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Actualizing Self - What is It and Why Does It Matter?

It is apparent to many that the current state of the world and humanity is one of great danger and, we hope of great opportunity. I see it every day in my work with organizations, the need to be able to solve ever more complex problems together.

More than any other competency I see my clients realizing the need for better collaboration. By collaboration I mean something deeper than communication or coordination, or even cooperation. True collaboration is a deeper level of interdependence. In collaborating with another, we must be willing to change ourselves, our way of thinking, and behaving to fully integrate the resources we bring to a task with the resources that others provide.

As such, true collaboration requires that we be significantly motivated and able to change our thinking and behavior. It also requires that we be able to accurately understand the perspective and way of working of others. We need to be able to understand the reality of the situation we are dealing with beyond our prejudices and preconceptions.

There are three competencies that are particularly relevant to successful collaboration:

  • to be able to see and understand the point of view of others,

  • to be able to grasp the reality, the whole of a situation, and

  • the ability to make real change in ourselves.

Over the forty years I have worked with organizations, I see clients continuing to try to make progress with these challenges. We try to communicate better, we try to listen better, we try to understand the situation we are in, and we try to change. But very often we fail in these attempts and fall victim to a kind of psychological gravity. We fall back into our conditioned, automatic ways of behaving, which thwarts change, we fall back into our personal, narrow view of the world, which prevents any real understanding and empathy. And the result is a continuous replaying of the same patterns of behavior, for better or for worse.

The field of transpersonal psychology points to a solution for these challenges. It affirms that such self-centered behavior is less than human. In this view, the difficulties we face are a result of living in a subhuman way. The qualities that make us truly human: empathy, insight, true creativity, willingness to sacrifice simply have little room in our current culture, chased out of our everyday experience by endless distractions, an overheated sense of defensiveness, acquisitiveness, competitiveness, dualistic thinking and all sorts of negative emotions.

The spiritual traditions from which transpersonal psychology derives present a variety of models for understanding that there is a higher and a lower in us, and many of the ancient techniques used to cultivate a life based on the higher are now available to us. I encounter more people these days discovering and using these techniques to deal with the pressures of everyday life. My intention here is to provide a framework for understanding how such perspectives and practices can be put to practical use in our daily life, especially at work.

But first, let’s consider why it is worth doing this. Do we really understand and believe that there is a “higher” in us that we can access that is essential to our survival as a species? Is it our experience that there are “higher forces”, a “higher intelligence” that nurtures, guides and protects us?

I want to share an experience I had in 1979 at the beginning of a nine-month residential training in Fourth Way spiritual psychology. This program was designed by John Bennet, a student of George I. Gurdjieff. Bennet, using Gurdjieff’s insights created a nine-month immersion program which applied Gurdjieff’s insights in a western cultural setting. We studied the philosophy and psychology, along with the sacred dances and exercises that brought the material alive, and we applied what we learned to the practical work of running the community in West Virginia where the program took place.

One of the first activities after we arrived was to dismantle an old barn that a neighbor no longer wanted. Taking a barn down is a dangerous affair. The farther along you get, the more unstable the barn is. We were told that, because of the nature of the spiritual work being done there, if we stayed on the property, we would be provided protection from injury. It seemed quite a remarkable claim, but my personal experience on that barn job confirmed that there was some unusual protection. The experience I want to share is more specifically about the kind of deeper perception that is available to people who work out of the higher part of themselves. The story is about the director of the school.

Taking Down a Barn

It was the opening week of our Basic Course at Claymont in 1979. A group of us were working at disassembling an old barn on a nearby property. We had just met each other, some of us spoke different languages, and hardly anyone present had experience taking a barn apart. And as progress was made removing the various elements of the barn, the barn became increasingly unstable. It was dangerous work.

We had been told that at Claymont, because of the nature of the spiritual work done there, we were protected from certain kinds of danger. I saw it happen on the project one day. A very large beam fell directly on the head of a woman walking below, it should have at least knocked her out if not killed her, but she was completely unfazed.

Later, it was evening, and the sun was beginning to set. I was up on the roof of the barn, high above the treetops, with an excellent view of the countryside and the sunset. We had been working all day and were getting very tired. Tempers were beginning to flair, and the work began to take on a haphazard feel which caused me to think "this is when people get hurt”. At that time, we were sawing the roof into 4X6 foot squares and lowering them with ropes. The square we were lowering had gotten caught on something and would not move.

People were pushing and pulling and swearing.

As I began to worry about what would happen next, I looked up and saw a car coming from a distance. It came closer and closer, and pulled up right in front of the barn. Pierre Elliot (the director of Claymont) jumped out of the car, jogged over to a ladder which was right below the where we were working on the stuck roof panel. He quickly climbed the ladder to right under the stuck roof panel, pointed at a particular spot which someone pushed from below with a 2x4, and the roof panel came loose!

The job being done, without a word, Pierre climbed down, got in his car, and drove away. I have often wondered at the fact that I had been given the opportunity to see this happen. It is as if an entirely new dimension of what it meant to be a leader, responsible for the wellbeing of many people opened up to me. How was it possible that Pierre could manage to be in that place where we has needed at exactly the right moment?

Centers and Functions

In many transpersonal traditions there is the idea of “Centers” as they are called in the Gurdjieff tradition or “functions” as Carl Jung called them. These centers tend to include the instinctual, moving, feeling, thinking, centers, the higher emotional and intellectual centers, and the intuitive function. We all have these centers and functions, but we tend to vary widely in the degree of development we have achieved in each center. The degree of development and preference for different centers are the basis for many models of personality, such as Jung’s model which we are familiar with through the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.

In the corporate management world, we encounter people who are highly developed in the thinking center, and fairly strong in the instinctual/moving center, and very weak in the emotional center. This is the result of a tendency in business, especially to employ MBA’s, attorneys, and accountants as managers. This proliferation of managers who are least developed in their feeling center led to a realization that organizations managed by people who are deficient in their feel center competency tend to have a lot of people problems.

This is the reason for the evolution of the concept of emotional intelligence which has now become common in the business world.

Energies of Awareness

One of the most exhaustive treatments of this subject in the transpersonal literature is the Fourth Way work of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Bennet. In this work there is the idea that there are different grades of energies of awareness. These energies include:

  • Automatic energy which enables autonomic sensory motor reflexive functions which have no element of intention or choice.

  • Sensitive energy which enables the awareness of thoughts, feelings, body sensations making it possible to separate from our automatism and experience what it is to be fully alive, to remember the past, and look forward to the future.

  • Conscious energy which is an omnipresent energy which is not ours, but in which we can participate, through which we can experience our individuality and will.

According to the Fourth Way view, our centers, our functions operate very differently depending upon which energy of awareness is operating in them. If we study the ancient spiritual traditions, we discover that the initial training that apprentices received was to learn to generate and contain the higher energies of awareness so that the higher human qualities could manifest in them. The quality of experienced associated with each level of energy is as follows:

Automatic energy is adequate to operate each center or function at a minimum level. There is no real engagement, presence, or quality when automatic energy is all that is operating. “The lights are on, but nobody is home.” Many people live out their lives running mostly on automatic energy.

Sensitive energy is of an entirely different nature. It is directed intentionally. To produce sensitive energy, we must “pay attention.” With sensitive energy there is real engagement with life, and there is the possibility of quality, enjoyment, richness, and presence. Anyone who has mastered anything will have learned to “pay attention,” to direct and work with sensitive energy.

Conscious energy is a rarer manifestation. To have the experience of conscious energy, one must have generated a “pool of uncommitted sensitive energy.” For this to happen one needs to be able to pay attention for prolonged periods, to avoid frittering sensitive energy away with excessive thinking, talking, negativity and physical tension. Conscious experience makes it possible for us to be aware that we are aware. Conscious energy makes a much richer, holistic, and profound experience of oneself and the world possible. Conscious energy is necessary for us to receive the even higher energies (creative energy).

Now we can consider how each of these energies of awareness manifests in instinctual, moving, feeling and intellectual centers. The following material is derived from a talk given by Mr. John Bennett as reported by Dorothy Philpotts in “Discovering Gurdjieff” Authorhouse UK 2008. He presents descriptions of how our primary functions: intellectual, feeling and thinking function perform depending in the quality of the quality of awareness energy that the centers are running on.

Instinctual Center

When operating on automatic energy, which is the energy that is most common in most of us, most of the time, the instinctual center controls and coordinates the autonomic processes of the body that are necessary for life. It produces a rudimentary awareness of internal and external sensations. Concerned with the external relations of the body, protection against danger and disease, reception of sense impressions, and transformation into sensations, adjustment of life to the rhythms and processes of nature.

It has two valences: beneficial and harmful, pleasant, and unpleasant, good, and bad with respect to the body’s needs. Instinctual center is drawn to the favorable and is ill at ease with and avoids the dangerous or detrimental.

Sensitive energy in the instinctual center is the primary and most direct instrument of cognition that we possess. It constructs for us a representation of the external world and incessantly relates our bodies to that world. It takes absolute control in physical danger. When all goes well, with the body there is a sense of inward balance and wellbeing.

When conscious energy is operating in the instinctual center, a quite different potential is activated. According to Gurdjieff, “If you were conscious in the Instinctive Center, you could talk with animals, even with worms. This is the true “Communion with Nature”, it also has the power of discerning and curing disease.

Moving Center

Operating on automatic energy, the moving center controls and coordinates movement and adaptation. It controls the entire range of acquired and learned movements (through imitation) which are not dependent on consciousness. It has two sides: excitatory and inhibitory.

Sensitive energy in the moving center enables purposive adaptation to obtain results over and above the immediate necessity of the moment with the help of attention and carries with it a feeling of interest and excitement. Developed through sports without the competitive element, ceremonial and festive dances, occupational rhythms, and village crafts. Makes possible a unique form of understanding.

Conscious energy works freely in a few gifted people resulting in a high capacity for invention, and a feeling for the working of nature which baffles the intellectual center. It enables a power of guessing at the working of natural laws and devising experiments and finding ways to overcome difficulties and improvise.

Emotional Center

The business of the emotional center is values, concern for whether external presentations matter or not, liked, or disliked, and whether they are beautiful or exciting. Very often this center does not work properly, due almost entirely to egocentrism depriving us of true emotional perception. It creates a polarization, an attitude, making something matter.

On automatic energy, it works without self-consciousness or unified will and as such consists of habitual reactions which have been acquired through imitation and repetition such as love of praise and dislike of blame as well as the full range of negative emotions.

Operating on sensitive energy, the emotional center bestows the power of discrimination, always judgments of being, and therefore judgments of consciousness. It can distinguish between two influences presented to it, that which is more and that which is less conscious. This part is seldom operative, but when it is, provides a general sense of direction and system of values.

Fueled by conscious energy, the feeling center is an instrument through which freedom can work to produce what is sometimes called “artistic inspiration.” At the moment of the artist’s vision, his Will is free. The moment is characterized by completeness, by creativity, and by timelessness, even though it may only last for an instant. This is the seat of conscience through which, one not only knows oneself, but assesses one’s value and level of being objectively.

Intellectual Center

The intellectual center has no direct access to the external world, does not deal with facts directly but instead with thoughts or ideas. Essentially logical, it engages in association, comparison, affirmation, and negation. Manifests “trains of thought” which brings the concrete but undefined world structure as it is presented to our awareness into distinct forms which the intellectual center can manipulate. We can hear its functioning in the voice that constantly speaks in our head, continually maintaining our view of the world and ourselves in it.

Operating on automatic energy, the intellectual center is an automaton called by Gurdjieff the “formatory apparatus.” It strings sequences of ideas and thoughts together based on current stimulus and past conditioning. This is the voice continually talking haphazardly in one’s head.

The same intellectual center mechanisms fueled by sensitive energy differs in that its work requires the coordinating influences of a wider consciousness. This makes continuous and purposive thought possible, working towards a pre-defined aim.

The effect of focusing consciousness upon the intellectual mechanism is to enhance its associative powers, producing results much richer than can be obtained from linear, dualistic associations of the formatory apparatus. There is always a sense of novelty involved, the sensation of “discovering America.” The seat of true intellectual emotion- the desire and joy of knowing.

The Higher Centers

In the Fourth Way work the process of refining each center, bringing it into proper balance with the other centers, and cultivating the capacity to generate and contain the energies of sensation and consciousness produce the “natural human being” who can receive the impulses that come from the higher centers. It is at this point that truly spiritual work can begin. Everything up to this point is preparation.

The higher emotional center is the seat and organ of the perfected individuality. The permanent “I.” When consciousness joins it with the lower centers, the whole being is unified, and enables one to perceive reality beyond the here and now of usual experience. In the Higher Intellectual Center, the last distinction between any form of existence and all sense of separate individuality vanishes entirely.

Even if one does not have an interest in the spiritual work, consider the value of refining the centers and learning to work with the energies of awareness. Let us look at a description of the person who runs on automatic energy:

The Automatic Condition

Instinctual - Control and coordination of the autonomic processes of the body that are necessary for life are subject to conditioning, not accessible to awareness and may be significantly out of balance. The person is likely to be the slave of conditioned reactions to the pleasurable and unpleasurable leading to all sorts of unhealthy addictions and habits.

Moving - Lack of skill and intentionality in movement, and an aggregation of unnecessary movement and tension in the body resulting in significant wastage of energy.

Emotional - Lack of sensitivity to others, a lack of awareness of the values that drives one’s behavior, the proliferation of unexamined attitudes, biases and a life polluted with negative emotions.

Intellectual -A mental space continuously disrupted by unexamined chains of thought which maintain a consistent world view and self-image which may be significantly baseless and inaccurate, and trapped in dualistic, rigid formulations.

The Sensitive Condition

Instinctual - Capacity to be present in the physical world and construct an accurate representation of the world and our relationship to it. Enables an effective and extremely rapid response to danger. Makes possible a profound sense of physical wellbeing and balance.

Moving - The capacity for engaged, interested, and enthusiastic purposive adaptation to obtain results over and above the immediate necessity of the moment.

Emotional - The power of discrimination, capable of distinguishing between two influences or options presented to it, to determine that which is more and that which is less conscious, which is “right for me.” It is, provides a general sense of direction and system of values.

Intellectual - Joy in knowing and learning, and the capacity for continuous and purposive thought in service of a defined aim.

The Conscious Condition

Instinctual - True communion with nature and the power of discerning and curing disease.

Moving - Capacity for invention, deep insight into natural laws, facility for devising experiments, and finding ways to overcome difficulties and improvise.

Feeling - The experience of true artistic inspiration characterized by completeness, creativity, and by timelessness. This is the seat of conscience through which one knows oneself and can make valid decisions about one’s course in life.

Intellectual - The capacity for true creative thought which enables true innovation and discovery, and the capacity to put into words the subtle perceptions of the higher centers which make the spiritual journey possible.

We can ask ourselves, which of these kinds of people do we want to be? The automatic, the sensitive, or the conscious? And what would be best for our organizations? How much value is there in raising people from the automatic level, where people need to be actively managed to the sensitive level, where they are more self-directed? And what might be possible for us if there were more people who operate at the conscious level, truly able to make conscience guided decisions, to understand deeply, to innovate, and to express the joy of true creativity?

If we see the value of this work, the question is, how do we move in this direction given all the obstacles that present themselves in our modern lives? George Gurdjief, the creator of the Fourth Way (1866-1949) studied a variety of mystical traditions and developed a methodology for applying what he learned to modern Western people. He made it clear that our idea of what it means to be human in the modern world is extremely flawed and has resulted in the world conditions that now face us. In his view, this misconception of what it means to be human is a result of a flawed educational experience.

The essence of the issue is, in the modern world we tend to believe that we each have a single and integrated self, an “I,” that the ego is that self, and that intelligence means intellect. As a result, we have built a culture that is built around the satisfaction of ego needs, and an education system that vastly over emphasizes the logical mind.

In the transpersonal traditions there is a quite different view, that in fact very few people have a well-integrated “I” (which is a definition of Self Actualization) and that that integration can only be accomplished through rigorous and protracted “work on oneself.” This work on oneself depends to a great extent on understanding that there are several levels of awareness, and that one’s quality of life experience depends on the level of awareness that one is capable of maintaining.

Consider for a moment how little focus this subject receives in our current educational system. We live in a world in which negativity is viewed as normal, and automaticity, especially in the workplace is expected as inevitable, creativity is highly valued, but seldom achieved, and self-awareness is seldom if ever emphasized.

Work on “oneself” in the transpersonal traditions is described as a process of bringing various levels of self into harmony. In the simplest version of this system, there are three levels of self.

Material Self - The first level of self can be called the material self. It is the self of the physical body and evolves first. This is the level of self that is responsible for navigating the world of objects and survival of the physical body. This material self is essential to our survival, and, if it is supplied with a higher level of awareness energy, is capable of very profound and beautiful manifestations as we see in dancers, martial artists, musicians and soon. Unfortunately, if this level of self is allowed to dominate us and if it operates only on automatic energy, the result can be an extremely brutal, insensitive, and manipulative behavior. It is possible for a person dominated by material self to rise remarkably high in organizations, to the very top, and the result can be devastating.

Reactional Self - The next level of self to evolve can be called the reactional self. This is the ego-mind, the self that is constantly chattering in our head. This is the self that wants to take credit, avoid blame and be the center of the universe. The reactional self is extremely important as it is capable of understanding the concept of right and wrong. It can understand that “If I do this, then a bad thing may happen to me.” One of the primary jobs of the Reactional Self is to keep the material self in line. It can provide discipline and focus and consistency. It can make plans and execute them. If we do not have a healthy, functional reactional self, we will probably be institutionalized in some way. Unfortunately, in the West we have built our entire culture around the reactional self. We structure our organizations around motivating the reactional self, the ego to perform in service of the organization’s mission. This does not sound like a bad thing until we add one more observation on the reactional self, the ego. It can only experience the world from its own point of view. As a result, our organizations tend to be dominated by conflict between egoic points of view, and collaboration and creative solutions tend to be rare occurrences rather than the common phenomenon that we need in this increasing complex and challenging world.

True Self - This brings us to the third level of self which can be called the True Self. This is the self that gets the capital “S,” and it is the self that we seek to actualize. Here we come to the spiritual dimension of this perspective. There is the old question “Are we physical beings having a spiritual experience or are we spiritual beings having a physical experience.” The question is, what are we really? Who are we really? Are we really separate selves as our ego’s want us to believe, or are we something far more fundamental and essential?

One of the characteristics of “peak experience” as Maslow called it is the experience of union, which is what we value in deep friendship, romance, and teamwork. These peak experiences are also associated with deep insight, intuition, and creativity. These are the dimensions of human experience that we tend to be fascinated with or discount as ephemeral or mechanical manifestations of the brain. In the transpersonal traditions, these higher phenomena are viewed as examples of what it means to be truly human. These higher capabilities are our birthright and responsibility, without which we cannot fulfill our function as human beings, which is to be of service to each other and this planet.

