Gurdjieff and The Work
Gurdjieff And “The Work” (Jacob Needleman, Professor of Philosophy, San Francisco State University)
It is true enough to say that Gurdjieff’s system of ideas is complex and all-encompassing, but one must immediately add that their formulation is designed to point man toward a central and simple power of apprehension which Gurdjieff taught is merely latent within the human mind and which is the only power by which man can actually understand himself in relation to the universe. In this sense the distinction between doctrine and method, which is fairly clear in most of the older spiritual traditions, does not entirely obtain in the Gurdjieff teaching. The formulations of the ideas are themselves meant to have a special action on the sense of self and may therefore be regarded as part of the practical method. This characteristic of the Gurdjieff method reflects what Gurdjieff perceived as the center of gravity of man’s subjectivity—the fact that modern civilization is lopsidedly oriented around the thinking function. Modern man’s illusory feeling of ”I” is built up around his thoughts and therefore, in accordance with the level of the pupil, the ideas themselves are meant to affect this false sense of self. For Gurjieff the deeply penetrating influence of scientific thought in modern life was not something merely to be deplored, but to be understood as the channel through which the eternal Truth first finds its way toward the human heart.
Man, Gurdjieff taught, is an undeveloped creation. He is not really man, considered as a cosmically unique being whose intelligence and power of action mirror the energies of the source of life itself. On the contrary, man as we encounter him is an automaton. His thoughts, feeling, and deeds are little more than mechanical reactions to external and internal stimuli. He cannot do anything. In and around him, everything happens without the participation of his own authentic consciousness. But human beings are ignorant of this state of affairs because of the pervasive influence of culture and education, which engrave in them the illusion of autonomous conscious selves. In short, man is asleep. There is no authentic I am in his presence, but only an egoism which masquerades as the authentic self, and whose machinations poorly imitate the normal human functions of thought, feeling, and will.
Many factors reinforce this sleep. Each of the reactions that proceed in one’s presence is accompanied by a deceptive sense of I—man is many I’s, each imagining itself to be the whole, and each buffered off from awareness of the others. Each of these many I’s represents a process whereby the subtle energy of consciousness is absorbed and degraded, a process that Gurdjieff termed “identification.” Man identifies—that is, squanders his conscious energy, with every passing thought, impulse, and sensation. This state of affairs takes the form of a continuous self-deception and a continuous procession of egoistic emotions, such as anger, self-pity, sentimentality, and fear, which are of such a pervasively painful nature that man is constantly driven to ameliorate this condition through the endless pursuit of social recognition, sensory pleasure, or the vague and unrealizable goal of “happiness.”
According to Gurjieff, the human condition cannot be understood apart from considering humanity within the function of organic life on earth. The human is constructed to transform energies of a specific nature, and neither his potential inner development nor his present actual predicament is understandable apart from this function…(But) man is unable to draw upon the conscious energies passing through him, which in the cosmic scheme, are those possessing the actual power of causal efficacy. Man does not and cannot participate consciously in the great universal order, but instead is tossed around en masse for the purposes limited to the functions of organic life on earth as a whole. Even in this relatively limited sphere—limited, that is, when compared to man’s latent destiny—mankind has become progressively incapable of fulfilling its function, a point that Gurdjieff strongly emphasized in his own writings…the “fate of the earth” is somehow bound up with the possibility of the inner evolution of individual men and women…
How are human beings to change this state of affairs and begin drawing on the universal conscious energies which they are built to absorb but which now pass through them untransformed? How is humanity to assume its proper place in the great chain of being? Gurdjieff’s answer to these questions actually circumscribes the central purpose of his teaching—namely, that human life on earth may now stand at a major transitional point, comparable perhaps to the fall of the great civilizations of the past, and that development of the whole being of man…is the only thing that can permit man to pass through this transition in a manner worthy of human destiny…But whereas the descent of humanity takes place en masse, ascent or evolution is possible only within the individual…
A Study of Gurdjieff’s Teaching, Kenneth Walker, M.D.
The Disinterested Observer
Ouespensky said that he would begin the study of man the machine, with an investigation of his mind, and G’s teaching on this subject differed from all other Western teachings…Ouespensky made free use of diagrams when teaching us, and a diagram which was frequently drawn on the blackboard was the one showing man’s several minds. He said that in this diagram man was regarded as a three-storied being, in the top story of which there resided the intellectual mind or, as Ouespensky now preferred to call it, the Intellectual Centre. In the middle story was man’s emotional mind or centre, and in the lower story…his instinctive…centre. G also said the emotional and intellectual centres were themselves divided into higher and lower minds, though it was rare for humans to operate from their higher mind (It was also the case that, according to G, all living creatures on earth are to be classified in accordance with the number of minds or centres which they possessed, and man was the only creature on this planet equipped with an intellectual centre).
The relative activity of the three chief centres in man (intellectual, emotional and instinctive) was different in different individuals, and this provided us with a means of classifying men under three…headings. There were men who did everything by imitating the behavior of those around them, and who thought, felt, moved and reacted much as everybody else thought, felt…and reacted. Such people were controlled almost entirely by their (instinctive) centre, which possessed a special gift for imitation, and a man of this type would henceforth be referred to as man number one. There were other people in whose lives the emotions played a leading part, people who were guided by what they felt and by what they liked and disliked rather than by what they thought. Such people spent their lives in seeking what was pleasant and in avoiding what was unpleasant, but sometimes they reacted pathologically in the reverse way, extracting what was distressing into a horrid form of voluptuousness. An emotionally controlled person of this kind would be spoken of in the future as man number two. Finally there was man number three, the man who was swayed by theories and by what he called his reason, a man whose knowledge was based on logical thinking and who understood everything in a literal sense. A man of this kind would be called man number three.
Ouespensky made it clear to us that no one of these three was superior to any other one and that all three stood together on the same level, equally at the mercy of their psychological machinery and without any will. All that this classification was meant to show us was that the individual behavior and decisions of one kind of man could often be explained by the predominance of one kind of function…This method of classifying people was possible because human development was usually lopsided…
A properly balanced man, working as he should work, resembled a well-trained orchestra, in which one kind of instrument took the lead at one moment of the performance and another instrument at another, each making a contribution to the symphony being played.
In observing ourselves we must look at ourselves with detachment and as though we were looking at another person about whom we knew very little. At first we might find difficulty in assigning our activities to the right centres…For example, at first some of us would confuse thinking and feeling, and feeling and sensing, and it would be helpful for us to remember that intellectual centre worked by comparing one thing to another thing, and by making subsequent
statements on the basis of this comparison, whereas the emotional centre worked by recording its native likes and dislikes, and acting directly on this basis. Instinctive centre was similarly occupied with whether the sensations it was receiving were of a pleasant or of an unpleasant nature. We should bear in mind the fact that neither emotional nor instinctive centre ever argued or reasoned concerning anything, but because they perceived everything directly they returned to the perception of an equally direct response. We should look upon these psychic functions of ours as being different kinds of instrument, each variety of which made it characteristic contributions to the sum total of our knowledge.
There were different ways of knowing a thing and to know it completely was to know it simultaneously with our thinking, our emotional, and even our moving and instinctive minds…
To change something in oneself without losing something of equal value required a knowledge of the whole which we were very far from possessing… after we had gained skill in observing the working of our various centres, we could begin the more difficult job of looking for examples of the wrong working of our various centres, due either to one centre attempting to perform the work of another centre, or else to one centre interfering with the functioning of another centre. He gave, as examples of a centre doing the work of another centre, intellectual centre pretending it ‘felt,’ whereas it was quite incapable of feeling anything, or emotional centre coming to a decision which it was not within its province to make. He described the moving centre as a very clever mimic and said it often imitated other centres working, making it appear outwardly that real thinking or feeling was going on, whereas in actual fact nothing of a genuine nature was happening at all. For example, a person might read out loud from a book or talk to somebody quite impressively, yet he might be only uttering words without any more meaning for him as he uttered them than the words spoken by a parrot had any meaning for a parrot. Reading, speaking and so-called thinking on this very low level often occurred and they were all imitations of other activities concocted by moving centre…
I was surprised at the richness of the…observations I made…by observing myself in this way…Perhaps the earliest and most disquieting findings…was that I was never the same for more than few minutes, and yet I had the effrontery to preface my remarks with such misleading phrases as ‘I always think that…’ or ‘I am convinced that…’ or ‘I feel strongly that…’ What nonsense! I realized now that frequently I had thought and felt quite differently from the way in which I was thinking and feeling at that particular moment. And who was it that was making that dogmatic statement about his own thoughts and feelings? Who, in short, was ‘I’? Here was a problem of the first magnitude to be faced.
Self-observation gave rise to a whole host of new questions.
