The War Against Sleep: A Forgotten Eastern Mystic’s Powerful Personal-development Program for People Who Want To Feel Alive!

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George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was one of the most charismatic, enigmatic, powerfully self-possessed mystical teachers of the 20th century, and he taught that most humans exist in a state of “waking sleep,” where they remain unaware of their infinite potential and ultimate value as human beings.

His “System” (which he never claimed was the system, but simply a system, albeit a very effective one) was also known as “The Work,” tending to mean “work on oneself.”

The Work was Gurdjieff’s method of achieving higher consciousness and “keeping the mind awake.” As such, his life and work can be thought of as the “war against sleep,” i.e. sleepwalking through life and remaining unfulfilled, apathetic, and miserable. Below, we’re going to explore 9 different Key Ideas that are crucial to understand if you want to wake up.

The book where these ideas are laid out (and through which we’ll pick apart Gurdjieff’s system) was written by Colin Wilson, one of the most important philosophers of the late-20th century, and he tells the fascinating story of Gurdjieff’s arrival from seemingly nowhere to found an influential school of personal development and to show human beings all over the world that they were habitually living as inferior to their full selves.

If this all sounds rather abstract, as Gurdjieff’s philosophy plays out in real life it is extremely practical, and the opportunities to “wake up” are always available to everyone at all times. You don’t need to pay anything to anyone, or believe anything specific, or blindly follow some leader — fully human wakefulness is your “birthright” as a human being, and Gurdjieff’s method is simply one way of claiming that right.

Colin Wilson believed that most human beings are like great big and powerful jet airplanes attempting to fly on just one engine. That is, we possess vast lakes of “vital reserves,” or extra energies that we habitually fail to call upon. So if you feel as though there is something missing in your life, that the world is more gray and bleak than it could be or should be, then you’re beginning to wake up.

Gurdjieff was known to make shocking claims and demand a ton from his students, but the main idea behind them was to get the listener to pay rapt attention. Waking up isn’t easy, and it’s not a one-time deal. Sleepwalking is a habit, and keeping the mind awake has to be actively maintained, again and again and again.

Gurdjieff said that, “The highest aim and sense of human life is the striving to attain the welfare of one’s neighbour,” and so there is something radically wrong with the way that most people are living. “Man is in prison,” but to know this consciously — as a felt reality — takes active, sustained effort over a longer period of time.

So this whole book is about getting that process started. It’s about the effort to attain self-knowledge, and the super-effort that full aliveness may require. It’s about abandoning destructive habits and automaticity, and about keeping the mind awake. It’s about firing up all the engines.

This philosophy is about kicking everything about your life into high gear, but nobody is claiming that it’s going to be easy. To realize how powerful we are, and how alive we can be, however, is to effect a revolutionary alteration in human consciousness. It really is like waking up.

I go much further in-depth on this book at the Stairway to Wisdom, and you can claim your 1-month free trial here.

9 Ways to Wake Up to Your Full Human Potential

#1: “At the core of his work lies this notion that we possess greater powers than we realize, and that our apparent limitations are due to a peculiar form of laziness — a laziness that has become so habitual that it has developed into a mechanism.”

Colin Wilson hypothesizes that most human beings are similar to a massive jet airplane attempting to fly on just one engine. That is, we possess power and strength that remain invisible to us, and which we never even attempt to use. Gurdjieff felt much the same way, and that’s what Wilson is getting at here.

We have so much left inside us that we fail to call upon, and this fact is well-known to endurance athletes the world over. Once you hit “the wall,” says David Goggins, you’ve really only reached 40% of your total capacity. You may feel as though you can’t go on, and that you’ve run up against the limit of your powers, but you still have about 60% left. That’s what Goggins says, anyway, and Gurdjieff would back him up on this.

Where Gurdjieff primarily applied this level of understanding, however, was in the context of an awareness of the value of life — the infinite value of all life. This infinite value lies hidden in plain sight by most people as they go about their lives, obsessed with the problems of getting and spending, and trying to catch up on their latest Netflix shows.

I have a Netflix membership myself, and I use it, so I’m not denigrating television or entertainment in general or anything. It’s just that when it causes our awareness to glaze over and makes us lose sight of the limitless wonder available in the everydayness of our lives, that’s when it becomes pathological.

