The search for “I am”


Richard Hodges

© 2017

8 April

Armstrong Woods




The book Meetings with Remarkable Men was what first attracted me to Gurdjieff’s teaching. If I remember correctly, it was first the honesty and modesty of the authorial voice, by the standards both of non-fiction and fiction, and second the portrait of himself as never doing as others do (see Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson p. 27, 1st edition, where his dying grandmother gives him the injunction to act in this way throughout his life). The book is the story of encounters in a search for individuality, for “I am”.


In Life is Real only then, when “I Am” Gurdjieff tells that there are three worlds for man: two worlds that we share with other animals, the external world, all that we perceive and imagine and do; and the inner world of the organism with all its impulses and emotions and sensations; and the third world, the world of Man proper. Though he says this world arises “between” the first two worlds, its proper place is above them. This is the world of the soul, the world of “I”, of attention, consciousness, and will. The embryo of this world is the sensation of presence, which appears occasionally in all people but must be intensively developed to create the “soul”.


To find the means to enact this growth of soul is our search. The exercise of “I am” is given as a fundamental practice. The impulse of “I”, emanating from the head (or from above the head) is to enter downwards through the body and its centers of awareness, and then to return to the subtle point at the third eye. This also refers to a process in which the I goes forth into life with its projects and returns, experienced and disillusioned, to the self. In both processes, the revenant I is the food for the soul.


The search of the I is enacted through its repeated pilgrimages, which both enrich and diminish it. The diminishment of the I allows it to perceive itself in a new way, not as a self-sufficient unity, but as a double of two incommensurable parts: a lower part which is sensed as a presence in the body, and is a link to the external world; and a higher part which is a link to the infinite.


In that its nature is prior to manifestation, cosmic and personal, this higher part cannot be directly perceived by the person. It is evoked in all traditions by the method of symbolism. For example, the work of Henri Corbin studies the nature and mode of existence of symbols (especially in his seminal book Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi). In Corbin we read that a symbol is not a representation of something else, it is the inexhaustible thing in itself, and subsists in a world intermediate between the material world and the divine world. The latter is inaccessible to direct knowledge or contact; it is rather in this intermediate world, for which Corbin coins the term “imaginal,” that man can have relation with symbolic realities, for example angels, and even God.


The infinite is intuited by its shadow in the personal world, a kind of holy absence spoken about in esoteric teachings of many traditions. See again Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, for a Sufi/Zoroastrian symbol, the “black sun” which powerfully (symbolically) illuminates this absence with its radiations. Gurdjieff speaks about a sun “which neither heats nor lights” (Beelzebub p. 134 “The Arch-Absurd”). Though often given a different interpretation, it may be that this paradoxical image also refers to this black sun.

We are also given symbols such as the ray of creation, the enneagram, and many others. We are told not to take these symbols “literally”; yet certain teachers of Gurdjieff prescribe taking these symbolic forms “literally”. What is the right understanding of working with symbols? Perhaps both indications are correct; if the reality of a symbol subsists in the “imaginal” realm, then taking it literally may be a key to entering into an organic relationship with it; yet simultaneously, what saves us from idolatry is the understanding that it is something “created in the mind”.

Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism is centered around cultivating this sort of dual relationship. In the classic text The Moonlight: Quintessence of Mind and Meditation (trans. Lobsang Lhalungpa, who also translated The Life of Milarepa, working with members of the Gurdjieff Foundation), the practitioner is gradually introduced to the challenging idea contained in the word “Mahamudra”, which means “Great Symbol” or “Great Seal”. The imprint of this “Royal Seal” upon the mind is to have the recognition arise simultaneously with every thought, perception, sensation, that it is something taking place in the mind (we might say “in the imaginal”). This is the culmination of a life of properly conducted self observation and study.

In the twentieth century the works of Jacques Derrida teach a work of “deconstruction,” in which the assumed meanings of words and concepts are examined and found to be constructed of unstable and even impossible materials; our received notions of things constitute a “tower of Babel” (Des Tours de Babel, Derrida 1985) which as Hamolinadir says (Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson p. 337, 1st edition) is constructed “of bricks of…iron and wood and…‘dough’ and ‘eider down’…[this tower] will certainly fall and crush…everything.” Unlike Hamolinadir who ran off to Nineveh to become a farmer[1], Derrida proposes to save us from naïve and often dangerously violent consequences of our words and concepts by “deconstructing” them. It is interesting to note that Derrida, who confessed to being “rightly taken for an atheist” (Circumfession 1993, pp.154-155[2]), nevertheless devoted his life to thinking and writing mostly about religion, and in a deeply serious and sensitive way. Perhaps the most honorable search for faith in the “post-modern” world (the present world, conditioned by the fall of received religious faith) is conducted under the banner of a certain atheism.

It is perhaps tempting to align Derrida’s work with what Gurdjieff describes as his aim for Beelzebub’s Tales: “To destroy, mercilessly, without any compromises whatsoever, in the mentation and feelings of the reader, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world.” In any case, we must understand that the search for “I am” entails first a recognition and self-confession, and then a destruction of all that makes us less than a fully human Individual—the factors enumerated by Gurdjieff as “consequences of the organ kundabuffer”: vanity, pride, self-love, laziness, habitual thinking and feeling, swagger, bragging, arrogance, etc. (Beelzebub p. 356).


[1] We are interested in the statement that in Nineveh Hamolinadir raised “maize,” which refers to Indian Corn, Zea Mays, a crop known at that time only in the New World. The word comes from a New World indigenous language of Hispaniola, where Indian Corn was first encountered by Europeans. Perhaps, as we have proposed elsewhere (“The Way of Sacrifice and the Light Within”, ), “Nineveh” points toward ancient Mexico, and Hamolinadir actually took ship for the New World. When he got there, he became the Promethean culture-bringer figure Quetzalcoatl, whose myth resembles that of Ishtar, the patron goddess of Nineveh.

[2] It seems useful to quote here the whole passage, which demonstrates Derrida’s power and depth of self-reflection and pondering of religious symbols, as well as his use of language:

That’s what my readers won’t have known about me, the commas of my breathing henceforward, without continuity but without a break, the changed time of my writing, graphic writing, through having lost its interrupted verticality, almost with every letter, to be bound better and better but be read less and less well over almost twenty years, like my religion about which nobody understands anything, any more than does my mother who asked other people a while ago, not daring to talk to me about it, if I still believed in God, nutrierat filios totiens eos parturiends, quotiens abs te deuiare cernebat [‘She had brought up her children, being in labor with them each time she saw them wandering away from thee’], but she must have known that the constancy of God in my life is called by other names, so that I quite rightly pass for an atheist, the omnipresence to me of what I call God in my absolved, absolutely private language being neither that of an eyewitness nor that of voice doing anything other than talking to me without saying anything, nor a transcendent law or an immanent schechina, that feminine figure of Yawheh who remains so strange and familiar to me, but the secret I am excluded from…