The Law of the Pendulum – (R5)

I first came across the concept of the Pendulum in Maurice Nicoll’s goldmine of practical insights Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. I here pay tribute to Maurice Nicoll for all the learning I’ve got from him, especially, amongst other things, for his writing about the Pendulum

For example, the introduction to meetings at Birdlip, Gloucestershire between July-September 1943, typical of Maurice Nicoll’s chatty, unpretentious, down-to-earth style, began like this:-

By the Law of the Pendulum is meant the swinging of things between opposites. A pendulum swings from one side and then to the opposite side. We can see the Law of the Pendulum at work in nature as in the change of the seasons from winter to summer and back again, to and fro without ceasing, and in the movement of the tides, and in the motion of the waves, up and down, and so on.

We also have many pendulums in ourselves, for what is in the Universe is in ourselves. We can observe that we have pendulums swinging between ‘like and dislike’, between ‘desire and disgust’, between ‘happiness and dejection’, between ‘love and hate’, ‘affirmation and negation’, ‘certainty and doubt’, and so on. These pendulums have different periods—that is, length of swing—and, like clocks, some go faster, some go slower, in the same ordinary time…

…Darkness implies light as its opposite and light, darkness, and together they make one thing, a double thing that we might call ‘light-dark’, one thing that divided becomes light or dark. Or, to take a psychological example: sorrow and joy are opposites. They are one against the other and together are a ‘thing’ which is double, which we might call ‘joy-sorrow’. Notice also that [we choose to let] sorrow destroy joy, and joy sorrow. [In the ordinary course of events] they are opposites and so are mutually destructive.

…The Law of the Pendulum indicates that there is a swing to and fro in all things, but after a point in either direction there is a check and the opposite force begins to exert itself. We can see for ourselves that as a pendulum swings further and further, say, to the right, it gets slower and slower until its motion reverses and it swings to the left. That is, the opposites, if we term them ‘right’ and ‘left’, alternately have power. Notice that when the pendulum is fully to the ‘right’, the ‘right’ is weakest and  the ‘left’ begins to have power, and vice versa. Sometimes you can see this expressed in psychological experience, as when somebody is violently against something and takes an extreme attitude, and then suddenly swings to the opposite viewpoint.

Hegel’s concept of  thesis, antithesis and synthesis and William Blake’s ‘Without contraries—no progression…’ can easily be related to working with the Pendulum but, in spite of these repeated historical patterns of thinking, we poor mortals with our limited power of focus don’t/won’t or can’t take them up; we continue to think in terms of one thing on its own, perversely content with agonising over the comparison with something else instead of seeking to work towards a synthesis which would entail the emergence of a third possibility. We cannot think in terms of two things simultaneously. We think in terms of one force, or thing that holds us back, say, and find it more or less  impossible to think in terms of two forces and, unless we take steps, certainly cannot even begin to contemplate the possibility of a Third Force.

As a model for understanding, say, the kinds of things that stop us getting what we want from  life, the physical pendulum is a mechanically accurate analogy: when a pendulum is at the top of its swing either side it has least force in it; its maximum force is at the nadir of its swing.

For a very beautiful working demonstration of this take a look at

In ordinary life we do not work with the idea of opposites; in fact we fight against it. We take life habitually in a one-sided way, and regard everything that is contrary to our viewpoint as exceptional or unfortunate. The result is a further loss of energy in kicking against something we’d really rather not be subject to instead of working with opposites and making a gain in energy that way.

The answer is NOT simply to shut off consideration of the thing we don’t want—whatever we do in the way of self-development, the thing we don’t want is always going to be lurking around.

For instance, so many times I’ve looked around at this room where I work and thought to myself, “If only I could shift all the crap and work with a clear desk, like the last College Principal I had the unfortunate privilege of working under, I’d be so much more efficient…” A few years ago, my wife, despairing of the sight of the room where I work, spent some time while I was gallivanting off somewhere tidying everything into those big ring binders up there and labelling them carefully—I’ve never opened them from that day to this. I do occasionally have a rigorous blitz on my desks & tables but mere tidiness is not the issue and I know I cannot work without being able to see what I need. And the last College Principal, a mechanist, though he was efficient in chopping things down to fit his presuppositions which weren’t mine, was not the least bit effective, .

