Posts Tagged ‘Gurdjieff International Review’
I have in front of me a copy of a newly published book titled “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto.” It was issued in November 2012 by Traditional Studies Press in Toronto, which happens to be the city in which I now reside. The book will be of interest to students of traditional thought and this is expressed in the wording of its subtitle: “On the ideas and practice of the teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff.”
To me the book is of especial interest because, in a limited way, a long time ago, I knew Louise Welch – Mrs. Welch, as she was always called. That was a long time ago – some fifty years ago. Memories sometimes serve as bridge-builders, connecting the past and the present. They do so in this instance.
Before I discuss the contents of this book, I will describe the volume as a physical object. It is a sturdy production, a new book designed to outlast the years, as are so many of the titles issued by Traditional Studies Press, which is the publication wing of The Gurdjieff Foundation: The Society for Traditional Studies. (The organization’s website identifies the organization as The Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: Society for Arts and Ideas.)
The publication has no dust jacket but the pages are bound in heavy boards covered in dark green cloth, and the pages are sewn together rather than glued together, so the book may be opened without worry that any of its pages will loosen or fly apart! The volume measures 6 inches by 9 inches, and the pagination goes like this: xxii + 181 + i. It is curious that the first twenty-two pages, which offer the reader an analytic table of contents (like those in P.D. Ouspensky’s “Tertium Organum” and in many of Colin Wilson’s books), appear without page numbers.
The typography is more practical than pictorial; the type is large and the lines are well “leaded” or spaced apart. The text is fairly short (perhaps 60,000 words) and each page is easy on the eyes. There is a frontispiece photograph of Mrs. Welch, taken in Halifax in 1984, which makes her look much older than the women I remember meeting over a period of two years in the second half of the 1950s.
In memory I recall Mrs. Welch as sharing some of the facial features of Maria Ouspenskaya, the Russian-born actress and acting teacher. Here she looks rather more like Marie Dressler, the Canadian-born, Academy Award-winning comic movie actress. I prefer the image in my memory to the portrait in the book!
Louise Welch’s vital years are 1905 and 1999 (so she is not to be confused with the similarly named Louise Welsh, the much younger, English-born, Scotland-based author of psychological thrillers). Mrs. Welch – Louise Michel Blinken Welch, to give her name in full – was born in New York City of Ukrainian background. She was raised in a dysfunctional family setting and received little formal education, but through her own efforts she found work as a journalist and editor. At one time in the 1920s, she wrote the “agony column” for the New York American. (Walter Winchell quipped about her that “Louise Michel went from bad to Hearst.”) Later in her varied career she worked as a director of a writer’s group for the WPA – the Work (or Works) Project Administration, the U.S. federal government’s employment program of the 1930s, now despised by Republications and forgotten by Democrats.
During the Depression she married and bore a son and a daughter. She was abandoned by her husband so she became their sole support. (Her daughter is Patty de Llosa, a writer and leader who is well respected in the circle of the Work, has has written warmly about her mother and her stepfather, Dr. William J. Welch, in a memoir that appears on one of the webpages of the “Gurdjieff International Review.” The information shared here is derived in part from that source.)
In the 1930s, Mrs. Welch worked with Benton & Bowles, the renowned advertising agency, and there she met and was befriended by a somewhat younger co-worker, who later trained to became a medical doctor, qualified as a cardiac specialist, and eventually became her husband. Together the Welches were what later came to be known as “a power couple.”
This is not the place to review her meetings in the 1920s with the English editor A.R. Orage or how through him she met G.I. Gurdjieff, in both Fontainebleau and New York, if only because she accomplished all of this in her finely written, book-length memoir titled Orage with Gurdjieff in America (1982). Offhand I would say her temperament had much in common with that of Orage. The two of them appreciated fine writing, they were practical people and skilled editors, they had an understanding of the emotional problems of other people as well as the social problems of their times, and they were entirely committed to being leaders in the Work.
Hardly any of the above information appears in the pages of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” a fact that limits the readership of this volume to readers appreciative of the subtleties of the Work. To all other readers, the book will be seen as a tribute to a well-liked person rather than as a valuable record of transactions and experiences. Traditional Studies Press did what it set out to do; that was its aim. Perhaps a wider perspective might have resulted in a more imposing publication. Yet readers of all persuasions should express gratitude for what has been achieved.
The Toronto group was founded in 1954, the first of the ancillary groups to be recognized by The Gurdjieff Foundation in New York which had then entered its second year of operation. Its seeds were planted by Olga de Hartmann and her husband Thomas, the composer who had worked so closely with Mr. Gurdjieff on those marvellous compositions for the piano. In fact, way back in 1919, it was the de Hartmanns who had introduced Alexandre and Jeanne de Saltzmann to Mr. Gurdjieff. In the same way, while the couple were living in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, anticipating their move to the United States, they introduced the Work to Canadians in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax.
Among the prime movers of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York were Dr. and Mrs. Welch. The latter was delegated to head the Toronto group, which she did from 1955 on. I met her a year or two later, never guessing that the Toronto group was not “ages old” but “brand new.” On our first meeting, I asked her if I could join the Work, once I had moved to the city and enrolled at the University of Toronto. She delayed answering that question. Instead she asked her own question, “How did you first learn about the this work?” It was a good question because there was very little information available to the public about Gurdjieff, especially in a small city like the one in which I was born and raised. (This was well before the arrival of the so-called New Age.)
I replied that I had borrowed a copy of “In Search of the Miraculous” (published four years earlier) from the local Carnegie library, and read it cover to cover, not once but twice. Etched in my memory is her grim rejoinder: “The Table of Hydrogens is quite difficult, you know.” Then I backtracked and admitted that I had not understood all that I had read! She was happier with that reply. In general, I knew about the Priory at Fontainebleau from Ouspensky’s description, but it was months before I heard anything at all about J.B. Bennett and the foundations, institutes, and societies, not to mention the estate at Mendham. I was nineteen years old at the time.
My first meeting with the Toronto group leader took place in the upstairs bedroom of the home of Mrs. Margot Dustin and her husband Ernest whose nickname was “Dusty,” both former Theosophists, about a mile from where I now live and am keyboarding this account, and I was regular in my attendance at weekly meetings for readings and for Movements held here and there throughout the city, especially at the monthly meetings convened by Mrs. Welch. She would fly into the city from New York to conduct the sessions, on occasion with Dr. Welch, a man of genuine presence and strong voice. Once, in later years, they brought with them a 16 mm, black-and-white print of performances of the Movements in Paris, which was shown to a small group at the Ontario Science Centre.
Sometimes in attendance at the meetings were film producer Tom Daly, teacher Peter Colgrove, Dr. Paul Bura, an engineer, and his wife Sheila, who was adept in Movements, who were “refugees” from a Bennett group in England, not to mention a stunning, exotic couple: an exquisite, half-Burmese, half-French woman of great beauty (named Olga, oddly, and former wife of BBC executive Cecil Lewis) and her tall, stylish architect husband who may have come from Cornwall, where they subsequently settled. Yet in general I found the original members to be drawn from the professional middle-class of the city, almost everyone being older than I was, and it was a somewhat staid gathering of people, certainly not one given to small talk or big pronouncements. There were occasional visits from the very Gallic Alfred Etievant who would lead the Movements with lithe assurance.
Mrs. Welch’s contributions were not limited to oral instruction, for she encouraged the group to break into print. She kindled the publication of “A Journal of Our Time,” a literary and artistic “little magazine” of some deft and delicacy; she wrote a play which the group produced and staged for public performance; she generated publicity for the commercial showing at Cineplex (the world’s first “cineplex” or multi-screen movie theatre) of Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with Remarkable Men”; she served as editor-in-chief of the first edition of “The Guide and Index to G.I. Gurdjieff’s All and Everything,” which remains an invaluable resource to this day.
References to a few of these activities appear in “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” which is dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Dustin, the very woman in whose house I first met Mrs. Welch. According to the editorial note, “This publication is compiled from notes taken at meetings spanning the years 1955-1965 and 1973-1989.” My experiences relate directly to the first period, not at all to the second period, and I have no idea what happened between 1965 and 1973, a span of years that I assume were busy ones for the Toronto group, which eventually acquired valuable real estate both in Toronto and outside the rapidly expanding city.
When I was in attendance, each one of us was encouraged – even required – to ask questions, and to ask them slowly, so that the two note-takers would have time to record them, whether in longhand or shorthand I never knew. Apparently these scripts exist today, and they form the basis of the text of this book. From time to time the questions themselves are recorded here, but in most instances it is only Mrs. Welch’s answers that are given. The text itself begins like this: “My search is your search. We must each have a common wish to find out who we are and the direction in which we can grow to reach the truth.” (For symmetry’s sake, the text proper ends like this: “We have a little help here.”)
Reading these passages I am able to imagine myself in her presence and hear her refined, modulated American speech tones and pronunciations. The content of the presentations brings to my mind the content of the entries that appear in the five volumes of Maurice Nicoll’s “Commentaries.” Dr. Nicoll’s presentations are quite technical, whereas Mrs. Welch’s are conversational, parallelling normal thought processes. Both books are organized topically with long, analytic tables of contents. Mrs. Welch is a communicator of attitudes from Mr. Gurdjieff; Dr. Nicoll is a conveyer of detailed information from Mr. Ouspensky.
Her expositions make good use of “I” and “me,” though they do so with great care so as to generalize about the “I” and the “me” and make the words apply to each and every one of her listeners. For instance, she writes as follows: “The important thing is my inner work. My presence is important. I live without meaning because I am not here.” Imagine hearing these words: the “my” and the “I” are those of you, the listener.
In later years, in an attempt to understand the thrust and direction of the Work, I came to define its essence in a single word, a compound word that is a personal neologism. That word is “psychopraxis.” Here the discipline is psychological even psychical rather than psychiatric, but it is also physiological, for it is concerned with physical expression and practice; it is also blessedly free of religious, theosophical, and psychological terminology. Such ideas would have been regarded as novel at the time. Mrs. Welch avoids such exercises, and the introduction into the text of specific Gurdjieffian terms is minimized. One unexpected exception is this one: “Trogoautoegocrat,” from “All and Everything,” which is defined as “real sacrifice” or “I eat myself.”
Preserved are instances of the common touch: “If you tell me you cannot Work for fifteen minutes a day, I say that you don’t want to …. Five minutes of struggle is better than twenty-four hours of daydreaming.” There is no attempt here to innovate or improvise; the expressions of insight are refreshingly free of argument and cant or special pleading. The result is the exposition is effective and the prose is durable and in no sense dated. There are no potted expressions meant to impress the listener or express the private opinion or reservations of the speaker.
At the time I identified Mrs. Welch’s message with a simple, three-letter word – “aim.” It seemed to me at the time that she was always after us to define our own “aim.” I was surprised to realize how difficult it was to comply, difficult when not impossible! Not much about aim has found its way into the text at hand.
What I took away from the Work, right away, was the notion that what lies at the root of most personal and social problems is mechanicality … in “mentation,” emotion, and action. “Mechanicality” is a word that is instantly meaningful, yet is seldom heard or used in this sense by the outside world. On one occasion, she asked a provoking question: “My pet mechanicality is what irritates you. What is there in me that I am unconscious of, and need to be conscious of and know better?”
If I had more time and space I would compare and contrast the records of these meetings, as fragmentary as they are here, compiled not by an individual but by “The Editors, The Gurdjieff Foundation,” with more elaborate records kept of meetings with Ouspensky, Madame Lannes, Conge, and other group leaders. But there are readers (perhaps those who have been exposed to multiple teachers) who are better equipped to do so than am I.
The beating heart of the book lies in its most extended passage, a veritable lecture, which runs from page 66 to page 97. This passage covers most of the subjects germane to work on self. Unlike the shorter sections, which range in length from one sentence to one paragraph or to one or two pages, some dated, the narrative arc of this passage moves from one aspect of the subject to another aspect of the subject, and it builds, as dramatists like to express it. It begins, “I can be stirred into uneasiness … ” and it ends, “We rejoice in the joy of the possibilities.” The beat of this heart marks the ending of the first section of the book.
The second section, which records exchanges between 1973 and 1987, preserves the question-and-answer format – observation and discussion – so it is somewhat more digressive than the first section, but perhaps more engaging. Its heart beats faster. In many ways it may seem less exciting but it is more experienced, less promising but more polished, yet not having been there I cannot comment on how well it represents the occasions themselves. I would say that they do show a leader who is probing, more deeply than formerly, the content of the Work, perhaps because the members of the group are able to absorb more than they did formerly.
The book ends with a selection of aphorisms. Here are some of the book’s aphoristic expressions or pensées, most of them taken from the text itself and not from the selection devoted to them:
* “Our search is not for miraculous results, not to achieve a result, but to learn a process.”
* “My body knows what it wants, not what I want. I must teach all of my parts what I want.”
* “My Gurdjieff said, ‘I don’t bring you a system of morality, but how to find conscience.’ We must find the outlines of a structure that is more valid.”
* “Only when I have a certain level of being can I be open to a certain level of knowledge.”
* “I remember Mr. Orage saying, ‘I love you,’ said the man. ‘Strange that I feel none the better for it,’ said the woman.”
Readers of the book today may find the presentations of procedures of “the work” and the attitudes that are described in these pages less engaging than did listeners at the time. Some of the passages are more than a half century old; others have aged by at least a quarter century. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and truisms and oral teaching techniques that were once novel are now found in best-selling books and courses on the human potential movement, leadership training, self-motivation, cognitive therapies, mindfulness training, and on the TED Lectures on the Web. Many of the formulations are indebted to Mr. Gurdjieff, who gave gifts of insight to the world, few of them acknowledged. Nevertheless, here are some of Mrs. Welch’s formulations that struck me as still valid, informative, or interesting:
* We want to go on repeating what belongs to another period. “Mr. Gurdjieff said that he wasn’t interested in anyone over five or under fifty-five.”
