Cynthia’s first commentary on the “Atmosphere” exercise was posted on the Northeast Wisdom home page blog on April 27, 2020; part of the Pandemic Homework series of posts that began here on March 23, 2020. You may learn more about the entire series, and find the index and links to each post, at the end of this blog.
Meanwhile, Cynthia continues with her commentary, “exploring what it means to “keep within”: not merely as a spiritual demeanor, but as an actual mode of embodied presence.”
There is a very good reason, I believe, that Gurdjieff set the boundary of our personal atmosphere at a meter to a meter-and-a-half: that is the maximum radius that most people, without further specialized training, can actually embrace through direct sensation, rather than defaulting to visualization.
It is, in other words, the functional radius of our attention.
I must confess that I have always struggled with the Work phrase “divided attention” and its companion instruction (whether in the movements, the exercises, or in practical work): “Divide your attention.” I know this instruction comes with hoary authority: Gurdjieff himself taught it. So it is with justifiable fear and trembling that I raise my dissenting voice here—may God smite me if I am wrong!!!
But I stand by my own experience: attention cannot be divided. Like the body of Christ in Symeon the New Theologian’s celebrated poem, it is “indivisibly whole, seamless in [its] Godhood.” And since it is thus by nature infinite, it cannot be divided by any finite integer. You cannot place half your attention on your right arm and half on “I AM.” The two must occur simultaneously, held together in a three-dimensional space, a sphere of attention, with its center located deeper within.
“Where do you pay attention from?” Ben Grant asked us, almost offhandedly, at the end of a teaching session with the Toronto group in the early 1990s. Ben Grant was an elder in the Work, a first-generation student of Gurdjieff, at that point probably already in his eighties.
The question riveted me. In all my years in the Work nobody had ever asked that, either before or afterwards. But the answer from within was not long in coming. Nor has it ever varied.
The seat of my attention is in my solar plexus.
With my attention firmly grounded there (which is also, in many chakra systems, the seat of the personal will), I then project it out like a lightbeam, scribing a sphere according to the radius—to the candlepower—of my attention.
Within that three-dimensional space, attention is not divided; rather, it expands effortlessly to fill the space, just like air in a balloon as you blow it up. Everything within the radius of that sphere can be simultaneously comprehended, held in balance, like planets circling around a sun. When I am on the movements floor, for example, I do not apportion 30% of my attention to my feet, 30% to the arms, and 30% to the counting task; in that mentalized configuration my attention swiftly collapses. Rather, fiercely gathered and present at the seat of my attention— “quivering like a drop of mercury,” in Rumi’s evocative phrase—I simply do—for as far out as my attention can hold the unbroken field.
That is the beauty of the “Atmosphere” exercise as Gurdjieff offers it to us here. Our “atmosphere” is really the functional circumference of our attention; within it, we get to taste ourselves directly. It is as close as we can get to touching our own essence, to a direct sensation of our being, our “Real I.” Within this cloistered garden the fragrance is sweet. It is nurturing. No wonder Gurdjieff encourages us to suck it in.
Go much beyond that meter-and-a-half and the attention buckles; you collapse back into the story of yourself, the emotions, the vicarious projections. Back to viewing yourself through the periscope of your mind. That is why Gurdjieff was so insistent on “compelling the atmosphere to remain within its limits.” Better to stay with a small truth than a large illusion.
In any group activity, your foremost priority is to take responsibility for maintaining the unity and coherence of your own atmosphere. As the old Shaker maxim goes, “We should pass by each other lightly, like angels.” When we get pulled off-balance, out of three-centered awareness—when we get co-opted by our agendas, our emotions, the excitement racing through the crowd—then the external manifestations emerging from our disturbed atmosphere will always be cacophonous. They will always clash with and incite other atmospheres. Agitation, posturing, headiness, stridency, sentimentality, emotional manipulation are always the result: initially perceptible—once you’ve trained yourself to look—in the raised decibels and sharper tone of voices and in general body agitation. This is how groups get shanghaied and sincerely intended visions and aspirations go down in flame.
I repeat: in all groups, but particularly in spiritual groups, the responsible custody of your own atmosphere is your first and primary obligation. As the individual atmospheres go, so will the group atmosphere as well. If something is going off-track energetically, STOP!!! Put the argument on pause, and attend to this beautiful, simple exercise to restore and recollect your own atmosphere—”quivering like a drop of mercury.” Then you can all begin in a better place, and carry on with the cosmic work that a “seamless and indivisible” group atmosphere can contribute so profoundly to our aching and fractured planet.
As usual, Rumi nails it. Here is the rest of the poem:
Stay together, friends.
Don’t scatter and sleep.
Our friendship is made
of being awake.
The waterwheel accepts water
and turns and gives it away,
That way it stays in the garden,
whereas another roundness rolls
through a dry riverbed looking
for what it thinks it wants.
Stay here, quivering with each moment
like a drop of mercury.
A Note from Northeast Wisdom:
This series began on March 23, 2020, with the post entitled: Pandemic Homework; a letter from Cynthia outlining a four part to-do list in response to Covid-19 and our times. The practice of these exercises—the first point on her list—are in her words, “something you can actually do: to steady yourself and ready yourself for the deeper energetic work that actually connects us and empowers us as a human species to do the alchemical work we were placed on this planet to do.”
The series of posts that followed are available on Northeast Wisdom at these links:
From the Eagle’s Nest (the background to the instructions)
Foundational Points for the Five Pandemic Homework Exercises
Raised Cyber Eye-Brows: More on Internet Technology and the Pandemic Homework
The posts continue with a series of “Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises,”
“Clear Impressions”: Part I
“Lord Have Mercy”: Part II, A & B
Connecting the Dots: The “Lord Have Mercy”: Part II, C
“Make Strong! Not Easy Thing: Part III, A & B”
“Atmosphere”: Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises Part IV
Cynthia’s commentaries on the “Web” exercise will be posted next. A recent mailing to the community, “Going Forward: Time, Tides, Benedict and Zoom” will also be posted as part of this series, here on Northeast Wisdom. Stay tuned!
Cynthia says, “I am very grateful to Joseph Azize for his willingness to make five—now six—of the Gurdjieff exercises available to us within the cyber confines of our Wisdom School Community. These exercises are powerful tools of healing, cleansing, and clarity, and even when practiced individually or in small groups, they have a power to significantly shift our present planetary atmosphere.
Joseph Azize’s newly published Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises is available now through his website at Under the Sun for a 30% discount from Oxford University Press. All of the Gurdjieff exercises recommended in Cynthia’s Pandemic Homework are in this book, with extensive supporting research and commentary. It is a great resource, and highly recommended.
Image credits, from the top: Seated Egyptian, 12th dynasty, courtesy of DocPlayer.net; Seated Female, Republic of the Congo, or Cabinda, Angola, 19th century, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art; Mercury, courtesy of USGS, public domain; Salvator Mundi, Leonardo Da Vinci, courtesy Salvator Mundi; Waterwheel, courtesy of piqsels; Joseph Azize, courtesy of his website above.