Tuesday, December 07, 2021
Highlights: The War Against Sleep   Source
Editor's note   
Not a review, simply a few passages from the book.
The War Against Sleep

Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson, which Gurdjieff regarded as the essence of his teaching, is over twelve hundred pages long. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, undoubtedly the best summary of Gurdjieff’s ideas, is over four hundred. Even for the intelligent and well-disposed reader, this represents a considerable problem. According to Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, it is an inescapable problem. The length demands from the reader a certain effort which is indispensable if the ideas are to be grasped and digested, rather than merely swallowed whole.

Yet Ouspensky’s own book amounts to a compromise with his original position, that the ideas could only be conveyed directly, from teacher to pupil, and that any attempt to convey them in writing would dilute their very essence, and so falsify them.

What bothered Ouspensky was the modern tendency to simplify important ideas for popular consumption: Relativity Made Easy, Kant for Beginners. But he was overlooking a vital point: that such books are not necessarily for the lazy. If you intend to try to learn about Kant or relativity from scratch, you would undoubtedly do better to start with a simplified account rather than trying to plunge direct into The Critique of Pure Reason or Einstein’s collected mathematical papers.

With this in mind, then, let us see whether it is possible to make the approach to Gurdjieff less formidable.

We might well begin with the conflict between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. Bennett writes: ‘Gurdjieff frequently complained that Ouspensky had ruined his pupils by his excessively intellectual approach, and that he [Gurdjieff] did better with people who came to him with no preparation at all.’ And we have already noted Kenneth Walker’s observation that Ouspensky had made them too rigid and grim. Bennett quotes Ouspensky as telling his pupils that ‘all in London should make sure to avoid the smallest departure from the letter of the System as contained in the writings I have left.’ When Bennett sent Ouspensky a paper he had written in the fifth dimension, Ouspensky dismissed it with the remark: ‘Nothing new can be found by intellectual processes alone. There is only one hope: that we should find the way to work with the higher emotional centre.’ And he added the sad comment: ‘And we do not know how this is to be done.’

In short, Ouspensky’s basic approach is curiously pessimistic and negative. He believes that the ‘System’ is man’s only salvation from his ‘mechanicalness’, from his complete inability to ‘do’. But he feels that the road is tremendously steep and difficult. Bennett’s wife told him: ‘You do not trust yourself, and that is not good … Why don’t you follow your own line more, and stop trying to imitate Mr Ouspensky?’ She recognized that this was the trouble — Ouspensky’s gloomy, almost Calvinistic attitude to the ‘System’.

Gurdjieff’s approach was altogether more optimistic. He told his Prieuré students: ‘Every man can achieve this independent mind: everyone who has a serious wish can do it.’ There is no suggestion here that the path is too difficult for all but the most desperate or determined; a serious wish was enough — the kind of seriousness you would have to bring to learning a foreign language or studying mathematics.

Gurdjieff’s method is remarkable for the scientific precision of its approach to the problem of mechanicalness. We need security in order to realize our creative potentialities, since a man without security can think of nothing but where his next meal is coming from. But security causes a certain automatic relaxation, precisely analogous to the way that a hypnotist can send a good trance subject to sleep with a snap of his fingers. Recent experiments with sensory deprivation — in the ‘black room’ — have demonstrated this even more clearly. Deprived of all external stimuli, the mind not only falls asleep; it literally disintegrates. We are held together by external challenges and problems. Deprived of these, we drift apart, like a raft whose ropes have been cut.

This left-brain consciousness is both man’s greatest triumph and his undoing. With its logical precision it has enabled him to create civilization, as well as the immense body of modern scientific knowledge. But in order to operate at full efficiency, it requires the backing of man’s ‘other’ being — instinctive or intuitive consciousness. This explains why we feel most ‘alive’ when we are engaged in some important activity, something that gives us a sense of crisis or emergency. Then that ‘other self’ gives left-brain consciousness its full backing and support. But if I watch television for too long, or try to read a long book in a single sitting, I begin to experience an odd sense of unreality. I feel ‘lightweight’, unreal. This is because our ‘other self’ has decided that no backing is required; we are dealing with unrealities, so it feels it can go off duty.

This, then, defines our problem. In this world of trivial emergencies and unimportant decisions, man has developed a reliance on left-brain consciousness that dominates his existence. He has become so accustomed to this ‘lightweight’ consciousness, with its accompanying sense of unreality, that he has almost forgotten what ‘real consciousness’ is like. His ‘other self’ is almost permanently off-duty.

Gurdjieff himself perceived the dangers of rigidity. He recognized that in matters as difficult and complicated as this — the attempt to understand the mystery of man’s inner-being — language can easily betray us. It is necessary to keep an open mind, and approach the problem from many different angles. The result is that anyone who reads Gurdjieff’s three books, then turns to accounts of his lectures by disciples, will often find himself puzzled by contradictions. These contradictions are a proof that Gurdjieff was not the recipient of some mysterious ‘ancient wisdom’, which he passed on to his followers like the tables of the law. He was a psychologist of genius, whose insight was continually developing. His basic recognition was that man is a vast computer, with many levels of control. At present, he has so little control of this vast machine that he is virtually its slave. But theoretically, he could achieve total control. And since the resources of the computer seem greater than anyone has ever imagined, he could, in theory, become a kind of god.

