From a lecture delivered at the A&E Conference in 2004
Reason tells us that there is no “esoteric” practice or exercise that cannot be incorporated into the Fourth Way. After all, treading the Fourth Way is treading the other three ways in a balanced, manner. So, no true spiritual practice is to be avoided off hand, provided of course that its specifics are supervised by a properly experienced Work leader who understands the Work and the extend that the specific practice is to be applied in the overall conditions of a group’s work.
Nevertheless, the notion of simultaneous practice of “remembering” and “observing the self” is exclusive to the Fourth Way. Ii can be said that “remembering” and “observing the self”, practiced together, is what defines the core of the System’s particularity. For all I know, practicing them simultaneously is not suggested as a tool for spiritual advancement in any other teaching.
The point will come up, sooner or later, what exactly is “remembering” and what is “observing the self”? For one, what is the difference between the two, and how is the experience of one distinct from the experience of the other? Is it for example possible that one “observes himself” but neglects to “remember himself”?
These questions, which some may consider naïve, others will be surprised to find that they can give trouble even to people that have been in the Work for years. Indeed, it often happens that there is an overall rather hazy idea about the difference between remembering and observing the self. But since we advance only by verifying the ideas, as Gurdjieff insisted, then, if there will be an understanding of how the theory here is linked with the exercises practiced in the groups, one has to be quite clear about these concepts. One cannot verify something he does not understand. It is the need I felt to share my thoughts about the subject that prompted me to speak about this matter today.
The grave problem of identification is related to the unshakable conviction one has, that every manifestation of his mind, every thought that goes through his brain, every emotion he has and every movement of his body, are “his own”, that they belong to “him”. It is difficult for man to accept that “he” does not think, that it is “it” that does the thinking. It is inconceivable for the “I” that has the upper hand at any given moment to accept the fact that it, itself, is only a shadow. It is impossible that one accepts that the “basic, fundamental center of gravity” he considers to be “himself” is a fantasy, that it simply does not exist.
This state of affairs is constantly reflected in the way we speak of ourselves, even during group work. We say to others “I did this or that exercise”, we make comments of the kind “such and such a thing happened to me this week” or we say “I had such and such an experience”. When we speak of observations we made, we say things like “I observed this and that about myself” or “I observed this and that about the way I react to people”. This way of expression comes natural of course, from lingual habit. Nevertheless, it runs opposite to what the ideas tell us and to what we find out about ourselves. If indeed the succession of the “I’s” is in constant flux, how can we consider the “I who observed myself yesterday” to be the same with the “I who is now speaking”?
The words “observation” and “memory of the self” refer to modes of being, or states of the body-mind, in the same way that the words “meditation” and “praying” do.
Like with meditation, some contemporary psychoanalytic approaches have incorporated the concept of “observing the self” into their “method”. But as they do not put into question the very existence of the “I that observes”, their “technique” of observation leads to nothing but to the reinforcement of the ego present, to the strengthening of the aspect of the personality that decides to participate in such a group and be “psychoanalyzed”.
A similar situation is also to be found with some groups that claim to follow the “Fourth Way”, where the “observer” is identified with the “real self”. They believe that “observing the self” frees attention and that this is enough for one to reach the state of detachment needed for the Work on the self to proceed. The idea of this solid “observer” ends up occupying center stage in the approach of such groups. They seem to be oblivious to the fact that “he who observes” is not something constant, that it could well be just another “I”. The thing neglected here is that the practice of the Work involves the simultaneous remembering the self. This is the factor, which can liberate the mind from the illusion that, once I observe myself, then I am “really myself”.
The meaning of “remembering the self” is often considered obvious. The fact that “I know I am here”, for example, is often thought to be enough for me to “remember myself”. What this assumption overlooks is that remembering the self goes far beyond intellectual recognition. It goes beyond “thinking about the self”. It also involves the impressions that arise from the sensing of the body, from the direct memory of how it “feels to be me”. And this sensing has many levels. As a matter of fact, to follow the path through which these successive levels of sensing are revealed, results in the realization that remembering the self, itself, has many levels.
When I think of “who I am”, I rush to define myself by the image I have of myself that moment. “I am he who is writing this text” or “I am he who is speaking”. If I “remember myself” during those moments, it is this that I will initially see about myself. Such simplistic “memory of the self” is not useless or meaningless. It already presupposes being in a state of presence quite higher than the usual state I function in, when I am taken by the random, associative thoughts of my imagination, during which it is impossible to come back to the reality of “I am here, now”. Nevertheless, “he who is standing here in front of you” and “he who is speaking” are nothing more than aspects of the “I” that still prevails in me this moment. They are far from being all that there can be in my “remembering myself”.
My thoughts, my feelings, the movements of my body, they all belong to my personality. It is true that the material (or the biochemical substances of the body) that make these manifestations possible, belong to essence; but the form that these materials take, the form that is expressed and revealed through behavior, belongs to personality.