* “Gurdjiefff said one third of one’s life should be spent in pondering. Why was I born? Who am I? What is meant by waking sleep?” [This statement comes from the second section. I recall no earlier instances of the use of the word “pondering” in the earlier period, or any references to the importance of “sittings,” now staples of the de Saltzmann period.]
* “To me it is such an extraordinary thing that a Way exists in which one does not have to leave one’s life.”
* “In Movements we have enormous help. We have a taste of what it means to be close to attention.”
* “We are all members of the human race in a bigger way. All this is common to us. If you see this enough you can’t even hate Hitler. He was just a biological mutation of the wrong sort.”
* “When I first went to Mr. Gurdjieff’s apartment, I couldn’t bear the thought of where he was living. After I was there for ten minutes it was the whole world.”
* “Madame Ouspensky said we always have time for a love affair. This is the human condition.”
* “Mind is the greatest thing we have – excuse me, we do not have it. It is there. How do we find access to it?”
* “If wish doesn’t exist, the wish to wish does exist.”
I will end this appreciation of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto” with one oft-repeated remark of Mrs. Welch’s. It is a favourite of mine and I distinctly recall her uttering it on at least two occasions.
She said, “Your aim is to find your aim.”
John Robert Colombo is a prolific author and anthologist with a special interest in offbeat Canadiana and traditional studies. His latest publication is the Foreword to Paul Beekman Taylor’s book “The Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff” (Eureka Editions). Colombo was recently honoured as one of the “100 Graduates of Influence” of his alma mater, University College, University of Toronto. He holds the Harbourfront Literary Award, an honorary D.Litt. From York University in Toronto, and Bulgaria’s Order of Cyril and Methodius (first class). His website is . If you wish to be informed of forthcoming reviews and commentaries on this website, send him an email. His email address is email@example.com .
the Prieuré where Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man was housed
(fully functional from 1922-1924)
photo with thanks to Gilgamesh Pictures, click on image to enlarge.
Fasting in Christianity and Gurdjieff
17 March 2008
2. Fasting: Definitions and Reasons
3. The Constantinople Notes of Mr. Ferapontoff
4. “Palm Sunday”, the Tchekhovitch and Nott Lists
5. Fasting at the Prieuré
6. The Account of Fasting in Beelzebub
7. Mme Claustres on Fasting
8. Prince Ozay
10. Final Comments
There is reason to explore the possible relationship of Gurdjieff’s ideas and practices to those of Christianity. I will here just take one particular topic: fasting. Eventually, we may be able to draw some larger conclusions. As Ouspensky said: “We are not trying to found a church or a sect, but simply to promote a method of education and study” (Daily News, 19 February 1923, p. 1). There need not be any conflict between Christianity and the use of Gurdjieff’s methods.
To anticipate, the value of fasting can, I think, be expressed in Gurdjieff’s terms thus: fasting causes changes in the tempo of the body’s metabolism, and hence upsets the long-established coordination of intellectual, feeling and organic instinct (the “Zoostat”, see the chapter “Hypnotism”, p. 559). This shock to the Zoostat presents an opportunity, but only an opportunity, for “real notions” to pass to the subconscious (which ought to be our real consciousness and to become active in the entirety of a man, pp. 24-5 and 579). The shock also allows impulses in the subconscious, such as conscience, to play a role in our lives. Gurdjieff also refers to the health benefits of fasting.
However, as a general rule, there is no fasting in the contemporary Gurdjieff tradition, although attention is paid to how one eats, and to oneself as one eats. Here Christianity can take something which is consistent with its own traditions from Gurdjieff, and the Gurdjieff students could, and I would say should, take something from Christianity.
The reader could closely consider pp. 71-4 of Solange Claustres’ Becoming Conscious with G.I. Gurdjieff. She relates Gurdjieff’s teaching that concentrated attention consumes a good deal of energy and material substance, therefore, anyone engaged in such work “should eat the best quality foods, nutritious and rich in vitamins.” (p. 73) If this is so, and I believe from experience that it is, then people on any religious path could give more consideration to the quality of their food. For example, I would contend that both on the grounds given by Mme Claustres, and because it goes against essential values, we should not eat refined sugar, industrially processed foods, or smoke. Gurdjieff gave indications in the chapter “America”, which are not always followed in the Gurdjieff groups. Then there are serious questions of how the growers, reapers and producers of the food have been paid for their services. The Gurdjieff groups are well placed to conduct research into this and to organize food supplies which would not offend against conscience.
In the final analysis, the questions of food itself, what to eat, how much and how to eat it, and production, are all related to the question of fasting, which is how Mme Claustres treats them. And abstinence from food and drink is also related to abstinence in other ways (such as of the senses). As we shall see, Gurdjieff also related fasting to other topics such as repentance and confession, and this is correct. There is a very real connection between these issues.
2 Fasting: Definitions and Reason
What is fasting? The Catholic tradition distinguishes fasting from food and drink from abstinence. The law of abstinence, in a relatively recent formulation, bound all Catholics from the day after their fourteenth birthday, to their death. The law of fasting bound all adult Catholics (generally from their eighteenth birthday until the age of 60, i.e. until midnight completing their fifty-ninth year.)
The law of abstinence forbade the use of meat, but unlike the Orthodox tradition of fasting, which forbade eggs, animal fats and olive oil, the Catholic law of abstinence allows all these. Fish and cold-blooded animals such as clams are always permitted in the Catholic rules of abstinence, even if they are not recommended. Water, and even milk and fruit juices are always permitted, even when fasting. So the law of abstinence does not restrict the amount of food one eats, but only the type.
There is a distinction between the Western (Latin) and the Eastern Catholic traditions of fasting. The Latin Catholic law of fasting allows but one full meal a day, which is generally the mid-day meal. Should a person desire, they may have small collations, generally something very modest like a piece of toast, at breakfast and evening. Some recommend nothing more than a small collation in the evening, should it be needed, so that sleep not be entirely impossible. However, the size of the collations depends upon local custom. The Eastern Catholic law of fasting allows no food whatsoever, but only water before noon, and from noon there is no restriction.
In the Catholic discipline, if one fasts one also abstains. Hence, on days of fasting, when Catholics eat, they may have fish. In the Eastern rites, however, partly perhaps because of the scarcity of fish, but not only for that reason, vegetarianism is preferred on days of fast. However, this preference is, I am informed by Orthodox friends, disappearing.
When, then, does one fast? The general rule is that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the first and last days of Lent, are days of fasting. It is also recommended, and in the Eastern churches it is or at least was essential, that one fast throughout the whole of Lent. Then, there are other smaller fasts, too, which vary from rite to rite. One of these, the Fast of Nineveh, seems to be named after the fasting Ninevites of the Book of Jonah. These fasts were associated with other feasts, such as Christmas and the Assumption.
