“Keep within! And when they say, ‘Look here’ or ‘look there is Christ,’ go not forth….”
This beautiful gem of Quaker wisdom, set to music by Paulette Meier and well loved by many of you around the Wisdom network, encapsulates both the method and the deeper intention of Gurdjieff’s Atmosphere Exercise. Here we will be actively exploring what it means to “keep within”: not merely as a spiritual demeanor, but as an actual mode of embodied presence. You can listen to the chant here.
Call it your “aura,” call it “electromagnetic field of your heart”: the words all point to the same underlying recognition that “we” do not end at the outer edge of our skins. We move within an encompassing energetic field which we ourselves generate, and which—according to Gurdjieff—we are responsible for maintaining in good working order: i.e., unruffled, contained, and under our conscious supervision. He picturesquely refers to this field as our atmosphere.
Contemplative Christianity has also long prized this state of inner containment, which is known in the Christian West as “recollection” and in the Christian East as “vigilance.” It is a state of alert, calm, gathered presence. In its absence, the energy around our being rushes and swirls in an automatic jumble, losing much of its directional force while at the same time negatively entangling itself with other similarly untended atmospheres. The result is an energetic cacophony.
This relatively straightforward exercise will help you to begin to settle down within your own atmosphere, keeping your being-energy contained and quiet under your conscious tending.
As usual, the chief culprit is thinking—or, to be more specific, the completely mechanical and autonomous movement of thinking when we are not consciously present. Gurdjieff says, arrestingly: “Your atmosphere is displaced in the direction in which your thought moves. If you think of your mother who is far away, your atmosphere moves toward the place where your mother is.” To be sure, this speaks of the wondrous, space-traveling capacities of our creative imagination, carried on the wings of our attention: so long as both are under our conscious control. But when imagination becomes infected with nostalgia or fantasy, or is suddenly intoxicated by its own magical powers, then the journey is aborted, and our space traveler falls back under the sway of delusion.
But until you have learned to sense your atmosphere directly, you won’t be able to taste the difference between imagination indentured to fantasy and “the real deal.” It is a tragic trompe l’oeil, on which many sincere aspirations have foundered.
In this exercise we practice remaining within our atmosphere, not letting our thoughts and emotions go ricocheting out beyond the meter to meter-and-a-half circle we imaginatively draw around ourselves. It is the exact inner equivalent of the task we took on one day during our Wisdom School in the desert near Tucson: to draw a six-foot ring around ourselves and sit within it for an hour. We are drawing that same ring—only now in the air, not on the ground. This will be the paddock where we contain the wild horse of our thoughts, emotions, and impulses until the whole thing comes quietly into a wordless equanimity.
In this exercise we meet for the first time Gurdjieff’s unique use of the phrase: “Represent to yourself.” Representing to yourself is not the same thing as visualizing. Close, but not identical. They have subtly different flavors, since they are in fact the work of different centers. Visualizing draws primarily on the intellectual center. Representing remains much closer to sensation. With your attention firmly anchored in your solar plexus (at least that’s how it works for me), you simply allow the radius of your attention to expand outward, to establish a direct sensate contact with the entire sphere of that atmosphere. You will discover that you are able to do this fairly easily if you don’t interfere with the process by thinking.
You may watch how the waves of thinking, emotion, agitation, wash across the still waters of your atmosphere. But if you simply “keep within,” not allowing yourself to be dragged outside its sphere, things will quiet down once again and the depths of a deeper, mysterious aliveness begin to emerge.
One must also “compel the atmosphere to stay within its limits—not allow it to go further than it can sustain.” That limit is concretely set at a meter to a meter-and-a-half. It actually exists, a palpable energy field. Anything beyond this, and you will likely be venturing out under the sway of thought, emotion, or unanchored visualization. And you will inevitably get tangled up in other people’s atmospheres.
I have often used this sanctuary of my atmosphere to navigate through a rough patch when a group I am teaching begins to get energetically disturbed—i.e., heady, confrontational, or intoxicated with a kind of group musk. Sometimes the only thing that can be done is to plant my attention in my solar plexus, “shelter in place” within my atmosphere, and hold the space until the disturbed waves subside. Mysteriously, this will often have a calming presence on the whole group. I have learned through repeated hard knocks that usually this is the ONLY way to shift the energy. Taking the bait when an inflamed emotional or intellectual challenge has been hurled onto the floor is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Only by standing firm in that stillness will the disturbed atmosphere within the group begin to settle.
And this stands to reason, since the disturbance has been created in the first place by the group leader failing to notice when, carried away by thought, emotion, or passion, the group members have been drawn out of their individual atmospheres. The result will always be trouble.
Learning to stay within one’s own atmosphere is not only responsible self-maintenance; it is also foundational group hygiene. We will see more why this is so when we come to the next exercise: The Web.
A Note from Northeast Wisdom:
This series began on March 23, 2020, with the post entitled:
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,” which began with:
“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”
A Postscript to the “Atmosphere” exercise will follow this post, along with Cynthia’s commentaries on the “Web” exercise. A recent mailing to the community, “Going Forward: Time, Tides, Benedict and Zoom” will also be posted here on Northeast Wisdom, so 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. They are 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.”
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.
You may find Paulette’s new CD on her website, Paulette Meier, here.
Images credits, from the top down: Hildegard de Bingen, Blue Christ mandala; Hilma af Klint, Group IV, The Ten Largest, No 9 Old Age, 1907; A Man Enthroned within a Mandorla in a Tree, 1277- 1300; and image courtesy of the website of Joseph Azize