An Intelligence That Bypasses Thought: On Retreat with Michel de Salzmann, by Fran Shaw

Chandolin, a village in the district of Sierre in the Swiss canton of Valais.

Chandolin, a village in the district of Sierre in the Swiss canton of Valais. (via: Wikipedia)

Stay just exactly as I am. There is an Intelligence in me that can accept.
Like the sun.  It doesn’t care if an ant is crawling across the rug.  The sun
radiates with life.

—Michel de Salzmann  

“Who here thinks they have a reliable mind?” asks Dr. Michel de Salzmann one July morning in front of ninety of us at breakfast. Nobody moves. We are only a day into a weeklong retreat at a chalet high in the Swiss Alps where Michel (as he preferred to be called), from the Institut Gurdjieff in Paris, meets each summer with groups of people interested in awakening.  Although one sits opposite a window-full of billowy clouds, blue sky, and green pine, one looks down into one’s bowl of muesli.

Four people raise their hands.  Brave souls.  A task is given: At lunch the four will report everything Michel has said at breakfast; they will have all morning to work on it.  Michel ends the meal reciting a favorite saying, attributed to a twelfth-century Sufi, Dzou’l-Noun:

“All men are dead except those who know.
All men who know are dead except those who practice.
All men who practice are dead except those who act with right intention….And all those who act with right intention are in very grave danger.”

Some laugh at the playful way Michel delivers the last line. “Grave danger”?  Strong words.

At lunch no two accounts are alike. The words have fallen differently on the different types; the Sufi saying now contains things that Michel never uttered.  Michel’s gaze takes in the many faces around the room. “So this is a reliable mind?”

“By mind, do you mean intelligence?” Ego has a question. “Because what my mind tells me sometimes turns out not to be true.  But it still runs the show.  I haven’t gone far enough to know what else to rely on.  Isn’t it my intelligence?”

Sitting next to Michel, a visitor from Paris says, “The only role the mind has to play is to leave the room.”

“If that’s true, I don’t understand how the mind can get rid of the mind.”

Michel:  “Attention is an Intelligence that comes into me, the representative in me of the sacred, the higher.  Begin to awaken, and this Intelligence appears, deep intelligence.  Not from the mind, not psychological.  Then, to recognize it, to respect it, to keep it intact. See the subjective thoughts, functions, yes—but to return to this empty space between two thoughts, between two acts.”

It’s  the first time one hears the word intelligence with what sounds like a capital I.  Clearly it’s not the voice-in-the-head that speaks as if it knows; better to call that ‘ntelligence?  Everything in it but the I?  Perhaps that’s why intelligence can run amok:  no Master there.  What is the nature of an Intelligence that bypasses thought?   Can Intelligence with an I help one reliably know when one is actually awake?

All these phrases one hears (synonyms for sacred qualities?)—“higher Intelligence,” “this other Attention,” “the Self”—point beyond everyday intelligence, attention, and self… to what?  Even one’s longtime practice of self-observation—posture, facial expression, breath, now—seems not at all what Michel means by “observation by the Self, from Above.” As Gurdjieff once said (Michel quotes him), “Ohhh, you are very, very good, very good indeed.  But very good is not enough.” In this clear mountain air, it’s very good to practice self-awareness, yet the more one is mindful in the habitual way, the more one feels one is missing something.

Except in the guided sittings. So concentrated in that atmosphere, one recognizes an inner shift occurring. Attention that can “stay” brings receptivity to subtler impressions and a finer energy—unknown, always there—that permeates with full authority and radiates with life.  A threshold is crossed; vibrating higher. “For many years we try methods, but then, at moments, there is enough energy for a sensitivity to appear, and then for this Intelligence to appear.  It’s not the methods that produce it.  It’s letting everything be, inside, just as it is, and opening to the Attention.”

Higher Intelligence—not from the mind, not in one’s control.  All day becomes a going-away-from and a coming-back-into this “energetical” quality.  One minute thine I is single and thy body is full of light, and the next, all goes on as if one is awake, only one isn’t. At the retreat, in the galleys of an article of Michel’s under review, this sentence pops out: “What is evidently frustrating is the fact that you may come into a state in which you understand what is taking place, and then the next moment you no longer understand, but merely pretend to.”

Is that what intelligence does—pretends to know?  “être, pas paraître,” Michel rhymes, in French, at lunch.  To be, not to pretend.

One  night there is a lecture, with Michel in the audience.  A detailed explanation of the enneagram, a star-like sacred symbol, complete with diagrams and cosmology. The speaker goes on and on.  Inner talk starts up.  Taking in impressions consciously (not put to sleep by them) must be about relatedness, being steadily in relation with the finer energy.  One tries once more to listen like that but…  Finally, the presentation is over. No word from Michel.  We all file outside, glad for the night air.  And then, walking out, he says, softly, “Kind of takes the mystery out of it.”

Is that what intelligence does—names things so well that one thinks, Aha! I get it!  when one doesn’t?

In theory, at least, intelligence proves quite wonderful when it serves rather than dominates, and it can serve; higher Intelligence brings about just that condition of balance:  a heightened state in the glow of which thoughts and reactions drop away all on their own or even feed a sense of presence. (“When this centeredness is there, you can receive the whole world,” says Michel. “This is normal man.”)

A reading stresses the urgent necessity of this relationship between intelligence and attention. It’s “The Awakening of Thought,” translated from the French notebooks of Gurdjieff’s chief pupil (and Michel’s mother) Jeanne de Salzmann.  Without conscious attention one is “a body deprived of intelligence, living without intelligence, without something that sees what is real.” Yet “thought has the power to be free.  But for this it must free itself of all the associations which hold it captive…. It must feel the power to resist the pull; its objective power to watch this pull while gradually rising above it.”

Can thought rise above thought?  The question of the day.  Three people prepare a presentation.  The gist of it:  Our usual intelligence interests us in ideas that can help us establish a daily practice; it is a blessing when we are intelligent enough to let dissatisfaction prompt us to turn to a neutral observing of ourselves.  Persisting in seeing allows direct perception of the life force animating us.  The mind becomes a totally receptive space in which higher Intelligence may appear, bringing awakening.

One waits on Michel for his response.  No comment.

The presenter continues.  “Gurdjieff talks about the intelligence of matter.  Intelligence is determined by the density of vibrations.  The denser the vibrations, the more conscious, the more intelligent….”

A recitation of Ideas as catechism? In younger years all these marvelous statements were one’s favorite dish, but these days, one heeds Michel’s warning: “Now that there is contact with this finer energy, a conviction of it, a living in it—must let go of all the old ideas, not to go round and round in the same circles. The ideas are a kind of bait—from a loving source—for a purpose.  Don’t identify with the bait.”

But in this moment, content does not prick.  Judgments just plain not there.  The impulse to correct, not there.  Listening as if one is in front of the unknown.  This other Attention blazes up.  Separation dissolves.  Barely a body in a chair. There is a radiance—

“… and R. D. Laing says that when we don’t know that we don’t know, we think we know,” the last presenter concludes.

Michel teases, “Your answers give the illusion of being intelligent.”

Later, Michel underlines where one is in this process of waking up. “Work begins when there is contact with an Intelligence.  Perhaps it takes thirty minutes, perhaps five minutes, sometimes, perhaps five seconds.  The whole of me becomes sensitive to this Intelligence, this central attention, listening for it.  We were made for it.

“When I am aware of this axis in me, none of the forces of life—reaction, thought, feeling, organic, chemical—can take me away because they are vibrating at a lower density.  When I vibrate with a higher energy—this axis in me—I am invulnerable to the forces of this world.”

Sewing in the sun on the edge of a mountain.  The thread, the light, the quiet.  One watches the hillside where wildflowers are gathered by the women for the last night’s celebration; step, step, bend; a dance.  One can feel the quality of attention in them.  The meadow in sunlight, the women moving among the flowers… what bliss. It’s a taste of freedom—“no mind”—and “when you are connected with that, you don’t have to pretend.”

Beyond self-awareness, one discovers a possibly reliable first hallmark of awakening:  being in a shower of energy so palpable that one recognizes it as surely as one knows whether it’s hot or cold outside.  “My” attention joins this other Attention; everything is new.  Interest in answers fades.  No ego there anymore with a question, when something much more compelling is on the scene.  At retreat’s end, we become sensitive to a quality that dwells within us, among us.

Michel:  “There is an energy I can be related to.  As human beings, we have the capacity for another dimension to appear simultaneously with all this that thinks, feels, reacts.  When I am focused in seeing, this other can be as it is, and whatever comes and goes, I am free.

“All my thoughts, feelings, ideas, are nothing compared with this precious treasure, this quality of energy, which is not mine but what I am.”

Sunday  morning.  People are dressed in their travel clothes.  The final breakfast.  An “American” breakfast, bacon and eggs, for this mostly-American week. One is quiet.  The room fills with an exquisite stillness.  It is the silence that relates us.

“What should we serve?” says Michel. “The higher Intelligence in us.

“And this energy is still not the highest.  This first stage is important because this force, this energy I perceive when awake, is the child of a higher energy that, perhaps, will come….

“Let everything go”—and the words accompany one up the path, to the airport, across an ocean, home. “Recognize this Intelligence appearing.  It knows better than you.  Receive it.  Join it.  Respect it.  Then it can have an action in the world.”♦

From Parabola Volume 36, No. 1, “Suffering,” Spring 2011. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing

Fran Shaw is the author of Notes on The Next Attention, the recollected talks of Michel de Salzmann at Chandolin (www.thenextattention.com).  Her new book of “interdimensional humor” is Lord Have Murphy: Waking Up in the Spiritual Marketplace  (www.lordhavemurphy.com).