Gurdjieff International Review

Public Lecture at Grace Church

April 9, 1976

By Hugh Ripman

When one reviews the whole field of Western psychology, one is struck by the very strange fact that while for centuries men of great intelligence and good will have been studying the human psyche—after all that, there is not a generally accepted and agreed psychology which explains why man lives as he does and what his possibilities are. But there isn’t such a psychology. And, of course, classical Western psychology has been primarily founded on the study of sick people. And the classical Western psychologist feels his job is done once people can leave him and return able to face the normal pressures and demands of life without the intolerable strain which drove them to him in the first place. Now more recently, in the last few years—beginning, of course, with Jung—a broader-based psychology has been practiced. Some of you may be familiar with the work of Assagioli, “Psychosynthesis.” Some of you may be familiar with the whole movement taking place in the psychological world now under the general name of “transpersonal psychology.” And for people interested in that kind of development, normal is no longer placed at such a low level as the classical normal. Because Jung was interested, Assagioli was interested, and all the transpersonal psychologists are interested in the integration of the self, of the psyche, and the search for and finding of the self: a great adventure, which has been symbolized under many different names in past history.

Gurdjieff himself taught a system of ideas which dealt not only with man but also with the world he lives in. Tonight I am only going to speak about the ideas he taught about man, but I don’t wish to leave the impression that what he taught about the world man lives in is less important than what he taught about man. If one asks oneself the question, “What is the sense and aim of man’s life?”—if one reflects about that question, one sees that it cannot be answered just in terms of man. It must be answered by placing man in a meaningful relation to the universe in which he lives. And for that you have to have a meaningful picture of that universe. So, like every other esoteric system of teaching that I’ve managed to discover, Gurdjieff’s system has two sides: the psychological and the cosmological. But tonight I shall be speaking primarily about the psychological ideas, and since there is a limited time to talk about them, you must expect me, in talking about them, to speak in pretty broad generalizations. Probably there is not an idea which I shall mention tonight which I couldn’t—if I wished to—talk about for the whole evening. So, what I’m going to talk about tonight is tremendously compressed, and obviously when it’s expanded it can and needs to be refined. But I must spread before you what is in effect a large-scale map…

I call this system of Gurdjieff’s a system of practical ideas about man. I call it a system because each of the ideas is organically linked with the whole body of ideas. To understand one idea you have to see its connection with and relation to other ideas. And as one begins to study and understand the ideas, one sees progressively that each is explained by the others and helps to explain the others. And you finally see that you can start to expound this system of ideas from any one of the different ideas and quite logically arrive at the whole system. So it is an organic system of ideas. At the same time I call it a practical system. And by this I mean, quite simply, that the ideas contained in this system can be tested and proved in practice and put into practice. And indeed, while it’s perfectly possible to study these ideas as a matter of philosophy or theory and to write theses about them and so forth, the only way they can be practically useful to a person is if they are studied practically, if their truth is tested and proved against one’s own experience, and if they are put into practice. Therefore, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (whom I was lucky enough to meet more than forty years ago) always said: “Don’t trust me. Don’t believe a word I say. Examine it. Test it. Prove it for yourself.” I must say this appealed to me very much when I first heard it. I was not a person who was drawn to believe just because authorities said to believe. And, if I may insert a personal note, I have found myself, in these forty years, that the more I tested the more I was able to confirm for myself the truth of these particular ideas.

Now, the starting point for the psychological ideas which Gurdjieff taught is that individual human evolution is possible. So, from the beginning, the message he brings to us is a message of hope, a message of the possibility of development, of advance, of making actual one’s own potentialities. He says that nature, by herself, without man’s active participation permits a man to develop to a certain point, which, I think, it’s accurate to call the level of a thinking animal, because what distinguishes men from animals is the power of thought. And this level of development is quite enough to make war or peace, to conduct business, to govern countries, and so on. But if one looks around one, one sees that these things do not, as they are done, result in harmony and happiness. And one sees indeed how the facts, reported in the daily newspapers and on the television news, bring home to one in a very poignant way what Gurdjieff meant when he said, “The world is a painfactory run by madmen.”

