By Life Positive
G.I. Gurdjieff tried to break free of the ordinary life that binds everybody to the mundane by deliberately adopting unconventional means and ways to lead his life
I learned that the boy in the middle was a Yezidi, that the circle had been drawn round him and that he could not get out of it until it was rubbed away. The child was indeed trying with all his might to leave this magic circle, but he struggled in vain. I ran up to him and quickly rubbed out part of the circle, and immediately he dashed out and ran away as fast as he could…
The Yezidis are a sect living in Transcaucasia, mainly in the regions near Mount Ararat. They are sometimes called devil-worshippers.
Many years after the incident just described, I made a special experimental verification of this phenomenon and found that, in fact, if a circle is drawn round a Yezidi, he cannot of his own volition escape from it. Within the circle he can move freely, and the larger the circle, the larger the space in which he can move, but get out of it he cannot. Some strange force, much more powerful than his normal strength, keeps him inside. I myself, although strong, could not pull a weak woman out of the circle; it needed yet another man as strong as I.
If a Yezidi is forcibly dragged out of a circle, he immediately falls into the state called catalepsy, from which he recovers the instant he is brought back inside. But if he is not brought back into the circle, he returns to a normal state, as we ascertained, only after either thirteen or twenty-one hours.
To bring him back to a normal state by any other means is impossible. At least my friends and I were not able to do so, in spite of the fact that we already possessed all the means known to contemporary hypnotic science for bringing people out of the cataleptic state. Only their priests could do so, by means of certain short incantations.
From Meetings with Remarkable Men by G.I. Gurdjieff; Arkana/Penguin, 1988
An enigmatic figure, Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff was considered by some to be the greatest mystical teacher of all time, and by others to be a fraud. His philosophy, commonly called ‘the Work’, blazed a new trail for occultism in the early 20th century, and paved the way for now-conventional techniques of group and encounter therapy.
His central postulate was that people are no more than machines run by forces outside their control. Human beings in such a state are essentially asleep. In order to wake up, they must work hard to penetrate their normal state of unconsciousness and thus reach the true consciousness within.
But in order to wake people up, you have to shake them. Gurdjieff’s teaching system involved unconventional methods: hard, physical labor; tasks beneath one’s social or cultural status; intense emotionalism; exercise; and complicated dance movements. He called his methods ‘shocks’, designed to change one’s preconceived notions of self and further the process of self-awareness.
His birth date—Gurdjieff gave it as 1866—is disputed. He was born in Alexandropol in the Caucasus mountains in Russia, near the Turkish border. His father was Greek and his mother Armenian. At the age of 17, he left home and went to Tiflis in Georgia. He supported himself by a variety of jobs—a constant theme throughout his life—and met others who, like him, were looking for answers to life. He became a ‘seeker of truth’ (which was the name of a group of like-minded people who gathered round him a decade or so later).
Towards the end of this phase, in 1911, he took a vow to lead an ‘absolutely unnatural life, absolutely irreconcilable in every way with the traits that had entrenched themselves in my individuality’. The significance of this vow can be simply stated: true knowledge arises when we are challenged, not when we are comfortable. It is a constant theme in Gurdjieff’s life and work.
The second phase of Gurdjieff’s life begins in 1912, when he emerges on to the public stage for the first time. He appears in Moscow, gets married and gradually begins to attract pupils. At the same time, the man who was to become Gurdjieff ‘s Boswell, P.D. Ouspensky, makes his entry. His account of his first meeting with Gurdjieff in a Moscow cafe is worth quoting:
‘I saw a man of an oriental type, no longer young, with a black mustache and piercing eyes, who astonished me first of all because he seemed to be disguised and completely out of keeping with the place and its atmosphere… Seated here in this little cafe, where small dealers and commission agents met together, in a black overcoat with a velvet collar and a black bowler hat, he produced the strange, unexpected and almost alarming impression of a man poorly disguised, the sight of whom embarrasses you because you see he is not what he pretends to be and yet you have to speak and behave as though you did not see it.’
This incident exemplifies a constant theme in Gurdjieff’s teaching: that ‘ordinary’ life is nothing more than identification with roles that are mechanically adopted; hence one way of breaking out of them is to deliberately adopt a difficult or ‘unconvincing’ role. And the point, of course, is that Gurdjieff taught this by example—doing it himself.
After five relatively settled years, during which Gurdjieff taught his methods in Moscow in the form recorded by Ouspensky in search of the miraculous, the Russian revolution took place. In 1917, Gurdjieff and his pupils started on a complicated journey through Europe, and eventually settled in 1922 in France, buying a large chateau 40 miles outside Paris in the forest of Fontainebleau near Avon. It became the home of the institute for the harmonious development of man, the center of Gurdjieff’s teaching, which operated till 1924, and was eventually sold in 1933. Apart from nine trips to USA, Gurdjieff stayed in France until his death in 1949.
Gurdjieff was arguably the first really independent teacher in the West, probably the most influential, and possibly the most difficult to get along with. He was familiar with Madame H.P. Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and other occult schools. But instead of embracing any organized occult teaching, he devised his own.
Consciousness is central to Gurdjieff’s teaching, and has four levels: sleep, so-called waking consciousness, self-remembering, and objective consciousness. Normal consciousness is nearly always passive, mechanical and automatic. The path to realization is self-remembering-conscious—awareness of surroundings and the self in the situation. Its outcome is the fourth state, objective consciousness, in which one sees things as they really are.
