Gurdjieff & the Further Reaches of Self-Observation


Self-observation is a powerful method not only of self-study but also of self-change. First introduced to the West by G. I. Gurdjieff, the remarkable teacher of psycho-spiritual transformation, as part of his overall system of work on oneself, self-observation is best approached not as a technique but rather as an entirely new relationship to oneself as a living, breathing being. Self-observation as described by Gurdjieff is an intimate pathway into one’s own mind, body, and spirit. It allows us to experience new levels of self-awareness, and by so doing to live more conscious, harmonious lives.

Gurdjieff & Identification

Gurdjieff believed that because of our conditioning and education most of us live our lives as unconscious automatons. Oblivious to our own real potential, our essence, we are totally “identified” with our personality, our self-image, and with whatever thoughts, feelings, images, daydreams, or sensations capture our attention at the moment. Because we so quickly and mechanically say “I” to each impulse as it arises, says Gurdjieff, especially those impulses that support our self-image, we believe we are masters of ourselves, seldom noticing our own inner fragmentation and our lack of will and choice as a result of this fragmentation. We lose ourselves at every moment in one or another aspect of our lives, out of touch with the remarkable wholeness that is our birthright.

Whether or not one agrees with Gurdjieff, his approach to self-observation and awareness–as described by P. D. Ouspensky in his book “In Search of the Miraculous”–has had a huge impact on many Western psycho-spiritual teachings, and provides an excellent starting point for anyone searching for a deeper understanding of herself or himself. What’s more, as Gurdjieff points out, since certain processes cannot take place in the full light of consciousness, self-observation is itself the beginning of real change.

My First Experiments with Self-Observation in the Gurdjieff Foundation

I first started trying to observe myself seriously in 1967 in a group under the direction of some of the leaders of the Gurdjieff Foundation, especially Lord John Pentland, president of the Gurdjieff Foundation in America. Our fundamental effort in various special conditions of the Gurdjieff Work, specially organized conditions of stillness, discussion, listening, movement, manual labor, and craftwork, was to see ourselves as we were, trying to witness, to be “present” to, whatever was taking place at the moment. Using various methods handed down from Gurdjieff, we were to attempt to discover in ourselves an attention that could “record” whether what we were experiencing at the moment was a thought, a feeling, a sensation, or some combination of these or other functions. We were also to attempt to observe our identification with our various habits, including daydreaming, imagination, inner talking, and so on, and to verify our own lack of inner unity. In attempting to observe ourselves—which often required going against the momentum of our habits in order to see them more clearly—we were reminded to try not to judge or analyze what was seen. According to Gurdjieff, judgment and analysis would simply draw us back into the vicious cycle of identification with the contents of our awareness—especially with our own inner reactions to what we saw—consuming what little free attention might be available for continuing observation. If judgment or analysis occurred, however, which it often did in spite of our best intentions, we were to simply include it in our observations. In short, the Gurdjieff Work asked to be scientists in relation to ourselves, with our own being as the object of our observation.

It soon became clear, to some of us at least, that to be more than mental or psychological note taking, self-observation as described by Gurdjieff must, as far as possible, embrace the actual processes and energies of our bodies. Through our own ongoing experimentation, we began to get glimpses of what Gurdjieff meant when he said that it is only by grounding our awareness in the living sensation of our bodies that the “I Am,” our real presence, can awaken. Though we were told that full, complete self-observation ultimately depends on being open to a higher energy, a higher consciousness, we were also told that it begins with voluntarily putting whatever attention is available to us on our own somatic state at the moment. Gurdjieff makes clear that it is only when our ordinary attention is actively occupied with experiencing the present moment that the higher energy of awareness can appear, an awareness that relates us simultaneously to our inner and outer worlds.

For those of us wishing to study ourselves by means of Gurdjieff’s method of self-observation, the starting point must be the overall sensation of the body. It is through this sensation, a kind of three-dimensional perceptual backdrop, that we can discern the various movements and energies of our own inner functions. Without the stability of this sensation, our efforts at self-observation will quickly turn into identification with whatever thoughts, feelings, daydreams, and so on are occurring.

