A Lesson from Mr. Gurdjieff:
The Briefest of Introductions to “the Work”
As I write this, I am spending Yuletide in Salzburg. A day ago, I took the train to Vienna and stopped at the Café Mozart for lunch. There, as luck would have it, I ran into a good friend of mine who is some 15 years younger than me. After lunch, we decided to visit the Christmas markets. There, we drank Glühwein and he unburdened himself. My young friend has had his share of personal problems, and very much wants to move on with his life. However, as he talked I noticed a pattern showing up in his conversation, one which I had seen before. It was a tendency to dwell on the past.
Like me, my friend has many regrets. He wishes he could fix mistakes he made in the past, sometimes in his relationships with others. He regrets bad choices that he made, and opportunities lost. Sometimes, in my darker moments, I ruminate over my own regrets and become very sad. But I learned something important in the Gurdjieff work, which I decided to pass along to my friend. There is a problem, however: In writing about the Gurdjieff Work, which I have done before, I am breaking one of its cardinal rules: “Do not talk about the Work” (to outsiders, that is).
Most of my readers will remember the first two rules of Fight Club: “You do not talk about Fight Club!” But, in the story, Fight Club keeps growing precisely because its members keep breaking this rule. It’s the same thing with the Gurdjieff Work. Many of G. I. Gurdjieff’s own pupils and associates broke this rule by writing memoirs of their years with him. To my knowledge, most of these books are still in print and have enjoyed a wide audience. Had they not been written, it is unlikely that anyone would be in the Work today. I therefore feel little sense of transgression in writing about the Work, or sharing a few tidbits with friends — tidbits that they might benefit from.
And so I told my young friend that one of my teachers in the Work had suggested to me that when I feel burdened by regrets, I should say to myself, “Yes, that’s probably true, but what now?” We can’t change what happened in the past. All my readers are already aware of this, but it bears repeating – because so few people really take this fact to heart. The past is done with. It’s in the present that we live, or should live. All we can do about the past is to resolve to live differently in the present. There is the possibility that we can redeem the past, if we learn from our regrets.
Mr. Gurdjieff himself said the following on this subject, in his Paris meetings of 1943:
Near a city in Persia, there is a monument on which it is written, “The present exists to repair the past and to prepare the future.” It is just a monument. Simple thing, isn’t it? And at the same time, what a great thing. . . . It is only with the present that you can repair the past and prepare the future. The future and the past do not exist without the present. The present exists for you to repair all your errors and prepare the future; that is, another life that is desirable for you. It is very important for you to feel the present. To have a present, you have to do everything possible. You have to be in the present. The past is the past, yesterday, finished; it will never come back. Tomorrow may come: a different tomorrow depends on the present today. Everything has to be done today. Forget yesterday and forget tomorrow. With today, you repair yesterday and you make it possible for yourself to do what is necessary tomorrow.
My friend seemed to see the wisdom in these ideas. Yet a few minutes later he was once more revisiting the past, bringing up some other regret, castigating himself for a mistake made some 15 years earlier. I gently pointed this out to him. “You’re dwelling on the past again,” I said. “Why are you doing this?” “I’m just trying to face reality,” he answered. But, again trying to channel my teachers in the Work, I responded, “Reality is now. It’s the present. That’s where we live. So, setting aside the past, what are you going to do now?” My friend has always been very open to my advice. He listened seriously to my response and did not dispute its truth. But a few minutes later, he was bringing up the past once again.
This is what is referred to in the Work as mechanicality. We all exhibit certain patterns of thought and action that were learned at one time, and that we fall into time and again, without thought. If, as Einstein supposedly said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then we are all insane. Gurdjieff doesn’t put it this way. He says instead that we are asleep. The basic point of Gurdjieff’s teaching is to “awaken.” This is what is meant by “work on oneself” or just “the Work.” And the first step in the Work is simply to notice our mechanicality; to realize that we are asleep.
It’s very difficult to convince most people that they are asleep. One reason Gurdjieff gave for this is that when you tell them that they are asleep, they will momentarily wake up, and thus insist indignantly that they are not asleep. But moments later they will fall back asleep again; i.e. they will slip back into going through life mechanically. And everything can be done mechanically: talking, eating, cooking, walking, having certain emotional responses, thinking about things in certain ways, having sex, voting, etc. Indeed, all forms of thinking, moving, and feeling can be mechanical.
Seeing our mechanicality doesn’t sound like much, but, as I have said, for most people it is very difficult. Indeed, I was told by people in the Work that, for many years, all they were really able to achieve was to periodically notice their mechanicality. But even this is quite significant, since the simple act of noticing our mechanicality is an awakening, even if it is only brief. Besides, it’s important to bear in mind that most people can’t do this at all. When told that we are mechanical, the first response of modern Westerners will be to think that they must “do something” about it — because modern, Western people always tend to think that everything or every situation is somehow manipulable by human will. But Gurdjieff doggedly insisted that we can “do” nothing about our sleep.
Part of the reason for this is that, very simply, this knee-jerk Western response is itself a form of mechanicality, and we can’t combat mechanicality with more mechanicality. Instead, as I’ve already said, we have to begin by simply noticing it. This noticing is discussed in the Work with the visual metaphor of “seeing.” The reader may object that “seeing” is a form of “doing,” but this problem disappears as soon as we recognize that Gurdjieff is really using “doing” in the sense of “manipulating,” where such manipulation is always aimed at effecting change. But one of the first lessons I was taught in the Work was that you must see without trying to change anything; in other words, you just see. Seeing is, ultimately, the whole point. If you stop seeing yourself and try to change yourself, you are no longer seeing; you are doing or manipulating.