His basic task therefore, is, to know the computer. This is not too difficult — in theory, at least. It merely requires constant self-observation. But the second task is far more difficult. Self-observation is best carried out in states of insight and intensity, states when the ‘two consciousnesses’ are in harmony and in close co-operation. How can we induce these states at will? If there was some simple method, man’s problems would be at an end. If, for example, he could achieve it through sex, or bullfighting, or by swallowing some drug, then he would have solved the major problem of his evolution. Unfortunately, to judge by their advocates, none of these methods can give long-term satisfaction.

What we observe here is that although it is the ‘unconscious’ that controls the energy supply, its decisions are entirely governed by the suggestions of the ‘rational ego’. If I happen to be a weak and self-pitying sort of person, most of these suggestions will be negative, and I shall feel exhausted and depressed much of the time. If I am a cheerful and rational sort of person, my unconscious will respond to positive suggestions, my sense of meaning, by keeping me well provided with energy. Moreover, this energy will have the effect of making the world look a happier and brighter place — making me see more meaning — thus confirming my optimism.

When we consider modern humanity in general, one thing stands out fairly clearly: that our basic attitude towards existence tends to be negative, tinged with distrust. This indicates that most of us have fallen into the habit of ‘negative feedback’. There seems to be good reason for this: modern life is difficult and complex; humanity faces many problems. But anyone who has understood Gurdjieff’s ideas will know that these ‘reasons’ are irrelevant. It would be equally true to say that mankind is now happier and more comfortable than it has ever been. The real issue is our habit of negation.

Gurdjieff taught that this habit is stupid and unnecessary. The really important thing about man is that he possesses a possibility of real freedom, once he has grasped the fact that, at the moment, his life is almost entirely mechanical. He must turn the searchlight of his reason, his analytical processes, upon all his unconscious assumptions.

And it is when we turn the searchlight upon the contrasted activities of our ‘two consciousnesses’ that we grasp a fundamental truth about human existence — a truth, I suspect, that Gurdjieff only partly understood. The rational ego tends to be pessimistic because it sees things too close up. This is like trying to decide on the merits of a large picture by examining the canvas through a magnifying glass or microscope. In fact, such an examination, no matter how conscientious, would fail to reveal what the painter had put into the picture. Right-brain consciousness, on the other hand, deals in terms of meanings, of overall patterns. And, as we have seen, undiluted right-brain consciousness always produces the feeling of sheer delight, of ‘absurd good news’.

In short, the ‘worm’s-eye view’ of the left-brain is negative by nature. The ‘bird’s eye view’ of the right-brain is positive by nature, revealing vistas of meaning and interconnectedness that are invisible to the worm.

Our practical problem, the problem we confront every day of our lives, is to decide which of the two is telling the truth. But unless we understood that one of them deals in ‘immediacy perception’ and the other in ‘meaning perception’, we have no means of weighing their testimony. To begin with, it is the left-brain that tries to do the weighing. Second, the ‘moments of vision’ are so much rarer than moments of boredom and discouragement that, on purely arithmetical grounds, we are inclined to believe the negative testimony. But what we need to know is that the ‘rational ego’, for all its logic and clarity of perception, is essentially a microscope, which can only see things piecemeal. The ‘other self’ may have no power of self-expression, but it has an instantaneous grasp of meanings. Once we know this, there can be no possible doubt about which testimony we accept. The left is not fundamentally a liar, but its partial-vision leads it to incorrect inferences about the world. It is in the position of the blind beggars in Ramakrishna’s parable, who try to describe an elephant by the sense of touch alone.

Then there is the most convincing piece of evidence of all: that when the right and left achieve one of their infrequent moods of harmony — those strange, relaxed moments that seem to combine insight with intellectual excitement — the left is totally convinced that the right was correct all along. It now sees clearly that its pessimism was based on false interpretation of insufficient facts; there is a sense of direct revelation that can only be expressed in the words: ‘Of course!’

If, in fact, Ouspensky had published In Search of the Miraculous in 1930 — at the time Gurdjieff was adding the final touches to Beelzebub — there seems little doubt that it would have made just the impact that Beelzebub failed to make. But then, Ouspensky’s peculiarly narrow and puritanical view of the ‘Work’ convinced him that writing was somehow forbidden. In fact, the final publication of his own book, as well as that of many brilliant books by others involved in the ‘Work’, proved beyond all doubt that the essence of Gurdjieff’s ideas can be conveyed perfectly well on the printed page. There may, as Bennett insists, be aspects of the teaching that can only be conveyed direct from teacher to student; but generally speaking, Gurdjieff’s ideas gain from being read and studied.

If Gurdjieff’s ideas could be summarized in a sentence, it would be that man is like a grandfather clock driven by a watch-spring. Or like an enormous water mill driven by a muddy trickle of water. The strange paradox is that in spite of the inadequacy of his driving force, an enormous and complex mechanism already seems to exist. Like a ladder, man consists of many levels. The problem, then, is clear: to increase the driving force. Man may be more than half mechanical; but he can choose whether to live in a blank, hypnotized state, or whether to live as though some immense unguessed meaning lay on the other side of this curtain of everyday reality, waiting to reveal itself to a sense of purpose.

Gurdjieff’s ‘System’ is probably the greatest single-handed attempt in the history of human thought to make us aware of the potential of human consciousness. Whether he realized it or not, his life-work had achieved its purpose.


All quotes from Chapter 7 — Gurdjieff versus Ouspensky?

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