In Search of the Elixir of Personal Transformation: The Philosophy of Movements

What is the nature of movement?

Movement and dance are a neglected aspect of philosophy, but here the author explores movement from the perspective of meaning and value.

20th century teachers such as Alexander, Dalcroze, Laban and Gurdjieff have explored avenues ranging from the aesthetic and the healing arts to the spiritual, which effectively elevates movements into the philosophical domain. In this book, Jan Ellan Bows takes us on a journey of exploration, often with direct personal experience of the forms in question.

Movements carry subtle influences, especially when accompanied by music. Schools both ancient and modern, have used music and movement to promote healing through re-establishing harmonic balance (Pythagoras), and have “the ability to transmit an unknown, non-verbal language” (Gurdjieff).

Wrong Work of Centres

Each centre has its own memory, its own associations, its own thinking. As a matter of fact each centre consists of three parts: the thinking, the emotional, and the moving. But we know very little about this side of our nature. In each centre we know only one part. Self-observation, however, will very quickly show us that our mental life is much richer than we think, or in any case that it contains more possibilities than we think. At the same time as we watch the work of the centres we shall observe, side by side with their right working, their wrong working, that is, the working of one centre for another; the attempts of the thinking centre to feel or to pretend that it feels, the attempts of the emotional centre to think, the attempts of the moving centre to think and feel. As has been said already, one centre working for another is useful in certain cases, for it preserves the continuity of mental activity. But in becoming habitual it becomes at the same time harmful, since it begins to interfere with right working by enabling each centre to shirk its own direct duties and to do, not what it ought to be doing, but what it likes best at the moment.

In a normal healthy person each centre does its own work, that is, the work for which it was specially destined and which it can best perform. There are situations in life which the thinking centre alone can deal with and can find a way out of. If at this moment the emotional centre begins to work instead, it will make a muddle of everything and the result of its interference will be most unsatisfactory. In an ‘unbalanced’ kind of person the substitution of one centre for another goes on almost continually and this is precisely what ‘being unbalanced’ or ‘neurotic’ means. Each centre strives, as it were, to pass its work on to another, and, at the same time, it strives to do the work of another centre for which it is not fitted. The emotional centre working for the thinking centre brings unnecessary nervousness, feverishness, and hurry into situations where, on the contrary, calm judgment and deliberation are essential. The thinking centre working for the emotional centre brings deliberation into situations which require quick decisions and makes a person incapable of distinguishing the peculiarities and the fine points of the position. Thought is too slow. It works out a certain plan of action and continues to follow it even though the circumstances have changed and quite a different course of action is necessary. Besides, in some cases the interference of the thinking centre gives rise to entirely wrong reactions, because the thinking centre is simply incapable of understanding the shades and distinctions of many events. Events that are quite different for the moving centre and for the emotional centre appear to be alike to it. Its decisions are much too general and do not correspond to the decisions which the emotional centre would have made. This becomes perfectly clear if we imagine the interference of thought, that is, of the theoretical mind, in the domain of feeling, or of sensation, or of movement; in all three cases the interference of the mind leads to wholly undesirable results.

The mind cannot understand shades of feeling. We shall see this clearly if we imagine one person reasoning about the emotions of another. They are not feeling anything themselves, so the feelings of another do not exist for them. A full person does not understand a hungry one. But for the other they have a very definite existence. And the decisions of the first person, that is of the mind, can never satisfy the second. In exactly the same way the mind cannot appreciate sensations. For it they are dead. Nor is it capable of controlling movement. Instances of this kind are the easiest to find. Whatever work a person may be doing, it is enough for them to try to do each action deliberately, with their mind, following every movement, and they will see that the quality of their work will change immediately. If they are typing, the fingers, controlled by the moving center, find the necessary letters themselves, but if they try to ask themselves before every letter: ‘Where is “k”?’ ‘Where is the comma?’ ‘How is this word spelled?’ they at once begin to make mistakes or to write very slowly. If one drives a car with the help of one’s mind, one can go only in the lowest gear. The mind cannot keep pace with all the movements necessary for developing a greater speed. To drive at full speed, especially in the streets of a large town, while steering with the help of one’s mind is absolutely impossible for an ordinary person. Moving centre working for thinking centre produces, for example, mechanical reading or mechanical listening, as when a person reads or listens to nothing but words and is utterly unconscious of what he is reading or hearing. This generally happens when attention, that is, the direction of the thinking centre’s activity, is occupied with something else and when the moving centre is trying to replace the absent thinking centre; but this very easily becomes a habit, because the thinking centre is generally distracted not by useful work, by thought, or by contemplation, but simply by daydreaming or by imagination.