Habits work both ways, both for us and against us. Building habits is excellent for managing complexity and consistently improving our lives, but habits, by definition, dull our awareness. They make it easy to go through life on autopilot.

What’s worse, the chains of habit are too light to be felt, until they are too strong to be broken. We don’t feel ourselves becoming slaves to our habitual ways of living. We amble along in our daze and our apathy until that becomes normal for us and we go to sleep, even though we may physically have our eyes open and make our way through the week. What Gurdjieff was doing is shaking people by the shoulders and forcing them to drop the habits of dullness, apathy, and misery.

#2: “Man is in prison, said Gurdjieff. If he is to have a chance to escape, then he must begin by realizing that he is in prison. Until he has reached this point, he cannot even begin. Then arises the question: how to escape?

Here, Gurdjieff made a statement that is also central to his work. A group of people stands a better chance of escape than a single person, for they can collaborate on a tunnel. A man on his own stands little chance. For man is basically asleep. He thinks that his everyday consciousness is ‘waking consciousness,’ as opposed to the unconscious state he plunges into every night. This is perhaps his greatest mistake.

In fact, when we wake up in the morning, we simply enter another form of sleeping consciousness. We merely react to circumstances, doing today what we did yesterday and the day before.

Various things can give us flashes of ‘awakening’ — a sudden crisis, the prospect of a need to change one’s whole mode of existence, even setting out on a journey or a holiday. A mother holding her new baby for the first time may ‘wake up’ for a moment, and realize, in a flash, that the consciousness she accepts every day of her life is not necessary, that life could be completely different, far more fascinating and complex. In short, that she is free. But if, ten minutes later, she asks herself: ‘What is this freedom?’, she has already forgotten.”

#3: “To actually know this consciously, to realize that we were not intended to reach breaking point so quickly and easily, would obviously alter a man’s whole approach to his life and its problems. To effect such an alteration in human consciousness was Gurdjieff’s central aim.”

What we have done once, we can do again. Even more powerfully: what we remember being able to do, we are more likely to be able to do again. To return to David Goggins once more, if we have — at least once — pushed past our perceived limits at 40% and proceeded to give everything we have within us, we now have a reference experience stored for later. Then, when a similar situation arises, we have the muscle memory to be able to say, “I’ve been here before. I can do this. I have more. I can give more, become more.”

These flashes of illumination concerning our true potential help us to see that we are bigger than our problems and our challenges. We have always been bigger and more capable than we have led ourselves to believe; we are so strong, so awake, but we had no idea. We didn’t know how strong we were. Once we have the reference experience of strength, however, we can call upon this strength again and again in the future. We can refer back to that time when we showed ourselves what we could do.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this would change everything, wouldn’t it? Every decision, every problem, every action, every thought would be influenced by this internal knowledge that we possessed lakes of “vital reserves” that we could call upon at any moment to help us meet any challenge.

It would be a new level of experience where nothing was insurmountable and life itself possessed infinite value. Gurdjieff’s aim was to make this awareness conscious more often than it was unconscious. He said that most people were asleep most of the time, but through effort, sacrifice, and intense dedication, people were capable of “waking up.”
#4: “How is this to be done? According to Gurdjieff, the answer falls into two parts. First of all, a man must commit himself wholly and totally to the task of escaping his normal limitations; it requires the kind of commitment that made saints sit on top of pillars. Secondly, he must understand something of the workings of this complicated computer that houses the human spirit.”

Extraordinary results require extraordinary commitment. If sleep is the ordinary condition of humankind, then being fully awake and alive is an extraordinary state of affairs — it requires sacrifice. A willingness to sacrifice is the first step.

Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, points out that sacrifices are extremely common in the folklore of peoples scattered all over the earth. A sacrifice is, by definition, when you give up something of value in order to attain something of even greater value. In the present case, you are sacrificing your comfort and your old identity for an advance in consciousness.

Second, you have to understand a little bit about the functioning of the human “computer,” or as Gurdjieff would have said, the human machine. You have to find out how it works so that you can make adjustments and improvements. This is another way of talking about self-understanding.