We so often go through this kind of rigmarole without realising that we’re working with opposites. We’re too busy wasting energy trying to get rid of the condition we imagine we don’t want. It’s either/or thinking which kills possibility. When we get into the habit of THINKING PENDULUM this could change quickly. PENDULUM THINKING is both/and/then thinking.

‘Organised heaps’ is my own solution; yours would probably be different…

Maurice Nicoll was superb at explaining the working of the Pendulum in many different ways over the years but unfortunately we do not have a record of how he might have managed things in order to embed a working Pendulum concept in the life of those who attended his workshops; the only person I knew who went to Birdlip wouldn’t tell me what happened after Maurice Nicoll had delivered his opening address and now they’re both  dead.

So I’ve spent some years wondering how PENDULUM THINKING might become part of who we are. I have devised practical ways of helping people to use and benefit from the concept so that they can make it their own, make it work for them.

Maurice Nicoll Eloquently Describes Our Fixatedness

Our whole lives, ordinarily, are governed by the Law of the Pendulum. We all swing to and fro. When you are in one opposite you are unconscious of the other, and vice versa. You may have idle dreams of rising and rising, of progressing and progressing, of getting better and better, but all these are indeed idle dreams. You cannot escape from the opposites unless you know how to do so. You have to see both sides of yourselves and how one side helps the other side. This requires double thinking. One might even say it requires double consciousness.

There is a Sufi saying: ‘All true life is the peace and harmony of contraries. Death is due to war between them.’

If we could retain full consciousness and memory right through the pendulum swing, we would not only remember the two opposite states at each end, but would begin to catch sight of a third factor which lies in the middle. But our consciousness works with too slow an energy ordinarily.

The first thing that we might do is to spend a bit of time determining the possible contexts that might be susceptible to a tasty dose of  Pendulum Thinking. For example (the same person is speaking in each case):-

“I’ll do this now—no, I’d rather do that…”
“This is the same as I always do—I could do something completely different…”
“I don’t get on with her—what could I learn if I made friends…?”
“I’ve got so miserable today nothing works—yesterday all things seemed possible…”
“Let’s talk about this—no, I’d rather not…”
“I need to be in total control—oh, what the hell…”
“I am the master of the universe—I am totally useless…”
“I am so creative—I have writer’s block…”
“I can’t stand the winter—I wish it was summer…”
“Oh this dreadful heat—I’m looking forward to winter…”


“I deny that any of these statements apply to me—oh god, they’re all me…”

When any versions of these contraries apply to us in some way or another, as they will do unless we’re in complete denial, we’re sure to feel some kind of emotional heave at the thought: it’s important to realise that our moods are all hung on to pendulums; instead of setting the emotional discomfort aside we should take the idea of ‘mood-swings’ seriously as great cues to get into PENDULUM THINKING..

The knack, however, and what I am coming to, is to avoid identifying with or associating into either one of the contraries. But, as things are, we do identify with either side of the pendulum swing to the exclusion of the other.

…we allow ourselves to swing between excitement and dejection, between enthusiasm and depression, between over-valuation and under-valuation, between conceit and humility, and so on, endlessly. In all this there is no centre of gravity. Remember that by identifying with one side of the swing, you will be under the power of the other side when it takes charge—and you will see no connection. “Why”, one says, “they cannot be connected because they are opposite.” But that is exactly why & how they are connected…

I well remember the case of a woman I was working with who, after doing my exercise,  insisted that she believed that the bottom of the Pendulum was a really boring place to be—she craved the upward, positive, Mistress of the Universe position of the swing. She later proved that she was leaking energy up there by having a nervous breakdown.

Why is it so important to get somewhere into the centre of the pendulum and not swing to and fro? Because here, between the opposites, exist all the possibilities of growth… Not regarding yourself as good or bad, not priding yourself on being just or otherwise, not thinking you are well-treated or badly-treated, not being caught by either movement through identifying, you come into this mid-position.

What happens at the nadir of the pendulum swing is not a compromise between the contraries, not a simplistic blend of opposites—that might well be ‘boring’ or at least not very enlightening—nor is it a varying of them but something completely new with added force so that all three possibilities continue to exist and you will know where extra energy may be achieved.