Ouspensky…drew our attention to the fact that in the West the word ‘consciousness’ was very badly misused, and not only in popular speech but also by psychologists who ought to know better. Consciousness, he said, was not a function, as many Western works on psychology implied, but it was an awareness of a function. For example, some people used the word consciousness as though it were synonymous with thinking, but thought could take place without any awareness of its existence on the part of the thinker, and consciousness could exist without there being present any thought. Consciousness was a variable which exerted an influence on function, the presence of a greater degree or consciousness having the effect of improving the quality of our various activities. The more conscious we were of doing something, the better we did it.
…If we continued to observe ourselves carefully we should find that the moments of ‘coming to’ and of realizing our existence were very short and were separated from each other by long stretches of self-oblivion, in which we thought, felt, moved and acted without being in the least conscious of our existence. It was nonsense to say, as many people did, that we were aware of ourselves, and if we were honest we should have to admit that we passed the day in a state of waking-sleep, a state which lay somewhere between sleep in bed and wakefulness or true self-awareness. We talked, performed our duties, ate and drank, wrote letters, made what we regarded as being important decisions, wrote books, made peace and declared war, in a state of consciousness so low that it was usually nearer to the condition of sleep than to that of self-awareness. Only for a moment or two did we occasionally become conscious of our existence, and then, like people who had turned over in bed and half opened their eyes, we closed them and lapsed back into our dreams again.
Ouspensky pointed out that the lower the level of our consciousness, the blinder and the more subjective were in our outlook…It was only in a state of higher consciousness that it was possible for a man to see himself and the things around him as they really were, not as he imagined them to be.
Ouspensky then went on to say that there were four states of consciousness possible for man and that we were familiar only with two of these, namely, with sleep in bed at night, and with the state of consciousness in which we spent the day, a state which he proposed to call ‘waking sleep.’ Above these two customary states there were two higher levels of consciousness, the first of them being the state…referred to as ‘self-remembering’ or true self-consciousness. Ouspensky said that this was associated with a vivid sense of one’s own existence as well as of what was happening around one, and it was a state of consciousness which some of us might have experienced accidentally, especially during our childhood. The fourth and highest state of consciousness was Objective Consciousness, sometimes referred to in literature as Cosmic Consciousness….
The chief difference between identification, or the mechanical entanglement of the attention in some problem, and an attention which has been deliberately directed on to it, is that identification has the effect of narrowing the field of consciousness, whereas directed attention usually widens it so that more things come within it. It is this narrowing effect of identification which explains the popular saying that a person is unable to see the wood for the trees. What has happened here is that his attention has been imprisoned by one or two of the trees so that nothing else is able to come into view. Similarly, by identifying with an anxiety, disappointment or source of irritation, we put ourselves completely in its power, so that it is impossible to think or feel about anything else. Ouspensky pointed out that identifying was the chief obstacle to self-remembering, for it imprisoned a man in some small part of himself, and was therefore the very antithesis brought about by self-remembering. In short, identification led to loss of all sense of existence, to deeper sleep, greater subjectiveness of outlook and absence of all ability to exercise the most modest range of choice.
Ouspensky repeated all day long that we were passing from one form of identification to another form of it, and that nothing was so trifling that we were unable to become identified with it. A man could become identified even with an ashtray, and if an ashtray could act in this way, it was easy to see how a man’s possessions, his successes and enjoyments, gave him still ampler opportunities for identification. What was more difficult to understand was how a man could be equally well lost in his miseries and misfortunes, and yet such was the case. Ouspensky said that G had often commented on man’s partiality for his own and for other people’s griefs, and had remarked that the last thing a man was willing to give up was his suffering. He would agree, on certain occasions, to renounce his pleasures, but he was so constituted that he clung with the greatest possessiveness and tenacity to his sufferings. It was obvious that anyone who had a desire to develop would have to sacrifice his grievances and his sufferings, for an identification with negative emotions entailed an enormous wastage of nervous energy, a wastage which it was imperative that we should save. Ouspensky said identification with negative emotions played such havoc with out lives that it would be useful to us to make a list of the particular unpleasant emotions to which we were specially partial. Everybody, he said, had his own particular favorites in the way of negative emotions, and we had to become better acquainted with them.
We took his advice and by doing so learnt how powerful was the influence exerted by negative emotions on our lives. We saw how we ennobled these unpleasant feelings when they arose in us, and how we persuaded ourselves that it was only right and proper that we should have them, justifying our anger and irritation by means of such phrases as ‘righteous indignation’. We found ourselves enjoying our sufferings, especially when we were able to blame other people for them, as we almost always managed to do. We saw also how we accepted the portrayal of violence, despair, frustration, melancholy and self-pity on the stage and in literature as the highest form of art, and how cleverly we disguised from ourselves the fact that we were exacting immense enjoyment our of misery and suffering.
Our observations of all forms of negative emotions yielded truly astonishing harvests. Even members of the group who prided themselves on being of a cheerful and eventempered disposition discovered that irritation, jealousy, envy, anger and disapproval of others were continually arising in them. As we acquired skill in observing ourselves we became more and more familiar with the very unpleasant physical sensations which accompanied our various negative emotions, and learnt how quickly the poisons they engendered permeated our bodies. We also learnt from bitter experience how drained we were of all energy after having given it away to a negative emotion, so that we lost a great deal of valuable energy through them.
Sometimes we actually felt the energy pouring out of us and learnt to our cost that once we had yielded ourselves to them—as we almost always did—there was no possibility of getting rid of them. There we had to remain in their power until they had burnt themselves out. The best hope of learning how to avoid falling such an easy prey to negative emotions appeared to lie in becoming more and more sensitive to the early signs of their advent, and, having detected their close proximity to us, to step aside in time. If we waited too long before we did this we were completely in their power.
…Somebody inquired about fear and asked whether it should be included amongst the negative emotions. To this Ouspensky replied that this depended on the nature of the fear, for there were many different kinds of fear. There was, for example, the fear registered by the body when it felt itself slipping towards the edge of a cliff, or when it realized that it was on the point of being run over by a rapidly approaching car, and such fears as these were useful to us because they mobilized our efforts to escape from danger with a speed which far exceeded the quickness of thought. But in addition to these warnings of the presence of physical danger there were also numerous fears which came under the general heading of anxiety, and many fears of this kind originated in the imagination and had no real existence. We were scared of a great many things which might conceivably happen to us, but which were unlikely to happen and never did actually happen. Ouspensky said that many people spent their time inventing them, in justifying them. ‘One has to show forethought and be ready for difficulties when they come,’ they said, and then proceeded to invent new fears. Imaginary fear of this kind had to be included amongst the negative emotions, and if we were ever to get rid of them the first thing to do was to see them more clearly, and the second to cease justifying them.
This, of course, applied to all our negative emotions, that we had to realize that it was we who were responsible for them and that we must not immediately put the blame for them on other people. Another person might have acted as the exciting cause of a negative emotion, but the unpleasant manifestation itself was our own, and not his. If, therefore we wanted to become free from these negative emotions we must straight away accept full responsibility for them, and never, on any occasion, find excuses for them. In other words, we could not enjoy simultaneously two entirely incompatible pleasures, that of putting the blame for our negative emotions on to somebody else, and the pleasure of eventually escaping from them entirely. We must choose one of these two alternatives and give up the other.
Ouspensky then went on to say that there was a common form of identification which played a very large part in keeping us asleep and which was known as inner considering. Inner considering meant identification with oneself or with one took to be oneself, for everybody had a picture of himself, partly authentic and partly fictitious. Having painted this self-portrait, the individual was always presenting it to the world in the hope that the world would accept it as a striking likeness. This work of producing himself, in the theatrical sense of the word, to the world took much of a man’s time, so that he was often very preoccupied when talking with other people with the impression he was producing on them. He took careful note of their reactions to what he was saying, watched their facial expressions, paid attention to the tone of their voices in replying to him, to what they had said and had not said, weighed the respect with which they had received him, the interest they had displayed in his conversation and manifested in many other ways how occupied he was with the effect he was having on them. This intense preoccupation with the impression being made on people and the feeling of inadequacy which often accompanied it was usually called shyness or self-consciousness, but it was the very antithesis of the true self-consciousness and was a manifestation of deeper sleep.
Identification with the self of everyday life, or what Western psychologists call the ‘ego’, may take on many different forms. Freud declares that the ego is first and foremost a body ego, and it is quite true that much inner considering is evoked by a person’s identification about his body and actual or supposed peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses…
But identification with the ‘ego’ may spread far beyond the confines of the physical body, so that a man may be oversensitive about a hundred real or supposed deficiencies or weaknesses in his character and his personal history. He may be distressed on the subject of his upbringing, his parentage, his lack of education, his social standing, his failure to obtain advancement. All these supposed deficiencies have to be hidden from the world and his strong points have to be brought into the foreground when he is talking with other people. The man who is inner considering resembles very closely a commercial traveler with a brand of good to sell. Great skill will have to be used doing this, and it will probably be necessary for him to introduce his good discretely so that he appears not to be pushing them forward at all. Excessive modesty and making fun of oneself are often good tactical moves in the grand strategy of inner considering. ‘Of course, I really know very little about this subject’ may be the opening gambit to a brilliant piece of talking which wins not only the admiration of the audience but a special prize for modesty as well.
