George Gurdjieff: A Mystical Teacher of the 20th Century

Gurdjieff, George (c.a. 1866-1949)

Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff was beloved by many in his Russian homeland and around the world, while others considered him a fraud. Many thought him a great mystical teacher (see Mysticism). It was his liberation philosophy, commonly known «the Work» that turned occultism in a different in the 1920s and paved the way for modern techniques of group and encounter therapy.

The exact year of his birth is in dispute; Gurdjieff stated it as 1866, while his sister said it was 1877, and his biographer, J. G. Bennett, puts it at 1877.All agree, however, that Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol, in the Russo-Turkish frontier. His father came from the Ionian Greeks of Caesarea whose heritage dates back beyond the Christian era. These people preserved their culture while living for centuries under foreign rule, and won the admiration of all who knew them. In the 16th century some of the families withdrew to the northeast following the overthrow of the Byzantine Empire. Gurdjieff’s relatives were among them. They were ranchers, or owners of sheep and cattle. In the middle of the 19th century they departed Turkey for Russian Caucasus.

Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 Gurdjieff’s father lost his herds through an epidemic of cattle disease. He then became a carpenter in the village of Kars where Gurdjieff grew up. Kars was then am important Russian military center. The Dean of the Military Cathedral in Kars was Father Borsch, who was one of the great influences on young Gurdjieff. Priests and doctors taught Gurdjieff, according to his father’s plan that he should prepare himself for a single vocation, to be a physician of the body and a confessor of the soul.

The youth quickly became interested in mechanics, and in natural and medical sciences, especially psycho-neurology. He delighted in the acquisition of skill required in every sort of manual trade. Also, in Kars there was a multi-cultural environment that influenced the youth. Unusual experiences that had began showing him that supernatural forces also existed in the life of man, which began a mental conflict for him between the materialism of western science that he valued for its methods of accurate observation and measurement, and the evidence of phenomena that science seemed powerless to give an account for.

Also, young Gurdjieff was steeped in the ancient traditions preserved by the ballads and sagas of the Asiatic bards. His father, a bard himself, was famed for his knowledge of the legends of the ancient Assyrian and Sumerian cultures. It was later in life that Gurdjieff was very impressed by the discovery of cuneiform inscriptions that showed the accuracy with which these poems had bee preserved for thousands of years.

The conflict between the old and the new started Gurdjieff on a search for a knowledge, in a sense, a lost knowledge; for he had became convinced that in some prior epoch mankind had possessed knowledge, which had been lost, of the true sense and purpose of human life and the way to its fulfillment. His search began along at first; he visited ruins of ancient cities and made archaeological discoveries. His finding only wetted his desire for this knowledge; for he found no solution in western science, philosophy, or in the teachings of the Christian Churches or Moslem sects that he came in contact with. Nevertheless, there was evidence that the knowledge and the way that he was seeking might have been preserved in isolated communities.

Barely into manhood, Gurdjieff gathered around him a handful of young men who were inspired with the same convictions and hopes as he was. Together they formed the «Seekers of Truth.» Their joint task was to find this missing knowledge and way. Singly, or in twos or threes, they embarked on what would become a global journey. They traveled to many continents and countries. They visited, especially in Europe, little known areas where in monasteries and other places ancient traditions might be preserved. Their search was interrupted at intervals when the members regrouped to access their findings. This was how they kept abreast of the latest advances in western science, especially in astronomy, chemistry, medicine, and psychology.

By the time at which the journeys of the Seekers of the Truth ended before 1908, the members had penetrated many places that were inaccessible to the ordinary traveler. They met with extraordinary men, dervishes or monks, and sometimes-entire communities that possessed, in varying degrees, knowledge of the nature of man and human destiny, and ways of transmitting it. They also had accumulated information showing that ancient traditions had a better understanding of the fundamental problems facing Man and the Universe than do modern western traditions and modern science.

After the Seekers of the Truth disbanded Gurdjieff still held the realization that modern man was held in a state of helplessness that universally pervaded both the East and West. Gurdjieff was convinced man’s helplessness was caused from man’s inertia to act. He discovered this stressed in both the teachings of the East and West. For example, the teaching of Gotama Buddha stresses the central place that causality plays in men lives; further saying that man is a slave of cause and effect unless by his own choice seeks to liberate himself. In the Christian gospels this choice is express even stronger, that is, the choice between gaining and losing eternal life.

Gurdjieff developed his philosophy and teaching more aligned with Buddhism than Christianity; for he thought Christianity, as we know it, is the distorted remnants that survived the falsifications of Greece and the power politics of Roman. Within his discussion of Christianity Gurdjieff included what he called the «Babylonian dualism» expressed in the doctrine of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell,’ which once held great power over the minds of men, but does not correspond to reality, and has ceased to be a dominating factor in human behavior.

