Let me begin today’s commentary with a pithy reminder by my dear friend A.H. Almaas as to the fundamental importance of all these sensory embodiment exercises;
“The body is the doorway to the adventure of Being. So the inquiry has to begin by activating and enlivening the body. The more active and alive the whole body is, the more our inquiry is vital and our unfoldment is alive. Our experience is more robust, energetic, and dynamic. We need to remember that the activation of the lataif [the subtle senses of perception in Sufi tradition, allowing us to peer directly into the invisible realms] requires that the centers of physical location be energized.”(Spacecruiser Inquiry, p. 294).
In the absence of a vibrant, awakened presence in our physical body, we default to thinking without even knowing we are doing it. Then everything becomes a projection of the story inside our heads, including (tragically) our deepest sense of our own aliveness.
All meditation traditions recognize that nothing real can happen to us while we are still trapped in the mind. But most try to deal with this by simply “turning off the mind,” or replacing thought with some idealized emotional state (such as peace, bliss, calm). What is distinctive about the Gurdjieffian system is that it goes in the opposite direction: engaging the full aliveness of the body to contain and counterbalance the mind, while at the same time raising the frequency of our presence to a vibrational level where direct perception begins to become possible.
In his introductory remarks on the “Lord have Mercy” exercises George Adie cuts straight to heart of the problem in his instructions 8 and 9: “The head is not related to the body, the head is separate, turning in dreams and imagination and identification… I want to free my head. Free it from words. Connect it to the body.” (p. 245).
Whether you work with the basic form of this exercise given by George Adie or the slightly more complex variation offered by his wife Helen (both included in the posted exercises circulating on this FB page), the exercise itself is fairly straightforward. It’s the straight-up four-point body rotation: right arm, right leg, left leg, left arm, executed either three times (George’s version) or four (Helen’s). The plot twist here is that simultaneously with the sensation itself, you gently add the words, “Lord Have Mercy.”
GENTLY means that this is not a mechanical repetition of an external prayer—but rather, almost “an echo,” as George Adie describes it. And “gently” also means that you are not imposing a liturgical formula from the outside, laying onto the exercise a devotional patina. Rather, you are gently opening a question (whose essence is in fact a petition): is it possible to become directly aware of the subtle relational field which in fact surrounds us at all times and is the ground of our own aliveness: the Mercy of God?
It is stunning the depth of feeling that this simple exercise can evoke. Something can indeed be directly tasted here, a something which opens the heart while at the same time verging on breaking it. A sense of yourself as “the thou of an I (in Ramon Pankkar’s words), infinitely fragile and precious; while at the same time a poignant draught of “the sorrow of our common Father (Gurdjieff’s words).
Does the Lord Have Mercy Exercise come from the Jesus Prayer?
Azize drives the point very hard that Gurdjieff’s “Lord Have Mercy Exercises have their origin in the Jesus Prayer (or “Prayer of the Heart”) of the Orthodox Church, particularly in the Athonite tradition (the monastic mystical traditions tended by the monks of Mt Athos.) I must admit that I am not fully convinced by his arguments. It seems clear that the root of Gurdjieff’s deep resonance with the phrase “Lord have Mercy” (which shows up again and again in his work, not just in the exercises, but also in the movements, in Beelzebub’s tales, and in his own more openly orthodox religiosity during the last years of his life) emanates not in the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, only son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”) but in the Trisagion; that triune invocation of the threedold name of God which is a bedrock of orthodox mysticism:
Holy and mighty
Holy immortal one
Have mercy on us
Or in the Greek form, which Gurdjieff would have sung as a choirboy during his years at the cathedral school in Kars;
Agios o theos
Gurdjieff refers to this prayer extensively in “The Holy Planet Puratory,” his sweeping cosmogonic exposition which ends book II of Beelzebub’s Tales. The triune God is at once the Trinity and the Law of Three, the two of them joined at the hip. For attuned readers, you’ll see that he even alludes to the Greek version in his otherwise “nonsensical” nomenclature on page 687, describing these three forces as ‘surp-otheos” (O theos), “surp-skiros” (Iskyros) and “surp-athanotos (Athanotos). Gurdjieff’s “Lord” is irreducibly a Trinitarian, cosmogonic, personal, Law-of-Three relational field in which all is held together, given life and breath in the fundamental exchange which is the source of the entire created order. The Mercy is its shape, its color, its substantiality, and it can be tasted directly WHEN PERCEIVED DIRECTLY IN THE AWAKENED HEART, GROUNDED IN AN ENLIVENED BODILY PRESENCE. That is definitely the pot of gold awaiting at the end of this rainbow in this exercise.
To try to confine the spaciousness of this panorama within the classic Jesus Prayer, (whose take-off point is the invocation of a particular person within the Trinity) is to hold it too tightly, in my estimation. Jesus does not at any rate figure prominently in Gurdjieff’s own devotional mysticism (nor for that matter does the anatomical heart, around which the Athonite mysticism gravitates so powerfully.) For Gurdjieff, Jesus is definitely one of the highest attained sacred individuals sent to offer aid, but he is on the order of other such cosmic helpers and messengers (like Buddha and Mohammed) not an ontological singularity. Jesus is the finger pointing at the moon, and rather than looking directly AT Jesus, Gurdjieff looks in the same direction as Jesus and sees what Jesus sees—the broken heart and deep sorrow of “our common Father” as He continuously takes into His own heart the anguish and fracturedness which is the shadow side of all manifestation..
The real resonance in this exercise is not so much with the Jesus Prayer as with Gurdjieff’s own Fourth Obligolnian stiving;
…”from the beginning of one’s existence to pay as quickly as possible for one’s arising and individuality in order afterward to be free to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our Common Father.’
And it is this same striving, which I believe offers the most spacious container for holding the otherwise almost unbearable tenderness that flows through this otherwise mysteriously simple exercise.
There is a indeed a way to connect the dots between Gurdjieff’s version of “Lord Have Mercy” and the Jesus Prayer of Orthodox Hesychasm. But the route doesn’t lie through their formal or theological similarities. You have to dive down deeper, to their common ontological core.
Azize properly calls attention to a statement made by Gurdjieff’s designated lineage bearer Jeanne de Salzmann that the phrase “I AM” -–one of the core mantras in the Gurdjieff teaching– can be replaced with the phrase “Lord have mercy.” I would personally err a bit more on the side of caution that in Azize in reading implications into this statement. in the de Salzamann text itself (Reality of Being, p. 73) it is not fully clear whether this is general statement of equivalency authorized by Gurdjieff himself or a situational exception granted by de Salzmann. But my gut feeling is that that the awareness of a deep reciprocity between these two statements originates with Gurdjieff. It is intrinsic to his spirituality, actually at the heart of it. And when you follow his lead here, it winds up revealing some surprising new depths in both the “I am” and the “Lord have Mercy.”
At these depths, by the way, it doesn’t really matter whether you hear this phrase as emanating from the Trisagion or the Jesus prayer. In the end, theyare two streams of the same river.
To make this deeper inquiry into the meaning of the phrase “Lord have Mercy,” you will need two resources, which thankfully will already familiar to many of you in the Wisdom Community. The first is Raimon Panikkar’s Christophany–specifically, section 2 on “The Mysticism of Jesus the Christ.” (pages 39-138)
The second is Olga Louchakova’s extraordinary 2004 essay, “The Essence of the Prayer of the Heart,” which has circulated in Xerox copies for many years within our Wisdom community but is also easily available online.
In his powerful reflection on Jesus’ own deepest sense of selfhood, Panikkar is struck by two apparently contradictory aspects; first, Jesus’ “intense sense of filiation,’ as Panikkar calls it, encapsulated in the phrase, “Abba, Father!”; second, his serene sense connaturality with his divine source, (exemplified in the phrase “I and my Father are one.” Jesus experiences himself as both finite and infinite, temporal and timeless, dual and non-dual. These two poles of his being are not static; rather, they become the driveshaft of a dynamic, relational ground held together by the continuous act of kenotic self-giving, summarized in Pankkar’s memorable one-liner: ”I am one with my source insofar as I too act as a source by making everything I have received flow again.” This is the sphere of the Person, in which God becomes recognizable as love.
Olga Lochakova’s brilliant study of the Jesus prayer brings together her extensive knowledge of the Vedanta and yogic traditions as well as her own initiation in a contemporary Russian school of Hesychasm. Her approach is comparative and phenomenological, taking prayer of the heart as a type of spiritual self-inquiry which boldly poises itself on the cusp between dual and non-dual experience, affirming the validity of both while linking them in precisely the same dynamic flow we have already observed in Panikkar’s exegesis.
