Gurdjieff’s I Am Exercise

from Possible Foundations Of Inner Exercises Blake, A. G. E.


Gurdjieff refers to this exercise as the “compromise” exercise. In this exercise, attention is divided between the breathing and the head brain and the results of this are gathered into or concentrated in the solar plexus. Gurdjieff says that this will enhance the sense of ‘I AM’, which he couples with what he calls ‘active mentation’.

Attention & Associations

In describing the exercise, Gurdjieff makes a number of statements about attention.

  1. For ‘real men’ there is an attention that can be divided into two directions.
  2. There are three kinds of attention.
  3. The attention of a real man can be free of associations.

The attention of a real man would be ‘conscious’. The pragmatic test is that such an attention can be divided. The three kinds of attention are referred to by Gurdjieff as ‘to sense, feel and constate’ – which we might know more abstractly as sensing, feeling and thinking.

Associations go on by themselves and Gurdjieff says they not only go in our sleep, when we dream, but even after death! In describing (conscious) attention, he says that it can be concentrated away from such automatic proceedings.

In the course of describing the exercise, he tells his pupils to concentrate their attention on specific aspects of their (experiential) organism. In everyday life, we would not do this. Though not specifically mentioned in this description, we should bear in mind the kind of ideas he put forward in the beginning of his teaching about man as a ‘factory’, taking in raw materials of food, air and impressions and transforming them (see in In Search of the Miraculous by P. D. Ouspensky). Part of this transformation goes automatically, by itself, but there are stages that require conscious work. This is where the attention of a real man comes in.


Both at the beginning and at the end of his description, Gurdjieff warns against auto-suggestion. He also warns against excessive zeal and ‘self-enthusing’. In contemporary colloquial language, we might say that if someone is ‘getting off’ on this exercise, then it is going wrong. Gurdjieff is emphasising that doing this exercise should have nothing to do with generating emotional experiences. The real results accumulate gradually through repeated practice.

In modern times, inner exercises of various kinds have been taken up precisely because they give rise to emotional experiences. It is forgotten that, for example, in Buddhism Mara the ‘evil one’ was the name given to bliss experienced in meditation! Gurdjieff is also following the core tradition of mysticism in Christianity, which tended to reject ‘experiences’ as distractions. He makes the exercise seem like shovelling coal!

In a technical sense, ‘bliss’ (as in the ananda of the Hindu sat-chit-ananda – being-consciousness-bliss) is always a descending phenomenon, which means that a higher energy is transforming down into lower energies. Gurdjieff’s exercise appears to have the intent of an ascending process. Flying in the face of his repeated assertion that ‘man cannot do’ he claims that this exercise will enable his pupils to “do”, which may be to build up a substance giving the possibility of doing.

Here we will simply remark that John Bennett described such a possibility in terms of his own language, drawn from science, of ‘potential energy‘. Energy withdrawn from actualisation, from anything happening, enables real choices to be made, or voluntary action taken (see his series of lectures recently republished under the title Making a Soul).

Assimilating Air

In this exercise, Gurdjieff says, the attention is divided into two parts. The first part concentrates on breathing: becoming aware of the air coming into the lungs and then leaving, but not entirely, since some of it is assimilated. The air that is assimilated ‘flows in my presence’. Now, it is likely that Gurdjieff was not referring to oxygen here as the part of the air that is assimilated (there is a tantalising passage about the active ingredients in the air, which is deliberately broken off and left unfinished, in the Third Series). In later years, John Bennett would explain that there is an ‘active substance’ in the air – he even at one time said that it derived from the sun – and that this active substance can only be assimilated into us if it is taken in consciously. The underlying reference is to the theory of the ‘food factory’ we mentioned before: in order for the second-being food or ‘air’ to be transformed it requires at a certain point assistance from (intentional) impressions – i.e. conscious attention.

It is widely known that awareness of our breathing changes our state. But the idea that it can produce a certain substance in us is very much Gurdjieff’s alone. John Bennett speaks of it as prana – a Hindu term that is usually translated as something like ‘life-force’. Needless to say, there is no evidence whatsoever for there being such a substance, besides the changes in state that are subjective and we are even warned about by Gurdjieff himself.

The Mental Component

By concentrating on the breathing, the pull of mental associations has become weak. However, next ‘the other half’ of the attention is put onto the ‘mind’ or, as Gurdjieff also calls it ‘my head brain’. He says that with practice we can detect something arising there from our associations, at first faintly. Nowhere does he say what this ‘something’ is. He even says that “what arises in the brain is not important”; instead he says that there should be a flow in to the solar plexus.

The austerity of language should be remarked. In this case it is most fitting since, in general, the substance of the head brain is taken as abstract.

However, there is a sense in which we can take what arises and what flows as in some way being the ‘substance underlying associations, thoughts or knowing’.

Solar Plexus

What flows in my presence from the air and what comes from my head brain combine together in the solar plexus. Gurdjieff does not say that they blend together or make any statement about their conjunction. The location of the solar plexus is only explained indirectly when Gurdjieff says that the exercise increases the strength of his ‘I AM’. Someone who actually does the exercise can see what this means for herself. Speculations based on the chakra system tend to be totally misleading since Gurdjieff never used this system or made reference to it. Nor does he make use of other Asian concepts such as the ‘stove of the belly’.

What is striking is that the Desert Fathers practised bringing their thoughts into the region of their navels (hence the origin of the phrase ‘navel-gazers’) and readers of the immensely influential Philokalia may recognise the similarities.

In Gurdjieff’s own system, it is fair to say that ‘I’ would be most associated with the head brain and ‘AM’ with the solar plexus.

Proceeding Automatically

More than once, Gurdjieff says that the exercise or part of it is proceeding in him by itself or automatically. It is worth taking note of this. While Gurdjieff is talking, the exercise is building and proceeding in him. But, how can it proceed automatically when the whole emphasis has been on concentrating the attention?

It would confuse the clarity of the exercise to say very much about this; but it seems to us that it is important to observe that concentrating the attention is not really a matter of effort. Nor is it a matter of ‘I am doing this’. There is more a sense of an impersonal act proceeding by itself. One intends something such as a flow from the head brain to the solar plexus and then one has to allow it to happen as it will: it is no good ‘doing’ anything to try and make it happen. It is as if the act of seeing creates what is to be seen.

Trying to describe and explain what happens can generate metaphysical sickness, and a stark simplicity is called for in the doing of the exercise. However, it is important to grasp that what Gurdjieff calls ‘automatic’ has two sides to it.

Intended Results

Gurdjieff says that the practice of this exercise by his pupils is “only a preparation to have an ‘I'” but in his own case it provides ‘food’ for his ‘I’. The task for the pupils is to recognise the two sources – the flow from the head brain and the assimilation from the air. We have already mentioned that he also said it would enable people to ‘do’ or have the possibility of doing as well as the wish to do.

We want to draw attention here to a common feature of Gurdjieff’s methods, which might be expressed as: first detach, then divide and then unite into a new whole. What can be taught or imparted is something about detachment and division. But the new unification cannot be taught. As long as people remain followers of the instructions, they remain divided. No one can tell them to unite themselves, to ‘make’ I AM in themselves. Gurdjieff suggests that he unites himself and then leaves it there.

His almost final statement about the exercise is that it will enable his pupils to have ‘real active mentation’. This may be the key to the whole thing. The very idea that inner exercises should be devoted to something that is akin to thinking is anathema to most so-called ‘spiritual’ seekers at the present time. It is also a side of Gurdjieff that has been strangely neglected by those professing to follow his ideas. Though Gurdjieff’s active mentation is not just our usual ‘thinking’ it is still conscious, willed direction based on understanding and is what thinking ought to be.

Another way of regarding active mentation is as ‘thinking with the whole of oneself’.

Essential Features

It is useful to make a summary of the essential features of this exercise. Readers may differ with us on our choices and interpretations. Such a summary may also be tested against other exercises (as we will do in the following essay). At the outset, we have to state that it is our contention that such an exercise is integrally connected with the rest of Gurdjieff’s teaching, particularly with his theories of human structure and process. We believe that his account of the assimilation and transformation of the three ‘foods’ of food, air and impressions is of paramount importance. The general inference from this teaching is that conscious attention can affect the process of transformation; in particular, to produce ‘substances’ that would not otherwise be made. These substances share in the characteristic of enablement: if we have them, we can ‘do’ and if we do not then wanting to do is just wishful thinking. In a word, these substances turn our view of ourselves as free, whole, creative beings from fantasy into reality. We spoke of ‘wishful thinking’ and might consider that such substances when added to the equation produce a real result: thinking + wish + substance = real doing.

  1. The purpose of such an exercise is to produce an enabling substance (or energy) that can make life more real.
  2. It depends on exercising a free attention that can be divided into at least two parts.
  3. There is an energy or substance that can be assimilated or made available to us by bringing attention onto our breathing.
  4. In a perhaps similar way, there is an energy or substance that can be released from the thinking process or head brain by careful attention.
  5. Such energies can be combined together to produce a new sense of wholeness or ‘I-Amness’.

