Reading Gurdjieff makes Jacob Needleman realize that he has been living and thinking only on the surface of his life and of his mind. The realization leads him to reflect on the Buddhist idea that only a human being is capable of escaping from The Great Wheel of Being – eternal rebirth – but that it is exceedingly rare to be born as a human being. And from there he comes to a deeper understanding of Gurdgieff’s talks about “awakening,” and how slender a possibility it is that a man can ever become anything more than an automaton.
For if it is rare to be born as a human being, how much more unlikely it is to be born as a human being “aware” of itself.
He sees how much of the misery of the world is the result of “what we have made of the idea of God,” and the way we have ignored the call of “What is immeasurably higher both above and within ourselves.”
How do we “pay attention” to these calls from our inner self, calls that all of us experience? By a kind of rebellion of thought, a resistance to the notion that man is only a tiny cog in the immense whole of creation. What if man is a unique creation himself, one containing all the elements and forces at play in the universe?
To understand one’s self, then, is to understand the universe. Stated another way: It’s not necessary to grasp the universe; we only have to grasp ourselves.
And to understand ourselves, we have to remember ourselves, everywhere and always.
In a chapter about Kant and his Critique of Pure Reason, Needleman describes being transported as a college undergraduate by the opening sentence of that book:
“Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.”
It was Kant’s revolutionary view that the mind is not a mirror (or a mere mirror) of reality, but a sculptor, as it were, of reality. Reason organizes our perceptions of the world, and our perceptions are all that we can be sure of. Not only do we not have knowledge of things in themselves, we cannot have such knowledge. Our minds are not structured so.
The human mind, incapable of peering into “real” reality, must take the reality it gets.