By Ted Nottingham
It is called the Work because it requires real effort that each of us can make invisibly and internally. We are talking here about an inner psychological work, a work that requires you to not merely know the ideas, but to apply and practice them as well. And to apply them not in general, but to yourselves. This practical application leads to personal change that opens onto a new level of knowledge that some have called "knowledge through being".
So this Work is a process of self-knowledge which is razor sharp. The ideas presented here have power, the power of genuine psychological and spiritual transformation in the midst of daily life. It is a work tailor-made for those who cannot escape their ordinary obligations and yet need it as desperately as oxygen in order to have meaning and purpose in their lives.
This Work is about self-change. The subject of the Work is you yourself and you will note that this is one of many connection with the great teachings of humanity: "Know Thyself" is at the core of the wisdom of Socrates. The Work offers its own unique, magnificent insights in taking an idea like "know thyself" and connecting it to our personal issues so that we understand what that idea really implies.
These ideas address the frustrations that people have in trying to better themselves, trying to get in touch with God, trying to break through to something sacred -- a higher state of joy or of transcendent goodness -- and getting beyond their limitations. Hopefully most of you have had some taste of a higher state of consciousness in your lives and that is why religion and spirituality are of interest to you. This work seeks to help us not only understand these experiences, but become more receptive to them, make them more long-lasting and ultimately learn to live them out in each moment, rather than in occasional, accidental encounters.
The Work begins with this fundamental insight: We are told that before change can happen, we must become more conscious of who we are now. A good portion of this work begins with tearing down the plaster of who we think we are in order to discover who we truly are. All the spiritual teachings tell us that there is extraordinary potential in each human being. But it is often untapped and tragically wasted by the hardships of life, or through confusion and unhappiness.
The Work provides psychological tools that can lift us to that inner place beyond confusion and despair. One of the sayings in the Work is that "if we wish to have a different life, we must first realize what kind of life we have now." We are told that human beings are self-evolving beings who, through effort and knowledge, have a struggle to undertake in order to reach a higher level of themselves. One of the great mysteries behind all of the teachings of the world religions is that we are seeds -- only seeds -- and that we can die as seeds and fail to discover the real potential of our existence.
With the right kind of knowledge and the right kind of effort, we have the possibility of becoming something quite different and yet more truly who we are. A person can undergo a definite transformation, a real evolution if they know and understand what they have to do. Some of you may have heard the term "becoming co-creators". Matthew Fox and other such thinkers of our day recognize that we are meant to participate consciously in the development of the universe as well as in the development of ourselves. The Work tells us that people often get stuck at a level of being that is equivalent to the maturity of a seven year old. That explains why a seventy year old person can have such an immature emotional reaction to things. They may have become important leaders in the world but something has remained stunted. Knowledge and level of being must increase together to create the metamorphosis, the discovery of a new consciousness that leads us to who we are truly meant to be.
We all know people who are encyclopedias of information and then have this blind side to them -- adolescent impatience or irritability. Something has not been translated into their being. Again, this teaching is based on seeing what we are and what we can become. Our aim, then, is to change the state of our current psychology which is made up of attitudes and imitations that we have picked up over the years of our development, and the result of our unconscious behavior. For inner change to take place -- and you can think of inner change as encounter with the sacred -- we must break out of the little self that limits us to the awareness of the senses and of our own psychological dispositions.
The Work helps us to clear an inner path through all of our unconscious behavior, all of our attitudes, all of the things that we do not recognize and which consequently do so much harm to us in our daily life. Here the Work connects with the idea of purification: "The pure in heart will see God." There has to be a purification process. This can only be accomplished by people who are either yearning greatly for something that they cannot grasp or those who recognize the limits that they have come to in themselves.