‘Imagination’ is one of the principal sources of the wrong work of centres. Each centre has its own form of imagination and daydreaming, but as a rule both the moving and the emotional centres make use of the thinking centre which very readily places itself at their disposal for this purpose, because daydreaming corresponds to its own inclinations. Daydreaming is absolutely the opposite of ‘useful’ mental activity. ‘Useful’ in this case means activity directed towards a definite aim and undertaken for the sake of obtaining a definite result. Daydreaming does not pursue any aim, does not strive after any result. The motive for daydreaming always lies in the emotional or in the moving centre. The actual process is carried on by the thinking centre. The inclination to daydream is due partly to the laziness of the thinking centre, that is, its attempts to avoid the efforts connected with work directed towards a definite aim and going in a definite direction, and partly to the tendency of the emotional and the moving centres to repeat to themselves, to keep alive or to recreate experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, that have been previously lived through or ‘imagined.’ Daydreaming of disagreeable, morbid things is very characteristic of the unbalanced state of the human machine, After all, one can understand daydreaming of a pleasant kind and find logical justification for it. Daydreaming of an unpleasant character is an utter absurdity. And yet many people spend nine tenths of their lives in just such painful daydreams about misfortunes which may overtake them or their family, about illnesses they may contract or sufferings they will have to endure. Imagination and daydreaming are instances of the wrong work of the thinking centre. Observation of the activity of imagination and daydreaming forms a very important part of self-study.

The next object of self-observation must be habits in general. Every grown-up person consists wholly of habits, although they are often unaware of it and even deny having any habits at all. This can never be the case. All three centres are filled with habits and a person can never know themselves until they have studied all their habits. The observation and the study of habits is particularly difficult because, in order to see and ‘record’ them, one must escape from them, free oneself from them, if only for a moment. So long as a person is governed by a particular habit, they do not observe it, but at the very first attempt, however feeble, to struggle against it, they feels it and notice it. Therefore in order to observe and study habits one must try to struggle against them. This opens up a practical method of self-observation. It has been said before that a person cannot change anything in themselves, that they can only observe and ‘record.’ This is true. But it is also true that a person cannot observe and ‘record’ anything if they do not try to struggle with themselves, that is, with their habits. This struggle cannot yield direct results, that is to say, it cannot lead to any change, especially to any permanent and lasting change. But it shows what is there.

Without a struggle, a person cannot see what they consist of. The struggle with small habits is very difficult and boring, but without it self-observation is impossible. Even at the first attempt to study the elementary activity of the moving centre a person comes up against habits. For instance, one may want to study one’s movements, may want to observe how one walks. But they will never succeed in doing so for more than a moment if they continue to walk in the usual way. But if they understand that their usual way of walking consists of a number of habits, for instance, of taking steps of a certain length, walking at a certain speed, and so on, and try tries to alter them, that is, to walk faster or slower, to take bigger or smaller steps, they will be able to observe themselves and to study their movements as they walk. If you want to observe yourself when you are writing, you must take note of how you hold your pen and try to hold it in a different way from usual; observation will then become possible. In order to observe yourself, you must try to walk not in your habitual way, but must sit in unaccustomed attitudes, must stand when you are accustomed to sit, must sit when you are accustomed to stand, and you must make with your left hand the movements you are accustomed to make with you right hand and vice versa. All this will enable you to observe yourself and study the habits and associations of the moving centre.

