G.I. Gurdjieff

©1997 Dennis Leri

"If a man could understand all the horror of the lives of ordinary people who are turning round in a circle of insignificant aims, if he could understand what they are losing, he would understand that there can only be one thing that is serious for him - to escape from the general law, to be free. What can be serious for a man in prison who is condemned to death? Only one thing: How to save himself, how to escape: nothing else is serious." - G.I. Gurdjieff

It was late in the morning or perhaps it was late in the afternoon and Moshe was concluding an interview with a writer for Psychology Today:

Writer: "It would seem that your ideas and your methods have much in common with the work of Milton Erickson."

Moshe: "Oh yes, that's true. I have a tremendous degree of respect for his work. And I met him. Margaret Mead introduced us. But, you know, while one can see similarities in my work to Milton Erickson's, the person I feel I have the most kinship with is (G.I.) Gurdjieff."

The interview was never published. The writer moved on to the NY Times. Maybe someone, say Franz Wurm, can shed light on Moshe's relationship to the Gurdjieff "Work" and the Gurdjieff community. Was it direct or indirect? Historical fact: Moshe met Ida Rolf at a conference put on by the noted student of Gurdjieff, J.G. Bennett.

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born 1872? 1877? in the Caucasus region of what is now Russia. The so called "rascal sage" heralded the coming of ancient and esoteric Eastern teachings to the West. Neither a modernist nor a purveyor of any "isms," he rather proclaimed there to be eternal Truths (with a capital T), that there are people who know and live those Truths and that Objective knowledge of the Real is possible. His work lives on in various guises amongst groups that are not so much secret as private. Much has been written about Gurdjieff. If you choose, you can find Gurdjieffian books in almost any esoteric bookstore or in regular bookstore in their religion or spiritual sections. Moshe recommended reading A.R. Orage's Psychological Exercises and P.D. Ouspensky's, In Search of the Miraculous. Perhaps some of the flavor will come through. But, knowing how difficult it would be to fully comprehend the Feldenkrais Method by reading our books, you can be assured it would be much more difficult to understand Gurdjieff's work through books alone. And as a flavor it DID figure into Moshe's stew.

"...we must examine the fundamental law that creates all phenomena in all the diversity or unity of all the universes. "This is the 'Law of Three' or the law of the three principlesor the three forces. It consists of the fact that every phenomenon, on whatever scale and in whatever world it may take place, from molecular to cosmic phenomena, is the result of the combination or the meeting of three different and opposing forces. Contemporary thought realizes the existence of two forces for the production of a phenomenon: force and resistance, positive and negative electricity, male and female cells and so on. No question has ever been raised as to the third, or if it has been raised it has scarcely been heard.

"According to real, exact knowledge one force, or two forces, can never produce a phenomenon. The presence of a third force is necessary, for it is only with the help of the a third force that the first two can produce what may be called a phenomenon, no matter in what sphere.

"The teaching of the three forces is at the root of all ancient systems. The first force may be called active or positive; the second, passive or negative; the third, neutralizing. But these are merely names, for in reality all three forces are equally active and appear as active, passive, and neutralizing only at their meeting points, that is to say, only in relation to one another at a given moment." (G.I. Gurdjieff quoted in P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, pg. 75)

In one's life the Law of Three can be seen to be operative in any number of situations. One undertakes to accomplish something. One encounters resistance or inertia. Lacking both a reason and the will to continue one gives up or attempts something else. If we don't have the resolve, if our aim is not to persevere, the world provides us with the reasons to quit. But, it is the aim provided by "the Work" that sustains one's efforts. To counter the vicious circularity of the dyadic action-reaction dynamic a third force is needed. The third force neutralizes not by eliminating the other two so much as providing a neutral way of observing, of attending, of sustaining participation. Habits of attention and one's consequent identification of and to what one attends to are insidious and not easily discerned. And why bother anyway? Yet, somehow and in some way we sense there must be something other than either our individual or our collective subjective cognitions and perceptions. Maybe the very modes of attentional habits can be examined? Is the active man or woman really active? Maybe their activity is merely an habitual and therefore passive response to the world. And it can be asked of the passive person what kind of active dis-stance must be effected to not engage? To undertake an examination of our habits a third force must be brought in that allows us to see, to bear witness to the other two.

Gurdjieff said that in undertaking to do "the Work," that is, to deliberately intend to realize one's full humanity, three components are required: that we work for ourselves; that we work for others; and that we work for "the Work" itself. One usually works for one's self or for others. But echoing Rabbi Hillel, "If I am not for myself who am I, and if I am only for myself what am I?" there can be a context in which one can work for one's self, for and with others and for "the Work." In assessing how people work, 'teach,' or 'train' in a Feldenkrais training program I have noticed something similar. Some people are full of themselves or perhaps they are out for themselves. In those cases attention to the individuals within the group suffers and the Method doesn't reach them. Some people put their focus almost completely outside themselves, they live only for other individuals. In those cases attention to their own needs, to the long term needs of the group and to the Method are diminished. What kind of example are they providing? And with some others who work primarily for the Method alone, the teaching seems sterile and abstract. But there are those work for themselves, for others and who also work for the Feldenkrais Method. The consequences of coordinating all three can be very different than can be predicted from any one stance considered alone or in dyadic relationship.

