26 Jan Most people lived their lives in a hypnotic form of ‘waking sleep’ (JOHN HIGGS)
Gurdjieff, an imposing and impressively mustachioed Russian who was active in the early to mid-twentieth century, believed that most people lived their lives in a hypnotic form of ‘waking sleep’. It was possible to awaken out of this state, Gurdjieff taught, into a state of consciousness commonly experienced by meditators and athletes at their peak, but which is frustratingly difficult to describe to those who have not experienced it. It involves a significant increase in focus, understanding, ability, liberation and joy. It is sometimes said to be as different to normal consciousness as waking is to sleeping. Psychologists increasingly acknowledge a state of mind very much like this, which they call ‘flow’.
This state of mind is frustratingly rare and hard to achieve. The key to its activation, Gurdjieff believed, was intense, prolonged concentration. He demanded dedication and commitment from his students, who were set tedious tasks such as cutting a large lawn with a small pair of scissors. His pupils had to mentally force themselves to keep snipping away as the monotonous nature of the task caused their egos to attempt mutiny. This, Gurdjieff thought, would force them into the level of concentration needed to nudge them into a state like flow. Or, in his terminology, it would ‘awake their full human potential’. It is tempting to wonder if putting down the lawn scissors and reading Ulysses for a few hours would have had a similar effect.
The English author Colin Wilson, whose first book The Outsider led to his association with the 1950s literary movement known as the Angry Young Men, had experience of this state. It was, as Gurdjieff predicted, triggered by a period of intense concentration. Wilson was driving a car full of students on New Year’s Day in 1979, following a lecture in a remote area of Devon. It had been snowing heavily, and the road was extremely treacherous. ‘It was hard to see where the road ended and the ditch began,’ he recalled, ‘so I was forced to drive with total, obsessive attention.’ After about twenty minutes of managing to keep the car on the road he noticed a warm feeling building up in his head. This became a state he called ‘peak experience’, which continued after the journey had been completed. ‘The two hours of concentrated attention had somehow “fixed” my consciousness in a higher state of awareness,’ he said. ‘There was also an immense feeling of optimism, a conviction that most human problems are due to vagueness, slackness, inattention, and that they are all perfectly easy to overcome with determined effort.’ An intense period of effort and concentration had resulted in Wilson seeing the world in an entirely different way.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine