talks with gurdjieff
george ivanovich gurdjieff (1866-1949)

the two rivers
new york, february 22, 1924

it will be useful if we compare human life in general to a large river which arises from various sources and flows into two separate streams, that is to say, there occurs in this river a dividing of the waters, and we can compare the life of any one man to one of the drops of water composing this river of life.

on account of the unbecoming life of people, it was established for the purposes of the common actualizing of everything existing that, in general, human life on the earth should flow in two streams. great nature foresaw and gradually fixed in the common presence of humanity a corresponding property, so that, before the dividing of the waters, in each drop that has this corresponding inner subjective "struggle with one's own denying part," there might arise that "something," thanks to which certain properties are acquired which give the possibility, at the place of the branching of the waters of life, of entering one or the other stream.

thus there are two directions in the life of humanity: active and passive. laws are the same everywhere. these two laws, these two currents, continually meet, now crossing each other, now running parallel. but they never mix; they support each other, they are indispensable for each other.

it was always so and so it will remain.

now, the life of all ordinary men taken together can be thought of as one of these rivers in which each life, whether of a man or of any other living being, is represented by a drop in the river, and the river in itself is a link in the cosmic chain.

in accordance with general cosmic laws, the river flows in a fixed direction. all its turns, all its bends, all these changes have a definite purpose. in this purpose every drop plays a part insofar as it is part of the river, but the law of the river as a whole does not extend to the individual drops. the changes of position, movement and direction of the drops are completely accidental. at one moment a drop is here; the next moment it is there; now it is on the surface, now it has gone to the bottom. accidentally it rises, accidentally it collides with another and descends; now it moves quickly, now slowly. whether its life is easy or difficult depends on where it happens to be. there is no individual law for it, no personal fate. only the whole river has a fate, which is common to all the drops. personal sorrow and joy, happiness and suffering—in that current, all these are accidental.

but the drop has, in principle, a possibility of escaping from this general current and jumping across to the other, the neighboring, stream.

this too is a law of nature. but, for this, the drop must know how to make use of accidental shocks, and of the momentum of the whole river, so as to come to the surface and be closer to the bank at those places where it is easier to jump across. it must choose not only the right place but also the right time, to make use of winds, currents and storms. then the drop has a chance to rise with the spray and jump across into the other river.

from the moment it gets into the other river, the drop is in a different world, in a different life, and therefore is under different laws. in this second river a law exists for individual drops, the law of alternating progression. a drop comes to the top or goes to the bottom, this time not by accident but by law. on coming to the surface, the drop gradually becomes heavier and sinks; deep down it loses weight and rises again. to float on the surface is good for it—to be deep down is bad. much depends here on skill and on effort. in this second river there are different currents and it is necessary to get into the required current. the drop must float on the surface as long as possible in order to prepare itself, to earn the possibility of passing into another current, and so on.

but we are in the first river. as long as we are in this passive current it will carry us wherever it may; as long as we are passive we shall be pushed about and be at the mercy of every accident. we are the slaves of these accidents.

at the same time nature has given us the possibility of escaping from this slavery. therefore when we talk about freedom we are talking precisely about crossing over into the other river.

but of course it is not so simple—you cannot cross over merely because you wish. strong desire and long preparation are necessary. you will have to live through being identified with all the attractions in the first river. you must die to this river. all religions speak about this death: "unless you die, you cannot be born again."

this does not mean physical death. from that death there is no necessity to rise again because if there is a soul, and it is immortal, it can get along without the body, the loss of which we call death. and the reason for rising again is not in order to appear before the lord god on the day of judgment as the fathers of the church teach us. no, christ and all the others spoke of the death which can take place in life, the death of the tyrant from whom our slavery comes, that death which is a necessary condition of the first and principal liberation of man.

if a man were deprived of his illusions and all that prevents him from seeing reality—if he were deprived of his interests, his cares, his expectations and hopes—all his strivings would collapse, everything would become empty and there would remain an empty being, and empty body, only physiologically alive.

this would be the death of "i," the death of everything it consisted of, the destruction of everything false collected though ignorance or inexperience. all this wil remain in him merely as material, but subject to selection. then a man will be able to choose from himself and not have imposed on him what others like. he will have conscious choice.

this is difficult. no, difficult is not the word. the word "impossible" is also wrong, because, in principle, it is possible; only it is a thousand times more difficult than to become a multimillionaire through honest work.

question: there are two rivers—how can a drop go from the first to the second?

answer: it must buy a ticket. it is necessary to realize that only he can cross who has some real possibility of changing. this possibility depends on desire, strong wish of a very special kind, wishing with the essence, not with the personality. you must understand that it is very difficult to be sincere with yourself, and a man is very much afraid of seeing the truth.

sincerity is a function of conscience. every man has a conscience—it is a property of normal human beings. but owing to civilization this function has become crusted over and has ceased to work, except in special circumstances where the associations are very strong. then, it functions for a little time and disappears again. such moments are due to strong shock, great sorrow, or insult. at these times conscience unites personality and essence, which otherwise are altogether separate.

this question about two rivers refers to essence, as all real things do. your essence is permanent; your personality is your education, your ideas, your beliefs—things caused by your environment; these you acquire, and can lose. the object of these talks is to help you to get something real. but now we cannot ask this question seriously; we must first ask: "how can i prepare myself to ask this question?"

i suppose that some understanding of your personality has led you to a certain dissatisfaction with your life as it is, and to the hope of finding something better. you hope that i will tell you something you do not know which will show you the first step.

try to understand that what you usually call "i" is not i; there are many "i's" and each "i" has a different wish. try to verify this. you wish to change, but which part of you has this wish? many parts of you want many things, but only one part is real. it will be very useful for you to try to be sincere with yourself. sincerity is the key which will open the door through which you will see your separate parts, and you will see something quite new. you must go on trying to be sincere. each day you put on a mask, and you must take it off little by little.

but there is one important thing to realize. man cannot free himself; he cannot observe himself all the time; perhaps he can for five minutes, but really to know himself he must know how he spends his whole day. also, man has only one attention; he cannot always see new things, but he can sometimes make discoveries by accident, and these he can recognize again. there is this peculiarity: when you once discover a thing in yourself—you see it again. but, because man is mechanical, he can very rarely see his weakness. when you see something new, you get an image of it, and afterwards you see this thing with the same impression, which may be right or wrong. if you hear of someone before you see him, you make up an image of him, and if it bears any resemblance to the original, this image and not the reality is photographed. we very rarely see what we look at.

man is a personality full of prejudices. there are two kinds of prejudice: prejudice of essence and prejudice of personality. man knows nothing, he lives under authority, he accepts and believes all influences. we know nothing. we fail to differentiate when a man is speaking on a subject he really knows, and when he is talking nonsense—we believe it all. we have nothing of our own; everything that we put in our pocket is not our own—and on the inside, we have nothing.

and in our essence we have almost nothing, because from the time we were babies we have absorbed almost nothing. except that, by accident, sometimes something may enter.

we have in our personality perhaps twenty or thirty ideas we have picked up. we forget where we got them, but when something like one of these ideas comes along, we think we understand it. it is just an imprint on the brain. we are really slaves, and we set one prejudice against another.

essence has a similar impressionability. for example we spoke about colors, and said that everybody has a special color he cherishes. these partialities are also acquired mechanically.

now, as to the question. i can put it this way. suppose you find a teacher with real knowledge who wishes to help you, and you wish to learn: even so, he cannot help you. he can only do so when you wish in the right way. this must be your aim; but this aim is also too far off, it is necessary to find what will bring you to it or at least bring you nearer to it. the aim must be divided. so, we must have as our aim the capacity to wish, and this can only be attained by a man who realizes his nothingness. we must revalue our values, and this must be based on need. man cannot do this revaluation by himself alone.

i can advise you, but i cannot help you; nor can the institute help you. it can only help you when you are on the way—but you are not there.

first you must decide: is the way necessary for you or not? how are you to begin to find this out? if you are serious, you must change your point of view, you must think in a new way, you must find your possible aim. this you cannot do alone, you must call on a friend who can help you—everyone can help—but especially two friends can help each other to revalue their values.

it is very difficult to be sincere all at once, but, if you try, you will improve gradually. when you can be sincere, i can show you, or help you to see, the things you are afraid of, and you will find what is necessary and useful for yourself. these values really can change. your mind can change every day, but your essence stays as it is.

but there is a risk. even this preparation of the mind gives results. occasionally a man may feel with his essence something which is very bad for him, or at least for his peace of mind. he has already tasted something and, though he forgets, it may return. if it is very strong, your associations will keep reminding you of it and, if it is intense, you will be half in one place and half in another, and you will never be quite comfortable. this is good only if a man has a real possibility of change, and the chance of changing. people can be very unhappy, neither fish nor flesh nor herring. it is a serious risk. before you think of changing your seat you would be wise to consider very carefully and take a good look at both kinds of chairs. happy is the man who sits in his ordinary chair. a thousand times happier is the man who sits in the chair of the angels, but miserable is the man who has no chair. you must decide—is it worthwhile? examine the chairs, revalue your values.

the first aim is to forget all about everything else, talk to your friend, study and examine the chairs. but I warn you, when you start looking you will find much that is bad in your present chair.

next time, if you have made up your mind what you are going to decide about your life, i can talk differently on this subject. try to see yourself, for you do not know yourself. you must realize this risk; the man who tries to see himself can be very unhappy, for he will see much that is bad, much that he will wish to change—and that change is very difficult. it is easy to start, but, once you have given up your chair, it is very difficult to get another, and it may cause great unhappiness. everyone knows the gnawings of remorse. now your conscience is relative, but when you change your values you will have to stop lying to yourself. when you have seen one thing, it is much easier to see another, and it is more difficult to shut your eyes. you must either stop looking or be willing to take risks.

everyone is in great need of one particular exercise, both if one wants to continue working and for external life.

we have two lives, inner and outer life, and so we also have two kinds of considering. we constantly consider.

when she looks at me, i feel inside a dislike of her, i am cross with her, but externally i am polite because i must be very polite since i need her. internally i am what i am, but externally i am different. this is external considering. now she says that i am a fool. this angers me. the fact that i am angered is the result, but what takes place in me is internal considering.

this internal and external considering are different. we must learn to be able to control separately both kinds of considering: the internal and the external. we want to change not only inside but also outside.

yesterday, when she gave me an unfriendly look, i was cross. but today i understand that perhaps the reason why she looked at me like that is that she is a fool; or perhaps she had learned or heard something about me. and today i want to remain calm. she is a slave and i should not be angry with her inwardly. from today onward i want to be calm inside.

outwardly i want today to be polite, but if necessary i can appear angry. outwardly it must be what is best for her and for me. i must consider. internal and external considering must be different. in an ordinary man the external attitude is the result of the internal. if she is polite, i am also polite. but these attitudes should be separated.

internally one should be free from considering, but externally one should do more than one has been doing so far. an ordinary man lives as he is dictated to from inside.

when we speak of change, we presume the need of inner change. externally if everything is all right, there is no need to change. if it is not all right, perhaps there is no need to change either, because maybe it is original. what is necessary is to change inside.

until now we did not change anything, but from today we want to change. but how to change? first, we must separate and then sort out, discard what is useless and build something new. man has much that is good and much that is bad. if we discard everything, later it will be necessary to collect again.

if a man has not enough on the external side, he will need to fill the gaps. who is not well educated should be better educated. but this is for life.

the work needs nothing external. only the internal is needed. externally, one should play a role in everything. externally a man should be an actor, otherwise he does not answer the requirements of life. one man likes one thing; another, another thing: if you want to be a friend to both and behave in one way, one of them will not like it; if you behave in another way, the other will not like it. you should behave with one as he likes it and with the other as this other likes it. then your life will be easier.

but inside it must be different: different in relation to the one and the other.

as things are now, especially in our times, every man considers utterly mechanically. we react to everything affecting us from outside. now we obey orders. she is good, and i am good; she is bad, and i am bad. i am as she wants me to be, i am a puppet. but she too is a mechanical puppet. she also obeys orders mechanically and does what another one wants.

we must cease reacting inside. if someone is rude, we must not react inside. whoever manages to do this will be more free. it is very difficult.

inside us we have a horse; it obeys orders from outside. and our mind is too weak to do anything inside. even if the mind gives the order to stop, nothing will stop inside.

we educate nothing but our mind. we know how to behave with such and such. "goodbye." "how do you do?" but it is only the driver who knows this. sitting on his box he has read about it. but the horse has no education whatever. it has not even been taught the alphabet, it knows no languages, it never went to school. the horse was also capable of being taught, but we forgot all about it... and so it grew up a neglected orphan. it only knows two words: right and left.

what i said about inner change refers only to the need of change in the horse. if the horse changes, we can change even externally. if the horse does not change, everything will remain the same, no matter how long we study.

it is easy to decide to change sitting quietly in your room. but as soon as you meet someone, the horse kicks. inside us we have a horse.

the horse must change.

if anyone thinks that self-study will help and he will be able to change, he is greatly mistaken. even if he reads all the books, studies for a hundred years, masters all knowledge, all mysteries—nothing will come of it.

because all this knowledge will belong to the driver. and he, even if he knows, cannot drag the cart without the horse—it is too heavy.

first of all you must realize that you are not you. be sure of that, believe me. you are the horse, and if you wish to start working, the horse must be taught a language in which you can talk to it, tell it what you know and prove to it the necessity of, say, changing its disposition. if you succeed in this, then, with your help, the horse too will begin to learn.

but change is possible only inside.

as to the cart, its existence was completely forgotten. yet it is also a part, and an important part, of the team. it has its own life, which is the basis of our life. it has its own psychology. it also thinks, is hungry, has desires, takes part in the common work. it too should have been educated, sent to school, but neither the parents nor anyone else cared. only the driver was taught. he knows languages, knows where such and such a street is. but he cannot drive there alone.

originally our cart was built for an ordinary town; all the mechanical parts were designed to suit the road. the cart has many small wheels. the idea was that the unevenness of the road would distribute the lubricating oil evenly and thus oil them. but all this was calculated for a certain town where the roads are not too smooth. now the town has changed, but the make of the cart has remained the same. it was made to cart luggage, but now it carries passengers. and it always drives along one and the same street, the "broadway." some parts got rusty from long disuse. if, at times, it needs to drive along a different street, it seldom escapes a breakdown and a more or less serious overhaul afterwards. badly or well, it can still work on the "broadway," but for another street it must first be altered.

every cart has its own momentum, but in certain senses our cart has lost it. and it cannot work without momentum.

moreover the horse can pull, say, only fifty kilos, whereas the cart can take a hundred kilos. so even if they wish to, they cannot work together.

some machines are so damaged that nothing can be done with them. they can only be sold. others can still be mended. but this requires a long time, for some of the parts are too damaged. the machine has to be taken to pieces, all the metal parts have to be put in oil, cleaned and then put together again. some of them will have to be replaced. certain parts are cheap and can be bought, but others are expensive and cannot be replaced—the cost would be too high. sometimes it is cheaper to buy a new car than to repair an old one.

quite possibly all those who sit here wish and can wish only with one part of themselves. again it is only with the driver, for he has read something, heard something. he has many fantasies, he even flies to the moon in his dreams.

those who think that they can do something with themselves are greatly mistaken. to change something within is very difficult. what you know, it is the driver who knows it. all your knowledge is just manipulations. real change is a very difficult thing, more difficult than finding several hundred thousand dollars in the street.

question: why was the horse not educated?

answer: the grandfather and grandmother gradually forgot, and all the relatives forgot. education needs time, needs suffering; life becomes less peaceful. at first they did not educate it through laziness, and later they forgot altogether.

here again, the law of three works. between the positive and the negative principles there must be friction, suffering. suffering leads to the third principle. it is a hundred times easier to be passive so that suffering and result happen outside and not inside you. inner result is achieved when everything takes place inside you.

sometimes we are active, at other times we are passive. for one hour we are active, for another hour passive.

when we are active we are being spent, when we are passive we rest. but when everything is inside you, you cannot rest, the law acts always. even if you do not suffer, you are not quiet.