Why fast? To start with, the physical benefits of prudent fasting are apparent. A study of the Mormons, who fast on the first Sunday of each month, missing two meals, showed substantial health benefits. Another study of what we would call abstinence in the Greek Orthodox Church, showed that abstinence had significant value. This is important, and should be of importance to the Gurdjieff tradition. The first Obligolnian striving relates to the care of the body. In the scenario of the Struggle of the Magicians, the pupils of the white and black magicians are distinguished by the health of their bodies and their postures. The physical body, after all, is part of essence. It should be cared for. Here, both the Christian and Gurdjieff traditions agree, at least in theory, although in practice too little is done. Incidentally, Mr Adie used to take very great interest in the health of his pupils, and I know that he would recommend to overweight persons that they lose weight: however, he did all of this counselling in private. In all the time I knew him and in all the tapes of meetings I have heard, he never once raises these issues in groups. So far as I know, he never used fasting. However, Leon MacLaren most definitely did.
Physical benefits would be sufficient to raise fasting as a serious matter for research within both traditions. But there is more.
3 The Constantinople Notes of Mr. Ferapontoff
I refer here to a privately published 17,530 word document held by Mr Adie, titled the “Constantinople Notes of Mr. Ferapontoff”. These notes were made by Boris Ferapontoff, a pupil whom Gurdjieff evidently considered to be one of his finest (he was named as one of the assistant instructors and did in fact take movements, de Hartmann, Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff: Definitive Edition, pp. 177 and 210 ). They appear to be Ferapontoff’s notes of the lectures which Ouspensky commenced giving in Constantinople in 1920 (Miraculous p. 382). However, they are clearly not verbatim and so would appear to be the intellectual property not of Ouspensky but of Ferapontoff. Of fasting, these notes say the following, which is consistent with, but expands what Ouspensky records in Miraculous at pp. 357-8. At pp. 30-1 of the manuscript, we read:
Fasting. It cleans off the rust. The machine works at a greater speed. At times it produces unhealthy excitations, visions, voices. Some kinds of ecstasy pass through strange forms. If as a rule a man uses a great deal of food, then while fasting he must work still  more. He should saw wood for about five hours a day for as long as a week. Eating nothing will do no harm if it is possible to work, otherwise one would be poisoned. An outlet should be found for the substances which are secreted for the digestion of food. If a starving man is alone, he will die.
Under the influence fasting secret sides of a man may be aroused. What he had dreamt about. Another cannot take this into account.
Fasting is used as an experiment, for self-study, for hygiene. To learn not to use superfluous energy for digestion. But neither fast nor starvation change the habits of the stomach. The momentum is still greater. It is only in the beginning that the organism may appear to have learnt something.
The first sentence, “it cleans off the rust”, might be understood in terms of Gurdjieff’s teaching prior to the experiment in fasting at Essentuki, that the centres work in a disordered unison. A definite activity of the intellectual centre necessarily brings a definite work of the other centres, and vice versa. Therefore, unless the work can touch all parts of a person at once, the results of efforts will be temporary and lopsided (pp. 347-8 Miraculous). The point is developed there, but also in other places, such as in the “First Talk in Berlin” in Views from the Real World. However, Gurdjieff stressed this at the time he introduced the fasting exercises.
The idea can be developed in this way: we are accustomed to take certain postures of thought, of emotion and of body. An example was given to me recently by a friend who described how when her husband even recalls how he was bullied as a child, he hunches over, and she can see that he is actually fearful. The intellectual memory brings a certain set of postures, and these, of course, limit whatever thoughts and emotions might be available. These thoughts, emotions and organic instincts can be thought of as “rusted” together into place. That is, his psychic freedom is limited by the accretions of time. Our organic feeling of ourselves is conditioned by nothing so much as our foods: our eating and drinking, breathing and perception. Changing the intake of food and drink will immediately upset conditioned networks of reaction.
If I am correct, Gurdjieff is saying that man realises new possibilities of free movement through the unaccustomed feeling of hunger, and, I would add, the unaccustomed impression of depriving oneself of food and perhaps drink. Through fasting, the rust which holds the man-machine to a small repertoire of habitual arrangements is partially cleared away. This would explain why in “Palm Sunday” he said that fasting was a means of cleansing. It cleanses the machine of what I call “the unwanted accretions of time”.
I am not the only one who finds that fasting brings an unexpected but wholly welcome sense of freedom, not only physically, but in the feeling and the intellect, too.
Ferapontoff’s notes coincide with what Gurdjieff said in “Palm Sunday”, i.e. “Fasting is used as a means of altering our metabolism and, consequently, of altering the tempo of life and movement in us.” The machine comprises all the centres, except of course for the higher intellectual and emotional which are connected to, and permeate, but are not of the machine. Even small experiments with fasting provide more perceptions, finer feelings, and a smoother working of the moving and especially the instinctive centres. The role of the instinctive centre is of critical importance in spiritual development, but it is dangerous to interfere with it. Therefore, one does not directly tamper with it, but uses the other centres, and this has an effect upon the instinctive centre. For instance, it is important to sleep well: as Gurdjieff often said, sleeping and waking are inextricably bound, although the relationship is not simply one to one. Fasting improves sleep: I speak as someone with a lifelong history of sleep apnoea, related to my facial bones and secondary effects.
How should one fast in order to have these results? One fast a year will not yield lasting results. And the extent of the fast will differ from person to person: a fact on which both the Christian ascetics and Gurdjieff agree.
The next sentences in Ferapontoff might be rephrased: “At times fasting produces unhealthy excitations, visions, voices. One can experience a kind of ecstasy, which takes strange forms.” Certainly, many people feel light headed when they initially start fasting. I have no knowledge of anything beyond this.
By and large, the sentences on working while fasting do not add anything to the comments in Ferapontoff or Miraculous, but they make sense. Personally, I do not change my daily routine in the least when I fast, and in fact find that fasting seems to make physical exertion (e.g. in the gym) more delightful. Finally, to these sentences was added in the words “If a starving man is alone, he will die.” I suspect that what is meant is that a fasting man is in greater danger of starvation if alone. This may well be true: St John Chrysostom did permanent damage to himself by his fasting when he was alone.
But I suspect there is more than this: one should not change one’s impressions by going off alone while fasting. Impressions are a food, and if one is used to being around people, one should fast in the accustomed circumstances.
There is always the imperative of common sense. Gurdjieff’s comments should not be taken absolutely. For example, I would say that one should not drive while fasting if one becomes in the least light headed while fasting, and if there is any danger of being held up in heavy traffic without food or drink which one may require.
The question is, how to judge what is needed? Fasting may help us sense how much food and drink we need. With food, pleasures and sleep, said Gurdjieff, there is a limit to what is necessary, and immediately after this point has been reached, sin begins. “A sin”, said Gurdjieff, “is something which is not necessary.” And this must be true: sin is not necessary. But then, for Gurdjieff “Sins are what keeps a man on one spot if he has decided to move and if he is able to move.” (Miraculous p. 357). For people who are not on the way or approaching it, there is no sin simply because they are not going anywhere. As we shall see in section 9, this is similar to the teaching of St Maximos the Confessor.
So, there is a question as to how much one eats even if one is not fasting. Christianity speaks of Gluttony as being one of the seven deadly sins, and I am sure every religion has the same concept.
I would paraphrase the final pertinent comments from Ferapontoff’s notes thus: “Under the influence of fasting secret sides of a man may be aroused. Dreams may take on reality for him. Another person cannot take this into account, and so the fast should be moderate.” If this is a fair rewording, then I suggest that a man always be ready to break his fast if he feels that it may be necessary, whether because he will otherwise faint and he is alone, or because he is losing the ability to distinguish dreams from reality.
Finally, note that Ouspensky says that fasting can be used in three ways:
1. as an experiment,
2. for self-study,
3. and for health reasons.
Further, he says, fasting may help us to use only the energy we need when we digest food. You will not change the stomach’s habits, but you will make it easier for the stomach to more intelligently regulate itself after it has been fasting. One should not break a fast with an expansive banquet.
4 “Palm Sunday”, the Tchekhovitch and Nott Lists
We now come to Gurdjieff’s comments in the privately published “Palm Sunday, 19 March – 1 April 1923” and the Ferapontoff notes. The “Palm Sunday” talk or talks took place in the Prieuré years (see the chronology in Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff, Astrology and Beelzebub’s Tales, p. 235), when Gurdjieff was using fasts.
These notes open with Gurdjieff advising his audience to learn some words by heart, these were:
10. Death, and
Then, concerning fasting, he said that fasting in itself did not have meaning. Rather, fasting was used as a means to other ends: the ends of altering the metabolism and thus altering the tempo of life and the tempo of movement in those who fast.
This is an extremely significant statement. Anyone who has grasped what Gurdjieff intends to convey in Beelzebub and especially in the chapter “Hypnotism” will understand that the change of tempo of metabolism is, to him, a key in the change of consciousness. Gurdjieff continued, stressing that fasting was not for the sake of anybody else, and certainly not in honour of saints. This would seem a trite point, but he was stressing that “It is necessary to fast with an aim and intention”, and that these had to be for oneself. Parenthetically, it is interesting for me to remark how often Gurdjieff spoke of the necessity of aim, something to which Mr Adie returned time and again, insisting that without aim all is equal, that without aim, talk of evolution is a farce.
Gurdjieff then made a puzzling statement: he asserted that people now fast because they have fasted before, but as to why, practically no one has thought. This is just plain wrong: there is abundant evidence that throughout the last two and a half millennia fasting has never been without a rationale. It is an odd comment. What was Gurdjieff’s purpose in saying something both so palpably and gratuitously incorrect? Anyhow, he continued, saying that fasting was a means of cleansing, and could be effective only if during the fast certain conscious measures were taken. Then, the section on fasting abruptly ends, and the very next word is “Prayer”. I will mention briefly his interesting definition that prayer is thinking in a certain definite direction. He then moved to passion, saying that passion is a state similar to the gnawings of conscience. By the way, Ouspensky is recorded as having attempted, unsuccessfully, to define “passion”. Gurdjieff then spoke of “repentance” and “confession”, which he described as “something very good and very essential. It is impossible to do anything without confession …”
According to the notes, Gurdjieff then returned to the topic of fasting, saying that real Christians fasted in Lent by eating nothing at all for the first three days, and that these days were called the fast of St Theodore, for he was the founder of the Christian pre-Easter fast. However, for a week before the fast of St Theodore, they were to stop eating anything which might stick in the teeth, such as meat. Fish, he stated, could be eaten only twice throughout Lent. I shall return to these comments later, as they tie in with his statements in Beelzebub.
Lists are also produced by in C.S. Nott’s Teachings of Gurdjieff and in Tu L’Aimeras by Tchesslav Tchechovitch. Except in presentation, the French volume is superior to the English (Gurdjieff: A Master in Life), which tidies up the random order of chapters, and publishes some excellent photographs. But that hardly atones for the omissions which sometimes are clearly to make the book more palatable for the public, e.g. the story of the spectral appearance of Katherine Mansfield after her death is expunged from the English. But other omissions seem senseless. One such is that Tu L’Aimeras concludes with some words without commentary. Here they are with my translation and a note of where each word comes in the Palm Sunday list. In the right hand column:
1. La vie Life (11)
2. La jeûne Fasting (1)
3. La prière Prayer (2)
4. Le péché Sin
5. Le remords Remorse = Passion (3)
6. Le repentir Repentance (4)
7. La confession Confession (5)
8. Le rachat Redemption
9. Le pardon Forgiveness (7)
10. La communion Communion (6)
11. LA VIE LIFE (11)
“Life” appears twice in this list, but “sin”, “remorse” and “redemption” do not appear in the Palm Sunday list. That list has words which are not found here: passion (3), suffering (8), tranquillity (9) and death (10). Perhaps “remorse” is the equivalent of “passion”. In “Palm Sunday” Gurdjieff referred to “passion” as the “gnawings of conscience”. In French, remords is formed from re + mordre, “again to bite”. So I consider that a safe equation. “Tranquillity” may be equivalent to “redemption”, but that is not quite as clear.
I cannot discern a clear progression in the sequence of terms, although I can see, for example, why confession might follow repentance. However, perhaps terms 2-10 can be taken synchronously as events, processes and occurrences which must fill the gap between “life” and “LIFE”. Tchekhovitch’s list commences with life at one level, and is completed or fulfilled by a new or greater life, hence the capitals in the original. It is important that both in Gurdjieff’s list “fasting” comes first, while in Tchekhovitch’s it would be first but that he has reproduced “life” beforehand.
And, in my view, for the reasons adumbrated above, fasting is important because it can kick-start spiritual development from the ground up. it is a means of directly affecting the tempo of the body, for a conscious aim. It provides us with a shock, and hence a chance to disturb our mechanicalness, for a transcendent purpose. It is therefore a form of what Gurdjieff called “hypnotism”, or more precisely, can lead to hypnotism, meaning that it can open a channel of communication between our deeper consciousness and our “waking consciousness”, and even to higher faculties. It can also act as a catalytic agent for the transformation of reproductive energy.
Now, let us deal with Nott’s words from p. 72 of Teachings. Without any real introduction or attempt to date it, Nott says that Gurdjieff wanted them to think differently about familiar words:
This is very similar to the Palm Sunday list, but Nott omits “Passion”, “Communion”, “Forgiveness”, “Suffering” and “Tranquillity”. Nott also adds “Sin”, “Supplication”, “Atonement”, “Submission” and “Resurrection” which are not in Palm Sunday.
