This essay looks at the nature of the exercises developed and taught by John Bennett. In his final work of running the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne House, he taught almost a hundred exercises. They represent the understanding he had about human reality. At the same time, they were not indoctrination but methods of exploration. We think it worthwhile looking into the nature of these exercises and reflecting on them, as well as practising them. Indeed, we would claim that these two approaches are not as separate as it might first seem.
As Bennett went on developing from what he knew, so have we. We believe that his exercises represent a wonderful resource and need to be better understood. But, also, that we can explore new ways of conducting them. One of Bennett's many students went on to call such sessions 'lab', short for 'laboratory', which excellently makes the point that they are experimental in character. Bennett represented a way of approach that was capable of embracing experiment and research, minimising doctrine and attending to what we 'do'. This kind of method is still not widely understood. It has shadow-like forms in such things as hermeneutics and phenomenology generally, which usually lack a dimension of 'inner work' and often end up concerned only with literature.
We ourselves have made a departure from previous method of inner exercises in what we call 'experienting'. This opens towards dialogue and phenomenology.
At the same time, the inner exercises represent a major corpus of techniques that should be looked at in company with many others, such as is described in the essay on 'Event Design'.
Work on the Stuff of Experience
Inner exercises are those exercises that work on the 'stuff' of experience itself. The idea of a stuff is a crude one but suffices to draw attention to fact that attention is not directed to what our experience is about but to what it is. It inevitably leads us into metaphysics and psychology and questions of what constitutes direct experience in supposed contrast with experience interpreted according to a model. In practice, it may be difficult to distinguish between what is direct and what mediated by a concept. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, it would appear that our 'minds' tend to be occupied by thoughts, etc. that seem to lead us out of ourselves in distraction; and, secondly, that it would also appear that whatever we contemplate we do so through some kind of image or re-presentation. To elude the constraints of these two factors proves in practice to be difficult and is felt to be difficult.
The difficulty of accessing 'direct experience' has two sides. On the one side, where it is difficult and on the other side, where it is accomplished. This is an important concept or feeling, because it implies that we are of 'two minds', which may be simplistically described as 'distracted' and 'whole', or some equivalents of these. The idea of there being a side of ourselves in which we are whole is to be found throughout metaphysical systems as a belief or postulate. At the same time, there are reports from those we call 'mystics' of having in fact realised such a wholeness. We are encouraged, therefore, to aim for such a realisation in ourselves.
The question of how to attain some kind of wholeness is inextricably mixed with the question of what it is. It might well be, then, that insights garnered into what it is can serve to generate ways of attaining it. We say this with no special regard to what 'attaining' means and do not distinguish between ways based on struggle and ways based on attainment as an unmerited 'gift'. It is also important to emphasise that our distinction between distraction and wholeness is only provisional, because what these might mean is always changed when any realisation comes.
Basis of the Exercises
We now turn to the corpus of exercises developed by John Bennett from his experiences with Gurdjieff and studies of many traditions. The history of this development is not adequately known, partly because the exact nature of the exercises taught by Gurdjieff is not clearly known and partly because we have no adequate documentation from Bennett himself.
The contribution from Gurdjieff is obviously major. Part of this contribution is certainly the basic model of a human being as composed of 'four personalities', variously expressed, but often as:
1. Sensory motor. In modern terms, also psychosomatic.
2. Emotional. In modern terms, this would include affect.
3. Intellectual. Included in this would be the power of visualisation.
4. Will or 'I'. This is rather like pure intent.
Each of these can be seen and experienced on many levels and they are not single-valued functions. A major underlying theme of exercises based on these four is that 'I' should not be identified with any of the three modes of sensation, feeling or thought. It is by this non-identification that it becomes possible for the three to combine together or blend to form a vehicle for the 'I'. At the same time, this conception allows for those views which consider the 'I' to be void. In Bennett's understanding, both are accommodated because he regarded will as non existent but real. As a metaphysical note, we can remark that such a conception also fits David Bohm's concept of 'active information' - where the word 'information' is taken to mean 'putting the form in' - in which the most active information can be regarded as the Void.
