A publication of the Fellowship of Friends
Focusing On Presence
At a recent teaching event, Robert Earl Burton, founder of The Fellowship of Friends, commented that, historically, the greatest mistake men have made is to think that there is somewhere to go other than the present; and that there is something to do other than to be present to one’s own life. The event was a formal dinner during which Mr. Burton kept emphasizing the need to divide attention and be present as much as possible to each moment of one’s life.
The dinner began with a quote from Bahauddin, father of the Persian mystic and poet, Rumi: “If there is no divine dimension [no divine presence] to what we are doing, then whatever we do is merely killing time. On the other hand, if the presence of God [higher centers] overlaps simultaneously with whatever we are doing, then anything we work on performs eternity.”
This elegant description of divided attention set the tone for a concentrated hour of trying to be present while listening to Mr. Burton speak about the urgency of promoting presence, and about the countless things that distract us from presence and cause us to lapse into imagination. For instance, every three seconds a new or recurring ‘I’ appears in us. Unless we are making a conscious effort to divide attention, our awareness gets pulled downstream by this constant flow of ‘I’s. Although we cannot stop the ‘I’s, we can—with self-remembering—swim to the shore of presence.
As Mr. Burton says, it is when we listen to the ‘I’s that we get into trouble. He often reminds us that, although the system teaches us about the many ‘I’s, we still spend too much time observing the ‘I’s and not enough time separating from them. In this context, he enjoys two related quotes, one from Rumi and the other from George Gurdjieff. Rumi said, “Fast from thought,” and Mr. Gurdjieff said, “Do not be a taxi.” They both refer to prolonging presence by not indulging in or holding onto each ‘I’ that comes along.
Even when we know about self-remembering, it is common for hundreds of mechanical ‘I’s to pass through us before we produce an ‘I’ related to self-remembering. In the language of the system, ‘I’s that we introduce with effort to intentionally promote presence are called work ‘I’s; those that occur automatically without effort, and which inherently oppose and displace presence, are called mechanical ‘I’s.
Mr. Burton keeps emphasizing that when we are not making efforts to promote presence, whatever we are doing is simply thwarting self-remembering and displacing presence. The literature of the Sufis repeatedly stresses this truth, although it is easy to miss their message by taking the words literally. For example, when the Sufis speak of love, they are speaking about efforts to promote presence.
Mr. Burton also points out that the knowledge of the Sufis derives from the same objective source as the Fourth Way. After all, Mr. Gurdjieff himself was in direct connection with the Sufis of his time. Clearly, the Sufis understood that being present is the door to the miraculous, and that tremendous discipline is required to continuously focus on the effort to promote presence. One of the Sufis, Abu Said, wrote: “Do not occupy your precious time except with the most precious of things, and the most precious of human things is the state of being occupied with the present.”