What is the Purpose of ‘The Work’?
A good question to ask is—What is the purpose of anything?
When the superlative English artist Ben Nicholson was challenged to explain the purpose of his more abstract paintings he said, “When you see a tree in the middle of a field you don’t go asking what its purpose is… You just admire it (or whatever) for exactly what it is…” Something like that, he said…
The Work is The Work is The Work is… Like the tree that’s standing in the field…
The Work—attributed to Gurdjieff and Ouspensky—followed up by Maurice Nicoll, JGBennett and others…
The Work, (which I have never referred to as ‘The Work’ till now) arrived properly in my Being at a very opportune moment as though there were a part of me waiting for it to arrive.
But the first inkling I ever had of it was in a satirical column ‘By Beachcomber’ in the Daily Express, a right-wing rag my parents could not see beyond. The writer of this column which I used to read avidly in my mid-teens and attempt to emulate when writing school essays derided anything that seemed wacky to him and this was a time when Bennett hit the headlines by entertaining all sorts of easily deridable people at Coombe Springs (which I used to go past on a bus to school every morning). I didn’t know it at the time of course but I’m what’s called in some circles a ‘Polarity Responder’ —when I find something being derided, for example, that’s my cue to get on board whatever it is that’s being derided. Half a life later when I discovered that Gurdjieff advised (after grandmother) never to do as other people do I recognised a fellow ‘Polarity Responder’ and I was sold. This was 1977 in which year I consumed The Fourth Way with such enthusiasm!
Recollecting this, some years ago I started writing a book called There Must Be Something More to Life Than This. It begins thus:-
Thirty-five years ago [twenty when I started writing], by chance, during a time of some personal distress, I walked in Hampshire & Surrey through a long cold dark night and in the morning chanced upon and bought Ouspensky’s The Fourth Way in Charing Cross Road in London. I gained immediate surface comfort from the words of the ideas expressed therein: it became clear to me that an explanation for my distress was that I was sleep-walking, that I had been systematically lying to myself by placing solid buffers so successfully between the way I really felt and the absurd way that I had been choosing to run my life for the last six years. The result was that I concealed the discrepancies from myself, living quite contentedly in unexamined ‘false personality’ in the way that we do.
The simplistic, undigested, merely surface, interpretation of Fourth Way ideas worked at that time to drag me out of my distress but I did not then apply Ouspensky/Gurdjieff’s ideas systematically as I imagine I do now!
Ten years later, I acquired the five volumes of Maurice Nicoll’s Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and began to renew my acquaintance with the ideas of The Fourth Way, realising that they had become a part of my other-than-conscious thinking even if the part of me that might have been able to do so was not directing its attention to putting them into practice. Maurice Nicoll’s brilliant gold mine of thoughtfulness is full of warnings about the need to make individual effort towards a new level of being for yourself.
Books of self-development and their snappy-apophthegm-touting gurus abound, but always the key question is how, during the rough and tumble of the ‘foul rag and bone shop’ life we live, do you cue yourself to be constantly aware that individual effort is needed right now during this crisis to get to a different level of being, a different vantage point with a different view of how things are, instead of constantly identifying with, losing yourself in, whatever’s going on around you. The fact is that self-development can only be done paradoxically in freedom from one’s self, which is merely a convenient, imaginative, invention that we habitually dump ourselves in for want of something better to do: how do we reclaim freedom from ‘self’, from Imaginary-I, from False Personality?
Nicoll many times reminds us that there is mechanical thinking and conscious thinking; we kid ourselves when we imagine that our thinking is always conscious: the way we think and act is habitually based on well-worn tracks of mechanical effort, requiring very little, if any, thought; to engage in the relative freedom of truly conscious thinking requires a leap from one level of being to another in which we can see things from a completely different point of view, not weighted down by past programming, using a different vocabulary, different metaphors, moving towards thinking and behaving out of an ‘I’ that’s different from Imaginary-I. Always presupposing that there might be ‘I’s that could be other-than-imaginary…
‘You can either practise this Work or not. But you must understand that if [when] you practise this Work, now, at this moment (not tomorrow), you are making effort beyond mechanical effort. The point of the Work is to transform daily life… if [when] you merely listen to this Work and do not practise it, nothing will change in you…’ (MN I, p342)
Haunted by the idea that ‘If [when] you change nothing in yourself, your life will endlessly repeat’ (MN III, p1126), there is something in me that recognises now, just in time, that Being-complacent-I had, in 1977, merely read Ouspensky’s words and did not practise the ‘Work’ (a word which emphasises the severely practical nature of Gurdjieff/Ouspensky’s system that’s not a system) with any proper degree of directed attention.
Guidance for the Task
Contrary to all the things that are said about the need to have belonged to a School run by somebody ‘in the line’, I think I’ve got on quite well without a formal Fourth Way school. I may be wrong. But I have applied the teachings in other contexts and worked a lot of it out and tested and refined the consequences for myself. My natural mode of learning is of the DIY variety! So my learning, such as it is, is without doubt the result of application but I don’t normally spread this about! I’ve twice read every word of Nicoll’s Commentaries cover to cover and devised practical exercises from them that work with others. And so on. I dote on Bennett because he is seen by some as a Work heretic and, as I understand it, just before he died, was working towards accelerated ways of advancing along the Fourth Way. I believe these to be possible.
The crazy reason I’ve never been in a School is that until 2004 when I acquired an Internet connection (because my wife got fed up with me using hers) I just did not know that such things existed. I’ve got very used to various School graduates telling me that I’m not ‘in the Work’ at all. I belonged to WITW (google whatisthework.ning.com) for eighteen months till May 2009 when I suddenly got tired of people telling me that!
I learned a great lesson in WITW—how to put up with the unpleasant characteristics of others, as we are advised to do, and, more importantly, to recognise my self in those who displayed such! Other people are a precise mirror of ourselves—we can only talk about others by reference to our repertoire of possibilities, what we ‘know’ of ourselves is what we see in others. The biggest learn was a move towards ‘objective impartiality’ and some ability to Externally Consider. For some years before I made the connection with The Work, I had taught practical ways of getting to those kinds of things to highly qualified business people. The long and detailed exchanges there eventually made me really think about applications of The Work.
The purpose of following Work procedures may be said to consist of finding out how to move from the things of the Personality back towards one’s Essence.
My experience of teaching in other than a Work context is often accurately described by others as Personality stuff stoked up by the need to earn a living or prove something about my simple vain self; I can only agree; I would add though that the common idea that Personality is all bad, all vanity etc is a bit of a simplfied view of things: the literature says that the positive aspects of Personality should be recognised for what they are—they contribute to what has made us the relatively ‘successful’ (Good Householder) people we are today; they can take us closer to the state of what might be called Essence—another purpose is to discover the Tipping Point which is, for me, a Being-event.
In Personality I’m a gasbag and can go on at length to make a point; in what I take to be my Essence, on the other hand, there’s a Flow of writing that at least sets out to make a careful case. I suddenly realise while writing that I’ve moved from just mechanical writing (out of Personality) to Observer-I position (close to Essence. This is all accurately foretold in the ascent through the mini-fixations of my ‘Enneatype’.
Meanwhile Pen-pushing-I has written a number of other books, beyond There Must Be Something More to Life Than This, some of them achieving the same intention as this was supposed to but in a more grounded kind of way. All the notes for TMBSMTLTT are still in place and I may return to it some time—the quotation from Ouspensky makes such a great title!
I work on the principle that you don’t know what you think till you see what you write. Writing, for me, is pondering.
A book, or long ponder, that Pen-pushing-I wrote and is particularly attached to is called The Campaign Against Abstractionsm where it develops the practical implications of the concept of Multiple-I’s—there can be no change unless one recognises that we are not one but millions of ‘I’s. One or two people in the Universe have taken the book really seriously! It is still in print.
So, the Fourth Way arrived in my life by chance. I had no idea that others were still pursuing Work ideas and, being a virtual hermit, I didn’t have the habit of (or need for) consulting anybody else about anything much. It will no doubt seem strange to those who’ve been involved in the ‘Gurdjieff Wars’ since 1949 but I imagined that I was the only person in the world who was privy to the contents of Ouspensky’s book. I did not have access to the Internet until 2004.
I think I have been a virtual hermit all my life; this too fits the darker bits of my ‘Enneatype’—it’s more than clear to me that in order to develop myself I have to make deliberate attempts to meet with people in the ‘real world’. I led a charmed life during the time I spent pursuing a so-called ‘career’, : people left me alone because, by report, I radiated something they felt they couldn’t get very close to while, all the time, I managed somehow to get very close to them… According to various measuring tools, my Learning Style is Do It Yourself, Decide for Yourself which, as it happens, is exactly what Mr Gurdjieff recommends: accept nothing until you have verified the sense of it for yourself—I asseverate that that’s what I’ve always done.
All this happened by chance…
The Purpose of The Fourth Way
If Fourth Way studies can have a short snappy purpose, I’d say it is to teach people that nothing should be accepted till you have consciously verified the sense of it for yourself while sticking limpet-like to the original tenets of the system (which isn’t a system…).
When that principle is applied across the board it makes one proof against A Influences and the associative self-calming that puts people to sleep and has them behaving with mechanicality. A Influences consist of all the toffee that leads us away from our true Being—newspapers, politics, organised religion, sport, mortgages, career… Lunatic identification with any aspect of these things (which are only examples) leads to loss of self and false imagination; the objective is to remember yourself at all times—not to allow yourself to forget who & what you are. The challenge is to disidentify. A helluver task; in ordinary circumstances we are always identified: I am identifed with these words I’m writing; I am identified with the ‘I’ in the last two chunks of words; you are identified with trying to grasp the point ‘I’ am trying to make (well, maybe…).
How do we disidentify? Hold everything at arm’s length! Put opinions to one side! Notice when you lose your self in things…
Strip away all identifications, all of them, including these words ‘I’m identifying with right now, all beliefs & opinions & enthusiasms, all subscriptions to parties & clubs, all dedication to causes and so on… And then discover what you’re left with. For me this is akin to Plato’s effort to strip away all the observable characteristics of a Table to arrive at what could be called ‘Tableness’.
Make everything you take on board consistent with what’s already whizzing round the ossaniaki (Beelzebub’s word for ‘brain cells’). Determine to get to the Whole! Things appear to be separate but in fact everything is connected—Mr Ouspensky said something like that… A good virtual question is, “How can I connect this with that?”
How did I get to where I am today?
How we are is the result of what’s happened to us in the past. Pretty obvious really but not necessarily something we take that seriously.
My early life was characterised by ‘abandonment’. My father had gone off to India to take part in the then current bit of ‘reciprocal destruction’ which upset my mother somewhat; my sister began to develop the progressive disease that led to her dying of it seven years ago, unable to move, unable to take care of her bodily needs, barely able to feed herself but having developed in spite of all this a great line in primitive paintings.
So, in my so-called formative years, my mother was ‘absent’, distracted by all this, and bombs were dropping around us living in the London suburbs—I didn’t formulate it thus at the time nor did I necessarily feel it but life was a bit precarious.
I was thrown on my own resources. And I became a virtual hermit…
Why didn’t I feel fearful? Why did I gaze with a kind of rapture at the toppled remains of buildings that before the previous night’s raid had been perfectly functioning buildings? Maybe I was in External Considering long before I knew what that was. External Considering is seeing things for what they are rather than going inside and engaging in constant pointless Internal Considering—endlessly diverting inner dialogue.
The Fourth Way might usefully provide opportunities for people to learn for themselves how to put a gap between the world out there and any kind of response they might otherwise feel impelled to make out as a result of Internal Considering.
The ‘kind of rapture’ I was in when I contemplated the too close to home results of the then current bout of Reciprocal Destruction, gave me an intense feeling of HOW STRANGE I AM HERE. My sense of ‘abandonment’ gave me frequent opportunities for having this experience—I relish it to this day. It’s the essence of what’s called Self-remembering as Mr G describes it.
I love Mr G
Why? Because he describes sensations and feelings and apprehensions that have always been very familiar to my being.
For instance, I can remember wondering why we use words to refer to things; why this word rather than other ones. I made up long meaningless words in an effort to see whether the thing they could represent might appear before me just like that: ‘tedeedleyosidosidum’ was a word I frequently uttered in my early life in order to try to achieve this quasi-magical purpose. How extraordinary then to find that Mr G uses all these weird words in Beelzebub, (often just for fun, I think) sending people off on intellectual binges that lead nowhere. He also berates 3-brained beings for being taken in by the existence of words—‘God’ for instance: ‘that means… that means…’ even going to the extent of depicting him with ‘a little comb sticking out of his left vest pocket with which he sometimes combs his famous beard…’ (BTTHG p710)
Another purpose of The Work is to get people to think about the words they use. This fits quite neatly into my ossaniaki since they had already been prepared before I got anywhere near The Work to accept that ‘the words we have at our disposal create the world in which we imagine we live’ (Benjamin Lee Whorf—half of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis…)
Somewhere towards the beginning of Beelzebub, Mr G says that suggestibility is the overarching curse of humankind—willingness to go meekly along with anything THEY say, willingness to be brain-washed by the mass media etc. How does suggestibility work? The ‘power-possessing beings’ obfuscate all kinds of things by wrapping them up in meaningless verbiage in the hope we won’t notice. Why do THEY frown upon Media Studies, Philosophy, Sociology? Because THEY don’t want us to get at the truth of things.
…people no longer make the least effort to know anything that can be understood solely by their own active reflection… Beelzebub p99
…they believe everything anybody says instead of believing only what they have been able to verify by their own sane deliberation… Ibid p98
…they perceive every new impression without fulfilling being-partdolgduty [conscious labour and intentional suffering] … Ibid p98
G’s intention is ‘to awaken people from their torpor’—the way they take the ephemeral for the real… Ibid p95
…to ‘release them from the power of the power-possessing beings’ Ibid p95
As a long-time card-carrying anarchist, I found this analysis compelling. People need to learn not to accept anything, including ‘bon ton’ sounding language, until they can learn to see through all the possible skull-duggery (‘literary manipulations & grammatical wiseacrings’ as Mr G says) that goes on.
We have to learn to ingest the fruits of Pure Impressions—the very highest form of food. This is the basis of a systemic approach to taking in data and allowing for the emergence of Meta-I:-
(Double right-click gets a better definition…)