He says that if a man wishes and feels the need to develop beyond this point, then it can only happen if he takes an intentional, conscious, intelligent part in the process. And in order to do that, if one looks at individual evolution as the development of a person’s potentialities, one can compare it to a psychological journey from here to there. But the only place from which you can start a journey is where you stand. You can’t start from anywhere else. And Gurdjieff says that most people don’t understand where they stand. They are under illusions about the powers and capacities they have already developed in their lives, and these illusions go very deep and relate to very fundamental characteristics of the human being. I will just mention four, because they are four of the most important illusions that prevent many people from living in the world as it actually is and make them live in an imaginary world fabricated by their own mind.

If, supposing for a moment, these are illusions, then what are the corresponding facts? Instead of having in the psyche a central, integrating, controlling element, Gurdjieff says we have many different I’s, who are contradictory and who take the stage of our inner house in turn, each, while on the stage, imagining himself to be the whole and feeling that he has a right to dispose of the scarce resources of the whole. The picture is rather like that of an orchestra hall. There are many musicians present, but no one on the podium. Some of the musicians happen to be playing what they feel like playing; others, maybe, are using their instruments for totally different purposes. Some may be making love, some talking philosophy. Maybe the cleaning woman is there trying to play an instrument. From time to time one of those present gets up on the podium and tries to bring order into the chaos and harmony out of the cacophony, with what result you can imagine. There is no conductor; there is no discipline; there is no harmonious working together of the different parts.

And now as far as free will is concerned, Gurdjieff tells us that if we examine the situation impartially, we shall find that many more of our reactions to life than we usually imagine are of the nature of conditioned reactions. Our senses bring us messages from the outside world; these messages blend, without our choice or control, with the psychological associations that happen to arise in us at that moment; these psychological associations give the messages brought by our senses a meaning of some kind, and we react to that meaning. But since we do not choose the associations with which the sense perceptions blend, we do not choose the way we react. And we do not understand why it is very often that at one moment the messages brought by our senses arouse one set of associations in us and at another moment they arouse another set of associations in us. The same external event happening on different days, even on different hours in the same day, can mean something quite different and have a quite different effect. These associations have, of course, arisen in us by the accumulation of our past experience of life. And here I would just mention that for each of us the past is, and can be no other than, the accumulation of memories of our own past experiences. Maybe there is an objective past that actually happened, but as far as we are concerned, the past can be nothing but the memory of the way we felt about it. And so we are prisoners of our own past in this way; and if the present doesn’t in any way depart from the past patterns, then the past plus the present mathematically determines the future. And so to speak of free will, when things go like this, makes no sense at all.

Now, to pass to what Gurdjieff called the third illusion: the illusion that we pass our waking hours in a state of clear consciousness, being always aware of what we do and why we do it. He says, on the other hand, that most of the time our state of consciousness is a kind of semi-hypnotic sleep, the characteristic feature of which is that our attention is not under our control and our sense of ourselves is constantly lost in all kinds of different things. Later on in my talk I shall be coming back to the whole complex of ideas about consciousness, but that is all I will say about it for the moment.

Obviously, if the first three illusions of a central, integrating element in the psyche, of free will, and of consciousness—if they are indeed illusions, then obviously the fourth illusion, that man knows himself, is equally an illusion.

Now, the picture is complicated by the fact of a particular feature of the human memory. Unfortunately, in this state, which he called waking sleep, we don’t have access to all parts of the information stored away in all our different memories. And, again, impartial observation will show that if one is in a particular state or mood, one has access indeed to the portions of memory that correspond to that state or mood, and may be completely shut off from inconsistent and contradictory memories which also exist. This is one reason, you see, why one repeats one’s own mistakes: because at the time we make a mistake we never do it on purpose. We do it because some misguided part of us thinks that it is not a mistake, that it is the right thing to do. And at that moment we are connected in memory with previous occasions on which we’ve been faced with the same problem or situation and then also have felt that this was the right thing to do. A few minutes, a few hours, a few days later, we see we have made a mistake. And then, at that moment, we are connected in memory with the previous times we have seen that this mistake was in fact a mistake, and we are not at all connected in that moment with the way we thought and felt at the time we made the mistake. We ask ourselves, “How could I have been so stupid!? ... or so cruel, or so blind?” And the fact that we ask a question like that shows precisely that we are cut off, at the moment we ask that question, from the part of ourselves that made the mistake and thought it wasn’t a mistake at the time. And so often we find ourselves in this cycle, making a mistake, realizing it was a mistake, saying “Aha! I’ve learned that lesson,” determining never to make it again and then going through the whole cycle again. Because we do not remember. We only remember what corresponds to our present mood. So this makes it very difficult indeed and, in fact, if you examine yourself, you will find that at any moment what you do at that moment either feels right, or feels natural, or feels inevitable. If it didn’t feel that way, you wouldn’t do it. Five minutes, five hours later, it may not seem so at all. But at the moment you do it, the fact that you do it shows that at that moment it seems right, it seems natural. And so we find ourselves repeating our mistakes. And suffering, of course, when we realize we have repeated them, from guilt.