Nott’s list differs from Tchekhovitch’s in that it omits “Remorse”, “Redemption”, “Forgiveness” and “Communion”. To Tchekhovitch’s list it adds: Supplication”, “Submission”, “Atonement”, “Death” and “Resurrection”. Of course, some of these words may be equivalents, e.g. “Communion” for “Atonement”. But unlike the list in Tchekhovitch, both Palm Sunday and Nott explicitly include “Death”, and both of these follow “Death” with “Life” or even with “Resurrection” and “Life”.
Each of these terms, says Nott, has a psychological application. For example, fasting can purify the body and alter its metabolism, but beyond this, it can refer to abstention from “useless unwilled manifestations (and) the constant giving way to negative emotions.” Nott links fasting to abstinence, that is, fasting in the intellectual and emotional centres. This, too, is known in Christian monastic writings, as we shall see. However, Nott does not deal with the other words, but moves straight on to telepathy.
A further important point is that these three extraordinary lists show how closely aligned Gurdjieff’s teaching really was to the traditional Christianity of the monastic and eremitic mystics. After all, he is more likely to have found references to confession, communion and resurrection in Christianity than in Islam or Buddhism. That the ideas are in a talk titled “Palm Sunday” seems quite appropriate. These considerations make sense of the statement attributed to Gurdjieff that Christianity was the ABC of his system (James Webb, The Harmonious Circle, p. 520). Taking all three lists together, we now have the following words:
5. Passion = Remorse,
8. Communion = Atonement,
13. Redemption = Resurrection, and
Once on a weekend work at Newport, after Mr Adie had died, we tried to make use of the technique of keeping the mind occupied by learning lists of foreign words. Gurdjieff used this at the Prieuré: entire pages of Orage’s notebooks are filled with some of these lists, and may still be viewed at the Brotherton Library in Leeds. However, for whatever reason, our attempt proved to be a disappointment. My sense at the time was that we did not persevere with sufficient understanding. Perhaps we could have read the chapter “Yelov”, where Gurdjieff speaks about how learning languages can keep the intellect usefully employed.
But, also, I think, there is a connection between such a task and fasting: both restrict and direct the activity of a centre. We might have had a different result if we had combined the word list task with a fast. If the list is of the type which Gurdjieff gave his pupils on Palm Sunday 1923, and which both Nott and Tchekhovitch found useful, then the aim and purpose of the fast, and of one’s life, is evoked. The fast is more than a physical exercise. It becomes a physical exercise which changes the tempo of the metabolism and the orientation of the entire person. For all we know, the use of a list of words, and especially such words as these (in English or in some foreign language) aids a beneficent type of hypnotism to work its magic. Bennett said that the fast at the Prieuré was followed with mental exercises combined with manual labour (Witness, p. 89), which would seem to support this suggestion.
The use of such lists can be a massive influence, every bit as much as taking a medicine. But they cannot just be used one day as a sort of curiosity and then put aside. They need to be used by people who understand something of what this progression from life to resurrection to LIFE means, and have awakened religious feeling. Then, perhaps, the steady use of such material could affect a life, and not just a part of it.
5 Fasting at the Prieuré
How did Gurdjieff use fasting at that time? Dr Mary C Bell, in the poorly organized and often superficial notes she wrote (available online and in the Gurdjieff International Review) states that the fast at the Prieuré “excited us a great deal.” While it was voluntary, the great majority of people chose to undertake it. First, they prepared themselves with enemas (why, I do not know). For two days, she said, they were allowed water, but on the third day, no water at all. Then, on day four, they were allowed the juice of one orange and on the fifth the juice of two oranges. Some people were taken off the fast at the end of a week, which they found disappointing (sic), while others continued for as long as three weeks. Dr Bell was required to weigh everyone and to take their pulse twice or even thrice a day. People generally, she said, lost a kilo a day for the first four days, then remained stationary, with some even putting on a small amount of weight.
Bell’s final remarks were that through the fast physical work and exercises in the Study House continued as usual. This is consistent with Gurdjieff’s advice to Ouspensky that when fasting one had to work and perspire in order to use up the substances elaborated by the body for the digestion of food (In Search of the Miraculous, p. 358). When the fast was completed, Bell continued, “the intake of food during the first twenty-four hours was carefully restricted.” Also, people’s complexions “vastly improved.”
Bennett’s account is a little different, and I suspect, more accurate where it conflicts with Bell’s. Bennett reports that Gurdjieff said the fast must be undertaken voluntarily and “without fear”. It was intended to effect a change of metabolism, and “to be of any benefit the first preliminary was an enema.” (Gurdjieff: Making a New World, p. 146) Bennett continues that the fast was individual: most were allowed to drink water only, but some began with prostokvasha (Russian sour milk) and others were allowed “oranges in plenty”. Some, he says, were allowed to fast only for one day, some for two, some for three days and others up to a fortnight. Bennett also says that the fast was broken over two days: on the first day strong bouillon was given, and the next day, beef steak. As with Bell, he notes that the usual heavy manual work continued (p. 146). When one reads this, one wonders why Gurdjieff ever ceased using fasting.
I will pause here to note that according to the report in the Daily News of 16 February 1923 reported on the front page, under the heading “New Life Cult for ‘Harmonious Development’, Feasts and Fasts”:
… M. Gurdjieff, who, believing in the value of many Eastern methods, while rejecting others, may enjoin upon an advanced student a fast of as much as three weeks. About a month ago he asked for volunteers for a fast. Fifteen students responded and went without food for a period, under medical care, while continuing to perform their usual heavy manual labour.
Every detail here, except for the number 15 can be corroborated. Therefore, it is likely that Gurdjieff did indeed experiment with fasting on 15 volunteers as stated. This may indicate that Gurdjieff was experimenting with fasting. Why should we today not do so? Incidentally, Christian ascetical writers also insist on the use of individual fasting regimes. As we shall see, Gurdjieff used fasting even in the War years in Paris, and here, too, his fasts were individual.
6 The Account of Fasting in Beelzebub
In Beelzebub Gurdjieff makes some extended comments on fasting, but they are chiefly critical. In the chapter “Beelzebub in America”, he comes to fasting from his discussion of Christianity and Islam. Christianity possessed good customs “for the preservation of health and for the maintenance of the foundations of morality necessary for a happy life …” (pp. 1010-1011). Of these, he says, nothing remains but the “custom of periodic fasting, that is, of abstaining at certain times of the year from the consumption of certain edible products.” (p. 1011). However, even this custom is disappearing, and where it is maintained, its observance is so changed that “no shock is obtained from it for the fasters”, although the shock is the reason for its institution (p. 1011). More than five pages are then devoted to a satire of the Russian Orthodox attitude to fasting: it is simply an occasion to improve their cuisine by eating interesting fish dinners.
