Exchanges Within

Questions from Everyday Life
Selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California

The following selections are taken from Exchanges Within, which documents nearly 30 years of group meetings with John Pentland. “These exchanges do not necessarily lead to definite answers but, on the contrary, encourage deeper questioning and further experience. Through the intensity of his own search, Lord Pentland radiated the help necessary for group members again and again to discover and try to express where they actually are in the process of understanding and in the movement toward being.”

Feeling that things are doing themselves,
a moment of presence to myself . . .

Question: I have tried to observe myself during the day doing housework, taking care of the children, different types of things. I ask myself, “Who is doing this now?” and sometimes I get to the point that I can see how helpless I am. I will be carrying a pan from the sink to the stove and when I ask “Who is this, doing this?” things start to happen in me. Really, it brings some feeling.

Lord Pentland: What does it bring?

Questioner: It is a feeling of—like a big discovery that it really is true that I am not really doing this thing. Things are doing themselves. But then I start daydreaming and forget that right away.

Lord Pentland: You should try to understand this feeling. Although it is very fleeting, you should try to understand it more. It comes very quickly and we do not see how quickly it is gone. And strangely, even though it has its side of exposing my weakness, my carelessness, even though it has this side of showing my weakness to myself, there is a great joy in it. It is something very real. It is a moment of presence to myself, a very short moment.

Is there a feeling connected with that which could guide me in between these moments? Is there something more in that experience that I have missed? It is new for you still, but maybe there is something more in it that you will have to understand, which guides you in these other times when you say that you forget.

Questioner: Yes, it just happens. I do not feel I have anything to do with it.

Lord Pentland: You feel you are getting something for nothing. This is an awkward position to be in. If you could connect it—how can I pay? There is something more you have to see in that. As far as it goes it is very good, it couldn’t be better. But it has to go further and that means you have to see more at the moment.

It always takes you by surprise; how could you not be so taken by surprise? How could you understand what it would mean, this presence, when it suddenly appears, that without it you are incomplete? How could you be ready for that to come? How could you feel that, when you are being so careless, so completely forgetting of the need for this presence? It is as if a child were completely neglectful of its parent, if a child did not recognize its dependence on its parent when the parent comes into the room.

That would be one thing to start from, to see again and again that I entirely forget the need for what you could broadly call help, to see how in fulfilling these ordinary demands I forget that they can never be fulfilled without help—what I mean is, the need of this presence in me when I go out to fulfill these little demands. It never occurs to you that they never can be finished without that; even quite small things get out of hand.

The idea of resistance . . .

Question: Would you speak about resistance? I seem to find resistance built in and I am powerless in the face of it. I have no control even in attempting to be quiet in order to follow or see where the resistance comes from. I see all the time that I am still caught in it. It is very difficult to work in the face of this.

Lord Pentland: Again we come to the point at the end of what you say. It is very difficult to work. Now, in a way this is my starting point. Work is a luxury. I do not mix it with the ordinary difficulties of life. If it is a luxury, if it is a work to be present to a life which is already full of difficulties, then I can expect this work to be especially difficult. I start from that.

What is the difficulty is almost always of my own making. Granted the difficulty of leading an ordinary life, when it is granted, I do not have very much wish for this luxury, for a soul or whatever you call it. The factory only just maintains itself. There is not much energy for work. So I have become accustomed to depend for the idea of work on what I call resistance. You follow what I mean?

Work for me begins where I am, in the problems of ordinary life. I divide this desire in resistance. I do not mean to say I see that exactly; I only experience something as work when there is something to work against. To me there is the verification that there is a work when there is a struggle. This is a misunderstanding, because my work is simply to be present in my life—for that there is no resistance.

The problem is to find something in myself, some energy, some presence that is not needed for the difficulties of life, which can be there at the moment. In a way everything is a resistance. In a way nothing is a resistance to that. In a way everything has to be related to that. If everything is felt as a resistance, I am not able to do that.

It all begins from this problem we have of needing an affirmation for a work effort. I have to try again and again. It used to be said, you remember, that the resistance is also me. I do not know if that helps. One has not much time to think about things like that. There is a sort of satisfaction I take in the experience of working against something, which makes that work very difficult and which creates the other difficulty—that sometimes it appears too much.

The more you think about it in terms of a force, the less you think about it in terms of positive and negative, the better. I see there is a struggle. I know that my possibility of coming to a question from that depends on whether the force can engage directly. The real awareness of living is so close to living that it is like the force appearing directly. It is very subtle.

When there is this sort of substantiation about this resistance and what can go against it, it is not so subtle. This makes for a work that is less useful. It also makes for a work that is very vulnerable to violence. When life comes to me violently because I am not living close enough, I am unable to make use of that. On the contrary, I react violently.

I need very much this naked confrontation with life. So you try. It cannot be done all at once, for we depend for the moment on this experience of resistance in order to feel I am back home again working. But you see we have to get beyond that because this dependency gets in our way. It gives us the feeling that, because of the resistance, we cannot work. We never come to the third force, but it is where I am. You understand better now?

Work for an acceptance of the body
as an important part of my psyche . . .

