Found on a handwritten note dated 1939, “Make Strong! Not Easy Thing” is at the top of the list of the Gurdjieff exercises that Cynthia specifically mentions in “Pandemic Homework”; the blog post that initiated this series of posts and is her response to these extraordinary times. She begins her commentary on “Make Strong!” with the essential element of the breath. Joseph Azize, author of Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises, quotes Gurdjieff early on about “the food of the air” in his chapter “An Overview of Gurdjieff’s Ideas;” and the breath remains a key factor to the last chapter. More information and how to purchase Azize’s book, as well as the links to the complete series of the Pandemic Homework essays, are available at the end of this post.
As Cynthia wrote, in a response to a student of the exercises: “Yes, breath…so glad you’ve noticed…for breath is the ultimate field of exchange in all realms!”
I was first introduced to this exercise by my dear colleagues Amy Silver and Deborah Rose Longo at the Claymont Society Retreat Center in West Virginia. We worked with it during both sessions of our “Mr. Gurdjieff, meet Mr. Teilhard” seminar last fall, where it definitely raised the collective fineness of the group—“fineness” here being understood as sensitivity, vibrancy, and synergy.)
This exercise is particularly beloved by many Work devotees because it speaks in Gurdjieff’s own voice—it seems to have been copied down essentially verbatim by one of his students, preserving not only his instructions but his broken English and unique pacing and syntax—and thus bears his presence in a particularly personal and sacramental way.
In this exercise we will be working primarily with the breath—though inseparable, of course, from its other two major components, the “I AM,” carried on the breath and three-centered awareness.
For Gurdjieff, breathing was the source of our “second being-food,” which not only sustains life in the planetary body, but also contains—if the breathing is conscious and fully embodied—elements needed for the building up of our subtle inner bodies, the bodies that allow us to begin here and now to perceive and navigate in the invisible higher realms. Without trying to hold the terms too tightly, the gist of the idea is laid out in a couple of key paragraphs in Mr. G’s chapter “Hypnotism” in Beelzebub’s Tales:
The substances of that part of the being-blood designed by Nature for serving the planetary body arise from the transformation of the substances of that planet on which the given being is formed and exists.
But the substances designed for serving the Kesdjan body of the being, which in their totality are called Hanbledzoin, are obtained from the transformation of elements of other planets and of the sun itself of that system where this three-brained being has the place of his arising and existence.
Finally, that part of the being-blood which almost everywhere is called the sacred Aiësakhaldan, and which serves the highest part of the being called the ‘soul,’ derives from the direct emanations of our Most Holy Sun Absolute [i.e., the Source of Everything existing, or God Himself].
After explaining that the substances required for the building up of our planetary body are ingested in the form of food, and for our first higher body (the Kesdjan body) from breathing, Gurdjieff then adds the kicker:
As for the sacred cosmic substances required for the coating of the highest being-body, which they call the ‘soul,’ these substances can be assimilated and correspondingly transformed and coated in them only through the process of what is called Aiëssirittoorassnian-contemplation, actualized in their common presences with the conscious participation of their three independent spiritualized parts [i.e., their three centers]. (pp. 520-21 in Viking Arkana edition; pp. 569-70 in Penguin Arkana 1999)
Aiessirittoorassnian-contemplation is the term that Azize translates as “transformed contemplation.” If you take the “aiëss” cognate seriously, it literally means “contemplation intended to nourish the sacred Aiësakhaldan, which builds up our highest being body, the soul.” More simply put, consciously ingesting those being substances that emerge directly from our Most Holy Sun Absolute; from God.
This is what these contemplative exercises, in toto, are all about. Each is a specimen of Aiessittoorassnian-contemplation. Collectively, they reveal the heart of Gurdjieff’s vision of transformation and the essence of his method for how to get there.
As we work with “Make Strong! Not Easy Thing” it is important to bear in mind that we are actually taking in a substance gratuitously offered to us through the Mercy of God for the building up within us of that “immortal diamond” which allows us to live here and now in those deeper waters that lie beyond death. We could all use a bit more of that substance on our planet just now!
B. “I AM”
The second component in this exercise is the “I AM,” which is placed on the breath: “I” on the in-breath, “AM” on the out-breath.
We have already explored in my last commentary (Connecting the Dots: The ‘Lord Have Mercy’ in Commentaries Part II, C), how “I AM” and “Lord have Mercy” are complementary phrases for Gurdjieff; they invoke and complete one another. “I AM” is not an autonomous assertion of “my” individual being; it arises within a relational field as a gift mysteriously given in each moment. The name of this field is the Mercy, and as I have been pointing out for twenty years now (borrowing an insight from that venerable wise woman Helen Luke), the root of the old Etruscan term mercy—merc—literally means ‘exchange.” It has nothing to do with pity, let alone condescension. It speaks of flow.
