A lecture of 18 December 1950
Impressions - what a vast subject it is! It is impossible to speak of it without touching on almost every idea of the Work. Impressions are all that is inscribed on the rolls of our centres, all that touches us, all that we hear, do, say and see - in fact, our whole life. Everything is impressions and everything is recorded - I dare not say faithfully - on the rolls in our centres; impressions, in fact, are life itself.Theoretically, we know from the Work that a man completely deprived of impressions would die at once, but that we cannot verify. However, we can easily accept the idea and even feel certain that if we were to receive no more impressions of any kind at all, life would cause in us, there would be no life left. To attempt a complete exposition of this subject would be very difficult, and I can only approach it in a very incomplete way, because to cover the whole ground is really too great an undertaking.One aspect of impressions that we can consider is influences. This we know to be of basic importance to us. Or, if you like, we can take memory, but memory is really only a very limited aspect, because it includes only those impressions we can find again, and these are comparatively few. We can alsoconsider the question of impressions as food. To examine even these aspects with any degree of thoroughness would take a very long time and these are only a small part of our subject: there are obviously many other aspects.Impressions come to us from ouside, from the world around us. The theory is that they impinge on different parts in me, but I do not realise this, or I only realise it partially and in a very small way. Impressions can touch me in very different ways. They may brush lightly over the surface or they may pierce me like a knife or sword and quite overcome me, but, different though they may be in quality and strength, they are all impressions.We cannot undertake this study in a theoretical or intellectual way. We cannot enumerate impressions or classify and arrange them. We live all this at every moment. For instance, I know that in my intellectual part I have recorded an incredible number of impressions. All my knowledge, true or false, whether it has some real basis or whether it is completely fantastic, everything connected with my ordinary life, right down to my knowledge of my own name, the house I live in, the telephone numbers of my friends, it is all recorded there. It is cluttered with a surprising lot of junk, an incredible amount of useless material, and it is all there at this moment in an associative form. According to the depth or slightness with which an impression is recorded, it becomes at once an assiciation, or rather associative material nd in most cases has only that form alone.From that moment the impression is more or less part of me, but only in the measure in which it will re-appear to be by assiciation, and it is exactly the same for emotions or moving centre. Impressions are received in all the other centres in the same way as in the intellectual, but there is no doubt that we are less aware of it. The intellectual mind is the most accessible to us and it is generally intellectual associations that we see most clearly. We quite soon become aware that intellectual associations are impressions which have been recorded in the past and hat we call thinking consists of more or less chance combinations and frictions, brought aboutby habitual mental processes, between various parts of the associative material that has been recorded.We have to realise that it is the same for everything and that all mechanical men function in the same way. Now, I can only recall what I have received, and being received passively and recorded mechanically and causually, it is received by some totally unsuitable part which happened to be uppermost at the time, so that it can only be recalled in a completely haphazard way.It would be interesting to see what happens at the very beginning. Perhaos it may help us to see ourselves. I cme into the world - and it is the same for all of us - an untouched waxen tablet and from my first day I began to receive impressions and to live by them. Of course I have no memory at all of these initial impressions and, however, it is they that at once set in motion the conditioning of all my succeeding impressions. Here we truly begin to touch on the most terrible situation of all. For us mechanical men it is at his moment that the tragedy begins. In the beginning it must be so, it could not be otherwise; of all the passive things in the world, I was then the most passive.I was delivered up defenceless to my environment. I was taken over, as one might say, and overloaded with impressions. Mr Gurdjieff says people dirty and spoil and scribble all sorts of nonsense on the blank page that is a little child. It was like that for me and for all of us and now we do the same for others.Every time we are in the presence of a child we should try to remember this - I was once this clean, new, white page and then things fell pell-mell upon me and were ingrained in me, because I came into contact with the workd that surrounded me, which, as far as it concerns us at the moment, was essentially the world of men.Perhaps the most important thing that we have to understand now is that all associatively recorded impressions have conditioned the reception of future impressions, have conditioned me - and I have not the slightest recollection of it now - since the day when I first said "I".How strange it would be if one could remember the first time one said "I" in the process of receiving an associative impression! I do not know whether you feel this, but I should like you to and I should like us all to feel it more and more.And now, at thus moment, an adult or an older person, I am an incredible complex mass of impressions recorded one on top of the other, and that is all I have in the world - that and my store of energy and attention. This fantastic collection of impressions which have become material of association is my capital, and a terrifying capital it is. I do not know whether or not you realise it, but it does not belong to me. Indeed, on the contrary, I belong to it; it possesses me; it is the mainspring of my mechanicalness; it is my 'personality'.How atrange it is that this phenomenon continues to reproduce itself. At every moment new impressions present themselves and at every moment I am obliged to respond. And who is it who responds? It is always "I", "me", because I let myself be taken, carried