Why Things Don't Turn Out As Planned: The Law of Octaves

"Understanding the Law of Seven is the key to learning how to finish what we start and what to expect along the way."-- The Law of Seven is also known as the Law of Octaves.  Quote from Ouspensky Today.  (Ouspensky was one of Gurdjieff's students.)

"Understanding the Law of Seven is the key to learning how to finish what we start and what to expect along the way."-- The Law of Seven is also known as the Law of Octaves.  Quote from Ouspensky Today.  (Ouspensky was one of Gurdjieff's students.)

A few years ago, there was a video circulating around the internet of a blogger who was trying to start a blog, but kept getting distracted with Facebook and Reddit, so he posted an ad on Craigslist for someone to sit beside him and slap him across the face every time he got distracted.  Apparently the experiment was relatively successful.  Maybe not everyone has wished for a personal slapper, but everyone has certainly experienced the dissapointment of having started at point A with every intent on reaching point B by a certain time, and then, hours later, found themselves deep in something else. 

The Enneagram's Law of Seven has some light to shed on this sore spot.  I wrote about the Law of Octaves-- or the Law of Seven-- in my last post, but I wanted to back up and give a bit more background on it, to understand why it's relevant to our personal development.

There's something about the number seven in the human consciousness.  There's the statistic floating around about conversations falling into a lull every seven minutes.  There's the one about the seven-year itch in a marriage during which we start looking around for more excitement.  God Himself felt the need to take a break on the seventh day after creating the universe.  The transition from Grade 2 to Grade 3, where we generally go from age 7 to age 8 is one of the most critical transitions in the education system (never mind the transition from age 17 to 18 when we go from high school to university).  In the tarot deck, the cards numbered 7 are some of the toughest energies to come up in a reading.  It's a transition time when you come up to the number seven.  It's past half-way, but not quite at completion, and things could go off the rails if not guided correctly.

Here are two parts of the Enneagram symbol- the outer circle for the Law of One, and the inner equilateral triangle symbolizing the Law of Three.  (The numbers around the circle are yet another layer of meaning, and are actually how most people come to learn about the Enneagram- through the Enneagram of nine personality types.)

Here are two parts of the Enneagram symbol- the outer circle for the Law of One, and the inner equilateral triangle symbolizing the Law of Three.  (The numbers around the circle are yet another layer of meaning, and are actually how most people come to learn about the Enneagram- through the Enneagram of nine personality types.)

As soon as you start reading more in-depth about where the Enneagram came from, you run into George Gurdjieff, him being one of the grandfathers of the modern Enneagram.  He's got a lot to say about human nature and the nature of the universe, but if you pare it all away to its essentials, what you have left is basically a foundation consisting of three laws- the Law of One, the Law of Three and the Law of Seven.  The Law of One is easiest to understand intellectually- we're all one.  It may take a lifetime of work to get there in a lived, practical sense, but still, boom.  We're all connected. 

The complete Enneagram symbol (just ignore the fact that the 5 is circled.  I drew this picture for something else I was illustrating.)

The complete Enneagram symbol (just ignore the fact that the 5 is circled.  I drew this picture for something else I was illustrating.)

In addition to the circle and the triangle, we have this er--- "shape".  This is representative of the Law of Seven on the Enneagram symbol.  (If you were to point out that there are only six lines, you would be right.  That explanation is for another blog post.)

In addition to the circle and the triangle, we have this er--- "shape".  This is representative of the Law of Seven on the Enneagram symbol.  (If you were to point out that there are only six lines, you would be right.  That explanation is for another blog post.)

The Law of Three and the Law of Seven are more complicated.  Cynthia Bourgeault, a long-time Gurdjieff student, and one of the brightest minds in Gurdjieffian thought today, explains that "the interweaving of these two cosmic laws is depicted in the symbol of the Enneagram whose nine points reveal... the direction and energetic dynamism through which the world maintains its forward motion."  She then goes on to quote one of her teachers, Toronto scientist, Dr. Jyri Paloheimo:

It is interesting in these days that physics is looking for a unified theory that would reduce all the diverse forces and laws governing them into one force.  In contrast Gurdjieff has two universal laws, the Law of Three and the Law of Seven.  He calls them the laws of world creation and world maintenance.  They govern the manifestation of all phenomena, all their interaction, and all their transformation of substances.  In some ways they are broader than any laws of physics in that they apply to all phenomena and not just to what we call the world of matter (the physical world).  In being broader they are more like organizing principles, allowing the world to be what it is, rather than rules that can be used to make calculations as to what will happen next.  Besides being broader and applicable both in the fields of psyche and matter, they also include the hazard or uncertainty in their very structure in a way that physics has never been able to do.