It seems rather a long time to spend on parody when nothing has been said about the nature of the desired “shock”. Gurdjieff initially gives the impression that the fast was instituted by Jesus (p. 1016), but then goes on to give another laboured account, this time of the institution of fasting in 214, at the “secret Kelnuanian Council”. The issue there was the virtues of vegetarianism. The details are found at pp. 1016-22. The result, however, of this Council was that it was decided to institute abstinence from meat at certain times of the year. The problem I have with this type of material is that it is impossible to test it for oneself. And this, of course, runs counter to Gurdjieff’s stated principle that he does not give “in a prepared form … the opinions of another” so as to allow one’s own “logical confrontation” (pp. 1165-6). What logical confrontation can there be with such stories? A great deal in Beelzebub is of a different form, and one can engage with it, and test it within one’s own experience. But these tales? I confess, I am disappointed that in 13 pages Gurdjieff said nothing of significance about this important question of fasting: how to fast, what its purpose is, and why. There is more in Ferapontoff and Palm Sunday’s brief accounts than in Beelzebub. I note that there seems to be no entry in Alan Poole’s concordance for “fast” and “fasting”.
7 Mme Claustres on Fasting
Solange Claustres’ Becoming Conscious with G.I. Gurdjieff is under-estimated. In it she recounts some of the most important material I have seen since In Search of the Miraculous. In one short chapter she mentions that a small group which was working intensively on inner exercises with Gurdjieff was given “some phases of fasting” (p. 71). The fasts were said to take different forms for different people. She herself had to leave half of her food uneaten on her plate. Then, one day Gurdjieff had her break her fast by eating a hearty meal and finishing each plate. This would seem to break the rule that one does not beak a fast with a banquet, but then her fast had not been complete. After that meal, she was to return to her fast. Gurdjieff had not wanted her to get used to fasting. I suspect that this means that people can become accustomed even to the effects of fasting.
At this time, Gurdjieff told Mme Claustres that the movements were a medicine. As we have seen with Ouspensky, comments Gurdjieff made at the same time as giving his students fasts seem to shed a light on fasting, even if not directly related. One evening with Gurdjieff, fatigued and troubled, and not having eaten during the day, she ate everything on her plate, her fast quite forgotten (pp. 71-2). Gurdjieff ordered her to cease her fasting.
Now Mme Claustres provides the material with which we can make a connection between movements, fasting and eating. One must learn, said Gurdjieff, to discriminate in our feeling of impressions, air and food. The food of impressions includes “human relationships, business, leisure interests, reading …” and so on (p. 73). As mentioned above, we need the very best and most nutritious foods. In the movements, we can make a “conscious choice in receiving impressions”. The head directs, and we choose to bring sensation of one part of the body to consciousness, and thus make a connection between thought and body (p. 73). The movements are complex, the sensations and feelings associated with them are not imaginary; and thus, she adds, if one does not pass beyond simply remembering and performing the movements, the “real work of this teaching” is not applied (p. 74).
The connection, perhaps, is that fasting is a form of impression and a source of impressions (e.g. of the absence of food and the desire for it). One receives new impressions of one’s body and psyche. The faster cannot but be aware of his hunger or thirst: there is a possibility for a deeper connection between thought and body. Fasting provides an endless number of “reminders given by my body”, as Mr Adie would say. By being able to restrict one’s intake of any food at all, one is perhaps more capable of refusing to eat bad food. It is simply not necessary to eat confectionary, and there are many reasons why one should not eat it. That, however, is the subject of a different essay.
More than we know, we are slaves to our appetites. One can say that fasting is not necessary to break this slavery, and theoretically that is correct. However, my own experience is that nothing at all helped break mechanical habits half so effectively as fasting.
8 Prince Ozay
We must mention Paul Duke’s The Unending Quest which, some believe, narrates meetings with Gurdjieff under the name “Prince Ozay”. I have not seen that volume, but only the booklet of extracts from it, titled On A Single Breath. The “Indications Press” do not tell us which pages they have used, nor do they provide the references to Ouspensky and Gurdjieff which are to be found in that volume. There have been, to my knowledge, two good treatments of the “Ozay material”, that of James Webb in The Harmonious Circle, and an unpublished essay by Paul Taylor. Moore seems to uncritically accept that Ozay are one and the same, despite the fact that Webb aptly queried that the equation. As Webb said, there are striking similarities between the Ozay story and the tale in Glimpses of the Truth, and it seems hard to imagine that there would have been both an Ozay and a Gurdjieff in Russia at the same time (pp. 85-7). In his paper, Taylor demonstrates that the Ozay account cannot simply be a straightforward relation of a meetings with Gurdjieff under an assumed name. My view is that we do not know the whole truth. Dukes was a friend of Ouspensky (Webb, p. 84), and Ouspensky revised Glimpses. I think the likeliest hypothesis is that the Ozay episodes are a disguised record of Dukes’ meetings with Gurdjieff, and that Ouspensky had a role in the disguising, possibly providing Dukes with Glimpses. I suspect that Ouspensky had a hand in its writing, for it strikes me as being like a chapter of Miraculous. It certainly is on that level.
However, it is still not possible to say that these ideas were those of Gurdjieff, and leave it there. Yet, they are extremely powerful ideas, and demand to be treated before we turn to Christianity. I shall give page references to On A Single Breath.
Dukes observed to Prince Ozay that “prayer is not a physical thing, it is spiritual”. Ozay replied: “Where is the borderline? If prayer has nothing to do with physical functions, why should all the great religions, including those founded on your Bible, insist on the association of prayer with fasting? … prayer in its highest form would seem … to have something to do with the digestion, and even with the quality and circulation of the blood.” (p. 23) Dukes asked whether he would have to fast. The bemused Prince replied that he would, but not right then (p. 27). For the Prince, Dukes learned, chanting was bound up with everything else, including physique, physics and philosophy (pp. 32-3).
On another occasion, Dukes asked why the Lord’s Prayer besought God to give us this day our bread if it is connected with fasting. “You’ve got it wrong”, the Prince replied, “It isn’t with the Lord’s Prayer that fasting is tied up, but with the discovery of the note on which such prayers should be chanted. Without fasting you can’t discover the Name.” (p. 34) Which name?, asked Dukes. The Prince replied with a question: what does Dukes understand when he prays “Hallowed be thy name”? Having stumped Dukes, Ozay connected the “name” in that prayer with the logos of St John’s Gospel. The logos, he explains, is the first sound, “What you might call the world’s tonic note.” It can only be felt, as it is inaudible. But an echo of it can be heard, for each sound is replicated on a different level by the law of octaves (p. 35) “The function of prayer”, according to Ozay, “is not to beg or to extol, but to attune.” It is the body and the soul which are attuned by prayer (pp. 35-6) (Incidentally, attuning, begging and extolling are not necessarily exclusive concepts, but surely attuning would have priority if the petition or the adoration is to reach a higher level than the ordinary.) We are instruments, said Ozay, even musical instruments, hence the importance of fasting and other exercises, for:
… you can’t possibly reflect finer vibrations when your body – or soul, if you prefer – is loaded with a lot of food gurgling in the stomach, or while the blood makes a din chasing about in the veins and arteries. … Fasting is one branch of the art of prayer … but it is also an art in itself and needs to be studied systematically, not in an amateurish or haphazard way. (pp. 36 and 38)
On another occasion, and Dukes makes the point that it was a different occasion, Ozay said that God could be “achieved” not by activity but by “cessation of activity. Cessation to the utmost limit of diet, breath and sex. These are the three pillars on which prayer is built.” (pp. 38-9) Each of these has to be disciplined by restraint. Then, and only then, insisted Ozay, can one “begin to act consciously.” (p. 39) The physical body has to be trained to be a “fit temple of the spirit.” (p. 40) (I note in parentheses that the use of organs and instruments in churches was described as crippling and debasing, p. 43)
One can see why, except that this is more overtly religious than what we are accustomed to from Gurdjieff, it is strongly reminiscent of his key concepts. I think Ouspensky had a role in it: the quality of this thought is extraordinary.