Such a concept fueled the power of Grudjieff’s teaching that lies within the elimination of everything fictitious and returning to the naked reality of human destiny. To Gurdjieff this destiny encompasses man’s present life, and not a life that he wishes for. It is at this juncture that man’s choice plays a critical part in his life. Not only was the choice of man important, but also the nature of his choice was essential for his liberation. There are what Gurdjieff called real and illusionary choices. Often the latter are mistaken for the former.

The act of the purchase of an automobile can illustrate the difference between real and illusionary choices. Many people think they choose the type of automobile they purchase, which is an illusionary assumption on their behalf. The reason for this is that the type of automobile that a person purchases usually depends upon several factors, which includes his job, the money available for the purchase, the availability of automobiles within the affordable price range that can be purchase, and so on. The type of automobile that a person purchases is usually an illusionary decision because such a decision depends on the causality of other circumstantial factors. In such an instance the real choice is the person’s initial decision to buy an automobile.

In order to more readily understand Gurdjieff’s teaching one must understand Gurdjieff’s view of the ordinary man, which was that the ordinary man, for the most part, was a machine among machines. Man reacts to what acts on him. However, something is wrong with this scenario: Man is just a machine among machines, but a machine which can be free, can be not a machine. From this Gurdjieff concluded that this would not be possible if there were not different levels of existence. On one level of existence man is just a machine existing among machines; but, on another level of existence, there exists the possibility of freedom. Gurdjieff, therefore, concluded that there are two worlds opened to man, both are here, not one far away.

Gurdjieff knew that before man would strive for the second world he must first be aware of it. He was convinced that in order for man to reach the second world, man must first be convinced of the existence of the two worlds and of the complete difference between the existence of the one world and the existence in the other. Gurdjieff’s view of man’s purpose for living more fully described his two-worlds theory. Gurdjieff stated that man has a two-fold purpose for living. The first purpose he must serve whether he wants to or not — in common with every other living being, whether plant, animal or anything else – and this purpose is to serve in the transformation of energy that is required for the whole cosmic economy particularly the economy of our solar system, our earth and our moon.

All living things including human beings, Gurdjieff concluded, are transformers of energy, which is their primary task. But, while men perform this primary task they may chose to also perform on a different level. Some men, in other words, chose to produce or transform a greater amount of energy than is required of them. These men, according to Gurdjieff, seek a different destiny for themselves. Such men have paid their debts; they have produced their required amount of energy and also build up a surplus for themselves.

To be understood, there are two different viewpoints possessed here. The man who just does what is required of him usually thinks something like this, «This is all I can expect out of life; and all that life can expect from me.» This is an expression of no incentive; while a proper response would be a try to make efforts, struggle to raise himself above this level of mechanical existence, to lift himself out of this causal mechanism. The man possessing the second attitude changes himself into a free and independent being who does things that he deems necessary to do. The latter is the response of the man who works on himself, as Gurdjieff phrased it.

This is the man, according to Gurdjieff’s judgment, that rightfully chooses between life and death. The life is not an imaginary life in some far-off heaven, but rather a full and functional life on earth that contributes to the cosmic economy; and the death is not a death in a fiery hell, but the death of an unproductive life-or the death of the «man machine» that Gurdjieff termed him. The one who seeks life, Gurdjieff contented, is the man who finds that he has latent powers to perfect himself. These latent or additional powers are not confined just to his ordinary life; but rather with them the man discovers that he not only can do what is required of him in his ordinary life but also can produce a surplus of energy that enriches his life and the lives of others. However, at the present time, which is readily observed, there is far too small of a proportion of men that are seeking to improve their lives, or seeking a second destiny. The consequences of this are not good, because the amount of energy or matter that has to be produced in the life of man is not determined by man himself, but by general influences. As individual production decreases world population must increase to maintain production. This is, at present, analogous to herds of sheep, when sheep produce less wool the number of sheep must be increased in order to meet the same requirement for wool. The analogy summarizes Gurdjieff’s simplified and concentrated message: only by the unremitting struggle of the individual for his self-perfecting can a force be created which will change the world. Without this the world will continue in an unproductive state, living off of itself.

Simply stated, far too many persons are just aware of their first world or destiny, as Gurdjieff contended. They reside in a static state of unconsciousness. In order to break out of this state Gurdjieff also held that people had to study under persons who already had escaped from their own robotic existences: a teacher, a Man Who Knows. Such people must form groups or schools where they have to obey all of the rules, including the obligation to tell the teacher everything, to keep silent in front of others, and to be prepared for the teacher to lie for the «good» of the students. The students had to achieve self-realization through work on themselves, self-observation, and self-remembering – conscious awareness of their surroundings ‘and’ self in the situation.

