Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

G. I. Gurdjieff's teaching, research, books, conferences


Joseph Azize Page


1 Identification

What actually is identification? Is it a mood, a thought, a feeling? What part of the person is it in? Or is it part of the person at all? Is it perhaps something which invades?

One easy, perhaps superficially appealing approach would be to say that these questions are academic: I seek only to know identification in myself, to know it by taste. Surely what matters is the struggle with identification, not theorizing about it.

Well, such a response is understandable, maybe even necessary for beginners, but not, perhaps, forever. We can be too absolute, and ascribe all-purpose value to a thought or a sentiment which once served us well. Indeed, we perhaps identify most with our best ideas. Yet, very little on the practical side of the spiritual path admits of perpetually valid statements, because, as one proceeds, the demands change. Mr Adie always said that the work becomes harder as one continues: if I can include more in my effort, then I have a responsibility to include it, and if I do not strive to fulfill my responsibilities I lose that possibility. When we have had a good taste of identification then we can take action to make it passive: but in order to do so, we just might need understanding. As we shall see by the end of part 3, the salt of knowledge is a necessary part of the deep work of freedom from identification.

What is identification? The short answer is, I think, that it is emotional engagement with an object of consciousness. I can identify with anything, any recognition or acknowledgement, only provided that there is some emotional attachment. This emotionality will invariably be a form of like or dislike, attraction or repulsion. The one thing identification cannot be is impartial. Identification is practically the law of life, whether inside families, socially, at the office, in the factory, in clubs, and even in groups.

Mr Adie used to say that considering (identification with people) is worse inside the groups. Only now do I see why this must be so: it is because the greater our valuation of something, the greater the opportunity for emotional engagement. We identify with our group leaders and colleagues, with our roles and our years in groups, and even with Gurdjieff himself and other teachers. Impartiality is most needed in groups, and in respect of the spiritual path. Sometimes I wonder if it is not a law that we must be madly identified with the work before we can become free of identification and re-meet the inner work, as if for the first time.

In George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia (esp. pp.37ff.), I set out a lot of what Mr Adie had to say about identification and how to struggle with it. I included some musings on the etymology of the word, and Mr Adie’s favourite simile for understanding identification: the four stages of identification. I cannot repeat all that here, but will say that my understanding is that the tendency to identification can never be eliminated in us so long as we have consciousness, and that there are degrees of identification.

The greater the identification, the more familiar it is, and hence the more unrecognizable as sleep. Part of the problem is that identification is often invisible. It is chained so tightly to our eyes that it we see by means of it, like contact lenses we have forgotten about. We may not even be aware of a liking or disliking, we take things as being the way they should be, and we mistake the familiar for the normal. As a friend of mine commented when I told her of my idea for this blog, “identification is taking things personally”. Often this attitude of personalising is not noticeably either pleasant or unpleasant: it is our world, our air; after all, we can only look out on the world from the citadel of our own person.

Frequently, too, we honour our identifications with golden names. For people such as ourselves, our “loving” involves identification. The modern passion for being “passionate” is a passion for identification. But maybe not all our loving, maybe some of it is free at moments, or at least relatively free, from identification. And then, there are moments of compunction, when we momentarily have a perspective on ourselves and our weaknesses. At least, I believe so.

2 Knowledge

One person who used to visit the groups in Australia would say: “When I know it, I kill it”. I have thought about this from various angles, and considered it carefully. This sort of comment was, I think, critical to his approach, which was one of breaking down, of course with a view to the arising of something new. But however I ponder it, I have concluded this is an over-statement, and by being inaccurate is dangerous, because it displaces a better, more precise approach.

Knowledge is not the problem: identification with our knowledge is. Without the possibility of knowledge our situation would be hopeless. There is even a certain identification with not knowing, as if to say that one knew anything would be false pride. If we don’t value what knowledge we have, we will lose it.

So we come back to the beginning: what do we know of identification? Is identification a mood, a thought, a feeling? What part of the person is it in?

I think that identification is in different “I”s. These are formed of associations in one or more centres. Sometimes these associations are so complex that they form chains, like a series of reflexes. But knowing this gives us an opportunity for freedom: when we become aware of identification we may be able to discern which centres are engaged, and how the chain of associations operates. Then an intelligent strategy for rendering identification passive can be formulated.

