Gurdjieff International Review

This Entity We Call the Body

by Don Hoyt

Copyright © 2002 Institut Gurdjieff, Paris

A tomb. A garment, to be discarded at death. An obstacle to the awakening process. A place of bondage.

These are but a sampling of ways in which the human body has been viewed in almost all of the spiritual traditions. One of the more classic expressions of this view can be found in the mantra-like words: “I am not this body.”

It is an utterance that, curiously, is neither true nor false. Rather it is irrelevant to whatever purpose or function this brief sojourn on earth is destined to serve. In a strange way the words also betray a disdain of this physical being; a disdain that almost borders on spiritual hubris in that it views as virtually worthless this awesome creation. We would do well to ponder the implications of this perception since at an unconscious level it has profoundly influenced our attitude towards the physical body.

When we move outside the spiritual traditions, we find that the prevailing attitude towards this corporeal reality—this entity we call the body—is not so significantly different. At best the body is viewed as a biological extension of the whole psychic-physical organization that comprises what it is to be a human being. In this more general context, the body is that which one learns to deal with, to cope with, to placate, to enjoy, to tolerate, to pamper, to control, to discipline, and much more.

Bear in mind, however, that these delineations of how we relate to this living creature, are merely punctuation marks falling across the continuum of general awareness. For the most part the body—as a living being—rarely comes into the field of our consciousness.

We are for the most part simply oblivious of its presence as an existential reality—as a living entity having its own intelligence and sphere of awareness. Except of course when it is hungry, in need of rest or sex, or when it is sending out signals of euphoric pleasure or intense pain.

Nevertheless, some observers might well respond to this with the disclaimer that there has been an increasing interest, particularly in the last three decades, in techniques that promise to enhance our relation to the body. After all, it cannot be disputed that a remarkable upsurge of enthusiasm has appeared for books and training seminars that offer a wide variety of sensory awareness techniques.

Ironically, it is precisely here that we see one of the clearest examples of what has been described as the dilemma of the modern era—the mind/body split—a phrase that by now elicits little more than a yawn since it has become just one more cliché of our times.

Yet as we pay closer attention to some of the more recent attempts to “heal this split”—through invoking a deeper appreciation and affirmation of the body’s role in our life—we see once again that it turns into the same old song. It is still the mind at work.

For it is the mind that conceptualizes the problem in the first place. And it is the mind that then proceeds to orchestrate one or another program to alleviate this problem.

Once again then, we find that even with such subtle techniques as “listening to the body,” or “following the breath,” or coming to a more “global sensation” of the body, that the implementation of these techniques is undertaken by permission of the mind. And oddly enough, this continues to escape our notice. It is the mind that still holds the baton.

Very rarely do we come upon a truly reciprocal relation, in which there is a sharing of awareness between body and mind—as co-partners. Yet it is precisely this state of rapport with our earthly companion, that provides an indispensable foundation for the real work of self-study and self-awakening. And as we become more practiced in this way of relating to the body, something interesting occurs. We find that the living presence of this being begins to make itself known to us through its emanations—which we experience as sensation or sensory awareness—and that this enables us to partake of the body’s own field of awareness. Not as object to the mind, but as subject within its own sphere of influence and awareness.

We realize then that we are no longer associated with a “body.” Rather, that we are in the presence of a living being, a being with whom we share the journey towards spiritual awakening.

What is extraordinary about this way of approaching the body is that the experience of it seems so natural. It is also pragmatic in that it has the effect of freeing the attention from its usual deep identification with the tensions (and thus from the physical, mental and emotional habits that are supported by these tensions).

We discover then that this dynamic state of rapport with our living partner grounds us; it grounds our work. Instead of dreaming of the work of spiritual transformation, we live the work. And because we are thus grounded, we become thereby more receptive to the help from above that is always available to transform us—whenever the inner conditions allow this lawfully to take place.

In an exchange that took place in New York in 1924, following a demonstration of the movements, Gurdjieff addressed the question: “What place do art and creative work occupy in your teaching?”

You saw our movements and dances. But all you saw was the outer form—beauty, technique. But I do not like the external side you see. For me, art is a means for harmonious development. In everything we do the underlying idea is to do what cannot be done automatically and without thought…

If our aim is a harmonious development of man, then for us, dances and movements are a means of combining the mind and the feeling with movements of the body and manifesting them together. In all things, we have the aim to develop something which cannot be developed directly or mechanically—which interprets the whole man: mind, body, and feeling.

The second purpose of dances is study…

Thus movements have two aims: study and development. 1

In light of Gurdjieff’s response one may begin to appreciate—at a deeper level of engagement—that the attention does have the inherent capacity to come into closer and more intimate proximity with this entity we call the body, and, through an attitude of study, to acknowledge the reality of its living presence experienced as a vital member of our total psycho-physical-spiritual being, revealing thereby its capacity to serve a noble and conscious endeavor, the endeavor of “combining the mind and the feelings with movements of the body and manifesting them together.”

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1 Views from the Real World: Early Talks of Gurdjieff, p. 183, from the Chapter “Questions and Answers on Art, etc., New York, February 29, 1924.”

Copyright © 2002 Donald Hoyt
This webpage © 2002 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2002 Issue, Vol. V (1)
Revision: April 1, 2002


In 1955, Don Hoyt became a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation under the guidance of Lord Pentland. During the subsequent years, together with several other senior people, he was responsible for the work of movements classes. After Lord Pentland’s death in 1984, Don Hoyt served as President of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California until 1988.