Watch Your Back

The practice of inner work begins with an attempt to observe ourselves. As I have discussed in earlier posts (here and here), it is very difficult for us to notice the edges of our conscious awareness. The more it ebbs, the less we realize it. Most of the time, we do not remember ourselves.

There are many practical exercises for seeing this. They begin with very simple efforts to direct and maintain the attention. Let’s say you are seated in a comfortable chair as you read this. Now make yourself aware of, and try to hold on to, the sensation of your back pressing against the chair. It’s very simple to do; the sensations have been there, though unattended, all along. Take a moment here; consciously and attentively sense your back. As you resume reading, try to stay with it.

We are presented with a steady stream of impressions throughout our lives, but it is rare that we take them in consciously. There is much to be gained by learning to do this – and exactly how we benefit from it will be the subject of future posts – but in the beginning the job before us is to learn to be aware of how much we are unaware of. As we become absorbed in whatever activity we are engaged in – our routine work, or watching the television, or chatting with a friend, or cooking dinner, or eating dinner, or reading a book, or in this case reading a blog post – our attention is drawn into the thing before us, and our ability to receive impressions in a conscious way is lost.

It is only by training ourselves, by forming a habit of deliberately coming to a full stop, and assessing the state of one’s awareness of oneself, that we can begin to see how much of the time we spend unaware of ourselves, how much we do purely automatically. Gurdjieff, at his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, used to use this exercise extensively. Without warning, as people were going about their business, someone would call out “STOP!”, and all present would freeze in their tracks and carefully examine themselves – their posture, their thoughts, their emotional state. This is the sort of thing we need to be able to do for ourselves if we are to make any progress, if we are to be able to get even to the first step in our development, which is to be able to see ourselves as we really are.

Here’s another exercise to try: for one week, do not interrupt anybody. Just don’t. Try to notice when you forget – and forget you will. If you want to raise the stakes a bit (because it is very easy not to take this sort of thing seriously enough), make a deal with yourself: if you slip, and you do interrupt someone, then you must atone for it somehow. Skip dessert, or skip dinner altogether. Don’t watch TV that evening. Think of something that will make it matter. If we don’t pay for failing at these little tasks, then they are nothing more than a lark. But this work is not a lark; it’s a very serious business.

I will suggest exercises of this sort from time to time, but I must stress that it is very difficult to do this work on one’s own. But until we begin to see our sleep, our mechanicalness, we will never seek the help we need.

Oh, and by the way, how’s that that going with your back?

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  1. Robert says

    I lasted about two paragraphs with the back…

    Appropriate song lyric here (The Who):

    It’s hard,
    So very, very hard


    I’m taking the interruption excercise on. At 25 pushups per occurrence the soreness of the arms ought to be a good reminder–harder to forget than your back on the chair.

    Thank you for this valuable and interesting post.

    Posted February 23, 2006 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    You’re very welcome, Robert, and thanks as always for dropping by.

    Yes, these sorts of exercises are very difficult indeed – most surprisingly and frustratingly so, which is of course the whole point.

    Pushups are good penance; I’ve used that one myself.

    Posted February 23, 2006 at 1:23 pm | Permalink