Gurdjieff International Review

The Possibility to Work

By Jack Cain

Our unconscious existence is the real one, and the conscious world is a kind
of illusion, an apparent reality constructed for a specific purpose
like a dream which seems a reality as long as we are in it.

Carl Jung1

The possibility to work is a subconscious capacity.

Jean-Claude Lubtchansky
Toronto, March 20, 2009

We are not accustomed to think of the work as belonging to the realm of the subconscious. Therefore, Jean-Claude’s above statement is striking, even for those who have been involved in the Gurdjieff teaching for some time. But it is essentially no different from the clear statement made by Gurdjieff at the beginning of Beelzebub’s Tales. Within the first 25 pages of his 1,200-page opus, in the prefatory chapter originally called “Warning,” Gurdjieff informs us that he will be speaking to both our consciousnesses. In his inimitable, provocative way, he says that our “pure waking consciousness” is “fictitious” and that our other consciousness which we call the “subconscious” is our “real human consciousness.”

Who has taken Gurdjieff’s assertion seriously? What steps, practical steps, have I taken to understand and communicate with my own “real consciousness?” When I first read this passage in 1970, like most readers I suspect, I said to myself, “Interesting!” and moved on, never again to pay much attention to the statement—with either consciousness. Certainly, in retrospect, I took no practical steps in response to its challenge. I remained in my dream.

Consider for a moment the implications of Gurdjieff’s warning: the words I speak, all my exchanges, arise from a “fictitious consciousness.” I pride myself on how “thoughtful” my interventions are or how cleverly they are formulated. Do I ever attempt to relate what arises in me to an origin in one or other of my two consciousnesses? No, I don’t. As the saying goes, I don’t even give my words “a second thought.”

Shall we presume, provisionally, that Gurdjieff is right—that the subconscious is our real consciousness? What is to be found there? Well, Freud said it contains everything nasty; and Jung said it is the repository of everything valuable to humanity. The boundaries of what Gurdjieff means by this consciousness are left undefined. I am reminded of a story told me by Margaret (Peggy) Flinsch a few years ago in which Peggy begged Mme de Salzmann to ask Gurdjieff about what to her was clearly a contradiction in the text of Beelzebub’s Tales, regarding when the sacred process of Aieioiuoa occurs in the atmosphere of the planet. The answer came back, “You not understand. I make ore; it is for others to refine.”

Clearly, there is a problem with the word “subconscious.” We cannot blame loss through translation, since the Russian words for “consciousness” and the “subconscious” («сознание» & «подсознание») in the original Russian text of Beelzebub’s Tales are equivalent to the English terms. That is, the boundaries of the word “subconscious” are equally fuzzy in Russian. In English, the “sub” prefix is both inaccurate and misleading. First of all, it seems incontrovertible that this part of our consciousness is much larger than our “pure waking consciousness.” All memory is here, only a part of which can be retrieved at will; the remainder is accessible only under special conditions and means. Here also must be included that consciousness that directs the body—breathing, the circulation of fluids, the secretion of hormones, to name just a few of the functions that are clearly directed by an intelligence. My emotional world, too, is certainly not managed by my pure waking consciousness—perhaps it belongs here, as well. Finally, visionary experiences, insights, my relation to a higher world, too, seem far beyond my everyday mind, and the fictitious consciousness, in which I put my entire trust.

Gurdjieff does not elaborate on what our “real” consciousness includes, but instead uses the word “subconscious” as a term that will serve his purpose—a purpose that requires the reader to dig. But he offers clues scattered here and there. Take for example what he refers to as “conscience”: It exists in a pristine, fully functioning state. It is our only hope. Where must I turn to find it? It would seem very logical that it resides in fact in our real consciousness, as do those tarnished treasures: faith, hope, and love. From what rubbish heap am I to turn to retrieve and polish these essential qualities? A few pages into Chapter 26 of Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff in fact provides a teaching in this regard through the words of Ashiata Shiemash. Alchemy tells us that the philosopher’s stone is to be found in the dirt, in decay. Certainly a sideways glance into the subconscious reveals flotsam and jetsam: As I consider this treacherous territory into which I might have to venture, I feel a timorous wavering. Will I really let go of my total reliance on what I have known and trusted as my “conscious” state? Can I listen instead to a consciousness that “speaks” in images and symbols and not in words? Take Henry’s vision below.