every man dislikes suffering, every man wants to be quiet. every man chooses what is easiest, least disturbing, tries not to think too much. little by little our grandfather and grandmother rested more and more. the first day, five minutes of rest; the next day, ten minutes; and so on. a moment came when half of the time was spent on rest. and the law is such that if one thing increases by a unit, another thing decreases by a unit. where there is more it is added, where there is less it is reduced. gradually your grandfather and grandmother forgot about educating the horse. and now no one remembers any more.

question: how to begin inner change?

answer: my advice—what i said about considering. you should begin to teach the horse a new language, prepare it for the desire to change.

the cart and the horse are connected. the horse and the driver are also connected by the reins. the horse knows two words—right and left. at times the driver cannot give orders to the horse because our reins have the capacity now to thicken, now to become more thin. they are not made of leather. when our reins become more thin, the driver cannot control the horse. the horse knows only the language of the reins. no matter how much the driver shouts, "please, right," the horse does not budge. if he pulls, it understands. perhaps the horse knows some language, but not the one the driver knows. maybe it is arabic.

the same situation exists between the horse and the cart, with the shafts. this requires another explanation.

we have something like magnetism in us. it consists not only of one substance but of several. it is an important part of us. it is formed when the machine is working.

when we spoke about food we spoke of only one octave. but there are three octaves there. one octave produces one substance, the others produce different substances. when the machine works mechanically, substance no. 1 is produced. if there is no subconscious work of this kind, this substance is not produced. when we work consciously, a third kind of substance is produced.

let us examine these three. the first corresponds to the shafts, the second to the reins, the third to the substance which permits the driver to hear the passenger. you know that sound cannot travel in vacuum, there must be some substance there.

we must understand the difference between a casual passenger and the master of the cart. "i" is the master, if we have an "i." if we have not, there is always someone sitting in the cart and giving orders to the driver. between the passenger and the driver there is a substance which allows the driver to hear. whether these substances are there or not depends on many accidental things. it may be absent. if the substance has accumulated, the passenger can give orders to the driver, but the driver cannot order the horse, and so on. at times you can, at others you cannot, it depends on the amount of substance there is. tomorrow you can, today you cannot. this substance is the result of many things.

one of these substances is formed when we suffer. we suffer whenever we are not mechanically quiet. there are different kinds of suffering. for instance, i want to tell you something, but i feel it is best to say nothing. one side wants to tell, the other wants to keep silent. the struggle produces a substance. gradually this substance collects in a certain place.

question: what is inspiration?

answer: inspiration is an association. it is the work of one center. inspiration is cheap, rest assured of that. only conflict, argument, may produce a result.

whenever there is an active element there is a passive element. if you believe in god, you also believe in the devil. all this has no value. whether you are good or bad—it is not worth anything. only a conflict between two sides is worth something. only when much is accumulated can something new manifest itself.

at every moment there may be a conflict in you. you never see yourself. you will believe what i say only when you begin to look into yourself—then you will see. if you try to do something you don't want to do—you will suffer. if you want to do something and don't do it—you also suffer.

what you like—whether good or bad—is of the same value. good is a relative concept. only if you begin to work, your good and bad begin to exist.

question: conflict of two desires leads to suffering. yet some suffering leads to a madhouse.

answer: suffering can be of different kinds. to begin with, we shall divide it into two kinds. first, unconscious; second, conscious.

the first kind bears no results. for instance, you suffer from hunger because you have no money to buy bread. if you have some bread and don't eat it and suffer, it is better.

if you suffer with one center, either thinking or feeling, you get to a lunatic asylum.

suffering must be harmonious. there must be correspondence between the fine and the course. otherwise something may break.

you have many centers: not three, not five, not six, but more. between them there is a place where argument may take place. but equilibrium may be upset. you have built a house, but the equilibrium is upset, the house falls down and everything is spoiled.

now i am explaining things theoretically in order to provide material for mutual understanding.

to do something, however small, is a great risk. suffering may have a serious result. i now speak about suffering theoretically, for understanding. but it is only now i do so. at the institute they do not think about future life, they only think about tomorrow. man cannot see and cannot believe. only when he knows himself, knows his inner structure, only then can he see. now we study in an external manner.

it is possible to study the sun, the moon. but man has everything within him. i have inside me the sun, the moon, god. i am—all life in its totality.

to understand one must know oneself.