In Search of the Miraculous (book)

“If a person in prison wants to have any chance at escape, the first thing he must do is realize that he is in prison. So long as we fail to recognize this, we have no chance whatever.”

G. I. Gurdjieff

There is an old debate in philosophy and science about human freewill. The main argument being that if everything is material and governed by the laws of nature (motion, energy, thermodynamics etc.), then free will is impossible. Quantum uncertainty does not really shift the argument as such tiny variability does not have a tangible impact on the macro-level of a large, biological organism such as a human. Chaos at the sub-atomic level also cannot provide the type of environment that is required for us to say a person is engaged in an action on their own accord: it is chaos after all, and action by definition entails physical movement conducted for a reason (no matter how bizarre).

In his lectures on Gurdjieff, J. G. Bennett points out that many scientific materialists dismiss freewill theoretically but then throw their hands up in blame and condemnation when they think an individual acts immorally or outside society’s expectations. I have thought about this a great deal, and it is a glaring inconsistency that exposes the heart of the human condition: a strange disconnect in our reasoning ability where we do not easily integrate inconvenient truths into established systems of belief, and go about our business pretending such truths do not exist even if we argue for them theoretically. Collectively, we maintain a belief but live as if it isn’t true. Our law and politics take freewill for granted, and hold people personally responsible, yet our scientists exclaim we have no freewill.

At the heart of Gurdjieff’s view of humanity is that our reasoning, emotional and physical centres of control are generally in contradiction with the demands of one another, with each clashing with the edicts of the others, and our behaviour following the dominant force at the time. Reason mostly sits on the surface like a mirage, driven about by bodily and emotional forces. We however create all sorts of reasons to justify this lack of consistency, once more driven by emotions and other external and internal pressures, because we are too stuck in our ways to change course, or are tired and have given up on real personal development. He states time and time again that humans do not typically do anything, but are part of a series of events that happen, and the reasoning mind rides over the top pretending it is making decisions and performing actions based on rational considerations:

Everything that we think we do just happens – popular movements, wars, revolutions, changes in government, all this simply happens. The same is true of everything that occurs in the life of an individual person…We cannot do, build destroy, write or imagine, but are merely a part of the doing, building, destruction, writing and imagination that occur.

This is at the heart of Gurdjieff’s theory and runs contrary to a great deal of our thinking. We have a justice system built on the notion of mens rea, a concept predicated on the use of freewill resulting in a particular action of which we are said to be the agent. We study history books that attempt to get to the root causes of wars, be it the grand actions of individuals, the conspiratorial workings of groups, or the political machinations of parliaments. However, for Gurdjieff, in such speculations we erroneously place human meaning onto events that have none, as no one truly made them happen, but each person involved was part of a series of events of which they had no real control. We thus live in a constant state of wild imaginings, all the time distracting us from the cold reality of our inner slavery.

Gurdjieff doesn’t dwell too much on philosophical issues such as the question of freewill, perhaps because these are futile, and we can never really get to the bottom of them, as the human mind has limitations and on such timeless questions goes around in circles chasing its tail. He was a practical man, and while alluding to these problems, he indicates that no one who accepts our lack of freewill lives in accordance with such a belief, even to the slightest degree. Such blatant and widespread contradiction between theory and action, for him, demonstrates something is wrong with the theory being preached – it is another instance of the human tendency to get stuck in constant self-deception about what we truly believe.

His theory is built around compulsion: less the laws of physics that keep academic philosophers occupied, and more the type of compulsion that we see in our minds and the broader culture throughout our lived experiences. This includes the type of external forces we interact with and can tangibly reject from our being to the limited degree our state of bondage allows. That being said, putting this argument to the side will not be enough for some, who may claim it is a question that must be categorically solved before any other speculations about human freedom are dealt with. This is another approach to the argument of human freedom, but a question that Gurdjieff shelves and not the topic under consideration here.

Gurdjieff summarises the human condition by stating brutally that humans are machines. This statement about our nature is a core part of his theory and is in many ways its key note. There have been modern theories about machines taking over human life, or the changes in humanity resulting from our movement into the age of machines, but for Gurdjieff we are such machines, always were and always will be (except the few that ascend from this mechanical state). We are automatons made of flesh, with thoughts of freedom floating over the top, but our actions are not consciously chosen by a central commander such as a soul or self with the level of freedom we need to be classified as making such decisions and acting in the world from our own volition.

One of the key ways in which humans are pressured to do things is through the mind’s associative connections. We see someone with a moustache, which triggers our thoughts about an old man that we used to buy pizza from as a teenager; we feel like a pizza and suddenly we are online buying two large margaritas. Through all this we believe that we have just decided to buy a pizza and that this thought was our own creation. Yes, it occurred within our mind, but it was triggered by an external force, leading to a series of associated thoughts. Such thoughts may also come with an intense pressure – a type of pull like a rip in the ocean; but it also arrives with the feeling of hunger, or even a stimulated mouth as the image of the pizza within our mind reminds us of the feeling of eating pizza. This pressure may however clash against a different pressure to be slim – we can here consider the broader community demand to look a certain way via advertisements and movies, and what our friends and family say about our weight issues, possibly behind our backs; the very thought of this may send our mood spiralling down, leading us to work against all our interests by entering a period of comfort eating. Or we may be committed to a water fast, and the bodily sensation of hunger sends images of food into our mind, with an increasing intensity as we progress through the fast, with the knockout punch to our fortitude being an unrelated negative thought produced by a social media post that leads to the desire to eat to numb the internal stress. In these examples, we become a battle ground in which various thought compulsions struggle against each other, merged seemingly with our emotions and bodily responses.

These kinds of associative thought process occur endlessly, and if we are not aware of them and have no insight into what is happening, we are pulled this way and that, at the same time declaring we are thinking and making independent decisions when in truth we are part of a process of thoughts and events. Bennett’s interpretation is that Gurdjieff is getting to the root of the Buddha’s practical teaching on the trap of causation. He is reintroducing causation as a practical element of life, without disappearing it into philosophical speculation, whereby the questions and answers become so far removed from our lives that we pretend they do not exist. The oppressive forces of our immediate experience are the craving thoughts that the Buddha exclaims as the root of our bondage and the reason we stay in the wheel of samsara, not the abstract laws of nature that provide the basis of physics.

Another element of this process for Gurdjieff is that the outside world elicits different ‘I’s, each drawn out in the manner described above. In each instance, a response occurs but it is a response coming from only a segment of our personality; one part of ourself talks on behalf of all the ‘I’s even if these other aspects of our being do not want to go along with the plan. Our mind is like a parliament running without a Cabinet and Prime Minister, nor a majority vote; each Member of Parliament within our mind is allowed to make the call as to what course of action the nation pursues within their portfolio without any oversight and control by the collective. To Gurdjieff’s mind, a big issue with each human is that they have no commanding centre of self but are an endless multitude of ‘I’s that jump to particular types of reactions in different circumstances. However, the answer is not to accept that we have no self and thus cease caring; rather, he argues that we can develop a coherent and crystallised self that takes command of all of the ‘I’s that typically act in accordance with the associative compulsions.

Another fundamental characteristic for Gurdjieff is the tendency to compulsively lie. We fail to admit to ourselves when we are acting without wanting to and do not face the fact that we lost control nor admit we are saying and doing things we actually do not want to say or do. He uses an analogy of being in prison, and tells us: “If a person in prison wants to have any chance at escape, the first thing he must do is realize that he is in prison. So long as we fail to recognize this, we have no chance whatever.” The majority of humanity does not and will not pull back from the compulsions enough to even realise how much external influences and mental habits are driving their behaviour; this is the greatest lie and ignorance that must be overcome, and the cornerstone of human bondage.

Yet, to know such things intellectually is not to understand them: ‘In order truly to understand our mechanicalness, we must feel it with our whole selves.’ It is in having a feeling connected to a thought that we obtain understanding about ourselves and the wider world: to know a series of words on a topic, is not to understand it, but merely to mimic such understanding. This depth of feeling towards the idea that humans are automatons can only come from experience as by encountering humans out in the world in employment or any type of organisation we develop feelings towards things based on actual experience rather than hearsay or theory; such feelings also have great depth due to the suffering and absurdity that such adventures may bring.

Gurdjieff does not hold that humanity is evolving towards a better state: there is no collective ascension occurring, but individual humans can ascend from the collective bondage through the development of their being via a simultaneous advancement of their physical, emotional and theoretical capacities. Humanity, for Gurdjieff, can be broken into distinct categories. Human one, two and three are grounded in solely the physical, emotional or intellectual centres, but are not integrated: the singular, crystallised ‘I’ comprising a coherent set of values, ideas and resulting actions has not yet formed as it has in levels four to seven. Knowledge also moves in a scale of evolution from an individual who learns through imitation and drill to higher states of lateral thinking and interpretation of information without mere acceptance of surface messaging. For example, he writes that Christianity is understood and practiced at the basic level as a type of pagan ritual, then as a faith-based emotional system, then a system of complex theology, and finally an integration of all three in which the individual begins to adopt the essence of Christ.

A peculiar aspect of Gurdjieff’s theory is that through a process of observing and pushing back against the associative, compulsive processes of our mind and wider society we can form an “astral body” which lives after death; in contrast, most of humanity never become fully developed, but are automatons acting out scripts. When there is no resistance to external pressures, there is no agent, but rather a happening that occurs within an individual’s subjective experience. Gurdjieff presents the astral body as a type of substance that develops from the pressure of the yes versus no tension. If we always say yes to our compulsions, to the world, to the community, we have a series of ‘I’s responding to separate impulses and situations. In contrast, we can craft unique identities by saying no to the energetic sway pulling us in a particular direction, whereby an actual substance begins to grow like a muscle does through resistance training.

I have sympathy for the notion that we grow and fundamentally change via resistance to compulsion and by stepping back from the subjective, internal manifestation of external pressure. However, it must be admitted that his notion of the astral body is vague, and he seldom provides robust philosophical arguments to support it. My preferred view and that found within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Emerson, Kant, and the physics of Max Planck and David Bohm is a philosophy of mind where consciousness is our primary form of existence and the material world occurs within consciousness: the basic argument being there is never a separation between the subject and object; in experience, we never directly encounter anything outside of consciousness.

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