Michael Currer-Briggs and James Opie
Mr. Briggs referred to another key idea in the teaching: multiple “I”s. As we are, we live our lives not through the perspectives, inclinations, and attitudes of a single, unified I, but through the perspectives of innumerable “small ‘I’s” that appear and disappear in response to changing stimuli. He quoted a statement of Mr. Gurdjieff ‘s: “Man has no individuality. He has no single, big I. Man is divided into a multiplicity of small ‘I’s, and each separate small ‘I’ is able to call itself by the name of the Whole” (P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p. 60).
Mr. Briggs added, “Unseen clusters of ‘small “I”s’ each have access to our primary centers—thought, feeling, and body—which they commandeer, according to longstanding mechanical habits. They each speak as ‘I.’ These unseen habits determine our diverse and changeable opinions, our shifting attitudes, our ever-changing attractions and repulsions and surprising twists and turns of mood. They govern our automatic adaptations to other people. You must have noticed that a different part of you is brought to the surface in the company of different individuals. With one friend, you state opinions firmly. With another, you defer.
“Living day to day in this unconscious situation, misusing the word ‘I,’ ‘small “I”s’ of the moment block nourishment for the germinal real I, existing in each of us.
“Events during the day I traveled from New York to Oregon, still fresh in my memory, revealed examples of these shifts. Shall I speak about that morning?”
I encouraged him to continue.
“Due to the day’s busy schedule, my morning period of quiet inner work was shorter than usual. Yet, freer qualities of attention did not take long to appear. It was as if this free attention was waiting for a mere glance from me.
“My work to be present did not entirely stop after getting up, dressing, and adding final items to my suitcase. It must have disappeared while making notes to plan my busy morning.
“Expecting a call from Lord Pentland, when the phone rang, under my breath, my name of endearment for Lord Pentland—‘His Lordship,’ was voiced. Surely this was Lord Pentland calling.
“But it wasn’t. A young man was phoning from Canada, regarding a showing of Meetings with Remarkable Men. We spoke for several minutes before I realized how tense and nervous this young man was. Uncertainties about the theater in which the film was to be shown had him tied in knots. Suddenly, my own state became clearer to me. I, too, was tensing in a particular way. ‘Mr. Problem-solver,’ a useful though essentially mechanical ‘I,’ had quietly taken over.
“After completing this conversation and hanging up the phone, I sat in a chair for a moment, gathering myself.
Gradually, a more receptive state returned.
“Soon I was out in my neighborhood, on my way to several shops, prior to meeting briefly with Lord Pentland, and then heading to the airport. Following an established practice, at an intersection near my apartment I stopped, allowing two full cycles of the traffic light to complete before stepping off the curb. Thoughts flitted through my mind. Still, I was not pushed entirely off-center.
“Somewhere in the crosswalk, that active awareness must have disappeared, as I only returned to myself half a block later, leaning over the day’s paper, at the top of a stack of papers outside a newsstand. I was unaware of a desire to glance at the day’s news, but there I was.
“Approaching a coffee shop, the word ‘coffee’ never came into ‘Mr. Coffee Drinker’s’ head, but the body moved toward the door and, once inside, settled at a small table near the front window. ‘Idle Observer’ watched passing pedestrians through the thick glass before my own reflection in the window awakened me to the fact of my absence, and my presence.
“When the waitress came, who was it that extended the exchange with her beyond the needs of that transaction? Who noticed the worried look on her brow? An interest in the well-being of this woman woke me up for an instant. Yet, I missed experiencing the first sip of coffee, a daily promise to myself. Uninvited thoughts, none registering strongly enough to be remembered now, took over.
“My focus inexplicably returned to the young man in Canada, whose tones of voice were recorded in my memory. Then, for no obvious reason, the image of another young man with whom I had spoken in London several months earlier appeared, like a short documentary film.
“My role in London groups is to meet with those who inquire about the teaching. This young man displayed an especially passionate interest, and pictures of him speaking to me were still vivid. Images then shifted to a senior woman in our groups. I had said to her about this young man, ‘We will not know for some time if his interest is serious.’
“With a start, I came back, remembering the needs of the morning. Quickly drinking the rest of my coffee, ‘Mr. Manager of Funds’ fished in his pocket for money, feeling disappointment on discovering his smallest currency was a twenty-dollar bill.
“‘Now I’ll have to wait for change.’
“‘The Manager of Funds’ was soon joined by ‘Mr. Frustration,’ who got up from the table to look for the waitress. Finding her was easy but catching her eye was not, and when she finally looked toward me she immediately turned to help someone else.
“To be forced to read a print-out of all the words coursing through my mind as I waited several more minutes would be a burden for me now. Yet, in the state that had taken hold, each unit of thought seemed entirely appropriate and purposeful. Several may indeed have served their purpose. A number of our ‘small “I”s’ relate to practical activities, necessary in daily life. The difficulty arises from our usual state of identification which keeps us from recognizing their mechanical nature.
“Returning to my experience in the restaurant, ‘Mr. Frustration’ gave way to a closely related person, ‘Mr. Indignation,’ who saw his rights being violated as the waitress remained busy in other parts of the restaurant. However, when she finally walked over and stood before me, something allowed me to look her dispassionately in the face. Could the look I saw have resulted merely from the distresses of a busy morning? Surely there was more. This woman was suffering.
“Outside, standing on the sidewalk, I connected lightly with my body and my head began to clear. Nonetheless, ‘Mr. In-a-Hurry’ soon took charge. Walking several blocks, my steps automatically became faster. Another block and I awoke to the state that had taken hold.
“Needing to take a cab now to keep a brief appointment with Lord Pentland, I stepped off the curb and raised my arm. Associatively, a gesture in one of the Movements came to me. Something closer to I reappeared.
“The taxi driver’s music was so loud that my usual impulse to speak to cab drivers vanished. A moment of slight confusion and disorientation ensued.
“These patterns of coming and going, being entirely lost then returning, continued throughout the morning. The moments with Lord Pentland, discussing another challenge in distributing the film, left particularly strong impressions.
“After arriving at the airport and spending an hour checking my notes regarding the film’s impending release, I was finally here, much more clearly in touch with my body. Unbidden, this state returned for a moment as I walked down the aisle of the plane bound for Chicago, and again while finding my seat on the plane that would carry me on to Portland. “Amidst the clamor of ‘small “I”s,’ something closer to real I appeared and disappeared, all day.
“Facing ourselves, awakening in the midst of our absences, is not altogether an ‘acquired taste.’ Within us, this taste already exists, in an objective and impersonal wish. With practice, we discover its support during moments of awareness. Over many years, I appears more frequently. Questioning, over and over, ‘Who am I?’ helps. Mr. Gurdjieff spoke of a willingness to stand in the midst of our confusions and contradictions, returning again to ‘I am.’ We each need to develop our own relationship with this practice.”
Continuing to speak of “small ‘I’s,” Mr. Briggs said, “As we verify how mechanically all of these ‘I’s function in us, we see our general situation more clearly. We discover more opportunities for intentional work. Instead of being identified with and believing in every automatic impulse, we awaken more frequently at the end of a passing thought and ask ourselves, ‘Who thinks this way?’ Or, ‘Who dislikes this situation so?’ Or, ‘Who always reacts to this person in just this manner?’
“Seeing disunity and questioning ourselves sincerely introduces a turn toward unity. The Christian gospels inform us: ‘The truth shall set you free.’ However, the revolving door of our prison of multiplicities, having developed over many years, will not yield to sudden spurts of interest. Our situation is complex. Complexity breeds deception, in human relationships and within us individually.”
Excerpted, with permission, from Approaching Inner Work: Michael Currer-Briggs on the Gurdjieff Teaching by James Opie (Portland, OR: Gurdjieff Books and Music, 2011), pp. 69-74.
Michael Currer-Briggs (1922-1980) met Gurdjieff in Paris in 1946. He subsequently worked under the guidance of Jane Heap and with Jeanne de Salzmann. He was Executive Producer of the film Meetings With Remarkable Men, based on the book of that title by Gurdjieff.