How much does the average person understand about the way they think? What do they know about their perceptions, about how they are influenced, and what it is to have “free-will”? How much effort do most people place into contemplating these questions? How many people are active in living their lives, or are even aware that life can be lived in an active manner… at least more active relative to what we see as the average?

These are not new questions. They are questions that have been pondered by Man for as long as Mankind was capable of introspection. There are theories that suggest that in the ancient past there have been civilizations that rivaled our own in complexity, providing schools of thought devoted to pondering the meaning of existence and our own experiences. We know based on the archeological data left behind that many civilizations have contemplated existence in a manner akin to our own philosophy and psychology, but such processes and experiments where often in the guise of religion or a part of the efforts of the priesthood. Indeed, much of our modern philosophical and psychological schools of thought have roots in antiquity, using the symbolism, mythology, and sometimes even the methods of the ancients to address those same questions.

Would it be, therefore, out of the question to consider an ancient method for understanding our existence, our behavior, or our modes of thought and being? Is it possible that such a system was not only fully developed but was also applicable to our modern lives and civilizations? GI Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic and spiritual teacher, began discussing such a process in the early 1900’s after what he described as an extensive travel throughout the Middle East, Egypt, and Rome. Gurdjieff described a system which he called “The Work” (PD Ouspensky, his more analytical student, would coin the phrase “The Fourth Way” by which Gurdjieff’s Work would become better known) which he claimed was given to him by then existent spiritual schools he encountered on his travels, although it is likely that he had a hand in the development of this system. Rumors about Gurdjieff include not only his powers as a healer and a prophet, but also that he was a con-man and charlatan.

I would submit to you that he was all of the above, and that none of these things have any relevance to the system he described.

The Work can be summed up in an elegantly simple manner. It is the conscious effort to actively live your life in a manner that engenders as much freedom to think your own thought,s feel your own emotions, and do what you truly will. It is called “Work” because while it is simple to explain, and even initially grasp, it is infinitely more difficult to actually accomplish and requires constant effort.

The Work begins with an acceptance of a basic concept: that individually we are not free. We are not even close to being free. Two analogies are favored by students of the Work to describe this state. The first analogy is that we are in a prison. Those familiar with the movie “The Matrix” will recall that Morpheus describes the Matrix as a prison for your mind. This concept is drawn directly from the Work. The intent of this analogy is to impress upon the student the need to recognize this state of being, to analyze this state, to use the flaws discovered to reduce this state of being, and to understand the need to work with others toward mutual benefit. This analogy is generally for introducing the concept of relative freedom. It is later shown to have its limits relative to the Work.

The second analogy is that as we are is akin to being Asleep, even when we are technically awake. By this, we mean that generally our behavior and experiences are not our own, but the sum of whatever influences we happen to fall under at any given moment. A person who is Asleep may be freely manipulated by whatever chooses to manipulate them. Indeed, for most people, it is preferable to be Asleep, and they will fight to remain under whatever influences keep them in that state. Some though, recognizing this state, will choose to struggle to become Awake, or at least relatively more Awake than they generally are. Becoming more Awake requires effort, which Gurdjieff describes as “suffering”, though this term is often misinterpreted.

Gurdjieff put a great deal of emphasis on language, insisting that part of what keeps us Asleep is the lackadaisical use of language. We tend to allow the concise meaning of words to slip into meaning that can vary based on context. Gurdjieff stated that in order to pursue the Work, one must develop an understanding of what is basically a new language… a more concise understanding of words. With suffering, Gurdjieff means simply choosing to intentionally act in a manner that resists what might be easy so that we might strengthen our sense of self. This is called “intentional suffering”, but this does not mean that we look for ways to struggle or that we seek out challenges beyond what we would normally endure. One does not pick up a glass of water just to pick it up, but rather picks up a glass of water to fulfill a need, like being thirsty and taking a drink. If we choose to be aware of the effort required to pick up the glass and examine ourselves in the process, this is intentional suffering. Intentional suffering is one of many methods helping the individual become more Awake. This intentional suffering can be more simply understood as effort with awareness.

In order to be “aware” in an active sense (again, using language in a more concise manner) so that we can study an appreciate our efforts requires that we remember ourselves. This seems like a very basic concept, and most people would say they always remember themselves. If they could be honest (a point I will touch in later), they would have to admit that they are often unaware of themselves. They forget themselves when reading, when watching television, when feel an emotion like anger, love, joy. We often “lose ourselves in the moment” or become so engaged, so “identified” with whatever we are experiencing that we forget that we are distinct from the event being experienced. Self-Remembering requires effort, a struggle which must be suffered.

