The Prayer of the Heart

Gurdjieff and the Prayer of the Heart

Gurdjieff taught that techniques such as fasting, confession and prayer were not only valuable, but essential for any seeker. Gurdjieff gave few indications about prayer, but he knew of and used certain Eastern methods of praying. I can hardly overstate how important moderate and medically safe fasting is in disrupting the coordination of the centres and making possible new physical, feeling and intellectual experiences.

Of particular importance are what are often called the prayers of repetition, such as the Prayer of the Heart and the Jesus Prayer. I prefer to call these “continuing prayer”. Here, etymology is enlightening. “Continue” is derived from two Latin roots, *SCOM meaning “together” and *TA / *TEN, “stretch, hold”.

A “continuing prayer”, then, is one where the attention is held by the praying. Our attention will fluctuate. Yet, the person praying is influenced by the prayer, and the active elements of the prayer (aim, intention, wish, feeling, grace) are augmented by a stretching of the attention. The better our prayer at a natural level, the better the chance of receiving grace, the power of a supernatural level. The aim of the prayer, after all, is to connect us to God.

Our prayer is not useless just because our attention may wander, or I may find I have an unworthy thought. The important thing is to try to bring my thought back. Whether I succeed or not is another thing: but I try. In some notes published as “Notes on Saint John’s Gospel”, and wrongly attributed to Ouspensky, the unknown author wrote: “Earth is enclosed and enwrapped in a great flame of radiant power. The same power is stored inside every living form, waiting for some shock that will set it free.”

The Christian techniques of prayer can provide such shocks, but perhaps as Ouspensky stated on 23 January 1934, these techniques are useless without conscious breathing and fasting (see A Further Record, pp.295-8.) Ouspensky’s comments make sense of some rather cryptic remarks to be found in the Philokalia, especially in Nikiphorus the Monk (see volume 4 of the complete text).  If one means by “useless” completely useless, then no that is going too far. But our prayers are made much more virtuous by these techniques.

Adie’s instructions tally exactly with those of Nikiphorus. Indeed, they make sense of and expand the monk’s deliberately fragmentary and incomplete instructions. Incidentally, Mme Kadloubovsky, who had a major role in the preparation of the English translation of the Philokalia, and who assembled the volume which dealt with the Prayer of the Heart, was Ouspensky’s secretary. In that volume, Nikiphorus is entered under the name “Nicephorus the Solitary”.

It would be irresponsible to provide specific indications concerning continuing prayer, because, as the Philokalia stated on the Prayer of the Heart, and also Mr Adie said, such techniques must be learnt from someone experienced, who can watch the orant (student). Otherwise, a person can become deluded, and imagine that they possess qualities they do not, or worse.

Gurdjieff did have sources. Wherever I have been able to identify such sources, they are in the Greek tradition, especially in the “Neoplatonic” school of Plotinus and Iamblichus. But his tradition has come through Christianity. In In Search of the Miraculous: at p.304, Gurdjieff asked his pupils where the word “I” sounds in them when they pronounce it aloud. Ouspensky stated that he was “entirely unable to evoke this sensation” in himself. Then, said Gurdjieff, there is an exercise “preserved up to our time in the monasteries of Mount Athos.” (Incidentally, Gurdjieff had earlier stated that he had been to Mount Athos, Miraculous, p.36).

In this exercise, Gurdjieff said, a monk takes a certain position, lifts his arms in a certain posture, and says “Ego” while listening to where it sounds. In Greek, “ego” does not mean “me”, it means “I”, or “I am”. Further, there is not necessarily anything of self-will or self-assertion in it. The purpose of the exercise, Gurdjieff explained, is to feel “I” at every moment a man thinks of himself, and furthermore, to bring the sense of “I” from one centre to another. All this material on the “Ego” exercise is given in some 19 lines. Incidentally, the 19th century Maronite monk, Mar Naamtallah is often shown praying in just this posture.

Where does this leave us? I think it is encouraging to reflect that there are methods for prayer and self-development which can and do work. They are not easy, and one must be prepared for real shocks, but the possibility is there. It is also, I think, comforting to reflect that the Gurdjieff methods and ideas do not have to be so divorced from religion as they sometimes, perhaps even too frequently, are. I think that for those in the Gurdjieff tradition, it points them to the authentic preparations and exercises brought by Gurdjieff, and away from the “sittings” of the “new work”. For those of us who have ever had the sense of the continuous prayer and its vibration in the body, it is a much-needed reminder, because as Merlin once said (in the movie Excalibur): “It is the doom of man that he forgets.”