In the sphere of the emotions it is very useful to try to struggle with the habit of giving immediate expression to all one’s unpleasant emotions. Many people find it very difficult to refrain from expressing their feelings about bad weather. It is still more difficult for people not to express unpleasant emotions when they feel that something or someone is violating what they may conceive to be order or justice. Besides being a very good method for self-observation, the struggle against expressing unpleasant emotions has at the same time another significance. It is one of the few directions in which we can change ourselves or our habits without creating other undesirable habits. Therefore self-observation and self-study must, from the first, be accompanied by the struggle against the expression of unpleasant emotions. If you carry out all these rules while you observe yourself, you will record a whole series of very important aspects of your being. To begin with you will record with unmistakable clearness the fact that you actions, thoughts, feelings, and words are the result of external influences and that nothing comes from yourself.

Adapted from ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ by P.D. Ouspensky

 

Division of Centres

It is possible through self-observation to begin to see how we limit ourselves and only use the weakest part of our organism. Ouspensky outlines the situation when he discusses ‘parts of centres’:

 
“I want to tell you a little more about centres which will help you to understand the situation. Some centres are divided into two halves— positive and negative. This division is very clear in the intellectual and the instinctive centres. In the intellectual centre it is ‘yes’ and ‘no’, affirmation and negation. All the work of the intellectual centre consists of comparing. The division in the instinctive centre is quite plain: pleasure—pain. All instinctive life is governed by this. At a superficial glance it seems that the emotional centre also consists of two halves— pleasant and unpleasant emotions. But it is not really so. All our violent and depressing emotions and, generally, most of our mental suffering has the same character—it is unnatural, and our organism has no real centre for these negative emotions; they work with the help of an artificial centre. This artificial centre—a kind of swelling—is gradually created in us from early childhood, for a child grows surrounded by people with negative emotions and imitates them.
Q. Are instinctive emotions not negative?
A. They may be negative, but they are rightfully so. They are all useful. The negative half of the instinctive centre is a watchman warning us of danger. In the emotional centre negative emotions are very harmful. Then each half of a centre is divided into three parts: intellectual part,
emotional part and moving or mechanical part. The moving part of each centre is the most mechanical and the most often used. Generally we use only the mechanical parts of centres. Even the emotional parts are used only occasionally; as to the intellectual parts, they are very seldom used in ordinary conditions. This shows how we limit ourselves, how we use only a little part, the weakest part, of our organism. It is very easy to distinguish these three parts when we begin to observe ourselves. Mechanical parts do not need attention. Emotional parts need strong interest or identification, attention without effort or intention, for attention is drawn and kept by the attraction of the object itself. And in the intellectual parts you have to control your attention. When you get accustomed to control attention, you will see at once what I mean. First the character of the action will show you which centre you are in, and then observation of attention will show you the part of centre. It is particularly important to observe the emotional parts and to study the things that attract and keep the attention, because they produce imagination. Study of attention is a very important part of self-study, and if you begin to observe this division of centres into parts, in addition to the division of centres themselves, it will give you the possibility of coming to smaller details and will help you to study attention.”
 
Extract from ‘The Fourth Way’, P.D. Ouspensky.

Toward Evolution

From the moment we recognise that there is something wrong or something lacking in us and therefore that something has to be changed, a work on ourselves can be undertaken toward evolution. And the first question that arises for us, is how to undertake work which will give us the power to see ourselves as we really are.

The entire world is seen only in terms of one’s self, while this self has no meaning except in terms of the world. At one and the same time we feel ourselves to be the navel of a world which we see from our point of view, while for the world we are nothing – not so much as a speck of dust.

Studying could begin from one side or the other, and our first inclination is to begin with the study of the world around us. But in that world, where we are nothing, we have no capacity either; we have nothing with which to see its eternity or its infinity. We are lost in an immensity beyond our reach and in an analysis which our whole lifetime would not be long enough to encompass, or enable us to complete, in order to synthesize it all. Even if this synthesis could be reached, it would still be necessary to include ourselves within it and find our proper place there. And yet it is just this approach, this endless analysis that modern science has undertaken, with a certain practical efficiency, which has led at the same time to dispersion and specialization, that is, to limitation, without any direct concern for the person who are themselves engaged in it.

However, it is we ourselves who are in question in this search; it is we, first and foremost, who need it. It is a matter for us, a matter of our inner being, our plane, our conflicts, our evolution, and, from this moment on, of the whole of our life. What is more, for us nothing is seen except through our own eyes.

