Dying Daily, Pt II (Orage’s Opening Thoughts)

Orage’s essay “On Dying Daily” is what, in my forthcoming study, I call a “discipline”. I think it is helpful to have employ terms than just “exercise”, so I speak of “tasks”, “disciplines” and Transformed-contemplation (the phrase Gurdjieff used in Herald of Coming Good) for practices in the Gurdjieff tradition. A task is a mental or physical demand, perhaps made once, perhaps made for a day (e.g. learning Arabic words while painting the dining room). A discipline is a task made into a regular and continuous endeavour. Transformed-contemplation, however, I reserve for the three-centred exercises.

The evidence of Hulme strongly suggests that Gurdjieff was the source of the dying daily discipline, and that Orage taught it to Jane Heap. Orage’s starting point is the reports of people who seemed to have died, but were revived. According to these reports, before they lost consciousness, their life unrolled before their eyes. Orage writes of these accounts: “Not a detail of the panorama is omitted, and every colour, form, and movement is reproduced in its original lustre”. This was actually more topical than we may realise today: these reports were used as evidence for survival of the soul, for reincarnation, and for astral travelling. Blavatsky and Steiner, among others, made much use of them long before Orage’s essay was written. He was well acquainted with that material, one sign being his use of the word “panorama”, which was a key term in these accounts.

In what is by far the best study of these accounts known to me, What Is it like to Be Dead?, Jens Schlieter writes: “The panorama metaphor (used in this context) … had been coined in 1789 by Irish artist and inventor Robert Barker initially for paintings on a revolving surface, but assumed quickly the meaning of a “spectacular view” (84). From there, it soon became an almost inseparable part of these accounts. It does not mean that the reports were necessarily fictions, but it does mean two things: that people’s memories were related in terms drawn from their contemporary worlds, and that Orage was familiar with them.

Orage continued: “… the fact clearly demonstrates the enduring quality of the impressions we receive, whether we consciously remember them or not.” This was a feature of Gurdjieff’s psychology: that if anything makes it to us as an impression, it is remembered. This is of great potential significance, for the material is present for us to remember. Ouspensky would later state, although he omitted it from In Search of the Miraculous, that the second dimension of self-remembering is to remember the whole of one’s life.

Another conclusion drawn by Orage is that: “… the fact that such phenomena occur at a moment when, presumably, something we call our consciousness is leaving our body, suggests the possibility of utilizing this power of recalling the past by doing something at those moments when we are rehearsing death in the form of going to sleep”.

This is critical to the line of thought Orage will develop: sleep is a form of death but on a lesser scale. This irresistibly calls to mind the table of time in different dimensions which Ouspensky produced. You will recall from In Search (228-231) that Ouspensky arrived, by sustained strokes of genius, at four illustrative categories of time:

  • Impression
  • Breath
  • Day and Night
  • Life

The brilliance of this achievement should not be neglected. We usually think of time in what we might call measured portions: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries and millennia. Nudged by Gurdjieff, Ouspensky came up with categories for time which are far more suited to a practical use of time for understanding the life of man. These two sets of categories of course do not contradict each other, they are complementary. What Orage’s “Dying Daily Discipline” shows is that the second category, written in terms of organic life, can lead us to see parallels and likenesses we might have missed if we had not used them.

Using these thoughts, a higher or connecting thought, Orage states: “Sleep and death are alike in this, that they are states of unconsciousness into which we normally pass by a gradual process: sleep or dying. And if it be true that at the final passage we remember our whole previous life, what is more plausible than that in passing from waking to sleeping we recall the events of the day … If the moment for a pictorial review of life is death, the moment for a pictorial review of the day is sleep”.

Again, we should not run past this. Orage is not just using rhetorical devices to gain attention. He is attempting to say something new and significant. The problem is us, we cannot appreciate that we are hearing new things because, as Gurdjieff said, as we come across them we mix them in our minds with the familiar.

Orage is saying that death is a form of unconsciousness. That it and sleep are the same on different levels. Further, at the time of death, something in us is able to undergo a pictorial review of the whole of our lives. What is this but an instance of what Gurdjieff wrote about the difference between mentation by words and mentation by forms, in Beelzebub, the book Orage had just spent years working on?

I could be wrong, but I tend to think that mentation by form is more essential in us than is mentation by words. Gurdjieff states that animals also have mentation by form. It is something in our moving/instinctive centre, I suspect. So it is primal. It must also, I suggest, be good to consciously employ it from time to time as a way of coming to a thought which is not at the same risk of becoming formatory.

These are tricky and difficult questions I have raised, but I think it is fair to see them as being implicit in Orage’s treatment, and we have only read the first page so far.

Joseph Azize, 29 January 2019, revised 20 August 2020

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