  1. Thank you. Very interesting reading, which is refreshing, given the amount of material on the internet (and in many books on Gurdjieff’s ideas) which is bereft of substance. After several years in the Work, in London, I found myself leaving the group to which I belonged. I’m sure there was a mixture of reasons for this and I can’t pretend to know them fully, but I do remember experiencing a certain opening in my feelings and a need for something akin to prayer. Certainly the morning preparation and group sittings helped to bring about a sense of ‘help from above’, or that one was being embraced by something more than oneself, and I have a real respect for those that helped lead me in this direction. Perhaps something more was being asked of me at this point, not just in terms of inner work, but commitment to group work too. Was I afraid of that? Was the resistance too great? At the same time, what had been touched brought me back to something deeply personal, and my experience of group work was of something very ‘matter of fact’ – ‘cool’ you might say, although that isn’t acvery satisfactory way of putting it. The group leaders I met were among the warmest, and most understanding people I’ve known. I was interested by what you say about ‘sittings’ and ‘the new work’. Could you say more about this? Madame de Salzmann speaks a great deal about coming under ‘ a look from above’ in her book. Such sittings would seem indispensable for that, whether individual or within groups. I guess there has always been a question for me about the nature of ‘schools’ and what is possible ‘alone’. Something in me cannot accept that nothing is possible outside of group work and I think Gurdjieff mentions this briefly in Fragments. I remember saying to a group leader the last time I was at Bray “I wish I knew why I needed other people”, to which he responded “that is something only YOU can answer”.

    1. Good Morning, Ashley. Perhaps the person you spoke to had just what I am about to say in mind: it is not so much that only you can answer why you need other people, but that only you can accept an answer. From one perspective, it is as clear as the earth beneath our feet: I AM THOU. THOU ART I. HE IS OURS. WE BOTH ARE HIS. SO MAY ALL BE FOR OUR NEIGHBOUR. And the same truth is stated in Matthew 25, the parable of the great judgment, adding the dimension that the image of God is also found in them. That is, we need other people, because – it seems so obvious when it is stated – we are “other people”. To isolate oneself is to mutilate oneself: until such time as one can consciously actualise all necessary impulses within oneself, and then we bear the others within, too.

      Practically, try living entirely alone, using nothing produced by other people, and see how far you get. But it is even deeper than that. First, we are connected to others in essential ways: our heredity, our blood, even our air and our thoughts and language are not our own. Second, we are designed to live with others, for material, social, emotional, intellectual and what I might call “alchemical” reasons. Our very sanity, and our emotional balance depend upon the influence of others. They bring a food of impressions which we need. The higher hydrogens which are localised in and around other people who are making efforts are needed at the beginning and at certain intervals of the work (“to make gold one must have gold”, and you can use other people’s gold when you come together in a genuine group). This is why one needs both the exercises and preparation both alone and in a (real) group. As Mr Adie mentioned in a meeting which I recently posted, we enter into the people and things we knew. Or, it can be said like this: something of us enters into those people and objects. And as Gurdjieff says in Miraculous, we need others even if just to smooth off our round edges.

      As for the “New Work”, see Rawlinson’s Book of Enlightened Masters, Sophia Wellbeloved’s “Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts” under “New Work”, and James Moore’s “Moveable Feasts”. Regards,

  2. Whilst concurring with the sense of ‘continue’ as ‘with holding’ I would be interested to hear of your etymological sources; Skeat’s suggests ” con” ( with) + tenere ( to hold) both Latin roots; My Cassell’s Latin dictionary shews neither ” scom” nor ”Ta/ten”.
    And, a belated thank you for your talk at the 2020 A&E Conference.

    1. Those two roots are taken from the Table of Roots in Lewis
      For *scom, see under SEC- on p.1189; and for ta/ten, see “2 TA, TEN-” on p.1190

  3. I read a prayer for eating a meal once that I have always remembered as Gurjieff’s but now cannot find it. It was about energetic reciprocity, I will consume this meal as I will one day be consumed. Is this a Gurdjieff prayer? And where can I find it?

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