Jesus fasted for forty days: Matthew 4:2, and expected that Christians would fast in the future: Matt. 9:14-5; Luke 5:33-5. The most important statement on fasting is the one in Matthew 6:16-8, effectively not to identify with fasting, and not to try to impress with one’s fasting, i.e. not to consider. It is difficult to deal with any statement by Jesus, one should really set these statements in context, and so many issues are involved. For example, a full treatment of fasting in the New Testament would also take into account Jesus’ mysterious statement in Matt 6:22-3 about how the lamp of the body is the eye, and if the eye is single all the body is full of light. I do not think the placing of these passages is accidental: we are before a mystery, and perhaps are well advised to admit it.
However, we can say more from the patristic tradition. As is so often the case, perhaps the most important material is found in St John Cassian. In On the Eight Vices, reprinted in the Philokalia, vol. 1, he states:
… about how to fast and what and how much to eat … the Holy Fathers … have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies. They also found a day’s fast to be more beneficial and a greater help toward purity than one extending over a period (of up to seven days). Someone who fasts for too long, they say, often ends up by eating too much food. The result is that at times the body becomes enervated through undue lack of food and sluggish over its spiritual exercises …
Cassian went on to relate fasting to all forms of moderation and temperance, that is, like Gurdjieff, he saw fasting as a form of abstinence which may be generalised into other areas. Similarly, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John Climacus said:
Step 14, 33 Fasting is the coercion of nature and the cutting out of everything that delights the palate, the excision of lust, the uprooting of bad thoughts, deliverance from incontinence in dreams, purity of prayer, the light of the soul, the guarding of the mind, deliverance from blindness, the door of compunction … a cause of stillness … health of body, agent of dispassion, remission of sins, the gate of Paradise and its delight.
St John Climacus did not agree with Evagrius that one should fast on bread and water (a blanket prescription which Cassian also explicitly states in wrong): that, he said, is like telling a child to climb a ladder in one stride. Rather, he held, when we seek different foods we seek what is proper to our nature. One should not deny all foods at once but only different foods at different times: now fattening foods, now heating foods, or omit pleasant additives. But we should always allow ourselves satisfying and digestible food (Step 14, 12) Similarly, St Thalassios the Libyan said that “To fast well is to enjoy simple food in small amounts and to shun other people’s esteem.” (On Love, Self-Control … IV 31, in Philokalia vol. 4, p. 327) As with Gurdjieff, fasting is associated with more than simply abstention from food: it has a psychological side. In respect of moderation in fasting, St Maximos the Confessor wrote in the Four Hundred Texts on Love, IV 63 that we should practice ascetic disciplines only to the measure appropriate to our body’s strength.
As adumbrated above, St Maximos the Confessor said something similar to Gurdjieff on the concept of proper or necessary enjoyment of things and sin. He wrote in the Four Hundred Texts on Love, III 86, Philokalia IV p. 97:
Food was created for nourishment and healing. Those who eat food for purposes other than these two are therefore to be condemned as self-indulgent, because they misuse the gifts God has given us for our use. In all things misuse is a sin.
This does not mean that one can take no pleasure at all in food: for “appetites and pleasures which are in accordance with nature are not reprehensible, since they are a natural consequence of natural appetency,”, and thus satisfying hunger or thirst will naturally produce a legitimate pleasure, but the intellect can transcend such pleasures: it is not controlled by them (Various Texts on Theology II 90, Philokalia IV p. 206). Perhaps in Gurdjieff’s terms one could say that we are not identified with them.
Fasting was associated with the weakening of sensual desires (e.g. St John Climacus, and St Maximos the Confessor) but whether it was solely because the body was weaker or because one practised fasting of the sexual appetite, too, is often ambiguous. As we have seen, in fact, one is not necessarily weaker when faster. I suspect, and I put it no more highly than that, that fasting affects people differently. For some, the feeling of having less food and drink than usual may indeed of itself weaken the sensual appetite.
But fasting should also go with what one might call the chastity or the discipline of the eyes. Certainly, the monastic and eremitic fathers said that it was to be used with other means, e.g. St Thalassios the Libyan said that “Moderate fasting, vigils and psalmody are natural means for achieving a balance in the body’s temperament.” (On Love, Self-Control … III 35, in Philokalia vol. 4, p. 321) That is, keeping awake praying and chanting the psalms helps to harmonize our bodies. The body is, in other words, responsive to these combined influences more than it is to their single influence.
10 Final Comments
Bennett makes some very deep comments on fasting in Witness, although I do not agree with them in their entirety, they are worth pondering and it is essential to bear them in mind. First, he notes the extreme value fasting has in Islamic lands (pp. 27 and 79-80). Fasting does, he says, influence the relationship between mind and body: although he practised it regularly, he never became accustomed to it, but dreaded his weekly fast of about 36 hours. However, Bennett wrote, he gave it up because it engendered an inner sense of superiority, and he wanted people to notice that he was fasting. Even if one hides the fact of fasting, he said, it leads to pride (pp. 79-80).
Of course, as he has stated it, there is a lack of common sense here: on this basis no one would make any effort in any religion and certainly not in the Gurdjieff tradition.
Who can ever vouch that an effort they make is unaccompanied by something impure? Bennett does, however, make a better point when he says that when the fasting is undertaken by a community it is different: it is then an obligation (p. 80). I would say that while fasting by a community can be good, it can only be good – or bad – for individuals. There is no reason known to me to think that it does not make the rich more attentive to the poor. Personally, too, I suspect that Bennett’s fast of 36 hours was too lengthy.
I think that what comes from this is that there is no reason why an intelligent person could not experiment with moderate fasting. If you are unsure, seek medical advice. If you feel confident, you could take the eastern Catholic diet of no food before 12 noon on one day, but allowing yourself as water or even tea and coffee. And one should make an exception when promising to oneself to take a fast: if one becomes too lightheaded, one will eat something modest.
The thing is, however, to have a conscious aim or a religious intent (which comes to the same thing) and to use common sense and intelligence.