Gurdjieff International Review

Working with the Movements

by Henri Thomasson

Copyright © 2002 Institut Gurdjieff, Paris

If you want to get inside yourself, you must find the right physical position, otherwise you will not be able to sustain your effort for any length of time. It is only when all parts of the body are relaxed and centered around one axis that this is possible. A vertical spine keeps both head and internal organs in a single line that connects with the centre of the earth’s attraction. It now becomes possible to collect attention from all parts of one’s body in one place, rather than have it dispersed among the various limbs and organs of perception. What was a crude, fragmentary and often quite illusory sensation of awareness becomes an acutely sensitive central vibration that may truly be called ‘a sensation of oneself’.

In this position a very special level of attention can be reached, and it brings with it a distinct feeling of the two natures of man: the one belonging to the external world and the other to the mysterious source of life itself.

All the physical processes that take place in the ordinary life of the body belong to the first nature. Once we recognise the ease with which we slide from most of our efforts of attention into the habitual functioning of our thoughts and accept the whole range of our everyday joys and sufferings, we have a clear indication of the taste and quality of the lower world.

When all thoughts and imagination drop away and only the vibrations of the living body are the centre of attention, the other world becomes accessible. Here all accustomed motives of desire and curiosity become completely unreal and a new kind of thought, liberated from form and composed of a pure but very fragile energy, appears.

It is possible to belong to both of these worlds at once, but for this a new relationship between them must be established and the present state of affairs, where the external takes everything for itself, must be reversed. The lower nature should be at the service of the higher, for a passive element can never be other than subservient to one that is active.

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In spite of all this theoretical knowledge, I myself at first experienced a strong rejection of the exercises, always called ‘the Movements’, which Gurdjieff insisted on as an essential part of his teaching.

Whenever I saw a group of pupils practising these gymnastics, as I called them, I had a strong impression that here was a secondary form of work, very good for helping those who were intellectually limited. It was natural that such people should be enthusiastic about what they were doing, but I certainly belonged to a different category of learner.

This impression lasted for a long time, even after I had overcome my refusal and begun to practise. I had to put in a great deal of very attentive work before my body began to be able to escape even a little from the inhibitions imposed on it by other parts of myself and to sense the power of these exercises and dances. Only at these moments was it possible for me to perform the required movements in a way I could consider even relatively satisfactory.

It was much longer before I had any concrete and physical experience of the strange alchemy by which the movements worked. Then quite unknown channels of energy opened up in me, breaking through barriers and smoothing down the grooves through which my energy was accustomed to flow away.

I began to realise the many-sided nature of these movements. At first sight they seem only to be exercises of attention, but they can also be regarded as a language in the sense that, by symbolic gestures and other signs, postures and displacements, they express cosmic laws which are difficult to perceive through our ordinary senses and are even beyond the scope of our present understanding. Some movements seem quite clearly to offer a means of transmitting knowledge that rational thought cannot grasp to levels in a man which are higher than any he can ordinarily reach. He can feel a sort of alchemical process taking place in him that not only gives him glimpses of ‘the Way’, but enables him to move in that direction.

At first the only problem that arises in working on the movements is the establishment of the correct posture and the succession of gestures and displacements that go with it. At this stage, the attention must be focused on the parts of the body that have to perform the various movements, either simultaneously or in rapid succession. This is difficult enough, but soon another effort is needed—the turning of the most refined quality of attention one can achieve towards the sensation of oneself as a whole. For a long time one’s approach to this additional demand cannot but be very clumsy. Nevertheless, the double effort of attention does sometimes appear, bringing with it a fleeting taste of liberty which, however short its duration, is so unforgettable that it is eagerly sought for again.

Once this kind of work begins to be possible, the movements are no longer controlled by reference to a mental image alone—they depend on the acute sensation of oneself that springs from this more active level of attention. One can say now that the movement is made through and not by me. This changes everything.

However much one may wish to do a movement by reference to a mental image alone, this can never be successful, as the mind is not sufficiently quick to control the instrument that must produce the required physical activity, and the body is inhibited in its attempt to meet a demand to which it is not accustomed. Movements made in this way will be neither precise nor on time. Seeing this, emotion arises and confuses everything. The activity remains on a quite ordinary level and the contractions habitual in ordinary life remain as barriers to the correct flow of energy which begins to stream out in all directions in the uncontrolled way which is one of the chief causes of man’s usual lack of contact with his own body.