The ‘sense’ of new wholeness that is posited at the end of the exercise is the most important ‘proof’ of the efficacy of the exercise. But, as we commented, it is the most problematic – not least because it has to be self-defining. However, during the course of the exercise, it is possible for us to test out and explore the meaning of points 2, 3 and 4. These features give us a chance to struggle with our convictions. We just have to come to terms with how things work out in us when we try to follow the instructions. We have to decide what is real in our experience.

There is no way of knowing whether what happens to one person is the same as to another. Each will describe their experience in different terms. We have adopted the method of ‘experienting’ to take account of this, which has the advantage of providing mutual support without the imposition of any one person’s models of the experience. Experienting also follows the situation exemplified by Gurdjieff himself in describing the exercise, where it is clear – and even stated by him – that the exercise can be working in him as he speaks about it [see below on ‘Transmitting Exercises’]. In ‘experienting’ every participant is encouraged to articulate the process going on in her or him while it is taking place. At first this feels like an added difficulty and an immense distraction. But it facilitates detachment from emotional experiences (see Gurdjieff’s warning) and can also assist in the end, through practice, in attaining the condition indicated by Gurdjieff of the exercise ‘proceeding automatically’.

The five essential features we have listed all belong to what can be called a ‘psycho-cosmology’. It is difficult to establish whether knowing about this is an integral part of the exercise or not. One imagines that Gurdjieff’s pupils were well aware of the background to the exercise they were being shown. The exercise can be done without knowing anything about the ‘food factory’ model but would it be the same? Gurdjieff gives the essentials without any appeal to theory but it would be hard to put it all together without some theoretical support.

We tentatively, then, add a sixth feature:

6. To constate and reason on the purpose and meaning of the exercise, with the provisos “don’t imagine things” and “don’t be the slaves of the data you have within yourselves for autosuggestion”.

The Exercise as given by Mr. G. (with some minimal editing)

This version differs slightly from the text given in the Third Series

The totality of man’s attention received from the whole of him, from all his spiritualised parts, he can divide into two directions. For real man there is one attention. Only this attention can be divided into two directions. In general If the sources of man’s attention are taken into account, there are three kinds of attention. You must first understand and then recognise the difference. When this attention is concentrated, then our associations are ‘in galoches’.

Associations can never stop. If they would stop men would die. Associations always flow. Even after death they continue to flow by momentum. Only when attention is seriously occupied, associations are not constated; all the same they flow automatically. Even in sleep they continue and are sometime remembered- this is what constitutes dreams. Those who remember their dreams were only half asleep. If a man really sleeps, his attention also sleeps.

Real man has one attention. When this is concentrated seriously somewhere, whether on his body or on something outside, and all the forces of his attention are concentrated, his associations do not hinder him. For example I am now looking at L.. and my attention is directed on my right foot; so although I look, I see only automatically, my attention being elsewhere.

I will now show you that new exercise, the one to which is attached the risk I spoke of, the “compromise” exercise.

It Is a serious experiment; many of you have such data In you for auto-suggestion that impressions may be obtained which will be the result of some kind of self-hypnotism.

If you are now a nonentity, you may become a thousand times more so. You might, if you will excuse my using this word, “stink”. Be careful with the experiment . It is not quality that is necessary, but quantity. Do it often. Don ‘t try to get absolute results. Make repeated efforts. Then only little by little, can you actualize results. Then only will you be able to “do”. And parallel with wishing to “do”, there will arise in you the possibility of “doing”.

Do this without excessive zeal, without self- enthusing, which is a very harmful property. If you repeat this exercise often, your auto-suggestiveness will diminish.

This is the exercise.

Outwardly , at the first glance, this exercise is simple. For instance, you see, I sit here in my usual posture. I am dividing my attention. But no one can see this inner process. I divide my attention consciously into two parts. With one part I now sense, feel and constate simultaneously with one conscious concentration. Now I breathe. I feel that something happening to the air that I breath in. Part of it goes in, part goes out, and a part remains. My organism, that is my lungs, take a part, then a part leaves and a part remains. I feel what is happening in my lungs. When I breath in, part of the air is assimilated and I feel its flow all over the body. It goes everywhere. I keep my attention fixed; I feel, I sense how this air is being assimilated in me and how It flows in my presence. It is not necessary to find out where it goes, it just flows in my presence.

One part of my attention is occupied with this – breathing, assimilating and flowing of the air. Already my mental associations are very weak. I notice them sometimes, by the way, because part of my attention is free, and is able to notice mental associations.

Now I will concentrate the ether half of my attention on my mind. my head brain. I feel that in my head-brain something arises from the total of the flow of associations there. I don’t know what is taking place there, but there is something, and with my half attention I notice this very thin something arise, so small, so light, so thin, that nobody feel it the first few times, not until constant practice gives the feeling. I know this subjectively because I have practised it. I feel , I sense, l constate, that something arises in my head-brain. All the time, of course, the other half of my attention is occupied with the breathing process. Even while speaking, this exercise is being automatically done.

Now I direct my attention to help this something in my brain to flow towards my solar plexus. What arises in the brain is not important. What is important is that the something that arises there should flow into the solar plexus. Now I feel how it flows. My attention is fully occupied and I don’t see any more associations All my attention is occupied pied with feeling, sensing, and assimilating the flow of air. and also with this arising in my head-brain.

This flow of assimilated air, and this something which arises in my head brain, I specially, consciously, with my wish, concentrate to let it flow Into my solar plexus.. Now. by the way I feel and constate that I breathe , I assimilate and that this flow goes to the solar plexus. And all the time the flow from the air I breathe and the flow from my head-associations go to the solar plexus although they issue from different sources.

For me personally, at the same time, I feel very strongly that I AM. I feel that I AM ten times stronger. My “I” takes in this food more intensely, but for you, at the present moment, do not do this exercise in order to be stronger. For you this exercise is only a preparation to have an “I” and so that you should constate the two sources from which this “I” can arise. For me it gives food to my “I”. It makes it stronger, so that now I am not “tail of donkey”. I AM.

But you can not yet use this exercise to make yourself stronger; you must first learn and constate the two sources from which this possibility can arise, to have a real ” I” – from air and from mentation, even automatic mentation; and then , when you will have practised this exercise a great deal, you may be able to have possibilities for real active mentation. And then with real active mentation, the ” I” can become stronger.

Enough. I stop and let these processes proceed in me automatically. Now, without titillation without philosophizing and manipulation, try to understand the total of all this and formulate it according to your subjective understanding, according to whatever kind of idiot you are. Then do [it].

Don’t imagine things.

Don’t be the slave of the data you have in yourselves for autosuggestion, but try very hard.

We have at hand another report of an exercise dictated by Mr Gurdjieff, this time dated to 1939. It is instructive to read this account in the light of our previous discussion. We add some comments afterwards.


About mr Sarmoung

Andrea Dandolo je pisac i istražitelj razvoja svijesti i duhovnosti uključen u razotkrivanje drevnih učenja s ciljem olakšavanja unutarnjeg razvoja ljudskih bića. Jedan od načina kojima se time bavi je i kroz blog koji je preveden na engleski, španjolski i od nedavno hrvatski. Od rane mladosti je u svijetu duhovnosti i rada na sebi sudjelujući u radu grupa koje potječu direktno od Gurdjieffa, tj koje su bile vođene od strane samog Gurdjieffa U skladu sa drevnim znanjima, naglašava razvoj svjesnosti kao primarno sredstvo za psihološku transformaciju i duhovnu osvještenost individualaca. Karakteristike sistema koji predlaže su jednostavan jezik i moderni prijevod drevnih učenja kao i njihove praktične primjene u svakodnevnome životu. Njegov blog čitaju ljudi iz svih krajeva svijeta. Samorazvoj je ne religiozni i ne dogmatski put; sastoji se primarno od naprednog dostizanja viših stanja svijesti, p prisustva i konačno od ostvarivanja svoje prave intimne prirode, koja je poznata u mnogim tradicijama pod imenima poput esencija, duša, biće. Kroz takav razvoj individualna osoba ulazi u nove dimenzije svijesti koje mu omogućuju da vidi stvarnost sakrivenu iza iluzija. To mu omogućuje kreiranje osobnosti neovisne i otporne na vanjske situacije i vanjska uvjetovanja. Posljedice takvog razvoja su oštra inteligencija, izvanredni kreativni kapaciteti, ravnoteža i smirenost u svakoj situaciji i stabilno stanje višeg stanja svijesti koje je poznato u drevnim tradicijama pod nazivom “buđenje”.
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21 Responses to Gurdjieff’s I Am Exercise

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  20. cmparis says:

    Do you happen to know the seven invocations that Bennett would use with the “I am” exercise?
    Starts with “I wish, I believe…..” I think that he would have his students sometimes use the zikr “Ha” breath in between each invocation. Heard this on an audio lecture but never got the whole thing.

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