What Is This Life?

A talk by Kevin Langdon, November 14, 1995

Copyright (c) 1995 by Kevin Langdon.

[There were about twenty people present at this talk.]


Before we start, I want to be sure that no one is confused about why we're here tonight. Many of those here came because they feel the questions posed in the announcement for this talk as serious and real. That's the premise on which this discussion will be based. If you've come for a social event or a bullsession you will be disappointed and may wish to find a more profitable way to spend this evening.

[Pause for questions, people leaving, etc. Everyone stayed.]

I'd like to take care, at the beginning, to try, with all of you, to take a fresh look at the question posed in the title of this talk, without assuming that this is something we already know.

Certain people, who are often called "seekers," sense that there is a mystery at the heart of life which goes far deeper than what don Juan calls our "description of the world." Strangely, every good scientist knows this, while many people who think of themselves as "religious" or "spiritual" have no awareness of this mystery and are not seeking anything beyond material comfort and satisfaction of the cravings of the ego.

It is apparent to every thinking person today that the earth and humanity are facing unprecedented difficulties, difficulties so serious that our very survival is in doubt.

To close our eyes to these difficulties--with population, the environment, poverty, and so on--would be irresponsible. But to assume that we know how to solve these problems, or even that we know where to begin, would be equally irresponsible.

There is something missing when a person, even with the best of intentions, says "I will get involed. I will do something about this or that external problem." Who is this "I"? What are the internal forces at work inside me? What do I want? What am I able to do to get it (if anything)?

If I don't seriously consider these questions, how can I expect to have an effect on big things like the fate of the earth? It's as if I got in my car to go somewhere without taking into account that it's out of gas and the tires and engine are missing.

Bringing the focus to myself, my life, I attempt to take stock of what I see. In certain ways, the state of affairs inside is very similar to the outer crisis. Junk associations encroach more and more on the wild places inside me. My attention is constantly taken by anything noisy, offbeat, ego-threatening, or ego-gratifying. All around me are unfinished projects, unfulfilled intentions, but I seldom notice them. To the extent that I do notice, I rationalize, make excuses, or resolve to do better, but nothing really changes. Life is too big a project for the incomplete being I find myself to be.

Having understood this much many years ago, I began a systematic search for those possessing objective knowledge of the human psyche and its possible development. I did not assume that there were any such people, but I was aware of a certain number of intriguing possibilities--and it's useless to speculate on whether there's a way out when the house is on fire.

Teachers like Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates clearly understood something in this domain, but it was also clear to me that I needed the kind of personal guidance which could only be provided through two-way communication with a live human being.

I began searching for a personal guide or a school where it would be possible to learn about life and myself. I read all kinds of books, spoke with many people, and attended meetings of many different kinds of groups.

I saw very soon that the groups centered around politics, the arts, and social interaction had nothing to offer which corresponded to my search. Certain groups with a religious, philosophical, or psychotherapeutic focus interested me much more, though most groups falling into these categories did not acknowledge the questions that interested me--much less offer any answers--and were of little interest.

A few groups, like Scientology, offered a view of man's nature which included the "problem" I had noticed and methods designed to "solve" it. I was attracted to these groups, but their ideas were not wholly satisfying and I didn't feel "seen" by the people in charge of them. And, to tell the truth, these groups were not very interested in me, either.

In 1966, a member of a discussion group I attended gave a talk on "Gurdjieff's Ideas." To put those who are not familiar with Gurdjieff in context, let me digress to provide a little background.

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born in the 1860's or 1870's (there are different views on the exact date) in Alexandropol, in the region between the Black and Caspian seas, which has been a crossroad of trade routes for thousands of years and where peoples belonging to many different ethnicities, cultures, and religious or spiritual traditions lived side-by-side.

From early childhood, Gurdjieff sought ancient, objective knowledge which he believed had been preserved in esoteric schools having their headquarters in inaccessible regions of central Asia. The word "esoteric," familiar in one meaning--something like "abstruse"--in ordinary language, has an older and more fundamental meaning. Esoteric schools are the means for the direct transmission from teacher to pupil of a knowledge of man's nature, his place in the scheme of things, and the possible transformation of his consciousness and being far more precise and powerful than anything known in the West. The mechanical imitation of the form of such schools is what we call organized religion; over hundreds or thousands of years, it departs greatly from the original teachings, as such horrors as the Inquisition and the Crusades make clear.

According to Gurdjieff, esoteric schools do not exist only for the sake of people who may wish to obtain knowledge and to wake up; they serve a purpose in the economy of the universe; through service to the higher, a human being's higher possibilities can be realized.

Schools have existed for many thousands of years. Works of ancient sacred art created in schools long ago can communicate precise knowledge to one who is prepared to read them. Gurdjieff called works of this type "objective art."

