from Material for Thought, No. 12, Spring 1990

“The Present Life: A Dialogue with Pauline de Dampierre”   San Francisco, July 1986

Pauline de Dampierre is a leader of the Gurdjieff work in Paris. We began our discussion by asking about the possibility of a spiritual influence entering more deeply into contemporary life.

MFT:   Despite the renewed interest in religion today, we are still faced with increasing levels of violence, greed, neurosis and aimlessness. One thinks of the growing influence of television and the media, disorder in family life, the disorders in the sexual sphere, the pervasive loneliness, and the tragedy of young people and drugs.

PD:   What you said just now makes me think of Meetings with Remarkable Men. Dean Borsh puts to Gurdjieff's father the question: “Where is God just now?” And the answer that Gurdjieff's father gives: “He is in a forest making double ladders and on the tops of them he is fixing happiness, so that individual people and whole nations might ascend and descend.”

MFT:   I don't understand the connection.

PD:   It is to make us aware of a double movement of life in ourselves: the current that carries our usual materialist life and another more conscious life. It points us to the necessity of understanding the relation that we must establish between those two currents, and that it is this relation that constitutes man's proper good. There has always existed the question of those two opposing currents between which we have to establish a harmonious relation within ourselves.

     If we really study the history of civilizations we will see that this vision of the two currents always had to be worked for and kept alive. There were periods when it was strong and radiant and others when it vanished and had to be rediscovered. And so, perhaps, what in fact has been lost today is the exact understanding of the necessity for human beings to establish the right relationship within themselves. In any case, these two processes are always there and their existence sounds a call within us. They sound a call because the materialistic life is not enough for man, and, when he is sincere with himself, he knows this. He feels a certain lack, something is missing. He may try to fill this emptiness by turning more and more toward the material aspect—but the call remains.

     So today Gurdjieff comes to our Western civilization to reanimate this understanding. And for that, he brings a new language. He doesn't speak to us of sin and virtue, or punishment and forgiveness. He speaks to us first of all about our sleep, our mechanicalness, and calls us to awaken and to discover what he calls our being-duty, our obligation to the universe and to our own being.

MFT:   But in many places, particularly in Beelzebub's Tales, Gurdjieff speaks of the deterioration of the psyche of modern man—the deterioration of the impulses of faith, love and hope, and the tendency toward suggestibility which he tells us is especially strong in our contemporary culture. In what way did he hope to reach us, if it is true that our higher qualities are so degenerated?

PD:   There have always been destructive elements in every culture; what is important are those strivings and impulses which, in any given era, are most authentic and most able to support the spiritual search. Perhaps there is less faith today than in the past, but behind all that is wrong in our contemporary world, isn't there perhaps an authentic human need to discover the facts about things? I am certain that in many people of today there exists this wish to know what, in fact, is true, a certain honest pragmatism. And so a teaching that leads modern man toward the inner search must begin from what the individual himself is able honestly and practically to acknowledge as true about himself. And what will such a modern man see, if he sincerely and honestly looks at himself? If he is sincere, what he will see—of course in a way that is far from clear—will be two levels of being within himself: on the one level, his state of contradictions and confusion, and on the other, a finer, purer state which constantly eludes him, but which he feels he must try to be connected to, because it is this that can give his life meaning. Whether or not he starts from the idea of something spiritual does not matter. Sooner or later, he will be led to it.

MFT:   It doesn't seem obvious to me that a man or woman will find that higher level. It is true that anyone who looks honestly at himself will see contradictions, anxiety and confusion. But is it really true that, just by looking, anyone who is sincere will discover that other level as well?

PD:   The full reality of this higher level is obvious, but only when the necessary conditions are present. In this consists the difficulty of the spiritual search. It requires time, longing, eagerness, engagement, perseverance. Maybe in ancient times man felt called to this by faith. Today, Gurdjieff calls us by what we are able to recognize as facts about ourselves as we are, only as glimpses at first, but unmistakable and obvious if we are sincerely motivated and willing to make the necessary efforts.

MFT:   Are you saying that the spiritual part of modern man is his attraction to knowing, his wish to discover the truth, whereas in other cultures it may have been the inclination toward belief or devotion? Could it be that the dominance of scientific knowing in our era points to the spiritual part of modern man that is hidden under all the excesses and distortions of scientism?

