This teaching suggests that as you observe yourself, you discover a tremendous quality of drivenness. Something that Gurdjieff calls mechanicality. As if we are machines. As if the parts mesh together, move on, associate, quite without the intervention of something like free attention, something like a free identity – an authentic “I” – that dwells within.
That is a harsh diagnosis of human beings, but it’s verifiable: if you and I set out to do something, for example, some small act like grooming the dog, and if you follow very carefully every movement within and all of your physical movements, you’re likely to find a quality of drivenness in the way you do it. You’re grooming the dog, and you think you’d like to visit Turkey this summer, and you remember that there’s a Turkish restaurant down the street, and their falafel … but no, it’s an Israeli restaurant, and you start thinking about the Israeli-Gaza situation, and you suddenly become angry, and you hope that the Secretary of State is doing his job well, and you are grooming this poor dog who’s also dreaming. This is very recognizable. You are dreaming, the dog is dreaming, and your hand is doing this thing all by itself, because it knows how, which is a good thing. But Gurdjieff says, Is this all? Is this what we’re for? Is this humanity? No. There are possibilities far beyond this.
This perspective is linked to another in the teaching: the reality and role of influences. Basically, Gurdjieff is willing to run a completely behavioristic model up to a certain point. And the behaviorist model – right out of Watson, Harvard of the 1920s – is the idea of influences, which portrays human beings as puppets driven by external influences. And Gurdjieff’s question again: is this all? Is this what the human being is? Is this what all the excitement is about?
To awaken, to die, to be born.
One of the comprehensive elements on the map is the notion of sleep. All of this that I’ve just described – the drivenness, the associative thinking, the lack of presence to oneself, the dreaming – all of this Gurdjieff describes as sleep.
This is a very old idea in Western tradition. Heraclitus in the sixth century B.C.E. had already noticed this: human beings sleep throughout their lives. Here is how Heraclitus made the point that Gurdjieff made in the twentieth century. He said: “One should not act or speak as if he were asleep. The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of their own.”
And then in the Gospels, it’s the same. Mark 13: “Take heed, watch. You do not know when the time will come. We do not know when the Master of the house will come, lest he come and find you asleep.”
And the most heartrending thing in the Gospel is the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus found the disciples asleep. Why? Because the men slept, because they couldn’t help themselves.
And then Thoreau, who is deservedly one of our local saints, said in Walden, “I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to be awake and keep ourselves awake.”
This notion of sleep and awakening is Western, not just Eastern. It’s perennial. Heraclitus said it; Socrates said it; Lord Jesus said it. The Hasidic rabbis said it in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Gurdjieff said it in the twentieth century. Gurdjieff said, “A man may be born, but in order to be born, he must first die; and in order to die, he must first awake.” To awake, to die, to be born. Three successive stages.
At the heart of the Gurdjieff teaching is this traditional Western and Eastern concept of awakening. Any teaching that deserves space and time must put things freshly, put things in a way that shocks us into paying attention. The way in which Gurdjieff restated it – and provided the basis for experiencing sleep and awakening – is through an insistence upon the immediacy of sleep and awakeness.
For him, it’s not just a concept. For him and his teaching, we are, relatively speaking, asleep. Asleep in the here and now. And we have, relatively speaking, the opportunity to come to ourselves here and how. It’s that immediacy which allowed Gurdjieff to take these insights off the shelf of great ideas and make them part of the lives of those who strive along these lines.
For more on the Gurdjieff teaching.