Gurdjieff, Self-Observation & Sittings

One of the foundations of the Gurdjieff Work in recent years is what is called “sittings,” a profound form of inner work that is passed down orally from teacher to student. Though the various exercises that Gurdjieff passed on to his students are not readily available to the general public, the basic approach has been described in some detail in Jean Vaysse’s excellent book on Gurdjieff’s teachings, called Toward Awakening. Though it is important, of course, eventually to learn how to observe oneself in any circumstance, it is helpful to begin by sitting quietly for at least 20 minutes at the beginning of each day with one’s eyes closed and one’s spine erect but supple. As one begins to relax more and more into this very simple posture, allowing one’s attention to gradually occupy the whole of one’s body, one will begin to experience a new, more comprehensive sensation of oneself. It is this sensation that makes it possible to see, hear, and “record” our thoughts, feelings, intuitions, postures, and so on, and how these various functions influence one another in this complex “machine” that one calls oneself.

Self-Observation & Levels of Sensation

Though it wasn’t until many years after I left the Gurdjieff Foundation that I understood and formulated much of what follows, it is helpful to realize from the very beginning of self-observation that “sensation” can be experienced at many different levels, depending on one’s degree of relaxation and attention. Though Gurdjieff himself does not define these levels of sensation, at least not in any of his published works, they become quite clear in a deep, sustained work of self-observation. These levels include the automatic sensation of aches and pains; the deeper sensation of muscular tensions and contractions; the more subtle sensation of temperature and movement: the uniform “prickly” sensation of one’s skin; the living, breathing sensation of one’s internal organs, bones, tissues, and fluids; and the integrative sensation of the body’s energy circuits, connecting all the organs and functions of one’s being.

Those who continue the work of conscious relaxation through a deepening contact with their own bodies may eventually come to one more level of sensation: the profound, all-encompassing sensation of space and silence that lies at the heart of our somatic being. Though this was seldom discussed in the Gurdjieff work, it is, based on my own experience, an important stage in the work of self-observation. It is only through the experience of sensation as both space and silence that our awareness can embrace and welcome the whole of ourselves. It is this embrace, this welcoming, that is the beginning of self-transformation.

For many who undertake the inner work of self-observation, however, observation of their bodies seldom goes beyond a mental “projection” of sensation. For others, it involves only the sensation of their skin or their most superficial tensions. This is understandable, since to go deeper into our organism means to open ourselves to the contradictions and confusions of our inner life, to the real forces, the “animals,” as Gurdjieff has said, that move us. These forces include not only our deepest aspirations and desires, but also the traumas, fears, anxieties, worries, and other emotions buried in the complex interrelationships of brain, nervous system, skeleton, muscles, and viscera that we call our body.

Though Gurdjieff’s method of self-observation is a powerful tool of self-study, learning to open ourselves to ourselves in this way takes far more than the application of exercises and techniques. It also takes great knowledge, sincerity, and sensitivity. We have little direct awareness of the operations of our brain and nervous system except as they are reflected in the tissues, structures, and movements of our bodies. What’s more, in actual practice our attention, which is generally rather weak, can seldom reach beneath the most superficial layers of tissues, organs, and muscles conditioned by years of unconsciousness, negativity, and misuse. Based on my work on myself and with others both within and outside the Gurdjieff Work, it is clear to me that our bodies, especially our viscera, have gradually become storage vaults for undigested experiences and impressions too charged or painful to confront. In the name of homeostasis and survival, our nervous system closed the doors to these experiences through a kind of organic amnesia. But keeping the doors to the vault locked consumes an enormous amount of energy and creates disharmony at the very deepest levels of our being.

The Work of Self-Sensing & Listening

In practicing self-observation, it is important to see where one’s attention seems to stop—where it can go no further. This is possible through what I call “self-sensing,” a kind of inner organic seeing and listening in which one starts with the sensation and receptivity of one’s eyes and ears—including the impressions they receive—and allows this sensation and receptivity to expand gradually throughout the entire body. This expansion must include our voluntary muscles and skeleton, as well as our heart, lungs, diaphragm, digestive organs, genitals, and other organs. For it is in these locations that the deepest patterns of our energies—the real springs of our behavior—are maintained. And it is usually in these locations that the physical manifestations (especially the unnecessary tensions and contractions that Gurdjieff says consumes the energy we need for inner work) of our own individual barriers to wholeness are most clearly reflected. Through sensing these manifestations, opening them up, as it were, to the reach of our attention, we can begin to see and transform those experiences and impressions—whether from the past or present—that are locked out of our awareness.

