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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sales

Octaves, Plagues and Progress

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

I started smoking in 1955 when I was 11. By the time I was 26, I had about a two-pack-a-day habit. My dad was my hero. He went through three packs a day. He had a triple bypass in 1985 and died of cancer two years later.

By the time I was 23, I realized that cigarettes weren’t good for me. It took me three years to quit.

G.I. Gurdjieff got me to stop.

Although some dismiss him as another hokum slinger who used women, was intolerant of anyone who wasn’t heterosexual, and scoffed at applying science to analyzing his claims and methods, Gurdjieff exerted a remarkable influence on those who became his students.

I was attracted to his fundamental assertion that folks are mostly asleep even when they think they are awake and that few of us have engaged in the inner practices necessary to open our souls fully to the true depths available to consciousness. He taught that most people are creatures of habits of which they are virtually completely unaware. He describes people constrained by their habits as being like a single musical octave that constitutes the permanent resting place of being. This Stuckness is epitomized by going round and round the same cycle of thought and action without realizing it dynamics or being able to affect it.

We assume that intention proceeds as a straight line from resolve to result.

Smoking was a way that stuckness showed up for me. I started every day for years with a sincere intention to stop, an intention I’d remind myself of 17 hours after having my last cigarette of the night.

Gurdjieff reminds us that we assume that intention proceeds as a straight line from resolve to result. His observations and analyses led to exactly the opposite conclusion. According to Gurdjieff, every action plan has an octave-like structure, and there are two points – intervals – in every action cycle where the conscious will is required to keep ascension to a higher octave or descending to a lower one is required. Without that will, distractions of various sorts will intervene and pull our intention away from its original objective. The result: we cycle back to a very similar point to where we started without realizing how our own thoughts and behavior contributed to an expenditure of energy that is essentially wasted.

An illustration of how the absence of will bends intention back on itself leading, ultimately, to a place that is very much like the beginning From: The Law of Seven, p. 105, Gurdjieff: An Approach to his Ideas, Michel Waldberg
An illustration of how the absence of will bends intention back on itself leading, ultimately, to a place that is very much like the beginning From: The Law of Seven, p. 105, Gurdjieff: An Approach to his Ideas, Michel Waldberg

I started applying greater will to being in conversations and to smoking.

Without an awareness of when will needs to be inserted in a conversation, many conversations go nowhere. There is no learning, no progression of thought.

Take introductions. Many introduce themselves in a scripted fashion. “I did this…then I did that … and then I did this.” Unless someone interjects something like, “You mentioned X. What did you learn doing that?” and keeps taking that line of inquiry deeper, the person producing the script is unlikely to get underneath her or his existing definition of h/erself to h/erself or others. So, the next person or group s/he meets will hear the same introduction. The speaker may become bored of h/erself of put h/er introduction energy into honing the elevator speech ever more closely to impress whomever in some way, but not to truly be in relationship.

I started noticing when I was talking without really having anything to say. I started listening to others with an intention of remembering how our conversation had unfolded from its initiation with some topic that was of interest to me to get back to the point in the interaction where it seemed to move in another direction (Gurdjieff’s interval), the point where I might form a closer connection to the other person or people with whom I was speaking and creating a deeper level of learning for all who were part of the interaction. I found that doing so made conversations more generative, more likely to open doors and lead down pathways no one had anticipated.

With smoking, when I found a cigarette approaching my lips, I began to realize that there was some line of thought that was initiated at some point shortly before the brand of the day (Pall Mall, Marlboro, Cools, Sherman’s, Hava Tampa, Luckies, L&Ms, etc.) was being lit and my lips were opening to receive it. I forced myself to go back in my mind to the moment when I had that first impulse to light a cigarette.

With close to a two-pack/day habit, I had to go through this exercise thousands of times.

I finally realized that anxiety and creativity were stimulating to pick up a cigarette. When something worried me, smoking gave me a bit of relief. And, when something excited me, smoking gave me another kind of relief, i.e., not having to put in the energy needed to see an impulse through to its conclusion. By the time I’d lit the smoke, inhaled a couple of deep drags, and exhaled satisfaction, I’d completely forgotten whatever it was that got me started in the first place! Unless I had a strong creative impulse or a pressing worry, there was zero forward progress. I was back in the same place, a little older, but no wiser.

Humanity as a species is largely stuck in a rut.

It strikes me that, as with my smoking, humanity as a species is largely stuck in a rut. We’ve made extraordinary advances in technology, but our capacity for compassion and fundamental change doesn’t seem to have shifted very much.

“Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands."

After all, the true statement by United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, that climate change has created a choice: “Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands,” garnered another collective “ho-hum” from a world that continues to burn carbon at a rate of 50 billion tons/year, an uptick of 18 billion tons since the publication of the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was issued in 1990, establishing the direct connection between human activity, greenhouse gas emissions, and global warming.

(Photo courtesy of US EPA)

While climate change lies at the heart of many other crises, it is only one of the extraordinarily dire threats facing our species and our biosphere.

Take war.

A Russian casualty at the beginning of the Ukrainian invasion Source: Reddit

According to the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, only 8% of the last 3,400 years have been ones where there has been peace on Earth. Those few years have been scattered throughout recorded history. Upwards of 108,000,000 were killed in wars during the 20th century. There are at least 27 conflicts happening right now. As of September 2021, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 387,000 civilians have been killed in wars since 9/11.

Can there be any better examples of humanity’s stuck condition than our collective unwillingness and inability to address climate change and to end war?! The linkages between these two threats confront our species with a requiem scenario: we either get a handle on ourselves and move to the higher octave of environmentalism and peace that we say we want to achieve, or we’re kaput.

The human psyche seems to have taken a stance that is metaphorically like that of Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus. According to Hebrew mythology, God threw ten plagues at Pharaoh. Each one was worse than the one before. I mean, yech and ouch!!!!

With every plague, it seemed like Pharaoh was going to relent and free the Jews from their bondage, but, after a little while, his heart hardened and he decided “Not So Much.”

We must find the collective will to push through these forces that distract us from our intentions of improving our conditions.

While I don’t dismiss it completely, I’m not saying that the hand of the Deity is at work in the polycrises of wars, pandemics, climate tragedies, crime and violence, mass migrations, food shortages, poverty, and on and on assaulting life on our little blue speck in the universe. I am saying that we must find the collective will to push through these forces that distract us from our intentions of improving our conditions. Will to impose restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions; will to level the economic playing field; will to educate everyone regarding the carrying capacity of Earth; will to prevent and stop imperialistic aggression by egomaniacs; will to end the violence fanatical power holders inflict on those that are weaker… The list goes on.

The United Nations was established to treat the plagues of the modern and post-modern eras, to exert the will necessary to focus the world’s attention on moving forward toward the objectives that have been espoused by world leaders for at least 100 years and probably more.

In America, the work of the United Nations receives little attention, and its inability to address Russia’s aggression calls its global legitimacy into question. However, the UN is a massive organization engaged in peacemaking activities and thoughtful consideration of serious problems across the planet. To date, it has not been particularly effective at pulling the attention of humanity together, but it is an international body where the intent to do so still exists. A stronger UN would result in a clearer understanding and better management of the Anthropocene. A feckless and flaccid UN takes us ever closer to a bad end.

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