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Clear Impressions: Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises Part I

In her March 23, 2020 post “Pandemic Homework,” Cynthia says:

“This is a permanent and collective reset of our collective human conscience and will resolve itself only as a few more of us become willing and able to step up to the plate to live a different reality.”

Cynthia encourages Wisdom devotees round the globe to take four steps in this direction, the first of which is this: “Get Joseph Azize’s new book, Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation, and Exercises (Oxford University Press, 2020).” Then: “Work diligently with some of the Gurdjieff exercises here assembled for the first time.”

How to begin? “Let your own intuition guide you; if an exercise calls you in particular, work with it. The goal is not to knock off all five exercises in one day or even one week! In their original settings, folks would sometimes work with a single exercise for months. I have tried to select a group that together highlight some of the distinctive features of Gurdjieff’s method. Each exercise works with a slightly different skill set, to a slightly different end. Be gentle with yourselves and the exercises, like lectio divina! No need to rush through…enjoy the ride!”  

Clear Impressions is one of those exercises. Her commentary begins:

The Clear Impressions exercise, found in Chapter 16 of Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises (pp. 261-269) is perhaps the most accessible of these five exercises for those of you starting from known reference points in Centering Prayer. It is a quieter, more “passive” (if you want to call it that) kind of Gurdjieffian exercise in which you are not making a strenuous effort with either the imagination or the will, but simply allowing yourself to “take in” what comes into sight—either outwardly or inwardly—without judgment or reactivity. The receptive attitude may feel vaguely familiar—and you even get to keep your eyes closed for five minutes!

But the exercise also catapults you straight to the core of what Gurdjieff means by “transformed contemplation:” the full, vibrant, sensation-based participation of the body in the exercise. Unlike Centering Prayer (and most entry-level meditation practices on all paths, whether “concentrative methods,” “awareness methods,” or “receptive methods”), you are not trying to make the body neutral here; rather, you intentionally engage its full, vibrant, sensation-based participation, both as a way of energizing your own presence and as a way of balancing and grounding your attention so that it is less likely to veer off into mental channels.

In Gurdjieffian teaching, the three “being foods” required for our participation in life are food, air, and impressions. To the extent that we ingest these in a state of conscious presence, i.e., balanced in all three centers, they not only sustain our physical body but begin to crystallize more subtle bodies within us that allow us to participate in those more subtle realms—like the imaginal!—from which deeper wisdom and sustenance are always flowing.

The main roadblock here is our over-reliance on thinking, which usurps three-centered awareness and lowers the level of our being without our even noticing.

This exercise, if you stick with it, will expose that roadblock and help you cut through it.

As you work your way around the body rotation, simultaneously taking in the impressions that present themselves to you, you’ll notice how often your attention defaults to thinking and how the head takes over as the unconscious command center of your being. Try not to wince. For you’ll also taste a whole different quality of vibrancy and awareness when you manage to stay balanced and grounded in sensation. You’ll begin to taste how thinking—no matter how “brilliant” or “inspired”—is always one-dimensional, flat.


Presence is something of an entirely different order.

This exercise is based on the basic Gurdjieffian body rotation I introduced here in Foundational Points for the Five Pandemic Homework Exercises, but adds a new triad: sexual organs and spine; solar plexus; head. It’s quite a wake-up call (for me, anyway) to experience my head THROUGH SENSATION—its weight, balance, buzziness as thoughts fly by—and not get lured back into thinking.

The “eyes closed” part of this exercise is bookended by the “eyes open” parts in which you keep your head moving slightly, not fixed on a point, and allow yourself simply to notice what comes into sight. There’s an almost irresistible temptation to name or inventory. Try not to. You may also notice when something you see hits one of your inner nerve points and starts to throw you into action…like the mug left on the coffee table hissing at you “UNTIDY,” siren-calling you to get up at once and remove it to the sink. Try not to, but do notice the strength of the impulse.

The inner part is the same drill. Eyes closed, but now it is the thoughts that steal in on little cat’s feet. Just let them be, like the mug on the coffee table.

For me, the great experiential learning in this exercise is exactly as Azize’s teacher, George Adie, describes it in #19:

“…and from this we could understand that always we are caught and held, identified with what we see, and that we project what we see. We project what we see, creating for ourselves an unreal, fantastic world of possessions, demands, hates, lusts, irritability, and endless appraisal and criticism. “ (Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises, by Joseph Azize, p263)

Not for the faint of heart. But in that seeing, a shackle snaps loose, and a different kind of energy rushes in. For a few minutes, the world is a distinctly different place.


A Note from Northeast Wisdom:

We are grateful to Joseph Azize for this work, so relevant to these times. Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises is available here on Joseph Azize’s website, for a 30% discount from Oxford University Press. It is also widely available online.

Joseph Azize says that “the purpose of this book…is to introduce Gurdjieff’s inner exercises, which can be called his contemplation-like techniques, to a wider world…to place them within the context of Gurdjieff’s system of ideas and methods”” (p. 81). His aim is to do this “in as clear and precise a format as possible…to expound the nature and basis of Gurdjieff’s contemplative methods, and to explore his sources, to the degree that is possible.” It is an exhaustive study, and brings a rare clarity and accessibility to the practices. Helpful from the start, Azize names Mr.’s G’s “strategy of mixing clarity and confusion,” suggesting that “Gurdjieff attempted to be sufficiently clear for those who were serious to sense that there was something of value in his teaching, but not so clear that this could be appreciated without some personal effort to penetrate to this meaning.” (Introduction pp. 3-6)

“Work diligently,” says Cynthia in her introduction to the Pandemic Homework. Azize’s uniquely thorough research shines a light on the precision throughout Gurdjieff’s exercises, and presents them with utter respect for the personal effort required to penetrate them, and for the master himself. We highly recommend this book.

Cynthia Bourgeault shared her response to the pandemic sweeping the world in a post entitled Pandemic Homework on March 23, 2020. From the Eagle’s Nest (the background to the instructions; Foundational Points for the Five Pandemic Homework Exercises; and Raised Cyber Eye-Brows: More on Internet Technology and the Pandemic Homework followed.

Cynthia starts us off here in Part I of her “Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises” with the Clear Impressions exercise. The Lord Have Mercy exercises are coming next, in Commentaries Part II. Stay tuned!

Comments (13)

  1. This work feels similar to one I created on my own, a hybrid of many. Remembering Merton’s account of gazing at red carnations and The Secret Life of Plants, in the spring and summer, my early morning routine is to sit on my patio and take in my yard and especially the hybrid tea roses right at the patio. My gazing starts with the blooms and then opens peripherally, sensing where in my body I notice a different energy from different visual and audible sensations. I combine this with Sardello’s heartfulness practice that is aware of head to the heart and limbs. I simply let this all flow with the main effort being in sensing, not thinking. I’ve done this inside but spring allows me extra joy outside. Clear Impressions is adding depth and solidity to what I was already doing and muscle memory for life “off the mat.” Thank you for making it available.

  2. Thanks Cynthia! I have been working with this practice since Fr Azize graciously made it available. As you mentioned, the minds persistent cleverness in stealing the energy during the process is astounding! I have found that my experience of this seems to come in the form of tension especially during the open-eyes piece of the exercise. One example of this tension is when the “head” cannot feel the sensation in one of the body parts in the rotation. I sense that this is the head space trying to take the lead and, when I experience this, if I can relax in an engaged trust of rhythm flowing from within the movement itself it seems to manifest as an allowance of gravity that is fully charged with a strange de-associated (for lack of a better word) and enlivened confrontation (I believe Azize uses that word) with HOW I “normally” take in impressions and a transformative sensation. One lesson for me is that “I” can not force a sensation and when “I” try to do so all the centers are not online and integrating the receiving. It seems that Clear impressions rely on integration And almost “trusting” the wholeness that the centers transmit together. I wonder how others are experiencing this practice.

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