In order to begin to do this Work, there are certain fundamentals that have to take place. One is being sincere with oneself. And that is very hard. We all know that to some degree, but in this work it becomes really difficult because we start seeing things that are not comfortable for us and our idea of who we think we are. We must climb out of the darkness of not-knowing who we really are and how we behave and why we behave in the ways that we do. The uses of attention and energy will be critical to this process. Everything that we will offer you is based on practical, verifiable ideas. This is not a matter of faith or of belief. Imagination and opinion are set aside for rolling up your sleeves and getting into the hard effort of real psychological transforming work. It is critical to get to the nuts and bolts of why we are the way we are before we can get beyond that to someplace else. But we cannot understand any of these ideas without applying them to ourselves. This Work requires psychological effort. You are the subject of the work. These ideas cannot change your external life. But they can change your internal life, raise your level of consciousness, and therefore give you a new relationship to your present life which will ultimately change everything.
One of the problems with the Gurdjieff teaching taken alone is that there is an element that is almost brutal. G. himself taught people how to see themselves by sticking their noses in it. That was his method: "You are nothing, you're just a vain, pathetic puppet, and I'll step on your corns every chance I get. Whatever is left of you after that might learn something. If you leave whining, don't come back." That was Gurdjieff. He had a field day doing this with all the arrogant intellectuals in Paris, London, and New York. But he was also an old man who had a pocket full of candy for the children. He was so much more than what anyone had witnessed before. A classic example: He was intentionally shouting at one of his key students. Yet he taught about not being negative and identified. So while shouting at this man wilting before him, a twelve year old boy who worked at the school came to the door. In a split second, Gurdjieff turned and winked at him in the midst of his rage in order to let the boy know that he wasn't caught up in this rage at all. He then returned to shouting at his student for an intentional purpose.
All of Gurdjieff's writings are extremely complicated and difficult. They are not meant to be taken at surface value. At the front of his twelve hundred page book, Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson, he says that it must be read three times. Then there is P. D. Ouspensky who started out with Gurdjieff in Russia and moved east into Europe with him during the Revolution. He was with him for nine years, but had to make a decisive break with him. Yet it is thanks to Ouspensky that we have the more understandable, clear expression of the teachings. We could not have received the legacy of Gurdjieff's lifework just through his writings.
Then there is Maurice Nicoll after Ouspensky who contributed an even more lucid expression of the teaching through his own genius. But the first generation of Gurdjieff students, after his death, attempted to continue the same methods used by him. They did not have the subtleties that he brought to his method, such as his profound love and devotion hidden behind his raw character. His primary students were often hard and inhumane with nothing behind that to balance their approach. In their books, G. and O. do state that one must find an esoteric school in order to learn this teaching. People with knowledge unlike anything that is available in mainstream culture are needed for the process of evolution.
Special knowledge provides the opportunity of participating in the possibility of awakening, of authentic transformation, of joining in the true destiny of the human spirit. Let's say you join a school and begin the hard and painful efforts of working on yourself, struggling with the ego, and all the things that nobody can stand to deal with. Some Fourth Way writings state that if you leave this school, you are back on your own and virtually doomed. You no longer have a teacher or a school to provide the incentive to work on yourself, and you have very little chance of spiritual development. These teachers say that you are lost. Many of them, including revered individuals such as Yogananda are quoted as saying that it is better to have never started at all, than to begin and quit. People then become terrified because of this dogma stating that if you leave the school, you're dead. Emotionally, you do lose a great deal: the community, individuals who share something in common that is very hard to find in ordinary life. Being part of such a community can have some very positive elements in the experience. You are cleansed of all the things that make up our life, such as the six o'clock news, the illusions that generate our ideas of reality.
But Gurdjieff did say that, every so often, an individual manages to keep swimming by himself and makes his way to somewhere. He also said that we must verify everything. We are not to accept a belief system on faith. We have to experience and make organic these ideas. He pressed people to find out for themselves what was real and what wasn't. It is also true that G. himself left a school. There are teachers in the East among the Sufis and in Tibetan monasteries who thought of him as a maverick escapee, a rogue teacher. What I discovered is that we do not step out of the reality of Being, whether we leave a teacher or a community, Being (God), life remains fully there. Clearly, it requires additional inner strength to pursue this difficult work of going against the grain of one's own selfishness and everyone else's way of life. But as I came across Christian teachings, I was able to recognize that elements of self-remembering, vigilant awareness and ceaseless prayer, connect us with the Source that cannot be separated out from one's life and that belong only to one group or one teacher. Now more than ever that kind of fragmentation is criminal. This doesn't mean that we don't need some community to continue the process of going against one's own grain toward one's higher self.
This Work begins by saying that we are not conscious. Right now you are looking at these words, and you are aware of yourself doing so. Yet this Work says that you are not conscious. It says that everyone in the world lives in a state that is referred to as "sleep." We are told that there are four levels of consciousness:
-- The dream state experienced in bed
-- The state we are in now which the Work calls sleep
-- The third state is self-consciousness or consciousness of self which is what we try to reach through these efforts. Gurdjieff called it "le rappel de soi" or self-remembering.
-- Then there is a level beyond that, objective consciousness, which very few know but which we can recognize in the great teachers who have come through this world.
So how can we be asleep when we are here aware of ourselves? The Work tells us that we are a stimulus-response mechanism -- something happens in the external world and we respond to it. In our ordinary state, we are nothing but responses to outside stimuli. We imagine that we control our lives, that we make our own decisions, but with a little attention to the reality of life around us, we can gain a new perspective: everyone is just reacting to everything.
You can see it clearly in the work place. It is mathematical. Something goes wrong and everyone gets mad and nobody is in control. That is one little facet of sleep. Another way to understand this idea as a state of consciousness is the fact that what we call thinking is nothing but a random flow of associations. I say the word "apple." One person tastes it, another remembers childhood memories, another sees it. One visual after another sends us along a certain path of thinking. What we assume is our own intentional reflection is most often an out of control process stimulated by the outside world. Another facet of sleep is seen in our ingrained attitudes. Surely we have enough honesty to know about that issue.
A common experience might be that of parenting. You find yourself talking like your parents did. You start pulling on that string and you find that most of your ways of being angry are the exact copy of your father or mother, right down to the way your jaw tightens. And you begin to see that so much of who you are is pure imitation, going way back into the unconscious days of childhood, and yet having total control of you. Even when you have completely rejected the source that you are imitating.
The irony is that as we begin to discover these realities, people close to us know a whole lot more about us than we do. They could have told us that years ago: "You're just like your dad!" But we can't handle that because we need our individuality, our sense of self and independence, and we are not prepared to see that the emperor has on no clothes.
Another example of this condition of sleep: a man wakes in the morning. He feels fine, the day is nice. He gets out of bed, goes into the bathroom and drops his toothbrush and this makes him mad. As he combs his hair, his comb breaks. This makes him mad again and he associates into thoughts like "you can't depend on products these days." He goes downstairs and the smell of coffee makes him feel better. But he spills his coffee on his lap and he is angry again. His newspaper is late and he feels impatient. When it finally appears, he reads it and responds. This is how we respond to the stimulus of life upon us.
Life is constant stimulus. There is something coming at us at every moment that we are awake. But our responses are all automatic, or as the Work says mechanical. They have been programmed in us since infancy. While we think we have consciousness, we really have very little choice in how we respond to any particular kind of stimulus. You may think you are in control, but if someone comes up and insults you, you are probably going to have a predictable response. This is another description of sleep. Being in that state where we respond to incoming life through our personality without having any control or any objective view of ourselves acting in our life. This is one of the sources of our massive unnecessary suffering. When we begin to examine the things that cause us unhappiness -- with colleagues, with loved ones, with family -- we discover how long the list is and why there is no inner peace.
It is our birthright to find that special inner sanctuary of peace, stability and harmony that makes us real contributors to the universe. This is the evolution that we are meant to reach. Imagine if every day of your life was lived in peace and contentment. People who have achieved this way of living often exhibit such a state of self-transcendent goodness that they can even face their mortality without despair, without fear, without bitterness. It is possible to reach a place in this life where the beauty and poetry and goodness of it all -- which is spirituality and love -- is at the center of our experience.