To state it simply, the Law of Three explains how change occurs, and the Law of Seven explains how it occurs over the course of time.  The Law of Three speaks of transformation and is represented by the equilateral triangle in the Enneagram symbol, evoking a mental image of the Greek's delta symbol in mathematics, used to denote change.  The triangle- with its three sides-stands for the three energies needed for any kind of transformational change to occur.  I personally like Russ Hudson's youtube explanation for the Law of Three.  It's a very simplified version, but if you can even grasp that, you begin to see changes after a few years of working with it.  Basically, the Law of Three is about coming to presence through mindful attention to the body.

After you get a decent grasp on the Law of Three, you then take a sudden nose-dive into the deep sea of esoterica.  The Law of Seven is very complicated and Gurdjieffian students devote years and even decades to understanding it.  Why would anyone want to do that?  As the authors at Ouspensky Today write,

We are most conscious of our failures when dealing with new situations, where often ‘things don’t work out’. But lots of things in human society do work out, at least usually. Houses, ships, cars get built; food gets produced and marketed; money gets earned and spent; laws get passed; babies get born.  Many other things, new plans and initiatives, just peter out and fade away from lack of the right energy or turn into something quite different from the original conception. Understanding the law of seven is the key to learning how to finish what we start and what to expect along the way."

When you think about Newton's Law of Motion, you remember he said that once objects are in motion, they stay in motion in a straight line.  The Law of Seven challenges that, however.  It posits that rather than staying on one track, processes start along a certain path, change course at a certain point, change course again, and then eventually rotate back to the original goal, if given the right ingredients at the right time.  Complicated, right?  To understand this process better, we have to look at the diatonic scale, also known as the major scale.

As I said in my last post, the major scale is a universal aural archetype that sounds so right to our ears and resonates so deeply within us because it outlines-- in eight tones-- the universal process that all organisms go through in their development.  There are seven notes- Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Ti.  The last and eighth note is a repetition of the first: Do.

Music is built on waves of sound that put pressure on the air they travel through, and vibrate whatever they come up against.  Although sound isn't the only thing that creates vibrations, we will eventually come back to it, so keep it in the back of your mind while Gurejieff starts his argument:

In order to understand the meaning of this law, it is necessary to regard the universe as consisting of vibrations.  These vibrations proceed in all kinds, aspects, and densities of the matter which constitutes the universe, from the finest to the coarsest; they issue from various sources and proceed in various directions, crossing one another, colliding, strengthening, weakening, arresting one another, and so on.

He goes on to say that whereas Western science proposes a continuity of vibrations- vibrations "proceeding uninterruptedly... uniformly and gradually, and, in the absence of resistance, can even be endless", ancient knowledge has a different theory: the discontinuity of vibrations.

[It is the] definite and necessary characteristic of all vibrations in nature... to develop not uniformly, but with periodical accelerations and retardations [hereafter referred to as "decelerations" for obvious reasons- this was written in the late 1800's].  .... It is significant that the periods of uniform action of the momentum are not equal and that the moments of deceleration of the vibrations are not symmetrical.  One period is shorter, the other is longer.

Here you may ask yourself, "What does this spiritual teacher actually know about vibrations?  What business does he have talking about science if he's never been in a lab measuring these waves he's talking about?"  And you wouldn't be alone.  Gurdjieffian students and Enneagram students alike often will be reading along and suddenly let out a yelp at the insult to their intellect, "What the f@#%, Gurdjieff?" and put the book down, only to return to it later, because, while controversial and enigmatic and ridiculously hard to understand, he will also say phenomenally insightful things about human nature that resonate so deeply, we just can't understand how he might know them.  He did spend a lot of time in mystical communities at the cross-roads of Eastern Europe and the Orient, working his way up the ranks and learning long-held secrets before he started teaching, so the trick to reading him is just suspending disbelief until you get a nugget of wisdom that you can use, and then coming back to him after you've worked with the nugget a bit.  Even his own students couldn't quite figure out if he was partially not all there, or if he was a genius that operated on a completely different level.

Now let's dive in to Gurdjieff’s lecture on vibrations.  I’m going to let him do the talking for a while, and then I'll come back with some conclusions.

Let us imagine a line of increasing vibrations.  Let us take them at the moment when they are vibrating at the rate of one thousand a second.  After a certain time, the number of vibrations is doubled, that is, reaches two thousand.

1000                                                                2000

I-----------------------------------------------------------I

Figure 1

It has been found and established that in this interval of vibrations, between the given number of vibrations and a number twice as large, there are two places where a deceleration in the increase of vibrations takes place.  One is near the beginning but not at the beginning itself.  The other occurs almost at the end.

