Gurdjieff I

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 8 of 17 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

Student: You can only handle as much pleasure as you can pain.

CTT: Sounds like a cool idea. I have no idea whether it’s true.

Student: But I mean, it seems like if you start trying to approach every situation with equanimity, do you eventually just dull your emotions so that you can’t experience pleasure?

Another Student: Yes.

CTT: Now you’re really focusing on an important part of the pathology. You can give yourself a sort of forced equanimity. If you basically just hold the lid down on your feelings, then you’re going to start losing things.

Now this is where Gurdjieff made the unique contribution with his concept of emotional intelligence. We’re just getting the idea of emotional intelligence in modern psychology, but Gurdjieff was talking about it 50, 75 years ago.

Gurdjieff’s basic idea is that we have three brains, he called them. I think “brains” was, you know, a good scientific-sounding word to pass muster in those times, but we can call it three processes if we don’t want to physiologize it and run down the physiological correlates of it.

So let’s say you’ve got three distinctive processes. The analogy I like is that each one of us is a ruler, and we have three advisers who give us advice about what’s happening in the kingdom and how to do something about it.

But, according to Gurdjieff, practically all human beings’ development was warped such that they basically only really listen to one adviser, and they didn’t pay much attention to the other two advisers. The one adviser might be very smart, very glib, but this was a person who saw things through their particular biases. The other two advisers, because they’d been neglected and ignored, and often actively suppressed, tended not to be heard or had gotten kind of neurotic about their views.

So he talked about the intellectual brain, which you all have developed quite well, or you wouldn’t have made it this far in the educational system. The intellectual brain’s got words – boy, has it got words! – words, concepts and theories, and puts things together, and talks really, really good.

But he also talked about the emotional brain, or the emotional center, whose job was to look at the world and have an emotional reaction that represented an assessment of what that part of the world was about. It was an information-gathering and decision-making process, and the decision – the evaluation – was presented to us in the form of an emotion.

Same thing with the body as the third kind of advising process. The body also takes in information about the reality around us and presents it to us in a pattern of feelings.

Now ideally, all three of these processes are well developed. They’ve been nourished. They’ve been educated. They’ve been experimented with to know how to use them best. So we’re all great rulers, because we have three smart advisers giving us three different perspectives on every situation, from which we then make some kind of final decision.

But the problem that Gurdjieff said is, again, that one of these advisers has risen to prominence, and that’s the only one we listen to. Some people live life through their emotions. What they feel is 99% of what matters in a situation, and they don’t give it much verbal thought, and they don’t pay much attention to their body.

Some other people live life primarily through their bodies. You meet resistance, you push it aside. Something like that, you know what I mean? Emotions and thinking don’t matter very much. Other people – especially in the academic world – think verbally about it.


  1. So do we want all three brains to be in agreement? What if they aren’t?

    When it comes to my anomalous experiences, my intellectual brain seems to be coping the best. I’ve been reading everything I can on parapsychology to try and make sense of things. I understand that even though we might not understand exactly what causes anomalous experiences, people have them and there is nothing wrong with having them. So that part of me is working through the literature as a means of coping, which I guess is OK.

    Meanwhile, my emotional brain is still going “NO! NO! NO! NO!”. And my physical reaction to anomalous experiences has typically been to throw up.

    So are my emotional and physical reactions just the stupid ones? Or are they just slower? There was a time when my intellect was very good about rationalizing away any experience that didn’t fit into my worldview. I guess back then, all of my brains were in agreement.

  2. The trouble seems to be in “trying to make sense” in a field where there is hardly any place for common sense. Gurdjieff not only indicated that we have 3 brains, he also points out that what we call common sense or logic, can only be of great value to understand the two dimensional world as it appears to us on earth. We need the access to the next higher level of our mental brain system to understand phenomena that seems irrational or not logic to our ‘normal brain’ Phenomena as are also known from quantum theories. Fortunatly Gurdhieff not only spoke about the human being as a three-brained-being, he also provided the methods which lead to co operation of these 3 brains, which proves to be the first step to access the higher parts of the brain.

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