Working earnestly to sustain and recreate the Method allows one to attend to one's needs, the needs of others and gives the Method its due. To practice the Feldenkrais Method, or perhaps to view the Feldenkrais Method as a practice means one cannot develop one's self and not work to develop others. Neither does it mean one can develop others while not developing one's self. The Feldenkrais Method must simultaneously lead to the development of others, one's self, and the Method itself. But the Law of Three is subtle and not obviously obvious: "at a given moment" the practitioner can be active and initiating relative to the passive student and the sustaining or neutralizing Method. Or the practitioner could be passive or denying while the student is active and the Method sustaining. Or the Method could be active while the student is sustaining and the practitioner passive. And so on. Each member of the practitioner-student-Method triad can play a positive, negative, or neutral role relative to the others. The role of the practitioner needs to be played by one who can remember themselves "at a given moment" as a student, as a living reference library of the Method, or as a 'teacher.'

It was a hot summer Training Program afternoon and Moshe on an Amherst video had made an allusion to the work of Gurdjieff. During a Q&A session it was asked what Moshe had meant by that remark. The answer given was, "Oh, he is only telling you to take it easy." But what was he saying? And why? And to whom? Moshe knew that to Gurdjieff human beings have two aspects: 1) essence, or that which is innate, which is a person's own, which is what is true in a human being, which develops into one's individuality and which is controlled by Fate; and 2) personality, or that which is acquired, which is not one's own, which is what is false in a human being, which provides the information necessary to work on the self and which is controlled by Accident. To be true to one's essence and to manifest it fully one must bring a human's three centers - head, heart, moving - under the control and coordination of the will. An aside from Moshe, "...at this point we are speaking of ...the training of will power and self control, but not for the purpose of gaining power over ourselves or other people. Correction of the self, improvement, training of awareness, and other concepts have been used here to describe various aspects of the idea of development. Development stresses the harmonious coordination between structure, function, and achievement. And a basic condition for harmonious coordination is complete freedom from either self-compulsion or compulsion from others."(Awareness Through Movement, pg. 51) According to Gurdjieff, usually one of the centers predominates and supplanting the functioning of the others prevents us from living harmoniously. When all three are coordinated, when a person has acquired a "permanent center of gravity," then real progress can be made.

A human being is not born with a vibrant awakened soul but must through "the Work" create one. To create a soul a person must wake up and as a preliminary to that they must realize that they are asleep, that they are mechanical, that what for them goes by the name of human existence is only the movements of an automaton. Most everyone is adrift in the world because they have no direction and all that befalls them is simply accidental. What we take as our dreams, hopes, fears, desires, and our sense of right and wrong are simply things which befall us. Not understanding how it is that we do not and can not see, keeps us asleep. As Bob Dylan sung, "You got big dreams baby, but to dream you know you got to be asleep." But how to change things?

Gurdjieff spent his entire life in the constant creation of means to accomplish awakening. Accordingly, the Gurdjieffian tradition holds that one can learn through the proper use of attention that one is asleep. The first step is to begin by observing the mostly neurotic and aimless character of our every action, thought or feeling. With that observation we realize that there is little that we can lay claim to call our own life. Our attention is captured by inner and outer identifications that are almost exclusively a product of acculturation on the one hand and our primitive biology on the other. But attention, or more precisely attending, seems to neutralize 'sleep.' It is not unlike modern physics wherein the act of observation changes the experiment, in our lives attention to our mechanicalness 'wakes' it up. And it must be noted that the effects of moments of awakening, of 'shocks' to the sleeping individual can have effects upon them not predictable from their previous personal history. One's personal psychology can remain intact and unchanged. It doesn't matter. What matters is that one develop the wish to search for Truth.

To encounter Gurdjieff and to grapple with his ideas makes one able to more fully appreciate their import upon Moshe. Gurdjieff's voice can be heard in the following passages from Awareness Through Movement,: "If it is true that instincts come to us as a matter of inheritance, just as awareness is inherited, then it will be preferable to perfect our awareness rather than to suppress the animal that is in us. Awareness is the highest stage in man's development, and when it is complete it maintains a harmonious 'rule' over the body's activities. When an individual is strong, so are his passions, and his ability and vitality are on the same scale. It is impossible to suppress these prime movers without reducing his total potential. The improvement of awareness is preferable to any attempt to overcome instinctive drives. For the more nearly complete a man's awareness becomes, the more he will be able to satisfy his passions without infringing on the supremacy of awareness. And every action will have become more human."(Awareness Through Movement, pgs. 172-3) And, "...the degree of awareness differs greatly between different individuals, far more than the relative distribution of other faculties. Further, there are also great periodic variations in the individual's awareness and its value relative to other aspects of his personality. There may be a low point at which awareness may disappear momentarily or for a period. More rarely there may be a high point at which there is a harmonious unity, with all man's faculties fused into a single whole." In those moments one, "...grasps that his small world and the great world around are but one and that in this unity he is no longer alone."(Awareness Through Movement, pgs. 53-4)

To take to heart Moshe's reminder that ease of movement, gracefulness, better posture, etc., i.e., the effects of lessons, are trivial begs the question, "Trivial next to what?" By juxtaposing Moshe Feldenkrais and G.I. Gurdjieff we can get hints about the role of the non-trivial, or the miraculous in Gurdjieff's sense, in our Method.


Republished on this webpage with the friendly permission of Dennis Leri.
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