Crossing the Fa Bridge

+ Wooden bridge May 15 Blog 16415475_sJudith was explaining how she creates her own art and teaches her students to create theirs. “I’ve learned to recognize the point in a creative endeavor when an obstacle is first encountered. Prior to that moment, the project is flowing well; the artist is full of enthusiasm. But, inevitably, the artist hits what the early twentieth century Russian spiritual teacher Gurdjieff called the fa bridge, a moment of obstacle.”

“The fa bridge challenges the artist’s staying power,” Judith told us. “Confusion sets in, doubts about the project rise up, the artist loses faith in her abilities. It’s a hard phase. Ultimately, the artist has to either move through it or abandon her project. Knowing it’s coming and that it’s a recognized part of the creative cycle helps.”

The fa bridge? I was curious about Gurdjieff’s name for this obstacle phase. Did he mean fa, as in the do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do scale?

That’s the one. Apparently Gurdjieff, who coined the term fa bridge, was a pianist who used musical theory and scales as metaphors in his spiritual teachings.

Immediately, my training as a musician kicked in and I started wondering why Gurdjieff had chosen fa to represent the quality of obstacle. Why not sol? Or ti?

I was curious about the fa bridge from a musical perspective but I also wanted insight into what it was saying about the obstacle phase. Though I’m not an artist, I believe we’re each in a creative process every day in our lives. That process includes encountering obstacles – times when our energy is blocked, when we’re challenged to manifest our next step. Perhaps understanding the fa bridge could help us make our way through those obstacles more comfortably.

So, what is it about fa?

When I studied and taught music, thinking about a single note like fa fascinated me. Musicians can go on and on about the minutia of their craft, including the notes of the scale. For example, we consider what the feeling of tension and resolution is between scale tones. Or, we try to discover the best fingering for scale passages, looking for the most efficient way to play them smoothly and quickly.

Fa is the fourth note of the eight-note scale. I wondered if there were tension or a sense of obstacle in the note that comes half way through the scale. Sing it and see what you think. Do-re-mi-fa…It kind of pulls you out of your seat as you sing up the scale. Pausing on fa, its quality isn’t fully settled, but it’s also not full of tension.

There’s more of a feeling of suspension, like being on a raised platform. The music has climbed four notes and is waiting there. From this vantage point, the scale could either turn around and go back home to the lower do, or gather its energy and move up to the next four notes – sol, la, ti, do – and complete itself. The obstacle fa encounters here is its lack of harmonic resolution.

Obstacles in our lives can have the same feeling. They suspend the action and cause us to question our direction and next move – a move which may not be at all clear to us. This can be an ungrounding and unsettling time, just as Judith had described it in the artistic process.

A life obstacle phase can be a stumbling block that confounds us and causes us to throw in the towel, or it can be a time to catch our breath, re-evaluate, listen for guidance, and regroup. It’s our choice. If we don’t use our up energy resisting this phase, we have stronger inner resources for our next move.

As I thought more about fa, I went to the piano and played a few scales. A second intriguing aspect emerged. Fa is the note in the scale when a fingering shift occurs. On mi, the note before fa, the thumb shifts under the middle finger in preparation to play fa.

It sounds simple, but this physical maneuver takes some practice, because in this moment of transition, the pianist can’t actually see where the next note is, so she’s “flying blind,” as the expression goes. With practice, the pianist kinesthetically memorizes the spatial distance from one note to the next. But until that maneuver is essentially automatic, the shift onto fa is a risky move.

I think this risky feeling of shifting blindly might have factored into Gurdjieff’s choice of fa as the point of obstacle. Not being able to see what’s coming challenges the pianist as it challenges us when facing life obstacles. If you’re a person who prefers dealing with what’s known and predictable, what’s seen, then those times when you have to handle the unseen will always stretch you out of your comfort zone.

However, the unseen isn’t only a place of risk. There’s also a mystical and magical dimension to the unknown. What’s out of sight can turn out to be different from, and even better than, what we’d expected. It’s how we hold ourselves around the unknown that makes the difference. Basically, the difference comes down to the fear factor (doesn’t it always?). If we hold the unknown with fear, then it’s scary. If we’re not fearful, the obstacle of the unknown is just a mystery – and something that we might even anticipate with excitement.

In its origin, the word scale means ladder. The notes of a musical scale carry the tune up and down; the rungs of a ladder support our climb. I once heard a spiritual teaching that described picking your foot up off of a ladder rung to step onto the next one as an act of faith. Like shifting the thumb out of sight to play the scale, we also can’t see our foot while we’re climbing. Unsure of the distance between the rungs, our foot risks missing the next foothold.

That space between the rungs is the place of uncertainty, the point of obstacle that I think Gurdjieff might have been highlighting. The space between what we “know” and think is solid and sure is the unknown.

While the unknown can be an obstacle, facing it doesn’t have to be a frustrating experience. When we know to expect it, to be ready for it, we can move through it. Experiencing the unknown/unseen doesn’t have to feel like we’re in “enemy” terrain.

Prepared for it, we might even look forward to the messy, chaotic quality of facing the fa bridge obstacle. Instead of dreading it, we can hold this phase with wonder. I wonder what will come next? Where will my process lead me? What will unfold in this creative process of living?

Wonder and curiosity trump fear and resistance any day, so, let’s not dread the fa bridge. Instead, let’s cross it with confidence. Since facing obstacles is a given part of the creative process, we may as well move through it with openness and wonder.

Comments

  1. Great, thought-provoking post! One thing I’d add to it is this. Fa is also the first half-step. After going up in big, whole steps, we’re asked to change from a straightforward linear progression and adjust. Going just a half-step shakes up our idea of things. Instead of yet another big, bold step, we’re asked to consider a smaller action. Yet that smaller action is what keeps us in tune. It challenges us to stay flexible, attentive, and open instead of mindlessly plunging ahead with preconceived notions. Not a bad reminder for those who think that big, bold, linear activity is always best!

    Again, thanks for a lovely piece to think about.

    • Spiral Energies says:

      What a thoughtful addition to the fa bridge blog, Tracy. Thank you so much for your insights. There are so many interesting aspects to that fourth note in the scale — including that there are variations in different scales for white keys and black keys…we could truly spend some time on the minutia!

  2. I had a friend who used to say, “Don’t take it serious. Life’s too mysterious.” Fa la la la la!

  3. Wow, Janet, this really resonated with me as I stand on my own Fa bridge, often finding myself succumbing to fear of the unknown and feelings of loss attending the changes. It’s very welcome and timely to be reminded of the excitement that is another possible response. Thank you for this perfect post for me at this moment.

    • Spiral Energies says:

      Thank you for your response to this post, Judy. I’m so glad it resonated with you and helped you remember the excitement of what might be on the other side! Best wishes.

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