George Gurdjieff haunts me. I’ve tried to make him go away, but he won’t leave me alone.
To encounter the Gurdjieff teachings is to permanently leave behind the world of New-Age-feel-good-self-help fluff.
Forget about “manifesting your desires” through some vague “law” of attraction.
Forget about visualizing paradise and chanting affirmations to create your ideal circumstances.
And forget about setting and achieving goals as a way to “get what you want” and steadily but surely create the “life of your dreams.”
I can imagine sitting with Gurdjieff in a Moscow cafe on the eve of World War I and spouting ideas like these to him. Based on the written records of his interactions with students, I can also see Gurdjieff throwing coffee in my face and laughing me out of the room.
Confronted by Gurdjieff
Gurdjieff says that my fundamental notions about myself — that I am an individual with an enduring identity and the capacity to make choices — are pure illusions.
If I saw myself objectively, he says, I would be horrified. (Imagine what Neo in The Matrix saw when he stepped out of virtual reality and beheld the real world).
Gurdjieff says that I have no real emotional life. I am dominated by negative emotions, worry constantly about what other people think of me, and am ready to take offense at any moment.
Even the emotions that I label as love and compassion can flip into their opposites in a split second when people do something that violates my expectations.
Gurdjieff says that I live my life in a state of waking sleep. I am not a human being but simply a bundle of unconscious reflexes and habits.
Gurdjieff says that I am not one “I” but a constantly shifting succession of “little I”s. From moment to moment, I identify with a parade of passing thoughts, desires, and external stimuli that happen to catch my fancy.
In one moment I identify with the “I” who vows to rise at at 6 a.m., exercise, and eat a carb-free breakfast. But at 6 a.m. the next morning, I identify with the “I” who wants to sleep in, avoid physical activity, and eat pancakes with syrup.
Imagine a country where every citizen gets to be president for five minutes, do whatever he or she pleases, and make decisions that are binding on all the other citizens.
This, says Gurdjieff, is the story of my inner life.
Yes, says Gurdjieff, it is possible for me to escape my current condition — to attain unity, will, and consciousness. But the odds are greatly stacked against it. And, the path to freedom involves a prolonged period of voluntary suffering.
By myself I can accomplish almost nothing. Instead, I must find an organized “school” of people who want to wake up. These schools can only appear under certain conditions, and they are not advertised.
If I do happen to find a school, I must voluntarily submit to a student who has already attained a higher level of being and receive teachings that can only be transmitted face-to-face. That person’s job is to reveal my “chief feature” (primary weakness) and assign me a series of tasks that systematically shatter my illusions.
What I still want to know is this: Is any of this stuff true? And if so, what shall I do about it?
Who was Gurdjieff?
George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff has been described as a mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher, and saint. He has also been called a scammer, a fraud, and a cynical manipulator of his students.
Possibly he was several of those things. Much about him remains mysterious.
We’re not even sure when Gurdjieff was born. The Britannica Reference Center lists the year 1877 with a question mark and Armenia as his birthplace.
Britannica also states that Gurdjieff “is thought to have spent his early adult years traveling in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, India, and especially Central Asia, learning about various spiritual traditions.”
In any case, Gurdjieff settled in Moscow about 1913. He gathered groups of students there and in Saint Petersburg, where he met the writer P. D. Ouspensky.
With financial backing from his students, Gurdjieff founded several schools — places where his students lived together, assembled for lectures, and did spiritual practices. The latter included sacred dances known as the “Gurdjieff movements.” These are performed to music by composer Thomas de Hartmann, who studied personally with Gurdjieff.
Gurdjieff’s most well-known school was the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, located in Fontainebleau, France.
What were Gurdjieff’s sources?
Gurdjieff described his teachings as a grand synthesis of ideas from many sources. These probably included Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
Gurdjieff, in fact, sometimes described his teachings as esoteric Christianity. The most commonly recommended introduction to his teachings — Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching — includes these passages:
A Christian is one who lives in accordance with Christ’s precepts.
In order to be Christians we must be able “to do.” We cannot do; with us everything “happens.” Christ says: “Love your enemies,” but how can we love our enemies when we cannot even love our friends?
Gurdjieff wrote his own books, of course. One is the highly allegorical and nearly opaque series titled Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.
Another is Meetings With Remarkable Men, a possibly authentic account of Gurdjieff’s travels throughout Asia in pursuit of esoteric knowledge. (Peter Brook directed a film based on this book, with sacred dances choreographed by Jeanne de Salzmann, a Gurdjieff student.)
Those books, along with Life is Real Only Then When I Am are what remains of Gurdjieff’s grand All and Everything project — “ten books in three series.”
The Fourth Way
Gurdjieff’s teachings are often described simply as the Work, or as the Fourth Way. Gurdjieff said that his teaching was an alternative to:
- The way of the yogi, which centers on understanding and intuitive insight
- The of the monk, which centers on devotion, compassion, and other altruistic emotions
- The way of the fakir, which centers on mastery of the physical body
Gurdjieff said that his teachings enable us to develop all of these capacities with a single set of practices.
In addition, the Work is designed for people who live ordinary lives that are filled with work and family activities. Gurdjieff saw this as his major contribution — a way of ultimate transformation designed for the modern world; a path that does not require permanent retreat to a monastery or ashram.
“Man is a machine”
In The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, Ouspensky begins with the foundation of Gurdjieff’s teaching — the assertion that we are machines:
What does it mean that man is a machine?
It means that he has no independent movements, inside or outside of himself. He is a machine which is brought into motion by external influences and external impacts. All his movements, actions, words, ideas, emotions, moods and thoughts are produced by external influences. By himself, he is just an automaton with a certain store of memories of previous experiences, and a certain amount of reserve energy.
This is something that we can test by self-observation.
