Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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Gurdjieff and the Prayer of the Heart
Joseph Azize

In the post on Fasting, we saw that Gurdjieff taught that techniques such as fasting, confession and prayer were not only valuable but essential for any seeker, even if we usually associate them with religion, but not with the Fourth Way. Gurdjieff gave few indications about prayer, but he knew of and used certain Eastern methods of praying. Is it possible to develop these indications with a view to making prayer something practical?

Of particular importance are what are often called the prayers of repetition, such as the Prayer of the Heart and the Jesus Prayer. I prefer to call these “continuing prayer”. Here, etymology is enlightening. “Continue” is derived from two Latin roots, *SCOM meaning “together” and *TA / *TEN, “stretch, hold”. *SCOM appears in Greek as “ksun” and “sun”, while in Latin the s was kept in words like “sequor” meaning “I follow”, while in words like “cum” and “con” meaning “with”, the s disappeared and the c was retained. So, etymologically, in “continuous prayer”, the instantaneous prayer of this moment holds hands, as it were, with the instantaneous prayer of the next moment. It is an action of prayerful attention perpetuated by wish, will and – most important of all – grace.

Continuing prayer is the “safe place” of which Mr Adie spoke to us, what he would call the “inner tabernacle” and the “oratory”. Continuing prayer is the amethyst jewel which transforms poisons into wine, it is the lamp of Galadriel which dispels dreams. It is the philosopher’s stone which converts lead to gold, because it is awareness in the intellectual part of feeling centre, and thus the bridge to intellectual part of intellectual centre and to the higher centres. This praying is inside us, as Mr Adie said. But this does not mean that it is not somehow spread among organs and blood vessels. In his words, “inside” means permeating me and my atmosphere. My “inside”, odd as it may sound, extends for about a metre all around me. One can use the planet as an analogy. In some notes published as “Notes on Saint John’s Gospel”, Ouspensky wrote:

Earth is enclosed and enwrapped in a great flame of radiant power. The same power is stored inside every living form, waiting for some shock that will set it free.

The Christian techniques of prayer can provide such shocks, but as Ouspensky stated on 23 January 1934, these techniques are useless without conscious breathing and fasting (see A Further Record, pp.295-8.) Ouspensky’s comments make sense of some rather cryptic remarks to be found in the Philokalia, especially in Nikiphorus the Monk (see volume 4 of the complete text). The more I experiment with fasting and with the preparations and exercises EXACTLY as Mr Adie had from Gurdjieff, the more I think that this is also true of the Gurdjieff method.

Adie’s instructions tally exactly with those of Nikiphorus. Indeed, they make sense of and expand the monk’s deliberately fragmentary and incomplete instructions. Incidentally, I believe that Mme Kadloubovsky, who had a major role in the preparation of the English translation of the Philokalia, and who assembled the volume which dealt with the Prayer of the Heart, was Ouspensky’s secretary. That volume is highly recommended, and includes Nikiphorus under the name “Nicephorus the Solitary”.

Let me relate one personal experience, or type of personal experience. With the continuous prayer, impressions are received entirely differently, or perhaps one could say that they are received as before but as well there are added impressions of oneself, of vividness, of almost being poised above time, added depth and dimension in everything … and so on. When I forget the prayer, I am sometimes awoken by a feeling which is something like “who took away the third dimension?” The street scene I had been alive in has suddenly become more like a television screen. The very gap between life with prayer and life without can serve to awaken.

As this suggests, continuing prayer is not some sort of monolithic granite extension: there are fluctuations and distractions. Yet, the person praying (the orant) is influenced by the prayer, and the active elements of the prayer (aim, intention, wish, feeling, understanding) which are augmented by what can metaphorically be called a stretching of the attention. The prayer is not of equal and unvarying intensity: but the moments of prayer are united in their effect by the aim and the practice of the orant, which is continually initiated, lost, reinitiated, and so on. Indeed, as Helen Adie told us, a thought can be pulled back if it has not yet left my atmosphere, and it can often take seconds to do so. The concept is strange, and no words can really express it, but hearing it on tapes now I know something of what she meant, because a person who has been taught the collected state exercise can have a sense of its truth: how by making an effort to bring back a thought or an emotion, one has a feeling of recalling something, and the incipient feeling of depletion is succeeded by an inflow of force. Thus, one can properly speak of a “continuing” prayer.

And has some understanding of what Gurdjieff meant in his chapters on hypnotism about the work of the sub-consciousness, then there, where it counts, the prayer be even less discontinuous than we know. Further, the material in those chapters will clarify much of what is implied, but not stated explicitly, about the heart, the pulse(s) and breathing in the Eastern Christian material. If “Purgatory” is the heart of the teaching, then “Hypnotism” is the backbone of the techniques.

