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Preliminary Remarks: The “Four Ideals” Exercise, Part VI, A

Cynthia’s opening remarks at her first on the ground retreat in the United States since the issuance of the pandemic stay at home guidelines, took place last Sunday, August 17 2020, in Valle Crucis, North Carolina. She referred to the work of individuals and small groups, across the country and world-wide, who are taking up these Gurdjieff exercises, emphasizing that she felt the embodied heft of their contribution, and the gift of these practices to bear the fruits of the spirit. Cynthia encourages each of us to take our own steps into these exercises gently—and seriously—listening within for the preparation and timing that serves us. More specifics follow below!

The Four Ideals is the last exercise in the Pandemic Homework series; links to Cynthia’s commentaries on the other exercises and to the book can be found at the end of this post. We welcome your voice in the comments section below. Now, let’s hear what she has to say as she introduces the Four Ideals exercise:

The Four Ideals Exercise is complex and demanding. It will draw on all the practices you’ve been working with in the exercises to date, then up the ante still another notch. Of all the Gurdjieff exercises, it is the most cosmic in scope and the most unabashedly mystical in tone. In the Bennett line of the Work students were not even allowed to embark on it before spending a year in specifically designed preparatory practices. While the Bennett version of this exercise is somewhat more technical than the original Gurdjieffversion we’ll be considering here, one is nonetheless well advised to approach this exercise in a state of inner preparedness and with all due respect. The terrain we will be traversing here is numinous and powerful.

My purpose through previous posts, in what may have seemed to you all like a lengthy digression on the Web atmosphere and practice, was really to open up some sense of the vastness of this terrain, both in the enormity of its scale and in the profundity of its demand. The Four Ideals exercise really unfolds against the backdrop of the entire Megalocosmos, as Gurdjieff calls it —i.e., embracing the full wingspan of The Ray of Creation in the dance of reciprocal giving and receiving that maintains the entire created order in a dynamic equilibrium. Both horizontal and vertical exchange are fully in play here, and if your heart is strong enough to take it, and your presence deep enough to hold it, you can indeed begin to sense yourself as a living particle of this infinite cosmic dance. You begin to taste the true scale of things—and to grasp, in those immortal words of St Paul, “how wide and long and deep and high” is the Mercy flowing through these ancient cosmic ley lines.

The Four Ideals exercise will call specifically on four skills you’ve learned in our earlier exercises:

  1. The four-limb body rotation (“Clear Impressions,” “Lord have Mercy”), together with spinal extension (“Clear Impressions”)
  2. The “I AM,” placed on the breath (“Make Strong”)
  3. The retention during the outbreath of some finer particulate of “being food” carried in the air (“Make Strong”)
  4. The capacity to “represent” a notion to yourself (“Make Strong,” “Atmosphere,” “Web”)

In addition, you will find it helpful to call upon the following more general capacities, all of them hopefully will be well imprinted through your work with the previous five exercises:

  1. The sensation of full, three-centered participation—“With all three centers, do!”
  2. Some feeling for the complementarity (i.e., symbiotic unity) of “I AM” and “Lord have Mercy”
  3. A visceral sense of what it means to remain within your atmosphere
  4. Some feeling for how individual atmospheres can be joined “at the apex,” to form a web, through which energy and assistance flows.
  5. A direct sensation of what it means to “…free my head. Free it from words;” to make it remain in the body.

Before plunging into the Four Ideals exercise, my recommendation would be that you take some time revisiting each of the earlier exercises, reviewing these individual components with the awareness that they are about to be synthesized in a whole new way. Practice the skills that come hard; luxuriate in the ones that come easily. Prepare yourself both inwardly and outwardly for the task you are about to take on.

And remember, TAKE YOUR TIME! There is no rush to get through these exercises; any impression that this is some sort of an e-course with a curriculum and timeline is simply a trick of the presentational format. In the original circumstances—still the normative circumstances within properly constituted Fourth Way groups—students would regularly work for months on a single exercise, each pass-through taking them deeper and deeper into the hidden treasures to be revealed there. A new exercise would be introduced only as the students were ready, and according to no pre-determined order or timeline other than the readiness itself. Many of these exercises were not even originally intended for group use at all; they were “subjective,” in Gurdjieff’s words—individually created or customized for a specific recipient to meet a specific developmental need. Just as in lectio divina, if you rush through it, you’ve missed the whole point.

This is my first post in the series of essays on the Four Ideals exercise— intended, as always, only to get you launched. The rest is up to you, your fellow travelers on this journey, and hopefully some assistance flowing to us from those “Four Ideals” themselves. In any case, the commentaries will be here for you when you are ready, and there is no race course or time clock.

Like the Mad Hatter, “how you get there is where you’ll arrive.”

A Note from Northeast Wisdom

This is the first of seven commentaries on the Four Ideals exercise, part of the Pandemic Homework series that Cynthia initiated in March 2020. Look for the second post on the Four Ideals later this week on the home page blog.

This week in late August 2020, Cynthia is introducing these exercises to a small group gathered in North Carolina at Valle Crucis, while over one hundred participate in the week-long retreat online. Cynthia refers in the commentary above to the five other exercises in the series; you will find the first post for each exercise here: Clear Impressions; Lord Have Mercy; Make Strong! Not Easy Thing; Atmosphere; and the Web practice. Happy travels!

These practices may all be found in Joseph Azize’s book: Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises which 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.


Image credits from the top: “Christ in Silence” painting by Odilon Redon, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; Image of sculpted hands in lap courtesy of pikist; and “Boat” painting by Adriano de Sousa Lopes, image courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simoes.

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