Nyland and the Gurdjieff Exercises

Mr Nyland’s Talks on Gurdjieff: The Draining, Sensing, “I Am,” Unrolling the Film, and Day of Austerity Exercises, Presidio Press, Tucson, Arizona. 338 pp plus index. Available from By the Way Books.

This is a worthwhile book for students of Gurdjieff. It is further evidence of a dawning awareness within the Gurdjieff current of the importance of the contemplative and associated exercises. Had it been edited with some apposite commentary, it might have been invaluable. I say this because, at the risk of sounding patronising, the quality of the material from Nyland is, very often, extremely high. It has to be added, however, that the quality of the editing and presentation does not correspond. If you think you will pick this up and find a systematic account of what Nyland had to say on contemplative work, you are going to be disappointed. But if you are prepared to work through it, to laboriously extract the meaning, and place ideas side by side, using what you read later to illuminate what you had read earlier, and go back and forth, you will be much the richer.

Clearly, Nyland’s mind was awake and alert, at least when it comes to the inner work. His insights into relaxation or “de-tensing” as he sometimes calls it, are impressive. It is apparent from the Paris transcripts that Gurdjieff himself sensed that words for “relaxation” are a little misleading when describing the effort required at the commencement of the Transformed Contemplation exercises. Hence, he himself often spoke of “de-contracting.” Using English, and following the Adies’ lead, I have tried to explore with a small group the possibility of words such as “liberation,” “freeing,” “releasing,” and “letting tensions go.” But it is necessary that sometimes the matter be raised in groups and it be canvassed, with fuller explanations. Nyland was doing so, and his explanations are valuable.

The very fact that all the issues he raises are ones which others like the Adies, and also John Bennett, have addressed, is a sign that he is on a fruitful path. More to the point, that we are on a good road. When Gurdjieff said to do everything to develop what he had brought, even the impossible, it is this sort of thing I think of: studying and developing his techniques in organically connected ways: not substituting one method for Gurdjieff’s, but approaching his methods more deeply.

When one opens the book, one finds a useful index and a decent introduction by George Bloch. But once you are past that, one lacks notes to explain the not infrequent points which could use explanation, or to connect various concepts. I might refer to these, a little loosely, as deficiencies in reference. The most  egregious of these is that there is no attempt to discern which exercises, disciplines, and tasks, came from Gurdjieff; or to say how long Nyland had been using them.

Nyland speaks as one possessing authority, but sometimes to a hieratic degree. Thus, when he asserts that each of us has a spirit who helps him in life, I must ask: how does he know? If he had had some experience, a footnote from someone who had known him would help: do they know why he said it, or was it just his manner to deliver such statements? But I cannot see it is good to just leave it here as an assertion, inviting us to accept it on blind trust.

For example, he refers to “ether” at p.149. What does he mean by that? I have read and re-read the sentence, and I can discern no meaning in it. Even a footnote which acknowledged the difficulty, and offered some information about what Nyland understood by “ether” would have been helpful – it need not paraphrase his words, it can leave them enigmatic, but some background data would be appreciated.

And when he says that draining is even more important than sensing (23), I would think that is only a provisional or perhaps provocative thing to say – is there any unbridgeable difference between them?

With the discipline of “Unrolling the Film,” some reference could usefully have been made to the published versions, explaining in full the exercise as Nyland understood it.

On pp.145-147, we have an exercise direct from the Third Series. It just appears there, doubtless to help us understand what Nyland says in the next meeting. Why put so lengthy a quote like that in a Nyland book? Is it because Nyland read it and they transcribed and printed each word? I am not sure.

Too much extraneous and pointless material was left in. For example, on p.117, someone asks “Mr Nyland?” And he replies “Yah.” The person then asks a question and Nyland replies. Why leave in those two lines? The degree to which this is done makes me wonder if the material is not being treated with superstitious dread, as if it were scripture. I doubt Nyland would have let the volume go through like this.

And then there is the spelling. It is strange to have “Drain” and “Draining” with the D always in capitals, even when used as a verb or participle. Consider this from p. 20 “What one wishes to become Aware of with an Objective faculty …” Why the capital A and O? It gives an impression of entering a bizarre cult world. Again, I wonder if they are making scripture out of these transcripts.

One last note: if the editors have scrupulously published all Nyland had to say on the subject of the exercises, it is striking how few of the exercises he had. At pp.234-238 they give notes of what Nyland called an exercise of four religions, and then they reproduce the notes of the Four Ideals as published in Early Talks. I am glad they have been reading. But the fuller version is in my book – and you will notice that Nyland has been taught the basics, but either the exercise was muddled when given to him, or else he has forgotten. It is a good reminder that one must take this book with the proverbial grain of salt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *