In experienting, the group sits still while someone guides them through an exercise of attention. This elicits new kinds of experience involving the ‘experience of experience’.
Experienting involves a transaction between a small group of people and a mentor or guide. This transaction can be viewed as a transmission from the guide to the people in the group. But there is also a transaction taking place within each person. This can be viewed as a communication between what we will call the ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious’ of the individual. It is what is most important.
The simple model can be developed in two ways: first, by taking account of the inner communication taking place in the guide, and second by allowing for a communication between guide and participant so that it is not entirely one way.
The guide is giving verbal instructions and also providing a commentary on the process. On occasion, participants are invited to comment also in words. For the most part, the guide is relying on his own subconscious to pick up signals from the participants, just as in psychotherapy it is claimed that the unconscious of the therapist can pick up information from the unconscious of the client.
There is another aspect to consider, which is the resource on which the guide draws to initiate and facilitate the process. In practical terms, this resource is knowledge and experience of such exercises over many years. The guide is taking what he has studied and experienced and, through his own evaluation of both this resource and also his awareness of where the participants are at in their own experience, evaluations and understanding he is making an interpretation or translation of the resource to suit the participants.
In place of this linear model, we can suppose that the resource is also available to the participants because they would have had some experience of the methods before and also of similar things. Though the guide should have a much deeper experience and understanding of the resource than the participants, what is at stake is their actualization of the resource, which means that the process must be looked at from their point of view, at least as much as from the guide’s point of view. We may also consider the resource as having its own kind of ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious’ sides. The idea of a ‘subconscious’ resource closely identifies with such ideas as ‘transmission outside the scriptures’ and even ‘transmission outside the mind’. There is an explicit form of the resource – such as sets of written descriptions of exercises – but these are only the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’ is something more.
In the conduct of experienting, the ‘resource’ translates specifically into what the guide says. What he says also involves a reflective component: he does not only give instructions but comments on what is proceeding in himself. The guide is seeking to elicit a similar reflective process in the participants.
The Critical Action
The critical action is this. Some explicit instruction – such as ‘put your attention into your breathing, etc.’ – which necessarily addresses the conscious mind of the participants is designed to elicit a response from their subconscious. What actually arises in them may be largely unpredictable and the guide can only comment about his own experience. He does this in such a way that the participants are left in some measure free to have and interpret their own experience. The commentary by the guide is provided only by way of illustration. In effect, the guide is asking the participants to make their own reflections. As something comes out of the subconscious it can assume form in the conscious mind, but this has to be assisted by intentional reflection in the moment.
An integral part of experienting is to become able to have a subconscious process going on while at the same time a conscious one is also taking place. There is, in effect, a learning conversation going on internally. By and large, the subconscious produces non-verbal experience such as sensations and images while the conscious is involved in language. The languaging part of the process is all important. The participants have to ask themselves such questions as, ‘What is this like?’
The guide should find that his work of putting into words what is ensuing in himself actually enhances the unfolding of the subconscious material. For people with little experience of such practices, this may first prove troublesome. This is because most of our training and formation has led us to fixate on a single line of experience and we have to undergo special training to recover our innate capacity to divide attention. The division of attention begins with undertaking two independent lines, but can extend into three or more. The first line is that of the given process, whatever it is, while the second involves reflection on the first. This is involved in active thinking, which must combine not only ‘thinking’ as it is going on but also an awareness of how we are thinking and hence of what the thinking means. Another way this arises is when we not only ‘think’ but also ‘feel’ what we are thinking.
The traditional resource from which experienting derives stems from Gurdjieff who constantly spoke of three kinds of awareness – to sense, feel and constate – and urged that we learn how to combine and blend these together while allowing each its own nature. A common currency shared by these is voluntary attention. This is initiated by thinking but not confined to it. Voluntary attention enables a dialogue to take place; but this is totally different from the usual internal chatter of words and imaginings. Indeed, Gurdjieff implied that a kind of ‘chemical action’ is taking place, producing a precious substance of being.
Experienting like many other methods can produce sensations and feelings that captivate participants, but it is intended to produce genuine realizations of what is significant in the individual for him. This raises the issue of evaluation and experienting should include periods of conversation reflecting on how the experience is being evaluated. A realization is something that can carry into life, while a ‘good feeling’ will just fade away. Nevertheless, the participants themselves have to come to the realization of how they are evaluating their experience before they can begin to see there may be alternatives.
The reflective state of divided attention is, therefore, crucial. Experiments have been made in which participants are invited to comment on the process while engaged in it. Such experiments require more of the guide who has to incorporate what they say into his own stream of interpretation. In the extreme case, a group of people take turns in developing the experienting. This is extremely demanding because then the participants have to respond to a variety of instructions, voiced in different ways according to the diverse experience, backgrounds and temperaments of each other.
How does the act of communication between conscious and subconscious begin for someone? We postulate that once this has been realized, then the person can develop their own pathway in experienting. It will unfold in a direction of its own, according to the needs of the individual. This by no means excludes learning from others and being guided. The evidence is that the more the person has her own access, the more she is able to learn from others.
This raises the question of initiation. This term is usually used when someone is brought into experience and recognition of a process by someone else. The sort of exercises belonging to the resource available to the guide of experienting have been acquired by actual participation in them in the presence of a guide who has himself been initiated. It is relatively rare for someone to pick up an exercise just by reading a description of it. However, once the person had been ‘initiated’ then he might be able to work from written descriptions alone.
What a person can initiate another into depends on what that person has actually been initiated into himself. We cannot convey more than what we understand. To understand here means ‘being able to do’ and not just metal comprehension. What is at stake is not knowledge but the ability to engage in an action. Action is little understood. Gurdjieff referred to it as ‘doing’. There are many things that are possible but we just feel at a loss to undertake them by ourselves.
A therapist is, in some measure, concerned with initiating his client into an action, usually a form of reflective awareness and it is sometimes recognized that the goal is to have the client become able to do for himself what he at present can only do through the therapist. This is not so clear cut as it seems. The ‘energy’ made available by the dyad of therapist and client is usually far more than can be available to a person by himself. Similarly, the energy available when there is a group of people with shared attention is considerably more than that available when they are by themselves. Many people find or believe that they can ‘do’ an exercise while with other people that they cannot do otherwise. This does not affect the principle of initiation, since we can take account of conditions as a real factor. Thus, for example, it is unlikely that experienting as such could be practised while engaged in daily tasks.
Initiation in the popular mind is associated with just going through a ritual but this can mean only that the ritual is gone through as an external event. To make it real, something has to take place in the individual. In the end, this can only mean some act of self-initiation. In Gurdjieffian terms, this entails a conjunction of sensing, feeling and thinking that is unique and specific. It is an event of ‘I’. Once realized, it is always ‘there’. It is this that takes the doing of an exercise from mere ritual to initiation. Then, the exercise is the person’s ‘own’ and he has it in him.
There is the old saying that one can lead a horse to water but not make him drink. This applies very much to experienting. The enigma is that it seems to be necessary to go through prolonged training just in order to come to the threshold of a self-initiation. When the threshold is crossed, it is akin to a decision because it is an act of will. Here an ‘act of will’ means a change in the ‘whole of oneself’. The person can then take responsibility for his doing of exercises or experienting and not have to depend on others to define what they are or guide him in doing them. Once this has been realized, an exercise can be engaged simply by ‘thinking about’ it. True self-initiation frees him up – more or less - from reliance on special conditions.
From Gurdjieff’s descriptions, it seems that he looked forward to a realization in which the exercise is no longer necessary. In general, it is important to understand that once there is self-initiation what one thought an exercise was about is seen very differently. It is similar to a shift from the conscious to the subconscious mind as centre of initiative. If one remembers an exercise - that is, reconnects with it here and now – then the exercise begins to work ‘all by itself’ without any need to consciously rehearse its steps. But this is only possible when the exercise has been assimilated or understood. Self-initiation is the start and not the end of this.
There are ‘exercises’ that proceed entirely spontaneously after initiation. An example is the latihan of Subud. The new practitioner stands with people who have already been initiated and after the simplest of introductions chooses to let the process begin. The outer initiation is brief and consists of someone saying a few words. The new person is given no instructions about what to do at all. Personal experience shows that it begins with the most elementary act of acceptance – just saying to oneself, ‘OK. Let it happen’ – but there is a moment at which it begins, sometimes with astonishing manifestations. It is like finding a switch in the dark.
The exercises stemming from Gurdjieff have the potential of something similar since they entail in essence a kind of ‘letting it happen’, but they are more directed. Bennett drew attention to the phenomenon of ‘hiatus’ when a person doing an exercise can suddenly realize that he has no idea ‘where he has been’ or ‘what has been happening’; instead, there is just a blank. He sometimes used the Sanskrit word samadhi for this state and implied that it would be possible to develop some awareness of what it contained through prolonged work. It is important to mention the blank state because no matter what is brought into consciousness most of what is taking place is in the subconscious which, for Bennett, included creativity. Bennett pointed out that creativity was usually only registered when it ‘hit’ the sensitive energy of our usual awareness and produced inner impressions.
Experienting can be turned into a spontaneous manifestation if the person chooses to do so; but this is another self-initiation. Self-initiation is the source of acquiring the substance of ‘I’. All teachings, exercises, experiences take their deepest meaning from self-initiation, which can never be displayed in the public arena.
Thinking seems to be in sharp contrast with spontaneity. The idea that ‘just thinking’ about an exercise can produce a real effect and not simply superficial associations of concepts and labels may come as a surprise. But, the ‘thinking’ meant here is that thinking which is in communication with feeling and sensation, that is, with the whole of us. This kind of thinking puts us in touch with what we are thinking about. It might be useful to use the phrase ‘thinking the exercise’ rather than ‘thinking about’ it. There is the thinking that excludes concreteness and the thinking that includes it. The two are very different and it is of great value to learn this difference. Experienting itself is a way of developing this discernment.
