In this ongoing series of posts, Cynthia has taken a deep dive into the underlying tenets of her March 2020 letter to the community entitled Pandemic Homework. The first item on the emergent to-do list was to begin to work with specific Gurdjieff practices—exercises which she has written about in her Commentaries on the Elements of the Exercises. This post is the second of a six-part essay on the fifth practice, called the “Web” exercise. You will find links to previous posts in the series at the bottom of the essay, along with a link to the book of exercises. We invite you to share your comments below as well.
Cynthia continues here with the second part of her Commentary on the “Web” exercise:
Just as there is an individual atmosphere, so there is also a group atmosphere, formed from the aggregation of individual atmospheres. Gurdjieff picturesquely calls it a web. When this web is clear and conscious, it can become a tremendous source of support and transformation, both for its individual group members and for larger planetary purposes.
Gurdjieff may never have heard those contemporary buzzwords, “quantum entanglement” and “non-localized action,” but in this exercise—which in my opinion is less an exercise than an extended reflection—he demonstrates a precocious awareness of both these dimensions of nonlinear causality. In this exercise he sets before us the dazzling possibility that a group which has become capable of navigating consciously in these deeper waters can become a profound force for good.
Don’t pass through the metaphor of the web too quickly, taking it simply as a synonym for a network. When you look more closely, you see that Gurdjieff is actually talking about a substance—“a material” as he calls it—manifested in and through that web, which actually creates the web in the first place. It’s this substance we want to keep our eyes on. I have tried to call your attention to it in a few of my earlier posts.
The substance in question is this mysterious quality of “fineness,” of a higher order of synergy, understanding, clarity, that sometimes flows through a group and lifts it into a whole new realm of expressivity—as if the group is, with one body and soul, collectively “in the flow.” We experience it usually as “oneness” and tend to process it as a feeling. What is actually going on, however, is that we are collectively tasting a substance of an infinitely more delicate, crystalline nature, a substance perhaps bearing the fragrance of that “sacred aiësakhaldan” I referred to in my commentary on the “Make Strong” exercise, that direct nurturance emanating from our Most Holy Sun Absolute. It takes a prepared heart and a prepared nervous system to be able to partake directly of food of this subtlety. This is true both for the individual and for the group. But when that preparation has been carefully made, miracles can happen.
The quantum entanglement extends in two directions: between the group and its individual members, and between the group atmosphere and the planetary atmosphere. In this and the next post I will be focusing on the first of these aspects; then I will turn to Gurdjieff’s astounding assertion that through the “warming” produced within the web: “You can have a reciprocal action on a whole city.”
THE CONSCIOUS WORK GROUP
We’re not talking about any old group here, of course. By “group” (or “brotherhood,” as he also calls it here) Gurdjieff means an intentional work group, bound together by a common aim and a willingness to abide by the protocols of conscious labor and intentional suffering. If the atmosphere of the group is clear and consciously tended, and if the desire to “go towards the aim,” as Gurdjieff puts it, is strong enough, then the group can accomplish collectively—through its melded atmosphere—a transformation unavailable to an individual working alone.
The stipulations are clear, however. The first is that the group must be held together at the apex (in Azize’s perceptive comment) by their “shared conscious aim.” Held together from their Omega Point, as Teilhard might say. No lesser motivation will do. A conscious work group is not for support, fellowship, or a feeling of belonging. None of these proximate aims, no matter how laudable in their own right, are strong enough to endure the ravages when the shadow side starts to surface. Only the true north of the common aim will guide the seekers across the darkened waters.
The second stipulation is that this brotherhood must truly be “one for all, all for one.” The terms for arriving at the destination are that all arrive together; all are bound in a covenant of mutual becoming. This is a core theme for Gurdjieff. You will see it resonating very strongly as well in his fifth Obligolnian striving:
The striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred ‘Martfotai,’ that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.
(Beelzebub’s Tales, 1992 Arkana ed., p. 352; 1999 Arkana ed., p. 386)
It is to my mind no coincidence that exactly these same two stipulations form the twin pillars of The Rule of St. Benedict, which has guided Christian seekers for some 1500 years now, the longest continuously surviving conscious fellowship in the Christian West. The sense of a common aim in this “school for the Lord’s service” pervades the entire Rule. Perhaps less well known is the sublime reflection in chapter 72 (the next-to-the-last) on “The Good Zeal of Monks”:
This, then, is the good zeal that monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else….
It’s also much the same, incidentally, in a good choir—which in my own experience has actually been the closest approximation of the ideal Gurdjieff is laying before us here—though of course with a more limited aim. No good choir forms to offer fellowship to its members. The choristers are there for one purpose only: to collectively serve the music, to give it voice and unlock its beauty. Everybody yearns to feast on this beauty, and they can only recognize their aim collectively. Sometimes choir members do not like each other; they wince at each other’s mannerisms and bear each other’s infirmities through gritted teeth. But in order to make the music happiness they must defer to each other and “earnestly compete in obedience to one another.” A choir of individual prima donnas will never deliver the music. They cannot form a coherent atmosphere.
What can be accomplished when a group atmosphere is woven on the loom of these two great stipulations? Plenty. We’ll consider some of the practical implications in my next post.
A Note from Northeast Wisdom
Cynthia has been sharing her response to the pandemic sweeping the world with an on-going series of posts on the Northeast Wisdom website that began on March 23, 2020. That initial post, Pandemic Homework, outlined recommended practices that people could take themselves in response, and was followed by:
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; and
Going Forward: Time, Tides, Benedict & Zoom.
The Pandemic Homework posts include a series of “Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises”:
“Clear Impressions”: Commentaries Part I;
“Lord Have Mercy”: Commentaries Part II, A & B;
Connecting the Dots: The “Lord Have Mercy” in Commentaries Part II, C;
“Make Strong! Not Easy Thing: Commentaries Part III, A & B;
“Atmosphere”: Commentaries Part IV, A;
Afterword to “Atmosphere”: Commentaries Part IV, B;
Preliminary Remark, the “Web” Exercise: Commentaries Part V, A.
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.
Image credits from the top: Body of Water, image courtesy of Fernando Jorge, unsplash; Path of Light through Honey, courtesy of Nandhinikandhasamy, wikimedia commons; Image courtesy of the Young People’s Chorus of NYC website; Holy Week image courtesy of William Britten.