When attention is dispersed like this, the movements either cannot be done at all or are, at best, a series of mere gymnastics. If, however, a certain amount of inner attention can be maintained, energy flows through the body as it should, using the natural channels which exist for this purpose. This brings a feeling of inner clarity and movements can be made with a sense of ease and freedom, built up partly by the speed of the movements themselves, which seems at times to be beyond the limits of what is possible for the body, and partly by the opening up of inner contacts which come from the changed flow of energy.

Disconnection from interference from the head allows a new freedom of thought and a better control of gesture and helps to keep attention on oneself. The different quality of physical activity which then becomes possible leads in turn to a more positive functioning of the emotions. So for a moment, three centres are experienced as working together on a level that is felt to be the same for them all. Incidentally, this experience makes it possible to be in contact with the specific energy of each centre and to be aware of the mental and physical habits and convolutions of every kind that are the basis of all inward and outward activity.

This equilibrium, however, exists only under threat from the insidious mechanicalness that is always there, waiting to take over. As soon as activity becomes automatic, that is, as soon as a movement is felt to be known, dreams find their way in and the necessary level of attention ceases to be upheld. Then either all attention is absorbed in keeping a sensation of oneself or the pleasure of the easy and harmonious flow of movement occupies one entirely: the movement loses its true direction and should at once be stopped. A different exercise must be substituted in order to activate the attention again and restore it to the required level. This categorical abandonment of a movement when the inner attitude is at fault is one of the most disconcerting experiences that the beginner has to accept.

As time goes on, the movements bring to life in us parts that have previously existed beyond our ordinary perception. A new world, bathed in the strange sense of inner presence evoked by the exercises, replaces the fog in which our usual mental activities exist and this can bring with it a transcendental emotion.

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What exactly are these movements? This question can really be answered only from direct experience of practise of the movements. Nevertheless it can certainly be said very precisely that they lead to the attainment and maintenance of an awakened state. We would gladly remain satisfied with the sensation of inner life that comes with this state, but the question remains alive in us and draws us on towards aspects that are less immediately perceptible. We feel that we must seek further. The sense of inner life that arises from the work on attention and from relaxation, as well as from the ordered combinations of gesture and posture, gives us a new contact with the body and brings with it a sense of lightness and fluidity that is not entirely physical. It seems that the body is the instrument of a new source of life. It becomes available for all that is asked of it and finds in this act of service both liberty and a joy that is not only the joy of the functions in harmonious movement, or of the more active participation of the entire body, but also the joy of being here as a whole, in a state of relative presence to oneself.

Now we see the possibility of becoming more subtle instruments and of the opening up of channels for those other, higher influences which are always flowing through us, though ordinarily quite unrecognised. Once these become perceptible, they can be used to feed those higher parts in a man which make it possible for him to pursue his search. Because of this, the movements may, in the true sense of the words, be called ‘sacred dances’, for they provide a link between the level of ordinary life and that higher level which is felt as a means of coming into touch with the divine.

The strange power of the movements to materialise forces of a higher order is not experienced only by those who act as vehicles for these forces. The unfolding of the figures brings into play special inner relationships that are perfectly visible and offer perceptible evidence that the performers are the bearers of forces inherent in the movements themselves and are charged with an influence the effects of which can be felt by the onlookers. A movements class which has practised together for a long time radiates a ‘substance’, the reality of which, subtle though it be, can be received at an inner level in the same way as colour and sound are received by our ordinary instruments of perception.

So for anyone who practises the movements, they become a search for the means of really living them and for the power they give of being lived in this way. At such a level they lead to the attainment of that world to which prayer and meditation lead on other paths, but which, on this path, includes and makes use of the human apparatus in its entirety.

Copyright 1980, 2002 The Estate of Henri Thomasson
This webpage © 2002 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2002 Issue, Vol. V (1)
Revision: April 1, 2002


First published in The Pursuit of the Present, Two Rivers Press, 1980, pp.53–58. The book provides a powerful and lucid record of Thomasson’s thoughts, feelings and inner struggles during his twenty years of group work in France.