We all know the saying ‘practice makes perfect.’ But the majority of us give up within the first few attempts if an exercise is too difficult. This is not the case with children, who enjoy an activity simply for the pleasure it brings.
Here is another story about George Gurdjieff. Take from it what you will:
Seeing Mr. Gurdjieff always thoughtful, serious and contained, I could not imagine him capable of acrobatic feats. Indeed, he never ceased to astonish me and give me food for thought.
One day he shared a joyful moment of comradeship with us young men. The Study House was almost finished. We were in the process of laying carpets and sewing them together, which most of the time forced us either to squat or kneel. The work was going well, and the relaxed presence of Mr. Gurdjieff created a very pleasant atmosphere. The softness of the carpets made us feel like rolling on the ground and, as Mr. Gurdjieff often encouraged us to relax, we had great fun doing acrobatics. Each of us took advantage of the occasion to display his skill. Mr. Gurdjieff followed our antics, encouraging those who were not doing so well; but if someone wanted to show off, he was at once given an exercise he could not do, which quickly put him in his place.
For example, seeing someone walking on his hands with his legs in the air, Mr. Gurdjieff would say, “Going forward is easy. Try standing still.”
When someone managed to do this, he would immediately throw out a new challenge: “Anyone can do this on two hands! But one cannot claim to be a champion unless he can support himself with only one!”
If someone succeeded at this, he would then say that to be the very best, one must be able to support oneself equally on either hand. In short, he always found a difficulty that would teach a pretentious person a lesson or make him feel out of his depth.
Something very difficult for us amateur acrobats was to extend one leg parallel to the ground and to slowly bend the other until sitting on one’s heel; then, after a moment in this squatting position, to come up again slowly, still keeping the extended leg parallel to the ground. Even if one of us succeeded in doing this on one leg, he couldn’t do it on the other.
Watching us, Mr. Gurdjieff laughed kind-heartedly and said that one part of our bodies was made of wood and another filled with lead. When we were exhausted by our fruitless efforts, he interjected: “What! You can’t even do a childish exercise like that! When I was a child, we also played such games; but it would take to long to explain them. I will simply show you something we did as children.”
Turning to one of us, he asked, “Which leg is more difficult to hold in the air?”
Mr. Gurdjieff extended his left leg parallel to the ground and lowered himself in stages. Once seated on his right heel, he slowly brought the sole of his left foot to his right knee, then held his position. Clearing his throat, he took a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, lit one and began to smoke. This was done so naturally and with such ease that none of us took the demonstration to be at all serious or difficult.
In the same position, still smoking his cigarette, he continued the conversation. When he had finished the cigarette, his body gave a jolt upwards and became immobilised, another jolt and again it stopped. It was as if electrical discharges shook an inert body, raising it by degrees until it was completely upright, the left leg always resting on the right knee. Then, with the look of someone who had just remembered something, he bent forward and simply let his left foot fall to the ground and began to walk away.
“Try to sew the rest of the carpets together for tonight,” he said to us as he left.
We had not found this demonstration by Mr. Gurdjieff at all astonishing as there was no apparent effort, either in this posture, in his movements, or on his face.
Naturally, we were determined to repeat the exercise, and after he left, we tried to copy the movements he had made. It was only then that we were forced to accept the real difficulty of what he had shown us. A long time afterwards, I understood that this exercise, though not at all spectacular, in fact belonged to a higher level of balance and acrobatics.
We told some older people what we had seen. After having tried this exercise several times without success, they asked Mr. Gurdjieff how to practise it. He did not immediately understand what they were referring to, but once he grasped the meaning he declared innocently, “To tell the truth, I no longer remember what I did as a child.”