PD:   I would say that this wish to discover the truth may be a part of ourselves that can turn toward inner development. You can't say that it is the true spiritual part, any more than you could say that in other cultures the impulse toward belief or unconditional  devotion was of itself necessarily the spiritual part. But it can be turned toward an acknowledgment—a practical acknowledgment, through experience—of a higher dimension. Actually, I would prefer not to use the term “spiritual” for this higher element, because for many people the word “spiritual” has acquired the sense of something airy and not quite real, not quite oneself, not quite in life, not life and not oneself. They don't think of it as something which might be even more concrete and tangible than the materialist life we are familiar with.

MFT:   What I am asking about are the ways in which spiritual influence—or whatever term we decide to use—can actually be introduced into this present culture, especially here in America.

PD:   I won't try to make sweeping judgments about America. In any society some things are more developed and other things are less developed. The impression of America that always stays with me is one of good will. And this good will is something that is close to the inner wish. Or course, it usually gets swallowed by the materialist impulses within ourselves, but it is something close to the inner wish.

    We are speaking of the difficulties of our present culture, but we must remember that the need for a relation to the inner life has always been a very, very difficult human problem. We have forgotten just how difficult it is and how unable in fact we are to have it. We are told we should turn toward this higher kind of life and we always assume that we can, if we really decide to. We imagine that all we have to do is to want it and we can do it. We haven't really learned that it is a deeply hidden treasure and that the finding of it is far, far more difficult than we realize.

    When I was young I was very struck by reading about the lives of saints, who I thought had attained so much, and yet who felt such distress, who felt still so far away from what they were called to. Really, this is at the heart of all traditions—this knowledge that mankind is in a very strange situation, a very dramatic situation, absolutely incapable, and that something has yet to be searched for and found. You hear this note sounded very strongly in the books of Gurdjieff. You don't find that so much in other teachings as they are known to us—that there is a certain knowledge, a real science, and that you can't find that inner life by yourself.

MFT:   One of the sorrows of modern man is that our knowledge does not seem to have the power to make life better in any enduring way. And one thing that I hear you saying is that the whole question of what knowledge is was redefined by Gurdjieff. Knowledge is a force, or has to do with the relation of forces, and not just with words and concepts and theories.

PD:   There's a knowledge in the mind, but there's also a knowledge in the heart and a knowledge in the body. All these have to come together, and that is much more difficult than we know. So, for the present, let us stay with the first thing that Gurdjieff asks of us—something that is always available to us in our daily life, whether in New York, Paris or Mexico. He asks us to try to “remember ourselves,” to awaken to ourselves here in our life as it is now. What does this mean? What is this “self” which it is necessary to remember? What is this “myself” which needs to enter into my life? When someone has really understood this, he discovers that it opens him to what is of utmost importance and value in himself. He feels this possibility as the central point of his life because it relates him to what is deeper and truer in himself and, at the same time, to what is greater than himself and for which he has an authentic and unforced feeling of respect. But he also sees that he is always falling away from that, and this begins to be his question. He feels he should not be out of contact with this quality of being; he begins to see that his whole life is not in accordance with those impressions of his own self. So this is really the starting point. And it is then that the means, the methods, can be brought. The Gurdjieff teaching contains many methods, but they are always related to that beginning. And then, by his own awareness, his own experience, the individual can understand that this new relation he has experienced has to develop. It means he has to let it play its part, he has to let it have a place within himself so that it will develop. And at that point he will find that inevitably it relates him to something even higher, broader. So I would say this is the means—this starting knowledge and the presence of other human beings who have worked in that direction.

MFT:   That opens quite another line—the question of people. What is needed are people with a certain quality—and not only books or art—people who are already developed to a certain extent. I think this is an unaccustomed idea for most of us. Yes, it is necessary to have books and art and symbols that can evoke something, but perhaps the most important thing is for there to be people of a certain quality in the world—so that people, and not only ideas, would be the call. Is that what you are saying?