This insight also explains why it seems that identifications invade us from outside. An external factor acts as a catalyst, it starts a chain of associations, and then we are lost. Once the emotions are engaged it is impossible to feel oneself as separate. But the mind can stand aside, and, as Mr Adie would say, “feeling follows thought”. We do not drive out one emotion with another, but a feeling becomes available, and the reality of feelings is more potent than that of emotions.

When I have a feeling of myself, then perspective and impartiality are possible for me. I see that I am identified with many things: my name, my age, my personal history, my clothes, my taste in food, my emotional reactions and so on. Of all identifications, perhaps one of the most significant is identification with my bodily sensations. It is difficult to explain this, but once we see how we are identified with the body, a door opens, and we can get beyond it. We are identified with our range of movement (even though we may not consciously know what it is), our posture, the height from which we look at the world, the angle at which we hold our head and eyes, the way our stomach feels after a meal, and even the myriad small tensions, discomforts, which we constantly experience.

This is the knowledge we need. Westerners have a hang-up with knowledge. I suspect that it comes from the philosophers. In an academic paper, I have contended that, after the Milesians, the Greeks, and through them ourselves, took mathematical knowledge as the gold standard, indeed the only standard for knowledge. But one only needs knowledge of a mathematical type for maths, and scientific knowledge for when one studies science. In Greek, one word, episteme, means both “knowledge” and “science”. This may have contributed to the confusion. Compare this to Arabic: there are roots such as arafa and alama which have the same sort of range as Greek episteme. However, there is another productive root, adraka, which can mean “to know”, but has a fundamental sense of “reach, catch up, attain, ripen” and so on.

Identification and Knowledge 3

Breaking the nexus between knowledge and mathematics may offer a fresh understanding and valuation of knowledge. We have identified with our knowledge, and with our concept of knowledge. Fortunately, there is another approach, the objective approach to knowledge, unidentified, based on a transcendent aim, the ground of understanding which Mr Adie spoke of in “A God Given Day”:

“Somewhere in me is a granary, a store of knowledge, of facts. These facts have a definite significance, not wavering or uncertain. This knowledge is within me in the form of a living whole, having a certain definite power and degree of understanding. This can be a present part of my reality, if I appear certain and sure upon the stage of this, my life.”

So the problem is not that if I know it, I kill it. It is that I am not there to know it, and if I am not, then nothing is alive. The important thing is to have an aim, a flare to call my presence. If I have, for example, the aim to be more available to feeling, then I need a plan. Consider three simple objects for observation: (1) The sensation of my head and in my head. Am I identified with this? Even asking the question can lead to clarity. A friend of mine mentioned that before he prays he asks God to clear his head, and it works. (2) The tensions of my body. Once more, just asking whether I am identified with them brings me to a deeper relaxation, making more control possible. (3) The tempo of my thoughts, feelings and body. These are far more important than we realize, and may even be the key to consciously changing my state. I always find, when I query the tempo at which I eat, react, or “think”, that the tempo is unnecessarily frenetic.

Such questions, I find, can “dissolve” identifications, at least temporarily. But at the end of the day, the big question is the relation between identification, or more accurately, non-identification and the Kesdjan body. It can be active only when identification is passive, but at the same time, freedom from identification is a function of the Kesdjan body. The body is, and must be, a machine. But it can be a machine which is en-spirited by a soul.

The idea for this blog really began when I realized that some identification has a positive role from the point of view of daily life. The strings of identification allow life under the sun to roll on. Without some degree of identification, the instability of our inner world would be even more closely reflected in life than it already is. Identification keeps us in one place, and with the same people for significant periods. Without identification, we would be nomadic to the point of anarchy. So, identification has a positive role, but it has undoubtedly grown unhealthily to become a canker, and the strings have become chains.

I think that the linkage of thought and emotion which we see in identification is not in itself bad, the problem is that they are not under the direction of reason.

And this lead to a practical conclusion: if identification has a value when it is present in a modest manner, then freedom from it should be a gentle action, and should be conducted with understanding. This is why I said at the outset that knowledge is needed. There comes a point, I believe, where it can be very useful to sit in the collected state, and to ponder identifications, where they come from, what their value has been, and then to bring before me my understanding that they have surpassed their usefulness, and now mean slavery. If that is done, perhaps a feeling can appear which will serve as the reconciling factor between my desire for freedom of consciousness, and the bondage of identification. The chains, then, are transformed into rational connections.



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 second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.

The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.