Some of my readers may have meditated and may have had the experience of having some insight about themselves while meditating. But if, during your 25- or 30-minute meditation session, your mind “goes with” that insight and starts thinking it through, you are no longer meditating, you are thinking and planning. Now, you might fall into this error while meditating and, realizing it, rebuke yourself. But any good meditation teacher will tell you that this, too, is a trap. Instead, you must simply notice that you got off track, and that you began thinking and planning instead of meditating. In other words, you must see this too — then calmly shift your attention back to the void, without self-criticism. And if you do fall into self-criticism, see this too — and then shift your attention away from it.
It’s exactly the same in the Gurdjieff work, which can be thought of as an “active meditation,” as opposed to a sitting-in-the-lotus-position-with-eyes-half-shut meditation. In “active meditation,” one goes about daily life taking it all in — aware of the world yet simultaneously aware of one’s own responses to it: one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions (especially, at first, mechanical patterns of thought, feeling, and action). This is much harder than it sounds; you may take my word for this. I would never claim that I am “good at” the Work (though my teachers would reject the very idea that one should think of the Work in those terms). A basic reason for this is that I am somewhat lazy (though, in my defense, I do often see this!). And one statement I have heard over and over again in the Work is, “It’s not called the Work for nothing.”
Now, there’s a great deal about Gurdjieff’s teachings that the above account leaves out. For instance, I have not discussed his central insight: that we have multiple “I’s.” A quick example: There is the “I” that resolves not to argue with Aunt Karen about politics over Christmas dinner, and then there is the “I” that later rebukes that “I” for failing to do so, usually introspectively addressing it as “you” (“you shouldn’t have said that . . .”). I have also not discussed the concept of “chief feature”: a personal characteristic that is the key to understanding all our mechanical patterns. For example, the chief feature of my young friend might be an inability to move on from the past. Usually, you can’t spot your own chief feature, but others are often able to easily identify it.
I have also said nothing about Gurdjieff’s complex metaphysics, involving such concepts as “the Absolute,” the “ray of creation,” “the enneagram,” and the claim that human beings are “food for the Moon.” I have said little about that metaphysics because, quite frankly, I don’t really understand it and find it very hard to accept. Readers seeking a fuller description of the “psychological” teaching briefly summarized above, as well as some details about Gurdjieff himself, should read my article “Remembering Mr. Gurdjieff.”
I can relate to my young friend’s problems. Once, I mentioned to someone in the Work that I felt regret over the way I had treated some people in the past. He immediately responded, “Don’t think about that. For all you know, those people deserved it.” This seems extremely callous — and, in a way, it is. Yet it was good “Work advice”: If we become mired in thoughts about the past, we are not living in the now — just like my young friend. As I heard someone else in the Work often say, “All that is real is the now. The past is over, and the future is not yet.”
Those who would like to learn more should read P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, which, as an introduction to the work, is still unsurpassed. (The subtitle of this book was its original title, “In Search of the Miraculous” being an imposition by Ouspensky’s American publisher, hence those in the Work usually refer to this volume by the shorthand Fragments.) They should also consider viewing the film version of Meetings with Remarkable Men, now reissued in a new director’s cut. Reading the book, of course, is also a good idea. That’s probably enough with which to begin.
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Forgotten Roots of the Left: Fichte’s Moral & Political Philosophy, Part II
Forgotten Roots of the Left: Fichte’s Moral & Political Philosophy, Part I
Edred Thorsson a jeho kniha Historie Runové gildy
Remembering G. I. Gurdjieff: January 13, ca. 1866–October 29, 1949
What Is Philosophy?
In Defense of Superstition
Or, as Lady Macbeth expressed it, “Things without all remedy should be without regard. What’s done, is done.” Advice I generally follow.
There’s a fun scene in Brook’s film adaptation of Meetings with Remarkable Men, where Gurdjieff and his friends survive a sandstorm in the Gobi Desert by walking on stilts. Everyone in the cinema burst out laughing, which actually enhanced the symbolism of the conceit. Beware of mystics who lack a sense of humour.
Mr. Gurdjieff certainly had a sense of humor. And most of the people I have known in the Work have a good sense of humor. Meetings is not without humor (Beelzebub is even funnier) and is filled with tall tales that usually have some kind of lesson to them — like Sufi teaching tales. The stilts sequence is one such example.
I find Gurdjieff too (fashionably?), pessimistic, and undisciplined — he aimed far too low and excused it with the assumption of impossibilities.
And Ouspensky also too pessimistic and low aiming (I know ought regarding his self-discipline).
It is like they got a glimpse and turned away (in fear? in despair? in comfortable laziness?), when they should have gone deeper.
…and found out that:
You can square the circle, you can become a “stellar man”, a hermetic mage, a self-possessed spirit master of material struggle and sovereign of your soul.
Or as Gorham said in the Pagan Bible, a 6th discipline god-man.
One could start with Gurdjieff I guess but you better soon leave him behind.
Then go on to stop fooling around playing games in Asgard, and start creating the world, make your mistakes then arduously rectify them, Wandering Learning, gaining wisdom, gaining power, facing your ragnarok for the new green world and the folk to come.
Gurdjieff, Gurdjieff, Gurdjieff! Was that really all you aspired to, all you could do?
Hear hear ! Mr. Smith. Let us see, awaken and DO!
I liked Evola’s words on Gurdjieff.
A Tsarist agent in Tibet? A school chum of Stalin!? He names the somnolent normies to be “shittness” and looks upon a student corpse as “nothing” which does not exist. And, able to “separate the “essence” from the “person” of a given individual—possibly revealing a child or an idiot in a highly cultivated and sophisticated guise, or, conversely, a highly differentiated “essence” beneath an outward appearance of nullity.” No doubt, my essence is Odin-esque. Hopefully.
Sounds like fun.
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