About The Work
Gurdjieff was a person who wondered about existence, and who was very curious about the purpose of existence. Those of us today who share this wonder and curiosity also share an uncertainty about who we are and why we are on this strange planet called Earth, which is a tiny speck amongst a vast multitude of entities in an infinite cosmos.
Curiosity can take many forms and can go in at least two directions. One of these is directed towards an outer world which we can have contact with through our senses. However, in addition to marvelling at what we can see and hear, we have thoughts, feelings, moods and longings – states that make up parts of an inner life. In this sense we all have an outer and an inner life.
One way of making this distinction between an inner and outer world more clear is to say that a question that is connected to the outer world might take the form of “What kind of object is this and how does it work?” While a question about who I am and why I am alive are connected to our inner world.
For people who easily associate the concept of an inner life to an inclination towards religion in the form of blind faith it can be reassuring to know that it is not as simple as that in relation to what we call the Gurdjieff Work. At the foundation of this Work is the verification of the theories through direct experience.
A human being is divided into two parts: essence and personality. Essence consists of the qualities and characteristics we are born with. Personality is a result of the surroundings a person grows up in, which include one’s upbringing, education, social environment, etc. We can therefore say that essence is a side of us that can’t be taken away. Personality, on the other hand, is an artificial part of us, which we certainly need in many connections, but it is not a part of our true nature.
We don’t need to reflect for a long time on this to be able to see that it is personality that gets the most attention and nourishment in our world. In order to come closer to our inner selves essence must grow and become active and personality must be made passive.
There is so much in our personality that opposes this process that the opportunity exists, even at an early stage in the Work, to verify that without sincerity and making effort all attempts to work can seem useless.
“Finally,” one might say, “I am standing face to face with a situation where cheating does not offer any opportunities.” It is our essential side that can value an opportunity like this.
Everything that can grow needs nourishment, and essence is nourished with the truth. Through the process of actively observing sides of ourselves that are not real, the truth about who we are not can provide nourishment for our essence. Naturally, this is often a painful process for who we are not. Everything has a price. The alternative is to be happy in a dream in which the experience of a deeper meaning is unavailable.
A central idea in Gurdjieff’s Work is that in his or her daily life a human being is not really as awake as he or she seems, but is in a state of sleep. For many people this is sounds far-fetched, and some of them get provoked by it. That is understandable because, among other reasons, our associations to the idea of sleep are connected to the state of physical sleep where we do not eat, go to work, speak with other people and so on.
Obvious characteristic features of a human being are that he or she thinks, feels and can be physically active.
An aspect that characterizes Gurdjieff’s ideas, and the practical work connected to them, is that it shows how what we call thoughts, feelings and actions are connected to conditioning laid down is us from a very early age and up until today.
The idea that our upbringing, education and social background puts its stamp on us is not a foreign concept to anyone of us, but that this leads us to being dominated by automatic routines to such an extent that we can be called machines can make some people react strongly.
If we can at the same time be open a little to the idea that in our daily lives we react uninterruptedly based on this earlier programming, often in the form of attitudes, then we can come to a place in ourselves where we can begin to observe and after some time gradually become more impartial to what we see.
Self observation can show us that we are not one but many; and that each thought, feeling, like and dislike is an ‘I’. Additionally we will be able to see that the activation of these different ‘I’s’ is due to changes in outer circumstance and in impressions.
We have all been through situations in which we decide to do something and in the next moment, hour or a week later we are no longer interested. Not even when these different sides in us are on a collision course and are clearly contradictory does an alarm bell go off – one that could signal to us that we don’t have one but many ‘I’s’. This is due to the fact that we have what Gurdjieff calls ‘buffers’. These are built up gradually and taken from our social environment, and their purpose is to protect us so that we are not confronted with our contradictory sides to the extent that we become confused or crazy. Through working for a gradually increased level of consciousness and will a person can bring his or her buffers into the light and live with a decreasing need to justify his or her thoughts, feelings or actions.
Attention is one of the main pillars in the Work. When we daydream and live in imagination, our attention wanders and we are under the influence of accident. Another characteristic of the function of attention is that it can be drawn and captured by something that is of momentary interest for one of our many ‘I’s’ – and then it disappears when interest stops and a new ‘I’ pops up. If self observation is an aim of ours, then we must learn to direct and keep our attention because without attention it is not possible to practice this.
Self remembering, which for a number of reasons can be considered to be the key to this Work, is a state where attention is divided between what is observed and that which observes, and where the focus of the attention is on that which observes and not on what is observed. This state of awareness is a state a human being is meant to live in. It is through this awareness that a deeper meaning concerning existence is available because it expands the limits of our consciousness in our inner and outer world simultaneously, and fuses them into an experience.
This is, however, not how we live. And what mainly hinders us from living this way, in addition to our lack of ability to direct and keep our attention, is two things. One of them is what we call identification, and the other is inner considering.
When one of our many ‘I’s’ step onto the stage then we become identified through feeling, thinking and believing that it is who we are. For example, this happens when we are irritated, jealous, envious, humiliated, enthusiastic, jubilant, eager, uncomfortable, nostalgic, suspicious, melancholic, self pitying and impatient. This list is of course much longer.
This accidental placement of the feeling of what we are and who we are keeps us locked in a subjective world where we are clearly slaves of our own attitudes and of our accidental encounter with impressions.
The other main factor that hinders us in practising self remembering is what we call inner considering.
In this state a person is always, in one way or another, in the centre of an event, as in, for example, wondering what other people think about what he or she says, has said, has done, should have done and so on. And once again, the slavery to this goes on unnoticed. Either because others have agreed and the person is allowed to maintain their identification uninterruptedly, or because he or she can appear as irreproachable in their own eyes because they think that the perspective of others is limited. Another alternative is to feel misunderstood, and self pity is a natural consequence of this.
For those of us who do not see an alternative way of life in any of these ways of being thrown around in our own existence, Gurdjieff has given us tools of indescribable value. This is because in a practical way they place a human being’s potential into a larger context where the concept of individuality takes on a different meaning.