Gurdjieff called this extra energy ‘Third Force’. When you stop feeling yourself through one or other of the opposites separately you will get a sense of your self in a different way; it may well seem to be a more enlightened self, a real self, a self that can take decisive steps with a Third Force.

All the time we persist in the struggle between the unacknowledged opposites of our life, the very struggle itself loses us energy. Identification with either of the opposites is a good way of losing our selves in them—placing our selves in their steely grip. Working with the opposites brought out into the open, on the other hand, enables an access of energy or Third Force, finding or remembering our selves again. Finding the self that was lost in contraries.

Maurice Nicoll wanted to add just one thing—about inner silence. He said:-

In working on yourself and noticing how the swings of the pendulum go in yourself and how now you think or feel this, and now you think or feel the opposite, and in not identifying with either side, [you will almost certainly find an] ‘inner silence’.

Battling it out with the will has the effect of setting up a constant argument inside your head. To some extent it’s worth listening to this in order to come to appreciate the nature of the conflict that’s inside you. But here’s the thing:-

Inner silence means being silent in oneself. It means not taking sides in yourself and so being silent. You may let talk take place on one side or the other, but you just observe it and are in yourself silent.

This contains the presupposition that your ‘real self’ is an entity separate from the contraries. Think about that!

Any opposites can be subjected to Pendulum Thinking. As Nicoll points out, the opposites to which we are constantly subjected by the outside world are mirrored in our own being.

I’m going to describe my exercise taking the example of ANGER at one extreme of the pendulum swing with whatever might be at the other end for an individual—it will be different for different people—individuals have to discover what this is for themselves. They can do this by simply going into a time when they were really angry, re-experiencing it and then swinging to the other side of the pendulum swing to find out what’s there—experience tells me that it’ll probably be some kind of total indifference, opting-out, taking your bat & ball home… The words others find are the important thing.

The Exercise Goes Like This

find a space in the room where you can make yourself into a pendulum
where you can safely sway to simulate being on a pendulum
[but you could do this simply swaying on your computer seat!]
the music starts now
[Pachelbel’s Canon is good pendulum music…]
as your pendulum goes towards ANGER
whichever side you discover it is for you
think of a time when you experienced it
notice whatever anger is for you
as your pendulum goes to the other side
leave that behind you and
grab what the opposite to anger is for you—
it might be total indifference, enforced calm, an opting out of some kind—
it will just happen so
let it emerge then
be clear what it is for you…
spend some time on the pendulum
going between the one state and the other
at each extreme really get into the different feelings evoked
then, every time you pass through the bottom of the pendulum swing
start to notice that there’s a point of attraction
and so (still being aware of either extreme)
begin gradually to slow the swing
so that eventually you just move back and forth
very slightly
at the swing bottom
keeping in mind the extremes
which are always a possibility for us
notice what’s different at the bottom of the swing
it might come to you in a flash
you may need to hover for some time
just stay with the music
and wait for the words to just happen—
the words that for you will signify
some kind of practical resolution

Nicoll: When we can retain full consciousness and memory right through the pendulum swing, we will remember the two opposite states at each end, and will begin to catch sight of a third factor which happens in the middle.

Enjoyable though it often is to vent our rage, we lose energy in anger; and, on the contrary, more obviously, we lose energy in any kind of total indifference. We lose energy by identifying with opposites we swing between. It messes up the day.

What do you find there?

This exercise works with all kinds of ‘opposites’. Another example:-

I think it’s axiomatic that those who have pretensions to be taken seriously must first pass the Test of Ability to Fool Around ©

‘Lightness of touch’ is what I find to be useful when I’m training… Clowning around makes the serious message more telling.

Gurdjieff was good at clowning: the ‘American canaries’ sequence in Meetings with Remarkable Men is one example among many.

In practice, people always make some kind of new ‘Reconciling’ at the bottom of the process of ‘being a pendulum’—they feel something different, an access of energy, which is never a mere compromise.

The music helps by giving the whole body/mind continuum the rhythm of the pendulum and, paradoxically maybe, by diverting the mind into silence in preparation for an unlooked-for Aha!