PD:   Yes. We do not see that what we accept as real with our minds and what we actually live by are usually quite different things. We may try to find truth in books, in philosophy, but the sense of reality only comes to us through what we actually experience in our lives. We are constantly involved in an outer life which, with all its dangers and attractions, draws us, because it gives us the feeling that we exist. We constantly feel compelled to respond to that life and its demands. We may very well admit that another kind of life is possible, that there are other capacities within us. But if we experience no trace of this in the world we actually live in, it will never be real for us. It will simply remain an insubstantial ideal, which we know we should pursue—some day, but not right now.

But if, one day, we find ourselves face to face with someone who is actually connected to these capacities in himself, who is able to let them act in his life—which we can see for ourselves is a powerful life full of meaning—that can have an enormous influence on us because it opens us to something quite different in ourselves, which we have never experienced before and which gives us a deeper sense of our own existence. Then a new kind of hope arises within us. 

MFT:   I once heard it said that no matter what we did in our lives, whether we drove a taxi or wrote books or anything else, that we should do it with the best attention we could. And if we did, some influence could go out to others. I was deeply touched by the idea that if one did his best this would bring a kind of leavening which would allow something real to penetrate into civilization.

PD:  Well, there are always degrees in everything. Maybe, in a way, to do one's best can be a kind of starting point, but the question is: with what part of oneself does one “do one's best”? What if it only serves to make us tense, impatient? What if we are so eager that while sweeping a staircase we were to sweep away anyone who happens to be coming down? What if inwardly we are so proud that we are ready to show the world the right way to do things? Whereas if we can establish that inner relation we spoke of, that in itself will eventually bring it about that everything we do will be of the best.

MFT:   Taking it from another point of view, let me ask you this. As a college teacher, I see that most of my students have been brought up with television as one of the main influences in their lives. And so, while I agree with you about the natural good will of Americans, they have also had the most passive part of their minds strengthened. For example, you see so many people going around with Sony Walkmans, which fill the very bones with loud, sentimental, emotional, or sexual feelings—the completely passive and automatic injection of emotions. Or consider what the computer is doing. For example, the checker in the supermarket now has only to pass the packages over a computerized electric eye. Everything has become more automatized. Even the tiny bit of active attention that used to be required to add up a column of numbers is no longer demanded of people. So there does seem to be a definite movement toward more and more passivity—or would you say this has always been the way of the world?

PD:   Perhaps those who created the customs and ways of life of the distant past understood that people simply felt more in harmony when they obeyed certain rules of conduct, but while it is true that such things as television can destroy a certain sensitivity, even higher forms of cultural expression may not in themselves be as helpful as one thinks. Even the best music of the past, even religious music such as Bach's, with all its splendor, can take us away from contact with that inner presence. So we can't say that this problem is unique to our time. In all periods of history, the problem has been there. But we can say that present-day humanity represents a civilization that has turned very far away from facing that problem. So in that sense it is true that we are in a very dangerous situation. Nevertheless the possibility is still there. It hasn't been destroyed. It is even nearer than we may think.

MFT:   Of course, Gurdjieff does say that things are getting worse in the contemporary culture, but obviously you're saying that this doesn't mean the possibility has been destroyed.

PD:   It is still in people, particularly in young ones, who have usually retained a greater openness and authenticity. But they meet nobody around them who can help them to understand that a truly developed man might be a “real man.” So they are tempted to let these qualities feed their momentary dreams of personal success or of adventurous living or of a society rebuilt to their liking.

    But I can tell you that if they do find someone able to awaken them to this authentic part of themselves and to show them how it has to grow, they give of themselves with enthusiasm. They are eager to find out what is needed for its growth in them and are willing to work for it.

MFT:   There's a tremendous amount of fear and loneliness in the world. Recently, I asked one of my classes at the university what they felt was the chief problem of modern civilization. People said the usual things—technology, the atomic bomb, etc.—but then someone said “loneliness.” I was surprised and asked the class how many of them felt lonely. Everyone raised his hand. The next day I asked my other classes. There were all sort of students, of all ages and backgrounds. again almost everyone said they felt lonely. There was one man from Nigeria, about 35 years old. He said that when he first moved to England he could not understand what people meant by loneliness: “I could never understand because we don't have that word in our language.” And then he said that since coming to America, after living here two years, he now understands what it means. I take this to mean that there's something about our culture that's producing this thing called loneliness, and that maybe this is one sign of how far we have moved away from a more normal kind of social environment that perhaps existed in other cultures.

PD:   I think this must be true of every declining civilization. Because a real and strong culture is one in which the whole society is, to some extent, turned toward this search we are speaking of. People are helped by others in such an environment. We are lonely because we have the impression that we are not fully part of the life around us. But in a strong culture, a culture which nourishes true values, people feel joy in being included with others. They participate together in a life that is broader than themselves. Without that search, and that impression of being nourished within these cultural structures, we are at the mercy of the fact that we cannot bear other people. That's why people are so lonely now. They can't bear what they are obliged to bear. In a stronger culture maybe something melts in the opposition between people, just because one is a little bit open to something different. People can feel that when they work together something begins to melt.

MFT:   This leads me to ask further about the kind of relationship that can exist between the guide and the pupil. There are, of course, many aspects to this question, but I'm only asking about one of them now, and that is what we could call a special kind of respect shown to the pupil by the guide, which results in the creation of exactly the necessary inner and outer conditions which can help the pupil develop. It's not the kind of respect that gratifies the ego—quite the contrary. It's an attention that the guide gives to one's possible self. And this supports the development in the pupil of a special kind of respect for himself, a quality of self-respect that is almost entirely missing in our everyday lives.

PD:   So you see you already have the real answer to the question of loneliness.

MFT:   But it's a great problem of our culture that there is so little real self-esteem, so little real self-respect.  People are desperate. The women's movement is only one example of how contemporary people are desperate for some real sense of inner worth, and of how they try to find it in their careers or in art or in social recognition. I'm particularly interested in how you see the distress that so many women are experiencing around this question of self-respect. Gurdjieff says that men and women have equal possibilities in the search, but would you say that men and women have different kinds of responsibilities, different roles to play! Or are things equal in all senses?

PD:   It's true that women are not given a real place, but is it not because there is no one to give them a place? Last year, in the lobby of an international hotel, I saw a couple from the Middle East who reminded me of how Mr. Gurdjieff spoke about the good relationship between men and women in the Orient. I didn't really believe what he said; I suspected it wasn't quite as nice as he represented it to be. But as I was looking at this couple I was very struck. She seemed quite intelligent, though not very impressive outwardly. At first it seemed to me as though she were enclosed in a very narrow kind of intimacy that she didn't want to look out of. Then I saw her husband speak to her with such respect, with such an inclination to know what she was thinking, that I was very touched. There was something so strong between them, and I sensed it was something quite special.

    Basically, men and women have the same problem: they both need that inner relation of which we have spoken. If a woman maintains her attention on what she is doing while placing all her confidence in that inner relation, it will guide her. It will bring her a clarity of vision, a true contact with reality. She will act as a woman and her action will have an uncontested authority.

    This leads me to something else I've been thinking—about aging. It seems to be the general attitude now that people who are old have less importance; they have no power, they are less interesting. But if there has been a search in an aging person's life, we will feel that something we need, something that is higher than we are, has been served. Then, even if that person, growing older, diminishes in capacity and is less able to do things, still we see how he or she attracts a great deal of respect. Without that, I can't see how one could attract any real respect.

MFT:   That relates not only to the question of aging, but takes us back to the original question of what is an influence. We know that people who have really worked on themselves have an action on others simply by their presence. Respect is immediately given them, though people may not know why. Obviously, most older people in our society have not been called to work on themselves as the main aim of their lives, and so there is something very difficult about how we try to force children or ourselves to, as we say, “respect their elders.” It happened that I loved my grandparents, but if you are a child and you do not really love your grandparents and you are ordered to have respect for them, then it's very much like what Gurdjieff says about the bad education children get—clicking the heels and all that. There can be nothing organic in that kind of respect.

PD:   If in a civilization growing old does not attract respect, it means that in that civilization life as such means nothing. If life is only interesting when I have physical possibilities, then life has no intrinsic value. This too is a sign of a declining civilization. It's a sign that in people, and in the culture as a whole, an authentic search is not there and people have nothing real in which to place their faith and hope. One feels in such older people that, as their automatism is less and less under their control, there's nothing behind it. When you feel there is something behind it you can go on feeling respect even if the outward automatism, even the mind, is not in good order.