When Henry began in the work, he had a dream of a one-man plane taking off from a dirt runway. Sometime later, his work came to a plateau. He thought of abandoning the whole thing as impossible and illusory. Then he had a dream where he was in a doctor’s waiting room with others. A swaddled infant was, strangely, lying on the floor. It cooed happily and waved its arms, smiled. No one was paying the slightest attention to it and the parents were nowhere in sight. Then he noticed the infant was lying in a pool of blood.

Gurdjieff frequently mentions hypnosis, which bears directly on the question of the nature of the subconscious mind. In fact, he devoted Chapters 32 and 33 of Beelzebub’s Tales entirely to hypnosis. He has this to say about Mesmer: “[I]f he had not been pecked to death, [he] would have revived that science, which alone is absolutely necessary to them and by means of which alone, perhaps, they might be saved from the consequences of the properties of the organ Kundabuffer.” A stunning statement indeed, about our “real consciousness!” And just a little further down, Gurdjieff writes of how the nun Ephrosinia is hypnotized into bridal night convulsions when gazing too long at the sparkly frame around her lover’s picture. Much too troubling, a part of me says—I think I’ll just put all that aside for sometime later. If that’s what my subconscious contains, maybe it would be best left alone!

Perhaps it would be useful to return to some first principles—those in which Gurdjieff speaks of “mentation by thought, expressed by words always possessing a relative meaning” and “mentation by form.” In the case of mentation by form, a given word evokes different content or forms, depending on what has been laid down in the consciousness of each individual. This content is determined by “the different conditions of an individual’s arising and growth.” In Fragments, Ouspensky quoting Gurdjieff gives an example using the word “world” and its many meanings (pp. 74-75). What better word to apply this principle to than the word “hypnosis.”

Today, experts still struggle to define what exactly “hypnosis” means. The word “hypnosis” is simply the Greek word meaning “sleep.” It was the Scottish surgeon, James Braid (1795-1860), who is credited with coining the English term perhaps in an effort to find an alternative to Mesmer’s discredited term, “animal magnetism.” (Note that most editions of Beelzebub’s Tales misspell the surgeon’s name as “Brade.”) Gurdjieff calls Braid a “hasnamuss.” Given Gurdjieff’s sensitivity to language and his insistence on precision, I wonder whether his sharp criticism of Braid had to do with Braid’s equating the state of hypnotism with the state of sleep; they are most certainly not identical.

Modern science has identified four different measurable brain wave frequencies that have been associated with what might be called states of wakefulness—although what these frequencies actually measure is not entirely clear. In any case, when we are in bed asleep, deeply asleep, with no dreams and no REM (rapid eye movement), the frequency is termed “delta”; when dreams and REM are present, the frequency is termed “theta”; when we are fully awake and concentrated on the task before us, focused with our attention, the frequency is termed “beta”; and, finally, when we lose our concentration and begin to daydream, think of something else and move out of the now, we enter the frequency called “alpha.”

Experiments have been conducted demonstrating that very few people can maintain the beta frequency for more than one minute. Almost immediately we fall into the alpha frequency. We are continually distracted, and often for long periods of time. We are not present to what is in front of us, now. We are asleep. We are hypnotized. And we do not notice the shift into sleep taking place. For example, when driving an automobile we spend most of our time in alpha. Many different ways of calling our attention to this fact have been used by spiritual teachers of every era. What Gurdjieff is telling us is no different—that the science of hypnotism can provide access to more of our consciousness.

It is not only seekers of real consciousness who find hypnotism a topic difficult to approach. A recent Mayo Clinic report (Mayo Clin. Proc. 2005; 80(4): 511-524) by James H. Stewart, MD entitled “Hypnosis in Contemporary Medicine” surveys clinical trials in seventeen areas from allergies to urology, all of which indicate that statistically significant benefits arise from the use of hypnosis. However, the report concludes that “skepticism may prevail and hypnotism may remain underused because of the tendency to doubt or fear the unknown.” Even highly trained professionals it would seem are not immune to this common fear.