Gurdjieff organized many expeditions to remote areas of Asia and the Middle East and eventually found what he was seeking. He began teaching in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the seond decade of this century, offering a strikingly original formulation of an ancient teaching, corresponding to the psyche of human beings born into modern technical/industrial society.

What I heard at that first lecture--and still more what I learned about Gurdjieff's teaching in conversations and through reading books, most notably In Search of the Miraculous, by P.D. Ouspensky, a prominent pupil of Gurdjieff--showed intimate familiarity with my questions, extended them in ways that I had not thought of, and provided perspectives which allowed me to understand things that had always been mysterious to me.

It would be many years before I could represent to myself that I had some grasp of the overall outline of Gurdjieff's teaching, even on the level of ideas, as he used many methods and gave his teachings in many different forms, which often seemed to contradict one another and always left loose ends which prevented even his closest pupils from definitively categorizing his ideas by means of any formulation.

Certain important ideas shook me immediately. Gurdjieff taught that man lives in a state of hypnotic sleep interrupted by occasional moments of relative wakefulness, that the human psyche is fragmented, a loose association of parts, each with its own inclinations and interests, that "doing" is an illusion, everything just "happens" mechanically, that the contradictions of one's being are systmatically excluded from consciousness, and that man does not understand his own nature, what his experience means, his place in the cosmic scheme, or what is required of him.

Once I had admitted these possibilities, I saw that there was no rational foundation for my belief that I was captain of my fate and master of my soul, nor for many other ideas I had held without examining them all my life. I had impressions of my own helplessness and nothingness--and intimations of the possibility of another state, a state of infinitely greater consciousness, unity, and will, proper to what Gurdjieff called a "man without quotation marks."

I became open to a new direction and joined a group led by a man who had studied with pupils of Gurdjieff. Although I participated in this group earnestly and enthusiastically, despite the very realistic fear that I would be seen through and unmasked, there were many things I did not understand at all. After a time, I realized several things.

One of these things was that everything Gurdjieff said about the psyche of man was true of me, that I was, in sober fact, the stunted and befuddled being Gurdjieff described. Another was that my teacher could see me considerably more clearly than I could see myself. And a third was that, through the active participation of my attention in the conditions created by the teacher and other responsible students, it was more possible for me to observe myself as I am, to remember my existence and wake up more often, to question my automatic thoughts and impulses, and to begin to make an impartial study of my automatism, a necessary prerequisite for any possiblity of control.

It was particularly difficult for me to understand Gurdjieff's idea of centers, semi-independent "brains" corresponding roughly to the reptilian, mammalian, and human levels of brain system development. Gurdjieff refers to these systems as the moving/instinctive, emotional, and intellectual centers, respectively. The moving and instinctive centers are sometimes taken separately; to the latter belong the autonomic system and the senses.

I had no difficulty "getting the idea" of centers, but it was only several years later that I realized, through direct experience, what was possible through work with centers other than the one which tends to predominate in me. I was, perhaps, particularly extremely unbalanced, but one or another center takes the lead in the psychic life of each person, though the person himself may not be aware of this predisposition toward a one-sided view of life.

In addition to its psychological side, and intimately realted to it, Gurdjieff's teaching also includes a vision of the universe and man's place in it. Both man and the universe are considered to be manifestations of the same great Laws, of which the greatest are the Law of Seven, or the Law of Octaves, and the Law of Three. Gurdjieff's cosmological ideas can be approached through his own writings, particularly Beelzebub's Tales, and through P.D. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous.

The Gurdjieff Work takes many forms, but generally includes group exchanges, exercises for the attention and quiet sitting, physical work at a variety of tasks, including carpentry, cooking, cleaning, various crafts, and many other activities, and the dances and exercises known as the Gurdjieff "Movements," which are based on ancient sacred dances practiced in schools belonging to a number of different traditions. Some of the movements show Sufi influence; positions for others are depicted in Egyptian temple paintings.

All these forms are intended to support the inner work of the pupils participating; any external product of these activities is secondary.

What is this inner work? It is a particular sort of effort undertaken in the moment, an effort to be present and not to lose one's attention to distracting associations arising in the centers or to external drama. It is radically simple but it's infernally hard to do, primarily because one always finds oneself oriented toward the distractions, having forgotten oneself.

This work is so subtle that without the support of ideas which come from a very high level and the conditions of work created in groups, it is generally not possible.

Gurdjieff cautioned those interested in his ideas that nothing can be taken on faith, everything must be verified. What I have spoken about is my personal search and my experience in the early stages of involvement in the Gurdjieff Work; it's someone else's report for you. But I hope I've been able to convey something of the flavor of the study I've been engaged in for nearly 30 years. Now I'd like to hear your questions and observations, if any of this interests you.

[Discussion followed, but was not recorded.]


[Gurdjieff's Teaching]