1000                                                               2000

I-----------------------I-----------------------------I-------I

Figure 2

The laws which govern the deceleration or the deflection of vibrations from their primary direction were known to ancient science.  These laws were duly incorporated into a particular formula or diagram which has been preserved up to our times.  In this formula the period in which vibrations are double was divided into eight unequal steps corresponding to the rate of increase in the vibrations.  The eighth step repeats the first step with double the number of vibrations.  This period of the doubling of the vibrations, or the line of the development of vibrations, between a given number of vibrations and double that number is called an octave, that is to say, composed of eight.

In the guise of this formula ideas of the octave have been handed down from teacher to pupil, from one school to another.  In very remote times one of these schools found that it was possible to apply this formula to music.  In this way was obtained the seven-tone musical scale which was known in the most distant antiquity, then forgotten, and then discovered or “found” again.

The seven-tone scale is the formula of a cosmic law which was worked out by ancient schools and applied to music.  At the same time, however, if we study the manifestations of the law of octaves in vibrations of other kinds we shall see that the laws are everywhere the same, and that light, heat, chemical, magnetic, and other vibrations are subject to the same laws as sound vibrations.  For instance, the light scale is known to physics; in chemistry the period system of the elements is without a doubt closely connected with the principle of octaves although this connection is still not fully clear to science.

In the interests of time and space, I’m going to skip over Gurdjieff’s complex explanation of the ratio each note takes up on that line and just say what’s more important: that those two dividing lines that are unequally spaced out are the two “shock points” in the octave.

1000                      Mi-Fa                              Ti-Do2000

I---------------------I-------------------------------I-------I

Figure 3

Those two shock points happen where there is a semi-tone in the major scale.  So, for example, let’s go back to our Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do.  You have a half-step between Mi and Fa, and another one between Ti and the final Do.  If you’re playing the C Scale on the piano, these are the places in the octave where there are no black keys between the white keys.  So what?  Well those two half-steps are actually critical to the developmental process, and often where the process falls apart or goes awry.  In order to keep going toward the original goal, we need a “shock”, or some kind of input of a new energy.

I talked about shocks in my last post, but basically, let’s say we’re going along innocently toward our goal, and we come unsuspectingly upon a lull in our energy or a plateau where we aren’t advancing anymore, like after seven minutes of conversation or seven years of marriage.  It’s there that we need a “shock” to keep going to the next step in our journey.  If we just try persevering on the same level with the same contents of our consciousness that we had before, we won’t make it- the process will peter out or deviate from the original course of action.  We need to open up to new material, a new way of thinking, we need to experiment with something new at each of the two shocks point to take us to a new level of consciousness, that will allow the process to reach completion.

I want to leave this on a positive note because while hopefully I’ve made my point that this can be useful, it’s not like we’re all going to wake up tomorrow morning and say, “I’m going to incorporate the Law of Seven into my life so I accomplish all my life goals!”  This is some seriously subtle energy that takes years of mindful observation to see at work in our lives, and if we strain our eyes to see it, it’s not going to work.  People who have been studying Gurdjieff for decades are still very humble about how well they grasp this concept. 

So I leave you with three takeaways, things we can start working with now.  I think the Law of Seven, while not a starting point for beginners, still gives us a glimpse into the extraordinary complexity of the world around us.  It’s both humbling and awe-inspiring to conceive that we might only be scratching the surface of the surface of what there is to know about our universe.  It’s an interesting- and maybe even comforting- place to be, realizing how few answers we have, and yet knowing we are supported by processes we don’t see or understand. 

Secondly, let us remember these words of Gurdjieff, that we should always be learning and growing and incorporating new material at those two "plateau" points.

“… Nothing in the world stays in the same place.  Or remains what it was.  Everything moves, everything is going somewhere, is changing, and inevitably either develops or goes down, weakens or degenerates, that is to say, it moves along either an ascending or a descending line of octaves.”

In order to preserve an original goal, we might panic at the shock points and try to hold onto old habits, manipulate things so they don’t change, or become nostalgic for the way it used to be.  The Law of Seven says, basically, if you want to be on the ascent, you will be adding new ingredients, learning new skills, trying new things, incorporating new ideas into your development at those junctures.  As the writers at Ouspensky Today say, "An ascending octave is like going uphill; it needs effort at every step. Descending octaves are like going downhill; the process is more automatic and goes on by itself after the first step is taken."  So at the risk of going through life automatically, learn to notice the stalemate or the lull.  When you get there, change a routine- this is the time to try something you’ve been putting off.  Above all, don't fear the stalemate; it’s part of the path itself.

Third, Gurdjieff was actually a composer, and wrote hauntingly beautiful songs for the psychological development of his students.  They would dance certain dances to it, which he would choreograph, and they would connect psychologically with the progression of the notes.  Here is a sample of some of his music that we can enjoy today.

Lastly, if you're reading this, and you're a Gurdjieffian who knows other take-aways from the Law of Seven for us beginners, please leave them in the comments below.  We would be happy to hear them.