“Every breath you take is the breath of God,” the rascally old monk Theophane of Snowmass was fond of saying. We sense this gift freely flowing toward us, and realize that we do not hold ourselves in life; it is renewed in us breath by breath. Try to sense The Mercy as you say the I AM; let them dance in one another. And if you want, ponder this comment which Gurdjieff made:
When I say “I,” something inside me stands up; when I say “AM,” something inside me sits down.
If you recall Olga Louchalova’s insight—in my previous post (Connecting the Dots: The “Lord Have Mercy” in Commentaries Part II, C)—about standing on the threshold “of the innermost mystery of the ontopoietic (self-manifesting) process”: well, there you are!
As your inner sensing gets more subtle, you may actually begin to be directly aware of these higher being substances as they play in the air you take in. Just in the moment before the out-breath draws back into in-breath, you may sense them particularly pungently. But don’t strain to catch it, and above all, don’t mess with your breathing! Don’t pause or add in any artificial hesitations. Gurdjieff was strictly adamant in breathing exercises—that the natural flow of the breathing not be interfered with. It is a very good recommendation for both safety and humility.
MAKE STRONG means to do this exercise in all three centers; if you float through it on autopilot, nothing will have been accomplished. While this exercise does not involve a body rotation, Gurdjieff does call for an initial “fifteen minutes relax”: during this time, it would not be time ill-spent to summon your bodily presence to full engagement. Get yourself alert, collected, and filled with sensation. Then you’ll be good to go.
The task of the intellectual center is to keep the mind from wandering. The emotional center becomes engaged as you realize the sacredness of the being-sustenance you are being offered and feel the Mercy of God as an intimate enfolding tenderness holding you and everything else together.
A final reflection…
Writing at this precise moment, as we enter the eye-of-the-needle of Holy Week engulfed in a global pandemic, I am excruciatingly aware of the corporate and collective dimension of this exercise. When the covid-19 virus kills, it kills by taking away the capacity to draw nourishment from this second being-food, the air. I breathe in solidarity with all those struggling for breath; I feel that the gift of breathing, still by grace unfolding in me, is for their sake as well. At a fundamental level, breath ties us all together. The world is closely in the backdrop as I sit down on my prayer mat these days and endeavor to MAKE STRONG. Indeed, not an easy thing.
One final, totally Gurdjieffian prophetic twist: At the end of that same chapter, “Hypnotism” (pp. 522-3, 1992;pp. 571-2, 1999), he notes that the invitation to transform these higher cosmic substances embedded in the air is not only a sacred opportunity but also a collective human obligation—failure to do so throws the whole system of inter-realmic reciprocal feeding off-kilter. The untransformed “crystallizations” of these higher cosmic substances reign back down on the earth—as viruses!!! He suggests that it was precisely this imbalance that gave rise to the first global pandemic, the Spanish influenza of 1918!!! You can dismiss this as voodoo if you like, but at root, I believe the old sage may have a point. Our postmodern arrogance and skepticism notwithstanding, we humans are indeed very small cogs in a huge and merciful inter-cosmic wheel. As we reawaken reverence and gratitude, courage and strength will surely follow.
A Note from Northeast Wisdom
Cynthia posted this commentary to the Wisdom community originally on Good Friday saying that the “Make Strong! Not Easy Thing” exercise “wants to weave itself through your work on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.” As we move into this liminal time between Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, we have an opportunity to discover, in Cynthia’s words, that “there is an energy in these practices—a direct contact with assistance available to us from beyond simply this realm, and an energy desperately needed in our current planetary crisis.
This series of posts began on March 23, 2020, with the 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.
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” in Commentaries Part II, C. This post, “Make Strong! Not Easy Thing: Part III, A & B,” will be followed by Cynthia’s commentaries on the “Atmosphere” Exercise and the “Web” Exercise, as well as: “Going Forward… A Personal Statement re Time, Tides, Benedict and Zoom.” 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.
Photo images credited from the top: G. I. Gurdjieff, origin unknown; Waterworlds, courtesy of NASA public domain; Sun, NASA public domain; Ascent (aka Liberation) by Agnes Lawrence Pelton, 1946, courtesy of Wikiart; A Storm, by Georgia O’Keefe, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art; Eastertide photo by William Britten courtesy of the good man himself.