Self-Remembering can be accomplished by simply keeping in mind that you are here, now. No matter what is going on, or how much is in the moment, you struggle to retain a sense of self. A variety of techniques exist for this, such as creating visual ques to remind yourself to remember the self, but these must be altered frequently as the mind adapts to accommodate these ques. Like meditation, it must be practiced in order to develop a consistent state of Self-Remembering. Unlike meditation, it must be done in your normal stream of activity. The more involved the moment of your effort, the greater value the exercise of Self-Remembering will have.

Once we begin to Remember the Self, we can then begin to Self-Observe. This is an analytical process where we try to recognize and understand our state of being. The Work begins with focusing on observing four independent aspects of the self, or “centers”. They are our Intellectual Center (the Center that deal with thought), Emotional Center (the Center that deals with emotion), Physical Center (the Center that deals with our active physical state… the motion and position of our body), and our Instinctual Center (the Center that deals with our bodies instinctive functions; heartbeat, digestion…). One of the problems with our current state is that generally our Centers function improperly, often not doing the jobs they are meant to do or not doing their jobs at all. Think about language for a moment. We often say we “feel” what we should “think”; like “I feel like President Obama is making the right decision. This linguistic-slip suggests not only an improper understanding of our selves and our Centers, but also the incorrect function of the Center itself.

Initially, the Work suggests only observation. At any given moment while Remembering the Self, ask “What am I thinking, feeling, doing with my body, and what is my body doing on its own?” Observe, but do not attempt to correct what you observe (although, like any scientific experiment, the Observer will naturally influence that which is being observed). What you want to Observe at this point are the differences in these Centers and their behaviors during different events and situations.

One of the first things pressed upon the student is to Observe how the idea of Self changes depending on the event and who we are interacting with. Your behavior at home is different that when at your place of employment in ways that go beyond mere conformation to protocol. You have different opinions and different levels of self-assertion when you deal with different people. This is because the self, the “I” you refer to, is a transitional and underdeveloped concept. You are actually a composite of many “I”s, each the result of a different urge or influences, with no real governing “I”. One of the goals of the Work is to develop a consistent and actual “I”. This is accomplished incrementally, initially by developing a sense of Self through Self-Remembering and Observation, then struggling to resist non-beneficial urges and influences in order to form a “Magnetic Center” which draws us toward certain influences. Eventually a “Higher Self” develops, and finally our “Essence” is revealed.

Our state is the result of what the Work defines as “mechanical existence”. We are, essentially, machines (another Matrix-esque concept). Basically, since we are a product of our influences, we have no real behaviors of our own. We only respond mechanically. Moreover, because of malfunctioning Centers, our mechanical response is often flawed. Mechanical Existence encourages us to remain Asleep. Mechanical behavior is when we mindlessly follow whatever influences we find ourselves under at a given moment. We forget ourselves, and thus find ourselves just doing whatever, mechanically. In order to overcome this, we must first come to understand our machine. This is accomplished through Self-Observation. We will see through Self-Observation how much we are influenced, and how little of our behavior is our own. For example, why do we get angry? Emotions are internal, so no one can make you angry, you only feel angry automatically… mechanically. If you could choose to be angry or not, who would choose to feel anger? When we get angry, we tend to get angry about things we have learned to be angry about, and in a manner that imitates the expression of anger we have observed in the past. We learn that this expression is normal, even expected and presumably desirable, thus we fall into the habit of becoming angry when certain events occur, but not as a result of a conscious choice.

As we Observe ourselves and begin to correct our mechanical behaviors, one of the first things the Work encourages eliminating is negative emotions. All emotional response in our current state of awareness is mechanical, but negative emotions are artificial and more inhibitory than the natural emotions we experience. Negative emotions lull us back to sleep, excusing our mechanical and malignant behavior as being caused by something outside ourselves, thus “righteous” and “justified”. When negative emotions are experienced, it is nearly impossible to observe or even remember the self; they tend to be all consuming. The process of eliminating negative emotions is incremental, just as development in the Work is in all regards. To begin, one must struggle not to express them. By repressing their expression, you loosen their hold on you, subverting the habit of experiencing them by negating the primary means of their experience. Recognize that you are the source of all your emotional responses, and that you can choose to experience them or not. You are aware of many of the events that will trigger a negative emotional response, thus you can take some steps to prepare for those events.