Other teachings try to help us along on that path, such as meditation and mindfulness. They may have tremendous value but most of them don't really teach us how to focus in on those details about ourselves that keep throwing us back into the turmoil. We all know people who have certain strong characteristics, quickness of temper for instance, and we accept that. We assume that's okay. But such persons are like a gerbil in a cage, never getting off the treadmill. Such people are unlikely to contribute to the beauty of the universe. From the perspective of spirituality, these persons are dead before physical death. They have missed the opportunity of their true potential.
That is the whole point of the ideas presented here: to evolve into our trues selves, our higher selves, our real selves. It is an ongoing process. We don't get to the end. No matter how long we live, we must work at it every day. That is why it is known as "the Work." The work says that we are not just asleep, but that we are also machines. A machine can be clicked on and off. The human ego doesn't like that idea at all. Most people are not interested in finding out how truly unimportant and insubstantial their egos are, how made-up they are, how trivial and foolish.
Finding one's true nature requires a leveling of the ground of all this distortion. That is the radical teaching of spirituality. "Seek not the honor of men" does not merely refer to awards, but points to what is truly valuable beyond humanity's ordinary set of priorities. These are utterly revolutionary ideas. No one lives by them except in the underground of spiritually-aware individuals. Why so few? Because each of us has plenty of pride, self-satisfaction and imagination about ourselves that we do not want to let go of in order to let something else come through.
The Work tells us that we live according to an imaginary picture of ourselves, built by literature, movies, parents, siblings. We can see these pictures manifested in how people walk and talk. If these pictures were taken away from most people, there would be nothing left. So this is a dangerous work. Gurdjieff said that if people saw themselves as they truly are, they would go insane. But there are safeguards in this work. It is a methodical system that provides knowledge to assist us in receiving new insights about ourselves. Without such information, we can get pretty serious vertigo when we experience new perspectives about ourselves. "Sell all you have and follow me" refers to the inner obstacles that keep us from authentic transformation. That transformation is also known as "awakening."
This Work is a method of awakening. "Seek first the kingdom of God" means seek first that state of being where the reality of God is palpable. That experiential dimension is the heart of all religion and spirituality. It deals with the experience of inner liberation from one's own agonies and weaknesses and entrance into that state of consciousness which is in touch with the powers of the cosmos. Quantum theories in physics are opening up the doors to the spiritual reality of which we are a part. Awakening takes continuous psychological effort, but at the same time, being in an awakened state is not ahead of us in chronological time. It is "above" us. So it is accessible now, but it takes a long time of doing this inner work to reach it.
The reason we can do this Work is because we have each had glimpses of these higher states in our lives. The trouble is that we may not have valued or recognized them for what they were because of our state of sleep. A moment on a beach, a sunset, where we are separate from the usual rush of life, offer us an expansion of inner peace and serenity which are the hallmark of higher consciousness. We see this in the great teachers of humanity, in their tranquility and acceptance. They accept all the unfortunate circumstances that come our way, including death, and live in that wisdom of acceptance and harmony which leads to self-evolution.
Human beings are an experiment in the universe: Can these little fragments, born out of supernovas and stardust, evolve into a higher quality of consciousness that can connect with the grand designs of the universe? People who have experienced these awakening moments offer us the following insights: "What you took as yourself begins to look like a little prison-house far away in the valley beneath you." (Maurice Nicoll)
Imagine a state of presence in the moment where you are so separated from your usual state of self that the part of yourself that is so full of confusion and ignorance no longer constitutes the parameters of your consciousness. Another quote from the teachers who have encountered higher consciousness: "It is no longer the old I but a wider, more comprehensive one. We do not lose ourselves in it, but on the contrary we truly find ourselves. A new breathing space, scope and sphere of action opens up and we realize only then how confined we had been before, how imprisoned and isolated." (Karlfried Graf Durckheim)
In this awakened state of consciousness we experience connection, and ultimately conscious love. All the great ideas that we admire about spiritual teachings are not abstract thoughts but expressions of human experience that are available to each one of us. But we must work on ourselves for them to bear fruit.