Like other highly mechanized activities in us, inner considering is highly contagious. When the person to whom we are talking begins to inner consider, the emotional tension rises, and as a result of this we feel uncomfortable and begin to inner consider ourselves. We feel that something has gone amiss with both the conversation and our relationship with the other person and that it is up to us to put things right. Perhaps we were rater tactless in our handling of the other person a little earlier on, and, as the result of this, he is now offended with us. We decide that we must tread more carefully, and the consequences of our efforts to undo the mischief may well be that the inner considering grows worse. Inner considering is a sign of inner weakness, and it is often due in great part to our fear of other people. It is astonishing how frightened we human beings are of our fellow men.
Controlled and blinded as we are by these inner compulsions, it would be absurd, therefore, for us to imagine that on our ordinary level of being we are capable of understanding another person, let alone of giving him help. We cannot even see that other person as he is, but only as he appears through the distorting glasses our various likes and dislike, prejudices and aversions. No one is capable of entering into and understanding another person unless he has first entered into and understood himself, and even when he is possessed of this self-knowledge a man will often make mistakes. I am still appalled at the very little I am able to see of the person to whom I am talking and at my inability to feel him. We talk together and even intimate things but as complete strangers to the other.
External considering is the precise opposite of inner considering and it would be the correct antidote to inner considering if we could only manage to produce it when required. But external considering is an extremely difficult accomplishment, as different to evoke in ourselves as is self-remembering. It demands an entirely different attitude and relationship to other people, namely, a preoccupation with their welfare instead of our own. The man who considers externally does his best to understand the other person and see what are his needs, and he is only to do this if his own requirements are entirely put on one side. External considering demands of the man who is practicing it a great deal of knowledge and an equal amount of self-control, and this means that it can never happen automatically in a state of sleep, but necessitates a state approaching self-remembering. No person who externally considers can ever talk to another person ‘for his good,’ or ‘to put him right,’ or ‘to explain to him his own point of view,’ for external consideration makes no demands and has no requirements other than those of the person addressed. It allows of no feeling of superiority on the part of the person who is externally considering, for what he is trying to do is put himself into the other man’s place in order that he may be able to discover his needs. This necessitates the abandonment of the last shred of self-identification and, in order that the other person may be seen as he really is, the distorting glasses of the personality, with all it subjective likes and dislikes, have to be laid on one side so that he is viewed as objectively as possible.
Our struggle…takes place at the bottom of a scale of being. We are at the a**-end of the cosmos, Gurdjieff tells us, a place in the scale of the cosmos virtually dense with restrictive laws. Farther up the cosmic scale…we eventually come to the Absolute, the allness, the prime mover, subject to only one law: unity. In the next world down, the level of worlds and galaxies, there are three orders of cosmic law; in the next, designated All Suns, there are six; in the next, at the level of the Sun, there are twelve; at the level of the planets, twenty-four; at the level of our woebegone world, forty-eight orders of laws. Because we live “under forty-eight laws” we are far from the will of the Absolute, according to this system. We move toward the Absolute, toward liberation, by transcending the mechanical laws shackling us. (There are) seven levels of the Ray of Creation…seven levels of matter; each level has its own rate of vibration. The Absolute vibrates most rapidly and is least dense; our level vibrates slowly, through a murky density.
I recently heard an astrophysicist say that at the beginning of Creation, before the Big Bang, there was, indeed, Unity, one law or two—afterwards a sort of fractured symmetry led to the creation of the four forces, gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear forces: the closer you get to the beginning of Time, the fewer laws; the farther away, the more laws.
Gurdjieff, or his teachers, anticipated much of quantum physics. For example, these Heisenbergian remarks from Gurdjieff in 1915: “Matter or substance presupposes the existence of a force or energy. This does not mean that a dualistic conception of the world is necessary. The concepts of matter and force are as relative as everything else. In the Absolute, where all is one, matter and force are also one. But in this connection matter and force are not taken as real principles of the world itself, but as properties or characteristics of the phenomenal world observed by us.”