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The lawn was overgrown and beginning to resemble a pasture. I was 15 and mowing was my job in the household. I strategically avoided my mother, anticipating she would take me to task. I skipped breakfast, and stayed out late, but finally it came to a head.
I was in the kitchen late at night, thinking she was asleep, but when she came through in her nightgown I prepared myself for a tirade. I braced and waited, but it didn't come.
"How are you?" she said. "I haven't seen you much lately. Is everything okay?"
She was holding a glass of water.
"Um, yeah," I muttered, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Good, see you in the morning," she said, and began to walk back upstairs.
"Um, goodnight," a pause. "Oh, Mom, sorry I haven't mowed the lawn. I'll do it tomorrow when I get home from school."
She looked at me quietly and intently for a moment. Then she said, "I know you've been busy, and that you'll get to it as soon as you can." And she walked out.
This was the first moment that I experienced a real change in my mother. She had begun to seem more patient, more attentive, more perceptive of what was actually going on with me.
The next afternoon, after I mowed the lawn, I found her at the kitchen table drinking tea and reading a book. It was Meditations by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
"Hey, we're reading that in school!" I blurted out. "It's really good."
"Yes, it has a lot of wisdom in it—here's one," she said, and she read from the text.
Waste no more time arguing about what a good person should be. Be one.
"It's crazy how much energy we put into telling other people how they should be different," she mused, "when we could use that energy working on ourselves."
This was going too far. My mom had also been the angry activist, battling what she saw as flaws and injustices in the world.
"Mom, have you been smoking crack? What's up with you?"
"Believe it or not, I started meditating," she said. "I've been taking a class where we learn about attention. Did you know that most of the time our attention is just captured by things, as though we're hypnotized?"
"You mean like watching TV, when I lose track of everything else going on in the room?"
"Yes, but it happens all the time, like when we get lost in thought, or attached to some point of view."
More than my mother's words, what struck me in that moment was her state. She seemed to select her words carefully, and her voice had an uncharacteristic resonance that drew my interest. When I spoke she seemed to be trying to listen. I recognized an inner effort, an exercising of some kind of psychic muscle, which I later came to understand as the hallmark of inner work.
It was in that moment that something shifted in me, and I wanted to know what she was doing, what her practice was about. I asked and her answer was a single word: "Gurdjieff." Her pronunciation sounded something like a sneeze and I was tempted to respond with a gesundheit, but I was too interested to indulge in our habitual wordplay.
Inquiring further, I discovered there was a group of people that gathered in town to study and practice this teaching. There was an open meeting coming up, which I attended, and so began a 30-year journey.
I learned that until a person makes an effort to wake up, we remain in a state very similar to sleep, hypnotized by fantasies and opinions, and always prey to suggestibility. The effort to be awake, I learned, can only be made in the moment. At the same time this simple effort must be repeated and sustained for longer periods of time.
The effort to wake up depends not at all on believing in anything or subscribing to any dogma. It shows up as exercising attention, precisely in each moment, to make contact with the instrument of one's nature; with the thought, feeling, and sensation of our mind, heart, and body; to be a witness in the midst of activity; to have solitude in the crowd.
Thus began an almost 30-year peregrination, which has been a kind of parallel inner journey with all the events of my outer life. In this process, I have aspired to the heights of realization, and in the end have achieved nothing. At the same time, this nothing is a something which shows up in special, precious moments.
For this treasure, and for many other things, I have my mother to thank.
Chronogram founder Jason Stern will give a series of introductions to the Gurdjieff teaching, known as the Fourth Way, in March and April at the Wellness Embodied Center in New Paltz. See Wellnessembodiedcenter.com for more information.