“Keep within! And when they say, ‘Look here’ or ‘look there’ is Christ, go not forth….”
This beautiful gem of Quaker wisdom, set to music by Paulette Meier and well loved by many of you around the Wisdom network, encapsulates both the method and the deeper intention of Gurdjieff’s Atmosphere Exercise. Here we will be actively exploring what it means to “keep within:” not merely as a spiritual demeanor, but as an actual mode of embodied presence.
Call, it your “aura,” call it “electromagnetic field of your heart:” the words all point to the same underlying recognition that “we” do not end at the outer edge of our skins. We move within an encompassing energetic field which we ourselves generate, and which –according to Gurdjieff—we are responsible for maintaining in good working order: i.e., unruffled, contained, and under our conscious supervision. He picturesquely refers to this field as our atmosphere.
Contemplative Christianity has also long prized this state of inner containment, which is known in the Christian West as “recollection” and in the Christian East as “vigilance.” It is a state of alert, calm, gathered presence. In its absence, the energy around our being rushes and swirls in an automatic jumble, losing much of its directional force while at the same time negatively entangling itself with other similarly untended atmospheres. The result is an energetic cacophony. This relatively straightforward exercise will help you to settle down within your own atmosphere, keeping your being-energy contained and quiet under your conscious tending.
As usual, the chief culprit is thinking—or, to be more specific, the completely mechanical and autonomous movement of thinking when we are not consciously present. Gurdjieff says, arrestingly; “Your atmosphere is displaced in the direction in which your thought moves. If you think of your mother who is far away, your atmosphere moves toward the place where your mother is.” To be sure, this speaks of the wondrous, space-traveling capacities of our creative imagination, carried on the wings of our attention: so long as both are under our conscious control. But when imagination becomes infected with nostalgia or fantasy, or suddenly intoxicated by its own magical powers, then the journey is aborted, and our space traveler falls back under the sway of delusion.
But until you have learned to sense your atmosphere directly, you won’t be able to taste the difference between imagination indentured to fantasy and “the real deal.” It is a tragic trompe l’oeil, on which many sincere aspirations have foundered.
In this exercise we practice remaining within our atmosphere, not letting our thoughts and emotions go ricocheting out beyond the meter to meter-and-a-half circle we imaginatively draw around ourselves. It is the exact inner equivalent of the task we took on one day during our Wisdom School in the desert near Tucson: to draw a six-foot ring around ourselves and sit within it for an hour. We are drawing that same ring—only now in the air, not on the ground. This will be the paddock where we contain the wild horse of our thoughts, emotions, and impulses until the whole thing comes quietly into a wordless equanimity.
In this exercise we meet for the first time Gurdjieff’s unique use of the phrase “Represent to yourself” (instruction 5).
“Representing to yourself” is not the same thing as visualizing. Close, but not the identical. They have subtly different flavors, since they are in fact the work of different centers. Visualizing draws primarily on the intellectual center. Representing remains much closer to sensation. With your attention firmly anchored in your solar plexus (at least that’s how it works for me), you simply allow the radius of your attention to expand outward, to establish a direct sensate contact with the entire sphere of that atmosphere. You will discover that you are able to do this fairly easily if you don’t interfere with the process by thinking.
You may watch how the waves of thinking, emotion, agitation wash across the still waters of your atmosphere. But if you simply “keep within,” not allowing yourself to be dragged outside its sphere, things will quiet down once again and the depths of a deeper, mysterious aliveness begin to emerge.
One must also “compel the atmosphere to stay within its limits—not allow it to go further than it can sustain.” (instruction 8). That limit is concretely set at a meter to a meter-and-a-half. It actually exists, a palpable energy field. Anything beyond this, and you will likely be venturing out under the sway of thought, emotion, or unanchored visualization. And you will inevitably get tangled up in other people’s atmospheres.
I have often used this “sanctuary” of my atmosphere to navigate through a rough patch when a group I am teaching begins to get energetically disturbed–i.e., heady, confrontational, or intoxicated with a kind of group musk. Sometimes the only thing that can be done is to plant my attention in my solar plexus, “shelter in place” within my atmosphere, and hold the space until the disturbed waves subside. Mysteriously, this will often have a calming presence on the whole group. I have learned through repeated hard knocks that usually this is the ONLY way to shift the energy. Taking the bait when an inflamed emotional or intellectual challenge has been hurled onto the floor is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Only by standing firm in that stillness will the disturbed atmosphere within the group begin to settle.
And this stands to reason, since the disturbance has been created in the first place by the group leader failing to notice when, carried away by thought, emotion, or passion, the group members have been drawn out of their individual atmospheres. The result will always be trouble.
Learning to stay within one’s own atmosphere is not only responsible self-maintenance; it is also foundational group hygiene. We will see more why this is so when we come to the next exercise, The Web.
A Few Further Comments
There is a very good reason, I believe, that Gurdjieff set the boundary of our personal atmosphere at a meter to a meter-and-a-half: that is the maximum radius that most people, without further specialized training, can actually embrace through direct sensation, rather than defaulting to visualization.
It is, in other words, the functional radius of our attention.
I must confess that i have always struggled with the Work phrase “divided attention” and its companion instruction (whether in the movements, the exercises, or in practical work): “Divide your attention.” I know this instruction comes with hoary authority: Gurdjieff himself taught it. So it is with justifiable fear and trembling that I now raise my dissenting voice —may God smite me if I am wrong!!!
But I stand by my own experience: attention cannot be divided. Like the body of Christ in Symeon the New Theologian’s celebrated poem, it is “indivisibly whole, seamless in [its] Godhood.” And since it is thus by nature infinite, it cannot be divided by any finite integer. You cannot place half your attention on your right arm and half on “I AM.” The two must occur simultaneously, held together in a three-dimensional space, a sphere of attention, with its center located deeper within.
“Where do you pay attention from?” Ben Grant asked us, almost offhandedly, at the end of a teaching session with the Toronto group in the early 1990s. Ben Grant was an elder in the Work, a first-generation student of Gurdjieff, at that point probably already in his eighties.
The question riveted me. In all my years in the Work nobody had ever asked that, either before or afterwards. But the answer from within was not long in coming. Nor has it ever varied.
The seat of my attention is in my solar plexus.
With my attention firmly grounded there (which is also, in many chakra systems, the seat of the personal will), I then project it out like a light beam, scribing a sphere according to the radius—to the candlepower– of my attention.
Within that three-dimensional space, attention is not divided; rather, it expands effortlessly to fill the space, just like air in a balloon as you blow it up. Everything within the radius of that sphere can be simultaneously comprehended, held in balance, like planets circling around a sun. When I am on the movements floor, for example, I do not apportion 30% of my attention to my feet, 30% to the arms, and 30% to the counting task; in that mentalized configuration my attention swiftly collapses. Rather, fiercely gathered and present at the seat of my attention (“quivering like a drop of mercury,” in Rumi’s evocative phrase) I simply do—for as far out as my attention can hold the unbroken field.
That is the beauty of The Atmosphere Exercise as Gurdjieff offers it to us here. Our “atmosphere” is really the functional circumference of our attention; within it, we get to taste ourselves directly. It is as close as we can get to touching our own essence, to a direct, sensation of our being, our “Real I.” Within this cloistered garden the fragrance is sweet. It is nurturing. No wonder Gurdjieff encourages us to suck it in.
Go much beyond that meter-and-a-half and the attention buckles; you collapse back into the story of yourself, the emotions, the vicarious projections. Back to viewing yourself through the periscope of your mind. That is why Gurdjieff was so insistent on ‘compelling the atmosphere to remain within its limits.” Better to stay with a small truth than a large illusion.
In any group activity, your foremost priority is to take responsibility for maintaining the unity and coherence of your own atmosphere. As the old Shaker maxim goes, “We should pass by each other lightly, like angels.” When we get pulled off-balance, out of three-centered awareness– when we get co-opted by our agendas, our emotions, the excitement racing through the crowd—then the external manifestations emerging from our disturbed atmosphere will always be cacophonous. They will always clash with and incite other atmospheres. Agitation, posturing, headiness, stridency, sentimentality, emotional manipulation are always the result–initially perceptible, once you’ve trained yourself to look, in the raised decibels and sharper tone of voices and in general body agitation. This is how groups get shanghaied, andI repeat: in all groups, but particularly in spiritual groups, the responsible custody of your own atmosphere is your first and primary obligation. As the individual atmospheres go, so will the group atmosphere go. If something is going off-track energetically, STOP!!! Put the argument on pause, and attend to this beautiful, simple exercise to restore and recollect your own atmosphere. Then you can all begin in a better place, and carry on with the cosmic work that a “seamless and indivisible” group atmosphere can contribute so profoundly to our aching and fractured planet.
As usual, Rumi nails it. Here is the rest of the poem:
Stay together, friends.
Don’t scatter and sleep.
Our friendship is made
of being awake.
The waterwheel accepts water
and turns and gives it away,
That way it stays in the garden,
whereas another roundness rolls
through a dry riverbed looking
for what it thinks it wants.
Stay here, quivering with each moment
like a drop of mercury.
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