We find ourselves expecting things and people to behave in different ways; and often these expectations are unrealistic, and so we are disappointed by the facts. And then we feel we’re justified in feeling sad, or indignant, or despairing, or whatever. But the fact is that what has happened has proved quite clearly that our expectations were unrealistic. But we cling to them nevertheless. And so we cling inevitably to the disappointments and the various sufferings that result from this. You probably know, most of you, that the starting point of Buddha’s teaching was that life is full of suffering of different kinds. This is not Gurdjieff’s starting point; but he says if you examine closely what happens, you will see a great deal of suffering. And he says—because as I say, his message is a message of hope—that a great deal of this suffering is not necessary, is not obligatory, is not imposed upon you from outside by any law of nature. And so, if you understand why it happens, what are the inner causes, you can let it drop off your back. But to understand is not easy.

Another feature which Gurdjieff tells us is characteristic of the way we live our lives is that our various functions don’t work in harmony. And while it is possible to elaborate the scheme of functions for this purpose, at this stage I simply refer to the division of functions: to head, and heart, and body. We know what is right to do sometimes, but we don’t do it because it doesn’t feel good. We do what feels good in the heart, not what the head tells us we should do. And if there is a conflict within us, as there often is, for instance, when we face a difficult decision in our lives, what wins out is the member of our inner family who carries the most emotional clout. This is what happens. And so again and again we find ourselves faced with a problem in which the mind, the reason, ought to provide the answer; but what happens in fact is that perhaps we decide this problem on the basis of like or dislike and not on the basis of reason at all. So the centers do not work in harmony. The picture which Gurdjieff uses about this is a symbol of man you can find in one of the Upanishads (I think it is the Katha Upanishad), namely, what Gurdjieff calls an equipage, consisting of a cart, a horse, a driver, and a master. The cart is the body; the horse is the emotions; the driver is the mind, the reason; and the master, if he is there, is I. Now what he says about this is that the cart is in very bad repair; the horse is not under the driver’s control; the driver is often lost in daydreams; and the master is not there at all. This is a picture of the human condition.

Clearly, if what Gurdjieff says can be proved to be true, there is, as he says, something very seriously wrong. But he certainly would not ask you to believe that at all. And if one has oneself some suspicion that something is very seriously wrong, then the question arises, “How is it possible to find out whether what Gurdjieff says is actually true in my own experience?” And this is not easy. Because it isn’t just a question of making words in the mind about this. It isn’t just a question of thinking about it. One can do this very easily. One can talk about it and discuss it until one is blue in the face; but this is not what Gurdjieff means when he says, “If you wish to test the truth of the ideas, you must do it by observation.”

Now observation is something that can only be done in the moment. You can’t observe what happened five minutes ago or five moments from now. And the difficulty which we find when we try to observe ourselves resides in the enormous difficulty of dividing our attention into two different parts and directing each of these different parts towards one of two things. One thing is the action we are currently engaged in. This needs attention to go on. The other thing is attention directed towards oneself doing that. It’s rather like a naturalist studying a rather elusive animal. But the naturalist and the animal are separate; and when we come to ourselves, we have to make intentionally this separation between what watches and what acts. We have to make a very difficult inner move whereby a Silent Witness is set up inside ourselves, who is just there, who is aware of what is going on, who doesn’t engage in judgment about what is going on. He is simply aware. Now this is most extraordinarily difficult. And we’re not taught to do this. In our lives it happens sometimes, sometimes as the result of some major shock of some kind which life provides, or sometimes under stress of very great emotional intensity, or sometimes as the result of illness, that there is something that can look on. A witness—quite separate from the thinking that is going on, from the emotions that are going on, from the sensations of the body—just a witness. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just aware.