But it is not fear of the unknown alone that keeps us from looking more deeply. If I wish to turn to someone trained in hypnosis, it is a question of trust, of surrendering my will to the will of another. Might I be putting myself under the influence of some evil Svengali? For most people, the usual association with the word “hypnosis” is the spectacle of stage hypnosis. Will I begin to cluck like a chicken? Have my foot stuck to the floor? Never! Let’s bury that one right away and think of it no more!

Is there anyone I would trust with my mind—especially when I don’t entirely trust it myself? Present-day hypnotherapists confidently assert that control is not surrendered, and that the everyday critical and analytical consciousness remains present. Consequently, it would be impossible to do anything against one’s values and beliefs. And yet, there remains the danger that under the altered state of hypnosis the mind takes things literally and cannot distinguish between “real” and “imaginary.” Very related to this condition is the fact that we are ruled by our perceptions which are notoriously inaccurate tools much of the time.

Those who experience hypnosis under the guidance of a professional are usually aware that the everyday consciousness is present side by side with the state of hypnosis. Many claim they are not hypnotized or cannot be hypnotized without recognizing that they have been simply guided into an alpha state, a state where they spend most of the daylight hours anyway. Nor do they recognize that once this state is achieved, suggestibility is heightened and useful work can be guided by the hypnotist following previously agreed-upon goals. When change does take place, the subject may attribute it to chance, rather than to one’s work with a hypnotist. If the hypnotic state is deepened into the theta range however, the everyday analytical consciousness recedes, and what takes place may not be remembered. Different territory is then entered and more fundamental change can be achieved.

Let’s consider a couple of examples of access to the subconscious mind:

After years of a marriage that was not working, full of desperate tension, Mary stood at the kitchen sink, looking out and for a moment at rest, still. An image arose. She saw herself melting into a pool of wax on the floor. In the middle was a candle wick and a flame that became nothing more than a flickering spark as the wick descended into the pool. The message was clear: “Get out of this relationship or die!”

Sometimes when things become sufficiently acute, this kind of direct communication from our real consciousness can take place spontaneously. In fact, the superior nature of its intelligence can sometimes be very evident based solely on the content of the message itself.

Terry is now 65. All his life he has been unwilling to take initiative. Only when pushed, first by his father, later by his boss at work, or his sister or his wife, would he ever move, take a decision. But the situation is now acute. His knees are in excruciating pain. It is now physically that he cannot move forward. Under the guidance of a hypnotist, he returns to the age of 6 and relives a terrifying event. He accidentally sets fire to the fields around his home. No one dies, but he watches the fire all day from his room. Fire trucks concentrate on saving the houses and let the fields burn. Once the terror and guilt are released, once the 6-year-old is comforted, the 65-year-old’s knees begin to mend. Movement forward has lost its impediment. Such intervention and guidance are standard tools used by the skilled hypnotist to repair the past.

Sometimes hypnotism is compared to meditation. Both seem to be altered states of consciousness; both can lead to control of autonomic functions of the body. In my view, the best way to distinguish them is that in meditation I relax into a state where I can be receptive to influence from a higher level. In hypnosis, I enter a state in which more of my consciousness is accessible, so that I can focus on a particular issue such as why I can’t stop smoking. The state I enter may in fact not be relaxed. Depending on what I encounter there, I might even pass through a significant degree of tension. Perhaps my subconscious mind equates stopping smoking with cutting off my connection to a beloved grandfather. If so, I will need guidance to find this buried issue and disconnect the reality of the love for my grandfather from my smoking so that I can, in good conscience, stop smoking.

When Gurdjieff speaks of hypnosis he speaks of “blood circulation.” Note the quotes. He also speaks of hanbledzoin, a word whose etymology I interpret to mean “the sacred blood of life.” Here we enter a territory that requires the ability to stand outside the currently prevailing scientific paradigm. Likewise, the California-based Institute of Noetic Sciences supports research into areas such as the use of subtle energies in medicine. The organization’s list of collaborating institutions is impressive, including Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge universities. Although this area of research is often treated dismissively, practitioners like Barbara Brennan and Eric Pearl are running extensive, well-established enterprises in this field. By 2010, Pearl’s organization had trained 70,000 individuals as “Level II practitioners” and it continues to sponsor university-level research on the energy systems of the human body. The four interpenetrating bodies of man referred to by Gurdjieff and described in many esoteric traditions are definitely related to these new areas of exploration.

Is hypnotism so difficult to explain because no one has dared suggest that Mesmer may have been right—that hypnotism involves, as well as suggestibility, a management of subtle energy or magnetism? The effects from the manipulation of the energy field around the human body are real and incontrovertible. What relation do they have to the blood of the astral body spoken of by Gurdjieff? How else can we explain Elizabeth’s experience below?

Elizabeth said she could barely walk to the phone with the excruciating pain in her hips. She had had to stop all medication in preparation for her first of two hip replacement surgeries. “Let’s try some of Eric Pearl’s Reconnective Healing®—it really can’t make it worse,” said her friend, a Level II practitioner. After an hour-long session, the pain was no longer present and remained absent until the operation a few days later.

We now live in a whole new world from the one in which Gurdjieff wrote Beelzebub’s Tales. The rapidity of change is axiomatic. And yet, the spiritual quest itself remains the same—am I to evolve or involve? The choice is mine. And if I don’t choose, the choice is made for me through my sloth or my sleep.

How am I to awaken if my usual consciousness is fictitious and my real consciousness is unknown, not defined and apparently inaccessible? First, I need to examine who is in charge of my life. Who makes my decisions? Students of Gurdjieff’s teaching should have an advantage when facing this question. It does not take too many months of self-observation to become convinced of one’s own mechanicality. Do I decide anything? Or do my buttons get pushed and I react? In almost all cases it is the latter. Gurdjieff often refers to “logical confrontation,” but in fact, how much effort and time do I assign to that? If I am honest, brutally honest, I see that no one is in charge. There is no “master,” not even a “deputy steward.” Therefore, I am susceptible—susceptible to suggestion. My integrity teeters near an abyss.

From where do I receive guidance? Gurdjieff lays out before us a vast hierarchy of levels. Which of these levels are within? Which are accessible to my real consciousness? Do I dare to look? Can I engage more of me in this search—my heart, my soul—and not just my head? Or am I to arrive at my death, only to say, “I haven’t been serious.” Jeanne de Salzmann says that “as long as there is only one level, there is no seeing. Then I am nothing more than an organism adrift. A body deprived of real intelligence.” I will not find objective thought in my fictitious consciousness! I must turn to my real consciousness. Only there do I have a hope of communing with the opening statement of Le Regard: “Objective thought is the look from Above.”

I have a capacity to work on myself, to awaken. I have a real consciousness. And the gift of a limited amount of time.


Drafts of this article were shown to a number of friends and associates before arriving at this version. Some thought it was fine the way it was; others wanted it expanded, reorganized, and made “clearer.” Perhaps one day I will rework it into something longer; but for now, I feel the urgent need to point to an area of the search that seems to have been neglected. For me, our waking consciousness is mainly associated with our physical brain, one of the instruments in our temporary physical envelope. It holds things like short-term memory and ratiocination; but for other things, it is but a tuning instrument to a larger consciousness, a consciousness that does not require a physical brain in order to function. Therefore, I am reluctant to expand this article only to satisfy the desire of our waking consciousness. For me, the ancient Egyptians understood this well, as illustrated by their funerary rites of mummification: after initial cleansing procedures, certain parts of the body were removed. The first was the brain which was discarded as not useful. Then the viscera (lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines) were preserved in separate jars. The heart was left untouched, since it was considered the seat of the essence of the individual. The author welcomes and would appreciate any comments and feedback, either positive or negative, on this piece; please write to

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Jack Cain is a consulting hypnotist certified by the New Hampshire-based National Guild of Hypnotists and a practitioner in good standing of an energy work called “The Reconnection™.”

1 Claire Dunne, Carl Jung: The Wounded Healer and the Soul, an Illustrated Biography, p. 205.

Copyright © 2011 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Revision: January 12, 2011