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William Patrick Patterson
The Question of Rebirth

Gallery Eye of Horus, Gurdjieff Rebirth—what can be said that hasn't been said a hundred times over? It's not a horn or a hammer, something you can hold or point to. It's an abstraction and like all abstractions it doesn't give itself up to easy definition. Its weakness in terms of definition is its linguistic power. We can use it to mean whatever we want it to mean.

Let's ask instead when does the idea of rebirth—however defined—become serious? What must happen? Isn't it when the road we've been walking comes to its end? Up until then we didn't think it had an end. Then suddenly the stark and painful recognition and admission that all we believed in, all we gave ourselves to, is so much smoke and mirrors. We thought without really thinking (for the attraction was stronger than thought) that this was the road that would bring all of the parts of me together. It would complete the "I" that I take myself to be. Now, hypnotic suggestion and momentum stripped away, I suddenly see the road for what it is, not what I imagined it to be.

At this point, emptied of dreams, I dwell once again in the I-Don't-Know. But as the poet tells us:

We shall not cease from exploration

Yes, the search continues, but it's still not a rebirth I want—the road was wrong, not me. I want a fresh start. And so in time I step onto another road. But now I'm more doubtful, less committed. Now I notice there are roads and crossroads, not just one road. So I begin zig-zagging, one to another, to the point where I feel I'm on no road at all. Of course, the denial is itself an assertion. Being on no road is a road, too. When this dawns I face what I've been fearing: the nothingness that I am, walking an endless circle.

What Does Rebirth Mean?

Now rebirth has become a serious idea. The I am that I am doesn't need a fresh start. I want a new me. I want the real, not the transient. I don't know what I mean. I only know now what I don't want. I've learned to not be afraid to question—not only what other people are saying but what I think, what I feel. And so I ask myself: what does this word "rebirth" really mean? What's the assumption? Doesn't it presuppose I've already been born? Yes, we're all possessed of bodies, so there is birth on the physical level. But are there higher levels to which I haven't been born?

I observe myself and see many of my thoughts, my feelings, are contradictory. Desires-fears-dreams—they keep moving me around like I'm a puppet. The body takes postures; I don't take them. Nothing is intentional. All is reaction. The left hand may instinctively know where the right hand is—but does the mind? Often I see I talk, but it's really that I am talked, some inner tape playing out the same old story once again. All empty words. No one, no self-awareness is there. So perhaps—perhaps—I haven't really been born at all—I just think I have. So this idea of rebirth—it's based on an assumption! This brings me where? Back to the dreaded I-Don't-Know.

Then I find I am reading these words in a magazine whose issue is devoted to the subject of rebirth.

"'To awake,' 'to die,' 'to be born.' These are three successive stages," says G. I. Gurdjieff, a seminal spiritual figure who brought The Fourth Way, the ancient esoteric teaching of self-transformation.

That's it! I've been dead and not known it. I've assumed that being born came first. Yes, I have to first awaken so that I can die, so that I can be born. But awaken to what?

"To awaken," says Mr. Gurdjieff, "means to realize one's nothingness, that is to realize one's complete and absolute mechanicalness and one's complete and absolute helplessness. And it is not sufficient to realize it philosophically in words. It is necessary to realize it in clean, simple, and concrete facts, in one's own facts."

Gurdjieff acknowledges this is difficult and impossible to do by oneself. One needs a group of people, he says, with a like aim, all involved in the teaching he brings and led by a teacher. I recoil inside. I find myself between a yes and a no. If the yes wins, there will be a little death, the first of many such deaths; that is, death to all the assumptions I hold about myself. For each time I see the falseness of a deeply held assumption—and none stronger than me as an individual entity; each time a self-image is shattered, there will be a death. And that death will create a space for essence—that which I truly am—to grow. But, as Gurdjieff warned, "False personality will defend itself." It is very canny and will use any and all means to stay in control, for it knows that its loss of power means its death, it being no more than a fabrication, a compensation. One's attention and energy either serve the real or the false. One is either eating or being eaten, traveling an ascending octave or descending. There are no hybrids.

Learning Sincerity

Self-sincerity is demanded. And yet, as Gurdjieff says, "We must learn to be sincere." Learn? I've been sincere many times, why would I have to learn it? This goes to the heart of the matter. I take myself to be one indivisible I when in actuality I am many "I"s. This has to be experienced deeply. The stark seeing of this will be a suffered death. But what is it that suffers? Not what is true but what is false. This discrimination must be constantly made. If not, the false personality will reassert itself.

So it's a long path, but the only path worth taking, for its direction is vertical, ascending. And I realize, as that poet said:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time...
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.

The Fourth Way is a way of understanding and conscience, and so with every step essence grows and in its wake the recognition of the laws that underlie all phenomena. All else is as another poet sang:

The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.


1. "To awake." P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, 217
2. To awaken. Ouspensky, 218.
3. We shall not cease from exploration. T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Four Quartets.
4. The hollow horn plays wasted words. Bob Dylan, "It's Alright, Ma."

First printed in Revue 3e millénaire, #83. Reprinted in The Gurdjieff Journal Issue #44