January 10th, 2016

Questions & Answers With G.I. Gurdjieff: The Illusion of Doing


Man is a plural being.

When we speak of ourselves ordinarily, we speak of ‘I.’ We say, ” ‘I’ did this,” ” ‘I’ think this,” ” ‘I’ want to do this”—but this is a mistake. There is no such ‘I,’ or rather there are hundreds, thousands of little ‘I’s in every one of us. We are divided in ourselves but we cannot recognize the plurality of our being except by observation and study.

At one moment it is one ‘I’ that acts, at the next moment it is another ‘I.’ It is because the ‘I’s in ourselves are contradictory that we do not function harmoniously. We live ordinarily with only a very minute part of our functions and our strength, because we do not recognize that we are machines, and we do not know the nature and working of our mechanism.

We are machines. We are governed entirely by external circumstances. All our actions follow the line of least resistance to the pressure of outside circumstances.

Try for yourselves: can you govern your emotions? No.

You may try to suppress them or cast out one emotion by another emotion. But you cannot control it. It controls you.

Or you may decide to do something — your intellectual ‘I’ may make such a decision. But when the time comes to do it, you may find yourself doing just the opposite. If circumstances are favorable to your decision you may do it, but if they are unfavorable you will do whatever they direct.

You do not control your actions. You are a machine and external circumstances govern your actions irrespective of your desires. I do not say nobody can control his actions. I say you can’t, because you are divided.

There are two parts to you, a strong and a weak part. If your strength grows, your weakness will also grow, and will become negative strength unless you learn to stop it.

If we learn to control our actions, that will be different. When a certain level of being is reached we can really control every part of ourself — but, as we are now, we cannot even do what we decide to do.

(Here a theosophist posed a question claiming that we could change conditions.)

Gurdjieff: Conditions never change—they are always the same. There is no change, only modification of circumstances.

Question: Isn’t it a change if a man becomes better?

Gurdjieff: One man means nothing to humanity. One man becomes better, another becomes worse– it is always the same.

Question: But is it not an improvement for a liar to become truthful?

Gurdjieff: No, it is the same thing. First he tells lies mechanically because he cannot tell the truth; then he will tell the truth mechanically because it is now easier for him.

Truth and lies are only valuable in relation to ourselves if we can control them. Such as we are we cannot be moral because we are mechanical. Morality is relative—subjective, contradictory and mechanical. It is the same with us: physical man, emotional man, intellectual man — each has a different set of morals befitting his nature.

The machine in every man is divided into three basic parts, three centers. Look at yourself at any moment and ask: “What sort of ‘I’ is it that is working at the moment? Does it belong to my intellectual center, to my emotional center or to my moving center?”

You will probably find that it is quite different from what you imagine, but it will be one of these.

Question: Is there no absolute code of morality that ought to be binding on all men alike?

Gurdjieff: Yes. When we can use all the forces that control our centers — then we can be moral. But until then, as long as we use only a part of our functions, we cannot be moral.

We act mechanically in all that we do, and machines cannot be moral.

Question: It seems a hopeless position?

Gurdjieff: Quite right. It is hopeless.

Question: Then how can we change ourselves, and use all our forces?

Gurdjieff: That is another matter. The chief cause of our weakness is our inability to apply our will to all three of our centers simultaneously.

Question: Can we apply our will to any of them?

Gurdjieff: Certainly, sometimes we do. Sometimes we may even be able to control one of them for a moment with very extraordinary results. (He relates the story of a prisoner throwing a ball of paper with a message to his wife through a high and difficult window.)

This is his only means to become free. If he fails the first time he will never have another chance. He succeeds for the moment in having absolute control over his physical center so that he is able to accomplish what otherwise he never could have done.

Question: Do you know anybody who has reached this higher plane of being?

It means nothing if I say yes or no. If I say yes, you cannot verify it and if I say no, you are none the wiser. You have no business to believe me. I ask you to believe nothing that you cannot verify for yourself.

Question: If we are wholly mechanical, how are we to get control over ourselves? Can a machine control itself?

Gurdjieff: Quite right—of course not. We cannot change ourselves. We can only modify ourselves a little. But we can be changed with help from the outside.

The theory of esotericism is that mankind consists of two circles: a large, outer circle, embracing all human beings, and a small circle of instructed and understanding people at the center.

Real instruction, which alone can change us, can only come from this center, and the aim of this teaching is to help us to prepare ourselves to receive such instruction. By ourselves we cannot change ourselves — that can come only from outside.

Every religion points to the existence of a common center of knowledge. In every sacred book knowledge is there, but people do not wish to know it.

Question: But haven’t we a great store of knowledge already?

Yes, too many kinds of knowledge. Our present knowledge is based on sense perceptions — like children’s. If we wish to acquire the right kind of knowledge, we must change ourselves.

With a development of our being we can find a higher state of consciousness. Change of knowledge comes from change of being. Knowledge in itself is nothing. We must first have self-knowledge, and with the help of self-knowledge, we shall learn how to change ourselves — if we wish to change ourselves.

Question: And this change must still come from without?

Gurdjieff: Yes. When we are ready for new knowledge it will come to us.

Question: Can one alter one’s emotions by acts of judgment?

Gurdjieff: One center of our machine cannot change another center. For example: in London I am irritable, the weather and the climate dispirit me and make me bad-tempered, whereas in India I am good-tempered. Therefore my judgment tells me to go to India and I shall drive out the emotion of irritability.

But then, in London, I find I can work; in the tropics not as well. And so, there I should be irritable for another reason. You see, emotions exist independently of the judgment and you cannot alter one by means of the other.

Question: What is a higher state of being?

Gurdjieff: There are several states of consciousness:

1) sleep, in which our machine still functions but at very low pressure.
2) waking state, as we are at this moment. These two are all that the average man knows.
3) what is called self-consciousness. It is the moment when a man is aware both of himself and of his machine. We have it in flashes, but only in flashes.

There are moments when you become aware not only of what you are doing but also of yourself doing it. You see both ‘I’ and the ‘here’ of ‘I am here’ — both the anger and the ‘I’ that is angry.

Call this self-remembering, if you like. Now when you are fully and always aware of the ‘I’ and what it is doing and which ‘I’ it is — you become conscious of yourself.

Self-consciousness is the third state.

Question: Is it not easier when one is passive?


Gurdjieff: Yes, but useless. You must observe the machine when it is working. There are states beyond the third state of consciousness, but there is no need to speak of them now. Only a man in the highest state of being is a complete man. All the others are merely fractions of man. The outside help which is necessary will come from teachers or from the teaching I am following.

The starting points of this self-observation are:

1) that we are not one.
2) that we have no control over ourselves. We do not control our own mechanism.
3) we do not remember ourselves.

If I say ‘I am reading a book’ and do not know that ‘I’ am reading, that is one thing, but when I am conscious that ‘I’ am reading, that is self-remembering.

Question: Doesn’t cynicism result?

Gurdjieff: Quite true. If you go no further than to see that you and all men are machines, you will simply become cynical.

But if you carry your work on, you will cease to be cynical.

Question: Why?

Gurdjieff: Because you will have to make a choice, to decide — to seek either to become completely mechanical or completely conscious. This is the parting of the ways of which all mystical teachings speak.

–G.I. Gurdjieff
From the book Views from the Real World: Early Talks of Gurdjieff



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