I Leave the Last Words to Maurice Nicoll

It is said that, once upon a time, a man dreamed he had discovered the secret of the universe and woke up and wrote down his dream. Next morning he found he had written down: ‘Walk on both legs…’

In the sphere of our own psychology, the place we live in with our consciousness, having no real self-knowledge, we walk on one leg, regarding truth as something invariable. We think we know what is right and wrong, or good and bad, and because of this we have no idea what it is to keep a balance in ourselves. We do not see the opposites in ourselves save in the sense of all that being bad and this being good. So we walk on one leg.

3 thoughts on “The Law of the Pendulum – (R5)

  1. I’m currently reading Iain McGilchrist’s Book The Master & His Emissary about the current Left Brain domination of thought and the trouble it’s got us into. Gilchrist maintains that the natural leader is the Right Brain – the magic that happens in between the two hemispheres is where creativity is borne – somewhere in between the familiar and the (currently or consciously) unknown – Gilchrist’s makes a blindingly obvious case for accepting that change happens in the in between place between the left and right hemisphere of the brain and to enable that to happen we must allow our right brain to return to its rightful place as the chief influencer. (In other words if we insist on using the left brain all the time – we only get half the picture)

    So not swinging too far in either direction seems to resonate with this.

    Further he makes a good case for accessing a state of mindful awareness (I would also say a place of expanded awareness) in order to be able to facilitate the left right communication necessary to reveal creative solutions (That happens in between)

    In Traditional Chinese Medicine there is a necessity for both Yin & Yang for one cannot be appreciated without the other.

    In Deepak Chopra’s book The Shadow Effect; we are encouraged to look at our shadow (the bits of us we don’t like or do our best to hide or suppress) as a divine map that reconnects us to the life we were meant to live and the people we were meant to be. He states also that “The shadow isn’t a fearsome opponent, but a worthy one. Powerful as it is, the power of wholeness is infinitely greater”.

    Gilligan maintains in his Generative Trance work that the persons “problem” is not the problem; it is rather the person’s relationship with the problem; that is the problem. Instead of looking at symptoms as bad or something needing to be expunged, he encourages us to look at them as “calls to action” as a communication (possibly from the right brain) from something that needs welcoming and acknowledging and thanking as the as the “message” that has drawn our attention to what needs healing.

    Symptoms maybe indicating that the pendulum is swinging in too far a direction one way in some way perhaps?

    I used a similar exercise to the one that Colin has mentioned – also given to me by Colin, this time using pieces of paper placed on the floor with the names of the two opposite states.

    The idea is that one associates fully (that is to fully take on what it is like to be in that state seeing what you see through your own eyes when in that state and hearing what you hear and feeling what you feel) first into one state (the one you are trying to change). Breaking that state (shaking out or the like) and then moving across to the opposite state and fully associating into that state. Once again breaking state and then to move again to the place in between to two states and see what happens.

    I had realised that I am very creative when it comes to finding ways to procrastinate; sometimes I have so many creative ideas that I get somewhat overwhelmed and start diverting myself with “research” and the like – which is a neat way of avoiding “doing” what needs to be done to turn something from an idea into a “something”.

    So I did the exercise around/in between “procrastination” and “doing”

    What came out of the middle was “plan”.

    Plan formed the bridge between “ideas” (procrastination) and “doing” and means that, even though to the casual observer it may not look like I am planning anything; I am planning through doing space-clearing (throwing out everything that is not relevant to what I plan to produce. Very liberating. Do I really need hand written notes from 20 years ago? Whereas before I might have re-read everything in order to make sure that I didn’t throw out something vital (another form of procrastination) – I am briefly scanning and simply “sensing” whether it is something that I should keep or where it might go – out or in. Allowing my right brain to draw my attention to what will be relevant or useful. As I’m doing that I am able to mentally and physically sort different types of information into categories relating to the books I am writing – I have posh new folders for research and chapter plans, so now I know I won’t forget what I was going to include in various places. I even know which book I am going to write first.

    The whole exercise is clearing my mind and enabling me to move much closer to producing the books etc. that I’ve had in my head, in some instances, for years.

    Very many thanks Colin – I think the exercise took less than two minutes to do – but the effect was both unexpected and amazing.


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