When we pursue self-understanding, we come to realize that we are capable of a stronger response than we usually ask from ourselves. Bodybuilders like Tom Platz have figured this out when they say that, when you feel like you’re totally done, there’s always at least five more reps inside you. Furthermore, inside every human being there are also new and finer emotional responses, new intellectual pathways of discovery, and facets of the human experience as yet undiscovered. As Wilson says in the book:

“Like all computers, they are capable of a far wider range of response than we ever demand of them. But wider responses can only be obtained when they are thoroughly understood.”

#5: “Gurdjieff explained that he was introducing them to the principle of super-effort. If a man walks twenty-five miles in bad weather, and gets home cold and hungry — and then decides to walk another two miles before going indoors, that is super-effort.

Here, I feel, Gurdjieff was failing to explain something important. It is not the super-effort itself that is important, but the energy we summon to meet it. The whole point of Gurdjieff’s ‘system’ — and this is never sufficiently emphasized either in his own books or in those about him — is its basic assumption that man possesses far more energy than he realizes — a vast lake of ‘vital reserves.’

What cuts us off from these reserves is a feeling of laziness, or rather, of reluctance. We contemplate some effort, and think: ‘What a bore.’ And this feeling of boredom instantly lowers our vitality. If I performed a super-effort — like walking the additional two miles — with a groan of self-pity, it would be completely useless.

Yet if some sudden crisis — or some sudden piece of good news (i.e. someone I love is waiting for me two miles away) — made me decide to walk the two miles, I would do it with a springy step, prepared, if necessary, to go ten times as far. This, then, is the real aim of the exercise: to summon that state of optimism, of inner purpose, that makes the super-effort easy.”
#6: “This was the basis of Gurdjieff’s method. But it was not simply a matter of developing strength and alertness. Hard work can become a mere habit, like any other. Gurdjieff’s aim was also to persuade his pupils not to develop habits. Habits arise from doing something mechanically, with the mind ‘elsewhere.’ Gurdjieff’s pupils were made to work hard; but it was important that they should maintain ‘mindfulness,’ intense awareness.”

Clearly, the principle of super-effort is about giving more, demanding more. But hard work itself is not the ultimate aim, as could be illustrated by Boxer, the horse from Animal Farm who worked himself to death at the behest of authority figures whose motives he didn’t even understand.

Habits, as discussed above, have their place. It saves mental bandwidth not to have to decide to perform healthy habits over and over again. We make the decision once to install the habit of exercise, and then, week after week, month after month, we work ourselves into better and better shape. If the habit of going to the gym is automatic, we no longer have to decide — we just go.

But Gurdjieff generally came down against habits. Habits are “business as usual.” One isn’t really paying attention to your life — calling forth their highest potentialities — because they’re just habitually sleepwalking through life. When it comes to “keeping the mind awake,” habits are death.
#7: “Generally speaking, the greater a person’s potentiality for achievement, the greater his or her objection to that feeling of being ‘cut off from one’s rightful resources.’”

This is also one of Colin Wilson’s main arguments in his book, The Outsider. That book is a study of individuals who simply could not live according to the dictates of the rest of society; being stuffed into the regular societal mold gave them the feeling of being “cut off from one’s rightful resources,” and they resisted that with the full force of their personal energies.

This is a common theme in great literature, from Henry David Thoreau saying, in Walden, that the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and it was a constant refrain of Freidrich Nietzsche as well. Great women throughout history felt this too, especially brilliant and powerful women like Hypatia of Alexandria and Aspasia of Miletus. You could even say that feminism is a visceral rejection of the feeling of being forced to live as though asleep or invisible.

Those great personages would never accept sleep over wakefulness, passivity over activity, death over life. The greater their alienation — the heavier their chains — the greater their mental pain. So if you, personally, feel great mental anguish at being underutilized, undervalued, or less than you’re capable of being, then that’s a fantastic sign! Hating being chained to a desk is a precondition of freedom.

#8: “And therein lies the problem. For exhaustion makes things ten times as bad. When we are healthy and wide awake we are always experiencing the sudden flash of sheer ‘absurd delight’ that reawakens our sense of meaning and purpose. But exhaustion makes everything seem dead, so that no effort seems worth making. The world becomes ‘stale, flat and unprofitable.’ And if we are taken in by this apparent meaninglessness, this is a highly dangerous state. It becomes a vicious circle of depression and fatigue.”