So, if the study begins with ourselves, it is quite another matter. We are always there, available to ourselves and in the place which we occupy. Perhaps we believe we know ourselves and know this place. Our entire education leads us to think so. Nevertheless, our doubts, our conflicts, and our ignorance are also there: if we knew ourselves as well as we think, these would not exist, and there would be no question about who we are.

Adapted from Toward Awakening, by Jean Vaysse

The Meaning of Self Study

Self Study

As soon we begin to question ourselves about our own identity and nature, either as a result of shocks in life or under the influence of exceptional moments, the question arises as to whether, instead of giving ourselves up more or less completely to events and thus to a course of evolution which we cannot control at all, there might not be in that evolution something which depends on us and could be influenced by us.

Thus it becomes obvious that the wish to be fully oneself will not leave a person completely unaffected, and the first necessity, which is as urgent as the organic need to eat, should be to find out if something in this direction is effectively possible for us, and in what way.

We can look outside us for the answer in books, philosophical systems and doctrines, in what the religions say, and, for a while, these answers may satisfy us. They satisfy us so long as life has not seriously brought us to question their effectiveness. Put to the test in life, the most solid religious faith in revealed truth is finally shaken, if it is not supported and confirmed in lived experiences. And, furthermore, we are so made that we rely indelibly and unshakably on what we have lived and verified for ourselves, in ourselves, by ourselves.

If we question ourselves deeply about ourselves and our possible evolution, we see it is within ourselves and through ourselves that we shall ultimately have to find the answer. And if we ponder what is the meaning of this world around us, it is again only in ourselves and through ourselves that an answer can come that we recognize to be our own, and in which we can have faith. In addition, self-knowledge has from the beginning of time been fundamental in many doctrines and many schools. Not an exterior analytical knowledge, such as modern western science has been pursuing for so long, avoiding as the inner questions or trying to reduce them to purely materialist explanations, but rather an inner self-knowledge wherein, to avoid distortion, each element, each structure, each function, as well as their relationships and the laws which govern them, are not looked at only from the outside, but must be experienced in the whole context to which they belong and can only be truly known “at work” in that totality. This is a completely different attitude from that which modern science has accustomed us to, and the one does not exclude the other. But, for our possibility of inner evolution, one thing must be clear. What is required is not intellectual knowledge, which, properly speaking, is mere information. Such information may be necessary, but is absolutely inadequate in our search. For this search, the self-knowledge we need is above all an inner experience, consciously lived, of what we are, including the whole range of impressions of oneself which one receives.

A person cannot attain knowledge of this order except at the price of long work and patient efforts. Self-knowledge is inseparable from the Great Knowledge, objective Knowledge. It goes by stages, the first of which may appear simple to start with; however, even for one who recognizes the need of it, it soon comes to seem an immense undertaking with an almost unreachable goal. Little by little an unsuspected complexity is revealed.

It gradually becomes clear that the study of the human being has no meaning unless it is placed in the context of life as a whole and of the whole world in which we live. This study is inseparable from a living study of the cosmos. Thus, obstacles never cease to arise, and this search, which at first may appear straightforward, opens up finally onto horizons of which we could hardly have had the slightest idea when we began.

To have any chance of reaching our aim without going astray or getting lost, we need a guide for the study of ourselves here as elsewhere, we must learn from those who know, and accept to be guided by those who have already trodden the same path. Real self-knowledge requires a school. It cannot be found in books, which can give only theoretical data, mere information, leaving the whole of the real work still to be done, transforming the information into understanding, and then the understanding into self-knowledge.

In the beginning, the only thing that can be asked of a person who engages in this search is that he or she should understand the necessity of making their way tirelessly along the path whatever happens, and that they should understand that nothing but self-study, rightly conducted, can lead one to self-knowledge and the great Knowledge.

Adapted from Toward Awakening by Jean Vaysse

 

Can Wars be Stopped?

Gurdjieff’s Mission – Historical Background

Gurdjieff was born in ca.1877 in Alexandropol in the Southern Caucasus, during the Russo-Turkish war. He was born into a troubled world: before the time of the Russian Revolution and World War 1.

