For those of you who are unfamiliar with the life and teachings of Gurdjieff, let me just quickly explain that he was a Russian mystic of the early twentieth century, who insisted most of humanity languishes in a state of torpor similar to a deep hypnotic sleep. His remedy to this trance-like somnolence was what he termed the Work, which essentially consisted of training one’s mind to stay alert during our day-to-day dealings with others and our environments.
One concept he used in particular to explain why, as people, we often fail at what we set out to achieve or accomplish has stayed firmly with me in the intervening years since I first read it. And, in fact, I believe I saw confirmation of its validity this very morning.
The idea is based around the way that a musical octave is divided within the Western tradition. I make this distinction, because in Eastern musical scales all kinds of microtonal possibilities come into play.
All right, so the next piece of the puzzle, as it were, gets a bit theoretical, so bear with me while I elaborate. Although, at the outset, I will point out it might help to think of what I’m going to say next in terms of the black and white keys on a piano.
No matter. What Gurdjieff said was that our progress (within any endeavor that we undertake) will always follow the same pattern as an ascending major scale.
Now, for the musically uninitiated, a major scale consists of the following pattern of tones and half-tones (or semitones, if you like), namely TTSTTTS, where T stands for tone and S for semitone.
Ok, so before your eyes glaze over, I’ll simply add that what this means is that there are always two points in any major scale where the notes are only separated by an interval of half a tone. Specifically, this occurs between the third and fourth note of the scale and also between the seventh and eighth (or octave) note of the scale.
In the key of C, therefore, the major scale consists of the following notes: C D E F G A B C, where E and F are separated by only half a tone and B and C are likewise only one half-tone apart.
By looking at a piano keyboard, you can physically see what I’m describing by way of the fact no black key exists between E and F or between B and C, for that matter.
Essentially, what Gurdjieff proposed was that these two half-tone intervals represented a “weakening” of the scale. Moreover, he saw that this idea of weakening could be seen as a model of how, as humans, we constantly waver from our initial resolve in the course of setting out to achieve our goals.
Conveniently, just as there are seven notes in a major scale (before the return of the octave), there are also seven days of the week. So it is quite easy to see what Gurdjieff was getting at by thinking of Monday as the first note of a major scale and Sunday as the seventh note, with the other intervening days corresponding to their major scale counterparts.
What this model then suggests is that there exists a “weak” point in the week between Wednesday and Thursday, as well as between Sunday and the returning Monday.
Think about it. You resolve to start regularly exercising bright and early one Monday morning, and for two full days you amaze yourself by sticking to your new, grueling regime of physical fitness. But on the third day you wake up stiff all over and decide to throw in the towel. Sound familiar?
Well, you have simply fallen prey to a “semitone day”. And it’s a pattern that applies to all those times in life we resolve to change something about ourselves or our circumstances. Whether it be starting a diet, learning a language, controlling an anger management problem or the writing of that sequel to our blockbuster debut novel.
Similarly, Day Seven is another semitone day, and is usually experienced as those maddening times when it feels like we have simply given up just as something looks likely to succeed.
But don’t despair. Gurdjieff taught one merely needed to be aware of these weak spots and push forward that little bit harder on such days.
I saw it happen to the youngest member of our household today. Let’s just say, he and school aren’t a great fit. Anyway, he had resolved this week that he was going to try really hard to make school work. And for two days he actually managed the impossible. He was the model student. But this morning — the dreaded semitone day — the wheels completely fell off, and he arrived at school without having eaten his breakfast, ready to wreak havoc in his usual way.
So what did I do? Well, I explained Gurdjieff’s theory to him, for the first time, pretty much as I have for you right here. But did he buy it? you ask incredulously.
Would you believe me, if I said he came home with the headmaster’s prize for handwriting and is currently sitting and picking out tunes on our previously-neglected piano, as I write this?
Gee, thanks, Gurdjieff! Whoo-hoo, and now we’ve got three whole-tone days of coasting, in a row, to look forward to, until the next semitone day rears its ugly head…