In undertaking this work of self-sensing it is important to approach ourselves with both gentleness and compassion. It has taken many years for us to become what we are today, and it is virtually impossible to either see or break through our barriers (what Gurdjieff calls “buffers”) to wholeness by effort or willpower alone. Nor is it advisable, cautions Gurdjieff, since getting rid of these barriers or buffers all at once would be an intolerably painful experience (for we would have to see ourselves as we actually are) that could easily throw our lives into chaos. What is required instead is openness without force to what we can see at any moment, a deep inner movement of welcoming whatever appears. It is my experience that at the moment it seems impossible to go any further in our awareness of a barrier, we can back off a bit and allow our sensation of this barrier to deepen. When we bring our attention back to a previous sensation of ease, the sympathetic nervous system can relax its vice-like grip and some of our tensions can begin to dissolve seemingly on their own. We can also try letting our attention move to parts of ourselves that are freer and more relaxed. Then we simply allow that sensation of ease and comfort to expand into the parts of our bodies that are more tense. As some of the more superficial tensions begin to dissolve, it is possible to observe deeper organic levels of tension within ourselves and to sense the emotions and experiences associated with them.

Those of us who undertake this work of self-sensing in a serious way will eventually see that the real key to both self-knowledge and self-transformation lies in our feelings and emotions. Gurdjieff makes clear that our feelings and emotions are the horses that drive the carriage of our body. And it is our feelings and emotions that most clearly shape and reflect our relationship, our attitudes, to ourselves and the world. As we continue the work of self-sensing, for example, we will see that certain kinds of feelings open us, allowing our awareness to move freely throughout our organism, while other kinds close us, locking awareness and impressions out. We will also become convinced that the real observation and study of emotions is not a mental or psychological process, but rather a physical one.

Self-Observation & Breathing

As we are called from our own inner being toward a deepening of the work of self-observation, we will begin to see, as Gurdjieff points out, just how difficult it is to observe emotions—especially those that we have long practice in avoiding, that we have never thoroughly digested. Fortunately, however, our body gives us a direct entry into our emotional life. Though this is not discussed by Gurdjieff, at least not in any writings I have seen, this entry, I have found, is our breathing. Our breathing not only connects us with the outer world, but it also connects our body, mind, emotions, and spirit, and will always show us, if we can be receptive to it, the various forces acting at the moment. Our breathing can even help show us where the experiences and impressions that we are unable to face are resonating in our bodies.

Gurdjieff warns us, quite rightly, that any attempt to manipulate or change our breathing without sufficient knowledge of our organism can over time cause many problems. It is crucial, therefore, especially at the beginning of the work of self-observation, to learn to sense, to follow, our breathing without attempting to change it in any way. To my knowledge, Gurdjieff does not discuss this in his writings, but the actual practice of following the breath is an important part of the sittings as they were handed down to us. The reasons for this are many, but two are paramount as far as I can see: first, by following our breathing we actually stabilize and strengthen our inner attention; second, our breathing as it takes place at any particular moment reflects everything else that is occurring in and around the organism and thus provides a powerful tool of self-observation.

In my own approach to working with breathing, an approach which has developed not just through my experiences in the Gurdjieff Work, but also in various other traditions, one starts by simply follow the air going in and out of one’s nose. Later one can follow the actual movement of the air into and out of one’s lungs. One can also sense where one’s breathing seems to take place in one’s body. Does it take place in the shoulders, the chest, or the lower abdomen? Do my shoulders go up when I inhale? Does my belly go out or in? Do I feel my breathing in my ribs, my back, my pelvis? As I sense my breathing, do my inhalations and exhalations take place evenly and harmoniously, or do they seem to pull in one direction or another? What tensions do I feel? What does my breathing “sound” like? As I sense the location of my breathing, do I feel peaceful, agitated, angry, joyful, sad, bored, willful? Am I being stubborn or rigid in my thinking? What am I feeling and thinking? And at the more advanced levels of this work with breathing, one can even sense a certain quality of energy that seems to enter with each breath, and one can follow the movement of this energy in one’s body. The purpose here is simply to observe–not to analyze, judge, or manipulate. As we said earlier, without sufficient awareness and self-knowledge, any effort to change our breathing can, as Gurdjieff warns, cause many problems.

Those working with following their breath in this way over a period of time will begin to have many fascinating and revealing impressions of themselves. And, perhaps just as important, they will begin, as I said earlier, to develop a stronger, more stable attention, one that is not so quickly dissipated through emotional reactions. But the key is to keep observing, using our breathing as a pathway into experiencing the entire organism. One may observe, for example, as I have on numerous occasions, how in moments of willfulness, of strong identification (as Gurdjieff would say) with one’s sense of “I,” one’s breathing seems to go noisily up into one’s raised shoulders, one’s muscles contract, and one’s entire abdominal cavity is drawn upward. Or one may see, as I have, how in moments of quiet receptivity the breath centers itself silently behind the navel, the Hara or Lower Tan Tien, and the entire body seems to relax and breathe.