Question: The study that was suggested last Saturday helped me to be in touch with my body an unusual amount of the time. By the end of the day, I could see that my thoughts get in the way of being more with myself, and there was a definite decrease in thoughts about people—what I thought they should do instead of what they were doing. Just what had to be was there. I learned something about that on Saturday by being there in a different way.

Lord Pentland: Suppose one could have a relationship with the sensation, involving a kind of acceptance of my body. We are alienated from our bodies. I don’t accept that this is my body. It is rather easy to accept that this is my body when there is a real inner experience and I feel this is just the outer covering. But these moments are rare when I am impartial to my body, can look at it in the mirror and feel this is just the outer covering. Normally I don’t quite accept what I see in the mirror as me, so I will never have a relationship with my body, will never be aware of the sensation as long as what I see in the mirror is rejected. So it is a very good thing when you feel frustrated or angry or something, instead of trying to quiet it, to go look at it in the mirror and see that it is not me that is doing all this.

Questioner: One of the things I am now trying to do . . .

Lord Pentland: As long as you don’t get lost in the doing. So one has to take one’s measure in relation to that. It is no use having an idea that more has to be done in this direction. One has to know one’s measure. One has to work at it within the measure that is available to me. It is no use picking exercises and giving myself tasks that are too difficult. I have got to do what is just a little too difficult for me.

A lady came to see me in New York, an artist. She had had some kind of experience in Central Park and she had been everywhere trying to understand it. She finally went to a priest. He said, “If you come to my retreat, I will help you to understand it.” She was completely a non-church person and said so to him. He said, “You have to learn humility.” She said to me, “You see the crazy things they tell you. I was saying I had seen growing things, the spectrum of colors and the man says ‘humility.’ My friends say that you understand something.”

So I said to her, “Start with sensation. You must try till you see me again to keep your face relaxed.” So after a month she came back and not perhaps without some help from the beauty parlor, but her face was very relaxed. She said this had been the most extraordinary reminder to her. She talked about that for awhile, and she stayed and went on talking, and I realized I was supposed to give her something else to try. I didn’t feel inclined to, because just that work on relaxation of one’s face is a marvelous reminder and four weeks isn’t long enough. But eventually I said to her, “Well, if you have done that exercise, I can only think of one other one. Make an absolute rule not to shout.” She gave me a sort of pitying look and she said, “I was brought up in such and such a way and I never shout.” Well, it was too late to go back by then so I said, “Anyway, that is the exercise for you.”

She was from a Fifth Avenue family. A few days later I was seeing the friend who had sent her to me and I said, “You know, I understand your friend up to a point, but I am not sure whether she is happy with me.” My friend said, “Oh, she is very happy with you. She left the office where you saw her, went out in the street and the first thing she did was yell for a taxi, and she heard it.”

This is the work on sensation, if you follow me. It is not sitting still, saying, “I must have contact with sensation.” It is a work all the time to have a relationship, that is to say an acceptance of the body as an important part of my psyche and to be aware of the way I make it pay for my idealism. I am all the time taking it out on the body to make it pay for these ideals I run after. So it is a work to make a place for the body, but a work that can’t be done fifteen minutes once a day, can it?

There is no sensation except in joining
the head and the heart . . .

Question: I want to ask what does sensation mean. It’s difficult. We’re given exercises, ideas, direction. In a way, sensation is the bottom line. It seems so far away from some of these great ideas, but the grand structure implied in the books about the work and the vain way I aspire seem to be distant from sensation. How to find a practical relationship to sensation and the ideas on a scale bigger than life? I feel attracted to that way of looking at things: it’s wonderful, amazing, to think there might be correctly functioning higher centers in me, but how to find a practical relation between sensation and the ideas, relative to the scale of the ideas.

Lord Pentland: The point is, the head, which takes in ideas, and the feeling, which takes in scale, can never meet. Sensation is the relating element. How to feel what you think or to think what you feel is through sensation. We practice sensation in a way unrelated; for the head and feeling to meet is . . . only in the body. My head feels all over my body. With the sensation of the body, the head and feeling can come together, and that is the basis for so-called inner life. How to call feeling back. How to call the head back to meet with the feeling is only through sensation, where feeling and thought can come together.

Questioner: It is difficult to sort out. I’m trying to understand before thinking, before categorizing things. What is the difference between emotion and impulse? Also the thought process located in the head is different. What seems to be asked for now is something more difficult to know.

Lord Pentland: How can you feel the scale of what you say? How to connect what you say with the importance, with the scale of it? Only through sensation. It’s very difficult. It is only possible by letting go of the thought. You don’t have a way to locate the work of sensation as something that can reconcile thoughts and feelings.

Questioner: I want to believe what you’re saying.

Lord Pentland: So it will never be built, the bridge. Sensation is an extraordinary contrivance.

Questioner: It really works?

Lord Pentland: Yes. Your head and heart are separate anatomically. There is no circulation connecting them. That is what sensation can do. Like two different bodies. Sensation relates these two, even from the point of view of physical equipment. Sometimes this difference can cause illness. And many exercises have the virtue of relaxing this. It is not a work ever done, ever finished. Sensation may come through the words spoken, but there is no sensation except in joining the head and heart. Excuse me, I’m boring you now, but you see what I’m saying.

The sensation we can reach now is not enough . . .

Question: Assuming the head and heart are both sick, both going crazy, then when sensation appears, what is the value of bringing them together?

Lord Pentland: That’s like saying, “What’s the value of bringing fire and pan and a raw potato together when separately they are useless?” In fact their only real usefulness is in their being related. Thought goes out and in this annoying way returns, and that’s how it goes. Feeling is apt to go everywhere, except back on itself. So everything is related. So the body to be healthy does all these things to produce illness. To relate them means they come simultaneously together; to relate the attention of the head to the attention in the body is to take the wish in the head related to the resistance of the body. The feeling of the importance of my body as a sacred place of work begins to appear—my body including the head; we are not trying without the head.

Questioner: Sensation comes when I try to avoid unpleasant emotions. With a group of friends talking about movies, my toes felt cold but sensation of the rest of the body had disappeared and I did not hear anything until there came the awareness of a woman talking about her illness. Then I was just aware of breathing, listening, comprehension. I didn’t try to do anything. It was all done for me.

Lord Pentland: I think there are a number of things that are interesting in what you are saying. First, the way you felt that it has all been done for you. There are different levels of sensation. The sensation we can reach now is not enough, so we have to work towards having sensation of all parts at one time, to have relationship between the head and heart and body. We have to have that registering all at the same time, not successively. For that, it needs a better level, a better quality of sensation, the wish of sensation, not through doing it but through the work of awareness. The wish also comes about with this kind of sensation of the whole body. We talk endlessly about it but it is a physical body. But go out and try it; sensation is not only provided when we sit. Do physical things—scrub floors, and so forth. It is very interesting if done with attention. That means remembering I’m doing it plainly, just to get things clean. Practice it.

Questioner: I can’t face a feeling until I’ve classified it. I suppose I think I’ll recognize it even though I don’t know it’s there. I’m not sure I’m seeing the feeling at all.

Lord Pentland: That’s very good to start. One needs a completely different approach. One needs a different relationship to the body where these questions can be answered. You see there how the case for classification feels through awareness. The case for classification is presented according to whether or not it helps awareness. A devil says, “Instead of facing this inability to feelings, I’ll classify them.” It’s this indirect way of approach that leads to abstraction. It is very close to the point to classify so that I’ll be aware. This indirect approach is very striking in some of Ouspensky’s early books.

Question: I have a question deep inside. I don’t think it’s quite come to my consciousness yet, but I feel very much the need to ask it right now. Then maybe in asking, the question will come up.

Something in me knows that I’m not what I think I am and this something also knows more than I know. I see that I contain a being inside me and I really don’t know what it is. I feel it more strongly when there’s a gap in my day between two activities, and my attention is not yet focused on anything. At that moment when I look out at the world and meet myself, I feel nothing and I feel like I am nothing. And I really don’t know why I’m alive. I look for God and I find nothing and I can’t find meaning in that moment. Yet I don’t lose hope. I just realize that at that time I have nothing. Then when I look at the things around me—I look at the walls and the table and the chairs and my body—it feels like everything is only half true. Everything that I believed in throughout my life is only partially true and I don’t feel as much at home in my ordinary life. Yet I have nowhere to go.

Lord Pentland: You’ve heard the idea already that we have two parts—the consciousness and functions. Yes? And that there can be consciousness without functions and functions without consciousness. What you’ve just said is true. It’s not so common that one of us can experience this division in our lives. There are moments when I feel I am nothing—I have no consciousness, and these are mainly between periods of activity when there has been functioning but no memory whatever that there’s no consciousness.

So how to work in these moments? What does it mean “work?” Work is towards unity. How do you see the work of having an awareness of my nothing-consciousness while functioning? That means getting rid of or letting go, giving up, all the misunderstanding I have that I am someone, somebody, and the fear I have of giving up that I’m something—and at the same time functioning as a service, not with ambition, but as a service. Simply functioning and at the same time having the experience of nothing-consciousness. Yes?

Questioner: At that time I look for motivation.

Lord Pentland: The motivation is to be whole. Any other motivation is subjective, egoistic. You follow? Motivation comes from nothing because I have no consciousness. So the motivation is to have at least some consciousness or to keep this experience of nothing-consciousness while functioning. There is no other motivation. I wish to be whole because that is the next level. Working that way I can serve as if on the level that corresponds to my wholeness. The serving is by the functions and nothing-consciousness is the consciousness. The whole work is there. A good starting point. You understand what I said?

Questioner: Yes.

Lord Pentland: Gives you a direction, yes? In other words, the work begins from seeing, becoming aware, becoming conscious that I am nothing but my functioning, that time is going on, my life is going on and the only result is the result of my functioning. There is no inner growth. Information is being accumulated enabling me to function more efficiently, but compromises are being made all the time so that I don’t see that I’m nothing but my functioning. Seeing that creates a movement of the two towards each other, creates by itself the beginnings of a relationship between consciousness and functioning. Just seeing that starts a movement which could go on if I didn’t interfere with it all the time and let other people interfere with it all the time.