A ‘mandorla’ is a geometric shape formed by the intersection of two circles. The mandorla was widely used in ancient symbolism. It signified the delicate intersection where two worlds touched, the meeting-point between the higher and lower aspects of man.
Ouspensky on the Two Worlds
Ouspensky emphasized the importance of this intersection in the process of awakening. He offered two scenarios: man was asleep, either because his higher self wasn’t developed, or because his lower centers were in too chaotic a condition to receive impulses fromt his already developed higher self. Man’s path towards awakening, therefore, lay in shortening this internal gap by building a bridge that would draw one world closer to the other.
His teacher, George Gurdjieff, expressed it in the following way:
Esoteric Christianity conveyed this internal bridge through the mandorla. The symbol was closely associated with Mary, because Mary served as a conduit between two worlds. She was the doorway by which heaven reached earth.
An altarpiece from Valencia places an open mandorla at its center. This elaborate hybrid of woodcarving and painting originally occupied a chapel in a church. It is called ‘Altar of the Immaculate Conception’, and presents stories and symbols of the life of the Virgin Mary.
The open mandorla at its center would have originally been covered by alabaster. The idea is symbolic: just as light penetrates alabaster without shattering it, so did the Holy Ghost impregnate Mary without defiling her virginity.
In other words, Mary was a pure and sensitive earthly recipient for a heavenly impulse. By the same token, if man could locate the finest part of his lower centers and purify it from wrong work, he would receive impulses from his higher centers.
However, the religious connotation of Mary’s Annunciation is often too deep to enable a symbolic approach. The symbolism of Esoteric Christianity is better understood when compared with similar myths of different traditions.
Ouspensky on Buddhism and Christianity
Buddha was also conceived miraculously.
His mother, Queen Maya, dreamt of a white elephant tapping her on her right side. When the king consulted his sages what his wife’s dream might mean, the eldest of them offered the interpretation that Maya had miraculously conceived, like Mary’s Annunciation.
‘Maya’ means illusion. The Queen was named for her virtue of being pure of illusion. According to Buddhist lore, only a woman entirely pure could give birth to a Buddha.
As Ouspensky observed, the similarities between Mary’s Annunciation and Maya’s dream are too close to be attributed to coincidence. Such similarities between foreign traditions put their historical authenticity into question.
If the stories aren’t historical, then they’re symbolic: Queen Maya’s purity from illusion and Mary’s virginity symbolize purification from imagination. Gurdjieff and Ouspensky repeatedly stressed the need of minimizing imagination, calling it the chief denying force to self-observation, a major leak of fine energy and a principle manifestation of wrong work of centers.
Imagination is synonymous with sleep. Purification of imagination is synonymous with awakening.
Besides expressing the Fourth Way ideas in symbolic language, the stories of Mary and Maya also point to a broader truth: that the Fourth Way is, indeed, grand, and that the system Ouspensky presented was, in comparison, very small.
Beneath the known history of mankind, another progression has run its course, a parallel storyline known to few but serving an important purpose. This is the esoteric history of humanity, existing to preserve the ancient wisdom of schools and preserve their legacies for those that could use them in the present age.
Sensing the presence of this greater tradition, but lacking a direct connection with it, Ouspensky titled his account of Gurdjieff’s work: ‘Fragments of an Unknown Teaching’. He knew that he possessed a few pieces of a much bigger puzzle, but didn’t know where those missing pieces could be found.
As it turns out, they were hidden in plain sight: they were coded into the myths and symbols of the most widespread religions of the world.