THE PREPARATION & THE ART OF RELAXATION
Joseph Azize Page
Certain ideas or hints can assist with the Gurdjieff preparation and exercises. Of course, not everything can be adequately communicated on the printed page. But neither is complete silence necessary. The best published material known to me is the final chapter in Jean Vaysse’s Toward Awakening. That chapter is instructively titled: “The First Step in Self-Study: Inner Quiet, Relaxation, Sensation of Oneself, and the Attempt to Remember Oneself”.
Vaysse was a personal pupil of Gurdjieff, and a person of tremendous ability. Nothing I could say would improve on what he wrote. It is regrettable that his book is presently out of print, but perhaps a demand will persuade the publishers to reissue it. Having said that, there are some matters which Vaysse does not cover which, I think, can usefully be canvasssed.
These notes are intended to assist one with understanding something of the preparation as it came from Gurdjieff. The value of these thoughts is different for those who have had a personal introduction to the art from someone who learned it from Gurdjieff or one of his direct pupils, and those who have not. For those who have, this piece may, perhaps stimulate their valuation of what they have learned, encourage them to further practice, and maybe provide some fresh perspectives. But if someone has not learned the art from one of the qualified, then these notes might provide some food for thought, and even furnish a reason to at least explore the possibility of learning the art. These thoughts on the art should not be confused with the art itself. But perhaps they can lead to it.
In earlier blogs I have used Gurdjieff’s term “Aiëssirittoorassnian-contemplation”. Let us continue to do so. Aiëssirittoorassnian-contemplation starts with being present to my state as it is. One “re-members” one’s self, without deception, so far as this is possible. Not even a breath of analysis is allowed to blunt my perceptions – I want a naked apprehension of myself more intimate than any thought, an intuition more instant than any idea. And, from a position behind myself, as it were, each of the three centres (thinking, feeling and motor-instinct) must in its proper way be relaxed.
The eyelids are gently and intentionally brought down – not just squeezed shut. The Adies would sometimes invite us, having closed them, to reopen the eyelids and then softly lower them not so much to shut out light as to turn innerly. Something similar is possible with the mouth: it should not be tightly pressed, and once more, it can be softly and consciously parted but a fraction and the lips then brought into touch. At the end of the preparation, incidentally, it often helps to open one’s eyes with much the same sense, then close them again, and reopen, allowing the impressions to enter.
Such ostensibly small gestures can bring a fresh understanding of “relaxation”. The concept of relaxation should not be hurried over as if we know what it is. The states of relaxation and tension reflect, on our human level, two of the three holy forces which operate on a cosmic scale. Consider these pairings: relaxation and tension, contraction and expansion, heat and cold. These qualities all say something about the place and the tempo of any given phenomenon. Everything in the universe vibrates at a certain pitch. As its rate of vibration changes, so too must its place, its temperature and its state of tension. This is exemplified when ice melts and moves. Ultimately, the place, tempo and tension of any phenomenon are one: together, they are its pitch. This word ‘pitch’ philologically refers to ‘position’ in the widest possible sense of the term, which is why it embraces both the placing of a note of music and the erection of a tent.
In one exercise he gave in 1938, Gurdjieff said “Fifteen minutes relax. Break tempo of ordinary life…”. To relax is to change our tempo, our time. But relaxation and tension are two aspects of one reality: they are not and cannot be exclusive. They must go together in some particular ratio. When we relax for the preparation or exercises, we do not relax completely. If we did, we would go to sleep. To lift any object we need a certain amount of tension, or our muscles will never contract to enable us to grip and then raise our arms. Yet, if there is too much tension in our arms, we will not be able to move them adequately. So the ratio of relaxation and tension must always be equilibrated.
This “equilibration” is judgment, measurement, ordering, relationship and harmonization and it involves our three faculties. One word for this process of equilibration is “attuning”, with its connotations of both artistry and science. Perhaps we can say then, that we are normally pulled between tension and relaxation, between yes and no, affirmation and denial, stability and movement. And Gurdjieff’s ideas and practices give us the opportunity to consciously attune ourselves.