I see Trump on television and immediately feel a surge of anger. What an idiot, I say to myself. I reach for the remote and hit the power off button. I just had to make the image of that man disappear. Now.
This incident perfectly illustrates Ouspensky’s point.
It’s true that behavior took place — I saw an image. Felt disgust. Shut off the television. But it was all pure reflex.
That image of Trump triggered an automatic chain of events. And they unfolded in a few seconds with no conscious choice on my part.
In short, I acted like a machine. I no more chose to turn off the television than a toaster “chooses” to heat up when you press down on its lever.
My reactions simply unfold, one after another. I control them no more than I control the weather. And — most importantly — these unconscious responses constitute the whole of my life. This is true even though I believe that I am a conscious being and capable of acting on my intentions.
This is why Ouspensky described us as subhuman automatons:
Man cannot do. Everything that man thinks he does, really happens. It happens exactly as “it rains,” or “it thaws”….
In the English language there are no impersonal verbal forms which can be used in relation to human actions. So we must continue to say that man thinks, reads, writes, loves, hates, starts wars, fights, and so on. Actually, all this happens.
Man cannot move, think or speak of his own accord. He is a marionette pulled here and there by invisible strings.
Our only hope is to see that we are machines and fully admit it. Then — with time and help from other people — we can learn ways to stop being machines.
In short, we can wake up.
Discovering the limits of your consciousness
Ouspensky suggests that you do an empirical test to discover how long you can currently stay awake:
Take a watch and look at the second hand, frying to be aware of yourself, and concentrating on the thought, I am Peter Ouspensky, I am now here. Try not to think about anything else, simply follow the movements of the second hand and be aware of yourself, your name, your existence and the place where you are. Keep all other thoughts away.
You will, if you are persistent, be able to do this for two minutes. This is the limit of your consciousness.
Actually, two minutes might be a generous estimate. Even before that, my attention often dissipates. I sink into my default mental mode — distraction. I get lost in waves of random thoughts and images. Again, they simply happen.
There are those rare moments when we spontaneously awake from our unconscious state. This can happen when we feel strong emotions, find ourselves in new and difficult circumstances, or sense that we are in imminent danger (such as during the seconds that precede a car accident).
In our normal state, however, these sudden and transitory flashes of consciousness are rare. And we have no control over them. They are strictly accidental.
“You must remember yourself”
Fortunately, our moments of consciousness can be extended by an act of sheer will. We can train ourselves to release distractions and voluntarily focus our attention. This is the practice of self-remembering.
Don’t confuse self-remembering with mindfulness or related meditation techniques that produce focused attention on a single object. Self-remembering is an exercise in divided attention. The key is to focus on an external object or event while — at the same time — staying aware of your internal experiences (thoughts, emotions, physical sensations).
Self-remembering — the awareness of being I, here, now — has been called the master key to Gurdjieff’s teachings. He said that it offers our only chance to observe and interrupt our mechanical responses.
Ouspensky wrote that “all your work upon yourself is connected with self-remembering and that it cannot proceed successfully without this.”
The whole of the Fourth Way can be seen as a means of self-remembering.
Entering the Work
During the 1980s, I joined a Gurdjieff reading group. This gathering may have been the outermost ring of a Gurdjieff school — probably long disbanded by now.
We assembled on Saturday or Sunday mornings at a coffee shop to discuss passages from In Search of the Miraculous. The man who led the group urged us to practice self-observation and share whatever we discovered. Forget grand revelations, he said. Look for concrete insights — simple moments of self-discovery that give you something practical to work with.
During those years I lived next door to a man who let the front door slam whenever he exited his house. I must have heard that sudden and unpredictable sound of wood slap-crashing against wood hundreds of times. I judged my neighbor harshly and reveled in my superiority to him.
Then one day I exited my house and immediately heard my own front door slam behind me.
I stood frozen for a full minute.
As the sound of that door slam passed through my body, I realized my lack of self-awareness. I saw through my righteous anger at my neighbor. And I instantly understood that I had no basis to judge him or anyone else.
It was a moment of self-remembering.
For one moment, I was awake.
What would it be like to live my whole life with that kind of clarity?
I might see the world without the screen of my egocentric illusions — what Gurdjieff called objective consciousness.
This is the possibility that Gurdjieff holds out to me.
Does the Work still exist?
Gurdjieff died in 1949, designating no successor. Some argue for this reason that the Work died with Gurdjieff.
His impact continues, however, through the many books published by and about him.
I recommend starting with Ouspensky’s works, especially The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution and In Search of the Miraculous.
In addition, the Internet offers many websites devoted to the Gurdjieff teachings. These differ greatly in quality.
And if you happen to find a practicing Gurdjieff group, be careful. You may have stumbled on to something authentic. Or, it may an ego-driven cult led by a pretender. Or something in between those extremes.
In her review of In Search of the Miraculous on Goodreads, Sue (sjdoherty) offers a reasonable perspective:
Having read just about everything written by or about Gurdjieff…and having been drawn by them into spending years in a Gurdjieff “school,” and being familiar with the traditions on which the Gurdjieff approach was based, I take a lot of the “fourth way” material with a large grain of salt. The core of the “work” is a powerful methodology, but no more so than, say, vipassana, zen, dzogchen or other solid, meditation-based tradition….The biggest difference is that Gurdjieff left behind a legacy of fraudulent teachers and cults….Regardless, I strongly recommend In Search of the Miraculous. It’s the single best book on Gurdjieff’s work ever written.
I would add: Enter the group with a clear aim and look for results.
My aim, for example, was freedom from negative emotions. The Work granted me many blessings in this area.
As Gurdjieff himself said (quoted in In Search of the Miraculous):
On the fourth way a man must satisfy himself of the truth of what he is told. And until he is satisfied he must do nothing.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons