Capital from Villelongue
Photograph by the author
Gurdjieff made several remarks about working with instincts during his wartime meetings:
I have noticed for a long time that very often, and concerning very different matters, an interior voice told me what I had to do. I perceived it, I heard what it said, but without acting on what it told me. I have acted otherwise and afterward I see the voice is always right. I would like to know if I should pay no attention to it
or on the contrary follow it more?
Do nothing about all that. Buy a little notebook, make a record. Write down, but do nothing. That voice is your instinct; sometimes instinct can appear through the consciousness, but it is rare. Perhaps it will prove that you have true instinct.
—Wartime Meetings, meeting six
I understand well the struggle against the negative emotions but what troubles me the most is a very light side of character which jokes even about my very misery. This prevents me remorse and pity. How can I get rid of it?
This proves that you do not know what you are looking for. You interest yourself in these questions without partaking of your instinct. You have said it very well. I understand why you do not advance. I know the secret of why you stamp on the spot, on two, one, two; up to now, your instinct was isolated. It never took part in your work… But you understood what I explained. You have felt that your interior is never interested in these things for which we are working. Something in you remains apart, it looks. Another part in you does something else—you work without instinct. Everything works—head, feeling, except that which must. It has never done anything to change.
—Wartime Meetings, meeting seven
And here the third mention of instinct:
…Real love is objective; but in Paris objective love doesn't exist. You have made the word sentiment
for sex, for dirty things; you have forgotten real love.
But must one seek to repress it for the sake of the other?
Regard it as a weakness and put it aside. And at the same time, use it for looking at yourself. Profit from everything. And from instinct you will perhaps be able to feel real love. The taste will perhaps come to you.
If the rest of the material is at the very least suggestive, this clinches it. When he uses the word instinct, Gurdjieff is referring to a higher or spiritual part, which can cause us to “feel real love.” That is quite definitely a higher thing within the context of any religious teaching, religious or otherwise. Christ’s love was, after all, real love – and even the most ordinary Christian understands the difference between Christ’s love, which was the love of God Himself, and our own love, which is insignificant and weak.
In summary, when Gurdjieff speaks of people working with instinct, he is not speaking of the lower or primal instincts — he is speaking of the spiritual instincts. And we have to understand instinct, like all other properties in the universe, especially the Names of God (the metaphysical powers which are bestowed upon creation over and above its material aspects) — as being subject to the law of octaves and an inherent evolutionary development, which was outlined above in the context of the enneagram. (One can also refer to the diagram for a visual impression.) Our instincts are either primal or spiritual — and at any given time, a human being always has a complex balance of these two impulses within themselves. In fact, like all other phenomena, they function according to the multiplications in the law of octaves, so the influences they have upon one another — a blend of higher and lower vibrations in constant and complex interaction — can’t be construed as a simple progression from our primal instincts to our spiritual ones.
The question, rather, is whether we are able to create a preponderance of force in our spiritual instinct, so that it guides our primal instincts in their actions.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.