Gurdjieff Sacred Dance: meditation, but the very opposite to silent sitting
Too often, meditation is presented as: sitting in silence, plus mindful daily actions. This is very incomplete. Sitting in silence suits only some newcomers to meditation. The ones it doesn’t suit feel left out or “I tried meditation and it didn’t work for me.” Really, for beginners, sitting in silence is delightful for the part of each person which is quiet / receptive / passive / allowing. Other exercises are every bit as much meditative, but give delight to our active / engaged / expansive / assertive energy. This “male meditation” is sadly neglected. In this post I’m going to present one very beautiful meditation for the active essence. It’s advanced, indeed difficult, and not for all. Please be assured I’ll explain DIY, active+silent meditations very soon which are dead easy. But this is so beautiful to watch and to write about that I’ve put it first: Gurdjieff Movements, also called Gurdjieff Sacred Dances. For video links see below on this page. [Click here for all meditation posts]
The dances, many hundreds, were created by the great life teacher G. I Gurdjieff, inspired by his travels to monasteries in Central Asia, and with music mostly by Thomas de Hartmann. They are not performance art. The movements are done for the benefit of the dancers, as a meditation exercise. Public demonstrations are secondary, and even these are meditations for participants and audience both.
My aim in these posts is simply to indicate routes to meditation different from the well-known silent sitting. For this goal, I can only give a sketch account of the dances. They deserve much more. Gurdjieff wanted the dancers to vividly feel a place inside themselves that remains motionless even in motion; something transcendental, something physical yet metaphysical. I’ve a little personal experience, one short Movements retreat. Just from that, I know that Gurdjieff succeeded with genius to create a system to bring mindfulness to movement, peace from the depths to physical action. It must be said though, it is a system not easy to explain. Indeed, since it’s meant to bypass words, it’s only really understandable by experience. ( A not bad at all introduction for newcomers. The very best explanation link is Amiyo’s, below.) So, my presentation is simplified, and I’ve focussed on rapid, complex dances such as this:-
Here’s a basic fact: if your head is full of thoughts, you can’t do this. If your mind is wandering, your body will wander, you’ll lose track, you’ll go left when the rest go right. So you’ve got to be entirely present, conscious, mindful.
From the very beginning, the ‘Movements’ as they were called made a demand on my attention that was different from anything I had ever experienced – one couldn’t hide, one couldn’t go to sleep. The moment my attention wandered, I made a mistake. It was in this way that I first tasted in my own experience the force that is generated by attention which is directed by an effort of will for a long time. For myself I could hold my attention steady for a few minutes: but here, where the outside demand was added to my own efforts, and constantly renewed for an hour or an hour and a half, the results were of quite a different order. (Hugh Ripman, source of quote.)
This is a kind of an opposite to Buddhist-type sitting exercises. In silent sitting, you notice the thoughts, you passively allow them, you disconnect yourself from all doing. Thoughts come come, thoughts go, you are passive, uninvolved. A mindful separation arises between you and the thought-stream.
But in Gurdjieff work, in a way it’s the opposite. You are not passive. You engage your full attention in activity. You don’t wait for the thoughts to drift away, you jump out of them, leave them behind, jump into your centre – this is termed a “centring” meditation. You have to, or it will all go wrong. Your depressions, your angers, will clog up your body with tensions, so to do the movements at all you’ve got to click into a different groove, step out of yourself, be lifted. Every moment at first is a challenge to try hard, yet be relaxed. With sitting meditation, physical motionlessness brings a certain peace, a certain spaciousness. With these meditations, the possibility is to have an experience that even as your whole body moves, something else remains motionless in motion. It’s totally different, but the end result is still meditation.
You may ask, in fact I hope you do ask, isn’t this the same as juggling or playing the violin? Don’t they all require a focussed mind? Yes, indeed they do. I’ve never walked a tightrope, but you can’t let your mind wander there either. Yes, many activities are either natural meditations, or close cousins to meditation. There are activities that take us out of ourselves in a good way and leave us more connected with our inner treasure-house.The difference with Gurdjieff movements is this.
- First, the intention to meditate. Intention is crucial. Many activities can be in the service either of our ego or of meditation, depending on the intention. For example, running can be a beautiful meditation. But you need to run with the intention to meditate; you can as easily run with your mind buzzing, or with a framing intention to win or to compete.
- Second group support and group intention to meditate. Running is a good meditation for some people, and to run with other people all of whom intend to make it a meditation is very powerful.
- Third, Gurdjieff created the movements with subtlety. He wanted them to connect with different emotional expressions, and to contain a quality of silence even in the very movement. Other dance systems do this in a different way, meditative tai chi for example.
- Fourth, the movements are designed to integrate the right and left sides of the body.
- Fifth, any meditation exercise needs a system of understanding around meditation, linked to that activity. Tai Chi as an activity, sits along with Taoist understandings, for example.
- For even more factors, see this site by someone who is both a dance artist and a leading meditation teacher, Amiyo Devienne. Amiyo’s site is perhaps the best introduction of all to the Gurdjieff dances. Many Gurdjieff sites complicate things with incomprehensible jargon but she writes directly and simply.
Let’s finish with a video of one of Amiyo’s workshops: