It is the greatest mistake to think that man is always one and the same. A man is never the same for long. He is continually changing. He seldom remains the same even for half an hour. ~ G. I. Gurdjieff
When people first come in contact with Gurdjieff’s system, the idea that man is many ‘I’s’is often objected to. People don’t like being told that they are not one person; it sounds crazy. But really it’s reversed. The truly crazy people, the scary people, are the ones who are always the same. They are fixed or crystallized in a feature (weakness) or an attitude (a way of looking at the world), and they never change. They’re inflexible because understanding has stopped in them. They cannot learn, and they cannot be taught. Learning requires change and growth, and they have stopped growing.
The idea that man has many different ‘I’s is probably most easily observed when you need to make a decision. Let’s say a friend calls you and wants meet for coffee, but you just got home from work and you’re tired. You had planned to stay in and watch a movie. Let’s make it even a little more difficult and say that it’s raining outside. But on the other side, let’s say that you like this friend and enjoy their company. So the decision boils down to this: are you willing to make the effort to go back out in order to have an emotional experience? Normally you think that you weigh the pros and the cons of the situation and come to considered choice. Either you go out or stay home. But what really happens is that there are two parts in you and they debate the situation. You body is tired and wants to stay home, but your emotional center doesn’t want to miss the opportunity to have an evening out. These two parts use the mind to formulate their arguments and eventually one wins out.
Of course the consequences will be more substantial when you are making more important decisions. For example, let’s say that you have an opportunity to cheat somebody. The person, let’s say, is an acquaintance, not a close friend, The advantage would be that you would gain a certain amount of money; the disadvantage would be that you would have carry around the guilt that you will inevitably feel if you cheat this person. For the sake of the argument let’s say you end up cheating. The first time you do it, you will feel a certain amount of guilt, but if you keep cheating people, if it becomes a habit. In others words it will become easier and easier for you to ignore your feelings of guilt. The more you deny this emotion, the easier it will be to ignore it in the future. Your guilt becomes submerged, and at the same time your greed becomes stronger. You feed one part of yourself and deny another.
The principle works in the other way as well. If you decide not to cheat, it will be easier for you to decide to be honest in the future. It also works with being present. The more you are present, the more you strengthen the ‘I’s that are interested in being present.
If you deny certain parts of yourself, these parts will eventually atrophy and die. In the same way, if you only allow yourself to express certain emotions and beliefs, those beliefs and emotions will become stronger until they become fixed. When wrong beliefs and emotions like anger or self-pity or an attitude of racism or intolerance become fixed, it means that you look at everything that happens to you through that belief or emotion. Gurdjieff called this phenomena wrong crystallization. Your weaknesses and obsessions become permanent. Wrong crystallization allows people to justify horrendous crimes against other people.
Wrong crystallization can sometimes be observed in public figures. At the end of his life a famous actor may become nothing more than his own vanity. His whole existence will revolve around feeding his self importance. He will become intolerant of criticism and of anybody who doesn’t support the idea that he is a great actor. Historically this phenomenon can be seen, or at least guessed at, in figures like Hitler and Stalin. They derived their power from their inflexibility. They allowed, for instance, policies, or what they wrongly believed to be the facts, to override their natural human empathy. The part of them that could feel empathy for others had been lost. They lived their lives inside a very narrow band of negative emotions and ways of thinking and completely denied the opinions and arguments that contradicted their prejudice. They had lost the ability to grow; they had crystallized.
Let’s look a case history of a patient I met while I was working at a psychiatric clinic. He was young man in his middle twenties, a little overweight, balding, but still a pleasant-looking fellow. On his first admission, he complained about bouts of depression, but they seemed to come and go. Truthfully, I didn’t really see what the problem was. He was funny, thought much of his humor was ironic and directed at himself; he also liked to talk, and he expressed himself well. And though he had some issues with confidence, particularly with women, I didn’t think his problems were to the point of meriting hospitalization. What I did notice about him was that, when confronted with any difficulty, he tended to mope and feel sorry for himself.
On his first admission, he stayed three weeks. The doctor gave him medication, and we tried to make him feel better about himself and then sent him home. But some months later, he admitted himself for a second time. And he was worse. The frequency of his bouts of depression had increased, his social skills had deteriorated, and his humor had become darker. The doctor put him on a different medication, but still there was no talk of him being suicidal, so again he was released after about a month. But he continued to get worse, was admitted for a third time, and released again. And then, only eighteen months after his first admission, he tried to commit suicide and was admitted for the fourth time.
On his fourth admission he was committed, which meant that he stayed at the clinic for nearly three months. It also meant that I got to know him much better, since it was my job to observe and talk to the patients. Eventually what I understood about him was that self-pity was the only mechanism he had for dealing with difficulties. Whenever something happened on the ward that made him feel uncomfortable or threatened, he responded with self-pity. And I think it was this tendency that was responsible for his downward spiral. Each time he encountered a difficulty, he responded to that event by feeling sorry for himself. In this way he strengthened his self-pity, until it became the main focus of his life.
It’s hard to say in this case whether the crystallization was complete or not, but that’s not important; what important is to understand how the process works. Generally crystallization takes time, but it can be greatly accelerated by suffering or by what Gurdjieff called friction, or the struggle between yes and no..
When I think of crystallization (on a correct foundation), I can’t help thinking of Walt Whitman. The experience that Whitman communicates in Leaves of Grass, and especially in ‘Song of Myself,’ is of a wandering consciousness that expands to include the people around him when his empathy is evoked. If he is anything, he is empathetic and inclusive. And he doesn’t concern himself with the contradictions of his nature.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
~ Walt Whitman
Man’s inner experience is meant to be diverse. We are meant to feel different emotions; we are meant to have contradictions. If we didn’t have contradictory sides to ourselves, there would be no choice in any of our actions. One way to think about the unity that Whitman achieved was that it was like a cloud that was continually changing its shape to suit his needs and sympathies.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
~ Walt Whitman
What is difficult to understand about crystallization (based on a correct foundation) is that what crystallizes is a state or perhaps it might be better say an ability to exist from a higher state. Awakening is the process of gradually transferring your identity from the many I’s, or personality, to the higher centers. Over time consciousness, which exists outside of external manifestations, thoughts, and feeling, becomes who you are. This is why, especially at the beginning, it’s good to think of observing yourself when you’re being present, and not think too much about controlling your manifestations. It’s important to begin to begin to see yourself as the part that observers the actor, not as the actor. Just observe and let the actor act.
This is also from ‘Song of Myself:’
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
~ Walt Whitman