It is by working on the three components separately and together that a person can come to the point at which he or she can make an act of will. Such an act of will is then in a context where there is some kind of consciousness or 'knowing' of what is being done, even though, as we shall see, that the act itself is 'beyond consciousness'. Bennett would perhaps say that there are acts of will all the time but they are unconscious. Gurdjieff himself expressed similar ideas.
To make another crude but useful distinction: on the one hand we have a realm where 'we' are doing something because we are working with the stuff of experience; and, on the other, there is a realm where something of a different order takes place.
To make sense of this distinction, it is useful to refer to the Indian classic the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, which Bennett himself often referred to explain the structure of the exercises he taught. This important work begins by saying that 'Yoga is constraint on the fluctuations of the mind stuff'. In other words, first stop being distracted. It goes on to consider various modes of 'concentration' or single-mindedness in which, we might suppose, some kind of intentional organisation of the stuff of experience becomes possible. The upshot of all this was, however, to arrive at a state of wholeness. Patanjali describes three stages in the process:
1. Dharana. This can be understood as 'preparation'. It is to induce the right disposition. For example, we have to want the process to take place and have a sincere wish for it. Such things as devotional literature, portraits of saints, good surroundings, etc. may be conducive. There is also, as we shall see, having the body in a conducive state.
2. Dhyana. This is usually translated as 'meditation' but essentially means concentration on one thing. Such a terse phrase cannot do justice to the immense diversity in ways of concentration. It is where the subject is most active.
3. Samadhi. Technically, samadhi is where subject and object are not distinct. This is a statement about 'direct experience'. In the literature, the term might be ascribed to a state of 'swooning' or unconsciousness, or to a state of 'seeing' etc. This is beyond the active power of the subject.
The Patanjali text came from the same school as the Samkhya system, which system includes a three-fold model of nature as composed of tamas, rajas and sattvas. Stage one in Patanjali yoga is awakening from the inertia of tamas, which is both apathy and distraction. Stage two is the intensification of rajas, which is force and energy. Stage three is sattvic, the 'translucent' state through which reality shines.
In Bennett's exercises, there were such three stages, which we can think of as: preparation, focus and realisation. He always insisted that the realisation would come of itself and could not be made to happen. One way of understanding this is to refer briefly to the model of will that he took from Gurdjieff. In this model, will is a combination of three kinds of impulse: negative, positive and neutralising; or receptive, affirmative and reconciling. These correspond to the tamas, rajas and sattvas of Samkhya. The three stages of the process, then, followed the sequence of negative, positive and neutralising. One of Bennett's students liked to start an exercise with the injunction "accept to be here". This meant that we should address the negativity, denial, inertia, torpor first, before attempting anything further. The second stage cultivates the 'fire' in us and usually concerns an intensification of experience. Depending on time, people, place and circumstances, this intensity can become blissful or all-commanding and it is then difficult for people to break off the exercise and return to the normal state. However, Bennett always gently insisted that we needed to manage the transition back to the daily routine with intelligence.
The third stage is not really a stage at all, though it makes sense to have it coming after the other two. This is because it appears to have a spontaneous character. Further, Bennett was always keen to point out that what he called an 'hiatus' might occur, in which we appear to have lost track entirely, blanked out, or otherwise have 'gone missing'. Such an hiatus he tended to identify with samadhi. It might take place at any time, though the tendency was for it to take place at the end of the process. The metaphysical reason given for identifying such an hiatus with samadhi was that it represented entering a state of consciousness that is felt or registered by the subject as unconsciousness. This ambiguity concerning 'consciousness' is also to be found in Gurdjieff's writings where, for example, he claims that the 'true consciousness' of a human being is to be found in what we call the 'subconscious'.
A Case Study
To further our explanations, we will consider the case of a particular exercise called 'The Exercise of the Permanent Unmoveable Point'. But first a few words about our presentation of this exercise. Many insist, and with considerable merit to their argument, that giving such exercises to the public is not a desirable thing. In our culture, we are indoctrinated to expect everything that can be known to be written down and shared in public. However, in such matters as these exercises, the fact is that the 'learning' of them has nearly always been done by sitting down with someone familiar with and experienced in such exercises and being 'taken through' it. It is believed that the actual physical presence of the experienced person is a necessary condition for learning the exercise correctly. This argument has considerable cogency. We do accept that the physical presence of someone has an effect on many levels, and very little of this can be transmitted through the bare medium of mere words. There is also the consideration that personal contact enables the student to ask questions and receive further guidance in interpreting what he or she experiences, particularly if there is some kind of disturbance.
Caution is therefore needed. Our presentation of the exercise here is for the purpose of understanding something of the way in which such exercises are constructed. The needed facilitation process is something else. It is important that we have a chance to talk about what we experience through an exercise, even though this is not easy because when we talk about it we are in a different state to when we are actually doing it. Just reading this description will not do the exercise for you.
We will go through the various steps. It is important to note that each step, however small, represents a whole domain of work and investigation in its own right.
It is taken for granted here that one has already sat down in a good posture that can be sustained for up to an hour without fidgeting or making it painful. There are all kinds of medical and therapeutic considerations that can come in about this, and often people are encouraged to work on posture and good balance of the body through such means as the Alexander technique.
1. Relaxation. The process of relaxation can be done in great detail or very quickly. It has many levels. It can be done through elaborate techniques or simply by saying to oneself 'relax now, please'. One physical result of it is to increase the blood flow through the muscles, conducive to the next step. This is an essential part of the 'dharana' of the exercise. It can be said to turn the 'denial' of the body into receptivity.
2. Sensation. The idea of a 'sensation energy' is still hardly acknowledged outside of the Gurdjieff tradition. Many people when they first learn of it are astonished at the thought of actually experiencing the body other than in terms of pleasure or pain. Sensation is a cornerstone of Gurdjieff's practical techniques, especially of the Movements. The instruction is to 'fill' the body with sensation. This is the induction of a bodily type of awareness that is distinct from feeling and thought.
3. Feeling and thought. In the usual form of this exercise one becomes aware of one's feelings, but simply registers them as weak or strong, whatever, without seeking to change them. Similarly with one's mental associations. This 'awareness of' is the crucial step in becoming detached from them, or not-identified with them, which is the next step.
4. Body is not 'I'. One is linked to the body by sensation, feeling and thought. In becoming aware of these, one begins to separate from them. This is a very crucial step that needs to be actually practised. If one has strong metaphysical beliefs, one may find the idea of doing this discomforting. However, the requirement of the exercise is to detach from thoughts, even including profound or deeply felt ones.
5. Collected state. This is a standard feature. The idea is that 'we' are like a 'cloud' around our bodies, in a dispersed condition. It is possible, however, to gather this cloud into ourselves and become 'collected'. One does this by becoming aware of the 'atmosphere' (in the dual sense of the surrounding air and this 'cloud') and seeing that vibrations enter and leave one's presence through it. One becomes 'still' in a strong sense so that this emission and reception of vibrations diminishes.
It is fairly clear that the Preparation itself has many stages to it and can be taken as a whole in its own right. Indeed, many of Bennett's exercises build one on another. What is a complete exercise at one time becomes simply preparation at another.
In this 'dhyana', the first part is hard to do and the second is 'impossible'. The term 'impossible' is used here to emphasise that what is being called for is something beyond what can be attained by any means we are used to.
1. Visualisation. One visualises or focuses on a point about a metre in front of oneself. This is to be taken as an 'eternal, fixed, immovable point'. As far as you can, you stabilise this visualisation so that the sense of the point being there is real and carries with it the impress of being 'always' there.
2. 'I'. One sees oneself in front of this point as equally fixed and eternal. One is present, detached from associations and free of external influences. This state is to be maintained for 20 minutes.
Realisation is implicit in the last step of focus. It is what 'takes over' from effort and determination. It is going through the 'impossible' to 'how it really is', and so on. How this process works, or might work or is supposed to work is all included in facing this impossible challenge. However, though we have spoken in terms of impossibility, at the same time we have to take into account that we can imagine ourselves doing this exercise even though we cannot in fact. This need not lead us into self-deception, because what begins from an 'as-if' - 'let us suppose this is true' - can become an 'it is so'.
The exercise is constructed to provide checks and balances. For example, work on sensation in the body is useful as a check against whether 'I' is present. And the fixed point is a check against the 'immovable' state of the 'I'.
There is no specification of what 'I' is like. This may be because what 'I' is corresponds to samadhi. We can therefore see that these exercises have the character of leading us to a doorway or threshold beyond which lies an unknown or truly spiritual reality. What we might find in going through the door is to do with our own destiny.
This part largely reproduces part of the report on the Working Group seminar held June 2000. Experienting is a neologism chosen to express the twin concepts of 'experience' and 'experiment' (the French experience already combines the two meanings). It is to emphasise the exploratory, personal and intersubjective aspects inherent in the exercises. In experienting, the exercises reflect the know-how embodied in Bennett's exercises but use them in a relatively tentative way. This approach stems from our position of wanting to bridge between the specialised views of a given tradition and the general requirements of people everywhere.
Experienting can also be taken to represent a kind of 'positive therapy', that is to say, a non-remedial one. A great deal of work is needed to bridge the gap between orthodox therapy and the kind of inner work that the exercises entail. The Bennett exercises tend to be highly conceptual and structural in comparison with what is used in standard therapeutic practice. Both, however, rely on the significance of ascribing the 'right' words to feelings located in the body and it should be perfectly possible to re-interpret therapy along the lines of the basic Gurdjieff model of sensation, feeling, thought and 'I'.
In the summary below, Anthony Blake speaks very much in terms of the context of a relationship between the convenor of the group and the other people in the group. This begins to address the issues of facilitation, which were briefly alluded to before.
The word 'experienting' is a neologism connecting 'experiment' and 'experience'. It is intended to mean 'experimenting with the stuff of experience'. The neologism is used primarily to distinguish the practice from the general and largely vague way of 'meditation'. The latter word is in its origins an English equivalent of the Sanskrit dhyana which can be variously understood as 'concentration' or 'sustained thought', as opposed to dispersal and fluctuation. However, 'meditation' has become a generic term for sitting with closed eyes and following some guided visualisations or recitation of a mantra.
The present practice of experienting has emerged from work with techniques inherited from John Bennett. These were then called 'morning exercises' and derived in their turn from indications from G. I. Gurdjieff with inputs from various other sources such as Taoist and Sufi methods. Gurdjieff's own indications, as far as we know them, were based on two main ingredients: (a) the distinction and fusion of 'I' and 'am', (b) the distinction and blending of sensation, feeling and thought. These exercises were active on the part of the subject and they did not rely on images but on some more direct 'sense' of quality of energy.
Following in this tradition, we have begun to explore what is essential in this active method. To do so, we have had to depart from accepted practice in one important respect: in the past, practitioners either did a set exercise in silence or were guided through by an instructor. Indeed, being guided through by someone who had previously established the exercise in himself was and is considered to be the right way of being initiated into the exercise. With Mr. Bennett, we had groups doing an exercise who met at other times and were able to report on their experiences and ask questions. Our main departure from this tradition has been to allow and even encourage comments to be made by any participant during the exercise or 'experienting'. Though the session is directed by one person, he or she is open to what is proceeding in the rest of the people.
This means that (a) the exercise itself is exploratory and is not a member of a set canon, and (b) any statements made by participants feeds back into the process through the guiding person. In an idealistic sense, the 'guide' could be seen as 'the voice of the people', bringing to expression what is emergent in them as it happens.
The generic form of experienting first looks into 'containment' - in various ways, such as 'presence', 'location', 'body', 'perception', etc. - and then looks into what differentiations can be made in the stuff of experience 'within the container'. The kind of differentiation made depends on background understanding of the human composition. Still, for the most part, we follow the guidelines of a threefold distinction, crudely understood in terms of 'thought', 'feeling' and 'sensation'.
What an experienting is about cannot be defined apart from those who are actively engaged in it. We feel it is important to follow the indications of Rumi, for example, whose phrase fihi ma fihi ('in it what is in it') sums up the hermeneutic approach we follow. It is very important indeed for all those involved to seek out and continue to seek out the essential meaning of what they do and not rely on the person in the authority role to define meaning for them.
It came to me that here was something integral to what the 'exercise' IS. I now believe that having, for example as may happen, a diversity of descriptions is a great benefit. The whole idea that 'we' did the 'same thing' needs to be held in question (though not dismissed out of hand).
I will just say that my guiding initiative or the main influence upon me at the time this was designed came from meeting an old friend, another student of Bennett, who was giving a series of lectures on mysticism according to the four main levels of 'mental energy'. I was constantly occupied with the question of moving between different levels without being fixated on what these were, i.e. it was not coming from a mental model. There is some general kind of pattern concerning the state of the facilitator and that of the participants.
The Universal Process
Our idea of the 'universal process' was first introduced several years ago in a seminar of that name held at Baltimore. It stems from three main considerations.
1. If we look carefully at many different processes that are concerned with meaningful change, or something of a similar character, then it is possible to discern that they are all the same. Gurdjieff in his Third Series of Writings make much of this 'sameness' but very wisely leaves what it means as an open question. Processes of change include those used in therapy, those used in management, those used in design and those used in inner exercises and so on. Gurdjieff made much of it in a down to earth pragmatic way, as in his saying, "If a man can make shoes one can talk to him" - meaning that if one can do something meaningful and effective then one can understand all other things that are meaningful and effective. But the pursuit of 'underlying method' that is the 'same' throughout diverse activities has always been the prerogative of a few. For the most part, people get 'stuck' to the particular application they learn. To begin to see the 'same' underlying method throughout diverse realms of experience is a liberation (becoming 'unstuck') and, then, everything becomes a source for understanding everything else. In the limit, the underlying method converges simply to something like 'the way of nature'.
2. Gurdjieff himself taught the idea of the Universal Process as the trogoautoegocrat - the reciprocal feeding of everything from everything. This is Nature with a capital N. It is the underlying way by which reality is maintained. In Bennett's work, much the same idea, though cast in a quite different way, is to be found in his development of systematics. Systematics emphasises the progressive character of change.
3. We have, on the one hand, all sorts of techniques and artificiality and, on the other, just 'life' as it comes. There is a deep puzzle about why it appears to be the case that, in order to be truly human, we have to work at in an intentional and guided way. The idea of the Universal Process is to allow us to encompass in one view both the artificial and the natural. Indeed, an important feature of it is that the artificial and the natural are brought together in the method itself. One form in which this has appeared has been in the enneagram symbol of Gurdjieff. We explain this in our book The Intelligent Enneagram.
Considerations of the universal process interest us in regard to the inner exercises because we are exploring how such exercises can more clearly show the creative and emergent features that we encounter in other methods. Traditionalists view the approach of creativity and emergence with suspicion, since it seems to advocate randomness and anarchy in place of the received wisdom of the ages. Such dichotomies of view are also to be found in the realm of design method and have been described by Edward Matchett in his essay 'The Understanding and Search for Design Method'. In particular, he contrasts two approaches. In the first, there is a step by step procedure that is laid out in advance of going through the process itself. In the second, what the procedure is changes as the process proceeds, attaining the state in which it is being created from moment to moment. Thus, in what Matchett calls 'higher design method', we create the process itself as we follow the process.
"There was too much reliance on logic in the first-generation systems, with a wish to build everything so carefully, piece by piece. An attitude of refusing to know too soon what one is looking for and what could be significant, changes the whole mode of synthesis. Although a random element is unlikely of itself to suggest an optimal patterning it can, and often does, work to loosen the patterns that were pre-packaged in the mind of the designer, and through this loosening allow a higher chance of the true optimum being found."
We might also consider the teachings of alchemy. In such teachings, an emphasis is placed on first dissolving away the previous forms, in order to release the potential for a new state of being. Further, such lines of thought are to be found in such modern methods as TRIZ, the system of innovation developed in Russia.
Considerations of design method can illuminate the inner exercises. For example, we can now imagine a kind of 'exercise' that is entirely spontaneous, evolving as it goes, following no set procedure at all. Here we must interpose an important concept: it has been observed that only after a given creative process has been completed are we usually able to see that it did in fact follow a surprisingly exact series of steps; but if we attempt to take a specified series of steps and apply them, the result is rarely creative. In the past, it is probably the case that being creative was allowed as the prerogative of the very few, who earned the right to this after a considerable apprenticeship in following a set regime.
The point is telling. Joseph Rael, speaking at a DuVersity seminar-dialogue, insisted that having to learn obedience to his elders as a child was crucial in enabling him to obey the 'inner intelligence' when he grew up. A similar point was made by Gurdjieff. Obedience to an elder, or following a set method, is important for discipline. This implies that, if it is not possible for us to obey anything outside of ourselves, then it is unlikely that we will ever really be creative, because we will lack the strength to bear the forces of creation in us.
Does the possibility of a totally free and creative kind of inner exercise, then, remain only possible for those with long and substantial experience of following set methods? The answer probably lies in rejecting the dichotomy in the first place. Both are needed and each has its place in the universal process. The artificial and the natural can - and need - to go hand in hand. It is as at least as possible to go from the creative to the disciplined as from the disciplined to the creative.
The underlying 'method' is the same method that we accept as natural in the living of our lives. One of the functions of techniques and other artificial devices is to separate us from what we take as 'natural' so that we can see something deeper that is more truly 'natural'. This is embodied in the exercise we described above, where we are called upon to separate from our mental associations so that we can see ourselves more truly - which seeing reveals 'I'.
Understanding, said Gurdjieff, is what we can do. It is not what we can think or feel, though these may be involved. This crucial definition is definitive of the approach embodied in the inner exercises. They are practice in doing oneself. This very idea will appear very strange because we are so used to consider understanding as only a matter of mental comprehension. To do oneself takes us beyond the realm of being into that of will.
It is necessary to recall Bennett's fundamental triad of experience as Function, Being and Will. Function concerns our activities. Being is what we are. Will is the act that makes us real. In one of his most revolutionary remarks, Bennett asserted, "We are not beings that do things, but doings that be things".
In this light, the inner exercises can take us very deep indeed. What is particularly striking is the inherent perspective based on the idea of will. The exercises do not teach about will but invite us to 'do will'. This does not mean that we can 'use' will - as many people often say in spite of it being totally absurd, because that which can be used can only be a function - but that we can participate in will consciously instead of unconsciously. This is what it means to understand.
The final point is that we should not consider an inner exercise to be something 'higher' than anything else that humans do. People were upset when Gurdjieff said that writing poetry was no more higher than scrubbing floors. This is not to disparage poetry but to point out that what is sacred in human life concerns the quality with which we do what we do. There is nothing so sublime as a truly selfless act.
Note: In general, descriptions of exercises cannot be given out just for the asking, because this would be irresponsible. The example given here serves the purpose of study and reflection. If you want to study the exercises in a practical way you have to find suitable guidance. This involves you in uncertainty concerning the experience, understanding and agenda of those offering such exercises and you will have to exercise and stand by your own judgement in these matters. It is to be hoped that sooner or later such techniques come to be more widely known and assimilated into the mainstream so that they can be made available in ordinary ways and subject to discussion and review amongst peers. It is our belief that the Gurdjieff work can become available to people in such a way but the process of adapting it to the conditions of contemporary ordinary life will be complex and demanding.