One thing which a person will find if they persevere with the preparation, is that there is relaxation not only in the body but also in the feeling and in thought. When this relaxation reaches feeling, one acquires a new understanding of patience. Etymologically, it means “suffering something to be”. These simple words hide something very large: to start with, it assumes an appreciation of what actually is, and it includes an affirming attitude, whatever the consequences for myself. Of course, there are occasions when one must interfere with things, or even stop harmful processes. This requires judgment: a function of all centres.
It is not so easy for the centres to work together: there are different tempos in different centres. Our first thought, perhaps, would be to try and immediately change the diverse tempos. However, they can be effectively and safely harmonized not by wrenching them but indirectly, by including them each at the proper moment within my sphere of conscious awareness, just as the blood moves at one rate, the breath at another, and so on. It is, I think, better not to attempt to describe the different tempos. A person can experience them, and the experience will be more reliable for not having been suggested.
Now, what does “relaxation” mean to us, in our experience? Each person’s history is different, but many years ago, an old nun, in her immaculate grey and white habit, said to me in Lebanese: dul mirtaah, “stay relaxed”. I received the impression of her kindness and I sensed something else within the words. I knew without thinking that these words meant “relax” and yet, also more than that. Gurdjieff says that “mentation by form” is related to the “inner content” of a word. I could not have defined the inner content of that gentle nun’s words, yet something with a feeling quality passed to me. When one looks up a Semitic word, one has to first identify the verbal root. For mirtah, the root is pronounced rah and has a sense of “to go away” and “to begin (a process)”. Perhaps its fundamental sense is “to be engaged in movement”.
The noun from this verb is ruh, and has the basic meaning of “breath of life, soul, spirit, life”. The “t” infix makes the verb intransitive. It means that the action of the verb takes place within the subject: rather than going away, the subject comes to himself; rather than commencing an external process, the subject commences himself; and rather than blowing upon something … and so on.
In fact, etymologically, the noun mirtaah which we translate as “relaxation”, connotes “breathing throughout oneself” or “breathing within oneself”. It is a recognized hazard of translating Semitic languages that it is not really possible to coin a one word translation.
This made me think of Hebrew, because in the Hebrew Bible, the spirit of God which moves upon the waters is the ruah, cognate to the Lebanese and the Arabic. In ancient Hebrew, no word for “relaxation” is attested, but the word is found in modem Hebrew. One of the modem Hebrew words said to denote “relaxation” is based on the root nefesh. This is a word for “self”, “soul”, “spirit”, “living thing”, and hence in biblical Hebrew could be used to mean “to revive”. In Arabic this word, written as nafsu, has a similar range of meaning, often signifying “self”. Thus, while “relax” may mean “to loosen again, to loosen further” in English, the word is not an entirely adequate translation of mirtah. For people like ourselves, who tend to understand words according to “mentation by words”, it is an adequate translation. But, not only does mirtah mean “breathing throughout oneself”, to a sensitive person, it conveys, according to “mentation by form”, something over and above “relax”. It really connotes entering a new alignment of internal forces. It means new connections, allowing the breath, the spirit, to move and expand within oneself, bringing about fresh relationships.
The reference to “self” is also significant: consider the meaning of the “Self” in Advaita.
But to return to our thesis: if one is to move in the direction of any aim, one must be able to relax sufficiently to move from one’s present position. And the higher the aim, the more that relaxation should tend towards breathing through oneself, “in-spiriting” oneself. Gurdjieff once said: “All pleasures are merde. All pleasures make you a slave. … mechanical pleasures destroy you. You are lost in them. They are all injurious, except for giving oneself voluntary relaxation, necessary for an aim.” In a meeting of 9 December 1946, Gurdjieff said that only conscious relaxation has value, that is, relaxation where the head retains the role of policeman; otherwise, he said, it is weakness.
In terms of inner movement, relaxation is affirmation, and tension is refusal, as Jane Heap indicated.
In the 1943 group meeting alluded to in an earlier blog, Gurdjieff gave some extraordinary indications about relaxation and the muscles. Simply, Gurdjieff apparently taught them how to relax large muscles, then to relax the muscles which depend on those, and finally the smallest muscles, depending on those.
The question now is, will anyone see fit to pursue these indications? As Gurdjieff said in that meeting: “Relaxation is without end.”
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book “The Phoenician Solar Theology” treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The third book, “George Mountford Adie” represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.