During his early life whilst pursuing his passion for knowledge, understanding and truth, he encountered a series of wounding’s from ‘stray bullets’ (3 in fact). From this we know that his experience of war was personal and direct. His first encounter with a ‘stray bullet’ was in 1902 whilst in the mountainous regions of Tibet.  This was prior to the Anglo-Tibetan war, and was when Russia was striving to make an alliance with Tibet. It was a tension-ladened area and it seems that Gurdjieff was following a two-fold mission when the incident happened :

1 – probably acting as a Russian agent. 2 – Being in pursuit of access to various monasteries and lamaseries in search of hidden knowledge. Apparently, he was so badly wounded that he lay unconscious for several days and took months to recover, taking refuge in a cave.

His second encounter with a ‘stray bullet’ was in 1904 in the very early stages of the Russian Revolution, in the neighbourhood of the Chiatur Tunnel in Transcaucasia. Again there are beliefs that he was a revolutionary and government agent.

Because of the disasters from 1902 onwards the world collapsed. Two World Wars and 40 million lives lost – not to mention the loss to human societies and cultures.

Gurdjieff witnessed the waste-less flow of war and death and he set himself a task of finding out how to help people free themselves from destructive influences.

Gurdjieff's Mission

George Gurdjieff

This was in 1907 and represented a dramatic departure from his earlier objective of gaining knowledge and power for personal benefit.  This change was most likely due to the compassion aroused in him by his growing awareness of the dilemma of modern man. He saw man’s need to dominate and destroy nature increasing side by side with a progressive decline in self-discipline and a loss of inner freedom.  Gurdjieff seeing this state in modern man describes it as ‘The Terror of the Situation’.

Man had ceased to function as an integrated whole and had lost direction and purpose.

The ‘terror of the situation’ described by J.G. Bennett in 1973 in his book ‘Making a New World’ [1], says that we face the threat of population explosion, food shortage, exhaustion of resources, pollution and the revolt of the deprived millions.  All these factors carry an incredible tension – the type of tension that can make wars, and this doesn’t embrace the threat from the ‘war-machine-technology’ and the nuclear power.

To sum up J.G. Bennett – he says in a lecture given in 1949 that ‘Modern man is a taker and not a giver. Whoever has power uses it to take and hold; whereas the only right use of power is to give and share with others’ [2]

CAN WARS BE STOPPED?

The specifics of Gurdjieff’s teaching is indicated by P.D.Ouspensky in his In Search of the Miraculous [3]:

What is war?…

“The conversation began with my question ‘Can War be stopped?’ And Gurdjieff answered; ‘Yes it can’
And yet I had been certain from previous talks that he would answer, ‘No. it cannot’. ‘But the whole thing is How?’ he said. ‘It is necessary to know a great deal in order to understand that.’ ‘What is war?  It is the result of planetary influences. Somewhere up there two or three planets have approached too near to each other and tension results.  Have you noticed how, if a man passes quite close to you on a narrow pavement you become all tense? The same tension takes place between planets.  For them it lasts, perhaps a second or two.  But here on the earth, people begin to slaughter one another, and they go on slaughtering maybe for several years.  It seems to them at the time that they hate one another, or perhaps, that they have to slaughter each other for some exalted purpose, or that they must defend somebody or something and that it is a noble thing to do; or something else of the same kind.  They fail to realize to what extent they are mere pawns in the game. They think they signify something.’” (Extract from pages 23-25).

War cannot be stopped by ordinary means…

“There was a question about war. How to stop wars? Gurdjieff; ‘War is the result of the slavery in which men live. Strictly speaking, men are not to blame for war. War is due to cosmic forces – to planetary influences. But in men there is no resistance whatever against these influences and there cannot be any because men are slaves.’

But surely those who realize this can do something? If a sufficient number of men came to a definite conclusion that there should be no war, could they not influence others?

Gurdjieff: ‘Those who dislike war have been trying to do so almost since the creation of the world and there has never been such a war as at present (1919).  Wars are not decreasing they are increasing and war cannot be stopped by ordinary means.  All these theories about Universal Peace and Peace Conferences are people striving towards an ‘ideal’ – but have these people mastered the impulse of destruction within themselves?.

War has many causes that are unknown to us. Some causes are in men themselves others are outside of them.  One must begin with the causes that are in man himself.  How can he be independent of the external influences of great cosmic forces when he is the slave of everything that surrounds him? If he becomes free from this he may become free from planetary influences.’” (Extract from ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ page 103).

What does war signify?

“‘Let us take some event in the life of humanity. For instance, war.  There is a war going on at the present moment. What does it signify? It signifies that several millions of sleeping people are trying to destroy several millions of other sleeping people. They would not do this if they were ‘awake’. ‘How many times have I been asked whether wars can be stopped? Certainly they can. For this it is necessary that people should awaken.  It seems a very small thing but it is very difficult because everywhere this sleep is induced and maintained by the whole of surrounding life and conditions. ‘There is nothing new in the idea of sleep. People have been told almost since the creation of the world that they are asleep and they must awaken. How many times is this said in the Gospels for instance?’Awake’;’Watch’;’Sleep not’. Christ’s disciples even slept when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane for the last time. It is all there but men do not understand. They cannot accept the fact that they are asleep.” (Extract from ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ page 143/144).

Progress in warfare…

Christianity forbids murder. Yet all that the whole of our progress comes to is progress in the technique of murder and progress in warfare. How can we call ourselves Christians?

No-one has a right to call himself a Christian who does not carry out Christ’s precepts. A man can say that he desires to be a Christian if he tries to carry out these precepts. But we can only show our attitude by our actions.

Humanity has no inner life

From Maurice Nicoll [4]:

“Where there is no vision people die. Today (1946. ) when vision is ceasing, the power of external life, of machines and war increases. Humanity is becoming enslaved by outer life, because it has no inner life.  Having given up on the idea of religion it has nothing with which to resist outer life.  Man becomes helpless – a creature of mass movements; mass-politics; and of gigantic mass-organisations’. (page 865, Psychological Commentaries).

The result of this ray of light is to bring into consciousness the unknown and unaccepted sides of ourselves. This softens everything in us and takes away a great deal of our violence. We all have to overcome in ourselves the violent man and the violent woman because all violence is due to lack of consciousness. If you can see another as you see yourself you will never be violent towards him or her……. But the supreme change comes when you can see that what you are violent about is something in yourself that you do not accept.’(Commentaries page 834)

People say: What is war? Why should war be? Does God will war? If God wills war, can he be a God?

Ouspensky said to his pupils ‘All of you in this Work must try to understand why war exists’; because he constantly taught that the most powerful force that we can create in ourselves is understanding. This Work gives us knowledge about our situation on this Earth and understanding means to understand the knowledge that we are given about our situation on Earth.  However, most people think that understanding can be gained simply from their ordinary knowledge and do not realize that in order to understand new knowledge is necessary.”  

Conclusion

CAN WARS BE STOPPED?

-not by philosophical debate -not through ethics as presently taught in colleges and universities -not by preaching and moralizing

These bind us to ‘thought systems’ offering only an ‘ideal’.

The Fourth Way teaches us to value the potential for our own growth as individuals.  It is a system offering knowledge, understanding, and a way which is essentially practical; a system for helping us to ‘know ourselves’ and to develop within us the strength to not only observe but also to contain our own propensity for violence.  We strive to hold negative emotions and the seeds of violence in our nature so that our emanations are rendered harmless to ourselves and to others.  We strive for growth of Essence.

If Essence could remember war would cease.  All development in the ‘Work-sense’ is the development of Essence and this always remember.  Collective War cannot make people remember because collective war is a manifestation of Personality.  State War is a manifestation of the collective personality and the individual is even more lost.”

 

Exodus Chapter 20:

“Thou shalt not kill”

Moses said:

“I set before you this day life and death, blessing and cursing.

Choose life that thou and thy seed may live”

 

Compiled by a group member.

 

References

[1] Gurdjieff: Making a New World. J.G. Bennett

[2] Is There Life on Earth? J.G. Bennett

[3] In Search of the Miraculous, Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. P.D. Ouspensky

[4] Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. Maurice Nicoll

 

What is the Purpose of Life?

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol in 1866 to a Greek father and Armenian mother. His father was an Ashokh, or bard, and sung epic poetry in an oral tradition that was thousands of years old, including the story of Gilgamesh. With fellow ‘Seekers of Truth’ Gurdjieff spent twenty years of his early adult life travelling in the East searching for real knowledge, driven by the question of the sense and significance of life. He eventually set up his ‘Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man’ at the Château du Prieuré near Fontainebleau-Avon in France in 1922. He died in 1949 and left an allegorical magnum opus, entitled All and Everything, as well as a large collection of sacred dances and music. One may say that his teaching is simply how to become a real human being.

What is the purpose of life?

A brief exploration, in the light of the teaching of Gurdjieff 

This question of questions, the purpose of life, is not for the mind alone. Attempting to grasp its magnitude, our feelings and instinct must have equal share of the work.

Imagine a compassionate and impartial being looking down upon earth from afar, seeing everything, from epoch to epoch. Seeing our destruction of one another’s existence in untold numbers of terrible wars, seeing our abuse and ingratitude to our Mother Nature, seeing the vanities that make up our personal lives…. Might not this being conclude, sorrowfully, that it is only by our death that in general human beings serve a useful purpose, by being food for worms?

Walking in the countryside in springtime, who can fail to be moved by the exuberance of Nature? The singing of the birds, the bursting forth of new life, new growth. But look at that young carefree lamb gambolling in the lush green field over there. Is our fate really any different to his, destined to be slaughtered for his meat?

Gurdjieff tells a story of a rich magician and his sheep, saying that it was a very good picture of the life of people:

‘There is an Eastern tale which speaks about a very rich magician who had a great many sheep. But at the same time this magician was very mean. He did not want to hire shepherds, nor did he want to erect a fence about the pasture where his sheep were grazing. The sheep consequently often wandered into the forest, fell into ravines, and so on, and above all they ran away, for they knew that the magician wanted their flesh and skins and this they did not like.

‘At last the magician found a remedy. He hypnotized his sheep and suggested to them first of all that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned, that, on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place he suggested to them that if anything at all were going to happen to them it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it. Further the magician suggested to his sheep that they were not sheep at all; to some of them he suggested that they were lions, to others that they were eagles, to others that they were men, and to others that they were magicians.

‘And after this, all his cares and worries about the sheep came to an end. They never ran away again but quietly awaited the time when the magician would require their flesh and skins.’ [i]

Gurdjieff frequently talks of this state of hypnotized sleep in which we live. However, there is an interesting sequel to this story, also said to be ancient, and prevailing in medieval Europe, about the black sheep who has somehow freed himself from the general hypnosis and realises his position, thus having greater possibilities. [ii]

Gurdjieff often colourfully described human beings as ‘factories for producing merde.’ [iii] (Merde is sometimes politely translated from the French as fertiliser or manure.) He often stressed the need to realise with one’s whole being one’s own nothingness, to see ‘the absurdity of our ordinary life,’ [iv] and even to be ‘convinced that [one] is heading directly over a precipice towards annihilation,’ [v] in order to be really motivated to change. We are ordinarily so immersed in illusion, that we are quite comfortable being such factories. However, Gurdjieff once described himself as being a seeker of ‘pearls in manure’! [vi]

Fritz Peters recounts an episode when he was a twelve year old boy at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Prieuré in Fontainebleau-Avon:

‘He then asked me to look out of the window and to tell him what I saw. I said that, from that window, all I could see was an oak tree. And what, he asked, was on the oak tree? I told him: acorns.

‘ “How many acorns?”

‘When I replied, rather uncertainly, that I did not know, he said impatiently: “Not exactly, not ask that. Guess how many!”

‘I said that I supposed there were several thousand of them.

‘He agreed and then asked me how many of the acorns would become oak trees. I answered that I supposed only five or six of them would actually develop into trees, if that many.