In the transpersonal view, these capabilities are ever present, always accessible to us through what Gurdjief called the “higher emotional and intellectual centers.” Consider your own experience. Have there not been times in your life when you just knew the right course of action? Times when you somehow just simply understood, you were in the right place at the right time, and somehow knew what you needed to know in that moment? In the transpersonal view this should not be an inaccessible rarity. It should be a natural state for human beings.

So why is it so unusual in our modern world? It is because our lower centers, our moving, emotional, and intellectual centers do not function properly, because our education has not taught us how those centers should work. Our moving center, for instance is responsible for all our volitional action. It is capable of extremely elegant insight into the physical world, impeccable timing, and breathtakingly beautiful action. Unfortunately, our physical education tends to focus on competitive games, and omits the skills of relaxation, self-discipline and sensitivity that are required to awaken the higher functioning of the material self. As a result, we tend to be a bundle of tensions and undisciplined habitual impulses arising from the material self. The body becomes a source of distraction instead of a well-tuned, grounded vehicle for action in the world.

This brings us to the emotional center, which is the seat of feeling. Our feelings provide us a holistic experience of life, and tells us if something is right for us, or not right. The emotional center is capable of extremely deep insight into what we truly are. It is the part of us that can connect with the higher centers. It is the center in which we experience our sense of true Self. But in our modern world, this center tends to be filled with negativity. We have come to point where we may even be suspicious of a person who tends to be positive. We accept negativity as normal, by which I mean envy, greed, jealousy, resentment, and so on. We can barely find a place to even begin addressing bullying in our schools. We can barely bring ourselves to even admit to the level of prejudice that is at the root of our social dynamics. We are in almost complete denial over the degree to which negativity has become an expected part of our lives.

In the transpersonal traditions it is clearly understood that, if we want to connect with the higher capabilities in us, negativity absolutely must be overcome. We must come to see our negativity as false and toxic and learn to clear our feelings of this dissonance. We can think of the connection to the higher centers as attunement to a finer, more subtle signal. That voice is always there, but we are so noisy in our awareness that we can rarely detect, let alone rely on that signal.

It is worth reading a book called “Inside Out Healing” by Richard Moss. He differentiates emotion from feeling. True feeling is when we make a deep connection to our true Self and can through that feeling come to understand what we need to do in a particular situation. The feelings may not be pleasant, such as a sense of dread or deep sadness, but when we allow ourselves to go deeply into these feelings, we can come to truly deep insights into how to live our lives.

Dr. Moss defines emotions as what happens when our thoughts intrude into our feelings. We may be feeling sadness, but then the intellectual center, which believes its job is to explain everything, produces a story about why we are sad. Usually, these stories come from our standard inventory of life stories, and we then get carried away perseverating on the story of why we feel bad, usually blaming someone else or life in general or ourselves, and we just go in endless unproductive circles. In the transpersonal view, the goal is to be able to let this internal dialogue go, learn to simply contemplate the deep feelings, and develop the patience to see what insight this leads us to.

This brings us at last to the Western favorite, the intellectual center. Operating on automatic energy, this is the ego mind, the associative mind which is constantly talking in our heads. In the transpersonal view, this center, fueled by automatic energy is not very bright. It just endlessly strings ideas together and insists that it is right. Our educational system is designed to jam this center full of facts and constantly exercise its repetitive action from an early age. The result is an inability to stop this internal dialogue which absolutely prevents the clarity of mind required for access to the higher centers.

So, what do we do about this? There are some examples of educational approaches that take a very different view. The example that I am familiar with is the Waldorf system, which creates an environment in kindergarten and the lower grades in which the child does not lose its sense of wonder in the physical worlds and in inner life. It completely avoids teaching reading until the child is developmentally ready (around 6 or 7). It teaches mathematics through body based rhythmic exercises. It cultivates creativity by having students create their own textbooks, and many other approaches.

But our subject here is the application of transpersonal insights to organization development. So in the next blog we will take up an approach to working with what is often the most distracting and disruptive center, the emotional center.

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