away in the process whereby an already recorded impression responds to a new impression, and I believe in it.It is no joke that I respond to a new impression from some part of all the rubbish that has already piled up in me and that I call "I". And so it goes on from one moment to another all my life, new impressions bringing me what truly I most need...new automatic associations. I have akways lived like that and I have always found it quite natural; because everyone finds it natural, I thought it normal for a man to live like that - that is, if I ever did think about it before coming to this Work.The life of man is a continuous search, conscious or unconscious. First it is the search for bread, the staff of life, his first food. Next it is a search for impressions and we can even say that the more alive a man is, the more energy he has, the more he seeks impressions. He knows that willy-nilly he lives only for that, and that if he cannot get it, everything will stop.What he dies not clearly realise is that what he is looking for is something to wind him up, that he wants to be acted upon, moved - he looks for what he wants and he finds it. Perhaps it is not exactly what he would have chosen, but he goes avidly on nevertheless and things keep on happening; he meets new people, exciting events take place, he received new impressions continuously and continuously the mechanisms are caught up and turn, becoming more and more complicated all the time and he keeos on saying, "I, I, I".We are all entirely caught up in all these turning wheels, engulfed, held fast, prisoners. No doubt many of you have already seen all this, but it is only when we begin to feel it very deeply and painfully that we begin to have any chance of escape. We see it too little, and we know we see it too little, but it is very hard for a man to see himself, for to see this, to see it in all its aspects, is to see that all the "I"s in me have been manufactured in the same way. That is my perpetual prison, a prison which has built itself up and which continues to do so, so that, even at this very moment, it grows stronger and stronger. This is where I am a slave, and I can truthfully regard all my associative reactions as the bars of my prison.Now we begin to understand how all this has come about. I was passive at the outset, when I could not have been otherwise, and I have gone on being like that, pretending to be active. It must, however, be admitted that nothing else was ever put before me; I never had any other possibility; no one ever indicated any other way to me - until I met with this Work.I should like everyone here to recall and, if possible, somehow to go back to that strange moment, which is a necessary stage in everyone's life, when a man emerges from childhood, the normally passive period, to enter upon 'responsible age', and to give an account to himself of what this represents. A man cannot realise it at all, but it is from this moment that he begins to take himself seriously, to believe in himself. After that he continues all his life long to be moved only by the things that can wind him up, whether those that already exist or new ones.We can now understand what these things are that wind us up, and when we arrive at seeing some of them, the biggest and strongest, that is, impressions that enter directly as influences and reduce us particulary firmly to slavery, these, if we truly desire to, we can learn to know. If we can see these, we shall really see what is the basis of our mechanicalness and we shall also see how we agree to this, how our passivity has always worked hand-in-glove with it and, which is sadder for us, and more serious still, we shall see that, even now, every day and many times a day, our passivity continues to play the accomplice. I mean this quite seriously - we let ourselves fall into the trap of the mechanically received impression to which an equally mechanical response comes from one of these imaginary 'I's that I have, perhaps, at certain times seen in operation, or rather let us say noticed, because if it have been seen in the true sense of the word, it might perhaps have been killed - one never knows - but it remains there and catches me again and again...However, something must supply all this machinery with energy, because it could not work of its own accord, and this something is my own life, my very life-blood, which I sacrifice to it all the time. Here we can meet impressions in their most devouringly destructive aspect. You know quite well in principe - we have all of us, in theory, acceoted this idea from the beginning - that we live in a world turned upside down. We are told that and then, little by little, we come to see that it is true. That is not enough. We are now face to face with one of the basic aspects of this topsy-turvy world - what should build us up destroys us, what we already crave and what, indeed, is a right and normal need in us, is the cause of our downfall, our constant waste of energy, our perpetual emptiness. And all this is because there is nothing in us that can even see this process clearly, much less to resist it.It is here, inside this vicious circle - for it is one, and I must recognise it as much for the moment - it is here, in this barbed wire entanglement, this infinitely complex net that holds me prisoner, that I must now learn to construct and place my self-remembering.You have been told about self-remembering and you know it is our only weapon, but the more you can understand now against what, and with what aim, you must use it, the more, perhaps, you will manage to create it, because it is a question of creation. If it were there already, everything could be reversed, for it is there to reverse everything, to change everything - but what does 'change' mean? We are always talking about change and we are right to feel it necessary, but we do not realise sufficiently to what a totally inexpressible degree it is so, how all our inner attitudes, inner processes are, as it were, inverted, and we must realise this more, at least at certain moments, because for the present we must not aim too high. If only they could be really turned about a certain moments, something would happen, a new force would come into me, and that different force is all I lack.None of the forces in me belong to me. Such an incredible amount of energy is expended in surface processes and while that goes on, in my deep, inner world there is nothing left and nothing happens. My deep, inner world is still like a child, weak, passive, helpless, and