The energy which would normally be burned-off by the expression of negative emotion in a mechanical manner can then be better guided consciously toward an end that would be beneficial, addressing the problem at hand, for example. The understanding and correct management of energy is a key component of the Work. In our improperly operating mechanical state, we expend energy needlessly. One waste of energy is the expression of negative emotion. Another is meaningless speech. Generally, we talk to much, and often at times and about subjects which are inappropriate and superfluous. We speak to fill the void of silence, mechanically uncomfortable with a lack of noise in our lives. This over-indulgence in speech also leads to us telling lies. These kinds of lies are not necessarily intentional fabrications but rather statements that are incorrect; exaggerations or underestimations. They also include statements of truth we claim to know that we really do not, or cannot confirm.

Take, for example, a concept from the book “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Heinlein. In this book, there is an occupation called a “Fair Witness”. Such a person is trained to observe and report with absolute accuracy what is observed. If you asked a Fair Witness what color a house on a distant hill was, instead of answering that the house is white, the Fair Witness would state that the sides of the house that they can see are white. They would not commit to the entire house being white because they would be unable to confirm it. While this example is extreme, it is the kind of thinking one needs to apply to the kind of lies we tell.

The lies we most often tell are the lies we tell ourselves. In regards to the Work, the most prominent lies are “I am Awake”, and “I am free”. A quick study of the self will most often indicate otherwise. We have beliefs and illusions of self that are convenient, but not based on observable facts. We often think we are more than what we are or less, assessing our abilities as above or below their actual degree. It is often best not to speak at all unless we can confirm that which we are speaking of, especially when we speak of ourselves.

Another wasteful expenditure of energy is needless motion. We twitch, fiddle, tap, and otherwise move when we do not need to. We lack the ability to be still. This needless motion can help serve us in one manner, as a reminder that we have forgotten ourselves.

The conservation of energy allows us to use that energy consciously in a manner that benefits us. The way that energy is used in the work is cultivating influences toward consciously determined goals. When mistake in our thinking is that we do anything in the present. What is being done in the present is a result of the past, and in our current state just happens, just as we just happen mechanically. Recognition of the fact that the present cannot be changed, and is instead is a result of the sum of the past, is akin to the prison analogy offered earlier. Recognition of this allows us to act, not to change the present, as it is already manifested, but instead to influence the future (another example of concise language). We struggle toward a particular set of influences, both external and internal, which are in line with our goals. If we wish to be a musician, when begin cultivating those influences that increase the likelihood of becoming musician. We may read books about music instead of science-fiction, watch movies about music instead of action-films, save our money for instruments and lessons instead of spending the money on frivolities. We choose to be a conscious influence of our future selves instead of mechanically continuing to merely be influenced.

These different methods result in combination in an increase of Awareness relative to the general state of being. Gurdjieff describes a scale for the purpose of discussing different levels of Awareness. This scale has 7 points, or 7 different kinds of men. Men 1-3 represent kinds of men who are Asleep, but who are influenced or motivated in different ways. Man 1 is physical, responding to urges of the body. This type of person may be keenly interested in his own fitness or over indulgent in physical urges like sex or eating. Spiritually and philosophically, Man 1 is akin to the Fakir who uses physical extremes to stimulate enlightenment. Man 2 is emotional. He may be very controlled emotionally, or may be overly emotion… the “sensitive” type. Man 2 is akin to the Monk, who uses their passion to reach enlightenment. Man 3 is intellectual, pursuing knowledge for knowledge sake or having a rudimentary but flawed logic with which they view all things. This is the Guru, the spiritual path of knowledge leading to enlightenment.

Each of these paths is long and difficult, with no guarantee of success even after a lifetime of effort. Gurdjieff describes the Work as the path of the “Sly Man”. The Sly Man observes the Fakir, the Monk, and the Guru, eliminates that which is superfluous and uses that from each which is most effective. This is why Ouspensky calls the Work “The Fourth Way”. With the Work, there are also no guarantees, but the path can be faster and more effective. A further difference is that the Work can be immediately tested and confirmed. It also does not require abandoning “normal” life; there is no going into seclusion in a monastery. Rather, the Work must be tested and applied to everyday life.

