Gurdjieff International Review

Real Exchange in a Group

Jeanne de Salzmann

Our independent efforts, each by ourselves, are insufficient. A group is the beginning of everything, a group of people seeking to live in a more conscious way. A group can succeed better to maintain the effort. Some of us are more vigilant, more responsible. We help one another. But the appearance of this form has to be recognized, not imposed. We have to feel the need for coming together, to be present with others to share a relation of reciprocal attention. To have a basis for a conscious relation, each member must know and accept himself. Each must feel the need for the group, for a world traversed by a certain current of thought and feeling. He has to know that he needs it and must not forget that he needs it. Jeanne de Salzmann

We are, of course, speaking of a group formed for work on oneself that is not on the level of ordinary life. It is animated by thoughts that are different from those of ordinary life, and also by different feelings. Its existence has to be marked by events that are essentially different from those of ordinary life. The first event is the active and committed search for a center of gravity of vigilance in oneself. A centered attention may be drawn in different directions, but it always returns to the center. When we are dispersed we can learn nothing new. This is the “old man,” the automaton who pretends to know, who mouths useless words about ideas that are supposedly understood. The one whose attention is centered seeks to express only the essential about his search and his observations. He is different, a “new man.”

We are in a group because we need help to find a quality in ourselves, a state in which we can experience something real. We need higher influences that are inaccessible when we work alone with our ordinary means. Without the group we cannot come to the necessary intensity. The group is thus a special condition for exchange and a kind of conduit for higher influences, ideas from a higher level of life. But we must be wholly present. We receive these ideas in the exact measure that we are present.

What then is our responsibility? We have an obligation to exchange, and to accept and help each one to play his role in the group so that consciousness, the measure of our actual awareness, determines everything we do. In becoming conscious of ourselves as a group, we experience the truth of our work. It is not right if I only do what I wish in my own way, independent, unwilling to be tested. This shows I am incapable of confronting myself and of relating to the work of another. It means my work has stopped. If the group does not become conscious of itself as a group, it cannot know its place and obligations in the Work. It cannot serve, cannot play its role in the Work.

The group, the fact that we are together, creates a possibility of consciousness. What we engage, what we give, is more important than what we wish to take. Each time the possibility is renewed, we have the opportunity to engage our attention and to serve. This possibility is something great that we must strive to maintain. We have to look at it as precious, as sacred.

I am not alone in my work. When I decide something for myself, I have to feel my belonging to the group. Its life is greater than my own, and it represents something more on the scale of higher Being...

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The life of a group depends on our state and on our questions. We ask whatever we wish about our own work. What are my difficulties now? What do I need to understand, what do I wish to know? What seems important to speak about in my work? When we come together, I must be prepared to speak. I must constantly reflect on my work and not come in a passive state. If I come without being prepared, it has not much sense. If I have no definite aim, we have nothing to speak about. How can we have an exchange? It is impossible.

One of our greatest obstacles is our concept of question and answer, that is, of the transmission of knowledge sought and passed from one person to another. We think that the questioner is less knowledgeable and is in effect asking for an answer to dispel his ignorance. And in life, where everyone relies on what is known, it is like this. But in a group the direction is toward the unknown. The questioner is opening the door to the unknown, and the listener is called to an exchange that flows between them, a movement in two directions. Real change of understanding would mean that, with the listener also questioning and the questioner really listening, the level of both participants would change.

To begin with, if I am in the position of listener, a change is needed in my state. If I am searching for a more active attention, freer to listen, freer from associations and reactions, there can be a greater possibility to explore the question, to go into it more deeply without being caught in the outer formulation. If my attention is more actively engaged, there can be a participation that permits the exchange to flow in two directions and activates the “hearer” in both questioner and listener. But if this active attention is not being searched for, if I receive the question with my ordinary attention—that is, passively—I respond passively and nothing is exchanged, no matter how clever my words or how strong my emotional force. Instead of a new quality of attention and receptivity, permitting the flow of new knowledge in both directions, there is a one-sided relationship of dependence, already existing and now strengthened. This attitude of dependence, which is mutually harmful, will become more and more fixed, and will not allow the activity and freedom necessary for a real exchange...

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When I exchange in a group, I need to know to what I am calling the other person, to what participation. At the very moment of speaking, I may be awkward or insufficient. I do not know what to trust and I agree too easily to lie in affirming a false image of myself. Nevertheless, I need to know the nature of the cooperative effort in which I am engaged. How can I stay in front of what is in question? How can I understand the other, understand his question and relate it to my own in order to have a real exchange? The most important thing is for me to open to my question and to remain open. We wish to learn together, to open to the unknown.

There is an attitude that we must not allow in ourselves, which ruins our work and that of others. We are here with the others to see our nothingness, which otherwise is too difficult to perceive, and to open to the possibilities in ourselves and with others. This requires a desperate effort to find again our measure between these two things. Instead of this, either with our questions or in our responses, we affirm our ordinary “I” and even presume to teach the others.

Nobody can teach. We can only work. And before working we must have taken our measure in order to be convinced of the effort we have to make. Nobody can ask us to be more than we are. But we have no right in the name of the Work to pretend in front of others to something that is not true. Above all I need to work myself, to take my measure. When the others bring questions, it is I who must put a question to myself as well as to them. If I am able to respond a little to the question, it is to myself that I am responding...

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We can do nothing without one another. The exchange we can have together is more necessary than our daily bread. We make efforts alone—we struggle alone, suffer alone, respond alone. But a moment comes when exchange is indispensable, when we need to nourish one another with the fruits of our efforts. And without this exchange, we cannot go further. The more we value our existence, the more the question of relation appears.

Only in the beginning is it necessary to create groups artificially with a leader answering questions. For a definite time, a work of penetration can only take place in coming together in this way. Later the organism forms itself naturally among those of the same level who together feel the need. As we go further, the need for conscious exchange becomes more urgent. We may work separately, each making efforts alone. Yet at certain moments it is imperative to come together to verify and exchange, and in order, by a certain common effort, for truth to emerge more strongly...

How much more time should this form last? This depends on the depth of work of a certain number of people, and the relation established between them—the quality of their exchange. I need to collaborate in a common effort of ascent. If I do not, whether or not I wish it, I am responsible for the stone I do not bring to the edifice. So, we have to reflect deeply on our work together, which little by little must manifest itself in our lives. We must reflect on our relation, on the form of our life together, and, above all, on our exchange.

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These excerpts from Jeanne de Salzmann’s recently published book, The Reality of Being, Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2010, pp. 113–119, are reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

Copyright © 2012 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2012 Issue, Vol. XI (1)
Revision: April 1, 2012