One of the central ideas of Gurdjieff's teaching is that human beings are not complete; rather, we are an unfinished creation with enormous potential of which we are unaware. Our development is brought to a certain point by Nature, sufficient for the demands of ordinary life. Further development of our larger possibilities does not, and cannot, occur spontaneously, but depends on our active participation, a work on oneself. Gurdjieff said,
"The evolution of man is the evolution of his consciousness. And 'consciousness' cannot evolve unconsciously. The evolution of man is the evolution of his will, and 'will' cannot evolve involuntarily. The evolution of man is the evolution of his power of doing, and 'doing' cannot be the result of things which 'happen'."
If we are a creation possessing marvelous potential, the question arises as to why we do not move toward it, to claim it urgently as our own. Gurdjieff proposes that in our ordinary state we are asleep. In this state of sleep, many of us live our entire lives without being aware that something more is possible.
We imagine ourselves to be fully conscious and fully developed. This illusion prevents us from seeing our situation and, especially, ourselves as we really are. Gurdjieff expressed this very clearly: "If a man in prison was at any time to have a chance of escape, then he must first of all realize that he is in prison."