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.”