Gurdjieff International Review

The Role of Attention in Self-Liberation

Michel Conge

Man does not correspond to just one level of the universe, but to many. It is sometimes said in this teaching that a fully developed, real human being has his head at the level of the stars and his feet on the earth. This suggests not only a symbol but an actual ladder...

We need to understand that the two natures of man are inscribed upon this ladder: on the upper part of the ladder is the higher nature; on the lower part, the ordinary nature through which we manifest all the time and in which the centre of gravity of our whole existence is found. Unless we are aware of this twofold constitution and of the reciprocal positioning of the two natures on the vertical scale, we cannot possibly understand the difficulties of our existence and why we are alive.

Between these two natures, positioned in this way, there is an unbridgeable gap that we may call an ‘interval,’ a term corresponding to a cosmic vision of things.

Many ancient texts speak of this interval. In the Old Testament, for example, the struggle between Jacob and the Angel takes place in the very middle of a stream, at a ford, and it would be hard to understand why it is described that way unless we realized that a simple picture is being used to bring out the idea of a struggle and a particular difficulty where an interval occurs...


The idea that the source of life resides in the deeper—or higher—nature is found in the Gospels. It is found, for example, in the parable of Christ at the well, where the Samaritan woman comes to draw water. ‘Interval,’ ‘ford,’ ‘well’—these are all symbolic images to make us understand that ‘living water’ must be sought beyond the place where we usually go...

Our dilemma is how to enable the two natures that constitute our being to unite. In order to achieve this, we absolutely need the knowledge of those who, through the ages, have become conscious and, having attained this union, seek to transmit true knowledge. This is a knowledge that does not belong to the level of ordinary life and cannot be acquired in universities.

This knowledge tells us that the higher nature seeks to unite with the lower; but that, because of this unbridgeable interval, this higher nature cannot be further incarnated into our present form as we are now. It also tells us that the lower nature seeks to unite with the higher, but gets lost in blind attempts...

These two natures fail to unite because between them a connecting element of a certain quality or of an intermediary vitality is missing. In fact, the qualitative difference between these two natures of which we are constituted is so disproportionate that they cannot be joined.

When a person reaches this point, if he doesn’t receive the help of objective knowledge ... he is lost. In order to overcome this difficulty, one needs access to what might be called ‘sacred science,’ the science that lives through Holy Scripture but which people nowadays no longer know how to interpret. We must desire this ‘science of being.’ We must ask for it, know how to ask for it, and keep on asking for it from those who embody it.

Left to his own devices, a man tries to solve the enigma either with his intellect or with his feeling. But even if he calls upon his most intelligent form of thought, he cannot hope to attain this union, because his thinking can only use, but not invent, data. Or, he may call upon his feelings, but feeling alone cannot lead to union. Likewise, if he thinks he can find the key to the problem in his body, in instinct, he will fail.


The functions are remarkable instruments, but their role is to be at the service of something greater. The secret resides in an entirely different quality. It resides in attention, in this living substance so poorly and so little understood, even though each of us has access to it. The fundamental idea is:


I am attention.

Where attention is, there am I.

If the attention is weak, I am weak.

If the attention is mechanical, I am mechanical.

If it is free, I am free.


So we must come back to attention and understand that just as I am a being divided in two, attention in me is also divided in two. There is a higher, hidden inaccessible attention over which I have no more power than I do over consciousness...

But there is an attention that corresponds to my lower nature. This attention is ‘fallen’; it has become fragmented, has split into divergent currents. I can know this attention much better than I know it today. I can recognize myself in it, and thanks to it, come back to myself—remember myself.

Attention enters into my functions, which are the channels it must take. And now I begin to understand why it is said that self-knowledge is, or begins with, knowledge of the machine. This body-machine has been given to me so that I can try and recognize myself as attention, and so that, at this level of ordinary life, three unconnected currents of attention can come together.

I must further understand that in this lower nature each current of attention can appear in different degrees of intensity. I need to learn that attention can show itself to have a completely unstable, vagrant character...


There is, however, a very different kind of attention, an attention that is really more conscious, more intentional. Sometimes, on very rare occasions, we discover the taste of it. If this occurs in my thought, I see that my thinking has become clear. And if it occurs in my feeling, I perceive a feeling completely free from my habitual emotions. As for my body, I can also experience what is happening at its level in a new way.

What is important is to learn that each of these degrees or qualities of attention corresponds to one of the three levels of my centres. For each centre consists of three levels, one above the other: a moving or mechanical level, an emotional level, and the highest, an intellectual level.

And knowledge of the correspondence between each specific taste of attention and each of these levels is a very great secret. If I learn to recognize this and experience it, the path toward union or reunification of the attention becomes apparent.

But I have to understand that these three paths must be experienced simultaneously... On the level of my ordinary nature, the return to a unified attention is possible only when the three essential centres of my lower nature unite at their highest level. Only then does attention acquire a new character: it becomes truly voluntary attention, conscious attention. This conscious or voluntary character helps me understand that there is now something in this regenerated attention that can correspond to the properties of the higher nature...


Let’s look again at the idea of two natures. The higher nature should be the active, holding authority, and the lower should be passive, ready to serve. In fact, the higher nature remains passive and the lower nature, agitated, usurps the active sign. This anomaly arises from the separation of the two natures and the absence of any relationship between them. There is nothing between the two to reconcile them.

The same thing happens in each of my centres. I can understand this when I try to free my attention and it becomes active—when real ‘I’ becomes active—in relation to a mechanism that then becomes passive. At each step of the way, I experience the action of these changes in polarity.

Finally, when the highest level of the centres becomes active, a great event is in preparation: this whole nature, now unified and ordered, can begin to serve the higher nature. It has become passive in relation to the higher nature.

To the extent that I free myself from the tyrannical hold of the functions, and as my attention, charged with new powers, climbs the ‘ladder’ of the centres and becomes concentrated, I discover that a new organization is gradually taking shape. This new organization is imbued with qualities of thought, feeling; and sensation that I did not know before. It is also the prelude to the formation of a new body, a spiritual body in relation to my present physical body. This new body—forming, condensing, and organizing itself—is the previously missing intermediary element that is capable of uniting the higher and the lower natures.

From that moment, one can speak of vigilance, which is a capacity to live an effort in such a way that the polarities no longer reverse, and the joining truly occurs.

Now I must try to live, carrying all this in the intimacy of my heart, protecting it against anything that might destroy it.

~ • ~

These excerpts are from Michel Conge’s book, Inner Octaves, Toronto: Dolmen Meadow Editions, 2007, pp. 141–151. Some sentences and phrases have been removed for brevity.

Copyright © 2013 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2013 Issue, Vol. XII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2013