The Law of Three states that:

in any new arising, anything that comes into being that wasn’t in being before, in any domain and at any scale (that means whether you’re talking about stars or microbes, or politics or biology, sociology, or theology, anything that comes into being) is the result of the inter-weaving of three independent forces or lines of action which were called by Gurdjieff: affirming, denying, and reconciling, or sometimes just first, second, and third.

You may say that sounds like Hegel, but there’s a big difference here. We’re not dealing with thesis/antithesis and synthesis. We’re not talking about the third coming out of the play of the two. We’re talking about: thesis + antithesis + X = synthesis – three complete different lines, just like you need three strands of hair to make a braid, three legs to make a stool stand up.   The basic solid element that allows a new creation to stand is the interweaving of the three.

Three independent forces.

My favourite analogy for how this works comes from sailing. Everyone tells you that a sailboat goes through the water  because of the opposition of the wind in its sails and the water, the gravitational frictional force of the water on its keel. And that’s right but it’s not quite right. In fact a boat in that position doesn’t go through the water. It rounds up into the wind and stops. It’s only when you add the third force which is the helmsman holding the tiller, that the opposing forces come into a relationship that lets forward motion go.

There’s always threeness. And if you look carefully you can find it in almost anything. And very often the law will say, if you find things at a constant impasse it’s because the third is missing or blocked. And frequently it’s already there in the situation, but you just don’t see it, chiefly because of your own polarized, dualized, identified thinking.

The second most important thing is to keep in mind as you begin to work with the Law of Three is that these three forces, or better lines of action, affirming is not a permanent identity. We are so used to thinking in terms of substance identity. People will immediately go to the Trinity and want to know which one is God. You can’t assign permanent identities. Affirming is not the masculine force, denying is not the feminine force.

The affirming force is the pushing force. It’s the thing in any situation which initiates, which provides the agitation, which provides the initial forward motion. And that can be either “good” or “bad”. So don’t get tripped up on the word affirming.

The denying force is the resisting or the push-back force. Sometimes push-back can be passive. When you think about water flowing through a delta, the delta is the denying force. It’s the push-back to the water just flowing through. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just has the function of bearing the on-going initial force which has to express itself in terms of, or in relationship to, the denying force.

The reconciling force is the force that allows the two to come together, so that they don’t just self-cancel.

It is important to realize that these three forces are morally neutral.

There’s an old Sufi saying that says:

A knife is neither good nor bad.
But woe to him that grips it by the blade.

In every situation the first step in applying the Law of Three is to look carefully at what is right under your nose and without judgment examine the situation and see what’s producing the pushing force, who’s got the ball in this play and it running it down the field? What’s the pushing back force? And then you can begin to look more carefully at where could reconciling happen.

All three forces are indispensable.  The denying force is never the enemy. If you pull out the denying force the whole thing collapses. The denying force is just as essential as the affirming and the reconciling is never going to be identical with the affirming.

The goal is not to get rid of the opposition and have things the way we want. What makes new creation new is that all the pieces are enfolded in such a way that the new situation moves forward and everything takes on a new configuration and a new identity. That’s precisely how you can tell it’s a real Law of Three and not just a mediated short term kind of compromise.

It creates a genuine new beginning in which the old lines of action are released and new players and lines of action step in.

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