Improvisation and reading the moment

Having a reasonably clear picture of what it means to move beyond what Gurdjieff called the formatory apparatus is a practical first step toward engaging a present moment rooted in one’s living sensitivity. Here’s a simple picture: someone asks, “How are you feeling?” Quite apart from the formatory (automatic) way in which the question might have been be asked, there is an opportunity in it. How am I feeling? That is, where is my feeling right now as a sensitive experience in the bodily container of my existence? Is there any feeling there? Maybe there are no words for it. Perhaps there is a movement or a gesture instead. Perhaps the feeling energy is shifting and a new colour or scent is arising. Perhaps I need to work in a more relaxed way to direct my inner listening to places in my body that don’t get as much attention as a habitual rule.

We’re undertaking at our idiotplayers workshops to focus over the next while on improv technique. We’re aiming to explore the moment of our sensitive experienceas as a means of being present to the associative firings of the formatory apparatus. As workshop facilitators, we’ve been working over the last year at developing this technique. There are improv exercises that we have adapted to help enter into the presence of the moment as the basis for improv — this technique has a different nuance than that we ourselves encountered during our improv training. Years of working with inner exercises  from the Gurdjieff / Bennett teaching provided an excellent basis to adapt improv instruction.

As well, we find considerable inspiration for this kind of approach in Gurdjieff’s writing itself. Speaking through Beelzebub in “Beelezbub’s Tales to His Grandson”, Gurdjieff describes how the club of the Adherents of Legomonism in ancient Babylon worked with what sounds to us like improvisational acting whereby members explored the subtleties of their inner moment of experience thus:

“Well then, at the beginning, two of the participants would always come onto this ‘reflector of reality’ or ‘stage’, and then usually one of them would stand for a while and, as it were, listen to his own ‘dartkhelkhloostnian’ state or, as it is sometimes called, the state of his own inner ‘associative psychic experiencings.’”

It is this certain ‘dartkhelkhloostnian’ state that we are exploring as an artistic medium. To couple this state with a role in a dramatic/comedic context is the basis of the method.

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There is a wonderful parable/riddle that originates with the Kwajigan, the Masters of Wisdom, in the eleventh century about the wolf, the sheep and the cabbage. How does a man traveling with a wolf, who loves to eat sheep, a sheep, who loves to eat cabbage, and a cabbage itself, safely cross a river using a boat that only holds himself and one other item at each crossing?

The man, the wolf, the sheep and the cabbage

The man, the wolf, the sheep and the cabbage

The esoteric significance of the parable is a teaching on balancing the three-centered nature of a human. Of course, as a parable, it is also a story that evokes a clear visual image. We will explore this story as a teaching on spiritual psychology and as a piece of drama that can be brought to life upon the stage. This parable is commented upon in detail by at least one modern teacher of the fourth way whose commentary we draw on in substantive way.

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