Man 4 is the man who first realizes that he is Asleep, and that he needs to be more Awake. He senses that the influences about him are keeping him imprisoned and asleep, but also that it is within his power to be relatively more Awake, or more free. Not all influences are avoidable. The Universe is defined by certain laws, like gravity or cause-and-effect, which are thankfully influences which will always effects us. Most influences we experience are artificial; social pressures, laws based on morality, obligations, etc. These influences are not necessarily bad. Many are in place for our benefit. It is the lack of awareness that goes into those influences and our obedience, the way we are encouraged to obey with little or no questioning, that keeps us Asleep. We learn to assume that just because we are told by a person of authority that something is true or right that it must be so. We learn to even trick ourselves in this manner. Man 4 begins the Work and the development of the self.

Man 5 develops a Magnetic Center, a core self that begins to govern all the “I”s within. This Man begins to benefit from defining the future for the self, cultivating influences and developing a True Will. The sense of self becomes more Objective, and less subject to artifice. Man 5 is more consistently observant of the Self, and remembers the Self more often than not.

Man 6 is the author of the self, and entertains not only command of an Objective Self-view, but also an Objective view of that which he observes around him. Lies and negative emotions have ceased, and he thinks, feels, and does as he chooses.

Man 7 has perfected his machine, has an absolutely Objective view of the universe, both the self and that which he observes. He remembers the self absolutely, and has reached his Essential being, acting in accordance to True Will.

While the desired result is to consistently experience these modes of being as they develop, this scale is not always consistent. A Man 1-3 may experience an epiphany, and for a moment be as a Man 7 in a limited fashion. A Man 6, under significant duress, may regress temporarily to a state of Man 1-3. There is not real indication of when a person reaches a certain stage. The evidence is in the result of their efforts. Man 6 behaves as a Man 6. Normally, it is only an observer who has themselves been observed to be at a higher stage of Awareness that can determine with any authority the stage of another, based on their behavior, but generally anyone who has a rudimentary understanding of the Work can make a fair assessment of the state of another. Far more difficult is the task of knowing what state on this scale we are at. We tend to claim to be either further along or not far along enough. People who see themselves humbly as Men 4, even after years of effort, are often further along, while those who claim to be a Man 6, without the benefit of a Man 7 or even another Man 6 for personal guidance, often greatly exaggerate their position and are proven false by their actions.

Also, it should be noted that this scale is merely one way of discussing the idea of development. Other scales may be used, and other terminology may be applied. Other systems share similar concepts, giving their own scales and stipulations for greater or lesser awareness. Furthermore, these stages are not steps to be attained and then held, or grades that once given are constant merely by the virtue of their achievement. Like the development of the physical body, these efforts are continuous exercises that without effort will degrade. Nothing in the Work is guaranteed.

The ultimate end of the Work is the creation of a Soul, a semblance of self that lasts beyond this life into the next phase of existence. The Work does not assume that all people are born with a Soul, or rather that, though we may be born with it, much of our existence acts to suppress it. The sum of our mechanical influences results in a False Personality, a self that is not developed consciously but rather is the result of imitation of others. This False Personality is developed in our youth and is necessary for our learning, but develops in tandem with our Essential Self. Gurdjieff theorized that around age 5 or 6 the utility of False Personality ceases, but the development of False Personality tends to overwhelm the Essential Self as we learn to benefit from conforming to social pressures. This means that the Essential Self remains stunted, that of a child.

The Essential Self is the result of Knowledge and Being developing in tandem. Knowledge is useless with the consciousness… the Being to apply it properly. The Work strips away the False Personality, allowing us to re-discover our essential Self and begin the development of that Essence. This is not unlike the story of Inanna who descends through 7 gates, being stripped of something given to her until she reaches the underworld, bare and naked. From their, she goes by her own volition back through the gates, reclaiming for her own based on her own efforts that which she was stripped of, until she emerges whole and self-actualized.

The rest of Gurdjieff’s theories; the migration of the Soul either to a new phase of existence (if realized) or repeating the current phase (if under-developed), the Ray of Creation, and so on, are outside the realm of practicality that I, as a student, choose to entertain. These theories may or may not be accurate, I simply have no instrument by which to verify them. Also, this statement is that of a student and that students perspective of the Work. As a student, I can only offer my example, and not speak on the Work in an authoritative manner. Keep in mind, should this inspire you to also undergo a study of the Work, the Gurdjieff himself never made a claim about his own relative level of awareness, allowing his actions to define that relative level in the minds of those who observed him. There are those who will claim to be teacher of the Work, who will insist that they are a Man 6 or even a Man 7. They may even call themselves “Master”. Think about this. The Work is a philosophy and Process regarding the quality of our existence. Can anyone truly be a “Master” of their existence, or can one merley be a relatively more experienced student?

 Jason Sorrell

*This article originally appeared at the following link:

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