“Prayer of the Heart is implicitly a dialogue,” she writes (p. 43);” it is relational, always I-thou.” But the nature of that dialogue is not static, not simply the petition of a hapless mortal to a divine power-broker (as many still hear in the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”) Rather, tenaciously anchored in the embodied sense of self carried in the chest—(and she insists on this!!!)—it morphs into a deepening self-inquiry, and finally into a “whole being engagement in the direct perception of identity.” (p. 39). When followed all the way to its endpoint, Prayer of the Heart marks a journey that collects the self, transcends the self, annihilates the self, then annihilates the annihilation.”
In the end, one discovers it is not merely the individual identity that is being systematically onion-skinned; we find ourselves partaking in a parallel process within the layers of divine identity as well, until at last we find ourselves standing at the very precipice of that cosmic wormhole through which the divine Unmanifest is constantly pouring itself into form. As Louchakova remarkably writes, ‘the practitioner becomes aware of the innermost mystery of the ontopoietic (self-manifesting) process.” (p. 47)
And one final gorgeous insight:
This continuous [repetition of the name of the Divine Person], accompanied by the inward flow of worship in the direction of intimacy with the unknown other, open the focus on the origins of Being…This engagement with the unknown God-Other is the pivotal moment where the emotion of love loses its willed direction and becomes a continuum, a field….the individual self does not cease to exist; it is not voided, but becomes a locus of the manifestation of the larger life.”
Connecting the Dots
So how does all this connect the dots between ‘Lord have Mercy, the Jesus Prayer, and the I AM? I think precisely at that “innermost mystery of the ontopoietic process.”
Gurdjieff, Panikkar, Jesus, the Jesus Prayer: all implicitly recognize that Being—by which I mean not just our individual being but divine Beingness itself—arises within a relational ground. It is nobody’s ontological possession, not even God’s. “I AM” is not an a priori assertion, not a statement that can be made or even cognized apart from that ground. The spiritual modality being articulated here is not the “Atman is Brahmin” mode, not a non-dual realization that cancels all particularity. Rather it is a supremely Western acknowledgement of and self-entrustment to the coherence and dynamism of that relational field.
To the degree that Louchakova is correct in the assertion that the Orthodox Prayer of the Heart has at its epicenter the burning quest to discover and abide in that true I AM, then I think the affinity between this tradition and the mainspring of the Gurdjieffian teaching becomes much more apparent. Grillingly obvious, actually.
But to say that the two terms “I AM” and “Lord have mercy” are equivalents, that they can be used interchangeably, is to say something still more: that they invoke each other, that they are implicit in the other—“bidden or unbidden,” as it were.
For me, this radically shifts the picture, makes me hear both phrases with new ears.
Whenever I say “I am”—as within Helen Adie’s version of the Lord have mercy exercise, at the sectional divisions in the Clear impressions Exercise, or the “Make Strong,” it is with the implicit recognition that this is not about me finding “my” Real I , “my” realized being. It is all going on within the wondrously mysterious and irreducible sphere of the divine Mercy. One bows the knee of the heart.
When I say “Lord have Mercy,” I am not making a pious devotional statement. It’s not about worthy or unworthy, shame and guilt, blame and punishment. Rather, I am feeling to my very bones that yearning for being and sharing of being that permeates the entire created order. I am implicitly acknowledging that one cannot know without also BEING KNOWN. I am affirming my willingness to stay awake, to endure the vulnerability. I am actively engaging humility—not obsequiousness, but a recognition of the real scale of things, the depth of the suffering and the yearning that binds the created order to the uncreated light.
Jesus is the tie-rod holding the “I AM” and the “Lord Have Mercy” together. That is Panikkar’s point. And hence, whether there is or is not a FORMAL connection between Gurdjieff’s Lord Have Mercy exercises and the Athonite traditions of Orthodox monasticism, there is definitely a heart resonance there, a path that will become increasingly clear as the exercises take root in your own heart.
Read Cynthia’s blog series on Azize Exercises:
- Clear Impressions Commentary: Azize Exercises Recommended by Cynthia
- Lord Have Mercy Commentary: Azize Exercises Recommended by Cynthia
- Make Strong Commentary: Azize Exercises Recommended by Cynthia
- The Atmosphere Exercise: Azize Exercises Recommended by Cynthia
- The Web Exercise: Azize Exercises Recommended by Cynthia
- Four Ideals Commentary: Azize Exercises Recommended by Cynthia