Skip to content

On Sacrifice

12/15

Levitan - Eternal Peace

On Sacrifice

In chapter thirteen of In Search of the Miraculous Ouspensky asks Gurdjieff how he can recreate the emotional state that propelled into the series of extraordinary experiences he had undergone in Finland.

‘Sacrifice is necessary,’ Gurdjieff told him and then added: ‘But if there is anything in the world that people do not understand it is the idea of sacrifice. They think they have to sacrifice something that they have. In actual fact they have to sacrifice only what they imagine they have and which in reality they do not have. They must sacrifice their fantasies. But this is difficult for them, very difficult. It is much easier to sacrifice real things.’

When I was a young man, I was a bit obsessed with this passage. It seemed to me that Ouspensky had formulated what I wanted. He had some remarkable experiences and wanted to be able to ‘evoke’ them at will because he understood that, if he could do this, he would be able to ‘find the rest.’ I had also had some remarkable experiences and was trying to find a way to evoke them; I was convinced that if I could figure this out that I too would be able to find the rest.

I was intrigued by Gurdjieff’s answer, but clearly I was one of the people who didn’t understand because as hard as I tried I couldn’t connect the idea of sacrifice with becoming more emotional. How could giving something up, even if it is illusory, make me more emotional? I was also convinced that there was key hidden in Gurdjieff’s words and that if I could decipher it, it would make my inner work easier and give me a shortcut to creating a permanent connection to higher centers.

It took me a while, but I did finally come to an understanding of what Gurdjieff was talking about. It didn’t turn out to be a shortcut, but it did give me a greater understanding of the way that I had buffered the idea of making my efforts to remember myself more consistent. The problem was that I was trying to think about the idea separately, rather than connecting it to my inner work. When we think about becoming more emotional, we usually believe that events are what make us emotional. But being more emotional can also be looked at as something that is not outside of our efforts to be present and remember ourselves; it can be looked at as something that is contained within those efforts.

If I say to myself that I am going give up my supper tomorrow, it’s unlikely that I will feel anything more than vanity or anxiety. But if I sacrifice the ‘I’s’ that want to think about tomorrow’s supper or the fear of unpleasantness connected with making efforts in the instinctive center, it becomes possible to give these up in order to be present. This changes the picture; suddenly I am—as Gurdjieff suggests—giving up illusions.

What this means is that if we want to create an emotional state, the things we need to sacrifice must be in the present moment. In particular we sacrifice mechanicality. The idea is simple: there are many small, unnecessary illusions that we carry around with us that are supported by our mechanicality. If for instance you are in the habit of watching TV while you eat, you can sacrifice watching TV and instead concentrate on being present to you meal. In a situation like this what are you really giving up? In most cases what you are giving up is the illusion that you can watch television, eat, and remember yourself at the same time.

Maybe when you first awaken in the morning, you like to try to imagine how you day will go. If that is the case, then you can sacrifice your morning reverie and instead start your day by being present. The illusion you are giving up here is that you can do, that you are clever enough to predict the details of your day. Or maybe you walk or jog and allow yourself to imagine pleasant scenarios. Maybe you do this because you find jogging or walking boring. If that is the case, then you can sacrifice you pleasant dreams for trying divide your attention between your body and what you see in front of you. In this case what you sacrifice is the illusion that it is events, not your lack of effort, that make your outings boring.

In sense all we’re doing here is creating a space in our lives for self-remembering. Our lives can be made more deliberate in a way that incorporates inner work into our daily activities, but we have to want to do it.

So how does this lead to becoming more emotional? Basically sacrifice is method of transformation, or to put it another way, a technique for diverting energy, usually lost in mechanicality, to internal aims. This process really only becomes possible with any consistency when the higher emotional center works because it is only in higher states that we have the scale and relativity to see our daily life as material for our work on self-remembering. In other words we must, to some extent, realize that the life around us is unreal before we are willing give up our illusions.

What does it mean that the world we see is unreal? To me it means that life is passing, that it lacks a feeling of being substantial—or of having a positive existence—when compared to the time-expansive perception of higher centers. Most of our problems are only seen as problems because we have not observed them from the scale of the entirety of our lives.

For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.
~ Omar Khayyam / Translated by Edward FitzGerald

The unreality of the second state seen from the third state may be compared to the memory of a dream. The dream feels unreal when we are in the second state in the same way the world feels unreal from the point of view of the third state. Really only the first conscious shock—self-remembering, being present, divided attention—has the power to bring us to the unreality of life. But we need to work on other lines as well. Change of attitude, right thinking, and work on stopping identification and imagination all lay the groundwork for the possibility of sacrificing our mechanicality. But before we can give up mechanicality, we first have to observe it and try to stop it; and before we can exchange it for something higher, we have to be able to see our lives and, to some extent, the world from the point of view of our work on conscious evolution. In other words we need to see our lives as material for inner work. Eventually, when the higher emotional center works, these lines of efforts join, but at first they must be worked on separately. It is this inability to combine different lines of effort that gives a man number four the feeling that he is working in the dark.

There is much we can sacrifice. For instance we can give up the idea of health.

I once said that they must sacrifice ‘faith,’ ‘tranquility,’ ‘health.’ They understand this literally. But then the point is that they have not got either faith, or tranquility, or health. All these words must be taken in quotation marks. ~ G. I. Gurdjieff (as quoted in In Search of the Miraculous)

OsirisWhat does it mean to sacrifice health? To me it means giving up fear and worry about the instinctive center. We don’t stop taking care of our needs, but we do need to admit to ourselves that ill health is a part of the human condition. From the point of view of higher centers, the body’s life is so short that to identify with it and give all our energy to it is seen short-sighted. So when we observe fear and worry about our health, instead of reassuring ourselves, which is usually imagination, we sacrifice our fears for self-remembering and being present. We give up the illusion of health and concentrate our efforts on connecting to higher centers, which have the possibility to observe the body as a temporary housing for the self.

Omar Khayyam Statue in Nishapur, IranThe idea of sacrifice can have far-reaching effects on our work, but first we must be willing to take the next step: to begin to think in terms of consistent effort. We want to believe that a higher level means less effort. We want to be rewarded with rest. But in my experience a new level means that exercises and efforts that were impossible before become possible. Epictetus says, ‘If you would improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to externals.’ In our terms this might read: if you want to be present, you must be willing to sacrifice, at least, the things that are incompatible with self-remembering. Why are we unwilling to make these sacrifices? Because we are still endeavoring to keep our illusions and because all our energy is diverted into preserving an imaginary world. But life is too short to have everything. We must learn to choose; we must think in terms of what are we willing, in this moment, to give up to be present.

%d bloggers like this: