Thirty years ago, after watching one of the early movements films, Mme de Salzmann asked “What is movement?” The question remains, and will always remain. Movement is life. All living things move, from the stars in the heavens to the smallest part. Movement is the essence of life and within the atom the particles dance, reflecting the movement of the stars and all is vibrating energy. Movement is change. Movement is in time. And behind movement is stillness, as behind noise is silence, out of time. The greatest stillness contains all movement: stillness, silence—the constant presence of God.
It was Easter 1947 and I was a teenager in Paris. One day I went with Kenneth Walker to see a movements class taken by Mr. Gurdjieff in the Salle Pleyel. I had no knowledge of what I was seeing although I must already have sensed something from my mother. As I watched, I simply wondered at something extraordinary. Its call was direct and strong. I remember asking myself what kept the participants going on and on as they did.
When Mr. Gurdjieff sent Alfred Etiévant to London to form classes, early in October 1949, I was there. We were very fortunate. We worked two or three nights a week, with great intensity, learning a large number of movements, chiefly those composed by Mr. Gurdjieff in the last years of his life. This phase culminated in the demonstrations at the Fortune Theatre in London, followed by the first film, made in Paris during the summer of 1951. At that time, the English mostly filled in at the back of the French class. This introduction to the movements took place during my medical studies, completed in 1952. I have worked in movements classes ever since.
Looking back now, with children and grandchildren, after years of working as a doctor, I seem to have lived in two worlds at once. One has been the world of work, family and friends; the other is the world of movements. It is another world with quite a different time.
The exercises and dances brought to us by Mr. Gurdjieff known as “sacred dances” or more generally “movements” play a big part in his teaching. They include sacred dances from many different traditions as well as those he created himself. Nearly everyone who witnesses them, or takes part in them, feels that they have a very special quality that can readily be recognised but not easily explained.
It has been said that the movements have a double aim—to contain and express a certain form of knowledge and, at the same time, to serve as a means of acquiring a harmonious state of being. Because of their conscious construction they serve a higher purpose in which these two aspects eventually unite. In this way, the human body can act, can transmit and can be of service. Fundamentally, all sacred dances are about moving and being in movement. They could be called ‘meditation in movement.’ They relate to a world entered through the body but much more than just physical. Maybe we could simply say, with the American Indians, that we can come to ‘walk in a sacred way.’
Whether working in a class or watching, one cannot avoid being struck by the enormous variety of the material. Each movement has its own character. There are movements of incomparable grandeur, apparently brought from different religious orders. There are those Mr. Gurdjieff composed himself in a seemingly limitless range, from simple to intricate, from dance to prayer. They are not variations on a theme. Each has its own form, its own language. Each makes its particular demand and its unique statement. No words can adequately express such mastery. His inventiveness is breathtaking.
It is as if each movement had been plucked from the air complete in all its complexity. Each is able to produce specific impressions upon onlookers and participants. These impressions, if one can be there to receive them, give for each a specific ‘taste’ (or ‘insight’ or even, it could be said, ‘vibration’). At the same time, if attention can be sustained, an inner process unfolds.
Coming together — When people first join a movements class, they are far from knowing what to expect. In the name of self-knowledge or personal growth, they accept certain external conditions, including considerable discipline. They are asked to work in neat rows, to stay in their assigned place, and to follow the guidance of the person in front of the class, both externally and, as far as possible, internally. In short, they accept to try and participate as best they can and to understand what is asked. The teacher tries to encourage an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect so that participants can open to new possibilities rather than become blocked by self-deprecation or anxiety.
Such conditions are not particularly unusual. Certain sequences of postures are taken, with simple but clearly defined positions of the trunk, limbs and head, often to a march or some other simple rhythm of the feet. What is not so usual is the unceasing demand for attention. The call is to be awake to the body, whatever it is doing. This may vary greatly within the course of one hour. At one moment there may be a quick march, at another moment a quiet and subtle movement sitting down, then a struggle fully to enter a very strong rhythm, then some slow bending to an exact tempo, and so on. The class is also asked to be awake in the head, to follow unusual combinations and sequences of arm and leg movements and displacements. The conditions are such that to dream is to lose your contact and make a mistake. Yet, so long as there is an appropriate quality of attention, there is the opportunity to relax and to become quieter inside, while remaining faithful to the intended movements.
All this is not haphazard. It is not any postures, any rhythms learnt in any sequence. The movements, and the preparatory exercises which lead up to them, are constructed to allow experiences which are quite different from usual. This is made possible through a loosening of the habitual inner connections by which our postures, thoughts and feelings are tied together in our own characteristic mesh of subjective states and experiences. As greater freedom becomes possible, so the action of the movements allows a quite different opening to an unknown world, deep inside. In these more objective conditions, the movements, the teacher and the class come together in a subtle, dynamic combination. It is this threefold relationship that participants find so special.
Arms — From the beginning, there is insistence that arms should be straight when they are meant to be. Why is this so? Why propose these “unnatural” geometric postures? The answer lies in their purpose. They help us ask why, if they are so simple, should they be so difficult to take exactly? It is in the trying that a new and practical knowledge becomes apparent. We are shown how much we unconsciously accept “near enough.” We see that it needs a constant effort to break subjective habits of movement, to overcome natural disinclination to discomfort and to struggle with imagination. I can so easily imagine that my arms are straight when they are not!
Of course, not all movements involve straight arms. The point is that to accept to have arms in precisely the prescribed shape is to break through habits and come to the possibility of a direct impression contained in the posture or movement itself. For example, if my arms are not precisely as required, I will not be available, literally “in a position,” to receive what the movement has been created to give.
Nothing is straight in nature and yet man is a vertical being. With arms outstretched sideways he becomes a cross. I cannot place my arms straight and horizontally sideways and be my ordinary self. If I am present to myself in such a posture it is a very strong impression. The same applies to arms vertically upwards. The postures themselves have an effect. They are objective. In these shapes the human form takes on a nobility that it does not have ordinarily.
Hands — As we move within the field of energy that we are, both inside and out, our arms and hands are our antennae. These hands, given to us to know the natural world by touch, can also make contact with a finer world. Hands that are held straight with fingers together, as prolongations of long straight arms, can receive impressions directly into the body.
Provided that the body is related to the ground, that it is “open” in a special way which the movements help us to experience, the hands become sensitive to air, and more than air. Every direction of the palms is perceived differently. Cupped upwards they receive; held apart and facing they contain, and so on. One has only to consider the elegant and beautiful hand gestures of oriental dance or ballet to understand the principle. Here is a language without words in a world of wordless impressions. Yet there is a profound difference between the movements and ballet; a different purpose is being served and it is clear that there are laws at work beyond one’s comprehension.
Head — Everyone finds movements of the head the most difficult, the most disturbing. For beginners, the moving head is the last straw. Yet, after a time, movements of the head become a sort of measure. Connected directly with my inside experience, head movements can become a means of checking my inner state. Alternatively, head movements can provide what seems like the finishing touch to a movement. They can be totally complimentary to the arms and rhythm, yet make the movement so complete that they enhance its overall force.
Rhythm — Rhythm is intrinsic to Mr. Gurdjieff’s movements. The first essential is to be in rhythm. The rhythm supports the whole movement and allows constant renewal. The lower half of the body is related to the earth through the feet. When the lower half of the body consciously contains a certain weight, it allows openness and lightness on the part of the body. I become a human being, truly situated between heaven and earth.
The class begins as an assembly of people who have come from all directions, bearing the traces of very different inner states. Despite all our best efforts to leave daily life outside the room, we bring ourselves as we are, with our own disorderly emotions, attitudes and personal tensions. A dreamy head, with its endless inner talking, compounds the disharmony.
Something is proposed by the teacher and everyone begins to move in unison. Each body, young or old, may be very capable or, on the contrary, very awkward. Each member of the class struggles gamely with their own difficulty, but often with mounting joy. Little by little, something changes. The miracle is that as I struggle to try what is asked, I begin to see all that gets in the way. Then the movements become not only a special kind of food but also a mirror for myself.
For many, the movements become a beloved, though often insufficiently questioned, support in their efforts to grow. Even early on, most people enjoy the challenge. A few react to their own incapacity so strongly that it may be difficult for them to continue. In any case, it is the beginning of a never-ending search to which we can come as we are and in which we can be seen. Individual problems, difficulties, blocks and the quality of attention in each person are apparent. Eventually, this class becomes nearer to being an instrument, an attentive instrument.
It may be asked whether there is really so much difference between a class of movements and an orchestra. In an orchestra there is much of what is needed for the movements: great skill, application, exactitude, care, feeling. However, professional musicians, with experience of Mr. Gurdjieff’s movements, affirm that it is not at all the same. The orchestra is served with the fluency of infinitely practiced automatic actions in an environment of intense absorption. That is what, in the world of sacred dances, we understand as strong identification. The essence of the movements is the struggle against automatism and identification. There is, in the orchestra, much force in the external manifestation, but little or no force in the inner struggle for “I AM.” Speaking personally, I could say that movements have been the love and support of my whole life and my debt to my teachers is immeasurable.
And what of the one who stands in front of the class? Fundamentally he or she continually calls. This means calling the class towards attention, reminding of the need to be in rhythm, insisting on precision of posture and correctness of place within the class. These are the pillars on which a necessary demand is built. With increasing sensitivity, comes the possibility of a finer attention that arises from the effort of the class linked to the search of the teacher.
Before one can teach movements, it is necessary to know them extensively, accurately and deeply. Those entrusted with this task have a very serious responsibility to avoid distortion. Small changes can have surprisingly big effects. Mme de Salzmann has shown how each movement has its own tempo. This is not mechanically definable as speed nor easy to find exactly in relation to the overall conditions of the moment.
The combination of tempo, rhythm and postures provides a framework for the different character of each movement. For a movement to be true, not only in its externals, but also in its inner taste or character, requires conditions that cannot be imposed from the outside. A class can only be helped towards a direction of search through which they will find the necessary conditions for themselves. Nothing can be fixed, and everything remains relative, but the unanimity which is produced by a combined search has an impressive power. There can be a memory of this powerful impression that helps to rediscover, and again rediscover, the direction. There seems to be no end to this search.
The teacher’s question must always be: “What do I serve in all this and can I be aware of my own lack?” We are each so much less than the master and our personalities must always be a question. People react to personality and this distorts the situation. More dangerous still is what I ascribe to myself. Egoism lurks in the teaching and execution of movements, as it does in the whole of life.
Working in movements has often seemed like climbing mountains. One struggles up the lower slopes with mist shrouding the higher ones. Progress, in the sense of understanding, is slow. A certain aim is glimpsed as a peak appears momentarily when the mist lifts. Then, when a pass is eventually reached, the landscape widens. More and more new peaks appear beyond. So much is felt as unknown. So much of the experience is essentially wordless. One realises that there is no end to this expedition and that, ultimately, the movements are as deeply mysterious as life itself.
It is very difficult to convey something of the actual experience of movements to those who have not tasted it. At best, it can be a succession of vivid, living moments in which I struggle and in which, in flashes, I see myself. It is a participation in which I join freely and from which I emerge awakened.
People without experience of Mr. Gurdjieff’s movements often wonder whether they bring a change of state just in the doing? To some extent this is true. Perhaps this is because they are so extraordinary and because their composition is, in a way, for that purpose. But this initial effect is rapidly destroyed by the capacity of the moving intelligence of most people’s body to learn even quite difficult movements. The problem is that as soon as the ‘moving centre’ knows the movement, of course in its own limited way, it tries to do it on its own, without reference to the other centres. What is the result? The other centres are isolated. The consequences can be of different kinds. I may find myself trapped in a head full of comparisons and confusion. I may be haunted by my ego. In any event, I am unable to keep in contact with that moving body and it remains untouched by what it is doing.
I need an ever renewed effort, with awareness from my head, to be attentive to my limbs, to the exact posture and to the movement, under the inexorable demand of the rhythm. A living link is produced in which I now become aware of the energies present. In this state, my head can quietly continue to remember sequences and my feelings may also awaken. With awakened feeling, something more durable sustains my attention.
There is no possibility of the more difficult movements being done with the body alone. The need is evident for different inner connections brought about by a finer attention. The required state is higher than the one in which we ordinarily undergo the routine of our lives. Speaking personally, I have to become more permeable and this means a melting of what gets in the way. I try to allow my three centres to function harmoniously together, in the light of what is felt as a greater intelligence. At moments, I become aware of my body moving, with its parts in harmony, amidst the living presence of the Higher. This is a preparation for a comparable effort on returning to the haphazard and more difficult conditions of daily life.
Yet, for much of the time in any class, it is not at all like this and I find myself in disharmony—inadequate or simply reacting. At one moment I am asked to be very quiet and at the next vigorous, or the other way around. This shows me that I am too cumbersome in myself to adapt quickly enough. At another moment I am almost trampled upon, or I forget to stop, or I lose my place; then I too am quite lost. But in the constant trying, over and over again, in these difficult conditions, there is also the possibility of something to grow up. I seek to enter the conditions more fully and more willingly and to embrace the ups and downs as an aspect of what has to be understood.
As I become more able, my impressions arise not only from the postures, but increasingly from the actual movement between them. We call this “being in movement.” Paradoxically, this process can only exist between two points very precisely situated in time and space; that is, two exact postures taken exactly in rhythm, at the correct tempo. It is not possible to make a meaningful movement without postures at each end, and all lies in the wholeness of these relationships.
In this way, there is built up a special world of finer energies and silent impressions, of form and movement in my body, and in all our bodies. It is a world built up in another kind of time. We need each other for this. Alone we have insufficient force. And these impressions? They are surely given as food for understanding that which resonates in the spoken words of one of the movements:
I, AM, FATHER, SON.
DAY, NIGHT, YESTERDAY, TOMORROW.
~ • ~
Joanna Haggarty was a member of the Gurdjieff Society of London and was introduced to the Work by her mother, a pupil of P. D. Ouspensky. After attending Ouspensky’s last lecture in London in 1947, she joined a group led by Kenneth Walker. She met Gurdjieff briefly in 1949, and began movements with Alfred Etiévant later that year. She participated in two documentary movements films and in Peter Brook’s film, Meetings With Remarkable Men, and was a movements assistant in London and Norway for many years. She died in 1994. This text was first published in The Gurdjieff Society: Report of the Council to Members, (London) April 1995–1996, pp. 19–27.
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Featured: Fall 2003 Issue, Vol. VII (1)
Revision: June 4, 2019