That said, it would be irresponsible to provide specific indications concerning continuing prayer, because, as the Philokalia stated on the Prayer of the Heart, and as Mr Adie said, such techniques must be learnt from someone experienced, who can watch the orant (or student). Otherwise, a person can become deluded, and imagine that they possess qualities they do not, or worse. But I can indicate this: three things came together to bring me to the contents of this post. First, I have once more started to benefit from a certain experience which I had first had in 1982, when the Adies had taught me the preparation as Gurdjieff had taught them, and eventually something began to happen within me. It was a feature of my time with the Adies. I am amazed I can have remembered it so little. The experience has reoccurred several times in the past few years since I left the group, when certain events or realizations were the catalyst to this self-feeling of the continuing prayer. I am not saying that I am man number 4, or always have self-consciousness, but I will venture to say that the continuing prayer experience proves to me that the idea of man number 4 is not a fantasy. It is possible to have the continuing prayer experience for the entirety of a day and even for several days together. On such days, one is man number 4, with all the fluctuations and variation of intensity I have referred to.

The second thing which has contributed to my writing this blog is the receipt of several e-mails since posting the Fasting blog. These have pointed me back to parts of the Orthodox tradition I had not understood, especially to the Prayer of the Heart and the Jesus Prayer. I can hardly overstate how important fasting is in disrupting the coordination of the centres and making possible new physical, feeling and intellectual experiences.

The third cause is that I have become more and more aware that Gurdjieff did in fact have sources, and wherever I have been able to identify such sources, they are in the Greek tradition, especially what is called the “Neoplatonic” school of Plotinus and Iamblichus, including their distant disciple Proclus. Now, who retained those texts in a language Gurdjieff could read? Some Sufi school in Afghanistan? Not terribly likely, and certainly, I have not seen evidence that they did. However, the Greek Orthodox tradition of Byzantium did preserve many of these texts in well-ordered, accessible libraries, and what is more, the Orthodox scholars studied them.

I have been reminded of something else which I can now, in retrospect, hardly believe I could have forgotten. The hitherto-forgotten secret lies open in the well-read pages of In Search of the Miraculous: at p.304. It is related that Gurdjieff asked his pupils where the word “I” sounds in them when they pronounce it aloud. Ouspensky stated that he was “entirely unable to evoke this sensation” in himself. Then, said Gurdjieff, there is an exercise “preserved up to our time in the monasteries of Mount Athos.” (Incidentally, Gurdjieff had earlier stated that he had been to Mount Athos, Miraculous, p.36).

In this exercise, Gurdjieff said, a monk takes a certain position, lifts his arms in a definite posture, and says “Ego” while listening to where it sounds. In Greek, “ego” does not mean “me”, or even “egotism” and “egomania”, it means “I”, or “I am”. The purpose of the exercise, Gurdjieff explained, is to feel “I” at every moment a man thinks of himself, and furthermore, to bring the sense of “I” (perhaps one could say the sense of “I am” or “presence”) from one centre to another. All this material on the “Ego” exercise is given in some 19 lines. Incidentally, the 19th century Maronite monk, Mar Naamtallah is often shown praying in just this posture. Gurdjieff also gave a similar but less physically unsparing exercise to Mr Adie as a preparation for the morning preparation.

During the war, Gurdjieff gave many exercises based on “I am” (Voices in the Dark, p.56 for but one example). There, he twice stated how “original” the exercise was: which I think is more likely than not to be a sign that it was anything but original. If one looks up “I am” in the index to that book, and reads the passages, one cannot but feel that the three-centred awareness of “I am” was central to his practical method: it was certainly axial to the methods which the Adies taught us. Med Thring, in a conference in England, stated that the big difference between Ouspensky and Gurdjieff was that when he went to Paris, Gurdjieff taught them “I AM”. This has to be right. Mr Adie was speaking of the effects of this when he said that his experience was that “Mr Gurdjieff could open people up in a way which Mr Ouspensky never could.”

To return to the “Ego” exercise, the similarity of this exercise to Gurdjieff’s war time teaching and the last exercise of 1949 is striking (this is one which he gave Mrs Adie, and features “I AM”). Further, Gurdjieff had, in Russia, pointed out “many times” the “necessity” of studying this “forgotten technique” and declared that without it nothing but purely subjective results could be attained on the “way of religion”. Not, I would add, that subjective results are to be scoffed at.

Where does this leave us? I think it is encouraging to reflect that there are methods for prayer and self-development which can and do work. They are not easy, and one must be prepared for real shocks, but the possibility is there. It is also, I think, comforting to reflect that the Gurdjieff methods and ideas do not have to be so divorced from religion as they sometimes, perhaps even too frequently, are. I think that for those in the Gurdjieff tradition, it points them to the authentic preparations and exercises brought by Gurdjieff, and away from the “sittings” of the “new work”.

For those of us who have ever had the sense of the continuous prayer and its vibration in the body, it is a much-needed reminder, because as Merlin once said: “It is the doom of man that he forgets.”


March 28, 2008 at 6:11 am

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