it is for me to find the possibility of making it grow up. If I see that, if I begin to give an account to myself of it - I will not say it I can become conscious of it - that word is too big - but if I can give myself a true account of it, it will become necessary for me to find a way out, because I cannot live like that, I cannot go on and on accepting it. So here I am, faced with all these winding up processes, faced with the prospect of inner work. This means I find myself in front of a quite new and very strange impression.We all live like that and, for the most part, we find it quite normal. I say for the most part perhaps because, perhaps, in a curious way there is something in us that is not entirely satisfied with this kind of existence. No doubt because of that a new impressions arises, new words and a different knowledge. It comes, like all the rest, from the outside and at first it impringes on us in the same way as any other impression except that it has its own special quality and a little extra force. However, we receive it like any other impression and it is stored up in us in the usual associative way, it is put into the same old dustbin, into that fantastic chaos that constitutes our ordinary associative world.This new impression, then, is registered with all the rest and at first it just lies on he surface and then it begins to stir something up. Perhaps my uneasiness begins to assert itself more and something in me begins to understand that I must stop forgetting myself all the time, that all the vicious processes which keep me subject to my old impressions and associations are only abke to go on and on repeating themselves because I am really never there, or, in other words, because I am asleep.Perhaps, at times, a strange opening appears, something gets in behind what holds me bound for better or for worse. So the strange hope is born that perhaps I can find my way out of the labyrinth. But at this very moment I begin to see also what a terrible difficult undertaking it us - much more difficult than I would have thought it could be.If only I understand how all this has come about, how my attitudes, my looks, the expression on my face, my gestures, everything in me, is conditioned, inwardly and outwardly, by this strange entanglement of associations, I will understand and accept, very painfully, that it will take a long time and great efforts to find my way out, and I will be prepared to face defeat again and again and yet to take up the struggle again each time, although it will very often happen that I find myself faced with the blank wall of my great lack of understanding.I know I must work, I try to remember myself, but I know it imperfectly, vaguely, fruitlessly. I know that I am identified and that I must emerge from it, but I do not see how it comes about that I am identified. I have to keep on trying for a very long time to extricate myself between the parts which wishes to get out of the snare and all the rest, so that I can be here, I; or at least all that I can grasp of a really more authentic I which I know without any shadow of doubt exists in me - I, facing my impression - I facing life.We already know that this attitude will change something, but we have not enough wish to see it, because to do so puts us under an obligation. I know that I can manage to be there, everything is different, and that I have in that proof of all that has been said here. Everything is different because the impression is not recorded in the usual mechanical way, because it no longer meets with an associative response, because it is not one of the fantastic I's that already exist in me - in other words one of my lies - that responds. Something different tries to manifest, but it is something that does not yet know how to do so at all strongly. If I am there, the most authentic I, I very often do not know how to respond, I am disconcerned. In the ordinary way, when one of my invented I's is on the scene, he can handle the situation; he does everything with the greatest of ease, he is never taken by surprise and knows all the answers, he knows everything, and nothing can astonish him. I, on the other hand is astonished by everything; I see quite clearly and feel it, that I know nothing about anything, that I have no real knowledge at all.Everything that has been automatically recorded in me I classify and put it in its place simply by association and I make a fine pretence of having some real knowledge, but if I am there, I, I find that I really do not know anything and it is extremely disconcerting. Certainly, nothing remains the same, but it is at this very moment that something real begins to happen. I find before me my true food, that which I need in order that my essence may grow and that I may live and not be driven hopelessly towards my death.I try to renew this experience, I try every day and several times a day. Sometimes nothing comes of it, I cannot manage it, because it is all too confused. I think I am remembering myself, but it is nothing but a vague ghost, or yet another associative lie, a fantasy in my head. If it is real, I can prove it. Colours change, forms becomes real, everything is made new. But it will be a long time before I can truly draw my nourishment from this food. I must contrive to be there more often, to be there, truly present, active and free.Only from this moment - it does not make any difference whether I am twenty or fifty years old - will I begin truly to live, to be. I do not wish to embark on a theoretical discussion of the technique of the assimilation of impressions. You all have 'Fragments' in which it is explained, but if one has not observed a thing for oneself, all the explanations in the world will get one nowhere. Little by little you must come by yourself to the realisation of this truth - the world is real only at that moment when I AM.If this is not real for us, we can neither thrive nor live. The lie which stands between us and the world offers us no food but death. My burden of lies crushes my essence to death, and through that I am lost, for I shall be eaten.I shall end with a saying of Mr Gurdjieff. Some of yoy have heard it, others not. I should like this saying to be regarded as the conclusion not only of tonight's lecture, but of all the lectures in this series. It is one of the most striking things he ever said to us, and we keep it always within us. This is the saying: "Only two possibilities are open to man - two, not three - either to eat or be eaten."
(From: "Inside a question" by Henriette Lannes)