objective truth as possible. To see how that process plays out in an individual, group or situation can be extremely difficult. Which is why suspending judgement until we have sufficient data to make an informed decision is essential.

It is assumed that one who is attempting to sincerely grow by whatever degree, be it a conscious path or in a psychotherapeutic setting may entertain the hypothesis that there is a reality beyond the five senses and that we are here on Earth to reach our highest potential; to learn how to be fully human as a first stage in becoming fully integrated with the path to God or the Creative Universe. When we simplify our lives and conserve energy, we increase our ability to discern complexity in any situation.

For instance, which “I” of our friend, family member or lover are we truly serving? The Real “I” which desires to grow or that part of their personality which seeks to survive? Are we enabling them to grow or does our “assistance” provide more energy to fuel their fears and the avoidance of truth? Service to others requires the utmost discernment lest we fall into the trap of good intentions divorced from sufficient awareness. By observing a person’s actions rather than their words, we may judge if they are asking to grow or just seeking greater sleep.

How often do we assist someone over and over yet never catch a glimpse of self-responsibility? It may be that we are making matters worse by always being there to pick up the pieces or offering a shoulder to cry on. How can anyone build their inner strength and confront the unknown if there are people around them who, with the best intentions, keep their loved one’s “issues” vitalised?

What is the nature of our assistance? Are we really helping or are we helping ourselves because it feels good? Discernment in any given context is as much about the observer and the observed. If we seek to be sincere and truly serve others, that means withholding assistance and refusing to supply energy to a behavioural dynamic that is serving no one. And that ability takes time and practice because it will usually be misunderstood.

We learn through knowing when to give help and when to withhold it for someone’s highest good. It may even necessitate cutting ties or separating oneself from a person you love in order that they have a clear field of information to make the needed choice. That’s the kind of discernment that offers a chance to turn mere theory into practice. It requires us to make a judgement based not on what we like or what makes us feel wanted, but what is best for another’s highest good. And we certainly cannot determine the needs of another based on our own personal beliefs and assumptions. Beliefs are primarily a source of our own survival mechanisms thus wholly unreliable for solving another’s problems quite apart from discriminating between what is operating – soul struggle or an inherent path to self-service.

A key to discovering who is genuinely asking and who is genuinely giving is to discern whether there is any kind of emotional manipulation on the part of both. A genuine kind of assistance or “tough love” could be just what the person needs to access his own latent capacity to self-heal or regulate. That’s not only wise, it is also essential if your very soul is under threat.

Many who assist people claim “they know best” despite their badge of altruism defining their own desires rather than the best interests of the person they are busy “helping.” Similarly, the apparent “victim” can manipulate with all kinds of pity-me ploys to extract the energy s/he requires to continue in the same state of dysfunction without any effort on their part. By not associating with such people we may conserve and protect our energy thus directing it for inner work so that it may be used with precision in relation to someone who is sincerely asking as opposed to another who is merely seeking energy and the reinforcement of their passive state.

It is always said that “love is all you need”, “love heals all” and “love is the answer” to all ills and problems. But unless you have the knowledge from attention, discernment and perspicacity to know what love really is then it amounts, at best a platitude, at worst a lie to yourself and the world from which no serious self-development can take place. Knowledge comes before love and most assuredly before personal opinion that mimics truth. And the only way to gain knowledge and thus discernment is to study, research, analyse and examine the reality in which we are immersed in order to live the principles of discovery. If it means we have to leave all those cherished beliefs and self-concepts behind – that’ all part of the process. Ideally, this must take place in a network so that our interpretative errors can be pointed out to us because it’s all too easy to deceive ourselves or be deceived by others.

If this big sphere of organic life is a kindergarten, college, university (or boot camp!) for the soul to learn its lessons, then it behoves us to start with the basics and work our way up, step by step. No skipping class. No short-cuts. if we develop enough awareness then we might just suffer only as much as we need to “get it.” Then we are in the position to help ourselves enough to truly assist others. And that means creating a practical, experiential, objective map of our inner and outer worlds, a map we can trust and tested in daily life.

The more we nourish ourselves on sources of energy that align to Being or make decisions based on seeing reality as it really is, the more we will build our inner strength, resilience and self-reliance when confronted with the many influences which can easily put us back to sleep. The soul can grow. But not without persistent bloody effort and the frequent pain that accompanies any birth from darkness into light. And you can be sure that when you attempt to use your perceptions properly a natural reaction of Official Culture will seek to suppress, divert and keep you compliant. Then disintegrations surely come, hopelessness and the Dark Night of the Soul.

But even here, as we have seen, positive disintegration is part of the path and can mark the beginning of true spiritual rebirth, because it becomes a painful but necessary stripping away of that which impedes progress toward authenticity of Being. How else can we burn those layers of programming away? By being “happy” and leaving the root of our distortions deep down in the unconscious blissfully untouched? How are we to address the controlling, dominant nature of conditioned and socially inculcated behaviour, defence mechanisms, trauma, childhood adversity and the endless survival and energy extraction programs run by the ego and an array of disparate little “I”s controlled like marionettes by the Predator’s Mind? The vast majority of our little “I”s which make up our personality until we reach a state of disintegration are seeking Non-Being, whereas the “I”s of Being are few and far between. They may cluster into dark ego-states with “sparks” from the Real “I” making itself known every now and then, just enough to keep the will to grow on track. But this is a journey full of peril because we can fall into an abyss of our own making if we lose our nerve.

You may think you have a mind of your own. Perhaps you are a fountain of knowledge or that you give until it hurts with no limitations or natural boundaries. Until I realised my self-concept was a cover for a screaming child existing in the dark well of my unconscious desperate to put a distance between disintegration and renewal I re-played the same dynamics over and over. The truth was too terrifying. The more knowledge I gained the more the pressure for change became intolerable. More I discerned, the more clear the choice became: Being or Non-Being? Truth or lies? And only when you reach rock bottom, when the layers have been peeled away do you have the peace and stillness that comes from shock and the choice it provides. And therein lies the hope in suffering for those that wish to grow.

Discernment is the antidote to denial but the latter won’t give up without a fight. Once you tread that path expect to meet your own self-denials head-on. The good news is, if you survive, the cost is paid by the parts of yourself who resist growth. You can’t grieve a fantasy even if it feels like you’ve lost your identity. Nonetheless, for most of us, whether realised or not, self-importance is far too valuable a buffer to risk being true to onself and others. This the armour of overprotection; the security of self-righteousness, of being right all the time, aloofness, virtue signalling and any number of survival masks bolted on with the fear of outdated defence mechanisms and cognitive biases.

But now we know that Hamlet was right, “there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of…” in any one one form of knowledge taken in isolation and disconnected from context and conscience.

To be, or not to be, that is indeed the question.

But to gain knowlege in humility and wonder is to “Know Thyself” and as Ibn al-‘Arabi directs us: “He who knows himself knows his Lord; … indeed, He is his very identity and reality”. And we then allow God, Allah or the Creative Universe to seed itself inside our journey to Being or we allow Non-Being into matter to claim us.

Which one will you choose?


* = “The Holy Grail” is a mythological object symbolising a magnetic centre as the seat of transmutation and transformation of human consciousness.


[1] The Qu’ran, Sürah al-Baqarah 2:164
[2] Ibid. Sürah al-Anªäm 6:95-99.
[3] Ibid. Sürah Ibrähïm 14:1, 4-5
[4] Ibid. Sürah al-Anfäl 8:29
[5] Ibid. Sürah al-Anªäm 6:102-104.
[6] pp. 122-123; Helminski
, Kabir et al; The Book of Revelations: A Sourcebook of Themes from the Holy Qur’an (2005) Published by Book Foundation; 1st Book Foundation Ed edition.
[7] The Qu’ran. Sürah al-Furqän 25:1
[8] op.cit. Helminski p.123.
[9] p.187; Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Al-Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination (1989) Published by State University of New York Press.
[10] Ibid. p.54
[11] Prince Hamlet in the “nunnery scene” of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.
[12] Knight-Jadczyk, Laura. The Secret History of The World (2006)
[13] ‘My Missing Bag as Spiritual Teacher’ By Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault, July 4, 2014,The Contemplative Society |
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ouspensky; P. D. In Search of the Miraculous,
Kindle Location 1782-1795
[17] Ibid. Kindle location 1782


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