Now if this witness is present, what can he see? What can he experience? The only thing that he can experience at that moment is the behavior of the various functions; and as a very crude preliminary division, we have the head, the heart, and the body. He can be aware of the thoughts that are going on in the head. He can be aware of the emotions stirring in the heart. He can be aware of the sensations of the body. And that is all. He cannot be aware directly of what lies behind that. So observation of this sort can provide a lot of raw data about the way one behaves, how one lives one’s life. But it cannot by itself answer the question, “Why do I live my life as I do?” For this something further is necessary: analysis—the application of reason to the data collected by this process of naked observation.

Because if one applies reason to this question of “Why do I behave and react as I do? Why do I live my life as I do?” reason properly applied can answer that question. And then one begins to see that behavior is a symptom behind which lie causes that are in themselves invisible but can be discovered by the application of reason. And if one does that, one will find progressively that these causes consist in attitudes of various kinds to oneself and to the world around one, and that these attitudes are very closely linked in many cases to different self-images.

Since we are many and not one inside, we do not, of course, have only one self-image. We have many different self-images. When I am successful, I have one self-image. When I have failed in something, I have another. When I am in love, I have one self-image. When I’ve just been jilted, I have another. There are many different self-images. And it’s really impossible to get a clear image of the whole. One can get images of different parts at different times, but you will find, I think, if you try to form an image of the whole for yourself that it’s very, very difficult indeed.

Now in this process of self-observation, which is necessary in order to prove for oneself against one’s own experience whether what Gurdjieff says is true, one needs from the beginning to have some kind of scheme to classify one’s observations. And as a start, it’s very good to take the functions of the head, the functions of the heart, the functions of the body. And then as one becomes more familiar by direct observation with these different functions, one sees that each of them is a whole in itself. Each of them thinks, feels, has memory. One sees certainly that they do not always act in harmony, and one sees them acting by themselves without any control at all. One sees how in different states and moods these various functions act with fluctuating efficiency. One of the most annoying and irritating things in life is, when one has learned to do something quite well, to find one day that one cannot do it as well as one knew one could do yesterday. When we have experience of being at the top of our form, it’s extremely frustrating to try to recapture that on a day when we can’t do it. So we observe these various functions operating with fluctuating efficiency.

Now for any function to operate at all, it requires the availability of the corresponding kind of energy. Energy is a very popular subject now; but while we are concerned with the crisis of energy outside in the world, we need to be concerned with the energy situation in the psyche and the body much more than we are. We need to realize that there is a critical situation as far as energy is concerned. I will speak further about energy in a minute.

We also find these different functions operate in different states of attention. Attention is very like light. It can be concentrated or diffused. It can be broadcast or directed. And we don’t have much control over attention. I shall speak again about attention more at length.

And we see also, as I have mentioned before, that these different functions sometimes try to do each other’s work. They are linked together in various associational ways, so that when something goes wrong in one of these centers, it affects the other centers. The most obvious example, which is familiar to everybody, is psychosomatic illness. Something is wrong in the psyche—it affects the body. Anxiety produces indigestion. There are many examples you can think of.

Now let us pause a moment to consider this question of energy. The body and the whole organism of man from this point of view is a system of interlocking energy transformation systems. We get raw material for this energy from outside in the form of food and drink, in the form of air, and in the form of sense impressions of different kinds. All this raw material for energy coming in to the organism from outside is digested in various ways. There is a kind of psychological digestion, and indeed I should say that on the whole people suffer more from psychological indigestion than they do from somatic indigestion. But the feature of our inner energy situation is that whereas the organism normally produces enough energy to fuel all the useful functions which are carried out, and to leave something over which would be available for further transformation by these processes analogous to digestion, in fact that doesn’t happen, because a great deal of energy is wasted in unnecessary, harmful, and useless functions of different kinds. Take a very simple example: it won’t be difficult if you wish to examine it for yourself, to find out that during your waking hours, almost without interruption, there is a stream of words and images passing through the mind.

A great deal of this mental activity is not intentional. It just happens. A great deal of it is not even controllable. How often we meet a situation when our mind is seized, possessed by some form of thought. We wish to make it quiet, and we can’t. And so it often happens that when one comes to a situation where directed, clear thought is required we find we simply haven’t the energy, the mental energy, to do it, because our scarce stock has been frittered away in this loose-pulley work that goes on in the mind by itself without any intention. At the same time when we meet an emotional situation which requires the force of emotion, we very often find we don’t have it. It’s been nibbled away by anxieties, irritations, fears—many of them small and passing; but no matter if a function is dramatic and large or is small and passing, to function at all it requires the expenditure of energy. And so this is the situation as far as the internal energy crisis is concerned. A great deal of energy is wasted. And the most important kinds of energy that are wasted are the energies of emotion, because in order to transform the truth which can be seen by reason into the good which is felt in the heart and has effect upon action, emotional energy is required.

And the other important kind of energy which is constantly wasted is the energy of attention. And if one is ever to become able to control what goes on in the psyche one will not be able to do it without having control over attention. We sometimes feel as if we had control over attention because our attention is drawn in a particular direction for some time, but if you examine it closely, you will find that most of the time it is drawn and not directed. There are exceptions to this; for example, a good professional man, if he is good in his profession, will have learned by necessity, in that context of his life, to control and direct his attention. But very often you find that outside that context this ability doesn’t operate at all.

Self-study (as I have described it with its two components of conscious observation, consciously experiencing oneself in action, and subsequent analysis) will serve to show up the illusions I mentioned earlier as illusions. And if one sees for oneself these are indeed illusions, then one sees a reason to change something; and one has an incentive to change something. But if reason has done its work, what has to be changed will be seen not to be patterns of behavior, but the invisible inner causes living behind them.

It is easy enough, and one sees it on all sides, for one part of a man to disapprove of another part. And if the part that disapproves is backed by sufficient emotional force, it will be effectively able to repress or suppress the part that it disapproves of. But this is no cure, because it’s dealing with symptoms and not with causes. It’s rather like taking an aspirin to drive away a headache when you don’t know whether the headache is caused by indigestion, by anxiety, or by a brain tumor. This process that one sees many people going through (of a stronger part suppressing a weaker part of which it disapproves) is all on the same psychological level—this kind of process I call reform. But Gurdjieff is not interested in this kind of process. He is interested in raising the general psychological level of consciousness and in a kind of transformation whereby the thinking animal becomes a man in the full sense of the word. And this means that the contradictory parts have to be brought to agreement. It means that the parts that make mistakes have to be brought to understand that they are mistakes. It means the introduction of order and harmony instead of chaos in the inner house, and this cannot be done on the same psychological level as the chaos itself.

You know, of course, the stress laid by many well-meaning Christians on sin and guilt and the feeling that if one feels guilty enough about something a change for the better will take place. This is complete self-deception. But it is interesting to go back and examine the root meaning of the Greek word in the New Testament that is translated by sin and sinners. If you go back—and I just looked it up to confirm this in the big Greek dictionary before I left home—the word means “to err, to make a mistake, to be erroneous.” That is the root meaning of that word that is translated by sin. And if a part of us errs, it errs because it has misunderstood things or it is in some way misguided. And to exercise violence in relation to that is not likely to clear up the misunderstanding. So a kind of inner process of re-education is necessary whereby in the end these parts that are misguided have their illusions cleared away, and so can take part as willing members of an inner team all pulling in the same direction.

Now at this point when a man has seen that it is true of himself that something is very seriously wrong, and when he’s seen what needs to be changed, and when he wishes to change, then the question of the means and techniques of change become practical. I would say in parenthesis that it is an occupational hazard here during the process of self-observation that one sees many things in oneself that one wishes to change. But at that point one sees symptoms, one sees behavior. And until one sees the causes behind those symptoms, it is not wise to try to change too much; because if you just change the symptoms, the causes go on as they were before, and, sooner or later, find another way of expressing themselves. Or else the lid is so tightly held on the kettle that when sufficient pressure is generated inside the kettle, the lid blows off, and you get an explosion.

Now in order to put into practice the various means and techniques that are available for change, one must have trained oneself previously, like an athlete faced with a race, and developed strength in one’s psychological muscles. And by that I mean that every attempt to change requires an embryonic effort of will which needs to be practiced. And I would draw your attention to the fact that will cannot grow in strength unless it is exercised against resistance. The idea of will in the absence of resistance falls to the ground. It makes no sense. Will implies resistance. And will grows by its exercise against resistance.

Another psychological muscle that has to be exercised is this feature that I’ve referred to already several times, the control of attention. Because if one doesn’t learn to control attention, then it’s robbed very quickly by all sorts of things; and then one finds one forgets, because attention has been taken. One’s attention has been possessed by one thing or another.

And the third psychological muscle is the capacity to separate oneself from one’s functions, which begins to be exercised from the moment you try to set up this Silent Witness to observe what is going on.

So if these muscles have been exercised and trained, one can become able. Because the process of change, if you like, is in three stages. First, to wish to change. This is the starting point. Secondly, to be able to change. This is something quite different and a gradually on-going process. The third, to be different. To change requires the investment of intelligent effort. Once that effort has been applied and the change has taken place, then that kind of effort is no longer necessary. You start from a position in which what is habitual feels natural, and although your reason may show you that something else would be much better, that something is strange. It feels alien. It feels kind of unfriendly to start with, because what is habitual feels natural, feels friendly. And so the process of change is a process whereby what starts out by feeling natural ends up by feeling unnatural. And the new thing that starts out by feeling strange and alien becomes more and more familiar until it is felt as natural. At that point one reaps the dividends of the efforts one has invested in this process of change, and no longer has to invest as much.

So at this point we see clearly the need to substitute, for the inner causes of fear, the consciously created inner causes of confidence. One sees one has to substitute the inner causes of hate with the inner causes of love. And obviously this is a process that cannot be done by just wishing it were so. It has to be worked upon. The new, which you wish to create in you, has to come up against the old which is there anyhow. There has to be friction between them. They have to be present at the same time. Because what is the use of realizing that you wish to be different in a certain situation, if you forget it when that situation arises? So that part of the process of becoming able to change is increasing one’s capacity to remember what one wants to be at the right time.

Now both efforts to observe oneself and efforts to change need to be conscious efforts. And this is the time when I must enlarge about what I said about consciousness. When I first started studying under Ouspensky in 1934, the idea of the relativity of consciousness was quite a novel idea. Today it’s familiar. Everybody has read about consciousness expanding and the relativity of consciousness. Gurdjieff speaks about consciousness as covering a very wide spectrum, and he takes four points in this spectrum as useful to distinguish. It is a continuous spectrum, but these four points are useful to distinguish.

Indeed, it is said in relation to these four states of consciousness that they each have a different relation to our possibility of knowing and experiencing truth. When physically asleep, in effect we cannot experience truth. In this waking state we can experience what is called relative truth. We can know that a full glass of water weighs more than an empty glass, and many things like that. In the state of self-consciousness we can know the truth about ourselves, but by that I don’t mean that by simply becoming aware of one’s existence separate from one’s functions that one can know all the truth about oneself. I simply mean that one can have access to the memory of the truth one has established for oneself, and at the same time experience directly and impartially what is happening at the moment.

This process of change is made difficult by many things. It is made difficult because we forget that we want to change at all. It’s made difficult by the fact that we’re liable, when we forget the reason why we started it all, to mistake means for ends and to lose ourselves in techniques and forget why we started to use the techniques at all. It’s made difficult by the fact that we lose our attention, as I have mentioned; and by losing our attention, we lose our contact with the memory of what we know we need to remember. It’s made difficult by the fact that we’re surrounded on all sides in life by influences of quite a different order, concerned with quite different values. And unfortunately, in the ordinary way, we are very suggestible in different ways, as those very experienced practical psychologists in charge of advertising know very well and take full advantage of. When we need the energy to make efforts of change, it’s often not there because it has been wasted in different ways. And one of the major obstructions to change is the fact that it is only a small part of us that wishes to change at all. There are lots of other parts of us that have quite different ideas about how to spend our resources, quite different values to live by, and they seize our sense of ourselves and go running off in all directions and simply have no idea about change. And, moreover, when the efforts of change begin to become at all serious, then these different parts of ourselves that have deeply vested interests in growing and becoming more like they are—then their claws really come out, and they can resist in every possible way. Sometimes very crudely, sometimes very subtly indeed.

Against change of any kind is the fact that if we examine ourselves we find that, generally speaking, our behavior follows a line of psychological least resistance. Habit is the easiest way to respond to the events of life. It requires the least attention, the least choice, the least exercise of will. It’s the easiest way. So, there’s a very strong pull of habit which keeps us from change. But I would add that we can’t stand still. Either we change as the result of our intention voluntarily, or we change unconsciously. And you see this process going on in people whereby their existing tendencies and inclinations grow stronger by repetition until they lose all power of adaptability. Gurdjieff once defined intelligence as the capacity to adapt. And so you find you meet people, old people, and some people who are not so old, for whom any kind of change is pain and grief. They have become so crystallized in their habits that any suggestion that they change them is regarded as an intrusion of the worst sort.

So there are various obstacles; and while each person has and has to deal with his own particular difficulties and obstructions to change, there are certain ones which most people have in common, and we’ll just mention a few of them.

The first is the state which is called Identification, which is the state in which one is stuck to a part of oneself that feels itself to be the whole. One can identify with many different things, but the feature is that one immediately narrows down the world one lives in so that one doesn’t see things in proportion; and one doesn’t have access to the memory of all one’s own experience. And there are particular forms which this takes. In our relations with other people this is called by the term Inner Considering. And this means that because we, most of us, don’t have any clear concept of our own self-worth, we are constantly obliged to fall back in our judgment of our worth on other people’s opinions, which puts us entirely at the mercy of other people. This particular feature of our lives shows itself in many, many different ways. It obliges us to do many things which are quite unnecessary; and it frequently holds us back from taking advantage of opportunities which life offers and which, if we did take advantage of, we would enjoy very much, but we’re held back by some feeling about what others would think. We find ourselves harried by hope of other people’s acceptance and approval and by fear of their criticism and rejection. And we don’t understand that however much people praise us it doesn’t in itself make us any better than we are, and however much other people criticize and reject us it doesn’t make us any worse than we are. True, our reaction to praise and blame may make us worse, but the fact of being praised or blamed doesn’t make us any worse or any better. But it is very difficult to realize this—to remember it, and to put it into practice.

Another feature of our lives which operates against change and which eats up a great deal of energy is various kinds of unpleasant emotion—the feature of which is in general that we feel they’re being imposed upon us from outside—that people and situations make us mad or sad, or whatever it may be. Because we don’t realize that the causes of this are inside us, we see no possibility of escape from it. It seems to be a feature of life to which we must be subject. So long as we feel this way, there is no escape. The moment we begin to feel that the causes may be inside, there is a possibility of seeing how to escape from all these unnecessary sufferings of different kinds.

Another obstruction to change is the way in which we lose ourselves constantly in imagination and in daydreams which operate to falsify the record of the past, and to present to us a picture of the future according to some kind of wish or fear for ourselves which is quite wide of the mark. And we find also in examining what goes on in our daydreams and imagination that they act very often and very effectively to feed our pride, our conceit, our vanity. So we get exaggerated pictures of ourselves. We expect or demand other people to treat us accordingly. When they don’t, we suffer.

Two other features of our lives as they are lived stand in the way of change. One is our habit of talking, particularly inner talking, because this habit is so pervasive that we almost never know peace of mind. I would just remind you that the Bhagavad-Gita tells us that “without peace of mind there can be no happiness.” But this constant stream of words prevents us very effectively from experiencing peace of mind. And closely allied with this is our habit of lying, both to other people and to ourselves.

Now I’ve laid stress on the difficulties of change, the resistances to change, the obstructions to change; but I come back to the main point: that change is possible. This is the important thing. One can discover the causes of one’s own suffering, and one can substitute other things for them so that one is able to let drop a great deal of suffering. One can discover the causes of hate, and see what has to be substituted, and substitute the causes of love. One can learn to become open to what Gurdjieff speaks about as a function which has been deeply buried during our lives, but which continues to exist, and which we need very much in our lives, namely: the function of conscience. I won’t go into exactly what conscience is now because I am sure if I asked you all what it was I’d get a great many different answers, and I don’t wish to impose upon you my own idea of it.

But obviously if one wishes to change, one has to be prepared to pay the price of change; and so this means that, as with any other difficult thing one undertakes in one’s life, there must be a minimum input of intelligent effort for change of any sort to take place at all. This is not a system for amateurs or dilettantes. It’s a system that requires a professional approach. And it’s very good to think for oneself what a professional approach means. It means you have to be prepared to pay a price.