    Now, what is it in another person that inspires real respect? In each of us there is some automatism, a sort of persistent inner nervousness, a kind of “quivering.” And, without knowing it, we recoil from other people who have the same thing. But we are very attracted when we find someone who has less of this, or none at all—someone very calm, very relaxed and open to life. When we are with someone like that it helps us to feel that possibility in ourselves. That's why we have respect. And the reason we do not inspire real respect ourselves is because we are a prisoner of that “quivering.” But when we see someone who is not a prisoner of that, who has unity, we wish to be the same.

MFT:   I'd like to ask another kind of question—about one's career or job in life. I believe Gurdjieff once warned someone about the problem of having a career. Perhaps what he meant is that a career, in the sense of a full commitment to some role in life, can take too much of your attention and energy.

PD:   First of all, Gurdjieff said that we have to pay our debt to nature, to raise, in our turn, other lives and prepare them for “adult age.” Saying this, he established the necessary standard of life for us. Not a “high” standard, but a solid, responsible one.

    If a man is not strong enough to try as best he can to face his ordinary life, he runs the risk of having illusions about himself—of believing, for example, that he doesn't like money and prefers to live as a free spirit because of his ideals. And he believes this because he doesn't know himself. He refuses to be measured by a more involved life.

    Daily life faces us with very simple, obvious facts. If someone is overwhelmed by any new difficulty, if any new requirements make him tired or negative, he won't do well in any aspect of his life. If he is not well enough regarded he will have to spend much more strength and effort than another to obtain what he wants. If he is unable to give his children what they see around them they will feel neglected and will resent his search.

    What is truly useful is to be able to accept that one's limitations in outer life can act as a hindrance to engaging in the search. It's very hard to accept this, but I can tell you that this acceptance can give an extraordinary impulse for development to both the inner and the outer life.

    As to the question of what kind of work to choose, there is no ready-made answer. It depends. A person should examine the situation and consider why he might decide to do this or that. But on the whole it can be said that we need a relationship with the outer world. We need to find something to do that we care about. We need to be appreciated, we need to feel useful, to feel that what we do has a value.

    It is not an easy challenge in a society which is not made for this inner work, which doesn't understand anything about it, where people spend all their energy on their careers. So how to manage?

    Those who really accept the challenge will have to find a way to their own equilibrium. They will have to discover how to obtain what they want and to keep enough time and energy and emotional freedom for their inner search. They will become wiser, more apt. And they will develop abilities which have been lying dormant in them.

    But an individual who seeks to develop his life capacities must be sure to keep in his mind and in his feelings the reason for which he is doing this. He must not allow himself to be devoured by his efforts to improve his outer life. In this, he will also be better able to understand his fellow human beings, because he himself will always be feeling tempted by life, tempted to go further and further in that direction. And if he goes too far, life will swallow him up, because life is like that. It is always pressing us to give more to it.

    In anything we do, we must never forget our aim, our central, essential value: to return again and again to this inner presence which opens us to a broader dimension.

    We see from all we have said that this work has to do with living, an art of living with oneself, with opposite tendencies—those of our automatism and those which will open us to another dimension and create a harmony, a balance, and a better functioning of the whole of our nature.

    And, to answer from another point of view, we can say that our contemporary world needs those men and women who are engaged in the society to take the measure of what their lives are and of what their lives could be.

MFT:   The traditions tell us that man is a slave to the body, but Gurdjieff has introduced the term “automatism,” which is not part of the language of the ancient traditions. Why do we not simply say that man is lost in the body? Why do we use the word “automatism”?

PD:   I'm very glad you put this question. What I have seen for myself is that there are two kinds of automatism in us.

    In conditions where a better inner contact has been reached, where one approaches a certain degree of unity, how does it happen that at moments, while the attention is kept on the necessity of staying with oneself, suddenly the body becomes extraordinarily supple and light, permeated by a very fine vibration? By what miracle does it then do exactly what is required of it in the most subtle, sensitive way, supporting and reinforcing the state of presence, rather than resisting it? As though it were at last free to receive the energy necessary for the finer automatism to work in harmony with the spiritual aspect of man.

    But when the fundamental human question of myself is no longer there, my force is immediately invested in unconscious movements, unconscious thoughts, unconscious tensions. I fall asleep: I believe that I am thinking, that I have desires, but the truth of the matter is that I am a slave of my desires, my tensions, and associative thoughts, which drain all my attention and govern my behavior.

    It is only this latter state which Mr. Gurdjieff calls automatism, a state dominated by the heaviest and most inert psychic forces. In this situation, the physical body rules us and it is in this sense that we are slaves of the state of the body—much more so than when we are simply satisfying its natural and more balanced needs.

    To free oneself from this automatism, to open oneself to the action of this higher quality of life, is our essential duty.

MFT:   At the same time, someone hearing what you say may worry that it could undermine everyday moral obligations, the obligations one has just be being part of society. As we know, Gurdjieff spoke harshly about conventional morality; he said it was a form of hypnosis and wrong education. Can you say a little more about the relation between this organic sense of duty to one's presence and the conventional societal obligations which are part of everyone's life and upbringing?

PD:   First of all, we need to realize that a person who begins to approach the reality of presence in himself soon sees that it is very weak, very fragile and transitory, and he sees that the part of himself that would choose to go against the conventional morality does not come from that finer part at all. That is why Gurdjieff said, “Don't change anything.”

    The conventional morality is part of a certain functioning in myself. I mustn't destroy it because I have nothing sure to put in its place. So I will obey it. But if I am present, I will see what is automatic in my obedience and what is helpful for my search. I will discover that what supports a better relationship within myself also creates a better relationship to my neighbor. For example, I say that I must not lie. I have been entrusted with this idea. I must not lie. And, at the same time, I feel that I'm a prisoner of that idea. When I'm speaking to someone, either I lie or I don't lie, but in either case I have no real sensitivity toward the person in front of me because I am engulfed in ideas of what I should or shouldn't do. But if I'm present, I will be more sensitive to him and find a way that is not a lie and that responds much better to what he is really asking for.

MFT:   I think this is an important point that answers people who label the inner search as narcissistic and helps us to understand that the work of self-development by no means lessens man's obligation to his neighbor. At the same time, one has to say that the thing I am responsible to first of all is this presence to myself. In the Old Testament, for example, man is commanded first of all to love God; only after that is he commanded to care for his neighbor.

PD:   Whoever is open to pure love, how could he not care for his neighbor? It can't exist without at the same time evoking love for the other, for the life around us.

    But that love is an attribute of the real self, so deeply buried in us that we have forgotten it.

    We have to start from where we are and what we are. Before even thinking of such an achievement, we have, as Mr. Gurdjieff said so often, “to prepare the field.” The very first step is to try to remember ourselves, to be present to ourselves.

    When we try, we begin first of all to see our situation. We see we are a play of forces. We see how weak we are. But when a higher state of being begins to appear within ourselves, it brings sensitivity, it brings life. By itself, it brings us to a feeling for life, wherever it is. It brings a feeling for life in the other, because it is the same as our own.

    Those states are rare, fragile. They vanish and again we are shut away from that particular feeling for the life around us. We may have ideas about how we ought to be, we may have a personal attraction for this or that person, and so we try to be kind. And of course we must follow that impulse. It is the same problem as with morality. We would have nothing better to put in its place. But we become aware of how cheap is our so-called kindness, how superficial it is, how little it requires of us. An uneasiness arises. Why am I so unable to give myself to that openness to my neighbor? The presence to the other becomes a help for me to remember my aim. A relation of a very rare quality appears between us.

    And so, as we said earlier, the essential question appears: what does it actually mean, from the state of being in which I am, to try to be present? What is that “myself” which I forget and which I have to remember? It cannot be explained just by ideas and books. It needs to be practiced.

    We need, first of all, to establish a better harmony between our bodies, our minds, and our feelings. Those who have searched in this way will tell you that it has brought them to experience in themselves moments of a new state, bringing with it qualities which they recognize as belonging to their true nature: peace, sincerity, and a sustained wish for a better way of living. At the same time, they feel that this state is only the first opening toward a much deeper and greater good.

    As for evil, what is it really? Obviously, it is those countless factors which prevent us from serving the good, the first one being our complete ignorance of what in fact we are.

    You see, we have returned to the question we began with.

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