To be taken in by appearances — to forget that this life is paradise — is to fall victim to a very dangerous error. Wilson references G.K. Chesterton’s amazing allegory, The Man Who Was Thursday, when he says “absurd delight.” It refers to the main character’s revelation that the “horrible face” of the world is really the “back” of the world, and really to see clearly is to “get around in front”:

“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front…”

The healthy individual has the potential to experience the wonder of existence as a felt reality, whereas the person who is always exhausted and beleaguered and pessimistic misses the paradise for the pain. They’re always running into the “ugly mask” of the world, witnessing its brutality and horror, and shying away from the light and the beauty.

When I say the “healthy individual,” I mean health in the physical sense, as in vitality and energy, but also in the psychological sense of possessing a mind that’s fully awake. It’s said that the healthy person wants 10,000 things, whereas the sick person wants only one: their health. When you’re bombarded by negative news reports, disgusting politicians, ugly scandals, and intrigues, you’re succumbing to sickness.

One could spend their whole life in this state of apathy and despair, but as we will discuss next, this pessimistic attitude is not the truth of our human situation. We just have to get around in front!

#9: “The ‘moments of vision’ were telling the truth all along. The moment we really grasp this -rationally and logically, as we grasp that the earth is round — we shall begin to see the vision of infinite possibility that Greene experienced as he played Russian roulette; but as a steadily-held insight, not a sudden glimpse.”

Long-time readers of Colin Wilson will notice that he recycles the same stories sometimes to prove his point. This time, he calls back to mind the story of the novelist Graham Greene, and how he used to play Russian roulette by himself in a field as a young man.

The story is that Greene was afflicted with a terrible, oppressive sense of boredom and futility in his daily life, and so would attempt to relieve that boredom by loading a single bullet in the chamber of his revolver, heading out to the middle of a field, sitting down, and pulling the trigger.

When he heard the click and realized that the chamber was empty and that he was still alive, he was suddenly gripped by the feeling that everything on earth was absurdly beautiful and incredible; life was vital and real, and he had simply been blind to that fact due to his pervasive sense of boredom. It was like a light had been turned on.

But the truth is that the world was always that beautiful and that real, and he simply had to be shaken into awareness of that fact. The metaphor of the light being turned on is apt because turning on a light only illuminates things that already exist inside the room. It doesn’t bring anything extra into existence — it only reveals the truth that has existed all along.

So, in exactly the same way, our boredom, malaise, apathy, pessimism — basically every negative emotion that makes us want to turn away from life — is not the truth. Life possesses infinite value if we are only awake to see it.

There’s another, similar story about Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist who was arrested as a young man as part of a revolutionary group and sentenced to death by firing squad.

At literally the last moment, his death sentence was commuted and he was sent to a labor camp in Siberia instead. Crucially, he experienced the exact same kind of enlightenment that galvanized Graham Greene. Later on, in The Brothers Karamazov, he was able to write:

“Do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we do not want to know it, and if we did want to know it, tomorrow there would be paradise the world over.”

Further reading

Okay, so that was a pretty long excerpt from my book breakdown of The War Against Sleep, by Colin Wilson, one of the most important and inspiring books available on the expansiveness of human potential.

The full breakdown, however, goes into even more depth, and you can read the rest while claiming your 1-month free trial to the Stairway to Wisdom.

The full version contains an even more detailed summary, a curated collection of book notes, a recommended reading list, and even a bit more, so check it out!

On the site, there are also 60+ other book breakdowns published so far (as of April, 2022) with a new one coming each week, delivered inside a premium newsletter where we dive deep into other topics related to books, literature, and reading.

We’re adding new features all the time, like author Q and As, book giveaways, audio companions, etc. And on a personal note, I donate a full 10% of my profits from the Stairway to Wisdom to First Book, a children’s charity that helps kids learn to read and provides them with books.

So I hope you enjoyed this preview, and I look forward to seeing you on the Stairway to Wisdom!

All the best,

Matt Karamazov


This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.


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The post The War Against Sleep: A Forgotten Eastern Mystic’s Powerful Personal-development Program for People Who Want To Feel Alive! appeared first on The Good Men Project.

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