By Aakash Dharmaraj
Gurdjieff was an enigmatic guru whose teaching continues to have enormous impact. A psychotherapist and gurdjieff movements’ instructor dwells on how his teaching urges us to get out of the prison of personality, in fact, many ‘i’s
Gurdjieff taught through diagrams and symbols, through money, through alcohol, through the preparation, cooking and eating of food, through manual labour, through music and sacred dance
Once upon a time, there lived a man who taught that, “When it rains, the pavements get wet!” His name was Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.
He was born somewhere between the years 1866-1877, in the Caucasus region of what is now Russia, to a Greek father and Armenian mother.
As a young boy, this man was wonderstruck by many strange and inexplicable events that came his way. Seances… miraculous cures…uncanny accurate predictions…Yezidis who died if they came out of a magic circle… mountains that vibrated when the perfect musical note was played… He was full of questions about why we are here, on this planet. What are we living for? What happens at the end of it all, at death? Questions, to which there were only uncertain answers from his teachers and elders. As he searched for answers, he experimented with hypnosis, trained as a physician, studied religious practices, learned music, and eagerly scoured the land for ancient texts and manuscripts, but was not at all satisfied with the results of his efforts.
So, he intensified his search, and embarked on a lifelong quest for a hidden body of knowledge, which, he believed, had its roots in ancient traditions, and which might shed light on the meaning of man’s existence.
He vanished from sight, and travelled to almost inaccessible centres of learning, temples, and monasteries, reaching from Egypt, across Central Asia, to India and Tibet. Here he came into contact with the secret, esoteric practices of ancient brotherhoods, and discovered the “unchanging core of true wisdom” he had been searching for….
After 25 years of searching and learning, he re-surfaced as a spiritual teacher, in Russia, in 1912. He escaped, during the Russian Revolution, with a caravanserai of pupils, and finally settled down in France. In a mansion in Fontainebleau, close to Paris, he established his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.
He lived in Paris till his death in 1949.
This man’s language and ideas were strange, his methods even stranger.
A little understood, much maligned, much loved, bold revolutionary thinker.
One of his pupils, Mavis McIntosh Riordan, wrote this description of him….
He was a man whose virtue was not tame
But grew luxuriantly wild like ferns,
And bold like dandelions. All the neat
And mended moral fences in the world
Could not restrain the reaches of his love,
Nor curb the reckless flowering of his mind.
He began to teach, and a small coterie of pupils began to collect around him, attracted by his unusual ways.
He taught through diagrams and symbols, through money, through alcohol, through the preparation, cooking and eating of food, through manual labour, through music, sacred dance, and stories of Mulla Nasr-U-Din. He taught through attention, and silent presence. He taught through ‘shock’ by stepping on psychological corns, and painfully challenging the ‘sleepwalking’ state in which he found human beings. He taught through love…
And what did he teach?
Gurdjieff braided all his diverse learning into a rich, intricate, multi-layered system that included cosmology, cosmogony, psychology, human typology, phenomenology of consciousness, philosophy, sacred dance, musical octaves…
Essentially, this system, or The Work, with all its breathtaking scope of ideas and methods, is like a coat of many colours, woven with a common thread… around the idea of conscious evolution… and offers human beings practical methods of transformation and liberation from the prison of conditioning and mechanical suffering… Of learning how to BE!
Gurdjieff said, “If a man could understand all the horror of the lives of ordinary people, who are turning round in a circle of insignificant interests and insignificant aims, if he could understand what they are losing, he would understand that there can be only one thing that is serious for him—to escape from the general law, to be free. What could be serious for a man in prison who is condemned to death? Only one thing: how to save himself, how to escape: Nothing else is serious.
He added, “You do not realise your own situation. You are in prison. All you can wish for, if you are a sensible man, is to escape. But how to escape? It is necessary to tunnel under a wall. One man can do nothing.
