For any of you who are new to the website: Welcome! And welcome to Cynthia Bourgeault’s third commentary on the “Web” exercise; part of an ongoing series of posts that began in late March 2020 in the midst of the global covid-19 pandemic. Gurdjieff called these exercises “Transformed Contemplation,” which Cynthia says is a “contemplation that actually transforms something, both in ourselves and in the world. It is a kind of sacred alchemy, which is to be understood within the context of Gurdjieff’s great vision of ‘reciprocal feeding’: the exchange of physical/energetic substances between the realms which maintains the whole cosmic ecosystem in a state of dynamic equilibrium.” More information and links to the series can be found at the end of this post, where you will also find a place to share your comments and questions.
The Web Exercise is unique in the Gurdjieff repertoire, Azize comments, “in that it requires the members of the group to work at it in conjunction with each other, both when they come together as a group and while they go about their usual [i.e., separated] activities” (p. 200). The exercise thus has a kind of “yin and yang” quality to it, and it is coming to see how these two phases work together that the real learning is to be had.
I don’t want to push the yin/yang metaphor too far, but let’s say that the yang phase corresponds to the time when the group is actually physically working together. Here Gurdjieff suggests that rather than just “disappearing” into one’s private inner work, as happens all too often in spiritual groups, a deliberate effort be made to reach out and establish a direct contact with that common aim that has brought the members together in the first place.
“Direct contact,” of course, means through sensing. In the same way we have already practiced sensing our leg, sensing our head, sensing our atmosphere, we now simply expand the radius of our attention one notch farther and directly sense the atmosphere of the entire group, the atmosphere called into being by the confluence of all those individual aims.
In so doing, a mutual quickening happens. The group atmosphere is consciously activated and synchronized; it comes into coherence and becomes a unified field. As Gurdjieff picturesquely puts it, “The atmosphere is warming for an aspiring with all your being towards a common aim” (p. 200). Then, from the warmth of that activated field, all members can individually draw reinforcement as they work together toward the fulfillment of that common aim. This is the “fineness” I spoke of earlier: the mysterious “something” that sometimes enters and allows a group to work miles above their own heads in a seemingly effortless clarity. I believe it is actually an emergent property of the whole, of the group atmosphere that has been summoned into life.
I repeat here my earlier caveat: that the real benefit conferred through an on-the-ground group is that it ensures the balanced participation of all three centers. As the group circulates through its rota of daily activities—teaching, exercises, practical work, movements, meditation—the sensation of unity gradually grows across a spectrum of activities and becomes deeply seated in the body: as a felt-sense memory, not simply an emotion of closeness or a speculative ideal. In that deeply embodied configuration, it can be more quickly drawn on when the group enters “Phase Two.”
THE YIN PHASE
Once that morphogenetic field has been created, the first surprise in store for the individual members is the discovery that the group atmosphere does not disperse when the group itself physically disperses. The atmosphere remains in place, continuing to infuse and bind its members together—“at the apex”—even though they may be widely scattered geographically. The product of a higher order of causality, it is not limited by the conventions of space and time. Its operational mode is non-localized action. Azize comments: “Movement is effectively instantaneous in time and space, for conscious activity is realized in higher dimensions” (p. 201). There is no need for members to be physically—or even “virtually”—in contact with each other; what is known in one corner of the web is mysteriously available throughout the entire web. Encouragement, insight, solidarity, healing, prophetic initiative, the sudden entry of third force: all of these are knowable and instantly available to all within the “warmed atmosphere” and sheltering intelligence of the web.
Learning how to work with this property comprises the yin phase of this exercise.
As you can now more fully imagine, this is the main reason I have been reluctant to jump whole-hog onto the bandwagon of simply riding out the pandemic lockdown with a proliferation of zoom groups, online study groups, zoom retreats, even zoom liturgies. First of all, it isn’t a priority or in fact even necessary in an authentic wisdom group. Everything you need is there already through the common sustenance flowing to you through the web. Second, this continued allure of the surface pulls you away from the level at which the real juice is flowing, the level at which you have by grace and grit been preparing yourself to work. It substitutes a more superficial level of “staying in touch” and horizontal fellowship for the alchemical fusion of souls that is awaiting you at the depths. A bit like trying to grope your way in the dark with the help of a flashlight when what you really need is to learn how to see in the dark.
The first step is the hardest: lean into the emptiness! Don’t immediately rush to fill up all the available space. Lean into the darkness and let your eyes adjust. Little by little you’ll discover that you’re actually seeing a new landscape, seeing in a slightly different way. The deeper clues of connectedness begin to fill in for you, announcing their presence in small and often surprising ways. As your imaginal vision gains strength, that strength flows back into the web, and the web itself gains strength and presence—presence enough, eventually, to begin to hold within its collective atmosphere healing and even prophetic force.
And yes, I know. Some of you are holding teaching and pastoral posts with commitments that must be upheld and folks out there who are frightened, lonely, and disrupted, longing for connection at any level. Do your work; feed the hungry. But when you are finished what you have been given to do this day, shut down the computer and lean into the emptiness; the atmosphere has your back!
Trust that what we have built on the ground over these past two decades during our yang phase of our Wisdom work, is now there for us all as we collectively enter the yin phase, which may feel like a diminishment but in fact “draws the circle just.”
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,” which refer to the six Gurdjieff exercises that are the first item on Cynthia’s to-do list. She says: The (six) exercises I have recommended are all examples of what Gurdjieff calls “transformed contemplation”—and in direct cognizance of the needs of our present global crisis—we receive something for ourselves, we offer something back. Each of these exercises highlights a slightly different aspect of this and works on a slightly different skill set. The Commentaries are posted as follows:
“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;
The Group Atmosphere: “Web” Exercise, Commentaries Part V, B.
Coming soon, Cynthia’s further Commentaries on the “Web” and the “Four Ideals” exercise.
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: Buk, Korean drum, courtesy wikimedia commons; Group X, No.2, Altarpiece, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Tracey Bashoff, photo of courtesy Laura Ruth; Earthshine Moon, courtesy of NASA; Joseph Azize courtesy of his website.