An Intimate Approach: The Need for Help

This approach to self-observation is a very intimate one, since it gives each of us an opportunity to learn more about ourselves in the most direct way possible. What’s more, it begins to alter our very being: the light of consciousness begins to penetrate into the dark recesses of our being, relax our somatic structures and tissues, and gradually allow the energy to flow more harmoniously and lawfully. Nevertheless, for self-observation to bring the ultimate self-knowledge and transformation that is possible, most of us will eventually need the help not only of an outside teacher or group such as one finds in the Gurdjieff work, but also of a somatic practitioner.

As Gurdjieff has made clear, authentic outside teachers or groups are needed to bring the new ideas, perspectives, and special conditions necessary to help us free ourselves from our own narrow attitudes and to observe ourselves in a more honest way. Under the direction of a teacher or working with others who are seriously exploring their own nature, we are bound to receive shocks that will help us wake up more often from our own wishful thinking and to see ourselves more clearly. During my own 18 years both as a student and group leader in the special conditions of the Gurdjieff Work, I was able to observe sides of myself that were nearly impossible to observe in the ordinary conditions of daily life. Though these observations, especially those involving my lack of unity, my false sense of pride, and my deep sense of insecurity, were seldom pleasant, they were absolutely necessary to my own growing understanding and awareness.

Even in the special conditions of the Gurdjieff Work, however, self-observation does not always bring to light some of the deepest springs of our behavior and being. Because of our extensive conditioning by family, friends, education, and society, and the powerful interrelationships that exist between somatic structure, breathing, and emotions, there are almost always deep contractions, tensions, and disharmonies in our muscles, viscera, and nervous system that cannot be sensed except through a deep, direct work with the body and breathing. In many cases, this will require a skilled somatic practitioner, or a spiritual teacher who utilizes somatic work, who can work with us individually to help us experience the ways in which our bodies are not only reflecting but also maintaining powerful emotional attitudes that we are unable to observe on our own, no matter how hard we try or how sensitive we are. In many cases, this work cannot be done only through words, movement, and meditation. It may also require the art and science of someone else’s physical touch to awaken and guide our deeper organic energy and awareness through the deep tensions, contractions, and sensory disharmonies of our being.

In my own work of self-observation, I have greatly benefited not only from the extraordinary conditions of the Gurdjieff Work (conditions that make it possible to see ourselves more impartially), but also from intensive somatic exploration with several somatic practitioners and spiritual teachers, including practitioners of the Feldenkrais structural integration work, as well as of an extraordinary form of Taoist abdominal massage and breath work called Chi Nei Tsang. In both approaches–but especially in Chi Nei Tsang–I was able to experience in only a couple of years many of the deep interrelationships between mind, body, and emotions that had eluded me for many years. It is quite clear to me, however, that without my long training in self-observation through the Gurdjieff work, without learning how to turn my attention toward my own inner being in almost any circumstance of life, my experiences with these teachers and practitioners would not have gone beyond some very important health benefits and interesting psychological footnotes.

If Gurdjieff’s method of self-observation is to be an intimate pathway into our being, it can only do so if we are willing to truly expose ourselves to ourselves. What is needed, says Gurdjieff, is “inner sincerity.” But this willingness to be exposed, to be present to ourselves from top to bottom and from outside to inside, needs the support of special conditions and people that can help us return to our own real home on this earth–our bodies–and to occupy every floor and room in this home. It is not enough to learn about our home by shining a powerful spotlight from the top floor or our favorite room. What is needed is to open the door to every room, including the basement, and to actually enter the rooms and illuminate them. This is not easy, but it is possible–especially for those who remember that it is only through the living, breathing sensation of the whole of ourselves that we can live conscious, harmonious lives. This sensation, unrestricted by unconscious emotional attitudes working through our muscles and organs, is the sensation of life itself, and of the miraculous space and silence that lies at its heart.

Copyright 1993-2015 by Dennis Lewis. This is a revised version of my article that originally appeared in the Fall 1993 issue of Gnosis Magazine.

Recommended Reading

In Search of the Miraculous, by P. D. Ouspensky

All and Everything, by G. I. Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff’s Early Talks

The Reality of Being, by Jeanne De Salzmann

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