The Little Train that Can

Just as eight passenger cars standing in the station become one integrated train heading into the future, when the couplings pull tight and each car discovers its role in the journey through wheat fields and open sky– so can our lives, and all the isolated compartments into which our activities and aspirations fall, embrace one another once the togetherness of the whole is seen.

At the risk of using the greater to illuminate the lesser, I find myself pondering the possible connection between two eight-step visions of the dynamic of life: Gurdjieff’s Law of Seven, where the eighth step repeats the first on a higher level, and the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path.

I first heard of Gurdjieff and his Laws of Three and Seven when I was working on a Noranda Copper Mine barge that travelled back and forth across 3-mile wide Lake Babine in Northern British Columbia. I had plenty of time to read during the 20 minutes trips and favored books with a spiritual theme. Gurdjieff’s Law of Three, which discerns the presence of an active, a passive, and a reconciling force in the dynamic of all phenomena, can be seen in Christianity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), Taoism (Yang, Yin, and Tao), and–most convincingly and usefully—is frequently apparent in the conduct of my own life, where my isolated self, facing off with its world, is in continuous need of integration and reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Gurdjieff’s Law of Seven, which claims that all natural processes proceed through seven vibrational stages—as in the musical octave—has not been as readily apparent for me in daily life. Most intriguing is his assertion that in all such processes—corresponding to the two semitones in the octave–there are two points where help is needed from outside that process. And perhaps that’s why I find myself returning to this Law of Seven now: because my own need for help and collaboration from outside my orbiting preoccupations—to complete and verify my intentions—is constantly a theme in my life.

I had to go online to see a piano keyboard and to remind myself how the white keys and the black keys illustrate the two semitones; because it’s only between two keys that are a full tone apart that there is place for a black key. The two places where there are no black key (no extra sharps and flats) are between C and D, and between E and F.

Gurdjieff claims that these semitones are a feature of Nature and that they represent two half-hearted intervals (semi-tones), where a push from outside is needed in order to keep going forward.

This is only mildly interesting, unless–as I have experienced with the Law of Three– it can shed light on lived reality, as does that other eightfold progression—the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path.

In search of such lived relevance, I tried lining up the eight steps of the Noble Eightfold Path (Right Vision, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration) with the musical octave from A to G (and back to A, an octave higher) too see if any deeper correspondence came to light.

The first interval (a full tone between A and B) joins Vision and Intention, which feels right since these are the two Wisdom steps (Prajna in Sanskrit), that belong to and are naturally joined in our minds. The second interval (a semitone) brings those two Wisdom steps into Speech, the first among three steps in which our life in the world (Shila in Sanskrit) provides the realm in which our vision and intentions can be implemented and tested. In other words, all our thoughts, no matter how luminous they might be, will amount to electric currents in a petri dish, unless they make their way into the life we are living.

Then three full tones follow, joining Speech (C), Action (D), and Livelihood (E) (as manifested by three black keys on a piano keyboard). Since these are the three steps of the Noble Eightfold Path which are summarized as Shila (behavior), it feels natural that how we speak, how we act, and how we spend the bulk of our days working are inherently of a piece in the conduct of our lives. And therefore it also seems natural that no push from outside is needed in order for speech to motivate our actions, and then for actions to gather together into a chosen livelihood.

And then comes the other semitone between E and F. This corresponds to the movement from the three steps of Shila (Behavior) to the three steps of Samadhi (Integration). Why would the movement from how we conduct our lives to how we deepen our engagement in that life need a push from outside (specifically, why does Vision and Intention, as implemented in Speech, Action and Livelihood, now need Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration to come to the rescue)?

But why would Effort–the first of the three steps summarized as Samadi (Integration)—need a nudge from another area of life in order to proceed as a continuation of our conduct in the world? It seems that Effort, as the step that continues into Mindfulness and Concentration, represents a return to the inner realm which began with Vision and Intention? That seems more clearly evident with Mindfulness and Concentration, but Effort, although manifested in behavior, feels like it has its root in the resolve of mind and heart to live in a way that is true to our inner being.

Perhaps it is my own issue with committing to effort that causes me to feel that Effort, as the sixth step in the Buddhist path, manifests in my day-to-day life as a weak point in my behavior–just as much as it conveys an invitation to develop Mindfulness and Concentration. Effort (as a bridge between life in the world and Mindfulness of the Vision that inspired it) feels comparable to Speech (as a wobbly, swaying bridge). In both places on the path, (of Speech conducting Vision into the life that must embody it and Effort renewing our dedication to a life informed by Vison of our embodiment of Being), it makes sense of me that these are the two points where it is easy to lose our way. Speech can become an idle promise that leads nowhere (next Monday, I’m going to quit smoking, just don’t want to waste this pack); and Effort can become missing in Action (I’m just going to play one game of Solitaire, and then I’ll get back to writing the great American Novel).

Since the traditional division of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path into Wisdom, Behavior and Integration is already fundamental, this lining up of the eight steps on the ‘path to liberation’ with the notes of the musical octave doesn’t add anything essential. But I find it interesting that the two semitones correspond to the two bridges between mind and embodiment and back from embodiment to the mind. These are precisely the bridges that invite the inner and outer realms to learn each other’s native tongues.

And another aspect comes into focus: just as the eighth note of the musical scale repeats and resonates with the first, but at a higher level, so does the development of Concentration (on things that matter in this world) complete and resonate with the Vision of integrity that first motivated us to step onto a journey into wholeness.

Oh, about the “Little Train that could”: a wonderful story about an insignificant little engine that was recruited to deliver toys to children on the other side of the mountain when all the shiny silver engines considered it beneath their power and reputation. It’s definitely a story about Effort and how a lack of confidence can undercut Effort. But it’s also a story about how the little train’s faltering capacity for effort needed help from outside. And this came from the toys themselves whose whole reason for ‘being’ was to reach the expectant children and see the light shining in their eyes.

2 comments to “The Little Train that Can”
  1. I’m so sorry, Walter. I hope it really was little and I know you are a train that can and does chug along with others for a common benefit. It sounds like the kind of place in life where we need a little help from outside. Please let me know if I can help.

    I’m asking myself about my own role in family dynamics and my contribution to toxic relationships. May we both be healed inside and outside , , ,

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