The first Gurdjieffian School opened in Moscow around the start of World War I. His reputation spread to St. Petersburg where it caught the attention of P. D. Ouspensky, who became a disciple of Gurdjieff until latter adopted his own teachings. Upon their meeting Ouspensky believed in eternal recurrence (endless repetition, not improvement, through reincarnation) and Nietzsche’s idea of Superman. He gradually saw Gurdjieff’s way as a means of breaking the cycle and eventually attaining perfection. Ouspensky started to teach the Gurdjieffian «system» in St. Petersburg in 1915. Ouspensky developed a different teaching style and formally set out on his own in 1924, but was still impressed with his former teacher. Maurice Nicoll was another exponent of Gurdjieff.

To escape the Russian Revolution Gurdjieff moved both groups to Essentuki in the Caucasus in 1917. It was here that he established formal procedures, drawn in part from his previous studies with Sufi dervishes in Central Asia, that characterized his later work: hard, physical labor; tasks that were below one’s social or cultural station; intense emotionalism; exercise; and complicated dance movements. Gurdjieff said such methods were «shocks» designed to change the person’s perception of himself and to further self-awareness. In the process the student began losing all preconceived notions and to unify his or her various selves – the «I»s – in harmony. By working on one’s self, one could rise above a mechanical existence, make a soul, and attain immorality.

The intellectual and upper class students participated vigorously in manual labor and complicated dance exercises. Also, they attended lectures on science, languages, hypnotism, and music. They were taught Sufi breathing and dance techniques. They were surprisingly awakened at any hour in order to be kept alert. At times they were obliged to immediately stop whatever they were doing and remain like statues for minutes at a time. They live frugally and communally; but at times were asked to join Gurdjieff in his Rabelaisian feasts and drinking parties.

A new cosmology grew from Gurdjieff’s knowledge of the occult literature and tradition. He stated that two cosmic laws govern the universe: the Law of Three and the Law of Seven or the Octave. The Law of Three controls the workings of the universe, based on three forces: active, passive, and neutral. Human beings possess three bodies: carnal, emotional, and spiritual; and feed on three sorts of food: edible, air, and impressions. By working on themselves people can rise from the carnal to the spiritual, and manufacture higher substances from the food that they consume: the alchemist’s process of transmutation.

The Law of Seven corresponds to the Pythagorean theories of harmonics. Gurdjieff viewed life’s processes as being governed by the repetition of the seven stages of development that only proceed if given a boost, or shock, much as music continues along the octave over slower and faster intervals.

The ultimate symbol for Gurdjieff’s worldview was the enneagram: a circle whose circumference is divided by nine points, yielding an uneven six-sided figure and a triangle. The enneagram shows the whole universe, the laws of three and seven, and how people cross the intervals via shocks by the Man Who Knows.

Names for the Gurdjieffian system were the Fourth Way or the Way of the Sly or Cunning Man. Gurdjieff explained that traditionally there were three paths toward immortality: those of the fakir, the monk, and the yogi. The fakir undergoes extreme physical torture and reconditioning to suppress his body to his will, but has no outlet for the emotional and intellectual. The monk possesses great faith and gives himself to his emotional commitment to God, but suffers pains of the body and intellectual starvation. The yogi studies and ponders the mysteries of life, but has no emotional or physical expression. But in the Fourth Way people do not need to suffer physical, emotional or intellectual tortures, but merely start their own life experiences. They work on themselves as they are, trying to harmonize all paths and using every cunning trick they know to keep themselves «awake.»

During his last years Gurdjieff was ill, part of his illness was due to illnesses and injuries that he suffered during his years of traveling and also the injuries that he received from several automobile accidents. Within weeks following his last visit to the United States in 1925 he was in an automobile accident that nearly killed him. As a result of this accident he lost his memory for months, and only slowly recovered it. This made him realize that his time to live was short, and he resolved to put his ideas in the form of a written exposition, so composed as to lead people step by step to a practical way of working upon themselves. So for the next ten years, this endeavor, except for business matters, consumed all of his time.

His students published most of Gurdjieff’s works posthumously. The first was Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, which best explains Gurdjieff’s theories. This was followed by Gurdjieff’s masterwork, All and Everything: First Series, better known as Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950). When circulating among his student this work was known as The Book, (1950). The only work published during his lifetime was The Herald of Coming Good (1934), which was removed from circulation in 1935. Meetings with Remarkable Men that was designed to be the second series was published in 1960. The third series, Life Is Real Only Then, «I Am,» was published in the early 1970s, and consisted of fragments of writings and diary entries.

Gurdjieff died suddenly in the American Hospital in Paris on October 29, 1949. Hundreds visited his body for four days, including his students, friend and dignitaries from the United States, England and other countries. The Russian Cathedral in Paris was crowded with these and other Parisians from all walks of life, who knew this man as a philanthropist and good friend of those in need. The funeral oration given by the Russian Achimandrite was a tribute to a religious man who had long ceased to be associated with any one church or creed.

Time Magazine once aptly described Gurdjieff as a «remarkable blend of P. T. Barnum, Rasputin, Freud, Groucho Marx, and everybody’s grandfather.» A.G.H.

Sources: 9, 704-705; 75.