As we know, the patterns of behavior are the result of tensions that may be temporary or might be “crystallized” in the body’s memories in more enduring formations. Complex structures of such tensions, which constantly activate one another associatively, include tensions in the muscles, fixations in the emotions, and the habitual patterns that my thoughts follow. Taken together they define the total of my learned behavior. If this is true, and indeed it is, then, when I decide to “observe myself”, the real question will be, who is observing?
For someone who begins the Work, the effort to observe himself will unavoidably arise from a part of his personality. It will possibly, but not necessarily, come from the magnetic center. Anyway, whatever it is that it arises from, the center of gravity of “he who is observing” initially will be one of his personality’s “I’s”. And it is reasonable that he, not having a great wealth of experiences, might think of this “I” as his “real ego”.
The fact is that any observation, even the scientific observation of a natural phenomenon, always brings about some changes, some freedom. Any kind of successful observation involves a degree of return to the reality of the present moment and causes a detachment from the images of fantasy. For one, it involves the split between “that which observes” from “that which is being observed”. But in the case of working on the self with the intent of evolving, this kind of ordinary observation will not lead very far.
To be sure, scientific observation is not self-observation. The goal of self-observation is not to acquire intellectual knowledge; it is the possible evolution of the being which matters here. And the factor that has to be brought into the picture to make the difference that will open up a new direction for observation is for the practice of observing to advance simultaneously with that of remembering. Attention has to be focused on the self and has to become finer so that it can penetrate deeper, to be grounded onto the sensation of the body. The self has to be remembered in a more complete way, not just intellectually.
Observation eventually will have to emerge from this more complete entity.
The memory of the self, the way “I remember myself”, the “how I remember me” is defined by what I perceive as “being me”, by what I perceive as “what it is that I am”. Both the memory and the observation of the self are dynamic. They are processes in evolution. The experiences that they give rise to are revealed in advancing steps. What evolves with time is the widening perception of the elements that compose the potentially united Self, out of which emerges an advancing sense of unity of that which “I am”.
If someone has worked earnestly in that way for some years, he eventually realizes that observation can indeed emerge from a level of increased unity. This level is no ordinary “I”. The opening of the horizon of “who I am” brings about an understanding of the omnipotent role that mechanicality plays in his usual life. The struggle with this mechanicality is no more theoretical. It is a real struggle to balance on the moment, to be, that moment, attentive to something much higher, that transcends all habitual “I’s”. This “something” that descends to man those moments from higher up, does not belong to him, in the sense that none of his “I’s” can provoke its presence upon demand, or control it. During the moments it arises, it is not “him” who is the “observer”. It is as if observation comes to him; the sensation he has is as if he is being observed by another level of intelligence. It is as if he has laid himself open for his existence to soak in the light of another kind of possibility. This is the memory of a self that goes beyond the forms that the tensions in him create. It is recognition of a relationship with that which is higher in him.
When one reads for the first time about the possibility of working on himself, or a friend speaks to him about it, then he might decide to join a group and, eventually, he might make the effort to observe himself.
Initially he can only have a vague idea about what it is that he is supposed to do. He might have read that such a practice can awaken him from his usual sleep or that it can create in him higher being bodies and the immortal soul that he does not have at this point. But these are just words. Much as he may say that he “believes” in them, they only have theoretical meaning for him. If we really believed in this sort of things, then our efforts would not be as lukewarm as they usually are. This kind of beliefs and expectations cannot really sustain one’s efforts for long, even if he has learned how he can ground his attention on sensation. This condition of attentiveness can easily be taken to be just an experience, as being an “achievement” of his personality.
Things become different when the possibility of the opening to the higher is revealed in him, at some point. The reality of his struggle to go beyond the everreccuring aspects of personality, the real need he feels to go beyond the implacable waves of his mechanical addiction to his vanity and his self love that keep him bounded to the usual and the mundane, even during the moments he remembers his true nature, begins to be perceived, not as a luxury, but as an obligation. It is probably then that his real work can start.
The man who joins a group, at some initial point may decide to make an honest effort to observe himself. The simple fact is that this effort will never happen unless he remembers to do it, unless, at some moment in his ordinary life, he remembers that he has assumed this obligation, to practice. Even if one is given by a doctor a pill that will cure him from a disease and save his life, to be cured, he has to remember to take it. I know of a man who died because he did not remember to take the malaria pills he had in his pocket.
In a fashion, to remember to observe one’s self in the context of his effort to evolve, is a first step toward self-remembering; it is a simple and straightforward way of remembering that “I am he who has undertaken this obligation”.
Observing the self will eventually result to the possibility of grounding attention to the energies that flow in the body. Sensing these energies is part of remembering the Self. The energies themselves are always there. Establishing a cognitive contact with them is a gradual process that leads to seeing the Self as an enlargingly unified entity, which simultaneously incorporates elements that were initially, either fragmentally perceived, or ignored all together.
In this way, observing and remembering the self advance on, interlocked, and become the two pillars of one’s effort toward evolution.
All other Fourth Way practices may be essential. But these two, properly applied, are the ones that characterize the authentic treading in the Fourth Way. The struggle to practice them and the depth and quality of their application I believe can be the criterion by which to judge each of the proliferating number of groups that happen to incorporate into their work this or that practice that is part of the Gurdjieff legacy.