Gurdjieff called his system the fourth way, or the way of the sly or cunning man. He explained that traditionally, there were three paths to immortality: those of the fakir (physical), the monk (emotional), and the yogi (intellectual). The fakir undergoes physical privations to subserve his body to his will. The monk possesses great faith and gives himself to his emotional commitment to God. The yogi studies and ponders the mysteries of life. Yet each misses out on the other two aspects of his personality.
Correspondingly, there are three centers or ‘brains’, which operate in all human beings. But, says Gurdjieff, they are usually out of balance. For example, the intellect, when applied to situations that require a sensitivity to feelings, produces abstract concepts that miss the point; or emotion brings ‘nervousness, feverishness and hurry’ into situations where calm judgment is required. So, in effect, there are two kinds of imbalance: what may be called individual neurosis (centers try to do the work that is proper to one of the others), and ‘spiritual lopsidedness’ (no one center can reveal the whole nature of man).
The solution to this lack of balance is ‘the Fourth Way’. One learns to balance the three centers and thereby become aware of what was previously hidden or distorted. This is the beginning of consciousness in the true sense; one is able to act and to know what one is doing. People do not need to suffer physical, emotional or intellectual tortures, but merely start from 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’. This was not an immutable system, however. Gurdjieff’s ideas changed as circumstances warranted, so he forbade his students to write them down and disseminate them.
He used hypnotism as a primary tool. He had acquired extensive, albeit unorthodox medical knowledge on his travels, and believed that the tempo of the blood altered at adolescence to accommodate humankind’s normal ‘asleep’ state. He claimed that he possessed new hypnotic techniques that would alter the blood’s tempo to break through these so-called ‘buffers’ and evoke the unconscious.
Gurdjieff also held that people must study under those who have escaped their own robot existence: a teacher, a man who Knows. By his ‘shock’ methods, the student begins to lose all preconceived notions and to unify his or her various selves—the ‘I’s—in harmony. By working on oneself, one can rise above one’s mechanical existence, make a soul, and attain immortality.
The intellectual and upper class students participated in strenuous manual labor and complicated dance exercises. They attended lectures on science, languages, hypnotism and music. They learned Sufi breathing and dance techniques. They were awakened at all hours to work or just to ‘be alert’. They might be asked to stop whatever they were doing and remain like statues for minutes at a time. They lived frugally and communally, yet were forced to join Gurdjieff in his Rabelaisian feasts and drinking parties.
After 1924, Gurdjieff no longer taught, but began writing down his theories and world view. Yet, other than The Herald of Coming Good, which he published and then withdrew, he did not allow any other work of his to be published. He practiced some hypnotic healing, relied on the largesse of rich widows, and otherwise lived on the fringes through World War II until his death in October 1949, aged 83.
His years in the West amount to this: he started his institute—but did not keep it going; he had no formal groups for long periods of time—yet at his death, he said that a nucleus (a group) was essential; he worked for years on his books—which didn’t appear in his lifetime; and he constantly made things difficult—both for others and himself.
However, there is evidence that he was able to benefit people in an extraordinary way. Fritz Peters, serving in the US army in 1945, in his book Remembering Gurdjieff recalls arriving out of the blue at Gurdjieff’s Paris flat in a state of nervous collapse:
‘I remember being slumped over the table, sipping my coffee, when I began to feel a strange uprising of energy within myself—I stared at him, automatically straightened up, and it was as if a violent, electric blue light emanated from him and entered into me. As this happened, I could feel the tiredness drain out of me, but at the same moment his body slumped and his face turned gray as if it was being drained of life. I looked at him, amazed, and when he saw me sitting erect, smiling and full of energy, he said quickly: ‘You all right now—watch food on stove—I must go’… He had gone for perhaps 15 minutes while I watched the food, feeling blank and amazed because I had never felt any better in my life… I was equally amazed when he returned to the kitchen to see the change in him; he looked like a young man again, alert, smiling, sly and full of good spirits.’
The two views on Gurdjieff can be stated in terms of his own teaching: the first holds that he acted entirely from essence and never from personality (though he may have made use of personality); the second says that personality did get the better of him on occasion. Essence is what one is born with—call it heredity, innate character or whatever. Personality is what one acquires by education and upbringing. Essence is one’s own; personality is not and can be radically changed. Essence can also be developed but not in the same way as personality. Essence requires struggle or danger to grow, not because danger is inherently valuable but because it provides the possibility that one will act consciously.
Most of his closest students eventually rejected Gurdjieff the man for Gurdjieffian teachings. Ouspensky formally separated from him in 1923 and rejected his theories outright in 1931. Another famous student, A.R. Orage, editor of the British journal The New Age, took Gurdjieff’s ideas to New York and developed what was called ‘the Oragean version’. He also formally rejected Gurdjieff in 1931. After Gurdjieff’s death, his students broke their silence and began publishing his life and works. The first, and most reputed, was Ouspensky’s. It was followed by Gurdjieff’s masterwork, Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson (1950), which had circulated among his pupils for years, known only as The Book. Later, Meetings with Remarkable Men, his ‘autobiography’, was published in 1960, and Life is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’ in the early 1970s.
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