‘He nodded. “Perhaps only one, perhaps not even one. Must learn from Nature. Man is also organism. Nature make many acorns, but possibility to become tree exist for only few acorns. Same with man – many men born, but only few grow. People think this waste, think Nature waste. Not so. Rest become fertiliser, go back to earth and create possibility for more acorns, more men, once in a while more tree – more real man. Nature always give – but only give possibility. To become real oak, or real man, must make effort. You understand this, my work….not for fertilizer. For real man only. But must also understand fertilizer necessary to Nature. Possibility for real tree, real man also depend just this fertilizer.” ’[vii]

One of Gurdjieff’s special ideas was that of ‘reciprocal maintenance’. He held that human beings, like everything else in the universe, were apparatuses for the transformation of energy, that each so-called ‘class of being’ depended on every other class of being, and that a continual exchange of substances, or reciprocal feeding, takes place. In the words of one of his English pupils, John Bennett, ‘….man….is specifically required to produce sensitive and conscious energy needed for maintaining the harmony of the solar system.’ [viii]

For Gurdjieff, all life was equally necessary and precious. He said, ‘For [the megalocosmos] there is no difference between the life of man and the life of beings of any other form.’ [ix] Indeed, Gurdjieff loved animals and plants, and stressed our kinship with other creatures. Bennett said, ‘….Reciprocal Maintenance….alone breaks down the artificial barrier that man has erected between himself and his Mother Nature.’[x] Gurdjieff, indeed, was the supreme ecologist: the whole universe itself as an ecosystem.

Bennett also said that ‘….the individual can bring about the complete transformation of his nature [only] through his own [in Gurdjieff’s words] ‘conscious labour and intentional suffering.’ [xi] Bennett described this way of living as ‘Service and Sacrifice’ [xii] Through these means, manure may be transformed into ‘Holy Merde,’ [xiii] or even a pearl.

Gurdjieff often described the human organism using an Eastern allegory of the horse, carriage and coachman. The carriage itself represents the body, the horse the emotions, and the coachman the mind. However, in the ordinary person, the carriage is broken down and in dire need of repairs, the horse has been brought up on beatings and continual abuse and has never been properly educated, and the coachman is always drunk and half asleep. And instead of the carriage having an owner who is the master of the equipage, there is a continual succession of passengers that are the different ‘I’s that make up our daily life. One of the aims of Gurdjieff’s teaching was the education of each of these separate components, and to gain one’s own unchanging ‘I’, or conscious individuality.

What is the purpose of life

Allegory of Horse, Coach and Driver

Gurdjieff demanded that we keep things in perspective:

‘Go out one clear starlit night to some open space and look up at the sky, at those millions of worlds over your head. Remember that perhaps on each of them swarm billions of beings, similar to you or perhaps superior to you in their organization. Look at the Milky Way. The earth cannot even be called a grain of sand in this infinity. It dissolves and vanishes, and with it, you. Where are you? And is what you want simply madness?

‘Before all these worlds ask yourself what are your aims and hopes, your intentions and means of fulfilling them, the demands that may be made upon you and your preparedness to meet them.’ [xiv]

There are two rivers of life, according to Gurdjieff [xv], and the drops within them represent human lives. One is an unconscious current, flowing purely in accordance with the needs of Nature, and the water eventually disappears down crevices to the depths of the earth. The other is the living water, in which those who have their own ‘I’ may take their place, and which ultimately enters and unites with the boundless ocean.

What is he Purpose of Life? Compiled by Dr. Clare Mingins

References

[i] Ouspensky, P.D. In Search of the Miraculous p.219

[ii] Anon. Gospel of Orage p.7-9

[iii] Patterson, W.P. Voices in the Dark p.252-25

[iv] Gurdjieff, G.I. Life is real only then, when ‘I am’ p.103

[v] Tchekovitch, T. Gurdjieff: Master in Life p.131

[vi] Gurdjieff, G.I. Life is real only then, when ‘I am’ p.7

[vii] Peters, Fritz. Boyhood with Gurdjieff p.43

[viii] Bennett, John. Gurdjieff: Making a New World p.191

[ix] Gurdjieff, G.I. Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson (1950) p.193

[x] ibid. P.271

[xi] ibid. p.194

[xii] ibid. p.212

[xiii] Patterson, W.P. Ladies of the Rope p.117

[xiv] Gurdjieff, G.I. Views from the Real World p.58

[xv] Gurdjieff, G.I. Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson (1950) p.1227-1232