No one can escape from prison without the help of those who have escaped before. Only they can say in what way escape is possible, or can send tools, files, or whatever may be necessary. But one prisoner, alone, cannot find these people, or get in touch with them. An organisation is needed.”
The problem as Gurdjieff so well understood, is, we do not recognise that we are in prison. We think we are free!!
Yes, we are born free. We are born with Being-Essence. A real identity, with its unique tendencies and predispositions, already coloured by the configuration of the stars and planets at the moment of its birth, which will grow, if not stifled, into mature, healthy “selfhood.” And yet virtually every one seems to fall into a kind of stupor that is the ordinary waking state, and forgets the origin and destiny of the Being-Essence. We lose a self, and acquire a personality.
This “personality” is our invisible prison. The one we deny we are in!
How is it possible to lose a self?
An anonymous author has written a heartfelt story I would like to share.
The treachery, unknown and unthinkable, begins with our secret psychic death in childhood…
It is a perfect double crime, in which the tiny self gradually and unwittingly takes part.
He has not been accepted for himself, as he is.
Oh, they ‘love’ him, but want him,
or force him, or expect him, to be different!
Therefore, he must be unacceptable.
He himself learns to believe it, and at last, takes it for granted.
No matter now whether he obeys them, whether he clings, rebels or withdraws… his centre of gravity is in ‘them’, not in himself. If he so much as noticed it, he’d think it natural enough. And the whole thing is entirely plausible; all invisible, automatic, and anonymous!
This is the perfect paradox.
Everything looks normal. No crime was intended: there is no corpse, no guilt. The sun rises and sets as usual. But what has happened? He has been rejected, not only by them, but by himself. He is actually without a self.
What has he lost? Just the one true and vital part of himself: his own yes-feeling, which is his very capacity for growth, his root system.
From the moment he gives himself up, and to the extent he does so, all unknowingly he sets about to create and maintain, a pseudo self. But this is an expediency. A self without real wishes… He will be torn apart by compulsive (unconscious) conflicts, into paralysis, every moment, every instant cancelling out his Being; and, all the time disguised as a ‘normal’ person, and expected to behave like one!
Gurdjieff’s bleak view of the personality—this prison of our entrapment and suffering, goes further. Essence is one, but personality is legion. We have many ‘I’s—scores of parasitic pseudo selves, each with its own set of neurotic needs and behaviours, each using the word ‘I’ to describe itself. There is utter chaos, as each ‘I’ surfaces indiscriminately, as ‘Caliph’ for an hour. Many of the selves don’t know of the existence of others. One ‘I’ makes promises, that another has no knowledge of, and therefore cannot honour… There are ‘I’s of different ages and temperaments. These are not different aspects or even fragmented parts of a whole, these are a crowd of people who represent you.
“Do you see that psychologically and spiritually you would appear like a crowd of people walking along, of every age, and if you introduced yourself you would include everybody, and call each person by your own name? Sometimes a very odd crowd— some dressed up, some in rags, and some deformed and some in better shape, and so on—may represent you. This ill-assorted crowd of somewhat queer people represents the multiplicity of your personality. It is a great shock when you realise this, but once you do begin to understand you are a multiplicity, you begin to cease saying ‘I’ so easily to this crowd. You may begin to see that it is not ‘I’ but an I in me that behaves in a particular way.” (Nicoll)
For me it has been a journey full of unexpected discoveries, rude shocks and unwilling meetings with my ‘I’s. As I see that all the ‘I’s of my personal history are not me, these historical selves have begun to fade away, and glimpses of an essential self break through sometimes. I have learned to watch the little ‘I’s, and holding back from identifying and falling into them has slowly become a little easier. It is a rocky road that leads out of this prison but now that I know I am in prison, I must set myself free, no matter how rocky the road.
Gurdjieff insisted that we not take his word for it, but investigate and understand for ourselves through direct experience. Watching oneself even for 10 minutes can yield a wealth of information and insight.
This is a primary technique in the Work. Self-observation. The whole of the work starts from a person beginning to observe herself.
Direct your attention inward, and observe your inner performances, all the voices you take as your own, all the parts you have invented, that you think are real.
Serious and continuous self-observation leads to definite inner changes. Observe everything in yourself as if it were not you, but it. Not “what am I doing,” but “what is it doing?” You then see the thoughts going on, the emotions, the private plays and self dramas, elaborate lies, stories, excuses and inventions passing through you.
Observe how you enjoy all this!
Observe without judging, criticising, approving, analysing, justifying, or cringing!
And, you can start now, where you are, as you are.
This is a practical method for entering deep inner spaces.
The first tool from Gurdjieff’s how-to-escape-from-prison tool-kit.
Since a major part of the work is based on systematic observation, we are guided in our search by clear directions about where to look, and how to look in order to start the process of Self- Remembering, as Gurdjieff termed it.
All of us, humans, are blessed with ‘three brains’ which are the source of activity for three centres of energy within us…
• The Physical Centre, concerned with instinctive, sensory and bodily functions, movements and sexuality.
• The Emotional Centre, concerned with feelings, creativity and aesthetic experiences.
• The Intellectual Centre, concerned with abstract thought, knowledge and understanding.
When these three centres are balanced, and working in harmony with each other, each fulfilling its appointed task, humans can create a space of pure potentiality, with the freedom to grow to their highest potential.
In reality, however, these centres are reduced to mere bundles of habits, reflexes, gestures, knee-jerk emotional reactions, manipulations, and automatic thinking. Not only do the centres function far below their capacity, they waste energy, steal from one another, and constantly interfere with each other’s functioning.
You may have experienced how.
A strong emotion stopped you from ‘thinking straight’?
An unending stream of thoughts kept your tired body from sleeping?
A set of beliefs caused you to hold back natural emotional expression?
Some unresolved stress turned into a physical illness?
These are all examples of conflicts between centres.
Through a series of structured exercises, novices are encouraged to observe the chaotic working of the centres, and find, within themselves, the keys with which they can initiate the balancing process.
This can be painful, and often takes many years to accomplish.
I hesitate to give examples of exercises, because they should not be attempted without a stable source of guidance and objective feedback. The work is deceptively simple, and you may find yourself unprepared for what you discover about yourself.
Here is one that may be safe for you to do.
We are asked to take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, with these exercises in self remembering.
Whenever you remember during the day, watch what happens when you act according to the following statements.
Don’t change anything, just watch the response of your various ‘I’s.
• Physical centre: I AM! I exist. I relax my body, and breathe consciously.
• Emotional centre: I AM. I exist. I watch my moods, and accept them. When I am in a bad mood, I do not expect others to take me seriously. When I am in a good mood I do not expect others to take me seriously. My mood is about me, not them.
• Intellectual centre: I AM! I exist. I watch my thoughts, and accept that they occur within me. One of my ‘I’s generates these thoughts.
Anything can happen, as you begin to watch, and really see yourself as you are…
Gurdjieff devised ‘sacred dance’ as the most direct and complete method of accessing all the centres and creating a state of equilibrium. They were reconstructed from fragments of unknown teachings discovered by him during his 25-year search through the ancient schools of Asia. These movements, with their accompanying music, are a powerful and dramatic way of breaking through all the automaticity of gesture, posture, emotional reaction, and intellectual babbling that so sadly limits our existence.
It is through these movements that I entered this work a few years ago, and it is through them that I continue the search.
Dance, in any form, is relaxing, cathartic and energising, and can be meditative. These movements go beyond all this, into a science of healing, which includes psychotherapy, medical gymnastics, and intense work with the brain.
And, it is of course, great fun!
This may, or may not, be the way for you, but I am happy to have shared with you, the minutes you spent in these pages.
Contact: Akash Dharmaraj (011) 26868248
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