Concrete thinking considered (artificially) by itself is without substance, concerning form rather than content, but it is made concrete by the fact that it connect us with what is real. This thinking connects us with our molecules of meaning which are moments of realization, however great or small. These moments or molecules are precious and we need to be able to make the maximum use of them. They are full-blooded, so to say, involving forms, feelings and sensations. They are active memories, which somehow of themselves seek each other to make more meaning.
Learning how to speak during experienting – or verbalise internally – is supremely important as a way of tuning into real thinking. Education and professional work will have largely conspired to divorce us from real thinking, putting in their place public verbalisations that have little substance. Real thinking brings the whole of us into play. We can learn how to think with our eyes and hands, our breath and feelings.
The Art of the Guide
The guide can develop his ability to convey an exercise to other people but, more than that, he can learn how to create new forms of the exercise and even entirely new ones. The more skilled and experienced he is, the less he requires to hold in his mind. It is as if the development of his understanding can be measured according to how little he needs in explicit form. With understanding, he is able to establish what might be called ‘compression algorithms’ in which complex and diverse procedures are enfolded.
All traditional formats of inner exercise carry with them explicit descriptions and explanations, sometimes in highly technical language. This implies a cognitive element that should not be forgotten because of ‘having experiences’. ‘Having experiences’ is akin to being in a trance, sometimes to the extent of being unconscious of surrounding events and liable to injury, but more significantly in the sense of believing in a world view that may misinterpret the experience. Most hard core mystical traditions assert that the key element to realize is a kind of knowledge and that this is distinct from any state, however blissful or deep it might seem.
It must not be forgotten that whatever experiences – as states or feelings – arise they are subject to interpretation from how we construct meaning. What is at issue in real practice is changing the way we construe meaning rather than having any kind of experience. It is, therefore, essential to come to realize that how one construes meaning is the primary obstruction to any deeper ‘seeing’. The study of a ‘true’ description of the content of an exercise or type of exercise or practice can even be understood as a deeper practice than attempting to ‘do’ an exercise if one knows how to study.
The guide will be acting from his own insight and world view, even though he may not be adhering to any long-standing traditional metaphysics. How he explains the process will be subject to the constructs that inform him about what experiences mean. Differences in interpretation that distinguish the various schools of inner discipline may not be discernible by the participants he is conducting through an exercise, but are nevertheless relevant. The deeper long-lasting objective of inner practice is to realize what our experience means and this depends on the participant coming to the self-initiation by which he can begin to ‘’grasp’ the point
APPENDIX – a classical form of meditation
Many people are now familiar with the word ‘meditation’ and it is often used by participants to label experienting, but the original meaning of the term needs to be understood, for which we must turn to the Hindu Yoga tradition (one of the six Hindu systems) as well as the classical European. From Latin, the root med means to ‘take appropriate measures’, as in the word ‘medicine’. In the Hindu Yoga Sutras of Patanjali the word mediation is the translation of the word dhyana, which means ‘[sustained] concentration on one thing’. There are three main stages in raj yoga (the ‘royal’ inner work).
Dharana is preparation and cultivating right disposition. It is all that has to do with conducive environmental conditions such as quality of air, light, use of music, recitation of sacred scriptures and so on and also includes attention on how the person is seated. Similar considerations are being applied for children in the approach known as ‘accelerated learning’. The objective is to settle the mind and reduce distractions, induce positive feelings and have a good posture.
Dhyana as already stated means steady concentration on one thing. There are innumerable ways or styles of doing this. The main purpose of dhyana is described as ‘constraint on the fluctuations of the mind stuff’, which is intended to reveal a deeper and more intrinsic (less distracted from the outside) state of mind. The commonly understood ‘mind’ is considered to be a mechanism reacting to the external world and not the seat of the ‘true person’ within. This ‘person’ is assumed to be the silent witness of the mind, seeing and not doing.
Samadhi is the final state, which may or may not arise. It is inherently spontaneous. The word signifies a ‘oneness’ of subject and object, so that what is contemplated becomes identical with that which contemplates. This releases unpredictable content (or there is a hiatus as Bennett describes). In modern parlance, we can associate samadhi with ‘healing’ in the original sense of ‘restoring wholeness’. There is therefore a sense of returning to the primordial, to the original self.
In Bennett’s descriptive framework of the ‘energies of the mind’ he speaks of (from bottom up):
From the standpoint of the lower, the higher levels look increasingly empty (of knowable content). From the standpoint of the higher, the lower levels look increasingly slow (to change).
These levels or qualities of energy relate to the three stages of raj yoga:
To move from one to the other requires a definite step. Dharana begins with relaxation in the mode of ‘making ready’. Dhyana requires intentional effort and perseverance. Samadhi requires an act of submission, which may or may not be felt as intentional, but goes beyond intention. The three stages are only a description of a process that is essentially one whole, but valuable in training; just as Hindu psychology describes the three natural states – in ascending order – as waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep but goes on to speak of a fourth state turiya in which all three are united
Note that the meaning of such terms as ‘samadhi’ are disputed amongst various schools and some of them even deny its worth. There is no simple agreement to be found and each of us has to work it all out for ourselves, as best we can. This is crucial to our individuality.