Free as a Bird

A provocative passage:

“Ask yourself: are you free? Many are inclined to answer ‘yes’, if they are relatively secure in a material sense and do not have to worry about the morrow, if they depend on no one for their livelihood or in the choice of their conditions of life. But is this freedom? Is it only a question of external conditions?

You have plenty of money, let us say. You live in luxury and enjoy general respect and esteem. The people who run your well-organized business are absolutely honest and devoted to you. In a word, you have a very good life. Perhaps you think so yourself and consider yourself wholly free, for after all your time is your own. You are a patron of the arts, you settle world problems over a cup of coffee and you may even be interested in the development of hidden spiritual powers. Problems of the spirit are not foreign to you and you are at home among philosophical ideas. You are educated and well read. Having some erudition in many fields, you are known as a clever man, for you find your way easily in all sorts of pursuits; you are an example of a cultured man. In short, you are to be envied.

In the morning you wake up under the influence of an unpleasant dream. The slightly depressed mood disappeared but has left its trace in a kind of lassitude and uncertainty of movement. You go to the mirror to brush your hair and by accident drop your hairbrush. You pick it up and just as you have dusted it off you drop it again. This time you pick it up with a shade of impatience and because of that you drop it a third time. You try to grab it in midair but instead, it flies at the mirror. In vain you try to catch it. Smash! — a star-shaped cluster of cracks appears in the antique mirror you were so proud of. Hell! The recordings of discontentment begin to play. You need to vent your annotance on someone. Finding that your servant has forgotten to put the newspaper beside your morning coffee, your cup of patience overflows and you decide you can no longer stand the wretched man in the house.

Now it is time for you to go out. Taking advantage of the fine day, your destination being not far away, you decide to walk while your car follows slowly behind. The bright sun somewhat mollifies you. Your attention is attracted to a crowd that has gathered around a man lying unconscious on the pavement. With the help of the onlookers the porter puts him into a cab and he is driven off to the hospital. Notice how the strangely familiar face of the driver is connected in your associations and reminds you of the accident you had last year. You were returning home from a merry birthday party. What a delicious cake they had there! This servant of your who forgot your morning paper ruined your breakfast. Why not make up for it now? After all, cake and coffee are extremely important! Here is the fashionable café you sometimes go to with your friends. But why have you rembered about the accident? You had surely almost forgotten about the morning’s umpleasantness… And now, do your cake and coffee really taste so good?

You see the two ladies at the next table. What a charming blonde! She glances at you and whispers to her companion, “That’s the sort of man I like.”

Surely none of your troubles are worth wasting time on or getting upset about. Need one point out how your mood changed from the moment you met the blonde and how it lasted while you were with her? You return home humming a gay tune and even the broken mirror only provokes a smile. But what about the business you went out for in the morning? You have only just remembered it … that’s clever! Still, it does not matter. You can telephone. You lift the receiver and the operator gives yoou the wrong number. You ring again and get the same number. Some man says sharply that he is sick of you — you say it is not your fault, an altercation follows and you are surprised to learn that you are a fool and an idiot, and that if you call again… The rumpled carpet under your foot irritates you, and you should hear the tone of voice in which you reprove the servant who is handing you a letter. The letter is from a man you respect and whose good opinion you value. The contents of the letter are so flattering to you that your irritation gradually dies down and is replaced by the pleasantly embarrassed feeling that flattery arouses. You finish reading it in a most amiable mood.

I could continue this picture of your day — you free man…”

G.I. Gurdjieff, Essentuki, 1918
– from
Views From the Real World

Related content from Sphere


  1. To quote the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. — “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 16 April 1963

    To live as a “free person” is to live with a certain level of denial.

    As long as one person is oppressed we all are oppressed. So what is a free person to do? Boycott anything and everything that has been manufactured or devised by way of exploitation or indentured servitude? Which would mean boycotting mega-marts like Target or Walmart or Home Depot. Which would mean boycotting those luscious peaches (or any fruit or vegetable which was harvested from (usually illegal) migrant workers. Which would mean foregoing paperclips from China. For more info regarding my disjointed thoughts, go to iAbolish, as that site can more eloquently detail how ingrained slavery and indentured servitude is in the fabric of our global economy.

    Posted March 2, 2007 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, there are different senses of the word “free”, of course; this item is concerned more with the inner, rather than the political, kind.

    How the sort of inner freedom Gurdjieff refers to here relates to the philosophical problem of free will is an interesting question, and one that has troubled me for a long, long time. But the sort of self-mastery that the Gurdjieff work aims to achieve is a necessary prerequisite to true freedom of will, and without the required inner unity there is good reason to deny that we have any sort of “will” at all.

    Posted March 2, 2007 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  3. Gurdjieff was it seems influenced by Sufi esoteric teachings that he encountered in Central Asia. You wrote about the wonderful tiling of the mosques which would have been the work of Sufi guilds. I saw them in Afghanistan before the present bother. They are quite beautiful and they pulse like op art. Anyway to continue the Sufi theme, have you ever looked at the Enneagram system which is a way of noting the patterns of anarchy in the ‘household’ (Apply Within). That was amusing.
    Best Wishes,

    Posted March 2, 2007 at 9:05 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Michael,

    I’ve been around Gurdjieffian influences all my life (my father knew him, in fact). So, yes, the enneagram is not unfamiliar to me. There’s more to that than meets the eye, too…

    Posted March 3, 2007 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  5. Oh, I didn’t mean to imply “just political.” Even from a superficial standpoint, such as shopping for food, I know I certainly do not feel “free.” Between organics and ethical farming and sustainable agriculture, to buying local vs global, then factoring in health issues against organics and ethics… I know I do not feel free. Buying a loaf of bread, I’m checking the nutritional labels, rather than freely purchasing. The existentialist in me sees nothing “free” about what I am able to do vs what I am unable to do in life as a whole. The whole Denial-meets-justification in just about every purchase, and by extension every action and its potential reaction.

    Posted March 3, 2007 at 9:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi again Maven,

    Well, maybe “political” wasn’t the right word; “external” might have been closer. The point here, though, is a different sort of freedom, having to do with what is in control of our inner world, quite independent of our external circumstances.

    Posted March 3, 2007 at 9:49 pm | Permalink
  7. Well, immediately we get into the value of freedom. If freedom is what Gurdjieff describes (in a roundabout way), why would anyone want it? His freedom seems to be indifference to pleasures and pains.

    Posted March 4, 2007 at 9:57 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Hi Dennis,

    No, not indifference. What is wanted is for our inner state to be a conscious choice, rather than for us simply to be driven from pillar to post all day long by whatever external circumstances happen to prevail. In that sense we are freer, because we are not limited in how we engage the world only to whatever mechanical, automatic reaction arises within us.

    Posted March 4, 2007 at 10:14 pm | Permalink
  9. Speaking as someone who is having troubles “quieting the ego” or filtering out the profane, to even attempt to meditate or experience the profound, I look upon that as infringing or impinging upon my freedom or at the very least my “will.”

    Posted March 5, 2007 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Sorry, Maven, I’m not following you. You look upon what as impinging upon your freedom?

    Posted March 5, 2007 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  11. I was talking about internal freedom, from a metaphysical state (in my last comment).

    Regarding what is impinging upon my “freedom,” from an intangible standpoint, from a meditative standpoint: How free can I be, if I can’t filter out the profane to experience the profound.

    Which is not to discount or dismiss my earlier comment regarding something as presumably simple as purchasing food or household items, which may have been harvested or manufactured using slave labor, which makes me feel less “free” as a consumer.

    I suppose what my disjointed thoughts are trying to coagulate and convey is an opinion of freedom is the ability to CHOOSE (regardless of context). Choosing Charmin over another brand of toilet paper. Choosing a presidential candidate. (A woman) Choosing who to marry. Choosing to have children or not. Choosing a mode of worship or not. To choose when the sun rises in the a.m. To choose to be mindful or selfish.

    Sorry my thoughts are all a jumble.

    Posted March 6, 2007 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Hi Maven,

    Now I understand you better, and yes, that is exactly the point. To be free is to be able to choose. And in order to be maximally free, one must be aware of what one’s choices are, and have the self-mastery to select among them according to one’s aim. This in turn implies that there is a consistent self, with a consistent aim, to do the choosing.

    Gurdjieff’s point here is that we don’t choose: we simply react, in an entirely mechanical way. And because inside we are not one unified Self, but rather a chaotic jumble of divided and fragmentary selves, how that reaction occurs depends upon which of those fragmentary selves happens to be in the driver’s seat from moment to moment.

    As we are, we are not free at all; we are poorly organized machines.

    Posted March 6, 2007 at 4:52 pm | Permalink