But, normally speaking, it means also that you need other people. And Gurdjieff certainly says that to try and go through this process of self-observation, of analysis, of change, by oneself, is quite extraordinarily difficult. So that one finds one needs help in doing this. It’s as if a band of men set out to climb a mountain. If one man starts it by himself it’s extremely difficult. But if a band of men join together, for each of them, it is easier than if they work by themselves. Moreover, in any profession one takes advantage of the fruits of other people’s experience. You see, in general, in this matter of change nobody can do for a man what he has to do for himself; but he can be given tools, the use of which experience has proved.

Now one can do various things with tools if one is given them. One can set them out on black velvet in a nice display case and show all one’s friends what a beautiful set of tools I have. But one doesn’t learn to be a carpenter that way. Or one can start by taking these tools and experimenting without instruction. And one can make egregious mistakes, and can harm oneself, because these tools are very sharp tools. Or one can decide that one will seek help in the use of tools from those who have already learned their use. Help of some kind makes what is in any case an extremely difficult task a little less difficult than it would be without help.

I would emphasize the fact that Gurdjieff’s system is not at all a system that requires one to turn one’s back on life. It is a system which recommends that what is necessary is a new approach to life—to meet life in a new way. Because the situations of life are the field of application for any kind of inner change, and the way one meets them is the acid test for the results of any efforts one has made to change. So Gurdjieff calls this way the Fourth Way. Not a way which concentrates on turning one’s back on life and developing one of the three centers, but a way in which work has to go on simultaneously on all the different elements which make up the totality of man’s organism. It isn’t a way that demands faith or belief. It isn’t a way of devotion. But it is a way in which progress cannot be made at all without the participation of emotion.

This work is really directed in three different ways. One is raising the general level of consciousness. One is working towards producing psychological integration, unity in the psyche. And one is directed at substituting order and harmony for chaos. And here the question of levels is very important. Here the principle applies which has been expressed in the words, “As above, so below.” And I think you will find that any system of esoteric knowledge you study contains at least these two fundamental ideas: that in some way, in which to begin with we can’t quite understand, the universe as a whole is one and man is one. And at the same time, within this one there is a hierarchy of different levels. And so in order for harmony to be produced in the human organism, the things at different levels have to stand in the right relation one to another. So, change is difficult, but change is possible. Gurdjieff’s message is a message of hope. He says like Moses said, “Choose thee life that thou mayest live.” Because today, as we are most of the time, we are lived by our lives. We don’t live them actively.

And one also has to look at this process of change on a bigger scale. Each of us certainly is concerned with his own suffering and how to escape from his suffering, with his own undeveloped possibilities and how to develop them. But we live in a world, as I said previously, which offers no great grounds for optimism. And at the same time man was born with the possibility of becoming a channel for influences from higher levels in the universe to be received on earth. And unless a certain number of men make actual this possibility in the bulk of mankind, then, indeed, the experiment of creating what Gurdjieff calls “this three-brained being” on the surface of a very minor planet, revolving around a minor sun in the outskirts of the universe, will have failed. And when one looks around one, one sees quite clearly that there’s no guarantee that it won’t fail. But at the same time to contemplate the mass evolution of mankind doesn’t make any kind of sense. The masses don’t evolve in the time-scale of individuals or generations. To think of the evolution of mankind in mass, one has to think in terms of the total time scale of the life of mankind on earth—not just the life of individual people. But massive evolution cannot possibly occur unless a certain number of individuals achieve this process.

These ideas about which I’ve been talking to you can indeed be studied as a matter of philosophy or theory; but to do any good to the man who studies them and to the people with whom he is in contact, they have to be studied in a practical way.

So I’ve come to the end of what I wished to say to you tonight. I thank you all very much for the attention with which you have listened. I hope I have not exhausted you too much. And I will just say in conclusion that anyone who feels themselves interested or drawn to pursue the study of these ideas in a practical way should please speak to me after I’ve finished, and write down on the yellow pad I have here his name and address.

Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2003 The Gurdjieff Society of Washington, D.C.
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Featured: Spring 2003 Issue, Vol. VI (1)
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