SLEEPWALKING INTO WAR: GURDJIEFF AND OUSPENSKY
Whenever this country gets involved in a war, I exhale wearily with the recognition that sleepwalking humanity is at it again. I am thankful to have encountered the ideas of Gurdjieff, expressed to the brilliant mind of PD Ouspensky, in the perfect circumstances of the Great War and Russian Revolution. They have provided me with a grim understanding of these situations for some decades now. I first read Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous in 1982. It became my most-read book of the decade. Here is some material adapted from my Avalonian Aeon on the subject.
Gurdjieff’s critique of the general state of humanity seemed pessimistic at first. He stated that most of us can be said to be asleep in a trance of distraction. Each of us believes in a unique individuality but, on closer examination, most cannot demonstrate any real unity of functioning. We are full of small separate personalities. One part may proudly proclaim the intention to stop smoking, take up a regime of exercise, follow some idealised spiritual path etc. The “I” that likes to smoke or overeat or take drugs, be sexually deranged and so on, will later on assert its own claims and the lofty talk will be worthless. We have many I’s. They can all be “caliph for an hour”. Work on oneself involves the conscious cultivation of a “magnetic centre”. It is the responsibility of this aspect of oneself to seek out those influences conducive to the maintaining and expansion of its function.
What does that mean in the real world? The feeling of it can be better grasped by looking at it alongside another of Gurdjieff’s teaching ideas. Ouspensky discusses the concept of “food.” He takes it beyond the usual definitions. As well as what we eat in the normal sense, the case is made for regarding air as food. If anyone thinks it isn’t, try living without it for a while. Most stimulating of all was the classification of “impressions” as food. What we input through our senses can nourish or poison us. To take an extreme example, a person feasting everyday on splatter movies, hardcore porn and horror, someone who regularly read the literature of hate, racism etc, would be thoroughly poisoning themselves. Contrariwise, a person who immersed themselves in great art, literature, music, and the religious classics of the world, with a view to changing themselves for the better, would be getting some kind of higher food vitamins and protein. Although just what constitutes appropriate input is hugely debatable and variable, the basic principle is a call to some sort of conscious awakening. Gurdjieff suggested that once this process was really in motion, somehow one magnetically attracted to oneself the necessary higher influences. The world was full of them, but to the average tranced-out sleepwalking person they were all but invisible.
The historical situation in Russia during the period that the two worked together was a perfect backdrop for the demonstration of the power of Gurdjieff’s ideas. It began with the archaic Romanoff dynasty still in place as the First World War broke out. Gradually, insane chaos emerged. Russia’s badly led, ill-equipped forces were trashed by the German war-machine. Morale nosedived. The rumblings of the revolution were heard. Before long, a whole dynasty and culture was swept away and Ouspensky faced exile or death. For people with a feeling for history those events in Russia are amongst the most mind-blowing of the twentieth century.
Ideas that may have seemed outlandish or pessimistic were revealed by the events of the time to be spine-tinglingly insightful. Ouspensky resisted at first but the horror of the situation helped him to understand. Gurdjieff had said that we are machines, slaves to certain natural laws and processes that are as mechanical as a motor car. If people were remotely awake they would never submit to going off to war and likely death. The leaders of great nations are likewise sleepwalkers through the strange workings of unknown dynamics.
Ouspensky had difficulties with these ideas until an event he witnessed brought them to life. He saw a truck loaded with artificial limbs on its way to the front. They were for legs that had not yet been blown off but it could be calculated that they would be. There was something so mechanical about this process, something so lacking in conscious awareness, that the insanity of the situation was revealed in all its ludicrous horror. If those legs hadn’t been blown off yet then why on earth did they have to be? The process was surely stoppable. On one occasion, when Gurdjieff was discussing the horror of the war and the hollowness of the ideals it was being fought for, someone asked him what he thought of the pacifists? “They’re even worse,” was his classic reply.
There was a particular function of the mass sleepwalking mind that helped perpetuate the trance that enabled the world-historical madness to continue. Gurdjieff called it “Formatory Thinking”. It is basically that process whereby people are compelled to think and feel in terms of opposites such as black and white, wrong or right, left and right, and so on. This manifests in rigidity in one’s personal life and in the greater horrors of religious conflicts and wars between rival political systems. I could see it being played out all around me. It had turned British political life into a vulgar cartoon. On the larger stage Ronnie “Rapture” Reagan stood against the evil empire of the Godless Commies and megadeath was a possible outcome.