The following comments were made by Maurice Desselle and Henri Tracol on June 6, 1964 in Paris at a weekly meeting for studying the Gurdjieff ideas. They were translated from French notes by Dorothea Dooling and Patty de Llosa.
The subject that brings us together tonight is “The Work in Life.”
I’d like to examine it in a very simple way and, at the same time, in a very broad way, to try to understand the link that exists between my work and my life. And inversely, the link between my life and my work. I’m forced to face this idea, which presents an ongoing question, because the very idea of an effort and a search springs from my life, out of my life.
I speak not only for myself because we have all approached the possibility of work in this way. In this life—made up of an accumulation of information about facts, events, chance happenings—which is given to us one day and will be taken away from us on another (we don’t know when), a moment always comes when it seems incomprehensible to us, even absurd.
It is at this very moment that the idea of a search appears and an attempt to understand our presence here begins. So the connection is obvious. We cannot refuse this life. It is within this very life that our search must be established and pursued.
And yet, from the moment this is understood, and when perhaps a fortunate meeting puts us in contact with a work, with a way—from the moment our first efforts are made, the same question appears: what is the link, the true link, between this everyday life and the efforts we are making to understand better what we are? Because this connection is not so clear. And although it may seem paradoxical, I think it corresponds to everyone’s experience that the more we think we have understood, the more we believe we have discovered something that may make sense, the farther away our life seems from our work. There is a kind of contradiction which is difficult to see and, above all, difficult to resolve, because if my life and my work are not actually opposed, there is certainly a necessary distinction between them. I know very well that my work is one thing and my life another.
Faced with this apparent contradiction, there are two traps I can fall into. The first comes if I refuse to see that something—I don’t want to use the word “opposed”—but something doesn’t go right between my life and my work. Up to a certain point what my life asks of me, the diverse and often divergent interests it awakens in me, seem to be not exactly enemies, but more like strangers to this need for a vertical fulfillment which the work has planted in me.
The first of the two traps I fall into (and I’m not sure I won’t fall into it again), is not taking this difference into account from the very beginning: on the one hand my life, on the other hand my work, each ignorant of the other.
My work can appear to me as a sort of refuge, as certain privileged moments when I have an undeniable contact with something higher in myself, but having no action, no resonance upon my life. Or again, I might try to change my life, to make it conform more to a work whose aim I am not sure I understand. This temptation, carried to an extreme, leads to retirement from the world. It is a temptation we are familiar with. Or else I try to force my work into my life, attempting to practice ideas which I have barely experienced, and which I have neither understood nor digested.
So either I refuse to look for a connection, or else I find the connection only in the mixture, which is doubtless still worse. Yet I am still face to face with the same dilemma. I’m not unaware that this need for effort, this need to understand, to look for the meaning of my life and the meaning of my presence in this life, originates in my life. My life remains at that point, with all its dissatisfactions and non-understandings, and it must necessarily connect itself with this effort, connect itself with my own work. At the same time, my work must be connected with my life. What then is the link?
Little by little I realize that I am the link; that the apparent contradiction isn’t between my life and what I call my work. It is in myself. At certain moments I can make this necessary distinction between two ways of being, two states of being; or rather, to clarify further, two levels of being. Perhaps then I begin to understand where this apparent contradiction comes from, and how by being present to myself, I, myself, could perhaps reconcile it. At the same time I understand two sayings from the Gospel which have always struck me very much, because they seem contradictory: “We cannot serve both God and mammon” yet we must “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” If I confront this apparent paradox, I suddenly realize what my life could be in the light of my work. It could become the necessary ground for my experience. It is only in life, without changing it at all, accepting it as it is and myself as I am, that I will find the ground that is indispensable for the understanding to which I aspire.
Now the link begins to function. Now a certain reconciliation can begin to take place in me. However, here’s where I must rid myself of an illusion. This reconciliation, this link, is momentary. Not only momentary, but in movement. Truly. My work will not be in my life except at the moment or moments when I try to understand that I belong to two masters between whom I am never able to choose. I will understand this link only to the degree in which, at those moments, I am able to perceive a certain possible order in myself, and return from this possible order to my habitual disorder, trying to keep my eyes open as wide as I can.
There, I see a connection. And the link also appears in the opposite movement of trying to raise myself to a possible order, in those moments when I am able to wake up to my disorder in this life, not wanting to change anything. In that instant I wake up from my conditioning to a bad interior state of being (not an outer state), to try to understand better and perhaps, if possible, obey a real master.
I think I can say that in the moments of which I’m speaking my life enters into my work and perhaps, at times, my life is at the service of my work. It is then that I can understand an idea we talked about last time: the idea of the task. It is wholly linked with the one we are speaking about tonight.
If I understand that for me this life is a task, even when I don’t understand the task. And if I strive, in those instants I spoke about just now, to understand what my task is, to what I am called, and if I keep returning to the effort of understanding that something is asked of me in this life—something I don’t understand but feel the necessity of—then at those moments I also can say that my work is in my life, and that both are necessary to my inner growth.
I would like to return to an idea which seems worth going into further, and which was put forward earlier. On the hanging suspended above the students’ heads in the Study House (at the Institute), Mr. Gurdjieff had written this aphorism, among others: “Always remember that here the work is a means, and not an end.” To encourage a false mystique of the work in myself and in others does injury to the very essence of our search. It substitutes a mental or emotional image which is, at the very least, suspect. I don’t know how you feel about it, but I think it’s a danger that lies in wait for us all. One of its chief characteristics is to turn us away from life, to invite us to treat life with contempt, to consider it the beast we must vanquish or the enemy we must overcome. As if the work could be in any way against life! That would mean forgetting, among other things, why the day came when we turned towards this teaching. Whatever form our dissatisfactions and hopes took, we came to the work asking, above all, for help to live this life, help to recover a more real, more convincing, meaning for it. And that’s what we discard when we give way to an image born of experiences that are still fragmentary and hopes that are not yet legitimate.
When we attempt to cover life with an abstract diagram of what it ought to be, and try to impose on it a form from the outside which constrains it, we distort the real direction of our efforts, which is rather to understand this life better by participating in it more. For it is by knowing it better, always from more angles and aspects, by understanding the forces that animate us, that the transformation of being to which we aspire will begin to take place.
Work according to the Fourth Way cannot be outside of life. It is at the very heart of life, and it calls us to as full an expression as possible, in the midst of life, of all the forces through which we can become reintegrated with real being; forces from which we are cut off by a way of living which is revealed by the false idea that the work is on life’s margin.
To play a role—if playing a role is our intention—is not to split oneself up, it is even less to play the comedy of work to oneself and to others. To play a role is to play it straight, to take a risk, truly to expose oneself and to accept to find oneself in a situation where once again one is at the very center of this conflict of tendencies where the true being of man defines itself.
I think this is the only possible way to understand the advice so often repeated by Mr. Gurdjieff: “Outwardly play a role, inwardly don’t identify.”